“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 glass

That glass.  You know the one, the one that we describe as half empty or half full.  Life’s glass, the image a friend offered to me at the end of an anxious, tired conversation about the ills of our world (which I am not going to list, who needs a negative incantation ?)   “And well, you know” she said “ for me, the glass is always half full.” “The glass is half empty” I said.  “I drank the first half” and we laughed.  It is very difficult to have a positive conversation without sinking into toe-curling bromides.

But I am serious.  I had a wonderful time.  Yes, I have had sorrow, defeat and loss but I have had joy, victory and gain. You will note the absence of “also” in that sentence.   The balance is kept in another place, I don’t do ledgers about life.   I mean what I say and it is still true.

One of those small decisions we live by was that I would have a desk diary.  In one sense this is ridiculous.  I no longer work beyond annalog, social life was nearly in neutral before the bug and will continue to be so.    I am not as self sufficient as some of my friends.  There are still days when I need a voice first thing in the morning as much as I need my two glasses of cold water (here’s to you, Vera Atkins, SOE).  I was absurdly and unreasonably hurt by the people who didn’t come through on the telephone during lockdown.  But then others I had not expected at all did.  It’s that glass again …

The desk diary however gives me great pleasure and with one exception, it’s been the same diary for years – Redstone Press.  One of those places you email and they reply ?   Unlike finding a gardener which took me four goes including a cold as a stone chit who told me “We don’t give advice.”  “Oh really ?” I said.  “Then why don’t we just forget the whole thing …” and then I hit a home run.  I am not being grand, I am being (gawdelpus) sensible.  If I went up a ladder to fix the honeysuckle and made a mess of it, or me, it would be one more thing for my son to cope with.

In the desk diary I put birthdays and dates of importance.   This has already paid dividends.   We are human, we like to be remembered, we like things about us to be remembered ie the anniversary of the day the big job came through, your father’s death, in my case, both parents’ birthdays, days of good omen.  I noted the death of Ho Chi Minh, Kristallnacht and Oradour, the day I saw the neurologist, sayings that appeal , the plagues of Egypt, how correctly to address Her Majesty .  All sorts of bits and pieces that need to be noted in a safe place you won’t lose, and should you need them, you will know where to look.  The Redstone diaries have wonderful written things in them and pictures, and like my cherished New Yorker date-a-day, it’s something new, inexpensive, personal and positive.

And I have discovered I may be a secret optimist because I have just bought my diary for 2021. That made me laugh at myself.  Who knows if we will even be here ?

Don’t talk to me about the new normal, another irritating slogan.  The recent normal was about as far from normal as you could get, I mean for about the last 50 years.  Greedier and greedier, less and less thoughtful, more and more synthetic.  Bound to rupture and it did.  And then “thousands of children fail to show up for school” (Times 16.09.20).   My grand daughter was at school for two days before she was sent home to isolate as a suspected Covid contact.  Normal.

It’s not my favourite word.  It has quite specific connotations.  Thrown about, it is just another buzzword.  Like “woke”.   What is normal really is to have the glass both half full and half empty at the same time.   It’s the same glass and unless you are a member of the Magic Circle, it will be the same bit that’s full – the bit you have still to get to.   Here’s to you.


the distaff side

Among the really not very many photographs I keep are two or three of me and Rosemary who was a first friend.  She was dark blonde with a wonderfully shaped face and when the presenter of the local television show asked me years later what I remembered about her, I could hardly say her smell but she smelt like a plant or a herb, as precise as a perfume but harder to describe.

I woke up this morning thinking of Jean Treverton – and that led to how many names I could remember from school. Jean had thick wavy dark red hair, a singing colour, and she bustled.  I even own a piece of amber the same colour, it’s in a ring and although I cracked it years ago in a large gesture that ended up banged on a metal filing cabinet, I cannot part from it.  A alcoholic Buddhist (very Western) I only met once, somebody else’s fella, said “ You keep that – for the son you are going to have “. I think of him sometimes, well wishing me down the years.

