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Enter your password to view comments. September 26th, 2013

A Strong Female Character

I am a role model.
I am attractive.
…but not too attractive.
I am mature.
…but not too old.
I am independent.
…but just vulnerable enough so my core demographic continues to engage with my character.
My garments cover an agreed portion of my body.
…one which has been determined by focus groups and polls to be inoffensive to those who find my body offensive.
My breasts are visible but not evident.
…it was decided that I needed something to make me stand out. I suggested a handlebar moustache but that was vetoed.
I have fun and adventure!
…whilst still being very responsible.
I run my own successful business!
…all by myself.
I am brainy and a nerd! I love reading books!
…and yet I have plenty of time to play with the boys.
Because I am a strong female character.
Indeed sometimes I even wear glasses. To show how clever I am. Just sometimes.
I am skilled in the use of all weapons, real and fictional.
…but I’m also gentle and love animals.
I’m bisexual! I’m mixed race!
…but don’t worry, I’m a sort of safe mocha latte.
I have a cool disability.
…though you’ll never see me struggle to get on a bus or in and out of public lavatories.
My designers have a lot of boxes to tick, you see.
They needed a strong female character.
So they made me.
I am all things to all people.
Because there’s only one of me.
I suggested getting a couple more
…but the designers said the game/film/TV show wouldn’t be marketable to boys if they did that.
So there I am.
A strong female character.
Just the one.
It’s quite tiring really.

Add comment August 5th, 2013

Page 3 – A Defence

Someone remarked that the kind of breasts on display would not be ‘normal’ and that they would be silicone enhanced.
That reminded me of something I knew about Page 3 that perhaps others did not.
I’m no fan of The Sun. I will not buy it and I do not read it. However, I am aware that the woman on Page 3 will not, apart from certain exceptions, have breast implants. The policy has been for the start of the feature, nearly 40 years ago, that the model will be ‘wholesome’ and natural looking. Indeed, when I twitched Page 1 aside, what we saw was a pleasant image of an attractive, curvy young woman with fairly large and normal looking breasts. The makeup and hair were natural and there was little evidence of airbrushing.
The much vilified ‘news in briefs’ section, to which I will return, was tiny – postage stamp sized – and down in the bottom left corner of the photo. The whole offending feature, which has received a huge amount of campaigning flak over the years, took up less than a third of the page.
We were all, I think, surprised at what we saw. We were expecting an airbrushed, plasticised glamour shot of a trussed up model, pouting provocatively at us from this newspaper. It’s interesting how ‘Lads’ Mags’ have created an aesthetic expectation in most people so that when you talk of topless photos, you have a specific image in mind.
Back home, I looked over the Sun’s Page 3 archive. The images in fact stood out as being far more normal looking than any of the other celebrity or glamour photos in the newspaper, and indeed features in other tabloids like the Daily Mail website’s Sidebar of Shame. On the Sun’s home page there was a photo shoot of some odd creature known as Amy Childs, and she *did* have hard silicone hemispheres plonked on her chest, with copious amounts of fake hair to go with her fake breasts. This shoot *did* have the harsh light and airbrushing we would expect. Except Ms Childs is not really a glamour model and the photos were not a feature in themselves. She posed for them in order to advertise her new lingerie range.
I began thinking about why the No More Page 3 campaign has got so much attention when in fact it features some of the least objectionable and ugly images of topless women I’ve seen for some time. 
The arguments are that it creates an oppressive culture of sexism; that it is in poor taste and that it encourages men to see women as sex objects. The campaign sees Page 3 as a totem of women’s poor status in the UK and feels, by a campaign of letter writing, that it will shame the Sun’s editors into removing it and then, somehow, everything will be better. Our pay will go up, sexual harassment will cease and everyone who wants it can work part time from home. Recently Murdoch has been making noises about replacing it.
Apart from the manifest idiocy of believing that getting people who do not and will not read the paper under any circumstances to write to the editor of the best selling paper in the UK and ask him/her to remove one of their longest running and popular features, there is a vast middle here that has not been distributed.
Page 3 is a symptom and not a cause of sexism. That it is sexist is up for debate. I think it’s subjective, but I will say that the fact that many men and women like looking at breasts relates to a highly primal and normal drive in humans. Breasts nurture and nourish us (or they ought to, more often than they do). They allure and seduce us (if we are that way inclined).
Those who object to Page 3 are using it as a shibboleth of all that is misogynistic, sexist and wrong.
But it is none of these things. Their objections are a mishmash of anti-porn activism, snobbery and prudishness.
The anti-porn people want to ban all porn. They are those who would impose a compulsory porn filter on the UK’s internet – a plan which has recently morphed into demanding that anyone with children must tick a box agreeing to have filters installed, with penalties to be imposed on those who simply fib in order to have their browsing unhindered.
I don’t care if my daughter sees porn, I really don’t. The reason is that I understand the internet, I know how it works and I know how to control it. She will know how to avoid it if she wishes.
I have also seen enough porn to know that it can span a massive range from high art to extreme exploitation and everything in between. Like cockroaches, those that do exploit individuals to make nasty porn hate any form of sunlight. Banning and restricting them will only allow them to flourish. This is a world in which genuine imagination, tenderness and beauty cohabit with tedious repetitive plastic humping and it is a world with value. It does not in itself corrupt.
It is also a world that can be entirely avoided if an individual so wishes. It is not compulsory.
However, at least an anti-porn activist has a stance that is logically consistent and defensible. They wish to control who has sex with whom and for what reasons. Sex for money (or other forms of material reward) is anathema. Good luck with that.
The snobbishness has struck me as irrational. They want the end of Page 3, but claim to be “sex positive” and pro porn. It’s as if pornography for the upper classes – tasteful monochrome Testino images of nudes, Mapplethorpe coffee table books or vintage Tom of Finland* prints are acceptable, yet accessible muck for the working classes is simply de trop. A catwalk show for a milliner featuring chilly looking models completely nude apart from the hat is applauded as high art: Sandra from Dagenham, in a pair of lacy pants, is not.
Tellingly, people who make this argument use derogatory terms about “Sandra from Dagenham” as if Sandra is not an agent of her own destiny. Sandra is apparently a victim and driven to this job by oppression and society. And, to cap it all, is from Dagenham! Imagine that. The hypothetical models are always from provincial towns in Essex – anyone from Essex will confirm they are as sick of these stereotypes as the models themselves. If Page 3 featured “Alexandra from Hampstead”, would that be better?
In fact, as a fully enfranchised member of a democratic society, Sandra can do as she wishes. Glamour modelling is a job after all: not a job for everyone certainly but a job nonetheless. Shutting down something which can be either launchpad to a decent career, or a way of getting pocket money whilst at university, is a little vindictive. Sandra may not really want to get a job as a broadsheet journalist, an academic, or a minimum wage position at a trendy third wave coffee shop. Sandra may have considered her options and decided glamour modelling offers good money with no heavy lifting.
It may even be that Sandra, denied the income from being a regular on Page 3, ends up feeling that she must have surgery in order to get other glamour modelling gigs and turns into another silicone clone on the pages of Nuts. They criticise the ‘news in briefs’ (a tiny callout allegedly quoting the model’s views on a newsworthy topic) as mocking the model. It isn’t – it’s mocking those who said that Page 3 was objectifying women. I have it on fairly good authority that the News in Briefs is *actually* chosen by the model – a dainty middle finger extended to those who would protect her from her own motivations.
Then there are the prudes. Ah, the prudes. The ones who would like the existence of the female nipple swept neatly under the carpet where it belongs.
But ultimately, is Page 3 sexist?
I would say it is *sufficiently* sexist but not *necessarily* sexist. That people like looking at attractive topless women is not a surprise and in a mature society, is not problematic. Page 3 is also not a *cause* of sexism. It merely reflects a cultural norm that it’s acceptable to show bared breasts in a newspaper but not an erect penis.
I also feel that were the Page 3 letter writers to be successful, they would not stop there. Next would be the lads’ mags, and next the top shelf, and then… who knows. 
I am with Orwell on this. Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell [or show] people what they don’t want to hear [or see]. To me censorship is far more offensive and dangerous than any pornography I have ever seen. And my word I have seen a lot – all legal, I must add.
And finally, on the Sun itself, I would be quite happy if every page of that rag were replaced with a topless image of a woman rather than the objectionable rubbish it usually publishes.

Add comment August 5th, 2013

Dear Feminism

Dear Feminism

This is a difficult letter to write. It’s been great, it really has, but I think we need to spend some time away from each other.

Remember in the beginning, those heady days when we’d just discovered each other? We’d spend hours in the university library reading Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, as if we were the first in the world. It was very special. We battled together over FGM and domestic violence, and I thought we were a brilliant team.

But in the last few years, I don’t know, I think we’ve both changed a great deal. And we’ve grown apart.

I think it started back when I had a baby and you started telling me how to give birth and how I should feed and look after that baby. You began to sound confused. I *shouldn’t* have had a c-section and I *should* have bottle fed, because that was more feminist? It sounded a bit strange at the time that buying formula milk from a multinational company was more liberating to me than feeding the baby with my own milk. Anyway, I put that down to the upheaval that any major life change causes. We were still happy together.

Then you started pulling me in different directions again. I *should* go back to work, I shouldn’t. I should nurture ambitions to run a merchant bank, and to own a small cupcake and bunting shop as a “mumterpreneur”, all at once? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Things crystallised a little during the slut shaming furore of a couple of years ago. Women, annoyed at being called sluts because of how they dressed marched in protest at the suggestion that by their dress and behaviour they invited sexual assault. Fair enough. I think we agreed that anyone who claims such a thing has a very limited understanding of the nature of most sexual assaults.

Recently, though… I don’t know.

You tell me I’m strong and that I can fight for myself. But when someone threatens me with assault online your reaction is that the forum used should be banned, or heavily restricted. My instinct is that toxic comments will die out when women in public life reach a critical mass and it simply isn’t possible to tweet rape threats to them all without getting RSI, but you say I’m too delicate and your responses deter other women from putting their heads over the parapet.

You tell me that I constantly have the risk of sexual assault hanging over my head. You regularly assume that this has happened to me – that I’ve been groped or propositioned on the Tube and it’s part of a woman’s experience. Well, I haven’t. You alienated me then. You said it was so ubiquitous, I found myself wondering why not me? Am I too ugly even for an anonymous grope? Too unapproachable to pester on public transport?

You tell me I can dress as provocatively as I wish, and I’m cool with that. But at the same time, feminism, you tell me that if I dress provocatively, have photographs taken for money and get those published in a magazine, I am responsible for “pornification”? That this “pornification” has caused an increase in sexual assaults, is destroying the futures of young girls and boys and sending this country to hell in a handjob? So instead you’ve suggested extreme, swingeing censorship, the like of which we’ve only seen before in repellent dictatorships like Iran or China: it’s for my own good, you say. Men can’t control themselves. That made me wonder if you’d listened to yourself during the slut shaming.

You say I can have sex with whomever I wish. But I am not permitted willingly to have sex with people in return for money. God forbid I should film this sort of business and sell these movies on, independently, to interested third parties. In fact, it’s best that such behaviour is utterly, utterly forbidden under any circumstances because, again, some men are slime and can’t control themselves. In absolutely no way whatsoever would this ban lead to anyone being maltreated or exploited, you tell me. No, you say, it’ll prevent that from happening in the first place – but I know you are ignoring the evidence to the contrary.

So, feminism, you’ve done a lot for me, but we are going to go our separate ways for a bit. I know it’s going to be sad for a while, but you have some growing up and some thinking to do. You need to focus on what’s important. You need to stop ignoring the revolting treatment of women in countries like Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. You need to understand that what makes women free is allowing us to have sex with whom we want, when we want – to dress how we want and have children when we want. That’s not a menu. You can’t pick and choose from it. We need all of it. You may not like some of it, but tough.

See you soon.

Add comment July 30th, 2013

Protected: Reflections on Judging and Being Judged

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Enter your password to view comments. January 20th, 2013

Dignity and breastfeeding

I was too annoyed with the pulling of government funding, and my own volunteer training, to pay too much attention to National Breastfeeding Week. I was also in Norway (breastfeeding rates of 90% up to six months) at the time.

However, on my return I was greeted with a toxic article by Sarah Vine in the Times. The paywall dictates that I can’t link to it, cheers Rupert.

There’s always somebody who would like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that bottle feeding a baby with formula milk is OK and a perfectly valid lifestyle choice or whatever. Vine, however, claimed that mixing bottle with breast feeding gave her back her “dignity.”

