Flying the Flag or Wotsit: Eurovision liveblog, 2016


A key tool for my travel planning is the annual continental love-fest/substitute for World War that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Does it look like people are having fun in Latvia? Are the Spaniards natty dressers at present? How likely are we to get attacked by unicycling gnomes or percussive grandmothers in Macedonia this year? This year we are following the tiny dancing cartoon balloon to Sweden, and I look forward to choosing my next destination based on our findings. Since I’m already booked for New Zealand, I feel reasonably secure this time. Let us explore together in the spirit of Eurovision. I’ve got my fingers crossed for glitter.

I’ll be live-blogging – I usually do this on Facebook but this year my Eurovision buddies are far-flung and I have decided to inflict it upon the rest of you. Let’s do points out of ten and compare notes. I’m not a cynic – last year’s CD kept my spirits up through a bedridden couple of months. Yes, I was on painkillers; why do you ask?

Drinking/themed-snack-food-eating game as is traditional – drink/shovel mini-pretzels every time you spot one of the following:

  • Wind machine
  • Unnecessary key change (put the mini-pretzel back if it’s actually interesting)
  • Pyrotechnics
  • Awkward chat during the ad breaks across Europe
  • Fluorescent outfits that bring back memories of the early nineties
  • Swaying
  • Overtly saccharine messages of peace (two mini-pretzels if it’s a country embroiled in a high-profile conflict)
  • Saving the world through the power of singing a capella
  • Mention of Brexit
  • Contemporary “dance” that’s actually just wafting (I like contemporary dance so I’m a purist)
  • Overdramatic belt-fest
  • Performer rips off costume to reveal even more ridiculous/spectacular outfit
  • Glitter flies everywhere
  • Irish or Swedish writers writing songs for anywhere else
  • Results from jury fail to turn up due to technical difficulties
  • Presenters are desperate to get the results as jury reps mug for their national tourist board
  • Shameless political voting
  • My mother slips into existential despair

Below is the running order; comments appended as things develop. Watch this space.

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Flying Burti Takes Off Again; or, The Ascendancy of Legs McFloof

Flamingo Central

I had a little bit of recovery time and transition there before the all-out chaos of a severe flare-up. Bedridden for much of the last year, I am excited about new possibilities and reinventing myself as a travelling designer, writer and editor. In the midst of this I have overseen a vast interior project as my parents build a future-proof extension (more about my discoveries later) and renovated my own house. As always, tradespeople who are reliable problem-solvers and nice to have around have been key, and I’m happy to be moving in at the moment, getting used to my new organisational systems and being independent again. I wrote a poem for the occasion so that the victims recipients of my new address cards know what’s what.

The lambs are springing up upon the barley fields of Fife,

But I’m scampering to Tayside for the next scene of life

Post my attack of academia I move across the river

The postman seems relieved – no more floor samples to deliver

There’s jute, jam and journalism further from the sea

So it’s farewell to the farm life and hello to Dundee!

A watershed; I have to edit what it says on the census

(I’ve acquired a Lhasa Apso in loco parentis)

Want to see a yellow kitchen door or Jungle Room? Bingo!

My jungle’s antifungal and it’s got a flamingo.

My bathroom’s level-access while my stair lift is exquisite

And my spare room sleeps three, so I look forward to your visit!

This time I own my home, which is an incredible feeling in uncertain times and has allowed me to made adaptations and changes to my taste, which (to my mother’s initial horror) includes a Jungle Room as my main living area. Renting has left a lot of things pent up, apparently, as my first act as a homeowner was not the stairlift or the kitchen renovation but the purchase of a four-foot flamingo that I subsequently named Placido Domingo the Pink Flamingo. Once I found out that the collective noun for the flamingo is a “Flamboyance” – seriously, what could be more perfect? – I decided I needed several to express my inner fabulousness and now we have Prawnelda, the plastic watering can flamingo, and Legs McFloof, a metal garden ornament flamingo, rounding out the mantlepiece display.

The other administrative news is that I’m on the move in more ways than one – come August I’m off to New Zealand and the Cook Islands for a month. Any advice welcomed!

