Archive for June, 2010

“I want to go to school! I want to go to the Chalet School!” so said one Carola Johnston, fictional 14 year old English girl utterly under the spell of the Chalet School and she wasn’t the only one.

Alpine adventures, kidnapped princesses, jolly mistresses, brown and flame uniforms and Kaffee und Kuchen; the Chalet School series was everything life in rural Ireland was not and a 9 year old me adored it.

Originally set in Austria, the series of about 60 books written by Elinor Brent-Dyer was based on a school which opened in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s and spanned right through to the late 1960s, moving to Guernsey, Wales and finally Switzerland.  The books crossed an era of British and European history covering colonial India, Prussia, post World War I, the rise of Nazism, World War II and a post- World War II Britain all through the veiled eyes of a privileged private boarding school for girls.

As with most girls’ books there was a riotous cast of heroes and villains. The Chalet School series recounted tales of generations of girls from the original it-girl ‘Joey’ to her triplet daughters and included one token Irish pupil – the ward of the school ‘Biddy Ryan’ with her cringe-inducing stage Oirish, ghost stories and ‘black flowing hair to her knees’.  Begorrah.

Reading them now these books are wildly inaccurate, hugely racist, incredibly sexist and played on stereotypes to a lamentable degree but they also dealt with multi-culturalism and a multi-religious setting not usually found in children’s books at the time. Looking at the social context is also an eye-opener: the school was run in tandem with a sanatorium where ‘delicate’ children went to be treated for consumption – it was the 1940s before effective drugs to treat TB were readily available – not to mention the acceptance that women would only teach ‘until they married, of course’.

The real fascination for me lay not in the actual stories, though tales of storms in the mountain tops and tragic toboggan accidents were gobbled down with much delight – once I’d found out what a toboggan was – but in the foreignness, the otherness of it all. Those books were probably my first introduction to continental Europe and I was smitten.

Ice cold baths from spring fed water, milky coffee drunk from porcelain bowls, hikes over alpine plains, glaciers, drinking goats’ milk from friendly Tyrolean shepherds (which no doubt I would have detested in real life and refused point blank to drink), the gloomy glow of polished wooden parquet salons and hearty fires in pot bellied stoves during winter. The girls ate brioche, danced local Tyrolean dances, spoke fluent French and German. I couldn’t fathom a more amazing thing than to be able to babble in more than one language, quite forgetting the Irish we all used every day. I was enthralled by the detail and the pure exoticism of their day to day schooling, the accounts of scenes at snowy railway stations, the guttural names of the villages, and the descriptions of sunsets over unpronounceable peaks.

This early love affair with all the delightful differentness of foreign climes has remained with me – and maybe inspired my own subsequent European adventures –  as impressions from often innocuous childhood books often do. I’m sure I’m not the only ‘Chalet schoolgirl’ present but if so what children’s book made a big impression on you?

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Blame it on my dad, who basically brought up his four daughters to have the cultural tastes of someone who was a small boy in the 1950s, but I have a weakness for retro radio.

The Carey family spend a typical evening together during my 1980s childhood

Yes, along with William Brown, Jennings and our family hero Nigel Molesworth , I grew up enjoying the delights of Hancock’s Half Hour (which I still love), the Goons (meh) and Round the Horne (bits of it haven’t aged well, but I can’t resist Julian and Sandy). Basically, if it was available in Charleville Mall library in the North Strand in the ’50s or aired on the BBC Light Programme, it was part of my childhood.

This is probably why I’m now such a big fan of BBC Radio 4 and, in particular, radio drama. I’m addicted to the Archers, I can’t resist Charles Parris’s adventures and mere words can’t describe my love for recent comedies like Fags, Mags and Bags and Bleak Expectations, which show that what you can’t see is often much funnier than what you can. But I particularly love the old radio programmes often repeated by Radio 4’s digital sister BBC 7.

