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mass

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.      

shapely

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.

 

eggs

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.

survival

There are people you don’t like. 

You may hardly have met them but you don’t like them.   Like the girl I went to school with, who made my hackles go up like a hostile dog’s, and that was before we were seated together when she took some skin on the inside of my arm and twisted till I was breathless.  I stayed as far away as possible from then on.

Non verbal communication is fast and rarely without a point.

  You don’t like the feeling you get about that woman you’re going to have to work with ?   There will be a reason …   As people revisit the horror of Jimmy Savile, I remember that I only watched television at my friend Muriel’s house. My mother came to collect me from there one day and looked briefly at the screen.  “What a horrible person” she said, “ .. those hands.  That is a Bad Man.”   You could always hear my mother’s initial capitals and the phrase came from her childhood.   Darned right.

Sometimes of course you are helpless with inexperience, embarrassment and fear.  And as such you are a suitable target for such a person whose own perception finds you with frightening ease.  And while you grow up, grow older and can take better care of yourself   – what stays in your mind is the time you couldn’t, you didn’t.

Dazzled, I went to a party with some people slightly older and a whole more sophisticated than I was and I hung about to be backed into a corner by a drunken fool who held me with one hand and masturbated all over my skirt with the other.  When I could get away, I fled to the bathroom to sponge myself down, went out, got my coat and left.  Halfway across a darkened square,

the driver of a black cab, having a quiet smoke, suggested he might take me home.  I thanked him but said I didn’t have the money.  “Are you all right ?” he said.  “Get in the cab – I don’t care about the money.  You’re the same age as my daughter (17)…”   My hired car of choice for the rest of time, bless him.  Not that I could tell him what really happened.  I later learned that the group referred to the young unknowing like me as “fresh meat.”

Both my parents endorsed in different ways and probably by different routes the use of animal perception – they openly endorsed it, they always had.  Finding my feet in London, I learned the value of what they had offered me.  Nothing is infallible, you can be wrong. If so, you apologise.  There are lots of stories about men and/or women who didn’t like each other on sight and came to see each other differently but there is a mutuality in that, which is usually missing from the experience described above.  There are people you like as inexplicably and strongly as the ones you shy away from – the positive

is just as magical as the negative.

The other night on television there was an item on rape as a weapon of war.   Are there are still people who do not understand that humiliation and starvation are of unparalleled efficiency when destabilising a population and making it malleable ?   And sometimes even without thoughtful reporters, government spokespersons and just the knowledge that for the first time in a couple of generations, war is on the doorstep – the combination of inflation, household bills, the price of everything, lingering Covid and staggering institutions combines into real fear.  And many people combat fear

with rage.  And the rage bounces up from the street and you wade through it.   It’s frightening.  You can almost smell it.

After a couple of days of this, I made a magic.  Ignoring the electric light, I lit candles, closed the shutters.  A fire sign, I lit my illicit fire.  And in the glow of those benign lights, I watched the first segment of Art That Made Us (BBC2) which had more going for it than against it and as my art historian friend remarked, I saw early things in the light they were seen in when they were new.  And the air was warm, I hid from the horror – and slept.  Gratefully.  

cold and bright

What’s with the bare ankles ? 

  I understood it last summer when what you were demonstrating was  perhaps that you could turn yourself inside out, redolent of feline, to get your fake tan round those tricky bones.  Or that you had been somewhere warm, in one of those hard to organise pauses in the pandemic agreed between heaven and Downing Street.   Or you have white ankles (or pink or grey) because you won’t tan/can’t tan/don’t care  – open to interpretation.  And of course the British are endlessly hopeful about spring – three green shoots, two warm days and it’s pink linen and summer time.  In this I am profoundly unBritish.   And of course I am old, so I feel the cold.

And in the cold snap, the bare ankles continued like a badge of honour at the bottom of the athletic gear which confirms the wearer as a runner/exerciser who won’t be giving in to the chill as the rest of us experience it.   It looked odd to see people wearing hats to keep their ears warm, muffled in fake fur, with two inches of bare ankles above trainers.

The prize goes to a woman I see often, in her unsmiling forties, glued to her mobile, swathed in sweaters and a thick coat and scarves but with her feet shoved into flip flops.    A gold star in ambivalence.    

Wal’s best ever advice may not be the most glamorous but it was warm – a small inexpensive (to purchase and run) radiator with wheels to take the chill off the long double room – one end sitting room, one end office.   And I am wearing sweaters, thick tights (successfully bought in sale when Tabio’s lease ran out) and corduroys.   I look 142 but then I feel 142.   I love the sunlight but the weather in itself is a mixed message

and the world is full of them.

