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Why Conscious Breathing Does it For Me


7 Minute Read

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

( Eckhart Tolle Practising the Power of Now)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

1 Change how I feel.

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

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

4 Increase breath capacity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joy of Sleeping Separately


4 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Elainea Emmott

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

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

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

The Joys of Genealogy


8 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AofA People: Mat Fraser – Actor, Writer, Musician


4 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

Age (in years)

58

Where do you live?

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

What do you do?

Writer,  actor, and occasional these days only, musician

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

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

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

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

What about sex?

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

And relationships?

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

How free do you feel?

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

What are you proud of?  

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

What keeps you inspired?  

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

When are you happiest?

When I’ve just written “The End”

And where does your creativity go?

Scripts, songs.

What’s your philosophy of living?

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

And dying?

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

Are you still dreaming?

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

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

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

My Conversion to Mountains and Other Matters


1 Minute Read

The Track Re-visited

 I am here again. On Asanga’s wild land. Slow running up the track that I walked and slowly ran up during the first lockdown in March and April 2020 when I was here in N Wales, in Gwynedd and scared. Of Covid. Of societal collapse. Of the food chain failure. Of being treated as an interloper and sent home to London.

This is where I saw that hand-written sign on the telegraph pole right at the start of the track – GO HOME STAY HOME.

What happens when you – that is me, 67, and my partner, Asanga, 77 – have in a very small way become a poster couple for Living Apart – last year we were just about to be on the One Show when Covid hit and I’ve written various articles about it – and then are thrown together by lockdown?

Suddenly instead of Living Apart – as in five hours apart by car, we were Living Together in Wales. Heavens to Murgatroyd!

The first time round, we learnt a lot. It was not a pretty sight. There was quite a lot of shouting. I am a woman of my own terrain, and then I was on his admittedly very beautiful wild terrain and in his farmhouse. The trouble for me was it was exactly that – it is his. And he had very precise ideas about the execution of most household tasks. I struggled with this dynamic. I had lived on my own for far too long. No wonder he refers to me as the Duchess of Harlesden!

I enjoyed returning to London at the beginning of June. To the friendliness of the city. To my road’s tight squeeze of terraced houses. To people. To neighbours. Friends. I revelled in that warmth. It’s a topsy turvy world in more ways than one. Well, okay, not everyone yearns to live in the countryside. But there is a growing trend amongst my friends for moving out of the city.

And now in January 2021, back on the track, there are no shoots of new growth. No blackthorn blossom. No hare. No vole. No willow warblers. Just the bare bones of the trees to identify. And those mountains.

Those Mountains

Asanga moved up here for the mountains. He has been a rock climber since his teens, but had a major climbing accident in his early 50s, took 15 years off, then returned again to the crags in his mid-60s. By the time I met him, he’d more or less given up because he couldn’t attain the same levels. I used to joke vaingloriously ‘I am your mountain now’. Ha ha.

No Ropes, No Ropes, No Ropes 

Like a balletic Welsh goat

he devils the overhang.

A saucy clamberer, his ferocity

belies any sinking libido.

Before me, he’s a circus performer

eager to reverse salty-old-lady disapproval.

Tantric Goddess (Eyewear 2017).

I’ve given up being his mountain now though! More recently, Asanga has started going to an indoor climbing wall and joined the Mega-Vet competition for the Over-70s. The wonderful Ginger Cain aged 90 died recently so maybe he’s in with a chance! Formerly a bit of a purist about outdoor climbing, he’s now an avid indoor climber too. And during the lockdown, of course, there is the Zoom Climbing Group where they cook up their next ventures – sea stacks, slabs, overhangs – when it’s possible to go out again.

Five years ago, Asanga took me into the mountains, up Tryfan, a 3,000 ft mountain in Snowdonia. I was unprepared. I had had very little sleep.

We scrambled up the final rocks and it was scarily windy and misty on top. This is what mountain-lovers call ‘atmospheric’ and I found terrifying. And the way down was much worse. Not the manouvering between rocks but the long journey down with the loose stone to negotiate. By the end, I was trembling with exhaustion.

It put me off. I love the coastal paths from Borth y Gest to Samson’s Cove, the pebbly beach at Criccieth, the Dwyfor river walks down past stunning reed beds, I love the woods at Tremadog and the walk along the Glaslyn gorge near Beddgelert.

