Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Christmas is coming!

Blah, blah, it happens earlier every year... personally it doesn't bug me that Christmas decorations and food start appearing in the shops in September, but I did take pictures of some particularly cute decorations and also some particularly odd ones. On the cute side, Butlers had various woodland creatures made of glass to hang from your tree...
Owl Christmas decoration

Fox Christmas decoration

Hedgehog Christmas decoration
Then there were the ones that headed a bit further out into the wilds of Strangeland... I can see some kids loving the dinosaur one (though it wouldn't show up well in a green tree), but I think the gerkins are a bit pointless. The hamburger one would just make me want a Big Mac!

Then finally, there are the 'you have way too much money and should really give it to charity instead of buying this shit' products. I'm pretty sure I remember this deer being nearly 100 pounds and the large figure with the head of a Scotty dog was around 70 pounds. They were both about four feet high so you'd need a decent sized room to put them in but I guess with that much cash to splash around, that wouldn't be a problem!

So, are you making a list and checking it twice yet? Do you buy extra decorations each year or stick to the same old traditional ones? Fancy any of the above for your tree?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Places to visit in England - Chester

Recently I had a work meeting in Manchester on a Monday. Rather than spend eight hours that day travelling there and back, I decided to take a weekend away beforehand. I had a weekend in Manchester last year so I didn't want to go there again. I asked around and folks recommended Chester. After a weekend there, I recommend it too!

River Dee in Chester, England

Chester is an old city (founded as a city in 1541) with lots of Roman ruins, medieval city walls and lovely ornate Tudor buildings. It has the River Dee running through it with some nice walks on either side, boat trips and (rather overpriced) peddle boats and dingies to hire by the hour. Lovely husband and I whiled away Sunday afternoon in a river-front pub with gorgeous views over the river.
Tudor house in Chester, England
The Tudor buildings were more ornate than others I'd see with moulded plaster in-between the black wood trim, lots of carving (including dinky little statues) and many of the houses were named like this one 'The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life'. They got called shortened versions of the proverbs written on them so this one could have been called something like 'Fountain house'.It's hard to tell the difference between the Victorian 'Tudor replica' houses and the genuinely old ones, but they were all pretty.

Roman ampitheatre in Chester, England
There were the ruins of a large Roman amphitheatre in the heart of Chester. Chester was the site of a Roman fortress then a settlement grew up around it so of course the people needed entertainment. The amphitheatre was built around 1000AD and could seat around 8,000 to 10,000 people. Amazing to think that things like this and the main roads that were built so long ago have shaped modern Chester.

Ruinds of St John's church, Chester, England
Close to the amphitheatre is St John's church with some lovely ruins beside it. Three chapels were ruined by that vandal Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. When we went back at night, there was a subtle and lovely light show of ancient texts fading in and out all over the stones to remind us of how ancient the building is.

Grey squirrel in a park in Chester, EnglandBeside the St John's church, there is Grosvener Park. It is a very pretty Victorian designed park which was simply HEAVING with squirrels! Being from New Zealand where there are no native mammals (except maybe a bat or two), I love squirrels so I happily watched them cavort about for ages. We took heaps of photos but I think this blurry one best captures the scampering motion of a squirrel racing across the ground.

The only downside of Chester is the difficulty of getting a reasonably priced hotel room during the weekend. Evidently it's fine during the week, but because it is such a tourist centre, hotels were very expensive and most rooms were booked out. We ended up in an expensive but not-that-fabulous hotel a 10 minute bus ride out of town. Luckily there were really good buses every 15 minutes or so but it still would have been nicer to be walking distance into town.We took the train to Chester so we didn't have a car, but we wouldn't have wanted to deal with parking in town either.

Still, overall we had a lovely weekend with plenty to see and do so I do recommend Chester for a weekend break.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Things they don't tell you about getting older

(This post was written as a guest post for CherrySue Doin’ the Do – you can see it here. )

So, the ‘this is puberty’ books give you the basics but don’t cover all the issues. There are some important facets of the maturing process that the books don’t cover so I feel I need to expose to these secrets to the
world. For example:

Old woman sticking her tongue outHair

I knew that people grew hair in bits that didn’t have hair before but somehow I thought that was a one-time thing that happened between (say) the ages of 13 and 15. But oh no, I was mistaken! What I didn’t realise (and I’d like to share with any who haven’t entered this reality yet) is that YOU KEEP GETTING HAIRIER! 

Slightly horrifying, but true. My lovely husband, for example, had a few hairs wafting about the nip-ular area in his teens. Those hairs have spread across his chest and down to his tummy to make quite a pelt. He’s now mid 30s-ish. What’s he going to be like at 60? Will I be able to find my husband under the ball of fluff that he walks about in?


Sorry to get a bit rude, but talking about the nip-ular area, I didn’t realise that all women didn’t naturally grown thumb sized, sticky-out nipples like my mum’s. (How did I come to see my mum’s nipples? She was pretty casual about the clothing issue.). Actually those sticky-out nips are my fault (and my brother’s fault too, let’s share the blame fairly) as we got our early sustenance.  Fair enough.


