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AofA People: Janet Kelly – Writer


7 Minute Read

Janet Kelly, 61, is a writer and started writing novels in her 50s. She has four published books as well as a number of scripts in development. She tells us how much she’s enjoying her life in her early sixties. And answers our Q&A in the way we love with long and meandering answers.

Where do you live?

Brighton

What do you do?

Writer

How do you feel about being this age?

I am thoroughly enjoying being this age, never having really thought I’d make it this far. I’m still in awe of the fact I am in my sixties and having a good time. It’s like joining a secret club where the admission fee is age and experience. There are the occasional lapses of memory and physical limitations – I have been aiming to run a half marathon but my knees gave up – but these are probably more down to an excessive lifestyle than my years on this planet.

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

The confidence to be who I am and grow into myself without worrying what other people think. For example, I grew my hair out during lockdown and am now completely grey, and loving it – particularly after years of constant trips to the hairdressers to get the roots coloured. I’m embracing the opportunity to be as natural as possible.

I do have a constant nagging feeling that time is very short but I was born with a sense of urgency so I think older age has just enhanced my need to go and do things.

I do also feel a sense of wisdom about life and people. We’re all experiencing the world in different ways and tolerance is so important (not that I always have it!). My view isn’t anyone else’s view and so I think age has helped me try and understand we are all different and need to celebrate that fact – every single person has something to offer.

What about sex?

What about it?  Highly overrated in many ways and a mechanic of nature to get us to reproduce. Once the hormones are out of the way and we can see it as a pleasure to be taken as and when, rather than an overriding drive to find a mate, it can become a pleasure amongst many other pleasures rather than the bee all and end-all.  True intimacy can come from great friendship, hugs, empathy, and connection. It can include sex but doesn’t have to.

And relationships?

I treasure my good friends and look forward to living a long life with all of them so we can continue to look backwards as well as forwards. As I’ve got older, I recognise that no one person can fulfil any emotional need, this comes from personal growth and connection with a range of different types of people. Romantic relationships aren’t as important, probably for the same reasons already mentioned – once that need to reproduce is removed from the biological psyche the options for finding fulfilment expand exponentially.  Having said that I am far more tolerant in my relationship with my partner than I might have been 20 years ago and enjoy the small levels of companionship and partnership rather than the big gestures.

How free do you feel?

I am very lucky to feel free in most ways, partly because of the accident of birth and living in the UK with all it has to offer – not least its amazing language and diversity – but also because things that used to worry me no longer keep me awake. We’re here for a very short time and all of us, very likely, will be dead in 100 years. This is a sobering thought and makes me look at all those who are striving for great wealth and power with pity. The real secret to success is the ability to enjoy the life we have at whatever level we experience it.

What are you proud of?

Many things but mainly my children and particularly my grandson – it is a different relationship to being a parent. On a personal level, I am proud of overcoming adversity and difficulties and finding the ability to keep reinventing myself. I started writing novels in my 50s and have four published books – one for children – and a number of scripts that I have written since turning 60 that are in development. I am now following a career that I should have started in my 20s had I not been influenced by a need to chase the dollar.

What keeps you inspired?

As an eternal optimist, I think it is the fact that my next ‘big project’ is around the corner and that there are limitless opportunities to become involved with things I love.  I enjoy connecting with creative people who have energy and drive, and who make things happen. I am inspired to be part of that.

When are you happiest?

Walking my dogs on the seafront or meeting friends for coffee and talking about what we will be doing in our older age. I live near the sea and it always calms my mind and reminds me that we are all in this together. The sea has always been there and always will be – while people come and go.  I love doing new things – such as taking my husband for a spitfire flight experience, which was just awesome, all that history and incredible engineering.

I also love gardening and get very excited when new shoots arrive in the spring or I get to pick some homegrown vegetables. Seeing a new runner bean or courgette is like Christmas!  My chickens also make me happy as they are very much underestimated.

Where does your creativity go?

I have really started to enjoy my creativity in recent years, starting with my writing and then moving into art and music. I started up the Saltdean Jazz Band where I live which is aimed at amateur musicians who might not be able to play anywhere else as they are either rusty, don’t know enough about music or lack confidence. I play the saxophone and finally have a place to develop my musical creativity, getting more involved with solo improvisation which I find exceptionally hard but exhilarating. More recently I have been undertaking art classes and put myself forward to have my body painted by an artist as part of a campaign to get women to love the bits they hate.

Rather than hide my blobby tummy and cellulite I think it is time I celebrated the fact it is all a result of my life experiences and need to be recognised. Not only that, my body works – it does its jobs – and I’ve been very rude to it over the years. It’s time to apologise to it for being the workhorse it has been and say thank you. Without it, I’d be nothing.

What is your philosophy of living?

Do the best you can with the resources you have. You won’t always get it right but somewhere along the way there will be nuggets of gold that make the journey more than worthwhile. I get up every day looking forward to something – whether it is collecting eggs from the chickens or preparing for a walk, a holiday or a major work project. Time shouldn’t be wasted – and by that, I don’t mean we can’t sit and dream for hours on end because that is not a waste!

And dying?

It happens. For some, it happens far too early, particularly for those left behind. For some, it happens in horrendous circumstances and for others, it is just the last breath, the full stop.  I hope my end falls into the latter but I’m aware we have no idea of what might be meant for us. So don’t waste time worrying about the next stage. It will come when it’s ready.

Are you still dreaming?

Without my dreams, I’d have achieved nothing. I spend time before I go to sleep each night dreaming of what might be.  Some dreams are possible, others a little more unrealistic. Although I’m not one to ever say ‘never’.

What is a recent outrageous action of yours?

I got so drunk on my 61st birthday that I fell over, cut my head badly, and was taken to hospital in a pizza van. I still have the scar which I wear with a kind of pride that the consequences weren’t much worse. I was more upset that we lost my birthday cake. We think the seagulls ate it.

Pleasure, Healing and Fulfilment


1 Minute Read

The advantages of age are – that with less time to waste and less energy, but more wisdom about who we each of us really are – we can stop our various beliefs and strategies for people pleasing and settle down to the vital task of allowing ourselves to really enjoy this gift of life.

When I was a child, I saw that the adults around me were miserable and serious. ‘Everybody hates it, nobody likes it, you just HAVE to do it’ was regularly said by my well-intentioned mother.

I didn’t understand. I saw their sadness, and I knew, without doubt, that there was more. More to living and more to life. More to hope for, enjoy and relish. More to live for…

It was the 70s and our house was full of burnt orange wallpaper and dark heavy wood furniture. A ceramic chicken in the kitchen for eggs, fur coats in the hallway cupboard, and Benny Hill on the TV.

The atmosphere a confusing mix of post-war grief, misogyny, female empowerment, passionate love and systemic hatred. What a place for a sensitive, sensual, spiritual girl!

Out in the garden, I was in contact with everything, in deep sensual relationship with the huge willow tree and pine trees, the purple rhododendrons, dark earth, fields of yellow flowers reaching up to the horizon, and the big blue sky.

My fingers trailed textures, tree bark and metal railings, my nose was curious and I dreamt of the muscly bodies of half-naked young builders next door and roomfuls of naked people.

Those words intended kindly to protect, imprisoned me. ‘All men are only after one thing, don’t give it to them.’ And a critical judgment of my essentially wild and free true nature.

Like many others, I took it upon myself to heal those around me, sacrificing myself in an attempt to help. The soul movement of a child trying to assist. Willing to disappear herself, if her very existence on earth – was a challenging disturbance to those she loved. And needed.

There are many ways to tell a story. There are many aspects and influences on a life. I can speak of ancestral burdens and birth trauma, being bullied and great loneliness, a series of teenage and young adult breakdowns, living abroad, travelling and returning back to London.

