All posts by Victoria Hiley

I sew things. Sometimes I do other things.

Fried

I’ve always thought a lot of traditional English dishes merely consist of heating up raw ingredients – the skill is involved in selecting the components of the meal and ensuring they’re all ready at the same time. This last bit of synchronisation seems to be the most difficult part to perfect, as anyone who’s been subjected to a first-time Christmas dinner will attest. The ingredients – decent vegetables and proper meat (if you’re that way inclined) – are often forgotten in the melee as the cook ensures everything has gone the correct shade of brown.

Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding can be a miserable, flaky, dry dish, with the meat the colour of a rainy November afternoon and tiny, chewy puddings out of the freezer. On the other hand, it can be a delight: rich, tender meat, nut-brown on the outside and dark pink in the middle with fluffy, crispy puds. The procedure is the same for each dish, but one is a rewarding experience and the other is redolent of the Austerity Years: a style of cuisine much loved by the over 50s. Salted butter and instant coffee… I know we are monstrously lucky and gluttonous these days, but doing fake penance by eating plasticky Cheddar cheese is neither here nor there. If you’re worried about agricultural overproduction, the last thing you should do is purchase your local supermarket’s loss-leading own brand slop.

Fry-ups are a fine art in themselves. Unlike a roast dinner, the individual elements must be ready all at the same time or the moment is lost. Whether you’re having a vegetarian, kosher, diet or traditional fry-up, the procedure is the same.

Everyone has a different idea of what should go in the frying pan, although the basics are the same. There should be a tomato-based element, for moisture. Some slice and fry fresh tomatoes, while others heat up tinned tomatoes, and still others have baked beans. Heinz are now doing a baked bean with vegetarian sausages – I can report that the sausages taste the same as the ostensibly meaty ones.

There’s usually a starch section, although no doubt if you’re on the Atkins you would replace this with some horrendous protein-and-aspartame Soylent Beige thing. The tradition is to have a fried slice, but since this is essentially a bready sponge full of oil, I tend to avoid it. Hash browns are nice, but to be honest if you have beans, you can leave this part out.

Onto the proper proteins. I like Quorn sausages, since they’re not oily and one can avoid that nasty nagging worry that they’re not done properly that you can get with ordinary sausages. I like two eggs and I turn them over whilst frying. I know a lot of people don’t do this, but I find this way the white doesn’t go rubbery and burnt on the bottom whilst leaving the yolk completely raw.

Eggs are the home strait. The beans should be bubbling nicely. Heinz always warn you not to let them boil, but I quite like doing that. They bubble and pop sporadically like those hot mud springs that always seemed to feature on Blue Peter when I was little – I haven’t seen the mud springs yet but the beans are something of a consolation.

I like to apply a little artistry to the arrangement on the plates, ensuring all elements remain separate. It is for the diner to mingle the parts together, not the cook. Tomato ketchup or, if you’re common or from Manchester, brown sauce can be provided. No salt, though: I find there’s plenty of salt in there already.

One last word: I know a fry up is a traditional hangover dish, but I won’t stand for that. I am very rarely hungover and when I am the last thing I want to do is cook. Hungover fry ups are generally burnt, greasy and unpleasant – a bit like hangovers themselves.

Bunnies

I feel I should explain some more about the destructive lagomorphs I share my house with: Debbie and Ian. I also have three rats (no, I’m not a goth and they’re not weird pets. Snakes are weird pets). Maureen and Pamela are mink Berkshires, and Agnes is an overweight Agouti Rex.

Rats are intelligent, engaging and affectionate. They actively enjoy and seek out human company, yet I get called a weirdo and am frequently told how rats would be OK if it weren’t for their tails. Yes, and tigers would be OK if it weren’t for their huge fangs and claws. The tail is part of the rat, I’m afraid – it’s semi-prehensile and sometimes a rat will twirl it around my finger or wrist to steady herself. I’ve also seen rats pick up their tail in both hands and clean it, which is nearly as cute as when they stick one of their ratty fingers in an ear, wiggle it around and then have a look at what comes out before eating it. Rats are victims of negative PR from endless horror movies and the Black Death.

Two things about the plague – humans caught it off fleas because of their own mucky habits, and the *black* rats that transmitted the fleas died of the plague first. Then the fleas jumped onto people. One last thing – the next movie you see with a big, squeaky swarm of rats? Nonsense. Rats usually only squeak when frightened or hurt.

Rabbits, on the other hand, are victims of their own fluffy, twitchy nosed cuteness, and plenty of positive PR from Beatrix Potter, through Disney, to nursery decorations, but a visit to any animal sanctuary will reveal dozens of bunnies, abandoned there by disappointed owners.

A rabbit is a popular choice of pet for children: but many adults have childhood memories of a reticent, sometimes cantankerous creature kept in a tiny hutch at the bottom of the garden. A child’s belief that
their bunny will enjoy being cuddled and fed carrots and lettuce is usually dispelled after a couple of days spent with a prey animal that will instinctively resist being picked up (because in the wild, this
generally means you’ve become lunch for an eagle), will kick out with back legs powerful enough to disembowel a dog and which can die of diarrhoea from eating too much lettuce.

