IN the aftermath of the devastating events in Paris it would be easy to stop smiling and impose a ban on happiness.

Heaven knows, there is little to be positive and cheerful about in the wake of such terror being visited upon mostly young people at leisure in a European capital. Not just any European capital, either, but the one closest to our shores and probably the most visited by Brits.

Close to home, yes, and, as we are now all too chillingly aware, quite likely to be merely the precursor.

So do we stay at home, lock our doors and change our lives to avoid all risk? Of course we don’t, we hold our heads up and get on with things as normally as possible.

Of course that is easier said than done. My son-in-law commutes into and across London where one assumes the risks are greatest, especially among crowds and especially in the run-up to Christmas. My daughter is fearful for him, but is no less fearful for her two little boys.

She shared her concern when we spoke on the phone at the weekend.  “I feel almost guilty for having brought two children into this awful world,” she said. “I don’t know how I can protect them from so much evil.”

At first, I could offer disappointingly little to help her. One constructive response might have been, “Tell you what, we’ll all move to a remote island in the Pacific,” but there would be as much wisdom in that as in what a friend offered to me as her solution: that we should immediately close all our borders and the Channel Tunnel should never have been built because she always knew it would be a Bad Thing. No, no wisdom and even less logic.

I simply responded to my daughter with the one thing that popped into my head, which was along the lines of: “You can’t hope to protect the boys from everything, not least random acts of terrorism. You can only give them the tools to be sensible, thoughtful, kind citizens and help them grow the confidence that will give them a zest for life mixed with a strong sense of self-preservation. But to bring them up in a risk-free environment and being over-protective is the way to go crazy.”

Now that I’m a granny I think I’m entitled to administer the odd preachy bit of advice from time to time, and that one was certainly one of my more extensive and serious sermons.

But these are serious times, and I feel dreadfully sorry for young people growing up in such uncertainty and with the responsibility of keeping their little ones safe. The most faultless parenting in the world cannot stop anyone from the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, my daughter and I agreed, we must all just get on with our lives while being sensible and mindful.

We then moved our conversation on to the fun the boys had had at school on Friday when they had to go dressed as the person they would like to be when they grow up.

Thus it was that Mummy found herself hurrying along the residential roads of an English market town in the company of two pint-sized and over-excited dinosaur hunters, her arms filled with containers of cakes and other goodies she’d baked for the school’s sale for Children in Need.

That’s what life is about: the everyday, the slightly dotty, the happiness that comes from little things. We should try never to let it be about fear and despair.

THERE are some aspects of life that, to me, are non-negotiable. On the list, in no particular order, are fairness and justice, good manners, humour, modesty and kindness. With all those in place I can get on with the business of living – but wait, there is something missing. Something that is as important as any of those but without which life can be a hellish torment.

I’m talking of sleep. Without it, or without enough of it, we can turn into different people, stumbling half-crazed through blurry days, our thoughts filled with wistful mirages of lavender-scented pillows and linen sheets.

Little wonder that sleep deprivation is so bad for our health that it is used as a torture, sending victims demented. Tell that to new parents with a baby who hasn’t worked out night from day – or who has craftily found the right switch on the Parental Abuse controls. I used to think I’d still be getting up six times a night for my son even when he’d reached adulthood, because the pattern of broken sleep was so long-established into and beyond his toddler years. Of course he made up for it later, when he achieved gold-medal sleep standards as a teenager. Now, ha ha, his own babies are wreaking revenge on my behalf. What goes around comes around, I remind him, unkindly.

Mrs Thatcher was reputed to get by on four hours’ sleep a night, which possibly added to the impression she gave of some other-worldliness. We are told that Vladimir Putin also snatches his night-time rest in four-hour bursts, presumably giving him more time to do a lot of things we’d rather not think about.

Those of us, and I frequently count myself among them, who find sleep elusive, resort to various measures, some desperate, some rudimentary. For me, the room has to be quiet and I have to be warm – at least until I get overheated, of course, which can take anything from half-a-minute to half a night. Unsurprisingly, I also have to be tired. There is no point in laying down my head to rest if I’m not really in need of sleep.

The distractions that can be resorted to nowadays are a great help. Thanks to handy electronic equipment (yes, I know it shouldn’t be in the bedroom, but it is an invaluable means to an end) we can listen to BBC World Service radio, catch up on programmes we’ve missed through iPlayer, plug ourselves in to soothing music, reach for a Kindle or, in my case, play silent games of solitaire on my iPhone. That usually ends messily when I fall asleep and the phone smacks down on to my face, giving me the most painful jolt back to consciousness. I’m a slow learner.

