About Helen Rae Rants!

I'm a freelance writer and lecturer, author of non-fiction works on the Battles of Wakefield and Towton, and the risque fantasy series Lay of Angor under my pen-name Rae Andrew. My hobbies are Wars of the Roses re-enactment, archery, walking, reading and cooking; and I'm passionately fond of cats, chocolate and Richard III.

Henry Hates Firework Nights

Now that Slack-jawed Selfish Morons’ Firework Season (run-up to Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, run-up to Bonfire Night, Bonfire Night, numerous extra Bonfire Nights for people unable to celebrate on November 5th, run-up to Christmas, Christmas, post-Christmas, run-up to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve, post-New Year’s Eve, plus random explosions in between times) is in full swing, Henry Wowler has to spend most evenings cowering in his safety box under our bed – and given the propensity of said selfish morons to continue letting off bangers till midnight, we don’t have the heart to evict the poor little chap.

On such occasions, when he eventually feels it’s safe to emerge and wants Mummy-cat to take him downstairs and administer bedtime biscuits, he usually sits at the foot of the bed whispering, ‘Mrrp? Mrrp?’ in a very small voice until I awake. But last night, he mrrped to no avail – both worn-out cat-parents were too fast asleep to hear him; so the first I knew of his wakefulness and desire for attention was when he jumped on the bed, landed on my feet and snuggled down in the space between our legs. I stroked him. He purred. I thought, ‘Aw. This is OK – I can cope if he settles there,’ and went back to sleep (after throwing back the bedspread and sticking one leg out from under the duvet to compensate for the extra heat generated by his large furry presence).

But he didn’t settle there, of course. Night is his time to do cat stuff; so shortly he got up, went out in the pouring rain for a while, then came back upstairs shouting, ‘Wet!’ I ignored him, and- aha! Instead of pestering on to be mopped dry, he dealt with the situation himself, allowing me to doze off again to the slight, soothing sound of a washing cat. But of course the peace didn’t last – soon Henry was wowling again, obliging me to arise before he woke Daddy-cat too, escort him downstairs, give him some fuss, then lure him into the kitchen with the usual biscuit bribe and shut the door firmly behind me.

All this took place between 10.30 pm and 1.40 am; and this, dear reader, is the reason why on normal nights, if Mr Wowler tries to evade the normal nightly routine of being confined to the kitchen by hiding under our bed, he gets prodded out with a longbow…

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Feline Friends!

Henry Wowler doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his patch. If visitors are human, his normal response is to hide in his safety box under our bed and sulk until they go home. If they’re feline, he’ll caterwaul terrible songs of hate and retribution at them; and if that doesn’t work, he takes more positive action. Given that he’s twice the size of most of our neighbourhood moggies, seeing the feline equivalent of a Rottweiler (sixteen pounds of spectacularly fuzzed-out Wowler) charging towards them at high speed generally suffices to see them off the premises pretty damn quick – and if that fails, he won’t baulk at resorting to violence.

So it was with some trepidation that I noticed the new kid on the block – a sparky ginger tom-kitten – had taken to exploring our garden. Last week he got stuck on the roof of our wood-box, and was so over-excited, fighty and bitey when I tried to rescue him that I had to don heavy leather gardening gloves in order to pick him up. Yesterday afternoon GK (Ginger Kitten) was back again; and when I went upstairs I was surprised to find Henry sitting on the bedroom window-sill watching him potter about down below. Not fluffed up, or growling, or even lashing his tail – just watching with mild interest, which was extremely unusual.

At tea-time, with Wowler in his customary early-evening position on my lap, the young intruder returned. This time his reaction was what we’ve come to expect: he sat bolt upright, glaring; then dismounted and sat by the patio window, yowling.

“I’m not letting you out, Henry,” said Daddy-cat. “If you want to see him off you’ll have to use your cat-flap.” While Henry thought about this, the undaunted GK came up and inspected him through the glass, then began frolicking around the patio clearly wanting to play. Henry stopped yowling and watched. Intrigued, I took a jingly ball outside and entertained GK with it, wondering if Wowler would follow; but no, he just continued to watch.

