The Excesses of Christmas

Happy Christmas.  No, Dear Reader, I am not too late, because there are Twelve Days of Christmas and we’ve only had five so far.  My Christmas is going very well.  Thank you for asking.  However, we have now reached the point in the Christmas season where there is weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth and talk of Dry January.  Woe is us because we have over-eaten, over-spent, drunk too much and put on weight.  Christmas is tooooo commercialised these days, isn’t it?  Statistics for the Charlie Britten Christmas excesses have just been published:

  • Family members staying at our house over Christmas – 5 including Special Grandson, aged 14 months.
  • Christmas cake, baked by me and decorated amazingly by Best Son-in-Law – one, not yet touched, because it’s tooo peeeerrrrfect and intact.xmascake275
  • Mincepies baked – about 120.  Most were intended for the eats after Lessons and Carols Service at church, and some for general consumption at home.   30 left.
  • Sausage rolls baked – about 100, of which about 40 still left.  Most of them now in freezer.
  • Christmas puddings prepared and cooked – 2 small ones.  One eaten, one in freezer.
  • Trifle made, using fresh pineapple because Best Son-in-Law and I forgot to buy tin of fruit – one.  All gone.
  • Pots of houmous made – 4 small pots.  One eaten, one in fridge (because Favourite Son and Girlfriend forgot to take it back with them) and 2 in freezer.houmous
  • Boxes of biscuits purchased – 2, neither of them opened.
  • Pizzas made – 8.  5 eaten for evening meal on Christmas Eve, 2 in freezer and one little pizza consumed for Christmas Day tea, by Special Grandson, who had refused to eat turkey and vegetables for Christmas dinner.
  • Dishwasher cycles per day  – 3.
  • Washing machine loads per day – 2, with concomitant ironing.
  • Number of times per day it was necessary to hoover hall carpet and under Christmas tree – Daily.
  • Broken – 3 ‘best’ plates, 1 ‘best’ wine glass and 1 fridge door shelf.
  • Colds – 2.  One suffered by Beloved Daughter, the other by me.
  • Stockings made – 1.  Designed by Best Son-in-Law, stitched by Beloved Daughter and opened by Special Grandson.
  • Church services for which One And Only Husband played the organ – 5, including one funeral.  (A big thank you to Edward who played on Christmas Day, as the total would otherwise have been 6.)
  • Church services attended by other members of family – 3, including 2 by me, and one (different one) by Beloved Daughter, Best Son-in-Law and Special Grandson.
  • Household issues sorted out – 1.  Ancient telly, not capable of picking up digital signal but nevertheless taking up space in sitting-room, taken to tip by Beloved Daughter and Best Son-in-law.  New telly about to be purchased by OAO Husband, to replace a different – not quite so ancient – telly.  (He understands that Curry’s will take NQSA one away.)
  • Hardware issues sorted out – 1 web cam now fully functioning and tested on Skype with Favourite Son, several times.
  • Software issues sorted out – 2.   JavaScript re-enabled on Firefox (which had unaccountably disabled it).   Technology to delete voicemail messages on iPhone unearthed and used.
  • Items left behind by Special Grandson – 2 vests, 3 bibs, part of toy, one lego brick, one pack of nappies and half of baby-monitor.
  • Weight lost – 1lb.  Surprised?  Me too.
  • Books read – 1.
  • Thank you letters written – all.
  • Family arguments – 0.

Were we excessive, Dear Reader.  Yes, probably, but I’m so grateful I have a family and friends to buy presents for.  Besides, what other opportunities do I have during the year to buy sensible shoes for Favourite Son?  Christmas is time for families to come together.  I enjoy cooking, and best of all when other people are cooking around me, everyone working happily together to make Christmas Day special.  Yes, I cooked too much, and I always do, but what’s left over can always go in the freezer, or, in the case of biscuits, sit in their boxes.   I used to cook traditional English Christmas food with my mother and grandmother; I love the idea that I’m now passing all this on to the next generation.

