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mixed messages

National Rail strike

will not protect members in the railway ticket offices whom it is planned to phase out.   Big saving ?  Bigger mistake.  Trains may be mechanical but they are driven, maintained and deployed by people for people.  Reduce the human face of the railway and forget it.  False economy.   On-line is unlikely to be the future.  It is beginning to falter.  And if the whole shooting match is committed – including banking, social systems, medicine, travel, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all – the  country is completely exposed and when one part of the system falters, the rest is at risk and it’s only a matter of overload and mistiming before shutdown.  

NB always have a sum of old fashioned money behind a brick and don’t tell anybody about it.  A secret is not a secret if it is shared. Especially if it is about money.

I re read Spartacus

the other day, the Howard Fast novel Kirk Douglas purchased  which became one of those few exceptions – a better film than a book.   All sorts of decent people would be horrified to think of this as a slave culture but in Britain it is more and more those who have and those who prop up the haves, who are not haves themselves, and it is chilling.  The middle ground for anything is being eroded before our eyes.

We might cope with some of this, if it were explained.  We might not like the explanation but at least we wouldn’t feel so out manoeuvred.  When I rang my GP surgery to ask about the Covid booster I was dismissed with “Nothing to do with us.”  Gee, thanks.   I was polite, really I was.  And a friend recently campaigned for 6/8 weeks to be seen by his doctor for a chest infection

lingering entirely too long and separately, a family history of melanoma (his nose).  His GP practise sent him a form.  He wrote and said he had to be seen.  He was directed – this all took ages – to an Acute IIlness Surgery.  Finally he got to a helpful doctor, obviously the facility is partly NHS, partly privately funded.  Bad chest infection prescribed for, getting the drugs is a whole other story, different place for the melanoma (appointment as yet unconfirmed).  

My friend is an intelligent man.  If you explained to him that, staggering under input and expectation,  the NHS can’t field enough doctors to deal with routine infections, he wouldn’t like it – he paid into it all his long working life, why can’t he have the bit he needs now ? –  but he’d grasp the point.   However in his professional life, he organised systems and deployed resources.  They could do with him now, even on a consultancy basis for an honorarium. 

There are increasing numbers of children in care

and no help for adoptive families.  This is not a new story – it is repetitive.  The figures for children in care only go up and it is hard work to take over a child  already reneged on, brutalised, disappointed.  Adoption and fostering deserves support but about every five years, this story comes round again -with the occasional bit of good news as when the local authorities pull the stops out or somebody brilliant intervenes.   It is not usual.   So – here we go again – it is a good thing to do, now let’s make it as difficult for you as possible.      

The government is going to build umpteen new homes ?  It doesn’t need to.  Surely better to bring in an ordinance which rules that no building may stand empty

for longer than a year.  After that, it is compulsorily sold through the local authority with the aim of primarily providing homes.  And yes, bite the bullet :  you will need to repair and maintain those dwellings – and that unskilled, desperate for shelter , second group ( vetted for police records, light fingers, county lines and every other kind of abuse) will get a concession and do the job.  Just as they always did.

At the time of my long ago menopause, HRT was as prevalent as GSTQ (God Save The Queen) but now it has become the rallying call of women denied  -though a thoughtful journalist countered with a piece about the medicalisation of women’s health. 

Evening primrose

Mixed messages, anyone ?   


One of the best things about the pandemic


was that, shut up with stuffed drawers and desks and  wardrobes we spent our time ignoring, we no longer could.  I know several people who have discovered the joys of going through the carefully saved whatever it was, only to discover that it could go …  I have a friend clearing the house for major renovation and she’s effectively permitted to do what she has always felt she should not. 

I am quite ruthless about clothes. 


If they are not being worn, I don’t keep them.  I’d rather give them to a friend or a charity shop than save something in case I use it again.  Yes, I have twice made a decision I regret but twice in a lifetime isn’t much.    And I know all sorts of people who keep clothes, out of fashion, wrong size, frankly unbecoming, but nicely made or good material or “it would do a turn” … only it never does.

