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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

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.

 

Lockdown Story – Living with my 92 year old Mum


8 Minute Read

It’s April 18th 2020, somewhere around week four of Lockdown in the UK. Life has taken on a reassuring and at the same time, unwelcome routine. A glimpse of institutional life perhaps. A distorted vision of freedom.

Mum has been living with us since two days before lockdown began. Uprooted from her cosy flat where assisted twice a day by experienced carers, she lived a semi-independent life. We all joked about her being an evacuee for the second time in her life. Alhough this time, it’s not as a result of a war, it’s simple biology in action and we humans are on the wrong end of the equation as hosts to an unwanted viral guest.

It made sense for mum to move in with us (that is me and my husband of nearly forty years) because we are both shielding – she, because she is a frail 92-year-old with early dementia and me, not yet sixty, living with a rare autoimmune disorder for the past eight years, which requires a regime of drugs to subdue an over keen immune system and to support less than effective kidneys that have endured the battering when the body goes on the rampage against itself. Neither of us would fare well with a dose of Coronavirus so staying safe together in a small unit of three people was the sensible thing to do and this situation demands good sense doesn’t it?

Hubby, Mark, is our stalwart and steadfast gofer – collecting our weekly provisions and, because he enjoys the creativity of it, cooking for us every day. We have decided that we will venture out for a daily walk, it’s quiet in our part of the city. Mum clings to her Sholley, determinedly teetering onwards as we plough our furrow around the block. Roads are almost silent and streets mostly empty.

We have the same conversation each time, we observe the silver birch trees that mum can barely see (macular degeneration having robbed her of most of her vision), then she asks me if the trees have been painted white. I respond that, no, it’s the pale, papery bark that she is seeing. I peel a little away and press it into her hand to confirm the veracity of my words.

Each day, we mention the magnolia tree that sits proudly in a front garden. Each day we comment on its slow progress towards spectacular bloom that is certainly followed by disappointingly drab foliage. Is it worth taking up that much space? We both muse, again.

It’s spring and, although the gardens are verdant and bursting forth, life has a treacle like viscosity, like the slow, dusty dog days of summer, the ones where you are itching for autumn to arrive, to get the heat over with and for time to speed up a little.

Mornings have the same routine, helping mum to get up, to reorientate herself in both space and time, to understand, albeit temporarily, that, yes, the virus is still here and, no, we don’t know when it will end. Each morning we put on the TV news, so loud that I swear you could hear it from space (did I mention that mum is also deaf and hates wearing her hearing aid?). We enjoy breakfast, meals are somehow always life-affirming, and we laugh at the magazine programmes that show others and their various lockdown antics. We do our daily ‘exercise class” with Mr. Motivator and I take photos of mum to put on Facebook under the legendary “Team Eunice”. Mum has come to love seeing how many likes she gets and hearing me read the comments from her many fans.

The afternoons are often less light-hearted as mum’s mind wanders off down one of the many rabbit holes that trouble her each day. She tires as the day progresses and often becomes tearful and confused, wondering what it is that she has done wrong and why she is living here with us instead of in her own home. We mobilise family and friends to make contact via Skype, Zoom and telephone in an effort to both reassure mum that we are all in the same boat and to give Mark and I some respite from having the same conversation on a seemingly endless loop.

The evenings are enlivened with laughter from unexpected quarters; Mum can still be sharp as a tack in dispensing a witticism or wickedly caustic comment. At bedtime I tuck her in, as if she is now my child. I let her know that all is, and will continue to be, well. I make sure she is warm and bestow hugs and kisses so that she knows she is safe and loved. I put out the light. Then I go upstairs to join Mark in his bedroom (we have taken to sleeping in separate rooms, not only to follow the shielding advice but also, if we’re honest, to have some precious space to ourselves, to breathe). We hug, laugh, cry, rant in whispers, rage under our breath and openly question our sanity, terrified of how long life is going to be like this.

