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In which I set new rules for Christmas

I’m reading a lot of crap about Christmas. It’s all so much: food, expense, hassle, travel, stress. Why are people doing this to themselves? As someone who veers from making some effort to none, I can tell you that there aren’t any rules. At no point do the Christmas Police come round and tell you off if you can’t be arsed to send cards this year and don’t bother with mince pies.

Also, if you don’t visit people, they get over it. If they don’t get over it, they aren’t the sort of people you should bother visiting, so really, it’s a win-win.

So here are my new rules, to help those who appear to be struggling:

  1. You don’t have to send Christmas cards. You don’t need an excuse, just don’t do it. Barely anyone will notice and they’ll promptly forget. You just saved yourself £20 on postage, get a couple of bottles of wine instead.
  2. You don’t have to make anything. If you can afford it and if it saves you time, buy it. Anyone who ‘really prefers the homemade version’ should either learn to make it themselves or shut the fuck up with their passive-aggressive neediness.
  3. You don’t have to go anywhere/see anyone/ do anything if you don’t want to. See above re ‘getting over it’.
  4. You don’t have to have a tree. Of course you don’t. Or, you can have a tree in every room. Whatever. No one counts. Except people with obsessive compulsive tendencies and if you don’t have trees, they’ll probably count something else, so it doesn’t matter.
  5. There is no compulsory Christmas food. None. Supermarkets and magazines want to make us think that a day can’t be special without tree-shaped nachos for dips and bowls of gold coated truffles on every flat surface. This is total bollocks. Think about your favourite food. Great! Is that what you’re eating on Christmas Day? If yes, awesome. If not, what the hell happened?
  6. What to wear for the Christmas party. Much like ‘how to get a bikini body – put a bikini on your body’, the answer to what you should wear for a party is whatever the hell you like. Ok, if the dress code is likely to be strictly enforced you’ll need to give it a passing nod. Or, skip the do entirely (this is something else that is perfectly acceptable). Otherwise, wear whatever will allow you to enjoy the evening without feeling underdressed, overdressed, too fat, too thin, or too uncomfortable on heels that are 2 inches higher than you usually wear. The shops are full of lace and faux fur and pleather and metallic mid length pleated skirts. Unless you genuinely like any of that stuff and expect to wear it on at least three more occasions, fuck it.

Am I being massively hypocritical and saying all this, while privately going full on Kirsty whatserface and knitting my own tree? Not really.

I have:

  • Ordered a 6ft tree
  • Baked a Christmas cake for my sister
  • Decided to bake cookies for colleagues instead of giving out Christmas cards
  • Written some of my cards (last year I didn’t do any)
  • Already made a trial batch of mince pies, with home made mincemeat. I’m not sure I can be arsed to make any more, though.
  • Dodged both office Christmas parties

I will be:

  • Spending Christmas Day on my own, having politely weaseled out of the family get together by saying ‘Are you fucking mad, I’m not doing that?’
  • Not bothering with Christmas lunch. I might make roast butternut squash soup, though. Or just a cheese, apple and crisp sandwich, with a good cup of tea, and a couple of Jaffa Cakes for dessert. That’s one of my favourite meals.
  • Going for a Boxing Day walk. Unless I’m hideously ill, as I usually am.

Because it’s all about balance. There’s a lot of Christmas. It is much. The way round that is you just choose the elements you want and sod the rest.

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Christmas biscuits

These are actually molasses spice cookies, or in England, treacle spice biscuits, or as my team at work call them, Christmas biscuits. What’s in a name? Any biscuit with a similar blend of spices would smell as seasonal. These, though, also have a  delicious combination of textures, a little crunchy on the outside but meltingly smooth inside.

You’ll need all of this. It looks like a lot, and you can miss out the cloves or allspice if you don’t have them, or skimp on the ginger and cinnamon a bit. Or, as I’ve discovered while writing this out, you can just about get away with 1/3 cup of treacle rather than 1/2. Oops.  But the recipe really is better with everything thrown in.

  • 11 oz/ 2 1/4 cups of plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsps ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 6 oz/1 1/2 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 oz/1/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 oz/ 1/3 granulated sugar + some more for rolling the biscuits in
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup treacle

Line a baking tray with baking parchment and heat the oven to 200C/375F.

Whisk the flour, spices, baking powder, pepper and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

You’ll be adding the flour mix to the wet ingredients, so in a large bowl, beat the sugars with the butter until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla extract and beat again until it’s all combined. Add the treacle, and beat again until that’s all mixed in.

Gradually blend in the flour until it’s thoroughly mixed in.

Pour some granulated sugar onto a small plate, and get a small bowl of cold water ready. Dip your hands in the water, then use a tablespoon measure of biscuit dough and roll it into a ball. Roll the dough in the sugar (the water will make sure the sugar sticks) and pop it on the baking tray. Leave about 2in between each biscuit.

Bake until the biscuits are brown and cracked. This should take about 10-11 minutes but you’ll need to turn the tray halfway during the baking. If you aren’t sure if they’re ready, flip one over. It should be nicely brown on the bottom.