In my last radio job, a man emailed that his wife had told him she went to school with me and I joyfully wrote back “Ginger hair, white skin with freckles, her father died early, her mother had a big house on Acklam Road: one of the kindest, nicest people you could ever meet !”    And there was Maureen who wasn’t a Maureen whom we christened  Mingi – for much or very – mingi maradardi means very pretty in Swahili – because she was.

Whenever I could,  I sat with Sue Sanderson, Jean Dunn and Lesley Gill while we talked our way through a tale with no ending about four friends at a medieval court (we must have liked the head dresses) so we describe every detail of what we wore – that’s what I remember, the endless preoccupation with colour and clothes  – and little adventures, all made up for our own entertainment.  I grew up with stories, stories read and stories told, and I obviously wasn’t alone.  This was just at the time that I had begun to see films  (the first was The Barkleys of Broadway with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the second a full length animation of Alice in Wonderland) other people had been to the Saturday morning matinees,  had older brothers and sisters in film clubs about sports and hobbies.  We were nine or ten.

I wasn’t thinking about best friends or regret at time passing.  I was just thinking who I could remember –   fair-haired Ann Simpson and Susan Milner who was tall and good at maths and Rosalie Annette Eve Kirkbright with dark curly hair, the only person in the class who, if asked her name, gave them all.  I remember the Caroles, with or without an e, Woodall and Irwin.   I remember Brenda Horsman, Helene Simon (who studied Russian – we were among the few state schools to take on a teacher of Russian), Ruth Saville and Gwendolyn Lamb.

I remember Dorothy Crosby as the only person who could put a drape into a school blazer, there was Doreen Turner and another Carole I met at the bus stop  – the first person I knew who wore stiffened petticoats every day and she introduced me to the music of Buddy Holly.  And Jennifer who hated me.

Years ago the Times Educational Supplement asked me if I would write about a favourite teacher and I couldn’t because I liked most of them and I couldn’t choose one.  So I had the great pleasure of writing about all of them.

And I think of women in the world of paid work –  Rose Phillip s the school secretary, Ellie at my first job, Avril who took me home to her family when my father died: Brenda who kept me employed longer than I might have been at the film company in Soho: Helene Kantor in New York, who made everything understandable.

I recall hands, faces, hair and voices.   I wonder if this means that they are gone to glory ?  Or just gone from my life.  Not from my memory, my sisters of the early morning smile.

“every one her own woman!”

tales of the time

Three boys, none of them over 18, walking single file up the other side of the street, 7.15 am, I’ve just been to get the papers.  The leader calls “Good morning, miss !” to which I reply “Good morning.”   Two more steps.  They are all black, there is a Black Lives Matter meeting scheduled.  “Are you going to the demo ?” I ask.  (Wrong word, should have said “protest”, took a moment for them to progress what I meant. Language changes.)  “Yes” replies the leader and the other two nod.  There are two girls walking behind them, in warmer coats, it’s chilly.   “God bless you” I offer.   Three big grins, “Thank you, miss, you too” and the girls smile and wave.  They walk on and I go home.  Why did I say that ?

Inspiration came from the obituary of a woman who had worked on early radar during WWIIand the loss coming out of a raid during which her boss moved her aside and called to various aircraft, without response, one after the other.  “God be with you” he signalled.  Still makes my back thrill.    What else can I wish you that’s big enough, gentle enough, disinterested enough to make you understand that at least some of the way, your walk is my walk.  We are human and some humans find any difference, visual, audial or behavioural, unsettling.  Not me.

Then there’s Hull.  Tall, 50-ish, coherent round terrible dentition, he says that’s where he comes from and I have given him modest alms for a long time now.  I prefer to give money to a person rather than a cause unless the person can embody the cause like the Salvation Army or collectors for lifeboats.  It is Saturday morning, the store is busy and there is my friend  Bertha the Battleship, tall and broad, and in the  swift greetings – she is working, I am leaving – she notices that I am fishing in my purse.  “You’re not going to give him “ she indicates with her head – “money, are you ?  Anna, please don’t he’s a dealer “ and she launched into the story which is unreasonably hurried because of where we are and muffled by her incongruous pink mask.

