Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Homeless in London, who cares?

My clients yesterday included a 44-year-old mother of four who suffers from incontinence and told me that "I am claiming [benefits] for them [husband and sons]".

She's one of the thousands the government is trying to move off Incapacity Benefit (she was classed as severely disabled) back into work (JobSeekers Allowance). However because no one in the family works, for her to lose her benefits would mean the family would struggle to survive.

This is despite one son and husband also claiming benefits. She "claims for them" in the sense that she is entitled to most. When I probed further she said that she is a bit embarrassed by her problem and so does not feel that she could work.

She also mentioned depression. I wonder if the depression is a result of her not working or her reason (excuse?) not to work. Similarly her son who trained as a plumber could not find a job -- and is depressed -- and so has signed on.

Before I met this lady I didn't think incontinence is such a big problem that it would be categorized as "severely disabled". Let's put it this way: us women are "incontinent" for a week in every four, dripping blood, and we manage to remain in work.

It appears that this lady is not using the right kind of support, using sanitary pads instead of incontinence aids, to control her problems (smell, eg). She's only 44. She has another 27 years, possibly more, to state retirement age.

Twenty-seven years! That is a long time. She could do so much during this time. People are known to have got their PhDs by the time they are 27, for crying out loud.

Her grown up son who trained as a plumber, he's sitting at home waiting for a job to come to him. Is this a symptom or a result of the welfare state?

Why does he not go to solicit for business? Everyone is looking for a good plumber. Why not ask to work for someone for free, a charity for example, helping to fix plumbing for old people? He sits at home collecting his JSA, and gets depressed.

Worklessness in this country contributes to poverty, not of the pocket, but of the soul.

Another client arrived from France and went to claim benefits the following day. And was rejected. He had been thrown out by his wife*. I don't know the details.

Nepali woman who does not speak a word of English wearing very "blingey" glasses. She applied for pension credit and was awarded it for several months. Then some hardworking civil servant (hurrah! there is at least one) finds out that she is not actually eligible.

Her daughter has sponsored her visa. Her daughter has undertaken to maintain her. Somehow someone told her that benefits were to be had if she applied. Now she's slapped with an "overpayment" bill. We advised on how she could settle the bill.

I had to warn her that if she made too big a fuss, they could just deport her.

Student next, paid an enormous amount of money to a "college" offering something like an "MEP" (Masters Entry Programme). This young man spoke with such a heavy accent I could hardly understand him. The college threw him out, saying that he was not a good enough student. They also dismissed about half his class. Student wants his money back. This is, believe it or not, a consumer issue.

Room got a bit cold, so I shut the window. Big mistake.

My next client was a man who has been sleeping rough. He had not washed for two weeks. He came in and promptly removed his shoes to show me his problems.

He arrived in this country on a spouse visa. His wife is supposed to support him. But somehow he managed to antagonize her enough she threw him out*, and this man has also been given conditional police bail -- whatever that means. He had come in two weeks ago and another volunteer tried to help him. And now he's back.

[*Women are so keen to throw out their husbands, it seems. Why?]

Because he has "no status" in the country he is not entitled to any benefits. So some "charities" would not touch him as their costs could not be recouped from government departments. We rang around, my manager and I, and I finally found a nice young lady who advised that he could get to a day centre the following day where they would give him some food, he could have a shower, wash his clothes, and they might even be able to give him shelter.

"Uhm, what if he has a history of violence?" YMCA has rejected him on that basis, so I thought I should check.

Lady checked. "Uhm, yes, it's OK. We love everyone here."

I managed to stop myself asking, "Are you, by any chance, a Christian charity?"

CEO gave us permission to give him money for a night at a B&B. Manager had also made him a cup of tea and given him some food.

I hope this man managed to get to the day centre and I hope they are able to shelter him. But it led me to think: If his wife promised to be responsible for him, but is not, should she be given the bill when he is finally sorted out?

Why should I, as the taxpayer, pick up her bill?

I came home and looked up the day centre and discovered that they are indeed a Christian charity. There was something in the way that lady spoke, or something she said, which gave the game away.

I also cannot get over the smell.

Monday, November 07, 2011

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Warning: This is a brag post, originally written for a Singapore audience.

My son, his mate and I enjoy watching the comedy series "Miranda" in which Miranda's friend (and employee) often holds up a mask of Heather Small and mimic her singing "What have you done today to make you FEEL proud?"

Yesterday I went to bed thinking that I really toted up well.

First, a meeting with fellow social scientists outside academia. It was a group I started – by accident – some years ago and now it has grown, nearly 400 members! Was able to encourage those present.

Then on the way home – my train, for which I was careful to buy a first class ticket to ensure a seat after a tiring meeting, was cancelled – I was squashed into a Tube train whereupon a man with a beard, long hair, a very large ring in his nose, dirty finger nails, on a walking stick asked my fellow social scientist and myself whether the train was going to MK.

He, too, was supposed to be on my cancelled train, but got shoved into this other train instead.

My colleague got off the train but this man – let's call him Mick – leeched on to me. Meanwhile husband was on the phone trying to get 'live' information on the internet and telling me how to get home.

We were directed to make a change at station X at which anxious people were trying to get information as to how to travel. The platform staff were trying to be helpful but they, alas, did not seem to have the up-to-date information.

The electronic board said 17:15 was "on time" whereas I was told on the phone (and another passenger apparently knew too) that it was cancelled. What to do?

Husband on phone said, go to platform 3. Train due in. I walked over to platform 3 as quickly as I could while Mick hobbled along, trying to keep up.

More confusion on this platform. Even bigger crowd. Mood still harmonious though. People were anxious, not angry. Londoners are used to such delays. Unlike in Singapore, a train that is delayed by six minutes does not get reported in the papers.

Husband on phone, "There should be a train coming in at 17.19. It's the late-running 16:44. Get on that one."

I could hear on radio of staff on platform receive the information from control at a station upstream, "Train leaving that platform, should be at station X soon."

Husband on phone, "Your 17:19 should be arriving any second now. You might need to push your way in. I'll hang on to make sure you're on."

Me, "No. If I need to push in I need both hands. Call back in five minutes."

Train on platform. Mick said, "O no! It's one of those trains with a big drop from the platform. I made sure Mick got onto the train and followed." We actually found seats across each other.

Husband on phone, "Are you on?"

Me: "Yes."

Husband, "Your train should arrive at 17:32. I'll be at the station to pick you up."

Mick continued to make conversation with me across the train. Other passengers looked on with interest. Was tramp-like Mick harrassing this tiny Chinese woman? I felt they were all watching to make sure I was alright.

