Mish Aminoff Moon, 61, is a photographer and a member of AoA. Here she describes what she does. She was born in London into a tight-knit Persian Jewish Community and brought up in a multilingual household which alternated between English, Farsi and Hebrew.
‘When I’m walking around a city and suddenly notice something that sparks my interest, I feel a combination of freedom, concentration, stimulation and harmony. There’s a choice be made, to take a photograph of this image regardless of whether or not I think it will work. That is part of the freedom: the experimenting. My eye and approach are influenced by a love of art history and painting. Prior to studying Photographic Theory & Practice at The University of Westminster, I graduated in History of Art at Sussex University but my interest – as evidenced in my old diaries – started much earlier. As a young teenager going to art galleries and museums was a gateway into an exciting world. I now believe I can experience the exciting, the beautiful, and ultimately my quest for seeing art on my everyday wanderings.’
This project is about reading. She found a photo of her maternal grandfather reading after work on his balcony in Tel Aviv and the project progressed from there.
Looking through old photos from before I was born I found another informal photograph of family members reading newspapers. Here are Matt and Pauline reading their papers in the back garden in Stamford Hill, circa early 1950s:
However, the tendency was that reading matter was used as props in formal studio portraiture. Below, my father in 1930:
Another relative – my father’s cousin Haji-Ben who was based in Milan – with an open book as a prop. His direct gaze and grown-up cross-legged position contribute to the quasi adult composure of the portrait:
And below another studio portrait of my aunt Hannah, this time hand-coloured, with a large open picture book as a prop. I can’t make out the illustration, but it seems like a grand scale documentary image, not what I’d expect from the context!
A posed photograph of me in my bedroom when i was about 3 or 4, taken by my father. This was part of a series of photos he took of me in my room; one at my dressing table, another chatting on a toy phone. I find it interesting that the bookshelf in my room is filled with his old Penguin paperbacks, possibly deemed unsuitable for display in any other part of the house?
When my own children were born I took lots of photographs documenting their everyday experiences and family life; I was interested in capturing moments that I considered significant. The photograph below was taken in 1990 after a particularly sleepless night; Rafi finally asleep on his father’s right thigh and an open book in Josh’s left hand:
And one from the mid-90s of Josh reading one of his old Tintin books to the boys:
Dan occupying himself reading the Zelda manual on our regular Sunday morning brunch outings to Bar Italia in Soho
Some more from Bar Italia – my mother used to say that I always had a book on me everywhere I went. Nowadays it tends to be a Kindle, but here’s proof that it was a habit that continued into adulthood. A portrait of me framed on the mirrored wall, part of a semi-permanent wall display of “regulars” at Bar Italia. I don’t remember the name of the photographer but I remember posing for her back in 2009. Here I am taking a photo of the portrait of me with my book, sitting at the bar counter:
The photo below was taken outside Bar Italia; I like it because if you look carefully you can see a luminous image of a man with long white hair – looking like a biblical representation of God in sunglasses. It happens to be the Brazilian musical Hermeto Pascoal, who is rather amazing, and definitely a jazz master if not a god!
Travelling further afield, here’s another café reader, taken the other week in a February sun-drenched Campo Santo Stefano in Venice:
And at this Tel Aviv café back in 2014, a Hebrew newspaper is used to block out the bright February sun:
On the first day of my first trip to Japan in 2006 I was excited to snap a detail of my Manga-reading fellow passenger on the Tokyo Metro:
I took that trip with my younger son Dan who was 13 at the time. The photo below was taken one night by Dan – I’m reading a book by Haruki Murakami, in my new Japanese glasses:
I like the parallel activity of these bespectacled book browsers in a Parisian gallery shop:
Next up are a couple of images taken on London Underground. I loved the intimacy of this elderly couple sharing their art magazine:
This dapper gentleman in a corduroy suit and coordinating tan accessories was reading a book called The Tao of Physics:
Next a couple of diary-like images, the first documenting my ora dell’aperitivo ritual, complete with Campari, pistachio nuts and tapas like snacks and obscure Kyrgyz-translated book:
And on a relaxed Saturday morning my husband Stephen gets some tips on power from GQ magazine:
Jenny Gordon is an artist and filmmaker who has a son called Gabriel Bisset-Smith. She is black and her son is white. Or they are both mixed race? Her son has written a lively play Whitewash about race, skin colour and gentrification. It’s on at the Soho Theatre in London until July 27th. Book here – https://sohotheatre.com/
How did Whitewash evolve?
Basically through situations and conversations my son and I have had over the years revolving aroundrace and the differences of our skin colour. Then, he decided that he wanted to make them into a play that explores mixed raced identity and housing in London.
Could you explain the name – I guess it’s a play on words re London and race, and also something to do with white privilege?
Yeah, it has a few different meaning really, like the word itself. It’s to do with the white privilege of the main character but also the whitewashing of London.
Were you actually involved before your son wrote it?
It is based on our life and his upbringing so in a way ‘yes’. And he has been involved with my housing situation which has been part of the motivation to write this!
Did he interview you in order to use your experience?
He didn’t have to interview me because we have an on-going dialogue.
How do you feel about being at the centre of this play?
Initially I found it quite stressful as I’m very private about my personal life so it was odd having people think the play is real when it’s just inspired by some real events. But I’m getting use to it now.
And has it affected your relationship with your son, Gabriel?
The whole experience has been really positive for our relationship. We are always very supportive of each other as my son I are very close and we get on really well. I understand what he is doing and it’s been great collaborating with him as I did the painting for the show and he’s a dream to work with.
I noticed you refer to yourself as black and the publicity from the Soho theatre says mixed race?
