Dear Santa

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Please and thank you.

If anyone else would like to own this fabulous creation, you can buy it here.  This fantastic retailer (I ordered this item at 1007 on Thursday, it arrived via standard mail – free delivery – at 1041 on Friday) are also registered with EasyFundraising, so your purchase can raise a free-to-you donation for a charity who are registered with them (I highly recommend Equine Partners CIC, but feel free to make your own choice).

End of PSA.

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The art of giving

I’m one of those horribly shallow people who loves to shop.  Full on, Confessions of a shopaholic-style, get a thrill out of a great purchase kind of person.  I don’t know why.  It’s an expensive habit, and try as I might, I can’t shake it.  However, it does come with positives, one of which being that I give great gifts.  Because I enjoy shopping, I don’t mind if I do it all day in pursuit of the perfect item.  I don’t normally have to, as I know my territory and am usually pretty quick, but it also means that I don’t mind if persistence is required.

When a link appeared on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, claiming to offer advice on how to be the best gift-giver ever, I was excited, and clicked through expecting to be nodding along.  I was disappointed.  The first piece of advice?  “Search for their Amazon wishlist”.  I found this incredibly uninspiring advice, and the article only got worse (looking them up on Pinterest?  Spare me).  So I decided to share my own secrets…

  1. There’s no harm in asking: Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries aren’t surprise occasions – everyone knows when their own is, and those of us with close family and friends are probably prepared to be asked what we’d like, or if there’s anything we need. So ask!  Recruit other family members, significant others or close friends in your quest if necessary, but you can still surprise the recipient despite asking if they have anything specific in mind.  I encourage my recipients to think big, too – I think some of the best gifts are things which the recipient wouldn’t buy for themselves
  2. Pay attention: if you’re buying for someone you see regularly and/or know well, you probably won’t have to ask. Whether they mean to or not, many people drop hints (some of us are less subtle than others!).  For example – I know which brands my close friends like, so if I know they’re in need of new clothes, I’ll consider buying them a voucher… but I’m aware that my friends have a selection of regular haunts which ebbs and flows.  Try to spot which brand they’re currently coveting in order to make sure they can get the best from their gift
  3. Bigger does not equal better: the best gift doesn’t have to be expensive, and the perfect item doesn’t have to be the most expensive of its kind. What counts is that you do your best with your budget and the recipient’s interests in mind.  It’s great to have lots of money lavished on us… if we’re into that sort of thing and if the occasion demands.  But if what the person really and truly wants is socks… well, there’s honestly no need to spend £20 on a pair of the regular variety.  That said…
  4. Remember the occasion: you are buying someone a present – unless they’ve asked you to shop in Poundland, you’re better to stretch yourself a little and spoil your recipient. If champagne and chocolates are what they want, avoid the petrol station and set aside 20 minutes to visit a larger supermarket at the very least, in order to choose from a better selection.  Remember – something they wouldn’t necessarily purchase for themselves.  But again…
  5. It really is the thought that counts: some people think it’s cheesy (remember these people, they’re the ones you unfortunately need to actually buy for), but make your own-style vouchers are underrated. Especially for occasions such as Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or to congratulate new parents, these can be great.  Things like “one Sunday roast (including free clearing up service)” or “I will empty the ironing basket (and by ‘empty’ I mean ‘iron every single item for you’)” can be great signs of how much you appreciate a person.  Some can involve spending a little money (such as “I will take you out for dinner when that restaurant you’re interested in opens”), but sometimes, experiences are better than “things”
  6. You don’t get a second chance…: before you wrap the gift (or pay someone else to), make sure any incriminating evidence is destroyed – inspect the item(s) carefully for price labels (this doesn’t necessarily mean cutting the tags off – items from higher-end brands will often have the price on a perforated tab, so that you can leave the tags on in case of the need for returns). This is especially important if the items have been purchased as part of a deal – nobody wants to open a gift and find BOGOF stickers, or a huge “special offer” label.  When purchasing items, check the shop’s return policy if you have any niggling doubts.  Keep the receipt, and ask for a gift receipt if possible (these normally have the price concealed) in order to make for easy exchanges if necessary.  Finally, make sure the gift is presented nicely – choose an appropriate packaging method (paper, box or bag) for the item(s), and one which suits the style of the recipient (few adults want to rip kiddie paper off a gift!).  Personalise if you can, such as writing a card to go with a voucher, or hand-writing a card to go with flowers if you purchase in person.  Show the recipient that you’ve considered every detail, rather than got bored or tired and given up.  You like them enough to buy them a gift, so remind them how special you think they are

I say all of this as someone who likes to please, and knows a few people who don’t want for anything.  People who are selfless, generous and kind, the ones who deserve spoiling.  Go forth and revel in making those people smile!  I’d love to know how you get on.

