Category Archives: Uncategorized

how we live now

Everybody is entitled to their own opinion though these are shaped differently once they are in print or other public domain– passing as they do through various and several pairs of hands and lips, sensibilities and character counts ie change a word and you change the meaning. When somebody is described as a friend of this public person or that, you kind of wish that guaranteed keeping your trap shut. So.

Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, as I say, but I don’t know the Sussexes and I don’t have a very clear sense of the structure within which the Royals function, actual or expected – the Court and so on. It was Prince Philip who came up with “The Firm” – is that just the family or the outfit that surrounds the family as well ? – and that is as near to a grasp of it as I can get. I don’t know anything about courts but I know a bit about companies and how they run.

This roil (not misspelt) was in the stars – astrological as opposed to internet. Grumbly rumblers trailing conflict, standoff and negative expectation not to mention old fashioned upheaval are to be expected. (What ? I hear you say … More ? Oh, yes.)

This is about a terribly dangerous confusion, between public and private, knowing the words but not what they mean, between them and us. Elizabeth I had a necromancer, alchemist and mathematician called Dr. John Dee. It is devoutly to be hoped that our present Queen and her son the next in line have somebody as farsighted, imaginative and intellectually reliable to call on.

I have never thought of myself as a Royalist but I did not want President Blair or any other president heretofore. When the Royals get it right, I cheer, and when they don’t – well, they don’t. Nobody gets it right all the time . But the Queen is old and deserves a gentler end to her story of devotion than this.

In the past, it was a fine compliment to be described as having common sense. Common sense is out of fashion, it’s as rare as hen’s teeth. From Crossrail and HS2, to air travel and pollution, to John Lewis and artificial intelligence – that sense of overview, being unafraid to change your collective mind, doing things in stages and securing the tent pegs bit by bit in the gale – is missing. Crossrail and JL are looking for a miracle, AI will create one and by then none of us will be able to breathe.

“Well” you hear people say, shrugging. “I don’t like it much but it’s how we live now.” Unthinking, beyond trite. For example, this was always a tough town, big cities often are but they have an underbelly like every other great beast. Several. Some are horrible, a parallel life, frankly terrifying. While another can be velvet and you learn to look for that or bits of it, by being willing to put in as well as take out. Like the man in the market Wal finally took aside and said “Look this can’t be right…” having been charged, he thought, much too little. The vendor insisted it was right and Wal said he didn’t understand. George (not his name) looked him straight in the face and said “’Cos you’re the nicest customer we’ve ever had.”

On the bus yesterday I was greeted by a teacher from a local primary I have only met half a dozen times with “Anna, how are you ? Happy New Year !” and kissed on both cheeks. Oh, I hear you mutter sourly, must have had a tax rebate … Do I care ? She’s been really quite unwell, she was better and I got the backwash. Lucky me. We used to be taught and teach that it was just as quick to be pleasant as unpleasant. God knows, I can be as out of sorts, as unreasonably as anybody else. But to be pleasant just because it’s nicer that way isn’t a new discovery, the spin off of some frightfully expensive trendy book. It doesn’t mean I don’t think and it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It is the way I have always lived and it’s the way I live now.

2020 – and I don’t mean vision

What would you like to hear first, the good news or the bad news ? If I give you the good news, you will probably only read that bit and I couldn’t blame you. If I give you the bad news first, you probably won’t read me at all. And anyway you have probably already heard it, exhaustively. Or I could be sneaky and mix them up – shades of Glenda Slagg.

The hellebore bloomed on Christmas Day. Two self seeding white cyclamen managed a bloom each and the winter broom scared up a blossom. Hellebore’s other name is Christmas Rose and as there isn’t a green finger on the Raeburn hands, I was thrilled.

The first Christmas tree was dumped on 27 December, smack in the middle of the pavement. A fine for this is only applicable if you nab the dumper – a pursuit which should become a very lucrative electronic game because – unless you are prepared to turn into Lace Curtain Lil and keep watch with a high power hose – dumpers are harder to spot than snow leopards.

Terrestrial television gets the Golden Belch for the worst programming I can remember – except for The Tiger Who Came To Tea, a tiger whose skin moved in wonderful animation as it does in life and with the right voice (David Oyelowo).

Everybody was away – upstairs, next door both side and most of the street – so I got the silence I love on Christmas Day.

At the shops on Boxing Day, everybody was tired and pale and washed out and marked down. Extended shop hours give people a working schedule which is frankly unkind. And no, the answer isn’t machines.

