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Archive for the ‘Columns 2009’ Category

AS we put away the cake stand and trifle bowl for another year, it’s time to try and focus through the slight haze on what the next decade could hold for us.

It’s not as exciting a prospect as 10 years ago, when we stood on the edge of a new millennium not knowing what on earth it might hold. Most were obsessed with the suspicion their computers might fail to cope with all those noughts on the date. Personally, I was concerned that I might not cope either, noughts or no noughts.

But we leapt the great ravine from the old millennium to the new, and soon found that everything just bumbled along in the same old way.

Then, just when we might have been getting complacent, terrible things started happening: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, of course, will never be forgotten, and the Asian tsunami whose images had all of us gasping in horror and grieving at the awesome power of nature, the very real fears of other ecological disasters as we became increasingly aware of the seriousness of global warming, floods, famine, wars (whether or not they were being waged ‘in our name’), and, more recently, global recession and its fallout.

So not a nice decade at all. We should give one last glance over our shoulders at the Noughties and wave them good riddance, while keeping fingers and toes crossed that the next 10 years will be a lot better – and I don’t think they could be worse.

I haven’t yet heard how the decade is going to be referred to, along the lines of the Noughties for the 0-nine years. I suppose we could be going into the Tennies, or the Teenies even, but I’m sure someone will come up with a catchy little moniker.

If I had one wish to make with my fairy wand it would be that we keep the impetus going and hold to account those who wield power over us. I feel that we owe it to ourselves to maintain the pressure that erupted after the Daily Telegraph’s lip-smacking disclosures of MPs’ fiscal anomalies (as it is still the season of goodwill, the more florid words I would like to use must remain known only to me).

Schaudenfreude, which is not a particularly good or positive emotion, was hard to suppress when seeing some startled rabbit of an MP promising to pay back what had been snitched from us in some high-handed act of devilment and greed. Expressions such as ‘bang to rights’ leapt to mind with each revelation. It was – and still is – a good thing to witness justice and people-power working in our favour. Now we can but hope that they will prevail in other areas of public life, too, such as the Chilcott Inquiry.

It’s been a serious sort of decade with an awful lot of tough stuff to deal with, and perhaps that is why the other side, the purely frivolous, has been so fluffy and inconsequential by contrast.

Celebrity, and the promotion of nobodies into rich and famous ‘nonebrities’, has dominated the lighter side of the Noughties. It says a lot about us a nation, but heavens, there are worse things we could be obsessed with. Like money. Except we don’t have any of that, so celebrities must be the new currency for the next decade.

I’ll give you my Katie Price for your Chris Hollins, OK? Happy New Year!

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ARE you ready for Christmas yet, people ask me. The answer always earns me a pitying smile: “No, and I don’t think I ever will be, even if it gets postponed until Easter.”

So, once again, this is how I find myself on the eve of the Great Event – wondering how it’s managed to rush up and overtake me like this even when I was focused, or so I thought.

As proof of how focused I have been, we got our cards done without the usual scramble. We breezed through it, by our standards, and were easily able to catch the impossibly early posting date imposed by the remaining Royal Mail executive who has been left to turn the lights out.

The decision to email something witty and slightly tasteless to overseas friends and relatives certainly helped ease the burden, but with Geoff in charge of stamps and list-ticking and doing a good third of the required message-writing and addressing, we achieved the Card Thing relatively painlessly. Only a few latecomers have caught us on the hop, necessitating a quick scribble and a sprint to the postbox.

Presents, I’m afraid, are another matter. There is nothing simple or straightforward about that angst-making element of the season of goodwill. It’s such a shame that the pleasure of giving should be so hideously tainted by the prospect of getting it all so badly wrong.

Why do I lack inspiration just when I most need it? Why can I dream up something brilliant and just right for a hard-to-buy-for relative when I’m semi-conscious at two o’clock in the morning, but never when I’m spinning helplessly in an overheated shop in Christmas week?

Why do I look at big colourful spreads of gifts in magazines and not see a single thing I’d like to give anyone? Why do I spend hours staring at websites seeking inspiration and then end up drifting around Amazon reading other people’s wish-lists? Am I impossible and a lost cause? No need to answer – I know.

Then we have the whole food, drink and catering shebang. With every available inch of shelf and cupboard-space annexed by comestibles it is hard to move in our kitchen without a cascade of tangerines or nuts bouncing on to our heads. For that reason alone I’d like Father Christmas to bring me Turkish Delight or marshmallows so that soft landings are guaranteed (except we know, don’t we, that I really want them so that I can satisfy my inner glutton).

At the last count there’ll be 12 of us here for lunch on Boxing Day. That’s a lot of hungry mouths, so someone around here is going to have to feed them, which either means I must keep some of my Turkish Delight to share (unlikely) or I must get cooking.

