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Archive for the ‘Columns 2006’ Category

ANOTHER  Christmas has flashed by – all that anticipation, those weeks of preparation, the days of kitchen incarceration – and now we just have New Year shenanigans to look forward to.

And then even that will all be over. All the happy this and merry that, the party clothes, the glitter and the holiday mood will be wrapped up along with the holly-sprigged tablecloth and matching napkins to lie dormant for another 50 weeks.

What faces us now, once we’ve raised our glasses to greet 2007 and, yet again, let ourselves down by having to mouth our own made-up words to Auld Lang Syne, is a damp and dismal chug through January ice and February fog. When we’ve slogged our way through that, we should be able to emerge at last through the murk and be thrilled by the first tantalising glimpses of spring.

Until then, we will hunker down and make the most of an English winter. Some of our compatriots, who curiously find that this sort of endurance is not enough to test their spirit, will be going abroad to fall off skis and snowboards, break legs, get frozen to the marrow and suffer windburn to any unprotected parts of their anatomy. Others will venture to hot countries to experience the glorious novelty of sun on their backs, a restorative that I suggest should be available to all, and especially to the elderly, perhaps as an add-on to their winter heating allowance.

The rest of us, we hardy types who are left here to grin and bear it through an English winter, will just look wistfully at holiday brochures and scan the internet for temptation in the form of unaffordable sunshine breaks.

When I link hands on Sunday night to warble my way uncertainly through the opening line of that incomprehensible Scottish dirge (if the gathering demands we observe that ludicrous custom) my thoughts will be focused on absent friends. If the power of thought can help them, then those four dear friends whose lives in the past 12 months have been dealt a cruel blow, will, I trust, feel able embark on 2007 with renewed hope and with the strength to ride out the ravages of chemotherapy.

I will also think about the children, one celebrating among the Hogmanay-happy crowds in Edinburgh, the other at a fancy dress street carnival in Cornwall. I shall resist my Mother Hen instincts to call them and spoil their fun. They will probably ring us, or at least send a text, so I will be able to lay to rest my annoyingly over-active imagination (spiked drinks; crushed underfoot in a stampede; a lift with a drunk driver – those sort of things) for one more New Year’s Eve.

And what about resolutions? How will New Year’s Day start off? With a fanfare of trumpets heralding the launch of a new me into the world? No, probably not. Just a silent determination to be better and to do better. And, of course, the usual forlorn hope that this time next year I’ll be able to say: ‘Resolutions? You must be joking. I’m so perfect there’s just no room for improvement.’

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I HAVE decided it is high time I wised up to the must-have item this Christmas – the Nintendo Wii. This is not in case I am given one – perish the thought – but so that I can make sensible conversation with a certain over-indulged child I am destined to encounter over Christmas who, I am led to believe, is going to become one of the privileged few. He is to be a Wii owner. This weird word is pronounced Wee, in case you were wondering.

From what I have learnt, a mere £400 or so will buy you one of these, should one come your way, for they are said to be as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. For this king’s ransom you get an electronic games console that includes the headline-grabbing Wii Sports, the feature that is apparently going to make fit and healthy athletes out of last month’s moribund, square-eyed couch potatoes. The reason for this unlikely transformation is that the Wii Sports, which features tennis, boxing, golf, bowling and baseball, enables users to get up off their spreading bottoms and actually move about, or at least move their arms in a slightly frenetic fashion, while they play a simulated game of, say, tennis, against a simulated opponent on the other side of a simulated net.

They then either win or lose, in a simulated way, and shout three cheers or weep crocodile tears according to the result. Mind you, the country being the way it is these days, I imagine the Wii has a way of ensuring no player actually loses. We wouldn’t want any Wii ones being made to feel inferior or, perish the thought, a failure, would we?

So while large numbers of the population are trying to beat some kind of simulated hell out of Andy Murray or Lennox Lewis, everyone else within arm-flailing range will be flat on the floor trying to avoid being beaten up, mutilated or knocked senseless by a random forehand or right uppercut.

It paints a curious picture of 21st century society as we enter the final period of Christmas meltdown and it presents a thoughtful contrast to the Christmas morning of a mere bat-of-an-eyelid ago when I woke to find my heart’s desire, a pair of wooden stilts, had been thoughtfully delivered by Santa.

I defy anyone to get as much out of their Wii as I got out of my stilts. Striding across puddles, running alongside my sister on her bike, even jumping obstacles once I’d become really accomplished – my stilts and I were as one, just waiting to be discovered and offered a job in a circus. For some reason the talent scout failed to rendezvous with me, but it didn’t stop me wishing and hoping and practising devotedly, just in case he should turn up in our remote corner of Cornwall and recognise the answer to his circus’s prayers.

