Abandoned Treats

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It’s the festival season again. And there’s something to suit everyone—music, film, food, books, hot air balloons, comedy, walking, scarecrows, stone carving, worm charming…the choices on offer increase with every year, and in the UK there are now hundreds of  music festivals alone, covering every imaginable genre.

But the biggest, and many say the best, is still Glastonbury. When I made my list seven years ago that was one of the first things I added. It had been years since I’d been to a festival and I longed to be carefree again. I was lucky to get tickets on my second attempt and loved my four days of abandonment—everyone focuses on the mud and the loos but none of that mattered. It was just enormous fun. Dancing to pulsing music in a dark field with a 50-tonne metal spider shooting out coloured flames, certainly gives your brain a break. I whirled on a podium with people dressed as prawns and mermaids; loved Blondie, Bryan Ferry, The Wailers, Lily Allen, and the Arcade Fire; tried all kinds of inspired street food, and will never forget a surreal moment when a large group of men, women and children in insect outfits got muddled up with a Punjabi marching band. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and it’s definitely one of my favourite treats so far.

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However, not all treats work out so well and I’ve written before about my attempt to make a patchwork cushion. I cut up my first wedding dress, dyed it bright colours, and stitched away enthusiastically for hours, only to have Molly, my younger daughter, wrinkle her nose, and suggest kindly, “You could give it to someone you don’t like very much.” My knitting treat has proved to be similarly problematic. On one level it’s been good; I love knitting—there’s something magical about creating wonderful textures and patterns simply by twisting wool. It’s also extremely relaxing. I can’t quite manage what people did in the Middle Ages, which was to knit whilst walking along, but for me it’s the perfect accompaniment to a film or TV programme, and enhances the experience considerably.

The trouble is that I adore the clicking and clacking but find it difficult to produce any kind of worthwhile end result—and it seems futile to go through a creative process without creating anything. That brings to mind the sad tale of my first boyfriend’s granny. She was nearly blind and used to pass the time by knitting dishcloths. Each time she finished one, the care home staff would take it away, unravel the yarn, and give it back to her. Then off she’d go, on the path to another doomed dishcloth.

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Some years ago, I thought I’d cracked this problem of end results when I managed to knit a couple of jumpers for my son, Will. My impression was that they were quite good, but half-way through the third one, I had a moment of doubt. “You will wear it, won’t you?” I asked. He shifted about, and looked uncomfortable. “W-e-ll…” he said, playing for time until he came up with what was a remarkably tactful response for an eight-year old—“…perhaps, I could wear it in the house.’ I got the message—unpicked it— and knitted a cushion cover instead. That wasn’t great either.

All of this left me with a gnawing dissatisfaction. I really wanted—just once—to make something that someone could enjoy wearing. It didn’t seem fair to impose my handiwork on someone else, so I thought I’d best make something for myself. “A jacket to wear over jeans…that would be useful,” I thought. So I put it on my treats list.

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I started with some pretty fuchsia-pink wool and a stylish pattern in rice stitch. Unhappily, after several months of effort, the end result was disappointingly lumpy so I stuffed it in a drawer and tried to ignore it. It took about six months until I was ready to try again and this time I used navy blue yarn. It started off well, and was looking quite promising but then life got complicated…I lost interest… and then I lost the pattern.

Several years later I felt settled again and ready for a new project. So I spent a pleasant afternoon browsing in the John Lewis haberdashery department where I chose some attractive Air Force blue wool and a pattern for a short, collared jacket. For the next few months I clicked and clattered and at last all the knitting was done. That’s the bit I enjoy; I hate the unavoidable sewing up stage but I pressed on determinedly with that, all the while quashing the doubts that rose up and nagged at me. Eventually I tried it on.

It wasn’t good. It turns out that Air Force blue just isn’t my colour and like its predecessor, it was a bit lumpy. “I’ll give it a wash,” I thought. “Perhaps that will help. And if all else fails, I could just wear it in the house.” So, I put it in the washing machine and it came out toddler-sized.

That was several months ago, and I’ve now gathered my strength again and will have one last attempt. I think I’m learning that sometimes there’s no point in doggedly ploughing on. The problem in so many situations—relationships, jobs, ambitions, and yes, even knitting—is knowing when to call it a day.

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This time I’ve chosen a long jacket in shades of green and purple. If it works out I will be very happy but if not then ‘knitting a jacket I am happy to wear’ will have to be an abandoned treat. Not the same kind of abandonment as Glastonbury, but abandoned nonetheless. And then what? How will I relax in front of the television? I guess there’s always the dishcloth option.

The Strangest Treat of All

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This week I got out my pink highlighter pen and crossed another treat off my list. Each time I do this I get a rush of satisfaction from solving a mystery. When I made the list six years ago, I had no idea how each of these sixty wishes would come to fruition and what the experiences would be like. I recounted the stories of thirty-one of them in 31 Treats And A Marriage, and since then I’ve carried on enjoying the remaining twenty-nine. I’ve done most of the at-home or close-to-home ones like horse riding lessons, planting some old-fashioned roses, and reading Middlemarch but there are still thirteen left and they include more demanding adventures such as Japan and an American train journey. Some are already in progress; I’m part-way round the glorious 630-mile South West Coastal Footpath, and can hardly wait to resume it next weekend after a break for the winter.

As each treat goes through metamorphosis from unknown prospect to memory, its personality is revealed and the mystery is solved. By then I know where it fitted in, and what it was like. In the beginning, they were simply things that I wanted to do whilst I was still fit enough to do them but I had no fixed plans. And that turned out to be lucky, as soon after, my life turned into a stormy sea that heaved with overwhelming events. During that time, the treats provided an anchor. Thankfully, life is much calmer now and the sun has come out.

