Five things you should do over the Christmas break…

As with many bloggers, I find myself with many post ideas brewing in my head – but I occasionally lack the time to actually write them. It seems to me that many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately are things I’d like to do when I have more time. And while I’m still working throughout December, there is always more time around Christmas for doing Things and also Stuff. So here are five things I’d either like to do or recommend doing during the downtime – in whatever amounts you get it – before the new year.

No resolutions necessary – unless you want to.

1. Read Joanne M. Harris’s The Gospel of Loki 

…and while you’re at it, follow her on Twitter, for she is delightful.

I’d actually fallen a little out of love with some of Harris’s writing after somewhat bingeing on it after Chocolat. Around the time of Five Quarters of the Orange I’d felt like there wasn’t much more I wanted to read. It happens sometimes, and it doesn’t really necessarily have as much to do with the author as where you are right at that moment.

Anyway, a few months ago I started to see tube posters for this, and it looked very different. And I think no Tom Hiddleston Marvel fan could quite resist being plunged back into the Norse mythology that has spawned a thousand books, comics, films, plays, artworks and Allfather knows what all.

The Gospel of Loki delivers in spades. For a start it’s extremely funny – sometimes just in the turn of phrase, but often in the broadly grotesque characterisation that our fiendish narrator employs to breathe life into his antagonistic fellow Asgardians. And then it is by turns gut-wrenching, guiltily relatable and uncomfortably tense. Loki, forever a victim in his own head, is the perfect anti-hero, and incredibly cleverly drawn; he walks the extremely delicate line between sympathy and disgust, being largely a terrible individual that you somehow root for anyway. The delightful episodic storytelling took me right back to childhood and falling in love with the stories from The Odyssey, and there’s nothing like starting a new book with a cast of characters (except maybe a map. Books with maps = the greatest).

2. Wear something ridiculous

A lot of lucky people (like me) will be working from home for at least part of the festive season, but to be honest I’ve worn every single one of these ridiculous articles into the office in the last three months (yay creative industries!).  So let out your most ridiculous side because honestly? It really does make you feel weirdly happier.


loki thor

I imagine you might be picking up on a theme here, but don’t worry – that’s about it. At least for this post. Maybe.

3.  Give something… extra

If you’re sitting there thinking “well, it’s Christmas, duh!” I don’t blame you, but I’m not talking about the usual presents for friends and family. I’m talking about considering how you can spread a little cheer to a stranger (or even not a stranger, but someone you wouldn’t usually give something to – perhaps even the time of day). It could be a donation of money or time, a present to someone who isn’t expecting one or even a clear out for your local charity shop.

I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit after we had a bit of a mess up with a Disney Store order that didn’t arrive. In the interim I nipped into an actual bricks and mortar store to buy the key item just in case it couldn’t be resolved by Christmas Day. I kept the receipt thinking I’d return the excess item if all worked out.

Disney Store has now resolved the issue, and we have both items. But then I started thinking about doing something else with the spare one (it’s a dressing up costume). I could give it to another child as a Christmas present, and I might. But I could also get in touch with a local hospital and see if they could do with something new for the children’s ward. Or I could auction it on eBay and set the proceeds to go 100% to a charity (won’t make as much as the original sale price, but I can top up AND someone who perhaps can’t afford the full whack will still get the gift). Or I could return it and donate the money. I haven’t really worked out what I’ll do yet, and it might well not get to anyone by the big day, but I figure presents are welcome all year round. The point is, there are opportunities to be generous even in places you didn’t expect, so maybe consider even more options than you already do (if you haven’t already).

In related news: if you’re not a Kiva lender already, do consider making that a giving resolution.

4. Start (or review) a gratitude box

At the end of 2013 we put a big tub in the kitchen and labelled it ‘good things’. Then we started popping stuff in it like theatre tickets, travel mementoes, letters from friends, little notes on which happy moments were scribbled and anything else that generally spoke of a joyful moment that happened that year. My notes are as random and varied as “Armistead Maupin called me ‘wise’ on Twitter” through to “got a promotion at work”. It’s basically #100happydays, but in physical form, and it’s pretty awesome.

Thing is, I haven’t looked at it since then (and I’ve got a little lax about filling it). It’s time to review all the amazing experiences we’ve been privileged to have over the past year and think about what’s around the corner – that we know of. Sometimes I can be guilty of only placing significance on big things, and that just leads to a kind of vague and unhelpful dissatisfaction with everything. A little gratitude goes a long way.

5. Watch something you haven’t seen before. And something you definitely have.

Last year, I saw Elf for the first time. And it was… quite good? Better than okay? Not my favourite Christmas movie*? Whatever. I can’t really be arsed to watch it again, but I won’t turn it off if it’s on. The point is, it was nice not just spending the entire festive period watching classics and favourites, but potentially allowing for a new classic or favourite – even if Elf turned out not to be it. This year I haven’t yet decided what it will be, but I have some shameful gaps in my film viewing and, having bullied Ash just this past week into watching both Network and Edward Scissorhands since he hadn’t before, I think it’s important to bully myself a little too. Because even in the midst of the most cosy, nostalgic, comfortable familiarity, a touch of newness is healthy.

