A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to a local church magazine feature on ‘favourites’ – specifically a favourite hymn, book and place. I left it rather late and ended up responding with a hasty list that was very much a case of ‘the first thing that popped into my head’. Although I did wonder, soon afterwards, whether my choices might have been different if I had taken more time to think about it, there is probably something to be said for the instinctive response: perhaps these choices did represent my deepest-seated feelings.
I started with my favourite hymn and while it was tempting to go for one of today’s popular choruses I couldn’t shake the attachment I feel towards ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’, largely because I relate to the reference to letting our ‘ordered lives’ speak about the beauty of God’s peace. However, I later discovered that the original poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker writer, had 11 other verses before the section that went on to become the hymn, and that they are very unlike anything that we would be used to singing in church. The long poem, The Brewing of Soma, is about Vedic priests brewing and drinking a ritual potion, the soma, in an attempt to experience divinity and the writer goes on to contrast this with the true method of finding contact with the divine, through sober lives, seeking silence and practising selflessness – the Quaker way. Apparently the hymn was the second most popular in the UK according to a 2005 BBC Songs of Praise poll.
When it came to selecting a favourite book, it was extremely difficult. I am not the sort of reader who has firm favourites, returned to year after year and read so often that passages can be quoted; in fact, I don’t think there is any book – apart from the ones favoured by my children as bedtime stories when they were very young – that I have ever read more than once. In the end, and in part because I knew that others had already chosen titles by one of my favourite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, I went for a much less well-known volume that was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago. Common People by Alison Light is a book I would like to have written myself and when I am absorbed in family history research and find out something fascinating about an ancestor I do occasionally fantasise about having a go myself one day and producing my own family’s version of Common People.
Finally, in choosing a favourite place, I could very easily have opted for one of the places I have been fortunate enough to visit on holidays or other trips over the years. Most recently, I had been to Slovenia and spent a day at Lake Bled, reckoned by many to be one of the most picturesque spots in Europe. It was indeed beautiful but in the end I conceded that my real favourite place is home. I have lived in Tring for over 34 years and have no desire to move. However, when it comes to visiting I love going back to Oxford. It is a beautiful city and after a somewhat nomadic childhood I spent four years there as a student and it was the first place that I look back on and think of as ‘home’, even though I had just left my family home behind. I always look forward to going back to Oxford and realise that there are many parts of it that I have yet to discover. Like all cities it is continually changing and evolving but the oldest parts have a great feeling of continuity and permanence. Oxford is where I met my husband and many of the friends who remain an important part of my life many decades later; it is also where I became a Christian almost 44 years ago, and where that ongoing life journey began.
Having reflected on these three ‘favourites’, I have decided to expand the remit somewhat. So, what are my other favourite things? My favourite foods are good bread, cheese, banana and chocolate, home-grown young peas straight from the pod – and there is probably no sort of cake that I don’t enjoy! When it comes to drink, there is nothing to beat a good cup of tea.
My pastimes of choice are researching my family’s history, reading, watching television crime or historical drama and knitting. The latter two I usually prefer to combine, largely because it does make watching television seem slightly less time-wasting; however, this can become untenable if the best thing to watch is a Scandinavian series with English subtitles. It is very easy to miss a crucial piece of dialogue when it coincides with having to read a knitting pattern or carry out a tricky manoeuvre with a cable needle!
Among other favourite things are family Christmases, with all the family gathered around the table to enjoy a special meal after opening gifts together; being in front of a crackling fire when the wind is whistling and the rain is lashing at the windows; walking barefoot on a warm beach; receiving unexpected postcards or letters from friends or family members; catching up with friends over tea and cake somewhere nice; and holding babies until they fall asleep.
After all those lovely things, perhaps it is only fair to balance the picture a bit with some pet hates. Waste – in all its various forms – probably comes top of my list, with litter and gratuitous use of foul language close behind. In that everlasting conundrum, I am also hypocritically intolerant of intolerance! I am a word pedant who is saddened by misplaced apostrophes or semi-colons used where there should be colons (sad, I know). I really dislike raw onion popping up in restaurant food, crisp green salads that have been rendered soggy and greasy by overdressing and – in a hangover from a life-scarring childhood experience – custard with lumps is a real no-no. I have also decided that rice cakes cannot be redeemed, no matter what you put on top of them – and I have tried, I really have. I haven’t ever tried eating a polystyrene tile but I can imagine that it would be just like a rice cake; they will never make it near my favourites list.