Beauty

New Year’s Beauty Resolutions

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We love a New Year. A completely clean sheet of paper – even more so, with a new decade ahead of us. (Sarah never drinks, but that’s why you also won’t find Jo indulging in more than a sip of Champagne on New Year’s Eve. Why would you want to start a new year, or a new ten-year phase, feeling rubbish…? We’d rather get up and at ‘em, Hoovering under the bed and heading outdoors for lungfuls of fresh, cleansing air.)

New Year is famously a time of re-evaluation – casting off the old, embracing the new. A time of good intentions – but also, of realistic goals, because otherwise it’s just too easy to ‘break’resolutions and write off the next 363 days. Instead, we think resolutions should be like horse-riding: you fall off (which Sarah has done spectacularly on at least one occasion), and you get back on again.

Our beauty philosophy, though, hasn’t changed fundamentally from when we started writing books together back in 1996. Powered by common sense and insights into the beauty industry – and, through our Beauty Bible Awards, into what works and what doesn’t – we’ve seen fads come and go, over our years in the business. As we proudly proclaim on our own website, we’re about ‘real beauty and wellbeing for grown-ups’. So here’s what we resolve to do, at the start of a year – make it ten – so full of possibilities.

We resolve to re-evaluate our skincare regimes regularly.

Skincare needs change, over time. For instance, Jo always described herself as having ‘dry, sensitive skin’. And then one day, not long ago, she woke up and realised: actually, her skin’s not so dry and not so sensitive anymore, either. Fact: over time, our skins’ needs shift, especially at times of hormonal upheaval – but it’s incredibly easy to get into a rut.

Really think about the products you use every day, and question whether they’re delivering. Are you over 35? Time to add in an anti-ageing cream. (Though eye creams can be introduced from late 20s onwards, since signs of ageing first show up there.) Skin feel tight? Sign of dryness. Ask yourself every single time you finish a jar or bottle: is this delivering what I want? If not, make a switch and go for something new. But don’t just chop and change for the sake of it; that’s what we used to do, in the early days, and it definitely triggered years of touchy skins for both of us.

We resolve to make a date night every week. With ourselves…

When you’re having to give everyone around you plenty of TLC, nobody need feel guilty about being kind to themselves. In fact, if you don’t, you’ll soon be running on empty. Stock up on products which deliver real TLC, such as Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Bath & Shower Oil, or their Inner Strength. Place a soothing Space Mask over your eyes. Slather on a body oil afterwards (we love the neroli, lavender, rose and mandarin scent of Aurelia Firm & Revitalise Dry Body Oil), smooth the fantastically nourishing Ameliorate Intensive Foot Treatment into feet – and for a really kind-to-yourself feeling, slip them inside a pair of luxurious cashmere socks, warmed by a hot water bottle.

We will try a ‘beauty dare’, once a month.

Don’t let yourself become one of those people who can say ‘I’ve been using exactly the same products for years…’ Introduce one item into your regime that you don’t already use; ‘date night’ is the perfect opportunity, as you’ve already set aside the time to pamper yourself, and can ‘play’ with a different styling product, a ‘root touch-up’ product, a scrub mitt, really giving a bit of thought to what you like about the texture, the effect, perhaps (where relevant) the fragrance. Then get in the habit of using it…

We resolve to be even more sleep-obsessive.

Having recently listened to a fascinating Desert Island Discs with circadian rhythm expert Professor Russell Foster, we’re more obsessed with sleep hygiene than ever before. He actually believes that before long, we’ll regard lack of sleep as something akin to smoking, in terms of the health damage it inflicts. You might have thought that while you snuggle down beneath your crisp white sheets at night, relaxing and restoring energy was all you were doing. But scientists have now pinpointed that at around 1 am, the body is at its most resourceful – helping to repair and renew skin, as well as other body cells, while we slumber sweetly. So beauty sleep really is that – which is why it’s so vital to make sure we get your zzzzs, and slather on creams that take advantage of your natural circadian rhythms.

