Flash Says…

Hello, readers. I’m aware that I’ve neglected to post here lately, and I apologise. I’ve had a bad run of health. That in itself isn’t a reason (excuse?) for not writing, but the thing is that while ill, I have to cancel all but essential activities.

Actually, I’d love to be writing from my sick bed. But then I feel the pressure of everything I’ve cancelled, everyone I’m letting down, or who is having to step into my shoes and take up the slack while I’m out of circulation. This makes me feel bad.

And while it might be that I am capable of blogging from bed, it seems such a non-essential activity, compared to my commitments for other people, that I can’t justify writing while more important things await my attention.

And then nothing gets done. And I feel even more useless than ever.

However, even when I’m not up to writing a full article, I enjoy leaving thoughtful comments on news items and other blogs. I have saved my favourite dilemmas and responses. So I will shortly run a few of these, to keep my grey matter working, before returning to full length articles soon.

I hope you enjoy the forthcoming posts.

I have a keen interest in food. This was instilled by my much missed dad, who took me to Michelin starred restaurants from primary school onwards, and encouraged me to love what I ate and drank.

This passion for gastronomy has spilled over into a love of watching food programmes, and the odd over-ambitious garnish at home. Still, at least presentation was being considered!

There were many funny moments with my dad, like at home when he would get very uppity about doing his ‘mise en place'; and when in hospital the dietician was concerned he wasnt eating, I had to rein him in from being as brutal as he intended about her bulk-catered food. The dietician asked about the last meat he ate at home, which by chance had been a farm-shop guineafowl… I tried not to laugh and to say ‘well to be fair it must be hard to provide for a whole hospital on a budget’ but she got the idea as to why my dad wouldnt eat a generic and gelatinous Gala Pie. Actually my family were often on a tight budget, but that just meant that they appreciated that meat wasnt something you could eat every day, and that you had to shop around and eat seasonal local produce. (“They were lucky…” But stop me before I slip into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch…) Still, there were also many excellent moments when I tried food in my youth that youngsters wouldn’t normally encounter – veal, for example. And one of the dinners my mother regularly put in front of me was a good quality steak in a bun, with fresh onion, tomato, and cucumber relish. No fishfingers or chicken nuggets for us. When I decided to become vegetarian, aged 11, I could at least base my decision on morals, having enjoyed a range of tasty meat dishes, and knowing what I was rejecting.

Anyway, my family taught me to appreciate good food from a young age, to enjoy the best we could afford and that good food was a luxury, and I will always be grateful to my dad in particular for that. Indeed, on the anniversary of his death every year I go out for a decent meal or experience that he would have enjoyed.

Physical disability makes cooking rather difficult for me, but I persevere as it is a passion. I have two folders of recipes – sweet and savoury – which are printouts or written by hand, then annotated with personal notes relating to my own issues, equipment or oven. If something is unsuccessful then it is ripped out of the folder! If it works – or sounds good and Im likely to try it soon – it stays. I use the folders for reference for favourite regular dishes and snacks as well as inspiration for dishes that I’ve wanted to try for a while.

I love watching Masterchef in particular. Ive watched so many series, from UK, Australia (my fave), New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Ireland… Every weekday, I watch a couple of hours and always try to figure out what I’d do with that mystery box of strange ingredients. In fact it struck me recently that when I watch their masterclasses and take copious notes, then try out those dishes in my kitchen, that perhaps this is my own equivalent of an OU study course!

Ive also eaten the food of several UK masterchefs, and talk to some of them via twitter, and I have foodie friends to bounce my food ideas off – all of this is inspirational!

Sadly I dont feel I can ever aspire to Masterchef because even if I reached the cooking standard, my physical limitations are just too great. Even if I did participate, I could never work in the trade. But let’s pretend, ok? Because I like to dream along to imagine what I would create when I watch the challenges, and plan what I’d do for the judges if only I could.


Let’s assume Im aiming for more than a home cook standard. I know it is critical to taste, season, etc. and some of that can’t be taught. But if you were planning to go on Masterchef (say), which dishes and skills do you think you should have down pat? For example with invention tests I think if you can make a basic pasta, or a basic pastry case, you can make a good enough sweet or savoury dish to get through the earliest rounds.

Another spanner in the works is that I’m vegetarian. I am not against cooking meat or fish products for other people but obviously can’t taste those dishes so it is a disadvantage. I have cooked steak and scallops but I ought to at least master things I can taste and enjoy first of all – which means I’m not worrying about filleting a fish at this stage. That said, I’ve noted how to do it (and how to prep other things like squid or rib-eye beef) from the TV, so I could at least have a stab at it if I had to! But I think much of the joy of food is sharing, so I want to learn things that I can taste and share equally.

So, on my list of skills / dishes to learn (though I already know some, but for completeness), are:

* pasta – plain sheets, but also cut into tagliatelli or used in raviolli or tortellini
* risotto (dare I say, I’m quite good at this already!)
* pastries – short, puff, choux, and maybe filo?
* basic souffle (which includes making creme pat)
* choc fondant
* creme anglaise
* ‘mother’ sauces
* fondant vegetables
* gnocchi
* flatbread

These are all with a view to expanding my skills, but also are items that take no more than an hour to cook. Otherwise bread, macarons etc. would be on there (though again, I can have a reasonable stab at those). Feel free to suggest anything, however basic, that it is critical to master in order to have well-rounded cooking skills.


As mentioned, I am physically disabled. In terms of cooking, I’m mostly affected by joint pain and physical strength. For example chopping (wrist weakness), standing to stir (back pain within 2 minutes), lifting a pan and straining it (I’m likely to scald myself) etc.

