Bucket

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Beneath my desk as I write this post is a large lidded bucket which is spewing out sufficient CO² to make me personally responsible for the depletion of several feet at least of the Morteratsch glacier and will possibly result in a severe ticking off from Greta Thunberg.  According to everything I read carbon dioxide is an odourless gas, but as whatever is bubbling its way out of my bucket smells like the kind of sock you find at the bottom of a child’s sports bag three months after the end of term, and is covered by the kind of living blanket you find on the elderly jam sandwich tucked away at the back of a bedroom drawer, I have severe doubts.  I am supposed to be brewing beer, but it is obvious to me that something has died in the bucket.  I dare not lift the lid – whatever is growing in there, it is clearly desperate to get out.

My daughter bought me the kit and all associated paraphernalia for Christmas.  She clearly felt that I had time on my hands that needed to be filled.  Like almost everybody of my age, I used to brew most of what I drank back in the day when I had very little money and alcohol cost a lot of it.  I have produced many a glass of wine with a fine, rich and creamy head; many a pint of beer with all the aesthetic appeal of Spring Vegetable Soup, and I’ve drunk them all.  The main difference with the current brew is that I am embracing the challenge, not because I have to, but because I want to.  I have drunk sufficient quantities of ‘craft’ beers over the years to lead me to believe that I can, myself, produce something perfectly acceptable (e.g. not strictly poisonous).  I’ve looked at a lot of paintings over the years and I feel sure that I could do that too, if I just had access to a decent brush.  I’ve read enough awful novels to feel confident in my ability to write one of those.  My head is full of songs that I know would be best-sellers if they ever made it out into the world – or at least into The Eurovision Song Contest (b group).  If other people are able to do things, I find it hard to understand why I can’t do them too.

I’m a believer.  I believed when I started writing this poor benighted blog that I could make a decent fist of it.  I believed that more people would want to read it rather than just tick ‘Like’ and try to sell me vitamins.  I believed that many more would read it than ever did.  It is a crazy affliction: to be fully – and painfully – aware of your own limitations, whilst still believing that you might, somehow, overcome them.  When ‘just about acceptable’ is an aspiration, then not reaching it is painful.  I’m not looking to climb Everest – I get a nose-bleed on a high kerb – but I wouldn’t mind standing atop a knoll for a little while.

I once produced a gooseberry ‘champagne’ of breathtaking beauty, and a greengage chardonnay that could have stripped the enamel off a toilet bowl.  The ingredients were similar, the methodology identical, the results, it would appear, not something over which I had any control.  I don’t recall putting any more effort into one than the other.  Managing ‘effort’, if I’m honest, has never been my greatest forte: generally things either come easily, or they frustrate the hell out of me, and the things that frustrate me the most are the very things that make me resolve even harder to succeed.  It is only after I have discovered that I am unable to do something, that I become really determined to do it.

Consequently, I have spent many, many hours over the last three-and-a-bit years working on this blog.  Hard as it is to imagine, I put a lot of effort into each and every post I make, and the disappointment of the realisation that I have fewer readers than Vladimir Putin has rational brain cells is, at times, crushing.  Whilst I understand and accept that the goal is not to have thousands of readers, well… the thing is that it is really, isn’t it?  The joy may well be in the writing, but the point is in people reading it.  This blog has become the equivalent of playing ‘The Toilet Tent’ at Glastonbury and I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.  It is time, I think, to take a bit of a break, to finish The Play, to record some scripts to see how they sound… 

Okay, so I know that I have done this before.  Last year I was writing four posts a week and it was taking over my life.  (You should try walking around Marks & Sparks, looking at the rows of pants and wondering ‘Can I get a post out of this?’  I even considered getting arrested for shop-lifting, just in case I could find something amusing to say about the experience.)  So I stopped, briefly, and then commenced this more manageable two-times-a-week routine.  I can handle this with time to spare each week.  My problem is that, instead of finding something ‘profitable’ to do with my spare time, I simply write more posts.  I can be frighteningly prolific – some form of literary diarrhoea – and I tend to have so many posts ‘in hand’ that I will probably have had a good four weeks off by the time that you loyal two dozen read this, and I will be raring to go again.  I will already have revisited all of the things I have been unable to finish, finding no doubt that those that I can finish are not worth the effort and those that are worth the effort, I am still unable to finish.

I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be back, just as soon as I write something and think ‘that would be ideal for the blog’ but, for now, that is not the plan.  By the time you read this, my beer will be in the bottles.  I may even have sampled some.  I have a second episode of Frankie & Benny (who are an absolute joy to write) with which I will, for now finish, as it seems to me to be as good a way as any of saying ‘adieu’…

Driving On

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When I was a kid, I wanted to be older… This is not what I expected. (Anon)

If I’m honest, I expected to feel a lot older than I do by now.  Most of the time I feel exactly as I have for years.  One of the few times when I can really put my finger on a creeping sense of age is when I am faced with a long drive, particularly at night, or ‘in weather’.  As a young man I vividly remember listening to old people talking about the difficulties of driving at night and thinking ‘Get a grip!  You’ve got headlights,’ but now I see headlights – other vehicle’s headlights – as the enemy.  I am absolutely fine driving in the dark – as long as I am in the only vehicle doing so – although there is a creeping sense of shame nagging away at the back of my mind that I might be allowing the rationale of ‘Oh, there’s somebody coming towards me: I’ll just slow down a little bit,’ to take hold.  So far, I steadfastly refuse to be cowed by the inability to see, but I can feel my confidence ebbing away along with my ability to chew toffee or to open a packet of peanuts without spilling the entire contents all over the floor.

I’m not certain whether it is a change in the nature of headlights or of my eyes, but the glare of an approaching vehicle – particularly in the rain – seems to flood my entire field of vision.  It is like that moment of alien abduction in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I sense that I might just have lost everybody under 50 years of age with that reference.  It’s a film.  Look it up!): everything else is engulfed in the blazing white glare that consumes all notion of light and shade.  All that remains is a blinding light and the faint suspicion that Twinkle is playing on the radio…

My whole being is absorbed in the battle to stop myself from joining the ranks of elderly yo-yo drivers who speed up (sometimes to over thirty miles per hour) every time the road is clear and stamp on the brake every time there is something (anything) coming towards them.  I have a nagging suspicion that it might be a battle I am losing.

How do I tackle it?  Well, like all cowards, I turn my back on it.  It is so much easier to face things when you don’t acknowledge them.  It is so much easier to tackle a problem by avoiding it than facing it.  I would sooner sleep on a park bench than tackle unfamiliar roads in the dark of night and I would, almost certainly choose to walk rather than drive like an old man.

