Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Review of the Year

Here's 2017, as seen through my columns:

In January, I watched Planet Earth II and said David Attenborough alone is worth the licence fee - a still-valid sentiment, see Blue Planet II.

February saw me discussing optician visits and wondering why they're still reliant on the 'which is clearer, red or green?' test.

In March, I had to explain to my daughter what an orgy was, thanks to tabloid tales about Prue Leith; related the tale of my Auntie's coffee table, smashed because of a mis-timed swan-dive; and talked about the perils of self-employment.

A major story that appeared throughout the year was our fears of losing Corby's Urgent Care Centre, a topic I'm afraid will rumble on into 2018.

In April, we had the 'Legs-it' debacle, and I said we shouldn't comment on female politicians' appearance (would you discuss Corbyn's calves?), and how The Apostrophiser was my kind of superhero.

May saw me declare that Car Share is a comedy classic, and that school parking rules apply to everyone.

In June, I discussed the Manchester bombing and its aftermath, and that it's important to reassure our children about the good people, doing good things, every day.

July had me waxing lyrically about the Englishness of classic car shows, Pimm's in the sunshine and flower festivals, and how voluntary workers are the backbone of Britain.

In August, I mused on the workings of the honours system and thanked the Powell family for their many years of serving our community.

September saw me eating humble pie as I admitted the new GBBO wasn't that bad, and discussing Market Harborough's Arts Fresco and Betty Brawn's chopstick breaking 'breasts of steel'.

In October, I discussed local dialects m'duck, and Strictly Come Dancing.

November, and I emphasised the importance of Northamptonshire's libraries, and mentioned the Bake Off final and The Paradise Papers.

In December, we had the amazing Shakespeare Schools Festival at the Corby Cube and the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  What will 2018 bring, other than a Royal Wedding?

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Merry Christmas!

Apparently, debate has been raging on social media about whether or not Die Hard (the Bruce Willis action movie) is a Christmas film.

The argument being that just because a film is set during the season of goodwill, it doesn't necessarily make it a festive flick. 

The jury's out on that one in my house, so I'll leave you to debate that over the turkey, stuffing and pigs-in-blankets in yours - it'll make a refreshing change from the cracker jokes anyway.

When I think of Christmas films, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation tops the list, followed by It's a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, Elf and A Muppet Christmas Carol, not necessarily in order of personal preference.

Films I expect to see in the terrestrial TV schedules over the festive season - and will be disappointed if I don't - include The Sound Of Music, The Wizard of Oz, the Great Escape and Casablanca.

But that of course doesn't make them Christmas films, they're just films that are usually on at Christmas, or New Year, maybe Easter, and then the occasional Bank Holiday throughout the year for good measure in case you missed them earlier.  Just good, classic films then, to be watched anytime.

What about favourite Christmas songs though? Mine is Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

My daughter and I also like Last Christmas by Wham!, which has added poignancy this year due to George Michael's passing on Christmas Day last year.  I just wish we'd known all about the good deeds he'd done while he was still with us - what a lovely, generous man, sadly missed.

Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin' Stevens is another tune on my festive playlist, alongside the original Band Aid, Chris De Burgh, David Essex with his Winter's Tale, and the obligatory hits from Wizzard and Slade.

Which leads me to shout out in my best Noddy Holder voice 'It's Christmas!', and to wish you and yours all the best for a wonderful Christmas time!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's engagement

The worst kept secret in the history of the Royal Family (probably) is out - Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are engaged.  Congratulations to them, they seem well suited and genuinely in love, which is always a good start to a marriage in my humble opinion.

The rumour mill had of course been in overdrive for what seemed like an eternity - it was almost a relief when the official announcement was made, as I'm sure it was for them too.

They'd even had the obligatory TV documentaries about her back-story, which must have all added to the pressure upon the couple. 

Of course, a multi-million pound industry is now going full tilt, producing a range of memorabilia.

No doubt there's a mug factory somewhere which has already started production, a tea towel is being designed with the date of the wedding and the venue, and let's not forget the Royal Mint and their special coins. 

I hope primary schools still give gifts like that to children - I still have my Charles and Diana mug and coin, ready for my great, great grandchildren to take to the Antiques Roadshow.

Personally, I'm hoping for the solar-powered waving Royal figurines which are seen in abundance in touristy towns like Stratford Upon Avon, Oxford or Cambridge etc.  Undoubtedly tacky, and admittedly not in the best possible taste, the waving Queen and corgis still make me smile though (apologies Ma'am).

There's nothing like a Royal Wedding to distract us from the everyday news stories - Brexit, North Korea, Trump, yet more Brexit - so the timing of the announcement wasn't accidental either I'm sure.

They didn't want to steal The Queen and Prince Phillip's 70th wedding anniversary thunder, and it had to be done before the news got lost in the general Christmas and New Year kerfuffle, and Sports Personality of the Year etc.

Of course, the big question on everybody's lips is will we get a Bank Holiday to mark the occasion, like we did with Wills and Kate's nuptials?  Now, an extra day off really would cheer up the nation!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Shakespeare Schools Festival 2017

Towards the end of November, my family, friends and I headed to the Corby Cube for the Shakespeare Schools Festival.

This is a brilliant way to get youngsters engaging with the works of the Bard, as they are given abridged versions to perform with a lot of the 'olde worlde' words helpfully defined in their scripts.

On the night we visited, we saw three schools perform, and they all did very well.

Wilds Lodge School did Coriolanus, Montsaye Academy tackled 'The Scottish Play' (Macbeth), and Uppingham Community College performed The Tempest.