Our mantra is going to be ‘skin-plification’, in 2020.

We’re totally over ‘K-Beauty’, a.k.a. Korean beauty, a trend imported from South Korea, which proposes the idea that you need at least seven or eight different products each morning and evening. You don’t. You really don’t. You don’t need to spend the money, OR the time on an over-complicated regime; what you need is products that really, really work. (That’s what our Beauty Bible Awards have always been about.) We expect to see a lot more multi-tasking products like LixirSkin Universal Emulsion, which can basically be used as cleanser/moisturiser/body cream. And hallelujah for that.

We resolve to make this the year that we give your hands the TLC they deserve.

Hands work so hard for us: chopping vegetables, dancing across keyboards of all kinds – and communicating love and affection. Isn’t it time to return the favour? For silky, smooth hands, lavish care really has to become a many-times-a-day habit – rather than a quick squirt of cream in a posh restaurant loo! (Sound familiar…?) Always worth repeating, the best tip we ever heard is to keep a hand cream next to every set of taps in your life – and in our handbag. (Favourites, to be found here on VH: Lanolips Rose Gold Hand Cream Intense, and Margaret Dabbs Intensive Hand Hydrating Lotion.)

We will be completely ignoring ‘influencers’, and turning to trusted sources for info.

OK, a little New Year rant here. We’ve been in this business a l-o-n-g time, and met a huge number of experts. We’ve always believed in scratching deep beneath the surface and not taking things at face value, and that’s the foundation on which we’ve built our reputation. But today, there’s a huge buzz around ‘influencers’, who are often paid to take pretty pictures of themselves, supposedly as a result of using this product or that product. Fact: many of them don’t know their AHAs from their elbows and wouldn’t know what to say to a dermatologist, trichologist or psychologist if they met one.

As trends go, the ‘influencer’ is a bubble poised to burst, and we’re already hearing that there’s a swing back towards knowledgeable writers and experts who really know about skincare, or nutrition, or yoga, or cosmetic ‘tweaks’ – people like Alice Hart-Davis, Fighting Fifty’s Tracey McAlpine, Lucia Ferrari, Ingeborg van Lotringen (who just left Cosmo, but expect her to pop up somewhere soon…) Want real beauty advice for real life? Look to a grown-up.

We’ll always be here for you – and it only remains to say: don’t just have a gorgeous year – have a gorgeous, healthy decade…

The Importance Of Self Reflection

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One of the more extraordinary and wonderful things that happened to me in the last decade was – as some of you already know – appearing as Lauren Laverne’s castaway on Desert Island Discs last summer. But one of its lasting legacies (other than the e-mails which are still coming in) from people who enjoyed it is that it reminded me of the importance of self  reflection.

Mostly, we bumble through life getting stuff done. It’s only when something big happens – the loss of someone close to us, a scary health diagnosis, getting fired – that we tend to re-assess life. And important as I know in my heart of hearts that it is to take time for self reflection, it wasn’t till I had to sit down and think about my life in order to share with Lauren Laverne and three million plus other people that I really and truly thought about some of the things (good and bad) that have happened to me.

I felt bad and a bit guilty about that, actually – until I heard a recent episode of the same programme with film director Asif Kapadia, who said exactly the same thing: that it wasn’t till he had to prepare for the programme that he really thought about some of the family issues he’d experienced, and talked through them with his sisters. (It’s a great listen, BTW – and you can find it on the Desert Island Discs app, first broadcast 1st December.)

And it strikes me, as we kick off a new decade, that it’s the perfect time for some true ’2020 vision’ – in other words, taking the time to look back at our lives and really process some stuff, with the aim of making some changes and perhaps changing tack and doing more of the stuff that makes our spirits soar, and less of the stuff that drags us down.

