Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Training for the future

Hallelujah, it's over!  We've come through it again.  We may be fatter, poorer and with liver damage; we may have fallen out irrevocably with certain family members (and announced the fact to a large gathering in a loud, slurred voice); we may be biting our nails to the quick wondering what we're going to do about January's credit card bills, but at least we're still alive.  Our grandparents survived Hitler and his bombs, and their stoicism lives on in us today, kicking in every December 25th, praise be. 

So, how was the C-word (don't make me say it!) for you?  Mine was terrific, thank you for asking.  Because I almost totally avoided it, by working.

Work is a wonderful thing.  Not only do you get paid for it, it enables you to decline invitations without causing offence.  An old acquaintance invites you to their wedding: you can't tell them the truth, which is: "I really can't be bothered to search for a present, travel for hours and blow a small fortune on a hotel room just to see you get married.  I'm too old and tired to make small talk for what will feel like a year and a half with deaf, elderly members of your family.  In any case, I suspect you've only asked me to make the numbers up, or out of a misplaced sense of obligation.  So, thanks all the same, but I won't bother." 

You can, however, say: "Gosh, I'd love to, but I have to work that weekend."  For some reason, that makes it totally alright.  The happy couple probably won't even suggest that you try to swap your shifts.  They certainly won't check that you were telling the truth - they've got far too many other things to fret about - so you don't even really have to be going to work!

In the same way, honest toil is the perfect way to escape the C-word which is why I accepted two radio gigs on C-Day, in cities 80 miles apart.  I spent a total of six hours doing my favourite thing - being on the radio.  I had no opportunity to drink too much or overeat, and I wasn't stuck for long enough with anybody to fall out with them.

And here comes the point of this blog: I was only able to broadcast in London and Southampton because my lovely cousin, God bless her, lent me her car.  Why is it that we are constantly taught that public transport is the way forward, that to own a car, unless you live in the absolute depths of Nowhere-shire, is global-warmingly wicked, yet there is no public transport on Christmas Day?

Actually, that's not quite true; bizarrely, there has always been one form of public transport on the baby Jesus' birthday, and that's air travel.  If you want to fly from Manchester to Madrid or from London to Las Vegas, no problem.  But if you need to get from Birmingham to Bradford or even just nip down the road from Streatham to Stockwell, you'll have to be in possession of a relatively clean driving licence and shell out serious money on a hire car.

It wasn't always thus.  I'm too young to remember but I'm told trains ran on Christmas Day in this country as recently as the 1950s.  Then the car became king.  Cities, like my home town of Birmingham, were disastrously redesigned around them.  Every family aspired to owning one, then two, then more.  To travel by train or bus was for the elderly, the poor and children.

Many of us no longer think that way, but the legacy lives on.  I had to plan my Christmas movements, involving trains, buses and collecting and returning my cousin's car, like a military operation.  And I've got to do it all over again at New Year because, even though there will be some trains on the 31st and 1st, they don't fit my needs.  It's a logistical nightmare.  Thank heavens for my cousin; the cost of a hire car would have meant some of the gigs just weren't worth doing.

Plenty of people work on Christmas Day.  Every TV and radio station puts out a service.  Pubs pull pints, restaurants serve Christmas lunch.  Firefighters fight fires, and someone makes sure your electricity stays on so you don't miss the Royal or the Royale Family.  If you slice your finger off carving the turkey, there's a team waiting at A&E to stitch it back on.   Surely, therefore, sufficient bus and train staff could be found to work on the 25th if it were made worth their while. 

For the first few years, there may be low take-up for the "new" service as people got used to its being there.  Car-loving short-termists would rush to condemn the cost but we should face them down because, after a few years, Christmas Day public transport would seem as normal as dried-out turkey breast and having a shouting match with Uncle Eric. 

Imagine the luxury of both drinking yourself silly and getting back to your own bed for the cost of a bus or train ticket when the in-laws become too much to bear.  You really can't put a price on that.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Sorry, I just don't buy it

The TV was awash these past few days with Eurostar officials being grilled about their trains' bizarre inability to function when it's colder outside the Channel Tunnel than in it.

Every spokesperson, irrespective of whatever first question the interviewer put to them, started by saying they were personally very sorry.

When several trainloads of passengers have been marooned underground for up to 16 hours in the dark and freezing cold, having panic attacks, running out of medication, unable to quiet screaming babies, being handed a small bottle of water to share between six or a Danish pastry between nine, and all with zero leadership or organisation, one would very much hope that these officials were extremely sorry!

