Saturday 5 October 2013

Rough Music by Patrick Gale

My reading is far outpacing my writing and posting of reviews on this blog.  I refuse to apologise.  But I absolve to correct this imbalance of priorities and set myself the task of catching up.  No promises though!

Patrick Gale is quite simply one of my favourite authors.  I love everything he writes so it will come as no surprise when I tell you that I loved this novel.  I loved the way I got sucked into the idyllic setting and the idea of a perfect, happy childhood.  I was sucked into believing everything the characters believed.

Mr Gale writes clear exquisite detail without losing his readers in long wandering, aimless paragraphs of prose when your eyes glaze over.  Instead he skips the through his plots and before you know it you are fully engaged in the outcome.

Will invites his parents to join him on a beach holiday not realising that he is about to step into a hornet's nest of powerful memories.  His mother suffers dementia.  Will is having an affair with his brother-in-law which he has tried and failed to end.  This could so easily have become all a bit of a soap opera as we travel back and forth in time to Julian's (Will's childhood name) messy childhood and Will's messier adulthood.

But it doesn't become melodramatic in the least.  Instead the story reminds us that we all have a bit of a mess inside of us and lived messy lives at various times.

Julian (aka Will), as a character, is not all that easy to like.  I never quite trust people who tell me they had a perfect childhood and have a perfect life.  I suspected all along that the reality would be revealed in time.

I was mildly annoyed with the stereotypical representation of Americans but I let that wash over me.

I highly recommend reading this book and gave it a 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

A Million Shades

The day begins one eye at a time.  

First I check the time.  Have I slept too much?  Too little?  Too late?  Do I care?

Then I check the weather.  Do I need to turn on my lumi light?  Will it make a damn bit of differene?  Will this rain ever stop?  Do I really need to turn on the heating in June?  The sun is shining so I am going to need to come up with a bloody good excuse to not go for a walk.

Finally, I ask myself the dreaded question:  HOW DO I FEEL TODAY?

Am I "fine"?  Unlikely.  In fact, I'm not entirely certain I remember what fine feels like.

Am I "shitty"?  Quite possibly but perhaps a wholly inappropriate response to a socially conventional question unless my desired outcome is to alienate those who care for and love me.

The trouble begins in the million shades of grey between "fine" and "shitty".

I close my eyes again wishing that everything was different.  Wishing that my battle with the darkness had never begun.  Wishing the war was won and that I had conquered that foreign land forever more.  A conventional happy ending.

Alas, I return to the fight everyday, sometimes donning my mask of armour to face the ignorance and cruelty of others and sometimes just my own anxieties.

Other times I can't bear putting on the armour and I remain metaphorically naked for the day unable to leave the security of my home or my head spending my times wandering around the rooms and wondering where the time  when I'm absent.

My armour is honestly a lousy garment for protection.  It doesn't stop my own thoughts from hurting me.  I recall the days when I felt invincible, strong, and happy; when I felt the future held such promise.  I didn't dread the sun rising.

Now I refuse to think about the future because it frightens the shit out of me.  I can't plan a party.  Or a holiday.  I can't plan what's for dinner.

For me, the future is dark.  The future is frightening and I start cowering in the corners of the day when I first open my eyes.  Every day.

Monday 8 July 2013

Does writing about my depression help me?

No.  Or at least, it doesn't feel like it does.

So, why do I do it?

Partly because I always write, if not on paper, then in my head.

Mostly, I do it for my friends and my family.  I do it to help them understand the torment inside my head.  Somehow it comes out better in words I write than when I speak.  Speaking is difficult.  I get lost in my thoughts and my words become all jumbled.  And sometimes when I get frustrated trying to express myself I start to stutter.  Then I get anxious and here we go on a downward spiral.

When I write it is all just a bit easier to make sense of it.  No one is looking at me.  No one is nodding their head.  No one is finishing my sentences for me.  No one is interrupting.

I also do it for others who know someone afflicted with this horrible illness.  Maybe if they read what I've written, it will give a tiny little insight into our spectrum of darkness.

Finally, I suppose I write it in the hope that it reaches out and touches someone who is struggling today and helps them take one step towards the light. 

Saturday 6 July 2013

Not Good Enough

The greatest gift my depressive illness has given me is that I don't really care what other people think of me so much any more.

I used to want to fit in so much.  I wanted to be liked by everybody, to be friends with everyone, be invited to all the dinner parties, coffee mornings, and after-work drinks.  The fact is I wasn't.  And I didn't fit in.

Maybe it was because I didn't have enough money to go on the spur of the moment girlie weekend trips to the spas or far flung trendy beaches.  Maybe it was because my body was too big and just doesn't look great in the trendy designer fashion (as if I could even afford that).  Maybe my sense of humour is a bit quirky.  Probably it's because when I get a few too many drinks in me I can be a bit loud. Even sober I can be a bit loud.

Don't get me wrong:  I have many, many friends who love me more than their luggage just the way I am.  But my mind always focuses on those few unfortunates that just didn't quite get me.  Then the paranoia sets in. The ones who don't quite get me are trying to convince those that did to not get me anymore when I reality if they ever did discuss me, my friends would have told them to fuck off.

In my mind I feel I am just simply not good enough.  I grew up thinking I wasn't good enough.  I've had a series of setbacks that told me I wasn't good enough.  It doesn't matter how many times I've been told that I am amazing, outstanding, interesting, extraordinary individual with a limitless capacity for compassion and generosity.  All of those fade into the background over the shouting of "not good enough".

In my depression, I cling to that like a self fulfilling prophecy.  I have every reasonable excuse to never ever be good enough again.

