Friday, 19 December 2014

All I want for Christmas

What do I want for Christmas?

Apart from dinner with the cast of Sherlock, prepared by Jamie Oliver, with Miranda Hart, Sue Perkins, Julie Walters, Steven Fry and Ian McKellan as additional guests, serenaded by all-the-kings-men and with a private viewing of the Paddington movie to follow.

Which is not asking for much, is it! Really? Improbable wants, yes - but not absolutely impossible, in that theoretically my dinner could happen, even though it almost certainly won't. Sadly. Although bits of it could ... is the Paddington movie out on DVD yet?

More improbable wants would include a fist edition of my own book under the tree; a Christmas morning not started at a ridiculously early hour because Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins decide it's time to get up; snow - just enough to dust the world with the spirit of Christmas, but not enough to prevent cars from travelling bearing family and friends and presents; an all-you-can-eat Christmas dinner that doesn't leave you feeling you won't be able to bend in the middle or sit down comfortably until New Year; cracker jokes that actually make you laugh; and brussels sprouts that taste good.

Impossible wants, on the other hand, would be wishing for Peter Ustinov and Carl Sagan to join my fantasy dinner; turning Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins into dogs that don't shed hairs all over the house, even in the rooms they apparently never enter; making Christmas day pause just long enough to get the cooking done and pause again to allow a good long walk in daylight hours without missing any of the good indoor bits; adding an extra hour or two to the days before Christmas; procuring magic presents that wrap themselves; finding a real Father Christmas; and discovering a pocket-full of Harry Potter's floo powder to enable hand-delivery of gifts, on Christmas day, to distant relatives.

Entirely possible, however, is wanting a Christmas with family. And I really can't think of anything I want more.

Except perhaps .... ?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Inner Sheep Dog revisited

On Thursday 19th December 2013, I wrote and posted a blog titled Inner Sheep Dog. It was about skiing en famille. I wish to revisit all that I wrote then, only this time 'with bells on' as I now have an entire family of sheep to worry over and count in safe at the end of every day. Last year, I only had half a flock to round up. This year, the entire flock answered the call to disturb their sheep-dog-protector.

The mother of a friend recently described skiing as "that holiday when the best bit is the journey home." That is just so true. I couldn't have described it better myself. I can think of other activities that would stress my inner sheep dog more - bungee jumping and sky-diving spring to mind and if any of my flock ever think it's a good idea to base jump, I hope they never tell me - not even after the event.

I think the catastrophists who broadcast news of disasters both natural and man-made are largely to blame for the worry-fest that infects those of us with overactive imaginations. Tales of skiers wiped out by avalanches morph too easily into horror stories where the victims wear the faces of your little flock. You wake in the middle of the night, sweating and panicked. Haul yourself out of bed and tuck the duvet round their shoulders, not because they're cold, but because you want to touch them, feel their breathing, before you attempt to get back to sleep. Maybe, this is a form of OCD - one that specifically afflicts mothers. Over-protective mothers - yes, perhaps. But I'm pretty certain that it is mainly mothers, as the men I know, on the whole, don't appear to suffer in the same way. I'd like to suggest that is because men don't have the imagination to see the things that could go wrong. But that would be too sweeping a statement ... probably. Maybe men are better at talking to themselves with a stern, don't-be-so-irrational tone of inner voice. Or maybe they're men - the ancient hunting-gathering chieftains who can dig themselves out of anything. So they don't worry. They're invincible.

Like sons who want to learn how to snow-board.

Strapping two planks onto heavy, unwieldy, plastic buckets that clamp vice-like onto your calves and standing on a snow covered slope ... a steep slope! On a mountain! In the rain (today)! ... is mystifying enough, to anxious souls like me. Binding those buckets together on a wider plank, so that you can't move your legs is simply ridiculous. Surely! Unsurprisingly, the people who do snow-board are usually flat on their backs at the edge of the piste, like upturned beetles. Or sliding on their bellies head first, arms bent at elbows to make an ineffective snow plough that splatters snow overzealous-spritz-like into their faces and knees raised behind them with feet still clamped to the following board. Snow board artists aren't unaware of this - of course not! - they know that most boarders will fall, a lot, and a board bottom-up displays the artist's work for free. It's a truth generally observed that most boarders are youthful, attracted by the grafitti-splattered clothing and the belonging to a herd of like-minded thrill seekers - they have to be to have the energy to make windmills out of their arms and hop when not awkwardly scootering their boards, and they need to be able to bounce, frequently between the brief and probably exhilarating moments, when the theory comes together and they traverse from one side of the piste to the other, terrorising all the skiiers below them who freeze because they assume that the approaching roaring crunch is a boarder out of control. He usually is.

Last year I wrote about skiing slowly. Very, very slowly. My policy of better the safe and steady tortoise than the reckless hare has been replaced this year by better the restaurant-internet-seeking, blogging and happily book manuscript editing, coffee-drinking, hot-chocolate-supping time killer, happy to be wearing walking boots instead of calf pinching ski boots and happy to hear about minor mishaps rather than see them. It's the seeing that sparks nightmares. I stroke my inner-sheep-dog, quietly telling her it will be over soon and we'll all be safely on that coach on the way home.

Oops ... okay, so it's not always hot chocolate or coffee. The occasional vin chaud slips in.


Most days.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Jack attack

Roughly (or should that be ruff-ly) 7kg of solid shouty muscle, with teeth, the Jack Russell is a small terrier with a furious 'someone-lit-my-touch-paper-and-I'm-about-to-explode' temper and a belligerent 'you-think-I'm-small!-Tell-that-to-my-face' attitude.

We share our home with two not very well behaved but loveable labradors. They are friendly, somewhat lacking in intelligence, funny and gentle. They lie at your feet; lie waiting at the foot of the stairs; lie in doorways; lie anywhere inconvenient and in the way to force some interaction from their human co-habitees; and they also 'lie' about whether or not they've been fed by one of the other human co-habitees. Perhaps, it is all this unexciting idleness that turns some people to the Jack Russell. Variously described as stubborn, energetic and aggressive, this is a working breed used to flush out foxes and definitely not prone to lying around.

But why would you want to welcome into your family an angry creature with boggly eyes that look like a bad case of exopthalmos, a jaw of shark-like dentition framed with thin, rubbery lips and legs just long enough to allow it to chase the postman and launch itself missile-like at your thigh? Why have one in your home?!! Are you afraid that the big bad wolf might come down the chimney? Maybe the Jack Russell could keep guard at the hearth ready to chase it back up the chimney. Wolf versus Jack Russell - no match! - that unfortunate wolf would pop out of the chimney stack faster than a wolf with a firework strapped to its bottom.

