Lionel the Lollipop

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Christ, what is Mummy doing to the vicar? Dunno, perhaps his zip has broken. She only said she needed to speak to him about parking. Golly, that could put someone's eye out.

So for the last twenty-odd years, Lionel the Lollipop man has safely escorted generations of children across the road from the church car park (where we abandon our huge 4x4s to the utter fury of the vicar - I once left both doors wide open on mine, being late and in a tearing hurry, and came back to find some MOST un-Christian sentiments stuck to the windscreen) across a busy road to the school grounds. Rain and shine, he's there in his hi-vis tabard, cheerful, helpful and just the tiniest bit wistful.

The brand-new Nursery children do traffic projects and a proud, beaming barrel-chested Lionel spends an hour in the upstairs hall explaining his important role to class after class, year after year; then they draw pictures of him and always remember to say 'good morning, Lionel' when they see him. Freddie always signs off his phone calls 'bye-bye Mummy/Daddy/Gan-Gan/Tante, I love you.' One day, unthinkingly, he said 'bye-bye, Lionel, I love you,' and it wasn't till Rose walloped him that he realised what he had done. Not surprisingly, from then on, Lionel always stopped everything for Freddie; flashing ambulances, juggernauts, coppers on bikes. They have also discovered a mutual love of cricket which, especially in the summer months, leaves crowds of little ones stranded on the other side of the road as Lionel and Freddie earnestly discuss batting averages and what their heroes might get for tea at the Oval.

On discovering Freddie's Other Grandparents live abroad, Lionel presented him last term with a special sim card for a mobile which apparently saves a fortune on international calls. In fact, it did and I instructed Freddie to thank Lionel very much indeed. On Monday, he did, and Lionel said 'Oh good. I only ever phone my wife and my friend in London, so I didn't need it.'

By the time we got to the Jeep, Freddie was unable to speak. He and Rose sat horror-struck on the back seat. 'What?' I demanded crossly. Freddie was crying silently. 'Lionel,' he sniffed. 'He's only got one friend to phone.' 'And he lives in London,' sobbed Rose. 'Oh God,' she looked at her brother, 'I bet he stays up all night getting cricket stuff off the telly to talk to you about.' Their crying continued. Freddie said his heart hurt when he thought about Lionel. I suggested he stop thinking about him then. 'The holidays,' they gulped. 'He must be so lonely.' 'And we never even sent him a card from Barbados. He'd have loved that, it's where Brian Lara lives.' They were super-enthusiastic when they greeted him on Tuesday.

I am in London working for a couple of days, so my parents are managing the delicate emotional state of my children. I think I might tell them the vicar's only got one friend and he lives in Heaven; perhaps four huge tear-swimming blue eyes will distract him from my crap parking. It's worth a go.

In which I grow a large moustache and spout the Telegraph.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

What the f*ck? Where the hell is the X-Box? Tell me the mad bitch doesn't think we're gonna play outside with that shitey pile of branches and old string. Get my mobile now. I've got Max Clifford on speed dial.

The bloody dog ran away this morning on our walk. She's still only a puppy but she's also a shocking tart; she will go home with pretty much anyone that gives her a bit of attention and we all know girls like THAT. She charged off to the corner of the field and into the graveyard, following a golden retriever and a tall man in a waxed jacket. I scrambled over the wall and cut them off, grabbing her collar and redeeming her reputation. The man was most amused that I'd climbed a wall. Perhaps he thought I was too sophisticated for such child-like pursuits. More likely he thought I was too old.

On the long hike back, I was remembering the many many walls I have climbed in my time. As children, before the Abdication, the Northen Socialist used to take us walking for miles about the North of England. Sometimes we came across natural obstacles; sometimes he went on ahead and made them for us. We kids then had to make bridges and walkways; the higher and more dangerous the better. Bits of wood, old tyres, rope and haybales. Fording freezing streams, often falling in. Climbing trees and great dry stone walls; inventing labrynth plank-lined passages high above the fields; stalking imaginary lions in the fells.

