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Archive for the ‘Columns 2007’ Category

IN an uncharacteristic fit of tidiness, I have just cleared a space on my desk. This alien activity has been brought on by a sort of Christmas claustrophobia, with so many people and so much wrapping paper making it feel as though the house might burst at the seams.

So now I have this nice clean area on my deep-litter desk simply by chucking out some of the 1001 bits of paper and filing away others. It means I can look forward to starting afresh with an all-new 2008-style heap of notes, letters, important pieces of information, reminders to myself, receipts, phone messages – all those things which will be playing a role as cogs in the wheel of my curiously muddled life.

Fortunately, to compensate me for the effort of creating a little order out of chaos (it doesn’t come easy, believe me) I made an interesting discovery. It was a notebook in which, this time last year, I had written down the things that Geoff and I hoped we’d achieve in the coming year. I don’t mean ‘achieve’ as in winning the Nobel Prize for peace or literature or, while we’re in the realms of fantasy, science, but small steps forward in our own little world. The list included such things as the intention to visit a country we hadn’t been to before (which we did – Germany, and it was lovely), that we would get up to London to see places we only ever seem to talk about visiting (which we didn’t), and that we’d try really hard to watch more films (which we may have done, but I wasn’t counting and anyway I probably slept through them). Not a great record of achievement, then, but in all we both feel fairly satisfied with our year. No great calamities, no major health alerts, no visitations of plague or pestilence – all of which can come as standards in the package that makes up life at our age. We should be – and are – humbly, nay pathetically, grateful.

Also in the notebook, below the ‘what we hope to achieve’ list, was another headed ‘things in the air at the turn of the year’.

Included in this category was the health of four people very dear to us who were waging brave skirmishes against cancer. In the course of the year that number grew to five, but happily all are either fully restored to their former bouncing selves or well on the way to recovery. I bet they’ll be very glad to see the back of 2007.

I can’t imagine what inspired this rather sentimental exercise of creating lists, but I’m really glad I did it because it makes such interesting reading 12 months down the line.

I shall definitely do it again this weekend as we prepare to leave 2007 behind us.

‘Hoping to achieve’ something makes it seem more realistic and attainable than if it were part of a serious list of resolutions. The word ‘resolution’ smacks of a dictatorial ‘thou shalt do’, which for someone bolshie-minded like me has the immediate opposite effect. So as 2008 approaches I’ll be focusing my thoughts on a few things I’d like to achieve and I’ll leave the firm resolutions to those of a stronger, more determined disposition.

I shall make a list and put it on my desk and hope that this time next year I’ll achieve the impossible and find it again.

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CHRISTMAS is the time for giving, so this year I’ve decided to notch this up a scale or two from the usual nearest and dearest and spread a little happiness and largesse among those we might categorise as ‘the needy’. So, starting from the top, here goes:

  1. Recipient: The Queen

Gift: The opportunity to feel the wind blowing through her poor, tortured hair. Even when she’s riding – and choosing not to wear anything to protect the royal skull – she clamps it all down with a headscarf. Hang loose, your Majesty – you’d love it.

  1. Recipient: Prince Charles

Gift: Somewhere to put his hands when he’s walking among his people. Clasped ingratiatingly behind his back or with a few fingertips groping in a pocket does not really cut it. Let’s give him a mobile phone so that he can be like everyone else and text compulsively. Say after me, Charles: “I breathe, therefore I text.” You’ll soon get the hang of it.

  1. Recipient: Gordon Brown

Gift: A genuine 22-carat smile. The turn-it-on-when-the-cameras-are-looking wince convinces no-one, Gordon. It is also creepy, spooky and very, very frightening so please don’t do it any more, OK?

  1. Recipient: George Bush

Gift: A one-way ticket, to be taken immediately, to his new retirement home in Basra, with a fine view of his handiwork to remind him of how far he’s come and all he’s achieved.

  1. Recipient: The England football team

Gift: First, second and third helpings of humble pie. Just flopping about on the pitch looking dejected when a crucial match has been lost is not good enough. Nor does monosyllabic grunting amount to any kind of explanation for what went wrong. It’s very important to us that you should understand how much we have suffered by your talentless incompetence, and stuffing yourselves with humble pie will go some way towards that.

6.   Recipient: Trinny and Susannah

Gift: A year at charm school where unpleasant punishments are doled out to those who think they are vastly superior to the rest of the human race, use bad language for no reason, indulge in patronising and humiliating practices, maul people unnecessarily and make them feel inferior.