Bunnies aren’t particularly demonstrative of affection, unless kept alone. It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it’s better to have a lonely bunny that likes being petted, or a couple of rabbits that prefer their own company to yours.

Debbie and Ian are dwarf French Lops. They are dwarves, despite being about the size of cats – the original French Lop is a meat breed the size of a carthorse. Debbie is a classic fawn rabbit colour, and Ian is black. They were rescued from some idiot who kept them in a teeny tiny hutch on a balcony somewhere near Kensall Green. Both look quite cute, but the best way to look at them is as animated furry cabbages. They are happiest if they have something to destroy and like to steal food, either from the table if they can reach it, or from the bin. If you doubt the destructive nature of bunnies, visit Australia, Hawaii or New Zealand, where their nibbling has endangered many rare species of bird and small mammal.

I think the most you can hope for from a rabbit is a sort of baffled tolerance. They can be housetrained, and persuaded to not despise being groomed, although it takes a while. Whilst I feel affection towards the rats, I mainly feel obligation for the rabbits. They’re not easy to maintain (they like hay, which is dusty and messy, and their larger housing means they’re hard to clean out), they’re not cheap to look after and the experience isn’t tremendously rewarding.

I wouldn’t recommend them as a pet for children: buy them a couple of rats instead. Jack Black, ratcatcher to Queen Victoria, felt a certain admiration for these intelligent creatures and began breeding the more unusually coloured ones to sell as pets in the 1860s:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Black_%28rat_catcher%29

So it’s not weird, OK. Beatrix Potter kept rats too, and it’s a shame Samuel Whiskers didn’t do for Rattus Norvegicus what Peter Rabbit did for Oryctolagus Cuniculus. The rest of Europe has the right idea: they keep rats as pets and have rabbits for dinner. Visit your local game dealer (they would probably appreciate the business) and get some tomorrow.

Pirates. Yarrr.

Sorry, had to post this:

http://www.somethingawful.com/articles.php?a=2320&p=1

“it’s just possibly conceivable that terrorists might include DVD piracy as one of the many, many ways in which they make money.”

If you buy a pirate DVD, you’re an idiot, since you can download them for free. As for having heads in the way, bollocks. I haven’t been to a cinema that tiny with a seat layout that bad for decades.

If film companies insist on hyping a film for six months, why should they be at all surprised when people want to see the movie before it’s released?

Clothing

Due to the robbery, I have been walletless for a week. Carrying around loose change and cards in my pocket or bag became too annoying on Friday night, when I went to see Dodgeball (which is OK, not as bad as everyone says: you have to be in the right frame of mind and like Ben Stiller). The weight of the metal in my pockets was dragging down my trousers, causing me to pull them up every so often like an over-aroused Peeping Tom.

Nick and I went on an abortive excursion down our local parade of shops yesterday, but my quest for a wallet failed. Our local shops cater exclusively for the 40-something Lady Who Lunches. Although they are all independent (good), they stock skin-tight denim, revealing asymmetric tops and shoes that would only suit a prostitute with enormous clown feet, all at astronomical prices.

The LWL in North London is a high-maintenance woman: she has dyed black hair, wrap around sunglasses, and has skin the exact colour of Irn-Bru and the texture of well-worn leather. Ms LWL drives a ridiculous 4-wheel-drive monstrosity which takes up two parking spaces in M&S. Her grooming and general upkeep is so labour intensive that it supports an entire economy in North London: on one street alone, we have four beauty salons, three premium hairdressers, a couple of pharmacists specialising in quack remedies for the bored and neurotic, and a gym.

I knew the quest would be fruitless, but it was a nice day. We went up one side and down the other, and found only bizarre handbags with studs on them costing 200 each for our pains. I wanted a nice, soft, leather Radley wallet like the one I lost. A lovely squashy leather wallet, with plenty of handy slots for my cards and the like, and a little Scottie dog appliqued on the front. I knew I wouldn’t find it here.

Nick hauled me into one shop in the end, and I was faced with a woman in a poncho and her forties. She had enormous hair.

“Do you do Radley?” I said, knowing the answer.
“No,” she replied.

We went home.

This afternoon, I prepared for an expedition to Oxford Street. One of the things that irritates me about London is that I can’t simply walk down to the shops like I used to when I lived in Reading, Hitchin or Hull. I know chain stores are Bad, but I think I’ve explained my situation above. If I want to go to New Look, say, I have to either run the 4WD gauntlet of Brent Cross and battle my way through pushchairs, or go to Oxford Street and run the black cab gauntlet and battle my way through tourists.

I shuttled from John Lewis (a force for Good), and House of Fraser (a force for Gucci), doing price comparisons. House of Fraser not only did “my” wallet in a nice spearmint blue, but also did a Radley shoulder bag in raspberry nylon and leather which was just the right size and had enough pockets to bring me out in a fetishistic flush.

