“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

two sides to everything (at least)

I was growling as I walked up the road yesterday, narrowly avoiding a young woman with each thigh the size of my ribcage who was riding a bike on the pavement.   I no longer expect miracles of bike riders, however much they try to make themselves sound like a higher form of life.  Sometimes those with brains use them and the rest are horrible.  Moreover, I am sick to aesthetic death of sub sports wear and I hate leggings.  Leggings overkill.  Yes, I know they are cheap, fashionable, cheap, revealing, cheap, practical – I can see that their cost effectiveness is what makes them exemplary to some – but they have become a uniform.

I was never big on uniform.  If you are in concerted effort with a number of like minded people (air/sea rescue, various  military, the Conservative Party) I can see you all want to wear the same because you want to recognise each other. But wait – just think about books and covers.  I prefer a modest individualism.

In order for a society to function (this is beginning to sound contentious) we have to agree norms, like wearing clothes at all and not spitting in the street.   We have to agree on ways to be and conduct ourselves which will be generally acceptable.  Then we have to admit that, if you are dressed a certain way, the rest of us expect certain manners and certain behaviours.
But that doesn’t always work out.

At my secondary school, we had a taste of all sorts of things I should think are long gone – community singing, country dancing, deportment and public speaking.  The latter came to mind when I heard the clichés – if sincere, seriously shopworn – the Education Secretary was using.   “Good God” I thought “if you’d stood up in front of my class 60 years ago, those would have been weeded out.”   Not “silly boy”, just “you can do better than that.”

We were taught a degree of fluency, suggestive of competence and authority.  One of the exercises was to describe making a cup of tea, from filling the kettle to milk and sugar – without hesitating.  No “er -um, y’know what I mean.”  I accept that anybody may falter but when you trip over yourself over and over again in a public presentation, the message is evasion and confusion.

Of course, the risk is that dictators usually sound as if they know exactly what they are doing, even before they get to the haranguing stage.   That’s why dictators are both loved and hated.  Cheap, popular and uniform – Adolf or the Orange Enchilada (USA) in leggings. Isn’t the mind wonderful ?  Does it balk at the slogans ?  I hope so.

Yesterday among the reruns and repeats, I found two old films I had never caught up with – one about a journey which always appeals to me and the other the story of a melodramatic love affair – and you can see me putting my head on one side  – “oh, really ?”   In the event the journey was so slow as to be unwatchable and the tortured love affair – a highly digestible mixture of twinkling stars and Hollywood back story with great camera, editing and clothes – won.    Then I realised thinking about it that, were it necessary, I could plead wonders for the journey and dismiss the love affair as dated twaddle.   I wouldn’t mean it but I could do it. Very little is absolute.   And yet …


I am reading a book called Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.  Invest, it’s worth it.  Unsettling us in their numbers and their noise -make up your own list, you know what you like and don’t like about kids. Through fashions in psychology, mass marketing and manipulation, they have become almost a nation apart. Read something like this in which the mass is less the focus than the individuals and you see them as people. They may not be what you want or approve of, but you can at least see (through Kate Clanchy’s talented writing) the other side.  At least one other side.  And it lifts the heart. 

God and Christian Dior

Only twice in my life have I managed to feel like a Victorian lady looks, corseted, frail and in need of shelter from the world.  Once was after I hit a boyfriend  a freak blow, square on the chin he kept offering me and as he fell, he hit his head on the living room wall, the mirror and a table underneath and came to with me crying, a la VL, on his chest because I thought I had killed him.  I hadn’t.   And it was definitely muslin skirts and lavender soaked cloths in a darkened room in that couple of very hot days.  I wasn’t pretending to be prostrate, I was prostrate.   A spring lamb in dry heat, humidity saps my energy and makes me stupid.   I feel like my hair looks.  I hide.