I petted GK as he twined round my ankles, then went back indoors. “This is what he smells like,” I said to Henry. He sniffed my hand. Finally, as the kitten went on cavorting, he could stand it no longer. Hubcap and I looked at each other as the cat-flap clicked, expecting the usual mayhem and braced to rescue GK if the Wowler tried to savage him. But to our utter astonishment, he simply strolled up and held out his nose. So did GK. A mutual bottom inspection followed. “They’re greeting!” I gasped. Then came a slight laying back of ears and batting with forepaws; then Henry bounced away with his tail in the air, hotly pursued by the kitten; then the kitten came back into view, hotly pursued by Henry.

Hubcap and I watched entranced. The only other cat Wowler normally tolerates is the ginger tom from three doors down, who we’ve always jokingly referred to as Henry’s dad (as he may well be); but they don’t cosy up or play together, they just hang out in a companionable, blokey sort of way. So this was the first time in six years that we’ve ever seen Henry larking about with another feline, apparently enjoying its company, (admittedly, he did fetch GK one good clip round the ear that elicited a cry of protest, but it was no more than an uppity kitten deserved).

Delighted, I went out to fuss them both, and my amazement was complete when Henry flopped down on his back, giving the full social roll. Playful chasing then continued until Henry, in wild excitement, leapt into Hubcap’s wheelbarrow so forcefully that it overturned and scared him back into the house.

The episode was no fluke or one-off. This morning GK came back, peering in through the patio door obviously looking for his playmate. I let him in, entertained him with a piece of string, then led him to our bedroom where the Wow was asleep on the bed; and when he eventually woke and condescended to notice, another amicable meeting and greeting took place, followed by more outdoor play. It can’t just be down to GK’s youth and smallness – Henry has hated our opposite neighbour’s lovely lavender-grey pair, Boris and Doris, and chased them off with extreme prejudice ever since they were the same age as this little lad. So I can’t help but wonder whether they belong to some secret League of Red-headed Cats – whether Henry recognises GK as a fellow ginge and, like Tormund in Game of Thrones, finds him ‘kissed by fire’ and beautiful.

Whatever, at long last it seems our anti-social Wowler has a real cat-pal – and I’m chuffed to bits!

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Change of Life

What a difference a day makes…

On September 12th, my main job was working from home as a freelance writer and speaker. On September 13th, my main job became working outdoors as a full-time assistant gardener, a drastic change that happened literally from one moment to the next, and for the saddest of reasons: early that morning, my husband’s sole employee and workmate Mark was taken ill, (we assumed with a heart attack), and rushed to hospital. Knowing Hubcap would never manage the day’s schedule alone, I abandoned my plans and hurried out with him to help. Then at around ten-thirty we received awful, shocking news: Mark had died in the ambulance – almost certainly the one Mick saw racing past on the main road, sirens blaring, while he was at his first job – before even leaving our street.

It was impossible to take in. We’d envisaged him having an operation, convalescing, making a good recovery and, eventually, returning to work on light duties. We’d planned to find out about sick pay, something Hubcap had never dealt with before because Mark had the constitution of an ox, and seldom missed a day’s work though illness. I’d expected to give only short-term emergency cover, and perhaps to carry on part-time if he wanted to reduce his hours. Now all that was suddenly wiped out. Hubcap’s assistant for twenty-five years, a guest at our wedding, a near neighbour I’d seen or spoken to almost daily since 2005, and worked with on many occasions – he was suddenly gone, completely and forever. It felt surreal, dislocating, unbelievable; I had exchanged greetings and a brief chat with Mark only eighteen hours ago – it seemed impossible that he could be dead.

But he was; and being stuck out in mid-job, we had to stop floundering and deal with the new reality we’d been so shockingly catapulted into. Our immediate problem was to get round all the customers waiting for their gardens to be done as usual, not just today but for the rest of the week and the foreseeable future. My immediate solution was offering to step in as a trainee replacement. Gardening is, after all, our bread-and-butter; my freelance ventures, with their wildly unpredictable and often minimal returns, have only ever been the jam. So instantly changing profession made sense, even though I knew it would be very arduous work, requiring total commitment and leaving me little time or energy for anything else.