Because of my tiny feet, I am a bag and not a shoe person. There’s no point getting all excited about shoes when you know that they will only come in canoe sizes. If the shop has any 36s at all, they’re either square-toed matronly things, or teetering high-heeled evening sandals. Nun or tart.. some choice. I know I shouldn’t whinge, given my bra rant below, but I really don’t think size 3 is *that* obscure and I resent having to either pay 150 at LK Bennett for suede ballet pumps or 30 at Barratts for children’s school shoes.

Anyway, after my leathergoods success, I went to H&M to return some trousers I had bought for Nick as a present. They were nice, grey linen ones and Nick wore them twice, washed them twice, and then observed a 50p piece sized hole developing nicely in the crotch. Either something was making a bid for freedom or they were made of crappy quality linen.

I had a printout of my bank statement as proof of purchase. I wondered, briefly, about explaining why I had been buying clothes for my boyfriend, and decided it didn’t matter. I showed the cashier the hole, my bank statement, and said that while of course I don’t expect cheap H&M clothes to last forever, I certainly expect them to last more than a month.

She was very nice, and gave me gift vouchers because I didn’t have a receipt. Fair enough, I thought, I don’t mind having 25 credit in H&M.

I had a quick potter around the store, the 25 burning a hole in my pocket. I often like to go to the lingerie department and see what they’re ripping off at the moment: Love Kylie (and the real thing’s not very nice) and Bonds, it looks like. I then went over to the real clothes section, and was reminded of the latest “story” in the fashion magazines – they called it “Secretary”. It was all pussycat bow blouses, tweedy suits and mid-calf pencil skirts in dark turquoise, brown and jade. Now, this stuff would be fine if I either a) were five years younger, b) worked in a City office, or c) weren’t a secretary in Real Life.

Yes, no matter what fancy title I might have bestowed upon me, that is what I am. A fine career, as long as you don’t want to do anything else. I’m what my boss calls “staff”, that is, there’s one of me, I have no reports and am pseudo-senior, but have no upward trajectory. It’s what you’re cursed to become if you didn’t do a marketing degree, can type and know how laser printers and photocopiers work. Because we’re so useful in a world where most communication is by text but most people can’t touch-type, we end up trapped. Our role model is Miss Moneypenny, forever stuck behind a typewriter in a frilly blouse. Although in the newer Bond movies, Moneypenny is portrayed as being a get-up-and-go executive PA type, presenting Bond with all those little essential he needs that Q has overlooked, there’ll always be at least one shot of Moneypenny behind her computer or her little shorthand notebook. I bet she’s wishing she could be a spy – despite MI5 paying their frontline spy staff labout 10,000 a year less than an executive PA can expect in the City.

I heard secretaries described as an office wife once. Nonsense. A secretary/PA/Executive Assistant/Office Manager is an office *mother*. She goes and buys you lunch, she buys your wife a Mothers’ Day gift, she buys you tights when you’ve laddered yours, she makes sure you’re in the hotel you like when you go away on business and she always has a Post-It to hand (Super Sticky). Her encyclopaedic knowledge of the Viking Direct stationery catalogue borders on the disturbingly obsessive, and she *knows* what a DL envelope is. Ah, Tyvek, you are a cruel mistress.

As for The Temp… With the constant random sackings at my office, I keep The Temp neatly folded up in my bottom drawer, just in case I need her.

So anyway, I’m not going to turn up to work dressed like Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Liqueurs

From when I was very small, I’ve been aware of my dad’s drinks cabinet: and it was my dad’s, not my mother’s. I must stress that I’ve only rarely *drunk* anything in this cupboard. I was too young before I left home, and when I was old enough I didn’t find the contents terribly appealing.

It was (and still is) a dark teak freestanding unit that comes up to my shoulders so it’s about one and a half metres high. The design is horrible, or “reproduction” as my mother likes to call it. On the very top, bounded by a little dowelling rail, is a collection of dusty gewgaws and detritus. There’s the oil lamp in the shape of a cottage that was a gift from my German exchange student; the candlesticks that were a present from some Danish choir members that stayed in the house and kept telling my dad about how they would swim in the lakes back home wearing nothing but a hat and a smile. Next to those (before I nicked them for souvenirs) were two mugs with my school badge on, given to all finishers in the Fun Run. No, I didn’t do the Fun Run – Running is not Fun. My dad did.

Also here, gathering dust and fluff, is a collection of warty ornamental gourds. I remember coming to visit one weekend about four years ago, and finding these things fscking *everywhere*. I’d sit down on the sofa, there’s a gourd. I’d be in the bathroom, selecting towels to “borrow” for my house: there’s another gourd. I’d be “borrowing” some books (Cherry Ames: Cruise Nurse) – whoops, a gourd. Upon inquiry, it turned out that my dad had decided to grow some in the greenhouse as a wildly successful experiment. Well, successful if what you want is approximately 50 hideously deformed courgettes.

