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love in the time of cholera*

On Thursday I was just finishing supper when I heard a noise like dried leaves, insistently rattling,  went to the door and discovered it was Clapping Time, to show appreciation to the NHS.   I am with the Times cartoon on Saturday which says “Nice thought, but what we need is tests, masks and protective clothing.”  Not to hit a man when he’s down and I am sure the Blond is feeling rotten but that was a big Boris slip – to say  “we’ve got – the aforementioned items, rolling out figures – when more truthfully he should have said “we have ordered” ditto.  And there is always a time delay between order and delivery. Four people asked me yesterday – where is protective clothing coming from, who makes it ?   And I cannot answer. Be ironical if all came from China.

But Clapping Time shows you your neighbours, they see you, you share something innocuous and in these times it’s not enough to say “we’re all in this together” – you have to show it.  Applause over, I went back inside, watched Mark Kermode on BBC4 (British history in films – MK and compilation- hooray) and when it ended, went to front door and looked the sky before closing up for the night.

“by Mike Gifford”

And at my feet lay a bunch of roses.

They looked like I felt – a bit tired – and definitely in need of water.  No card, still wrapped, corrugated paper round the blooms.  But the thought !  I wondered if it was Jim who works unheard of hours at the radio, I wondered if it was my son, the boys next door  ?   So while the flowers were up to their necks in reviving cold water, I took the key(never go out without the key – see annalog keys and trees) and looked.   A dozen or more doorways had roses.

The next morning I met a Scottish social worker who lives locally and after the pleasantries, I told him about the flowers and he said” That’s my neighbour.  He works providing flowers for big events, all cancelled of course.  So he thought he’d give them away.” I asked for his name and the house number and I wrote a thank you and best wishes to you and yours.  Roses for no reason.

There are lists and lists of things you can do online but I cleaned the cooker and did the hated ironing.    I watched a bit of Jane Eyre (1943, still a preferred version) and a neighbour called – observing social distance – to see if I had a spanner.   I looked and I didn’t.   A good range of screwdrivers but no spanner.

I had two long telephone calls and a number of emails including one from a friend in Spain, still in health thank heaven.  And eventually I heard from a friend sharing a house with a sufferer from chronic anxiety, exhausted but OK.   The handsome Kurd in the supermarket agreed with me that the anxiety is contagious. “Look” she said.  “ Last week was insane.  I went home, carrying loads of stuff and a couple of hours later, I sat there.  Everybody’s OK.  Food is in the oven.  Why did I buy all those things ?  Fear.  This week much quieter,  we get used to it …”

But will  the street man, newly cleaned up in clothes too big for his emaciated frame, some kind of identity tag round his neck, money in his pocket ( I heard it) but nowhere to go for breakfast because nowhere is open ? 

Once I had seen the headlines about house sales grinding to a halt, I daren’t ring Bunslove who is selling his biggest mistake, has a buyer, all in progress, no chain:  I just pray he is an exception.

I walk up and down the garden and look at what is beginning come through, this is before I hear the weather forecasters listing lower temperatures lowered again by cold winds and possibly snow, and    after I read about the Borrowed Days or the blackthorn winter – thank you Paul Simons.    So many people hail spring because they see it move on through new life of every kind to the warmer days of summer.  I dread spring, the Loki of the seasons, a trickster, unreliable and changeable.   Just like these times.


*by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

London lockdown

One of my neighbours a gloriously attractive Chilean wrote me a “Don’t hesitate to ask, we’re just up the street ” email.   Next door upstairs distributes statutory services for the local authority, they will keep her working, she wrote me a “just ask” email and when I saw her, underscored her invitation.    The delightful young men from next door but one came to knock on the door – ditto.   The girls next door street level the other side wrote me a note with their mobiles and so did my upstairs neighbours – their courtesy was moving.   Nat rang to say she was perfectly happy to load the car and come over the river, Brendan ditto.    My son rang and asked how I planned to manage and I told him how lucky I felt.

Staying well away from everybody, I go out, buy my bits and come back for the rest of the day alone. Most of the time it was ever thus.  And on Thursday I went to another area about half an hour away by bus, because it has three good independent chemists and I thought I might find cotton wool.  I did and tissues and soap and a couple of other things.

Walking up the street, I came to a little Waitrose with a woman arranging something in the window.   I stopped to think for a moment and we grinned at each other.  She moved forward and I went towards her.   “Madam” she said “would you like some toilet paper ? I have some, if you’d like it.”  I looked at her badge – “Linda the toilet tissue fairy” I said.  “Yes please.”

