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choosing

Time can be measured, the measures can be named, but time is.

“Gold 18th century time measuring device”

It cannot be stopped. The sun comes up and the sun goes down but when there is no more sun, it is the end of everything we know and I don’t mean KFC. Casting about for a place to begin this morning, I looked up January. The temptation to dismiss January as a month of cold Monday morning is considerable. What I found was Janus, the two faced god, he who patronises (I quote) beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings. I was momentarily soothed. The image was January as a work in progress. Better than headlines screaming disaster when there is damnall I can do about it.

This January one of the kindest women I know eventually began to realise that she was kind to everybody but herself.   Her behaviour has altered. She is (dare I say?) steadier.   This January another friend who has had a year of upheaval including the disintegration of a long partnership and the hospitalisation of a beloved niece finally faced some uncomfortable truths – and promptly bought two dresses. Hasn’t happened in 20 years. They are targeted sale buys as she is about to go into very much warmer weather, travelling in the job that has kept her sane over this “passage” period, out of one set of things and into something else. Nobody would deny it was painful but at least there is movement.   Janus.

We usually think of two faced as being a bad thing. It can be. Most of us have been let down or felt ourselves to be so, by a work colleague or an intimate, or even at the hands of a professional we trust – and it is painful. We say “There are two sides to every question” but that’s minimal. There are all sorts of aspects to everything. Looking for things to be simple is misleading and frustrating.

Another friend’s eyes were streaming. And they itch and they hurt and you must know how miserable that is. But she was prescribed certain eye drops and that’s what she has used – not the same bottle, but the same stuff, for years.   I suggested she might question this, with the doctor (not big on the GP), OK, with the pharmacist (she has a tame one locally) or even with an eye specialist – a one off but sometimes worth it. Things change. Janus.

Not everybody has means.   But most of us have some means and it is important to have them for what you need them for. Always prone to migraine, I had a run of what I called headaches recently because they took place in the head but they were characterised by distortion of vision, not pain.   There was a particular one where I went to put a face on a GP who has gone out of his way to be helpful. Until now, we’d not met – communication had been written and once by phone. He checked me over and commented on slightly raised blood pressure but was honest enough to say it was in no way conclusive. I went home, thought and went back (more money) to my eye specialist, he who had melted in the summer heat into a much more accessible person than I had first thought him.   He listened, ran the tests again and referred me to a neurologist who specialises in headache.

The latter recognised every symptom, explained, put me through all sorts of balance and co-ordination tests, explained some more. Nice man, cost the earth.   But I left him knowing how to proceed.

The other day I fell in love with a Braque lithograph. I recognised it, it took my breath away. I priced it.   And the admirably approachable owner of the shop reduced it, almost at once, but I went away to think.   And this is what I thought : God forbid I should be so unlucky as to have a brain tumour but if I have further problems, I have already put my hand up to transfer back into the NHS clinic of the neurologist I consulted. I have a reference point, I know how to proceed.   It is 2019, the NHS is overrun, small specialist crisis like mine are casualties of its purview. Janus turned his face against the Braque, better uses for the money.

“thank you Braque, also the name of a hound – Janus rules”

slimming by ear

I am very worried. I have just found a Gwyneth Paltrow recipe I like. We get so used to the wilder shores of her successfully realised snowflake/woebot/neo-vegan/professionally twee extremes, that we forget she is a well educated upper middle class survivor and this clean but not mean gurudom has got to be better than lingering around the ego-beatup that is Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure she works, for nowadays it is axiomatic to see the hardwon pile driving effort that goes into anything that succeeds. (Good Lord, I am exhausted and I have only written six lines …) It’s wellness that does it. How I hate wellness. Boop-a-doop Goop, I can just about get on with – I know a girl has to make a living – but wellness brings me out in hives.

The concept is OK, it’s the word. I don’t like it. It’s arch, false, designed to sell something . Growling slightly, I just about got my head round wellbeing but wellness gives me the pip. A phrase like “everybody’s toolbox for optimal wellness …” and mine is instantly compromised by a combination of repressed fury and uncomfortable laughter. Irony bypass. I am so glad that I am not young any more …

In the ear or on the page, American voices were and remain a different section of the verbal life orchestra, starting with the movies. New York introduced me to all sorts of new words, some of them frankly bewildering, suspenders and fags among them. Language is always on the move, slang to start with (the vernacular) and then language proper. It is after all a scant week since I read the 400 pages plus of Becoming by Michelle Obama – and it pains me to tell you that there is a wellness in there. I am sure it is correctly used, I just don’t like it.

