Archive for the ‘Columns 2015’ Category

It’s hard to decide which animal I’d most like to jump through the TV screen and into my lap when I’m watching the BBC Planet Earth II series on Sunday nights.

I know it’s wrong and silly to anthropomorphise animals and to imagine anything other than the obvious domesticated ones settling into a home life. And yet, what about one of those darling little stressed-out iguanas? I could stroke it gently back to a normal heart-rate. A bit scaly, I know, but bearable.

Or a red crab, so impressive and jewel-like in their massed ranks? Or even a baby ibex, all spindly legs and Bambi eyes?

Perhaps I could settle for a snow leopard – a cub, obviously, that would remain a cub for ever and so not scare me witless by padding around the house with its muscles rippling and its great feet scratching the floorboards.

I consult Geoff. A single raised eyebrow causes me to have a rethink and even to wonder, just for a moment, if I am being too stupid for words. The eyebrow has spoken.

I’ll leave the wonders of the wild the other side of the telly and let David Attenborough continue to regale me with amazing animal facts (which I promptly forget) and be completely in awe of the courage and breathtaking skills of the camera crews.

Their ingenuity and patience are, to coin an overused word, awesome. Awe-inspiring, too, as I find when I’m sitting there, transfixed, with my mouth open, not unlike one of those helpless cubs, pups, baby penguins and nestlings who flop about waiting for a sustaining treat to be delivered by mum or dad.

In the most painful, cold and hostile of conditions, these dedicated professionals risk their lives and their equipment to capture shots that have us viewers reeling.

They are obviously among those ranks of people who just seem to enjoy the challenge of achieving the seeming impossible and the inevitable rush of pleasure and triumph when it all comes together.

The ‘diaries’ section at the end of each Planet Earth II episode reveals what astonishing, time-consuming lengths everyone has been to.

This week, for example, we saw how a cameraman hitched himself tandem-style to a sky-diver for his first-ever flight, hurtling down, down, down from mountain to valley to emulate the flight of the golden eagle. Breathtaking was hardly the word for it.

While all that drama was going on, a dear, dedicated chap spent 100 hours (that’s four long days and nights) all alone in a hide as he attempted to get unprecedented footage of eagles and their vicious, bullying behaviour.

Happily, he was rewarded with a memorable sequence of squabbling, scrapping, ill-mannered males, each desperate for a feast on the corpse of some hapless fox.

We see for ourselves how very blood-red Nature is, in tooth and claw. Yet somehow, out there in distant parts of the Planet, it seems entirely right. It is survival of the fittest, the fastest and the canniest – and nowhere was that more evident than in the breathless sprint for survival that those poor mini-iguanas had to make when under attack from heaps, piles, of shudder-inducing Runner snakes rearing up ever-closer and more deadly.

It’s tough out there, quite obviously. I’m going to keep in mind just how tough when I’m clomping my way around shops over the coming weeks feeling as though I’m under attack from hostile outside forces. I’m not, I’m really not. No snakes, no terrifying eagles, no foxes with murder in their eyes – just Christmas shoppers, an altogether different kind of animal.


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IT is so strange preparing for Christmas when the weather has been more like the balmier days of May. I haven’t even seen my own breath yet this winter.

The heavy coat has been pressed into service precisely once as a short jacket more than meets my needs, and many precious hours have been saved by not having to conduct the pre-departure winter ritual of hunt the glove(s).

There are spring flowers popping up to delight and surprise all over the place, while birds that are meant to have migrated south are flying about in such numbers they are bumping into kaleidoscopes of confused butterflies.

To be honest, while I welcome the lack of bone-chilling cold, I find it all a bit worrying, sinister even. Of course it can’t be right. Everything has gone to pot and there isn’t a smart switch we can throw to restore a balance to our troubled climate.

To take my mind off doom-laden thoughts that are focused not just on the weirdly upside-down weather but, unavoidably, on the bah-humbug grumps of an increasingly gloomy Geoff, who hasn’t an ounce of Christmas spirit in him, I phoned a friend and felt a whole lot better.

In fact, I phoned three friends, so felt three times better. It’s a lovely thing to do at any time of year, but around Christmas I heartily recommend it.

You have to pick the right time, of course, and avoiding The Archers’ broadcast is imperative.

One of my friends has recently moved house so I guessed she might be glad of a distraction from fretting about whether they’d made a dreadful mistake or if this was the home of their dreams (it was the latter, thank goodness). She didn’t mind at all about being interrupted in the task of sorting kitchen drawers. As we haven’t seen each other for months we made plans to get together in the New Year, something we wouldn’t have got round to for ages if we hadn’t had our chat.