But perhaps the biggest reason I’m not ready for Christmas is that, at the time of writing, I haven’t cooed over any tinsel-topped cherubs in a nativity play, not sung a carol, not sent my Christmas wishes up a chimney and not manoeuvred myself away from any craftily suspended mistletoe. I haven’t even had to decline, politely of course, a single mince-pie-and-glass-of-South-African-sherry combo.

It’s a dull, un-festive state I find myself in, and it is obvious that I don’t feel ready because the right feelings aren’t there. I’ve so far just been going through the motions, whirling frantically in tight circles while observing the material rituals, without taking time to concentrate properly on the better things that lie at the heart of Christmas.

That time has come, so before I turn embarrassingly festive and burst into ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ with a home-made tinsel crown on my head, I’ll just pause to wish you a sparkling, truly festive and very happy Christmas. I’ve a feeling that, after all, it is going to be a good ’un. I do hope yours is too.

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TODAY marks the end of an era. It is Terry Wogan’s final day in the breakfast slot on Radio 2, and that’s why you may hear – and possibly even see – signs of mourning around the nation.

I cannot count myself as a regular listener, perhaps catching the (very) odd half-hour a few times a month, but I can still call myself a fan because I admire Sir Tel so much as a broadcaster. I like the fact he can put a smile on my face at a time when, were I to be tuned in to my normal morning fare of Radio 4, I’d be wanting to punch a hole through the set and land a left hook on some smug know-all pontificating on the Today programme.

So for the smile factor alone, I thank Sir Tel. I thank him too for his infectious silliness, his sideways take on life, his facility with words and his ability to chop the pompous off at the knees. He’s a one-off and we shall not see or hear his like again.

Of course he is irreplaceable for all those reasons and more, and so my jury is still very much out in the wilderness over his successor, Chris Evans. He has a lot to do to win me over and get me tuning in, because from what I’ve heard of him on his evening Drivetime show – which again I only catch irregularly and infrequently – it is enough to know that I really don’t think I could cope with his voice, let alone anything else he might do, in the mornings.

Radio is all about voices and I happen to think that Chris Evans doesn’t have a particularly attractive radio voice. What he does with it holds little appeal for me, either, but let’s give him to time to settle in, and hopefully settle down a bit too, and then we’ll see what the jury thinks. Not for nothing might the words ‘mayhem’ and ‘zany’ be used in a description of Drivetime.

This all sounds as though I am resistant to change, but I’m really not. I like a shake-up of the familiar from time to time, but not when those shaking the kaleidoscope give me the impression they haven’t thought things through. I am tempted to ponder that if Chris Evans is the BBC’s answer, then the question cannot have been how to fill Terry Wogan’s shoes.

The question they’ve chosen to answer is “How can we attract listeners under 40 to a massively popular radio programme that appeals mostly to the over-40s?”  Obviously they forgot for a moment that there is another station called Radio 1.

All of this leaves the breakfast programme’s hitherto devoted and contented listeners up a creek without a paddle, or certainly marooned uncomfortably without a broadcasting style with which they can readily connect. No doubt, like me, each will wait for their own jury to give a verdict on Mr Evans once he launches himself into the nation’s porridge bowls from January.

We can only hope that he won’t give us too painful a ride and he will tone down and chill out, mindful of what time of day it is that we’re lending him our ears. If he brings his over-excited babble with him, then I’m off.  

I’ll just have to learn to chill out myself when I hear someone with their own agenda ignoring the interviewer and preaching to me in seductive tones on the Today programme – and put my axe down.

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IT’S been quite a week for national treasures on the television. There’s been Delia, of course, extending a helping hand to the nervous as another fraught Christmas in the kitchen looms, and then at the weekend we had wall-to-wall Alan Bennett, master of the perfectly turned phrase.

Those two joined the ever-present David Attenborough, who I am convinced has taken up residence in the corner of our sitting-room. His gentle voice, with its bubbling undertone of schoolboy excitement, can be heard every single time our telly is switched on, just as a frilly jelly thing like a Jane Asher fantasy birthday cake is always, always, floating in a shoal of a squillion identical Jane Asher fantasy birthday cakes 5,000 leagues below some distant ocean. It is quite uncanny.

I say our telly is ‘switched on’, but quite honestly, nowadays it is more like the manoeuvre leading up to a shuttle lift-off, what with all the lights and bits of glinting, winking hardware and the fiddling with remote control handsets. Geoff says I make an unnecessary performance of it, so I let him have fun with it while I sit and wait for Sir David and the ocean jellies to float into view.

Anyway, back to the national treasures. I’ve been watching Delia more for reasons of nostalgia than anything else, as she and I go back quite a long way. I’m sure she must be glad to know I’m there, paper and pencil in hand, poised to take notes and thus ensure we can, for the first time in family history, have a 100 percent edible Christmas and no kitchen meltdowns.

