When I was a Girl Guide I took seriously the requirement always to be ‘Be Prepared’. The injunction could even have been inscribed on my heart, so dutifully did I follow the rules.

It meant I always had a fully functioning penknife about me (actually, I had two because I could never choose between them) and a notebook and pencil for writing down Important Facts. There was string, too, strong enough to hold together my hand-made emergency tripod to hold the washing bowl – on the assumption I would one day be banished from the family bathroom – and emergency rations in the form of bread and cheese, influenced by the Famous Five and their diet of hunks of bread and chunks of cheese (or was it the other way round?).

With all that stuffed into pockets and hung about my person, it wasn’t too easy to move, which might explain why I didn’t venture too far from the house unless it was actually Girl Guide night and I was safely in the company of Our Great Leader.

I soon learnt that it’s one thing to be prepared, or at least to look as though I was prepared, but quite another to actually be prepared to spring into action.

Even so, being prepared for most eventualities has remained an instinct with me. Not for nothing did I acquire the nickname from my children of ‘Mum with the damp cloth’, since I could always be relied upon to whip out the wherewithal to rub a sticky face, a muddy hand or a bloody knee through years of unpredictable – yet, somehow, totally predictable – incidents. Even now, in my more recent incarnation as a grandma, I can be relied upon to mop and wipe clean with the damp cloth that I have in my bag, just in case.

A damp cloth would not have got me far if I’d been in Hawaii last week. That terrifying incident, when a (mercifully false) emergency alert was broadcast on TV and radio and sent to mobile phones advising of ‘Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill’ required an altogether different kind of preparedness.

Unless your permanent residence was a nuclear bunker, it meant hurtling out of the house – school, office, car, wherever you were at 8am – with your heart banging like a dustbin lid and haring off to a safe place. Taking what with you? Any family members who happened to be to hand, of course, but what else?

Family photo albums? Box of memorabilia including the children’s first curls, snipped off and kept in a fit of sentimentality all those years ago? Pile of books that simply must be read? Christmas card messages that are still awaiting replies?

My daughter said that, assuming her husband and boys were safely stowed in the shelter, she would have to rush back to the house to get her bag, phone, keys and running shoes, all of whose absence would clearly make life in a nuclear winter unbearable.

For my part, I’d be obsessing about the state of the house in case someone nipped round to check on it after we’d gone underground. Geoff would be in the shelter, hunched over a good book, and I’d be furiously cleaning the kitchen sink and plumping up the cushions on the sofa. And then I’d cut us some hunks of bread and chunks of cheese (or is it the other way round?), the meal of choice of all couples who are prepared for a disaster that, fortunately, doesn’t happen.


When Sunday dawned so beautifully sunny I knew beyond doubt that Geoff would want to take the classic car out to fill its old lungs with fresh air. Too long sulking in the garage and she feels neglected and it takes a heart-stopping age to get her engine going.

The ‘will-she, won’t-she start’ syndrome is always the precursor to a drive. Is it even worth closing up the house if we’re going to end up not going out after all? But we do lock up because we have faith, and so far the dear old soul has always started, even if sometimes she is so reluctant as to make one feel positively cruel to be troubling her.

Once fired into life, she purrs along happily. Geoff and I purr too, just because it is hard not to. This is motoring, as opposed to steering in a headlong rush from A to B. I could swear we half expect to see an AA patrol man salute us from his box beside the road.

We decided to call in for coffee in a town about 10 miles away, and when Geoff spotted a convenient parking spot it was obvious our decision had been the right one. It’s always reassuring to have the parking fairy on our side.

Strangely, it was exactly the same spot where Geoff had parked one evening earlier in the week so he was confident that even though the words ‘Loading Bay’ were prominently painted on the section of road, parking was permissible out of business hours because he had, on that occasion, taken care to check the wording on the sign.

This time he didn’t feel the need to check. ‘It’s fine,’ he told me, and why would I not believe him? In any case, who needs to use a loading bay for its intended purpose on a Sunday, in the middle of an almost-deserted town, particularly when a classic car is in need of a pit-stop?

She’s a bit too precious to be driven on to what I call bomb-site car parks, risking her poor vulnerable undersides on potholes and loose gravel, and leaving her in too obscure a place means she could be subject to unwanted attention.

It was a good coffee. Time for a quick walk and then back to Carlotta the car. As we came out of the café the only person visible in either direction was, oh gulp, a traffic warden.

Something (fear? guilt?) made Geoff ask him if it had been all right for us to leave Carlotta in that loading bay in the next street.

“No, it certainly wasn’t, sir,” came the reply. He gently explained that yes, it had been OK that evening during the week, but not on a Sunday. Our hearts sank in a great loud clunk on to the pavement.

