It's that time again

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Somehow the 1st of April came and went, without me taking to Looking Up and reflecting upon this date, the anniversary of my accident. This can probably be viewed as a good thing.

The reason I haven't commented on reaching 9 years post-injury is because I have been insanely busy writing on a very diverse range of subjects, all of which will become clear in the fullness of time. It's good to be busy, although it does mean that I have spent less time with the kids, and been somewhat preoccupied. Even my conversations with Penny have been largely filled with me waffling about work.

All for this is very mundane and makes me far from unusual as a man in his forties with a couple of kids, eking out a living as a freelancer. With the exception of my daily battle with chronic pain, I'd say it's all pretty normal.

Nine years ago, however, the idea of my life being normal ever again was inconceivable. My day to day was dominated by trying to master the simple everyday activities that most of us take for granted, and that would enable me to 'look after myself' again. I felt that I would eventually master this, but I couldn't really imagine a time when such things didn't dominate my life.

Now? Well I sleep badly, I spend too long in the bathroom, and I take slightly more medication than I would like to. Forty-something man, etc...

The way that I interact with the rest of the world has certainly changed. Living in a small town in Australia also means that I have lost my anonymity. With my appalling memory for names, and the Australian habit of using names immediately and often ("Tim? Hello, Tim. Well, Tim, this is your bank card." etc.) I spend the first few minutes of every conversation thinking,
"I know you. How do I know you? Are you a neighbour? Or is it a school thing? It could be a school thing. Do I know you? Maybe I don't know you. Have you just been told my name by someone else?"

As with any small town (and this is a pretty friendly one) every trip out to the shops inevitably involves several conversations. I have also had the inevitable curiosity voiced.
"How long have you been in a wheelchair, if you don't mind me asking?"
"What happened to you, if you don't mind me asking?"
Always tough ones, those. If I do mind, well it's too bloody late now.
And If I had been in a wheelchair all my life, how awkward would these questions become? What if there was no accident, no moment people could 'imagine for themselves' to help them understand?

I must confess to a little cruelty. A couple of weeks ago, I was in the bottle shop (off licence).
A 'bloke' came in as I was waiting to pay, and after a relatively short silence and his offering an "Alroight, mate," he asked me,
 "What happened to you, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Oh," says I, "I was just an idiot."
He looks uncomfortable.
"Yeah," I said, pointing to the sticking plaster bound around my thumb, "I was trying to open a shrink-wrapped pack of batteries with a craft knife and my hand slipped."
He smiled, nervously.
I paid and left.

Looking Up on ending up.

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While I have commented upon linguistic differences in the past, I would like to return to the conversation (see what I did there?) with a wider look at Australian speech.

The most common observation made of the Australian accent is that all sentences end with an upward inflection. Indeed, the accusation is often made that this 'blight' is affecting the voices of younger Britons.

In truth, accents and speaking styles are constantly subject to outside influences, whether it's the 'Valley Girl', "And I was, like, totally, y'know. And he's all...etc." Or that most wonderful fusion heard on London buses, where the confluence of Asian, Jamaican, Cockney and US hip-hop creates a 'mash-up' that makes it impossible to tell the ethnicity of the speaker without looking.

Anyway, back to Australia. It is inaccurate to describe every sentence as ending up. This device is actually used to inform the listener that there is more to come, whereas the final line finishes down. This is not always the case, but certainly the most common use.

There are lots of methods employed to keep control of a conversation, be it 'you know', 'is it', 'like' or 'd'you what I mean'.  All of which indicates a universal truth; everyone is insecure, and needs constant verbal or non-verbal validation in order to continue a conversation. Ooh, I love a good generalisation, me, so here's a few more:

  • Australians use names much more frequently bthan their British counterparts. If you introduce yourself, the person with whom you are conversing will use your name with a frequency that is unfamiliar to the British ear. I suspect that one of the effects of this is that Australians are better at remembering people's names, but I have no data to back up this theory, so let's just assume I'm right.

  • Using the word, "Look" at the beginning of the sentence is common, and does not carry the same aggresive undertone that it would in the UK. This may be in part because the UK use would most likely have the prefix 'now'. "Now look, there's no need to generalise." etc.

