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My Death Letter to Loved Ones


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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!


9 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

Can you tap your hot flushes away?


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Every year World Menopause Awareness Day is on Oct 18th. Isn’t it sad that something that affects 50% of the world population needs so much more awareness, understanding, and education? And boy, does it need education.

I, a woman in my 50s, really knew nothing about the menopause and what it meant in terms of the body. A few years ago, I decided to visit my GP to get some advice. I wasn’t sure whether I had hit the menopause or whether some of the niggles that bothered me had anything to do with it. The male GP, otherwise lovely, turned to Google.

Shouldn’t something that concerns half of all humans on the planet be part of standard GP training? I swiftly made an appointment with a female GP in her 60s. She had been there, I figured, and she would know. A slap in the face with a wet fish couldn’t have taken me aback more than what came next.

Clearly irritated and impatient, the female doctor didn’t listen to my questions but declared emphatically – ‘Women like you want answers.’

‘Erm, yes I do, don’t know about the other.’ She went on to inform me that ‘most women sail through the menopause!’

‘Really? Not the women I had talked to.’ She then finished up with: ’You can have HRT if you want it!’ I didn’t want HRT. I wanted advice. I wanted options. I wanted to get some clarity in my confusion. I’m glad to say that after changing my GP surgery, I feel much better looked after but I still don’t know enough about ‘the change’. But we do learn by doing and sharing and being curious.

In my job as an EFT Practitioner for the Breast Cancer Haven, I support women through the emotional and physical onslaught of the cancer diagnosis, treatments, and their aftermaths. 70-80% of Breast Cancers are hormone-driven, and these patients often struggle with the effects of a sudden onset of the menopause, – debilitating hot flushes being one of them. One would think that hot flushes are not a big deal in the grand scheme of all things cancer-related, but what I heard was different.

‘I can’t think because I am so exhausted after waking 6 times a night in a wet puddle.’

‘I am so tense when I have a business meeting because I never know when the next one is coming.’

‘It’s so embarrassing because I get all flustered and red in the face and the harder I fight it the worse it gets.’

‘I feel like a hot, flustered mess!’ One client gave up a high-powered job she loved because she couldn’t take that pressure anymore.

‘I was sceptical that tapping could help with the hot flushes, but I did persevere. Over a few weeks with Bettina’s guidance, I began tapping whenever I felt a hot flush coming and could feel the improvement. Now my hot flushes don’t last long when they do come, and I am no longer frustrated with the feeling. I just tap and breathe. Thank you for teaching me EFT!’ JM

My intention was to help women manage and release the anxiety, stress and overwhelm they felt at being helplessly subjected to hot flushes. My clients were surprised to find that tapping can stop a hot flush when done at the first tingling of heat, and considerably reduces their intensity and frequency. Soon they no longer felt like helpless victims of a bothersome but common physical process; instead they had a remedy to release the heat as well as their emotions literally at their fingertips.

In a world where women spend millions on natural and not so natural remedies that sometimes work and often don’t, it’s good to know that you are not helpless. You can be in charge. Without side effects. After all, if a man sitting in a business meeting felt an asthma attack coming on, he’d take out his inhaler and would use it. There wouldn’t be an accompanying embarrassment.

EFT (short for Emotional Freedom Techniques and also known as Tapping) is a combination of modern psychology and ancient TCM wisdom. It is sometimes called ‘acupuncture without the needles’. One brilliant thing about EFT is that it works on different levels. When working with an experienced therapist, it is possible to go deeper as well as gently and safely release old trauma, limiting beliefs, chronic pain, phobias, addictions, and more. Yet the Tapping sequence itself is easy to learn and can be used by anyone in the moment when painful or overwhelming emotions come up for a quick and gentle release. Powerful stuff.

I run regular courses Menopause? Learn to release hot flushes with EFT. The next one starts on 6th November 2020. Sign up here.

Lockdown by Live-in Carer


6 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Culture Interview – Louise Kleboe, singer


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

 

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

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

When did you discover you had such a powerful voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you and Alfie write the songs together?

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

How do your politics affect your lyrics?

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

You’ve also made soundtrack music for films?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Shock – Moving In With My Partner In N Wales


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

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

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

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

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

The Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ups and downs, the downs and ups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

Falstaff vs Smokey Robinson: turning sixty during lockdown


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Nick Coleman is newly 60, and an author who used to be a music critic at Time Out and the Independent. 

