Refine Your Search

Lockdown by Live-in Carer


6 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Culture Interview – Louise Kleboe, singer


10 Minute Read

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

 

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

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

When did you discover you had such a powerful voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you and Alfie write the songs together?

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

How do your politics affect your lyrics?

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

You’ve also made soundtrack music for films?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Shock – Moving In With My Partner In N Wales


10 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

The Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ups and downs, the downs and ups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

Falstaff vs Smokey Robinson: turning sixty during lockdown


10 Minute Read

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.

Ayurvedic advice in the time of the Coronavirus: Do we need a paradigm shift?


1 Minute Read

These are challenging times…

Even if we are not concerned about our own health, we may have loved ones who are at risk, and it may be that the only way we can protect them is by staying away. Jobs are in jeopardy, incomes are compromised and above all, there is much that is unknown: How fast will the virus spread? How quickly will it peak? And what is my relationship to this unknown threat? Am I reassured by knowing that for most people it is a mild disease with no danger? Or is there an overwhelming sense of panic and visions of the worst possible outcomes?

Sometimes a current event can trigger deep ancestral fears that live on in our unconscious and we may find ourselves unable to keep a cool head. Recognising that this is the case can prompt us to find ways of helping ourselves; essentially by slowing down and focusing on the basics – adequate rest and some mental discipline as well as a good diet to increase our resilience.

Which is the real killer?

is it Exhibit A – THE AGENT, the focus of all our attention right now – the Coronavirus?

or is it Exhibit B – THE ENVIRONMENT – a damaged Microbiome?

We are so used to seeing the enemy as being out there, whether it’s a virus, a bacteria or a malignant tumour. If only we could avoid it / kill it / vaccinate against it: in all these approaches we are assuming the agent is the problem. However, our bodies play host to a whole concert of these agents, some of them deadly, some friendly and many which are relatively benign, as long as they are in balance. And the idea of balance is key when we are talking about a healthy microbiome.

Did you know that 80% of your immune system is in your gut? What if the choices you make – food and lifestyle could be used to enhance your immunity? Read on if you want to begin to take charge of your health outcomes…

According to Ayurveda, it’s not only what we eat that has an influence on our health. How, when and in what state we eat our food will have an influence on how well we digest it and whether it becomes nourishment for our bodies or, in an incompletely digested form, becomes the toxins that lead to poor health outcomes.

Why is this important for us to be aware of?

Because every time we trigger our stress response (fight/flight/freeze) our digestion shuts down and our immune system is suppressed. So when I listen to the latest statistics about the rising number of cases/fatalities or when I think about what will be the fate of my loved ones or wonder how we will survive financially…. my immunity drops. This information could be deeply depressing, but it could also be empowering; because it means that I hold the key to improving my immunity.

It’s also a key thing to remember because those of us who are health conscious tend to obsess about what we eat, when in fact the state of our nervous system has an even bigger impact.

We know from statistics that catching Covid19 (Coronavirus) will be relatively harmless for 80% of the population. And we know that the other 20% – those who are over 70 as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease etc. have a higher risk of complications and fatalities. What is it about age or health conditions which leads to this huge difference in impact?

Most of us don’t follow a perfect diet and so one of the things that happen gradually as we age, or more rapidly if we don’t look after ourselves, is that this begins to have an impact on the gut. Inadequate fibre in the diet leads to damage in the lining of the gut as the bacteria (which live largely on fibre) begin instead to consume the mucus lining which protects the gut. At the same time, incompletely digested food creates toxins, and these together with gliadin, the indigestible gluten found in wheat, begin to leak through the damaged gut lining into the bloodstream triggering an inflammatory response from the immune system and leading to chronic inflammation – the condition which plays a major role in many of the chronic health conditions now endemic in our society.

The diet and lifestyle advice (see below) will encourage a healthy microbiome and increase our immunity and well being.

And if you are reading this and thinking: “I am definitely in the 20% and it’s too far down the line…” there are many reasons to not despair! Our bodies are all on a journey and the final destination is death. You may be further along in the journey, but we will all have to face that eventually – our bodies are not immortal… But even when it is too late to heal the body, healing is always possible for our hearts and soul. Peace, acceptance and love are experiences that we can touch and grow.