The man next to Mick was clearly an ex-Gurkha. He wears a uniform with a badge "Security" emblazoned on it. (A number of ex-Gurkhas are in the security sector in the UK.)

Girl next to me got off. Mick came to sit next to me. Mick had been very keen to tell us on the first train that he could not wait to get home to his flat in MK. He had gone to London for a "demo" for animal rights.

I asked him where he lived before MK. He uhmmed and arhed which suggests that he had just been taken off the streets, or released from supported housing (for mentally ill?), or even perhaps from prison, but he was "doing well". I had, as if on auto-pilot, put on my CAB hat and wanted to make sure that he was being looked after as well as looking after himself.

So the questions came fast: why the walking stick? Orthoarthritis since he was 16 or 17. How old is he? About 39. Is he taking his medicine? He stopped because the pain comes back one the drugs wear off. He just bears with the pain." I thought, "Hmm, should I ask if he was on cannabis?" Time and place for everything, my dear. The train is not the right place.

Is he with a GP? Which council is looking after him? Does he get to do much? So I learned that he gets "lonely, you know" and he repeated how pleased he was to be travelling with such good company. Earlier he had given me his number so that my vegetarian colleague could call him. Now he tells me I should put his number on my phone, too.

No, I won't, I said. "Why not?" It's falling apart. "O! But you'd put it in your next phone." I didn't commit.

Then I said he should stop smoking. Told him I could smell it a mile away. What a waste of money. "I know, but I have cut down a lot," and threw me a sheepish look.

He told me he is into art (I really hope it's art, and not graffitti). I said he should make himself useful, do something with his art. "Do something nice for someone every day."

He said he tries to do that, indeed. Mick might smell, but he speaks very good English, and very polite. If indeed he was on cannabis his intellect had only be slightly dulled by its use.

We reached our station at the end of the line and was thrown off the train. I walked away quickly, wishing him a safe journey home. He waited as I went through the gates to say "Goodbye!".

I think Mick was chuffed that two complete strangers (describing us as "very pleasant ladies") trusted him enough to continue a conversation with him. Would he do something to make himself useful? I don't know and might never know. But I certainly hope so.

Outside my "chauffeur" was waiting patiently and we got home, had a short break and we were off to a church fireworks party.

There we met PO and his dad. PO has just lost his mum. His dad had been married for nearly 60 years. Put another way, he had been married for longer than I have been alive.

For Christmas "dinner" we usually gather people we know who have no close family to go to, or people who are new to the country. So a number of nationalities have graced our table at Christmas.

[What would Jesus do? In the parable of the banquet the rich man invited those who were not likely to reciprocate his invitation. This is also partly a result of my own experience of Christmas in this country as a single person. Friends went home to their families and I was on my own, lonely and very cold.]

We had asked PO and his dad this time knowing that the first Christmas after the death of a loved one is always difficult. PO's dad was not sure whether he wanted to accept the invitation just incase he wanted to be able to have a cry. Later on he grabbed me by the shoulders and said "Christmas. Thank you for the invitation. Yes, we will be there."

Tears welled up and he gave me a long, long hug. I comforted him as I have comforted others by confessing that it took me four years before I could speak of the death of my father without crying.

When we left the party – husband was "smoke damaged" by then , from being the "lighter" of fireworks – PO's dad gave me another long hug, and still more tears.

At the end of the day I took stock and thought: It does not take much to bring happiness to those around us. A word of encouragement. Kind words. An offer of hospitality.

Perhaps I must remember to ask myself at the end of each day the words of Heather Small: what have you done today to make you FEEL proud?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Parents who (don't) try: Three cases

On Thursday mornings before I set out for my stint at the local CAB my son often tells me, "Hope you don't get too many benefits cases."

He knows how I detest having to deal with benefits clients who say, "I'm entitled to this. Do this for me. NOW."

Today I was incensed that a client has had his benefits stopped. This man is a refugee from an African country. He has four young children. He was on unemployment benefits and housing benefits because of that.

He decided that he needed to improve his English and signed up for a college course (ESOL Intensive) and did so well that he passed his exams before the end of his course. However as a result of the 15 hours he was studying, plus some mistake made by some civil servant (who turned this into 16 hours), he was deemed "unavailable for work" and therefore his JSA was stopped, leading to his Housing Benefits (which pays his rent) being stopped as well.

Now his landlord is threatening eviction because he has insufficient funds to pay his rent.

A man tries to improve his language skills to improve his chances of finding employment and he is penalized. Now it is going to take at least 50-100 civil servant hours, I imagine, to set it right.

Who really benefits from this? The civil servants, paid by your and my taxes, who are making sure that they still have jobs to go to.

Then my husband tells me he was in a similar situation many, many years ago and took the council (or relevant government department) to the tribunal and won. They then awarded him a fat cheque for arrears in his benefits.

His defence: If they could find him a job he would leave the (accountancy) course he was studying to take up the post. As they could not, he was going to improve his chances of being an accountant instead of sitting at home to watch TV. (He later had a successful career in finance.)

In other words it was OK for someone to receive JSA and vegetate at home. As soon as they try to improve their employment chances they get penalized.

Clever system, innit?

Case 2. Mother with four young children, running wild. A fellow volunteer was trying to help the mother but the children were taking turns to be difficult. The oldest, about eight years old, was trying, but failed, to keep control.

Our reception room was empty. I told the five-year-old to sit on one chair. I told the four-year-old to sit on another chair in another corner. I told the oldest responsible sister to sit in another corner.

I gave the two younger ones colourful brochures. Obviously they could not read. I told them to "count the pages, count the different colours" on the brochures. I told them that their bottoms must remain on the chairs as their mother was being helped. I left them with no adult supervision.

A few minutes later I checked and the five-year-old was kneeling in front of it. At least he had not moved alway from the chair. I told him to get back on, and he did, unhappily. He complained that his older sister was not counting.

I retorted with I had not told her to count, did I? Older sister said she would like to read the brochure he was holding. Told five-year-old to walk over to older sister if he wished to, and give her his brochure. He did and came back to his own chair and climbed back onto it. I gave him another brochure.

I went into the interviewing room twice (when the other volunteer was out) to tell the mother that her children were sitting still and quietly, and that they would be telling her "numbers" when she goes out.

"Thanks," she said with a big smile. She looked very tired. I felt really sorry for her.

The last time I looked in before I left (to tend to my own child) after having left the children on their own, the children were all in their chairs.

I wonder if these children have ever had an adult speak so sternly to them.

Case 3. GP waiting room with my son. GP running very late. Mum with two daughters and a young son came in. We had no peace from that moment on.

