Posted in Family

Going Cold Turkey for Christmas

English: Isaac Newton Dansk: Sir Isaac Newton ...
Sir Isaac Newton wondering what to have for his Christmas Dinner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the spectacular village bonfire was cooling beneath a light but festive layer of snow, I was just bracing myself to start planning our Christmas when I had a lightbulb moment. (Blame the after-effect of the fireworks).

If you can picture a startled Sir Isaac Newton beneath the apple tree or a dripping Archimedes leaping out of his bath crying “Eureka!”, you’ll have some idea of how revolutionary my new idea seemed to me: I do not have to cook a turkey this Christmas!

Last Christmas I spent far too much time preparing turkey with all the trimmings and washing up every pot and pan in the house. With only one other meat-eater in our household, the effort to present a traditional Christmas dinner was out of all proportion to the pleasure, not least because we had to rush the meal in order visit family in the afternoon.

But suddenly I realised: turkey is not the only meat. The Village Shop’s Christmas food tasting event one recent Saturday compounded my resolve. Before I could change my mind, I ordered for collection on Christmas Eve some delicious sausages and bacon, Hobbs House bread, and the best eggs that money can buy. Yes, this year, we’ll be settling for a sumptuous Christmas Day brunch instead of a turkey dinner. In the evening, we’ll fill up on the Shop’s excellent mince pies and Christmas pudding. The one I bought there last year was the best I’ve ever tasted.

So stuff turkey (so to speak) – we’re sorted. I’m not sure how that troublesome tradition ever caught on in the first place. It’s an added bonus to think that I’ve just assured one large bird a happier Christmas than it anticipated. And no, before you say it, I don’t mean me. Happy Christmas, everyone!

Archimedes Thoughtful
Archimedes trying on his Santa beard ready for the festive season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post was originally written for the Hawkesbury Parish News, December 2012.

PS Which part of the traditional Christmas festivities would you most like to dispense with? Do tell!

Posted in Travel

Books on the Brain

Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1904 cover

(New post about the challenge of Christmas shopping – with a little help from the Grufflo)

When the first charity Christmas catalogue dropped through my letterbox, I was not best pleased. After all, I was in the middle of packing to go on my summer holiday.

I was irritated also by spotting the first mince pies in the supermarket in September. In fact, I generally try to avoid any mention of Christmas until after Guy Fawkes Night is over and done with.

The Christmas Past

But last year, I left my preparations until a little too close to Christmas, and, to my shame, completely failed to send cards to half my friends and relations. Nearly a year later, I’m still cringing with guilt that I didn’t send one to my best friend’s elderly mother, who, in her late 80s and unwell, still managed to send one to me. I’m determined to be better organised this year. Gladys, this month’s column’s for you.

The Christmas Present

Late October, my sister-in-law makes a helpful pre-emptive strike, initiating a discussion about what we should buy each other for Christmas. She suggests that it would be easier if we stopped buying for the adults in the family at all, focusing only on the children. Great, I think, I’m off the hook! But her proposal is scuppered by immediate protests from my brother and sister, both older than me but big kids at heart. So I resign myself to writing my Christmas shopping list – or at least the list of names of who I have to buy for.

I have little time or enthusiasm for shopping. I barely enter a grocery store from one month to the next. (Whoever invented Ocado home deliveries, I salute you.) I therefore hit on a new tactic to minimise the pain and effort: this year, I resolve to buy everything in just one shop. I need to send so many presents by post that this one shop must sell goods that are easy to wrap and fit in a jiffybag.. So that’s the hardware shop off the list, then.

Two old copies of Lewis Carroll books - Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking GlassI try empathising with the recipients. What would I ask Santa for myself? (Oh, if only he’d consult me!) I jot down some ideas. They are all books. I’m constantly hearing snippets of intriguing books on BBC Radio 4, to which I’m addicted. Whenever I follow through and buy them, I’m never disappointed. In fact, I often enjoy them so much that I pass them on to friends or buy second copies to hand out. So this year I shall buy everyone books. Easy to wrap, easy to post – what’s not to love about a book?

Some of my most treasured possessions are books, such as the small red hardbacks of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, previously owned by my mother when she was a child. Both our names are inscribed on the fly leaf, mine in red crayon in the shaky infant school hand that preceded learning to do joined-up writing.