We feel robbed of our wonderful, globetrotting, family and friend filled retired life and then immediately are wracked with guilt for even daring to feel this way. After all, there are millions of people who have a genuinely hard life: full-time carers, often on the breadline and managing alone; parents cooped up in tiny high-rise flats with children who are longing for an outdoor play space; those whose livelihoods are ebbing away; those who have no choice but to risk getting infected everyday – the key workers who have, by and large, been invisible and are now being afforded super-hero status (But not the wages that go with it).

The list is endless and I feel that I must temper my urge to scream with a very big dose of gratitude because my lot could be a great deal worse. Even so I remain deeply sad and in a state of grief.

Each day Mark and I take it in turns to walk our dog, a welcome time of solo exercise in a lovely green space not too far from home. A time to be with our own thoughts, to observe the natural world just being there and to decompress. It feels strangely dystopian.

Whichever one of us stays indoors tends to entertain Mum out in our garden. Mum loves being outside, enjoying the scents of emerging flowers and herbs. Each day one of us walks her around our tiny, much loved plot.

Gardening, growing, nurturing and tending has proved to be such a balm, such an act of defiance, optimism and hope for the future. Before lockdown the garden was predominantly my preserve, now it is a sanctuary for us all, one where the seasons move while time stands still.

As we enter the second month of lockdown, a switch seems to go off in mum’s head and she begins to withdraw, turning away from meals and only speaking to ask when she can go home. It is clear that in striving to protect her physical health her mental health is suffering so we begin to make arrangements for her to go back to her flat. Luckily it’s been possible to continue to pay Mum’s carers throughout her time with us and they are both ready and willing to pick up where they left off. Mum is overjoyed at the prospect of going home, although she is now worried that I have contracted the virus because I often have a croaky cough in the mornings. I reassure her that I’m OK. Mark moves back the items of furniture that we bought from mum’s flat to our house in an effort to make her feel at home. Both of us now reflecting on how home isn’t actually about possessions but is in fact about the place where you can be yourself. The transition back to mum’s flat takes place on a Saturday morning when mum’s favourite carer, Linda is there to greet her. Later that day I call mum on the phone and it’s almost as if the past weeks have evaporated, we have the same phone conversation that we always have, she has little recollection of the details of her stay with us, preferring instead to reminisce about her time working at the Admiralty in London after the war.

It is now July and the virus lingers in the background like a bad smell and I find myself bouncing between feelings of relief and spaciousness and a vague sadness.

I continue to rant at politicians whenever I feel the need to let off steam. At the same time, our garden is bursting at the seams with fruits, flowers, vegetables and anything we can grow. I have been swimming in the sea several times a week since the end of May and that brings me more joy than I thought possible. Mum comes here for afternoon tea in the garden almost every week and I have no idea where all this will end or what the world will look like in the future. And I’m beginning to think I’m fine with that.

Everything I know about Women Over-50


1 Minute Read

I was recently signposted to a fabulous article by Alyson Walsh, journalist and more widely known as the creator of the site, ‘That’s Not My Age’ called, ‘I’m 56 and proud – and here’s what I know about women in their 50s.’

The article came out in January but I missed it until it randomly popped up on the Advantages of Age Facebook group as a post waiting to be published.

It got me thinking. In March 2016, Rose and I started Advantages of Age, on an impulse – we wanted to challenge the media narrative around ageing. Four years later, I’ve probably spoken and heard from hundreds, if not thousands of women (and a handful of men) over 50.

What do I know about women over 50s? A lot more than I did when I was in my 40s.

For a start, as you’d expect of a group of people characterised in a general way by age, we’re a diverse bunch. Some want to dress up in funky, colourful clothes; others are happy to blend in with the background. Many are quite relieved not to be the centre of attention while others still want to shine in the spotlight. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to being a woman in her 50s, much like any other age group. I would prefer it if that bulge around my middle – that suddenly appeared around the same time as my hormones took a nosedive – would go away but I’m learning (slowly) to get used to it.

Sex is and continues to be a divisive topic, with some of us still having it when we can and others happy to have left that all behind after the menopause. My own libido definitely fell off the cliff when I hit ‘the change’ and never fully recovered. It took a couple of years to get used to not being constantly horny but eventually, as the writer M. Scott Peck said of his own dramatic lessening libido: ‘It’s like a monkey off my back.’