Which got me thinking about dignity, and what truly is or is not dignified.

I know what she means: that she felt that she couldn’t conform to expectations of how a new mother should be. She was tired, sleep deprived and had a baby constantly attached to her breasts. There are solutions to these problems that do not come in a tin, which are available to anyone who cares to find them. (

But I feel her problems were not simply practical. She said she wanted her dignity back.

Her use of this word is interesting. Schopenhauer defined it as the “opinion of others about our worth and the subjective definition of dignity is our fear from this opinion of others.” The latin root is “dignus”, meaning “worthy.” So breastfeeding made her concerned about what other people might think of her: specifically that she was worthless.

It seems odd that using the same body that grew a child to nourish it could be considered worthless. Indeed, it’s even odder to try and claw back that worth by feeding the child formula milk, which after all originates from the milk of a farm animal. Is a cow more worthy to feed a human baby than a human?

Mixing up a formula feed and giving that to a baby in a bottle is something which was sold to us as being modern and, indeed, dignified. It does not seem that way to me. A woman having to pay money for a tin of powder rather than using her own milk is quite the opposite. She has delegated the ability to feed her baby over to a manufacturer, whose interests lie in their profit margin rather than the welfare of a child.

Worth in this case is entirely fiscal: the cost of the tin or carton; the cost of the bottles and teats; sterilisers and the energy needed to boil water and refrigerate.

I see no dignity in the Bangladeshi woman whose baby suffers constant bouts of diarrhea because she was duped into using formula milk she can barely afford and which she must mix up with dirty water. I see no dignity in the woman who was given the brush off by her health visitor or doctor when she came with breastfeeding problems, and told to give “top ups” rather than decent help. I also see no dignity in the celebrity who decreed that breastfeeding was icky in a magazine after being given a crate of designer bottles (thus easily allowing her worth to be calculated).

Perhaps, therefore, breastfeeding is considered undignified because it does not come with a price tag. However, I know exactly what my milk is worth in cash. £20 a scoop.

*a word about mixed feeding. A lot of women do this. Some manage to do it for a long period. However, it usually leads to a dwindling supply and the end of breastfeeding. If that’s what’s intended, fine. But it stretches the definition of “breastfeeding” and, to me anyway, seems like an awful lot of work.

Add comment July 11th, 2011

Le Manoir (for Mary W, Mrs H and Dave)

This post was written for Ms Mary W.

I recently bought a Trunki in the form of a Gruffalo. A Trunki is a small wheeled suitcase with handles and a long strap designed so that small children can use it as a seat, or be pulled along by a willing parent.

The Trunki is so roomy that I decided to pack it for our night away at LMQS. When we arrived I realised that this may have been a mistake because someone came to greet us in the car park and help us with our luggage. I honestly believe that he had never, ever taken a Gruffalo Trunki upstairs and placed it on a luggage stand before.

This gentleman was a good example of the staff at LMQS. He did not look down his nose at the Gruffalo Trunki. He would have been a heel to do so, the Gruffalo Trunki is adorable. I’ve stayed in nice hotels before and been on some cushy cruises, but I’ve often been left with the impression that the staff are being nice mainly to garnish tips. They would not have found the Gruffalo Trunki to be charming. Certainly some cruise lines present passengers with a sort of munged American notion of “posh”, high class service and seem to think that it involves a certain level of toadying. LMQS does not toad. It’s confident that it’s good enough at what it does not to require any toads.

Our Hydrangea room was beautiful, decorated with its namesake flowers, and greeted us with Madeira wine, a goody bag and pink champagne. Warned ahead of my nut allergy, the staff had reorganised our treats to include nut free fudge and fresh fruit.

We walked around the grounds and had a stab at playing croquet before our afternoon tea. Over 12 acres of land is being cultivated, not as tennis courts, a spa, car parks and swimming pools, but kitchen gardens and orchards. Nothing is anally manicured; it’s clear that these grounds work for a living. There’s clover, daisies and bald patches on the lawns and the topiary is not symmetrical. But the clover and daisies are speckled with many different species of bees and the hedges look tidily organic, not prissily trimmed.

Our afternoon tea was taken on the lawn with sandwiches, cake and cream scones. One of the cakes had nuts in and was swiftly replaced with an equivalent… and another scone to make up for the inconvenience. We were getting increasingly glad that we’d opted to have dinner at 8.30 for 9.

After tea we had a bath in a bath so enormous it was bigger than our bathroom, entertained by readings from a book of the Buddha’s teachings and pink champagne.

We then went down for dinner, and had a G&T on the lawn beforehand. We then moved to the lounge as it was getting a bit cold and had olives and popcorn. A couple opposite us scorned the popcorn, which was their loss as Nicholas took it after they’d gone in for dinner.

Dinner was simply lovely, an exercise in focused flavours, astoundingly good ingredients and simple presentation. LMQS is all about food and service, nothing else. I could tell that each individual item in each dish had been worked on and fine tuned for ages to ensure that it worked perfectly with its fellows. We had gazpacho in a shot glass with a tomato, basil and olive foccacia, crab ravioli with artichokes and a lemongrass bisque (veggie option for N), sea bass with salsify and wasabi buerre blanc, assiette of lamb with peas and broad beans, and a theme on strawberries: a layered dessert of frozen strawberry puree, strawberry jelly, strawberry ice cream, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries. I had Old Harbour beer to wash it down, followed by mint tea made with fresh mint from the garden.

We collapsed at about midnight.

The next morning we had breakfast in the conservatory: a dozen types of fresh fruit, cheeses, meats, pastries and cereals if desired. It seemed designed for the slightly hung over.

We checked out with our flowers, goody bag and the rest of our champagne. Although the hotel must have been nearly full, we saw only 5 or 6 other guests at the most at any one time. The service and layout has been designed so that you never feel that you’re staying in a busy, bustling hotel: rather that you’re at the relaxed country house of a fabulously wealthy uncle.

I smelt amazing after washing with the Marseilles soap in the shower but all that unfortunately dissipated in the swimming pool later on with baby J. That particular soap is now in my bathroom, fragrancing the whole house.

Add comment June 30th, 2011

Adventures in Churnalism

Churnalism is defined as the art of rehashing a press release and disguising it as a news story. It serves as a relatively cheap (compared with conventional advertising) way of getting your product/brand/shop/whatever publicity and is usually mediated by a PR agency.

My own adventure led me to “selling” some breast milk, being interviewed on the radio and having my breasts, appearance and HIV status discussed on blogs, forums and online comment sections throughout the English speaking world.

It all began when I saw a job advert on Mumsnet. Normally I wouldn’t even look there but it was a particularly active thread: “Mum wanted to donate milk for ice cream” or some such. It was from an ice cream parlour who were last active nearly a year ago when they had a pop up shop in Selfridges. The tossy Flash-only website annoyed me so I replied, speculating that it wasn’t real but that I was game if it were. As requested I submitted a photo.

To my surprise I received an email from one of the owners assuring me that it wasn’t a hoax, and when could he meet me?

I met him in a Starbucks on Moorgate and was reassured that he wasn’t a pervert and indeed, after I discussed breast milk fetishes and Top Gear slash fiction, began to think that I sounded far, far more seedy than he. I agreed to have a blood test to rule out the few infections that are transmitted through breast milk (HIV, hepatitis, syphilis (active) and HTLV I and II), give some milk over and do a couple of press interviews. In return I would get some cash.

So I agreed, basically.

I handed the milk over on Monday, and did a photo shoot and a couple of interviews for the PR agency on Tuesday. At the end of the session, the PR waved a sheet of paper under my nose.

This was the press release. I only really had a chance to glance at it. A quote from me about “using my assets for a bit of extra cash” was included. I observed that I hadn’t said such a thing and wouldn’t but by that point I knew I wasn’t really going to be able to change anything. I shrugged, said that I wasn’t going to tell him how to do his job, finished my icecream and left.
The next day texts started to arrive from colleagues who were reading that morning’s Metro. I checked the online version. Not a word from my actual interview was there but the tacky made up quote was.

Throughout the day more stories popped up. My photo from the shoot started to appear, and that quote, with my name attached, started moving up the list in Google News.
Comments started to pop up, and this is where the churnalism really bites. I was revolting, I had AIDS and was going to infect everyone, people would like to drink from the source… my breasts and the milk they produce was appraised and discussed. Amongst the “yuk” comments and suggestions that semen should be used next, my mother in law valiantly defended my honour, getting the Huffington Post to revise the story to state, clearly, that I had been thoroughly screened.

I was scolded for not donating milk (as the mother of a toddler, I couldn’t start now anyway and could not donate milk due to being out of the country when she was young enough) and was told to keep my fluids to myself.

It was suggested that semen or urine were comparable fluids.

I was interviewed on the radio several times. I decided in advance to just have one point and make it over and over again: that we drink cow milk without a second thought. This I did. I admittedly did not listen to the callers afterwards, deciding that it would be nearly as bad as the online comments.

Zoe Williams, an avowed hater of breastfeeding, tried the icecream and declared it horrible. Hardly surprising.

So, overall, now that the fuss has died down, what do I make of it? The ice cream parlour itself has a burlesque ethos, in the traditional sense: that of slightly satirical, tongue in cheek humour with a sexy edge. I think in that context breast milk ice cream fits in perfectly.

The only thing I would change is that damn fake quote. To see that going twice round the world before breakfast and having no control over it is fascinating, and alarming if I let myself think that way. Perhaps one or two people will have heard me on the radio and will give breastfeeding a try.

Add comment February 28th, 2011

Mumsnet: a long way since Gina Ford.

It was brought to my attention last night that internet parenting behemoth, Mumsnet, had put its weight behind Ed Vaisey’s recent suggestion that the UK’s ISPs should block all porn at source, so that anyone who wants to look at it will have to opt in.

The reason is ostensibly to protect children from seeing anything untoward. However, as well as being technically unworkable, this proposal is a major curtailment of our privacy, our rights as individuals and a Trojan horse to allow commercial interests to control what we do online.

However, the outcry from more technically savvy members led the site admins firstly to pull the campaign page proper, then all reference to it. This, however, only happened late last night after some vociferous objections. The admins claimed that they are “rethinking” the campaign wording.

The site has come a long way since they were sued in 2007 by unqualified “baby expert” Gina Ford when some posters criticised her peculiar and frequently somewhat cruel, unfounded “advice.”

The power of Mumsnet, just 4 years on, to alter things that are not to its liking was recently highlighted when EastEnders, in a typical New Year Grand Guignol storyline, followed a cot death with a King Solomon style baby abduction. Quite understandably some people found this plotline upsetting.

However, Mumsnet (as a gestalt entity) decided that the storyline was so very offensive that it should be changed. The gradual increase in calls for the plot to be firstly ditched completely, then curtailed, led the BBC to actually cut the plotline short: it was due to run for most of this year. Two of the actresses involved have since resigned citing the controversy as a factor.

Meanwhile, the BBC enjoyed high ratings as the press coverage promoted the show and, presumably, some bereaved mothers had the plotline shoved in their faces when they might otherwise have simply avoided it as too upsetting.

They have over 50,000 regular visitors and they are a vocal lot. One poster, “Riven”, had tea with David Cameron prior to the election. A few weeks ago, she was driven to a crisis because poor respite care for her severely disabled daughter. She posted that she felt she had to put her daughter into residential care. No less than 5 hours later, Riven was all over the place. All the major TV news channels and all the major daily newspapers featured her plight.

So it’s in this context that I found Mumsnet’s new pet issue alarming. It genuinely does wield some power.

At first glance the proposal seems reasonable. After all, we have age ratings for DVDs and a 9pm watershed on the TV, so how is an opt-in porn filter any different?

Well, firstly, and the reason Mumsnet’s “geek” posters (who offer assistance to members with technical problems whether site related or not) were up in arms and have since been on strike, is that the system is unworkable. How would such a filter distinguish between Page 3, an instructional photograph of breastfeeding, and hardcore porn? According to Justine, the filter

Wah! we are not for a minute suggesting that we would back something that censored breasts

The truth is that it cannot, and will most likely block the lot.

Under the proposal, ISPs would take responsibility for filtering content, so much of the enormous cost would be passed to customers. Smaller ISPs would probably go to the wall. It should in any event not be an ISP’s responsibility to stop customers looking at boobies, any more than it is a newsagent’s responsibility to ensure that children don’t accidentally look up at the top shelf magazines.