Bottom line, I have known Bertha for years, she has never lied to me and yes, there have been other things where I’d know, I can check.  I know where she lives and her telephone number – I can ask again.  I’ve been suckered.  How would I know he’s a dealer ?  He’s not going to wear a badge.  I have always found him surprisingly clean and well nourished for street life which is often characterised by muck and lack but I have been snowed by his address and an unwillingness to think any further.    London 2020: the dealer outside the supermarket.   I feel a fool.

While some of us (I decline to fall into the modern thing of claiming “all”)  waited with excitement for the BBC to give us another dose of JKRowling’s Strike (shrike would be better), it arrived as curate’s egg.  The tv reviewers I read are women and they both lay into a script with another “emotionally inept” male character though the actor is attractive and talented.  What about the female lead ?  A supposedly intelligent woman marries unfeasibly (not enough screen time/character development – and you’d only mess with my telephone once) in the teeth of attraction to her boss and her job, under pressure from her mother, to wind up seeing  one of a series of therapists, without insight into why the situation has caused insomnia and panic attacks.   Not as bright as you think you are, then. I like the actress but Sarah Bernhardt couldn’t convince me this character knows her elbow from the other thing.  Another ditzy leading lady, all surface, lacking substance.

There was pizza delivered down the road – if you don’t answer the door, it is left on the step, so three large, two small were all over the pavement.  I went home for my gloves, and put everything into a bag, safe from pram wheels and dogs and discovered foxes don’t eat olives. They had happily torn at the edges and the middle but olives are not vulpine pick of the week.  It quite cheered me.


I know that having half your face covered doesn’t make it any easier but I am not going to give up being as positive, polite and agreeable as I can.  And so far, so good.  Last week it took me three goes to convince the West Indian driver of a bus that he just done a splendid piece of driving , negotiating  his heavy clumsy vehicle with about 4 inches clear on each side, past a double decker vehicle carrier on one side and the usual collection of hurried drivers spilling into an imaginary third lane on the other.   Appreciation is the opposite of spilt milk – never wasted.  When I finally got through to said driver that I wasn’t complaining, I was complimenting him – he beamed.

With or without a mask I am aware that I have always communicated or tried to communicate in any way I could.  I got through 9 days in the Italian backcountry with vivid face, hands, eyes and five words of Italian, ten years’ holidays in Crete with pantomime and no more Greek, same thing. I am not resistant to learning languages, there are always reasons. 

Voiceover remains one of the most exciting things I was ever asked to do professionally because the producer’s voice in your ear asks you for colour, warmth, speed etc as precisely as a conductor, only moving on when he or she gets what’s wanted.   It’s a long way from that dreadful hokey long skirt and wooden beads whisper employed by some female presenters.   You colour the voice.   And that colour goes out from your voice across the gap into the ears you’re trying to reach, one set or many.

Voices are like faces, there are some you cannot like.  Man, woman or variant, there’ s the occasional person to whom I abreact – blame my mother, she was just the same.  “I want to hear Frank Sinatra” she said contentiously “I don’t want to see him.”   Or Cliff Richard. Or Clark Gable or Marlene Dietrich.  I don’t want to see or hear Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman or Warren Beatty to name but three.   I don’t know what the recoil is about.  I could hypothesise but who cares ?  There are just some people …

The man in charge of the door at my local supermarket is either deeply involved in his telephone in which case you could come in stark naked with your mask as a pubic banner and he wouldn’t notice – or he’s so on the case, he can’t wait to forbid you to step over the threshold before the mask has gone hand to face.    The job is boring and I know it is.  I have drawn breath, narrowed my eyes and my nostrils over him for some time – long  before I had to negotiate him as the Keeper of the Gate – but masked, my sneer is concealed, you cannot hear my clear voice muttering.  And I do love a mutter, saying some unfavourable aside out of the corner of your mouth. It is the most positive thing I can say about the mask.

