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On the Road Again


5 Minute Read

I am shocked by the extent to which I’ve rationalised what lockdown has made of me.

I’m going, “hmm, I used to think I was an extrovert but do you know, I really think I am more naturally introverted…I’m not sure that I even LIKE my friends…”

Oh yes. And I’ve been joking with those friends for weeks about how I could “quite happily do nothing but sit on my sofa with my iPad for the rest of my life, la di da…”

But it’s a pernicious form of lying to myself, even if it did grow out of an attempt to be courageous. And enough is enough. Never has the phrase ‘Use it or Lose it’ seemed more pertinent.

So, I have, impulsively, bought a very large Ford Transit campervan conversion called Kingsley. And he’s a bit camp! Part of the trend for what is being called “The Gentrification of VanLife” apparently. He’s got a white ceramic countertop sink with curved tap, matching rectangular Subway tiles behind the hob, a mirror with a seagrass fringe that looks like a parasol on a tropical beach, and two sets of dinky little spice jar shelves which have been a joy to fill. (Cumin, coriander, chilli flakes and salt? Or plasters, rubber bands and marijuana?)

I had a glorious few days online shopping for everything else a VanGran like myself might need. I bought a beanie hat with an integral head torch (yay!); a fifteen-metre food-grade hose pipe for the water tank; a lidded salad bowl; a Bivvy Loo (don’t ask) and much, much more.

But here’s the thing: one month on and I’ve only dared to take the van out once. I drove it nervously to a garage where I practised filling up, repeating “diesel, diesel, diesel” under my breath like a madwoman so I didn’t use unleaded by mistake. And now I feel the need for a long and uninterrupted rest. Indoors. What’s happening to me?

It’s not as if I’m new to VanStuff. Once, when I was 21, I drove a ten-ton Ryder rental truck from the East coast of the U.S.A to California. For two years in the seventies, I double d-clutched an old hippy-painted ambulance full of inflatables around London and Europe for the community theatre Action Space. I fell in lust with a very hairy Australian Clown who lived in his Mercedes Fuck Truck in the car park of the Oval House Theatre Club. Oh, that van!

And in 2014, aged 62, I finally got a Vroom Of My Own, an ancient RomaHome called Marjorie. She looked like a biscuit tin on wheels. With old-fashioned-flesh-toned-underwear coloured paintwork and upholstery. No power steering or other modern gizmos. Every time I climbed aboard I felt an ecstatic thrill of freedom, hope, and the promise of adventure.

Not this time. I feel as if I’ve been muffled by a blanket of trepidation. I fret about every detail and threat to equilibrium. I’ve even caught myself wondering how quickly I can sell it on without losing face. I’m feeling OLD – in a trembly, wavery, weedy way that I cannot stand.

I’ve never been scared of getting old. When I was young I knew instinctively I would improve with age and I have. Yes, I am labouring under the delusion that I’m still ‘going from strength to strength’. But if logic decrees this cannot be possible, then I still aspire to be the kind of old woman who retains the fuck-off fearlessness and ‘one of the boys’ machismo of my younger self.

Well, it’s a fact that I can no longer turn the knob of a gas bottle with my arthritic fingers. But I am still capable of squatting in the grass to take a pee and getting up again (I am pathetically proud of this). And I chose to buy the van, too; it wasn’t forced upon me by the government. So maybe it is just a question of busting out of the lockdown mindset.

I’ve also realised that in all my fantasies about VanLife, I’m not exploring picturesque villages and churches or walking miles along the coastal path. I see myself all cosied up under the duvet of my van bed, with a good book, back doors open to the sunshine dappling through the branches of a wildwood, kettle whistling on the hob. I’m really after a form of Outdoor Hygge, in a  ‘second childhood’ Wendy House. It’s comfort-nesting for the empty-nester.

But it’s also a bijou rehab Halfway House; locked safely in a tiny cladded cell, parked parallel but yards apart from other human beings, breathing in your own bubble of fresh air, yet only inches away from the hoots and scrabblings of Nature – simultaneously comforting and threatening, like Real Life. Just what the doctor ordered in fact: the perfect substitute drug for weaning off the opiate of lockdown.

Now it’s over (fingers crossed) I can see there’s one good thing to be said for lockdown: it was very good practice for being house or bedbound in the future. I feel comforted by the prospect of guilt-free days of the internet, and all the films and podcasts that await me in my dotage. But that is definitely for the future.

Now it’s The Now and I’m beginning to feel its power again. I’ve stopped doing Research (or Armchair Campervanning as my best friend calls it). I’ve Snoozed the addictive Women With Campervans group I joined on Facebook. I’ve booked two nights at a campsite on the edge of Exmoor.

No, I haven’t slept in Kingsley yet. But I’m well on the way to refining my ideal Spotify playlist: Baby Driver; Hit the Road, Jack; Baby, you Can Drive My Car; the entire re-mastered soundtrack of Easy Rider… I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for The Summer of VanLove. And quite excited.

May we all feel a sense of hope and freedom and the promise of adventure, now that we are ‘on the road’ again.

Why Conscious Breathing Does it For Me


7 Minute Read

You realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind

( Eckhart Tolle Practising the Power of Now)

Conscious breathing and meditation/mindfulness are becoming more popular, and even more so now, as we look for ways to manage challenges of isolation and lack of connection during lockdowns.

I have been practising conscious breathing for over 30 years, first as part of my yoga practice and then as a yoga teacher. Conscious breathing allows me to feel more present, more grounded. I feel more connected to myself and to others. It also gives me a rush of energy which I channel into my writing and other creative projects. It helps me to focus, set goals and achieve what I want. Feeling better about myself, I then feel more confident in what I’m doing and stronger in my convictions about what matters to me. At the same time, conscious breathing brings gentleness.