But that only tells half the story - so much work and hours upon hours of rehearsals had gone into each of their productions.

Workshops were held at the Corby Cube under the guidance of the staff there, dress rehearsals, evening and weekend practice, stage make-up classes, work done at home making costumes, learning lines - all these young people, their teachers and families put so much effort into their plays and it really showed.

These teenagers completely engaged with the works they were performing - and considering they were written 400 years ago in a very different age to our own, that is nothing short of remarkable.

The Tempest was my favourite though, as it was a very clever interpretation.  There were multiple Ariels, a device used because Ariel is a spirit who envelops the characters at various points in the plot.

The young lad who played Prospero has a future on the stage if I'm not mistaken, and the duo playing Caliban the monster deserve a special mention as they were brilliantly menacing.

Trinculo the Jester had the audience in stitches, and I heard it said, and agreed, that the physicality of the comedy that the actor brought to the role was reminiscent of a young Julie Walters.

The teachers and support staff who auditioned the young people, directed them, coached them and spent many hours of their own time working with them to achieve the standards of acting we witnessed deserve medals for their commitment.  Well done to all involved.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Greggs' sausage roll and Cadvent

I like to think I've got a reasonable sense of humour, I don't take myself too seriously, and always try to see the funny side of life.

But - and you knew there was a but coming, didn't you? - I have to say I think some recent Christmas marketing campaigns have been a little, let's say, ill-judged and have left me distinctly unamused.

First up, Greggs.  Greggs' Advertising and Marketing Department, what exactly were you thinking?  How could you possibly consider that substituting the Baby Jesus in the manger for an over-sized sausage roll would be remotely acceptable, even in this mainly-Godless day and age?!

It's in very poor taste - surely not a phrase you want associated with your food? And don't even get me started on what would have happened had your inappropriate humour been aimed at any other religion but Christianity!

Fortunately there's no such thing as Church of England extremism, and I guess you're safe in the knowledge that although a few folk will grumble, there will only be a small minority of principled people who stop purchasing your pasties, pies and pastries in protest.    

Next up Cadbury - who given their Quaker heritage really should know better.

The dictionary definition of advent is "the time leading up to Christmas", which as we all know, whether Christian or not, celebrates the birth of Christ.

So what is Cadvent, a word which appears on their TV adverts?  What exactly are we waiting for, the arrival of chocolate (don't answer that - there's far more to Christmas than large tins of Roses and Quality Street!).

Yes, I know they sell calendars with tiny pieces of chocolate behind the doors at this time of year, but again, I don't think they should be hijacking the word 'advent' for their marketing campaign.

While I appreciate that not everybody in this country is Christian, respect needs to be shown to those that are.  Christmas is still an important religious festival for many; surely tolerance should apply to all religions, including Christianity? 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday

History wasn't my favourite subject at school.  I could never seem to remember dates, which seemed then to be what it was all about.

I don't think it helped that the only subjects we seemed to be taught - Tudors and Stuarts and the Reformation - appeared so remote from our lives.

It wasn't until I got much older, and watched Horrible Histories with my daughter and various Dan Snow documentaries, that I discovered how interesting it could be.

I now read historical fiction for pleasure, particularly Robert Harris novels.  I've just read this, by Cicero, quoted in Dictator:  "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.  For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?"

The truth is, without learning about our history and passing this on to future generations, we are destined to repeat the same mistakes.

That, for me, is the message of Remembrance Sunday.  It is vital that we remember the lives that were lost in order for us to have our freedom today.  Equally, we must ensure that we never again endure the loss of life on such a massive scale.

This year's Remembrance Sunday was bright but bitingly cold, just as I remember them being way back when I was a Brownie and then a Guide, my mother insistent on me cramming as many layers under my uniform as I could as no coats were allowed on parade.

I thought of this as I saw the Beavers and Cubs in their uniforms, proudly parading behind Gretton Silver Band, as they made their way from the Baptist Church down to the Village Green and the War Memorial for the wreath laying ceremony.

Two Audi cars had to stop and wait as a high-viz jacket-clad man halted the traffic in order to let the column of about 100 people march solemnly to the sound of the bass drum.  Symbolic, perhaps, but also an example of how far we've come.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The Paradise Papers

The Paradise Papers - truthfully they sound far more exotic than they actually are.  It should be a spy novel by Graham Greene turned into a four-part Sunday night drama, rather than documents outlining people's offshore tax avoidance arrangements.

It would all be completely, achingly dull except for the fact that by using these arrangements the super-rich are actually siphoning away funds from the less well-off by avoiding paying tax on it.

Money that could be spent on hospitals, schools, libraries, subsidised rural bus routes etc.  You know, the things that ordinary people need, and the sort of things that the super-rich are probably unaware even exist.

The phrase that I keep hearing repeated on the news is that 'this arrangement isn't illegal'.

But what I want to shout back at the television - and have been known to - is 'it may not be illegal but it's immoral!'

What I can't understand - and I don't think it's just because I've never had large sums of money that need to be squirrelled away to the Bahamas or similar so it can have a holiday in the sunshine - is why anybody would think that this is OK.

If you call yourself a British citizen, if you decide to live here and abide by the laws of the land, then it surely follows you must contribute to the society in which you choose to reside?

If you're a British sportsperson, who proudly drapes the Union Flag around your shoulders while you balance atop the rostrum singing the National Anthem and smiling broadly, then pay your taxes in the country that you state you're so proud to represent.