I must admit at this point, that I have never really been a ‘car person’.  A car, to me, has always been a means of getting from A to B (via Z if my wife is navigating), but never the reason for it.  I cannot conceive of ever deriving any pleasure from ‘going for a drive’.  I drive only when I’ve got somewhere to go: somewhere I need to be.  When arriving at my destination is all that matters.  If I want to enjoy ‘getting there’, I go by bike, or I walk.  Age does preclude me from roller-skating, scootering, pogo-sticking and skipping, but it should not.  I aim to address this – and I will – just as soon as the weather improves.  My grandson does not approve of my using his skateboard or scooter.  He thinks I might break.  He could just be right – we’ll see.

I appreciate the car whenever the weather is… well, British.  Rain, wind, hail, sleet, snow – all far better viewed from the driver’s seat than the bicycle seat.

And I look after the car because I dread the thought of breaking down.  (I mean, of course, I dread the thought of the car breaking down.  Although now I come to think of it…)  To sit and wait for several hours until an overalled somebody turns up in a little green van, covered in reflective stripes, with the sole intention of making me feel inadequate by starting the car within seconds using nothing but a ‘surely you knew how to do that’ shrug…  I have never felt ‘as one’ with a car (It’s a bloody car!) but I do, generally, know when it is not running properly, and I know the basics of what to do in those circumstances.  (Phone somebody who is at one with the car.)  I could not tell you if the engine sounds anything but normal, because I never hear it.  I never travel anywhere without music playing.  Whenever I hear the car engine, all that goes through my mind is ‘What’s wrong with the radio?’

I have fully embraced SatNav – it doesn’t seem to stop me getting lost, but it does at least give me some idea of where I did it and, occasionally, it helps me get back to where I should have been before I wasn’t (Huh?) – and I have now partially accepted hands-free, although, generally, I have to stop the car to do it.  Whilst the internal combustion engine is a complete mystery to me, I am pretty much au fait with the inner-machinations of my brain and so I tend to ignore most other ‘driver aids’ which, in my own instance, would generally result in nothing other than tempting me to let my mind wander further than it really should – look!  Rabbits!  I cannot adopt the automatic gearbox as I know that it would thrust my brain into neutral.  I have no need for parking aids as I never leave the car in a space that could not fit the QEII.

I think, If I’m honest, I would be perfectly comfortable as the passenger in a self-driving car – I have been married for forty years: I have no illusions about being in charge of anything – and it’s actually quite comforting to think that in the event of an accident, the two vehicles involved could haggle over blame whilst I sit serenely taking in the scenery.  I suppose that this is one thing that old age does prepare you for: being a better passenger.  In life, sooner or later, everyone becomes a bit of a passenger and, in the end, we all just go along for the ride.

Life is like a helicopter.  I don’t know how to operate a helicopter.  (Anon)

A Trickle of Spring

Having spoken to an ex-lawyer in the pub, and in line with disclaimers carried on all TV and Radio output at the moment, I have decided to include the following warning: This item may contain jokes that some people do not find funny.

The Spring has sprung, the grass has ris,
I wonder where the birdies is.
Some people say the bird is on the wing, but that’s absurd
For I would say the wing was on the bird. (Traditional)

The air still carries the chill bite of winter, even while the sun shines down through the transient, undiluted diorama of crystal blue skies.  Birds squabble over the last few hips and berries of autumn past: males puff out painted chests whilst females – avifaunally plainer – spring clean homes of yore, or gather material with which to pitch new tents, cosy enough to raise a new generation.  One by one the new year’s flowers bloom: snowdrops, aconites, crocus, daffodils, dandelions, something sharp and spiky that lodges under the fingernail and refuses to be removed until it has had the opportunity to throb with an intensity only otherwise felt with the death of a star.  The world is suddenly abloom and there is nowhere to tread in the garden that is not ‘the wrong place’; nowhere to stand that is not on something only just emerged, or in something more recently – although insufficiently – buried.

Tiny pricks of green emerge in trees and bushes even as much bigger pricks emerge in white vans bearing aerosoled signage – D. O’Brien, Qualified tree surjon.  Hedges clipt.  All clipping’s removed and ecologically burned.  Dogs groomed – and start door-knocking and leafleting anyone who might not have seen them coming.  Now is the time to assure all of these peripatetic Samaritans that you do not need your gutters cleaning, your drive tarmacking, nor your valuables independently assessing.  Now is the time to resist the siren call of all of those who can do everything that you do not want doing, better than you cannot be bothered to do yourself.

Spring is the time when everything is on the rise (Oh, come on!) and atop the list of ‘rising things’ is the word ‘ladder’ (or, more precisely, in my case, the words ‘next-door’s ladder’, as I have studiously avoided any temptation to own my own for forty years and more now.)  Ladders are for reaching up and washing down, painting over, cleaning out and falling off.  Ladders have tiny steps only to facilitate ease of falling.  It is impossible to remain steady on these slender rungs without cramp setting in within thirty seconds.  I am master of the knock-kneed teeter, the over-stretched swipe and the grip of steel around something that should not be, but almost certainly is, moving.  Ladders are an inescapable fact of Spring and my only advice to anyone preparing to climb one in an amateur capacity is ‘don’t’: employ a professional; someone who is competent in ladder-usage and not so apt to find themselves doing it on their back from the ground with a twig up the nostril, a paint brush in the ear and a hole in the conservatory roof.  It is an unwritten Rule of Spring that wherever you land following an uncontrolled ladder descent will be in ‘full spike’.  Spring landings are never things of fragrant bud and luscious foliage, but are inevitably spiky and underpinned by cat shit.  Winter-softened flesh is easily breached.

There is an old country saying: ‘When the first cat of spring leaves a semi-digested mouse on your doorstep, it is time to remove your lawnmower from the shed and discover that plastic can actually rust – or at least look like it.’  Spring’s first cut is an unavoidable trial – you might as well get it over with whilst it is still possible to blame something else for the carnage you are about to wreak.  Step one is to open the shed door.  All shed doors exist simultaneously in both of the two possible states: a) Shrunken so far that mice, rats and, at times cats, can sneak through the gaps without touching either side and b) swollen to such an extent that it is impossible to open.  It is widely known that all shed doors exist only in the latter stage whenever you want to open them.  This is the point at which the door knob falls off.  Entrance is usually gained by forcing the door with a garden spade.  The garden spade is in the shed.  Do not worry, in this post-winter season you will be able to enter through the gap where the roof used to be before it made its way onto the floor of next-door’s ex-conservatory along with several desiccated panels of larchlap fencing and what might quite possibly once have been a stoat.