Like a dresser, the cabinet has a small sub-cabinet accessed by two A4 sized glass doors, where my parents keep their diminishing collection of wine glasses (diminshed by their four kleptomaniac and clumsy children). Below these doors is a shelf, and then two large doors beneath. Opening these reveals my dad’s esoteric collection of rare alcohols.

So, what do we have in the musty-smelling recesses of this “reproduction” cabinet? Ah, the plastic gallon bottle of Bulgarian tequila he bought for one American dollar in Sofia. My friends and I found it one dimly remembered evening, but it was so unpleasant we stopped after about three slammers. Just as well, because my dad had marked the bottle and found out that I’d had some. He was more cross than you’d expect him to be: after all, I’d had only about one-twentieth of the contents and hadn’t thought it very nice at at all.

Hmm… the bottle of Old Navy Rum that comes out once a year for rum sauce. I swear this is the same bottle I remember from when I was just old enough to see over the kitchen worktop at my mum’s making the sauce. This bottle of Creme De Menthe was old when I first discovered it. I didn’t like the sticky green liquid inside and much preferred the ancient jar of olives next to it.

My parents like to keep food until it’s really, really out of date. Only a few weeks ago, I found a tub of dried milk that had a best before date of 1999. This, in case you’re from the future, is 2004. I once cleared out the kitchen cupboards and chucked out a bottle of sesame oil. The teaspoonful of oil in the bottle was rancid, and it had outstayed its welcome by roughly two years. When my mother found out that I’d ditched it, she reacted as if I’d thrown out something valuable. In fact, she reminds me of my heinous crime *every* time I visit. Last Christmas, we were presented with a prawn cocktail starter made from frozen prawns with a sell by date of the *previous* December. I don’t think Nick’s ever been happier to be Jewish, as it meant he could refuse them without appearing rude.

Anyway, that’s why there’s a 30 year old bottle of creme de menthe in there. I ate the olives when I was about 8 with no apparent ill-effects.

Ooh, Gorbachev vodka, which was going cheap when my dad last visited Russia about 6 years ago. I think the Yeltsin stuff was too high-class for him. For paintstripper, it’s not bad. I wonder what the Putin vodka is like…

I remember these bulbous bottles. He bought them during a trip to France. One is mandarin flavoured, and has a mandarin in the bottom. The other is pear and, well, you can guess. Of course the neck of the bottle is too narrow to fit a whole fruit in it. My siblings were pondering this enigma for some time, but I solved it straight away! I had read this fascinating fact somewhere that the liqueur distillers tie bottles onto the fruit when it’s still tiny and unripe. It ripens and grows in the wide bottom and then they fill the bottle with the liqueur. Lo, the family were deeply impressed with my knowledge.

Only that’s not how they did it. Yes, it’s the traditional way, but this is the space age. On examination some years later, I found that the base of the bottle had been glued on.

Onwards and deeper into the musty depths: small bottles of Bols with lurid crystallised deposits around the lids. Triple Sec, Coco and Parfait Amour (made with violets, this is probably the only nice thing in here). They are all at least 15 years old.

Never having had experience of other liqueur cabinets, and certainly not having one of my own, I wonder if the contents here are typical, or a reflection of my dad. For the record, he probably drinks a centilitre of one of these bottles once a month.

Moulting

My hair’s shedding at an alarming rate. There’s hair bloody everywhere. Fortunately I can guess the reason why and it’s another one of those Things They Don’t Tell You about being a Lady. When one starts taking the Pill, as well as proving to the world that one is loose, one’s body is tricked into thinking it’s pregnant. After giving birth, women often find their hair starts falling out. A similar thing happens if you stop taking the Pill – for up to six months (!)

I have decided to start taking it again. It’s bad enough clearing up the shed bunny hair.

Sparks

I was following a vague memory of a Nigella Lawson recipe in the kitchen and had just put it in the fridge to set (Slut-Red Raspberries in Chardonnay Jelly). I pottered into the living room and was about to settle down when I heard a funny noise coming from the dining room, where the rabbits live.

It sounded a bit like marbles falling onto a hard surface. Strange sounds usually mean that they’re out and up to no good, so I went to have a look. Usually they know if they’re doing Bad Things and stop when shouted at. Nobody and nothing can do bemused innocence like a rabbit.

I opened the door, and saw the cause of the noise. There’s an air purifier in the room because the rabbits are quite dusty; they had managed to pull out the cable from what Nick and I thought was a secure place. They had been chewing on it. Chewing on a cable attached to a live appliance. Big blue sparks were coming out of the cable and making the popping noise I had heard, yet both bunnies seemed unconcerned and were hopping around it. I bent down and threw a box to get them out of the way (well, I wasn’t going to touch them at that point) and yelled for Nick to switch the power off.

I was suddenly kneeling in darkness and thinking it rather silly that I have a torch in a sensible place, but that I wasn’t sure where that place was. We both used our phones as torches and tried to find some matches. Eventually some were tracked down and we began trying to unplug the offending cable by candlelight.

