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AofA People: Mychael Owen – Brand Builder


5 Minute Read

“Mychael Owen has built 10 brands of his own and has advised some of the world’s biggest brands – at board level – how to build theirs.
In his late 40’s, Mychael ‘wiped the slate clean’ and closed all his businesses to pursue what he felt he was born to.
These days, Mychael ‘Builds Braver Brands’ with his new agency mychael.co.uk, writes daily stories (3650 stories, 1 each day, for 10 years) at 50odd.co.uk and leads global clothing brand Always Wear Red as they build their reputation for creating The Best Hand Knits In The World.”

What do you do?

What I am born to do.

www.50odd.co.uk.
www.alwayswearred.com
www.mychael.co.uk

 

Tell us what it’s like to be your age.

It’s OK.

I am aware of the brick wall, though.

The end.

Death.

But I am also aware that I will live for 1000 months only.

That’s it.

So I live bravely.

That’s why I closed down a raft of 7 figure turnover companies that I’d built when I was 46.

To do what I was born to do.

I thought that I’d better hurry up as I’d used 600 months or so doing shite that didn’t really matter.

Working with (some) people I didn’t really like.

It’s much nicer doing things that do matter.

And working with nice people.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

A daughter.

Izzy Willow.

Izobel is 4.

Insights that make judgement and comparison with and from others less powerful.

A determination to see just one film as I lie on my deathbed.

Most people see two.

The film they were in.

And the film they wish they had been in.

I am determined just to see just one.

The one I want to be in.

And what about sex?

It happens quite a bit.

Actually no, wait.

There has to actually be someone else there with you doesn’t there?

No.

It doesn’t happen much.

And relationships?

I’m with Lisa.

Lisa puts up with me very well.

And is probably much more important than I imagine.

How free do you feel?

Interesting question.

Always Wear Red is a business that defines me most accurately.

Always Wear Red is the best hand knits in the world.

For the most important times of your life.

Your downtime.

It’s your permission to pause.

I believe in 8/8/8.

8 hour working (on something you love).

8 hours of sleeping.

8 hours free.

For pausing.

Because the time you do nothing can mean everything.

All of that (albeit authentic) brand-speak aside.

I am not as free as I could be.

But that might be OK, as it goes.

I’m not sure.

Freedom in of itself is not valuable.

What you do with it, is.

What are you proud of?

Izobel.

Always Wear Red.

Not turning into either my dad or my stepdad.

Both of whom were cnuts (conscious misspell).

What keeps you inspired?

Tomorrow.

And Izobel.

When are you happiest?

Mornings.

When Izobel is laughing.

And where does your creativity go?

Everywhere.

I imagine a world I want to live – and then I live it.

And I insist on people around me being endlessly free-thinking and creative.

I want them to think and behave in a blurty, Tourettes kind of way.

I assertively remove anyone that erodes the creativity inside anyone or anything with a great degree of determination and focus.

Creativity is breathing.

I can think of not one scenario where it’s inclusion would make anything less good.

What is your philosophy of living?

Life is nothing about what you do.
Life is all about what you are for.

And this… generosity is the most powerful driver of preeminence and leading an exceptional life.

Because generosity leads to a feeling of value and self-worth.

And value and self-worth lead to confidence.

And confidence leads to excellence, preeminence, and leading an exceptional life.

I see this as very straight forward.

And dying?

It makes me very, very sad.

And urgent.

I’m still processing death as a notion.

I plan to avoid it if I can.

If I ever meet God.

(Which I won’t.

Because she doesn’t exist.

But if she did).

I’d encourage her to leave the death bit out.

To create both love and death in the same lifetime is the cruelest idea.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes.

Always.

It is food to me.

Imagination and creativity are everything.

Research shows that judgment and comparison begin to erode dreams and creativity at the age of 5.

We rediscover dreaming and creating as we get older.

Because we remove the two aforementioned blockers more effectively as we celebrate (and indeed crave) our uniqueness more confidently.

I could run, growling into every day.

Desperate to dream and do at every juncture.

And take everyone with me, too.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I appeared on a TV programme where a psychologist was placed with me and my team for a week.

His intention was to bond us so closely that we’d come to work naked on the Friday.

This was pilot show for Virgin 1 TV channel relaunched.

They asked.

I said yes.

3 million people saw it in year one.

10m+ to date.

Being filmed driving 10 miles to work with an A to Z on your willy is.

Err.

Interesting.

(And cold).

The Psychology of Sexuality and Ageing: Time to get Mature About it


7 Minute Read

Alan Gray is a social psychologist and researcher of both romantic and platonic relationships.

In contrast to popular opinion, most people never expect their sexual appetite to lessen as
they age.

Studies show that those who expect sex in later life, have sex in later in life, and visa versa. In fact, the amount of sex you belive older people are having now is likely to predict how much sex you yourself will be having when you reach that age. In other words, our beliefs here can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, influencing our own sex lives decades later. More reason than ever before to bring senior sex onto the popular agenda – and to start paying serious attention to the sexual needs of older generations.

It’s pretty well understood by now that relationships are crucial to our mental and physical health – feeling lonely is a physiological risk factor akin to smoking, and is associated with disease, even early death. Researchers have identified romantic relationships as particularly important, and it’s no surprise that sex – and the bond brought about by sexual activities – plays a big part.

Strange then, that in our rapidly ageing and health-focused population, researchers (as a rule) have avoided asking the question: are older generations doing it?

Take our largest national sex survey, for instance. Natsal-4 (led by researchers at UCL) restricts itself to only including participants aged under 59. A surprising cut-off that eliminates an increasingly large proportion of the population – and one of particular concern when you consider ​the rising rates in the over sixties of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

It doesn’t help, too, that many of these surveys use intercourse as the sexual ‘gold standard’ – ignoring the full scope of sexual activity to focus on the penis, and what it’s getting up to. All in spite of the fact that many – young and old – find pleasure in a much broader definition of sexual experience. From the affection expressed in intimacy to mutual masturbation, oral sex; hugging, cuddling, and kissing.

Still, those who have addressed the subject have done a great deal to debunk the ageist myth of asexuality. For a start, there’s substantial diversity in the response to ageing. Not everybody ages in the same way, and it’s certainly not the case that most older adults lose sexual interest or capacity. For many women, in fact, the end of menopause coincides with an ​increase​ in libido. And while some older people welcome a dip in sexual appetite, others see it surge.

So what accounts for this difference?

Well, it’s complicated. On the one hand, it’s a personal preference (and it’s important not to dismiss those that feel this way, or assume that all older people are unhappy with their sex life – as that’s simply not true). On the other, though, it’s often down to the lack of a partner – and while sexual interest may still be present, the opportunities for expression may not. Indeed, the strongest predictor of sexual activity in later life is whether you’re in a romantic relationship – with most partnered older adults experiencing physical tenderness far more frequently than their unpartnered counterparts. A trend especially noticeable in older women.

As the data here is almost exclusively concerned with heterosexual pairings, it’s likely that this result owes much to women romantically favouring older men. Men who at the end of course, don’t live as long as they do. Yet the disparity in sexual activity between widow and widower is surely telling in other ways. Notably, the sexual ‘double standard’ that continues well into later life.

Both genders are subjected to ageism – there’s no doubt there. But women must also contend with a sexist society that often exacerbates these prejudices – imposing more restrictive sexual norms, and creating expectations otherwise absent in the opposite sex. Take the recent release in the UK of over-the-counter Viagra. Another advance in the treatment of sexual dysfunction that largely ignores women (and does so despite claims the disorder is less common in men!).

Popular culture traditionally does little to help: ​a UK Film Council survey of 2011 revealed that 60% of older female film-goers were fed-up of seeing themselves portrayed on screen as ​“sexless grandmothers”​. While it may be the norm for older men to be depicted pursuing relationships with younger women, when the genders are flipped these pairings are often seen as taboo, or fantasy (see ​The Graduate​) – further cementing the thought that an older woman’s sex drive is something to be considered unusual and in some instances, comical.

This discrimination has deep consequences that are only now coming to light. Not only do older women feel less comfortable discussing their sexuality and seeking out sexual partners, but they often find trouble convincing health-care professionals to see them as sexual beings. In a GP surgery, for instance, both parties can be reluctant to broach the topic, and guidance or sexual health advice is often passed over. A damning result in a time of rising STIs among older people – and a disturbing finding considering what we now know about sexual assault: (1) that it occurs at all ages, and (2) that older women are far more
likely to be sexually abused than previously acknowledged.

