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IMAGINE having a sunny playground on your doorstep, open 24 hours a day and big enough for hundreds, sometimes thousands, to join in and play to their hearts’ content.

It is a place where you can walk, run, cycle, meet and chat with friends, sit and admire the views or weave your dreams, take a book and bury yourself in another world, and generally just feel jolly good about life. You can even have a drink, although I’m afraid the fountains only dispense water.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it, but surely no place like this exists? Not with sunshine, certainly, and not without a park-keeper imposing limits on what you can get up to or wielding a padlock at dusk.

Let me tell you: it certainly does exist. I have seen it and I have even played upon it. Note that I say ‘on it’ and not ‘in it’, for I’m talking about a playground without compare. It sits atop the ancient walls of the Italian city of Lucca, in Tuscany, and it wraps itself like a halo around the historic centre for a very sporting 4.5 kilometres.

Round and round go the cyclists, round and round clatter the skateboarders, round and round puff the runners, round and round stomp the walkers.

Some of the recreational users are mere innocents who have consulted a guide book and declared: “Hey, Elmer, the walls are down the end of this street. Let’s go see what they look like.”

You can’t honestly look at Lucca’s beautiful walls and not succumb to the urge to climb on top and join in the action.

Once up there, you start moving, swept along by the fervour of the populace to move, move, move.

And therein lies the playground’s only problem. This is Italy, remember, and we all know how they behave on the roads. They drive with a raging desire to wipe out the human race in revenge for the lobotomy operation they’ve just undergone.

Translate these troubling traits from Italy’s roads to the thoroughfare that is Lucca’s recreational high spot, and you get the same complete and utter chaos.

Geoff and I know this because we walked the walls several times during our stay in Lucca last week. Not content with walking virtually non-stop each day as we quartered the ancient city and many of its neighbouring towns and villages, we hit the walls, too, for a 4.5km top-up in the evening.

The absolute mayhem up there! Not one user, apart from us in our anxious, order-loving, repressed Brit way, gives a fig about anyone else on the walls. They are doing their own thing, at speeds varying from dozy dawdle to 100-metre gold medal winning sprint, and nothing along their route presents any kind of obstacle. It’s a case of heads down and go for it.

Geoff and I shimmy and duck, sidestepping to avoid body contact and catastrophic crashes, but we’re quite clearly the only ones taking any avoiding measures at all.

Everyone else, especially the runners obsessively checking PBs, heart rate and run rate on watches that look as though they’d monitor a space flight, simply whooshes along in a protective bubble.

How no-one knocks into anyone, or gets crushed and flattened, I will never know. It’s hell out there and anyone’s game to win in this lunatic version of Chicken.

Happily, we’ve returned home with not a scratch between us but a burning desire for our very own playground. I’m eyeing the garden wall, but Geoff isn’t convinced it quite measures up.

 

This week finds me in the midst of a recovery period while I cope with the aftermath of what was, for me, a traumatic experience.

It started with a phone call out of the blue from someone wanting me to write 2,000 words for a magazine feature, needed in 48 hours’ time. Could I do it? Yes, of course I could, but what’s that she’s saying? Photographs? Of me? Oh please, I whimpered, you can’t mean it.

It seems she did. An email arrived with the detail spelled out. I fainted about eight times and then shared it with Geoff, confident he’d wipe it all away and make it better. You said you would, he said, so you must. No help at all then.

OK, but hang on, I wrote back, can we just get it straight about this photo shoot – I’ve absolutely nothing to wear that doesn’t appear on your list of unacceptable clothing. No worries, came the reply, we’ll supply clothes, shoes, and a hair and make-up stylist. This was beginning to sound a lot worse than any nightmare I’ve ever had, even the ones where big black dogs jump up at me.

I got bossy next: please, I wrote, nothing with short sleeves or that even hints at the existence of knees, and preferably light, bright colours.

That was a waste of time. The clothes, when Erin, the stylist, pulled them out of her bag in the kitchen of Hill Towers, were the sort of synthetic nasties I would never tolerate within 100 miles of me. Dreary, dowdy, in unpleasant colours and sparking and crackling as Erin held them up, they also had short sleeves and were worryingly close to knee-length.

Then I saw the shoes: four-inch stilettos in turquoise patent with toes sharp enough to impale a charging rhinoceros.

My misery continued while Erin applied half-a-ton of make up to my face and turned me into an alien with heavy lipstick and eye make-up and 10 shiny nails painted purple.

Could it get any worse? Of course it could. Next, Erin and I pushed and squeezed my feet into the shoes and she held me while I shuffled like a toddler in mummy’s heels into the sitting-room.

Here, the photographer, an unfeasibly tall Sean Connery look-alike, had set up his own version of a torture chamber. A huge white cloth hung across the French doors and a large umbrella of light illuminated me in all my hideous, uncomfortable glory.