Leave the biscuits to cool for a few minutes on the tray, then move them to a cooling rack.

If you want to be fancy, you can mix up a bit of icing and drizzle that over them once cool.

You don’t have to say you love me

Just buy a pint of milk on your way over.

Well, seriously. Color me old and cynical, but these days I’ll trade the words ‘I’ll make dinner’ for any number of compliments and flowery phrases.

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately: Leicester, Rotherham, Leeds, Staines, Windsor, Newcastle, Edinburgh. The roll call of glamorous locations just doesn’t start, but the miles still add up. I’ve spent far too many nights in indistinguishable crappy business hotels, eating shitty, on-the-road food. When I get home, the cupboards are bare, the fridge is half full of decaying vegetables and sour milk, and my relationship with the cats is reduced to filling food bowls for mysterious creatures I never see.

Over the last several weeks, domestic routines have gone completely to pot. I’ve not been here long enough to get things properly back on track by, I don’t know, cleaning the bathroom or buying real food. And also, I’m knackered.

So right now, anyone who was making my life more difficult would be getting pretty short shrift. Anyone who had ridiculous expectations, such as that I might not shuffle round in pyjamas, or that I might actually talk to them, would be SOL.

Fortunately, instead, a miracle happens. Food appears, and is sometimes cooked. Movie tickets are just booked. The newspaper turns up, so I can do The Times crossword on Saturday morning. People – there are Jaffa Cakes. Someone is picking up the slack, and it isn’t me.

I’m drinking tea made with milk that I did not buy. That is romance.

The Scary Bitches Book and Baking Club

So, I was out for lunch with friends last weekend, just after running my first 10k and shortly after driving my car into the back of a van on the way. It was a busy day. The 10k sucked but I made it, no one was hurt in the accident and no real damage done to either vehicle. On to lunch, which was at the fabulous Seven Stars in Dinton and over the breaded camembert we fell to discussing whether or not I should start a book club in the village.

The back story is that, having lived here for a couple of years, I still don’t know anyone in the village. This is due to me not having kids or a dog or going to church, and the village not having a pub or a shop. I found out there’s a book club and asked to join, but they’re already over-subscribed and there’s a waiting list. The friendly book club member suggested I could start a second book club by advertising in the parish newsletter.

S said ‘You should totally do that and I’d join and you could bake as well!’

I’m considering the idea, but a book club isn’t just a matter of getting a few people together to discuss books. It has to be the right people, talking about the right books at the right level for the right amount of time. It is not pouring a mahoosive glass of Chardonnay and regaling everyone with what little Crispin got up at his private day nursery and then explaining that you didn’t make it to the end of the 250 page pot boiler but you’re definitely going to soon, so ‘No spoilers, m’kay?!’

Most of the right book club people I know selfishly stayed behind in America when I moved back to England, but apparently there’s this thing you can do called ‘meeting new people’. Sounds weird and suspicious to me and I’m not clear on the vetting process. Of course, you can’t just accept anyone to join a book club, but what level of interview is considered appropriate? Multipage questionnaire, or is it ok to send a SurveyMonkey link? Is it de rigeur or faux pas to request that submissions be accompanied by a photo of the bookshelves and a copy of the TBR list?

Vexing questions indeed. Meanwhile, at least we have a book club name, and some rules:

  1. Read the book, bitch.
  2. Have a fucking opinion.

I’m not sure this will go down well with the parish newsletter.

In search of tea

Can one get nostalgic for a past one hasn’t experienced? I expect there’s a German word for it.  I know the pre and post war periods weren’t really romantic, but I’ve read a couple of historical novels in succession. This has made me think how lovely it would be to live in a little flat in Bloomsbury, earning a living from doing a bit of typing, and then toasting crumpets over the fire for tea.

Or, one could run up to London for a treat, properly dressed in gloves and a hat, and pop to one’s marvelous little dressmaker for a fitting. I expect some charming chap would take one for lunch before going back to his office. So you’d have time for afternoon tea with a friend, before changing for cocktails, dinner and dancing at the latest club. Oh, you must have heard about it, darling, everyone’s going there.

I always think the Lyons Corner House sounded like a wonderful institution, the perfect place to collapse and unburden oneself of the string-tied parcels. Always somewhere to get tea and a bun for a few shillings, and I bet the waitress brought more hot water as a matter of course. I’m sure it wasn’t always very good tea and that the buns weren’t always very fresh, but at least it was table service and you could sit down.

That’s what London needs, I think. After a few hours pottering around on Saturday, I had my one small bag of purchases, a new book and tired feet. Obscurely feeling that if I drifted off the main highway, I might find a proper tea room, or at least a Pret with some empty seats, I carried on walking. The vision in my head was for just such a welcoming establishment as I imagine Lyons to have been. I wasn’t looking for the full on three tier cake stand and silver teapot experience, just somewhere that might do a decent cuppa.

