“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

a good week for a cold

Things have got better in the last 24 hours. Why ? Do we have a decision on Ireland or how to leave Europe ? Has the present incumbent of Pennsylvania Avenue gone fishing ?   Is it the will of some heavily draped Arabian bully that peace should break out in Yemen, since a battle is brewing over his co-religionists in China ? No in all cases. No. Things have got better because I can breathe. Nothing like the easing of sneezing to make you grateful for small mercies.

I lost my voice last weekend.


(My mother would have fallen off a cloud laughing – “Lord, a pause” she’d have said, handing me hot lemon and honey with the other hand. )   Barbed wire throat, followed by a nose that ran better than any train service in the country.   Relentlessly, at three minute intervals. Temperature went up and down but then so did the weather so I wasn’t sure if I was ill or malingering with self pity. Nothing like a head cold for making you feel like the Wrath of God . Definitely a weal on my wellness like a blister on my heel.

Long ago, I remember my son rereading his favourite Dick King Smith about Magnus Powermouse the night before an exam. And his explanation: “it makes me feel better.” The pile of books I was given for Christmas had to wait because they required me to think and I couldn’t. I reread old favourites, soothed by a hot water bottle and wrapped in a blanket. Televisual images swum past my fevered eyes as I watched the news – I am always afraid the world will come to an end without my knowing, in plain language, that I might miss something – but you do have to control how much news you watch because “rolling news” is a snare and a delusion.  It doesn’t roll – it lumbers and BBC ads – relentless promotions for their product – are now nearly as repetitive as those on ITV and almost as irritating. Is there a first prize for that kind of negative achievement ?

I cancelled everything including lunch with the Fire Fairy at the Polish Officers’ Club (it will keep)– only she could know of a second Polish restaurant where most of us knew of one. Food tasted of nothing very much and I don’t want to share my bug with those I know or don’t know.

Flu Prevention Poster Sign

All that “soldiering on” just means more people get sick.

Apart from going out to get the papers and lemons (same shop), I stayed in. I substituted loo roll for tissues, moving every 15 minutes when I wasn’t out for the count, mouth agape, virally stunned. Part 2 of Inside Europe was wonderful – how to make a documentary (1).   The re run of The Making of Modern Britain, written and fronted by Andrew Marr, this segment about Thatcher was htmad (2).   On Wednesday morning I turned into AR of the airwaves

“Bossy Boots! – really”

when I recognised somebody telling me of a very difficult situation as an LP caller – round and round and round and we might get to the middle. Since the middle is often crucial, certainly in this case, and going repeatedly round the houses has been going on – again in this case – 20 years, I asserted myself with a voice that I hadn’t used for 4 days.   Sadly drastic situations require drastic solutions, the avoidance of which is where this all began – so while whatever I said was well intentioned, it was probably useless.   But I did laugh to hear myself and my throat hurt afterwards which – as Mrs. Overall would say – is God’s way of telling me to give over.

I am sorry that in rushing to PC, the wider reference of what Liam Neeson said was ignored. How wonderful to hear Donald Tusk say what he meant, after a two year debate cruelly characterised by hot air and evasion.   The lavender temple balm (my temples, no church in the garden) does wonderful things for my nails. And I read a piece in the New Yorker by Robert Caro that made my heart sing.


We were a full house, me and my son, his daughter and his oldest friend. OF brought tulips for me and separately, a small bunch for Babygirl.   Picture us, strung out from the kitchen (down two steps) along the hall, OF with Babygirl and her flowers in his arms, me and my son behind me in the kitchen and I said “I know a song about tulips” and began to sing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, both men joined in, we sang it twice and Babygirl beamed.

She is three and early on, we discovered that if you could sing , she loved it. We made up silly chants and sang all of The Twelve Days of Christmas twice, just so she could watch first one and then the other of us, and join in Five Go-old Rings ….

There’s a line in an interview with an actress called Jessie Buckley which caught me –“… singing is free”

“the nightingale I am not”

and it made me think how, now that I have accepted that I am not a singer in anything except intent, how much I enjoy it and always have.

Both parents sang. My mother had a true little voice and she sang songs that were old then, often from films or early records.   My father sang bass, cowboy songs (same provenance), Paul Robeson and The Deep River Boys.   Once we got a car, in almost every outing, somebody would begin to sing.   As soon as I learned it, I sang Rock Island Line,longing to learn more old blues and work songs from the Alan Lomax programmes on what was then the Third Programme. The sounds entered my mind forever though I could rarely reproduce them.

