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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.

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

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 Vaccination Story


8 Minute Read

Each generation leaves a legacy behind them – there are tales of love and war, myths of gods and goddesses but it is only written or oral words that can really give us a real narrative of what happened.

The history of human health can be analysed through forensic investigation. Current scientists can work out what our ancestors ate and what diseases they died of and this will be true of the future. To think about the next generation I want to take a look at the past, then explore our current health narrative.

I will be discussing vaccination in a positive light and making an argument as to why we need to think about disease prevention for the people who will be following us, once we have departed. If you have doubts, then please take the time to read what I have to say, as I believe I have a lot to share with you. I am going to start my exploration with a story of a milkmaid and a doctor.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is credited for the development of the smallpox vaccination. However, apparently, it wasn’t him who made the connection between using the serum of cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox. It was one of his milkmaids who told him she knew getting cowpox gave her immunity from smallpox.

Jenner took this idea forward and developed the world’s first-ever immunisation. He was what we would call today an outsider scientist. He took his idea to the established medical community, only to be laughed out of the room. Eventually, his idea was accepted and smallpox was eliminated from the world in 1977.

Nonetheless, the day immunisation was invented, the anti-vaccination movement commenced. Soon after nonsensical myths started, such as parents believing that the vaccine would give their children bovine features or at worse turn them into cows. Infant deaths were associated with the inoculation months and years after it was given and as we will see, there are similar myths today.

I argue that many of us in the West live behind a golden veil of adequate healthcare, especially those who live in the UK. Before the World Wars, people still lived in fear of becoming infected with life-crippling/threatening diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, pertussis, and measles. Life expectancy was short and if you did make it to older age, it was probably grim.

After the Second World War, Bevan developed the National Health Service alongside Public Health Services and these included vaccination programmes; the idea being that vaccines prevent us from having to be hospitalised. Anti-vaccination beliefs still continued, especially and not unsurprisingly with the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s, however, uptake did remain high until the 90s.

In 1992 Andrew Wakefield, a pro-vaccination Consultant at the Royal Free Hospital published an unethical study in the Lancet. He had a financial interest in selling the single vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella; so he set out to discredit the MMR, a single jab containing all three vaccinations. He claimed that it upset gut bacteria and was an underlying cause of autism. It is important to note that the underpinning paradigm of science is to disprove theories, not prove them, and since then study after study has found no correlation between the MMR and autism. However, the combination of his falsified research, sensational journalism and wider use of the World Wide Web, led to a more powerful anti-vaccination movement. Wakefield now makes a fair amount of money from his anti-vaxx campaigns, but I must emphasize, he had a financial interest in the single vaccines.

Anti-vax, vaccine hesitation is a complex matter and I for one have had many heated debates on social media. I have very good friends who do not like vaccines for all sorts of reasons and I respect their views. I do know there have been unethical practices, injury and death. But lessons are continually learned in the science community and as we have seen from AstraZeneca and Pfizer human trials, strict protocols and independent monitoring programmes are in place to ensure public safety.

People should also be able to challenge and ask questions, but my beef with the anti-vax movement is the spread of myth and lies. With the spread of COVID infection and the development of the new vaccines, myths have started to appear. I could not believe it when an old friend of mine put up a petition to stop Bill Gates putting a microchip in his vaccines. Another was that the Pfizer vaccine changes one’s DNA. Do these myths ring any bells? If these myths prevail and spread, this will prevent vaccine confidence and reduce take-up, this I believe will have disastrous consequences for the people in the future.

Many of the diseases, which we are able to prevent, are treated with antibiotics and antimicrobial medicines. It is a well-known fact that we need to reduce our use of these. I am a mere nurse, but what I do know is that current scientists watch how diseases behave and work out how organisms can be manipulated not to harm us. The Pfizer vaccination is a perfect example of this, as it can look at the genome and behaviour of a virus and the vaccination gives a message to the cell to tell it how to defend itself.  With this incredible piece of science, I believe that it won’t be long until we will be able to reduce our antibiotic, antimicrobial use.

Not everybody is a lover of science, and of course, many people would like to live a natural lifestyle, so vaccines and medicines are counterintuitive to this ideology. I question what natural means in this sense? I know that if I were dumped in the Amazon for a night, I would be munched on by all sorts of weird bugs pretty quickly. Equally, I live in a city and if I were deprived of clean water, sanitation and vaccination, invisible diseases such as cholera and diphtheria would also be sitting at my bedside waiting to get me.

The obsession with our individual natural health can be coined as healthism. This is the notion that one’s own health is a priority above anyone or anything else.  The Internet is awash with natural health advice and one recent argument I have fought against on social media is that herd immunity is a more natural way to beat COVID-19 than vaccination.

I have seen arguments for herd immunity based on the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, citing it was over within two years. When I have tried to point out numerous times, that up to 15 million people died, and the deceased were mostly the poor, pregnant women, old and ethnic minorities, I was rebuffed. I noted that people feel that they are unlikely to get ill, as they have a great immune system, which they attribute to a good night’s sleep, healthy diet and lots of exercise. This is a perfect example of healthism, I am afraid no amount of downward dog or yogi tea, will prevent or halt COVID, it is a game of Russian Roulette and you just do not know who you are going to pass it on to.  I really encourage people to start to think of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

History is sadly repeating itself. Here in the UK, COVID has disproportionately affected the old, the vulnerable and those who are living in poverty, who sadly always have poorer health outcomes. Additionally, we need to look at developing countries, as we hoard our vaccines and get vaccinated, this means less for others and this is termed vaccine nationalism.  Contrary to the anti-vaxxer myth, Big Pharma has no interest in vaccinating the developing world, as there is no money there, hence charity organisations such as the Gates Foundation who make their mission to share vaccines out.