Now here’s a really depressing one. Like hair growth, I assumed spots were a teenage phase that we all grew out of. Not so! It’s quite possible to have wrinkles, grey hair and spots. A fact I prove reasonably regularly. The only good thing is that with age comes a bit more skill in washing, anointing and covering up said spots so they’re less obvious (we fondly hope). 


I recently attempted day one of the ‘Couch to 5K’ app. I alternately ran and walked for half an hour. After about three days my muscles stopped aching then my left knee started protesting. Talking to other folks in their 30s and early 40s, it seems many of them just can’t run because their knees complain too much. Oh well, I didn’t really like running anyway...

So, what about you – are you enjoying these delightful signs of aging or have you been lucky? Anything else you didn’t realise about aging when you were an impressionable teen?

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

What women like men to wear

Jonnie Peacock Paraolympian in coat and boots
A male friend asked me “what do women like men to wear?” last night and I admit I gibbered a bit then spluttered something about cologne. It’s a tricky question for lots of reasons:

1.       Obviously I can’t generalise about all women
2.       If I liked a guy, I expect I’d cope with whatever he wore (within reason!)
3.       If I didn’t like him, no amount of snappy dressing would help
4.       I’ve only been in England for about a year and don’t entirely understand the cultural subtleties

However, I thought I’d see what I could come up with. My context is a 30ish bloke trying to attract a girlfriend. 

Firstly, fit is important. I think it’s particularly important for attracting a mate because in some way you’re trying to entice someone into making the sex with you. That means you want to highlight your attractive bits, whether it’s a firm bottom, clear skin, muscled forearms, your eye colour or whatever. 

A well fitting pair of jeans can make you look like over 20% better than usual (that’s science!). Take time to try on 15 pairs in different styles. Take advice from the shop assistants. Take a knowledgeable friend with you for advice. HEM THEM if needed. Then apply what you learn to other pairs of trousers. 

With t shirts and shirts – I’d generally think a touch snugger than usual. Show off what that lucky lady will be getting. 

Benedict Cumberbatch in a dark suitIf you’ve got a bit of a tum, a well cut shirt is your best friend. A structured jacket or coat is also good. Don’t succumb to a thin, clingy t shirt or a bomber style jacket (it’ll make you look the same shape as a tomato). 

If you’re slender – don’t think that buying clothes a bit loose will make you look bigger. It’ll just make you look like asparagus wrapped in bacon (are you liking my vegetable metaphors?). Buy clothes that skim your body but don’t cling. Again, well cut shirts and structured jackets are all good. You can enjoy thick scarves and chunky knit jumpers in winter.

If you’re not as tall as you’d like – again, pay attention to fit. Also, streamline your look to lean the viewer’s eye up and down for example, black biker boots, a well cut (hemmed!) pair of dark jeans, a fresh white t shirt and a dark coloured blazer. Mmm... sounds good to me.

J Cole in casual clothesLearn what colours suit you – try this Colour analysis site to give you some ideas. I know that site is aimed at women, but just ignore the gender-specific bits and pick up the main ideas. Those who are confident can break the rules as needed, but it’s helpful to have some ideas to start with if you’re choosing from a rainbow of t shirts. Hint: navy looks good on almost everyone, yellow looks good on almost no-one.

Dress like a grown-up. If you’re 30ish and wearing the same outfits as the local 16 year olds, it may be time for a re-think. Also, don’t dress like your Dad. It’s a fine balance. 

If you haven’t changed hair style in 10 years, you should! Men’s fashion doesn’t dramatically change, but it does shift. Keep up. You probably should be spending a bit more money on a good hairstylist. Think about it this way; you wear your hair every day so cost-per-wear is pretty low for a good haircut.

There’s a load more to say on the topic of style of course and these are just my opinions. What would you suggest? Anything you particularly hate a guy to wear? If you’re a guy, what do you think of these suggestions?

Monday, 7 October 2013

How to get ahead at work - part one

Women at work in 1950sGosh, I feel like I’ve been working forever and I still don’t know much about how to get ahead. The thing is, people will very rarely let slip a titbit of how to win at work. Also, I do find that as a forthright women people tend to want me to be softer, gentler, nicer etc. It’s annoying, but I have to play the game to some extent. I thought I’d distil the few bits and pieces that I’d learned so far in case it might be helpful:

1.       Personally, I’m into dressing reasonably smartly. For some reason, England seems to have pockets of really casual dressing for work. Of course you don’t want to look too dissimilar to everyone else at your level, but be a smarter, well groomed version.

2.       Never ever announce that you’ve got nothing to do. The done thing is to (believably) claim to be really busy and working hard, all the time. If you genuinely don’t have enough to do then discreetly find more work, or offer to help others (without making it look like you’re at a loose end).

3.       Similarly, see if you can manage to be in the office just before your boss most days. It doesn’t matter so much when you leave (though don’t make it 5pm on the dot), but getting in early is seen as a moral virtue. This is a shame as I’m seriously not a morning person!