Now, you can’t really do this while you’re driving along, or doing the washing up, or watching The Crown. In order to practice self reflection effectively, you need to disconnect from the world a bit and really do some thinking. Disconnecting from the world is vital, to allow time and space for self reflection. You need somewhere you can focus. (A shed, a corner of a café where you don’t know anyone, a park bench. Though maybe not the park bench in January.) It might look like you’re day-dreaming, to others – but actually, you’re deliberately taking time out to reflect on events, thoughts, feelings and actions. Things we did and didn’t do. What worked, what didn’t, what we regret. (Personally I try not to regret anything, looking upon everything that didn’t work out as a lesson in how to do things better next time.) We spend so much of our lives trying to get to know other people better – friends, family, colleagues – but frankly, turning that lens on ourselves is something most of us rarely take time to do.

And writing stuff down really helps. Preferably on nice stationery or in a beautiful notebook, which I know sounds really shallow but there’s a point to it: it says something about your intention that you’re honouring it with a new notebook and your favourite pen. A long-term stationery nut generally, I’m a massive fan of the ‘tools’ for self-reflection and goal-setting offered by kikki.K, a chain founded by Kristina Karlsson, who’s also written a great book that’s perfect for anyone who wants to change their path, called Your Dream Life Starts Here. They also make journals and planners to help you map everything out and ‘grow’ – after, that is, you’ve spent a bit of time on self-reflection. (Apparently this is something Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey take time to do regularly, and frankly, if it’s good enough for them…).

What I promise you’ll find is that self reflection is great for getting a different and calmer perspective on things that seemed upsetting at the time. It can help us look at where they sit in ‘the grand scheme of things’, and my experience is that even things that feel very overwhelming while you’re in the centre of a storm can look quite different from a place of calm.

Most importantly, it lets us see whether what we’re doing now, the path we’re taking, is in sync with our long-term goals. And if we don’t have long-term goals…? Trust me: if you don’t have a life plan, you’re really not alone here. For years I had a straw-in-the-wind approach to life, trusting to the universe to point me in the right direction and taking advantage of opportunities that were offered to me. As it happens I did pretty darned well, with that approach – but actually, Desert Island Discs really made me think about what I want to be doing in future, the difference I want to make, and about changes I could make to my life to make it fit my purpose. This awareness of priorities makes it so much easier to chase our goals or change path so the direction we’re headed in fits more with who we are today.

The bottom line is that we live in a world in which we’re obsessed with getting stuff done. The treadmill of list-ticking, getting from A to B, filling the fridge, refilling the fridge, fulfilling our commitments to bosses/partners/friends/colleagues, of powering through chapters so that we’re caught up with our reading group – and so on and on and on and on – means that we have to make time for self-reflection. So that’s certainly something that’s top of my own ‘To Do’ list for 2020, bumping lots of other less important actions off the bottom.

Of course, I still pinch myself that I got asked to do that radio show, as a life-long fan. (Literally. I listened to it with my Mum every Sunday while she was cooking Sunday lunch.) But the best thing that came out of it really was being forced to do some self-reflection, and to hold a mirror up to my life without waiting for a massive life-changing event to happen. So my challenge to you for 2020 is: imagine you’ve been asked to share your life with millions of other people. What have you achieved? What’s gone right? What’s gone wrong? What are you proud of, what makes you happy? Where do you want to be in ten years’ time, at the start of the next decade – and what do you need to do, to get yourself there?

Or will you just going to bumble through life, ticking things off that To Do list, without looking where you’re going…?

It’s up to nobody but you.

Samaritans

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The decorations have been taken down and stored away for another year.  The turkey’s been made into sandwiches, stir-fry, soup, and the remainders fed to the dog.  The tree’s been stripped of its twinkling lights and dumped in the street for the council to collect.  New Year’s celebrations are behind us, and the hectic, unforgiving daily rhythm of life is upon us once more.

Some of us will go on holiday – somewhere hot, or to mountain slopes, to escape those gruelling early weeks of January, this longest of months.  Most of us, though, will grit our teeth, put our heads down and get on with it, the dark nights, frosty mornings and long days in between stretching ahead.  We’ll get through, knowing that February is just around the corner and the green shoots of spring will soon be poking through the snow.