I turned sixty in April, at a relatively early stage of the coronavirus lockdown. The day dawned for me, as it does nearly every morning, with the sound of a north-east-London blackbird giving it some in the tree outside our bedroom window. It was four-thirty in the morning. The little fucker.

He thinks it’s great to be alive and he probably has a point, from his blackbird’s perspective. The skies are clear, the roads empty, the atmosphere, the very air that we breathe here in north-east London is so much more breathable now than it has been at any stage of the forty years I have lived in this city. The blackbird has, I suppose, every right to rejoice and to spread the news. His air is now Bruegel-fresh, as ours is. The colours in our shared world are saturated like Caspar David Friedrich’s. There is a new tang to our daily experience of our world as if it were a fruit bowl by Caravaggio.

Except of course that I am now sixty and do not wish to be dinned out of my thinning nightly tissue of sleep by some loudmouth with a message to impart. I don’t want messages at four-thirty in the morning. I want sleep. I want to be dreaming of fruit bowls, not reminded in so many cockney chirrups that I live in one, or would do if I only had the eyes to see it. That blackbird is a prig. One day I am going to lean out of my bedroom casement with my blunderbuss and turn the varmint into a pinkish-black puff of feathers and vapourised bird flesh.

Credit: Linda Nylind
Author Nick Coleman.
Photo by Linda Nylind. 17/3/2015.

Except that I am not, of course. I do not own a blunderbuss; nor are they as easy to come by as you might think in modern Hackney.

So the day of my birth dawned for the sixtieth time with thoughts of violence. Which then turned really poisonous when I remembered that I was now, as of today, officially old.

Who wants to be sixty? No, but really: who does? What are the advantages? What are the burdensome disadvantages of being fifty-nine that we then shuck off by turning sixty? I can’t think of a single one and I bet you can’t either. And guess what: if I’d been born a fortnight earlier in history, I’d at least have got a Freedom Pass for my sixtieth, like everyone else has for heaven knows how long, as a special cheer-up present as you turn the big corner into dotage. But I don’t even get one of those. They’ve stopped it. In the nick of time.

So the blackbird really isn’t doing it for me at four-thirty in the morning. I turn over in my bed and add to the joy of nations by swearing.

*****

I don’t mind getting old, of course. It’s not the fact of it, nor even the feeling of it that rattles my cage. Getting old is just one more day added to all the others, as Justice Shallow doesn’t quite say to Falstaff in the firelight. Getting old is incontrovertible and, you might say, even fortunate. I might after all be dead (as indeed I nearly was last year when still only fifty-eight). I might be having my teenage life cancelled by measures devised to combat the pandemic. I might be struggling to raise a young family with no income all of a sudden and, worst of all, having to home-school a four-year-old and a seven-year-old (as would have been the case for my wife and I had the coronavirus struck 15 years ago). As it is, I am fortunate to live in a nice if rather jerry-built little Edwardian house in north-east-London, feeling a bit like a tinned pilchard given that the 22–year-old and 19-year-old offspring just happened to be biding here when the lockdown started, but comfortable enough. I have a small income. I have a roof. I don’t have much health but am not dead. Mustn’t grumble ­– apart from about the blackbird.

And yet the onset of sixty in lockdown is forcing the issue somewhat – I do feel like grumbling, I really do, and I think it’s unavoidable in the circumstances, like having to pee in the night. It comes with the territory, as Justice Shallow also doesn’t quite say to Falstaff in the firelight.

‘Jesus, the days that we have seen,’ he does say though. It’s a phrase I heard first issuing from my father’s lips long ago in I know not what context – the kind of quotation he was given to, having survived the war. I have heard it since at moments of dark reflection, uttered both by my elders and by me, because I am a bit that way inclined myself; inclined to the emptied-out and fatuous rather than to the mythological. Let me be clear, I identify more at sixty with Justice Shallow, the spindly, mindless, excitable legal official on his last legs, gasping to be appreciated by his companion in the firelight, than I do with the great fat beast of English half-felt regret sat next to him, Sir John Falstaff, who may well be magnificent in his way but is, basically, a regrettable old arse: charismatic, yes, but no good to anyone and absolutely and fundamentally dishonest, even unto himself.

