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HI, how are you, we say cheerily to people we meet. It is a courteous question, one of those things that trips off the lips without a second thought. But hang on a minute: we don’t expect an answer, not a proper answer, anyway.

At least, nothing more than an equally cheery ‘Fine, thanks – and you?’ To which I will chirp: ‘Yes, all fine. Have a great Christmas. Bye!’

Why is it, then, that more and more nowadays this simple ‘How are you?’ question, which really is more of a greeting than a bona fide enquiry, elicits an answer that, far from any kind of reassurance that all is well, actually amounts to a list of ailments, a veritable organ recital. I have a nasty feeling that it’s something that comes with that awful thing called Age.

Oh please stop, I want to say, but I button my lip and suppress unkind thoughts. I struggle not to blurt out: ‘Now look here, I was just being polite, that’s all. Standing here in the cold listening to how your body is disintegrating at a rate of knots is really not what I want to hear right now. I’m busy. In fact I’m rushing, can’t you see? Isn’t my body language, polite concern mixed with a desperate desire to take flight, telling you something?’

On and on they go . . . ‘and I’d just got over that and then my knee went’. Went where, I wonder, and I speculate whether it took a bus or just ran. Oh, it went in that way, in a sort of giving-up-the-ghost collapsing way. I see. Oooh, how awful, I wince, sympathy etched across my brow. I have now exhausted my repertoire of facial contortions to indicate how much I feel for, indeed share, this poor woman’s discomfort. Recovery from 10 days of flu, a husband down with a mystery virus, and now an absent knee. What a Christmas that household’s going to have.

I back away, silently whimpering while making over-the-top assurances that things will undoubtedly soon take a turn for the better.

I reach home to find, among that day’s shoal of Christmas cards on the doormat, the annual festive letter from friends in London. Usually, they tell us of the rip-roaring fun and frolics they both have with their drama group and, in Judy’s case, with the choir that is obviously balm to her soul. Not this year. Anno domini has brought them challenges in the health department, which, unbelievably, Judy chooses to share in the greatest detail.

Here’s a list of the ailments she and her relatively new husband, a man we’ve never met, have contended with through 2014: heart disease, high blood pressure, undiagnosed (though not for want of numerous tests) gastro-intestinal pain, cataracts, serious foot problems, ongoing tests for prostate cancer and a disabling dose of osteo-arthritis. At least they have lived to tell the tale: their cat died, they tell us, though we are not given the cause of its demise, so they missed a trick there in the ‘let’s spread gloom’ category.

As Christmas letters go, it is a definite winner. But at least it’s only a letter. Imagine if I’d encountered them in the street and made the mistake of saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ I’d still be there next week, nodding and smiling and wondering when I can politely hit reverse and escape.

 

THERE’S no getting away from the fact it’s party season, as the Hill Towers diary will testify.

We started with two on successive evenings last week, which really got us into the festive mood. Correction: they got me into the festive mood. The only time Geoff gets into any kind of mood around Christmas, apart from a grumpy one, is when he knows the turkey is cooked and he is about to be let off his tight rein and allowed to Eat.

Boy, does he get festive then! Why, he has even been known to compromise his dignity and wear a paper hat, the flighty devil.

Partying is not his activity of choice, although so far he has surprised himself by enjoying his outings. He promises this wasn’t just because he had almost unlimited access to the cocktail sausages and smoked salmon blinis, two treats that he claims make parties tolerable. Yes, while Geoff makes light of the ‘nibbles’ (that’s the first and last time for that word, I promise), I chirrup and trill myself hoarse to anyone brave enough to come within semaphore distance.

That explains why, when we get home, Geoff groans that he doesn’t want to eat for a fortnight and I complain that I have a sore throat from talking too much. We never learn, so off we go the next night for more of the same.

No wonder some of the glossy magazines suggest it’s a good idea to get in training to ensure we’re well prepared for the party season. OK, I suspect they mean exercising and lifting weights, that sort of training, so that a shimmering little designer number in electric blue slips effortlessly over our toned bodies and ensures we’re good to dazzle – and how.

A normal mortal’s pre-party training, in my book, should consist of proficiency in high-speed recognition of cocktail savouries and the ability to recall instantly, on demand, the year’s activities, thus enabling scintillating conversation to come easily. I just know that when people ask “Did you go away this year?” they will thrill to my 30-second quick-fire travelogue, including, of course, our visit to an invisible Loch Lomond in a tempest. That should go down a storm . . .

And if they so much as hint at the trigger word ‘grandchildren’, there’ll be no stopping me. I can be like a speed-of-light Christmas round-robin letter, listing the number of coughs and unidentified viruses the little people have notched up this year, the pedestrian progress the five-year-old is making with his reading and the frequency and incendiary nature of the potty-training tantrums being notched up in two ‘definitely not getting stressed by it’ households. Grandchildren make you so proud, don’t they?