  • Some words are best avoided altogether. If you are attending a sporting event in Australia, do not ask "Who are you rooting for?" In Australia, 'rooting' is a slang word for having sexual intercourse.

  • By contrast, there is a liberal throwing around of spunk. Everyone is full of spunk. Spunky. Spunk on the sports field is applauded. Down here, spunk does not come from down there. Rather than being a slang term for semen, spunk is used to denote enthusiasm, boldness, energy or courage. Confusingly, it may also be used to describe the attractiveness of males.  Should you wish to find an Australian euphemism for semen, then might I recommend 'spoof'?

  • Football is a battle ground. That's the word, obviously, unless you are talking about rugby league, in which case 'battle ground' pretty much sums it up. Again, this is a subject I have visited in the past, but I have an update. With Australia qualifying for the World Cup, and the domestic A League gaining a wider audience, more Australians are using the f-word to describe soccer.  This could cause some awkwardness, what with the national team being known as the Socceroos...

All of which goes to show that any living language is built on shifting sands; a fluid form of communication that only has meaning when both parties ascribe the same definitions to the words used.  To ensure this is the case, ending on the up is a device that usually garners a non-verbal response from the listener that means "I understand. Do go on."

That said, it makes it bloody hard to ask anyone a question...

A rush of boot to the head.

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There are some Australian brands that have acquired an iconic status. Perhaps the most famous of these is Vegemite, immortalised by Men At Work as the contents of the sandwich referenced in their hit 'Down Under,' but perhaps better described in the sublime 'Vegemite-the Black Death', by Amanda Palmer.

There are numerous other iconic Aussie brands; these are just a few that I am familiar with:
  • The "Chesty" Bonds singlet (a figure hugging vest as worn by clothing manufacturer Bonds' cartoon figure 'Chesty Bond' who, one assumes from his name, suffers with terrible catarrh.)
  • The TimTam. A Chocolate coated chocolate biscuit produced by Arnott's and mostly famous as a hot drink-biscuit-straw. The victim nibbles off opposite corners of the biscuit before using it to suck up tea/coffee/seawater/any last vestiges of dignity. In my experience, the physics of this is more enjoyable than the taste or texture. I have never tried this with a penguin, either as an alternative biscuit or as a flightless companion, so I'm not sure if these properties are unique to the TimTam.
  • The Esky cold box. A brand that, like the Thermos or the Hoover, has become a common name for the product they make. Cool boxes or eskies are vital in Australia, as milk will often spoil on the walk from the shop to the car. Once inside the car, it is useful to have an esky to keep your freshly made yogurt from growing legs and running away with the melted mess that were your TimTams.  Most Australian eskies have the added advantage of being big enough to hide a corpse in, should the spoiled dairy produce or the searing heat coming off the sun-bleached dashboard account for any passengers on the journey home.

There are others, but it is to the Blundstone boot that I turn my attention. For those who have never come across 'Blunnies', they are an Australian work boot made of supple leather with elasticated side panels, allowing the wearer to get them on and off easily. Popular with outdoor workers, these boots are often worn with boot guards - canvas gaiters that prevent stones, soil, snakes, spiders, kangaroos or TimTams from falling into the top of the boots.

In my landscaping days, I came to love my Blundstone boots. Once broken in, they were tremendously comfortable, and being able to slip them on and off made the working day very much easier. My work boots were very well used, so when I was in Australia in 2005, I bought a new pair.

Unfortunately, it was a month after our return from Australia that year that I suffered my spinal cord injury, and the boots sat in the cupboard as a poignant reminder of the life I would never return to.

Still, it was a shame to see them go to waste, so a couple of years on, I had a go at slipping my feet into the boots. It took  some experimenting with different insoles and variations in approach to come up with a way of donning my Blunnies without folding my toes up as if I were trying to revive the ancient tradition of foot-binding. I did get there in the end, although I wouldn't wear them every day in case I were to develop marks on my feet or other pressure concerns that could lead to a sore developing. I have made a habit of changing my footwear most days for the same reason.

When our shipping arrived in Australia, I was reunited with my boots, only to discover that there were several areas of the soles that now had holes in them. Obviously, I know that these have not come through use, as all my shoes have pristine soles due to their lack of contact with the ground. I can only put the damage down to a suspicious customs inspector wondering why anyone would ship a pair of brand new Blundstones into Australia.