The point was made on Mumsnet that sites like, well, Mumsnet would be banned. A regular feature on the forums is “bumsex Fridays” where posters get tipsy and discuss, well, bumsex. Other threads have included “Never Google Dragon Butter” and “What’s Lemonparty?”

The discussions on Mumsnet which followed the geeks’ strike focused almost entirely on the technical problems and prompted the site’s admins to pull the campaign page (although the link and details still remain on the Campaigns front page).

However, few posters focused on the main issue: the moral one.

It is not and should not be the government’s responsibility to make sure that children do not see inappropriate material. It is the child’s parents or carers’. That some parents or carers do not have the wherewithal or the necessary level of concern so to do is not my problem, nor is it anyone else’s problem. If a mother is not technically capable enough to install web filters or just to move a computer out of a child’s room and into the living room, that is her problem alone.

Mumsnet is demanding that we all take on this burden.

To take the DVD and game age ratings as an example again, there are 18 rated films and games. That some parents happily buy Call of Duty Black Ops for their 11 year old is not my problem. The age rating is clearly marked. Either they don’t understand or they don’t care. Either way, I don’t feel that I should be affected. Perhaps they could be made to understand or encouraged to care: fine. Stretching the analogy, Mumsnet’s proposal would suggest that such games and films be sold only in officially mandated shops accessible only by adults who have previously applied for a special permit.

And what would happen then? Well, determined children would get their parents to buy the game anyway. Or they would get the unconcerned parent of their mate to buy it.

Similarly, determined children could very easily continue to look at Tubgirl. Their older brother would opt in: their dad would opt in.

In discussions, Justine Roberts, one of Mumsnet’s founders, was dismissive of any suggestion that the proposal would affect civil liberties:

I think there have been some really valid points about workability raised here but the “this is the thin end of the wedge on censorship” one doesn’t make sense to me. We already censor loads of things in the name of child protection on the internet and elsewhere. Of course there are valid concerns about where you draw the line but you can’t deny that we do draw the line already all over the place – we censor illegal images, we rate dvds, we have a tv watershed.

She also stated, rather patronisingly (and mistakenly, as the IWF only filter sites that others have flagged as suspect):

Right now there’s an organisation called the Internet Watch Foundation which sifts through everything on the net (not a jolly job) and slaps a label on a lot of very horrible illegal stuff which the ISPs then filter out.

It is to Mumsnet’s credit that they have taken the objections on board and have, for the moment, put the campaign on hold and instead focused on important things, like trying to ban the sale of bikinis to the under 9s.

What this proposal would in fact enable is full scale control over what everyone in the UK can and cannot access. There are big commercial interests involved: News International or Sony would love to prevent any infringements of their copyright by taking the UK’s ISPs in a stranglehold and demanding that they deliver up all offenders. By permitting a universal porn filter, the UK would be taking the first steps.

The UK, unlike China (where apparently 30,000 people are employed to police the internet), subscribes to the philosophy that its citizens are allowed to do whatever is not illegal: one of the tenets of the rule of law. This would start to change.

Even if our currently very pliant government dug its heels in and resisted Rupert, we would still have our rights curtailed.

Why stop at porn? We don’t want children to look at terrorist sites, do we? Let’s ban those too, using the same blunt tools so Wikipedia pages are also blocked. Sites like Harry’s Place often post links to Youtube videos of Islamist hate preachers: those would be blocked too.

Racist sites? Of course: but naturally sites like Searchlight would also be caught in the net, as well as (at a tangent) sites for tattoo enthusiasts (there are online catalogues of neo-Nazi tattoos to aid identification). Never mind. Wikileaks? Well, obviously Wikileaks would be blocked…

Finally and most importantly, my main objection is this. The Internet is the most fantastic invention of the 20th century. The very thought that, even 20 years ago, one would have to go to the library and look in an encyclopaedia to find something out is faintly absurd.

We have the library of Alexandria at our fingertips. Yes, the library has dark corners and odd people lurking behind neglected shelves. It has places that I do not want my children to see.

I do not want a turnstile installed to prevent my free and easy access. I am an adult and I am responsible for what my daughter sees. It is for me to stop her going into those corners.

I do not want the library to be refurbished as a bright and airy “information centre” where I can look at officially mandated things and would never stumble across anything I might possibly find troubling. I want to be able to go where I please and say what I please in the library, including being permitted to stand on a table and flash my bum at somebody.

11 comments February 9th, 2011

A guide…

I was reading this article regarding how you can scupper your chances of success in a new project if you worry too much about making mistakes. It seems that if you approach a new task as a way of learning a skill rather than proving your ability, you are far more likely to succeed.

This made me think about why so many women don’t manage to breastfeed despite starting out with the best of intentions: they want to prove that they *can* do it rather than approach it as learning a new skill, accepting that along the way, mistakes may be made.

I quote the following:

The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when things get hard. We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety. Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does – it is the goal-killer.

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Few times are more anxious than the first few days at home with a new baby, especially a first baby. Everyone is breathing down your neck and it seems that at every opportunity, someone is waiting with a set of scales or a bottle of SMA, waiting for you to cock it up.

The truth is that few women pick it up straight away and most need some help, whether that be in latch and positioning or in chasing away badly trained Health Visitors and Midwives. You know when they suggest a formula top up?

They are NOT SUPPOSED to do that. Nor, to be fair, are they trained in breastfeeding. Report them and seek further advice from a breastfeeding professional.

In that vein, I was going to set down what will mainly be a bald list of the things and people that helped me learn the new skill of breastfeeding.

First of all, learning before the baby was born that I would be spending about 6 weeks doing pretty much nothing else but feed was a revelation. I prepared in advance, lining up DVDs to watch, trashy books to read, frozen meals and plenty of cake. The rest of the family also knew what to expect. Newborns feed frequently: every 2 hours is completely normal but can come as a surprise if you were expecting every 4. And that’s day and night I’m afraid unless you have birthed a magical sleepy pixie. Lucky you.

You should not arbitrarily limit time at the breast: 20 minutes a side, 10 minutes a side, empty one side before the other… all hogwash. Feed on one side until the baby comes off itself, offer the other and so on. Breasts do not need to “refill” as milk is made on demand.

Knowing the red flag problems was extremely useful too. A newborn should be peeing and pooing frequently throughout the day. If they are not, seek help.

Agonisingly painful nipples are NOT normal and don’t put up with it. Whilst (this is my personal view) they might need some running in, like a new pair of shoes, you should not need to bite down on your finger at every feed. Problems like thrush or mastitis need urgent medical attention.

Get comfy before starting a feed. Ensure remote controls and cake are at arm’s reach, make sure you have had a wee, etc.

If you do have problems make sure that you have phone numbers and contact names ready. Whoever you get to help you, make sure they watch a whole feed rather than just natter at you and give you a leaflet.

Relatives may offer advice. Some is probably helpful, some is going to be poppycock. It is important that you accept the good and reject the bad as politely as possible.

Sod the obsession with pumping until you feel you’ve got feeding nailed. Granny may be chewing her arm off to give the baby a bottle, but she can be usefully deployed changing nappies or hoovering instead.

Talking of nappies, if you’re planning to use cloth nappies (and I do), be prepared to let them slide until you have the feeding sorted. Nothing is more important.

Dad needs to know all this stuff too: he is often going to be a slightly saner voice and is good at remembering stuff and shit, which you are not going to be quite so good at for a while.

If you’re worried about feeding in public, practice in front of a mirror first.

Some baby clothes make feeding quite difficult: dungarees and pinafores with lots of buttons and straps can get in the way when a baby is small.

Helplines are great but having a named person is even better.

7 comments February 5th, 2011

Nestle New Year Boycott

I begin the new year with a resolution fully to boycott Nestle. I’ve eaten the last Quality Street and had my last bowl of Cheerios. The cats, fortunately, never really liked Go-Cat and I’ve never been one for drinking bottled water. However, giving up condensed milk, KitKats and After Eights was not done without a wrench. It’s hardly Rowntrees’ fault that they were bought out by Nestle a few years ago, but even the Fair Trade KitKat was not enough (it represents a tiny fraction of the cocoa bought by Nestle each year).

I am NOT doing it because I disagree with the sale of formula milk. A safe substitute for breast milk is a vital product.

Why am I doing it? It’s because although Nestle are not the only company to engage in unethical marketing of breast milk substitutes, they are the biggest and have committed the most egregious offences.

What I would like to see is formula milk being sold at a reasonable price (instead of the massive mark ups we currently see) with no outlandish claims for its benefits made either in the advertising or the packaging. I would like to see formula milk sold with clear instructions on how to make it, printed in visible lettering in the languages most commonly spoken and read in the country in which it is sold. I would like to see an end to free samples and “prescription pads” being handed out to healthcare professionals in developing countries where clean water, fuel and the money to buy formula is in short supply. I would like to see an end to coffee creamer being sold as a cheap alternative to proper formula milk.

I would like mothers in countries without access to safe water to be protected from aggressive marketing of formula milk. In Bangladesh, there are specialist hospitals dedicated to children with diarrhoea, caused almost exclusively by being fed formula milk made with unsafe water.

I would like Nestle to stop dumping “donations” of formula on disaster areas. Well meaning aid workers distribute this stuff, which is contrary to UNICEF’s guidelines on the matter. Trying to ensure infants get breast milk either from their mother, a lactating relative, encouraging relactation or a volunteer wet nurse is the first thing that should be tried. To start giving a baby formula milk in a country like Haiti can well be a death sentence, to say nothing of the recent floods in Pakistan which have polluted water supplies and spread disease.

It’s in developing countries that the headline offences take place but this is not to say that Nestle engages in unethical practices on my doorstep, although the methods are a little more subtle. For all that it may be claimed that the boycott has no teeth, Nestle does not sell formula milk in the UK and has no plans to re-launch it. What it does sell here, in a network of independent shops in areas with a mix of nationalities (like my own) are powdered milk products aimed at older children which are much cheaper than formula, are popular in some countries as a result, and are stocked with the formula milk. Whilst HCPs in the UK will no doubt “mop up” children fed this stuff, Nestle can and should make it clear on both the retail and wholesale packaging that it should not be displayed with formula milk products.

I would like to see “breastfeeding advice” removed from formula milk companies’ websites. Large companies are obliged to act in the interests of their shareholders. If a formula milk company truly offered correct and helpful information about breastfeeding, the shareholders would rightly be up in arms! They would be telling consumers how to avoid buying their product!

I would like formula packaging to simply include the brand name, type of formula (whey/casein based, dairy free, lactose free etc.) and instructions. No more cuddly bears or fluffy ducks, pseudo-scientific shields and logos slyly implying that this stuff will turn your baby into Einstein.

I would dearly love to never again see the sort of adverts Nestle run in countries which do not ban the advertising of infant formula: in the Philippines, there is a commercial featuring a little girl who grows up to be a piano playing prodigy, all thanks, apparently, to her formula milk.

And that is why. Even George Clooney cannot persuade me to purchase a Nespresso machine now.

Oh, and one more reason:

Nestle Nurses

1 comment January 2nd, 2011

What I think about when I think about breastfeeding

The second instalment in what is no doubt a sporadic and fitful reflective diary.

My opinion is this. Breast is not “best.” Breast is *normal*. Breast milk is made by a mother’s body for the benefit of a baby. It is why we are called mammals. The vast majority of UK women are physiologically and psychologically capable of breastfeeding, equally the vast majority of UK babies are able to do so. Artificial milks are fine, but they are not equivalents. They are an imperfect industrial product, which, when prepared correctly, babies usually do fine on. They are also aggressively marketed and promoted in various ways, both subtle and overt. But in the majority of cases, they are not *necessary* for the health and welfare of either mother or baby, any more than a baby wipe warmer might be.

What I have stated above is true. However you ended up feeding your baby is irrelevant to the facts.

If you chose to use artificial milk, I pass no judgment. Perhaps you made a conscious choice. Perhaps you are physically or psychologically incapable of doing so.

Perhaps you were influenced by celebrities or advertising, or perhaps you were not.

If you wanted to breastfeed and ended up using artificial milk, I conclude that you were failed: either by your body, your baby, your family, your midwife, doctor, health visitor or a combination of the above. I don’t want to make you feel bad about it.

The fact is, I chose to train as a breastfeeding supporter to try and help women like you, in whatever small way I can.