How much you can see of the face is of course limited, a limitation added to by spectacles, hair or veiling.   But there is intention involved here too. Wearing a mask pushes the face into shadow, covers the mouth so the expression of it cannot be seen and makes the whole face less accessible.    So people will wear their masks and withdraw still further from any social interaction.  I freely admit I fear this.

When I was younger, you offered greetings (“hello”, a time of day “good morning”)  and added all sorts of  I suppose formulaic but pleasant nothings “nice day “, “keeping well ?” “haven’t seen you for ages, how are you ?”  It bridged the gap between people.   I remember this beginning to fall away and I made a conscious decision: not me.   I would continue to use that skill the best way I could.  Of course there are shortfalls – a girl glared at me the other day so savagely I should be pushing up daisies.  But I am not.  Exchange for the joy of speaking is not yet taxed, and you need not be muffled by a mask.    

… and now what?

Like many of us, I can only take so much “news” at the moment.   In an interview with Professor Karol Sikora, a noted cancer specialist (The Times 22.08.2020) he says that, as every resource was thrown at Covid, we must expect a terrible falling away ,because people simply haven’t been able to get to their doctors to be examined or diagnosed, to be helped in the maintenance of where their cancer is up to.   And while the subject of cancer is always emotive, it isn’t the only thing that couldn’t happen.

Given that the subject of health is always personal, I couldn’t get eye tests for five months. More frighteningly, a radio friend with several parallel complex conditions went through months of negotiation to be invited to a specialist clinic online, where different aspects of her illnesses would be considered at the same time.  Her medications were changed, a big deal. She abreacted.  Last Friday marked a week since a doctor said he would come back to her and hadn’t.  He can’t feel a thing.

When we began to use email instead of letters and texts (even faster), it might reasonably be assumed that a line of acknowledgement that you were still waiting to hear might not be too much to hope for.  Huh.

With the adoption of those aspects of technological advance came new power games, new manners, new avoidances.  The last time I was approached to contribute to a documentary earlier this year, I knew that I wasn’t what the producer wanted so at the end of the conversation I said “Look: I have no investment in this.  You want me ? You want me.  You don’t ?  You don’t.  Just drop me a line and let me know.”  Not a word.   Nobody wants to say no thank you in case it sounds like rejection. Oh, tosh.  Let me introduce you to the real world: you get rejected.  We all have levels of it we can stand, and those that are too much to bear.  Some of us have choice in the matter.   But the lack of communication has grown exponentially in parallel with the means of communication.  I am sure the doctor my friend was waiting to hear from is busy.  How busy, that you can’t find five minutes ?

I don’t have much hope of the present government.  They have a majority but that’s all they have.  It is held that “nobody” could have anticipated Covid-19.  I think this is inaccurate but give them the benefit of the doubt.   I want to take them all and teach them how better to speak in public.   Most of their pronouncements blend the sloganizing of Mr. Cummings with the evasion of  Westminsterism. It is not attractive and it sells large numbers of us desperately short.  They don’t know what they are saying because they try – and often succeed – in saying nothing.  And we suspect they are saying nothing because we don’t understand what they are saying  – and then they change it anyway.

I know it is much easier to complain than to praise and it is much much easier for journalists.  You can have a lot of fun with a knocking piece.   But it is interesting who has begun to complain of the government.   A military historian slightly to the right of Genghis Khan calls this a “lapdog cabinet” because you can only be in it if you agree.  Whatever happened to healthy exchange ?   A respected columnist writes that government confusion has aggravated the despair over Covid.  And then a man further right than either of them has written a “who’s minding the store ?” piece coming to the conclusion that Boris only wanted to be PM in title, “the point of winning the election was to win. When it came to actually governing, he packed his tent.”  He isn’t even there when he’s there.   Oh great.  Governed by virtual reality, a ghost in the machine.

P.S.  I knew it, I knew it.  I knew that as soon as I remarked on 160 “likes”, one would drop off so whoever pushed the figure back up- thank you.