And if the teeth, temper combination isn't bad enough, the Jack Russell's bark is ferocity personified. A high pitched, spluttering, bared-lip-trembling, foaming at the nostril, "Wawawawawawawawawawawa!!!!!" Lovely? - I don't think so. Neither did Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend when we met one on a walk. Sorry ... on their walk. The walk that (they think) belongs to them. That no other four legged creature is permitted to cross without causing their heckles to rise, proprietorial-like. The garden belongs to them. Aren't the neighbouring fields just an extension of the garden? After all, Mum picks the brambles and surely she wouldn't pick anything that didn't belong to her?

Anyway, this Jack Russell, doing his furious shark impression about six inches from Bertie Baggins's nose, was apparently "Just being friendly." I've seen friendlier wasps! It's owner reluctantly put it back on its lead and dragged it away, while I clung desperately to my two.
"He just wanted to play" called the Jack Russell's owner, somewhat huffily.
What at? ... Chase the fox? ... Terrorise the labrador? Having ten minutes earlier, observed Four-Legged-Friend and Bertie Baggins perform a perfect pincer manoevre to catch a rabbit and demolish it, I was more concerned that their idea of playing with the mouthy midget might involve dinner. I think, or rather know, that they probably wouldn't have done anything braver than run away, but they were between me and the enemy - would they have attacked it to save me? Would it have been their fault if they had? I didn't want to find out. So I twisted my fists into their collars and held on tight. They got a lot of the biscuit gravel out of my pocket once the Jack Russell was safely away (still 'wawawawawa-ing,' but huffily, like its owner.)

I am sure there are some Jack Russell owners out there whom I have now seriously offended. Perhaps my opinion is skewed by the nastiness of every Jack Russell I have ever met. Perhaps, there are good-natured, placid, quiet Jack Russells. There is, after all, a lovejackrussels website for all things jackrusselly. They are ,agile and intelligent.' Apparently. And good at ball games and frisbee. But inclined to still have juice in the battery long after their poor owners are worn out. And 'inclined to boredom and destructive tendencies' if left on their own for too long - I once saw the shredded inside of a car, ceiling fabric hanging in torn ribbons - punishment perhaps for the owner who had left his Jack Russell in the car for "ten minutes." I wonder if the insurance paid out on that one?

While I'm prepared to accept that the Jack Russell of our walk may, when not confronted by two big beasts and an anxious stranger,  in fact,  be a friendly little beast, I do wonder if the Rev John Russell of Black Torrington in Devon was perhaps not too keen on his parishoners. "Meet my little dog," would have had them running for the door, long before they could get into the pernickity details of uncle Fred's funeral. And allow the good parson to get on with his main love, the important job of fox hunting.

On keeping one’s follies intact

The Broadway lyricist E Y Harburg correctly, in my (too rapidly ageing) opinion, observed that even when one’s body is 
‘bent and bowed and cracked, it is too soon to give up the ghost if one’s follies are still intact.’ 
Does this perhaps mean that as we age, we should ensure that we notch up a number of follies, the resolution and eventual correction of which will be as long and as arduous as it is possible to be long and arduous, in order to keep us going; to keep us young? 
Or if not young, then to keep us determined, single-minded, driven and old? 
Is this licence for a deliciously naughty, disreputable old age? 
Or another anxiety to add to the ‘to do list’ as the years pass? 
What about a bucket list of follies? Permission to wear purple and behave badly. Aided and recorded by an overly sensitive finger on the button for taking 'selfies.' In fact, as most selfies are in fact follies, a selfie diary of the elderly years would suffice. Explaining those on social media would keep the brain active for at least another decade. A decade during which more follies could be added to the album. And so life would go on. Decade by folly-creating decade. The secret to a long life solved. I bet that isn’t what E Y Harburg had in mind, though his is a cheap and easy recipe for growing old - both happily and disgracefully. It's a pity perhaps that he is no longer around to promote his follies-for-life approach in a world obsessed with reversing the ageing process.
In the West, huge sums of money are thrown into research which will ultimately benefit only those wealthy enough to afford the manufactured elixirs of youth. We all know that smoking, alcohol, greed and slobbery shorten life expectancy, but it appears that we would rather spend money on potions, pills and surgery, instead of seeking the fresh air, exercise and sensible eating that would lengthen it. I’m not phenomenally wealthy and I don’t trust the botox merchants and don’t have the goods as it were to bother (no striking cheek bones, no sleek Romanesque nose, no meltingly romantic eyes, no classically chiselled chin etc). I’d rather go grey and line gracefully. And I don’t want to live forever. Living as long as possible, as healthily and as happily as possible is another matter. In my opinion, only idiots smoke (and the biggest idiots are asthmatics and diabetics who smoke). I reckon few are aware that for every year of smoking beyond the age of 35, life expectancy is reduced by three months – this means that smoking from 35 to 50 will shorten life by 45 months. That’s a massive 3 years and 9 months. If you smoke to 60, you throw away over 6 years. Do the maths. All that lost folly-creating time: those selfies of your bulging, bathing-suited body, spread-eagled in the paddling pool with the grandchildren; of bad granny behaving despicably and cheating at two in the blow out the birthday cake candles on the count of three; and dressing up as father Christmas for the local toddler group because you’re the oldest granddad around. What a shocking waste.
There are advantages to growing older. Yes. Actually, there are. It’s all about not giving a damn. You pass the age when you worry about your appearance (... much. It’s okay to worry a bit. A bit is normal. Too much and you’ll brim over with regrets, until you realise that the only person worrying about how you look is you.) You also stop worrying about what people think of you. This can however take two very separate routes – the first is passive and happy, and essentially involves you no longer caring: life is too short to get up-tight. Arguing makes you unhappy and compromise is key to everything. The second is to stop worrying about what other people think because you have been alive long enough to know that you are right. This conviction is absolutely concrete and you don’t care who knows. You are belligerent, argumentative and miserable. In essence you are a curmudgeon. A lonely old one. And probably too cross to recognise your follies. Of which there will be many. But probably not of the selfie sort. Those who neither care nor give a damn will be happier, more rounded (because they’ll eat more) and wealthier (see below) people. All the rest will have to face an ever increasing expense as they dye, and plump, and preen, and inject and exercise the husk of their youth into shape.
Another advantage of advancing years was paraphrased beautifully by Peter Ustinov when he said of growing older “I feel I can talk with more authority, especially when I say ‘I don’t know.’” We spend so much of our younger years greedy to know, to explain, to answer the whys that life hurls at us. It makes us feel insecure not to know. The tranquillity of recognising that we don’t know and that it’s okay not to know, is freeing – it’s a release, to do with, what we wish, either explore, if we feel so inclined, or step over, like leaping to the next but one in a line of stepping stones. As long as I can jump to the next but one stone, I’ll be happy to not know. If however, there is too much ‘not knowing’ and the leap stretches too far, old age cloaks itself in a miserable dementing pall. But to despair would be premature, there is soon to be an app which will retrain our brains. We’ll probably have to play it every day. We’ll hang around in the corners of our rest homes, crooked fingers poking at buttons, eyes squinting through thick lenses at flashing screens, as we obsess over yesterday’s score and worry silently that our friend Jack doesn’t seem to have noticed that his scores over the past two weeks have steadily deteriorated and wonder if we should tell someone. 
Far simpler, is the way that dogs age. 
They slow down. They spread. The hairs under their muzzles turn grey. All pretty similar to us, but as long as they can snuggle up somewhere warm and eat regularly they want for little.