I refer to myself as black but for the clarity of the story the publicity says mixed race.
How was it being a black mother with a white baby/son/child? In the public arena? And what does that say about us as a society?
When Gabriel was born the first thing I said to the doctor was – ‘Is he going to go darker?’ and the answer was ‘no’. If I hadn’t seen him come out I would have thought they had made a mistake, so it took me a while to bond with him. He was very blond with ringlets and blue eyes and people always thought I was the nanny or minder, and sometimes people would argue with me that he couldn’t be my son.
It became very tiring so I just went with it, which made me take a step back. I didn’t really talk about it – so I would just laugh it off but I think it had aneffect on me.
I’m not sure what it says about society but it madeit much harder if you were different in any way out of the norm.People thought they had a right to comment on it? Nowadays it’s probably more hidden.
Have we improved or gone backwards?
With Trump and the possibility of Boris Johnson becoming a Prime Minister, I feel that these are quite risky times and there is a feeling that we could be going backwards in terms of being a woman andrace.
There’s a lot of focus on white privilege these days? Is that good?
Yes, I think it’s a good thing that white people are made aware of their privilege. It’s been there forever but they are really only becoming aware of it now. And it means people like me have a clearerunderstanding of why we get shut out of opportunities.
How is it a love letter to London?
It celebrates what is great about this city. Clubbing, art, diversity and over the course of 30 years. But it also questions what’s happening to it.
How has your own attitude to race changed?
My attitude to race has changed for the better. It’s so much better for me now than when I wasgrowing up. I had a lot of racial abuse wherever I went. I had to be aware of which places that I couldgo to socialise, where I looked for work and education. Now it’s so much more cosmopolitan with so many more inter-racial relationships. I don’t suffer any open outward racism anymore.
What was it like being a young artist in the 80s and 90s in London? How did you survive?
I lived in Culross Buildings in Kings Cross, which could be a bit edgy, with drug addicts and prostitutes. I had a free studio in the same building as my flat and a communal hall where we would hold celebrations and parties. I would go for meetings with gallery owners and with quite a few of them I had bad experiences.I was invited for meetings on the basis of my paintings. However when they saw me, they kept me waiting for hours and then said my work was too controversial for their gallery. I found this experience to be very disheartening and as a result it made me less confident to promote myself as an artist in the ‘art world’.
I also had a part-time job working in a nursery where my kids went and I used to do a vintage stall down Portabello Road. Soho was my go-to-place for socialising at The French, Colony or Gerry’s.
We created a haven in the Victorian buildings and cobbled streets, which were used as film sets for films like Charlie Chaplin and Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. It was a really great artistic communitywhere you felt safe and protected as everyone looked out for each other.
Overall we could be more creative and less money-dependant. I had great support from family, friends and neighbours. It could be tough but we always had lots of fun and good memories of a London that no longer exists.
One of the themes in the play is social housing and how that is changing? I think you have personal experience of that?
I think social housing is coming to an end. It’s more like social cleansing, which I am experiencing myself at this point in my life. They are trying to re–develop where I am living now. It always starts with small damp issues which are never proven and leads to demolition and an uncertain future.
Creativity and age – an oxymoron? The early deaths of Chatterton (“the marvellous boy”), Keats, Shelley and Byron fuelled the Romantic “Good poets die young” myth. Wordsworth proved it by living too long and churning out a great deal of second-rate stuff as he grew older.
Try taking a wider view: where would European civilisation be without Milton’s Paradise Lost, Beethoven’s last string quartets or Rembrandt’s late self-portraits? What all these works have in common is that they are the works of maturity, produced in the artist’s later years.
T S Eliot wrote Four Quartets in his fifties. The great twentieth-century American poet, Amy Clampitt, published her first poetry collection at the age of 53. Annie Proulx was 56 when The Shipping Forecast came out. The popular novelist, Mary Wesley, was 71 when her first book was published. The list could go on and on. Helen Vendler wrote of Amy Clampitt: “The flood of poems that she produced late in life delineate a self – silent for 53 years – that suddenly found a public voice. If she had died at 52 we should never have known about her.” From these examples, it seems that the creative urge, far from decreasing, may well up into a great imaginative surge in later life.
The young know they are immortal – at least in their twenties (I can always do it later …). In the past women have been at a particular disadvantage – Virginia Woolf spelled that out very clearly in A Room of One’s Own. In contemporary Western society, there are enormous pressures on both men and women, especially when they are in their thirties and forties. Paying the bills, parenting, building a career – all too often the urgent drives out the important. Not only are there not enough hours in the day but there are constant interruptions. It’s hard to produce that great work of art when you can’t get a good run at it or when you only have the weary dregs of time at the end of the day in which to write, paint, compose.
“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth” were the poignant words found on a slip of paper in Herman Melville’s desk after his death. The dream of my youth was to be a writer. As soon as I learned to write words I started writing imaginatively. I still remember the first story I wrote. It was about two cats who ran a (comically catastrophic) painting and decorating business. I wrote it in what is now called graphic novel form – strips of drawings and words on each page. I made it and sewed it together. That book was lost long ago but my creative impulse to write is undiminished.
I got hooked on poetry in my teens – reading Elizabeth Jennings and R S Thomas for ‘O’ level (that shows my age). I started writing poetry then and have never (quite) stopped. Recently I turned up a bundle of my poems written c. 1966 – 1990. Poems that at one time I thought were worth keeping. Morbid, pessimistic, strong on nature descriptions, mostly derivative of other poets – and uniformly bad. I chucked them into the paper-recycling bin but it was interesting to see where I had come from.