My second ’victim’ was a friend in Yorkshire who I last saw six years ago. We frequently exchange emails, but there’s nothing like hearing each other’s voices, the tone and the nuances, the spontaneous laughter, the meaningful pauses, that takes us much deeper into our close relationship than the written emailed word ever can.

A couple of evenings later, I rang Rosie in Somerset, a friend last seen in 2012 and now in the very proud possession of a first grandchild. She grabbed the chance to talk me through every feature of this sweet little girl and I unsubtly retaliated with potted biographies of my four angels. It was what you might describe as a full-on granny fest which gave us both pleasure.

Coming back to earth with a bump soon afterwards, Geoff took a call from an old friend of his explaining that he hadn’t been able to send Christmas cards because he had recently lost the sight of an eye. The poor man is learning how to adapt to a much-restricted way of life.

Geoff turned his cheerful button to maximum strength and soon lightened the tone, ending with a promise to visit in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, we find ourselves on the threshold of Christmas. No chance of a white one, not even a chance of my coat getting its second airing, but with our family and friends it’ll be full of a different kind of warmth. I truly hope yours will be, too.

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ABOUT a century ago, when I was of an impressionable age, my school was visited by a guest speaker.

I knew it was important to sit up straight and listen, and so I did – from which it must be obvious that I was not yet a self-conscious teenager.

Over the years I have recalled some of what the speaker said, though the remnants are fast disappearing along with who he was and why he was there. One thing that has remained very firmly embedded is his insistence that we should never complain that something isn’t fair.

Well, you could tell he had no idea what 21st century life would be like and how unfair some of it would prove to be.

His stricture leapt into my mind this week when Geoff and I discussed some of the practices that companies indulge in and which can only be described as unfair. But of course I never said the word.

Take this as an example: Geoff was notified of an automatic renewal of our joint membership of a motoring breakdown rescue service (one of those known by initial letters). We’ve belonged to the same one for about 12 years, and have called on its very efficient services only about twice in that time.

Hey, hang on: why is the annual cost going up by such a ridiculous amount? Geoff decided to investigate and found that if we were joining as new members the cost would be about £30 less than a straightforward renewal.

Now in anyone’s book that is patently not fair (sorry, Mr School Speaker). Geoff telephoned and negotiated a price actually slightly less than last year and on a par with the ‘special deal’ for new joiners.

The result is that he’s now a satisfied customer, but only because he took the matter up directly with the organisation. The point is, he shouldn’t have had to. It isn’t fair.

It was a similar story when the notice of automatic renewal of the house and contents insurance policies came through. You need do nothing, the letters said. Just relax while our companies plunder your bank account for even more money than last year for no apparent reason – or words to that effect.

Again, Geoff queried the sky-rocketing cost of the premiums, and as happens every year, the cost was reduced.

The Sky subscription was suddenly a shocking £65 a month. Not long ago that would have been a monthly mortgage payment on a family house. One phone call later and a renegotiation of the package brings it down to a far more reasonable £19.

I picked up the phone when my car insurance premium rose by a silly amount. I explained why I felt so peeved and got a reduction of nearly £60, which brought it down to only £3 more than last year.

The moral here is don’t accept what you’re first told. It is a very unfair system that is weighted against the consumer who wants a quiet life – that is, a life untroubled by the need to make phone calls, endure muzak and tedious announcements, and then fight your corner.

Now I’ve noticed that my bank offers an enticement of £100 to new customers. What about me, an old customer? What do I get for loyalty and not making any demands? I get nothing, and it really isn’t fair.

I can feel another phone call coming on.


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The grandchildren are, rightly, taking priority on my list of people for whom I am seeking inspiration for Christmas presents.

As the oldest is only six, they are nowhere near the age when a wad of notes or a generous cheque will be just the thing.

These small people want, and will get, exciting parcels wrapped in bright paper embellished with ribbons and snowflakes. In fact, we oldies know that it’s the look and the feel of their presents that will excite, almost as much as what is inside.

But what is inside? Ah, that is the question. This past week I have been in close contact with those who know far better than I what the two boys (aged six and four) and the two girls (three years and nine months) would most like or need.

There is no point at all in lumbering either household with things that will disappoint the children and end up just creating clutter, hence the need for guidance. Both my daughter and my daughter-in-law rose gamely to the challenge and I was soon able to compile a list.

Admittedly, the suggested present for baby Clemmie is nothing more exciting than socks, but as her mum pointed out when I suggested it sounded rather dull: “It’s OK, honestly. She’s a baby. She needs socks.” The subtext, unspoken, was along the lines of “Clemmie’s kicked off and lost all her sister’s hand-me-down socks so we need to top up the drawer.”

