Archive for the ‘Columns 2004’ Category

THIS is the strange bit of the festive season, the kind of dog-end of the year when nearly all the fun is over but there’s just a little bright light on the horizon that is New Year’s Eve. After that, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall dark days and gloomy nights for about three months.

So how we do we make the most of what we’re left with? Well, we waste time by making New Year resolutions, we torture our bodies by alternately detoxing and pigging out on the bubbles in fizzy mineral water, and we dream about the summer when we are going to have a holiday featured in one of the brochures we’ve carted home in a fit of enthusiasm about getting organised and booking early.

After the Christmas we’ve had, and the industrial-sized quantities of food Geoff and I have packed away, I think even the mineral water bubbles are going to have to go by the board for a month or so. We’ll be on small rations of fresh air until we can see our toes, and until then we shall maintain a rigid programme of disciplined exercise. For my part, being addicted to physical activity but unfortunately built along the lines of a pocket-sized version of Tamara Press, the Russian shot-putter, this will involve going running more often and not wimping out when I would prefer to sit down with a book. For Geoff it will mean walking all the way across the kitchen to the sink to get a glass of water and not just sitting at the table and hoping his thirst will go away.

He must also discipline himself to walk upstairs with things that need to be put away up there, instead of piling them on the bottom stair in the confident expectation that the putting-away-fairy will come to his rescue.

It’s going to be a radical new regime for him. Whether it will involve him in acquiring a new wardrobe of exercise clothing remains to be seen. If, for example, the walk to the kitchen sink proves overly taxing, then we’ll have to think about getting him one of those tops that wicks away the sweat, leaving the body dry and ready for the next bout of physical punishment.

Footwear could be a problem. Constant pounding up and down the stairs could put a strain on his arches if he only wears his going-to-work shoes. I think it might be wise to take him to a specialist sports shop and have him measured for a pair of designer-label cushion-soled sports shoes with built-in light and sound effects, so he can be both seen and heard.

Who needs fancy exercise equipment when you’ve got a kitchen floor to walk across and a staircase to sprint up and down? Not us, or so we thought, until someone persuaded us to give a home to his obsolete rowing machine. As Geoff and I wrestled the thing down into the cellar we both had visions of emerging with Pinsent-like physiques within a week.

Sadly we were thwarted in this, but only because the rowing machine turned out to be nearly as ancient and useless as we are. The only difference is that we’ve managed to patch it together but we, meanwhile, are clearly beyond help.


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IT is a long, long time since I sent a Christmas wish-list up the chimney to Santa. I can remember being distraught more than once when my sister’s charmingly decorated notes floated serenely up towards the North Pole, via our Cornish slate hearth, while mine, ink blots and all, and bearing fervent messages of undying devotion and assurances as to my future conduct, incinerated in the flames of the fire.

My mother would have to reassure me that Santa would still know what was on my list. He could read my wobbly writing despite the fact it had been borne to his ice-bound home in a carbonised form. Was there no end to the man’s magical powers?

And so, oh thank you Santa, I did get my longed-for Red Indian head-dress and tomahawk, and I did get a doll called Charlotte with removable shoes. Oh, the joy! Charlotte also had lustrous hair of a burnished coppery-brown so long it could be plaited. I fussed over it an awful lot – until the day I played hairdressers with the nail scissors. Charlotte lost her locks and her looks, I’m afraid, and I went off the idea of marrying her.

All these years later, I am pleased to find that I’m old enough to behave like a spoilt child all over again. Accordingly, I have made out a new wish-list for Santa which I shall be decorating prettily and sending up the chimney on Friday night.

As I am reliably informed that Santa reads this magazine, I am setting out my wish-list here just in case he can’t read my handwriting or the note goes astray in the chimney.