Over the years I’ve had moderate success writing short prose and poetry for magazines. But it was not until 2010 that my first collection of poetry was published. I was 59. I felt slightly ashamed of admitting my age. I was tempted to make a slip of the pen – born 1980 instead of 1950. I felt as if I would be judged as inferior because it had taken so long for my first collection to appear. As if a real writer would have been published years before. As if I was a woman whose literary priorities were clearly so skewed by child-rearing and a teaching career that she had only bothered to take up writing now as a dilettante project to have something to do in retirement.
When I was a child I loved helping in the garden and sowing seeds. Whenever I asked my mother what I could plant her answer was always the same: “Sow me some thyme”. As you get older you know you have less time. “If I don’t do it now, I never will” is a powerful creative force. There comes a time when, with luck, there’s the opportunity to focus on producing imaginative work without the thousand distractions which plagued earlier life.
What is the secret of keeping creativity alive in later years? The answer is, I think, change – that great feeder of the imagination. The motto of Edwin Morgan, the much loved and greatly lamented Scottish Makar, was “Change rules”. He was still writing and publishing very good poetry in his late eighties while living in sheltered accommodation. “Myself I must remake” wrote Yeats in his seventies. “Old men should experiment” said Haydn. “Old men ought to be explorers” wrote T S Eliot in “East Coker”. And women.
In 2011 I read Christopher Pilling’s translation of Maurice Carême’s last poems Défier Le Destin, written when the poet was in his seventies – as was the translator:
Elizabeth Carter is a transformation lead at NHS England, working on a campaign to promote nursing as an aspirational career of choice. A change leader, feminist, and radical, Elizabeth is determined to enable young women in education and their careers to unlock their full potential. In her discretionary time, she coaches and writes with a focus on her passion, women in leadership. She is a fierce advocate for living well until dying and sees this fourth quarter of her life as a time to embrace the inevitability of death and preparing for a good death by living a good life. Elizabeth is appearing at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival as part of the AoA session on Sunday, June 9th at 5pm in the Mortuary Chapel. She will be reading a piece she wrote – with Nadia Chambers – for AoA on Living Well until Dying.
Age (in years)
59 ( 60 in October)
Where do you live?
Oxfordshire right now. I moved here last April having spent 5 years in Spain. I have lived all over – longest I have ever lived anywhere ( since I left home at 18) is 5 years. I always know when it’s time to move on and I act on it.
What do you do?
I walk my dogs, I dream a lot, I write stuff. Oh and I coach leadership development especially women in leadership and coach narrative to leaders.
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 17. I sometimes feel like it’s a bit of a joke that I am actually the age I am but clearly it’s true!I think the best thing about being this age is that I am incredibly kind to myself and allow large amounts of selfishness to keep healthy emotionally and physically.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
An ability to sit still, to meditate, do yoga. I was so full on then.
What about sex?
I like sex! I am very comfortable with my body and have no shyness or hang-ups. Great sex is wonderful and I have had some great sex!
Hmm – someone recently said we are hard-wired to be in a relationship – I don’t agree. I think society tells us that. I am currently single and very happy and fulfilled.
How free do you feel?
Totally. I really do as I please. It’s like being at a permanent festival.
I love it!
What are you proud of?
My friendships and the feedback I get when I coach.
What keeps you inspired?
Other people – my faith and trust in young people – I think that Gen Z is amazing. i am so hopeful for the future in their hands. And the night sky.
Wherever I am I gaze at the stars – always amazes and inspires me.
When are you happiest?
Pretty much all of the time! Particularly if I am having a great one to one with a friend or family member. Sparking off each other. When I am dancing and listening to music
And where does your creativity go?
On paper – I write and I write. Also into the work that I do – I love thinking up cool ways to engage people.
What’s your philosophy of living?
Do it – every day. Live it well with kindness and thought for others and always smile and say hello to elderly people – you might be their only contact in any given day.
It’s inevitable. Embrace it and lean towards it using every living breath well.
Are you still dreaming?
All the time awake and asleep. I am a master day-dreamer! Or should I call it visualisation? My night and sleep dreams are wonderful.
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
I don’t know that I do anything outrageous. I am prone to spontaneity and follow impulse and it usually works out ok!
A problematical bed to fill was how she put it, which left a lot of scope to wonder how the problem came about and when. In her faded Greenham Common T-shirt and cut-offs, she looked too jaunty for sudden widowhood; too down-at-heel to be on the pull, though her breasts were nicely presented. She didn’t seem the sort to offer her bed to a canine companion, and I guessed her to be a cat-hater or even a member of ‘Abstinence Actually’. Dry shade she whispered to the young attendant, and the ghost of Mellors seemed to hover at her shoulder, to hint at maidenhair ferns, though a gamekeeper was probably the last thing she wanted in her garden, dry shade or not. Then she disappeared down a row of euphorbias, left me to conjure her maverick world; the delicate stepping over of a wine and poem drunk woman, her late night dance, how in the morning she might hurry to ‘sent items’ to check her indiscretions.
Wendy Klein is one of the poets who is performing on June 27th at the Poetry Cafe as part of Pizzazz, the Advantages of Age poetry evening. Book your ticket here.
I love everything about it except the physical deterioration: arthritis, osteoporosis, and some hearing loss – none of which keep me from doing the things I want to do.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?
Infinitely more self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.
WHAT ABOUT SEX?
Sex is way better than it was when I was young, because I’m more accepting of my physical flaws and better at expressing what I like and don’t like.
