LIST five things you love about yourself, someone on Instagram exhorted me. Well, it was Monday morning and quite honestly there could be little to love about anyone, least of all me, on a day that had broken in such a tempestuous way.

As Storm Imogen (pretty name, but now with unfortunate connotations) screamed around the house and I kept an ear cocked for flying roof tiles (ours) and tumbling rubbish bins (our neighbours’), I briefly thought about what might go on that list. Could I come up with one reason to love myself? Not seriously, so let’s move on, let’s hit into this day and deal with whatever windy Imogen might inflict on us.

I knew the eucalyptus tree that someone unwisely planted probably no more than 20 years ago in a garden visible from our back stoop would be doing the maddest of dances, and I was right. It was bending and swooping in a most threatening way, probably wondering, as we were, what kind of climate it had found itself in which put its very life under threat. Its Antipodean forebears surely can’t have had the same sort of struggle for existence.

I’m not sure I can remember a period of such manic wildness as this run we’ve been experiencing. Since November 12, when Storm Abigail was Britain’s first ‘named’ severe weather system, we’ve endured eight more of these big ’uns, sometimes battering the country from top to toe, causing flooding and power cuts and affecting transport. By Easter we could be at the end of the alphabet, on Storm Zacharias, at this rate.

I can only give thanks for the passing of years which has meant I no longer have responsibility for any livestock and therefore no urgent need to brave the elements at all hours. Battling cruelly flapping tarpaulins in a corner of a field to access hay for the horses, while up to my knees in freezing mud, is now a distant memory, thank goodness.

Likewise, being taken by surprise by storm force winds when out at sea, gamely crewing for my father in a boat that neither of us knew how to sail. You just turn off the engine and set the sails, don’t you? Well, it’s a bit like that, only you have to study the weather and charts and notice what others are doing and not just place your faith in beginner’s luck.

A few outings later, with our lives and the boat still miraculously intact, we added two more to the crew and confidently set sail for France. We left the Devon coast in morning sunshine.

Any thoughts of croissants for breakfast disappeared hours later in a monumental storm, causing us to whip down the sails, batten down the hatches and ride it out. We took it in turns to be terribly seasick.

The wind abated around dawn and we were glad of the improving visibility as we were suddenly able to make out the shapes of looming rocks. They didn’t claim us, though they tried, but we realised that land must be near. It was, but it wasn’t France. It turned out to be St Peter Port in Guernsey.

Thanks to the weather we’d landed in the most unexpected of places. We spent two days there and had a wonderful time – and an uneventful and mercifully shorter sail home.

So perhaps there is one thing I can say I love about myself as Valentine’s Day approaches: making the most of serendipity. It almost always turns out for the best.

I HAVE made an astonishing discovery. I now know the purpose of instruction manuals, those annoying booklets translated into multiple languages that one casts aside (well, this one does) in the excitement of unveiling a new possession.

This can be anything from a pedometer to a smartphone, or a food processor to a car. With the built-in obsolescence of so many gadgets and gizmos nowadays, acquisitions can come thick and fast, leaving the problem of what to do with all the literature that accompanies them.

The receipt and guarantee need filing, but the rest of it, well, it gets shoved into a drawer until the day, years hence, when the once-new item to which it relates has bitten the dust and a newcomer has taken its place.

At least this is the situation at Hill Towers, and this is why occasional scrabblings in the dresser drawer reveal booklets that get me reminiscing.

“Do you remember that ghetto blaster that we thought was the trendiest thing alive?” I ask Geoff. “Well, here’s the instruction manual that would have told us how to record from tape to tape. That was the clever feature that made us buy it in the first place. I know it defeated us, but if only we’d looked at the manual.”

Out of sight it goes and very much out of mind, so instead of consulting something authoritative we think we know best and blunder our way into a barely adequate knowledge of pieces of machinery that can blitz half-a-pound of almonds into dust in four seconds or lop six feet off a conifer hedge.

It’s wrong, we know it is, but we are never likely to need to know more than where the On and Off switches are.

Or are we? Take the fridge, for example. For the past four months it has been regularly wetting itself, like a frightened puppy, causing puddles that lap at my feet and need mopping two or three times a day.

I hoped it would carry on doing its fridgey business long enough to get us through Christmas. This it duly did, while I duly mopped, which is not easy to do with crossed fingers.

Its Christmas duties done, I knew that the only way to learn what was ailing Stamford (Stamford Fridge, to give it its full name) was to look behind and underneath.

This would mean a wholesale emptying of contents and, unfortunately, the revelation of what I feared would be knee-deep dust around Stamford’s nethers. Quite possibly, dust would turn out to be the culprit, so I started working up a few excuses, not one of them plausible.