I have been wondering ‘if I ever went on Masterchef what reasonable adjustments could I ask for?’ and this leads on to how to make things easier at home, of course. For example, my PA chopped a block of chocolate into small chips in advance so I could make biscuits with it; that would have really hurt my wrists for several days if I had done it.

So I am wondering what else I could get my PA to prep for me? Not at the time of need, as that is obvious – but because I don’t know exactly when I’ll have the energy to cook, which things can be prepped a day or two in advance and still be perfectly acceptable?

I know many disabled people buy frozen pre-chopped veg, but I eat a lot of raw, salad and lightly stir fried or blanched food. I don’t enjoy veg that has been frozen or is anything less than flavourful and al dente. (That said, I do already chop and freeze spare herbs, for throwing into sauces.) I heard that diced onion will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days with no issue. Unfortunately my favourite vegetable, fennel, would go brown once cut (unless acid works on it like with apples?) Are there any other chopped veg “gotcha”s?

Anyway, I would be glad to hear firstly of vegetables (and raw herbs and spices) that can be prepped in advance, and how they should best be stored and how long they will last; and secondly of any labour saving devices that you can think would make my life easier in the kitchen. I’m not talking about the cripple’s dreaded christmas present (“how lovely, another kettle tipper!”) but practical things that I might not have considered.

Note that I do have a mandolin and some other gadgets but it still hurts my back to stand and do anything for more than 2 minutes, and a mandolin is a bugger to wash up! But there must be quick and rough solutions involving, I dunno, food bags and a hammer? which I could do with learning to make my life easier.

I think what I truly need is a Thermomix – but unfortunately you get what you pay for and the cost is prohibitive. Does anyone know if the older models which sell for £300 on ebay are worthwhile? This is the only solution I can see to relieve the pain from standing and stirring over a bain marie, or similar…


I presume there isn’t a free online course and community where I can study this stuff and compare notes? Particularly as a screen grab wont tell you if the seasoning was good or the sauce hit the mark? But is there any online community for this? I’m interested in learning at home at my own speed though, not adult classes at my local catering college. (Also, Ive eaten at the local catering college’s Fine Dining Restaurant… Let’s just say ‘er, no’.)

I enjoy learning techniques from Videojug, Instructables and other websites, but where these are submitted by peers, it is hard to know how authoratitive they are, or if I’m missing a trick. I find I learn most from the Australian Masterchef Masterclass programmes, but these are only broadcast once a week, and I would love more in the same vein that I could study.

Lovely foodie, cook and chef friends, please help!

This week, the World Cup kicked off. It was ceremoniously started by a paraplegic who wore a robotic exoskeleton. After weeks of practice, he managed to kick the ball a short distance. What does this really achieve, if anything?

Image from BBC news of paraplegic man preparing to open the World Cup

I’m not impressed. Several young, fit people were chosen to train for this opportunity. In the event, the paraplegic person had to wear a brain cap, a rucksack containing a maximum 2 hour battery, and was wired up to sensors that they’d spent weeks training their bodies to understand, little by little. They still had to be helped by a team of people, and the activity they managed was a huge effort after weeks of training. Maybe one day this will help people who can’t walk; for now, it’s just for show.

I’ve encountered this issue as a Formula 1 fan. Frank Williams, leader of the Williams F1 team, became tetraplegic as the result of a road accident in 1986. He has been a common sight among the Formula 1 paddock, wheeling himself around the pit lane, but more recently he gained attention for using a wheelchair to help him artificially stand.

I find this really interesting. I believe that people with impairments and conditions of all types should be helped by the most appropriate tools and equipment – whatever that is. As you may know from my article about the cost of wheelchairs, unfortunately people do not automatically qualify for whatever equipment they need, and often have to fight for it or fund it themselves.

I am a disabled person with many friends who have a range of impairments at different levels, and the consensus seems to be that tools to make people artificially stand or ‘walk’ are missing the point. They make non disabled people think we can be ‘fixed’ when only certain people can use these tools, and then in specific and limited ways.

Frank Williams says that he prefers to stand so that he can shake hands and make eye contact in business. Sure, I can understand that, but this is suggesting disabled people should be made acceptable, normalised, as much as possible – when what would generally be more useful would be to get non disabled people to understand and accept us as we are, to be comfortable to look us in the eye when we are not at the same height. We are just as valid and just as able to conduct business as non-disabled people – why should we stand to attention to make others comfortable?

Frank says there are health benefits to his device, and I’m always interested to hear of these. If using a standing device helps with blood pressure, for example, why aren’t more people helped to have this kit? Although, many disabled people can’t work or are under-employed and couldn’t afford a device like that; as I’ve already highlighted, it can be expensive just to get the basic chair that you need. Most people would be grateful just for a riser that helps them reach higher shelves in supermarkets.

In my own case, I struggle to keep up my blood pressure so my consultant’s advice was just to drink isotonic drinks rather than anything more advanced…

The idea of these tools (such as the “Walk Again Project” seen in the World Cup) is uneasy for me. The amount of energy needed by people to wear a brain cap, and to train their body to respond to stimuli over several weeks, seems like a huge effort when we have tools to help already. They are called “wheelchairs”. Seriously, it is hard enough, even in the UK, for someone with genuine need to be able to justify and/or fund a chair which gives them a normal life. Seeing people trying to walk, be it Frank Williams or an athlete kicking off the World Cup, gives unrealistic hope.

If a wheelchair riser helps Frank’s health that is great. Maybe he could use his public standing to fundraise for even more essential equipment for disabled people’s wellbeing! But if Frank uses it to suggest it is better for business to be able to stand & look people in the eyes, etc, then sadly he is perpetuating the perception that disabled people are somehow ‘lesser’, and rather than trying to educate people to work with us, he is admitting defeat and trying to be ‘normal’ and appear as non-disabled as possible. For those of us who have no choice in the matter, it is depressing to see that might be the attitude from a role model like Frank.