But there is no guarantee forthcoming, unless I buy the book, for she doesn’t seem to give proper recipes – or at least if she does I don’t notice because I am totally distracted by the rings on her fingers being plunged into everything from pastry mix to turkeys’ bottoms.

“Take the damned things off!” I shout at her. But she doesn’t hear me. Too busy pouring out the cherry brandy, I suppose.

One day, someone is going to do a TV cookery programme where basic hygiene, and in particular, the removal of jewellery and the washing of hands, is written into the script. Goodness knows, they bang on to us enough about eating healthily, so why not bang on a bit about the health aspects involved in handling food?

Until then, we have to put up with Nigella’s hair flopping all over the place, Delia’s rings getting snarled up with the giblets and just about everyone else slurping off spoons and putting them back into the pot.

Relatively blameless, certainly in respect of rings and hair, is the inspiring cook and cookery writer Nigel Slater, who strikes me as a younger version of Alan Bennett.

Our friend The Beard knows both these men (which, by the rules I apply, means I’m practically related to them) and he is able to confirm that they are indeed quite similar.

Since seeing Alan Bennett perform years ago I have liked to keep that particular national treasure memory cell topped up, so the weekend’s programmes in his honour gave me the opportunity to appreciate again what a clever, funny master of language he is.

Of course I didn’t manage to see them all. The giddy social whirl that is our lives at this frantically fun time of year means that I am inclined to a lot of ill-timed nodding-off on the sofa once dusk falls, so bits of Delia and Alan and Sir David and his frilly jellies have drifted in and out of focus. I’m with them in spirit, though, and being national treasures I’m sure they are very forgiving.

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WORSE things happen at sea, the saying goes. Well, do they really? I happen to think differently, since hearing from my friend Anne this week – and she’s not at sea, at least not physically, though the poor thing would be forgiven for feeling as though she was being tossed about by 30-ft waves in a Force 10.

Anne has had the occasional bumpy ride over the years, as we all do, but she hasn’t ever been up there on the honours board of life’s great victims. She is now, probably near the top.

This is how she got there. Earlier this year, her beloved No.1 Son got himself into all sorts of debt when his ill-advised new business failed to take off. Cue parents to bail him out, cue Anne and husband’s happy holiday plans being shelved.

Next up was Daughter with a crisis so complicated it took at least half-a-dozen emails for Anne to explain it all to me. It boiled down to a hideous succession of bad events, including the daughter being made redundant, her husband having an affair, their toddler being diagnosed with a heart condition, and their house under threat of repossession because of missed mortgage payments. Their debts are huge, apparently, and the situation is putting a dreadful strain on their young marriage, which is shortly to be blessed with a second child. Grand timing.

As the year rolled on, No.2 Son had his turn in the spotlight as he took over the lead role in the family soap opera. He’d spent two years doing nothing since leaving school, lacking any purpose or drive. Finally, this autumn, he took up his university place, to the ecstatic joy of his parents.

Anne’s enthusiastic emails spelled out to me the relief they all felt. “He says he’s enjoying the course and seems really happy,” she said.

It was a false dawn. The Son returned home with eight weeks of washing and said “I quit”.

Ever-optimistic, sunny Anne says they’re going to try and encourage him to apply to a different university next year. Not-so-sunny me thinks ‘try’ is the operative word.

While the offspring have been doing their best to bring their parents to their knees, there has been another drama playing out in the background. Anne’s husband has been desperately trying to stop his business from going under, knowing that it would spell disaster not just for them but for the dozen men who work for him.

Last week, the recession finally won. The men had to be given the bad news, at the worst possible time of year, and Anne’s husband came home with his head in his hands and nothing to show for 40 years of hard work.

I wrote, choosing my words carefully, trying to draw positives from such a basinful of negatives. Anne, bless her, responded by saying that it could well turn out to be for the best, if only for the sake of her husband’s health.

At the same time, she told me that a mutual friend of ours had died and she would be going to his funeral where she would represent me in my absence.

It was while Anne was on her way to our friend’s funeral that she received a message to say that her father was being taken into hospital, but not to worry. He’d been in and out for various niggly things over past few months, so Anne thought she’d nip along and see him as soon as the funeral was over.

By the time she reached the hospital, her father had died.

I rest my case about worse things happening at sea.

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I’VE BEEN digging out the Christmas wrapping stuff from the various old carrier bags in which it spends 11-and-a-half months squashed in a drawer under the bed in the spare bedroom. I think spare bedrooms were invented for just this purpose, for storing old Christmas things and collections of random items that one day will find themselves in a charity shop, hoping for a better place in which to gather dust.

It hardly needs saying that if and when the spare bedroom needs to be pressed into service as a guest room, it takes me at least a month to thrash it into shape. So much to squirrel away out of sight, so many distractions to slow me down in the task!

