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On the Road Again


5 Minute Read

I am shocked by the extent to which I’ve rationalised what lockdown has made of me.

I’m going, “hmm, I used to think I was an extrovert but do you know, I really think I am more naturally introverted…I’m not sure that I even LIKE my friends…”

Oh yes. And I’ve been joking with those friends for weeks about how I could “quite happily do nothing but sit on my sofa with my iPad for the rest of my life, la di da…”

But it’s a pernicious form of lying to myself, even if it did grow out of an attempt to be courageous. And enough is enough. Never has the phrase ‘Use it or Lose it’ seemed more pertinent.

So, I have, impulsively, bought a very large Ford Transit campervan conversion called Kingsley. And he’s a bit camp! Part of the trend for what is being called “The Gentrification of VanLife” apparently. He’s got a white ceramic countertop sink with curved tap, matching rectangular Subway tiles behind the hob, a mirror with a seagrass fringe that looks like a parasol on a tropical beach, and two sets of dinky little spice jar shelves which have been a joy to fill. (Cumin, coriander, chilli flakes and salt? Or plasters, rubber bands and marijuana?)

I had a glorious few days online shopping for everything else a VanGran like myself might need. I bought a beanie hat with an integral head torch (yay!); a fifteen-metre food-grade hose pipe for the water tank; a lidded salad bowl; a Bivvy Loo (don’t ask) and much, much more.

But here’s the thing: one month on and I’ve only dared to take the van out once. I drove it nervously to a garage where I practised filling up, repeating “diesel, diesel, diesel” under my breath like a madwoman so I didn’t use unleaded by mistake. And now I feel the need for a long and uninterrupted rest. Indoors. What’s happening to me?

It’s not as if I’m new to VanStuff. Once, when I was 21, I drove a ten-ton Ryder rental truck from the East coast of the U.S.A to California. For two years in the seventies, I double d-clutched an old hippy-painted ambulance full of inflatables around London and Europe for the community theatre Action Space. I fell in lust with a very hairy Australian Clown who lived in his Mercedes Fuck Truck in the car park of the Oval House Theatre Club. Oh, that van!

And in 2014, aged 62, I finally got a Vroom Of My Own, an ancient RomaHome called Marjorie. She looked like a biscuit tin on wheels. With old-fashioned-flesh-toned-underwear coloured paintwork and upholstery. No power steering or other modern gizmos. Every time I climbed aboard I felt an ecstatic thrill of freedom, hope, and the promise of adventure.

Not this time. I feel as if I’ve been muffled by a blanket of trepidation. I fret about every detail and threat to equilibrium. I’ve even caught myself wondering how quickly I can sell it on without losing face. I’m feeling OLD – in a trembly, wavery, weedy way that I cannot stand.

I’ve never been scared of getting old. When I was young I knew instinctively I would improve with age and I have. Yes, I am labouring under the delusion that I’m still ‘going from strength to strength’. But if logic decrees this cannot be possible, then I still aspire to be the kind of old woman who retains the fuck-off fearlessness and ‘one of the boys’ machismo of my younger self.

Well, it’s a fact that I can no longer turn the knob of a gas bottle with my arthritic fingers. But I am still capable of squatting in the grass to take a pee and getting up again (I am pathetically proud of this). And I chose to buy the van, too; it wasn’t forced upon me by the government. So maybe it is just a question of busting out of the lockdown mindset.

I’ve also realised that in all my fantasies about VanLife, I’m not exploring picturesque villages and churches or walking miles along the coastal path. I see myself all cosied up under the duvet of my van bed, with a good book, back doors open to the sunshine dappling through the branches of a wildwood, kettle whistling on the hob. I’m really after a form of Outdoor Hygge, in a  ‘second childhood’ Wendy House. It’s comfort-nesting for the empty-nester.

But it’s also a bijou rehab Halfway House; locked safely in a tiny cladded cell, parked parallel but yards apart from other human beings, breathing in your own bubble of fresh air, yet only inches away from the hoots and scrabblings of Nature – simultaneously comforting and threatening, like Real Life. Just what the doctor ordered in fact: the perfect substitute drug for weaning off the opiate of lockdown.

