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Archive for the ‘Columns 2016’ Category

Here one minute, gone the next. That’s Christmas for you, done and dusted and over for another year. How can something so long planned for, shopped for, obsessed about and discussed, come and go ‘just like that’, as if it were a Tommy Cooper sleight of hand?

I can’t believe how suddenly it was all over. As the last cartoonishly packed-to-the-gills carload of family drove away from Dorset, taking, as always, a little bit of my heart with them, I had to give myself a kick to avoid falling into a post-Christmas state of gloom.

Come on, get a grip: there’s a new year to look forward to, a spring holiday to think about, and, oh look, what fun, an oven to clean. I find I can always rely on something as basic as that to get me back into the groove, and so it proved.

While cleaning, and trying any ploy to keep my mind off the task, I thought back over our Christmas and decided it had been one of the best. There were no dramas, we didn’t (quite) run out of food, no-one cried or had a tantrum (although Geoff regularly retreated to the study when he felt his fuse becoming perilously short) and everyone was nice to each other in spite of being related.

At one point, with 15 of us from four generations gathered in the sitting-room, we orchestrated some Christmas Day sparks with the long-traditional display of indoor fireworks, a winner for all ages, from the 20-month-old upwards.

Small children always turn a big event into something memorable, whether it’s for the mayhem they create or the huggable things they say. Or both.

I overheard Poppy, aged four, inadvertently confusing her already seriously confused great-grandma when she said: “I go to nursery school but next year I’ll be in deception.”

I gently unravelled that for both of them, and then almost passed out when the great-grandma, otherwise known as my mum, turned to Geoff, gestured towards me and asked him, “Is she your mother?”

It’s true, I might have felt and, after much hard labour in the kitchen, possibly even looked old enough to be my husband’s mother, but as Christmas compliments go it wasn’t one of the cheeriest I’ve known. We make allowances, though, for a little soul who has seen 94 Christmases, and we hope others will do the same for us in years to come.

As New Year rattles towards us, and 2016 disappears in a dark cloud of broken dreams and untimely deaths, I shall resist the pointless business of making a list of resolutions. I’m done with them, but most of all I’m done with lists.

Every pocket, purse, bag, spare inch of surface in kitchen and hall has had a list in it or on it at some point over the past month.

My daughter and daughter-in-law agreed with me that they’d be looking forward to living without the tyranny of lists once their worlds returned to Planet Normal. For both, though, their reliance on lists would continue for a little longer as, once home, they faced more long-distance journeys, this time to the other set of parents/in-laws.

How well I remember that routine, with all the unpacking and re-packing of the car, the second uprooting of reluctant children, another consignment of presents to load, and everywhere those crucial lists to ensure nothing was overlooked.

You do get your reward for all this, you know, I assured the girls. You grow older and then, if you’re really lucky, everyone comes to you. It’s great, believe me.

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We’ve reached the point of no return. Much as I might try and convince myself there are still several weeks until Christmas, even I know it is now only a matter of hours away.

I should be ready by August, I whimper at anyone unwise enough to ask me if I’m ready for the family’s arrival on Christmas Eve. Let’s be honest, I will never be ready, however hard I try. I don’t really know when I was last ready for anything, even just leaving the house to go shopping. I’d still happily nip back in the door for a final sweep and check round, just to be sure I’ve got everything (which I usually haven’t).

Whatever the occasion, there’s always something to be fussed and worried over at the last minute, and of course that’s exactly how it’s going to be right up to the family’s arrival.

What’s the alternative? Do I sit back and relax with a mince pie and a jug of mulled wine at my elbow? I think not. That’s not my style. Well, the goodies might be but the sitting back and relaxing isn’t, I regret to say. Mine is more the flap and panic mode of operation, fine-tuned over the years into a kind of frantic below-surface paddling. Yes, like a duck, but without that enviable air of insouciance.

Hearing from my friend Carla this week made me feel better about my shortcomings. She told me that she had, somewhat rashly, organised a switching-on of lights ceremony for all the houses in her cul-de-sac. Everyone joined in and gathered in her front garden to enjoy – yes, of course – mince pies and mulled wine, which Carla dispensed.

All went swimmingly until the countdown and the moment for the lights to come on: everyone’s lit up on cue except Carla’s.

The problem was duly sorted and the awkward memory duly blotted out with more mulled wine.

The next day, perhaps unwisely, since the rotten-luck fairy was probably still hanging around, Carla set about making a batch of her legendary marmalade. Sure enough, a stray elbow set a tray of eight newly filled jars crashing to the ground, spewing their sticky contents across the kitchen floor.

I’ve cleaned it up a dozen times but I’m still sticking to the floor wherever I walk, she said. Happily, she’s able to ignore it now as she’s off to London for Christmas. I am sure the residue of a marmalade tsunami will be easier to cope with once she’s been fortified by several days of festive fun and frolics. Or being away from home, anyway.