And maybe you’re not quite at that stage yet! In that case, there are more drastic measures –interventions such as detox programmes and herbal remedies that can provide more support and begin to shift long-term health issues. Those require 1:1 guidance from an Ayurvedic Practitioner or Complementary Health Practitioner. The Ayurvedic Professionals Association has a Directory of Practitioners around the country. Many of us will also be working by skype during the pandemic. And of course there are Naturopaths, Herbalists, Chinese Medical Practitoners and many other ways to support yourself during this challenging time. Set an intention for yourself and you will find the support you need.

Ayurvedic tips for boosting immunity 

Ensure you get adequate rest to allow your immune system to do its job of keeping you healthy

Keep a sense of perspective as much as possible. Fear begets fear and reduces our immunity in the process: Consider how much media and which content is helpful for you to be exposed to.

Much of what we may fear is connected to the unknown and may never happen. If we focus on the present moment and what is needed right now our energy will stay grounded.

Expressions of love boost our immunity – whether it’s speaking to someone we love, thinking about them, doing something to help someone, enjoying touch by eg. stroking a pet or the Ayurvedic practice of self-massage with sesame oil and of course, sexual intimacy: All of these will stimulate the release of Oxytocin: the ‘love hormone’ and give a boost to our immune system.

Ayurvedic diet advice for all mucus-related conditions (eg. coughs, colds, flu)

Follow a light diet with warm soups or stews and fewer carbohydrates than usual. Herbs & spices such as basil, thyme, oregano, black pepper and ginger will help reduce mucus. Use moderate amounts of high-quality fats such as ghee and coconut oil. Stewed fruit with spices such as cinnamon is a good source of iron and fibre. Above all, don’t eat unless you have a real appetite and avoid eating late at night.

Vegetables are high in fibre and detoxifying. The only ones to minimise are the nightshade family (tomatoes, aubergine, potato, peppers) as they are inflammatory. The onion family, including leeks & garlic, contain allicin which is anti-viral and antibacterial. Garlic has more potency (medicinally as well as on your breath!) when uncooked. If you can’t find fresh greens in the shops, nettles are a great source of vitamin C and iron. You can use them in soups, omelettes etc.

Small amounts of a non-dairy fermented product such as sauerkraut can be helpful as probiotic support.

Avoid the following: Dairy products, especially cheese, yoghurt, milk & ice cream; bananas; cold food and drinks (including beer); uncooked fruit, salads, raw food; food that is difficult to digest e.g because it is fried or heavy, such as red meat and wheat (spelt is a good alternative); puddings, cakes, biscuits & sweets.

Best options for a sweet tooth: One ginger biscuit or a rice cake with honey or a few raisins or a spoonful of Chywanprash: an Ayurvedic jam, which is a tonic for the lungs.

Vitamin D is essential for a strong immune system. Non-vegans will source this from fish, meat and/or eggs. The sun is an ideal source, but until we get some, vegans and anyone who suspects their levels are low is recommended to take Vit D3 + K2 as a supplement.

Ginger, turmeric and green tea support immunity. Use ginger water (made by boiling a couple of slices of fresh ginger with a cupful of water for a few minutes) and/or drink green tea or a herbal tea containing turmeric. If you have been exposed to a virus, regular warm drinks will clear it from your throat area and flush it into your stomach; so keeping a thermos flask with you and taking a sip every 20 minutes is advised.

If you use anti-bacterial products, make sure you also wash your hands before eating, as you don’t want the chemicals to end up in your gut where they can destroy good as well as bad bacteria and lead to an imbalance in the gut flora.

Beware of using Ibuprofen if you catch the virus:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/anti-inflammatory-drugs-may-aggravate-coronavirus-infection

Home remedy for immunity

Gargle twice a day (after breakfast and before bed) with turmeric and salt – as a preventative or when there is an active infection. Use ½ tsp turmeric + ¼ tsp salt in 1/3 cup hot water.

Looking after ourselves and our loved ones and taking simple measures to limit transmission (handwashing, self-isolation if you are unwell, social distancing) and keeping a sense of perspective will help us all.

AofA People – Matthew Caley – Poet


9 Minute Read

Since his debut – Thirst [Slow Dancer, 1999] – was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best 1st Collection, Matthew Caley has published four more collections – the last three from Bloodaxe – and read everywhere from Novi Sad, Serbia to The Globe Theatre, London; from Prague’s Alchemy to Wayne-Holloway Smith’s living room. He’s recently taught Contemporary Poetry /Creative Writing at The School of English, St Andrews University, The University of Winchester and The Poetry School. He has just given the StAnza International Poetry Festival Lecture 2020. His 6th collection is Trawlerman’s Turquoise [Bloodaxe, 2019].