For me, January is a month of anniversaries I’d rather forget – emotional tripwires that can send me spinning off kilter without warning.  Early in the month is the anniversary of the catastrophic stroke that eventually killed my father.  The same date marks the death of my sister in a car accident a few years later, and the last day of the month her funeral in a packed church, her coffin barely visible beneath a blanket of flowers.  Midway through the month comes the anniversary of that awful morning, twenty-eight years ago – when my husband casually announced he’d been having an affair and walked away, leaving me and our three-month-old baby daughter to fend for ourselves.

And then, towards the end of January, the much more recent anniversary of me saying goodbye to the job I loved after twenty-five years, leaving behind the structure my life had revolved around, the work ‘family’ I’d grown to know so well over so many years, and my identity.

Of course, it’s not just me.  At any moment of the day, any one of us could receive news that will blow our world apart – a devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job – with all the shock and fear that comes with it.  This is the month when enquiries to divorce lawyers will soar; behind every call lies the pain of relationship breakdown, of families torn apart, of anger, recrimination and estrangement.

And then there are those for whom the struggle to cope is a daily challenge – those who may be living with mental health issues, disability, addictions, long-term depression, or who may be lonely and isolated as a result of having become dislocated from friends and family for any number of reasons. And those whom society excludes on account of their ‘differentness’, for any number of reasons.

None of us gets to live a perfectly glossy and flawless life.  We’ll all find ourselves buffeted by headwinds at some point, and even the strongest among us might need a helping hand to get through. Even the Queen – who famously described 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’, and must rank last year as one of her worst – has had years she’d rather not remember, when she must have wondered what she’d done to deserve so much sadness and confusion.

So let’s get this clear: it’s no admission of failure if you find yourself needing to reach out for support at any time – nearly all of us will have been there at some point or another. None of us is immune.

Two years ago, after leaving my job as an award-winning magazine editor, I found myself in a dark place.  Gripped by anxiety and panic attacks – both wholly unfamiliar to me, a naturally optimistic and buoyant person – I needed support to get through.  Although I recovered quickly, I realised how frightening these episodes can be, and how useful it may be to talk in confidence to someone neutral about issues that can be deeply personal.  I wanted to see if I could help others going through difficult times.

And so it was that in January last year, I explored the possibility of becoming a Samaritans volunteer. After an interview and selection day, I undertook ten four-hour training modules. A couple of months later, I took my first call in my local branch, a cosy upstairs room in an unprepossessing office building tucked behind a busy south London thoroughfare.

Since then, I’ve completed more than forty three-hour shifts answering calls and emails, as well as face-to-face callers, and helped to raise funds and awareness for Samaritans at summer county fairs and community events.

It hasn’t all been hard work.  My role as a Samaritans volunteer has introduced me to a wide group of new colleagues – my fellow volunteers – people from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds; people who are interesting, lively, fun, kind and thoughtful.  Every shift has felt like a privilege. And the work certainly puts any problems I might have in perspective.

I think of the young woman, calling from her car at the edge of a wood as the rain came beating down, intent on taking her life.  Estranged from her family, her boyfriend had broken up with her and she found herself literally alone in the world, with nowhere to sleep that night, and no roof over her head.

And the elderly lady, widowed a few years ago. She knew she was fortunate, surrounded as she was by the love of her children and grandchildren, and with no money worries. But – through tears – she told me how desperately she missed her husband.  She hid her true feelings from her family, who wanted her to ‘move on’ and be happy, but nothing could fill the void of grief deep in her heart

The man, clinging to the embers of his dying marriage.  Communication with his wife – now in a relationship with someone else, but still living under the same roof – had broken down.  He still loved her; all he wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been in their early days together, and the thought that that might never happen was unbearable for him.

Or the caller whose brilliant brain should have guaranteed him life’s glittering prizes, yet whose gender issues had instead earned him a lifetime of disappointment, humiliation and rejection.

