“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


Walking up the street from the butchers, I thought how wonderfully peaceful London is when numbers of people go away. You might rejoin “If you don’t like the noise, why are you living in a big city ?”   Whole other discussion: noise may be exciting and interesting, noise may pollute. Much noise is generated nowadays to drown out other noise. Quietly down the street on my left through the sunshine came a slender girl with endless legs in a pretty jacket, on which I readied myself to remark. While on my right, some twit in an extortionate gas guzzler gunned his engine, disrupting ear and air. I said “How nice you look !” She replied, indicating the Italian stallion “That’s what you get for having a low riser-“ “ I said “That’s what you get for having a small penis.” She gaped, I smiled gently and walked on. Speak as you find.

Easter seems set to be the New Christmas, set about with expectation and compulsion. You must go away, laden with new clothes, bags, shoes, cosmetics. And chocolate. There is lamb and chocolate, cake and chocolate, eggs and chocolate and chocolate eggs, chocolate rabbits, chocolate horses and chocolate dolls. And cards and chocolate. I like my chocolate plain and dark, one of two brands (Belgian or German) and I think some of the most disgusting chocolate I have ever eaten was in the form of a lovely to look at , best it stops there, Easter egg, long before the years of discernment. Though every kind of taste is personal.

Recovering after illness earlier in the year, I ate anything I felt like eating because I didn’t feel like eating much. And while in this mood, I chanced on my favourite pizza. I waited to hear my internal voice disapprove but it didn’t, so I bought it. I was telling Bunslove about it and he said “I don’t understand, what so special about it ?”   I explained – “Yes, yes” he said. “But you must have done this before –“   And I explained I never had.   “But why ?” exclaimed the most enlightened vegan I know.   I explained pizza is a treat to me and I was afraid I’d make a mess of it.   “But you can’t” he said. “Do as it says on the box.   Have you got a glass of red wine ?”   I said I had.   “Well there you are – I can’t believe you have never done this before.”   So I tried to explain the feeling of doing things properly. “Look “ he said. “ This is what you fancy. Enjoy it. I’d like to get you have one of these in the freezer for when you next feel like it.” Keep your Easter egg, I have the Bunslove Special.

This idea of doing things properly goes very deep with me, so deep that it may ricochet and paralyse me from trying something in case I don’t do it properly. Of course, it is familial and from a certain time in our national mindset when achievement meant doing your best.   But I have never got over the fact that, on my emotional uppers, I prayed “Please God, may I have a corner ?”   and I got my apartment. There were all sorts of slips between cup and lip and I kept saying to myself “Other people manage, you can…” And I did.   And there is an outside space (not to say a garden), becoming proportions and a door that locks. How I have blessed that door !

And though my version of the Great Spirit is a long way from an old man with a long white beard, it is the voice that I hear on the rare occasions that I leave the house in disorder or take a silly risk. “What are you are doing ?” demands the voice.   I once tried to explain this to a group of whom everybody got it, except a psychiatrist (I think he was very angry about being on a cruise, probably did it to please somebody else). For him, there was no conscience, no internal dialogue, no simple faith. If I was hearing voices, I needed his help and he was not happy when it was declined.

“Great Spirit Moon”


ins and outs

A star I knew slightly (no, not coy – I am probably one of few he didn’t move in on, it not being on my list till I was ready and his needs being met all over the place) was featured today talking about what he spends his money on. I was immediately reminded of Marlon Brando

“best nose!”

who remarked that as an actor, as soon as you were good in a role, everybody wanted to know how you voted and what you did with your money. And I thought again how merciful is radio: those who remember do, those who discover do, and everybody else gets on with the washing up. And as the monetary rewards are much smaller, you can’t do more than work and survive. For most of us, if money crosses your mind, you think about incoming and outgoing, and I would add the emotional currency too.

Incoming this week: on Monday morning I began to research prepaying my funeral.

“Napoleon’s catafalque ship”

Appalled by how much money this can cost (for fear of being seen to be “tight” ?) I started with the cheapest form of cremation.   The telephone sales person was politely cheery until I said that the idea of a limited number of people (for which they provide) appealed to me. “Oh, that’ll be our Magnolia service” she said and I fell about laughing.   Magnolia. Shades of Scarlett O’Hara and institution walls. Unfazed she sent me some information, most of which I can’t open, so next week I shall start again at the local undertaker.