Wheels Up! Travelling with Mobility Issues


Note: the following is entirely based on personal experience and the experiences of others with whom I have discussed these issues. Please consider your own circumstances and needs carefully, and seek medical advice. This was originally published in 2012 on my travel blog The Great Affair, but I’m posting here and will update as insights land like anvils in my psyche.

So, you’re planning to set off on a trip. Perhaps you’re facing a progressive illness and coming to terms with your declining mobility. Perhaps you’re on the way back to health after a surgery or long-term illness. Perhaps you need a change of scene and you know your deserve a holiday. There’s often a woeful lack of guidance for any travellers with disabilities, and I’ve found especially for those whose limitations fall in that awkward, broad category of “mobility issues”: conditions that don’t involve permanent confinement to a wheelchair but do involve some trial and error where fatigue and and pain come in.

Here are some suggestions if you’re facing travel and not sure what to expect.

1. Set conservative limits on distance

I know; it’s not a promising start. But step one involves some serious confrontation of your own abilities, limitations and comfort. Unless the trip is for business or a special occasion you probably have some control over your destination.
When picking a destination, ask:
How long is the journey time and is this realistic?
Does this destination require an overnight flight and can I cope with that?
Is any overnight flight at the beginning or end of the trip?
How stressed am I likely to be leading up to departure and how long will I have to recover afterwards?
If none of these is a dealbreaker, great! However, there’s no harm in having a short trip close to home to try out your endurance with low risk.

2. Find yourself a good home base

Even if you don’t plan to spend much time in a hotel room, think about this: even if you only sleep there, you are likely to spend a third of your time in the hotel, and if you suffer from physical pain this might be the most important third of your day for ensuring your stamina and comfort.
Make yourself a wishlist of requirements, decide what you can and can’t live without, and stick to it:
  • Do you need level access? Check for external or internal steps and lifts.
  • Do you need or want ensuite facilities? Consider how far away you could bear to be from a bathroom and take into account whether you need to have some control over your hygiene, especially if you are taking any immunosuppressants.
  • Do you sometimes need a wheelchair? If so, make sure you request a room with enough space  to move around and store any equipment (and ask about doorway widths!)
  • How far can you expect to go for basic requirements, inside and out? Think about the size of the hotel and find out where suitable rooms are. If you don’t need all the facilities of a dedicated accessible room (which may be in a far corner of the hotel to maximise space) you might find that requesting a room close to a lift is more suitable. Also consider the minimum distance from each potential hotel to sources of food and transport.
  • Do you have any medication that needs refrigeration? Don’t take the presence of refrigerators for granted.
  • Similarly, do you need extra, reliable power outlets for equipment?
You can always ask the hotel for clarification, and this can be a great way of gauging the management’s awareness and willingness to help with your needs. Do check out online reviews, with the usual healthy scepticism, if you’re concerned about anything, such as bed height or mattress quality. Find out whether the hotel occupies the whole building – if it’s only one or two floors (common in large and crowded cities) then remember that your hotel may not be in control of external disruptions to service and access.
Remember that even if you have great stamina at home, we can’t underestimate the effects of culture shock and jetlag along with the exhaustion of sightseeing and a new climate. Prepare for extra rest time, and allow occasional rest days on a longer trip. If there are perks that you quite fancy it can be worth treating yourself – perhaps, if you know you’re going to be spending a lot of time in or around a hotel, having a lively view and a balcony would make you feel part of the action.

3. Be realistic about your destination

You don’t have to go looking for trouble, but always endeavour to get a clear picture of what to expect with regards to accessibility and challenges. Do think about how you’ll feel after walking on uneven pavement all day if that’s a local hazard, and consider your transport options. One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with has been the apparently minor issue of reaching the end of my energy reserves and having to stand waiting for a delayed bus!
And you don’t have to be a slave to the guidebook’s “travellers with disabilities” section, either. You know your requirements and remember that some books only cover wheelchair access. Don’t write off anywhere before looking into it yourself – in some countries, for example, travel can be a real headache on wheels but if you have the ability to negotiate steep pavements and uneven surfaces you can treat yourself to taxis and hotels with every luxury for a relative pittance.