As Samaritans volunteers, we aren’t able to wave a magic wand and make these caller’s problems disappear.  All we can do is offer them a safe space in which they can talk about their troubles, and listen – actively listen – without judgement, interruption or offering advice; to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their moment of need.

For many people, this might be the first time that anyone has ever really listened to them, taken them seriously, and empathised with their position and the depth of their despair.  For that reason, calling Samaritans can be a lifeline.  Simply talking through a problem can sometimes give a caller a fresh perspective on their situation, and sharing their troubles can help diffuse some of the anxiety and stress around them.

January can be a difficult time for many of us.  That’s why on January 20th Samaritans is launching ‘Brew Monday’, a fundraising initiative encouraging people to reach out to others who may be lonely and invite them to share a cuppa through January and February, and raise vital funds for Samaritans.  All you need is a kettle, a teabag or two, and a couple of mugs.  Such a small act of kindness can make a huge difference in someone’s life, and you would gain something immeasurable from it, too – the knowledge that you’ve offered the hand of friendship to someone when they needed it most.

Sign up for a free Brew Monday fundraising pack, hereAnyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of our trained volunteers face to face.

 

The Best Christmas Gift Ideas

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Not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s a shift away from Christmas presents this year. Lots of people we know are going without, or giving to charity – which is lovely, and has its own feel-good factor, of course. And we kind of get it. Both of us have received too many presents over the years which just aren’t ‘us’ – and soon after Christmas make their way to a carrier bag near the door, waiting for the next stroll past Oxfam. (Or in Jo’s case, the boot of her car – it being safer to transport unwanted gifts to the next town, lest her friends spot their rejected presents in a too-local charity.)

But this, for us, is where beauty ‘treats’ score, as gifts. Chosen well, they simply don’t hang around for long enough to gather dust. And over the years, we’ve learned which gifts are pretty fail-safe choices. Mostly because they’d please us, and we love a bit of pampering and self-TLC, and have spent enough time in this business to know what’s worth asking for, and what’s worth giving.

This year’s best Christmas gift ideas

Bottom line? We’d happily put any or all of these on our own ‘Dear Santa’ lists. And we suggest you might like to do the same.

Lixir Skin Good Skin Trio Mini Set, £34. From the genius cosmetic formulator Dr. Colette Haydon (a woman behind more beauty brands’ offerings than many of us have had hot dinners), three of her own bestselling products in generous travel sizes: Electrogel Cleanser, Universal Emulsion (which can be used on the body as well as face), and glow-getting Vitamin C paste. We could literally survive being cast away on a desert island, skincare-wise, with this lot.

Aromatherapy Associates Ultimate Bath & Shower Oil Collection, £65.What can we say? Hearts leap, smiles broaden, foreheads un-crinkle upon opening a gift box of Aromatherapy Associates Bath & Shower Oils. Multi-award-winning (including countless Beauty Bible Awards), they’re still the most effective mood-shifting oils we’ve ever used, and in this set, find 10 x 9ml sizes including classic Deep Relax, Inner Strength and Support Equilibrium. We know NOBODY who wouldn’t be thrilled with this. (Except Gill, who’s allergic to essential oils!)

Lebon Orange Gift Set, £29. Toothpaste, we hear you chorus? Toothpaste for Christmas? Well, this isn’t any old toothpaste: it’s Lebon organic toothpaste, created by perfumers in Grasse, and is basically the Chanel or Gucci of oral care. This set includes three fabulous flavours: mint and cinnamon Villa Naocarlina; mango, mint and papaya Back to Pampleonne (with brightening papaya enzymes), and pineapple/rooibos/mint Tropical Crush. We promise it’ll make the recipient smile – and that bit more brightly.

