I AM awaiting delivery of a new computer monitor. This is an exciting event, honestly, since the ancient one I am peering at is far too small and, like other things that reach a certain age, it has developed eccentric habits that are hard to live with.

So a new one is on its way and it’s going to be big. This means it will require more space than the old one which in turn means I must de-clutter my desk to accommodate it.

Each time super-tidy Geoff looks into my eyes and reminds me of this and points at the heaps I go shaky and whimper a bit. As the state of Hill Towers testifies, I hate throwing anything out.

I know William Morris said we should have nothing in our homes that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more.

I fix Geoff with a firm look and repeat this to him, explaining that I could classify all my clutter in one or other of those categories. Why, the old iPhone that I dropped into a basin of water may one day come back to life and be really useful, so I ought to keep it right here, slightly in the way, close enough for me to hear if it should start spluttering and gasping for breath.

Also in the way are a pebble covered in strands of felt (I know, you would have thought life was a bit short) that a friend of my daughter’s gave me in 2002, four empty glasses cases, two pairs of glasses circa 1999, something that looks like desiccated rabbit droppings but is in fact an ancient sprig of mimosa from Italy, a packet of passport photos of someone who looks certifiable and might be me, a bottle of glue, a brooch, three and a half blunt pencils, a wooden light pull, a nail file, four drink mats, a 40-page booklet of instructions in 10 languages that came with my now not-so-new cycle helmet, two notebooks, several plugs and leads, diaries for this year and the previous two years, three notebooks, two Christmas tree light bulbs, a slew of out-of-date plastic membership cards that might come in handy for scraping ice off the car windscreen if I should ever remember I have them and a large pair of headphones for Skype conversations.

If only the collection of clutter really did only consist of those items. In fact they form just the top layer. Underneath are piles of letters, sheets of paper, notes, postcards, old invitations – ephemera that I’d readily agree with William Morris is not beautiful but could be classed as useful because it might be needed for reference.

Geoff points to an old key and asks why I’m keeping it if we don’t know what it fits or even where it came from. As I explain that it would be unwise to throw away a key because you never know how useful it could be, I suddenly notice that it’s sitting on a pocket magnifying glass that I’ve been trying to find for ages.

This is one of the problems of clutter. Things sort of blend into their setting so I become oblivious to them.

I ought to stop writing now because this has really only been displacement activity to delay the inevitable.

Before I roll up my sleeves I wonder if I dare tell Geoff that I might just keep the new monitor in its box. It would save such a lot of bother and my useful, beautiful heaps could remain intact.

ONE of my childhood memories is of hours spent killing time in a museum while I waited for my father to come out of meetings in an upstairs room.

As with all such memories, time has warped them, so that what I now think was a regular occurrence probably only happened a handful of times. And what I think of as ages being at large in the cool, unpeopled rooms, would not have been very long at all.

I think Dad and I must have had an arrangement that I would walk to the museum at the end of my school day and wait for him to come and find me after his meeting before driving me home.

It was all a bit dullsville, but anything that spared me the bus journey of well over an hour was worth it, even if it meant I was in a fusty, musty world that held little appeal for a 12-year-old.

I couldn’t touch, only look, so that the rooms of natural history, a subject I loved, yielded nothing in what we would now call a ’visitor experience’.

No fossils could be held and minutely inspected, no lifelike fox stroked or birdsong listened to. In other words, not the slightest hint of interaction in that department or anywhere else in the building. I usually ended up in the interlinked rooms full of gilt-framed paintings, aimlessly searching out the horsey subjects.

Things hadn’t moved on much by the time I had my own children, so that any suggestion of a visit to a museum, art gallery or historic house usually met with an underwhelmed raising of the eyebrows and an “Oh Mum, do we have to?” There was precious little to excite young minds.

Nowadays, the concept of visitors being treated to an interactive experience is as much a part of a day out as a cup of tea and cake. It is also one that sends unreasonable shivers down my spine when I’m with Geoff, although when we’re out with the family it is an entirely different matter.

“How lovely,” I say in my Joyce Grenfell voice to the grandsons, “they’ve got a have-a-go archery session starting at 3pm. We’ve just got time to finish the nature trail and see the birds of prey demonstration before we head down to the archery field.”

We experienced all that at a National Trust property at the weekend. It was the same place we’d visited a few weeks ago, when the boys made their own coiled pots from wet, messy clay – to their absolute joy – and took part in an archaeological dig.

The six-year-old, silent with concentration and sheer wonder, unearthed a coin during the dig. He announced at bedtime that he’d switched his career ambition from ’a police’ to an archaeologist, which was entirely understandable.

