Archive for the ‘Columns 2016’ Category

Every single year it’s the same. Even as December bears down, the C-word is avoided at Hill Towers and Geoff remains in denial that anything faintly festive could possibly be happening within his bodily orbit.

This makes life so difficult.

One of the problems is that, as soon as autumn leaves start to fall, we have members of the family enquiring about where we’re going to spend the Big Day, what about going to them, or them coming to us, and then another bit of family springs up and asks the same thing, and another, and another, until I’m batting them away like flies, palming them off with excuses, to buy me time. Time until I can get Geoff to agree to something – anything.

The usual course is that I then embark on tentative negotiations with Geoff. What we need at this point is an independent arbitrator, someone to unravel the knots we’ve tied ourselves in and knock some sense into Mr Tetchy-McGloom.

This doesn’t happen. Every year, a decision is required and failure to come up with one is not an option.

Every year, Geoff is quick to tell me what he doesn’t want to do and where he doesn’t want to go. But an answer in the positive, an enthusiastic ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ is never forthcoming.

Or at least it wasn’t until this week. The daughter and the son contacted us from their respective homes in Sussex and Devon. “We’ve decided to come to you for Christmas, if that’s all right, and we’ll stay nearby.”

Unfortunately, Hill Towers cannot accommodate extras, which is one of its two drawbacks, the other being that it does not appear to be self-cleaning.

Sorted! Our babies, plus all their babies, coming to us for Christmas! Now I won’t have to prevaricate one little bit when any counter-offers come in.

Much bustling and snuffling on the internet ensued, and many links to likely rental properties were sent between each other.

The plan began to look distinctly flaky when we discovered the cost. Of course, it is a peak holiday season, but anywhere that could accommodate four adults and three children plus a toddler was completely off the scale.

Although Geoff and I insisted we’d pay – it is our house that has the shortcomings, after all – we did draw the line at cottages with pull-out sofa beds and inflatable mattresses that instantly make guests feel they are camping. Well, that’s what I’ve found in the past.

As despair was creeping in, I suddenly had a light bulb moment (I don’t have many, so it is good to be able to record this one publicly). I thought about those cheap’n’cheerful hotel chains that do rooms for sixpence and, as they charmingly advise, ‘kids go free’. Like wild animals go free, I thought, when a vision of the two grandsons making the most of a hotel corridor flashed across my mind.

That is what we have now booked online: a total of three adjacent family rooms, with enough beds to allow options of who sleeps where. They can sort the logistics out between them, based, presumably, on whose snoring and whose early-morning waking might be considered the more anti-social.

“I don’t expect to sleep at all anyway,” my daughter said. “I shall just be so excited we’re all together for Christmas.”

I study Geoff’s face when I tell him this and, do you know, he went all soft and smiley and said he agreed. Yee-ha, bring it on!


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I shall leave all the over-commercialised orange and black excitement of Halloween to others as we approach the night (or, inevitably, several nights) of great spookiness.

Being sceptical to a fault, I judge it to be one exploitative time of year too many, especially as that other, far greater, strain on our tolerance and our straitened finances is only a matter of weeks away. Eight, since you ask, but let’s stop counting right now.

Moving swiftly on, lest I be labelled as just too much of a spoilsport to be part of the human race, let’s turn our thoughts to the delights of film, and of watching films.

I am not in any way a film buff and I cannot get excited, as someone we know does, about camera angles and certain directors’ predilections for shooting this way or that.

I always read cinema reviews and make mental notes of the films I absolutely must see, indeed want to see. Naturally, once these notes are stored in my brain-shaped filing cabinet, the details dissolve into complete nothingness, so that when I spot a cinema is showing a certain film, the title is familiar but I cannot recall if it was a must-see or a must-avoid.

Plenty of films, some well-known and popular, others of a more esoteric art-house genre, have rolled their entertaining way past my eyes over the years. However, I am not, and nor is Geoff, in the regular habit of hunkering down with the popcorn and cola brigade for a couple of hours of escapism and surround-sound at ear-splitting decibel levels.

We have different default settings for our leisure time. Indoors, it is books and the radio, followed by TV only if there is something we want to watch. It doesn’t go on just because it’s in the corner of the room and we’re installed on the sofa.

Coincidentally, there were two films on telly shown on recent consecutive evenings that we thought might appeal. We’d even heard of them, which was a good start.

The first was The Invisible Woman, made in 2013 (see how trendy we are!) and starring Ralph Fiennes, who also directed. It is about Charles Dickens and his muse and mistress, Nelly, played by Felicity Jones.