Determined to wear the no-longer immaculate soles as a hidden badge of honour, I decided to don my Blunnies in an effort to blend in and hopefully prevent people from bringing up the rather awkward topic of the cricket.

Socks in place, I grabbed the left boot and reacquainted myself with the technique and angle of approach necessary to get the boots on without snapping my toes like twiglets (not an iconic Australian brand).  It requires a significant effort in both force exerted and balance maintained, but all seemed to be going smoothly until my right hand lost grip on the boot strap. Without an even pull on front and back strap simultaneously, the boot twisted around and reared up, still containing half of my left foot. 

As I sat there, tears streaming down my cheeks and nose throbbing, there was no way to avoid the painful realisation: I had just kicked myself in the face.

How do you like to start your day?

Commercial breaks.

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Watching television here in Australia can be a stressful experience. This is not because I am out of step with many of the cultural references, nor is it because I don't know who any of the celebrities are; back in the UK, I had little idea who half of the celebrities were. Indeed, many of the shows on here are familiar, with programmes like Graham Norton's chat show being screened often.

The problem comes when I am sat, half awake, in front of the idiot box consuming some undemanding drivel. What seems like a relaxed and jovial chat show suddenly jumps into a dramatic confrontation between vampires and werewolves, or an exposé revealing the imminent danger of breathing during a longhaul flight or drinking tap water. Having been jolted from my torpor by this dramatic announcement, I am suddenly fully focussed on the TV. Why is everyone shouting? What should I be doing first? Is it too late to buy firearms or a gasmask?

At this point, the TV will cut to an overweight man in a suit, looking awkward and shouting at me about cars or washing machines. This is usually the owner of the business who lacks even the presentastion skills of a barrow boy, but insists on declaring the life-changing properties of their products. It is all very loud and confusing.

In the UK, we have some kind of warning that we are about to be plunged into the world of advertising. A message will come up on the screen telling us what programme we are leaving, or simply saying 'back soon'. It's the commercial TV version of the Corinthian Spirit. We know what to expect, and some programmes even contain jovial references to putting the kettle on during the ad break, as though acknowledging the commercial interests is somehow vulgar.

Not so here. Advertising is dumped into programmes with no warning and great frequency. I recently watched a film which was an hour longer than normal running time because of the ads. An hour. About a third of the viewing time. If that wasn't enough, there are also ads popping up in the corners and along the bottom of the screen, just in case we want to know what else we could be enjoying.  Watching Australian television is the closest I've come to experiencing ADHD.

As if the frequency and delivery style were not confusing enough, there is the matter of the content itself. Sandwiched between the fishing tackle and chainsaw promotions, we are treated to adverts for earth moving equipment. Shouty earth-moving equipment, of course. Can there really be that many people considering their next industrial equipment purchase while watching the cricket, or is this just a public service to placate 2 year olds who are obsessed with diggers?

As far as I can make out from the ads, the average Australian family has a swimming pool (excavated with their own JCB), a ride-on lawnmower, a fishing boat with an outboard motor and a chiller box big enough to hide a dead body,  several chainsaws, a utility vehicle, a sports vehicle, a sports utility vehicle, an outdoor kitchen (complete with extractor hood and 8 ring gas barbeque), and enough air-freshener, anti-bacterial sprays and insecticide to create a home that would make the surface of the moon seem fecund and teeming with life.
But you needn't worry about the environmental implications of all this. The average Australian family spends all their waking hours gambling in casinos, on pokies, on line and on their smartphones. Is this why it's called The Lucky Country?
'Two countries divided by a common language.' A quote variously ascribed to Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw pertains to the cultural relationship between the UK and the US. It could just as easily be used to describe the differences between any two national or regional variations of the English language.

These differences have contributed to the strength of what has often been described as a 'bastard language.' The creation of slang and regional difference, along with the appropriation of words from other languages have served to important roles.

One, to obfuscate meaning with a code of sorts. This way, workers could talk across a shop-floor without their bosses unserstanding, or a community could choose to exclude newcomers from conversation.

The other role is to make communication easier. If you have a word that better describes an object or concept, we'll just appropriate it. This early adoption of other words has proved to be  a real strength for English as a global language.

