Category Archives: Uncategorized

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. 


She came towards me, taller by some three inches, a handsome woman, width across the cheek bones, her clothes far from new but worn with some style, and as she stopped in front of me, I remembered.   She bummed money from me three weeks ago, mad as a box of frogs.   I know you are not supposed to say that, a psychiatric nurse of my acquaintance said nothing inflamed faster than the “m” word. But in the present climate of dirty linen in hardback, shriving made public and all gilt framed in the neo Victorianism of “mental problems” – life has taught me that there are people who are never coming a step into your world and if you are drawn into theirs, you are in trouble.

No I am not unsympathetic. Far from it. I believe in greater knowledge, more openness and better help though I’d like to point out that there are few short cuts to real assistance. Help takes time and time is money. We have time to dupe the public out of many millions of pounds for schemes that don’t work (ferries, highspeed railway and 3rd airport take a bow) but not for mental health.

However, what interested me selfishly, was that it was the second time.   Because, I remember vividly that years ago, I went to help a woman much older than me with something she couldn’t reach on a supermarket shelf and she turned on me like a snappish dog.  I was so shocked, I just beat a retreat.   And yes, I know that life can be cruel and that suffering doesn’t necessarily ennoble, far from it. Maybe her feet hurt. Or maybe she had been let down one time too many, and she was just heartsick at anybody younger or fitter than her. Age is not for amateurs.

A year or so later, in the same supermarket, I asked a woman reaching for something “May I help you ?” And she said “What makes you think you could help me ?” and I recognised the voice that fell on my radio ears. Steadied by my reaffirmed sense of self ( I was, as they say, in a better place than the first time and just beginning to understand that I would never be a girl again, and if I was any kind of adult, I could skip dissembling), I said” I thought I might reach something for you …”I can’t remember her next disagreeable remark.   I do remember my rejoinder in my best gently emphatic transatlantic drawl “Oh lady, give me a break.   I’m gone, good luck “ and I left.   But the point is, same person twice.

My father used to say that he believed in reincarnation (very much part of his time in the world, in the aftermath of “the war to end wars”) because he was sure the Good God in his infinite mercy wouldn’t expect you get everything right in one go.

“Alexander Hamilton, who said thoughtfully…”

The built in generosity of trying again was always part of childhood.   I don’t confuse myself with superheroes, I am just a shamefaced perfectionist and it is chastening to make the same mistake twice.   Though even that was covered.   I was taught ”once, a mistake: second time, still a mistake: but three times and you’re a fool.”   Some of us take a bit longer to learn.   Quite a few of us, if you include two world wars.

It is chastening to report that my greatest mistakes were made twice though over time, I learned a lot about patterns of behaviour and why we hide in them. That’s an act of will right there. It’s hard to learn to recognise what you do, even harder to understand why you do it.   And there are few absolutes.   And just because you perceive yourself in behaviour we could call x, and know that x won’t work for you, it doesn’t follow that you will never get as far as x again.

I suppose that if you’ve signed on for learning more about yourself, it isn’t that you won’t make the mistake again, it is that you will be unashamed in changing how you respond to the recognition – as in “what, again ? not again.”

nothing is forever

Folding old sweaters in loving maintenance (my friends tease me about the age of my wardrobe) I remember that nothing is forever,

Yellow bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) leaf on a pile of dead leaves scattered on the ground

not even the most important things. “Forever” said my ex-husband the day we married and even as he said it, I wished he wouldn’t because I knew it was a promise he might not be able to keep.   Intent is admirable but it isn’t a promise.   Along with most of the rest of my kind, I am sure I have made promises I have not kept but I have tried not to.   And it is hard work, trying to offer a more accurate best while admitting that none of us know very much about what might be called the eternal verities ie God knows, and He ain’t telling.

“Promise you will never go away” said my five year old over thirty years ago. “I can’t promise you that” I said very gently, spreading my hands round his beloved back.   “I don’t know.   What I can promise you is that, if you love me the way I love you, the memory of that love will last forever.” It is human to look for talismans of love, every kind of love, but better to start in the knowledge of what you don’t know.