It was there, several years ago, that I discovered the glorious Paul Temple, mystery novelist and amateur sleuth, and his lovely journalist wife Steve. Yes, Steve. I can’t remember why she’s called Steve, but she is, so there you go. Paul, whose radio adventures were hugely popular from the 1930s to the ’50s, is urbane and prone to expressing any surprise by exclaiming “By Timothy!” in a dashing sort of way. Steve is prone to using her “woman’s intuition” to solve the crimes. Sometimes she’s actually right. Paul and Steve basically spend their time jetting around the place having a fine old time (he never seems to do any actual novel-writing and she never seems to do any journalism work), but every so often Paul’s Scotland Yard chum Sir Graham Forbes turns up at the house to ask for Paul’s help in solving some fiendish crime and another six part series will commence.

These crimes never make perfect sense – there are a lot of red herrings and people turning out to be blackmailers and then getting murdered –  but they’re very exciting, with dead bodies turning up at least once per episode (“By Timothy, Steve, it’s Harry Marx! And….he’s dead !”). If I had seen as many murdered corpses as Paul and Steve, often left by the murderer in the back of our heroes’ nippy little sports car, I’d be in therapy for years. Or I’d at least buy a new car.

Anyway, because Paul and Steve are such talented sleuths, criminals are always trying to kill them, often by luring them into deadly traps over the telephone. Someone will basically ring up Steve and pretend to be Paul (or vice versa) and tell them to come to the Calypso Club in Soho or a yacht club in Portsmouth or something. This happens so often that eventually Paul and Steve develop code words to ensure they’re talking to their real spouse and not an evil criminal holding a hanky over the phone receiver and talking in a funny voice. The one who has been telephoned will ask “Where’s Charlie fishing?” and if the other doesn’t answer “In the Thames” they’ll know it’s a fiendish mastermind. Charlie, by the way, is Paul and Steve’s devoted servant whom they basically treat as a slave. He never seems to get any time off, he has to stay up all night waiting for them to come in from their crime-solving jaunts and he frequently ends up getting bashed over the head by the aforementioned evil criminals whenever they break into Paul and Steve’s flat, as they regularly do. Poor Charlie. I hope he voted Labour in the 1945 election. At the least the NHS would look after his various injuries.

Anyway, Paul and Steve always find the blackmailer/evil crime lord/corrupt night-club owner and bring him or her to justice. Then it’s back to their luxury flat for a drink with Sir Graham and some jolly banter, usually including Steve’s claims that her intuition saved the day (One episode actually ended with Paul crying “By Timothy, Sir Graham, women are extraordinary!”, which even made the BBC7 continuity announcer laugh). Every series seems to involve Steve doing some investigating by buying elegant hats (several of the victims or perpetrators of crime seem to work in the fashion and retail business). As you can tell, the whole thing is totally brilliant, and I salute creator Francis Durbridge and the various actors who have played Paul and Steve over the years.

I also salute the BBC, because since 2006, they’ve been broadcasting brand new productions of old Paul Temple series whose original recordings were lost long ago.  Using the original scripts and vintage microphones and  sound effects, they’ve managed to produce something which sounds absolutely and utterly authentic. Part of the joy of the new series is hearing the actors perfectly reproduce the mannerisms and style of vintage radio acting – I actually don’t know how they do it without sounding like they’re in a comedy sketch, but they do. And the result is pure bliss. The current series, Paul Temple and Steve, originally aired in 1947, but the new version is now airing every Friday on Radio 4. Of course you can hear it online here. Don’t worry about missing the first few episodes – there’s a fantastic summary at the beginning of the most recent one. So if you’re in the mood for some (very) old school crime,  Paul, Steve and the hapless Sir Graham are even more entertaining than Poirot. Though not, of course, as wonderful as my beloved Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I praised in last year’s post on fictional crushes). But then, who is?

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Guess what? Scientists reckon they can now predict when a young woman will start into the menopause by testing her for levels of a particular hormone. Well, so it would seem anyway from reports like this one. A study of 266 women in Iran aged between 20 and 49 measured their levels of anti-mullerian hormone (AMH, it’s made by the ovaries) over a number of years as well as finding out about their reproductive and family histories.

From all this, the researchers came up with a formula to forecast when menopause would start, and apparently they claimed their model could predict whether a woman in her 20s would have an early menopause (before 45). Now before we go wondering whether we want to gaze into that particular crystal ball, can I just point out that these results were presented at a conference – the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology – so they are not in the gold standard of a peer-reviewed paper for starters. Plus the study itself is pretty small, so any rush to extrapolate to half of the human race is probably premature.