Please, dear wonderful Santa, could you arrange for:

1.      My appetite to be suppressed for the whole of the Christmas period (and quite some time beyond as well)

2.      Our troublesome boiler (still not fixed) to remember that this is the season of goodwill and it would be a tragedy if we froze to death just because it was having one of its sulks

3.      My beloved husband to be happy that people care so much about him they want to shower him with socks and hankies and it is nothing to do with the fact he is absolutely impossible at this time of year and is totally uncooperative in the matter of saying what he’d like for Christmas

4.      My clothes to stop appearing dull, shabby and unfashionable – and to fit

5.      Delia Smith to move in for a fortnight

6.      A box of high-quality (and therefore non-sickly) Turkish Delight that I don’t have to share with too many people

7.      My hair to behave like a normal person’s

8.      Nobody to force-feed me Brussels sprouts. When I decline, I don’t want to have them spooned on to my plate anyway and be told that ‘these are really nice’. They won’t be. So there

9.      Elasticated waistbands to take the fashion catwalks by storm

10.  Jonny Wilkinson to move in next door. Please.

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I SUSPECT we’re meant to think that those over-the-top, multi-coloured, multi-megawatt, flashing-in-all-directions Christmas decorations on the fronts of houses are naff. Well I don’t. I think they’re fantastic. Let me qualify that: they’re fantastic as long as they don’t appear on a house opposite mine.

It wouldn’t just be the blazing lights that would disturb me. I’d be worrying about Santa and his mates freezing to death out there.

I like to stare at these mighty constructions in jaw-dropping amazement, trying to imagine what sort of person put such a collection of bizarre items together, designed the layout and then wired it all up before slapping the plug into the socket and switching on. What sort of person? The sort who knows how to create a terrific impression – and who knows rather more about electrics than how to change a plug.

It is incredible what some people can create. When you consider the trouble most of us have with keeping one miserable blinking set of lights blinking as they should on the blinking Christmas tree, it is extraordinary how great glowing tableaux can be maintained for weeks on end out in the frosty air.

There is one particularly magnificent creation that I pass on the road to and from work. In the mornings it is, of course, quite unremarkable, looking not unlike a deserted fairground before the gates open. In other words, a bit strange and skeletal but full of promise.

In the evenings, though, on my way home, I often stop my car to gawp in utter astonishment at the animated scene that sends a modest semi-detached house into the realms of wonderland. Each year it seems to get more and more fantastic, but it does the trick, because its creator collects a tidy sum for charity from gawpers such as me.

As an annual ritual, as this is becoming for many householders, it seems fairly harmless (except to the planet’s resources). It is also becoming increasingly popular, presumably because of an undercurrent of rivalry. You know the sort of thing: ‘The Smiths have got a bigger sleigh on their roof than ours, but we’ve got four reindeer and they’ve only got two. And our life-size Santa looks much more realistic. Theirs looks like John Prescott.’

Because it’s a fairly recent phenomenon which smacks of brashness and vulgarity I imagine we have picked up the habit from our American cousins, who have a different take on taste from us. In fact most things American, even the people, are inclined to be more  . . . er, obvious, shall we say, than your average.

That said, I’d like to thank them for inspiring us (well, not me but lots of others) to climb ladders, lean out of windows and balance on rooftops to bring that too-often-absent sense of wonder and joy to your average British passer-by.

Any journey after dark at this time of year is a delight if it means we can take in a few eyefuls of flashing lights and whirling tableaux. A long way from Bethlehem they may be, but to me these fabulous expressions of a householder’s festive exuberance are very effective in spreading the Christmas spirit. Long may they light up our lives – as long as our neighbours don’t catch the bug.


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THE trusty old train has well and truly hit the buffers this week. There we were, chugging along towards Christmas (a massive hurdle which I can’t even think about at the moment, let alone face) when kerpow, as they say in the comics, everything went wrong.

First of all it was the computer. Like all these inscrutable things that think they know better, it’s had its moments over the years, sometimes sulking like a hormonal teenager or throwing a massive wobbly like a toddler who’s seriously overdosed on E-numbers. Other times it performs like it should, almost as though it knows we spent a fortune on buying it, attaching scanners and things to its nether regions, changing its screensaver so it doesn’t get bored and speaking kindly to it from time to time lest it should feel taken for granted.

It has been a love-hate relationship, it must be said. More than that, it’s been a love-loathe-and-resent relationship, for of late it has become extremely badly behaved and Geoff and I have found it increasingly difficult to tolerate. When it kept flashing up a message that it couldn’t perform various tasks because it didn’t have a modem (when we could see the modem with our own eyes), we suspected its days were numbered.

After a dozen other maddening incidents that caused Geoff to register regular tens on the Victor Meldrew Scale of Irrational Fury, the computer surgeon pronounced it a terminal case (pun intended) and so we decided to give ourselves a new one for Christmas.

