Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Post (of 2008)

This week we're looking after our little four year old nephew, who is (occasional wilful tantrums notwithstanding) a joy to entertain, but leaves little time or energy for such frivolities as blogging. So for my final post of 2008, I offer quite simply a list of all my favourite happenings, cultural, sentimental and culinary, from this past year. This comes with an invitation for you to reply with your own 'Best of 2008' and warmest wishes for a very happy and peaceful 2009 to you all.

Books
1. Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann
2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
3. The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe

Films
1. Juno
2. In Bruges
3. No Country for Old Men

Gigs
1. Camille at Den Atelier, Luxembourg
2. Scott Matthew at Bush Hall, London
3. Sigur Ros at Latitude Festival, Suffolk

Albums
1. Camille - Music Hole
2. Lykke Li - Youth Novels
3. Foals - Antidotes

Theatre
1. Avenue Q, Noel Coward Theatre, London
2. Power Lunch, Open House, Brighton
3. Bonnie in Brighton, Three and Ten, Brighton

Restaurants
1. Bom Bane's, Brighton
2. Cyrano, Budapest
3. Carnevale, Moorgate, London

Clubs
1. The Magic Theatre at Bloomsbury Ballroom
2. Vive La Fip at Komedia
3. Carnivalesque at Barfly

Moments
1. Nathaniel Aldous Carn (my new nephew) born
2. Getting my teeth fixed
3. Singing on stage for the first time in 15 years


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Vegetarian Christmas Lunch, My Way

There are few things I enjoy more than cooking up a feast for friends and family, so it was a great privilege to be the designated chef for this year's Christmas lunch round at my Mum's on Thursday. Usually I hide in the lounge watching old films with my sister while big bro and Mum do all the food, but with both siblings away this year, I was only too pleased to offer my culinary services, and Mum was delighted to be able to put her feet up for once. I do a roast most weekends anyway, so it wasn't a massive challenge, but I did go a little bit crazy since it was a special occasion. Ant helped me do most of the preparation the night before, so there wasn't actually much to do on the day, giving us all more time to knock back a glass or two of delicious pink Prosecco. The above picture may look like a disgustingly greedy portion, but in my defence, they were unusually petite plates (Mum's not mine). It was also the first year in ages that there has been absolutely no meat or fish on the table, and although not everyone present was a vegetarian (most apart from me are pescetarians), it was so tasty that nobody minded in the least. I always try to make a plate of food as colourful as possible, so the following assortment was conceived with aesthetic as well as gustatory variety in mind.

Chestnut & spinach loaf
This was adapted from a recipe in Leiths Vegetable Bible. I replaced half the nut quantity with a tin of chestnut puree (making for a more moist end result), and added some cheese (Lancashire) to the middle layer with the spinach.

Roast potatoes
My mum is a bit of a traditionalist, so I am never normally allowed roasties with their skins on. To me the crunchy nutty jacket is by far the best bit, and thankfully noone complained when they were served my preferred version of this Christmas dinner staple, complete with skins.

Mashed swede & squash
We'd had a rather large squash (I'm not certain what variety) delivered in our Abel & Cole veg box, so it seemed a shame not to include it. I steamed this together with some swede and mashed them up with lots of butter and black pepper, and a little rock salt.

Oven roasted ratatouille
Not normally something associated with Christmas dinner, but the sharpness of the tomatoes and fresh basil, combined with slowly roasted courgettes, leeks and peppers provided a welcome contrast to the other stodgier flavours and textures on the plate.

Spiced red cabbage
Stewed down with red wine, stock and spices for over an hour, this added a fantastic splash of purple to the plate.

Oven roasted coriander carrots
According to Delia, winter carrots are blander than the summer variety, so she suggests roasting rather than boiling them in order to preserve maximum flavour. The addition of ground coriander seeds and black pepper is also her suggestion, as found on p.198 of Delia's Vegetarian Collection.

Parmesan-coated roast parsnips
A special request from Ant, these were based on another Delia recipe that I'd made once before a few years ago and he had never forgotten.

Peas & broccoli
Unadulterated greens, simply steamed for the best flavour.

Gravy
Made to my own special secret recipe.

Condiments
I am afraid I didn't stretch to making these myself, but we did have a good selection - including cranberry sauce, red onion chutney (my favourite) and mango chutney.