This may sound an extreme, perhaps ill-advised course; however, if you follow my website or blogs about Beckside, our nascent smallholding, you may not be too surprised by the decision. Gardening has long been a favourite hobby; I’ve done casual work in the business for over a decade – especially in the past two years since my hip replacement restored me to full vigour – and thanks to re-enacting and land work, I’m well used to (and can enjoy) long days of physical graft. So I’m not risking my health by leaping straight from a desk job into full-time hard labour; it’s more like expanding some leisure pursuits into my main paid occupation – and thankfully, so far, so good.

There is a price to pay: I had to close my funeral celebrancy business straight away, (although I’ll still perform the odd service for friends and sell Safehands Funeral Plans). I also cut back on Herstory services including lectures and guided walks, as you’ll see on the pruned-down and updated website; it really goes against the grain to turn down further talk requests, but on weekdays I’ll be too unavailable, and most evenings I’ll be too shattered to go out again and try to entertain an audience. I’m even selling my male re-enactment kit because I can’t imagine ever doing battle or cross-dressing for a schools presentation again, (but I’ll never give up archery or sell my beloved longbow!). And while I doubt I’ll manage to publish any new books before we retire in 2020, I’ll keep selling all my current catalogue and writing for fun in the meantime.

What a difference a day makes, indeed. And while I’m enjoying the challenges of this new lifestyle, I sincerely wish that it hadn’t come about under such tragic circumstances… yes, RIP, Mark.

Old School Days – and what a night!

If you went to a grammar school between the late 1950’s and early 70’s, the following speech may ring some bells: I had the privilege of delivering it at an amazing event on September 9th, and reproduce it here in the hope of entertaining members of the Final Forms 1A, 1B and 1C at Clee Girls’ Grammar who were unable to make it – as well as anyone else lucky enough to have fond memories of this sort of good old-fashioned education.

Well hello, Clementinas! Who’d have thought it, eh? 45 years later, almost to the day, and here we all are again – a whole classroom full, a third of the entire first year intake of 1972!

This is a very special occasion because we were a very special year – not just because we’re all so awesome, but because we were the last ever First Forms in the 46-year history of Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School.  So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this Big Reunion, and particularly those of you who made it happen. That’s primarily Carolyn Allison, Linda Dye and Kay Edwards – no offence to spouses, but to save confusion (not least my own) I’m going to stick to maiden names tonight. Those three did a sterling job in tracking so many of us down, although I know most people were able to add at least one contact to our burgeoning virtual First Form – so thanks to you, too. Thanks are also due to Carolyn and Kay for sorting out the venue and payments, to Carole Buckley for organising the music, and everyone who suggested songs for the playlist. I’d also like to say a particularly big personal thank-you to Carolyn for giving me the opportunity to make this speech. As some of you know, I work as a freelance speaker – basically, a gob-for-hire – and few things give me greater pleasure than the sound of my own voice and a captive audience to listen to it! So please charge your glasses for our first toast: Thanks, Everybody!

If I ever hear someone say, ‘Schooldays are the happiest days of your life,’ it’s always my year at the Girls’ Grammar I think of – it was certainly the best and happiest year I ever spent at school. For a swotty kid devoted to Enid Blyton’s Twins at St Clare’s stories, Clee Grammar was hog heaven and I was absolutely thrilled to go there… even though I was scared shitless too, because it all sounded so strict and formal, and I thought everyone except me would be terribly posh. I vividly remember that great long uniform list arriving, and Mum taking me to Lawson & Stockdale in Grimsby to buy everything… then being petrified that the metal eyelets on my plain black lace-up shoes made them too fancy and I’d get sent home! I don’t know whose bright idea it was to dress 400 adolescent girls entirely in petroleum by-products, but I’ll say one thing for that uniform – it was bloody hard-wearing (I still wore that hooded tracksuit top to go jogging when I was well into my twenties).

I also vividly remember my first day in 1A, surnames A to H: there we all were, 26 eleven and twelve year-olds in our white polo-necks and ankle-length navy gymslips turned up with about eighteen inches of hem – plenty of growing room so they’d last us right through to 5th form – with enormous sturdy blue knickers underneath. Dear Miss Hutton of the tweedy suits was our form mistress, and I remember the shock when she wrote that 6-day timetable on the board for us to copy – I thought, ‘God, does that mean we come to school on Saturdays?’ And I remember the first words I ever whispered across the aisle to Carole Buckley in my best attempt at a posh voice: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me what computation is?’ As you may recall, it turned out to be doing sums on those strange contraptions like bus conductors’ ticket machines, something I’d never encountered before – or, indeed, since – and I can’t say I’m sorry that the advent of the pocket calculator very soon rendered them obsolete!