The most important component of a good late life is not health or wealth but a strong social network. Those networks tend to shrink as we leave the workforce and people we’ve known all our lives die. I’m always urging people to make friends of all ages, have followed my own advice, and have many wonderful younger friends. I’m going to need help shoveling and schlepping and getting rid of those damn chin hairs, and I want to be able to cast a wide net. Age is a dumb divide. Think of something you like to do and find a mixed-age group to do it with.
HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?
Extremely. Partly because I’ve been brave, but mainly because I’m lucky and privileged: I have enough money, I have a partner, my kids are doing fine, and I’m pretty healthy.
WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?
I’m proud that my first book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, earned me a place on Phyllis Schlafley’s Eagle Forum Enemies List. (She was the dreadful woman who tanked the Equal Rights Amendment in the US in the 1970s by brilliantly framing it as a family values issue.) I’m also proud that I’ve gotten as far as I’ve gotten as an anti-ageism activist with zero training or institutional support, self-publishing This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism in 2016. That changed this spring, when Melville House brought the book out in the UK (along with Celadon Books in the US) – hooray!
WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?
If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be fascinated by aging, I’d have said, “Why on earth would I want to spend my time thinking about something so sad and depressing?” Now I understand that it’s the biggest canvas there is: how we move through life and interact with institutions and each other. For a generalist like me, who could never decide what to be when she grew up—I certainly never intended to become a writer or public speaker—that’s heaven. It’s also a critically important social justice issue in a world of longer lives, especially everyone with less power and voice: people of color, women, and people of all abilities.
WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?
When I have a smart idea and get it down “on paper.” When my grandchildren run at me. Outside on a hot summer day, ideally dancing — badly.
AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?
Into my writing.
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?
Don’t have one. Be kind. Try not to judge.
Check me into the psychedelic hospice, please. (It’s a thing.)
ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?
Of course, bigger all the time.
WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?
Hopping the subway turnstile. Because they announced my train wasn’t running, so I exited, and then they announced it was, so yeah.
If you’d like to catch Ashton while on her book promotion tour, here’s her schedule:
Lesley-Ann Jones is an author who worked for the likes of the News of the World back in the 80s and 90s. She was whisked around the world to interview people like Hugh Grant (post-Divine and very funny story), Madonna, Raquel Welch, Freddie Mercury and Marco Piero White. Now she’s re-lived it all in her new memoir, Tumbling Dice, which really brings it all back. It’s a fascinating read.
What prompted you to write a memoir now?
I had dined out for years on many hair-raising Fleet Street war stories. At one point, I might have mistaken the phrase ‘Tell me again the one about …’ for my name. I’d lost count of the number of people who had said to me, ‘You really should write a book about your own life.’ So I had been thinking about it for a long time, while never actually doing anything about it. Then my youngest child came of age, while my parents are now in their eighties. It occurred to me that it would be nice to publish such a book while they are still alive, and also that I wouldn’t have to hold back anymore because my children are now grown-ups and could take it. Once I started, it just poured out. It was a very cathartic experience. I hadn’t realized how damaged I was by certain episodes: we tend to bury things, and to live in denial. Writing about them forced me to confront my feelings about them in a different way. On the whole, I have to say, this was a good thing.
You have described the experience as like going out nude? Could you elaborate upon that?
I was staying at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood some years ago with my eldest daughter when an earthquake occurred. Quite a serious earthquake: 7.9 on the Richter scale. The bed I was in at the time ended up across the room, underneath the television, a vast thing, which was now dangling precariously from the wall. Ours was a poolside room on the ground floor, with the main door leading out to the swimming pool terrace. I looked outside and saw a naked woman running along the other side of the pool, screaming. She was completely starkers, except for a very elaborate diamond necklace and chandelier earrings. I remember thinking, not even in the most severe earthquake would I go legging it outside without my clothes on. Daft, really, when you think about the difference between bare-bum nakedness and being bikini-clad, which is a few skimpy triangles and some bits of string. Not that you’d catch me wearing one of those these days, either. But you get my drift. I’ve had three kids. The body is not what it was. I wouldn’t want to frighten the animals. In other words, I am extremely shy and self-contained, like most people. Writing a memoir is the most self-exposing thing that a writer can do, and yes, it is very frightening. What on earth will people think?
Philip Norman describes you as ‘naughty’ in the foreword? Why does he think that?
I have always been a wicked type. Always up for mischief. Given to double-entendres and pranks, with a taste for shaking things up. Life is much more interesting when it has a big tee-hee factor. I was involved in a lot of end-of-pier-type escapades on Fleet Street in the name of a good story. I’ve got some cheek, too. I tend to say the unsayable. I get away with it. I think Phil was alluding to that.
You seem to me to travel between prim and on the nose?
It’s an accurate assessment. I can’t explain it. My eccentric Welsh upbringing, probably. My great-grandmother, grandmother and elderly aunts were all unbendingly proper and obsessed with keeping up appearances. They wouldn’t even nip down the shops without reaching for hat and gloves. But they all knew how to let their hair down and have a rollicking good time over a tipple behind closed doors. I have vivid memories of them all hitching up their skirts and dancing. I must take after them.
This is a memoir that is mainly about the 80s and 90s, you say there was more drugs and alcohol in TV than the music biz?
That was certainly my experience. Drug taking at Chrysalis Records, where I worked, just wasn’t a thing. We drank our share of champagne, though. It was enough. I have never ‘done drugs’. I’ve never even had a drag on a cigarette. I have only wet vices.
You do have a few demons to face down in this book, was it cathartic in that way, or just painful?
Both. Now that I’ve done it, I have a taste for it. There is much more to say. I am already working on the sequel.
You really have hung out with a lot of musicians, actors including unlikely ones like Raquel Welch and Gary Glitter? Accessibility was just so different in those days, wasn’t it?