At no time did the mum attempt to get her son (maybe two and a half) to sit down or behave. It was the older girl who tried to control him. They kept laughing at the things he did.

I imagine what a terror this young boy would be at school. He did not understand boundaries and the mother did not even act when he was in danger. My son nearly knocked him over when he opened the door but I saw at the last moment through the glass panel that the little boy was on the other side.

I said to little boy as I left, "Perhaps it is bottom on chair time?" The mother glared at me.

Outside my son said, "Mum, you should have let me open the door onto him. It might have been better for all present."

I think my son was right.

But what can you do for families where, culturally, the male child is obviously venerated? How soon before this boy would be bullying his older sisters? How soon before he would be making unreasonable demands and know that he could get away with it because he is THE boy in the family?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

In defence of David Starkey

Wrote this piece for my friends in Singapore: my perspective of what Mr Cameron called the "sick society".

David Starkey in using the phrase "The whites have become black" has been branded a "racist".

I am no fan of Mr Starkey. As a social scientist from outside the UK, one who is not weighed down by the guilt of British colonialism (but is in fact a product of it), one who is colour-blind except when it is culturally significant, I feel that Mr Starkey is only using this statement to make a "shortcut" to what I had alluded to in my original blog piece referenced above.

There is something in the black African/West Indian/Caribbean culture/s that is preventing their younger generations from benefitting from all the resources thrown at them in the UK. The same is happening amongst a certain class of young white generations.

Taxpayers should be keen to ascertain what exactly are the factors (fatherlessness, lack of disciplinary boundaries, benefits culture, lack of role models/role model substitutes, etc) driving this and come up with solutions. And soon. Before another generation is "wasted".

To shout "racist" every time a cultural reference is made does not make the problem go away. On the contrary. This is an ostrich mentality. It stifles discussion and does no one any favours.

Put it this way, if research shows that black people are more prone to certain diseases, and further studies show that this is due to their diet, would it be racist for the researchers to flag up this problem by saying, for example, "black (or white, Chinese, Turkish, whatever) people should reduce the consumption of abc as it increases their chances of contracting xyz"?

To muzzle those who wish to spread this message by crying "racist" is to ensure that the people group concerned are forever doomed to poor health because no one would dare, or is allowed to, speak the truth.

Likewise to sweep obvious facts under the carpet on spurious cries of "racist" is to condemn a people group forever, to ensure that they would never enjoy the trappings of happiness and success now reserved for those outside this group.

Was David Starkey being racist on Newsnight last night?

If David Starkey is racist then so is everybody 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sourdough Bread

After building up my sourdough starter for two weeks (details in the next post, perhaps) I was very excited about making my first sourdough loaf. The diary was cleared.

This was my starter in the morning. The volume has reduced from its evening time high, as you might have noticed from the "tide marks", but still bubbling when viewed from the top:

I am trying to followed a "recipe" from Dan Lepard in a newspaper and combining that with a recipe by Daniel Stevens (River Cottage No. 3).

Emptied most of this into a mixing bowl, added 500 strong wholemeal (because I don't like eating white) flour and about 300ml tepid water and mixed into a ball.

Left it for 10 minutes. Then decided (perhaps wrongly) that it probably needed a little more water. Added what I thought was about two teaspoons of salt, but probably much less.

Left this for about two hours and it became like this.
Notice the holes on the surface.

Removed this onto an oiled surface and kneaded it for a bit. Not a lot, and returned it to the bowl.

Waited for 2 to 3 hours for it to become like this.

Sprinkled lots of flour onto a tea towel and placed it into a casserole dish as I have no proving basket. Took the dough out and kneaded it. Asked for husband's help in getting some more flour to stop it from sticking too much. Put it first in the casserole dish. Realized the dish is too small. Got husband to bring out his grandmother's old roasting dish.

The dish looks like this.

And like this from the side. Perfect, I thought. It even has a lid to keep the dough from drying.

At least 2 hours later, and I kept checking and flouring the sides of the tin, we got this.

The holes on the surface (as noted in Stevens' book) were very reassuring. From the side it appears to have risen reasonably well.

Time to turn on the oven. Whacked up the temperature to its highest. Put a roasting tin in the bottom, and a baking tray in the middle. A baking sheet would be better, but I don't have one. Boiled up water.

Then came the tricky bit - and DISASTER!

Oven came up to temperature. Removed the tray. Tried to tip the dough onto the tray. But it got stuck. Had to scrape off some dough with a spoon. What I saw on the tray was a flat, flat bit of dough, DEFlated. The tray had cooled and I reshaped the dough into something more of a loaf shape with even more flour. My heart had sunk with the dough.

Nevertheless it went into the oven and I put boiling water into the bottom roasting tin. This produced steam which is supposed to give the loaf a nice crust. The water dried out faster than I expected. So, more water next time.

20 minutes on the highest temperature and then down to 180 degrees C for another 20 minutes. It rose quite a bit -- thankfully -- in the hot oven. And finally:

We could not resist having a bit for dinner. (It was morning when I started this bread and it was dinner time when I got the loaf out).

Yup! Good size bubbles. Crust was good. A bit sour, but mostly BLAND. I really needed some 25g of salt. But as I was mixing recipes, and this is my first go, I think I can be forgiven.

We plan to eat this very rustic bread with a hearty soup tomorrow.

Would I bake another sourdough loaf? Of course -- I do have a jar of sourdough starter now. But I would probably do a few things a bit differently. Starting with using more salt to counter the sour taste.

Salt and leaven (yeast). What did Jesus say about its use in our daily lives?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Charlie Gilmour -- what is a "privileged" upbringing?

When I read how his mum tweets about how he was being locked up for 23 hours a day, my heart bled for her.

But not for long.

Instead I found myself mulling over what is meant by a "privileged upbringing".

Was young Gilmour privileged on the basis that he has a loving mother and stepfather?

Was young Gilmour privileged because he was given every material need?

Was young Gilmour privileged to be an above-intelligent person (assuming that as he had gone to Cambridge)?

In court it was argued in mitigation that young Gilmour behaved the way he did because he faced rejection from his birth father. He was drugged up to the eyeballs when he was swinging from the Cenotaph.

Would my biographer (if I had one) also describe me as having a "privileged background"?

On the basis that my mother never worked, and never made us do any household chores. Though she was criticized by the extended family for being so, her response had always been, "I want my (six) children to concentrate on their studies."

Was I privileged because I observed sacrifice on the part of my parents?

Was my biggest privilege that of having a father for whom my every achievement was "not good enough", leaving unsaid the words "Child, you can do better. I know you can do better."?