From the Rock’N’Roll 50s, Swinging 60s, Punk spitting 70s, Romantic 80s, to the Raving 90s – our generation has had the privilege of sharing close spaces, we haven’t had to concern ourselves with not breathing over each other. Back in the last century, our elders feared TB, it killed and maimed and they had to distance themselves for fear of a suffocating disease. The only passable infections that my social group ever worried themselves with were sexually transmitted disease, which meant a trip to the clap clinic.

COVID has now killed over two million people, which is probably a low estimation. Vaccination is the opposite of healthism; of course, it is important to eat healthy food, exercise and live well, however, vaccination shows that we care about others and those in the future. The world is rid of smallpox because our ancestors got the jab; are we the generation that could have rid the world of measles and polio, but decided not to?

What concerns me is whether to vaccinate or not doesn’t really concern my generation; we have made it to middle, older age. The late Ian Dury is the last person I physically saw who was crippled with polio, I have never seen someone scarred from smallpox. TB remains a worry, as I do come across it at work. I was recently shocked to find out that TB medication is now being appropriated to treat COVID patients in the West which deprives those in people in Eastern Europe, and their death rates are rising.

I am not here to try and persuade anyone to vaccinate as it is a choice and I hope it will continue to be. However, what I do ask is that as a generation – we need to think about what we leave behind and how our actions will affect those who come after us.  Sadly Jenner’s statue was moved from Trafalgar Square in 1862 as the anti-vaccination movement opposed it, so now it sits quietly in Kensington Gardens. If I had my way, I would happily push his statue back to Trafalgar Square and add the clever milkmaid and her cow, for it is they who saved billions of lives.

Why I Love Cold Water Swimming…


7 Minute Read

I have loved being either in or on the sea ever since I learned to swim off the sandy beach at Margate. I was four years old and these summer Sunday trips on the train from London Bridge station, were a highlight of my young urban life.

I can recall the sheer excitement of seeing the first glimpses of the shining sea, the squeals of joy as the salty air rushed up to my nostrils and the utter happiness of splashing about in the water, riding on my dad’s sandy back as he swam out and then being towed back in towards the shore. My dad encouraged to kick and swim as he confidently held me, letting go a little bit more each time until I could float and propel myself. The feeling I associate with being in the sea is one of glee. Yes, sea swimming is a really gleeful activity for me and continues to be so.

Of course, lockdown in these pandemic times has seen scores of people taking the plunge into the briny for the first time, and many of them continuing to swim through the summer into the autumn and onwards into the winter. People who are, somehow, now captivated by that increasingly popular lockdown activity –the Cold Water/Outdoor/Open Water/Wild Swim.

A great deal of attention has been given to something that – only a year ago – was the province of a relatively small group of oddballs who maybe commanded a column inch or two on New Year’s Day.

2020 saw the rise of the Outdoor Swimmer, the cataloguing of the many health and wellbeing benefits of immersion in cold (15 degrees or below) water.

Looking for an improvement in your mental health? Get in the water! Eager to strengthen your immune system? Get in the water! Want to fix whatever ails you?….. You get my drift. Open water swimming has been chronicled, critiqued and analysed from a dozen perspectives and yet, for every article written, there remains a weird mystique attached to the lets face it, the relatively uncomplicated act of getting undressed and getting wet.

This is my personal account of taking my existing relationship with the sea, one that has included scuba diving as well as swimming, to a new and unexpected level.

Cold Water

In January 2020, when the notion of a pandemic and the chaos that would ensue seemed quite preposterous to me, I found myself following a friend and local sporting hero on social media who had been swimming through the winter. She, along with a group of (mostly) women, regularly swam off our local Portsmouth beach, right through the coldest months of the year. It looked great, if slightly unhinged and I really wanted to join in. Then Covid and lockdown entered our lives and vocabulary and, for a while, I forgot about everything except trying not to catch the virus. Easter came and went and I hardly ventured outside of the house, not least because we had my elderly mum staying with us for several weeks and I became a full-time carer.

However, once mum was able to move back into her flat, I started going to the beach and found myself desperate to get into the sea. It was now the beginning of May and yes, the water was fresh!

The body has a clearly defined and well-documented response to immersion in cold water. It is, at once, an assault and an energising stimulant. Your blood pressure goes up, your breathing becomes gasps, your nerves zing and I swear you can feel your internal organs contract (well, maybe that’s just me!) But, and this is the thing, you can learn to accommodate this reaction, to acclimatize your body, to control your breathing (it really is all about the breath, the exhale), to relax your tensed muscles, to embrace the cold and then welcome it, wallow in it, love it.

All that is required is for you to be present, focused, alert and surrendered all at once.

The biggest benefit for me, in all of this, was not, however, the physical sense of wellbeing. It was the fact that, in going swimming in the sea, I was able to maintain contact – in real life – with my best friend, because she came too.

Since last May we have swum together several times a week, always socially distanced – she is a senior nurse in ICU and I am clinically extremely vulnerable. We’re both healthcare professionals (I’m retired) and we both understand the principles of infection control. The act of going swimming moved beyond mere exercise and getting some fresh air, it became more than a routine, providing a focus and structure in this chaotic and dystopian world. It has become a ritual, a celebration and an anchor.

The Process

Each swim begins the day before when we are in contact via WhatsApp, exchanging details of tide times, sea state, weather conditions and work commitments. We agree on a time to meet on the beach and then we prepare. Swim kit is packed. Swimsuit (our personal challenge is to avoid wearing a wetsuit), goggles, hats, tow-float, swim watches, towels, a flask of hot drink, hot water bottle, extra warm layers of clothing, waterproof changing robe all organised into a bag ready to go.

There is a methodical wonderfulness in the way we first wave to one another, then chatter briefly before setting onto the shingle, shedding clothes down to our swim gear and then striding – we always stride – down to the water’s edge and then walk straight in – without hesitation. I like to start jumping up and down in the water, laughing or shrieking, as the water gets deeper. I whoosh my out breath forcefully and inhale deeply, overriding my gasp reflex. It calms and strengthens me as I immerse myself to swim.