Nelly reflects on the drama of their clandestine passion, which consumed her as a young woman and which contrasts with her life in later years when we meet her as a contented wife, mother and schoolteacher. I’ve dredged my lingering impressions and it certainly wasn’t much more than that.

I told my friend Sue that we’d watched it. “Oh that,” she said, full of disdain. “When I went to see it I walked out of the cinema long before the end.”

I wouldn’t say Geoff and I had been in danger of walking out of our own sitting-room, but pacy and incident-packed it was not. And if there had been one more lingering close-up of Felicity Jones’s pretty face looking mournful and with her mouth hanging slightly open, I swear I’d have had to bury my head under a cushion. Or throw it – the cushion, not my head – at the telly.

It didn’t make the most promising start to our filmathon. The second night, however, saw us amused, mystified and entertained, in equal measure, by the idiosyncratic Grand Budapest Hotel, a madcap bit of weirdness that again starred Ralph Fiennes and that made us feel even more on-trend, having been made by Wes Anderson as recently as 2014.

It was good escapist fun and from where I’m sitting that’s a very decent way to spend an autumn evening.

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It was never going to be easy, gathering up relatives from both sides of the Atlantic for a memorial day in London to mark the centenary of our great-uncle’s death on the Somme.

In fact, it turned out to be impossible. One by one, cousins and second cousins declared themselves regretfully unavailable. For a short while it looked as though an American contingent might make it, but then their plans fell through.

It was clear to my sister and me that, counting her two sons who would be joining us in their suits, ties and shiny shoes from their respective places of work in Mayfair and north London, our big group was now going to number precisely four.

We would be the only ones going to the headquarters of Great-Uncle Albert’s old TA regiment in the City of London to pay our respects, but, as all the absent relatives promised to hold Albert in their thoughts on the day, we felt that at least the family as a whole was aware of his sacrifice and was doing whatever was possible to honour it.

Albert’s regiment is the Honourable Artillery Company, and, as luck would have it, my action-man younger nephew, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Albert, had joined it for a short spell a few years ago when he first moved to London.

Through the contacts he maintains there, he was able to arrange for the regiment’s memorial book, displayed in a glass case on the staircase at Armoury House, to be turned to the page bearing Albert’s name. This was one of the first things we saw on entering the headquarters, and the impact it had on me suddenly turned a day out in London into something completely different.

Seeing Albert’s name, listed there in decorative script among a dozen others on the page – one page of hundreds – made him real, no longer just a figure in a few faded sepia photographs. A young man with a family of proud parents and adoring sisters, with a future in which he might have achieved anything. Instead, he had fallen lifeless into the mud of the Somme one miserable October day, the random victim of a sniper’s bullet.

My throat closed and my eyes pricked. Dear Albert, known only to me by name. Now you are real in my thoughts, no longer one-dimensional, and I thank you for what you did, for the difference you tried to make.

One of our photos of Albert shows him standing with a group of Army friends, a towel over one arm and smiling broadly. In fact, everyone in the group of nine young men is smiling, eyes twinkling, relaxed and as casual as they could be despite the constraints of the belted khaki. I wonder how many came home. By the law of averages, perhaps one. So sadly, so very sadly, it was not our Albert.

I am tremendously glad I made the big trek to London, despite having to be frog-marched through tube stations and along a hundred crowded streets by my city-wise sister, whose legs are approximately twice the length of mine.

Even so, galloping along at knee-height behind her, I knew that my pathetic, puffing effort was absolutely nothing compared with the travails and discomfort our poor dear Albert must have had to endure.

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To take a trip down memory lane can sometimes mean a journey into disappointment and disillusionment.

Some people cannot even tolerate evoking the past. I have a friend who buries herself in a heap of damp tissues, sobbing helplessly, if anyone asks her about schooldays or early career or homes she has lived in.

She claims this is nothing to do with a pathetic weakness and inability to pull herself together and more to do with the medication she is on. I wouldn’t presume to judge, but if it is the latter then it can only be a matter of time before she is hailed as a medical oddity.

Last week I was on a long car journey home to Dorset and for once I was not fretting about the time. I had several hours at my disposal and so, seeing a sign to a town close to where I used to live in West Sussex, I turned off the A27 and decided to explore.

Within seconds I wondered what on earth I was doing. Nothing, but nothing, was familiar. Where once there had been a string of pleasant villages linked by roads whose only punctuations were Belisha beacon crossings – yes, like the Ladybird books – now, 40 years on, I found myself in a dystopian hell of huge roundabouts, traffic lights, schools that looked like superstores, superstores that looked like warehouses, and every other detached house of more than average size proclaiming itself to be a residential home for the elderly.