Here and there

When Susan got in touch and asked me to write a guest blog on UK versus American English, I was reminded that it isn’t just basic language which has separated us occasionally.  Local traditions are so ingrained that we forget sometimes that others don’t share the same experiences.  When it comes down to it, some of the stories behind our long history of traditions are pretty interesting, particularly for those who haven’t heard them before.  Here are some of the things (and maybe a few extras) that I’ve had to explain…

Bonfire Night
This is the one which sticks in my mind most.  When Guy Fawkes and his pals cooked up a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and thus assassinate the incumbent monarch 410 years ago, I wonder whether they realised how notorious they would become (whatever the outcome of that event, you can bet we’d still be talking about it).  They failed, and were ultimately convicted of high treason.  Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered, a spectacularly grisly affair for what at the time was deemed the ultimate crime.  So, we set off fireworks (because gunpowder plot) and burn effigies of Mr Fawkes (because why not) and the whole thing these days can go on for almost two weeks: like everything else, it’s increasingly commercialised, and particularly if 5 November isn’t a Friday or Saturday, many councils will arrange bonfires on the nearest convenient day.  Schools typically have the last week of October off as a holiday (referred to as “half term”, there are three in every school year – October, February and May, to split the semesters up a little), so bonfires have kind of become a half term kickoff event, which ruins the history lessons we’ve tried to teach kids and causes no end of confusion.

Remembrance Day
You may have heard that we have a spectacular lack of public holidays in the UK (fact: there are none in September, October or November – we get the last Monday of August, then the next one is Christmas day!).  Remembrance Day also isn’t a public holiday (we call them bank holidays), but it is when we observe the sacrifices of all armed forces throughout history.  Latterly, it’s been mainly about remembering the World Wars, and the current fight against terrorism, but it’s meant to be a catch all.  Remembrance Day is annually on 11 November, with churches holding special services on the nearest Sunday.  There’s a national moment of silence (shops make announcements, and everyone stops in their tracks and thinks for a minute) at 11am on 11 November, and at 11am on the nearest Sunday (last year, I was at a horse show, and everyone stopped when the bell sounded at 11am, the Last Post was played and all those seated in the arena stood – it was quite something).  Not a holiday, really, but a mark of respect.

Boxing Day
I feel like Boxing Day isn’t a thing in the US.  For us, 26 December is a bank holiday, but the significance of it has changed during my lifetime (a little more on that later!).  It used to be pretty much exactly like Christmas Day, when the entire country shut down for the day, but now shops are open and the world turns.  It’s a weird one, because as it’s a bank holiday, people typically aren’t at work… and yet these days there is an expectation that shops will open.  Weird.  In my family, it remains sacred – it’s my Grandma’s birthday, so our Christmas routine has always been Christmas Eve (not a holiday) with my Dad’s family, Christmas Day shut in the house by ourselves, and Boxing Day with Mum’s family.  Traditionally, Boxing Day was celebrated throughout the Commonwealth, and was a day for employers handing out Christmas Boxes to tradespeople and servants.  This is probably a good time to mention that non-moveable feasts (so days like Christmas and Boxing Day which are fixed dates) which are deemed bank holidays mean we get the next weekday off for free if those days fall on a weekend.  This year, for example, Boxing Day is a Saturday, so we’ll get 28 December (the nearest Monday) off as a bank holiday as well – yay!  The best times are when Christmas Day and Boxing Day are a Saturday and Sunday (which also means that 1 January is a Saturday, and that’s a bank holiday too), which means we get maximum free days off.  That would’ve been due to happen in 2016, but it’s a leap year, so we get screwed by the calendar.

