Beating the January blues

It’s arrived. The credit card bill from hell and, along with it, the January blues. Apparently, the second Monday in January is officially the most depressing day of the year, but, frankly, most of January is a challenge for me.

Once the house has been de-Christmassed, which I start to look forward to after Boxing Day and is like a really good trip to the tip with a car full of crap (or, indeed, a crap full stop), it’s not long before I realise I have seriously overdone the credit card spending.

I could feel it coming, and the last few transactions just before Christmas sort of made me wince, but by that stage they were of a turkey nature rather than tartan place settings, if you know what I mean. Something, therefore, had to be done.

The first economy drive has involved hitting customer refunds in a big way. Obviously unwanted gifts have gone back, but this year I have been bolder.

Yes friends, I have taken clothes back I have worn and one of the huge advantages of being of a certain age (whatever the hell that means) is that you look respectable enough to get away with it. Either that or you look like you might go off like an unexploded WWII bomb if you don’t get what you want.

Consequently, people in the refunds department tend to give me the benefit of the doubt. I’ve got it down to a fine art. Fold it, iron it, save the label and distract them once they’ve got it out of the bag and are giving it a looking over. Don’t go overboard with excuses, in fact, no explanation at all is better than blurting out a short story since nobody gives a shit about why you are bringing it back, least of all the person manning the Front.

Better still, choose the assistant that looks the most gormless since gormlessness in some customer situations is a plus, unlike the normal weighing up of lanes in the supermarket to avoid someone who might be challenged to know the difference between a cauliflower and a mop head. This means it’s the one instance where it pays to dodge the older assistants since, in my experience, they are always called over to deal with tricky situations and are, by definition, more clever.

Then once the deal is done, try not to punch the air as you walk away and, more importantly, try not to immediately buy something else you don’t really need with the money saved.

“Yes friends, I have taken clothes back I have worn and one of the huge advantages of being of a certain age, whatever the hell that means, is that you look respectable enough to get away with it.”

Secondly, I have instigated the annual cost-cutting exercise on the food front. I’ve challenged myself to eat up the contents of the freezer since most of it is a jumble of furry white bags that could be either raspberries or mincemeat, and turn out to be liver. By the weekend we will be on to the two tins of Cullen skink, which the old man chose to buy unsupervised before we went decimal and have moved house with us twice. He might get a larger portion of that than I do.

I am even determined to make a dent in the pearl barley this year, although so far I have not found a recipe that uses more than a handful at a time and I seem to have bought a kilo of it. Ridiculous, since the size of the credit card bill amounts to about six months’ worth of shopping at Sainsbury’s, but somehow it makes me feel better.

Obviously, there is also a diet regime in place. Since it’s illegal not to be on a diet in January. I have chosen a no-sugar, no eating between meals and no-bread regime as my torture of choice this year, which means I am only able to eat cardboard on alternative Thursdays, but perhaps I will be in the petite section of John Lewis for the spring collection.

Yes, well we all know that is not going to happen but I might at least have a waist measurement that is no more than half my height, as apparently this is a much better way for older people to monitor whether they are likely to develop diabetes and dementia and losing two inches around the waist feels more achievable than a stone… but it’s early days…

The January gloom has not been helped by friends who are a couple of years older than me announcing that this is the year that they get their state pension. Yippee. Not me. I fall into the hideous tranche of women whose pensions have been ‘delayed’ by seven years. There is bugger all for me for ages, not even a bus pass.

I shall have to get myself a table at the end of the drive making lace edged hankies. And as for my own daughters, they might as well give up on the idea of a pension at all.

At least the snowdrops will be up soon.

This article first appeared on Standard Issue.

The beauty of silence

I recently booked myself in for a silent retreat at the local Carmelite Monastery. I say that like it’s something I go to often like my local Sainsburys. I needed a dose of inertia, stillness, recalibration or basically just a rest. A result of too much to do, too quickly with no time to do nothing. The silent bit of it intrigued me. How would I be without conversation for a weekend?

