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Monday, September 30, 2013

Like musketeers, little pigs, blind mice, cheers and, of course, stooges, it's a well known fact that all good things come in threes...

Although I was never a big fan of Bros. But as Lisa is fond of saying, "omne trium perfectum", which, roughly translated, means that as of today, our marriage has survived for three successful years.

The third anniversary is Leather, so naturally Lisa was expecting a pair of shoes, but I like to think that the secret of a happy marriage is spontaneity and surprise. So I took her unawares by spending £1.99 in Lidl.

As anyone with any scents will tell you, Lidl's 'Suddenly' perfume is virtually indistinguishable from Chanel, but while the latter retails at around £65, Lidl are knocking theirs out for £3.99. Although four quid is a bit out of my budget, so I waited until they were selling it for half-price a few weeks ago.

The result is that I've sniffed out a bargain and Lisa now smells more like Coco Chanel and less like Coco the Clown. All of which means that the sweet smell of success is currently wafting through our flat, and I'm no longer getting up her nose.

As an extra gift to my wife, I booked today off work so that I could dedicate some quality time to the institution which means so much to me. Not marriage, obviously, but the British Association of Retinal Screening. I spent this morning creating our brand new Facebook page, which, much like myself, is now desperate to be liked by everybody.

I've managed to resist the temptation to just fill it with photos of myself (although it's only a matter of time), and it won't be long before I'm paying some kind of Indian click-farm for ten thousand cheap likes, but as things stand right now, anyone who feels even slightly inclined to 'like' that page should go ahead and make my day. Quantity is far more important than quality, so I'm happy to accept support from people who don't know what the word 'retinal' means. Especially those who work in eye screening.

Thanks in advance, and I love you all. Particularly my wife. Happy Anniversary, Lisa. xxxxxx

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Amelie's been busy while I've been away...

It's basically a Nobel Prize with a slight spelling mistake. Obviously my immediate reaction when I saw it was to ask if everyone got one, but apparently not. Amelie was one of only a select few who received this prestigious award, which in her case was for outstanding singing. I presume she drowned out the competition like a foghorn.

It's a well known fact that the peak of Lisa's musical achievements was the moment she was finally allowed to play the triangle in class (she waited sixteen years for that day), so it's clear that Amelie gets her melodic talents from me. And as luck would have it, I bumped into Nick Cave outside The Kiosk newsagent in Kemptown this morning. I was tempted to try and get Amelie a record deal, but she was at church at the time, and the only bad seed I had with me was Toby, so in the end I just smiled in a non-threatening way, and continued on to Asda.

Anyhoo, as might be obvious by now, I'm currently back in Brighton, having returned from the frozen north on Saturday. My taxi ride from the hotel back to the station confirmed to me that cabbies in Newcastle seem to pluck random figures out of the air instead of calculating accurate fares, but he did succeed in getting me there nice and early, which meant I had plenty of time for a bit of sight-seeing. And to my surprise, I ended up here...

To be honest, there weren't as many illuminated signs as I was expecting, and a surprising number of people spoke Geordie, but for glitz, glamour and entertainment, it lived up to its reputation. The tent to the right housed The Lady Boys of Bangkok. Although I think they were performing in scarves.

Times Square is obviously well worth a visit, but personally I was more taken with Grainger Market, which according to the blue plaque outside, used to be the largest covered vegetable and butcher market in the country, and has been there for about two hundred years. It's now home to more than a hundred little independent shops selling artisan breads, local cheeses, gourmet coffees, and some decidedly dodgy fashions. I spent a hugely enjoyable half hour strolling around with my suitcase, browsing the wares, and buying my lunch from a master baker, before heading for the nearest charity shop to get Amelie a present.

After an uneventful train journey, I arrived back in Brighton in the late afternoon, and presented my family with their gifts. Lisa got a Marks & Spencer voucher courtesy of Topcon, while Amelie received a cuddly cat from the Salvation Army, plus a furry bug and a set of highlighter pens which came courtesy of the Birmingham eye screening programme. Total cost: 99p. You can't beat conference freebies. Although I worked hard for that darn voucher.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The fog on the Tyne is all mine, all mine...

But frankly you're welcome to it. It stopped me getting a clear photo of the view as the train chugged into the station on Wednesday. As did the mud on the windows. And the constant wall of drizzle. But other than that, Newcastle's lovely, and I'd recommend it to anyone. Particularly those with photodermatitis, warm clothing or gills.

Anyway, it's been a hard-working conference...

You can tell that by the sweat under my armpits. The blood and tears were just out of shot. And may I say, it's not easy adopting that position when you've got arthritis in your little fingers. I was going above and beyond the call of duty there. And it wasn't easy keeping that moustache on.

Anyhoo, the conference finished this afternoon, but I'm staying on in Newcastle for another night to get away from the kids. I Skyped Amelie yesterday evening and I don't think she's missing me as much as she expected. She seemed more interested in her ice lolly. She has, however, given her school friends a slightly misleading insight into my life while I've been away. Apparently one of her classmates told his Mum that I'd "moved to a new castle".