My grandmother's statue of a reading manMy single most precious thing is a small brown statuette of a man reading a book. He sat on my grandmother’s mantelpiece throughout my childhood and he moved in with me when she died. If I choose carefully, I could be giving my friends not only a Christmas present but a lifelong treasure.

There must surely be a book to suit the tastes of everyone on anyone’s Christmas list. A few ideas already spring to mind for the adults, but with children, I worry about duplication. But they can always pass swaps on to friends as birthday presents, or regift them, as now seems to be the accepted euphemism for getting rid of presents you hate. Signed copies provide a thoughtful point of difference. I’ve been lucky enough to snap up a book signed by both Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler at Bath Literature Festival for one child on my list, (Gruffalo fans will be envious), but what should I get the others?

The Christmas Yet to Come

For inspiration, I turn to my daughter, aged 9. An avid reader, she currently prefers any book featuring kittens, puppies, or mermaids – or preferably all three.

“What do you think is the best book you’ve ever read?” I ask her.

She thinks hard for a moment, then gives a big smile, tricky problem resolved.

“I haven’t read it yet,” she asserts with confidence.

Axel Scheffler's 1st Class Christmas stamp for Royal Mail 2012While I applaud her optimism, I am no further forward. Time to consult the local bookshop, whose staff will know what’s new and what’s hot. And if I look sharp, I can just fit them in on my way to the Post Office to buy my Christmas stamps.

And in case I forget in next month’s column: Happy Christmas, everyone!

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser’s November 2012 edition.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy these other Christmas specials:

Let It Snow

When It Comes To Christmas Presents, Small Is Beautiful

Posted in Family, Travel

The Joy of a Tidy Car

McDonald's Happy Meal logo in Spanish
Have Happy Meal, will travel

As we sit in the front of my car for a speedy lunch on the move, my daughter Laura decides that my car’s designers haven’t thought their task through properly. It is proving near impossible to find a place to stand all the components of  a McDonald’s Happy Meal (don’t tell my  husband), without spilling something that will stain the pale grey carpet.

heart-shaped air freshener in my car
I Heart My Ka

I love my trusty Ford Ka. Its cheeky, chunky shape oozes personality (a bit like a Weeble) and it’s full of useful storage pockets and cubby holes. The lidded cupboard in the back is what clinched the deal when I bought it a few years ago, when Laura was small enough to travel in the back seat. The salesman clearly knew when he had a pushover before him.

small cupboard in the back of my car
The travelling toy cupboard: every mother’s car should have one

“Look at this cupboard – it’s perfect for storing all the little one’s toys!” he beamed. “And think how practical the leather seats are! Easy to wipe clean when she spills her drink or has a little accident!”

He sure knew how to hit my hot button. (The six-disc CD player didn’t hurt, either.) But now Laura’s 9 and promoted to front seat passenger, her standards are more stringent.

“What this car needs, ” she advises, “is a little button just here on the dashboard.”

She points to a space equidistant from our seats.

“And when you press it, a bit of metal pops out, with two rings, just the right size for holding McDonalds cups.”

It’s certainly a good idea – and it would work better than balancing them precariously on our laps, as we are doing now, while french fries cascade onto the floor.

But it’s not all Ford’s fault. There are plenty of storage spaces – it’s just that they are too full of junk to be of any use just now. The trouble with discreet cubby holes is that it’s too easy to stuff them with rubbish and then forget to empty them.

sun tan lotion and book in door pocket of car
The only in-car reading any travelling family needs (for when you run out of Brownie campfire songs)

So I set about with decluttering my car with a vengeance. From the depths, I extract used tissues (but no clean ones), empty plastic food wrappers, used envelopes, tacky lolly sticks, and a small bathroom hand towel (how did that get there?)

Handier but hidden I find charger cables, car fuses, spare car light bulbs, and an ocean of other non-vehicular accessories. A nearly empty bottle of suntan lotion (last year’s), spare sunglasses, fleecy gloves and an ice-scraper show that I’ve inadvertently been prepared for all seasons (handy when you consider the November-like weather we’re having in June). I draw the line at delving into the pockets behind the front seats: my daughter’s territory, these need to be tackled with more determination than I have to spare right now.

sunglasses stored in car pocket
For when my Ka needs a disguise

But with a little application, I discover my sunglasses fit neatly into the mesh pocket above the rear-view mirror (ah, so that’s what it’s for!) My charging cables coil neatly into the redundant ashtray. The passenger door pocket is swiftly transformed from a rubbish bin into a tiny and pleasing mobile library. A new, pristine, unopened packet of tissues is soon nestling by the gear stick, while my indispensable Body Shop Lip Butter looks right at home in a dimple to the right of the dashboard.