According to plan, there was plenty of everything left to make a substantial bubble & squeak on Boxing Day. We just warmed it all through in a big vat on the stove, whizzed in some extra herbs and spices, then grated over a generous helping of Applewood cheese and finished it off under the grill. Since that second gut-busting blow-out I've been living on a more moderate diet of cheese and crackers, which is honestly my favourite bit of the Christmas culinary indulgences.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas

Last night as I returned from a semi-successful mission to the supermarket for Christmas food supplies, I was reminiscing to myself about an occasion, eight years ago, when the 23rd December became a ceremony in its own right.

Ant and I were living in Streatham at the time and couldn't wait to escape London for the seaside. We arrived in Eastbourne and spent the evening with my sister (pictured here with me on Christmas day 2006) and her boyfriend, all of us reverting to child-like giddiness about the imminent festivities. Somehow a video camera got into the mix, and before we knew it, our now legendary production of 'The Night Before The Night Before Christmas' was born.

As far as I know, the recording has yet to make it onto YouTube, so I cannot share with you the glories of this bonkers performance. But just remembering it got me thinking about how the anticipation of Christmas is really the best bit, and how rubbish it is when that build-up is eclipsed by annoying preparation traumas (e.g. not being able to get any parsnips in Sainsbury's).

So tonight I am going to stop caring whether on not I have everything I need for the family feast tomorrow. I know that I have two bottles of pink fizz and a good supply of red wine, cheese and biscuits and various chutneys - and as far as I am concerned, that is all the good stuff covered.

My little sis has gone to France with her beau and their new baby this year, to spend It with the in-laws, so sadly there'll be no chance of a sequel to 'The Night Before the Night Before Christmas'. Maybe next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Growing Old Disgracefully

Saturday night at Bom-Bane's. A celebratory birthday dinner for Ant with 13 of his favourite people (including me). Good friends, hearty food, fancy Belgian beer and cheeky cocktails abound. Led by the performing proprietor and her talented band of waiting staff, we belt out Christmas carols (with descants) between courses. Banter and crackers and silly hats all merry the mood. For reasons unknown, two of our assembled engage in a friendly arm wrestle. "Put your hand in mine" says one; "Don't ever let go-o-o" comes the spontaneous retort from a spectator across the table. "Let the world around us just fall apaaaart" croons another, and as if it had been rehearsed, a word-perfect group rendition of the 80s classic 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' ensues (with gusto). Sometimes our weekends just go that way.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Une Aventure Musicale Supérieure: Camille at Den Atelier, Luxembourg

Driving from Brighton to Luxembourg in an aged Nissan Micra to go to a gig might seem like madness to you, but if you'd ever seen Camillelive, you'd understand why the 800 mile round trip was totally worth it. Even in the throes of a stinking cold, I had a brilliant night at what turned out to be the most mind-blowing gig of the year (and I've been to quite a few).

Fellow Francophile Brian introduced me to Camille a couple of years ago when he was staying with us over the summer. Her second album, Le Fil, had just come out and fitted nicely into my budding Chansonica collection. Then when the latest album, Music Hole, was released earlier this year, it quickly became my most listened to album of the summer.

I'd heard great things about Camille's live performances and when Brian suggested going to see her at the Roundhouse in London, I was keen. Except that it was in Camden on a Sunday night, and ever since a bad experience after a Bonzo Dog gig a couple of years ago, I had vowed to avoid rail replacement buses at all costs. The only other UK date was in Glasgow on a week night, so I idly flicked through the European tour schedule to see if there was anything else within striking distance. Luxembourg on a Saturday seemed extravagant but feasible, and Brian was game.

So two weekends ago, Brian, Ant and I piled into our little jalopy and hit the road to the world's only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy. Poor Ant was stuck with all the driving, while I slept in the back for most of the way, dosed up on Benylin. But after a glass or two of restorative Vin Chaud from the Luxembourg Christmas market, I had perked up considerably, and we rocked up at Den Atelier - an intimate warehouse venue near the city's main station. It was already packed with excitable Luxemburgers, and we found ourselves a spot at the fringes of the action, but close to the bar. Normally I'd head straight for the mosh pit, but wasn't feeling 100%, and the no-photography policy made it seem less crucial to be close to the stage.