They were such innocent days in a much simpler time, which seems so quaint and antiquated compared with 21st century schools – no such things as computers and smart-screens, classroom assistants, mobile phones or cyber-bullying. No, ours were the days of blackboard and chalk, Quink and fountain pens and blotting paper, slide rules and leather satchels…  Days of discipline and respect, when we expected to leap to our feet whenever a teacher came into the room, to do several hours of homework a night, and deliver it on time – for which we were rewarded by being treated as responsible secondary pupils and trusted to stay in at break times – a wonderful relief after all those junior years of being evicted to the playground! They were the days when we all read the same things: comics like Bunty and Judy, and of course Jackie magazine, poring over the Cathy & Clare problem page to see if it held any answers for us, and trading the free gifts of plastic jewellery and little pots of make-up. Days when we all watched Top of the Pops and the Partridge Family, Blue Peter and Magpie, listened to Ed Stewart and Kid Jensen, and cut out the pictures of favourites like Donny and David, and stuck them inside our desk lids.

Yes, it was an unforgettable year in so many ways. I never admitted to this at the time, but I was thrilled to discover that our science teacher would be one Mr Hunter, who wore a pale blue tweed jacket the same colour as his eyes – I’d had a secret crush on him ever since I saw him conducting a choir at an inter-schools choral performance when I was at Reynolds Street Juniors. So I later felt terribly guilty when I heard that our high-spirited antics – including POCTWA, the Prevention of Cruelty to Worms Association, founded by Debra Gray and Michelle Dobson – drove the poor man into a nervous breakdown. I remember going to our First Form ‘Cowboys & Indians’ themed fancy-dress Christmas party wearing a big black fuzzy fake moustache and dancing to Crocodile Rock – Kim Akrill was there sporting a real gun-belt, and lovely Mrs McCleary the English teacher in a black Stetson hat complete with a Western drawl and a cheroot stuck in the corner of her mouth. Then there was our school concert, when 1A’s song was ‘Lemon Tree,’ accompanied by Carole Buckley on guitar… I still remember the looks of consternation we exchanged as she struck up the first chords and her guitar was out of tune… and, ladies, I have a confession to make: that was My Bad. I’d been standing idly fiddling with her tuning knobs as we waited for our turn to perform. When the implications sank in, I tried desperately to put them back to their original position, but it didn’t quite work… so if we didn’t win I’m afraid it was All My Fault.

I remember hockey in winter, and tennis in summer; the horror of gym in that ghastly towelling jumpsuit, and making the wrap-around skirt to go over it in Needlework – an experience which seems to have left lasting scars on many of us. I remember cookery, which I adored: making scrambled egg in our first lesson, and later various different types of sponge cake, including a rather rubbery Swiss roll. I remember learning the recorder, with all of us sitting there in music class tootling the Skye Boat Song, Greensleeves and Turkey in the Straw – and that lovely occasion in the winter term when we were taken into Grimsby to sing carols with the Salvation Army under the big Christmas tree in St James’ Square. And of course, who could forget the redoubtable Dorothy Vallins, ‘the Dev,’ in her pink and purple check suit trilling to us in assembly that we were ‘la crème de la crème, girls – la crème de la crème!’ Although oddly enough, despite all these vivid memories, I’ve completely forgotten the tune and every word of our school song – so you may be relieved to hear I won’t be leading you in that tonight.