A number of full-blown careers that we nowadays take for granted simply didn’t exist back then. I’m talking personal managers and publicists, agents and PRs… and a lot of hangers-on. Most artists didn’t have such people in their lives, all justifying their own positions and jobs by interfering and coming between journalist and star. If we bagged an interview with a celebrity, it was just us and them, in a room or a restaurant for a couple of hours. If you hit it off and got on, they might ask you what you were doing for dinner that night. The following week, you might get a call asking you to go to Dusseldorf with them, to review a show. You’d be picked up by their limo, you’d sit next to them on the plane, stay in the same hotel, and be treated like one of their entourage. There was no ‘us and them’ about it. The unspoken rules were simple: you wrote the interview. You reviewed the gig. Whatever else you might witness, it was a case of, what happens on the road stays on the road. You didn’t write the off-record stuff, or you would never be invited back. That was the code by which journalists and artists lived. That code was broken during the early Nineties, when the age of the Paparazzi reached an all-time high – or should I say, ‘low’ – and when celebrity coverage became vicious, every-man-for-himself. Think back to how the rottweilers stalked Freddie Mercury during his final couple of years, photographing him as he left his doctor’s surgery, looking gaunt and on his last legs. They appeared to relish his demise, as if to say, look, this is what you get for being gay. It was shameless and appalling. Laws have changed since then, and rightly so. In our day it was mostly fun, light-hearted and good-humoured. But of course, the Pandora’s Box is open, now. there is no going back.
There are mentions re getting old and attitudes to it – Madonna, you describe, as in fear of it and in pursuit of youth, Joan Collins who also became a friend by the sound of it, is described as having ‘mock-croc’ skin on her body but the perfect face because she’s kept it out of the sun. What’s your personal take on getting older?
That it is better than the alternative. I have a circle of very close friends who are all considerably older than me. My best friend in the world, Simon Napier-Bell (the former manager of Wham!) is nearly three decades older than me, but we are virtually the same person. There is no ‘age gap’. Along with Simon, Ed Bicknell, the former manager of Dire Straits, Clem Cattini, the UK’s most prolific session drummer and former member of the Tornados, and Brian Bennett, the Shadows drummer, are my closest male friends. We make a formidable gang. My best female friend is a decade older than me. I’m still in close touch with three close classmates from school, and two from college … none of which proves anything, other than the fact that people are valuable throughout their lives, and that society places far too great an emphasis on ‘age’ and numbers. It’s not a qualification. I had grandparents and aunts who lived to great ages. I was accustomed to spending considerable time with much older people from a very young age. At my church, St. Bride’s, ‘the Journalists’ Church’ on Fleet Street, most of my friends there are in their 70s and 80s. But their ages are irrelevant. I wrote about Madonna’s hang-ups about growing older, because those are her hang-ups. Joan Collins has always been refreshingly candid about the ageing process. It was from her that I learned to keep my face and neck out of the sun! The ‘mock-croc’ phrase was hers: I’ve always admired the way in which she sends herself up. Worrying about growing and looking older is never going to arrest the process. We’d best forget about it. I live by very simple rules: keep the clutter down; dress the part; talk to men, women and children everywhere you go: everybody has a story to tell; live dangerously (because it lengthens and strengthens your life); never resort to cosmetic surgery, because those who have had it all look like freaks; keep your options open; and remember that everything that is working against you is ultimately working for you. It sometimes takes a while, but it is always the case in the end.
Bill Wyman was a friend in the 80s, and you realized in hindsight you were part of a friendship group that protected his relationship with Mandy Smith who was only 13 when she started seeing him. How does that feel now?
I feel guilty. I knew about it, but never told anyone. I should have. It had already been going on for a couple of years when I realized. I don’t know why I didn’t tell anyone. I was young too. What Bill did to us was a form of abuse. He convinced us to collude in his abuse of Mandy in insidious ways. We were impressed by him, and unsuspecting of his motives. Only when I became a mother myself did I begin to feel differently about it.
I was fascinated by all the machinations at the newspapers – the pay offs, the editors that are deposed and therefore you become more of that fallout, Nick Gordon at YOU who obviously adored you and sent you on all sorts of assignments. And then Piers Morgan when he was editing News of the World, you end up having to sit next to Hugh Grant in Business Class after he has been caught with his pants down and in the paid for company of Divine Brown – he scarpered as soon as he saw you and this impossible mission was not accomplished. How was it for you?
At the time, all of those things were just part of the job. You simply got on with it. It is only now, looking back, that I can see what a crazy existence it all was. We walked tightropes on a daily basis. Vast sums of money were always at stake. Killing the competition and getting the exclusive were all that mattered. We risked our reputations and sometimes our lives for both. I now think what a mental movie it would all make. Because those Fleet Street heyday years have never been captured on film.
There are the famous you obviously like – Joan Collins, Linda McCartney, and others that you pour scorn upon – like Hugh Grant, Madonna?
While it is true that I adore Joan Collins, and that I really loved Linda McCartney, I can’t agree that I ‘poured scorn on Madonna’. She was good to me on a few occasions. I understand her dilemma. How hard must it be to evolve from pretty young sex symbol into ageing diva? You are doing your growing-old in public, and everyone is looking for the cracks. I wouldn’t necessarily have done it her way, but perhaps I’d feel differently in her shoes (and with her money). I have never seen the attraction of younger men, by the way. Men are immature at the best of times, and tend to need mothering, which perhaps explains my friendships with much older guys!
You also tell us about your own love life throughout the book, was that difficult to do because you haven’t had an easy time? You have been a single mum with three children for most of the time.
