As the nation plumps up its cushions ready to sit and watch the first of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series on Sunday evening, perhaps now would be a good time to consider a pre-emptive strike.

Rather than wait until the end of the six-parter, when the message, hopefully, will have been dinned into us that we need to clean up our act or two-thirds of our planet will be irredeemably damaged, we should start now, right now, to do our bit.

There’s no-one else but us, those of us privileged to be living on this planet at the moment, who can commit to do anything about the huge task involved. We cannot turn around and point and say, “But look, there’s a worldwide task force over there who’ll do it for us. They can roll up their sleeves and do the job.”

It doesn’t work like that. We have to roll up our own sleeves, literally and metaphorically, and make the effort. First of all, let’s stop buying plastic bottles – or at least think twice before doing so and only do it if there really is no alternative. Even then, take care to dispose of the bottle in your recycling bin – or, better still, extend its life by reusing it any manner of ways (a plant pot, watering device, rocket or 101 other ways of engaging an imaginative child) – and then recycle it.

Here’s a depressing clutch of statistics: we use 38.5 million single-use plastic bottles every day in the UK. Every day! Then there’s the 58 million cans every day. With only half of them being recycled, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many litter our roadsides, pavements, beaches and oceans.

I am fortunate to be within reach of a shop that does more than its share towards protecting our future: it sells much of its stock loose, so you can take along a bag or a bottle and get it filled, and refilled, with anything from oats, flour and chick peas to washing liquid, fabric softener and loo cleaner. It’s a great business and one that serves many purposes, among which is the opportunity to polish one’s halo.

Of course this thing about doing one’s bit for the planet is not about feeling sanctimonious. It’s really about putting the wheels back on the handcart that’s heading in a direction we don’t want to go. Just picturing the change in the seaside flotsam and jetsam over recent years gives me alone pause for thought.

In my carefree beach-going days as a child there was little more than a few bits of driftwood and some nuggets of smelly black tar (“Don’t touch, it’ll go everywhere!”). Now, it is sometimes necessary to step over heaps of washed-up junk stretching the length of a beach, every piece graphically telling a story of Man’s thoughtless abuse of the innocent planet.

It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose, during which it can kill marine life, affect the ecosystem and scar our beaches.

There’s a strong movement now, headed by the poor, benighted Surfers Against Sewage (and doesn’t their name tell us a lot) to get a deposit system introduced on plastic bottles and cans as a means of increasing recycling and reducing marine plastic pollution.

There’ll be objections, of course, but really we’ve only ourselves to blame. Something has to be done, and this is a good, positive way to start.

It would be a fitting tribute to Sir David, by the time Blue Planet II has ended its series, to be able to say, “We’ve got the message!”


I wasted a whole ten minutes of my life reading something in a magazine, when I could have been staring out of the window at a nicotine-yellow sky and speculating on how close, if not actually nigh, the apocalypse really was.

Which was better, I wonder: getting myself in a state about the state we’re in – the tail-end of hurricanes, an airborne invasion of Saharan sand – or reading up on what to wear for the party season?

I managed to glance at the strange sky while also reading, so I’m now not only well informed on the changes I must make to my wardrobe if I am to sparkle on the party scene but also clued-up enough to join a debate on whether that sky was more Pantone 121C than Dorset Cream blended with a touch of Pale Hound on the Farrow & Ball paint chart.

As far as the party season goes, I regret I am far from ready to knock ’em dead. It seems I must first consult my wardrobe, try very hard not to despair and run away screaming, or even laughing hysterically, and then – and this is when the fun starts, apparently – rush out excitedly and invest a minimum of £1,999 (yes, the comma is in the right place) in something dangerously sheer. That would be like a cliff face, then.

Not just dangerously sheer, but with flounces in unexpected places (isn’t that what toddlers are prone to?) Colourways – we don’t talk colour in these circles, it’s expanded into this more important-sounding term – are edgy and exciting: that’ll be navy-blue with, shock, gasp, a touch of pink. That sort of edgy colourway.

The Little Black Dress is Out, I learn. Cut a dash with a tuxedo instead, preferably in a pastel colourway with contrasting detail.

I read about a designer called Magda Butrym. Yes, really, that is her name and yes, I’m sorry, but it did make me snigger a bit. Anyway, I like her a lot because although she puts ruffles and frills on some of her things, and is inclined to remove shoulders from her clothes (covering both shoulders is so last year), she says this, which gladdens my heart: “I love to mix a dress with jeans and party shoes – sparkly shoes instantly make jeans look elegant.”

I’m not interested in either the dress or the ‘elegant’ angle. It’s Magda’s reference to jeans that fills me with hope for the party season. I read on but I cannot seem to find any mention of a thermal vest and big jumper anywhere, although I like to think she’d allow them – as long as the shoes were sparkly.

