Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Wrong Fridge

I MUST have the wrong fridge, the wrong food – or the wrong family.

Wondering why? Because, sadly, I fail to meet the standards set out in those wonderful cookery books that tell you how to feed a family of four for a week with a small chicken, some leftover vegetables and fresh herbs from the garden.

The cooks who write these volumes serve up beautifully prepared food to their loving family and friends, who sit around the table together, and eat what is put in front of them.

My own family’s dietary likes and dislikes make it difficult, if not impossible, to create a meal that everyone will eat.

The Man of the House is not a vegetable enthusiast. He eats potatoes and peas, but that’s about it. He won’t entertain the idea of eating a meal that contains no meat, and won’t touch anything with cooked onion in it – although he will happily chomp his way through a jar of pickled onions or a tub of coleslaw.

I, on the other hand don’t eat meat, fish, or meat and fish products. And I don’t like meat substitutes – if I choose not to eat meat, why would I want to consume something masquerading as meat?

The daughters, bless them eat most things and are quite happy to have meat or vegetarian dishes on a plate (or even to pile it high with both).

But they have their likes and dislikes, which don’t necessarily coincide with each other, or with the Man of the House, or me. I frequently find myself cooking four or five different types of vegetable to ensure everyone can eat what they like.

If they are dieting, I cannot dish up anything that is too fatty, too starchy, too sugary, too high in carbohydrates or too high on calories and, surprisingly, an awful lot of food falls into one of these categories.

Even worse, no two people ever seem to want to eat at the same time. They are either busy, out, working, relaxing – or just not hungry.

And if I try cooking up batches of food to last more than one meal they turn their noses up at ‘left-overs’.

In fact ‘left-overs’ may be my biggest failure.

Nigel Slater can conjure up delicious suppers from things like a chunky rind of Parmesan cheese, and Nigella Lawson whips up exotic bread and butter puddings with stale croissants and real custard.

My own fridge, alas, contains no such delicacies. The uneaten cheese mouldering away in a corner is in no fit state to be used, the limp lettuce leaves are fit only for the bin, and even the cat can’t be tempted to try the elderly bits of forgotten meat.

One of these days I will consider writing my own cook book, aimed at people like me, with recipes for things like pea risotto (without the peas), or half and half pasta bake (pasta and veg on one side, pasta and mince on the other).

I could include a special section on ways to serve limp lettuce, and a chapter on ‘instant’ food that can be dished up at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile I shall read those glossy publications and dream….

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Long and the Short of it

TALL stories from Woman’s Hour today showed the flip side of my own life. As a child, the programme’s guest Joanne Champion was the tallest girl in the school, while I was one of the shortest.

Joanne, founder of the online boutique, Tall, is 6ft 3ins – exactly 13 inches taller than me. Surprisingly, however, some of the problems we encountered were very similar – but from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Joanne had clear memories of the misery of school photographs, when she was placed away from her classmates, in the centre of the back row, where she towered over the boys on either side of her.

At least she didn’t suffer the ignominy of being stuck at the end of a line of girls in a lower form. Nor did anyone try to make her stand on a box balanced on a bench.

I would have dearly loved to fail skirt inspection, but my hems were always below my knees – unlike Joanne, who could never find school clothes that were long enough.

Talking of clothes, I can still remember the domestic science apron we made, following the same set of measurements for everyone. Mine trailed along the ground, and despite the teacher’s protestations that I would ‘grow into it’ I never did.

And while people always assumed Joanne was older, they always thought I was younger: I had no chance of sneaking into a pub for a drink, or viewing an age-restricted film at the cinema. Indeed, for years after my 18th birthday I carried my birth certificate around with me – then, unlike now, requests for proof of age were not routine, and did not involve photographic ID.

On the other hand, looking younger meant I paid half-fares on buses and trains long after I should have done. When I asked for a ticket public transport staff just assumed I was a child and charged accordingly!

And things didn’t change much when I started work. The woman who answered the door at one of the first interviews I was sent on refused to speak to me, and rang the editor to complain about him sending a ‘child’ to see her.

Today’s programme follows in the wake of news stories about Barack Obama’s daughter Malia, who is only 12 but is already 5ft 9ins tall.

But perhaps we should remember that we are all individuals, and that when it comes to height, as with so much else in life, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. People should be accepted and respected for they are – not what they look like.

And it’s a poor outlook for the world if members of my former profession are more interested in writing about the height of the daughter of the US President than they are in writing about his policies.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

welcome to the Wold of Online Job Hunting

WHY would I want a job as a fashion personal shopper in Dublin, or an oil and gas consultant in Aberdeen – especially when I am seeking work as an administrator or receptionist in Tamworth?

