“Better than birthdays”


Even if I think about it very hard, I don’t remember the specifics of birthdays as much as the emotions – clutching excitement, a great feeling of being important and cherished, candles yes, cake yes – images-12but overwhelmingly special.   I have friends older than me now who cannot enjoy birthdays any more. They are just evidence of time passing. Funny cards don’t make them smile and they decry presents as “unnecessary.”   And as you get older, especially if you live alone, and for very often for good reasons – getting enough exercise, eating properly, seeing somebody with whom you can exchange at least greetings and probably chat – life becomes ritualised, even as in this case the ritual of denial.

It took me ages to accept that I was so used to shopping for hordes, that I bought too much and it was a frightful waste.   And then I noticed that I was in danger of “it’s Monday, I must do …” whatever it was.   Why should every Monday be the same?18fde72   So I began to consciously welcome changes to routine.   A warm memory of my mother is when I welcomed her to the flat in which I was living with my first husband, deprecating my efforts to make her comfortable and she hugged me “Forget it. I don’t need all that.” As she got older, her needs became simpler. It was a good lesson.   And some of my friends live a distance away and some have schedules that are very demanding. So what we have come to is rather wonderfully that any day could be your birthday, any settled pattern can be thrown to the four winds.

I don’t see as much of LM who has been my representative and my friend for 20 years as I would like (she should be paid for living) but to her among other things I owe my introduction to Lord Dodo’s loose leaf cookery book, an enormous white hydrangea in a matching basket, the most beautiful flowers for Christmas/New Year/or any other excuse: care packages of salads, soup, bread and anything else that caught her eye, and the steps,cc579b3b-76e7-49bd-9aa5-941566e21264-jpg-_cb317968543_ the solid platform short ladders you need when you can’t stretch easily any more.   Definition of a friendship – when your friend arrives with something useful out of the blue.      You get all those feelings I described of myself as a child.

Pam the Painter came to lunch on Friday and handed me a small china mug with an English bullterrier on it (and it is, as my father would say “a good one” ie the right shape) and a witty comment and I got all wet eyed.   She found it in her parents’ house during monumental clearing out and thought I might like it. I do.

"meet Jimmy Choo"

“meet Jimmy Choo”

On Saturday Percy Snowdrop (a film academic who teaches in the north) came through and I went him to meet him near the British Museum. He has a small carefully chosen collection of drawings and pictures (he started at art school) and he showed me on his tablet his latest acquisition – a signed drawing, a wonderful drawing by Jean Cocteau.  2013_2_l_ange___jean_cocteau_textiles_coussin_1_det_pdf_ht As he is the only person I know who would want such a thing, I don’t know who was more excited.   And I know that he got ploughed over by his editor this year and consigned a book into limbo he had deeply believed in.   Part of my admiration for him is that he loves to teach and I cheer for the self belief that drawing embodied.

I go to the market most Saturdays, I pick up this and that in independent chemists, I do the laundry.   Not this week. I bought a book and a card and I sat and drank tea and ate apricot tart and told stories and heard stories and saw him off to Kings Cross.

When I was a kid, there was a song which began “A very merry unbirthday to you,” which became a family sentiment, if you forgot, were late or away for a birthday.   But I like this version even better.   I don’t give a damn about the years, they are going to come anyway.   I care about contact and thought and pleasure and joy, mine and everybody else’s.   The world is hard, it always was. Welcome to better than birthdays.sparklers-5

the lions mouth

A friend wrote “I have a great sense of what on earth is happening ?”   She is a former listener, who found me through annalog. She has health problems that make you feel very humble, even as your hair stands on end.   She is trying to work out – after a lifetime of taking care of other people – what she can reasonably have for herself. Time has passed, things are even less good than they were. And because she – like so many of us – has been brought up to think of others first, this is particularly difficult.

As we age, it is presumed that you will not want to make ends. Particularly with people.   You must hang on to them lest you should be (sharp intake of breath) alone.   But many of us who loved and lost, perhaps not had the breaks we thought we might get, borne down by age and health even as we fight back and assiduously smell the roses, face letting go rather than put our collective heads in the lion’s mouth once more.