I have long acknowledged that I prefer the second half of the year.  I love everything about autumn

Autumn. Fall. Autumnal Park. Autumn Trees and Leaves

– falling leaves and their colours, the smells which linger in the cooler air, the dusk that settles over the end of the day, the cold or the wet or the wind that begins it.   And I like winter.   I know what to wear, what to put on my face, what to eat, how to be.

The seasons are disturbed, the weather patterns fractionalised which compromises the hard work of farmers and food providers.  And this year there is a strange sort of precursor of autumn where the flowers are blooming and the leaves are green, all utterly lovely, but there is a continual trickling fall of those leaves dried early, knocked off by sudden rain or assertive winds.

And winter knocks hell out of my nails.

It is a very long time ago that I briefly (oh vanity) had false nails put on.  They looked lovely but taking them off was terrible.  Every nail bed bled and I have tried ever since to heal them.  This led first to the subculture of nail technicians, directly comparable to the study of witchcraft in remote islands.  I didn’t visit these people compulsively but I did it over a very long time.  And I tried remedy after remedy.  I ate so much jelly I wobbled.  But my nails remained the opposite of the mane where Samson rules, strong healthy heavy hair and nails like tissue paper.

There was a strange period some years ago (remaining in some quarters) where the nails of the feet and particularly the hands became a sort of sexual commentary all of their own.  You’d see a woman with torrents of badly dyed hair, unflatteringly clothed and shod, with immaculate nails and feet.  I was clean and decent, covered my feet and used a lot of handcream.

Over time, I found two manicurists who could help me maintain my nails but never anybody who could help me with their health.  I probably didn’t know where to look without spending a great deal of money and I was very much once bitten, twice shy.

Finding a reinforcing nail polish type thing, I used it till it was suddenly no more.  That was the last time I gave L’Oreal credit for anything.  Why weren’t my nails worth it ?    My rubric had long been that I could spend money on nail preparations but I must use them up and it was in this frame of mind that I remembered Christian Dior’s Crème Abricot.   Dior had just had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I had just read his memoir which conceals at least as much as it reveals.   And so I went rather shyly to an appropriate counter where the deep red goo in its monogrammed pot was revealed to me, first made in 1923.  Nothing lasts that long in that industry unless it works.   I also found a nail varnish type preparation in the same range.

I did not redesign the garden through three months of lockdown, or Zoom or exercise anew. I did not do an extra mural degree or learn Mandarin.  I read books, watched movies and  used Crème Abricot. The heat helped and the good God gave me my hands back, for which I am eternally grateful.

words fail me

I was brought up to believe that if you liked someone, you would find a way to relate, to talk, past any social difference or difficulty, because you liked him or her. Out of that communication everything else would follow, easily or otherwise.   By the same token, I was brought up to believe that if you had an immediate animal doubt, respect it, act on it.  Move away, stay guarded.  In adulthood, I often learned to apply the two at the same time ie move forward verbally and keep your ears pricked.

I remember my mother trying to get me to go to parties (I rarely enjoyed a party) explaining that it wasn’t about being a wet blanket.  It was about what you felt, really felt, not spoilt brat pout. “And if you feel something’s wrong” she went on, “get them to ring me.  I’ll come and get you.  Best polite excuse is food poisoning.  Nobody wants proof of that!   But I want you to at least try and see …”   It was a long time before I realised the size of the freedoms and responsibilities with which my parents had imbued me.

When I was about 8, the older daughter of the family at the end of the road arrived late one evening, and asked to speak to my mother.  My father went to the house, Pat talked to my mother in the front room.  Her father lashed out when he was in drink, this time it was bad.  Her mother was hysterical, her younger sister frozen in fear.   Between them my parents helped to sort it out.  When I asked the next morning if Pat was all right, my mother said quietly that she intended to marry her boyfriend and get out of “all that” (she gestured).  “What about Valerie?” I asked, who was though older, nearer to my age.  “You choose when you can” said my mother.