In reality, I'm more like an old ruin. Having been at the conference venue until midnight last night, and then returned at eight this morning to rendezvous with a blind woman, an endocrinologist and a man who's spent a lot of time in prison, I feel on the broken side of shattered. To be honest, I've been going through a difficult stage. This one, to be precise...

That's where I spent the first half of the morning, introducing the acts (I probably should have called them speakers) in the graveyard shift of the conference. Otherwise known as the morning after the night before. Let's face it, when everyone's nursing a hangover, you don't want to be the bloke standing up with a microphone.

But despite taking to the stage a mere nine hours after it was vacated by Foxx UK (so called because they perform songs from the 20th century), I think it went well. I only introduced one person with the wrong name, and I don't think it's that important to run to time, so all in all, I'm putting it down as a complete success.

And that wasn't my only triumph...

Yes, I'm pleased to say that the prize for best poster at this year's conference will be travelling back to Brighton. Unfortunately it wasn't earned by the one above. I actually created two posters this year, one on my own, and one with a colleague, and it was the collaborative effort which won. So it's obvious where the talent lies. I am, however, now the proud owner of half a Marks & Spencer's voucher. Which is technically a handful of Marks. It's like living in Nazi Germany.

Anyhoo, the highlight of the conference for me was a new cost-effective method of screening, proposed by an ophthalmologist from Yorkshire, and based on the assumption that the people who develop serious diabetic eye disease are the ones who don't turn up for screening. His suggestion was to send everyone a letter inviting them to make an appointment, then ignore all the ones who do, and send a van straight round to the home of anyone who doesn't respond. It's genius. You don't screen those who want to be screened, because they're generally fine. It's the people who couldn't care less who actually need us the most.

Of course, when I say that was my highlight of the conference, I'm ignoring the stick-on moustaches from Gloucestershire, the OPDR Shepherd and his flock of Maculopathy Sheep, and the proposal that the Oxford and Cambridge screening programmes recreate the boat race with inflatable dinghies. I still think that's a good idea.

Ultimately though, the biggest lesson I learnt was never to hang around at the end of a conference. While most of the delegates were out of the door before the final applause had died down, I lingered just that little bit too long, and was promptly collared by the chairman, who asked me to write this year's official conference report. I'm hoping this blog post will do.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This time last year, I was taking a leisurely trip up to Liverpool for a fab four (well, two) days on Merseyside at the nation’s leading retinal screening conference. I’d have taken a ferry across the Mersey, but I’ll never walk alone in Liverpool due to the constant threat of mugging, and I didn’t have anyone to go with. So I stuck with Virgin Trains. Who charge passengers to use their wi-fi.

Fortunately, things have moved on in 2013. Quite a long way on. About 175 miles, to be exact. This year’s conference is in Newcastle, which means I’m currently on the East Coast train from Kings Cross to Inverness, luxuriating in a full fifteen minutes of free wi-fi (per journey) (subject to terms and conditions). It’s just long enough to publish a blog post and contact for a loan to get me from the station to the hotel.

I received a text message half an hour ago from someone a lot more organised than I am, informing me that the taxi journey to the conference costs twelve quid. Which, when you add in my usual tip, brings it up to about £12.20. Obviously that’ll be a drop in the ocean compared to my room service bill, but even so, it’s a lot.

To be honest though, I should be grateful I’m on my way at all. I had an inkling that things weren’t going to go well today when my conference posters fell out of their tube within thirty seconds of leaving the flat this morning. That prompted a decision to carry them horizontally, which duly made me the most unpopular person on an overcrowded bus. I might have got away with that, but unfortunately Lisa’s Mum got on halfway to the station, and was forced to squeeze past me down the aisle, accompanied by half the residents of the sheltered housing.

Despite that, however, I made it to Brighton station in plenty of time for the 10:19 train, which was perfectly scheduled to get me up to London for the midday train from Kings Cross to Newcastle. Interestingly, the previous train was delayed by 14 minutes, and I watched with smug satisfaction as the 9:49 passengers became stressed at their 10:03 departure, while the electronic board proudly displayed that the 10:19 was ‘On Time’.

Right up until 10:09am. When it changed from ‘On Time’ to ‘CANCELLED’. The muffled tannoy announcement, which appeared to be spoken by a man with laryngitis wearing a scarf across his face whilst chewing on a toffee, suggested that they’d had a sudden signal failure. Now, I’m not saying that the next two hours were stressful, but when you’ve spent forty-five quid on a ticket which is only valid for that midday train, you do tend to feel a slight sense of nervousness. Particularly when you end up on a train which stops at every pointless, godforsaken place in Sussex. Like Burgess Hill.

Fortunately, having dashed across Victoria station with a poster tube and a suitcase, looking like some kind of crazed pole vaulter going on holiday, I succeeded in hopping straight onto the underground, and after performing the same dash across Kings Cross, I made it onto the Newcastle train with less than five minutes to spare.

I’m currently somewhere between Doncaster and York, where I’ve just snapped this picture...

I’m taking a photo of coals to Newcastle.