Now it’s over (fingers crossed) I can see there’s one good thing to be said for lockdown: it was very good practice for being house or bedbound in the future. I feel comforted by the prospect of guilt-free days of the internet, and all the films and podcasts that await me in my dotage. But that is definitely for the future.

Now it’s The Now and I’m beginning to feel its power again. I’ve stopped doing Research (or Armchair Campervanning as my best friend calls it). I’ve Snoozed the addictive Women With Campervans group I joined on Facebook. I’ve booked two nights at a campsite on the edge of Exmoor.

No, I haven’t slept in Kingsley yet. But I’m well on the way to refining my ideal Spotify playlist: Baby Driver; Hit the Road, Jack; Baby, you Can Drive My Car; the entire re-mastered soundtrack of Easy Rider… I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for The Summer of VanLove. And quite excited.

May we all feel a sense of hope and freedom and the promise of adventure, now that we are ‘on the road’ again.

Irresistibly Drawn to Work in a Recording Studio Down The Road Aged 59


9 Minute Read

Michele Kirsch, writer, wit, asthmatic isolator, mother of two, furloughed chef wrote about Lockdown 2 for AofA and it was brilliantly funny. Here it is. Now she’s onto the next one, and a new enterprise has arisen.

Of course, by the second lockdown, after the confusing tiers for fears, the novelty had worn off. I was well over the glorious government approved and subsidized slacking of getting paid to NOT go to work. At first, my furlough payments were looking kinda handsome as my employers had forgotten to take off tax and National Insurance, but suddenly remembered, and took the lot off as soon as I returned to work. This was after two months of going for long bike rides in desolate London, trying to remind myself that that ghosts of the civil dead might not actually all be dead, but watching telly, in their flats, on furlough, swearing at Joe Wicks and waiting for the ice cream van, just like me. The vast emptiness of London I initially adored, now just felt abandoned and, like me, waiting for something to happen.

At home with the cat

It was so stinking hot; I could barely breathe.  I’d get home from work, run a cold bath and lie in it with bra undies on. Then, chilled to the bone for about five minutes, I would lay on the bed, briefly blue with cold and looking halfway dead. In no time I would be unbearably hot again, and swearing at England, which was clearly breaking the summer rules, of being chilly, by New York standards. I had done many New York summers, and they all felt like this: unbreathable, unbearable, and slow-mo. Nothing was going up except the temperature, and the death count. The manic gaiety I felt – the joy of small things, was fading fast.

Michele in the bath

Work as a chef had changed, in the lockdown. They were more performance-orientated, all speed and efficiency. Right about the same time, I was LESS all of these things, and older. Very suddenly. When a rating system came up i.e. the better you performed, the more hours you got, I came second to last. It was A SIGN. I had spoken to my ex vicar (I have at least as many ex vicars as ex-husbands, but I am very fond of this one) who told me something would happen but not in the way I expected. So I gave notice on my job, thinking Rev Marj, with her Bat phone to God, would make sure nothing very bad happens to me, even though I was doing this insane and catastrophic thing – quitting a job I did not deplore, but certainly no longer loved.

I kept thinking of a line from a Lake Woebegone story, where the mother of the protagonist, a waitress, keeps saying to her, ‘Oh honey, you coulda done something with your life.’

Well, I HAD done something with my life. I had just temporarily forgotten. In July I won a prize for my book, CLEAN, which gave me some money, and a holiday in a mansion in Sligo, which my daughter said I must take because that’s where Normal People happened, and Normal People was all anybody was talking about the last lockdown. But if I were to take the holiday, I would be locked in the mansion for 14 days for quarantine. Yes, it’s not exactly like being locked in Holloway Prison for a similar stretch, but still, I would want to walk through the bottomlands and pick wildflowers and hang out with young groovy and beautiful intellectuals like the ones in Normal People. The photogenic shaggers, him with his medallion swinging all over the shop. Her with the cheekbones. Not on my lonesome, trying to work out the plot of a novel, and figuring out where the microwave bit of an Aga was located. All that had to be put on hold.