The itinerary was very precise. You arrive at 6.30 on Friday night and leave after lunch on Sunday with some talks and Mass to go to (not compulsory). My room reminded me of being a fresher at university but without the LPs and cheap wine. A single bed, a sink, and a chair and a Bible obviously. I had brought with me a heavy schedule of books to finish, to-do lists to polish up (old habits die hard) and some serious thinking about how my life should be going, and was not.

The food was much better than I had anticipated, sort of school dinners at their best, served I noticed at a hatch already plated up since having to pass the sprouts to one another would have involved speech or at the very least communication.  What was wonderful was not having to make small talk, to have to find out where people had driven from and what they to do (or did) for a living. Marvellously liberating leaving me free to day dream and eat in peace. Just eating in silence and going out for a walks in the winter sunshine was thoroughly good for me. The talks given by the monks were surprisingly thought-provoking, the silent prayer really also rather restorative although not something I normally do. But this wasn’t normally.

The evenings were a bit of a challenge .Once you had eaten your supper by 7pm there was nothing to do except read, ponder, or sleep. I was asleep by 9pm both nights and slept immeasurably better than normal. Perhaps I should have been a nun. I can see that as institutional life goes it is probably the best on offer, and I have a feeling that once I enter into my seriously senior years, institutional life might start to be a distinct possibility. I commend the retreat as a re-charging exercise, and next time I am going to take even less to do, which perhaps indicates it sort of worked.


Party frock hell

We are officially entering the party frock season. Now I no longer have a proper job and have started to call myself semi-retired which is code for I am no longer in full time employment but I’m still fucking amazing (clearly a strategy that is fooling no-one) there are admittedly fewer Christmas party frock do’s in the diary. Which is just fine and dandy by me. I ventured into the modest black, sequinned, sparkly, silver section of my wardrobe fearing that most of them would no longer fit. Yep, fears confirmed with only one of them fitting but with a speed bump type arrangement all down my back fat. Nice.

The scale and speed of the physical fall out is taking me by surprise. Now that I have turned 60 it all seems to be sagging, cracking, puckering or frizzing at a rate of knots. Even my toenails have gone weird on me and are starting to look like pork scratchings.  Older and wider is a good way to describe the state of play, kind of me but on a bad day.  I’ve cottoned on to the large jewellery trick. Wear things chunky enough and you trick the eye into thinking that the rest of you is quite svelte. However even necklaces the size of house bricks aren’t fooling anyone any more. The only way to fit into the largest of my party frocks would be to have nothing to eat until two weeks on Thursday. Which I am now old enough to know is not going to happen. My need for regular food is now absolute. If I am forced to skip lunch, or supper is substantially later than scheduled, I get physically edgy. I’m like a rhino who will attack anyone who stands between it and water, but in my case it’s between me and my food. It could get ugly. I carry little snacks in my handbag. Packets of oatcakes, or a stolen packet of hotel biscuits just in case.  Last time I tried the fasting diet it was more like the 363/2 diet than the 5/2 one. I simply find it very hard not to eat. A lot.

The combination of physical changes and my newly accelerated need for food, and plenty of it, means that my sexual currency is lower than it has been since I wore a confirmation outfit at 13 with a lot of frills when I was old enough to tell my mother to bog off. And here’s the really depressing bit. The Christmas parties (such as they are) are going to have to be undergone with no sexual chemistry at all. It struck me that just about all the good parties I have ever been to (we’re talking small numbers here) have involved a lot of sexual chemistry. Flirting is actually rather a life saver at parties. Even feeling someone’s eyes on you at 60 can liven things up.

How on earth will I get on at parties with just small talk and some party size mince pies when really I would rather be catching up with The Missing in front of the fire with a plate of normal size mince pies?

The search for a new party dress has taken place and I found a gold stretchy one covered in sparkly stuff. I mean covered, as in glitterball. Subconsciously another attention seeking ploy (or cry for help perhaps).