But if I focus on just this very moment, right now, and not a moment longer, I am good enough to write this and hope someone finds that they were good enough to read it and it helped.

Friday 5 July 2013

Better than the Day Before

Yesterday I was better than the day before or the day before that but today I feel worse than I was yesterday.  And that's the only way to really measure any progress.  Or lack thereof.  One day at a time.

Yesterday morning I actually cared about whether the sun was shining.  I noticed the pretty flowers around the clinic grounds.  I moved to a new room which is very quiet with a wonderful view and lots of space.  I started to make eye contact with the other patients and learn their names.  Haven't really had the courage to say anything to them but I am starting to feeling a little less invisible.

I have slept well the last couple nights, in comparison to the first couple nights.  I can tell that I toss and turn because the sheet will be all bunched up and nearly off the bed.  The duvet was on the floor when I woke up this morning.  

But the last couple nights I didn't wake up even when the nurse delivered my early morning coffee.  I can't recall any of my dreams and I certainly don't remember screaming out at the various baddies that used to try to choke and smother me at night.

Last night I took a new drug to help with my fear and anxiety which lies at the root of my depression.  Ever since July 2011, I have been afraid of everything:  driving the car, leaving the house, attending social gatherings, cooking a meal, finding a new job, speaking to strangers, answering the phone, going to the supermarket, opening the post.  Everything.  Some rational.  Some completely irrational.  The point is one cannot avoid falling into depression when one is constantly in a heightened sense of fright of life itself.

Even here in the clinic I am afraid.  I am afraid I am more crazy than everyone else.  I am afraid that I will never recover.  I am afraid everyone is staring at me.  I am afraid I do the meditation wrong.  I am afraid that I don't say enough or that I say too much.  I am afraid that I think all wrong and that I will never have the right thoughts.  Or that I don't smile.  Or that I do.

To keep my adrenalin under control I take a drug 3 times a day which does a pretty good job keeping my anxiety from grabbing hold of me.  When my fear and anxiety begins to win against that particular medication, I take a little bit of a half a tranquiliser and I can usually muddle my way through.  Rarely, however, does one enjoy muddling through.

I spoke to my psychiatrist about this fear and constant anxiety.  He recommended a drug called Olanzapine. He said it was good for treating fear and anxiety and he would start with a very small dosage twice a day.  I thought, "Cool. why haven't they given this to me before?"

Within 20 minutes of taking this drug, I thought I was losing my mind.  My limbs, legs and particularly my right arm, began to move uncontrollably, like restless limb syndrome.  My balance was off.  I felt like I was on a rolling ship at sea in a huge storm.  I bumped into walls trying to get downstairs to get some help.  I was dizzy and kept thinking I was going to black out.  I was agitated and highly paranoid.  I was more afraid than I've ever been.

The nurses were cold comfort telling me that since I had already taken the pill, there was little more they could do.  I just had to ride out the storm.  They offered to have someone sit with me.  Well, what kind of help is that?

In the end, I fell into bed and fell into a very restless sleep very early in the evening.  I woke up confused several times during the night.  I reported this to my nurses this morning who assured me that when they looked in on me I appeared to be sleeping soundly.  Well, that's ok then, isn't it?  I was so out of it last night that I didn't even get my sleeping meds which I am sure made my situation even worse.

Today I await the visit from my psychiatrist for Plan B, or rather, Plan G.  None of these plans seems to be working.  I am angry.  I am frightened.  I feel so alone.

I have more voice mails, texts, phone calls, Facebook messages, tweets and visits from my army of friends than I can respond to.  It is genuinely a pity that depression strikes even those who are loved so very much.  If love could cure depression I wouldn't be paralysed with this fear, this anxiety and this sheer and absolute darkness.  Please don't be upset if I haven't replied.  Please don't think I don't love you.  Please know your message meant a lot to me and sometimes I just can't cope with the world right now.

I want it to get better but on days like today it doesn't seem like it ever will.

Saturday 29 June 2013


Thursday was the school's performance of Oliver.  This was the same day I was admitted to the clinic.  I had spent most, if not all, of the day in tears.  Not for any good reason only that mostly I just wanted to die and couldn't.

My son had a role in the chorus so it wasn't like I was going to be missing his lead performance.  But for him, being in the chorus was a big deal.  It was one of those moment that I looked into the future and could see him telling his therapist in 20 years time how his mother was so ill with depression all the time that she couldn't even come see his breakthrough stage performance.

Suitably tranquilised and against doctor's orders, I made my way to the theatre.  My daughter had planned her own special little party.  Laden with a vast quantity of sweets with her best friend in the seat next to her, we all sat down and watched the tremendous performance unfold before us.

The interval was excruciating.  When one is depressed, one wants nothing more than to be invisible.  I didn't have the energy, the courage, or the desire to talk to any one, even the people who love me more than their luggage.  Luckily, those people understood that.  I was given some soul engaging hugs and hand squeezes.  I was given encouraging winks and nods.  My efforts to keep my head down and my gaze averted did draw numerous stares but those seemed to unsettle my husband more than me.  You can't see what you can't see.

Back in the clinic, my night's sleep was interrupted continuously with nightmares of people crushing me, sitting on me, pushing me, suffocating me.  I yelled out numerous time.  By 5 am I had given up on the idea of restful sleep and started the morning off with a good long cry.

I've managed a shower today.  I managed to go to the art class.  I have eaten all three meals today.

My back pain is being alleviated by anti inflammatory and pain meds.  My whole body itches and I keep scratching until I bleed.  This is probably anxiety related.  The anti depressants haven't kicked in yet but they will soon.  I hope.