The rutted, sub-Passchendaele expanse of lawn will, by now, be covered in patches of frost-hardened corrugation and swamps of recently thawed gloop, and the winter-dried and rusted drive shaft of your ancient electric mower will ensure that the freshly trimmed lawn will resemble the very worst of your lockdown haircuts, but it doesn’t really matter because, as the mower will have blown every fuse in the neighbourhood and welded your consumer unit to the garage wall, nobody can see it after dark.  Although, of course, the cover of night is decreasing: daylight expands to cover a greater percentage of the grey and drizzled day.  March winds and April showers punctuate the meteorological lope towards summer.  Spring in the UK is a time when the clouds leave the sky and descend to earth, breaking just long enough to reveal the steely blue of tomorrow’s sky: to let the sunshine in; to allow the unexpected cold snap full access to buds and nethers.  Spring is the promise of tomorrow.  It is never to be trusted.  The icy-white blush of sun in an acid-clear sky is not a promise.  It is an aspiration.  It is what the world would like to be.  Each little snowdrop, crocus, aconite and daffodil is an illustration of what the world hopes to become – just as soon as the first trickle of spring finds its way to summer and the full panoply of opportunity to self-harm in the pursuit of the perfect garden is laid before me.

I can’t wait.

Oh hang on – yes I can…

After the Flood

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I arrived home from work yesterday to be informed by our houseguest that our next door neighbour had knocked on our door some hours earlier because a water pipe had burst in her home and, in the panic and confusion of cascading water and plasterboard, she was unable to locate the stop tap.  I rushed around there – painfully aware that rushing no longer provided any sort of solution to her problems – to find the house locked and in darkness.  She had clearly fled the scene some hours earlier, before her rescuing hero had crested the hill, wrench in hand, some eight hours too late.  (Although, as I was unable to see water bubbling out of the chimney, I presumed she had found some way of turning it off herself before she left.)  Her house has changed quite a lot over the years, as has ours, but I was fairly confident that, save for one of her previous plumbers being some kind of ‘escape room’ fanatic, I would have – had I been present when required – been able to locate the stopcock fairly readily and thus ensure that her kitchen ceiling had not, in the company of several thousand litres of water, become her kitchen floor.  I was not.

Our own stopcock is exactly where I remembered it to be and I’m fairly certain that, in extremis, I would be able to turn it off somehow.  (Although I did not attempt to verify this as the kitchen cupboard in which it resides is full of so many chemicals that I would have felt safe to reach in there only if wearing a full hazmat suit and the kind of mask that is issued to frontline NATO infantry in combat.)  However, it turns out that in my neighbours extremis I was actually in absentia and she had had to call somebody from the neighbouring village who arrived to find that the bathroom floor had found its way through the kitchen ceiling and that the goldfish that had been so carefully nurtured in a bowl on the kitchen table, had enjoyed the most fleeting of moments of liberty before ascending to fishy-heaven on the receiving end of the 240 volts of electricity that had suddenly found itself at a loose end when the tide came in.

The fact is that when needed, I was at work and therefore in no position to whack my pants on over my trousers, don my cape and fly to the rescue of my helpless neighbour*.  In retrospect, I was more helpless than she: at least she knew what was going on.  I was in my usual state of cluelessness, made even worse by the knowledge that even if I had known what was going on, I would have remained clueless.  My dad always taught me that knowledge did not automatically equate to competence, and I’m pretty certain that he didn’t consider himself to be acquainted with anybody less competent than me.  (In his later years I would often push him round to the pub in his wheelchair and I have never witnessed anybody grip the armrests so tightly.  By the time he had finished his allotted two pints, he was ready for home and eager for almost anybody else to push him there**.)  I am seldom called upon to rescue people.  I am what is known in rescuing circles as the very last resort, however, whatever my proficiency on the wheelchair pushing front, I’m pretty certain that my neighbour would have been perfectly happy to accept my basic level of tap-turning competency in the midst of the prevailing torrent, if only I had been available to demonstrate it.  It is like riding a bike – tap turning – you never forget.

The relevant point, however, is nothing to do with my tap-turning acumen, but with the fact that I was both unavailable and unaware when I was, finally, called upon.  Not my fault of course – things so seldom are – I was doing what all normal wage-earners do: drinking tea and gossiping about everybody else that I work with.  My willingness to help, unlike my capacity to do so, was never in question: merely my availability.

I am left with mixed emotions: disappointment that I was unable to help, but relief that my ability to do so was not put to the test.  I am not at all certain that I would want to feature on the insurance claim forms as the man who couldn’t turn the tap off.  I would not like to give the assessor the opportunity to say ‘You called who?  Well, you can’t possibly expect us to cover that!’  I enjoy a genial relationship with both of my neighbours, the thought of being held responsible for exacerbating the kind of domestic deluge that could have been halted by anybody other than Mr Bean with a monkey wrench, is not one that I wish to contemplate.  Happily, I have been able to apologise for not being there when my neighbour needed me, and I’m pleased to report that it was much easier than having to apologise for wrecking her house…

*I think that I should probably point out here that an inability to find a stopcock in the midst of a crisis does not, in any way, constitute ‘helplessness’, any more than a pre-knowledge of said location equates to being a master-plumber.

**To be fair, I don’t think he ever told me that he had no faith in my wheelchair piloting skills, but, if I’m honest, I put that down to sheer terror.

“When the flood calls, you have no home, you have no walls.
In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds, within a flash.
Don’t be afraid to cry at what you see…”  Here Comes the Flood – Peter Gabriel

Trainspotting

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I did it when I was a child, for the shortest of times – trainspotting.  I had a book I recall, given to me by my parents who thought that ‘getting out there’ might ‘do me good’, printed with rows of numbers which, to the best of my knowledge, I was just meant to tick off every now and then.  You could go on the stations back then – a platform ticket was a penny I think – as long as you didn’t get on the trains.  You could put your tanner in the chocolate machine for excitement.  It never gave you what you wanted.  Mostly it gave you nothing at all.  And you never got your money back – no matter how hard you kicked, you never got your money back.  Better to spend it in the buffet really.  You could get a terminally watered-down orange squash and a penguin biscuit for your sixpence, but not a Fudge bar.  They were only in the chocolate machine and it wasn’t letting them go.

More often than not I spent my money on the ‘I speak your weight’ machine because I was fascinated by it, but I was so thin that it never knew that I was on.  I imagined it tutting at me – but it never gave me my money back.