Parties at this time of year are especially lovely. Yes, there can be a lot of standing around engaging in haw-haw small talk, but you can move on, drift about a bit, make a circuit of the room, inspect the pictures on the walls, hand round the eats, even make a start on the washing-up, if the host doesn’t mind. Prissy party etiquette is for wimps.

Basically, it’s a case of going into someone else’s home and, while suppressing envious thoughts about the way they have so artfully decorated it for Christmas, you get to play a small part in helping it all go with a swing. It’s a privilege and I love it.

 

I’M writing this on Cyber Monday, the day when we apparently go loopy on the internet, buying Christmas presents until we pass out with the effort and our credit cards melt away down drains.

Just imagine, some of the people indulging in that charming Christmas custom probably also took part in Black Friday, its ugly big brother’s pre-weekend festival of hysterical consumer excess. They must be exhausted, poor souls.

What fun and how incredibly Christmassy it all sounds. As run-ups to a big event go, it’s not exactly edifying or inspiring. No two days could possibly illustrate more plainly how we’ve so catastrophically lost the plot and allowed the spirit of Christmas to pour away through our grabbing, materialistic hands.

Thank you, America, for those two unfortunate imports – those two days of spending and greed and those unforgettable, unedifying visions we are left with of bargain hunters turned into crazed demons.

There are two reasons I don’t have any desire to participate in either of these events, now firm fixtures on the nation’s pre-Christmas calendars. One is that I do my best to shop locally and make my pound benefit my own community as much as it possibly can, but the main one is that I can’t think of a single thing to buy.

The Hill Towers present list for Christmas 2014 is blank. It is my task (well, you didn’t think it would be Geoff’s, did you?) to fill those 25 white spaces beside 25 names with spot-on thoughtful gift ideas, for recipients ranging in age from two to 92 and in character from country mouse to jet-setting businessman.

Sadly, my thoughts on Christmas have entered their early-Advent stage of shocked disbelief it’s all happening again so soon after the last one, and they refuse to budge from their ’can’t do it, won’t do it’ position. This means we have to wait in hope there will be a significant change in gear to fast forward, or else …

I thought at the weekend that I might have made a breakthrough and could possibly fill in a couple of the blanks on the list. I had two phone calls in the space of a few hours informing me that raffle tickets I’d recently bought – in a charity shop and at a Christmas fair – had yielded me prizes. Wow, I thought immediately, that’s two presents sorted.

No such luck: one prize was a piece of jewellery (I use the word loosely) that no-one would ever thank me for giving them, and the other prize was two packets of chocolate biscuits. “They’re tied together with a lovely piece of ribbon,” my kind informant enthused, in case I might be feeling less than thrilled. She was delighted when I asked if she’d be able to pass them on to her local food bank, although Geoff looked a bit hurt when I told him they wouldn’t be coming home.

“I’ll make you some biscuits for Christmas! You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” This was said in my best ’infectious enthusiasm’ voice.

He didn’t appear exactly brimming with joy at the prospect, but the fact he didn’t beg me not to was all the encouragement I needed to make the first entry on that present list. Now I’m thinking that if I make enough biscuits, say 500 or so, then I could solve the whole 25-strong present crisis in one burnt, misshapen, love-infused and well-intentioned fell swoop.

 

TWO things that happened to me this past week have made me stop and think about the fickle finger of fate, the luck of the draw, and those other factors beyond our control that seem to play a part in life as we live it.

My thoughts also included a brief exploration of the concept of being in the right place at the right time – and its big bad brother, the wrong place at the wrong time.

Here’s what prompted my thoughts.

Event No.1. I was heading home from the west on Saturday, tootling along the bit of the northbound M5 as it sweeps around Exeter. I was observing all the rules of the road like the good girl I am, not least because of the evangelical-style lecture I’d recently been given by my friend Denise who has been on a speed awareness course and is now a driver of the utmost virtue and propriety.

Suddenly, a huge lorry heading south on the opposite carriageway careered into my vision. It was silvery in colour, very high and articulated – those were the only details I registered in that split-second. Then, like a crazy scene in a horror film, the vast beast of a thing lunged and crashed over on to its side, skidding and slewing across the road towards me.

It was OK. I was safe. Time – albeit no more than a second or so – was on my side, and anyway there was a low wall and a couple of motorway barriers between the beast and me. But, but, but, it could so easily have been different. If fate had decreed differently for me that day the timing would have been spot-on and the lorry would have been unimpeded on its slide into my carriageway.

I pondered on the close-ish shave as I drove on and did my best not to dwell on it. Later, I learnt the flipped-over lorry had been a cattle truck, so I really hope it was empty.

Then came Event No. 2.