We know who we are. One of the greatest pleasures for me in meeting and talking to so many women my own age is discovering a bunch of people who really know their own minds and aren’t afraid of expressing their opinions. And I love that about them. There’s no pussyfooting around with a woman in her 50s. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in what they have to say – they’re going to tell you anyway. No longer trying to please others – as I suspect so many of us were prone to do or had to do to fit in – most women over 50 that I know are comfortable in their own skins. It’s what makes hanging out them such a pleasure. We can explore the range of our opinions and accept or challenge them. That is a huge bonus for friendships. And the depth of friendship.

It’s very tough to make money. This is one of the universal truths about life for the Over-50s. I’ve spoken to women working to create positive change in the world, others who are simply trying to put food on the table and we’re all trying to work out how to generate a reasonable income that wouldn’t hold a candle to what we were probably earning 20 years ago. Lots of my friends have been made redundant or are currently unemployed. It’s actually harder to come out of a corporate career because you’re used to a regular pay packet than if you’ve been freelance for most of your life and are used to living with uncertainty. I don’t know that I’ve figured it out for myself yet but it’s one of the reasons that I’m continuing to work and develop programmes aimed at supporting older people into self-employment. It’s important that we’re all able to make enough to survive and more.

The pension gap hits women over 50 the hardest. One of the many manifestations of working with and listening to women over 50 for the past few years is that I am invited to and participate in events, webinars, zoom sessions, meetings with others who share my interest in helping our generation. I have a google drive stuffed full of reports related to the Over-50s to the extent that I’ve become a geek when it comes to understanding the various ways we’re taking a hit.

Ageism and sexism play a part but there are other lesser-known factors too such as the switch from Defined Benefits to Defined Contribution pensions, becoming informal carers to our parents or in having had occupations that by virtue of the industry we chose to work in, no longer exist. I’m thinking of all the Over-50 journalists now, people like Alyson Walsh, who has recently set up a subscription page on Patreon asking for contributions of £1 – £4.50/month to keep her site alive. So many women I know are trying to figure out how to do what they love and get paid for it; it’s not easy.

We talk about grey hair a lot. Is it OK to go grey? The pros and cons. Why some of us would never do it or we did and didn’t like it or the ones that are fiercely pro-grey. Along with sex, it’s a big topic that always generates lots of debate. That and going pink or purple or blue. Let’s just say, hair colour is a definite thing if you’re a woman over 50.

When it comes to the opposite sex, many of the heterosexual women over 50 are on the fence as to whether it’s worth the bother. Online dating has proved successful for the very few who are tenacious and tough enough to deal with the ghosting, the rejection, the prevalence of men pretending to be someone they are not. I met my partner via Tinder after over a decade of online dating, on and off, but I appear to be the exception that proves the rule. Most women I know would still prefer to meet someone via a friend and as we all so rarely go out, especially at the moment not-quite-post lockdown, it’s unlikely to happen. There’s a lot of celibate women over 50, some who would prefer to be more sexually active.

We think about our future housing needs and there’s a trend towards a more communal style of living, even if that means something different to everyone. We don’t want to end up in care homes. Nearly every woman that I know, in every group of friends I have, is clear about this, having witnessed what is happening to parents in care. Some experiences have been more positive than others. We all worry about the prospect of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s or worse. Health is a topic – what we’re doing or not doing about it. Whether or not we’re exercising. Walking, cycling, running, bodybuilding. And a range of approaches to eating from supplements to intermittent fasting. There’s no one size fits all. As we age, we want to be active, even if our bodies are suggesting it’s time to slow down a little.

Women over 50 are curious about life. There’s no stopping them. Freed from looking after kids, if they ever chose to have them and often with a divorce/split up (or two) behind them, the women I know have a relish for life and for living that is undiminished. They’re still out there, being creative, travelling (when they’re able to), hosting small and large events and parties, being seen in ways that don’t depend on whether or not they look or feel sexy. It’s not always an easy life and often means having to accept that there’s little to no money in the bank. But having good friends and strong relationships is important to them. I’ve met dozens of new friends since starting Advantages of Age, all over the globe and I hope one day that I’ll be able to see them all too.