“I’m really sorry,” said humble Geoff, “I should have looked at the sign again. Can you tell me how much the fine is?”

The warden, so friendly and so full of smiles that it was quite impossible to feel even the slightest resentment towards him for doing his job, said it would be £35 if we paid within a fortnight.

And then he said something that made us both want to hug him – although this was not a possibility since his whole torso was padded out and bristling with equipment. He smiled again, in his lovely friendly Dorset way, and said: “But my colleague and I did admire your lovely car!”

Now a compliment like that has got to be worth £35.

I know this is the very time, at the start of a new year, when we’re meant to be looking forward and anticipating a fresh start.

The idea is that for the first fortnight, probably no longer than that, we turn ourselves inside out to achieve our impossible pledges to be better in all sorts of ways: fitter, healthier, less grumpy, more organised, tidier, more charitable-minded, more conscious of the environment, less inclined to moan, more quick to praise – in short, all-round jolly good chaps and chapesses.

And after that fortnight? Well, we just become our nice familiar selves again and forget about all that tosh.

I haven’t made any resolutions for 2018 partly because I know from sad experience that it’s  a bit pointless in my case, but mainly because I’ve been far too busy looking back. A long way back, in fact, thanks to the gift of a collection of old newspapers.

Not the sort of newspapers you’d tip straight into the recycling bin but the very sort to keep obsessive me with my nose to the printed page for hours on end. Until about 15 years ago, when many local newspapers became cynical shadows of their old selves as they ceased to care about their readers, I would compulsively read any I could get my hands on, from any country or any part of my own country, whether or not I knew the area they covered.

This was a weird habit first acquired in childhood, when I’d lie on the floor reading both a national and our regional daily from cover to cover each day. We didn’t have telly, so I soaked up current affairs in the only way available to me, and I revelled in it.

With old newspapers back in my hands again – and these were huge, unwieldy broadsheets in which dense columns of content triumphed over any attempt at design – I was transported back to an age when fatstock prices jostled for space with carnival queens who were described as ‘attractive’ and unsmiling couples who were celebrating their golden weddings looked about 140 years old.

The paper that intrigued me the most was the Salisbury and Winchester Journal of May 15 1953 from which you would be forgiven for thinking the city and, indeed, the entire district, had nothing on its collective mind than the forthcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Mad about it, they were, with the most ambitious programmes of street parties, children’s entertainments, hilltop bonfires, mug presentations, pageants, dances, sports events, cathedral and church services, plays, processions, concerts, sing-songs – you name it, the good burghers had it all in hand. The very air was being prepared to turn red, white and blue in patriotic celebration.

Away from those stories, two things in particular caught my eye. One was a small advertisement for a product called Eggo. For 1s 6d (7.5 pence) you could get enough Eggo (‘no fuss, no mess’) to keep ‘15 dozen eggs in new-laid condition for months. Just rub it on and store the eggs in boxes.’

I think Eggo must have been isinglass by another name, and I wonder if anyone, anywhere, still uses it for the purpose of egg preservation.

The other item was a one-paragraph news report of a football match before a large crowd at Mere recreation ground between two teams of women (yes, women, 65 years ago) representing the Hill Brush Company and Walton’s Laundry. Hill Brush won 7-0. A collection in aid of the Old Folks’ Outing Fund raised £6 17s.

They don’t make news like that any more.

I am confident the slightly queasy feeling caused by over-indulgence will soon pass, but until it does, today finds me having to sit slightly further back from my keyboard than usual.

Clothing seems more snug than a week ago; everything, in fact, is just that bit little different, in a not altogether good way.

Letting the guard down over Christmas is to blame, but I will soon see to that and self-imposed rationing will be the dreary order of things through January.

What is bound to sustain me through those days of payback is the recollection of a wonderfully happy Christmas spent with the family, when all caution was cast to the wind and I ate crumpets for breakfast and coffee creams in the middle of the afternoon. In my little world of relentless self-denial that sort of mad, impetuous behaviour is so far off-piste as to cause anyone who knows me to wonder if I’ve lost the plot.

Might have. Might just be pleasing myself. Might even be loving every minute of it – for as long as it lasts, for it is but a temporary blip along my path of food-righteousness.

In mitigation, I plead stress caused by best-laid plans being thrown into disarray. One half of the family, the Sussex-based Hillbillies, went down one after the other with a sickness bug, causing them to delay their arrival in Dorset by two days. It was a close-run thing, as they only reached us in time for lunch on Christmas Day, and even then my daughter and one grandson were hardly able to eat.