And then I looked at my own child. Would they say, when he's 21, or 61, that he too had a "privileged upbringing"?

At this point of my life when my son would soon be out of my hands and I'm trying to find employment, I am finding that I have become quite unemployable.

The past 11 years of caring for son (and the husband who was quite ill for years) has left a big gap in my CV.

I don't mind not having a guitarist for a husband, I really don't. But in mulling over this I suddenly realized that part of me wished I could be described like Mrs Gilmour as "author", but I am not that, though I write a lot.

Like my mother who sacrificed much of her life doing the mundane things in life so that her children could focus on studies and therefore upward mobility, I realized that I have sacrificed an opportunity to develop my academic career.

Make professor at 60? No chance. Return to my alma mater to teach? Dream on.

We cannot choose our parents. (Mine turn out to have very little education but they learned to educate themselves, learned to read Chinese!)

But we can choose how we parent.

I stuck around because husband was often in too much pain to get out of bed. I had to reassure our son that Dad was OK. Then I cried my own tears of fear in private.

Then son had a spell of trouble at school. Everything was going too slowly for him. I stuck around to help him get over that difficult patch. And he is a much happier, more assured person these days.

Maybe they would describe my son as having a "privileged upbringing" after all, not because his mother is a professor, but that she did sacrifice time, career, travel, fame, whatever, so that the family could move on together.

Just as his father sacrificed his dream of retiring at 40 to play golf, and instead continued to work (despite the illness) to pay the bills.

We cannot choose our parents, but we can choose how we parent. Perhaps we should take it one step back and say, "We can choose (carefully) whom we wish to parent with."

Only then can we hope to reduce the number of Charlie Gilmours -- with or without privileged upbringings -- to ensure that we meet the needs of our children where they are.

This might be news to some: Sometimes parenting requires making sacrifices.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Baking Bread

I've put the following together for friends (especially from Singapore) who have taken an interest since I wrote about making bread. I had borrowed a couple of bread books from our local library and looked at various sites on Internet. Not a bread machine in sight, I'm afraid. I started when I need to take out my frustration and there was no turning back.

Then I read this article.

It does not take all that long to knead, but you must be patient with waiting for the dough to rise. I now gather all the ingredients together before starting and can get a lump of dough ready for first proofing within 20 minutes.

It's cheaper to buy a packet of yeast rather than the 7g sachets. In the UK and if you have room, you could also have bigger bags of flour delivered. You could then opt for locally-grown and/or milled flour.
For Basic White Bread

• 625g strong (bread making) white flour (Sorry, don't know which or where brands are available in Singapore. If you have information, please add to comments. See link at bottom of page.)

• 1½ teaspoons salt

• 2 teaspoons sugar

• 3 tablespoons sunflower oil (or 3 tablespoons butter)

• One sachet (usually 7 g) or 1½ teaspoons of quick action yeast

• 400 ml of warm water. I normally put about 400ml in my 1000W microwave for a minute, take it out to check that it’s warm, but not hot, or you will kill the yeast. Tip some water out and add cold if necessary. Also, I have never used the whole 400ml.


1. Add all the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Give it a good quick stir (with fork, knife, hand, whatever, doesn’t matter).

2. Add the oil. (At this point I normally let the oil left on the measuring spoon to drip slowly onto my ceramic board which I use for kneading the dough. I found that oil on the board is better than flour to stop it sticking.)

3. “Rub in” the bits of flour that will now stick to the oil. Again oil is easier to use than butter.

4. Add the water. I normally add it in in about three go’s LEAVING a little water in the jug. As my mum used to say, “You can always add more, but you cannot take it off” (when adding soya sauce to food).

5. Mix the ingredients by hand in the bowl until a dough is formed. Have fun! This is when it gets gooey. Make sure flour on the bottom and sides are incorporated. Dough is ready when it all sticks together quite nicely.

6. Lift the dough out and knead it on the work surface for 10 minutes. The dough might be very sticky for the first couple of minutes. If it continues to be difficult to knead, a little extra flour can dry the dough up a bit. Usually by the end of kneading, whatever dough is stuck to your fingers would also be incorporated. I suspect that friends in Singapore might wish to do this on a cool surface, like a marble slab.

7. KNEADING: (Source: the bread book by Sara Lewis, 2003, page 16) – This is essential to mix and activate the dried yeast and to help stretch the gluten in the flour so that the bread can rise fully. Begin by turning the dough out on to lightly floured surface. Stretch the dough by turning the front half away with the heel of one hand while holding the back of the dough with the other hand. Fold the stretched part of the dough back on itself, give it a quarter turn and repeat for five more minutes, until the dough has been turned full circle several times and is a smooth and elastic ball.

8. Once kneaded return the dough to the bowl (don’t wash out your rolling-out board yet) and leave it to rise in a warm (not hot, Singaporeans please note) place. Most recipes tell you to cover with oiled cling film. Being anti-plastic I use wet tea towels. Let the dough rise to twice its size. It could take, for me, more than an hour. I normally set the clock and concentrate on doing something else.

9. When the dough has doubled in size, “punch it out”. You will hear the air escaping. Turn it out on to your rolling-out board, scraping the sides if necessary.

10. At this stage I would normally divide the dough into two lots. One lot is kneaded again, very quickly, and rolled into a long roll about 1½ times the length of the loaf tin. Fold the ends under to make it fit into a slightly greased loaf tin (500g/ 1 lb). If you do not have a loaf tin, just make one big “cob” and put it on a lined baking tray. The rest is divided into six smaller or four larger rolls, kneaded quickly, shaped and placed on a lined baking tray (I use a baking tray liner).

11. Cover with tea towel as before and leave to rise a second time, this time for a much shorter period. This is usually 30 minutes for me. At the 10-minute mark, it’s time to put the oven on: 200 deg C.

12. Once the bread has doubled in size, or reach the top of the loaf tin, remove the cloth and place straight into pre-heated oven.

13. For a loaf, bake for approximately 12 minutes, then cover loosely with foil, and bake for another 18 minutes (ie 30 minutes in all). For the rolls, I put 8 minutes, cover with foil, and then bake another 7 minutes (15 minutes total)

14. Remove from the oven and turn out with oven gloves. If you tap on the base of the rolls/loaf they should sound hollow. This is an indication that the bread is complete.

15. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Granary bread

625g strong granary flour

3 tablespoons butter (or oil)

2 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons brown sugar

1½ teaspoons fast-action dried yeast

400ml warm water

Wholemeal bread

325g strong wholemeal flour

300g strong white flour

3 tablespoons butter (or oil)

1½ teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons caster sugar

2½ teaspoons fast-action dried yeast

400ml warm water


I hope you found this useful. Tell me how you got on.