Similarly, if you're a large company, making squillions of pounds out of ordinary citizens in this country by flogging them expensive phones etc, at least make sure you're paying a decent amount of corporation tax on those massive sales.

Hiding huge sums of money in offshore bank accounts to avoid paying UK taxes is unfair, it's immoral, and it should be illegal.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Great British Bake Off 2017 result

Yes, this is another Great British Bake Off column, and no, I'm not apologising for it as I know most of us have been watching it, even though we promised ourselves we wouldn't what with Mary, Mel and Sue being absent and the move away from Auntie Beeb's apron-clad bosom.

We thought it wasn't going to be the same on Channel Four but in truth it wasn't that different, with the exception of those pesky adverts popping up at just the wrong time.

Sandi and Noel grew on us and proved to be quite a convincing double act.  Prue seemed even kinder than Mary at times - who thought that was possible - and Paul was Paul, but with a few more smiles, which may be because of his enlarged pay cheque, but who can really say?

It turns out, the key to the success of the programme isn't the mix of the presenters at all, but that it gets us to genuinely care about the contestants and what happens to them. 

We invest in their baking journeys, we get upset when they get knocked out, and even find ourselves shouting at the television 'No, not Liam!  Liam shouldn't be going home!', or was that just me?!

The three finalists - Steven, Sophie and Kate - were all likeable in their own ways.  Steven and Sophie were from the very organised spectrum of culinary creations, whereas I felt Kate was a little more creative (i.e. haphazard) with her offerings, much as I imagine I would be if in some parallel universe I managed to qualify for Bake Off. 

Ultimately, I didn't really mind who of the three won, which was just as well because trying to avoid finding out before the show aired after Prue's Hallowe'en Twitter-fail was a showstopper challenge in itself.

Sophie was eventually officially named as the winner, and she deserved it after creating an amazing 'ode to the honey bee' entremet cake, complete with a glaze that resembled marble - not something that I shall be attempting to replicate any time soon!

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The importance of Northamptonshire's libraries

"The arts are essential to any complete national life.  The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them... ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due."

Winston Churchill said this, and it seems particularly apt with the proposed cuts to Northamptonshire's libraries.

Now I can't imagine people are going to take to the streets and march about a library shutting, or chain themselves to the gates in front, but truthfully we should care just as much about this as more high profile spending cuts because this is just the start.

Northamptonshire hasn't been fairly funded for a while now we're told, and despite our councillors and MPs lobbying the Government for more money none has so far been forthcoming.

While the current national administration ties itself in knots over Brexit, our county is struggling to balance its books and - as usual - it's the ordinary people who will suffer.

Libraries are important, particularly if you haven't got much disposable income.  Growing up, I relied on Kettering and Corby Libraries in particular for reference books for my homework.

While I appreciate we now live in a very different world and youngsters use the internet for much of their homework research, there are some people for whom the library is an important lifeline.

Parents/carers take their children in there for reading sessions, and who can dispute the value of ensuring the next generation has free, easy access to books and can read?  The library van which visits the villages is a popular service, particularly with people who struggle to get into town for various reasons.

Reading is a vital skill, books are still important, and a society without either is missing something fundamental.  Do we really want our county to be devoid of such basics? 

Our county's current slogan is 'Let Yourself Grow' - if these cuts are allowed to happen, perhaps 'let yourself go' would be more appropriate?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Science homework

A while ago, while my daughter was still at primary school, I wrote about how challenging I found her homework.

Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, I can report that this gets much, much worse at secondary school level.

A good example - science homework - construct a molecule model or a DNA helix.  What?  How?  We didn't know where to start.  We turned to the great oracle of our times and 'Googled' it.

Once we knew what a molecule model looked like, daughter chose titanium nitrate to construct (not sure why!), and we decided to head to The Range.  The Range will have all we need, we said confidently.

The Range did indeed come up trumps with polystyrene balls of various sizes, plus cocktail sticks.  It failed on a larger size ball though, needed for the central component of the model, so we bought a polystyrene rose bud (who even knew they existed?), and then husband shaved it until it was spherical - we're nothing if not resourceful.

Then daughter sat, for most of a Saturday afternoon, colouring in the polystyrene balls, while trying to stop the ink coming off on the carpet and warding off the dog who thought the balls looked like great fun and he'd really like to carry one off and chew it thoughtfully in front of the fire.

When she'd finished, and the cocktail sticks were also partly coloured in, the titanium nitrate was constructed and indeed looked just like the one Google had shown us.

It took pride of place on the dining room table so it didn't get damaged before it was due to be handed in, and it was out of reach of the nosy Labrador who found it all terribly intriguing.  Carrying it on the bus to school was tricky, I hear, but thanks to a large bag-for-life it survived the journey relatively intact.

I then heard that some people had just bought kits from Amazon and handed those in, but that's not quite the spirit is it?  There's nothing like a bit of 'Blue Peter' ingenuity - now where's my sticky-back plastic?!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Strictly vs. The X Factor

Much like the rest of the country I suspect, our family Saturday nights are spent juggling Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, with husband often heading off elsewhere muttering about car shows on Quest - sound familiar to anyone else?

But what I like best about Strictly are the people who obviously have no previous dance training - step forward Ruth Langsford and Northamptonshire's own Rev Richard Coles - who have fun and give it their best shot.

OK, so they're not the best dancers and truthfully are in a similar vein to John Sergeant, Ann Widdicombe and Ed Balls, but they train hard and enjoy themselves, which is surely what it is all about.  In my mind, they embody the spirit of Strictly.