Despite all the great difficulty – the deep dark night of the soul – I was incredibly focused and determined to retrieve my true self and live that. I always knew I would one day write a book. And had an internal sense of my big potential and destiny. I was prepared to invest almost all my time, energy and money to become that. I had a tremendous drive to heal.

I visited shamans and teachers, gurus and therapists of this and that, focused on ancestors and sex, blood and bones; energy, chakras and inquiry; I learnt to change physical pain into physical pleasure with my breath; to align cranium, spine and pelvis; to clear parasites from my blood; recover from chronic fatigue; I was lost and found again in very many different ways.

I come from a family of healers and spiritual seekers and bring with me ‘organic energy’ from their spiritual adventures. Something one of my spiritual teachers described as ‘having enough fuel to make the journey.’

Over the decades I was first a client and then a therapist and then a workshop leader. Slowly evolving, exploring and sharing the edges between self-criticism and self-acceptance, traumatic disassociation and embodiment, stress and relaxation, pain and pleasure.

And always, my theme has been the same. My life-long love of the mystery, real sensual relationships and the body.

Pleasure.

They say you teach best what you most need to learn!

In my twenties I wrote the first part of the book, a raw emotional rant, knowing that when once I was healed and evolved, I would one day write the second part. That is how it happened. One poem from that first draft made it into the final book.

A few years ago, around 50, I wrote the second part of the book. The words poured out of me, passionate and clear. A co-creation with Life. A pleasurable process.

I’m thrilled it’s been so well-received. ‘Lively and uplifting’ ‘fun and engaging’ ‘highly recommended, impressively well-written’ ‘a real treasure trove of reflections and practices to enrich our lives’ reviewers said. A manual for happiness, relationships and being human.

So what is it that have I written about Pleasure that is so fun, original and interesting?

I wrote what my heart knows and wants to share.

The book is a guided journey from mess to magic, into what I call the Universe of Deliciousness. A realm of delight hidden just beneath the surface of rushed ordinary everyday life, that is available to everyone to discover, without discrimination or expense.

Pleasure is not just a reward when we are exhausted, a sweet treat to revive or stimulate us. Pleasure is not something selfish. And not just something that we get from the outside, from other people or things. Pleasure arises within our body and life experience. It is ours! Pleasure is our essential nature, a vital source of nourishment, and the way that life can be.

Pleasure cannot exist without its counterpart pain. The journey to receiving more pleasure is the deep journey below the level of survival, to facing our fears and opening up to really feeling. It is the journey out of our heads, busyness and non-stop doing, and into the sensate, sensitive, somatic territory of our vulnerable powerful bodies — and our very right to exist – and take up space – and enjoy our own lives!

I’m not interested in the fake version of pleasure (used to sell stuff to us by monetising our own repressed desires) but in the innate natural state of pleasure, we can cultivate for ourselves – whether that’s in an encounter, relationship or moment. A taste of deliciousness.

None of us are without complication in the area of sexuality and relating. Few of us were given positive clear messages and role-models. Yet we can transform our experience of pleasure by bringing our fullest kind attention to ourselves and others, by allowing ourselves to receive goodness, by grasping with both hands the fullness of the gifts of life.

Our bodies are the location of our life experience, the source of both our pleasure and our wisdom. Our lifelong human task, is to undo all of the unhelpful messages and conclusions, to return home to ourselves, to being able to be fully in the body and in all of our life.

All of life is sexual. Every moment is a potential exchange of information and sensation. We are all physically wired for pleasure and deeply entitled to enjoy this our precious time on earth. With kindness, respect, breath, sensitivity, happiness and joy. Pleasure is for all of us.

We can increase the pleaureableness of our experience by travelling a pathway from our mess to our magic, through the practical paradigm-shifting ‘medicines,’ 7 sequential steps through Slow, Body, Depth, Relationship, Pleasure, Power and Potency. There are many small practical tweaks we can make for ourselves that will allow more pleasure in, to imbue our days and lives. Try interrupting old habits with productive pauses, sensing your physical body, dropping into humility, creating healthy relationships, relishing your sensuality, allowing your authentic confidence to shine and accessing your own inner wisdom.

Pleasure is an inside job. There is much we can do to enhance our life experience. I guess I’ve written what I wish someone with a big hug had told me when I was younger. We are none of us alone. We all can, with the right resources, heal ourselves. Life is for fully living!

The book can be purchased online from Amazon, WHSmiths, Waterstones, Book Depository, Blackwells and is in many independent bookshops. A direct link to the book on Amazon is bit.ly/HPoPLUK

My website is www.UniverseOfDeliciousness.com

I look forward to connecting with you on social media:

https://www.instagram.com/julia.paulette.hollenbery/

https://www.facebook.com/JuliaPauletteHollenbery

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2438716336148629 (Power of Pleasure Community)

https://twitter.com/juliahollenbery

https://www.linkedin.com/in/juliahollenbery/

A conversation with Julia Paulette Hollenbery and Monique Roffey in North London on June 8th at 7pm in West End Lane Bookshop – All welcome, please book your ticket, £5 includes wine and is redeemable buying the book! https://www.welbooks.co.uk/events

A Greek Island Retreat, The Healing Power of Pleasure, June 11th – 18th, bit.ly/SkyrosHPoPI

My Retreat in Sri Lanka


1 Minute Read

Towards the end of my twenty years living in Dubai, discussions with friends turned to future retirement and the question of whether we’d settle easily back into Britain. One friend Bobby shared his vision of buying some land in Sri Lanka and developing a community for other like-minded souls to retire to.

This idea seemed quite revolutionary at the time – little did we realise he’d spawned the idea for the Exotic Marigold Hotel!

Sadly, Bobby passed away before his time, so his dream would never become a reality, but it always stuck with me.

Then, in 2011 aged fifty, my life changed significantly – I was newly single and had children going into further education, which called for a move back to England.

It was only when, in 2016, after the combination of a recent trip to India and the launch of the TV Series ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’, that I recalled Bobby’s vision. Maybe retiring to that part of the world was not such a pipe dream after all?

Despite the ongoing Covid situation, with things being very up in the air until the last minute – literally as we took our 72 hour pre-flight PCR test – in January 2022, my plan for a Real Marigold Hotel in Sri Lanka was unfolding.

Number one project had been to find the perfect property which I did – a private home with local staff who could share their culture, and a British manager who could share her expatriate lifestyle in Sri Lanka.

I researched flights, locations, activities, health care (particularly due to Covid), costs, visas and cultural experiences.

The trip was aimed at midlife women – nothing against men at all – but I work with (mostly single) midlife women in my UK retreat business, Soul Sisters Community, and wanted them to view this as something they could consider doing alone.

I positioned it as an opportunity for solo travel into a community – being brave to plan on your own but knowing there would be a like-minded group to join.

Unlike my ‘New Life Purpose’ workshop retreats in Britain, the time spent in Sri Lanka was a combination of both retreat and holiday. Yes, we visited all the tourist spots – whale watching, elephants, turtles, markets, museums – but we also spent many hours talking about life, sharing past experiences as well as our hopes and fears for the future.

‘After years of feeling stuck in a rut with my marriage I knew I had to do something for myself.  Making the trip to Sri Lanka alone was rather daunting but also exhilarating. Despite the fact Rachel had arranged everything, I felt quite brave, which in retrospect, having done it now, seems quite silly. The time away from everyday life, family and phones allowed me the space to reflect. As I swam early every morning with just the birds and monkeys for company I felt at peace with myself for the first time in a long while.’ K.

‘I had a brilliant time. I haven’t laughed so much in years – not something you’d expect with a group of strangers. It was almost as if a sense of relief had overtaken us all – to be away and carefree, no matter how temporarily – was incredible. So were the monkeys stealing food from the table!

I can’t imagine living anywhere other than England, at the moment anyway, but the experience certainly opened my eyes to the fact that we do have choices and they are just ours for the taking.’ A.