What I can tell you is that the outpouring of support and love is overwhelming.  Don't take this the wrong way and sufferers of mental illness will understand, it doesn't really help but it is nice to have.  I really appreciate the flowers, the chocolate, the biscuits, the STRAWBERRY shower gel, and the words of encouragement and motivation.  I am most grateful for the unconditional love.  Thank you.  You know who you are.  xxxx

Thursday 27 June 2013

The Seat Beside Me

Depression is always sitting in the seat just beside me.  I’m told it won’t always but here I am, nearly 2 years after my first depressive episode and the darkness is always chasing me, gaining on me, trying to push me off my seat.   I ran out of breath running from it and a few weeks ago it started to win.

Some days I can’t run quickly enough to get away from it.  It tends to be the days I don’t get out of the starting gate straight away.  Those are the days when I find that I've not showered or accomplished anything beyond getting out of my bed and yet it is time to do the school run to pick up my daughter at the end of the day.

Of course, some days are better than those days when I couldn't manage to even get out of bed.  But these days aren't nearly on par with those days when I used to go mach 10 with my hair on fire.  Neither extreme is particularly healthy.

It was 30 years of those mach 10 days that knocked me down into my hole.  That’s not entirely accurate.  It was 10 years of doing mach 10 and being metaphorically smacked down daily for doing mach 10 that caused me to trip.  And fall.

I’d gotten myself back upright and standing.  But beyond standing, I rarely manage more than a couple steps forward before the doubt and fear sets in and I sit back down before I fall down again.

I’ve got myself surrounded by people, supremely qualified mental health professionals, a loving family, and an army of generous and kind friends, who help keep me out of the darkness.  They listen.  They hug.  They encourage.  They medicate.

But much of my day depends on me.  And therein lies the trouble.  I am fearful of the depression.  I can’t remember a day when I didn't think about it.  It is always sitting in the seat just beside me.  I can feel it's cold hand and searing heart.  Everywhere I go even when I stay put. 

I miss the old me.  The miss the sharpness of my mind, the ability to gather tremendous data and make sense of it all so I could define a clear course of action.  Now I listen to instructions and get lost in the words.  I make mistakes.  I stammer.   My brain stutters.  I live in a constant fog.

I can’t plan meals.  I can’t help my children with their homework.  I can’t explain to my husband why I get things wrong all the time.  I can’t describe to anyone why I can’t get a job.  My friends want to help but I don't know how to ask for what.

A few weeks ago, as an act of desperation, I took myself off of all my medication.  I knew we couldn't afford the annual prescription fee and I thought that my cocktail of daily pills was responsible for making my head feel confused.  I wanted to help my family out of the financial hole we are in.  I thought if I could get back to the old me I could help.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to those who suffer from this debilitating illness that this didn’t work.

Instead I am in the pit of darkness from which there feels there is no escape.  I have precisely 4 days of private medical care left before the policy expires and we can’t afford to buy more.  I will then be in the hands of the NHS and we know how that it likely to end.

My husband is now left angry and disappointed and betrayed.  My children are left frightened and anxious.  My friends are befuddled and helpless.  And I sit in the darkness wishing it would all end whilst depression has decided to sit in my lap.  Again.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

A Call to Life Model in Edinburgh

Edinburgh residents (and beyond) are being given the opportunity (and encouragement) to try life modelling! Multi-life modelling organisation, Spirited Bodies, will hold an extravaganza at The Arts Complex on Saturday 21st September 2013 from 11am to 5pm. Spirited Bodies are looking for about 40 models who will each pose for a couple of hours, most of them for the 1st time.

Life models are one of the best means by which artists learn how to draw; the human body providing the ultimate complexity as well as being alive and energetic. Experienced artists keep in practise by drawing life models regularly. Usually a life model poses alone, sometimes with another model; however at this Spirited Bodies event models will pose in a group of up to 20. Some poses are timed with longer poses offering plenty of stretch breaks; others are freestyle, with models choosing for themselves when to change pose.  

Spirited Bodies have done 12 events so far, all of which have taken place in London. This is their first venture beyond! They are extremely excited to be invited to Edinburgh by Ragged University. As well as the main event, a run up of preparation events during a visit in late July and just before the September date are being scheduled. A presentation of what Spirited Bodies does will take place on Tuesday July 23rd at 7pm (venue tbc), and a life modelling and drawing workshop will take place at The Arts Complex on Thursday 25th July (Room 518), 7 – 9pm. All events are free and women-only meet ups (just to ask questions and discuss the life modelling) as well as practical workshops will be available (please ask).

Artwork and photographs from a similar event last year at Battersea Arts Centre can be seen here:
It should be noted that photographs of models are never taken at workshops, and at events it is only with models’ consent.

People come to model with Spirited Bodies to experience being nude with others in a relaxed but ritualised environment, for the creation of art. They want to embrace their own nudity, face body issues and feel the warmth of human bonding in a way our society rarely offers; to be seen as a work of art and have the opportunity to express oneself in moments of silence and stillness.

From overcoming eating disorders, celebrating the joy of losing weight, adapting to a post-teenage body, rehabilitating after illness, addressing ageist stereotypes, rediscovering one's beauty post-divorce and making new friends to being a part in the process of creating art - Spirited Bodies offers something for everyone.