No sooner had that decision been made and the cheque written out in a trembling hand, than Geoff discovered his car needed something hideously expensive doing to it. I think it needed to have mink-trimmed shoe laces fitted, or something like that. The purchase could not be postponed – not even until that jolly post-Christmas period when all the utility companies gang up on us and demand to be paid – and so off the car went for its half-day in the company of others that couldn’t cut it on the mean streets of Dorset.

With the pain in the wallet now becoming acute, it was obviously time for a third cash trauma to come our way. Sure enough, just as the temperatures were plummeting, the central heating boiler packed up.

It is an intermittent fault, an unfeasibly annoying glitch that means we never know if we are going to be cosy or frozen. None of the three heating engineers who has so far come to stare at the thing has been able to fathom it. On three occasions within a week parts have been changed and, on making no difference, put back again. We suspect there is no getting away from the fact that we have a Friday afternoon boiler, one that was flung together by someone with their mind on things other than printed circuit boards and thermostats. And I don’t blame them. I just wish the product of their distracted labours hadn’t ended up in our house, failing to fire up when it should and leaving us shivering, or, on occasions, firing up obediently and duping us into thinking all our problems are over and we can put the cheque book away.

Roll on next summer, that’s all I can say.

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THEY say you’re never too old to learn, which is an expression that provokes in me the mental picture of a bearded ancient poring over a Latin textbook.

I’ve done with Latin a long time ago, and I am not inclined to grow a beard if I can help it, but I’m happy to say that I did learn something new this week. At an age when I should be long past worrying about such things, I learned how to put on make-up.

Frivolous it may be, but how delighted I am to have had the mysteries revealed to me at last of things like foundation and blusher, eye-liner and mascara.

Of course I am not a complete ingenue (perish the thought) and I do have an assortment of such items in my possession. They range in vintage from a 1971 shiny powder-blue eye shadow (do you remember the panda-eyed look?) through a 1989 eyeliner pencil in goose-poo green to a 2004 blusher in what I know now to be absolutely the disastrously wrong shade of terracotta rose (or some such lyrical name).

Now I’m a born again make-up junkie blessed with The Knowledge, I see all these items in a different light. I can see that they are fifth-rate rubbish, not fit to be blobbed, flicked or squirted on to my face. They are wrong. All wrong.

A beautiful dusky gazelle by the name of Jayne told me this, and a lot more, when, encouraged by my only-slightly-embarrassed daughter, I climbed up on to the wicker chair beside a make-up counter in Selfridges. I felt safe and comforted by the anonymity afforded by being in London, in a quiet corner of a manically busy store, far from anyone who could possibly know me and point and . . . well, let’s face it, screech with laughter and incredulity.

In the course of the next half-hour the lovely Jayne coached me in the gentle art of applying make-up. I discovered that it isn’t rocket science, it’s simply that when you get it right it does the job it’s meant to do. Consequently, I learnt that I must not wear black mascara (brown is better with my green eyes), that I should not wear foundation (a tinted moisturiser is adequate), and that I should stop saying I can’t possibly wear lipstick and just try a little slick of something with a name dreamed up by a backroom boffin at NASA.

There was lots more, too, but basically I learnt that whatever I’d been doing for the past 100 years was not doing me any favours, and that my new-found knowledge would give me confidence because I’d be looking just gorgeous – or something.

Jayne polished me off and sent me on my way with a little goodie bag. I felt about ten years old, brimming with excitement as if I’d just left a lovely party. I couldn’t wait to show off my new face to my daughter, but I wondered if she would recognise me, what with my freshly rendered complexion, my newly revealed eyes, and my shiny lips.

‘What do you think?’ I asked her, as I turned on my best 25-watt smile. ‘You look terrific,’ she said. ‘She’s done a great job. Now all you have to do is remember what’s she’s told you.’

Hmm. She has a point. That’s the most difficult thing about learning. 

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FOR a few hours over the weekend my little world ground to a halt. The reason? I’d mislaid – lost, actually, though I didn’t dare admit it – my front-door key. Steps were retraced, my memory was racked, brain cells taken out, scoured for clues, and replaced, pockets were turned out and my colossal constant companion, that is to say my handbag, was tipped out and subjected to a fingertip search.

The result was no key but a lot of anxiety. Geoff interrogated me: when did you last use it? What were you wearing at the time? Have you checked the pockets? If you didn’t put the key back where you normally put it when you came in, where could you have tossed it so carelessly? Have you checked the fridge?