Incoming: Natalia from Latvia stacking shelves with the most elegant short haircut, soft and healthy, shining dark like a seal’s bum (you just wanted to stroke it) and she blushed with pleasure at being told so. (I stuck to dark and glossy and left the seal out of it when I spoke to her.)

Incoming: The Potter (she paints too) gave me homemade cantucci, white roses, lunch at her house and a pendant in the shape of a gingko petal which she had made from real (not sterling) silver.  And I paid her my ultimate compliment: I was speechless.   The search engine describes gingko as a living fossil and then goes on to explain its symbolism. (The alleged meanings of things is fascinating – like the lynx pictured last week to whom First Nations attribute being able to hear what is not spoken – ear tufts as antennae ?)

Incoming: two young men, assistants in Waterstones, cold early morning.   I entered the empty shop asking if there was a correlation between cold weather and book sales, they said not enough work done on it, took up the joke and we had a real exchange. Then I went away, did my bit of shopping and came back to say “May I just add …?” when one interrupted to ask “Did you come back to us, just to talk about a book ?” I nodded, starting to explain. “Wonderful !” he exclaimed across me, his colleague nodding. “People often don’t even speak to us.”

Outgoing was watching two documentaries that didn’t work, one on early British rock and one on the massacre at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikh. Perhaps programme makers not to say presenters only learn by doing it but dammit they learn on the rest of us.   Why bother to say, in the first film, that Lonnie Donegan was the best blues shouter in the country (albeit briefly) but give us nothing in sound to relate to that – though we had to listen twice to Billy Bragg murdering Rock Island Line.   And re Amritsar, why was there no reference to the love/hate relationship between India under the Raj and independent India but several to the presenter’s mother, though she wasn’t interviewed . How belittling.

Though even your outgoing may be incoming. I had to consult the private dermatologist because, two years later, the inexplicable skin condition that itches badly enough to wake me recurred. Major money BUT in and out, examined, in 20 minutes, clasping prescriptions.   And those two along with the renewal prescription from the back man cost another chunk.   BUT they work.   Sort of Beatitudes of Health, constructive not to say gnomic opposites.  Verily, your ins shall be outs and your outs, ins.


If you came in the front door of the house I was born in, and went up the stairs facing you, just to the left was the back bedroom, known variously as the spare room, the big bedroom or Lesley’s room, when she was home.   I had a tiny room at the front of the house but I was allowed to play in the back bedroom and later, when I was older, I moved into it, sharing it with my sister on her visits and meantime doing my homework at the desk my father made for me.

So: picture me kneeling over a small electric dansette record player with my first 68. I owe to Carol of the sugar and water starched cancan petticoats an introduction to Buddy Holly for which I am eternally grateful but my first buy was Lonnie Donegan singing Rock Island Line.   And I thought then and I think now – wonderful.

My parents were possibly relieved that I had chosen something they could access ie it had a shape and a lyric (as I have said before, my parents were remarkably open minded.)   But mentioning Donegan at school wasn’t well received.   The cool girls were into Elvis, the piano players were learning Chopin and as rock took off, there were names scattered about like confetti.   Donegan was labelled skiffle and skiffle was for kids.

Kids or not, my mother took me to see him at The Globe in Stockton and she agreed that his energy and enthusiasm were catching.   I didn’t think Donegan was skiffle because that meant washboards

“washboard gloves”

and trombones and plunk-plunk. He was just what he was, a Celt singing up tempo blues. It didn’t always work, he had to eat, but when it did, it did.   For the record I can’t think of a single artist of any genre who is “always” wonderful and if you can think of one, I suspect the wonderful is more to do with what you expect than what you hear.

Many years later, I like to have something I want to watch on Friday evening, in a kind of pause before the weekend begins.   Yes yes I know catch up and iPlayer and Netflix (I am with Helen Mirren on Netflix).   I like to have something to watch, in real time.   And on Friday night coming (12 April) BBC4 is screening a programme on Donegan.   And I had the great pleasure of discovering that George Harrison went to every one of his ten nights in Liverpool because he recognised that it was one of the side roads that led to mountain top rock. He had located something that led somewhere – and music is a long story.

I love stories.   I even like stories about stories, like The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman who finds out how to eat and thus how to live from books, the only thing with a grip on her equal to her anorexia. Apart from the fact that Freeman can write (not everybody who publishes can) she offers me a precis of at least two writers I can’t read (Dickens and Patrick Leigh Fermor) and she is a storyteller.   I grew up on stories.   A story is a lead into a wider form of history.