The question is, though: does saying so at every opportunity make the situation better or worse?

Not so long ago, public officials just didn't do sorry.  Getting a politician, council leader, senior police officer or business bigwig who had fouled up to utter the 's' word was tougher than pulling an impacted wisdom tooth.  Then those wretched media trainers (and I should know, I used to be one) sprang out of nowhere and began teaching the Great and the Good 'how to communicate more effectively' and 'how to present a positive image in TV interviews'.  What this really meant, of course, was 'how to smoothly avoid answering any embarrassing questions whilst appearing sincere and forthcoming'.

As part of this cynical plan, some genius hit on the idea of saying 'sorry'.  Why not?  It doesn't cost a penny.  It doesn't involve any work, planning or decision-making.  It makes you look less like a remote cabinet minister and more like a decent bloke who's merely doing his best.

And to start with, it was effective because it was new, different, attention-grabbing.  Pretty soon, however, it became, inevitably, a victim of its own success.  If everyone is personally sorry about everything all the time, it becomes meaningless.

We've now reached the point where politicians apologise personally for things that occurred before they were born.  Whilst we can all agree it's terrible that people used to be sold into slavery, and that the bombing of Dresden in 1945 was, at least, questionable, if you weren't around at the time, you surely cannot, by definition, have anything to feel personally sorry for.  Didn't we establish 2,000 years ago that the sins of the father shouldn't be visited on the sons?

In a different arena, have you noticed that every announcement about a delayed or cancelled train now includes a personal apology?  The trouble is, you know it's impersonal: the announcer can't be genuinely moved by the late-running of the 17.42 to Guildford and the cancellation of the 18.06 to Strawberry Hill and every other service irregularity day in, day out.  What's more, most of these announcements are now recorded messages, scheduled by computer: no member of staff even has to be sufficiently sorry to press a button.  What could be more patronising, not to mention downright nonsensical, than a machine saying "I am very sorry..." - not even "we" or "South West Trains are very sorry..." - "...for the late running of this service"?

And, of course, it seeps into everyday life.  How often now do you see a mum out with her two children and, when one does something unspeakable to the other, the only punishment is being told to: "Say sorry to your sister"?  The offender does so willingly - it costs him nothing, unlike a smack or the withdrawl of privileges.  He isn't sorry at all, though, and all parties know it, so where is the sense of justice for his walloped little sister?  Once she's finished howling, she will strike back for the retribution her parent failed to obtain, safe in the knowledge that she too will only be required to utter a meaningless word as punishment.

How are we ever to turn the tide on all this handwringing, crocodile tear-splashed regret?  I suppose we can only hope those in power, their mouth pieces and their media trainers will finally realise we no longer believe they're remotely sorry - if we ever did. 

Don't hold your breath.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Porridge and cider

I've been looking back through my blogs.  They're not bad.  There's always room for improvement, however, and I've identified at least one fault; a lack of killer intro's.

Shame on me: I was the star pupil of the Midland News Association's Class of '78 where the one thing that was constantly drummed into us was the need to grab and hold the readers' attention with a punchy lead paragraph. 

So, from now on, there'll be no slow builds; no fey literary meanderings; no taking the leisurely, linguistically elegant B-road to our subjectival destination - and no showing off with big words just for the sake of it like that, either!  No, killer intros rule from now on.

You'll have noticed that we're on paragraph four already and have still to encounter so much as an injure-you-very-slightly intro, let alone one of the killer variety.  That's because this blog hasn't started yet.  I know it seems to have, but it hasn't.  This bit's just the prologue or foreward or preamble or whatever you want to call it.  The real thing is about to start.....NOW!

I had a very interesting chat with a drunken convicted killer yesterday.

(See?  I've still got it!  Let us continue.....)

I was on a train to Wales and he came and sat across the aisle.  I was writing Christmas cards and so was disinclined to chat but he was determined.  If you were brought up, as I was, by a mother who believed good manners counted above all else, there are only so many conversational opening gambits you can ignore.

This small, middle-aged, non-decript chap was going home after serving six and a half years of a twelve-year stretch for manslaughter.  Rather than savour every moment of his first day of freedom with a clear mind, he had made a conscious decision "to get rat-arsed on cider" and, by midday, was well on the way.