In my first yoga training, I meditated at 5am and 9pm every day and felt a strong sense of peace. Life on an ashram lends itself to this pure practice. Back in London, I found it hard to maintain a regular practice, as do many of us, for lots of different reasons – boredom, my to-do list, that pointless anxiety for the future or the past. I needed to rediscover that peace within my busy life of commuting, teaching in sometimes challenging situations, such as prisons as well as making time for my writing, theatre-making and yoga. I needed a stress release and at the same time, the energy and confidence to keep going with all these things. Because traditional meditation is about just sitting and watching the mind, it felt like too much of a contrast to the busyness of my life, whereas in conscious breathing, there is a focus – something to do and to think about so it works better for me. It enables me to deal with some of the blocks that I put in my way and helps me to find a more regular practice.  

Conscious breathing is a series of exercises that teaches us different ways to manipulate the breath. There is a simplicity in their execution, and yet complexity in the science in which they are grounded. For each exercise, we focus on the inhale, the exhale or the retention of the breath, and sometimes all three. We increase oxygen or prana to our brain and this makes us feel good. As we become more conscious of the breath, we become more conscious of ourselves, more present, more aware and we’re all trying to be more present in life. Breathing consciously connects us to our conscience! Some say that this is our soul or the Divine and that connecting with the Divine is the key goal of pranayama.

I first experienced conscious breathing in Sivananda yoga practice as pranayama: The vital force. Prana is life, vitality, energy or strength. Ayama means length, expansion or restraint’ (Swami Sivananda)

 

And BKS Iyengar writes that pranayama teaches us to ‘Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind. . . It cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves’ (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)

As a theatre practitioner, my yoga practice was already feeding into my rehearsal room; in voice classes, as we worked on the breath; also in physical theatre classes where I was inspired by Grotowski who had used yoga as part of his practice. We all learn from each other. When I was made redundant from the Royal Court Theatre, I was hugely disappointed but, finding myself with an unexpected gap in my career, I set off to Sivananda HQ to do the teacher training and began the journey that brought me to teaching, first yoga and then conscious breathing.

I continued the Sivananda style of including some conscious breathing at the start of class in my yoga teaching. Sivananda teachings say that we must not overdo the pranayama, we need to keep a balance. I understood this but I still felt we could do more with it. I wondered if, instead of being the introduction to the class, the conscious breathing could become, as it were, the main event.

And so in 2019, I completed the first-ever training of Altered States: The Breath. The course was inspired by both Hatha and Kundalini yoga; by teachings around addictions plus it refers to breath experts such as Wim Hof. I learnt how to manipulate the breath to:

1 Change how I feel.

2 Increase the flow of ‘positive’ hormones in the body leaving me feeling uplifted, with a sense of calm and well being.

3 Decrease ‘negative’ hormones, leaving me feeling calmer and less likely to react when stressed.

4 Increase breath capacity.

How amazing to be able to create stillness and calm by increasing dopamine; exhilaration by increasing endorphins and positive feelings of well being by increasing Serotonin; this in turn improves digestion and sleep and we enter a more positive cycle.

At the same time, we decrease adrenaline and cortisol that we only need in high levels when we’re in real danger, of say, being eaten by a lion whilst out hunting!  Globally there is a huge increase in stress levels. This sometimes leads to greater reliance on addictive substances and poor mental health which can add to the sense of fear, so our bodies produce more adrenaline and we are in a negative cycle. By slowing down the breath we shift from this fight/flight mode.

To begin we release the vagus nerve, the biggest nerve in the body, which runs from the brain stem through to the guts. This resets the nervous system, it ‘powers up’ the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the hormonal flow to shift. The exercises build breath capacity which improves the health of the lungs, heart and  digestion. Reducing stress in the body has the same effect, so there are clear physical benefits as well as positive feelings of well being.

Some of the exercises are simple versions of what we all do naturally. I do one with my mum who has dementia. Others require greater concentration – and it is this focus that is freeing from my overthinking, chattering mind.

Crucially, we pause after each exercise as, to quote Grotowski, ‘It is what happens in between the exercises that counts. . .’ This is the stillness and focus on the present moment and we ask ourselves ‘How am I feeling now?’, having asked it at the top of the class. Usually, there is a noticeable shift. At the end of the class we lie in silent relaxation, then again we observe how we are feeling in our bodies and minds. I love how my yoga feeds into my theatre work and vice versa. I am constantly developing my practice and currently feeding in some movement from my theatre practice. This keeps it fresh and brings a sense of playfulness and creativity.

One of the best things about conscious breathing is its accessibility. I can do it literally anywhere: in bed the moment I wake or the last thing before sleep; whilst walking in nature or at my desk, in my garden or park. I hope to be able to do it again on a beach somewhere. I love how I can check in with myself and decide what I need, which techniques will help me today; and I love how naturally it comes. After all it is an extension of what we do from the moment we arrive on this earth, to the moment we depart – breath.

Laura is offering a free taster 40 min session plus a Q&A on April 29th at 8am on Zoom.

You can contact Laura on lauramccluskey@btinternet.com for further information and to sign up.

AofA People: Tim Hutton – multi-instrumentalist/producer/songwriter


10 Minute Read

Tim Hutton, 59, is a multi-instrumentalist (self-taught guitarist, bassist and drummer as well as a brass and piano player) producer/songwriter. He’s toured with many high profile bands like Dexy’s to Fela Kuti, Groove Armada to Amy Winehouse and Prodigy plus written songs and recorded as a vocalist or instrumentalist for several others.

What age are you?

59 and a half. As I approach each new decade for some reason I start straining at the bit, only to arrive there, cast my eye around and wish I could leave. Next year I’ll be thinking about subtracting at least five years off in answer to this question. Seriously though, I feel kind of relaxed about being a 60-year-old. It’s the new 40 – maybe I’ll achieve the kind of gravitas we were originally all supposed to get when we hit that age.

Where do you live?

I live in Leeds. I met my lovely now ex-partner, with whom I have a nine-year-old son when I was in the middle of a tour in 2002, and we had a night off in Leeds (I was living in London then, as I did for 30 years). I made a lot of friends that night and used to love visiting for fun times. Eventually, about five years later we properly got together, and as I was at a kind of crossroads with things generally at the time, and it wasn’t an option for her to move down, I made the move up. We ended up living ten miles out of town in Guiseley and I absolutely hated it. We however loved each other and had a son, which gave me a very concrete reason to be up there, and when we split up, very amicably, I had the opportunity to move back into the centre of Leeds, which was always what I liked. I’m an urban kind of, um, spaceman. I’m very happy about my new situation there, which I’ve been in now for nearly three years. I’ve been looking after my son a lot of the time this last year, it’s been fabulous.

