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Archive for the ‘Columns 2013’ Category

I AM spending much of this Christmas period travelling around the countryside with food on my lap. Not spilled into my lap, at least I hope not, but balanced on it in a variety of bowls, boxes and bags.

This is because I’ve been incapable of accepting an invitation anywhere for a meal with friends or family without saying, “Would you like me to bring something?” I’m only being polite, showing that I am not taking their kind hospitality for granted, I explain to Geoff, as he slams his head into the nearest wall intoning “Why? Why do you do this every time and make work for yourself?”

This is what happens next: “Oh, a bit of food for the feast would be appreciated,” they say – and there follows at Hill Towers a period of mayhem and panic while I try and create something fit for placing on a table in public. A curiosity that can lurk in the shadows is do-able, but a dish that must hold its own among a display of gorgeousness prepared by others is daunting, verging on the nightmarish.

Add to that the need for the contribution to be portable, and not liable to melt, go off in minutes, slop over the sides, get too hot or too cold, meet 200 dietary foibles, and the order is tall in the extreme.

In my annoying way I blabbed to my nephew, who was holding a bit of a family do in London. He texted back: “Thanks for the offer. A pudding would be fab.”

Well, it would from anyone else’s kitchen, I thought, but maybe not from mine. Anyway, I couldn’t back out, so I chose to donate something straight out of the 1970s that was not just tried and tested but met all the portability requirements.

I am disappointed to admit that even though only half my attention was taken by external distractions (radio, computer, newspaper and a stray book) it took me a mighty four hours to zest, peel, slice and caramelise enough oranges for 15 hungry bods. Four hours! That’s four hours I could have been slumped on the sofa reading a book, or certainly four hours when I could have concentrated really hard on not getting in a flap about Christmas. As it was, those four hours proved to me that making rash offers in the run-up to Christmas is nothing short of, well, rash.

The week before the episode of the caramelised oranges I’d bounced all the way down to Devon in the passenger seat of Geoff’s car clutching a spectacular (for one of my efforts) home-made tarte tatin. We all made it intact, I’m glad to say.

Now, as I write this just before another gastronomic extravagance for the less distant family, I am hoping I can prepare, bake and transport caramelised red onions for seven hungry people within my four-hour standard.

Just wondering: is there some edict that demands our food should be caramelised this Christmas? There seem to be a bit of a theme going on here at Hill Towers.

And just to prove there is a kind fairy who sometimes intervenes when I make those rash offers to contribute to the groaning board, the next event isn’t going to test my culinary powers at all. In response to my offer to contribute, I’m told: “We’d love you to bring some Dorset Blue Vinny for the cheeseboard, please.”

Now that’s what I call a result, as long as it doesn’t sweat in the car and I don’t emit too much of a cheesy aura on arrival.

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CHRISTMAS is about traditions and obscure family habits and spreading happiness. It’s also about remembering our own Christmas times past.

I remember childhood years when I was too excited to sleep. This meant that one year, shockingly, I saw through my not-quite-shut eyes my mother creeping into the bedroom, carrying a rustling you-know-what.

Then I remember the years when I was doing the very same thing for my children, who may or not have been fast asleep. By 2am I was, frankly, past caring.

Nowadays, those now grown-up children do the creeping around in the small hours for their own offspring, while I sleep the relieved and contented sleep of a granny.

Funny how the years pass and nothing changes, yet everything changes. For here we are, Christmas 2013, and as a family our biggest concern is Mum, aged 91 and three-quarters.

For the past fortnight she has been aware it’s Christmas because of the daily flutter of a few cards through her letterbox. But only for that minute, while we read the cards and she says how kind people are to remember her. For the rest of her day it could be mid-summer for all she is aware of the calendar’s march.

I helped her to write a few cards of her own. She has beautiful hand-writing, neat and distinctive with an artistic flourish, and I encouraged her to include a short message in all four of the cards we achieved together through multiple fractures of concentration. It was the first time she’d needed help in this exercise and it took her for ever, but with all the time in her world that really didn’t matter.