Now I’m thinking that instead of negotiating with Geoff over the purchase of a £1,999 piece of cliff face masquerading as a wisp of silliness, I could merely apply some glitter to my winter boots for the necessary sparkle. With the vest, the jumper and the jeans, I’m good to go.

I am well-informed. I am the savvy woman with fashion at her neglected fingertips. I know what’s trending this season (actually, I did, briefly, but now I’ve forgotten) and I am going to be one step ahead once the invitations start rolling in.

That is assuming one or two do. You can’t be sure since there’s precious little to get in a party mood about these days. But if there’s a drought of exciting opportunities to go out and jostle for space by someone’s else’s fire, I can spend my miserable evenings picking the glitter off my boots and blotting out ungrateful thoughts about Magda.

Far too often, eating out is a lottery. Get it right, and the occasion is a delight and something to celebrate. Get it wrong, and an attack of the glooms is eclipsed only by the uncomfortable feelings around the middle (and the purse).

Geoff and I have learnt over the years not to have very high expectations. Too many times it’s been a case of ‘Well, that was OK, but I wouldn’t rush back.’ It isn’t that we have impossible standards – frankly, the kitchens at Hill Towers don’t exactly twinkle with Michelin stars – but we do like the basics of a warm welcome, an interesting menu and attentive service when we go out.

(Note to all waiting staff the length and breadth of the land: attentive service does not mean pointlessly chanting ‘Enjoy!’ every time you plonk a plate of food down in front of a customer. It makes a lot of people shudder with supressed anger and knot their ankles for fear of springing up, grabbing your lapels and nutting you. OK, slight exaggeration, but boy it is annoying and I refuse to believe you’d lose your job if you didn’t say it. Incidentally, do we think this habit was imported from America?)

I am really happy to say that since the weekend, our expectations have been raised several notches, thanks to an experience at a pub that could not be faulted in any way.

We met up with our son and daughter-in-law and two small grand-daughters, aged five and two-and-a-half, at a midway point between our respective homes. Now I know that having little ones in tow in a restaurant doesn’t always bode well for anyone, whether it’s us, other diners or even the children themselves, for whom sitting, conversing with ancients and eating a meal probably wouldn’t be their number one choice of activity.

With this in mind, I called the pub a few days before to book a table for six, requesting a high chair for Clemmie and suggesting they might like to put us somewhere not too close to others, in case they were not amenable to ankle-biters.

I need not have worried, because in fact the girls behaved impeccably, absorbed by our company and the treasures of the moment they’d brought from home as well as by the puzzles and books provided by the pub.

What was disruptive, though, were the two dogs that barged their way past us to the next table where their owners let them toss around the soft toys that the landlord and his family had put in a box for children to play with. I shall at this point substitute all my invective about thoughtless dog owners with one word: ‘Grrr.’

The menu was terrific, interesting, inventive, focusing on local produce and everything freshly cooked. All of us, Poppy and Clemmie included, were so spoilt for choice we dithered spectacularly. In due course, our meals were all served at the same time and even though no-one exhorted us to ‘Enjoy!’ we certainly did.

To say the staff were thoughtful would be to understate the enormous trouble they took to ensure we had a relaxed and happy meal together. The service was seamless, unobtrusive, utterly professional and with a friendliness that made us feel we were valued and special to them.

As if all that were not enough, the pub has an enormous car park so there’s no anxiety about having to squash in between a pair of tractor-sized 4x4s.

In short, it’s a place that has absolutely nailed how to host its customers, turning what is rocket science for so many into a perfect art form.

I’ve never been a particularly good present person. Happy to receive presents, of course, but a bit lacking in inspiration when it comes to thinking of things for others. As with everything, I try hard, my intentions are good, but I am liable to fall short.

It is true that I sometimes surprise myself with wonderful ideas, and make a mental note that such-and-such would be ideal for so-and-so’s birthday six months hence. Sadly, the mental note, as with 99 percent of things committed to memory, promptly flies straight back out of the tiny slot through which it entered, leaving me bereft, as ever, once that birthday comes round.

Christmas is another trauma altogether. I have found over the years that my only way to cope in respect of the ‘what to get for whom’ dilemma is to place myself in a state of suspended animation until the 24th and then panic, big-time.

This time of year is particularly difficult because there are so many birthdays of friends and family that my inspiration drains away faster than you can say gift wrap.

One of my problems is that if I hit upon a formula, I dare not let go. This means, for example, that our poor daughter-in-law is almost certain to end up with something to keep her warm. Theirs is a very cold house so my instinct is always to wrap her up. Her stocks of thick, cosy hats, socks, jumpers and scarves could probably kit out a Polar expedition team.

It’s always worse when the luckless person on the receiving end of one of my gifts is a brilliantly inspired present-giver themselves. My sister-in-law, Geoff’s sister, for instance, just has a gift for it, if you’ll forgive the wholly intended pun.