What do you do?

I’m a musician – songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, arranger, producer. I do productions and sessions from my set up at home. I play live and tour with an array of bands, most currently being my band Doghouse Derelicts, of which more later; Dub Pistols, which I’ve been part of for 20 years now, and play mainly brass but sometimes bass or guitar live and all 3 on recordings. Above and Beyond, whose acoustic/semi orchestral tours I have played on without exception over the last 10 years, taking in venues like Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood Bowl and Sydney Opera House and playing the trumpet, trombone, French horn, guitar, keys, tuned percussion and vocals (they call me the Octopus); and also Red Snapper, for whom I’m playing the odd gig (when they happen) playing the guitar, and I travel wherever needed for other sessions and writing gigs. I’ve got writing/singing/playing credits with people like the Prodigy, Ian Brown, Amy Winehouse, Groove Armada, etc.

What’s it like being your age?

I’m finding this upcoming shift into my seventh decade quite profound, slightly terrifying and kind of beautiful. I’m starting to feel very differently about my place in the world, and how I go about things, how I handle and present myself, and how I’d like to be remembered. I’m being forced, this time, to think about eating and exercising correctly through likely impending type 2 diabetes, following my dad and his dad before me at roughly the same age – it’s yet to kick in though so I think I can do loads to offset its arrival. I also seem to be totally reappraising my approach to being in relationships (I’m not in one) and what I want out of life in that area.

What do you have now what you didn’t at age 25?

On a material level, it’s the means and knowledge to create fully produced music on my own equipment – something very few people could achieve when I was that age, and also clearly very useful to me, and something I fantasized about in younger days, and on a personal level an awful lot more confidence and sense of self than I had then.

What about sex?

Sex is taking a back seat for me right now. I’m not really communicating with the sexual part of myself – at all – through active choice. I was an absolute hound for sex and drugs on tour and off for a good couple of decades and I just need to give the whole thing a rest, and it feels great, and incredibly energising. I don’t think about sex at all when I’m alone. I appreciate a pretty girl when I see one but that’s where it ends. I guess lockdown has something to do with it, but I welcome it.

And relationships?

Since splitting with the mother of my 9 year old, I’ve had three very short-lived relationships, all of which ended with the feeling that I would just prefer to be on my own. I’m not saying I’ll never be in one, but I don’t want any more of that type of brief and ultimately disappointing scenario, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my own company so I’m not going to be persuaded without being absolutely steamrollered by an incredibly deep and beautiful connection with someone. I look forward to that happening, I just don’t expect it any time soon.

How free do you feel?

Personally, I feel very free. The freedom to do what I enjoy and am good at in order to survive; and the freedom to be the person I am, or want to be. The one proviso to this would be Brexit, which seems to be disastrous for touring prospects in Europe so far – the source of a significant chunk of income annually, up to now.

What are you proud of?

Mainly my boys. My elder two have turned out to be such lovely and capable people whom I really admire, who have both pursued careers of their choice in and around music (I tried to warn ‘em haha!) – my eldest Jake is a sound engineer and drummer who works with Edwyn Collins and others (he engineered David Gray’s last album) and Liam has been a pro drummer since a very early age and has a string of credits to his name (also Edwyn, plus Neneh Cherry, Mabel, and a constantly growing list of new bands and producers), and my youngest is just incredible – so talented in any direction he chooses, but he’s only nine so has yet to set his course, and I’m not pressuring him – but he loves performing, is very musical, very literate, quite sporty, and so comfortable in front of a camera in a way I just wasn’t. He amazes me every day.

What keeps you inspired?

People I meet and spend time with, changing circumstances keeps me inspired and on my toes, movies and books, new and old, familiar and unfamiliar music, instruments and players; and a little bit of mild (not skunk) weed. I don’t drink and I’ve stopped everything else.

When are you happiest?

When I’m with my boys.

Where does your creativity go?

Probably fairly obvious by now I’ll have to say music – I do also like writing, and want to write a book sometime before I expire – but I haven’t really found an outlet for that yet, or given much time to it. My mum was a writer, with the pen name Barbara Whitnell, and was prolific, and I’ve inherited some of that urge for sure. Her Dad (whom I never knew) was a keen musician, and that’s the bug that got me.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Treat everyone as you would be treated yourself, and find what it is you want to do, and pursue it doggedly. Don’t be put off by fear of the consequences and playing safe if that’s what you really want to do, be serious about it and go for it – the rewards will be great. Ok, I’m a single 60-year-old man living in a flat in Leeds, but don’t judge…

And dying?

Death is looming large for me at this very moment, as my Mum died last week…I don’t fear my own death at all, but I fear the deaths of those I love. However, for my Mum, it was a blessed release in many ways, and she was in no discomfort at the end – and suddenly she’s no longer the small, helpless, isolated old thing she’s been for the last year, unable to speak the words she wanted to after a stroke four years ago, she’s gone but suddenly in our hearts and minds she’s the person she was in her prime again, and we can forget her trials of the recent past. I guess I’ll say that death is inescapable, and part of life for us all. I don’t know if there’s anything afterwards – the science-minded will say definitely not, but consciousness itself hasn’t been properly located anywhere in the brain, so…if there is, wow! If there isn’t, I shan’t be bothered, clearly.

Are you still dreaming?