Lanolips Coconutter Cracker, £10.99. Well, the contents of this cracker sure beats a bad joke and a party hat: a pair of Lano’s coconut butter-enriched skin treats – 101 Multi Balm Coconutter (which excels at pretty much any skin challenge you throw at it), and the lavish-before-bedtime Coconutter Hand Cream Intense. Wafts of tropical coconut, but not enough to tip the product into the realms of Bounty bar sweetness.

ilapothecary Beat the Blues Ritual, £85. Definitely the priciest present on our shortlist, but if you’ve someone who really deserves something special and is perhaps having a tough time, look no further. Denise Leicester’s aromatherapy blends are astonishingly powerful – transformative, actually – and this features three products to be used alone or synergistically: Beat the Blues Rollerball (always in our handbags – frankly you could wear this tuberose-rich oil as a perfume, and we know people who do), Beat the Blues Shower & Bath Oil and Beat the Blues Room Spray. They are spectacularly good for anyone suffering from SAD, BTW, also featuring clary sage and geranium (for confidence and self-esteem), and petitgrain which is just a little ray of sunshine in its own right, as an essential oil.

This Works Choose Sleep, £10. Formerly known as the ‘Can’t Sleep Kit’, the most brilliant little Christmas stocking or Secret Santa gift, featuring 5ml sizes of Deep Sleep Stress Less (could come in v-e-r-y handy on Christmas Day itself), and Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, which is clinically proven to improve your zzzz’s. Right up there with the loaves and fishes in miracle terms, so far as we’re concerned.

Temple Spa Quietude, £25. Can we just recommend this for anyone who’s expecting a frenzied household over Christmas? You might suggest they open this early, to spritz this into the living room before the chaos of present-opening, actually – because this zingy, aromatic blend of lavender, cedarwood, cypress, clove, vetiver, orange, patchouli, frankincense and chamomile dials down the stress level immediately.

Beauty Bible Lip Balm, £6. Last but not least – and what can we say…? We honestly think this stocking-stuffer-sized balm is the best we’ve ever tried and are chuffed to bits that entirely independently, so did the diligent testers whose scores earned it a Beauty Bible Award. It’s big, it’s fat, it’s luscious – and our lips can’t get enough of its all-natural formula. Now, where’s that mistletoe…?

How To Be Less Miserablist

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It had been a while since I’d played this game. Maybe even half a century. It’s nighttime, a comfy 30 degrees and we’re at a party that’s progressed into the pool. I have one foot on someone’s shoulder – David? Thomas? Richard? It’s difficult to distinguish between them as I heave myself into the clutches of Liz who’s waiting for me to complete the human pyramid. Finally I’m up and for a few seconds we are a triangular mass of wobbling post-youth bodies that then crash into the inky water, shrieking like the children we once were.

That was last month at a reunion in Bahrain where we all grew up together in a Californian-styled township in the desert, a story for another day. As these pewter grey November days close in, quick, quick, spit spot – name the last time you really goofed around? Like blaaah, head shaking, arm-waving crazy? See. Long time. Too long.

Yet in these not-so-cheerful times, it turns out George Bernard Shaw was right about fooling around being seriously good for you.“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” wrote the Irish playwright. The benefits? Manifold. Adult play relieves stress, boosts feel-good endorphins, improves brain function, helps relationships, keeps you feeling young and energetic and may even improve your resistance to disease.

In my forsaken executive life of being at my desk at 8am, 10 miles from home, I was deemed “lugubrious” by one of the fashion team. He was right. A tendency towards worry and a diabetic child to keep alive was lethally mixed with fierce weekly deadlines.  Something had to give and for me it was the lightness of being. A later bout of working with optimistic millennials did little to help.

Yet in this of all years, life’s become inestimably brighter, slipping those surly bonds of gloom.

What gave? Frankly even I was bored of having a resting worried face. But the turning point came down to a cat, two yogis, one run and two WhatsApp groups. Mostly the latter.

Sky the Siberian Forest kitten arrived to remind us of the joy of stroking and the fun of felines leaping for ping pong balls.  The last year has been like living with an amusingly furry two year old.

