It is what it is

Post-Brexit, post-pandemic public service interpreting offers a peeking Tom’s perspective on how the other half lives. In this case, the down in the dumps, half-forgotten half. Most GP consultations, most Universal Credit job coach interviews, PIP health assessments are still taking place over the phone.  A three way conversation with a telephone interpreter has never been a fully satisfactory way of conducting certain types of difficult conversations, such as mental health therapy sessions, or conveying unhappy medical news. Service providers, service users and interpreters alike, we all have long resigned ourselves to this unsatisfactory reality of how non English speakers access public services. ‘It is what it is’ has become our mantra. 

Today, I am assisting a homeless man who is speaking to a homeless charity, or rather the man is shouting and screaming his frustration down the phone towards his support worker who has called to check on him, because she is worrying about the state of his mental health. At the start of the conversation, she informed him in a monotone dispassionate voice, that she had completed  all the necessary data security training and all his details will be kept confidential unless, during the course of the conversation, he discloses something which would indicate that either he or somebody else is in immediate danger of harm, in which case confidentiality rules will no longer apply. 

The man interrupts, ‘Hello, hello? Can you stop sounding like a recording and start speaking to me? I don’t have much time, what do you want? What are you calling me for?’
 – Adam ( not his real name), we have received information that your mental health is a concern, and that you are being suicidal, is that true, are you having thoughts about ending your life? 

– You’ve received information? Wow! From whom? The CIA, the FBI? Do you have me followed? Have you got nothing better to do, I do not have time for this, I had to leave at 7am this morning, so I could get to the Park Place (not real name) soup kitchen by 11, before they stopped serving hot breakfast, and now I am on my way to Croydon (real place, but not the one he really said he was heading to), to use their free showers, I will then go to the Junction for dinner, and then back to the house. By the time I finish today, I will have walked for about 7 hours, because the place I am staying at now has nothing, nothing, nothing at all, I don’t even have a kettle to make coffee, today I had the first hot meal for 3 days, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. I was better off on the streets. In fact, I will return the keys today, and I am out of there. You can offer my bed to another of your projects. 

– Adam, we offered you a food voucher yesterday, but you refused to ..

– No! I am sorry, but I don’t want your food vouchers, I told you before, that stuff is inedible, send it to Afghanistan if you dare, I don’t want it. 

Adam then proceeded to reiterate that he was leaving the accommodation the next day, as he didn’t appreciate the way he was treated there, with nothing to sit on, no cupboard to put his belongings, no cooking facility, no food suitable for human consumption. His rant was erratic and inconsistent to my impartial ear, and it must have been a stuff of nonsense to his support worker. Adam sprinkled his monologue with unexpected eloquence and witticisms, even if they were not matched by logic or reason. Nothing positive could possibly come out of the conversation, but we carried on for close to an hour.   

Is any of this shocking? Not to me, not any more, not after interpreting a hundred similar conversations in the last six months or so. 

Whaligoe Steps Davy

Our Scottish staycation proved to be the gift that kept on giving. 

First, a word of advice. If you are planning a short break in Caithness, make sure it is just that; three days is plenty.
Due to my evident inability to grasp the basic rule of ensuring continuity of holiday accommodation, I initially managed to book three nights in Wick, followed by two nights of homelessness in Scottish wilderness, followed by a weekend in St. Andrews. After some frantic last minute messaging, booking.com came through for me, but we ended up with a couple of spare days on our hands in Wick. 

And that’s how we came across Whaligoe Steps. 365 of them, leading all the way to the sea. We spotted them buried deep down among various ‘Top 10 attractions near Wick’.
The steps were hardly going to pose a challenge to us, our calf muscles still bulging after our Ben Nevis climbing triumph less than a week before. 

Whaligoe Steps ended up as one of those memorable experiences that usually happen to other people. 
We parked the car nearby, crossed the A99 at our own risk, and set off looking for the steps. 

A man came out from his garden shed adorned with several sets of antlers and horse shoes, and asked us, ‘are you looking for the steps?’ He then gave us a once over and added, doubtfully,  ‘Do you feel fit enough?’ We grimaced in half-smile. He then kept talking to us for an uninterrupted fifteen minutes or more. He told us he had been working on the steps for the last 25 years. He went into his house, took out a poster size old photograph of the steps and proceeded to describe every single item along the route down to the sea. He introduced himself as Davy. He told us how the Whaligoe got its name. Goe means an inlet, and a dead whale washed up there once.  

