Thursday, 28 July 2011

Chasing Fame

When David Bowie sang about the darker side of fame, what he forgot to include was the bit about loonies like me. You see I have a bit of a reputation for celebrity stalking. Not in a weird way – more of an opportunistic way. However it has resulted in a plethora of funny stories.

In preparation for writing this piece, I thought I’d write a little list. On first attempt I could list four celebrity occasions of note, but now that I’ve put my mind to it, I’m currently up to 14! I may not be able to get through all of them here, but we’ll give it a go.

My most infamous incident concerns Virgin boss Richard Branson. It was when I worked for The National Library for the Blind (circa 2003). I was on the early Virgin Rail train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston for a meeting with a funder, when a voice came over the tannoy. It told passengers that this train was the first fully tilting pendolino train to run at full speed on the West Coast Line. He told us what our top speed would be and our arrival time. He then walked through the carriages giving all the passengers a special certificate. Ever the PR professional, our announcer was none other than Mr Branson himself. I still have my certificate in my box of treasured ‘stuff’ along with my certificate for climbing Ayres Rock and ticket for Robbie Williams plays Knebworth (also 2003 – clearly it was a big year).

It all happened so quickly that he had been and gone before I could wrestle him to the ground, sit on him, and ask whether he knew that less than 5% of books published ever made it into a format that a blind person could read.

'Damn', I thought as he disappeared in a blur of teeth. ‘What kind of rubbish fundraiser are you?’ ‘There you are with a bag full of fundraising ‘case for support’ brochures and you sit there and do nothing. You don’t deserve to be paid this month!’

They kept all the other trains off the West Coast Line that morning, so it was no surprise when our  train got into London early. Another cause for a pendolino PR celebration!

I got off the train and walked pass the press frenzy photographing Mr Branson at the front of the train with a bottle of champagne, a ribbon stretched across the track (crossing the finishing line) and four attractive ladies in Virgin Rail uniforms.

I couldn’t get close so I sloped off feeling thoroughly disappointed in myself for not having done better. I walked up into the main station, muttering to myself.

‘OK’ I thought re-grouping, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. Visit the cash point and then go back down to the platform. If he’s still there, then go and do it. If he’s gone then it wasn’t meant to be.’ With a firm nod of the head I made a pact with myself.

When I got back down to the train, he was still there. The press pack had dwindled and there were just a few left. ‘Bugger’ I thought ‘I’ve got to go and speak to him now or I’ll feel really rubbish’. At which point this weird Bohemian Rhapsody type argument started playing out in my head between the different sides of my brain.

‘Go and see him!’
‘But I’m scared!’
‘Go and see him.’
‘But I’m scared.’

But before Beelzebub could put a devil in a sideboard – for me, RB started saying his goodbyes and walking off along the platform.

Suddenly Beelzebub came back out of the sideboard, possessed me and before I knew what I was doing I was sprinting down the platform after him – in sling backs (clip, clip, clip), waving a National Library for the Blind fundraising ‘case for support’ brochure and shouting at the top of my voice 'Mr Branson, Mr Branson'.

Strangely, he didn’t run away! Instead he turned and flashed me (I could just stop the sentence there – that would make an even better story) the biggest smile, with the biggest, whitest teeth I have ever seen in my life. ‘Yes, can I help you’ he said.

Now was not the time to carry a watermelon, this was my moment, so I chose my words to billionaire Richard Branson carefully. ‘Can I give you this to read, it’s from The National Library for the Blind, I do hope you will be able to help.’ Instead of telling me to ‘Fuck off’, to his credit he smiled (again) and promised he would read it before heading off down the platform clutching my document!

‘YES, YES, YES’ I punched the air. I was the best fundraiser in the world. I was fearless and invincible. Hurrah me!

I phoned the office immediately. I was so pumped up you’d have thought I’d just won an Olympic weight lifting gold medal. I was a hero!

Of course he didn’t give us any money. When we phoned to chase it you the next day, his office told me that he did remember meeting me, and that he had passed my document through to the Virgin Foundation, who duly wrote back to us to say that sadly on this occasion they wouldn’t be able to support us. Despite the outcome, we were handled so nicely throughout and it was such a lovely ‘No’ I still have a positive impression of Mr Branson. When I think about it, he must get nutters like me harassing him all the time. However for me, it was a one off and I shall be eternally proud of myself that I didn’t wimp out and gave it a go.

One of the really great things about being a charity fundraiser is that you get to meet some amazing people. So in my portfolio I have the following:

I’ve played football with 1966 world cup winning footballer Geoff Hurst in Trafalgar Square (TV presenter John Inverdale was there to commentate). 

I’ve met girl band ‘Atomic Kitten’ who spent most of the time in the toilet doing their hair.

Sadly I wasn’t at the photo shoot with BBC newsreader Jill Dando in 1999, the day before she was shot for real. But I’m told she was lovely – my friend Ginette had been speaking to her on the phone that morning before she was murdered on her doorstep. Freaky! 

I met many authors while working at The Library – Michael Morpurgo, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, Claire Francis and Anthony Horowitz all spoke at fundraising events for me and we actually auctioned off on e-bay Terry Pratchett (and his enormous hat), Charlie Higson (from the Fast Show) and children’s author Jacqueline Wilson. They were all charming. 

I remember being pulled out of an internal meeting once because Mo Mowlem (a member of parliament who was pivotal in the Northern Ireland Peace process) was on the phone. I didn’t believe it at first, but yes, it was Mo on the phone - for me. We’d asked her to do something for us and she just wanted a bit of clarification, so instead of asking someone else to do it for her – she picked up the phone herself and called me.  

TV Agony Aunt and author, Claire Rayner would frequently write to me. I like to think I helped!  

We also auctioned off Newsreader Jon Snow one year at the Hay Literary Festival. I bumped into him and a weedy ginger chap in the town centre. I introduced myself and thanked him again for helping. The other chap was Andrew Marr.  

I nearly wet myself when I went to Press Day at the RHS Chelsea Flower show and found myself admiring begonias next to Felicity Kendal.

When I went travelling around the world in 2007, I ended up in LA for a few days. Having come from the beautiful and laid back islands of Fiji I found LA polluted and a bit up itself. The highlight was however bumping into Brittney Spears in a boutique. It was a couple of weeks after her melt down when she’d shaved off all her hair. When I saw her she was fully wigged up.

Just that small glimpse into her daily life made it all too clear why she’d gone a bit mental. There I was marching down Sunset Boulevard trying to find something interesting to look at. It had been a very long hot walk and all I’d done was cross a lot of roads and been sworn out by idiots in 4X4’s with tinted windows. Suddenly I saw a crowd starting to gather outside one of the shops.

‘Who is it?’ I asked someone who I assumed was a member of the paparazzi.