Many women who use artificial milk get upset and het up about terms like “artificial milk” and what they perceive as a hectoring tone. I must admit that I’ve never come across a breastfeeding enthusiast who was rude or cruel to a bottle feeding mother.

Perhaps the judgment and harshness exists in their heads – certainly there are some women I have come across who would accept no criticism of their feeding method at all, and would immediately use terms like “nazi” and “propaganda.” Or perhaps nasty breastfeeders do exist, but I keep on missing them.

The term “propaganda” is interesting. It suggests dishonest promotion, and with its overtones of totalitarianism, implies that pregnant women encounter glassy eyed midwives chanting slogans and handing out pamphlets with the message that formula milk is poison.

Fact is that there’s no propaganda, merely frequent mention that, if you could, if you possibly might want to, it might be nice to, you know, breastfeed? A bit? It’s not as bad as everyone says. And then that’s it. After the birth of a baby you are cast adrift in a patchy sea of vague advice, shrugs and the inevitable suggestion of a “top up”.

Top ups should not be the first remedy for breastfeeding problems, but they usually are, and lead to the slow, sad death of breastfeeding. We have so little faith in our own ability to feed our babies that we tend to reach for a commercial, industrial product for reassurance.

So, yes, I successfully breastfed my first and so far only child, for over a year. I am one of an almost negligible minority of UK women to do so: around 2%, depending on your criteria and whom you ask. I did not have an easy ride of it by any means. I had thrush, mastitis and nipples that looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to them, all within the first 2 months. I had weight gain scares and my daughter’s poo was the subject of much speculation for quite some time.

I was thinking about why I succeeded when so many women I know did not. I was the only one in my NCT class of 9 who managed it – sadly as a result I never really felt part of the group when they talked about bottles and teats and I was worried they thought I was judging them – we had nothing in common.

There are various reasons, I will try to list them.

* I have a family history of dairy allergies and was damaged myself by being given artificial milk at birth. I still suffer from various things including asthma and eczema.
* My mother breastfed my two younger brothers and I remember seeing her do this.
* This motivated me to find out why so many women set out to breastfeed but don’t manage it. Two things informed me the most: the Mumsnet breast and bottle feeding forum, and The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer.
* I observed that making up bottles of formula seems to be expensive, and a tremendous faff.
* I asked successful breastfeeders IRL for advice.
* Knowing what to expect helped me prepare for 6 weeks or so of doing nothing but feeding. I began to look forward to it.
* I had a doula when I had my baby, who breastfed her own children.
* I threw my weight around immediately after my c-section. I demanded to be given my baby to feed as soon as possible. I insisted that my drip be removed at the first opportunity. Rather than panic when she spent her first 2 nights in hospital wakeful and feeding, I took her for nocturnal adventures around the maternity wing. I know now that had I asked for help, I would have been offered formula. I know this because I found the formula storeroom one one of these expeditions.
* I reported the midwife who suggested topping up. And ignored her.
* I made contacts whilst pregnant and spoke to named individuals when I encountered problems.
* I co-slept.

Add comment December 8th, 2010

Men and Breastfeeding

I am supposed to do a reflective diary for my peer support training so I am going to do some discursive writing around various breastfeeding topics.

Firstly, the role of men.

It would initially seem obvious that men have no role to play in breastfeeding. However, most people in this country would argue that in fact men *do* have a role to play. There is a societal acceptance that men should get involved in childcare and this is reflected in photo opportunities featuring prominent men brandishing a bottle, dandling the newborn on their laps with a muslin draped over one shoulder, the Avent in one hand, and the glamorous wife looking on, beaming indulgently.

I have met women who like to hand over the baby and a ready made bottle to their partners when they come home for the evening so they may feed and “bond” with the little one.

Fair enough? Well, no, not really.

The change in social mores which has meant that a man’s presence at the birth of his child is practically compulsory has also made the sight of a man caring for a baby commonplace. This is a good thing, make no mistake. The fact that the Early Learning Centre sells little blue prams for boys to transport their toys around shows that they have seen their fathers care for younger siblings, and they want to be like Daddy. This is excellent. There are few things more manly than husbanding one’s offspring.

It is the case, though, that some men feel left out when their partner breastfeeds. Feeding a baby is presented to us as the way one cares for it. Babies come with bottles: just look at the greeting cards, or the cute bottle shaped swing tag on that adorable babygro.

It is also the case that some men will pressure their partners into allowing them to give the baby a bottle, whether that be of expressed milk or formula. Some offer to help with “night feeds” by giving the baby a bottle when it wakes.

What is the problem with that? There are several. Firstly, expressing milk before breastfeeding is established (usually about 6 weeks) can affect the supply. Secondly, some babies simply won’t drink from a bottle and others get so used to the ease with which milk flows from a teat that they get frustrated and fuss at the nipple.

The night is an important time for the supply of breastmilk and more is made at night than at any other time. Giving bottle feeds at night is very likely to affect supply, not to mention making the mother feel very uncomfortable by the morning.

In addition, preparing a bottle is a great deal more work than sitting and breastfeeding. One must sterilise the bottle (certainly if the baby is younger than 6 months) and prepare the formula (if that’s what’s being used) correctly.

Women who have done this tell me that it’s great when the father takes the baby, as they can then go and bustle off and see to older children or attend to various domestic chores. To which I say, is your partner incapable of doing these tasks, and why are you doing them when you have the option of sitting on your bottom and feeding the baby?

As Mr Trellis likes to say, it is a baby, not a lamb in a petting zoo. Feeding a baby is such a small part of looking after a baby that it is possible for a man to undertake every other aspect and be considered the primary carer.

A man that considers feeding his baby to be “caring” for it, or the only way to “bond” with it has little imagination. He can bond with the baby by changing the nappies, having a bath or just simply singing it to sleep.

I am not talking, by the way, about odd feeds when the mother’s gone out somewhere, when the baby is older, or when a genuine problem has necessitated bottle feeding. I am specifically referring to pressure exerted on a vulnerable mother at a crucial time for the establishment of breastfeeding.

There is an almost childish, castrated petulance to men who demand to be “allowed” to bottle feed their babies at the expense of the breastfeeding relationship.

1 comment November 23rd, 2010

Cruising on the Carnival Catastrophe

MIL writes:

14th Aug. The journey.

It looked like we were going to leave spot on time, as the captain made his welcome talk. 5 mins after take off time, he said there would be a delay of 10 mins as 2 people had not boarded and they had to take the luggage off. The first of his bullshit announcements. One hour late, we left. What was the true reason for the delay?
8 hours 40 mins later we started landing. Just as we were about to touch down, the plane suddenly veered back up into the sky with screaming engines. We watched the plane tracker on our screens with horror as we climbed steadily and headed due east, away from Miami. After 5 mins pilot said something about “they were a little tardy in giving landing clearance so we will try again, and we would land in another 10 mins.” But instead of circling we kept heading due east for 45 miles, before making a sharp U turn and heading due west back. We landed 30 mins later, with no further comment or apology, just the usual bland thank you for flying hope you have enjoyed the flight.
When dad complained that we had been given no proper explanation we were told it was because the pilot saw another plane on the runway. Not what he originally said.
Miami airport was even more shamble than ever. Instead of queues for customs, there was a huge mass filling the arrivals hall and all heaving in the direction of customs. In the middle of this melee was a yapping small dog in a pink jacket seated atop its owner’s luggage in a trolley. By the time we got through we and others had missed the 7.50 Trirail by 5 mins, and the next and last one of the night was at 9.40. A young man said with gloomy relish that it had happened to him before that this last train was sometimes cancelled. He also complained about pilot bullshitting – he said everyone knows it takes half hour not 5 mins to re-land.

But after a steamy 2 hour wait at the Trirail station it came. My buzzing head was further afflicted on the journey by a hippo sized woman with 3 ADHD type little girls, all ceaselessly yelling yelping and jumping on the seats. They spoke an unintelligible language which turned out to be Creole, when the mother informed me in English they had had a very long journey from Haiti – all of 2 hours. I said I had had a 10 our journey and, as a result, I said, with gritted smile, I was longing for peace and quiet. She didn’t get the hint, but lolled back herself.

At the Trirail Fort Lauderdale, a few of us waited at the deserted station praying that the shuttle to the airport would show up. It eventually did. Got taxi from airport to hotel, arriving 11 pm. What kind of Hilton has no food after 10 pm, not even room service? They gave us a menu for a take out place. our order was eventually delivered at 12.15, when we were in no state to eat it. And I was longing to take my last bath, as I knew no bath on ship, but no bath in our Hilton room either.


Boarding the ship took almost an hour as we were lucky enough to get a woman who couldn’t figure how to log on and access our completed info on her computer, so started filling out our info in a form laboriously by hand. Halfway through she suddenly saw the info on her computer, threw away the handwritten form and started again on the computer.

Very nice lunch in the lido buffet court, but too tired really to enjoy dinner. The cruise woman of Gid lied when she said she had sorted us with anytime dining. We were still registered as dining, and there is no anytime dining on this ship. We got 8.15 at table for 8. None of the other 8 showed up this evening. We shall see tomorrow. Nassau tomorrow. Unlikely we will go to San Juan at all because of storm, but being on the sea is v nice. Room is nice, balcony nice. Sat to Nassau tour of Sol’s resort [Paradise Island]. The tone was like a tour of Vatican and Sistine chapel being reverentially being shown the vulgar “art” works except I don’t recall being charged $50 each to see Sistine. Still the only people at an 8 person table- it was like sitting with the ghosts of cruises past with empty chairs where Mailer boys and partners used to sit.

After cancellation of itinerary and reinstatement we will walk around San Juan in morning, and then go on bioluminescence kayak in evening. I hope we manage to steer the kayak forward some of the time.

Lunches a great variety, but I stood in the stir fry section queue for 20 mins before giving up- it would have taken another half hour. Today at sea, but rainy and squally, so no deck time at all. Tried to go to art auction to see Chagalls and Picassos being sold, but gave up after 20 mins in queue to get in. Where is credit crunch hitting the poor of USA? In port at Nassau were our ship and Carnival Glory and Royal Caribbean ship with climbing wall, and the majority on all 3 were black working class.


Am typing this from St Thomas public library where a kind man like a tramp heard us asking in the street for Starbucks guided us here. The kayak experience was worse than the plane experience. They said it was a magical trip to see bioluminescent waters. I had my doubts after the last kayaking in Abacas with dad, but this was hell.

They didn’t warn it entailed a half hour each way navigating through narrow mangroves. In the pitch dark. The only light being a fluorescent circle at the front and back of the other kayaks, of which there were very many to crash into in the narrow straights. But the mangroves are the killers- they have overhanging branches like cut off lead pipes; thick and solid and inflexible.

There is not light from the sky getting as the mangroves meet overhead. So dad was hit by a branch, knocking his nose, which swelled, and knocking his glasses into the water. We then had to proceed for another hour with him almost blind. In the end the tour leader towed us with his kayak. This was literally like the ride to Hades on the river Styx, stygian dark with many cries and shouts and yells of people coming in the opposite direction warning shouts and crashes – as busy as the M25 at 9pm at night.
An Indian couple in our group tipped their kayak and fell in, adding the general chaos and mayhem. Young fit guys were yelling get me out of here, when is this going to end. They said afterwards man that was extreme.

We have no insurance it seems for personal effects. It will have to be household insurance like last time he lost glasses in the Cam if they pay for abroad at all. It takes weeks to manufacture glasses so it is to be done ASAP, as dad can’t use computer with his spare glasses he has here. Ronald Brown has the prescription and all necessary data to do this.

We went to see the sand shul again as don’t do shopping for diamonds, this afternoon magens bay tomorrow to a special swimming spot in Tortula swimming through caves- I hope that will be not as disastrous.

By ferry to island of Virgin Gorda. So called by Columbus because it looks like a fat virgin. The Caribbean guides of course use the politically correct ‘when Columbus REdiscovered the islands.’

The book of the tours gave the impression you were delivered to the beach and after a 15 minute descent over rocks you got to beach, put your stuff down and then could explore caves at leisure.

In fact after the descent we were waved in the general direction of the caves, and found we had to find our own way to the beach THROUGH the caves with all our stuff. She assured us it would be through knee-deep water max- for me waist deep. Squeezing through fissures or bent double at times.

Very pretty climbing down one large rock formation which of course is v slippery under water, I advised dad to follow my practice if sliding down one foot carefully down the side of the rock till you could feel the solid sand. But dad preferred the leap of faith, so slipped backwards into the water. Luckily backwards so he didn’t lose his second pair of glasses, and only all our stuff in his backpack got soaked, but the dollars dried out ok in the sun. It was a lovely little beach.