And how will that World Cup kick have looked to people in Nigeria, where Polio victims scoot around on home made skateboards for lack of money?

Surely if we really care about developments in access for disabled people, there are other ways to fund and express it. Let’s try to make sure, as we go, that people are truly enabled.

Ever wanted to donate to a food bank, but not known what to give or how to help? A food bank was set up in my area during 2013, but then for months I held back because I wasn’t sure quite how to donate. I read several online discussions which reached different conclusions, and the more I pondered, the more complicated it seemed! I wanted my donation to be appropriate, but ended up over-thinking it. Eventually I phoned my local food bank to find out – and here is what I learned. Read this article, find a food bank, make a shopping list, get donating!

Food poverty is a topic close to my heart. When I was a student, there were no food banks – but there were many occasions when I had no money for meals. I walked down busy streets in the evening looking for dropped pennies, then went into the supermarket just before closing time, hoping for some discounted bread so that I could afford toast to go with a 3p can of baked beans. One night I stood outside the Beigel Bakery in Brick Lane, counting my pennies, trying to work out what I could afford to eat. A passing stranger pressed a pound coin into my hand, said “Get yourself something sweet” and walked away as I called out thanks. That night I bought six beigels, some with filling, to share between myself and my partner; it was the only thing we ate that day. It is telling that twenty years later, that stranger’s act of kindness is still imprinted in my memory. So, now that I’m able, regularly donating to a food bank is my way of paying it forward. We never know when we will find ourselves in that position, and you can be sure that people using this service are not there by choice.

What I bought for a food bank with £20. If you’re not sure what to get, start here.

Find your local food bank and ask what they need.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Locating your nearest food bank is probably best achieved by typing your locality and “food bank” into google. Otherwise, the Trussell Trust runs many of them, but several are run by other groups or individuals – mine is organised by a Children’s Centre. If you’re still having no luck, try asking a nearby church, or your local council, who should know where food bank services are provided.

When I initially asked what would be most appreciated, I was told “anything! We would be grateful for anything at all, thank you!” While this is a kind thing to say, it isn’t actually helpful – it didn’t tell me what would be inappropriate, or if there was anything they might prefer me to supply. So, although I would urge you to ask your local group what they most need – as well as what they have plenty of – I provide a list below, giving you some items which will always be welcomed, as well as a heads up on which things you should check before including.

It is important to be aware of the needs of users in your community, so here are a few points for thought:

  • Fuel poverty – not everyone can afford to run a stove, so include some items which can be eaten cold, or just require boiling water. There may also be service users who are living in temporary accommodation and don’t have access to a kitchen – make sure you include things for them to eat.
  • Short term vs long term need – does your food bank cater for people over the longer term, or those who have lost benefits for a few weeks but will be ok thereafter, or a mix of both? People with short term needs will probably just require basic food items to get them through. Those with longer term needs may not have cutlery, cooking equipment, can openers, and may also need additional items for cooking such as vegetable oil and salt.
  • Following on from the last point, if your food bank doesn’t ensure everyone has access to a can opener, then it might be better to provide some canned items which come with ringpulls.
  • Weird and wonderful items – assume that people using food banks have only basic cooking skills, so they won’t know what to do with that jar of octopus tentacles that’s been at the back of your cupboard for months, nor do they want olives or caviar – they’d rather you spent the money on something simple and filling that will go further.
  • Special diets – because I live in a very multicultural area, I had initially thought that I ought to consider halal food items. In fact, Muslim people tend to seek help from the community at their mosque, rather than a food bank – so this is less of an issue. My local food bank merely distinguishes between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. I asked about other special diets such as coeliac or dairy free, but they see very few people with these requirements and are able to cater for them from their regular stock. So I would suggest you include a good selection of vegetarian food – in any case, this is more affordable than meat and fish – but don’t spend money on expensive halal / kosher / gluten free items, unless your local food bank has said that this is something that they need.

Remember that food banks receive lots of donations from Harvest Festivals, and at Christmas time. However, it’s during the summer holidays, when parents have to feed children who would otherwise eat at school, when their needs can be forgotten. If you are able to make a regular donation – be it monthly, quarterly, or just annually – then please think about the time of year and find out when your food bank’s stocks run low or when there is the greatest need.

Basic / value priced items are perfectly fine. In fact, they are preferable in many cases. It’s simple: a food bank is providing SOMETHING to people who have NOTHING. They are not going to be brand-conscious or judgemental as to what has been offered. If you have a choice between buying two cheap bags of pasta, or one branded bag of pasta, buy the cheaper ones – that way twice as many families will be fed. Even if you choose to donate the most expensive Scottish salmon, a can of cheap tuna may be handed out in preference if that is what will expire soonest. So spend your money wisely and get as much as you can (of a decent basic quality) in order to help as many people as possible. Even just a few pounds will go a long way.

Always needed:

Essential food items which can be eaten cold, or made up with boiling water from a kettle, for example:
• Smash (powdered potato)
• Couscous (plain or flavoured)
• Instant noodles
• Tea and instant coffee
• Rice pudding in cans
• Cereal
• Longlife milk
• Longlife fruit juice

Canned items that can be heated and used to make up a meal:
• Meat and fish, such as canned tuna or frankfurter sausages
• Canned vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweetcorn
• Pies (e.g. Fray Bentos or Princes’ Steak and Kidney)
• Canned desserts, such as sponge puddings

Cooking oil is always in demand.