She always gets it right. What, then, to give her for her birthday this year, after so many lack-lustre efforts on our part in the past? Geoff and I pooled our thoughts for so long that despair set in.

I know, I suddenly screeched. A voucher! Do you mean a book token, asked Geoff. No! A voucher for a day out! We’ll take her for a day out and fill it with surprises.

Geoff designed the voucher and put it in with the birthday card. We got her favourite cousins on side, arranged a date and planned the outing.

It was a great success, though I can take little credit for it. We picked up the bemused birthday girl from her home and drove her through the stunning Dorset countryside to a lunch rendezvous with the cousins, who she had not seen for a few years. They were lying in wait, their presence still a secret to her.

Surprise, surprise! Oh, the hugs, the happiness and the huge, huge smiles. It was wonderful to behold, and to be a part of.

Lunch followed, with not a gap in the chatter, and then we migrated south to West Bay. The plan had been to take a post-prandial walk, but the weather was dire and so we did the only thing Brits can do under these circumstances: we sat on a bench and ate ice-creams.

The wind may have blasted our faces, sent our hair all over the place, whipped flecks of ice-cream on to our clothes, but it didn’t matter. It was daft and wonderful and utterly memorable.

Our photos of the day only need one caption: Five Go Mad in Dorset.

We’ve had our mini-summer holiday in the past couple of weeks: two days out, in Dorset, in beautiful weather, with no crowds. Bliss.

Once the schools are back and holiday memories for most people are tucked away with the suncream and the flip-flops, that’s the time to reclaim our best destinations and explore again the honeypots that so recently buzzed with crowds.

We first headed out on a warm, sunny day to Moreton. We dropped everything we’d thought of doing and just went, seizing the chance that suddenly presented itself after a run of dismally damp weather.

We parked in a field (it was an official car park, sensibly keeping the village roads relatively obstacle-free) and walked about, admiring and appreciating the prettiness of everything as cottages slumbered under sun-warmed thatch and gardens billowed in a last burst of colourful enthusiasm.

At the ford, small children splashed and paddled, thrilled no doubt to have such an accessible playground where dogs could join in the fun, too. It was so Enid Blyton-esque that we half-expected to spot Timmy, tail a-wagging, leading Anne, George, Dick and Julian into some frightful scrape which would ultimately lead to the unravelling of a mystery.

St Nicholas Church was our principal destination, to see once again the 13 magnificent engraved windows by one of my all-time heroes, Laurence Whistler. For once, happily, we had the whole building to ourselves and so were able to allow the atmosphere created by the extraordinary light that filters through to infuse us and add to the whole utterly memorable experience.

Moved, as always, by the windows and all they represent, we returned to the sunny village and walked around the Walled Garden and then the churchyard – located some distance from the church itself – where T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, is buried. I very much appreciated the fact the large and elegantly inscribed gravestone on his tomb is beside the modest stone that records the passing of one Ethel Shrimpton, proof were it needed that we are all equal when we’re six feet under.

Another of Dorset’s greats, OK, arguably the greatest, is Thomas Hardy, and the next warm, sunny day saw us making a beeline for his birthplace near Higher Bockhampton. Both Geoff and I were convinced we’d been before but not actually made it into the cottage. I even described the view I’d had of it from the village road.

How wrong we were! There is no road past the cottage. You walk to it either through the woods or along a lane from a car park more than half a kilometre away. To say the cottage is atmospheric hardly begins to describe it. It really is possible to imagine the child Thomas growing up into the young man Thomas, surrounded by his sisters, brother and parents in this bucolic, rural haven.

A haven to us, of course, in this brutal world, but I bet back then, in the 19th century, it was cold, damp, draughty, smelly, uncomfortable and crowded. It is not hard to see – literally, from the windows – how Hardy drew on his surroundings for inspiration, and on the lives and experiences of his family and acquaintances, too.

I wonder if, sometimes, the distraction of baking smells wafting up from the kitchen beneath his room caused him to cease the scratch of his pen and hurry down to discover what was cooking. On our visit, it was almond biscuits, fresh-baked in the brick oven by costumed Lou and Hetty, that set the seal on another lovely day out and gave us a taste for more.

We’ve been sorting out old photographs, which is a dangerous thing. You can either hold up a shot of yourself circa 1999 and think “Hmm, not as bad as it might have been,” or “Please, no, hide it, cut it up, destroy this damning evidence of awfulness.”

You can, of course, guess which has been my reaction to every single photo of me. Perhaps the worst aspect, as I hold up a mirror to my past in this depressing portrait gallery of ‘Sally through the years’ is the hair. What was I thinking of? How did I ever dare have the courage to go out of the house with that on my head? Donald Trump, eat your heart out.