Michele in her mask

Then on Jobseekers allowance, I did every free course available to those on JSA. I was going to re-train to be something useful, not just some withered, wasted form of post-pandemic protoplasmic life. I studied, did modules for coursework and had two job advisors. That bit was a fluke that would never happen in real Jobcentre life, my past experience of that Inferno being dead-eyed, stressed out, shouted at civil servants in Matalan suits, shouting at me, shouting at them, in my Matalan suit. These work-from-home Jobcentre people were nice people, and they seemed to genuinely keen to get me back into work. I’d hear a dog barking in the background. The Jobcentre never had a dog.

I also signed up for Advantages of Age’s own Suzanne Noble’s course, Start Up School for Seniors. Not that I actually had an idea for a start-up, but there was a potential opportunity for something local, that had been started up, dropped as per safety measures during the pandemic, but on the verge of starting up again. It was something shapeless, brewing in my head, but there. It was at a recording studio that I passed most days, as it is about 200 yards from where I live. I was drawn to the place, for reasons not yet clear to me.

While I didn’t attend every session of the Start Up School for Seniors course, I just got into the idea that starting conversations about the thing you wanted to do, was a good thing. It helped me work out what I wanted to do. I already knew WHERE I wanted to do it: at the recording studio.  Everybody who walked in or out of there, or who hung out the front, vaping or smoking, seemed in an impossibly good mood. It had a VIBE. I told Suzanne I wanted to be part of it but wasn’t sure what USP I had to offer.

Now the idea of working in a recording studio appealed to me, because I was in the music biz many years ago, as a journalist, press officer and briefly and traumatically, as a tour manager. I understand people in the biz, how they roll, how pretty much all you have to do, to get ahead behind the scenes, is not be an arsehole. To be useful, to be nice, and to be efficient at modern life. This last bit might take some work, but I was two-thirds of the way there. Oh sure, the business has changed beyond recognition from the days when I was young and green and down the front at some indie gig at ULU, going home drenched in sweat that did not come from my body. This was still in the biz, but more grown-up and desk-based.

Plus, I had been in recording studios, well – twice. The first time was with Killing Joke, and that was the most noise-related fun a gal could have at maximum volume if you discount the two weeks of tinnitus that followed. The second time was many years later, watching The Neville Brothers record some tracks, and that was heavenly, in swampy New Orleans, in an air-conditioned room. Could I put that on a CV? More to the point, could I get a job, the way I did in the olden days, without a CV, just by, er, not being stupid, or a shit? I just wanted to be IN there, doing something. I did this about a billion years ago at my first newspaper job in NYC. I wanted to be IN, so I just walked in and then it kind of happened-the newspaper job. Right place, right time, and willingness. My life coach friends would call it the Universe being ready. I call it being willing to be ready for the next thing, without quite knowing what that next thing would be.

Then, a couple of things happened which made me think Rev Marj had been on the Bat phone to God. First of all, I met the owner of the studio in a book group I had just joined. We got on very well You know those rapid-fire conversations where you just kind of nod furiously in agreement about pretty much everything? It was like that. Then, weirdly, the novel I had started to write was set not quite in a recording studio but around some rehearsal rooms off the back of Carnegie Hall and centred on a music teacher who came from nowhere, to teach piano and singing and meet Stephen Sondheim. Could life imitate this formative art, maybe swapping Carnegie Hall for Hackney Road?

The owner and I got to chatting, mainly on email, and he told me that his second in command had sadly passed away from the vile virus. Not that I thought for a minute, that I could replace her, but I could do some of the jobs that she did, again, using the ubiquitous skills of giving good phone and email, and not being difficult. He mentioned that one of the things that got dropped during the Plague was the educational side of the studios, delivering masterclasses and intensive courses in piano, vocal techniques and songwriting. Was that something I thought I could pick up, help organise, administrate, deliver, publicise? Revive? Dare I even apply for a job that I thought might be fun? Well, yeah!

After a few more emails and some socially distanced walks, I was offered a part-time job, and there was really nothing to not love about it, except an uncertain terror that I might be crap at it. A terror, like most of my terrors, founded on zero evidence.

