Category Archives: Uncategorized

fire and flood

My mother described the car that hit my father ( in a mercifully minor accident) as grey.   He saw it as brown. It was black.   “People fear different things” said my mother. What did the difference in colours mean ? “I am scared of water, your father is scared of fire.”

She certainly was scared of the weight of water and I am too. Under the sea may thrill David Attenborough but I recoil. Ancient peoples made elements into gods because they were largely beyond human control and I have no trouble with that aspect of human history.

Of course this is a matter of degree and containment. When an ember fell through the side of the fireplace and I saw it burning, quite by chance as I closed everything up for the night – you’d have been impressed at how fast I moved – I was !   I seized a flowerpot from the garden, filled it with earth, raced back in and damped down the fire. It was a freak, it was small and I could manage it.   Not like those ravening bushfires in Australia, or the ones we saw in mainland Europe and California earlier in the year.

And I really felt for the woman in a Yorkshire village who spoke to camera last week – “Round here, we’re used to rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it. But the council has known this was likely for 48 hours and we haven’t even got sandbags.”

I was about 10 when my mother tapped the photograph in the paper, on her way out back to the kitchen to check on the toast. – “Poor devils !” There were pictures of flooding.   “It’s the worst” she went on. I asked why. “Because even if you can save things and dry them out, they stink and you don’t want them.” And this is a long time before sewage was the feature in flooding than it is now.

You can’t choose between fire and flood – they are both out of control.   But you can feel sympathy with people who thought they had made some kind of arrangements to respond and then discover it doesn’t apply.   You want sandbags ?   Make your own. The local authority will tell you it’s short of money and it probably is: the list of things covered by the money we pay into the pot gets longer and longer, and less and less practicable.

You could divide your horrors into the avoidable and the rest, the tolerable and the rest.   It doesn’t mean I will never see a spider again but I can minimise our interaction. And I am bigger. I may never have to smell tripe cooking again, thank you heaven.   But interminable rain, strong winds, devouring flame, are not in my hands.

Yes, we have made a complete mess of the world and I am torn between noticing how long it has taken the BBC to focus on this (see Seven Worlds, One Planet) and realising that it is so unremittingly grim, that we are now counterracting the disturbing visuals with interminable music, in case, God forbid, somebody should think about it.

Last week, I went to meet Snowdrop who lives in Cumbria and his train took 11 hours.   The restaurant behaved exemplarily, Madame explaining “What does it matter ? We are ‘ere…” and the couple at the next table insisted I had a glass of wine with them, while I waited.   (Chivalry is not only not dead, it is live and well and living in Esher.) I also found an old paperback, pristine under its plastic cover, about a man whose life was with Burmese elephants* , which emphasised how the balance between what was needed, and who could accomplish it, with the best goodwill and results all round, seemed smaller in scale and thus more applicable than some specialised tome.   It is dated, very much of its time and it won’t please everybody but I have long meant to read it and so I did.

The difficulty with horror is that you are either overwhelmed by it or you block it out. To consider it or address it some way is much harder work.   And too many of us only see as somebody else’s business, not ours.

*Elephant Bill by J..WillH     H.Williams


I played Anne Frank in the Diary at the Middlesbrough Little Theatre, directed by Arnold Fry, the year I took what were then called my GCE O levels.   And I remain nicely haunted by one of her most famous quotes “In spite of everything, I really believe that people are good at heart.” Over the years I have read books reflecting the refractions from the prism of her one life – more information about the occupation of Holland, the concentrations camps, the aftermath of great suffering personal and social, but the simplicity of this belief lingers with me. She was only 13.   At that age, you don’t necessarily see the complications. You just see the wishful heart.

By the time I was 19, I was in New York where the issue of the day was the voter registration drives, to get numbers of the Afro-American population enrolled as part of the (don’t laugh) democratic process. Most of the people I knew thought it was the most important thing and we sang and shook boxes for collections, stuffed envelopes and signed petitions.

In my 20s I found the one of the more difficult areas of the Women’s Movement to which I committed then and remain committed. I became pro abortion.  No I don’t mean using it as a backup to contraception, a word we hardly ever hear nowadays. I do mean the merciful provision of an appropriate intervention.   There is not much point in talking about over population or the expanding threat to mental health if you aren’t going to talk about which child and why. (This risks over-simplifying an intricate matter – but that’s the limitation of 750 words.)