I took Mum to have her ears syringed by a nurse at her GP surgery. I know, it’s a somewhat different scenario from the M5, but my life is nothing if not varied.

The first nurse who called us in after we’d been waiting 15 minutes apologised and said she didn’t know why the surgery had made the appointment with her because she isn’t trained to carrying out ear syringing. If we didn’t mind waiting another 10 minutes (it turned out to be 40, naturally) she’d do a swap of patients with another nurse who was qualified. Fine. Mum and I went back to sit down and watch the world limp and waddle by.

The second nurse was very efficient and had the job done in no time, using a small high-pressure hose, though I’m sure it’s more sophisticated than the sort of thing that cleans driveways and patios.

I stepped forward to help Mum out of the chair at the very moment the nurse leaned across behind her. The nurse unwittingly stepped on the foot control for the syringe and that was when fate, showing what a sense of humour it can have, saw to it that I received a high-pressure blast of water straight into my face.

As I mopped up and assured the embarrassed nurse it didn’t matter a bit, I considered the fickleness of fate: I avoid death by somersaulting lorry, but I get the full-on soggy facial from the ear syringe.

It’s a turn of the cards I happily settle for. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

I HAVE enjoyed studying a picture that reached me via social media this week of a man who has been photographed every year for the past 40 years. At first glance it looks almost like a ‘spot the difference’ collage.

Indeed, each of the 40 portraits is identical in its pose but the man’s facial features gradually acquire that unstoppable double whammy of downward and outward stretch that comes with maturity. Put it like this, the springy elasticity of youth becomes less and less apparent.

This chap, a teacher of history, I believe, in the Midlands, started the portraiture habit when he was a fresh-faced newcomer to the classroom, presumably in his early 20s. Now, aged 60-odd, he is grey of hair and droopy of eye and neck, but still recognisable if you look carefully.

However, the remarkable thing about these portraits is that in every single one he is wearing the same outfit: an open-necked shirt and a brown sleeveless V-neck. It’s a classic school-teachery look: neat, tidy, not making a statement (other than ‘do call me Mr Dullsville’) and unchallenging.

He was clean-shaven in Year 1, but by Year 2 was sporting a moustache. It hints at trendy droopiness for two or three years, and even takes on a worrying Hitleresque brevity at one point, but in general it’s just a neat and tidy top-lip overcoat.

In the most recent photo it is hard to make out but I think the moustache has gone. My theory? A fussy grandchild complaining that it prickles when they have a hug, so he’s done the dutiful thing and shaved it off. That way he won’t be remembered as the Grandpa none of them wanted to get too close to. It happens.

The glasses, present in all photos, are monumentally large-framed to start with – on a sort of David Vine scale – but they get smaller in line with speccy-trends and, after a predictably dull rimless phase, are now neat rectangles.

The hairstyle also gives a clue that we are not in the presence of a trailblazer. It’s just dark hair, neatly cut, and by about Year 20 it is showing signs of receding.

A side parting, too close to his left ear for comfort, becomes more evident as the locks become less abundant. Currently, there are some grey waves going on, lending a distinguished bank manager-ish, golf club member-ish, air.

He certainly looks a very dependable sort of chap. Brooks no nonsense, I bet, and sees nothing wrong in favouring the same uniform of respectable blandness every year of his working life.

Am I being critical? Absolutely not. I rather admire him for his single-minded pursuit – and triumphant capture – of the essence of bland. School pupils don’t necessarily want or need ‘bags-of-character’ teachers making ‘look-at-me’ statements about themselves.

Our man’s photos present a sharp contrast with the recollections I have of my English teacher, who I swear was the double of Carmen Miranda.

She had a mass of red curls piled on her head, a smudgy slash of red lipstick, tottering stilettos and swishy, full-skirted dresses whose low-cut fronts gave her easy access to her handkerchief, which she would pull out with a flourish. We admired her, of course, for her pizzazz. She was exciting and different, but we didn’t take her nearly as seriously or learn half as much from her as her successor, who was, now I think about it, a (vaguely) female version of our man of the 40 faces.

There’s a lesson there, I’d say.

THE country has become sharply divided in recent weeks into two distinct camps: the Haves and the Have Nots.

Have you seen the poppies at the Tower of London – or have you not? Of course I am a Have Not – the story of my life, I suppose. Of course my big sister is a Have – and she hasn’t stopped banging on about how amazing, wonderful, sensational, epic, life-affirming, intensely moving the whole thing was. Yes, it was that good and it left that much of an impression on her.

I’d love to have gone and to have had the memory of my visit to illuminate my thoughts each time the word remembrance was mentioned in the future. On the other hand, there was always the possibility that, had I gone, I might have been so moved I’d have turned into a pool of tears. Perhaps it is just as well I had to make do with reading everything I could lay my hands on about the installation that has so stirred the nation.

