My mate Laura – and me

I want to tell you a little bit about my mate Laura. I fancy some of you know her.  In fact, I know that you know her.  We’ve only been acquainted for just shy of three years but she’s already made a huge impression on me.  Some accuse her of being a bit bland, a bit too blithely optimistic but – for me – her positivity and, especially, her absolute ordinariness are her hallmarks and make her the perfect partner in crime.

In the wake of the NHS’ well-deserved 70th birthday celebrations this weekend, I could, of course, choose to write about the privilege of a nationalised health provider which offers unparalleled care from cradle to grave or the power of a public service which is free at the point of use, irrespective of your income.  Instead, I want to write about one of its funny little offshoots which, to me, seems to be less about health than about wellbeing and, well, being.  The NHS’ Couch25K app is, among stiff competition, one of the most useful apps I have ever encountered and part of its enormous success lies with its inimitable host, the lovely – and, by some echelons of the internet, much-maligned – Laura.

The NHS has obviously done its research. They know that women feel encouraged by another female’s voice while men quite like being instructed by a woman (and, presumably, less threatened than they would by an absolute AMOG).  Her hard-to-place accent also makes her feel instantly familiar, no matter where you are from.  Not southern-posh enough to feel stuffy and not so stridently northern to make her sound like she should be jogging alongside you in a flat cap, whippet in tow, her gentle just-north-of-the-Midlands burr is friendly, buoyant and makes her words of encouragement feel genuine – a powerful tool in the Health Service’s arsenal of weapons to get the Great British public off their sofas and out into the great outdoors.

Even when I’m not convinced that I can do it, Laura is and her encouragement (“You can do it!”) gets me to the end of the podcast every time.  She sometimes gets a bit of bad press.  My sister-in-law looked me in the eye the first time I told her I was doing C25K and repeated some of Laura’s words to me verbatim: “Just be sure not to be too…bouncy”.  Don’t be a dick, Laura – that’s why I’m wearing a sports bra.  But, in general, she’s great and she and I have cemented a real kinship over the last three years.

Like all relationships, our friendship ebbs and flows. We first palled round together soon after I moved back to the UK.  I was feeling pretty fat and unhealthy, especially after rediscovering ALL THE BREAD AND ALL THE CHEESE so, having heard positive things about the Couch25K app, I downloaded it and first encountered Laura.  She was great and got me off the sofa and out into Greenwich Park. I’m not a natural runner.  Always picked last for PE, you wouldn’t have wanted me on your team at Sports Day.  Maybe dropping a shotput on my foot or lobbing a javelin into my leg but certainly not huffing and puffing around the athletics’ track and guaranteeing you 4th place* in proceedings.  Unperturbed by my lack of sporting prowess, however, old Laura introduced herself (“Hello. I’m Laura.”) and, quite remarkably, got me out the house and moving (albeit only for sixty seconds at a time and at a pace only marginally slower than most people’s walk-to-the-station march).  A few months later, we fell out – my fault, not hers – and were out of touch for a bit.  But, as in any relationship, our paths would cross again.

c25k trainers

The second time we hooked up was about eighteen months ago. I had just suffered a rather spectacular meltdown and been signed off work with stress and it is no exaggeration to say that she played a major part in my recovery process.  Never mind your medication, sod your stupid online CBT counselling; the sense of achievement from the incremental gains made on the C25K course and the sights and sounds of the world beyond the confines of my basement flat were medicine enough and got me back in business quicker than I might have hoped.  The soundtrack to all of this was, of course, Laura’s calm and quietly confident words of encouragement in my ears: “I know you can do this.”; “What a fantastic achievement.”; “Well done!” I logged my first, full 5K last summer and would not have managed that milestone without Laura’s help.  I was so excited that I screenshot it and sent it to my mum.  I’d have sent it to Laura too, except that, y’know, she’s not real.  Nevertheless, she’s had a real impact and I owe her a huge debt of thanks.

Most recently, we’ve renewed our friendship during my brief period of unemployment. Having come back from five months travelling around SE Asia (and, this time, discovering ALL THE DELICIOUS FOOD AND DELICIOUSLY INEXPENSIVE LAGER) I have suddenly got a lot of time on my hands and a lot of lard on my arse, so Laura and I have headed out into the sunshine to try and do something about it.  We know each other well enough now that we don’t have to go back to basics.  I started her from Week 5 and she’s got me back to nonstop running, with no intervals.  I’m even thinking of taking her on a parkrun soon.  Having heard lots of good things about it from lots of different people, especially my other sister-in-law, I’ve signed up and got my registration number – we just need to go out and do it.

