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Living in London during Lockdown – Hanja Kochansky


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Eighty-three-year-old Hanja Kochansky is living alone and on lockdown in London. Everyone over the age of 70 has been asked to self-isolate for twelve weeks. But what does that mean exactly? Advantages of Age asked Hanja to tell us what her days are like. And what resources she has.

The word isolated comes from the Latin insula, which means island. And here I am on a desert island in the centre of a densely populated and noiseless city.

As soon as I wake up and turn on my radio, I’m bombarded by terrifying news and a wave of sadness washes over me. Who could have ever imagined that the plague would invade our world? How long will this horror last? Then, I remind myself to take it one day at the time. I tell myself that I am on the retreat I’ve always wanted to take but never did and now it’s been imposed on me.

After a glass of hot water, I go to my computer. Facebook and the Guardian keep my interest up for quite a while. I have a coffee and eat a too large amount of my Digestive Thins before I take a shower.

My daughter WhatsApps me from Long Island. She notices my wet hair and says, ‘I see you’ve had a shower, Mum’. ‘Of course. Why wouldn’t I?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe you wouldn’t bother, given you’re not going out.’ ‘Of course, I bother. But anyway, I do go out. I’m allowed to do shopping.’ We chat about how awful Trump is, about how we are coping and how is it with the kids at home now. There’s going to be no anticipated graduation for my granddaughter. I was going to go for that in June. All plans are on hold.

I do my exercises. Mostly tai chi and chi kung which I follow on YouTube. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I do a proper class with my tai chi teacher on ZOOM. ZOOM is a marvel.

Given the lovely weather, I go down to my itsy bitsy garden and plant violets and poppies. Poppies remind me of my childhood summers on the Dalmatian coast.

I sing You Belong to Me when I wash my hands. See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sun-rise on a tropic isle . . .

Avocado on toast is a perfect lunch. Amazon has run out of the organic apple juice I normally have- so I make lemonade with the lemons I got with my last order from Farmdrop. I can get just about anything from them. Organic food, household goods and what-have-you, but I prefer to take a saunter to my well-stocked Waitrose at the Angel in Islington. After all the rain I need to stretch my legs now on these sunny days. I must walk or my legs will lose muscle. On the way, I walk through a park and hug a tree.

My son skypes from Siena, where he is housebound with his wife and two small children. ‘You must not leave the house at all, Ma.’ He warns me. ‘I have friends in London and they can bring you anything you need.’ ‘Thanks, Kas, but I absolutely need to go out.’ ‘If you get sick, Ma, I won’t be able to come and look after you.’ ‘Don’t worry Kas, I don’t think, that after all I’ve gone through in my life, it’s in my karma that I should die here, alone like a dog.’ ‘Oh, I wish you’d stay at home, Ma.’ My worried son insists.

A friend once told me how she’d always felt safe when her husband and two children were all at home in the evening, and nothing bad could happen to them. Only, one night her husband had a heart attack and died. So much for feeling safe at home.

An often-repeated platitude is, ‘We are all in this together’. No, we are not, mate. Some are on luxury yachts, others on ships, boats, overcrowded ferries and dinghies. And some are wading through treacherous seas.

My large sitting-room bay window overlooks a lawn. I watch squirrels scamper as pigeons and magpies peck for food on the green grass, while at the same time, keeping an eye on the self-confident, stalking cats who belong to some of my neighbours whose much anticipated, twice-weekly Bingo in our communal room, is now prohibited. The fox no longer comes in the evenings. I miss her – she kept me in touch with the foxy me.

How are junkies coping without their fix? How are prostitutes surviving without their tricks? I think about the rough sleepers and the old age homes where older people are dying alone. I think about what will happen to the refugees in overcrowded camps when the assassin virus finds them. How terrifying it must be for them. I’m so sad about Italy, il Bel Paese – the beautiful country. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back.

I am, at all times, grateful for my blessed life, with enough money to get by as I reflect on the poverty which will get even worse and financial anxiety will see a flurry of mental illness. As though there isn’t enough of it already. Happy to be on my own, my heart goes out to the overcrowded families who have to learn, or not, to put up with each other day and night. I fear there will be a lot of physically abused women in these tough times. And children.

And what about the thousands on cruise-liners not allowed to dock? Or the ones stuck in other countries who are not able to come home? What will happen to them?

The virus is the revolution. More than a million heroic people have signed up to help the NHS! I was gutted when I found out the dolphin in the Venice canal was an Instagram joke, but the sky is now visible in China, rivers and seas are cleaner, there has been a significant drop in pollution, ozone levels are up. The end of knife crime without Pretty Patel’s intervention is a blessing. I wonder how she feels about the prisoners that are being released. In their case, just goes to show that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is on temporary leave from prison in Iran, and there is talk of a possible reprieve. She must be living in a balloon of agitation.

In the afternoons, I write. What better for a writer than a retreat?

Possibly, because I don’t love washing dishes, I don’t feel like cooking much, but I know I have to eat well because healthy food is a must. I make myself a large bowl of fruit and nuts topped with kefir and homemade yoghurt, which I buy from the kind Kurdish shopkeeper near my house on the Caledonian Road. His wife, who makes the yoghurt, has been getting racist abuses, he tells me. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I say and feel guilty. For what? For the privilege of my white skin.

Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine and eat one of the packets of precooked lentil dahl and spicy beans which only need to be heated. Or maybe I’ll make myself a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich, or dine on fruit: pineapple, mango, apples. And a cookie. I have these delicious salted caramel biscuits and must be careful not to binge on them. I have a feeling that by the time this Groundhog Day is over I’ll have put on weight.

The endless pings on my smart-phone announce constant messages. There’s no time for boredom. There is no shortage of stimulating articles on the computer, and I am addicted to Radio 4, I’m sure to always find something interesting to listen to. Or I can watch a movie on the iPlayer, Amazon, YouTube, Curzon Cinema or BFI. There are myriad choices. This, alas, stops me from reading much of The Leopard, the book I’m currently enjoying.

In the evening I try to do some stretching yoga, but I don’t always manage it.

With another glass of hot water, I take the supplements which I really should take in the morning. Bs, Ds, Cs and what have you.

By midnight, I’m ready to turn off the computer, do my toiletries and get to bed. Before falling asleep, I thank the universe and my angels for another serene day and send white light to the world.

But this is early days and I’m super curious about how I and the world will be changed when the nightmare is over. Hopefully, we’ll have become wiser.

An Unexpected Hospital Stay in the Middle of the Pandemic


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Foolish me. I presumed I had it under control at 85. I planned to live for about ten more years and then, in my mid-90s, die of a heart attack. After all, I was in rude health, ate healthy food, exercised and walked a lot. After all, I was in charge of my body. And then my illusions were shattered when, after doing some maybe too energetic Qigong, I was suddenly debilitated by a smarting chest and pain down both my arms. It was aching so much that I even took a painkiller.

The next morning, the 11th of February 2020, I was a bit tired, but not worried. Still, worried enough to tell my children who insisted I get in touch with my GP immediately. I didn’t want to, I have forever avoided doctors, but let them talk me into it. The GP sent me to UCLH for a check-up that afternoon. I thought it wouldn’t take long, so much so that I did not take my phone charger with me.

At first, the medics who examined me said that there seemed to be nothing wrong, and complimented me on my health. Then, after hours of various scans, a painful angiogram, x-rays and what have you, they told me that I’d had a heart attack, and had blood clots on my lungs. Which explained why, for years, I had breathing difficulties, which I’d put down to age.

Before I was aware of what was happening, I was wheeled to a ward, given hospital pyjamas and slippers and told to put my clothes in the cabinet next to my bed. When they then connected me to a beeping machine I felt that my life, as I had known it, was over. I was now an invalid. Not valid. In-valid.

To my question: “How long do I have to stay here for?” I was told that I would have to go to Barts Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of heart conditions, to have a stent put in a blocked vein leading to my heart. As, at the moment, there were no free beds there, I’d have to wait here until one was available.

This was a bad state of affairs, but what preoccupied me the most at that moment was the low battery signal on my phone. What would I do if my phone died? It was my lifeline to the outside world. The free world. But I still had enough power to WhatsApp Johnny, a friend who lived nearby and asked him please to go to my house and get the charger. “It’s the white one plugged in the extension under my bedside table. And also please bring me essential oil of tea tree, lavender and frankincense, which are on the bedside table. Also, a sleeping mask and earplugs. They’re in a small, brown cotton pouch on top of the cupboard in the bedroom.  You can leave them at the hospital’s reception desk. And please turn my computer off, and bring me the book on the settee in the sitting room. Thank you so much, Johnny, I really appreciate it.”

Providentially, I have a key-lock by my front door so he was able to get in and bring me what I’d asked for.

My phone fully charged, I WhatsApped my children and other friends to give them my bad news. Everyone was shocked. And given fucking Covid, no one could come to help me.

So began my lost days as I waited for a free bed at Barts Hospital.

After weeks of lockdown, I was suddenly in company. My Covid-free ward was jumping with comings and goings. Patients spoke to one another, and jolly nurses chatted to me as they brought me medication (I had never taken a pharmaceutical till now), checked my blood pressure, injected me with blood thinners and tested my ailing heart with machines.

The nights were another story. Some of the nurses were not going to make the patient’s life pleasant. They talked loudly to each other, were brusque when they came to check my blood pressure and the peeps on the machine. In no way helpful or willing to say something nice, or anything at all. Others hardly got out of their chairs. They are getting us back for the years they’ve been treated as second-class citizens, I thought. And who could blame them?  One night, when I lost my bearings as I was trying to find the lavatory and asked a nurse for help, she vaguely pointed in some direction which did not make it any easier. I knew that had this happened during the day, the nurse would have taken me to the toilet herself.

During the interminable days – which I tried to handle by reading and WhatsApping a lot with my children, one in Italy the other in New York which meant I had to handle my condition on my own – I thanked the heavens for cell phones.

Young doctors, accompanied by a student or two, came around in the early afternoons. They didn’t have much to say except that no bed was as yet available at Bart’s.

