Have you ever seen a budgerigar’s egg fried?

In the villages of La Taha, there is not a lot going on that people don’t organise for themselves. Sadly, the choir has stopped meeting every Monday whilst Cat takes a break but, fortunately, Clem has started up a writer’s group on the same night. So, during our last stay, I was able to join in with that.  This short story started as a ten minute exercise based on the prompt “THE HOUSE WHERE IT HAPPENED”:

Every other Saturday, my sister and I caught two buses from our council flat in Weoley Castle to go and visit our Nan.  She lived with my Mom’s two younger sisters and older brother, all unmarried, in a Victorian terraced house in Smethwick.  Uncle Sidney would never waste a thing and was famous in the neighbourhood for his accumulation of “things that might come in useful” that cluttered up the back yard.  As the oldest niece, I was the one press-ganged to the task of redeeming the 3d deposits on the heaps of empty pop bottles he rescued from the local gutters.  Uncle Sidney always read the papers (and problem page from Woman’s Own) in batches.  The pile of newspapers and magazines waiting for his attention was kept on a chair under the handle that raised and lowered the contraption for airing the washing.  Once he was finished with a suitable amount of the printed matter, Auntie Dawn and I would be sent up the road to the fish and chip shop to exchange it for 4 pennyworth of chips and some batter bits.

There was hardly room to swing a cat in the only room that was heated.  This was at the back of the house, next to the scullery, which was what they called the kitchen.  In winter, there was always competition for the seat next to the open fire, which Uncle Sidney kept going with chopped up vegetable boxes and slack.  Though a bedroom had been converted to an upstairs bathroom, the lavatory was outside, which must have been where I developed my love for spiders.

As usual, this particular Saturday, all the other uncles had arrived for the match and we squeezed around the big table that took up most of the room, eating bacon and eggs, the regular fare.  My sister, who was a bit of a tom-boy, shared the uncles’ and aunts’ passion for football and, like everyone else in the family, was a Baggies’ fan.  Just as they were all getting ready for the stroll to The Hawthorns, Uncle Sidney arrived back from his allotment with the veg he would take to my Mom when he brought us home that evening in his van.  Deciding whether to eat his lunch or be late for the match was a no-brainer, so his plate of the fattiest bacon, eggs and tinned tomatoes was left next to his two pint-mugs of cocoa, which he always drunk cold.  Fortunately, Auntie Dawn’s bag was always full of sweets and chocolate and Auntie Phoebe always made a flask of milky Camp coffee, so he wouldn’t starve.

Nanny and I were left to clear up.  I loved this quiet time when I could play with Shandy, the dog and take the budgie, Fred, out of his cage.  As Fred engineered himself out towards the door of his cage, he let out an unusually peircing sqwawk.  “Blimey Nanny” I called out, oblivious to the inevitable scolding for the use of such bad language, “Fred’s laid an egg!”.

West Brom had lost but everyone cheered up at the news of Fred’s achievement.  Uncle Sidney enjoyed his bacon and eggs, with a little extra on the side.  It was funny to see the fried budgerigar’s egg.  Henceforth Fred rejoiced in the name of Freda and, over the next two years, it was a regular event to see one or two of her little efforts next to the two normal-sized eggs on Uncle Sidneys’ plate.

Why do people need to beg?

There seems to be a growing number of people begging or selling the Big Issue outside supermarkets in Kings Heath and occasionally I am also stopped and asked for money.  It upsets me to see people resorting to such means of survival and no more so than when I recently encountered a young woman outside Sainsbury’s.  Let’s call her Sarah.  She told me that she was unable to claim benefits because she had no address.  However Jobcentre Plus confirmed that someone without an address is not prevented from claiming benefit.

So was Sarah lying to me or was she turned away by untrained, uninformed staff?  Below is the information provided by Jobcentre Plus.  I would welcome any information about people’s experience with this system.  I have never seen any outreach workers talking to people begging in King’s Heath so feel obliged to pay the “Big Society” surcharge on my shopping by buying extra food to give to people like Sarah – and this is before the latest cuts start to bite.