Models aged 18 upwards are accepted, from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and differently-abled people are welcome. No previous experience or skills are necessary. Life drawing shows well how beauty is in the diversity of the human form. Spirited Bodies is a powerful antidote to the familiar bombardment of media doctored images, by bringing real people to the fore. Led by 4 professional life models Spirited Bodies offers preparation workshops where participants are guided through a series of short poses (up to 15 minutes), and pose with one or two other models. Posing technique is discussed in a more informal setting than the actual event, and posing clothed is fine too. Artists are also invited to attend workshops and events to draw, and everyone is encouraged to draw at a workshop when not posing. It does not matter if you ‘cannot draw’, it just helps to understand what the model is for, and appreciate that trying to capture the human form on paper is not easy. Drawing materials are provided.

More information is available at  DSpirited Bodies Facebook page as well as Spirited Bodies on Meetup  -  - (useful for signing up to workshops). Contact info.spiritedbodies@gmail for inquiries.
o check out the
A crowd-funding project for this series of Edinburgh events will be created in due course.

Links to press about Spirited Bodies:

Sunday 23 June 2013

Cupboard Chicken Caccitore

When I was a child my mother used to make this amazing chicken caccitore.  Now maybe I am wearing those rose tinted glasses of childhood memories and to be fair I can't really remember what it tasted like.  But I do remember that we got to eat with out fingers.  Meal time in our home was a fairly formal affair.  All had to sit at the table and our cutlery.  And napkins.  Burping and farting was frowning upon.

Chicken Caccitore was a different affair altogether.  Mom would heat up flannel wash clothes and put them next to our plates.  This was a meal to be slurped as you ripped the chicken off the bones with your hands and the juices ran down your arms.  We loved it.

I have asked my mother repeatedly for this recipe.  Now I don't know if she wants to keep it a secret or if she has genuinely lost it but it has not been forthcoming.  So today I decided to make my own.  I did some google searches and was disappointed with what seemed to me wasn't going to produce anything like my memories.  And would require a trip to the supermarket, which is my very least favourite thing to do in the whole entire world.

So I headed to my cupboards.

Slow Cooker Cupboard Kitchen Caccitore

5 chicken thighs (bone in is more fun at scarfing time)
5 onions (more or less), sliced
1 tin of whole tomatoes
1 Tablespoon sundried tomato paste (or not)
20 cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup water
2 cups of red wine (I used Rioja because that's what I wanted to drink later)
Healthy dash of black pepper
Healthy dash of garlic salt (would have preferred fresh garlic but we were fresh out)
1 bit of salt (you decide how much)
1 tin of greens beans (to help us to our 5 a day)
1 jar of red roasted peppers (because that jar has been in my cupboard for a very long time and needed to be used)

Fry thighs and onions til browned

Throw everything into slow cooker on low for 7 hours or high for 4.

You can thicken up the sauce with a bit of cornstarch if you want to just before serving.

Serve over rice, mashed potatoes, or noodles.  Or even just with crusty bread and lashings of butter.

Do NOT forget the warmed flannel face clothes and NO cutlery!!!!!

Friday 26 April 2013

Thursday 25 April 2013

River God and The Seventh Scroll by Wilbur Smith

 Not entirely sure what I am thinking.  Maybe I am not.

I read River God over a year ago but thought so little of it that I didn't even put a review of it on the blog.  Basically the premise of that novel was that one Egyptian eunuch slave, Taita, was responsible for inventing absolutely everything.

As if that wasn't enough to put me off, I then went and bought (at a second hand sale) the second in this Egyptian series.  Smith does the most unusual trick (sarcasm alert) of weaving a modern story in with an ancient story to help find an ancient buried/hidden treasure.  He further alienates me by putting his own previous novel and himself in the story.

Honestly,  I'm not sure why I picked up the second book when I thought the first one was so dire.  To make matters worse I think I've even picked up the third.  I might have bought them all at the same time.  At least that is the excuse I am going to use.  

You can read these books if you would like to fill your brain with loads of misinformation about the Egyptians.  Otherwise, I suggest you give them all a miss.  

Wonder if I will be able to resist the urge to read it?  God, I hope so.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell

Once again I am faced with a novel with two different story lines interwoven in alternating chapters where the characters have some sort of relationship in common but time goes back and forth.  It seems to be that this is the latest fashion for historical novels.  I'm not sure I am a fan.  I thought it was quite clever the first couple of these I read but now the novelty has worn off.

But it's not just the originality that has gone.  It is the inevitable fact that one story is more captivating than the other so you find yourself rushing through the chapters of one just to get to the chapters of the other.  So it is with Lisa Jewell's Before I Met You.

One plot line is based around 1920s SoHo London where the first world war has ended and Arlette's life as a member of a bohemian set of musicians and artists is just beginning.  Arlette falls in love with the most unlikely of men in the most unlikely of circumstances with the most tragic of endings.  This story line is filled with delicious details of a time and place that was new and fresh and young and free.  Women were granted freedoms previously unattainable.  The very fabric of British society was breaking down and irreversibly changing.  It was a fascinating time and I wanted to read this plot line endlessly.  The descriptions of the clothing was enough to fill my head with dreams of vintage clothing, complete with gloves, hats, and handbags

Regrettably, my joy was interrupted with the modern day plot line which has Arlette's grand daughter searching inexplicably to find a mysterious benefactor cited in her grandmother's will.  I guessed who the benefactor was about 50 pages into the novel which meant that half the book was a complete waste of time for me.  I didn't find any of the modern characters compelling and in fact found myself downright outraged by the rock star falls for nanny (but there's a better man) storyline.  Surely, Arlette's story proved that this atrocious relationship was ridiculous.

I really wish Jewell would have simply told the story of Arlette and left it at that.

I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson

I received a proof copy of this book ages ago.  I put off reading it because I thought her previous novel, East of the Sun, was a prequel.  After reading that book and liking it well enough, I felt adequately prepared to move on to Jasmine Nights.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Jasmine Nights had absolutely nothing to do with East of the Sun.  