What do I know about love? That it hurts as well as heals. That’s about it. I am older and wiser, I like to think. I have three amazing kids. My parents are still alive. I have a very busy time with all of them. My life works for me. A partner would (might) be a bonus, but is not a necessity. I have always felt that it’s better to be on my own than with the wrong person; that it is not about being with a man, any man at whatever cost, but with the man. If I couldn’t meet someone naturally, in the real world, then it wasn’t my time, this time around. I don’t do internet dating, nor any of that. I respect other people’s reasons for doing so. It’s not for me.
Tell us about John Hurt offering to buy your first-born, Mia?
I knew John socially. He was married to his wife Donna at the time, and they couldn’t conceive. I was in an advanced state of pregnancy and hanging with him at a private members’ club when he offered me £100,000 for my unborn child. There wasn’t anything sordid about it. He knew that I was about to become a single mother, and probably thought he was doing me a favour! What he didn’t know was that I had chosen to go it alone and have my baby anyway, after my relationship broke up. He was so desperate for a baby that he was prepared to pay a vast sum for one. His desperation broke my heart. He was drinking a great deal in those days. His mind was distorted. He must have known that such a transaction would have been illegal, and we could both have been done for it. Not that I considered it for a second. I would never be without Mia, not in a million years.
You certainly have a way with descriptions – you describe Joan Collins as ‘smelling like toffs’ chocolate’, which made me laugh. And Linda McCartney as ‘as down-to-earth as a root vegetable’. Has your writing always been like that?
I started writing stories when I was about 5 years old. I have hundreds of notebooks dating back to infants’ school. I have always found it easier to write than to speak. I express myself best through the written word. I have a wry view of the world, which is unsurprising, given my eccentric family. I’ve also devoured books since I was tiny. The only way to become a good writer is to read avidly. Anyone can write, it is simply a question of doing it. Of reading a lot, and then doing it. But yes, it is vital to avoid clichés, and to deploy descriptions that do not merely echo what has been said countless times before. There are something like 200,000 words in the English language, if you count obsolete words and foreign derivatives. Our average active vocabulary is around 20,000 words. We can all do better!
Were you tempted to have sex with Marco Piero White? That chapter is titled ‘You know we are going to fuck, don’t you?’
Are you joking? Absolutely not! I was fed-up, not hard-up. He smelled of food, had dirt under his fingernails, and there was dried blood all down his trousers. He was considered something of a sex symbol in his younger day, as I recall. All that matted hair and menacing staring, I suppose. But no, not at all my type. Wouldn’t touch him with yours. I always preferred them freshly-showered, brushed and tweeded, with a volume of Shakespeare under one arm.
What did you discover about yourself during the writing of Tumbling Dice, which is taken from a Stones’ song on Exile on Main Street?
I discovered that there is no real closure. Not about anything. You live with things. You survive with things. No damage ever truly heals. You just have to get on with it, and keep laughing at yourself. Because everyone else will.
How would you sum up that era for you?
I loved it. It defined me, and to a great extent still does. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Michele Kirsch, 57, is a brilliantly witty writer and cook. She used to be a cleaner. She’s a regular AoA contributor. NME, City Limits, and Men’s Health were all lucky recipients of her work. Her first book Clean – one woman’s story of addiction, recovery and cleaning – is out on March 7th. Buy it here,
What is your age?
I am 57, turning 58 in April.
Where do you live?
I live in Hoxton. I am the Accidental Hipster. I live in a Tower Block and none of us talk to each other but we nod in familiar, ‘You’re not a ruffian on the stairwell’ sort of way. We have many ruffians on the stairs. It is a warmer place to do drugs than outside.
What do you do?
At the moment I am working for a charity that supports people living with the effects of brain injury. I support people in getting kitchen confidence skills back, or learning how to cook. It doesn’t feel like proper work. A lot of it is just hanging out and having chats with people who, outside this setting, are treated as ‘other’. In our place, we just shoot the breeze, cook, play music, play games, hang. It’s brilliant. I never want another job. Except I sort of have another job. I’ve written a book and I still write. The book is a memoir, out on 7th March, It is called Clean and available from the proper WH Smiths, the ones on the train stations. As well as other bookshops and Amazon. Some people thing it might be big. That would be great. But I am OK with just doing the job I have now. I am glad I have written and published a book that is going to be in proper shops.
Tell us what is it like being your age?
I am happier now than I have ever been, probably. I had a drug problem for a long time and I am free of that, now. I didn’t get on with my children for a long time and we get on very well right now. Physically, I am very well though I feel I may have messed up my stomach with the long term drug and alcohol use. Though I had stomach problems always. I love my job, I have a good roof over my head in a great neighborhood, I see my grown-up children as often as we can as we all work, and I have a good relationship with their dad, my ex. I guess the one difficulty is that I only get to see my mum and sister, who live in NY, about once a year. My life feels contained and structured, in a good way. Recovery is the gift that keeps on giving. I don’t mind the physical effects of getting old nearly as much as I used to. I still love Topshop and Miss Selfridge. I am absolutely working the mutton dressed as lamb thing and I don’t give a hoot. If the book does well, I suppose I can dress up as more expensive lamb.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Oh my gosh, where to begin? Mainly I live in a country and city I LOVE. I grew up between Liverpool and New York but always felt pulled to London. To live here is an honour, a dream. I have a job I love. At 25 I was starting out as a journalist and making very bad money and I was never getting the great stories anyway. I had no confidence in my ability as a writer. I also thought I was passable in the looks department, but never actually pretty.