All I need to rehome now is my fleece gloves. I glance about for somewhere to keep these constantly accessible (a leather steering wheel can be a very cold thing early in the morning or late at night) and my eye alights on the glove compartment. The glove compartment – of course! Why didn’t I think of that before? Now we’re really motoring…

glove compartment in dashboard
The glove compartment: what will they think of next?

If you enjoyed this post about driving with my daughter, you might like: 

Bubble Mum

Or a post about my battle with another feature of modern cars, try this:  

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the SatNav

Posted in Personal life

All Washed Up Without A Non-Stick Sponge

sponge cake (for groc)
All sponges were not created equal (Photo credit: Rakka)

There are very few items on my shopping list that are indispensable. But of this I am sure: there is no susbstitute for a non-stick washing-up sponge. J-cloths, stringy things on sticks and those flat, dimply sponge squares just WILL NOT DO.

I have strong evidence that many people share my view. Nearly every time I try to buy some non-stick spongers, they are inexplicably out of stock. No matter which supermarket I choose, passing through the socio-economic spectrum from Lidl to Waitrose, there is generally a gaping hole in that part of the dishwashing supplies section. Piles of sticks and cloths on surrounding shelves taunt me with their abundance. Rough-edged scourers and Brillo pads mock me with their determination to remove the non-stick from my omelette pan at twenty paces. But non-stick sponges are there none.

Brillo Pads Ad, 1950
Brillo Pads Ad, 1950 (Photo credit: alsis35)

What is the meaning of this chronic shortage? In these heady days of near-perfect stock-control, empowered by barcode-reading tills, how can all the supermarket chains get their supply of this item so consistently wrong?

It’s not as if non-stick sponges contain a rare or seasonal ingredient. They don’t require a long and complex manufacturing process. Nor is there an irregular, seasonal pattern of use to make stock control more difficult. Surely pretty much every kitchen sink sees a similar throughput of washing-up, week in, week out? My only recourse is to stockpile whenever I find them. I guard against a crisis by buying two or three twin-packs at a time.

I’m therefore irritated today to discover a failure in my own stock-control system. When I go to get a new one from the broom cupboard, there are none. I determine to buy a whole shelf load of sponges next time I can track them down.

And then it occurs to me why they’re so hard to find. There must be thousands of shoppers all over the country who share my approach. It’s the stockpiling that’s causing the shortage. The minute a shelf-filler replenishes a shelf, someone dashes up to sweep the lot into their trolley.

photo of natural sponge stalls in Greece
No sponge shortage here (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like the great toilet roll crisis of 1973. Many people, like my friend’s mum, bought a car-load in a panic when they heard there was about to be a shortage. There wasn’t – before the stockpiling started. But then there was. (Sound familiar, Mr Cameron?) As an old school bursar used to say to me, shaking his head sadly, “There’s enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”

The answer, then, is clear. All I need to do is propagate a rumour that there’s about to be a j-cloth shortage or a new hyper-absorbency tax on those weird dimpled flat sponge squares. Gullible shoppers everywhere will forsake the non-stick sponges in order to stockpile these alternatives. Leaving all the non-stick sponges for me. Hmm, I think I could clean up here. Once I’ve got a new sponge, that is.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this story about another shopping crisis: The Perils of the Supermarket or this one about – or indeed this one about another everyday household item: Give Me a Wetwipe and I Will Clean the World.

Posted in Uncategorized

Tidying up, Gary’s way

Keep tidy
Keep tidy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let the spring-cleaning commence! Well, more importantly, the tidying up. Because until that is done, we won’t be able to see the surfaces that need cleaning.

As always at the start of the school holidays, my first thought is to tidy the house. This is so that we can enjoy the rest of the holidays in an orderly environment.