Jasmine Nights is set during the second World War and I must admit to suffering some literary WWII fatigue.  It seems that lately there is a glut of it on my bookshelves.  And regrettably, this book offered little additional insight although it did offer an alternative perspective.

The setting of North Africa  and the characters of a band of wartime entertainers, eg singers, magicians, comedians  was new to me.  However, the shattered families, the devastated countries, and the pursuit of a few moments of passion in the midst of chaos and hopelessness, is nothing new.  A singer falling in love with a soldier, stolen nights of tenderness, and a suitably romantic ending make this novel, ultimately, a bit cliched.

I enjoyed the plot and the timing of the novel.  I was compelled to keep reading. So all is not lost.  but the characters failed to jump off the pages and capture my imagination.  

I also enjoyed the place of the novel.  Cairo, in fact all of North Africa, is a place I dream of visiting but avoid because I am apprehensive about the security situation.  So instead I read about it.  Or watch films.  You can never see Casablanca too many times.  The difficulty of travelling in wartime is brought alive in the novel's pages.  In fact, Gregson does a superb job conveying the sense of despair and tragedy of the area.  

She also shines a very bright light on the unsavoury business and characters of wartime.  I loved the various eccentrics who populate the troupe of entertainers, all carrying the burden of past secrets, all running away from something or to something.  They were savvy, desperate, and very resourceful.

I will read more of Julia Gregson because I think she is a good writer.  I just hope she uses her imagination more when it comes to choosing a time.

I give this novel 3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

March Adventure

For my New Year's resolution, I promised myself that I would undertake a new adventure at least once a month.  This didn't have to be something as dangerous as swimming with sharks or parachuting out of an airplane.  I just wanted to make sure that I exposed myself to new experiences, new people and their lives.

In January, you may remember, that I went and visited the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit in Loughton, Essex.  In February, I participated in recreating Michelangelo's Florence Pieta at the Mall Galleries in London.  I was Mary Magdalene!  This month, I volunteered our family home as a base for a semi-finalist in the Windsor Festival International String Competition.

When I first volunteered our services, I imagined it would begin and end with a clean bed, a warm shower, and a few hot meals.  I had no idea that we as a family would become so emotionally involved.

During the week of 11 March, we were told that Meng Feng Hsieh would be joining us and would be arriving at Heathrow airport on 18 March for us to pickup.  We knew nothing more about Meng Feng.

A quick google search revealed that Meng Feng was a he, that he was 23 years old, that he was from Taiwan and after studying in Singapore from the age of 16, he was currently in his last year of study in Zurich.  We also learned that he played the cello.  By watching his numerous YouTube videos, we quickly concluded that he played his cello very well indeed.

We subscribed to his YouTube channel, liked his fan page on Facebook and sent him a friend request on Facebook along with an introduction message.  We know knew what he looked like but weren't entirely sure about anything else than he was allergic to shellfish and didn't eat beef.  We didn't even know if he spoke English (although given that he studied in Singapore and Zurich, it was a fair bet that he did).

Armed with his name written on a sheet of paper and an image of his face from Facebook seared in my brain, I awaited his arrival at the airport.  He was easy to pick out as he was the only one carrying a cello on his back.  I should have guessed!
We chatted easily as I lost my way to our house from the airport, Terminal 5 and I having never met before.  Meng Feng hadn't slept well the night before so he crashed as soon as we got home.  This is going to be a breeze, I thought to myself as I prepared our dinner for the evening.  We took Meng Feng to St George's Chapel to attend Evensong with us and listen to Sebastian sing with the choir.  Meng Feng was very impressed with Sebastian which impressed Sebastian which impressed the hell out of me.

We then attended a small but perfectly formed drinks reception that evening sponsored by the Windsor Festival at the McDonald's Hotel.  We met some of the other host families and their corresponding competitors.  It was a friendly and jovial atmosphere.

That night we shared our evening meal with Meng Feng.  He fit into our family like pair of custom made leather gloves.  He laughed with us.  We shared stories.  He told us about his family and how he had gotten into the competition.  He told us about his studies and his dreams.  He told us what the competition meant to him.  And slowly but surely our hearts melted and we fell in love with him.  And he with us.

And then he went upstairs to the room we had designated as his rehearsal room (aka Sebastian's bedroom) and he began to practise his cello.  And our world tilted ever so slightly on its axis.  We stopped tidying up the dishes and listened.  We sat down on the sofa and listened.  Abigail went to bed and fell asleep to the beautiful music Meng Feng made.

It is hard to believe that just a young man and a cello can have such a profound effect on the lives of this ordinary family.  In that moment, I knew it was our job to do everything possible to make his dream of winning this competition come true.
Tuesday was spent rehearsing.  I am not just talking an hour or so.  I am talking about playing all morning.  Then practising for an hour with his pianist.  Then practising several hours in the afternoon.  We took a brief break to attend a reception at The Guildhall in Windsor hosted by The Worshipful Mayor of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Councillor Colin Raynor.   Then back to practising.

Our home was filled with beautiful and passionate music.  Our neighbour's homes were filled with beautiful and passionate music.  Our hearts were filled with beautiful and passionate music.

The next day dawned early for me.  I was up at the crack of dawn, showered and dressed, ready for the big moment.  At 2:00 pm we arrived at the McDonald hotel and the designated rehearsal room which was exquisitely furnished with everything and anything a person could need before a moment like this.