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One of the remaining twenty-nine treats has been to ‘get a clock with a nice tick.’ That ended up on the list because
as a teenager I sometimes stayed with friends in Edinburgh. They had lived in their large, elegant Morningside villa for many years and it felt solid and established. I particularly loved coming back after an evening out when the house would be dark and quiet, apart from the sound of an old clock ticking. It was reassuring and homely.

I did have a clock of my own for many years but we had a tetchy relationship; I got it overhauled several times but it stubbornly refused to work reliably and was an ongoing source of frustration. Eventually I gave up and sent it to auction, where it failed to sell and so the auctioneer disposed of it. That was the end of an unhappy horological affair but I still wanted to fulfil my treat and find a clock that was a source of pleasure. As always, I had no fixed plans so I put the idea on hold. Then one day, last autumn, I was helping my new husband clear out his loft. We opened a cardboard box and there inside was a wooden mantle clock. It didn’t look particularly exciting and he couldn’t remember where it had come from, or even if it had ever worked. We wound it and did a bit of tentative exploration; we gave a little push on the pendulum and it moved back and forth a few times, and then stopped. We tried again but it clearly didn’t want to be coaxed back to life so it sat for several months in a dark corner while we ignored it. Then one morning I woke up with a rush of enthusiasm. I looked on the British Horological Institute website to find the nearest accredited clockmaker, put the clock in a shopping bag, and drove across the city to a dark little shop in uncharted territories.

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The clockmaker was elderly and wore fine wire-rimmed glasses just as I’d imagined. He didn’t say much first of all, but fiddled deftly around inside the clock. “Is it worth repairing?” I asked. “And how much will it cost?” “I can certainly get it working,” he said. “It’ll be about three hundred and fifty pounds.” “Hmm,” I said, as I couldn’t think of anything more sensible.

We chatted for several minutes about similar clocks that he’d mended and I started to adjust to the idea of spending quite a bit of money. Then he said, “Listen.” And in amongst all the various tick tocks in the shop I heard a calm, mellow tick tock right in front of me. He delved back inside. “And now listen.” There was a pleasing sound of mechanical whirring and anticipatory positioning and then the clock struck five. It didn’t matter that it was actually ten past eleven in the morning. What mattered was that I liked the sound very much. “Look,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m very busy at the moment. Several other clockmakers in the area have retired so it might take me a couple of months to get around to yours. But I think you might find that it’s alright–it’s still ticking. Strap it carefully into the car with a seatbelt and see how you get on. You can always bring it back to me.”

So that’s what I did. I took it home and placed it on the mantelpiece. To my surprise it looked just right. I set the pendulum going again and moved the hands carefully until they were synchronised with the chimes. My husband came home later and it was still ticking away–a new, comfortable texture in our home.

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Now, several weeks into my relationship with the clock, it feels like a member of the family. I love to hear it work itself up towards the restrained quarter-hour chimes and then the big bongs on the hour. But sometimes it’s a bit too noisy and I’m glad of the little switch that silences the chimes. We use that if we’re listening to music or watching television. And the other night my husband got up and closed the sitting room door as the ticking was keeping him awake. He said it was nice to know it was there, but it was a bit like shutting a bedroom door on a snoring baby. I’m gradually learning its habits. It needs winding more often than the clockmaker suggested but other than that, it’s undemanding and we’re both delighted with it.

In one way it was the most easily accomplished of all my treats as it just appeared in my life, unannounced. But in another way, it was the most difficult of all. I had to get divorced… go on a writing retreat where I shared a room with an interesting woman… who introduced me to her friend who is another interesting woman… who introduced me to a very lovely and interesting man… who asked me to marry him…and then I helped him clear out his loft. Easy really. And so that’s another mystery solved.

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Dances with Goats

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This week I was walking home and met a couple of cats. The first sauntered across the pavement, arched its back, yowled and invited me to fuss it. I can’t help but feel honoured when a cat deigns to talk to me so I stopped and stroked it but within seconds it got bored and wandered off to find someone else. Later, when I reached the golf course at the back of our house, a second cat darted out of the long grass and wound itself round my feet.

At the moment I have no animals of my own but there was a time when I had rather a lot. There were cats, dogs, chickens, geese, goats, and from time to time some lambs and pigs. We had a bit of land and in the morning I would lead the two goats down to the tangled woods where they would browse contentedly all day amongst the brambles. In the evening I would bring them back to their shed and lock them up for the night. That was the general plan but sometimes life didn’t go smoothly and I’d get distracted and forget to collect them. Then I’d wake up in the small hours and lie there feeling guilty. Goats hate getting cold and wet, so eventually my conscience would propel me out in my dressing gown; across the dark field and through the gate by the stream. There, Gwyneth and Mirabel would appear from amongst the shadowy, crowded trees, full of curiosity. What inevitably followed was a merry dance as I attempted to attach them to my rope and they did their best to trip me up.

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Life’s a bit different twenty years on. Not only do I have no animals, but the children have grown up, and I live in a city. Several times recently I’ve crept out in the dark in my dressing gown but this has been for entirely urban reasons. The garage in our last house didn’t lock properly and as there had been a spate of petty burglaries we used to drive the car down the back alley and park it across the garage door to block it off. A few times we forgot and had to go out late at night to do it. Each time as I walked along the alley back to the house I’d remember the goats and be grateful that I no longer had to get involved in a moonlit rope dance. All I had to do was park my car, lock it and go back to my nice warm bed.