You don’t know how you are going to feel in 10 years’ time, after illness, the loss of a baby, being out of work, debt so all consuming it makes your teeth ache. You don’t know how you will feel about yourself or the other.   And consolation in the face of disappointment is often very personal.

How many times have I left the house, having done my best with my hair and my face but feeling that I am not there: if this is life, it is shadowy, I have wasted it, I amount to not very much – only to meet one of my neighbours and his dog, or to be greeted warmly by a bus acquaintance, to be joshed by somebody in the street, or have the bus driver twink his lights at me like a wink.   Any or all of those should be offered up as jewels at the Throne of Fire undoubtedly awaiting me.   They do not last forever, most of the time they are very shortlived, but they help me to breathe more easily in the world I live in.

Most of the time human endeavour short circuits.   It is at best half a tale, perhaps because all the time you are travelling in the direction of a goal, the goal itself is moving.   I was never any good at science at school but I remember one of my teachers talking about molecular energy, that everything was moving, even if you couldn’t see it moving, and then seeing Victoria Falls which seems to be solid. Life is like those falls. Most of the time it looks static but it is always moving.

Of course then, there is moving as in pulsing or throbbing. And moving as in moving away, moving to build and moving to destroy. I move and you move but however we are bound, whatever the power of our intent, we may be moving in quite different directions.   By the time we see this in concrete terms, it is often painful and ugly – though sadly, not new. We thought we had pronounced a charm against this dissonance, and what we have to face (better late than never) is that the charm we invoked is a wish not a magic.   Nothing is forever.

Sometimes other things hold us and we weather terrible storms, like horses or oxen pulling a load.   Sometimes we learn and though knowledge is not always comfortable, it often fits us better for what is to be. Sometimes we are just blind and stupid.   And we confuse selfishness for strength.

Whatever you thought about the recent demonstrations, the filthy mess they left behind them and the old anarchist intent to get as many arrests as possible in order to disrupt the system,   what they highlighted was that we think by not panicking “everything will be all right.”   But it isn’t all right and panicking in terms of the environment is appropriate.   Time is running out – I’ll spare you the list if you promise to think about it.   


Walking up the street from the butchers, I thought how wonderfully peaceful London is when numbers of people go away. You might rejoin “If you don’t like the noise, why are you living in a big city ?”   Whole other discussion: noise may be exciting and interesting, noise may pollute. Much noise is generated nowadays to drown out other noise. Quietly down the street on my left through the sunshine came a slender girl with endless legs in a pretty jacket, on which I readied myself to remark. While on my right, some twit in an extortionate gas guzzler gunned his engine, disrupting ear and air. I said “How nice you look !” She replied, indicating the Italian stallion “That’s what you get for having a low riser-“ “ I said “That’s what you get for having a small penis.” She gaped, I smiled gently and walked on. Speak as you find.

Easter seems set to be the New Christmas, set about with expectation and compulsion. You must go away, laden with new clothes, bags, shoes, cosmetics. And chocolate. There is lamb and chocolate, cake and chocolate, eggs and chocolate and chocolate eggs, chocolate rabbits, chocolate horses and chocolate dolls. And cards and chocolate. I like my chocolate plain and dark, one of two brands (Belgian or German) and I think some of the most disgusting chocolate I have ever eaten was in the form of a lovely to look at , best it stops there, Easter egg, long before the years of discernment. Though every kind of taste is personal.

Recovering after illness earlier in the year, I ate anything I felt like eating because I didn’t feel like eating much. And while in this mood, I chanced on my favourite pizza. I waited to hear my internal voice disapprove but it didn’t, so I bought it. I was telling Bunslove about it and he said “I don’t understand, what so special about it ?”   I explained – “Yes, yes” he said. “But you must have done this before –“   And I explained I never had.   “But why ?” exclaimed the most enlightened vegan I know.   I explained pizza is a treat to me and I was afraid I’d make a mess of it.   “But you can’t” he said. “Do as it says on the box.   Have you got a glass of red wine ?”   I said I had.   “Well there you are – I can’t believe you have never done this before.”   So I tried to explain the feeling of doing things properly. “Look “ he said. “ This is what you fancy. Enjoy it. I’d like to get you have one of these in the freezer for when you next feel like it.” Keep your Easter egg, I have the Bunslove Special.

