Sunday, 21 May 2017

We're going where the sun shines rarely

I always rather enjoyed 'The Great British Bake Off', even in preference to Masterchef which has an unfortunate tendency to disappear up its own arse from time to time. 'Bake-off' at least has its feet rooted a bit more firmly on the ground, but there was always the odd ingredient that cropped up regularly, such as star anise and lavender, which I've never used and made me curious to investigate further.
Now I've always thought of lavender as one of those things which is for some reason very popular with old ladies, but certainly not on my list of things I enjoy the smell of.
Fresh baked bread, vanilla, burnt two-stroke oil, all fine - but not lavender.
The other day however, while we were visiting Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, we stopped off in the cafe for a cup of tea. Amongst the usual assortment of baked goods which these places kindly offer to help you get fat, was a lemon and lavender cake, so I decided to indulge in a slice - purely in the interests of research of course.
Both the light delicate sponge and the butter cream topping were populated with tiny lavender flowers, giving a subtle flavour that was absolute bliss. I'm sure it would be very easy to overdo it with the lavender, but the balance was just right.
So that's it, I'm converted. There's loads of lavender in the front garden but it hasn't flowered yet, so when it does I shall start experimenting with it. I'll just have to careful to not end up smelling like an old lady's cardigan.

Stately homes and their expansive grounds are usually great places to have a good walk without the intrusion of traffic noise, while providing ample opportunities for a spot of photography.
We've just spent a few days in Norfolk having a short break from normality, spending time relaxing and visiting the odd National Trust property including Felbrigg Hall and Blickling Hall.
It's nice to go away occasionally, even if it's nothing grand, but the wife and I are still not convinced after all these years that we're the kind of people who really enjoy holidays.
We like the idea of it, but the reality is that by the third day we've had enough and are ready to come home.
The place we were staying this time was only 70 miles from home - the sort of thing you could do as a day trip if you were so inclined - so it was only through stubborn determination that we saw it through to the end, especially as the weather left a great deal to be desired.
It strikes me that the best thing about any sort of holiday is being reminded of just how comfortable your own bed is.
With the exception of one cottage in Hawes that we stayed in several years ago, which had just been done up to a very high standard, the one predictable thing about any holiday is a hard uncomfortable bed. At a bed & breakfast we once stayed in, I ended up sleeping on the floor because it was more comfortable than the bed.
Now I know people bang on about loving a good hard mattress and it being good for your back, but I think they're talking bollocks. When it comes to beds, there's nothing worse than having pressure points on your hips and shoulders because the mattress doesn't have enough give to provide even support along your body.
My bed has a thick mattress of medium firmness, pocket sprung with a memory foam layer on top and it's the most comfortable place in the world as far as I'm concerned.
Holiday homes all seem to source their mattresses from the same supplier - presumably a long-established company whose business has its origins in the middle ages when they specialised in torture devices. Obviously, as the years progressed and torture gradually became less and less fashionable they had to move with the times, but they've never allowed themselves to forget their roots.

Beds aside, it's still good to have a change of scenery for a few days, and even if you come to feel that the sole purpose of a holiday is to make you appreciate your own home, the experience is rarely wasted.
We had a few days without the incessant background noises associated with a 19 year-old who enjoys rap music and swearing profusely at the Playstation, and he had a few days without being constantly nagged to "turn that bloody noise down", "give your liver a rest", and "stop fucking swearing".

Blickling Hall - luckily it wasn't raining that day.

At one with nature.

Fishing boats on Cromer beach.

 Proper engineering.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The big 'C'

On reflection, yesterday's post makes me sound like a whiny bitch, so I guess I should have a go at something else.
Even though it's far from being an uplifting subject, I want to ponder the 'C' word.
No, not the one reserved for Audi drivers, nor the one that happens on the 25th of December, but the really big one. Cancer.
I've been working up to this for a while, but haven't been able to formulate a plan for how to tackle it.
So I'll just dive in and see how it goes, because it's something quite personal and it might make me feel more clear-headed about it to write it down.

Ten and a half years ago I lost my mum to pancreatic cancer, aged 70. They caught it too late to do anything, but as pancreatic is one of the most determined killers it wouldn't have made any difference.
I had a good relationship with mum, and to suddenly be left without her was absolutely devastating for me.
Looking back, I don't think I've ever really come to terms with it. At the time I coped with it by burying my head in the sand, trying to get on as if nothing had changed - in my mind there was nothing I could do to change what had happened.
The day after she died I just went to work as normal; just taking off the day of her funeral where I cried about it for the first time.
Even to this day, if I happen to see a little grey-haired old lady wearing a red jacket I still do a double-take, thinking for a brief moment that it's her, only to come crashing down when the reality bites back that she's long gone.
I've been told that I never really grieved for her passing, but to this day I still don't know what that really means. Is grieving some sort of ritual that needs to be observed in order for the pain to go away? I can't see it.