Usually wanted:

The following basics are very useful. I’ve only put them in the “usually” list because many food banks are inundated with certain items (such as sacks of rice, or cans of beans) and may prefer to receive an alternative. So if you’re not able to check, these items will almost certainly be appropriate and welcomed, so please donate them; but if you are able to find out what’s in demand, that would be even better. I know our own food bank have enough cans of baked beans for several years!
• Rice (these usually can’t be split into individual portions, so buy several smaller bags rather than a large sack, even if it seems less cost efficient)
• Pasta (any type that can be cooked in hot water)
• Canned pulses such as lentils or beans
• Canned tomatoes

Toiletries are usually given out by food banks. I’m told that men’s needs are often forgotten. Also, I was told that nappies are the one thing that are always needed and will definitely be used. So I would suggest:
• Shampoo / 2 in 1
• Shower gel
• Disposable razors
• Nappies (disposable, unisex)

Flavourings help to bring plain meals to life, and are inexpensive. They are important if your food bank provides long term support for people who will no longer have these in their cupboard:
• Mustard
• Salt and pepper
• Stock cubes
• Herbs and spices
• Tomato puree

Children’s lunchbox items are usually welcomed too, such as:
• Cereal bars
• Dried fruit
• Juice boxes

Check before donating:

Sanitary items are often welcomed, but not always. Some food banks have a supply of toiletries and say “take what you need”; others provide pre-prepared bags and would not feel able to have that conversation with whichever member of the household has come to collect groceries. So always check that your own food bank can use these items. However, if they say yes, I would make sure to include some in every donation. Give pads, not tampons, as a pack of pads can be used by young teenagers as well as mothers, and those of all cultures and beliefs. Don’t be tempted to donate Mooncups or other unconventional items – when you’re at your lowest ebb and having to ask for help at a food bank, you don’t want someone’s hippy ethics forced upon you. It may be well meaning, but this is not the time for it.

Baby formula and foods may also be welcomed, but they are expensive, so before buying, check that your food bank accepts them and currently has a need for them.

Pet food is accepted by some food banks, but not all. My local organisation takes the view that they are there to feed people. (If someone opts to give their tuna to the cat, that’s their choice.) If you have excess pet food to donate, check out local animal rehoming centres instead.

Sweets and treats: Many food banks will take these, and appreciate the importance of a treat to boost morale now and then – who doesn’t love a choccie bikkie? However, some organisations prefer that only healthy food is donated (some even request only wholegrain cereals!) While I think it is good to include something to enjoy as well as essential food items, I recall sending luncheon vouchers as a gift to a homeless friend. I asked her to please spend 50p of the £10 vouchers on something she’d enjoy – a bar of chocolate, for example. I really wanted her to have something to savour for a moment. But she told me that she just didn’t think she could honour that – she needed the money too much, and that 50p could be another bag of pasta. So if you are planning to include treats in your food bank donations I would encourage you to add them as an extra, rather than instead of essential items which could send someone to bed with a full stomach. And make sure that whatever you donate will be welcomed.

Non-food items such as toilet roll and laundry powder might be accepted, but it depends on whether your food bank has the capacity to administer them, and whether they are providing long term assistance rather than short term aid. If you’re not sure, I would leave them off. As a student I used to scrounge loo roll from public toilets and wash my clothes by hand in the sink, so if people have to make do without these items it is better than going hungry. Unless you know they are welcome, spend your money on food.

Fresh food can sometimes be used, particularly items like apples and potatoes which can survive for a couple of weeks. Again, check whether your food bank has the capacity to handle them – you might be better off donating excess from your garden or allotment to a charity which provides hot meals to homeless people (ask local churches to find out where).

Don’t give…

Opened and out-of-date items probably won’t be accepted, but it is worth checking before you chuck them out. If the date was a “best before” rather than a “use by” and is not far over the limit it may still be useful. Opened items can’t be used unless they are individually wrapped.

Baking mixes should be avoided unless they only need water to be added. Giving a cake mix may seem kind, but the recipient may not have the eggs, oil or milk necessary to make up the pack. Don’t donate anything which requires the addition of extra items.

Alcohol – food banks don’t wish to accidentally enable alcoholics. This includes items such as Christmas puddings – make sure that nothing you donate has booze as an ingredient.

If you have no money but would still like to help out…

If you’ve been inspired by this but really don’t have any money spare to donate items, here are two other ways you might help:

Volunteer! Do ask whether you can help in some way, if you’re able to donate your time. It might be collecting from local groups having a food drive, sorting items or making up bags – you don’t necessarily have to engage with service users if you don’t feel comfortable with that (although, why not?)

BOGOF! If you see a “buy one, get one free” offer in the supermarket, why not choose that item instead of your usual brand, and set the free one aside to give to the food bank? As long as it’s a longlife item, it can probably be used.

And if you really have no money – and are having to decide whether to eat, or spend your rations on other items – please use a food bank if you need to. Some require a reference from your GP, benefits office or social services, but others – like near me – will take self-referrals, or those from other community organisations. Don’t be afraid to find out – it’s better than going hungry, and as I’ve proved, it can happen to anyone. There’s no shame in needing help, especially under the current government’s appalling austerity measures. Please, seek assistance if you need it.

On behalf of anyone who needs to use a food bank, thank you. I remember that kind stranger from my student days, and I’m sure the families fed by food banks will be touched by your generosity too.

Have you found your local food bank yet? Why wait? Go and add items for them to your shopping list! Let me know if you think of anything I’ve missed.

Online shopping can be a lifeline for disabled people. If you’re not able to spend an hour pushing a trolley round the supermarket every week, you may depend upon companies to deliver your groceries. But who does best at catering for disabled customers? And what happens when it goes wrong?