You can’t say that the Australian bush fires were in the background – they felt very present – and since we can’t rescue or heal millions of burnt animals, their bodies will go back to the ravaged soil. What will happen to the homeless humans is another matter.

Now that Mr.Trump has stamped his thoughtless foot on Iranians in Iraq, British troops are in the Iranian firing line. And the Foreign Office has to tell people not to go there. Gosh, I wonder why ?

Is there a diplomat with a brain who can apply himself or herself to getting the young woman claiming gang rape out of Cyprus before she has a total breakdown or kills herself or both ? Once she is steadied – and that will take time – she will have to face some sort of hearing in the country where the offence (whatever it was) took place but properly represented. And Cypriot tills should stop ringing long enough to consider that this might have happened to somebody they know, somebody’s sister or somebody’s daughter. They have sex too and with people as distasteful as the young Israelis spirited quickly away so as not to disturb trade agreements (tills again). Nobody goes to Ayia Napa for the view.

They do go to the beautiful Alpine village which is the alleged model for the village in Disney’s Frozen, thousands of them, mostly from the Far East, dragging suitcases and expectation in the way that has come to make worldwide tourism and “anybody can do anything” frankly distasteful. You want to read about what the future in China’s hands may mean ? Read about Hallstatt. And stay home or go to a local resort.

Does anybody ever read those long lists of books and pop records, future television productions and films which fill unsatisfactory pages in papers ? A list is a list is a list, it is not intrinsically interesting and I haven’t the brainspace to carry around the media equivalent of a large box of Milk Tray.

The best book I got this Christmas came from Oxfam in Kensington High Street and it cost £3. It is called The Big Screen by David Thomas and it makes you think through the overview of cinema and all the other screens, I have chosen to read it rather than watching BBC4’s latest Nordic noir which is more like Nordic noodle.

If ever there was an occasion when it is wholly necessary to live each day at a time, it is New Year.

you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine

Do you remember Sleeping Beauty ?  That the royal parents of some long ago land had a little girl so they invited all the fairies to come and bring gifts for her christening. But (these things will happen – be warned), they forgot a notoriously difficult one, who turned up in a terrible temper. She cursed the child, so that if she ever pricked her finger, she would got to sleep forever or until wakened by the kiss of a handsome prince – well, any kind of prince really – but in these stories, he is always handsome, just as she is always beautiful – and he has a hard time getting to her. We’re human, we need these stories.

We have reached the stage where a national newspaper can run a piece entitled Shunning Christmas and I don’t think this is disagreeable. It just doesn’t fit into the writer’s life and I have more regard for someone who declines the whole thing than those who have surrounded me for the last several weeks, laden with debt and parcels, grinning over the grinding of teeth, subscribing to every kind of excess – and not really enjoying it. Seriously not inspiring.

I mourn the passing of the story. It is a wonderful story of flight and survival, poverty not lack, three grandfathers instead of two (the kings), so-called “ordinary” people (the shepherds and the innkeeper), angels and animals, light (the star) and time out of time, a sense of the clock stopped, as it often is when a baby is born. In old Northern European tradition, on Christmas Eve, the animals can speak to each other and I love the idea of the ox pushing hay towards the tired donkey, saying in the voice of a crusty but kind former soldier “Eat up, old man, you look quite done in …” And the birds muttering about it all, where they shelter in the back of the stable. It is of course at least frosty and ideally snowing a bit because that accentuates the idea of gently muffled clear quiet.

There is a new version of Scrooge on tv and a new version of Little Women in the cinema, both of which are the archetypal fairy tales for slightly older children, is it too much to hope that next year some writer will get his or her teeth into reinventing the Christmas story for its human magic which has nothing to do with glittering technology and everything to do with hope ?   God knows, you don’t have to look far for refugees, or people in flight from an unfriendly regime (among our nationals, too) and a clean outhouse with a door to shut and warmth inside would be heaven indeed to most of them.   And enough to eat, just for a while … till you travel and try again.

Some time ago there was a fashion for angels who were always with you which is not terrible appealing to anyone as twitchy as me.   But I do have Christmas fairies, who unfailingly, just as I falter, come through for me.

A very tall good looking one went past my door sometime in early hours, going home through South London, after late radio work – and left a small package and a card on my front step.

A woman who is good with her hands, who had made a living out of painting and restoring and making jewellery, whom I would never have met if I hadn’t started a conversation in the street, has sent me a package to wait until Christmas Day.

My friend Snowdrop gave me something to wait for, when he went off to see his brother in Australia.