7.   Recipient: Andrew Flintoff

Gift: A hefty slap and a pledge to sign that you will stop being a silly boy and       you’ll give your all for the good of England’s cricket team. We love you, now just show how much you love us, if you don’t mind.

8.   Recipient: The Archers

Gift: Scripts that do not feature anyone under the age of 16, thus wiping out in one glorious stroke all those irritating characters who can’t act. We do not need you – you add nothing to our listening experience other than extreme irritation.

9.   Recipient: Gillian McKeith

Gift: A big fat meal of burger and fries followed by chocolate gateau and cream,    washed down with a crate of brightly coloured alcopops. Go on, you know you want it really.

10.  Recipient: Jonny Wilkinson

The Gift: Me. You don’t have a problem with that, I’m sure.

 

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AH yes, Christmas. That time of year when novelty chocolates and handy tool sets come into their own, and boxes of lavender-scented bath cubes appear in chemists’ shop displays. In fact, you know it’s Christmas as soon as you see the words ‘gift guide’ on any number of publications the length and breadth of the land and you find yourself wondering whether you really could be persuaded to part with good money for a personalised silver-plated toothpick case as a thoughtful gift for someone, somewhere.

So now we’re at that point of no return: like it or not we are caught up in the great mad gallop towards 25th December. We may try to slow it down but there is no escaping the inevitable.

Some people love it, spending like crazy and embracing all the glittery fun of it. I know a number of people in this category. They look forward to Christmas all year and, from August onwards, start building up a head of steam that causes them to lose all reason. Their preparations, similar in scale to those required for invading a medium-sized country by land, sea and air, even include losing enough weight to enable them to eat themselves silly over the holiday period and not quite explode. They fill their homes with jumbo-sized packs of everything, Jammie Dodgers floor to ceiling in the corner of the bedroom, and spending the sort of money that could fund the aforementioned invasion. They have the time of their lives.

On the opposite end of the scale we find the ‘Bah Humbug’ types, of whom Geoff, I need hardly say, is one of the ringleaders. You know what I mean when I say that quite soon, he’ll be closing his eyes and hoping it will be January the next time he looks up.

The Bah Humbug-gers (careful there) sink into gloom as soon as the first Christmas card lands on the mat and keep up a relentless soundtrack of moaning and complaining until Twelfth Night. As one of the BH tribe, Geoff keeps his happy switch firmly turned off on those occasions when he is expected to lighten up and be festive. Enforced jollity is definitely not his thing. Of course it comes as no surprise to learn that he has never been to a pantomime but even just getting him to a party requires bribery. He also has to be reassured that, for example, there’ll be no playing of the merry organ for a seasonal singalong.

My attitude to Christmas is somewhere in between these two extremes. Naturally, I ignore its prospect for as long as possible (not always easy when racks of cards go up in the shops as early as September) and then bow to the inevitable at about the end of November. At this point my preparations take the form of a great deal of thinking and worrying about what needs to be done, but not a great deal of action. The real business of getting the Hill household ready for Christmas, and all the panic and headless-chicken impersonation that that involves, gets left until much later – I mean, there’s plenty of time yet. Isn’t there?

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THE first time I ever saw the Blackmore Vale Magazine was in 1984. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was a month out of date, discarded among a pile of other periodicals in the corner of a spare bedroom in a house near Sturminster Newton.

The pangs of love at first sight were so strong that I adopted it and gave it all the attention it deserved and had obviously lacked up to that moment of serendipitous discovery.

Nothing can ever have been made more perfect for me: loads of small ads, bits of important news, lots of bits of not-so-important news, plenty of photos, nuggets of advice, masses of information and all of it contained in a neat, compact format capable of being read in bed.

And that is exactly what I did with that first copy. I took it to bed with me. Geoff and I, plus small children, were staying with friends at the time on our first visit to Dorset from our then-home in a dull and disappointing part of the Home Counties.

Dear, wonderful, beautiful Dorset cast a spell on me, and it wasn’t just because of how blissfully it contrasted with the scrubbed-up part of middle England we’d driven down from. I strongly suspect that a large part of that spell was due to the discovery of the BVM. This was to be no holiday romance, either.

I was captivated by the BVM. Reading it from cover to cover that first time (and it didn’t take long then because it was but a shadow of its present chunky girth) made me wish we had something exactly like it up our way.

Of course, I should have realised. There is nothing like the BVM – never has been, never could be.