Tough stuff all this, I admit. And maybe not what you’d expect on a website called ‘The Advantages of Age’. But raising awareness of these societal challenges is what’s needed right now, and open discussions of sexuality – as you’ll find in many pieces on this site – can only help shift the culture of silence or awkwardness. As I said at the outset, we all have much to gain from shedding ageist sexual stereotypes. And by acknowledging older adults as sexual beings, we don’t just open up a conversation but create an atmosphere that helps older people challenge unwanted advances. (A lesson echoed in the success of the ‘Me Too’ movement, which highlighted the difficulties women often face in reporting sexual assault).

Gerontological research on sex, no doubt, still has far to go – and health-care services can do more for older adults in their policies and procedures. (Those in retirement homes, for example, might want the option of sharing a bed with a significant other, rather than being separated by default; and selling lube on-site would benefit residents who struggle to obtain it otherwise). But change is happening, perceptions are shifting, and the literature is beginning to recognise a fundamental fact: that it is not age ​per se​ that influences our sex life but the circumstances surrounding it. Our norms and stereotypes are perhaps the
biggest barriers of all in this respect, and it’s up to us, young and old, to challenge them. Even if that’s just not being afraid to talk more openly, free of the nonsense.

Further Reading

Bows H. The other side of late-life intimacy? Sexual violence in later life. Australas J Ageing. 2020;39(Suppl. 1):65–70.

Dillaway, H. E. (2005). Menopause is the “good old”: Women’s thoughts about reproductive aging. Gender & Society, 19, 398–417.

Freak-Poli R, Malta S. An overview of sexual behaviour research in later life—Quantitative and qualitative findings. Australas J Ageing. 2020;39(Suppl. 1):16–21.

Freak-Poli R, ​Malta, S. Sex and intimacy in later life: From understanding and acceptance to policy. Australas J Ageing. 2020; 39 (Suppl S1); 3-5.

Slatcher RB, Selcuk E. A social psychological perspective on the links between close relationships and health. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2017;26:16–21.

Lai Y, Hynie M. A tale of two standards: an examination of young adults’ endorsement of gendered and ageist sexual double standards. Sex Roles. 2011;64(5):360-371.

About Alan Gray

Alan Gray is a social psychologist and behavioural change analyst. His research tries
to understand the mechanisms that underpin relationship development, with
particular interest to attraction, laughter, and self-disclosure.

He holds degrees in psychology from the universities of Durham and Oxford, and
lives in London.

Find out more about Alan Gray’s research at​ ​grayarea.co.uk

Will I Bloom Again?


1 Minute Read

I’m a baby boomer, born in the early 50s to an adventurous father who went on to be a civil engineer working on the barges carrying cargo on the great Brahmaputra river and the Hooghly where it splits from the Ganges at the delta beside Calcutta.

I say adventurous because he met my Anglo-Indian mother when she was singing in a nightclub. She refused to dance with him so he picked her up and carried her over his shoulder to the dance floor. She said she only married him because she thought he was an American. That was his Devonshire accent, apparently. By the time she realised that she wasn’t going to be swept back to the States where she would have a washing machine and a big car, it was too late.

Instead, his British engineering company kicked him out for daring to want to marry a “chee chee” mixed-race woman. So he put her over his shoulder, this time with the approval of my grandmother, and brought her back to post-war Britain. No washing machine, no car, and food rationing. No tailor to make her clothes from a photo torn from a magazine. No cook to rustle up jhal frezi and spicy dhal. For years we made the pilgrimage to Patak’s, in Drummond Street, just behind Euston Station, so that she could stock up on spices and then practice word for word the recipes that her mother would send her in weekly handwritten airmail letters.

Looking back, I can see how she must have looked forward to those rare excursions. First a curry at The Shah restaurant opposite and then a dive into the only place that, for her, smelled like home.

Patak’s, their pickles now a familiar sight on supermarket shelves, were pioneers in the 50s. Starting from their Kentish Town kitchen in an effort to top up the income of Lazmishankar – who had come from Kenya and taken the only job he could get, working in the sewers – they brought a taste of India to London.

My father took a job in Bahrain with the British American Petroleum Company, and my mother and I stayed behind because they would not allow my mother, with her British India passport, to live on Awali, the “oil camp” with the rest of the white expatriates. She and I would have had to live in a shanty, leaning up against the walls. In the 1970s, my father went back to Bahrain, and this time my mother went with him. And so did I. We lived in one of the cream-coloured villas near the clinic. There were very few Bahrainis invited to live on Awali, only the top brass. Segregation continued one way or another.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be set apart because of the colour of one’s skin. My mother never overcame the slight, even though she had grown up in India where the caste system itself made “otherness” a way of living.

Now, in my 60s, I ponder the #BlackLivesMatter movement and I wonder.

What would she have made of it? If I had ever referred to her as “black” she would have given me a slap. ‘I’m coloured,’ she would snap. Once, in Singapore, I went into a chemist shop to buy sun-tan lotion. The Chinese woman behind the till sucked her teeth at me and shook her head. ‘You good colour, already, yah? Almost white. No go in sun. Take this.’ She handed me a jar of whitening cream with an encouraging smile.

My friend Diana, a stunning British Jamaican entrepreneur, go-getter and bottle-of-wine buddy, used to drag me to Black Businesswomen’s groups in the 90s. ‘I feel like a fraud,’ I would whisper as others, a few shades darker than I could ever be, used to eye me up and down.

So now, I wonder … where DO I belong? And, in particular, which box do I tick on forms that ask me to describe ethnicity? Having done Ancestry for a laugh, I’m gutted to discover that, despite having relations called Chaves-Wheeler-Gomes, I actually have no Portuguese DNA at all. Indian? Yes. French? Yes. Welsh? Yes. Philippino, Vietnamese and Italian? Yes, yes, yes. But Portuguese, no.

In considering identity, I put my hand up to being a Londoner, at least. Born at Allie Pally, I came back to my roots – it just took a while. In the swinging 60s, I missed out on all the trendsetting, being at school in Africa, with no TV. But in the 70s, I left the convent, dropped out of university, and set up with a bunch of bachelorettes in a small terraced house just off the King’s Road. Mini-skirts and neon blue platform boots.

But I was a bit shy to be too much of a swinger. Not in those days.

Years later, in my late 50s, after losing a husband, bringing up three daughters and nursing a mother and father to the great rainbow bridge crossing. I felt a certain sense of freedom, at last.

I remember thinking that T.S Eliot was a tough poet to crack. I’ve been reading and re-reading his selected poems for years, and I’m still none the wiser.

Yet I’ve always found something that resonates in The Wasteland, although I’m not at all sure that Eliot would have approved. Not so long ago, I burst out laughing when I read the line ‘By Richmond I raised my knees supine upon the floor of a narrow canoe.’

Whilst my memory had been tickled by the image, geographically speaking it had been nearer to Battersea than Richmond where I had encountered Budgie, the helicopter pilot, for the third time.

Our first meeting had taken place in Covent Garden. Budgie had met me for drinks. It’s safer meeting an internet date in The Crusting Pipe courtyard because you can look down and see who you’re going to spend an hour or so with, especially if you’ve asked him to wear a flower in his lapel. I took a friend for moral support. She was rather taken by him. But while she was in the loo, Budgie took my hand in his. He was wearing a black leather glove. He looked at me thoughtfully and stroked the palm of my hand. I quivered and he smiled. Then, from nowhere, he produced a rose. It was my favourite colour, one of those roses that seem to explode from shocking pink to yellow and then tangerine. Bingo.

‘I only do a little magic,’ he said with a grin. ‘Keep the rose. Can I see you again?’

‘Perhaps,’ I said. I sensed danger. He offered to walk me to the Underground as my friend had left in a bit of a huff. ‘I’ll just get my bike,’ he said airily. And then my eyes widened as I glimpsed a penny-farthing for the first time.

Budgie, it seemed, had a thing about transportation. His tastes proved eclectic.

On our second date, he took me for a spin in his beloved TVR. It was British Racing green and as a lover of elegant cars, I was enthralled. I was less impressed when we got stuck in a snowdrift in Epping Forest on the way back from supper, in what can only be described as a compromising position. I was even less impressed by the sight of flashing blue light in the rearview mirror. We were almost arrested until Budgie pulled rank, being ex-Met, and the two policemen retreated, grinning.

The next date was even more interesting. He invited me back to his penthouse flat and cooked for me. He didn’t have a clue how to cook, but he did have a canoe on his dining table, which is why the T. S. Eliot quote had made me giggle. ‘Have you ever made love in a canoe?’ he asked me, as I poked in desultory fashion at a bowl of stodgy pasta, wishing I’d thought to put a bottle of Tabasco sauce in my handbag.. ‘How about this one?’ he suggested hopefully. ‘But it’s not even on the river,’ I protested. ‘Believe me, sweetie, that’s a bonus,’ he murmured, sweeping me off my feet. It tickled my sense of the ridiculous, amongst other things.