Mother’s Day
This is a controversial one, because firstly, the name is wrong.  It’s Mothering Sunday, and is actually a religious festival – Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so technically if you’re a Christian country/household and you don’t celebrate then… well, you’re doing it wrong.  It’s like having Christmas in September.  Mother’s Day is a commercial thing in the UK, and I like that each parent gets a day and we are able to appreciate and spoil them.  But the original significance of Mothering Sunday is about returning to your home parish and the semantics of spring, rather than thanking your Mum for being your Mum.  It’s not a bank holiday, but it is a moveable feast – like I said, fourth Sunday in Lent.  Being a March baby (and end of March, at that), my birthday has fallen on both Mother’s Day and Easter weekend, which is always awkward, because my Mum grumbles about my birthday overshadowing her day (it doesn’t help that my parents’ wedding anniversary is three days before my birthday – I point out that none of this is my fault on a regular basis!).  We do the same things in the UK as you do in the US – older kids/adult offspring tend to prevent their Mums from doing chores (a really easy Mother’s Day gift is to cook Sunday lunch and clear up!), buy a card and a gift or flowers and say thank you.  We just do it at the traditionally correct time of year!  With the world changing and the traditional family construct shifting, I’d like to see a switch to there being a Parents Day – a day when you thank those who have parented you in some way… and hopefully we could get it away from the calendar clash that is my birthday and their anniversary!

The imports
Halloween and – worse – Black Friday are making a charge on the UK and I don’t like it.  Halloween has happened steadily since my childhood, and the only day I find to be a bigger load of commercialised rubbish is 14 February (bah humbug).  But Black Friday coming over here just demonstrates a clear cultural misunderstanding on our… no, it isn’t, it’s retailer greed.  Christmas is a Big Deal over here, and the way I understand it, that’s lessened in the US due to Thanksgiving.  We don’t need a Christmas shopping kickoff event, because we go nuts for Christmas anyway.  It actually all got quite controversial in 2014, because there were full on riots – people got injured for the sake of TVs they didn’t actually need and only bought to sell on via eBay.  It was disgusting.  Some bodies are calling for retailers to agree to end the madness this year, but I sadly think it will only get worse.  Neither day is a holiday for us – Halloween is an excuse for kids to dress up and annoy their neighbours, and for students and younger adults to binge drink (I’m not so opposed to that, but we have two of those every week – they’re called Friday and Saturday); Black Friday is irrelevant – we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that’s your thing!

Bonus: Sunday trading laws
This is where it gets complicated… as a traditionally-Christian country, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest in the UK.  When I was a kid, this meant that nothing was open.  Shops did not open on Sundays.  At all.  I know that’s blowing your minds.  Pubs and restaurants tended to open for lunch, but not a single shop was open – supermarkets, local newsagents, clothing stores… you couldn’t buy anything on a Sunday (because there was also no internet).  Then the law changed in 1994 and it was a slippery slope from there: the government decided that shops could trade for a certain number of hours based on their square footage – shops with an area smaller than a certain size (it’s… small.  It basically means local shops) can open whenever they like, they are able to trade 24/7 if they wish.  Shops larger than the stipulated size are only allowed to trade for six hours on Sundays.  The law also states that large shops are not allowed to open at all on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday.  There are other bits too, but those are the highlights!

Many large shops in big cities open half an hour early for “browsing”, but won’t actually sell you anything until their chosen time starts (retailers choose which six hours they want to trade: in my area, many people are early birds, so most shops are open 10am until 4pm, but there are cities which are a bit more relaxed or prefer later opening, so they go with 11am until 5pm or, what’s common in central London is midday until 6pm).  Most shops will restrict themselves to these hours on bank holidays too, partly because they generally have to pay their staff more in order to convince them to work those days.

The law was relaxed for eight joyous weeks during the summer of 2012, to allow retailers nationally to make the most of the fact that the world descended on us for the Olympics – retailers could open for as many hours as they liked, and it was largely perceived as a great success.  Of course, not so fun when, like I do, you work in retail (I didn’t at the time, it was brilliant).  There are other exemptions to the standard restrictions – shops in places like airports and on motorways are allowed to be open whenever.

The other side to this is the traditional post-Christmas sales: retailers slash prices after Christmas on absolutely everything to get rid of the stuff they didn’t sell beforehand and make way for new stock.  When I was little, there was a lovely calm period between Christmas and New Year, where everything was peaceful, and the “January sales” started on 1 January.  Now?  They start on Boxing Day.  My sacred family day!  Now, we shop right up until the last minute on Christmas Eve, buying stuff we don’t need rather than relaxing, and then the minute the sun comes up on Boxing Day, it’s absolute bedlam in shops because prices are sometimes more than halved.  Everyone spends one day yanking paper off gifts and eating turkey, then goes back to worship at the altar of retail.