Do check for yourself what restrictions may be in place with regard to bringing medication in. Sometimes the guidebook won’t have the latest rules.

4. Be prepared for unfairness

I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge unfair policies, but do be prepared for some measure of frustration through the whole process. Some airlines restrict the number of passengers with disabilities and in most circumstances the prized exit row seats are off-limits. While most allow extra time, a minority make passengers with disabilities board late. Make sure you know the airline or airport policies and can deal with their restrictions without seething, and as always use the contact info online if you want to know more.
People can be a less predictable hassle. Yes, we’re more at the whims of the airline employees whom we encounter than we might wish, and sometimes other passengers (even those with disabilities) will be ignorant of the reasons for having what they see as “special treatment” and might question the need for assistance. The vast majority of people will say nothing and have no problem, however, and remember that it’s usually a result of their own frustrations and they won’t remember the irritation later, even though it might feel like they are sending waves of disapproval your way. Ignore it and remember that, while occasional obnixious people get everywhere, most people are nice!

5. Find the most comfortable travel arrangement

Don’t be shy about asking what help is available if there’s a chance that you can save yourself a lot of hassle and pain. Some airlines will happily offer a free reservation of a bulkhead seat and (unless you will be more comfortable not moving during the flight) an aisle seat is usually easy to request and can make a huge difference to comfort. While no one really wants to be too close to the bathrooms on a long flight, situating yourself in the general area can be a good idea if you’re stiff but likely to get up and down to go to the toilet. Ask at check-in if the flight is full, as if not a helpful airline employee might be happy to put you in a quiet spot.
Do ask for more time to board – which is not only great for getting settled and getting your hand luggage away, but means you’re not as vulnerable to bumping or standing around for too long. Some airlines board people with mobility restrictions at the same time as young families, and you just have to imagine the combination of bouncing kids and a bunch of people with sticks and walkers to know that’s a bad idea. In this case it is definitely worth asking to not board with this group, even if it means hanging back until the families have had a good head start.
On board, make the flight attendants aware if you have any particular needs. Most armrests can be moved if you know how and they can make sure that you don’t have to manoeuvre any more than need be. If the seatbelt is uncomfortable extensions are available and you can ask the flight attendants for one when you board or as they pass. Scheduled airlines typically offer extensions that match the regular belts, whereas some budget airlines will provide you with one in a very indiscreet shade! They can be purchased, and are accepted by most airlines, though some (such as Lufthansa) use a different buckling mechanism on some planes so you may still have to ask. Get a headstart on your comfort by selecting a seat online, if possible, and check out SeatGuru to find the best spot for you on your aircraft. This will also give you important information on seat pitch and width.
If flying causes too much pain and stress, consider the alternatives. Train travel can be a much easier prospect, especially for a trial run, since there is much more freedom to move around and fewer hurdles to jump before boarding the train. In fact, some train journeys are holidays in themselves and you can see spectacular scenery while meeting locals and not having to exert yourself too much!

6. Embrace the chair!

Not literally, unless you feel so moved. The airport wheelchair assistance service is your friend. If you’re fine going the distance on foot, discount it, but if any part of the walking, queueing and standing around is going to leave you sore and tired before you even get on the plane, get the help. If you’ve always been independent I understand that it can be difficult to acknowledge your limitations with such a visible symbol, but remember that most of us would want someone we care about to accept help rather than struggling on.
In most cases, the wheelchair route through the airport is somewhat swifter than the FootRoute, which is a blessing if you need time to decompress before the business of boarding. Don’t underestimate the difference it can make when connecting, when you may need to collect luggage and pass through security again.
Sometimes you will be scooped up from check-in, while sometimes you will need to go to an appointed location for wheelchair pickup. Do request assistance when booking a ticket, but if for any reason this has not been processed (it does happen) just stay calm, request assistance and there is usually no problem. In this case, ask the desk agent to check that a request is applied to all further flights on the ticket.