Which leads me to Australia, and specifically Australian english.

Yes, we've all donned cork-decorated hats and chucked another lazy stereotype on the barbie, mate/cobber, but there are other words and expressions which do get used every day, and some of them are genuinely new to me.

This post was really prompted by a shocking news story that has received a lot of coverage in Australia, and has even prompted a change in the law. The case involved a drunken idiot who killed a passer by with a single punch. The newspaper headlines and the TV newscasters have all referred to the perpetrator throwing a 'king hit.'  I have not heard this expression before, but it obviously refers to knocking out an opponent with a single blow.

Inevitably, there are numerous other examples of Australian english and slang that are unfamiliar (hooroo, anyone?), but the use of king hit is an example of a word or phrase that occupies a different place in the lexicon. Whereas the media in the UK tends to use either 'proper' english or a tabloid informality, over here one often comes across what could be considered to be informal 'slang' that has migrated into more formal use of language.

Some of this is tied up with attempts to define what is uniquely Australian. Back in the days of the John Howard government, there was much talk of 'mateship' as a uniquely Australian attribute. The words may be, but surely friendship and loyalty are found universally?

At the same time, there is a tendency among politicians to try and demonstrate their 'man on the street' credentials through occasionally painful use of slang. At the start of the recent election campaign, soon-to-be-Prime-Minister Tony Abbott described the election as being about who is 'fair dinkum'. And if that's not a lazy stereotype, I don't know what is...mate.

Breaking the code...

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I don't consider myself to be an overly sentimental person, although some who know me better than I do might disagree, and if I'm honest, they'd be right to.

So, let's start again:

One of my illogical emotional attachments causes me to cling, limpet-like, to Arsenal and their particular interpretation of 'the beautiful game. I am, of course, talking football. Or I was, for it seems that these days, I am not just talking about Football (the capital f is to indicate that I am talking about the sport that the rest of the world calls football), but also football (rugby league) and football (Australian Rules Football, also known as 'footy').

Conversations around sport over here seem to be needlessly confusing. Yes, there is the argument that if the rest of the population call rugby league 'football' then it is me who is wrong, for language is merely an agreed set of names used to describe objects, activities and emotions.

Maybe I am too closely wedded to logic, but Football is obviously 'foot' and 'ball' coming together, as they do throughout most of the game. Yes, they occasionally apply a boot to the ball in rugby league, but the puck often hits a skate in ice-hockey, and they don't call that footpuck (nor is boxing called 'facepunch', come to that).

Moral high-ground suitably occupied, that might have been job done. But then there's 'footy'.  Australian Rules confuses things, because they do kick the ball (they also do a weird 'hand-kick' thing called handballing, but we'll gloss over that). It's also a bit bonkers, and certainly makes for an exciting spectator sport, so it's possible I may end up attending the odd game in a bid to get a fix of live sport (there is Australian 'A-League' soccer, but I've tried on TV and the standard falls short of the Premier League, making the games frustrating to watch).

In an effort to acclimatise to life in Australia, and in order to reduce the risk that I might blight my children for life, I decided to purchase one of those strange shaped balls. So, meet the Sherrin footy; an oval shaped ball that resembles a rugby ball with slightly rounded ends. For matchplay, the ball is usually red, or yellow for floodlit games, and larger than the kids' ball I bought to fast-track Felix on the road to sporting excellence.

 We started modestly; catching and punching the ball, as my kicking skills are rather weak these days, and Felix isn't ready to start kicking the ball out of his hands. Things were progressing well until the identity of the ball came into question. Instead of a piece of sporting equipment, it was now 'a hedgehog', and a tired hedgehog at that.

 The hedgehog was put to bed on the swing...

but apparently he struggled with getting to sleep so I was called upon to rock him gently backwards and forwards...

Once asleep, the hedgehog was transferred carefully to the ground, where Felix joined him for a rest.

The whole episode confirmed my worst suspicions; change the shape of a football and the whole of sporting civilisation quickly unravels. However, I refuse to be defeated, and I am intending to found the world's first Sleepy Hedgehog League. And you can call it whatever you bloody well like...

On fire and the ice-man.

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It is certainly true to say that, while the sensation is easing, I still feel like I am on holiday over here in Australia.