What do I know about women who are over 50? They’re living life, to use the cliché, on their own terms and isn’t that great?

Coming Through the Darkness of Lockdown – DEBRA WATSON


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At the time of writing, I have been in Lockdown since March 14th. That’s 90 days plus. I could count it out, but days of the month, weeks, days of the week, even hours of the day have become meaningless. I get – when I remember to put them into my calendar – notifications for zoom meetings, google chats, deadlines for writing which pass like ships on a misty horizon.

Given the relative ease of my situation, it seems churlish to complain about the lockdown. I know for sure that I am not the only one who had a holiday and career plans thrown into disarray. Having kept a sharp eye on events in Wuhan, I knew that the UK was only two weeks behind Italy. I spent a week umming and ahhing about whether to go to South Africa to visit my mother or not. If I did go, I couldn’t stay with my best friend who has a heart condition. If I couldn’t stay with my best friend, should I even see my mum, who is also at risk? What if I picked it up en route and spread it to friends who would then infect their loved ones? What if either the UK, SA or Turkey cancelled flights and I couldn’t get back? My impulse was to risk it, but I can’t be the only one who, having heard Boris Johnson’s infamous, ‘and many family and friends will die’ speech decided to immediately go into lockdown. I strongly suggest that, in future, if anyone wants to clear a room really quickly, that they play a video of Johnson asking people to ‘stay calm and in place till further notice.’ I did not trust my chances with herd immunity. Firstly, I would be travelling through three international airports in both directions, with a long stopover in Istanbul on the way back. Normally, this is a delight, and I go explore Istanbul, have a steam bath and a massage and eat gorgeous food – but in a pandemic, this seemed like a really bad option.

Countries were closing borders and shutting down air travel. The last thing I wanted was to be separated from my family in London. I phoned Mum to tell her my decision. Mum immediately concurred. ‘I am so relieved that you aren’t coming. I have been so worried about you. I want so badly to see you, but I think you are making the right decision.’ Heartbroken and shell-shocked, I rang off. The foreign currency I had purchased just that afternoon was shoved in a drawer for later use. I messaged my friends to inform them of my change of plans; some tried to convince me to take a chance, others wholeheartedly supported my decision. I guess we all had a sense of what might be coming, but I had no idea how mentally and emotionally exhausting I would find the next few months.

The decision not to see my mum was by no means decisive. I felt gutted and right up to the Sunday that my flight was due to leave, I was still forensically going over ways in which I could make it work. Having self-elected not to travel, I would lose the entirety of my air-fare, but really, what if South Africa went into lock-down too, and I would be there, but unable to actually see anyone? The unfortunate side-effect of having an imagination is being able to catastrophise. I catastrophise rather well; my mind settling comfortably on the worse case scenarios: Kill your friends and their families? Get stuck in an empty airport with no flights buying bottled water at £2 a shot? Die in another country with no chance of saying goodbye to your family? Even with all the evidence stacked to support my decision to cancel, my mind continued to play ‘what if’s’ with me; as arguments and counter-arguments twisted like a particularly fiendish and determinedly misaligned Rubric cube.

I was buoyed by the fact that people more sensible than I – thought I was making the right decision, or at very least, the wrong decision for the right reasons. My family thought I was nuts. Immo, my son’s dad had returned from Hamburg on the Saturday. His suitcase filled with requests for Vitamins C and D, Germany too was preparing for lockdown, but I could see that he remained intellectually sceptical. Surely the virus

would only attack the old and the weak? ‘No. The London Marathon cancelled for August last night’.