The "personalized" bread roll I made for my son:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kookaburra gay your life must be: one Christian view

When my son was born I had this inordinate fear, an overwhelming fear, totally illogical fear, that he would be gay (not in the "happy" sense).

After years of parenthood now I realize that even if he did decide to be gay, I as a parent, would still love him. I would not abandon him.

My Christian response to this debate is -- and I am not ashamed to say that I am a committed, Bible-believing Christian -- this is how I imagine God would respond to homosexuals. He still loves them nonetheless. They are still his creation, and he loves them one and all.

Some Christians shorten this principle as "hate the sin, love the sinner".

Of course it is not nice to be called a sinner, but that is what we are, if we believe in what the Bible says about our "fallen nature".

What would Jesus do? (WWJD?)

We read in the Gospels that Jesus associated with those who are the lowest of the low in his time on earth: the prostitutes, the lepers, the tax-collectors. Indeed, those who are not sick do not need a doctor. [I am thinking, should I underline "do not need a doctor"? ]

Some people ask, "Why are you Christians so homophobic, so hung up on a person's sexual orientation?" My response to this is I have no problems with anyone's sexual orientation. But the Bible does not condone sex outside marriage, full stop. It does not matter whether this be premarital sex, extra-marital sex, homosexual sex, or sex with animals, etc.

Just as the Bible forbids theft, whether this be stealing biscuits from a supermarket, paper clips from your employer, or money that your friend, client, taxpayer, investor, etc has entrusted to you, it is theft.

Of course a "gay agenda" scares me. It scares me stiff.

Recently a gay couple went to a B&B in Cornwall run by a devout Christian couple. They state clearly on their website that only married couples are allowed to use the room with the double bed. The gay couple arrived and when the B&B owners realized that this was not the "married couple" they expected, offered them separate rooms.

The gay couple sued for discrimination. In court the gay couple won because the judge deemed that the right of the couple to protection from discrimination was stronger than the B&B couple's right to religious faith and conscience.


There are lots of B&Bs who would have gladly let this couple share a bed. Why they deliberately chose a B&B which clearly states that it is run by a Christian couple on Christian principles, I will never understand.

If I am a meat eater I won't choose a "vegan B&B" and then complain they refused to serve me meat. Why did this gay couple go and "kachow" this Christian couple? I don't go to a gay bar and complain I can't find a straight guy there.

I don't wish Singapore to come to that where churches are forced by law to hire out rooms to Satanists or face the full wrath of discrimination legislation.

However, as a Christian, I won't have a problem voting for VW.

Let me rephrase that: In a truly democratic system I have no problems with voting for VW even if he is gay if I know that he would represent my voice better than the alternative candidate.

Simple. In a truly democratic system I can -- Singaporeans please note -- vote him out at the next election!

Elected MPs are not, if I may borrow a slogan from the Dog Trust*, "a dog"; they are not for life. (*A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.)

Let's say I, as a Christian, am a bit uncomfortable about a candidate's sexual orientation (that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on his/her abilities as an MP) gives this person a chance. He gets into parliament. He speaks on my behalf. I am happy. I vote him back.

Then he begins to push for the "gay agenda". I am not happy with that. I write to him, "Please stop," I say.

He says, "Cannot. I cannot act against my conscience. The rights of gay people are very important to me."

Then I can vote him out. I can gather as many people as possible who would vote him out. I might have to start my own "Christian Democratic Party" to succeed, but that is the whole point of a democratic system.

Wish-list: Candidates must stop saying to opposition candidates "What is your track record?" This is a non-argument.

How can a candidate who has not yet been in parliament talk about a "track record"?

It is like my own experience of being "over-qualified and under-experienced". Impressive CV when it comes to education, internship, practical experience, etc. But no track record of being in a paid job.

Who would employ such a person?

You see, unless you are a government scholar, bonded to serve the government, most of us in the real world would have, at some time or other, experienced the pain of not being offered a job because "we have no track record".

Until an enlightened employer comes along to say, "I see the potential in you," and makes you an offer.

Remember, "no track record!" is a non-argument. Voters must think as prospective employers. After all, MPs are indeed the employees/servants of the electorate.

Incidentally I read in the Bible (Matthew 20:25-28) yesterday Jesus teaching his disciples:

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

MPs' salary: Is Confucius out of fashion today?

In my last visit to Singapore I (or rather my sister) managed to retrieve an old plastic folder of my newspaper clippings. I used to write letters to the local press (nothing's changed) as well as occasional "Analysis" pieces for the Sunday Times.

In my folder I found a clipping from 7th April 1985, a letter entitled: If we took the Master at his word. Back then we were admonished by a senior statesman to follow a "Confucian ethic".

I attach the text of this letter in full below:


It was interesting to have a People's Action Party Member of Parliament quote Confucius in support of Confucius policies.

For if we are going to take Master Kung at his word, life in Singapore would be very different.

For example, the Sage teaches that there should be no distinction of classes in education. If we accept that, streaming must go.

Leonard Hsu, in The Political Philosophy of Confucianism, writes: "Equity, in Confucius philosophy, condemns favouritism, partisanship, and selfishness in administration."

"The government should help the insufficient and deplete the abundant in order to maintain the level of balance. The poorest people in the state should be respected, and the noblest people should not be flattered."

On the question of salaries and due recognition, the Analects, one of the Four Books of Confucian teachings, records the following: "The Master does not mind failing to get recognition; he is too busy doing the things that entitle him to recognition."

"The Master said (the good man) does not grieve that other people do not recognise his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognise others."

"Concerning the head of state or family, I have heard that rulers should not be concerned that they have not enough possessions and territories, but should be concerned that possessions are not equally distributed; they should not be concerned that they are poor, but should be concerned that the people are not content."

On the question of ministerial salaries, let us be reminded by the Chung Yung (usually translated as The Doctrine of the Mean), another of the Four Books, "it is possible for a poor officer to give up voluntarily his position and emolument."

If the poor officer can give up his meagre salary, what more he who has 30 times that to spare?

If only we could follow Confucius to the letter, there wouldn't have been those long Parliament reports and Saturday night movies* need not be shown on Sunday mornings.


*This reference is to the TV schedule being distrupted by extended parliament sittings.

Clearly, Confucius and his myriad teachings: being gracious (being the junzi), the emperor being given the "Heavenly Mandate" to rule, and the setting right of the five relationships, etc. these have fallen out of fashion.