Catriona simply slips her shoulders beneath the waves and exhales. I watch the stress melt away from her dear face, the world’s biggest smile taking its place. We remain several feet apart as we swim, talk, take photos, marvel at nature, sing or cry. We keep an eye on how our hands and fingers are feeling – a loss of dexterity is an indicator that your body is pretty cold and you need to be getting out. During the summer months, we were swimming for anything up to two hours at a time. Now, in January, the water temperature is around six degrees and we manage 10-15 minutes before our fingers start to seize up and it’s time to exit.

The ritual extends to emerging from the sea, beaming and burnished, getting dried, dressed and warmed up as quickly as we can whilst continuing to bask in the heady mix of endorphins and companionship.

The Bond

We have both noticed how much we enjoy the view of the world from sea level, in the water. It is time out of time when the world and its business stands still. The water that holds us suspended in its cold depths connects us to one another. On Christmas Eve we enjoyed singing carols as we bobbed in the waves and then on Christmas day we exchanged gifts before donning novelty hats to swim in.

As I write this – I’m thinking about the swim we have planned for tomorrow. It has been a week since our last swim, Catriona’s work schedule has been punishing to say the least, and storm Cristoph laid waste to the few possibilities of getting into the water safely.

It’s okay though. The sea isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’ll be there tomorrow to welcome us. We’re both hoping that the water temperature will have fallen further – another boundary to push at, another day of feeling very alive.

A Guide to Surviving A Pandemic by Sophie Parkin


12 Minute Read

To make it through a pandemic – if you are me –
You will need:
A telephone, modern mobile pref
Some books, assorted 50-100 – fiction, poetry, short stories, history, philosophy, autobiog, art, various dictionaries
A wifi connection + laptop
One projector
Some empty jam jars – about 30
Weekly delivery from Oddbox – fruit and veg
A diary
Coffee and herbal tea
Paint (I use pigments and refined linseed oil but tubes are fine too), canvas, paper, brushes, turps, rags
Chocolate milk, chocolate bars – whatever takes your fancy current fav Tony Chocolonely
A bottle of dark rum – good quality for emergency chocolate milk

Some wine, European, good quality
Regular mail delivery
Postcards, envelopes and stamps
A crush, it is nice to daydream of another time and place
Five empty note/sketchbooks without lines and at least 10 Muji 0.5 ink pens
A garden, seeds, trowel and enthusiasm
A comfortable bed and bedding. I am happiest with French linen sheets and an eiderdown both underneath and on top, but I believe this is my particular
An alarm clock for meditating set to 31mins
A radio
A sewing basket
A comfortable chair/sofa for reading/ watching films/meditating
A yoga mat
A bicycle – this is now less necessary since it was stolen
Walking shoes
Good neighbours
Friends and family who can use WhatsApp
A surreal sense of humour
A slug of empathy
A barrel of not taking yourself too seriously
A box of good imagination
A sprinkling of willpower
A bucket of curiosity
A pinch of perspective
A carton of top non-judgement, and some apologies
A Spotify account
A lot of deep breathes
A note in the kitchen that reads – happiness comes from within
Ingredients are not necessarily in that order

Most recipes don’t unless they are Christmas cake, have such a large selection of ingredients but surviving a pandemic requires emergency supplies. It’s like preparing to make Christmas cakes for royal families everywhere in the world. Except it’s just me, by myself now.

This is a luxury. I did have my gorgeous son with me for the first nine months, but we couldn’t cope in a one-bedroom flat, and now he lives elsewhere, and I visit twice a week with shopping. Alone with all these ingredients in this second lockdown, I feel less in need of so many jam jars. The jam jars are to distribute all the ginger marmalade, aubergine Sri Lankan chutney, lemon curd and salsa verde that I make. The last lockdown I tried to learn Spanish every day for a month now I can’t remember a word. Gracias!

I’m certainly utilising my living room with all the paints, pigments and canvas which has become a studio. It’s no longer just a reading room with its large bookshelves, dining room with its table, or cinema with the one bare wall where I project from my laptop countless Preston Sturgis, Powell+Pressburger, Hitchcock, Fellini and De Sica movies. Here I have the separate space that allows me not to leave the flat and not feel that cabin fever will overwhelm me. Some days I run down the four stairs into the kitchen and out into the garden, then back again and every other day or so, I go to the Post Office, then buy milk and bread from the bakers. I was going on bicycle rides as well, but that will have to wait until spring. I hope someone is enjoying my rusty old gold Raleigh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wake in the morning, always trying to remember enough of my dreams to write something down. I seem to alternate between Armageddon, last place on earth, or expensive costume dramas in luxury mansions with endless performances. Some days there is total clarity, others a thick fog and then two days later it comes to me… I was in Italy!

I jump out of bed and say as I draw the curtains, ‘What Amazing things will happen today?’ because you never know. The time can be anything from 8-10 am, and I have no need to be strict about getting up. With no appointments for work or social, does it matter what time I start my meditation? But the one thing I’ve learnt is that meditation delayed can often mean it never appears. And a day without reflecting is like a day without sunshine, I’d rather have it even if it’s for only 15 mins.

Why I have spent so many years not meditating is beyond me? I suppose it’s why so many people I know don’t practice at all. It’s free. It requires no membership contract, studio or equipment, other than you and your dedication; in other words, it’s almost too good to be true. So most people don’t believe it will benefit them because it requires only willpower. Meditation is the only proved discipline that keeps the brain cells expanding as we get older. It keeps me calm with a sunny disposition; it delights me with unexpected ideas and delivers what I need from the universe. The other day I opened my eyes, knowing that my purpose was to inspire joy. I don’t have to win a prize. I have to bring joy, what a relief! So with that in mind, I always wear nice bright clothes, do my hair and makeup plus never forget a hat. Other people have to look at me in the street, so I try not to be an eyesore!