At about the same time I married a man who was involved in the liberation politics of South Africa, the background of which horrified me –misery, violence, torture, naked exploitation and hunger. Let them have the rugby – they have little else.   Following suffering at the hands of the other, they have been ripped off by their own. It is a rich and beautiful country in which large numbers of its indigenous citizens lack work or running water.

Once, in answer to a radio question, I replied that I believed in God.   And a young man got in touch to tell me how good that was to hear, from a public person of advanced age, without defence or over explanation.   The “you call it this and I call it that” is too often beyond me. I believe in something bigger and simpler in outline, far beyond the hearts and mind of men.

Because when you read about mankind – human beings – it is hard not to lose hope.   I’ve read the New York Review of Books for 50 years plus, and last night I read about the stripping of the wildlife and thus the people from the Bering Strait.  This was the original land bridge from Asia into America thousands of years ago, peopled by tribes whose way of life was predicated on maintaining a balance between the number of species that lived there and the number of those they needed to kill to eat and stay alive. In due course came the Whites, who raped the oceans and caused the death, mostly by starvation, of many who had lived there, not counting them as important of course because they were Native.   And whole genera of whales were stripped of their heads, oil and blubber with the rest left to rot, where in the hands of the Inuit peoples who lived there, using everything was a matter of honour – of belief, you might say.

Last year in an effort to understand why certain books sell millions, I read two international bestsellers. And hated them.   They were unremittingly miserable. I suppose it’s the same thing as those people who stand and watch – or worse take pictures of – car crashes or explosions. Does it make you feel better or make you feel worse ? Or both at the same time ? The recitation of ugliness and misery for entertainment leaves me cold, it’s far too important for that.

And then this morning I read a review of a book by Caroline Moorehead, who has written three previous books about people doing good things in terrible circumstances and this latest is a tribute to the forgotten thousands of women who risked all in the struggle against fascism in Italy in WWII.   It’s our old friend, doing your best, and belief is like a candle in the night.

Floating Coast: an environmental history of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth published by Norton

A House in the Mountains: the women who liberated Italy from fascism by Caroline Moorehead published by Chatto

weights (waits?) and measures

When Wal was robbed in Barcelona (he and his SO -significant other- Howard travel widely for targeted shorts breaks, heaven knows where they get the energy), he lost among other things, a keyring I gave him and he arranged to have it copied. And he wanted to refill a favourite mustard which you can no longer buy in London.   So he invited me to Paris for a weekend, I assented delightedly and we planned travel, check in, lunch, do the errands and then the time would be our own. 

We found the business on two sides of the road – here the shop which referred us across the street to there, the studio, where the very pleasant young woman with whom he had spoken on the phone had lied in her teeth, nothing was ready to pick up and she was having the day off. Just as well. I watched Wal roll up his sleeves, muster all his French and his considerable determination. One young man gave up and grumbled, an older woman stopped what she was doing to watch in appal (who is this insistent man?) but the designer was interested and sympathetic and the day was almost won.   I sat outside, where the runner offered me wine, water, coffee ? And I said thank you, no thank you and grinned. Wal’s world view is predicated on getting it right. And he will.

Eventually he came out into the unseasonably warm afternoon, to explain to me that they hadn’t been able to admit that they didn’t have the core part on which the thing is based but once that was discovered, and he could get it, everything was going to be all right. And how nice they’d been and the young designer really got the message … none of which is a surprise to me.

I first heard of the monitorial method, where those who know teach those who don’t – be it ever so little – in Jane Eyre. And now – he handed me the empty mustard pot so he could look at his map – “There’s just this.”   Wal’s mother, one of the first female executives in the movie industry, came years ago to Paris for couture to be bought, copies to be made and accessories to be acquired. So he knew where he was. The weather was far too warm for us in the clothes we were wearing so we were shifting things from hand to hand, carrying things, and somewhere in there, I dropped my handbag briefly. And when we arrived to buy the condiment, I had to confess that the mustard container was broken. He was amused and I was mortified. And we made our way back to a cold drink and a seat in the sun, past a band playing rock outside the Town Hall. 

Wherever Wal goes he is accompanied by twinks and burps on the phone – whether it is advertising updates or the security system at home – he is self described as paranoid. I am sure you get used to it with horrid ease. But I don’t have a mobile and for the first time in ages, I didn’t bring a book. I brought a couple of articles I wanted to read, one of which will send me off to try a famous book I have never been quite sure about but I didn’t put the tv on, I didn’t listen to anything except what was round me and I tried to be, to give time its appropriate weight and enjoy it for the duration of the things we were doing, whatever they were. “We did 77,000 steps” said Wal congratulatorily (the figures are wrong, I couldn’t care less) “that’s 750 calories we burned.” And I who have always walked distance and never knowingly measured my steps or burnt a calorie looked at him with my mouth open.   He says he didn’t seek this, it’s just “on the phone” but I wonder. Still if it gives him permission to eat a croissant or two, good luck.