My joy at no longer having to do this, makes me wonder why I did it in the first place. I liked the idea of keeping animals and raising our own meat in an idyllic country setting. But the cold, muddy reality was a challenge. It did create a rich mine of family memories which we all relive when we get together, but I do wonder if I might have been more ‘me’ if I’d done something else.

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Often life doesn’t allow us to have free choice, but there are mixed difficulties in even getting to the starting point of knowing what we want. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a role that bends us out of shape. Sometimes we’re not honest with ourselves. We might aim for a fantasy lifestyle, or make choices that are driven by how we want others to see us. I look back at the goat days and wonder whether I knew myself at all. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started to remember what I love and to explore what I really want. The treats have played an unexpected part in this. They’ve been experiments in identity.

Some of the things I’ve done have forced me to confront the truth that I’m not brave, sporty or good at sewing. I never was and I may as well accept now that it’s unlikely to change. Other treats have reinforced that I love films, cooking, walking by the sea, and travel. I’ve also discovered a few new pleasures—jazz, live music, birds, industrial history and urban landscapes.

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I hope I’ll never stop trying new things. But maybe with age I’m getting better at choosing the kinds of things that I like. It’s also worth remembering that it wouldn’t be real if life was all perfect—we need challenges, wrong turns and changes of heart. They write the novels of our lives and make us who we are. I talked last time about my favourite words—kitten, elastic and home. Every list has a counter-list and I’ve only just started to wonder what my least favourite word might be. I think that a strong contender has to be ‘regret’. The goats were frustrating and exhausting but on balance, I don’t want regrets and I’m glad to have had these experiences—it’s just the way things turned out. Nonetheless in the spirit of getting to know myself better, I’m going to hang onto the thought that these days I much prefer a backstreet city alley to a dark, slippery field.

And that issue of exploring who we are brings me to another in the chain interview series. This week I interviewed Maria who talked about her life in drama, her inspiring work and her mid-life treat.

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Word Journeys

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I was at a large branch of Sainsbury’s this week, and one of the items on my list was a pack of pens. I wasn’t sure where to find them so glanced up at the signs hanging from the ceiling and was surprised to see one that said ‘Stationary’. “Look at that!” I said to my daughter, Molly who was helping with the shopping. “A major company and they can’t even spell. It’s ‘ery not ‘ary”. An elderly man overheard my rant and chipped in. “Yes, it’s like the apostrophes,” he said. When I thought about it later I couldn’t be sure whether he was supporting me with my gripe or mocking my pedantry.

But does the spelling matter? A lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary seems to think it does. She argues that the words ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’ have totally different meanings and that to use them wrongly causes confusion. In truth, there probably aren’t too many situations where serious confusion could occur – most schools have a stationery cupboard but these don’t usually move about so it’s rare that people need to comment on their state of stationariness. However, I’m all for linguistic propriety so am happy to go along with the opinion of the OED.

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This got me thinking about the origin of the two words and I discovered that they both come from the Latin ‘statio’ which means a standing place. Stationary, in the context of ‘still’, appeared in the English language in the Middle Ages while the word, ‘stationer’ was used to refer to traders who set up permanent stalls selling books and writing materials, generally next to a university. These stationary stationers were the exception at that time as most traders were pedlars who travelled around the countryside, selling their goods at fairs and markets.

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Another connected word is station—where one stands to wait—and I stood stationary on several stations last Monday. I was returning to Southampton after doing some work in Kent and decided to take the slightly longer but considerably cheaper route that avoids London. It did involve three changes but I didn’t let that deter me. However, it turned out to be an error of judgement when the journey of about a hundred miles ended up taking five and a half hours. Umpteen connections were cancelled and announcements were made citing trespassers on the track, signalling problems, an emergency up the line, and a member of staff who was unable to get to work. Each time, the announcer said very politely that Southern Railways was sorry for any inconvenience, before adding the further good cheer that there was a strike planned for Wednesday and Thursday.

With commuter journeys, it’s the arrival that’s the goal. But leisure trips are another thing altogether. The journey itself can be the purpose and a treat in itself. Travelling by train across America is one of the big treats on my list and as yet I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to do it. Planning is part of the fun, though, and so I’ve already done some preparatory research. At some point I shall have to decide whether to travel coast-to-coast via Chicago or New Orleans. At the moment I’m leaning towards Chicago.

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I’m pre-disposed to love the railways as I travelled to school by steam train including, for a brief period, on the famous Flying Scotsman. Not many people of my age can say that. The railway line alongside my school was closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s but then bought by the Dart Valley Railway which runs steam locomotives and carriages as a tourist attraction. The trains would puff past as we schoolgirls ran up and down the hockey pitch on misty mornings. I loved the sulphurous choking smell of the smoke. And there’s something mysterious about old trains with their narrow corridors, and secluded compartments with slide-up windows. They rattle along and whistle, passing through tunnels with the sounds and the darkness offering dramatic opportunities. Hitchcock demonstrated these brilliantly in The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train and The Lady Vanishes; all recent treats—see Murder, Blackmail and Other Stuff.

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Photo: Symonds Family Archive

Last Monday as I waited for several delayed trains, my mind wandered idly and I started speculating about the origin of the word ‘train’. I discovered later that it derives from the French for ‘to draw along’. So you can have a train of people or a train on a dress, and the first trains were known as ‘trains of carriages’. Oddly, the word ‘train’ was also once used to mean ‘delay’ because of the sense of ‘drawing things out’. I realised that in the same way as stationary and stationery have an unexpected connection and have been on a linguistic journey together, then so have trains and delays.

The trains and delays were too closely connected this week on my slow commute. But hopefully, an American train trip will be quite different and delays could even be opportunities. That’s an essential difference. Goals are all about standing on stations, fretting and longing to get to your destination. Treats are all about the journey.