I have breakfast every day, something I used to think below me. Usually some muesli with plain live yoghurt and a homemade fruit compote with ginger. And sometimes some fresh fruit on top too – gild that lily. I have a lurking glut of kiwis, and yet I eat the peach. I make coffee from two different ground coffee types in a cafetiere with milk in a Mottoware jug heated up in the microwave. I drink my coffee out of a handmade @MandeeGage mug. It’s these small rituals in a diary of nothing that gives urgency to the day. Sometimes I will eat breakfast, exercise, shower, meditate, and then have my coffee and sit down to work on my laptop or my phone, topping up social media, reading what’s on other peoples’ minds, and adding funny thoughts into the Vout-O-Reenee’s WhatsApp group. Though my business premises are closed, my business is never closed. There is plenty to keep one person busy looking after members, applying for grants, working out ways to make money whilst my partner is furloughed on the other side of the world. I’ve had my website re-designed, a shop built, ticketing put in – the whole caboodle but I have to make the caboodle.

I tend to do my reading in the morning, or first thing, my writing. However, my painting is a thing of the night, and there is nothing I like more than listening to philosophical podcasts whilst grinding pigments. I am on a Jungian bent (This Jungian Life, Salome The Red Book) at the moment though I have been obsessed for the last few years with the Stoics. There is no doubt that Stoicism from Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Hecate, and Seneca helps keep me sane when the world tells me otherwise. These books are by my bed.

I will paint before as well as after I make dinner. And when I say make dinner, that’s one of my great pleasures – lunch will be a piece of toast some cheese and homemade chutney – but for dinner, I will slow roast tomatoes with chipotle, garlic and oregano from Mount Parnassus near Delphi. I will make a tortilla from scratch to have with the tomato sauce and a salad with watercress and oranges. Yes -all that care just for me. And I might even make a rice pudding. And why wouldn’t I? If I am not willing to spend time on myself, why would anyone else? I am beginning to understand that what we do in the outside world is responding to the deficit within. That for us to change the world outside our walls, we must change our relationship with ourselves. Jung calls this shadow work.

The things annoying you about the outside world are usually things about yourself you haven’t accepted. Like that bossy blustering Boris who never thinks before he speaks, or Priti Patel just trying to wing it with so little substance and so much confidence in deriding others. I see all that in myself sometimes, and it makes me want to gag, but I’m conscious, and I’m not sure how much of the government is, any government in the middle of this crisis.

I like sending postcards and packages to my friends and family. I like waiting in a Post Office queue just watching. I’m lucky enough to live between Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill’s Jewish community. I love seeing the families from my window on Friday nights and Saturday dressed in their best-going-to-synagogue wear. The kids are all in matching outfits playing in the streets on their scooters or pushing their younger siblings in prams, the boys and men huddled together in their tailored suits, white stockings and fur hats discussing the Torah. Social distancing seems a million miles away as it does on Church Street where the affluent anoraks parade inside and outside the expensive American health food stores. I want to shout; ‘Try the Turkish family store’.

The peacocks are hibernating I expect, sewing fabulous costumes of colour and spectacle. When spring hits us, I anticipate a magnificent carnival display down Dalston! I have been mostly darning, using bright embroidery threads to decorate the holes left by the ravenous moth family that stuffed itself silly over Christmas on my cashmere, Merino and lambswool. Now my jumpers, jackets and scarves look like they’ve been flicked with paint from a rainbow palette. I hope to start a trend that will stop people from throwing moth-eaten garments away by upcycling them into the height of fashionability so that people in Chelsea will be faking/making holes to ‘get that look’.

Darning moth holes allows me to watch old Hollywood movies or Netflix rubbish without feeling I’m squandering time. Because the cost to me is that I will never get this lack of pressure back again, which is silly because I will, I give myself the pressure, so I can damn well take it away. I worry that I will never have enough time to read all the books I want to, write all the books I need to, (slightly less worried about this as there are more than enough books in the world), paint all the paintings I want to, make all the people I love, feel truly loved. As I’m also the bringer of joy, there’s no option to be lazy.

Today I talk to my daughter Carson in Ramsgate on WhatsApp video. This is as close as we get to a hug. I’m so proud of her. Tomorrow I’ll visit my mum with a box full of homemade food. She likes trifle, so I always make a version of that. It’s not as if she can’t cook her food and maybe I do it as much for me as for her. Mum and I, we’re good. She said; ‘if it’s this pandemic that takes me then that’s what it is, I’ve had a great life, and I’m 88 almost 89, and maybe I’m not meant to live to 100, I’ve got to go sometime.’ I like that sanguine acceptance. Yes, we do have to go some time, it’s just, are you ready to leave the party? Have you done the work you were put on this earth to do?

Have you fulfilled your destiny? I know I haven’t, I’m sure my mum has, but I will miss her like hell when she leaves. But I will see that she knows I love her and I know she has loved me. However, I don’t think she’ll be going anytime soon, she’s just had her second vaccination and feels ‘full of beans and quite cosy’, plus she is starting a new series of collages.

At some point during the day, I will make cups of tea, eat chocolate, make phone calls or send texts to check that those I love are okay. I might make something from all the fruit and veg from my weekly Oddbox delivery. Now, what shall I do with white carrots, pickle them? And all those parsnips? Some nights I have a glass of wine. Most nights not but I like the thought that I can.

