Archive for the ‘Columns 2010’ Category

THAT’S all that lot done and dusted, then. Not this extended holiday business, with its wall-to-wall days of nothing happening and odd opening hours and quirky scheduling taking us all by surprise, because there’s a wee way to go yet (note the addition of a little seasonal Scottishness there). We’ve the New Year anti-climax to cope with yet, and another day off to reward us for making the enormous effort of reaching 2011 without breaking it – yet.

What is done and dusted is the mince pies – made this Tuesday, finished off with a snowy layer of icing sugar, and all ready to be piled on to a platter and feasted upon by our Friday guests as the year turns.

I know these tasty little charmers (the mince pies, not the guests) have made a late appearance, coming into the world several days after the event for which they were originally intended, but who’s counting? There is only so much one can achieve with a too-small oven and what seems like half the world to feed for a fortnight. Consequently the mince pies didn’t make it into the quite impressive and considerable pre-Christmas production line.

Probably just as well: we’d only have eaten them.

In fact they almost didn’t make their appearance this week, either, thanks to a dramatic vignette involving the Hill Towers pastry cook (me) and the curious case of the pastry that wasn’t.

I’d made the pastry and wrapped it in a swaddling band of pre-loved foil before putting it to rest in the fridge. When the time came to start the rolling and cutting-out business, I reached into the fridge, took out the foil parcel and gave it a loving squeeze, as one would to a toddler’s chubby arm.

What was this? It had gone rock-hard.

Panic stations! I unwrapped the parcel and to my horror saw that it had turned a rich dark brown colour. How could that happen to pastry? How could it turn into a brick and change colour within about half-an-hour?

Then I realised that I wasn’t in fact holding a foil parcel of pastry but a foil parcel of cold beef. It was an easy mistake to make, I reassured myself, as I hurriedly restored the lump of leftover Boxing Day joint to its shelf and retrieved the nice squashy parcel of pastry. I was glad I’d had no witnesses, no sniggering candid camera operator focusing on a confused kitchen slave caught in a fridge sting.

For that’s what it was. The cold beef jumped into my hands, I know it, at the exact moment I reached in for the pastry. Well, I’d serve it right. I’d show it who’s boss and give it a darn good mincing.

In the meantime, I devoted myself to the overdue mince pies and, if I say so myself, they turned out beautifully, though whether any of them will be around long enough to see 2011 remains to be seen. Somehow I doubt it, the way Geoff’s been hovering with intent.

With or without a mince pie in my hand, I shall be sure to raise a toast to you and yours as we make the giant leap into the unknown of another new year.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2011 for us all. Wishing us prosperity as well seems a little too rash and hopeful, given the state we’re in, so let’s be realistic and just hope for more of the good stuff, less of the bad, and a nice dollop of something tasty left over. That’ll do nicely.


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I’VE had an idea. Why don’t we all have another go at Christmas in, say, April? There’s a chance the snow may have gone by then, the roads and railway lines will have re-emerged into recognisable features in the landscape, and we can confidently pull together all our unravelled plans for getting together and celebrating with family and friends.

As it is, writing this in the midst of a white-out on Monday, Geoff and I are unlikely to see any of our nearest and dearest and all we’ll have to celebrate with is a damp cracker left over from last year and a walnut that we can’t open.

Grim, isn’t it?

Or maybe it isn’t really so bad. Having Christmas stripped back to its bare bones like this can make us more aware of what it’s all for, and pause to question if the commercial madness and the spending frenzies of the past few weeks really is justified. More than this, it gives us a heaven-sent opportunity to find out if we can, after all, truly ‘celebrate’ with less rather than more. I say (thank you, Mr Obama), “Yes we can”.

Thinking about the family we won’t be able to see this Christmas makes me both sad and glad. So very sad that none of them, young and not-so-young, are able to get to us here at Hill Towers – especially little grandson Joe who I miss with an unconscionable ache – but glad that they will be safe in their own homes. Thank goodness for modern communications that mean we’ll be able to keep tabs on who is doing what, when, how and, possibly, why.