For my part I’m not ready to take the Marigold plunge just yet, but will 100% be offering similar style trips next winter and seeing where that leads me.

www.soulsisterscommunity.com    3 day retreats to discover your next life journey with journaling and tarot.   The next retreat starts on March 8th.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in London during Lockdown – Hanja Kochansky


1 Minute Read

Eighty-three-year-old Hanja Kochansky is living alone and on lockdown in London. Everyone over the age of 70 has been asked to self-isolate for twelve weeks. But what does that mean exactly? Advantages of Age asked Hanja to tell us what her days are like. And what resources she has.

The word isolated comes from the Latin insula, which means island. And here I am on a desert island in the centre of a densely populated and noiseless city.

As soon as I wake up and turn on my radio, I’m bombarded by terrifying news and a wave of sadness washes over me. Who could have ever imagined that the plague would invade our world? How long will this horror last? Then, I remind myself to take it one day at the time. I tell myself that I am on the retreat I’ve always wanted to take but never did and now it’s been imposed on me.

After a glass of hot water, I go to my computer. Facebook and the Guardian keep my interest up for quite a while. I have a coffee and eat a too large amount of my Digestive Thins before I take a shower.

My daughter WhatsApps me from Long Island. She notices my wet hair and says, ‘I see you’ve had a shower, Mum’. ‘Of course. Why wouldn’t I?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe you wouldn’t bother, given you’re not going out.’ ‘Of course, I bother. But anyway, I do go out. I’m allowed to do shopping.’ We chat about how awful Trump is, about how we are coping and how is it with the kids at home now. There’s going to be no anticipated graduation for my granddaughter. I was going to go for that in June. All plans are on hold.

I do my exercises. Mostly tai chi and chi kung which I follow on YouTube. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I do a proper class with my tai chi teacher on ZOOM. ZOOM is a marvel.

Given the lovely weather, I go down to my itsy bitsy garden and plant violets and poppies. Poppies remind me of my childhood summers on the Dalmatian coast.

I sing You Belong to Me when I wash my hands. See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sun-rise on a tropic isle . . .

Avocado on toast is a perfect lunch. Amazon has run out of the organic apple juice I normally have- so I make lemonade with the lemons I got with my last order from Farmdrop. I can get just about anything from them. Organic food, household goods and what-have-you, but I prefer to take a saunter to my well-stocked Waitrose at the Angel in Islington. After all the rain I need to stretch my legs now on these sunny days. I must walk or my legs will lose muscle. On the way, I walk through a park and hug a tree.

My son skypes from Siena, where he is housebound with his wife and two small children. ‘You must not leave the house at all, Ma.’ He warns me. ‘I have friends in London and they can bring you anything you need.’ ‘Thanks, Kas, but I absolutely need to go out.’ ‘If you get sick, Ma, I won’t be able to come and look after you.’ ‘Don’t worry Kas, I don’t think, that after all I’ve gone through in my life, it’s in my karma that I should die here, alone like a dog.’ ‘Oh, I wish you’d stay at home, Ma.’ My worried son insists.

A friend once told me how she’d always felt safe when her husband and two children were all at home in the evening, and nothing bad could happen to them. Only, one night her husband had a heart attack and died. So much for feeling safe at home.

An often-repeated platitude is, ‘We are all in this together’. No, we are not, mate. Some are on luxury yachts, others on ships, boats, overcrowded ferries and dinghies. And some are wading through treacherous seas.

My large sitting-room bay window overlooks a lawn. I watch squirrels scamper as pigeons and magpies peck for food on the green grass, while at the same time, keeping an eye on the self-confident, stalking cats who belong to some of my neighbours whose much anticipated, twice-weekly Bingo in our communal room, is now prohibited. The fox no longer comes in the evenings. I miss her – she kept me in touch with the foxy me.

How are junkies coping without their fix? How are prostitutes surviving without their tricks? I think about the rough sleepers and the old age homes where older people are dying alone. I think about what will happen to the refugees in overcrowded camps when the assassin virus finds them. How terrifying it must be for them. I’m so sad about Italy, il Bel Paese – the beautiful country. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back.

I am, at all times, grateful for my blessed life, with enough money to get by as I reflect on the poverty which will get even worse and financial anxiety will see a flurry of mental illness. As though there isn’t enough of it already. Happy to be on my own, my heart goes out to the overcrowded families who have to learn, or not, to put up with each other day and night. I fear there will be a lot of physically abused women in these tough times. And children.

And what about the thousands on cruise-liners not allowed to dock? Or the ones stuck in other countries who are not able to come home? What will happen to them?

The virus is the revolution. More than a million heroic people have signed up to help the NHS! I was gutted when I found out the dolphin in the Venice canal was an Instagram joke, but the sky is now visible in China, rivers and seas are cleaner, there has been a significant drop in pollution, ozone levels are up. The end of knife crime without Pretty Patel’s intervention is a blessing. I wonder how she feels about the prisoners that are being released. In their case, just goes to show that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is on temporary leave from prison in Iran, and there is talk of a possible reprieve. She must be living in a balloon of agitation.

In the afternoons, I write. What better for a writer than a retreat?

Possibly, because I don’t love washing dishes, I don’t feel like cooking much, but I know I have to eat well because healthy food is a must. I make myself a large bowl of fruit and nuts topped with kefir and homemade yoghurt, which I buy from the kind Kurdish shopkeeper near my house on the Caledonian Road. His wife, who makes the yoghurt, has been getting racist abuses, he tells me. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I say and feel guilty. For what? For the privilege of my white skin.

Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine and eat one of the packets of precooked lentil dahl and spicy beans which only need to be heated. Or maybe I’ll make myself a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich, or dine on fruit: pineapple, mango, apples. And a cookie. I have these delicious salted caramel biscuits and must be careful not to binge on them. I have a feeling that by the time this Groundhog Day is over I’ll have put on weight.

The endless pings on my smart-phone announce constant messages. There’s no time for boredom. There is no shortage of stimulating articles on the computer, and I am addicted to Radio 4, I’m sure to always find something interesting to listen to. Or I can watch a movie on the iPlayer, Amazon, YouTube, Curzon Cinema or BFI. There are myriad choices. This, alas, stops me from reading much of The Leopard, the book I’m currently enjoying.

In the evening I try to do some stretching yoga, but I don’t always manage it.

With another glass of hot water, I take the supplements which I really should take in the morning. Bs, Ds, Cs and what have you.

By midnight, I’m ready to turn off the computer, do my toiletries and get to bed. Before falling asleep, I thank the universe and my angels for another serene day and send white light to the world.

But this is early days and I’m super curious about how I and the world will be changed when the nightmare is over. Hopefully, we’ll have become wiser.

Who are Older Women Rock?


6 Minute Read

Leah Thorn explains who OWR are. She started this inspiring group when she was 65.

blood memory

I am an old age, all age woman,

no way past my use-by date.

Walking in ancestral sisters’ footsteps,

I am an archive on legs,

a time traveller, alive to life,

I embody time, provide testimony,

a radical, lyrical, womanist legacy

 

Women’s blood memory speaks in me

 

 a found poem by Leah Thorn, created after reading ‘Out of Time’ by Lynne Segal

                                                                                                and ‘How to Age’ by Anne Karpf

 

Using poetry, personal stories, ‘fashion’ and film, ’Older Women Rock!’ creates pop-up art spaces in which to raise awareness and explore issues facing early-old-age women in our 60s and 70s. It challenges our invisibility by placing us centre stage on our own terms; strengthens our resilience and our networks as we move into older age; and importantly, subverts society’s assumptions and prejudices about us.

How it started

I started ‘Older Women Rock!’ when I was 65. My generation of women made decisive change. I hope we never give up our vision of the world we want and our intention to have it.