Unusually, there was no support band, but the main act was more than sufficient. At first I couldn't work out what was going on - it sounded like a synthesised backing track accompanying the French singer, but when I caught a glimpse of the stage, I saw only seven instrument-free people (pictured above) and a grand piano (with pianist) generating the convincingly electronica sound. A human beat-box duo and a pair of body-percussionists provided the rhythm and bass, while two backing singers and a pianist skillfully embellished Camille's own powerfully dextrous vocals. The effect was mesmerising; I have never heard anything like it in my life.

Performed with astonishing panache, Camille's epic set was a mixture of French language songs from the first two albums, a couple of quirky cover versions and most of the more catchy material from the current (largely English) release. A genius hip-hop reinvention of Camille's notorious Nouvelle Vague collaboration, Too Drunk to Fuck, had the crowd giddily shouting along, but everyone was really hanging on the inevitable encore choice, Money Note - a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of those irritating female crooners (Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston etc). Personally, I would have been happy for it to end there, but the punters were less sated, demanding a further three reappearances from the obliging starlet and her quirky ensemble. Seeing as we'd come all that way, it would have felt churlish to bail before the end, and it was worth it to witness an gentle acousitc finale which seemed to calm the crowd into submission.

We rounded off the evening with a nightcap in the bar next door, where everyone was chattering animatedly (in French) about the gig. I resolved to not see any more bands in 2008, wanting to conclude a prodigious 12 months of live music on what was easily the best show of the year.


Photo of Camille live at AB Ancienne Brussels from kmeron on Flickr

Monday, December 15, 2008

Merry Christmas from the Golden Goat

Either I'm getting snobbier, or Christmas cards are getting tackier by the year. For most of the people to whom I send them (local friends and family are given verbal greetings only), Christmas cards are a once-a-year reminder of my existence, and I want them to say something about me. I don't want them to be particularly religious, overly sentimental, or in any way reminiscent of ironic wallpaper. Also, I prefer them to be recycled and in a good cause - because I always tut disappointedly when opening other people's non-charity cards (why wouldn't you?) and it would be hypocritical not to ride my own high-horse.

Having been uninspired by the cards on sale in recent times, this year I used an online service (moo.com) to get some printed using my own photographs. A little narcissistic perhaps, but much more personal and much more 'me'. My favourite of the four pictures I chose is this rather splendid golden goat (pictured above), who we discovered in a funky little bar in Cologne last December. He says much more about my perception of Christmas than any dusty crib scene or cutesy fluffy baby seals rolling in the snow (much as I adore fluffy baby seals). You can see the other designs I picked on Flickr.

For the reasons stated above, I hadn't intended to send out very many cards, so only had 25 printed. These have already run out (if you got one, especially a goat, you are one of the lucky few!) and so I was forced to scour Lewes at lunchtime today looking for a supply of extras (it's too late to get more printed). Even Oxfam, who can usually be relied upon to offer something vaguely tasteful, left me swaying in wide-eyed horror at the crap vileness of their selection. In the end I had to swallow my pride and pick the least offensive. So, apologies in advance to anyone who receives one of these sub-standard variations - please consider this blog post as your official Christmas card instead.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa's Skeletons

Admit it, there's something you've been dying to tell. It wouldn't take much encouragement, just someone to ask the right questions, for it all to come gushing out. Right? As I discovered last night, the annual company bash is the most likely, if least appropriate, forum for confessions to be aired. Cruising the tables between courses, equipped with trusty notebook and a candid agenda, it took very little persuasion on my part to get discretion flying out of the window and skeletons tumbling out of the closet.

It should be noted that I was sat opposite the drunkest and most goadable person (let's call him colleague 'X') there, who actually insisted that I transcribe and publish every shameful detail of his sordid tales, emphatically forbidding me to change the names or places. Any work mates reading this will already know full well who I am talking about, so I reserve the right to keep things anonymous in the cold light of day.

A couple of years ago, I shared a colleague's witty morning after 'whodunnit' quiz , written following various dubious antics at that year's company bash. In a similar spirit, I offer some of the more amusing confessions and allegations told to me or overheard at last night's do.


Before entirely losing the power of speech (this happened later, after the Benylin-snorting incident), colleague 'X' recalled the time when, walking back from a party late one night, he was apprehended, groped and propositioned in no uncertain terms by a frisky Welsh man in tight jeans and silly pointy shoes. Surprisingly, he declined the offer, but would not be drawn on the subject of whether it had maybe excited him just a little bit.

