Archive for the ‘Columns 2017’ Category

I am confident the slightly queasy feeling caused by over-indulgence will soon pass, but until it does, today finds me having to sit slightly further back from my keyboard than usual.

Clothing seems more snug than a week ago; everything, in fact, is just that bit little different, in a not altogether good way.

Letting the guard down over Christmas is to blame, but I will soon see to that and self-imposed rationing will be the dreary order of things through January.

What is bound to sustain me through those days of payback is the recollection of a wonderfully happy Christmas spent with the family, when all caution was cast to the wind and I ate crumpets for breakfast and coffee creams in the middle of the afternoon. In my little world of relentless self-denial that sort of mad, impetuous behaviour is so far off-piste as to cause anyone who knows me to wonder if I’ve lost the plot.

Might have. Might just be pleasing myself. Might even be loving every minute of it – for as long as it lasts, for it is but a temporary blip along my path of food-righteousness.

In mitigation, I plead stress caused by best-laid plans being thrown into disarray. One half of the family, the Sussex-based Hillbillies, went down one after the other with a sickness bug, causing them to delay their arrival in Dorset by two days. It was a close-run thing, as they only reached us in time for lunch on Christmas Day, and even then my daughter and one grandson were hardly able to eat.

The other half of the family, newly recovered from colds, drove up from Devon for the day, arriving mid-morning. The little grand-daughters were suddenly ravenous after being up for hours, thanks to the excitement of Father Christmas actually having called on them. As they hoovered their way through their elevenses, I was given an account of the pre-dawn activity. “Oh grandma,” they breathed, big brown eyes fixed on me, “he came to see us, he really did! He was in our house!”

The big man had kindly delivered stockings and even remembered that one child had requested her stocking to be placed on the end of her bed, and the other had insisted hers should be hung downstairs by the fire. Poor chap. So much to do, so little time.

The will-they, won’t-they circumstances of the Hillbillies’ arrival made planning very difficult, so the buying of food was left until almost the last minute.

Thank heavens they made it, or Geoff and I would still be working our way through a fridge bulging with Christmas victuals. Even so, everyone was sent home with bags of plenty, because, as ever, I’d totally overdone it, both in the buying and the baking.

As far as presents were concerned, we kept to a ‘no plastics’ rule and so books, games, clothing, interesting food and home-made vouchers for treats tended to predominate. My daughter moved us deeply by giving us a card explaining that one of her gifts to us was in the form of a tent, warm socks, blanket and hot food for a refugee in need.

For all of us, though, our best present was being together, especially when, for a long time, it had seemed so unlikely. Let us hope, as we head into the New Year, we can look forward to health and happiness for us all – and of course for you, too.


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Every single year, as Christmas approaches like an out-of-control express train, I am gripped by panic at the thought of The Cards.

Obviously there’s the perennial dilemma of what to do with the ones we receive, which we usually end up littering around every room, squeezed like squatters on to picture frames and any available surface because we have tried and failed to find any other sensible method of display.

Beyond that dilemma, though, is the one of ‘Are we sending cards again this year?’ This is usually a conversation – very brief at that – held in about the second week of December when my panic is reaching danger levels.

I know I have to have everything sorted well before the 25th, but life is rapidly going out of focus and I dream of darkened rooms and spa holidays in Mauritius.

If only Geoff would say ‘No, let’s forget about cards for once. People will just think we’ve gone away.’ But of course he doesn’t say that because, like me, he actually likes to keep in touch with friends and send them our greetings, however much of a toll it takes on nerves and time, not to mention my dreadful handwriting.

This year, however, I took an entirely different approach to the problem of cards. I went off piste, and, holding my breath, hoped Geoff would join me. He did! And that is why, for the first time, we have made a donation to charity instead of sending cards.

We’ve emailed everyone who would normally receive a card from us to explain what we’ve done and why we’ve done it, and included a link to the charity we chose to support. This is the Dorset Cancer Centre at our county hospital in Dorchester, a cause very close to our hearts for all sorts of reasons and one which we know will definitely help change lives for the better.

Geoff and I went to a talk earlier this year when we learnt about the proposed centre. It moved us greatly to hear how some cancer patients in the far west of Dorset have had to forgo radiotherapy treatment because their nearest centre, in Poole, is quite impossible for them to reach on a daily basis over a number of weeks.

Any patients without their own transport or, perhaps, with young children either still at home or needing to be accompanied to and from school, would simply find the routine out of the question.

The new centre at Dorchester will solve so many of those logistical problems. It will not only have the longed-for radiotherapy department but much-enhanced facilities for cancer outpatients, including a reconfigured chemotherapy unit that will be able to accommodate a family member or two alongside patients during their treatment, something which lack of space means is not currently possible.

