Basil Fawlty is alive and well and still living in Devon. I can tell you this because Geoff and I have encountered him at a B&B on the coast.

We should have known the wiry lunatic might still be haunting the area, even though we were some way from his old habitat of Torquay.

He’s shorter than he was on the telly, and his limbs don’t operate on lengths of elastic. He is less irascible, too, but age can do that. It can slow you down, change your ways a little, and, in Basil’s case, even stop you being quite as rude to guests as you once so famously were.

Our Basil wasn’t rude, just fantastically inept, but he was Basil all right.

“Would you like tea or coffee with your breakfast?” he asks. Geoff says he’d like tea, I’d like coffee. This proves too much for Basil. He doesn’t make a note of our order and by the time he reaches Sybil in the kitchen, he has forgotten.

He returns some time later with a pot of tea for two. As he’s setting it down and spilling it a little, he suddenly jerks his head towards me and says: “Oh, but you were having fruit juice, weren’t you?” I explain that no, I wasn’t, but I would like coffee. Definitely not tea, I smile sweetly.

He looks confused and returns to the kitchen. He emerges with a pot of coffee, which he places carefully next to Geoff.

We wait until his back is turned and make the changes required to ensure we each get what we want. I pour my coffee – just a little at first because the first dribbles are not encouraging. I was right to be cautious. A tentative sip reveals it to be as closely related to coffee as fizzy lemonade is to a Sicilian citrus grove. I stick to water.

Basil is a talker, a very enthusiastic talker. We think he’s swallowed the page of the B&B host’s handbook which encourages ‘engagement with your guests’. There’s a limit, Basil, there’s a limit.

We’d hardly got over the threshold with our bags the evening before when he’d launched into a tale of woe about a guest’s messy footprint on the carpet. This then turned into a catalogue of messy footprints he had known, and how, when he ran a pub . . .  come over here and let me show you a painting of our old pub, do leave your bags, do you know the village, you don’t, well let me tell you about it . . . and so on, and on.

When we eventually reached our room, tiptoeing for fear of adding to his tally of messy footprints, we wondered whether it might be an idea to barricade ourselves in for the weekend. The chances of getting downstairs and out of the front door without being engaged in more one-sided conversation seemed unlikely.

For our two breakfast-times, each featuring some crazy kind of Basil-ish pantomime, we freeze and go mute whenever Basil comes near our table. We cannot spare any more time listening to his anecdotes. Life is just too short.

You are a nice man, Basil. You’re cheerful, but my word you’re boring. Please, please, leave us alone. Let us admire your garden while we munch on the toast Sybil has made – about an hour ago, to judge by its texture.

We never see Sybil. We speculate about her and I worry. Is she out there splatting rats, or pouring oil over a demented Manuel? To be honest, anything seems possible here in Fawlty Towers Mark 2.


Walking like a penguin never appears anything less than chronically laughable, even when you’re a penguin, but with ice on the ground it really is the best way I know that (almost) guarantees staying upright.

Now the penguin days are past, superseded by the awkward sway of a frogman in full submersible kit as my favoured gait through floods, I can pause to look back on the whole snowy experience of last week.

Was it only such a very few days? At times it seemed as though this was how we were going to have to live from now on, the cabin-fever and cancelled plans being a normal part of daily life for ever.

The birds got lucky as we ensured they didn’t go without while their bath was frozen: they received regular fresh water supplies and some interesting meals as well. Geoff was almost tempted to go out there and join them, if his wistful expression of longing was anything to go by when I delivered another tray of goodies to our feathered friends.

And then, suddenly, it was over, and our world turned into a mix of muddy sludge and cold drips. That was on Saturday afternoon, when the rise in temperature meant the penguin walk was put away for another time and I braved a supermarket for the first time in a week or so.

What’s this? Empty shelves? It was like being in Russia 30 years ago. Not that I was in Russia then, but I’ve seen enough pictures to know what a dispiriting sight it was. It was so strange to see it replicated here, in a comparatively prosperous town, where shoppers had swept the shelves clear of bread, cakes and milk.

It was panic-buying for the most extraordinary reason: the bad weather might be over, but, well, you never know what might happen next, and anyway, while the shop’s got supplies we’ll have ’em, thank you.

Stripped bare, the shelves represented how irrationally some people can react when caught up in a particular mood. The vegetable shelves were empty, too, adding to the general air of hopeless poverty, but that was because, understandably given the road conditions, there’d been no delivery for two days.

But bread and milk, all delivered that morning? I imagine the panic-buyers must have stuffed their freezers with the booty and will be living off it for months. Fortunately, I wanted neither bread nor milk, but others did and had to search elsewhere.

I saw one man walking along the street holding aloft a large bottle of milk as though it was a trophy of war. Perhaps it had been. Who knows what bloody skirmish he might have had to engage in to tick that one off his shopping list.