I’m used to taking a daily shower, but there was no way I’d make do with the hand-held shower in the cold bathroom, so I washed in the basin using a paper towel provided by the hospital. I wished I’d asked Johnny to bring me a face cloth and my face oil.

As everyone knows, hospital food is disgusting, so I’m not going to go into it, except to say that it’s beyond me why there’s no awareness in the NHS about nutrition. Fortunately, a friend sent a rescue package with yogurts, kefir, green grapes, two novels, hair scrunchies and a white cashmere shawl.

I’m used to walking and exercising daily, so I walked as much as possible around the ward and did a bit of stretching. The others looked at me as though I was doing something abnormal. But then, I’ve never been regarded as ‘normal’.

The large windows at the end of the ward faced a nearby building, so there was no view on to the street. I never knew what the weather was like outside.

Patients came and went daily in the ward, and on the night when all hell broke loose, a middle-aged Polish woman, Anja, was in the bed on my left. She was at all times on her phone. In the bed in front of her lay a very old lady who seemed on her last breath. The compassionate male nurse, Silvester, from the Congo, was forever waking her up asking her what date it is. It’s the 14th of February, I said to myself, a fact I only knew because it’s my grandson’s birthday. Next to the old lady, a rough-looking working-class woman, Louise, in her early fifties, was constantly wailing for the doctor because she had pain, she said. The Polish woman told her she was given liquid morphine at night. Louise, looking displeased, went to the loo and came back with a long strand of lavatory paper stuck in her anus. She did not wear pyjama bottoms so we were treated to a full view of her large, varicose-veined legs.

Our lights were already out and I was about to put my sleeping mask on when suddenly screams and crashing of furniture came from the male ward adjacent to ours. I bolted up in my bed.

“Oh dear God,” Anja said. “What is happening? Did you hear that?”

How could I not have heard such a din?

The guy continued screaming and throwing stuff about. Finally, policemen and security guards marched in loud, authoritarian droves down the corridor. The man screamed more, the cops screamed back at him. “We’re going to take you back to prison.” He screamed “NOOOO”, and I thought, oh my God they brought him here from prison!

After they finally managed to drag him away, it seemed peace had been restored. But it hadn’t. Louise got out of bed, threw a faux-leather jacket on her shoulders and said, “I’m going out.” Nurse Silvester didn’t seem bothered and shrugged his shoulders. I told him, “No, you can’t let her out. It’s freezing outside.” Again he shrugged his shoulders and avoided my eyes.

“I’m going out,” she repeated determined. So I went over to her, and putting my arms around her I said, “Sweetie, you can’t go out, it’s freezing. Now, take your jacket off and get into bed.”

I was quite proud of my authority, as she sat on her bed weeping like a small child.

In the meantime, Anja called Silvester and said the old lady was coughing very badly and maybe she had Covid. Silvester went to check, I put a scarf around my nose and mouth, Anja got on her phone, Louise continued weeping, Sylvester, rolling his humorous, dark eyes, brought me a mask. To our relief, the old lady did not have the dreaded Covid.

The next day I emailed my son the horror story. “I felt like I was in a Beckett play.” I wrote. “Although I’d rather be in a Chekov one.” “Waiting for Stento,” my son wrote back.

What I found out later when Louise again put on her faux-leather jacket and a cap on her short-cropped brown hair – was that she was actually allowed to go out because she needed to have her fags.

No wonder I’d made her spill so many tears as I’d prevented her from feeding her addiction.

Before she came back, they had unplugged me and wheeled me to another ward where I waited two more days before going to Barts.

Anja came to chat with me in the new ward. “She’s a very odd woman,” she said about Louise. Louise came also, I had now become her best friend as I’d put my arms around her. She said she was going to the shops and did I want anything. “About four mandarins please,” I told her and gave her money. I wasn’t expecting to see any change, and my expectations were verified when she brought me the fruit. Once she left, nurses came over to tell me everyone knew her at the hospital as she came in and out and was a difficult patient.

The windows of this ward faced the street and my view was of rain on roadworks.

Finally, Barts had a free bed and I was ambulanced over. I was the only one in the ward. It was very quiet; the few nurses were busy at their desks and no one spoke to me as I waited in trepidation for my stent operation.

A nurse brought me a document to sign, a release form that stated I would not sue if something went wrong with what they were about to do to me. I signed without a second thought. I had given up any will. I was a leaf blown about in the winds of the system.

After about an hour, a doctor came to talk to me. “The ink they put into your body in order to find where the stent should go is damaging to the kidneys,” she informed me.

I didn’t know that, and frankly, had I known I would still have gone on with the procedure even though my kidneys were not in the best of shape. “It’s an age thing,” my GP had told me some time ago. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Would you like to participate in an experiment we’re doing regarding the kidneys?” the doctor asked.

“Sure. What do I have to do?

“Beetroot is very healing for the kidneys. It contains niacin. I’ll give you beetroot pills to take daily and you’ll have to go to your surgery to take blood tests once a week.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “I honestly don’t want to take blood tests every week, so I’m sorry, but  I won’t participate in the experiment,” I told her as I made a mental note to drink beetroot juice daily when I was back home.