160 and kisses

When I read about somebody with millions of followers on Twitter or something, I think it’s just a modern take on public relations – whether it’s Jim the Twister physio or the real Donald Trump if there is such a thing, the Big Orange Nightmare.  So when annalog likes climbed to 100, I was excited.  But the figure now stands at 160 and I have just done a jig in the garden.  Thank you, all of you, all those who have written and all those who have read annalog.

It was agreed from the beginning that annalog would be as it is – no PR, no social media, stand or fall.  The other day, when I was talking to Bunslove (sweet toothed friend) he remarked “there was nowhere for people to talk.” A couple of days later, another quite different person echoed him.  And AZO (All Zoomed Out) appears to a coming indisposition, if not quite a mental problem.  (Am I the only person who finds this terminology oddly dated – like the Victorians covering piano legs with frills in case “nice” women were embarrassed ?)

The need to talk is not met by annalog, well only somewhat, tone rather than talk, aided and abetted by those who want to read something that sounds as if it comes from a person not a committee.   We’d do better on radio but then beggars can’t be choosers.  And no, not podcasts, because that still wouldn’t offer the one thing that is invaluable and that is exchange.

Podcast is like mobile phones, everybody’s doing it, but that doesn’t make it right or good – it just means that’s what is available.  And this morning I read my first “chip” at The Times podcasts (which I have never listened to) but I bet it’s right – the inability to pause and punctuate.

The numbers and the desperate need to mark this up as better or bigger or higher or more fabulous than that get in the way.  What we need is contact and contact at this Covid moment is in short supply.

I don’t think it would fix everything.  I think Covid has frightened the bejasus out of a lot of us in quite a subliminal way which many of us would prefer to deny or dismiss, but significant numbers have just begun to face as evidence of the outcome, as surely as antibodies and not quite tested enough vaccines.  We’ve always said man was a social animal.  It is now increasingly difficult to put together notions of sociability and safety.

Safety is like beauty – it is in the eye of the beholder.  There is currently a big soft dark dry stain in the corner of my bedroom which is under the terrace of the upstairs flat.  It is possible that some moisture has got through the skin between the floor of the terrace and my roof.  It is possible that I have been the recipient of unexpected muck via the airbrick in that corner,  though I do clean, honest I do.   What is sure – rather than possible – is how unsafe this makes me feel.

I imagine the roof falling in, a row with the owner to obtain repair, the expense of redecoration – and then I think of 300,000 people homeless on the streets of Beirut, many more on the streets of the United States – with a desperate lack of basic sanitation which will lead to infection in short order.  I think of migrants trying to cross the Channel from France in the belief that the UK will be better. And how badly that is being dealt with. I think of children separated from parents, I think of the falling away of all that was known in the desperate desire to escape from all that is dangerous. That safety isn’t my safety.  I am shamed.

One of the reasons I so loved Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is because the writer  sees her job as a teacher to find language again for kids who have been silenced by terrible events.   Language doesn’t feed you or put a roof over your head (even one with a questionable stain) but it does give you some aspects of yourself.  And without a sense of self you can’t fight loneliness,ill health, unemployment, homelessness, loss and the massive change all around us.

picture by Kostya Pazyuk

day by day

Here is good news.  When eventually the  extended family plus friends over the back from me  finished  playing music I wouldn’t play and drinking drink I wouldn’t drink, the air cooledand I had a delicious quiet dark hour in which I ate something I enjoyed and watched the best episode of Hetty Winthropp Investigates I have ever seen.   Small pleasures ?  You bet.  Grab them while you can.

Last week after I was told that my right eye has begun to lapse into wet macular degeneration, I was telling a phone friend, an elderly gay man with his own health problems, who likes the telephone as much as I do.  And he spontaneously offered to help out monetarily

if I wanted to stay in the private sector.  I don’t (it’s beyond contemplation) and I wouldn’t take his money because I couldn’t repay it – but oh the thought was lovely.   As good as a reality.