There is nothing like a shortage to cause panic. Back in the early 1970s, fears about inflation caused people to hoard first sugar and then loo rolls. The result was much elbowing among shoppers as they scrapped and struggled to scoop up what remained available to buy. Random. Bizarre. Ludicrous. All those things and more, yet a good illustration of the weird, wonky years of the Seventies.

Stockpiling items that might be useful is only what squirrels do. We aren’t doing anything different, except it does seem a bit daft to do it when there isn’t an obvious need. We’re hardly going to pass out through hunger on the branch of a tree if we’ve failed to hoard bread or milk, but squirrels might, and so hoarding is a life-saver.

Here’s hoping it never becomes a life and death matter among humans.

It’s been pantomime time here at Hill Towers for the past fortnight. Geoff has played his traditional role of Squire Supremely Sensible while I, of course, slotted easily into the wholly typecast role of Silly Sally.

The script wrote itself as we went along. It started with the sudden discovery that my passport was about to expire. Geoff found this out when booking flights for our holiday in Italy in late June. He had to enter the number and expiry date of my passport on the airline website and, on examining the now slightly dog-eared document, saw with a shock that it would cease to be legal in mid-March 2018.

Its expiry had always seemed so far in the distance, aeons away in some futuristic year. But suddenly that space-age date was upon me and I needed to act, fast.

I went to the government website and started to apply online for a renewal. The first few steps were easy. This won’t take long, I thought, complacently. Oh, what’s this? They want a new photograph of me? The old one won’t do?

OK, so a quick selfie on my phone should do the trick. It didn’t. I couldn’t keep a straight face, and it went downhill from there. Could you just take a quick snap of me, I asked Geoff.  He did, inside the house and outside, against the plain-coloured garage wall.

Each time I uploaded the resulting mugshots to the section on the form where it was automatically checked for size and several other requirements, the photo was rejected. Mostly it was because the outline of my head couldn’t be determined and there was light on one side of my face.

We tried again and again, over about eight days, each time in a different light, against a slightly different bit of wall, with and without flash, inside and outside the house, before and after a fierce brushing of the hair to achieve the necessary clean outline, and in moods that varied from light-hearted (“We’ll nail it this time”) to furious and despairing (“What more can we do to get it right?”).

Round about Day 10, knowing time was running out and I’d soon have to admit defeat and go to a shop with the right equipment and the right person to operate it, I happened to be with a friend who is a keen photographer. “Here’s a challenge,” I said. “Could you take my passport photo?”

She duly did, and sent it to me later by email. I uploaded it, full of hope, on to the passport website.

Fail! The image was too small and there was shine on my face. Another double whammy. Geoff and I decided to give it one last shot. Out we went once more into the freezing cold. Click-click went Geoff, the first dozen times on my phone and then a dozen more with his camera. Let’s see how many of these will be rejected for shine or shadow or lack of outline..

By now I was sick of the sight of my face, looking sternly into the lens, appearing depressingly older with each successive shot. Even if it worked, surely no self-respecting country would let anyone over their borders looking like that.

I held my breath while the bossy automated arbiter on the website came to a decision. Success! Where all I’d seen before were large red crosses, suddenly there was a big green tick. What a triumph!

Squire Supremely Sensible and Silly Sally danced a happy jig before the curtain came down on the latest Hill Towers pantomime.


When Little Women was serialised on television recently I really had no need watch it, although I did – or some of it, anyway. I could play out every nuance of the storyline in my head thanks to the strong memory I retained of reading the children’s classic years ago.

I would snuggle down into bed, holding my Blackie children’s classic just far enough under the covers to prevent my hands from freezing, and hold my breath through the tragedies and triumphs of the March family at the time of the Civil War.

I didn’t much like the girls. For one thing they weren’t horsey and for another they called their mother ‘Marmee’. No, I’m sorry. No role models for me there.

Not long after that, probably when I was about 10, I discovered how wide my world could become by borrowing books from the library. We had them in hundreds, possibly thousands, at home, but since the easiest to access on a low shelf were Dad’s hobby manuals on photography and Mum’s bird books, I craved volumes of my own choice.

Soon I was lugging home books on elementary dressage (I was nothing if not pretentious) and, for when my brain needed to be parked somewhere less challenging, others that offered me refuge in a world where naughty ponies came good and won prizes and naughty girls who hated school (like me) thrived in their group of jolly friends and grew to love it (unlike me).

The public library was a paradise. Even with shelves of my own books in my bedroom, just having the time and the freedom to choose anything I wanted, on any subject – natural history, biography, poetry – and from Famous Five to Ring of Bright Water and The Chronicles of Narnia to Horses of the World – was better than any treat I could think of. Better even than a meal in a restaurant, which happened about once a year in a brightly lit place where we had to climb two flights of stairs and Dad talked for ages with the proprietor.