Where do you live?

Crystal Palace, South London

What do you do?

Poet

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

It’s strange as this questionnaire is forcing me to think about it and I rarely do. No idea why – when I was thirty and people accused me of being thirty I didn’t like the definition of it – I might lie upwards as much as downwards just to avoid definition or pre-conceived ideas. Maybe because I was hit by poetry/art very early on – and couldn’t really do anything else very well – I’ve just stuck doing those things – poetry, putting out books, readings, collaborating with artists, teaching art or poetry since the beginning – it’s a narrow seam and therefore my basic drives and actions and life remain pretty much the same and they don’t necessarily rely on physical fitness – though I feel Ok –- so it doesn’t feel so different.

Or I don’t notice the decline!

Plus, I don’t write directly from actual life and what happens to me. I write out of wordplay and structures and imagination. Some poets write their first book about childhood, their second about amorous relationships, their third about marriage, swiftly followed by decorating and divorce. My work messes with time and follows no chronology, it draws from life but tangentially, so there shouldn’t be much stress on age in it particularly.

I had a big party when I turned 50 and another when I turned 60 but they weren’t really about that. I discovered that a ‘big number party’ is the only way to see friends you haven’t seen for years. They’ll turn up for that. So it wasn’t really about me or my age but just a grand excuse to catch up. So I don’t view myself through the lens of any age. I’ve met people in their thirties who think they are old. It’s all relative. Of course, you can’t escape how others see you. Or noticing how certain people react because of your supposed age. I notice them noticing but I don’t care. So that solves that.

I would also think that whilst your stated aim to change the image of older folk is a great one, that you must also have to be careful to avoid—as any of these pro-these people or pro-that movements do—ghettoising yourselves. All persons are persons –just at different stages. I want to be around all ages of people -and luckily again – at the moment – I can be. This happens much more naturally in other countries than here I find. Children, teenagers, young adults, adults, older folks etc should be all mixed up in the same spaces. I don’t want to know only one strata. That’s stultifying. Advertising and social spacing can force people into their own age group. It’s good to mix it up. The media often stereotype older people so the image should be combatted but outside of the media folks need to mix it up themselves.

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

More books! Two daughters. A flat. I know my insides and my outsides. I know where to stand in relation to the source in order to get a poem. I know it’s not my drive that does it. The arc of propulsion that drives the poems started before me somehow and I just keep in its slipstream and end up where it takes me. I’ve narrowed down what I do so it’s more focused. If I’ve gained any wisdom then I probably don’t notice it be because you can’t re-construct exactly how you were before. Learning and skills are invisible once you’ve mastered them. You have changed, but there’s no former you to compare with. On Magazine’s- [the post-punk group’s] -‘comeback’ LP Know Thyself their songwriter and lyricist Howard Devoto has a song ‘Dear Howard of Course’ which is a song to his younger self. But much of his younger self had been filmed or recorded and maybe he has a better memory than me. Much of the LP deals with ageing, though in a typically oblique way, there’s a song called Holy Dotage! But it’s a fired-up fast song. I would guess there are losses and gains but sometimes the losses are good and the gains not so good. I have a bad memory which means I don’t tend to dwell in the past much so I’m usually dealing with the present. The now is all we have so its best to deal exclusively with that or you end up in the ether.

What about sex?

I’ve always had great fun and luck in the amorous world. It’s hard to talk about it overtly – not because of prudism – though our current culture can be strangely prudish –but because our current moment could but not misread it.

Since meeting Pavla and seeing my daughters born it all changed. Now it’s blood-ties and love. A different thing. But also I think discretion in relationships is a very underrated virtue – you make yourself vulnerable in amorous relationships and whoever or how many people are involved, what goes on is a beautiful, private thing. Those might seem strange in a world where people post videos of their genitals to each other quite merrily and overshare at every opportunity. This vies with the overall prudish culture to make a strange mix. I feel very grateful for all my past relationships, brief or more substantial, with some very strong, powerful, original, and beautiful characters. They all meant a good deal to me. But Pavla and I have been together for 20 years now and have two daughters. She’s a very strong character herself and an artist. Love and sex are both mutual and mutable things, their form changes virtually every day – if you drift with it. Being with one person isn’t so different from having a few lovers because everything changes all the time. If you keep alert they renew themselves.

