“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

keys and trees

As the door closed I knew it: the keys were on the kitchen table.   I have locked myself out twice before . Once I broke my own window and climbed in. Once a neighbouring gym teacher climbed over the wall and let me in.   This time, it was raining.   I felt foolish. I thought I might try to get over from the upper flat next door but when Sara let me in, she expressed her doubt and once I had looked, it was clearly impossible.   I waited till my upstairs neighbour came out to go to work, explained and as we walked upstairs she remarked kindly that it can happen to anybody.   I thanked her, looked over the wall – and again, impossible.  

Note for the future: only one way to climb over and that is from the flat on the same level next door. Note for the future: never again.

So I went up the road to Liz and Andy (not their real names), threw myself on their mercy and sat with hot tea and Iris who is not quite 2 and the dog while Liz rang Banhams’ emergency line and the locksmith was organised for less than an hour.   Liz and Andy are half my age, unflappable and kind, high powered in a deprecatory way, and I shall never be more grateful for them.

The locksmith arrived with a flat case like an assassin’s bag from which he produced a hooked stick with a tiny camera and various lengths which jointed on to the base at different angles, till he could put the device through the letterbox and open the latch.   He told me he had really enjoyed O2 going down – he didn’t have any calls for a whole day !

I was not up to much. It is strange how being out of my small sense of control knocked me for six. So I decided to give in gracefully, did a lot of domestic bits and pieces, wrote cards (apparently this is a woman’s thing – thank God for women) and went up the road in the afternoon to buy some essential.

Coming back I heard the whirr of electric saws and noticed two heavy plastic notices some yards apart on my side of the street, and a light rope cordoning off the same area. A tree which badly needed it was being pruned. I saw a tall man (he turned out to be Spanish, I asked and shook hands) and thanked him for cutting the tree back . “Well we were “he said “but a neighbour of yours hit my partner. “ What?   “This lady came down the road, my colleague said please don’t walk on the path, we’re cutting the tree back … She picked up the rope and moved forward, when he put his hand out to stop her – she hit him in the face.” I asked if he was all right. “A bit shaken” he said “and we called the police.”   The other man turned up with an inch cut on the top of the cheekbone and another mark on the socket bone – how she missed the eye, I don’t know. I offered tea or coffee and Savlon.   I saw them again round the corner 24 hours later and teased them about the risk they were taking. “The police came, they were decent” said the man with the cut eye “but I didn’t prefer charges.” I stared at him. “Why ?”   “I’m better than that” he said. “She isn’t” said I.

The assailant is one of those women who dotes on dogs. This exempts her from ever watering a plant – a kind of blindness I don’t begin to understand. One of the signs of the newly gentrified street is often quite expensive trees and shrubs, bought for show, allowed to languish and die for the want of a drink or a bit of plant food. And heaven help you if some negatively interpretable flicker should cross your face as Bunface walks up the road with her herd of fluffies, one in a buggy.

PS I went to Banhams, cut a spare key to lodge with Sara. I’ll leave the climbing to Santa.      

first day of winter

We used to send cards for Christmas or birthdays and that was it – until somebody discovered the joy of black and white photographs and then cartoons and witticisms and sympathy cards and “To The Best Dad In The World” and all the rest of the industry fell in behind.   I wonder how many people send cards nowadays as opposed to giving them – but anyway you’d be hard put to think of an occasion or a sentiment for which there isn’t a card.   Taste in cards is deeply particularised.   What you think is funny , I find offensive: what I think is appealing, you find pretentious. We’re all different. But sitting on the edge of the mantel is a small drawing of a tree limned in white on rose gold foil: apart from the fact that I like the illustration, I love rose gold. It’s a very special colour.

Dyes have changed over history, how dyes are made I mean. And of course fashion promotes this colour and pushes that back. When I was under 10 and my mother took me with her shopping for underclothes, she wouldn’t have anything to do with pink – “Such a God awful colour !” she’d say laughing.   And it was, early nylon, late rayon and oh dear. Somewhere along the line we discovered the term “neethy pink” in a novel and that was it. We giggled our way through knickers and bras and roll-ons, the underpinning of the fifties, no no no to prurient pink.   In other garments we might find a good strong sweet pea colour, or a pale romantic shell, but not often and I don’t remember more than a mention of bois de rose or rose gold till I was nearly 20, names as exciting as the colours..