I really cherish my friends – to which too often the stock response is  – “Oh but you must have lots of friends.”  I don’t.  I don’t because I am a pain to all who know and love me, and because friendship is the highest order of relationship.  I don’t call everybody I know a friend.  I am pretty stingy with the term and even in friendship,

it is a matter of degree, and acts of kindness.

In the terribly overrated sweaty heat, I went self consciously into the supermarket with my hair loose where Shirley said “I like you with your hair like that.   You’ve a lot of hair haven’t you – it’s quite thick …” and I told her yes, nearly as thick as the head it’s on, and she laughed as if I had made a good joke.   “I’ve never known you “ she said “when you weren’t cheerful.   You’re always positive, always smiling  …”   She should only know.

This is not a rant.  We can all rant but beyond letting off steam, it gets us nowhere.  There is a lot wrong, I’ll spare you the list.

“Japanese knotweed”

The competition to see who is having the worst time is invidious.

News media – responding to all sorts of pressures including the basic one of keeping your job – promote, investigate, play down and shelve stories.  We are the consumers.   We accept versions of the news – in papers, on radio and tv, via internet, locally nationally globally but always politically.  Which is why the shattering of the last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic only made Page 45 in The Times: the paper is owned by Rupert Murdoch who is not in sympathy with the current concept of global warming.   News stories go in and out of focus, depending on who needs what to happen when.  Vested interests, who’s running which bit of the show …

Robert Fiske wrote Pity the Nation but I couldn’t read it with any understanding because of the complexity of the Lebanese situation, summed up in the aftermath of last week’s explosion in Beirut as having to contend with 18 separate recognised groups.  Add consensus as rare as hen’s teeth to galloping corruption, goodnight nurse (one of my father’s phrases).   And when you look at the geographical position of Lebanon, adhering to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, bordered by Israel, Syria and Turkey, you are reminded of those seabirds you see clinging to rock terraces, ready to die.

Every so often, you get tired of being sensible.  I love good bread, hard cheese and red wine but – noticing the inevitable tightness round the waist and general blurring of countenance – it was time for temporary banishment. They can come back later. And by the same token, I tired of wearing the sensible lace up trainers for which I am usually grateful,  so this morning (as my mother would say) I broke out in a fresh place, floating about in a vision of slate blue top, olive linen pants and espadrilles covered with silver sequins.

It’s not an accident that I’ve quoted both parents in this piece.  Both parents did well by me.   They taught me to look for the good and the helpful and the beautiful and to celebrate them, even if they  came in the tiniest and most ordinary package.

the other PC*

As one day rolls into another and we admit as much shamefacedly to one another, we need to be reminded of each other as humans even more.   I was on my way coming back from getting the papers, a neighbour emerged from her flat, frowning and looking puzzled.  I asked what was the matter ?  “Have the bin men been ?” she asked.  I said I didn’t think so.  “But they’ve been there – look – and there” she pointed “but not there.  I don’t understand.”  I said “The bin men come on Wednesday.”  She looked at me and asked what day it was ?  I said Tuesday and she put her hand to her mouth.  I had the great and illicit pleasure of the touch of my hand on her arm. “Is there some gin in that bottle ? “ I asked grinning and she grinned back.

A couple of days later, I went to get a bus and there were three children – a girl about 11, a boy a little younger and a smaller boy who may or may not have been younger – lined up as if to sing – and a pretty woman in black with masses of coppery curls blowing the slight wind.  “Are they all yours ?” I asked – she looked impossibly young – and she folded up with laughter.  Only the taller boy, she explained, the other two were neighbours’ children.  And we launched into a feeling better conversation, about the light and laughter and exchange and the acceptance of death at which point I asked where she was from, and although born here, the family was from Eritrea.  The continent of Africa has much to teach us before the Chinese completely subvert it into a second colonisation.

Acceptance often sounds like the end of everything  but my favourite American saying is “Three sure things in life: birth, death and taxes.”   With all the medical advances of the last 100 years, speeding up exponentially, what the pandemic leaves us facing is who is going to live, who is going to die and what are we going to do with the plastic ?