And relationships?

Of course, there are many different types of relationships – not just the amorous world. I’m lucky again. I’ve got a wide range of friends – men and women of all ages and types. Because I’ve taught in art schools and poetry schools I regularly meet 18-23 year olds. I know quite a few young poets. I meet my daughters’ friends. So I have some ‘young’ friends and friends of all types. It’s just that I don’t see any of them very often because I’m too busy or always travelling about – though I have friends scattered everywhere so I see those when I travel – but with friendships – they usually hold up if they’re meant to.

How free do you feel?

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ as yer man said. No-one’s truly free under Capitalism or Communism. It’s just seeming degrees of it. Freedom is internal.

What are you proud of?

I find that word a bit iffy – it gets misused so much. There’s a danger it can become a kind of vacuous Facebook meme type word. An Award Ceremony word. Like the word ‘hero’ has become. But if there’s another word then I take great delight – I like the word ‘delight’ – in my daughters. Mina is [13] a musician-playing violin and viola, in all manner of orchestras and quartets and solo and Iris [19] is studying Animation in the Czech Republic which is a brave leap forward. They are delightful and I delight in them and who they’re becoming. And Pavla, of course, who has put so much into them.

What keeps you inspired?

I read that Leonard Cohen quote a while back – the one where he says, ‘If I knew where good songs came from I’d go there more often’. It’s a good line but I was dissatisfied with it – why can’t you climb back up the rope ladder to the source? I’ve spent 6 years working on that. It’s not ‘inspiration’ which I’ve found is a flimsy and insubstantial friend. It’s a mixture of internal ‘athletics of the mind’ – technique[s] and knowledge of timing. Then you can go there when you want and get the poem you want, when you want. I’m much closer to getting that. I’m not perfect at it yet but it’s getting much closer.

When are you happiest?

Most of the time. My default mode is pretty OK – most of the time. [That really annoys some people I notice.] So if I get happy then I’m really up. I’m happier being a ‘hired’ gun rather than full-time. I’m happy ‘on-the-road’ gigging. I’m happy to get back to my beauties. I‘m a cup more than half full and slightly above the brim person.

When in Chartier in Paris. Having coffee on a frozen balcony. Listening to The Punch Brothers or Fleet Foxes or Lankum or O’Hooley & Tiddow at a concert with all the girls. The Rabbit fair, Konice, Moravia. On the road. Everywhere. It’s portable, happiness.

And where does your creativity go?

I prefer the word ‘imagination’. Always into the poems, the books.

What’s your philosophy of living?

I try not to have one! Stand in the place where you live. Be in the minute you’re in. Reduce your worries to a minimum. Walk everywhere. Advice is the worst way of giving advice. Develop out of what you lack. [Baudrillardian. Barthian. A bit of Schopenhauer. Kristeva. ] You don’t need much. Know what you do need. Avoid elegy and nostalgia. Don’t carry a phone. Tell the time by laundrettes. Appreciate everyone, especially your enemies.

And dying?

It’s another imaginative leap – until it isn’t I guess.

Are you still dreaming?

I rarely dream. The poetry replaces that, maybe. The world is enough.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

You should see some of my line-breaks.

Shanks’ Pony: Travels on my feet.


14 Minute Read

Some of my earliest memories, growing up as a child in inner-city London, involve walking. Walking everywhere. I recall trotting alongside my mum, her pushing my sister in a pushchair whilst I clung onto the side handle as we marched, always purposefully, along city streets, through parks, over bridges, past shops and offices and through the ‘back doubles’ (one of my mum’s favourite phrases) from the council estate where we lived to just about everywhere we needed to go. We walked mostly out of necessity, walking is free and when you don’t have much money, it becomes an obvious way to cut costs.

We also walked because my mum, Geordie lass that she was (and still is) was used to walking to get from A to B – whether that was the six-mile round trek in all weathers to get to and from her local school or the I-don’t-know-how-many-miles round trip to get my sister and me to nursery before she set off to one of her many part-time jobs. When the young me got tired of walking, I was invited to step onto the footplate of the pushchair and hang onto the crossbar as mum then transported two youngsters across town.

