Archive for the ‘Columns 2011’ Category

ALL the effort that went into our Christmas celebrations this year paid off and we had a most magical and memorable few days. In my long experience, it all either works and it’s great, or it doesn’t quite come off and I end up being licked by the flames of self-recrimination and wondering why I’d invited so-and-so or hadn’t thought of a better way to do such-and-such. This year, everything worked a treat and, as the New Year looms, Geoff and I are still hugging the happiness to ourselves.

As usual, Hill Towers opted for the minimalist look as far as decorations were concerned, not just because Geoff doesn’t much like them but mainly because we ran out of time. This means that come twelfth night when we strike Christmas camp, it won’t take very long. Just find the right couple of circa 1980 carrier bags and stuff back into them the random festive-themed objects after their annual airing. No tree this year, so no ankle-deep drift of pine needles to deal with, and no spillages to fret over and fail to eradicate from soft furnishings.

On Christmas Eve we had all the locally based family, only eight because the ninth was working, over to us for a Great Big Lunch. It was a sort of final training exercise for tummies before their full expansion the following day, and according to reports it did the trick.

On Christmas Day Geoff and I set off to deposit ourselves, our bags of gifts and our appetites on the more far-flung family in hard-to-reach parts of London. The journey was so painless on Christmas-quiet roads that it made us feel they weren’t quite so far-flung after all. Grandson Joe opened the door to us, a-quiver with excitement after finding Santa had called and left him a well-stuffed stocking. At the age of two-and-a-half, it was Joe’s first brush with the big man and he was so overwhelmed with joy that he kept rushing to the window, looking up at the rooftops and calling out “Thank you, Father Christmas!”

Generosity abounded, along with good humour and well-filled plates. Joe particularly enjoyed his roast parsnips, and even more so when Daddy substituted the roast turkey on his plate (“No, thank you, that’s not nice”) with a toasted sandwich of avocado and cream cheese. His baby brother looked on from ground-level, no doubt picking up tips for future years when he can share the action. His beatific look and trademark broad smile seemed somehow illuminated on this special day but my daughter, half-crazed with sleep deprivation, assures me the cute smile isn’t quite so endearing when it is switched on for her at two-hour intervals through the night, every night. This phase will pass, I tell her unhelpfully, as I chirp and prattle inanities to try and perk her up and keep her awake after lunch.

Soon it’s time to tear ourselves away from the 24-carat delight of Joe and head off to another bit of London for tea with our son, his wife, her parents and her sister and partner. A blur of names and faces and wedding-day recollections (was it really only September that we’d all last met on that happy day?), mixed with cups of tea and an exchange of presents, and then we’re off across London to stay the night with friends.

Here there is more food, more chatter, more presents – and finally, wearily, a welcome bed. Boxing Day morning and we’re on the road again, this time to my sister’s house for even more of the same, this time in the company of my mother, too.

That night, back in our own home again, we dine on a handful of salad leaves and count our many blessings.


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CHRISTMAS shopping, eh? Hands up who enjoys it. Unless you did yours back in April, and if you did I presume you are not properly of the human race, then you will, I hope, have some sympathy with me. I still have absolutely shed-loads of it to do, which is not good as our noses are very close to the finishing tape now.

The food apart – and that’s causing me anxious hours of lost sleep while I compile, and forget, huge and complicated lists – I am badly behind with the present-buying.

I know it’s meant to be all about the pleasure of giving something you’ve chosen with thought, love and care, but in reality, we know it’s not like that at all. Most gifts result from increasingly desperate trails around shops where we’ve already been a score of times until a voice screams in our heads, “Oh for heaven’s sake get it, it’ll do.”

Geoff and I make lists of ‘Presents to Buy’, with the names of the unfortunate recipients written against such items as ‘book’ or ‘something warm’ or ‘a garden thing, maybe’. Geoff thinks this qualifies as being organised and sees it as his big contribution to the festive planning, but frankly it’s of no help at all when I’m standing in a bookshop, clutching the list and not knowing where to start. I am surrounded by shelves crammed with volumes from which I am meant to choose just one, and the right one at that, yet disappointingly all I seem able to focus on is books that I’d like. Soon I become so distracted that great chunks of time pass before I remember why I’m there.

I make similarly pathetic progress when scouting around for gifts for the various newly-weds in the family. They might like something really nice for their home, we decide, so I take myself off to a ‘something really nice for the home’ shop, hoping for inspiration. It is when I find myself standing for several minutes studying the different types of mousetrap you can get nowadays that I realise I have lost the necessary focus for successful present-buying.

