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Archive for the ‘Columns 2012’ Category

SO that’s another Christmas galloped through, another brush with near-calamity as the oven shrank each time I tried to ram food into it, and, sadly, another friend struck down with the norovirus bug.

In other words, an everyday story of Christmas 2012. In spite of everything, ours was good, and I do hope yours was, too.

Now we’re in what might be called the doldrums, that stretch of the year when we need two calendars to enable us to function, and then it’s full speed ahead into yet another of those impossibly futuristic-sounding dates, 2013.

However, I imagine that most of us would like to cling on to 2012 a little longer, with all its Diamond Jubilee and Olympic excitements. It was indeed a vintage year, one hardly likely to be exceeded in our lifetime for thrills, achievement, glory, unity, passion, and all those huggable qualities we thought had been lost to us not long after Everest was conquered and the Queen was crowned. Now we know we need not be afraid or embarrassed to sing the National Anthem. We know, too, that feeling of being fit to burst with joy on witnessing spectacles and triumphs that had never seemed possible, cheering on the underdog and suddenly realising they could actually win.

So much changed over the course of this year, not least in the way that zero expectations transformed into triumphant success, that now we could be in danger of being satisfied with nothing less than the best. Remember how some of Team GB wept and apologised for winning ‘only’ a bronze medal? It isn’t long since we’d have happily settled for a bronze and thought we were among the world’s elite.

Perhaps the pursuit of perfection is the legacy of the Olympics that they’ve all been talking about: expect the best and not give up until we’ve got it.

Personally, I’d like to hold that as a goal for 2013. My record so far of moderate expectations and unspectacular success does not seem likely ever to accelerate into an Olympic gold-medal position of perfection unless I do something about it. But what? Well, while I work on my secret plan, I’ll cheekily propose an improvement in others that would make me feel happier.

Please, all I ask is that you make room for me on the pavement. I am fed up with always being the one who sidesteps into the gutter. And while I’m down here among the litter and the mud, I wonder what’s happened to the common courtesy of men walking on the outside? I’m fed up with my costume becoming soaked when the coach and four splashes through a puddle beside me. (I absolve all family and friends from this: their manners are exemplary.)

It isn’t a case of turning the clock back to try and inculcate old-fashioned manners: it is simply a matter of people remembering to be thoughtful and respectful, two qualities that make everyone’s world a better place.

With that in mind, here’s hoping you have a very happy New Year – and may we all stay out of the gutter through 2013.

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AFTER licking and stamping the last envelope on, mercifully, the last card, it seems odd now to be writing something about my life without cramming it into the side opposite the ‘Happy Christmas’ message.

The time I have spent condensing the highlights of our year into that inadequate space could, I feel sure, have been more usefully spent putting the whole lot into a third-rate novel. It would probably run to the length of War and Peace, and might even have some of its themes in common.

Geoff doesn’t share my compulsion to cover white space on a card with words. A quick signature and he’s done with it – another name to cross off the list with his usual enviable efficiency. I rise to the challenge, scrawling my way through at least two cards an hour, regaling those who couldn’t care less with details of where we’ve been, which member of the family currently has which ailment, and the latest tally of grandchildren. It is truly riveting stuff.

“They don’t want to know all that,” Geoff complains. “People just want to be reassured we’re still breathing and haven’t forgotten about them.”

He is right, and I know this because when I look at the cards we’ve received and see there’s a long message in any of them, I skip-read it, braced against any news of disasters, and vow decide to look at it properly when I have time. Then, whoosh, before I know it, it’s 6th January and the whole bang lot is on its way to the recycling bin.

This year, then, I have pledged to make the time to read everyone’s messages, just as I hope they are doing their best to decipher mine.

News comes in variety of forms, some in my sort of scribble-down-the-blank-side, or a properly illustrated letter, or even, from a BA pilot with literary tendencies, in verse. We learn of new cats acquired, holiday highlights, starring roles in nativity plays, choir concerts, triumphs on the sports field and in the garden, hormone treatment for some unidentified cancer – all human life is there, should one wish to know.

My newly acquired diligence in absorbing every word has not wholly paid off in my favour: pinpricks of envy pierce my soul as I read of friends’ imminent departure to faraway destinations to escape some of our winter. One of them, not known for excess, is taking a solo trip to the British Virgin Islands for Christmas and the New Year, our dearest mates with whom we travelled to New York in October are, as I write this, en route to New Zealand for three months, and another couple are living it up in the Seychelles. Recession, anyone?

There is an unfortunate irony in the fact that the Christmas post has also brought us two brown envelopes from the Inland Revenue. Far from bearing some benign Christmas greeting, they inform us of the tax we must pay, and pay it soon – or else. If only we worked in Westminster, I’m sure we could find a way around this.

