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.


There are reminders all around me of how rapidly life changes and charges on. I only have to glance in a mirror for the most graphic illustration of all, but usually the nudges are smaller, such as the realisation that I’m paying the equivalent of six shillings for one orange, or that few people bat an eyelid nowadays when Christmas takes over our lives from September.

Everything about Christmas, in fact, makes me feel I am being left behind and no longer fit easily into this world. Chief among this is the horror of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all the other shallow, scheming inducements designed to make us think we are being prudent and saving on our spending ahead of the big day. When you hear parents saying they are cutting back and can only afford to spend £200 on presents for each child this year you have to wonder how much they spent before their sacrificial cutback.

At least there are always the traditional pleasures associated with Christmas – the school Nativity plays and the carol services, the pantomimes and parties.

Except nativity plays are pretty rare these days. They certainly don’t feature at my grandsons’ primary school, where the younger pupils take part in an entertainment called ‘a Christmas play’ at the end of term.

The nature of this was revealed to my daughter and son-in-law this week, when a rummage in little Zach’s book bag revealed a note from the school.

He had announced a couple of weeks earlier that he was to be ‘Simon’ in the play, and although it wasn’t a name familiar among the usual Nativity characters, it had been assumed he was going to be a shepherd.

The official note, however, made clear that this was to be no dressing-gown and tea-towel role. ‘Your child has been chosen to play the part of Simon Cowell in our Christmas play, The K Factor. Please help him learn his lines and ensure he has a white T-shirt, jeans and a belt to wear.’

Not a shepherd, then, but someone from, as the saying goes, popular culture, with whom we must reluctantly make ourselves familiar.

I know he’s a man very firmly on the Marmite scale – you either like him or you definitely don’t. He has carefully coiffed dark hair, a wife, a child and, according to one report, somehow fits in an 80-a-day smoking habit into his occupation as a telly celeb and nurturer of talent. He also fell down a flight of steps recently and had to be taken to hospital. That much I know. It is enough.

Portraying Cowell on stage will not be easy for our six-year-old fair-haired little shrimp with twiggy limbs and a mega-watt smile, but Zach apparently showed at the auditions that he could at least sound like the man. He followed his teacher’s instructions when reading out the lines, being forceful, bombastic and a bit sarky, and was convincing enough to land the role.

It is certainly a far cry from when his mother, aged four, played an angel, and, in a second production to pad out the morning’s entertainment, was a very convincing bluebird (when her wings weren’t entangled with her friend Katharine’s).

Now the focus is on helping Zach learn his lines, of which I am told there are many, and finding the right clothes.

Jeans and a T-shirt, eh? Whoever would have thought ye olde Nativity tradition would come to this?

On the all too rare occasions I arrange to meet my daughter at a midway point between our respective homes, she is invariably late or has to cry off altogether. The reason is that she travels by Southern Rail, the network that likes to say ‘No!’.

My son-in-law also has to rely on Southern Rail for his commute to and from London. His torment seems never-ending. Trains are cancelled or late so often he has to factor in the consequences to his daily timetable.

Many is the time he has had to stay overnight in London just to be sure of being at work the next day. No wonder they say train travel isn’t cheap for commuters in this country: there’s the accommodation to add to the extortionate season ticket prices as well.

My experience though, which tends to be restricted to South Western Railway (the line formerly known as South West Trains), is uneventful in comparison. There is the irritation of weekend engineering works to consider, but on the whole I can rely on getting somewhere when I’m scheduled to. Well, OK, not always. Usually. Mostly. Fingers crossed.

In another age entirely, as a very small child, with my big sister in charge, I would travel to school by train. It was the days of flags and whistles and smuts in the eyes, leather straps to lower the windows, stations with men in uniforms, porters with trucks, and distinctive odours, especially on the way home in the company of sweaty schoolboys with sports-field mud on their knees.

The train was always punctual, meaning we could comfortably walk the three-quarters of a mile from the station and not be late for school, and also meaning that Mum was there without fail at the out-in-the-sticks station to meet us when we returned in the evening.

