Cottage Cheese

So this is once more the time of Christmas past. Past, again, after weeks of anticipation it seemed to vanish in a whirl of relatives, Turkey and wrapping paper. But was always that in my home growing up so considering that the tradition is maintained at least. Thankfully for me the Lovely wife and I go away for New Year every year with friends and then my Dad has his birthday so that kind of helps eke out some kind of holiday feeling until at least mid- January.

So here we are in Wales in a rather nice cottage with a wood burning fire and most of the same delightful flourishes that tell you no one really lives here (because while one or two of them you might be able to bear, the combination would drive you nuts). Any of us that have stayed in such places can probably name our own favourites, but here are the few we came up with this morning over the coco pops.

Drop Latches on doors. They may look old world and attractive, but it is impossible to open and close them without making a racket that would wake the dead – or indeed the Lovely Wife, which is quite annoying if you want to sneak off to the bathroom, or bring her a cup of tea without waking her. Accept progress and have doors that close quietly and easily.

This place and several others we have been to have had lovely large roll top baths, with shiny spray attachments in the middle of spacious bathrooms. This is all very lovely except… What about all the water that is going to be sprayed around with the absence of shower curtain. They should start saving for the ceiling repairs now, I think.

Many of these cottages were never meant to sleep comfortably the number people they are advertised for and it shows. So let us face reality. Please avoid bedrooms where you have to have to walk through someone else’s to get through. Even more important please avoid family bathrooms which are actually an en suite. These things are bad enough for a family but have the potential to damage friendships.

Do not child theme anything. A single friend of ours is still traumatised by the Minnie Mouse bedspread and associated décor he had to cope with for a week. Single people do not equal children.

What is it with the cushions? In many places we have been there are so many cushions you have to excavate the bed to find it and then the damn things fill up the bedroom floor. And pillows? How many do you really need?

The complete lack of anything approaching a sharp knife is a constant. Also, usually the oven does not work properly. Odd really, when I go self-catering, generally I feel the expectation should be that I will be cooking at least a few nights a week so why to cottage kitchens usually so poor?

Over decoration is also common. We left the Victorian era some time ago, so filling the place and every wall with tat is not actually required anymore. The owner of the current cottage is especially bad on this and we cannot move for inspirational/sweet messages and jugs.

Finally, with an observation rather than a rant, there is the fascinating and entirely random collection of DVDs and CDs that appear. Particular gems this time around are a weird combination of Bryan Adams and the Lighthouse family (there are two Lighthouse family albums, which fascinates me. Wasn’t one enough?). Are they the rejects from the owner’s collections? Random picks from the local charity shop bought to fill a space not occupied by jugs? Or castaways from previous occupants, forming a weird rejected collective, huddling together for warmth and the hope someone, anyone, might play them again? Discuss.

But never mind the moaning. In the end we love it as in the end we do not have to worry about all the things that are wrong as we are only here for a week. So let’s just open another bottle and throw a log on the fire.

It’s still kind of Christmas here.


Is it dangerous to look back?

Is it dangerous to look back? Well, if you are Lot’s wife I guess the answer to that is clear unless you want a change of career to condiment. It did not do Persephone much good either come to think of it. In fact I cannot think of any reference where looking back is generally considered a good idea. When the monster is behind you the best thing is usually to run very fast. Or as in the joke with the bears, at least run faster than your fellow potential victims.

We are lucky enough to be able to eat out at nice places every so often and have developed favourites over the years that have developed not only a picture of reliability in our heads but also a level of nostalgia. You know the sort of thing perhaps. That place where you had your first proper date (or at least the one that went well, draw a veil over the others perhaps). Maybe it was just a place where you used to meet friends and the echoes of their laughter still permeate the place in your ears when you go in. The reasons why somewhere might have a particularly special meaning are endless. In some cases it is just time. One of my favourite places in London is a tiny wine bar off Charing Cross road, that has been run by the same guys for as long as I have been going – over 20 years – and is a little bit of France all on its own – warm, convivial and pretty much unchanging through that period. That atmosphere is such that you feel you should be ordering in French. It just seems the right thing to do, somehow.

But the problem is that you do not control what happens with these places. Like the village that I grew up with, generally they will change, adapt and sometimes disappear. The tapas bar the Lovely Wife and I spent far too much time in while we were courting closed pretty much the weekend we got engaged (I like to think that it did its job by that point and was no longer needed but would have been the venue for an engagement party which subsequently never happened). Sometimes it is less dramatic but can still be disturbing. The two nice places to eat we have been to recently were perfectly fine; but not as good as they had been in previous years. That is my problem. Once you have reached a particular standard then when it comes under it, even slightly, it is difficult not to feel a bit of disappointment.

Obviously there is a matter of degree here, but I do feel it is good advice not to try and revisit things that first time around turned out to be so special they stay strongly in your mind. Our first anniversary, for example, was a blinder. I had booked part of the the Eisenhower suite on the top floor of Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland. Culzean is a National Trust for Scotland property ( ), the Robert Adam designed castle literally perched on the cliffs and set in magnificent gardens. The top floor was converted into a serious of rooms for Eisenhower as a thank you for war efforts and you can hire them for dinner and overnight stay. Usually that means just you and maybe two or three other couples in a magnificent setting including a grand circular drawing room overlooking the see.

