Archive for the ‘Columns 2008’ Category

WAKING up in the night is one of the annoying things about sleeping, if you know what I mean. Being tired and needing a good rest before greeting the joys of another new day means that the last thing I need is to have my hard-earned kip disturbed.

It does happen, though, and when it does it is often caused by an attack of cramp. I have tried to analyse why this should afflict me – yes, I know it can be age-related, but I can’t dwell on that or I’d lie awake worrying about getting old and never get any sleep at all – and however hard I try I can’t identify any sort of pattern. For instance, the cramp, always in my legs and usually involving at least one of my feet as well, can come calling (or should I say screaming) in the wee small hours after I’ve done lots of exercise in the day, a moderate amount or even none at all. It can also come after a day when I have eaten a banana (for potassium, that’s meant to keep cramp at bay), and when I haven’t, when I have drunk plenty of water (being well hydrated is also meant to ward off cramp) and when I possibly haven’t had my full quota, when I’ve been hot, cold and in-between. In other words, no pattern so no clear route to avoiding it.

Now, before any of you kind readers give me the benefit of your undoubtedly superior knowledge, let me quickly say that as of last week I no longer need to explore the cause because I have found the cure. I don’t know where I stumbled across this little nugget of knowledge, in fact I think it just emerged from a dark corner of a memory cell, but it is so wonderful and so effective that I am happy to pass it on: a cork, placed in the bed between mattress cover and bottom sheet, has cured my cramp. I now sleep like a kitten the night through.

A cork? In the bed? Yes, a cork. In my case it’s a perfectly ordinary one from a very nice bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (it is recommended that one uses the cork from a bottle of red – no, don’t ask me why white doesn’t quite cut it). Geoff says it’s a load of mumbo-jumbo, but he would. Just wait until you get an attack of cramp and I bet you’ll be begging for a cork of your own, I tell him.

So delighted have I been with my nutty bit of folklore that I decided to try and discover if it was universally known about. Indeed it is. According to the internet, I seem to be one among many around the world enjoying a good night’s sleep through the addition of a humble cork to the bedding.

I was also interested to learn that suppressing the cramp-induced screams of agony can be helped if you put your finger directly below your nose and press firmly against your upper lip. It makes the cramp go away, and presumably helps hone your Hitler impersonation skills.

Finally, again from the internet, comes my favourite: try resting your legs on a bar of soap. Honestly. I was quite pleased to find that recommended as a cure because it made my cork habit seem less ridiculous. Apparently, if your soap skids about too much it’s possible to wrap it in rubber bands and pin them to the sheet. Yes, being a cramp sufferer can make you unbelievably resourceful ­– and a tiny bit weird.


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SANTA had some surprise parcels in his sack for us at Christmas. He handed out a beautifully gift-wrapped dose of flu with all the trimmings to Geoff and a fierce sore throat stuck all over with scratchy tinsel bows to me.

You can imagine how much we have appreciated the old chap’s generosity and thoughtfulness. He waits until Christmas to dispense his treats and then gives us more than enough to wipe out a week or more.

There isn’t even the bonus of a couple of days away from work when sickness comes calling at this time of year. In fact all that has happened to us is that we’ve had to cry off this, cancel that, let people down over the other, and, as I write this, it looks very much as though we’ll achieve the complete suspension of social life over the holiday period by also having to miss The Blonde and The Beard’s excellent annual New Year’s Eve gathering. Shame. No, more than a shame. Disaster.

Of course we know we’re not alone. It seems most of the country has been stricken by colds, fever, coughs, flu or sick virus– or, in the case of men, the whole lot all at once, judging by the indecent degree of suffering and agony they seem to bear so, er, manfully.

But flu and sickness is so last year. Let’s look forward to the joys of a new year and see what 2009 might holds for us. Oh lordy, here come doom, gloom, penury, misery and a downward slide into purgatory. Well, that sounds a bundle of fun. As if having sickness stamping all over our festivities isn’t enough, now Geoff and I are facing what can best be described as some sort of living hell, and without even a roof over our heads if the doom-mongers have read the runes right.

They are telling us that we are in the midst of the very worst of times, as bad as it was in hellish, frozen-to-the-marrow 1947 apparently, and it’s going to get worse. I can hardly wait.

Soon we’ll be eyeing each other up to see which of us would make the tastiest meal – and I mean as ingredients, not as cook.

There must be something happier in prospect as we accelerate away from the stygian gloom of 2008’s back end to stand unsteadily on the slippery high-ground of 2009.

