Much more cheerful

Much more cheerful

I’m in a much more cheerful mood this week. The reason? Food! Specifically, my sister, Judie’s, little cheese and chilli biscuits. Completely delicious to nibble with a glass of wine. I have no idea how she makes them, but I hope she doesn’t lose the will to do so. She’s been shielding, hasn’t been out of the house for months now. Which is good for the cheese biscuit production line, but extremely difficult for her. I really take my hat off to all the millions of people living alone who have endured such an extended period of solitude so stoically. There may be tensions being holed up with potentially irritating spouses and even more annoying kids, but the thought of being totally on my own day after day, month after month, is terrifying. I think this dotty government should hand out prizes when this is all over. (I might get Marcus – or Daniel, as Hancock likes to call him – onto it. He seems to be the only one around here that gets things done.)

Banoffee

I’m sure you’ve all got them, those food moments in your life when something tastes magical, just absolutely right? No good trying to replicate it – like that blissful Italian holiday back in 1976 when nobody argued – because it was probably as much to do with where you were in your life, your hunger levels, the air, the company, as the food itself. One of mine is what we dubbed ‘killer pie’ in a Lake District tea shop – banoffee with an acre of cream on top, by any other name. Another is lamb chops and chips in a deserted mountain café in Crete with the cook and the owner having a domestic in the background. Another is my school friend’s mum’s cauliflower cheese… which she said, many years later, for sure was out of a packet, because her mum couldn’t cook. And my own mum’s fish pie.

Bullets-and-sludge

I’ve been lucky in lockdown, foodwise. My neighbour got bored and baked these delicious cakes, kindly leaving 2 slices on the doorstep for us. We found a farm shop with asparagus – for which, I’m proud to say, I made hollandaise sauce (the first attempt did turn into scrambled egg, admittedly, but Jamie Oliver saved the day). And tonight I’m watching a Zoom demonstration with my cousin Mark, (www.cookingexperience.co.uk) who is going to attempt to teach me how to make risotto. Good luck to him, I say. I only tried to make it once and it was bullets-and-sludge, more suitable for sealing a wall – not that I know anything about sealing a wall, either, of course. So cheers to everyone out there improving my eating experience on so many levels. You are all much appreciated.

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Enough already!

Enough already!

Maybe I’m becoming increasingly grumpy in my old age. But I’m worried we’re all turning into a nation of navel-gazers. Our lives have become so small and self-contained, we seem to be focusing on ourselves to an unhealthy extent. At first it was amusing, to hear in detail everyone’s lockdown life: favourite desert-lockdown track, poem, lunge, neurosis, cereal, Netflix box set, hand cream, sweatpants… on and on we all went. Every inch of the media is now thick with intimate details perhaps we’d rather not know.

I sympathise, obviously. I’ve done it myself. What else are we poor buggers going to talk about, seeing as we can’t go anywhere, and we’re all in need of a vent. But, as with all the blanket coverage of Covid wind-ups and speculation we have to wade through every day, it’s just not interesting anymore. It was, for a while, but could we move on now?

Radio days

Take Radio 4. Now, I’m an avid fan. I have the radio on a lot of the time, when I’m cooking or driving or in the mornings to catch up with the headlines. But I’ve almost stopped listening in the last two months. I don’t want to hear yet another theme on the virus played out in programmes that aren’t usually concerned with the news – when the news itself is scaring us, baffling us, and irritating us out of our wits. I almost long for the good old days of international death and destruction that didn’t involve a care home – tales from Syria, Afghanistan, The West Bank, Putin and Erdogan’s latest scams. Almost.

Nimbyism flourishes

What’s the solution? As my dear father always said, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’. So, read on… We had bacon for breakfast. We’re eating too much during lockdown, no idea why. (how am I doing?) Then my hero husband struggled manfully with my new desktop, transferring endless files while I sweated quietly in the wings, convinced all my work would disappear forever in a puff of the other sort of virus that no one’s interested in except the perhaps the Chinese these days. (Gripped yet?) After lunch of salad with unmentionables left over in the fridge, I went for a walk and flexed my unfortunately burgeoning nimbyism – hordes of incomers littering our quiet little harbour and weeing in the churchyard. And that’s pretty much my day. I hope you’ve been entertained? Answers on a postcard please, if such things exist anymore… you can see my mood has not improved.

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A writer’s dilemma

A writer’s dilemma

The virus is messing with my head again – amongst everything else it’s messing with. I’m just settling down to write my next novel. It was to be set in 2020, but now I’m having a drastic rethink. I can’t comfortably start a story that will span the year, when I don’t know how it will all end. It’s not like Brexit, where you can just not mention the damn thing – leave  politics out of the picture altogether. Covid has affected every inch of all our lives these last months, so my fictional characters can’t escape, unless I decide they live in some far-flung corner of the world, like, for instance, Kiribati, which has so far had no cases. But then it’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and clearly it was too much effort to infect the islanders, even for this wily virus. Anyway, I can’t go and visit for research any time soon.

No sex?

The thing is, we’ve all slogged through months of lockdown and had to endure endless tiresome coronaspeak, such as the dreaded R-number and self-isolating and PPE – which used to be a university course, right? Then there’s poor old Durham, which is now eternally twinned with Specsavers. So will we really want to read a novel which features Matt Hancock on every page? And in which the only sex is virtual? I’m not saying it’s all about sex, obviously, nor that my characters will be doing it with Mr Hancock, but I’d like to point out that I write romantic novels and if my characters can’t even kiss unless they’re self-isolating together… it rather ruins the plot.