Then there was the physical fillip from a weekly run and two yoga sessions.  Emerging from a cotton cocoon to lollop around Wormwood Scrubs for 5km every Saturday at 9am does not induce laughter – but its after effects do. (News reports last month said one shortish run a week is all it takes to reduce the risk of early death, no matter how slow you go.) Ditto the two £10-a-go weekly yoga sessions that melt calcified fascia, lull the mind and mean you can embrace the freelancer’s 5/2 wardrobe – two whole days of never having to be properly dressed.

But the biggest spike in my annual lol activity came from spending more time, that most illusory commodity, with family and friends generally, and two groups of women specifically.

Here we need clarification – spending time at play is about more than just having fun. Renowned American shrink Stuart Brown has done a rather brilliant Ted talk on the subject, which if you can’t be bothered to watch says this: we need to retain our neoteny. Our what-eny?  Make it your word of the day because it means the “retention of juvenile features in the adult animal”, which translates into keep goofing around throughout your life. Because Brown is clear on one fact  — the opposite of play is depression.

He spent years studying prison inmates and almost every one of them suffered play deprivation as children. They missed out on the give-and-take learning that comes from play. “Normally we play,” says Brown.  “When we don’t, something has gone very, very, wrong, and non-players will suffer a number of effects.” He quotes field biologist Marc Bekoff, a former university professor, who says play is “training for the unexpected”.  Which makes it pretty essential in the sand-shifting era of Trump and Brexit.

Beyond playing the usual array of sports (abandoned tennis racket – one day I will return), the adult play market is now huge business, with the Lego trend a prime example. Last month ‘Build Yourself Happy: The Joy of Lego Play’ was published  as a manual for wellness while at John Lewis you can buy the 5,900 piece adult Lego Taj Mahal for £279.99.

Not for me, but let me tell you about those WhatsApp groups.  The ‘girl’s night’ one began several years ago with eight of us getting together whenever we could agree on a date, but which has progressed to added playtime. There was a recent wine drinking and pottery making evening, a perfect getting-your-hands-dirty combo,  with the resultant crusts of unglazed clay still rattling around in the back of my car.  Next up is a poker night in January with a real live poker teacher who’ll hopefully instruct us on how to arrange our flaccid faces into inscrutable masks. Cannot wait.

Meanwhile, a reunion reconnected me with three of my first friends, the ones I’d grown up with in primary school, had played spin the bottle with as a teenager and fooled around with in swimming pools. We are now scattered across Australia, Florida, London and Portugal but every Saturday sees us together again on a WhatsApp video grid, our latest quest being to learn to virally hoola hoop. I’m pretty good thanks – Sara, doll, it’s all in the hip thrust.

We definitely all need to play more.  To put down those  perfidious phones and dig out that frisbee or pack of cards.

The dream? A poker-playing, hoola-hooping pool party.

OMG lol, as only an Ok, Boomer would write.

How to be less of a miserablist in 2020

  1. Delete your Mail Online app pronto. Child killer/Kardashian tales are no longer needed.
  2. Buy Rummikub, the perfect board game as it can last less than 30 minutes. (Habitually losing inures me to the pain of real life.)
  3. Revisit Season 1 of Friends. Basically be more Chandler. Step away from Newsnight.
  4. Ask for ‘Funny Ha-ha’ in your stocking – 80 of the funniest stories ever written, out this month and edited by veteran wit Paul Merton. Leave the Booker prizewinners to gather dust.
  5. Purchase a cheap hoola hoop and eat latkes (hello Gill) or crisp sarnies with friends who make time to see you. Money does not = good times.
  6. When it’s all going south, listen to Baccara’s “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”, the 1977 best-selling single of all time by a female group (18 million).  Joyfully awful lyrics, but it’ll  make you laugh and dance at the same time. Dream pastime.