My own children, and several others, once spent a whole day under the Colonel's command, re-routing a river in the Lake District. They moved tons of stones, ferns, soil. Some of the operation took place up a cliff; some waist-deep in water. There were duckings and grazes and squabbles, but eight filthy happy faces cheered a new torrent through the gloaming as night fell. But it was a rare day; they certainly weren't Macguyvering suspension bridges out of old cardboard and string on a weekly basis. More's the pity.

I know it's fashionable to decry the lack of physical challenges our children face, but I think they are losing out more on the mental and emotional benefits. Not to give up straight away. To laugh at yourself when you can't do something instead of casting about for someone to do it for you. To admire those who quietly don't give up instead of whining, sobbing-in-newspapers arseholes who think that making your lack of spine public absolves you of responsibility. To encounter a challenge and bloody well give it a go, not crumple pathetically and bemoan the cards fate dealt you.

I came home bristling about this. The Colonel is begging me to spend less time alone. And to start drinking again. He's probably got a point.

Bienvenue au Boudoir de Barbie

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ken! Get your plastic arse in here and call Malibu Security. That hideous old dyke Miss Marple is stalking me again and she's in my BEDROOM.

When Rose was four, she dithered around, like most girls of her era, on the edge of the Barbie-Disney-Princess vortex I felt it was my maternal duty to keep her out of. It was April, I thought a trip to Paris would distract us both, so off we flew, Rose getting all the business travellers to shout 'Weeeeee' as we zoomed down the runway and took off.

Paris, in delicate early spring light, is as close to heaven as you can get. In the company of a curious and independent-minded little daughter, it actually is heaven. I love the insouciant rudeness of Parisians; I find it so much more authentic than a greasy insincere smirk as someone pretends to care where I come from before they rip me off. We had breakfast in the 6th arrondissement; Rose looked crossly at the bowl of cafe au lait and croissant. 'Can't I have apple juice?' I pushed through the chic crowd to the counter, trying to keep an eye on the little figure perched at the tiny table with a bucket of hot coffee. She didn't miss a trick; when I got back, she had ripped up my croissant, filled the coffee with sugar and was dipping in the pastry, scattering soggy crumbs and icy smiles about the place. Just like a native.

We walked for miles and miles. In the Marais, we passed a couture shop selling a dress made of rose petals. She popped in to look closer; I watched through the window as she and the skeletal assistants exchanged solemn words, fingered the dress and bid unsmiling farewells. Not a gusher, my daughter. Unlike me. 'What a gorgeous dress, did you tell them your name was Rose, how funny, it was made of roses.' She looked at me pityingly. 'I'm English. I don't know what they said.'

One night we went for a late and grown-up dinner. The restaurant was hushed and empty apart from some bourgeois matrons in fur and matching lap dogs. Rose had something the chef thought appropriate for a four-year-old. It involved a lot of chicken, lentils and celery and she ate every bite. Then the waiter, unbidden, brought her a shiny, dark-as-sin chocolate ganache. She'd never seen one before, and frankly didn't spend much time looking at it either. The squeaks and sighs of happiness from my usually hard-to-impress daughter were fabulous. The matrons laughed and ordered one to share.

The Northern Socialist had taken us to the Louvre when I was six; he showed us the Venus de Milo and warned that that's what happens if you bite your nails. We never did. I thought it sensible to do the same for my daughter. The queues were awful, so I took her instead to the new wing with all the apartments decorated with amazing furniture liberated from fleeing aristocrats and Napoleon's tents.

I must confess to feeling a tiny bit smug as I watched my daughter stalk through the mahogany campaign tables, past priceless vases and pictures, cast an eye over tapestries, ceramics and furniture. In one room, some bow-tied German academics were standing taking notes on a gorgeous crystal table and mirror from the Louis-Philippe period of the 19th century. Rose marched up to it; they smiled indulgently. 'Look, mummy,' she shouted, delightedly. 'They've got Barbie's dressing table.'

Wiped the smile right off my feminist, never-too-young-to-give-them-culture face, that did.