I’d say I was a fortunate woman and the other night I stood and looked the books I cherish and the  things I have collected and been given and thought “Yes and one bomb through those double windows and it’s all gone.”   Life is fragile

and it always was.  The realities vary from how the leaders perceive them to how their military are instructed to respond to them, from the military through their armaments, from the armaments to the resistors, who is supplying them and how long can they resist.  While on every side is the detritus of war – the fallout, the fall down, the collateral damage – people caught in the crossfire, starving animals, contaminated land, blown up , destroyed and wounded, and the dead. 

A quiet man with an accent explained on a news programme that 40 per cent of the refugees were children and they were traumatised children,

enduring inexplicable noise and disruption, losing their pets and their friends and leaving fathers and other family members behind.  “They are going to need a lot of help” he said steadily.  And I thought of going to visit one of the first people I knew who had a flat rather than a room in one, five locks on the front door and asking “What … ?”   The woman who had lived there was a Holocaust survivor. 

And after several weeks in which I read newspaper articles and watched my allowance of broadcast news and for the first time I can remember, couldn’t read – I finally read history

John of Guant

which, as my mother always said, is very restful – because it is over.   And that got me to pick up a book about Rudyard Kipling and the writing of the Just So stories for which he won the Nobel.  And he too was a survivor, of the habit of sending the children of the establishment home to school in England from the outposts of the Empire, to the detriment of his relationship with his own parents and a lifelong pull between what he wanted life to be and what it was, how he wanted to be and who he was.  I  wonder if and what he learned from the contemplation of his past.    I wonder how much any of us learn – too darned little and too darned slow.

…but at least they never forget

gifts of feeling

“Are you doing anything special for your birthday ?” 

From my mother, I inherited the idea that it’s my day and I can do anything I like with it.  To have a day off was special for her, freighted with things to do.  She let me be (not a party animal), undisturbed by what other families did but I remember cards and cake and a wonderful sense of build up to the day.

My 40th birthday was worth waiting for, everything my 21st was supposed to be.  I felt better, looked better, had work I loved.  There was a man and a child, a dog and a home.  I’ve always enjoyed the rattle of the letterbox

and the thump of the mail.  Forget the cake.  I once bought mortadella for my birthday.  But between advancing tech, declining mail and busy lives, my birthday seems to have become less of a date and more of an area. 

Bet (NHN) sent me an email to say thank you.  She said she grew up with me

(I can’t tell you what a compliment that is) and she had seen me (recognised by voice), hesitated and the moment was lost.  The enchantment of this kind of communication does not fade – indeed you could say it gets more precious.  Her timing was apt, enabling me to do my bits of washing and what not, wreathed in smiles.  It’s 12 years since I was in the public eye and people are very generous.

Then I heard from Mark (NHN) whom I met when he was a tv researcher, now working on some sociological project in which he thought I might be interested/of interest.  He remembered the programme he involved me in, the restaurant he took me to – this was a long time ago.  I asked for a telephone number and rang him, we were both pleased at the exchange and will be meeting later this month.

You may not think of these as cards but I do.  Goodwill

is in short supply and to be offered it warmly and willingly seems like a big deal to me.

When Ginny (NHN) rang after a few days R&R in Ireland, it was hard to know which of us was more pleased.  She has had a year she will never forget, stretched to the limit by her mother’s cancer (so far, so good),her own health issues of which Covid was the least, working from home to hang on to a job, driving the considerable distance between her mother’s home and her own, her job and various hospitals.   No better present than good news.

Nella (NHN) moved across town from the upstairs flat (my loss and the landlady’s, the best cleaner ever) but was in the neighbourhood and came in for a glass of wine.  She is her first job, training as an architect after a formidable academic beginning, and we talk easily and well, she as much as me !  I never fail to be touched – she is 25 to my nearly 78.   But when she left 3 hours later I realised I hadn’t eaten so I scoffed an avocado

and made a small bowl of pasta to avoid waking ravenous at 4.00 am.  It must be very clear by now that exchange is very high on my list of pleasures.  Even after all these years, a human voice is a good start to the day.

And Alex came in last night to tell me he had enjoyed Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s play Straight Line Crazy, about Robert Moses who designed the wonders of modern New York by rolling over whoever or whatever got in the way unquestioned, an exercise in power.   Alex is young too, works and plays hard regarding an expressed concern for his tiredness as a slur on his masculinity: just about to drive home to dogsit and breathe for a few days. 

And in conversation I showed him the picture of my parents, from 1932 on the front at Deal in Kent, with my sister as a toddler because, forget the faces, it captures more of the spirit of my parents than any other picture – and that spirit comes closer as I get older.   And he understood.  That’s a present.     

NHN – not his/her name