Whenever a train chugged into the station I marked the number off in my little book, but I felt no excitement: just the slight rancour of a wasted life everytime I realised that it was a train I had already seen.  Sometimes I just marked a different number anyway, and I felt like a real maverick.  I began to mark numbers off at random every time a train pulled up to the platforms.  It got so that I could do a whole days spotting in the bus on the way into town.

I was aware that for most of my fellow social outcasts, Saturday morning trainspotting was a real collective deal.  They gathered in little groups and chatted about what to expect from the day.  “567431 is coming in about ten,” somebody would say and there would be a general murmur of appreciation.  I was never invited into the groups.  I stood on the edge and marked off 567431 as soon as the number was mentioned.  It was as good as.  No point in wasting the whole morning waiting to actually see it.  If it was a diesel train, then I knew what it would look like.  Instead of becoming closer to my fellow hobbyists I was aware that I was growing ever-more distant to them.  There was them and there was me and we had absolutely nothing in common but for our little books of numbers.  They had bright hooded anoraks and nylon over-trosers whilst I had faded loons and a Gratton’s catalogue tank-top.  They had waterproof rucksacks and I had a Tesco carrier bag.  They had tea and cake from the buffet whilst all I had was a sense of loathing for the solid state that wouldn’t give me my money back.  They were interested.  I was not.

I did like it when the occasional steam train thundered through though.  I lived through the very tail of the steam age and it was always a thrill to see them.  They were not the gleaming red and green leviathans of today’s tourist lines, but decaying, smoke-blackened hulks chugging their way to the knacker’s yard.  The best thing in the world was to stand on the bridge as they passed below belching lung-crippling blasts of steam and smoke into the air.  The power was palpable.  It went up through your feet, along your legs and reverberated around your chest like a firework in a can.  The steam trains were always the highlight of any day – they had names rather than numbers – but they became fewer and further between.  Mostly it was just diesels.  Powerful, but clean and bland, and to me, the trainee trainspotter, very boring.

So I began to find other things to do with my time.  I wandered from the station – no point in wasting a perfectly good penny on a platform ticket – to the town, to the castle, to the cathedral…  You could wander on your own then, and mostly I was on my own.  I loved the cold silence of old buildings and I would meander around them endlessly.  There was a little hexagonal stone building in the Cathedral grounds – which I now know is nothing more than an ornamental well-head – where it was rumoured that with the right number of circumnavigations, you could summon up the devil.  I tried every weekend, but he never came.  Shame, I could have done with the company.  Then one last wander back to the sweet shop, or best of all the joke shop, where I spent my precious accumulated 7d before crossing a few random numbers off my book and heading home for dinner. (In my world, ‘dinner’ was always taken about mid-day. Anything after 1pm was ‘tea’ and seldom involved potatoes unless chipped.)

Dinner over and Saturday afternoons throughout autumn, winter and spring were spent in our own little corner of the Sincil Bank stadium watching the Mighty Imps get trounced by whomever it was that was lucky enough to be playing them that day.  It didn’t really matter that they lost so habitually back then, I was part of the crowd and we all wanted the same thing.  The fact that we so seldom got it was of little consequence.  Two hours on the freezing terraces in the company of the same group of people every other week was what weekends were made for: stewed tea out of a steel urn, a slightly faded Garibaldi biscuit out of a crumpled paper bag and a nip from my grandad’s hipflask if I was lucky.  People around me that always seemed happy to see me and all I had to do was sing, cheer and groan as appropriate: one of the gang.  There have been ups and downs for the team in the half century and more since, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed my football more than I did back then.  From the ground at full time, the whole world it seemed traipsed as one over the two railway bridges back to the steaming buses home, and I would often spot a determined little gaggle of weather-proof anoraks on the distant station, waiting still for the 4.45 from Peterborough.  I had no desire to be with them then – even their little tartan vacuum flasks of now lukewarm Bovril were unable to ward off the clawing cold by that time, their fold-away kagoules no match for the stalking wind and biting sleet – but never-the-less, when I got home, I always crossed another number off my little book, just so that I still felt at least a little bit a part of it…

Stream

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When you’re growing up and you’re small and you’re ginger, then you try to cope by being funny and you can always gauge the moment when you actually succeed for some, because someone else – normally much bigger than yourself – will be screaming in your face, tight and red and angry, “Yeh, you think you’re so fucking funny, don’t you?” and you have to try really hard to stop yourself from saying, “Well, now you come to mention it…” and that’s when you begin to associate laughter with pain.  As you get older, it stops to be such a problem: you stop trying so hard because nobody ever finds you even remotely funny anyway – at least not fully clothed – and all in all, you are slightly less likely to find yourself grappling around in the mud with somebody twice your size whilst a crowd has gathered around you chanting’ “Scrap, scrap, scrap…” hoping to see blood, hoping to see snot and tears, hoping not to get collared by the dinnerlady.  You may still, occasionally, seek to deliberately amuse, but mostly you just trip over your own feet…

Now, I thought about this whilst I was having a shower and I was adopting the pose that we must all assume, regardless of gender, while rinsing the soap from the undercarriage.  In the shower, there is no other way of achieving this short of standing on your head, and as there is no worse feeling than that of soap lingering around the nethers as the day drags on, it has to be properly rinsed away in the morning.  So, it occurred to me that we must all present this same twisted aspect to the falling water – the intended target being pretty well shaded from downward droplets by head, shoulder, belly and, for some (amongst whom I fear I must now include myself – muscled flesh having long-since morphed into pendulous manboob) – fleshy chest adornments.  It’s a ridiculous, hip thrusty kind of stance, that ensures the descending rivulets have an appropriate route that allows them to wash over the necessary areas, whilst you endeavour not to put your back out and – should you have an un-steamed-up mirror within view – not find yourself laughing at your own reflection.  It is an absurd stance in which, I envisage, we all find ourselves from time to time.  A truly egalitarian posture.  All life should be like it.