Over the course of the following weeks, I had a lot of fun exploring Budgie’s entire collection of vehicles. He pulled me across London in a rickshaw. He whisked me into a sex-shop in Soho on the back of his Harley-Davidson. I was too embarrassed to go inside in case I was seen by someone I knew. ‘Who do you think is going to see you?’ he said in amusement. ‘And even if they do, they won’t recognise you, because you’re wearing a motorcycle helmet, you daft cow.’

‘I’m not a cow, bugger off,’ I snapped and marched down the road while he followed me on the motorbike, trying to coax me to climb back on the pillion.

Whilst I admit I enjoyed the kiss and make-up part of some of our altercations, I flatly refused to climb into his hand-made Welsh coracle for a spin down to the Thames Barrier. Shrugging, he went solo and was soon towed back to shore by the Thames River Police who said they had received many calls from concerned members of the public who thought he was being washed out to sea.

Enthusiasm only slightly dampened, he ordered a six-foot helium air balloon bearing the colours of the Hindenburg, and we spent a fairly peaceful Sunday morning sailing it around inside his spacious apartment.

One day, he turned up to meet me at my new job at Canary Wharf. He was riding something called a Segway. ‘It’s one of the first in the country,’ he boasted. ‘I got here all the way from Battersea on one charge, can you beat that?’ He paused. ‘But I got chased through the City by the coppers, because they’d never seen one before, and they weren’t sure whether I should be driving on the road or on the pavement.’

‘Presumably, they didn’t catch you?’ I said nervously.

‘Of course not. I took this baby down one of the alleyways and left them standing. She does 40 miles per hour, you know.’

I remember nodding a little wearily. The crowd that formed to admire his Segway was only marginally larger than the crowd who had gathered around his penny-farthing, the previous week when we’d gone to have supper with friends of mine in Notting Hill Gate I was coming from a meeting in the City. ‘Don’t bring the bike, Budgie,’ I’d pleaded. ‘I’m going to be in a tight pencil skirt and high heels.’ When I saw the penny-farthing parked outside, I sighed. ‘How do you expect me to get to yours?’ I said. ‘No problem, sweetheart,’ said Budgie cheerfully. ‘I’ve got you a present.’

He disappeared into the hallway and came back bearing a large coil of thick rope. My friends were quietly in hysterics at the look on my face. ‘Do you intend to rope me to the handlebars?’ I enquired. It had been a long day. ‘No, of course not. That would be too silly,’ he said briskly. ‘Wait until you see the rest of your present.’ He disappeared again and then bounced back into the living room holding a fold-up scooter. He presented it to me, looking delighted with himself. ‘See how much I love you?’ I was dumbstruck. ‘You see,’ he explained patiently. ‘All you have to do is stand on the scooter, sweetie, in your very fetching little tight skirt and high heels and I’ll do the rest.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘I’ll tow you with my penny-farthing, it’s pretty nippy,’ he said. He looked a bit crushed when I seemed unimpressed by his initiative and insisted he call me a minicab. As it turned out, Khyber Pass Cars, were not all they were cracked up to be. They got lost with me in the back, clutching the scooter and the rope. So Budgie did get back to Battersea before me, which pleased him no end. He was the competitive sort.

But the novelty was beginning to wear off. It was when he finally proposed that he take me to the theatre balanced precariously on the bonnet of one of his Sinclair C5s that I realised the relationship was going nowhere, except possibly to Accident and Emergency. Amicably enough, we parted company and he took a job flying bloody big helicopters to the North Sea oil rigs.

Budgie had been just what the doctor ordered. I’ve bloomed as a baby boomer, but time and tide wait for no man … or woman. I don’t think T. S. Eliot said that but he DID say; ‘This is the way the world ends … not with a bang but a whimper.’ I’m not sure if that was some kind of sexual innuendo and after three months of solitary lockdown I think back to the good times with a twinge of nostalgia.

It’s been a tough few months, and he had made me laugh and forget other heartaches. Now, like any rider who’s been tossed off horseback, I need to clamber back on quickly before I lose my nerve. But I’m not talking transportation. I’m talking about internet dating.

Do I have one more adventure left in me? Like an autumn crocus. Is there still the potential to be a late-bloomer?

Or do I accept my fate and go quietly into that dark night? I wonder. I wonder.

We don’t actually fear death, we fear that no one will notice our absence, that we will disappear without a trace. T. S. Eliot.

 

Lockdown Story – Living with my 92 year old Mum


8 Minute Read

It’s April 18th 2020, somewhere around week four of Lockdown in the UK. Life has taken on a reassuring and at the same time, unwelcome routine. A glimpse of institutional life perhaps. A distorted vision of freedom.

Mum has been living with us since two days before lockdown began. Uprooted from her cosy flat where assisted twice a day by experienced carers, she lived a semi-independent life. We all joked about her being an evacuee for the second time in her life. Alhough this time, it’s not as a result of a war, it’s simple biology in action and we humans are on the wrong end of the equation as hosts to an unwanted viral guest.

It made sense for mum to move in with us (that is me and my husband of nearly forty years) because we are both shielding – she, because she is a frail 92-year-old with early dementia and me, not yet sixty, living with a rare autoimmune disorder for the past eight years, which requires a regime of drugs to subdue an over keen immune system and to support less than effective kidneys that have endured the battering when the body goes on the rampage against itself. Neither of us would fare well with a dose of Coronavirus so staying safe together in a small unit of three people was the sensible thing to do and this situation demands good sense doesn’t it?

Hubby, Mark, is our stalwart and steadfast gofer – collecting our weekly provisions and, because he enjoys the creativity of it, cooking for us every day. We have decided that we will venture out for a daily walk, it’s quiet in our part of the city. Mum clings to her Sholley, determinedly teetering onwards as we plough our furrow around the block. Roads are almost silent and streets mostly empty.

We have the same conversation each time, we observe the silver birch trees that mum can barely see (macular degeneration having robbed her of most of her vision), then she asks me if the trees have been painted white. I respond that, no, it’s the pale, papery bark that she is seeing. I peel a little away and press it into her hand to confirm the veracity of my words.

Each day, we mention the magnolia tree that sits proudly in a front garden. Each day we comment on its slow progress towards spectacular bloom that is certainly followed by disappointingly drab foliage. Is it worth taking up that much space? We both muse, again.

It’s spring and, although the gardens are verdant and bursting forth, life has a treacle like viscosity, like the slow, dusty dog days of summer, the ones where you are itching for autumn to arrive, to get the heat over with and for time to speed up a little.

Mornings have the same routine, helping mum to get up, to reorientate herself in both space and time, to understand, albeit temporarily, that, yes, the virus is still here and, no, we don’t know when it will end. Each morning we put on the TV news, so loud that I swear you could hear it from space (did I mention that mum is also deaf and hates wearing her hearing aid?). We enjoy breakfast, meals are somehow always life-affirming, and we laugh at the magazine programmes that show others and their various lockdown antics. We do our daily ‘exercise class” with Mr. Motivator and I take photos of mum to put on Facebook under the legendary “Team Eunice”. Mum has come to love seeing how many likes she gets and hearing me read the comments from her many fans.

The afternoons are often less light-hearted as mum’s mind wanders off down one of the many rabbit holes that trouble her each day. She tires as the day progresses and often becomes tearful and confused, wondering what it is that she has done wrong and why she is living here with us instead of in her own home. We mobilise family and friends to make contact via Skype, Zoom and telephone in an effort to both reassure mum that we are all in the same boat and to give Mark and I some respite from having the same conversation on a seemingly endless loop.

The evenings are enlivened with laughter from unexpected quarters; Mum can still be sharp as a tack in dispensing a witticism or wickedly caustic comment. At bedtime I tuck her in, as if she is now my child. I let her know that all is, and will continue to be, well. I make sure she is warm and bestow hugs and kisses so that she knows she is safe and loved. I put out the light. Then I go upstairs to join Mark in his bedroom (we have taken to sleeping in separate rooms, not only to follow the shielding advice but also, if we’re honest, to have some precious space to ourselves, to breathe). We hug, laugh, cry, rant in whispers, rage under our breath and openly question our sanity, terrified of how long life is going to be like this.