It was at this point, when Geoff was getting all serious and making noises about getting locks changed, that I crept up and whispered to him that it wasn’t just a key that had gone missing but the keyring as well. A teddy bear keyring. A quite large, blue one. Ignoring his sideways look, I said that I knew it was an extremely soppy thing to own, not least to admit to owning, but it served a useful purpose: it was intended to make it easier for me to find my doorkey when it was sculling around in the depths of my handbag.

The fumbling hand, at risk of drowning under the debris, suddenly feels the little teddy’s soft body and hauls it up to the light. Hey presto! Attached to the teddy is the key! Or that’s how it used to be. Now both have gone AWOL and I am in danger of being confined to barracks until the dratted key is found. Geoff takes a very dim view of such incompetence. He is tidy and organised and doesn’t lose things. I am chaotic and scatterbrained and have a tough job holding my life together as bits of it constantly threaten to burst out of their little compartments. So, of course, it had to me who’d lost their key, didn’t it?

As I continued the search, bravely peering under bits of furniture and sticking my hand down the back of the sofa, I realised this had all the ingredients of being one of those awful episodes that become family folklore: the mystery of the missing doorkey.

And mystery it most definitely was, because on my way past the coats in the hall I gave my jacket pockets a millionth hopeful squeeze. What was that? Surely not? Yes, there they were, like a pair of school truants, skulking in a corner. Key and keyring were right where I’d left them first thing on Saturday morning, in the right-hand pocket of my jacket.

The relief was massive. Normal life could resume. Geoff was delighted, too, and I scuttled off in good humour to make a long overdue phone call.

I wanted to ring a long-lost friend who had recently remarried, but first I had to track down her phone number in my address book because of course she had acquired a new surname. Where do I start? Obviously at the letter A. I worked my way through until I reached the letter K. Then I shuddered. Her name, I discovered, is Keyes.


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CERTAIN aspects of life can be difficult when you’re not average height. I can’t bring myself to say ‘short’, but that is what I mean.

Invited to take a seat in someone’s home, I instinctively seek out the sofa or chair that will not have me tilted backwards, my legs flailing in the air like a ridiculous sheep caught on its back. I go for something upright, preferably with a hard edge, which will keep me from that fatal roll-back. If I have no choice but to sit on a sofa whose tipping-back potential I have not yet explored, I perch on the edge like a prim great-aunt. Tea and cakes, anyone?

Away from the perils of the sitting-room (where, if truth be known, I’d really rather sit on the floor), I am often struck by the unnecessary height at which mirrors, and some light switches, are placed. Men, I always reckon, have been responsible for those.

In a friend’s house at the weekend I was cajoled into trying on her new hat. ‘It’s a hat for winter funerals,’ she told me. ‘Borrow it whenever you want.’ Thanks, I mumbled, as she plonked the furry black mushroom on to my head and propelled me over to the nearest mirror.

‘Oh, dear,’ we both said. Just the top of the hat was visible. ‘Go into the hall,’ she suggested. ‘I’m sure you’ll be able to see yourself in that one. It’s really low.’ Well, not low enough, as it turned out, so I nipped into the downstairs loo where somebody had thoughtfully positioned a mirror at a reasonable height. I saw all I needed to see and assured my friend that, were I to need a fancy-dress outfit where my attendance as an unidentified creature that lives in the leaf mould on a forest floor was required, I would know exactly where to come for the headgear.

‘Glad you like it that much,’ she said, and then proceeded to make my day by adding that the very accommodating mirror in the downstairs loo had been put up for the use of her children when they started school.

There is a public loo of my acquaintance where the flush has to be operated by pushing a tiny button on the cistern right up at giraffe-height. Another one designed by a 6ft 8in man, I mutter to myself, as I grimace and teeter, struggling to keep my balance.

Light switches in old houses can provide further trauma for the vertically challenged. Many is the time I have given up and just coped in the darkness after failing to locate some way-up-there switch, installed by an Edwardian with heightist tendencies.

Some of the ludicrous situations I have found myself in, thanks to being either sat on at birth or cruelly and violently squashed as a toddler (curiously, my mother denies any such event happened), make me wonder if I am being singled out by some nasty candid camera operator. Whenever I drag a chair across the kitchen so I can climb up to reach the window, I fancy I can hear a smirking voice saying: ‘Still not grown then?’

No, but give it time. I’m working on it. And then I’ll find ways of getting my own back on all you great towering people of 5ft 2in and over.

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