Geoff’s problem lies in the other direction. He is a good sleeper but a poor waker-upper, so he always needs an alarm to get him moving – whether that’s something beeping and electronic or a good old-fashioned poke in the ribs. He’d happily go beyond a good eight-hour stretch, perhaps even all day, who knows, but intervention is a must if he is to see anything of daylight.

If we could only establish a happy medium between us, we might both be a lot more perky – though whether that’s a good thing or not I am just too tired to work out at the moment.

WITH our lamentable record for getting lost virtually every time we venture a handful of miles from home, Geoff and I were perturbed to learn that our destination for a birthday party last Saturday was so remote that even sat-nav would be useless.

There was nothing for it but to put our faith in the written directions supplied by our hosts and hope that, dressed to kill in our finery, we would achieve the double miracle of arriving looking serene and still speaking to each other.

We’d been to our friends’ house once before, years ago, in daylight, and after being lost for only half-an-hour, which is good by our standards. This time, though, on a Halloween night with the distraction of witches flying overhead and spooky bats, spiders and pumpkins in every other doorway, we were determined to do much better.

We took torches and, rather pointlessly, since we find them unfathomable, road maps covering Britain and most of Europe, and set off from the brightly lit town where we were staying into a strange wilderness of limpid lanes with barely legible signposts and scarcely believable village names on the most remote and underpopulated area of the Devon/Somerset border.

Now I’m your original country bumpkin but this did make me wonder if people really lived in places like this, people who weren’t 50 percent troglodyte, at the very least.

My childhood home, a troglodyte’s rest if ever there was one (we even had tadpoles in our drinking water), was at the end of a maze of lanes, miles from anything resembling a main road. I learnt to drive there and became adept at reversing 200 yards into slight indentations in the banks and hedgerows to let oncoming traffic squeeze pass. Those lanes, or the memory of them, are like multi-lane motorways compared with what we were now negotiating.

Geoff, behind the wheel, made his feelings clear for the 14th time about the wisdom of accepting the party invitation. Not only was this tortuous journey involved but a night in a bargain basement hotel as well – assuming we ever found our way back to it.

I focused my torch on the sheet of directions: ‘At the next two sets of crossroads go straight across then follow the hill down to the floor of the valley before turning left at . . .’

‘Hang on,’ Geoff shouts, ‘let’s not over-reach ourselves. We need to identify the first crossroads before we take on board any more detail.’

He’s right. We follow the lane around a sharp left corner and . . . whoops, this is someone’s drive we’re going up. I can see lights and an open fire through a ground-floor window. How comfortable and welcoming it looks. Reluctantly, we reverse out and rejoin the lane which had thrown us temporarily off course. We wiggle for more miles, negotiate two wickedly dangerous crossroads, and drop down the steep valley, ears a-popping.

We turn left at the postbox in the wall – this is going so well – continue for two more long, snaking, miles, go past a tumbledown house on our left and . . .  ‘Stop!’ I shriek. ‘Look! Turn left, it’s their house. We’re here!’

The relief is immense. We’ve made it. We’re not last, not even late. We haven’t had to push the car out of a ditch. This is some kind of Halloween miracle.

Much later, another couple arrive, scattering apologies for their lateness and explaining how badly lost they’d been. Geoff and I raise our eyebrows and exchange a smug look that says ‘Really, some people.’

THE hot topic for debate this week at Hill Towers is a simple one: should we, or should we not, do away with our apple tree?

When we moved here it was the only thing in the garden. The only thing, that is, other than mud, brambles and beautiful old brick walls. We were delighted to have it for all sorts of reasons (apple crumble being only one of them) and we felt it gave our garden a link with what was probably quite an interesting past.

By its height and the gnarled nature of its trunk we think it is old, older even than we are – and that’s nudging venerable status.

It probably had a prime when it provided a good supply of firm fruit for a happy household, just as an apple tree should do and just as all the apple trees we have ever known have managed without a fuss.

For as long as we have been its owners, though, it has misbehaved in the way of a delinquent, totally overdoing the dressing-up at blossom time, mocking us with its dazzling beauty, and then, come fruiting time, it is just plain silly.

It produces so much fruit it is as though a button has been stuck on Go on a production line. Hundreds, thousands, of apples, every single one out of reach, mature and drop over a manic period of about a month, thumping, crashing, cannoning to the ground in a cacophony of craziness that disturbs us by day and jolts us awake at night. Some bounce off the shed roof, others clang off the wheelbarrow or thud on to the compost bin, still more land straight on to the nearby beds and brick paths, creating a lake of green at the end of the garden and a feast for wasps, slugs, woodlice, birds and anything else that gets tempted away from the rest of the garden’s smorgasbord.