I don’t know what it is about a few minutes under the warming spray that brings this habit of maudlin reflection upon me: it’s like feeling sorry for myself, except that, of course, is something that only other people do.  Today I have been reading the latest bestseller by A. Veryfamousperson, thinking to myself “I could write that” and in that moment of indignation I believed that I really could, failing to realise that even if I did, it would make not the slightest difference because, frankly, I am not A. Veryfamousperson and nobody gives a twopenny fig what I have to say.  I could write the Bible and still not find a publisher… 

So, this is the point – wherever I find myself in the day’s downward arc – whether still striking the pose in the shower, sitting on the loo, or attempting to explain to a 6-year old why a laptop keyboard and honey are not compatible, when I realise that it is probably time for me to get a grip and review the current situation:

  • What’s so wrong with a sticky keyboard?  (Well, if you reaaaaaaaaaaally waaaaaaaaaaant to know, eaaaaaaaaaach time you press the letter AAAAAAAAAAA it just keeps on going on aaaaaaaaaaaaand the only thing you caaaaaaaaaaan do is to go through aaaaaaaaaaaaall you haaaaaaaaaave written aaaaaaaaaaaaat aaaaaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaater time aaaaaaaaaaaaaand baaaaaaaaackspaaaaaaaaaaaace it aaaaaaaaaaaall out.  Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!)
  • I am alive and, to all intents and purposes, fit and well.
  • I actually quite like playing the clown.
  • Fame and money would only spoil me.
  • I have grown up relatively well-adjusted.  I am blessed with a loving family and far more friends than I actually deserve.

Too many of my best friends have died over the years.  I have lots now, but if I’m honest, few of my own age.  I’m a little scared of making new ones in case I kill them, but I know that I should make the effort.  The problem is, how?  I don’t do many of the things that people of my age are apt to do: I rarely catch the bus; I don’t have an ancient terrier to walk around the block and I don’t even own a cap.  I thought of taking up bowls, but I’m not to be trusted in white clothing.  The problem with almost all suitable hobbies is that they are so much more age appropriate than I am.  I would like to take up fishing, I think.  I would like every single thing about it, except for the catching of fish.  I would be perfectly happy sitting on a riverbank watching the world flow by: the birds, the bees, the fishermen – I often walk along the river banks and despite encountering fishermen all the time, I am not certain that I have ever seen a fisherwoman¹ – the bird-sized dragonflies, the occasional wary rodent, the ducks and the swans.  I would be quite happy eating foil-wrapped sandwiches and drinking over-stewed tea from a flask.  I can talk about the weather with the best of ‘em.  I have a cloth bush-hat that makes me look like one of the Flowerpot Men (I have no idea which one.  There is a link here – you must judge for yourselves).  I am fully qualified in all respects except that of owning a fishing rod: except that of wanting to haul a hapless Piscean from its natural habitat on the end of a nylon line and metal hook… 

I did go fishing quite a bit when I was small, but I never really took to it.  I got bored too easily back then: partly by the inordinate amount of time I had to spend doing so little and partly by having to go home so often to tell my mum that I had fallen in the river again so that she never knew that I had been thrown in by somebody much bigger than me, who clearly didn’t think that I was at all funny.  Fishing trips then, even those in which I managed to remain terrestrial, always seemed to end when the cold had seeped into my bones, and I went home to thaw myself in the few inches of lukewarm water I was allowed.  No showers back then – I don’t ever remember going anywhere with a shower.  Even the kind of hotels we visited on high days and holidays had only a single bath on each landing – so no fear of dislocating a hip whilst rinsing the soap off.  Mind you, being a boy of that age, I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with the soap bar, truth be told.  Infact, the more I think about it, the more I think that might be the real reason that people kept chucking me in the river…

I have developed a stupid habit of leaving things half finished and open on the laptop so that I can return to them when the mood takes me, and thus I have now managed to write and delete today’s post a total of three times.  I have absolutely no idea how this current incarnation compares with its mistakenly expunged counterparts: I remember the first couple of sentences, but I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of what I found to prattle on about thereafter.  It was kind of the idea if I’m honest, but I could certainly have done without the repeats.  If you feel unfulfilled by what you have read above, then I can only seek to assure you that my first three attempts were almost certainly much, much better…

¹I have absolutely no idea why that might be.

100% Natural

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

It came along with Personal Trainers.  It came along with annual health checks, D.R.E and sending poo samples to government laboratories every other year.  It came along with nutritional traffic light labelling and a diet filled with fear: the fear of fat, the fear of sugar, the fear of salt, the fear of caffeine, the fear of not eating and drinking all the right things, the fear of eating and drinking all the wrong ones.  We must have all Natural Ingredients, like lard, like lead, like dog shit…  E-coli could not be more natural if it tried.  Let’s bring back the natural joy of a tapeworm.  What could be more natural than never washing your hands?  Where did this notion even come from: natural is per se good?  A huge, barely cooked slab of dead cow might be completely natural, but probably not entirely welcomed in a vegan household.  Try pork scratchings at a Bar Mitzvah, or cockles at Eid-al-Fitr…

I love to cook – and in that way I do at least monitor what goes into my food, but I find it increasingly difficult to follow recipes.  All that ‘weighing and measuring’ nonsense; all those ‘healthier alternative’ options…  I am what I believe is called an instinctive cook – which means that although I really cannot cook, I firmly believe that I can.  My cooking ‘journey’ invariably follows the same path and always takes place whilst my wife is out of the house, because I have been married for a very long time and I have learned that it is always best to avoid confrontation whenever I can:

  1. Rifle through the fridge and extricate anything that is wilting, but not yet dead.  Anything that does not actually smell offensive.  Anything that does not ooze when I pick it up.
  2. Lay it on the kitchen table.
  3. Chop it all up and throw it in a saucepan with a tin of tomatoes.
  4. Decide what shape of pasta to pour it on.

My one firm rule of cookery: never say what you are cooking until it is finished.  It might not be at all what you intended.

Like all men I have a signature dish and like all men it is called Spaghetti Bolognese.  Like every other non-cook, I believe that I make the very best Bolognese, and I start from scratch: no jars of ready-made sauce for me.  I mutilate all of the onions, tomatoes, basil, olives myself.  It never turns out the same twice, but it is always the best – although my wife, who is clearly completely devoid of taste, would disagree.  I make a decent curry and a great dhal, I scramble a mean egg and I can cobble together any type of cake as long as it is a sponge.  I can poach, and roast, and bake, and – with a following wind – coddle, but what I cannot do is follow instructions.  I try, but improvisation takes a hold of me.  Bits get added, bits get omitted, quantities may vary and when it does not turn out quite as expected, well, I’ll always eat it even if no-one else will.  As long as there is no meat, okra or beetroot I will eat just about anything – particularly if I have cooked it.  A 1960’s upbringing means that I very seldom turn my nose up at food.

My mum seldom cooked anything that would not fit in the chip pan.  My arteries were calcified long before I could walk.  My dad, who did most of the cooking, was an army chef, so he knew precisely how to fill a hungry soldier and exactly how to deal with the subsequent abuse.  Whatever we ate was accompanied by huge mounds of mashed potato and gravy – particularly disconcerting when it was a treacle sponge.  We ate the innards of so many animals that I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the rest of the animal.  Presumably it went to the gentry.  I assumed that they didn’t live on hodge and chitterlings.  Flesh did creep into our diets from time to time: an occasional rasher of streaky bacon (90% fat), a boiled ham hock (ditto) and a joint of beef for Sunday lunch that had been rejected by the cobbler as being both too tough and too small to successfully resole a working boot, but mostly what we ate were the kind of internal bits and pieces that wind up in the bucket after an autopsy.