But it raises the intriguing notion that some day a woman may be able to waltz into a clinic in her youth and find out at what age she will start the so-called ‘change of life’.

Would you want to know?

Claire O’Connell

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L’Oréal loves to talk up the science. From its skin-and-hair labs in Paris to Jennifer Aniston steadying her gaze into your living room and warning that “the science bit” is coming, they revel in the white-coatedness of it all. But it’s not just the men in those white coats, no. The cosmetics empire also wants to give women a nudge along scientific research trajectory.

And so two Dublin-based women are packing their bags to go to London tomorrow to represent their dreams of advancing a scientific idea.
Dr Lourdes Basabe-Desmonts, a research fellow at Dublin City University, is developing a surface-based technology to measure how stem cells develop in the lab. Meanwhile Dr Rachel Evans from Trinity College Dublin is looking at a new way to create small-scale organic electronic devices.
They are among eight short-listed candidates for this competition, of which four will receive a 2010 L’Oréal UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science Fellowship that provides £15,000 in funding to further their work.

Now to those of us living in NAMA-land whose ears are tuned into the millions and billions, that amount doesn’t seem very much. But it all counts. And the prestige that goes with a L’Oréal UNESCO award is not to be sniffed at. A 2009 winner of one of their international fellowships (they only gave out 15 worldwide), Dr Lydia Lynch, now divides her time between University College Dublin and Harvard. She is looking at how obesity messes with the immune system and can put people at higher risk of developing cancer. Lynch is definitely on my ‘one to watch’ list and best of luck to the two candidates in the Ireland and UK competition tomorrow.

Claire O’Connell

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On this day 35 years ago, the great Tim Buckley died. I thought of him last weekend when fellow Anti-Roomer Nadine O’Regan asked for summer song suggestions on her Kiosk show. Like its more evil sister question – “what music do you like?” – this is a difficult beast to tackle. Sometimes memory and music are inextricable, bound up for good and bad reasons. The summer of 1982 meant two things: my First Communion and the constant radio rotation of Nicole’s Eurovision winner, A Little Peace. As her song raced to the top of the charts, my mother was engaged in the summer ritual of taking off our winter bedclothes and putting on light sheets. This was, after all, before the advent of the duvet (or “continental quilt” as it was glamorously dubbed back then). Nicole’s childlike tones were easily aped by a seven-year-old, which led to me being badgered into singing the song at family parties. Frankie by Sister Sledge reminds me of dawdling on a neighbour’s wall with friends, sweltering, bored and desperate to be in love, listening to a tinny ghetto blaster (Blue Monday by New Order was also played a lot, much to the irritation of Mr. Murray, our neighbour). My post-Inter (Junior) Cert summer was nightmarishly soundtracked by Bryan Adams clinging on to the charts for 16 grim weeks with Everything I Do (I Do It For You). And then came 1995 – the obligatory J1 summer in America, dominated by Beck’s Loser, mixtapes and Glory Box by Portishead.  My over-riding memory of the balmier months of 2001 is of Saturday nights spent at Thomas the Skank Engine in the Thomas House. The night would end with the windows fogged up, en masse sweating and everyone dancing on the seats to Daft Punk’s One More Time. Those terrifyingly fun nights contrast hugely with the summer weeks of 2007, when my son was born. A difficult sleeper, my only recall of the fuzzy, first few weeks of his life is pushing his buggy rhythmically to Amiina’s lullabies, willing his blue eyes to sleep.

All wonderful, varied, hot, hectic  summers, but one song, appropriately enough, always flits into my head on days crammed with sunshine. Tim Buckley’s Buzzin’ Fly manages to to conjure up rolling American plains, dust bowls, cold beers, cut grass and wanting to feel the sun on your face, like no other tune.

R.I.P. Tim. What are your most loved/hated/evocative summer songs?

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How much of your self-esteem is tied up in how thin you are?