Once I’d progressed through Harold Robbins and Alan Sillitoe and was debating whether to become an intellectual in the company of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing, I started having babies and so just keeping my eyes open and staying awake, let alone reading, took over as my number one preoccupation.

Happily, the time soon came for me to introduce the children to libraries. They were as delighted with them as I had been, and every Saturday morning, wherever we lived, would find us choosing and carrying home new worlds to explore.

Now they follow the same happy routine with their own children, which is pleasing because it means two important things: the little ones love books and, alleluia, they still have libraries to go to.

Geoff and I use our library, mindful of the ‘use it or lose it’ warning, but we haven’t always been so obedient. We went through a long period of managing without and I even became a Kindle addict.

I’m glad that didn’t last. There’s so much pleasure to be had from walking into the building with an open mind and walking out holding something that you know will fill that open mind with words that in turn create images only you can see.

While my Kindle gathers dust I reacquaint myself with that certain weight of a book, the feel of the page as I turn it, the fun of speculating who read it before me and who’ll read it next – and the childish delight of holding a book under the bedcovers.


This has been a double-whammy week of commercial opportunism with Shrove Tuesday and Valentine’s Day falling on successive days.

What opportunities each presents. Understandably, few shops have failed to exhort us to join in the giddy-making fun of feasting on an excess of all the things we’ve been struggling to resist since January 1 – whether it be a box of chocs, a pancake or even a square meal..

Don’t forget the lemons! And the sugar! Don’t forget that special something for your loved one! Of course not, how could we, assuming we want to be party to all that stuff?

It’s been hard, though, remembering in such a short space of time not just to cook the pancakes for Geoff but to choose a birthday card for my mother. Yes, her February 14 birthday takes priority – always has, always will – and Geoff and I maintain our dogged avoidance of anything sloppily or soppily romantic, especially if it’s heart-shaped, red and the subject of a severe seasonal price-hike.

We go in for the understated approach to Valentine’s Day, meaning that we remark on the fact it’s been and gone and we’ve overlooked it but anyway it doesn’t matter because for us – cue violins – every day is filled with true romance.

Others do it differently. My sister always receives a witty hand-written poem composed by her husband, and a friend gets taken for a walk along her favourite beach, whatever the weather.

A thirtysomething chap I know called Ben planned a different kind of Valentine’s treat for his beloved. He and Zoe have been an item for more than a year now and Ben, not famed for his original thinking, hit the jackpot on Tuesday when he proposed while they were out training for the London marathon. Zoe accepted, breathlessly.

How these two met is the stuff of pure romantic fiction. Ben was heading to work across London on his bike and pulled up at traffic lights beside a car whose young female passenger caught his eye.

‘Oh my days,’ he thought. ‘She is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve got to meet her.’ So he rode round the corner, pulled up, and activated the Tinder dating app on his mobile phone. This is normal behaviour, I am told.

Apparently, the app can tell you if there is anyone registered as a user – i.e. someone available for a date – within the vicinity. Ben anxiously scrolled down, or up or across, or whatever you do, and his heart leapt when he eventually spotted the photo and profile of the very girl he’d just seen.

He messaged her. She messaged back. I have no idea, and could not possibly imagine, what either of them said, but they had soon arranged a meeting.

Ben waited anxiously at the appointed place and hour. What if she was beautiful but not very nice? What if they had absolutely nothing in common to keep a conversation going? Worse still, what if she didn’t like him?

She walked in. It was her! The girl from the car! As she came closer, Ben focused more carefully. He could not believe his eyes. As they started talking and exchanging slightly awkward pleasantries, Ben realised it was a different girl. Similar, but definitely not the girl from the car.

He came clean. He told her she wasn’t who he had expected her to be. They laughed a lot. Not long after that first date they fell in love, and now they are each other’s Valentines.

And I fancy that the girl in the car is still being driven around London – looking for love.


Friends who had done us a great kindness deserved a generous thank-you, so we invited them to lunch. Not lunch at Hill Towers, obviously, as that isn’t always the greatest treat (understatement) and we were keen to make it a bit of an occasion.

We chose a venue that we know to be excellent an hour away from us and about 20 minutes from our friends, so they wouldn’t be burdened by too much of a journey. The table was booked for 12.30pm and the arrangements were confirmed. In fact, the arrangements were confirmed three times, twice by email and once, the day before, by text when the friends sought reassurance that they were aiming for the right day and time.

We know from old that they are a couple who are a little inclined to live by the seat of their pants, being strangers to the order that a diary of appointments can impose on busy lives. They do things on impulse, spreading no small amount of chaos around them, and are almost permanently surrounded by a tribe of children, grandchildren and dogs.

But we were having them to ourselves over lunch and we were confident that, having exchanged texts on the subject less than 24 hours earlier, all would be well and we’d be set for an uninterrupted food ’n’ chatter session.