What about Debbie McGee - how amazing is she, who knew she was such a good dancer?  Yoga and pilates are said to be the secret of her suppleness - if so, find me a class and sign me up please!

If I was a betting woman (which I'm not), my money would be on Aston Merrygold or Alexandra Burke to win though.  They are, to borrow a phrase from Craig, 'fabulous, darling!'

But for sheer guts and determination, I'm going to be cheering on Ruth and Debbie now our Richard has sadly been eliminated.

As for The X Factor, we're still watching it but I loathe the bear-pit that is the Six Chair Challenge.

It's bordering on cruel, and while we do our best to encourage our young people to be kind, this is the antithesis of that message, with the audience baying as to who should be thrown off their seats to make room for the singer of their choice.

Not that I'm sure Simon Cowell cares or will ever read this, but I believe a rethink of the current format is needed.

I'll concede that it's maybe an age thing, but a bit like swapping from Radio One to Radio Two at a certain age, I've found myself making a similar migration from The X Factor to Strictly Come Dancing.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Air Ada - Northamptonshire expressions

Local dialects and expressions are probably something we don't spend much time thinking about.

But the BBC recently ran a project in which they encouraged poets to write pieces celebrating words specific to the areas from which they came.

'Mardy' was the word for the East Midlands, of which Northamptonshire is a part.  Mardy is one of those words that I didn't think was specific to this area, but apparently further south they don't use it.  Just in case you're in any doubt, it means sulky or moody.

Some of you may remember 'Air Ada', the classic cartoon which ran in this paper for many years, and was packed with Northamptonshire sayings and pronunciations.

I've been thinking about words that I think are Northamptonshire-isms and I've picked my favourites - I'm hoping Ada would approve:

M'duck - a friendly moniker, suitable for people of all ages, and particularly helpful if you can't remember somebody's actual name;

Jitty - a small alley between rows of houses.  Sometimes used in the expression 'he/she couldn't stop a pig in a jitty' if the person is bow-legged;

Keck - I never knew the real name for keck until recently, it was something that grew in hedgerows and of which my childhood rabbit was particularly partial; its real name is apparently cow parsley.

Another local word I particularly like is mackle - it means to try and repair something using items easily at hand, although I tend to use it in a culinary sense (as in 'I've mackled a meal together').

You don't have to travel far to be confronted by new words either.  Heading over the border to University in Leicester I was confronted by 'cobs'.  Until this point I believed a cob to be a breed of horse, but over there it's a bread roll, as explained to me by my friend who hailed from near Wolverhampton, where good things were always described as bostin'.

What are your favourite Northamptonshire words and sayings?

Thursday, 28 September 2017

It's the little things in life...

Sometimes it's the little things in life that make us happy, like somebody taking the time to say 'thank you'.

I was so pleased to be part of an event to say these two little words to three very special people who've been part of my life for the last twenty years.

A large crowd gathered together one Saturday morning in September to say thank you to Mike, Julie and Sam who ran Gretton Post Office and Stores which sadly had to close earlier that month.

The event was held at Lydia's Coffee Shop, which was also celebrating ten years serving the community, and wanted to say thanks to all the staff, volunteers and customers who've supported it over the last decade.

With busy lives, sometimes it's easy to forget to show gratitude, but this event meant a lot to the people there and showed the strength of community spirit - plus there was cake, and lots of it.

The same weekend, I headed to a vintage ploughing match near Harringworth. 

Standing in the sunshine, clutching a cup of tea from Merv's mobile catering van, it was a pleasure to watch the competitors try to achieve ploughing perfection with their old tractors - Fordsons, Fergusons and the like.

High octane it certainly isn't, but it transports you back to simpler times, and makes you appreciate the beautiful countryside we're blessed to have in Northamptonshire.

I stood watching as one man knelt on the ground - I momentarily thought seeking divine inspiration, but then realised it was more likely to check his furrow was straight - and he then took out his Tupperware box to partake in what I'm guessing was his ploughman's lunch.

While he was distracted by chatting to somebody, a black Labrador spotted his chance, raced across the field and plundered the ploughman's, snatching the chap's sarnie and running off into the distance before he could be apprehended.

Fortunately for all, the funny side was seen and Merv no doubt sold more bacon butties as a result!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Ryanair flights fiasco

I feel compelled to say something about the Ryanair flights fiasco, allegedly caused by their pilots all holidaying at the same time (out of interest, I wonder with which airline they've managed to get their flights?)

I haven't actually flown with Ryanair for nearly twenty years - partly out of principle, but mainly because of a fear of flying developed after 9/11 (long story, but I was in the US at the time).

The thing is, they're not the only airline serving the UK market, so vote with your feet people!  If you're not happy with their customer service - or distinct lack of it - simply take your custom elsewhere.

Yes, it really is that simple.  No, I don't want to hear it - don't start making excuses saying 'Oh, but they're so cheap'!

What about all those people who've merrily booked flights and holidays and now don't know if they can get away as planned?

I can't speak for you, obviously, but when I was working with other humans, we had a holiday list.

That holiday list was an important document, sagely passed around from person to person, in order of seniority, and we were allowed to book just a maximum of two weeks when we first received it.

Nobody - I repeat nobody - on that document was allowed to be off at the same time as another person on it. 

This rule didn't waver, so much so, that if you had a wedding and the inevitable honeymoon, you had to negotiate with others to ensure you could have the time off.

I remember on one occasion when somebody had to delay their romantic getaway because another staff member was away and couldn't swap (due to a significant birthday and a cruise or something).

