Thursday, 31 December 2009

That Was the Year that Was!

Being a true Scot I love Hogmanay and the New Year (almost as much, if not more, than Christmas). There's something about drawing a line under the year that's past and stepping over it into the year that's to come, that's very therapeutic, especially if the past year hasn't been a particularly good one.

Not that this is the case this year. 2009 has been a pretty good year on the whole.

It started with an Ithaca* walk following Bristol's Heritage Trail and ending with a bowl of soup around our dining table.
(* the name given to the 6 of us who meet once a week to share food, drink and stories of our journey through life - which I always look forward to and which keeps me going)

We had a loft conversion, a house face lift and stripped floorboards in the autumn of 2008 but the makeover wasn't complete until the kitchen and bathroom floors were tiled in January. And we're still not back to normal, whatever that means.

After being on the waiting list for several years I was finally offered a place in the Gasworks Choir. It's been a while since I've sung properly (20+ years ago at Edinburgh University) and the first time I've sung alcapella, which was pretty scary to begin with, but which I'm gradually getting the hang of. I've now done two terms, with concerts in May and December and an 'appearance' at the Festival of Song at Stourhead. I also took part in Sing for Water at Lloyd's amphitheatre.

I surprised myself by joining the WI, without the need of a blue rinse! The Malago WI is one of the latest urban branches run by some frighteningly efficient yummy mummies who have devised an incredible first year programme including Christmas decorations, egg cosy knitting, creative writing, Indian head massage and clothes swapping. And lots and lots of tea and cake!

As if that weren't enough to be getting on with, I've also started to attend, albeit sporadically, a Stitch and Bitch group that meets twice a month at the Tobacco Factory. One or both of my daughters usually comes along too. I started knitting a scarf for myself but was waylaid by a patchwork blanket for my younger daughter. Suffice to say I haven't yet finished either! Still there's something very relaxing about sitting with a drink and chatting away while you create a work of art. And there's always someone to help you when you get stuck.

I've been on two Year 6 residential trips to Treginnis Farm in Pembrokeshire. The weather on both occasions was excellent and we had a fantastic time with the farm staff and the animals as well as several long walks along the spectacular coastal path.

I became involved in the Grow Zones project, an Earth Abbey initiative to encourage and support the growing of fruit and vegetables in back gardens. I've helped make over a couple of gardens and have had our garden made over in return. I also took a course in permaculture which I hope will come in useful as we expand our microholding.

We took two holidays, the first a week in our old favourite, St Ives. It was our tenth visit, and our tenth cottage, this time a stone's throw from Porthmeor Beach. We did a few of the normal things - Easter morning service at St Ia's (where we missed Andy Couch), the Tate, body boarding, walks to Man Head and Clodgy Point and from Lelant, and breakfast at the Porthgwidden Beach Cafe. But we also racked up a few firsts - a very muddy walk to Gurnard's Head where the heavens opened, but where we were fortunate to take shelter, and lunch, in the Gurnard's Head Hotel, a pint at the Sloop and dinner at Blas Burger, an eco-friendly fast food restaurant on Smeaton's Pier.

The second holiday was one we'd been promising ourselves ever since our older daughter went on her first Bristol-Bordeaux student exchange three years ago. Her host family in Bayonne invited us to visit them 'en famille', and this year we finally took them up on their offer and spent a delightful 10 days getting to know both them and the Basque country. We travelled by train, stopping off in London for a few days in both directions. Our time was split between their homes in Bayonne and Creon (just outside Bordeaux) and highlights for me included a dramatic re-enactment of a battle between the French and the English (no prizes for guessing who I cheered for!) and the delicious paella we shared with 20+ of their family and friends on our last day. It was a real privilege to spend time with the family who'd looked after our girls and whose own girls have become honorary members of our family. I hope one day we'll be able to return the favour.

We've also made two summer trips to Scotland. The first was to visit prospective universities for my elder daughter who sits her A levels next year. We took the train to Durham (which we'd laid great hopes on but which sadly failed to impress) and then ventured further north to Edinburgh from where we took day trips to St Andrews and Glasgow. The 4 year MA course appeals and, if all goes to plan, our daughter will follow in her parents' footsteps and study at Edinburgh (albeit social history, as opposed to French or Zoology).

The second was just a week later when we travelled to Biggar, again via Edinburgh, to attend my an old friend's 50th birthday ceilidh. It was only as he welcomed his guests at the beginning of the evening that we learned that he had got married that afternoon! We didn't know many folk there, apart from his family, but we had a wonderful night reacquainting ourselves with the dances we'd first learned at school.

I've been busy campaigning. Our local community organised an effective protest against the opening of a new Tesco store and I travelled to London to take part in The Wave demonstration at the beginning of December. Cutting down on waste and reducing my carbon footprint are still priorities with so much more to do.

All in all I've had a good year. AS levels and UCAS applications have been stressful and with A levels and GCSEs to come next year we're not out of the woods yet. I try to stay 'chilled' but I'm afraid I don't always succeed. Hey ho!