There’ll be rooms for counselling and support services, too, and another significant bonus is in the extended range of cancers that will able to be treated at the centre, making the whole project an absolute win-win for north, south and west Dorset.

The £1.75m project is well on the way to being fully funded through supporters’ charitable efforts and the building is already taking shape.

Quite honestly, the satisfaction of supporting such an incredibly worthwhile project has totally eclipsed the pleasure of being in personal contact with friends and family through writing messages in 100-odd cards. Nowadays, with the ease of email and phone calls, we can do that when we wish, but giving something a little extra has taken on a new meaning for us this year.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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Whenever there’s a knock at the door Geoff and I look at each other and say “Who’s that?” as if either of us has a sixth sense or X-ray eyes.

We played out this pointless charade last week when a sudden knock came. Geoff answered it to reveal a Parcelforce delivery man. Well, we could never have guessed that, since neither of us was expecting a delivery of anything other than peace and goodwill.

The parcel was addressed to me so I did my usual excited-child’s effort at unwrapping, strewing the floor with brown paper and sticky tape, to reveal a large red box containing, without a doubt, a bottle.

And what a bottle it turned out to be! Lurking inside that box was a magnum of Prosecco. How absolutely wonderful, especially as there was nothing on it to say it had to be shared.

Equally, there was nothing on it to indicate who this generous surprise gift was from. No label, no gift card, no note, nothing, anywhere to be seen. We both examined the brown wrapping and the red box so minutely that we almost went cross-eyed with the effort, but it was to no avail.

We speculated for some time about who the kind person might be but we got nowhere. I finally settled for it being a gift from my book group, for the sole reason that years ago they’d once clubbed together and sent me flowers when I was unwell. But why now? I couldn’t possibly ask any of them because if the bottle hadn’t come from them then it would be very awkward.

It reminded us of the time, 100 years ago, when someone very thoughtfully gave us a most beautiful wooden bread board and knife for our wedding (in the days before gift expectations became somewhat more lavish to feature whole kitchens and honeymoons) and we couldn’t thank them because there was nothing to indicate who it was from. That has troubled me ever since.

Now here we were with another mystery on our hands. We are quite good at working out who has left various vegetables on our doorstep. Sweet potatoes, beetroot and carrots tend to be from kind neighbour Kitty; leeks, kale, chard, salad leaves and more are from our dear friends who share their allotment bounty, but a random magnum of Prosecco, well, that’s quite a test even for Sherlock Holmes.

Except, of course, Geoff rose to the challenge superbly and gave old Sherlock an object lesson in sleuthing. He noticed on the address label, among a veritable riot of strung-together numbers, letters and hieroglyphics, an order number.

That’s what you need, he said. Ring the shop it came from, give them that number, and they’ll tell you who placed the order.

And that is exactly what I did, and exactly what happened. It really couldn’t have been more simple.

The mystery was solved. The helpful chap on the phone divulged the name of the sender, and I instantly had to resist the urge to burst into tears. It was my friend Carla, so generous, so thoughtful, and when I had composed myself and rang to thank her she said she had dictated a message to the shop to be included on a gift card, but it had obviously been overlooked and not put into the box.

We laughed to think that someone, somewhere, might be puzzling over a mysterious message, and decided it was a lesson to us all to attach our gift cards securely this Christmas because Sherlock and Geoff are likely to be off duty.

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When I first became aware of the Mastermind quiz programme on television many years ago I decided that, if pressed to compete, the only thing I could possibly answer questions on would be points of the horse.

Once through to the next round, my specialist subject would have to be the only thing left in my scrambled brain at the time: how to get a baby to sleep.

I’d be eliminated at that point, not necessarily for too low a score but for falling asleep in the black chair. Yes, those were the days of baby-induced narcolepsy.

Nowadays, I’d choose a different specialist subject, but I’d have to share the chair and compete as a duo with Geoff because neither of us has a reliable memory and it wouldn’t do to fly helplessly solo in front of the terrifying John Humphrys.

Our subject would be Italy – but only the bits we know, and not too much detail about its history. We don’t need any winding up on the topic to strut our stuff interminably, tediously and to everyone’s dismay. Light our blue touch paper on, say, which region has the better weather in October, and we’re off like a pair of galloping racehorses.

Imagine our delight, therefore, when friends consulted us – by email, wisely, thus avoiding an earful – on our suggestions for an itinerary for their planned 10-day trip to Italy in May. Geoff and I rose to the challenge and gave them the benefit of our (questionable) wisdom and knowledge of a number of places.

We suggested they start in Bologna, from where they could visit Ravenna and Parma, then move on to beautiful Lucca and enjoy day trips to Florence and Siena. Finally, head down to Rome and, taking care not to stumble over the piles of rubbish that we’ve heard are currently blighting the place, indulge in a feast for all the senses in the Eternal City.