Monday, September 23, 2013

As a general rule, the only time I get to read books these days is in the bath or at the wheel of my car. The former is obviously only an annual occurrence and happens mainly on my birthday, while the latter isn't quite as dangerous as it sounds, as I tend to use audiobooks more than paperbacks. I finished a John Grisham novel on my way back from Uckfield on Thursday, which meant that I began a new adventure this morning by driving up to East Grinstead to the sounds of 'Cold Granite' by Stuart MacBride.

Now, I like to think I'm quite broadminded, and can regularly startle Lisa with bawdy language, tasteless comments and offensive opinions. Mostly in front of her mother. But if there's one thing I wasn't prepared for as I drove through the picturesque Sussex countryside at 8am on a Monday morning, it was a description of a four-year-old boy having his genitals removed with a pair of secateurs. Fortunately, the knife in his head meant that he was already dead at the time and didn't feel a thing, but even so, it was slightly unsettling. By the time I got to the Health Centre, I needed a lie down. Which was actually quite convenient, as there was a motorised reclining couch in my room.

More impressive than the level of explicit grisliness, however, was the sterling work being done by John 'Whose Line is it Anyway' Sessions, who had transformed the simple job of reading aloud into something akin to a Bafta winning performance. He'd somehow managed to come up with about eight variations of the Scottish accent, allowing him to convey numerous different characters, all of them from Scotland, without confusing a simple sassenach like me. He had a voice for every occasion. And what's more, none of them sounded like Jimmy Krankie, which is an achievement in itself.

On the subject of The Krankies (this is seamless), it appears that Lisa's memory of the 1980s is about as accurate as Rolf Harris's. A number of things seem to have slipped her mind, as was proven last night when I wiped the floor with her on 'The Big Fat Quiz of the 80s'. She failed to recognise the names of The Chippendales, despite having seen them perform live, can't spell the word 'Rubik', and attempted to claim a point for one question that she failed to answer, on the grounds that she would have known it if she'd been listening.

But perhaps the biggest eye-opener of the evening was the revelation that despite having grown up in the vibrant city of Brighton, with easy access to some of the greatest legends of popular music, Lisa chose to spend her youth going to see Trevor & Simon at the Dome. That's Trevor & Simon, not Paul Simon. I was already aware that back in the 80s she was a regular visitor to wrestling events featuring Giant Haystacks, and was no stranger to the odd Joe Longthorne concert, but this one takes the biscuit. Which in this case would be a Jacob's Orange Club. She claims she never went to see Duncan Norvelle, but frankly I have my doubts.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

One thing the Argus web editor said to Lisa on Thursday is that she hasn't visited my blog so often in the past year, since she had a baby. Frankly I know how she feels. I barely have time to write a shopping list, never mind a blog post, and the only thing I read on a regular basis is the riot act to the children. But the good news is that I'm all set for this week's conference in Newcastle!

At least I would be if I hadn't told Amelie I was going. I think this demonstrates perfectly the problems I currently have with time management. I'm off to Newcastle on Wednesday for a national conference where I'll be presenting two research posters, co-chairing one of the sessions, prompting a blind woman with cue cards, and picking up as many free pens and biscuits as I can stuff into my suitcase. So my intention was to spend Saturday morning packing.

Basically I got as far as opening the wardrobe. It was at that point that Amelie walked in and asked me what I was doing. And I made the mistake of telling her. Within seconds she'd burst into tears, flung her arms around me and started wailing that she didn't want me to go. Despite me explaining that it's only for three days, I'll bring her back a present, and she'll be at school for most of the time anyway, she was apparently broken-hearted and couldn't (or wouldn't) stop.

Obviously I can understand her not wanting to be left alone with Lisa, but we're getting the grandmothers in to help out, so the girl's got nothing to complain about. As it transpired, however, she was so desperate for me not to go, that I had to spend twenty minutes on the sofa, calming her down, followed by a morning helping her make cupcakes, just to cheer her up...

I have to say though, Lemon Meringue Cupcakes are definitely the way forward. Although the suit I was planning to wear at the conference no longer fits me.

By early afternoon I'd done no packing whatsoever, and it was time for us all to head over to Portslade for three of us to get our hair cut. That involved getting stuck in a traffic jam, treating the kids to McDonalds, shopping for non-essentials, and joining in a family rendition of the Wonder Pets teamwork song, during which Amelie encouraged Toby with the words "Take that stupid dummy out of your mouth and sing!".

Oddly, that didn't work. But it did all mean that we didn't get home until 6pm, by which time we still had a dozen things to do, and I was too knackered to open my suitcase.

As for today, I've already made Spicy Mango Chicken and walked Toby to Asda, while Lisa has dressed Amelie in an outfit made for eight-year-olds and taken her to church. We met up briefly for lunch, before the girls headed back out for a swimming lesson, and Toby and I attempted to clear up the mess he's made.

He's now having a brief nap, before we head back out again this afternoon. My suitcase remains empty, and I'm working in East Grinstead tomorrow, so I'll never be ready by Wednesday. But on the bright side, I've managed to lay my hands on an old kit bag. I'm going to forget the suitcase and pack that first. By the end of the day I'll be smiling.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When I approach the end of my days (probably in about ten years time, the way my body's falling apart), and I look back on my life and what I've accomplished, I think my longest lasting legacy and single greatest achievement will be the fact that I've made Lisa recognisable in public by complete strangers. Nine years ago she refused to let me publish a single photo of her here. Now she can barely walk down the street without people pointing and staring. And some of them know who she is.