BBC4 has a nice line in stories, though they probably call it oral history.   It has shown me the emergence of people and beliefs in Ancient Britain, the American war in South East Asia, stories about murder and health and science and politics and it seems to hotwired to music ( three different documentaries on Paul Simon, features on touring, great female singers,this about country, that about Africa and BBC4 introduced me to the mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato , truly a voice for my life.   Having a nice line in oral history is to do with tone as much as range.   As I get older, there are voices I can’t listen to, styles of presentation that give me hives. Sometimes a presenter hits lucky once and never finds that tone again.   Sometimes he or she finds it again after a hiatus – like a runner recovering form – and my ear pricks in animal attention.   I remember showing my mother a picture of a lynx with tufted ears and asking “What’s this ?”   Said she beaming “You.”    

becoming mum

It’s Mothering Sunday, I saw my son yesterday, and my best present is one more person has named me as a like on annalog.   I do not obsess about this figure.   100 was wonderful and each extra after that was a wow. I don’t have a goal in mind and since I break all the rules – no social media, no sought publicity – this is old fashioned word-of-mouth for which bless you all.

A friend I have never met (radio does that for you) sent me Edna St.Vincent Millay poetry (we like her) this morning. Her mother was very important to her for all sorts of reasons as mine was to me.   As I threw down my favourite oven cloth on a lit gas ring, realized what I had done, seized it and shoved it under the cold water in the sink, in my head rang the extended syllables of my mother’s vehement “ Oh, blast !”   The whole idea of a favourite inconsequential comes from her.

She was not very domesticated. We wore clean clothes. She kept a cleanish house. She cooked well and lack of money did not stop her having good taste.   But things went on being used until they gave up the ghost, as she would say. There was a favourite dishcloth “(“No, not that one – the old one, it’s better!”), favourite garments worn to soft (blame her for what is now a standing joke among my friends – “What, this old thing ?”)

There were favourite stockings (no tights in those days), and worn cotton handkerchiefs, never quite big enough to be useful except for a lick to take a speck off the face or a drop of eau de cologne. In an early memory of watching the Trooping of the Colour on a neighbour’s tv, I remember a guardsman falling. Out from the crowd rushed a woman and pushed something into his hand (I doubt you could do it now.) “Just what I would have done,” Jane said approvingly: “he was faint with the heat, can’t beat a bit of 4711 …” that same eau de cologne I explained to a girl on a bus last summer.  And Jane hated losing things.   Nobody likes losing anything they care for and in a world limited by the opportunity to acquire, my mother cherished things literally forever.

There was a dressing table with a triple mirror in her bedroom. It was very special to me for all sorts of reasons, its shape and colour, the two top drawers as shallow as the central one, two deeper drawers underneath on each side. I understood it held memories.

From the top right hand drawer I watched my mother unfold a soft blue silk scarf with frankly ragged edges.   I knew she loved this blue because when a woman friend of hers had her bathroom done up in that colour, Jane cooed with pleasure.   But the scarf, though pretty, was worn out. Why did she keep it? “Your father gave it to me.”   Proust, keep the madeleine.

In the first deeper drawer on the right were the boxes that held her beloved Aristoc.   And under them, I couldn’t see but eventually learned were things of colour or line, beyond wearing, that she couldn’t part with because of what they meant.

In the top left hand drawer she kept jewellery.   She had two or three favourite pairs of earrings, her watch and her wedding ring.   If she took her wedding and engagement rings off, it was only to put them back on while the favourite earrings and the strand of horrid porridge pearls she loved were never put away, they lived on the surface of the dressing table.   The other things meant something either to her or had to the givers, so they stayed.   I never saw her wear them and my first gift to her, the white plastic basket of flowers brooch from Woolworths, joined them.

“I should have given my mother this, for the colours alone”

I love scarves and last week I tidied the pile. I have kept one of the two “good” scarves my ex husband gave me. I lost one – I remember the joy of the colours and how upset I was. The other is sadly worn, though it remains outstandingly pleasing to me.   I couldn’t part with it.

Is this what they mean by becoming your mother ?

lunatics one/asylum nil.

The only thing standing between me and arrest in the street is the number of police. One overcast morning recently, I smiled at an attractive woman my own age, good haircut on white shining hair, elegant clothes … and she looked at me as though I were poo on her shoe.   I hooted with laughter. Apparently nothing is free, not even good nature.

