No sooner had Gwen arrived back from York than we drove together to the supermarket for her to buy tons of sugar, vegan butter, chocolate, and other ingredients to add to the loads she had already brought to bake her vegan chocolate brownies. Her first days here were spent in labour-intensive and kitchen-hogging mixing, baking and boxing the brownies to fulfil the orders with their personal messages then posting them. She stopped production a week before Christmas to take a breather until January and returned to York on New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, among many kind gifts we received from faraway friends and relatives were a port and stilton combo from my niece Fleur and some delicious clotted cream from cousins Clif and Marjorie. I was placed on brownies-stilton-port-clotted-
Alli thinks that our dogs get bored of walking the same track too often, so we ensure that they don’t. But a Sussex walk in December is very different to the same walk in any other month because visibility, mud, fauna and flora vary alarmingly. Especially the mud. The walks are often the highlight of my day as I don’t get out much without them. This month’s woodland wanders were animated by sudden twitchy side-eye movements of hyperactive squirrels. They spark long-forgotten impulses in our dogs, who run creakily after them before they shoot up a tree and chitter. The dogs’ years are advanced: Bonnie is fourteen and Max nine – in human terms 74 and 67. Max, whom we had always thought to be a cross-breed, was tested some months ago and found to be a pure Hungarian Kuvasz, prized as a guardian of cattle and highly sensitive. In the 15th century, Hungarian King Matthias was an avid breeder of the dogs, giving cute Kuvasz puppies to visiting medieval celebrities, who included none other than Vlad the Impaler Dracula, Prince of Wallachia. Max had a tough start in life as a puppy, miraculously surviving a murderous human attack. While he is still extremely nervous of children, bicycles, loud noises and male groups, he has managed, with Bonnie’s help, to reduce his fears since we acquired him from a lady who rescued and rehomed dogs from eastern Europe. Bonnie by contrast is alert and mentally stable: trusting, fearless, mischievous and deaf. Born in a rescue home, she simply assumes that all human beings are wonderful.
The sloe production process is complete. From my late summer walks collecting handfuls of sloes from the blackthorn hedges; cleaning, pricking and freezing them to burst their skins; preparing the jars; adding sugar and gin; leaving them for three months; then filtering through layers of muslin, we had sloe gin for a quick Christmas. It tastes disturbingly good, so it will not be stockpiled with the pomegranate molasses and toilet rolls.
Ella and Sam departed for southern Spain just before Covibrexit closed Europe and the world to British travellers and traders, providing a dockside slap-fish response to the government’s malicious charade of promising national independence and sovereignty, and surprising those who thought EU membership prevented countries from controlling their borders. Jessie and Jurrat visited to galvanise us, bringing eggnog, bubbly, cheer and beer, as well as presents, also cooking most of a festive lunch featuring two large geese – consumed entirely in two days (without help from me, Gwen or Jessie). Our Christmas lacked extramural society, apart from the queue at Waitrose, other dog walkers, and a friendly mulled wine shared at the garden gate with our favourite neighbours. Many features were missing: carols; midnight mass; rousing pub nights; visiting friends; and panic shopping. Many remained: collective card and board games, restricted elbow room at tables groaning with food, quizzes, box-goggling at old films and new footie. There were many more Christmas cards sent and received than usual. In our common and separate ways we gave thanks for our continuing fortune.
I ended the year with particular pleasure reading the new novel of my most successful literary school friend, Nicholas Shakespeare, who has written a masterpiece, ‘The Sandpit’, based around Oxford’s Dragon School. It is the best novel I have read this year, and the only one I have ever read in which I could locate most settings with a fuddled precision dredged from memory, like re-inspecting long lost sepia prints from a Box Brownie. Talking of which, the Dragon has abruptly changed the name of one of its boarding houses without anyone complaining about the name and failing to appreciate how timeless and vital is the message of Rudyard Kipling’s brilliant poem ‘Gunga Din’. I am proud to be an ‘Old Dragon’ and as woke as any folk but this was an inglorious decision. The school might just as well change its own name to that of an animal that exists.
With best wishes for the prospect of a happy, healthy 2021, free from populist cant,