I don’t recall ever turning down food.  I have seen photographs of toddler me: when the sun is behind me it shines right through.  Like every other boy I knew, my life was one of perpetual motion.  I was running, scooting, cycling, karting or one-footed skating¹, but seldom sitting.  Exercise was not something you paid for, but just something you did if you wanted to get somewhere.  Mostly you didn’t do it in lycra; you did it in a duffel coat and muffler.  Food was merely fuel and I used loads of it.  Whatever went in through my mouth went straight down to my knees.  These were times when whatever meat there was went to the men whilst the women and children had a slice of bread soaked in gravy instead.  There was a little logic to it.  Most households were funded solely by the working male.  My dad worked his forty-eight hours a week on building sites in all weathers and he earned his couple of slices of sinewy old flesh whilst the rest of us fuelled up on soggy Wonderloaf.  Not my dad’s choice, I should say, always my mum’s – although the influence of her own mother was strong.  As for the veg, well that could not have been more natural, as most of it was grown in our own back garden, although how much goodness it retained after having been boiled for several hours I am not certain.  Back then, veg was not considered cooked unless it had been boiled into dissolution.  Close your eyes and all vegetables were the same: soft and slimy.  Thank goodness that the cooking water was used for the gravy: whatever flavours and nutrients remained were surely floating around in there somewhere.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I am not claiming that we were all healthier then: my class had children with polio; some had rickets; we all had measles, rubella, chickenpox, mumps and a thousand various rashes and parasites that, I would hope, are now vaccinated and, if I’m honest, just washed out of existence, but I think that is probably my point.  (Oh yes, there is one.)  Pretty much everything I ate was 100% natural back then, but it didn’t mean that it was actually any good for me (although it did save me from starving, which from my standpoint at least, is no bad thing).  And, if you’re at all interested, that’s also why I’ve never had a personal trainer…

¹Nobody ever had exclusive use of a pair of roller skates.  They were shared between two.  You strapped them to the sole of your shoe and ‘scooted’ around on them until the wheel fell off and you discovered how much blood you could get on your socks from a grazed knee and how much you needed to avoid your mum when you had taken the knees out of your trousers and the toe out of your shoe.

Ubi Sit Res*

Photo by Hobi industri on Pexels.com

Many years ago, my great friend Madge, left me in tears of laughter following a rant about the new Supermarket that had just opened in town.  It was ok, she said, but nothing was in the same place as it was in her local store.
“But, it’s a different shop,” I said.
“I know,” she pouted, “but I went in to look for a new pair of Marigolds yesterday and I went to exactly where they are when I go to Asda, and all I could find was cat food.  Who puts cat food next to the water filters?  Cat food goes next to the toilet rolls…”
I didn’t understand her bemusement and she didn’t understand my amusement and, as usual, it all ended up in helpless mirth.  Very sadly, Madge is no longer with us, but I think about her every time I walk into a Supermarket and, of late, I have started to understand her point of view.

Now, I know that there is a science to the layout of Supermarkets: that the floorplans are designed, based on the principles established by Daedalus** two and a half thousand years ago, whilst the shelves are stacked by bright young things with BSc’s in leading the sheep to chocolate.  But they do seem to have been taught in different schools: the school of putting the pasta next to the bread versus the school of putting it next to the cook-in sauces.  The school of putting the Pot Noodles with the convenience foods versus the school of putting them with the scratchcards, King-size Rizlas, Peperami and Carlsberg Special Brew.  Do you put together things that go together, or things that belong together?  Do you put custard with the puddings, or do you put it with the sauces?  Do you put pasta with the sauces, or do you put it with the garlic bread?  Do you put bread with the butter, or do you put it with the Marmite?  Where do you put toiletries?  Where do you put magazines?  Where do you put all of the cleverly designed, bright plastic gizmos that never quite manage to perform the task for which they were designed?  I know that in the closing days of 2021, this really should not be an issue, but does layout depend on location?  Do you, for instance, put the fresh organic pasta, next to the truffles and wild mushrooms in Kensington, on a shelf that would be occupied by Spaghetti Hoops in Burnley?  Do you even attempt to sell tinned pasta in Chelsea, unless you have a specifically labelled ‘Ironically Stocked’ shelf to put it on?  Do you put Vegan ready meals alongside the fresh fruit and veg, or alongside the herbal tea and artisan crafted toilet rolls in the ‘weirdo’ section?

I understand that the fresh fruit and veg always looks great and that it might lure people in because it is bright and colourful, but near the door?  Really?  Beautiful soft fruit, no matter how carefully placed in the basket, always ends up under the tins and bottles – ok, mostly bottles – accumulated through the rest of the shop.  Surely that can’t be right: unless, of course, it is all part of the plan.  Once bitten, twice shy?  Having arrived home with a terminally flattened punnet of now strawberry puree, or a half litre of raspberry coulis dripping through the holes in what was formerly a nice, neat box, do you thenceforth bypass the fruit on the first sweep and return to it later, so that you can lay it safely on the top of your basket?  Do you, in short, walk past everything twice?  Aah, you’re getting it now.  Walk around the maze in one direction (‘Always turn left’ my dad used to say, although, if I’m honest, I’m not certain that he ever really knew where he was.) reach the end and come back the other way, before picking up some berries and heading for the tills.  You wander past the cat food three times.  By that stage you will grab a tin even if it means buying a cat on the way home in order to justify it.

I understand why they always put the items they want you to buy at eye level – who wants the eye strain involved in moving the things – but I do not know why everything I want is always out of reach at the back of the top shelf.  Imagine you have a stand of five shelves: you put what you want the customer to buy where he/she does not have to look up, down, left or right to see it.  You put the things that you don’t want them to buy – the budget versions – at foot level, and the niche products – ‘We don’t get much call for those round here’ – at ladder height.  If you want to find a cheaper product, you don’t usually have to shop around, just stoop.

And then I start to think about Madge and I begin to understand what she was saying.  Why can’t things always be in the same place?  If nappies are by the formula milk powders in Tesco, why can’t they be in the same place at Asda?  If the vegan meals are with the bamboo utensils in Morrison’s, why not in Sainsbury’s?  If Aldi has the wonky carrots next-door to the cordless hammer-drills, why doesn’t Lidl?  If the chocolate is not alongside the whisky anywhere, then it bloody well should be.  As you get older, the only thing you want from a Supermarket is the ability to get out of it as quickly as possible.  How quickly could you do the shopping if you didn’t have to pass so much that you don’t want, in order to get to what you do?  How little would you buy if you didn’t have to pass so much other stuff to find it?