My most miserable day of unproductive shopping was Monday, when the weather was foul and a duvet day would have been a more sensible activity. Wisely, I had declined Geoff’s offer of help (I can always tell when he’s doing his faux-altruistic act, and not just because his fingers are crossed behind his back), but unwisely I’d chosen a day when the heavens had decided on an almost non-stop outpouring. So there I was, clad from head to foot in a mac that gave me the appearance of a clockwork navy-blue bin liner, while the rain drove its way into my very soul. My umbrella was no match for it, since it was the sort of smart-rain that falls sideways and then upwards.

With straggly damp hair and skidding hands, I juggled constantly with bags and brolly and my shoulder-bag, which was in its usual state of deep litter over a layer of what I think might be lead weights.

I’d quite like to have cried, especially when I realised, after four hours, that I had made precisely one successful purchase. Defeated, I scuttled home and rewarded myself with two mince pies for effort.

There’s always tomorrow, I told Geoff, as we crossed just the one thing off the list.

I am sure your shopping and preparations have been more successful than mine, and I trust your reward will be a Christmas-time of peace and happiness – and no hint of indigestion.

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IT’S not time to hit the panic button, but there’s only about a week to go so I may yet reach out and give it a push. Whether I’d be able to focus on it through the streaming blood, sweat and tears I do not know, but assuming I did, what would I wish for?

Definitely divine intervention, in the form of a multi-skilled chef, party organiser and stress counsellor, and then a period of oblivion, just for a blessed few days.

Geoff’s already retreated into his own blot-it-all-out zone, convinced that by denying the imminence of full-on festive fun it might march by on the other side and leave him alone with his bah-humbug thoughts.

Let’s leave him be for a while. I expect he’ll give in and join us shortly.

Since this is the time of year for wishes, I wonder what is top of people’s lists in 2011? No, that’s tedious because it will only be things like DVDs featuring mouthy comedians and electronic gizmos that do breathtakingly clever things for a full fortnight and then get taken back for a refund.

Far better to look at what people are least likely to want to receive. I see that someone has got there before me because when I go to check my emails I notice on the Yahoo front page, nestling among such features as ‘10 things you don’t know about kissing’ and ‘How to pull at the office Christmas party’ (yes, of course I read them, and no, I’m not telling) there was a list of seven things not to give this Christmas.

Number one is household appliances, illustrated with a big picture of a Kitchen Aid mixer. Well, I’m sorry, but I’d absolutely love one! I’m completely over the disappointment caused by the non-stick frying pan that came my way – gift-wrapped, not flying through the air – one Christmas. This means I’m now prepared to accept anything in that line – except it has to be related to creative output, and it must be beautiful and useful and should not spit or hiss at me, so no more frying pans.

Number two of the seven no-nos is a pet. I agree, and there’s no argument about that.

Number three is jewellery you’ve seen on a TV commercial. That’s fine, I haven’t seen any, or none that registered on my ‘I Want It and I Want It Now’ scale.

Number four is a gift basket. Are you mad? I’d love one! Who wouldn’t? The argument is that we’re all fooded out over Christmas so a hamper is one food parcel too many. Not in my house it isn’t. Bring it on, I say.

Number five is a sweater. Again, I don’t see the drawback, as long as it fits, approximately. Who wrote this list? Why didn’t they consult me first?

Number six is a credit card gift card. A what, exactly? Make that a book token or an iTunes card or an Amazon gift token and I’ll be quite happy, thanks.

And finally, at number seven, we have the dodgy gift to end all dodgy gifts – lingerie. Dangerous ground unless the donor is in possession of a large dose of courage and a small piece of paper bearing the recipient’s precise vital statistics and colour preferences. As it’s a gift that can bring more pleasure to the donor than the recipient, it probably shouldn’t count as a present at all.

So that’s the list of what we shouldn’t be giving this year. But like all lists, especially my shopping lists, it’s there to be torn up, lost, thrown out with the rubbish by mistake or just ignored.

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EARLY evening last week at a supermarket checkout. The date, 1st December. The girl exchanges my money for one of her winning smiles and asks: “Are you all ready for Christmas?”

It is difficult to know how to respond either politely or with any vestige of sanity. My instinct is to take a deep breath and scream. Listen, Miss Prettiness, I want to say to her, I have never in my life been ready for anything, and as for Christmas, well, dream on. Instead, I merely simper and respond “Not really,” and trust her to leave it at that. Any further probing might reduce me to tears. Tricky to handle, this annual affliction of Advent Tension.

I discussed the vexing matter with my friend Sue, referred to previously in this Journal as Laugh-a-Minute Sue. I feel I can safely abbreviate her name to just plain Sue now that her rollickingly mad ways are established. She is the one, you may recall, who when holidaying with two friends who are blessed with normal levels of self-discipline, gets up early to eat a mountain of toast and marmalade so that when they all sit down together for breakfast by the pool she can comfortably match their restrained intake of a croissant and a cup of coffee.

Our emailed exchange about Christmas and its inexorable quick-march in our direction particularly resonated with her as she’d just returned from the Christmas bazaar in her village. Her husband was, as he has been since dinosaurs held their first fund-raising fayre, in charge of putting up the trestle tables.