Geoff and I managed to fight our giant tree into place in the sitting-room after which I played a blinder on the art director front, creating a triumph of seasonal bad taste with a deadly combination of gee-gaws and baubles and zero artistic vision. It really is a winner.

However, our tree, strung about though it is with bits and bobs as old as time, has something particularly topical about it this year.

Geoff noticed that the ancient, tatty angel that he was entrusted to reach up and balance on the topmost spike (aided by a judicious squish of Blu-Tack), sports a familiar wild sweep of blond hair under its crooked halo.

We looked at each other in horror. There’s no escaping the terrible truth: we’ve got Donald Trump in a white net dress sitting on top of our Christmas tree.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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As this is to be our first Christmas at home for ages and children will be with us, it was an easy decision that we should have a tree.

Obviously, when I say ‘easy’, I mean that it didn’t take more than two evenings of debate before Geoff came round to my way of thinking.

A third evening’s debate was needed to decide that it should go in the sitting-room (his idea) and not the hall (my idea). A tactical climbdown on my part, obviously.

All we needed to do then was get a tree. A small one, we were agreed on that at least, and not too soon or its chances of survival until the family’s arrival would be slim. Since we have two ailing houseplants currently in intensive care, a whole tree is going to have to have very strong survival instincts.

I burrowed in cupboards and hauled out bags and boxes of lights, baubles and a miscellany of other items that have adorned trees in our various homes over the past very many years. Each tells a story, carrying a memory that fills my emotions as I pathetically caress it and welcome it back into service.

First, though, the tree. We head off to a farm and explain our requirements. I flap my arms and indicate an approximate height. “Six feet, then,” the chap says, with authority.

Geoff and I protest. No no, that’s far too big. We only want something modest with nice neat branches.

We are shown about a dozen others, all of them huge, until a much smaller one is produced and I say, impetuously, “That’ll do!”

The farmer tells us the price and there’s a crash as something keels over in the muddy farmyard: it’s the familiar sound of Geoff passing out in shock at yet another reminder of 21st century life. While he recovers, I arrange a mortgage and the farmer fits our million-pound purchase into a plastic corset that shows it who’s boss.

It just about fits in the car. I don’t mind at all that it’s bouncing on my head and bits of it are attacking my ears.

We drive home with our trophy, slide it out and stand it up. It’s enormous! It’s far, far bigger than we’d intended. Big enough for Trafalgar Square. Geoff doesn’t need to speak. I know what he’s thinking and he’s right, of course. It is my fault.

We can both feel huge Christmas headaches coming on, not least because we fear that smaller grandchildren may go missing in the tree.

It is currently in a bucket of water in the garden where I am hopeful it may shrink. Failing that, I may set it up in the garage – fully decorated and topped with its angel, of course.

UPDATE: The dilemma I referred to in last week’s column, about the double delivery of a bagatelle board and what to do about the extra one, has been resolved.

I called the company, Jacques of London, and a lovely woman explained that computer problems had caused several customers to receive repeat orders by mistake. It’s too difficult and costly to arrange for your spare to be collected, she said, so we would like you to donate it to a charity of your choice.

What an extraordinarily generous gesture! I was so touched and impressed that I spent several minutes gushing my thanks.

I’ve already contacted an appropriate charity and I am confident that Jacques will soon be the toast of many, many grateful people.

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The to-do lists are long, the ticks against the items are few. By this means I know I am making pathetically slow progress in the run-up to Christmas.

It’s the same every year and I refuse to get in a lather over it. Not much of a lather, anyway. Not yet.

The small amount of shopping I have done has been achieved locally and with notable success, I’m happy to say.

I have only once ventured off limits and ordered something online, and that was because I was seduced by an email advising me of an unrepeatable offer on a bagatelle board.

I bought one last year for the grand-boys and they love it. Time for one for the grand-girls, I decided, especially at this bargain price. They’re really far too young for it, but it’s a family game so their parents can enjoy it while little fingers grow and the competitive spirit is nurtured.

I enjoyed a frisson of smugness when I ordered the bagatelle board in early October. One tick on the to-do list already!

By mid-November it hadn’t arrived so I rang the company and was told the boards were ‘in manufacture’, which I translated as ‘being made’, and I should have received an email advising me of the delayed delivery.

I haven’t received one, I said. Oh, the girl said, carefully not apologising, and adding that my board would be with me by the end of the week.

It wasn’t, but it came at the end of the following week. It was a large and heavy parcel and the delivery man gratefully handed it over to Geoff while I scrawled ‘Sdfdjlpgkl’ with a piece of blunt plastic on to a blank screen, a curious procedure that proved the item was now in our safe keeping.