We feel robbed of our wonderful, globetrotting, family and friend filled retired life and then immediately are wracked with guilt for even daring to feel this way. After all, there are millions of people who have a genuinely hard life: full-time carers, often on the breadline and managing alone; parents cooped up in tiny high-rise flats with children who are longing for an outdoor play space; those whose livelihoods are ebbing away; those who have no choice but to risk getting infected everyday – the key workers who have, by and large, been invisible and are now being afforded super-hero status (But not the wages that go with it).

The list is endless and I feel that I must temper my urge to scream with a very big dose of gratitude because my lot could be a great deal worse. Even so I remain deeply sad and in a state of grief.

Each day Mark and I take it in turns to walk our dog, a welcome time of solo exercise in a lovely green space not too far from home. A time to be with our own thoughts, to observe the natural world just being there and to decompress. It feels strangely dystopian.

Whichever one of us stays indoors tends to entertain Mum out in our garden. Mum loves being outside, enjoying the scents of emerging flowers and herbs. Each day one of us walks her around our tiny, much loved plot.

Gardening, growing, nurturing and tending has proved to be such a balm, such an act of defiance, optimism and hope for the future. Before lockdown the garden was predominantly my preserve, now it is a sanctuary for us all, one where the seasons move while time stands still.

As we enter the second month of lockdown, a switch seems to go off in mum’s head and she begins to withdraw, turning away from meals and only speaking to ask when she can go home. It is clear that in striving to protect her physical health her mental health is suffering so we begin to make arrangements for her to go back to her flat. Luckily it’s been possible to continue to pay Mum’s carers throughout her time with us and they are both ready and willing to pick up where they left off. Mum is overjoyed at the prospect of going home, although she is now worried that I have contracted the virus because I often have a croaky cough in the mornings. I reassure her that I’m OK. Mark moves back the items of furniture that we bought from mum’s flat to our house in an effort to make her feel at home. Both of us now reflecting on how home isn’t actually about possessions but is in fact about the place where you can be yourself. The transition back to mum’s flat takes place on a Saturday morning when mum’s favourite carer, Linda is there to greet her. Later that day I call mum on the phone and it’s almost as if the past weeks have evaporated, we have the same phone conversation that we always have, she has little recollection of the details of her stay with us, preferring instead to reminisce about her time working at the Admiralty in London after the war.

It is now July and the virus lingers in the background like a bad smell and I find myself bouncing between feelings of relief and spaciousness and a vague sadness.

I continue to rant at politicians whenever I feel the need to let off steam. At the same time, our garden is bursting at the seams with fruits, flowers, vegetables and anything we can grow. I have been swimming in the sea several times a week since the end of May and that brings me more joy than I thought possible. Mum comes here for afternoon tea in the garden almost every week and I have no idea where all this will end or what the world will look like in the future. And I’m beginning to think I’m fine with that.

Everything I know about Women Over-50


1 Minute Read

I was recently signposted to a fabulous article by Alyson Walsh, journalist and more widely known as the creator of the site, ‘That’s Not My Age’ called, ‘I’m 56 and proud – and here’s what I know about women in their 50s.’

The article came out in January but I missed it until it randomly popped up on the Advantages of Age Facebook group as a post waiting to be published.

It got me thinking. In March 2016, Rose and I started Advantages of Age, on an impulse – we wanted to challenge the media narrative around ageing. Four years later, I’ve probably spoken and heard from hundreds, if not thousands of women (and a handful of men) over 50.

What do I know about women over 50s? A lot more than I did when I was in my 40s.

For a start, as you’d expect of a group of people characterised in a general way by age, we’re a diverse bunch. Some want to dress up in funky, colourful clothes; others are happy to blend in with the background. Many are quite relieved not to be the centre of attention while others still want to shine in the spotlight. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to being a woman in her 50s, much like any other age group. I would prefer it if that bulge around my middle – that suddenly appeared around the same time as my hormones took a nosedive – would go away but I’m learning (slowly) to get used to it.

Sex is and continues to be a divisive topic, with some of us still having it when we can and others happy to have left that all behind after the menopause. My own libido definitely fell off the cliff when I hit ‘the change’ and never fully recovered. It took a couple of years to get used to not being constantly horny but eventually, as the writer M. Scott Peck said of his own dramatic lessening libido: ‘It’s like a monkey off my back.’

We know who we are. One of the greatest pleasures for me in meeting and talking to so many women my own age is discovering a bunch of people who really know their own minds and aren’t afraid of expressing their opinions. And I love that about them. There’s no pussyfooting around with a woman in her 50s. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in what they have to say – they’re going to tell you anyway. No longer trying to please others – as I suspect so many of us were prone to do or had to do to fit in – most women over 50 that I know are comfortable in their own skins. It’s what makes hanging out them such a pleasure. We can explore the range of our opinions and accept or challenge them. That is a huge bonus for friendships. And the depth of friendship.

It’s very tough to make money. This is one of the universal truths about life for the Over-50s. I’ve spoken to women working to create positive change in the world, others who are simply trying to put food on the table and we’re all trying to work out how to generate a reasonable income that wouldn’t hold a candle to what we were probably earning 20 years ago. Lots of my friends have been made redundant or are currently unemployed. It’s actually harder to come out of a corporate career because you’re used to a regular pay packet than if you’ve been freelance for most of your life and are used to living with uncertainty. I don’t know that I’ve figured it out for myself yet but it’s one of the reasons that I’m continuing to work and develop programmes aimed at supporting older people into self-employment. It’s important that we’re all able to make enough to survive and more.

The pension gap hits women over 50 the hardest. One of the many manifestations of working with and listening to women over 50 for the past few years is that I am invited to and participate in events, webinars, zoom sessions, meetings with others who share my interest in helping our generation. I have a google drive stuffed full of reports related to the Over-50s to the extent that I’ve become a geek when it comes to understanding the various ways we’re taking a hit.

Ageism and sexism play a part but there are other lesser-known factors too such as the switch from Defined Benefits to Defined Contribution pensions, becoming informal carers to our parents or in having had occupations that by virtue of the industry we chose to work in, no longer exist. I’m thinking of all the Over-50 journalists now, people like Alyson Walsh, who has recently set up a subscription page on Patreon asking for contributions of £1 – £4.50/month to keep her site alive. So many women I know are trying to figure out how to do what they love and get paid for it; it’s not easy.

We talk about grey hair a lot. Is it OK to go grey? The pros and cons. Why some of us would never do it or we did and didn’t like it or the ones that are fiercely pro-grey. Along with sex, it’s a big topic that always generates lots of debate. That and going pink or purple or blue. Let’s just say, hair colour is a definite thing if you’re a woman over 50.

When it comes to the opposite sex, many of the heterosexual women over 50 are on the fence as to whether it’s worth the bother. Online dating has proved successful for the very few who are tenacious and tough enough to deal with the ghosting, the rejection, the prevalence of men pretending to be someone they are not. I met my partner via Tinder after over a decade of online dating, on and off, but I appear to be the exception that proves the rule. Most women I know would still prefer to meet someone via a friend and as we all so rarely go out, especially at the moment not-quite-post lockdown, it’s unlikely to happen. There’s a lot of celibate women over 50, some who would prefer to be more sexually active.

We think about our future housing needs and there’s a trend towards a more communal style of living, even if that means something different to everyone. We don’t want to end up in care homes. Nearly every woman that I know, in every group of friends I have, is clear about this, having witnessed what is happening to parents in care. Some experiences have been more positive than others. We all worry about the prospect of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s or worse. Health is a topic – what we’re doing or not doing about it. Whether or not we’re exercising. Walking, cycling, running, bodybuilding. And a range of approaches to eating from supplements to intermittent fasting. There’s no one size fits all. As we age, we want to be active, even if our bodies are suggesting it’s time to slow down a little.

Women over 50 are curious about life. There’s no stopping them. Freed from looking after kids, if they ever chose to have them and often with a divorce/split up (or two) behind them, the women I know have a relish for life and for living that is undiminished. They’re still out there, being creative, travelling (when they’re able to), hosting small and large events and parties, being seen in ways that don’t depend on whether or not they look or feel sexy. It’s not always an easy life and often means having to accept that there’s little to no money in the bank. But having good friends and strong relationships is important to them. I’ve met dozens of new friends since starting Advantages of Age, all over the globe and I hope one day that I’ll be able to see them all too.

What do I know about women who are over 50? They’re living life, to use the cliché, on their own terms and isn’t that great?

Coming Through the Darkness of Lockdown – DEBRA WATSON


1 Minute Read

At the time of writing, I have been in Lockdown since March 14th. That’s 90 days plus. I could count it out, but days of the month, weeks, days of the week, even hours of the day have become meaningless. I get – when I remember to put them into my calendar – notifications for zoom meetings, google chats, deadlines for writing which pass like ships on a misty horizon.

