Archive for the ‘Columns 2005’ Category

THIS is that rather difficult time of year when we’re meant to look back over what we’ve achieved since last January 1st and resolve to do even better over the coming 12 months. In my desire to achieve  total perfection, I am happy to join in this tradition. However, I always get stuck at the very first stage, when I’m reflecting on what I’ve done.

The trouble is, I can’t remember.

I don’t know what I’ve been up to this past year, because it’s all fallen into a jumble of vague, haphazard memories.

Where was I on my birthday, for example? Absolutely not the first idea..

And where were we at Easter? A total blank.

Have I done anything for the betterment of myself and/or mankind at large? Not a clue.

Who am I? Not entirely sure. And who wants to know, anyway?

So I am approaching this New Year with a blank sheet. There seems to be nothing I can look back on and reproach myself about, and therefore nothing to put on a list of things headed ‘Must Do Better’. A nice white, unsullied sheet of paper suits me best. It says ‘New Year 2006’ and I have my pen poised over it ready to start listing my resolutions.

No.1: tell the truth. OK, I’ll come clean: it’s not a pen that’s poised over it, it’s a very beautiful pencil that my daughter gave me for doing Sudoko puzzles. A biro makes such a mess when you’re as useless as I am and have to keep doing crossings-out.

2. Stop wasting so much time on Sudoku. It is far too late to try and prove that I have a fully operating brain cell.

3. Spend that saved time on something constructive – something that does not involve needlework, arranging flowers or any aspect of housework.

4. Read more books. Two or three a week can surely be improved upon.

5. Write down the name of each book I read so that I stop the annoying habit of reading the same one twice. Depressingly, I sometimes do this after a gap of just a few months and discover there is something familiar only when I’m two-thirds of the way through. I have to read to the end, of course, because I am unable to recall what happens.

6. Lose weight. To achieve this, I must stop deluding myself. I must not think that my problems will be solved by simply reading a book about some miracle diet while continuing to eat at the same rate.

7. Become a better cook. To achieve this, I must stop deluding myself. I must not think that simply reading a book by some talented chef will miraculously turn me into the new version of Delia.

8. Take more exercise. To achieve this, I must stop deluding myself. I must not think that just owning a pair of running shoes and a bicycle is enough. I have to use them.

9. Campaign tirelessly for a good cause and earn people’s undying admiration and gratitude. The first good cause I can think of is the eradication of the word ‘anymore’ from written English. It is ‘any more’, and should for ever (not forever, please note) remain so. All right? (Note: not alright.)

10. Stop being dull, pedantic and obsessed with trivia.

Happy New Year everyone!


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NOT long to go now. There’s probably just time to squeeze in half-a-dozen more frantic dashes to the shops for the final 48,432 things needed to make the Hill Christmas go with a swing, and I’ll be ready. Or sort of ready. As ready as I’ll ever be, anyway.

In the competent person’s countdown to Christmas, this is the period when a couple of hours’ well-earned rest is advised so that the final assault can be accomplished in the customary calm and rational manner. No 11th-hour panic buying and rash purchases for Mrs Competent, eh?

And what does Mrs Utterly Incompetent do? Well, naturally I combine the worst features of a headless chicken with those of a bad-tempered old donkey and blunder my way through these last critical stages so that by the time Christmas Day dawns I am senseless with tiredness and vowing never to be caught out like this again. Next year will be better, I promise myself. Sadly, it’s the same promise every year.

But I’m not complaining, honestly, because it’s just the way I am. When the ‘Coping With Christmas’ genes were handed out at the baby factory, I must have ducked or looked the other way. It’s just a shame I didn’t get double helpings of something useful to compensate. Like the ability to think of the right thing to say at difficult times.

I wished I’d had an aptitude for this when my friend Anne poured out her tale of Christmas woe this week. It seems her husband has decided to overcome his fear of flying and go out to Australia to keep their son company over the festive season and into the New Year. He won’t even be back in time for my birthday, wailed Anne.

What could I say that wouldn’t sound crass, patronising, dismissive, soppy or just plain wrong? Not a lot.

With a trembling lip, Anne said she kept feeling weepy about their first separation in 30 years of marriage, all brought about by a decision he’d made on a whim, she felt. But then she brightened as she confided in me that, on the plus side, she was rather looking forward to three weeks without worrying about shopping and cooking and to lots of lovely sessions tucked up in bed with the radio and some favourite biscuits.