Ah, now I understand…

*Where things should be.

**Daedalus designed the Labyrinth in order to contain the Minotaur and so cunning was his plan, that he could barely escape it himself after it was built.  He was the same Daedalus who made wax and feather wings for himself and his son Icarus and managed, unlike his son, to survive as he did not succumb to the temptation to fly too close to the Sun.  He also murdered his nephew because he thought that he was a better inventor than himself – e.g. using a good epoxy resin to hold the wings together and affixing a ‘Do not operate this equipment in the proximity of a broiling celestial body’ to the flight feathers…

Christmas Past – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

xmas-eve.jpg

(with abject apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)

Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The fifth of these reposts is from my very first WordPress Christmas in 2018 and is, I think, my very favourite Seasonal Special to date…


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
It should have been squeaking away at its wheel
Not laying face down and stiff in its meal.
 
 
There’ll be tears in the morn’ when she comes with his bread
And your dear little daughter discovers him dead,
But still, do not worry, she will not stay sad
When she spots, through the wrapping, that she’s got an i-pad.
 
 
The stockings we hung by the chimney with strings,
Were not for all the extravagant things:
For those they have hanging, at the end of their beds
Two giant sacks with their names on instead.
 
 
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
Whilst visions of smart phones danced in their heads
And mummy and I, with an hour to kill,
Were fearfully reading the credit card bill.
 
 
When out in the street arose such a din,
‘Cos the people next door were trying to get in,
But the key they were trying was turning no more,
Which wasn’t surprising – it wasn’t their door.
 
 
‘If you hadn’t guzzled that last Famous Grouse,
You’d have known straight away that it wasn’t our house.’
Said the wobbling wife as she stumbled for home
And was sick down the back of a small plastic gnome.
 
 
‘It’s four in the morning,’ an angry voice cried.
‘Just shut up your racket or I’m coming outside.’
Then all became silent, except, from afar
The sound of a key down the side of their car.
 
 
As dry leaves start falling from autumnal trees,
So snow began drifting along on the breeze
And high in the sky at the reins of his sled,
A white bearded man with a hat on his head.
 
 
‘Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen.
On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen!’
He cried to the reindeer in tones slurred and merry,
Having just swallowed down his ten thousandth sherry.
 
 
And then, for a moment, I heard from the roof
An outburst of language that seemed most uncouth,
Then a flash by the window – a red and white blur
Of fat man and white beard; of red felt and fur.
 
 
He knocked on the door when he’d climbed to his feet
And adjusted his cloak ‘gainst the cold blinding sleet.
‘Just give me five minutes to sit by your fire
And I’ll see that your children get all they desire.’
 
 
We gave him some tea and both patiently sat
As he talked about this and he talked about that
And then, having eaten the last hot mince pie
He rose and he slapped on his red-trousered thigh.
 
 
He yawned – ‘I must return to my duty
My sled is still packed with a mountain of booty.’
And then, as he turned to the door with a wave
We reminded him of the promise he gave.
 
 
‘Of course, yes,’ he laughed, his jolly face beaming.
‘But quick now, while the kids are still dreaming.
Here, look at this dolly with glass-beaded eyes
And this wig and some glasses to make a disguise.’
 
 
‘A car made of tin and a train made of wood.
This big Snakes & Ladders is really quite good.
An orange, some nuts and a new, shiny penny.’
But electrical goods he hadn’t got any.
 
 
‘You conman,’ we cried. ‘You are not Santa Claus.
If we’d known it we would have left you outdoors.
The real Father Christmas would not carry such tat.
We want top class products – and brand names at that.’
 
 
‘Our kids will go mad if we give them this shite:
There are no soddin’ batteries and no gigabytes.
They don’t give a monkeys about innocence lost;
Just leave them a bill so they know what stuff costs.’
 
 
He turned to us now and his eyes filled with tears,
‘These presents have kept children happy for years.’
We looked at the list of the rubbish he’d got.
‘You silly old fool, you are losing the plot.’
 
 
He sprang to his sleigh crying ‘Sod this, I’m beat!’
And they all flew away to their Lapland retreat,
But I heard him exclaim ‘They are never content.
Now the thought doesn’t count – just the money you’ve spent.’
 
 
And so Christmas morning descended with gloom.
The children both rose and they looked round the room
At the i-phones, the i-pads, the Xbox and games
And they pulled at the labels and picked out their names.
 
 
Then at last they had finished, all presents unwrapped,
And we sat down for breakfast all energy sapped.
‘This is lame,’ they exclaimed.  ‘This day is a bore.’
‘We’ve only got what we asked Santa Claus for.’
 
 
Then they saw on the floor where the old man had stood
A doll made of cloth and a train made of wood
And happily, low-tech, they played all the day
Whilst we packed all of their i-stuff away.
 

Originally posted 22nd December 2018

Christmas Past – I Believe In Father Christmas

father christmas

Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The first of these reposts is from my very first WordPress Christmas in 2018 – I Believe in Father Christmas.

Come on, even in the short time that we have known one another, you and I, you must have realised that the very mention of Christmas was going to set me off on one. It is unfashionable, I think, to admit it but I still get excited by Christmas: the whole thing. The carol singers, the TV specials, the food, the drink, the panicky rush to the local petrol station for the last minute present, the never-ending trailers for this year’s Eastenders Christmas disaster… Well, perhaps not the TV trailers. I just can’t understand the desire to witness such unremitting melancholic disaster as the highlight of Christmas evening. The vicarious thrill of eavesdropping on an entire community of joyless and soulless characters as they plunge headlong into increasingly preposterous seasonal scenarios of calamity and bedlam is not, for me anyhow,  any way to let the sprouts go down. I’ll take Eric and Ernie making breakfast together anytime, thank you very much.

So many people seem to want to be depressed by Christmas: ‘I can’t wait until it’s all over,’ ‘It’s such a lot of fuss for one day,’ ‘I don’t even like Christmas pudding…’ What is this nonsense? For a start, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies are the three kings of the epicurean calendar and the greatest consumable inventions of all time: fact. I would buy mincemeat flavoured toothpaste if it was available. Everyone’s happy* – especially the maker’s of eggnog – and even the dourest of aunties will agree to wear a paper crown for the duration of the meal. When it is all over, you have 364 days to wait until the next one. Enjoy the day, embrace the mayhem. I know it’s overhyped, unnecessarily expensive and endlessly protracted, but come on! It’s once a year. As far as I’m concerned, the best Christmas present is Christmas. A sense of benign serenity pervades the house and will last all day, as long as nobody gets the Monopoly out.