Pass the Bucket (List)

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

So, slumped in a Godiva-and-Baileys-induced coma at some point after Christmas, a DVD was about all we could handle. Only, which one? That toxin-leaking overstuffed feeling is not conducive to instant decision-making, especially when the decision-making process is accompanied by more booze and a Stilton so huge that we ate it with pickaxes.

Much squally bickering and an earnest analysis of Meg Ryan's recent trout pout (conclusion: cry for help. Get a grip, lady) later we decided on The Bucket List. I think it's a lovely film, but then I would watch Jack Nicholson pick his nose. A more cynical guest said: ''Salright. Two old geezers go on holiday then cark it.'

Afterwards, we lit candles, opened another bottle and attempted to make our own bucket lists (in case you live on Mars, this is a list of all the stuff you want/need to do before you die). The chaps had plenty, none of which I can repeat in such delicate company. But you know, I really struggled. I've done so many things and had so many experiences, that in fact what I crave is a few years of just plain old quiet. No drama, no noise, no distraction. Time to grow my roots and my bots. Time to reflect, write, plan. Actually see all the friends I only seem to connect with at Christmas and remember why we are friends to start with. And perhaps, if we've outgrown each other, dump them. Along with the huge amounts of stuff there seems to be cluttering up my days.

So no sky-diving or tattoos for me. What a relief. Just some quiet stock-taking and some mates. And no Stilton for several months. As Edward Cole says in the film, 'This was supposed to be fun. That's all it ever was.' I'll drink to that. For January, in water.

And because I am both a lazy and a nosy old tart, I want to know what's at the top of YOUR list.

“And remember, expect nothing and life will be velvet”

Monday, 18 January 2010

Can we keep them? Pleeease? I promise to look after them and feed them. And look at all the stuff they come with - guns, cuffs, truncheons. Pleeeease? Can I keep ONE then?

Several years ago, the Colonel invited me on my first trip to New York. He had been there countless times shoring up world peace; I was seduced by the dollar-pound ratio. He would fly in from Holland and join our connecting flight from Heathrow to save me arriving alone at 1:00 am in what I envisaged as ghetto badlands, iron-grated graffitied hell. There was a local storm and he missed the connection. Rather a metaphor for the relationship at that time.

So I went alone. The Colonel had arranged limo to take me to my hotel. I locked the doors and sent furious texts. Eventually, the window slid back and the driver suggested I open my eyes. We were emerging from the tunnel into Manhattan. Never in my life have I fallen so immediately and completely in love with a city. The entire hotel window was full of the Chrysler Building, and I spent the night wrapped in the duvet looking out at a view I pretty much memorised.

The Colonel got there in the end. Another metaphor. It was every film, book and song I have ever seen come to life - the pavement where Sally hopes she'll never meet Harry again and drives off with grape seed on her car window; every schmaltzy black and white evening-gowned drive through the park in a horse drawn carriage; nose to Tiffany's glittering windows; Holden's angsty flight through Grand Central Station; Saks, snowfall and drinks in Bemelman's Bar. The NYPD Choir didn't quite get around to singing me Galway Bay but two of their hunky sons peeled off layers of gloves and mended my mobile so I could call home. The Colonel even morphed into Michael Caine and read me ee cummings between dusty shelves in a bookshop.

He bought me a fabulous sea-coloured velvet dressing gown in La Perla. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw - foam-and-forest-green-depths; luscious velvet lined with silk. The sort of robe you'd wear to feed your Irish Wolfhounds, standing wistfully on your huge lawn watching the Spitfires roar away and knowing it was all that would keep you warm for three years.

It's done some time now; swanking round the table at smart Christmas breakfasts; comforting poorly bots and snuggling puppies; coveted by my girlfriends; warm in winter, elegant and cool in summer. A tiny bit frayed with a few stains it didn't have last year. But still beautiful, unique and makes me happy and grateful every time I wrap it round me.

Like rather a lot of things this January.