I do quite often feel that I am living through the last days of the Roman Empire or in France just before the Revolution.   Sadly revolution in England (I deliberately wrote England and excluded Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) will be to the right: there is no other reason why I should be hearing about Nigel Farrage again, a man of whom it could truly be said that only a mother could love him.

There is an established journalist who has a column in the Sunday paper I take: I have wrinkled my nose at his writing over time, not because the writing is bad – it isn’t – but because of the content – though I find him less reactionary than I used to. Perhaps I have turned into my mother but in a snowflake woke world, he’s still on the money. There are reassuring elements of common sense and calling a spade a spade.

Last week, a friend who used to work in television told me about a news editor she knew, now working for a smaller company, who had rolled his eyes to heaven in desperation when telling her of his young colleagues. “You can’t brief them” he said.   “You give them the outline of the story, you suggest -this is where we might go, talk to him/her about … and expect them to reach for the telephone. They send email or texts, they try to do it all like that. They don’t even speak to each other – and this isn’t a big office.”  Telling me this story, my friend Pam and I were appalled: we grew up having to get on with potentially difficult superiors and co-workers, knowing that, if we needed them, doing the job properly would come before personal approval ie you had someone to turn to when out of your depth. Never mind telly, just as true in meat packing.

And – under the heading Unbolted Stable Door – we have yet another story about girls as young as 13 seeking Botox treatment in what is described as “a terrible loss of self confidence”. Measuring yourself against an unreality will do that to you. For years, there has been disquiet about the use of such things in non medical settings and for every person prepared to think about what these injections might mean, physically, in the longer term, or psychologically – there are many others who roll up their sleeves, wash their hands and take the money. Dare I mention the abdication of parental responsibility ?   Why should the NHS which is overworked to collapse have to babysit unhappy children whose families still seem to think that social media is harmless ?   I’ll tell you how harmless it is – a significant number of those working in it limit or ban their children’s participation in it. Have you noticed ? It’s always somebody else’s fault.

And if the police are asked to prioritise three of the most labour intensive social strands (terrorism, computer crime and child abuse ) side by side with every missing person/cat up a tree/stolen wedding ring – I don’t want them to waste their time on a complaint of “misgendering”.   Please. Get over yourself.

Speaking as a member of the largest discriminated against group on the face of the earth (women) let me tell you – if you don’t expect to fight for yourself, don’t expect anybody else to fight for you.   And there are different ways to fight. Keeping your temper in the pursuit of logic and dialogue is infinitely more effective than having a hissy fit when something displeases you.   It’s called command as in the US phrase “command and control” – and with all its shortcomings – it leads forward more successfully than the endless posturing so reminiscent of reality television, whose contestants are all too often cannon fodder.

kiwi courage

We called it the rat race

“The Rat Race by Sam Creasey”

– the repetitive endless pursuance of goals in the hope of reward, after laboratory rats who’d run, ever faster, through a maze for cheese. Reduce their space and increase their number, and they’d bite and fight to get the reward. In my lifetime, the rat race has become all too often “the way we live now.” I dislike this latter phrase very much because it carries a resigned sense of hands in the air, I can do nothing.   And I don’t believe that.

You make choices and however you were brought up – good bad or horrible – they are the choices of your adult life. You are responsible for them and they too may change.

three arrows

The great black singer Mahalia Jackson was beaten regularly by the aunt who brought her up.   As an adult, she dedicated her magnificent voice to the glory of God. It brought joy to her listeners and placed her (I hope) in a different relationship to her past.   The Australian mosque shooter learned disappointingly that you can be attractive and kind but as a man, short will always count against you – unless you’re portrayed on camera. Welcome to a life on the internet which he described as the only reliable source of information.   In his dreams.

I don’t know anything about radicalisation but I do know something about brain washing. Back to those rats. Endless repetition. It is one of the most disturbing features of the internet even in my very modest use of it.

I do not believe that New Zealand never thought racial violence would happen there.   I believe they thought it hadn’t happened there yet.   They don’t strike me as a people to hold their hands up hopelessly. And three rousing cheers for Sydney Opera House who mounted the silver fern in solidarity on the outside of their building.

Because one of the costs of a so called liberal democracy is the relative tolerance of people whose views you don’t share. To agree to disagree is one of the few reliable markers of maturity.   But then, all too easily, disagreement shades into disapproval, disapproval into rejection and you are on the downward road toward the chasm between Us and Them. Because every Us has to have a Them. And difference defines you as Them. You worship a different way, wear different clothes, look different, or live a different way.   You may protest loyalty to Us and just wanting to live a quiet life but your very difference is suspect.