‘Brittney baby’ answered the guy as more and more people joined the scrum. I strained to see inside and yes, there she was – long dark wig, headscarf and enormous sun glasses, rummaging through the clothes rails. Having been fed a diet of Brittney looking dreadful in ‘Heat’ Magazine I was expecting her to be a bit of a minger. But she wasn’t, she looked lovely. It was clearly a classic case of reverse air-brushing.

‘I think it’s terrible that she is hounded like this’ I said to the people around me as I pushed my way forward to take a photo through the glass.

As she left the shop through a back entrance which led out to the car park, the crowd started to move and jostle. The photographer I’d been speaking to earlier, in his panic not to lose her clipped me round the ear with his zoom lens. Fed up of being pushed about I pointed my finger at him and shouted with as much menace as I could muster ‘Hit me baby – one more time – eh!’ Well actually, I only thought about that bit after the event. But I think we’ll keep it in for the movie!

Once Brittney had zoomed away through the snapping crowds in a 4X4 with tinted windows, one of the paps turned to me and said ‘You know, Eva Longoria’s in the restaurant opposite.’ Hurrah, I was in with the paps and they were giving me inside information. I was hooked. ‘How very Hollywood I’ve become’ I thought as I camped out in the car park with my new best friends. But after an hour there was still no sign of her. Having invested so much time in stalking the woman it seemed a bit of a shame to give up, but by that time I was more desperate for the toilet than desperate housewife, so I reluctantly admitted defeat and slunk away.

My most recent episodes of celebrity chasing include ‘door-stepping’ former Brentford FC Manager Andy Scott while having his breakfast in a Sheffield hotel. Tris is a massive Brentford fan so when we spotted him tucking into his full English, after a quick ‘Bloody do it Alison, you’re a long time dead’ pep talk and with the memory of my previous Branson bravery I went over to say hello. He was very pleasant, shook Tris by the hand and they chatted briefly about lower league football. It was the highlight of his weekend.

Then there was my personal ‘Hello’ from F1 driver Mark Webber at Wimbledon this year. It was Tris that spotted him, but while everone else was being terribly polite, it was me who found herself yelling ‘MMMMAAAAAAARRRRRKKK’ at the top of her lungs in an attempt to attract his attention. It did the trick and we got some lovely photos.

However, there is a flip side to all this which is that a person is only famous to you if you watch, read or listen to their stuff. If you don’t then they are just a person that you pass in the street.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch in the BBC canteen at the new Media City development on Salford Quays. Signed in as a guest and with my BBC visitor’s pass I was on full alert, eyes everywhere trying to spot famous people across the sandwich counter. I drew a blank.

Afterwards, my friend Colin offered to take me on a tour of the CBeebies (children’s BBC) offices. When we arrived at reception, Colin spotted a tubby man signing the visitors register. They obviously knew each other and had a quick chat. I quickly became aware that the girls on reception were in a bit of a fluster. The development up in Salford is very new so I guess the receptionists are still coming to terms with seeing famous TV people on a daily basis.

‘Are you the man who does the signing on the telly?’ one receptionist asked him. He nodded. ‘My little girl loves you, you’re so talented’ she gushed. ‘I try’ he replied. By this point I’m looking at Colin with raised eye brows, shrugging my shoulders and looking puzzled.

Once we were in the lift, Colin said ‘You didn’t know who that was did you?’ ‘I didn’t have a Scooby Doo.’ I replied shaking my head. It turns out, had I been three years old I would probably have wet myself (depending on whether or not I’d been potty trained). I’d just failed to spot Mr Tumble!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Oxford Blues

Matriculation 1987 - the world at our feet!

Nowhere can I see the ghosts of my former self more vividly than in Oxford. The in-print left on each corner and in each doorway of those hallowed spires is just as strong now as it was in person nearly 25 years ago when I first arrived as a fresh faced and wide eyed student.

A couple of weeks ago, Tris had a conference in Oxford and I took the opportunity to go with him to re-visit old haunts and indulge in a bit of reminiscing.

I wasn’t meant to go to Oxford University, it just kind of happened. I hadn’t applied to go there – I wanted to go to Bristol to train to be a vet. But my predicted A-level grades weren’t good enough and I wasn’t offered a place. I worked extra hard in the hope of getting 3 A grades and a place to study vet science through the university clearing system. But again I was thwarted with 3 B’s. No matter how many times people told me that was still really good, I was heart-broken. I thought that I was just a ‘B’ person.

While I was busy going to pieces, my dad was busy sitting at his type writer, writing individual letters to every university he could think of to try and get me a place. I think he wrote over 100 letters. Without him I would never have been offered an interview to study Zoology at St Peter’s College, Oxford. I will be eternally grateful to him.

Being offered a place there was the best feeling in the world. After of months of rejection and nobody wanting me, finally somebody did – and that somebody was Oxford. It was brilliant and despite spending the first six months there in total awe of the place, waiting for someone to decide that they had made a mistake because I was too thick and taking my place away from me, I fully embraced the whole Oxford student experience and emerged from the other end with a very respectable and hard earned 2:1 degree.

I begged Tris to let us stay at ‘The Head of The River’ pub, where you can sit outside in the sun shine and idly watch the punts go by on the Thames (or Isis if you are a local). However, my reason for wanting to stay there went a bit deeper. The Head of the River brings back incredible memories of cycling down the river towpath at 6am in the morning on my second-hand pink and green bicycle called ‘Nelly Dean’ to cox the St Peter’s gentleman’s third eight boat in the summer of 1988 (my backside was a lot smaller then). The mist rising from the water in the early morning sun, preparing myself to spend an hour sitting about an inch above the still, clear water, shouting at a bunch of strapping boys and trying not to steer them into the bank! I can almost still smell it.

By the time the hour was up, my boys would be all sweaty, I’d be hoarse and the sun would be streaming through the branches of the massive oak trees which lined Christchurch Meadow.

That all sounds very idyllic doesn’t it. However, ‘The Head of The River’ also holds memories of a different kind, of the 18 year old Alison who didn’t know her limits!

In December 1987 a group of us decided to arrange a Christmas dinner at ‘The Head of The River’. Wearing a borrowed coat dress from Wallis with massive shoulder pads and with my hair back combed and lacquered to within an inch of its life, I drank far too much Bacardi and red wine and spent the evening with my head in my dinner.

I have never dared to show my face in there again until a few weeks ago.

On arrival, I scanned the wall for my face / name on a ‘banned from this premises list. Phew – nothing. None of the staff seemed to recognise me either. I figured that I was safe – most of them probably weren’t even born in 1987!

The layout of the bar had changed so I located the position of the table and my 18 year old self at that table, in relation to the toilets which I remembered vividly. I think I spent quite some time in there that night. How very ‘Rah’ and ‘Rock n Roll’ I’d been in my youth, I smiled as I went upstairs to our room where Tris had made me a hot chocolate!

