On a recent food shopping expedition, I was briefly seduced by a display for Delia's "cake in a bag". It turns out that, as a self-confessed member of the educated elite, I should not have been. To entertain the thought, even for a moment, that this was a brilliant idea whose time had come was – to judge by the furore on radio and internet discussions – to be pilloried as a class traitor. Small matter that these festive packs were flying off the shelves and that an assemblage of vital ingredients, in the required quantities, would mean fewer half-packets of stale currants blocking shelf-space for another year, even to consider preparing one's Christmas cake this way was, to put no finer point on it, cheating.
I don't think this is the trivial debate it might seem. With the fashion for television food programmes has come the prescriptive view that, for the big occasions, you have no excuse for not doing things properly. Nor can I plead ignorance. As a child, I was a happy participant in the classic rituals that surrounded Stir-up Sunday – so named, as we were told each year, after the first words of the Collect for the last Sunday before Advent: "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people." Ingredients that you saw only once a year – suet, candied peel, black treacle – appeared mysteriously out of nowhere. Vast bowls were hauled out of top cupboards. The whole family took turns to have a stir; in the fullness of time, puddings were steamed and cakes baked. I remember the year the Mrs Beeton pudding recipe was replaced by one from the Radio Times. I can't remember why, though it was surely testimony to changing times.
So I know how these things should be done, and at a stretch I can do it. But – oh, shameful confession – I'm eternally grateful that it's not compulsory any more. And it's not just the more- than-acceptable Christmas cakes and puddings now on offer in supermarkets that have hugely helped my time-starved generation to keep up culinary traditions. I still have half a packet of dried stuffing mix; it's probably about four years old, dating from when I first bought a much more interesting, prepared stuffing. A year or so later, the convenient little trays of oven-ready sausage and bacon appeared, along with all manner of other labour-saving trimmings. Why make life more difficult for yourself than it has to be?
I'm still peeling my own parsnips, and I draw the line at buying a "crown" of turkey. If a whole one is too much, I'll opt for a different sort of bird. But I'm not going to be browbeaten by purists who insist that Christmas dinner, or any other dinner, will necessarily be inferior if it's not prepared from scratch. The fact that I know how it used to be done actually makes me all the more enthusiastic for the help that is now on offer. And the same goes for convenience food generally. Because I know all the hassle entailed in making a meat pie or a kulebiaka or a soufflé, I'm that much more appreciative for the professionals who do it on the grand scale, and often do it so very much better.
Bring on those varray parfit gentil knyghts
All togged up in thick coat, boots and hat, out of respect for the snowy weather, I fear I look more like a furry rodent (though not a ginger one) than a lady of a certain age who warrants particular deference. But the change of attire among all of us commuters seems to have prompted a subtle change of behaviour. Younger men – say, those under 40 – seem uncertain how to treat us.
The over-50s customarily stand back to let women board Tube trains or buses first. This is even if they increasingly decline to give up their seats, once they have them, even to the visibly pregnant or infirm. The under-25s pile on regardless, in the spirit of gender equality in which they have grown up. Those in between seem confused.
I've had several such in-betweeners barge in front of me as the Tube doors open, only for them seemingly to have second thoughts and stand back apologetically, perhaps as the disapproving shade of their great aunt or mother floated before them. From the inside, you can observe something similar at almost every stop.
When I moved 15 years ago from Paris to Washington, it was to move from a culture where a man (of any age) seemed congenitally incapable of not holding a door open for a woman to one where, if you stood back, it slammed back in your face. At least you knew where you stood. With our uncertain cavaliers, it's amazing no one gets injured.
Even Madonna has passed her 50th birthday
It wasn't quite desperation that led me to seek out some spray perfume to give my mother. But it was desperation that brought the search to an early end. The whole mid-price scent market seems directed towards girls and boys in their teens and twenties. If you are buying for someone whose aspirations lie in the direction of Kate Moss or David Beckham, you're in clover. It's more problematical if the intended beneficiary is of more mature years. Tommy Girl doesn't really do the job, nor does Sarah Jessica Parker's Covet Pure Bloom or Glow by J-Lo, while Provocative Woman is open to misinterpretation and Madonna isn't yet reconciled to being over 50. So drenched in celeb youth culture do you become, prowling the shelves, that even Blue Grass starts to read like a double entendre.
There was a time when something similar applied to the women's clothes market. Age- and price-wise there wasn't a whole lot between Topshop and Aquascutum. Then along came Hobbs, L K Bennett and the rest, and Jaeger and Burberry started to spice up their ideas. Let's hear it for the ageing population. Just a pity that mainstream commerce takes a while to catch up.