... and a heart full of love

Thursday, 14 January 2010

My little sister, the Pretty One, was born to be a mother. All our lives, she has exuded the caring, thoughtful, homemaking gene to which my own DNA is a complete stranger. At ten, she was baking chocolate cakes for the prefects at the boys' boarding school we lived at. When I got my first flat in London, my little sister knocked on the door with a still-warm banana bread she'd baked. All my male friends wanted to marry her. Many of them still do.

She's also a genius house-mender; her renovations have been featured all over the shop, but the pictures can never capture the lovely warmth, worn-sofas-football-boots-in-the-hall-barking-dog welcome she'd give you. Oh, and a bit of cake too.

Thirteen years ago, she was pregnant, belting about being important-in-publishing and I was languishing after having something dull and harmless removed, but bearing a considerable patchwork of stitches. She rang me from work: 'I think I'm having a baby.'

'Of course you bloody are, you're hugely pregnant.' 'No, I mean now.' 'WHAT? You've got eight weeks to go. Where the hell is the Professor?' The sodding husband had gone on a work trip to Hong Kong. They thought it might be a false alarm, so I agreed to leave my convalesence and spend the night with her on condition she made me a cake and talked about how brave I was.

Around midnight, the Pretty One woke me up. 'I'm so sorry, but I really AM having a baby.' We got a taxi to hospital and they confirmed she actually was. Fuck. They put us in a room and took my details as birthing partner. We both sputtered: 'This is nothing to do with ME.' 'She hasn't even read the BOOK.' 'Noooo, please.' They shut the door on us.

I speed-read Having a Baby while the Pretty One stood with her head on the bathroom wall tiles trying to cool down. She asked me to open a window. They were sealed shut, and anyway, it was November. She got scratchy and snapped at me. 'Open it.' I snapped back 'My bloody stitches will burst and it's NAILED SHUT.' A nurse came in and told us to stop squabbling and keep the noise down. The Pretty One asked in a hiss for pain relief. I showed my stiches and hissed for some too. The nurse asked who'd left a bag and coat on the floor. The Pretty One told her I never picked my stuff up. I threatened to leave. The Pretty One had a huge contraction and the nurse ran off to get a midwife. I did a rugby bind-on to her legs to stop them shaking and she leaned her face against the cool tiles trying to breathe the way it said in the book.  From my crouch on the bathroom floor, I read aloud to her all the way through The Delivery chapter. The complete, shit-scary, terrifying enormity of it all hit us both like a train. When the midwife arrived, The Pretty One was doing the breathing and I was making the bed and tidying up like a demon.

They took us downstairs, her on a trolley, me holding her hand reminding her to breathe between frightened giggles. The birth, as they all are, was a miracle I cannot describe. My nephew arrived eight weeks early and was the most beautiful, precious thing we had ever ever seen. As he was born, the sun came up and I found a window that opened. My sister was red, exhausted, elated and radiant. I practically grew a cigar of pride out of my face as I squeaked madly about the corridor telling everyone I could find what an amazing woman she was.

She's still amazing; the kindest, sweetest mummy and the most lovely sister. Happy birthday, darling Tante. I hope that today someone bakes YOU a cake.

Brass Monkeys and Brass Necks

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

'F*cking genius kid, you actually cried. Brilliant. What a dozy old tart your mother is. Now get an arse on before the chippie closes.'

Yesterday, Freddie appeared at breakfast. Not in the warm mufti they are instructed to wear to school until the Polar Ice Cap unfreezes, but still in his pyjamas.

'I've got a sore throat,' he said in a tiny voice of sadness. 'Get dressed. Now.' I countered. He smelled metallic; in our house that is either tonsilitis or morning breath. He cried and felt a bit warm. I felt terrible and bundled him back under the duvet; he smiled bravely at me. I left the Colonel with great lists of instructions about temperatures, how to make chicken soup, the importance of staying warm, which books to read to him if he felt well enough.

About eleven, I called from the office. My cleaner answered. 'Don't worry, Love, 'e was 'avin breakfast watching Soccer AM when I got 'ere. 'Im an' the Colonel's been 'avin a right laugh all mornin'. I think they've gone sledging.'