I went to my first party last Friday and danced all night. Now, this is the way to go with parties. I danced and danced. I decided to ask everyone and anyone to dance. No-one was churlish enough to say no. Trouble is the dress was pretty cheap and the house has a trail of gold sparkle everywhere and will have for the foreseeable future. Every man I danced with also had gold glitter on his sleeve. Just as well I am not in the market for bed-hopping as the evidence would be clear to see. One can dream.

The beautiful south

I have recently emigrated from the North of England to Oxfordshire.

When I say the North I mean seriously North as in virtually Scotland not namby pamby Leeds or even Derbyshire or some such nonsense that some Southeners call The North.  We’d lived in Northumberland near Hadrian’s Wall for 16 years but last year we downsized, decamped and de-Northed to settle in a tiny village called Sutton near Witney. Last weekend we went up to see our fabulous friends and get a dose of the North, and I came home a little set back with tears in my eyes. We’d been planning the escape tunnel for a while since neither of us are actually properly genetically Northern. I love lots of things about the North – in truth I wrote an entire book about it called It’s (not) Grim Up North. It’s cheaper for a start. The houses are so much cheaper they are ‘buy one get one free’, we could afford a virtual castle for the same money as this modest but lovely place in Oxfordshire. We had a garden that was so large our friends from the South described it as a park, and a drive that virtually had its own post code. What’s more the North has got posher. Some of us soppy Southerners will be surprised to hear that you can even buy balsamic vinegar and organic vegetables!

However there were things that got me down about the North. I mean you can’t say them out loud when you are actually up in the North for fear of  locals setting their ferrets on you, but I feel I have migrated home since I was brought up in the South.  The big problem for me and it’s one that just didn‘t go away over 16 years was the weather. You get a lot of weather in the North. My disenchantment with the weather up North began the first Easter. I went to the garden centre and asked where the tomato plants were. “Do you have a green house?” I was asked. “No”, I answered. “You’re not from round here are you?” was the reply. I persevered for several summers trying to grow tomatoes outside on my sunniest most sheltered wall and two years running the net result was a garage full of  jars of green chutney.

I would go to meetings in London in my winter coat only to find I would get there and everyone would be in their flip flops. Burdened with my coat which screamed “I’m from up North I am”. I became obsessed with the North/South weather divide.  Watching the news I would be oblivious to the content but instead shocked to the point of throwing something at the screen when I noticed that I had been in my coat that makes me look like a lagged boiler all day and they were sitting at pavement cafes in full sunshine. I would call relatives or friends in the South to find they had been in the garden all day, or just had breakfast outside. Alas not us. Despite our gorgeous enormous park of a garden some summers I can honestly say that sitting outside after 6pm might only happen three times a year. Southerners will find that hard to believe.

What struck me immediately about the South is how much more middle class it is. I have been spending a lot of time in Summertown in Oxford recently which I swear is middle class mission control, and is the most expensive place to live in the UK relative to earnings – yes even more expensive than Notting Hill, apparently. It has an ENTIRE Farrow and Ball shop. Trouble is with 16 years in the North and working class blood in me I consistently get the colour choice just wrong. I know in order to appear posh I need to buy my paint from there, but get it on the front door or the window frames and realise I have not quite got the shade that all the middle class get. I’m just one or two shades too bright or too muddy.  It’s as if God is saying to me “you know what lady you are not as middle class as you think you are”.

And the charity shops in Summertown are so upmarket I mistook most of them for actual proper shops. I recently discovered the most astonishing garden centre on my way home. Organic, obviously. I bought some leeks, a loaf of artisan bread, some eggs, a jar of marmalade and some broccoli and it came to over £20. As it got in the car I felt I’d been mugged, and yet simultaneously delighted with my purchase.  And the dental bills! Having been used to the NHS dentist I have spent over £300 on two fillings this year.  No more toffee or brazil nuts for me!! I simply can’t afford to take the risk.