I thought I would have a look in my favourite bakery where the bread was as good as ever and the girls told me management was doing everything it could for them -masks, gloves, pay only by card – and they thought they might make it through.

I found things in M&S that I had not found elsewhere and the cashiers were patient and  pleasant so when I saw a manager, I grabbed her, explained I rarely shop there and please tell the staff how much we appreciate their effort.  She was delighted.

The fear is a great deal more frightening and catching than the bug. And the bug is making headway.  So we’ll see.  If we give up small pleasantries  – like talking to an Italian-Ethiopian teacher of special needs children on the bus this morning – we shall be even less human.  (How I wish I’d seen Wal and the woman in a vast ransacked Tesco’s, talking over the last bulb of garlic.  He made her laugh and she insisted he took it.)

It’s very sad how badly people behave.  In earlier days we’d never have got to an intensive care nurse, distressed and appalled after unspeakable hours of work, crying because there was nothing left to buy.   In the past, independent or chain, managers would have lined up the staff, arranged who was coming in, what they might have, how it was to be done.  Most of those in control of the situation would have been firm, clear and polite and we wouldn’t have had to look at those snarling faces, buying everything that isn’t nailed down out of a lethal mixture of entitlement, greed and terror.   But we have made several generations of anything goes and it’s ugly.

What my mother would have called “the crapehangers” among us (always expecting the worst) have long wondered what would happen if something went seriously wrong, more wrong than an aircraft blowing up or a terrorist incident.   Well now we know. 

The best news of the week was that, globally, the air was cleaner than it has been for ages.  The teacher on the bus said a friend in Venice had told her that the canals were cleaner.  And we must all know that no meeting in Davos, no accord in Paris would have granted us this breathing space, be it every so brief.  One of my favourite songs has the refrain “Hard times, come around no more” but here they are again and it is devoutly to be hoped that the human animal might learn a little something – which is not to say that the cost of the lesson won’t be  horribly high.


“What did you do in the war, daddy ?” may be rephrased nonbinarily to “what did you do in the plague, parent ?” because Covid-19 appears to be an equal opportunities employer.   And as the number of the quantifiably ill jumps, so scrapping among the suits breaks out, on how to run it.   As if anybody “runs” a pandemic.

Yesterday the woman with the cart before mine in the supermarket announced, gesturing to several cartons, ”I’m not stockpiling really, I’m making cheese.”   I said I’d seen everything and within three sentences she said ”And we’re being told bad science. This is a virus, you don’t build immunity.   They’re just frightened by the figures.  No vaccine will be ready in time and if it were, it wouldn’t work.”   I asked her how she knew ?  She told me that she was in something that sounded related and I asked how old she was (the quickest way to sort out the sensible from the rest, especially when the questioner has white hair and wrinkles) to which she deferred with “Oh, old enough.  Deep dark secret !” adding that Taurus was in Uranus which would affect the food supply.

A close friend emailed some information from San Francisco which was sobering but not surprising.  And I watched an hour of coverage thinking that the Middle Ages don’t know how lucky they were not to have had camera technology during the Black Death (can you imagine the closeups of exploding buboes ?)  Very little is known about Corona virus.  This is a smart bug. It learns fast and travels fast and we have been dilatory in realising there was a problem.   And as is often the way, the recognition of one problem reveals others.  Whoever would have imagined that the USA was short of respirators ?  Clearly this bug is unAmerican.

The most cheering thing I saw yesterday was a short interview with the retired head of the Royal College of General Practitioners, who had tested positive.  She said that the illness had been unpleasant and painful and she was – in my father’s old phrase – bloody ill.  But she was getting better.  She was however someone who was generally in health.

I watched the crowds at Cheltenham horse races wash their hands, stand in the open air and cheer while they could, and several smaller football matches did the same thing.   The message from the Arsenal manager – saying that if cancelling football matches saved one life, it was worth it – may have been mawkish but it was good to hear.

I went to the shops, bought my bits and came home. I am only an example of me.  I live alone, few people visit, I avoid throngs, so I am in semi-self-isolation.  I wash my hands a lot but then I always did.   A neighbour reduced me to giggles by explaining how she had instructed a young man to make hand sanitiser and we agreed that wet wipes or cologne impregnated tissues would be a start.