I have mobility difficulties, and fatigue, from my condition. I don’t have the stamina to do a weekly shop in store, let alone push a full trolley or carry more than the lightest items from my car to the kitchen. But arranging for a grocery delivery isn’t simple either – I need to pace my rest and activity cycle around it, as well as my medicine schedule, to ensure I’m awake and as alert as possible in order to handle the delivery. I’ll clear the table, then rest; accept the delivery, then rest; put chilled items away, then rest; put store-cupboard items away, then rest – you get the idea. My entire day is dictated by the delivery. I’m not sure that non-disabled people realise quite how much other people need to plan in order to make the best use of the limited energy or capacities that we get, but it isn’t trivial.

I’ve tried every online supermarket that delivers to my street in east London – Asda, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. Each of them had different issues, but there are only two that I would try again, and one that I would tell every disabled person to avoid – I think you’ll be surprised at the outcome.

The disaster: Waitrose
Where do I begin? The complaint letter for this week’s delivery ran to 5 pages, so this will be a brief summary.

My delivery was due between 2-3pm on Thursday. When it didn’t show up, I phoned to find there were delays of up to 2 hours across London, due to heavy tube-strike traffic. Ok, these things happen – but I had clearly stated on the order that I am disabled and plan my schedule around the delivery. A call would have been nice – and what I would expect from a brand like Waitrose. By 5.30pm there was still no delivery so I rang back, and was told it might come that night (I gave them a deadline of 9pm), or else it might come the next day at 6pm, in which case they’d ring me after 2pm to let me know. Nothing came that night, so at 9pm I ate the only meal I had in the freezer, a chilli. Unfortunately I had oral thrush so it was agony to eat anything at all, let alone spicy food, and I went to bed having eaten maybe half a small meal that day.

On Friday, I was up by 2pm, but heard nothing. At nearly 7pm I chased to find out where my delivery was, and I was told it would come before 9pm. It finally arrived at 9.16pm – more than 30 hours late – by which time I was exhausted, wanted to be in bed, and again hadn’t eaten all day. Then I discovered that an unacceptable substitution for my drinks had been made, and in addition items totalling over £19 were billed but missing. This meant that I would have to get an in-store shop done in any case, since most of my planned meals couldn’t be completed.

At every stage I had to chase Waitrose for information. I always stated that yes, I understand that these things happen, but I need to be kept in the loop so I can schedule my rest. I also told them that I needed food to take my medication, and milk for my meal-replacement breakfast shakes. I explained how critical it was to know what was happening – even if it was just to say “we haven’t forgotten you”. Everyone I spoke to sounded kind, sympathetic, said they completely understood my needs, assured me they were on the case… then didn’t call back as promised, and the delivery didn’t come when they’d said to expect it. They kept me hanging on for two days – and that destroyed me, physically, from exhaustion and pain. I spent most of the weekend in bed recovering.

Although Waitrose volunteered a £20 goodwill voucher, I’m not sure I’d trust them again so it might never get spent. Good communications are crucial when things go wrong, and this was an experience that I never wish to repeat.

Access fail 1: Ocado

I used Ocado for several weeks. Every single week they would phone to see if I could accept the delivery up to an hour early, or sometimes just ring the doorbell to find out. Every single time I told them that I carefully scheduled my wake-up, and my pain medication, so that I would be ready to get out of bed just before the delivery slot, and they must NOT come early and must NOT phone before the delivery slot, that compromising my sleep made me ill. Every single time I was promised this had been noted on my account. Every single time it happened again, and even if I made them wait outside until the booked time, I was now awake and in pain.

They even once pressganged a cleaner of mine into taking a delivery – she told them she couldn’t but they insisted, and she didn’t speak enough English to make it clear that she wasn’t allowed. After all, it’s me paying for it! Of course, that was the week when there were inappropriate substitutions – which my cleaner didn’t know about and couldn’t reject. Eventually I gave up, having given Ocado every chance to stop turning up early.

Access fail 2: Tesco

I thought I’d give Tesco a try. They had an advertising slogan: “We deliver to your door – your fridge door”. That sounded great! What happened when they turned up? The driver told me that they weren’t allowed to enter people’s houses – something about an alleged theft and not being covered by insurance. I quoted the advert and made it clear that if I could carry groceries into the house, I wouldn’t need to order them online. The driver grudgingly brought the shopping into my kitchen, but I didn’t feel I could trust him to do so again.

On a second occasion their driver tried to force my PA to accept the delivery rather than spend 2 minutes fetching me to come downstairs, saying that they don’t care who signs, it just has to be an adult over 18 – this was the nail in the coffin for Tesco.

Slight access fail: Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s delivered to me just before Christmas. They arrived on time and only had a few substitutions. However, as I was checking the items and handing carrier bags back to the driver, he asked “So, what’s wrong with you then?” Wow.

I considered how to respond – I didn’t want to disclose honestly, nor did I think it was the place to give him one of my more cutting responses, so I just said “er – how is that any of your business?” He was flustered, so I went on to educate him that it is just not appropriate to ask that kind of thing, and that medical matters are private. To be fair, the poor guy apologised profusely. I would consider ordering from them again, as long as they’ve trained their staff in which topics make appropriate conversation (if in doubt, the weather is always a safe bet) and what is completely unacceptable, especially when you are in someone’s home and they may feel vulnerable.

The winner: Asda

Yes – Asda! To be honest, I only tried them because I was fed up with my experiences of other retailers. I would never consider doing my weekly shop in their physical store – it’s always busy, the customers seem to be preoccupied and rude (I’ve been shoved into by several unsupervised children), they don’t stock all the products I want (such as artichoke hearts in oil and a decent sparkling wine) and their staff rarely offer help with packing – assistance to the car is out of the question.