Our Christmas wrapping stuff doesn’t amount to very much – mostly just tatty, crumpled bits of paper of every type and hue, a few dog-eared lengths of ribbon saved from gifts received circa 1966-1996, and a gold-coloured box of gift tags painstakingly cut out by small hands and blunt scissors from old Christmas cards during ‘rainy days craft activities’ of about 25 years ago, when the children were at their most acquiescent.

I add to the pathetic collection each year, but never with anything useful, just a few more pieces of tatty wrapping paper that might come in handy, a few more lengths of ribbon and fourth-hand stick-on bows that have lost their stick, and a few more cards that could be turned into good gift tags if only the now-adult children would morph back into little ’uns eager to help and make nice things for next Twissmuss.

There are various subsidiary bags stuffed into the drawer, too, containing such useful items as long-lost rolls of Sellotape, new Christmas cards that have lost their envelopes, new envelopes of a different size that have lost their Christmas cards, old Christmas cards with significant messages or addresses in them that I will take a note of one day, old Christmas cards selected for keeping because they were too nice to be ditched, at least 26 dozen non-functioning, totally useless Biros, several fingernails-full of glitter, and, I’m quite sure,  a partridge in a pear tree.

Every year when I extricate myself and the various bags from the drawer and I marvel at the mess and utter naffness of glitter as it spills across the floorboards, I vow to be more orderly in future.

There really is no need to keep half this stuff, I tell myself, you’re just being sentimental. So every year I try and rationalise it, sorting what’s not really needed from what should remain. Then I look closely at the not really needed pile, which is pitifully small, and decide it’s just too insignificant to worry about, so I sweep it all back in with the rest. And so the problem continues, disorganised and chaotic year after disorganised and chaotic year.

That is how I now find myself here again – up to my armpits in crumpled tissue paper, old glitter and unsticky bows. And although I think seasonally adjusted Jiffy bags in sizes small to large could be my answer, I just don’t think I could bear to miss this ridiculous ritual each year. Anyone seen the scissors?

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YES, Christmas is on the way and the doormat’s getting fat. It’s thanks to all those catalogues that keep arriving, filling the poor postie’s bag and then pouring like some hideous, Technicolor flood through the letterbox.

Where do they all come from? Is there a Christmas catalogue factory that cranks into life round about October and closes down again on December 24th?

And who, please who, dreams up the things that lurk within their pages?

Just as someone I know writes birthday card doggerel (she doesn’t always admit it – it depends on the company), so there must be people who have lightbulb moments and think “I know what could be a best-seller among the completely and utterly desperate catalogue-buying classes this year – a pair of protective goggles for people who chop up onions. And let’s be really cheeky and charge £14.99 for them even though they’re plastic and tacky and anyone wearing them is going to look a complete plonker, causing onlookers to cry their own tears of hysterical laughter.”

Kitchen items, unless edible, are surely no-nos at Christmas-time anyway. This includes the cringe-making musical cake slice that had me transfixed in one catalogue – a snip at £8.99, batteries not supplied, the killjoys – which is guaranteed to send guests scattering with their hands over their ears when it emits tinny tunes, including Happy Birthday To You. That should confuse the guests as they hold their plates out for a big fat slice of Christmas cake.

The people who appear in gift catalogues are invariably photographed wearing preposterous, laughably silly items of clothing, especially hats. I think it’s the ones with ear flaps in the ‘down’ position that are particularly jokey, not least because the models looks so ill-at-ease, posing with a faraway look and half-smile that roughly translates as “The shoot for this dreadful catalogue is the best my agent can get for me at the moment, but I have known better times, honestly.”

Catch them in ‘100% silk total-comfort snugfit long johns’ and the faraway look has an added glint of terror in case they should be recognised.

Leaving the poor human models to their misery, let’s turn to the pages with the animals, where stone hedgehogs with a secret key-holder drilled into their tender underparts are regular star turns. Newcomers this year (or maybe they have appeared before and I have wisely blanked them from my memory) are the nuclear family of meerkats, hand-crafted with starting authenticity, right down to the jaunty red necktie sported by Daddy Meerkat. For £29.95 you can recreate the Kalahari Desert in your garden and terrify grandma at the same time.

My favourite for Christmas 2009 is a wooden puzzle contraption containing a bottle of wine (not supplied, bah humbug) and fitted with a rope that you have to unravel if you want – or, more likely, need – to get at the alcohol. Like so many of the grrrr-eat gift ideas in these catalogues, it is the most treeee-mendous fun, and all you need is brainpower and skill. Not much to ask, then.

But the best thing about this thigh-slappingly hilarious gift is its name, which sums up so perfectly how I feel as Christmas approaches. It is called ‘Let Me Out, I Want To Be Drunk.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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