Our fears about noise specifically related to being in a cabin near the main stairs was unfounded. The walls of the cabins were very thin, so you could hear people next door jangling the hangars in their wardrobe, so general quiet owed more to people being very well behaved and heeding the notices not to make a noise in corridors and not disturb resting or sleeping people. None of the English drunken rowdiness.

The main reason I would never go on carnival again is unexpected. It is the appalling layout of the buffet courts. Instead of different islands for hot food, salads and other categories, it is all in long canteen stretches. So queuing is long.

No such thing at breakfast of getting your yogurt and then coming back for eggs or toast to keep hot, unless you want to start all over at the back of the line. If you try to nip in and just take a yoghurt, as you don’t want anything hot, you will be lynched. So much for brits being the ones fanatical about obeying the queue- the yanks are much more so. So you are stuck behind the somnolently slow people heaping their plates and ordering full breakfasts.

I tried asking abjectly and apologetically if they minded if I just nipped in to get a yoghurt and sometimes they allowed with a resentful glare, but usually the response was a curt, get to the back of the line.

The response at the shows is much more enthusiastic. It is not that they are wide-eyed first timers; they are just as much veterans of cruising, but carnival vets. Good shows.
I befriended an old man from Jerusalem who could speak no English. He had come to his nephew’s bar mitzvah in Miami and then due to cruise with a friend who fell ill. He relied on me to translate all the disembarkation info etc we met when I overheard people next to me in deck chairs talking. The woman was saying she spoke 5 languages including Hebrew. Turned out she was Armenian, born in Armenian quarter in Jerusalem but fled during one of the wars to Lebanon, then lived in Canada and now Boston? A yank reading Erik Daniken said the Jews killed everyone living in the country and that’s how they got to own the land.

I bristled, and said carefully through gritted teeth – I am sure its a lot more complicated, although I am sure everyone has their own story- looking at the Armenian. Yes she said, but she didn’t want to talk ab0ut politics but there had been hard times. I said I wondered where the yank had read this version, but I could assure him it was not true. ‘Not true?’ he repeated, sounding confused. He then said he didn’t remember where he read it- but he read this all happened thousands of years ago. Not in this book, he said, pointing to his Daniken, in case I was confused.

I then realised mortified he was referring to the biblical slaughters and take over of the eretz. So I narrowly avoided an embarrassing confrontation.

There were quite a few South Africans aboard, and quite a few Israelis and a party of 40 French Jews. There was no mention of a Shabbat service in the daily schedule, but a US Jewish man (he identified me when I queried and then refused the eel sushi at the sushi counter and said he had gone through the same inquiry process for the same reason) told me he heard there was going to be one but didn’t know where.

I asked guest service desk and after making a phone call they told me it was a room reserved by the French and I was not allowed to know anymore details as it was only for French people who had booked it. When I saw the huge group coming in late to dinner- the table next to us was 20 teens and children- the kids still wearing their kippot and hai necklaces, I realised they were the French. I asked them in French and they said it was not true no one else was allowed and that Americans had also joined in. they wished me Shabbat shalom. I had assumed they were Mexican or something but could now see they were Algerians etc.

Add comment August 25th, 2009

Route Kanal

One bright mid-morning, in or around the late spring of 2001, I was at work when I noticed that one of my back teeth was tingling slightly. It was my final molar on the upper left hand side, and I described the feeling at the time as being similar to the feeling in your stomach when you are anticipating something nice, like a birthday party or a holiday.

The odd tingly feeling remained for the rest of the day. I ignored it for the most part, dismissing it as a curiosity. Later that evening, after dinner, the feeling became stronger. Again, apart from vaguely wondering what it was, I ignored it. As it got worse, I took a paracetamol and a tot of medicinal gin, assuming that it would be gone by morning.

The following morning, I woke up in the most agonising pain I have ever experienced. A powerful, intense throb was emanating from that tooth, and I could feel that the roof of my mouth was beginning to swell up. Paracetamol could not even take the edge off, and I barely noticed the effects of the Disprin I also took.

Having let work know that I had “toothache” (that word does not even begin to encompass the agony I was suffering. I felt like a fraud for even saying it), I called the dentist.

The receptionist informed me that the dentist had no available appointments for the day and I would have to wait until tomorrow. It was at this point that I burst into tears on the phone, and I could have hugged her when she said I could pop in for a five-minute emergency appointment that afternoon.

The rest of the day is a blur of ineffective painkillers and (umm) a bit more gin. Swilling the stuff round my mouth seemed to give me a couple of seconds’ mild relief. The pain of an infected root is exquisite. It fills your head with a sharp, steely blue and constant agony, which throbs and throbs and is inescapable. My ears were singing and it felt like I could barely see. I became furious with people walking down the street in front of my window, because they were not suffering as I was.

Finally the time for the appointment arrived and I staggered to the dentists’ in a haze of confusion and pain. He had a quick look and, yes, as suspected, I had an infection in the root of my tooth.

Had he been an NHS dentist, I have no doubt that I would now have a gap where that tooth once was. However, he was not. He prescribed me some antibiotics, and then after a couple of mind-buggeringly painful x-rays, said that he would save the tooth. It would take a total of four hours, and cost a stupid amount of money. Had my mouth not been the centre of my own private universe of pain at the time, I would have kissed him. I would have paid anything to make the pain go away, and was not inclined to lose a tooth if I did not have to.

The antibiotics superseded the gin late the same evening and, three days later and almost normal again, I turned up at the surgery.

I had two hours’ worth of lying in the dentist’s chair with all manner of bizarre devices being poked and prodded and drilled into my tooth. At one point he removed the dead nerve and showed me. It was a sad little scrap of grey, looking more like a dab of damp cigarette ash than anything else. He packed the new cavity with what smelled and tasted like bleach, and sent me, numb and drooling, on my way.

The next appointment was even longer and was accompanied by the soundtrack to Bridget Jones’s Diary. To this day I cannot listen to a single song from that album without lapsing into a flashback. I could only speculate about what was being put into my mouth and why. The dentist spoke only to the nurse, asking in low urgent tones for various pieces of obscure dental equipment. I do know that at one point I was sporting a lip spreader and dental dam to prevent some of the more exotic chemicals running down my throat.

I had three long pins inserted into the tooth and up into my jaw to hold it in place, and then a hefty dollop of amalgam on top to keep everything together. Somewhere I still have the x-ray image of these three pins, as a memento.

I have never, ever forgotten the pain.

Add comment August 2nd, 2009

Super 8 – a bit of family history

The Elmo Super 8 camera is a thing of beauty. Cased in black with chrome accents, it carries its weight elegantly and the pistol grip nestles comfortably in the hand. It also smells wonderfully of old camera equipment.

I unearthed this camera in my father’s loft one bank holiday. Looking for something else, I found a locked camera case and, being me, forced it open. After replacing the 17 year old batteries, everything appeared to be in perfect working order. My father is a dog in the manger type and is highly unlikely to simply give anything away, even when it is something that clearly has remained untouched and forgotten about for at least 2 decades. So I did not bother to ask if I could have the camera, I simply took it.

I also delved around and found dozens of old Super and Standard 8 film reels, some still sealed in the packaging from the developer’s – they had never been viewed. Some of these had been made by my maternal grandfather, and others by my parents. Whilst some had sound, and I also dug up a sound projector, the bulb had gone and so although I could hear ghostly voices coming from the reel, there was no vision. Modern S8 films never have sound – this was produced by gluing a strip of audio tape to the film but apparently the glue used did not meet modern environmental regulations.

Super 8 has the ability to add instant nostalgia and once you know what you’re looking at, it’s still everywhere. Documentaries and music videos use a surprising amount of it, and even brand new S8 film, shot barely weeks ago, gives everything the patina of age and the disturbing feeling that everyone in the film is long dead.

Of course, when watching something that is nearly 40 years old, that’s usually true. My parents’ wedding, filmed by my grandfather in Standard 8, is a case in point. Although my mother and father are the focus, occasionally there are glimpses of my grandmother. I was curious about this and delved further into the reels of film.

There are probably kilometres of film (each S8 reel lasts for about 3-4 minutes) shot by my grandfather of his primulas, the yearly carnival in the Cumbrian town of Cleator Moor where he lived, tractors ploughing fields, dogs playing in ponds, nestlings in hedgerows and children I do not recognise in Wellingtons. There are no notes or any sort of index indicating when the films were shot, where, or who the children are. They are of course silent on the subject themselves.

There are also short but incredibly strange experimental movies, including a stop-motion animation sequence called DALEKS, where it becomes clear that my grandfather had read about Daleks but had never actually seen one, and Circus.

Circus is the strangest and most disturbing film in the collection. It is nearly 10 minutes long and features a hastily painted circus ring set, and various caterpillars walking tightropes and swinging unwillingly from makeshift trapezes. An agonisingly long section shows one caterpillar trapped in a jar with a spider, perhaps in a lion-taming attempt. Ultimately the caterpillar skewers itself on one of the spider’s legs.

In some of the films, my mother and grandmother are present, but they drift in and out of the frame, as if they have just got in the way whilst my grandfather was setting up another tedious shot of his prize primulas. In total there is probably less than a minute’s worth of film of my grandmother, who died in late 2008 at the age of 93.

I asked my father about all this. The camera, worth £200 new in the early 1970s and still selling for over a hundred pounds on Ebay (when you can easily pick up a second hand S8 for less than £20), was my grandfather’s and the source of much friction. He suffered from a stroke in the 1960s and had to pack in managing the cinema, so my grandmother supported the family by taking a menial job in a zip factory. They did not have a great deal of money, and this camera cost the equivalent of over £1,000 in today’s money. Each reel of film cost the same now as it did then: £10. A film like Circus, consisting of four or five reels spliced togther, would have set him back over £50 in film and developing costs. Even today this is not inconsiderable, and he spent a lot on film. What is perhaps most poignant is that, like a lot of men, my grandfather liked to have the kit and to mess about with it, but lacked the patience to learn the techniques properly. The films are slapdash. My parents’ wedding film has a long section during the reception where barely anything can be seen because of the poor light. The Elmo has a good light meter allowing the operator to establish, before exposing one frame, whether the light is sufficient, but he obviously had not bothered to check this.

My grandmother was understandably irritated at her husband’s expensive hobby, but having been brought up to grin and bear it, and never to complain, simply put up with it. She also, it turned out, put up with her husband’s other hobby. He had a second family in another town. Whether the woman involved was actually his mistress or just a close friend, and whether the children he had filmed endlessly with his camera were actually his or not will never be known. However, my grandmother knew perfectly well that her husband would take them out on day trips to Blackpool and the like, and would disappear overnight from time to time.

This accounts for her refusal to appear, except ephemerally, in any of the films. My mother, too, appears occasionally but only to help him use up the last few feet of film before getting it developed.

When my grandfather (a man I barely remember myself) died in the early 1980s, my grandmother gave the camera to my father for safekeeping along with all the films. She said she never wanted to see any of the films or the camera again as they were associated with too many bitter memories: of being ignored while her husband industriously filmed garden plants rather than his only daughter; of being left to slog out long hours in a factory while he tormented caterpillars for his art; and being passed over in favour of another woman.

My father used the camera occasionally: most frequently to film his offspring cavorting naked in the back garden in the kind of films you get arrested for nowadays.

Mr Trellis has now adopted the camera for his own. We have a slowly increasing pile of reels featuring me, our cats, friends and family.

2 comments July 16th, 2009

SanLosLas Part 4


As suspected, Cocky did not return to the hotel (we were sharing the beautiful Opera Suite at Inn New York) until 8.45am. He was kind enough to text me that night to state that he was not dead. As we were due to check out at 11am, I lay awake for a little while wondering how he was going to manage on around an hour’s sleep.

Nicky and I got up at 9am and while he went for his run, I scuttled about packing and the like. By the time Nicky returned, Cocky had begun to rouse. We broke the news that he might have to spend the day on a park bench. Apparently he had stayed in the Manhattan apartment of a couple of kindly gays, but hadn’t got much kip on their sofa before he realised he’d better get back. Rather than go down the hobo route, he instead asked the landlady if he could keep the room for the day, and it was agreed that he could, for $80. We left him to it and went off to see Linda and Martin, Nick’s aunt and uncle, who live in Queens.