Of course, I am moved by the plight of people who are lonely at Christmas and who don’t have enough.   63% of respondents to a survey carried out by Evangelical Alliance agreed that Christmas is a time for being ‘generous to people less fortunate than ourselves’.  I also understand the embarrassment of people who don’t have enough money for the sort of presents they would like to give, but I think we all have it in ourselves to be tactful and considerate in the way we give to them.

I think of it this way.  My son’s girlfriend, who had been job-hunting for months, has been given a twelve-week Christmas job at a call centre, selling customers their Christmas excesses and dealing with their complaints afterwards.  It pays rent and food.  I recall that my daughter also got a Christmas job with Curry’s years ago… and that one lasted five years.  I cannot find statistics for the total Christmas spend in the UK in 2014, although according to Internet Retailing £13bn was spent online before 25 December, but I’m sure Christmas represents a large proportion of it.  It  could be that our Christmas excesses are bolstering up the economy for the rest of the year.




Stress, Work, Writing and Other Things

I’m back to work on Monday.  But, you say, you were signed off with ‘depression’ for three weeks and have been off work for only two.  All too true.  So do I not know what is good for me?  Do I actually feel better?  The answer to the last question is not enough, but I am no longer helping myself by staying at home.   Moreover, if I leave it much longer, the students I teach at college are going to be so off course (literally) that getting them back to where they should be will become impossible.  I am very lucky to have a wonderful husband and family to support me, even when I am cross and difficult, and many many friends.

Although I have read a lot, including three issues of Mslexia, I haven’t done much writing. Each morning, I seemed to have a clear day in front of me, but it got taken up with other things.  At the end of last week, however, I made myself write and submit a ‘Rant’ for Mslexia, about the random and unhelpful use of streetnames and district names in novels (see previous post) .  A seventy-five words long Mslexia ‘Rant’ was just about managable for poor stressed old me.  Fingers crossed!  The wonderful thing about Mslexia is that they pay for all contributions.  Ranting done, I spent a long time editing a possible womag story about Second World War evacuees, but I’m not satisfied it with yet, and I also intend to write a review of ‘The Amber Keeper’ by Freda Lightfoot (a historical novel) and sub it.  (If I’m successful, I will post the appropriate link on here.  Be grateful for the crumbs, Dear Reader.)Facebook icon

Both of these are closed Facebook groups, meaning that you need to seek the administrator’s consent to join and posts are only visible to members of the group, not to the general public.  Nevertheless I believe that the administrators of both would welcome applications from potential members who are serious about writing for womag or reviewing.

I have to confess that, over the last couple of weeks, I have developed a disturbing Waitrose habit, visiting the local branch every other day and spending too much money there.   Although my one and only husband does most of our shopping and is very efficient, I did enjoy being able to bag my own favourites.  Perhaps some aubergines today, celeriac, fresh beetroot (not pickled in a jar) and some of those delicious-looking, albeit slightly more expensive, tomatoes.   I enjoy my free cup of coffee as I walk around, the relaxed atmosphere and the general niceness of the place.  Initially, I became irritated by customers who hovered around in the car park or had weather conversations with the enquiries desk team (preventing me from getting my coffee cup), but after a while I realised that this was what I was coming for.   ‘So sorry for standing in front of the mushrooms.’  ‘Don’t worry.  I’m in no hurry.’

By mid-morning tomorrow, I imagine my head will be full of work, computers and students.  I will  try and kick myself to write my review and finish editing my story.  If I’m too tired, I shall continue reading Susan Hill’s latest Simon Serrailler novel (‘A Betrayal of Trust’), which will be no hardship at all.  This morning, I made some more soup.

Swedish landscape

Double Book Review: ‘Thrilled to Death’ by L J Sellers and ‘A Merry Heart’ by Wanda E Brustetter

‘Thrilled to Death (A Detective Jackson Mystery)’ by L J Sellers (published by Thomas and Mercer) can be found here.

‘A Merry Heart (Brides of Lancaster County)’ by Wanda E Brustetter (published by Barbour) can be found here.

Although both books are written by American authors, contemporary and set in the United States, they are as different from each other as the cliche-ed chalk and cheese.