We sang at school. In my junior school, Community Singing incorporated folk songs and many of the politically dubious numbers from a just about post Imperial world which remain indelibly in my mind.   (You never know what a song may mean until you sing it to somebody who hears it a different way. How proudly I sang the tune I had learned for The Diary of Anne Frank (on stage) to have Dov, an Israeli, put his hands to his ears. “Not again” he groaned. “We grew up with all that stuff !” I sang a Boer War marching song to a friend from SA who howled “Good Lord, haven’t heard that for years !”)   Music as history: discuss.

In among the madrigals essayed by my secondary school choir, I saw for the first time the phrase “from the opera so-and-so” printed on the sheet music.     For the unsurpassed carol service, we sang carols from the Commonwealth, settings by Benjamin Britten and The Song of the Nuns of Chester (in Latin) which remains in my ear because we sang in language divisions – French, Latin and German. I couldn’t wait to be in a year older and learn the second French carol: I remember them both.

I saw musicals at the cinema and on stage occasionally, thanks to the local Amateur Operatic Society, who trilled earnestly in private and gave voice to much lighter weight stuff for public consumption.   All three of us learned songs from the screen and they were added to the singing part of our car journeys. (You may be relieved to know that we sang very little and very quietly if on trains.)

I sang the night my son came into the world, I couldn’t sleep, but lay there rapt, blood on my best cotton nightie with this wonderful great boy in my arms. A nurse came in briskly, relaxed into a grin and left saying “ Well I came to check up on you – but you’re fine !”   I sang everything I could bring to mind and he watched me thoughtfully.

I have sung when I am lonely, I have sung when I am drunk.   I have sung from the back of open topped vehicles (trucks and jeeps) and that’s probably why I love them.   You can make a noise up there and nobody can hear you. I have sung in the darkness, as I lay in bed, often a song that creeps up from nowhere, on a wisp of memory. Free.    

two wolves*

The woman walked through the doorway,

“red anemone in the negev”

looked at me and came straight towards me with her arms wide so I stepped forward into her embrace and we stood together, saying not a word. When she disengaged from me, I looked at her, she patted my arm and she went on into the small hall where I was due to speak. One of the younger women, overseeing the entrance , said “That was lovely, is she a relative ?”   “I don’t think I have ever seen her before in my life “ I said. I think of her often, especially today. She was a survivor of the Shoah, the deathwind.

I was in my thirties when I first heard the phrase “survival guilt”, the idea that there was a cost beyond simply being glad that you made it and went on living, when other poor souls didn’t. Most of us don’t have grand philosophical thoughts about why this one died and that one didn’t. We just want to survive.   But there is a cost to survival.

The most usual, the most ordinary, is to cherish what you have, that the other person lost – your health, your home, the people you love, the pet, the flowers in the garden, every silver moonbeam, every sunny sky. That sort of person can always find something to give another because they know what can be lost.   Beyond that or aside from that, there are people who can’t sleep or can’t sleep without a pill or a potion or a drink and that is a permanently extending kind of palliative. There are people who can’t bear to cherish – it’s too emotionally expensive, too risky: you may be disappointed, worse it may be taken from you. Again.

Most of us try to balance between the difficulties of our lives and the blessings. You can ascribe all sorts of things to that sense of balance, how you were brought up, who your parental figures were, the work you did, the people you met, your innate sense of self.   But when all these things have been harmed often hideously and wantonly, destroyed, pulled away like skin from flesh, over and over again, in everybody you knew – you begin to see why healing is sometimes relative at best and balance is difficult indeed.

And perhaps balance implies taking time out to weigh everything and sometimes that means you don’t answer as you wish to, but as you think you should. Though sometimes, too, it is helpful to know how you wanted to answer, even if you felt compelled to answer differently.

The internet has let a genie out of a bottle and even in Disney’s “Aladdin”, the genie was nearly overwhelming. Power isn’t good or bad, it’s just power – good for you maybe, same power, bad for me. There are all kinds of wonderful things about the internet beyond shopping and talking to your grannie in Australia, but you don’t have to look very far to see horrors. I have come across things from the slightly distasteful to the frankly abhorrent, just looking for pictures.   And as my son taught me “If you can find the question to ask it, it will give you the answer”, in a frame of reference that is very easy to learn when you are young.