I tracked down the necessary addresses. For this task I consulted the old family address book, a black leather-bound volume that dates from the mid-1950s when my parents moved from London to Cornwall. It is both ordinary and magnificent, holding within its lined pages an almost entire potted social history of our family.

Here are not just the addresses of friends and family but, stuffed between the pages, postcards sent by my sister and me from travels in Europe and beyond, correspondence from family in America, Holland and the Channel Islands circa 1960 up to the more recent internet years of emails, a few monochrome photos of other people’s children, stock-still in front of box Brownie cameras, and innumerable change of address cards from acquaintances all over the UK as well as in Denmark, South Africa, Australia and Canada.

Time’s march means that the address book is also a record of births, marriages and deaths. New additions have been neatly written in, with names and dates of birth, and marriages are evident in revised entries. So many scorings-out indicate the passing of years, taking friends and relatives with them and causing these sad, final lines to be drawn through once-familiar names.

Looking through this address book I am reminded of my childhood when I see my handwriting and my sister’s where we have been allowed to update an occasional change of address or even make a fresh entry for a friend of our own. Some years I helped Mum and Dad write their Christmas cards, reading out names, initials and addresses and self-importantly applying ticks to lists.

Mum completed her four cards, I reached the end of my trip down memory lane and retraced my steps to reality again, and we walked slowly to the postbox. Those four recipients will be unaware of what effort and pleasure went into their greetings this Christmas.

And from me to you, whose addresses I won’t ever know, my warmest good wishes for a very Happy Christmas.

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IT’S a risk you run when going to the hairdresser’s any time between the end of September and the 24th December.

“Are you all ready for Christmas, then?” they trill, in their kindly, conversational way. At least they ring the changes. For the preceding six months it has been “Going anywhere nice for your holidays?”

The Christmas shocker is repeated to all-comers, myself included when I nipped in to have my forelock trimmed all of three weeks ago.

I growl back: “No, and I’m afraid I never will be. What about you?” I am then made to feel a pathetic heel when I learn that this scissor-wielding magician, in appearance about a quarter my age, has four small children and a husband to run, two sides of the family plus all hangers-on coming for Christmas, and is ready for the whole event save the last bit of wrapping.

I expect she knows what she wants in the way of a present, too, whereas I haven’t a clue and have no answer when Geoff asks, with increasing impatience, if he’d like me and his bank card to accompany me on a snatch raid somewhere – maximum exposure to shopping crowds a grudging three-and-a-half minutes.

It’s a tempting offer but I know from experience that joint shopping expeditions at this time of year are a theory devised in hell and a practice that should be outlawed. No-one ever came out of them a more calm or tolerant person.

I tell Geoff that unless we can go to the shop where the three-day event horse that I’ve been dreaming of since 1975 is tacked up and waiting for me, then I have no inspiration to offer him.

He gives one of his pre-Christmas sighs, heavy with martyrdom and pain. Have a look in this, it may give you some ideas, he says, handing me something that’s fallen out of a newspaper.

I glance at it, and in that very instant my lip curls at the exact speed as my toes. It is a brochure called ‘Gifts for the Girls’. Its very name makes me want to hurl it across the room, but, being me and unable to resist the pain of cerebral indigestion, I give it my attention.

As these brochures go, these glossy compilations of mainly pointless items you never knew existed let alone needed, it is smartly produced, disappointingly devoid of grammatical howlers, and probably quite useful to someone who can’t get out to a shop or access a computer.

So just before I gift it to the recycling, let’s see what this girl won’t be hoping for this Christmas.

Remember these are great gift ideas for girls who surely would be crackers not to love ’em, starting with Christmas pudding bin bags – ‘amuse the neighbours and brighten up bin day’ with a pack of 12 plastic sacks that are like huge, tightly belted puddings, in fact exactly how many of us look in times of over-indulgence.