I know what one of my friends is going to be doing first thing on Christmas morning, because she has admitted the terrible truth to me. “I’m going to get up early and have first choice in the big tin of Quality Street that’s been calling to me from the top of the fridge for the past fortnight,” she says. “I’ll take it with me to the sofa and lie there enjoying the luxury of disgraceful gluttony – until I’m discovered.”

She says her defence, when confronted, will simply be that it’s Christmas. Fair enough.

She is also the one who, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, placed orders for the household’s festive wines and spirits with a variety of different suppliers “so as not to arouse their suspicions”.  I can understand that, I told her, impressed by her ingenuity – and deviousness.

So while she’s overdosing on Quality Street, vodka and a range of Spanish and Italian reds, what is everyone else indulging in, I wonder.

Quite a lot of what they shouldn’t, if some newspaper stories are to be believed. Apparently the average intake of calories per person on Christmas Day is between about 6,000 and 7,000. Trying to comprehend that sort of statistic is like trying to get my head round someone who smokes 60 or 70 cigarettes a day. I can’t believe there is time enough in the waking hours of a day to lift one’s head from the trough and draw breath between mouthfuls – or, in the case of the heavy smoker, to draw breath between coughing fits.

Anyway, Christmas is not the time for counting calories or anything that smacks of Boring, Small-Minded or Obsessive. Push those irritating habits right along to where they belong – New Diet Day, or 1st January as some people call it.

In the meantime, let’s all eat, drink and be merry – whoever we’re with, or without.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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HOW better to punctuate the frenzy that is propelling us into the prickly embrace of Christmas than to take a seat in an ice-cold church watching a nursery school nativity play?

I was a guest, one of the privileged few who hadn’t spent the past fortnight listening to nativity songs being practised every mealtime and bathtime until they became a part of the family’s DNA. Nor had I been up since dawn stitching tinsel around coat-hanger wire to make angel’s wings. Been there, done that, many times. I’ve done shepherds outfits, too, a bluebird once (that was a challenge), and even contemplated an understudy role when my kindergarten son, at his most timid, landed the part of Joseph thanks to what I presumed at the time to be a courageous attempt at kill-or-cure therapy by his teachers. Mutiny at the manger was averted, I am relieved to report, and Joseph upheld the family honour. I, of course, was a nervous wreck by the time the curtain came down, but Jovus, as he referred to his alter ego, was pretty chuffed with himself.

That was all a while ago, so it was a delight to witness again some of the end-of-term pre-Christmas rituals. This nativity play took the form of a story told in song about Jesus’s birth as he and his parents looked back over the years at the big event in the stable.

Shivering tinies in no more than an artfully draped sheet, a length of tinsel and a sensible pair of thick-soled trainers bounced and skipped their way up the aisle to form up into a wriggling band of angels. Behind them trailed a kerfuffle of bashful kings and shepherds, all rendered partially sighted by their slipping-over-the-eyes crowns and tea-towels.

Of course, as we all know, the real stars of these shows are the teachers and their assistants, for not only do they put their hearts and souls into every minute of every rehearsal and performance, but they willingly put their dignity at risk by dressing up, too. Consequently, in that chilly church – where the vicar, unbelievably, sported the thinnest of jumpers while we all sat muffled to the gills in the full winter anti-freeze kit – we saw big grown-up angels and galumphing reindeer with jingling antlers. Good for them, I say, for without them every awestruck child would be the poorer.

This being the 21st century, the event was filmed by a professional chap with a neat camera on a mobile tripod. The resulting DVDs will be sold to benefit both him and the nursery, which is a sound commercial move. Even so, every member of the audience wielded a camera of some sort, and there was much bobbing up and down at salient points.