But I do remember many people who can’t be with us tonight, in some cases because they live too far away – and what an irony that Claire Draycott and Wendy Skerratt, who were good friends at school, both moved to the other side of the world and now live within striking distance of one another in Australia! In other cases, the reason is very sad. I suppose the law of averages makes it inevitable that some members of any given population will die prematurely through accident or illness, and unfortunately this is true of some of our form-mates including Kim Weed, maths whizz-kid Sharon Pearson, who I remember had a rather atypical crush on Eric Morecambe, and lovely Lynn Sutherland, with whom I used to twag off cross-country and go round to her house to drink coffee… and it’s on behalf of all these fellow pupils, living and passed on, that I’d now like to propose another toast: to absent friends.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us were so keen on what came after that year… although when our beloved Girls’ Grammar morphed into the Lower School of Lindsey Comprehensive, we still had some good times and went on to see each other through all the trials of puberty and adolescence. Spots. First dates. The utter self-conscious misery when spots and dates happened at the same time. The perennial question: ‘Have you started yet?’ Doing a certain exercise and chanting, ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust.’ Trading nail varnish to mend ladders in the tights we were forever snagging on the old wooden benches and desks… not to mention the sort of embarrassing personal crisis that never seems to happen in adult life, like the sudden snapping of your bra strap or knicker elastic. Playing silly schoolgirl japes with fake ink-blots and the disappearing ink Nicky Fraser once squirted on Mr Smith’s shirt in maths – he wasn’t amused – or our 3rd year piece de resistance, hiding our chairs in the suspended ceiling during one lunch break. So perhaps this is a good time to raise a glass to our long-suffering teachers…

The Upper School brought us the serious growing up stuff, the swotting for exams, the decisions on which options to take and what to do next – and I like to think our old teachers would be proud of the women we’ve become, the things we’ve achieved, and the many and varied paths our lives have taken. Alas, I’d developed such a loathing of Lindsey by the time I finally wiped its dust off my shoes that I made no effort to keep in touch with school chums – unless I bumped into you in the pubs around Grimsby and Cleethorpes – and the idea of coming to any sort of school reunion made me shudder. That is, until Carolyn Allison emailed me out of the blue about 18 months ago… and then came the wonderful excitement of last spring when our virtual First Year started to re-form on Facebook. I still remember the buzz, the thrill of making contact again, of logging on obsessively to find out who else had joined, the fun of sharing our memories and photos – the sheer warmth and sense of fellowship that immediately sprang up between us again, and the plain simple delight I felt at rediscovering old friends and finding out what you’d all been up to. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me on social media, and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of – to paraphrase Lou Reed: with such perfect days, I’m glad I spent them with you… and I’m very glad you’re all back in my life again now.

So three cheers for Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School – and now, 45 years after our first meeting there, I’d like to close with another toast to all Clementina Clees past and present, to our Big Golden Reunion in five years’ time, and many smaller meetings in between – and  to staying in touch!

 

It’s Your Funeral (2)

Even though Hubcap and I are only in our fifties, in recent years we’ve lost so many friends and family members of around our age – or considerably younger – that we’re starting to hear the Grim Reaper scratching very gently at our own door with his scythe.

So, since publishing my original ‘Its Your Funeral’ blog back on 30th December 2015, we decided to go for it and acquired a SafeHands ‘Pearl’ pre-paid funeral plan. Now, when one of us pops off, all the other will have to do is ring a 24/7 helpline number to set the plan in motion – there’ll be no scrabbling about looking for funeral directors, no trying to second-guess what the late mate would have wanted for a service – and above all, no worries about what it’s going to cost.

Altogether, I was so impressed by the company, its ethos and products that I went on and trained as a funeral planning consultant/SafeHands plan agent – so if you’d like a plan for yourself do get in touch, and I’ll gladly sell you one! In fact do get in touch even if you’re not in the market to buy, because thanks to their recent initiative to ensure every adult has one, I can give you something useful: the Free Funeral Plan. This is a handy four-page A4 form on which you fill in all the details your next-of-kin/executors will need when they have to arrange your funeral – essential stuff such as whether you want to be buried or cremated, whether you’re willing to be viewed in the funeral home, the kind of music and readings you’d like at your service, (if you want a service at all), and so on.

It might sound a bit morbid or frighteningly like tempting Fate, but it’s not – we did our plan 18 months ago, and we’re still here! Oddly enough, we both found it quite an enjoyable and comforting exercise, and it was certainly instructive; despite having known one another for nigh on 14 years/being married for nearly a decade, Hubcap hadn’t a clue I wanted my coffin to enter the chapel to Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’- and it would never have occurred to me in a million years that my little ex-Goth would choose a Frank Sinatra song, (‘It Was A Very Good Year’ – I can’t hear it now without getting a lump in my throat).

