Finer things

Philippa the K on the details that make a difference in life, fashion and everything in between.

An interesting initiative to come out of the Crisis and Emergency Management Conference in Abu Dhabi this week is a plan to train thousands of people as volunteers. Emiratis and expats alike will be given proper training as part of a national disaster response plan. Outside the police, the military and medical professionals, few people these days would have the first clue what to do if they found themselves in the middle of an earthquake, tsunami, unexpected war, killer virus or chemical or nuclear explosion.

I've always thought that basic survival techniques and first aid should be taught at schools. It's certainly good that governments all over the world are now harnessing the skills of ordinary people who would like to help but don't know how. Volunteers might be asked to focus on organisational skills, but I hope they will also learn how to keep themselves alive and functioning when surrounded by chaos.

When our daughters were young, my husband, a former Parachute Regiment officer, would drag them off on camping trips to prepare them for their Duke of Edinburgh award. He would march them up Pen y Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons, where the SAS are trained, and show them how to put up a basic shelter, light a fire, sterilise water and find something to eat. They baulked at eating baked hedgehog, but in the unlikely event that either of them found themselves lost on a mountainside I hope they'd remember how to do it.

When they were old enough to drive, my husband insisted they learn how to change a wheel and test the air pressure and oil levels before they hit the roads. They've both had to deal with punctures and, unlike their mother, who phoned the Automobile Association, were able to change wheels and make it to the nearest garage. And when we went on a family skiing trip, my husband taught the girls how to construct a makeshift igloo to keep warm, as well as what to do if they were caught in an avalanche. I was more concerned about how to stop prettily at the end of a ski run. Thanks to him they can do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, perform the Heimlich manoeuvre and fashion a reasonable tourniquet.

I wanted them to play a decent game of tennis, ride a horse without looking like a sack of potatoes, play the piano to an acceptable level and speak at least one foreign language. My pathetic contribution to their survival involved buying them rape alarms and pepper sprays to put in their handbags. My husband would teach them how to fight for their lives with some alarming tips involving eyeballs and long fingernails. I used to laugh about his ideas about female accomplishments. In an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world I'm not laughing any more. In fact, I wish I'd taken more notice myself. At least I would like to learn how to save a life, especially my own, should it ever become necessary.

Sophie Dahl and Jamie Cullum are by all accounts a lovely couple and very well matched apart from the obvious height difference, something that she says doesn't bother her. Having met and interviewed Cullum, a brilliant young jazz pianist, in Dubai last year, I believe her.

After five minutes in his company or watching his energy fizz from the stage, you forget that he's only five feet, six inches tall. Dahl, 32, is eight inches taller in her stockinged feet. They were married at the weekend in what sounds like a magical, snow-clad setting at a Regency country house in the New Forest, Hampshire. The candlelit ceremony was held in a room filled with stylish white roses, blue eucalyptus and black hypericum, and decorated with hundreds of twinkling fairy lights.

The bride wore an ivory designer dress and, I would hazard a guess, either flats or very low heels. And it's reported that the couple turned down a sizeable offer from a celebrity magazine that wanted to cover the wedding. Good for them. No bride wants to have her big day ruined when she wakes up the next day to see unflattering pictures splashed across the tabloids - and you can be sure they would have emphasised the height difference. Ever since Dahl and Cullum teamed up they've had to endure endless snide remarks about it, including "the odd couple" and "little and large". It must be very tiresome.

By hiring her own photographer and banning any other cameras, Dahl has control over what is released to the press, as I sincerely hope it will be with her blessing. Will he be standing on a box or will she be sitting down? I don't care. They're both gorgeous and I would like to see how happy they looked on their winter wonderland wedding day. A sizeable problem for fashionable women If a pair of size 42 women's shoes exists in any shop in the UAE, I would be very pleased to hear about them. It would save me endless furious hours tramping around the malls looking for a special pair of silver sandals to wear to an evening wedding.

When I read my colleague Sophia Money-Coutts' article chronicling similarly frustrating trips, I felt slightly less like a freak, but a straw poll among friends revealed that we are a sadly neglected but rapidly growing sector. There was a time when women would die rather than admit their shoe size if it was more than seven (UK41). In those days, big feet were often the source of much cruel humour. After her husband Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) had an affair with Margaret Jay (then the wife of the British Ambassador to Washington), the American author Nora Ephron ridiculed her rival by saying she could wear her new lover's shoes. The late Vivien Merchant, the British actress whose husband the playwright Harold Pinter left her for Lady Antonia Fraser, also made similar jokes about the size of Fraser's feet.

But the plain fact of the matter is that women's feet are getting bigger along with the rest of their proportions. A recent study in the UK revealed that medical experts put it down to the obesity epidemic, something that is of serious concern in the UAE. They point to high-density goods such as pizza being eaten during puberty and stimulating the growth hormone. Their findings are of absolutely no comfort when you are looking for a pretty pair of shoes for a special occasion. As I discovered at the weekend, few high-end shops stock anything over size 41. It's a complete waste of time examining the shoes on display, as they never have my size. I ended up marching straight up to the counter and asking if they had any shoes at all, any colour, any style in size 42. Shop assistants actually giggled nervously, examining me as if a yeti had just walked through the door. No wonder their shops are empty. They don't know how close to death they came that afternoon.

What constitutes a luxury very much depends on how much money you earn and where you live. In the UK, having my nails done was a treat. Local salons tend to be a bit rudimentary and travelling to London on a day off was just too exhausting and expensive. Here manicures and pedicures have become a way of life, along with massages, facials and other treatments that I would have regarded as a frivolous waste of money in the past.

There's just no point in having a big 4x4 in the UK because of speed limits and taxes on gas guzzlers. And with the PC attitude about saving the environment, who wants to become a hate figure because of the car they drive? It's a bit of a guilty pleasure driving a decent car here, but one you get used to pretty quickly. I still can't bring myself to spend Dh4,000 on a designer handbag or a pair of shoes, but I don't think twice about paying for a Dior or Chanel lipstick, so I guess I fall slap bang in the middle of the survey revealing that UAE residents believe that luxury is not just an indulgence but a lifestyle.

Elvis Presley would have been 75 on January 8. Had he lived, he would have probably been in and out of rehab, cleansed of his various addictions, slimmed down, nipped and tucked and probably about to release his latest "best of" album like the evergreen Andy Williams, who is still performing and recording at the age of 87 and whose face is strangely stretched and immobile. I'm not sure it's an image I would like to have witnessed.

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