Thoughtfully, the chief reindeer – who may have been the head teacher – froze the final tableau for the benefit of the amateur photographers, so mums and dads formed a queue and waited their turn to snap for posterity.

I do hope someone got a good close-up of the small harp carried by one angel, which I admired greatly. Her mother told me it had been created from a barbecue grill. I do admire that sort of ingenuity, especially as now we know that if we make it to heaven we can be confident that the angels not only play beautiful music but they cook supper as well.

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TWO major seasonal questions rear their heads at Hill Towers this week: will anyone notice if we turn the lights off and hide until, say, 2nd January, and will the Christmas cards we’ve chosen be large enough to accommodate my hand-scrawled digest of the year’s news.

Geoff and I discuss the two hot topics. As far as the first one is concerned, which of course was his idea – in fact he comes up with it every year as soon as he catches the first whiff of festive spirit – we don’t reach any sensible conclusion and decide to bring it up again in a week.

I know that to dismiss it out of hand at the first hearing will only darken the cloud of gloom that floats over his normally sunny head at this time of year. By giving him hope that I may facilitate his escape from the Christmas torment I am buying time, time which will increase the chances of a drip-drip of goodwill to permeate his stony soul.

He’ll come round in the end, as all the family know, but in the meantime it’s down to me to join him in the game of ‘what-if’ escapology, indulged in by those who see tinsel and jolly seasonal music on a loop in supermarkets as an affront to their happiness.

The second question, about the cards being of a sufficient size to carry our news as well as our signatures, takes us into the debate headed ‘Christmas letters – do we or don’t we?’ Well, no we don’t, but by not doing so, we – that is to say, I – end up writing reams of illegible piffle inside each card. I am so anxious that distant friends should know what we’ve been up to in the past 12 uneventful months that I choose to subject them to this ink-blotched epistle laced with obscure references and unsubtle wit.

I hardly need to explain to Geoff that life would be a lot easier and less messy if we printed out a round-robin, subjecting everyone to the same trivia and not tailoring it to the individual recipient. I know, he says, but since we are on the receiving end of plenty of those and we don’t like them, why even suggest it? Thus the matter is closed for another year.

Truth be told, I don’t have an objection to Christmas round-robins – as long as (a) I only receive them and don’t have to write them, (b) they don’t mention one single word about the achievements of any child, however brilliantly precocious it may be, and (c) they don’t include any reference to ailments, illnesses or disabilities that have been diagnosed over the past year. I don’t know about you, but there’s still a fortnight to go and I’m already up to here with other people’s plastic knees and titanium hips. And as for cancer of various types – don’t start me. When, I wonder, did it become OK to use the season of goodwill and festive fun as the optimum time to dispense details of appalling maladies?

News reached us only today, in a round robin tucked into a card, of a friend’s hideous-sounding operation to remove a cyst the size of a grapefruit. I suppose it could have been worse – it could have been the size of the Isle of Wight. Anyway, she’s fine now, but the image won’t leave me, even though the news was contained within a pretty border of holly.

So for me it’s out with the pen and the Quink and off I go, squashing our year into a confined space and hoping the result isn’t too like a page from the Beano Annual. I think we know it will be, though.

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WE are well into the silly season, I notice – that is, the silly season of hat-wearing. As the temperatures have plummeted so has most people’s Code of Hat Acceptability, or CHA.

The 2010 CHA is currently on red alert, meaning we’ve passed through the green and amber stages with scarcely a nod. Green is the ubiquitous baseball cap that is welded, sometimes backwards, to the heads of males with an IQ slightly lower than their age, while amber is the odd item of frippery fun, worn for a bit of a laugh and not meant to withstand any extremes of climate. You will deduce from this that both green and amber codes are unremarkable.