I love the fact so many, from professional artists and craftspeople to students and retired people, were involved in making and planting those 888,246 ceramic poppies to create the breathtaking blood-red river representing all the military personnel lost from Britain and the Commonwealth in the First World War.

Not all the nation lauded the spectacle. An arts writer from the Guardian disliked it, saying it was a ‘nationalistic memorial’ that ignored the victims from France, Germany and Russia. He decried it as ‘prettified, toothless’ with ‘a fake nobility to it’, and claimed that the huge, slowly shifting crowds of visitors had become a kind of public spectacle themselves. His idea for a memorial was to fill the moat with barbed wire and bones. Well, I for one wouldn’t have been sufficiently moved by that spectacle to go all the way to London and join a queue.

Geoff heard the man expounding his views on the radio while I was out and was still fuming when I returned home some hours later.

We both calmed down well before Sunday dawned when we attended the local service of remembrance. I don’t know how many of these I have been to over the years, from early days of being planted by my parents, a little bewildered and worryingly close to a lot of knees, not completely understanding what the solemnity was all about.

This year, probably not an awful lot taller and still troubled by neighbouring knees and an inability to stretch enough see the focal point, I could not have been more aware of the significance of why we had all gathered.

The loss of my Great-Uncle Albert in Belgium in 1916 filled my mind. I thought of his bereft family and how they never came to terms with their loss. I fumbled for a tissue and coped, just, with the fearful poignancy of the Exhortation, the Last Post filling the autumn air, and the aching two-minute silence.

You could have heard a pin drop, even a teardrop fall. All of us, from wriggling babes in arms to wheelchair-bound nonagenarian veterans of the Second World War, played our part in this simple, beautiful demonstration of respect. Yes, we will remember them – in whatever way we wish.

 

WE went to a museum of childhood last week: a beautifully displayed collection covering the past 100 years.

To my disappointment, we weren’t allowed to slide down the banisters between the four floors of exhibits, which meant it lacked that anarchic edge so beloved of children of yore.

The whole building, free to enter, was staffed by a team of enthusiasts who were clearly there for the pleasure of helping the curious – by which I mean seekers of knowledge, and not the decidedly odd. (I dare not think into which category I fall, but I suspect it could be both.).

Within a minute of entering, Geoff and I were hurtling off down our respective memory lanes.

In my own sunny lane, bounded by Cornish banks covered in pennywort, mind-your-own-business and foxgloves, I relived the childhood delights of games, toys, dolls, dressing-up clothes and sports items that had featured in the life of mini-me.

Geoff’s lane was somewhat less picturesque as he’d done two-thirds of his growing-up in London, where mind-your-own business was more a passer-by’s curse than a pretty plant clinging mat-like to a wall.

I spent ages looking at the detail of a model farm display. Its plastic hissing goose was identical to the one in mine, called Gilmore’s Farm for some reason. Dad had made the sign for mine and I was so proud of it. I kept an orderly farmyard while other Britains’ animals contentedly grazed the velour fields around, but it was in the stables that serious overcrowding caused me such problems. Pocket-money plastic horses and ponies, each one named and with its breeding history painstakingly entered on a card index, jostled for space. Many’s the time an unsteady one, usually Brown Boy, a dark bay permanently grazing an invisible tuft of grass, would start a domino effect of tumbling bodies, legs in the air and altogether most undignified. It would take me all morning to get them standing up again and looking in the right direction.

Geoff didn’t have a farm, he was quick to tell me. He certainly didn’t have horses in stables made from boxes that had held photographic paper either, and nor did he have roller skates, a Red Indian headdress, a tomahawk, a pack of Woodland Snap cards, a tennis racquet, a Matchbox horsebox with a ramp, a board game called Touring England, a hula hoop or, I’m pleased to be able to tell you, a Girl Guide uniform. That last one was a relief to discover.

What did you have, then, I asked the cool kid who claims he was brought up with nothing but a tea chest to keep his pet garden snails in and a chess set. Boy, you do sound boring, I said, not altogether kindly. And you sound spoilt, he retaliated.

I played what I hoped might be my trump card: we had no telly, remember, not for the whole of my childhood; never even saw one until I was 21 and had long left home. No-one entertained me, so I made my own fun and absorbed myself in other worlds.

We called it a no-score draw and carried on drifting around, spotting one familiar thing after another and being predictably superior about how much more pleasurable and purposeful life was in the days before technology welded children to their seats and lockjawed their faces into an inert screen-stare.

We played outside from dawn to dusk, said Geoff. We were never bored and we were all stick-thin. Yeah, yeah, same with me, and if we’re not careful there’ll be an orchestra of violins starting up. Come on! Last one out of here’s a sissy!

 

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