Maybe this past year has taught us something about not taking all that we have for granted. Any one of the unfortunate thousands who have lost their jobs will agree with that, as will all those who are finding that home-ownership brings not security but a terrifying noose around their necks called negative equity.

With more jobs going by the day, more businesses going to the wall and more shops closing, it is hard to imagine anything thriving at all in the coming months – except Robert Peston’s career.

These worst of times will make us all different people from the ones we were before it all started going wrong. I’d like to think it would result in a gentler, kinder, more tolerant population, less materialistic and more conscious of the many important things that don’t cost money.

Since this is when we all traditionally like to turn over a new leaf and start adopting good habits, I do feel that now would be a good time to kick-start this resolution for a gentle revolution. To me it makes good sense in this New Year of all New Years.

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OVER recent weeks various people have asked me what I would like for Christmas. (Actually, it’s only Geoff and the children, but I like to give the impression there are crowds queuing up to heap gifts upon me.) The question, you will notice, is an adult-to-adult one. It’s straight and to the point. Basically, they want to be able to get me sorted and struck off their ‘To Buy For’ list.

I resist entering into a deep philosophical discussion about ‘would like’ and ‘want’ as opposed to ‘need’ and so just shrug, go blank, and offer idiot thoughts along the lines of “something to read, perhaps” – as if I haven’t got scores of books still unread on my own bookshelves.

It is very different from the adult-to-child question on the same theme. This involves someone with a whiskery face (yes, it’s usually a woman) bending down and asking, in the voice they keep only for addressing cats, budgies and under-10s: “And what are you hoping Father Christmas will bring you?”

Obedient child that you are, you trot out the response, with a pronounced lisp where added pathos is required: “I’d like thumthing for my dolly.” Keep it scaled down like this, and the grown-ups take pity on you, which is a good feeling at this time of year. So good that it sometimes results in a chocolate orange coming your way.

However, raising the stakes and responding confidently along the lines of: “I want a Z150JX starship with 20MB electronic zoombusters,” can cause the well-meaning questioner to recoil and conclude that this is a spoilt little brat. No pitying looks for this child of the 21st century, and certainly no chocolate orange.

So, as in pretty much all things, modesty and restraint need to prevail – but how boring that is and where on earth does it get you? Personally, I feel that if you can’t come out with a big one at Christmas, then when can you? To illustrate this, here’s my list of Christmas requests that I have extensively adapted from one written by a careworn American ‘mom’. My list would be longer – but sadly I haven’t had time.


1. I’d like a pair of legs that don’t ache (in any colour except purple, which I already have).

2. I’d also like a waist, since I carelessly lost mine some years ago.

3. I’d like a powerful automatic dust extraction unit fitted in my house.

4. I’d like someone to tune the car radio to a station that doesn’t alternately shout and make fizzing noises. (Or perhaps it’s me making those noises. I hadn’t thought of that.)

5. On the practical front, I’d like the washing machine door turned round so I don’t have to do acrobatics each time I load and unload it.

6. Sartorial matters are almost beyond help, but I would like three pairs of jeans that will zip all the way up without the use of power tools.

7. I would also like a recording of Tibetan monks chanting “Don’t eat between meals”. On the B side it could have “There, don’t you feel better?”

8. If it’s too late to find any of these items, I’d settle for enough time to brush my teeth and comb my hair in the same morning. 

Happy Christmas!

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AS I trail round the shops this merry Yuletide, trying hard not to get distressed by how terribly quickly the days until Christmas are zipping by, I consult the lists that are running through my head.

These are the lists that I compile while I’m lying in bed – awake, because it’s early morning, but not yet with the full connectivity of limbs and brain required to levitate me from the prone position. There’s usually a dull dawn light coming in through the skylight and if I squint I can see if there’s any frost sparkling on the glass. Frost means a proper winter’s day, no frost means another damp devil with a depressing and unchanging grey-white sky.

Thank heavens for the Christmas lights and trees everywhere. Without them I fear the whole country would be too un-festive to function at all this year.

There’s no tinsel decorating the various lists that jostle for space in my head, but they are definitely all to do with Christmas. Categories range from nuts (how very appropriate) to presents (slightly obvious, especially as the situation regarding the need to buy the 4,500 gifts still outstanding is now so dire that I’m on the verge of switching this list from its present Amber status to Red Alert).

Very sadly, I am beginning to suspect that the reason progress on reducing the lists is so slow – ‘stagnant’ might be a better word – has quite a lot to do with my ability to get so easily distracted.