I picked up Rose after school and we stopped for hot chocolate. 'Is Freddie OK?' she asked. 'Harry really missed him and the Headmaster said to get better soon.'

When we got home, Freddie was under a duvet on the sofa. There were four wet wellies melting ice on the doorstep, two large, two small. I called him into the kitchen where I was sitting at the table supervising Rose's homework. My foot was drumming ominously on the floor. Being nine, he is unable to look at a lady and read The Signs.

'How are you feeling now?' I asked. 'GREAT!' he shouted. 'Me and the Colonel went out for fresh air and I felt SO much better that we went to the chippie and spoke to all the people about who likes vinegar and I had chips and then we went sledging and then I did dog-sledding then I watched football and it's been SO MUCH FUN.'

In a quiet, scary voice I asked him to go and put his pyjamas on. He dropped his jeans enthusiastically to show me he was still wearing them. The Colonel joined us. Being 53, he is well able to read The Signs, he just still doesn't know what to do when he's read them.

'Isn't it GREAT he's feeling so much better?' he gushed. 'You'll never guess, we took a tray and the dog pulled Freddie along SO fast on the ice, AND the field has a REALLY icy bit now that we just FLEW down. Don't worry about supper, we had loads of chips just now.'

There was silence apart from the tapping of my foot and the plop of Rose's tear onto her maths prep.

The Colonel put Freddie to bed double-quick. Rose got to watch Wayne's World in my bed and have three of my secret stash of Godiva chocolates.

Two bots have gone to school today. The Colonel has fixed the bathroom radiator and made pesto for Rose. He has got Wallander lined up to watch on the i-Player and has texted that he'll run me a bath later on.

I should bloody well think so too.

The weather in the streets...

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Soak of rain as taxis swish by you and drench your darned stockings; long walk home in the drizzly gloom; fruitless wait by the shared phone in the hall for your lover to telephone; no milk, no money, no coal, no hope.

... can bloody well just about sort itself out, frankly. It's wet, grey, slushy, icy and downright miserable. After almost a week of feeling like someone in the inter-war years, I am losing my grip on the present. We have been housebound, bar the odd granny-shuffle down the icy hill for bread and milk. The Colonel has a horror of powdered milk, so much of the days have been spent mapping routes to the most likely milk-sources and preparing for lengthy ration-like queues therein. We've had to clear out the freezer and have been eating old-fashioned fare like chops and sausages. The bots are studying the 1930s at school and wondered before Christmas if they could 'try' bread and margarine for tea like the depressive bedraggled herione of their textbook. Ha, they wonder no longer as the butter supplies have dried up since lorries can't get to our shops.

I haven't quite been darning, but I have been making cushions, huddled round the fire. I have also cleared out everyone's wardrobes, de-pilled my jerseys by hand with a razor, turned my shelves into a Bennetton shop, matched every sock in the house and baked scones. We've played board games and read a LOT. We've drunk gallons and gallons of tea, had endless discussions about the weather and listened to the wireless. Now we ALL live in the 1930s.

Despite us all now being back at work and school, I am reluctant to leave my happy gas-lit world of make-believe. So I am re-reading, as I often do at this gloomy time of year, the ultimate feel-ghastly book The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann.

Her own story is pretty good, including an affair with Cecil Day-Lewis, the spineless Poet Laureate. She also wrote the iconic Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Walz, both imperative reading for any girl on the cusp of adulthood.

This one is just for dark, tending-to-depressive, when-will-the-winter-ever-end misery-lovers like me. Olivia, the herione of Invitation to the Waltz, is back. Ten years on with a failed mariage behind her she meets again, in proper Brief Encounter fashion, the caddish bounder Rollo. On a train. With lots of smoking and tea in proper cups. He breaks her heart all over London and in expensive motor cars and cheap 30s motels. She bravely washes out her stockings by hand, drifts about being brave yet teary, eking out her chilly existence shilling by careful shilling while Rollo, shining with Brilliantined hair and too-wide smiles, lives a life of great luxury. It's tragically predictable, but oh, so exquisitely written. It's like spending a week in an early David Lean film; clenched, terse declarations of love, much holding back of tears and gazing blindly out of greasy bus windows.