The next morning Tris left for The PhySoc annual conference while I went for a bit of a wander. I walked along the bottom of Christchurch Meadow by the river. I could see in my memory the damage caused by the great storms of 1987. Great oaks ripped from the ground, their roots exposed to the air. We had great fun seeing if we could hurdle them. I looked at the trees today – ‘So that’s what a 25 year old oak tree looks like’ I thought. They were pretty big and made me feel pretty ancient.

I blinked again and saw ‘Young Ali’ and her friend Nicky jogging round the meadow in our final year as students - a combination of stress and weight management. Finals, where three years of study were distilled into one week of exams were extremely stressful. Running around a meadow in leggings on warm summer mornings, listening to Del Amitri on my cheap Boots ‘Walkman’ was a good tonic. Yes, you heard me right, once upon a time even I went jogging. But then it was the 1980’s - everyone went jogging in the 1980’s. The second motivation was to be able to squeeze myself into a Laura Ashley ball gown which I’d optimistically bought a size too small. Even though we weren’t, like most girls of that age we thought we were too fat, and so we jogged and juiced carrots. How ridiculous – I look at myself now in the mirror at 42 years old and think back ‘Fat my arse!’ Youth really is wasted on the young.

I carried on down the river to sit on the pontoon opposite the St. Peter’s College boat house. It’s not the one I remember. That one burned down. But it’s almost the same. I looked across the river and could see ‘Young Ali’ in her beer festival t-shirt, bright multi-coloured culottes and deck shoes being held by four strapping rowers, one on each arm and one on each leg. I watched as they dangled her in a puddle before throwing her unceremoniously into the river. It was the end of a regatta and I had pond weed wrapped round my ankle when they finally managed to haul me out onto dry land.

I filed that memory away before getting back up and retracing my steps to where the river Cherwell meets the Thames. My boyfriend at the time, my absolute first love held the college position of ‘Warden of the JCR and Admiral of the Punts’. This meant he could play unlimited pool and had the ‘master punt card’. As a result I was punted quite a lot that summer.

When my parents came to visit, we decided to take them for a spin. With me, my mum and my dad sitting in the boat, my boyfriend steered us nicely towards and then along the river Cherwell. It was all going very well, until we reached the bit where the little ferry boat went across the river. The idea was that you could pull yourself across to the other bank holding onto the cables which went across the river at chest height. This meant that if you were standing at the back, doing the actual punting, you had to duck! The ‘Admiral of the Punts’ remembered this too late and was caught out. While he was left dangling, stranded in the middle of the river doubled up over the cable, my parents and I drifted on majestically down river. Luckily punts are also supplied with a paddle so my dad managed to get us back to collect him before he fell in. Canon Staples then spend the rest of the day making jokes about being ‘up the creek with a paddle!’

To be young and in love in Oxford in the summer is a very special and happy memory.

I carried on walking up onto the High Street, a quick glance to the right to Magdalen College Tower where the chapel choir sing every May morning at 6am. In my day drunk ‘Sloans’ in ball gowns and ‘Hoorays’ would then hurl themselves off Magdalen bridge into the river below. I think they may have banned that practice now.

Heading on I walked up to the Zoology Department which, amongst all those ancient dreaming spires, won a concrete design award in the 1970’s. It’s beautiful! It was here I attended lectures by the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on ‘The Selfish Gene’ and other similarly spectacular academics. It’s also where I spent a summer getting naked hermit crabs to fight over different coloured shells. It was science at its most primitive.

On past the Chemistry department with memories of late night sorties with a crazy chemist who had a key to the ‘dangerous chemicals cupboard’ and would try and impress me by making things explode, before arriving at the University Museum, a beautiful building stuffed full of natural history specimens. Not much had changed over the past quarter of a century - if you love fossils then you’ve come to the right place.

The University Museum supplied the specimens for the practical exam I took as part of my finals. There were stations set up around the lab each with a mystery item and a question. You were allowed five minutes before a bell went and then you had to move on to the next one. I remember getting to this one exhibit and being totally stumped. It looked like something’s leg bone (like a cow), but it didn’t have any joints at the ends. I was left scratching my head. Just as the bell started to ring it came to me – hallelujah – it was a whale’s willy bone. It was sneaky, but they didn’t catch me out. I know a willy bone when I see one.
I was lucky enough to have summer jobs for two consecutive years in the Oxford University Museum so I got to go through the ‘No Entry’ signs into the bowels and attics of the building where the bulk of the collection was kept. My employer was a young, Dr George McGavin. Today on his web site he describes himself as Zoologist, Explorer, Lecturer & Television Presenter. Some of you may know him from his appearances on ‘The One Show’. Back then he was just Scottish George.
During the first summer I moved hundreds of dead moths mounted on pins (part of a famous 19th Century genetics study) from old cabinets into new cabinets. It was riveting. The second year I was paid to count the museum’s entomology collection. They only knew roughly how big they were and wanted a more accurate figure. It turned out that they were actually about half as big as they thought they were and therefore only half as important. They weren’t very pleased. And no – I didn’t forget to count any – I was very thorough!
Back out into the sunshine before heading down Broad Street where we gathered in 1989 to march to the Martyrs Memorial to show support for the students of Tiananmen Square.
Past the Nat West cash point where I used to take out £5 to last me the week. This time I took out £50 which I figured would probably last me the day.
And along New Inn Hall Street to my home for three years, the very lovely St Peter’s College, not one of the biggest or fanciest, or richest or oldest of Oxford colleges but definitely the friendliest. Even now, 25 years on I’m still welcomed like a long lost member of the family.
With the Oxford college system, you get to mix with people studying a whole range of subjects. There can only have been about 300 students across all the years at St Peter’s so everyone knew each other pretty well. If I knew then what I know now in terms of who has done what ... I’d love to go back and get them all in a room together.
You’d have: 

1. Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (don’t remember him much, he was a bit older than me). 

2. Andy Hornby, former Chief Exec of HBOS who resigned in the banking crisis . 

3. Olympic gold medal rower Jonny Searle (although he didn’t go to St Peter’s, I did do my biology / zoology course with him. I remember he was always in his rowing gear and had massive curly hair). 