Sarah should either telephone the Contact Centre on 08000556688 to initiate a new claim to benefit, or if she does not have access to a telephone, visit Kings Heath Library and make a new claim on line. If neither of these options suits her circumstances then she should go to Kings Heath Jobcentre Plus Office and inform the Floor Manager that she is a person without address and request assistance. The Floor Manager will then arrange a vulnerable person’s interview and the customer may make the new claim from Kings Heath Jobcentre.

Someone without an address is not prevented from claiming benefits – however if they wish to claim JSA they may be required to sign on daily to prove that they are still in the area and still available for work. They would need to request being paid by Personal Issue at the Jobcentre if they cannot provide a Bank/Post Office or Credit Union account. If they do not have a correspondence address they can in the short term request their benefit letters be sent to them C/O the Jobcentre or local Post Office.

There are a number of organisations that offer assistance to the Homeless, some of which have outreach workers in Kings Heath, ANAWIM/Salvation Army/Big Issue. A woman begging in Kings Heath would be identified as vulnerable and I would expect an approach by one of these agencies would have been made.  Midland Heart Homeless Services Centre in Bradford Street Digbeth would help with making a new claim, as would SIFA Fireside Allcock Street Digbeth.

There is no indication if Sarah has Recourse to Public Funds and the Right to Abide and Work in the UK. If she is a failed asylum seeker or person whose Leave to Remain has expired she will not be entitled to claim benefit. If the individual is from the Accession 2 or 8 states there may be issues of entitlement governed by Habitual Residency Tests. These may also apply to other migrants from EU States.

However If she is selling the Big Issue the earnings may be too high to qualify for benefit.
If she is not fit for work and needs to claim Employment Support Allowance she will require a valid sick note for the duration of the claim. She still needs to telephone the Contact Centre on the above number to make a claim for this benefit  

My first attempt at Gnocchi Verde

Today I made gnocchi for the first time.  They were delicious and so I am reproducing the recipe here.  It is based on one of Jeremy Lee’s from a cutting from the December 11 1999 edition of The Guardian which I re-discovered inside my copy of Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery next to her Polpettine di Spinaci con Ricotta.  I was looking for a recipe to use up a large quantity of spinach I had bought cheap and some ricotta getting close to its throw away date.  They are served with tomato sauce.  I used some I had in the freezer made from a Rick Stein recipe but any good tomato sauce will do.  The Jeremy Lee version adds 100ml of whipping cream to a tomato sauce based on 600g of tinned tomatoes.

You need to allow quite a long time for cooling the spinach x 2.  Lunch was served rather late!

Gnocchi verdi in tomato sauce

450g fresh spinach; 1 medium onion, finely chopped (I used half a large); 25g butter; large pinch grated nutmeg; 150g ricotta; 115g parmesan, freshly grated (+ a bit extra to serve); 2 fresh egg yolks; 75g plain flour; S&P

Pick through and wash spinach well, drain. Heat up a large pot and add spinach (I did this in 2 batches). Stir well until wilted then remove from pan and spread out to cool (I just put on clean worktop). When cool squeeze out excess liquid by hand and chop finely on chopping board.

Melt butter in warmed pan, add onion and cook until soft and golden.  Stir in spinach and cook for a few minutes, stirring well.  Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Remove from heat and spread out on baking tray to cool.

Once cool, put into a large bowl and stir in the cheeses, egg yolks and flour (I sifted just in case and used knife to stir!).  Check seasoning.

I made half mixture into gnocchi straight away and put plate of them in freezer whilst waiting for water to boil. The recipe recommends keeping in fridge over night and then forming into balls using a teaspoon and floured hands. I put the other half into a plastic container so can test out which is best!