Shut up with the evidence of fashion folly, the only thing they spent money on was black bags. And thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  I was one of the people who went through storage shelves (Oxfam benefited) and Wal gets the gold star because he committed to major overhaul.   After clearing out his extensive wardrobe, he embarked on the office clearout and like most domestic tasks, it has the joy of beginning, middle and end and you can see the results.

The only thing I try to avoid throwing away is food.


   No, that doesn’t mean you’d open my fridge and see six string beans on a saucer.  It means that by and large I shop very carefully having learned painfully that just because I bought family sized portions, it didn’t follow that I had anyone to serve them to. 

Last week however, I picked up by mistake a fish I don’t like in the chilled section, got it home, put it carefully in the fridge with the receipt and took it back the following morning.  Where it was refused  by a man who was both straightforward and likeable.  “Can’t help you, I’m afraid,” he said and when I asked why, he explained I had it from the chill counter  – so it had been chilled and unchilled and rechilled several times which is not conducive to food being good or safe to eat.   So sadly I took it home again, and ditched it.  

When I throw food away, I hear the voices of both parents.   You only discarded food in absolute extremis, and you must do all in your power to avoid that.  Even now, very much an adult, I feel badly throwing away food, It Will Be Noticed


and I will get a black mark.  I don’t think even custard pies met with much approval from my family  (“You don’t throw food around” was a childhood mantra.)

So I was struck when, within the first few weeks of the Ukraine hostilities, I’d seen a commodities broker on tv, talking about the destruction of various food stuffs by the Russians and how this would impact on different countries.  Since then the United Nations has made its repulsion clear.   Not only is the food destroyed but the ground it grows in is soiled and damaged and will take years to repair.

And farmers in Britain can’t get the hands to harvest the crops they have grown, backbreaking labour usually carried out from the people from the Eastern Slavonic and Baltic countries, and finding others to do the job is proving difficult.  So people who have grown crops are having to plough vegetables back into the soil,


a write off in food and money.  This may be modest in scale now, but it can only get worse and it represents lost income to the country.    

You can’t help thinking that at least some of the illegal migrants who don’t want to go to Rwanda could do this job for one season on a proper contract.  And I wrote to the National Farmers Union and suggested that able bodied pensioners could be seconded in, yes, it would take a bit of managing but at least they were on site – and got one those “don’t worry, it’s all under control” letters.  Only it isn’t.  In the ante room to war, we need to think strategically


– we need HTTP (hands to the pump).  Surely some of those able bodied moneyed early retired and OAPs could do something more constructive than tan and play tennis.  

another kind of jubilee

Three years ago or more, I bought something in Boots from a young woman who asked “Are you an actress ?”   “No” I said.  “I was a broadcaster.”  And she remarked on my voice,

said her sister made films and they were always looking out for good voices – could she have a contact number ?  I gave her my email (when in doubt, just press delete) and really didn’t think very much more about it. 

When she got in touch, I was introduced to her sister and plans were made for a little film which didn’t happen because of time, other demands and latterly the pandemic. It was ever thus. 

A soft female voice on the telephone tried to introduce herself and I had a bad case of the Bracknells.  Who was she ?  It was the once met sister and when we got that straight and I apologised, she asked me if I would like to contribute to a radio commercial for Breast Cancer Now

– part of a whole range of voices reading the same lines which they would then edit.  “Sure” I said “when do you want to do this ?”   Tomorrow afternoon.  “OK”.   The car arrived early as I had asked for it, outward and return journeys booked in writing.  Lifts the heart.

No this is not a comeback.  No I won’t get rich from this –  but I had the joy working at voice over again after many years, and I always loved it, the verbal equivalent of music, placing tone and notes in accordance with instructions.

   I came back in the quiet clean car in a passion of gratitude.

That night a young man knocked at my door.  Italian he said, out of work, on the street, found a hostel but it was £14 a night.  I have been reading about animals and he smelt right.  I gave him £20  and , with perfect grace, he turned on the doorstep and kissed me in accordance with his culture on both cheeks.