In my 70s now, I am inundated daily with messages that as an older woman I am inconsequential and my thinking outmoded and no longer needed. This attempt to invalidate us builds on decades of oppression, where our existence has been diminished and erased.

I wanted to ‘hang out’ with older women to stop my growing sense of isolation and struggle. I was keen to see what their experiences were and to find a creative way to share what I was learning.

I set up opportunities for conversation with different kinds of women in their late 50s to mid 70s. I led workshops for women in a Zumba Gold class; women in prison; a deaf women’s group; women at a MIND Day Centre; lesbians in an Age UK Older LGBTQ project; daughters of Holocaust survivors; Women’s Institute members; unpaid carers; women who identify as feminist and those who definitely do not.

We addressed issues such as –

  • the lack of older women in the media or the misrepresentation of us as a stereotype or a joke
  • the fortune the beauty industry makes from the insecurity we feel that is manufactured by sexism and intensified by old age oppression
  • poverty and the fact that many women have small state pensions because of low-paid work and/or breaks in employment to raise children or to care for ageing parents
  • body image and the need to conceal or be ‘discreet’ about physical changes, like greying hair, facial hair or incontinence
  • sexuality
  • being a carer

Poetic clothing

Based on our conversations, I created poetry and then collaborated with older women artists to embroider, burn, print, bead, engrave and spray-paint words and images onto retro clothes sourced from local charity shops. Here are a few examples –

1

You speak of me in metaphors

of catastrophe. Soon I will be

an agequake, a grey tsunami.

My age is your nightmare.

A numerical fanfare

to fan your fear

 

Sculptor Nicholette Goff interpreted this poem by customising a 1940s jacket with skeins of grey hair and a beautifully constructed bar of ‘medals’,

2

Only men grow old on screen.

Women disappear from film and TV by fifty,

hit dread and disgust in early middle age

and suddenly we’re no longer fit for public display,

unless we’re flogging stair lifts, baths or wills

or we have a frozen face

or we’re de-aged by digital alteration.

It’s a kind of symbolic annihilation

 

Fashion designer and stylist Claire Angel burnt words from this poem onto a leather jacket.

 

3

         The beauty counter screams ‘Buy This Cream’.

Got taut, tight skin? You’re in.

Got ticking clocks? Botox. Detox.

Resist signs of ageing at all cost.

Stop. Reverse. Hide. Slo mo.

Smooth your skin ego.

Feel the urge for a youth surge?

Want a victory of science over time?

Want to reignite your youthful light?

Deny age. Defy age.

You’re in control with phenoxyethanol.

Replump with sodium phytate.

No. Retaliate. Fight age hate.

It’s a diabolical conspiracy

for women to age agelessly,

line-, scar-, crease-free

 

I refuse to let the forever-young drug erase

the handwriting of life across my face

 

Allie Lee of the Profanity Embroidery Group embroidered an image onto a 1980s jumpsuit in response to my poem –

 

4

         Vulva lost its youthful lustre?

Want a quick fix?

Try My New Pink Button,

rouge for labial lips

 

Annie Taylor of the Profanity Embroidery Group interpreted this poem onto a vintage negligee

5

         I’ll never have

a designer vagina

that vajazzle dazzles

and permanently dilates

 

Allie Lee of the Profanity Embroidery Group embroidered and beaded this poem onto a 1970s swimsuit.

 

6

         In my day, stockings came in black, bronze and American Tan,

opening a bank account needed the signature of a man,

girdles held in sexual urges, touching below the waist was no-go

and Dusty passed as hetero

There was no such thing as pubic hair wax and you daren’t use Tampax

or have a sexual climax for fear of being thought nymphomaniacs

 

A collaboration between members of the Profanity Embroidery Group, sculptor Nicholette Goff and myself, an extract of this poem was emblazoned onto a vintage wedding dress.

 

Pop up shops, a flashmob and films

 

There have been –

  • three pop-up exhibitions of the poetry clothing in shops in Folkestone, Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under Lyme and one extended exhibition in the art gallery of Keele University
  • several ‘Older Women Rock!’ programmes of talks, performance, film screenings and workshops creatively celebrating ‘early old age’ women
  • Subversive Catwalks of older women ‘modelling’ the clothing while I read the poems
  • a wild Zumba Gold flashmob in Folkestone Shopping Centre

And three films have been made during the project –

  • ‘Older Women Rock!: The Documentary’ by filmmaker Clare Unsworth, a creative record of the pilot project in Folkestone showing poetry-emblazoned retro clothes, nineteen older models strutting a subversive catwalk and the Zumba Gold flashmob
  • ‘Love Your Lines’, a Public Service Announcement film shown on performance artist Tammy WhyNot’s YouTube channel

What next?

Fashion designer and stylist Claire Angel and I are responding to requests to buy ‘Older Women Rock!’ jackets by creating pieces for sale, which will be featured in our up-coming pop-up shop in Folkestone, Kent 17th-23rd December and in an online shop in the New Year.  

There will be ‘Older Women Rock!’ workshops in the New Year, including ‘Customise Your Clothes With Pearls’ and ‘Try Out Skateboarding’ and an intergenerational workshop, ‘Tattoo Stories’. 

For more information follow us on Instagram @loveolderwomenrock or contact us at loveolderwomenrock@gmail.com

How I Found my House in the Magical Spanish Mountains


1 Minute Read

I started my Spanish adventure in 1997, just as Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative rule with the slogan ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. I was one of a number of young BBC journalists helping with the count on Election Night, but soon after fled the BBC on a trip to Mojácar in Spain, on the pretext of finding a cheap house to buy. I didn’t seriously think I would get one.

Accompanying me was my old friend Mark P, who had ridden to Mojácar on his motorbike a decade before. My friend Lucy’s house was empty, so we stayed there. We had instructions to call Jacqueline, the French postwoman for the mountain villages, who put the word out for villagers with houses to sell.

It was a beautiful early-summer day and the road to the mountains twisted and turned up through arid countryside, almond trees and old ruins until arriving in the pretty whitewashed village of Bédar, with a long view back down to the sea.

Jacqueline was waiting in one of a pair of bars facing each other on the road in. Tall and thin with a mahogany tan, long black hair framing strong, handsome features, and wearing lots of silver jewellery – she was unmissable.

Jacqueline drove us down a narrow unpaved road running under the looming peaks. We undulated through tiny settlements and over a rambla [dry riverbed] before accelerating up a perilously steep bank on the other side, to end up at a collection of three or four houses strung out along the top. We bumped down a track to one, a wide, two-story house set in an overgrown garden with several olive trees.

I don’t remember much about the house, apart from that the kitchen was outside, and the water supply was rationed from the nearby balsa [water store] where you took your turn on a rota with the neighbours. There was a ramshackle outhouse, and I remember standing near it while Jacqueline and a neighbour discussed which of the stones on the ground marked the house’s boundary. The discussion went round and round, much like the roads that had brought us there. Then, none the wiser, we all piled back into the car for the drive back to Bédar where Jacqueline dropped us at the bar and drove off.

I remember feeling out of my depth, and telling Mark that what I’d really like would be something less remote, perhaps a little house on the edge of a village. We decided to have a quick drink before driving back – and then I realised that the key to our hire car was no longer in my possession. I tried to call Jacqueline but got no reply. There were no buses. We were stranded.

What happened next was, as they say, fate.

A young blonde dressed in black leather came through the door and strode up to the bar. After exchanging a few words with the bartender, she came over and asked where we needed to go. When we said ‘Mojácar’, she offered to drive us. As we weren’t in a position to refuse, we accepted.

Nadja was Swiss, and although quite fluent in English, all her sentences came out back to front. When I told her that we’d been looking at houses, she said that she had one to sell, “with mains water, electricity, a telephone socket and seven terraces.” It sounded very grand so, to rule it out more than anything, I asked how much. “Four million pesetas,” she replied (approx. £16,000). It was the same price as the house we’d just looked at.