But I was wary about mountains.

The turning point was more of a gentle roll. We had talked about going up Cnicht, which is referred to as the Welsh Matterhorn – it’s the shape – for years. But somehow we had never made it. I’d been sticking to the sea, rivers and woods.

Yet my appreciation of Asanga’s climbing skills – his nimbleness and balance, that ‘balletic goat’ stuff – had been growing. Secretly. I started to be able to actually listen to his amazing accounts of ice climbs, of Himalayan treks or of leading feats at outrageous sea cliff locations. And even watch the very occasional climbing film like Free Solo.

Gradually it came to me that it would be great to join him in some way. Not climbing. Even if I laughing talk about it. But by finally going up Cnicht together. A going towards – from me. A sharing of his mountain love.

Finally, we went. I was anxious. Not just about being on ice and snow while climbing upwards but also about wearing the right clothes. I borrowed boots from this daughter – Asanga bought new laces – he found me some purple rainproof over trousers, I had layers, a woolly hat. My first and maybe last time in a woolly hat. I have to add that I still had flowers in my hair underneath. My loyalty to floral adornment did not waver. Oh yes, and the gaiters – they had straps that went underneath my boots and waterproof material which went up to my knees.

I looked hideous but was so content to be ready for the mud, the ice, the snow. I was also warm. This was a good start. Also, Asanga was reassuringly organised when it came to getting ready. Flasks of tea and hot chocolate.

‘Look, I’ve got these two survival blankets,’ he announced showing me these two shiny packages. I am still not sure whether he should have told me that or not. But I understood that the intention was to keep us safe whatever the outcome.

Importantly for me, we discussed various possible eventualities before we went. I said that I felt vulnerable, that mountains were his territory and unknown to me, and that I might have to say that I’d gone far enough. He agreed that that was okay. I had to do this because I didn’t want to feel pressurised into going to the top. I knew that he would want to go to the peak.

The climb starts in the spectacular mountain-cradled village of Croesor and a mossy oak wood. Reassuringly, there were four young people leaving at the same time as us. ‘Good luck,’ said a broadly smiling woman.

The lowlands were muddy and sheep-scattered, we could see one peak ahead, but it turns out there is another ‘true peak’ behind that. As we walked, we looked down and saw the Glaslyn Estuary at Borth Y Gest and the Cob, as well as the other snow-covered peaks around us – Moelwyn Mawr to the right, the Nantlle ridge to the left. I was a little concerned about the clouds coming down and being engulfed in grey. I was afraid of getting lost even though Asanga knew the way.

And it was raining. Raining was unexpected and not what I wanted on this mountain walk. It turned into sleet as we got further up. But there were sheltered pauses. I avoided all the ice at first, and then found what bits I could walk on safely. Of course, it’s all about feeling confident. And the sticks – this was my first time – helped with balance. Asanga really is like a mountain creature when he gets going on these steep trails and the sticks were a good aid for me.

At about a 1,000 feet, we got to the snow line. In fact, it was still fairly thick and we were accompanied in our hot chocolate drinking by the deep croak of a raven flying back and forth. We wished for a peregrine but the raven was thrilling in itself.

Now, we started a steeper climb, winding carefully up this spinal ridge because there was a drop on the other side. I followed Asanga. I was happy for him to lead. Of course. He was exhilarated to be up here in his magnificent mountains again. He really is in his element.

I took in the silence. I felt the aloneness. The snow and ice. And that sense of expansiveness as we looked down to nothing except other hills and peaks. No cars, no villages. Just the mountains.

And as we kept on, it wasn’t physical tiredness that got to me, it was more the constant sleet and the grey clouds descending. And the drop down the side. There came a point where I felt my ‘No’ gather strength and eventually emerge. Asanga graciously accepted. We were three quarters of the way up, I didn’t feel the need to get to the peak.

Afterwards, I felt content that I’d done it. And I know Asanga did too. I had shared a few steps of his grand passion. My going towards had created a new layer of togetherness. I could feel the difference in our disagreements. There was a different layer there. A new trust. Another bit of the love web. 

How am I Coping?