Thursday I woke at 5.30 or so , I don’t like 5.00 anything.

  Nearly too late to sleep, too early for anything else –  so I got up, drank a glass of water and put the coffee on.  Drinking coffee first thing happens less than half a dozen times a year, and of course if I abreacted in any way, it would put me right off.  Stolen pleasure.  Paddled about, put things away, took the cup and read the opening of The Daughter of Time for the 794th time and sipped.  As it used to say on the sugar packages in my favourite NYC coffee shop “black as night, sweet as love and hot as the devil.”

In due course I assembled clothes and spectacles to go down the road and get the paper, joyfully ambling through the cool morning.  I was in the kitchen when there was suddenly a lot of noise.  

A great big lorry loaded with planks (don’t ask me, I don’t know)

was trying to come from the left while the council clearing up vehicle was trying to advance from the right.   The noise was considerable.  A long limbed young man in a safety gilet was shouting something, there were others shouts –  well, you don’t want a man to feel he is the only shouter – and I began to laugh.  The sign on the back of the lorry said “Men Loading”.  Should have said Men Shouting. And it continued. I went and got the broom and swept the front steps clear of dead blossom.  Along with every other person under 40 or so, my neighbours clean inside but not out. 

The lorry moved to the kerb and the dung beetle van passed on.   I ate breakfast and drank the second cup of coffee, put on my rubber gloves, collected a black bag and went up the road.  The next turning on the left is planned to be closed to traffic for a street party.  Outside the two flat building on the corner is stinking rubbish.  It has been there six weeks, awash with cold rain and smelling ever more noxious.  I cleared it, never mind the bunting.  Have a nice day.   



The Chelsea Flower Show

is held at the bottom of the street the bus travels to take me to where I mostly like to shop, though what has become of Kings Road in the last few years is a sort of lesson in pre pandemic slump and post pandemic stall.  Lots of gone gone gone and very little happening that makes you straighten your spine and smile.

A friend who doesn’t like crowds reminded me of the dates of the CFS.  Ever hopeful, I went up there on one afternoon, thinking I am not in any hurry, I’m sure it will be fine … and walked into an ants’ nest, people scattered all over the immediate and surrounding area like Smarties with feet. 

I tried not to feel proprietorial – my shops, my streets – but I didn’t feel comfortable.  So I bought satsumas and took the bus home.   It took forever but we got there and while we drove I began to wonder.  I was almost afraid.  Well then, what was I afraid of ?   Numbers, noise, invasion of personal territory … yes  … but when did this begin to happen ?

When the Chancellor came up this week with a package apparently aimed at people worst hit by the cost of living rises and widely estimated to be worth £15 billion pounds, I heard my mother’s voice in my ear – “I can’t imagine a billion anything” she said.   “Not a billion eggs or a billion cabbages – still less a billion pounds.” 

 Thank heaven she can’t see the current madness.    

And I started to wonder – what was my earliest experience of the crowd ?   As a Special Constable, Pop helped park cars at Ayresome Park during football matches, but my first crowds were small affairs like Bonfire Night or a jumble sale and Bertram Mills’ Circus.  

I went to markets and flower shows though as neither of my parents liked crowds, they didn’t much come my way.  

I first saw crowds in London to which I came when I was 17 but London was so big, that if there were crowds in one place, you could avoid them in another.  There was always a quiet place.  And the crowds had reasons, shopping, street markets for food, plants and animals,  antiques and curiosities,

or the queues to see Breakfast at Tiffanys when it was new.

John Kennedy was shot when I was living in New York and I remember people all over the street, and that continued throughout the days of mourning that followed, as if people desperately wanted to see other people in a kind of social looking glass  – sort of if she’s there, and she’s all right, then so am I. 

Film of masses in Russia or China or Nazi Germany seemed overwhelming,  of an almost dreamlike quality.   I knew that the Third Reich had fallen but China and Russia were far away, enormous and far away.   It is one of the historical sleights of hand of emergence of nation that until very recently, I had no idea – and I bet other people don’t either – of the size of the Americas – any of them.  Perhaps you have to want to see it.  And if those enormous countries had enormous populations, they also had vast open spaces where there was nothing at all.