Also, whenever I’m planning to go away for more than a few days, I like to blitz the house so that it looks extra appealing when we return. It’s amazing how a few days away can give you a fresh perspective on your home. Stepping through the door, suitcase in hand, I’m always pleasantly surprised to be reminded how much I love my house. Absence certainly does make the heart grow fonder – especially if the scene that welcomes my return is tidy.

This time, my task is a tall order. Every room in the house is topsy-turvy and a major effort is needed to restore an air of calm. Where on earth should I begin?

And then I remember a tactic of my old friend Gary’s. Gary was part of my social circle decades ago, when home was my first rented flat. Gary was a bit of a gem. He was cheery and intelligent, without being an intellectual. When my then boyfriend, studying for a history degree, dropped into a pub conversation that he had to choose a topic for his thesis, Gary suggested brightly “How about the history of dogs?”

Gary was determined and methodical. Unable to speak a word of French, he passed his French O Level purely by skilful planning. He knew that a large percentage of the marks were allotted for the essay question which was likely to be on a limited range of topics. He reckoned that if he learnt by heart an essay on a day at the beach, “Sur La Plage”, he’d be in with a chance of passing. So he did – and he passed. On holiday in France a couple of years later, he was still unable to do so much as order a drink in a cafe. But put him  sur la plage and he was happy.

Woolworths Reading
Woolworths Reading (Photo: Wikipedia)

Gary took a similarly determined attitude to his future. Leaving school at 16, he needed to choose a career. The biggest shop on the local high street was Woolworths,  so he applied to become a trainee Woolworths manager. He did well at his job, ultimately managing the branch in the Strand in London, planning carefully at every step. One of his tasks was to deposit the store’s daily takings at the nearby bank. Rather than worry about security, he simply put the cash in a Woolworths carrier bag every day, confident that no mugger would ever think it worth stealing something that came from Woolworths.

He brought a new order to every aspect of his  job. One Christmas, he discovered that his staff were comparing the cards he had given each of them to try to decide who he liked best. He then put a list on the staffroom noticeboard allocating points to each Christmas card image. This allowed staff to calculate scientifically how much he liked them. If their card showed a Santa – 5 points, Christmas tree – 4 points, snow scene – 3 points, and so on. I am not entirely convinced he was joking.

SVG Version of Image:Pac_Man.png
Pac-Man (Photo: Wikipedia)

Gary’s personal habits were also meticulously organised. He enjoyed his food but in a very orderly way. Confronted by a plate of food, he would start carefully at one side, taking little forkfuls  across the plate, gradually clearing it in a straight line from one side to another. It was like watching a military campaign, the invading force gradually capture enemy territory, pushing the line ever further back. Gary’s only concession to the taste of his food was to choose as his starting point the side opposite his favourite item of food. With a roast dinner, that would be the meat. His progress was fascinating. It was like watching  Pac-Man have lunch.

I’ve always taken Gary’s approach to gardening. I’m a fair-weather gardener and I don’t bother much between November and March. Then when the first Spring-like day comes along, I venture into the small lean-to that we grandly call our conservatory and revive all the plants out there. Next, I step outside the lean-to, which opens on to my herb garden.  I thoroughly weed the herb garden before advancing to the pond immediately beyond it. Once the pond is in order, I progress a couple of steps to the first vegetable bed – and so on, until everything in the garden is to my liking. It’s a long, slow job, but the benefit is that you always see the best first and the untidiest bit is always furthest from view. It’s the opposite of painting yourself into a corner.

Racon signal ("K") on radar screen S...
Racon signal ("K") on radar screen Source: (Photo: Wikipedia)

And this holiday it occurs to me that Gary’s strategy would work equally well with tidying. I start off upstairs, standing on the landing and sweeping my mind’s eye around the first floor, like the radar detector you see on old films of U-boats. First stop is my daughter’s bedroom (a complete muddle since she’s spent the last week “camping” on the floor for a change of scene), then my bedroom, then the bathroom, then my study. Downstairs, the living room will be followed by the kitchen, then the larder, then (saving the worst till last), my husband’s study.

Suddenly, an insurmountable task is made manageable. With the help of my trusty iPod, full of BBC Radio 4 podcats, I feel further empowered. I can do this thing!

Let the holiday commence! Happy Easter, everyone!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read How To Get Things Done.