We moved to the south coast of England when I was eleven and the walking continued as, at that time, we didn’t have a car and, well, old habits die hard. When I started work as a student nurse in the local hospital, I used to get up before 6am in order to walk to work to start an early shift at 7am. When I had children of my own I would walk everywhere because getting a pushchair on and off the bus was too much of a pain

Our family prospered and as we became a little more affluent and I was able to have my own car the day to day walking turned into going out somewhere for the deliberate purpose of walking: beach, forest, hillside or field – just being outside propelling myself under my own steam, often with kids and picnics in tow.

As an adult, I gave a name to that which I just knew to be true as a child – walking is what we are built to do. It is as necessary to our wellbeing as fresh air and human touch. When we walk we connect, with our own rhythms and ourselves and with the environment through which we pass. When we walk we breathe the way we’re meant to breathe. We also see the day change in front of us and we are part of that.

I started doing longer distance walks almost by accident when a girlfriend asked me if I’d like to go on a walking holiday in the French Pyrenees – an offer I couldn’t refuse. From that point onwards I’ve been hooked and now a trip without a walking element just feels like a wasted opportunity to really get to know somewhere and to gain a sense of place.

I’ve enjoyed walking with groups and alone but the best of times have been walking with my best friend. In 2018 we completed the 500 plus miles of the Camino Frances, carrying all of our own kit. What an absolute privilege and joy that was.

Earlier that year we had set out on the Great Stones Walk (from Swindon to Salisbury) and, partway we were halted by the snow that accompanied the Beast From the East.

What follows is an account of that walk and the more recent finale.

The Great Stones Walk from Swindon to Salisbury

February, 2018. Perhaps not the best month to undertake a long-distance walk (just under 55 miles) but Catriona and I have scuba dived in the cold dark waters of the Solent, run miles and miles in sub-zero temperatures, body boarded in the icy alpine white waters of the Isere and completed a marathon on a very warm day. Suffice to say that we are women of a certain age and temperament and it takes a lot to put us off when we have decided to do something. The something on this occasion being the Great Stones long-distance route, which runs north to south through the Wiltshire countryside, linking England’s great prehistoric sites of Avebury and Stonehenge.

Our mini-adventure started modestly, alighting from the train in Swindon and transferring to a local bus, which would deposit us near the distinctly non-neolithic roundabout where our first night’s pub accommodation was located. The cold weather, icy wind and snow were already making itself felt across the country to the north of us and a weather warning had been issued for the part of the world that we now planned to hike across for the next 5 days. Perfect.

Overnight accommodation in a pub near a roundabout always seems like a great idea when you book it – it’s cheap and there is beer readily available. When you actually arrive, especially in inclement weather, it’s more often than not a bit of a letdown. It’s noisy due to the traffic, it’s rarely a gastronomic delight, the rooms are usually a bit sad and not in the least bit luxurious and they never offer packed lunches for the following day. So it’s cheap plus beer that scores the only points out of five if you were doing a review on Tripadvisor.

However, beer and a meal of deep-fried stuff ensured a good night’s sleep and the breakfast the following morning provided enough bread to fashion a couple of marmalade sandwiches and biscuits for a packed lunch and coffee to fill up my flask (an essential bit of kit that goes on every single walk). We set off in a light sleet, wearing multiple layers of thermals and waterproofs, and headed for the start of the route: Coate Water Country Park.

This is a surprisingly lovely part of Swindon where there is a lake, constructed in the 1820s to provide water for the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal and is now a haven for wildlife as well as an open-air swimming area during the warmer months. From here our route took us across the M4, via the Iron Age fort of Barbury Castle and the steep slope of Barbury hill onto the Ridgeway National Trail for several miles before looping off to take in Avebury and its remarkable stone circle.

The Ridgeway is often described as Britain’s oldest road and it is now a national trail, extending from Wiltshire, along the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs, including footpaths and parts of the ancient Ickneild Way from Streatly, through the Chiltern Hills to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. As we marched along the deep ridges of frozen solid mud I thought about the 5000 years of footfall that this route has seen, the ancient people’s whose footsteps we were shadowing and how cold they all must have been without a down jacket and alpine grade waterproofs!

Our arrival in Avebury bought us into the village through the fields that were just beginning to grey out in the failing light of the late afternoon, we were both taken aback by the sudden appearance of the great stones, bleak and beautiful with their dusting of snow. Almost the entire village of Avebury is encircled by the stones and the effect is enchanting. I am so glad that we experienced this in mid-winter when the absence of tourists made us feel like the first people to have set eyes upon this prehistoric monument.