Oh god yes. I’m dreaming like a mf most nights, usually, there’s a festival, a gig, a party or my kids in my dreams, and a lot of repeating themes – one being that there’s an amazing gig I’m about to do, but I either can’t get to the stage, or I do and I realise I don’t know the parts, or I’m not plugged in, and usually the gig never gets started. But I’m also still dreaming in terms of ambitions in life – I have dreams for my boys and me, – and Doghouse Derelicts, the band that I started seven years ago with my northern dwelling, bass playing compadre in the Dub Pistols Dave Budgen. We have started at last attracting interest from people offering opportunities to take it where we wanted to – we haven’t played the industry game at all, concentrating on creating and releasing tunes and playing live (when we can), and finally people are coming to us. Our dreams are big, and we’re worthy of them.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Hmm, tough one…I haven’t done much outrageous stuff recently – my last outrageous action was about 15 years ago, when I knocked a ridiculously overzealous bouncer out onstage at an Ian Brown gig in San Francisco, and a picture of me looking like Muhammed Ali (I’m very far from it!) ended up on two pages of the NME! More recently I’m afraid I’m struggling to think of anything. I’ve done some outrageous long-distance drives after gigs on very little or no sleep, that I wouldn’t advise anyone else doing. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got or all I’m saying…

Irresistibly Drawn to Work in a Recording Studio Down The Road Aged 59


9 Minute Read

Michele Kirsch, writer, wit, asthmatic isolator, mother of two, furloughed chef wrote about Lockdown 2 for AofA and it was brilliantly funny. Here it is. Now she’s onto the next one, and a new enterprise has arisen.

Of course, by the second lockdown, after the confusing tiers for fears, the novelty had worn off. I was well over the glorious government approved and subsidized slacking of getting paid to NOT go to work. At first, my furlough payments were looking kinda handsome as my employers had forgotten to take off tax and National Insurance, but suddenly remembered, and took the lot off as soon as I returned to work. This was after two months of going for long bike rides in desolate London, trying to remind myself that that ghosts of the civil dead might not actually all be dead, but watching telly, in their flats, on furlough, swearing at Joe Wicks and waiting for the ice cream van, just like me. The vast emptiness of London I initially adored, now just felt abandoned and, like me, waiting for something to happen.

At home with the cat

It was so stinking hot; I could barely breathe.  I’d get home from work, run a cold bath and lie in it with bra undies on. Then, chilled to the bone for about five minutes, I would lay on the bed, briefly blue with cold and looking halfway dead. In no time I would be unbearably hot again, and swearing at England, which was clearly breaking the summer rules, of being chilly, by New York standards. I had done many New York summers, and they all felt like this: unbreathable, unbearable, and slow-mo. Nothing was going up except the temperature, and the death count. The manic gaiety I felt – the joy of small things, was fading fast.

Michele in the bath

Work as a chef had changed, in the lockdown. They were more performance-orientated, all speed and efficiency. Right about the same time, I was LESS all of these things, and older. Very suddenly. When a rating system came up i.e. the better you performed, the more hours you got, I came second to last. It was A SIGN. I had spoken to my ex vicar (I have at least as many ex vicars as ex-husbands, but I am very fond of this one) who told me something would happen but not in the way I expected. So I gave notice on my job, thinking Rev Marj, with her Bat phone to God, would make sure nothing very bad happens to me, even though I was doing this insane and catastrophic thing – quitting a job I did not deplore, but certainly no longer loved.

I kept thinking of a line from a Lake Woebegone story, where the mother of the protagonist, a waitress, keeps saying to her, ‘Oh honey, you coulda done something with your life.’

Well, I HAD done something with my life. I had just temporarily forgotten. In July I won a prize for my book, CLEAN, which gave me some money, and a holiday in a mansion in Sligo, which my daughter said I must take because that’s where Normal People happened, and Normal People was all anybody was talking about the last lockdown. But if I were to take the holiday, I would be locked in the mansion for 14 days for quarantine. Yes, it’s not exactly like being locked in Holloway Prison for a similar stretch, but still, I would want to walk through the bottomlands and pick wildflowers and hang out with young groovy and beautiful intellectuals like the ones in Normal People. The photogenic shaggers, him with his medallion swinging all over the shop. Her with the cheekbones. Not on my lonesome, trying to work out the plot of a novel, and figuring out where the microwave bit of an Aga was located. All that had to be put on hold.

Michele in her mask

Then on Jobseekers allowance, I did every free course available to those on JSA. I was going to re-train to be something useful, not just some withered, wasted form of post-pandemic protoplasmic life. I studied, did modules for coursework and had two job advisors. That bit was a fluke that would never happen in real Jobcentre life, my past experience of that Inferno being dead-eyed, stressed out, shouted at civil servants in Matalan suits, shouting at me, shouting at them, in my Matalan suit. These work-from-home Jobcentre people were nice people, and they seemed to genuinely keen to get me back into work. I’d hear a dog barking in the background. The Jobcentre never had a dog.

I also signed up for Advantages of Age’s own Suzanne Noble’s course, Start Up School for Seniors. Not that I actually had an idea for a start-up, but there was a potential opportunity for something local, that had been started up, dropped as per safety measures during the pandemic, but on the verge of starting up again. It was something shapeless, brewing in my head, but there. It was at a recording studio that I passed most days, as it is about 200 yards from where I live. I was drawn to the place, for reasons not yet clear to me.

While I didn’t attend every session of the Start Up School for Seniors course, I just got into the idea that starting conversations about the thing you wanted to do, was a good thing. It helped me work out what I wanted to do. I already knew WHERE I wanted to do it: at the recording studio.  Everybody who walked in or out of there, or who hung out the front, vaping or smoking, seemed in an impossibly good mood. It had a VIBE. I told Suzanne I wanted to be part of it but wasn’t sure what USP I had to offer.

Now the idea of working in a recording studio appealed to me, because I was in the music biz many years ago, as a journalist, press officer and briefly and traumatically, as a tour manager. I understand people in the biz, how they roll, how pretty much all you have to do, to get ahead behind the scenes, is not be an arsehole. To be useful, to be nice, and to be efficient at modern life. This last bit might take some work, but I was two-thirds of the way there. Oh sure, the business has changed beyond recognition from the days when I was young and green and down the front at some indie gig at ULU, going home drenched in sweat that did not come from my body. This was still in the biz, but more grown-up and desk-based.