Nowadays the millions and billions of other people communicate through the social media

whose positives and negatives are at best about equal.   What is truly unsettling is how human beings use it, repetitively, addictively.   They enjoy the sense of all the other people – a kind of “I’m with them.”  And even a human crowd can be benign or threatening.  I suppose you only read it retrospectively if it doesn’t harm you.  And you can hide in it.

I was told that the biggest crowd I ever spoke to was a quarter of a million on a Right To Work march in the 1980s.   But it may have been far smaller.   I know that if you work with a crowd, even it’s a couple of hundred people at some charitable or social function, you only have sense of them collectively.  They make up the audience which is an animal you as the speaker have to manage.  So I feel lost in the crowd as I might entirely alone.    

the train done gone

The joke we share in the shop where I buy my morning paper

has either YT or Tarzhoun asking me “How are you ?”   and me answering “ I’m fine thank you – I haven’t read the paper yet !”    And we laugh, what else.   Because the news is depressingly repetitive  – but if the world is going to end, I’ll like to know when via a conduit more reliable than social media.  And bad news gets to you – mindless destruction, endless upheaval and suffering, bluster, bombast and denial, the spiralling costs of everything.      

I saw one of my “meet in the street” friends the other day, not as chipper as usual.  In fact, she was sitting in one of M&S’s thoughtfully provided chairs.   So we did all the courtesies, having not seen each other for a while, and I asked how she was.  “Not so good” she said.  And it transpires that she has a heart condition which has proved hard to diagnose so “they just keep trying me with different drugs” she went on.  “And most of them make me sick.” 

I sympathised, I know somebody else in a very similar position.

As gently and tactfully as I could, I inquired to be sure that there were people she could call.   She does, thank heaven.    And then in our ensuing conversation I told her that, the other day, I said aloud something I have not thought before, let alone spoken:  I have lived too long.  “Oh” she said, “I couldn’t agree more.  Tell me where to get that train ..”

   And I was back in my childhood with the refrain of one of the songs Paul Robeson sang “… the people keep a-comin’/ and the train done gone.”

Robeson’s voice was unique.  He was brave and angry and intelligent, stubborn and flawed.  And the American government of the day drove him to ill health and death because of his political views.  Interesting, isn’t it, that they call it a blacklist ?   I have mentioned his name twice recently to young people of colour – not a clue – so this morning I looked him up before I began to write.

And then I looked up the refrain of the spiritual I remember which – I had not expected to find this – interpreted the metaphor of the train – as a new way, a form of transport that could take you away from darkness into light, was fast and powerful.  I was quite thrilled.

  The reference listed several other songs on the same theme, harnessing something new to better, like Curtis Mayfield’s anthem “People Get Ready”.

When my sister was studying meteorology at Prestwick, she used to come home to spend a few days, collect her clean laundry and go back.  We saw her off at the station and I can still remember the enormous coal black express, the noises it made, the steam, the lights  – which, like some great benign and mysterious beast bore her away, just as it brought her back again.  Years later, I fell in love with the zoo train in a Disney cartoon of the 1940s called Bongo the Bear, in which, facing a steep incline, he puffs “I think I can, I think I can…”

until he gets up what the lyrics of  Rock Island Line call “a little bit of steam and a little bit of speed.”

Getting on a train essentially meant getting out of where you were at the time, as fast as you could and the implication is, if you are going to do this, where you’re going must be better – you must believe it will be better.

 This week an old acquaintance got in touch, I haven’t heard a word or whisper for ten years.  And does he tell me about his new life, a place in a new world ?  No.  But he told me a whole lot about what went wrong in the old one about which I could do nothing at the time and even less, ten years on. 

I am wary of “forgive and forget”.  I believe in remembering – but how you remember is pretty important.  There are ugly things that will never go away.   You have to make sure for every ugly, there’s a beauty – or the ticket is extortion and the train done gone.   

the quiet week

I never take writing for granted. 