Surely Ryanair pilots must have the modern-day equivalent of a holiday list, and if not, why not?  How can an airline make huge profits and not have fundamental admin procedures in place? If you've been adversely affected, I suggest you write to Michael O'Leary and ask him!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Arts Fresco, Market Harborough

If somebody had told me that I was going to spend a Sunday morning in September standing in the street outside Fat Face and Joules in Market Harborough watching an 'Aled Jones - the difficult years'- lookalike (his description) wearing nothing but a fake tan and a tiny pair of pink frilly pants while riding a unicycle (him, not me) I'd have said 'I don't think so!'

But no, there I was, and I was laughing so hard that my face ached, as was the huge crowd of people that had also gathered to watch this rather surprising spectacle for a rural market town (performers Garaghty and Thom).

The reason we were all there was the rather fabulous Arts Fresco street theatre festival, which is totally free except for donations.  This was its 15th year, and my second visit, and it's such good fun for all ages.

From stilt walkers and face painters for the children, to an array of street food stalls and drinks tents, the atmosphere was warm and friendly despite the chilly wind that made the eight-foot high unicyclist's job even more precarious than normal.

The first act of the day we saw was Betty Brawn - not her real name I imagine - who was billed as The World's Strongest Lady.

She was amazing - talk about ripping up the gender stereotype book, one of the aspects of her act, as it happens.

She took a 500-page romance novel purchased from a charity shop up the road and ripped it clean in half; she followed this by breaking a chopstick in two using  her 'breasts of steel' (i.e. cleavage); she snapped a chain across her back and then proceeded to pick up men out of the audience.

I mean literally pick them up, and throw them over her shoulder.  Her finale was hoisting two twelve stone men using a yoke-type device and turning herself into a human carousel as she spun them around.

Funnily enough, I don't think she warned us to not try this at home, but some things go without saying!

Many thanks to all the performers, organisers and volunteers.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Ignorance is bliss

'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise' - I sometimes think it would be better for my mental health not to watch the news, especially the ten pm one just before bedtime.

The current situation between North Korea and the United States - well, the rest of the world, in truth - is particularly scary.

I haven't felt this concerned about nuclear war since the 1980s.  My generation grew up firstly with the threat of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR - vividly depicted for us in the video to Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood - and then with the fear of AIDS.

Basically, the threat of death in one form or another, was all around us - it was just something you lived with.

But I'm guessing that there were also some kids I grew up with who didn't watch the news or read the papers - these were very much pre-internet days - so were probably blissfully unaware and just carried on through life reading The Dandy or The Beano, watching Scooby Doo and riding their Raleigh Grifters etc.  In some ways, I wish I was one of them.

Of course we did have terrorism in the 1970s and 80s - these were the days of the IRA bombing campaigns - but I don't think it felt as scary then as it does now with the ongoing terror threat we are facing.

But before I depress everybody too much, I think this is when we need to remind ourselves of the good things in our lives.  I've taken to mentally listing at least three good things that have happened each day before I go to sleep.

It doesn't have to be big things - one day for example I listed the fact that I'd bought myself some loose leaf tea and a tea strainer so I could enjoy an 'old-fashioned' cup of tea.

I find that this helps me, perhaps it will help somebody reading this too - and I can also highly recommend loose leaf tea!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Great British Bake Off humble pie

The sweet, sweet taste of humble pie - truthfully I'd prefer mine with a quenelle of ice-cream or perhaps some crème anglaise please, but let's not get all Mastercheffy!

OK, I'll admit that I was, shall we say, a bit sceptical about the move of Great British Bake Off from Auntie Beeb to the 'wild child' that is Channel Four, but I'm pleased to say my fears were unfounded, and I'm adult enough to admit it.

Yes, it's not quite the same - although Prue does a reasonably good impression of Mary Berry, and Noel and Sandi could morph into Mel and Sue with a change of wardrobe and different haircuts.  In fact, Sandi's floral bomber jacket in episode one was taken straight from the Berry school of dressing if I'm not mistaken.

But happily I can report that the main concept remains unchanged, the tent is the same, and they still have the fancy Neff ovens with no perceptible controls and hideaway doors which make most of our ovens at home look clumpy and old-fashioned - and people still fail to switch them on correctly.

Paul remains that mixture of twinkly blue-eyes and badger grey, dispensing the Hollywood handshake with the similar rarity of unicorn manure, so I can just about get over the other cast changes and the adverts which annoyingly pop up at around 15 minute intervals, usually at key-critical moments.

Because, ultimately, it's all about baking.  It's about 12 ordinary people, not professional cooks, creating culinary alchemy with flour, eggs, butter and sugar - plus a few other ingredients, and a lot of time, effort, hugging and tears of frustration and/or relief.

We sometimes need to be transported and cocooned in a world where cakes and baking are a form of escapism, and we can forget about the various horrors on the news, even if it is just for an hour.  Well, better make that an hour and a quarter now, because of those pesky aforementioned adverts.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The end of an era...

I've sometimes mused on the workings of the honours system in this country, not that it's ever going to personally bother me much, I'm sure.

But when David Beckham had his little tantrum about not getting a knighthood, it did make me wonder why on earth would anyone think they actually deserved such an honour?

In my mind, the people that really should get such an award are the ones who would be the least likely to seek it out and would be genuinely humbled if they did.

Can I ask a question here - can you actually nominate somebody to be considered for the honours' list, or how does it all work?

I can think of countless people who will probably never get the recognition they deserve, but who genuinely make a difference to the lives of others each and every day.

It's often the little things, that some people take for granted and perhaps don't even notice, that help and can make a huge difference.