What’s more, Nadja’s house was on the edge of a small village – just as I’d wished for.

When we reached the main road, our saviour pulled into a garage and bought three cans of lager from a vending machine in the forecourt. We drove the rest of the way to Mojácar swigging beer and listening to her peculiar jumbled steam-of-consciousness conversation. I concluded she was very sweet but most likely mad.

I didn’t think I’d call about the house, but a few days later curiosity got the better of me and we made a date to visit.

To get to Lubrín we had to return to Bédar and carry straight on, up a narrow white asphalt road that twisted its way through a magical landscape of hills studded with olive trees, yellow broom and thyme. At the top we passed the village of El Campico before descending to El Marchal where the road broadened out and continued another 5km to Lubrín.

The strange thing was how at home I felt. While the views were far-reaching and magnificent the road itself felt cocooned and cosy. We didn’t meet another vehicle that day and in the years to come, I rarely did. If it did happen, I often knew the driver, and we’d stop to chat.

Nadja and her English boyfriend Steve were expecting us. Margaritas tumbled over their garden wall, and on the left of the house were the seven terraces Nadja had referred to, planted with almond trees and flowers.

By the end of the week, we’d agreed on a price and employed a gestor to manage the sale. We sealed the deal over a breakfast of beer and tapas in Mojácar.

Back then, Lubrín was my freedom. The village seemed not to have changed since the Fifties. Set in a valley, whitewashed houses were built up the side of a hill, around an enormous red brick church in the middle.

My house, later christened Casa Becca by a guest, was set off to the right, built into the side of  ‘El Castillo’. Many Spanish towns have a ‘castillo’ hill, on top of which the original Moorish watchtower would have stood.

All the roof beams were tree trunks, gnarled and twisted, interspersed with traditional caña – cane. Stone stairs led up to a low-ceilinged dining room leading to a big kitchen with an enormous fireplace at the end. There was a windowless ‘cave room’ with a huge rock from the mountainside protruding within. More rooms led around to a third bedroom opening onto the front of the house at the other end. The bathroom, down by the main front door, was a very basic affair with an old toilet and a plastic shower over a dug-out portion of the stone floor. In its 200 years, the house had barely changed.

Although there was a phone socket, there was no phone line and, back in 1997, no Internet. Apart from the 6am bus to Almeria City, there was no public transport, either. Compounded by the feeling that I’d stepped back in time, Lubrín felt properly remote. Nobody would ever find me. I’d been unhappy at the BBC so it was a huge relief to find myself there, completely cut off from social pressures.

I turned into another person when I was in Lubrín. Scruffy, dusty, carefree. I wore flowery shift dresses and tatty shorts. The only other foreigner in the town was a Dutch guy who I never met. My friends were old men who regaled me with tales about the village and my house’s past. I found out that Casa B had been the home of the village transportista who took goods and passengers to the coast in his donkey and cart, and that a man had been shot outside during the Civil War.

My main friend was Paco, a portly fellow of about 60. He had small, dainty feet and spoke in a soft, high voice, often reciting poetry or playing with words. Like many men from the village, he’d emigrated during Franco’s rule. He’d worked in Switzerland as a carpenter – he said he’d made furniture for David Bowie.

Another frequent visitor was Christobal, a wizened, Steptoe-like man who would exhort, ‘Mujer, mujer!’ [Woman, woman] in the style of a whiny flamenco singer at the start of every sentence, while encouraging me to buy his house or be his wife.

Paco and I became good friends. Even though he didn’t speak any English and I not much Spanish, he was an excellent communicator and we understood each other surprisingly well.

Soon after I bought my house, Paco took me to his land in La Alcarria, a beautiful valley on the other side of the main road. On the land was an old trunk which he ceremoniously opened to take out two fold-up chairs – one for me, one for my friend. He set them out and we sat down – looking north over an infinity of hazy mountain ranges – the ones in the foreground like rows of reclining elephant backs. Paco loved his land and was planning to build a house on it.

When I think of the early days I remember warm friendships and laughter. Paco would accompany my friends and I on excursions in the car, or come round for raucous suppers on the patio, or we’d have mad nights out in what I christened the ‘Young Mans’ Bar’ next to the post office, where the clientele would chorus ‘Paco Toro!’ when he arrived with two young women on his arm. When I was the only foreigner in town it really was fun.

Slowly but surely, Lubrín caught up with the rest of the world.

A few settlers from England arrived every year. There was Ponytail John, who built his own house out in the campo, and Dave Beach, a lugubrious hippie with great taste in music. There was Sally and Ann, possibly the village’s first ‘out’ lesbian couple, and their neighbour Bill, a gay accountant. There was Mandolin John, always with a beautiful girlfriend. Tourists rarely found their way to the village, but when they did it felt bizarre. To me, they looked big and out of place. Sitting outside the Plaza Bar, they were like giants on a small stage.

Around 2003 the dear little road from Bédar to El Marchal was widened and tarmacked, and with that more and more foreign settlers came. The tipping point for me was when a young suburban couple arrived. Until then, the foreign residents had had something alternative about them, a touch of the pioneer. But these people had none of that. And with that, it was as if my secret hideaway had been busted and my freedom was gone.

Solo Visits

I started coming to Lubrín on my own around 2002. At first, I was nervous. I’d fly in from Gatwick, drive back in my hire car, make the bed and smoke the emergency cigarette I left on the dining room desk. Then I’d go out for provisions from Antonio and Fina’s late-night shop – and see who was around. One time I didn’t get home till midnight after being waylaid by Mandolin John and a friend of his. Another time, I woke up at 4 am in a panic. It was pitch dark and I had the sensation I was entombed within an endless Spanish mountain range – there were no buildings after mine. In my 40s I would often wake up in the night. For a while, an insomniac bird nesting in the roof would be up around the same time, moving about. I found it comforting.

Paco and I grew apart. Lubrín had won the massive El Niño lottery in January 1998 with a prize of 1400m pesetas (about 8.5m euros). Paco was one of the winners. He didn’t spend the money at first, but a few years later he bought a radio-controlled airplane and a souped-up black sports car with red flames blazing on the sides. Where once he had been patient and good-humoured, he became impatient and his gentle high-pitched voice became gruff. He’d tear off to holiday towns like Aguadulce in the sports car and return with torrid tales of his exploits.

They wouldn’t let him build a house in La Alcarria (the plot was just 1m too narrow). Bitter, and obstinate to the last, he built a swimming pool instead and put a squalid kitchen and bathroom underneath. He surrounded the pool with weird totems like plastic fans and dolls’ heads on sticks.

There was a succession of dogs he didn’t know how to look after and on occasion he’d chase English settlers in his car. The gentle, communicative Paco I knew and loved had vanished, and when I asked people how he was, they just shook their heads and said, ‘perdido’ – lost. He died in 2010.

Middle Years

So far, I’d only visited Lubrín for short holiday breaks but when I started my Spanish rug and tile business it became the base for buying and sourcing expeditions. From 2006 onwards, I’d embark on huge solo road trips around Andalusia several times a year. I visited Valencia, too, to go to the Cevisama tile fair, once driving 400km cross-country from there to Cordoba to visit our main supplier. I visited Granada and embarked on crazy missions to find new suppliers in a series of remote locations. I particularly loved going to Priego de Cordoba, a baroque gem perched atop a cliff in the Sierra Subbetica Natural Park. I’d stay at Hostal Rafi where the bar was like a Spanish version of the US series Cheers. Rafi was even playing Bruce Springstein the first time I went. My second visit coincided with a noisy religious procession, the virgin being borne through the streets, children dressed up for their communion and a major football match blaring out from TVs. Hostal Rafi was in the middle of it all – the centre of the world!