We should take a leaf from their book and embrace our ageing, not moan about it. We should rejoice, create follies and enjoy long life and put up with being 'bent and bowed and cracked.' If we don’t, how can we face the millions world-wide who through poverty and lack of access to medicines do not have this privilege - this gift of growing old.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A country mouse lost in the city. And it's the "f***ing news" boys!

Oh dear, let me apologise for the title. Not my usual style. I know. If I shocked you, I'm sorry, but trust me, I was shocked too and not for the reason you might think.

If on the other hand the title made you think "Hmmm ... edgy?!" and brought you here for the first time then apology revoked. Welcome!

Time to explain myself. Perhaps. After a short story of a mouse ...

Remember Aesop's fable about the town mouse who visits his cousin in the country? And finds it all a bit too quiet in a disturbing lack-of-traffic-and-noise-and-bustling-crowds-of-people-sort of a way and backward in an absence-of-theatre-and-cinema-and-24-hour-shops-and-instant-hot-running-water way, well ... whenever I leave my internet and mobile signal vacuum of rural tranquillity and travel to the city, I am reminded of the country mouse whose brief sojourn at the residence of his sophisticated cousin was terminated abruptly when flustered and frightened, he fled back home. Like him, I am happiest when I am leaving the metropolis behind.

But, having said all that and exaggerated a little, I do actually like the city. Just not for long.

Averse to being squeezed into a sardine can and catapulted along a tunnel, I choose to walk. Everywhere. I like to feel the history of the city beneath my feet. To see it with my eyes. Someone (she knows who she is), once said to me, "When visiting a place, always look up."

Look up!

On crowded streets, especially when the country mouse is a bit lost, and anxious about trying not to look too lost, and is a bit intimidated by bus lanes and cyclists and the press of fellow pedestrians and beating the green flashing man to the opposite side of the road, it is easy to take away, as memory of the city visit, a picture of varied shuffling, hesitant, and rushing feet on worn and gum-pocked pavements. Instead, look up! If you don't you'll miss this

and this

(And now, anyone who knows where I was and where I was trying to get to, also knows exactly how lost I was. Sadly.)

Similarly, when on holiday, if you don't look up, you'll risk missing this

And this

So wherever you are, remember to look up.

If you do, you'll collide with the people who spend all day rushing around looking at their feet. And they'll glance at your mismatched outfit and 'best bag' from last century, and you'll see them smile, forgivingly, and step aside to let the "bumpkin" pass. Do they ever in their frenzied existence steal a few minutes to look up? They should. If they can't appreciate the wonders of the architecture around them, they should grieve; for the rat race will have taken their soul. Looking up is about connecting with place. And history. And self. And stepping away from corporate, ego-building competition and bathing in that cleansing, readjusting feeling that is awe. Breathe - if you can - that city air. Look up ... and walk into a few lamp-posts. Trust me, the bruises will be worth it!

Lamp-posts, I avoided. I struggled more with corners of buildings and a bicycle rack ...

In one day, I walked here

and, as already established, here

In the city, I got lost - yes. Sore footed - a little. Tired - slightly. Inclined to swear - not exactly; so why shock with "It's the "f***ing news" boys!" in the title of this post? Unfortunate circumstance and timing were to blame -

The first mistake was boarding a train at 3.30pm. With a swarm of flatulent teenage boys, their voices turned up to max volume and each devoid of a mute button. School was out. Half-term begun.

The second was not having anything of a sound-cancelling nature to plug into my ears. Fingers might have worked. But might have attracted attention and ridicule.

The third was listening. It was hard not to.

The fourth was realising that these boys, who my elderly relatives would probably have labelled 'young hoodlums,' were - albeit hindered in their delivery by the insertion of the superfluous word "f***ing" after every single word that wasn't f***ing - discussing that day's news. They were clearly well informed and were properly debating the issues. My mistake. I had misjudged them. My inner country mouse was baffled and a little ashamed.F***ing this and f***ing that rang in my ears as I disembarked the train. And properly discombobulated, promptly got lost.

Finally ... very finally, after my destination was slowly and surprisingly reached, friends were successfully located, family found, food finished, spectacular a cappella enjoyed

the country mouse fled home.

And not a single "f***ing* was heard all evening.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A story of too many legs. And lots of voices. And idioms.

Hello, Four-legged-friend here, hijacking this blog. It is after all about me and Baggins, so in our opinion, it's only fair if we (that we being me, as the founding dog of Walking The Dog) get to contribute sometimes. One small matter that I need to get off my big, barrelled chest, before I continue, is that we (Baggins and I) are, as a pair of dogs, plural, and I have always considered that it should be called Walking the Dogs - unless one of us is perennially forgotten, which isn't the case, whenever we go for a walk.

Ah ... that feels better. As spokes-dog I feel a responsibility to strive for canine correctness in all things writerly and grammatical. It would upset our sensibilities to give the impression that we are a pair of languid, loll-abouts with no regard to proper English. We do understand what you are saying - yes! Even when you are cooing at us in baby-language. Why do you think we look so cute? It's because our brain has gone elsewhere and our eyes and mouth have stuck rigor-like in a "You've got to be kidding!" expression - it's your tragedy that you don't understand us.

If you did, you'd understand fully our respect and affection for the idiom "It's a dog's life" -

Baggins and I lead "a dog's life". That is one dog's life - strictly adhering to a routine of sleeping and eating and sleeping and eating and sleeping - each. One plus one equals two dogs' lives. And incidentally (as we are frequently told, rather crossly by some), it also equals a lot of dog hair all over the floor. 