He carried on. He told us a story about a group of generously sized Americans who visited a few years ago and how they struggled to climb back up. He didn’t seem to be aware that fat shaming was a bad thing to do. He told us about the time Billy Connelly came round and what a fun and easy going man he was. 
After a suitably long time, we let us go and do the steps. As we walked down, we recognised all the points Davy mentioned in his story. When we came back up, Davy was pottering around his shed again. He asked us how we liked the steps, and continued telling us details about how they had fallen into disrepair and how he and others have been fixing them over the years.

We were standing in the doorway of his house, and an unusually big spanner caught our attention. He noticed that and said that he had more interesting things to show us too. He pulled out an antique looking sword, which he said he’d found  in one of several local abandoned houses many years before.
We all had a go wielding the sword, with some larking around a Scottish flag added for good measure.

For his final trick, Davy offered any of us ‘a hundred pounds in cash’ if any of us managed to ride his bike for the full minute. We all followed him to the shed, and Davy wheeled out a bulky looking bike. Amelia, our ready for anything daughter, had a go a couple of times, but only lasted a couple of seconds each time. I am not sure what it was exactly, which made his bike unusable, but apparently the bike was totally counterintuitive to what we know about cycling, and as you think you will be turning right, the bike turns left and you fall off.

After that we said our goodbyes and were on our way. The Whaligoe Steps Davy is most definitely Caithness’ best kept secret. I don’t mind sharing it here.

The Class of Covid 2021

If I hear grade inflation one more time, I will not be held responsible for my actions.  

On Tuesday this week, I drove my older daughter to school, where she ripped open the envelope with her A-level results. Based on what she found in the envelope, she is likely to be labelled as having been awarded unfairly inflated grades. Except, she really wasn’t.

If it were up to me, I would have added an A star in Resilience, Endurance and Determination, and a Distinction in Keeping Her Shit Together to the three straight As she had achieved. 

Earlier this year, when the government announced that the official A-level and GCSE exams were to be cancelled and replaced by teachers’ assessments, my daughter took it in her stride. Her Sixth Form college was among thousands others which decided to place the bar at least as high as any external exam board would have.

Assessment after assessment followed, a piece of previously unscheduled coursework after another piece of previously unscheduled coursework, two sets of mock exams, in the form of pre-PPEs (pre-Pre Public Examinations) followed by PPEs. It was relentless. All this punctuated by periods of self-isolation for the whole year bubble, whenever one of the students tested positive. Key members of teaching staff got sick too, and were not available for weeks at a time. My daughter carried on, setting herself her own deadlines, weekly goals and assignments.

The (cancelled) external end of year exams were replaced by… internal end of year exams. These exams were identical to the pre-Covid ones in everything but the name and level of formality, with added ambiguity and uncertainty as to how exactly they were going to be marked and graded.

My daughter plodded on and persevered. Night after night, throughout autumn, winter, and spring, she was frequently the last one to switch off her lights. We hardly saw her during the weekends, when she was only emerging for food. She worked insanely hard. What’s equally impressive, through all of this, she kept her sense of humour and perspective. She recognised that the challenges she was facing were not the end of the world on the greater scale of things.

She deserves everything she found in that envelope. Also, huge respect for her teachers for recognising that.

On Thursday this week, I drove my younger daughter to school, where she ripped open the envelope with her GCSE results. Based on what she found in the envelope, she is likely to be labelled… I don’t flipping think so.

Age is just a number. Mine is a big one.

Today, I reached the age my Grandma was when she married her second husband. 

When my mum informed me about Grandma’s upcoming nuptials, I was horrified. The shock was so immense, I still clearly remember the moment. ‘Old people do not get married, marriage is for the young, everybody is going to laugh at her, everybody is going to laugh at all of us’, I sobbed, to my mum’s bemusement. I was seven at the time, and all I could think of was that Grandma was very old, which meant her getting married was beyond embarrassing, because she would die soon, which would make me sad, because I liked Grandma a lot, she made the best chicken soup ever, and she could speak French, which was like the best magic trick ever, but old people die, so I didn’t expect her to live much longer. 

As it happened, Grandma lived for another 35 years, and went to her bridge club as usual a couple of days before she died.