Every year, Geoff and I spend this month picking up apples. We load up trugs and every other container we can lay our hands on and heave them into the car to deposit the apples in the garden refuse section of the amenity tip.

You may have noticed the omission of any reference to actually using the apples, enjoying our bountiful harvest through the tasty medium of crumble or other puddings. Our old apple tree may be productive (understatement), but every fruit it flings at us is wormy, bruised and diseased.

I have occasionally managed to gather enough less-damaged ones to give us a taste of what we’re missing, but they turn to a disappointing white mush in the pan. They look like apples but don’t taste like apples. Someone once suggested they were cider apples, which had us excited for a moment until we remembered that you can’t make cider with fruit that’s riddled with manky bits.

So, should it go? It hardly earns its place, creating shade so that only hellebore and epimedium will grow underneath, but we love its display of blossom and the fact it is the longest-established feature of the garden. Are those good enough reasons to put up with the tyranny of its presence, the broken nights, the hard labour, the, oh dear, I must whisper this, the pointlessness of its existence.

We think it probably should go, but not yet. Not now that we’re finally enjoying the peace that follows the last of the world’s most unpleasant apples being consigned to the tip.

I KNOW I wrote about the Rugby World Cup only two weeks ago and now I am revisiting it, but so much has happened in the interim that I feel justified in giving the topic another run-around before the whole tournament gets kicked into touch.

I shan’t be pulling on one of those suffocatingly tight, unforgiving white jerseys with built-in pecs and flab, strong though the appeal may be to sport my colours. For now there is no fun and certainly no great pride in standing up to be counted as an England fan.

England are out, humiliated, beaten and consigned to history as the first host nation to have failed to progress beyond the group stages. The ignominy! The catastrophic effect on so many commercial interests must be incalculable, not to mention the great dip in morale among England fans, poor old Geoff and me among them.

So where do we stand now, as the quarter-finals have wiped out any other home nations’ interest, thus negating any convenient relationship we might have claimed to an Irish, Scottish or Welsh great-aunt twice removed?

When the semi-finals are played this weekend, who can I possibly root for? The idea of sitting quietly and not getting steamed up for one side or the other is unthinkable. I have to be partisan, but for whom?

When my rugby-loving friend Liz and I discussed the prospects earlier this week we agreed that Argentina deserved no claim on our loyalty. We both muttered the word ’Falklands’, very quietly so we couldn’t be overheard if anyone was tapping our phones. That sort of thing is always happening, of course.

Neither of us has any links with the country, nor even, in fact, an interest in anything in the whole of South America, other than my predilection for Brazil nuts. That little weakness can not in any way persuade me to shout for Argentina, although we do have Italian friends who visited relatives there and declared it a very interesting country to explore. No, still not enough for me to get the light blue and white face paints out.

That leaves Liz and me backing Australia in their match with Argentina. That’s fine. We should not allow ourselves to bear too much of a lingering grudge over their thrashing and consequent elimination of England.

The South Africa versus New Zealand encounter is a little trickier. It comes down to simple prejudice, which, one could argue, is appropriate in this particular debate.

One of my god-daughters, the one who is both a scientist and an artist and makes me feel incompetent, is currently living and working and loving life in Christchurch. No argument. I must support her adopted All Blacks – just this once.

Assuming the power and influence of Liz’s and my support results in victories for our favoured teams in the semis, where will we stand when it comes to the final next weekend? Do we choose the Wallabies or the All Blacks?

Liz has no hesitation. Her son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons live in Australia and, since I have other friends, too, in those same heartbreaking long-distance grannying set-ups, I shall be turning all yellow and green to show my solidarity for them.

So that’s sorted. Liz and I have worked out our strategy and now we must wait and see how it all turns out. May the best team win. As long as it’s the one we’re shouting for.

ONE of the words of our times is empowerment. It’s an emotive word, implying a sleeves-rolled-up can-do feeling where the world is at our feet waiting to be taken on and, all things being equal, duly conquered.

The first time I became properly aware of the absolute ubiquity of empowerment was in the late ’90s when the Spice Girls were at full volume, filling young heads with the suddenly radical idea of Girl Power.

No girl’s thoughts were left unturned by the possibilities offered to them in the sentiments the cavorting fivesome belted out. They were enthused by the idea of sisterhood, togetherness and positivity, the concept of enduring friendship and an undaunted spirit. Now they felt equal to if not better than boys, even the big brothers they had perhaps been expected to look up to.