Village life so far is proving much more friendly than I had anticipated. I’ve joined the Sutton Singers (more performers than members in the audience so far) and the local dance troupe, and have fabulous neighbours. … so I have to say the signs are genuinely good. I feel like I have moved into an episode of The Archers.

Here is my husband with his new Southern best friends.  I still miss our gorgeous Northern friends but our new Southern ones are gorgeous in a slightly different way, and with a strict hat code.


Learning from the (even) older

It was the tea trolley that did it. We’re talking reproduction brass wheels and marble effect Formica; in other words the full Hyacinth Bucket model. Taking it out of my car and dumping it in the charity shop, its demise marked the end of an era.

My dear Aunty Dorothy just passed away and, as she never married, my cousin and I find ourselves clearing her house. Cupboard after cupboard, layer after layer, of old lady paraphernalia. Padded coat hangers, unopened boxes of personalised hankies, tea towels from Prestatyn, 4711 Cologne and packets of ginger nut biscuits by the dozen.

Evidence of thrift is everywhere: drawers and cupboards full of used string, rinsed out margarine pots, recycled gift wrapping and thousands of plastic bags – all badges of her longstanding need to recycle, make do, mend and save unnecessary expense.

She’d experienced real need. She lived through WWII; she saw two brothers including my father go off to war and not return for six years; she saw neighbours’ houses blown away and reduced to rubble overnight, and did her homework by candlelight in the shelter at the bottom of the garden. In short, she’d experienced much more hardship than my generation, and here in her home it was evident everywhere.

She was the youngest daughter of six and so, as was expected of her, she remained at home until her parents died in her careful and loving care. This was her role in life. She was active in the church, her funeral was full to bursting, and she was loved and treasured by many. Far from being surplus to requirements, she will be hugely missed by many. Suddenly her generation are going fast, disappearing for ever and I, for one, lament that hugely.

Dorothy still managed to get joy out of the simplest of things in life – even a stroll up the road to Sainsbury’s with her walking aid would be enough for her to have had what she would describe as a good day.

Of course, it leaves me that much nearer the ultimate cliff edge, no longer second in line but first in line to peg it myself, but it is her generation’s wisdom and love which I will miss the most.

She was so positive about life – again perhaps born of the suffering during the war that she had to endure. Her love of the outdoors, her sheer happiness at some sweet peas or a new outfit I showed her; a meal I had prepared for her would give her visible delight. In later life we would walk heathery moors and deserted beaches and talk.

I realised Dorothy took more pleasure in life than anyone else I had ever met. A run out into the country, a walk in the park, a chat on the phone – all of them evidently gave her joy. And it is this joy in life and sense that she was, as she always put it, so lucky which I admired so much.  What a marvellous lesson to learn; what a fantastically useful attitude to pick up from someone that is.

As we all get older, and indeed as she got older and her horizons and mobility shrank, she still managed to get joy out of the simplest of things in life – even a stroll up the road to Sainsbury’s with her walking aid would be enough for her to have had what she would describe as a good day. She didn’t need outside stimulus: she had inner peace, inner contentment and integrity which shone out to all of us lucky enough to be around her.

As I grow old myself I try to remember how this optimism, this gratitude stood her in so much stead when the going got really rough, as indeed it did during her final illness. I looked to her as my moral compass, but above all else she was a lesson in contentment. An underestimated and underrated quality today and one that she’d love to think she has passed on to us, the people she loved.

As I edge forward myself to proper old-lady-land I hope I can retain my joy in the ordinary things in life. Perhaps it’s called looking on the bright side. Whatever it is, it saw her through the trials of life very well.

Image by Hannah Carmichael.

This article first appeared on Standard Issue.

The empty nest

The nest is empty. My parents died, and aged aunts and uncles are falling like flies. Even the family pets have pegged it. All of a sudden the family has shrunk and there is no longer a trail of rancid cereal bowls and mascara-stained towels on the floor. The freezer door is always closed properly and no one leaves the immersion heater on.