People who take the time to chat to a lonely person, take shopping to the housebound, find time in their busy lives to take an interest in their local community and just pitch in and help out wherever needed.

Julie, Mike and Sam who have run my local shop and Post Office for the past twenty years are at the heart of our community.  They go over and above the role of shopkeepers - if I listed out all their good deeds I could take over this whole paper. 

They have always been there for us, and have worked tirelessly seven days a week, always cheerful and there to lend a helping hand and a sympathetic ear - genuinely good and kind people.

The time has come for them to retire, and I can honestly say that our community will be totally bereft without them. 

So thank you from the bottom of our hearts, and if I could nominate people for an honour, they would be at the top of my list.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

A handbag...

Now that bag searches are becoming a regular feature of everyday life, I really need to think about tidying mine out on a more regular basis.

I guess I'm not alone though in toting a bag that's more like a portable life support system, the contents of which could deal with most minor emergencies.

I'm pretty sure that pre-dog and child it was much lighter.  Once dogs arrived into my life, my bags, pockets etc became receptacles for poo bags and gravy bones.

Then after arrival of daughter, the bags got bigger and the contents far greater.  She's much older now, but I'm still carrying baby wipes - as a parent I have discovered that these have a myriad of uses, including removal of seagull poo at the seaside from hair and clothes, and creature guano from an invertebrate at Bugtopia who kindly deposited on husband's pale blue jeans.

Unsurprisingly, they never put that on the packaging do they?  Further evidence that they perhaps aren't the best thing for babies' sensitive skin.

When we're away on holiday my bag gets even bigger and heavier, as I seem to be the one left carrying camera, sunblock, water, snacks, plasters, etc.

In fact, the last time my bag was searched, it was packed to the gunnels with holiday stuff.

I apologized to the man who was searching each and every pocket and compartment as thoroughly and sensitively as he could, given the circumstances.

He told me not to worry as he'd seen far worse.  He then dropped his voice to a confidential tone and told me that one handbag he'd searched had an item that the lady in question should really have left at home in her bedside cabinet - and I don't think he meant Lavender pillow spritz, painkillers or Vicks VapoRub, which is what's in mine!

Thus reassured, I collected my bag and made a note to self that no matter how embarrassed you are about the tidiness and/or contents of your bag, there will always be somebody, somewhere with something far worse.

Working from home

I'm not going to lie to you, working from home has its advantages.

There's the fact I can work in my slippers.  No more cramming my feet into high-heeled shoes or boots just because they look good.  The downside of this is that my feet appear to have grown because they are no longer restricted, but that's a small price to pay. 

Then there's the fact that I can make a cup of tea or go to the loo whenever I like.  No more raising my hand in the air to be relieved - as in somebody take over my desk or permit me a leave of absence rather than anything more unpleasant or complicated than that, in case you were wondering.

I suspect the day will come though when some workers will be given commodes and expected to carry on whilst in situ, but hopefully not in my lifetime.  Although as my pension age keeps on moving further away, I fear that I may never actually retire and this may become my reality!

I can also plan my work around daughter's school day/holidays - this is probably the best feature, and truthfully should feature higher in the list but for the fact that I like the freedom of slippers and 'comfort breaks'.

The long school summer holidays does make you appreciate Teachers more though doesn't it?  They look after our little darlings for nearly eight hours a day, every weekday, during term time.  No wonder they need a six week break.

The major downside of working from home is the regular visitation of delivery drivers.  Admittedly, sometimes the only human contact I have during the day other than family members, but our conversations are very one sided and usually consist of variations on the theme of 'Parcel... neighbour... sign... thanks.'

And the most bizarre delivery of which I've taken charge?  Ten sacks of washing powder.  I kid you not - I'm guessing an e-Bay bulk-purchase bargain, which literally filled my porch until retrieved much later that day.  Still, it made the house smell 'cotton fresh'!

Old People's Home For Four Year Olds

We know that not all ideas and imports from America are good - I'm thinking guns, gangs, some fast foods and portion sizes, the over commercialisation of Christmas and Hallowe'en, beauty pageants for kids, Donald Trump and his ever-changing team of advisers, to name just a few.

But I think they may be onto a winner with the idea of having children visiting elderly people in care homes.

Channel Four's 'Old People's Home For Four Year Olds' had me smiling and weeping in almost equal measure.

I knew before watching it would probably be emotional, but it was also totally uplifting and convinced me that this is one American import that we should embrace.

Pre-schoolers spending time in care homes has worked successfully in the USA for over 20 years, and has proved beneficial for both age groups.

In the UK we saw a group of four-year olds heading to St Monica Trust care home near Bristol to spend time with the residents, being creative, playing games, going for walks in the grounds - which looked much nicer than many country house hotels I've stayed in.

They were also given some duck eggs to hatch, and the sheer delight on the faces of both young and old as the chicks emerged was a joy to behold.

Some of the elderly residents had been rated as being depressed, and one never smiled, but after a while she was grinning from ear to ear as a four-year old grabbed her hand and dragged her off to help with the latest activity.

Hamish, an elderly chap with an artificial leg, initially refused to get out of his chair and couldn't see the point of the whole project, but ended up laying on the floor playing sleeping lions with the children.

A new lease of life is what the older residents received, but what about the children?

They enjoyed talking, playing, laughing, colouring, reading and discussing the duck chicks pooping - because that's what kids do.  We have much to learn from the wisdom of four year olds.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Top Of The Pops and The Generation Game - re-booted

I read recently that too much nostalgia is bad for you - not sure why, perhaps it's considered bad to look back fondly rather than stay laser-focused on the future or something?