I was struck by how relevant this letter is despite it being 26 years old! Does that make me a woman of vision? Or simply old-fashioned.

Here in the UK we have a debate "in reverse". The British PM earns £145,500. But many CEOs and senior civil servants in the local council, BBC, and QUANGOs earn much more than that. See link.

Basically these people, unlike CEOs in the private sector, do not have to worry about income or making a profit, but are paid an incredible amount of money to spend it! Taxpayers have no choice but to pay the local tax and TV license fee, but the people earning these inflated incomes are not accountable to the taxpayer.

I personally feel that CEOs of local councils have no moral right to earn such amounts. They will be totally unemployable outside the civil service. What they have is a thick address book, a good network, and they do the "merry-go-round" moving from one council to another, getting a higher and higher pay each time, thereby pushing upwards the average salary. Ludicrous.

OK, I have to concede that we cannot expect these self-serving individuals to have any Confucianist principles. What to do?

Interestingly, I spotted another letter in my folder, dated 21st July 1985. It expresses my surprise and discomfort at the closure of the Singapore Monitor.

It was particularly bizarre for me as a senior staff member of the Sunday Monitor had just rung, a few weeks before, to try to get me to write for them instead of the Sunday Times.

We learned that the paper was facing a financial blackhole to the tune of $20million, or some staggering figure like that (if I remember correctly). My letter expresses how the closure was so sudden that allegedly even the editors were kept in the dark. The staff also did not have a chance to up their productivity or stage a management buyout, etc.

Guess who was at the helm (the CEO, no less) of this newspaper?

I give you a clue. His initials are MBT.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Singapore GE 2011: A view from overseas

The excitement over the forthcoming General Election in Singapore is palpable, even where I am, miles away from home.

It reminded me of the elections between 1981 and 1984, when I was often worried over whether an increase in bus fares would mean I could not afford to eat, given my meagre income giving private tuition as an undergraduate.

I don't remember much of elections since then, and in particular in 2006.

2006 was when (1) my son had the most difficult time at school before his special education needs were identified, (2) my husband was very ill, and (3) my business was in its infancy.

It has been said of British politics prior to 1997 when the Labour Party came into power, that it was not that the electorate wanted Conservative rule, but that there was no "credible opposition".

I remember how every time the then PM John Major came on radio I switched it off. His "back to basics" rhetoric was torn to shreds as minister after minister, politician after policitican was exposed as a hypocrite.

The Labour Party remained in power while the Conservative party was in disarray, going through several leaders in the course. Likewise I was so affronted by the lies and spin of the Labour government that every time Blair or Brown came on radio I switched off. Enough! I cried to myself. Enough of those lies.

Again Labour remained in power only because the Conservative Party did not constitute a "credible opposition" until last year where though they won more votes in total, the constituency boundaries were drawn in such a way that they could not form the government.

Of course in the lead-up to our last UK election we had the "expenses scandal". In Singapore ( where there is no corruption, remember?) I understand that the ministers have awarded themselves a 30% pay rise. This, you must agree, is a first-class way of preventing corruption.

We have been introduced to opposition candidates whom many now feel make up a "credible opposition" come May the 7th.

Interestingly, many of these candidates are men and women of a certain age. They are, to a great extent, self-employed. Professionally they have proven themselves.

I wonder if they have only now come forward because they have observed that to do so earlier would lead to professional suicide.

They have seen how the likes of JB Jeyaretnam have had to suffer the pain and ignominy of being imprisoned and bankrupted. Have they bided their time in anticipation of an uphill struggle ahead?

For years the ruling party have resorted to mudslinging come election time. "Ad hominem" (character assassination) arguments do not work any more. The Singaporean electorate have grown up and have become quite fed up with this. Singaporeans want a clean fight.

It amuses me that whilst the ruling party champions the virtue of foreign talent and Singaporeans working abroad, when faced with a "returnee" billed as a "star catch" by a opposition party, they question his credentials.

Singaporeans who, for whatever reason, have been living abroad can only be good for local politics. Singaporeans exposed to other parliaments, whether "First World", "Third World" or none at all, can offer a fresh and useful perspective.

Eg I would express caution when it comes to a debate on minimum wage and a comprehensive welfare state because I know this is not working. Here in the UK I am paying the heavy price of a welfare state that has lost its moral bearings.

In a 'previous life' I had to introduce Mr MBT to interactive educational software via touch-screen technology. The preparation for his visit required rehearsals because "we must not let the minister wait for the lift". So colleagues were detailed to ensure that the lift doors would be open when Mr MBT stepped out of his ministerial car.

That is not how the majority of us Singaporeans live.

How many of us have found it impossible, come lunch hour, to get into a lift to take us to the ground floor? How many of us have resorted to taking the "up" lift to a higher floor in order to take us down so that we could brave the hot sun walking to the nearest hawker centre?

So, when was the last time people like Mr MBT had to wait for a lift?

When was the last time politicians had a door slammed in their faces by another ungracious Singaporean?

When was the last time they sat down at a hawker centre or food court and experience the ugly practice amongst Singaporeans of reserving seats with tissue paper while people eating on their own cannot find a place to set down their tray of hot food?

Part of me feels sorry for these politicians because, of course, when you become famous, or become a minister, this freedom to live an ordinary life is not always possible.

When politicians and ministers come to a point where they cannot move around freely, let the current candidates take note, they must surround themselves with trusted friends who can do this and report accurately, make use of every feedback channel to listen, and then act accordingly with a clear conscience.

Any way, here are my other thoughts, for what they are worth:

"Parliament" is pronounced "paR-le-ment", not "pa-lee-men". OK, Nicole, take note!

I was very impressed by the woman PAP candidate who comes from a Mandarin-speaking background (her parents are Nantah graduates). Is it because she learned English properly, ie. as a second language, or by immersion in America (or wherever it was her parents were based)?

Please sounD youR enD consonaNTS. If your poiNT is importaNT, say iT. It heLPS to sloW down.

Y-O-U-T-H is "youth", not "yoof".

P-A-R-T-Y  is "paR-ty" not "pah-ty".

We "take" someone (eg children) TO somewhere there (eg Legoland). We "bring" something FROM somewhere else to here.

I was quite tickled by how the likes of Tan Jee Say, who speak very good English, would switch to Singlish complete with the accent.

And please stop nodding your head incessantly at the end of answering a question and saying "ya". It reminds me of those nodding dogs some people put in the back of their cars!

Wrt to opposition switching parties I have this to say: people switch parties when they feel that they cannot, with a clear conscience, go along with what that party stands for. This is to be taken as an expression of one's integrity and honesty, not a negative point.