4.       Do your best to subtly ensure that you make it clear to your boss and senior managers which ideas and achievements are yours or what you’ve contributed to the team effort. Get over feeling like ‘blowing your own trumpet’ is a bad thing. However, being brash and openly attention seeking is not helpful either. It’s a balancing act.

5.       If you want to get something agreed at a meeting – get some allies beforehand. Find out who is going to be at the meeting and see if you can chat to them about your idea and get them to agree. If you can get your boss to work on the idea and present it with you then so much the better. Don’t surprise folks.

6.       Also, think about possible objections and do your homework. If you’ve got a sound, comprehensive business case with believable figures, it’s pretty hard to say no. And even if they do say no, you come out looking good.

7.       Contribute thoughtfully at meetings and when asked for feedback. If you’re an introvert and not great at off the cuff thinking, plan a few things to say and pop them in when applicable. You can get noticed by senior managers with some clever questions or helpful comments.

8.       Communicate professionally (especially by email or in writing). Never email in anger – take time to write a draft, leave it and re-write until it’s not snitty. It’s always best to have tricky conversations in person or at least by phone instead of email. Limit the ‘funny’ links and pics you forward (or don’t).

9.       If someone leaves a phone message or email that asks a question, for the love of all that’s holy, get back to them! There’s nothing worse than having to take time to chase someone who doesn’t get back to you.

10.   Answer the phone quickly, with an appropriate greeting. Leave a detailed voicemail message and ‘out of office’ email so people know when you’ll get back to them or where else they can go for help.

11.   Keep your desk tidy and not too cluttered with personal stuff. Don’t ask me why, but bosses seem to think a tidy desk equals a well organised working life. They’re wrong, but there you go.

12.   Change jobs. The quickest route to the top is via several different companies as suitable positions in your own company probably don’t come up that often. I think it’s easier to promoted in a move to a new organisation that within the same organisation (unless you’re clearly a stellar performer, but even then...). Also, experience in different fields and contexts is helpful.

13.   Keep learning and invest if needed. I’ve done post graduate study part time while working. This qualification has really helped me get more senior jobs. I will no doubt do more study and professional development throughout my career.

14.   Networking is an over-used term but do take opportunities to introduce yourself and chat to relevant people within and outside your organisation. Be friendly and take the initiative. I’m up in the air about the value of LinkedIn, but hop on it every couple of weeks and build a decent circle of contacts just in case.

15.   Praise! Specific, sincere praise is absolute magic. Praise colleagues, subordinates, seniors, volunteers, anyone who has done anything good. Being seen to be positive and appreciative makes you an excellent employee. Being specific is really important i.e. not “That was a great report”, but “You picked out some excellent risk management ideas in your report and there was some great market insight”.

16.   Disagree or challenge carefully. Try to say “yes, and”, instead of “yes, but”. Point out the bits you agree with before challenging other bits. Give suggested solutions. Ask open questions to clarify not to pick holes. Never say, “with all due respect”!

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Other tips you’ve worked out? Check out Part Two here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

England's not the mythical land

Garden and ruined church in York England
Sinead O’Connor’s line “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses, it’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds” has been running through my head lately. In thinking about living in England, I’d say that actually the country has got elements of both. 

On the ‘police who kill black boys in mopeds’ side there is a real thread of nastiness in England. At the moment, there is horrific rhetoric about anyone unfortunate enough to be on a benefit suggesting that they’re lazy, not trying to get a job, bringing England down etc. Disabled people are being questioned and criticised about how disabled they really are. There is overt and covert racism, homophobia, class prejudice and sexism. 

As an immigrant myself, I wince at the harsh words against ‘uncontrolled immigration’ supposedly leading to a shortage of housing and jobs and a drain on the welfare state. I know as a white, middle class, English speaking immigrant, I’m privileged. The hate isn’t really directed at me, but I still feel the sting of it.
But still... with the angst of the welfare cuts and nastiness popping out here and there, England seduces me back into seeing the ‘Madame George and roses’ side.

I spent several hours driving around rural Dorset and Somerset yesterday. The countryside was like a cat or a supermodel; effortlessly beautiful from any angle. There were rolling hills, little clumps of big old oak trees, sheep and lambs in the fields, villages with thatched stone cottages, old churches, pubs and little windy roads because they were built in horse and cart times. I saw three does grazing by the side of the road, a large white heron, pheasants in the fields and several little brown raptors.

People often ask in an amazed tone why on earth I moved from New Zealand. I think they see it as a dreamy Hobbiton-type place. I tell them that New Zealand is beautiful, but England is beautiful too. There is a lot of that mythical land left. The place where the books I read as a child were set: Wind in the Willows and the Famous Five. Then there were Shakespeare, Keats, Jane Austen, Dorothy L Sayers all writing love letters to this beautiful country. They have a point. England is still undeniably gorgeous and I feel very lucky to be able to be here experiencing it. 

If you’re English – what do you think about my outsider’s view? If you’re not, do you think there’s a dark underbelly in your country? What form does it take?