Because in between three wonderful lunches and three wonderful dinners, we did nothing. And very nice it was too. We sat in the sun and purred like old cats. Time without weight, time beyond measure.

“originally a brewery, now Bofingers Brasserie. beautiful to look at, Sunday lunch and the regulars even get to snooze between courses…”


There is a bright green cycling scheme bike neatly parked on the pavement outside the flat.   Modern times come to the door.

“antique bicycle and rice straw.”

In my experience, far too many bike riders resemble yobs (both sexes) with wheels. They don’t want the cycle lanes, they want to create havoc on the road. They don’t read or observe the Highway Code. They see themselves as a cross between superheroes and a superior form of life as in “ I’m a cyclist …” As in “I eat brown rice” 40 years ago.

There are things I don’t like about modern life. I don’t like the fact that Microsoft decided to update my screen and when it couldn’t fit the programme, it went through the whole process twice more, leaving a functioning pc useless. Thanks to the computer man, it was straightened out but this took time and (unchanging fact of life) time is money. 140 pounds – you can’t have the pounds sign. It doesn’t work, the “ and @ are transposed and various short cuts are only effective in the short term.

I admire Bill and Melanie Gates, the sensible arrangements they have made with regard to their children who would otherwise inherit untold wealth and the good use they have made of that wealth in countries that need it. But right now I could scream at Microsoft – no customer service, no helpline and a very cross out of pocket OAP.

“a faster computer it is alleged.”

The computer man fixed the big stuff. The small stuff is intractable. And please don’t says “It’s just …” because “just” is a four letter word. The world is not just for the technically deft. There are more people over 60 in this country than previously documented.

Of course you can’t run life for the elderly but you could run it a bit more inclusively. However what is included varies according to fashion. Women were very in one year, then men with prostate or testicular cancer: rarely men as a genus and rarely women who don’t want children, or carers. Colour is variable – though there are a couple of heavily publicized black activists who do not seem to understand that race isn’t only a matter of black and white

“Lady Margaret Hall”

but of black, white and everybody else. In their mouths race is not a matter of inclusivity but rather a new exclusivity. Oh and women are “out” this year, according to a friend on the receiving end of one of these.

In the past small action groups were to be admired – a club for children with a rare skin condition, for older children of various ages with abilities but not fluent English, a group to talk to and with the families of those with chronic illness, and my most admired – an organization dedicated to the sexual problems of the disabled where I once found a counsellor who could work in “sign”, bless her.

Now numbers are part of a new pornography. If you haven’t got a million followers, you don’t count. How many people are displaced, living in what are really parallel universes, is one of the most eerie aspects of modern life.   What drives us apart and makes us run parallel flourishes. And the crossover points are still what they always were – power, money, drugs and sex – see Spiral (BBC4 Saturdays). Actually, less sex – there isn’t time. It is a post AIDS world.

Yesterday I exchanged speaking glances with a neighbour I have known as she grew up, just getting off the telephone to her father about the Brexit vote and she remarked that we – and it – would have been better served as a democratic process with an all party committee from the outset. As it is, it is now highjacked into endless splits and party loyalties – parallels again. And we know one thing about parallel lines. They may run forever but they do not meet. In spite of the enormous numbers that are bandied about, whether in the description of street demonstrations or Jennifer Aniston on Instagram, this is parallel experience. Where is the coming together, the exchange, the willingness to make room, to accommodate ? Will nation speak unto nation (as said Lord Reith) or more to the point, machine to machine ?

“thanks to The Economist”


How seductive is “…and they lived happily ever after” as the road, literal or imagined, stretches into a benign future of rose petals, soft lights and hands held. The summer I was 12, this is the future as I imagined it.

My sister was engaged and if love ever became a couple, it became them.   They were transformed from two ordinarily attractive people into the glowing principals in their very own fairy tale and in the best traditions of the story book, when we went on holiday together, it was extended to everybody in the vicinity – me, both my parents, the owner of the guesthouse and her family, the ice cream man and everybody.