Meanwhile, as Scrooge and I count our pennies in the hope they last the month, we prepare for another happy family Christmas at Hill Towers, where seven of us will squash around the table and count our many, many, blessings.

I hope you, too, will enjoy a wonderful Christmas, wherever and however you spend it.

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IT was fun to stand with friends at a party comparing notes on how little our clothes had cost us. The four of us came in at a total well under £100, which is pretty good, considering how dazzlingly gorgeous we looked.

It is possible I exaggerate a little – perhaps we looked just gorgeous – but there is no doubt we exemplified the spirit required of us all in this treble-dip recession where survival requires us not to melt the plastic.

Strapping on best bibs-and-tuckers for various social encounters means making the old make do or the pre-loved (a coy term for second-hand) look as good as new. It’s a challenge I am more than happy to accept. My own party ensemble, now in its third winter of duty, was a 70%-off sale purchase, while the shoes cost a mere $10 in New York in October. Only one of them hurts, too, which makes them a real bargain.

One of my friends was wearing a stunning black velvet wraparound number that cost her £6.50 in a charity shop, and the two others admitted they’d bought some of their party gear from charity shops, too.

We shared tales of triumph, compared the bargains that had made us most happy, the purchases that have seen us through more years than we care to remember, and shared tips on which shops we consider offer the greater promise. I’m proud to say that I won the accolade for best buy of the past year: a designer-label skirt, probably costing nigh-on £100 when new, discovered on a £1 sale rail at one of my favourite charity shops.

It’s the same shop where I donate a lot of my stuff, and many’s the time I have snatched up something I like the look of before realising it used to be in my own wardrobe, bookshelf or kitchen. Such are the perils of a serial chazza shopper.

The fiscal strategy in operation here at Hill Towers this Christmas means home-made wizardry is being employed and charity shops are being plundered for gifts. This is with the agreement of the recipients, who are doing the same for us.

I am enjoying the challenge, and have borne home several good ‘kills’ from the various hunting grounds I’ve visited. One, a jigsaw of a medieval knight, priced at £1.79 and in pristine condition, is going to be a winner with grandson Joe. He is much taken at the moment with knights, castles, jousting and all that scene. No detail is spared his scrutiny before being added to the encyclopaedia of arcane ephemera that helps a three-and-a-half-year-old get through daily life. His enthusiasm drove him to impart some of this knightly knowledge to me the other day, during a lull between building a Lego castle and fighting a battle with two wobbly lances made from Sellotaped loo roll innards. He addressed me with great seriousness on the subject of a motte and bailey fortification, first setting the scene with the memorable phrase: “In olden times ago . . .”

It is indeed to the olden times ago that we must look this Christmas in our drive to get more for less. If it means we over-21s go with considerably less than usual, or even without, then that’s fine by me, and by Geoff, too, who I know is all a-tremble lest my over-eager prudence should cause his exciting present of socks to be pre-loved. Of course they won’t be, but it doesn’t do any harm to keep the threat hanging in the air, like a bunch of mistletoe.

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I’VE been waiting all week for a memo from my commanding officer telling me to stand down over Christmas. If this stay-at-home-please energy-saving measure applies to all armed forces, then why not me? I agree I may not always be fully armed, but I am definitely a force – and one to be reckoned with, as Geoff would testify.

The fact I am still drifting in the misty foothills before the climb to the mountain’s summit of Christmas readiness (put more simply, I’m still just thinking about it, not actually doing anything) makes me think that my only hope is to turn my back on it and slope off on home leave. Come on, CO, where’s that memo?

But hang on, I am already at home, so I can’t be dispatched there. Perhaps I could go to someone else’s, Geoff in tow and with a sack of books for us to share, so we could just hunker down and let it all pass. Deep down I know I can’t expect to opt out that easily. There are grandchildren to be merry and enthusiastic in front of, even if they are too small to notice much.

With the CO going all silent like this and it becoming worrying likely that I won’t, after all, be stood down over Christmas, I have allowed my mind to wander back to the only home I’d rather be in at this time of year: the home of my childhood.

If I could be there, right now, I’d be helping Mum prepare for the festivities. This would mean making the pastry and the mincemeat for her legendary mince pies and large, round mince tarts. One of those, of an incendiary temperature, memorably and dramatically burnt the mouth of an unwary visitor, who exited at 100mph to the kitchen where he plunged his head under the cold tap. We had such old-fashioned fun in those days.

There would be the great cake to bake, with little me weighing out the ingredients and helpfully, but no doubt messily, whisking and beating and stirring while planning a failed escape from the imminent nightmare of washing-up and putting away. If the family could be prevailed upon not to attack the cake before Mum had applied the marzipan and the royal icing, then some years it even lasted until Boxing Day.