Dare I go and see the cottage, the first home we’d bought together all those years ago? The possibility of not finding it but seeing a red-brick five-bed detached looming in its place was too awful to contemplate. I couldn’t bear that – the disappointment and the crushing of a memory.

I parked but stayed in the car, gathering my courage. I’d come this far and might not have the chance again, so I set off and walked towards where the cottage should have been. I held my breath.

There it was! I could glimpse its roof over the high, solid wooden fence surrounding the front garden.

From a distance, I peered through an open gate and my heart skipped a beat. It was unchanged. How incredible! After all the alien chaos I had just driven through, to find myself here, in this sweet, familiar oasis, was overwhelming.

“Can I help you?” A woman had walked up behind me. I explained that I’d lived in the cottage 40 years ago, had had both my babies there, and was just so glad to see the place still standing.

“My mother lives there,” said the woman. “I’m going in to visit her. Come in, she’d love to meet you.”

So I did. I went through the pretty garden (Oh, no veg patch! No apple tree! No stable door from the kitchen!) and there I was, standing in the old homestead of such blessed memory, meeting the lovely woman who’d bought it from us and who has been very happy there through all the years of her daughters growing up.

She insisted I should look around, so I took off my shoes and padded about, upstairs and down, feeling strange. I had a wobbly moment in the bedroom where my babies had slept, the torrent of memories almost too much for me to control.

I slid out and headed back downstairs to say thank you and goodbye to the kind owner.

By the time I reached the car I found I had something in both my eyes that was making them water quite badly, which was strange because I’m not on medication.

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Something I read at the weekend really chimed with me. It was a news story about the huge response to an advert seeking someone to provide lively company three days a week for an elderly woman confined to her home in London.

In return, the successful applicant, who would need to have caring experience, is offered rent-free accommodation in the flat.

Margaret, the 93-year-old, suffers occasional memory loss and has mild dementia, but she loves to bake, she does crosswords and she enjoys singing, especially old drinking songs. (And don’t we all.)

A much younger, spirited companion for old people is not common practice – yet. The Dutch, ever the pioneers, have developed a retirement home with small apartments for students who, in return, spend 30 hours a month interacting with the residents.

We know about schoolchildren going into old people’s homes to sing and entertain, which is wonderful, and we know how much joy the young can bring to grandparents’ lives with their chatter and modern ways. But a youngster in their twenties, say, being the regular companion of someone many decades older?

Bring it on, I say. And I say it with feeling. I have only to look at my own mother, aged 94 and a half, in good physical health but with other difficulties similar to the lady in London, to know how positively she reacts to young people within her orbit.

She is energised in their company, she chats easily with them, she is interested in their lives, intrigued by what makes them tick.

My sister and I, a pair of old has-beens, as drearily familiar to Mum as her squashy, faded armchairs, are the practical companions, if you like, the ones who sort the laundry, stock the fridge, sew on buttons, deal with the post, pay bills and sit endlessly with her in the waiting rooms of a multitude of NHS service providers.

Mum’s more personal needs – showering, supervision of daily medication and so on – are met by a rota of paid carers who come in for an hour in the mornings. We are on our second agency, the first having proved to be everything you hope doesn’t exist these days, with unreliability and a complete lack of initiative and trustworthiness being notable features among its staff, despite, of course, earnest promises that each hopeless incident would never happen again.

Now settled very happily with a different agency, we can rely on the carers to do all that is asked of them. Several of them do much more than that because, they tell us, they enjoy their hour with Mum so much. They say they all want to have her on their rota. They send her postcards from their holidays, bring her back little gifts, show her photos of their families and, in the case of sweet Sue, talk about horses, which is a good way to Mum’s heart.

Mum, sadly, doesn’t known one carer from the other, despite their devotion to her, but that doesn’t matter. They deliver an hour of comfort and compassion and, by sharing a little of their lives with her, help her feel happily engaged with the outside world.

If she could have one of these young women living with her in exchange for a roof over their heads, well, what a wonderful world it would be. I just hope that if I reach that stage of life such a situation might be the norm, thanks to the example of Margaret in London and her new companion.

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The book group I’ve belonged to for many years could win prizes for its oddness – and that’s not solely because of the personalities involved.

Its greatest eccentricity is in its geographical location, which is anywhere and nowhere. As the seven of us live so far apart, the furthest being Janie in Leeds, we dot about with our quarterly meetings, moving our net to try and scoop up as many as possible.

We had a full catch last week and we all gathered in a very couth hotel lounge in very couth Marlborough.

As with the books we choose to read, which must be neither overly long nor overly expensive, so must our meeting places be comfortable and provide parking. We usually hit the jackpot, though there have been some duds.