The tension between my parents over my sister (because they loved her) evaporated, everything settled like the softest feathers.  We began again and so long and painful had been the road, and so charmed was this beginning, it never occurred to us that anything could go wrong.

On Christmas Day that year, going home to see his mother, my sister’s fiancé was killed in a plane crash and nothing was ever the same again.

“Tibetan prayer flags”

And I learned a life lesson – to savour every good thing, every sunset, the smell of every warm young being, every kind word, every bell’s tone.

There is nothing general about this, it is very personal for each one of us.   We are on the road and your road is not the same as mine, not your pleasures nor your pains.   But there was a decision in there somewhere and whether I got up one morning with it made (which I doubt) or it emerged like a shape from the sea of existence, I began by thinking that if things don’t last, they don’t count. And I’ve got this far by believing exactly the opposite. If a few good moments is all there are, I’ll have them.   And the accrued memory over time and the accumulation of all those small things is enormous.

“the weight of memories by Marianne Pascal”

It is 60 years plus since my sister’s fiancé tried to teach me canasta on the porch in the garden of the guesthouse and I still have one stop shot in my mind of the smell of the flowers, the light on his face, the profound peace of it all.   I don’t think about it very often, but it is there in that filing system which makes tech giants reel: it’s called a brain.

And the role of remembering is in the balance.   I don’t believe in forgive and forget.   I believe that if you forget, the risk is you’ll do whatever it was again, that forgiveness risks becoming a permission to repeat bad behaviour. To remember and forgive is much harder.

There is a Turkish proverb “ a heart in love with beauty never grows old.”   This is not about what you look like, this about moments of kindness, humour and generosity. The woman who held my arm in the street when I spoke about my mother’s recent death, the Lithuanian who said to me yesterday as she ushered me to the changing room “And I know exactly who you are – I used to love you on the television, never forget you and I’ve been watching your profile and wondering if I should speak you, never dared before but now I have done it.”

It’s about the wonderful tall Joyce Grenfell lookalike whose dog I admired and whose tones could be heard without effort at Heathrow “ Oh I ‘m so glad you like the dog !”  Often there is a story, you don’t get to hear it.   You just get the moment.   The moment when the best looking boy in the acting group told me that we’d only ever be friends, I wasn’t for him … The moment when you get something back in a different colour or of a different texture from that which you had ever imagined and in that moment, I don’t know that the world stops but how you breathe changes.

“Things happen to you” my friends say and they’re right but they do because I am open to them. Not open like something sodden to be trodden on but open like the beam of a lighthouse, the pulse of which says “Tell me” and they often do. The richness of life is not money (though some money is very useful).   The richness of life is in moments.

“by Pierre Pellegrini”

today’s great thought…

This is what my father used to say when he was trying to remember something. Today, it is linked to self motivation and similar oft-repeated phrases in a pretentious political correctness which gives me the pip. The whole point was, that it wasn’t a great thought – it was what he had to remember…

I write things down, as much to remember the act of writing as to remember whether it is in the desk diary or the notebook – definitely not loose pieces of paper – they get lost – but this has been a week of thoughts.

While Harry and Meghan Sussex are issuing writs and making speeches about what a beastly time they are having (goes with the job), I am rather more concerned about Elizabeth Windsor, now in advanced age, in possession of her considerable faculties while watching her husband fade, her favourite son behave like a berk and being manipulated by The Blond. I would like to see her flanked by her grandsons, in support of her age, her commitment to us and the times we live in. I am pretty sure this has been mooted by the Press Office as a picture opportunity and has been rejected by Her Majesty as unnecessary but that’s the image I want to see. Meghan is learning as she goes, as did Kate Cambridge, Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spenser.   That’s the trouble with new blood – how often it ends up all over the carpet.

This week the post office let me down. I have never not paid towards my Barclaycard on time but this time the mail lost the cheque and I suddenly woke up without the security of the card.   I went that day to a branch of Barclays where I was rescued by a tall handsome black woman who helped me to pay in monies directly, handed me the receipt and kindly brushed aside my heartfelt thanks. Five days later I got a sawney marketing email from Barclaycard which is really a push to get me to go on line. Computers not so fast or so efficient then ?