Given the relative ease of my situation, it seems churlish to complain about the lockdown. I know for sure that I am not the only one who had a holiday and career plans thrown into disarray. Having kept a sharp eye on events in Wuhan, I knew that the UK was only two weeks behind Italy. I spent a week umming and ahhing about whether to go to South Africa to visit my mother or not. If I did go, I couldn’t stay with my best friend who has a heart condition. If I couldn’t stay with my best friend, should I even see my mum, who is also at risk? What if I picked it up en route and spread it to friends who would then infect their loved ones? What if either the UK, SA or Turkey cancelled flights and I couldn’t get back? My impulse was to risk it, but I can’t be the only one who, having heard Boris Johnson’s infamous, ‘and many family and friends will die’ speech decided to immediately go into lockdown. I strongly suggest that, in future, if anyone wants to clear a room really quickly, that they play a video of Johnson asking people to ‘stay calm and in place till further notice.’ I did not trust my chances with herd immunity. Firstly, I would be travelling through three international airports in both directions, with a long stopover in Istanbul on the way back. Normally, this is a delight, and I go explore Istanbul, have a steam bath and a massage and eat gorgeous food – but in a pandemic, this seemed like a really bad option.

Countries were closing borders and shutting down air travel. The last thing I wanted was to be separated from my family in London. I phoned Mum to tell her my decision. Mum immediately concurred. ‘I am so relieved that you aren’t coming. I have been so worried about you. I want so badly to see you, but I think you are making the right decision.’ Heartbroken and shell-shocked, I rang off. The foreign currency I had purchased just that afternoon was shoved in a drawer for later use. I messaged my friends to inform them of my change of plans; some tried to convince me to take a chance, others wholeheartedly supported my decision. I guess we all had a sense of what might be coming, but I had no idea how mentally and emotionally exhausting I would find the next few months.

The decision not to see my mum was by no means decisive. I felt gutted and right up to the Sunday that my flight was due to leave, I was still forensically going over ways in which I could make it work. Having self-elected not to travel, I would lose the entirety of my air-fare, but really, what if South Africa went into lock-down too, and I would be there, but unable to actually see anyone? The unfortunate side-effect of having an imagination is being able to catastrophise. I catastrophise rather well; my mind settling comfortably on the worse case scenarios: Kill your friends and their families? Get stuck in an empty airport with no flights buying bottled water at £2 a shot? Die in another country with no chance of saying goodbye to your family? Even with all the evidence stacked to support my decision to cancel, my mind continued to play ‘what if’s’ with me; as arguments and counter-arguments twisted like a particularly fiendish and determinedly misaligned Rubric cube.

I was buoyed by the fact that people more sensible than I – thought I was making the right decision, or at very least, the wrong decision for the right reasons. My family thought I was nuts. Immo, my son’s dad had returned from Hamburg on the Saturday. His suitcase filled with requests for Vitamins C and D, Germany too was preparing for lockdown, but I could see that he remained intellectually sceptical. Surely the virus

would only attack the old and the weak? ‘No. The London Marathon cancelled for August last night’.

When lockdown did come on March 23rd, it was a huge relief and vindication. Ditto, when South Africa cancelled a few days later, with an even stricter lockdown that included no sales of alcohol or tobacco and limited opportunities to exercise. For a full week before that, with no lockdown in place, events and businesses in London were making their own decisions as so many were just struggling to keep going. For the first three weeks, I had nothing to worry about anyway. I was on annual leave. In my room, for the most part. Planning on just staying alive. As a life-long asthmatic, I have been close to death on a number of occasions, particularly as a child. I know the feeling of my lungs being so constricted that taking even one step is too much. When the tiny bit of oxygen that is getting to your lungs is all that is keeping you going. When you have to be as still as possible whilst turning blue in the face. When you are living breath to breath until you can get to your inhaler, an injection or an oxygen tank. I watched my dad die of pneumonia. I was there when they pulled the plug on his life-support, mopped up the liquid oozing through the pipes from his drowned lungs. COVID19 sounded like my worse nightmare. For someone who has long advocated for voluntary euthanasia, the irony of my deep aversion to dying did not escape me. Yes, I am ok with dying – but honestly, I have tried my entire life to avoid dying from suffocation. Oxygen deprivation is a horrible, horrible way to die. Give me pills! Give me injections!

In retrospect, it seems bizarre how overwrought those first few weeks were. Considering my near-legendary inability to plan ahead, life had somehow fortuitously arranged that both Immo, my son’s dad and my son, Kalen were in lockdown with me. It is a rare occurrence for us all to be in a living space together. Not since I moved out of our tiny one-bedroom flat, had we had to all be in such close proximity for such an extended period of time. Immo who was working from home in the week before lockdown became official – commandeered the living room. My son, fired from his pub job two days before lockdown, turned his room into a games area and I hunkered down in mine, the bed taking up the majority of the floor space. Suddenly, my tiny bedroom became a multi-functional space – holiday destination, office space, studio. The kitchen became our communal space and without much prodding, we all tried to give each other as much room as possible, the other two shielding me by taking responsibility for food supplies and all of us sharing cooking and cleaning duties on a rota.

Left more or less to my own devices, I still can’t account for the feelings of lassitude and panic. Enthusiastically, I signed up to do a sign-language and a TEFL course but followed up on neither. Many artists I knew were responding to lockdown by organising on-line events, but for the first three weeks, I remained stubbornly on holiday, pondering how to best turn my bedroom into a performance-ready streaming facility. I wrestled with technology: how to turn a SLR camera to a streaming device? What apps should/could I use? My room a mess of cables, manuals and assorted kit, I spent most of my time watching Netflix, Mubi and reality TV on Hayu. I fell enthusiastically into binge-watching ‘The Tiger King’, in between a near 24/7 compulsion to read everything I could about the virus. There was so much we didn’t know. In the early days it was assumed that there was not much risk of it being airborne – though, in retrospect, I wonder how this could have been at all credible. I started a group, ‘Solace for the homebound’, where people could post live-streamed events, I joined The Poetry Society New York’s online service to read 1-2- 1 poetry. When I finally gave up on mounting a new curtain rail against the wall on which to hang a thick crimson curtain, I called my friends Mad and Jeyda to help me, and, over Zoom, they helped me re-arrange my space. With only torches and an array of fairy lights at my disposal, my laptop webcam was unusable. Really shit. Like vitamin C, soap and pesto sauce, web-cams were impossible to get. A friend responded to a call-out on Facebook by sending me hers and I started performing online.

This simple task of getting ready to stream, which would normally have taken me a matter of days to sort out, stretched into weeks. My primary concern was, not creativity, but simply to stay alive. Everything else was secondary. Luckily Immo, Kalen and I are good housemates. We know how to be unobtrusively supportive of each other. The only massive rupture was early on in lockdown when my son travelled across London on public transport to pick up a monitor for his PC. On his return, my eyes wide with paranoia, I tried to get him to take off his shoes and all of his clothes to put straight into the washing machine. His response was to have a huge stand-down fight with me. I phoned my boyfriend in tears and he kindly offered me a place with him and his flatmate. I wanted to wait out two weeks of isolation before relocating to his, but a mixture of not feeling confident that we could comfortably nest without putting undue pressure on our relationship, coupled with a heart-felt apology from my son, put paid to that idea.

A week later, I broke up with my boyfriend. Things had been rocky for a while as I had found that, despite us having an open, polyamorous relationship, he had not been as honest with me as I would have expected. We had patched things up just before I went into lockdown and he had had, I now realise, been preparing the ground for a new relationship when I was going to be away on holiday. I found out soon into isolation that he had two people, other than me, that he was having cyber-sex with regularly. One of whom, he now told me, lived in Dorset and was already planning on seeing him after lockdown. I accepted his offhand comment ‘Yes, I know! You want to break up with me again’, without argument. I couldn’t imagine weeks and weeks in lockdown with no access to him when our relationship was in such a chronic state of distrust. My frayed nerves would not allow it.

For some weeks, we maintained a difficult and frosty attempt at friendship. I had made a promise to both of us that if we were to break up I would try and keep a friendship going. For many weeks, we checked in on each other and maintained a cordial relationship. I struggled through lockdown, in a haze, the lid firmly on expressing any feelings of compounded grief. I was already mourning my lack of physical freedom. Early on I bought a mask, so the short walks I did were frustratingly short of smell stimulus. I wrote poems, sluggishly. Participated in collaborative writing pages and forcing myself to write every day, without quality control, producing little that I found of value.