Just before bed, I’ll do the washing up, make a large cup of chamomile and mint tea, brush my teeth, touch my toes and thank the universe for another day that’s rushed by. When I finally tumble into bed at night, it is with a definite sense of abundance, sometimes it’s after a warm bath with scented oils, but I have a propensity to fall asleep in baths, so I put the radio on quite loud. I don’t intend to drown. I like my bedsheets to be French linen, white, clean and with an eiderdown and quilt and lots of pillows. There are piles of books to peruse whilst I lather unguents into my face and hands like a 1950s sitcom. I listen to the late news either at 10 or 12 pm. There are no rules since I got divorced two years ago!

I’m accountable to no one and yet to everyone in a pandemic, for though we must keep apart, we must always remember that especially post Brexit, no man Is an Island. That when we come through this, whenever that is, we will continue to give each other a helping hand, as well as all those hugs we’ve missed and not to stand with harsh judgements over each other’s behaviour. The other day I had a surprise phone call from an old friend who rang to see how I was getting on; ‘I suppose you’re madly creative’, he said. ‘Painting, writing…’ Yes, I answered all that. I felt too guilty to tell him about my moth embroidery, marmalade making, gardening, conversations with the squirrels and birds; it seemed too much like virtue signalling.

As enjoyable as I’m finding this time, life should not be about treading water. I do not wish that we go back to how we were before Covid when there is so much more joy to be created and shared. We can invent a better way to be together. Perhaps we are all being recalibrated so that our pre-pandemic, anxious, rushing, headless chicken within disappears.

My Death Letter to Loved Ones


1 Minute Read

Caroline Bobby is a psychotherapist who was also part of the Advantages of Age Death Dinner film. Last year, she was in so much back pain – acute chronic pain – she made a filmed self-inquiry into taking her own life over a nine-month period. And then something miraculous happened. She was booked in for an operation, which was cancelled, she put herself out nakedly on FB to raise money to go private. Within 24 hours, she had £30,000. These are reflections of her continuing recovery. This is her death letter to loved ones

As some of you will know, I am passionate about death and I continue to enquire and investigate this amazing thing that will happen to each of us. So, it doesn’t feel strange to be writing you a letter from the alive side of death.

I am sitting here in January 2021 very much alive, writing some words I wish to have included in the rituals that occur afterwards. Those after-death parties, celebrating, mourning, loving, laughing and weeping of afterwards. I know my afterwards will be good. A consequence of having spoken, written and riffed about my death and dying, as much as I have. As well as knowing that people who love me have heard me.

I don’t doubt for a moment that you – the ones that I am writing to now while imagining your faces and presence – would get it totally right. What I mean by right, is that it would be about me. Seems so obvious, but I don’t think it is. Funerals and memorials, often end up in the hands and power of next-of-kin, and they may not be the ones that are the deepest kin.

I am remembering the horror of living in Sydney when many gay men started dying of AIDS. So many homophobic next-of-kin who claimed their dead sons, taking them away from the kin who knew and loved them. These next-of-kin gave them funerals we were excluded from, that completely eradicated each beloved brother.

That’s an extreme example. I have some biological next-of-kin, my dear brother, a sister-in-law I adore and the most delicious niece. Over the last few decades, we have got closer. We have become more real across the differences, and I know in the event of my death, their involvement would be wholehearted, and that they have seen my life in ways now that they hadn’t before. They would be led by those that know me in more detail and nuance but they are here. You are right here. I can see your faces, the way I did 13 years ago when you crossed the border and really got a glimpse of me by accepting the invitation to my 50th birthday party. I love you so much for that, and nothing was ever as distant again afterwards.

So, I’m imagining myself dead, and someone (maybe Louise, or Cath, or Sue) is reading these words to you, and a gathering well worthy of my little life is happening all around. I want you to know that I’m pissed, (in the American vernacular, rather than drunk) I’m angry.

Of course, I’m not anything, because I’ve disappeared back into the mystery. I’m angry now at the idea of this letter being necessary. This is the letter in case I die suddenly, without any warning, without any space whatsoever. The one for if I get blown up, squashed by a bus, murdered, stroke, aneurysm… you get the picture. One minute I’m here and then not at all. Gone.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways to die. The one outlined above is the one that would piss me off.

The thing is, I don’t want to miss out on my death.

In my wishes, hopes and dream versions of dying, I am either terminally ill, or I get to a point in time when I’m done, and choose to leave life by my own hand.

I have given a lot of thought to both these possibilities.

At the age of 62, I am clear that I don’t want to get very old. If nothing medical shows up as the pathway, I will know when I’m done. It feels like approximately another decade. If I feel into my heart, and I do check in with it, now I know how that’s what I hear.

It would be both simpler and more edgy to die by taking my own life. I like the not-having-to-die-of-cancer part, but it would require a different kind of discourse with people. By people, I mean you, the ones I am writing to now. The you that I have loved and travelled with, touched, been touched by, been loved by, argued with, forgiven and been forgiven by.

It’s an act of some kind of defiance to say – I’m not ill, dying of cancer, or anything else, but I am done. I’m going to go soon. I’ll take some time preparing, I’ll invite you to meet me in some of it. I will probably ask you to take on some specific parts of the afterwards. I’ll let you know when-ish, so it’s not a shock. I know how to do it, I will have the pentobarbital ready, the conditions as I have dreamed them. I won’t ask anyone to sit with me because that is a legally compromising impossibility, but you will know it’s coming, my going. I will say goodbye. I will do it with grace.

That is very different from saying – I have a terminal illness. But if I do develop one, I am not going to fight it. I’m going to learn everything I need to know about how to die of it, what it involves, how long it takes, what it will take from me before that last breath happens. What support I might need because I want to stay at home. I know it’s still a bit off the wall, controversial even, going against the cultural assumption of fighting the good fight for life at any cost.