This was easier said than done. Our landlady let us an unfurnished house containing lots of horrible white melamine furniture. When we moved in, we had to pile a lot of it up and ‘lost’ some of it in the shed and garage. The socket is behind two cheapo chests of drawers, one on top of the other, and we had to dismantle the whole edifice to reach the socket and unplug the air purifier. All this was by the light of two ornamental candles: one beeswax, the other sandalwood scented.

House bunnies moult constantly so there was a lot of fluff and dust behind those drawers. Once it was safe, we put the power back on in between sneezes. I was about to start to vacuum, but Nick decided to check the vacuum cleaner’s cable too. Just as well – the flex had teeth marks in it and the live wire had been neatly exposed. We did some repairs, cleaned up, and restored the room to normal.

The rabbits were entirely unconcerned throughout. I suppose they didn’t feel the sparks through their thick fluffy coats, but I am amazed neither were electrocuted. Debbie was almost sitting on the cable when I discovered it and was quite unwilling to move: hence the box throwing. There were no burn, melt or scorch marks on the mat or carpet, but I suppose it was just a matter of time. Check the batteries in your smoke alarm today, folks. Mice and rats like chewing cables too…

Later, I went upstairs and switched on my laptop – nothing. I waggled the cable – brief flash of life, then nothing. I swapped the power supply – fine. I had a look at the old cable and little, sharp bunny teeth had tidily severed one of the wires inside.

Nigella Lawson has a recipe called Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s Salad. I must have a look at that again.

28 August: the jelly wasn’t very nice. I used Riesling instead of Chardonnay and I underestimated the amount of sugar required.

Whiffs

I was going to do a little rant about bad breath and how antisocial it is to have breath that literally smells of poo in a land where you can easily buy floss. I was also going to mention how it’s strange that the more senior you are in a workplace, the more likely you are to have pongy breath. Then I would have said that if you have a medical problem, that’s different and you can’t help it – but I experience people with halitosis so frequently that it’s unlikely always to be the result of illness. I would have gone on to say that people with constant bad breath should probably be told of the problem, but that it’s should be down to their close friends and family to tell them than an employee. I would have concluded by saying that most dog breath is easily preventable with good dental hygiene, which is a good thing in any case.

However, I’m not going to say that, cause something else happened. See above.

Funeral

My aunt Carolyn died on 9th August of metastatic breast cancer, so today I went to her funeral in Tunbridge Wells. This was my first funeral, so I suppose I’m quite lucky that I’ve got to 29 without having to go to one before.

The English are funny about food. We went to my uncle’s house first of all, and my cousins put some bread, cheese and salad out as it was lunchtime. My mother told them that we’d all eaten already and that we didn’t want to look like gannets. This was a fib – we’d all driven a long way and were hungry. In a Mediterranean or Arab household, a guest is offered food and hospitality, and it’s very rude to refuse, even if the guest genuinely isn’t hungry. Since these are the sort of people I usually mix with, I accept food if it’s offered. In England, the opposite is the case: it’s rude to *accept* the offer of food because one doesn’t want to appear greedy and to put the host to any trouble. This is fine, but my cousins seemed genuinely to want to bustle about, make tea and tidy. Eventually, we caved in and had some nibbles.

Carolyn’s dog, a black Labrador called Kilo, was wandering agitatedly round the house with a different toy in his mouth each time he went past me. I’m sure he was wondering what all these people were doing in his home, and still trying to fathom what had happened to his mistress.

At about one o’clock, we headed off to the crematorium in a convoy. Our GPS kept disagreeing with my cousin Emma’s route, but we decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. We knew we’d come to the right place when we rounded a corner to see a long, low, engineering brick-built place with a huge chimney behind it. Grim and municipal from the outside, the waiting room resembled a doctor’s without the elderly magazines (and in the case of my doctor’s surgery, frightening paintings done by the head GP). There was a fag burn in one of the seat cushions, a map of Tunbridge Wells surrounded by advertising, bland art and some plastic flowers on coffee tables.

I went to the loo, followed by my mother. We discussed briefly Nick’s outfit, which he’d been fretting about because he thought it wasn’t smart enough, and I said he felt a bit awkward and didn’t know what to expect. It was just as well we didn’t say anything contentious, because when we emerged, Nick told me that my conversation had been amplified through the wall and heard clearly in the waiting room. I wonder how many faux pas had been committed in that very toilet over the years.

The room filled up with a lot of people I didn’t know. Carolyn had specified that nobody should be in black, so I think most people were a bit confused about what to wear.

We then filed into the chapel, and my first thought was “Plywood!”. The stuff was everywhere. There was a big plywood cross on the wall in front, with big blue velvet curtains that presumably could be drawn to hide it if appropriate.