The shoot lasted one long, painful hour. In between the full-length shots Erin propped me up because, try as I might, I couldn’t support myself in the ridiculous shoes.

Everything hurt, including my smile, but finally, after 500 shots, it was a wrap (or some such technical expression) and my agony was over.

Phil and Erin said cheerful goodbyes and headed off, leaving me with someone else’s face and a pair of feet in serious need of reshaping.

I decided the sofa was the best place for me to start my recovery. I wanted to curl up and see how long it would take for the blood to start flowing in my feet again.

Just before I sat down I leant over to push off my shoes (no, not the stilettos). My nervous, shaky hand got stuck, I lost my balance, pitched forward and smashed down on to the arm of the sofa.

And that is why I now have a cracked rib as a memento of my first and last photo-shoot.

 

OUR small garden could hardly be considered a barometer for the rest of the land, but it’s certainly been a productive season here at Hill Towers.

Reports confirm that the whole country has seen, to coin that well-worn phrase, a bumper harvest this year. Blackberries are leaping out from hedgerows by the basketful – and have been since July – while pantry shelves and freezers are groaning with preserved produce.

The unusually good harvest means that Geoff and I have been gathering a steady flow of delights from our rambling acres.

No, of course we don’t have acres here, nor anything much that rambles, apart from me. Our patch of heaven is on the small side of compact, but it is amazing what can be squashed into gaps and made to perform between the show-off flowers.

We haven’t been away this summer so have been able to fuss and pet and encourage our variety of crops. No desiccated disasters at all, in spite of the hot weather, thanks to daily watering and checking.

Nothing, not even the containers, fell victim to drought. Take a bow, Geoff, gatherer of waste water and dispenser of gallons of it in just the right places.

I’ve been in charge of planting and picking and dealing with the results. My role will continue through the cold months as there is always plenty to be done. Geoff, the Gunga Din of our plot, is being stood down.

Two of the triumphs are the endless supply of basil, without which no tomato dish is complete, and cavolo nero, the delicious leafy vegetable that some dismiss as mere kale but which I embrace as an altogether more wonderful and tasty addition to many a meal.

When the cavolo nero was mature and we’d enjoyed a few pickings, I found to my dismay that an army of athletic caterpillars had swarmed up every stalk and taken up residence underneath each deep, dark leaf.

Squatters! How dare they? I was annoyed they could be so presumptuous, eating their own bodyweight of my plants about every half-minute, or so it appeared.

However, after a few weeks of glaring and muttering at the caterpillars, I find the cavolo nero is all mine again. There is so much new growth that hasn’t been chomped into a lacy pattern that I can see we’ll be harvesting and eating its gorgeousness for months yet.

Earlier in the summer we enjoyed gooseberries, though not many. To be honest, only a dozen, which was pathetic. But it was the first year for one bush and the other, older, bush is a delinquent and destined for the boot.

Runner beans and potatoes have done well, and the variety and abundance of herbs has been astonishing. Sweet peas have been cropping for two months on a sweetly scented production line and show no signs of calling it a day.

The apple tree is its usual disaster zone and, as ever, we’re leaving the entire crop for nature to enjoy. Why? Because every single apple is scabbed and riddled with rot and good for nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from the countless birds and insects that have their own uses for them.

We leave the seedheads of flowers, too, for the birds’ winter food supply, and I trust you do the same.

Do this with nuts, blackberries and sloes, too. Pick what you need, but always leave some for our good friends in the natural world who don’t have freezers and pantry shelves to store food for when the going gets tough. Show you care and share, OK?

EVERY so often there is a brief outburst of rage against the house-purchase system that operates in this country. Change it! Get with the real world! Scotland has a much better system – ours should be like that!

And then the debate cools and we stagger on with our creaky, unfair system where it seems that ruthlessness rules and buyers don’t just have to beware but be stress-resistant, too.

Its iniquities have raised their heads in a big way this summer, as both our children (the adult variety – not littles who have emptied their piggy banks) endeavour to sell their houses in London and buy elsewhere – son in Devon, daughter in West Sussex.

Unwittingly, they are part of a migration phenomenon trendily referred to as the BM, or the Big Move out of London.

Any move is a massive upheaval, full of potential for trauma for all involved, and I would know, having lived through more than 20 of the beasts.

Add small children to the mix and it’s real hair tugging-out stuff.

Last Friday my daughter and son-in-law learnt that the woman they are buying from has finally, after three weeks of delaying tactics, for reasons best known to herself, pulled another trick by declaring she is “a bit old-fashioned about this sort of thing” and henceforth will only communicate with her solicitor and estate agent by handwritten letter.

Why? She’s already accepted their offer and the purchase is going ahead – except in reality it isn’t. It is moribund. In fact it is no further forward than it was nearly two months ago. First of all she was on holiday, a very long holiday, then she was almost permanently “in a yoga class” and not contactable, Now she’s playing the card of being a technophobe.