I loved helping with the icing, using the shiny palette knife to lift up tiny peaks that turned to a sprinkling of frosty needles.

Sometimes there would be the hideous drama of the ox tongue, which involved watching Mum removing it from the pressure cooker in its shockingly pinky-grey state of utter repugnance (“Eurgh, Mum, I’m not eating that. How could you even touch it?”) She’d curl it into the press and consign it to a corner of the ice-cold pantry where, in time, it became squashed into something that gave no hint of what it really was. Wreathed in a grey jelly, it had the appearance of an object from outer space that had crash-landed on its way to hell.

It mostly comes down to food, doesn’t it, this getting ready for Christmas business? The planning of it, the shopping for it, the cooking of it. I think of those cooks in all the armed forces who won’t, after all, have to dish up cauldrons of smelly Brussels sprouts and fiddle about with all those greasy little sausages, wrapping them in their piggy blankets of bacon.

A welcome break for them? I doubt it. Certainly not if I have my way, because one of them, in a crisp white apron, could be just what I’d like for Christmas, please, Santa.

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WHEN we were enduring the torrid process of buying Hill Towers many years ago, one of the questions that exercised our solicitor was about the house’s proximity to a river.

He wasn’t familiar with the area but, according to his scrutiny of a map, and his reading of Environment Agency records, he deduced that the red-for-danger shading indicated it was in a flood plain. His concern prompted him to write: “We need to be sure there’s no risk of flooding from the river, because on the map the property looks perilously close. Can you clarify, please?”

Geoff and I, while alarmed by yet a further delay in the proceedings, replied that although the house might be in a red-banded area and was within a quarter of a mile of the river, the fact the house was halfway up a hill should ensure its survival. That is, pending Noah’s flood, we added, in confident jest.

Well, we haven’t been inundated yet, but judging by the weather of the past week or so, it may not be entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Plagues of locusts and a cloud or two of frogs may precede it, but the angry river could be on the way.

We all know that a swollen river knows no bounds and becomes a monstrous beast of destruction. Ask any of those poor souls recently flooded out of their homes, some of them for the second or even third time this year. Little wonder that insurance companies are saying enough is enough and pulling down the shutters on customers seeking to pay a premium, at almost any price, for protecting their homes.

Living without house insurance is a gamble, yet surely the greater gamble – with homes, lives and the environment as a whole – is taken by developers who continue to seek to build houses by the hundred in low-lying flood plain areas and even, in some scarcely believable cases, on water meadows. Think of the lovely countryside views they say, in their throat-sticking way, disguising with their blandishments the truth that one new house on a greenfield site adds up to a blight, let alone a whole estate-full.

Artist’s impressions show a pretty blue ribbon of river running close by, kingfishers flashing across the near horizon. Mmm, lovely. What an idyll it presents. Yet the truth is that the river is only a pretty ribbon when it’s represented in an illustration – in reality it is a temperamental beast that can swallow up those very houses that its proximity is believed to make desirable.

It isn’t only modern riverside developments that have been inundated, it is older properties too, many of them veteran survivors over the years. In their previous lives they would not have been at such risk, which is how they came to be built in those locations in the first place. It is mostly thanks to Man’s insensitivity to the environment that they are now, in their dotage, being subjected to near-regular flooding on a sometimes catastrophic scale.

I read that it takes an average of nine months for a house to be put back into habitable use after it has been flooded. So, apart from the heartbreak, that is nine months of upheaval and inconvenience for people who, quite often, have lost their personal possessions and have nothing left in life except each other and the soggy clothes they are standing up in. Yes, they are thankful they have their lives, but they also have the upsetting memories which will take a lot longer than nine months to wipe clean.

We shouldn’t be surprised if we hear the little innocents asking in future: “What did you do in the floods, Daddy?” Such is one aspect of modern warfare, as far too many poor souls are discovering.

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FROM the age of dot I have wanted to see the Spanish Riding School of Vienna in action. Those white horses, those liveried riders, all that history, not to mention the stunning spectacle they create.

As a Thelwellian child, inspired by their equine gymnastics, I would try and make my mount of the moment do something, anything, remotely dressage-like. Just walking in a straight line would have been a start, especially when the mount was a barrel-bellied Dartmoor with a serious mud-rolling habit or a hard-mouthed skewbald whose buck was worse than his bite.

But I tried, oh how I tried, and eventually, a few horses later, I achieved some degree of understanding with a black beauty who gave a good impression of sharing my enjoyment in the pursuit of perfection. Not that we ever achieved it, but there was a lot of pleasure and fun in our endeavours.