Some terrifically fun, glad-to-be-a-girlie items include a jumbo zip-up storage bag in a Nordic Christmas pattern, an apron with ‘bah humbug!’ on the front, and a just-what-you’ve-always-wanted set of four microwave plate warmers and a tool to scrape gummed-up food off the hob.

In the pampered princess category we have slippers that exfoliate the feet as you walk, surely weird enough to send the wearer a little mad, and a vibrating head massager, for those with vibrating heads.

Finally, from the ‘completely and utterly pointless department’ – a floating battery-operated LED light that turns the bathwater five different colours.

I rest my case. It’s got to be the horse.

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THE pre-Christmas pressure cooker has begun building up its head of steam here at Hill Towers. It will gradually rise to the point of combustion, timed for the afternoon of Christmas Eve, when, effort spent, it will erupt in a cloud of steam and let out an exhausted screaming sound.

I am that pressure cooker. I am primed to perform in the run-up to Christmas, stewing gently, bubbling, occasionally steaming, often over-heating to a state of meltdown.

There does seem to be a lot of indecent haste around at the moment, and not just on the streets. Last weekend found us whizzing on two wheels round the corner from November to land slap-bang into the all-things red and white embrace of December – and that means it’s pressure cooker time again. Wistfully, I spare a thought for August, which passed in such a blur that I have no recollection of any of its 31 days, but I don’t suppose I’d be allowed another go at it.

I might have known something of a festive persuasion was in the air when a Christmas card was delivered by the postman on 26th November. That is just ridiculous. Is this turning into a new sport, I wonder? We get people wearing remembrance poppies long before the end of October, and now my dear hyper-efficient sister-in-law proves her membership of Team Indecently Premature by sending her Christmas cards while people like me are still wondering where Easter went.

As far as preparations for the Big Day itself are concerned, we remain at the frustrating stage of trying to nail jelly to the wall. I ask the son and the daughter what they’re doing and when we might hope to see them and their spouses and children. It’s a bit early yet, they say, enigmatically, showing they have inherited the family ‘Surely it’s not Christmas already?’ gene. This one will go to the wire and Geoff and I will end up doing our usual long distance present deliveries on eerily quiet roads, sustained by mince pies and heartburn.

The un-nailable jelly also involves the many other members of the family, principal among them my mum, whose interest in Christmas this year centres solely on the Dorling Kindersley book of world military history. I discovered her lust for this monster tome when trying to frogmarch her past a display in a bookshop. I thought I was the only person who strokes books. Now I find that my mother does, too, quite publicly and with no shame. She really wants it, and she shall have it. If only the two dozen other gift dilemmas were as easily solved because it is they and the ‘who’s going where’ military manoeuvres that bring me to my knees.

My friend Sue, a great one for arcane pronouncements, maintains that only children under 10 should be given presents. “After that age, just give them a tenner to spend.”

It’s all very well for her, she only has her husband to buy for and he gets the same every year: a bottle of single malt whisky from the supermarket. She also buys some of her favourite, expensive, body lotion, wraps it and gives it to him to give to her, and that’s the extent of her Christmas gift shopping. No permanent state of panic for her, then, just a big helping of smugness and an often-expressed despair that the world’s gone mad. Well, it has, we know that, but Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the madness and the feeling that the lid’s just about to blow off the pressure cooker.

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SOMEONE was talking to me this week about curtains – not mine, but a houseful of them that she is making for her daughter. Words like ‘header’, ‘pleat’, ‘width’, and that completely mysterious one, ‘drop’, had my brain freezing over and my stomach tightening.

I do not understand how curtains evolve from this to that, and I do not understand their language, which takes basic vocabulary and turns it into a Martian dialect.

I cannot fathom how it is possible to measure a window, stand back, place a finger to the mouth, tilt the head to one side, and then utter something along the lines of “You’ll need four metres of 54 if you want a pattern repeat, otherwise three, but of course it all depends on the drop.”

Talk like that makes me want to put my hands to my ears and run away.