I cooked the gnocchi in three batches in a large pan of boiling water, removing them with a slotted spoon when they rose to the surface (best to switch off heat when you think they are done so they’re not rolling around too much). I had warm plates with a little melted butter ready but drained the gnocchi onto a spare plate to get rid of any water that came with them before transferring them to the warmed serving plates, pouring on the tomato sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan.

Help Save the National Health Service

Please join me in writing to members of the House of Lords who vote today

At Third Reading (Final Stage) of the Health and Social Care Bill before the Bill is returned to the Commons, David Owen (cross bench peer) and Glenys Thornton (Labour) will today make a last ditch attempt to ensure that MPs will fully understand the implications of enacting the Bill.

I have written to the Bishop of Birmingham and Lib Dem Peer, Lord Alex Carlisle to ask them to support David Owen’ amendment (Glenys Thornton’s would only come into play if it were to be lost).  Below are the emails I have sent and the wording of the amendments.  The format of email addresses for other bishops and peers is similar.

To bishop@birmingham.anglican.org 

Dear David,

I am contacting you to ask you to support David Owen’s amendment at today’s Third Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill calling on the NHS Bill to be paused until the Department of Health publishes the NHS Risk Register as it has been asked to do first by the Information Commissioner in November and most recently by the Information Tribunal last week.  The potential risks of such fundamental reform to such an important part of our health infrastructure are too grave not to be given due consideration.

I am very concerned at the fragmentation of services that will result from the provisions in the Bill – see for example http://m.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/mar/18/doctors-warning-nhs?cat=society&type=article and the risk that EU competition law will come into play once the level of private sector provision reaches a critical point.

I should be grateful to receive your thoughts on this matter.


To carlilea@parliament.uk

Dear Alex

You will recall all those reports into homicides committed by people who were not provided with the joined-up mental health services that they needed.  Since then, mental health services have been given a higher priority and have improved tremendously but all this is threatened by the fragmentation of services that will occur if the Health and Social Care Bill is enacted.  As you know, successful management of chronic conditions requires cross-agency co-operation and so would be put at risk by the widespread introduction of competition into health and social care services.  It will be impossible for future governments to reverse such a trend if EU competition law is allowed to come into play – another real risk!

I am therefore contacting you to ask you to support David Owen’s amendment at today’s Third Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill calling on the NHS Bill to be paused until the Department of Health publishes the NHS Risk Register as it has been asked to do first by the Information Commissioner in November and most recently by the Information Tribunal last week.  The potential risks of such fundamental reform to such an important part of our health infrastructure are too grave not to be given due consideration.

I should be grateful to receive your thoughts on this matter.




Health and Social Care Bill Third Reading [Earl Howe18th and 22nd Reports from the Constitution Committee

Lord Owen to move, as an amendment to the motion that the bill be now read a third time, to leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this bill be not read a third time until the House has had an opportunity to consider the detailed reasons for the first-tier tribunal decision that the transition risk register be disclosed and the Government’s response thereto, or until the last practical opportunity which would allow the bill to receive Royal Assent before Prorogation”.

If the bill is read a third time,

Baroness Thornton to move, as an amendment to the motion that the bill do now pass, to leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to allow the bill to pass, because the bill does not command the support of patients who depend on the National Health Service, the professionals who are expected to make it work, or the public; will not deliver the promised objectives of genuinely empowering clinicians in the commissioning process and putting patients at the heart of the system; will increase bureaucracy and fragment commissioning; will allow Foundation Trusts to raise up to half their income from private patients; and, despite amendment, still creates an economic regulator and regime which will lead to the fragmentation and marketisation of the National Health Service and threaten its ethos and purpose”.


Cities fit for Cycling

The Times Cities fit for cycling

Last weekend I spent more time watching the telly than usual!  What grabbed my attention was the World Cycle Track Championships at the new Olympic velodrome.  It was great to see Team GB triumph but it was especially good to see Jess Varnish from Halesowen Cycle Club and Ben Swift, who we watched as a junior, do so well.