To give you an example of how this subconscous thought manifests itself, I should explain that I have recently finished the fascinating autobiography of Dennis Bergkamp. When I say fascinating, I must point out that the 'iceman' is, in my humble opinion, the best player ever to have pulled on an Arsenal shirt. With this in mind, I am also happy to acknowledge that while 'Stillness and Speed' provides a rare insight into the thinking of a footballing maestro, it might not be quite as fascinating to someone who is not a football fan.
That said, 'Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football' by David Winner is a fascinating read whether you love the beautiful game or not, but I digress.

Anyway, back to the example. There am I, up to my eyelids in Stillness and Speed, when the phone rings. I am lying on a bench out on the patio, so I don't bother racing the answerphone, as I have no chance. Instead, as I lie there I wonder if the caller will leave their message in English or some other language. This is not a sly pop at our (Penal) Colonial Cousins and their interpretation of the mother tongue (for any Australian readers, my tongue was wedged firmly in my cheek throughout that last sentence). The confusion over language was the result of reading a book about a Dutch football while feeling like I am not 'at home'. Although this reveals a poor grasp of reality, it is also a useful way of describing the feeling of being an outsider.

Another sensory unfamiliarity is olfactory in nature. Over the last few days, the air has been filled with the acrid smell of the bushfires burning several miles away. We also had massive lightning storms the night before last, waking the children up with some really spectacular flashes and crashes. Looking out of the window, we could see an eerie orange glow on the horizon. Very worrying, until we remembered that it was coming from the direction of a massive road widening project, where they have arc-lights on through the night.

The fires are nowhere near us, in truth, and being near the coast we are not at high risk. However, the winds are really strong and gusty at the moment, and I can only imagine how impossible it must be trying to control a bush fire in a howling gale.

Seeing pink sunsets filtered through smoke, and the all-pervasive smell of burning makes the bushfires feel much more real that watching yellowcoat-clad TV reporters trawling for 'human-interest' angles on the news every night.

As is often the case, I look on such natural disasters and wonder how I would cope if there was an emergency here. I'm no survivalist (I don't even like firearms or multi-pocketed waistcoats), but I suppose it wouldn't hurt to keep an extra box of catheters and some drinking water in the garage. And maybe a 4 x 4. And a ghillie suit. Got to have a ghillie suit...

Red in tooth and claw.

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So, deadly wildlife, then...

Casting a vacuum cleaner around the living room today, I decided to 'do' behind the sofa. as I heaved it out of the way, I came face to face with one of nature's deadly assassins.

It was a scary moment; me and a redback spider, soon to be locked in mortal combat. We both knew that only one could emerge from this battle with their life. There was a palpable tension in the air, as we circled each other, looking for weakness; a sign that one of us had made a terrible error in our tactical assessment of the other. Who would attack first? Who had the better reaction times?

Or, I saw it nestled against the skirting board and we dropped a book on it before hoovering up the squished remains.

It was a rather mundane experience, where the main significant difference to my normal behaviour was that I made no attempt to trap and release the spider with a glass. However, it was a timely reminder that my daily habits will have to change.

The thing that puzzles me most is what would happen if I was bitten in a paralysed area by a spider or snake without my knowing. Obviously this is less likely to happen with a shark or a crocodile, but I feel that the medical emergency presented in either of those scenarios would also be more obvious; limb missing, shark/crocodile hanging off bloody stump, etc.

I suspect I might spot the odd snake coiled up on my wheelchair cushion too, but if there were a spider in my shoe when I got dressed in the morning, I would be unaware until I developed the symptoms, which are all very unpleasant. And this doesn't just go for the deadly ones. There are also white-tips and wolf spiders that can give you an unpleasant bite without being fatal.

Luckily, I have been training for just this eventuality. On several occasions, I have left a sock inside my shoe at the end of a long day, only to cram my foot into it again the following morning. Usually, the extra struggle of getting the shoe on is enough to alert me to the stray item, but there have a couple of times when I have been over enthusiastic in my dressing techinque, and my poor toes have done a twelve hour stint folded up like a podiatrist's nightmare. Luckily, I haven't broken any of the poor little fellers yet, and I have managed to modify my routines so that I check my shoes first.