The upshot is: we have just as many strange laws and procedures as anyone else.  Sometimes, we set off fireworks and celebrate a man who had a big dream and failed catastrophically.  On other days, we pin a poppy on our coats and bow our heads in the middle of the street at 11am to thank those who died for us.  And almost everyone, at some point in their life, will crawl out of bed on a Sunday, hungry and unprepared for the fact that they can’t get what they want because either the shops aren’t open yet or they’ve already shut.  And never again do you put yourself in that vulnerable position of having bare cupboards on a Sunday!

Horsemas

I actually didn’t ask for a horse this Christmas, because I’ve realised I may as well put Prince Charming on my wishlist.  So, of course, I didn’t get a horse for Christmas.  Among my (admittedly lovely) stack of presents on Christmas day there were three horse-related gifts though, so here they are:

Much as I got a joke toy horse (still not laughing, Mum) in 2013, this year I got a book as a bit of a laugh.  Further details on the contents of the Ladybird “Learning to Ride” book possibly to come in a future blog post, needless to say it’s pretty dated!  Clare Balding’s second book, incidentally, is just as good (albeit with fewer horses) as her first.

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My parents sort of followed in my footsteps last summer (or should that be tyre tracks?) when they went on a road trip in the US.  It took some doing, but I finally persuaded them to visit one of my favourite towns along their route, and they duly bought me a Christmas present in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Alright, so not many people will see my pink and horsey socks, but they still make me smile.

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I’ve saved the best until last: as someone who is a huge advocate for safety and up to date equipment, I’ve been shamefully lax about replacing my helmet (I haven’t had any accidents in it, rest assured I would’ve pulled my finger out if that had been the case, it’s just that mine has been used for more hours than it strictly should’ve been).  This was probably a boring present to most people, but a necessary one.  The boring stakes got upped when I decided to go with replacing my previous one with an identical sibling (a Champion Ventair, in case you’re wondering), but I’ve had a great experience with this helmet and, with a limited budget (and an enormous head which, criminally, puts the price up), I wasn’t going to be able to afford one of the posh showjumping type ones.  I haven’t adjusted it properly yet, and please excuse the slightly-awkward selfie!

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I did also get a little bit of money when one of my relatives ran out of inspiration, and at the moment I can’t decide whether that will fund a new pair of jodhpurs (again, after over-use of some delightfully cheap ones, they’ve all totally given up the ghost at the same time) or a riding lesson.

Maybe the horse will turn up under the tree at the end of this year… I live in hope.

Admitting defeat

I’ve had a rollercoaster of a week!  Work is very busy, inspiration and free brain time are running low, and I’ve been struggling with a cold.  I wanted to post something thought-provoking and detailed, but I couldn’t quite get there, and rather than put something sub-standard and potentially-volatile on the internet, I’m copping out.

Last night, I arrived home from work to find our Christmas tree in position with the lights hung on it.  That’s my cue: the boxes of decorations were waiting for me, so I settled down (with a couple of helpers) and began my task.  Step two: put chocolate decorations on the tree (spaced as evenly as possible, and not near any lights).  Step three: select the decorations which make the cut (as I have this habit of purchasing a couple of new decorations annually, there are inevitably some culls to be made).  Step four: add decorations to tree.

All of which means you go from this:

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to this:

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and end up with this:

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Normal service hopefully to be resumed soon!

Wordless Wednesday – festive outfits

As I did last winter, I’m working in retail at the moment.  My dress code at work is “anything black” (plus company-provided apron).  Sequins, glitter, appropriately festive kit… it’s all allowed.  So last year, I ensured I possessed a Christmas jumper, and have kept it for this year… as well as adding to my collection.  And during the final weekend before Christmas and on Christmas Eve, well I just go for broke and add headgear.  Because subtlety doesn’t normally get you very far.

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This Friday (12 December) is Save the Children’s annual Christmas Jumper day – wear your Christmas jumper and donate to a great cause.  More information can be found here, let’s spread some joy!  I’d love to see what my readers’ jumpers are like

The tree of life

My Mum started it.  I was young and impressionable, and we were on a painful cycling holiday in Germany when she took us to a Christmas decoration shop.  It was the middle of the summer, horribly hot with more bugs in the air than I knew the names for.  But we came away with a couple of festive souvenirs, neither of which I could identify now, though the seed had been planted.