I was working at Uckfield Hospital today, but word reached me at lunchtime that Lisa had been accosted at Toby's playgroup this morning by a lady who approached her at the baby mat and said "I hope this doesn't sound stalkerish, but I know you from your husband's blog". Opening gambits like that are usually followed by death threats, cease & desist orders or kidnap attempts, but on this occasion, the woman's intentions were entirely friendly. I think.

She turned out to be The Argus web editor, a lady whom I've never met, but who possesses the kind of online proofreading skills that allow her to recognise my wife from a few pixels on a computer screen. As a result, this morning's mother & toddler group became more like a remake of Catfish. Which is appropriate, as she's been a big fan of Chloe for the past four-and-a-half years.

Naturally, Lisa's thrilled at her new-found celebrity status, and the knowledge that journalists across the city have seen her without make-up, so it's only a matter of time before she's asking me to take more photos of her looking sophisticated in a vast array of scarves, in the hope of securing some kind of upmarket fashion column. Alternatively, I might have a lot of deleting to do.

But in the meantime, I'm pleased to say that Amelie's cake-decorating is coming on leaps and bounds...

Although not even Neil Armstrong could provide a leap that big. That photo was sent to me today by a friend (she's very much an early morning person) who celebrated her birthday by bringing those cakes into work. Sadly she works for a different screening programme. So unless I hand in my notice and move halfway across the country, I'm stuck with Amelie's cupcakes. Or I would be if Lisa hadn't eaten them all.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It's surprising how much a bad case of croup can be improved by a home-made cupcake...

His nose might be running straight past his mouth and onto his tray table, but he's looking a lot more perky.

In the end, we decided not to take Toby to our GP, but chose instead to take advantage of the best out-of-hours care the NHS has to offer, by getting him examined by a senior A&E nurse. She wasn't at work at the time, she was on her way to the launderette. But we bumped into her as we walked down to Lidl, and I spotted an opportunity for some free medical advice. So I hastily described Toby's symptoms to her in the street, and tried to get him to bark for a sprat, after which she advised me to pop him into the nearest sauna and steam him gently until he's cooked.

The outcome was that we forced him to take a bath with Amelie on Sunday evening, which is usually enough to bring anyone to boiling point, and when he finally emerged from the steam room, he seemed a lot better. He slept well on Sunday night, and by yesterday had lost all oral similarities to sea mammals. Although he still looks a bit like a manatee.

To be honest though, I don't think it was entirely the steam therapy which cured him. I think it was his sister's medicinal cakes. It's a well known fact that Amelie has a long and distinguished career as a pastry chef and master baker, having started out in cake-decorating almost three years ago, before progressing on to advanced baking skills in the summer of 2012. So in an effort to treat her brother's ailments, Amelie took to the kitchen on Sunday afternoon and knocked out a few cupcakes...

I've turned up the volume to maximum, but I still can't work out what she's saying to herself. I expect she's reciting the recipe. Or praying to Mary Berry. You can, however, hear Toby coughing in the next room after 48 seconds, in the hope of winning the sympathy vote and getting an extra cake.

The good news is that despite leaving half the mixture dribbled across the kitchen work surface, Amelie managed to get enough of it into the muffin cases to produce twelve perfect cupcakes. She and I then pushed Toby down to Lidl in search of decorations. The free medical advice was just the icing on the cake.

We returned an hour later with icing sugar, food colouring, butter and figs, which proves that we always buy one thing we didn't intend to. Amelie then decorated the cakes in her own unique style, before stuffing her face at the table...

She looks a bit like Adam Lanza there, which is worrying.

We were already three cupcakes down at that point, with the fourth and fifth soon falling prey to an uninvited guest...

Lisa's rocking the no-makeup look there. Which is ironic as Amelie's wearing lip gloss. My wife's definitely got the 'Dove' look though. Not only does she have real, natural beauty, but she's essentially a pale white bird.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Well, the computer did start this morning. As did I, a lot earlier than expected. Unfortunately, hot on the heels of last week's sudden outbreak of chickenpox, Toby's gone down with croup. Frankly he couldn't be any croupier without joining a casino. It's a lot like having a sea lion in the house, and makes sleeping somewhat difficult. I've been lying awake, worrying he'll eat all my tuna.

We thought he was developing some cold symptoms yesterday, but at the time I put it down to extreme paint inhalation. I'd taken him and Amelie down to the marina on foot, only to discover that someone had spilt a drop of emulsion...

Dozens of council workers armed with hoses and brooms were busy scrubbing pink paint off the seafront, while various paint-stained individuals attempted to wash themselves in the sea and change into other clothes. As we ventured further into the marina, we kept passing weary-looking groups of people in colour-spattered clothes, staring despondently at their formerly white trainers.