Now I spend three half days a week surrounded by music, fun people, and a feeling of proper hope, that people will never stop making music and never stop wanting to learn how to make music or be better at the music they make. It’s solar-powered, the people are super friendly, and there is an office cat. The potential bonus is that if something weird or plot twisty happens during my time there, I can whack it into the book.

I thought leaving my job during a time of mass unemployment was probably not smart, at first. But the confluence of the prize money, the book club, setting my novel in a place where people did music lessons, and then getting a job where I would be setting up, initially, music lessons, felt really smart. The longer-term goal is to set up a songwriting academy, get some kind of Brill Building mojo going right in the heart of Hackney. I think it’s possible. I think lockdown 2 consolidated my job goals, and everything else was just kind of intention and good fortune. That stuff counts more than you think.

www.premisesstudios.com/blog/jazz-piano-week

A Guide to Surviving A Pandemic by Sophie Parkin


12 Minute Read

To make it through a pandemic – if you are me –
You will need:
A telephone, modern mobile pref
Some books, assorted 50-100 – fiction, poetry, short stories, history, philosophy, autobiog, art, various dictionaries
A wifi connection + laptop
One projector
Some empty jam jars – about 30
Weekly delivery from Oddbox – fruit and veg
A diary
Coffee and herbal tea
Paint (I use pigments and refined linseed oil but tubes are fine too), canvas, paper, brushes, turps, rags
Chocolate milk, chocolate bars – whatever takes your fancy current fav Tony Chocolonely
A bottle of dark rum – good quality for emergency chocolate milk

Some wine, European, good quality
Regular mail delivery
Postcards, envelopes and stamps
A crush, it is nice to daydream of another time and place
Five empty note/sketchbooks without lines and at least 10 Muji 0.5 ink pens
A garden, seeds, trowel and enthusiasm
A comfortable bed and bedding. I am happiest with French linen sheets and an eiderdown both underneath and on top, but I believe this is my particular
An alarm clock for meditating set to 31mins
A radio
A sewing basket
A comfortable chair/sofa for reading/ watching films/meditating
A yoga mat
A bicycle – this is now less necessary since it was stolen
Walking shoes
Good neighbours
Friends and family who can use WhatsApp
A surreal sense of humour
A slug of empathy
A barrel of not taking yourself too seriously
A box of good imagination
A sprinkling of willpower
A bucket of curiosity
A pinch of perspective
A carton of top non-judgement, and some apologies
A Spotify account
A lot of deep breathes
A note in the kitchen that reads – happiness comes from within
Ingredients are not necessarily in that order

Most recipes don’t unless they are Christmas cake, have such a large selection of ingredients but surviving a pandemic requires emergency supplies. It’s like preparing to make Christmas cakes for royal families everywhere in the world. Except it’s just me, by myself now.

This is a luxury. I did have my gorgeous son with me for the first nine months, but we couldn’t cope in a one-bedroom flat, and now he lives elsewhere, and I visit twice a week with shopping. Alone with all these ingredients in this second lockdown, I feel less in need of so many jam jars. The jam jars are to distribute all the ginger marmalade, aubergine Sri Lankan chutney, lemon curd and salsa verde that I make. The last lockdown I tried to learn Spanish every day for a month now I can’t remember a word. Gracias!

I’m certainly utilising my living room with all the paints, pigments and canvas which has become a studio. It’s no longer just a reading room with its large bookshelves, dining room with its table, or cinema with the one bare wall where I project from my laptop countless Preston Sturgis, Powell+Pressburger, Hitchcock, Fellini and De Sica movies. Here I have the separate space that allows me not to leave the flat and not feel that cabin fever will overwhelm me. Some days I run down the four stairs into the kitchen and out into the garden, then back again and every other day or so, I go to the Post Office, then buy milk and bread from the bakers. I was going on bicycle rides as well, but that will have to wait until spring. I hope someone is enjoying my rusty old gold Raleigh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wake in the morning, always trying to remember enough of my dreams to write something down. I seem to alternate between Armageddon, last place on earth, or expensive costume dramas in luxury mansions with endless performances. Some days there is total clarity, others a thick fog and then two days later it comes to me… I was in Italy!