Finally, I was wheeled along deserted corridors to the operation theatre. The surgeon in charge explained the procedure. “You’ll be put on a table in front of a large screen. You’ll be turned on your left side so you’ll be facing the screen. You’ll see your heart on it. Then you’ll be injected with a red dye so we’ll be able to look for the blocked vein.” There were more instructions, but I lost him. He then proceeded to tell me he needed to go somewhere else, “But you have a very expert team that will take care of you in the best possible way,” he said as he rushed off.

The six people in the operating room were jolly, put me in the right position, told me not to worry they knew what they were doing, and injected me with morphine.

In my drugged state, I could vaguely hear them talking amongst themselves. Seemed an obstructed vein wasn’t easy to find, but finally, they got it and put the stent in place.

Back in the quiet ward, I felt very tired as I waited impatiently for some hours for the ambulance to take me back to UCLH, where the sweet nurses welcomed me back, “Heh, Hanja, how did it go?”

The next day, Thursday the 18th, I binned the horrid hospital pyjamas, changed back into my own clothes, and waited impatiently for the ambulance to finally take me home.

 

 

The King of the Streets


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He was an English vagabond whose name was John.

I’d seen him sauntering through the winding, narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere for all the years I’d lived in that quarter of Rome. Thirty-two years, from 1978 to 2010. Sometimes he disappeared for a whole season and I wondered where he got to and would he ever come back? He always came back.

When I first came across him he was a tall, strong man in his late twenties, I supposed. He had piercing hazel eyes, an uncombed mop of brown hair, and not bad looking, although dishevelled given his lifestyle. From my third-floor window, I would watch him energetically drag a cart topped with rags to the rag-and-bone man, or iron to the iron-monger down my street, who would give him a few coins for his wares. He also collected discarded magazines and books, and I’d hear him mutter in a voice loud enough to be heard by all: “Books are for reading not for throwing away,” over and over again on his way to another customer who might buy something off him.

In time, his back became a little curved and his step became less brisk as he dragged his cart of wares to sell. But eventually, the ironmonger, rag-and-bone-man and others like them disappeared to make way for upmarket restaurants and a plethora of bars advertising Happy Hour drinks in tall glasses topped with little Chinese paper umbrellas, and Giovanni lost his customers

A gregarious man he could often be found lounging on the chipped marble steps of the 16th-century fountain of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He’d get to see a sea of people strolling by or taking the sun on the steps, and engaged some in conversation. His Italian was severely flawed, but he could make himself understood. He liked to flirt with the women who sometimes stopped to chat with him.

In years he became known as the King of the Street, and was well-liked by the clergy and staff connected to the medieval basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The church has a long tradition of charitable work, and the Christmas lunch in the shaded basilica’s nave, where incense perfumed the air, a cornucopia of festive foods is set on folding wood tables placed on the Cosmati marble floor under 13th century gilded mosaics of saints, cherubs and doves, is a well-attended ritual by the many ragged, the desperate, the maimed and lost. Clustered together they compose a living work of art that mirrors a Baroque painting. As steaming plastic plates piled with pasta topped with garlicky sweet tomato sauce were passed around, Giovanni, as he was known, presided over these banquets as master of ceremonies.

There would even be an occasional piece about him in a Rome newspaper, defining him as the head of the homeless and telling some small story about him.  For days afterwards, he’d proudly show everyone the article.

“Guarda, guarda, sono io,” Look, look it’s me he pointed out in very English accented Italian.

Seasons slipped by. He now had a grey beard, his brown winter coat was in tatters, the navy-blue wool cap he wore when the weather turned cold, covered a mop of salt-and-pepper hair. But always he was cheerful, and, indisputably, still the sovereign of the streets. I didn’t know where his small change came from. He never begged.

The last time I saw him was on the balmy evening of the full moon in April of 2010. He was sitting on the steps of Santa Maria della Luce, a church in Via della Lungaretta. The narrow street, which leads from the main drag (Viale di Trastevere) to Piazza Santa Maria, was crowded with loud Romans, curious tourists, rampaging youths and the ubiquitous gypsies and derelicts: bums, vagrants, beggars on crutches, winos sucking at plastic cups filled with cheap liquor, swaying emaciated junkies with their cluster of dogs. Mingling with the cacophony of human voices screeching bats whizzed overhead.

Giovanni looked eerie and far away in his private world, and hardly his usual jovial self. I’d never seen him in this mood, or state. His hefty calves were bandaged below the dingy khaki trousers he’d pulled over his meaty knees, and infected boils and sores showed over the gauze. He was staring intensely at the huge moon, his eyes were aglow with the fire of insanity. Where will he sleep tonight, I wondered? In a dilapidated sleeping bag placed on cartons under the awnings of some supermarket, as so many of the street people do, or in a crowded dormitory the Caritas charity offered?

Shortly after this encounter, I left Rome

It was a chilly, grey evening at the end of October of 2011. I was on the 91 bus, going home after a guitar lesson at City Lit. The atmosphere on the half-full London bus was tranquil, but then at the next stop, a visible shift took place amongst the passenger as an overpowering plume of an odious pong wafted through the air. A pulse of agitated movement shivered through the travellers. People looked up from their mobiles, The Evening Standard, their babies in pushchairs, their reveries and meditations.