Plus, I had been in recording studios, well – twice. The first time was with Killing Joke, and that was the most noise-related fun a gal could have at maximum volume if you discount the two weeks of tinnitus that followed. The second time was many years later, watching The Neville Brothers record some tracks, and that was heavenly, in swampy New Orleans, in an air-conditioned room. Could I put that on a CV? More to the point, could I get a job, the way I did in the olden days, without a CV, just by, er, not being stupid, or a shit? I just wanted to be IN there, doing something. I did this about a billion years ago at my first newspaper job in NYC. I wanted to be IN, so I just walked in and then it kind of happened-the newspaper job. Right place, right time, and willingness. My life coach friends would call it the Universe being ready. I call it being willing to be ready for the next thing, without quite knowing what that next thing would be.

Then, a couple of things happened which made me think Rev Marj had been on the Bat phone to God. First of all, I met the owner of the studio in a book group I had just joined. We got on very well You know those rapid-fire conversations where you just kind of nod furiously in agreement about pretty much everything? It was like that. Then, weirdly, the novel I had started to write was set not quite in a recording studio but around some rehearsal rooms off the back of Carnegie Hall and centred on a music teacher who came from nowhere, to teach piano and singing and meet Stephen Sondheim. Could life imitate this formative art, maybe swapping Carnegie Hall for Hackney Road?

The owner and I got to chatting, mainly on email, and he told me that his second in command had sadly passed away from the vile virus. Not that I thought for a minute, that I could replace her, but I could do some of the jobs that she did, again, using the ubiquitous skills of giving good phone and email, and not being difficult. He mentioned that one of the things that got dropped during the Plague was the educational side of the studios, delivering masterclasses and intensive courses in piano, vocal techniques and songwriting. Was that something I thought I could pick up, help organise, administrate, deliver, publicise? Revive? Dare I even apply for a job that I thought might be fun? Well, yeah!

After a few more emails and some socially distanced walks, I was offered a part-time job, and there was really nothing to not love about it, except an uncertain terror that I might be crap at it. A terror, like most of my terrors, founded on zero evidence.

Now I spend three half days a week surrounded by music, fun people, and a feeling of proper hope, that people will never stop making music and never stop wanting to learn how to make music or be better at the music they make. It’s solar-powered, the people are super friendly, and there is an office cat. The potential bonus is that if something weird or plot twisty happens during my time there, I can whack it into the book.

I thought leaving my job during a time of mass unemployment was probably not smart, at first. But the confluence of the prize money, the book club, setting my novel in a place where people did music lessons, and then getting a job where I would be setting up, initially, music lessons, felt really smart. The longer-term goal is to set up a songwriting academy, get some kind of Brill Building mojo going right in the heart of Hackney. I think it’s possible. I think lockdown 2 consolidated my job goals, and everything else was just kind of intention and good fortune. That stuff counts more than you think.

www.premisesstudios.com/blog/jazz-piano-week

The King of the Streets


9 Minute Read

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

The Joy of Sleeping Separately


4 Minute Read

Sleeping as I get older is a huge thing!!! If I don’t sleep, then I am likely to be grumpy, reactive and extra-feisty. All day. I’m sure you agree.

Sometimes, I don’t sleep when I’m on my own – lots of restless rolling around, hotness despite well post-menopausal – so add into the mix a partner – that really puts the I into Insomnia.

I had been on my own for a decade before I met Asanga. I really thought I could never share a bed again. I loved having a double bed to myself. I liked waking up in the morning than reading or writing poems or both.

But hey, it was amazing to meet a loving, crazy, flamboyant, log-splitting, rock-climbing man when I was 60 and he was 70 in 2013 and then there were the beds and the bed-sharing. We tried. I spent many nights at my place in London and his in Wales rigidly awake. He spent nights listening to me snoring – when I first met him, he was mad enough to say he loved listening to my gentle roar. He’s changed his tune now. He gets up several times a night to go to the loo but that inevitably disturbed me. Sorry, I was never as benign as he was. I never loved the sound of him getting up!!

This painful co-sleeping – the norm for a couple – and we were trying hard to be a ‘normal’ couple in this way, went on for years. Years of misery. I’d often run off to another bed in the middle of the night. Or he would. And then we’d both be super-antagonistic in the morning. I think it’s because we were having a LAT relationship – Living Apart Together with 250 miles between us – that it felt all the more important to share a bed when we were together. It felt shameful somehow to admit this difficulty.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age
Rose Rouse with her partner Asanga for Family.
Photo by Linda Nylind

Actually, on holiday, it seems to work fine. Rajasthan – there were brilliant big beds even in budget hotels. Goa, Bali, Costa Rica – the beds all worked out. I think perhaps I’m a little more relaxed on holiday so that I can actually drop into easy slumber. Last year, just pre-lockdown, we were in Fez for my birthday – I booked an 18th century townhouse in the medina and it had been exquisitely done up. The artisan details all restored, filled with fascinating objets from all over the world and a huge, huge bed. We lapped it all up and slept too. Hallelujah!

However, over the years in our ongoing LAT existence, something more peaceful happened on our stays with each other. I think it probably happened in London first. My main double bed is smaller than his! We settled into a routine, one of us would sleep on the sofa bed in the living room and the other in my bedroom. We’d visit each other in the evening, light a candle, cuddle, talk and then one of us would slip away for a hopefully brilliant night’s sleep. In the morning, there would be another gentle or sexy invitation. There was no routine – just a series of new encounters. It works for us.

In Wales, it was less settled. Asanga has got a bigger bed – the key to non-disturbance for me, plus earplugs for him – and so it makes it more possible to sleep together. But there is always the alternative of the guest bedroom and that can be a godsend.

And we do both like to wake up together and snuggle. Well, that’s before the fire – with logs split by Asanga and often carried in via wheelbarrow by me in my wellies – is lit and the animals fed. In the cold months, at least.

Credit: Elainea Emmott

This winter lockdown has seen me in Wales for a longer stint of country living. I have learnt a lot about types of wood for burning, bill hooks, wheelbarrows and headlights! And we have established a routine. I am in the guest bedroom – it has become my writing/editing/work/Zoom room too – during the week and I migrate into Asanga’s bed at the weekend. Of course, there is the occasional evening visit during the week too. We like to keep some of the spontaneity going!

