Friday, 27 March 2015


Parenthood leads me in odd directions.  The other week I washed and blow-dried a hen's legs and undercarriage so she wouldn't be too muddy when I took her to visit a class at B's primary school.  (The hen was less than delighted but remained stoical.)  But more surreal than that was primping Zach's pair of rats ready to enter a show.

The Yorkshire Rat Club was having one of its bi-monthly shows in March. This one was held in a church hall very close to us. Zach heard about it and wanted to enter his rats Naruto and Kakashi into the Pet category.

Being a less-than-thorough kind of lad, he didn't read as far as the entry requirement, application deadline and so on.  Being a more-than-thorough type of woman, I did.  I contacted the breeder we got them from to check the details, filled in the forms for him and emailed them off. I reserved show tanks and read up what was expected.  I did not expect what was expected - giving them a bath and trimming their claws, ideally 3 days before the show.

Rats have tiny, tiny hands.  Well, paws, but they look like hands and rats sit up and hold things with them.  Their hind paws are bigger, although still pretty small, but the front have minuscule claws.  And they aren't best pleased at someone holding them and trying to clip the ends of their nails.

They have mixed feelings about baths, too.  Kakashi ran about a bit, clambered over the taps, splashed at the water with his paws and had a good explore.  He tolerated the claw trimming with only a few squeaked protests, but I was glad I was the one holding him not Zach - he was very wriggly. Zach was on towel-drying support.
Naruto was outraged by a bath, scrambling to get away. When I dried him and trimmed his claws he swivelled around and bit me.  He managed to rake a thin strip of skin from my little finger which took ages to stop bleeding. I knew I liked Kakashi best for a reason.
Somewhat unwisely, Zach pointed out I'd got blood on the rat's fur.  When he saw my face, he back-pedalled quickly and said how nice and clean the rats looked.  The damned finger lead for 25 minutes.
I am a wimp

Leaving the Big Lad to sleep as only teenagers can, the rest of us trouped along to Oakwood church hall on Saturday morning for 10:30 to enter the rats in the show.  One of the organisers had suggested putting one rat in Pets and the other in Varieties so they weren't competing against one another.  What the heck, we thought, so entered Kakashi as a Silver Fawn rat in the varieties and his plumper brother in the Pet section.

How long do you think a small local Rat Club show can last?  There are some bits and pieces to buy from a couple of pet stalls, a tea-and-bacon-butty type counter, and there's waiting for the rats to be judged.  I guessed a couple of hours.

I was wrong.

The first 90 minutes were quite fun - lots of people to chat with, animals to play with and so on.  The next 90 minutes were more dull.  The THREE HOURS after that really dragged, particularly as our phone batteries went flat.  Not to mention we were expecting to watch the 6 Nations Wales match that afternoon.

Yes, we were there for over 6 hours.  For 4 hours of that, we kept thinking "Surely they're about finished? Surely it will only be another half hour at most."  The friendly and enthusiastic people of the Yorkshire Rat Club told us later that it had been a pretty quick show; some can last another hour or two!  If we'd any idea we'd have stayed for 45 minutes at the start, left Z with a drink and butty (he was having a lovely time) and bobbed back for the last hour or so to keep him company while he waited for the judging and certificates to be done. It was a looooong and hungry day.

On the plus side we met lots of really lovely people. A family with a girl close to B's age kept us company for most of the time. We chatted about loads of things (although avoiding the topic of rugby in the hopes we could watch it on iPlayer later) and they shared their grapes with the kids.  We praised each other's pets to the skies, and had a good old natter to while the hours away.  Zach also made friends with several breeders and exhibitors. He was interested in all of it.

The pet judges having a play with some of the entrants
The judging was both interesting and funny.  The Pet category was judged on criteria that seemed to be "is this rat cute? is s/he friendly?"  The judges got each rat out several times and played with, cuddled and messed about with him for ages.  They both clearly loved these little whiskery beasties and made a huge fuss of them.  Naruto behaved just as he does at home - was quite friendly but mostly wanted to snuggle inside the judge's cardigan. He's a typical male rat -  preferring a cuddle and a snooze with people to the energetic exploring the female rats favour.  The judge thought he was lovely.

Naruto in the yellow cage, taking yet another nap 

The Varieties category, on the other hand, was like a rodent Crufts.  I kept wanting to laugh - I had no idea it could all get so regimented. The judge had a white jacket and everything. Weight, hair length, bone structure and colouring were closely examined against a National Fancy Rat Society standard, which the judge kept in her head (although I saw her google something once.) There was no nonsense, just a focused scrutiny of each animal. The judge ploughed through far more animals than the pet judge in a fraction of the time, while her assistant took copious notes.