A Mixed Diet

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Photo: Guillaume Tell

Earlier this week I spent half an hour trudging through my online supermarket order and thinking about the advice on eating a varied diet. As I dutifully included a multi-coloured assortment of fruit and vegetables, protein and so on, I wondered, not for the first time, why human food has to be so complicated and take up so much time. There’s the shopping, the planning, the cooking, the serving, clearing up the spills, cleaning the fridge—it seems a great deal of effort. After all, cats seem quite happy with cat food, cows eat grass, and reindeer warble flies survive perfectly well on reindeer tissue.

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Indeed, not only do most animals have a narrow diet, but a varied one can be positively harmful. During the Second World War it was difficult to source the right food for zoo animals and the sea lions in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo were fed strips of beef soaked in cod liver oil. They were unable to digest this unaccustomed food and died of stomach ulcers. But the opposite applies to humans as too much of one thing is clearly not good. I recently discovered some rather nice apricot biscuits. The first was delicious. The second was pleasant, if a bit greedy. The third made me feel thoroughly sick and now I never want to see an apricot biscuit again.

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And so, back to the subject of food shopping which can be so repetitive and tedious. I regularly get stuck in a rut with day-to-day catering and wish I could just order a hundredweight of hay to get my family through the week. That way there would be no decisions to be made. But I do enjoy cooking for special meals and celebrations and I suppose that if I had a family of elephants then I’d miss out on all of that.hay

If I missed out on all of that then I’d also have missed out on a recent food-related treat. I’ve known for some time that the food writer, Elizabeth David is credited with transforming British attitudes to eating after the Second World War, but I was curious to find out more. So when I wrote my list of sixty treats she got a mention. ‘Cook three recipes from each chapter of an Elizabeth David book’ seemed a good way to explore her influence and ideas.

Things change, though, and since making the list five years ago, I’ve given up eating meat. I decided to forgo the pleasures of her classic books ‘French Country Cooking’ and ‘Italian Food’ in case they instructed me to pluck a pigeon, jug a wild hare or boil, breadcrumb and grill a pig’s trotter.  Instead I chose to focus my interest on ‘Elizabeth David on Vegetables’. This is a compilation of vegetable recipes and food writing taken from a number of her books. It includes chapters on soup, pasta, main courses, and small vegetable dishes, as well as the unexpected inclusion of chapters on bread and puddings.elizabeth david on vegetables

Her first volume, A Book of Mediterranean Food, was published in 1950. She wrote of sun-drenched, honest, peasant dishes which must have seemed so vibrant to a country that was still under the grey thumb of post-war rationing. Wartime recipe books included instructions on crow boiled in suet and how to create a pie from sparrows, whilst marzipan had become a ‘delicacy’ concocted from mashed haricot beans and a splash of almond essence. It’s hard to imagine a week in which I don’t use olive oil, aubergines, avocado, courgette, garlic, yogurt or basil but when Elizabeth David first started writing, these ingredients were largely unavailable. It was partly thanks to her influence, that they appeared in the shops. She died in 1992 and one obituarist observed that she had done more to change British middle-class life, than any poet, dramatist or novelist of the time.aubergine

So, as the treat progressed I selected and cooked my way through twenty-four recipes, and with her impeccable reputation I expected to be roundly wowed. But I was surprised. There were only two that I thought outstanding. These were truly wonderful, though, and I’ve already returned to them again and again. One is her mushroom risotto which is absolutely perfect. I’ve struggled in the past to get enough flavour into a risotto but this manages it with a simple and cheap list of ingredients: olive oil, stock, mushrooms, onion, Italian rice and garlic. It works every time and is creamy, comforting and easy. The other big discovery from the book is her sweet pepper and watercress salad. Again, simple with just a shallot, half a bunch of watercress and a fleshy red pepper. It’s lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and a pinch of sugar, but the revelation is that the shallot is sliced paper-thin and the red pepper is cut into matchstick strips. The end result is beautifully balanced and so much more elegant than my usual sling-it-all-in affair.

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There was also a fresh tomato pasta sauce; a gratin made from grated courgettes; a Normandy apple tart sprinkled towards the end of its oven-time with buttery apple juices and a little sugar, and a cold dish of mushrooms cooked with coriander seeds. All were good and I’ll probably make them again. But I was disappointed with the other dishes. The orange ice cream was horrid and the green vegetable risotto was dull. Maybe some tastes change over time.

I’m not completely won over but I am glad to have made her acquaintance, and like so many of these treats, this one has changed me. I find myself opting more for straightforward good-quality ingredients and letting them stand alone, when I once would have reached unthinkingly for a stock cube or a splash of instant flavouring. My interest in cooking has been invigorated once more—and with that good news, my family is saved from hay, hay and hay for a little longer.

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A Coastal Jigsaw

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The honeymoon is over. It was a glorious week on Guernsey where we cycled, swam, and did a bit of sea kayaking. I’d like to sound brave and sporty about that last one, but when the wind pushed me sideways, I confess that I panicked. My imagination ran riot for a few dramatic seconds as I fantasised about being swept off to the Pacific and spending years on a desert island. That seemed tragic as I’d only just got married but luckily I was rescued by the group leader, Skip. He was young and competent and didn’t make me feel hopeless as he tethered my kayak to his, and towed me through the tricky bits.