Later, once we’d moved here – thanks to Fate, opportunity, sheer good fortune, call it what you will – I was pleased beyond measure to be reunited with my old friend. I instantly pressed it into service by buying furniture (Habitat sofa £30, Ikea table £45), a reconditioned Aga (£450 – those were the days), a car (too embarrassed to admit what it was, but within a year I’d re-advertised it – and sold it) and a ghetto blaster for the kitchen (£20). And that was just the first week. I didn’t look back after that, and nor did any of the family, in fact, Geoff included.

We’ve visited gardens, been to plays and concerts, frolicked at fetes and bettered ourselves on courses, all thanks to information gleaned from the dear old BVM.

Both children have appeared from time to time in its pages, as I suspect most local good girls and boys have done at some stage of their school lives. Nowadays, when the kids bring their grown-up bodies home from London for any length of time, they both bury their heads in the BVM, my son studying the Motoring section and my daughter, because she’s like her mother, absorbed by just about everything.

Since I’ve taken up residence inside its pages each week these past four-and-a-half years I have found the BVM to be a perfect roof over my head – a des res with solid foundations and a very sunny aspect.

I can’t imagine what the next 1,500 issues will bring but we can only hope for one thing, and that’s that our BVM won’t change. I’ll sing it if you’ll join in with me: We love you just the way you are!

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I’M just back from my 49,000th quick dash to the shops for Christmas provisions. Can it be possible that this amount of food really is going to be needed? I think ahead to the hungry hordes who will be coming through our door over the coming week and am confident that yes, this amount and, undoubtedly, yet more will not only be needed but every last morsel of it will be eaten, too.

I expect the quick dashes will turn into panic-stricken scrambles by Christmas Eve, and then the final whistle will blow. I’ll have done all I possibly can and anything we haven’t got we’ll just manage without.

Then comes the time I really love: the hunting and the gathering complete, I will work steadily in the kitchen preparing bits and bobs for next day’s Christmas meal to the uplifting accompaniment of the service of nine lessons and carols broadcast from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. I can remember my mother doing exactly the same. I wonder if my children will do it, too. Even when living abroad I would tune in, courtesy of the World Service, though the effect then was not so much uplifting as upsetting, reducing me to a state of high emotion as homesickness briefly overcame me.

Nowadays, all the memories return of Christmas preparations I’ve made in the kitchens of the various houses we’ve lived in over the years, as well as all the shopping and cooking for so many dear people now departed and others now grown-up and creating their own rituals.

Some years when the children were small, we’d uproot ourselves for a tour of duty to far-flung parents and in-laws. Returning home, during that curious twilight zone between Christmas and New Year, would be comforting because there’d be no school routine to overtake our lives, at least not for a week or so, just the happy prospect of relaxing with our new slippers, toys and books. It seemed a just reward for the effort of all that travel and, in the children’s case, for being forcibly removed from their more familiar zones.

Another tradition will come this weekend when the tree is due to be transformed from something perfectly self-respecting, natural and decent into a repository for 101 curious objects amassed over the years, each one of them redolent with family legend. The most important, of course, is the angel that takes pole position. She has a rather disconcerting ping-pong ball head (with a dent in it). Of course she could never be thrown away and replaced. Her pathetic screams of indignation would surely haunt us.

Also among the decorations are a number of items made by the children during their Blue Peter period of creative activity. These include large hearts and stars cut out of cardboard and covered with glued-on pasta shapes, all liberally coated with silver paint and fingerprints, the glitter long gone. They and all the rest of the motley collection will be joined on the tree by two or three items of recent acquisition, each of them in exquisite taste (crystal drops, beaded crosses, that sort of thing) and each of them sure to look as ludicrously out of place as Victoria Beckham in a rugby scrum.

Soon we’ll be dressing up the table to look its festive best and squeezing eight of us around it, each of us vying for elbow room at cracker-pulling time. Such is the stuff that memories are made of. Oh, happy days – and may your Christmas be very happy too.

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I TOLD Geoff the other day that if he could arrange for Christmas to be put off until about April, I might be ready by then. As things stand at the moment, we’re destined to be the only household to lose half our bodyweight over the festive season. The only food we’re likely to have in the house is about 1kg of Twiglets (I found some on special offer and couldn’t resist a few twos for the price of one), the only drink will be tap water and the only presents will be some AA batteries (you can never have too many, I thought, as I hurled some special offer multi-packs into my basket).

Somewhere down the line, I am sure I am descended from Ethelred the Unready.

My distressing predicament has not been helped by two major spanners that have been thrown into the works of my pre-Christmas planning (in the loosest possible sense of that word, because me and planning are not normally seen in the same sentence).