But I read a lot of American writing, I always have since I was introduced to Arthur Miller at 13. And I could see differences in the language, in the uses of the language and I can’t remember being troubled by it. Trouble began in would-be “take me seriously” texts, usually from law or medicine or sociology or any of them via media – the language of most US TV series based in or around the law required a working knowledge of their legal system and a very sharp ear. Same with politics. Or health. And health is politics. And all of these extensive subjects are dealt with by degree – enjoyment, information, documentary, soap … and subliminal marketing.

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I hear US voices , because of the dominance of culture, especially pop culture, but also because my favourite news programme is dually anchored (mostly) Washington DC and London and it is their pride to offer speakers often unknown to me (hooray )– most of whom express themselves extremely well (often my experience with American guests when I was broadcasting.) They know (and knew well in advance of most of us this side of the pond) that to promote themselves they would have to be open to and accessible by media – and they were brilliant. Brilliant in their version of my language, not a wellness in sight.

Wellness is a cod term, a carefully composed lipstick red herring, all dressed up and only going to the bank off the back of diet books. Sure, it’s important to get people to eat more vegetables and less meat. But as importantly, we need to understand why some people eat more than others and why some find it so hard to lose weight. And for that you need a different voice – the voice of the scientist slogging through time to understand a very complex matter. Watching a friend who has just lost 70 lbs put over half of it back on, I fell on a review of geneticist Giles Yeo’s book Gene Eating (Seven Dials £14.99) – and the most important word is health – the middle of NHS which is staggering under our collective poundage and the illnesses it accrues. “Science” says Yeo “is set up to get at the truth eventually.” I’m off to the bookshop. I’ll walk.

again

If the magic of Christmas to me is its silence, then the coming back down to earth of New Year is its noise – harsh voices, loud fireworks, the clash of bottles in the night, on into the morning of the First Day.   Here we go again.

The days in between Christmas and New Year are often odd. Some people go away, some come back. Shops stay stubbornly closed or just as stubbornly open. I lost count of people saying they didn’t know which day it was.   Sometimes the week seems interminable and this year it surely was.

There are two women I meet on the bus, both a little older than me, both better off, regular attendees at a local church and it is on their way there or back that I usually see them. But I haven’t seen either one of them for a while and you know that nobody lives forever. On New Year’s Eve, I met the younger woman, sort of Phyllis Calvert in silvergilt, and we sat happily together, she glad to see me, she said, me equally pleased to see her. And while we shared our various family bits and pieces, she remarked (as so many people have done this year, those you know and those you don’t know at all) what a strange period of time this is, how unsettled, and frankly, how frightening.   And as I got up to get off, we measured each other as carefully as boy and girl on a first date and kissed each other good wishes and courage for 2019.

Somewhere in there I saw the BBC Review of 2018, on BBC4. I love compilations, bits of film, bits of programmes, all the wonderfully gifted people who’d died that year, roughly gathered into subject headings. By chance I saw it a second time and it ended with Aretha Franklin singing as only she could, in all her African splendour.

Victoria Falls Adventure Playground of Africa

I made a note of the editor and emailed her at BBC just to say thanks and well done, even better the second time and bless her, she sent me the whole Franklin clip which is like diamonds in my ear.

And then I spent New Year with Pat Barker and Michelle Obama. I was loaned The Silence of the Girls and Becoming respectively by a neighbour who didn’t want to read either yet – but she knows I read fast. My mother used to call this “trying it on the dog.”

Becoming is an inspired title, Mrs. Obama is quite a woman. But nothing prepared me for her candour about her background, the difference between it and that of her husband, the great driving wish to do your best.  And to say clearly that, once your husband got into politics, it was like another person in the marriage, constantly to be negotiated. No wonder it is selling. And Becoming is a wonderful play on words. I don’t like the cover photo (all the convention of overdressed hair and a particular kind of eye makeup) but it wouldn’t put me off for five seconds.   So that got me to just about the witching hour, when I thank God for my blessings, swallow the last sip of brandy and tonic and look for something else to read because I can’t sleep in the noise.

I read the first two books Pat Barker ever wrote and now she is up to 15. The Silence of the Girls didn’t grab me as a title but the idea of examining the fall of Troy from a woman’s perspective did, bearing in mind that women played no great role in the ancient world. Marriage was less to do with emotion and more to do with order and possession and war – every war right up to this moment – destabilised the enemy by destroying societal norms. Women were just flesh.

“Bakira Hasecic”

I found the ease of the writing and the subtlety of the adjusted stories thrilling.   These are my fairy stories – you can keep Game of Thrones.

So here I am, marking the beginning of the new year all in women (unless you count a passing nod to Barack Obama). I didn’t set out to do it this way. My rule of thumb is distinctly non-partisan when it comes to women. The good are great and the bad are horrid, just like everything else in the world.                 