The Argument For Having A Low Key Christmas

Silver christmas horn ornament on black suface with gold glitter

Normally, my Christmas is the sort of military operation. I’ve been known to buy the first of the following year’s Christmas presents in February, I tend to get panicked if I don’t have the crackers before Bonfire Night, and if you stand still long enough in my house during advent, you’re likely to find a bauble glue-gunned to a limb. Or be swagged with pine. Or just possibly sprayed with glitter. And if anything doesn’t seem to be going ‘to plan’, I am, as a rule, not a happy camper.

But this year, Christmas is going to be a little more unpredictable in our house, and its taught me an excellent life lesson. On Christmas Day, we might be six – or we might be fourteen. (Which is quite a difference.) And I might not know till the day before. This is because there’s someone in the family who’s not too good health-wise, and they may or may not be up to making the journey. If not, then more than half the party – her children and grandchildren – will head to London for a scratch Christmas to make sure she’s not alone.

For a few years, I was smug about having organised our Christmas arrangements pretty ‘flawlessly’. It had dawned on me that we were hosting a dozen people every year, but they weren’t necessarily the same dozen. So in no uncertain terms, I informed everyone they needed to co-ordinate their Christmases, because we were only going to do one big Christmas every other year. (In between, we’d either go away, or quietly celebrate with two of us, or maybe accept an invitation to someone else’s Christmas lunch.)

And it worked. At least it worked until the younger family members started partnering up and having babies, which meant doing their duty to go to their partners’ families for the holidays. And since some of those families are fractured, we’re now in a three or four-year rotation, because there are two sets of parents to accommodate, as well as us. Duh. Didn’t think of that, did I? Chances of us all getting together again? Around zero, give or take.

So I have decided instead to quieten my inner Martha Stewart (who has rarely been far beneath the surface in previous years), and take a ‘whatever’ approach to what can be an unbelievably stressful time of year. Basically, it will be what it will be. I’ve got enough food to feed fourteen, and if instead we’re six, or maybe eight, I might invite some waifs and strays. I always admired my mother’s approach, inviting people who didn’t have anywhere else to go for Christmas. (Mostly she did this because a stranger at the dinner table meant that the children behaved far better than they would otherwise have done, but she also did it because she had a big heart.) Maybe we’ll do round up some ‘randoms’ – or maybe not, and instead spend a lot of time Googling ‘turkey leftover recipes’ in the aftermath. (And Tofurkey leftover recipes, if there are such things.)

All in all, even I – former Queen of Christmas, sequined trumpet-blower for all things festive and sparkly – am coming to the conclusion that Christmas has turned into a bit of a monster. The RSI from signing Christmas cards. The lists, the endless lists. The wrapping – and heck, I’ve always loved wrapping, but this year (partly for eco reasons) I’ve ordered personalised sacks into which to slip people’s presents, pull a drawstring – and then they can give me the sack back for next year.

Am I turning into Scrooge, in mid-life? I don’t think so. I’ve just got things a bit more in proportion. There have been some nail-biting health moments for people in our family, and for my friends, this year. One good friend died, actually. And so for me, it’s become more about spreading the kindness, cheer and generosity year-round – which nobody can argue that we definitely need more of, right now. Yes, we’ll have a tree. And lots and lots of pine branches, because I like the smell. But I am not, for once, going head to head with Regent Street on the decorations front.

I’m also reminded of a conversation with a friend, not long ago. She told me that her best Christmas ever was soon after she’d divorced and she asked her kids how they’d like to spend Christmas, and what food they’d like. Upshot is: they stayed in their onesies all day, and had pizza for Christmas lunch while watching videos. I’m going to leave you with that thought, as you frantically hunt for that recipe for Devils on Horseback canapés that you just know you tucked away somewhere.

I’m not sure I’m ready to be quite that laid-back for the holidays, yet. (Though in future years, who knows?) But what I do know is that I’m going to cut myself some slack, this year, in the hope of keeping the needle on the Christmas ‘Stress-o-Meter’ firmly in the green zone. Basically, in 2019, when it comes to Christmas, at our house it’s going to be a case of: ‘whatevs.’

As my darling step-grandchildren – who may or may NOT be here on 25th December – so love to say…