Inside the beautiful old house, we followed clues to make fascinating discoveries, touched wood panelling that had been on the walls for centuries – yes, even before grandma and grandpa were born – and climbed a tower from where the enemy could be spied upon and, if necessary, repelled in any number of satisfyingly gruesome ways.

The smaller grandson tried his hand at archery and, to everyone’s amazement, kept hitting the target. What this could lead to as far as his career ambitions are concerned we would rather not speculate upon, but I think we need to make sure he isn’t left alone with a bow and arrows for several years. That would be taking the interactive experience a little too far.

ABOUT two centuries ago I went to the wedding of one of my best friends and witnessed her joy at marrying the love of her life.

Fast-forward two centuries and, while the two of them obviously still love each other in that comfortable ‘favourite pair of old socks’ way (i.e. they fit as a pair and no other will do) there is without doubt an air of resignation about each other’s habits and, well, existence.

Like many couples, they’ve grown into different people over the years and, while they haven’t exactly grown apart, they do find they get on better when they’re ploughing independent furrows.

Last weekend, Mr Friend went off to Sydney to spend a month helping their newly-wed son build an extension on his homestead, or whatever young marrieds have in Australia. Mrs Friend, my old pal, having already travelled to both Oz and South Africa this year, opted to sit this one out.

I emailed her on Monday. ‘Has he gone?’ I asked, ready to offer across-the-ether support in her husband-less state.

Her response came within minutes: ‘I put him on the bus for the airport at midday on Saturday and went straight to Sainsbury’s to stock up on garlic and fish, both of which I adore but which are banned in our household when he is around.

‘I have ordered myself the box set of the entire series of Breaking Bad and a Davina McCall workout DVD (more in hope than anticipation, I fear), which should both arrive tomorrow.

‘I also bought myself a bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc and set it to chill as I planned a nice relaxing afternoon. After seeing my middle daughter and playing in the sunshine in the garden with my grandson I prepared my salmon and asparagus supper with garlic mayonnaise. Delicious!’

She went on: ‘It was the first day of the football season, always a cause hereabouts for much celebration, nay reverence, but for once you would not have known it. Not one squeak of Match of the Day could be heard as I revelled in my power over the remote control and binged my way through some of the TV I had recorded and never had a chance to watch.

‘At bedtime I suddenly realised I could pull the blind down as Himself hates having the windows covered at night, so I wasn’t woken up at dawn’s first light. I have Radio 4 on permanently and all toilet seats remain DOWN. Believe me, this is as good as it gets.

‘On Sunday we’d been invited to a lunch party and I knew that if he’d been here I’d have had to drag him along and then leave early because he was hating every minute of it. As it was, I was able to take hours getting ready and I had a really enjoyable, relaxed time, being responsible only for myself.

‘So all in all I am rather revelling in my new found singledom. Rather too much I fear. Is that a bad thing, do you think?’

I didn’t dare answer her question, but I’m sure she’ll soon be longing for him to come back – certainly at the first sighting of a spider scuttling across the bedroom carpet.

I CANNOT imagine how many times over the years I have silently whimpered to myself about feeling worn out. I’ve fantasised about crawling away into a siding for a while and taking a restorative break while the world carries on without me. Not long, just a couple of days. That would probably fix me.

And then, all of a sudden, last month I became involuntarily unfixed as my hitherto trusty body did a collapsing act. A serious face peered at me over half-moon glasses and ordered medical intervention followed by rest.

What, me? Unbreakable me? Well, it seems he meant it, because I’ve had the intervention bit and now I’m in the ‘rest’ phase.

Day after day of being useless is not my way at all, and yet, knowing I am banned from doing anything more than sit tight and get better, I find that indolence and I are getting on rather well together.

With Geoff in charge, the house is certainly looking a lot tidier than when I’m creating my waves of clutter and chaos. Force of circumstances has caused him to effect a quite extraordinary transformation from world class Beta Male to a dynamic and capable Alpha Male – and I never thought I would write those words. It’s true that he can display panicky OCD tendencies when patrolling his new, if alien, territory of the kitchen, causing him to fill and run the dishwasher almost hourly. I think he fears running out of plates but since there’s just the two of us most of the time, this is as likely to happen as me running out of patronising comments about his sheer brilliance.

Being forced off the rails and into the sidings in the way I have, and not going of my own volition, has meant that there was never much time to plan what I’d do with my time. All these hours at my disposal are suddenly like a gift that I’m not sure I know how to unwrap and use.