At the time, I thought Asda must have sold out of Vanish, but as it transpired, we’d just missed The Dulux Color Run, a five-kilometre fun (that's a subjective word) run which, according to their website, "celebrates healthiness, happiness, individuality, and giving back to the community". Although most of the participants I saw looked pretty miserable, were all the same colour, and had left the council to clean up their mess.

As I understand it (and I'm not sure I do), the aim of The Color Run is to allow people to experience life as a Conservative minister touring a deprived inner city council estate. You basically have to keep going for half an hour while coloured people throw paint at you. And they charge entrants £25 for the privilege. Frankly they can come round to our flat for a tenner and do some artwork with Amelie. It amounts to the same thing. I'll even give some of it to charity. But only if the Marie Curie shop has some nice shirts in.

Anyhoo, having been through a purple patch in the afternoon, things took a turn for the worse yesterday evening. Toby had gone to bed at seven, but by eight o'clock we were convinced he'd smuggled a seal into his cot. He wasn't coughing, but he was crying, and every intake of breath sounded like feeding time at SeaWorld.

A quick look at the NHS website revealed his symptoms to be classic signs of croup, which apparently strikes between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, affects boys more than girls, is most prevalent in autumn, much worse at night, and makes you sound like a barking seal. It also gives you something called 'stridor', so called because it makes your voice sound a tinchy bit rasping.

Reassuringly, the NHS website states that "It is very rare for a child to die from croup", which made us all feel a lot better, and we're currently playing it by ear, and deciding whether to get him to a doctor or just toss him a few sardines. To be honest, he seems a lot better since the sun came up. His nose is running more than a Dulux sponsored event, but he's having no trouble breathing.

Personally though, I'm taking no chances. I was due to look after Toby today while Lisa took Amelie for a two-hour swimming lesson, but in light of our son's current health problems, I insisted we swap roles. Toby might be barking, but I'm not. So I've been writing this at poolside on my netbook, while looking up every two minutes to check that Amelie hasn't drowned. I must remember to thank Paul Smith for his free wi-fi.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

We don't have a lot to laugh about in this family...

But we do have access to cheap bubble mixture, which is enough to keep us going. Lisa's a bit of a killjoy, obviously, but we can always lift our spirits by playing with a cardboard box...

That's a package from Approved Food, the internet's leading purveyor of out-of-date comestibles. Lisa's currently working her way through twenty-four expired Snickers bars for a pound, and I'm drinking a lot of tea from the last century. It's a miracle we're still alive.

The good news is that Amelie's now started school properly, and has taken to it like a duck to water. She's already received two commendations from the teacher, and has moved up a couple of clouds on the classroom wall chart, meaning she's progressed far from the sad raindrop and is now just one good turn away from the smiling sun, and the reward sticker she so desperately craves. Lisa, on the other hand, is struggling to cope with the daily trek up the steep hill, pushing an overweight baby in a buggy, and would be considering home-schooling if it didn't involve seeing more of her daughter.

In the meantime, I've been wrestling with a computer problem we've had since Wednesday evening, when our PC finally decided it had had enough of Toby constantly pressing the on/off button every five seconds, and announced that it didn't want to boot up any more. Probably because it knew he'd only come along and turn it off again. My attempts to fix it were met with only limited success, so on Thursday evening I took it over to PC World in Hove.

Four or five years ago, I had a similar problem with my last PC, so I took it over to the same branch of PC World, where the Tech Guys (as they were known in those days) looked at it without an appointment, identified that one of the memory chips was faulty, sold me a new one, and fitted it there and then.

The Tech Guys are now called 'Knowhow', and the PC World website says this: "Bring your desktop base unit into one of our stores with a Knowhow service bar any day of the week and we'll diagnose the problem for you, for free". That was perfect for me, as I really just wanted to know what the problem was, and whether I could fix it myself.

So I drove over there on Thursday, plonked my PC on the desk, and explained the problem to the Knowhow guy. He nodded sagely, entered the model number of my PC into his computer, said "Yes, that's one we can repair", and then asked me for fifty quid. So I quoted the website, and said I'd like him to diagnose the problem for free. To which he replied that unlike a few years ago, they're no longer allowed to open up a PC in store, and can only diagnose problems on computers which boot up successfully. Or, in other words, computers without problems. It's not so much Knowhow as No-how.

Instead, he told me that I could give him fifty quid upfront, and he'd send my computer off to someone who was actually allowed to look at it, and in 12-15 days time, they'd contact me to tell me what the problem was, and I could decide if I wanted it fixed. They would then charge me extra for parts, and the job would be sorted. Sometime in October. For an indeterminate fee.

This is clearly why no computer is futureproof. By the time you get it back from PC World, it's become obsolete and is like surfing the net on a ZX81.

So needless to say, I declined. In a slightly huffy manner. I would have e-mailed PC World and asked them to refund the money I spent on petrol to get me to Hove on a false promise about diagnosing my problem for free, but my computer wasn't working, so I couldn't.

Instead, I spent 24 hours researching the problem on my own and running various tests, and on Friday night I finally got it working. If you want something done, you need to bloody well do it yourself. I've saved myself fifty quid and a fortnight, but I'm now slightly scared to turn the computer off, in case it doesn't restart. I also need to keep Toby distracted so that he doesn't break it again. I think I'll head down to Asda for more bubbles...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The thing about chicken pox is that it can strike very suddenly...