4 hours in and Kakashi wasn't even judged.  The breeder told us he was a Silver Fawn variety but he was declared by everyone at the show as Argente Cream (don't ask me) and therefore disqualified as being misidentified.
It doesn't matter how alert you are, Kash, you're still out

I've included links to Google images. Heaven knows how they tell those colour varieties apart. Some are the same darned photos.

I was rather concerned for Zach. He was massively excited about it all, and I didn't want him to come home without even a certificate.  I'll also admit to feeling slightly aggrieved, about which I am embarrassed. I'm immensely fond of Kakashi, he's a lovely natured beastie and my clear favourite, but he isn't even my pet. He's Zach's. So, feeling defensive when others fail to recognise his aceness is doubly ridiculous.
When we spoke to the judge later she said "even in the correct category he'd not be a good example as he's too light boned and his face is narrow while the guard hairs on his rump are too long." I felt like saying 'Yah boo sucks!" because I think Kash is a poppet.  And that, my friends, is why I shouldn't go to these things. Well, that and the instant coffee.

 At the end of the afternoon the winners were finally announced.  Way to go Naruto! He won best buck in the Juniors category, 2nd best overall, 4th in the "Pet Challenge" (we still aren't clear what that involved) and a special award as the one the assistant judge wanted to keep for herself because he was such a sweetie.  Zach had and armload of rosettes and certificates, and was just over the moon.

Miss B "helping" him with all those rosettes
So it was worth it after all.  Zach was full of all the people he'd met, the rats he'd played with and bursting with pride and happiness at Naruto's rosettes.  It was lovely seeing him so delighted with his day.

There's another show in May and he's already hoping I'll take him.  As long as I have a book, a flask of real coffee and butty, I expect I will.

Because this time Kakashi will win.
J x

Monday, 16 March 2015

Roll With It

I'm teaching an evening class at the moment. It's called Family Cake Decorating, although sometimes I think it should be "Messing About With Icing" as mess is a pretty substantial part of the process. It's the 4th year I've taught this particular course and by the time it ends at 7pm I still find I'm glazed like a doughnut from all the icing sugar I've been handling. Not being messy is a skill I've yet to acquire.

I love teaching people new skills.  I get such a kick out of helping someone try something they've never had a go at before. Often all it takes is a little guidance and boom! they've made something marvellous. That grin of "look what a fab thing I did" from people in my class is one of my favourite parts of the week.

I usually bake many, many cupcakes to give my class of 12 plenty of stuff to decorate.  This time, however, I'm not. Taking in 3 or 4 dozen cupcakes each week gets expensive. The school subsidises the class but I do want to keep the ingredients costs from getting too high. It occurred to me that as long as my students had a surface to decorate, to didn't really matter what that surface was. A cupcake or a biscuit can work equally well as their canvas, and with a biscuit I can make bigger batches, so they get more goes. I'll still do a couple of cupcake weeks but so far the biscuits are going down very well.
Just a fraction of a week's biscuits

Several people in my class asked for my gingerbread recipe as last week's gingerbread men were a hit with their families.  I'm putting it here as well in case anyone fancies a go.  It's a pretty nice one, although the dough can be a pain to handle when the kitchen gets hot. However, there's an easy way around that. 

Gingerbread biscuits

180g butter
125g caster sugar
1 egg
125g treacle
420g flour
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp bicarb

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale. Add the egg and treacle and combine thoroughly.  Sift the flour, spices and bicarb together and add to the mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon or by hand to bring it into a sticky dough - don’t overwork or knead the dough or the biscuits will be tough.

Ideally chill the dough for a while - the treacle can make it messy to handle when too warm. Roll out and cut into shapes, leaving room for the biscuits to spread slightly on the baking tray. Bake at 180 (170 fan) for 8-12 minutes depending on the thickness of your biscuits.


The more flour you add to a dough the tougher it will be. When rolling out biscuits dough - and especially pastry dough, where the thinner you can roll it the better- this can make the difference between a great result and a poor one.

You can avoid it sticking without adding flour by placing your dough between two sheets of clingfilm. Roll across the clingfilm until the dough is your preferred thickness (very thin for pastry, a pound coin thickness for most biscuits), peel of the top sheet, cut into shapes fitting them as close together as possible. Then lift up the bottom sheet of clingfilm and peel off the shape/disc and place it on the baking sheet or tart tin. 
 I can just hear Mary Berry congratulating you on the nicely baked tart without any hint of a soggy bottom. Paul Hollywood will tell you it's a nice thin pastry and a good bake overall.  Award yourself Star Baker and a smug grin.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

I've Never Seen Star Wars - family style

Have you heard Marcus Brigstock's show on Radio 4 in the 6:30 comedy slot? It's about people trying things that they've not done before, then rating the experience.  It's often very funny - Sandi Toksvig in high heels and Ian Hislop buying jeans both made me laugh.

Confronted with rather bored kids this half term, I suggested we do a family version.  We'd each come up with things the others hadn't done and help them give it a go.