So why not drop an email to helencox-celebrant@outlook.com to request your Free Funeral Plan? There’s no catch, no charge and no obligation to go on and buy anything – so you’ve got nothing to lose (but plenty to gain in terms of peace of mind for yourself and your nearest and dearest). And if you’re now thinking, ‘Wow! That sounds so great I’d like to become a SafeHands agent myself’, then contact my account manager Alan Holmes on alan.holmes@safehandsplans.co.uk and he’ll gladly talk you through it!

Anti-history: Edward IV’s ‘Secret’ Illegitimacy

As the old saying goes, it’s a wise child that knows its own father; one might add it’s a sure child that knows its own mother, if only because maternity is harder to conceal, deny or be mistaken about. So while doubts have been cast on King Edward’s paternity ever since the 15th century, it’s always been accepted that his mother was Cecily, Duchess of York – at least, until 2015, when some gobsmacking new theories were unleashed on an unsuspecting Ricardian community.

According to their author, both Edward and his younger brother Edmund were born on the wrong side of the blanket. Not, (as the usual story goes), because Cecily had been playing fast and loose in Rouen with a lowly archer called Blaybourne. No, apparently the Duchess wasn’t their mum at all; the real adulterer was her husband Richard, Duke of York, who had sired this brace of bastards upon no less a personage than Jacquetta de St Pol, mother of Elizabeth Woodville – so not only was Edward’s 1464 marriage ill-advised, it was also (gasp!) an incestuous union with his half-sister! And as if that wasn’t incredible enough, York’s liaison is supposed to have occurred in the 1430’s, making his eldest sons some ten years older than contemporary sources indicate.

After skimming through a scathing review in Ricardian Bulletin, I thought the book in question sounded much too wacky to take notice of, and dismissed it from my mind – until I read the March 2017 Bulletin, wherein the author presents the ‘evidence’ to support her preposterous tale. Cecily in such a snit about Richard’s adultery that she refuses him sex, hence their lack of issue in their first decade of marriage! Five family members, including the Duchess herself, calling Edward illegitimate, (they tactfully gloss over Edmund, perhaps because that poor bastard was killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460), so therefore it MUST be true. Besides, the boys admit it themselves, in a letter to the Duke from ‘we your true and natural sons,’ – the key word being ‘natural’, the term used to describe illegitimate or adopted children! Fancy no-one noticing THAT before; I guess we all took for granted that the expression had an altogether different and more innocent meaning. And fancy no-one noticing or reporting that Edward and Edmund looked a bit, well, pubescent at their christenings in 1442 and 1443; I’m curious to know how the author explains that – albeit not curious enough to shell out for a copy of her book.

So yes, I am condemning it unread. The latest article was hard enough to swallow; I can’t stomach an entire volume of such stuff. It has the dubious distinction of being the first book I don’t want to give even the small publicity of this blog by identifying its title or author – because it isn’t just revisionist, it is anti-history, an uncorroborated web of fantasy woven from mistakes, misinterpretations, metaphors and supposed coded messages in paintings. (Anyone sufficiently desperate to know what it is can ask a Richard III Society member). I won’t elaborate further because I plan to offer a reasoned response (minus the snark) to the Bulletin, and don’t want to pre-empt its possible publication – but I will post it on here in due course.

Meanwhile, naturally, I’d love to know the truth about Edward IV’s legitimacy, but the only thing that would convince me is scientific proof – which we’re unlikely to ever get. What a shame our Victorian forebears, who weren’t shy about opening tombs to have a good nosey at royal remains, didn’t have DNA analysis – I bet they’d have settled the question!

2016: My Best and Worst of Years

I suspect many people will, like me, be glad to see the back of 2016; it’s certainly been one of the most extreme years I’ve ever lived through – in fact the sort of year I never expected or wanted to live through.

On a personal front it was great, largely thanks to my titanium hip. I passed the 12-month post-op ‘full recovery’ milestone in August, and will hit my impending birthday feeling ten years younger instead of one year older. I have my strength, energy and fitness back, and (hurrah!) a proper marriage again. Hubcap no longer has to nurse me along like some fragile semi-invalid; we can enjoy ourselves like the couple we used to be, going places, doing stuff, able to hike all day with no fear that an arthritic femur will shift in its socket and leave me stuck in crippled agony (as once memorably happened half-way up the keep stairs at Conisbrough Castle).