4. Simon Beaufoy, writer of ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (*I have a theory about him which I’ll tell you in a minute).
One of my favourite famous alumni stories concerns my college friends Mike, Dom and Dave who played in a blues band. One day, their drummer announced that he was leaving to concentrate on his comedy. They all laughed at him and said ‘But you’re not very funny’. However, he did have the last laugh – his name was Al Murray!
As I walked through the city that day I looked at the students still in Oxford over the summer and thought ‘I wonder who you will become?’
Back to Simon Beaufoy - I have a theory that I was actually the inspiration behind the most iconic part of the film ‘The Full Monty’!
Every year the students at St Peter’s would stage a review called ‘The Green & Gold Review’ after the college colours. In the spring of 1988 my friend Sarah and I decided to perform a dance routine. The film 9 ½ weeks with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke had just come out on VHS (and probably Betamax) and was all the rage. There is a famous scene where she strips for him to a sound track of Tom Jones’ ‘You can leave your hat on’. That was what Sarah and I performed.
We drank a bottle of Lambrusco between us beforehand to summon up the courage and in front of a common room full of baying young men we did our choreographed routine. It was all very tasteful we left considerably more than just our hat on, but I’ve often wondered if Simon Beaufoy was in the audience scribbling down ideas for future projects. I do hope so - it would be the coolest thing.
All the ‘Green & Gold Reviews’ were videoed so somewhere there is evidence. When I told the Development Team at St Peter’s this story, none of them had ever heard of the review or of an archive of recorded shows. However, if they managed to find the tapes I suspect that they would easily reach their fundraising target this year just by threatening to make the tapes public.
Surrounded by the memories of old college chums who have all grown up and achieved amazing things, I look at the imprint of ‘Young Ali’ standing there in the quad along side them, so full of hope and potential and ready to take on the world and I wonder how I’ve done in comparison. Its back to that same old question ‘Have done her justice?’ Well, I don’t think I’ve let her down, but similarly I do still feel like there is more to come and having been given a second chance at life like I have, I now need to find my ‘thing’ and bloody make sure I do it. I’ll let you know when I make it to the page of famous alumni!





Tuesday, 26 July 2011


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Thank you x

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Newlyweds

I did a bad thing yesterday. I slapped my husband of six weeks - in the testicles.

In my defence, it was an attempt to get his attention rather than anything more sinister, but I suspect from his response, he didn’t enjoy it very much.

We were in a ‘gastro-pub’ in Ripon waiting for our dinner to be served along with a group of friends, all of whom were cycling the ‘Way of the Roses’ Coast to Coast cycle ride (170 miles from Morcambe to Bridlington). Tris had spent the day in lycra on a bike peddling up steep mountain tracks, while I’d spend the day in a Wonder Woman t-shirt driving the support minibus from Bury Van Hire, swearing at the other drivers on the road.

It’s safe to say that even with padded shorts he was probably already a bit tender ‘down there’ so my antics can’t have been very helpful. I was in the middle of a conversation with someone else when suddenly, and I don’t know why, I was desperate for Tris to confirm that he was wearing his new favourite t-shirt. But he was talking to someone else about something much more serious (probably mud guards). It seemed as though I had become invisible.

‘So this is what married life is going to be like, I quipped (slightly miffed at being ignored) to the people around me. ‘I know what will get his attention’ I thought, determined to be heard. So fuelled by a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc I went to give him a playful tap. A large glass of wine in most instances is a good thing. On this occasion all it meant was that I lost the ability to aim and no longer knew my own strength. What was supposed to be a playful tweak resulted in a not so playful punch in the gonads.

It certainly got his attention, but suddenly my favourite t-shirt question didn’t seem quite so important after all, as he glared at me and demanded ‘What did you do that for?’ ‘I had a question and you weren’t listening to me’ I whined sheepishly. ‘What was it?’ he asked, clearly still not seeing the funny side. ‘Ooooooohhhhhh – eeeerrrrrrr – nothing?’ I offered.

I got ‘the look’ - and I don't mean the one by Roxette!

Punching your husband in his crown jewels is obviously a bad thing. Even I know that boys are built differently down there. But to do it after six weeks of marriage – that’s a very poor effort!

Although clearly I didn’t have, ‘I promise not to punch you in the testicles’ as one of my wedding vows. It got me thinking about how well I was doing in general in the wife department and six weeks in whether I was delivering on my wedding vows.

At work I’m used to developing a strategy, an annual action plan with SMART objectives and KPI’s (key performance indicators), reviewing it regularly and reporting back on progress. I’m wondering if marriage is so different. I don’t want my wedding vows, my life-long promises to Tris, to end up like many an action plan, filed away on the shelf only to be revisited when it’s too late.

Hmmmm – I might be able to make something good out of the testicle slapping incident after all!

A few years ago I did a similar kind of thing. Instead of writing a list of new years’ resolutions – I set myself some personal SMART objectives for the year, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.  Instead of writing a list of resolutions like learn Spanish, lose three stone, meet a man etc, things which are guaranteed to have fallen by the wayside in a fog of failure before February had even thought about joining the party. I decided just to write a list of things that I really enjoyed doing, and then make sure that I did more of them. The hope being that weight loss and the ability to find a man would increase too as a fortuitous by product.

That year I went on holiday more, went to the cinema more, read more books and made sure that I made more of an effort to meet up with friends and family. Then I monitored my progress on a spreadsheet on my fridge. Everyone thought I was barmy, and although I didn’t meet Mr Right, 2004 did turn out to be an extremely fun and action packed year.

So let’s look at my wedding vows in more detail and break them down a bit to see how I am doing. Just what exactly have I promised?

Tristan, in our marriage I promise to always be patient, honest, and kind. 

  1. Patient – Very poor start. 5/10. I shouted at him for not putting his trainers away. They’d only been off his feet for five minutes. I think I need to introduce a period of grace.
  2. Honest – Better. 7/10. I told him his butt looked nice in his cycling shorts yesterday. And when he asked last week if my dress was new, instead of lying and saying ‘What this old thing?’ I was honest and said ‘Yes’. Though I should probably knock a point off for saying that it was in the sale.
  3. Kind – Very good effort. 9/10.  I was a very caring nurse when he got diarrhoea in Paris on our 'minimoon'. Last week I stood on the sidelines in torrential rain, cheering him on in the Llandudno triathlon (running along the home straight with him in a kagool, shouting him on at the end of the race) and this weekend I’m driving a 17 seater minibus, the support vehicle for him and his friends doing the Coast to Coast bike ride. And as I said, I’m in a Wonder Woman t-shirt!
You are my best friend, my one love, my partner throughout life, always putting my needs first above your own.

Yes – all of the above without question. And in terms of putting my needs first above his own, I can report that my cup of tea in bed in the morning has continued just as before since we got married, and just now as I am writing this, he’s just offered me a bite of his biscuit!

I promise to live a life that will honour the vows we have spoken, and make you glad and proud to have me as your wife.

We have this thing – our thing. If you’ve ever seen the film Borat, you’ll know that when he talks about his wife he refers to her as ‘Maa Waaaafe’.

‘Go on, say it’ I’ll beg. ‘No’ he’ll tease. ‘Please say it’ I’ll beg again. He’ll look at me with that ‘I’m a lucky boy’ look in his eyes, and say ‘Maa Waaaafe’ and I’ll be in hysterics! The novelty of being married has yet to wear off. I hope it never does.