Opening the door to put out rubbish, I encountered Frank the rough haired dach (star of the street long before Daisy was top dog at Crufts) with Andy on the other end of the lead. To get a book back I went up the street with them to meet Liz who flew to give me a big hug (enthusiastically reciprocated) before standing back to say ”I shouldn’t have done that should I ?”    She told me that she had taken her baby son to the GP surgery.  There were four people waiting when a woman arrived, clearly unwell, her voice rasping, and said to the receptionist “I have Corona, please help me.”  Everybody froze, the receptionist told her to go home and call III but she said she couldn’t get through.   The receptionist told her to leave.   And what are you going to be told?   It’s a bug, it’s a bad bug but it won’t kill you unless it’s your turn.

It only took a pandemic to get all of the tills into use at the checkout and a watchable film on terrestrial television for Saturday – that’s next Saturday, we should live so long.

“Tibetan antelope”

*what Sonya says we should be singing

first, find your lie …

Fact and fiction are often part and parcel of each other. Never mind who writes what best, badly written fact can read literally unbelievably.  Intelligent imaginative fiction on a factual subject can give you better emotional information.  It was suggested the other day that a good novel on jealousy gave you more insight than a series of factual essays.  I used to recommend certain novels rather than self help because self help was so often badly written.

But I do feel very strongly when something important in our lives is given a fictional treatment before we have had time to find out enough about the facts of the matter from reliable sources.   So Chernobyl – the subject of finely acted fiction on television recently – but the facts are still coming to light.  To this end , there were three books out on it last year and I chose one (by Kate Brown), waited till it came out in paperback and acquired it.   And it is a game changer in perception from the first chapter.

So the idea of fake news doesn’t make me smile.   We didn’t need technology to invent that.   A card carrying cynic, I like to think I can often smell a wrong ‘un but in fact I am sure I am duped as much as anybody else, as a citizen or a voter, a patient or a consumer. And fact is often stranger and more provoking than fiction.

Yesterday in my supermarket of choice, two women came to blows over toilet tissue, a number of other people were much less than agreeable and some oaf shouted at my nothing if not polite Filipina cashier because she had been instructed not to let people have more than  so many toilet rolls and only two packs of Paracetamol.   And he didn’t like it.   Panic, we agreed, is more catching than corona virus.

When I arrived at my next port of call,  the long established family butcher round the corner, we were graced with a full complement of staff – the Staffie (short, muscular, twinkle in his eye, don’t cross him), the Scot, the Owner and Mr. Nice Guy who is often sent forward as advance guard plus Rosie (I’ve named her) who needs only a mob cap and a dress with panniers to look like an 18th century milkmaid.  They could charge extra for teasing and fooling plus the meat is good.   NG stopped me in the doorway because he said, they were only allowed to give me a chicken breast and three rashers of bacon, in case of hoarding.   The Staffie said “Oh I dunno, she looks like a sufferer to me !”, the Owner said hello as we all began to talk and I asked if they had heard about the uproar in the supermarket the afternoon before.  Of course they had.  Jungle drums.

“So” said Rosie “ we’ve got a new wheeze now. We’re going to tell everybody that red meat will cure the corona virus –  and make a few bob.  If they want a fight, they can come and fight here …”  I suggested ringing the Daily Mail  and we all thought it was a very good idea to prop up red meat sales “because of course “ I said “you don’t have to eat it.  You just have to put it on the inflammation, like that steak dress of Lady GaGa’s – that was an early case, not admitted at the time … “   By now we had been joined by another customer so I told her we were discussing red meat as a protection against the corona virus.

She was Italian and told us that in Italy which has the highest European infected population, the highest number of deaths, and also the highest number of elderly people with underlying conditions, the butchers are doing great business because everybody thinks they should eat red meat to keep themselves (her word) strong in the face of the virus.

Even I could write the piece convincingly.

Until Matt Hancock put his foot in his mouth and claimed to be liaising with the supermarkets in the provision of essentials ( which was promptly denied by the aforementioned  grocers)  the representation by  public health and scientists in this country had been remarkable for singing off the same hymn sheet to the same tune.  Let us hope for a return to form in public life as well as the supermarket.

quick quick slow slow

I don’t want to write about the resignation of the head of the Civil Service because there is more to this than meets the eye and you have be desperate – especially nowadays – to resign on camera.

I don’t want to write about the Blond and Carrie, their engagement or their baby.  It is quite clear that Johnson hasn’t signed up to any accord, Parisian or otherwise: this is his fifth child we know about.  Ever heard of overpopulation ?

by Soren Thielemann Sorenski

And however smart his partner allegedly is, she thinks she is the one who will last.  I wonder if the titular head of Dominic Cummings will feature as a celebratory gift ?