We realised that this was the first time we’d been to see L&M in the daylight and so after lunch we decided to go for a walk around Forest Hills, which turns out to be a lush, woody area of the city with some old (for the US) houses. Apparently some recent migrants to the area have decided that the old piles are not to their taste and so large, unpleasant edifices with pillars, balustrades and every kind of tasteless architectural confection have begun to spring up in their place.

We headed back in the late afternoon and noticed that the traffic down towards the Hudson had started to increase. This was no doubt due to the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks which were due to take place after dark. We said goodbye to Mrs Mensch, who said that the fireworks were not that good and that most locals prefer to watch them on the TV. For us, given the choice between watching the fireworks and then battling against the flow of people to get to the Newark airport motel we had booked for the night, and simply going when everything was quieter and thus getting a good night’s kip, the kip won out.

We took the subway to Penn and then the NJ Transit to Newark. Along the way we could see fireworks anyway. It was at around this stage that I realised why pregnant ladies don’t lift things. After about 6 months the production of a hormone known, self-explanatorily, as relaxin, increases. Ligaments and tendons become looser and you become more likely to sproing something. I successfully sproinged my neck, my shoulders and both hips in the space of 20 minutes, and ended up delegating baggage carrying to the porters.

We took the shuttle bus to the beloved Country Inn and Suites. Last time we stayed here I was kept awake till 4am by a stopover party, but as we checked in I noticed a sign stating that the hotel had now implemented a No Party policy. I was relieved to see this but then was dismayed to see that at least two separate groups of kids were tearing around the hotel, and one of them seemed to have decided to have a small but very noisy party in the lift. They were all wearing t-shirts indicating that they had attended a family reunion that day and were clearly in high spirits.

We wandered over to the neighbouring diner but found it to be closed. However, all was not lost as the hotel had a selection of microwave meals to buy, so we chose chicken pot pie and macaroni cheese, washed down with grape soda. Unfortunately the hotel only provided food, and not the means to eat it. Fortunately, I am wise and remembered our weird astronaut breakfast at the Country Inn and Suites in Florida. I tracked down the breakfast room and obtained cutlery and eating surfaces from inside.

Bedtime. We watched telly, Nicky swishing around happily in the jacuzzi and I lying in bed. The family reunion partyers must have tired themselves out because I didn’t hear another peep from them.


Ugh, 6am wake up call so that we could get the hotel shuttle to the airport in time for breakfast and an 8am flight. The shuttle bus driver was a well upholstered gentleman and I did begin to wonder whether he was going to die before he’d dropped us off, since he sounded about a minute away from a heart attack every time he lifted a suitcase. He was kind enough to drop us directly at the terminal rather than at the monorail, and a kindly security woman checked us in from the queue, before ushering us to the lounge for Rice Krispies and tea.

It was all a little rushed. We got through security after the usual interrogation about what Nick’s Super 8 camera was, exactly, and waited nicely at the departure gate. I was then pulled to one side and shouted at by a member of Virgin Atlantic’s ground staff because my case “looked heavy” and that it weighed “50 kilos”. I said that it did not, and demonstrated that I could lift it easily, and explained once more that I wasn’t quite so stupid as to pack a bag I couldn’t lift. The staff member remonstrated that the case was too big, and I showed that it was not. I observed that the case, rather than being big or heavy, was in fact red, and that was why she’d noticed it.

I was eventually allowed to board the plane, but was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to get away with such a transgression again. I resolved to purchase a black case of equivalent dimensions to avoid such altercations in the future, and also to get Virgin to print my boarding card so that it was edged in easily visible Upper Class purple (when applicable) rather than printing it from a kiosk.

The entertainment system was broken. Gradually, a plane-wide reboot took effect except (fuelling my persecution complex somewhat) for mine. Instead of a safety video and the V-Port cornucopia of delights, I was treated to nothing but white noise for 6 hours. I finished my book and found that the only other reading material on the plane was a magazine about polo and the Economist, which is fine, but hardly 6 hours’ worth of reading material. My other option was a hand-held DVD player and a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You, but the promised player never materialised. It is galling to note that the squalling 9-month old baby’s seat had a fully functional entertainment system but it did not offer to swap with me.

Boredom seemed to achieve for me what champagne and restless pre-flight nights never could – I actually slept for most of the flight, which was very smooth. The baby was reasonably well behaved, except during landing when the change in pressure caused it to complain. I was under the impression that you were supposed to feed babies or give them a dummy during take off and landing so that they’d swallow and pop their ears, but its mother evidently didn’t know that, resorting instead to shushing the infant constantly. Even I know that 9 month old babies don’t understand the concept of shush – indeed, this seemed to irritate the child even more and the only thing that did shut it up was a neighbouring passenger making silly faces at it.

We landed, and parted company with Cocky at passport control because we had registered for IRIS and he had not. We left him at the back of a long queue, glanced at the IRIS camera and were out of the airport and in our pre-booked cab within 20 minutes of landing.

Add comment July 6th, 2009

SanLosLas Pt 3

We woke late and Nicky was perturbed to discover that he could not find his phone. After some vacillating he went out on a run, having arranged for the phone to be cancelled, and Cocky and I went out to Dylan’s Candy Bar.
We met Nick in the cafe and he demanded to be fed, having rejected breakfast earlier on. We decided to go to the famous Carnegie’s Deli and had chicken soup, salt beef and latkes.
We returned to Inn New York for a nice cup of tea and a sit down before heading out again to the East Village and the famous Stonewall Inn. The Inn itself is actually a nice pub with a convivial atmosphere, soft core gay porn on the TV and a generous bartender who was clearly quite fond of Nick and Cocky, given the stiff measures he allowed in their vodka and cokes.
When I went to the unisex loo (only 1 patron in the restroom at a time), I was accosted by a comely lesbian who appeared from a distance to be playing patience. However, when I went over I realised that she was dealing Tarot cards and she wanted to do a reading. I suggested that she should stop being silly and went to the loo.
Cocky wished to visit another bar that was perhaps less convivial for the likes of us, so we dropped him off and went home via the Gourmet Garage for smoked salmon to have on toasted bagels.

Add comment July 4th, 2009

SanLosLas Pt 2

Because I am a lovely person I got up early and got us a breakfast from starbucks -just pastries and tea really. I ordered a macchiato for Cocky but it turns out that Starbucks’ macchiatos are not like anyone else’s and are a sort of caramel coffee dessert rather than the usual espresso with a dab of frothed milk on top.
We then set out with bags of dirty pants to the famous Magic Wash laundrette, about 10 minutes’ drive from the Strip. It has change machines, which were ideal for state quarter collectors, massage chairs and flat screen TVs. We were able to wash all our stuff for $5. Whilst it was doing, we wandered through the fierce heat into the 99c store nearby. Just like UK pound shops, it is full of things that you never knew you needed, but it also had handy things like chilled drinks and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Once our laundry had dried, we got into the car to go home and realised instantly why the locals try hard to park under cover. The car was unbearably, unspeakably hot inside.
Somehow we survived the drive to Planet Hollywood for our show. We made sure we were parked under cover this time. We had a rushed snack lunch of nachos and guacamole.
The Gregori Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre found fame on America’s Got Talent. Popovich is a Russian emigre clown who can not only juggle, but has worked out how to train cats. The show was excellent and inspired us to try training Minnie and Finch when we got home.
We returned to the hotel to put away our laundry and headed straight for the pool. The TI pool was disparagingly called a party pool but it wasn’t too bad. We found a spot mostly out of the sun.
Hunger led us to walk back to Planet Hollywood for the Spice Island buffet. I managed to put away a substantial amount of prime rib, followed with frozen custard, crème brulee and candyfloss.
We followed this with a drink in the lounge overseeing what appeared to be a titty casino section, where the croupiers wore lingerie-style costumes and a pole dancer undulated a little with her pole. We noticed that the pole dancer was wearing two bras – perhaps to keep the cold out. On the way out of Planet Hollywood I was accosted by an aggressive leaflet woman demanding (in an almost incomprehensible accent) that I make Nicky visit Peepshow with Holly Madison. Outside we were bombarded with cards for prostitutes (in your room within 20 minutes was the promise) and further demands to visit strip clubs. I was a bit offended not to be offered these cards although other women were.
We paused on the way back to see the dancing Belaggio fountains and then the Whores of the Caribbean (AKA Sirens of TI), a confusing display of comedy pirates and slutty she-pirates.
Following some bitter complaints about the temperature and the concurrent lack of a possibility of a run, I organised a 6am wake up call so that Nicky could run while it was still relatively clement. There was a lot of complaining and moaning but I eventually managed to kick him out of bed, into his running kit and onto the Strip. We slept a bit late but were not woken up as we expected by Cocky, who had said he was going to meet us for cereal and milk in our room.
We tried to phone Cocky but got no answer from any of his usual channels of communication. Apparently he had been annoyed at the lack of gay pubs on the Strip and had gone somewhere last night, but where, nobody knew.
We went to Mirage to see the Posi redshirts doing badly at poker, and decided to do lunch at the TI buffet, which was nommy. More prime rib and candyfloss for me.
We returned to Mirage after lunch and tried to play casino war, which consists of getting a card dealt and, if it’s higher than the dealer’s card, you win. We lost.
We visited the Mirage pool – there is also a nude pool, billed as an adventure in European sunbathing, but we didn’t go to that.
Instead we decided to visit Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden, complete with dolphins and kittens – well, gigantic white tigers and lions actually, but cute nonetheless. Following this we had a nice cup of tea and a cool down before visiting the Mirage’s pool, where I had some blue slush. It appears the bartenders are not used to serving non-alcoholic cocktails and are confused about how much to charge. I was concerned to note that throughout the day we had not heard from Coxall and, on checking, found that he had not even tweeted all day. This was round about where we decided to start worrying.
Still, we visited the Venetian shoppes and stopped by Walgreens for cereal (Lucky Charms this time). It was while leaving the centre that we got a call from Cocky. He was apparently not dead, but hungover and had been sleeping all day. He had found a gay bar and had spent the evening chatting to a tranny and petting her cute white doggie. We returned to TI and our own pool. I realised I had been a bloody fool to have not swum before.
We visited the Mirage deli for dinner. Vv expensive and silly – who would pay $13 for 3 latkes? The waiter also kept rubbing Cocky’s belly and had a squint – he helpfully closed one eye so that we knew what to look at.
We met Songul, who had organised a date at Jet, the nightclub. We all decided to accompany her to find out what her date looked like. However, we hung around waiting for the place to open and eventually realised that we were in the wrong queue and inappropriately dressed.
So we decided to stand up Songul’s date and went to the Revolution lounge, a 60s style place but it did play quite good music, including the Violent Femmes and Korn, mixed in cunningly with current dance hits. I had a Virgin Mary, a dance attempt and then bed.
Anniversary, today, awww.
We began the day with lucky charms in room with Cocky, and then proceeded to drive out to Hoover Dam, which took about 40 minutes. The dam is done out in 1930s art nouveau style and after a brief propaganda video which did not mention the drop in water level in Lake Mead we were taken on a tour of the turbines. We walked through tunnels built below the dam, which was somewhat problematic for me because I’d left my glasses in the car and was in my prescription sunglasses.
Outside, it was super duper hot. At the top of the dam the temperature was close to 50 degrees c or 120 fahrenheit in old money. I decided to forego the walk across the dam in favour of sitting in the air conditioned cafe but was told I shouldn’t sit there if I wasn’t going to buy anything, so I ended up sitting in the covered multi storey car park instead.
Lunch was had in the cafe – a mediocre hot dog. The attached shop was disappointingly full of tat for such a national monument, but if I had needed to buy a fluorescent dream catcher, this would have been the place.
We returned to Vegas, and headed straight for the pool for a lovely cooling dip and some very welcome slush, before setting out for the Wynn buffet and our anniversary treat trip to see Mystere, which was the first Vegas show for Cirque de Soleil and is now over 10 years old. It was a proper old circus variety performance involving alarming balancing acts, a genuinely funny clown and a giant inflatable snail.
This morning, we were supposed to have a Cocky birthday buffet at the Bellagio but he failed to show up, having apparently been invited to see a drag queen’s pool the night before. Happily he turned out not to be floating face down in it.
However, we found Jake and others the in Bellagio buffet queue, and pointed out that this was the lunch queue not breakfast, as it was now 10.30am, there was a huge queue in front of them and lunch started at 11am. Instead we breakfasted at the Bellagio Cafe (at vast expense).
I still hadn’t had any tea so we went to the Caesar’s Palace Shoppes, apparently the most profitable retail real estate in America, for that. We all must do our bit. We battled through the fierce heat to our hotel in order to watch DVDs in our room.
Later on Nicky went to play some poker at last. I repacked and watched CNN before bravely venturing out, all the way to the Mirage pool, to hang around in regal splendour and wait for him to return. He eventually did, having broken even and then given up because he got bored.
We had dinner at the Strip House steak house in Planet Hollywood, decked out in the style of a 1920s bordello and complete with girlie flock wallpaper and girlie napkins. One of the girlie napkins somehow found its way into my bag but I don’t know how, officer.
After entertaining ourselves by trying to hand back prostitutes’ cards to the distributors, we watched the dancing Bellagio fountains do their thing to the Star Spangled Banner. Very patriotic.
We spotted a few hookers on our way back to TI – as suspected, they bore little resemblance to the photos on the cards that were being handed out.
We stopped by Rhumbar at the Mirage for a Virgin Mary and were bitten thoroughly by mosquitoes before going to bed.
Having cancelled the 6am alarm call we were alarmed to be woken at 6am again. It wasn’t that difficult to go back to sleep and we met Cocky for a TI buffet breakfast at 10. The buffets really do offer the best value on the Strip. For $14 you can have as much as you like, including tea and juice, whereas in most of the cafes, $14 will barely get you two eggs any style and a glass of iced water. The canny buffet user will load up on high value items like fruit, cheese and eggs, whereas the neophyte will be distracted by the cheap carbs and fill up on those: which is of course the intention. I saw a woman at the Wynn buffet with a plate full of bread, mashed potato and crab legs.
Following breakfast, Nicky attempted to pack while I attempted to check out, like a grown up. I was utterly gobsmacked to be presented with an additional $550 charge on my credit card for, apparently, my room upgrade. I expressed my unhappiness and was told that I had signed for this extra charge. Oh, no, I didn’t, I said, and summoned the manager.
Rather than have an argument with the manager, the receptionist disappeared to check my registration card. Five minutes later he came back and said that I was right, I hadn’t signed for any such thing, and took the charge off my poor little Smile Gold Card.
We set out for McCarran International Airport and dropped the car off. Nick was disappointed that he had not pranged the car, despite having paid extra for prang insurance.
The flight to New York on Virgin America was fine albeit very bumpy. The air hostess impressed us with her agility when she climbed into the dustbin to compact the rubbish and jumped up and down on it.
We took a cab to our hotel. Cocky had the misfortune to sit next to the driver, who kept up a constant banal conversation on his phone for the entire 40 minute journey. By the end, Cocky was ready to kill.
We checked in. It was now 11.30pm but as we were still on Pacific time, we ventured out for nachos before finally turning in.