I also know that he’s really proud of me and of my blogs. In return I am enormously grateful to him for allowing me to tell a global audience about things like slapping his testicles.

We have so much to look forward to. In the good times and the bad, I shall love and cherish you - always.

Well we’ve not been tested too much on this front since we got married, but I think that all the shenanigans of the last few years show that we are in it for the long haul. Hopefully we’ve banked a lot of the bad stuff already and only have good times to look forward to for a very, very long time.

I’m not quite sure how to go about measuring my success as a wife and the more I think about it, maybe on this occasion to try would be a spreadsheet too far. Maybe I should trust in our relationship and the fact that when we chose each other, we got it right, and just let our marriage happen.

But at the same time I do think every so often I might dust off my wedding vows and just check that I am fulfilling the promises that I made to Tris in front of our family and friends. To make sure that I’ve not got complacent and just check that I’m not cocking things up by doing stupid things like drunkenly punching my husband in the testicles.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Father of the Bride - Dad's speech

Today’s post is a bit of a cheat, but for those of you who were at our wedding, I think it’s safe to say that sitting on the terrace in the sun shine, all of us together listening to the speeches was one of the high points of the day. And the speeches were good. I remember people roaring with laughter and dabbing their eyes in the space of a sentence.

So for those of you who were there I hope it brings back some happy memories and for those of you who weren’t, I hope it brings you a little bit closer to our big day.

I must admit that I was a bit worried about what stories he would dredge up - shouting 'I'm bored stiff' at the age of two during Dad's first sermon in his new job as vicar of Mexborough, was at the top of my list. But he did really well and it was lovely.

I give you – Dad’s speech!

Welcome to you all.

And especially to Tristan’s parents, Chris and Marguerite and his sisters Charlotte and Melanie.

To Alison’s Uncle Stuart and Julie and Alison’s cousins James with Rachel and Sally with Ross.

Welcome to families and friends from as far afield, I understand as Switzerland and Boston (I assume that’s not Lincolnshire).

More especially welcome, Tristan, welcome to your new family. If my dear Janet had been alive and here today she would have joined me unreservedly in this welcome—and worn an enormous broad-brimmed hat.

One of the disadvantages of being single again is the unfair imposition of excessive single-person supplements on hotel bills. I found a temporary solution last March when Alison and I had a wonderful Dad and Daughter holiday in Belgium and France. Congratulations to Tris and Ali for finding a more permanent solution!

My job now is to propose a toast to Bride and Groom. So here is a bit about both.

Alison is a very determined and resourceful lady. She was once invited to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party. She was, of course, given a lot of do’s and don’ts, especially about mobile phones. I got a text message: “Hi Dad. This is Ali from the ladies loo at Buckingham Palace”. Her mother and I once went to see her at Wigan to find that she had been trying (with some success) to assemble an Ikea futon—with a nail file. Ask her yourself about her attempt when she was a zoology student to find some hermit crabs at Cromer.  And look at her organisation of today. She would have made an extremely efficient executive officer to General Montgomery prior to the DD landings in Normandy. What a good job she’s done.
Alison has a great sense of adventure. Just like her paternal grandmother. Going round the world she crossed Canada by bus.  She rang me. She had found a retired priest—Stanley Cuthand—over 90 years old, a Cree Indian. He remembered as a schoolboy waving goodbye to his teacher, Miss Scholefield. She was leaving Saskatchewan to return to England. Florence Scholefield was my mother, Alison’s grandmother. How on earth she tracked him down I don’t know.

Then Alison is a very courageous person. She has had many hard knocks both health wise and job wise over the last few years. She has met them head on. Now I can thank you all. All those who have picked her up, and dusted her down over that time. And a special thank you to the medical team at the Christie Hospital. I feel an extra toast coming on.

But above all Alison has a great gift for friendship. She has a wide network of friends. But she is not just a friend of many, she is a friend to many in just the same way that her mother was. Her planning today proves it. She was determined to plan a day for as many of her friends and especially their children as possible.
And now Tristan. Don’t look so worried. I live in S. Lincolnshire, a long way away. What a reassurance it has been to me to know that you were here supporting her faithfully and quietly day in and day out. Thank you. At the beginning Alison told me that Tris wondered what he should call me. I said “He can call me ‘Sir’. I don’t know if this wasn’t passed on or was just ignored. We’ve settled for ‘David’.

And her sister Catherine - Catherine, thank you for helping to look after Alison. And doesn’t she look stunning as her chief bridesmaid today.

In conclusion, I once told Alison that they should elope to Gretna.  I’m jolly glad they didn’t. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.

And a bit of fatherly advice, but I know that her mother would have agreed absolutely with what I shall say. Each day together is a gift. Treasure them. Treasure each other. Remember that good a lasting marriage is more of a marathon than a sprint - a relevant analogy.

With this in mind I ask you all, with our love and best wishes, to drink a toast to the health and happiness of Tristan and Alison.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Live - Laugh - Love (13) The end of the first chapter, the beginning for the next!


It feels quite odd to be coming to the end of this series of stories. It’s given me the most fantastic boot up the bum to commit these memories to paper and to start writing again. I’ve really enjoyed doing it and it’s allowed me to indulge in some fabulous reminiscing. When you find yourself in the situation that I did last year, when you don’t know whether you even have a future to look forward to, so all you can do is look back, you ask yourself the questions ‘How did I do with my life?’ ‘Have I made a difference?’ And you look back at photos of yourself as a child and think ‘Have I done her proud or have I let you down?’

I might not have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder, be on a six figure salary or drive a flash car, but what I do know is that when the chips are down none of that really matters. When all you can do for weeks on end is lie in bed and try and find the strength from somewhere to hang on, all that really counts are your family, your friends and your memories. Shitty as getting cancer is, I do feel lucky in one way because I know what it feels like to be truly loved.

When I was ill, our post man must have had back ache from all the cards and presents from people who were willing me better from a distance. I had friends all over the world on Facebook clenching their buttocks for me when I went for critical appointments. People visited me at home, made us casseroles, came with me to out-patients appointments, sat with me during my treatment, visited me when I was in hospital (even though I can’t remember them being there) and dragged me out of the house to cafe’s. Anything people could do for me – they did. I am all too aware that the reason I’m sat here today is down to a huge team effort and a bloody big dose of luck. It must have been a very difficult thing to watch me go through.

I started organising our wedding this time last year. At the time it seemed like a massive project to undertake. But it gave me a focus and I will never forget what a fabulous day it was. I wanted to put on a really big party for everyone and while the central core was about me and Tris, I also wanted it to be a celebration to say thank you. To show you all that your hard work and care and faith in me hadn’t been wasted and that I’d fulfilled my part of the bargain. I think it’s fair to say that I looked pretty radiant.