However, when it came to an online delivery I was able to pick items that were suitable, and the website even ordered them by price which helped me select the range I needed for each product. Admittedly their delivery slots are 2 hours long which made it a little harder for me to plan my day, but you know what you’re getting. The drivers are friendly, they delivered to my dining table without quibble, the few substitutions made were sensible, and the whole experience was as positive as it could be. Sure, I needed to sneak out for a few top-up items elsewhere, but that’s the same with most deliveries, due to substitutions or just running out of things a few days earlier than I’d expected.

Even if you – like me – are the sort of person who prefers M&S and Waitrose for their high quality products, when it comes to online shopping, give Asda a go. As a physically disabled person, I found I could rely on them and they hit the mark. And don’t be sucked in by offers of money off or free champagne – give Waitrose the widest berth possible.

Let me know your experiences of online shopping in the comments below.

This year I’ve resolved to see lots of live music, so on a whim I booked myself into the annual fan party of my favourite BBC 6Music DJ, Tom Robinson. He would be performing his 1978 Power In The Darkness album in its entirety.

I’d forgive you for not being familiar with the music. Tom has had three hits: 2-4-6-8 Motorway (which I fondly remember my dad singing to me, along with Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick), War Baby, and Glad to Be Gay. All of them good, but none of them within the last 30 years. It is the latter song which really chimed with me when it was sung live.

I played the album in the car en route to the gig, as a reminder for me and a quick education for my husband. It led to an interesting discussion about when cultural references will date music – inspired by the song Grey Cortina. My view is that the style of music will often date the song more than the reference – look at Fat Bottomed Girls / Bicycle Race for example – but in any event, this chat kept us occupied until we arrived at the venue.

The audience seemed to be full of old punks – men in their 60s with short bleached hair, wearing denims and union flag clothing – in fact I would have assumed they were politically far-right and felt threatened by their presence, sitting on show at the front in a wheelchair, were it not for the reason that we were all there to come together over this protest album. That taught me a lesson in not judging on appearance. Watching these men dance, badly but unselfconsciously, made me realise the importance of being confident in who you are and not worrying about other people’s perception.

In fact, that was the key message I took home. Glad To Be Gay is something of an anthem, the gist of which is a sarcastic disbelief that people could be attacked for their sexuality, especially by British police who are the “best in the world”, held together with a sing-along chorus that unites everyone.

As I listened, the words hit home. References to being “beaten unconscious and left in the dark” made me recall a family friend, a soft-spoken, gentle and kind man, who once turned up at our house with his face having been brutally bruised. My parents told me he was walking through the park when nasty people hurt him. I was too young to understand about sexuality, and I was given the simple explanation that there are some bad people out there… but now I think I understand what happened. And I am appalled.

By the time I attended secondary school, I knew I was bisexual. I had an expensive private education where nobody dared to do anything other than demonstrate heterosexuality. Girls were expected to obsess over a favourite from the rugby team. Boys even had wanking competitions in their dormitories. But I knew I was different – exchanging love poetry with one girl, and signing up to try croquet because a friend’s cute sister would be there in a short sports skirt. These were never things you could discuss openly, but of course it happened. Nobody could be honest about who they were, unless they were 100% straight, joining in the macho games of daring “fingerfucks” in the back of the minibus on school trips, chalking off their conquests for everyone to see. Pity the poor girls who were proud to have been abused in this manner, and thought they were somehow cool.

Fast forward through school and university… A few weeks into my first proper job, I made a visit home. Inevitably I was asked whether I was seeing anyone at present? My reply – that I’d just had a wonderful weekend with a really lovely girl – was welcome until I said the word “girl”. Suddenly it was made clear that we would never speak of this again, and such conversations were not welcome. I’m sorry? I happened to sleep with a girl – a gorgeous, fun, sensitive girl, for what it’s worth – and because of her gender the topic is infra dig? Suddenly I felt choked, and not allowed to be “me”. Yet this can only be a small version of what my gay and lesbian friends experienced. It felt that being gay was good enough for my friends (of whom many happen to be LGBT*) but somehow it was not good enough for me. Things may have moved on since Tom penned his anthem, but it seems that some people still feel threatened by the concept.

In some ways, I can see a parallel between sexuality and disability. Not because of everyday discrimination and judgement – although that does happen – but because “normal” people often make the assumption that we (disabled people) will surround ourselves with people who have a difference which attracts attention and then decide “I must have what they’ve got”. Or even worse, “I want what they’ve got” – some inadvertent sort of Munchausen’s Syndrome. Even medics often tell us to distance yourself from other people with disabilities so as not to be drawn in to that world, as if it will be unhealthy – but when you feel alienated or are lying awake in the small hours, with pain or conflicted thoughts, the only relief can be friendship from someone who understands exactly how you are feeling. It doesn’t work like the bigots assume – perhaps something will chime with you and make you realise “yes, this is how I am!” but if it’s not what you already carry within yourself, it won’t happen. People who can share experiences, sympathy and solidarity are good for us, not leading us astray! And that applies whether you are disabled, gay, trans* – or in any other social group. It is an insult for people to assume we can be “turned”.

Coming back to the gig: as I described, it was full of all sorts of people, though most appeared to be older men with denim, tattoos or union flag clothing. The kind of people who would intimidate me in any other situation. But I had misjudged them. Here we were, all fans of Tom Robinson’s music, chanting along in solidarity: “Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way, hey! Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way.” Everyone joined in – my husband, children, everyone in sight. There was a shared feeling of understanding, and support – and it felt good. Finally I felt I belonged, and that as a group we could take a step forward.

I am glad to be gay. Are you?