Life with just the two of us has become easy to the point of slovenly. We have parallel sofas in front of the TV and blob out; we get up later; we don’t have anyone to set an example to and, if we want to, we can shag on the landing. As if.


Perhaps I should get a gerbil, or a gorgeous cocker spaniel puppy. I won’t put it in a pram or anything, but, subconsciously, I’ll want to. I’ve become one of those old ladies on the bus who tell young mums to “Enjoy it while you can, before you know it they will be grown up and gone.”

I distinctly remember older women doing that to me and feeling like I might smack them to remind them how knackering being a mother of two small children actually is as clearly they had forgotten. They had, and I have, but it doesn’t make the gap left behind any easier.

Everything’s changing. The girls have left home. I mean properly left home as in don’t come home at the end of term to tip out their washing or demand new shoes.

On top of that, we’ve downsized, and down-migrated south to be nearer them. Having lived so far north we might as well have been in the Arctic Circle, it’s been a shock to the system, particularly in terms of the cost of everything. In Northumberland houses are so much cheaper they are effectively buy one get one free, and it was easier to live well.

Here, in Oxfordshire – OMG, it feels like it’s Middle Class Mission Control. I go into charity shops and it’s so upmarket I have to ask whether it is a charity shop or not. There is an entire Farrow and Ball shop since this is the middle-class label of choice.

All this adds up to a lot of changes, huge seismic ones. Life as a late middle-ager is anything but static. All the familiar daily routines have gone – the school run, teatime in front of Neighbours, parents’ evenings, bedtime stories – and they’ve left in their wake a lot of daily decisions.

“Public policy surely needs to wake up to the new generation of older women who are neither in their youthful childrearing years, nor frail and elderly, but need more support than they are currently getting.”

I need to make it all up again as I go along; it feels like there’s no template. Not even the equivalent of a National Childbirth Trust to join to compare notes with fellow travellers. I might start one of those: people round here would be mad enough and wealthy enough to pay through the nose for a course of classes in midlife crisis. Everything has to be reconsidered and reordered and rebooted.

With so many of us heading for old age and living longer, the nature of families in general is changing too. There will be more generations alive at once and fewer siblings, so most families will be more of a beanpole shape. There will be a burden of care at both ends – the kids won’t leave home till later, and the elder generations won’t kick the bucket for ages.

Inevitably the late middle-agers and, in particular, women, are going to cop for most of this. Both our parents and our children are likely to be dependent on us for longer than ever before. Factor in the astronomical cost of childcare and you get some very busy women in their 50s and 60s and beyond. Perhaps this explains why the number of women being treated for alcoholism over 60 has risen by 65 per cent in the last five years. Older women are hitting the bottle.

These demographic changes are already happening. There seem to be almost as many grandparents pushing buggies these days as young mums and dads. In fact, grandparents in middle to late middle age now provide care to an astonishing 40 per cent of families… but interestingly have no rights to take leave to look after grandchildren, and no rights to request flexible work.

Public policy surely needs to wake up to the new generation of older women who are neither in their youthful childrearing years, nor frail and elderly, but need more support than they are currently getting – particularly as most of them now need to still earn a living well into their 60s.

The cushion of the family is also already falling away for many old people, and is exacerbated by the divorce rate. One in three of all marriages are now remarriages. And stepfamilies are the fastest growing family form in Britain, accounting for one in 10 of all families.

Evidently still being married to the father of your children after 27 years like I am makes me something of a novelty. The trend for living alone rather than sticking it out with a long-term relationship is set to continue since the number of single-parent families is also growing, and is expected to rise by 31 per cent from 2013 to 2033 to just over 412,000. Old age then looks set to involve more and more one person households.

It’s another example of the Baby Boomers – and I include myself in that category – having brought about social changes that will have a negative knock-on effect on older age. But then the Baby Boomers don’t do old. They are refusing to get old. For now at least. But when it does catch up with them they are going to have a terrible shock.