Hmmm, second child syndrome. I am that child, too, damaged by years of wearing my sister’s cast-offs. Poor little Clemmie. I’ll see her right. She’ll get socks all of her very own that reflect her happy personality and I’ll find her some interesting other things that will stimulate and entertain her and help keep that sunny smile on her face.

Her big sister is to have a toy cash register – a most sophisticated-looking beast – and some board games. Oh, and books, of course, because it’s impossible not to swamp all the grandchildren with books.

So that leaves the boys, both of whom have been in a state of near meltdown since they heard the first mention of Christmas back in about September. My daughter tells me, resignation in her voice, that they don’t sleep beyond dawn because they can’t wait to leap up and open the next door in their advent calendars – which I sent them. Whoops.

Just before she falls asleep face first into her day’s work at the kitchen table, my daughter and I discuss presents for the boys. “Honestly, just a bit of Star Wars Lego,” she says, her voice growing faint.

Now look, I complain, we can’t dismiss our grand-boys so lightly. Besides, I’m still in need of therapy after entering the unfathomable world of Star Wars at the time of their birthdays in the summer.

“Can we get them a present to share because they do play together all the time?” I ask. “We wondered about a bagatelle board . . .” Cue loud expressions of approval.

So the boys – in fact, all of us, because it’s such an inclusive game – will be pinging ball bearings with increasing degrees of skill as Christmas rolls into the New Year and far beyond.

Mindful of how mature the boys are now, I shall need to practise bagatelle before battle is joined or I could find myself humiliated – and I can’t have that.

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AN anguished message came via email from my friend Issy this week. She’s obsessively organised about Christmas, always putting me to shame with her lists and orderly planning.

Mind you, she doesn’t have much to plan, or not compared with me. She buys precisely one Christmas present: a country-green jumper for her husband, the same one each year – that is, the same style of jumper and the same husband, as long as he continues to play his cards right – and as all her closest relatives live abroad there is a long-standing ’no gifts’ pact.

While she concentrates on the challenge of the jumper, I am juggling helplessly with my usual mental list of half-formed thoughts for the two dozen people who Geoff and I will be buying presents for. Note the ’will be’, since of course nothing has actually happened yet and the task remains untackled, growing bigger and more daunting by the day.

Issy’s distress this week, as she drifts about doing a little preparatory shopping for the Christmas lunch a deux with her silent husband, was almost palpable in her email.

“Would you believe it?” her words shrieked across the ether. “My stepson has asked if he can come and stay for two days before Christmas! Two days? It might as well be a month for all the work it’s going to cause me.”

The stepson, late forties, unattached and with no home of his own, pitches up only occasionally, perhaps once a year. I always presume he looks in vain for the welcome mat and gets the hint, so has to build up his courage to make another visit. His father lives in a permanent torment of angst about his boy’s strange lifestyle and lack of ambition, while stepmother Issy does her best to calm the troubled waters between the two of them.

She cannot possibly tell him that having him to stay is going to put her off her pre-Christmas stride, causing an unconscionable delay in the purchase of such essentials as cranberry sauce and brandy butter. The prospect of the intrusion into their traditional calm is giving her the vapours even a fortnight before he rolls up to the station with his worldly goods on his back.

Like any of us who have people to stay, there is indeed much effortful and painstaking preparation of a bedroom and bathroom, tidying and cleaning the whole house, and finding linen and towels that pass muster. Then there’s the extra food to get in (he’s a vegan – Issy has no understanding of that) and the meals to plan.

The stepson, whose views on green issues and the environment show admirable sensitivity, is a mystery to his father and to Issy. He has no desire for materialism in any form: they abhor his lifestyle, his values and his rucksack.

It is not exactly a meeting of minds and I can imagine the tension in the air when he stays.

I’ve tried to steer a middle course in my response to Issy, seeing it from both sides and encouraging her to look upon it as a conciliatory act on their part and on the part of their guest.

It’s invigorating to be pushed out of your comfort zone, so embrace it, I write, pointlessly, knowing she only wants to me offer oodles of sympathy and take only her side. I can’t.

Being hospitable is what Christmas is about, I hint, and her riposte comes winging back: “You don’t understand. This is not my idea of peace on earth.”

OK, point taken, but I still cannot sympathise.

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WRITTEN your Christmas list yet? No, me neither. In fact I’m such a numpty at the whole business that I’m not even sure what people mean when they ask that. Do they mean a list of the things I would like to receive, or a list of people for whom presents must be bought?

If it’s the former, I don’t need to make a list: I only want universal peace and happiness, that’s all; and if it’s the latter, then I just feel faint at the thought of it all and change the subject in my head.