7. Appreciate your helpers

If you travel regularly from one airport, chances are you will become a familiar face to the assistants. All the more reason to be the kind of traveller they are happy to welcome back! When travelling alone, it’s nice to have the chance to chat, anyway.
Arriving in a new place, your assistants are likely to be the first local people you meet. This makes them a valuable and often enthusiastic ambassador for their home city and a source of great pointers. This can be your chance to ask any burning questions and to ask for local recommendations.
In one sense, it’s not fair that we should pay more than anyone else for a service we don’t want to need, but see point 4 again for a refresher. When someone has pushed you through an airport, collected your luggage, found an express route through passport control, been pleasant and given you sightseeing tips and driving directions, then it’s more than worth tipping generously according to your ability. Whether or not it’s expected, unless it’s taboo in your destination it’s likely to be appreciated and will show that you value the service.
Obviously, we all need to consider our own requirements, but if you’re nervous about the prospect of travel with new restrictions, I hope that this will be of some encouragement that it is possible. It’s not true that we can all do anything we fancy, but with some realistic expectations, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to enjoy the abilities we have!

Things They Don’t Tell You About Moving House


Greetings from my new home! It’s my first night and I have all my furniture in place, while piles of stuff sit unsorted at the old house. It will come, but you might guess correctly that I’m not remotely qualified to post as a guru on all things practical for moving (I just have one purely practical tip below) – and there are plenty of great resources for packing hints and beginning to approach the mammoth task of getting everything you own from A to B in one piece (or at least in less than or equal to the number of pieces there were originally). I can, however, tell you ALL about being blindsided by the very normal things that don’t make it onto the lists that are actually helpful.

Disclaimer: it’s possible I’m actually insane. Results may vary.

So you have decided to move house! Congratulations. You are now a basketcase.  

Some of this is a no-brainer. And I have no brain, so I can verify this. I didn’t want to move. Of course there will be conflicted emotions. I miss my flat. But I am also excited about my new home. But it is new. But it is new! But it isn’t home yet. But it has so much better accommodation! This is all natural and normal. I was less prepared for the complete inability to get anything done because my mind was somewhere on a cushion-related Pinterest board, or emailing utility companies about whether their website is working properly and it’s just my details that are wonky, or trying to work out when I can talk to friends and family around all this nothing I seem to be doing.


The sneezing. Oh my goodness, the – ACHOO! – sneezing.

Dust. Dust everywhere. You can be houseproud and keep your shelves and electrical equipment shiny and dust-free, but unless you have a compelling reason to keep your home hospital-fresh those little particles will get everywhere. As soon as you start moving everything around, it will fly up in clouds from surfaces, textiles and your family members. Things you just dusted will be dusty. Things completely hemmed in by other things will be dusty. There may be things you have never unpacked, sealed in plastic and stored in containers; somehow they will be dusty. To add to the emotional trauma, every childhood allergy will cram itself in your face and wriggle around in your sinuses. You will sneeze for no apparent reason. There will be a constant gritty feeling in your eyelashes. Then, when you think the worst is over, your belongings go into a dusty van filled with dust from everyone else’s dusty house and they have a big dust party. You get everything into your new house and suddenly your new house is dusty, too.


It’s exhausting.

So you’re dusty. Let’s add sweaty to the mix, too. And that’s just from the exertion of bossing around your minions. Then you will have to move everything you brought home in individual shopping bags over the past decade. At once. Into boxes, into trucks, out of trucks, out of boxes… Things need to be rationalised, while you live with stuff around you all the time, in piles, in boxes, in huge towers of debris topped by the cat. And this is how it looks even if you’re semi-organised. Packing up takes a while. Planning to pack up takes a while. Then at the very least you have to travel to the new house and make up your bed just so you can recover a bit.


Your past comes back to haunt you.