My Christmas decorating tactics when at university mainly involved tinsel.  I’ve never been a big fan of the stuff on trees, but when you live in a flat or house which is mainly corridors and banisters, it begins to make sense.  As one housemate once put it, “it looks like Christmas threw up in here” – I was delighted that, at the time, we lived in an enormous house, which I’d decided could “handle” a huge amount of glittery strings.

I’ve never really had my own tree, as I’ve chosen instead to wait until I’m back at the family home (which I’ve managed for every Christmas) to really enjoy a traditional tree (I do own a three-foot baby pink tree, bought mainly as it was incredibly cheap).  My family aren’t allowed to decorate the tree without me, and if I live away, I make time to return a few weeks prior to Christmas in order to put the tree up.  Because I, too, have started something: I’m building a collection of ornaments.  The pace has picked up since I’ve begun travelling more for pleasure – I now ensure that I don’t return home from a significant trip without a new decoration for my future trees.  Until I get my own home and family, they’ll hang on my parents’ tree, to remind me where I’ve been.  These are their stories…

London 2012 ornaments
When I first saw these at Spirit of Christmas in 2012, I didn’t know whether to fall in love or be appalled.  I didn’t think they could possibly be genuine, as I couldn’t imagine LOCOG licensing such a product… but they did, and they were.  I snapped up two of London 2012’s mascots for the trees of my future – one is in traditional Beefeater dress, the other is (of course) an ice-skating Santa.  When I posted a photo of them on Instagram, a friend who was similarly mourning the loss of the Olympics was desperate to know where I got them, and when I gave her the name of the supplier, immediately bought a set online.  2014 will see Wenlock and Mandeville grace our tree for the third time, as their manufacturers enjoy a prime spot in Fortnum and Mason’s Christmas shop.  Olympic legacy via Christmas decorations – something LOCOG should be proud of.

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The ruby slipper
Of all the things available to stare at in Washington DC, one which I couldn’t possibly miss was the ruby slippers at the Museum of American History.  The Wizard of Oz is still one of my favourite movies, so in 2013 I duly made my pilgrimage to see the famous shoes.  Sadly, they don’t make them big enough for my Yeti-sized trotters, but the Smithsonian do sell ruby slipper ornaments, and my collection immediately expanded.

Festive lobster
Amongst the weird and wonderful everythings of New Orleans, I spied something so perfect that I laughed out loud.  As well as proudly proclaiming it’s birthplace, this piece involves an appropriately-attired lobster playing the saxophone.  Of course.  But it also pays homage to one of the best pieces of dialogue in The Best Christmas Movie ever.

Viva Las Christmas
Another destination on my 2013 road trip, another certainty of finding glitzy tat.  There was a selection of typical options in Las Vegas, but rather than choose my favourite one, I selected the one which best commemorated my first visit – the hotel my friend and I stayed in is represented here, and a small piece of the Strip occupies a branch on my tree.

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Wreathed lighthouse
Ptown, Cape Cod, isn’t really about subtlety, so there’s a certain irony in the simplicity of this piece.  Eva and I spent two lovely days on and around the Cape this summer, and once we reached the end of our trek, she enjoyed Ptown as much as I did.  My criteria for decorations isn’t that they must be tacky – it’s that they should represent the place they’re from, as well as being obviously festive (so it’s not enough that an ornament is able to hang from a tree, it must also be clearly Christmassy).  The wreath is key here, otherwise it’d just be a (admittedly lovely) porcelain lighthouse.

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The one which didn’t make it
“Wouldn’t it be great,” Eva and I said, perhaps a little tipsily, “if, when we’re in Hawaii, we find a Christmas decoration which marries Hawaii and Christmas?  Something like, I don’t know, Santa in a grass skirt?”  Well, of course somebody had already thought of that.  I delighted in scrolling through the Santa’s Pen website whilst we waited at an airport for a flight.  When we made it to the store in Honolulu, I was agog at the choice, and eventually plumped for Santa, in said grass skirt, enjoying a drink in a hammock.  The sales assistant wrote “Mele Kalikimaka” (Merry Christmas) on it for me… and I promptly lost my purchase, but only realised the night before we were due to leave.  After the shop had closed.  And we left before it opened.  And they don’t ship internationally.  Heartbroken doesn’t even begin to cover it, but at least I have an excuse for a second visit to Oahu someday…

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Spoilt for choice
Berlin was bound to be tough: Germany is famously festive, with Christmas markets galore if you travel in November.  We went in October, and in the major cities, you’re always going to find it a little tricky to find something more unique and less mass-produced.  So I compromised, and made a trip to the highly-commercial Kathe Wohlfahrt.  I spent a long time selecting my ornaments, and came away with just two, both of which appealed to my horsey side.  The girl on the hobby horse is unpopular in our house already, but I couldn’t resist this miniature mirror into my childhood.  And the little deer-at-the-manger scene is simple but beautifully detailed – hopefully you can see the tiny strands of hay in the feeder.  Along with the lighthouse, they will make their debut on the tree in 2014.