Now, though, now we are under siege in Arctic Britain, we’re jamming anything on our semi-freddo heads, not giving a jot what we look like, how mad a figure we cut or how frightening we may be to our sensitive brethren, as long as what little heat we started off with up top remains there for as long as possible. Happily, for those of us who enjoy noting such things, a lot of this headgear is truly remarkable.

When it comes to cocking a snook at fashion, the curious sheepskin pudding basin modelled by a man I saw yesterday is right up there on the red-for-danger end of the CHA code, as was a sort of high-rise tea-cosy effort in shades of blue atop a young woman with smart boots and a pushchair.

Then there is a multi-coloured woolly upturned bucket with random bits of embroidery and a strange green dangly thing sported by a woman who ought to know better. I saw her in it, yet again, when I looked in the mirror just now. But leave me be, it is so warm and I really don’t care how many newspaper boys have to suppress their sniggers when we pass each other in the mornings.

What’s in fashion, hat-wise, is unlikely to be either practical or warm enough for my needs, so it this trusty old hair-flattening one bought on a cold day circa 1990 that is my breaker of the code.

Diligent adherence to the CHA is so far removed from the way of life I lead that it might as well be fashions in Christmas decorations we’re talking about.

And that, indeed, was the very topic of the email written by my uber-smart German friend Eva this week.

Always a bit of a whiz with the twigs and ribbon, Eva spent Sunday making her decorations – as you do. Well, no I don’t, in fact. Hill Towers gets the same look year in year out, courtesy of the most mismatched collection of curiosities you could ever hope to find dangling over your head and catching on your sleeve.

Eva’s look for her apartment this Christmas is red and gold throughout – and very classy, too, I’m sure. However, all is not well in Munich’s fashionable quarter.

A distraught Eva has discovered that the ‘in’ colour combo for Christmas 2010 is the very opposite to red and gold. Horrors, it’s purple and silver!

What to do? I feel your torment and your pain, I wrote back. Can I suggest you go out right now and buy yourself a beautiful purple and silver outfit to wear for the party season?

“Yes,” she responded, “and maybe a hat too, because we have had so much snow here!”

I feel confident that Eva’s choice of hat will achieve a perfectly respectable score on the CHA, even when re-interpreted in German, because she has impeccable taste – until I realise that it may be purple and silver. Suddenly I think it could be in a code of its own.

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I’VE just read a weather forecast that says we’re going to be in the grip of freezing-cold wind and snow by the end of the week. How very jolly.

The likelihood, therefore, is that by the time you read this, we could all be stampeding the ports and airports in search of an escape from winter. Last one on to the ferry or the plane, please turn out the lights – that sort of thing.

Geoff and I, despairing at the prospect of months of all this, discussed the possibility of turning our backs on winter – and then we remembered the small matter of earning a living, which has to be done here. Rats, there’s always something, isn’t there?

Our state of mind was not helped on Monday by our friends George and Cat (the duo otherwise known as Georgian Cat, as you are well aware by now) emailing us a photographic record of their stay in Sicily. Oh my word, what a heavenly time they had in that sybaritic paradise. The bluest of blue skies and the sharpest outlines in bright, bright sunlight were the main features of every picture. Detail going on at ground level was of far less interest to us, stuck here as we are, the trees with nearly all their clothes off and the threat of an imminent freeze. The plates of Sicilian food looked particularly good, mind you, as did the sparkling sea and Cat’s sunny smiles.

You can go off people, we agreed, and after only 10 minutes of cooing over their photos we seriously began to question how on earth we think we are going to cope with the chilly realities of life for this next great chunk of the calendar.

And we’re only in November! We’ve hardly even inched our way into winter yet – in fact I believe it doesn’t officially throw itself at us, spitefully and icily, until next week, the 1st December.

We’ve kicked off the whole shebang in a less-than positive way by contracting horrid colds. They are the sort that start with a painful sore throat and then clump their way through various parts of the body, alternately beating up and closing down bits that under normal circumstances just get on with their work without making any sort of fuss. Things like legs, which suddenly don’t seem to have any strength, or the nose, which in Geoff’s case thinks it’s a tap, or the chest, which can’t manage even the slightest exertion without erupting into a wheeze and a tickly cough.