He was an amiable soak, which made his crime all the harder to imagine: a bloke bumped into his wife in a pub so he hit him, too hard and in a particularly vulnerable part of the body, the front of the neck.  The man died and my new best mate was convicted of manslaughter.  If his fist had connected higher or lower, the victim would have lived and a far lesser charge would have been brought, but there was no bitterness or self-pity: "Oh, I shouldn't have done it.  End of.  Oh no, it was fair do's, mate."

And now he was on his way home to see the daughter and son who'd been a few weeks and four years old respectively when he was put away and whom he had never seen since.  His wife had thought it too difficult to drag two young children on numerous trains and a ferry from Cardiff to London to Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight where he was incarcerated, then back again, and he didn't blame her. 

Their first impression of their longlost daddy would be that of a semi-coherent little man, unsteady on his feet and stinking of cider.  I wanted to ask why he couldn't stay sober at least until the evening when they were tucked up, and then let loose with his mates, but I thought better of it.

He guessed that I and my partner were a gay couple.  "I'm not being funny, like, but are you and your mate, erm, you know, that way?"  It sounded like the quaint enquiry of someone who'd been out of the loop for more like sixteen years than six.

I confirmed that we did indeed share the love that not only dares speak its name these days but positively shrieks it from the rooftops and insists you join in with a Mexican wave and a bottle of pink champagne.  This was positively received: "I shared for eighteen months once with one of your lot.  Best cellmate I ever had."

Whenever our conversation stalled, I returned to my cards and he went back to another of many phone calls, setting up meetings with drinking buddies, which always included the question: "Have you got any money?"  A couple ended acrimoniously: "Alright, then, if that's how you feel, go f**k yourself and don't bother ringing me back because I won't answer, simple as that!"  I believe prisoners aren't allowed mobiles so he'd acquired one pretty instantly upon release - or am I being spectacularly naive?

We parted company at Newport, where my other half and I left the train, with a warm handshake.  "I'm wearing all designer gear, you know," he suddenly volunteered.  "This shirt is Lacoste and the jeans are Armani, all genuine, not knock-off."  I guess he liked me and so wanted to go up in my estimation, and thought this would do the trick.

I found that terribly poignant, as I did the thought of his meeting his kids a couple more cans of strong cider down the line.  I've got a horrible feeling they'll be saying goodbye to him before too long but I really want to be wrong.


Thursday, 10 December 2009

Christmas schmistmas

Though still a relative newcomer, I am fast realising that we bloggers blog for a variety of reasons.  My love of the whole process of writing is one of my main motivators, as is a constant need to entertain and be the centre of attention: I've been like it since I was about three and long since learned to stop feeling worried or guilty about it.  As the late actor Robert Morley once said (on Parkinson, I think): "People are always telling their children to stop showing off.  I say don't.  Showing off could be their only way of earning a living." Amen, Bob.

I've also blogged to vent my spleen (over the inadequacies of First Great Western's train service), to profess my love (for Birmingham and my Auntie Vera who lives there) and for a bit of self-psychoanalysis (why must I cram my life with busyness?).

Today, however, I'm tapping away for a different reason; procrastination.  I'm avoiding writing my Christmas cards.

I hate it.  I would rather clean a stranger's toilet.  I would rather queue up in a particularly downmarket branch of Argos on a manic Saturday afternoon.  I would rather be stuck in a lift with a right-wing, chain-smoking homophobe with an unusually large selection of holiday snaps.  I would almost rather eat offal, but not quite.

It's not that I don't care about the cards' recipients.  I'm really pleased to keep in touch with most of them even if I don't see them from one year to the next, although I wish I could get the numbers down a bit; I send and receive over 100 every year.  In the past, I've tried to trim only to get concerned or hurt phone calls or notes in January: "We didn't get a card from you this year!  Are you well?  Have we upset you?"  It's sweet that they should notice and care, of course, but how can anyone notice the absence of one card?  Anyway, back onto my list these handwringing acquaintances have to go.

No, the three things that make writing Christmas cards torture are the mind-numbing repetition, the mind-hurting attempt to avoid that repetition and personalise each one and, more than anything, the realisation that Christmas is now well and truly upon us and there is no escape.

You see, it's not just writing cards I can't stand, it's the entire crassly-commercialised, bank account-emptying, wearying, worrying, anticlimactic, bloody kaboodle.  Somewhere around mid-November, a fog of gloom descends.  I've been like it ever since I was seven or eight.  I've got to be careful how I express this next bit just in case young eyes should ever see this: I think it's because I never got over my parents' confession that a certain munificent, corpulent, hirsuite geriatric with a penchant for scarlet was fictitious (are you with me?).  Or that they had lied about it whilst constantly drumming into me that lying is wrong!