Colour is one of the great pleasures of my life and the colours of gold or the ranges of pink were only part and parcel of a world that offered endless shimmering variations, whether I was looking at the side of a disused building, bolts of silk, the colours within a colour or how different the Finnish earrings I bought a couple of years ago looked when they were rose gold dipped.

The other day I saw a rose gold dog, a first cross English mastiff and Chinese sharpei and when I saw him for the second and third time, I saw that I hadn’t exaggerated, his coat was golden brown with a pink cast to it. I have never seen anything like it.

Every year Christmas cards vary.   For example, dogs might be very “in” this year, nothing as exotic as the rose gold dog of course but beagles in Santa caps, dachshunds skating, St. Bernards pulling sleighs.   These are cosy cards, far from the black and white ranges which always exist or the reproductions of the Nativity, some Italian masterpiece or a special stained glass window.  Some years you’re spoilt for choice, there are cards you like everywhere. But then again, you may not be able to find what you want and feel disappointed that you can’t find what you want to send.

“Radio Free Europe 1951”

And there are those who give the money they might have spent on cards to charity and tell their friends, so to share in the good deed – and it is a good deed – but I like cards.   I like to send them and I like to receive them.   The range of cards holds up where the range of small gifts doesn’t and two fairs that have regularly been my delight, palled a bit this year, because everything has got too clever for its own good, too slick, too professional so that the sense of finding something special and affordable is lost in the gloss of over-achievement.

But at the second fair, there were three camels walking through, suitably led, for the children to look at and further along, round the corner, two reindeer in a pen to feed, and sitting in a decidedly Russian looking square deep sleigh without runners was a girl in a raincoat with an owl perched on a gauntlet, a barn owl with feathers of agate and honey, tiny drops of rain gleaming like small diamonds across its back and, in a certain light, just a tinge of rose in the beautiful intricacy of its feathers.  And because it was so calm, I stroked it.          

a prevalence of ghosts

So many people don’t reply. Large swathes of the business world have tossed acknowledgement and response as part of the deal. Even when a project is ongoing, maintained exchange is rarer than hens’ teeth.   When a friend’s much publicised BT broadband went awol and BT accepted that it was their responsibility, they made engineer’s appointments one-two-three – and defaulted on all three without a word.   So much for being in touch.

My last professional outing was hallmarked with politeness: I thanked my interviewer and the young woman who provided the social media conduit.   They responded. The producer emailed, and the name interviewer did too – family bereavement prevented her from doing the job – and of course I wrote to them.   All those courtesies took less than 15 minutes from start to finish. But before I ceased fulltime work (10 years ago), we were already aware of the ambivalence of communication.   The other side of communication is cut off.

“Warm Gun/Wall Street International Magazine”

It always was. I remember meeting in the street a man who had assaulted me, weeks after I had got away, and staring straight into his face without a word, daring him to speak to me. He didn’t. There is power in the stone face.

But right now I have three letters outstanding.   I wrote to a writer whose book I had ignored (out of blind prejudice) though she asked me not to.   Some time later, I was lent it, it’s a fine book, well written, so I found and checked a reliable address and wrote apology and appreciation. Not a word.

Then I saw a print in the window of H&M, discovered it wasn’t theirs but last year’s IKEA, they couldn’t sell it, it shouldn’t be in the window of the flagship shop or if it is, it should be marked “display only”.   I wrote to the company’s nearest UK office and three weeks later, it is clear that nobody with a brain could find five minutes and an envelope to write a polite brushoff like Dear Madam, I am sorry you were disappointed.   This matter has been rectified. Assuring you of our best attention at all times. Not a word.

And then I wrote to the gardener. He’s only round the corner but he isn’t great on the telephone : he doesn’t take it away from his ear long enough to get incoming calls I think. A week has passed …. Maybe he’s given up gardening.

But if we look at the this from the other side, the writer I upset may feel she cannot forgive me – why should she ? Time has passed, I disappointed her and she has moved on.   H&M have decided that they are not going to make any money out of me, so a reply is a waste of time.   And maybe the gardener has trouble, other things nearer the top of his list.

Just as when people withdraw from relationships via prevailing media, it may be as much to do with their own inadequacy as any disappointment in the other.   And the cutoff in the light of text/WhatsApp/mobile/messengering that colours social interaction today has become known as ghosting ie you make a ghost or you become one.