As my dear mama once said in one of her inimitable utterances that never fails to plunge my self-confidence into the deepest depths: “Did you really pay someone to make you look like that, dear?” Note the ‘dear’ as an attempt to soften the crushing blow.

Actually, truth be known, I haven’t ever paid anyone very much to ‘make me look like this’. So there’s my answer: perhaps I should. Perhaps this revelation as demonstrated by the gallery of horrors could be the start of a whole new habit. I could hook up with a creative hairdresser who would know just the cut and the style to suit my shape of face.

Nah, that’s what other people do. I’d rather stick with what I know and don’t love and be done with all that fussing and preening.

That’s the hair, then. A lost cause. Also evident in the photo gallery is the range of clothing I have favoured over the past 20 years. Worryingly, much of it is familiar because I am still wearing it on a daily basis. Geoff too, recognises old shirts, jumpers and jackets that make regular appearances in places as far-flung as Prague and Palermo, Berlin and Dorset. Absolute slaves to fashion, both of us.

I see that I’ve said ‘We’ve been sorting out old photographs’, when in fact it’s Geoff who’s been doing the sorting. He is the one with a sense of order, who likes things rationalised, documented, filed, tidied away. That’s why he’s had the drawerful of photos in his sights this past fortnight, and he’s making a wonderful job of creating proper albums documenting our and our family’s lives over the past 20 or so years.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet ventured into the really embarrassing years, when floral shirts and flares rendered him unrecognisable (fortunately) and me just plain ludicrous (predictably). Even so, the effect has been pretty unnerving. For me, not for him – obviously.

Geoff has maintained his youthful good looks (I tell him that as it makes for a much quieter life) while others around him show signs of decline with the passing years. For instance, there’s Mike, at a party in the garden in 2002, looking all fit and handsome. Nowadays, he’s stooped, struggling with a new hip and on a horribly restricted diet.

Time can be unkind, scouring us with wrinkles and veins and rendering us strangers to our former selves. It can also be exhilarating when we see how far we’ve come, how we’ve evolved and become who we are today.

Never mind the peachy bloom on a younger face in 1997; let’s hear it for the lives well lived and the fun we’ve had getting to where we are now.

It is just before three o’clock in the morning and Geoff and I are in the kitchen, staring at a small plastic box on the wall. We are being assailed by a noise like a thousand screaming banshees which bursts through our eardrums and shudders through our bodies.

A red light is flashing on the box. This is an alarm – an alarm on maximum strength and volume. “I think it’s the monosodium glutamate alarm,” I’d shouted to Geoff as we hurried downstairs, still half-asleep until opening the kitchen door and being blasted to our core.

“I think you mean carbon monoxide,” he replied, his words wasted as we struggled to stay upright under the onslaught. This was a decibel level to awaken the dead.

Geoff stands on a chair to reach the pulsating box. It is necessary to silence it before we can gather our thoughts, so recently suspended in sleep, now incapable of any coherence.

There is no ‘Off’ button. The very walls seem to be jumping now. After much jabbing and prodding, Geoff manages to rip the box off the wall. Even that doesn’t stop it. I think about plunging it into water, anything to drown that appalling din.

Geoff carries the box into the next room. The noise stops. My instinct is to weep with relief. Geoff’s instinct is rather more practical. “You haven’t left anything alight on the hob, have you?”

I look across at the gas hob, confident that my careful habits won’t have allowed anything as silly and irresponsible as that to happen. I can just make out a tiny blue flame. It is barely alight: I’d cooked rice all of eight hours earlier for supper and had obviously failed to notice I had left the burner slightly on. Even a pre-bed check, which we always do, had not revealed my carelessness.

I turn off the offending burner and admit my guilt to Geoff. In a way, it’s a relief that it is something as obvious as that and not some mysterious gas leak that will require the foundations of the house to be excavated.

Not unreasonably, Geoff says he hopes I will have learnt from this to be even more careful in future. Of course I have, I assure him, and pledge to myself to treble-check the hob every night.

I feel as appalled by my fall from grace as when I was 11 and Miss Parker censured me for running in the school corridor. Once  a sinner always a sinner, obviously.

The carbon monoxide detector, which we’d had fitted only a couple of years ago on the recommendation of our boiler service man, is back in its place on the wall. I’m going to evangelise about these detectors to anyone I know who doesn’t already have one, especially if they have an appliance that burns fossil fuels.

I shall tell them our dramatic tale and, each time, will probably elaborate the truth a little more. I’m sure that before long I shall be adding the detail of how I knotted together a few bedsheets and abseiled to safety with Geoff slung around my shoulders.

Perhaps it would be more likely the other way round, with me slung around his shoulders. I’ll settle on the more credible version once I’ve thought up some more entertaining elements to add to the story.

But that will all have to wait. First, I need to go and check that the gas is off.