A rumour about someone having a fetish for being whipped with stinging nettles was claimed to have been started by several different tables, until I finally traced it back to my own. Knowing the dry sense of humour of the alleged originator, I somehow suspect that this particular offering may have been in jest. Or was it...?

Clearly there was an S&M vibe in the air (how original), as one colleague admitted to having fantasised about being dominated by a certain other senior member of staff. The object of these hankerings, who was sitting right next to him at the time, seemed flattered by this confession, and actually started to suggest possible scenarios - at which point the rest of the table tried desperately to change the subject.

As is customary on these occasions, plenty of lame and ridiculous stories were doing the rounds - like the suggestion that our Financial Director is a secret smack dealer (he took it in good part), and claims of inappropriate fondling between two (straight) male colleagues. But the most entertaining revelation of the night came from a senior staff member in the pub afterwards, who rewarded my request for a confession with a brilliantly animated tale of the time he was arrested for being Drunk and Disorderly ("but I was only drunk", he professed) after a boozy business lunch in London. This somewhat surprising admission concluded with the person in question sheepishly calling the police station the next day to apologise for his loutish behaviour, much to the bemusement (and presumably amusement) of the officers involved.

Who needs counselling when you can get it all off your chest at the office Christmas party?

Photographs courtesy of Al Wares.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Too Sick to Blog

It's been a long time since I felt too ill to write; usually it's the last of my faculties to fail, often it's a comforting remedy. But since last Friday I have been at the mercy of a nasty bout of flu that has scuppered my intention to blog every day in December. Going to a to a gig in Luxembourg last weekend no doubt made matters worse, but I wouldn't have missed it for all the Benylin in Boots. Certainly our (some would say insane) adventure deserves a post all of its own, and hopefully come this weekend I shall feel chipper enough to wax lyrical about Camille in all her wacky Gallic glory. But for now I am just popping up to say 'hello' and crawling straight back under my snuffly, spangly sickness rock. Make me a Lemsip, I'll be back for Christmas.

Friday, December 05, 2008

My Nephew the Jedi

Usually the first thing that my nephew asks when he comes to stay is "please can I wear my Wall-e costume?". He's been obsessed with the lovable yellow robot ever since seeing the film (four times - once with us) at the cinema earlier this year. We bought him the costume as a special treat and it now gets brought out as a reward for good behaviour (there's nothing wrong with bribery, OK?), although if it were up to him he'd go everywhere in it (including the bath). It pleases me immensely that the little boy seems to have inherited my penchant for dressing up, but I did wonder whether it was more a fixation with that particular character than anything else, so last weekend we tried something different and dressed him up as Luke Skywalker. He already has the blonde wispy hair, so all I needed was an old white shirt and of course one of Uncle Ant's lightsabers (which Isaac very sweetly still insists on calling light savers - I think I did the same as a child). I had to stifle a laugh as he inspected himself in the mirror with a mixture of solemn pride and awed excitement, announcing "I'm just checking to see how cool I look"; he's four. I had already dusted off my Princess Leia wig and gun (originally worn on my 30th birthday), and we proceeded to run around the flat re-enacting scenes from Star Wars, much to his (and my) delight. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Uncle Ant then appeared as Darth Vader in a black cape and cycle helmet and challenged 'Luke' to a duel. Isaac's face was a picture! And all this excitement on top of the Lego Wall-e and M-O (another character from the film) we'd made for him the day before - I'm not sure you could have much more kudos in the eyes of a small boy.

I hope that this little episode will be the start of a new tradition between me and my nephew. My own childhood was filled with ongoing imaginary games played out with my siblings, often involving dressing up and props (provided by our theatrical parents). And we all still get great pleasure from pretending in our own ways - whether it be fancy dress parties or role-playing games. Not surprisingly, Isaac already has a lively imagination; I'm having so much fun helping him to foster it and re-igniting my own in the process.



Thursday, December 04, 2008

Christmas is Boring

I'm not intending to rant endlessly in a 'Bah Humbug' fashion for the entire run up to Christmas, but I do need to get this particular gripe off my chest... Sitting in a festively adorned bar in Mayfair last night, surrounded by rowdy booksellers and publishing people - all enthusiastically exploiting the free bar (nice to know some things never change), I realised with a certain amount of sadness that Christmas just does not excite me any more. The colleague with whom I was chatting at the time agreed that, unless you are a child, or have children in your life, the whole exercise seems depressingly futile.