And though ghosts still have a presence, there are contexts for this. The most outstanding is that much of what is called communication is only on the way to any real communication at all.   People don’t cut off to spare your feelings or their own, they do it because it’s easier. It gives the illusion of control. However bad it makes you feel for doing it, you don’t feel as wretched as if you were trying to interpret how the other person really makes you feel or how difficult you find it to talk to them. You thought if you could put it in words, it would be easier and surprise surprise, it isn’t.   Technology makes communication look easier, it doesn’t necessarily make it feel easier. There is no short cut to emotional exchange. And if you are not getting what you want, and you don’t know better how to go about getting it, it may be less painful to cut off a finger than to risk a hand.

no stopping

The terrible thing about life is you can’t stop and start again. You can reorganise your desk or the kitchen shelves, bury your pet or change your partner – but though you may sing “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off” you can only achieve that for a short time while you journey to the back of an increasingly accessible beyond or stand awestruck in front of a natural wonder.

“Lake Gattain in Kashmir”

And then life moves on, carrying its self incurred problems on the psychological cowcatcher like a heavy breathing train.

So when we make mistakes – and mankind has made some terrible ones – we can only work our way through recognition, acknowledgement and contribution, to some kind of resolution. And sometimes it all looks so overwhelming, the whole process short circuits. It is easier to think about something else. Which is why problems beget more problems.

How revealing, that as I recoil from a young mother teaching her child elementary conditioning to an amusing screen to keep her quiet on a bus yesterday, the same executives who have flooded the world with smartphones and all the rest of that techno hardware are paying a lot of money to have their children educated in a “no screens” environment, “not till they are 12 or 13 and recognise the device as a tool, rather than being led by it.”

Sometimes the language used to describe something changes but the experience of it doesn’t.

I spent the years of six to nine with foul phlegmy colds and chest problems then known as “lung shadow.” The industrial north east didn’t help, with wastes from steel mills to laundry to ICI. I was treated at home and I didn’t realise until much later how ill I had been. When you are ill as a child it’s your life.   Now I am hearing the whole thing all over again relating to poor air quality. The figures for asthma and other breathing difficulties are very high – yes in China but yes in Britain too. It’s always so much easier to point at the other country than to look at the mess that is being made in your own.

And campaigners for cleaner air muddy their own water by telling us half the story. The logical progression from early factories through coal burning fires to leaded petrol and lying car manufacturers is a bad enough story, well documented as it is. But nobody has yet explained to me why we have to get our pee in a froth over woodburning stoves or even the odd open fire when, all the way through Europe from the Nordic countries to the Mediterranean, wood is burnt as winter fuel.   Do all these countries refuse to collect data on damage to breathing ?   Do all of them have higher rates of upper respiratory cancers ? Do all those governments lie about air quality ?

This is the same kind of division of facts that gets the idealistic young diving for plastic (thank God) to clear fouled waterways and spare animals being starved and tortured by it, but so far has not motivated picking up litter, largely because of the sense of defeat about what happens to it after you have picked it up.

Some months ago I was asked what I thought about #MeToo and I wasn’t happy.   Over simplification and generalisation have been lifelong enemies: you can’t just say “man is the enemy”, any more than “woman is the friend.”   There are few absolutes in life and I don’t think that is one of them . So it is a biased sample of men in bad suits (most of the House of Commons) attacking Theresa May as she offers her best.   Hooray for the two women who remarked via TV vox pop that none of the people opposing Mrs. May could do any better, most of them hadn’t a plan though they did most desperately want their name in the frame and any advancement that was going.   If ever a woman needed #MeToo it’s Mrs. May – and she’d despise it because, with all her faults, she is a public servant and a professional – and she believes that she can’t stop and start again.


There’s a new book, the title of which says it all (Death of the Megafauna by Ross DE MacPhee, an Edinburgh born paleomammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History) for it occurs to me to wonder if I am more of a Woolly Mammoth or a Sabre Toothed Tiger because, either way, I am (horrid phrase) going extinct.

“I prefer this!”

Please don’t think that this is a whinge about not working any more. I rode those overcrowded trains three rush hours in a row to record something and I pass, thank you.   Nothing lasts forever – no matter how big, bright, wealthy or strong.   I had a great time and I still am, in a different way, though I’d be a liar if I said the difference didn’t bother me, more about meaning than money.