And yet of course Christmas is the season for binge-watching your absolute favourites – whether they’re festive classics or not. Obviously we’ll be having a family sit down in front of The Avengers / Avengers Assemble*  on Boxing Day and I will be as enthralled as ever in front of the underappreciated gem that is Ratatouille.  Because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an ambitious rat… right?



*Pick your regional variant. Amusingly, the first time I saw this I blundered in about a quarter of the way through, completely confused, and I hadn’t yet seen Captain America: The First Avenger  or Thor and I was all “who the hell is this guy with the unfortunate hair? WHY IS HE WHINING ABOUT EVERYTHING? Loki my arse – he’s like Louis from Interview with the Vampire…”. So.. yeah. Give things a second chance. Watch them in their proper context. *cough*

The Great British Mince Pie-Off: Bettys vs Riverford

Screen shot 2012-12-07 at 20.32.32I never used to eat mince pies. Dense, squidgy, oversweet… in the great list of Christmas desserts I was uninterested in, they ranked just below Christmas pudding (which I’m still so-so about) and just above Stilton (which I’ve totally come round to in my old age). And then my sister moved to Leeds and we developed more than a passing acquaintance with Bettys… and I finally found out what a really, really good mince pie tastes like.

I found myself tweeting about this the other day, and Bettys – doing some excellent monitoring, as I would expect from the team that complements the brilliant Yorkshire Tea feeds – picked this up immediately and followed me. On following back, it turned out I was their 600th follower, and they very kindly offered me some mince pies to review. How on earth could I say no?

The mince pies duly arrived – 12 gleaming beauties in an elegant little box (usually £9.50 and delivered around the UK) – and I managed to eat at least five of them while still giving the vague impression that I was sharing them with other people.

photo 1

And then my Riverford box arrived, and the little weekly insert – one of the highlights of the whole procedure, these proud yet melancholy missives from Guy Watson, with the slightly mud-streaked recipes on the back – was so convincingly effusive about Watson’s brother’s mince pies that I began to wonder if there could possibly be a challenger to the Bettys crown. Plus, in order to be a truly honest review, I felt I needed something to compare them to. Riverford’s pies are award-winning and the company is beset by offers to mass-produce, which are declined so that they continue to be made by hand; one of the chosen testimonials celebrated their ‘wonkiness’ and how they were the best bet for faking it if you didn’t have time to bake!  I was sold and hit the button to buy a £4.95 box of six.

And now… the verdict.


Screen shot 2012-12-07 at 20.32.04What makes these mince pies such Christmas classics? Well, for one, they constantly tread the perfect line between elegant and twee: pretty but not fussy, generously deep but not oversized. I also love that they’re not sealed, so there isn’t an overwhelming mouthful of butter to plough through.

But my very favourite thing about them is their filling; it’s quite a soft mixture – a delicately spiced liquid studded with fruit rather than a dense raisin sludge.

Finished with a little icing sugar and a star-shaped shortcrust topping, these are outstandingly moreish, and thoroughly delicious.


photo 2Even at first glance, these are quite clearly a different beast. Almost oversized, flat and fully sealed in quite thick pastry dusted with granulated sugar, they really do look pleasingly hand made.

The filling is rich, densely packed and slightly more heavily spiced. The pastry can only be described as unctuous, being so outstandingly buttery as to be a little overwhelming, especially as they are very large… but I still managed to put away two in a sitting!

Definitely needing a big glass of water or a soothing cuppa, these are incredibly indulgent, and very, very good.

And the winner is…

For me, Bettys just has the edge. It really does come down to personal preference, and the hint of refinement in Bettys’ pies means north takes the crown over south (something this London-born woman doesn’t say that often).

It’s just as well I’m heading to Yorkshire over the Christmas holidays, really.

Make it a merrier Christmas for women and children at Refuge

As November kicks off, I’m beginning to see evidence of the Advent shopping extravaganza to come. Christmas lists are beginning to be spoken of, and malls are defying the ever-worrying financial climate to start filling up with tinsel, sparkles and shoppers.

Some of us, perhaps because of that financial climate, are beginning to wonder what we really need, and what we merely want. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting, but somehow waste doesn’t seem as acceptable as it used to.

In the midst of all this commercial to-ing and fro-ing, comes a plea. On Refuge‘s Facebook Page today, I saw this message:

Have you started to buy your Christmas presents yet? Please help to make sure that every woman and child in our refuges gets at least one present this year by supporting our Christmas gift list appeal: list number 478985.

Gifts start from just £1.50 so please give what you can to help bring some happiness to women and children escaping domestic violence this Christmas. Thank you.

Right now, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather buy a present for.