Naturally, I enjoy getting the extra time off work, doing the seasonal party circuit and spending time with friends and family - but as someone who parties all year round and sees most of my relatives on a regular basis anyway, it's not that special. This year looks set to be the quietest Christmas on record for me; with both my siblings and their offspring being elsewhere it will be just me, Ant and Mum at the familial abode for the day itself. I'm sure we'll have a lovely day, as we always do when we get together, but it won't feel very Christmassy without any littlies running about.

My main problem with the whole set up is that it is the same every year. In all other aspects of life I actively try to keep things as varied and interesting as possible; as I said in my previous post, holidays are all about new experiences and doing something different, so it seems totally incongruous to me to have to sit and perform the same old rituals year after year. But there are traditions to uphold - sprouts (ugh), crackers (woo), the Queen's speech (thanks but no thanks) etc. - and I understand that these mean a lot to some people, so I go along with it. I'd really love to use the holiday time to go on an adventure instead of sitting around in a haze of excess and forced jollity for days on end and am envious of my friend Mat, who has escaped to India this year for the duration. Apparently Christmas is quite big over there, but at least he'll be seeing a new (hopefully sprout free) side to it, and no doubt having a whale of a time in the process (lucky b*****d).

I'm not sure exactly when I got bored of Christmas; I suspect it was a gradual process that happened between me growing up and leaving home, my little sister growing up leaving home and when I stopped working on Pantomime (which leaves you no time to get bored). The last few years have been improved by the presence of my nephew Isaac, whose ecstatic gift-opening expression is enough to put a spark of magic back into even the most jaded of souls. Sadly he'll be spending Christmas with his other grandma this year, so there will be no Lego fire engines to build (unless I buy one for Ant) or new storybooks to read aloud.

I do feel a little bit bad about being such a curmudgeon (especially if any of my nearest and dearest are reading), so I am going to conclude this outpouring on a positive note. One thing that does excite me about this year's shindig is that I shall be doing the cooking for only the second time ever. The previous occasion was under quite stressful circumstances, when mother went and broke both her wrists (I know!) right before Christmas, and I was left holding the fort. I seem to remember a rather disastrous soggy nut roast, though everyone was very kind about it. My culinary skills have come on no end in the eleven years since then, and I am looking forward to letting mum put her feet up while I whizz up one of my fabled nonconformist roasts. You will have to watch this space to find out exactly what this entails (I haven't entirely decided yet), but rest assured, whatever happens, there will be plenty of gravy. And I will never ever get bored of gravy.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sinking City

I was sad to read in the news this morning about the current flooding crisis in Venice - certainly not a new problem for the swamp-dwelling city, but the worst they have experienced in a while. Having been to Venice for the first time recently (for a daytrip at the end of our Hungary-Croatia-Italy jaunt), my interest in the city and its dubious fate is newly aroused. I suppose you have to have been to a place to really begin to care about it. Unfortunately there's no way to avoid the multitides of fellow sight-seers, as Venice is pretty much packed with them all year round. We arrived in the middle of half term, and I'd been expecting crowds, but wasn't really prepared for the total theme-park feel to the place, at least at the major 'attractions'.

After arriving by train from Trieste, we took a picturesque waterbus ride along the Grand Canal to St Mark's square, where we exchanged withering glances, and it quickly became clear we wouldn't be doing any of the 'sites'. I can't understand why people would queue for hours to see a building, however beautiful, only to have to share it with hundreds of other tourists. It's almost like they go armed with a checklist that must be ticked off, rather than any desire to have a unique experience; and why on earth would you want to have identical holiday snaps to everyone else who's ever been? While it's nice to be able to say you've visited famous monuments (Cristo Redentor in Rio was a highlight for me - though the view is more awe-inspiring than Jesus), I would much rather get a feel for the real place, meet some interesting people, see a special something that noone else has found. So we spent most of our day wandering the labyrinthine back streets, popping into beautiful little incense-filled churches, stopping for coffee/ice cream/cake/pizza and more often than not, finding ourselves at a dead end and wishing we'd had a boat. Once you get away from the crowds, there is a wonderfully atmospheric city waiting to be discovered, and it is possible to have an individual expedition.