Unless of course that candidate is "shopping around" for a party that would reward him/her with privileges not obtainable elsewhere (eg a ministerial post). It's a bit like athletes shopping for a country they could represent because they are not really top-class in their own countries.

When I first came to the UK I was still very hung up on personalities when it came to elections. That was the Singaporean upbringing in me.

Now I understand that in a First World parliament, party manifestos are important. When it comes to a vote, MPs vote along party lines except when a "free vote" is allowed on matters of conscience.

I am tempted to fly back to cast my vote, but alas! it appears that it is another walkover in my Gee-Arer-See.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mudslinging makes potatoes grow

The potatoes in my garden are going berserk. Every time I see new leaves I cover them with compost (as per instructions).

If I put compost on it last thing at night, new growth appears the following morning. If I cover it with compost in the morning, the leaves break through again by the end of the day.

New leaves appear despite the compost. Or is it because of the compost?

I’ve been baking my own bread. In the temperate clime here it takes a long time for bread dough to prove (rise). But when it has risen to the right size, it takes but a few minutes to bake, and then soon we can tuck into delicious warm bread.

When it’s the season for potatoes to grow, nothing would stop it once it finds moist, fertile ground.

Fed with alternative views via the internet and watered by rising dissatisfaction, the political ground in Singapore is fertile for opposition growth.

The ruling party might dig up the dirt and heap it on the opposition. But mudslinging and dirt (as compost is but organic material that has rotted down) only promote even greater growth.

I don’t have to remind you that potatoes grow underground.

As the opposition has been biding its time, proving (pun intended) itself to be worthy (or not, as the case might be), so too like bread, it would not take too long for it to be ready to form a government, or at least that alternative voice.

Wishing you, my beloved Singapore, the wonderful aroma that promises the delight of freshly baked bread. Soon.

PS: Is it not ironic that in these 20 years I have been able to participate in all local, mayoral and general elections as well as the forthcoming referendum on AV (Alternative Vote for Proportional Represenation) in the UK but cannot take part in an election in my native Singapore?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Big Society, Small Mind

It's been a long while since I last posted. Together with all the usual busy-ness of life during this time of year I had been doing my weekly stint at a local charity which gives advice on all areas of life. (This means I have less time to run my business, but never mind.)

Of course we are not know-it-alls. We merely have the resources to point people in the right direction. Some folk who come in need more help than others. For these we spend more time with them and help with writing letters, making phone calls, etc.

My role in this charity is to assess within as short a time as possible how we might (or not) help the "client".

We get all sorts. People asking about neighbour disputes over boundary fences, pensions and how these affect their current benefits, whether they are genuinely required to pay underpaid taxes because HMRC completely fouled up, domestic violence, how to apply for benefits for 19-year-olds, etc.

We get the few odd-balls, for want of a better word. People who want to just have a talk, eg I've applied for x number of jobs in the last y number of weeks, and not a single reply. Can you tell me whether the job market is really that bad?

One man who finally decided to divorce his wife was so glad for some guidance we gave he put quite a substantial donation into our collection box. He needed reassurance, some advice regarding a legal matter, and you could see the relief on his face when we helped him to separate the two issues.

But two weeks ago I very nearly quit. For the second week running I had a 'run' of clients wanting to know where they stand with regards to their benefits application, etc. We are a charity. We have nothing to do with the various government departments that push one bit of paper to another, and then on to another department, only for it to be lost in the post, etc.

But they come, constantly, "Please, I have no money to live on this week, what has happened to my application?"

I don't know.

You also have those who tell you, "I'm entitled to this [benefit] and that [benefit]. I went to the office, and they tell me I'm OK, but I get the letter that tells me I get nothing. What is happening?"

I don't know.

Some get really rude when after we had given them the advice and clear directions as to what to do. "But why are you not helping me? Previously when I came here always someone helped me. Make a phone call and you get the answer."

Me: "Here's the number given to you. Call and find out what the situation is."

Client: "No. They won't give me an answer. You people have to give them a call, and then they give you an answer."

Me: "Are you saying that the people at the council are not giving you the answers? Are you saying that they would only give an answer if someone from here speaks to them?

Client: "Yes. Always I call and they don't help me. You people call them, they would give you an answer."

That really made my blood boil.

First, I didn't like being referred to as "you people". "Look!" I said, "I am only a volunteer. I don't get paid for trying to help you. My role here is not to make phone calls for you."

Second, I was furious that local council employees who are supposed to be public servants, paid by my tax money, seem not to be doing their job. Why are they not giving this man the answers he deserves?

So on the one hand I pay these servants, and on another I pay this man (his benefits via my tax), but the lazy public servant has caused this man to come to me to say, "You people are not helping me."

Why should I be taxed to the hilt and be insulted by this client whose benefits come out of my taxes?

The following week I had a woman who claims to be single, with three children, with a query about her housing and impending eviction. Of course the taxpayer is already paying her housing benefits, council tax credit, child benefits, child tax credits, etc.

She asked me whether I knew anything about "banding" in the homelessness jargon. "No," I said, and she rolled her eyes in disgust.

I wanted to say, "Sweetheart I've not received a single penny of benefit from this country. How do you expect me to know? I have not even received Child Benefit because it was too complicated for me as a foreigner to claim, so it has been given to my husband.

"Incidentally I am contributing towards your benefits, so don't sound so high-and-mighty." (I learned later from the case notes that actually, she had not been telling us the whole truth! And yes, I would still like to find out how in a community that considers it acceptable to stone a woman caught in adultery she could have three children when claiming not to be in a relationship.)

When I got home after this session I had to bake bread. I needed to punch out my anger and frustration. How dare these people talk to me like I am their servant when their livelihood depends on people like me who fund their benefits?

Here I am trying to do my Big Society and all I meet are small minds like these.

Thankfully the last session (yesterday) was so different. I met some really nice people who were grateful for the help, advice and information we were able to provide.

I am, however, continuing to make my own bread. My baking skill has risen a lot in my boys' estimation as my bread proved to be a great success!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Revolutions, some random/rambling thoughts

First Tunisia, then Egypt and now Libya is at the brink as I write. People power.

Gaddaffi sees himself as a revolutionary leader, not a president, and so cannot resign, as the people demanded.

Revolutionary leaders ought to be respected for their vision, for their fortitude and for their ability to bring about revolution and surviving. When we look at the east Asian countries, not excluding Singapore, we see historians having rather nice things to say of leaders who took us out of colonial rule, hailing these as "fathers" of the nation.