Meng Feng was the picture of poise.  I couldn't detect a single nerve, not a wobbly finger, not a shortness of breath.  I on the other hand was a bundle of nerves.  My heart felt like it was going to beat our of my chest and my stomach felt like a 1000 butterflies had taken flight.  I asked him if he was nervous.  He said no, because nerves wouldn't help.  I asked if he knew what his competition was playing.  He said no, because it wouldn't change what or how he played.

We walked across the street to The Guildhall.  The place was packed but I had a perfect seat.  Meng Feng took to the stage and played Bach, his first piece.  I held my breath through the entire thing.  It was exquisite.  then he played Beethoven.  My knuckles turned white and I became dizzy.  Then he played his piece de resistance, an emotional roller coaster of Dvorak.  My eyes filled with tears as he finished.  My applause hurt my hands.
I was so proud of him!  He couldn't have done it any better.  I had felt every note, every string, every movement, every beat, every breath.

That evening we took Meng Feng to see Abigail perform in her school play, a very modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.  She was brilliant with the comic timing of a professional.  Meng Feng had become a member of our family and was along for the ride.  He applauded Abigail the same way I had applauded him.

Late that evening at 9 pm, we made our way back to the Guildhall.  All 8 semi finalists had finished playing,  the juries votes had been tallied, and the results were in.  The first name was announced.  And then the second.  I reached over and grabbed on to Meng Feng's hand.  The third name was announced.  None of those names were his.  I blinked.  Did the jury not hear what I heard?  Did they not feel what I felt?

And then I witnessed the joy of others and I knew this was part of competition.  Meng Feng knew that he had given his best.  When I asked if he was OK he told me, yes, he had another competition to start thinking about the trouble was I didn't.  Meng Feng hadn't made the finals and I was angry.  I wanted to hit someone.  Instead I waited until Meng Feng had wandered away and I shed a few tears into my husband's shoulder.

On Thursday all competitors visited local schools and talked to children about being a professional musician. I watched the children St Bernard's School in Langley become mesmerised by Meng Feng's playing.  They asked great questions and he gave great answers.  He talked about how he loved playing the cello because he felt he could express every one of his emotions through the instrument.  He talked about the sacrifices he and his family have made for him to reach this level.  He talked about the dedication, single minded focus and commitment it takes to play at this level.  He talked about the physical scars on his hands and chest that practising and playing for hours leaves on his body.  He talked about the poverty of being a musician.  He talked about his dreams of bringing beautiful music to the world. He talked about being thousands of miles away from his family since the age of 16.

I dropped Meng Feng off in Windsor so he could do the tourist thing and see around the castle and town of Windsor.  The pressure of the finals was off and he could enjoy himself a wee bit.  So the next day I took him and another competitor from China into London.  I drove them round all the sites showing off this glorious city we call London:  Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, London Eye, Westminster Abbey, etc etc etc.  Being musicians they wanted to see Wigmore Hall and so we did.  We stopped in at Bishop Instruments and the Chinese musician got to have a go on a Stradivarius violin that is several hundred years old and worth twice as much as my home.  The bow she played it with is worth 3 times as much as my car.  I could barely breath.

Never before have I felt like I have been in the presence of such promise of the future.

That evening we attended the final performances held in the majesty and splendour of the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle.  We were honoured to be invited to the Governor's home for drinks and canapes afterwards.  Our children were well behaved.  They didn't spill anything on the priceless antiques or ruin any of the paintings of historical significance.

The next morning as I lazed about in bed, I reviewed the order of the day in my head.  It had been planned out with military precision.  I had to have Abigail at the school by noon to rehearse her ballet show that would be performed that evening at 5 pm.  Then I had to drop Sebastian off at 1 to rehearse the Passiontide which would be performed that evening at St George's Chapel at 7:30 pm.  Then I had to head to the airport by 2 pm to drop Meng Feng off by 2:30 pm to catch his flight at 3:30 pm.  Then back to school for the ballet show, then a quick dinner out with the husband and then the Passiontide.  No problems.

Right up until about 10 am when Meng Feng checked his airline ticket and we discovered that the schedule the Windsor Festival had provided me with did not reflect the time indicated on his airline tickets.  His tickets said that his flight had been at 7:30 am, which we obviously had missed.  We tried calling the airlines but due to the unusual snow fall, the wait time on the phone was over an hour.  So Meng Feng packed up everything.  I rushed him and his belongings to the airport and said a hasty goodbye hoping he could get on the 3:30 flight.

I raced Abigail to the school and dropped Sebastian off at the same time.  I took a shower and waited.  Sure enough.  At 2:30 the phone rang and British Airways had been unable to get Meng Feng on the 3:30 flight but had confirmed his place on the 7:30 am flight the next morning so back to the airport I went.

Some might say this was destiny.  The ballet had been arranged so that each dancer could have 4 members in the audience instead of the usual 2, which meant Meng Feng could join us.  And, more importantly, I had accidentally bought 2 extra tickets to the Passiontide concert and we had only been able to resell 1 of them which meant we had an extra one.  Obviously, the gods of the fate had decided that Meng Feng was going to be here and would be needing this ticket.

We watched Abigail give a serene and elegant performance in the ballet, Peter and the Wolf.  After a quick bite to eat, we watched Sebastian give a professional and breathtaking performance as a chorister singing strong in a larger choir of over 80 adults in celebration of the Christian holiday of Easter.

We collapsed into our beds emotionally exhausted.  My husband had the task of getting Meng Feng to the airport by 5 am on Sunday morning to catch his flight.