Snatched moments to read during the daytime have always been more rare over the years than sightings of a hen wearing dentures, so when I’m sitting here in my sofa-nest with the hours stretching ahead of me, what do I do?

I read a lot. In fact I read to the point where it almost becomes too much and I am sated to the point of no return with the act of reading. (And that’s another thing I never thought I’d write.) I have piles of books by my side and at my feet, each one crying out for my attention. Be patient, I urge them. I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

I also write a lot and I talk a lot, either on the phone or in person, one at a time, to the loyal, thoughtful visitors who call.

And then the day is over. How remarkable it is to find that without the slightest effort on my part, the daylight hours can pass in a happy blur of absolute nothingness, with nothing achieved and no effort expended.

I don’t like it. I’m frustrated by this idleness and I can’t wait to be mobile again, but while these blank days come and go, one after another after a very similar other, I’ll do my best to get something out of each one, even if it is only the astonishing feat of managing to read a whole chapter without falling asleep more than twice.

ALL it takes is to leave these shores for a few hours and you soon discover how great a part the BBC plays in your life. Or that’s what I have found. Bowling along some autoroute in France (assuming the striking farmers move aside) and out snakes the hand to put the radio on. Aargh, it’s not our lot, it’s something foreign and it sounds trashy.

As an expat years ago I was a devoted listener to the BBC World Service. Nowadays, any of the voices or music from that era take me straight back to nights bent over a fizzing transistor virtually inhaling the airwaves.

Whenever I return home from being away I push the button on my radio and in an instant I know I’m where I belong: the Today programme, Woman’s Hour, From Our Own Correspondent, the Food Programme, PM, Moral Maze, All in the Mind, Inside Health – they are so familiar it’s as though they run through my veins. Telly is different because I’m addicted to radio, preferring the pictures in my head.

The BBC is without equal, be it via radio or television. It tries and usually succeeds in being all things to all men, women and children, and in doing so delights and absorbs us – and infuriates us to varying degrees.

Yes, it’s peerless, but it is having to account for itself now as a Government-appointed advisory group sets about a review of the Corporation.

The knees of the great and the good are all a-tremble at the prospect of our beloved BBC being ’diminished’. That is the sort of thing that can happen when a ’root and branch’ review such as this is promised. One imagines a mighty oak tree being cut down and churned into sawdust – no greater diminution.

All I want (apart from Nigel’s miraculous return to The Archers) is for someone with half a brain to spend a week chopping instead into the obscene amount of fat at the top of the organisation. It’s the bloated salaries that offend us far more than the occasional less than brilliant forays into experimental drama or the hysterical TV shows that leave us gawping with incomprehension – and that’s just the trailers.

The W1A series on BBC2 brilliantly satirises the stupidity and excesses of BBC management and lays bare its exasperating, silly side, the side that rankles us. Overpaid confused managers with ludicrous titles trapped in glass boxes in endless, pointless meetings – that’s the BBC we cannot love or be loyal to. We want and expect brisk efficiency and best use of our licence money. It’s hard to see it happening through the thicket of self-serving privilege and pumped up pay that seemingly barricades the upper echelons from the mortals at Broadcasting House.

It is as a broadcaster, if not as a model of management, that the BBC has set the bar very high for more than 90 years. It has had to adapt over those years from a fusty old friend crackling in the corner to a technically engaged provider of instant newsfeed from every corner of the globe.

In my view it achieves gold stars in this and in its mission, set by its founder Lord Reith, to ’inform, educate and entertain’ and does not deserve to be constantly lambasted for failing to deliver. We pay a licence fee and in return we get wall-to-wall radio and TV that surely offers something to please the majority of tastes.

And if it doesn’t, then switch off and listen to the silence – or go abroad and discover what it could be like.


WE aren’t going away this summer. Am I sad about this, am I not champing at the bit to explore and make new memories of the sights to be found in that exciting destination called ’abroad’?

No, I am not sad at all. There are so many good things about staying put in summer, especially in this wonderful part of the world, and the very best thing of all is that we don’t have mosquitoes. Not in our neck of the woods anyway.

Mosquitoes love me, and they hold all-night dance parties all over me whenever they track me down. So far, though, they’ve never found me in Dorset, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Many a foreign holiday has been blighted by the utter misery of being bitten. Just hearing that high-pitched droning bzzzzzzzz on the first night and splat go any hopes of a relaxing few days. And why, heaven help me, do they buzz right in my ears? I can hear you at 20 paces, you hateful spoiler of holidays, so don’t come trying to bore your sneaky way into my head.

Some of my more heroic, but always pointless, battles with mozzies have been waged in hot bedrooms on European holidays.