Oddly, indeed very oddly, I have made curtains myself in the distant past, always by hand and invariably blood-stained. Almost all of them bore a certain eccentric trademark, being suspended an inch or two above the windowsill and not quite meeting in the middle.

I am able to sew any sort of small-picture stuff, things that can be contained in the comfort of my lap, but face me with bolts of cloth and a load of measurements and I shrivel.

The same numbness afflicts my brain when I read a recipe whose ingredients are listed in grams. Would 175g of butter be a mere knob or a couple of packs? I look it up, and clarity hits me. I vow to remember, and fail, instantly.

For me, recipe ingredients are best measured in pounds and ounces, likewise the vegetables and fruit I buy, the babies I hug and those impossible-to-read smaller numbers on the scales when I am feeling masochistic enough to weigh myself.

Numbness strikes again when I’m reading a map. I used to be really good at this, confident enough to recognise tumuli and contours and the colour-coding of roads to gallop through my Girl Guide map-reader’s badge with the greatest of ease.

Now, though, no doubt frazzled by a certain snappiness from someone (we know who) demanding which way we should turn, NOW, I seize up, go blank and mumble that the map must be faulty because I can’t even find the road we’re on.

I had to pack something very large into a box at the weekend. There were instructions on the box for how to do it so that the lid would close satisfactorily. The component parts in this grim exercise were several bulky pieces of plastic and a heavy motor, some lumps of rapidly crumbling polystyrene and my brain that was verging on shutdown mode.

I absolutely refused to let Geoff see how much I was struggling. I battled away on my own, fumbling and fuming and pushing and squashing. Parcel tape burst off when I used it to try and force the lid down. Bits of it stuck to me, impeding my efforts, and bobbles of escaping polystyrene decorated my feet like a fresh snowfall.

For the umpteenth time I unloaded everything to have another go. This time I really concentrated as I read the instructions and took it step by step. Oh, so that’s what they mean. That bit in there, then that bit, this bit upside down, would you believe, then the crumbly bits, or what’s left of them, then the lid in all its complicated parts, then . . . oh my word, I’ve done it! Oh, what joy! So I am a genius after all.

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FOR reasons that could perhaps be described as a mix of autumn madness and a sense of the ridiculous, Geoff and I have just completed a 2,655-mile drive to central Italy and back.

There was a proper purpose, I promise. We really aren’t that keen on consuming fuel unnecessarily and being sent half-demented with boredom as mile after mile of featureless tarmac unfolds in front of us, day after relentless day.

Either side of the endless roads, of course, there were views, sometimes great ones, especially in sunny, snowy Austria, and a fair few stunning landscapes to relieve the tedium in Germany, too.

Big on trees, Germany. Also big on roadworks, contraflow, diversions and mammoth earthmoving machinery. The people aren’t exactly diminutive, either, and from where I sat or, occasionally stood, I felt like a visitor from Planet Mini.

We did a tiny bit of France (avoiding the rest of the country for fear of being bankrupted by the road tolls and over-officious gendarmes), most of Belgium plus a few miles of southern Holland where it bulges unexpectedly into its neighbour, a vast swathe of Germany, an artistic diagonal across Austria, an oo-er crossing of the Brenner Pass marvelling at the engineering, and then a descent, at times literally, into the sheer madness of Italy.

Three days later, we turned round and retraced our tyre-treads. Punishing stuff indeed, but by breaking up the odyssey into days of 350-425 miles, we made it bearable and entirely doable.

We stayed in a succession of hotels, each one booked the night before so we knew our exact destination when setting off in the morning and could instruct the sat-nav with the irritating voice to deliver us to whichever front door we had chosen.

It was a system that worked perfectly, thanks to Wi-Fi connections at each hotel which enabled internet research to see where there were vacancies for the following night and which had the most favourable guests’ reviews.

Three of the six hotels – on the way down in Belgium and southern Germany, and on the way back in northern Italy – were so delightful and comfortable that it seemed a shame to be moving on so soon after breakfast.