Avebury also left me with a warm fuzzy feeling because we stayed in a fantastic B and B where we were treated to tea and cake on arrival, had sherry and chocolate in our room, plus access to a very large bathtub and, as well as a substantial breakfast, we were supplied with a great packed lunch.

Day Two of our walk saw us heading towards East Chisenbury via Overton Hill and Casterley Camp. It was bitterly cold and windy with regular blasts of fine, icy snow. Our eagerly anticipated packed lunch was taken in the porchway of All Saints Chruch at Alton Priors where we discovered that Branston pickle does indeed freeze in a cheese sandwich and that ice crystal in your drinking water bottle can give the illusion of having a cheeky gin and tonic! A short ‘praise the Lord for the flask of coffee’ ensued and we continued on our way, getting blown up the hill towards the edge of Salisbury plain where we spent what seemed like a very long time trekking alongside the huge MOD ‘Danger – Keep Out’ fence, with our heads down to avoid being ice blasted by the now driving snow and listening to the occasional muffled boom of artillery being fired somewhere in the distance. As the snowdrifts started to deepen and the countryside turned white and silent (now that the day’s tank shelling practice had ceased) we descended along strangely quiet country lanes, empty – apart from a few abandoned cars that had fallen foul of the snowy roads, to arrive at the Red Lion pub, and its unbelievably gorgeous accommodation at Troutbeck, in East Chisenbury.

To say that I was overjoyed when I discovered that the restaurant at the Red Lion is run by an epic chef whose menu is superb would be a gross understatement. To add that I was deliriously happy when we discovered that we would be snowed in for the next two nights (drifting snow, high winds and a red weather warning from the Met office should not be ignored!) would be a very accurate description of my state of mind that evening.

We spent the following day messing around up on a small hill just outside of the village. This involved an Olympic standard toboggan run using a survival bag and drinking real gin and tonic from our water flasks. Our husbands had been instructed to stay away for another night (for their own safety of course) before coming to rescue us in a Landrover.

February 2020. February again. This time we had storm Dennis to contend with! Trina’s husband dropped us off early on Sunday morning in East Chisenbury. It was raining steadily with no sign of letting up so ponchos were donned over waterproofs, gaiters and thermal layers and we set off for the relatively short (9 miles) walk to Amesbury which is about 3 miles from Stonehenge. It was actually very pleasant to be walking along English country lanes with high banks and hedges giving shelter from the storm winds.

I could see this day unfolding in an uncomplicated way. Then we rounded a bend to find the road ahead flooded with at least a metre deep water and just very narrow grass banks, backed by blackthorn bushes, on both sides. We hopped onto the right-hand bank and started to gingerly pick our way along. At the halfway point the bank narrowed even further and the choice lay between getting soaked or getting impaled. But I spotted a five-bar fence on our right a couple of feet ahead. We could climb over the fence, into the farmyard and clamber over a large pile of soil to walk along the edge of the farmer’s field parallel to the road until we found another exit, beyond the flood back onto the road. Plan thus agreed, we scrabbled along the diminishing bank, launched ourselves onto the fence and clambered over.

Success. Or maybe not. I placed my walking pole onto the earth pile only to watch it sink into several feet of soft and sodden manure. Great. Now we had cow poo Armageddon on one side and blackthorn, hawthorn and a helpful barbed wire fence on the other. We opted for sharp things. Picking our way along a two-inch furrow that seemed to be relatively clear of smelly stuff we were focused on getting to the grass about 20 yards ahead when the wind picked up and we spent the next jolly half hour wrestling our ponchos out of the thorny grip of the hedges. When we finally made it to the muddy but clean (kind of) haven of the grassy field the heavens opened and the rain sluiced down. We were very glad of this hosing as it washed all the cow pats off!!! I can’t imagine the reception we would have got, had we turned up at our accommodation later that day in our original state.

When we did get to the Stonehenge Inn (mediocre carvery pub, bleak rooms, no breakfast included – give it a miss) we decided to have a late lunch – (at the aforementioned mediocre carvery) and then hunker down to binge watch tv before an early night. As the springs were actually visible through my mattress I slept on top of the duvet, in my clean clothes ready for the next day, using a bath towel as a blanket!

All in all, it was an excellent walk. We enjoyed, as ever, lots of mini-adventures and lots of laughs. Our friendship has been cemented by many shared experiences but our walks together have enabled a depth of sisterly camaraderie that I don’t think would arise from any other activity.