This week I disobeyed The All Powerful Designer and bought two handsomely reduced bins as planters for the winter broom and the honeysuckle which respectively flank ends of the small area too small to call a garden at the front of the flat (thank you Robert Dyas).   And I took a cab home with a tall man with long light eyes like a wolf (I like wolves) who used every short cut and as we arrived home, after protracted exchange throughout the journey about manners, conversation, his wife (married for 42 years) and his grandchildren, gave me a long explanation about why he couldn’t charge me what was on the clock – “and don’t argue.”   I looked at the amended meter, he put the bins outside the house and I offered him a £20 note. “I’ll get you change – “ he said. “I don’t want change” I said “ – and don’t argue. What’s your name ? “ “ Brian” he held out his hand. “Thank you Brian” I said “ and tell Shirley I think she should keep you.”

The clock in the living room fell off its shelf and stopped so I rushed out to buy a new battery which didn’t help but then the alarm jammed on and I had to take the battery out anyway.  Wal recommended me to the Clock Clinic – its founder Alistair Chandler is a regular on Antiques Road Show and if I had known that, I probably never would have gone. Not the cheapest repair but certainly the surest and only marginally dearer than a new clock from Mr. Bezos.   And I would rather not bother. Every time I read about how Amazon runs, I shrink from recourse to a commercial version of totalitarianism.

You could say “What about the B word ?” and I’d counter “Well, what about it ?”   What about plastic in the water table ? Some fancily named activists taking up unconscionable amounts of police time and money ?   At the moment, this is how my world turns: today’s great thought.

“And The World Keeps Turning by Jon Eiseman”


Years ago, a woman on the plane asked my son then about 8

“Do you know your mother’s famous ?”   I’m happy to tell you this meant nothing till he was a teenager and his mother was known for talking about sex, by which time he was very much a person in his own right (indeed, he always has been). I remarked to my fellow passenger that I was not Michael Jackson, for which I was very grateful for all sorts of reasons, we smiled and chatted a bit and left it there.

I have had a really good time with my small fame. It has crossed boundaries for me, eased first meetings, provided something to start talking about (I am very interested in the nature of fame) which could be put painlessly aside as other more interesting things occurred.

I went through a brief stage of never putting out the rubbish without full makeup on and got over it. This is life, not a performance. Big fame is a lot more limiting (see page 520 of American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld). And this is all long before the days of “a million likes on Facebook” which makes my blood run cold.

Thirty years ago, I was asked about some sort of title or medal and the caller got my then husband who said that he very rarely spoke for me (true) and he was pretty sure that the answer would be no. It was.

There was a stage when people suggested “I’m a Celebrity …” or “Strictly” and I said sweet of you to think of me but no thank you.   As I got older I got used to being examined “to see if I had had work done.”   I can assure you that if I had, it would be so good you wouldn’t see it – but I haven’t.   There was a man on a train who remarked “You’d look quite pretty if you coloured your hair.” Sticking to my smile, I replied that my friends thought I looked all right the way I was.   (He was directly counteracted by the Frenchman and his wife in Florence who said “I love your ‘air – you ‘ave a good coiffeur !”   I nodded, smiling and said “God.” I bless heaven for the way it went agreeably grey.)

It must be plain to anybody who reads annalog that there are things that worry, concern and outrage me but that I like my life.

“Look – bloodhound puppies!”

It engages me, I am still enthusiastic about it a lot of the time (you have to allow some slowing over the years– it is neither failure nor affectation – you slow at the wheel of the car or the wheel of life.)

The great British public has been gracious to me. And I pass it on. As I grew older and our world changed, it seemed to be more important than ever to recognise effort, to acknowledge and say hello or thank you, and not because of what would come back.   It’s an investment.   My father used to say “If you don’t put in, you can’t take out” and social responsibility is not like accounting – you don’t put in this to get out that and hope to balance the books. You invest.   You speak agreeably to people because if they stay as nice in their transactions with the rest of the world as they were with you – as they must have been, for you to notice them (always providing you weren’t on the screen at the time) – the world is a better place. This not me playing Lady Bountiful:

“The Lady Bountiful by John Atkinson Grimshaw”

this is how I was brought up. I have carried recognition lightly, used it to “put in” and what comes back is past my wildest imaginings.

Every so often I look at the birthdays in the two papers I have taken for years and I occasionally wonder how I’d feel if I were there – grateful ? intruded upon ?   Don’t know.   And yesterday I sat with a very welcome cup of coffee after a sleepless night, face the colour of mushroom soup (oh hell, that beige…) and looked at the crossword where I found a clue which read “Agony aunt Anna …….. worked for LBC and Cosmopolitan”.   My favourite neighbours rang, tickled and my son took a picture of it.

for my parents with love