Priego was four hours from Lubrín. Driving there in the autumn you’d see bonfires blazing high on the horizon. There were deserted mountain passes where you could go for hours without meeting a soul. At these times, I’d marvel at how, sometimes just the day before, I’d been caged like a bird in my London shop watching traffic thunder by, and now was soaring free in the mountain air, maybe 100 miles away from anyone else.

Occasionally I ended up in dangerous situations like the time I took the wrong route to the pretty village of Castril, 890m above sea level on the edge of the Cazorla National Park. As the track got narrower and narrower, I found myself with no choice but to accelerate up the precipitous bends with an overweight load of wholesale ceramics in the back. Dusk was falling and I remember thinking, ‘no-one knows where I am and I might die,’ followed by a half-crazed relief when I reached the top to witness a herd of goats galloping home in a cloud of dust. It was a quintessential Spanish moment.

Now…

In 2016, Lubrín became my freedom for the third time. Disgusted by the Brexit vote in March 2016, my first thought was to leave the UK. On the basis of having a Spanish house, I applied for Spanish residency. To my surprise, the application was successful and I moved out here in 2018.

Today, Lubrín is firmly rooted in the 21st Century. There are street lamps along the road in, and a small industrial estate just north of my house. There’s a world-class olive oil press, a honey factory and modern milking sheds for the goats. The once-silent hills are full of light and noise. There’s a small housing estate opposite me, too, mainly occupied by British families who now make up a sizeable proportion of the population.

Stubbornly ‘unreformed’ for years, Casa B has been updated to make her long-term habitable. The tree trunk roof beams have gone, as has the insomniac bird. The cave room has a window. The dining room and kitchen have been knocked together and the ceilings raised. A proper bathroom has been added.

I study Spanish, teach English and Creative Writing, blog, write and walk the hills. Everyday life is time-consuming – I collect my water from the mountain spring at El Campico and drag it up to my house in a trolley. In the winter I must bring in wood, make fires and clean the stoves. More satisfying, this year I picked my olives for the first time and took them to the press in exchange for some superb Lubrín olive oil.

It’s been a little tough, establishing a life here on my own. It can be awkward negotiating social groups as an older single woman. It’s taken time to find work, or friends on my wavelength, but I keep on. Perhaps the fourth freedom will come when I really don’t care what other people think.

In the absence of family, Casa B has been my continuity. Last March, returning from winter respite on the coast, it was surprisingly nice to be back. Even though I had to hoover the flaky paint off the walls and clean surfaces thick with muddy dust, it was just lovely to hear the birds again, and the goat bells, and the church ringing every quarter-hour. Enduring country sounds. The sounds of home.

Postscript

In June 2021, I went to a dance performance at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London. ‘Dance Me To Death’ was a project started by AofA’s Rose Rouse, with all the dancers in their 60s or older. At the after-party, I was on a table with a couple from Clapham. When I asked if they knew the province of Almeria, the woman gave a little start. She said that she’d visited a place called Bédar one Christmas in the Seventies. Back then, black-clad village ladies washed their clothes at the communal fountain and collected water in huge water jugs on their heads. Donkeys were the main means of transport, roads were few, and Fi and her boyfriend had walked four miles up to the village from the bus stop. On Christmas Eve, the village ladies taught her to dance Flamenco – she pulled her body up straight to demonstrate. She looked happy as the memories resurfaced, and I thought how great it was that we should meet by chance almost 50 years later, two strangers transcending time and space to share our experiences of a tiny, faraway place that has meant so much to us both.

Perhaps the magic lives on, after all.

Becca is running a trio of online Creative Writing courses. Each runs for six weeks and a number of themes are covered, including Fantasy & Transformation, Imagery, Characterisation, Dialogue, ‘Fragmented Writing’, Theme, Plotting and more.

Classes contain excerpts from a range of relevant authors and a 25-minute writing exercise based on the theme of the week. There’s time for students to read their work and discuss, and homework is given.

Featured authors include Kei Miller, Tim Winton, Margaret Atwood, Rose Tremain, Carys Davis, Jo Shapcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, Andrea Levy, Helen MacDonald, Jeanette Winterson, Tricky, Tracey Emin and Melissa Harrison. 

The Creative Writing courses will run from mid-September, along with the journalistic ‘Write an Article in a Week’, which runs over two weekends. The price for each course is £125, with a 10% reduction if you book up for two or more. Becca is currently developing a new course on Memoir Writing.

For more info please visit https://beccaleathlean.wordpress.com or email lubrinbecca@gmail.com

Aof A People: Mish Aminoff Moon – Artist and Photographer


8 Minute Read

Mish Aminoff Moon, 63, is an artist and photographer. She captures images every day with her camera – from her particular perspective, details of London life. She blogs at https://www.mishaminoff.com/ with her photographs being the main focus. Mish took some amazing shots of our Dance Me To Death performance; no one else had her eye.

What is your age?

I’ll be 64 in August.

Where do you live?

In London, near Kentish Town.  I love the location as it’s near Hampstead Heath and also quite close to the centre of town, so it’s urban but also close to nature. One of my photographic projects has been taking the ever-changing view from my window through different seasons and light conditions. It feels exciting to me to witness a cityscape out of the window.

What do you do?

I’m an artist. Most days I wander around the streets with my camera capturing whatever piques my interest. I paint too but photography is something I do every day. I also produce a regular blog that combines images and text.

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

I feel very fortunate to be here and to be relatively fit and healthy. I lost a good friend a few days ago and another of my friends has been seriously ill for a while. I reached a turning point when I turned 60 – when I began to appreciate life in a different way. In my 30s and 40s I was probably more concerned about ageing but now I see life as a gift.

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

For a start, I have two grown-up sons! I’m also married (for the second time), and we live together in our own apartment. I have nearly 40 more years of experience and am still learning. I’ve discovered that I’m a good singer – this only happened as I approached 50 when I was looking for a transitional activity to replace the regular salsa dancing in clubs. I joined an Afrocuban choir called The London Lucumi choir and have been singing ever since. We’ve performed alongside amazing artists and recorded several albums. In terms of my physical identity, I have much longer hair, which is streaked with grey.

What about sex?

On the one hand, I felt a bit wary of this question as I don’t want it to be sensationalist like “we broke the bed the other day” (which we did). I value all the senses and for me, sex and sensuality are an important part of intimacy and connection. I treasure the fact that my partner and I are lovers as well as companions. I don’t know if my feelings around this will change but this is how I’ve felt up to now.

And relationships?

I met my husband Stephen when we were both 55 and single. I was in a good place creatively and socially but relationship-wise I had totally resigned myself to being single. There’s actually a funny story connected to this. When we met, I had an exhibition of my photos at Bar Italia and sold some pictures to several people, one of them being Stephen. With some of the deposit money I went and treated myself to some fancy lingerie. I was recounting the story to a woman from the Great British Song Book who used my words verbatim as the chorus to a song which we performed at the Barbican. The chorus goes like this:

“ I’m going to buy myself the most beautiful bra in the world. Nobody’s ever gonna see this bra but I DON’T CARE!!”

So, after the exhibition was over, Stephen and I arranged to meet for an afternoon coffee. This coffee was the start of something that then developed into a relationship I hadn’t anticipated or expected. It felt and still feels incredible to have met my soulmate and something about finding each other at such a late stage means that we are appreciative of each day we have together.

How free do you feel?

I feel quite free as an autonomous individual but I also feel that my duties and responsibilities are going to increase in terms having to care for my mother who is in her 80s. So fantasies about spending months living in Venice might have to remain fantasies for a while.

What are you proud of?

This is a tough one. I’m proud of my sons and my relationship with them. I’m proud of what I consider to be my bravery and fearlessness in certain situations – I’ve worked hard to live in a way that I feel is authentic.

What keeps you inspired?