Geoff and I reached the restaurant in good time because we were anxious that, as hosts, we should be there to welcome our friends. Twelve-thirty came and went. We didn’t say the obvious to each other but merely raised our eyebrows to express what we were thinking. Typical, absolutely typical.

By 12.50pm we were getting twitchy and a little concerned, though no more so than the restaurant owner, who, to our slight embarrassment, had to go and warn the kitchen staff of a delay.

When the large clock on the wall showed 1pm and our friends had still not appeared, Geoff and I allowed ourselves to release our pent-up mix of frustration and hunger in a modest rant on the subject of unreliability and, I’m afraid rudeness. We couldn’t understand, in these days of instant communication when a simple text or mobile phone call can so rapidly set minds at rest, we were totally in the dark about what was happening. Or perhaps not happening.

‘Well, we can have a nice lunch, anyway,’ I chirped in the tone of voice that I use when Geoff’s anger is heading towards eruption point and when toddlers are on the point of throwing a tantrum. It sort of worked. Geoff distracted himself by composing a text that very, very politely expressed to our friends our concern about whether or not they were planning to join us for lunch.

He had just sent it when they appeared, not red-faced and wild-eyed as I would have imagined, but perfectly calm and unruffled. ‘Sorry we’re a bit late,’ they said. Somehow, Geoff kept his lid on and somehow I didn’t come out with some pointless comment about the definition of ‘a bit’.

Only a couple of days later I read an article in which the idea of replacing the word ‘Sorry’ with ‘Thank you’ was being proposed as a kinder and more thoughtful style of apology. I thought what an excellent solution that would have been in the circumstances in which Geoff and our found ourselves.

A genuine ‘Thank you for waiting for us’ would have made us feel considerably less crushed than the throwaway ‘Sorry we’re a bit late’. I like it so much I may use it myself, when I remember.


It is becoming increasingly hard these days to find absolute peace and quiet. Even in the stillness of our house I can sometimes detect the hum of the dehumidifier in the cellar or, on these winter evenings, the gentle thrum of the central heating boiler – a reassuring sound that means our blood should at least keep circulating.

Away from the house, absolute peace is very hard to find. I was aware of this when out walking on Cranborne Chase on Sunday and the glorious song of skylarks accompanied my every step.

That’s a good sound, a most welcome and uplifting soundtrack that I’d pay money for, especially as an accompaniment on a country walk.

Not so good sounds are the man-made ones that crash into our lives, intruding needlessly and thoughtlessly so that nerves are shredded and senses feel assaulted. One of these nasties blasted into our consciousness when Geoff and I were in Bath the other day.

There’s a pretty little pedestrianised square of which Bath Abbey and the Roman baths form two sides. It must be rare to encounter two such historically important buildings in such close proximity, one founded in the 7th century and fabulously enriched with stone carvings and towering pinnacles, the other a neo-classical 19th century façade on a Roman religious spa whose original construction dates back 2,000 years.

Here are history and culture and a city’s pride all within little more than an arm’s breadth, in a charming precinct crowded with visitors anxious to experience the atmosphere, the vibe if you will, emanating from that golden stone. Even without the added attraction of the beautiful Abbey, the spectacular Roman baths draw huge numbers of visitors, making it one of the top must-see places on the agenda of so many tourists in Britain.

And yet what greets them in this pretty corner of a remarkably lovely city? Not the peace and stillness you would expect, a slightly reverential air befitting such awesome surroundings. No, you get the ear-splitting, heart-sinking (to me, at least) crashing thump-thump of over-amplified Sixties and Seventies pop music purveyed by an artiste of a certain age and his guitar.

If you like it, you can buy one of his CDs to take home with you to recreate the experience of being half-deafened in a place of unique beauty. If you don’t like it, tough. Suck it up. Don’t be such a square old fogey. This is how the world rocks these days.

Think of a space, physical or virtual – from shopping precincts in Anytown to telly programmes of any stripe – and before you can say ‘Please spare me’ you  are assaulted by  loud music. The fact it is usually hopelessly inappropriate, too, is perfectly exemplified by the raving rocker in Bath, so pleased with his amp he turned up the volume.

I love music, I grew up with it, the children learnt the loudest instruments they could find – trumpet and saxophone – and I often play music at home, but there’s a time and a place for it.

Left to others with a hand on the volume control, so much of it impinges in a bad way on my enjoyment of TV programmes, ones that, for instance, follow someone walking across peaceful countryside or diving deep under the ocean. Shut that noise up, will you! Let me enjoy what I’m seeing, allow my senses to process the commentary and the amazing sights, and cut that penetrating so-called background music.

There’s nothing for it: I’m going to have to wear headphones that cut all extraneous noise – and revel in my own little world of peace.