We arrived in glorious sunshine to find a host of firemen (they had just had a false alarm) milling around in the sun. The Lovely Wife did ask whether I had arranged them especially. The truth of that will remain a secret. Anyway, we had the gardens to ourselves in the fading sun as all the visitors had gone, and found out tour delight that we were the only couple staying so literally had the place to ourselves. I can still picture being in the drawing room watch the sun go down finally across the waves; magical.

But much as it was such a special event, that it would be great to relive… We are never doing it again, because everything worked so well that I just cannot see another go at it being anything other than a disappointment, however slight, and the worst thing is it could damage the memory of the first time. Sometimes nostalgia is best kept at arm’s length in your memory and it is better to create new best times then try and recreates best times from you past.

It takes two

Now that Advent is well and truly on us, and the tree is up and glinting (the Spanish Lady looking good for her age I’m pleased to say) the radio is now gradually filling up with Christmas songs. A few of these songs are not actually that bad, which is a bit of a miracle in itself as listening to some Christmas songs is like getting teeth extracted, without anaesthetic. People usually quote ‘Fairy tale of New York’ as a highpoint, but I’d throw in ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by the Waitresses and Thea Gilmore’s ‘That’ll be Christmas’ as a more recent Christmas tune that is actually a good song too. But this is not really what I wanted to waffle about this week.
It started with a Christmas song. Well, it is a ‘winter song’ I guess rather than being explicitly Christmassy, but ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’ does have a naughty festivity to it. Well, the version I was listening to is my favourite one, with Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews from the Reload album back in 1999. Tom has never sounded dodgier and Cerys Matthews has one of those voices that just fits this song like a glove (and post song giggles and ‘bloody freezing innit?’ comments always cracks me up. Reload was an interesting album, a successful piece of reinvention marketing by Jones to bring him to a younger audience by doing duets with various more recent stars, a strategy that several have tried with varying degrees of success. Reload works I think as the songs are well chosen and some of the collaborators do sound as though they are enjoying themselves and enjoying working with an all-time great vocalist.
So what’s my point?
Well, they are alive. At the moment everyone seems to want to sing with dead people. It’s very odd and in my mind distinctly creepy. Some of the people having a go mixing their vocals in with someone who long since left the mortal coil are young and/or upcoming (e.g. Gregory Porter, who I like a lot, warbling along with Julie London on ‘Fly me to the Moon’). Julie London died in 2000. But it is not just the new folks, everyone is at it, as a glance at Barry Manilow’s new album reveals.
Now, I know that many duets today are not recorded together in the same studio, or even on the same continent. Most are recorded as separate tracks to be mixed later; fair enough. As someone who spends a lot of time at work thinking about the principles of things in order to understand what is a right or wrong decision, it does not take me a huge leap to go from this practical way of getting some interesting records made (although it loses some magic don’t you think?) to creating some fantasy records where one of the tracks is from someone no longer with us. But it just doesn’t feel right to me.
Posthumous music releases are a difficult one, even when endorsed by estates, families and former band mates. It is rather nice to hear a ‘new’ Queen song recently, albeit an inferior one, because for most of us this is totally new and a reminder for us to go back to the massive back catalogue (and a reminder of just how much Freddie Mercury could lift even the mediocre to something better than most of the tosh produced every year). But adding your vocal onto someone else’s track – without their permission – is something different to me. I don’t think it is creating new music. It is more like Damien Hurst daubing some paint on a Rembrandt. I’d much rather the artist just go and record their own cover and create a new interpretation and if they want to duet, why not use someone who is actually still alive? It all seems to me either a cynical exercise in marketing, ego (putting themselves on the same level as an established star of the past) or wish fulfillment. None of which particularly make me feel anything other than slightly creeped out.
Singing along to dead people should be reserved for the restricted audience of your own shower. Create new art with the living.

You’re all doing it wrong

It amuses me how everyone else gets Christmas wrong when it comes to putting up the decorations and such.

No, I’m not trying to be arrogant. It is just a desperate attempt to get someone to read this rambling nonsense. I know there is no right way, but it does rather depend on how things were done when you were a kid when it comes to defining what Christmas should look like. My mother was a big Christmas fan so it was usually quite early when the battered old artificial tree would come down out of the loft. Last year’s January newspaper would come off and we would then have to twist the wired branches into some kind of semblance of a tree. Finally, the big tins of decorations would come out. Not lights in our house but lots of baubles and, well, bits of stuff. A pair of sugar tongs in the shape of hands. A small plastic Spanish dancing girl (and no, I have no idea why she was on the tree). There was a plastic fruit that had been filled with sherbet and then rolled inexpertly in glitter by my juvenile hand. It was a mess really, a growing collection of seasonal detritus that were greeted like old friends every year.