Still, I think I will avoid eye contact with seven year olds from now on, in case I catch them feeling sorry for me for being so very old, especially that there are a couple of things that tell me that I am, in fact, getting on a bit.

One example is my birthday date itself, 24/7. I remember the time when it was just that, a date, with no other meaning attached to it, because nothing was open and available 24/7. The world of my youth used to close for the night, and wake up afresh the next day. I know, right? 

And finally, I am one of the fewer and fewer people on this planet who can say that they were alive (only just, but still) when England won the World Cup. History doesn’t get much more ancient than this. 

It’s coming soon.

Please fold your flags neatly away, and store them safely. It’s coming home, it is just being delayed.

Thank you, the English team, for giving us two weeks of sheer unadulterated joy and happiness. Thank you for lifting the spirits and making us sing.

Today, we are heartbroken. Today is for if onlys and what ifs. Tomorrow, the countdown to 2022 begins.

We now have the best team in my footballing memory (which is older than any of the current players by the way). The team led by Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane deserves everything there is to win in football and they will get there.

Semi-finals in 2018, final this year, next year the trophy.

Hugs and kisses

I am a bit confused about some of the latest lockdown easing rules due to kick in from the 17th of May.

Hugs and kisses among friends and family members will be allowed, I get that. Those of us who feel passionately about their personal space must be thrilled by the way.

The guidelines further state that the above mentioned intimacy will not be allowed among strangers.

Why then, do I see news headlines herald ‘the return of casual sex’?

I might be rusty on the subject, but aren’t the majority of one night stands supposed to be happening with strangers? Or at the very most with Roger from accounts? Is the government now saying that it is once again fine to sleep around, provided we do it within firmly established friendship groups or (surely not?) among extended family members.

I would welcome more clarity on the subject. Asking for a friend, naturally.

Teenagers. Life’s best kept secret.

Just like rats, rottweilers and spiders, teenagers have long been the victims of the most undeservingly bad reputation.

When you actually live with them, you will find that if you look after them well, they become the source of your life’s most precious moments.

Their fresh, quick-witted humour is on tap.

Their impassioned rants about the unfairness of school make the biggest political zealots sound like amateurs.

Their outbursts of boundless joy about the smallest things are one of a kind.

In short, to use a trendy phrase, teenagers are brilliant for your mental health.

Below, to illustrate the issue for those of you who do not have one at home, a handful of this week’s gems from my bunch.

Friday afternoon, after an intense week of GCSE preparation, or rather, in the words of my Year 11 daughter, the preparation for the non-GCSEs, which are replacing the real GCSEs and are every bit as important as the real GCSEs but without the school having the decency to give us study leave for them because, of course they are not the real thing.

– I need to go outside, I need to feel the fresh air. 
– Good, idea, go now. 
– You can’t make me! 

***
– There is this boy at my school, he is proper British.
– What do you mean?
– I mean he eats ham and cheese sandwiches every day. 

****
– Ma, I’ve got abs, look, abs!
– Well done, must be all that walking you did yesterday. 
– I am going to eat some cream eggs now. Bye, abs! 


****
– Ma, I thought I might have ADHD, so I’ve downloaded a list of symptoms, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish reading it.  

*****
– Ma, I was offered to be on Holby City next Friday. But I said no, I got school. 
– What? School could manage without you for a day. 
– What?? And you tell me this now? 
– This could have been your big break. Who asked you? How? 
– I signed up to a company called Slick Casting. It is for extras. Anyway, I said no. 
– Next time somebody invites you to be on Holby City, Casualty, EastEnders or Line of Duty, you say yes, unless it’s your wedding day. 
– Hmm, I think this should take priority over wedding. Weddings are lame and common. So common. Think about it, what’s more interesting to say to someone, ‘This one time I got married’, or ‘This one time I was in EastEnders’? 

****

RIP Prince Philip

Yesterday, Britain was at its ceremonial best and the nation came together once again for a brief afternoon. I was glued to the TV for 5 hours and hardly noticed the time when it was all over. Every little detail was beautifully dignified, infinitely sad and just perfect.

The 3pm national minute silence stayed with me for the rest of the day.
The image of the Queen perched alone at the end of the pew, head bowed, will stay with the world for much longer. A lot has been said how small, stooped and alone she looked at that moment, and how it would have been better if one of her children had been able to sit next to her, if not for the current Covid restrictions. Then again, when you are a widow, sitting at the funeral of your husband of 73 years, you are going to be alone, no matter who sits next to you.