Reading about Molly Russell who killed herself aged 14 and how her family have tried to understand what she watched on the screen, what she saw, how it affected her – we might reasonably conclude that if it is hard for a grown person to find and maintain balance, it is much more difficult for a youngster. I am not in the habit of underestimating the young though I can tell you as one who works with words, that much of what is written is open to the interpretation of the reader and most of the readers want desperately to belong, not to be different. They have already imbibed one of the most sinister messages of the age – they fear that difference kills. And if there is a risk of difference, those clever words endorse your darkest fears, and offer another kind of killing wind.


Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

*Cherokee legend

gardening by hand

It’s wonderful when you have written so much that you have to go back and check before you start again.   Well, it’s wonderful to me when I think of how hard it was to persuade me to do a blog. Was I scared ?   Rabbitfaced.   And I have written what I want to write about – no editor, producer, suit or publisher to account to, nobody’s wishes to fulfil or placate.   When it has worked as it sometimes has, I have shouted with joy. And when it doesn’t, I remember “must try harder”.

Most of the time, I think of my life as I think of my fingernails, permanently a work in progress. Whatever the feminine edition of Samson is,

“Norman Rockwell edition, looking suspiciously like Victor Mature”

I am she because all the strength has gone into my hair, leaving nails like tissue and, short of the modern edition of an old fashioned studio contract where devoted minions justify their working lives by trying to repair the damage with oils and massage, unguents and idleness, I can’t see me making much headway. But I try.

I have lost hope of every “miracle cure” before I ever try it, though I do occasionally find things that are of benefit. I won’t subject you to a recital. To each his or her own.   The endless hyperbole of the perfect answer eludes me. Superlatives I can handle – I use quite a lot of them – but the constant inference of perfection puts me quite of temper. How happily named is The Favourite: right on the money.

Look at the BBC’s show on Icons – one over all ?   Cultural fascism. A healthier idea is that we live in a world which embraces the widest possible range – bits and pieces of as much as the individual can favour or understand – and while when you are in the middle of it, it may be exhausting and frustrating, at the same time it makes room for a lot more people to excel, whether in leg length or astrophysics. One over all is just a popularity contest, it’s about who appeals to you because in many cases you won’t know the name or the endeavour, you’ll only recognise the face and say (as a friend of mine does over and over again) “I always thought (s)he was a nice person” not knowing more than the fulsome paragraph she has read somewhere accompanied by a benign photographic image.

And let it be said that very often, people of great gifts and achievement are anything from a bit difficult to absolutely horrid.   And secondly let it be said that because you’re relatively attractive, that doesn’t make you honest or caring or likeable: it just means the success package may be more easily placed.

Some people appeal to us more than others and choice is personal. Others produce in us an absolute sense of withdrawal. You can’t help it – you don’t like him or her or it.   You just don’t.   You can try to analyse this and come up with some small particular that has jarred but you don’t get far.   Whatever it is, you recoil. End of.   And when you think about it, this is no more unlikely that its opposite, where you are open to persuasion and are thus indoctrinated to like this bread or that body, that smell or those shoes, by the apparently unending incantation of certain vocal themes, music, associations, colour, people, pets – anything that will make you accept that you do want whatever it is that’s on offer.   At a price.

The most useful thing about identifying my life with my nails is how long it takes to make a difference.   And I don’t mean six weeks’ long , I mean long long. In a world of mixed messages (they always were mixed, there were just fewer of them) you can see why gardening is so popular for no matter what you are promised, the process will take as long as it does, depending on weather, soil and how things work out.   Very few people are so gifted or technically apt that they can change those odds. The commitment to today leads to the commitment to tomorrow. I just wish I could find somebody who grew fingernails.     


Time can be measured, the measures can be named, but time is.

“Gold 18th century time measuring device”

It cannot be stopped. The sun comes up and the sun goes down but when there is no more sun, it is the end of everything we know and I don’t mean KFC. Casting about for a place to begin this morning, I looked up January. The temptation to dismiss January as a month of cold Monday morning is considerable. What I found was Janus, the two faced god, he who patronises (I quote) beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings. I was momentarily soothed. The image was January as a work in progress. Better than headlines screaming disaster when there is damnall I can do about it.