When you look up information on Muslims in New Zealand, what you find is notable for the number of different places they come from, for the apparent harmony between different communities, and for the fact that evangelical Islam is a great success with the Maori.   So the assailant shot 50 people at Friday prayers because he could.

It’s the pits to kill someone at prayer, whether a famously dissenting churchman like Thomas a Becket or the rest of us. Those praying represent the softest of targets but – as one commentator has already said – in the 16 miserable minutes of a live link of death, people cheered. Whether they cheered because they don’t think or they can’t tell the difference between computer games and murder, we don’t know.   Or maybe those cheering are just so powerless in their own lives that they get off on somebody else’s power, whether of standing or the gun, no matter how shortlived – because if this horror plays out to pattern, the shooter will be the focus of attention for about the same length of time as he featured his killing spree (Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame).

And please note, there is no programme to take down a live link – no algorithm, no artificial intelligence. It has to be done by a trained human, there are too few with the skill or the status, it takes time and in that time , whatever the horror will be copied elsewhere. But I found five intelligent pieces in the old fashioned print yesterday , including one of Britain’s unwillingness to confront domestic extremism and the background to the term “pseudo commando” – rather more sinister than going without your knickers.

put it on the pickle jar

On one of the rare occasions the post failed me and the cheque to Wal didn’t arrive, I took it over on the bus and on the way back, at the bus stop, signalled authoritatively for the bus. An elderly Sikh

“a turban unwound”

in immaculate grey flannel and dark turban laughed at me. “It’s not a request stop, you don’t have to signal” he teased. When we got on the bus, and were sharing a seat, I told him that in my youth in New York I learned to make proper signals clearly – that way it’s not my fault if the bus driver doesn’t take notice -and we went on from there – to the limp wristed flutter employed by so many (they do want the bus to stop, they just don’t want to be noticed doing it ?) and on into where we are up to (you try avoiding the word Brexit in a sentence of intelligent conversation currently), how long he had been here (44 years), married for 60 which led to me asking where he came from (East Africa) … and he spoke glowingly of Britain and the backtracking of everything he had thought broadminded in British society.

He told me interestingly that his children had, as we used to say, married out – one into a French family, one into a Spanish one – and that it was fine with him. What mattered to him was that his children were happy and cherished, that the extended family (his grandchildren) were part of the same clan.   And as you might expect, I agreed with him. “I don’t care how you vote, who you go to bed with, or what you call yourself if you are a decent person” I offered. He nodded. “You see, we are old enough to know this. I am 80” and I concurred “74”. When he left he shook hands with me, he was off to Spain, I wished him a safe journey.   And when I told a friend about it, she asked (I quote) “And do you think he was hitting on you ?”

As a matter of interest, no I don’t.   Would I have known if he was ? Probably but not necessarily. I remember the man who made the going only to discover between meeting me and having lunch (his idea), that I was 10 years older than I looked and he very nicely shed me.   I remember thinking at the time that I was well out of that.   It stung a bit and made me wary.  I don’t have to lie about my age for work (there isn’t any) and conversational transactions with most of the men I meet are along the lines of a pleasantry ie if I can deal with my birth date, so can they.

I am a 74 year old heterosexual woman. On a good day I look OK, on a bad day, less than OK. Life has been nothing but interesting and still is. I have a soft spot for one of Lord Snowden’s best portraits, of Lady Churchill captioned All Passion Spent.  Labels don’t tell you much and I confess, I am bored with the search for labels.

This morning I read a headline “Bearded non-binary authors have eyes on the women’s prize” and sighed audibly.   Labels for an illness or a condition can comfort people, though it is often only a foothold on a climb. Do you feel better if you were this and became that, and you have told the world how you did it?   As it is, for every person gifted person who has identified as this, changed his/her/its mind, re-identified differently, taken different drugs and had other operations, and delights in telling us all about it (I leave you to opine on the frisson of that) there will be quieter personalities for whom privacy matters just as much to make a similar journey.   I don’t hate trans, I dislike trans disliking me.   Different isn’t better, it is just different. It’s not a competition.   And the journey to some kind of recognition is just as difficult for many of the people who set out upon it, regardless of label.   Labels are for pickle jars.