In the meantime, senior grandson Joe, just five, has had his place cancelled at his old school – because the family believed they’d be moved in time for the new term – but has no place confirmed in their hopefully soon-to-be-new town because they have no official address there.

The whole precarious transaction could come to nothing. No one has signed anything, no one has anything to sign. There are surveys and papers being transferred at regular intervals between each side’s solicitors, but still no contract to exchange because of all this heel-dragging. There is nothing to show for the months of anxious waiting.

The story is similar in Devon, where my son and daughter-in-law and toddler Poppy have had to rent while they wait for the key to their new door. Their world is packed in containers in a self-storage facility while the couple they are buying from inconsiderately drag their heels over the issue of moving out. The offer was accepted on 1st June yet, unbelievably, no contracts have been exchanged. Again, the entire fragile plan could end in a heap of broken dreams.

It’s the hour after hour uncertainty, the not knowing when, or even if, the move will take place that is the devil. So much depends on it, for both the households, yet neither my son nor my daughter can do the slightest thing to make the future certain.

It’s odd to think that Italy, the country where laws exist to be ignored, has an inviolable ‘your word is your bond’ system. Renege on an agreement to buy or to sell and you pay for it, big-time.

When I run this country I’ll whip us into line and follow suit. I might just be in time to help the family out of their torment.

 

HUMAN nature being what it is, we tend to look around for something or someone to blame when things don’t go to plan.

We get a low grade in an exam: the teacher wasn’t good enough.

We arrive late for an appointment: the traffic lights were against us.

We pull an inverted Vesuvius out of the oven: the recipe was wrong.

It’s a knee-jerk reaction. There has to be a scapegoat for some of these things that test our resilience.

Here’s an example. Last September – the 5th to be precise – I tripped when out walking and tore the tendons in my ankle. The pain was awful, the enforced immobility like some kind of torture, and the prognosis was anybody’s guess.

I limped and hopped and moaned, occasionally seeking a professional opinion but mostly relying on time being the healer. It was, I’m happy to say, but it was a very long time. Eight months to be precise.

I was told that if I’d broken my ankle it would have taken a fraction of that time to come right again. Trust me to do the wrong thing.

While the tendons slowly reacquainted themselves with each other and learnt again what their function should be, I moped about feeling sorry for myself.

The fitness that I’d enjoyed, the running, the long walks, the striding up hills with ease, disintegrated within the first few weeks, leaving me grumpy and resentful.

So what did I do when, after those eight long months, I finally found the pain had gone and I really could walk again?

I stayed sitting down for another month, blaming my dreadful state of unfitness on my crocked ankle. An ankle as a scapegoat – that must be a first.

Getting fit again just seemed so daunting, and besides, I still felt sorry for myself. My ankle had suffered a near-death experience, after all.

However, I missed being able to spring about the place, annoying Geoff with my habit of being in perpetual motion. Time to get moving. After all, nine months is long enough to grow a baby so it must surely be long enough for an ankle to be reborn.

Self-improvement pushed self-pity out of the way, as my ankle and I hit the trail to fitness again.

Walking and more walking through the summer was enjoyable but it didn’t seem enough, somehow, so after a while I went online to see what I could do at home.

The result of my search has been that early each morning I power-walk four miles in the gym (it’s actually the kitchen, but gym sounds more hard-core). The 50-minute sessions include several periods of high-intensity stuff and by the end I am a jellified wreck.

My online instructor is a pocket-sized American woman with big hair and a dazzling smile of perfect gnashers who exhorts me to “Wok, wok, wok!” and so I do, infected by her enthusiasm.

Geoff braves the scene sometimes to put the kettle on for his breakfast cuppa, inching past me as I thrash about in a pink-faced frenzy.

“I’ve done my wok,” I tell him later, as I sit, glowing like a beacon. “It was wonderful.” He looks askance, unable to believe that something that gives the impression of being such agony could possibly be enjoyable.

I spend the rest of the day with the music pounding through my head and a voice compelling me to “Wok!”

Of course that’s not my fault, nor is it my fault that I now seem to be addicted to this punishing daily routine. It’s obvious that once more my ankle is to blame.

 

I AM not a huge fan of the Great British Bake-Off, back on our telly screens for yet another series. It is entertaining, but the formula which made it enjoyable at first is now beginning to grate, if you’ll forgive the pun.

What has given me pleasure this time around is someone’s description of the programme as ‘catnip for the middle classes’, which is an excellent turn of phrase.

I might not be such a sour-puss about the programme if I didn’t know someone who failed to be selected for the final line-up on two occasions, not because her baking wasn’t sublime in every department but because she was deemed to be a bit bland. Not enough of an oddball character, in other words.