Orson Welles saw Falstaff as an emblem of something lost and appealing, as you might expect him to do having cast himself in the role for his The Chimes at Midnight (a cinematic conflation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V). Welles sensed an embodiment of Merrie Ynglande in the galvanising figure of Sir John, a wild, untamed throwback to an England of the English imagination, which has probably existed in the Anglo-Saxon mind fondly since 1066 as a comfort: a creature of wit and instinct and appetite and untrammelled Nature whose pretences to social virtue are for effect only and whose unremitting jive is nothing but code for bogus class sublimation: we’re-all-in-it-together, but me first. Welles’s Falstaff is truly mythological, a vast case of the merry English blues in which eternal June meadows are pregnant with English flowers and no invasive species. Welles said himself he was glad to shoot Chimes in black and white because it would not expose the fact that he, as Falstaff, does not have blue eyes.

Well, I was born in 1960, not 1929 – I’m not even a real Boomer – and that kind of Falstaff resonates ugly with me, regardless; he smells of UKIP and Tim Martin and the upbraiding ruddy face of Fake Nostalgia. (Yes, yes, I know Shakespeare didn’t mean it that way. And nor did Welles. But, hell’s bells…)

I much prefer the Falstaff offered by Simon Russell Beale under the direction of Richard Eyre in 2012. Russell Beale’s Sir John is not mythological; he is the repulsive old bloke who’s lived his life in the pub and got stuck there, wedged in the corner of the bar, opinionated, delusional, evil-smelling and unable to get in touch with his self-loathing. Yes, he has moments of charm and even musters the odd truthful self-observation – ‘Oh, I’m old… old,’ he laments as Doll Tearsheet fumbles with his knob-end – but those moments come as departures in his life not the rule and certainly not as the engine of anything useful to man, woman nor child. They are soon gone. It is only as he stares stark-eyed away from the flames at Shallow’s hearth that he begins to sense the truth about himself. ‘We have heard the chimes at midnight,’ he announces absently and his gaze darkens to reveal an abyss engulfed by silence. He cannot speak of what he can’t actually encompass emotionally – but he senses its presence all right. That’s a Falstaff I can understand at sixty, even if I don’t identify with him.

*****

How old was Falstaff?

I am not about to re-read both parts of Henry IV to see if there are any clues to be had as to his age – and of course, age is relative, anyway, it isn’t just a number, and never more so than in 15th-century England when surviving the lottery of birth was a matter of statistical reality. But sixty seems about right to me, psychologically speaking. Falstaff is starting to lose his autonomic faculties as well as all the others, and his jive is losing its lustre. ‘Oh, I’m old … old.’ Sixty is an age of extreme self-consciousness and denial and, dare one say it, of the dawning of previously unanswered regrets. Of course Falstaff fancies that he can do all the stuff he used to do – of course, he does – despite his gouty big toe; but, when it comes to it, he would rather sit and mope with a flagon of sack.

My wife, whose name by a strange coincidence is Nell Quickly (and by even stranger coincidence also runs a bawdy house which she disguises as a respectable Hackney PR company), chased me out from under the duvet on my sixtieth birthday morning and set about my pimpling extremities with the warming pan.

‘Now, Sir John,’ quoth she, ‘…er, I mean Nick… Get your hindquarters downstairs and let me and the changelings go about making this the best birthday you ever had. Come on. No excuses. No maundering. I know you’re feeling awful and that bird woke you at a grisly hour, but… well, just go with it. Be in the moment. Go into the living room and play your favourite records, why don’t you, and leave the birthday doings to us.’

‘But we’re in lockdown. I’ve got things to do…’

Thwack! The warming pan made abrupt contact with the gristle of my dwindling behind and I thought better of uttering another word.

But I did go downstairs and I did think as I went, well, this is going to be quite nice. What record shall I play? What does my soul yearn to dance to? What moves me? I know…

Smokey Robinson!