So when we’re all struggling to unzip our over-stuffed tummies on Christmas evening, spare a thought for Anne, who will have enjoyed a modest couple of packets of bourbon biscuits while listening, uninterrupted, to the Queen’s uplifting message. Not for her the wearisome dilemma of what to do with all the leftovers, how to remove red wine stains from the stair carpet and where Grandma might have left her hearing-aid.

All Anne will have to worry about – and I told her this – is how best to cash in all the credit points she’ll have earned by being The One Left Behind. I think she’s already planning how best to do this (new wardrobe of clothes, week at a health farm, replacement car, new bathroom and/or kitchen – just minor things really). In the meantime, she’s preparing herself for her husband’s guilt-stricken phone call home on Christmas Day, which hopefully, for his sake, will be timed for the gap between the fig rolls and the custard creams.

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CHRISTMAS – it’s the same old story every year. It’s sharp-elbowed shepherds in tea towels and trainers, bad-tempered angels with insecure wings, harassed parents and exhausted teachers, indulgent grandparents, hand-rubbing bank managers and broken-down central heating. It’s also, I’m afraid, over-indulgence, overheated shops and over-loud television.

Also in there somewhere is the traditional stuff, featuring robins and mince pies, turkeys and flaming puds, carol concerts, church services and big helpings of goodwill. The ingredients of the Great British Christmas may change from one household to the next, but basically they add up to something that you either love or you loathe. It isn’t something you can be ambivalent about, although needless to say Geoff does his best.

He wants Christmas to be like it was when he was little. Don’t we all, I snap, in my most un-merry fashion, as I encourage him to play his part in the preparations. (This usually consists of him so helpfully pressing a finger down on the ribbon while I’m wrapping the final, four-millionth parcel at 2.50am on Christmas morning.)

When you’re a child Christmas seems to take ages to come round. The long stretch from Boxing Day one year to Christmas Eve the next is like the interminable wait to feel grown-up. You know it’s bound to happen one day, but it just seems as though it will never come.

Then you do get to be grown-up and the Christmases whiz round with alarming frequency, until you get the impression there’s at least one every fortnight. That must be why the event-of-the-year always catches me unprepared.

Last week I finally tumbled to the fact that it is, once again, just around the corner, lurking there like some ogre waiting to pounce.

Three things happened that drove the message home. One was the arrival of the first four Christmas cards at Hill Towers (three of them before the end of November, for heaven’s sake), and another was witnessing a friend’s dilemma over the fact that, while she had made her Christmas cake, she didn’t know when she was going to have time to ice it.

You poor sap, I thought. There are millions dying of starvation and you’re fussing about a dollop of royal icing. I suggested she got the family to ice it for her, but judging by the look she gave me, I might as well have proposed decking the beastly cake in barbed wire and giving it a tasty topping of silage.

The third and final crashing great nudge came when I heard the woman at the next washbasin to mine at the hairdresser’s being asked: ‘Are you all ready for Christmas then?’

I was so fearful of being asked the same thing that I didn’t catch the answer. Had anyone been mad enough to ask me, they would have heard me whimper, through my snivelling tears, that I think I might just be ready for Christmas 1974, if only someone would slow the world down enough for me to buy the last few presents and give the pudding a final stir.

As for any Christmas after 1974, each one is a terrible, humiliating blur of panic-buying, self-reproach, good intentions and dismal failure.

But maybe, just maybe, I haven’t left it too late to get it right this year. OK, go on – I bet you’re having a laugh at that, because I am!

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MOST visitors who venture into the West Country like to take a taste of the region back with them. This could be a chunk of Dorset Blue Vinny cheese, a flagon of Somerset cider, a Wiltshire ham, or maybe an original painting of the coast or a book of local photographs. There is certainly plenty to choose from, this being an area of such great natural beauty and home to so many talented artists, craftspeople and food enthusiasts.

We’ve always found that friends who come to stay like to take back with them tangible reminders of this lovely part of the world. Many is the lardy cake or honeycomb that has been squeezed into a car boot along with the suitcases and wellies.

Similarly, whenever Geoff and I venture away from the area we take with us a little of our local bounty to dispense. In touching scenes that evoke the Queen on Maundy Thursday, we shower trifles (not the custardy sort) upon the deserving, so that there are little bits of Dorset hung up or pored over, pinned up or gorged upon in various households around the country.

Our most recent guests were two much-loved friends from the sophisticated environs of west London, so far removed from our rural ways that the only tractors they see are the Chelsea variety on the school run. They turned out to have a decidedly different take on the idea of souvenirs. Not for them the gourmet slice of Dorset life – they went for an altogether original bootload of mementoes.