Putting your head in the lion’s mouth may be an act of faith (God will provide), or an act of courage (as in “I just knew … “), it may be plain stupid or it may be our old friend – try again – and see if it plays differently.

The truly frightening thing about friendship is you can only see it from your own side. And it is my life’s experience that while men and women can be highly intelligent, it doesn’t follow that they learn much or that they introspect about what they learn.

“hard to learn”

Introspection is a very loaded dice.   My mother used to tell me I thought too much and I hate to tell you, I think she was right.   The phrase we used at home was “chewing” about something and I chewed a lot. To cud.   But introspection didn’t necessarily change what I was going to have to do.   So you’ve introspected and you still have to choose.

Then we come up against our old friend “the right decision”. Very few of those are right as they issue from your brain and your mouth. The right decision is what we perceive afterwards – “I wish I had” is just as heartfelt in some cases as “Thank heaven I did”.

But the lion’s mouth provokes an image to me. You see, it has to close.   Poor beast can’t stand there with his mouth open all day. And if your head is there, your interests are under threat, the lion’s mouth will close on you.

You cannot live without risk. (Risk is one of those big little words I cherish deeply).   You can minimise risk by learning but learning is painful and takes time. And it is human to wish that if you play the same set of circumstances over with the same participants, maybe – just maybe – this time the outcome will be different.

Then it gets literal.   I am pretty sure that the lion’s mouth stinks – meat eaters, no toothbrush – so it is reasonable to suggest that if you are going to take this risk (again), it would be sensible to learn from the clues that are on offer, few though they may be.   But short of an announcement in The Times, lots of us may drive fast but we think slow.   We want it to be better and harshly I must tell you wishing don’t make it happen.   I sometimes think that people treat their lives like jigsaws but instead of trying to fit the pieces together, they throw them up in the air in the hope they come down somewhere different and more sought after. There is a lack of will in that which is also an avoidance of responsibility.

The friend with whom I began is trying to balance between the deterioration of her health and the demands of relative social normalcy.   I am watching another friend go through a dance which has gone on for five years, she dances away, she dances back, she tempts the lion with considerable charm and morsels. I long for her to dance away from the lion because I cannot estimate how much his mouth closing will hurt her.

Peace is…”*

A long time ago a friend described being chased by a rhino pup through her family’s East African bungalow while it uttered at intervals the squeak that seems so incongruous emerging from an armoured body. Oh, and he didn’t want to hurt her, she assured me, he wanted to play.

Last week the first AID youngster made his debut, part of an exhausting programme to save the southern white rhino, an on the edge of extinction sub-species.

And there is a stunning documentary – mercifully before the current craze for admixing music and cutery – about a safe haven for some black rhino in which all the men involved are grown up heavy set Africa hands, vets, rangers, helicopter pilots and all, which made the courage and determination, the pervading sense of duty in their project, all the more moving.   The geographical location is not revealed and when I saw the first rhino lifted in a net to be flown to safety, I didn’t breathe. I will not forget the Zulu ranger who is their “whisperer” as he speaks softly, as he has the many years of his working life, reassuring, coaxing the great animal with its fine of sense of smell and weak eyes, into trust.

There was a female panda in the news this week because she had given birth to twins, horrid little pink things a thousand times smaller than her, but twins are rare, zoo born even rarer. And I wanted desperately to banish the cameras and leave her (like every other new mother) in peace.

And then there is the story of the hen harrier chicks who have died unexpectedly, followed by the suggestion that the parent birds might have been “spooked” because of the invigilation of the nest, too many cameras, too much presence … We theorise but we don’t know. The ornithologists know that in the next generation, the birds may tolerate humans better – but in the minimum. And not the general media looking for a story.

In the various and several forms of captivity we have for the most part agreed upon, animals may eventually come to put up with us.   In the wild, they mostly shun us. It is we who panic at their presence. In the semi-wild, they treat us with indifference.   I have nothing but the greatest respect for people who spend their lives trying to spare the pangolin, for example – bearing always in mind that the overproduction of humans and the erosion of territory isn’t a great place to start. I don’t know much about birds of prey but I imagine their difficulties come under the same heading – too many humans, not enough safe peace.