It is a bit different now. We have a real tree for a start and I am not sure I would do without the lights, providing they are the flashy LED ones. I think by the time Christmas is over I have probably managed to hypnotise myself. But I’ve held onto the growing collection of nostalgic decorations. In fact the unseasonal Spanish lady and the sugar tongs have made it South to our tree, although slightly spookily I am not sure how that exactly happened. They just kind of arrived and have been since added to our Titian unicorn and the whelk shells rolled inexpertly in glitter by my now adult hand a couple of years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the opposite idea of decorating with a new colour scheme every odd year which seems to be the other approach. That appeals on the grounds of keeping it fresh and elegant. But while the Lovely Wife could certainly qualify, elegance is not really part of my makeup, while routine and nostalgia certainly is. When I strap the Christmas Duck to the top of the tree every year I know it is indeed Christmas once again and I can start to feel Seasonally happy rather than seasonally depressed, which is pretty much the only other option. That said, I probably do now need Noddy Holder to scream ‘It’s Christmaaaaas!’ on Radcliffe & Maconie’s 6Music show to be able to legitimately able to break out the bubbly. Yes, I can collect traditions as well as tat.

Talking of traditions, I learned this weekend that at Wrest Park Gardens we may have the oldest living tree used as a Christmas tree in the UK. It’s a Wellingtonia, and absolutely massive. It is 158 years old and in its early life used to be dug up, shoved in a pot and brought inside to do servitude as the Christmas tree for the house, before being put back out again for another year. They are currently appealing to find out if there is an older one still living.

All this just makes me think is what it was like at the point when the gardening staff, caps in hand, maybe suggested politely that ‘if sir would be a minding, could we have a new tree this year, seeing that Mr Ford has just done his back in trying the dig the bloody thing up, pardon my French.’

What the Wellingtonia thought about it at the time is unreported. Quite possibly it gave a heartfelt sigh of relief that the endless cycle was over and it could get on with the very, very slow process of growing very large. Or maybe it was actually a bit sad; left outside in the cold while the family celebrated and laughed around some youthful newcomer. I would like to think that the new attention it is now being given is helping redress the loss a bit.

Read about the tree

(Although as you can see so far the star is only part way up the tree as it is quite so tall!)


I was amused at the weekend to hear an appeal for a National bird. I have a problem with most aspects of nationalism but I think a bird is probably at the least offensive end of the wedge. Over breakfast muffins there was a discussion on what sort of strategy would you pursue. For example, do you go for the weird looking one that would be at least unique, like the New Zealand Kiwi? Or perhaps something more iconic and something aspirational such as a peregrine falcon, which may not be the largest of our birds of prey but having had one flying centimetres above my limited scalp coverage at falconry displays on two separate occasions recently they are brilliant aerial acrobats. Or do you go for something everyone knows, like a sparrow. Or something just so beautiful that people will immediately warm to it, even if it is a merciless predator (I was thinking about kingfishers, but come to think of it the jay should also be in with a shout).Or maybe a Mallard, as everyone likes ducks, and for the best we can probably do for the nation is to choose something unthreatening and inherently funny and they are probably the best bet since we do not have penguins (outside of John Lewis adverts).

But I think it is a good time of year to think about this because for me at least the choice is obvious and will literally be staring us in the face over the next few weeks. It has to be the robin, surely?

Everybody in this country knows what a robin looks like. They are all over the country, in towns and in the country. They chase us along footpaths and get astonishingly close to us in our gardens (especially when we are gardening, last time I turned over one of our flower beds I had to shoo one of our locals out of the way so I could continue digging, so intent was he/she on getting in on the invertebrates I was turning up. They are attractive birds, both sexes are pretty (nice to have some equality there in bird land), bold, plucky and appear often positively friendly. They eat lots of garden pests. They are also, admittedly sexually promiscuous, prone to random acts of violence when high on hormones and make an awful lot of noise outside the window when you are trying to sleep at some stupid time at the morning like drunken lads on the way back from the pub (although much more tunefully). Come to think of it, they really do echo many British traits.

I think many of us have our own robin anecdotes too. Mine is from a dark and frosty winter early morning some years ago when I was scraping ice off the car in preparation for the dread M25 crawl to work. As I moved around the windows scraping away in the dark, I just looked up for some reason; must have felt that something was watching me.

The robin was about six centimetres away from my eyes, looking at me with an expression of pure aggression. How dare I be in his territory? Now a robin may not be very big, but that beak is sharp. But I was lucky; the tiny part of his tiny brain eventually seemed to compute that actually I was probably not a threat to his mating prospects after the turn of the year and he let me go on my way with only a warning.

So I am warning you. If you have a chance to vote, I advise you to vote robin, because they are watching us, and we are living in their territory after all. And while I suspect the goldfinches are no way as cute as they seem, don’t trust them to have your back. They eat thistle seeds. Robins eat meal worms. Not much of a contest there.

Apparently robins were voted national bird in the 60s and I cannot see them giving up territory without a fight. After all, when you find your recently bought department store toy penguin torn to pieces you’ll know who they really object waddling in on their Christmas card racket…