And I have to tell you mice arrived in the spare room, which saw me leaping into bed with Asanga again.

But it’s a huge relief to out ourselves. There is no more shame about separate sleeping. It means we can be more present, more loving and less likely to be irritable when we are together. And that is beautiful.

How to Live a Rich Life Alone


8 Minute Read

I’ve been pondering this question lately, prompted by a number of posts about single life on the Advantages of Age group.

I was particularly struck by the post on Bella DePaulo’s book, Singled Out – How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatised and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Also, the topic was already on my mind because last year I started writing a memoir. It’s about a life lived alone, almost entirely without a family or a partner.

Growing up, my father lived on the other side of the world and my lovely mother (5ft-nothing, bright and resourceful) was often absent, by virtue of being severely mentally ill. Running wild at 10 years old, I was sent to boarding school. When I was 15, my mother began an unprecedented 22 years in care. But that’s another story.

At boarding school, friends’ parents generously invited me to spend the school holidays with them. When I left school after my ‘A’ Levels, I spent the summer living with my gang in a Ladbroke Grove squat, then took myself off to a new life at Goldsmiths’ College on the 36 bus.

I did manage a couple of relationships at university – weirdly opting for guys who turned out to have mental health problems. I had a number of short relationships throughout my 20s and early 30s. I had my heart broken twice (usual pattern was to fall head over heels for someone who didn’t feel the same way about me and grieve over the break-up for years after). Then, apart from what a friend memorably called my long term ‘non-relationship’, I just called it a day.

My father died when I was 24, my mum when I was 37. I don’t have any siblings. I don’t have children of my own, and I’ve never lived with a partner. I’m rarely in touch with my cousins. I guess in family terms, I’m about as alone as they come.

One good consequence of going to boarding school is that I made a handful of friends for life. I’ve known my best friend since I was 12 – and I’m fortunate to have other close friends (from that era and later) who feel like family.

I’ve never really missed having a family of my own, but I’ve always felt the need to connect. I started out as a journalist – I loved interviewing people and telling their stories. I moved into documentary film-making – always focusing on those who are usually ignored. In 2000, at the age of 38, I toured the Southern States of America with an advance to write a book about the death penalty. At 39, I did an MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice at Oxford University. I stayed in Oxford and worked in Restorative Justice until 2005. Then, after failing to get work when I returned to London, I opened a shop selling Spanish arts, crafts and eventually tiles, which I distributed worldwide. In 2018, I closed the business, rented out my house and came to live in Spain, where I’ve owned an old ‘cortijo’ (cottage) since 1997.

Where others have had structure, I guess I’ve had freedom.

I did feel lonely while I was running the business. Working alone and living alone was a double-whammy, especially with the pressures of the company. I made friends through it but was often too tired to socialise.

Life as an older single woman in rural Spain can be a bit challenging too. The majority of English-speakers are retired couples – ‘Barbara and Brian’, ‘Martin and Jane’, ‘Judith and Bob’. You rarely hear a woman’s name spoken on its own. If you do, she’ll be a divorcee or a widow – I don’t know any older woman here without children and grandchildren. Spanish society is even more family-focused. And to the Moroccans, you are not even a woman unless you’re a mother!

I’ve never felt overt prejudice, indeed I have friends and acquaintances in each of these groups – I just get left out of things. With some honourable exceptions, it does seem that couples socialise exclusively with other couples, plus the occasional single man or woman who was married once.

You could get very lonely – and I certainly hated the feeling of being left out, to the extent of being relieved when the first lockdown started, so I couldn’t be. But I’ve never felt that not having a family (or job) means I have less value as a human being. And, as single people form a surprisingly large proportion of most Western societies, it’s surely time for us to be taken seriously, and for the discrimination to stop!

So, in the absence of a family, what does give my life meaning?

Firstly, connecting with diverse groups. I’ve always made friends with all sorts of people. I’ve travelled on my own since I was in my 30s and I cherish the connections I’ve been able to make with people all over the world. It works on a small scale, too. Recently, my day was completely rescued when I managed a friendly chat in Spanish with the local chemist followed by another with my Moroccan neighbours on the way home. Recently, in the absence of workmates, I’ve been connecting online. I take part in online ‘Cave Days’ – joining other freelancers (mostly in the USA) to work together on Zoom. And luckily, I do have some good friends locally – mainly older single guys, younger single women (English, German and Spanish) and the abovementioned honourable couples with whom I share mutual interests. Phew!

Secondly, music. I’ve always been passionate about roots reggae. During the first lockdown I made a Spotify reggae compilation for my UK friends. It went down well, so I developed it into an on-going series of youtube ‘world reggae’ compilations – the Lubrin Dub Club. I love researching new music to put on the playlists, and dream of finding a way to take this further.

Thirdly, nature. I go on fantastic walks, often by myself. A few weeks ago, I noticed a little path behind the mountain spring where I get my water and decided to follow it. It led to two beautiful fields with almond and olive trees, behind which were more fields and mountains. I made my way up through the fields, to see if there was another path into the mountains. After wading through the last field of freshly ploughed earth, I was rewarded with a tiny track leading up between two hills. I followed it until it was nothing more than the suggestion of itself, before it picked up again, leading down to the main track and a fantastic view of the sea. I have to admit I’ve rarely felt happier; in the warm February sun, miles from anywhere with just a few little wheatears flying around, wondering who the last person to walk there had been, lost in my thoughts. It was the best meditation.

These three things make my heart sing. But also important are the projects:

Writing

I’ve just finished developing and teaching an online Creative Writing course which was a success. It’s morphed into a fabulous little writers’ group, and now I’m back to my own writing – a blog, a memoir and shorter pieces – stories, and essays like this one. Memoir-writing has had unforeseen results: I’ve reconnected with old friends, one of whom introduced me to the Advantages of Age Group! Ironically, I’ve also found a Chinese ‘step’ family in the UK. My father’s life-partner was Chinese and writing about them has led me to her nieces and nephews who I knew as a child. It’s been exciting!

Learning Spanish

Using NotesinSpanish.com and language ‘intercambios’ with Spanish friends, I’m hoping to reach a level where I can interact more meaningfully with the Spanish population.