Apart from knowing about apostrophes and sometimes hijacking the writing of this blog, there's not a lot of time in our lives dedicated to the exercising of our little grey doggy brain cells - should we worry about Alzheimer's? Probably not, I don't think dogs live long enough to develop Alzheimer's. And if we did, we'd be so incontinent and dribbling and monumentally flatulent that it would be kinder to put us to sleep - permanently. Oh! That is what you do? Really! ... Gulp. Better make the most of this dog's life now. 

Time, then, to repeat my favourite idiom - "It's a dog's life!"

When life is so perfectly summed up by an idiom it's tempting to rush into another - finding one is a piece of cake. And a lot of cake was eaten in my house a couple of weekends ago. None of it by me. Or Bertie Baggins - unless you count the crumbs dropped on the floor, which in my ever-ravenous opinion definitely don't count. Crumbs are far too small to bother with, except in the vain hope that, out of gratitude for our 'hoovering' of the floor, someone might reward us with something more substantial. Like this piano cake maybe ...

I don't think we've ever been baked a cake. A dog's life indeed! We don't get birthday cakes, fruit cakes, chocolate brownies, cinnamon rock buns or Christmas cake. And they try to stop us eating the country pan-cakes kindly left in the fields by the cows. Maybe that's because their proper baked cakes taste better, but how are we to know if they don't share them with us. We'd happily share our country pan-cakes with them but they seem to know that they're not the best - I've never seen one of them bending down to grass level to take a nibble.

A dog's life is one full of contradictions - like the idiom itself. Sometimes you hear "It's a dog's life" meaning how cushy, all that pampering and love (which is great! I'm not complaining), but equally it can refer to the less pleasant, frankly squalid, and hard aspects of life (about which Bertie Baggins and I vigorously protest. Sometimes. Okay, maybe not that vigorously. A bit of refusing to move. Hanging our heads down. Pulling on the lead. Until they trick us with a biscuit and suddenly we find ourselves exactly where we didn't want to be.Maybe we need assertiveness training ... although that would probably result in less treats, so maybe not). Happily for me and Bertie Baggins, it is predominantly the comfortable form of dog's life that makes our lives - except when they're late with our dinner, or expect us to go out in the rain, or stop us from licking the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, or tell us "No!" when we want to curl up on the sofa, or take us to visit the vet, or tug on our leads to stop us saying hello to the interesting end of the frisky little lady we met yesterday, or shut us in our run (I don't understand why they call it a run. We don't. Run. It's too small. For running. Running is for going places or chasing rabbits. We jump about a bit in our "Run". But we don't run), or insist on soaking us with freezing water and soap after a walk - we like the smell of fox! 

"It's a dog's life!"

It's also a dog's life when our home gets invaded - more love, more hands to nuzzle, more food to smell (... to smell! Smell!! See! It's not fair!) and more crumbs (never enough) dropped on the floor. But a fuller home also means less unoccupied floor space on which to sprawl, less peace (these visitors sing! And play pianos! And sing! And dance! And sing!), and more disturbed sleep (a dog in a busy home must remain alert at all times on the look out for a broken biscuit and vigilant to beat the vacuum cleaner into the kitchen for the consumption of crumbs). An invasion also means more legs

... lots more legs. Which can lead to canine confusion. A weaving between legs game. And stupor.

Lullaby time? Or ... if I lie between his feet will he stop singing?

All the King's Men - our singing, dancing, not-enough-crumb dropping visitors.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Does anything rhyme with chutney?

Apart from Putney.

And unless you live there or wish to visit the place and write poems about expensive London suburbs and rivers and bridges, it is probably artificial and contrived to insert Putney into a poem simply to make it rhyme. Why rhyme anyway? Why, indeed. Some modern poetry hasn't encountered a single rhyming word, hasn't flirted with structure, verse or form, and wouldn't know the difference between a couplet and a romantic dinner for two.I exaggerate but I admit to being a traditionalist. "All along the backwater, Through the rushes tall, Ducks are a-dabbling, Up tails all!" - Kenneth Grahame made me smile as a child and he still does today. His poem trips off the tongue and its rhythm is instantly memorable. I write poems that rhyme when the auditory leaps and jumps compliment the subject - but rhyme can equally sound laboured, can force the poem in the wrong direction and for the poet desperately in search of an elusive rhyme can become agonising, time consuming and exhausting. And exhaustion and overworking kill a poem.

Exhaustion and overworking kill inspiration too. Bertie Baggins has nowt to do with the latter but a lot to do with the former - it is apple stealing season and a doggy belly stuffed to its brim with apples needs to be emptied. Three times last night! He may find himself banished to the run outside this evening - Four-legged-friend and I need sleep.

Perhaps it is a lack of sleep that is to blame for this silly confectionery of a poem - simple, rhyming and child-like - or perhaps it is answering the need for a sleepily smile.

Apples into basket tumble,
Rolling, roiling cascades rumble.
Knives in peeling frenzy fumble -
Autumn harvest: apple crumble.

Head in hands in distraught grumble,
Poet plays with words in whispered mumble.
After easy rhymes for apple crumble
"Does anything rhyme with apple


I have made chutney for many years - some recipes have worked. Some haven't. Some I burnt. Some were too wet. Some too pippy (don't put bramble in your autumn chutney - it may seem a logical idea but fishing the pips out from between your teeth does not enhance the biscuits and cheese experience!). In some, the spices were ... well? Too spicey! But this is now my trusted recipe. It works. And disappears off the larder shelf pretty quickly - maybe I should make more ... maybe I need to beat Bertie Baggins to the remaining apples.

Ingredients for Bertie's Apples' Chutney

2 kg fruit - this year I used 1.5 kg garden apples and 0.5 kg tomatoes, but I have used an apple, tomato, plum mixture in the past and plan to use some rather late season rhubarb in the next batch (work, time and dog permitting). Stick to 2 kg and it will work.
500 g sultanas (big juicy ones work best)
500 g onions (I prefer red onions but ordinary ones are fine too)
1 kg demerara sugar (or a white granulated/ brown sugar mix is fine)
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp salt
750 ml vinegar (I like a mixture of red and white wine vinegars, but I have added cider vinegar and a splash of balsamic too - best to experiment with it and use what you have - these vinegars give it a darker, sweeter and more caramelly flavour than malt vinegars do, but go for malt vinegar if you prefer)

Also play around with the spices - if using plums a little kick of chilli is good.

As long as you stick to the overall fruit-to-onion-to-sugar-to-vinegar quantities this chutney works. Every time.