However, jamming hand into the shoes and having a rummage might not be the best approach when it comes to spiders, so from now on, it's a firm tap on the ground for my size tens.

In other news, we went for a swim in one of the best pools on the planet today. Well, in my modest opinion, anyway. The rockpool at Boat Harbour is cut into a rock shelf, and is filled and refreshed by the ocean on high tides. This means I get all the pleasures of swimming in the sea without feeling like I've been dumped in a washing maching full of grit and gravel.

The added bonus is a series of natural rockpools full of tiny starfish, anenomes, crabs and other delights for the kids, all on the same natural shelf of rock, which means I can roll up to them and join in the exploring. All with the aid of my home-made front wheel attachment, which gives me a 20" front wheel with handlebars and a brake, rather than struggling on 4" casters. It's such a vital piece of kit in my adventures that it deserves a post all of its' own at some point in the not too distant future.

Upon our return home, we found a Peewee chick on the drive, below the tree that houses its' nest. It was very small, and didn't look like it had much fight in it, with ants already crawling all over, like eager scrap metal dealers around a car with two flat tyres. However, we have an eight year old daughter, so it was inevitable that we should intervene and try and save the little bugger. We managed to keep it ant-free and warm, mainly by me holding it for an hour while we waited for someone from the wildlife rescue network to come and advise us or provide refuge. I doubt it will make it through the night, but it felt good to be trying to help Australian wildlife instead of working out how best to despatch it.

Summing up then: I wasn't poisoned, and I didn't drown. That's a good day in Australia, no?

Up and Under.

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Well... This is different.

After a couple of surreal nights in Malaysia at a resort with a three tiered lagoon-like swimming pool (swimming pool out of order), we have completed the migration.

Yes, dear reader, I am in The Lucky Country/upon the Fatal Shore/chucking another lazy stereotype on the barbie, etc.

Australia. It is a balmy spring day, the mercury is sitting in the mid-twenties, and a gentle breeze compounds the sense of smugness that underlies this description for anyone in the Northern Hemisphere contemplating the slide into winter.

In truth, I feel quite disorientated. I'm missing the beautiful colours that autumn brings. And making rose-hip jelly (yes, I know that last one steers dangerously close to living in a teepee and knitting my own yogurt, but I have made rosehip jelly before, so there).

Instead I am experiencing a spring that feels like summer, which will no doubt be followed by a summer that feels like sitting inside a blast furnace in a snorkel parka. And I do this in a town with population roughly three and a half times that of the street we lived in back in dear old Hackney. Perhaps the disorientation is not unexpected in the circumstances.

It's not the first time that I have felt upheaved. One thing I have learned from the adventures of the last few years is that our capacity to adapt to profound changes is often greater than we think. I have also come to realise that an initial period of overwhelming confusion soon shifts into familiarity, if not routine.

Our plan has always been to make the move here, and then spend some time finding out what family life is like for us in Australia, with a view to making a more clear-eyed decision about where our future lies. (Pause, while a Galah flies overhead. No, I am not maing this stuff up).

First impressions, then.

The kerbs are MASSIVE. The only drop kerbs seem to be where the disabled spaces are, and the same parking problems exist here, to whit: older ambulant people with disabled parking badges are drawn to a disabled space even when there are other spaces available (sometimes nearer to their destination). This can be frustrating when one needs a wider space rather than one closer to the shops.

Being near to the ocean is a great feeling, tempered by the relative inaccessibility of the last few yards, i.e. The Sand.  However, we have already found a location where the combination of a boat ramp and some hard sand makes it possible for me to get near to the sea at high tide.

timgerroa.jpgA car will be essential here. Everywhere is at least one hill away, and public transport will not be adequate. The car market is different, and I'm missing my Motability car a lot. We've just got to find an equivalent car here with side sliding doors. And then pay for it. And insure it. And pay vehicle tax. And for tyres.

The sun is fierce. Even on a 'cool' day, pushing up hills is tough work, especially as it causes me to come out in an unleasant prickly heat rash. I'm hoping to adjust to the heat, but if not, I will have to spend high summer sat on an air-conditioning unit, grumbling about the weather.

My attention span is still suffering as the result of a combination of a month of packing without sleep and jetlag, all of which means I am struggling to finish anyth

Lighting the way

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