And , less tangibly, a few nights’ ago I sat next to a pretty woman with shining hair, attractively rounded, becomingly dressed. I opened my mouth and shut it again. I do sometimes. But as we got off the bush we spoke in a different connection – and then I paid my compliment. She stopped in the street and looked at me. “Me ?”   Her husband has just left her telling her she was old and plain and fat. We stood in the street while I explained projection. We’ll meet next year. The stories change, but there are always stories.

And there will be more from 7 January 2020 – and in the meantime, I wish you every good thing.

“…and these are only melons!”

the morning after

I am breaking my own rule about starting with a positive but let me just say this and then I promise to hold my peace. Campaigning must be positive as in “Get Brexit done” which really means “Vote for me !” rather than “Don’t vote for him/her/Brexit.” Nicola Sturgeon made it work in Scotland too. It may be economical with the truth but it is easier to get your head round.

OK, the election is over. If the Blond has any small self knowledge, he must admit what those many worn faces told the cameras “I didn’t vote for Boris Johnson. I voted against Jeremy Corbyn.”   Without such unsatisfactory opposition, BJ wouldn’t have got his mandate. And if BJ endorses another three years of being held to ransom by what the Conservative Party does and doesn’t want, instead of what the country needs, it will come unravelled pretty fast. The Liberal Party must recognise that trying to make a national policy out of ignoring a legally acknowledged referendum was never going to fly.   And the ruthlessness of mass media when you’re fronted by a Head Prefect with a voice of tin. God bless the Greens and the Independents, more power to you.

“I thought you’d like the colours”

I am weary of elections conducted like a football match – here the Blues, here the Reds and guess who is the football ?

You may not care who I don’t care about but -Stanley Johnson (who cares ?) – says “Here’s to a Brexit free Christmas !”   Here’s to a Stanley Johnson free Christmas. Send Nigel Farage away – send him to the US (poor devils, haven’t they got problems enough of their own ?) Send him anywhere, just – send him away. And McDonnell.   Retire McCluskey, the underwriting union man. Diane Abbott has held her seat so we must suppose she is OK in constituency – fine, let’s keep her out of the national press. Tidings of comfort and joy ? I’ll settle for a breathing space.

Two journalists were briefed to write about why we should give up Christmas cards – the expense, the bother, the stamps, the waste (pretty rich when you consider the proportion of junk mail) … but every year, without fail, I hear from somebody unexpectedly.   And I do it too, write to somebody I have lost touch with, to say good luck and God Bless.   Casting bread on the waters …

I wouldn’t attempt to write them all in one fell swoop. I have friends who sit like dutiful children at home work, writing and stamping over a hundred cards. My list is much shorter and each card requires something personal of me. If not personal, why bother ? Christmas is personal. If it isn’t personal, it’s a short break and a marketing opportunity.   And yes, I can field Christmas memories along with the best of them – but every Christmas brings me something new. If you are not going to go on learning, life isn’t much fun.

Forget the internet, I did my shopping by foot because I have to look and it brings me unexpected pleasures as well as the curled lip at horrid ugliness and expense. And a lot of what I call “almost” – the right colour but the wrong shape, the right shape in poor quality, the endless reflection “Really? Am I sure ?” and the golden rule – when in doubt, don’t.

It is infuriating that you can’t write and say “Well done !” though there is a complaints system laid down at the ready.   I tried six times to reach the producer of Vienna Blood (BBC2) and eventually wrote him snail mail. It won’t get to him, the BBC don’t care about the licensees, we just pay the rent.   And even what was last year a small outfit sending (very good) flowers by mail now has a whole procedure which is more trouble than it’s worth to fight through to say how pleased you are.

Next Saturday is the winter solstice, the shortest day and I have one Christmas present waiting (from Snowdrop who is in Aus) and although I am fascinated by the psychology of 20 houses with wreaths on the door and rubbish in the front garden, that’s their gardens not mine. My percolator works, my ankle is better, I had an editor who used to say “Onward and upward !”   I’ll settle for onward.

” Lulworth Cove by Chris Kotsiopoulos”

…those perinativity blues

You always know when Christmas is coming because every price you can see goes up and there is nothing to watch on television. Never privy to a programming meeting, I imagine there is a sense of defeat in terrestrial television which just gets passed on to the poor licencees in the form of the same films and the same programmes, over and over, for some weeks, until The Big Day is in sight. Then they pull out the stops and give us Glenda Jackson in a one off drama which had better be good. Not that I have misgivings about Glenda: I have seen her on stage, interviewed her and met her as an MP and she is All Right. Which is more than you can say for all sorts of other people.