Add comment July 2nd, 2009

SanLosLas Pt 1

Alice and Nicky dropped the kitties off at Conifer Lodge Cattery while I attended to the chap who had come to fit the new kitchen.
After Alice left for Durham, along with her moth trap cum cat entrancer, I packed for Nicky and Marigold. We intended to travel with hand baggage only so I factored in one or two trips to the laundrette on the way.
We stopped by Langley Park to see Mrs M as she likes to see us one last time before we face certain doom on our flight. We took the Thameslink to Kings Cross to meet Coxall and then the crowded Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Terminal 5 and the plush new Sofitel.
When we checked in, it appeared that Cocky had been booked in for the following day. After some to-ing and fro-ing, it appeared that there had been an Expedia foul-up and Cocky was allowed to stay.
We dined at the Roux Brasserie. I had red mullet and watermelon sorbet with watermelon soup, while the chaps had some wonderfully runny cheese which I was not permitted to have due to Marigold. I vowed to take a trip to Rules immediately following delivery, where I would simply demand the cheese trolley and a half bottle of port. It’s only a short cab ride from UCH.
I had a poor night’s sleep due to arctic air conditioning and a 300 tog duvet. Duly knackered, I stumbled onto the Heathrow Express to Terminal 3 and a crowded check in hall. Fortunately a nice lady called Bee checked us in from the queue as we only had hand baggage, and we headed for security.
I was searched and while the security attendant was industriously measuring the blade on my nail scissors, my boarding pass went missing. I asked the security guards if they had seen it, and they looked around in a desultory manner and then shrugged in that public sector way which means “too much bother” and proceeded to ignore me. Fortunately Bee was still hanging around and she kindly escorted me through security along with a chap from defunct boy band, Blue. Meanwhile, the chaps had gone through security and had started phoning me and sending terse text messages admonishing me for being a Lady and disappearing into a shop selling Lady things.
I caught up with them and we went to the Virgin clubhouse for some much needed breakfast and tea.
I was refused a facial because of Marigold, which I found hilarious. However, while Nicky had his desperately required haircut, I was permitted a pedicure.
On the way to the plane, we stopped at Boots for some painkillers for Cocky, who had broken his shoulder. I was kept waiting in the line by a woman who was complaining that the airside Boots did not stock a particular homeopathic remedy for jet lag. I refrained from pointing out that it really didn’t matter what sort she chose in order to expedite things.
Before we boarded, I was asked to lift my suitcase to prove that it was under the regulation 8kg weight for hand baggage. I pointed out that I wasn’t quite foolish enough to pack a bag I couldn’t lift and demonstrated this fact. I was then permitted to board. One of the flight attendants offered me a half glass of champagne. Being French, he was quite taken aback by Nicky’s forbidding me to have any more, and whispered that he’d let me have as much as I wanted.
The flight was quite bumpy. At one point I spilled nearly an entire cup of tea everywhere. Two flight attendants offered to clear it up and bring me a fresh cup but I pointed out that (a) the mess had already been made and (b) until the plane stopped pitching back and forth, there seemed little point in making it worse. The flight attendants went back to delivering individual ice cubes to the demanding and vv rude lady next to me, who also had the most revolting phlegm riddled hacking cough I’ve ever heard outside a TB ward. She was coughing almost constantly, and when she had her nap snored so loudly and strangely that I wondered at first if she was on oxygen.
I tried to have a little nap myself, Aranovitch’s chapter in Voodoo Histories on the assassination of Trotsky being very soporific, but only managed to get an hour or so. I watched a Horizon documentary about fat people, about 2 minutes of High School Musical 3, Coraline and Shopaholic, which is utterly terrible and can be redeemed only by saying that the screenwriter is slightly less illiterate than the original novelist.
We landed on time in SFO and scuttled to the front so as to be first through immigration. We did not need to wait for our baggage, and so went straight to the BART. The ticket machines were vv confusing so I was glad I had done my research. The trains are fast and clean, and we were soon at Powell Street.
Never wander round Powell Street and Market with a map and look lost. Strange men proffering empty cups and smelling of wee will offer to help. The distance to our hotel, from my research, was reckoned at just over half a mile. In my slightly zombified state, I sternly told the chaps that a cab or the cable car would be ridiculous, and that we would walk.
Having been to SF before I really should have known better. The walk up Powell to California is almost vertical in places. It was very hot, sunny, and we all had bags to carry.
Somehow, and fortified along the way by a trip to a corner store for Snapple and crisps, we made it to the Huntington Hotel, which is exceedingly posh and not used to having three dishevelled, sweaty people turning up and claiming to have paid in advance. Eventually we talked our way in and had a much needed freshen up in our rooms before venturing out again in search of food.
We found it at tourist trap extraordinaire, Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf: tomato soup in a sourdough bread bowl with unlimited refills of root beer. Thus fortified, we visited the sea lions and marvelled at the 57 varieties of tat the place offers. We had ice cream, and then attempted to get the cable car back before being beaten back by the massive queues. A taxi was procured instead.
Coxall still needed more painkillers, so he and I took one last excursion to the corner store: he for Advil and me for cereal and milk for when I would inevitably wake up hungry in the middle of the night.
I fell asleep to Robot Chicken Star Wars and the Squidbillies on Adult Swim.

