Friday, 27 December 2013


Amongst the cornucopia that comprises our extended families we surely have more steps, halves and exes than most. Many of the reasons why we have so many steps, halves and exes happened long before my beloved and I were married and rather than chew over the ancient history of how we reached this point, I try to use the mantra 'speak as you find'. Not always easy but better than looking back at things that happened so many years ago.

Family gatherings therefore can be rather challenging and although we were married nearly thirty years ago, I can still remember the machinations and negotiations that went on to achieve an acceptable order for the receiving line at our wedding. Christmas can be challenging for the same reasons.

Christmas has occurred here for almost all of the twenty five years we have lived in this house. When the children were little I never wanted to drag them from their newly acquired and rapidly unwrapped presents to go somewhere else so we made Christmas a celebration in our own home and anyone and everyone is invited. Tradition demands that it is always the same and only a few minor changes in the dramatis personae are permitted.

Christmas dinner takes place at teatime and with most of the family already staying, we only await the arrival of my beloved's mother and stepfather for the feasting to begin. So, early on Christmas afternoon, the other granny (not the intrepid one, obviously, as she will have been in residence for days by then) and Uncle John, her husband, arrive. The terms 'uncle' and 'auntie' are used for special people in our children's lives - too special just to be called by their christian or surnames and John is certainly one of these. He is the nearest thing to a grandpa that all but my oldest can remember. Both my father and my father-in-law died in very quick succession over twenty years ago and aside from Uncle Ernest (yet again, not an uncle or relative of any kind) who used to be the gamekeeper, then gardener and then just came for coffee every Friday and who also died quite a few years ago, Uncle John is almost a grandpa to the four children.

My beloved's mother will arrive swathed from top to toe in either pink or red, frequently including a hat and always sunglasses which she wears regardless of the weather and will not be removing even though she is inside. Behind her, hovering in the doorway is John, in a supporting role as ever, and waiting in our rather cramped hall whilst granny decides what clothing she will remove. I always wait for John, take his sheepskin coat and he'll say 'Hello, love,' in the same familiar rasping drawl.

During the cracker-banging, shouting, laughing cacophony of the meal, at some point John will find his way to the kitchen, glass of red wine in hand, and offer to help. I never let him but he'll stand and chat and for a few brief moments it will feel like we are brothers in arms. We'll chat about books or tennis or, latterly, golf - things we have in common, and although we could talk about a million other things, I know that's what it will be and I will also know that, perhaps more than anyone else, he will appreciate not just the lengths we have gone to today, my beloved and I, to make a lovely Christmas celebration for them, but all the preparation that has gone on before. And that will be a special moment amongst other special moments on my Christmas Day.

I don't think he'll be here this Christmas. Nor any of the Christmases that lie ahead. But I shall remember him. His rasping drawl, his sheepskin coat and his kind words. We often wished that he would raise his voice, to stand up and be counted. But that wasn't John and his way was the quiet one. 'Bye, love.'

PostScript: I wrote this a week ago. Last night, Christmas Eve, John passed away on the stroke of midnight. We will miss his quiet thoughtfulness. A sad Christmas for us this year.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

My Best Things about Scotland

There's been a lot of media coverage about Scotland's proposed independence but no one, I am noting, seems to be asking the rest of the Brits what we think about Scotland ceasing to be a part of the Union. And some of us do have a view - well, I do anyway. Of course, I realise that I will still be able to travel there and that Scotland will not be cut adrift floating somewhere in the middle of the North Sea with its bloody umbilical chord left trailing off the coast at Berwick. But nevertheless, I like Scotland just where and how it is. So selfish it may be but, rather than treating you to why I think Alec Salmond is irritating beyond belief,  I thought I should jot down the things that make Scotland utterly great and why I, for one, would like things to stay as they are. It's a personal choice and whilst I was writing this I kept coming up with other things to include but I had to stop somewhere so, in a rather random order,  here they are.

1  Edinburgh
Without doubt, one of my most favourite cities. We have had some really epic times there from back in the day when children numbered 1 and 2 went on school lacrosse tours there each year and we supported them by partying hard after the matches with hilarious consequences, to more recent trips for my birthday (when England beat Scotland at Murrayfield) and earlier this year for a riotous 50th when a whole group of us had a brilliant time - more partying but some sightseeing too. Fabulous!

2  Holyrood Palace and Mary Queen of Scots
What a girl! Mary managed to marry three times (going some, even compared to my own family's matrimonial record) and actually married the Earl of Bothwell, the murderer of Lord Darnley, her second husband. But the best bit of all is at Holyrood Palace where there is an alarming red stain on the floor of her apartments reputed to be the site of the murder of her secretary Rizzio who was dragged away from her and stabbed 56 times! I'm sure they put red ink on the floorboards regularly to maintain the stain but it's a great one for the children!