House & Garden Projects

I aim at a job a day. I like the way that small actions can lead to big results.

Volunteering and Helping Others

Before lockdown, I was teaching basic Spanish to Moroccan women in the village. I may be befriending an asylum seeker in London for a daily phone chat soon, and perhaps volunteering in Spain again when my Spanish is good enough.

Last but not least, there are always surprises to look forward to.

Reconnecting with my Chinese ‘step’ family was one surprise. Here are two more:

In 2016, I won a holiday to Jamaica!

And in 2019, a guy came to stay as a Workaway volunteer. After an uncertain start, we got on really well and it was lovely to have someone to bring in the wood, set the fire, get on with the DIY and share the food I made in return. I enjoyed the company, and missed him when he had to go. I don’t think we would have made a successful couple, but never say never!

A friend recently introduced me to a new concept, the ‘Security of Insecurity’. She said you can never relax when things are ‘perfect’ because you can be sure they won’t stay that way. When your life is more fluid, you know that anything can happen. Perhaps you’re more prepared for change. Surprises (and they do seem more plentiful of late) can be great, and they certainly keep me interested in life.

REQUEST FOR INTERVIEWEES: My memoir explores not just my own life, but those of other ‘family light’ women. I want to see whether there are common themes, and look into the future – what are our options for retirement/old age? I’m interested in co-communities (intentional communities) – my personal quest could be to find one outside London, in a diverse community with a good reggae dub club on the doorstep! Please message me if you’re willing to be interviewed, or have other information to offer. Thank you!

The Joys of Genealogy


8 Minute Read

My father died as we celebrated my 12th birthday. We were a Swedish family, living in Switzerland. My 25-year-old brother was called home from university in America and our younger brother from Sweden. Losing our father changed our roles and shaped a new outlook on life.

Later we compared how we perceived our father’s funeral differently: through the eyes of myself as a child and my older brother as the new head of the family. That summer we all gathered in our home in the South of France. International travel, languages, cultures, foods, religions and traditions were easy for me to navigate as was the geography for railway and airport changeovers. Connections between other people were not necessarily so easy to work out.

Our next-door neighbour in France was a British author. For some reason, that very summer was the first time that she had a house full of guests. Though I could see that they were of different generations and nationalities and somehow linked, I simply could not get my head around their connections. It was my same patient older brother/new head of the family who took pen to paper and started drafting their family tree. Ex-spouse, current spouse, his children, her children, their child, his new family, twins, half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, half-cousins. A blended family puzzle to which we added elements that whole summer holiday. I was hooked!

That summer of 1969 sowed the seed of a passion that has yielded over five decades of mystery, imaginary travel, understanding of human nature and answers to what seemed to be unsolvable questions. That jigsaw – hundreds of pieces in a box, which show chaos, confusion, sharp edges and curved lines.  Above all, perception of colour and a hint of what it might become. You need the pieces from the past to complete the present picture in order to pass it on for those down the line potentially interested in the future.

To me, my story was nothing out of the ordinary. After my father died, dates of birth and death took on a different meaning. My life, as I knew it, became compartmentalised into ‘before and after’ my father’s lifetime, him being an ever-present figure in my life. However, after my father’s death, dates started becoming landmarks. The following summer, I added my brother’s marriage date and by then “my” tree was firmly growing new roots of its own and not long after “my” tree was adorned with the leaf of my baby nephew.

My mother was not a home-loving type of person so, growing up as an only child – my brothers were much older than me and were not at home when I was young – as I did, I spent much time in the homes of my school friends. Thus, I became the extra daughter/sister in many households. The kitchen was a wonderful hub. Over time the grandparents shared their stories which I transcribed onto paper, creating family trees for many of my friends, usually as far as the grandparents’ own grandparents.

It was in 1997 that, by then aged 40, I took charge of all my late father-in-law’s papers.  There was one single document that changed the course of my general interest in family trees. His grandfather’s list of children born from his two marriages from 1870 to 1904 was comprehensive and meant I could start researching. Not only that, but he had also written about the sea voyages he had undertaken when travelling to work on the expansion of the railways in Peru, France and South Africa. Now my curiosity was piqued. My understanding of Victorian industrialisation spreading across the Empire became even more fascinating as I looked into individual records. Now I was researching in public libraries, family centres and regional record offices around the country.  My passion – while we raised three children – was enabling me to travel to these exciting places, and also become familiar with a different world of catalogues, indexes, original documents to be handled with gloves, reserving seats at old computers in libraries and the camaraderie that evolves in the nerdy world of enthusiastic amateur genealogists.

I was very fortunate to have caught the early bird seat on the new wave of national interest for family history, both in the USA and in Britain. The Church of Latter-Day Saints was instrumental in creating a human database and by 2004 there had been an explosion in available resources.  Ancestry.com, FamilySearch and FindMyPast launched online records. “Who do you think you are” held exhibitions, workshops, publications and television series which took both countries by storm.  Tapestry kits that had been all the rage were being slowly dropped in favour of sending accessible emails around the world. Near instant response was the key to success. Clubs were formed for learners and those who had hit brick walls. Online support took off too.

With this advance in technology and an upsurge of interest, information spread rapidly. Expensive online memberships started offering more flexible options and home kit software often worked with a few months of free membership in their purchase price.

Since even then, Ancestry.com continues to lead the way by adding “hints” to individuals for whom they might have found relevant new records. Originally used paternity testing, DNA kits now prove to be popular gifts and apart from parental surprises, usually yield unknown 3rd to 6th distant cousins. Even so, the human factor dominates and lies remain powerful disguises. This could be covering up an incestuous/teenage/unwanted pregnancy where the teenager’s mother has passed off the baby as hers.

So here, 52 years later, I am still working on family trees I created half a century ago. It’s been like designing a garden so nurturing, weeding, pruning and replanting under a constantly watchful and caring eye, plus spending variable amounts of time at different stages and reaping the rewards of my labours. As years go by, new names are added visually as “boxes” on the printed tree. A tree with 1,000 names ten years ago might have thirty more names of spouses and children and grandchildren which are visually satisfying. Equally rewarding – within the names of the tree where you click on individual names – are added records: births, marriages, deaths, details of war, travel etc. The greater the world databank grows, there is more opportunity to add information.