Remember those awful jumpers you decided really suited you back in 2003, despite the fact that they were hideous to everyone else? No? Well, you will. Shoes with four-inch heels will remind you that your ankles are not what they were. Cringeworthy letters and pictures from long lost friendships that you shoved in a drawer will re-emerge like a Phoenix of Awful, cardigans you swore you would fold properly later wrinkle at you in judgement, and those hideous passport photos will remind you why you used to have such a self-esteem problem. Your old home feels rejected. Spitefully, it is spewing out all of these items just to kick you when you’re down, exhausted and have dust in your nostrils. Hang in there.


It goes on forever. 

I could be projecting here. Clearly, other people move house and don’t spend the rest of their lives unpacking boxes. My parents last moved house twenty-six-and-a-half years ago and I’m fairly confident they have had the past four or five months just to relax. But from where I’m sitting here, tonight, I have just finished a huge move after weeks of planning and a few fairly taxing days, and tomorrow I get to go back to the flat and continue working, except now without the comfy chairs? Le sigh. I am just going to be stoic and make like a Weeping Angel (“We have no need of comfy chairs“)


Finally, a practical tip.

So, you sat through all that nonsense. Well done. I mean that. Reward yourself with an actual hint for moving. Despite the complaints, this move has not been a total nightmare to organise as my mother and I collaborated on a Trello board. I don’t know how the Trello people would describe it, but it’s like Pinterest for organising junkies. We love making lists, and right before I got notice that I had to move, a member of a web team showed the site to a friend and me. She claims she has never seen such a look of joyful contentment as the one on my face when I saw his Trello board. I started playing around with it and when we had to plan the removal it was perfect – we can each access and edit our board with to do lists by theme, moving sets of checklists around and keeping track of what we have still to do. I would definitely recommend it to anyone planning anything with lots of bits, especially collaboratively.

So there we have it. My sole practical contribution. That, and remember to make up your bed right away. Speaking of which…

Lost. Not in France.


I am currently completely turned around. I have no idea where I am. I know I am in the Netherlands, next to a canal. Beyond that, I am stumped. I feel so alone.

Okay, I’m actually on Google Streetview, in the comfort of my own home, but that doesn’t mean I will feel satisfied just closing the window and getting on with my life. My plan is to follow the canal for a while and see what happens.

Someone just told me how to find out where I am. Unfortunately I only have an address, which does not quite complete the picture for me. Apparently I’m on Raamvest. Which sounds like a metal group. Or a sheep wearing underwear.
How did I get myself into this ridiculous situation? My parents announced that we are all going to Haarlem for the weekend in a couple of months, so I decided to do some exploring. I have seen many adorable houses and found some market stalls, but in the process I lost track of myself. Oh well. Back to the trial-and-error manner of navigation. I think this canal business is a good idea.
Anyone else ever feel they get themselves into problems that normal people would not have?
Goodness, I hope I’m still in Haarlem.

4 (Rejected) Strategies for Petty Vengeance


Since my estate agent announced that I am expected to be available for viewings at the bare minimum notice, or look forward to repeated entry by prospective owners guided (I hope) by a representative at any hours when I am not actually unconscious, I have tried to be pure of spirit and take it all in my stride. Occasionally, however, one is only human and may find one’s mind wandering to less lofty pastures.

My goal over the next few weeks is to extricate myself from this situation as smoothly as possible. I know (and part of my irritation stems from the fact) that my agency is being rather free with their interpretation of the law and are appealing to terms that contravene my overriding rights, so I have the moral high ground, but when it comes down to it, I am happy to have lived here for so long and want to get out with minimal fuss and stress. I mean, I have lambing season ahead of me with a field of sheep right outside my new front door. Priorities, people.

I may not advocate vengeful behaviour, and I would certainly never adopt any of the following strategies (and you do not need to explain all the reasons why these would be a bad idea), but to say “I would never dream of it” would not be quite true. My brain can be creative when it turns to such topics. If I had half this vision working on good stuff I would have solved some international crises by now*

*May not be actually factually true.

Nevertheless, here are some ideas my brain has birthed (while drifting off to sleep) about potential ways to sabotage viewings outside agreed hours:

  •  Order singing telegram to greet viewers with a personalised song.