“Fingers got trapped, of course,” she reported to me. “They always do. And now I am in for 24 hours of angry ranting about trestle table design faults.”

As for the event itself, Sue says it was difficult to find anything she wanted, or needed, to buy. Christmas cards, hand-made, were “ghastly”, wreaths “overpriced and tasteless” and jewellery wrought from found objects “too curious to be worn without holding up a placard explaining that it was purchased in a good cause”.

Another stall where everything was overpriced was ‘kitchenalia’, but, as Sue said, “I’ve got all that stuff lurking in the back of drawers and cupboards anyway, and I certainly don’t have the space for any more odd-shaped novelty cheese boards”.

On the plus side, and at last the bitter words turns less rancid, her investment in raffle tickets paid off with the prize of a fourth-hand box of Cadbury’s Moments, slightly battered from its previous rounds of the village. “That’s not going anywhere,” Sue said proudly. “The chocs stop here.”

The cake stall proved a disappointment as she arrived too late to find anything more than a couple of tired-looking scones, and the little frisson of difficulty that exists between her and the woman on ‘Preserves’ (“all flat shoes and tweed skirts, and anyway why can’t she just call them jams and jellies and be done with?”) meant there was no temptation there to part with good money, church restoration fund or not.

A cup of coffee was out, too, as through the serving hatch in the kitchen Sue spotted a catering tin of something with the word ‘mellow’ in its title. She shuddered at the thought, and hurried home to taste-test her raffle prize.

I’m off to our Christmas bazaar tomorrow and I am confident my experience will be a lot happier then Sue’s. It’s all a matter of expectation, I reckon. Keep it low, flash the cash, and festive fun can be all yours.

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PARTY time approaches and a glance into my wardrobe reveals a depressing array of unsuitable candidates if I am to hit the frenzied scene with any confidence this year. The droopy trousers and dull jumper combo simply will not cut it, I know. Yet how tempting they will be, come the first of the cold evenings when we must go through the ritual of ‘changing to go out’.

I will look longingly at their familiar cosiness, and then wonder if I could just cut out the whole palaver, pull on my bedsocks, grab a book and climb into bed.

Parties are all about being a good sport, though, so I must play my part and get myself suitably tricked out.

I note from the meeja that jumpsuits are in at the moment. Now the last time I wore a jumpsuit – rashly bought in a sale circa 1985 – the party host, ex-Army, pompous, well-oiled, grabbed hold of the zip that ran the length of the grey velvet all-in-one and snorted “Beam me up, Scotty!”

Not being at all well-versed in Star Trek lingo, in fact not even knowing what he was referring to at all until someone kindly explained, I was unable to make a witty riposte. The best riposte would have been a slap across his cheeky chops, but instead I laughed in the sort of skittish, dumb-girly manner he was obviously hoping for (and was no doubt used to) and went off in search of a drink and more intelligent company.

I didn’t wear the grey zoot-suit very many more times, even though I found the gentle touch of its velvet so lovely to wear. I guess I may have grown out of it (it happens), or grown bored with it or, more likely, realised it was a little too impractical for its own good, what with having to virtually strip off on each visit to a freezing bathroom.

Even so, all the current references to the jumpsuit being back in favour persuaded me to try one on at the weekend. Overheated changing room or not, I was determined to give this gorgeous, flowing, navy-blue number a fair chance. But hang on, what’s that? Ah, just a yard or two of satin crepe bundled in a heap at the end of each leg.

Today’s jumpsuits obviously aren’t made for normals. They’re for gazelles, those wondrous beings with limbs that start somewhere extraordinary and end in just the right place.

This cruel discovery leaves me with no choice but to Be Sensible. At least that will make Geoff happy, because he knows that my efforts at being on trend only end in tears. Mention my fawn boots to him and he won’t know whether to laugh or cry at the memory. I’ll gloss over the detail, but it involved shuddering amounts of pain in the name of vanity, a piggyback and, once home, a long soak and a surprising number of blister plasters.

I still have the boots, of course, because you just never know when there might be a fashion for cutting off your own toes and cramming what remains of your feet into something vertiginous.

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WITH the days getting even shorter, it is obvious that the window of opportunity for taking exercise outdoors is about to disappear behind triple-lined curtains.

What to do? How best to employ all the pent-up energy that has me seeking a wall to climb up if I am sedentary for more than a couple of hours at a time?

My twitchiness always sets poor Geoff’s nerves jangling. Against my energy levels, which would power a large town, he has just about enough to light an understairs cupboard for a couple of minutes. It is one of the chalk-and-cheese areas of our co-existence, but we manage, employing the trusty old sticky tape of ‘give and take’ whenever necessary. For instance, when walking together, I have to promise not to stride on ahead. “It’s so boring just seeing your back disappearing into the distance,” he says, not unreasonably. So I promise to slow to his pace if he’ll take the route I choose. Problem solved.