Ever one to be helpful, though, I have made life easier for you by compiling my personal selection from those strange Christmas gift guide booklets that arrive unsolicited in the post or slither out of newspapers and magazines. I usually chuck them straight into the recycling, anxious not to let them join any of the more important flotsam that Geoff calls clutter and junk and I insist is tomorrow’s reading matter.

Those catalogues hardly deserve to be opened let alone read, but this year, on your behalf, I have courageously investigated some of them to come up with ideas for your present lists. You choose whether you give or receive any or all of the following:

  1. A wooden chopping board with your name engraved on it, presumably if you should lose it. That’s always happening, is it not.
  2. A cutesy bird-themed wind chime to hang in your garden and send your neighbours half demented because it will never, ever, be silent and they’ll be convinced they’ve developed tinnitus.
  3. Four non-slip mats to put under the feet of a ladder, which is a truly romantic way to show how much you love whoever it is in your household who cleans out the gutters.
  4. A tin of biscuits whose contents work out at approximately £1.75 a bite and which you’ll receive too late to give away as a raffle prize.
  5. A pocket alcohol breath tester, guaranteed to wipe the smile off anyone’s face over the festive season.
  6. Novelty socks, hankies, ties, mugs, key rings, T-shirts, hats and onesies – the variety is as great as your imagination which, by Christmas Eve, will be severely compromised by desperation and lack of funds. Play safe: don’t be tempted. Just think of the groaning shelves of the stuff in charity shops come January.
  7. A 3-D jigsaw of the Flying Scotsman that will remain half-completed and dust-coated until being thrown away at Easter, crucial pieces having been sucked up in the vacuum cleaner on Boxing Day along with a third of a million pine needles.
  8. Two bird-shaped clips to attach a table napkin to your front, like a bib for a messy toddler. Just bear in mind people are likely to think you are on day release from an institution.
  9. A box of vegetables cunningly disguised as chocolates. How to confuse the veg-averse child in your life and give it nightmares about cauliflower that tastes sickly sweet.
  10. Anything that is described as being ’fun for all ages’. You know it won’t be. It’ll be the cause of bitter rows, door slamming and tears before bedtime – and that’s before the children join in.

I do hope you will feel less daunted by Christmas gift dilemmas now you are armed with this helpful list. Personally, I’m on the lookout for some lovely wrapping paper. Well, you have to start somewhere.

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IN the aftermath of the devastating events in Paris it would be easy to stop smiling and impose a ban on happiness.

Heaven knows, there is little to be positive and cheerful about in the wake of such terror being visited upon mostly young people at leisure in a European capital. Not just any European capital, either, but the one closest to our shores and probably the most visited by Brits.

Close to home, yes, and, as we are now all too chillingly aware, quite likely to be merely the precursor.

So do we stay at home, lock our doors and change our lives to avoid all risk? Of course we don’t, we hold our heads up and get on with things as normally as possible.

Of course that is easier said than done. My son-in-law commutes into and across London where one assumes the risks are greatest, especially among crowds and especially in the run-up to Christmas. My daughter is fearful for him, but is no less fearful for her two little boys.

She shared her concern when we spoke on the phone at the weekend.  “I feel almost guilty for having brought two children into this awful world,” she said. “I don’t know how I can protect them from so much evil.”

At first, I could offer disappointingly little to help her. One constructive response might have been, “Tell you what, we’ll all move to a remote island in the Pacific,” but there would be as much wisdom in that as in what a friend offered to me as her solution: that we should immediately close all our borders and the Channel Tunnel should never have been built because she always knew it would be a Bad Thing. No, no wisdom and even less logic.

I simply responded to my daughter with the one thing that popped into my head, which was along the lines of: “You can’t hope to protect the boys from everything, not least random acts of terrorism. You can only give them the tools to be sensible, thoughtful, kind citizens and help them grow the confidence that will give them a zest for life mixed with a strong sense of self-preservation. But to bring them up in a risk-free environment and being over-protective is the way to go crazy.”

Now that I’m a granny I think I’m entitled to administer the odd preachy bit of advice from time to time, and that one was certainly one of my more extensive and serious sermons.

But these are serious times, and I feel dreadfully sorry for young people growing up in such uncertainty and with the responsibility of keeping their little ones safe. The most faultless parenting in the world cannot stop anyone from the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, my daughter and I agreed, we must all just get on with our lives while being sensible and mindful.

We then moved our conversation on to the fun the boys had had at school on Friday when they had to go dressed as the person they would like to be when they grow up.

Thus it was that Mummy found herself hurrying along the residential roads of an English market town in the company of two pint-sized and over-excited dinosaur hunters, her arms filled with containers of cakes and other goodies she’d baked for the school’s sale for Children in Need.

That’s what life is about: the everyday, the slightly dotty, the happiness that comes from little things. We should try never to let it be about fear and despair.

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