It’ll take more than afternoons in front of Poirot repeats to keep us happy.

Images by Hannah Carmichael.

Getting in touch with my inner Heidi

As I’ve grown older, my need for the great outdoors has increased. I’d now rather unblock a drain than sit at my computer all day. I mean I don’t mind online shopping, I’m not weird or anything, but all the everyday faffing involved in finding new house insurance, re-taxing the car and dealing with email traffic is not what I want to be doing. As a result, I now seize every opportunity for outdoor fun.

I’ve just had the ultimate outdoor experience in the Alps and released my inner Heidi in the enchanting Val Gardena area of the Dolomites.

I’ve always wanted to go to the Alps when all the skiers have bogged off home and the snow has melted to reveal wild flowers, hiking trails and pine scented forests. It didn’t disappoint.

For a start, the hikes in these mountains have one huge bonus – you can get the cable car up and start your walk at an altitude of 2,500 metres. All the exhilaration of clearhiking-square mountain air, marmots and muesli packet scenery in full view within 20 minutes and pretty much all flat and downhill for the rest of the day. What is not to adore?

Here’s me wearing an attention-seeking yellow top which was no fashion statement but, let’s face it, in a disaster the helicopter would spot me first.

The Dolomites are a pinky-coloured mountain range in the Southern Tyrol, and until 1919 were part of Austria but were gifted to the Italians after WWI. As a result the region feels more like Austria than Italy and the locals speak a language called Ladin – similar to a mash-up of French, German and Italian – and consider themselves Tyrolean first and Italian second.

It also turns out this was the area where the Von Trapps escaped from the Nazis in The Sound of Music. Consequently the meadows between the peaks were begging to be twirled on à la Julie Andrews. I mean it would be rude not to.

I wish I had the waist for a dirndl. All the staff wear them in this area, and very flattering they are too, pushing you up and over the bodice. But here’s the best thing about them: you tie the apron according to your dating status. Tie on the left and you are available, on the right you’re married, and in the middle you are a bit of both. How clever is that? Never mind about all those searching questions and sizing someone up only to lead to disappointment. How much easier than online dating that is.

The hikes are beautifully signposted for those of us who are rubbish at maps, and in the sunshine the peaks go an unusual pinky colour, owing to the fact they were originally a coral sea bed and were pushed vertically out of the earth 20,000 years ago.

The other joyous part of hiking in the Alps is the mountain huts. Normally they are full of skiers but in summer they’re bedecked with sun loungers, blankets and views to make your jaw drop.tinder

They all have their own signature strudels, schnapps or homemade gin, but I loved the one run by Oscar and his family. Oscar is looking for a wife. Surely she needs to be called Heidi. Here he is using the Alpine equivalent of Tinder but he’s not having much luck so far.

For the rainy days there are cookery courses, yoga, and herbal hikes ending, in my case, with the Paratoni farmhouse where Gemma Insam makes her own amazing food with foraged herbs – homemade butter with rose petals, nasturtiums, nettle crisps and bread infused with wild spinach.

I badly coveted her gingham pinny. Pinny envy is something I am increasingly prone to, along with an involuntary love of anything made of gingham. I have no control over my love of it, in fact. Perhaps I will start the world’s first 12-step programme for gingham addicts.

Apart from the hiking, you can also take electric bikes up the mountain, and if there was ever a good reason to use one, the Alps would surely be it. The truth is ski resorts without the skiing are a fast growing part of the ski resort

In winter too, the non-skier is increasingly well catered for. Many people want to come and experience the snow without throwing themselves down the mountain on a pair of skis. It’s called sanity.

Instead they can take one of the daily guided snowshoe walks, sledge down after supper by moonlight, cross country ski, or just hike out with a stout pair of boots and come back to saunas, yoga and a nice hot bath and an apple strudel. Most hotels offer daily free non-ski activities; make sure your hotel or Garni (B&B) is hooked up to Val Gardena Active Programme.

This article first appeared on Standard Issue in October 2016.