It is hard to feel anything positive about the incumbent Home Secretary.  The elephant in every room in Whitehall is Windrush and it is a scandal.  She may not have incurred this mess but she could do something to alleviate it.  Of course that would involve goodwill rather than stilettos and power – you pays your money and you makes your choice.

So, unable to influence the world to be more thoughtful let alone kinder or greener, I went about my business,( small woman, small world), starting at Peter Jones, the John Lewis flagship to buy ziplock sweater bags, roughly 44 x35 cms. (I measured).   From the fitment devoted to them I was offered under the bed bags, lavender scented and mothproofed bags, hanger included hanging bags – but not what I wanted.  The courteous assistant murmured about not stocking what doesn’t sell.  I said it reminded me of that “placed” message on a delayed bus : ”This bus has been instructed to wait for four minutes here, to help us regulate the service.”   Sunshine, I am the service.  Offer that thought to Dame Sharon at the next troubled directors’ meeting. The multiples are imitating each other – cutting back on stock and putting in machines instead of people.   How about a different take on the same problem ?

Otherwise it was Christmas in February – I bought a sheepskin hot water bottle cover, a bottle of brandy and 11 yellow roses (three promptly collapsed but the remainder survive on the mantel). As the hottle queen, I know that when the cover goes, it goes.  So I had worn through cheap cashmere (a present) and pretend heavy knit (acrylic, ditto ) and I was ready for something better that should see me out.

I bought the flowers in the supermarket on a whim.  I hardly ever buy flowers in store.  And if roughly a third die on unwrapping, you can see why.

The friend who gave me brandy for Christmas giggled when I told her I thought VSOP stood for Very Seriously Over Priced.  It was delicious but I have low taste and as long as there is a superior tonic, I’ll buy a cheap cognac.  The girl behind me goggled when I bought a bottle.  “Don’t look like that” I said.  “I don’t drink a bottle a night, just one tot with tonic.”   Strange how nobody thinks anything of buying a bottle of wine (though Wal did manage to bring his local M&S to a standstill buy dropping one of two into the automatic tills – he swears it was accidental, I am unconvinced) but buy a bottle of spirit and people start muttering about five steps and detoxification.  And no, not hydrangea tea.

Long ago, when people still made movies, there were one or two very good very long films but however much I admire The Green Mile or Bridge of Spies in the bits that I have seen of them, three hours is TOO LONG.  Even with brandy and tonic.   In the days of the studios, If you couldn’t tell the story in about 100 minutes (give or take)  the director was judged incompetent .   And I received a foaming email from Brendan, usually the kindest of men, just released (appropriate word) from Portrait of a Lady on Fire (a mere 122 minutes).  The abandonment of the hour and forty five minutes for two hour slot is killerdiller to all too many television scripts.   It means three too many twists and a discontented viewer.   Extraordinary how as the world spins faster, art slows down. A bit like life with the coronavirus.

the shape of the day

I opened the computer this morning and there was an email from a woman I have known for 25 years

“silver for 25 years, circles for ever”

– I know it’s 25 years because it was the 25th anniversary on 14 February of the launch of a national talk radio station, now fallen into filling air rather than broadcasting. I won’t start, I shall only moan. She lives in the US having married an American musician and they have four children. In crisis, I told her to find a therapist and she took me at my word. Bless her, I don’t even have to close my eyes to see the line of her beautiful cheekbones.

But mainly I am glad (selfish to the end ) because it changed the shape of the day.

“by Louise Bourgeois”

When you live alone you are caught in a permanent balancing act ie liking to do something, for example, the crossword over coffee, becomes having to, and a habit very quickly. There are few habits that don’t exist to be broken. And it is harder to do when you are alone, because habits give the day a kind of scaffolding you can work around.

Every so often something happens that changes the day. I have just declared war on the shape my Sunday has fallen into, for the very good reason that it isn’t doing me any good. The crowded streets stopped me going out on Sundays other than round the block for air and in the longer term, that all too soon become a long slow dead decrescendo of an interminable afternoon.   So I have a plan and Candice(not her real name) has helped me.

I don’t feel compelled to change walking up the road to the Tamils to buy newspapers because moving my back around after sleeping is necessary. And of course I sit to breakfast. But then compiling the list of the books to be sold after my death, rewriting my wishes for my son on my will, annalog copy and the mysterious project (no I won’t talk about it) all demand sitting at the screen. I don’t know how you people do it. Any long period at the screen adversely affects my eyes, my head, my back and my temper.

Scarlett O’Hara “I’ll think about that tomorrow!”