Enveloped in malodour, a heavy-set, grey-bearded man, wearing a navy-blue wool cap over his white hair boarded the bus. Wrapped in an ill-fitting sheep-skin jacket, carrying a stained canvas sack that overflowed with stuff stuffed in plastic bags, he limped past me and sat down next to the woman behind me. She quickly said, excuse me, got up and took another seat at the rear-end of the bus. It can’t be, I must be hallucinating, I thought, and turned around to look at him again, and yes, I recognised him

“Are you John from Rome?” I asked.

“I’m Giovanni, from Trastevere,” he replied firmly.  I got up to sit next to him.

“What are you doing here?”  I asked, astounded. He had to leave, he said.

“I lost all my friends in Rome,” was as much information as I could get from him. He said he didn’t want to talk about it as it was too painful.

I knew that for some years now, Alemanno, Rome’s fascist mayor, had been cleaning the streets and piazzas of the street people. Police swooped down on them, asked to see identity papers and shifted them back to wherever they came from. I suspected that Giovanni had finally been given his marching orders by the Italian authorities also and shipped back to his native England.

He hates London, he said. “You can just die here and no one cares. When my mummy and daddy died they couldn’t have cared less. I was shocked to see how cold and nasty people can be. That’s when I moved to Rome. The people there are warm.”

What kind of mommy and daddy did this man have? What kind of childhood? What brought him to the streets? I can only guess.

With a bitter expression on his timeworn face, he continued telling me how awful it was for him to be in London. “If I don’t die soon I’ll kill myself.” A man who had basked in the Rome sunshine now looked as grey as the London weather.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“In a prison,” he said with scorn. Which probably means one of those desperate hostels for desperate people like him. I’d heard it’s a hell on earth.

“See you in heaven next time we meet,” he said as I got off the bus.

Should I have invited him to my home? Had him take a shower? Fed him? I couldn’t do this; I wasn’t strong enough to take on the mammoth task of befriending him.

I didn’t know what to make of this startling encounter, and later that evening consulted the I Ching: “What is the significance of my bumping into Giovanni?”

Hexagram 8 – Union.

The waters of the earth flow together wherever they can, as for example in the ocean, where all the rivers come.

Giovanni, I think, must be the vagrant in me.

November 14, 2011

Two weeks later Giovanni got on the bus again. This time he recognised me. “I met you the last time, didn’t I?” He said as he sat down next to me; I tried to handle the stench. The young guy who was standing near me moved off. We chatted, again he told me how much he hates it here, how uncaring people are.

He grumbled about the state of things. “We have become American,” he said disparagingly. He complained about the government and the Royal Family. “What good do they do? Do you know how rich they are?”

“In Rome, they have the rich Vatican,” I said.

“Don’t confuse the two, the Vatican is about spirituality, the Royal family is just about making money. What do they do for the people?” He might have another point, I thought and was glad when the bus reached my stop.

April 24th – 2012

On my way home from a visit to the British Museum, I stopped to have a coffee on the terrace of the cafeteria in Russell Square Park. Spring sunrays spilled over the leafy tops of towering plane trees, flowerbeds, shrubs, happy dogs, nervous pigeons and an eclectic array of people sitting on wooden benches around the fountain or sprawled on the green lawns in this oasis of tranquillity. I knew I was privileged to be here.

Then, I made my way to the nearest bus stop, and who did I see sitting there?  Giovanni. I did not want to stop and have another conversation with him; I did not want to hear his unhappy and bitter story again. I didn’t feel that there was anything I could do for him, so I walked to the next stop, got on the next 91 bus, and was relieved he was not on it.

The next time I saw him was from the bus’ window. He was sitting on his own at a pavement café in Kingsway; his canvas sack and other plastic bags at his side.

And then some ten days later, again from the bus’ window, I saw him sitting at an outdoor café near Euston Station, talking to what seemed like another homeless friend.

I was pleased to see he was in company. He was, after all, a gregarious chap.

And again! On a cold afternoon in February 2013, I saw Giovanni near the Angel Underground. What to say?

I am aware that only a thin line separates Giovanni and me, and that there, but for the grace of God, go I

How am I Coping?


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Ok, just got the news of a new lockup on 16th December. It had been expected but I was hoping it would be on Friday so I could still have lunch with my friend Pamela at the French House in Soho on Thursday. No such luck. Was planning on oysters. It was going to be my Xmas treat, but I had to kiss that one goodbye.

One of the main reasons the lockdown is upsetting is because many pubs and restaurants are going to go under. Will the historic French House survive? Doubtful. So many jobs lost.

I’d been going there regularly since the 60s when the good-natured Gaston Berlemonwas was the owner. He knew how to mix the best cocktails.

The French House had always been popular with actors, painters, and writers. In other words, bohemians.  It was the days of the very long liquid lunch, and there one could enjoy good conversations with heavy drinking journalists, martini downing publishers, and famous barristers drinking champagne

Struggling artists cadged free drinks from sloshed businessmen who hoped sooner or later to lay their hands on a painting that would make them a lot of money. Scruffy looking bards, whose nourishment seemed to consist of mainly vodka, flirted with gregarious, heavy boozing gutsy chain-smoking women out for a good time, who were to be found there.