Soon I'll have the opportunity to have another go at dealing with it because my dad has terminal lung cancer and has been told by the doctor to make sure his affairs are in order.
He has been a smoker all his life, so this is not exactly unexpected.
He had it a couple of years ago and underwent a course of radiotherapy to try and get rid of it.
This was the first time I'd ever seen my dad show fear and vulnerability. He stopped smoking immediately - even being a stubborn grumpy bugger took a back seat for once.
After about a year of fighting he was finally given the all-clear. The cancer had gone.
So what was the first thing he did to celebrate? He started smoking again.
No surprise then that the cancer came back pretty quickly, but this time there's no way out.
The location is too difficult to operate on, and being 82 and in poor health he probably wouldn't survive surgery. He can't have further radiotherapy because he's already had a lifetime's dose of radiation, and the effects of chemo would finish him off anyway. So that's it - just a matter of time.

My relationship with my dad has always been different from what I had with mum.
The only time I've seen him openly show any real emotion was when I took him to visit mum in hospital right near the end, when tears rolled down his face as he reached out and held my hand.
Within the family he's often been likened to Victor Meldrew (if you're not from the UK, he's a character in a TV sitcom called 'One Foot In The Grave') and I have no memory of him ever even hugging me as a child. Or any time for that matter.
He's never felt particularly warm, and whenever I've been round to visit he's made it clear after about half an hour that he's ready for me to leave.
Since the last diagnosis however, the reality of the situation seems to have hit home.
Suddenly he's more communicative, as if he realises there's now limited time to say what needs to be said. He talks about things in a way I've never heard from him before, and I can't help but think he knows how he's been in the past and is trying to make up for it before it's too late.
He's never been a big chap, but now he's practically a walking skeleton and it's hard to predict whether he'll be finished off by the cancer or malnutrition because other issues mean he's hardly eating.

For a long time I've been of the opinion that when dad dies it won't hit me as hard as when mum went, because I've never felt that close to him. He's always been that old-school, brusque, stiff-upper-lip type that just won't let anyone in or express himself in a way that lays him open to showing vulnerability or affection.
With his recent change in attitude, for the first time in my life I'm seeing another side to him; perhaps the real person that he's spent all his years repressing.
It saddens me that at 45 years old, it's only as he's at death's door that I'm beginning to get to know my father.
He's always been there physically, but the only real connection has been blood. Since mum died I've only been to visit him out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to spend time with him.
Why has it taken imminent death to bring him to life?
If nothing else, it makes me glad that the relationship I have with my own son is nothing like the one my father made with me. I'd hate to get to the end and have regrets about it.


Monday, 1 May 2017

Undeserving and unworthy

For most people in our modern world where consumption is king, the acquisition of that shiny new thingy you've been hankering after is a time of joy, but for some reason I never get that warm glow of satisfaction.
Instead, I feel a strange combination of numbness and guilt.
The 'happy happy joy joy' feeling is diminished by an overwhelming sense that I don't deserve this thing; that it's an unnecessary waste of money that would have been better spent on more important things, and that the guilt I carry in the back of my mind over things in the past make me unworthy of enjoying the fruits of my labours.
When I finally managed to get the car I'd wanted for several years, I couldn't stop thinking I should have just bought another five hundred pound shitter instead.
When I had a small windfall recently, I had to be practically ordered to the jewellers to buy the gorgeous Rado watch I'd been dribbling over for ages, and it still took a fair while to come to terms with what I'd done once it was sitting on my wrist.

It's much the same with any sort of praise. If I achieve something at work that is of importance and the boss is grateful enough to make a point of saying so, I just shrug my shoulders uncomfortably and mumble something about "that's what I'm here for".
What is it that makes me this way?
I sometimes think a psychiatrist would have a field day if they spent an hour or two delving into what makes me tick, and would probably end up having me carted off in a jacket with many straps and buckles by two burly men for an extended stay in a room that resembles the inside of a bouncy castle.
I know I have an active analytical mind that relishes practical problem-solving challenges, and I usually have the capability to manufacture the solution with my own hands. This is the aspect of my job that I love the most and I'm good at it.
So why do I go all dismissive and humble when another person acknowledges it?
Mental.

Over the years I've come to realise that happiness cannot be found in material possessions, and I now readily accept that. But although I accept my life will not be better or more fulfilling if it happens to contain a nice new SLR camera, I don't understand why my brain tries to convince me things will actually be worse because it's unnecessary and who the hell do I think I am anyway?
I try to be a good person, and I know I find the greatest sense of satisfaction comes from helping other people, but just for once it would be quite a novelty to get home from a shopping trip that wasn't for groceries or home essentials, and not feel a level of guilt as if I'd stolen the stuff rather than paid for it outright.

I've long had issues with over-analysing life, and right now this is probably one of those times.
Maybe that's why I like to drink - because it switches off that bit of my brain which dedicates its runtime to making me feel bad about myself.
Unfortunately, since my last post about three weeks ago not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips in case I get a call asking me to take the nephew's wife to hospital to have her baby.
Due to these circumstances I've been able to stop drinking completely cold turkey which really hasn't been a problem, and suggests I've been nowhere near having any sort of drinking 'problem'.
However, I'll be very glad when the sprog has arrived and I can go back to keeping my internal character assassin sedated with vodka.