‘Thrilled to Death’ by L J Sellers

‘Thrilled to Death’ is mainstream crime, set in Eugene, Oregon (which I’m sure I visited in 1982), and featuring a ‘cop’ and all the evils of modern life: war casualties, sex, people trafficking and rich kids with too much time and money.   Whilst searching for Danette, the daughter-in-law of his girlfriend Kera, who has disappeared leaving Kera babysitting Danette’s baby, he is sceptical when the wayward daughter of a local tycoon is also reported missing… until her body is found.  This doesn’t help him find Danette, until he realises how the paths of the two women have crossed, even though they don’t know each other.

‘Thrilled to Death’ held my attention from beginning to end.  Seeing it on the ‘ uk recommends’ list, I dipped into it without any serious intentions, Dear Reader, but I was so hooked at the end of the ‘look inside’ preview that I had to ‘Buy now with one click’ in order to continue reading.  I do enjoy crime fiction and I probably spend too much time reading it, knowing, as I do, that I will never (can never) attempt to write it.  Detective Jackson made me  aware of how detectives have moved on in the last few years,  a long way from all-conquering, macho, loner cops; Jackson had a family (a daughter, whom at one point he had to pick up from school), a girlfriend, a medical condition and – most telling of all – feelings and principles.  Several times in the book, the point was made that Jackson was not going to beat his villains to a pulp, whatever crimes they might have committed.

L J Sellers wrote sensitively about some sensitive subjects.  She understood how far she could go in describing a particularly nasty kidnapping and, judiciously, left the baby with its grandmother, judging that harm and distress being caused to an infant would drive her readers away.  The book contained too many characters, especially Jackson’s crime team, whom I didn’t feel I knew at all, whereas I have become acquainted with the colleagues of many (fictional) British detectives.

L J wrote knowledgably about Oregon and Eugene, but followed the modern trend of describing a city and a neighbourhood as if all her readers knew it intimately, almost as if she were writing for a local newspaper.  (Despite possibly visiting in 1982) I am not familiar with the streets and districts of Eugene, nor with those in any of the other (largely) American and (some) British cities I’ve read about recently.  How would you, Dear Reader, like it if I wrote, “I headed up the Avenue of Remembrance, joined the usual long queue of traffic at the Essex Hall Roundabout and eventually made my way up West Way?”  Would you have a clue what I was describing or, more importantly, be able to visualise the scene?

‘A Merry Heart’ by Wanda E Brustetter

It was Rachel Carrera (whose blog I follow) who recommended Amish fiction, something which I didn’t previously know existed.   I have a soft spot for all things Amish, especially their food, which is everything good about American cuisine but without french fries or burgers.  My family laugh at me because, during a six day stay in Sarasota, Florida, I insisted on visiting the Amish restaurant twice.  Although I realise (on looking back through her blog) that Rachel celebrates the work of Amish author Beverly Lewis, when I myself did an Amazon search for Amish fiction, I found Wanda E Brustetter and her ‘Brides of Lancaster’ series. Despite not being Amish herself, Wanda understands the ‘Plain People’ very well and I read that the Amish community are quite happy about the way she writes about them. I was fascinated to learn that the Amish will use battery-powered devices, for instance, but not a powerline to their houses, and will accept lifts in a motorvan to local towns.  They also hospitals when they need to.  By the way, both Wanda and Beverly also write Amish cookery books.

Warning!  This is Christian fiction.  (Want to go?  OK.  See you!) Before you do go, though, I might just mention that I have a Christian story published on Alfie Dog, about a woman who won ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and felt guilty about having so much money.  I would like to write more, but I’m too shy and too British to write strong Christian themes like Wanda does.

‘A Merry Heart’  is about a young Amish schoolteacher, Miriam, who has been jilted by her lover and cannot get over

Amish buggy with horse

it.  She suffers badly from migraines and – quite obviously to me – is clinically depressed, although the D word was never mentioned once, which is surprising in view of it being a modern novel (published 2006) and the Amish appreciating what they need to incorporate from the world around them.  Her problem is made worse by the fact that her family and the ‘Plain Folk’ around her expect her to marry somebody and can’t understand why she doesn’t accept the attentions of the local blacksmith, Amos Hilty, a widower with a delightful six year old daughter.  She also meets a local journalist, Nick, who befriends her and eventually asks her to marry him, but her answer is a statement of fact, to the effect that, if she marries outside the Amish community, none of her family or friends will speak to her again.  (Nothing here about ‘How terrible’ or anything risking all ‘for love’).