These days I have pretty moments or pretty days. It comes from inside, nothing to do with men. I have two wonderful, street smart, loving grown-up children, a huge amount of very good friends, a lovely ex-husband. I also have a sense of purpose, which comes with my job. I can make peoples’ lives more bearable. And I’ve written a book, which some people may find that they can relate to, on some level. I also have, as well as all my new friends, all my old friends. I am a stickler for keeping in touch. I love the internet for that. It makes it much easier. I have freedom from my addiction. That is my number one gift. 57 has probably been my greatest year, in terms of contentment.
What about sex?
I find at my age my appetite for it has diminished but not disappeared. Having said that, I still get the horn if I see a Paul Newman film, or Betty Blue. In real life, I have a boyfriend, and though it’s slightly complicated at the moment, I would say we are well matched and all will be well. We tend to be in the same mood at the same time, which is a bonus.
I have this notion of myself of being rather plain when I was younger, but I always had boyfriends or husbands (two) or men after me. I have no idea where this idea came from, that I was not fanciable. I was a very late developer. I did not start my menstruation until I was 16. Then it all kicked off. I also had the luck to be in love with my very first lover, when I was nearly 18. It was mutual. He loved me too. We are still friends.
One thing that has always been the case is that I feel ridiculous when I try to ‘look sexy’. It never works and I always burst out laughing. I can barely put stockings on, I don’t understand the little clippy things at the top, and I still put a bra on with the back facing the front so I can see myself doing it up. I used to have good rack, but after children and a pretty druggy career, my curves diminished, so bras don’t really do anything for me either.
My bed is never sexy. It is covered in books and newspapers and the cat and cat hair. I’m a mess. My sheets are mismatched and I fall asleep most nights listening to old comedy shows on the radio. The only thing that looks right in my bed is my hair, because I have permanent bed hair. I don’t have to buy a product to make it that way. It’s just like that. Oh, I will say this! I do have an erogenous zone I never knew about until recently. I have an unusually long neck and I like people stroking it. This man at work, he’s, you know, brain damaged and has no impulse control, he stroked my neck and I had to firmly pull away and tell him that it was not OK to do that, in a nice way of course. But I have to say, it felt really nice. That’s a shocking thing to say, but, a brain-damaged guy stroked my neck and I liked it. Doesn’t really scan so there won’t be a song….
I have many, many very good friends, some for 30 or 40 years, in America and over here. My relationship with my boyfriend is a separate thing. I do not have sexual relations with people unless I am married to them or they (he) is my boyfriend, or I think I am in love with them. Serial monogamy is what I do. Though I had some short-lived obsession in my early 20s. That drove me crazy. Everything now feels so much easier. I LOVE Facebook and I’ve made many virtual friends as well as all my real life ones. The relationships I value most are with my family, children and best friends.
How free do you feel?
Obviously, I have commitments, my job, my children, my bills, my relationships, my recovery (first and foremost) but paradoxically the more I do, the free-er I feel. Unfortunately, I am still plagued with worry and anxiety, these are long-standing issues, but I have come to accept they are part of me and just try to ride the waves of panic. It’s not always a heap of fun. I find travel …. hard. But most of my friends know this about me and know if I don’t go somewhere I am not being antisocial, just a bit agoraphobic. I have never found anything- meditation, yoga, exercise, chanting, whatever, that works totally, but I did have a short course of hypnosis, which helped a bit.
What are you proud of?
I am proud of my children. I am proud of my job, which is the best job I ever had. I am proud that I wrote a book that might make waves, somehow. It might help people who have been through a similar situation – feel less alone. I try not to be too proud, as I absolutely believe pride comes before a fall.
What keeps you inspired?
I find inspiration in so many things. I am proper nosy and I love to listen in to other people’s conversations on public transport. Whole little dramas unfold. I can’t wait to get somewhere to write it down. I love little alleyways and cobblestone streets. There are loads of alleys in Liverpool and lots around Hoxton where I live so I love to just wonder down one and wind up somewhere I’ve not seen.
Music always inspires me. I play all my old records all the time, and music can transport me back to a certain time and place in my youth more than anything else. I dance all the time, anywhere. I have no shame. My sponsor inspires me in her recovery. She has gone on to do remarkable things after a very long period of drug-induced crazy times. She is so loving and caring and inspirational. I can’t tell you who she is but I think she will be famous in the thing that she does, professionally.
I am also inspired by couples who have been couples for a really long time. Just because very long lasting love didn’t happen to me, though I was with my second husband for nearly 20 years, most of them pretty good, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I am also religious, and I find inspiration in Bible stories. I did something quite unusual several years ago, which was a formal conversion from Judaism to Christianity. It’s a long story, but actually there are many similarities in the two faiths, as I understand them, though they end differently. I do pray, but I don’t pray for obvious things like success or money or to win something. And I don’t pray for big, worldly things like world peace and a reversal of climate change. I can’t tell you what I pray for, it’s personal, but it’s important to me and it is an inspiration. The Big Book we use in recovery is inspirational to me as well.
When are you happiest?
Without a doubt, I am happiest when I am dancing. I don’t get out dancing enough. I used to go to a soul night with my girlfriends and dance all night. Not even on anything. At work, I have music on in the kitchen, where a few of us make lunch together. People get very excited about lunch where I work. It is the dividing time between morning and afternoon. And people are really into their food. They love it.
I’m am OK cook, not a great cook by any means, but when the music is on and we are, say, all dancing to ‘Monkey Man’ ( I LOVE Ska!) I am just so happy and thinking, I can’t believe I am at work, dancing and cooking and getting paid for it. I cook with this one guy who absolutely goes nuts when he hears Justin Bieber. I am not even a fan, but when this guy goes so crazy when Bieber comes on, I go crazy with him, and we dance and do the bad boy rap gun hands and all that silliness. I am extremely happy then.