Commodore, Golden Labradoodle puppy, aged 12 weeksYour cute little puppy nips? To some extent, that’s par for the course. But you need to know how to train them out of this habit before they become a big strong dog and it turns into a major issue. Having been through the process with my labradoodle puppy Commodore, who seems to explore and express everything with his mouth, I have suggestions on what to try, and when to step it up.

Up front, a disclaimer: I’m not a dog behaviouralist, and the only qualification I have is experience with dogs in my family from a young age (theirs and mine). None of my suggestions are harmful to your dog, but if you feel the situation is out of control or going too far, do consult your vet or a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. If there is any snarling (showing teeth), aggressive growling or nasty snapping please do not hesitate to seek professional help.

I always recommend taking your dog to puppy socialisation and training classes as soon as their vaccinations are complete, too – a less formal situation where you and the dog can learn together.

Preliminaries – distinguishing between nipping and mouthing

First off, you should be aware of the difference between mouthing and nipping. It’s natural for puppies to mouth, it means exploring their environment with their tongues, lips and teeth, and in this way you might be gently chewed – along with anything else they find! Particularly until and through the teething period, you can expect this behaviour. (Puppies lose their “milk” teeth from around the age of three months, and should have all their adult teeth by around eight months. Not every owner knows this, and then they worry when their puppy spits out teeth!)

The key thing to note is whether the puppy is pulling their punches. That is, are they biting as hard as they can? If so, I would seek expert help sooner rather than later. But if they are gently mouthing / chewing at some times, but nipping at others, and particularly if when they nip they still don’t bite as hard as they could, then they can be taught where and when each behaviour is inappropriate.

Mouthing, but gently
To ease mouthing, I would recommend that you teach the command “gently”. The way I do this is by offering a treat in my hand, and saying “gently” – if the dog pulls towards it keenly I close my hand to cover the treat, saying “ah-ah!” This is repeated until the dog takes the treat slowly and softly in its lips, when I say “Good dog GENTLY!” and produce another treat from my other hand or a pocket which is given quickly and freely as a reward. Similarly if the dog takes a treat very gently at another time – whether or not you asked it to – I again say “Good boy GENTLY!” with lots of praise. Once the dog has got the concept (and will only take the treat carefully and softly on the gently command) then you can begin to use the word in other contexts. So when my dog is mouthing, if he chews my hand a little roughly I can say “gently…” and if they back off, they get praise – if they carry on chewing hard, say “ah-ah!” and carefully but firmly take my hand away, putting it behind my back so they can’t resume chewing. Anyway, that’s something that I recommend establishing from as early an age as possible.

While mouthing should reduce with age, my Commodore is now 8 months old and still does it from time to time – one of his tricks when I have been away from him for a few hours is to sit with me, take my hand in his mouth, and gently hold it to stop me from leaving. Of course I can walk away if I want to, but he likes to quietly make the point that he wants me to be with him for a while. It’s cute, and harmless (as he is very gentle), so we allow it. But nipping would be out of the question.

Nipping – solving the problem

Tip 1: Watch for patterns of behaviour – anticipate the nipping before it starts
Some books say that puppies nip to try and establish their dominance. While you shouldn’t let him get away with this behaviour, I find that sometimes there are other causes. For example, with my puppy Commodore, nipping would happen when he was over tired, and couldn’t express himself. It would be like a toddler who needed a nap! He was frustrated, it seemed to be “I want something but I don’t know what!” In fact, when he stopped playing nicely and started nipping, we knew he needed a break. We would put him in his crate and say “time out” and within seconds he would be asleep… ready to be our lovely little puppy again when he woke up. So, my first tip is to watch for patterns of behaviour. Some dogs go a little bit crazy when they are working up to having a poo! Keep a diary if you need to, because there is often a reason that you can intercept and work with. Ideally in time you’ll be able to anticipate a nipping bout, and feed him, take him outdoors, or pop him in bed for a nap before he gets wound up – whatever is relevant to the cause.

Tip 2: Say “Ow!” – teach him that he is too rough
You need to let your puppy know when he is hurting you. In the litter he will have used his mouth to play with his siblings, and his mum will have used a nip to put him in his place if necessary. He doesn’t know that your skin is more breakable than his furry playmates! Those sharp puppy needle-teeth can easily draw blood, so the first thing to do is make clear when he has pushed his luck too far. When he nips, immediately say “ow!” in a high pitched voice, drop any toys you are playing with, stop moving or interacting, and avoid his eye contact. Ideally, your puppy will give you a confused look of “oh, something is wrong, what happened there?” and will grow to learn that his biting is not acceptable, and playtime ends. You can resume play a few seconds later, when he’s got the message – count to five or ten and then carry on – but say “ow” and stop every single time he nips, even if it was accidental in play. Commodore quickly learnt where the boundary lay, even though he liked to push it when he was little – he has always been a bit rougher with my husband than me, whether he was being good or overstepping the mark. This shows that he can control his behaviour.

Tip 3: Divert him – teach him what he IS allowed to bite
Puppy is excited, playing, and getting a bit nippy? When you see his mouth coming, stuff a toy in it! Don’t let him go so far as biting you, have some big soft toys or a rubber safe-stick ready and if he looks like he wants to get stuck in, put them between you and him. Once he is chewing on the toy, say “good boy with your Kong” or whichever words you choose. He might look a bit surprised at first, but when puppy learns that he gets praise for chewing his toy, and that you will play with him while he does it, he will hopefully find it more satisfying than nipping more generally.