The service was non-religious, and quite sweet. Two family friends presented it, reading something Carolyn had written just before she died, some poems and a brief summary of her life. Robin’s choir sung one of her favourite songs, and we filed out to Otis Redding. Contravening Carolyn’s request that there should be no tears were three people. My aunt Nanette, theatrically dabbing her eyes, Carolyn’s friend who was bravely battling them, and my mum, who had given up any pretence and was in floods. She has colon cancer and though she won’t admit it, I’m sure she was picturing her own funeral. I wasn’t going to stop her crying, but I did put my arm round her which none of her offspring ever, ever do. (NB: My siblings and I are not cold fish, but we’re not huggy people. If you’re the sort of person who likes hugging, try hugging one of us – we’ll shy away like a diffident pony unless we really, really like you. I’m not sure why we’re all like that, but we’re all reasonably well-adjusted, get colds only rarely and none of us have herpes.)

From the crematorium (which we were quite glad to leave), we went to a hotel for the funeral tea of sandwiches and cake. The hotel suggested to Robin that morning that he put out the cards he’d received and some photos of Carolyn. It was a brilliant idea – he laid out some holiday photos and their wedding album, featuring some photos of my dad looking like a Cockney mafioso.

My aunt Nanette and my grandma H were just busting to put their feet in it, as they like to do. Grandma H asked my youngest brother if he had a job (he’s 24, of course he does), and then rounded it off by asking my mother if a) she was still having treatment, b) if there was any hope and c) that she (Grandma) had always been blessed by being in the best of health.

Nanette (for a big fan of NLP, she’s amazingly rubbish at working out what other people are feeling) told us all in intense detail about her campaign to stop her local council from imposing the politically correct hegemony of wheelie bins and recycling boxes. It’s a shame that my siblings and I found her crusade rather amusing. We must be bad people, but at least we were doing what Carolyn wanted, and laughing at her funeral. Carolyn would probably have found Nanette’s rant hilarious.

I hope Nanette doesn’t find this.

For a funeral, it wasn’t too bad an experience. Carolyn really had had enough of being ill. She wasn’t able to breathe on her own towards the end and was getting more and more distressed about what she saw as the mutilation caused by the extensive surgery. Her daughters have both become oncologists, and in a way, she lives on in the numerous tissue and blood samples she donated to medical research in the hope that some way can be found of treating the rare and invasive cancer she had suffered from.

If you’re worried about any lump, bump or innocuous symptom, visit the doctor. It’s probably nothing but if it is something horrible, the earlier it’s treated the better.

Robbery

I have a problem with poker. I think it’s quite boring and I find playing with real money distressing on a level I can’t explain. I know how to play it, but unfortunately I find it very difficult to give a toss whether someone is bluffing or not. I just want to know and if they’re not going to tell me, I’m not interested.

So I was playing poker in a friend’s kitchen in Brixton. I wasn’t bothered about actually playing properly since I am still learning, and I suppose I didn’t do that badly since I lost less money than anyone else. After a million years, the game finished. I went into the living room, which seemed a lot *emptier* than before. The two big ground floor bay windows were open, as were the curtains.

My friends’ playstation, games, two laptops and *my bag* had been nicked. *My bag* had been nicked, containing my nice Radley wallet, cards, a *blank cheque*, phone, my house keys and my driving licence with *my address* on it. Froth. I cancelled everything immediately, including the cheque. The phone isn’t really worth much – it’s four years old and I don’t think anyone will desperately want it because it works well and doesn’t make irritiating tinkly noises or take grainy photographs. The thing I find most irritating is that nothing in the bag was worth much apart from the wallet and the bag itself. It’s unlikely the crims will know this, and the bag will probably get dumped somewhere.

I must be a bit strange, because despite the inconvenience of having to claim on the insurance and have the locks changed in the house, I don’t want to shoot the burglars in the back and let them bleed to death as they call for their mothers. There must be something wrong with me.

After this experience, we went home. We got on the Thameslink, and overheard the driver talking to a colleague. He said “I’ll get home five minutes after my shift ends.”

The next thing we heard was an announcement that this train wouldn’t now stop at our station and two others. Fantastic! We got off at Hendon, and found the next train wasn’t for another hour and a half. It was ten past midnight. There was no taxi rank and no night buses. We had to walk home, which took an hour.

I was more aerated about this than the theft. I had no phone, no money and no keys. If I had been alone, I would have had to have walked home, alone, on a clement evening through deserted parkland in an area where police have strongly suggested that women should not walk alone due to the regular attacks. I was under the impression that a train driver operates a public service, and I’m staggered at the selfishness of someone that can make at least 25-30 people walk home in the middle of the night just so he can get home bang on time. Had I been alone, I would have counted on the train to get me home safely – clearly this would have been a mistake.

Sods.

Mr Burglar, if you’re reading this, I’d really like my bag and purse back, and the phone if you can’t sell it on. I’d like to have my Goldsmith’s application back too. Oh, and I’m quite fond of the umbrella. I’m sorry I didn’t have any big wodges of dosh in my purse, but I’m sure you can understand why I don’t carry a lot of cash with me. Go on, guess.

If you were thinking of using the address on my licence and hanging around to try and use the house key to get in and nick more suff, you’re welcome to try but (a) you’d stand out like a sore thumb in this suburban cul-de-sac with extremely nosey neighbours, and (b) I had the locks changed this morning.