There were a lot of blue butterflies at our wedding. I don’t know why, I just liked them. They fluttered on our invitations, the orders of service, our bridesmaids dresses and even my beautiful wedding dress by pure co-incidence was called Papillon. Maybe subconsciously I wanted people to see me emerge from my ugly cancerous cocoon where my hair fell out and my skin flaked off, my veins collapsed and I had scars left on my chest from where they’d forced in the central lines to give me high dose chemo directly into my jugular. My aim was to emerge from the most hideous version of myself where I quite literally already looked dead, to shake it off, and on my wedding day unfurl my wings and be beautiful and dazzling, finally released from cancer's evil clutches to fly up into the sky like a glowing healthy butterfly.

So the first present in this trio is a nod to this - a clutch bag with ‘beautiful’ embroidered on the front in candy coloured running stitch, finishing with a beautiful blue butterfly flourish. This was from Angela, and her words were simply ‘Beautiful on the outside and beautiful on the inside’. The same could be said of Angela, who I have worked with in my last two charities.

In our team, we used to joke about our alternative fundraising strategy, which included for me – big hair and low cut top and for Angela, it was her voice of chocolate. I’ve known her charm six figure sums out of men over the phone, melted quite literally by a river of deep silky tones.

We’ve organised many posh charity events together over the years for the great and the good, so she was the obvious choice to ask to help with my wedding planning. I have to say that many of the little touches that made the day so special and run so smoothly came from her. A thoroughly lovely warm person, who if her new venture into reflexology doesn’t work out, I sure there is a future for her in exclusive 0898 .... chat lines.

The second gift is a note book from Amanda (Milly), with instructions that I was to use it to start writing again. ‘When you were travelling, I read your travel blog every day and I really enjoyed it’ she said. Bloody start writing again young lady!’ By the time she’d finished she was waving her pointy finger at me and flashing her scary green eyes. As I said in one of my earlier blogs, I was too scared not to start writing again – Milly, this is all your fault!

I’ve always been a bit scared of Milly. She was Head of Communications at Keep Britain Tidy and one of the people who interviewed me for my first proper fundraising job back in 1996. She’s confident, she’s sharp, she’s direct and she has the most incredible green eyes I have ever seen. If people piss her off, she pins them to the wall with her steely stare until they get whirly Scooby Doo eyes and cave in. With techniques like that I’m surprised MI5 didn’t snaffle her up years ago – or did they? She’s been a freelance Marketing Consultant now for a number of years, none of us really know quite what she does!!!

Ahh, the Keep Britain Tidy Years (1996 – 2001). It’s funny how time makes you look back on things fondly. Sweet memories of litter picks in Wigan, dressing up as a Womble / giant oven chip / massive woolly ‘Tidy Man’ and cleanliness surveys in Bolton where tramps would wee in bottles, have stayed with me over the years. On the business side, the memory of finding out that I’d managed to secure a £500,000 lottery grant to bring Britain in Bloom to urban and inner city communities is particularly sweet.

However when we get together, the one thing that we always reminisce about is ‘The Dash Against Trash’. It was my boss’ bright idea. I was actually sitting next to her in a meeting with McDonalds at their Head Office when she pulled the idea from a small crazy place at the back of her brain. The idea was for generating sustained media interest during National Spring Clean Month, so she pitched a Lands End to John O’Groats litter relay. We would have a litter baton which would travel by a range of sustainable forms of transport across the country. The baton would be handed onto the next ‘runner’ at a McDonald’s restaurant for a photo call with the local restaurant manager, someone form the local authority (sometimes the Mayor) and a Womble. I can remember sitting next to her thinking ‘Oh shit’ because I knew who was going to have to go away and work those few sentences up into a fully costed and workable proposal – me! But McDonalds loved it and we walked out of their office with a promise of £250,000.

My memory of April 1998 and ‘The Dash Against Trash’ is of hurtling between hand over points in a white van, trying to keep up with the baton, which travelled by canoe, bike, train, horse and cart and roller skates. Arriving 10 minutes before the baton was due and hunting frantically for a car park (I nearly took to the top off it in Cheltenham during an aborted attempt to park in a multi-storey), legging it to the appointed McDonalds meeting point with ‘Dash Against Trash, supported by McDonalds’ banners, flinging on a Womble costume, shaking hands with the Mayor, having my photo taken by the local press, shedding the Womble costume before throwing the complementary Big Mac Meal down my neck. Then I’d be off to the next hand over point to do it all over again. In addition to McDonalds we also got sponsorship from Travelodge, so that’s where we’d sleep. Travelling the country and sleeping in rooms that all looked the same and could have been anywhere.

Orinoco Womble (me) actually had a funny turn one day in McDonalds in Barnet. Now when you are a Womble, there are rules. No one is supposed to see you putting the Womble costume on and you’re not allowed to speak, apparently it spoils the magic. So I had to mime ‘Get me out here quick before I faint’ by tugging at the Mayor, passing a weary Womble hand across my forehead and pointing to the door. Ever the professional!

Milly was on one of the other routes (in the end, to cover the country, we had Lands End to John O’Groats and Dover to Portrush in Northern Ireland), but she will remember exactly the same things and how stressful as it was at the time. It’s taken a little while but now when we are reminiscing we can see the funny side and always have a good laugh about it.

And so to the last of the presents from the very special pass the parcel at my hen weekend. It’s from my friend Jo and it’s a wooden sign which simply says ‘LIVE LAUGH LOVE’.

Jo is another friend I have made through Dragons Running Club and is someone who has been there, just around the corner quietly keeping an eye on me. She is one of the people who dragged me out for coffee and lunch and made me get my backside out of the house. She used the same no-nonsense determination that she applies to herself. Only Jo could be cross with herself for only doing a 23 mins 5K run, six months after giving birth to her little boy. For Jo, the fact that she couldn’t do a PB (personal best) the day after the delivery would have been considered a failure. She’ll tell me off for that last bit and say that I’m exaggerating, which I am, but I’m not far off the truth.

My LIVE LAUGH LOVE sign is currently in my office to remind me about what is important and how I should try and live my wonderful life. So far it’s going well and to prove it, I’ll leave you with one last story that brings us right up to date.

Last weekend a group of us went to Llandudno on the north Wales coast for the Llandudno sea triathlon. Some of the group (Tris included) had entered the full Olympic distance race, others were part of teams doing either the swim, cycle or run elements. I was holding the coats.

Jo was due to do the run, however the rain which was both torrential and horizontal was causing havoc with her hair dye. Bright red rivers from her funky red fringe ran down her face, pooling in her eyes which then stopped working. She tried to wash the dye from her face with soap, but as the rain came down harder all she succeeded in doing was creating a red soapy afro. Most of us would have given up and gone home, but not Jo, ever resourceful she shoved her hair into a red swimming cap and completed her leg of the race red eyed and squinting. Still, she wasn’t too upset about looking silly, as she said ‘at least the cap matched me trainers’!