If you're feeling brisk and modern, stay away. You'll just shout at the book or throw it in the fire.

On the other hand, if you're anything like me, you'll wallow in it and appear red-eyed for tea and bread and margarine, scratching hopefully about for a shilling to put in the gas meter. Bliss.

Icy Surrealists

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sheep! Move your bloody arses or I'll swat you with a BA blanket and flick cold coffee on your wool. Oh yes, I'm prepared for all eventualities.

Several worried texts, a couple of calls and an email had me leaving the office yesterday two hours early to pick up Rose from netball, as apparently it was going to snow. A man down the hall insisted on escorting me to my car through a couple of pathetic flakes and hanging about like a bad smell to make sure it started. My eyeballs couldn't have rolled back further in my head as he approved the blanket lightfingered Rose liberated from British Airways a few weeks ago, that was crumpled on the floor of my Jeep. I sniggered 'half a Starbucks left from this morning, might come in handy too.'

It took me an hour and a half to make the 25-minute journey to netball practice. The snow was coming down pretty fast and furious by this point and the traffic was averaging ten miles per hour. The netball coach was standing outside with a roll-up in his mouth, watching the girls belt about in shorts through what was by now very thick snowfall. I grabbed Rose and her chum Leona and popped them in the car to drop Leona at home.

Leona's mum Natasha is an artist who also makes tiny celebrity pixie shoes, and yes, it is as surreal as it sounds. She said, 'you'll never get home in this, stay here. The radio says it'll get worse. I'll light a fire and make hot chocolate. It'll be like in a film.' Pffft. How I snorted. Rose, disappointed at no emergency sleepover, slumped in the front seat. Off we set.

Two hours and a fruitless, frozen and frighteningly skiddy half a mile later, we were back. Natasha was black-faced and red-eyed. 'I've set the house on fire,' she said. And she had. In the slowly dispersing smoke, a man was pouring water on the rug and brandy into a glass. 'You'd better have one too,' he said and crept carefully off into the white night. 'It's like being in a film,' said the faerie cobbler several times as we ate dinner, watched the girls build a snowman, chatted to a random bloke from New York who was passing the gate, listened to the snow cracking her ancient iron drainpipes, sat on the Aga to warm our frozen arses, popped a bottle of Champagne and made Jerry Hall's miniature cowboy boots dance on our fingers across the floor of her studio.

We finally made it home this afternoon at 2pm. We gave two hitchhikers a ride. They had both abandoned their cars. I positively oozed Dunkirk spirit. Rose had the blanket on her knees and I considered splitting the cold latte with the strangers. The 12 mile journey was littered with abandoned cars and a Morrison's lorry had jacknifed across the big roundabout and sat empty. Tree branches had fallen, and we listened to the local radio station taking calls from pretty much the entire county who had also been taken in by strangers. There were a couple of hairy brake-lock moments, but we made it. There has never been snow like it in these parts. The Colonel was waiting with two bum-shaped rubber sledge things we bought in Denmark on the offchance, and he, the bots and I have spent the afternoon whizzing down a hill and filling each other's collars with handfuls of snow.

Really, it's been just like a film.

Fire-breathing Dragons and Dragon Tattoos

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Northern Lights - shoals of herring, ghosts of slain enemies, fox tails, old maids dancing? Aurora Bollocks. Still, another great titfer.

Last February, the Colonel and I went to the Arctic Circle to look for the Northern Lights. We prepared for the trip with our usual heady mix of military precision and literary indulgence. He spent many hours and even more sterling on a scary website buying, yes this is where it came from, scads of petrochemical schmutter. I had no idea that, since Mallory hung up his soggy, frozen tweeds and fed the last of the meat lozenges to a passing dog, great strides have been made in cold-weather clothing.