In both these scenarios, I will have the opportunity, the actual time and space to experience the process of moving, eyes wide open towards that last out breath. If I were sick, I would want to minimise the pain relief, not to a masochistic degree, but I would want to be as awake as reasonably possible. I’m no pain meds prude, but if this were my last dance, I’m up for a bit more pain in order to be conscious so I don’t miss it, this last walk home. The nicer thing about being consciously sick, rather than the barbiturate route, is that I will have you around, faces to see rather than imagine, hands, breath in my ears, near my face. It will feel less lonely, even though I know you would be there holding me either way.

I know I am held, seen and loved, even though I spend a lot of time in solitude. I can always see and feel you if I turn your way and let the light flood in. I am always lying under the brightest of stars and blackest of skies, even though I haven’t ever really seen that sky.

A few words about my clear-as-a-mountain stream, choice not to get what I call old-old. I consider myself in the early stages of being old. If the world were a different world, where systems were built from the bedrock of humanity and kindness, where the places called Care Homes, were as a norm, thought about and operated completely differently. And this work of looking after old humans, was valued and peopled by those well trained and well paid, rather than those desperate for minimal wages to survive, with no training and support – maybe, just maybe, I would feel differently.

I’m not saying all facilities are grim, but that is the norm rather than the exception.

There is something deep in my bones that just doesn’t want old-old age. I’m tired. It hasn’t been an easy journey to find my soft place of belonging here in this ravaged and beautiful world. What I think of as a hard journey to a very soft, though not ‘cotton wool candy soft’ place. These fields of kindness and simplicity require courage, a willingness to let go of pretty much any idea you get too attached to, along with compassion and comedy in equal measure.

I live with, was born into, baseline depression, and have had a long old pilgrimage with understanding that the physical pain in my body is the embodied truth of that. With an almost mythical miracle of generosity and timing, I had my spinal surgery, and have spent the best part of 2020 understanding what I had been blind as a bat to seeing. My baby bones are coming home. It nearly didn’t happen like that. You all know this story.

So, I’m here, and often peaceful in the way my friend, Leonard Cohen speaks of in one of my favourites of his comedy riffs:

‘Peace did not come into my life

My life escaped

and peace was there.’

I’m tired. I have some more life in me, but not without a sense of limits. This is not complicated for me, or sad, bad or wrong. Or right. Just simple.

I long to have the opportunity to die creatively. I want to make it a project that has meaning, may even be an offering. Since kindness and simplicity have found me, I have had this sense that all I have to offer is my little life. I discovered my own generosity, not as claim to anything, but as a gift that brings me closer to myself and to you. It is the ‘peace’ that was there.

If you are listening to these words being read at a ritual gathering, I have died suddenly. I have not been able to give myself to the longed-for experience. I missed it. I feel an indescribable sense of loss at this possibility, just as I know that it is not in my hands. I have to long, and to let go. I am tasting the grief as I write these words. I have to trust you will know how to include this offbeat part of who I am, and who you love, in my afterwards. I do trust that.

The Culture Interview – Isa L Levy, artist and psychotherapist


6 Minute Read

Isa L Levy, 72, is a London-based artist and psychotherapist who has just published her memoir, Conversations with a Blank Canvas: From Nowhere to Somewhere Decades of Change and Transformation. You can buy it here.

What prompted this memoir?

Two clairvoyants told me I had to write my life story: one 40 years ago and one more recently a few years ago and so I decided to write it.

What is your aim in writing it?

Sharing my life story so that others can see how it’s possible to overcome your demons and with courage keep listening to your authentic voice to fulfill a sense of belonging to your ‘true self’; so often hidden by a ‘false self’ adapting to an outer superficial world. This is very much a sign of our times within our social media screens of ‘selfie’ curated false images and how that can emphasise feelings of low self-worth leading to depression, anxiety, addiction, and in the worst case of scenarios self-harm, suicide, and high crime rates

You mention ‘invites the reader to enquire more consciously about their own personal journey’?

In writing about my own journey of self-discovery I reveal how the ‘blank canvas’ was the beginning of my true connection to myself. I only discovered painting when I was 40 and some 450 paintings emerged – I say from nowhere but in fact from an unknown place of mystery and that was tremendously meaningful for me and life-changing. What I learned about myself through painting was very much what I facilitate in my clients which is the safe space within which to explore their own ‘blank canvasses’ within and if they can face their fears and pain they will find the richness that is there hiding in their ‘true self’. 

Tell us something about your own Jewish background growing up in Cardiff and how it has influenced you?

I believe my Jewish background is within every gene of my body; however, I did not identify as a religious Jew and have found my spiritual connections as a Quaker and Buddhist. I also realised that I did not conform to family and cultural expectations, which created a deal of painful confusion for me. If I didn’t conform – who was I? The Cardiff Jewish community was tight-knit and my parents were very committed to the local community. However, the pain was my motivation to find out more about myself.

Your family knew Dylan Thomas?

Yes. My father was born in Swansea, as was Dylan Thomas and Dylan lived in Chelsea with my uncle, art critic, and author, Mervyn Levy. My father, at that time, in those Chelsea days, was a poet and had exchanged poetry with Dylan and joined them when he ran away from home. I had the privilege of sitting on Dylan Thomas’s knee as a 2-year-old, although I can’t say I remember the experience. 

You describe yourself as ‘the black sheep of the family’, how did that manifest itself?

I now realise that I am a non-conformist but it’s taken me 72 years and the writing of my memoir to accept that label. It’s hard to fit into a traditional family as a non-conformist as individuality threatens the status quo.

What have been the most challenging areas of your own personal journey psychologically?

Well, I believed I was a failure in everything because I didn’t fit in; Failed in education, the pressure to marry, not wanting to marry, weight issues, and poor body image that created a lack of confidence which led to low self-esteem.

Tell us a bit about ‘questioning your sexuality’ as a teenager and the confusion of that?

Basically, I did not feel comfortable discussing my sexuality as a teenager in the 1950s and coming from a traditional family where we didn’t discuss anything that didn’t fit in socially. I discussed with a few friends but mainly kept things secret.