9 Minute Read

Ok, just got the news of a new lockup on 16th December. It had been expected but I was hoping it would be on Friday so I could still have lunch with my friend Pamela at the French House in Soho on Thursday. No such luck. Was planning on oysters. It was going to be my Xmas treat, but I had to kiss that one goodbye.

One of the main reasons the lockdown is upsetting is because many pubs and restaurants are going to go under. Will the historic French House survive? Doubtful. So many jobs lost.

I’d been going there regularly since the 60s when the good-natured Gaston Berlemonwas was the owner. He knew how to mix the best cocktails.

The French House had always been popular with actors, painters, and writers. In other words, bohemians.  It was the days of the very long liquid lunch, and there one could enjoy good conversations with heavy drinking journalists, martini downing publishers, and famous barristers drinking champagne

Struggling artists cadged free drinks from sloshed businessmen who hoped sooner or later to lay their hands on a painting that would make them a lot of money. Scruffy looking bards, whose nourishment seemed to consist of mainly vodka, flirted with gregarious, heavy boozing gutsy chain-smoking women out for a good time, who were to be found there.

As was Jeffrey Barnard, whose weekly column for the Spectator principally chronicled his daily round of intoxication. His writing was once described by the journalist, Jonathan Meades, as a “suicide note in weekly installments.” And there was the regular, Frank Norman, whose play about cockney low-life characters in the 1950s, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be, had won The Evening Standard’s award for best musical in 1960. Other regulars over the years have included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Tom BakerMalcolm Lowry, Jay Landesman, Elizabeth Smart, and John Mortimer.

Before my time, when the pub belonged to Gaston Berlemonwas senior, the painter, Augustus John, drank in the company of Brendan Behan who reputedly wrote large portions of The Quare Fellow there. Dylan Thomas, it’s said, once left the manuscript of Under Milk Wood under his chair. Sylvia Plath is also reported to have visited the French House.

For me, it was the one place in Soho where people truly chose to share time and conversation.

Soho will never be the same when we go back to ‘normal’ times. Gone are the ‘normal’ times. It has all changed, we have changed, I have changed.

Not that I know quite how I’ve changed, but I feel like a limp wool doll that’s been turned inside out. I’m upside down.

Before the crown of all pandemics sequestered our lives, I didn’t watch TV programs a lot. Now, to pass the interminable time, I see much more stuff on my computer. Films, documentaries, Amazon Prime videos, Italian movies on YouTube — what have you. But I still don’t have Netflix. I feel that Netflix is a monopolism, so I’m boycotting it, but who knows, as time proceeds and there is less and less material for me left to look at I might give in. After all, I buy from Amazon constantly, and that too is a monopolism. I am a contradiction.

I don’t feel like reading. My eyes hurt, the print is too small. And as for eating on my own? How does one cook for one? Take a cabbage leaf, add a baby tomato, a slice of potato . . . Some of my friends make soups or vegetable stews which they put in the fridge to eat all week. But that’s not for me. Sometimes a yogurt with berries and nuts can suffice. And yet, even though I don’t eat that much, I’ve put on weight. Coronavirus pounds. Surely a glass of wine in the evening and the occasional Bloody Mary are not the cause of me no longer being able to get into my clothes? But you know what? I don’t care. I’ve grown up in 2020.

I know I’m fortunate to be on my own. I’m an old cat with a sticky character and others enervate me. I’m aware there is a price to pay for having a sticky character. There’s a price for everything.

My cleaner came this morning. Her eyes a combination of fury and tears, and before she even greeted me, she cried out, ‘They’ve closed the schools!’ She has two young sons. She’ll come to me on Sundays now when her husband is home to take care of the kids. We all need to adjust. Somehow we adjust. It is what it is. Fucking awful, is what it is.

I wake up each morning with my heart in the pit of my stomach which is in a  knot. I turn on my radio. All the news is bad again. How am I going to get through today? Although I don’t even know what day it is as I seem to have lost all sense of reality as days melt into each other. I feel I’m in a Dali scenario.

Under the soothing hot water in my shower, I remind myself that here I am, in a privileged condition, so best stop complaining. You’ll get to see your grandchildren next year, I tell myself. The time will pass in a jiffy, treat it as the retreat you’ve always wanted to take and never have, and now here it is. The good news is you have lots of time for writing. And don’t forget to follow the advice of Eckhart Tolle to be here now. Maybe I’m coming to terms with fate. What else can one do?