Jo wasn't the only one who was a bit red in the face last Sunday. As Tris finished his race, I ran with him along the sea front. Not very far but for someone who last year couldn't even make it to the toilet without help, it was a huge step forward.

So thank you ladies for letting me share our stories (not that I gave you much choice). It’s been like writing a love letter to you all where I’ve been able to write some of the things I’ve not necessarily been able to say. I hope I’ve not let our memories or our friendships down xx.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Live - Laugh - Love (12) Prime Beef (Loveline Publishing)


Charlotte is one of Tris’ two sisters. 

I must admit that I was puzzled as to why my sister-in-law to be should give me ‘Over 30 full colour post cards of PRIME BEEF’. Was there something she knew about her brother that I’d yet to uncover? Was this a coded warning or an incredible insight into what women really want?

Well according to ‘Loveline Publishing Ltd. 1993’ what women (and some men) really find attractive is:

-       80’s Club Tropicana budgie smuggler swimming briefs
-       Men rubbing themselves in the desert with lotion (with or without boulders)
-       Unbuttoned, ripped stone washed jeans – sitting on hay bales while rubbing a horse
-       Cut off shorts with bum cheeks hanging out with the stars and stripes on the back pocket
-       Men in jersey shorts and headbands weight lifting / boxing and dripping with sweat
-       Men in their pants lounging in front of an open fire – moody atmospheric lighting – with their socks on!

However, my three favourites were:

  1.  The naked man astride a horse where you can just see (well actually it’s pretty obvious) the curve of his testicles nestling against the saddle. Ow! Saddle sore!
  2. The full length shot, from behind of a naked man standing looking out of a window. From behind those clenched buttocks are pretty fine. Imagine the view for the post man on his way up the front path. He must have had package envy!
  3. Man (boy!) standing on a beach just having emerged from the waves. Through his white see through trousers he seems to have forgotten his underwear because you can clearly see his little friend winking. While clearly not shy when it came to showing us his man/boyhood, when it comes to showing his face it’s a different story because he’s also wearing swimming goggles!
I’ve just tried to find a web-link to ‘Prime Beef’ so that you can see these fine images for yourselves, but it would seem that Loveline Publishing Ltd. 1993 are no longer in business, making my copy very rare. This must be why the only reference I can find to it is on The Printers Row Fine and Rare Books web site, E-bay for £2.50 where you get the option to ‘Enlarge’ and Amazon where there are three ‘Used’ copies available at £4 each. If anyone would like to ‘use’ my copy, they can for free – I’ll set up a booking spreadsheet!

Now I’ve seen pictures of Tris in the early 90’s. The one that springs to mind is of him and his friend Nigel on holiday in Turkey, in a pair of speedo’s having rubbed mud into each other! Nigel was supposed to be there with his girlfriend Ruth (now wife) but after a row, probably about his speedo’s, they had temporarily split up so he took Tris instead. He didn’t look particularly upset in the holiday photos, clearly rubbing Tris with mud had taken the edge off.

Regardless of this fine attempt, it’s not really Take That recording the video for ‘Pray’!

So what else could it mean? Well I’m not aware that he’s ever ridden a horse naked, but he has been known to open our bedroom curtains and ‘wave’ at the people on the No 19 bus on their way to Altrincham. I don’t think anyone has ever noticed, but it makes me smile and I can’t really talk, I’ve been flashing my boobs at them for years.

And then there is the man in goggles, well it’s not unusual to see him emerging from the sea / lakes / rivers in goggles and a wet suit when he’s triathlon training. I think I’ll have to work on him though for the white trousers and no pants look!

It would seem that this publication of erotica is something of a family air loom. Apparently Tris’ youngest sister Mel gave it to Charlotte and now Charlotte has passed it on to me. I feel very honoured to have been accepted in this way into the Pocock family and will make sure that I am a worthy custodian. It certainly doesn’t look used – but then Charlotte is a vegetarian.

This brings me nicely to my new Pocock family in general. I am one lucky girl to have married into such a great family. Each and every one of them has enthusiastically welcomed me, which was especially apparent when I was ill. Tris’ mum Marguerite in particular was amazing. She must have been very aware that I didn’t have my mum around anymore to look after me so she took on the role of two mums. She phoned, wrote me letters, texted, sent gifts and even came to see me in Manchester the day after her first grandchild was born in Brighton (she was there for that too) because I was struggling, armed with a home-made quiche, jars of jam and bags of fruit and veg from their allotment. This was made all the more impressive by the fact that she was on the cusp of an ankle replacement operation and was hobbling with a stick.

The warmth and care shown by Tris’ mum has been replicated by his whole family who similarly wrote, texted, phoned and sent presents to help me to get through the dark days of my illness. Just as Tris’ Dad wouldn’t let me give up during the Manchester to Blackpool bike ride that we completed in 2008 (65 miles), they weren’t going to give up on me this time and between them  willed me better. It’s not hard to see why Tris has turned out so well and I feel very lucky.

The other elements of my gift from Charlotte were a bottle of bubbles (‘get ready to party’) from her favourite shop – Wilko, because she sees me as a bubbly personality and an ‘APocock’ key ring which she’d made from Fimo modelling clay.

So now that the letters arrive to Dr & Mrs T Pocock and I wonder what the hell has happened to Dr Alison Staples – where did she go? Although I am still firmly rooted and will never forget my Staples history (I’ve traced it to the 1650’s), I also feel really proud to be part of my new family. And when I think about what to put on my new APocock key ring, it’s quite simple - it’s the key to my future.


So it’s time for the last in these series of stories – it’s A BEAUTIFUL BAG, A WRITING PAD AND A SIGN THAT SAYS ‘LIVE-LAUGH-LOVE’. Don’t miss this one!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Live - Laugh - Love (11) Do the Funky Chicken!


Swiss chicken sounds like a cross between a pizza topping, a casserole my mum might have made in the 1970’s and a character from The Muppets. But the ‘chick’ in  this tale is anything but a Muppet and certainly wasn’t chicken when she turned her life upside down to move lock, stock and barrel with her man Tim, and two small children from Sheffield to the banks of Lake Geneva in 2003.

Tim had been craving a better life for some time, full of fresh air, mountain walks, skiing, goats and cheese, and they both wanted their children to grow up in an amazing and safe environment. Sadly Sheffield couldn’t deliver all of the above, so when a job at an international primary school near Lausanne came up he was onto it faster than Federer onto a sponsorship deal.

I first met Reb in Sheffield in 1992 when I started my PhD. While I was spending my days looking down a microscope at bird sperm, she was skipping around in a wood shaking her lettuce. I think it was something to do with chlorophyll.