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Guernsey is beautiful and one of the best moments was when we stood high above a tiny bay late at night. The Channel stretched  beyond and the full moon was reflected in rippling, golden stripes–a true honey moon. Another holiday pleasure was having time to read. I still struggle with fiction (see Parkus Interruptus), but thankfully I do now enjoy non-fiction and one of the books I took with me was Bryony Gordon’s ‘Mad Girl’. A journalist with a glossy career, loving husband and baby daughter, she seems to have everything. But she’s remarkably candid about the obsessive compulsive disorder and rigid thoughts that have troubled her for years. At one stage she found it easier to take the iron to work rather than having to go back and check a dozen times that she’d switched it off. It made me reflect on my own behaviour which veers towards rigidity at times.

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When we got home, there was still a bit of holiday left so we decided to spend three days walking the South West Coastal Footpath in Dorset. This is probably the most challenging treat on my list. The act of writing it down was simple enough but at times I’ve wondered whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. It’s 630 miles long and as each section gets further away from home it becomes more of a time-consuming and costly obstacle. There’s a list on my study wall that breaks it down into fifty-two stages and so far, only eight stages have been crossed off with my pink highlighter pen. I’ve started to wonder whether this treat will fail to reach crossed-off Nirvana by the time I have my next big birthday. That’s only two and a half years away. Help.

The only way I know how to tackle a challenge is to try to tame it and impose some order. However, this treat is presenting particular challenges and I’ve already had to hold my nose and make a major tweak to my method. When I started five years ago, I was intending to walk anti-clockwise from Minehead to the Dorset coast near Poole. I got as far as Barnstaple. Then when my marriage ended I abandoned the walk for several years. When I restarted, I was living in another part of the country and it made logistical sense to resume at the Poole end and to walk clockwise in stages until I got back to Barnstaple. It felt like a daring break with the natural order but I justified it to myself as a symbol of a new and different life salvaged from the chaos.

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Then, last week when we were planning this second half of our honeymoon a radical thought planted itself in my head. I realised that it might be sensible to postpone a few stages. These were close enough to home to be done as day trips and staying away for two nights would give us an opportunity to do others that were further away.  I hyperventilated and struggled. Once again, chaos seemed to be threatening my nice ordered list.

In the end I managed to overcome my discomfort and we had three memorable days of walking. Each was different and brought unexpected pleasures. We spent much of the first day walking alongside the Fleet Lagoon that runs beside Chesil Beach. Three cormorants sat motionless in a wooden rowing boat, mountains of pebbles rose up to our left and we saw only a handful of people.  The next day we trudged along the beach for miles. The pebbles made it hard work but once again it was unexpectedly deserted. Several times we walked close to great flocks of gulls that had gathered by the sea. As we approached they took off and gave us a private aerial display.

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I enjoyed seeing the sea kale that has colonised the inhospitable shingle and as we approached West Bay, the cliff towered above us, steep and golden like an Egyptian sphinx. We swam and then we explored the small resort. I was expecting it to be staid and faded but instead we found ourselves eating wonderfully fresh fish at one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Sins at the Bay is furnished in a salvage-gone-mad kind of way with red rusty metal rafters and techno music. I felt fully alive.

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The third day was different again with lots of upsy-downsies. I puffed my way unhappily up the first one and realised that I needed a better strategy. Golden Cap, the highest point on the South Coast loomed as an after-lunch challenge so I tried a new approach: thirty steps then rest for five breaths, and so on. It worked and I reached the top having barely broken into a sweat. I also made some new friends on the way. A young couple were just behind on the uphill trudge, and when I told them about my new discovery they looked pleased. From then on, every time I paused, I looked back to see them standing still as they concentrated earnestly and puffed out their cheeks. It felt like an unusual kind of antenatal class.

And now that the honeymoon is over I find myself longing for the next opportunity to get back to the footpath. I’m hoping to do another two stages soon, and for logistical reasons it’s likely that one will be in a clockwise direction from our accommodation, and the other in an anticlockwise direction. I’ve managed not to hyperventilate too much at this impending disorder. A friend asked the other day, ‘So does this mean that if I invited you to join me in Falmouth, that you’d be prepared to do some stages out of order?’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘Yes’.

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The Sixty Treats project that led to my book 31 Treats and A Marriage started out so innocently. But it continues to teach me all sorts of surprising things. I realise that I’ve misled myself into thinking that the pleasure of this great walk lies in its ordered completeness. I’ve yet to find out whether I’ll finish the entire walk before my sixtieth birthday but I do know that it won’t be in any kind of order and that ultimately neither the completion nor the order matters. I want more of the great sweeping views but even more than that I want to uncover the small unexpected pleasures that make each day such a unique mini-treat. Maybe the honeymoon’s not over after all.

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An Exceptional Treat

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These days I spend a lot of time in my head, playing with ideas. I used to think naively that writing was about sitting down and making the words flow but actually the most time-consuming part is working out how to solve various problems—what angle to take, how to structure the story, what to include, and crucially if you are not to bore your reader, what to leave out. This is all wonderfully absorbing but the downside is that with so much mental stimulation it’s easy to neglect the physical world.

The first time I gave proper attention to this thought was about four years ago when I was in shreds at the end of my marriage. I had some sessions with a counsellor and during one of these she suggested I spend time focussing on the sensual side of life. And she was wise—moments of taking in the smell of the roses in the garden, the taste of a juicy nectarine, or the sound of birdsong in the park, brought brief relief. They provided some escape from the repetitive thoughts that went round and round in my head as I tried to make sense of what had happened and to adjust to it.

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When my marriage finally shuddered to an end in court I tested out my new, raw state of independence by having a day alone in London. I did something to stimulate each sense as a symbol of being alive and ready to face a different path. At the National Portrait Gallery I lingered amongst entries to the annual portrait competition. Some made me smile, others were poignant. Such a mix of lives ranging from two elderly women having their hair done, to an impoverished waitress in a South African township cafe. They stared out at me and I escaped briefly into many different worlds.