This idea of doing things properly goes very deep with me, so deep that it may ricochet and paralyse me from trying something in case I don’t do it properly. Of course, it is familial and from a certain time in our national mindset when achievement meant doing your best.   But I have never got over the fact that, on my emotional uppers, I prayed “Please God, may I have a corner ?”   and I got my apartment. There were all sorts of slips between cup and lip and I kept saying to myself “Other people manage, you can…” And I did.   And there is an outside space (not to say a garden), becoming proportions and a door that locks. How I have blessed that door !

And though my version of the Great Spirit is a long way from an old man with a long white beard, it is the voice that I hear on the rare occasions that I leave the house in disorder or take a silly risk. “What are you are doing ?” demands the voice.   I once tried to explain this to a group of whom everybody got it, except a psychiatrist (I think he was very angry about being on a cruise, probably did it to please somebody else). For him, there was no conscience, no internal dialogue, no simple faith. If I was hearing voices, I needed his help and he was not happy when it was declined.

“Great Spirit Moon”


ins and outs

A star I knew slightly (no, not coy – I am probably one of few he didn’t move in on, it not being on my list till I was ready and his needs being met all over the place) was featured today talking about what he spends his money on. I was immediately reminded of Marlon Brando

“best nose!”

who remarked that as an actor, as soon as you were good in a role, everybody wanted to know how you voted and what you did with your money. And I thought again how merciful is radio: those who remember do, those who discover do, and everybody else gets on with the washing up. And as the monetary rewards are much smaller, you can’t do more than work and survive. For most of us, if money crosses your mind, you think about incoming and outgoing, and I would add the emotional currency too.

Incoming this week: on Monday morning I began to research prepaying my funeral.

“Napoleon’s catafalque ship”

Appalled by how much money this can cost (for fear of being seen to be “tight” ?) I started with the cheapest form of cremation.   The telephone sales person was politely cheery until I said that the idea of a limited number of people (for which they provide) appealed to me. “Oh, that’ll be our Magnolia service” she said and I fell about laughing.   Magnolia. Shades of Scarlett O’Hara and institution walls. Unfazed she sent me some information, most of which I can’t open, so next week I shall start again at the local undertaker.

Incoming: Natalia from Latvia stacking shelves with the most elegant short haircut, soft and healthy, shining dark like a seal’s bum (you just wanted to stroke it) and she blushed with pleasure at being told so. (I stuck to dark and glossy and left the seal out of it when I spoke to her.)

Incoming: The Potter (she paints too) gave me homemade cantucci, white roses, lunch at her house and a pendant in the shape of a gingko petal which she had made from real (not sterling) silver.  And I paid her my ultimate compliment: I was speechless.   The search engine describes gingko as a living fossil and then goes on to explain its symbolism. (The alleged meanings of things is fascinating – like the lynx pictured last week to whom First Nations attribute being able to hear what is not spoken – ear tufts as antennae ?)

Incoming: two young men, assistants in Waterstones, cold early morning.   I entered the empty shop asking if there was a correlation between cold weather and book sales, they said not enough work done on it, took up the joke and we had a real exchange. Then I went away, did my bit of shopping and came back to say “May I just add …?” when one interrupted to ask “Did you come back to us, just to talk about a book ?” I nodded, starting to explain. “Wonderful !” he exclaimed across me, his colleague nodding. “People often don’t even speak to us.”