First up, Mark taught Miss B how to make coffee with the Baby Gaggia.  Oh how I love that machine! Miss B needs a little help removing the group head (the bit the ground beans go in) from the machine ready to fill it with fresh grinds, but other than that she's taken to it like a duck to water. That's brilliant news for me - someone else prepared to make me coffee. B's subsequently made 3 cups of coffee and does a pretty fine job. She gives it "5 or 6 out of 10, probably."

Next, Miss B was the instructor.  She showed Z how to plait.  I was the supplier of hair to be plaited, which did get painful a few times, but after B's expert tuition he got the hang of it. Sort of.  I don't think Nicky Clarke  - or even Chris Pratt - need worry though.

B remained in the teacher's chair for the next two tasks - showing Luke how to thread a needle and Z how to skip.  My ace mate Liz Merckel gave Miss B a small sewing kit for her naming day present when she was a baby.  In that kit was a needle threader, which B thought was a VERY useful thing when she rediscovered the sewing kit last year.  Luke's not got the best fine motor control, so a needle threader means he can easily do something that required concentration before.  Top notch.

Out of love for him I have not photographed Z's attempts at skipping.  He remained positive and enthusiastic - which was particularly laudable given the conflicting advice B and I were offering - but he just couldn't manage more than 5 skips before getting tangled.  I surprised myself by being able to demonstrate it at all; my knees have been dreadful lately and I didn't think I had any jumping in me. 

Mark took Luke somewhere to have a go at driving.  He absolutely loved it!  It wasn't far and the car is an automatic, so there's less to worry about than with a manual stick shift, but Luke did extremely well. He was giddy as a kipper afterwards.

Luke and Mark undercoated Warhammer figures to teach us some painting techniques but one of the lads' mates turned up and activities were suspended while they played  hung out.

After dinner was the main event - getting me to play video games.

I do NOT play video games.  At all. Ever.  Over the years there have been many gaming devices in our house and I haven't been remotely interested in any of them.  I do love Civilisation on the laptop, but even then I turn war off if I can and just play the science and culture strands. I don't even know how to turn the Wii U on, nor how the PS3 controllers work.  Nor do I wish to. So, when I said I'd give their games a go the kids were very enthusiastic. They've been trying to get me to play for years.

Each of the kids chose a game for me to play: Portal 2, Mario Kart and Call of Duty.

Portal 2 was on the PS3.  I found the whole moving and looking around simultaneously thing quite hard - two little joysticks and some buttons for jumping and firing portals at the same time.  I disgusted the lads (and had Mark agreeing with me) by preferring "inverted" controls. Apparently people have different views on whether the command Look Up means you tilt the joystick up or down.  Charlie Brooker and Dara O'Briain have a long-running disagreement about it. I'm with Brooker - I push forward to look down and back to tilt my view upwards.
A nice thing about Portal 2  -  as there was no time pressure I could work each puzzle out and try again and again until I could move about without crashing into stuff constantly.  I didn't have to kill anything or get yelled at, I could work it out myself in a calm environment.
The story of Portal 2 contains plenty of wit and imagination.  It was a quirky and interesting game. 6/10

Mario Kart on the Wii U with the game pad was a very different controller.  The touch screen was nice - just like my iPad  - but I found the holding position a little uncomfortable when using it as a steering wheel in the game.  It is a brightly coloured and noisy game - like a soft play centre had thrown up on my TV screen. 
 The pressure to go fast and keep up - even on the slowest setting - had me clenching my feet and forgetting to breathe.  When I finished the races I had a dent in my thumb from pressing the A key so hard.
After my 3 warm up races we had a multi-player race.  It was awful.  The quartered screen didn't give me enough of a idea where I was going so I was endlessly crashing, going the wrong way and falling off the track.  My best race position was coming 11 out of 12 and I couldn't wait for the noise to end.
Not for me. 4/10

For Call of Duty I was back on the PS3.  This is a FPS - a first person shooter - which meant everything I saw was from my character's perspective.  I had the same move/look around controls as Portal 2 with the added aiming and firing, swapping between weaponry and being under time pressure as ghastly zombies came to kill me.
It was utterly horrible.  I couldn't control anything worth a damn, the look of the game was dark and horrid, the actual point of the game was all the things I don't like - violence, horror, fear - and I felt a knot in my stomach the second I started. I don't find shooting things remotely fun and I hate horror movies. (I am a wuss who gets nightmares) I think Zach was right to choose it for me as I couldn't really say I'd had a go at video games without trying a FPS.  But bloody hell it was unpleasant and I am NEVER going to do it again.
0 out of 10.

When we return to this project Mark will sew a little lavender bag on my sewing machine and B will try a physical activity she hasn't before.

I'm proud of my gang for entering into the spirit of things with such positivity. I like it when we all Fearlessly Attempt things.