A lot of people only learnt what an extraordinary person the Duke of Edinburgh was after he died, through a slew of documentaries and televised interviews with his friends.
I heard so many people say, in the last eight days, ‘I didn’t know he was involved in x as well as y and z’.

A lot of people have humbly changed their mind about him too, and now feel a bit awkward about only having him down as a ‘cantankerous old sod’ (Duke’s own words) before.
The sense of loss lingers on, but life goes on, so in the words of the Duke’s famous motto, let’s get on with it, it’s a beautiful day out there.

The Duke of Edinburgh

Buckingham Palace, where mourners have been leaving flowers this week.

Basic housekeeping first, if you don’t mind.
If you believe that Monarchy has no place in the 21st century Britain, or that Prince Philip was an obnoxious racist waste of space, please click away now. If you continue reading, you might feel compelled to leave a disparaging comment, I might be tempted to respond, and things could turn ugly, because with me, it’s personal. 

My love affair with the British Royal Family began shortly after I first stepped my foot onto the British soil, in the summer of 1988. I can pinpoint the moment accurately, to the day that Prince Andrew’s first born daughter’s name were announced to the world, some days after her birth. I was at work and listened to the radio for hours on that day, as royal commentators analysed the significance and the provenance of the choice of Beatrice Elizabeth Mary. I was hooked on the spot, and the British Monarchy gained a lifelong fan that day.  A few years later, the Queen gained an unwaveringly devoted subject in me. 

When I chose to adopt Britain as my for ever country, I adopted the Royal Family wholeheartedly, too, warts and all. I am not going to lie, they have tested my devotion a few times over the recent years, but my loyalty to them remains as strong as ever.

Prince Phillip has always been my second favourite Royal, overshadowed in my adulation only by his wife, the Queen. The latter is my all time, undisputed, hands down, no questions asked, nobody comes close, role model, coming as near to perfection in my eyes, as any human being can get. 

Throughout my life in Britain, Prince Philip had been a reassuring public presence, and I always had a soft spot for him, but couldn’t quite figure out why that was, until one day it dawned on me that his boundless energy reminded me a lot about my own dad.

I am acutely aware that I was not being terribly original in this discovery. In fact, I am sure that a lot of people of my generation or thereabout must have recognised traits of their own fathers and grandfathers in the Duke too. He represented that solid type of ‘real man’ which used to be prevalent in the world when he was in his prime. He simply got on with things. The concept has become somewhat old-fashioned now.
Ever since that lightbulb moment, linking the Duke to my dad, and especially since my dad passed away 10 years ago, Prince Philip had gained a unique place in my affections.  

I loved his relentless curiosity and his deep involvement in a vast range of projects, often comparing him to my father, who was similarly passionate about many things in his lifetime. 
Prince Philip did nothing by half, but rather devoted his full attention to each task at hand. Ditto, my dad. He seemed to love spending time with young people, and children; again, my dad in a nutshell. The Duke was absurdly handsome as a young man, and so, of course, was my dad. I admired Prince Philip’s appetite for creativity and innovation, his incessant search for something meaningful to do, combined with his amazing down to earth attitude, his dislike of any sort of ‘fuss’ and ‘stuffiness’.    

I loved his, often cheeky, sense of humour, and it never occurred to me to find his famous one-liners offensive, but rather I recognised them as part of his charm and one of the kind personality.
My favourite quip of his is his response to being asked (in 1967) whether he would like to visit Soviet Union? 
‘I would like to go to Russia very much — although the bastards murdered half my family.’  

The Queen and Prince Philip together were an ultimate couples goal. Their devotion to each other, their partnership, loyalty, their division of labour and building each other up during their 73 years of marriage was something that even the most irritating smug-marrieds among us can only dream of. 

As I write this, my older daughter is traipsing the hills of Surrey, as part of her Gold DofE Award practice run expedition. She got up at 6 am on the last Friday of her Easter holiday and off she went, her backpack towering over her head. She will spend the day hiking, equipped with a map, a compass, and her common sense, to reach the destination sometime late afternoon. Tomorrow, she will repeat the same task again. Sometime in May, she is going to go on the final overnight expedition, complete with pitching a tent, cooking an evening meal, and finding her way along the track.

And that’s it really, that’s all that the Duke of Edinburgh means to me. For everything else, there is Wikipedia.