The other half of the family, newly recovered from colds, drove up from Devon for the day, arriving mid-morning. The little grand-daughters were suddenly ravenous after being up for hours, thanks to the excitement of Father Christmas actually having called on them. As they hoovered their way through their elevenses, I was given an account of the pre-dawn activity. “Oh grandma,” they breathed, big brown eyes fixed on me, “he came to see us, he really did! He was in our house!”

The big man had kindly delivered stockings and even remembered that one child had requested her stocking to be placed on the end of her bed, and the other had insisted hers should be hung downstairs by the fire. Poor chap. So much to do, so little time.

The will-they, won’t-they circumstances of the Hillbillies’ arrival made planning very difficult, so the buying of food was left until almost the last minute.

Thank heavens they made it, or Geoff and I would still be working our way through a fridge bulging with Christmas victuals. Even so, everyone was sent home with bags of plenty, because, as ever, I’d totally overdone it, both in the buying and the baking.

As far as presents were concerned, we kept to a ‘no plastics’ rule and so books, games, clothing, interesting food and home-made vouchers for treats tended to predominate. My daughter moved us deeply by giving us a card explaining that one of her gifts to us was in the form of a tent, warm socks, blanket and hot food for a refugee in need.

For all of us, though, our best present was being together, especially when, for a long time, it had seemed so unlikely. Let us hope, as we head into the New Year, we can look forward to health and happiness for us all – and of course for you, too.

Every single year, as Christmas approaches like an out-of-control express train, I am gripped by panic at the thought of The Cards.

Obviously there’s the perennial dilemma of what to do with the ones we receive, which we usually end up littering around every room, squeezed like squatters on to picture frames and any available surface because we have tried and failed to find any other sensible method of display.

Beyond that dilemma, though, is the one of ‘Are we sending cards again this year?’ This is usually a conversation – very brief at that – held in about the second week of December when my panic is reaching danger levels.

I know I have to have everything sorted well before the 25th, but life is rapidly going out of focus and I dream of darkened rooms and spa holidays in Mauritius.

If only Geoff would say ‘No, let’s forget about cards for once. People will just think we’ve gone away.’ But of course he doesn’t say that because, like me, he actually likes to keep in touch with friends and send them our greetings, however much of a toll it takes on nerves and time, not to mention my dreadful handwriting.

This year, however, I took an entirely different approach to the problem of cards. I went off piste, and, holding my breath, hoped Geoff would join me. He did! And that is why, for the first time, we have made a donation to charity instead of sending cards.

We’ve emailed everyone who would normally receive a card from us to explain what we’ve done and why we’ve done it, and included a link to the charity we chose to support. This is the Dorset Cancer Centre at our county hospital in Dorchester, a cause very close to our hearts for all sorts of reasons and one which we know will definitely help change lives for the better.

Geoff and I went to a talk earlier this year when we learnt about the proposed centre. It moved us greatly to hear how some cancer patients in the far west of Dorset have had to forgo radiotherapy treatment because their nearest centre, in Poole, is quite impossible for them to reach on a daily basis over a number of weeks.

Any patients without their own transport or, perhaps, with young children either still at home or needing to be accompanied to and from school, would simply find the routine out of the question.

The new centre at Dorchester will solve so many of those logistical problems. It will not only have the longed-for radiotherapy department but much-enhanced facilities for cancer outpatients, including a reconfigured chemotherapy unit that will be able to accommodate a family member or two alongside patients during their treatment, something which lack of space means is not currently possible.

There’ll be rooms for counselling and support services, too, and another significant bonus is in the extended range of cancers that will able to be treated at the centre, making the whole project an absolute win-win for north, south and west Dorset.

The £1.75m project is well on the way to being fully funded through supporters’ charitable efforts and the building is already taking shape.

Quite honestly, the satisfaction of supporting such an incredibly worthwhile project has totally eclipsed the pleasure of being in personal contact with friends and family through writing messages in 100-odd cards. Nowadays, with the ease of email and phone calls, we can do that when we wish, but giving something a little extra has taken on a new meaning for us this year.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Whenever there’s a knock at the door Geoff and I look at each other and say “Who’s that?” as if either of us has a sixth sense or X-ray eyes.

We played out this pointless charade last week when a sudden knock came. Geoff answered it to reveal a Parcelforce delivery man. Well, we could never have guessed that, since neither of us was expecting a delivery of anything other than peace and goodwill.

The parcel was addressed to me so I did my usual excited-child’s effort at unwrapping, strewing the floor with brown paper and sticky tape, to reveal a large red box containing, without a doubt, a bottle.

And what a bottle it turned out to be! Lurking inside that box was a magnum of Prosecco. How absolutely wonderful, especially as there was nothing on it to say it had to be shared.

Equally, there was nothing on it to indicate who this generous surprise gift was from. No label, no gift card, no note, nothing, anywhere to be seen. We both examined the brown wrapping and the red box so minutely that we almost went cross-eyed with the effort, but it was to no avail.

