Riding on branch lines

steam train

I think the time has come to broaden this out a bit. You’ve heard about some of the treats on my list. Now I want to hear about yours. As I said in Permutations, the chances are that many of my treats won’t appeal to you – and I probably won’t like some of yours. But it’s always intriguing to see what people come up with when they give free rein to their imagination.

Taking the time to think about what you really want to do and committing it to a list has benefits that aren’t immediately apparent. At first it might seem self-indulgent and even a little narcissistic. But all I can say is that these mini-projects have brightened my life immeasurably over the past few years. They’ve propped me up, filled in gaps and offered unexpected experiences.

Knowing what’s on someone’s wish list tells you a lot about them. Are they thrill-seeking, contemplative or a mixture?  Who has influenced and inspired them? What have they done, or missed out on, that makes these dreams special to them? You learn surprising things about people – even those you think you know well. Try asking friends and family and see what you discover-  (it helps with present-giving too, particularly for ‘got everything’ kind of people).

Some of my friends and family have lists and I’ve posted these on The Treats Collection page. They range from
‘visiting all the churches in Oranges and Lemons’ and ‘taking a friend on a barge holiday’, to being an extra in a film and going to Oktoberfest. If you have some ideas you want to share then I can add them to the page. I use the model of `60 treats before I’m 60’ and fully intend if I live long enough to reward myself with 70 new ones on my next major birthday to soften the blow. You might be less greedy than me, and have only a few. But however many you have, I’d love to hear about them. You can email me on 60treatsandmore@gmail.com

We also might differ in how we approach them. My project has evolved with time, and now it works very well for what I want. It’s guided by just a few principles. The first is that I don’t plan treats very far ahead. If I had rigid dates in my diary or head, for when they should happen then they’d become a burden. Instead, I try to allow things to unfold when the time is right – it’s amazing how opportunities present themselves. When my concentration was shot to pieces a couple of years ago, my riding treat was just what I needed. For that hour each week I had to put my grief on one side and simply focus on not falling off. But I didn’t know when I wrote my list that this was how my horsey encounters would work out. Then at other times treats have fallen into place because I’ve suddenly had a bit of time to fill – or a special person I’ve wanted to spend time with. Perusing the list and pondering which to pick next is like choosing from a very classy box of chocolates.

Beyond the essentials, then I’ve not planned the treats themselves a great deal. For nearly four years now, I’ve been having adventures by darting down absorbing little alleys and riding along branch lines. Many are too good to ignore. When I start out, I never know where they’ll take me. A highlight of my make-up project was discovering a rich crimson Russian cafe, and a trip to Greenwich Market included an unexpected criminal encounter.

branch line

The second of my guiding principles has been that once written, the list is non-negotiable. When I told my friend Esther about this, she said pragmatically “but you can change it as you go through, can’t you?” “No”, I said, feeling panicky at the very thought. There’s a good reason for that. For years I had no way of holding on to the things I longed to do. Ideas popped into my head but when confronted with other priorities, they popped straight out again. It’s only been by making a list and committing it to paper, that I’ve started to feel that these things are possible. If I keep changing the list, then I am forever on shifting sands.

For most of my adult life there has been some member of the family needing me to do something for them. Sometimes they’ve all wanted things at the same time. I recall one unusually orderly occasion when all four children formed a queue as they waited to speak to me. One wanted me to sign a school trip form and write a cheque; another burst into tears and needed a hug. I can’t remember what the other two wanted, but I do know that when Will’s issue had been dealt with, he went straight to the back of the queue and lined up again. Being a mother has affected most of what I’ve done for twenty-seven years. My sister has four children, too, and it’s been the same for her. She once turned up at a hospital appointment and was mortified to be shown a letter that she’d written to the consultant and signed ‘love Mum’.

The third of my guiding principles is to believe that each treat will happen. That somewhere an opportunity will present itself. Somehow in the next three years, nine months and eleven days I have to get to Japan. I’m not sure when or how I’m going to manage it, but I remain steadfastly optimistic.

bullet train


And once again the final word concerns fish. Fish Mondays have continued, so I’ve added hake and swordfish to the Fish Recipes page.

Cruciverbal Thursdays

 crossword start   biscuits

Words are such a source of pleasure and fascination. It improves my life no end, to know for example, that pantophobia is not a fear of lingerie but is instead a fear of everything, and that a gongoozler is someone who stands and stares idly at canal boats and locks. And I probably spend more time than I should, puzzling idly over the fact that I’ve never heard anyone say that they’re gruntled, and wondering why I’ve been both overwhelmed and underwhelmed, but never knowingly, whelmed.

Then there are the words that are intriguing because they’re counterintuitive. If someone says that they’re a peripatetic teacher, my reflex reaction is to commiserate. Bucolic sounds more belligerent than idyllic and for years I could not remember what colour vermillion is. Somehow it just doesn’t sound like red. Do choirboys wear hassocks or cassocks? I’m never quite sure. And which man would be brave enough to flatter his wife by telling her she is ‘truly pulchritudinous’?

However, despite having a largely happy relationship with words, I’ve never been able to get on with cryptic crosswords. Although I can do the simple crossword adequately, its wittier sibling stumps me. The clues make no sense at all, and leave me fretting that I’m not intelligent enough. But I’m trying to connect with the world better, and so a desire to join the select, knowing club of crossword enthusiasts led me to put ‘learn about cryptic crosswords’ on my list of sixty things to do.