Especially when your sister has access to stickers. Amelie returned to school today for the first time since Thursday, but it was Toby who was spotted devouring a good book.

To be honest, the boy's become a nightmare in recent weeks. I don't know if he's developing a taste for vintage American style, but he seems to be attempting to turn our flat into San Francisco in 1906. He's like a contestant on Pat Sharp's Fun House. You only have to open a door, and he's straight in there, pulling everything off the shelves and out of the drawers and cupboards.

I've already moved my CDs and DVDs to the highest possible shelf, but he's now discovered the bookcase in the hallway and is currently tearing up the rule book on acceptable behaviour by attacking my old novels. The pages strewn around him in the photo above are from 'Z for Zachariah', which was my favourite book as a teenager. I've had that copy for twenty-five years, and it's been with me through four house moves, two cat deaths and a marriage. But it failed to survive Hurricane Toby, who swept down the hallway last night in about two minutes flat, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake...

He then sat on the kitchen floor, eating pages 63 to 68, whilst covered in red polka dot stickers. And every time he tried to remove them, Amelie would shout:

"No, Toby, don't pick your spots!"

That's no life for an animal.

Monday, September 09, 2013

I was so distracted yesterday by Tinkerbell Toby that I forgot to mention it was my 3,000th blog post...

I'm officially the Barbara Cartland of blogging. I churn it out at a prolific rate, but you rarely meet anyone who's read it.

So to mark my 3,001st post, here's a witness reconstruction of the JFK murder scene...

Amelie claims that's her and Toby on a hill, but I know a grassy knoll when I see one. It's even got a stockade fence. And there are clearly two shooters. If the Warren Commission had access to that evidence, history might have been very different.

But that's not the only historic event that Amelie's currently channelling through her artwork. Here's me and Lisa on our wedding day...

What I like about that picture is the attention to detail. Not only has she drawn us with rings on our fingers, but we appear to be flicking the Vs. She's clearly picked up on the fact that we didn't want many guests there.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Back in March 2012, the day after Toby had his 20 week scan and we found out he was more likely to be destined for Wormwood Scrubs than Holloway, I had this chat with Amelie about her plans for the new baby...

Little did we know that the cat who walks in after two minutes would give birth before Lisa. But that aside, Amelie clearly stated that she'd help the baby drink his milk, eat his food, suck his dummy and play Little Acorns on the iPad. Although as it transpires, if he even thinks about touching her iPad, he's likely to be dragged out of the room by his ankles.

What she failed to mention, however, is that eighteen months later she'd be dressing him in fairy wings and then filming him wrestling a mouse...

It's a fine line between commentary and taunting. And you wouldn't get Nick Broomfield breaking wind behind the camera. But I have to say that the fairy wings suit him. It's the closest she could get to pink trousers.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

You might think the highest priority on my current blogging agenda would be my daughter's first day at school, but having failed to write anything at all yesterday due to a prior commitment I had with a bar of chocolate and a comfy sofa, I'm now going to write about steam mops. No, really. Think of it as a public service announcement for the filthy.

If anyone out there would like a good quality steam mop, then get yourself down to Argos ASAP and buy the Steamworks SW1 model for £25. When you do, they'll give you the Vax S87-T2 instead, which has an RRP of £99.99.

I realise that makes no sense at all, but it happens to be true. One of Lisa's friends posted that info on Facebook this morning, saying that she'd just got herself the Vax model for twenty-five quid, by going into the Worthing branch of Argos and asking for the Steamworks one. A quick search on Google proves it to be a nationwide anomaly, mentioned on websites such as this one.

So we've just tried it. We drove over to the Brighton branch of Argos a couple of hours ago, ordered the Steamworks steam mop, paid £25, and a Vax S87-T2 came rolling down the conveyor belt. The assistant didn't even say anything, despite the receipt clearly saying 'Steamworks SW1'. They had another four in stock, so I was tempted to buy them all and sell them on eBay, but Lisa was already heading next door under her own steam to the Marks & Spencer's food shop, so I decided to quit while I was ahead. You can have too much of a good thing.

Anyhoo, Lisa will shortly be letting off steam in the kitchen, and Toby will no longer have to slide about on grease while he's lighting the gas, but going back to Thursday, I'm not sure if I mentioned it, but it was Amelie's first day at school...

That card came from our good friend Marie, who has made a lot of major life-changes recently and is now a regular churchgoer. She practically lives there. Which is appropriate, as she's Toby's Godmother. And even more appropriate, as she's now caused us a lot of Catholic guilt about the fact that we didn't buy Amelie a 'Happy 1st Day at School' card. Although, in our defence, we didn't know they existed. Much like God.

Anyhoo, all of that aside, Amelie's first day was a triumph. It got off to a slightly shaky start when she called the headmistress "Mrs Huge", but I think that was less down to rudeness, and more of an earwax problem. And let's face it, she calls me Mr Fat, and that sounds nothing like Gardner, so the woman should consider herself lucky.