What’s not to love?
• Hungry Hippos? Tick.
• Whoopee cushion on Aunty Elsie’s chair? Tick.
• Hugely inappropriate joke from Great Uncle Derek? Tick.

As for mawkish sentimentality – well, why not? Twenty first century life is completely hidebound by startling and grimly held reality: dreaming is something we are only allowed to do when we’re asleep. What’s wrong with allowing a little fantasy into our lives from time to time?

So, does Father Christmas actually exist? Well, why would I choose not to believe in something that brings so much joy to so many? Father Christmas exists in spirit. That spirit itself may exist for just a few hours each year, but as long as it is here I will embrace it and yes, I do believe in Father Christmas.

I have actually, in the past, ‘played’ Father Christmas for the village children in my Father-in-Law’s pub on Christmas day. I have to tell you, it is not a job for those of weak disposition. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted to pull my beard. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted the opportunity to complain about what I had brought them that morning (or even what I’d brought them the previous year). I was even prepared for the sinisterly whispered, ‘I know who you are really…’ I was not prepared for all of the children who wanted to kick my shins.

We are asked to believe in so many things for which there is no proof. Most of them are intended to constrain or control us. God knows, millions have died for some of them. I believe that Jesus existed. I believe that he was a very great man whose life has impacted on millions for centuries. But a virgin birth? No, surely not. The whole Christmas story is a metaphor isn’t it: a fable become lore – either that or a very cynical ploy by the manufacturers of hand-made wooden cribs and personalised Christmas tree decorations. To be honest, after some of his frankly appallingly vengeful behaviour in the Old Testament, I think God had probably been spoken to by somebody from PR before setting off on the New Testament. A story of love and hope and peace and joy; just what we need at Christmas time.

Of course, as with all major undertakings, planning and preparation are the keys to a successful operation. Allow me to talk you through some of my own basic preparations for the big day:

  1. Miracle on 34th Street (the Richard Attenborough version). If you need proof that Father Christmas really does exist, it is right here. Settle down with a glass of something seasonal, a warm mince pie, a little stilton and watch this film. I defy you to leave it without feeling the spirit. (And by the way, just for the record, Christmas did exist before Prosecco.)
  2. Love Actually. I know, I know, and frankly I don’t care. I could watch this twice a week and it would still warm me cockles. A must for the pre-Christmas run-in. Christmas is not Christmas without an in-depth discussion of what’s the best bit of this film. (It’s the Colin Firth/Lucia Moniz bit, by the way.)
  3. A trip to the supermarket to purchase several hundred-weight of snack foods and any number of bottles of sweet alcoholic beverages that would not be allowed through the door at any other time of the year. Sweet British sherry is produced for this single occasion alone: along with Advocaat and those little marzipan fruits, it has no purpose other than to keep the (more) elderly relatives quiet during the afternoon session of Charades. Nothing grates quite like an over-lubricated Great Aunt yelling ‘Casablanca’ to every single mime, especially when nobody else is getting your superb rendition of ‘Oops… I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears.

Drinking the overlarge tot of whisky and eating the mince pie left out for Santa remains my final Christmas Eve task (Santa does not like sherry at our house). No carrot to nibble on behalf of Rudolph these days – he can fend for himself. Every year the startling realisation that, by a process I do not fully understand, somebody has bought and prepared everything for Christmas lunch and dinner. I’m not sure who. The Pixies I think… And then one last check of the night sky:
• Giant airborne sleds? No.
• The unmistakable glistening of snow in the air? No.
• Superbright star on the eastern horizon? No.
…and so to bed.

Christmas morning, I usually wake at about 5am. When they were at home I used to creep into the children’s rooms and try to make just enough noise to wake them. Oh the joy of seeing their little faces as they looked at the clock before burying their heads under the duvet. I am certain that both of my children learned to tell the time simply so that they could tell me to go back to bed on Christmas morning. But I’m up – no point in going back to bed now. Christmas jumper, Christmas shirt and Christmas socks: it’s the one time of the year when everybody else is just as badly dressed as me.

Christmas dinner is a big deal in our house. Crackers are cracked, paper hats are worn and terrible jokes are read. The lighting of the Christmas pudding is a ritual that cannot be missed. It usually comes directly after the mass panicky dash by the assembled adults towards one of this year’s high chair incumbents who, with some encouragement, manages to cough up half a sprout, two carrot sticks and a red Lego brick. A spirit of benevolent bonhomie pervades even in the midst of the communal clear-up and dishwashing that follows the meal. The dregs of the wine are consumed, perhaps a small coffee and Bailey’s, and then for many the mass, slack-jawed snooze of Christmas afternoon, whilst the rest of us (me and the kids) construct Lego housing estates or attempt to disentangle the new mini drone from the light fitting without fusing the rest of the street. Sometime later, everybody wakes for the afternoon ritual of ‘Oh look at the time. We’ve missed the Queen.’ And ‘who’s putting the kettle on?’

The rest of the day is filled with the welcome drifting in and out of various members of our joyfully expanding family. Every available chair, pouffe and footstool is utilised. As the afternoon draws into evening, people are routinely stepped on, sat on and, if certain members of the family are having a nap, dribbled on. Board games are begun and almost immediately dismantled by children who crawl through them, sit on them, fly a Lego rocket through them or otherwise decimate them because they are being ignored. Everyone, except grandad, who has just evaded a very large snake and reached the top of an equally long ladder, thinks that it’s funny. Come the evening and anything that is vaguely soft becomes a crib. All rooms are occupied by people sleeping on beds and mattresses, on inflatables and floors in a selection of duvets, blankets and sleeping bags, many of which have not seen the light of day since Glastonbury 2004.

Anyway, that’s Christmas for me, and a joyous occasion it always is, until, of course, I turn on the news on Boxing Day and discover that the world is still in exactly the same mess as we left it in on Christmas Eve – and a whole new year to look forward to…

Oh well, Merry Christmas One and All.

*Not totally true, I know. This is a very lonely time for lonely people. Nobody chooses to be lonely yet loneliness could be the future for any of us. It’s easy to ignore the future as you get older; there is a lot less of it and the end of it is quite a lot closer than it was. If you get the chance, then making somebody less lonely could be one of the best presents you could ever give yourself.

Originally posted 20th December 2018 when the world was sane.