From Punch’s Almanack 1899.

I write mostly on Sunday and I call it my homework, it shapes the day.  But Sunday is the chosen day because it is followed by Monday and if I can’t write on Sunday, I have time to have another go.   Can’t write isn’t evasive, that is to say, I don’t have a better offer, an invitation I couldn’t refuse – well, not so far – but it means what it says.  I can’t write. 

I think, put words and ideas together but I don’t like what I get.  It just isn’t right. And I write – if not to please myself – at least so I can live with the consequences.

Not everything I write is wonderful.  But it has to pass some test with me that I would be hard pressed to define but which is real.  Interestingly sometimes what I worry most about pleases you best.  It all comes down to personal taste and everybody is different.

In conversation there is all kinds of information and colour – the voice, the face, the hands, the mannerisms,

the use of language, what we’re talking about, your position and mine, their similarity and difference – essentially, the exchange.   Written is different – there is no second voice – and you  will read it differently because you are different, one from another.  Thank God, long may it be so.  I am not charmed by the enormous groups, tribes I call them, to which so many seem to want to belong.  I confess to ambivalence about wanting to belong anywhere.

If I am really lucky, I can evoke the spoken in the written.  Believe me, I have done a lot of both and they are not the same thing.

Sometimes the very act of writing reveals something you didn’t know you thought or felt.  This is personal because I do the writing

and it’s nothing to do with 150 words against the clock or any kind of competition, except I’d like to win your attention, merit it and pass muster for having taken your time.  For years now.

As a journalist, you were always directed  to particular points in the story under consideration, the requirements of the particular publication for whom you were being briefed.  Not having any of that has been nothing but an experience of growth for me.  There was nothing I couldn’t try to do and because feedback is more to do with quality than quantity,  I was  thrown back on  personal taste and professional honesty. 

“All very well –  but does it work as a piece ?” is the kind of question an editor might ask –  in this case, my internal editor.

Actor Ed Asner with affectionate respect

I know what I like to read and for the most part, why I like to read it.   I know what I don’t like to read and for the most part why.  I can’t read just because it’s there.  I understand a journalist writing six hundred words of tripe in order to be paid.  It’s called earning a living and I am fortunate that I didn’t do much of it for whatever reason.   Those on my side will invoke gifts taking me above and beyond that, those against me will say “unreconstructed snob” and both are true.

There is no question that writing is aspirational for me – I write to write, yes fine, but I write to write better and I am miserable when I can’t or don’t.   And who judges me ?   Me – and I’d back my taste in most things.

It’s no good saying  “Well nothing happened last week” because a true writer can make something out of not very much but you have to be careful you don’t disappear up your own fundament in a cloud of pretension.  And the fallback position is all too often a list of what’s wrong with the world, especially my bit of it.  Unless you are fortunately funny, that risks being one more downer in a world horribly full of them. 

So I have taken a broadcasting trick and used it in print.  I have been asked “Did you ever run out of things to say ?”  – and of course I did.  “So what did you do ?”  I admitted it – which made for a different starting point.

Just as I wrote this.   


Cinderella in sneakers

Nike – Greek goddess of speed strength and victory

Years ago, Mark (not his real name) was a tv researcher.   He is now over 50, out of the business and writing a PhD to which he thought I could contribute and for whatever reason, after being skilfully interviewed, he invited me to dinner.   And I decided that I had to have shoes.  No, not any of those fashionable horrors, a plea for barefoot – my first Nikes.  

It was as ever the colour that did it.  Hemp they called it – biscuit nubuck to me.  I looked all around them, tried them on knowing they deadmatched a sweater, and took them home.  Last words from the assistant tell you how shopping has changed – “You have 28 days to bring them back or change them.” 

The pandemic has undermined confidence. 

We have got out of the way of doing things and doing things reaffirms confidence, especially important when you live alone.  Most of the time this works for me – galleries, museums, fairs, different sections of London to which I take a bus and then walk back  – but the combination of Covid and arthritis restricted my freedoms. 