Welcome to the world of online job hunting.

It’s frustrating, annoying, more than a little ridiculous and very, very discouraging.
I start by feeling inadequate because I have no job, and end up feeling totally incompetent because not only do I lack the lack the skills required by employers, but I cannot cope with the complexities of the internet.

I begin by keying in the name of a jobs search engine recommended by Younger Daughter, enter the type of work I want, and the desired location. I even extend the area of search within a 25-mile radius of home.

So far, so good.

But it is not that simple, for on screen appear all kinds of jobs for which I have no qualifications, no experience, no aptitude – and absolutely no interest. Not only do they bear no relation to the description I have given, but they are certainly well outside the specified 25-mile radius.

It doesn’t take a geographical genius to realise that neither Dublin nor Aberdeen are within commuting distance of Tamworth, Staffordshire.

And as for the jobs on offer! I suspect some only appear on screen because somewhere, hidden in the text, in a minuscule font, is the word ‘office’. Possibly it is only there as part of the address.

It certainly doesn’t mean that an office job is available.

Recent unwanted ‘sits vac’ were for engineers (various); a senior principal acoustics consultant; a solicitor; a driver; a software sales executive; a highways consultant and telephone makers (whatever they may be).

Job vacancies which allegedly met my demands also included a carper washer and drier, a Swedish masseur and ‘business premises’ (well, it was an office)!

Sadly, job titles give little indication of the skills required or the work involved.

Employers appear to go to great lengths to conceal the nature of the work involved, especially when it comes to sales.

Take a look and you will find ‘customer service advisor’. Aha, you may think, this is something to do with answering queries, helping people….

Not so. Customer service advisor means sales. So does customer service representative, customer service operative, retail advisor and store colleague.

This last is particularly irritating and shows a total disregard for the English language. A colleague is an associate or fellow member of staff: it cannot be a job or career.

I get just as irritated by job titles which try to make things sound more grand and important – like the operations which turned out to be shelf stacking.

And what about a sandwich artist? Perhaps this is an opportunity for a food-obsessed painter or sculptor!

Then there are the jobs which no longer exist, but are still on the internet; the jobs with no details; the jobs where you cannot tell if the employer is a ‘normal’ business or an agency; the jobs which offer apprenticeships to young people but don’t want to hear from older people, and the jobs which are only open to existing CRB holders (presumably that means employers don’t have to pay the costs).

Worst of all are the online application forms which are over-long, over-complicated and over-intrusive.

Having struggled to complete electronic questionnaires, compose hopeful cover letters and produce a CV which shows my skills to best advantage, I press the ‘send’ button, or stick some letters in the post.

What happens next? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If I am lucky I might get an automated response acknowledging receipt, but this is unusual. There is also the occasional ‘on this occasion you have not been successful’ letter, which is not encouraging, but at least it means someone has read the details I sent and taken the time to reply.

At the moment I am upgrading my CV, highlighting my newly gained IT and Business Administration skills, and giving less prominence to a 30-year career in journalism.

And I am using my time to do the things I want to do.

But it would be nice if employers considered the feelings of job hunters, by making their adverts a little clearer and by giving some kind of feed-back to unsuccessful applicants.

Whether I’m too old or too inexperienced, I would just like to k now where I am going wrong.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I'm a Student!

MY box of goodies arrived today from the Open University, and I was so excited that when I came to log on to the website I forgot my user name and my password!

It is to be hoped my memory improves fairly rapidly, otherwise my chances of achieving a longed-for English degree are not good!

When I left school I went to what was then known as 'teachers training college', stayed a year, decided teaching was not for me, and left to pursue a career in journalism.

I've never regretted that decision, but over the years I have toyed with the idea of studying for a degree. However, somehow it always seemed too difficult to combine with the demands of a high-stress job and a family.

Now The Daughters are grown and the job has been lost to redundancy, so it seems the ideal time to make the dream come true.

The idea still sounds a little scary, but last year I took a course at our local college to upgrade my IT skills and gain a BTec in Business Administration, and realised how much I love the gaining of knowledge.

To start with I was incredibly nervous - after all, it was a long time since I had been in a formal learning situation. But it was a wonderful experience which left me wanting to take on a fresh challenge, something I could really get my teeth into.

And what better than a degree?

The first module, which is mandatory, is The Arts Past and Present, which (according the booklet), aims to give students a 'thorough grounding' in the arts and humanities.

The breadth of disciplines involved is amazing: philosophy, art, literature, history... the list is endless.

Split into four sections, the course covers Repuations, Traditions and Dissent, Culural Encounters and Place and Literature.

