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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!

Daughter and Mother – Ruby, 56, interviews Maria, 95


7 Minute Read

Ruby Millington is a journalist, zeitgeist expert and great cook. During the lockdown, her mother Maria, 95, moved in. In fact, they came to my family Boxing Day Funk Up this year. Recently, I asked Ruby if she would interview her incredibly glamorous mother about how it is to be her age.

 Maria MacLaren was born in Devon in 1925. She was in the ATS during WWII and worked as a secretary for the Southern Electricity Board Consultative Council until her marriage to John in 1959. She has two children, Martin and Ruby.

R: When did you first feel you were ageing?  

M: At 80. I’ve never been afraid of physical work but I realised I could no longer dig the garden, wheelbarrow bricks or walk long distances. My eyesight was deteriorating with macular degeneration and I began needing cortisone injections for arthritis in my hands. I feel my hands and eyes are just 49% of what they were and it’s frustrating because I always liked to be busy. But that’s not to be now and I just have to accept it and feel lucky that I can sit back and be cared for. Not everyone has that. But don’t forget I looked after your father during the last years of his life, pushing him around in a wheelchair, so I learned a bit about what was coming my way. And my life is very enjoyable now. You’ve taken me into your home and we’ve had a lot of fun and done many projects together. And I’m in the fortunate position of knowing that Martin and you would do what you think best for me. I don’t feel I’ll suddenly be abandoned and that gives me a feeling of peace and security.

R: What are the important lessons you’ve learnt over 95 years?   

M: My parents taught us from an early age never ask or expect people to do for you what you can do for yourself. And never be afraid of hard work. Most important has been believing in the goodness of others. That certainly made me a better person than thinking everyone was horrible and I hope I continue believing that till the end of my life. During my last stay in hospital, for example, a few people were stealing surgical socks and abusing and threatening the nurses and yet the staff treated those patients just as well — lovingly really — as they did the rest of us. That’s stuck with me. It reinforces that most people are decent, caring and kind.

And I’ve always tried to look on the bright side, to be optimistic and make the most of life.

R: You do always seem bounce back very quickly. And you never brood or sulk. Is that a factor in your longevity?  

M: Very probably. I’ve had ups and downs but I geared myself up to put them behind me and get on with life. I was very close to your grandmother and when she died in 1991 and when John died in 2004, those were very dark days. My sixties were another low point. Something was missing. Although I was happy I felt there was more to life than dinner parties. I feel there are more positive things going on around me now, especially being here. And I’ve been very touched by the kindness of your friends too. I feel involved and part of something.

R: I think it’s crucial for old people to stay engaged. Most people want to feel recognised and valued and accepted. You used to say you were still learning every day. Do you still feel that?  

M: Definitely. My education wasn’t as bright or helpful as it could have been but 80 years ago it was considered adequate. I’d hate to stagnate. I’m constantly learning — thanks to you mainly because I’ve learnt a tremendous amount through being here, about the world and about myself. I’ve never used a computer, for example, but the internet has changed my life with shopping online and Instagram, eBay and Zoom. I’ve learned lot about you too. You’re very vulnerable and caring and supportive and very, very willing and not afraid of hard work. You’re not the tough nut people always thought you were.

R: I can’t imagine anyone would ever think that about me.   

M: We didn’t know you. You were away from the age of 17 and then you lived abroad. So I feel I know you much, much better now.

R: What about disappointments or regrets?  

M: I wish that John and I were younger when we married but then, as you know, he was married to someone else and we were carrying on an affair for ten years. It was out of our control. And it’s no good looking over your shoulder.

R: That’s one of your favourite phrases.  

M: Well, it’s true. I always look forwards.

R: You still buy lottery tickets every week! What are you looking forward to now?  

M: Christmas. Or the summer at least — seeing your garden progress, the vegetables coming to life. If you don’t look forward to the seasons you’re pretty well done for. I feel I have everything to look forward to, being part of life here. I look forward to all my meals and my walks and even just planning my outfits. I’ve always tried to keep myself looking good and been interested in fashion. It’s not vanity. I dress to please myself although it’s always good to bear in mind what other people might think and I was often stopped by strangers in the street who’d comment on how elegant I looked. Now little things give me a lot of pleasure. Some flowers, a new ornament to look at…

R: Do you feel that over 95 years you’ve had any control over what’s happened to you?  