This basically is the gist of the storyline, and we got there in the first hundred pages.  Without giving away the ending, the conclusion is the obvious one, with no twists or surprises.  Not a story for contemporary tastes, but as a Christian story, it makes perfect sense, as someone who struggled with her faith and her lot and dealt with it.  By the way, the book ends with a recipe for chocolate peanut butter cookies.

Here I am writing this and listening to The Rolling Stones on telly, ‘Ruby Tuesday’, always my favourite Stones song.  I’m sure the Amish never did The Stones.  I know we’re all sinners, but… you know what I mean.

I Have A Little List…

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Countdown.”

Like KoKo in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’, ‘I’ve got a little list‘ of people and things from 2014:

10.  Those pestilential nuisances
who ring you during lunch
with a pre-recorded message
about your boiler or PFI.

9. Men and women
who insist on social kissing
whether they know you or not.

8.  People with no faith at all
who ask if you’re ‘religious’.

7.  People who drink instant coffee,
then puff it in your face.

6.  Men who burp and fart,
and find it very funny.

5.  Unit-ed Kingdom
Independence Party.

4.  He who scorns UKIP
but never would leave London
nor read the ‘Daily Mail’.

3.  Flapping, drooping banners
screaming ‘Outstanding School’
on some dreary place of learning
where learning ne’er took place.

2..Hosts and restaurant-owners
who suppose vegetarians
eat fish, or even chicken.

1..Politically correct people,
and ‘in-appropr-iate’,
but think they’re better than you.

They’ll none of ’em be missed in 2015 .  On no, Dear Reader.  They’ll none of ’em be missed…

Soup for Stress

Last Friday, my doctor signed me off work for three weeks with stress – again.  It was a bit of a shock.  It always is a bit of shock when it happens.  You go into the doctor’s surgery with a mind full of work, wondering how soon you can get back into the staffroom and start marking, and whether you’ll find a place in the car park… then you drive home, to an empty house and the cat.  That morning seemed to go on for ever.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.  Thinking I might like some soup for lunch, I delved into the vegetable drawer to see what I had to make it with and ended up making three different sorts:  mixed vegetable, cauliflower and borsch.

Borsch.  Russian beetroot soup.

My husband doesn’t like borsch.

My one and only husband seriously doesn’t like borsch, having seen it steaming from square stainless steel vats in the Hotel Cosmos in Moscow.  And, unlike the Hotel Cosmos, I didn’t have sour cream to serve it with.  However, I was gratified when, at Saturday lunchtime, he ate and enjoyed some of the cauliflower soup – which was as well as I’d made about one litre of the stuff.

Back to Friday afternoon, though.  I ordered online a hand-mixer with rotary blades, so that I didn’t have to go to the trouble of pouring hot soup from the pan into my (existing) food processor in order to liquidise it, then I cleaned my house.  On Saturday morning, I sorted out which bits of my food processor were broken (since about twelve months ago) and ordered replacement parts online, including a whisk attachment which looked more or less like the rotary blades on the hand-mixer.

You may wonder where all this is going, Dear Reader.  I think what I’m trying to say is I’m struggling to get off the hamster wheel.   I spent a large part of Saturday and Sunday preparing lessons for cover tutors and emailed it to my boss on Sunday night.  Monday, Tuesday and today (Wednesday), I have used to catch up with marking.   There are lots of other work-related things I could do now, which would relieve my burden when I do return to work.  You can take the lecturer out of college but you can’t take the college out of the lecturer.  I wish you could.

I’m aware that, during term-time, I don’t have a life, because I’m working all the time, including weekends and

Two signs, pointingto stress and relax, in opposite directions.

several evenings per week.  Don’t get me started on ‘teachers’ long holidays’, even though we college lecturers don’t get the same deal as school teachers.  Stress and overwork – not pay – are the real reasons why schools and colleges cannot recruit and why young graduates who do enter the profession don’t stay.  They’re burnt out by thirty.  Same with doctors and nurses;  my GP admitted as much when I saw him last Friday.