*(which we all know, in school terms, is last place)

What’s in a Name?

This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale placed a special emphasis on names and the power of nomenclature.  The episode opens eerily with the funereal march of the remaining Handmaids through the arctic tundra to attend Aunt Lydia’s funeral for their fallen friends.  Her litany of names for the dead demonstrates her seeming sense of loss and yet her insistence on using their Gileadean monikers (“Ofryan, Ofduncan…”) reminds us that, even in acknowledging their passing, their loss is mourned as missing possessions of their male Commanders; they are little more than commodities of the state and will be quickly replaced, as we saw with Ofglen/Emily’s replacement in Series 1.

This scene is mirrored later in Canada where, importantly, we learn the names of the women who died in the blast at the new Rachel and Leah Centre. We learn Ofglen’s real name – Lillie Fuller – and are able to attribute her act of rebellion as both an individual with individual agency and as part of the wider Mayday resistance.  After being silenced – quite literally – by the Gileadean regime, this is her opportunity to make her voice is heard.

We also see how quickly the state seeks to reinstate its ‘walking wombs’ when Emily/Ofglen and Janine/Ofwarren are plucked back from the Colonies, quite despite their past demeanours and their apparent radioactive exposure. It doesn’t matter that Emily is a ‘gender traitor’ or that her teeth are falling out; as a viable womb in this increasingly infertile dystopian world which has just suffered a sudden loss of its most precious resources, her value has suddenly spiked and she is quickly reinserted to a needy Commander’s home.

Her return and reappearance in the state-controlled supermarket so familiar from Series 1 also marks an important moment of (much quieter) resistance for the remaining Handmaids. When Offred offers her name to her former confidante, (“My name is June.”) she is also claiming – or reclaiming – her identity from ‘the time before’.  Her choice of the present tense ‘is’ highlights this and, encouraged by this tiny act of rebellion, she swap names with another Handmaid. Within seconds, her fellow shoppers are sharing their whispered names like secrets with the power to dismantle the regime.

I can’t to see where this goes next episode.

Image result for creative commons image handmaids tale

On a side note, nice match cut in the final moment of the episode. Offred clicking the Commander’s pen like the trigger of a gun or the clip of a grenade not only neatly recalled Ofglen’s act of rebellion at the end of the previous episode but also cleverly reminded readers of Offred’s sly reference to ‘Pen is Envy’ (the pen is mightier than the, er, sword) from the novel.  As an act of resistance in a regime where women are no longer allowed to read or to write, its importance cannot be overstated. 

Pork Scratchings vs. Pork Pretenders

Is there anything more disappointing than pretenders to the pork scratching crown?

It seems to happen more and more often.

“Can I have a packet of pork scratchings please?”

A perfectly innocuous pub request.  pork scratchings

But one fraught with potential pitfalls.  No longer will you be proffered the requisite portion of fatty, salty and (hopefully!) hairy porcine rinds.  Rather, you will be palmed off with a pale imitation:

  • pork crackling
  • pork crackles
  • pork crunch
  • and beware anything ‘double’ or ‘triple-cooked’

So what is going on?  Quite apart from pork scratchings’ newfound fame as a healthy snack or so-called ‘superfood’, it seems to me to have rather missed the point.

The point of pork scratchings is to be a suitably salty and unashamedly and gloriously greasy accompaniment to a pint of premium lager – NOT an athletes’ aid or health food.  The very best examples will have that inimitable mixture of denture-damaging hard rind, soft, yielding, salty fat and – only if you are really lucky – a smattering of sodium chloride-encrusted hog hair.

It seems that I am not alone in my praise of this increasingly endangered pub snack.  But what about you?  What is your attitude to these new porky pretenders?  Healthy alternative or heathen imitation?

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“No…but would you like a packet of crisps?”

[…]

 

read | write | eat | repeat

a blog about some of my favourite things

‘On these occasions I read quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible.’ — Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

‘Fool […] look in they heart, and write’ — Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella

‘Honour thy pig’ — Jay Rayner, The Ten (Food) Commandments

 

hoboken lobster