Last week a woman I know a bit and like a lot asked if she could have a word with me?  And when I said yes, she drew me aside.  “What would you do if you knew someone was being knocked about by their (sic) partner?”   I said ring the police.  She said “My husband would kill me if he knew I got involved.”  I said you don’t have to give your name: you say you want to report domestic violence, you will be asked for the name and address of the person at risk.  Her eyes filled.  Or, I went on, you can get in touch with Refuge (founded as Women’s Aid).  “Where will I find them?”   Online.

This morning a neighbouring flowerseller said in the course of pandemic pleasantries “It’s all very well, this lockdown, but it’s not easy to be at home with somebody, all day every day.”  Figures for domestic violence are up over 60 per cent.  When times get hard, far too many take it out of the next rung down in the pecking order.

So I rang the only person I know with a brain and a radio programme, and told him about it.  And Lisa (not her name) is ready to talk to the police and fight back.  Imagine all that over the head of a small child and with the long hours of a who knows for how long job.

“doggy paddle – keeping going “

Could the violence have been anticipated?  Was there something, some sign you should have seen but missed because you were trying so hard to get things right?  I don’t know.  You don’t see what you don’t want to see, that I do know.    And then when you have acknowledged something is terribly wrong, what do you do and where do you go?   I know a woman who waited till her violent husband went away on business, packed up herself and three kids and came back to England from abroad, with nothing, to start all over again. Her hair fell out and never regrew. How I respect her.

Because my life’s work has been communication, to find the words, to help other people find them and use them.  Using the right words is less emotionally expensive or physically painful than a blow. And violence never stops with one blow.

old wood

In the dear dead days when media still expanded from time to time and that didn’t have to mean unreliable rubbish, you could build items into the early morning news programmes around other people’s findings, in the form of surveys and quizzes.  If it came from a big enough institute of learning, the numbers involved would make the findings tenable but even if the numbers were smaller, and the whole thing was probably based on a straw poll in the office, you could still make a “talker” out of it, ethical light relief.   I’d be called at five a.m. because I was up the road from one such station and had learned long ago to rationalise clothes and presentation into 15 minutes max., get in the car and somebody will tell you what you are talking about – quite different from what to say.

There is a current study out of Princeton (American Ivy League, so far unTrumped) which says that gardening is good for you. It mitigates (I quote) against isolation and promotes EWB (emotional well being).  YKWIM  (you know what I mean.)   But nothing beats loppers.

In the longest period of psychotherapy (5 years plus with the wonderful Heather) I remember recounting a dream.  I don’t very often remember my dreams but this was very clear.  I was carefully removing from the apple tree in the back garden of the marital home every dry leaf and faltering twig, obviously to promote its health, and I remember saying that I didn’t know what the dream meant.  My therapist’s eyes twinkled.  “Ever heard of dead wood?”

I thought of this when I did the careful preliminary strikes on the winter broom and the laurel (annalog “don’t get around much”).   The laurel shook its head, took a deep breath and normal service was resumed.  The broom continued to look peeky.  “I need loppers” I told AJ on one of his periodic visits.  “You don’t want to carry those, they’re heavy.  Get them on line” he suggested.  I hesitated.    I don’t mind ordering things online, it’s all the other stuff that incurs. ( I have never forgotten 181 explicitly sexual emails from Russia). “I’ll get them” he said and he did.

They aren’t heavy, they are light, well balanced and if I (current holder of the Golden Ham Fist) can use them, anybody can. I cut away the over growth with grace and power.   And there isn’t much I can do with grace and power nowadays.  The broom is a mass of new growth and considering its options.

I was reminded of my loppers last night when I set out to watch a film I expected to like and didn’t , followed by another I expected nothing of and was rather pleased with (Films 1 and 2).   Film 1 was losing me to a complicated scenario when Wal called.  It’s much easier to talk frittata with Wal than to sort out celluloid time zones and social insensitivity.   So I gave up and waited with every kind of misgiving except the actors, for Film 2 about late life change.    Generally speaking these films leave me cold.  They are either romanticized muck and brass or they are all Belgravia botox.  And though I could pull this product apart and toss the remnants, there were some stand on your chair and cheer verities.