While one half went off to hack divots out of a golf course, the other, less sports-minded half, hit town. The golfer returned several hours later with the sort of sparkle in the eye that comes when a townie has fallen in love anew with England’s green and pleasant land. The memento of that morning? A dozen eggs from the farm beside the course.

At the same time, the shopper returned with half the contents of the town’s charity shops stuffed into several bulging carrier bags and a gleam in her eye that said: ‘I haven’t finished yet.’ Back she went for round two, confident of yet more success. She staggered into the house in the late afternoon with another great haul of treasures, exclaiming at the bargains she had found.

We demanded, and were given, a fashion show of her charity shop purchases. There were two coats, a jacket, two pairs of trousers, three tops, two hats, a scarf, a pair of boots, a necklace, a pair of gloves and three vests. She drew the line at modelling the thermal vests (brand new, £1 each), but, like front-row fashionistas, we gasped in admiration and amazement at the other items, for which the total bill, at five different charity shops, had come to about £50.

I am a dedicated charity shop shopper myself, both as a buyer and a donor, but I have never managed to achieve the sort of success that Mary notched up in the space of a few hours. As we crammed all the bags into their car on the day they left it crossed my mind that Dorset could get a name as the bargain-hunters’ new destination. I mean, who wants a lardy cake when you could be taking home a thermal vest?

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WE know how lucky we are to live where we do, don’t we? We wouldn’t want to look out on to a fume-filled London street, where the recycling may get sorted into colour-coded bags but finding a parking space for your car is even less likely than discovering an ability to fly to the moon with your own set of wings. Nor would we want to live 38 storeys up a tower block, even if it does have a view of the Thames and a lift that works occasionally. We can manage without an underground rail system and a congestion charge, 24-hour everything and top-class culture on permanent tap if the price that has to be paid for it all involves turning our back on the part of the country that we know and love and hold dear. In short, we know which side our Dorset Knob is buttered and we never look enviously at the other man’s distinctly un-grassy and un-green bit of urban scrubland.

So why is it, when I nip up to London for a day, do I find myself day-dreaming about living there and planning how I would spend my life if I did happen to wake up one morning and find I’d been transported to, say, my very own little mews house in Knightsbridge? (There’s no point having a daydream if it isn’t utterly ridiculous; I doubt I would fantasise about moving to a bedsit in Balham.)

Perhaps it’s because I was born in London and spent the first five years of my life there, before moving to enjoy an idyllically rural childhood in Cornwall, that I play this ‘what if?’ game.

What if Harrods was my corner shop? What if I could go to any event I wanted, instead of just reading all the reviews and wishing? What if I had a dozen bookshops within easy reach, or fashion stores, or specialist food shops or galleries where I could just drift and browse to my heart’s content? I know the answer. It would be just as though I’d been stuffed full of something until I couldn’t take any more. An excess of riches. In short, like all good things that come in large helpings, nice to think about but completely indigestible.

Little and often is best, and that’s why I stick to the occasional awayday to London, sneaking up for a tasty nibble of something lovely that’s taken my fancy and scuttling back home before I’ve had my fill. That way, I’m always left wanting more – but not too much more, because, daydreams apart, I love the comfort of my own home and its familiar surroundings. London life is for toughies and I’m far too soft to cope with it.

My latest trip to the smoke was for an exhibition and to have lunch with my son. How gentle and couth it sounds, but how gruelling it was in reality, with a great frenzy of tubes and taxis and dashes across traffic-crazy streets, crowded, smoky restaurants too busy to cope with us within the time constraints of a lunch-hour and a leg-aching, heart-pounding dash for the train that threatened to abandon me, puffing helplessly among the platform pigeons, to catch the next one home. But I caught it, and I got home, and the daydreams won’t start again until the next visit.

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I AM frequently caught on the hop these days when I’m asked something and the answer remains firmly stuck at the far end of my tongue. It rarely gets as far as the tip, being halted in its slow progress by my disappointingly unreliable memory. This yawning gap in my credibility as a human being who should be taken seriously was horribly evident last week when we went to a pub quiz with friends who we were staying overnight with in Devon.

Up to now, I’ve been fairly reliable on what Geoff calls the brown questions (that’s literature, as in Trivial Pursuit), but it’s no good being one-dimensional when your team needs a rapid answer to something in a category that ends with an –ology. I was quite useless. It was as though I’d never been to school, let alone graduated with honours from the university of life.