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I’m not sure how many more ornaments I’ll get the chance to buy over the years, but I enjoy having an eclectic and non-matchy tree: whenever I see a shot of a tree on Facebook or Instagram, where the poor thing has been swathed in traditional glitzy baubles and trussed up with ribbons (why?!  Ribbons are for gifts!), I shake my head, turn to look at my traveller’s tree, and look forward to sharing the stories even more.  Because “I went to Homebase and picked out things which were on three for two” just isn’t interesting.

Now read this

Another Christmas has passed and yet again there was no dream horse under the tree waiting for me.  The bridle I’m slowly piecing together (that’s a story for another day) will wait for at least another year before it has a wearer.  But I did receive a horse-related gift.  From my mile-long literary wishlist, my Dad picked out a book for me, and I’ve already started to make my way through Mark Rashid’s Horses never Lie.

I’d love to know which books have most-inspired my followers (whether they’re horsey or not!) but for today, I’m going to stick to recommending some of the best equestrian books I’ve read.

The One I Looked Forward To… Mark Todd retired from eventing when I was 13.  I wasn’t even born when he and Charisma won their first Olympic gold medal (and I was only a year old when they won their historic second in 1988), but there has been far more to Sir Mark’s career than the horse which was arguably his most famous.  Whether the sport missed him more or he missed it more, the eventing community welcomed him back out of retirement in time for Beijing, and it’s fair to say that he’s had some phenomenal rides since then.  I haven’t read Mark’s first book, but I pre-ordered his autobiography Second Chance and devoured it as effortlessly as he guides horses round cross country courses when it arrived. I love to hear how my idols found their inspiration in life, and their drive to continue to succeed despite already achieving things beyond my own wildest dreams, and his is definitely that kind of tale.  From New Zealand farm boy – and the story of how he found Charisma – to helping create his country’s eventing team, to racehorse trainer and re-learning the sport of eventing – as it had changed a lot in his absence, bearing in mind that when he retired cross country day was still just that, an entire day of riding – and continuing to push forward, this book is a brilliant rollercoaster.  My copy will only be re-homed if I find a similarly adoring fan – it was signed when I met the man himself in November 2012.

The Classic… I’ve written about Black Beauty before, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write about it again!  I know many people who’ve read this and never been anywhere near a horse – it was written as much as a metaphor for working life as it was for animals, but I know Anna Sewell’s intention was for it to raise the profile of animal welfare.  Nevermind the fact that the author was incredibly forward-thinking (this book is just as relevant today as it was when it was originally published – particularly given the mistreatment of horses in our culture today thanks in part to over-breeding and the global economic recession), it’s beautifully written with brilliant imagery throughout and an imaginative perspective.  This is one of those books I’d like to share with every child and adult alive, and one of few which has had an excellent film adaptation which also stands the test of time.

The One Which Saved My Life… That may sound like an exaggeration, but I can assure you it isn’t.  2012 was my Year of Crisis.  The more I look back, the more I shudder at how bad some things were and how fortunate I was to walk away – at the time, I didn’t stop and acknowledge just how miserable I was.  I wasn’t seriously considering any imminent changes in my life, but I was starting to dream of the distant future.  I saw myself waiting another 10 years or so before I anticipated switching gears, ditching my “real” career and moving back to the countryside to pursue what truly makes me happy.  My Mum and Aunt mentioned an author they’d read about, and on a whim I bought Rupert Isaacson’s The Horse Boy whilst out indulging in what was probably some pretty serious retail therapy one Saturday afternoon.  I started reading on the bus home from the West End to Brixton, and burst into tears somewhere around Kennington.  Page 22 was where I lost it, and after that there was no chance.  I was enthralled by the story in front of me, and the reality that someone’s life really can be changed so fundamentally for the better thanks to the spirit of horses.  It took a few months, but I later faced up to the reality that my life as it was wasn’t working for me, and it was time to change.  I end this year still uncertain of what the future holds, but heading in a far more positive direction than I was previously, and it’s thanks, in part, to a book which encouraged me to be brave.  I’m still following Rupert and his family’s story, and learning more about the work that he does is ultimately something I’d like to get first-hand experience of.  This is another book which will appeal to horse and non-horse people alike – I’ve recommended it to several people who are feeling the impact of autism within their families, and they’ve all come back to me to thank me later.