My days blended into each other, sleep came in snatches, rarely more than three hours at a time. Despite being granted furlough and not having any external stresses, I found it difficult to concentrate. I signed up for meetings and seminars I never arrived for. My feelings of uselessness only compounded by the idea that most heroic thing I could do would be to stay at home, till it was over. Whenever that may be.

For a short time, I wondered at the fact that everything we had previously been told was impossible; grounding planes, working from home, instituting a humane and human supporting benefits system – suddenly overnight became not just possible, but essential. The possibility, that at this moment we could re-choose a way to live as a society that wasn’t dependent on the fossil-fuel industry became briefly intoxicating. It was not lost on me that many of the people who just months previously had characterised Corbyn as a Communist, were now clambering for the state to intervene in exactly the kinds of ways social democrats would expect.

I wish I could say that I am coming out of Lockdown stronger, with more personal insights, a bucketful of achievements and optimism. Nothing could be further from the truth. My boyfriend and I briefly tried to get back together again, with disastrous results. I spent two nights not sleeping, crying my eyes out in the knowledge that he had deliberately lied to me. He hunkered down on the lies even as they unravelled at his feet. Faced with the choice to either accept a relationship where lying is the norm or to not have a relationship, I have chosen not to have a relationship. It hurts. It hurts like hell.

Businesses are getting back to doing business as usual. We have been rocked with scandalous negligence by this government. The Black Lives Matter protests came on the back of a world already in grief, already not breathing, already feeling the bite of inequality. For one moment, the whole world could see clearly what the Black Lives Matter movement had been arguing all along – that Black Lives were daily being sacrificed by governments and institutions who refused to be held accountable and populations whose ‘refusal to see colour’ both tacitly and overtly supported the continuance of casual racism into more institutionalised violence against black bodies.

As we begin to come out of lockdown, the World Health Organisation is warning that we should prepare for a second spike in the winter. There is speculation that theatres will not open till next year. I feel that it will take me a long time to re-calibrate. That the shocks to my system have been deep and damaging. I feel much like a fragile shell, empty of substance, my personal equilibrium, tottering.

Immo and my son have held me together. I am not sure if I could have got through this without them. It has been incredibly comforting to have both of them around. Immo, with his offbeat sense of humour, can always make me laugh. We have a deep intellectual and spiritual connection. A deep understanding. It brings me joy to see him and my son together. My ex-boyfriend filled in the gap for sex and erotic attraction and I suspect that it will not be too difficult to replace. Work has been amazing and held off taking me back from furlough as they know that I am physically vulnerable.

I realise that everyone has tried to do their best with the tools they have had at their disposal and that many of us are, by now, at the very end of managing. I try and tell myself that it was not a race, is not a race, but hope fervently, that the next time a pandemic hits, I will be less deer-caught-in-the-headlights, more able to weather the near-impossible changeability of my emotions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

That I will work productively again. Sometime.

Lockdown by Live-in Carer


6 Minute Read

There’s being a live-in carer when you can get out and about, visit a friend, see your kids, indulge in a spot of raving from time to time and generally remain connected to the outside world. Then there is being a carer during the lockdown. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done and I review my situation often, surprised that I ended up here. I’m also grateful when I think about where I might have found myself when the orders were issued globally to ‘stay at home’. It could have been anywhere, considering I’ve been wandering the planet, home-free for the best part of seven years. I know what’s going on in the world right now and am aware that there are millions of people suffering greatly during these ‘unprecedented’ times so any challenging aspects of the job I write about please know that I’m not complaining, only describing.

I’ve always been a fundamentally caring person, but when I retired from my last career, I imagined I’d be doing less caring, not more. For nearly 20 years, I had a successful career as a Tantric Sex Goddess – a healer, therapist, relationship coach, masseuse, group facilitator and author. Upon retirement, I changed my name – a kind of magic spell to manifest more freedom in my life and took off to the other side of the world to write the memoirs of my tantric sex years. Falling in love with New Zealand, I returned three times over the next three years. It was a relief to be far away from the responsibilities I’d carried and to finally live the dream – travelling while writing. As is often the case, the book took longer than expected and I wasn’t earning much as I flitted about. As exciting as Tantric Goddessing had been, I had no desire to return there but I did need to start thinking about producing some kind of income.

On one of my trips back to England, a friend begged me to go to Kent and look after his 99-year-old mother. It wasn’t long after my own mother had died. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s for ten years and spent the final four of those in an upmarket care home. I couldn’t look after her myself for too many reasons to go into here but I visited regularly. If truth be told, it was too close, we had been too close and I could hardly bear witnessing my beloved mother’s slow and inexorable deterioration. Her relatives wanted to be in charge of her care and I was happy to step back, supporting the team with some distance between us. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I’d not taken on the role of my mother’s primary carer. This job with Cynthia was a chance to give something back, make amends perhaps. Human emotions are complicated and I’m not inclined to spend a lot of time trying to make sense of that particular tangle of feelings.

I agreed to test the waters for three months and thought I’d just about tolerate the work. Unexpectedly, I loved it and stayed for six months. Cynthia and I bonded. Perhaps it was because I was hired directly by the family and felt a confidence I may not have felt had I started my caring career thrust into a random family through an agency. My friend and his siblings were so grateful to find someone they knew and trusted, they were behind me every step of the way. I felt free to ‘be myself’ – mostly patient, kind and funny and sometimes emotional, impatient and grumpy. I was Cynthia’s first carer and for the first month or so she was resistant to having me there. I won her over but not with charm. I realise now it was by being authentically me. We would laugh together, cry together and watch Zoe Ball on Strictly Come Dancing every single day. We felt at ease. When you do everything for someone – feed them, wash them, walk them to the toilet – for days and months on end, unless you are an automaton a symbiosis occurs, one becomes emotionally- entangled. Love happens.

My time with Cynthia came to an end (she got a new carer and is still going strong, now a 100 years old) and I flew back to New Zealand for the final furlong of my overseas adventure. My oldest son and his wife were expecting their first child and I knew when I returned to England, it would be to settle for good.

Another friend pleaded with me to look after his mum and dad. There’s a lot of need for it out there, it seems. So here I am now in my ninth month of caring for a couple who’ve been married for over 60 years. They’ve become like family. Valerie and Thomas both have dementia to varying degrees, diabetes, a fair few health issues and wear accident-proof pants. They move slowly, with walkers. Valerie, who is 84 is sweet, bright and easy. Thomas, 86, is mainly sweet, bright and easy but can also be infuriating, bullish and can drive me crazy. He went to Cambridge and has an impressive brain on him, which shines through in some of our conversations. I can only imagine what it must feel like to lose control of one’s mind and body, basically one’s life, so of course I have compassion. But I hope don’t live to the point where somebody’s telling me when I have to go to bed and how much chocolate I can eat.

We’ve been locked down together in this house for four months now. Thomas has raised his voice a number of times. I’ve managed to raise mine only twice, a fact of which I’m proud. I’ve learned to become less emotionally reactive and more stolidly patient. The only exercise they get is shuffling back and forth between the three rooms they’re confined to inside the house, with the occasional foray out to the garden. They need me to get them in and out of the door. They need me for most things.

Before COVID, I would drive them out to local restaurants where they were loved by staff, some of whom had known them for years. They had rather a lovely life. The threat of the virus has rendered them house-bound with no visitors. Lockdown was the point at which their carer also became their cleaner, hairdresser, entertainer and full-time chef. We’re all aware that they’re in a comparatively fortunate situation. I do my best to keep us all from going mad, but it’s the Groundhog Dayness of it that gets to us all. Their food preferences are limited, as is their concentration. Toilet accidents are regular occurrences and there is a lot of frustration and apologising on their part, with me saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your fault’. Fortunately, all three of us have a sense of humour and laugh often.

Although the end of lockdown will be welcomed by Thomas, Valerie and I – being a carer is about taking the bad with the good, going with the flow and being responsive in the moment. Of course, I miss certain aspects of my Tantric life but although my days are pretty unsexy right now, caring for the elderly isn’t that far from what I understand to be the true meaning of Tantra. The transformation of poison into nectar. Yin and Yang – the light and the dark. Hey ho. Namaste.

The Culture Interview – Louise Kleboe, singer


10 Minute Read

Louise Kleboe is a singer and composer, plus she plays piano and guitar. She was born in Cornwall and was brought up in the Orkney Islands. She currently lives in Clerkenwell, London. Her voice is operatic and her attitude and singing have been compared to Kate Bush. She opened the Glastonbury Festival in 2017 and 2019, she will be doing so again online this year. Check glastonburyfestivals.co.uk Her new album Verdant is released this week. You can pre-order it here.