I never got to see the graceful white Lipizzaner horses in all those years, in spite of my longing. Life and other animals got in the way, time whizzed on and the very idea of such a joyous treat receded into the “Oh well, never mind” category of my mental filing system.

Then, out of the blue, my sister contacted me to suggest we went together to see a performance in Birmingham by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. How could I refuse? All my childhood passion and excitement bubbled up as I counted off the days and prepared myself for the thrill of seeing, at last, the very highest calibre of classical dressage.

So that’s where we went last weekend, to the National Indoor Arena where the dancing white horses were in action on three nights.

Of course it was wonderful, and of course the horses stole my heart with their beauty and intelligence and utter perfection of movement in all paces. Like a perfect combination of Pegasus and Olga Korbut, they flew, twisted, turned and leapt with breathtaking brilliance.

And yet. Yes, there’s an ‘and yet’. And yet, they weren’t quite as dreamlike as I had expected. Why? Because their performance followed a truly thrilling display by three of our gold medal-winning dressage riders from this year’s London Olympics. Not just preceded by this trio of glittering riders, but, truth be told, overshadowed by them. After the dressage masterclasses given by the Paralympian, Lee Pearson, and the two Team GB dressage supremos, Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin, really nothing could hope to shine more brightly.

Although I had watched these three riders on the telly back in August, I couldn’t get the complete picture of their individual skills. Now I could, and I could see just how magnificent they were. No wonder they covered themselves, and their country, in a glorious golden glow.

My sister and I shared our thoughts on what we’d seen: dressage of the highest standard from the GB horses and haute école (or advanced classical dressage, including ‘airs above the ground’) of the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. All of it a true privilege to watch and none of it deserving comparison with the other, but we quietly agreed that we’d give anything to see dressage like that again, whereas we felt we’d ticked the box of the dancing white horses.

It was odd that after all those years of longing, it was an impromptu addition to the night’s big-name attraction that has got me obsessing once more and wondering how soon and where I can catch up again with Lee, Carl, Charlotte and their dancing bay horses.

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I’M sure we’ve all been amused, albeit in a despairing way, by the tales of people who clog up A&E waiting rooms convinced they have something dreadful wrong with them.

There’s the victim of the paper cut, that tiny but painful incision by a dastardly, razor-sharp edge, which some deluded souls interpret as a sign they are about to bleed to death. There’s the cough that convinces its owner an explosion into full-blown chronic bronchitis is only minutes away, and the tummy pain that is obviously rampant appendicitis.

I guess we’ve all, too, imagined something awful is wrong with us and, while not being career hypochondriacs and not tripping straight off to A&E, we have wondered quite what’s going wrong with our bodies. Then an hour will pass, we find we’re still breathing, and the ailment is forgotten – until the next one. Let’s not all be as hasty as the incredibly lazy man who found a growth on his back. He went to the doctor and it turned out it was his mattress.

Sometimes, just the thought of a doctor asking for a description of our ailment is daunting enough to expunge any thought of ‘going public’ with the worry. How could you possibly describe that itchy sort of pain in your big toe which comes and goes, sometimes popping up in the little toe on the other foot? Really, no one with initials after their name is going to take you seriously.

Geoff woke one morning with an ankle so swollen and painful that it was obvious he had fractured it during the night. A trip to A&E was not possible, unless they have people who minister to you in the car park, and anyway there was that worrying and, as yet, unanswerable question of how it could have happened.

Wincing and gasping with pain, he insisted on hopping and half-hobbling downstairs, where I swung into my Florence Nightingale routine (except she was never snappy and she carried a lamp. I was and I didn’t.).

As the day wore on his mobility improved and he stopped yelping with pain each time he moved his leg. How amazing. The fracture has healed, and it’s only taken a few hours. This is good.

The next morning, the ankle had re-broken and the wince-n-gasp routine was repeated. And so on and so on, for a good fortnight.

Then we tumbled to the reason. He’d insisted on adding a blanket to his driver’s side of the bedding, and the extra weight was too much for his twig-leg to bear. You see, far too embarrassing to admit to any harassed A&E staff and so much better that we slept on the problem for as long as we did, in a manner of speaking.

Then it was my turn to climb on to the daft ailments bandwagon. Last week I woke in the night with the most terrifying pain in my ear. It hurt so much I couldn’t hear myself think, which was just as well as most of my thoughts were along the lines of ‘This is obviously terminal, but I wonder if there’s time for me to consult a doctor first’.

In the morning, I discovered the cause of the pain. Right underneath my head, with only a sliver of pillow as protection, was the cork I keep in my passenger’s side of the bed to stave off cramp.

Again, not something to admit to the medics, and anyway I bet they don’t appreciate what a dangerous place a bed can be – especially ours.

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