As was Jeffrey Barnard, whose weekly column for the Spectator principally chronicled his daily round of intoxication. His writing was once described by the journalist, Jonathan Meades, as a “suicide note in weekly installments.” And there was the regular, Frank Norman, whose play about cockney low-life characters in the 1950s, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be, had won The Evening Standard’s award for best musical in 1960. Other regulars over the years have included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Tom BakerMalcolm Lowry, Jay Landesman, Elizabeth Smart, and John Mortimer.

Before my time, when the pub belonged to Gaston Berlemonwas senior, the painter, Augustus John, drank in the company of Brendan Behan who reputedly wrote large portions of The Quare Fellow there. Dylan Thomas, it’s said, once left the manuscript of Under Milk Wood under his chair. Sylvia Plath is also reported to have visited the French House.

For me, it was the one place in Soho where people truly chose to share time and conversation.

Soho will never be the same when we go back to ‘normal’ times. Gone are the ‘normal’ times. It has all changed, we have changed, I have changed.

Not that I know quite how I’ve changed, but I feel like a limp wool doll that’s been turned inside out. I’m upside down.

Before the crown of all pandemics sequestered our lives, I didn’t watch TV programs a lot. Now, to pass the interminable time, I see much more stuff on my computer. Films, documentaries, Amazon Prime videos, Italian movies on YouTube — what have you. But I still don’t have Netflix. I feel that Netflix is a monopolism, so I’m boycotting it, but who knows, as time proceeds and there is less and less material for me left to look at I might give in. After all, I buy from Amazon constantly, and that too is a monopolism. I am a contradiction.

I don’t feel like reading. My eyes hurt, the print is too small. And as for eating on my own? How does one cook for one? Take a cabbage leaf, add a baby tomato, a slice of potato . . . Some of my friends make soups or vegetable stews which they put in the fridge to eat all week. But that’s not for me. Sometimes a yogurt with berries and nuts can suffice. And yet, even though I don’t eat that much, I’ve put on weight. Coronavirus pounds. Surely a glass of wine in the evening and the occasional Bloody Mary are not the cause of me no longer being able to get into my clothes? But you know what? I don’t care. I’ve grown up in 2020.

I know I’m fortunate to be on my own. I’m an old cat with a sticky character and others enervate me. I’m aware there is a price to pay for having a sticky character. There’s a price for everything.

My cleaner came this morning. Her eyes a combination of fury and tears, and before she even greeted me, she cried out, ‘They’ve closed the schools!’ She has two young sons. She’ll come to me on Sundays now when her husband is home to take care of the kids. We all need to adjust. Somehow we adjust. It is what it is. Fucking awful, is what it is.

I wake up each morning with my heart in the pit of my stomach which is in a  knot. I turn on my radio. All the news is bad again. How am I going to get through today? Although I don’t even know what day it is as I seem to have lost all sense of reality as days melt into each other. I feel I’m in a Dali scenario.

Under the soothing hot water in my shower, I remind myself that here I am, in a privileged condition, so best stop complaining. You’ll get to see your grandchildren next year, I tell myself. The time will pass in a jiffy, treat it as the retreat you’ve always wanted to take and never have, and now here it is. The good news is you have lots of time for writing. And don’t forget to follow the advice of Eckhart Tolle to be here now. Maybe I’m coming to terms with fate. What else can one do?

I castigate myself for moaning as my thoughts go to the masses of underprivileged poor who will not be able to afford to give their children a Xmas treat, who shiver in the hovels they cannot afford to heat, let alone pay the rent for. How many abused wives and children will suffer in this festive season? How many more homeless will hit the streets? How many suicides will there be? And to think that Dominic Cummings received a pay rise of at least £40,000 this year. Not that that seemed to put a smile on his surely face. Nor does Scrooge Rees-Mogg smile as he criticises Unicef who will now be feeding hungry children in South London. He accuses them of playing politics. Really? Has he any idea? How many gifts will the nanny be wrapping to place under his huge Christmas tree? How large will the turkey, so lovingly stuffed by the cook, be a feast for the taste buds as it rests ready for carving on the antique family table?

Christmas promises to be a disaster. People are tearing their hair out. Total contradiction and confusion. Celebrate with your loved ones, but don’t get on a train, it’s dangerous. In fact, best to stay at home. Do this, do that, be careful not to kill your granny and whatever you do, remember no hugs. Danger looms around every corner. We are in the unpleasant hands of a cheating populist government that does not know what it’s doing as death tolls rise. They’ve lost the plot and we pay for their stupidity. The Joker Johnson, at all times, fails in his duty to protect his citizens.

Weather permitting, I’ll take a walk on my own and talk to the ducks on the canal. Not that I mind being on my own, for some years I’ve spent Christmas alone. It’s ok, no big deal, 25th of December is just another day. When you get to my age you can be philosophical about it, especially as most old-time friends I used to celebrate it with have died. There is a mausoleum inside of me crowded with those dear departed. I think about them daily.