Chop the fruit and onions. Toss everything into a preserving pan and place on a low heat. Simmer to dissolve the sugar. Stir and keep stirring throughout - you are not making a jelly or jam so disrupting the pectin is irrelevant. When the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat and stir intermittently while it bubbles gently. It will need to bubble, soften and reduce for several hours. What you are after is a uniform rich brown gloop. None of the fruit remaining should be the colour it was at the start. Any bits of apple can be gently squashed against the side of the pan. Keep bubbling (the whole house by now will smell of vinegar) until the stirring spoon drawn through the chutney leaves a shallow trough that does not rapidly fill with liquid. It is now ready to put into clean jars.

Eat with cheese, cold meats, pate, mackerel - anything really. But - according to Littlest - not custard! Or marmite. Or chocolate.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A bar of soap, apple jelly and an oily ooze

My phone didn't need a video screen, I could see her lips tighten and pucker as she sucked the air through her teeth, "Oooh! It can go from a small crack to a hole big enough to fit your fist in. In just a few hours!"

In other words don't delay. In other words - words like hurry and leaking and oil and no-longer-guaranteed and cost and weekend-rates and call-out-fees and estimates and emergency - this will be expensive.

I tried a few words of my own - "I'll get back to you" and "Phone around for other quotes" and "Goodbye."

The second quote secured the deal - "We'll come tomorrow." Goodbye the gloom and doom merchants and hello to Mr Calmly-assess-the-situation-before-reassuring-the-client-that-all-will-be-well.  Why turn an ooze into an emergency? Why panic? Why guarantee that the client will suffer insomnia worrying that the ooze will increase to a gush and flood the garden with £900 of domestic heating oil? Why indeed - when all it takes is a bar of soap? Yep! A ... bar...of ... soap!

Yes, I did think that I had somehow jumped from speaking to Mr Calmly-the-sensible-oil-man into another conversation with someone who sounded very like Mr Calmly but was clearly having some sort of mind storm. A ... bar ... of ... soap.

"Has anyone told you about soap?" he asked. "Do you have any soap in your house?"

"Um ..." Can we get back to my oil tank; my oozing oil tank; the one that might rupture at any moment, I thought. "Ye-e-es, we have soap," I replied, thinking what does he expect me to do with the soap? Wash my hands! Ok, so there might be a little oil ... on one finger ... but this is taking the calm-the-customer-down approach into an insane realm of overly excessive slightly creepy attentiveness. Next he'll tell me to sit down and have a cup of tea, brewed on the aga ... the heat source that I have just had to turn off owing to the LEAKING oil tank!

But he didn't. The soap was to rub "vigorously" into the split in the tank wall. Immediate emulsification plugged the gap and slowed the ooze. Clever Mr Calmly.

So when your oil is all oozy and the cost makes you woozy there's no need to be boozy just rub in some soap. And when they ask you for a bucket of hot soapy water the next day, nod sagely. And try not to look too surprised when they use it to wash their hands!

A bar of soap ... and an oily ooze. Why insert apple jelly into the title? Apple scented soap? No. This is the reason

This the 7.30am apple picking, tree hacking, don't-want-to-risk-the-tank-replacement-men-having-to-do-this-and-making-the-job-more-expensive slog that got me up bright and early on a Saturday morning

And this the result

And this - "Where have all my apples gone?"

And ultimately this

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pessimism and the art of positive thinking

The only way is up

or sometimes not ...

When an obvious, easier and eminently sensible option is to go down, it is unsurprising that Littlest at the foot of Ben Lomond asked, "Why do we have to climb a mountain?"

She went on to add, "Snowdon was fun. Because we all climbed it. This isn't fun because we're not all here."

And a few minutes later, "Holidays were more fun four years ago - when we were all younger." Siblings, flung far and wide, were clearly being missed. This and the days when they were young enough to want to play with her. Growing up is hard ...

Climbing up a mountain is hard too. Grumbling up a mountain is harder still.

Grumbling can be countered in one of three ways - ignore it (the rationale being that the grumbler will soon get bored. However soon is often not soon enough. And the grumbling often escalates before boredom sets in, hence it changes and this fluctuation in volume and tone is enough to divert boredom and as different pitches are experimented with the grumbling takes on a new and increasingly interesting character. And fails to cease.); get cross with it (this is a disastrous approach to take - it invariably induces tears. The grumbler, hurt and distressed, turns into a stroppy stomping stubborn and eyes-streaming storm of themselves more likely to blunder off in the wrong direction than proceed patiently up hill); or with distraction and gentle cajoling trick it into submission.

Taking the third route however often precipitates that most difficult of questions to answer - the one guaranteed to instantly empty your mind of ideas, "What shall we talk about then?"

What indeed?!

Littlest, joining in with this cajoling game, provided her own answer:

"Why on earth would you want to be an optimist?"


And answered herself with:

"Being a pessimist means that things will always turn out better than you'd worried they would. I think I'm a pessimist. I like being a pessimist."

"But I still don't like climbing mountains."

I'd like to say we went on to discuss psychology and positivism but Ben Lomond is a hard climb and where the mountain is steep it demands your attention and saps your brain of intuition.

It saps your energy too

"I'm so tired, I'll have to crawl up."

And saps your enthusiasm particularly if the weather does its best to add to the discomfort;

"And now it's going to rain."

... but it didn't, so the weather turned out better than Littlest thought it would.

As the rain bypassed us, slinking sheepishly away to the south, it dragged with it the grumbling. Serendipitously this coincided with a flatter path. Littlest's question was answered - we talked about volcanoes and fossils and peat and sheep and glaciers and ice-ages and how hungry we were and how much better it would have been if we'd remembered to bring chocolate, or biscuits, or sweets, or anything other than cheese rolls and dried pineapple and how dried pineapple is nice but dried strawberries are horrid.

And suddenly, we were at the top.

Munro bagged. Littlest's first.

Going down was easier but not easy.

Warmer but not warm.

Lonelier - owing to younger knees making lighter and quicker work of walking down steep hills - but not lonely.

Thus the mountain that pessimism had told Littlest she couldn't climb, was climbed. The day created memories of success rather than the pointless feeling of failure that giving up half-way would have induced. In this way, pessimism morphed into something positive. So Littlest is right, being a pessimist can mean thinking positively. In a round about, retrospective, let's seek the best outcome sort of a way.

And it is better perhaps to be a positive pessimist than a deluded and ultimately disappointed optimist.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Marital clichés, a party, vertigo and the possibility of a metaphor

"Marriage is finding that special someone you want to annoy for the rest of your life."  

So proclaimed the wall plaque that I was given on Tuesday 15th July. While being thought of as a "special someone" is good, I don't recall promising to love, cherish and annoy for the rest of my life.