When lockdown did come on March 23rd, it was a huge relief and vindication. Ditto, when South Africa cancelled a few days later, with an even stricter lockdown that included no sales of alcohol or tobacco and limited opportunities to exercise. For a full week before that, with no lockdown in place, events and businesses in London were making their own decisions as so many were just struggling to keep going. For the first three weeks, I had nothing to worry about anyway. I was on annual leave. In my room, for the most part. Planning on just staying alive. As a life-long asthmatic, I have been close to death on a number of occasions, particularly as a child. I know the feeling of my lungs being so constricted that taking even one step is too much. When the tiny bit of oxygen that is getting to your lungs is all that is keeping you going. When you have to be as still as possible whilst turning blue in the face. When you are living breath to breath until you can get to your inhaler, an injection or an oxygen tank. I watched my dad die of pneumonia. I was there when they pulled the plug on his life-support, mopped up the liquid oozing through the pipes from his drowned lungs. COVID19 sounded like my worse nightmare. For someone who has long advocated for voluntary euthanasia, the irony of my deep aversion to dying did not escape me. Yes, I am ok with dying – but honestly, I have tried my entire life to avoid dying from suffocation. Oxygen deprivation is a horrible, horrible way to die. Give me pills! Give me injections!

In retrospect, it seems bizarre how overwrought those first few weeks were. Considering my near-legendary inability to plan ahead, life had somehow fortuitously arranged that both Immo, my son’s dad and my son, Kalen were in lockdown with me. It is a rare occurrence for us all to be in a living space together. Not since I moved out of our tiny one-bedroom flat, had we had to all be in such close proximity for such an extended period of time. Immo who was working from home in the week before lockdown became official – commandeered the living room. My son, fired from his pub job two days before lockdown, turned his room into a games area and I hunkered down in mine, the bed taking up the majority of the floor space. Suddenly, my tiny bedroom became a multi-functional space – holiday destination, office space, studio. The kitchen became our communal space and without much prodding, we all tried to give each other as much room as possible, the other two shielding me by taking responsibility for food supplies and all of us sharing cooking and cleaning duties on a rota.

Left more or less to my own devices, I still can’t account for the feelings of lassitude and panic. Enthusiastically, I signed up to do a sign-language and a TEFL course but followed up on neither. Many artists I knew were responding to lockdown by organising on-line events, but for the first three weeks, I remained stubbornly on holiday, pondering how to best turn my bedroom into a performance-ready streaming facility. I wrestled with technology: how to turn a SLR camera to a streaming device? What apps should/could I use? My room a mess of cables, manuals and assorted kit, I spent most of my time watching Netflix, Mubi and reality TV on Hayu. I fell enthusiastically into binge-watching ‘The Tiger King’, in between a near 24/7 compulsion to read everything I could about the virus. There was so much we didn’t know. In the early days it was assumed that there was not much risk of it being airborne – though, in retrospect, I wonder how this could have been at all credible. I started a group, ‘Solace for the homebound’, where people could post live-streamed events, I joined The Poetry Society New York’s online service to read 1-2- 1 poetry. When I finally gave up on mounting a new curtain rail against the wall on which to hang a thick crimson curtain, I called my friends Mad and Jeyda to help me, and, over Zoom, they helped me re-arrange my space. With only torches and an array of fairy lights at my disposal, my laptop webcam was unusable. Really shit. Like vitamin C, soap and pesto sauce, web-cams were impossible to get. A friend responded to a call-out on Facebook by sending me hers and I started performing online.

This simple task of getting ready to stream, which would normally have taken me a matter of days to sort out, stretched into weeks. My primary concern was, not creativity, but simply to stay alive. Everything else was secondary. Luckily Immo, Kalen and I are good housemates. We know how to be unobtrusively supportive of each other. The only massive rupture was early on in lockdown when my son travelled across London on public transport to pick up a monitor for his PC. On his return, my eyes wide with paranoia, I tried to get him to take off his shoes and all of his clothes to put straight into the washing machine. His response was to have a huge stand-down fight with me. I phoned my boyfriend in tears and he kindly offered me a place with him and his flatmate. I wanted to wait out two weeks of isolation before relocating to his, but a mixture of not feeling confident that we could comfortably nest without putting undue pressure on our relationship, coupled with a heart-felt apology from my son, put paid to that idea.