Nowadays, as we know, it is a lot less reliable all over the country – for reasons best known to powers that seem beyond anyone’s control.

But if you think it’s less than satisfactory here, try Italy. The network of railway lines is extraordinary. Trains run everywhere and anywhere, through the most remote rural outposts, up and down the coastline, under mountains, over gorges – but often, far too often, not to where you actually want to go.

So you compromise and go to the nearest place. Here you will usually find some kind of graffiti-daubed, rubbish-strewn hell on earth that appears to have been abandoned since 1972.

Whether or not the train you want is actually running is purely a matter of chance. Geoff and I once arrived at a station to catch a train to the airport. We checked the time of the train as we bought our tickets and went to wait on the platform and admire the spray-can artistry.

The train didn’t come. We asked the woman in the ticket office where it could possibly be. ‘It’s not coming today,’ she said, in a flat tone that defied question.

Other Italian journeys, when the train has deigned to appear and move for a few miles, will almost always involve sitting in the middle of nowhere for interminable periods. Only last spring, we were stuck outside Bologna for nearly two hours because of an ‘incident’. We guessed that would have been one of those ‘incidents’ caused by Luigi nodding off after lunch.

Contrast all this hopeless imprecision with Japan, where last week a rail company apologised after one of its trains left 20 seconds early. Yes, seconds. That’s the kind of unreliability I could live with – especially if it comes with a grovelling apology.

When a cousin up north suggested we spoke to each other via Skype, rather than knock out lengthy emails at irregular intervals, I readily agreed.

Good idea, I wrote back. I was a dab hand at Skype years ago and I was sure it wouldn’t take that long to track down the headphones-microphone combo and the clip-on camera required to turn my PC into a humming two-way communications centre.

We promised we wouldn’t make any judgments about appearance: bed-head hair and bleary eyes would be perfectly acceptable at any time of day. It’s years since we’ve seen each other anyway, so it’s likely Kate will, correctly, attribute all my blemishes to anno domini – and genetics. If she’s flawless, I may have to unplug her, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Geoff finally tracked down the necessary accoutrements in the cellar, dumped there in a bag following their last outing circa 2011. Between us, we fathomed how to attach them and get them working, once we’d activated Skype.

That wasn’t as easy as it might have been, because although I first registered quite a few years ago, I’ve changed computers twice since then and Skype seems unable to get its head around this. I don’t exist, it would seem, so after many angry attempts I registered again with a different name. This time it was big enough to approve of me.

Every single step I took once I’d registered seemed counter-intuitive and unlike anything I’d ever done before with Skype. Could it be possible that they’ve changed so much since I was last an enthusiastic Skyper? What was once logical and simple was now akin to wading backwards through treacle.

Geoff set himself up too, so we could talk to each other and test everything was in full working order ahead of this momentous hook-up with Kate. The squealing feedback was deafening and we felt a bit silly sitting next to each other saying things like ‘How are you today?’

When Geoff took his Skyped-up tablet into the sitting-room we carried on our silly conversation further apart, but I still found it difficult to stop giggling and commenting on his bald patch. He gave as good as he got, mind you, and I now have a serious thing about my chins. Who knew a blurry camera could be so unforgiving?

The next thing I had to do was send a Skype contact request to Kate, and once she’d accepted that, we could talk. Just before I did so, I double-checked everything was still behaving. It wouldn’t do for me to let the side down in this two-way deal.

Oh no! The camera wasn’t working. Dead as a dodo. Kaput. I dusted the lens, pointlessly, and stared at it for a long time. Still no reaction.

Yes,  I know the answer would have been to pick up the phone and speak to Kate like any normal person would, but we both fancied the idea of a face-to-face chat for the first time since a family wedding 40 years ago.

What do you do when one bit of equipment lets you down? You turn to another, which is why I am pinning my hopes on my iPad, which I find not only has a Skype app but a built-in microphone and camera. The only trouble is, I’ve had to register with yet another name, leading to even greater confusion.