Outgoing was watching two documentaries that didn’t work, one on early British rock and one on the massacre at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikh. Perhaps programme makers not to say presenters only learn by doing it but dammit they learn on the rest of us.   Why bother to say, in the first film, that Lonnie Donegan was the best blues shouter in the country (albeit briefly) but give us nothing in sound to relate to that – though we had to listen twice to Billy Bragg murdering Rock Island Line.   And re Amritsar, why was there no reference to the love/hate relationship between India under the Raj and independent India but several to the presenter’s mother, though she wasn’t interviewed . How belittling.

Though even your outgoing may be incoming. I had to consult the private dermatologist because, two years later, the inexplicable skin condition that itches badly enough to wake me recurred. Major money BUT in and out, examined, in 20 minutes, clasping prescriptions.   And those two along with the renewal prescription from the back man cost another chunk.   BUT they work.   Sort of Beatitudes of Health, constructive not to say gnomic opposites.  Verily, your ins shall be outs and your outs, ins.


If you came in the front door of the house I was born in, and went up the stairs facing you, just to the left was the back bedroom, known variously as the spare room, the big bedroom or Lesley’s room, when she was home.   I had a tiny room at the front of the house but I was allowed to play in the back bedroom and later, when I was older, I moved into it, sharing it with my sister on her visits and meantime doing my homework at the desk my father made for me.

So: picture me kneeling over a small electric dansette record player with my first 68. I owe to Carol of the sugar and water starched cancan petticoats an introduction to Buddy Holly for which I am eternally grateful but my first buy was Lonnie Donegan singing Rock Island Line.   And I thought then and I think now – wonderful.

My parents were possibly relieved that I had chosen something they could access ie it had a shape and a lyric (as I have said before, my parents were remarkably open minded.)   But mentioning Donegan at school wasn’t well received.   The cool girls were into Elvis, the piano players were learning Chopin and as rock took off, there were names scattered about like confetti.   Donegan was labelled skiffle and skiffle was for kids.

Kids or not, my mother took me to see him at The Globe in Stockton and she agreed that his energy and enthusiasm were catching.   I didn’t think Donegan was skiffle because that meant washboards

“washboard gloves”

and trombones and plunk-plunk. He was just what he was, a Celt singing up tempo blues. It didn’t always work, he had to eat, but when it did, it did.   For the record I can’t think of a single artist of any genre who is “always” wonderful and if you can think of one, I suspect the wonderful is more to do with what you expect than what you hear.

Many years later, I like to have something I want to watch on Friday evening, in a kind of pause before the weekend begins.   Yes yes I know catch up and iPlayer and Netflix (I am with Helen Mirren on Netflix).   I like to have something to watch, in real time.   And on Friday night coming (12 April) BBC4 is screening a programme on Donegan.   And I had the great pleasure of discovering that George Harrison went to every one of his ten nights in Liverpool because he recognised that it was one of the side roads that led to mountain top rock. He had located something that led somewhere – and music is a long story.

I love stories.   I even like stories about stories, like The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman who finds out how to eat and thus how to live from books, the only thing with a grip on her equal to her anorexia. Apart from the fact that Freeman can write (not everybody who publishes can) she offers me a precis of at least two writers I can’t read (Dickens and Patrick Leigh Fermor) and she is a storyteller.   I grew up on stories.   A story is a lead into a wider form of history.

BBC4 has a nice line in stories, though they probably call it oral history.   It has shown me the emergence of people and beliefs in Ancient Britain, the American war in South East Asia, stories about murder and health and science and politics and it seems to hotwired to music ( three different documentaries on Paul Simon, features on touring, great female singers,this about country, that about Africa and BBC4 introduced me to the mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato , truly a voice for my life.   Having a nice line in oral history is to do with tone as much as range.   As I get older, there are voices I can’t listen to, styles of presentation that give me hives. Sometimes a presenter hits lucky once and never finds that tone again.   Sometimes he or she finds it again after a hiatus – like a runner recovering form – and my ear pricks in animal attention.   I remember showing my mother a picture of a lynx with tufted ears and asking “What’s this ?”   Said she beaming “You.”