But if that is the case, perhaps somebody should have a word with the TV production companies who've just announced the return of two of the best shows from my 1970s/80s childhood.

Yes, much to my excitement, I've read that the company behind James Corden's Carpool Karaoke is planning a re-boot of Top Of The Pops. 

Essential viewing, TOTP was on Thursday evenings, and then moved to Fridays if I remember correctly, and was the highlight of my TV week.

Admittedly in parts cheesy, some of the dancing left very much to be desired by both the audience and professionals - anyone else remember life before music videos when Legs & Co or Pan's People just 'interpreted' the songs?

There was the rundown of the top forty, the climbers, the non-movers and finally the much coveted No1, plus live performances in the studio of varying quality.  I keenly await the updated version, although I fear I won't know many of the artistes these days, unless they're played on Radio 2!

Next regeneration - appropriately enough The Generation Game.  Arguably Brucie's finest hour, if you can overlook the Anthea Redfern/Isla St Clair 'ornamental' roles. 

Those times were very different, and fortunately we're now more enlightened as to the parts women play on TV - even if the BBC salary department has yet to catch up entirely to the idea of equality.

Perhaps then fittingly, Mel and Sue find a new home here after GBBO and replace Mr Forsyth as presenters.

I'm looking forward to seeing it and hope they keep the prize conveyor belt at the end, which was always my favourite part.  I imagine the prizes will be slightly different tough - I can't see anyone wanting fondue sets, heated curlers and sandwich toasters these days, but I'd still have the teasmade and the cuddly toy, of course.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Save Corby's Urgent Care Centre

Some things should be above party politics, and saving Corby's Urgent Care Centre is one of them.

We can argue until we're blue in the face about whose fault it is that yet again we're facing its threatened closure, but that's not going to solve anything.  We need action, we need unity, and we need it NOW.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - this is a VITAL service to the people of Corby and its villages.

Yes, I can remember life before it, and it wasn't good.  Up in this corner of Northamptonshire, if you were ill after 5pm during the week or at any time at the weekend and you needed medical attention urgently, you had to get to Kettering General somehow.

Now, that was perhaps ok if somebody in the family had a car, or if you could ask a friend or neighbour to take you, because as we all know, public transport was (and still is) a bit 'hit and miss', especially if you're in the villages or countryside.

Speaking for myself and my family and friends, the Corby Urgent Care Centre is literally a life-saver.  Without going into detail, I dread to think what could have happened to people I know had it not been there.

The staff are brilliant.  They are caring, hard-working, professional and kind.

We know from previously issued statistics that the centre is coping with double the amount of patients than was originally planned.

The population of Corby, and indeed Northamptonshire, is growing at a tremendous rate.

Facilities at Kettering General are overstretched. 

Taking these facts into account, put simply, I believe that closing Corby Urgent Care Centre would potentially put lives in this area at risk.  This is unacceptable, I'm sure you'll agree. 

Tom Pursglove, MP for Corby and East Northants, is working with Corby Borough Council and other stakeholders to try and sort this out.  He wants to hear from people about their thoughts on Corby Urgent Care Centre - please e-mail him asap.  Thank you.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

School sports day

It's that time of year - school sports days are happening up and down the country.  It's not a day I remember with relish, either as a participant or as a watching parent either, if I'm perfectly honest.

My family, it's safe to say, is missing the athletics gene.  Walking is more our pace, but sadly competitive walking isn't included in any sports day of which I'm aware.

Having said that, my daughter did win the egg and spoon race at primary school one year, which was a first for both sides of the family.

The best I ever managed was second, also in the egg and spoon race as it happens.  Perhaps if that was an Olympic discipline we may have triumphed and been able to represent Team GB.

Fortunately the school my daughter attended didn't make a big deal of the parents' race.  However, I did once take part in a parents' race for my younger cousin, who was still at primary school while I was at Uni.

I remember lining up, taking a look at the competition and thinking to myself that despite my asthma and distinct lack of athleticism I had a good chance of winning as I was at least ten years younger than the other participants.  The only Dad racing was about five stone overweight to boot.

So imagine my surprise when he flew past me like an oversized rocket and won, while I just about scraped into a still respectable second place.  Another perfect example of why we should never judge by appearances.

I did read that some schools were banning parents' races because some Mums and Dads were just too competitive and couldn't handle losing.  I imagine their reactions and language weren't setting the best example for the watching children either.

But if you are attending sports day, be on the lookout for parents arriving wearing Lycra and carrying running spikes.  I've heard that Des O'Connor once lined up to run at his son's school only to spot a man thus attired - and he turned out to be Linford Christie!

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Voluntary workers - putting the 'great' into Great Britain

I briefly mentioned this in last week's column, but I firmly believe that voluntary workers are the backbone of this country, and put the 'great' into Great Britain.

I can think of so many organisations and events - numerous charities, village Parish Councils, groups of people working in their communities, fetes and fun days, flower festivals, music festivals, youth groups and sporting clubs etc - which just wouldn't exist without utilising hundreds of hours of unpaid labour from an army of volunteers.

Most of these unpaid workers seek nothing in return for all their hard work other than a little bit of gratitude, courtesy and respect - sadly, however, that is not always forthcoming.

It's all too easy for people to take for granted their contributions; their 'going the extra mile' becomes the expected norm; and people keep pushing for more and more when actually they should be thankful for the work that's being done at no cost to them.