Cutprice Christmas

The cost of Christmas is going up but the two best things for me this year haven’t been to do with money at all. I saw a slight girl running happily with a dog and behind her Rachel an artist who lives locally and I haven’t seen for a while. We established Pearl was with her, I said how attractive she was and Rachel told me she has been anorexic for 2 years. Rachel talks as much as I do and she enthused about how helpful the Maudesley (famous mental hospital) had been, about books and insights and how Pearl was getting better and the girl came back so she gave me her telephone number.   And when I rang a day or two later, I said how wonderful it was to hear a parent willing to be upfront about this terrible thing. And I asked how she and her husband were doing. “It’s been hard” she said “but we learned a lot and we’ve managed, and Pearl’s come a long way.”   It’s hard to explain in print how moving it is to hear neither bluster nor whinge and certainly not avoidance: just – this is our child and this is where we are up to. Hard won and beyond price.

And then Evie, very much younger than me, with whom I became sort of friends till she fell in love and moved out to Ipswich – and we lost touch. I went past the framers where she used to work the other day, currently on its way to transformation into another moody cake shop, and thought of her and hoped she was OK. There were things to sort out and being young and poor is only fun sometimes. The next morning a card arrived. She is still happily living with Aidan, they have a cat, and she is painting. Bullterriers.   And she sent me a wonderfully gentle caricature of the almond eyed droop snoot. And says she is happier than she has ever been. Couldn’t set a price on it.

My Santa Claus is a kind of year round multiple, dressed in baseball caps, orange Day-Glo and heavy gloves. My Santa Claus is multi-ethnic, a sort of mixture of the reindeer and the Christmas Visitor. Let me introduced you to my daily heroes – the local waste disposal team – and though of course I could always use the reindeer poop in the garden, these guys are better than Santa.

I listen to some of my neighbours moaning “oh, they drop this, they don’t take that” but word of honour, if you wrap it, they’ll take it away as I have proved for the better part of 20 years. Thank you’s, smiles and acknowledgement brought me waves in the street and a French lesson from the North African.   I know you can’t be nice to everybody and I know you can waste your efforts as in casting pearls before swine, but most people respond like dogs to a kind word, and the humbler and grottier the task, the more that kind word shines.

No turkey in this house, no ham, no pudding or mince pies – don’t care for any of them – though the fruit bowl is overflowing thanks to Karen who will only be in the market up to Christmas and then not till May – “the summer knocked us out” she explained. “We haven’t got enough to stock the stall. So we’re going to take a break and hope to come back later in the year. “ The big multiples will import – at a price – but this is the first time I’ve had a personal experience of the change in the weather.

And I agreed to make the Swedish apple cake my son loved when he was a little boy.   I do hope to heaven I don’t make a mess of it – it’s like taking the eleven plus all over again.

Christmas is always personal.   There are people who find being alone untenable. I have learned to enjoy it.   There are so many people for whom the end of the year is uncomfortable, they don’t like the cold or the falling leaves or the dark nights.   I love it all.   Memory shines like the candles I light in every room.

All names have been changed.

Annalog over the holidays

Annalog over the holidays Thursday 20 for Christmas Thursday 3 Jan for New Year and a very merry to you all.

keys and trees

As the door closed I knew it: the keys were on the kitchen table.   I have locked myself out twice before . Once I broke my own window and climbed in. Once a neighbouring gym teacher climbed over the wall and let me in.   This time, it was raining.   I felt foolish. I thought I might try to get over from the upper flat next door but when Sara let me in, she expressed her doubt and once I had looked, it was clearly impossible.   I waited till my upstairs neighbour came out to go to work, explained and as we walked upstairs she remarked kindly that it can happen to anybody.   I thanked her, looked over the wall – and again, impossible.  

Note for the future: only one way to climb over and that is from the flat on the same level next door. Note for the future: never again.

So I went up the road to Liz and Andy (not their real names), threw myself on their mercy and sat with hot tea and Iris who is not quite 2 and the dog while Liz rang Banhams’ emergency line and the locksmith was organised for less than an hour.   Liz and Andy are half my age, unflappable and kind, high powered in a deprecatory way, and I shall never be more grateful for them.

The locksmith arrived with a flat case like an assassin’s bag from which he produced a hooked stick with a tiny camera and various lengths which jointed on to the base at different angles, till he could put the device through the letterbox and open the latch.   He told me he had really enjoyed O2 going down – he didn’t have any calls for a whole day !

I was not up to much. It is strange how being out of my small sense of control knocked me for six. So I decided to give in gracefully, did a lot of domestic bits and pieces, wrote cards (apparently this is a woman’s thing – thank God for women) and went up the road in the afternoon to buy some essential.

