The best of times, the worst of times

So here we are, mid July. It’s one of my favourite months – my birthday is on 9th, the same day as Tom Hanks. And the same year; which means that we were both born in the Chinese year of the Monkey, and also under the sign of Cancer the Crab. So I’m guessing that according to these systems, he and I have a lot of character traits in common. If I ever meet him, I’ll let you know.

I’m sure there must be exceptions but I imagine that most people like July. It’s summertime (if we’re lucky and the jet stream does what it’s supposed to), the countryside is green and gorgeous, and the shops and gardens are full of luscious things to eat – as I write this I’m dipping in to a dish of alpine strawberries that Michael has just picked. It’s a tough life…

It’s also the beginning of the school holidays. Not that we’re affected by this any longer, but once upon a time we were lucky enough to have three bright, beautiful little girls. They’ve all grown up now; we’ve seen them through babyhood and schooldays and now finally, with Alex’s graduation, we’ve celebrated university success with them. These events always make me a bit tearful but even Alex was shocked when I started blubbing as she went to collect her gown!2016-07-14 15.07.56

It’s interesting to experience the different traditions and atmospheres of the various universities. Lizzie went to Royal Holloway and the ceremony there was just that – ceremonial to the nth degree, with lots of gorgeous choral music and a trumpet fanfare by soldiers from the Household Cavalry; Katie’s day at Bristol was formal and dignified with plenty of Latin – and no caps, due to bad behaviour in previous years when caps had been flung from Clifton Suspension Bridge… This affair at Cardiff University was informal, warm and full of fun. It was all the more enjoyable because we know the city so well, having lived there for so many years. We collected Alex’s gown from City Hall, strolled down to the Castle Arcade to have tea and very nice cakes with my two sisters, and then navigated our way through hordes of gowned graduands to find our seats at St David’s Hall. As our surname begins with a B, Alex was one of the first half dozen onto the stage but we clapped and cheered for another hour and a half before going back out into chaos.2016-07-14 12.29.11Formalities over we wandered along to the castle with a group of Alex’s friends, some of them fellow graduates, some of them old school pals. With a complete disregard for decorum or health & safety, they tottered across the grass in outrageously spindly heels and posed for photographs by their adoring public.

Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History may sound a little dry but it doesn’t stop a girl from loving her shoes…2016-07-14 15.10.47

2016-07-14 15.27.57

Celebration time continued back in Monmouthshire, at the wonderful Walnut Tree restaurant in Llanddewi Skirrid. Recently named the best place to eat in Wales, and proud holder of a Michelin Star, we’ve eaten here twice before and Alex had been with us on one occasion. At the time she declared that the meal was the best she’d ever eaten so it was never in doubt that this would be her choice.

We’d decided that we’d restrict ourselves to two courses (main meal and then dessert) but as soon as Lizzie saw that one of the first course options was a stuffed courgette flower she rapidly changed her mind!. We all tried it and it was fabulous.IMG-20160722-WA0003There followed: rack of lamb with moussaka and Greek salad (Lizzie & Alex); Brill with shrimps and cockles (Katie); Pork loin, pork cheek and black pudding (Michael); and rabbit loin, liver and pie (me). 


But for a celebration there has to be pudding, don’t you think? So we went for Pistachio mousseline with pistachio filo rolls and strawberries (Lizzie); a chocolate and cream Paris-Brest (Katie); nectarines and blueberries in a marsala sabayon (me); and – easily everyone’s favourite, go there and try it – gin and elderflower jelly with gooseberry icecream (Michael).

Whilst the lovely staff at the restaurant had been busy with the chocolate sauce on Alex’s raspberry and white chocolate pavlova:IMG-20160722-WA0007-1

This was a delicious ending to a glorious day – though Katie admitted she took it too far when she ordered and then struggled through a salted caramel espresso martini…

We had a day off to rest and then threw ourselves into party mode on Saturday for a belated 60th birthday get-together for yours truly. Ten years ago I was told that 50 was the new 40. Strangely, I seem to have fallen into a time warp because this month I’ve been told that 60 is the new 40. It appears that I’ll be 40 for the rest of my life…

But for the last two weeks I’ve been looking at cards on the mantle-piece which all bear a giant 60 on the front. Pretty cards, funny cards, thoughtful cards – and one hideous piece that came from Lizzie and Katie, embellished with some incredibly bad photographs of me. If I thought I looked like that all the time I wouldn’t go out without a paper bag over my head.

It’s very strange, this age thing. If I read a piece in a newspaper (or more likely, I’m sorry to say, the BBC news app on my phone) that starts off with “A 60 year old woman today…” I immediately get a picture in my head of this person, as I bet a lot of you do. And I feel completely separated from this anonymous soul. She’s in a category marked “old” or “middle-aged” or “past it”, or something equally depressing, and nothing that could possibly apply to me.

I’ve stopped saying that I’m retired, for the same reason. It conjures up images of old biddies with nothing better to do than sit on the sofa doing Sudoku whilst listening to Jeremy Vine sort out the nation’s problems. That’s before they don their padded anoraks and shuffle off to town with their shopping baskets on wheels to buy a bit of fish for dinner.


And so now we move on to the worst of times. This has been a horrible, heartbreaking week. The unrelenting violence in the Middle East, an awful, racially focused, gun-toting meltdown in the USA  and the shattering tragedy of Nice. It’s a symptom of our times that language is exaggerated, that words such as horrendous are rattled out by people who’ve been caught in a heavy rain shower; that awesome and amazing are used instead of interesting or attractive. Similarly it’s not unusual to hear sports commentators proclaim “It’s carnage out there!”

No, no, no…a few men pushed over on a rugby field whilst the other team amass ever more points is not carnage.

The attack at Istanbul airport caused carnage. The result of suicide bombings in Baghdad and civil war in Syria is carnage. The aftermath of a lunatic at the wheel of a lorry on the Promenade des Anglais is carnage.

These awful events make us all afraid but also make us feel useless. There’s nothing we as individuals can do – apart from treat everyone else with respect, dignity and understanding. And of course, treasure the good things in life.

So I wish you all an awesome week…have an amazing time whatever you choose to do!

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.

Mahatma Gandhi


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