M: A little bit. I’ve never had to worry too much about material things but life hasn’t all been plain sailing. Obviously you can’t control everything that happens. You know the old saying: Life is what you make it. I think that’s very true. I’m grateful for having a life at all.

R: But what if someone can’t make life what they want it to be?   

M: Lower your expectations. Like Jo Brand said when I heard her at Christmas. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t keep striving. Hope is the one thing that keeps us going.

R: I’m sure you thought it would be business as usual for the rest of your life and never imagined a pandemic would happen.   

M: I knew life would be very, very different and it has been for the whole world. I remember being very frightened about what would happen to me when they said the over 80s should stay indoors, alone, for three months. But then you said I should come here. I was also terrified about the number of deaths and the lack of ventilators and how the NHS would cope. I was frightened, not just for myself, for everyone. If I’d been on my own I’d probably be dead now.

R: You think so?   

M: I’m sure so. I would have been so frightened and so lonely it would have been the end of me.

R: So when people talk of losing the will to live, it’s not just a figure of speech. You can will yourself to keep going?  

M: A lot of it is luck. I came from good hardy stock on both sides. I’ve inherited good genes and lived a fairly privileged life. But quite a bit is attitude. My advice is try to stay healthy, have a target and find something to look forward to, whatever your age. I know the future might not be great for me but it doesn’t stop me hoping.

 

 

Will I Bloom Again?


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AofA People – 5 Rhythms Teacher, Nikki Ashley


3 Minute Read

Nikki Ashley has been dancing and studying 5Rhythms for 12 years. She trained to teach in 2014 with Jonathan Horan, son of founder Gabrielle Roth. Nikki comes from a background in theatre; traditional, educational and participatory.

Nikki has worked with dancing Tao for 10 years, helping to shape it into a Community Interest Company, she also works with women, elders and regular groups and is a mentor to 5Rhythms teachers in training. She runs a Wednesday daytime group in South London for Over-60s who’d like to have fun with their dancing bodies.

Age 

54

Where do you live?

London

What do you do?

I’m a Movement Meditation teacher

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

A relief

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

The ability not to take myself too seriously

What about sex?

Definitely gets better the older I get. I care less about how I look, perform, I’m much more adventurous, there’s less of me in the way. I’m not going in for it unless it’s absolutely yummy and enjoyable and worth staying up late for!!

And relationships?

I don’t live with my partner – we are very different, have quite separate lives and so when we do come together it’s for all the good stuff – when it gets boring we go back to our own homes!  Seriously though this does have its disadvantages as we never really deepen through the every day to day stuff, and can
sometimes feel like we live in a bubble. So it definitely has its advantages and disadvantages.

How free do you feel?   

Very free in my body.

What are you proud of?   

My Mum.

What keeps you inspired?

Music … listening to, dancing to, making it (I’m learning to play a hand drum) singing, all forms of movement and dance.

When are you happiest?

Walking in nature

And where does your creativity go?

I pour a lot of my creativity into making my classes, finding music to complement exercises – making
playlists – DJing. Lately, I have started art classes, which I love, and that I would never have contemplated when I was younger, at school art was not a subject I excelled at – now I don’t worry so much about what the end product looks like, it’s all about the process, so my creativity is flourishing.

What’s your philosophy of living?

My father told me once ‘Life is not a rehearsal’ that has stuck with me – it keeps me in the moment and grounded in the now.

And dying?

This one caught me. A good friend of mine recently went through a near-death experience. I asked her ‘what’s on your bucket list now you’ve been granted a second chance?’  She looked at me and smiled and said –  ‘Nothing, I was already living the life I wanted to live with the people I wanted to be with. She stopped me in my tracks. So now that’s my enquiry or my version of it – which is really about self-acceptance, and trust in your own path.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes!  I dream a lot of the land I was born on the hills of my welsh ancestors. I dream a lot about the sea too.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?   

To me, it doesn’t seem outrageous but to some who see me dancing on my local common every evening around sunset, it may. I always get the odd glance but sometimes someone will join in for a wiggle and that’s always magic.

https://www.5rhythms.com/teachers/Nikki+Ashley

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.

Shanks’ Pony: Travels on my feet.


14 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Stones Walk from Swindon to Salisbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR ADVANTAGES OF AGE FUTURE WALKS

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

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

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

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

Getting there:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bus from Wareham to Swanage (approx 40 mins)

Options:

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

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

Walk 3 – A weekend on the Isle of Wight.

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

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

Friday Afternoon – A coastal walk from Ventnor to Shanklin .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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