Two others were certainly good enough to make us think we’d return if ever we should find ourselves doing such an utterly ridiculous journey again. The sixth, in Belgium on our last night before the glorious familiarity of our own bed in Dorset, was the most expensive and the least impressive.

It was only little things that let it down. For example, no smile was forthcoming at reception when we walked in, and our bedroom was like an ice-box, as though we hadn’t been expected. Someone should have been thoughtful enough to have turned on the heating.

Later, when we needed to ask the guy on reception – who turned out to be the owner – where we could eat in town because the hotel restaurant was unaccountably closed, we couldn’t find him. Eventually we tracked him down to the garden within sight of the front door where he was standing in the cold having what is colloquially termed a ‘fag break’. Charming.

I mean, it’s not rocket science, is it? Why run a business if you can’t smile, you don’t plan ahead for your guests’ comfort and you can’t cope without sneaking out for a cigarette?

Never mind, it worked a treat because it made coming home all the sweeter. The White Cliffs of Dover have never looked more majestic, more uplifting or more jolly welcoming. Job done, mission accomplished, odyssey completed. Phew.

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NOW that autumn has blown in – and my, how it blew – attention has turned at Hill Towers to the problem of how to keep Geoff from freezing during the winter months.

Obviously we can’t turn up the heating. We wouldn’t want to bankrupt ourselves, and anyway, whatever the temperature inside, outside or in my gentleman’s parlour, Geoff is cold, so there is little point in twiddling the dial.

We aim for a comfortable background temperature and add or subtract layers of clothing as appropriate. Geoff also wears gloves, but I’ve never been able to work out if that is to keep his hands warm or to render him completely and utterly useless (as opposed to just completely useless) in his occasional role as kitchen assistant. Woolly fingers and thumbs make an awful hash of anything requiring dexterity, such as wielding a drying-up cloth or laying the table.

Thermals are an obvious requirement, but then there’s the jumper, which isn’t quite so straightforward this year. He has worn the same one, or its different-coloured near-relative, for what seems like centuries. Safe, you see. Nothing challenging, nothing that makes a statement. Just a plain ‘thing’ that has managed to retain a vaguely defined body shape over the years while acting as a barrier between the shirt underneath and the world beyond. Its subsidiary task is to catch the odd misdirected crumb or something altogether drippier, messier and with staining properties.

The least presentable of the jumpers is finally on its way out. Geoff has at last conceded that it is beyond help, though he will not allow my description of it as ‘disgraceful’. He prefers to think of it as ‘venerable’.

We agree to differ and plan to replace it. My heart sinks. Geoff doesn’t shop. He thinks things like full food cupboards like the ones in adverts just ‘happen’.

I decide I’ll spare him the horrors of what normal mortals accept as an everyday experience and I go to a shop on my own and choose a jumper for him.

I bring it home. He doesn’t like it. It’s plain, it’s dull, what’s not to like? “It’s a bit fancy,” he says, prodding at an area of cable-stitch around the crew neck.

I return the offending jumper, get my money refunded and take Geoff to choose one for himself.

He looks pale as we walk into the first shop, paler still when he sees that jumpers exist in patterns and jolly colours and cost the sort of money that he thinks might buy a house.

He wants to go home. I steer him into the safest harbour known to the unreconstructed male: M&S. We pick out something of an acceptable plainness and dullness and which, as Mr Grumpy is quick to point out, is probably about the same price as a B&B seaside holiday for four, circa 1956.

He pleads: “I don’t have to try it on, do I?” as I corral him in a changing room. The sounds of effort make me think a farm-hand might be herding a flock of sheep into a too-small pen. It’s getting ugly in there.

The reluctant customer emerges, hair on end and wearing the jumper. “Oooh, it’s lovely,” I say, in the over-enthusiastic voice I more often use to encourage the toddler grandsons to eat their lunch.

Geoff agrees, but I know that’s mostly because he wants to take it off, leave the shop and go home. We do just that, stopping on the way to pay for the jumper.

Mission accomplished. Now we only have to hope it will keep him warm – and not wear out for another 100 years.

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