PS: that credit card in the side pocket that you think I’ve forgotten about? I haven’t. Please try using it in a shop today and see what happens. I hope you bought yourself something nice with the proceeds from the playstation and laptops, and didn’t just squander it on crack.

Big Bras

“Why are your larger size bras so frumpy?”
“I am a larger size lady who wants pretty, sexy bras. Why can’t I find any?”
“I am 38HH and have a very active job, but I still want to feel feminine and sexy.”
“I am a 28DD and would like more choice in the bras I wear.”
“Your selection in my size is terrible!”

Emails and customer comments like this are received every day by lingerie retailers. Although the average UK woman’s bra size is still relatively bijou at 34B/C, bust sizes are increasing, along with the demand for pretty bras just like everybody else.

The demand for the bras is increasing more than the number of larger ladies. This is due in no small part to the recent social acceptance of underwear advertising in the mainstream.

Many larger ladies, especially younger ones, are no longer happy with frumpy, mumsy over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders and want the Moulin Rouge boudoir look. However, is this really feasible?

Structurally, a bra is a very complex item and must withstand many different sorts of stresses and strains, exerted on it by a body part that is partly fluid, can weigh up to a stone or more, and changes its size and shape over time. Clearly, two little delicate triangles of lace, ribbon and silk are not going to offer much support to breasts the size of an adult’s head.

It’s important to know before I go any further that bra sizing (a source of endless confusion for both women and men) reflects the ratio between the underbust size and the bust size. It’s often thought that a bra with a 40 back size means the woman wearing it has a 40 inch chest – this isn’t the case. She either has a 35 or 36 inch chest. 4 or 5 is added to the chest measurement to get an even number (your ‘back size’), and then the bust is measured. The difference between the bust and your adjusted chest measurements gives you the bra size.

Brands like Freya have blazed a trail in the UK by offering pretty bras up to a quite impressive GG cup (that represents a difference of over 10 inches between a woman’s underbust and bust size) and Panache offer the cult Superbra, offering uplift, control and separation up to a J (up to another five inches around).

However, it’s important to remember that, in the UK, a relatively curvy 34D woman has a choice of over 300 different sorts of bra, her 34G sister (only a few inches larger) has a choice of around 30 styles including nursing bras. The US woman does rather better, and indeed many of the top brands for larger sizes (Bali, Goddess, Vanity Fair and Glamorise), are American. Even so, they do seem to specialise in sensible, supportive, no-nonsense undergarments which are hardly the lace wisps of fantasy.

Go beyond a 38 back, and things look increasingly grim. There is a wider range of bigger cup sizes in the normal back sizes these days, partly due to the increase in breast implant surgery. The glamour model Jordan is about a 32FF (no matter what she may claim – I know because, well, I can’t say). However, older and larger women tend to have bigger back sizes as well.

A 48FF woman has a choice of bras closer to single figures. The American brand Goddess has cornered the market here with plain, sensible bras that offer good support. The iconic Triumph Doreen -the biggest selling bra in the world- also dominates. Doreen, as its name suggests, is sensible, well upholstered and an example of classic, no-nonsense, German engineering. At this size bracket, underwires become scarce. Wires (the last relic from the era of popular corsetry) are designed to fit just below the breasts, resting on the ribcage, and will not dig in if the bra is properly fitted. I would conclude that wires are not often found on larger back sizes because basically there is a much thicker layer of fat here and a wire might prove very uncomfortable, sinking in rather than lying flat against the bone. The cups completely encase and separate the breast – smaller back sizes can choose a sexier demi cut, and push their lils together for cleavage. The straps are broad, and often padded: bear in mind how much these big puppies can weigh.

And here, I think, is the reason why you simply don’t find many pretty, dainty bras in very large sizes. With the best will in the world, larger women have more to support and there is a limit to the tensile strength of lace. This is a question of *engineering*, not discrimination.

So, back to the customers. I don’t want to bitch as I imagine it’s utterly miserable to walk past the rows of teeny, pretty lingerie in the shop, or scroll down and even further down a box on a website to find your bra size, but these are the answers I wish I could give.

“Why are your larger size bras so frumpy?”
Because larger sized ladies tend to be older and frumpier, and I’m afraid frumpy bras sell really well, especially to Americans, who like frumpy bras. The market for them over there is *huge* (haha). The top selling larger sized bra in the US is a real passion killer that makes the Doreen look positively alluring. When you consider that Americans can’t tolerate a covered nipple on TV, and complain bitterly when a lingerie site shows photos of women in, well, lingerie, you can see why they like to be completely covered, even in their undies. American bras often tout their ‘opacity’: European bras flaunt the fact that they are ‘sheer’. America has many websites devoted to underwear that has more in common with factory overalls than seduction – all this in a country with the most eye-watering hardcore pr0n in the world. Funny place. Getting back to your question, Americans like frumpy bras and they are the biggest (scuse) market.

“I am a larger size lady who wants pretty, sexy bras. Why can’t I find any?”
Because there aren’t as many of you as you think; the market for these bras is tiny. There are some, but I’m afraid if they’re not to your taste, it takes at least a year for manufacturers to design, test, make and market a new model. Even the pretty ones are quite bland, because a manufacturer will want to play it safe. Sorry.