Like all the other ‘treats’ it was entered onto the list enthusiastically but it stayed there ignored, while I enjoyed some of the easier things.  One of the problems was knowing where to start. I tried looking at the solutions and working back from there, but most of the time I was no wiser for knowing the answers. Then I thought I’d try a book. There are many which promise to cast light on cryptic mysteries but even though I gave it my best efforts, and had a few enlightening and satisfying moments, it was frankly tedious. Not for the first time, I reminded myself that treats aren’t meant to be hard work. I did learn, though, that the crossword was invented in the US in 1913. It was called a word-cross at first, but within just a few weeks it had settled into its familiar name due to a typesetting error.

Perhaps there might be a course or seminar I could attend? I searched the internet optimistically but there was nothing. This gave me a clue, though as I realised that what I’d been missing is having other people to learn with. Books always look exciting and I set out with good intentions, but then I lose confidence and concentration. When you’re learning with other people you can ask questions, have a bit of distracting chat, and a laugh, and then get back to the issue in question.

Then suddenly one morning, the answer popped into my head and I thought of my friend, Caroline. I remembered how when life was tricky, several years ago, I would sit in her pretty garden as she plied me with tea and homemade cake, handed out tissues, and made kind noises. I remembered, too, that she completes The Daily Telegraph crossword every day.

“Could you give me six Cryptic Crossword Masterclasses?” I asked when we next met for lunch in town. She looked a bit surprised to be cast as an expert in this way, but quickly agreed and we settled on fortnightly Thursday morning sessions at her house.

I looked forward to our first meet-up, and it didn’t disappoint. We started with coffee, biscuits and family news and then I stepped into a world where a flower can be a river and butter can mean a ram or a goat. Caroline had done her preparation well and had a stock of crosswords for us to work through.

She started with anagrams. If a clue includes words like otherwise, different, reformed, inside out, and brew this will often denote that there’s an anagram in the vicinity. She pointed out that in ‘I leave guy floundering in a prestigious academic group’ (3, 6), the word ‘floundering’ was telling us that the solution is an anagram. And so I rearranged the words ‘I leave guy’ and there like magic was the answer; ’Ivy League’.

Gradually I learned all kinds of tricks and we filled in more of the solutions. Caroline taught me to look at words in a different way. In the clue ‘A well-oiled lock’ (5), she steered me away from keys, grease and latches. “Think of another kind of lock” she said, and so eventually we got to hair, and the solution, which is ‘quiff’. Next she covered some of the common conventions. The letter ‘t’ can be signalled literally by ‘tip of the tongue’; ‘learner’ often indicates ‘L’ because of L-plates, and more often than not, the word ‘artist’ in a clue suggests the letters ‘RA’  (from Royal Academician). Using that tip, Caroline guided me through ‘They support British artists’ (4) to the solution of ‘bras’. I liked that one. Solving a clue brings a rush of pleasure. After an hour and a half we’d had lots of chat, eaten through a plate of biscuits and drunk a whole pot of coffee. We’d also completed a crossword and I was on a high. We arranged another session in two weeks and Caroline handed me a grid to do in the meantime.

The next day I sat down to solve the clues. But I searched in vain for all the conventions I’d learned, and saw none. I solved one anagram, got a short-lived high from that, and then sat disconsolately for half an hour. I owned up to Caroline at our next session, a couple of weeks later but she was cheerful and explained that there are hundreds of conventions to learn. Over the next couple of months I jotted down many of these in my pink notebook and gradually managed to solve more clues.

Part-way through this process I set off on the train to Leicester to visit friends for the weekend, taking my pink notebook and a newspaper with me. As usual the crossword looked impenetrable at first, and this time there was no Caroline to coax me through. But a train journey was just what I needed. The luxury of uninterrupted time when I could worry away at the clues. By the time I arrived I’d solved a third of them. The next morning I remembered that my hosts are cryptic fans, so I fished out my crossword and together we sat in the garden and finished it. Then they produced their favoured puzzle, the Saturday Guardian. This was quite different from the Telegraph, and notably lewd. All weekend in between doing lots of other fun things we returned to the crossword. Each solution brought a little moment of happiness and I realised then that this initially solitary pursuit had become surprisingly sociable.

I got a lot out of my cryptic crossword immersion and one of the pleasures was discovering some of the clues which are so witty that they’ve become legendary. These are three of my favourites. The answers are at the end.

  • Of of of of of of of of of of (10)
  • Gegs? (9,4)
  • HIJKLMNO (5)

And while I’m on the subject of words I want to say something about ‘treat’. It’s the word I’ve used to describe the sixty things I’m trying to do. It was fine when I started, but it’s not completely accurate anymore. It’s become inadequate to describe what these things are doing for me. I’ve tried to think of a more apposite word but can’t come up with anything that sounds right. ‘Goals’ is too worthy, ‘challenges’ too exhausting, ‘pleasures’ sounds a bit dodgy, and ‘experiences’ is both dull and passive. Other ideas I’ve had are pretentious or just plain silly.

There is a definite problem, though, in that ‘treat’ conjures up the image of something lightweight and fluffy. It’s true that some of them have a light froth on the surface, but as they become real they grow roots that anchor my life and stop me from being washed around. They’re not about self-indulgence. They’re helping me recover from challenging life events and to stay passably sane. In the absence of anything better, I’ll have to stick with ‘treat’, at least for the time being. Perhaps from now on when I say the word, I should toss my head and roll my eyes with post-modern irony.



  • Oftentimes
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Water (think….H to O)

And here’s one I prepared earlier:

OK, so the auditory apparatus is inside out, and it’s caught between the tips of two tongues… it’s still pretty special. (5)

And a final word ...Fish Mondays have continued. Lemon sole and sea bream are now on the fish recipes page.