Let's stop pretending for once; Christmas is full of stuff that's just so rubbish!  For a start, turkey is the driest, blandest meat known to Man.  How many cooks have devised elbarote wheezes over the years to attempt to give it some life?  Everything from draping the wretched thing in butter-soaked muslin to cooking it upside down.  You don't have to bother with all that palaver when you're roasting a chicken or a leg of lamb, do you?  You just bung it in the oven!  Turkey's not even British or traditional, it's a hideous American important that replaced goose, the juiciest, tastiest flesh your grateful tastebuds are ever likely to encounter.

Then there's the overall menu.  At no other time of the year would anyone advocate following a mountainous roast dinner with the richest, heaviest and most alcoholic of puddings (which hardly anybody likes).  And let's not even get onto the torture of a dozen people, all of whom have consumed sprouts and some of whom are elderly, being trapped together in a modestly-proportioned room with well-sealed windows and doors.  Or being dragooned into playing games.  Or having to pretend your five-year-old nephew isn't getting on your nerves.  Or that terrible, four o'clock anticlimax when every present has been opened and thoroughly examined and dinner consumed, yet it's still hours before there's anything decent on the telly.

I could go on and on and, believe me, I'd love to but it's time to get the cards out and get down to it.

I'll be working my socks off over Christmas and New Year - I've seven radio and TV gigs between the 25th and the 1st with a couple more pending.  I'll be doing what I enjoy, earning good money and avoiding a bloated stomach, sore head and short temper.  You know, somewhere deep inside, you want to be me. 

(Picture courtesy of http://www.whalecottage.com/)

Saturday, 5 December 2009

A fruitful journey

Regular readers may recall I missed a First Great Western train to the Cotswolds recently because of huge queues at the ticket machines at Paddington Station.

I've just made the same journey again.  I wasn't going to get caught twice so this time I got to Paddington with half an hour to spare - and there were no queues at all.  How could two Friday night rush hours be so different?  It's not as if First Great Western has installed loads of extra machines or doubled staffing levels at the ticket office in response to my email of complaint.

Missing the train last time meant I arrived an hour late. This time, I alighted at Charlbury a mere 15 minutes behind schedule.  This was caused by a long sit at Reading Station.  The guard - sorry, train manager - a close relation of Les Dawson at his most lugubrious, informed us this was thanks to a staff no-show.  He had agreed to do the job instead.

"I didn't have to," he deadpanned.  "I could have refused and then this train would have been taken out of service.  So yippee for me!"

One station later, we experienced another, more minor delay.  Mr Dawson's less cheerful cousin was soon back on the mic with the explanation.  "A passenger got out of the front carriage and didn't close the door.  I've just had to walk the entire length of this train to close it."  Yes, it was all about him.

I didn't know whether to be appalled at this lack of professionalism or cheered by a bit of British eccentricity.

My friend picked me up from the station.  Rather than just sit and wait for the delayed train, he explained, he had used the extra 15 minutes to drive off and buy some blueberries.  Unfortunately, he didn't add that he had left the blueberries on the passenger seat.  Ah well, they were destined for the topping of a blueberry cheesecake, so he'd have had to have puréed them later in any case.  Shame about the leather upholstery, though....

After that, the weekend went pretty smoothly which was almost a disappointment. 

Moobing forward

A great privilege of being a journalist is meeting people, visiting places and seeing things you wouldn't otherwise be able to.  Not every experience is pleasant, of course; for every personal hero you get to interview (Tony Benn), there's a personal villain (Ann Widdecombe).  For every fragrant, jewelled palace, there's a damp, overcrowded council flat.  And for every obsequious handshake from a grateful PR, there's a mouthful of abuse from someone who'd much rather you weren't poking around in their nefarious business.

Last Friday, I attended a surgical procedure and I'm still trying to work out whether it was a Tony Benn or an Ann Widdecombe moment.

I've been making a film for Channel Five TV's 'Live From Studio Five' show in which Melinda Messenger, Ian Wright and Kate Walsh meet celebrities and chew the fat entertainingly about the (mainly) inconsequential issues of the day.  They like a bit of more serious meat in their sandwich, however, which is where I came in.