And incidentally in a severely underhyped three part series on BBC2 called Vienna Blood (not the finest script but mostly finely played by actors I have never heard of

“the wonderful Amelia Bullmore”

and a cabaret singer in Ep.1 to beat Deitrich, Lenya and Lemper into the proverbial cocked hat) there was the most chillingly effective evocation of anti-semitism. And I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere. Does this mean people don’t notice or don’t care ? And hooray for the thoughtful and emancipated Muslims who offered their sympathy and said they too experienced reaction against them and nobody seemed to care.

When I enquire after Ginny’s health (real friend, fake name) she involves peri menopause. That’s the time of build up to the change of life. I’ve hijacked the prefix because however much I like Christmas and for all sorts of reasons, getting there ie the peri bit gets tougher and tougher in the sense of a mouthful of frankly stringy something (I would say meat but with vegan being one of those omnipresent invocations of the present time, maybe I should say palm hearts – which I only ate once and seemed to spend weeks removing from my dentistry.)

Perinativity means £20 for a bunch of rowan (“silly money, Anna” said the flowerseller, money he’ll take because he’ll get it.) Perinativity means you can’t get what you want to buy for anybody you care about except what the retailers want to sell you. A quiet day (a Tuesday) in Portobello offered a constructive step on the long road towards fulfilling a project for my son and “sales of work” (especially if they can find an appealing name) will flourish this year, because that’s where those of us who care will hope to find “smalls” – interesting individual gifts for a price we can afford.

The internet may have dented retail but retail hasn’t helped itself. You go into these enormous stores and they are full of too much for too much, much of it badly made, gimcrack and ugly. Everybody is fed up, the air is stale with entitlement and the gap between the sellers and the buyers, and you know well that whatever you’re looking at will be knocked down in the sales which inevitably follow, whether pre or post Christmas. Whole floors of stores are empty in London but the craft sale I went to yesterday (run by Selvedge, hooray for Polly Leonard and her elves) was busy and enthusiastic, in talk, look and sales.

Perinativity means that, unless I am very fortunate, I won’t find anybody in the NHS who can advise me on whether I have an infection or have just inherited tissue paper nails from my mother. Properly trained and interested dermatologists are provided privately – if you can scare up several hundred pounds. However the best shampoo I found this year (and ecologically acceptable in

composition and packing) costs £5 – Sheen – on line after the shop in which I found it closed after a couple of months. I haven’t tried any other shampoo bars – they’re all much pricier and I like this one -but I fear they may be a coming thing – which means the price will vault.

Last night I thought with renewed affection of the dermatologist I visited 35 years ago with a rash where I had abreacted to a range of cosmetics. It wasn’t a great matter but it was stubborn and wouldn’t clear. “Milk” he said “out of the fridge on clean cotton wool.” Still works.

treat

When you live on a restricted income (like many of us) a constant internal dialogue goes on between you and yourself. It features phrases like “wait a bit”, “why not ?”, “just this once …” and “you’re a long time dead.” Anything to do with money in this sense is highly emotional. Your cheap isn’t my cheap, my pricey isn’t yours. You can be good with money and not very good at enjoying yourself. You can have a wonderful sense of living in the moment and never plan for the taxman whose arrival in your life is as inevitable as night follows day.

I remember a campaign to promote selling flowers which featured the phrase “Treat yourself” from which I recoiled. Most of us can remember circumstances in which money was so tight

“forgive me the dollars,I liked the image!”

we couldn’t “treat” ourselves and many of us will equally well recall occasions when we lashed out for a £5 bottle of wine or some reduced daffs, and promptly felt better. I have stood in the darkness of a winter evening wondering if I should really buy whatever it is (I am talking about change of £10 which for long tracts of time was a sizeable amount to me) before deciding yes or no. And of course when you haven’t got it is when you want to spend it most.

It was my mother who taught me about “a Christmas present for yourself.” In her case it was almost always her favourite cologne or her preferred brand of stockings – which tells you how long ago that was ! I have often bought a Christmas present for myself but I never thought of it as a treat. If somebody else gives you a treat, it’s fine – if you do it for yourself, it seems sort of sneaky.

“Treat” has becomes aligned with that old saying “everything you really like is either immoral, illegal or fattening.” Immoral ? An affair with a married person, in the widest interpretation of the term. Illegal ? Unlikely. Fattening ? Don’t very often think about it. My mother’s father brought his children up to eat in a very enlightened way, she passed on to my sister and me and it has certainly served me well. I remember reading in a Nigel Slater cookery book “when you’re eating alone, set the table prettily and light a candle.” My kind of treat. It works. Calories ? Fuel for the machine. No fuel ? No function.