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 26: Singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson speaks onstage during the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage)

And then the inevitable qualification… How old is Smokey Robinson? Christ on a bike – is he even still alive? Yes, yes, he must be: I’d have noticed if he’d died because… because I love Smokey Robinson and I would have undergone some sort of memorable emotional crisis if he had expired. But how old is he? Must be in his eighties now. After all, he has been embodying the poetry of undying romantic youth since… since when? 1961? 1962? Since before I was born even? The sound of Detroit south side’s beating heart, fluttering as delicately as dew-jewelled cobwebs on spring mornings; the sound of a stock of weightless metaphors so intricately extensive that they drape every curve and loop of Time itself, going both back into the past and forwards into the future until they are lost to view.

And so I went into the living room and played Smokey Robinson records all morning, while my children made breakfast and very old friends came round at timed intervals to surprise me and give me virtual hugs from beyond the front gate by secret arrangement with Nell – and the metaphors kept on lapping and mingling in the air all about until, by lunchtime, I was quite convinced this was the best birthday I’d ever had.

And then after lunch I had a nap.

And when I woke up it was still good, even though I had a slight headache.

Nick Coleman’s books are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage: ‘The Train in the Night: a story of music and loss’; the novel, ‘Pillow Man’; and, most recently, ‘Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life’

Book Review: Dear Life – A Doctor’s Story of Love & Loss


1 Minute Read

Reviewed by Asanga Judge

Dr Rachel Clarke is a specialist in palliative medicine. She has often been in the media during the Covid-19 crisis talking clearly about what is needed in terms of provision of PPE, perspectives and compassion.

Asanga Judge is a former GP.

I am not easily moved to tears, so the fact it happened to me repeatedly when I was reading this book is a mark of Rachel Clarke’s profound compassion towards her patients, in her capacity as a palliative care specialist running a hospice for terminally ill patients.

As a reaction to some of the awful experiences she had during her early medical career, for instance, people dying in terrifying and undignified circumstances, she decided that she intended to do everything she could to make her patients’ last days comfortable, peaceful and fulfilling.

One example was Ellie, in her early 20s with aggressively metastatic breast cancer that was causing her organs to shut down rapidly. She desperately wanted to get married with her family and friends present. She asked Rachel, ‘Can you keep me well enough to make it to Thursday?’ – that was in two days’ time. Rachel knew all she could do was to promise to try. She used all her medical skills to keep Ellie alive for the next two days and then to give her enough strength to manage the ceremony. As the final moments of the ceremony took place – Ellie was momentarily transformed ‘from a dying woman to a luminous young bride on her wedding day – radiant, ecstatic. Her cancer vanishes. And everyone sees it, everyone feels it – the world falling away until only one thing remains: two 20somethings getting married with beaming smiles. Ellie dies the next day, held by James and still wearing her dress of white chiffon.’

‘Living does not stop because one is dying.’

I have selected this quote from the end of the book because I think it creates a very welcome and inspiring picture of how the life of dying people in this type of palliative care is not typical of the generally held view of hospices. They are still viewed as places to die rather than places to live well until you die. And even in today’s progressive climate of death cafes and end of life doulas, there is still reluctance in our society to discuss the subject of dying.

‘If there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world. Their urgency propels them to do the things they want to do, reach out to those they love and savour the moments of life still left to them. In a hospice, therefore, there is more of what matters: more love, more strength, more kindness, more smiles, more dignity, more joy, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. I work in a world that thrums with life. My patients teach me all I need to know about living.’ Rachel Clarke.

For me, one of the most important issues dealt with here is how fear and misunderstanding around death and dying, cause a lot of anxiety and potential, yet avoidable, suffering. That simple listening and communication around each person’s individual circumstances are at least, if not more, important than the use of sedatives and analgesics. Death remains a taboo even for doctors. And I speak here as one of the profession myself. Traditional medical teaching has always been focused on the ability to cure illness. Palliative care was, and still is among the profession as a whole, associated with failure. Because of this, the subject of caring for the dying patient has been woefully neglected in the teaching schedule.

Rachel Clarke also explains how for most people in a hospice their final days pass very much in the same way: gradually sleeping more and slipping into deeper unconsciousness. I imagine that prior knowledge of this, which many may not have, would be a blessed comfort. It was for me.

I cannot over-emphasize how much I was affected and inspired by this book. It even motivated me to discuss my own death with my daughter and let her know about practical matters such as my financial arrangements, which she found useful as well an indication that I was looking after her for the future. I am almost 77.

I think everyone should read it.

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