Coming back I heard the whirr of electric saws and noticed two heavy plastic notices some yards apart on my side of the street, and a light rope cordoning off the same area. A tree which badly needed it was being pruned. I saw a tall man (he turned out to be Spanish, I asked and shook hands) and thanked him for cutting the tree back . “Well we were “he said “but a neighbour of yours hit my partner. “ What?   “This lady came down the road, my colleague said please don’t walk on the path, we’re cutting the tree back … She picked up the rope and moved forward, when he put his hand out to stop her – she hit him in the face.” I asked if he was all right. “A bit shaken” he said “and we called the police.”   The other man turned up with an inch cut on the top of the cheekbone and another mark on the socket bone – how she missed the eye, I don’t know. I offered tea or coffee and Savlon.   I saw them again round the corner 24 hours later and teased them about the risk they were taking. “The police came, they were decent” said the man with the cut eye “but I didn’t prefer charges.” I stared at him. “Why ?”   “I’m better than that” he said. “She isn’t” said I.

The assailant is one of those women who dotes on dogs. This exempts her from ever watering a plant – a kind of blindness I don’t begin to understand. One of the signs of the newly gentrified street is often quite expensive trees and shrubs, bought for show, allowed to languish and die for the want of a drink or a bit of plant food. And heaven help you if some negatively interpretable flicker should cross your face as Bunface walks up the road with her herd of fluffies, one in a buggy.

PS I went to Banhams, cut a spare key to lodge with Sara. I’ll leave the climbing to Santa.      

first day of winter

We used to send cards for Christmas or birthdays and that was it – until somebody discovered the joy of black and white photographs and then cartoons and witticisms and sympathy cards and “To The Best Dad In The World” and all the rest of the industry fell in behind.   I wonder how many people send cards nowadays as opposed to giving them – but anyway you’d be hard put to think of an occasion or a sentiment for which there isn’t a card.   Taste in cards is deeply particularised.   What you think is funny , I find offensive: what I think is appealing, you find pretentious. We’re all different. But sitting on the edge of the mantel is a small drawing of a tree limned in white on rose gold foil: apart from the fact that I like the illustration, I love rose gold. It’s a very special colour.

Dyes have changed over history, how dyes are made I mean. And of course fashion promotes this colour and pushes that back. When I was under 10 and my mother took me with her shopping for underclothes, she wouldn’t have anything to do with pink – “Such a God awful colour !” she’d say laughing.   And it was, early nylon, late rayon and oh dear. Somewhere along the line we discovered the term “neethy pink” in a novel and that was it. We giggled our way through knickers and bras and roll-ons, the underpinning of the fifties, no no no to prurient pink.   In other garments we might find a good strong sweet pea colour, or a pale romantic shell, but not often and I don’t remember more than a mention of bois de rose or rose gold till I was nearly 20, names as exciting as the colours..

Colour is one of the great pleasures of my life and the colours of gold or the ranges of pink were only part and parcel of a world that offered endless shimmering variations, whether I was looking at the side of a disused building, bolts of silk, the colours within a colour or how different the Finnish earrings I bought a couple of years ago looked when they were rose gold dipped.

The other day I saw a rose gold dog, a first cross English mastiff and Chinese sharpei and when I saw him for the second and third time, I saw that I hadn’t exaggerated, his coat was golden brown with a pink cast to it. I have never seen anything like it.

Every year Christmas cards vary.   For example, dogs might be very “in” this year, nothing as exotic as the rose gold dog of course but beagles in Santa caps, dachshunds skating, St. Bernards pulling sleighs.   These are cosy cards, far from the black and white ranges which always exist or the reproductions of the Nativity, some Italian masterpiece or a special stained glass window.  Some years you’re spoilt for choice, there are cards you like everywhere. But then again, you may not be able to find what you want and feel disappointed that you can’t find what you want to send.

“Radio Free Europe 1951”

And there are those who give the money they might have spent on cards to charity and tell their friends, so to share in the good deed – and it is a good deed – but I like cards.   I like to send them and I like to receive them.   The range of cards holds up where the range of small gifts doesn’t and two fairs that have regularly been my delight, palled a bit this year, because everything has got too clever for its own good, too slick, too professional so that the sense of finding something special and affordable is lost in the gloss of over-achievement.

But at the second fair, there were three camels walking through, suitably led, for the children to look at and further along, round the corner, two reindeer in a pen to feed, and sitting in a decidedly Russian looking square deep sleigh without runners was a girl in a raincoat with an owl perched on a gauntlet, a barn owl with feathers of agate and honey, tiny drops of rain gleaming like small diamonds across its back and, in a certain light, just a tinge of rose in the beautiful intricacy of its feathers.  And because it was so calm, I stroked it.