Pros: Come on, it’s a SINGING TELEGRAM!; potential for dance routines, YouTube fame.

Cons: Not actually all that off-putting; Hard to do at short notice, which is kind of the issue here; Where does one get a singing telegram, anyway? Interflora?


  • Hold daily teddy bear yoga class and insist it continue under new ownership.

Pros: Obvious health benefits; straighten out the stuffing; general cuteness.

Cons: My teddy bear is already pretty flexible. Clearly insane.


  • Get seven of my closest friends to join me in the large hall closet, wait for viewing of said closet, invite viewers to join us in game of Sardines.

Pros: Fun for the whole family; make new friends; bond with existing friends.

Cons: Lack of notice for viewings might be an issue as cannot stay cramped in closet all day; would have to sniff friends for potential odour problems beforehand and might discourage said friends from joining one in confined space.


  • Wear robe, hold scythe, stand in garden outside window looking like Grim Reaper.

Pros: Already have scythe (don’t ask); already have garden; ditto window; good practice for promising career as human statue in straitened times for academia.

Cons: Half of scythe on top of kitchen cabinet; estate agent might still have garden key; viewers might want to see garden and would then have to hide behind shrub; possible cramp in scythe hand.


When it comes down to it, it is just possible that vengeance is more energy-consuming than a quiet but speedy drive towards moving. And isn’t that just a perfect illustration of how vengeance works? Although my scythe hand does feel a Reaper moment coming on. Just as well 1 April is not so far away. In completely unconnected news, I would like to invite my parents to join me on their deck for breakfast next Tuesday…

When You Don’t Want to Move


The estate agent has not been responding to emails since the new year. After seven years of living in the place you now think of as home, you arrive home from a hospital appointment to find  the postman standing on the doorstep with a recorded delivery letter.

“Notice to Quit”. It is, as most estate-agent-speak terms, obscure and confusing. Who’s quitting? Are they quitting the lease or is it because you have to quit the property? Either way it means leaving.

No new lease. The new owner wants to sell. He inherited over a year ago. Surely this decision has not miraculously been made just in time to give the required notice? Could they not have responded to the reasonable question, “Can I renew my lease this year?” before the eight week mark?

And then there’s the tone of the communication. The demands begin immediately. After years of ignoring the property and its desperate need for repair, you must endure a parade of intrusions: impersonal emails, valuations, multi-agency inspections, photos of your personal possessions to be posted online, viewings at inconvenient times, a queue of strangers peering and prodding and judging as you try to sort the formative years of adulthood into boxes.

Leaving this place will be sad. I grew up here, in obvious and profound ways. I survived indescribable physical pain here, while my best friendships grew out of the darkest times. I woke up unable to move in the familiar, reflected light of the public hallway. I learned how to use mobility aids in the bathroom – across which I threw my first walking stick at 3 a.m. out of frustration. I waited for months for my bathroom floor to be repaired, and was worried when I heard the workmen questioning who chose the colour and wondering if wee-Sybil-at-the-office was colourblind. The questionable electrical composition of the property taught me all I needed to know about finding a fuse box in pitch darkness. The walls have collected art brought home from all corners of the globe, from my Klimt posters from a Vienna trip the summer I moved in to a dot-painted lizard from the Australian outback. Out of necessity but later by choice I hosted our family Christmas, as we formed new traditions.

I wrote self-pityingly of the loss, of devastating blows and heartbreak. But then I discovered the farm.

When I moved to my current home, I had been left in the lurch by the same agency after they failed to produce the promised lease and explained that – oops! – they forgot to check with the owner, who was selling. I had missed the rush of new places on the market in this student area and expected to struggle. I made a wishlist (unfurnished, central, parking, solo) and thought that if I could find a place with two out of the four I should jump at the opportunity. After a couple of unpromising viewings I stumbled upon my current flat the day it was re-listed unfurnished, at a significant discount from the initial, furnished price. Realising that it was also a central 1 bedroom with parking, I viewed immediately and was able to sign a lease within a few days. It was not hard to imagine a guardian angel browsing the listings with me.