She met her other half Tim whilst temporarily interested in climbing. It didn’t take her long to perfect her bouldering! I held her daughter Evie a week after she was born, she was beautiful then and 11 years later she was even more beautiful as one of my bridesmaids.

I went to visit Reb about six months after they moved out to Switzerland. They had chosen to live in a remote village in a cabin with a log burner in the middle of the room. Evie was three years old and Leo barely a year. It was clear to see that the idea of moving to Heidi country was at that point better than the reality. While Tim had settled into his adopted new country with an enviable fluency, for Reb the hills weren’t alive with the sound of music. It was more like the sound of howling – primarily the children, but I’m sure she had her moments. Although there were elements of baking cakes and picking flowers, moving to a small Swiss village which didn’t accept strangers readily meant that every day she had a new mountain to climb.

She did try really hard to integrate. She took French lessons, tried to make friends with the locals and even took Evie to a local nursery, but Evie struggled too and would sit in the corner, upset by all the strangeness. When I went out to visit that first time in February 2003, armed (as requested) with English magazines and the video box set of Cold Feet, if you were to ask me whether they would stay there, I would have said that it could go either way.

But over the years they’ve stuck it out, I’ve been back out to stay with them many times and have lots of happy memories. These are a few of my favourite things - birthday parties on the banks of Lake Geneva, jumping spontaneously onto a train to Milan, riding the Mont Blanc Express and cooling off in the lake on a hot summers day - we’ve had a lot of fun. A particular favourite was being taught to ski in a car park one winter in borrowed ski boots. They were the wrong size and they crippled me. Four months later my big toe nail fell off!

To say that I was taught to ski might actually be stretching the truth. I remember getting to the top of a hill which ordinarily wouldn’t even look like a hill, but covered in snow, strapped to ski’s and viewed from the summit, looked terrifying. Reb’s ski tuition consisted of depositing me at the top of the hill and shouting ‘Off you go’, followed by something to do with pizza and chips? Apparently it’s how you teach children the different skiing positions. I was more interested in being taught how to stop. There’s no way of dressing it up – I had a tantrum. One thing I did learn however is that my freakishly bendy knees do lend themselves  well to doing the snow plough and that cheese fondue, hot chocolate and anything else that’s 95% cream does make you feel a lot better about things.

Switzerland was also the first place I took Tris just after we started ‘courting’. He got very excited when he realised that you could hire pedalo’s on the lake and promptly tried to pedal us over to France and back in an hour. It was a bit ambitious, but you’ve got to admire his spirit.

I never tire of the train journey from Geneva airport along the great lake, the view across to France, the town of Evian dwarfed by the magnificent French Alps, the ancient terraced vineyards built in the 12th Century by monks and the town of ‘Gland’ which you travel through just before you get to Lausanne, always make me smile.

I am incredibly proud of Rebecca and how they’ve built their new life, she’s been very strong and Evie and Leo have grown up to be a real credit to them. A critical turning point however, was making the decision to leave Yodel-ville behind and head to the bright lights of Montreux, where coffee and cakes require a small loan, but you can have an international circle of friends (the Nestle wives).

There’s a life sized bronze statue of Freddy Mercury that looks out over the lake in Montreux. That oh so iconic pose, wide stance and fist thrusting up into the sky. It acts as a memorial to his adopted home where he came to both record and finally die. It’s a shrine now for Freddy followers and is always covered in flowers. I always like to go and give Freddy a little rub whenever I’m in the area.

Rebecca has always been a frighteningly bright spark, and mixed with the confidence of ‘how hard can it be?’ when it comes to attempting new things, it’s an impressive combination. So it came as no surprise to hear that she had blagged herself a fabulous new job teaching statistics to the offspring of rich Russian oligarch’s on a Leisure Management course at a nearby Swiss institution. Unlike the rest of us, who would have run for the hills (a particularly easy option considering the location), Reb dazzled them with jargon remembered from university days a lifetime ago, accepted the job and then calmly e-mailed our friend Nick (statistical genius) and asked him for his lecture notes. I think he might have sent her back his latest book. ‘How hard can it be’ she said ‘I’ll just tell them to read newspapers and then get them to discuss’. And it worked, she stayed one step ahead of them that year and has been doing it ever since.

The final piece in the jigsaw was when they finally sold their house in Sheffield, moved out of rented accommodation and bought a home in Switzerland. They now own a massive house which nestles into the side of the hill, in the mountains overlooking Montreux and Lake Geneva. Their glass fronted balcony boasts one of the finest views in the world. To travel to work, Reb sometimes commutes on The Golden Pass train which snakes its way dramatically from Montreux up into the mountains. It’s widely known as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, but for them leaping on and off at their local station in Sonzier , is no different than riding the metro in Manchester is for me.

And so finally we come to my hen weekend gift, the small toy chicken.

In 2007 Sonzier was the perfect place for me to undertake my altitude training before heading out on my round the world trip. I stayed with Reb and Tim for nearly a month.

Since my last visit, Reb had decided to add three chickens and a cockerel to her family. While she liked the thought of living the good life, unfortunately so did the chickens who kept escaping and eating next doors vegetables. In a country where rules ....... rule, where you get written warnings from the authorities if you don’t cut your hedge or use your washing machine at night, causing friction with your neighbours isn’t advisable. Rebecca has always been very good at talking me into things against my better judgement and it wasn’t long before she had convinced me to clip the chicken’s wings. ‘How hard can it be’, she trilled. ‘Snip, snip, off you go, you’ll be fine’. I didn’t see her rushing to help and it seemed like an odd thing to ask of a guest. Her reasoning was that I’d handled birds when I was doing my PhD. If we are going down that road, I’d just like it noted that handling a huge angry cock is a notch above her equivalent of tossing a salad!

Still, I did it. Amongst much squawking and chasing, I wrestled the chickens to the ground, avoided being pecked and in the midst of feathers flying everywhere, clipped off their primary flight feathers. Once the din had died down I went inside, announced that the job was done and had a brandy.

For a vegetarian, Rebecca has got through a lot of chickens over the intervening years. It turns out that I did the wing clipping thing wrong, so the birds still escaped and were eaten by a fox. Said fox then duly took up residence in the wood nearby and promptly ate any further chickens. It’s a shame that that part of the dream didn’t quite work, but for the rest of it I think she’s done pretty well.

To conclude, I’m so glad Rebecca and I have stayed friends – she is one of those rare people who when she talks, paints with words. Where the rest of us get lazy, she uses language that the rest of have forgotten. It’s very unusual, very refreshing, frequently very funny and I love, love, love  listening to her.


The next tale is the penultimate in this series – the gift this time is a BOOK OF BEEF CAKE! What the .......???