Or when things go wrong, as they sometimes do when a busy volunteer simply forgets a task they normally complete, and then people just moan about what's not been done without realising that they're not actually contributing anything useful and positive themselves.

Before people take to social media, or mutter and grumble in the pub etc about things that they think should be done, they need to stop and ask themselves are they willing to undertake said task themselves?

Are they, for example, willing to attend hour after hour of meetings, read thousands of pages of documents, litter pick, fundraise, organise events, publicise them, clean up afterwards, sort out all necessary paperwork and insurances, all while doing full-time or part-time jobs, looking after children and/or elderly parents?

Because if the answer is no, then they have absolutely no right to criticise those that do give up what little free time they have to make their communities better places.

If the answer is yes, then please go ahead and volunteer and make a useful contribution to society - more volunteers are always needed everywhere.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Classic cars and flower festivals

A couple of times this summer I've thought to myself 'is there anything more English than this?' - and I do appreciate the irony of me thinking this as only one of my grandparents was actually from this country!

The first occasion was at the start of June when I enjoyed my first Pimm's of the season sitting outside The Exeter Arms in Barrowden, overlooking the duck pond and a collection of classic cars and their owners who had gathered for a meeting on the village green.

It was around 6pm, the sun was still shining and the cars were gleaming - E-type Jaguars, Mark II Jaguars, Morris Minors, old Minis and the like.  It was a perfect summer's evening.

Then on the last weekend in June, I headed to Gretton Flower Festival at St James' Church.

The theme, quite unusually for these type of events, was Disney films, but it worked really well and there were some great interpretations of various movies including Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, Brave, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Tangled, not forgetting the ubiquitous Frozen (let it go, Elsa!)

It was an ideal way to engage with the younger members of the community and the children really enjoyed guessing the film titles and informing their parents and grandparents.

My moment of extreme Englishness occurred though as I sat drinking my tea out of a china cup, complete with saucer, eating a slice of wonderful peach cake - it had fruit in it, it counted towards my five-a-day - while gazing at the magnificent architecture of the old church building through vintage floral bunting.

And I also thought to myself that while we're still having classic car shows and flower festivals, and drinking Pimm's and tea out of china cups (not at the same time, obviously), that the world can't actually be that bad a place and civilisation will prevail.

Many thanks to all the wonderful volunteers who give up their time to arrange such events - you put the 'great' into Great Britain.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

'We have more in common than that which divides us'

'We have more in common than that which divides us' - the words of the late Jo Cox MP have special resonance in these troubled times for our country.

The time has come for us all to set aside our differences - be they political, religious or whatever.

Because the simple truth is we can't carry on as we are.  We can't be forever fearful of listening to or watching the news each day, bracing ourselves for the latest tragedy to beset our nation.

I was actually going to write a very different article to this, where I discussed the recent election, Theresa May's mis-timed gamble, and the coalition of chaos (as yet to be agreed with the DUP at the time of writing) - a grave cause of concern for many because of their less-than-liberal viewpoint.

However, I feel that enough has been said about Mrs May and her shortcomings.  She seems a decent enough person, doing a difficult job at a very tough time, and I feel that 'Theresa-bashing' as a national past-time should be consigned to the past, along with 'Corbyn-bashing' and 'Farron-bashing'.  It's just not helpful.

Lest we forget, we elect our MPs to work for us, a job they hopefully fulfil to the best of their abilities.

They are only human though, and sometimes they make mistakes; but the only people who never make mistakes are those who do nothing in the first place.  The key is to learn from them and to not repeat them.

With everything this country is currently facing - the on-going terrorist threat, North Korea, Trump, Brexit - we need to be working together, not pulling further apart.

We don't necessarily have to completely agree with everybody's viewpoint, but we do need to listen, be tolerant, compromise where necessary and find some common ground in order to move forward.

We owe it to future generations, our children and our grandchildren, to sort this mess out and to make things better for everyone.  There really is no alternative.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Online shopping isn't always cheaper - or better...

About three years ago I stopped shopping online completely.  This was a fairly big decision on my part, spurred on by discovering that not all online retailers were paying their fair share of corporation tax in the UK. 

I ceased my very occasional visits to coffee chain behemoths for the same reason - I now have a policy to just visit independents wherever possible.

I appreciate that my one-woman protest hasn't even put the slightest dent in any of these large corporations' profits, and it has on occasion made life a little awkward as when you can't buy things in high street shops the assistants sometimes cheerfully suggest I try online.

However, I have a very recent example of how I actually saved money by shopping on the high street instead.

My stove-top enamel kettle retired after nearly twenty years' loyal service.  Seeking a replacement, husband checked online and informed me that several retailers offered new versions.

I refused to consider this, telling him we should go to a local hardware shop.  Our original kettle had been purchased at Burton's in Kettering, and we were given a handwritten receipt and a paper bag to bring it home in.

We headed to Market Harborough and Frank Gilbert Housewares, a veritable cornucopia of all things domestic which makes the Lakeland catalogue look meagre in comparison.

Here the knowledgeable assistant helped us choose the right kettle for our needs, unboxing several so I could test the weight and husband could check the workmanship, spending time and checking in his storeroom to see what alternative colours he could offer.

We made our choice, paid the asking price and returned home.  Job done, no messing or waiting for delivery and receiving a annoying card saying you were out for the nanosecond that the driver knocked on the door.

Out of interest, I then checked the online retailers' websites - and in each case, we had paid significantly less than the prices online.

Just goes to show, online isn't always cheaper, and it can't ever compete with good old-fashioned customer service.