National_Portrait_Gallery

Photo: Jeremy Thompson

Then I walked to Paul A Young’s Soho chocolate shop. He pushes the boundaries with extraordinary flavour combinations…sea salted caramel with cigar leaves…raspberry and rose vodka…ginger pig black pudding, sourdough and rye whiskey…goats cheese, rosemary and lemon… The assistant offered me a sample. It was quite simply the best truffle I had ever tasted; dark and velvety with a hint of salt. I groaned Harry and Sally style, and she backed away nervously. Later, I sniffed 1930s perfumes whilst discovering some inter-war social history in one of Odette Toilette’s engaging talks. A swim at Marshall Street’s art-deco baths came next and I tried to concentrate on the cool water rushing over my bare arms and legs. It was welcome on a sultry city day. And to round it all off, I sat in a pew at St Martin-in-the-Fields whilst a passionate, long-haired violinist bowed Vivaldi, and reflections of candlelight cascaded in the windows. It was a perfectly distracting, perfectly rounded day to mark the start of my new life. But grieving is not easily cast aside and the next day I was frustrated to find myself crying in despair at the supermarket checkout.

Paul A Young

Photo: Tom Morris

There were reasons to be cheerful, though, and one in particular was a man I met for the first time under the clock at Waterloo. We’d been introduced via email by a thoughtful mutual friend and I was nervous at this first date in thirty years. I tried to stay cool and present myself as a woman of the world but within minutes I’d blown it. Instead of leading us confidently towards Waterloo Bridge and the lunch he’d booked, I led us confidently into a dustbin area round the back of the station.

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Photo: Oxyman

Things progressed tentatively but positively and after a couple of birthdays together I gave him a present of a five senses day in London: a guided walk around Chelsea’s Arts and Crafts architecture; spectacular food at Borough Market; choosing a new aftershave at Jo Malone on Sloane Street (nutmeg and ginger); an indulgent afternoon at Ironmonger Row spa, and a balmy outdoor performance of Porgy and Bess in Regent’s Park.

The day was such a success that we had a return match for Christmas. This time with 1960s perfume in another of Odette Toilette’s social history talks—hippie patchouli, Kennedy, bachelor girls, and aspirational advertising. Then there was a giddy view of London from the top of the Shard, and later, cocktails at the Ice Bar. The walls are frozen and it’s so cold that they give you insulated cloaks to wear, and gloves to hold the chunks of ice that serve as glasses. We took in the sharp, hot, satisfying flavours of Peruvian food at Ceviche in Soho and then danced in Camden’s Jazz Café as Yolanda Brown played reggae-influenced jazz—a beautiful young woman in a short skirt, totally absorbed in playing her smoky saxophone. I knew my companion would enjoy that.

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Photo: Richard Kaby

And now, several years later, I’m on holiday in Guernsey. Relaxing after a hectic few months and once again trying to make sure I notice at least some of what my senses feed me. There’s the crunch of the pale sands, the fruity sweetness of mango sorbet licked in the cone until my tongue is rough like a cat, the wide open island sunshine reflected from the water all around, the elusive scent of the hedgerow honeysuckle, and best of all—the feel of my new husband’s hand in mine.

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Murder, Blackmail and Other Stuff

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“Mum,” said Henry the other day, giving me an odd look, “Is everything alright?” “Yes fine,” I said, briskly. “Why?” “It’s just that I was in the kitchen and happened to look at your list. It said, Clean bathroom—Hang out washing—Buy anti-snoring device—Get fence mended—Murder!”

By the latter part of this week, I’d done all of those things and had a new list: Take parcels to post office—Contact dentist—Ring Barbara—Buy vitamin tablets—Blackmail.

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This week in amongst various other activities, I’ve completed Treat Number 41: watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films. A couple are lost but fifty-two have survived and I’ve now seen them all. There’s a wide range: from 1925 to 1976; silent to talkie; black and white to technicolour; horror to musical; British to American; outstanding to relatively forgettable, and Blackmail to Murder! The exclamation mark is Hitchcock’s not mine.

I watched most of these films on my own, often in moments when I should have been doing something else. They felt like stolen treasure. And as so often with treats, this one spread its wings beyond the original idea. I read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Hitchcock, and went to the cinema to see the recent documentary about the Truffaut interviews. There’s the enjoyment, too, that comes from sharing the enthusiasm with friends. Alan, if you’re reading this, I look forward to continuing the conversation we started last year. I’m now better informed so will have more to say.

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The highs and the lows? Those that made the least impact were Jamaica Inn, Secret Agent, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, Juno and the Paycock, and Family Plot. But there were plenty of pleasures amongst the rest. Favourites include The Lady Vanishes (the true star is a steam train which puffs its way through pre-Second World War Europe), The Wrong Man (based on the true story of a decent man who is wrongly convicted of armed robbery and is played impeccably by a dazed Henry Fonda), Shadow of a Doubt (a strong plot and possibly Hitchcock’s own favourite), The Manxman (a powerful silent film about a love triangle) and Sabotage (engaging scenes of pre-war London and a moment that leaves you reeling. Even Hitchcock wondered whether he’d gone too far). But it’s Vertigo that I love best. I went to see it at our local Picturehouse cinema recently and the images, music and plot haunted me for days afterwards.

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One of the intriguing things about Hitchcock is that he didn’t always provide audiences with feel-good endings. Some of his films have shocking final scenes. Another is his use of suspense. Psycho and The Birds make audiences scream, but in many of his works the hooks are more subtle. In the silent film Easy Virtue, adapted from a Noel Coward play, there’s a scene where the audience knows that a man is phoning his girlfriend in order to propose. Hitchcock chose not to show these characters at this point, but instead filmed a telephonist who listens in on the phone call. Her expression reveals what’s happening and builds suspense while both she and the man wait for the girlfriend to make her mind up.