Well, I can give those selectors oddball if that’s what they want because I chose the launch of the new GBBO series to embark on a baking adventure of my own.

My technical challenge was sourdough bread, though fortunately for the nation it was to be produced in the privacy of my own kitchen.

First, I had to make a starter, or what I now know to call a ‘mother’. That took six days. Yes, I kid you not: six days. In the meantime, countries waged war, a couple of dozen ministers resigned, and Geoff and I suffered nausea from an all-pervading stench of fermenting mother.

That smell, filling first the kitchen and then, as the days passed, virtually the whole house, was as if someone had smashed a bottle of vinegar and not cleared it up.

Believe in it, have faith in the mother, I urged Geoff, as I invoked as much mumbo-jumbo as I could think of to ensure everything went according to the recipe.

It’s for you, after all, I reminded him. Poor chap has found he can’t eat ordinary bread made with yeast, so sourdough it has to be, and I thought it was time I stopped buying it and started my own production line.

On the sixth day of living in Vinegar Hell we finally got some action. Mother was ready, so I weighed out a portion, popped the rest of her away in the fridge, and made a big ball of dough, which was left to prove.

The next step, the recipe informed me, involved stretching the dough (and me – it’s very physical). After 10 minutes of this I would notice the ‘windowpane’ effect, where the dough could be stretched so much I’d see through it. Wrong. Try as I could, there was no peering through this thick, doughy curtain.

It obviously needs more stretching, Geoff called out helpfully from the safety of the next room when he heard my cries of despair.

I gave it 40 minutes in all, clearly the world record for ineffective dough-stretching, and not a window-pane in sight. I cut it in half, left it to prove for another eternity and finally bunged the two hateful heaps into the oven.

The bottom of the oven contained a large bowl of water to create a steamy atmosphere conducive to baking the perfect sourdough loaves.

Wrong again. A pair of bricks emerged, to be swiftly dumped in the recycling bin for turning into compost or the foundations of a new town, or something.

The rest of my mother is still in the fridge. She’s a goner too, once I can muster the courage to take her lid off.

After this week-long fiasco, half-starved Geoff struck a deal with me: he will buy his own sourdough bread if I promise not to fill the house with the smell of vinegar and the sound of sobbing.

There’s been an interesting focus this week on friendship and why certain people become our friends.

I had an in-depth discussion on the subject with my five-year-old grandson Joe and a few days later, by coincidence, with Geoff when we speculated about whether new neighbours who have just moved in would become friends or merely acquaintances. Time will tell.

Joe is soon to move house, from London to West Sussex, so he has been undergoing a few vital preparations in advance of what is undoubtedly going to be a seismic event in his little life.

His small brother has been advised but has not yet given the matter a great deal of thought or attention, confining his efforts to raiding a pile of things put by for the charity shop. Knowing him, there’ll be something brewing but none of us yet dares hazard a guess as to how awful it will be. We do know it will spell trouble, since that is one of the cherub’s specialist subjects.

The preparations for the family’s new life so far include frequent showings of a DVD called Topsy and Tim Move House, just to make clear what happens, and several valuable visits to their soon-to-be new environment where a feast of entertainment lies 10 minutes in one direction and the beautiful countryside 10 minutes in the other. They won’t know themselves after dusty, hard-on-the-nerves London life.

For Joe, the biggest challenge will come when he starts at a new school. He is a gregarious chap with plenty of friends and a social life that is far busier than his parents’. But will his warm, outgoing nature win him friends once he becomes the new bug in a classroom where the old boys’ network is already established?

It’s a worry for those of us who know how these dynamics work. Joe is confident, though. He tells me he will make new friends but will keep all his old friends “because that’s a good thing about changing schools”. Of course he’s right, it is a good thing, and his lovely, positive, attitude will undoubtedly help him with the newness of everything.

How though, Geoff and I asked ourselves, do people become friends in the first place? Put simply, we felt it depended on the stage of your life, so that something you have in common, such as university, hobbies or having children at the same school, tended to throw you together and then something, possibly chemistry, call it what you will, paired you off or at least put you into the same social group.

Fair enough, but look at some of our friends nowadays, Geoff said. We’ve nothing in common with most of the ones we’ve made in the past 10 years or so.

I huff a bit and start to analyse. Look, I say, just because we aren’t opera buffs like the Smiths, or we don’t share the political views of the Joneses, doesn’t mean we can’t call them our friends. We love their company, they’re nice people, we have the same values – they are our friends, OK?

I can’t imagine why they should want to be friends with us, says Geoff. They must be mad. Well, you’re right there, I agree, but surely it is that thing about chemistry – where something clicks and you just get on.

After all, I venture bravely, you and I clicked the second we met. Just imagine if our chemistry hadn’t worked and we hadn’t become friends we would never have got together as a couple. Pause for wistful sighs, and then we raise our glasses to friendship.

 

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