“I am 38HH and have a very active job, but I still want to feel feminine and sexy.”
Wear a sports bra at work. You may not feel feminine or sexy but you’ll be a lot more comfortable during and after work, when you can change your bra. You have absolutely *enormous* knockers and they need specialised equipment to rein them in.

“I am a 28D and would like more choice in the bras I wear.”
You have one of the rarest bra sizes in the world. You should feel very special. Sorry. Panache might be able to custom-make one of their standard bras in your size. Otherwise, see below.

“Your selection in my size is terrible!”
I can only apologise. If you were a 28AAA you’d have even fewer, although if I were that size I wouldn’t bother with a bra anyway (who are you trying to kid?). Look, modern manufacturing, distribution and buying methods mean companies and retailers invest a lot in their ranges. They don’t buy a lot of bras in less common sizes (mainly large) because if they buy or make too many, they may lose money and have a pile of bras that are difficult to shift. The same holds true for clothes (many shops only have 1 or 2 size 8s in stock) and shoes (only a small range of 3s and 4s).

There is a solution for all these ladies, but it’s expensive. The only sure way to get a beautiful, comfortable bra in a large size is to have it custom made. Yes, this will set you back around �200, which would get you 5 or 6 unsatisfactory off-the-peg bras, but do you want beautiful, sexy, supportive lingerie or not?

Kitten

After a typically tedious day at work (usual illiterate emails, crap left in the sink for me to put in dishwasher), I went along to Medivet with Maureen. Maureen is a mink Berkshire rat of about eight months, who had developed a tumour in what I suppose would be her groin. The vet removed the lump at vast expense, and I had to go back today for a post-op checkup.

Maureen has been in solitary confinement since the operation last Friday, in a cage slightly bigger than a shoebox. Her two half sisters, Pamela and Agnes, are too rumbunctious for Maureen at the moment, since she has a two-inch scar on her belly and they would undoubtely damage her stitches. So Maureen, easily the most intelligent and outgoing rat of the three, has been in her little cell.

The vet kept me waiting for some time, and while I hung around reading last week’s free local paper (when you pay 200 for something the size of a marble to be removed from something the size of a mobile phone, I expect better reading material), I heard shrieks of delight from the reception. The nurses were playing with something small, wriggly and black, about the same size as Maureen. I couldn’t work out what it was from where I was sitting, and then the vet called me in.

After giving Maureen the once-over and sentencing her to another week in chokey to heal, he invited me to see the black creature that was causing such excitement. It was a three-day-old black and white kitten, being hand-reared by one of the nurses. The kitten was so tiny it could sit on my hand and had yet to open its eyes. Maureen looked up, intrigued. Here was a cat, and it was smaller than her.

The kitten tried earnestly to suckle the palm of my hand and still had its umbilical cord attached. The nurse told me that this kitten had been found mewing, tied up in a bin liner and dumped with some rubbish for the bin men to take away (they come on Monday mornings, so this kitten was lucky to be found when it was).

Cats are notoriously promiscuous, and animal charities constantly harp on about the need to neuter or spey pet cats. It’s quite possible that this kitten’s mother was very young, and had had just the one. The owner either didn’t know or didn’t care that their cat wasn’t speyed, and when she produced a kitten, didn’t even have the guts to despatch the unwanted offspring humanely, but simply threw it away.

Maybe they had their reasons, no matter how warped. Maybe the cat’s owner was too old, too young or simply panicked when they realised they had two cats, instead of one. Regardless of that, I think it takes a certain psychopathic tendency to treat any living thing in that way.

But before I despair of human nature (and I’ve had a lot of strangely natured humans whining at me this week, seemingly unable to exercise any sort of critical facility on a piece of unsubstantiated tripe from a former circus performer in Iraq, to the extent that an attack on the writing is taken as tacit admission that Iraq is a lovely place to live and everyone’s fine), I thought about the nurse.

She looks about 17 or 18, and her badge says she’s a trainee. She was handed this kitten by the person who found it, and took it upon herself to hand rear the animal. Hand rearing any baby animal, of course, involves regular feeding – in this case, every two hours, day and night.

So, in a half-mile radius of my house, there is a person who will throw a live kitten in a dustbin and another who will stay up all night hand-feeding it with an eye dropper.

Funny old world. Of course, one kitten is neither here nor there, but I hope it survives. In a perfect, comic book world, that kitten would grow up to be an enormous, stinking tomcat, track down his mother and exact his revenge on the humans that would throw him in the wheelie bin by piddling all over the house, scratching furniture, curtains and wallpaper and finally depositing a big cat turd behind the TV. He’d watch, covertly, the people’s confusion and eventual horror as they turned the house upside down to locate the source of the fetid pong.

Probably not.. apart from anything else, the nurse thinks the kitten’s female.

Update: Friday 20th August – Maureen’s healing fine and the kitten is doing well.