Anything that rang a vague bell remained locked in the dark depths of what passes for my memory, while anything I should have known remained a totally closed book. Sadly, there were only a couple of brown questions so I didn’t have a chance to shine, and the rest amounted to a horrid muddle of obtuse irrelevances. By this I mean, for example: ‘Who was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’?’ Now I ask you, is that really a proper test of someone’s general knowledge? I think not, but we had to play the game even though none of our table had even heard of the film. That was a drawback as we couldn’t attempt to identify the year it came out, let alone anyone who might have been in it, supporting or not. There followed a hissy, stage-whispered debate about whether we should plump for Richard Burton or Colin Firth, so diverse were the opinions on the film’s antiquity. We finally put Nigel Hawthorn down, thus ending the debate and, as it turned out, our chances of a much-needed point.

The answer, incidentally, were you to be faintly interested in such a matter, was Anthony Quayle. Unfortunately, I will remember that for ever now, but soon I probably won’t manage to recall the names of the friends we were staying with when we went to the quiz. Life’s like that these days.

While I may have been a bit disgruntled by the quiz questions (yes, OK, only because I couldn’t answer half of them) I was impressed, in an entirely middle-aged, patronising way, by the clever young people on the table next to ours. When we swapped papers to mark each other’s at the end I could see that they weren’t students of one of those bog standard comprehensives with only a dodgy Ofsted report and the tag of ‘special measures’ to mark it out from its neighbours.

These teenagers were bright and full of fun, pleasantly mannered and, mercifully, not too loud. Some of their answers showed they’d obviously listened in their lessons when it mattered. But they must have been distracted during the lesson on the French resistance movement during the Second World War. It’s name? The maquis. Not according to them. They’d answered with: ‘the piece de resistance’. Don’t ask me why, but I really want to try and remember that.

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YOU know that funny feeling you get when you see someone you vaguely recognise but can’t for the life of you think how, why or where you would have seen them before? I had just that funny feeling at a friend’s house last weekend where Geoff and I were among guests at a birthday party (for someone even older than us, which was comforting).

We were 50 miles from home, way up in Hampshire, so the chances of a weird coincidence were very slim indeed. We met all sorts of interesting people, among them a teacher, a nurse, a policeman, a farmer and a doctor – a bit like a gathering of characters from a careers manual. Oh, and an IT specialist who, curiously, wasn’t called Darren. They generally are, in my experience.

The last couple to arrive were being greeted when I looked across and caught sight of the man who had just walked into the room. ‘We know him from somewhere, don’t we?’ I muttered to Geoff. His face looked familiar: broad and smiling and topped by dark, wavy hair. Geoff denied he’d ever seen him in his life and so I gave my brain a rest and decided I must have been mistaken.

Later, when we were introduced, the penny finally dropped. No wonder Geoff had denied ever seeing him. He hadn’t. This was my old dentist, circa 1993-1995, now retired and looking ten years younger. Happily, he didn’t recognise me – perhaps because I wasn’t tipped backwards with my mouth wide open and a stream of dribble running down my chin, although I was tempted to try it just to see if he would suddenly cry out: ‘Ah, I remember those molars! Didn’t I deal with that problem in Upper Right 4?’

I suppose it’s an occupational hazard of a dentist, retired or not, that when your identity is disclosed there’s a collective slapping of hands to mouths and a lot of muffled cries of ‘Oh, don’t look too closely.’ We all maintained our dignity in the face of this temptation, and I even treated him to a small smile, a wary one lest he should spot some unpleasant and expensive work that needed doing.

Once the dentist and I had sorted out how and when our paths had crossed we enjoyed a good natter about what he’d been up to in the intervening years. It’s funny when you find out that they’re just normal people after all (and they don’t always wear those rather gruesome skin-tight gloves, either). I’ve had a torrid time, toothwise, since childhood, so I’ve tended to think of dentists as not really of this world, members of a greater force put on this earth to torment me and fill me with dread, as well as rather a lot of amalgam.

He was not only very pleasant and very much of this world, but his wife was, too. Somehow I would have expected her to have one of those American-style mouths full of ultra-white, perfectly even teeth, rather like a living, breathing advertisement for her husband’s professional talents. In fact, a surreptitious peep revealed that she had a pleasantly chaotic set of gnashers that immediately made me feel better about my own. Funny how such a chance encounter could turn my preconceptions upside down. And all because of a birthday party.

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