Things didn’t move easily, there wasn’t endless money, people had to contend with the ugly face of Alzheimers, terminal illness and bereavement in life, as we do.  It was too long but the length was used to make you see how hard it is to do something else.  There was some good music, some happy times and some smart asides, just enough courage and hope to avoid a hearts and flowers ending, fiction used to enhance fact. More and more I think of movies, past or current, in terms of pick and mix.  You look for the bits you respond to and forget the rest.   And sometimes, in trying to get your head round enormous changes (the pandemic) you wind up absurdly happy with something small (the loppers).

Loppers by Presch Tools gmbh

Film 1: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Film 2: Finding Your Feet

And a toast: old wine to drink, old friends to meet, old wood to burn.


13 years older than me, my sister was a child of WWII and my mother took her to the country where the bombing was less.  They moved into rooms in a country vicarage a long way away for the time (hardly any petrol for cars, few trains) while my father stayed at the local aerodrome with the Air Training Corps.  My mother became a magistrate’s clerk in a nearby town, and she told me as a little  girl, about getting up in the morning and pulling trousers and a coat over her pyjamas, to make tea and get my sister and herself ready for the day.  I can’t explain to you why this image of my pretty mother (I’d seen photographs) pulling a tweed coat and corduroys over her nightwear stuck with me but it did.  I smile as I remember it, I bet she put on perfume too.

There was a robin in the garden one day last week and I sped from the kitchen to the other bigger window, picking up my glasses, so I could watch without disturbing him.

When he flew away, I went and put on newspaper collection clothes – pants, trousers, socks and shoes, sweater  – no bra ! – and a soft and voluminous jacket that conceals all.  If I am knocked down by an errant vehicle, everyone will know.   I put my far too long, Noh play lion, hair up and taking my purse (check for keys) and the bag that stands ready, I walk the five minutes up to the main road where two white vans pass.  From the window of the second comes a young man’s voice shouting “I like your hair !”   I gape and raise my arm.  And from the window of the van up the road, I see a young man’s dark arm waving back.

Irving Penn (1917 – 2009)

When people talk (and they don’t much, it’s a journalistic thing) about the pandemic influencing us for the better, they are not talking about mass movements.   We won’t suddenly all become good neighbours or better friends.  But there might just be a renewed interest in the small acknowledgements, politenesses and behavioural generosities that make the day brighter.

There are a group of people who are working harder from home than they ever worked in the office and may I say that 12 hours a day on the screen is tough on the eyes and the back ?  Yes I know, theoretically you should stand up, stretch and move every fifteen or twenty minutes but you don’t, you forget, the next thing happens and you go on.

And then there are all the people whose work has just closed down and heaven knows where they go from here.  One minute, there were three young women in publishing living next door to me, offering their mobile numbers in case I should need them.   But they were gone overnight – no income, no rental.

Ian Matyssik

And alongside the small courtesies which take no time and cost nothing, there might be a greater appreciation in the subtle gradations of meet and greet.   We don’t all become friends.  Friendship is  a very high order of social and emotional connection.   I can’t stand that phrase “my new best friend” unless it’s said in jest.  Nor can I remember the last time I heard someone talk about an acquaintance.  It risks sounding chilly and formal.  We must all be friends – thank you, I prefer to choose mine rather than have them foisted on me.

But there are two women, slightly older than me, whom I met because I said “Good morning.”   Obviously I look as if my neck is clean (and my bra on) so they would risk returning the greeting and we are free with each other for all sorts of subtle personal reasons, because we  “recognise” each other but also because these are hard times.  This is not The Great Mortality (see John Kelly’s book on the Black Death) nor the Second World War.  But it is quite bad enough.  This is the Third World War and it will be fought every way except militarily – economically, socially, medically, psychologically – not made any easier to bear by the political aggrandisement of several men who are a disgrace to the genus.

“…don’t get around much…”

Eyes are precious. Yes, I am as scared as the next person of being unable to breathe or dying in agony but I am so scared of losing my sight that I shrink from writing the word “blind.”   God spare me this.  Eye problems changed my daily prayer from “if it be Thy Will “ to  “Please God take me before You Take my eyes”.  So when the right eye went into spasm and the image I was watching on tv became more and more misshapen and (briefly) vanished, I did what you do when you don’t know what else to do:  I went to bed.

The next morning I wrote through the blur

to Prof (my specialist) via his enormously likeable and capable practice manager whose initials are AA.   I confirmed we had already been in touch (routine check, delayed of course), none of the tests were available and asked for help.  (I spell this out because I regard learning to ask for help as one of my few conscious steps towards maturity).   AA rang at 9.00 the next morning to book Prof, who spoke to me at 11.00, his most pragmatic and thoughtful self.  He advised warm compresses to relax the eye and improve the blood flow, frequent use of eyebright and blinking more, a lot more – in fact, when in doubt, blink – all of which has been amazingly effective.  Plus of course the psychological aspect of putting me back in charge of my own eye.

Reconciled with my flawed but functional peepers, I read a piece in the New York Review of Books about the Sahel – not a word I knew, I had to look it up.  Turning the page, I noticed a note which said look up metmuseum.com for the exhibit so I did –  gasped with pleasure – and learnt something: how much I had missed new things to look at, things to learn about (see Merlin in The Once and Future King).

I don’t miss most of the ghostly shops with their boarded up or empty windows though they look eerie as they are and their display was part of my visual background. I wonder how many will ever open again, how all that empty property will be used.  Online purchase has been restricted to   expensive face cream (my age, you know) which Wal found for less and cheap loppers (see below).

Though the QuoG (queen of gardeners) lives up the road, I am not she.  For years I thought my fingers were purple and my touch toxic, but however wonderful her horticultural gifts, she cannot or will not communicate them.  So, never a pruner, I tried and as the first attempt survives so far, I tried again, this time with an untrammelled laurel.

I cooked something different and bought the ingredients in different places.   The first two servings were a cheering success, the third (different sources – no pun intended) less so – but it was new to me.

In common with a lot of other people, I went through files and cupboards, tearing up and throwing away.  And like a lot of us, there were whole days that passed in a psychological monotone. We are not all buoyed up by online cocktails or “flexibility furlough” and as a friend put it “I am not depressed but this is depressing.”

I had to face the fact that, just because a film is old, it doesn’t follow that I want to watch it and have I turned off some rubbish !

A new friend posted me an old book I had always wanted to read, beautifully wrapped in tissue printed with Hokusai’s waves and a black and white postcard which said “I really want you to have this.”   Birthday, Christmas and unexpected gift all rolled into one, her thought and the text.

And the sunshine, though very convenient for drying things and airing the rooms, showed up walls in need of a once over and even (I blush) a cobweb.   I can only hope I spotted it before anybody else.

After a telephone call from someone who clearly believes in science as 15th century scholars believed in alchemy,  has lockdown been eased too early ?  I don’t know.  And neither does anybody else.   We’ll see.   Just remember to wash your hands.

soap rules!

“I was George Osborne’s dustbin …”

Generally speaking, I support the printed word and one of the thrills of my working life was to be given a set of national newspapers daily.  I still buy two newspapers most days, occasionally a third but I admit to pet hates too and suddenly The Evening Standard began to be delivered through my letterbox.  This is a publication I would only use under my shoes.  Friends told me they were not so honoured and I now have a notice on the door which says “Please do not deliver The Evening Standard here.”

I would write to the editor if I thought he’d get my letter but he has repaired to the country.

His name is George Osborne and he featured on the cover of the Saturday Times colour magazine this week, because he was formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer, he is rich, recently divorced, has a new girlfriend, has lost weight and has “never been happier”.  If you care.

There are people you can’t like.  You don’t know them but you can’t like them.  Your dislike isn’t reasonable because you don’t know them but there is a kind of animal recoil.  Hooray for animals.  Unable to speak, they have enviable instincts and perceptions.

George Osborne is not a pretty man but then neither was Les Dawson and I adored him.   GO has an unfortunate speaking voice and a patronising manner.  Perhaps this should be addressed in preference to which sneakers he wears.  Voices matter, the manner of presentation is important.  I bet I am not alone in being turned off merely by the sound of what he says, never mind what it means.  I am sure he is comfortable in the boardroom but I do wonder about the social skills of a man who has been married for 20 years and sired two children, on record as saying he has never been happier.  Thanks chum, that’s somebody else’s life you just dismissed. Of course it is possible that he is just another one of those people who went along with the conventions and then found them wanting – or that the interviewer who had some slight previous acquaintance of him misquoted him.  But he’s an editor and presumably has at least one phone to use if he had had the slightest pause over this representation.

However,  if the article initially comes over as midlife crisis, a bit further down the text he advises the PM to tell unfortunate truths, to say publicly that we can’t continue with the lockdown, economically we are on our knees.  We are going to have to face the presence of the virus,  even as we try to manage it, and that means living with death.   This is important because death is out of fashion and surrounded as we are with those who break the current law and then pretend it doesn’t matter, it is restfully clear.   Marks for this.

“you have to do this through voice and manner if you are speaking PM to population”

If there is one quality politically wanting in the last weeks,  no matter how  unpleasant, it is clarity.

And the mysterious delivery of the paper is revealed too.  The Evening Standard is a freebie.  It depends on people stopping you in the street to hand it out.  And of course they can’t – social distancing forbids such an approach.  It is piled high at railway stations for commuter collection: but the stations are closed and the commuters aren’t travelling.    Heaven knows how they selected where to deliver the journal but it was dumped on us.  And like every other freebie it winds up blowing down the street, or lodged in letterboxes where it advertises absence.  There is a financial implication to have whole editions left in your lap but wouldn’t it have been greener and thus a better story all round to pulp the lot ? Wasn’t there a process by which you could make this all smell a bit more like roses and a bit less like getting somebody else to dispose of it ?  Oh well.  You were a Teenage Werewolf ?  I was George Osborne’s dustbin.


The girlfriend of a friend’s son (late 20s) remarked that she didn’t like saying thank you,

“sweet peas mean thank you”

it made her feel obligated.   Less a chip on the shoulder than a whole sack of potatoes.  I have a particular relationship with courtesies in general and thanks in particular and off the top of my head, I can’t think of a circumstance in which I would feel obligated.  Wal taught me late in life that if somebody really wanted to buy your lunch, (a) they could probably afford it and (b) you should let them.  The rubric about “no such thing as a free lunch” is another matter.

My mother used to growl about gratitude being a dangerous emotion and in context, I can see what she was driving at.  Grateful that someone special (business or pleasure) noticed you, took you to dinner, took you to bed was a hiding to nowhere in particular.  Your gratitude might be expected – not appealing – or ignored – rejecting. There must be a better basis for social transaction.

I am sure I was just as resistant about thanks as every other small child and had to be encouraged to acknowledge effort, kindness and /or the gift of the last toffee but encouraged I must have been, because it is deep in my marrow.

And it didn’t take a pandemic to get me to notice the efforts that made my life easier.   Thank you costs nothing, takes a few seconds and often, means a lot.  So I was shocked when last week I thanked a man in the supermarket and he said with a shrug “No choice.  If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be here.”  OK.  So now I am facing 30 years of disappointment.   I said very levelly “There is always a choice. I’m just thanking you for being here today”, collected my shopping and the foot I had put in it, and left.

The same thing happened in M&S where a woman said “Don’t tell me, tell the management.   Makes no difference if you don’t” though other sources tell me M&S have been assiduously supportive of their staff.    As Abraham Lincoln said “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” and I used to add, only a fool would try.  The warmest thanks you ever get is for doing your best.

I risk going “on” about my parents because they were outstanding – with a full set of ups and downs, and family rows and difficulties.  Light shone round them, nothing to do with haloes.  They were married 48 years when my father died and in some ways it was a deeply conventional marriage (she cooked, he smoked) but it had roots of commitment and honour and respect.   Apart from loving each other, they liked each other and they bore each other up in times of trouble.

All the way through my childhood, till I was 17 and left home,  I remember my father thanking my mother as the punctuation to the end of a meal whether it was what she called “scratch”  or something with a bit more finesse.  My father knew that my mother always did her best and he thanked her for it.

It didn’t take a pandemic for me to realise that thanks is acknowledgement and in an increasingly greedy and materialistic society, you risk feeling that you are worth nothing if it’s not reflected in what you earn, or what you’ve got.

Thanking my dustbin men started years ago, when I realised what a decent bunch they were.  They’d take anything as long as it was properly wrapped.   I am capable of standing at the door and applauding the man with a vehicle called a Scarab that sweeps up dead leaves and the rubbish in the gutter, both of us grinning.  Who loses ?

One of the great freedoms of age is that you get to spread thanks around.   I don’t care if you think I am a mad old bat with white hair – I am – but I will stick my head round the door in a quiet moment, 24 hours later, to thank someone who tried to help me in the chemist –  no money, no calories, no problem – reciprocal magic.   

look in the mirror*

My first non secretarial job was with a sex magazine.   My first journalistic job was with a woman’s magazine.  For the next 20 years I was told at intervals that I wasn’t “a proper journalist”.  When I went to women’s magazines, they were just beginning to buy computer time to help with the compilation of quizzes.  Very popular, quizzes.   And I was bemused by the way the findings were packaged  – sometimes in fractions, sometimes in percentages, sometimes in ratios.   Usually in all three but never just one.And I learned that the object was not to tell the truth but to look as if you were.  Sound familiar ?

Yesterday a friend, who is actress/teacher/poet, speaker and reader in five languages and no fool, confessed that on Friday she’d been as low as she ever wanted to go and we discussed why.  Like a lot of us, she finds the sense of being played for a sucker punitive.  Work beyond her desk is closed to her.  But what most unsettles her is  an almost permanent sense of distrust and an outrage at the amount of plastic – PPE, disposable this, throwaway that – and we are not discussing what we are going to do about it, because “news”, like government’s coverage and update, is divided into bite sized pieces, right by size if unreliable in content.  See the line above .

I was never any good at science or maths, a considerable regret to my secondary school headmistress, herself almost overly qualified, who spent her time trying to encourage girls to “do” science.  The other day an old acquaintance sent me two youtube segments of distinguished scientists talking about aspects of corona response and I realised that – apart from unusually poor sound quality – I simply couldn’t understand what I was being told.  I watched 15 minutes of one, glanced at the second, muttered “God forgive me !” and put them aside.

But I do know about media.  And the daily press briefing is a disaster.   Yes, different ministers have a chance to shine but then some of them really don’t.   They wouldn’t if you polished them for half an hour.  And the tone is wrong.   It is a weird combination of Butlins and bluster.   It supposed to sound confident and make you feel reassured.   But you’d have to be committed to those feelings rather than an appropriate sense of human curiosity before it would work for you.

And those figures – oh, those figures.  I hear my father muttering “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  Back to where we came in.  Move the figures around.  Make them sort of truthful – but don’t commit yourself.

Instead of standing up and saying “We can’t give you reliable figures.  We have figures for deaths in NHS hospitals.  We have an estimate for figures in care homes.   We have an estimate for deaths in the community.    We are not going to marry an actual figure with an estimated figure because that wouldn’t be reliable.     The disease moves very fast and quite particularly.  We are still learning about it but you must know we are on your side and we’ll do our darned best for you.”   Not a chance.

Whoever is in charge of the press and publicity of the prevailing party has not realised how sick of cant many of us are.   The endless repetition of something doesn’t make it true.  And changing the slogan doesn’t make it any less robotic.  There isn’t an overview of the pandemic outside the current model of medicalisation with which we approach the world and that was already giving us trouble.

The Churchillian quote that appeared at the end of Darkest Hour is oddly relevant:  “Success is not final.  Failure is not fatal.  It’s the courage to continue that counts.”   Of course that presupposes that the continuing courage is dedicated to the wellbeing of an essentially trusting public, not the balancing act of party politics.  And this morning Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter who knows far more about figures than I ever did or will stated on the record that the public was “broadly supportive of the measures” and “hungry for genuine information”  but was being “fed this what I call number theatre.”

*see the meaning of Spiegelhalter.

the other animals

When we saw Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”, I was 11 or 12 and my mother whispered to me how clever it was to draw Lady as a spaniel so she could toss her ears back, like a girl tossing her hair, and Peg as a Pekinese so that when she shimmied through her torch song, her tail did it for her.   I’ve been big on ears and tails ever since (noses too, if you’re human – but that’s a whole other story).

So as I was switching through tv channels the other day, as you do and particularly at the moment, I came on an animal, prone, surgically blanketed, with a white coated vet standing alongside and the camera zoomed in on a badly torn ear, and I saw that I was looking at a not fully grown kangaroo.  The way the vet acknowledged and touched the beast was appealing, and he explained that the ear would have to be stitched  “… and now I’ll show you my secret weapon.”

He brought forward a jar of  very thin mother of pearl buttons, something like the size of an old copper penny and real nacre, and stitched them in, individually and carefully at three separate points, to support the ear as it healed.  Then, as the animal came round, he carried it back to its owner, a younger man plainly concerned, and they sat while the vet explained what he had done and how the supports could be painlessly removed.  “Is he going to be all right?” asked the kangaroo’s guardian.  “Sure” said the vet “ look …” and he showed if he pushed the palm of the roo’s paw, it was increasingly slow to fall back.  “He’ll be round in a minute.”    Forget Van der Valk, give me the vet.

I watched this same man talking to a turtle, stroking its shell while he and a knowledgeable woman discovered where it was injured, uncomfortably but not too seriously, which he could deal with there and then – this was part of a WWF project into turtles in that bay.   And with all the animal films I have watched – and I have watched a lot – I have never seen anybody talking to a turtle or stroking its shell before, though a friend tells me they feel everything through the shell.  I like that image.

What puts me off animal documentaries is also to do with ears.  I either can’t stand the presenter or the music, either way, aural room freshener.  Though people who give their intelligence, their energy, their lives to save wild animals capture my imagination.  I  remember a longstanding game warden, murmuring in patient Zulu to a rhino, knowing the animal could smell him but the team needed to net him and take him to a place of safety, and the Japanese scientist who designed a replacement tail fin for a dolphin who had lost his in a savage infection.

Because in all the truly terrible human suffering and endeavour of the last weeks, the animals haven’t had much of a look in.   Yes, the Chinese “wet” markets have been mentioned, where you can buy almost anything in conditions that would spook a horse – but not more than mentioned because the Chinese don’t like this laboured and we need the Chinese.   To eat wild animals is one of two strands of human behaviour as old as time – one is economy and the other is folk medicine.  It is believed that if you ingest the animal, you take on its most prized attributes -strength, wisdom, cunning and again, strength.  Two friends of mine have seen those markets and they both say they will never forget them though they wish they could.  Is it just my Western gutlessness which says if you must kill a bear, why must it be in filth and misery?

Reviewing a new book called Has China Won ?, Max Hastings writes ”A year or two ago I observed to a friend who knows Asia well that after many centuries of appalling treatment from the West, the Chinese seem to deserve their time in the sun.  “You may be right,” she responded cautiously and wisely “but I don’t think they will be very kind.”  Not to us and not to the animals.