You performed a one-woman show at Wormwood Scrubs which changed the direction of your life?

Yes. I made a conscious decision to move from performance into the caring profession as I was more interested in the lives of the prisoners than my own performance.

You mention depression and loneliness?

I think depression and loneliness are part of the human condition and I think these problems can be masked by a manic defense against facing our most vulnerable side by compulsive addictions that are socially acceptable – like work, money, drink, narcissistic power distortions. We just have to look at our present demise with politicians and leadership. I think depression and loneliness is what we all face within our own ‘blank canvasses’ and we have been forced to look deeper into ourselves during this pandemic as everything familiar has been taken away from us and left us with time for a re-think.

And then, finding a more meaningful life?

Buddhism as a philosophy for life gave me permission to engage with my suffering as I realized there was nothing wrong with me other than that I was just human. My painting was the beginning of this journey of letting go and just allowing everything to flow out of me – it was liberating. And then 15 years later I had nothing more to say and closed the door on my studio without knowing what next. In the fullness of time I found myself embarking on a Masters degree in Arts and Psychotherapy in my mid- 50s without an A Level to my name and graduated at the ripe old age of 61 with a whole new career as an Arts Psychotherapist.

How has painting, poetry and other writing supported your evolution?

I could not have survived without creative expression as an actor, singer, songwriter, poet, playwright, artist, author and back to actor now for I had no other way to express myself.

You’re now involved in a musical production of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’?

That was 2 years ago but I am involved with that director, Clair Chapwell and we’re performing a weekly soap opera at Jacksons Lane community centre, North London for a Pensioners Lunch Club; on zoom at the moment. I was invited by my local MP to sing a song I wrote about Climate Change, some 50 years, ago in parliament, when I had no idea at the time about the crisis that we have got ourselves into.

Tell us about your painting The Female Resurrection?

The Female Resurrection was painted after the death of my mother and four other important females in my life. I inherited a 7 foot blank canvas and decided to paint a female crucifixion scene putting the female figure on the cross as I wrestled with the question; how can you celebrate life whilst going through so much suffering? As there was no room for the central figure’s head as if by magic, I could see that there had been a resurrection, completely spontaneous, and therein lay the answer to my question.

How has lockdown been for you?

A very creative time linking me to like-minded international souls on zoom, publishing and promoting the book, seeing my therapy clients, albeit on zoom, seeing friends in a café when tiers permitted, facing myself and my core human loneliness and finding more transcendence, kindness, and compassion towards myself and others with more of a connection to my heart.

Where are you now on this journey and how has writing the book been?

I go with the flow now and enjoy what I have to deal with each day with the resolve to make it the best that I can, opening to new possibilities and expansion in every which way possible.

Getting Creative as We Get Older – Go For It!


1 Minute Read

How are you doing on the creative front? Has getting older freed you into a more creative place?

I just googled exactly that and depressingly it came back with endless reports about the brain being less creative as we get older. Bullshit, I thought. But I did find this from Psychology Today in 2007.

‘The ageing brain resembles the creative brain in several ways. For instance, the ageing brain is more distractible and somewhat more disinhibited than the younger brain (so is the creative brain). Ageing brains score better on tests of crystallized IQ (and creative brains use crystallized knowledge to make novel and original associations). These changes in the ageing brain may make it ideally suited to accomplish work in a number of creative domains. So instead of promoting retirement at age 65, perhaps we as a society should be promoting transition at age 65: transition into a creative field where our growing resource of individuals with ageing brains can preserve their wisdom in culturally-valued works of art, music, or writing.’

I am 67 and a half!! Did Adrian Mole ever get to that age? And I co-founded Advantages of Age with Suzanne Noble in 2016. In many ways, we’ve gone in different directions – in that Suzanne is developing her Silver Sharers site and Start-Up For Seniors while I am more focused on the arts and my relationship with poetry and dance and writing non-fiction. Although having said that Suzanne is singing the blues and performing when we’re not in Covid times.

Being a part of Advantages of Age – advantagesofage.com – has definitely helped me develop my relationship with the arts. In 2017, we received – on the second try and we didn’t write the budget bit – our first grant from the Arts Council and we created Death Dinner, the film about death and dying, had hot tub salons on everything from tantra to co-housing, ran a Taboo Club around sexuality/love, filled a bus Flamboyant Forever with Over-50s dressed up not just to the nines but the tens and elevens. There was a lot of production work involved.

And I realised that I could do it – get that sort of thing together. The same year 2017, I had my first poetry pamphlet Tantric Goddess out on Eyewear. By 2019, I created a book of poems with my partner, Asanga Judge illustrating them with watercolours – it was called Wild Land. We had an exhibition – poems and paintings together – at the Llyn Arts Festival in N Wales and we also performed there. By this time, I’d written a long poem A Song for an Old Woman, which was about the fears and vulnerabilities of getting older plus my mum having Alzheimer’s and the horrors of the later stages. Asanga plays the crystal bowls. So we did a performance where I read one stanza and then he responded with the haunting sounds of the bowls. We were going to do a version at the Poetry Café but Covid came along.

In 2019, Brent – I live in Harlesden and have written a non-fiction book – A London Safari walking adventures in NW10 – about my walks here with Louis Theroux, George The Poet etc – were told that they’d won the competition to be the London Borough of Culture 2020. Immediately, I started thinking of a project that I’d love to do. Be Willesden Junction Poet in Residence and immerse myself in this bleak but beautiful place. This scary but intriguing place.

I already had a relationship with the station. I’d done a chapter in A London Safari where I walked with railway enthusiast, Ian Bull and been enthralled by his litany of Willesden Junction nuggets, for example, that the buddleia seeds were brought in on the train’s wheels from ports, they came from China. For example, the old transformer building dates back to 1910 and is Arts and Crafts. Plus his winsome theories on my favourite building – the building on stilts. He surmised that it was a carriage washing building.