However, in spite of all the lesson-preparation and marking, my day-to-day existence has become more managable, the fridge cleared out, the newspaper read, a bit of reading done, two blog posts written.  Now, I’m sitting here this evening thinking about reading some more womag stories with a view to understanding that market well enough to write an ‘acceptable’ womag story.  This has always been the biggie in my writing career.

You may wonder what a post like this is doing on a blog about writing, especially on a blog called ‘Write On’.  I confess that I’m not doing much writing at the moment, because of being overwhelmed by the above.  A few days ago, I read Cate Russell-Cole’s post on CommuniCATE, Write to Combat Depression, which I recommend, although I find depression dries up my creativity.   Over the last few months, I’ve only had the energy to read in the small amount of spare time I have and you may think that I’ve posted so many book reviews recently that I should rename this blog ‘Read On’.  What I’d  like to do is to write some more general diary-type posts from time to time, because I  find other people’s lives interesting.  Hope that’s all right with you, Dear Reader.

Review of ‘Emma’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Available from Harper Collins.

This is the second Austen Project book I’ve read (following Val McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, reviewed in my last post).  I had been led to believe by the critics that it would not be as good, and it wasn’t, even though I’m probably Alexander McCall Smith’s greatest fan.  (Was I influenced by the critics, Dear Reader?  Should I have not looked?  Perhaps.  Probably.)

As Val McDermid did with ‘Northanger Abbey’, Alexander McCall Smith turned it inside out and made it his own, moving the Woodhouse pile, Hartfield, and the village of Highbury (I always think of the Arsenal!) from Surrey to Norfolk, although I don’t know why.   However, it was not easy to translate a story about a rich girl living in a big house in the country with nothing to do into modern life and portray her character sympathetically.  Inevitably, Emma becomes a bit of an alice band.  When the story starts, Emma has just graduated from Bath University with a degree in interior design, but without a real passion in the subject, and, whilst she is very childish in some respects, she is also prematurely middle-aged, with an overwhelming interest in her neighbours.   Like the real thing, she interferes in other people’s business, believing she knows better, with disastrous results.   Jane herself wrote of ‘Emma’, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” (Wikipedia, quoting Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1926. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. p. 157).  Yes, Miss Austen, you did.

Maybe it’s because the setting is contemporary, or because I read the real ‘Emma’ a long time ago, when I was young and callow, but AMS’s characters seem more lifelike, to the point of being caricatures.  Emma herself really is horrid, Harriet Smith incredibly thick and gullible, and Mr Woodhouse so much of a hypochondriac that it’s a wonder he ever got out of bed.  In fact, in my opinion, Mr Woodhouse occupies too much of this adaptation, especially at the beginning, when we have to read his life story, with AMS converting him into a bit of a sage, with a knotty opinion on world affairs.   Another character who takes up too many pages is Miss Taylor.  Who she, you might ask, Dear Reader?  In the original, she has a very minor role, as Emma’s former governess who has recently wed Mr Weston, but, because – after Mr Woodhouse’s life story – we have to read about Emma and Isabella’s childhood, she looms large – and Scottish.  Miss Bates, one of the stronger characters in the real thing, appears only briefly.  Mr Knightley is shadowy, dull and worthy, a Darcy without the edginess.  True to the original, Emma realises she loves Mr Knightley only in the last few pages, but in both versions this is an unsatisfactory ending.

‘Emma’ is a story in which very little happens.  Many of the (only) 300 pages were taken up with typical Alexander McCall Smith meanderings, exploring what everyone thinks about everything.  These are normally a pleasure to read, but not here.  I do believe bringing ‘Emma’ into the present day was difficult task as parts of it belong wholly to the Regency period.

So do I recommend Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘Emma’?  Yes, actually.  It was a pleasant read, more Alexander McCall Smith, though, than Jane Austen.

Jane Austen, painted by her sister, Cassandra.