My friend Pam the Painter (one of my “characters”, read back to catch up) was once head of corporate PR in national TV. Occasionally she uses a dismissive phrase I always loved: “(s)he’d go the opening of an envelope.”   I was not a networker. When work came to me, I took it with both hands. Occasionally I put myself about but Borgian plotter I am not. So when work ended, it ended. I had a few tough years where I was not old enough for pension, I didn’t earn and realised painfully, that I had relied, in every sense, on work going on for ever. And it didn’t.   We might call this The Mammoth Moment.

But I am blessed with what my much appreciated first therapist called Hunting Dog Syndrome. When humans were evolving into so-called higher beings, they still had various animal attributes, one of which was something of the sense of smell we envy in dogs, whose heads rear to put the nose in line with new, whatever it is. In humans, if you push the head back too far and unnaturally brace the neck, you get tension headaches.   I had a lot of those. But Flood (his real name) gave me an idea which tied with another earlier one, and they were the basis of learning to live in the moment.

Getting paid mostly wasn’t part of the deal, but once I had figured out how to survive in this new way, I enjoyed it. It had unexpected freedoms eg., annalog is the logical extension of talking to myself, and into the mirror.   And if I could “reach” her … I could try with all sorts of people and I still do.

So I was shaken when, several years ago, I heard the handsome and personable Rachel Johnson tell an invited Athaeneum lunch that she was the last generation of journalists.   And I thought well, with those looks, money, connections and CV, you know something I don’t know and I began to think.

Last week I had lunch with Petra Boynton, a social psychologist whom I first met over the telephone when she was going to do a piece for the Telegraph on agony aunts (she was then theirs). It didn’t happen but she and I did, to my great joy, for she is a good woman.   I don’t see her often. She is married and has two sons and is always working at something.   We have occasional long enthusiastic telephone conversations in which we swap bits of our lives.   And catching up, she told me that she had contributed to a documentary which was marked out for praise at a sort of awards ceremony involving a lot of other documentary makers. One of the things they all discussed was that there were fewer media outlets, the ones that existed really were usually not interested in stand alone film making unless it could be tied to a celebrity, so publicity for the product was nearly impossible.   And I said that was why I still read US publications and moreover, one of the more cheerful things about the US midterms was that Katty Kay (Beyond 100 Days, BBC4) said radio all over the country was the go-to medium. We agreed – can’t stop the clock, the role of the voice, the forgotten warmth of more human media – and she gave me a book. And when I saw what she had printed in it, I cried and cheered.

*NDY = not dead yet

“Natalia Makarova”

Coping with Pregnancy Loss by Petra Boynton published by Routledge.

I’m never going to get used to…

Ugg, a range of overpriced sheepskin

Lincolnshire Longwool

boots, sort beyond fashion: on the positive side, warm and soft and flat and on the bad side, too flat, too warm and no support for the foot. Every so often I read about how little sheepskin is worth in the UK and then see some other price hike for sheepskin slippers, all too often from abroad. Ugg is part of Australia’s revenge for historically sending our felons there .   My slippers – British sheepskin, weatherproof soles, a fraction of the cost – came from Westmoreland Sheepskins in Harrogate (Yorkshire forever).

I ‘m never going to get used to children sitting down while grown ups stand in the bus.   Of course if they are ill or fragile in some way, fine. But what happened to the adult sitting while the child either stood close by or sat on an available knee ?   Nor am I going to accustom myself to the (mostly) women who settle on the outside of a two seater bench, only to look askance when you ask if you may have the other side of it ? Or, they fill the other side of it with an enormous handbag which they clearly don’t want on their laps where it will crease their clothes.   Pity.

I am never going to get used to the streets full of people running in all weathers, but having their groceries delivered by somebody else, their houses cleaned by somebody else, their dogs walked by somebody else: all the things we thought of as exercise in earlier generations.

I am never going to get used to the “holier than thou” attitude of all too many cyclists. Bike is a four letter word.

And although I understand that most of the rest of the world seems to think that dragging the ubiquitous wheelie behind you is some sort of mark of belonging, I am never going to get used to people shopping with them.

I have just about come to understand that for some, a small fluffy dog is a soulmate but I’d rather not trip over it or its lead because you want it to express itself unchecked. Your foufine has less brain than I and is much more easily comforted.