The trouble is, I keep seeing these boxes of Turkish Delight, which I love and nowadays never have. They seem to cast a spell on me. They stop me in my tracks. I don’t move but just stare, mesmerised, imagining myself opening the box and lifting the first sweet-scented, pastel-coloured, just-too-large shape into my mouth. The shockingly sweet taste is sublime. I un-jam my teeth and in goes the second piece, then the third – the icing sugar’s making such a mess – but there can’t be a fourth, that must wait, because by now I’m feeling sick, and deservedly so.

All right, if not for me, then perhaps I could buy Turkish Delight for someone else and get a kind of enjoyment that way. It might provide a second-hand sickly pleasure with neither the calories nor the gelatine. But it is a distinctly un-Christmassy prospect and it fails to get my vote, so I’m back to square one and the Turkish Delight boxes are still stacked up right there, looking dangerously as though they might leap into my arms.

You see how difficult it is for me to make progress with this Christmas shopping thing? The lists may be still crashing about in my head but the Turkish Delight Menace is all around me.

I turn my back and think of walnuts. They’re No.1 on the ‘Nuts’ list and it would be so good to cross something off. I head for the nuts shop, track down the walnuts but then notice, to my heart-fluttering, sugar-rushing joy, that right next to them is a display of boxes of Turkish Delight. Cue dream sequence. Cue Christmas – help!

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THIS, surely, is going to be the Great Bargain Basement Christmas. With sales on the go in just about every shop and with belts tightened so much we can scarcely take a breath, let alone a second mince pie, it’s certainly the oddest pre-Christmas period I can ever recall

It’s a relief to discover that, at last, ‘excess’ and ‘luxury’ are dirty words and ‘low-key’ and ‘reasonable’ have become the very welcome newcomers to the seasonal lexicon.

As Keeper of the Purse it is down to me to employ all my finely honed skills in parsimony in the run-up to this credit-crunch Christmas. In fact, I am positively relishing the challenge of being as penny-pinching as possible. I don’t find it difficult, especially since I remain strongly under the influence of a mother who has ‘make do and mend’ running through her like a stick of rock.

It is second nature to me to re-use and recycle and, nowadays, to rein in any profligate tendencies that might burst free in an unguarded moment. My new mantra is ‘Out With Impulse Buys – In With Planned Purchases’.

Nevertheless, the urge to splurge was irresistible when I saw huge posters in the windows of Woolworths on Saturday enticing me in to buy lots of things I didn’t know I needed at half the normal price. I do try very hard not to buy completely useless presents for people but since my list of Presents to Buy is about 28ft long, I figured that something might lurk in this glittering, music-pumping madhouse that could fit the bill for a lucky, or possibly not so lucky, friend or relative.

I grabbed a basket and, with a facial expression that hit the right tone between respectful mourner (this was the death throes of dear old Woolies, after all) and hell-bent bargain-hunter, I joined the ghoulish throng. Of course it didn’t take me long to fill the basket once I’d plucked from the rapidly emptying shelves two coffin-sized boxes of liqueur chocolates, an organic cotton bedsheet (what a curious thing to find), a pair of kitchen tongs, two fridge boxes and two hefty packs of printer paper.

The mini-haul may not have resulted in more than a couple of crossings-out on the present list, but it represented a great bargain, and so, as Geoff helpfully commented later, it made the fact that my arms were stretched painfully and probably permanently by at least ten inches very well worthwhile.

Except it turned out it wasn’t a bargain at all. In my haste to trample on Woolies’ grave, I had to failed to notice the small-print on those beguiling window posters: ‘Up to 50% off’ had registered in my over-excited brain as ‘Wow, half price!’ In fact, most of what I’d bought was either 10% or 20% off, and nothing at all was 50% off. So much for my perceptive skills as a bargain-hunter.

Smarting from this humiliating experience I might have withdrawn from the fray and gone into a sulk until at least Twelfth Night, but I am not that easily beaten. To prove it, I hit back later in the afternoon with a big one: a pack of 10 charity Christmas cards for 50p. How about that then? Impressed aren’t you? There’s nothing wrong with them either – they’re just last year’s model, which, as we all know, is this year’s bargain.

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IF this column should fail to appear one week, you can be sure that it’s because I’ve been knocked out – we can hope only temporarily – by a wardrobe door.

For five weeks now the thing close to my passenger’s side of the bed has been hanging by two of its three hinges, creaking and complaining each time I forget it’s in a state of terminal uselessness and try and open it as though it’s a normal door.

It’s very far from normal. In fact since last night, when a second hinge pinged off, the offending door has been removed completely and is now propped up a little unsteadily against the side of the wardrobe.