What fantasies could a Wii player weave, I wonder? Is the next Tiger Woods really likely to be flapping a remote control about in front of a flickering screen hoping some passing golf professional will pluck him from the obscurity of his bedroom and give him a place in the Ryder Cup team?

It all makes me fell very old and very puzzled. Someone, please, tell me it’s just simulated.

And that reminds me: Happy Christmas – whether your Wii dreams come true or not!

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THIS Christmas present buying thing isn’t at all easy. Those of us who are in full-on panic mode from about mid-December (oh no, that’s now!) race around with scraps of paper bearing lists that read like a bad joke. “Brenda: token. Margaret: something smelly. Martin: token. Jo: something smelly. Seventeen others: absolutely anything.”

Tokens and smelly somethings may be the last resort, but they’d be welcomed by some people of my acquaintance who have been on the receiving end of gifts of rather dubious taste.

Take my friend Denise. Her husband, she tells me, deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records for (a) his lack of understanding about the joy of giving and (b) his unerring knack for getting the wrong present for his long-suffering wife.

There was the time he bought her a Shirley Bassey LP. Denise hates Shirley Bassey, Jim loves her. Another time he bought his beloved a Barbour jacket. A kindly and most generous gesture, you might think, except that it was in his size, not hers, and he wore it all winter – and the next ten winters.

One Christmas Jim handed his wary wife a heavy parcel. “For you, my darling,” he said, with a loving smile. Denise’s little heart skipped a beat. She was, for once in their married life, suddenly excited about a present from her husband. This looked and felt very unusual.

Indeed it was. It turned out to be a garden ornament, a ceramic squashed hedgehog which Jim had got for half price because two of its feet were missing.

Another year she was given a commode which Jim got by mistake by bidding for the wrong lot at auction.

The romance of the man! In due course their children were old enough to tell Jim that it wasn’t funny and he ought to do better. So in a typically bloke-ish way, he over-compensated and lavished a set of lacy lingerie on his despairing loved one. Yes, of course it was the wrong size (they usually go for an 8 or a 10, don’t you find?). It’s always the wrong size. And the wrong colour, too.

I am reliably informed that Jim has improved in recent years, mainly due to the severe lectures he gets from his daughters. He now buys Denise jewellery, for every birthday and every Christmas, and always from the same shop. This is convenient because, as manager of a boys’ soccer team, he has found he can buy his football trophies at the same time.

Denise has wised up to this and now has an agreement with the woman who runs the shop which enables her to change every piece of jewellery without having to produce the receipt, thus sparing Jim’s feelings. Needless to say, he never notices.

I know someone else whose romantically disinclined husband gave her a non-stick frying pan one Christmas. The only good thing about it was that it made rather a good weapon – certainly a better weapon than the deep-fat fryer that another friend found with her name on under the tree.

So you see how much better it is to stick to the tokens and the smelly somethings. After all, Christmas is all about traditions, and you don’t get much more traditional than that.

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THE shortcomings and helplessness of Man in Kitchen never cease to amaze me. I am in an advantageous position to comment on this, since I am married to Geoff, the world’s most inept Man in Kitchen – he who boiled a tin of baked beans for eight minutes and wondered why they were disappearing before his eyes.

‘Baking’ in his book amounts to catapulting a piece of blackened bread out of the toaster. “I baked my own breakfast,” he’ll tell me, wiping toast crumbs from his mouth and exaggerating the martyr’s tone in his voice.

Beyond charcoal-flavoured toast, his skills are limited to boiling a kettle and the rendering of aforementioned baked beans to a black and orange pulp. His talents and interests lie in other areas (that’s in case he reads this).

I met another Man in Kitchen at the weekend. He is a veritable Jamie Oliver compared with Geoff, displaying great ingenuity and flair in keeping together his body and soul in the absence of his wife. She has gone to Strasbourg for a week, leaving him to fend for himself without resorting either to takeaways or starvation.

By the look of him I’d say he has risen to the challenge most commendably, although how he hasn’t poisoned himself or had to have his stomach pumped I don’t know.

He told me very proudly about the lunch he’d cooked, even down to the name he’d given it. A recipe as original and different as this ought to be shared, I felt, so, despite retching a little as he regaled me with the details, I made a note of it in case any other Man in Kitchen would like to give it a whirl, providing they live within crawling distance of an Accident & Emergency unit.