It was agreed that Don (Mark’s partner of 23 years, not his name either) collected me on a motor bike.   I haven’t been on a bike for a long time.   Why did I agree ?  Sometimes you must.

  Don is Irish and still has that voice, and he provided the kit.   And having said yes, I got on with it.  I had looked at those new shoes, I had wanted to look my best, but there was something  … Wal spends his life saying things won’t “do”, they are either right or they are not.   I call such things “almosts” –  book, script, haircut, shoes.  They’re either right or they’re not.  We used to call it taste and I trust mine.   

I spent an enchanted evening which if you had elaborated upon beforehand, I would have been engulfed by a blue funk of the darkest navy.  I am not shy but I am nervous.  Imagine three couples, all together for over 20 years, known to each other since university,

with the ease that comes with long friendship.  Imagine a comfortable pretty house, loaded with cookery books, flourishing garden, interesting art and a couple of well behaved dogs  (Teacher brought their poodle too) , Don’s in the travel industry  – the others were a secondary school English  teacher and an adman, a film producer and a former tv researcher who now researches questions for quizzes  –  and they had all made the decision be together, to have homes and children.  They talked easily and widely, and of course I did too.

When I turned to Film Producer on my left and said asked what he did, he answered adding, “Not the glamorous kind … the take anything and keep going kind, it’s taken 20 years to make anything I really wanted to make” and I wanted to tell him how deeply I understood what he meant.  I never got to ask details of what Adman did or didn’t do in advertising  – but I heard about the old 4×4 he keeps threatening to repair.

And they all live in I’d imagine not dissimilar houses across what was once affordable South London.  They know each other, they care about family and work, they talked about what they read and what they thought –  all over a risotto to die for (thank you Mark) and a pudding of which yours truly (write this very small) had two helpings.  And it would be wrong to make them into a fairy story.  

To make the distance in a relationship of commitment means stumbling for money, arguing the toss, disagreement and surrender, sticking it out in emotional discomfort and coming up smiling.  They were human, there was nothing of the fairy about any of them.  It’s the first time for years that a group of people I didn’t know very well kissed me goodbye without a trace of self consciousness – about as far from “Mwah !Mwah !” as is Nicole Kidman from Gertrude Bell (good book, bad film).

There isn’t a temperature for generosity of spirit, or a colour, it just lifts the heart.  Forget the hearth and the broom,

I took the shoes back.      


When you live alone and you aren’t ever going to see 27 again, you have to bestride differing needs.  The day needs a shape

but if it is always the same shape, you risk making habit into necessity.  If it has no shape, you can waste hours watching or reading rubbish (there is a lot of it about), eating cheap biscuits and waiting to be rescued. 

From time to time, we all want to be rescued – men from one thing, women from another, or both, or the other way round. Me too.  I have harmless dreams of being called on, discovered, appreciated and renewed.  Spineless of me, because in the great tradition of quality rather than quantity, I get better feedback than anybody I know.  But there is always a day when your knee hurts and the sky is what I call pot lid – low and grey, when this one is irritating and that one doesn’t come through, and what you really want is

a knight in shining armour.  

Except that I know that if the knight came, his horse would tread on my toe, he’d have bad breath and I’d wish him gone in a hurry.   If there is one thing I learned in this life, it’s forget going round – go through.   That way, when it’s over, it’s really over – bits of the bad times do not linger in your pocket or down the back of the sofa.   Of course people want to belong and fit in and so do I – but markedly less.   I want to be more at peace with myself,

Repose by Pablo Picasso

other people come later.  When I get becalmed I sit and consider the nature of the block, and then begin to work my way through.     

Last week I went back to see the optometrist to have the spectacles updated which had been driven off course by her discovery of my macular degeneration two years plus ago.  The news was good.  And Anna the South Korean cut my hair though she had had an asthma attack and was frail.