Land of milk and honey

So, I reckon I’m not going to say when this book is set. It’ll be a sort of no-man’s-land time where anything is possible and where the virus is only a glint in poor Boris’s eye – that’s a real case of ‘Be careful what you wish for’, eh? Nobody will have heard of our Dom, or know how to wash their hands properly or raid the supermarket for loo rolls or lose half of every meeting because they don’t know how to work Zoom. They won’t even have heard of Zoom. It’ll be a glorious land of milk and honey – both bought in a normal shop, of course, with crowds of people jostling at the till and spitting enthusiastically in each other’s faces. What a joy this book will be to write, I bet you can’t wait to read it!

Lessons I’ve learnt about my lockdown self…

Lessons I’ve learnt about my lockdown self…

I quite like having no social commitments.

Sounds really terrible, doesn’t it? But, however much I look forward to seeing my friends – and I do – it’s really peaceful not to look at the week ahead and start making calculations about which London train to catch, when should I wash my hair so it’s not fluffy – which is pretty much never, but there is a fleeting window when it’s marginally less so – what the hell to wear for multiple meet ups in town, taking into account the weather, comfort v smart, can I cram my current weighty tome into my bag and not drag my shoulder off… You can see how complicated it is. Way simpler to wear the same jeans for a week. And have more time to write.

Lunging for the crisps

I haven’t morphed into the female version of Joe Wicks. I thought perhaps I’d get lean and fit now I’m in total control of my diet, have more time to exercise and no chance of a rendezvous that would include too much wine and chips. But, disappointingly, it turns out change doesn’t happen without major effort. And also, what could be nicer, when you’ve just been rendered tearful by the daily bulletin of death and trips to Barnard Castle, than a restoratively chilled glass of something delicious and a large bowl of crisps?

Not a fan of Zoom. 

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s better than nothing right now, but you can’t interrupt people. If you do, you lose the end of what they’re saying. And most conversations – mine, at least – are a crisscross of everyone talking loudly over everyone else. It’s such hard work keeping quiet or having to repeat stuff. Although our yoga teacher has set up wonderful Zoom classes. And I only hit the furniture with my long arms and legs, rather than whacking the poor person lying next to me in the face.

I’m not going to make bread.

I had such good intentions. I grabbed the last kilo of flour from the empty supermarket shelves with a cry of triumph, was kindly donated yeast and a bread book by my sister – who makes brilliant bread btw – and… well it all just sat there eyeing me reproachfully. I did read some recipes, honest. But although bread makers tell me it’s so easy, it seems to take ages and need such careful monitoring. I had the feeling me and Don would end up munching through leaden bricks of toast with a brave smile and a wavering belief that anything homemade must be better than shop-bought. So I gave the flour to my sister, in the hope she might donate a loaf this time!

 

Me and Groucho

My hairdressing skills are legendary. Well, slight exaggeration, Don won’t let me near his Barnet, which seems perverse, especially as I’ve now got the proper scissors and watched loads of YouTube videos – like the bread-makers, they make it look so easy. And I suppose I have no intention of cutting my own. But I’m terribly proud that I’ve successfully trimmed and dyed my eyebrows. I looked a lot like Groucho Marx for a few days, but who’s going to see me anyway?

Having wondered how the hell I would adapt to lockdown, I’m now wondering how I’ll adapt to being allowed out again. Will I be able to wind myself up and embrace the pressures of Real Life? Or have I developed worrying hermit tendencies that will be hard to shake? I’ll let you know.

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Anyone for Proust?

Anyone for Proust?

Are you going to read ‘something serious and improving’ whilst in the continued lockdown? Dante has been mentioned by some, and Proust, James Joyce’s Ulysses. All of which – if you haven’t already read them and are not rolling your eyes at the prospect – would be fascinating and fulfilling, should you be feeling strong and really focused.

However, I’m not feeling either right now. Focus is tricky because of the ongoing pall of uncertainty, and my strength is being mustered for keeping it all together and not sinking into worries about the future.

With this in mind, I’m suggesting three books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, which won’t require huge reserves of attention, but will keep you absorbed, hopefully, in those extra hours when previously you might have been out partying or wandering round the shops. Sigh… They’re very different, and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but here goes.

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This is about a woman who marries a man who later becomes the President of the United States. She’s from an ordinary background, catapulted into a privileged, high-profile American family. It’s about love, power, wealth and class. Beautifully written, I was completely absorbed in Alice’s complex story. I didn’t want it to end.

Home from Home, by Veronica Henry

 

On a lighter note, Home from Home, by Veronica Henry. This is a warm, comforting family drama about two feuding families in the West Country. Great characters and a flowing narrative that makes you eager for more. But the main character is Dragonfly Farm, where most of the action takes place. It’s been the home of the Melchiors for generations – they make cider there – and is so charmingly described, so vivid and appealing, you just want to jump in the car and go and live there too. You’ll forget Covid ever existed.

home from home veronica henry

And thirdly, a moment of true escapism. Lady in Waiting, My extraordinary life in the shadow of the Crown, by Anne Glenconner. This is a memoir about the life of one of Princess Margaret’s ladies in waiting. Anne is a posh bird, from a long line of posh blokes: Norfolk estate, hunting, shooting, fishing, grand balls and inherited wealth – you know the thing. It’s a proper bird’s eye view, too, of all the snobbism, tradition and crazy indulgences of these people. But alongside the ridiculousness are some very real tragedies Anne has had to face – she’s still alive, at 87 – two of her grown up sons dying and a third nursed back from a near fatal motorbike accident. It’s all bonkers, how these people lived, the things Anne put up with at her husband’s hand and the expectations of a girl born into such a family at such a time. But gripping and oddly moving, even though Anne’s voice is quite measured, and even if you’re not a royalist.