We successfully delivered Amelie into the classroom without any tears (from any of us), and having handed them £2.10 for her school dinner, we returned home to await the phone call telling us she'd been expelled. To our surprise, it never came. So we decided that while the cat was away, the mouse should play...

Yes, as it transpired, Thursday wasn't just Amelie's first day at school, it was also Toby's first morning at playgroup. I'd taken the day off work, so we took him to the same one his sister used to go to, which is held once a week in a church hall. And he absolutely loved it. Possibly because he was blissfully unaware of how close he'd come to being run over by a trike.

After an initial period exploring the baby mat and toddler toys...

... he was off like a rat up a drainpipe, and marauding all over the hall like Hitler across Western Europe. He was grabbing other children's toys, other children's food, other children's hair, and generally making a nuisance of himself. But judging by the beaming smile he wore throughout, he was having a whale of a time.

Unfortunately, what goes up, must come down, and after 45 minutes of being a tearaway tot, and covering a good half mile around the church hall, his intensive burst of activity ended quite abruptly...

The boy's got no stamina. Much like his father. So we took him home for a nap.

As for Amelie, we picked her up at three, to the news that she'd made a new friend, eaten pizza and broccoli, and sung Twinkling Stars in the Night to all her classmates. I asked if she'd performed The Piglet Song too, but she hadn't. I was gutted.

She had, however, played games, read stories, talked about her treasure box to the teacher, played "in a field", and generally had about as much fun as Toby. Frankly she can't wait to go back. Which is frustrating as her next day's not until Tuesday. But all in all, it was a major success. We're not sure how we've bred such confident children (I suspect a mix-up at the hospital), but we're very proud of them both.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

It's Amelie's first day at school!

We've sent her there with some massive bruises on her legs, in the hope that she'll be brought home by social services. It'll save us the trip to pick her up.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Just when you think Richard Dawkins has got it all sewn up, life has a habit of throwing you a curve ball and providing you with irrefutable evidence of God's existence. In the past twenty-four hours, two things have occurred which make it impossible for me to deny the existence of a higher power.

The first is that Lisa's started eating cat biscuits. No, really. Whilst filling up Chloe's bowl yesterday, I inadvertently spilt a nugget of pure feline goodness onto the kitchen work surface, before leaving for work in a hurry. Lisa then came along, saw it there, and mistook it for a piece of Lotus biscuit. It was only as she crunched into it and got a strong taste of gizzard that she realised something was up.

It goes without saying that if we'd been evolving as a species for millions of years, we'd have reached the point by now where we could tell the difference between caramel cookies and chicken cat treats, so the fact that Lisa even exists is a good argument for creationism. Only a supreme being could have dreamt her up. She's generally an accident waiting to happen, and if left to natural selection, she'd be extinct by now.

Only the other day, she burnt a couple of croissants beyond all recognition, which resulted in her standing in the kitchen, bemoaning the fact that things couldn't possibly get any worse. At which point she fell over Toby. He was heading for the oven at the time. Possibly to stick his head into it.

But if that's not enough divine proof for you, then consider the words of Corrie ten Boom, who wrote that "If God sends us on stony paths, he provides strong shoes". Personally my life's more of a rocky road than a stony path, and I'd much rather go by car. But the analogy still applies. The plantar fasciitis which has been getting under my feet for the past three years has eased considerably since Christmas, and is now at the point where it hardly bothers me at all. I'm not putting that down to divine healing though, as the doctor said it should be gone within twelve months, so thirty-six is pushing it a bit. Frankly God's a bit slow.

For the past two and a half years though, I've been wearing MBT shoes, which provide all the comfort of walking barefoot cross the African plains, for the approximate price of a plane ticket to Nairobi. They cost upwards of a hundred pounds a pair, and closer to two hundred for some styles, and I've managed to hobble my way through two lots of shoes and one pair of trainers over the past couple of years. They've all been second-hand, and the last pair came from eBay for forty-eight quid.

Unfortunately, having worn them day in, day out, for the past year, they're in urgent need of replacement. As are my MBT trainers, which are now so tatty, I look like a tramp from the knee down. I've been looking out for a decent second-hand pair for the past couple of months, and have bid on a few on eBay, but always without success. I can't go beyond fifty quid without visiting first. I've trawled a lot of charity shops, but MBTs are generally too pricey to be donated, so the chances of not only finding them, but finding them in my size, and in reasonable condition, are remote to non-existent.

At least I thought so. At the weekend I told Lisa that I was giving up, accepting that I can't afford any more MBT shoes, and would be buying some cheaper footwear. Whilst crossing my fingers that my plantar fasciitis wouldn't return. I was planning to go out at the weekend to scour the local shoe shops for something cheap and cheerful, but I was working in Crawley today, so at lunchtime I thought I'd pop to the nearest charity shops on the offchance. The first one I visited was 'Save the Children'. Where I found a pair of these...

... and a pair of these...

... in good condition, and in my exact size. Which, if you want to buy me socks for Christmas, is 9½.

They'd go for about sixty quid each on eBay. I got them for £5 and £4 respectively. Never mind 'Save the Children', they've saved me an absolute fortune.