But wait a minute, hold your turkeys, Christmas has just been canceled! With the excuse of the advent of a new, more virulent virus, we have been moved to Tier 4. Not going anywhere.

Grandparents are beyond desolation, disappointed children are shedding tears, fathers are cursing as they have another Gin, and mothers don’t know what they will be doing with all the food they have bought in anticipation of feasts.

A black mist of anger hangs over the depressed population.

But don’t despair, the powers that be assure us. The brilliant news is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel called The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID19 vaccine. It’s astonishing that they got it together so quickly, and is, indeed, great news. Doormat Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, sheds tears publicly as he witnesses Margaret Keenan, a 91-year-old grandmother, be the first person in the world to receive a jab as part of a mass vaccination programme. ‘I’m so proud to be British,’ he says, unaware, perhaps, that the vaccine has been developed by the Turkish, Uğur Şahin and the German Özlem Türeci, daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated from Istanbul. These two gifted emigrants are now amongst the richest people in Germany. For them, Covid-19 has not been an ill wind.

I was surprised to have already received a phone call from my surgery offering me a jab. Which I refused. This was not an easy decision, but I’m not ready yet. I need to think about it carefully. At this point, I don’t want to put anything foreign into my healthy body. I use no allopathic medication but instead eat healthy food, make extensive use of essential oils, take a zillion supplements, do a zillion exercises. I haven’t been ill, not even a cold, in years.

My son is upset. “Mum, get the vax, if you get the virus you will probably die.”

“I won’t get it. I’m being very careful,” I try to reassure him. Wishing for a more ‘normal’ mother, he shakes his sceptical head.

‘You won’t be able to travel if you don’t get vaccinated,’ friends cry out. Maybe so, but in the meantime, I’ve booked myself a flight (before Brexit kicks in) to Tuscany for next year.

As for now, I’ll continue wearing a mask, keep a reasonable distance, wash my hands, rush through Waitrose, and remind myself, at all times, that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The fundamental question is whether our values will shift after we come out of the nightmare?

A renaissance must take place. Principles will have to be reviewed. The powers that be will have to seriously understand that love, altruism, compassion, fairness, caring for those less fortunate than us, is fundamental. There are going to be new viruses just around the corner if people don’t change their behaviour and attitude to animals. Huge amounts of money will have to be deployed to heal the climate.

If we don’t do this, it means we have learned nothing at all from this plague which surely has come to give us a lesson.

On Eccentrics, Fran And Jay Landesman in 1970s London


1 Minute Read

ON HER BED

‘You must have a very small heart to only love one man, all your life.’

Fran Landesman

The gravelly voiced actor, Lionel Stander, who was in London during 1965, working with Roman Polanski in the film Cul-de-Sac, first took me to meet Jay and Fran Landesman.

‘They’ve recently arrived from New York with their two young sons Cosmo and Miles. They’re a great couple, you’ll love them,’ he said, adding, ‘they have an open marriage.’

‘How interesting.’

Fran, he told me, was a well-known lyricist, having penned such evergreens as The Ballad of the Sad Young Men, and Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most. Whereas Jay’s multi-fold talents, Lionel explained, were mainly channelled into the Art of Living.

We found Jay, wearing skin-tight black faux-leather trousers and a very crumpled denim shirt, outside his house in Duncan Terrace in Islington. He was solemnly engaged in a not-so-serious conversation with the street cleaner whom he introduced to us as ‘The Demon Sweeper.’ Then he held out an elegant hand to shake mine and presented himself with the words, ‘Stan Stunning, I’m deeply superficial and superficially deep, sweetheart.’

His brown hair fell to his chin and there was a twinkle in his inquisitive, dark eyes that suggested he was always ready to play. I was instantly attracted to this charming eccentric who verged on the surreal.

His invitation into the sitting room of the terraced Georgian house was prefixed with the warning, ‘My wife will probably join us in a minute. Don’t mind if she’s not very friendly, her moods can be heavy. But I’m working on improving her character.’

Just then Fran, with a short crop of rich auburn hair, cut by Vidal Sassoon, sallied in. She was adorned with many glass, plastic and Bakelite jewels, which perfectly matched the colour-coordinated flowing clothes that draped themselves sexily around her slender body.

In a light mood, she shrugged her husband’s remark off with: ‘I heard that! It’s true. I know I’m spoilt rotten and my tongue can be acid. But it’s not my fault, it’s the devil that makes me do it,’ she said, scrutinising me with her topaz eyes, and then smiled.

‘Great to see you, Lionel. I see that as usual, you’re in the company of a beautiful woman. Sorry, this room is such a mess chaps, but then, as you know, I’ve never believed that cleanliness is next to godliness.’

‘She doesn’t have too many serious beliefs,’ her husband informed us, as he gave her a hug.

‘Well, for sure, I believe it’s all bound to end in tears,’ she retorted. A shadow of gloom swept over her animated face. Then added; ‘I’ll get some tea and I’ve just made these great hash cookies. Better than Alice B Toklas’ recipe. They’re strong, so watch your appetite.’