Geoff and I set to the task, starting by removing the first tranche of food from inside. “Hang on,” he said, “don’t we have an instruction manual for Stamford?”

I burrowed into the middle drawer of the dresser and retrieved it, untouched since the day it had been consigned there.

Geoff leafed through the instructions in Mongolian for changing the light bulb and got to the Troubleshooting section where there was a line that precisely described Stamford’s problem: a blocked tear duct, or something.

Geoff unblocked it and the weeping immediately ceased. With Stamford no longer wetting himself I was able to stop mopping.

This miraculous triumph, hitherto unknown at Hill Towers unless a crack team of mechanical engineers has been present, has encouraged me to seek out the oven manual so I can learn how to silence its mysterious beeping habit without turning it off at the wall.

IT is hard to resist speculating about what I’d do if I won the Lottery. Not that I play it, but from the odds that are quoted on the chances of winning, if you do hold a ticket it doesn’t sound as though they’d be very much different if you’d never bought a ticket in your life.

One of the reasons I don’t partake is that I don’t understand it. I wouldn’t know where to start, where to go, what to ask for, or even how to discover if I’d won, let alone how much I’d won and what to do with it. With it all, I should say. All the millions.

It’s like Air Miles that aren’t called Air Miles any more. We have friends who fly to the Moon and back for threepence-halfpenny because of all the credit they’ve collected, but search me how they manage that.

I’m reliably told by people who were born knowing about such things that if we must insist on flying with budget airlines then we can’t expect any bonuses. OK, that’s us firmly told and categorised as cheapskates. But even when we flew to New York with a real grown-up airline nothing was mentioned about collecting points, or whatever it is one does. We might have been tempted to keep flying to and fro just to build up enough points so we could one day fly there for free, except that probably isn’t the idea.

The Lottery and my lack of success with it, for reasons that I cannot complain about, came to mind at the weekend when Geoff and I went to a lunch which ended with the drawing of a raffle. Might we strike lucky this time, I wondered. If not millions, then maybe a modest surprise that would give us pleasure.

We bought five strips of tickets between us, which some may have considered rash since we hadn’t seen any of the prizes. They’re over there, someone gestured towards the far wall, and through the fog of my unspectacled eyesight I made out the shapes of items that we’ve all received for Christmas and put by for the next time someone asks us for a raffle prize.

Too late to back out now or pretend we’ve mislaid them, so we lay our tickets on the table as our fellow guests have done and wait nervously for one of our numbers to be called. It would, of course, be just our luck to win something that in no way could be categorised as a pleasant surprise.

Numbers were drawn and a succession of people clattered up between the tables to claim short-dated chocolates, obscure makes of bubble bath, gents’ grooming sets and boxed table mats.

One of our friends, returning with a brave smile and a frilly apron held at arm’s length, reported in a whisper that only two prizes remained: a purple handbag and a Jeffrey Archer novel.

Somehow, this had turned into a kind of bizarre torture, a prank of horrific proportions thought up by someone with a wicked sense of humour.

“This can’t get any worse,” I muttered to Geoff.

“It can,” he hissed. “We could win one of them.”

The tension rose and fell, rose and fell, as people who had already won and had their numbers called a second or third time asked for the draw to be made again. Once bitten twice shy, perhaps.

And then it was over. All prizes had been allocated and we hadn’t won a thing. Never had two people been so grateful for such a comprehensive record of failure.

HOW interesting to learn that the NHS is to impose a sugar tax on drinks and snacks bought in hospitals.

I read the story announcing this just before accompanying a friend to hospital where she was to have a scan.

The first thing Diana had to do on arrival was drink a litre of water to ensure, among other things, her kidneys were in good order. Of course, this being modern Britain, there was a choice of liquids so anyone who couldn’t stomach the taste of plain water could have one of four ‘fruit’ squashes and overwhelm their bodies with artificial sweeteners and heaven knows what other chemicals.

We could not fathom why there needed to be a choice. It’s a hospital. Hospitals promote health – don’t they? So why pander to people in this unnecessary way?

Dear patients, you must drink a litre of liquid and we have chosen for you to have this in the form of water. End of story.

The money saved by not buying unhealthy squashes could go towards some of the items for which staff raise money. Notice boards on the corridors we walked along advised of proceeds raised by cake sales. Now why cake sales, I wonder? Undoubtedly because they’re popular and a sure-fire way of getting people to dip into their pockets. But there must be healthier ways of raising money and better examples to set to patients.

We spy a trolley doing its rounds, pushed by a volunteer. A strong volunteer, we can’t help concluding, since the trolley is burdened with unimaginable quantities of sweets, chocolates and snacks. It looks like a small ship, the SS Temptation, on its way to a WeightWatchers meeting.