Inspired by the recent BBC series Francesco's Venice, the one 'attraction' we did visit was the Gallerie Accademia - the the city's main art gallery, whose mind-blowing collection includes works by such luminaries as Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Bellotto and Longhi to name a few. The sheer staggering proportions of many of these reverential religious paintings is overwhelming. Normally I struggle with sacred art, especially crucifixion scenes (which give me the willies), but by these I was truly moved. Thankfully (and a little surprisingly), the museum wasn't too heaving with tourists, so it was possible to stand and reflect at leisure, which we both did quite a lot. I'd love to go back to Venice some day, preferably with a boat and some tranquiliser darts. I just hope it doesn't sink before I get the chance.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Legwarmers!

My friend Harriet loves legwarmers. I mean she honestly hardly ever goes out without wearing them. She says it's because her ankles are too skinny, but I think there's more to it than that. My theory is that they are a kind of comfort blanket - an endearing idiosyncrasy that says "This is me: Legwarmer Girl. What about it?". Harriet loves birds too (don't get her started), and is a self-confessed nature geek, but I'm not sure if the two passions are connected. Perhaps the legwarmers could double as emergency sleeping bags for injured wildlife - I can't rule out the possibility that she may have at some point considered this. I must remember to ask her. The other night we were at a party where two other girls were also sporting and espousing the virtues of legwarmers. Much girlie bonding ensued and I must admit to feeling rather left out.

To me, legwarmers will forever be associated with dance classes and childish aspirations to be a ballerina, though of course they were also quite popular as a fashion accessory during my schooldays in the Era That Taste Forgot - the 80s. I do remember getting a rather splendid maroon patterned pair for Christmas, possibly the same year that I got my first pixie boots . I grew out of wearing them on a regular basis after their popularity declined and they disappeared from the shops, which was also around the time that I gave up ballet lessons. The last time I actually bought any for myself would have been a couple of years ago when I was thinking about dressing up as one of the Kids from Fame for a fancy dress party, but then never did. One of the pairs I bought was bright garish pink, and have now been donated to Harriet's collection; the other (black) pair, which I have kept, do come in handy on occasion - like when there's that annoying gap between sock and legging, or if I have particularly chilly ankles.

Today it rained here in Lewes, and my shoes fell apart while I was walking about at lunchtime, so that the sole of one was literally flapping around. What's left of them is now drying on the radiator along with my soggy socks. Thank goodness I happened to be wearing my legwarmers, which are now acting as temporary socks and stopping my toes from going numb in this freezing weather. And very cosy they are too. So today I say, "yay for legwarmers" - now I know why Harriet loves you.

N.B. The legs in the above picture are not Harriet's legs (though hers are very nice too). These are actually from a photo by Stellae et Luna that I found on Flickr.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Festive Monsters

It is the first day of December and suddenly the usually modest lunchtime queue at the Lewes Post Office has started snaking out of the door and around the corner. It will be like this now every (working) day until Christmas Eve. The looming deadlines for posting parcels abroad in time for Christmas are no doubt partly responsible, but I can't help thinking that today's date itself is also to blame. Turning the kitchen calendar over to December this morning, I felt a surge of anxiety about the impending festivities - the growing 'to do' list for which I have largely been ignoring for the last few weeks. Not that you could forget about Christmas if you tried, what with it being shoved in your face no sooner than the 'Back to School' retail promotions have finished in September. But now that we're actually in the same month as the Big Day, it's like being penned in a cage with a snarling monster - you know if you don't start feeding it soon that you're going to get eaten! So off they all march to the Post Office, joining hordes of other stony-faced shoppers despatching the usual pointless paraphernalia to out-of-town relatives; ticking the boxes and pacifying the monster. Personally, I only have a couple of packages to send this year, to friends in other countries; thanks to the wonders of online shopping, I shall be delegating the majority of that irksome task to Amazon. And I have absolutely no problem with other people doing the same - I would rather get stuff that I actually want off my wish list than a basket of cosmetics or a gimmicky gadget that will end up Out the Back with the Rest. Birthdays are for thoughtful and original gifts - Christmas is just about getting through it with minimum damage to both sanity and wallet. Bah, Humbug.