I jump out of bed and say as I draw the curtains, ‘What Amazing things will happen today?’ because you never know. The time can be anything from 8-10 am, and I have no need to be strict about getting up. With no appointments for work or social, does it matter what time I start my meditation? But the one thing I’ve learnt is that meditation delayed can often mean it never appears. And a day without reflecting is like a day without sunshine, I’d rather have it even if it’s for only 15 mins.

Why I have spent so many years not meditating is beyond me? I suppose it’s why so many people I know don’t practice at all. It’s free. It requires no membership contract, studio or equipment, other than you and your dedication; in other words, it’s almost too good to be true. So most people don’t believe it will benefit them because it requires only willpower. Meditation is the only proved discipline that keeps the brain cells expanding as we get older. It keeps me calm with a sunny disposition; it delights me with unexpected ideas and delivers what I need from the universe. The other day I opened my eyes, knowing that my purpose was to inspire joy. I don’t have to win a prize. I have to bring joy, what a relief! So with that in mind, I always wear nice bright clothes, do my hair and makeup plus never forget a hat. Other people have to look at me in the street, so I try not to be an eyesore!

I have breakfast every day, something I used to think below me. Usually some muesli with plain live yoghurt and a homemade fruit compote with ginger. And sometimes some fresh fruit on top too – gild that lily. I have a lurking glut of kiwis, and yet I eat the peach. I make coffee from two different ground coffee types in a cafetiere with milk in a Mottoware jug heated up in the microwave. I drink my coffee out of a handmade @MandeeGage mug. It’s these small rituals in a diary of nothing that gives urgency to the day. Sometimes I will eat breakfast, exercise, shower, meditate, and then have my coffee and sit down to work on my laptop or my phone, topping up social media, reading what’s on other peoples’ minds, and adding funny thoughts into the Vout-O-Reenee’s WhatsApp group. Though my business premises are closed, my business is never closed. There is plenty to keep one person busy looking after members, applying for grants, working out ways to make money whilst my partner is furloughed on the other side of the world. I’ve had my website re-designed, a shop built, ticketing put in – the whole caboodle but I have to make the caboodle.

I tend to do my reading in the morning, or first thing, my writing. However, my painting is a thing of the night, and there is nothing I like more than listening to philosophical podcasts whilst grinding pigments. I am on a Jungian bent (This Jungian Life, Salome The Red Book) at the moment though I have been obsessed for the last few years with the Stoics. There is no doubt that Stoicism from Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Hecate, and Seneca helps keep me sane when the world tells me otherwise. These books are by my bed.

I will paint before as well as after I make dinner. And when I say make dinner, that’s one of my great pleasures – lunch will be a piece of toast some cheese and homemade chutney – but for dinner, I will slow roast tomatoes with chipotle, garlic and oregano from Mount Parnassus near Delphi. I will make a tortilla from scratch to have with the tomato sauce and a salad with watercress and oranges. Yes -all that care just for me. And I might even make a rice pudding. And why wouldn’t I? If I am not willing to spend time on myself, why would anyone else? I am beginning to understand that what we do in the outside world is responding to the deficit within. That for us to change the world outside our walls, we must change our relationship with ourselves. Jung calls this shadow work.

The things annoying you about the outside world are usually things about yourself you haven’t accepted. Like that bossy blustering Boris who never thinks before he speaks, or Priti Patel just trying to wing it with so little substance and so much confidence in deriding others. I see all that in myself sometimes, and it makes me want to gag, but I’m conscious, and I’m not sure how much of the government is, any government in the middle of this crisis.

I like sending postcards and packages to my friends and family. I like waiting in a Post Office queue just watching. I’m lucky enough to live between Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill’s Jewish community. I love seeing the families from my window on Friday nights and Saturday dressed in their best-going-to-synagogue wear. The kids are all in matching outfits playing in the streets on their scooters or pushing their younger siblings in prams, the boys and men huddled together in their tailored suits, white stockings and fur hats discussing the Torah. Social distancing seems a million miles away as it does on Church Street where the affluent anoraks parade inside and outside the expensive American health food stores. I want to shout; ‘Try the Turkish family store’.