I have a theory that one can only truly annoy those we love, as we first have to know them intimately before niggles and petty irritations triggered by what they do can escalate tsunami-like into annoyance. For us, 25 years of annoying each other have passed. It is likely that we will continue to annoy each other for the next 25 years, or - back to the wedding vows - 'til death do us part. Until then, seeking a state of harmonious annoyance will lighten the passing of the years - here's my recipe for how this might be achieved:

Keep calm and carry on carrying the ball and chain - it might be a bit dinted around the edges but like a vintage car, a judicious polish will rub the rust away. Who does the rust-rubbing depends on who most needs to make amends. But it is a canny wife who allows her husband to believe that it is beyond the capabilities of a woman to understand the finer points of obsessive vehicle and - by association because it is a similarly surprisingly onerous task - ball-and-chain polishing. This apparent feminine-impairment will ensure a steady stream of flowers, anniversary gifts and a lasting wifely-unfamiliarity with shammy leathers and t-cut. It is deceit and trickery but trickery is the essence of female intuition and as such is infinitely beyond the understanding of most men. Man's destiny therefore is to become life-long polisher. And as he knows that he is better at it and that if she tried her lack of care would annoy him, he is destined to be happiest in his polishing. And she in her smug blissfulness.

Accept that after 25 years, things could change but probably won't and that what you have must be pretty good if it's lasted this long.

Recognise that there are two ways of doing most things and that neither way is actually better than the other. This compromise will significantly improve domestic harmony when applied to cutting the grass, packing luggage into cars, arranging food in the freezer and loading the dishwasher. Alternatively, and because he is of course right, a canny wife (she again!) will let her husband get on with these tasks and devote her time instead to gardening, reading a book or having a bath.

Give up on trying to win arguments - knowing that you're right anyway (and keeping that knowledge to yourself) should be enough.

Plant trees. Two silver birches.

Get your children to help with the planting and smile at the significance of this. Watch the trees and children grow. And stop fretting over which trees are gold for the next big anniversary - 25 years is plenty of time to do the research.

Celebrate with a party. Invite all that is best in your life together. That best is family and friends. Eat good food and drink good wine. Don't panic (unless the forecast is for rain, or the freezers unexpectedly defrost, or the Aga temperature drops, or for all of the week before the prayed for 28 hour days fail to materialise, or elderly relatives announce they are coming several days early ... to help (!!) or it rains, or it rains, or it rains - in fact, it is probably best to panic. As soon as possible!)

Make plans for the years ahead but in doing so, respect and remember, at all times, the 'c' word.  No - not children; not cuddles, not caring; not curry; not cars; not cake (although plenty of cake, like children, is always a good thing); not coffee; not ... well, I can't think of anything else starting with a 'c' that matters, so here it is, the important 'c' word that you've probably guessed already and that is really a little bit boring and fraught with issues of who does it the most, why do it at all, and when is it fair to expect the other to do so - 'c' is of course for compromise.

Escape. Together. Preferably with your children. Wales will do. Scotland would be better but it has more midges. And escaping to a land of fiendish predation is not truly escaping. Not until later in the summer anyway.

Climb a mountain. In Wales. Snowdon to be specific.

And suffer from vertigo near the top. And miss out on the summit photo.

Listen to music. In fact, it is best to fill the house with it, particularly when filling it with singers who eat (a lot!), sleep and make music in almost every room for a week of joyous rehearsals before they attend the Edinburgh Fringe. Or you could use music to drown out all other sound in the car ("Are we nearly there yet?"; "You're in the wrong gear!"; "No - I said that lane! You'll have to drive right round the roundabout now!") The 'c' word is essential in the car - the driver gets to choose. And when he's not driving, the canny wife still lets him choose. Alternatively, you could just plug music into your ears and escape for a while.

Mountains. Marriage. Music. Anniversaries. And vertigo - there must be a metaphor in there ....

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Foxgloves that squeak and apple trees that squirt

"Me!!!? A thief! - what a scurrilous suggestion. Don't believe anything you've heard.

None of it's true! It's just eating. Not stealing. If it's dangling there, conveniently at muzzle height, or at muzzle height when I leap off the ground, then having a nibble is just ... just .... well, it's being generous! And kind! And charitable! Yes ... charitable: after all, if I fill my belly with lots ... mmm, lots and lots ... of free apples, and gooseberries, and rhubarb, then I won't need the usual never-vast-enough-quantities of dog food that mum gives me. So I'll save her money. And we'll both be happy.

Except, she isn't. She's very not happy, in fact, in a shouty "Leave it!" sort of a way. Which kind of shocks a sensitive young dog, particularly when he's eyeing up a free strawberry.

But the shock of an irate gardener yelling "Leave it!" at you is nothing compared to the shock of discovering that helping myself to the crab apples makes the foxgloves squeak. Each time I leap into the air to get the muzzle onto a crab-apple-nibbling-elevation, the pesky foxgloves, at the base of the crab apple tree, complain. They squeak at me! - "Squeak! Squeak!" I tried giving one of them a nibble but it wasn't very appley and was a bit bee-ish. Funnily enough though, when I tried to eat the foxglove itself, it didn't squeak. (Mum took this photo from her greenhouse - I think she'd been watching me. I'm not in the picture - my ears and I were tired of all the squeaking and we were chasing Four-legged-friend. Who doesn't squeak but has a most impressive bark.)

My most disturbing discovery of the day, however, was that the apple tree has learnt how to squirt. Yes - really. It squirts! And what is extremely strange is that the squirt, which you would think should be apple-scented, isn't. It smells of lemon! Very, very bitter lemon. Lemon that makes me sneeze.

Now every time I try to nibble an apple, I sneeze!

I think I might not bother tomorrow.

...which mum says is "A result."

I have no idea what she means.

Oh! And another thing - in a dog's life of pleasantly sleepy and satisfactory days, this really hasn't been one! - I've had to wear a new collar all day. It's got a clunky box attached to it. I've caught mum spying on me, checking up that I'm not chewing it, probably. She's got a new thing, too - no, not a clunky collar. Most humans don't bother to wear those. They probably know where they live and don't need a tag to remind them of their phone number and they don't tie themselves to each other with leads, when they go for walks. Her new thing is black, like my box, but buttony and she calls it a  'zapper.' Pity she can't use it to zap the plants and stop them squeaking or squirting at me ..."

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Man's best friend

William Shakespeare - “Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find.”

Friends - noun; plural - 'people' bound by a bond of mutual affection. Origin: Old English freond and German freund, both derived from a common root meaning 'to love.'