We speculated for some time about who the kind person might be but we got nowhere. I finally settled for it being a gift from my book group, for the sole reason that years ago they’d once clubbed together and sent me flowers when I was unwell. But why now? I couldn’t possibly ask any of them because if the bottle hadn’t come from them then it would be very awkward.

It reminded us of the time, 100 years ago, when someone very thoughtfully gave us a most beautiful wooden bread board and knife for our wedding (in the days before gift expectations became somewhat more lavish to feature whole kitchens and honeymoons) and we couldn’t thank them because there was nothing to indicate who it was from. That has troubled me ever since.

Now here we were with another mystery on our hands. We are quite good at working out who has left various vegetables on our doorstep. Sweet potatoes, beetroot and carrots tend to be from kind neighbour Kitty; leeks, kale, chard, salad leaves and more are from our dear friends who share their allotment bounty, but a random magnum of Prosecco, well, that’s quite a test even for Sherlock Holmes.

Except, of course, Geoff rose to the challenge superbly and gave old Sherlock an object lesson in sleuthing. He noticed on the address label, among a veritable riot of strung-together numbers, letters and hieroglyphics, an order number.

That’s what you need, he said. Ring the shop it came from, give them that number, and they’ll tell you who placed the order.

And that is exactly what I did, and exactly what happened. It really couldn’t have been more simple.

The mystery was solved. The helpful chap on the phone divulged the name of the sender, and I instantly had to resist the urge to burst into tears. It was my friend Carla, so generous, so thoughtful, and when I had composed myself and rang to thank her she said she had dictated a message to the shop to be included on a gift card, but it had obviously been overlooked and not put into the box.

We laughed to think that someone, somewhere, might be puzzling over a mysterious message, and decided it was a lesson to us all to attach our gift cards securely this Christmas because Sherlock and Geoff are likely to be off duty.

When I first became aware of the Mastermind quiz programme on television many years ago I decided that, if pressed to compete, the only thing I could possibly answer questions on would be points of the horse.

Once through to the next round, my specialist subject would have to be the only thing left in my scrambled brain at the time: how to get a baby to sleep.

I’d be eliminated at that point, not necessarily for too low a score but for falling asleep in the black chair. Yes, those were the days of baby-induced narcolepsy.

Nowadays, I’d choose a different specialist subject, but I’d have to share the chair and compete as a duo with Geoff because neither of us has a reliable memory and it wouldn’t do to fly helplessly solo in front of the terrifying John Humphrys.

Our subject would be Italy – but only the bits we know, and not too much detail about its history. We don’t need any winding up on the topic to strut our stuff interminably, tediously and to everyone’s dismay. Light our blue touch paper on, say, which region has the better weather in October, and we’re off like a pair of galloping racehorses.

Imagine our delight, therefore, when friends consulted us – by email, wisely, thus avoiding an earful – on our suggestions for an itinerary for their planned 10-day trip to Italy in May. Geoff and I rose to the challenge and gave them the benefit of our (questionable) wisdom and knowledge of a number of places.

We suggested they start in Bologna, from where they could visit Ravenna and Parma, then move on to beautiful Lucca and enjoy day trips to Florence and Siena. Finally, head down to Rome and, taking care not to stumble over the piles of rubbish that we’ve heard are currently blighting the place, indulge in a feast for all the senses in the Eternal City.

Oh, how wonderful it sounded! We emailed off our thoughts but were wise enough to add at the end, “Of course you’ll probably choose to go to Guatemala instead!”
This is because Roger and Mary rarely bother with short hops to Europe. They’re such seasoned travellers that they think nothing of disappearing every winter for three months on a round-the-world tour, always taking in south-east Asia because they are passionate ‘collectors’ of obscure temples, Australia, where they have family, and America, where they have friends from West coast to East.

There can be  few countries they have not yet visited. They ‘did’ Syria and Libya, before those now-ravaged places became off-limits. At the time, war and unrest were only a year or two away but our intrepid friends were at least safe to explore all the sights, unaccompanied, as usual.

India, China and Japan, even the more remote parts, hold no fears for them, although we and their other friends who appreciate their regular emailed travel bulletins, did offer up silent prayers when they recently returned safe and sound from Central and South America.

The world just seems very small to them, and it’s there to be explored, appreciated and, with luck, revisited.

Interestingly, both Roger and Mary had brushes with cancer some years ago and afterwards they decided to wring all the goodness out of life for as long as they could.

They’re lucky – and they know it – to have the money to finance all this glorious hedonism, but for those of us who cannot hope to emulate them, we enjoy their experiences second-hand. It saves the faff of packing, after all.