This January one of the kindest women I know eventually began to realise that she was kind to everybody but herself.   Her behaviour has altered. She is (dare I say?) steadier.   This January another friend who has had a year of upheaval including the disintegration of a long partnership and the hospitalisation of a beloved niece finally faced some uncomfortable truths – and promptly bought two dresses. Hasn’t happened in 20 years. They are targeted sale buys as she is about to go into very much warmer weather, travelling in the job that has kept her sane over this “passage” period, out of one set of things and into something else. Nobody would deny it was painful but at least there is movement.   Janus.

We usually think of two faced as being a bad thing. It can be. Most of us have been let down or felt ourselves to be so, by a work colleague or an intimate, or even at the hands of a professional we trust – and it is painful. We say “There are two sides to every question” but that’s minimal. There are all sorts of aspects to everything. Looking for things to be simple is misleading and frustrating.

Another friend’s eyes were streaming. And they itch and they hurt and you must know how miserable that is. But she was prescribed certain eye drops and that’s what she has used – not the same bottle, but the same stuff, for years.   I suggested she might question this, with the doctor (not big on the GP), OK, with the pharmacist (she has a tame one locally) or even with an eye specialist – a one off but sometimes worth it. Things change. Janus.

Not everybody has means.   But most of us have some means and it is important to have them for what you need them for. Always prone to migraine, I had a run of what I called headaches recently because they took place in the head but they were characterised by distortion of vision, not pain.   There was a particular one where I went to put a face on a GP who has gone out of his way to be helpful. Until now, we’d not met – communication had been written and once by phone. He checked me over and commented on slightly raised blood pressure but was honest enough to say it was in no way conclusive. I went home, thought and went back (more money) to my eye specialist, he who had melted in the summer heat into a much more accessible person than I had first thought him.   He listened, ran the tests again and referred me to a neurologist who specialises in headache.

The latter recognised every symptom, explained, put me through all sorts of balance and co-ordination tests, explained some more. Nice man, cost the earth.   But I left him knowing how to proceed.

The other day I fell in love with a Braque lithograph. I recognised it, it took my breath away. I priced it.   And the admirably approachable owner of the shop reduced it, almost at once, but I went away to think.   And this is what I thought : God forbid I should be so unlucky as to have a brain tumour but if I have further problems, I have already put my hand up to transfer back into the NHS clinic of the neurologist I consulted. I have a reference point, I know how to proceed.   It is 2019, the NHS is overrun, small specialist crisis like mine are casualties of its purview. Janus turned his face against the Braque, better uses for the money.

“thank you Braque, also the name of a hound – Janus rules”

slimming by ear

I am very worried. I have just found a Gwyneth Paltrow recipe I like. We get so used to the wilder shores of her successfully realised snowflake/woebot/neo-vegan/professionally twee extremes, that we forget she is a well educated upper middle class survivor and this clean but not mean gurudom has got to be better than lingering around the ego-beatup that is Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure she works, for nowadays it is axiomatic to see the hardwon pile driving effort that goes into anything that succeeds. (Good Lord, I am exhausted and I have only written six lines …) It’s wellness that does it. How I hate wellness. Boop-a-doop Goop, I can just about get on with – I know a girl has to make a living – but wellness brings me out in hives.

The concept is OK, it’s the word. I don’t like it. It’s arch, false, designed to sell something . Growling slightly, I just about got my head round wellbeing but wellness gives me the pip. A phrase like “everybody’s toolbox for optimal wellness …” and mine is instantly compromised by a combination of repressed fury and uncomfortable laughter. Irony bypass. I am so glad that I am not young any more …

In the ear or on the page, American voices were and remain a different section of the verbal life orchestra, starting with the movies. New York introduced me to all sorts of new words, some of them frankly bewildering, suspenders and fags among them. Language is always on the move, slang to start with (the vernacular) and then language proper. It is after all a scant week since I read the 400 pages plus of Becoming by Michelle Obama – and it pains me to tell you that there is a wellness in there. I am sure it is correctly used, I just don’t like it.

But I read a lot of American writing, I always have since I was introduced to Arthur Miller at 13. And I could see differences in the language, in the uses of the language and I can’t remember being troubled by it. Trouble began in would-be “take me seriously” texts, usually from law or medicine or sociology or any of them via media – the language of most US TV series based in or around the law required a working knowledge of their legal system and a very sharp ear. Same with politics. Or health. And health is politics. And all of these extensive subjects are dealt with by degree – enjoyment, information, documentary, soap … and subliminal marketing.