You read wonderful accounts of efforts to save this or that, using every kind of human help from the commitment of hours and a notebook to the most complicated scientific knowledge and equipment, and you know that every one of those involved must believe at some level of intelligence that they are doing the right thing, that if it fails in the short term, they must try again.   And again.   And again.   Because they are fresh out of alternatives. This – whatever it is – is what can be done.   The refined knowledge, experience and skill of other people often brings you up with a jerk. Well, it does me. In an old episode of M.A.S.H., the medics talk the padre through an emergency tracheotomy.   I leave you to imagine what can go wrong with that. Best intentions not working out seems intrinsically part of conservation, great and small.

Human beings often discuss peace, the idea of repose, time out – but we can’t discuss it with an animal.   Safer then to suppose that, before mankind spread in every direction like dubious icing on the cake of progress every-bloody-where, animals had a chance to withdraw, to see only species in the numbers of which they could make sense.   I am not much given to anthropomorphising. A beast is a beast and another thing, not secondary in any way. I accept that – rather like therapy – the key words are watching and waiting – but that there won’t be anything much to watch or wait for if we don’t invoke a more protective overview and the experts don’t insist that we commit to it.

“watching and waiting by Ben Prepelka”


*“..liberty in tranquillity.” (Cicero)


There are things I don’t want to do or be, even at my age. I don’t want to assess strangers on the basis of money spent, except for curiosity.   Like the woman in her 30s and some of the most expensive and unbecoming clothes, coming past a bus stand where I was waiting in the company of an attractive man not more than a few years her senior. As she went past, he caught my eye and, plainly puzzled, asked “What’s that about ?”   I told him “Money. She is wearing several thousand pounds’ worth of clothes – never mind they do nothing for her – in order to tell you you’d better have commensurate income, if you aspire to her.” Bless him, he burst out laughing, took his bus and waved goodbye.

Three times now, Wal has rung me in sartorial pain over a well remunerated female presenter’s dress on television. It’s wildly funny – the sepulchral voice asking distressfully “what IS she wearing?” But it is also deadly serious. So many have a disconnection between what they want to see and what is there, to levels of distorted vision common in body dysmorphia.

“Men suffer from it too”

That and pursuing symbolic youth as if it were the stolen keys to your house.

There is a woman of my own age I meet on the bus, slight as a whippet with grey hair becomingly cut in a bob, and after we had spoken several times, I asked if we might meet, perhaps for tea or coffee. “I never give my telephone number to anyone” she said. “If I did, I would have to answer it …” We continue to speak when we meet but I am wary in a way I never was before. She was my first experience of the drawbridge being well and truly up, of regarding all strangers with equal misgiving.   It gave me a whole new insight into preferring your own company.

Wary grows like a weed as you get older.   God knows, I am not growing more attractive day by day but looks play less of role in assault than availability and I don’t feel comfortable having a man in the house I am not sure of.   I like to think I can take care of myself, but I am not about to put myself in harm’s way to find out.

And then I look at people who handed over their entire savings to a scammer, and I pause, not to judge them as foolish – but to wonder the how and why. I remember telling a man making a financial presentation I’d like him to leave, low voice, implacably polite.   And never let him in again.

I told a friend a story about jury service (I am so glad I took part), how one of my colleagues on the jury saw a discrepancy between the use of languages in the courtroom (in this case, Gujerati, Hindi and Tamil), that where he hesitated , afraid of making a fuss, I put up my hand instantly, and was responded to with equal speed by a court official. “How brave !” remarked my friend and I was struck all over again by how many people are intimidated by any process with which they are not familiar. You can get it wrong, make a fool of yourself but embarrassment doesn’t kill you.

“how to cool your face – thank you Michael Berg”

It’s not that I am brave (in many ways a distinction in wuss) but it is so easy to retreat, to only eat and watch and do what you know – sometimes for reasons of comfort, sometimes for reasons of fear. There is no point if you live alone in watching something terrifying and then spending the rest of the night behind the sofa with a torch and a poker. But I can’t see going through life not thinking, because not thinking leads to not learning and not learning is a frightful waste of time.