This angel deserves a raise, or at least a shiny new harp, because I have found my next non-Barbie Dream Home, for the next few months if not beyond. I will be living in a cottage on a farm, with a newly decorated interior, new bathroom, second bedroom (for hosting/writing purposes) and – hallelujah – a dishwasher. I am very close to town but I have all the country trappings, down to the sheep right outside my windows. I hope to work on my first book watching the lambs gambol down a gentle hillside. It is a step towards the next phase in my life and a place to reflect as I discern and decide where that will take me.

Yes, I will miss this flat, my first real home. This home made me. In my next house, I will do the home-making.

Exhibit A for Autopsy


Exhibit A for Autopsy

From Stirling Castle, Scotland. I’m pleased to know that the display did not cause additional suffering. However, given the way my mind works, I am now concerned about whether murderers who happen to be animals have been getting away with their misdeeds by staging accidents. A keen taxidermist asking too few questions and an evil bunny might escape justice. Scot-free, one might say.

Gerbil Essences


‘Twas the night before my viva (the final oral exam defending my PhD thesis). I was sitting minding my own business, chewing a chilli chimichanga that was merrily burning its way through my tongue, when my parents dropped the Gerbil Bombshell.

“I think we should tell her. I mean, I’m sure she’s old enough to handle it. We think Dusty ate Lemon.”

Let’s backtrack. My family has a somewhat chequered history with rodents, and we are probably on an RSPCA watch list. Any day now Secret Squirrel Shoppers will start turning up at our houses with hidden cameras in their fur.

It all began when I was five, and it was my turn to look after the class gerbil for the weekend. Squeak was his name, being as he was part of an estranged double-act called Bubble and Squeak (though now I wonder if Bubble met his end in a more cannibalistic fashion). My mother went to empty out the old sawdust from his enclosure and left Squeak in an ice cream tub with my father and I to play, issuing strict instructions that whatever happened we were not to let the gerbil get out and run away. Instead of listening to the voice of rodenty experience, my father thought, “Pfft, how fast can a glorified hamster be?”

Much of the following two hours was spent trying to coax an anxious gerbil down from the interior of an upright piano.

For reasons best explored by professionals, the next year my parents nevertheless took an intuitive leap and decided that getting two gerbils would be a good move. I was enraptured by the whirling ball of fluff that arrived in my house and loved watching the gerbils, playing with the gerbils and making Olympic-standard obstacle courses for the gerbils. The gerbils – names Dusty and Lemon with imaginative reference to their respective hues – were reasonably tolerant of this enforced exercise and rarely took to nibbling the Tiny Human Overlord. Until Dusty snapped and apparently ATE Lemon.

After Lemon’s cruel end, Dusty continued to enjoy the single life in his gerbil duplex bachelor pad, though he eventually grew bored and worked out how to escape. He could use his little paws to unscrew the uppermost level of his house and made it to the floor through what I can only assume was a heroic but minuscule abseiling sequence. Perhaps accompanied by the Mission Impossible theme on a glockenspiel.

One night my mother awoke and heard chaos downstairs. Our fairly new puppy, Ribbons (yes, I named the pets), was going bonkers. She went down and was calming the dog when what she thought was a rat ran across her feet and she shrieked. Of course, it was just Dusty having second thoughts about taking that night job inside the upholstery and making for home base. But it serves as a valuable lesson in both gerbil security and the strength of Yorkie ratting instincts.

Dusty began to look a bit worse for wear after a couple of years. Accepting that he was an elderly gerbil and death comes to us all, I nevertheless felt a deep sadness that he would not be with us to celebrate his birthday the following month. My conviction was that Dusty should get to celebrate early and go out on a high. We may have had a houseguest to traumatise, but I would not be dissuaded. We baked the gerbil a cake and wrapped up some toilet roll tubes as gifts, then I made everyone kneel around him and sing happy birthday.

Miraculously, Dusty recovered. I was convinced the special attention had done him good until I was twenty-five and my parents confessed that, having decided on a kill-or-cure approach, they had given him whisky and he perked right up.