Reading a piece on Jezebel today titled I Used to Be a Skinny Person, by Kate of the Eat the Damn Cake blog (she doesn’t need to tell me twice), I was reminded once again, as I am on an all-too-regular basis, of how much of my self esteem, and that of other women, is tied up in what we weigh.

As a feminist I’m all too aware of how women’s self esteem and self worth is affected by airbrushed images, magazine covers, ads and suggestive television programmes. I know that I am not my weight; I know enough about food and health to know I am a healthy weight. And yet, there is always that insidious voice in my head telling me that I’m just not thin enough – and I know that I am not the only woman who hears it.

Where does this come from? When I was a child, I thought gaining weight was a good thing. In a Famous Five book, I read about George being praised by her parents for her post-holiday rosy and plump cheeks. The message there was clear – in post-war Britain, weight meant food, and food meant survival.

Somewhere along the line, when I discovered Judy Blume books and my friends’ copies of magazines like MG and Bliss, I realised that my weight mattered. That no matter how much food I had available to me, I should try and shun some of it. I never saw one young woman who looked like me when I turned on the television or browsed fashion magazines. Now that I know how over-used photoshopping is, I realise that their cellulite and stretch marks and blotchy skin were erased with the click of mouse. But back then, I thought that was reality. I thought I was the one who didn’t look normal.

With the advent of ‘size zero’ in past few years, a new message became clear – women need to be smaller; thinner; leaner. If we get thin enough, perhaps we won’t even exist, and then we’ll be powerless, physically and mentally.

As each year goes on, I get better at silencing that little voice and realise my body is not something that needs to look a certain way. But I wonder if it is truly possible to be 100% happy in your appearance.

As Kate points out in her post, it’s not just our own voice that we need to silence – it’s the voice of others:

“When I tried on wedding dresses, the saleswoman kept saying, “That is SO slimming!” And “Look how tiny your waist looks in that!””

When do we stop believing we’re not good enough? Is being worried about weight a luxury, one afforded only to those of us who have more food than we need, or those of us who have the time to look in the mirror and frown at our hips – or does it go far, far deeper than that?

Have you reached a point where you are completely happy with how you look?

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The miscarriage misdiagnosis scandal has freaked me out. I’ve had three miscarriages and I was told all the stuff that many of these mothers who went on to have live babies were told, for example: ‘There’s a pregnancy sac but no baby’, ‘There’s no heartbeat’, ‘The baby is small for dates’. Like many miscarriage sufferers, I had an ERPC (evacuation of retained products of conception) on each miscarriage – still often called a D&C – and, once, abortion medication.

When the scandal broke, part of me thought, What if? What if my babies weren’t dead at all? Certainly on my last miscarried pregnancy, I still felt extremely pregnant and I was shocked when the consultant couldn’t find a heartbeat at my first scan at 12 weeks. I still felt pregnant even after the ERPC but that’s one of the cruelties of miscarriage: hormone levels don’t drop just because the foetus is gone.

There’s nothing like a term pregnancy and new baby to recover from the terrible emptiness of multiple miscarriages. I’ve had a healthy baby girl since my last miscarriage. When I was pregnant with her, my now husband and myself used to joke that if we won the lotto, we’d buy the hospital a decent scan machine. The scan machine in our local hospital seemed decrepit to us (images were very hard to see) and the people using it often complained about it. The machines I was scanned on 17 years ago, in a different hospital, for my pregnancy with my eldest son, were more futuristic than this one. I’ve no doubt that the same machine is still in use in my local hospital.

Miscarriage can be devastating. Most people I know played down my losses, expecting me to be back to ‘normal’ within days of losing each baby. This ‘get up and get on with it’ attitude is thrown at many women who have miscarried. Parenting websites, which have pregnancy loss forums, contain hurt and bewildered messages from a lot of Irish women who are being treated by others as if they are over-reacting to their losses. Parents bond early with a wanted baby and the loss of that child can be very deeply felt.

Miscarriage is an invisible loss – there is, generally, no body to bury, and no gravestone to visit. And while I wouldn’t compare my losses to the death of a full-term baby, I was still really upset by them.