Five days later, another delivery man called at the door with an equally large and heavy parcel. Geoff dealt with it all this time, inscribing ‘Gfjghfjklq’ on the screen and waiting for the man to leave before calling out to ask me what I’d ordered this time.

I’ve ordered nothing, I assured him. That’s odd, he said, because I haven’t ordered anything either.

We checked on the label that it really was intended for Hill Towers and noticed that while indeed it was, the sender was the same company that had supplied the bagatelle board.

Then we tumbled to the fact that as both parcels were the same size and weight, this second one undoubtedly contained another bagatelle board.

Now we are up to our necks in a First World problem. Do we unwrap the parcel and double-check its contents, thus leaving ourselves with a re-wrapping palaver if the thing has to be returned? Do we heave it along to a post office, queue for 45 minutes and just hand it over and say ‘Help’, with a tearful whimper? Do we call Ms Unhelpful at the firm that sent it and ask her to sort it out? Or do we hang to it and wait to see if any more grandchildren are born?

It reminds us of the time someone else’s case of wine was delivered to us by mistake. It took over our lives while we tried to organise its removal. During the days it sat in the hall, like an unwelcome visitor that wouldn’t budge, it bruised our shins and seriously tempted with its ‘Drink me’ allure.

Take my word for it, none of this inconvenience happens when you stay in control and do your shopping locally.

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I was talking about TV cookery shows with a friend this week. It made a pleasant change of subject from other people’s illnesses, how they don’t make nativity plays like they used to (they’re actually rollicking good fun nowadays – imagine that!) and how ‘Christmas shopping’ is possibly the most terrifying phrase in the English language.

So we dwelt on TV cooking for quite some time, for fear of finding ourselves straying back into those danger areas.

Liz watches several of them and so when I happened to blurt out that I have a pet hate about such programmes I suspected she would understand what I was banging on about because she’s the nearest thing I know to a Mastermind-standard expert.

I said I felt they were all missing a trick because I had never yet seen one that gave guidance on absolute basics. She started to disagree, but I explained that what I meant was basics such as how to wash and thoroughly clean fruit and vegetables before chopping, dicing, slicing and so on with varying degrees of expertise. (In my case, invariably wielding a less-than-sharp knife, in a very much less than expert way.)

All you ever see is a delicious pile of ingredients rapidly reduced to a pan-ready state. But what happened to them before they began their starring role?

Some unseen assistant will, one hopes, have been charged with thoroughly washing and, where necessary, scrubbing the wherewithal for Mr or Ms Michelin-Star-Wizard to transform into a delicious dish.

But why can’t we be shown that process? How many cooks, or people who call themselves cooks thanks to the influence of telly chefs, take the time and trouble to wash away the chemicals from their raw ingredients?

“Do you know,” Liz said, “I’d never given that a thought.”

If you use organic produce it’s not that much of an issue, I said, in my best trying-not-to-be-preachy voice. You just need to inspect it and wash out any wildlife that may have hitched a ride.

But most other stuff has been sprayed and glazed and waxed to within an inch of its ridiculously false long life.

I explained to Liz that when I use non-organic stuff I wash it thoroughly in a solution of bicarbonate of soda. This is a win-win because it not only cleans it well but it makes me feel like an authentic Italian nonna.

And as for waxed, non-organic citrus fruit, well, I treat it a bit like a small child that’s covered itself in non-washable felt-tip pen: I just scrub and scrub until the pips squeak.

I asked Liz if she had ever known a TV cookery programme advise viewers to use only unwaxed oranges and lemons for grating or zesting. Never, she agreed.

Well, that’s what I mean about the programme makers missing a trick. Someone should be showing us the preliminary stages, so that we can all wise up to the unwanted extras that come with some of the fresh ingredients in our recipes.

“I had honestly never realised I’m grating the wax preservative as well when I grate an orange,” Liz said. “That’s revolting – even if it is apparently edible!”

Hot water and a vegetable scrubbing brush should do the trick, I suggested, or buy unwaxed organic fruit.

My holier-than-thou lecture over, we moved on to some of the dodgy hygiene we’d observed in a few cookery programmes – and this, inevitably, brought us full circle back to the fun topic of ailments and illnesses.

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Without doubt, this has been the Year of the Question. For months now it has been ‘What do you think about Brexit?’ followed recently by the even more head-banging ‘What do you think about Trump?’

I shan’t be answering either here. There isn’t enough space and it would all get too messy. Suffice to say I do think a great deal about both, they are matters of immense importance that are seeping into every corner of all our lives, but since this is the season of goodwill, let’s move swiftly on.

It is the other questions, the less significant ones, that make me realise the Age of Meaningless Box-Ticking and Pointless Accountability has well and truly arrived.