A noisy, crowded restaurant in John Lewis somewhere in Berkshire was not a huge hit, but we have scored triumphs with other more congenial venues.

In Marlborough, where we had booked a restaurant meal, we first had coffee and caught up on each other’s summer activities. It didn’t take long for a stray word to be picked up and used to introduce the hot topic at 99% of book groups across the country: The Archers. The trial, Helen’s distress and hoped-for recovery, the odious Rob, the flower and produce show rivalry, the irritating voice of the child playing Henry, the serious and most hideous crime of emotional abuse and all its ramifications – we gave The Archers our fullest, most passionate attention right up to lunchtime.

When we stood up to head for the restaurant an extremely elderly and frail lady who had been sitting near us came over and added her thoughts on The Archers’ storyline. Unsurprisingly, this is touching a chord at many levels.

She was a lively little soul, this Archers addict. I’d noticed her before because, sitting alone at her table, she had taken a pair of socks out of her handbag and put them on. This task had been interrupted twice when she had to answer calls on her mobile phone. It was very odd to witness, a little like a cameo in a Pinter play.

We discussed the book briefly over lunch. I cannot describe it as ‘the book we’d read’, because only one of us had read it and that was only because she felt obliged to as it had been her choice. The rest of us had either got no further than page 29 before flinging it aside in contempt (yes, guilty) or had read the wrong book or had not started it yet.

Some of our book-related talk centred on the reliable unreliability of the gushing, flattering quotes on book covers. Fellow authors fall over themselves to be obsequious as they lavish praise on something that should never have had trees chopped down to give it life, and they seduce us into investing in a huge disappointment.

Leave us to make our own judgment, but don’t, please, assure us were in the hands of a genius when by Page 6 it is blindingly obvious we are not. That much we were all agreed upon.

We fixed the date of our December meeting which, as in previous years will be held in London. It’ll be in January again, even though it’s the December gathering, because we reckon no-one willingly hits the capital pre-Christmas. I said we were an odd lot.

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Two incidents on our journeys to and from Naples this month brought home to me the difference in the way The Young undertake travel from the way those, er, Less Young do so.

On our flight out, while Geoff alternately read, dozed and gazed out of the window, a young couple engaged me in conversation.

They were on their first visit to Italy. I learnt this because, while they demolished between them a full-size tube of Pringles crisps, they peppered me with questions.

Is it true the Italians drive on the wrong side of the road, was the first question. Yes, I said, and then froze when the girl – she was 23, I learnt later – said that they were hiring a car at Naples airport and she’d be driving into the city where they were staying for two nights.

My instinct was to shriek in alarm and say “Don’t even think about it!” because no one but a lobotomised loony with a death wish would willingly drive in Naples. It is one of the most crazy free-for-alls in the world. The joke about traffic lights being merely a suggestion is actually true in Naples. No one observes any of the rules of the road, everyone hoots the whole time, fists are shaken, tempers flare, shoulders are shrugged – and everyone, whether a driver or pedestrian, is permanently transfixed by their mobile phones so there is never any eye contact. It’s all done by feel or, more often, by bang, which is why most vehicles bear huge dents and grazes, and presumably the pedestrians too.

You need nerves of steel even to think about driving in Naples. You don’t need to be 23, on your first visit to Italy, with a boyfriend’s life as well as your own to consider, and a terrifying ignorance of how to drive on the left. “Are the pedals sort of in the same order, then?” came another question.

I invoked Geoff’s help. The most important thing, he told the girl, as she casually tipped the final crumbs of Pringles into her mouth, is to hold your nerve.

Soon after, sated with crisps and their heads full of our pleadings to be careful and not be intimidated by anything on the road, especially a lorry attached to their bumper and hooting wildly, love’s young dream slipped into a carefree sleep. Geoff and I, of course, worried about them the whole time we were in Naples.

On the return flight I settled myself into my seat with my usual battery of comforts to hand: iPad, selection of books, bottle of water and iPhone for snapping photos of Geoff asleep with his mouth wide open – I’m so childish.

The seat to my right was taken by a young man who had only a book with him. After a little judicious focusing I could see it was about starting your own business.

The book totally absorbed him throughout the flight. He really deserves to succeed if he has that amount of concentration, I thought, and no Pringles to distract him, either, much to my relief.

Later, when I’d noticed that the young entrepreneur was already striding away from the carousel with his smart piece of luggage while Geoff and I were still walking into each other trying to locate our un-smart one, I realised what a wide chasm exists between us and them – ‘them’ being the young, confident, world-at-their-feet travellers. We might have been there, done that, picked up the knowledge, but they’re discovering and learning and emphatically doing their own thing. I suppose we were like that once, though it’s hard to believe.

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