Dusty, the escapology-studying, dog-tormenting alcoholic gerbil. A bit like a rodent James Bond with less misogyny and more sunflower seeds. Why my parents felt that the night before a nervewracking major life-event was the best time to introduce gerbil cannibalism to our family history, I can’t say.

A post-script to my rodent saga came in 2008, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I was staying in Denver for a week with a friend. Taking an overnight bag, we took her parents up on their kind invitation to join them at their cabin that weekend. I realised at one point that my pear-scented deodorant had leaked and saturated my only change of shirt. My friend’s parents offered to let me air it overnight on the deck so I would not smell so much like food in the morning.

At sunrise I was already awake, popped outside to admire the mountain vista with pink rays glinting off a distant bison, then went back to sleep contentedly. A couple of hours later I emerged to find three slightly guilty looking hosts who rushed to apologise for an event that was certainly not their fault but has provided much amusement since: chipmunks ate my shirt. People think I am making this up, but they had chewed an impressive number of holes in the material so that parts of it were barely clinging together. I giggled about it for a while then packed the remnants carefully so that I could demonstrate the power of chipmunk teeth.

The chipmunks, however, did not eat my gerbil, so cannot be implicated in my parents’ poor judgement.

I’ve Got a Lengthy List

My best friend and I once had a lengthy chat about our Myers-Briggs types. I read him mine (which has a section on how I like to organise things and, while I’m mostly a big-picture type, can get bogged down in my own fascinating detail). I plan Christmas in a big notebook with a giant penguin pen – card lists, shopping lists, catalogues of decorations, lists of things for other people to do according to my exacting schedule – and once tried to run a tight ship entitled, appropriately, “Camp Christmas”, I have folders of travel plans, keep a running list of current flight schedules from nearby airports, have every possible helpline programmed into my phone and generally try to be ready for anything, so I probably deserve the resultant laughter. He said if I were in the Mikado the song would be called “I’ve Got A Massive List”. He has clearly forgotten what happens if you put such ideas in my head.  This is what happens.

I’ve Got a Lengthy List (to the tune of I’ve Got a Little List  from The Mikado)

If ever it should happen that a party must be planned
I’ve got a lengthy list, I’ve got a lengthy list,
If a foolish project manager should ask me for a hand?
No detail will be missed, no detail will be missed
Upon many great occasions where a list may be required
I’m known to whip a clipboard out, my penmanship admired
You’re going to need a guest list (you don’t want to get that wrong)
A strategy for that guy who keeps bursting into song
And when it comes to napkin rings I’m sure I could assist
I will put them on the list. See? Right here, they’re on the list.

So you’re fleeing to Antarctica, but please, before you run
I’ve got a lengthy list, I’ve got a lengthy list,
We – before things go in boxes – need a pen and staple gun
So that nothing will be missed, so nothing will be missed
Though so weakly you protest, it’s so much better, you will find
No cat or towel or toastie-maker will be left behind
When drifting off this evening you’ll be organising sheep
Reflecting that my listing is rewarding, and it’s cheap
On pillows labelled clearly (no, I really must insist)
For I’ve got them on the list, I have got them on the list.

At Christmas, such a special time for family and friends,
I’ve got a lengthy list, a twice-checked Santa list
From October through to January the planning never ends
The tinsel must persist! (I tied it to my wrist)
There are Christmas cards and posting dates that must be written out
Who’s visiting with allergies to cheese and sauerkraut
The present list and budgeting massaged to work the best,
And colourscheme transgressors to be scolded and redressed
For certain tasks the amateurs I’m willing to enlist;
I have put them on my list, on my very festive list.

Of course, I see potential widely for a plan or chart
I’ve got a list of lists, a very meta list
Of the varied situations, problems, matters of the heart
Where listing could assist, where listing could assist
There’s the labelling of envelopes, your basic pros and cons,
The colour-coded carnival of naming kids (or swans)
And then the lists and systems there’s equipment to enhance
I’ve box files full of cutlery and binders full of pants,
So if you request the options (though I’m sure you get the gist)
I will email you the list, I will email you the list.