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Like most creative geniuses, Hitchcock had some unusual habits. One of the oddest was that every day on set he would drink his tea and then throw the cup and saucer over his shoulder. He had complex attitudes towards his leading ladies and he almost certainly had crushes on a number of them including, famously, Tippi Hedren. But in spite of that he was devoted to his wife Alma Reville who was just one day younger than him. He trusted her judgement implicitly and she worked on many of his projects as a screenwriter and editor.  They got engaged after he proposed to her during a terrible storm at sea. She was prostrate with seasickness and told their daughter years later that ‘I was too sick to lift my head off the pillow. I groaned, nodded my head, and burped.’ They were married for fifty-three years and she was lost when he died, as he would have been had she gone first.

A number of themes crop up again and again in Hitchcock’s films: trains, dominant mothers, secret lives, likeable criminals, obsession, murder, and blonde women. He also loved dogs so if one of his characters owns a dog it’s a strong clue that they’re of sound character.

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And just like Hitchcock, all writers have themes that preoccupy them. Hemingway’s include fear, guilt, betrayal and loss. For Hardy, it’s the damage caused by social constraints, and the role of chance in people’s lives. And JK Rowling’s writing centres around themes of mortality and morality.

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Within the next fortnight, I shall become a published author too, so I’ve had a think about what my preoccupations might be. At the moment I’d say they are individual differences, coping and the unexpected twists and turns of life. Lists crop up a lot too. 31 Treats And A Marriage will be available through Amazon and other booksellers by the end of the first week in May. My previous post has a link to an audio recording of the prologue. If you’d like some more you can listen to Chapter One. Just click here. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The Politeness of Treats

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Last week I reached the end of a long walk. The North Downs Way stretches 153 miles from commuter-belt Surrey to the English Channel and I’ve been walking it in stages for over four years. Put like that, I seem a slow walker. But a lot has happened along the way. I’ve not only walked from Farnham to Dover; I’ve walked into a new life.

It was one of the first treats that I started, chosen because it was the nearest of the UK’s fifteen National Trails. I love the mystery of a long walk; you never quite know what’s going to unfold beyond that bend in the distance.  There are plenty of other pleasures, too: the landscape changes constantly; you have to watch out for the direction markers so it’s a bit like a puzzle, and it’s a perfect opportunity to think. Much of the North Downs Way coincides with the ancient Pilgrims’ Way: the route from Winchester to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. And at times, in the ancient broadleaf woodlands I felt so far removed from modern life that it would have been no surprise to bump into a silent, brown-robed monk.

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I shared some stages with family and friends. These were chatty and companionable. But other stages were solitary and helped me to think my way round some tangled issues. Wordsworth is well-known as a contemplative walker and is estimated to have walked about 180,000 miles. In The Art of Walking, Christopher Morley says that ‘cross-country walks for the pure delight of rhythmically placing one foot before the other were rare before Wordsworth. I always think of him as one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy.’ The South West Coastal Footpath is also on my list and providing my knees hold out, I’m hoping for some stunning days of walking around the very edges of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. There’s much more to be said about walking, but this isn’t the point of today’s post, so I’ll save it for another day. Instead I want to think about the difference between treats and goals.

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When I made my list, all the stages of the North Downs Way were quite accessible as day trips. But then I moved to another part of the country and it became more of a challenge. I managed some stages last summer, and eventually, there was just the final stretch left. The excuses of the winter came and went and then I got an image in my head of walking through fields with Henry, my younger son, and the English Channel coming into sight. He was happy to join me but finding a day we could both do was the first hurdle, and we postponed several times. When the agreed day finally came, we set off from home at 7.30am and with dire traffic it was midday before we were at the starting point. It was all quite an effort and I began to feel that I was doing it because it was on a list and needed to be ticked off.

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But later as I sat high on the headland with my son, I had a moment of clarity. The Spring sunshine scattered diamonds on the water; the chalky cliffs of Dover were to our left and the transport hub of Folkestone bustled to our right. We ate sandwiches made from Henry’s homemade bread, drank lukewarm coffee, and chatted easily. I realised in that moment exactly what it is about a treat that makes it so different from a goal.dover

Goals are in your face. They’re the kind of guys that spout management jargon and make you feel bad about yourself because you’re never quite up to scratch; qualifications—deadlines—efficiency—success. Goals are necessary to some extent, but they’re voracious feeders. Tick one off to keep it quiet and there’s another one screaming at you. Treats are quite different. They hang back politely in the shadows and defer to the goals. They wait to be granted permission to step forward, and often get neglected. Sometimes they’re just the germ of an idea or desire but give them a chance and they’ll blossom. They’re the things that allow us to express our individuality and to grow into our real selves.

I’ve got many memories from my day of walking with Henry. There was the moment when we stood high on the cliffs above Folkestone and looked down as a train disappeared into the earth at the start of the Channel Tunnel.  It was strangely thrilling to think that it would emerge in a different country. Another moment was realising, when stuck in traffic, that I had my son’s company and so the time was not wasted. And when we arrived in Dover we needed to make our way back to the car. ‘When’s the next train to Folkestone?’ I asked the ticket clerk at the station. ‘September or October,’ she said. We hadn’t heard that the line got swept away in the Christmas storms. So we got a bus instead.