If anything comes out of this scandal, I hope it’s that women are listened to more and not fobbed off and treated inconsiderately, as I was more than once during my miscarriages.
I hope that mothers diagnosed with miscarriage are now asking for and getting multiple scans to make sure that their diagnosis is correct. I hope they are being treated with respect and dignity when they ask for them. And I hope that the equipment in all maternity units in Ireland is vetted and replaced where necessary.

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RATE: $500 for Shoot date & if selected for Ad Campaign (running 2011) you will be paid $4000!
USAGE: 3 years unlimited print & web usage in N. America Only
Well groomed and clean…Nice Bodies..NATURALLY, FIT Not too Curvy Not too Athletic.
Great Sparkling Personalities. Beautiful Smiles! A DOVE GIRL!!!
Beautiful HAIR & SKIN is a MUST!!!

Maybe it is my advancing years, 37 after all is not to be sniffed at, but when I read through the casting call for Dove models a significant potion of my eyes rolled backwards into  my head.

The Dove campaign has been spewing the ‘for real woman’ line for quite some time now, and as an advertising schtick it’s a good one. For us? Really? Why thank you. How nice to be considered for once. But hold on now, what this?

Flawless skin, no scars, no tattoos, beautiful arms and legs, not too curvy, not too athletic. It’s like Goldi-real. To be a model for Dove a gal has got to be just right.

Which makes this woman furrow her brow and ask ‘what the hell?’ How does Goldi-real represent the rest of us?

As we age many things happen to the bodies we inhabit. Stretch marks, sagging, stretching, illness, weight gain, weight loss, scars, freckles, cyst removal scars, all manner of things shape and alter our external  look.  It’s normal that we change as we grow older, it’s normal that we wear and bear the evidence of our lives. It’s what being really real is all about.

If Dove were to embrace the wild crazy idea that  really real woman actually come in all shapes and sizes, in varying tattooed – or not – forms, they would send out a casting call for all and sundry to come be photographed. They would choose a large cross-section of women to flog their wares.

But of course they have not, because at the end of the day what is really real to Dove is making a profit and to do that they fall in line with the less than surprising notion that only perfect specimens of womanhood are worthy enough to be considered models for the really realist of their real campaign.

Flawless, was there ever a more insidious description of a woman’s skin?

Boo Dove, boo to you.

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Pissing Man by Timothy Ralph

In Ireland in the 1970s, the streets were strewn with rivulets of fresh mustard piss. Firstly, the suburban laneways where men just couldn’t make it home from the Bookies on time, to the pathways of public parks, Shelbourne Park Greyhound Stadium, all around O’Connell Street on St. Patrick’s Day and just about anywhere else you can think of. I even recall a man standing pissing at the side of Victories Credit Union when I headed down at the age of 12 to open my first account.

Irish men were such prolific pissers it was almost laminated to the Constitution as an indelible part of their liberty and right to live. So it should come as scant surprise when I moved back to the parental home last October to write and help out for a while…that the old man was pissing all over the house without any due cause to care.

For a while my mother said nothing. This has been a kind of ostrich-head + sand tradition going back to when I first tasted Liga. It wasn’t until I walked into puddles late at night in the kitchen, or took the stairs barefoot to bed when drunk or made the mistake of whiffing the cushions on the couch in the sitting-room (what crazy instinct was this?) that I realised there was a urinary tract conspiracy in full liquid swing.

“Don’t say anything because he gets awful embarrassed about it,” the Ma said. This nugget of emotional blackmail worked for a while. He’s hitting 80 after all, his legs are gone, he can no longer make it out to the pub and he’s lost interest in almost everything apart from whiskey, war documentaries and the lotto. But like everything in an alcoholic home, avoidance strategies and colourful denials are destined to come crashing down at the first foretoken of crisis.

A few months ago my mother got cancer (well she’s had it for a good while but it’s taken at least a year to get her to own up to the four/half stone weight loss and general body-breaking-down weakness). During the haitus between smashing her denial and getting to a hospital, we started fighting about the old man’s pissing habits. One night I caught him pissing in a bucket outside the kitchen door and when I reported back [in a blind rage] to the Ma about “how utterly disgusting” it was, she admitted quite calmly that she laced the Piss Bucket with disinfectant regularly and emptied it once a week. “You mean you’ve actually known about this!?” I barked.