 

You were brought up in the Orkneys, how did that affect your singing?

The weather and landscape there are tumultuous, unpredictable, like a wild barbaric symphony. My dad found a guitar in a skip and did it up. When I was 10, I got a book from Kirkwall Library and taught myself guitar. I loved that massive guitar. I performed my first song that I composed “Wild and Free” at the Orkney Folk Festival and on St Magnus Day celebrations in front of thousands of people. When I was 11 years old I was totally unselfconscious!! Sir Peter Maxwell Davis worked with our school music department, I was his glockenspiel player of choice!! His music was ultra-modern, atonal…it really fitted that unforgiving, stormy world. I was surrounded by folk music, the hundred violins, accordions & guitars of the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society…what a sound!! Pure Cape Breton energy. The song “The Oyster Catcher” is about this time and it features that rhythmic violin loop that conjures up the call of a sea bird lost to the wind and it has the youthful exuberance and determination that we can change this desperate trajectory. People on Orkney care about each other and care about art and music and are leaders in alternative energies, wind power, solar power, tidal power. I did my first recording there in Attic studios at age 12.

When did you discover you had such a powerful voice?

Then when we moved to Cornwall, my teacher Mr Bosustow heard those early Orkney recordings and offered to teach me classical singing for free. I lived in a single-parent household now with two younger siblings and I was a young carer for my disabled parent and we were very poor. I could never have afforded private singing lessons. At this time of being a young carer, I had very low self-esteem and the singing lessons really helped me feel better about myself and process the difficulties and trauma I was going through. I was asked to sing with some famous jazz bands in the Bude Jazz Festival which was a brilliant lesson in improvisation and thinking on my feet!! Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald became my heroes.

And you studied music at Trinity, how did this influence your trajectory?

Studying singing at Trinity College of Music was a shock after a very deprived existence in Cornwall. Suddenly I could buy a Mars bar whenever I wanted. It was so exciting being introduced to musical theory and exploring polyphony in the hallowed company of Monteverdi and the Jazz/Opera of Gershwin.

I generally hung out with the guitarists…they were more laid back. Know what I mean?

How did you partner up with Alfie Thomas musically? I love the combination of that punk accordion and your soaring voice.

I left college early to become a full-time carer for my disabled parent. After a while and with no opportunities or time to pursue a career in opera, I decided to give up singing altogether. The vicar of the local church asked me to do just one more concert before I quit, a solo spot in a carol concert in the Regents Park Housing Estate. Alfie was dragged in by his little daughter. He heard me sing and later wrote a song for me called “Stillness”. He said that I create stillness around me when I sing. He was writing music for film at the time and our shared love of Shostakovich clinched the deal!! Alfie has an unusual mix of punk-folk attitude (he was in urban-folk outfit Band of Holy Joy) and orchestral sensibility. We clicked immediately, we formed a band “Society of Imaginary Friends” where punk accordion meets opera/blues to explosive effect and have written two full-length operas together.

Tell me about opening Glastonbury in 2017 and this year online?

Glastonbury 2017 was my first experience of singing at the incredible opening ceremony in the green field, although I had previously performed on the amazing Arcadia Spectacular giant Spider stage as “voice of the spider” at Glastonbury Festival 2011. The Opening Ceremony in 2017 was a magical evening, a hot sultry Solstice night. So special, my first experience of working with that incredible team of fire dancers, choirs,  druids,  drummers, sacred women, the Native American  “Water Protectors” of Standing Rock and pyro-mystics and the atmosphere of the 65,000 joyous people. It is always a wild journey that starts in January when we are asked to write and perform the music and songs for the next ceremony. Everything associated with the Glastonbury Festival is extreme and super-charged. It is a Sun Festival and is very male in nature. The opening ceremony in the Green Field balances this extrovert male energy with female energy with gentleness, love, healing and compassion. It’s the opposite of the corporate music industry side of Glasto and has its roots firmly in the original free festival.

It has been an honour to have been part of the Green Fields team in 2017, 2019 and now this year sadly in lockdown but still vibrant and energised. I think the online 2020 opening ceremony will be very powerful and emotional. I am singing “We’re a Real Force of Nature” and this message feels so strong and true in the performances and messages from all involved. Normally people don’t get to see the fire dancers or any of the participants close up so hopefully, this lockdown version will be a real treat.

What was the process of creating your new album Verdant like?

You won’t believe this but “Verdant” grew out of me moving my studio (Laptop, Speakers, Table) from the bedroom to the front room of my flat in Camden. I was going down a very dark cul-de-sac with my next album. Then my friend Carol who knows about these things told me to move the music production area to a more positive energetic space and suddenly the songs started to flow…the concept finally crystallised when I was moon-bathing in that incredible May Flower Full Moon.

Alfie and I have been heavily involved in the Green/Environmentalist movement for many years. We wrote music for Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” and are painfully aware of time rapidly running out for the earth and for our children and all of the living creatures of this amazing planet. Verdant starts dreamy and shifts into anger and desperation but is determined and hopeful in the end.

Do you and Alfie write the songs together?

Most songs are 50/50 collaborations. We are both composers and lyric writers and swap roles all over the shop. But I am the one who is most careful about LEVELS when recording, mixing and mastering!! Alfie’s punk side means he always has the knobs rammed up to 11!!

How do your politics affect your lyrics?

I am passionate about what is happening in the world. It seems to me that we are being led down the garden path by a bunch of criminal, ignorant, narcissistic psychopaths upholding a man-made economic system that works against the planet, society, equality and love. Sadly it sometimes feels like I am shouting in the wilderness or just into a social bubble. We have never been more isolated than this time of social networking. But I can’t keep silent about the madness that we are descending into.

You’ve also made soundtrack music for films?

People often describe our music as being “cinematic”. We write music for film. It’s an exciting process because the image becomes the voice with the music in the supporting role. It is a different skill I love to explore. I love the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Nino Rota. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score for DEVS was great and we are currently loving Adem Ilhan’s score for the hilarious “Avenue 5”. It’s a really healthy art form at the moment. I’ve got to tell you about my proud moment when I recently won the “Best Sound Design” award at the Southampton International Film Festival for the film Night light.

Tell me about a couple of the songs on the new album – Virus and The Garden?

Our song “The Virus” from “Verdant” is a twisted operatic duet between myself and the amazing tenor David Pisaro who sang the part of Bill Gates in our rock opera “RAm”. He has a brilliant messianic, almost psychotic edge to his voice. The Virus is a premonition. We recorded it in Autumn 2019 secretly in a church over the road (someone left the doors open). No sign of COVID yet. I sing with trepidation about the virus leading to the death of truth and David comes back at me saying that the virus is his crowning moment as God of Earth. It is quite crazy how reality has just caught up with the song!!

“The Garden” is a question about where exactly we humans fit in, in the great scheme of things. What kind of animal am I?

I hear lots of different influences from traditional folk songs to Indian drums?

Our ears are open and we paint with a very broad palette, we have worked with some of the world’s greatest musicians on “Verdant”. For example Anselmo Netto, Brazil’s master of percussion, Kiranpal Singh’s delicate waterfall of sound from his Santoor and Tabla and Oxhy, a brilliant young producer/ composer who created beats for one of our tracks.

You finished the album during lockdown in the woods. How was that?

Our friend very kindly offered her cabin in the woods just before lockdown so that we could carry on recording at a reduced pitch of anxiety. It was an amazing offer as Alfie has diabetes and would be vulnerable if he caught COVID. If you listen closely there is the sound of birds singing on vocal tracks. We drink coffee, we eat things but the joy is missing. The taste has evaporated. The tragedy is always there in the background and the knowledge of a huge climate Crisis around the corner, it feels very biblical – pestilence and then famine.  It’s a very important lesson about priorities. Nature has finally had a rest from us humans, which is so wonderful. We saw otters and a huge snake side-winding by the door…birds of prey…the insect population is healthy, especially the ticks!!  Spooky, beautiful and precious and undeniably “Verdant” but for how long? We need Nature but Nature doesn’t need us.

You’ve been compared to Kate Bush and Grace Jones in the Telegraph?

Yes, I have often been compared to Kate Bush and I find the comparison a great compliment. Although I don’t think our voices are really that similar as my voice is deeper. I suppose she has a folk edge and classical leanings and she isn’t afraid of departing from musical norms. So we are similar in that way.  Grace Jones? She is a stylish and a formidable presence on stage with massive charisma…so…OK !! Wow !! Both wonderful comparisons, which make me happy.