Still, tomorrow's another day ... and another year!

Friday, 18 December 2009

I don't know about anyone else, but I often feel completely powerless in the face of major events. The UN Climate Conference is one of them where, confronted with arguably the biggest threat the planet has ever witnessed, our leaders seem unable to take the steps necessary to avert it.

There are hundreds and thousands, maybe even millions, of us switching off our standbys, converting to low energy light bulbs, turning down the heating and putting on jumpers, taking the train instead of the plane, eating less meat etc etc. And, in case our governments haven't noticed what we've been up to, we send them postcards and emails and even paint our faces blue and go on demonstrations. Yet still they do nothing ... or at least as little as they can get away with.

However, the threat of climate change is too important to give up on. So yesterday I signed the Avaaz petition here and today I emailed President Obama here. I don't know whether it will make any difference (although NGOs insist that it does) but at least I know I've tried.

Perhaps if you tried too ... ?

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Round Robins

Yesterday we received our first Christmas 'round robin'. I'm not sure what to make of them. On the one hand I'm glad of the opportunity to catch up with old friends who I don't see very often and only hear from at this time of year, but on the other hand they can come over as rather boastful and often leave me feeling rather inadequate. Illusions of the achievements of my past year are shattered when I learn that someone else has been cruising in the Caribbean, or bought a second home in the Dordogne, or whose children have got a clean sweep of A stars in their GCSEs. I don't think I could ever bring myself to write a Christmas letter, unless I took up the suggestion of a friend and wrote a spoof one, chronicling all the disasters that had befallen me in the previous year.

A few years ago I came across the excellent The Cat that could open the Fridge Door by the Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart. This compilation of Christmas round robins sent to him by readers had me in stitches. He has now brought together this and a subsequent collection (The Hamster that loved Puccini) in a volume entitled The Christmas Letters. The perfect stocking filler.

Anyway, what do you think of Christmas letters? Are they a source of information or entertainment? Do they make you feel better or worse about your own year? Do you write your own, and if so how do you decide what to include and what to leave unwritten? Have I been too hard on them?

Monday, 7 December 2009

A Traditional Christmas

Our Christmas is packed with traditions, some old and some recent. They are extremely important to my daughters, for whom they represent comfort and stability. So what are they?

Well, I've already mentioned one of them - our Advent calendar. Then there's our annual visit to Bath Christmas Market and the pantomime (at Bristol Old Vic until last year when we switched to the Theatre Royal in Bath). We try (not always successfully) to read A Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. We wait until a week before Christmas until we buy our tree, from a lorry parked in Asda car park, and we always decorate it (in red, green and gold) to the Handel's Messiah. There is usually an argument over whether it is quite straight. This too is a tradition!

We throw a mulled wine and mince pie party on Christmas Eve with white iced star biscuits, adorned with silver balls. After midnight mass the girls are allowed to open one present - a pair of pyjamas (pinched from a friend, the tradition not the jimjams). We still leave Santa a glass of sherry and a mince pie and a carrot for Rudolph. There's a stocking for everyone. The girls' stockings must contain chocolate coins, pistachios, a Lush bath bomb, a pair of knickers, an orange (which they traditionally never eat) and a chocolate Santa. Christmas dinner is not necessarily turkey, but breakfast is usually Bucks Fizz and Christmas morning muffins (courtesy of Nigella Lawson).

After Christmas we tackle one of our Christmas jigsaws and visit the BBC Wildlife Photography exhibition at the Museum. We have to watch Love Actually at some point during the holidays and we keep our tree up until the twelfth night.

So how about you? What do you do?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Waving - and (hopefully) not Drowning

Yesterday 40,000+ people marched through central London, giving the government the mandate it asked for to negotiate a safe and fair deal for the planet. We've done our bit, now it's over to you, Gordon!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Christmas is Coming!

Advent invariably catches me unawares, and this year is no exception. Advent Sunday has come and gone and I've neither boiled a pudding nor baked a cake. As for making any mincemeat, well ...

There is however one thing I have done - and in good time for a change. I've successfully filled and hung the girls' Advent calendar ready for the first of December this morning. (It was actually Alan who hung the calendar, but on my instruction!)

I'm not a particularly skilled needlewoman and so I'm quite proud of this embroidered Advent calendar I made when the girls were small. It took me several Advents to finish it and there were a few years when the 6 , then 12 and finally 18 pockets had to be emptied and then immediately replenished in order to see us through the season.

Each pocket contains a small wrapped present. The girls share the calendar, opening one present every two days. On the days they don't receive a present they get a chocolate from their Divine calendar.

Finding 24 inexpensive items to fit in the pockets is an annual challenge and one which I always intend to spread over the preceding year. This never works out and there's always a mad dash round the shops mid November scouring the shelves for items of stationery, toiletries, jewellery etc. I try to stick to a budget of no more than £1 a present, and less if possible.

So now that that's done I can look out my recipe for Christmas cake and get chopping.