The peacocks are hibernating I expect, sewing fabulous costumes of colour and spectacle. When spring hits us, I anticipate a magnificent carnival display down Dalston! I have been mostly darning, using bright embroidery threads to decorate the holes left by the ravenous moth family that stuffed itself silly over Christmas on my cashmere, Merino and lambswool. Now my jumpers, jackets and scarves look like they’ve been flicked with paint from a rainbow palette. I hope to start a trend that will stop people from throwing moth-eaten garments away by upcycling them into the height of fashionability so that people in Chelsea will be faking/making holes to ‘get that look’.

Darning moth holes allows me to watch old Hollywood movies or Netflix rubbish without feeling I’m squandering time. Because the cost to me is that I will never get this lack of pressure back again, which is silly because I will, I give myself the pressure, so I can damn well take it away. I worry that I will never have enough time to read all the books I want to, write all the books I need to, (slightly less worried about this as there are more than enough books in the world), paint all the paintings I want to, make all the people I love, feel truly loved. As I’m also the bringer of joy, there’s no option to be lazy.

Today I talk to my daughter Carson in Ramsgate on WhatsApp video. This is as close as we get to a hug. I’m so proud of her. Tomorrow I’ll visit my mum with a box full of homemade food. She likes trifle, so I always make a version of that. It’s not as if she can’t cook her food and maybe I do it as much for me as for her. Mum and I, we’re good. She said; ‘if it’s this pandemic that takes me then that’s what it is, I’ve had a great life, and I’m 88 almost 89, and maybe I’m not meant to live to 100, I’ve got to go sometime.’ I like that sanguine acceptance. Yes, we do have to go some time, it’s just, are you ready to leave the party? Have you done the work you were put on this earth to do?

Have you fulfilled your destiny? I know I haven’t, I’m sure my mum has, but I will miss her like hell when she leaves. But I will see that she knows I love her and I know she has loved me. However, I don’t think she’ll be going anytime soon, she’s just had her second vaccination and feels ‘full of beans and quite cosy’, plus she is starting a new series of collages.

At some point during the day, I will make cups of tea, eat chocolate, make phone calls or send texts to check that those I love are okay. I might make something from all the fruit and veg from my weekly Oddbox delivery. Now, what shall I do with white carrots, pickle them? And all those parsnips? Some nights I have a glass of wine. Most nights not but I like the thought that I can.

Just before bed, I’ll do the washing up, make a large cup of chamomile and mint tea, brush my teeth, touch my toes and thank the universe for another day that’s rushed by. When I finally tumble into bed at night, it is with a definite sense of abundance, sometimes it’s after a warm bath with scented oils, but I have a propensity to fall asleep in baths, so I put the radio on quite loud. I don’t intend to drown. I like my bedsheets to be French linen, white, clean and with an eiderdown and quilt and lots of pillows. There are piles of books to peruse whilst I lather unguents into my face and hands like a 1950s sitcom. I listen to the late news either at 10 or 12 pm. There are no rules since I got divorced two years ago!

I’m accountable to no one and yet to everyone in a pandemic, for though we must keep apart, we must always remember that especially post Brexit, no man Is an Island. That when we come through this, whenever that is, we will continue to give each other a helping hand, as well as all those hugs we’ve missed and not to stand with harsh judgements over each other’s behaviour. The other day I had a surprise phone call from an old friend who rang to see how I was getting on; ‘I suppose you’re madly creative’, he said. ‘Painting, writing…’ Yes, I answered all that. I felt too guilty to tell him about my moth embroidery, marmalade making, gardening, conversations with the squirrels and birds; it seemed too much like virtue signalling.

As enjoyable as I’m finding this time, life should not be about treading water. I do not wish that we go back to how we were before Covid when there is so much more joy to be created and shared. We can invent a better way to be together. Perhaps we are all being recalibrated so that our pre-pandemic, anxious, rushing, headless chicken within disappears.

How am I Coping?