Tip 4: Walk away
One thing that upsets a puppy is being denied attention. So if you’ve tried the first few tips for a couple of weeks but there has been no let up, it’s time to step up a gear. Instead of merely stopping play for a few seconds, completely blank your dog. I would get up, leave the room, and turn to face the wall in the hallway. Of course puppy will follow you out, they want you to engage with them! By facing the wall they are unable to make eye contact, they cannot get your attention, and they are effectively punished for the behaviour. Make this quite a long time out, perhaps start with 30 seconds or a minute. If puppy bites your behind to try and get you to interact while you are ignoring them, you will have to go into another room (such as the bathroom) and close the door. If your dog frets or whines, this means the tactic is working, and being denied your attention is having an impact. Don’t give in!

Do not try to move or manhandle the dog when using this technique – you want to remove interaction instantly when nipped, so it has to be you who leaves, not the other way around.

Tip 5: Don’t give attention for biting – no drama.
It’s quite common that we inadvertently reward bad behaviour, by ignoring puppy when he is being quiet or well behaved, but turning to shout at him or interrupt him when he is naughty or barking. That’s natural to some extent, even though you may try to avoid it. However, it really came home to me when I saw Commodore nipping my husband. He’d shout, or stand up, or some other action which to a dog can seem quite dramatic.

Look, I know it hurts to be nipped by those needle-teeth. It’s hard not to shriek, or to want to push the puppy away or even to just run out of the room. But this attention is feeding the puppy – he is learning “if I bite, I get a reaction!” So resolve to stay as calm as you can – if you get wound up simply leave the puppy (if he is in a safe place – or put him in his crate without speaking), walk away and chill out. My rule is simple: No drama, ever. Stay calm and set the mood. Puppy will be safe while you take a breather.

If you think your puppy is nipping for the drama and excitement that results, or that they are doing it when over stimulated and are unable to settle themselves to come out of that frenzy, then there are exercises that you can work on in order to teach them to learn how to calm down. However, this may need the advice of a dog behaviouralist.

Tip 6: Watch your hands!
Another lesson learnt from observation – watch what your hands are doing. It’s most likely them which your puppy is nipping, or at least drawn to. If he goes to bite you, carefully but firmly remove your hands from him – behind your back, or sit on them. Many people pull their hands away and try to lift them out of the dog’s reach. To the puppy, you are teasing it by moving the target – what a fun game! So don’t wave, don’t flap, just remove your hands from the situation as best you can, until the dog is calm again. Also, if the dog is wound up (whether nipping in play or frustration) do not touch them. Sometimes Commodore will start to settle down, but going to stroke him just brings hands back into play again, and being touched when he is excited can be too stimulating. By all means speak calmly to the dog, but avoid direct eye contact and only touch it once you are sure it has relaxed and the moment has completely passed.

Of course, sometimes you need to use your hands, for example if you need to put your puppy in his crate to chill out, or to remove him from the room. In that case, if he is going through a phase of nipping, I suggest you regularly clip a house line to his collar (letting it trail around behind him, although make sure to check on him so he doesn’t get caught on anything). That way when you need to move him, you can pick up the line to lead him away, without having to put your hands on his body or near his mouth. Again, look out for behaviour patterns – Commodore used to be good in the morning, but by afternoon I’d be glad of the house line, so it would be clipped on at lunchtime as a matter of course. In fact, he seemed to know it went on because he was naughty. Once, he brought me the house line just before he started misbehaving – perhaps he knew he couldn’t help himself on that day!

Tip 7: Teach other means of expression
For some puppies nipping can be as a result of frustration – no other way to express how they feel or what they want. So, teach them other methods. Train your dog to give a paw on command – later on, you can tell them “use your paw” when they are playing with a puzzle, or in other situations. It stops them from instinctively using their mouths to try and manipulate everything in their environment. (If you are worried that they will then paw incessantly for attention, teach and reward “paw off” as well.)

Another command which is useful to teach is “show me” (for example “what do you want? Show me”). My last dog would bark, and then I’d encourage him to show me what he was after. It could be more food, being let outside, or an out of reach toy. You don’t have to give them what they are after, but do reward for the successful “show” so it isn’t futile for them – make sure they get what they are after when it is safe and reasonable to do so. I taught “show me” by osmosis – my dog would naturally lead me to what it wanted, and then cottoned on to what I was asking in order to do it with purpose on command.

You can also train your dog to “bring me a toy” so if they look a bit bored and like they might be tempted to nip this is a way to engage them and interact before they get to that stage. Bringing you a toy for a tug or chew game is much better than being tugged or chewed on yourself!

Tip 8: Teach “stop biting”
Since Commodore was around six months old, I told him “stop biting”. I have to spit the words out separately in order to get his attention, if he is particularly excited. He now understands, and at the age of eight months I have now progressed this to “sit. Listen” (waiting until I have his attention) “Stop – Biting. IF you keep BITING you will go OUTSIDE in the HALL.” It only took a few iterations of this – with nipping being punished by being put in the hall, told “Bad dog, NO BITING”, and left alone for a short time – before he got the idea. Generally now he will back down when told “stop biting”, and if he is so stimulated that he can’t calm down, a short time out in the hall is good for both of us in any case.

Tip 9: Be persistent and consistent
I would suggest you try each stage for at least a week at a time, and ensure every member of your household is consistent. Take it in turns to step back and watch each other to see what happens in a biting situation – I found this an enlightening way to learn, and understand what my dog was seeing.

If you still aren’t making any headway, or are unhappy about your dog’s nipping, please see a professional. There is absolutely no shame in needing help – I’ve consulted a trainer about various different issues in the past and I’m sure I will again in the future.

However, as your puppy learns what is acceptable, and grows older and more sensible, hopefully nipping will become a thing of the past.

Let me know you get on, or if you have any other tips to share, in the comments below.

Commodore, aged 12 weeks, asleep.


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