This week I recalled to a friend how a masseur rescued me in the terrible painful months after my marriage broke up. I didn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and when I got to 70 hours plus without closing my eyes, I grew frightened. I had interviewed this woman. I got in touch with her school and asked if somebody could come to see me. She herself arrived . Slightly stunned, I let her in and she administered the massage of my life, everything, my head through my hair, all the awkward places, with perfect propriety and great skill. I remember fading into the endless billowing gentle waves of heavenly peace, and hearing the front door click shut. I slept 16 hours. When I came to, I rang somewhat embarrassed and she said “There is no charge, Anna. You were in pain.” Now that’s a treat.

What you may discover with a treat that is consumer durable ie a garment, a piece of jewellery, some cherished object, is that more than being a treat, it is a talisman. It tells you something about yourself. And that change takes place as soon as you own it. Maybe it becomes less important because you no longer yearn for it, you have it. Or maybe it just becomes part of your self image.

But a treat you share is different again. Neither Wal nor I have a much of a sweet tooth. He could live on smoked salmon and I am a fruit bat. But offered dessert after the lunch from heaven in Paris recently, we found a pudding made up of pieces of day old kugelhopf turned over in butter, with small green gold plums and cream. We shared a portion. He sent me a picture of it yesterday, asking “Remember ?” I put it with my treasures.

mendacity*

Prince Andrew and I have vanity in common – though mine is in a minor key compared to his dissonant symphony. His lack of judgement brought me to a place I had never been before: I thought of writing to the Queen to express sympathy, solidarity and respect. How not to spend your wedding anniversary. Still, I suppose we should be relieved to discover that even an android can overstep the mark. And will somebody in the Royal Press Office please ensure that Sarah Ferguson never makes another public statement without clearing it with the Family first ? I’d have thought this was a basic professional courtesy. So ill advised to put social media in the hands of the stupid. If Prince Andrew is this “giant of a principled man” as she calls him amid all the other guff, why did she divorce him ?

Never has Windsor looked more like a business – supported by the worker bees, here are the loyal cadres, there the new recruits, middle management, the wild cards, and the Queen, the boss. God bless the Boss. Are we ever going to miss her when she’s gone. And the fashionable murmurings about the irrelevance of a constitutional monarchy should reflect that in a General Election hallmarked by various versions of untruth, the monarch represents a much needed buffer zone. She doesn’t tell us the whole truth either but at least we have a clear picture of why “never apologise, never explain” has been an effective strategy. She has a recognisable morality. Darned rare.  Wholly absent from any of the current crop of major politicians. Which is why the thinking public is so frightened.

Disarray is not local, it’s everywhere. Haven’t you thought how the Chinese must be cheering the toxic air and now water in India ? Takes everybody’s mind off theirs. While the pitched battle for a perceived liberty in Hong Kong means we remain gripped by the newreels and haven’t thought about what they divert our attention from, which will surely be the same kind of cyber abuse into our elections as President Macron highlighted in his own campaign.

It took the scorched feet of a koala to bring home to a friend the enormity of those bush fires in Australia. Jane Harper has written two very good novels around the Australian “dry” but this is not just an Antipodean state of emergency. It impacts on the environment, everybody’s environment, because air travels. Like bad news.

The week that British news media focussed on what was called the worst scandal of the NHS, spanning 40 years, special measures and horrid things happening to parents and children, a young woman (37) sat in my kitchen and talked about her experience 9 years ago in a major London teaching hospital, having her first baby. Her pain was denied (“It’s a first baby, it isn’t that bad” this from another woman, not a doctor) until her heart stopped at which point, her husband ran, physically seized and brought in a midwife, and all hell broke loose, emergency operation, baby saved and this woman was in a coma for 24 hours, from which she remarkably recovered.

There is a big bullet to bite on the NHS. It came into effect in 1946 or 7, when the population of the country was half what it is now and the average age of a working man at his death was 67. Medicine is a much more complex and expensive issue than ever it was, people’s expectations of the length of life and wonder of medicine have grown exponentially and so while the present Tory head honcho (health) is telling us how he’ll defend our rights to a home visit, if you listen to the doctors’ proposals, they are quite sensible. Something’s got to give. Let’s start somewhere.

Long ago, I was taught that a breakdown could be a breakthrough I hope so.

*First heard from the lips of Charles Laughton in a political thriller called Advise and Consent.