I got up at what I thought was 6.00am to have a bath on Friday and when I was clean and creamed and dressed , discovered I had got up at 5.00. By midday I was out on my feet, just finishing the wonderful book on the world’s biggest fishing owl . 

This is the third book about wild land I know nothing about, arcane skills and patience, and I find it very healing  – I always did, even before the war.  (They’re listed at the end in case they are of interest.)  Mind you I am always up against the writing because there is certain writing I cannot read.   It may be English but not to my eyes, before which it passes and the connections remain unmade.

Paraphrasing a quote from Erasmus, I’d agree “When I have money, I buy books and sometimes food.”   And on Saturday morning I read a review of a book about British myths and legends. 

Woodcut by Amy Jeffs

I have been looking for something like this so I went off to see if my local Waterstones could help.  It was there that I asked to order the book about the fishing owl and it was produced from downstairs.  This time, the assistant grinned over her screen and said “I’ll just get it from the back .”  I admitted checking the writing to see if I can read it. And after abbreviated shopping, I came home, the second day in a row of a different shape.

Of course I should be buying used books but I rarely get beyond the purchase of two or three new before common sense and self preservation re-assert themselves and books are better for me than anti-ageing cream.  

I gave up on a good film last night because it was “too good”.  It was about a priest abusing three boys who as men stay in the church, raising families in its observation, and their confusion and actions to protect others.  And the power of the community, religious and social, shone through the cinematography and the performances, sugar for the unbearable pill.  I could feel myself begin to choke.  I went to bed and counted my blessings – friends, eyes, warmth, books and no bombs, fried eggs and purple sprouting, clean water …

Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky (Harper Collins)

The Great Soul of Siberia by Sooyong Park (William Collins) – amur tigers

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght (Penguin)       

who comes after

Pam the Painter (my nickname for her) and I have known each other

for 25 or 30 years.  She still colours her hair, mine’s white.   She’s a different shape from me, watches different things on television but I understand her interest in architecture, she mine in images and we often like the same book  – and then not another in common for a twelvemonth. 

We have long enthusiastic exchanges about gardening, housework, what we have been “up to” and our pet hates –  men in bad shorts, housework, young women with raucous nailfile voices , buying the same thing (salad, fruit) a second time and it isn’t a patch on the first – so disappointing.  Long  ago she told me that she had never wanted to be married or have children and paused for me to tell the error of her ways.   But I couldn’t. 

  If you don’t want to be married and you don’t want to have children – don’t.  Use contraception and tell it like it is.  I wish there were a few more of you.   

This week along with our embarrassing government, the war in Ukraine and the dawning realisation of how it will impact internationally, the cost of everything from eggs to underwear –  the national press featured several horrible stories about children done to death.  I hate it.  I hate it so much, it makes me feel sick.  

  I am not one who can say “I have never raised my hand”, I have but there is a big gap between a blow to stop a small child going a under a truck (true) and extended systematic violence, designed to humiliate and destroy.

What it says about humans is that an inadequate person always looks for someone or something with even less about them than him or her.  Lots of people (men and women) think they like the idea of children – or at least can put up with them – but then get them home, to discover they are on call 24 hours a day for 20 years.  And you are stuck with it.

About halfway through the time I spent on the problem page at Woman magazine, a woman came to see me to discuss why she didn’t like her newborn child.  (You will appreciate there is an already enormous gap between someone who lashes out, often enabled by drugs or alcohol, with not much thought process to start with, and an intelligent person who wants to discuss emotions and responses and where they came from.)  

I admired her candour.

Political correctness having morphed into the cancel culture, the overpopulation of the world seems only to be discussed in large numbers and broad outlines.  Every so often, an intelligent outlet (print or vision, they’re in a minority) runs an item on how you have decided – usually a woman because she carries the child – not to reproduce.  But it takes cells from two people to make a child. 

And I have always thought that the male participation in all aspects of reproduction is very important, positively and otherwise.  I remember sharing a tv studio with a noted fertility expert who explained (I’d never heard it before) the role of abortion in fertility treatment.   And I shall never forget the men who came to the meeting to celebrate the passing of the Abortion Act – fathers and brothers, friends and partners, their arms full of children, absolutely stirring.  The old motto was “Every child a wanted child” – I still have the sash I wore.