I’m inspired by reading. Relatively recently I read The Choice by Edith Eger, a holocaust survivor who was presumed dead amongst a pile of corpses but survived. She still goes swing dancing with another nonagenarian! Talk about Carpe Diem. I’m particularly inspired by black women authors and am currently reading a fascinating book by Raven Leilani who is only 30. I love watching world cinema (which I used to teach) and listening to music. But I am also aware of too much “consumption” so try to keep a balance.

When are you happiest?

Lots of situations – I’m happiest hanging out quietly at home with Stephen, but I’m also extremely in the sense of pure life energy when I’m dancing, singing and around rhythm. I recently bought a pandeiro-type of Brazilian tambourine and even a few minutes of playing totally raises my spirits.

And where does your creativity go?

I take photographs or work on my photography every day. I’m also into fashion and some of that creativity goes into my personal style. I think I’m quite a creative cook too, which has made lockdown a rather tasty one. My newest dish is a re-creation of a Sicilian speciality I read about in one of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels!

What’s your philosophy of living?

The following phrases inform and inspire me day to day:

“Keep on Trying … I just keep on trying” Faith Ringgold, an incredible artist from Harlem who found success relatively late in life, said this in an interview to Alan Yentob prior to her solo exhibition the Serpentine. She was in her late 80s at the time.

“You don’t have to keep up dear. You just have to keep open”- spoken by Anna Madrigal, the transgender character created by Armistead Maupin from the conclusion of Tales of the City series of books.

I mentioned Edith Eger before; she writes that we always have a choice irrespective of how dire the situation is, and we can choose to have a victim’s mentality or that of a survivor. She says “we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.”

This is also linked to the idea of being an active or passive agent in your life. This brings me to my next nugget of philosophy:

“Some pursue happiness, others create it”. I first came across this in New York – part of a motivational project called Be Mighty where people could tear off little inspirational quotes from flyers in the street (see attached photo). This one really resonated with me. I later found out it is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And dying?

I’ve taken small steps towards acknowledging and confronting dying; the tai chi and qigong practice I’ve been doing increasingly since lockdown (see attached photo of people practising on Hampstead Heath) help me come to terms with acknowledging loss, notions of seasons, transience, change and letting go.

Mish Aminoff

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, but I don’t always remember them. One dream that had a profound effect on me was a kind of premonition involving bonding with a woman in a red flowing dress. This was followed in waking life by encountering the Red Rebel Brigade of the Extinction Rebellion movement in a similar scenario. I photographed them and wrote a blog called Red Flow which develops the theme.

Mish Aminoff

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I don’t really go for outrageous – I tend to strive for balance and harmony. But I do have a lot of adventures and spontaneous wonderful experiences. For instance the other week I had been dancing Forro – a type of Brazilian dance in the bandstand at Regents Park. After the class, a Brazilian dancer started a Maracatu line dance parade with live percussion in front of a crowd and my friend Alicia and I joined in even though we’d never done it before. We ended up performing in the front row, doing movements representing slaves getting rid of chains and it was incredibly powerful. We ended with impromptu wild ululation! And the crowds cheered…

Age is no Barrier to Getting your Book Published


5 Minute Read

Judy Piatkus, 71, is an entrepreneur, publisher and business coach specialising in conscious leadership. She founded Piatkus Books when she was in her 20s and grew the company to become an international brand, before selling it in 2007, just before the global financial crash that she had shrewdly foreseen. She is now a keynote speaker and a coach and mentor to start-ups. In 2011 she founded Conscious Café, a network that brings people together for connection and discussion.  www.judypiatkus.com

It was 2019. I had no plans to write a book as I travelled to a café in Islington, North London, for a ladies networking lunch organised by a friend of mine. Yet one of the women I was to meet there was to set my life on a new and unexpected trajectory during the next three years.

Helen Elizabeth Evans offers a process called Scientific Hand Analysis which helps you understand yourself better. I was fascinated when she looked at the palm of my friend’s hand and revealed information about her that she could not have previously known as they had only just met. I booked my own session with Helen and discovered that I had ideas I wanted to communicate to the world, stories I wanted to share. Writing some of them down seemed an obvious route to go and so it began.

My background is book publishing and I had founded my company, Piatkus Books in 1979 and sold it successfully in 2007 to one of the largest publishing conglomerates. I had made a first attempt at writing a book after that but the three eminent literary agents I offered it to were not impressed and so I abandoned it.

At the start of 2019, I determined that writing my book would be my project for that year and that I would approach it in a more professional way. I joined a writing class run by a previous colleague from my publishing days. It soon became clear that memoir would be the form of writing that came most naturally to me and so I began. Interestingly, I didn’t write about my life in a linear way. I wrote the easiest chapters first and then amalgamated them with later chapters which were harder to write and didn’t flow so effortlessly.

After I had written 40,000 words I sent them to an experienced freelance editor who a publisher friend recommended. It was an anxious time waiting for her response. However, she was very encouraging and suggested guidelines that I could follow. I persevered and finally, the book was completed. It was a great feeling to finally write those two immortal words ‘the end’.

I sent the completed typescript which was by then about 80,000 words to the freelance editor and asked if she would copyedit it so that I could look for a literary agent to represent me. She got to work, subtly improving what I had written. Nevertheless, it was still a shock when the early pages were returned to me as she had cut 20,000 words from my text. As an ex-publisher though, I knew that whatever she had chosen to leave out would improve my book immeasurably and after a couple of days of adjustment, I was able to send it out on a quest to find a literary agent who would represent me.

Although a former publisher myself, I hadn’t given much thought to which company might publish it. Over the next eight months a literary agent took it on and she sold it to Watkins Books, a perfect fit, as it turned out because Watkins publish books in the genres I was writing about.

My memoir is entitled “Ahead of Her Time: How a One Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand”. It’s the story of how I started the business in my bedroom at home in the 1980s when I was pregnant with my second child and how my colleagues and I gradually built it into one of the UK’s most successful independent publishing companies. We became known for publishing popular fiction and for being pioneers in the area of alternative health and personal growth publishing. In the 1980s we published classic bestsellers such as Colour Me Beautiful and cookbooks by Mary Berry whose first book for Piatkus, Fast Cakes, is probably on many of your shelves. We also published the earliest works by Jon Kabat Zinn, who brought the concept of mindfulness to the West and a range of health and mind, body and spirit titles including the first UK books on detoxing and decluttering.

In April this year – 2021 – my book was published. And so, after all these years of enabling other authors’ voices to be heard, I too found myself holding my own book with my name on the front and not on the spine this time. By now the UK publishing trade has of course changed considerably. Amazon controls over 50% of the marketplace and my book is available as a hardback, as a kindle download and as an audiobook. I already had a platform on social media (essential for all aspiring authors) but it was nevertheless quite an adjustment to find myself personally connecting with readers via Twitter. There was also a lot of new terminology to learn.

The advantage of being able to look back on a richly-lived life at this time of my life has been immeasurable. I feel very grateful that, at the age of 71, I am still capable of taking on a fascinating new project and of being able to see it through to completion. Age truly is no barrier when you have the right mindset.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/judypiatkus

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/judy.piatkus/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/judypiatkus/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/judypiatkus/

How I Ended Up Living on a Narrow Boat


1 Minute Read

I’m 59 and still not really sure what life’s about, but glad to be part of Advantages of Age – I feel like I may have found my tribe. I haven’t met any of you yet but can feel the positive, slightly naughty vibes leaping off the FB page.

A bit about me. In my Life Part One, which goes from birth to fifty years, I was always fairly rebellious, in my own middle-class middle-England sort of way. I was expelled during my A levels – the local boys public school trialled having girls in the 6th form – and I was culled pretty early on in the experiment. Aged 17 I hitchhiked to the South of France with a friend to try grape picking but we were three months too early so I ended up as crew on a superyacht which lasted four glorious years and taught me that I never want to be stupid rich – that, as it happens, has panned out. I got engaged to the engineer, but my parents felt there was more to life than a cockney grease monkey and I returned to England – since then I vowed never to interfere with my children’s lives.