How many friends do you have? - not social media 'friends,' not work colleagues, not the casual acquaintances you bump into at other friends' parties, not the butcher who asks after the dogs and wonders if they would like a bit of marrow bone, not anyone whose name you sometimes forget, nor anyone whose partner you have never met. A real friend is someone who knows you inside out, who allows you to be an ass at times and doesn't care, who argues against you but never stops loving you, and who is there to listen when you need to be heard. Humans can be fickle and they change as they age, and with change and passing time, friends come and go. This is put rather better by Alexander McCall Smith - "You can go through life and make new friends every year - every month practically - but there was never any substitute for those friendships of childhood that survive into adult years. Those are the ones in which we are bound to one another with hoops of steel.”

True friends don't stray. They are the ones that stay. Samuel Coleridge knew this and in 1830 he wrote - "The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog."

Maybe Coleridge had fickle friends and a faithful dog. Or maybe he was referring to something he had read - Voltaire perhaps, who in 1764, had written - "It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defence and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have."

Which is so very nearly the phrase that everyone knows. The phrase that has become a cliché - succinct, overused but perfect. Voltaire used too many words and the best friend man can have became instantly unmemorable.  Senator Vest of Missouri, on the other hand, strode into linguistic history when in 1870 he passed judgement on a dispute in which a dog had been shot and closed his speech with, "A man’s best friend is his dog.”

Man's best friend? I'd argue for woman's too.

We are fortunate: we that call both man and beast friends.

Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend are my constant shadows. And friends.

They wait for me at the bottom of the stairs. They are standing at the door when I get home. They sit on my feet when I'm reading the paper.

They complain a lot when they think I'm late with their dinner. But they never answer back. And they don't sit at the piano with their head in their hands (or paws) and tell me that they'll play if I make them a hot chocolate.

They listen; are constant in their affection; constant in their faith in me and constant in their protectiveness. A.A. Milne captures this constancy very well - "We'll be Friends Forever, won't we, Pooh?' asked Piglet. 'Even longer,' Pooh answered.” 

And he put these words into Christopher Robin's mouth - “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.” 

Like Pooh and Piglet, Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend are best friends. With each other.  

Only a very close friend would wake you from a sunny afternoon doze by chewing your ear

And only a very, very good friend would let you chew his ear without snapping back. 

Best friends share experiences - the good times ...  

and the bad.  “When you're in jail," said Groucho Marx, "a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, 'Damn, that was fun'.” Fun being the pizza Bertie Baggins had taken a bite out of as it was being placed into the oven - not a good moment for dog-human diplomatic relations!
A friend will let you share his marrow bone

And accompany you on walks. “Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” - Albert Camus.

Warning of another beautiful cliché: Eleanor Roosevelt - “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.” Or paw prints in the case of this pair -

I couldn't resist a few more friend related quotes:

Hellaire Belloc - "There's nothing worth ... winning, But laughter and the love of friends."

John Lennon - “Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.” 

Mark Twain - “Good friends ... and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Add a full tummy, legs tired from a good walk and a warm Aga to heat your bottom and you have the recipe for an ideal dog's life. 

Walking the dog will continue to muse on friends and to walk with friends and to feast with friends. Definitely with them. Not on them. Although I am quite safe because I don't know him, I wouldn't wish to fall out with Jonny Depp who said, “If someone were to harm my family or a friend or somebody I love, I would eat them. I might end up in jail for 500 years, but I would eat them.”
On reflection, he is not saying that he would eat a friend but instead he is declaring his love for his friends. In a cannibalistic sort of a way.
I'd probably just slap them.


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Musings on mice and a walk on the bright side

Sometimes there is satisfaction in discovering research that proves that what we knew all along is in fact correct. Or rather, that what we thought we knew to be correct, and would have argued in favour of, using words such as "Surely, it must be" and "Almost certainly" - neither of which are winners - can now be written in stone. Being proved right vindicates our actions and makes us more evangelical in our pursuit of whatever it is that has been confirmed - suddenly our tenuous opinion is no longer tenuous and we can terminate every argument with the simple, winning statement, "It is!"

I love it! Not that I am an argumentative person nor that I fixate on small victories, more that it just feels good and is a licence to apply confidence to our actions. Whatever and however ridiculous those actions may be.

I love too, that there is funding for this "it's starting you in the face" genre of research. Perhaps, scientists have a sense of humour (... has anyone tested this hypothesis?)

House mice share our homes. Yes they do. Even if you would prefer not to think about it, most of us have several furry lodgers living beneath the floorboards of our homes. We provide a habitat that keeps the mice warm and toasty and well fed. And we have generously supported colonies of mice for centuries. Now using mouse DNA(!!) it is possible to pinpoint where and when man settled in the new colonies during our pioneering years of discovery when our mice hitch-hiked across oceans with us on our ships and patiently hung around as we built them new homes to share with us. I love that people at Cornell University are researching this. It's interesting! And ironic - using a pest to unravel the puzzles of history while what bothers us more in our mundane, sterile, modern lives is how to get rid of them. We crave confirmation that you have to drive a mouse, caught in a humane trap, across several county borders, as many railway tracks as possible, several main roads and ideally release it near somewhere sheltered with a reliable food supply (ideally someone else's house), in order to prevent it returning to enjoy the dinner (bait) and after-dinner entertainment (the journey) again the following night. The optimal distance is apparently 2 miles. Less and the mouse becomes a regular guest. More and "It is!" a fact that the mouse will sup at a different table ... Or the neighbour's cat has noticed the regular trudging of increasingly exhausted mice back to the research base/house and at two miles the average mouse is no longer able to outrun a lazy, overfed cat and becomes cat-snack.

Aside from quite frankly pretty pointless or 'bleeding obvious' areas of research e.g. it isn't really necessary to prove that old-fashioned spring-loaded lethal mouse traps work best in the practice of mouse eradication, researchers sometimes exert considerable effort in proving things that may, prior to the research, have only been obvious to the enlightened few:

Stanford University recently set out to establish if creative thinking is improved by walking. Well, duh! Of course it is. I know it is. I'm fairly certain that I'm not alone in knowing this. Everyone who walks a dog must know that it is.

It is ... isn't it?

Surely it is?

Almost certainly ...

Why else do I stuff a notepad and pencil into my pocket, with poo-pick-up bags and dog biscuits, when I take Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend out for a walk?

And why does a walk that would take 25 minutes at a brisk pace, often last 40 minutes or more? 

Okay, sometimes it is slow because we take Littlest with us and she stops to  select the perfect blade of grass to hold taut between her thumbs and blow past making squeaky noises that cause Four-legged-friend to tilt his head, flick his ears in a futile attempt to bat away the awful sound and wrinkle his face in a pained wince before realising that Bertie Baggins has sensibly run off and joining him.