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I’ve many impressions, too, of other stages of the walk. Dappled woodlands, quiet lanes, steep climbs, streams, lakes, brick viaducts, Neolithic burial chambers, sheep, bulls, thatched cottages, ugly developments, quarries, vineyards, fly tipping, primroses, bluebells, barns, chapels, the noise of the Medway Bridge traffic, cake, being elated, being sad…  On one of my walks I forgot to take any money. Solving that problem gave me confidence, as did walking alone. There were obvious pleasures and benefits but there were subtle, unexpected ones too. It was a multi-layered experience. And a true treat.

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Photo: Del Malcolm

A final word – it’s now less than a month until the publication of 31 Treats And A Marriage. You can have a taster if you want—click here for an audio file of the prologue. I hope you enjoy it and that you like the music too. It was specially composed and performed by Henry.

Christmas Chemistry

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This week I was having a quiet soup and sandwich sort of lunch with the 95-year old gentleman who came to live with me earlier this year. I’ve written about him previously in The Old Man and the Pea and Enhanced Eating.

‘What was Christmas like when you were young?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, it was alright,’ he answered, ‘except for the terrible one.’ Then he continued munching his cheese and pickle sandwich.

I waited patiently. ‘You can’t leave it at that,’ I said eventually. ‘You’ll have to tell me.’

‘Well—’ he began, ‘—I was always keen on the idea of chemistry and when I was about ten I heard that some clever fellow had come up with a toy for children, called a chemical conjuring set. I imagined the test-tubes and how you could put in chemicals and mix them to make different colours. So I asked for one of these and was very excited; I couldn’t wait for Christmas morning to come. But there was a terrible misunderstanding. When I opened my present it just had things in it like a dice and some cards. And there was a silly hat that you were supposed to wear when you stood up and did conjuring tricks for people. It was the most dreadful disappointment.

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Frank won’t be getting a chemistry set this year either, but I hope he enjoys his chocolate, alcohol and history tapes. And his story reminded me that recently I read about another kind of chemistry: the chemistry of friendship. Some years ago, researchers at UCLA studied the benefits of womens’ friendships and proposed that the hormone, oxytocin, plays an important role. This is released in stressful situations and encourages ‘tending and befriending’ responses. Its effect is enhanced in women, by oestrogen,  whereas in men, its influence is reduced by testosterone. It seems that when stressed, women tend to turn to friends and loved ones, and that this in turn releases more oxytocin which helps to calm them further. Men, by contrast are more inclined to the ‘fight or flight’ response which prepares them to either stand and defend themselves or to run away as fast as possible. Other research has found that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they get older. It’s thought-provoking that friendships and family relationships are such a source of strength, yet they are often the first casualties of busy, stressful lives.

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There’s no denying that some of my treats have been precious for being experienced alone. I’ve enjoyed parts of the North Downs Way in contemplative silence, and working my way through Hitchcock’s entire output is a guilty pleasure that I usually indulge when I should really be doing something else. But there are other treats that have been memorable because I’ve shared them. And two years ago, just before Christmas, I did one of these with someone special: my elder daughter, Emma. She joined me for an evening in London at Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields.

I’d put this on my list because it sounded intriguing. A Georgian Grade II listed house, it was lived in by Dennis Severs, a Californian who spent the years from 1979 to his death in 1999, turning the house into a still-life set piece. It depicts the lives of an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers through the generations from 1724 to the start of the twentieth century. As a visitor you pass in silence through a series of ten rooms and it’s as though the people who live there have just slipped out of the room for a moment. Things are left casually lying around and there are meals half-consumed. The sounds of the family accompany you but you never see them. It’s like stepping into a painting.

dennis severs housePhoto: Matt Brown

We went on a dark, December evening. There was no sign outside; just a Christmas tree and a lamp burning bright as we knocked at the door. The kitchen was the first room that we came to and it was as though someone had been interrupted whilst in the middle of their festive preparations. On the table was a basket of eggs, and an open pomegranate with red jewel seeds. A phallic sugar loaf stood upright making me blush momentarily and tarts baked on the fire, their sweetmeat smell merging with the spices of a partially stirred Christmas pudding.

pomegranate

Upstairs was the parlour, warmed and scented by a fire. Music tinkled in the background; a dog barked, a clock chimed and as we stood still and silent, we heard the clip clop of horses trotting past outside. Tea was laid with a candied pineapple in the middle. The lady of the house had just popped out leaving her earrings and fan on the table, and weak tea in a bone china cup. It was the most welcoming room I’d ever been in and I longed to stay.

The main bedroom was dominated by a cluttered dressing table and a rumpled four-poster bed. More horses trotted by and I thought how sublime it would be to drift off to sleep to that sound. Then a smaller bedroom with sewing on a side table, and a chamber pot tucked under a chair. There was a puddle of yellow liquid at the bottom. A glossy black cat sat on the bed with its paws tucked neatly out of sight. It was absolutely still and its eyes were closed. We’d been instructed to remain silent, throughout so Emma and I mouthed at each other: ‘Is it real?’ She stroked it and nodded. I did the same and it bit me.

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Climbing to the top of the house we reached the cramped servants’ quarters where it was draughty and plain. On the table was a half-eaten meal of oysters and cabbage. There were cracked jugs and a cloth was tacked up at the window in place of curtains. Old bloomers were hung up to dry and a newspaper informed us that William IV had just died. As we stood there it was as if we were time travellers entrusted with the knowledge of what was to come in this new Victorian age.

After we’d stepped outside the paintings, Emma and I went for a pizza. At last we were able to chat and this was an equally special part of the treat. Life was quite stressful at that point but this evening spent together was a happy oasis. Little did I know then that this was because my oxytocin was working overtime. Over this coming week I’ll be doing some more of this by spending as much time as I can with friends and family.

I’m hoping that there will be plenty of Christmas chemistry and no conjuring sets. And I wish you the same.

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