Lockdown Shock – Moving In With My Partner In N Wales


10 Minute Read

For the past seven years, I have been having a Living Apart Together relationship with my partner, Asanga. He lives on his beautiful wild land in North Wales and I live in my funky flat in Harlesden, North West London. Every few weeks, we visit one another for four or five days.

We are together but we retain our independence. We’d also found a way to be interdependent, we send photos and WhatsApp messages about our daily lives. Our gardens, our thoughts, our friends, our plants, our interweavings – we’ve both given each other so many gifts, he even has rags made from the maroon candlewick bedspread that I had on a bed as a child because he helped my family clear my mother’s house – then there’s his baking, my poems, his paintings. Life is rich and the anticipation around seeing each other again is relished.

We were in Fes this year on March 7th my birthday. News about Covid-19 in the UK has started but there was still the idea that it was a mild flu. I hadn’t given it much thought. I had organized a shared birthday party – with Suzanne, my co-founder at Advantages of Age – for March 14th after I returned. On March 9th, I was basking in the glory of a beautiful 18th century Medina townhouse and I received a warning text from Suzanne. Had I seen what was happening in Italy?

I hadn’t and I had no intention of removing my head from the gorgeous red Moroccan earth. I promised I would look as soon as I got home. By that Thursday – 12th – I was looking around FB and seeing that people whose politics I admired, were saying that we should be in lockdown already. That we should be learning from what happened in Italy. I read one particular article that convinced me which spoke about Covid-19 and how infectious it was. That the reason for lockdown was to stop that infection but also to protect the NHS.

We cancelled the party – I’m so glad in retrospect that we did. It was that weekend – the Cheltenham Festival weekend. The virus was spreading rapidly.

The Decision

The next week, it was obvious that we should be locked down already and it was coming. There was all the panic buying. No-one, where I lived, seemed to be taking social distancing seriously. I felt afraid. It literally felt as though society’s structures were collapsing.

Interestingly to me – forever independent – I found myself thinking that I wanted to spend lockdown with Asanga. Marlon, my son, said I should go. Asanga was excited – thank you for that sweetness – at the prospect.

By that Saturday morning, March 20th, I had packed up my little car, my big Apple Mac there too. I had never taken my computer to Wales! That felt so significant and made me feel extremely anxious. I always feel as though my life is on my computer and if I move it, it might all disappear.

So you see – I am very rational when it comes to my computer!

Replicating Living Together Apart When We’re Now Actually Living Together!

I moved into the guest bedroom. A fabulous bedroom that looks across the oak canopy. At this point, there were no leaves but the Irish Sea was there in the distance. And Moel y Gest, the little mountain. And this wild land. Fourteen acres of it.

I could have my own world. The Apple Mac was installed.

So it began – I spent four days sleeping in the guest room and three weekend days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – sleeping with Asanga. Saturday would be our day when we devoted ourselves to the relationship. Making love, baths, appreciations, cooking together. It all sounded perfect!

And I was still working three days a week, so that could carry on as normal.

The ups and downs, the downs and ups.

The ups were all around living in such splendid isolation. No neighbours, lots of naked sunbathing.

The Track has to have a capital. It had such an important part in my lockdown story. This was a lane that Asanga had never travelled up – I persuaded him to walk up it one day to confirm my spotting of a pair of willow warblers – well, not by foot and was a back route to Criccieth. And every other day, I would walk or slow run up it.

For eleven weeks, the Track amazed me with its unravellings. Not since I was a child in our Yorkshire village have a felt so close to the earth, to nature. To the layers of life. While Covid 19 raged elsewhere – and it did feel like a ‘bubble’ where we were –the creamy froth of blackthorn blossom arrived, a mighty hare which appeared like a messenger from a magical story, three dead moles were displayed, the dazzle of the gorse yellow accompanied me.

As I read more about the horrors that were going on in hospitals and then care homes, and the PPE crisis, the bus drivers dying, the young health workers dying, the mounting death count – it was the weekly toll of small deaths on this lane that put me in contact with my grief. I couldn’t believe how quickly they came and went. I was truly shocked by the speed of their fading. Wood sorrel, wild garlic, stitchwort, bluebells – there was a parade of death and birth.

Maybe as well it’s because at 67, I’m aware of my own death approaching and have faced that my spring blossoms are finite now – but I felt deeply sad as the blackthorn turned brown. I wanted to yell – Stop, slow down. Yet in a giddy fashion, the hawthorn had already replaced it with its more substantial cream. This longing for life went on.

There was the hand-written sign on the telegraph pole, which announced Return Home, Stay Home early on. Initially, I felt like an intruder from foreign lands but Asanga pointed out that the notice was aimed at those who had caravans and mobile homes nearby. Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for being from London.

And insisted that we keep a low profile about my presence.

More ups were planting of all those seeds together in the first weeks. What a mixture – from lupins to peppers, cucumbers and mixed flowers – that quickly turned into lush seedlings.

And the swing seat tradition – in breaks from working up in Roseworld, I’d come down and share a mid-morning piece of banana bread with Asanga while listening to all that birdsong. Ah yes the baking, Asanga was the man in the kitchen producing rhubarb flapjacks, cinnamon buns, sourdough bread and different banana breads. What a marvel. No, I didn’t lose weight during my Welsh lockdown experience.

Then there was the Zoom Dance Ups – my family were so great at this, we’d pick tracks and then dance together before settling down for a chat, we had a couple of Saturday night club nights where we threw our bodies around and dressed up with friends including our French friends. Oh, and there was one Zoom evening which was supposed to be a cabaret night and turned into something more meditative and lovely. One friend played Bach on her cello, another showed us the paintings that she’d done on chair rescued from a skip, my sister read from Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, I read a new poem Today The Death Count Reaches Eleven Thousand…

Oh yes, the Friday poems. I learnt to make little videos of myself reading my mostly new poems and I really relished doing it. Even though the holding shots often showed me not at my best! It became another little ritual for my time in Wales and on several occasions, Asanga joined me on his crystal bowls.

Ah ha and the downs. The crazy ongoing not sleeping. Awake at 2 and not asleep again. Again and again. But it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, although this also contributed. It was the return of my high reactivity towards Asanga. I was living in his house. And on a part-time basis, I had learnt how to do this with ease, bring food, cut out mundane chore stuff, focus on the special activities. On a full-time basis, I was lost.

I reacted strongly to being in his domain. I was in his home and I found that difficult. I hated being told what to do – never a strong point of mine. I took everything – all words of instruction – as criticism. I felt unappreciated. I bought lots of food to make up for feeling unsafe. My internal waters were shaken by storms that I already knew well but I could not stop the shaking.

I had been content with our arrangement, the visiting, the exchanging but this living together – even though I was in the spare room much of the time – disrupted the emotional me. Sent me back to daddy waters. I struggled with this unwanted, familiar territory.

There were explosions on both sides. There was intensity. One of my mantras, as I get older, is that I am happy with the every day, I no longer need the extraordinary. I am a self-confessed recovering drama queen. Sometimes my recovery lapses. These weeks contained constant lapses.

Despite the dressing up for takeaways, the slow runs up The Track, the birdsong, the wild land, the walks in the woods, the poems, I was exhausted by my own emotions. Of course, the communal grief for what was happening outside my bubble was part of it. The deathly undertow. The Tory chaos. Dominic Cummings.

One weekend, I feared my mental health was tipping. Fortunately, Alan Dolan – who does conscious breathwork – was having a Zoom workshop that day, I used this circular breathing through the mouth – as Alan says, it’s deceptively simple – to bring me back to solid ground. I used it every day until I travelled home at the end of May.

Home Sweet Home

Neighbours came out to greet me. Jakki and Dylan who have saved me on several occasions including when I needed a heater – my central heating boiler had packed up – after Marlon’s heart surgery. Francisco and Gabby who for years adored our cat, Tara, they provided a second home for her just up the road. My 80-year-old next-door neighbour, Patrick who had been watering my garden all this time.

I hadn’t realized that a lack of neighbours would affect me so profoundly. That I loved being squeezed into a street with people. That this warmth is part of my love for living in the city. That I am a country woman – I come from a village – but now I am a city one at heart.

Over the last couple of weeks, my internal waters have calmed. My sleeping has improved massively. I have been in the garden a lot, planting out the seedlings that germinated in Wales, building a barricade to save them from those frolicking fox cubs, listening to the robin who is always around. I have been back on those tennis courts –my proclivity for combat fulfilled. I’ve still been writing poems, now about Willesden Junction. I have tended the street garden. I have seen my friends and family.

And three weeks on, I’m ready to go back to North Wales again. This time for five days…

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