Now I know I shouldn’t resort to the internet and I should only shop locally, but with time running out and being tied to my desk, a little bending of our usually firmly kept rules seemed just about acceptable. So, seduced by a £40 off voucher, I nipped online to order a dozen bottles of wine from an enterprise owned by Mr Happy himself, Sir Richard Branson.

Being an online wine-ordering virgin, the exercise took me probably even longer than if I’d closed down my computer, got the car out and driven to the nearest off-licence, taking in a scenic tour of Dorset on the way. As it was, I made it from registration to final logout with only two threatened nervous breakdowns. With delivery of the wine promised within seven days, I turned my attention to Amazon, where my daughter has very helpfully set up a wish-list. This comprises such diverse items as wellies, kitchenware, running shoes, DVDs and books, among them a volume so rarefied that it clocks in at £66. As we live near a wonderful independent bookshop it would cause me too much pain to do the dirty on them and buy books over the internet, but I thought I’d try and buy one of the DVDs and a cooking pot. It was only when I’d reached the post-checkout stage and was about to be irrevocably parted from my money that I noticed the estimated delivery date: “not before December 27th.” I backtracked swiftly and discovered the reason was that the pot was out of stock and the DVD was only available for ‘pre-order’ (whatever that is). I logged out, switched off and walked away to boil my head.

And so to the wine. Virgin Wines deliver five days a week. My case broke the rules by arriving at Saturday lunchtime, during one of those ridiculous downpours of rain. After the box had dried out a bit, Geoff and I opened it so we could lick our lips at what we’d chosen and savour the anticipation of drinking it.

“What on earth have we got here?” You’ve guessed. They’d sent the wrong case. Not one bottle matched my order.

So thank you very much, clever-clogs internet, but you’ve let me down twice. I need nothing more to convince me that shopping locally is the only sensible option and, for me at least, it saves time.

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IT’S office party time again. Ho ho ho! Pass me another glass of warm white wine, please. Just imagine, all over the country there are bottoms being photocopied and sneaky assignations taking place in the stationery cupboard – or so we’re led to believe.

The mistletoe, suspended from a fluorescent light tube in the front office, will witness enough to make its berries drop, while the consumption of livid-coloured alcoholic drinks will turn most of the twentysomethings into unrecognisable she-devils. It’s all good, clean, honest fun really, and the run-up to Christmas wouldn’t be the same without such deliciously shameless shenanigans.

Mind you, whatever we all get up to will be tame in comparison with what’s likely to take place at Manchester United’s sparkling, tinsel-bedecked extravaganza.

It’s being organised by Rio Ferdinand apparently, who has been handed the badge of form monitor this week. One of his duties, apart from over-filling the vol-au-vents, chopping the Cheddar into cubes and spearing the chipolatas on to cocktail sticks, is to tap up each of the players for their cash contribution to the night’s fun – a mere £4,000. That is £4,000 each, in case you weren’t quite sure if I really meant it.

Of course, a sum like that is just a bit of loose change in the Armani suit pocket to a Man U player, especially those who, like Rio, earn at least four times that in a day. And yes, I do mean at least £16,000 in one day – by a conservative estimate.

Whatever sort of party could they expect for that, I wonder? Unfeasibly large jellies, for a start. But a night lasts only so long and I feel sure there must be a limit to how much even these high-spirited boys and their WAGs can celebrate the imminent arrival of Father Christmas down one of their multiple, steel-lined chimneys and into their futuristic designer fireplaces that feature sound and light displays by multi-coloured dancing coals and leaping logs.

I feel tempted to start a sweepstake now on the actual tonnage of hair product used on party night, as well as ‘define-n-shine’ body gloss and ‘shimmer-n-shimmy’ fake tan – and that’s just on the boys. Alex Ferguson will lead the way in the chewing gum department, jawing on stick after stick of sequined spearmint that illuminates his tonsils in club colours and plays “Who’s Not Singing Any More?” every time Wayne Rooney lays someone out.

I think it’s going to be quite a party. Rio will organise a few good prizes for the lads: a Ferrari, an island in the Caribbean, a three-storey yacht with uniformed crew – the usual sort of thing. True, they may be a little removed from the goodies we’re likely to encounter if our lucky number comes up – so hard to choose between the smallest-size box of Ferrero Rocher and a bottle of Piat d’Or – but the sickly excitement of winning will be the same.

So whether you’re partying in Manchester or Marnhull, I do hope you have a great time. And may all your embarrassments be little ones.

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