Posted in Writing

The Power Behind the Blog: Battery Chargers

Protection Is Better Than Cure . Hyderabad_Sind
Image by Northampton Museum via Flickr

As I plug in the second four-way electric extension lead on my desk, I wonder how I can need so much electricity to  write my blog.  Despite the blazing sunshine outside, it’s always a bit shady in my small-windowed Cotswold cottage, so three of the eight sockets are for lamps, feeding my passion for task-focused lighting, rather than a bright ceiling lamp.  One desklamp spotlights my computer, the other two perch, uplighting, on the piano behind me. But what are the other five sockets for?

Well, there’s the handset for the landline – one of four dotted about the house.  Who’s prepared to put up with a single, wall-mounted phone these days?  They’re so last century.  There’s a computer charging lead, because (I hope) my netbook’s one-hour battery life will expire before my ideas do.  My mobile charger is in permanent residence on my desk. If I put my tiny phone anywhere else for it’s overnight recharge, I’ll have forgotten where I put it by the morning.  Those 1980s  brick cellphones did have one upside:  you’d never be able to mislay them. Ditto my iPod and camera rechargers.  Yes, I could zap them both via a USB port, but they’d get in the way when I’m typing.

So eight sockets it is, then.  But in this energy-conscious age, isn’t this rather a dissolute way to operate?  Having avoided battery-operated toys as far as possible for my small daughter, I appear not to practise what I preach.  So yes, I do feel guilty.

But at last redemption is in sight, for we’ve ordered solar panels for our roof. Embracing 21st century technology with a vengeance, we’ll soon be generating as much energy as we can use.  In fact, more – and the surplus will be fed into the National Grid.  So I’ll be able to beaver away at my netbook with a completely clear conscience.

And it’s not just the desktop gadgets that will be getting extra use. Washing machine, dishwasher, cooker, food processor – all of these will be buzzing away whenever the fancy takes us.  True, I’ll no longer have an environmentally-sound excuse for avoiding hoovering and ironing.  I might even buy a tumble drier – though it will take years to erode my conscientious objection to this alternative to garden wind-power.  And hot baths will no longer be a rare, guilty treat instead of power-saving showers.

So the only finite energy resource that I’ll be tapping in future will be my own.  I don’t think I can get an electrical hook-up from the solar panels to my brain, recharging the electrical impulses that zap round between the neurons.  So I’ll just have to look out for a suitably recharging hat.  Now, where did I put that solar topi?

(Dim lights, segue into Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun“.)

Posted in Family, Personal life

Let Blending Commence!

krazy kitchen tea towel
Image by wine me up via Flickr

Still flushed with the success of my recent purchase of a glass kettle, I am stopped in my tracks tonight in Sainsbury’s by the sight of a shiny new food processor, the subject of an alluring special offer.  I take down the huge cardboard box from the shelf and turn it over, admiring the pictures of its smart design from all angles.  Such a contrast to the dusty, rusting 80s model in my kitchen cupboard!  Its awkward uncleanable crevices harbour ecosystems all of their own.  I’ve long since stopped using it for fear of what new lifeforms might have evolved in there.

Can  I justify this impulse buy?  I’ve onlycome in to Sainsbury’s for a pint of milk.  Yes, I jolly well can!

A flashback to our half-term trip to the Science Museum  endorses my decision.  As we looked around its fascinating exhibition of antique household appliances, it had occurred to me that my old cream and brown (how 80s is that?) food processor would have looked right at home there.

This particular machine was a Christmas present from my then boyfriend.  Fresh out of university, we were feeling terribly grown-up and we were starting to embrace a domesticity that had passed us by until then.  I’d made it through my degree course with only a milkpan and a frying pan in my kitchen locker – and I was one of the better cooks in our hall.  My previous birthday present to him had been a “Multiboil” – a kettle that included a little plastic basket in which you could supposedly rest tins or eggs and boil them till done (provided that you didn’t mind turning the kitchen into a sauna in the process).  It pre-dated the “forgettle kettle” so it wouldn’t switch itself off when reaching boiling point.  We thought it was the apex of kitchen sophistication.  The Multiboil was also, inevitably, cream and brown, as was most of my wardrobe and indeed most of my possessions at that time.

My new food processor, by contrast, is snow-white, sparkling, compact and modern. I take it home and lovingly lift it  from its packaging.  Clearing a space on the windowsill, I set it down gently alongside the new glass kettle, as if introducing it to a new friend. It’s much too smart to hide in a cupboard.  By now my old machine is gracing the inside of the wheelie bin.

At this point, my small daughter comes  into the kitchen.  She looks at it and frowns.

“Why have you bought another kettle?” she asks seriously.