Praise the Lord.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

In addition to performing her own version of Handel's Water Music by singing about leaky buckets, the good news is that Amelie will soon be swimming with the fishes...

But only if she calls herself Amalie. I wanted her to get an 'A' on her report card, but not in the middle of her name. I'm not sure what a quarter of an armband is either. Probably a wristband. And why they're mentioning that instead of the 8m unaided on her front, I have no idea.

But despite all of those anomalies (or should that be anomelies?), the most interesting thing about that certificate is the fact that it appears to have been signed by legendary fashion designer, Sir Paul Smith. His official logo, based on his signature, looks like this...

... so I'd say that's case closed. They're clearly one and the same. I imagine Sir Paul's been helping out at the Brighton Swimming School by designing a few swimsuits and hosing down the changing rooms, before retiring upstairs to sign the certificates. In fact, now I come to think of it, "8m on her back ¼ armbands" may well be a set of tailoring instructions. Possibly for a short-sleeved dress with a length of ribbon at the rear. She'll be the best dressed girl at poolside.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Toby demonstrated to us yesterday evening that he can now crawl into the kitchen, stand up in front of the oven, turn a few knobs, and then hold down the gas ignition button. I think he's attracted by the pleasant clicking sound it makes. And the inevitable ka-boom which will no doubt follow shortly afterwards as we're all blown to kingdom come. The thing is, despite knowing that he now has the ability to kill us all at will, I couldn't help feeling proud of his achievement... as he repeated it six times within five minutes. He's progressing nicely. Although we might have to start locking the kitchen door. I'd chain him to the kitchen sink, but that's where I keep Lisa.

As it happens, however, Toby's not the only one displaying prodigious skills at the moment. Amelie's also on fire. Although her talents lie far away from the arena of pyromania, and more towards the field of music. When she finished at nursery the week before last, they sent her home with a note. This note, to be exact...

Trained musicians might just spot the subtle flaw in that notation. Namely that it looks less like a couple of beamed quavers and more like Papa Smurf's legs.

But despite being a little bit backwards, it clearly inspired Amelie on to greatness. A week later, she was sitting at my parents' piano and improvising modern day musical masterpieces. She calls them 'Songs About Life'. Although, as Mr Spock might have said, it's not life as we know it...

Toby's obviously a big fan, but he likes the sound of a hairdryer, so that's not saying much. And my Mum's contractually obliged to clap. But nevertheless, Amelie's combining practical life coaching with advanced keyboard wizardry and slightly monotone singing in a way we've rarely seen since Howard Jones.

Admittedly, the first one's not so much 'Days' as days and confused, but the second one offers some sound advice on the best course of action to take in the face of a natural disaster. I think it was inspired by The Great Flood of 2013. And it's a very British plan. You've got water coming through the ceiling and a bucket leaking all over the floor, but when guests turn up unexpectedly, you just smile and usher them into another room. It's the ostrich approach to crisis management. She's clearly learnt a lot from her father.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Amelie might be as high as a kite about 90% of the time, but she also does a lot of blue sky thinking...

Although on this occasion, it basically involved her looking up and wondering how to avoid being hit on the head by a plummeting plaything. That photo might look impressive, but it was snapped fortuitously during a brief ten-second period when a miracle occurred and we actually got the thing airborne. As a general rule, it was trailing behind her on the ground. It's the only kite with grass stains and friction burns.

Anyhoo, after forty-eight hours on the antibiotics, I read the list of possible side-effects yesterday and felt more ill than when I started. But I think they've improved me a little. So with slightly more spring in my step, I joined Lisa, Amelie and Toby for an all-day picnic at Preston Park on Saturday. It was organised by a radiographer (with help from a pathologist) to allow the children from the hospital nursery to have one last get-together before they start their various big schools next week.

It was a good opportunity for Amelie to have fun with her old nursery friends. And let's face it, some of us are always up for a picnic...

If he's that excited by a Dairylea sandwich, imagine what he's like in Subway.

As for Lisa, she was planning to wear one of her scarves, but I was concerned that if she cranked up the sophistication levels too much, people might expect us to have Pimms, caviar and smoked salmon canapés, and we'd end up looking foolish with our Asda sausage rolls. So she toned it down a bit, and went as Jackie Onassis.

Anyhoo, we actually had a really nice day. Amelie proved that she has what it takes to be a future England cricketer...

She was clean-bowled and out first ball. Actually, despite having all the moves, and a technique which was nothing if not textbook, she failed to connect with the ball on every single occasion. They could have replaced it with a hand-grenade and she'd have been totally safe.

Of course, cricket wasn't the only sport on offer. Whilst Amelie was trying her hand at tennis, football and death-sliding, Toby was medalling in the sport of competitive eating...

Unfortunately those weren't our grapes. They actually belonged to a dialysis practitioner whose picnic looked a lot more appealing than ours. So Toby helped himself. Obviously you'd expect someone who works in the renal unit to be eating steak and kidney pie, but she'd gone more for the fresh fruit and gingerbread men. As did Toby.

To be honest though, I think he had an ulterior motive. Having chatted to the lady for a while, we realised that she's the mother of the boy who dumped Amelie back in July. I think her brother was taking revenge.