Various other jobs including working privately for a tax-exiled British couple who wanted to develop an island in the Bahamas a-la Richard Branson’s Necker Island. I used to go out to the island with the developers by tiny seaplane but a proper runway was required so that guests could bring more baggage than they could ever possibly use on a desert island, and the Bahamian Government was opposed to it. Apparently, drug runners use these airstrips unless the island is permanently manned. I did offer to permanently man it and keep a close eye out for drug runners but that didn’t work.

In 1992 at the end of the Gulf war, my husband and I moved with Saatchi’s Advertising to the Middle East. I worked as Brand Marketing Manager for Jack Daniels whiskey – I was responsible for the Middle East and African markets. You don’t automatically imagine working in liquor in the Middle East, but the only dry countries are Kuwait and Saudi. I spent a lot of time in Lebanon even during bombings – such a wonderful little country with delightful people and a big heart. Ditto Jordan, where I navigated as a co-driver in the only female team in the Middle East Rally Championships and received a cup from King Hussein which was pretty weird.

Then in 2012 a strange fifty-year-old took over my mind and body. I didn’t recognise her at all. She took one look at the now plastic fantastic exorbitant overcrowded Dubai and said ‘Let’s get the hell out lady.’ So I did. The new me decided that as Life Part Two was about to start, going it alone would be a more dramatic change. I left my lovely home, great job, very nice husband and the dog – which broke my heart. As my two children had just finished school and my daughter wanted to come to England to study, it was the perfect opportunity to make the break. I reverted to my birth name of Hope and choose it daily.

I started my new life with six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, during Day of the Dead – a fab way to celebrate and gently say goodbye to my first life and commence the rite of passage into my next. I stayed with a super cool 70 year old American lady who encouraged me to write and started my love affair with Frida Kahlo.

I still travel regularly and cheaply, buses and hostels are my happy place and work away is a great way to meet local people and keep the costs down. https://www.workaway.info/en/workawayer/RachelM62

Since returning to England, I have not owned a home. Not only because I was too old for a mortgage but, because after working for 30 years corporately, I wasn’t willing to get the sort of soul-sucking permanent job that I knew would be necessary. My mother suggested working in nearby Milton Keynes, and that’s the last suggestion I will ever let her make. I have rented here and there but mostly travelled or stayed with family and friends, so it was never a problem. Especially as the only single one of four siblings, you tend to get more than your fair share of parent duties.

But then March 2020 arrived, we forgot about Brexit and the pandemic started. Everyone was told to self isolate and I got caught out – like musical chairs – the music stopped and I had nowhere to lay my head. I had previously thought bubble-less meant flat champagne.

There’s always an upside to life though, and I am now the proud owner of a 30-year-old narrowboat and love it.

A boat didn’t immediately spring to mind, I originally wanted to build a cabin but with no land and can’t build for toffee – that was a non-starter. Then one day, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, my favourite TV fix, featured a narrowboat. What’s more, Rosie & Jim and Prue & Tim seemed to be having a blast, so why not me?

At 55ft long and 6ft wide, it’s actually quite spacious, particularly as I don’t have to share it with a ton of coal and a family of eight. I have seven rooms if you count the two front and back indoor/outdoor spaces, nine if you allow for the dining room to double as an office and triple as a spare bed.

The galley kitchen is petite but means I can put on the kettle, wash the dishes and open the fridge all without moving my feet. Aside from having to get down on my knees and roll back the mat to open the oven door – it’s very functional.

The bedroom, bathroom and a sitting room all have doors to separate them and the large rear end – stern deck technically – and small cosy nook in the bow, are full of cushions and plants in the summer, and wellies and coal in the winter. Unless you have some form of central heating, you’re either boiling hot or freezing cold, depending upon your wood burner skills. You are, after all, living in a metal tube that, like trains and container trucks, was designed to move commodities around, and not for your personal creature comforts. As I simply cannot keep my wood burner going all night, I have installed two oil-filled radiators and only light the fire when it’s really freezing or I have enough patience.

The toilet is the compromise. There are two main choices – the Porta Potti or a pump-out tank stored onboard, most often under your bed. Not only do I not want to sleep on top of a load of crap, I do not want to keep moving my boat across to the other side of the marina to pump out. I am a learner driver whose confidence has been shattered by the person opposite who keeps repeatedly shouting ‘Don’t hit my boat, this is not a contact sport’ every time I switch on the engine.

So, Porta Potti it is. It needs emptying pretty frequently and involves splitting the loo in half, lugging the loaded part up the steps to the jetty and onto my sack barrow, that I’d only ever previously used to cart cider across a music festival. You then arrive at the Elsan which is like a giant’s toilet and deposit your goods. One year later and I still hate doing it. Everyone in the marina knows me as the ‘marigold lady’ as I simply refuse to touch it without rubber gloves.

The choice of location for your boat is varied. Canals are colourful and much easier to moor on than rivers, but personally, I like being in a marina. I need to plug into electricity, have a constant water supply and a car nearby. I also am not capable of the gipsy life that requires you to keep moving every two weeks if you don’t want to pay fees or taxes. I am technically and mechanically incompetent and simply would not survive. As soon as anything starts making a weird noise I call the marina manager to come and fix it. We pay £2500 per year for these privileges along with a boathouse and small shop. You then pay approx £1000k per annum for river or canal fees, so it’s a little pricier than some may imagine.

Yes, we live in close proximity. I could hold hands with my neighbour whilst drinking tea in bed, except I don’t think his wife would like it, but, we are right on the river with fields in front of us and a sunset to die for. I hand feed the birds, swim in the river and love the connection to nature. I am mindful – of enough water in the tank before I get in the shower, and minimal – you’re not wasteful as space is precious.

But most of all I get to live alone in my own tiny home within a wonderful community. What more could you ask for.

I’m still work-averse but love my writing. My memoir about muddled midlife is entitled The Dharma Drama – Dharma means purpose and I was rather lacking it when I started my book. This is where I want to put the link to Amazon so you can buy it, but a lot like me, it’s still a work in progress. It seems to have morphed into a journal that will never end. Journaling was a miraculous discovery. As Joan Didion said “I write to know what I think” and that seems to be the case. My pen reveals all sorts of things that I simply did not know.

My other great wonder is the tarot. Halfway through my first course in learning the tarot, my reading partner left me in tears. The teacher consoled me by saying that I really had the knack and uncovered some painful home truths for her. Thankfully this was followed up by a note from her saying that she had faced the issue head-on and all is resolved so thank you very much. Phew. The tarot is unique in that it is a mirror. It reflects back to you and shines a light and what you already know but keep deep inside. The universe then throws up opportunities and some much-needed oomph to set you on an exciting new journey.

I have recently coupled my two passions for journaling and tarot and developed them into a new business, Soul Sisters Community, which hosts retreats for midlife women looking for more. At this point, I am going to unashamedly put a link to Soul Sisters and say please take a look, ladies. And do please come. I would absolutely love to host some of you for a few fab days of self-discovery.

Apologies gents, this one’s just for the gals – but I am looking into running The Best Karma Exotic Funky House of Creation in Sri Lanka next January/February 2022 for all genders to enjoy some spiritual sunshine. If that appeals, please send me a note at: rachelsoulsisters@gmail.com I would love to gather a group who can help me shape it into something wonderful.

Carl Jung says “Life really does begin at forty, up until then you’re just doing research”. Well, at nearly 60,  I am still doing research because the day I stop being curious will be the day I die.

Soul Sisters retreats are happening this July 10th – 13th and July 13th – July 16th. Please check it out, mention AoA and I will gladly give you a super duper discount.

Look forward to meeting you all soon. Namaste!

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