My eyes wandered over the sprawling room on whose fading-yellow walls artworks by talented friends rubbed frames with high-priced paintings, international bric-a-brac and Victorian pub mirrors. Bohemia sprouted from every corner of the room. An old dentist’s chair was by the window. The keys of the old piano needed tuning, the plants needed watering, the vinyls needed to be put back into their sleeves, everything needed dusting. Clearly, no one cared.

Fran Landesman

The kitchen, with its large, old-fashioned black and white enamelled gas cooker, was at the far end of the room. A glass door opened from it onto a small wood platform, steps led down to an unkempt garden.

As we lounged, sipping tea and nibbling at hash cookies, on a mattress covered with a worn Moroccan carpet piled with colourful cushions, our stoned chatter was punctuated with laughs. I felt I was, at last, where I belonged. Until then, I’d believed hippies were supposed to be young, untogether, unsuccessful, uneducated and hard-up. But Jay and Fran, an obviously classy, brilliant, talented and well-to-do couple, were leading an unconventional lifestyle, which was exactly to my taste.

I had come home.

Fran invited me upstairs to see her bedroom. It was bathed in a soft light that was seeping in through the two broad sash windows, which overlooked the huge trees in the park across the way.

Every space was filled – the cloudy-grey walls were covered with pictures, paintings, photographs, bangles, beads and wood trays decked with fluorescent butterfly wings under glass. All the lovely objects she’d collected were on display. Mementos of her past holding her present life together. Above the solid wood wardrobe between the windows, her mother’s portrait looked sternly down on shelves creaking with books. A chaise longue covered in fading blue satin was piled with pink and purple feather boas.

The mirror above the marble mantelpiece atop the fireplace was framed with postcards from long-standing friends and pictures of past and present lovers. A note on it read- ‘DON’T TAKE YOURSELF SERIOUSLY’.

Satin dressing gowns and silk kimonos hung on the large bi-fold door that opened to the bathroom.

Her bedside table was crowded with knick-knacks: lustrous lipsticks, burnished rings, Bakelite boxes, French glitter and pills for all seasons. A Kodak film can packed with Thai grass.

A canopy made from an embroidered Chinese shawl hung over the generous bed; a large mirror served as its headboard.

Subsequently, I learnt that Fran spent countless hours on her bed. She read on her bed, watched TV on her bed, napped (often) on her bed. Propped up on a mound of pillows covered in exotic fabrics, she did her sewing and patchwork on the bed. She entertained on her bed; put makeup on, on her bed; got stoned on her bed; received lovers on her bed and wrote world-renowned songs on her bed.

‘Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.’

Carl Gustav Jung

One didn’t necessarily have to be famous to frequent the Landesmans, but you had to be amusing given that the main proclivity at Duncan Terrace was the pursuit of fun. Nothing put a light in Jay’s eyes as much as the prospect of revelry.

Out-of-town friends often stayed in one of the many rooms and parties were organised for them. A stream of articulate friends poured in through the yellow front door. There were heavyweights like Norman Mailer, R.D. Laing and Tom Waits. That merry prankster Ken Kesey danced cowboy style with Christine Keeler, who, looking at the spice rack in the kitchen, asked in a bemused fashion, ‘Who are Rosemary and Marjoram?’ A story Fran never tired of telling. There were the writers Chandler Brossard, Anatole Boyard, and the comedian Tommy Smothers, who was rated to be a great lover by the many women he bedded. The writer, performer and poet, Michael Horovitz, who founded the New Departures publication and the Poetry Olympics, was a frequent visitor. As was Jim Haynes, who co-founded the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the counter-cultural Arts Lab; as well as the satirist, Peter Cook, famed for the television show, Beyond the Fringe, who was as funny off stage as on. The entrepreneurial Sam brothers turned us onto macrobiotics, and brown rice was now on our menu. Carolyn Cassady charmed with tales of her life with husband Neil and lover Jack Kerouac; the uber-feminist, Betty Friedan, never cracked a smile. Beautiful young women sang Fran’s songs, talented men played the piano, until Ralph Ortiz created a happening with his Piano Destruction Concert as he hacked their old piano to bits.

‘You need to get a new one immediately, Jay,’ cried Fran, who hadn’t thought this destruction a good idea.

‘Your wish is my command, my Jewish Princess,’ replied her husband and bought another piano.

Fran was nifty at the cooker, Jay mixed the best martinis, the grass was from Thailand, the hash from Morocco, the acid on a direct express line from Timothy Leary. The ecstasy count was high and it was the ecstasy count that counted in Duncan Terrace.

There I heard Germaine Greer tell a story. ‘I was in New York a few winters ago, walking down a freezing street when this hobo approached me and mumbled, ‘I wn shuk ya cnt.’ What did you say, my man? I asked. ‘I wan shuk yo cnt.’ I still couldn’t understand him and I said, speak up my man, make yourself clear. So he said, ‘I wanna suck your cunt.’’ I looked at this poor creature, there in the dirty snow, and overwhelmed by compassion said: ‘And so you shall my man. I pulled up my skirt.’

We were never sure whether it was a true account or a tale told for our amusement. But knowing Germaine for the giant she is, she very likely gave the bum an unforgettable Christmas gift.

Surprise Me

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