You can read the back of a book, and these days easily access reviews via the internet.  But I for one never know exactly what to expect when I first pick a new book up.  Often, I change my mind a few times whilst reading.  The constant is this: if there’s enough to grip me until the end, it inevitably changes my perspective for the better.

Pick of the (Christmas) pops

Following my summer in the US, I’m back in the UK for the winter, planning my return to America next year.  To keep myself occupied, I’m currently working in retail – a chocolate shop, to be specific.  This is actually almost as much of a dream job as it sounds, particularly for someone who rivals Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf in terms of festive spirit.

There’s a certain amount of autonomy with my current job, and part of it is that I spend much of my time with a great degree of control over the music playing in store.  This led to the Christmas playlist being used for the first time two weeks ago, and being a constant feature of my working environment ever since.

As I rang up a customer’s purchases and jigged along to Wizzard’s festive masterpiece yesterday, the customer smiled at me and became the umpteenth person to ask whether I was sick of the seasonal soundtrack yet.  “Never!” I cried joyfully.  “I love this stuff!”

“Alright,” was his swift response, “top three Christmas songs – go.”

It was the first time I’d been put on the spot like that, but I trotted out a quick answer nonetheless.  Here’s what I came up with under pressure:

  • At number three, the contemporary classic – and original version – Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You.  This wasn’t one of my favourites, but I have come to love dancing around the shop to this song (possibly not as much as the guys who work across the way in a camera shop love laughing at me)
  • In at number two, it’s a new entry for the Doritos Mariachi Band with their cover of East 17’s Stay Another Day.  Another example of advertising genius, I doff my sombrero to Doritos and their cheesy (see what I did there?) campaign.  Their latest offering is, incredibly, available on iTunes, and I think it’s well-worth a purchase (obviously)
  • And topping the you-have-two-seconds-to-think-this-through chart, it’s Bill Nighy and the seminal movie-related classic Christmas Is All Around from the Love Actually (“eight is a lot of legs, David!”) soundtrack.  Because it’s been 10 years since the best Christmas film in the history of the world (and that’s saying something, given that Keira Knightley ruins a good chunk of it) was released and if this song doesn’t chart, I haven’t tried hard enough

Now that the dust has settled, the customer has departed smiling and I’ve had more time to think about it, here’s a more comprehensive rundown of some of my favourite Christmas tunes:

  • Another new entry (discovered in a fit of desperation when going through some old Christmas compilation CDs to create the shop playlist) – T-Rex’s Christmas Bop.  If you’ve heard of it, I’m very impressed
  • More than an honourable mention for Frankie Goes To Hollywood and The Power of Love – aka, the bridesmaid to Band Aid’s bride.  This song is really suitable year-round, but became infamous during that heady Christmas (which I wasn’t around for) of 1984
  • You can probably blame Scott Mills for this one: Dominick the Donkey – never fails to raise a “what on EARTH is this?!” comment when it comes on in the shop, followed shortly by me singing along to the “hee haw hee haw hee haw” section
  • The band who are known primarily for their songs about distance – The Pretenders and 2000 Miles
  • One of my long time favourites – partly because, as one of my colleagues pointed out, hindsight means that hearing George Michael sing about girls is extra entertaining – Wham!’s Last Christmas

If those songs don’t get you in the festive mood, I don’t know what will.  Well, I do – my Christmas playlist is, after all, a mighty 89 tracks long and growing steadily.  But if you want to know what will kill my Christmas spirit faster than Rupert “Grinch” Murdoch robbing free-to-air TV of Elf, it’s this: Fairytale of New York.  A favourite for many people, there’s one simple reason I cannot stand this song: Shane MacGowan scares me.

As you open the first door of your advent calendar, contemplate dusting off your decorations and pull on your Christmas jumper – I’m wearing mine to work today to mark the fact that December has begun and Christmas really is just around the corner – have a think about what’ll be filtering through your speakers this month, and let me know which tracks get you in the festive mood each year.  Good ones might even make it onto my playlist for you to join me for a little dance as you shop!