I don’t let her criticism burst my bubble.  I’ll treat myself to a new food processor every thirty years, whether I need it or not.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Glass Kettle is a Revelation

AEG electric water kettle designed by Peter Be...
Image via Wikipedia

This week my stainless steel electric kettle decided to self-destruct.  It had been self-harming for a long time, bunging up the water gauge so it looked permanently full, and repeatedly coating its insides with a thick layer of limescale.  That’s one of the occupational hazards of being a kettle in the Cotswolds.

I learned long ago that the best way to descale a kettle is to fill it with cheap malt vinegar, which costs about 20p for a huge bottle.  (My school science lessons were not entirely wasted.)  I looked forward to watching the acid dissolve the gritty alkaline and it was satisfying to swoosh out all the bits into the sink.  But this week even that trusty technique didn’t restore life to my kettle, so I resorted to the Argos catalogue to choose a new one.

Years ago, when I was a student and a proud owner of my first electric kettle, the choice was simple: a “forgettle kettle” (the strapline for the newly-invented type that turned itself off when it boiled) or one that you had to turn off yourself.  When your kettle started to play up, you went to the hardware shop (a presence on every high street in those days) and bought a new electric element, giving your old kettle a new lease of life.  These days, when we’re supposedly so  environmentally aware, we have no choice but to chuck the whole thing out and start again.

So which new kettle to choose?  I cast my eye over the many makes and models on offer.  They were grouped into numerous categories, becoming more and more bizarre as I turned the pages.  Who needs “illuminating kettles” , for heaven’s sake?  Unadventurous, at least in the kettle department, I wrote on the back of my hand the product number of the one that looked most like my late kettle.

But then when I got to Argos, something made me flick through the catalogue again.  And this time my eye fell upon the last one on the last page, one that I had missed before.  All alone, in a section of its own, was a “glass kettle”.  Glass kettles?  Hmm, never seen one of those before, I thought, but watching the bubbles and rising steam will provide a useful physics lesson for my small daughter.

So I picked one up and brought it home.  From the moment I eased it out of its box, I fell instantly in love with it.  For what’s not to love about a glass kettle?  It doesn’t block out light on the windowsill the way my metal one did, which just sat there looking brooding, dark and ugly.  It’s almost as good as having an invisible kettle.  You can see at a glance how full it is.  You can spot when it’s close to boiling.  You will even be able to see when it’s starting to fur up with limescale, and reach for the vinegar before it reaches crisis point. (And I do like to have advance warning if I’m going to have to go without tea for longer than 10 minutes at a time.)  In fact, it’s so great that I wonder why all kettles aren’t made of glass?

This got me to thinking about other items around the house.  I’m sure a change of materials could revolutionise all kinds of things.  Firstly, and perhaps a little obviously, there’s the glasses.  If only our beautiful set of Rennie Mackintosh wine glasses that we had as a wedding present had been made out of plastic, we’d still have enough of them left to put out at a dinner party.  Of the original 18, we’re down to 2 after 9 years of marriage, so I suppose if we break those last two, we’ll have to get divorced and start again.

Sorting through my daughter’s sock drawer to weed out the ones that are tantamount to Chinese foot binding, it occurred to me that children’s clothes should all be made of elastic.  That way, you could buy clothes for them to grow into without making them look like they’re wearing hand-me-downs – and when they do grow, their clothes would grow with them.

And why aren’t all cars made entirely of rubber?  That way, when I had a close encounter when cornering a dry stone wall the other day, I’d have just rebounded, instead of taking part of it with me and leaving some of my paintwork behind.

There must be endless items out there that could do with this kind of rethink. If any entrepreneurs out there want to have a go with some of these inventions, please feel free to do so – I give you my ideas as a gift.  Just remember to send me your catalogue when you’re ready, so that I can place my orders.  And could you please make sure you print the catalogue on newsprint, rather than the usual glossy paper?  It’s so handy for lining the guinea pig’s cage.  And if you could make it cucumber flavour, that would be even better – after all, it is her favourite.

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Winter Makeover

Poland. Garden.
Image via Wikipedia

Overnight my garden has had a makeover.  When I opened the bedroom shutters this morning, I discovered my garden had turned green.

I should have anticipated this transformation last night, when I went out to collect some firewood from the shed and heard an unfamiliar noise on the conservatory roof: a soft, persistent drumming.  I was given a clue as to its identity: wet slippers.

“My goodness, it’s rain!,”  I cried aloud.  “I remember rain! ”

It was a very welcome sound, not least because it meant it was no longer cold enough for snow.  There followed the rush of relief that a cloudburst must bring to drought-ridden nations.  I told myself briskly not to be melodramatic – in my case, the arrival of rain was hardly a life-saver.