When I was a boy, I developed man boobs or moobs, or gynecomastia, to give it its proper name.  It's a much misunderstood condition.  If you are overweight with a beer gut and a fat arse as well as man boobs, you probably don't have gynecomastia - you have pseudogynecomastia and need to diet and hit the gym.  If you are slim, fit and firm everywhere else but your moobs persist, you do.

My story is typical.  I tried diet and exercise to no avail.  I laughed along with schoolmates' jibes, some intended to wound, others just uttered unthinkingly, then cried in private.  I became a master of illusion; clothes were bought on the basis of how effectively they camouflaged the abnormality.  I was always first in and last out of the swimming pool, and I never sunbathed topless "because of my sensitive skin".

Finally, at the age of 40, I plucked up the courage to do something about it.  I found a cosmetic surgeon who pronounced me an ideal candidate for liposuction.  Not to put too fine a point on it, under general anaesthetic, the fat was sucked out of my tits.  My chest was then tightly bound so that my new shape could consolidate.  After a few days, my swaddling was peeled off.  Staring back at me from the mirror, amid a glorious, abstract artwork of red, blue, purple, brown and black bruises, was an unremarkable, unmistakably boob-free, male torso.  It was one of the greatest moments of my life.  A decade on, my chest remains as flat as the proverbial pancake and I remain euphoric and grateful.

Since then, I've unintentionally become a cheerleader for corrective surgery for the condition.  I've written about it in national and regional newspapers, debated it on radio and reported on it for television.

For this latest film, the producer had found a man who was prepared to let us film his going under the knife.  It took her some months; when you've spent most of your life loathing part of your body and treating it as your guilty secret, you're disinclined to show it off to millions of strangers, even it if is about to be rectified.

It's perhaps not entirely surprising that the brave soul who finally stepped forward is a professional performer.  Simon Evans is a stand-up comedian and co-writer of TV sitcom Not Going Out. 

After I'd interviewed him and his surgeon, it was time to don surgical scrubs and accompany them to theatre.  I had no idea whether I would sail through the sight of human flesh being sliced into or immediately crash to the floor.  I'm glad to report that I was fine and able to witness the whole fascinating sequence of events.  Simon witnessed it too as, these days, it's carried out under local anaesthetic.  If you, on the other hand, topple over at a nosebleed, look away now.....

Small incisions are made to the side of each breast and anaesthetic injected.  This is followed by a probe which delivers ultrasonic vibrations to break down the fat.  Before they get smaller, the breasts become larger; Simon's chest alarmingly transformed from Kate Moss proportions to something Katie Price wouldn't have been too ashamed of.  Then, tubes are connected and the broken down fat is sucked out.  Along a long, transparent tube it crawls en route to a measuring jar.  Here, it separates like fat and meat juices when you're making gravy for the Sunday roast.  It looks more like a strawberry milkshake, though, with a white frothy head above pink liquid.  (I did warn you to look away.)

During the 90-minute sessions, Simon revealed that he had a gig that night.  Even though the change from general to local anaesthetic meant he'd recuperate faster than I had a decade before, this seemed a bit optimistic and was not endorsed by the surgeon.  But that's performers for you; we never turn down a gig unless, possibly, we have a temperature of 105, at least two of our limbs are hanging off and our entire family has just been wiped out in a freak accident.  Mind you, even then.....

I'm thrilled for Simon because I know it's the best decision he'll ever make.  Anyone cursed with a physical characteristic associated with the opposite sex will know how wretched it makes you feel and how severely it can limit your life.  Society just isn't ready to deal maturely with high-voiced men or balding or bearded women.

And that's why I never miss a chance to bang the drum about correcting gynecomastia.  I want every man overly blessed up top to know how easily their problem can be resolved.  To put it bluntly, don't be a sucker - get 'em sucked!

Photo courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Home is where the aunt is

This blog comes to you courtesy of Virgin Trains (incidentally, am I the only person who often feels a bit sick on a Pendalino but never on any other type of train?).  I'm hurtling back to London after a day trip to Birmingham.

As the train neared Brum a few hours ago, I felt the usual tingle of anticipation and excitement.  I know some feel our second city is a bit of a joke but it's my hometown and I love it dearly.  Actually, far fewer people joke about it these days thanks to its rather thrilling makeover.  The sparkling new Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the reinvention of The Rotunda, our iconic, 60s, cylindrical office block, as luxury city centre apartments (which, unusually, actually are quite luxurious and are bang in the city centre) are just two of many grands projets that have loosened, if not yet entirely shaken off, Birmingham's second city/second rate image. 