Up until that point I’d taken an active part in the spare him any hurt household games, taking his piss cushions from his armchair in the dead of night and washing them, drying them on radiators and shoving them back again before he crawled down the stairs for his boiled egg the next morning.

“He just can’t make it up the stairs,” she explained, again, over breakfast. Well then get in a downstairs toilet for starters, that’s what normal people would do. “He doesn’t want to lose the cloakroom”. But he can’t go out anymore, so what’s the use in a cloakroom!?  “He says he’ll deal with it and get to the toilet quicker.” Of course he won’t! It’s just going to get worse…much worse, Jesus! He’s going to have to deal with it or I’ll contact social services!”

Three weeks ago as I cleaned the house in preparation for her return from hospital I eventually sat the old man down and attempted to talk piss politics openly. “I can’t help it!” he whinged, adding that if he had to wear ‘padded pants’ like I was suggesting, he’d rather kill himself. Another thing about alcoholics is that no matter what is going on in the world around them, it will still always be about them. I resorted to shock tactics telling him that no-one visits the house anymore because of the stench, that my brother home from the UK to visit my mum was knocked back in anger by it all (“smells like a bag of ferrets”) and had pledged to write a stern letter on his return…that fire-hose pissing on this scale was a clear and irrefutable health hazard, potentially dangerous…someone could slip and fall, there’s a cancer patient returning home with an open wound and serious infection could mean a summer picnic to Glasnevin Crematorium. Nothing but blank bulldog stares.

“I bleed five days a month and I can’t help that either,” I told him, not so subtley, “but imagine if I didn’t stick something in my knickers and deal with it!? Imagine if I just bled on buses and in the GPO when queueing for stamps or in Beshoffs buying chips or all over the floor in Penneys shopping for cheap socks…wouldn’t that be completely and utterly INSANE!?”

The crux of the battle came (and not on dry land) when I stormed off to Finglas in search of Tenapads in a terribly hungover state two weeks ago. I left them on the kitchen table on a placemat where he sits for his dinner and just to avoid any further denial, I left a note with them: ‘You have to wear one of these when you’re drinking and at night-time in bed’.

Caldwell Family Piss Bucket Outside Kitchen

A while later he stormed into the dining room where I was watching Eastenders and pointed to a giant circus-ring type wet patch on his trousers. “Now tell me, how would your magic pads have stopped that happening?” he squealed. That’s when I realised the sheer level of compacted insanity we’re dealing with.”Of course it won’t stop it happening but the pads will at least contain it till you get to the shower!” I said, utterly gobsmacked.But it seems that decades of hard pissing has drowned out the last semblance of rationale in the paternal brain and yet another old man is destined to leave the planet happy, having asserted his full and moral rights to the Irish Constitution.

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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On a day when the weather finally appears to have broken I find myself in one of those office discussions you can’t win. This morning the usual tirade against the unfairness of our nation’s over enthusiastic rainfall has been momentarily swapped for sulky mouthed speeches to the effect that it’s too hot, the pollen count is too high, everyone is a mass of blisters due to ill-fitting summery footwear; all a sweaty huff of rash and sunburn. The flip-flop slip slap on office carpet is annoying some while the incessant whirring of a distant grass trimmer proves to be the urban vuvuzela of the soul to the rest.

And my meteorological delight is not going down at all well.

I am an unashamed fan of hot weather. I love it all – the smell of warm concrete and that slight pebbled graze you get on the back of your thighs from sitting on it on long summer evenings in light cotton dresses. Sun tightened skin and damp hairlines, baked earth under bare feet and the unexpected unseen thistle in the otherwise perfect lawn. And those summers when we were kids; licking dried ice-cream off the back of our hands and tasting sweat and sun cream. Poking tar bubbles on roads with bits of sticks and getting it all over your sandals. Blue Mr Freeze stained mouths and forgetting your cardie outside all night where you’d used it as a goal post.

Horrified at the office negativity and their ungrateful responses to the good weather I slump off back to my desk. Amazing how a change of a few degrees can cause such vehement discussion.  Warm weather – another great divider of humankind, where do you stand?

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