Nothing, but nothing, equates with the heart-sinking hopelessness I feel when my space is invaded by these blighters, especially as I know they will always get the better of me. They gorge on me as if I am their personal eat-all-you-like meat buffet.

Geoff gets bitten, too, but never as badly as me. They love me to bits. They love me even when I’m drowning head to toe in 16 types of mozzie repellent and swaddled in clothing chosen for its impenetrable qualities.

One memorable war zone was our bedroom in the hotel in Venice where we stayed on our first visit many years ago. Oof, it’s stuffy in here, we said, as we opened all the windows before going out for the evening. Later, when we turned out the light to go to sleep we discovered we were sharing the room with a brigade of mosquito SAS intent on a feeding frenzy. They dive-bombed, swooped, circled, went invisible, sank their jaws into us, drank deep, and still came back for more. By morning, when neither Geoff nor I had slept but our overhead smash technique had improved to Wimbledon standard, we were groggy with fever caused by the bites – and the walls were spattered with corpses and blood stains. Our blood.

Never again have we opened windows with such abandon. We learnt a terrible, painful, feverish lesson and couldn’t believe how foolish we had been.

But it hasn’t just been holidays when the mosquito misery has cast its shadow. During the 18 relentlessly hot, humid months of living in the Far East there was not just the ever-present fear of being bitten by any kind of predator from pinhead size to nightmarishly big, but also the threat of dengue fever wiping us out in one small snap of mosquito jaws. Charming little things, aren’t they?

I swap mozzie battle plans with my friend Cat whenever we go to Italy. She has a sophisticated armoury of herbal potions that she has long employed to defend her pale, freckled skin against the enemy. But for the past few summers she has found the perfect answer: stay in a flat so high up that the mozzies don’t have the wing power to make the journey. Fourth floor or above is the answer, Cat swears, as she relaxes with a smile that says ’Gotcha!’


By chance and certainly not by design (who, me?) I found myself in a second-hand bookshop this week that is closing down. Now if anyone should ever ask me where I would most like to spend a spare hour or two I would, after dismissing the idea of bed as just too old-ladyish, certainly say ‘in a second-hand bookshop’.

It is very sad that this particular one, that supports a charity, is closing as we have been closely acquainted for many years. Thanks to it, the bookshelves at Hill Towers have regularly had their load both lightened and replenished. I have even been on the rota of volunteers, so I know its inner workings, too, as well as its public face.

Now it is no more, but in a final act of selflessness before the doors finally closed I went along to see what I could do to ease its painful death throes.

So no, I didn’t really happen to find myself in there, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece. I wrote that just in case Geoff should read it. I actually went armed with a shopping bag, just in case . . . you never know. Besides, I wanted to show my support and with everything at half-price it would have been churlish not to have bought something.

I don’t quite know what happened to me in there, in that lovely, familiar, wall-to-wall paradise of words and pictures, but as if by magic I found myself with my arms stacked full of books. I gently laid them, one by one, on to the counter. As I did so, I counted them, silently, and was stunned to find I’d chosen 14 – and not one of them would I have willingly put back.

So 14 it was going to have to be. What joy! The assistant rang them up and as I carefully placed each one into my capacious bag, I couldn’t help noticing how much their diversity reflected my reading tastes.

There was the poetry, of course – always the poetry – two lovely volumes of it: British Poetry Since 1945 and The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse; classic, timelessly beautiful writing in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Penelope Lively and Irene Nemirovsky (two by her, in fact); contemporary best-selling fiction by Emma Healey; a fascinating look at Europe in the 18th century through the eyes of William Beckford on his Grand Tour; Simon Hopkinson’s cookery book and entertaining story book rolled into one volume of immense brilliance, called Roast Chicken and Other Stories; a guide to identifying trees (useful for when I’m put on the spot by a questioning grandchild); a book of Snoopy cartoons (unthinkable to leave for someone else to buy); a book of Posy Simmonds cartoons (ditto); and two books for visiting grandchildren, one on the subject of reptiles and the other a beautifully illustrated traditional tale of an old man who grew an enormous turnip, as old men are wont to do.

The turnips and reptiles will be put to one side, but all the rest, all the poetry and the novels and the non-fiction and the cartoons, will be my constant companions through the summer, teetering gently in their unruly piles, swapping pole position depending on my mood. Understandably, Geoff will grumble a little about this habit I have of bringing more books into the house, but then I’ll play my trump card. I’ll tell him there were several books in the sale that I wanted but had resisted buying.

He’ll be impressed, as long as I don’t add that they were the ones I’d donated after our most recent clear-out.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers