“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

sufficient unto the day…

… especially when it is as a good a day as the one of which I write. I woke to that softness in the air which has nothing to do with humidity. I noticed this particularly because the day before – weighed down by air pressure and sullen damp, surrounded by traffic and entirely too many people (never mind plastic, what about birth control ?) – I had tried to look for trainers in the West End. Pass.

Increasingly confused and cross, I had got into a bus (nobody opens bus windows any more) – and even that was on diversion, so that a twenty minute journey took three times as long. Drivers must find such shifts interminable and I feel sorry for them. But mostly I felt sorry for myself. Taught as a small child “pigs perspire, horses sweat and ladies glow”, that makes me a horse. I came home cross, overheated and Not Nice To Know.

But the day following had moved on, hardly summer but trying hard. So I bought the papers, stripped my bed and put on a load of washing which – the cheapest pleasure I know – blew dry through the day on the line – and even in garbage central, that still smells better than any fabric conditioner ever invented.

Inspired, I overhauled the two under the stairs cupboards (respectively the pantry and the gloryhole) which are my main storage. And of course I found things to part with, either to the charity shop or the bin, and somewhere under the heading of “you never know when you might use it again” – I retrieved from a box masquerading as DIY, a brush with a handle and instead of bristles, harsh metal threads, probably for paint removal. I looked at it thoughtfully and took it out into the paved garden where I experimentally drew it with force along the weed cluttered space in between the cherished herringbone bricks . Bingo.

I usually clear out the weeds with a pointed roughly leaf shaped implement from SE Asia which works well but is noisy and more tiring. This was much easier and more rewarding and it improved the moss on the bricks themselves so in three goes, I did the whole garden. Swept, garnished and rinsed, it looked a great deal better..

Trusting one of the more sensible weather broadcasters, I finally said au revoir to the winterweight bed linen. I don’t know whether I feel the cold more at night as I get older, but I don’t want to wake up chilled. I can’t say more than “so long “ because I know I shall have recourse to it again and this is the year that I have admitted to myself that I prefer autumn and winter.

As a younger person I loved the summer and of course there are days in any season and any weather which are just delight – because of who you meet or what you do or the air or the light.   I have long known that I love autumn because of the colours and find spring a cheating thing, because just when I think it has warmed up, it goes cold again and I worry about all the young things in the cold air but it was not until this year that I admitted to myself that I like everything about winter. I know what to wear and what to eat, I like the shape of the days,

“this is called The Shape of Days by Pejac”.

I like dusk and the darkness settling, the dark lingering in the morning before the day wakes up. It’s really odd too that I should come to this conclusion in a year when I had months of a heavy cold and not being well. The two things seem quite separate in my mind.

But with two or three days in a row of coherent warmth, I know I shall want to call the window cleaner (no point when it rains every five minutes) and in due course, take down all the books to dust and resettle and let a few more go, one of the things I do well is choose what to keep and what to relinquish.

And although I know that the sense of security in my small home and its beauties is a fragile thing, it is enough and I am grateful.  


I fell. I was concentrating on the traffic lights opposite, the pressing traffic and moving sideways to avoid a man in a hurry, and did not see (no eyes in the knees) a black metal box, about 30 cms height from the ground, bearing the letters TCSU.

TCSU means – Traffic Control System Unit

Apparently something to do with speed traps. There is another one near where I live, I noted the characters down to ask the only policeman I know. People said what they say (Did you take pictures ? I hope you’re going to write to the council …) I don’t carry a mobile, I am not going to bother anyone else to take pictures and I can just see the local council looking patiently at a well spoken greyhead with minor abrasions.   However, minor is the word other people use of pain they can’t feel: bashed knee, scraped shin, skinned elbow.

Everything was duly submerged in hot water, suitably anointed (Traumeels, from the health food store) and I forgot about the elbow till I was sitting watching something on tv and explored it with the fingers of the other hand a couple of days later.  There was a large bloody scab (Savlon this time, antiseptic) and in due course it healed.   Growing and healing are two processes I find fascinating, any growth, any healing.   But we take the body so for granted.   And if there is physical damage as well as emotional impact, we tend to think that if the outside has mended, the inside has too – which is often not the case.

Nothing against plastic surgery, and leaving aside all those unskilled hands proffering botox, fillers, and so on – it’s always context that gets me.   Many surgeons cop out of that. Their attitude is frighteningly one dimensional ie “I have the skill, you have the money” implying, if you can make that decision, you must be fine. Give me leave to doubt.   I just read one of those fascinatingly repellent articles about young men restructuring themselves (from brow and cheekbones, to shoulders and testicles), all in the name of sexual scoring (as Tina Turner sang “What’s love got to do with it ?”). 20 years ago it was women in pursuit of everything from nose and chin to bosom and waist, in a similar competition. Except of course, young men and women are now in thrall to photographic image (which is often itself altered out of any reality), images played and replayed at speed (rarely discussed) and an overarching desperate loss of self, tribe replacing the individual and eating him/her for breakfast.

In those undoubtedly interesting but often disturbing reviews about the rise in psychological distress among the young, I can’t help feeling we only ever hear half the story. Half the story is part of the cost of the speed of modern life.    Half the story is where news stories come unstuck ie they can only tell us so much and often we say to each other “But what about … ? They didn’t say …” and the story develops or dies. You could argue it is a kind of listening hook. Consumerism applies to media as much as a myriad other more tangible things like bread and bedlinen.

But you only have one body.   Nowadays we run programmes (car crash tv) on what can go wrong while other programmes simultaneously show us this one and that one, “with her new face”, “after his desert sabbatical” – looking like hell or a blurred image of somebody else with a similar hairline. A perfect example of the mixed messages which destabilise whole sections of society from within.

Unless you have something seriously wrong, up to and including a blood disorder, you heal, some of us quickly, others more slowly.   But that is only the first part of a two part question.   The second strand, absolutely as important as the first, is how it affects you, what you recall, what the body remembers.   And I have spoken to enough child abuse survivors to know that they look like anybody else.   But that is not how they feel.


*temple – as in

My body is a temple

muscular thought

Yesterday a friend emailed. He teaches children with “issues”.   He was going through what books were available to them and one of them was violent, threatening and frankly bloody. He asked a more experienced colleague “Can this be right ? We’re supposed to discourage children from violent videogames but here is a book of the same thing, on offer at school ?”   She replied that some of the teachers ordered the books because they were by famous authors but had never read them. He asked me if he was being prudish ? I replied that you never recommend anything to a youngster you haven’t read yourself.

There weren’t many heroes in my upbringing. You did your best. If that meant you took mind blowing risks, rescued people or saved dangerous situations, it was less to do with the big “I Am” and more to do with doing your best. How I admired the veteran in the recent DDay celebrations who was filmed saying straight to camera “Don’t call me a hero. I was lucky, I survived. There are no heroes.   They are all dead, and I shall never forget them.”

“rosemary for remembrance”

Most of my heroes are people who think – and we are short of them. Libby Purves writing in the Times (10.06.19) tells of the hooha that has blown up over an exam questions which features a small piece of writing by HEBates (she points out that an “unseen” like this is chosen because it will not be well known) and the immediate burble of social media from young – very young – women who are outraged and offended because contextual examination reveals that it is about a rape. Gosh. Perhaps now is the moment to tell these PCPC (politically correct putative children) how much of the great art of the world – written, painted, sculpted and sung, whether by men and women – came out of its ills and pain.  How can you claim awareness if you don’t want to examine an issue from all sides ?

When I was teaching English to Myf (my young friend) I struggled to find her interesting material without the cultural subtexts familiar to 12 year old English girls. I tried all sorts of things, we’d have to pause and I’d explain, and once you had done that two or three times, it was disheartening and anybody would lose the thread. Myf was fascinated by grownups, how they thought, what they said, their interaction and change. I found a terrific piece on the website of an American writer (Amy Krause Rosenthal) who died all too young of cancer. It was called “Why You Should Marry My Husband”, an appreciation of her life, and when I offered it to her, Myf’s first question was “Have you read it ?” Of course I had. Think !(see Aretha Franklin)

“In The Blues Brothers”

A recent headline announced “Tax toxic tyres that pollute the air”.   Can we do that to politicians – tax them for hot air?   Rory Stewart the international development secretary in the Conservative leadership race brought a smile to my weary lips yesterday by pointing out that there was nothing patriotic about bullshit. Unfortunately the chief offenders won’t listen and that risks more and more of their constituents turning off. Or turning right. It is so appealing to think that bombast will win the day but three years on, with three separate European power bases and all those nations to negotiate, it isn’t likely.

If I think of heroics, I think of someone making a determined personal commitment and then making it again and again, in the face of every kind of difficulty and dislike.

“Water wears Away Stone by Mykola Ridnyi”

Like Nimco Ali who has been given a gong for her campaigning work against female genital mutilation. Imagine taking on a disapproving community, that is afraid, far from home and living against everything ever previously expected. A hero for me. And I just about cheered Jon Sopel, for his book “If Only They Didn’t Speak English” in which he says more than once “that’s not what we are there to do” and marks clearly the difference between the public enactment of his job (as BBC North American Editor) and what he thinks. It’s a great read, highly informative but you can forget Hercules. Strength lies in the brain as well as the biceps.


The cheapest of the six life-transforming, dewkissed, light enhancing with added SP120 suggestions on the beauty page (no of course packaging isn’t mentioned, that’s under “e” for environment not “b” for beauty) blahblahblah US menu style prose is £30. And while selling you the SP, nobody bothers to point out that if you block the sun, you don’t get the valuable Vitamin D. But God forbid you should be more measured in your exposure to the sun and wear a cheaper cream.

At the other end from the face, are the feet. If you have goodlooking feet (a deliberate choice of non binary term) you do, and all the gussying up in the world can only improve them. Along with a lot of other feet on display, mine are not pretty. They are serviceable, I am grateful for them, I keep them clean and tidy

“tea tree in bloom”

and minister to them with tea tree oil (monkeyglands for the unmoneyed mature) but then I cover them up and that’s it. I had my toenails painted twice in my life, once to see and once to be sure: no dice. I looked like a pig in a tutu. I like pigs. And tutus. But beyond animation, not together.

The perceived and transformative magic is that, as you spent money on the pedicure, so your feet become beautiful.   I wish. The same applies to the manicure which too often becomes like any other form of labour, endlessly and soul destroyingly repetitive, so that the operative forgets that (a) there is a human attached to the hand and (b) that not all nails are the same. One day I may develop the confidence to ask for what I want – cuticles pushed back, hand massage and buffed nails. In the meantime, I do it myself.

Three friends have plantar fasciitis. The GP says “Oh dear !” and refers you to hospital. The first casualty of pain in the feet is to stop walking. On-line there are exercises but in a recent article on getting yourself beach ready – you know, like painting the kitchen but bodily – there was treasure trove: two outlets offering some level of skill with the feet, advising sensibly that nothing was done without thought (we used to call this a consultation), bearable fees and the offer that laser could (please note the conditional) be very helpful in dealing with plantar fasciitis. Exercises and two laser treatments put paid to mine. In a time and motion study, this has to be more cost effective than frequent unsatisfactory visits to an overworked doctor or a busy hospital department.

The crossover between the beauty business (rightly named – worth millions in whatever currency) and health is considerable. Perhaps, as fast as we demotivate the family doctor, we remotivate other kinds of health practitioner, the problem being the benchmark of how they are vetted. In the hands of somebody reliable, your problem may get better. In the hands of somebody unreliable, you may be harmed badly enough to feature in a horrordoc or die.

Years ago (they were disbanded in the 1980s and have never been replaced by anything as useful since) my imagination was caught by the idea of the barefoot doctors, often farmers, who had up to a year’s training, utilised all sorts of old skills, complementary disciplines and veterinary knowledge and were then dispatched to travel among the rural poor over great distances in China. Little from the Land of the Dragon, including silk and paper, ever meant as much to me. I don’t like knowledge wasted and there has never been any other comparable pragmatic provision for people’s health. As the NHS begins to stagger under the weight of demand and debt, perhaps we need to consider something in the middle, something that helps us to see past looking good to being well.   The problem is that it might be open to abuse – threats, violence, drug theft – just like the existing system – but it would pull under the umbrella of care all sorts of disciplines which would run better alongside.   Care and cash – it’s those four letter words again.

*papercuts are small but they hurt …


Something like news underpins a great deal of broadcasting so I left it to colleagues and pursued issues and ideas. This has two advantages : it makes a change to listen to and the material doesn’t date.   So you may have noticed that annalog is a Brexit free zone.   Not because I don’t care.   I care all right. But my throat is caught by the absolute dereliction of duty by their paid representatives to the people of the country. Whatever our problems with Europe, the enemy is within.   Five of us talked about it the other day: none of us sleep and all of us worry. There will be darker hours, but not much.