I think of Kipling’s Elephant’s Child and his insatiable curiosity.   I am frequently madder than fire about the “half a story” that passes for news, and the “puff” and the opinion. But I admit there are things I don’[t want to know more about, because they induce anxiety which has increased over time. Still and all, on a scale of one to five, the door is three parts open.

“thanks to Marcel Duchamp”


A is for akrasia

B is for blond

C is for control


A is for alt-right

B is for Brexit

C is for Conservative

This is from the thread sticking out of the warp and woof of my mind. (I love the idea of a Woof in my mind). We used to play skips singing “A you’re adorable/B you’re so beautiful/C you’re a cutie full of charm” and once I built a birthday address for the guest of honour on the alphabet, using it to underline different emphases and components in her life.  In front of another audience, presenting for the second day running and having discussed the previous day which magazines and newspapers, which radio and television, what freelance, I said people always asked me what I did and as the range was much wider than they expected, I proposed to answer alphabetically and it worked wonderfully well, to pull people in to contribute.

So I began with the alphabet today because I have been up all night (N for noise, O for over there, P for party) and because a close friend has now twice told me that I must just let where we are politically be. I can do nothing about it and obsessing won’t help. (See Mammy’s advice to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind: “be like the buckwheat, just bend a little”)

The (S for) sound of the new cabinet gives me the pip, all those wah-wah voices.   It’s all very well to posit that “you can’t judge a book by its cover “ … heaven help me, if these were spoken books I’d never get past the cover. “Yes, yes” said my friend soothingly.   “Not more than one newscast a day.”

I had never heard of akrasia which apparently means “not being in command of oneself”: thank you (F for) Fintan O’Toole, writing in the New York Review of Books about Boris Johnson’s 2004 novel.   It is the stop/start blah of the sentences which highlight the fan dance Mr. Johnson is doing: isn’t there a song called “Promises, promises” and isn’t the retort – fine but what about fulfilled, fulfilled ?

And I suddenly thought about another word I only know the look of – (L for) legerdemain – which led me to sleight of hand. Of course sleight of hand could refer to a confectioner making meringues – or it can call up the picture of your favourite (U for) uncle pulling a penny magically out of your collar.   But supposing we look at the term less literally, and we see a subtle mixture of will and recognition, with historical undertones of wanting the other fellow to do it for you, a strange transaction between what you want to see and what the other fellow means, a psychological space between you, laced with confidence on his part and wishing on yours ?

Confidence is fascinating. It breeds itself. You can because you can.   The more you get away with whatever it is, the more sure you become that (a) you can and (b) even if you slip, you can get out of that momentary difficulty.

Last week Channel Five pulled the advertised Michael Portillo documentary called The Trouble with the Tories, apparently because the cricket overran. There was nothing else to watch and Talking Pictures TV was showing the 1968 film about The Boston Strangler. I had seen this many years ago, I watched for 15 minutes, then switched off and went to the bookshelves where I knew I had Gerold Frank’s best selling book which I had carried round and I don’t think I had ever read before.

Fascinating in its appal, what became clear was that, in spite of the co operation of the press, enormous amounts of money, manpower and overwhelming effort, what kept the assailant free was his confidence, his repeated double axels of assault and evasion, his innate understanding of no pattern, just his will.   It was very unsettling to read now, 50 years later. |Of course today’s context is different but the sleight of hand is familiar. 

one in the eye

If eyes are the window of the soul, my windows are currently swathed in red curtains because for the last four weeks my eyes have itched, especially the left one. This is not hay fever or at least, it hasn’t been so far.   In the middle of that, I saw the Prof for a check up for glaucoma and macular degeneration.   I asked him, sitting in front of powerful magnifying equipment which was focussed on my eyes, if he could see anything and he said no.   He also said that he has never seen a year like it for eye infections, most of which are unfamiliar.

In London we blame the plane trees whose pollen is highly irritant. We could also blame various kinds of traffic fumes and a building programme entailing few areas which aren’t ankle deep in every kind of dust and rubbish, propelled into decay by alternative bouts of rain and warm weather. The wind is generously blows it everywhere. And then there are cooking fumes, animal excreta and grot.