As I lazed around resting on Sunday, my mind drifted to what a joyful and wonderful experience the week had been.  I never dreamt our family would have grown to have such fond feelings about someone who just a few days prior was a complete and utter stranger.  I never would have thought I would have children who would achieve so much at such a young age.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

I picked this book up based on a effusively glowing recommendation from fellow (but usually absent) book group member, Moray Barclay.  We had read the author's previous book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist to great acclaim.  I loved that book and usually, although not always, if I like one author's books with so much passion, I like other books of their.  Notable exceptions include Ian McEwan (Solar, among others, sucked), John Grisham (he's lost his edge), Dan Brown (all down hill from DaVinci), and Louis de Bernieres (should have never written another book after Captain Corelli's Mandolin).

I still am not sure how I feel about this book.  Similar to his previous book, I was never sure where the story was going or even what was happening as it was happening.  Unlike the previous book, nothing came together in the end.

Maybe I'm complaining for all the wrong reasons.  This isn't a happy book.  It tells a depressing story of unemployment, duplicity, loss of self esteem and identity, and ultimately loss of hope.  So when I finished reading it, I didn't feel any better for having read it.  When I read The Reluctant Fundmentalist, at least I felt that I walked away with an education.  This book just made me feel complete and utter despair, which might just be the point.

This book has the same laconic style of writing as his other novels.  Things happens quickly but you feel like you are watching it all in slow motion.  You can see the crash is going to happen and you are hoping for redemption at the end but life isn't like that.  And one thing Hamid does very well is not mess with the brutal reality of life in Pakistan.

I like reading books that are about subjects that I don't get much exposure to.  One of the reasons The Kite Runner is still one of my favourite books of all time is the fact that I had never heard that story before.  It was truly original.  I feel the same way about Moth Smoke.  

I gave this a 3 out of 5 stars.  This would be an excellent book group choice. In fact, please please please, would a book group pick this up and let me know what they think about it?

Monday 18 March 2013

The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

This book wins the prize for having the longest title of the year.  It also wins the prize for the book whose title I can never remember correctly.  But none of that matters because if you ask anyone who reads if they've read the "one-hundred year old man" book, they will know exactly which book you are talking about.  And they will, in all likelihood, have read it.  And it is a distinct probability that, like, me, they will have found it an entirely entertaining experience, as did I.

In a series of highly improbable but no less hilarious coincidences and happy meetings, a man with not many days left in his life, enjoys his remaining days and enlivens the lives of a few other no less deserving eccentric characters who cross his path.

Even more remarkable is the astonishing Forest Gump like influence his past had on key events in history spanning the entire globe and affecting just about every significant international crisis along the way.

This book was fun because it allowed a bit of a reminder of my history over the lasts 100 years whilst I was laughing out loud to the hysterical situations this mild mannered individual found himself in and then dug himself out of.

I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars and would recommend this to anyone over the age of 45.  Any younger and the history lessons might just fly right over their head.

Friday 15 March 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I understand this is the debut novel from Gillian Flynn.  I can only say, I hope she writes the next one quickly because I can't wait to see if this is a one off.

I was completely mesmerized and captivated by this story. I couldn't put it down. I was tempted every 20 pages or so to jump to the end and read the last 5 pages. I just had to know how it ended. I resisted the temptation and am very glad I did.

I hated both the main characters, Nick and Amy, so much so that I wanted them both to come to a sticky end.  But the same way you slow down at the scene of a road traffic accident, I just had to keep reading.  How was this all going to end?  Who was going to win the ultimate battle of the psychopaths?

In the immediate aftermath of finishing the book, the ending spoilt everything that came before it. I'm not going to give it away and I have tried and tried to come up with a better ending. I don't have a good suggestion although I have to say it would have been anyone but the one it got.

And then I slept on it. And now I realise it was the perfect ending. For the perfect psychopath(s). I wouldn't change a thing.

As for Flynn's next novel, will she be able to match the wildly unpredictable and clever ending.  Or was this the most original idea she will ever have?  I'm hoping for the former.

I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it for books groups.  Ours were evenly divided between those who loved the ending and those who hated the ending.  No punches were thrown.

Thursday 14 March 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This was one of  book group choices for February, which is quite fitting given that we had freezing temperatures and a wee bit of snow during the month.  I picked both the books for February so I might be biased here but live with it.

I really enjoyed the language of the book.  Ivey used everyone of the sensory perceptions available to bring that harsh landscape to life.  I could hear the snow crunching under my feet as I traipsed through the forest.  I could feel the snow on my face as the brutal winter broke.  I could smell the decay of autumn leaves as summer came to a staggering halt. I could touch the feathers and the rough clothing.  I could taste the monotony of the first sparse winter meals.

I got lost in the beauty of the challenges faced.  But then I got lost in the story. 

I loved the characters of Jack and Mabel.  I even loved their names.  I thought the speed of the plotting was very well done despite the descriptive language.  I couldn't stop reading.

And then it all ended.  And that's where the troubles began.  We had a lengthy debate at book group about whether the entire book is a fairy tale or is Faina a real girl.  If she is real, how does she survive all alone.  If she isn't real, how does she get married?

Seldom does a child bring a couple together, usually because the first years of a child's life are difficult on a marriage   But if that child came to a marriage at a later age, could she really bring them closer together?  Or would that have happened anyway out of necessity in the harsh reality of the Alaskan wilderness?

I like the book if I imagine it as a fairy tale.  I like it a lot less if it is not meant to be a fairy tale.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars but with a strong recommendation for book groups.  There is a lot to discuss. 

Thursday 7 February 2013

In Loving Memory

Joyce Elaine (Carson) Smith
October 3 1921-February 7 2005
Eight years, feels like yesterday.
I miss her everyday.