Surprisingly, I managed to sleep until about 7.30am, when Coxall called our room, bored, and wanted breakfast. By the time we were ready, Coxall had disappeared, and Nicky began panicking in case he’d fallen in the shower. I eventually called his mobile, Nicky telling me all the while that it wouldn’t work because Coxall’s iPhone was too expensive to run in the US. Coxall answered and said that he’d gone to take photos and had bought us all MUNI passes for the next three days. Hurray.
We had breakfast in the hotel, which was expensive but very nice.
Onwards, (after a shower) we took the cable car down to Market Street. Coxall wanted to visit the Apple Shop to find out why he was paying a fortune for international roaming on his data. They couldn’t tell him, so we were directed to the AT&T shop down the road. Apparently O2 have locked him in worldwide.
We took the no. 5 trolley bus to Ocean Beach. This bus goes along Golden Gate Park and terminates at the beach. The sand was very hot, which contrasted with the sea, which was very, very cold. Swimming is not advised here due to the waves and the strong rip currents, but surfers in sturdy wetsuits do brave the conditions.
We took the 5 back as far as Castro, and walked down it in search of rampant homosexuality and some lunch. The Castro by day is very clean and smart, and I stopped off for some excellent bubble tea before we decided to have lunch at Harvey’s. Coxall tried the bubble tea, and had to have the concept explained to him, but decided he didn’t like it. At Harvey’s (named after Harvey Milk), Nick and I shared some nachos while Coxall had a BLT.
We took the F tram back into town. The F line consists of vintage trams sourced from all over the US. Ours dated back to 1947. The F transits the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury and down along Market Street, the Embarcadero and the piers, ending up in tourist trap Fisherman’s Wharf. We intended to buy tickets to Alcatraz but soon learned that the misleadingly labelled kiosk only sold tickets for cruises around the island, not tours on it. We had to schlep back to Pier 33 for those.
Nicky had seen a sign for a Segway tour and insisted that we go and find out where and how to book. He insisted that either me or Martin should accost a passing stranger and ask them, but Martin refused and instead looked up the location at vast expense on his Iphone. We walked there and I was refused admission on account of Marigold. Nick and Martin booked a tour for the next day, however. I didn’t mind really as the tour cost $70 a head.
Following the successful booking, we intended to get the F tram back but found the queue to be immense, as was the line for the cable car. Adept tourists, of course, know to pick up the trams and cable cars a stop or two down the line to avoid waiting. We, naturally, are not adept and ended up giving up and taking a cab back to the hotel.
After some time sitting by the hotel pool and looking at photos, I realised that I was ravenously hungry – the kind of hunger that shuts down rational thought and leaves one a starving zombie only able to insist that it needs feeding immediately.
We found a diner close by and went there. Although Lori’s Diner is a “roadside” rather than a “New York” diner and therefore did not serve chicken soup, lox and the like, I had mushroom soup, a turkey sandwich and a massive chocolate milkshake with cream on top. Nicky had a vegan salad with egg and ranch dressing, while Coxall had some rather exquisite southern fried chicken.
After feeding, the Coxall became quite active and departed to visit SoMa, or South of Market, to find a bar. It turns out that San Franciscans don’t really go to bars until Sunday afternoon, but he had a nice chat with a Filipino bear who studies at Goldsmiths College in London.
Nicky and I went to bed to Adult Swim, meanwhile.
The boys were up early for their tour, and I accompanied them in the hope of breakfast. I had the brilliant idea of buying takeaway pastries and coffee, but this meant we missed the first cable car and were turfed off the second for having food. We ended up walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf instead. I hung around the Segway tour centre to film and photograph the chaps while they trained, and noted the unenforceable (in the UK) exclusion clause in the waiver that they had had to sign.
I took the cable car to Market in order to purchase some maternity clothes as I had discovered that morning that nothing in my suitcase actually fitted me. This was annoying for all sorts of reasons, not least that the world of maternity trousers is a deeply confusing one and led to my being welcomed to Baby Gap. However, I found a pair reduced from $60 to $20, so I suppose that counts as a win. I also purchased a tent which will come in useful after pregnancy if I want to take an impromptu weekend away somewhere.
That done, I took the F back to the wharf. Unfortunately it was pretty full and I was kindly elbowed out of the way in order that a man’s teenage daughter could take the last seat. Her father spent the journey jabbing me in the bump with his bag, which was quite annoying. However, the annoyance soon ceased when a passenger managed to break the tram doors. After scolding the passenger, the driver turfed us all off and announced that no traffic would be moving until the tram was fixed. I started walking again and was about to get the no. 10 bus when I noticed that the trams were moving.
Onwards to Fisherman’s Wharf, on a tram full of Australians… I met the chaps on schedule and was annoyed to find that they’d had a lovely time without me. We had brunch at the Buena Vista, famous as the place where Irish coffee was invented.
Following brunch, we opted to go over the Golden Gate Bridge by bus. I pointed us in the right direction to pick up the bus as directed by the guide book, but a bus stop did not seem to be forthcoming. Instead we walked down to the Marina and the Presidio. We had an organic hot dog and Coxall had an organic diet coke sweetened with Salvia, which is still just as disgusting as normal diet coke. We then messed about on the beach and Nicky took lots of photographs of dogs. I dropped the lens cap in the sand, which is why it now no longer works properly. A small child attempted to climb into my lap in the apparent belief that I was his mother. We agreed that we wouldn’t tell his real mother. We then crossed over to see the bizarre Palace of Fine Arts, a collection of pseudo-Greek follies next to the children’s museum, the Exploratorium.
At the Palace, we saw a woman towing her daughter on a long branch. The woman was told to stop doing this by two stroppy old biddies who complained that the activity was kicking up too much dust.
We walked back via the Safeway, for tomorrow’s picnic. I had a sit down outside and watched as a pair of cyclists paused for refreshments. One went inside to buy drinks and came out with a bottle of water and a can of what turned out to be a mixture of Bud Light and Clamato (tomato juice with added clam). He took a sip and went green – he explained that he’d thought it was just plain cold beer, but the tomato and clams came as something of a shock. I said I was relieved it had been a mistake as I was wondering what sort of person would drink that.
We then took the cable car from Taylor and Bay. There was still a queue but we were entertained by a busker and his trained pet rabbit, who hopped amongst the crowd. I tucked a dollar bill into the bunny’s harness for the busker before boarding the cable car back to the hotel. I sat next to an Australian toddler called Haydn. I know his name because his father kept telling Haydn off. First, Haydn used me as a ladder to clamber onto the seat. Then, Haydn pointed excitedly out of the window at a derelict Chinese wholesale bakery and announced loudly that this was where he was staying. Finally, Haydn began licking the window. I mildly pointed out to him that he shouldn’t do that, and when Haydn began rubbing the spit all over the window, I cracked up, which caught his father’s attention and no doubt compounded his already considerable embarrassment. “Don’t lick the window, you’ll catch a disease!”
We gambolled around by the pool at the hotel. The boys went in the jacuzzi but unfortunately I could not due to Marigold. However, I put my feets in for some welcome relief – like an idiot I had not worn my lovely comfy Timberland sandals and my feet were very painful as a result.
Duly jacuzzied, we set out at about 9.30pm to Chinatown and to the restaurant our concierge had recommended. We realised that Chinatown residents go to bed quite early – most restaurants close before 10pm here. However, our place was open.
The menu was quite hardcore. We’re not used to American Chinese restaurants, I suppose. Barbecue goose entrails with sea cucumber in porridge did not really appeal that late at night. However, our order arrived quickly, in enormous portions and was delicious. The couple on the next table seemed to have over ordered and after taking a couple of mouthfuls sat back with sour looks on their faces, sipping the Chinese wine they had also over-ordered. I felt a bit sorry for the waiter as he cleared up the tableful of uneaten food, and embarrassed when I realised the couple were British.
Back at the hotel, we had Adult Swim, a bath and bed.
Ooh, a lie-in. We did not have to get up for Alcatraz until 2pm. The day started bright and sunny.
We had breakfast at Lori’s Diner again – eggs over easy for me and short stacks for the chaps. Martin also opted for the biscuit in gravy, which turned out to be four biscuits (savoury scones) smothered in what appeared to be ham and mushroom soup. He was defeated after two biscuits but the waitress was suitably impressed.
We took the cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf and walked to Pier 33. I went ahead to bagsy our place in the queue and check in. We slathered sunblock on ourselves in the line. The ferry to Alcatraz only takes 12 minutes or so – apparently the swim can be done but will take a determined person (in a wetsuit) about three hours. The prisoners were kept on the island through a combination of rumour (that the bay contains man eating sharks), temperature, distance and currents. Only one person managed to make the swim and survive, but he was washed up in such a poor state that he was retrieved and back in the prison hospital by suppertime. As we drew near, it appeared that our sunblock was unnecessary. One of the famous SF fogs had drawn in and the island was cold and overcast with a howling gale – this is the usual climate on the island and was what the prisoners had to contend with most of the time.
We took the audio tour and Martin and I noted that the level designers of Half Life 2 must have had Alcatraz in mind when they created Nova Prospekt. We both had the urge to summon our antlion army to overpower the waiting Combine.
We had our picnic of rubbery American cheese, chicken legs, chips, dips and Oreos outside in the wind, and then toured around the museum part of the prison before taking the ferry back. Martin separated from us in order to go to the shops and purchase some t-shirts and a pair of jeans to replace the pair that had disintegrated in his luggage en route.
Nicky and I went to outdoor shop Patagonia, which is a bit like walking into my sister’s wardrobe – everything is high-tech, drip-dry, high performance and divided into base, middle and top layer. I wanted a collapsible jacket which would offer some wind and rain protection but be less annoying to transport than either my normal coat or an umbrella. The man on the till suggested that I could clip my chosen jacket to my belt when I went climbing, and asked me how Gordon Brown was. I explained about the expenses scandal and how good Chip and Pin was.
Like sensible tourists, we took the cable car from a stop or two beyond the turntable, thus bypassing the huge queue.
I suggested a trip to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, and after a swim we set out. Unfortunately the place was heaving and we were told that we’d face a good two hours’ wait for a table. Nicky threw a strop so we took the Muni Metro (an underground tram) to Embarcadero. This meant that we had now taken all the forms of public transport in the city apart from the bog standard motor bus.
San Francisco is a very sleepy town and, again, most places seem to be lunch-oriented. There are plenty of restaurants and the like, but they are dotted around and you really have to know where you’re going before you set out. Most good places are in the Mission district, quite far from where we were. However, I happened upon a burger place called Automatic Refreshment and we were served with three excellent burgers. Well, I wasn’t. The menu said the burgers were served medium, i.e. slightly pink. Mine was completely pink and whilst I wouldn’t ordinarily mind I felt I’d already gambled that day on the underdone eggs I’d had at breakfast, so requested that my burger spend a bit more time on the grill. The waitress was very nice and brought me a fresh one (which was when I realised the first one hadn’t exactly been straight off the grill…), done all the way through.
Martin again disappeared in order to go and meet a friend who worked for LiveJournal (yes, I didn’t think it was still going either) and Nicky and I took the secret other cable car which goes from the Embarcadero end of Market all the way along California and right past our hotel.
Nicky found out about the cab arrangements for tomorrow. A cab, from the hotel, to the Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland, would take about half an hour and cost $40.
Bed to the unfolding scandal about Governor Sanford and his Argentinian floozy. Apparently he loves her tan lines…
Thinking, reasonably, that our train left at 8, I got up at 6.30. Nicky complained that we would be twiddling our thumbs for ages because the train in fact left at 8.50. I doubted that somehow and was right because when the time came to check out, he and Martin were still footling about looking for random socks.
I asked the doorman to get us a cab for the Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland. A cab was duly procured and Muggins here had to sit in it for ages while Nick and Martin completed their toilet and ambled through the hotel. The driver asked me where I wanted to go and I said Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland.
“Oakland?” he asked. “Oakland,” I said.
When we set off I had an odd feeling that we would end up somewhere wrong and indeed we did – the other Amtrak station on the other side of the Bay Bridge. The cab driver reacted in disbelief when we told him that there was another station and he had to stop twice to ask for directions. He explained that cab drivers in SF don’t like going to Oakland as it usually means they’re going to get murdered. He also said that he had never, in five years, been to this other station.
I was therefore absolutely right to have gotten a cab so early, as it meant that even taking account of the diversion, we arrived at the correct station with plenty of time to pick up the tickets and have a nice cup of tea from the Yia Yia Cafe nearby.
The train arrived, astonishingly, on time, and lumbered off with us on board as we started breakfast. French toast, tea and orange juice was had in the company of a pleasant chap travelling from Seattle to Los Angeles on business.
The Coast Starlighter has palatial first class cabins and a lovely parlour with huge windows for you to admire the countryside… and the trailer parks, dusty agricultural towns and scrapyards.
We soon settled into the rhythm, which is basically to sit around, read and sleep, until it is time to be fed again. Lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich followed by chocolate ice cream and all the Sierra Mist we could drink. Jarring our calm were two obnoxious teenage boys who seemed to think that it was OK to tear up and down the train, shrieking and yelling. Their parents seemed to think so too and were eventually told to restrain them by the train staff.
By the time dinner came around, with the announcement that Michael Jackson had died over the tannoy, we were travelling along the Californian coast with its many, many RV parks. We must have seen hundreds ranged along a coastal road, right next to the beach.
We arrived in LA an hour early and traversed Grand Union Station, which is an incredibly beautiful place, tiled in subtle shades of terracotta and chocolate brown.
We took the special bus to LAX to pick up our car, as for some reason all the car rental places in the station close at 5pm.
LA is basically a series of strip malls joined together by traffic jams. We drove down to the seaside town of Santa Monica and checked in at the elegant Fairmont Miramar Hotel, which is very swish and not used to the likes of us turning up at 11pm.
We watched the rolling news about Michael Jackson and had room service chicken soup, which was excellent.
We had a little sleep in and Nick was distraught to see that the sky was overcast. However, as we had our breakfast (included in the room) the clouds began to clear up.
We decided to go to the Third Street Promenade, cited as one of the nicest places to walk in LA. However, given that nobody walks anywhere in LA, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The promenade is lined with shops and cinemas and street performers, along with topiary dinosaurs. We had fro-yo at Pinkberry before setting out for Mulholland Drive via Hollywood Boulevard. This drive gave us the chance to experience the real LA – that is, sitting in heavy traffic for hours on end. The boulevard was closed to traffic due to the weight of Jackson mourners clustered around his surrogate star (the real one being obscured by scaffolding for a forthcoming film premiere).
Mulholland Drive offers ravishing views of all the city for miles and miles. We stopped frequently, including one stop at a dog park to talk to the doggies. Coxall was happily petting an elegant grey doggie and I observed that this was an example of the much maligned American pit bull. Far from the squat Staffordshire cross breeds beloved of council estate hard men, this is an intelligent, gentle but powerful dog.
We left as one dog walker lost control of her pack, who as a dog were busily bullying a woebegone Alsatian who had decided to dry-hump one pack member too many.
We traversed the famous LA rush hour and realised that we hadn’t had lunch. I went to eat Oreos in our room while Nicky parked the car, and after a quick visit to the beach I booked the Gaucho Grill while the boys played in the sea. For some reason I had decided it was an hour later than it actually was, so we arrived in plenty of time for our 9pm booking. We were seated in any event and I had a lovely steak with spinach, courgettes and mash.
We walked down the promenade again, past the fire eaters and freaks, down to Santa Monica Pier. This is an old-school boardwalk although it does come, being LA, with a giant attached parking lot.
We chose to have a stick of cotton candy bigger than my head as we walked around the rides and games.
Bed was accompanied by more Jackson.
Breakfast, packing and checking out. Nicky was perturbed to be presented with a three-figure bill for our breakfasts but this was soon readjusted when he pointed out that breakfast had in fact been included.
We drove down to Venice Beach via Whole Foods for provisions and were lucky to get a parking close to the beach itself. Pausing for a hot dog, we walked down towards the famous Boardwalk, lined with strange people, stalls and kittens.
We could have stayed there all day but we had to press on to Vegas. It took ages to leave the LA city limits, accompanied by 80s soft rock (which seemed appropriate) on the radio.
The drive across the desert is very beautiful and very long. We paused for a pit stop in the searing heat – someone had seen fit to build an outlet mall there. I noticed there was a great deal of litter, and that the landscape was marred every now and then by giant billboards.
We saw Las Vegas long before we arrived – glinting buildings appeared out of nowhere. It’s an impossible city in the wilderness.
We parked and checked in at Treasure Island. Nicky and I got a suite, which was nice, on the third floor, which was not so nice – I had told the hotel of my condition and I guess they’d interpreted it very literally as we soon realised we had been given a disabled room. No matter, the room was huge and came with two toilets.
Once checked in we went to find the Posi redshirts, who were firmly ensconced in the Mirage poker rooms. One frozen virgin daquiri later, I was ready for bed.

7 comments June 24th, 2009

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