I hear US voices , because of the dominance of culture, especially pop culture, but also because my favourite news programme is dually anchored (mostly) Washington DC and London and it is their pride to offer speakers often unknown to me (hooray )– most of whom express themselves extremely well (often my experience with American guests when I was broadcasting.) They know (and knew well in advance of most of us this side of the pond) that to promote themselves they would have to be open to and accessible by media – and they were brilliant. Brilliant in their version of my language, not a wellness in sight.

Wellness is a cod term, a carefully composed lipstick red herring, all dressed up and only going to the bank off the back of diet books. Sure, it’s important to get people to eat more vegetables and less meat. But as importantly, we need to understand why some people eat more than others and why some find it so hard to lose weight. And for that you need a different voice – the voice of the scientist slogging through time to understand a very complex matter. Watching a friend who has just lost 70 lbs put over half of it back on, I fell on a review of geneticist Giles Yeo’s book Gene Eating (Seven Dials £14.99) – and the most important word is health – the middle of NHS which is staggering under our collective poundage and the illnesses it accrues. “Science” says Yeo “is set up to get at the truth eventually.” I’m off to the bookshop. I’ll walk.


If the magic of Christmas to me is its silence, then the coming back down to earth of New Year is its noise – harsh voices, loud fireworks, the clash of bottles in the night, on into the morning of the First Day.   Here we go again.

The days in between Christmas and New Year are often odd. Some people go away, some come back. Shops stay stubbornly closed or just as stubbornly open. I lost count of people saying they didn’t know which day it was.   Sometimes the week seems interminable and this year it surely was.

There are two women I meet on the bus, both a little older than me, both better off, regular attendees at a local church and it is on their way there or back that I usually see them. But I haven’t seen either one of them for a while and you know that nobody lives forever. On New Year’s Eve, I met the younger woman, sort of Phyllis Calvert in silvergilt, and we sat happily together, she glad to see me, she said, me equally pleased to see her. And while we shared our various family bits and pieces, she remarked (as so many people have done this year, those you know and those you don’t know at all) what a strange period of time this is, how unsettled, and frankly, how frightening.   And as I got up to get off, we measured each other as carefully as boy and girl on a first date and kissed each other good wishes and courage for 2019.

Somewhere in there I saw the BBC Review of 2018, on BBC4. I love compilations, bits of film, bits of programmes, all the wonderfully gifted people who’d died that year, roughly gathered into subject headings. By chance I saw it a second time and it ended with Aretha Franklin singing as only she could, in all her African splendour.

Victoria Falls Adventure Playground of Africa

I made a note of the editor and emailed her at BBC just to say thanks and well done, even better the second time and bless her, she sent me the whole Franklin clip which is like diamonds in my ear.

And then I spent New Year with Pat Barker and Michelle Obama. I was loaned The Silence of the Girls and Becoming respectively by a neighbour who didn’t want to read either yet – but she knows I read fast. My mother used to call this “trying it on the dog.”

Becoming is an inspired title, Mrs. Obama is quite a woman. But nothing prepared me for her candour about her background, the difference between it and that of her husband, the great driving wish to do your best.  And to say clearly that, once your husband got into politics, it was like another person in the marriage, constantly to be negotiated. No wonder it is selling. And Becoming is a wonderful play on words. I don’t like the cover photo (all the convention of overdressed hair and a particular kind of eye makeup) but it wouldn’t put me off for five seconds.   So that got me to just about the witching hour, when I thank God for my blessings, swallow the last sip of brandy and tonic and look for something else to read because I can’t sleep in the noise.

I read the first two books Pat Barker ever wrote and now she is up to 15. The Silence of the Girls didn’t grab me as a title but the idea of examining the fall of Troy from a woman’s perspective did, bearing in mind that women played no great role in the ancient world. Marriage was less to do with emotion and more to do with order and possession and war – every war right up to this moment – destabilised the enemy by destroying societal norms. Women were just flesh.

“Bakira Hasecic”

I found the ease of the writing and the subtlety of the adjusted stories thrilling.   These are my fairy stories – you can keep Game of Thrones.

So here I am, marking the beginning of the new year all in women (unless you count a passing nod to Barack Obama). I didn’t set out to do it this way. My rule of thumb is distinctly non-partisan when it comes to women. The good are great and the bad are horrid, just like everything else in the world.