Thus is revealed to the world, should the world wish to pass through our bedroom at any time, one half of my clothing – or the bits of clothing that are worth putting on hangers, anyway. The other half of it is modestly secreted behind the still fully operational left-hand door.

The top hinge of the right-hand door, the baddie in this scene, snapped off in a fit of pique round about Halloween. I don’t know if the two events were linked, but I’m beginning to have my suspicions. I’m not stupid. I know about wardrobe monsters and this fairly unpleasant piece of circa 1995 bang-it-together-yourself furniture may well have been harbouring a few of those, not to mention a coven of witches. And if there was a wardrobe and a witch there’d be sure to be a lion as well.

Heavens, it’s a wonder we’ve been getting any sleep at all.

The remaining good hinge, the well-behaved one that managed to hang together perfectly nicely, was taken to bits by Geoff with a screwdriver that was not only too small but of the wrong type, so the operation, at midnight, took rather longer than it might and there was a certain tension in the slightly blue-tinged air.

I was the one who insisted this should be done because I was the one who’d been in the greatest danger when the falling-to-bits door swung open and, like a staggering drunk, threatened to lay me out as it lurched towards my head. Leaping away in alarm, I twisted my ankle and landed in a heap next to the bed.

Such drama! The old bedroom’s seen nothing like this since the tea fairy tripped up on a rug and Geoff nearly got drowned in what must have been at least 12 gallons of tea. Well, he claimed it was that much, and I couldn’t possibly argue.

So the hateful door, the thug with a mind of its own, has been relieved of its duties and is now consigned to a stand-by role – there to remain for quite a long time, no doubt. Probably until it falls over and hits me as I walk into the room, and I can see it’s quite capable of doing that.

Until then, I shall continue to be grateful to the well-behaved left-hand door and, even if I don’t need to, I’ll open it from time to time just for the sheer hell of it. You get light-headed like that when you’re a veteran of wardrobe wars.

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TWO days away from work can be very good for the soul. Geoff and I were happy to discover this when we took a break from the daily grind and went to Cornwall to catch up with friends and for me to enjoy an all-too-brief infusion of childhood memories.

It may have been a long time since I last lived in the county, but it doesn’t take much for the old memory cells to start dancing a jig. A bend in a country lane flanked by lush grassy banks, the landscape studded with slate and granite, saffron buns in the cake shop, Geoff being referred to as “me ’andsome” – all those little things mean a lot to an exile. They are of course also part of the Cornish experience that attracts visitors by the million into the peninsula every summer.

But out of season, in the third week of November, it’s a county that can still charm and delight – and fill me with pride.

Our first destination was a hotel on the north coast where friends of ours are the managers, so bed and board were ours as their guests. Yes, we do have all the luck! What a spot, too. It’s an old place, steeped in maritime history and so close to the sea that the coast path runs behind it. Geoff and I had a room with a view of the sea that was so wonderfully compelling that I had to be keep being peeled away from the window. We slept to the strangely soporific sound of a rushing tide and waves pounding the little beach below.

We explored near and far, enjoying the fact we weren’t expected anywhere at a certain time. That is a novel feeling. On a day when our surroundings took on the colours of a child’s painting – sea and sky bright blue, sun bright yellow, fields bright green – we meandered down the coast, taking in Rick Stein’s domain of Padstow and then lovely St Ives.

The next day we crossed the edge of my favourite bit of woolly wildness, Bodmin Moor, to reach first Launceston, for coffee, and then over the border into Plymouth, for lunch with my old schoolfriend Gail. Often if I’m down that way I catch up with my former work colleague, Denise, but this time it was Gail, who I hadn’t seen for six years or more, who’d been handed the short straw.

She was able to arrange an expandable lunch-break from work so, with her husband as chauffeur, the four of us took off for a meal together by the waterside on Plymouth Barbican.

They’d chosen a lovely place. I stopped outside just long enough to appreciate how interesting it looked and how well the building had been restored, before walking in through the double doors.

There was someone standing just inside, by the bar. We stared at each other, jaws dropping in utter amazement. There, standing in front of me, was none other than Denise, my old workmate. In all of the restaurants in all the world . . .  etcetera.

I hadn’t told her I was even coming to town because I knew there wouldn’t be time to get together, so it was quite staggering that we should run into each other like this. Stranger still was the fact that she was waiting there to greet an old schoolfriend of hers who was travelling from Sussex. Obviously it was the time and the place for reunions.

I think we both felt a little shiver, or at least were aware of a finger of Fate pointing in our direction. That’s the Westcountry for you – full of lovely surprises.

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