Great stuff. Nothing like a big helping of empowerment to propel girls through life. Except that some girls took it too far. It went to their heads and they interpreted empowerment as a licence to behave badly, to drink like the lads and be loud, mouthy and bitchy.

The long-lasting evidence of the wrong sort of Girl Power has since been a regular feature on most town centre streets after nightfall.

And now, at last, a new kind of empowerment has landed in our midst, one which we must fervently hope has a kinder, gentler effect on girls and women.

It has come not via popular music but, of all things, from the astonished, tearful winner of Great British Bake Off 2015. Let me remind you of her heartfelt words as she struggled to contain her emotions on being told that she, Nadiya Hussain, a 30-year-old mother of three, who grew up in a household that never used an oven, had taken the title:

“I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say ‘maybe’. I’m never going to say ‘I don’t think I can’. I can and I will.”

I would love to think that her affirmation will be remembered long, long after tongues have finished clacking about the fact Nadiya pulled strange faces when she was under particular pressure in the heat of the competition and, of course, that she is, as she herself said, “a Muslim in a headscarf”.

Of course I enjoyed watching her eyebrows, which seemed to have a life of their own, and I appreciated her baking skills and extraordinary creativity in flavour combinations and presentation, but it was Nadiya’s parting words at the competition’s close that will be my abiding memory.

She moved even ice-cool Mary Berry to tears with her emotional response and I can tell you there wasn’t a dry eye on the Hill Towers sofa. OK, I was watching on my own, and had Geoff been there I might have shown a little more self-control to save myself from having to explain women’s emotions, but Nadiya’s brief and impromptu speech of empowerment was deeply affecting.

Let’s hope her words give pause for thought and encouragement to young women, whether they are Muslim or of any other faith or no faith, when they wrestle with self-doubt about whether they really, really can.

ANOTHER soggy, disappointing torrent of rainy weather this week, after a solid seven days of sunshine, has served to remind us that we must always be grateful for small mercies.

After such a disappointing summer it was natural we should all agree we deserved that last hurrah from the sun that perked up our spirits so much. It was the usual old con trick, though, and after getting used to the delightful run of blue skies and warmth, here we are again, plunged into the damp chill of normality.

How lucky were those who had the opportunity to benefit most from the sunny week. Among them, totally against the odds, were my sister and brother-in-law. As long ago as last January they stuck in a pin in the calendar to choose a week in a rented cottage on Exmoor. They could never have known what good fortune awaited them.

Dismal week followed dismal week all through the summer, right up to the first day of their holiday, when the gloom lifted, the sun put his hat on and Exmoor embraced them with joyous bright warmth every single day.

The weatherproof gear they’d filled the car with stayed where it was, untouched for the duration, and their many walks on the wild side saw them sometimes taking cover from the heat of the sun, not the rain they’d feared.

They deserved this slice of luck as their last holiday had been dreadful. It was to have been a brief escape to winter warmth in the Canaries, but ended up with my sister laid low with a gastric virus for the whole week, too ill even to leave the apartment.

Geoff and I have had holidays spoilt by the weather, but it shouldn’t happen too often now that we have learnt always to check when our friend Roly is going to be away. As soon as we know if he’s seeking R&R anywhere in the UK, we know we must stay at home, secure in the knowledge that where Roly goes, the worst weather will be right over his head.

His visit to Sussex last month coincided with monsoon-like rainfalls all over the county. He goes north and roads are closed to cope with the gushing torrents, west and freak snowfalls block his way, south and the gale-force winds threaten to blow his destination off the map.

It’s become one of those serious jokes now. We hear on the radio of flood alerts or blackouts caused by storms and we just know that Roly will be somewhere in the vicinity, trying in vain to have a happy holiday with his long-suffering and equally optimistic wife.

Roly is sanguine about it, in a True Brit way, but our hearts do bleed for them both and we yearn for them to have a change of fortune. It’s strange because Roly is a proper countryman and you’d think he could second-guess the weather by observing such arcane things as which way the cows are lying, or how many rooks he saw flying backwards before breakfast.

Perhaps he should pick up a pin in January and stick it in a calendar, in the way my sister did. His expectations will always be low, as they can only be when any of us are thinking of holiday weather in this country, but from where Roly stands, anything warmer than freezing will be a heatwave and anything drier than soaked to the skin 24 hours a day will be like a break in the Sahara desert. And a novelty, too.


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