I also love walking home from work. And if I am feeling low, I take myself down to the Thames and stand on London Bridge and remind myself that I live here. I live in this fantastic city. People save up all year to spend a few days in London. I LIVE here and I LOVE it. I am also happiest just hanging with my kids. They are great, really grounded and good people.
Where does your creativity go?
I like to think some of it goes into my cooking that I do at the centre, but I have had mixed reviews. I am the skinny chef you are not supposed to trust. My creativity goes into my writing. I write all the time, even if it just little entries on Facebook, I am always writing.
What is your philosophy of living?
Tricky. Though I am religious, I would not say I was particularly spiritual. Many people think the two go hand and hand, or you can be spiritual without having the structure of religion. My philosophy of living is to do no harm, and to try to be kind and considerate. Don’t shout, except for joy. Be patient. I have waited all my life to be patient (see what I did there) and it is finally starting to sink in.
Working where I do, you HAVE to be patient. Chose your battles, and when possible, chose not to have battles. Be generous with time as well as material things, or only with time if you have few material things. Don’t preach. Don’t complain about minor ailments, though I did this all the time until I started working with people living with brain damage. It’s a real wake up call. Be grateful, every morning – think of at least five or ten things you are grateful for. This is not original, it comes from working my recovery programme, but it’s a good way to live. Be kind to your friends and animals, always. Be kind to strangers, unless they are unkind to you. Then you can tell ‘em to fuck off. Keep your body in good nick as much as you can. If you can exercise, exercise. Get fresh air every day.
I have had more than my fair share of death in my life, compared to other people I know. Death has punctuated and punctured my life at various points. I would like to die when I am old, and after a brief illness. I hope whatever takes me out doesn’t take too long. I don’t really have a fixed notion of an afterlife, but I do secretly (well not so secretly as I am saying it here) I hope that after the body dies, we are somehow reunited with the dead people we have loved and lost. I don’t know how I would find them. There are a gazillion dead people. I hope they have a sort of filing system and index cards. There are definitely people I want to see again. But I don’t like the idea of an eternal afterlife. That idea horrifies me.
Are you still dreaming?
I am not sure what you mean. If you mean if I have big dreams for my life, not really, no, I am amazed I get to be this happy, right now. I would be happy to feel this happy for the rest of my life. I guess I can choose this, I can chose to be happy. At night I have strange, psychedelic dreams but I don’t talk about them as nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams. I used to love it when my kids told me their nightmares. They were damp with sweat, I remember the little wriggling bodies, the recounting of the story, a glass of water, a cuddle, ‘til they drifted off back to sleep.
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
I chased a swan all along the Thames embankment. I know the swan could have turned on me, they are angry birds, but the tide was out and the swan was pretty tame, as swans go. My friend and I went there to look for treasure, but she wound up getting all eco and picking up garbage, and I chased this poor swan around. I said to my friend, ‘See, this is a fundamental difference between you and I. You see a discarded bottle and pick it up to put it in the bin. I play silly buggers with a swan.’ The other tiny act of outrage I always commit around Easter is when all those little gold chocolate bunnies are facing one way on the display in a shop, I take one and put it facing the other way around. I have to do this. It is a compulsion. I am really not very outrageous. A bit mischievous, but not outrageous.
Carl Honoré is approaching his 50th birthday with trepidation. He’s worried about what happens on the other side and this sets the background for Bolder.
This context is worth remembering as you read Bolder. Honoré’s exploration of ageing is a self-confessed part of his own education and need for ‘reassurance’. Compared to many members and followers of AOA, who’ve been splashing about in middle age for a while, he appears at times to be an ingénue: he is genuinely surprised and shocked by attitudes to age.
Reading Bolder is like following an explorer in ageing Disneyland, a place that proves to be a personal roller coaster ride for the author. He finds many positives about ageing that are backed up by researchers and academics, but occasionally, usually when you start feeling good about being whatever age you are, he steps on a spike and it’s like getting the snake in Snakes and Ladders.
One moment he is laughing with Spanish grannies on a graffiti workshop, the next he brought quickly down to earth by a young female observer who tells him she wouldn’t put them on her Instagram because ‘old people aren’t that attractive.’ There are his descriptions of a Lebanese television show where over eighties play pranks at pharmacies asking for Viagra, a show that has become extremely popular and produced its own media stars.
And the same thing happens: he begins to wonder about that slender line that separates something sweet and charming from being a circus in which the aged are targets of the wrong kind of laughter. These elements in the book are the ones that made the headlines in mainstream reviews, i.e. The Guardian. While I understand how the media works, I’m not convinced that ageing, which the author describes as a game for ‘losers’, needs to be a circus.
There is much that is positive about ageing here: cognitively we are better at learning and picking up new things in middle age. In a study of IT professionals, those who were in their fifties were far more relaxed about new technologies and ready to take them on than their younger counterparts. Our experience curve gives us an advantage in making fast connections in our brain, something Don and Patricia Edgar have written about in Peak – Reinventing Middle Age. The reality is that given good health – and enough money, there are no cognitive, intellectual or social reasons why older people shouldn’t be able to continue to be the person they are. And more.
At the same time we are up against a culture that bows to youth and beauty, where social media rules the cultural narrative, and the good life is associated with the unlined and pretty.
Despite the stylish older media stars and the author’s examples of celebrities baring their wrinkles and appearing in ads, they are celebrities that means they get a very special pass that the rest of us don’t get. I wisely skimmed his section celebrating celebrities and grey hair: wild curly hair will never look good grey and I don’t intend to give it another passing thought. Not caring is a big advantage of age.