The only good thing about it is that, in the spirit of togetherness that is our very hallmark, we have both got this at the same time. It means we can do the mutual sympathy thing, really feeling each other’s pain and discomfort.

Sharing is like that – cakes, chocolates, germs, what’s mine is yours, I tell Geoff, with my most generous and insincere smile. I am even being quite nice about his uncontrollable nose and have ceased suggesting he seeks a transplant lest the hilarious joke wears so thin that a box of Kleenex comes hurtling my way. He learnt about violent retaliation years ago. I believe it coincided with some inappropriate offers he made involving my anatomy and a jar of Vick’s chest rub. You get the idea.

We’re pinning our hopes on a rapid recovery and immunity from any more winter germs so we can enjoy Christmas in rude health. I use the word ‘enjoy’ very loosely in relation to Geoff and his feelings of antipathy towards the forthcoming festivities.

For him, festive fun is something to be endured bravely – rather like his cold.

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I DON’T work for Tesco – in fact I don’t even shop at Tesco. How’s that for being a minority minnow?

However, in spite of my lack of loyalty to the corporate colossus, I do find the idea of working under the glare of tear-inducing lighting, while wearing a uniform made in what I fear could be a man-made fabric, more appealing by the minute.

This is because I like the sound of Tesco’s proposal, announced this week, to give its workers the choice of how much overtime they do, how long they want to work for, when and at which store.

Naturally, being a literalist, I translate this as clocking in with a note requesting 10 hours’ overtime and this week I’d like it to be in, umm, the Plymouth store, please. Next week, who knows?

Perhaps Edinburgh would be nice in due course, because it seems such a jolly place at New Year. Certainly a lot jollier than, say, Hull or Slough, so I wouldn’t allow them on to my wish-list. A fortnight in Brighton in the spring certainly attracts, and a week or two near the Cornish coast come the summer would be very tempting.

I am sure the scheme is a little less liberal than that, although, from what I have read, it is designed to allow staff much more flexibility so I may not be far off the mark.

Unfortunately, my understanding of the whole situation is a little limited because the newspaper report that I read caused my eyes to glaze over and my brain to freeze.

There were two reasons for this. One was the names of two of the interviewees quoted in it: Arnie Herrema and Wingham Rowan. Could these be real people, or merely anagrams?

Ah, they’re real, I do believe, because Arnie is Tesco’s Programme Manager for Flexibility, so possibly leads group yoga sessions as well, while Wingham is the guy who first set up the initiative, called, rather charmingly, Slivers of Time.

The second reason I came over all glazed and frozen, like a taggy old Christmas turkey on special offer, was the effort of trying to make sense of what Arnie said.

Here is a sample: “Managers need to book extra staff very precisely in response to shopping patterns that change day-to-day. We know a lot of our employees are looking for additional work in the current climate. We decided a top-down scheduling system or broadcast SMS technology wouldn’t deliver the responsiveness our business needs.”

His first two sentences make perfect sense. It was the third one that threw me. Scheduling systems don’t tend to feature in my life, unless it’s Geoff calling me from upstairs to ask what time we’re meant to be going out. When I respond from the kitchen, bent double over the saucepan drawer, along the lines of “Five minutes ago”, I suppose that is what you might call “bottom-up scheduling”.

Arnie wouldn’t stand for that, I bet. His management-speak presumably means a system that works by people at the top telling people at the bottom what to do, except you wouldn’t dare say it straight out like that nowadays. Imagine the indignation, not to mention the litigation.

Anyway, semantics aside, I suddenly feel the lure of a Tesco store on the continent for a spot of overtime. I’m sure the one in Milan must have lovely uniforms. I’ll just fix my smile and I’ll be right there.

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