Diana told me that when she’d been a patient she was discharged with a bag full of medications that she was being given “just in case”. She investigated only one, took a teaspoonful and found it to be so sickly she brought it straight back up and never unscrewed the bottle again.

Her mealtime request for a natural yogurt had resulted in the nearest the kitchens could get: a creamy ‘fruits of the forest flavour’, complete with artificial sweetener and all its usual unpleasant bedfellows.

Sweetness and sickliness is everywhere. Plain and ordinary never gets a look-in. No food is left unadorned or unadulterated.

Even a coffee nowadays is not considered a coffee by some unless it’s served in a bucket and pumped up to 300 calories with cream and sprinkles and goodness knows what else.

At least Diana and I didn’t spot any vending machines in the hospital, though we know there are some. That would have been one depressing step too far.

We know we could find one in the leisure centre, though, which must surely amount to cynicism on overdrive. Come in, swim, play sport, use the gym, get fit – oh, and while you’re here, feast on some of this rubbish and get a paunch, rot your teeth and ruin your appetite.

And don’t even start me on vending machines in schools. Childhood obesity is a serious problem? Well, what a surprise.

Do I think taxing sugary drinks and sweets in hospitals will have the desired effect of encouraging people to reduce their intake? Do I heck.

They’re so hooked on the drug of sweetness they’ll pay whatever they have to for a ‘fix’.

I would so love to be proved wrong and for this new move in the NHS to be the start of something really significant, but the way things are at present I can’t see it working.

IT shouldn’t surprise me any more when telephones play the joker and distort our voices.

You’d have thought I’d be used to it and I’d have ears that automatically attuned themselves, especially now that mobile phones make so many of us sound as though we are speaking six feet down in a bubble bath. More clues than a voice and a name are often necessary in those circumstances before a conversation can get under way.

It was a landline that played tricks when I rang Sue from my mobile at the weekend. The phone was answered with a just-discernible “Hello”.

“Is that Sue?” I asked, straining to hear.

The voice of Sue’s husband, the red-trousered Major, put me right: “No, it’s not. Is that Bridget?”

This was getting silly and was going to need some serious unravelling, but fortunately at that moment Sue picked up the extension and said an instantly recognisable “Hi Sally”.

The Major put his phone down and, I have no doubt, went off muttering to himself that he could have sworn I sounded like Bridget, while I was querying my sanity in mistaking him for his wife.

It happens – and it’s always happened. When I was a child I was in the room when my father answered the old black sit-up-and-beg phone to what was obviously a caller who’d got the wrong number because he had to spend some time convincing her he was not her friend Sharon.

That incident quickly achieved the status of family legend, along with the later occasion when Dad, again answering the phone, was asked: “Is that you, Gloria?”

I was involved in a similar scenario many years later when a caller assumed I was his mate Graham and launched into some very involved chat about work. He was more disappointed than embarrassed when I finally got a word in edgeways and put him right.

Telephones and my Mum don’t make a happy mix these days and it is almost a blessing that she quite often doesn’t even hear hers when it rings.

Trying to have a conversation with her down the wire is impossible, not just because she is so hard of hearing but because she is so suspicious of callers, who are all, in her view, of the nuisance variety. This doesn’t make life very easy for anyone who wants to impart a bona fide message but perseverance and thousand-decibel shouting down the wire usually do the trick.

Mum’s habit, once she’s twigged that that faint ringing sound could be her phone, is to pick up the receiver and speak very loudly in the gruff voice of a man, at the same time adopting one of the BBC’s least convincing yokel accents. “Ellow,” she’ll growl, “waddoo ee want?”

The irritants who ring with the aim of signing her up to some devious scam have more than met their match. Once Mum has delivered her opening salvo they are so bemused they ram the phone down in shock and resume staring out of the window of their tower block in downtown Mumbai or Manchester.

As hostile tactics go it is proving to be a winner. The number of nuisance calls is reducing. I’d try Mum’s winning method myself except our rules at Hill Towers involve ignoring the phone altogether when the display reveals the caller to have a number that is either ‘Unavailable’ or ‘Withheld’ which I have learnt over the years is the next best clue to ‘Don’t Answer – it’s a Marketing Call’.

I HAVE noticed there’s a trend for people to take the opportunity of the New Year to tell the world what they are not going to continue doing in 2016. In other words, they’ve been listing undesirable habits they are going to drop in an effort to become a Better Person.

Would that we could all be as searingly honest. Personally, I couldn’t admit so publicly to any of my weaknesses, so let’s take it as read that I shall be going all out to achieve complete and utter perfection as soon as possible, and certainly before the year is out.

I contacted my friend Sue in the hope she’d equip me with the means for achieving this. She’s a problem solver, is Sue.