I castigate myself for moaning as my thoughts go to the masses of underprivileged poor who will not be able to afford to give their children a Xmas treat, who shiver in the hovels they cannot afford to heat, let alone pay the rent for. How many abused wives and children will suffer in this festive season? How many more homeless will hit the streets? How many suicides will there be? And to think that Dominic Cummings received a pay rise of at least £40,000 this year. Not that that seemed to put a smile on his surely face. Nor does Scrooge Rees-Mogg smile as he criticises Unicef who will now be feeding hungry children in South London. He accuses them of playing politics. Really? Has he any idea? How many gifts will the nanny be wrapping to place under his huge Christmas tree? How large will the turkey, so lovingly stuffed by the cook, be a feast for the taste buds as it rests ready for carving on the antique family table?

Christmas promises to be a disaster. People are tearing their hair out. Total contradiction and confusion. Celebrate with your loved ones, but don’t get on a train, it’s dangerous. In fact, best to stay at home. Do this, do that, be careful not to kill your granny and whatever you do, remember no hugs. Danger looms around every corner. We are in the unpleasant hands of a cheating populist government that does not know what it’s doing as death tolls rise. They’ve lost the plot and we pay for their stupidity. The Joker Johnson, at all times, fails in his duty to protect his citizens.

Weather permitting, I’ll take a walk on my own and talk to the ducks on the canal. Not that I mind being on my own, for some years I’ve spent Christmas alone. It’s ok, no big deal, 25th of December is just another day. When you get to my age you can be philosophical about it, especially as most old-time friends I used to celebrate it with have died. There is a mausoleum inside of me crowded with those dear departed. I think about them daily.

But wait a minute, hold your turkeys, Christmas has just been canceled! With the excuse of the advent of a new, more virulent virus, we have been moved to Tier 4. Not going anywhere.

Grandparents are beyond desolation, disappointed children are shedding tears, fathers are cursing as they have another Gin, and mothers don’t know what they will be doing with all the food they have bought in anticipation of feasts.

A black mist of anger hangs over the depressed population.

But don’t despair, the powers that be assure us. The brilliant news is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel called The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID19 vaccine. It’s astonishing that they got it together so quickly, and is, indeed, great news. Doormat Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, sheds tears publicly as he witnesses Margaret Keenan, a 91-year-old grandmother, be the first person in the world to receive a jab as part of a mass vaccination programme. ‘I’m so proud to be British,’ he says, unaware, perhaps, that the vaccine has been developed by the Turkish, Uğur Şahin and the German Özlem Türeci, daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated from Istanbul. These two gifted emigrants are now amongst the richest people in Germany. For them, Covid-19 has not been an ill wind.

I was surprised to have already received a phone call from my surgery offering me a jab. Which I refused. This was not an easy decision, but I’m not ready yet. I need to think about it carefully. At this point, I don’t want to put anything foreign into my healthy body. I use no allopathic medication but instead eat healthy food, make extensive use of essential oils, take a zillion supplements, do a zillion exercises. I haven’t been ill, not even a cold, in years.

My son is upset. “Mum, get the vax, if you get the virus you will probably die.”

“I won’t get it. I’m being very careful,” I try to reassure him. Wishing for a more ‘normal’ mother, he shakes his sceptical head.

‘You won’t be able to travel if you don’t get vaccinated,’ friends cry out. Maybe so, but in the meantime, I’ve booked myself a flight (before Brexit kicks in) to Tuscany for next year.

As for now, I’ll continue wearing a mask, keep a reasonable distance, wash my hands, rush through Waitrose, and remind myself, at all times, that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The fundamental question is whether our values will shift after we come out of the nightmare?

A renaissance must take place. Principles will have to be reviewed. The powers that be will have to seriously understand that love, altruism, compassion, fairness, caring for those less fortunate than us, is fundamental. There are going to be new viruses just around the corner if people don’t change their behaviour and attitude to animals. Huge amounts of money will have to be deployed to heal the climate.

If we don’t do this, it means we have learned nothing at all from this plague which surely has come to give us a lesson.

Getting Creative as We Get Older – Go For It!


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


7 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what accounts for this difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Alan Gray

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

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

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

Will I Bloom Again?


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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