Here goes:

Home-Alone Prawns Umbongo* à la Strasbourg

(Serves one Saturday lunch; *the Umbongo refers to the banana) Preparation: 3 minutes Cooking: 4 minutes

Eating:12.5 seconds

Ingredients 2 slices leftover sell-by bacon 7 leftover reduced-to-clear prawns half-cup skimmed milk knob of butter a lot of curry powder half a banana left over from breakfast (other half was chopped up on my All-Bran) 2 slices stale bread olive oil

Method Turn on television (ITV 1, Joseph Cotton in Shadow of Doubt, US, 1938) Tip olive oil in frying pan and bring to boil Cut up bacon with nail scissors and set aside in plastic container with 7 prawns from last night’s curry ditto half a banana pour half-cup skimmed milk into basin, add knob of butter zap for two minutes in zapper add two heaped dessertspoons of curry powder add bacon to frying pan and bring to boil open window and turn on extractor fan turn up sound on Shadow of Doubt put prawns and bananas into frying pan and whoosh round add curry/milk/butter mix whoosh round for a bit toast stale bread put stale bread onto plate tip contents of frying pan onto toast allow to cool as you put utensils into sink to soak for half a day turn off extractor fan turn down sound on Shadow of Doubt eat what is on the plate.

Reader, he lived. And you thought miracles never happened. 

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AS a nation we are inclined to buy cookery books in the hope that, by something akin to osmosis, ownership will turn us into great cooks. The fact that most people don’t even open them, let alone read them, could account for a disappointing reliance on chilled ready-meals from supermarkets. Shame on us.

By the same token, we buy gardening books by the zillion, in the belief that by having them on our shelves we’ll turn into Monty Don or Pippa Greenwood and our gardens will be the envy of our friends and neighbours..

It was with the same magical formula in mind that I bought a magazine recently. The attraction was not the usual beanfeast of diets, fashion and celeb gossip but a 32-page glossy supplement all about Christmas. ‘Do it all beautifully with our expert guide’ it promised. Seduced, I handed over my money and walked out with what could possibly be the answer to all my pre-Christmas prayers.

What if I really could end up doing it all beautifully, instead of stumbling through it as I normally do? How wonderful it would be if I could avoid the chaos and muddle of a traditional Hill Christmas and stride through the whole thing being calm, confident and in control.

The prospect seemed unlikely as I opened the supplement and reality started to kick in. For a start, it was assumed that I had a squeaky-clean totally uncluttered home as my canvas. Some hope. It was also apparent from the photographs that I must spend the next month strutting round my house in killer heels and flimsy frocks without a thought for the heating bills. Hardly likely.

Furthermore, it was obvious I would need to be a dab hand at Blue Peter-type crafts: cutting out, stencilling, gluing, threading and similar alien activities. I think not.

I gleaned all this from a first flick through the pages. Closer inspection revealed the mind-boggling detail. They were suggesting I transform my windows into a Christmas spectacle by suspending a selection of cookie cutters (at 80p each, would you believe) and then lighting candles behind the window – “the light will dance off them”. Please, just stop it.

This was not going to make my Christmas easier; this was going to turn it into even more work than the mountain already in prospect.

I read on. If I wanted, the smug supplement suggested, I could follow their clever-clogs example and attach some garden mesh (whatever that is) to a wall “with a couple of tacks” (really?) and attach Christmas cards to it with clothes pegs dipped in glue and covered in glitter. Oh, now come on. I was not put on this earth to dip clothes pegs in glue and cover them, myself, and the whole house no doubt, in glitter.

Is this what a glamorous, stress-free, “beautiful” Christmas comes down to? Cookie cutters hanging at the windows, garden mesh on the sitting-room walls and a load of clothes pegs ruined with glue and glitter? Sorry, but it’s not for me.

Nor is their quite astonishing idea to stick a skewer through a load of Liquorice Allsorts and then thread them on to wire to hang from the tree (yes, honestly).

I’ll stick with our usual chaos and love it for its familiarity. If the alternative is to do as they say then I know I’ve got it right – and, to be honest, I think I’ve got it easy.

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WITH the first flurry of Christmas party invitations comes that annual dilemma: “What on earth can I wear?” Last week, after we’d recklessly said “Yes” to another seasonal bash, I tugged at Geoff’s sleeve and said: “I’ve absolutely nothing to wear to any of these events. You could end up going on your own while I sit at home like Cinderella.” We knew it would either be that or a case of digging out my old choir skirt (it is black – so useful, if you’re a waitress) and teaming it with something with a slight sparkle in it (my concession to the time of year). It was all terribly unappealing.

“For heaven’s sake go out and get something – anything – to wear,” Geoff said.

