Wednesday, 21 October 2020


Autumn has arrived, thank god. So we can finally put the ghastly summer behind us and enjoy a brief blaze of glory before winter descends, and probably the end of the world with it. The portents are all there: melting ice, Mars alarmingly close to Earth, Jupiter aligned with...something....and most worrying of all, the nationwide urge to bake. Even me, and I haven't baked anything since I lived in the middle of Africa and it was a 2 hour drive to buy a bun. But here I am, not at work in my study, but down in the kitchen, making pandemic pastries, misery muffins and socially-distanced desserts.

This is largely due to to the fact that my son has a wine programme online twice a week, 5 o'clock South African time but 4 o'clock here, which is too early to start drinking, even for me. It's tough, mind you, for a wine lover to watch them sniffing, swirling, sipping and murmuring 'just a hint of aubergine' without joining in. So instead, while I watch and listen, I cook. Not just Covid cookies but all sorts of favourite, new or forgotten recipes that help connect me to my much-missed family and friends: Cape Malay bredies, Greek chicken, spicy prawns...comfort food. And that's the thing: whether we're locked down, out of a job or creative energy, juggling family and work, or just feeling old and pointless, we all need to take whatever comfort we can find. 

Alphabetically then, here are some suggestions:

1) Books. The funnier, the more entertaining, and the more hopeful, the better. You can keep your beautifully written, deeply depressing accounts of excruciating misery; give me instead books like Elinor Lipman's 'The Ladies' Man' - a sharply funny story of 3 middle-aged sisters and the Man from the Past who oozes back into their lives. Laugh out loud and utterly satisfying. Mind you, three of the books I enjoyed recently were hardly joyous, but 'Children of the Revolution' by Dinaw Mengestu, despite dealing with the sadness of life in exile for an Ethiopian refugee in Washington, is written with such dignity, charm and gentle warmth that you end up feeling better for having read it. 
The same goes for the highly original Carys Davies and 'The Mission House', which is set in modern India. And last but not least, 'Hamnet' by Maggie O'Farrell. She's always good, but this is enthralling, and historical is a good choice right now: plague and pestilence being a lot easier to deal with when they're safely in the past. 
(NB Some of the best children's and YA books I know are historical. When a friend sent a Covid care package (I have brilliant friends - this one also makes plum gin) she included Hilary McKay's delightful 'The Skylarks War', a family saga set against a First World War backdrop - and if you think children's books aren't for adults, think again: Gloom was so entranced by this one, he didn't want it to end.) 

2) Cats. Now, I accept that there are people who don't like cats (some of you are even my friends) but I've had cats all my life, and if I lived anywhere it wasn't possible to keep one, I made friends with someone else's. When the Empress Clementina gave up the ghost in February, we were bereft, but now we have huge, gentle, Archimedes, and are deeply grateful for his purring presence. But you can substitute dogs, if you want. 

3) Food. Comfort reading, comfort food: buy the best you can afford, and the more treats the better. Indulge yourselves.

4) Friends and family. Phone them, Skype them, have Zoom get-togethers: a Saturday morning chat with fellow writers, an evening gin and tonic with your sister, whatever - you need to keep those connections open. Write letters, for pity's sake. And if you haven't spoken to your brother since 1999, now's the time.

5) Jigsaw Puzzles. Below are just some of the ones I've done in the last few months. Good to do while you listen to podcasts or the radio, or have that telephone conversation with the friend who can talk for half an hour without drawing breath. You also get a wonderful sense of achievement when you actually finish the thing - provided there aren't any pieces missing. Warning: Jigsaws don't always mix with pets. Bits tend to adhere to fluffy cats, and as happened to my friend Patsy, the dog sometimes swallows the last piece just before you can pick it up off the floor. 

6) Outdoor exercise. The more you walk, run, cycle (while keeping your distance and USING YOUR BELL in order to avoid mowing down deaf pensioners before Covid can) the better you will feel. I'm told the same is true for swimming but, in this climate, I'm not about to put it to the test. 

7) Presents. Don't wait for Christmas: it's amazing what a lift it gives you to send or receive something, no matter how small. It doesn't have to be champagne or flowers, a well-read book is as good as anything. Or just bake something and drop it round next door. Our neighbours have been providing Grade A scones for months, my efforts are confined to the occasional B grade fritter or muffin, but they're always very nice about them. 

8) Wine. Wine, wine, wine, and South African for preference.

There are lots of things I could mention that seem to make other people happy: gardening, for instance, and knitting. Right now though, I have to go: Dan Really Likes Wine is on any minute and it's my maternal duty to give it my full attention, while I whip up a little lockdown lobster en croute with burnt hollandaise sauce. Only kidding: it's pumpkin fritters.

An occupied study

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