When I apologised to Beverley in Waitrose this morning for using an M&S bag (the first I have ever bought), she said “I don’t care as long as you don’t buy another one ..”  explaining that she was shocked  (her word) by the number of plastic bags she had amassed, which she might never have investigated except for some home time during lockdown.  “And where are we going to recycle that ?” I asked.  She nodded vehemently.  Disposable masks are already being dropped in the street, watch any programme about Covid treatment or prevention and you’ll see the level of discard – and what are we going to do with it all ?

Whether it is the PM’s own idea or that of doppelganger Dominic Cummings, I am less concerned about being polite to cyclists (what I want to know is when they are going to be polite to me – let alone to the rest of the travelling public ?) than I am about the plastic.   Couldn’t Carrie Symonds put her baby on her hip and start an initiative for the new world  – the world her child will inherit – because if somebody doesn’t  do something  practical soon, Covid will just become an excuse to give up.  And that much trumpeted normality an excuse for not very much.

I can no longer watch the endless home made stories of what’s right and what’s wrong in the response to/treatment of/survival from Covid-19.   I want to be told where to put the plastic, how it is going to be broken down and dispersed to keep it away from the fragile beleaguered environment which serves us all and needs all the help it can get.   I want to be told how much can be reused.  Not in an interesting hour’s documentary which won’t be watched by enough people to make a difference but in a series of public health announcements, short and sharp, judgemental and directional.    If I thought he’d read it, I’d write to the Prime Minister, as he bounces up and down pompously with yet another ineffectual slogan.

For, yes Prime Minister, we are indeed all in this together.

*PC = post Covid

notes on a letter

What is it with M ?   The Virgin Mary, Monroe, a child murderer (Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s film “M”), Charles Manson and the modern take on it – Maxwell.   It is a long time since I read The Family and Helter Skelter, both books about the Manson Family, which contained one insight that has never left me.   The crossover of the rich and famous with the savagely disturbed and dissolute was always the same, wrote the author – drugs and sex, and sex and drugs.  And you could add, the enabler – m for money.

Quite early the telephone burped and there was a friend of mine who had just discovered that a friend of hers, with a list of difficulties not quite forearm length, had been lying to her for 10 years. She talked a bit and then went off into talking almost to herself, about where they were up to, how it came to light, what it means etc.  “But I didn’t know, I just didn’t know” she muttered.  “What kind of fool am I ?”   And I replied that interaction with any kind of addict is exchange with somebody who wants to conceal what is really happening and is cleverer- said I  – than a waggon load of monkeys.  M again.

I really have never known much about money.  I came from none, earned well and for a long time, made the sort of serious financial mistakes that marked me out as thoughtless and improvident – till I began to realise that some of this was not of my making and that quite a lot of people  went through the same disturbance – even if we don’t experience it or respond to it in the same way. It’s a very emotional business, money.

And when you read – and quite a lot of us will, for different reasons – yet another few thousand words on Ghislaine Maxwell – you see what truly dreadful neurotic power the M word money has.  As my mother (another m) at her most grimly ironical put it “The body always washes.”  In other words, you can escape whatever you did by changing the setting frequently, each time more exotic, more beautiful and further away, in delicious food and wine, choppers and yachts, partypartyparty and wardrobes unending… Or can you ?  When I read these articles ( there have been several), they are all background.   Not a hard fact between them.  You can buy blur with money too, scented mist to soften the edges of who was seen where, with whom, when, what it might have meant, how it looks.  Enviable gold standard displacement activity.

The monarchy (M again) knows a lot about miasma in its primary meaning, unpleasant or oppressive, and the sovereign’s “never apologise, never explain” has never looked simultaneously more archaic, desirable and appropriate.   Because everybody thinks they know about Meghan (M)

and I am not convinced that anybody does.   Watchers have agendas.   Mass media (MM) exploits knowingly and unknowingly our hopes and fears and deepest darkest wishes, what is generally important and what is personal.  The tentacles of that media would currently give any self respecting octopus a migraine (m again.)