SUGGESTIONS FOR ADVANTAGES OF AGE FUTURE WALKS

Walk one – a day trip to the South Downs (walking distance approx 8 miles)

This is an ‘out an back’ walk (to avoid crossing the bust A3M) and is one of my favourite local walks, it takes in Butser Hill, Queen Elizabeth Country Park and the lovely village of Buriton.

The walk starts in Buriton and follows the Hangers Way to Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP), which sits at the foot of Butser hill. The climb up Butser is rewarded with great views onto the Solent, across the South Downs and Meon Valley and, if the visibility is good, across to the Isle of Wight.

The walk back can take in the visitor centre at QECP where the homemade cakes are always tempting and can finish off at the Five Bells pub in Buriton where you can reward your efforts with real ale and good food.

Getting there:

Train from London Waterloo (South Western) to Petersfield (approx 1 hour).

Bus from Petersfield station to Buriton. (approx 20 mins).

Walking options: Those who don’t fancy hiking up Butser hill (and back down again) can stay around the visitor centre at QECP – this will make their walk approx 5 miles.

Walk 2 – an overnighter (or two) on the Jurassic Coast.

You cannot beat the Dorset coastline for some spectacular sea views and this circular walk,(approx 6 miles) out of Swanage where there is YHA accommodation takes in the Swanage Coastal Park, the Priest’s way and the Dancing Ledge. Midpoint is the village of Worth Matravers where the Square and Compass pub, which dates back to 1752, provides great food, drink and, very often, live music.

Getting there: Train from London Waterloo (South Western) to Wareham (approx 2h 20)

Bus from Wareham to Swanage (approx 40 mins)

Options:

a) Arrive in Swanage after midday on day one, settle into accommodation, short local walk, evening in pub with live music. Main walk to start around 10.00am on day 2, lunch in Worth Matravers, back to Swanage around 5pm to allow time to get the bus back to Wareham station.

b) As above but stay an extra night in Swanage to allow extended time at the Square and Compass and then an early evening walk back to Swanage. Additional walk from Swanage on Day 2 to Corfe Castle via the Purbeck Ridgeway (approx 8 miles) returning to Swanage on the Swanage Steam railway and then taking the bus to Wareham station.

Walk 3 – A weekend on the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight is literally crisscrossed with hundreds of walking paths, each one affording a mixture of sea views and beautiful countryside.

I’ve chosen three walks, all starting in Ventnor, which I think to capture the uniqueness of the Island. Ventnor is a great place to be based for the weekend with a variety of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.

Friday Afternoon – A coastal walk from Ventnor to Shanklin .

This lovely 3-mile leg stretcher starts on the Sea wall linking Bonchurch to Ventnor, gives a short detour to see the old Church at Bonchurch, before following the coast path through the Landslip, Rylstone Gardens and the Appley steps and on into Shanklin where its possible to visit the beautiful chine before catching the bus back to Ventnor.

Saturday – a walk with everything! Ventnor to Brading via St. Boniface Down.

This walk of just over 10 miles provides stunning views from the top of the Downs (ST. Boniface and Brading) as well as deep woodland and charming villages. It’s a great walk to get a real sense of the Island and the Waxworks at Brading is the ultimate in UK Kitsch! Bus back to Ventnor.

Sunday morning – Easy walk along the seafront and then the Botanical Gardens.

A relaxing Sunday morning, just enough walking to blow away cobwebs and enjoy Ventnor’s Victorian heritage before heading for home.

Getting there: Train from London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour (approx 1hr 50). Ferry from Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde (approx 25 mins). Either train/bus to Ventnor (train from Ryde to Shanklin then bus to Ventnor, approx 1 hour) or Bus direct from Ryde (approx 1 hour).

Dirty Blues & Jazz 1920s-40s | Valentine’s Day Special


0 Minute Read

Suzanne & George take you back to the 20s, the 1920s when blues was all the rage, Harlem’s delis sold ‘hooch’ and artists such as Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and Ethel Water were making the rounds of the vaudeville theatres in both the U.S. and Europe singing songs filled with sexual innuendo that became known as the dirty blues. You’ll be laughing and crying as Suzanne belts out songs about sex, lies & heartache.

Show me more
Surprise Me

Hear more from us

Subscribe to our newsletter