This grass-blade-picking exercise can last several minutes. As does intermittently stopping to hug a tree. Or admire a flower. Or discovering a tree stump in the shape of a heart. But even when I walk the dogs on my own, our progress is frequently slowed. Why?


Taking a stroll will walk you through a problem

And I have to say that if it was good enough for the likes of Steve Jobs and Nietzsche, then it's good enough for me.

Smug to be proved correct? Never.

Happy to continue walking with pad and pencil? Definitely!

This blog wouldn't exist if I didn't.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Stumbling backwards into the future one cliché at a time

Cliché - noun:  a word or phrase that has been used so often that it has become annoying. Often regarded as grammatically lazy and revealing of a lack of imagination ... I use them frequently - time after time, in fact.

Some clichés, however, are  worth repeating - which undoubtedly promotes their designation as clichés. But if you think about it, a cliché is a cliché precisely because it states something in a succinct, often poetic and memorable way. We hear the words and instantly 'get' their meaning. I like clichés when used sparingly (I suspect a 'sparingly used cliché' is an oxymoron. But I don't care. In my grammatically challenged world, I also like to wantonly split the infinitive. Wanton splitting meaning to split with careless abandon - gulp! What a lot of words. I prefer a lazy economy of vocabulary and moving on from splitting infinitives, if a cliché fits the bill - as that one just did - then I use it. Why not?)

Deep in the mire of this cliché ridden blog, it's about time I cut to the chase and got to the point, so here, struggling to the surface, is my cliché of the day -

'Seasons come and seasons go'

Well they do. Don't they? This is clichéd perfection. Five words that state the truth that time passes. Slowly if you are young and impatient. Far too fast if you are accelerating towards an older age that lies just over an uncomfortably close horizon.

I see the seasons pass. And feel their passing. That horizon is getting closer. Four-legged-friend is feeling the passing of the seasons too. He's nearly five. Five! Where has the time gone? His joints ricochet - click, click, click ... clunk - in his early morning stretch. And he snarls in tired exasperation at his younger, bouncier (so very, very much bouncier) nephew. Bertie Baggins is as acute at the fine art of pestering - incessantly - as he is physically cute. Her pesters when all Four-legged-friend wants to do is lie in the sun and sleep.


Is a paradox - we don't have enough time to get enough sleep when we are young and the seasons pass slowly, but when we are old and the seasons pass in a hurry but paradoxically we find ourselves with plenty of time, we no longer need a lot of sleep. This seems deeply unfair.

Seasons, like the need to sleep, go and KEEP ON GOING (which looks like a very Piglet-ish, as in A A Milne-ish, sort of a thing to say. Or to write for that matter.)

So what are we to do with all (optimistically assuming that there will be many of them) the seasons that lie ahead? Are the best behind us? Have we, now in middle age, had the best years of our lives? Do we constantly look fondly backwards and stumble ahead into an uncertain diminishing future?

Or do we reflect on the fun behind and plan for more fun in the future? (Optimism! Again - from me! Utterly amazing! Sarcasm ... now that's normal!)  How do we stop the path ahead from taking a sad downward trajectory? (Hah! I knew Pessimism couldn't be too far away). The glass-half-empty (i.e. the Procrastinating Pessimist) in me suspects that it is impossible to make the path veer happily upwards. But if I can keep it level that would be an achievement. We none of us know what lies ahead. Newspapers are filled with the hazards of too much alcohol, too little exercise and even the detrimental effects of the sugar-load in chocolate - killjoys all! But they force us to contemplate our mortality.

And what are we to do with the mortality that we have left? This question is midlife crisis in a nutshell (and yes, I just clocked up another cliché. And another.)

Certainly, there are things that I would like to do. Things that I aspire to. Things that would bring me joy. There's the little snag though - the me, as in things that bring me joy. Compromise will be required because I choose to share my life with others and yes, perhaps I will once again force myself to strap planks to my feet and find a way of not being bottom down a mountain. That isn't a typo. I spend a lot of time skiing on my bottom, skis at alarming angles across the slope and sticks clutched rigor-mortis like in my frozen hands. If I try to share their joy in reckless alpine sliding, maybe I can justify asking them to share mine - the occasional trip to an art gallery perhaps, or a West End play.

Compromise matters.

Having enough money to do the things we aspire to also matters.

But it is who we choose to share our remaining mortality with that matters the most. Surround ourselves with the people that we love and who make us laugh and that path ahead will have a good chance of being level. So I'll say it again - one step on the way to creating a good cliché, perhaps - it isn't what time we have left, but who we choose to share it with that matters. To walk with friends; to share meals with friends; to talk to friends (including much loved old friends who live too far away to see, but who understand the details and history that make us who we are); to laugh with friends and to care about our friends - this way lies the secret of happiness. (Before anyone worries, I include family under the umbrella of 'friends.')

So, in a nutshell (is this the last cliché? - I suspect not), seasons do come and they do also go. To capture the going and live it well would be good. Wouldn't it?

All this optimism is making me nervous.

What would Littlest do?

Hug a tree - naturally, with the help of a friend

Find something beautiful and stand in the middle of it

Make a wish

And love someone


Here are my five nuggets of wisdom - together they are my key to a contented future:

  1. Eat dark chocolate (that's an easy one!)
  2. Drink red wine (also easy!)
  3. Eat less of everything but particularly reduce intake of the wrong fats and cakes. Eat more vegetables (does carrot cake count?)
  4. Take more exercise (Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend will be pleased. Well - hmmm -  Bertie Baggins will be pleased)
  5. Smile. Tell someone you love them every day. Procrastinate positively. And learn how to count ...
Continuing then - 6. would be if you smoke or use drugs stop. And 7. which is my favourite number (yes ... I am still a child at heart. Blue is my favourite colour. And I have too many favourite flavours of ice cream to count), would be trust yourself a little bit more every day. And 8. would be to keep a pet (ticked that one off already!) 9. would be to take time to stop and breathe. And 10. would be to find some infallible way of remembering friends' birthdays; phoning them when they are sad or ill; and never forgetting which friend is gluten-free, or doesn't eat meat, or prefers not to be in the same room as your dogs.

If like me you are stumbling backwards into the future and are feeling a bit gloomy about it,  these two things should in turn make you feel ashamed and then banish your pessimism

  1. pinch yourself hard and tell yourself that growing old is a privilege denied to most of the peoples in this world.
  2. Put on Pharrell Williams' Happy' and phone a friend.
  3. (!!!) Hug your child and ask for some tips on learning to count