I could work physically hard too, making 2016 my best business year for- well, years. I’ve been a real Assistant Gardener at Hubcap’s busiest times, relishing our teamwork and the sweaty satisfaction of a solid day’s graft planting trees, mowing grass or painting fences – not to mention numerous sessions of Himalayan Balsam-busting, bindweed clearance and haymaking on our nascent smallholding. And I developed my new funeral services venture by foot-slogging round Wakefield’s streets delivering 5000 promotional leaflets (a strangely enjoyable task which would’ve been utterly beyond me prior to the op).

Said venture turns out to be one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, although what’s good for a funeral celebrant is perforce bad for my bereaved clients – especially because only one of the services I conducted this year was for someone very elderly; the rest were for folk in their fifties and sixties, who might reasonably have been expected to live a lot longer. It made for a poignant time in my working world, reflected in a wider sense by the staggering number of celebrities to die in 2016. Some, like the great Leonard Cohen, went in the ripe fullness of old age, but more, like Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne, were relatively, cruelly young. The only such death to touch me directly was that of journalist and critic AA Gill, with whom I was very slightly acquainted and liked a lot. Others were cultural icons, their familiar faces and voices woven into the very fabric of my earlier life, including Ronnie Corbett, who made my whole family laugh; Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, to whom I listened throughout my spotty adolescence; my late mother’s beloved Terry Wogan; Greg Lake, one of the first ‘progressive’ musicians I ever got into, and writer of my favourite-ever Christmas song; Prince, whose music charted my work-trips to the States in the Eighties; and David Bowie, for God’s sake, one of the most towering musical figures of the late 20th century… I adored him. Losing so many in a matter of months made me reel; they took a whole era with them and a huge swathe of my personal past, severing a host of connections with long-dead family and friends – which has all added up to a long, sad year of mourning.

However, those griefs pale by comparison to my feelings about the year in politics and the sheer terrifying awfulness of events at home and abroad. ‘The ‘experts’ have made a complete hash of things,’ concluded the electorates here and across the Atlantic; and while that’s true enough, it prompted some catastrophic reactions: ‘So let’s give the ignorant, inexperienced, self-aggrandising morons a chance – that’ll show ‘em!’ Yes, after two of the most despicable, divisive campaigns of misinformation and putrid propaganda I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness, all gleefully fuelled by the bile-spewing media, Britain will leave the European Union and America will be governed by a politically naïve, sexist, shouty orange racist, a porn-star First lady, their equally unqualified family and frightening fundamentalist cronies.

So far, the consequences have been pretty grim. Britain’s Leave vote, won by outright lies and broken promises, has condemned us to years of bitter argument, massive expense, market instability and an uncertain future, and shown up politicians of every party as irresponsible, incompetent, completely wrong-footed by the result and clueless about what to do next. America’s Republican victory has already caused social unrest and protests on a mammoth scale, together with accusations of corruption and criminality against a candidate many refuse to accept as president. And both here and Stateside we’ve seen a huge, horrible upsurge in scapegoating, racial and religious abuse and hate-crimes – enough to scare the bejesus out of any moderate liberal with any awareness of 20th century political and military history. To me, it has a dreadful, apocalyptic feel, as if we’ve just pressed the self-destruct button and things are about to take a turn for the unimaginably worse. I’ve never before felt so disgusted, appalled, depressed and outright bloody frightened by Britain’s political environment; and I want out but there’s nowhere to go because this seems to be the world now, a world increasingly dominated by braying right-wing bigots and unhinged religious extremists.

So it’s goodbye and good riddance to you, 2016. I can only hope and pray for 2017 and beyond that my fears will be misplaced; that everything will pan out for the best, and I’ll be forced to eat all these critical words. And by God, I want to eat them. I want to be as wrong as wrong can be. I want people who voted to leave the EU, or elected the president whose name I can’t bear to write, to be fully justified in saying, ‘See? Told you so – our problems are under control, the economy’s booming and we’re all doing just fine.’

In the meantime, I’ll close my final blog of this benighted year by wishing you and yours the merriest possible Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year.