The irritation behaves atypically, it goes away and comes back.   The itch is so fierce, I felt I could outdo Oedipus at Colonus – and he had to use the pins of brooches.   There is no noticeable swelling or redness and such secretion as there is, is very close to what we used to call “sleeps”, a bit of curd which is there when you wake and soon disperses.

The eyelids feel like old Venetian blinds. They don’t always ease with the drops I have to use daily for eye pressure.   Sometimes they feel better when I have had a shower and sometimes they are alleviated by the spring water I have in an aerosol which I squirt careful in the general direction of the face, not directly into the eyes.

At the beginning, I left off all eye makeup. Women with eye infections do – we don’t know what is in those products for the most part, only that it looks nice. Then one day, tired of looking like a sad owl (I’ve had these dark circles for many years and if they are good enough for Anna Magnani, they ‘re good enough for me though I do like a bit of alleviation), I put on some shadow and pencil   – waited for the roof to fall in – and it had no noticeable effect. If anything, it seemed soothing.

And so we go on.   Prof scared it away for a week or so but it is back and it comes and goes and I just leave it alone as much as I can.

Because you don’t know who to ask.

See The Remarkable Life of Skin by Monty Lyman, dermatologist (Bantam Press £20) because skin is the biggest organ of the body and we don’t know a lot about it. The well known eye specialist (now retired) whom I saw regularly for 20 years made a comment that has stayed with me: “The dermatology department used to be next to mine and we referred by walking patients through.”   I must have gaped at him because he explained “There is a crossover – the eyes are in the skin.” So I wonder having read of the eyebrow mites scurrying about the face at night looking for a legover, if one of the little **** has got in my eye.   And more importantly – who can I ask ?

The GP will almost certainly give me a prescription or refer me to the eye department of the local teaching hospital which fresh out of favour with me because they missed out diagnosing the macular degeneration.

I can go to the eye specialist at the local private hospital whom I have seen once before and very helpful he was OR write to Prof who will refer me: it’s a chunk of money and I have just replaced the kitchen tap.   Money will only do what it will do.

The best relief so far followed the application of a small amount of natural yogurt all over the face – though it is not a look you’d want to share.Or I can wait, carefully bathe the eyes occasionally with cornflower (bleuet) or Euphrasia (homeopathic remedy), keep my bacteria ridden paws in my lap and clamber through the predicted heatwave.   

the way we live now

Game of Thrones – no. Big Brother, Love Island or Britain’s Got Talent – no thank you, no, no.   I loathe Strictly Come Dancing. I have never used or owned a microwave. I don’t have a mobile phone (perish the thought of a selfie) nor bank on-line and I use Amazon rarely (once a year).   I do not feel deprived. Hype is another four letter word like kale and I suffer only from being one of those people to whom, if you say I must, I react against it. This is childish, I am not proud of it but it’s true.

Nobody had to tell me to support gay rights, I do. I don’t always support the way that people go about getting them but then I support women’s rights and that lumps you in with people you might not want to eat with.

A couple of weeks ago Wal asked me “What is all this stuff about Pride ?”, this from the man who surveyed his first independent building crew years ago with the words “My name is … I do (details). Yes I am gay and if you think I shall be making a pass at any one of you, get over it ! …”   A plumber told me that he and his pals – some 40 plumbers and builders who all use the same local – only take exception to their landlady trying to force LGBT down their throats: what she does and what she believes is her business. It’s the social evangelism they can’t stand.

The Ulsterman David Trimble has apparently always been against same sex relationships but it is alleged, has had to reconsider now that one of his daughters is “out” and has contracted a marriage with her partner. It is thus assumed that he has changed his position.   He may have done. But again, he may not. Does it follow that, wanting your child to be happy and thus making the best attempt at harmony in the family, you are now a campaigner for gay rights?   I wish I could remember who told me not to extrapolate (first time I ever heard the word) from the particular to the general but it was a thoughtful lesson. Consideration may indicate a change of heart, but then again, it may not. Sometimes a kindness is just that.

Last week the occupants (sex and numbers unknown) fell in the door next door at half past midnight and shrieked and shimmied until 2.30 am when I got up and made ready for battle. As I opened the door the neighbour from the other side was attacking the front door. She is a young mother and I am sure the noise disturbed her child. The lights went out and silence fell.