9 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black mist of anger hangs over the depressed population.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Story – Living with my 92 year old Mum


8 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Through the Darkness of Lockdown – DEBRA WATSON


1 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That I will work productively again. Sometime.

Lockdown Shock – Moving In With My Partner In N Wales


10 Minute Read

For the past seven years, I have been having a Living Apart Together relationship with my partner, Asanga. He lives on his beautiful wild land in North Wales and I live in my funky flat in Harlesden, North West London. Every few weeks, we visit one another for four or five days.

We are together but we retain our independence. We’d also found a way to be interdependent, we send photos and WhatsApp messages about our daily lives. Our gardens, our thoughts, our friends, our plants, our interweavings – we’ve both given each other so many gifts, he even has rags made from the maroon candlewick bedspread that I had on a bed as a child because he helped my family clear my mother’s house – then there’s his baking, my poems, his paintings. Life is rich and the anticipation around seeing each other again is relished.

We were in Fes this year on March 7th my birthday. News about Covid-19 in the UK has started but there was still the idea that it was a mild flu. I hadn’t given it much thought. I had organized a shared birthday party – with Suzanne, my co-founder at Advantages of Age – for March 14th after I returned. On March 9th, I was basking in the glory of a beautiful 18th century Medina townhouse and I received a warning text from Suzanne. Had I seen what was happening in Italy?

I hadn’t and I had no intention of removing my head from the gorgeous red Moroccan earth. I promised I would look as soon as I got home. By that Thursday – 12th – I was looking around FB and seeing that people whose politics I admired, were saying that we should be in lockdown already. That we should be learning from what happened in Italy. I read one particular article that convinced me which spoke about Covid-19 and how infectious it was. That the reason for lockdown was to stop that infection but also to protect the NHS.

We cancelled the party – I’m so glad in retrospect that we did. It was that weekend – the Cheltenham Festival weekend. The virus was spreading rapidly.

The Decision

The next week, it was obvious that we should be locked down already and it was coming. There was all the panic buying. No-one, where I lived, seemed to be taking social distancing seriously. I felt afraid. It literally felt as though society’s structures were collapsing.

Interestingly to me – forever independent – I found myself thinking that I wanted to spend lockdown with Asanga. Marlon, my son, said I should go. Asanga was excited – thank you for that sweetness – at the prospect.

By that Saturday morning, March 20th, I had packed up my little car, my big Apple Mac there too. I had never taken my computer to Wales! That felt so significant and made me feel extremely anxious. I always feel as though my life is on my computer and if I move it, it might all disappear.

So you see – I am very rational when it comes to my computer!

Replicating Living Together Apart When We’re Now Actually Living Together!

I moved into the guest bedroom. A fabulous bedroom that looks across the oak canopy. At this point, there were no leaves but the Irish Sea was there in the distance. And Moel y Gest, the little mountain. And this wild land. Fourteen acres of it.

I could have my own world. The Apple Mac was installed.

So it began – I spent four days sleeping in the guest room and three weekend days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – sleeping with Asanga. Saturday would be our day when we devoted ourselves to the relationship. Making love, baths, appreciations, cooking together. It all sounded perfect!

And I was still working three days a week, so that could carry on as normal.

The ups and downs, the downs and ups.

The ups were all around living in such splendid isolation. No neighbours, lots of naked sunbathing.

The Track has to have a capital. It had such an important part in my lockdown story. This was a lane that Asanga had never travelled up – I persuaded him to walk up it one day to confirm my spotting of a pair of willow warblers – well, not by foot and was a back route to Criccieth. And every other day, I would walk or slow run up it.

For eleven weeks, the Track amazed me with its unravellings. Not since I was a child in our Yorkshire village have a felt so close to the earth, to nature. To the layers of life. While Covid 19 raged elsewhere – and it did feel like a ‘bubble’ where we were –the creamy froth of blackthorn blossom arrived, a mighty hare which appeared like a messenger from a magical story, three dead moles were displayed, the dazzle of the gorse yellow accompanied me.