Problem is such leaders, after being comfortably in unopposed power (dictatorship?) for years often forget that whilst the nation might owe them a lot, the nation does not owe them EVERYTHING.

The rot sets in when such leaders begin to see and appropriate their nation's wealth as their own. They start enriching themselves, and their families, blurring the line between what belongs to the nation and what belongs to the individual. Worse, they bring in laws to institutionalize such blatant corruption.

The people will acquiesce, usually for as long as they are happy and reasonably well-fed plus a little bit of room to give them a sense or myth of well-being.

But then the day comes when "enough is enough" and the revolt begins.

So the likes of Gaddaffi have better take note.

Friday, February 11, 2011

New Hope

Yesterday was a difficult day. At my CAB session I had a young man who refused to leave my room because he had no money.

What was I supposed to do? I am only a volunteer here. I have done all that I could to help him, as the last person he saw did, but if he did not help himself to resolve the situation he was in, what could we do?

Do we let him keep coming back and beg for emergency money?

Then you realize that at the coalface of this "Big Society" answers are not always easy.

Today was a much better day. On the day that we read of 50% of five-year-old boys are falling behind, I had six (SIX!) new mothers at our Toddler Group.

Many are first-time mothers. It was especially interesting (encouraging, even) to see two mothers using the "time-out" for misbehaving two-year-olds. There is hope.

I also noted to a childminder that one of her charges was really good at looking after himself (took off his coat, hung it up on another child's pushchair). It appears that he was not like that when he first came to her.

Nobody taught him how to do things that children his age should be able to do. Now he shows that he could start looking after himself.

Made me think, again, that perhaps some children are better off being taken care of by such experienced childminders who give them structure, discipline and self-esteem whilst the mother works to earn her keep.

The alternative could be a child at home 24/7 with a mum who's watching TV, smoking and/or on the phone constantly while the child is left to TV, computer and junk food.

Ah, just some thought based on my observations.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Chinese: whispers, new year, me

Yesterday I was listening to Today in the morning and someone used the term "chinese whispers" (re: how suspect treated in Bristol murder) and I felt very uncomfortable. Affronted. Why "Chinese"?

Should I make a complaint to BBC and campaign for a ban on the use of "Chinese whispers" with its negative connotation? (Just kidding.)

It's the new Chinese lunar year today and I am quite excited (but tired). I am salivating at the pictures posted by friends on FB.

The eve of Chinese New Year is when families gather for the Reunion Dinner. I remember having to wait for hours for sister to come back from her nursing shift and/or father from his new year's eve haircut.

Then we tuck in. Ah! I enjoy most the thrill of putting on my new pyjamas. Mum could not always afford to buy me new clothes -- going-out clothes -- but she would always used to buy me pyjamas (they were very cheap). So I give my son new pyjamas, too.

Except that his cost a bit more. Few people do the traditional open-front pyjamas and he won't wear anything else.

I couldn't take part in any of the festivities this year. But I was thrilled when my family phoned on Saturday. They were having a pre-New Year's eve reunion and I spoke and saw everyone present via video link.

I've also been making pineapple tarts. It is tedious making these tarts.

Why do I make these tarts?

Because it affirms my Chineseness, and in particular my Singapore Chineseness. It's not something you could buy at Chinese supermarkets run by Hong Kong Chinese.

And because my son tells me, "You're not Chinese."

So once a year I have to reinforce the message that mum is Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, and we have traditions. He likes most the custom of giving hong bao, cash put in decorated red envelopes.

I'm tired because I'd just spent a long morning at CAB where I've been trained to do gateway interviews to help all those who come through the doors. I meet all sorts of interesting (and sometimes frustrating) individuals.

Working at home is great. Up to a point. I need to go out and meet real people, people from all walks of life sometimes.

Xin nian kuai le! Wan shi ru yi!

(Happy New Year! May all your wishes come true!)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Reflecting on relexology (and a golf ball)

In my late parents' flat was a stone that was often left underneath a chair in the living room.

I remember my father being given that stone (nearly six inches long) by a friend soon after we moved to the Tanglin Halt flat. He said to rub his feet on the stone for good health.

I was only very young then and I thought: was there magic in this stone? how could rubbing one's feet on this stone give one good health? Father didn't actually use it as instructed. It was just there, left there, for years and years.

At university I remember a lecturer talking about traditional medicine. He spoke disparagingly of such, referring to "a bit of dried bark". How could we place our faith on the healing powers of a bit of dried bark when we have the whole backing of science on antibiotics, etc.?

You see, where I was growing up, we revered everything that was "scientific". The west was scientific, so we revered it. Anything that was non-western and/or non-scientific was deemed superstition and backward.

And I had a really bad headache at work once. An Australian colleague suggested that I should rub the bottom of my big toe. She then gave me some literature on reflexology. That was Lana G.

The next time I had a bad headache at home I studied Lana's chart and rubbed my big toe. I could not believe how badly it hurt. From then I begin to think there is some connection between rubbing the soles of one's feet and general well-being.

It was a good few years later when I started living in the UK that I began to learn more about traditional medicine. Strange as I actually grew up with a lot of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) around me.

My father was a "quack" as we used to tease him. His housewife customers at the market where he sold pork used to come to him for advice on certain aches and pains.

Father recounted often how even the "big doctors" could not cure my sister's bad headache (migraine?). He then made her wash her hair in water (more like stock) from boiling a huge amount of ginger, and her head pain disappeared.

Periodically he made mum brew various types of horrible tasting medicines for us to drink. Because he saw that we were this, that or other, and needed to have our "qi" balanced.

Any way it was in the UK that I learned more about ayurvedic medicine, aromatherapy, etc, and slowly I moved away from my distrust in that "bit of dried bark". Seeing these "alternative therapies" in the light of TCM in a more holistic way, I decided that I must stop being so dismissive about traditions that have been tested for thousands of years.

Somewhere along the line I had my first reflexology massage in Singapore. I was taken by surprise when the man who did the massage could tell me about my frequent complaints. Just by observing the way I grimaced in pain as he massaged the soles of my feet.

My husband found relexology too painful and never went back. But he does massage my feet infrequently. We are amazed at the number of times when he would find a painful spot and we'd check it against a chart I have, and it pointed to the problem I was feeling.

Lately I came up with the idea of using a golf ball to "reflex" my feet. It rolls about. It's fairly solid. It's readily available.

I can only say I am amazed at how it pinpoints pain in the feet which corresponds to the part of the body that required attention. It hurts a lot, but if I keep rolling the ball with my foot/feet in that area I feel quite a lot better when I stop, after five minutes or so.

And I imagine that is what that stone in my parents' flat was all about.