We unpacked gossamer-thin leggings which, under the waterproof, snowproof, marauding-Viking-rape-and-pillage-proof matching trousers, could raise your core temperature to boiling point. There were boots that weighed a ton, in which you could stand up to your ankles in snow and feel you were in caressing cashmere socks in front of a roaring fire. The layers of gloves, neckwarmers, vests, fleece body things and hats made me rather grumbly at home - I was made to try them on and felt like a schoolboy in Peter Jones' Uniform Department. Hot, fussed over, incapable of bending a limb and dreading the thought of having to pee. The Colonel snorted at my hopeful, flimsy handful of La Perla and took immediate charge of the packing.

I escaped as fast as possible into every single Wallander book I could find, cooling down with gruesome Swedish murders, solved by the grey-faced, taciturn detective brought so crossly to tortured life in this series.

We went straight to Ystad on touchdown to walk Wallander's streets; tiny winding medieval cobbles and concrete sixties plazas, all soaked in an authentic depressive drizzle. We marked each lane and square with the memories of his cases - victims, interviews, criminal hideaways - and many cups of hot, sludgy chocolate in cafes lit purely with strings of twinkling fairy lights.

But it was the frozen north that called us; both enchanted by the chance of seeing the Northern Lights we had dreamed of since childhood. We took an overnight train as far North as possible, well into the Arctic Circle and jumped out on a wooden station platform in Bjorkliden, where a sign announced it was minus 30 degrees. British Officer sang-froid and stiff-upper-lip took on a literal dimension as the Colonel's moustache actually froze within seconds.

We went out one night onto the frozen lake, riding snowmobiles under the stars. We stopped in the middle and listened to the moaning of the ice, sitting huddled on reindeer skins, drinking hot berry juice and hoping to buggery that the damn lights would show. Did they hell. The Colonel took a spectacular tumble on the ice and snapped a thigh muscle, so we enjoyed a more earthly son et lumiere. There are now Samis in Bjorkliden who can swear like English squaddies.

Which meant that the next day's dog-sledding was not quite as we had imagined. Instead of bundling into furs and skins while he did Dr Zhivago and shouted 'mush,' it was the Colonel wrapped up warmly on the two-man sled, smirking as the Sami driver explained how priceless the champion dogs were that I was about to drive into a frozen tundra. My flimsy sled had some iron bits to stand on which looked like mantraps and were the braking and steering system. Chilling volpine howls drowned out all instruction, as I shook from fear as much as bone-chilling cold. The only thing I heard was 'do NOT let go'. As the brakes came off, the eight dogs shot left up a hill and I, sure as night follows day, let go, pitching headfirst to the right into a drift of snow. The volpine howls did not drown out the Colonel's shrieks of laughter as I spat out mouthfuls of ice and climbed back on.

I remember very little of the climb up the mountain tracks; the dogs' energy was electric, but balancing was surprisingly easy. The driver of the Colonel's sleigh stood backwards shouting instructions to me as we wove upwards through huge drifts under an azure sky. After a while, I opened both eyes, stood a little off the brake and gave them their heads. Amazing. At the top, we emerged onto another frozen lake and he motioned me to go ahead. There was nothing but snow, sky, the whistle of wood against ice and the singing of the dogs, my blood pounding in my ears and the water from my eyes freezing on my cheeks. I felt like a Prince from Narnia. I let go of the brakes and let the dogs carry me at full speed across the ice and snow, my lungs on fire and adrenalin crackling in me like fireworks.

I circled the lake like a frozen Ben Hur before the dogs took me back to where the driver and Colonel were resting their dogs and drinking the hottest, bitterest, strongest, most ambrosial coffee I have ever gulped down. I could hardly speak, other than to pant 'thank you' to the blue-eyed huskies.

We never did see the bloody lights, though Sami lore has it that you must return again and again until you do. In the meantime, I am slaking my Skandi-lust with the phenomenal trilogy by Stieg Larsson; the perfect sharp antidote to overindulgence, overheated houses and overencumbrance of relatives.

Happy New Year.