When I idly picked up a discarded property supplement on a suburban train in south London three years ago and learnt of The Rotunda's future, I could barely breath with excitement and knew I had to own one of its apartments.  I don't know why I bothered to consult my accountant first because he decreed that I couldn't afford to, and I went ahead and did it anyway.  I queued for six hours from six o'clock on a dark, cold morning (some prospective buyers had camped out for two nights) to secure the last-but-one flat of the kind I wanted, a two-bed, two-bath way up on the 17th floor.

Signing the paperwork was a thrilling moment, and I was so glad I had turned down first £1,000 then £5,000 in cash offered by Asian investors in return for my place in the queue.  Actually, even if I'd wanted to, social pressure would probably have prevented me.  Six hours of nothing to do had caused British reserve to shatter.  My fellow would-be buyers and I had, by this stage, held each other's place during loo trips, fetched coffees and even shared pictures of our children and grandchildren on our phones to pass the time.  Giving up would, I'm fairly certain, have been viewed as terribly bad form.  Would those behind me even have considered that the Asian businessmen had the right to buy my queue position?  A hideous fracas might have broken out: just think how heated Waitrose shoppers become if someone barges in to buy a bag of spinach and a part-baked focaccia rather than a £250,000-plus flat.

What was interesting was that most of my fellow queuers seemed, like me, to be Brummies making a predominantly emotional purchase.  Sure, we wanted to live in a cool flat or to acquire a sound investment but, more than that, we wanted to own a piece of our history.  Little did we know we were buying at the top of the market: I'm currently £60-70,000 down on the deal.  What's more, I can't live in my slice-of-cake-shaped apartment in the sky in the dead centre of my hometown because I can't get a job up there.  Instead, I rent it out: I've spent less than one hour in it in the two years I've owned it!  Yet, to my surprise, none of this depresses me: I'll live there somehow one day and, meanwhile, a small chunk of my roots - if roots can be said to have chunks - belongs to me, and that feels good.

My trip today was occasioned by my Auntie Vera's 97th birthday.  She still lives at home, although these days she sleeps downstairs and needs a rota of carers.  I've seen her sail through a major brain operation, the removal of cataracts on both eyes and the death of two loving husbands and three of her four siblings.  She is stone deaf, diabetic and has had breast cancer, which never seems to get worse, for as long as I can remember.

Despite all this, she is cheerful and glad and grateful to be alive.  If you've survived an urban, working-class childhood in the 1910s and 20s, then Hitler's bombs, I guess such things are small beer.

At 15, she started work as a shop girl, as they were dismissively known in those days.  By the time she retired, she had risen to become one of the chief buyers at Rackham's, Birmingham's top department store (now House of Frazer, and she still gets her staff discount 38 years after clocking off for the final time).

She didn't marry until she was well into her 30s and decided not to have children, preferring her career with its regular trips to the trade shows of London, Paris and Milan.  It's hard for us to appreciate how glamorous her working life would have been considered back then, or how unusual it would have been for a woman to scale such dizzy heights, or the level of social pressure to wed early and produce a brood that she must have withstood.

When she was 80, she started going to keep-fit classes because: "I'm at the age now where you have to start looking after your body."

It's unsurprising that such an independent-thinking achiever never turned a hair when, in the late 1970s, her only nephew announced he was gay.  She tried to convince my parents who, in contrast, all but disowned me, that it was no big deal.  She failed but, God bless her, she gave it her best shot.  She adored my former partner of 16 years, becoming positively flirtatious in his presence, and is delighted that I have now found love again.

Like Birmingham, of which she is immensely proud to be a daughter, my Auntie Vera is honest, warm, indomitable and devoid of airs and graces.

Over tea and cake ("Oo, goo on, Bill, 'ave another piece, you need fattening up!"), I told her I planned to blog about her.  She was pleased but couldn't really grasp the concept.  As I check it for typos, I realise the result reads like a fond obituary, one which, I hope, will prove substantially premature as I intend to be sitting in her back room in 2012, just as I did today, and raising a glass as she tucks into a small slice of suitable-for-diabetics birthday cake to mark her centenary.  She'll be moderately pleased but not overly impressed to receive a card from The Queen and, after her decades in the fashion world, will no doubt have something to say about whatever Her Majesty is wearing in the photograph on the front.

(Photographs courtesy of http://www.rhinocarhire.com/, Rommel Catalan and http://www.property.britishland.com/)