However, I didn’t go ahead until I’d had several chats with producers. Thanks, Titania Altius. And it became obvious that community was the name of the case. Of course. It’s not all about you, Rose. So I came up with the idea of The Willesden Junction Poets in Residence. I would gather poets in Brent and we would unravel the station through all of our different perspectives. And so I filled in the form. Yes, I managed it with a bit of advice from Suzanne on the budget front.

Lo and behold, last November I heard that I was one of the lucky ones. I had a grant of £3,000 to create The Willesden Junction Poets, make a book out of our poems, find an artist to illustrate it and launch it. I was over the moon. Exactly my kind of project.

By Feb 2020, I’d put the word out on social media, the Kilburn Times and amongst friends for nine poets. I found about 30 and decided on the group. One of my aims was to cherish this group so that it had long-lasting roots so that we became a collective that could carry on afterwards. I had tea with the ones I had decided upon.

On March 1st, we got together for the first time. A vegetable curry at my flat, lots of research about WJ strewn on my floor, shared our WJ stories and then we went to the station. The sun shone and we looked at the station in a way that we never had before. Even me. The fences suddenly looked like the staffs owned by medieval nobility. There were convex mirrors everywhere. And frills on the roof. A wasteland with steps to nowhere. The poets were animated and falling for WJ. Poems started to be written.

And then there was the night visit. I really wanted to go in the dark. Three of us went just as social distancing was coming in but wasn’t understood. Not by us either. No masks yet. We stood in the drizzle and dark, feeling like people in an Edward Hopper painting. There was a loneliness to it and an endless blue freight train. And postmodern blue lights like spears.

Lockdown happened. We took to Zoom like everyone else. Poetry workshops – we shared and commented on our WJ poems. Zoom kept our group together. The project was meant to last three months. We spent two months on Zoom. It deepened the trust and commitment in the group.

By June, the visits to the station started again. This time with masks. Filmmaker Tereza Stehlikova – she’s made Disappearing Worm Wood which is about this landscape which is changing all the time – came for a visit with us. This bleak and beautiful landscape. The vast horizon with all those tangles of tracks where both art critic John Berger drew and made etchings from (I haven’t been able to find any) in the 50s and painter Leon Kossoff made gorgeous, ugly paintings in the 70s and 80s.

Tereza told me she thought of Willesden Junction as a land of enchantment, I told her I thought of it as a theatre. Together with poet, Sue Saunders, we found the beating heart of WJ. Round the back, down a narrow passageway, near the steel bridge. Where the station staff make their way up and down in their orange hi-vis. Where we were forced into close encounters because the pathway is so narrow. Where the mainline trains speed by to Scotland, where freight trains chug by slowly carrying limestone aggregate, for instance, from the Mendips. And the wind is howling as though we’re on the moors in Haworth. Meanwhile, we’re caught up in an intensity of lines – fences, bridges, tracks.

More poems are written. Another high point is the visit with a botanist, John Wells who introduces us to over forty varieties of wild plant in the wilderness that looks like a wasteland full of rubbish and rats. Bristly ox tongue, dove’s cranesbill, spear thistles to name but a few.

I’d always wanted to re-frame the infamous WJ ‘walkway from hell’, ‘the purgatorial pathway’, ‘the jailed path’ with our imaginations. And these urban plants gave us another chance to see and feel this challenging walkway differently. And the poems went on.

By July, I’d picked the poems for the book and thought that BeWILDering could be a good title. The station was referred to as ‘bewildering’ in the late nineteenth century because it was labyrinthine and people actually got lost trying to look for their trains!

Be Wild, re-wild, Wild thing, Willesden Junction – they were all in that title for us. And Sue turned up at our interview with local radio station The Beat with badges bearing – Be, Wild, Er, Ring. I congratulated her on her brilliant deconstruction of our title. ‘I just couldn’t fit it on the badges,’ she said beguilingly.

In the meantime, Keira Rathbone was making her dazzling typictions.  And having her own adventures at the station. She wasn’t keen on WJ at first, but as time went on, she fell into intrigue. Keira would appear in her silver jacket and mask looking like a visitor with Mars with her own old Imperial typewriter. Then she’d sit and turn the platen while typing furiously and by some twist of wonderment, she’d create all these images.

On one occasion, she and I were down by the heart of WJ, and we simply became fascinated by an old pipe in the wall. This very textured wall with what looked like gunshots in it. Keira said something like – ‘Look like her come hither look’. And then she became the sexy pipe. And on we went. The spirit of the WJ residency captured. That spirit of tale-telling and you never know where it will lead you.

The book went to the designers, then the digital printers. By October, we had the beauties in our hands. Finally, my son, Marlon – thank you son – who is a filmmaker came down and made short films of us reading our poems ‘on set’ as Tereza put it. It was a great day. An acknowledgement day. Andrea Queens read Legend – where magical occurrences happen at WJ – on the steel bridge, I was near my beloved Building on Stilts, Ian McLachlan performed Changeling down ‘the purgatorial path’, we even got into the station itself for a quick shoot of Sue Saunders reading her Closely Observed Pigeons, Elizabeth Uter was filmed near the 266 bus stop reading her How Many Feet, Iman Hamid told us about her experiences On Platform 4 and Sue Saunders read Nick Moss’ STOP because he couldn’t be there.

And so The Willesden Junction Poets project has been a great project. We are now a group and hopefully, we will carry on performing in London. And I have just filled in another application. So let’s see if the next project comes about next year when I’m 68…

The book can be downloaded here – https://www.brent2020.co.uk/whats-happening/programmes/culture-fund/bewildering-by-willesden-junction-poets/

Follow us on #willesdenjunctionpoets on Insta Films on YouTube –
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCt3edoilQeSdKFh4d25Os0A

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