However, our walking days are obviously numbered now that this grim business of winter is closing in and cold, rainy evenings become a monotonous feature. “We could do with an exercise bike,” Geoff suddenly said the other day. We were in the car at the time, so fortunately I was already sitting down. Nevertheless, the feeling I might collapse in shock was immensely strong. I didn’t shriek in amazement or mock him even slightly, but merely agreed in as calm a way as I could muster.

Even so, I seized the moment and put his words into action. I started off by doing some internet research, something which is always guaranteed to end with me in near-meltdown with my brain hopelessly addled by a fusillade of facts, most of them useless. This was indeed the case with exercise bikes: who knew there was such a choice of types and styles and such a range of prices?

Word of mouth is often the way to go with a purchase of this type – by which I mean a purchase in an area of which we have not one iota of knowledge or experience. Geoff has a friend who has recently bought one, on the recommendation of a heart specialist who was more than a little insistent he should get himself fit, or else. No use asking him, we felt, because he would have bought himself something at the very top of the range, probably with a built in butler and laundry service, since he’s that kind of guy with that kind of disposable income.

For us it would have to come from the cheap and cheerful entry level, but hopefully robust and long-lasting as well. In other words, an exercise bike just like me and Geoff.

Still confused by all my frenzied research, I had a look in the BVM to see if anyone was selling one, any old one, no matter what the make, because by now I had lost the threads of what was good and what was not so good. A nice local second-hand purchase would be ideal, taking the waiting out of our wanting and setting us free-wheeling along the road of biking joy.

Bingo! Jackpot! Got it! One phone call later, a quick whizz out to inspect, and the best bike in the world was squashed into the back of our car and transported home. Our dear friend The Beard, bless him, was pressed into service to help Geoff heave it down into the cellar, and now we are clocking up the miles to our hearts’ content.

The moral of this is, quite obviously, that you need never look further than the pages of the BVM to solve life’s dilemmas.

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THERE is a school of thought – of which I may be the only pupil – that thinks long dark Sundays in November aren’t much use to anyone. Once the sun has packed up for the day, and that’s if it ever deigned to appear after its cameo blink-and-you’ve-missed-it peep at dawn, gadding about in the open air is no longer a sensible option.

Indoors it must be, then, but this means there is surely ‘something that needs doing’. That heart-sinking moment when I remember that I’m co-owner of a house and I need to play my part in making it a home. (That’s a coy way of saying that I have to accept my responsibilities as a home-maker – but I just don’t like that word. It makes it sound as though I am proficient at cross-stitching firescreens. I am not.)

There is little option but to tackle the Everest of ironing that breeds in the spare room. After days, if not weeks, of trying not to catch its evil eye as I pass the door, the dreary deed is no longer avoidable and the mountain must be climbed.

Two good things, and only two, come from completing this chore. One is the brief pleasure of seeing neat stacks of crease-free laundry and a line-up of pressed shirts on their hangers, and the second is the warmth that emanates from the iron on such a cheerless late afternoon. I huddle around it, appreciating the healthy glow that can be had from Cotton, as opposed to the limp lukewarm pulse that Silk emits.

An unscientific poll among friends and family reveals that I am in a minority: up to the age of 44-and-three-quarters, few of them do any ironing at all. Responses along the lines of “You must be joking”, “I don’t even own an iron” and “No way, it just isn’t necessary” met my inquiry. My friend Cat, 45 next birthday, says she has better things to do with her time. I agree, but . . .

Once the habit of ironing is with you, it’s hard to stop, futile pastime though it is. I can only endure it by slipping my mind into neutral. Having it on anything other than an idle setting would be a terrible waste. Thus it is that once or twice, when desperate need has dictated that some ironing is done in a snatched daytime moment or three, I have turned on the TV for a spot of distraction. Here liveth a world where people in horrid fleece jackets are manhandled into unnatural positions by an antiques buff in naff glasses and other people go all breathless and silly over houses they know they’ll never buy in parts of the world they’d never heard of before they agreed to go on the telly.

The radio is a less distressing option as a companion and doesn’t usually set my teeth on edge as much. It has its moments (all those infuriating trailers!), but in general it is comforting in its familiarity and I happily settle in to File on 4 or Pick of the Week and am done and dusted in good time to snap it off before The Archers invade my zone.

This week, though, when there was no sherpa around to lead me up Everest, I took my iPhone along for the climb and hooked up Nina Simone to a natty little portable speaker. Her soulful delivery of so many mournful lyrics matched my mood as I battered creases into submission, both of us feeling tired-and-blue and rueing our plight.

Suddenly the chore was done, the heap no more. Thanks, Nina. Yours was just the company I needed.

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