A week later, I broke up with my boyfriend. Things had been rocky for a while as I had found that, despite us having an open, polyamorous relationship, he had not been as honest with me as I would have expected. We had patched things up just before I went into lockdown and he had had, I now realise, been preparing the ground for a new relationship when I was going to be away on holiday. I found out soon into isolation that he had two people, other than me, that he was having cyber-sex with regularly. One of whom, he now told me, lived in Dorset and was already planning on seeing him after lockdown. I accepted his offhand comment ‘Yes, I know! You want to break up with me again’, without argument. I couldn’t imagine weeks and weeks in lockdown with no access to him when our relationship was in such a chronic state of distrust. My frayed nerves would not allow it.

For some weeks, we maintained a difficult and frosty attempt at friendship. I had made a promise to both of us that if we were to break up I would try and keep a friendship going. For many weeks, we checked in on each other and maintained a cordial relationship. I struggled through lockdown, in a haze, the lid firmly on expressing any feelings of compounded grief. I was already mourning my lack of physical freedom. Early on I bought a mask, so the short walks I did were frustratingly short of smell stimulus. I wrote poems, sluggishly. Participated in collaborative writing pages and forcing myself to write every day, without quality control, producing little that I found of value.

My days blended into each other, sleep came in snatches, rarely more than three hours at a time. Despite being granted furlough and not having any external stresses, I found it difficult to concentrate. I signed up for meetings and seminars I never arrived for. My feelings of uselessness only compounded by the idea that most heroic thing I could do would be to stay at home, till it was over. Whenever that may be.

For a short time, I wondered at the fact that everything we had previously been told was impossible; grounding planes, working from home, instituting a humane and human supporting benefits system – suddenly overnight became not just possible, but essential. The possibility, that at this moment we could re-choose a way to live as a society that wasn’t dependent on the fossil-fuel industry became briefly intoxicating. It was not lost on me that many of the people who just months previously had characterised Corbyn as a Communist, were now clambering for the state to intervene in exactly the kinds of ways social democrats would expect.

I wish I could say that I am coming out of Lockdown stronger, with more personal insights, a bucketful of achievements and optimism. Nothing could be further from the truth. My boyfriend and I briefly tried to get back together again, with disastrous results. I spent two nights not sleeping, crying my eyes out in the knowledge that he had deliberately lied to me. He hunkered down on the lies even as they unravelled at his feet. Faced with the choice to either accept a relationship where lying is the norm or to not have a relationship, I have chosen not to have a relationship. It hurts. It hurts like hell.

Businesses are getting back to doing business as usual. We have been rocked with scandalous negligence by this government. The Black Lives Matter protests came on the back of a world already in grief, already not breathing, already feeling the bite of inequality. For one moment, the whole world could see clearly what the Black Lives Matter movement had been arguing all along – that Black Lives were daily being sacrificed by governments and institutions who refused to be held accountable and populations whose ‘refusal to see colour’ both tacitly and overtly supported the continuance of casual racism into more institutionalised violence against black bodies.

As we begin to come out of lockdown, the World Health Organisation is warning that we should prepare for a second spike in the winter. There is speculation that theatres will not open till next year. I feel that it will take me a long time to re-calibrate. That the shocks to my system have been deep and damaging. I feel much like a fragile shell, empty of substance, my personal equilibrium, tottering.

Immo and my son have held me together. I am not sure if I could have got through this without them. It has been incredibly comforting to have both of them around. Immo, with his offbeat sense of humour, can always make me laugh. We have a deep intellectual and spiritual connection. A deep understanding. It brings me joy to see him and my son together. My ex-boyfriend filled in the gap for sex and erotic attraction and I suspect that it will not be too difficult to replace. Work has been amazing and held off taking me back from furlough as they know that I am physically vulnerable.

I realise that everyone has tried to do their best with the tools they have had at their disposal and that many of us are, by now, at the very end of managing. I try and tell myself that it was not a race, is not a race, but hope fervently, that the next time a pandemic hits, I will be less deer-caught-in-the-headlights, more able to weather the near-impossible changeability of my emotions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

That I will work productively again. Sometime.

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