3  Men in kilts and bagpipes
Men in kilts are a joy to womankind everywhere and my first experience of this was when I went on a camping trip to Scotland aged about sixteen with a young Christian group (hard to believe, but true). On the first night of the holiday, we were staying at a youth hostel in Edinburgh rather than under canvas. As we humped our rucksacks up to the dormitory we were told by whoever was in charge that we would be woken in the morning by a piper. We giggled and forgot all about it until the morning when we heard, at very close quarters, the sound of bagpipes. I was volunteered by the rest of the group to step out into the corridor in my jimjams where I ran head-on into a huge, red-headed, bekilted piper. Unforgettable.

4  Durness
This was on the same trip which took us to lots of different places in Scotland including Skye (which also deserves a mention). The weather was mostly dire and the tents were soaking wet with a lot of shouting 'don't touch the tent' which people inevitably did thus causing the tents to leak water onto the sleeping bags. But after a week of fairly continuous downpour we arrived in Durness on a beautiful day and there was the most stunningly beautiful beach. I've been to some good ones since then but Durness remains a highlight.

5  Murrayfield
If the English can't win the Six Nations, my heart always wants Scotland to win - even before we packed Newcastle Falcons with Scotland players. We've been twice to Murrayfield. The first time the Scots thought they stood no chance and actually England didn't even bother to turn up - or that's how it felt - and the Scots were joyously victorious. The second time, on my birthday a couple of years ago, the Scots were so confident that they were going to win that they were delightful and charming before the match and surprisingly gracious afterwards. They lost, England won and it was brilliant.

6  Scottish Lacrosse
Number1 child went to Edinburgh University and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Continuing her lacrosse career from school she played for the University and then in her final year for Scotland. She had to learn Flower of Scotland for her international debut and it was a very proud moment to see her play and lovely that my mother and brothers were there to see her too. My father would have been so proud. And yes, there is Scottish blood in the children's veins - on my beloved's side. (See Uncle Bill).

7  Chris Hoy's thighs
I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Bradley Wiggins the other day and he was charming. That is, until later in the evening when presumably he had had a few sherberts and someone thrust a microphone under his nose. At which point he was completely obscene and pretty much alienated the 600+ people in the room. Sir Chris would never have done that and he does have the most impressive thighs in the United Kingdom.

8  Sean Connery
I know everyone has their favourite Bond but mine, by a country mile, is the original. Even in the Bond film, Never Say Never Again when he wore a terrible toupee. He was once voted the Sexiest Man of the Century (in 1999) and I can't argue with that. He has a marvellous voice and is, well, gorgeous.

9  Andy Murray
Of course. The man who battled just about everyone along the way to win the Olympics, the US Open and Wimbledon including the tennis establishment, the ignorant sports media who mainly seem to know about football and wing it on most other sports and all the other doubting Thomases of middle England. He is absolutely to be applauded and if he doesn't win Sports Personality of the Year it will be a gross travesty.

10 Loch Ness Monster
Even Yorkshire (which has most other things) doesn't have a monster. I love the idea of something prehistoric and unexplained and the black waters of Loch Ness just lend credibility to the legend. Every country should have a monster but then, if they did, perhaps it wouldn't be so special.

11 Braveheart
Terrible liberties were taken with the historical facts for this William Wallace film starring the Aussie Mel Gibson (were no Scots available for the part?) but it has some great moments and the battle scenes are epic. I'm very patriotic but even I was rooting for the Scots!

12  Uncle Bill
I've written about the Uncle Bill before but the late Sheriff Bill Hook of Morningside, Edinburgh was one of the finest men I have ever known. The English translator in Colditz during the Second World War, having been captured by Rommel, he was so modest and thought that no one would be even a little bit interested in his extraordinary life. He was a wonderful gentleman. Sadly missed.

13 The Proclaimers
Own up! Who hasn't stomped their way round the dance floor to those bespectacled twins, The Proclaimers' 500 Miles, shouting tunelessly and wondering what 'haver' means? Actually I looked it up and it would appear that it doesn't mean upchucking (which is what I have always thought) and it actually means talking foolishly which makes much more sense in the context of a sort-of love song!

14 Union Flag
Now of course this isn't Scottish but if they go, the blue bits on the flag have to go too. And although I can take or leave our national anthem (something of a dirge in my view and hardly anyone knows the second verse which is much better than the first, let alone the rest) I like the Union Flag whether it's hung the right way up or not.

So here's a plan... let's all hug a Scotsman whenever we meet one between now and September 18th 2014 and show that we love and appreciate them and that we don't want them to leave. I shall be starting with Sir Chris, Sir Sean and, in due course, Sir Andy. I leave the rest to you...