I looked at the papers yesterday morning and I couldn’t write. When you can’t, you can’t, nothing to do with putting it off or even the most temporary writers’ block. Just not ready. So I began to overhaul files.   I dislike very much the idea of leaving a mess behind me and as a keeper of paper goods, including books, I go through them regularly and I weed the borders of the intellectual garden.

At one time, I found myself at the kitchen table, with the upended contents of a container, sorting map pins, drawing pins and paperclips into separate piles and flashed on sorting out my mother’s sewing box – she was a much better seamstress than I but I am much tidier than her – and I also reflected wrily, how representative of where we are.   Sheep and goats. How about a shoat or a geep ?

I moved on, discovering the roll of brown paper I lost last year, until I came to the box files. There are four of them, and apart from the alphabetised file in the bottom drawer of my desk, these are my main archive.  And there are therein things I can’t part from.

There is a 40 year old photograph which sums up something about how I wanted live when, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Truly, a picture worth a lot of words. There are several photographs of clothes I will never wear – to be fair, never would have worn, even with the time, occasion and money – but they give me unfailing pleasure to look at. I have the treasured card from the only person I ever fired. This one whole box is almost the easiest to overhaul because I know what I can let go and what I cannot and why.

In the corner of my living room are two pieces of a three piece chaise longue called la duchesse brisee. I call it the poorhouse chair. The charming owners of the shop where it was bought shortly afterward retired and it is in constant use. The picture of it (just to prove that dreams do come true) is in another boxfile, along with various other things about houses and collections of pieces about dying skills, supremely gifted women, exercise, diet, various aspects of health from open fires to HRT – I went through them all and some I let go.

The third box file is evidence (were it needed) of how much more slowly things improve than we would wish, or wish to know. I approached it with a kind of dread because the young are our inheritance and in the difficulties some children face – inexplicable problems of health or behaviour, incurred difficulties, plain old fashioned bad luck


– these cuttings record how much time, money and expertise is required to help them.   Some of the stuff has been superseded by discovery or a change in treatment fashion.   A lot remain a stone in the shoe of carers’ love, painful but to be borne because it cannot be banished. I keep a lot of it out of a great wish to be a witness.

And then there is travel. When I first lived alone after years in a family, I kept thinking about where I would go but the travel pages tell us anew every year so there is little to keep – less wishes than dreams and dreams change. I threw quite a lot of what I had kept there away and looked at the efforts of my labour.   Let’s see…

“witches broom”

riding a bike

Speaking in public came with the job. The editor of the sex magazine I worked for had to go to New York and my brief was to cope with any overflow. That I had never spoken in public before didn’t cross his mind. I remember speaking at school – once to help in sorting out a scandal (such a strange story, I’ll pass on it) and readings aloud. But if they give you the job and you can’t do it, they don’t give it to you again. Speaking, they gave me again.

Some years later, waiting to appear on some TV station or other, I met Rory Bremner and Julia Somerville, there like me, to crit some targeted area of a new tv channel. Falling into desultory conversation, I heard that they both disliked any kind of public speaking. She was a newscaster, he was a comedian: context was clearly all.   Eventually they both looked at me and I said I liked public speaking. Why ? Well, it’s like single combat or come to Jesus . There is no kindly cameraman to light you, no handy scissors to extract what you wish you hadn’t said.   It isn’t as simple as “what they see is what they get” though that is a facet of it. Public speaking depends on interesting fluency on thoughts that count, whatever personality you bring, whether the audience is prepared to listen and maybe be won over. And if you do it, you do it alone.

Down the years I have spoken to all sorts of audiences – men, women, straight, gay and assorted. The biggest live audience I have addressed was for a Right to Work march in Trafalgar Square and there were an estimated 250,000 people there. I speak quite fast: not that day. There were three or four banks of microphonesand the sound takes time to travel through them and on back into the crowd. Being heard was important.   And it is the only time in my life I was booed. The voice you see, pre 1914 received pronunciation. What I grew up with. But I said what I came to say, you could feel them begin to warm and relax and I ended with a joke that won me considerable applause.   I walked all the way home, miles, panting like a spent horse.   But there is still that residual respect for yourself, that Josh White taught me to aim for when I was 19 in New York.