First off is Reputations, where I have to consider what it is that makes some individuals famous - for example, why is Cleopatra still an icon some 2,000 years after her death? What about 'villains' like Stalin, or saintly men like the Dali Lama?

I'll also be studying musical divas, Cezanne's paintings and to study Marlowe's Dr Faustus, one of the most powerful dramas I have read.

I have to buy course books (including Faustus - I have an ancient copy somewhere, but it is not the recommended edition - and I am still waiting to hear who my tutor is.

But I have a box full of CDs and text/instruction books, as well as lots of enthusiasm, so I'm ready to start studying...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog

KATE Atkinson is one of my favourite authors, and Human Croquet is the book I would most like to have to written - but having just read Started Early, Took My Dog I feel she is in danger of becoming a little formulaic.

It is not that the book is a dud. It isn't. Atkinson is a master of her craft, with a matchless ability to entwine time and characters as the past and present unravel their secrets.

In all her novels nothing and no-one are quite what they seem. Lives collide and worlds are turned inside out as actions taken long ago continue to echo down the years, while Nemesis stands just around the corner waiting to avenge the innocent...

There are lost children, missing mothers, and inadequate men: people in the wrong place at the wrong time, people in the wrong lives (a phrase she herself uses about a character in her first book, the Whitbread Award winning Behind the Scenes at the Mueum).

Perhaps that is what is wrong with Started Early, Took My Dog . The themes and style of writing are too similar to what has gone before.

As before, the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot rely heavily on co-incidence, but this time around the element of surprise is lacking, and the story line seems a little more predictable.

It is the fourth appearance for private detective Jackson Brodie (whose private life is as chaotic as ever) and follows his efforts to discover who a young female client really is.

His search for the truth about her identity takes him on a 30-year time trip involving a murdered prostitute and a police cover-up.

Along the way he meets a cast of characters who should be intriguing, but many are a little less real and less sympathetically drawn than those in Atkinson's previous books.

There is, for example, an alcoholic former journalist, a hippy dippy social worker and a very unwelcoming B&B landlady, who are all cartoony cardboard cut-outs.

The policemen who were involved in that long ago case are also sterotypical seventies coppers. Brutal, hard-drinking, sexist, racist, anxious to look after their own, they are not pleasant men, but circumstances have made them what they are.

Like the other characters their lives have been blighted by what happened, by the actions of one man who lost control.

Central to the the story is retired policewoman Tracy, still haunted by that 30-year-old murder case, who buys a child from a prostitute, hoping to break the cycle of deprivation and abuse - and to make amends for the child who lost his mother and was nver given the chance to live with a loving family.

There is a rather engaging jam-making, scone-baking gangland boss, whose home crowded with photos of his grandchildren; an ageing actress who suffers from dementia, and Julia, Brodie's former lover and the mother of his son.

There is also the mysterious Brian Jackson, another investigator, who is trying to track down the family of a man who spent his childhood in a children's home...

At the end of the book there are clues that another Jackson Brodie is on the way, but I may give it a miss.

If Started Early, Took My Dog is your first encounter with Kate Atkinson then you may think it is a very good book.

But I was disappointed.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Chicken Jumpers

I AM knitting a jumper for a chicken. Don't laugh, I haven't gone mad (or no madder than usual) and there really is a logical explanation.

Friends of mine have lots of animals (mainly rescued), including chickens - two of which are bald.

Now I am quite fond of chickens (not to eat, I am vegetarian, remember, just to look at), and I have been intrigued by articles and websites about people who knit jumpers for rescued battery hens.

Many of these poor creatures (the hens, not the knitters) have lost their feathers, so they cannot keep warm, and they get pecked by other birds.

Eventually, with a bit of TLC, their feathers regrow, but until then they need a little protection.

Since I like a challenge, and I like to be helpful, I decided to try and knit jumpers for my friends' chickens.

I have blue wool (because I like blue), needles and a pattern from but never having knitted anything for chickens before (children, yes; dolls, yes; teddy bears, yes - birds, no) I have no idea if the jumpers will fit.

If they are too small I will try again with bigger needles, and if they are too large I shall find some smaller needles.

Nor do I know whether the featherless fowl will like them, but I will post an update to let you know what happens.

Still on the subject of chickens, The Man of the House and I went out for lunch, and were amused to note that the ingredients of one meal included 'Buffalo chicken wings'

We have no idea what this involves, but it conjured up a strange image of flying buffalo....

The picture below is of a mad hen (with feathers) I encountered during a visit to the Dorothy Clive Gardens where we sat outside to have tea and cake and this chicken ran round and round trying to steal food from people.