And I should here mention murder and marriage (Ms) which lurk in the background of the stories respectively referred to above. Although different in degree and context, both narratives contain various kinds of sadness, trauma and loss.   If you ever wanted to prove that people still believe in fairytales, it is in the idea that suffering ennobles.  It rarely does.  Suffering makes people indifferent (“I was hurt, why shouldn’t (s)he be ?”  Rarely “ I wouldn’t want anybody to go through what I went through”)  At worst, it distorts your reality.

Mary was taken from her family to become an icon, the mother of the Messiah(M).  Marilyn Monroe had enough family to bother her, and enough fame to drive her mad (a big m word).    “M” symbolically kills himself, Manson killed whoever he could reach and when you look at the spurious history of Robert Maxwell, you are brought back to the idea that when people survive the unbearable, they very often become pretty unbearable themselves, unless they decide to become otherwise. 

turning nasty

A woman I was queuing with remarked “In these circumstances, the nice will be very nice and the nasty will be horrid.” She was speaking of the pandemic. Kind of like life.

Last night I watched a movie that one friend recommended highly to me (though he will struggle to explain why – endless repetition of “it’s very good” doesn’t hack it) and another said yes, she’d seen it and loathed it.

I once tried writing about film, but that ended with the cineaste I married, who opined that there was a special door into hell for film critics (probably Jean Luc Godard) and as at that stage I wanted his approval, the idea slid away.  But I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (wonderful title) and then I looked up the writer and in this case director and he’s Irish.  Right.  God bless the Celts.  Dark, violent, verbal and overwhelmingly moral performed by marvellously physical actors, and when the mother says to her daughter “… and I hope you get raped (whatever the rest of the sentence)”  I gasped.

Be careful what you wish for.     Speaking as somebody with a lifetime’s commitment to rage in its every application, positive and negative, if you are going to follow that path, you have to learn to know, to claim, what you say.  Before you say it.  Because it may come back and bite you.

Recently a friend rang me in a terrible stew.  His sister having been furloughed is now being made redundant and the Government furlough funds are being used for severance payments. And for the first time in his thoughtful careful life, he was so angry he sent the story to a news outlet.   And then panicked that it would harm – not her, he’d take care of her – but other people in the work force with her.  The same story features in this week’s Sunday Times (19.07.20) in a completely different industry.  I am almost relieved.  Now I have to decide whether I should tell him about it, or leave well alone, since he has got his head around what he did and why.

I have never been very good with people who can’t tell you why they did or said that.   Or why this or that meant such a lot to them, and they don’t know why, this event, that form of words and on into why that sound matters, why that feeling matters, its origin, even its symbolism.   Nobody knows everything, I know that – but look at the thing. Why those words, that form of words, that action means so much.   Never mind buying a new chair, buy a new consciousness.   Or better still devote attention to the one you have.

It wasn’t a loss not to be able to afford the mostly horrible clothes in the Vogue I read for years (no more), but I often found editorial material that was very interesting.  It was in Vogue that I first read about visualisation.   If you look it up on a search engine, it has all the current buzz words attached.  Step over all that.  Two of the most agreeable and thoughtful interviewees I ever had were general practitioners who had become involved in the British  Association of Medical Hypnosis. Give them “a” for communication,  they introduced me to the idea of self hypnosis.  I didn’t go into that.  But I do continue to concentrate the full force of the mind’s eye

“The Dark Eye by Albert Gargano”

on positive images,  when I am afraid or upset or sleepless.    I can conjure the dogs or the animals I love, this scenery, that bay, and last night before I went to bed (after Three Billboards) there was a horse in the hall.

My biggest insight into horses came when the colt fell away into shadow and the full grown horse came downstage in Warhorse.   It was great theatre and thus I understood why people worshipped them.  Man’s history would be entirely different without the horse. I couldn’t see the colour of the horse in the hall because it was dark but he was large and warm and I stroked him and drifted off to bed with the illusion that if the hellhounds came after me, I could get away.   The smell of his coat lingered this morning.