We met over lunch, a disappointingly modest meal since it was in that dreary gap twixt Christmas and New Year when eating anything more than a handful of leaves seems positively greedy, bearing in mind the dietary rigours to come in January (well, for the first 10 days, anyway, until the iron will bends).

Now I would love to be able to explain here how valuable Sue was in encouraging me, perhaps even in reassuring me that my hoped-for perfection was but a tweak or two away. Sadly, though, we became distracted and it was all my fault. Somehow, and I can’t think how we so rapidly drifted off the point, but it happens a lot these days, I heard myself telling her how I had once met the actor Sam Neill, he of a handsomeness so smouldering that he was tipped to be Roger Moore’s successor as James Bond. He missed out, unfairly, to Timothy Dalton.

Sue was impressed enough by this revelation to ask me who else I’d met that she might have heard of. Naturally, my mind went blank, as it does so often, but I knew there was someone of significance who was floating about in my memory.

I batted away the recollection of Jimmy Savile, when we’d been on a judging panel together, and I concentrated instead on trying to recall the name of a delightful, sparky woman whose company I had enjoyed at an event where she had been the celebrity attraction. I could picture her, but her name eluded me.

I flapped my hand at Sue. “It wasn’t Rula Lenska. Does that help?” Sue said it didn’t.

I did some more dredging and thought of another clue. “She’s in the same programme on telly as Bernadette Cavendish.”

Sue is more in touch with modern culture than I am so she was able to challenge the existence of a Bernadette Cavendish.

“Perhaps I don’t exactly mean that,” I admitted, with yet more anxious hand-flapping.

“Do you by any chance mean Benedict Cumberbatch?”

“Yes, yes, of course I do! How did you know?”

Sue ventured that she just guessed, but actually she’s a mind reader, because within mere minutes she’d also worked out that the name of the actor whose company I had enjoyed was indeed not Rula Lenska but Una Stubbs.

“But you don’t even watch Shamrock, so how do you know she’s the housekeeper in that?”

“I just know,” Sue said, with a hint of smugness, ‘and anyway it’s not Shamrock it’s Sherlock, you fool.”

After that, while the salad leaves curled unappetisingly on my plate, I vowed that in 2016 I would try and be a lot less foolish – and stop flapping my hands.

I REALLY shouldn’t be writing this. I should be staying focused on the task in hand and not allow myself to be sidetracked on to the much more pleasurable task of maintaining my journal.

Up to now I’ve spent the day rationalising the kitchen. ‘Rationalising’ is a word beloved of my mother which she uses in place of a more prosaic word such as ‘tidying’. So I’m rationalising and, in doing so, I’m not only creating space but putting a little much-needed gleam on my tarnished halo.

The need for this attention to the kitchen became uncomfortably apparent over Christmas when, for days at a time, there was not a spare inch of space to be had anywhere, not in a drawer, a cupboard or on any worktops. Even the table, so large it goes by the big-boy name of Tyrone, has half of its expanse taken up with stuff for which no home seems able to be found elsewhere.

I have finally tumbled to the fact there are two solutions to this bulging kitchen syndrome: rationalise or move house. We couldn’t countenance the latter, so rationalise it must be, and I’m the only one who can do it, unfortunately. Geoff takes on the role of inspector and maker of encouraging noises. We’re quite a team.

So far, after several concerted hours of application, punctuated only by the irresistible urge to sit and concentrate on reading the newspaper and listening to no more than two or three radio programmes, I have cleaned the sink, created several inches of space on two worktops (mainly by squashing stuff together) and, triumphantly, cleaned out the bulging drawer of spices so comprehensively that I can now close it without shouting at the cardamom pods.

That was the savoury spices drawer. Tomorrow I’ll tackle its next-door neighbour in which there are such aromatic beauties as cinnamon, vanilla pods, saffron, nutmeg and star anise to set my nose twitching and my imagination racing.

After that, after I’ve chucked out the oldies and made a note of what needs replacing, I will bend myself double and tackle the pulses and the nuts and the oddities in one of the base-unit cupboards where I know I’ll encounter some ancient, some modern and some that make me wonder what on earth I was thinking about when I bought them.

Geoff has a theory about what lies at the root of my bulging kitchen syndrome. He suggests it’s because I shop as though I am not only expecting a siege but I’m also convinced I am still catering for the whole family, even though the children haven’t lived at home for 20 years.

He’s right, I’m afraid. The stuffed-full cupboards are clearly a sign of some kind of middle-aged crisis being experienced by someone who needs a break. I fancy this means a break in a hotel with a spa and a pool and compulsory pampering several hours a day. Yes, that’s how to overcome bulging kitchen syndrome.

Oh, sorry, correction. I seem to have crossed my wires. The state of the kitchen is clearly a metaphor and I actually mean post-Christmas bulging body syndrome. Now it all begins to make sense.

Happy New Year to you all.


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