Geoff’s given up and was last seen in the cellar with a bag containing an obsolete camera and headphones – talking to himself.

Sometimes I wonder about myself. It can feel as though I have a self-destruct button permanently in the ‘On’ position.

The most innocent of pastimes can land me in hot water. Take the time I was out walking in the woods – and please note that I was actually walking, when in those days, five years ago, I was more inclined to run wherever and whenever I could. Walking along, minding my own business, looking carefully where I was going, I somehow tripped over a tree root, although I maintain it jumped up at me.

The damage – to me, not the root – was horrendous. It would have been less painful and more quick to heal if I’d broken my leg, but no, I had to do something worse than that. I tore the tendons in my ankle and they took six incredibly painful months to mend.

The incident was not helped by the fact I was more than a mile from home and there was no mobile phone signal deep in the woods, so a lot of brave hobbling was necessary.

If an innocent walk were not enough to make me wonder about this propensity for self-destruction, I cast my mind back only 10 days to when I was walking in town with my shoulder bag for company. A small voice in my head asked, cheekily I thought: “Should you really have that on your shoulder? It’s not doing you any good, is it?”

The voice was, of course, supremely wise. Whereas most people’s shoulder bags might contain just what is necessary for that particular outing, mine always have my whole world stuffed in them: something for every eventuality, including, when I last looked, a carrot and headcollar in case I run across Shergar.

By the time I reached home, the shoulder which had borne the burden of the monstrosity was aching. Later, the ache turned to a pain, an unconscionable pain that I could hardly bear. It was a trapped nerve.

I slept barely a wink, preoccupied not only by the pain but by thoughts along the lines of how different it might be if Geoff had been a physiotherapist or even a witch doctor. As he is neither of those things, I hurried off in the morning to my favoured acupuncturist and miracle masseur and emerged later with a happy smile and an untrapped nerve.

Six days later, the other shoulder got in on the act and I winced my way back for more remedial treatment. Ah, such blissful relief.

Now then, what’s between the shoulders? A neck. Not wanting to be left out, my hitherto well-behaved neck then contrived to trap a nerve (presumably because my muscles were in an unusually weakened state). The pain was so intense I couldn’t stop being sick.

As it was the weekend, a temporary DIY remedy was called for: I chose a bag of quinoa from the freezer (we’re out of peas) and it numbed me a treat. As my son said, when I told him what I’d resorted to: “Only you, Mum. Only you.”

The quinoa and painkillers got me through the weekend and on Monday I was back to the miracle man who got me smiling again.

I’ve cast aside my trunk-like shoulder bags in favour of a miniature cross-body bag and adjusted my computer chair so I’m not staring up at the screen but straight at it. No, I know none of this is rocket science, but take it from me, that bag of frozen quinoa certainly is.

It is dusk and I am parking the car in one of those time-restricted slots outside a railway station. I’m lucky to have found a space as demand appears to be high, judging by the number of drivers going round and round.

It took only two circuits for me to find this space, so in I go. The angle of entrance is awkward, so I need to reverse in order to straighten up.

I only need to go back a little way. I look behind, through rear windscreen, mirror and wing mirrors, and spot a dark vehicle several yards away, but suddenly the beep-beep of the parking sensor on the back of my car alerts me to an obstruction that is much closer than that. Two beeps, followed by a horribly clear thud.

My heart sinks as I realise I’ve hit something. But what? It certainly couldn’t be anything as large as a car or I’d have seen it.

I park quickly, jump out and go to look. Instantly, a man’s voice starts yelling at me: “What the hell were you thinking of? You’ve hit my car!”

I look where Mr Furious is pointing and see quite possibly the smallest car in the world: a tiny dodgem-like thing, not unlike a super-sized slipper, with a piece of plastic hanging off it where my car obviously made contact.

Frankly, no wonder I didn’t see that little squit of a thing, I feel like saying, but actually what comes out of my mouth is a veritably volley of abject apology. I am beside myself with remorse. I’ve never even pranged into a leaf in all my driving days, let alone another vehicle with someone in it.