Monday 28 January 2013

Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit (aka MPASU)

Who's a lucky girl?  I am! I am! I am!
I won a competition over on Twitter (@ladawncp) hosted by the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit (@mpsinthesky) by answering a simple question:  what are the registrations for their 3 helicopters?
And yes, I am a big enough geek to know the answer to that question.  I know the answer to that question because I follow them and their adventures in hunting down bad guys hiding in bushes, finding lost people and reducing the general mayhem caused by vehicle pursuits.  They take lots of beautiful pictures.  And they almost always get the bad guys.
And they engage with the community they serve and protect, which is really the key to their success.  They have nearly 31,000 followers over on Twitter and if you don't follow them, you should.  Even if you don't live in London, you should, if for no other reason than it will give you plenty of ammunition to speak to your local police force and get them to communicate with your community as comprehensively as these officers do!
The ASU is based in Loughton, Essex so I had a trip of 50 miles (or so) around the top of the M25.  I had left the house in plenty of time but found I had forgotten my picture ID so had to turn round to get my passport.  Once on my way, I thought I was under the gun.  Luckily, the usual parking lot that is the M25 was clear.  I was there within 50 minutes. 
I rang the buzzer and was directed to my parking.  When I found the office, I was told I was an hour early.  Oops, I got the time wrong.  Better an hour early than an hour late, I always say. 
I got a fantastic cup of tea courtesy of the Old Bill and put my feet up for an hour and waited for my geek compatriots (other people who had also known the helicopter registrations) to join me.  We were also joined by a few officers visiting from Northern Ireland who were there to observe the ASU for the day.
The base is a former WWII POW camp.  The buildings are listed and have a beautiful view of across all of London.
We were led to a classroom and shown a very professional slide deck all about the ASU including the role and responsibilities of the members of the team, the type of activity the ASU performs, and the best part, the nuts and bolts of the helicopters.
These machines are very impressive.  They cost £5m each.  They are reliable and flexible.  Safety is obviously a big concern for the ASU. One helicopter was in the hangar in bits under maintenance. All 3 are Eurocopters manufactured in Germany and the ASU has one in maintenance most of the time to ensure that they are always in tip top shape.  All the internal fittings can come out and can be reconfigured in any number of configurations.  The camera is the most impressive.  The quality of the zoom picture is seriously impressive (and a wee bit scary).  From a great height, the camera on the helicopter can zoom in and display amazing quality pictures!
The helicopter is kitted out with numerous display screens showing infrared imaging, zoom pictures, and maps.  The ASU can enter an address and pinpoint it on their map.  Conversely, they can pinpoint a location and their computers tell them the address.
I was afraid to touch anything.  I wouldn't even get into the helicopter despite the encouragement from the PCs to do so.  I was afraid I would knock something and be billed £10,000 for it. 
We then watched the helicopter take off which was almost as impressive as watching it land.  What was absolutely incredible was the quality of the camera work.  From the helicopter, the ASU can send photos to the commanders on the ground.  There's even a gadget that allows the force on the ground to see what the helicopter is seeing.  This helps find baddies hiding under bushes, in sheds, under cars and running down alleyways. It also helps find missing people, particularly useful in the water as long as the person's head is still above the water.
I am most happy to report that despite expecting to be the only female on the premises, not only was I joined by 4 other female geeks (and Twitter aficionados), there was also a female PC on the MPASU team. 

@mpinthesky is providing a fab service to the public and I applaud the old bill for embracing this new and scary world of social media.  They are doing it right, using humour, building relationships with the public and setting an example for forces all over the world.  I really hope more follow suit, specifically Thames Valley, who beyond having an account aren't really engaging with the public.
I'd like to say a huge thank you to Tony and Ricc who did a great job on the day and were the most gracious and courteous of hosts.  Your time and enthusiasm is greatly appreciated!

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben

In the last 18 months, I have devoured all the Reacher novels so I needed to start looking for a suitable replacement or be left as one of those sad souls who pine away for the release of the next installment standing in a drizzly rain outside a book shop.  No, that will never be me.  Well, maybe perhaps not ever.  But certainly not for Jack Reacher.

My search introduced me to Myron Bolitar, who isn't nearly as intimidating or good looking as Jack Reacher.  He is not ex military nor can he kill anyone with one strategically placed strike from his hands of retaliation.  Myron is not sexy.  Even is name is a bit of a damp squid.

In fact, most unlikely, Myron is a sports agent who repeatedly finds himself in the middle of murder scenes.  This sports agent business is far more dangerous than you might imagine.  And far more entertaining.

Deal Breaker is the first in the series and, similar to the Child series, these are easy to read, a bit like opening a packet of crisps and eating the whole bag in one sitting.  Christian Steele is a rookie quarterback (this is American football, people) and a big client for Myron's struggling business.  All the people around Christian keep disappearing or getting themselves killed.  In an attempt to salvage his client's career and secure his 10% commission, Myron swoops in to limit the damage to Steele's reputation and put an end to the killings.

Myron doesn't have the sex appeal of Jack Reacher but he does have some side kicks who provide some comic relief.  The good guys and the bad guys were a bit more clear cut than in a Reacher tale.  And Coben doesn't have as great a story to tell as Child.  His first novel was published when he was 26.  He's won numerous awards in his genre.  His novels tend to go straight in at number 1 on the New York Times best seller list.    I gotta be on to something good here, no?

I'm looking forward to reading some more books in the series and seeing how Myron develops as a character.  I may get bored very quickly with the whole sports angle but I'll give it a go.  I gave this book a 3 out of 5 stars just for its originality in characterisation.