This becomes key as BBC1 launches a mainstream picture of the world in danger from all sorts of things including overcrowding.

Don’t have five children, have three, don’t have three, have one  – or don’t have .   There is no shortage of children all over the world needing encouragement and love and education, high grade mentoring, support and investment.  Parenting is truly altruistic and if yours isn’t going to be, don’t do it.    

I remember people down the years of radio programmes saying defensively “Well, it’s natural isn’t it…”  There are a lot of other things I can think of that are so called natural too –actually the process of human development.  Don’t learn on somebody else unless you mean it for their benefit as well as yours.



Growing up I had several books about Marise who was a pilot in the Winter War

between Russia and Finland (the present horror should end so soon).   I remember vaguely one of the covers and some of a saying “Something is as full of wisdom as an egg is full of meat.”  You can tell I was struck by this because it has stayed with me.   Vegetarians look away now, meat to me meant meat -stew, roast, chops.  I’d never thought of using meat as an alternative word to food,  I think I probably checked up on it with my parents.  Maybe it stuck because it’s single syllables.   Maybe it just produced an image that lodged with me, slices of something in a shell.

I had chocolate eggs,

of course I did.  The family predilection for plain rather than milk persisted.  My much older sister and my mother went to trouble to get me plush covered eggs in lovely colours which they then filled with pretty silly bits.    I was a fortunate child without much of a sweet tooth.

Easter soon became a couple of days off.  And now, an elderly non driver, I avoid the lemming rush that Easter has become, made more pressing by the lack of freedom of movement and sun.  I had a different kind of Easter.

There is an agapanthus

in the garden which expanded and split the very pretty earthenware pot it was in.  I kept looking at it and it looked back.  Eventually I raised a hand to take away the broken piece and tried to ascertain whether I was going to be able to move the beast.   Moved a little too far towards me, I wound up with something very heavy above shoulder level and braced muscles I knew should not be involved.  As quickly and carefully as I could, I put it down.  Swearing.  Dead pot, must get something lighter.

Early that evening I saw Sarah Super Neighbour unpacking her car.  She is a gardener so I asked.   (Don’t ask, don’t get is a great rule – provided you are prepared to be refused).  I explained and she began to smile, raised a hand and walked away from me into the doorway, returning with a big light planter she had just bought from Lidl.  “Will this do ? “ she said “I just bought two because I can’t handle the weight any more.” I looked at her.  “Happy Easter” she said.  I offered to pay, of course I did.  She waved it away.  And it’s perfect. 

  (She went back and bought two more, I offered to buy those too, but she declined.)  

Later I exchanged greetings with the young man who lives on the other side and reminded him that he had offered to lend me his father’s long handled clippers to deal with the honeysuckle which needs what is professionally called a light pruning.  I have been in touch with five gardeners including the man with the white bull terrier but none of them apparently know how to say “Sorry, small job, not worth it.”  There isn’t an app for it.   “I’ll get the ladder” he said, “I can reach that. “  And with the existing shears and instructions from below (me) he did just that. 

He later turned up with a vase full of variously coloured tulips

and a covered dish.  “I’m going to my dad’s tomorrow” he said “ and these are just going to die.  So I thought you might enjoy them.  And this is leftovers from the salad to pick at …”  So he’s definitely a double yolk.

When I went for a walk on Saturday, I smiled at a tall slender dark woman incredibly 44,  brought up in Tanzania,  and as she was in Ramadan and I am not keen on bought coffee, we just skipped that and talked for an hour till her daughter arrived (quite lovely, reading politics at Bristol).  Both of them hugged me in farewell.   Never underestimate the hug – it is invaluable. 

And thus uplifted, I fell off the wagon and bought two books and a half a bottle of brandy.  Kindness,  generosity, open heartedness, thought, good humour, personal warmth and constructive self- indulgence – my eggs were full of meat.