I have not a leg to stand on. I reversed into him. The fact he neither tooted to warn me of his presence nor got the hell out of my way when he saw my reversing lights go on, is not an issue here.

Mr Furious pushes the bit of flapping plastic back into place with a satisfying click but then points to a small dent on the bumper. It is his wife’s car, he explains, and she will be distraught to see it’s been damaged when she comes off the train.

He is still very, very angry but has managed to stop shouting into my face. I say I think we should swap names and contact details but find that I can’t see through the tears that are falling involuntarily.

I can’t help crying. I am sorry, I explain to Mr Furious, but I have just spent the afternoon saying goodbye to a close relative who is dying and I really don’t think I can bear this as well.

He suddenly softens as he can see my distress is genuine. He puts his hand on my shaking arm and goes into a most affecting apology for his behaviour. It was an instinctive reaction, he says. Yes, of course, I gulp. I understand. We are a right pair of helpless specimens, one sobbing and one consumed by guilt for shouting.

We part, eventually, and with the help of several tissues I make myself presentable.

The next morning Mr No-Longer-Furious calls me. We both launch into at least 100 more versions of the word Sorry, and then he says, “I don’t want to make any more of this. The damage is negligible. Let’s pretend it never happened.”

I say Thank-you approximately 200 times and we part friends. What a nice world we live in.

As the nation plumps up its cushions ready to sit and watch the first of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series on Sunday evening, perhaps now would be a good time to consider a pre-emptive strike.

Rather than wait until the end of the six-parter, when the message, hopefully, will have been dinned into us that we need to clean up our act or two-thirds of our planet will be irredeemably damaged, we should start now, right now, to do our bit.

There’s no-one else but us, those of us privileged to be living on this planet at the moment, who can commit to do anything about the huge task involved. We cannot turn around and point and say, “But look, there’s a worldwide task force over there who’ll do it for us. They can roll up their sleeves and do the job.”

It doesn’t work like that. We have to roll up our own sleeves, literally and metaphorically, and make the effort. First of all, let’s stop buying plastic bottles – or at least think twice before doing so and only do it if there really is no alternative. Even then, take care to dispose of the bottle in your recycling bin – or, better still, extend its life by reusing it any manner of ways (a plant pot, watering device, rocket or 101 other ways of engaging an imaginative child) – and then recycle it.

Here’s a depressing clutch of statistics: we use 38.5 million single-use plastic bottles every day in the UK. Every day! Then there’s the 58 million cans every day. With only half of them being recycled, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many litter our roadsides, pavements, beaches and oceans.

I am fortunate to be within reach of a shop that does more than its share towards protecting our future: it sells much of its stock loose, so you can take along a bag or a bottle and get it filled, and refilled, with anything from oats, flour and chick peas to washing liquid, fabric softener and loo cleaner. It’s a great business and one that serves many purposes, among which is the opportunity to polish one’s halo.

Of course this thing about doing one’s bit for the planet is not about feeling sanctimonious. It’s really about putting the wheels back on the handcart that’s heading in a direction we don’t want to go. Just picturing the change in the seaside flotsam and jetsam over recent years gives me alone pause for thought.

In my carefree beach-going days as a child there was little more than a few bits of driftwood and some nuggets of smelly black tar (“Don’t touch, it’ll go everywhere!”). Now, it is sometimes necessary to step over heaps of washed-up junk stretching the length of a beach, every piece graphically telling a story of Man’s thoughtless abuse of the innocent planet.

It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose, during which it can kill marine life, affect the ecosystem and scar our beaches.

There’s a strong movement now, headed by the poor, benighted Surfers Against Sewage (and doesn’t their name tell us a lot) to get a deposit system introduced on plastic bottles and cans as a means of increasing recycling and reducing marine plastic pollution.

There’ll be objections, of course, but really we’ve only ourselves to blame. Something has to be done, and this is a good, positive way to start.

It would be a fitting tribute to Sir David, by the time Blue Planet II has ended its series, to be able to say, “We’ve got the message!”