Oh, how wonderful it sounded! We emailed off our thoughts but were wise enough to add at the end, “Of course you’ll probably choose to go to Guatemala instead!”
This is because Roger and Mary rarely bother with short hops to Europe. They’re such seasoned travellers that they think nothing of disappearing every winter for three months on a round-the-world tour, always taking in south-east Asia because they are passionate ‘collectors’ of obscure temples, Australia, where they have family, and America, where they have friends from West coast to East.

There can be  few countries they have not yet visited. They ‘did’ Syria and Libya, before those now-ravaged places became off-limits. At the time, war and unrest were only a year or two away but our intrepid friends were at least safe to explore all the sights, unaccompanied, as usual.

India, China and Japan, even the more remote parts, hold no fears for them, although we and their other friends who appreciate their regular emailed travel bulletins, did offer up silent prayers when they recently returned safe and sound from Central and South America.

The world just seems very small to them, and it’s there to be explored, appreciated and, with luck, revisited.

Interestingly, both Roger and Mary had brushes with cancer some years ago and afterwards they decided to wring all the goodness out of life for as long as they could.

They’re lucky – and they know it – to have the money to finance all this glorious hedonism, but for those of us who cannot hope to emulate them, we enjoy their experiences second-hand. It saves the faff of packing, after all.

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There are reminders all around me of how rapidly life changes and charges on. I only have to glance in a mirror for the most graphic illustration of all, but usually the nudges are smaller, such as the realisation that I’m paying the equivalent of six shillings for one orange, or that few people bat an eyelid nowadays when Christmas takes over our lives from September.

Everything about Christmas, in fact, makes me feel I am being left behind and no longer fit easily into this world. Chief among this is the horror of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all the other shallow, scheming inducements designed to make us think we are being prudent and saving on our spending ahead of the big day. When you hear parents saying they are cutting back and can only afford to spend £200 on presents for each child this year you have to wonder how much they spent before their sacrificial cutback.

At least there are always the traditional pleasures associated with Christmas – the school Nativity plays and the carol services, the pantomimes and parties.

Except nativity plays are pretty rare these days. They certainly don’t feature at my grandsons’ primary school, where the younger pupils take part in an entertainment called ‘a Christmas play’ at the end of term.

The nature of this was revealed to my daughter and son-in-law this week, when a rummage in little Zach’s book bag revealed a note from the school.

He had announced a couple of weeks earlier that he was to be ‘Simon’ in the play, and although it wasn’t a name familiar among the usual Nativity characters, it had been assumed he was going to be a shepherd.

The official note, however, made clear that this was to be no dressing-gown and tea-towel role. ‘Your child has been chosen to play the part of Simon Cowell in our Christmas play, The K Factor. Please help him learn his lines and ensure he has a white T-shirt, jeans and a belt to wear.’

Not a shepherd, then, but someone from, as the saying goes, popular culture, with whom we must reluctantly make ourselves familiar.

I know he’s a man very firmly on the Marmite scale – you either like him or you definitely don’t. He has carefully coiffed dark hair, a wife, a child and, according to one report, somehow fits in an 80-a-day smoking habit into his occupation as a telly celeb and nurturer of talent. He also fell down a flight of steps recently and had to be taken to hospital. That much I know. It is enough.

Portraying Cowell on stage will not be easy for our six-year-old fair-haired little shrimp with twiggy limbs and a mega-watt smile, but Zach apparently showed at the auditions that he could at least sound like the man. He followed his teacher’s instructions when reading out the lines, being forceful, bombastic and a bit sarky, and was convincing enough to land the role.

It is certainly a far cry from when his mother, aged four, played an angel, and, in a second production to pad out the morning’s entertainment, was a very convincing bluebird (when her wings weren’t entangled with her friend Katharine’s).

Now the focus is on helping Zach learn his lines, of which I am told there are many, and finding the right clothes.

Jeans and a T-shirt, eh? Whoever would have thought ye olde Nativity tradition would come to this?

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On the all too rare occasions I arrange to meet my daughter at a midway point between our respective homes, she is invariably late or has to cry off altogether. The reason is that she travels by Southern Rail, the network that likes to say ‘No!’.

My son-in-law also has to rely on Southern Rail for his commute to and from London. His torment seems never-ending. Trains are cancelled or late so often he has to factor in the consequences to his daily timetable.

Many is the time he has had to stay overnight in London just to be sure of being at work the next day. No wonder they say train travel isn’t cheap for commuters in this country: there’s the accommodation to add to the extortionate season ticket prices as well.