Blokes say that sort of thing. Look at all those shops bursting with clothes, they say. Surely you can find at least a dress or a skirt that you’ll like. Er, and that won’t break the bank, they add, lest you should think you have been given carte blanche to bankrupt the family.

Well, there are indeed plenty of shops, many of them full to overflowing with clothes, but we know that it is very rare that the perfect outfit jumps off the rails into your arms shouting “Buy me!” What happens instead – or what happened to me when I launched Operation Christmas Clothing last Friday – is that you get hot, disillusioned, bored, weary, confused, completely bewildered by choice and, above all, soaked to the skin.

The heavens were fit to burst as I left home. They waited until I was parking the car before unleashing several megatons of rain on to me, which was a terrific start. There was something like a tempest raging around me as I struggled with parking ticket, purse and umbrella.

By the time I finally hit the shops, my boots were squelching, my soggy jeans were stuck to my legs and my hair was flattened fetchingly to my scalp. My handbag was soaking wet, too, because it had fallen into a small lake when I was trying to lock the car, and the now inside-out umbrella had Niagara Falls pouring off it.

Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal circumstances under which to start my search for The Drop-Dead Gorgeous Outfit that would see me through the forthcoming madly gay social whirl. But I had to make the most of this opportunity so I sloshed and dripped my way into the first shop and looked around hopefully for that girl with glasses who makes women look ten years younger on the telly.

Strangely, she wasn’t to be seen. It must have been her day off. I would have to manage on my own.

Except of course I didn’t manage. To cut a long and humiliating story short, all I could find were two tops, some ridiculously cheap and pretty bracelets, some tights, some socks and some shaving gel for Geoff. Not exactly party gear.

I squelched into another shop and bought some frozen raspberries because they were on offer, and then I realised I’d have to get them home or they’d defrost. My interest in this expedition was waning.

I aquaplaned my way home where, once dried out, I tried on the two tops.

I might have guessed that after a day like that they would both be duds. And of course they were. But the raspberries were delicious.

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WE had to travel away from home last week so booked into a hotel we found on the internet. It hadn’t taken long to track it down through Google, once we’d discarded the ones that charge £100-plus per person and the big bland chain hotels that throw everything in – including a view obscured by a brick wall 18 inches from the window – for £39.50 for a family of 12 as long as you don’t mind feeling like something that’s landed from another planet.

Our hotel looked wholesome and friendly in the photos: a handsome mock Tudor building standing among trees.

Geoff rang and booked a room. It was the last one vacant, so we were lucky. And it was ‘only’ £65 for the two of us, which Geoff convinced me was pretty good for the outskirts of London.

We found it, eventually, after the usual hour-long tour of the neighbourhood. This is the way we always come in to land at an unfamiliar destination (or even at some familiar ones when our memories are playing up particularly badly). On this occasion, and obviously much against his better judgement, Geoff finally deigned to stop so I could ask someone the way. I found a postman, which seemed a great stroke of luck until he admitted he wasn’t on familiar territory. This didn’t stop him giving us a load of complicated directions, which we instantly forgot, as we always do.

Somehow, probably because we’d driven up and down every other road within a ten-mile radius, we arrived at our destination. The hotel, of course, didn’t look the slightest bit like the very flattering pictures on its website.

It was beside a busy road junction, for a start, so the woodland setting was just a figment of someone’s imagination. So was the mock Tudor. It was just a big lump of 1930s London brick rendered and painted white (a long time ago).

We really didn’t mind. We were so tired by now that we’d have stayed in a roadside burger van, if we could have found one.

I half-expected to encounter Basil and Sybil Fawlty when we arrived in reception, but I think it must have been their day off. Our room certainly had Basil’s touch. Absolutely nothing worked, not even the radio by the bed, the bedside lights, the radiator thermostat or the bathroom light. Geoff set off back downstairs to ask for at least some illumination in the bathroom. He’d gone all of two yards when he encountered the fire door leading into the corridor. It was shut – in fact it was completely immovable. The spring in the handle had broken. We were trapped in our room!

Thank heavens for mobile phones. Geoff called the owner (‘Hello, I’m upstairs in your hotel’ is a line I shall always remember) and reported our plight. Mr Calamity appeared with a replacement fluorescent light tube so that we could see to clean our teeth. Repairs to the fire door took only as long as the time needed to remove the sulking door handle altogether.

After that, things were fairly plain sailing. It would be churlish to mention the shower that drenched us alternately with ice-cold or scalding hot water, or the overpowering smell of fried eggs and bacon that drifted up from the kitchen to fill the bathroom from the crack of dawn.

It made coming home all the nicer. And that, I suppose, is the great thing about going away.

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