No such luck, of course, and I ended up in one branch of an indistinguishable coffee chain, but which at least had a spare table and a friendly barista. I paid the best part of a fiver for one teabag in a pot, and a muffin that I watched being taken out of the plastic wrapping. Either it wasn’t baked on premises, or they take food hygiene very seriously indeed. The cafe was thriving, though: people meeting to chat, some taking a break from shopping, someone else reading and taking notes. I was left undisturbed for an hour while I read.

Was Lyons the mediocre, oh it’ll do option of its day?

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

This is another book I was introduced to by Short Stories Aloud, and I bothered to get this one signed. Antonia Honeywell was charming and seemed genuinely excited to be at the event, meeting readers and introducing her first novel. And so she should be, because it’s very good and I look forward to the next one.

(Also, what kind of great name is Antonia Honeywell? It would be a waste of it not to be some kind of artist.)

The Ship is set in a future that doesn’t necessarily seem so terribly far away.  Economies, countries, law and order have collapsed, leaving Anna, Paul and their daughter Lalage (Lally) living mostly in their London flat where they are safe(ish) from the want and disorder of the streets. But the situation is getting worse: the homeless who’ve created a tent city in the park are bombed; citizens have to register and re-register their identity cards, the only fragile marker of legitimacy, to get food and stay alive. Lally remembers birthday meals that have shrunk from roast chicken to, finally, a shared tin of spaghetti hoops.

While the world continues to spiral, Paul has been preparing for his family’s survival by acquiring, resourcing and peopling the ship. It’s a huge liner, and he has hand-picked 500 people to live on it, along with all the food, clothes, amenities, games, activities they might want for a long future ahead. The new community has been living in a holding pen for years, because Anna refuses to leave while she continues to hope that in fact life in London will improve. Finally, a crisis is provoked and Paul sets in motion the departure of the ship, sailing off into a new way of living for all aboard.

He’s built a utopia for Lally, but as he is hailed as the Father for his special, saved few, Lally alone remains ungrateful. Despite the evident vast size of the ship, it’s claustrophobic (although as I’ve always thought a cruise ship would be hell on toast, that could just be me). Lally’s companions eagerly turn their backs on both their varied, haunted pasts and the horrors of the news, to focus on a now that they’ve been convinced is their destination. They have certainty: that they can do meaningful work in keeping the ship running, the children educated, the food cooked. Their needs are met, from football to pianos to embroidery silks.  Lally alone continues to question and to search for a direction, for both the ship and herself. The only flaw in Paul’s plan to protect and educate his daughter is Lally herself.  With a ship full of people willing to love her, she won’t let herself be loved.

It’s a deft and though provoking novel, asking big questions: is ease and certainty for a few worth the loss to the many? Should, or can, someone be happy in a constrained, finite present with no thought to the future? Paul is a convincing, charismatic figure but he may be peddling no more than bread and circuses, and it’s not enough for Lally. In the end, she makes a different choice, for life rather than what she thinks of as a living death.

 

On running. A bit.

For, probably, the fourth or maybe fifth time in my life, I’ve started running. Restarted. Whatever. My ongoing hate-hate relationship with exercise does seem to bring me back to this point, because running is that thing that’s about the easiest to pick up, and as I’ve usually got a pair of trainers kicking about, it doesn’t cost anything. I just head out the door. This time round I was inspired by friends who have both taken up running by using a 0-5k app (5k Runner), and so I downloaded the app and hoped the running I did on holiday would encourage me to keep going.

Somewhat to my own surprise, it has. Ok, so the weather hasn’t gotten cold yet, but I run in the evening when I’m home from work, and it’s definitely dark which is surely disincentive enough. I get in, I get changed, I go out, so I don’t have time to change my mind. Previous experience tells me it’s not the weather that will stop me anyway. I like being out in the rain, and the first time I ever ran 3 miles was through a snowstorm in Connecticut. No, it’s the daily stuff, the being late getting home because of traffic or having dinner plans in the evening scenarios that are the usual obstacles. This last few weeks I’ve run anyway, and more than that, I’ve looked forward to it. This is new territory for me, and I don’t really understand why this time round running isn’t the soul quenching misery that I was expecting.

There are a few street lights in the village, but other than that, it’s dark country roads with the scent of woodsmoke on the air and the wind rustling the hedgerows. I’m obviously deeply unimaginative, because instead of being spooked, it turns out that my preference is to run on unlit, uneven roads where all I can see is the few feet in front of me that the head torch shows. I’d forgotten how much I like being out at night. I also like not being run over, so I’ve got high vis gear and the aforementioned torch.

Let’s be clear, I’m about 6 weeks into the app, so the maximum amount of time I’m running for is 10 minutes at a time, with a bit of walking in between. I’m not out for longer than 35 minutes in total. There’s no real achievement here, unless you’re me and are usually quick to grab at any excuse not to run. Still, I’m on track to be running 5k in a reasonable time by mid-November, and after a challenge was thrown down on Twitter the other evening, I’ve agreed to do the Oxford Town & Gown in May. That’s a 10k. I don’t know what the hell happened.