My experience though, which tends to be restricted to South Western Railway (the line formerly known as South West Trains), is uneventful in comparison. There is the irritation of weekend engineering works to consider, but on the whole I can rely on getting somewhere when I’m scheduled to. Well, OK, not always. Usually. Mostly. Fingers crossed.

In another age entirely, as a very small child, with my big sister in charge, I would travel to school by train. It was the days of flags and whistles and smuts in the eyes, leather straps to lower the windows, stations with men in uniforms, porters with trucks, and distinctive odours, especially on the way home in the company of sweaty schoolboys with sports-field mud on their knees.

The train was always punctual, meaning we could comfortably walk the three-quarters of a mile from the station and not be late for school, and also meaning that Mum was there without fail at the out-in-the-sticks station to meet us when we returned in the evening.

Nowadays, as we know, it is a lot less reliable all over the country – for reasons best known to powers that seem beyond anyone’s control.

But if you think it’s less than satisfactory here, try Italy. The network of railway lines is extraordinary. Trains run everywhere and anywhere, through the most remote rural outposts, up and down the coastline, under mountains, over gorges – but often, far too often, not to where you actually want to go.

So you compromise and go to the nearest place. Here you will usually find some kind of graffiti-daubed, rubbish-strewn hell on earth that appears to have been abandoned since 1972.

Whether or not the train you want is actually running is purely a matter of chance. Geoff and I once arrived at a station to catch a train to the airport. We checked the time of the train as we bought our tickets and went to wait on the platform and admire the spray-can artistry.

The train didn’t come. We asked the woman in the ticket office where it could possibly be. ‘It’s not coming today,’ she said, in a flat tone that defied question.

Other Italian journeys, when the train has deigned to appear and move for a few miles, will almost always involve sitting in the middle of nowhere for interminable periods. Only last spring, we were stuck outside Bologna for nearly two hours because of an ‘incident’. We guessed that would have been one of those ‘incidents’ caused by Luigi nodding off after lunch.

Contrast all this hopeless imprecision with Japan, where last week a rail company apologised after one of its trains left 20 seconds early. Yes, seconds. That’s the kind of unreliability I could live with – especially if it comes with a grovelling apology.

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When a cousin up north suggested we spoke to each other via Skype, rather than knock out lengthy emails at irregular intervals, I readily agreed.

Good idea, I wrote back. I was a dab hand at Skype years ago and I was sure it wouldn’t take that long to track down the headphones-microphone combo and the clip-on camera required to turn my PC into a humming two-way communications centre.

We promised we wouldn’t make any judgments about appearance: bed-head hair and bleary eyes would be perfectly acceptable at any time of day. It’s years since we’ve seen each other anyway, so it’s likely Kate will, correctly, attribute all my blemishes to anno domini – and genetics. If she’s flawless, I may have to unplug her, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Geoff finally tracked down the necessary accoutrements in the cellar, dumped there in a bag following their last outing circa 2011. Between us, we fathomed how to attach them and get them working, once we’d activated Skype.

That wasn’t as easy as it might have been, because although I first registered quite a few years ago, I’ve changed computers twice since then and Skype seems unable to get its head around this. I don’t exist, it would seem, so after many angry attempts I registered again with a different name. This time it was big enough to approve of me.

Every single step I took once I’d registered seemed counter-intuitive and unlike anything I’d ever done before with Skype. Could it be possible that they’ve changed so much since I was last an enthusiastic Skyper? What was once logical and simple was now akin to wading backwards through treacle.

Geoff set himself up too, so we could talk to each other and test everything was in full working order ahead of this momentous hook-up with Kate. The squealing feedback was deafening and we felt a bit silly sitting next to each other saying things like ‘How are you today?’

When Geoff took his Skyped-up tablet into the sitting-room we carried on our silly conversation further apart, but I still found it difficult to stop giggling and commenting on his bald patch. He gave as good as he got, mind you, and I now have a serious thing about my chins. Who knew a blurry camera could be so unforgiving?

The next thing I had to do was send a Skype contact request to Kate, and once she’d accepted that, we could talk. Just before I did so, I double-checked everything was still behaving. It wouldn’t do for me to let the side down in this two-way deal.

Oh no! The camera wasn’t working. Dead as a dodo. Kaput. I dusted the lens, pointlessly, and stared at it for a long time. Still no reaction.

Yes,  I know the answer would have been to pick up the phone and speak to Kate like any normal person would, but we both fancied the idea of a face-to-face chat for the first time since a family wedding 40 years ago.

What do you do when one bit of equipment lets you down? You turn to another, which is why I am pinning my hopes on my iPad, which I find not only has a Skype app but a built-in microphone and camera. The only trouble is, I’ve had to register with yet another name, leading to even greater confusion.

Geoff’s given up and was last seen in the cellar with a bag containing an obsolete camera and headphones – talking to himself.

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