As well as being a fantastically exciting sport, cycling is a great way of getting about and has huge potential to reduce traffic congestion in our cities and improve our health.  So, as a keen cyclist, I have joined more than 29,000 people who have so far signed up in support of TheTimes Campaign thetimes.co.uk/cyclesafe to make cycling safe and pleasurable.

Though launched to make “cities fit for cycling”, the implementation of the 8 point manifesto would also help cyclists in towns and rural areas.  I know from experience that facilities for cyclists around the towns and villages of Powys are even less well-developed than in Birmingham and Birmingham is not a patch on London when it comes to encouraging cyclists!

We are coming up to council elections in May and, in Birmingham, many seats are up for grabs so this presents cyclists and budding cyclists with an opportunity to put the political parties on the spot!  So far none of them have done much more than pay lip-service to the need to encourage cyclists.  See, for example, the discussion on birminghamcyclist.com/ which includes a link to the video of my visit in 2009 to Cambridge with the All Party Cycling Group birminghamcyclist.com/video/lynne-jones-mp-selly-oak-in

The message that came home to me from that visit was the importance of political leadership, preferably cross-party. We do not have that in Birmingham.   In Cambridge (and Cambridgeshire) where they do give cycling the priority it deserves, a high proportion of journeys are by bike.  In Birmingham cycling is still not mainstreamed.  Lack of finance is no excuse – just witness the waste of money on the Selly Oak Relief Road, where the provision for cyclists (pushbikes.org.uk/newsletters) is of a type long abandoned in London in favour of the cycling super highway as demonstrated by this photo I took recently on Chelsea Bridge.

Old and new cycle lanes on Chelsea Bridge

Will cycling be given any priority in the Party Manifestos this May?  A good start might be just a pledge to ensure that, every time there is money spent on the transport network, the needs of pedestrians and cyclists will have top priority.  The Times Cycling Manifesto includes an annual grading of cities for the quality of their provision and the appointment of a local cycling commissioner, which might just push our City to take cycling seriously.  I’m still waiting for a reply from Geoff Inskip (Chief Exec at Centro) to my email over three weeks ago asking whether there will be more than 78 cycle parking spaces at New Street Station. Cambridge station has 500 and they’re planning for 1300.  Says it all!

At Prime Minister’s Question’s today, David Cameron backed the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign.  I wonder whether, in tomorrow’s Commons’ debate on cycling, the Minister responding for the Government will commit to the legislation necessary to implement The Times manifesto!



Climate change good?

The Government’s Climate Change Risk Assessment published today reports on benefits of climate change from cheaper shipping costs to new fishing and crop opportunities.  But the prospect of a longer crop-growing season in the Welsh hills does not fill me with joy.  The risks far outweigh the gains.  Which is why I am dismayed at the unthinking opposition to plans for wind farms in our undoubtedly windy area.  Our little wind generator backed up by solar photovoltaics gives us all the electricty we need, so we should ignore the sceptics who doubt the contribution wind energy can make to low carbon generation.

Of course every effort must be made to minimise any environmental impact (particularly of the electricity transmission system – pylons are ugly, whereas wind generators can have a certain beauty – as seen at the gateway to La Alpujarra) but the bottom line is that if NIMBY attitudes prevail we will end up losing many precious landscapes to unchecked climate change.

The Environmental Assessment of the Neuadd-Goch Bank wind farm, which I read whilst I was “working” at the community shop, concludes there will be no significant ecological impact.  The report mentions observations of skylarks which gave me confidence that I was right in thinking I had spotted one last year on Beacon Hill!   It is acknowledged that the wind farm will have a strong influence on the character of the landscape up to 2km – that means us.  But at least we can carry on watching the red kites and brown hares whilst my precious marsh marigolds and mountain pansy are still more at risk from farming practices than wind farms.

McAlpine were surveying for road access this week.  Could be a problem!

Welcome to my new website and blog

My new site is finally online! Keep an eye on this blog and please do get in touch with me…

You can see a link above to my old site. It is still alive for you to read all the articles and entries that were written during my time as MP for Birmingham Selly Oak.