The pandemic has pushed us into finding new ways of living, not immediately evident in family trees. At the outset of the first lockdown in March 2020, my village postmistress created a support group on social media. Within days I found myself telephoning five older ladies who lived alone, shielding, vulnerable due to failing health and even with early dementia. I had never met them, let alone heard anything about them. What on earth were we going to talk about? So, I asked them questions, starting with mundane things such as how long have you lived in this village, what/whom brought you here, have you had/grown up with pets. Once I get them talking, the memories pour out, names and places become vivid. I volunteered to make a family tree for each of these ladies and to find a lost cousin. My reward is the joy these ladies have from reconnecting with their families and the joy of insights into personalised English social history.

Out of the blue, I received an email the other day inquiring about a friend’s tree I had created and last added to eight years ago. Did I have any new information to share? This chap, in his 30s, is in Australia. We have time differences to contend with but the thrill and excitement break any sleep barriers – 3am emails and new names are the stuff of life! Had I not revisited that particular tree, I would have missed this nugget: the gentleman in question who claimed to be single on the census record, and to live with his mother until his death in his mid-fifties, had in fact a “wife” and two daughters with whom he lived during the daytime! He returned “home” to his mother’s abode every night after having spent the day “at his place of work”! That information came to light thanks to new records being released. Even though I thought I had everything on this, there is nearly always something further available!

Someone else messaged me with some urgency – when exactly did their grandmother die?  It had to do with her will and the improper allocation of her estate, in which they had been an unknowing beneficiary.

One unsatisfactorily answered question on the 75th anniversary of VE Day ie May 8th 2020 – sent my lockdown year veering in an unexpected direction. Where exactly was my father-in-law on VE Day itself? I knew it was “somewhere in Germany”. That was not a good enough answer for a man who had fought valiantly for his king for six years. I knew he had had an interesting and unusual war. This too in fact is part of our family history and whilst not visible on a tree, perhaps I should write a book about it? So I did. All this knowledge of my in-law’s family gathered over decades must be preserved for his descendants. This is how the Joy of Genealogy has led me to writing his biography and others are in the pipeline.

This passion for amassing the jigsaw pieces of human records offers – the beauty of bestowing them as much or as little time as you can afford, with minimal expense and maximum satisfaction.

AofA People: Mat Fraser – Actor, Writer, Musician


4 Minute Read

Mat Fraser is a disabled actor, writer, and musician, who’s been in American Horror Story: Freak Show, His Dark Materials, Silent Witness, and played Richard III on stage in 2017. His writing has been sometimes awarded, and recently, published.

His solo show “Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept in a Box”, won the UK’s Observer Ethical Award for Arts & Entertainment 2014, and he wrote the ONEOFUS production of “Jack & The Beanstalk”, for which the New York Times awarded him and his director/performer wife Julie Atlas Muz “New Yorkers of the Year” 2018.

Mat was thrilled when BBC Arts commissioned him to curate the series of monologues around Disability, “CripTales”, for BBC 4 & BBC America, also writing & acting in one of the pieces,“Audition.” Mat believes that authentic disabled voices and faces are vital in liberating narrative and portrayal of disability, and mainstream life in Society.

Mat is currently working with a TV company on an anthology of 30 min dramas around disability, written by and starring disabled people. He’s also practising his triplet and quadruplet rolls hard, for that ever-elusive drumming gig.

Age (in years)

58

Where do you live?

On the China Walk Estate, Lambeth Walk, OI! London

What do you do?

Writer,  actor, and occasional these days only, musician

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

Quintupsensually OK, good for knowledge, knowing myself, knowing answers, knowing what to say and do in most circumstances, hard for losing my fitness and superb body, harder work needed to maintain, harder to be relegated to irrelevant by the young without becoming hateful toward them, weird to know you’ve lived more than half your life now… I’ve always totally ignored many of Society’s stupid rules and acting my age is one of them, I just act the age I feel, and I’m still having a ball. Speaking of balls, yes they hang lower but oh boy do I get pleasure from them. Luckily no lumps yet.

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

Knowledge. Money. Dwelling. Experience, marriage & thus consolidated partner happiness, pensions in my sights, an inability to suffer fools gladly, intolerance, a knee replacement, white pubes, scars, gut, a hernia mesh, regrets, resistance bands, a mobile phone, a computer, a shitty Wi-Fi deal with Virgin, an electric toothbrush, arthritis, people skills.

What about sex?

Yes, can’t go hard at it for quite as long as I used to, but still, have lots of great sex….1st lockdown we made a home porno for fun…an urgent sexual response to the weird feelings, but then it dissipated..luckily it has returned for a decent regular sex life, offscreen.

And relationships?

Long term, loving, happy. THE BEST thing about growing older is the amount of time you’ve known your friends, and how much more meaningful those friendships become with time….being a friend online to people alone, important, parents included…

How free do you feel?

Free to be me, unfettered by mainstream opinions, State propaganda, but I’m stiff and in arthritic pain now too so less free in my body.

What are you proud of?  

CripTales, my body, helping other disabled people get work, taking care of my Mum, my black belt when I was 38, my disability and lived experience giving me insight into what others miss, Jeremy Corbyn, BLM, #metoo…

What keeps you inspired?  

My continued need for ever-elusive righteous justice and equality for disabled people.

When are you happiest?

When I’ve just written “The End”

And where does your creativity go?

Scripts, songs.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Try to be kind, question everything you are told, stay fit, enjoy life, fuck the system but cleverly so no one notices, be an agent provocateur at all times creatively, do unto others etc.

And dying?

Yeah well, it’s gonna happen, but I’m trying to put it off.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, of greater achievements, love, and care, a better Society, a Democratic Socialist Government, an Oscar, growing into a really old age with Julie by my side.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Bottomless Zooms, commissioning 7 disabled writers, scoring £300 worth of weed because of lockdown.

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