Audiences vary. Long before the malaise of the trolls, there were always one or two trouble spots in an audience. Often you sensed them.   You saw pursed lips and disapproval, sometimes hate. It was chilling.  And often you saw nothing, felt nothing because you were preparing to do your best in a wide variety of circumstances. I remember having the great pleasure of introducing an American Roman Catholic nun who was part of a campaign for the liberalisation of her Church, and hearing a young man with the aspect of a spaniel get up and go for her throat (save me from godbotherers!)   But he made a tactical error, he paused for breath and I was in like Flynn.

Some months ago I sat beside a woman on a bus.   Three months later, I met her again and she asked if she could put my name up to an organisation which arranged talks and lectures, no money, small audience. I said yes.   I am so glad I did. From the beginning I was handled with tact and courtesy. I would speak in the wonderful acoustics of a room in a grand old service club – and then I wondered. Considerable time has elapsed.   What if I made a mess of this ?   “Oh well” said friends ”it’s liked riding a bike – “ Said Bunslove drily “I bet most of them can’t ride bikes, let alone speak in public.”   But if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t do it again.

So came the day and I dressed down, took it all off and dressed up (never let any audience think they don’t matter to you) and we had a fine time – laughter and tears and applause.   Better than riding a bike.


  • With many thanks to the London Ladies Club.

big ears

In a senior moment, I called last week’s post by the same name as one I wrote earlier.

“by Robert Collins”

Oh dear. I knew that would happen one day.   People ask “how do you think of things to write about ?” but that’s not hard if you’re as interested in life as I am. There may be the odd rare hiatus and I long ago learned the greatest respect for my subconscious mind which will place me before a blank screen and start in as if I had been walking the floor making notes for an hour before. Not me. Don’t knock demonic possession. Or the habits of a working life. Or something.

Titles were always more difficult, because you have to innovate and echo in the same breath. When I was writing “again” I was thinking about “the second time around” but that’s too benign. I wanted to get at the idea of doing things, even big bad things, more than once because human beings (or at least this one) take time to learn.   I love to be clever and funny – who doesn’t? – but you can’t always. So you do your best.

My late sister’s stepdaughter does her best without even thinking. She must have made the decisions, but I’ve never heard how. Cara (not her name) is a teacher, the divorced and sustaining mother of two daughters, with an admirable work ethic (never less than three jobs, especially since her second daughter just hit 18 and her ex crowed over coming to the end of his financial obligations.)   We don’t know each other well but we email, meet occasionally and seem to be able to communicate. I tread softly because my sister and I were very different one from another and had a most difficult relationship. But with Cara and the girls, so far, so good.

Their birthdays are noted in my desk diary and that of the younger was upcoming. And I suddenly realised in all the hooey of the last four months – political stasis, cold in the head, postnasal drip, ice saints making a comeback in May, and so on – I hadn’t heard from Cara. So I wrote and said “Where did those last four months go ?” and explained myself. She replied saying she was having a most difficult time with the elder girl who bore most of the impact of the divorce and is angry with the world, while the younger daughter was prepping for exams and working herself into the ground. Cara wrote “At one stage, I thought even my broad shoulders would crumble.” How unfair.   Her own mother doesn’t care – by her account, never did: her siblings aren’t interested, her ex has “moved on” ( I do hope into a muddy puddle !) and she is alone.

So I offered my number. I wrote and said “God knows I don’t approve of elderly women interfering but we know each other well enough for you to talk and me to listen and you to disregard what doesn’t fit.” And she understood. “Yes” she wrote “I would call if I needed to, because that’s what I wanted – someone to be there.” 

Oh how I relate to this. I have two close friends who are much better at being alone than I am. Of course there are days when not having to take anybody else into consideration is a joy, or when I don’t think about it, but there are others where I look at the telephone supplicatingly, longing for a voice – especially first thing in the morning. A human voice can set me up for the day.   It was interesting to see a new psychotherapy book promoted in part by its author as “everyone needs to be heard”(Lori Gottleib, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone) . Inevitably, questions follow about how you are heard and what you will do with the information.   But in a world most of which has more holes than a colander, the idea of speaking to somebody in confidence is appealing.   And therapy is not friendship. If it appears to be, I doubt your friendship is therapy or your therapy, friendship. Am I Cara’s friend ? Possibly.   Am I Cara’s therapist ? No. I can listen and do my best.