48 hours later, just as I was updating on the news channel, there was a knock at the door.   There stood two young men introducing themselves as the new occupants of the noisy flat “just so when you see us around, you know who we are. We thought we’d just let the neighbours know …”   and one of them offered me his mobile number.   With effort I restrained myself from shouting hooray for humans (we’ll see) – as I say, sometimes a courtesy is just that.   We’ll see.

We used to say you take people as you find them but this is the age of mass – beliefs, convictions and fame are defined as much by the number of followers on Instagram or Twitter as by the number of seats sold, income generated or headlines made.   You don’t take people as you find them because finding them ie in any sense of knowing them or what they are about seems daily more difficult.

Yesterday I saw a representative of the Association of Newspaper Editors snarling about the importance of a free press.   Where is the conflict between being given the story of the Ambassador’s leaked emails concerning the Trump administration and staying their publication while making urgent contact with the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary for starters ?   Holding the story till everybody relevant knows what is going down doesn’t impinge on a free press, it just changes the time line.   Surely with freedom comes responsibility ?

a quiet night at home

Yesterday I had a rehearsal for what is to come. The remote control on the tv ceased to function.   Those who never look at television should leave now. I do. Mostly old films, often unexpected discoveries, nature programmes, documentaries. The main themes of programming are shamefully bad and I shouldn’t be surprised if the whole enterprise imploded like William Hill. There is much the same unreality, chance and marketing involved. You watch Love Island ? I watched The Looming Tower. One we cannot escape and the other nobody’s heard of.

Out of time I know, his new book is about Dracula, but I had just read the masterfully well written if depressing Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (£2 in Oxfam) so a little light relief in the form of an old favourite like A Touch of Frost would have been welcome. But it was not to be.

Speaking to Bunslove, he recommended “whisking” (I quote) a cloth across the head pointing to the tv in case there was fluff or dust or a hair or something. And it worked. I watched something insubstantial for an hour, tried to change the programme and it went into a funk again, which is when I chose a book from the fire shelf, my all time favourites, and settled down. Worse, I had begun the day feeling defeated (continuing brexitisis), overcome the mixture of anxiety and annoyance, risen above it, gone shopping, got home and now – like the brat I am – I wanted what I wanted and I couldn’t have it.

But once I’d got over the stamped foot, I didn’t miss it.  There wasn’t a darned thing yesterday to miss. An hour into the book, I wandered out into the kitchen and looked at the dish drainer, a quietly camp arrangement of black wire, definitely the worse for wear. I spent some time trying to rally it to respectability but it looked like I felt.

There are men and women who will tell you that they bought a jacket or a pair of shoes that were so outstandingly comfortable/becoming/whatever, that they wish they had bought a second. Far fewer are those that will tell you that they did buy a second time around, usually without due care and attention, duped by earlier success.

Unlike love (the song says it’s lovelier, the second time around) the second go at this wonderful whatever it is, is rarely so successful. It’s a different job lot – the cut varies.   It’s a different colour – the dye affects the material differently ie you haven’t thought that a black shoe and a beige one are qualitatively different – they may look identical – but they will wear differently.   Twice in my life I have bought successful duplicates of things to wear and I can’t count the mistakes I have made. But three or four times I have bought duplicates for the kitchen.   And they WORK.


I climbed the short household steps the wonderful Linda gave me because she thought they would be helpful – they are.   And I took from the top shelf of the storage cupboard the wrapped box of a replacement dish drainer, opened it, smiled and ditched the elderly one. It owes me nothing.

I doubt that I shall find a third without difficulty. When I bought the second the woman very civilly told me that, for personal reasons, the business wouldn’t continue.   I said thank you and wished her well – what else ? Waitrose no longer stocks my preferred stain remover, nobody stocks my favourite skin care.   There are more and more units and less and less you want to buy.   I live in a rotten tooth, drowning in rubbish wrapped, unwrapped and dumped.   There are murmurs of disquiet on the business pages of the newspapers, this concern faltering, that one holding out for the future, fingers crossed behind the back.   Change is supposed to be for the better but in the present climate I am not sure. It will probably all get worse first but I shall acquire a new remote and day to day life will resume . I’d still rather be me than them and here than there.