And I use that as an excuse to myself just as we always have done, back in history when we had to argue with the typewriter. (Did you notice this year that there was much less talk about New Year’s resolutions ? I am sure this is because most of them involve us in things we’d rather put off.)

One thing that is going to change the shape of the day is a nap in the afternoon so I can watch a later film on tv because everything that interests me is on at one or two in the morning. And again we are back to the balancing act. It does not follow that staying up late will make me sleep later. I wish. It does mean (poor old thing) that after a couple of outings to see films that attract me in the small hours I will disappointed in the productions, grey of face and out of sorts.

The shape of the day has to include exercise and I have never been any good at doing it for the sake of doing it.   I have friends who use the gym and make it work for them even though they aren’t keen on the environment.   I can’t get past the smell and the bad music. (I am shapeshifting into a bloodhound: the odour of a wellknown lingerie emporium hit me the other day like an advertisement for disinfectant).   And I like to have a goal which is probably why I shop virtually every day, just for supper or plant food or candles – and then I walk because walking has not only alleviated the pain in my once tricky back but continuing to walk keeps pain at bay.  I do do housework but I confess, only intermittently. I have reduced washing by machine to twice a week and once by hand. I read a couple of periodicals and the papers, books, books, books … and I notice rejoicing that the yellow rose called A Friend Indeed has a bud.

the importance of trivia

Shirley and I were talking about the state of the nation on the till in Waitrose, and I remarked that there is little discussion about the burgeoning level of personal debt. A man two back from me in the queue (American accent, good coat) said clearly “Well said ! We have the same problem. Look at the front page of the FT today – it’s a once in a lifetime piece.” So I bought the FT (£2.90 ) and there was an outstanding op ed item by the news editor on the price of good government.

Today’s headlines are about restructuring the BBC to fewer tv and radio stations, and most importantly among other things, investing more in the World Service. The problem is who will handle this restructuring because it is all too easy to chop things down – realignment requires rather more imagination.

“Kintsugi – the art of putting things back together”

A senior source is quoted as saying “The PM is quite strident about this.” Strident is one of the few things the Blond does a lot of. And just because he makes noise it doesn’t follow he’s saying anything constructive.

A friend and I had a long conversation recently about anxiety – these are anxious times. There is no coherent political opposition, and the world is full of death and despots, fire, poison and standoff. You take refuge in little things – baby’s first step, the hyacinth that has come through in the unseasonable warmth. So, there I was, putting on the kettle in the kitchen on Saturday, when I began to laugh aloud. Several people, Den notoriously truthful, had said very nice things to me that day – but the hair, the clothes and so on were all the same. The only difference was I had put on lipstick.

I came late to lipstick. My first was Tangee Natural which meant it looked like a lipstick but didn’t show.   Child of my culture, I loved watching various film stars (or my mother) put on lipstick.   And powder too. They were ceremonial gestures which indicated self love and self importance of an acceptable kind.

Throughout my life I looked longingly at lipsticks, the way other people look at chocolate. Occasionally I fell in love with a name or a colour but it rarely translated successfully on to my mouth. I was very scared of anything too strong, too deeply coloured because by now sporting the very short very dark hair I had for the main part of my professional life, I already had a face like an axe. This is not self deprecation. The history of the axe in human history is inspiring.

“amazons with axes!”

I mean only that my face was unusually strong for a woman (and incidentally it thrilled me to discover that Ladysmith Black Mambazo means Ladysmith Black Axe – “to chop down the opposition” said their late lamented founder Joseph Shabalala).   Red lipstick was too much.   I think it was about this time too that I discovered that the hetairai – upmarket Greek geisha – wore red lipstick to simulate their vulval lips. Oh.

But if you wait, God sends, seeing as He does, everything – and I found a colour I could wear. So I bought it and as I came out of the shop, I waited for a voice somewhere to ask “What do you think you are doing ?” but it didn’t happen. I think I found the fine loose very nearly invisible powder I use at the same time. I felt I might grow up at last, I was in my late sixties. I recall putting on my swoosh of powder and my two coats of lipstick, the first one carefully blotted, and grinning at myself in the bathroom mirror.

In a Francois Nars store, the staff and I chuckled happily over the moody names for eye pencils and blusher, let alone lipsticks but it was there that I found the colours in formulations I could wear.

When most women say they bought a Chanel, they mean a copy, a handbag or possibly an outfit.   I bought a lipstick.   And yesterday, because I have had a strange eye irritation which is probably to do with poor air quality locally and generally, that’s what I was wearing -, a dollop of clear serum and two coats of Inconnu. Worked for me.