Even so, the sight of a verdant garden this morning was a delight after weeks of the monochrome of snow.  For a moment I was Dorothy, opening the door of her black-and-white house, air-lifted by the Kansas tornado, to find the glorious technicolour land of Oz.  I’d forgotten how green my garden could be in the middle of winter.  Yes, there are rusting remains of sweetcorn and sunflower stalks, but these are eclipsed by bright and copious ivy, glossy grass and the ever-optimistic leaves of spring bulbs.

The experience felt like a mini Winterval celebration, a welcome reminder in the darkest depths of December, at the time of the shortest nights, that the sun will return. It’s surely no coincidence that this Christmas, amid blanking piles of snow, more people than ever seem to have felt the need to put up colourful outdoor lights.  I was no exception.

I began Advent with a string of soft white lights in the apple tree in front of my house.  Nothing garish for me, I decided, sifting through B&Q’s festive offerings.  But when I got home, I discovered that against an all-white backdrop, my subtle choice was insignificant.   I swiftly added some magenta and royal blue  Christmas tree baubles to the stark brown branches and was astonished by how many neighbours remarked favourably upon them.  Then a few days before Christmas, I decamped from any attempt at good taste and strewed a string of brightly coloured fairy lights over the porch.  Along with my candle arch in the living room window and the Christmas tree lights in the old shop window (my house used to be the village post office), these conspired to lift my spirits (and my core temperature) every time I went outside the front door.

When I was a child, we used to make a game of spotting lit-up Christmas trees on the walk home from tea at my grandparents’ houses.  I’ve played that game every Christmas ever since, dismissing from my mind any prissy environmentally-friendly thoughts about wasting energy and causing light pollution.  (Who wants to stargaze in sub-zero temperatures anyway?)  Though caustic about the first one I spotted in mid-November this year, by the time the snow fell I was going out of my way to seek them out.

One night when leaving my sister’s house, I braved ice-packed sidestreets to investigate a glow of near-daylight intensity.  I followed the light, magi-like, to the end of a cul-de-sac, where four houses were festooned with enough flashing Santas and prancing reindeer to necessitate 24-hour sunglasses for the residents. It was worth the dangerous detour.

And now, mid-morning, there’s a fine mist descending, the teasing ghost of the snow that’s melted away.  As spring steps up to the starting line, all that will be left is a white memory, dwindling to homeopathic strength.  By the New Year, we’ll all be sighing nostalgically about how beautiful it was while it lasted, all thoughts of school closures, delayed mail order and car crashes forgotten.  But even so, I’ll be very surprised if we’re craving a white Christmas next year.  Here’s to colourful New Year!

Posted in Family, Travel

A Holiday Treat

Image via Wikipedia

Tucking into muesli and strawberry yoghurt one morning during the half term break, I am startled by the strength and depth of the flavour.  I do  a double-take and inspect the bowl as if I might find a hidden mystery ingredient that’s making it taste so good.  My search is fruitless, (or as fruitless as Marks and Spencer 48% Fruit Muesli allows), and I surrender, sitting back to savour this unexpected pleasure.  I let the mixture roll voluptuously across my palate like a wine taster, seeking the right vocabulary to describe the complex sensation.

Why does my breakfast taste so different today?  It’s much the same breakfast that I have every day of the week, though the type of yoghurt may vary slightly, depending on what’s currently on special offer at the supermarket – or whether I’ve misread the label.  Cherry, blueberry, strawberry, rhubarb – hurrah; forest fruits – bother, I thought it was blueberry, but still it will do.

How can this familiar taste suddenly strike me as exotic?  I gaze across the table and out of the caravan window for a clue – and this gesture is in itself a clue.  Usually, I’m not facing a window at breakfast.  Nor am I sitting at a table.  First gulp of the yoghurt is grabbed as I pass by the kitchen counter, a chaser to the handful of tablets I take on waking (thyroxine for an underactive thyroid, sulfasalazine for rheumatoid arthritis).  Before the next spoonful, I whisk upstairs to give a ten-minute warning to my sleeping husband and daughter; the next is grabbed on the way to the utility room to iron the latter’s school uniform.  My morning yoghurt may or may not be mixed with muesli, depending on hungry I’ve been on waking.

I thrust a few coins into my daughter’s purse to pay for her toast at morning break, then grab another spoon of yoghurt on the way to pack her schoolbag.  (Better not mix those two actions up.)

Occasionally as I dash about on my early morning auto-pilot course, I recall my lovely, late friend Eileen’s insistence that there are no calories in anything you eat standing up.  If there’s some raisin bread in the breadbin, I’ll add a slice of fruit toast and butter, confident that it will pass my waistline bywithout sticking.

On workdays, my mind is far too full of early morning routine tasks to spare a thought for the enjoyment of my breakfast.  Now, on holiday, with time and energy to spare, I wonder what other pleasures my usual morning rush makes me miss.  And vow, when I go back to work next week, to take the time each day to smell the muesli.