I am never going to get used to the idea that giving offence is a matter of such dread that we settle for boringly bad communication (initials anyone ?), for example, an hour of being talked at in terms which may have been English but the level of jargon made it unclear. The surgeon for whom I used to work was associated with the Gender Research Unit at the Middlesex Hospital. I am not unsympathetic. I defend your right to express yourself, even though much of its more florid forms might have been called social inadequacy, but I am not going to get used to a lack of enthusiasm being automatically interpreted as a criticism .   That level of defensiveness is a psychological problem, regardless of sexual orientation.

I am not going to get used to a very large number of women between the ages of 40 and the rest of it who can’t smile. I used to think this was due to an overuse of Botox or perhaps paralysing constipation but now I fear they belong to that growing number of people who think any form of pleasantness is a waste of time if it doesn’t get you something.

I am not going to get used to the new model of weather forecast, which used to involve a short round up of advice on the evening and end of the day, and then propose tomorrow.   Now we rush through today and tomorrow and start talking about the rest of the week. Since it is scientifically agreed that our weather is ever less predictable, this is probably pointless and comes pretty close to wishing your life away. I don’t know about the following weekend if it’s Monday or Tuesday and I doubt if most of the presenters do either.

I know the above makes me sound like 100. Believe me, sometimes I feel it.

A fox’s footprints

getting across

Usually I like talking to anyone who wants to talk to me. And most of the time (bighead) I like being interviewed. Occasionally it becomes horribly clear that an interlocuter doesn’t know you or your work, presumes your intentions and tries to tell who you are (which is like a red rag to a bull) but in my life, these occasions have been blessedly rare.   Most of the time I have conversations which send me off to look at some other aspect of human behaviour, my own or somebody else’s, and I am very grateful for the exchange that prompts this.

Earlier this year I met my youngest ever professor, and she is the only person who questioned the difference and the similarity of the work I did on radio and in print, which I did in the same time frame, saying she couldn’t think of two media more different. I saw them as asking different things of me and keeping me fresh.

When my friend Snowdrop (a reader in film and radio) asked me to be interviewed by one of his doctoral students, a Greek, she gave me one of the finest experiences of exchange, storytelling and insight I’ve ever had (remember you are only ever as good as the questions you’re asked) and this week she put one of her students on my trail to discuss phone-in.

It’s always unsettling when someone talks to you as if you are a character out of history. A young Irishman wrote me earlier in the year because he had turned up a live appearance on RTE where I neither offered nor conceded on abortion.   Effectively he asked me how I came to be so brave in the 1980s?   A pusillanimous wuss, I was delighted to tell him that the decision was to be who I am – or backpedal – so I chose, stood up and was counted. And I told him the back story of the clip which he couldn’t have known. The date didn’t cross my mind.

So when Jane (not her name) asked me yesterday whether I chose the subject matter of “Anna and the Capital Doctor” trailed as “personal, sexual and emotional problems” to be sensational, I said with immediate watchfulness that I never thought about it. “But in the seventies …” she said, making it sound hundreds of years ago. I hauled off and gave her a snapshot of my background which I always imagine will clear the air. But it isn’t guaranteed.

The main thing I want to convey is that the words are the thing.   You either value them and use them imaginatively and accurately or you hide in a 50 word vocabulary and the ensuing programme has the consistency of lukewarm soup. It might be nourishing but it isn’t appetising. If you’re broadcasting, you have to appeal beyond the person you are talking to, to all the others who are listening.

Anybody who knows me, knows that I love to talk and I love to listen to other people talk. A correspondent said she could imagine me in a lone house looking out to sea – but I’d miss the people. And when I came to conceptualise it (after long years of doing it) I thought that my talking permitted the other person to talk, this was exchange, it wasn’t an exercise in “I know something you don’t know” though I might: we could work that in later.

I can’t remember the name of the Home Office psychiatrist whom I recruited into the Forum Personal Adviser but he was the man who suggested that there was no point in trying to make sexual matters sound unimportant or unexciting – “What people bring you is what you work with.” And I had an absolute conviction only extended over time that using the formal words was the right way – the message of this was “I take you seriously”.   I have rarely used the vernacular, have rarely had it used to me but by the same token, let’s use the real words rather than euphemism: that’s what they’re for.  I see words as bridges and being described as a bridge was one of the best compliments I have ever been paid.   Was my work done ? No. Do we need better bridges ? Yes.