I go to the doctor’s surgery for a nurse to take a blood test. I am hardly home before a text arrives on my phone: ‘How likely are you to recommend the practice to friends and family if they needed similar treatment?’ I am instructed to give my answer with a number, ranging from 1 for ‘extremely likely’ to 6 for ‘don’t know’.

I decline to answer. I cannot find a number for the reply I want to give, which is along the lines of ‘For heaven’s sake leave me alone and stop expecting me to make pointless decisions because even if I said I wouldn’t recommend you to family and friends (I would, actually) I know you wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, change anything.’

I buy a new battery for the car. Within a few days I receive an email asking me to rate the service and leave a review. I don’t. I have no way of comparing the service with others because I last bought a car battery in about 1977 when my then local garage may not have offered the whole ‘coffee machine and six-year-old magazines’ service for its customers in a waiting area blasting out local radio, but it did offer eyefuls of Pirelli calendar images and some ripe language.

I reach the end of an excellent book which, for a change, I’ve read on a Kindle. Before I can close the final page I am urged to post a review on Amazon. No, I don’t want to! I want to allow it roll around in my thoughts and allow some of the characters to continue to inhabit my mind, not get all analytical about it and try and put my opinion into comprehensible words. Leave me alone! Let me close the page!

On our last holiday in September, we flew by EasyJet to Naples and, because as we arrived so late at night, used a pre-booked taxi service from the airport to our Airbnb apartment in the centre of the city.

Sure enough, no sooner had we arrived home than we were faced with a battery of ‘Were you satisfied with our amazing and brilliant wonderfulness?’ questions from the airline, the car park company we used at Gatwick, Airbnb and the taxi service. We gave them all versions of a weary ‘Yes, now please go away’.

All this is well and good if we could be sure any of our responses to any of the myriad questionnaires that nowadays come our way might make the slightest difference. Indeed, it all rings a bit hollow when you discover that one of the big stores and online retailers, John Lewis, filters out negative reviews of customer service on the grounds ‘they do not meet our guidelines’. You bet they don’t!

It’s a shallow world out there, where firms want us to engage in their corporate box-ticking exercises and we are seduced into thinking our opinions count.

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It’s funny when you think you are familiar with something, read about it, discuss it knowledgably, but in truth do not really know much about it until . . .  suddenly, you land kerplunk in the middle of it and become a world expert.

Let’s end the mystery: I’m talking about the NHS, the monolith that, if fortune is with us, grinds away mostly in the background of our lives.

Most of us have an opinion about it, about the way it works or how we feel it doesn’t work, the way it comes to our rescue or falls short, and the way – so many, many times – it makes us truly grateful for everything it stands for and does and without it where would we be.

I was catapulted into its caring arms last week, just for two nights but long enough for a procedure to be carried out that enabled me to remain in the land of the living and to be sitting writing these words a handful of days later as if nothing had happened.

Now, I shall be able to be a complete battle-hardened know-all about ‘our NHS’ whenever a conversation turns that way. I shall be the bore who prompts hands to cover ears and loud humming to start when I launch into my riveting tale of “When I was in Dorset County Hospital at Dorchester . . .”

I have also become, overnight, one of those people for whom nothing negative can be said about the NHS. I am in love with it. I adore its system that seems to be as joined up as anything on that scale could ever be, I am passionate about its staff at all levels, its wonderful volunteers who guide the bewildered to their appointments along seemingly identical corridors and who run the shops, the refreshment pit stops and the trolleys bearing kaleidoscopes of sugary temptation and reading material.

The porters? Oh, the porters! Cheerful and bright and funny and such skilful drivers. The nurses, from newly qualified to trusty old hands, are an unfailing source of efficiency and quiet calm and show the most amazing teamwork. Nothing is ever too much trouble for them, which is a cliché but true.

My mother used to drop hints to me about becoming a nurse, presumably to distract me during my long phase of daydreaming about riding in the Olympics. Needless to say, I achieved neither.

Thanks to having subsequently become a mother, I could, I hope, muster the necessary caring skills all these years later (though not the intellect, obviously), but at the risk of sounding shallow, it just wouldn’t be the same being a nurse nowadays without those starched caps and crisp uniforms pinned with a bouncy upside-down fob watch which, aged 10, I read about with a certain envy in ‘Jean Becomes a Nurse’.

The regular swoop through the ward of ‘the doctors’ (of which my son is one, at a different hospital) certainly made me sit up straight. Each little phalanx peeled off to have private chats with the patient in their care.

When my entourage arrived and swarmed around my bed, drew the curtains, and engaged me in earnest discussion, all I could think while these brains full of wisdom worked their miracles to set me back on my feet, was ‘Gosh, this is what my son does. He’s one of you lot.’

That was when I diagnosed a new ailment that threatened to overwhelm me: a serious case of Mother’s Pride.

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