As I read more about the horrors that were going on in hospitals and then care homes, and the PPE crisis, the bus drivers dying, the young health workers dying, the mounting death count – it was the weekly toll of small deaths on this lane that put me in contact with my grief. I couldn’t believe how quickly they came and went. I was truly shocked by the speed of their fading. Wood sorrel, wild garlic, stitchwort, bluebells – there was a parade of death and birth.

Maybe as well it’s because at 67, I’m aware of my own death approaching and have faced that my spring blossoms are finite now – but I felt deeply sad as the blackthorn turned brown. I wanted to yell – Stop, slow down. Yet in a giddy fashion, the hawthorn had already replaced it with its more substantial cream. This longing for life went on.

There was the hand-written sign on the telegraph pole, which announced Return Home, Stay Home early on. Initially, I felt like an intruder from foreign lands but Asanga pointed out that the notice was aimed at those who had caravans and mobile homes nearby. Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for being from London.

And insisted that we keep a low profile about my presence.

More ups were planting of all those seeds together in the first weeks. What a mixture – from lupins to peppers, cucumbers and mixed flowers – that quickly turned into lush seedlings.

And the swing seat tradition – in breaks from working up in Roseworld, I’d come down and share a mid-morning piece of banana bread with Asanga while listening to all that birdsong. Ah yes the baking, Asanga was the man in the kitchen producing rhubarb flapjacks, cinnamon buns, sourdough bread and different banana breads. What a marvel. No, I didn’t lose weight during my Welsh lockdown experience.

Then there was the Zoom Dance Ups – my family were so great at this, we’d pick tracks and then dance together before settling down for a chat, we had a couple of Saturday night club nights where we threw our bodies around and dressed up with friends including our French friends. Oh, and there was one Zoom evening which was supposed to be a cabaret night and turned into something more meditative and lovely. One friend played Bach on her cello, another showed us the paintings that she’d done on chair rescued from a skip, my sister read from Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, I read a new poem Today The Death Count Reaches Eleven Thousand…

Oh yes, the Friday poems. I learnt to make little videos of myself reading my mostly new poems and I really relished doing it. Even though the holding shots often showed me not at my best! It became another little ritual for my time in Wales and on several occasions, Asanga joined me on his crystal bowls.

Ah ha and the downs. The crazy ongoing not sleeping. Awake at 2 and not asleep again. Again and again. But it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, although this also contributed. It was the return of my high reactivity towards Asanga. I was living in his house. And on a part-time basis, I had learnt how to do this with ease, bring food, cut out mundane chore stuff, focus on the special activities. On a full-time basis, I was lost.

I reacted strongly to being in his domain. I was in his home and I found that difficult. I hated being told what to do – never a strong point of mine. I took everything – all words of instruction – as criticism. I felt unappreciated. I bought lots of food to make up for feeling unsafe. My internal waters were shaken by storms that I already knew well but I could not stop the shaking.

I had been content with our arrangement, the visiting, the exchanging but this living together – even though I was in the spare room much of the time – disrupted the emotional me. Sent me back to daddy waters. I struggled with this unwanted, familiar territory.

There were explosions on both sides. There was intensity. One of my mantras, as I get older, is that I am happy with the every day, I no longer need the extraordinary. I am a self-confessed recovering drama queen. Sometimes my recovery lapses. These weeks contained constant lapses.

Despite the dressing up for takeaways, the slow runs up The Track, the birdsong, the wild land, the walks in the woods, the poems, I was exhausted by my own emotions. Of course, the communal grief for what was happening outside my bubble was part of it. The deathly undertow. The Tory chaos. Dominic Cummings.

One weekend, I feared my mental health was tipping. Fortunately, Alan Dolan – who does conscious breathwork – was having a Zoom workshop that day, I used this circular breathing through the mouth – as Alan says, it’s deceptively simple – to bring me back to solid ground. I used it every day until I travelled home at the end of May.

Home Sweet Home

Neighbours came out to greet me. Jakki and Dylan who have saved me on several occasions including when I needed a heater – my central heating boiler had packed up – after Marlon’s heart surgery. Francisco and Gabby who for years adored our cat, Tara, they provided a second home for her just up the road. My 80-year-old next-door neighbour, Patrick who had been watering my garden all this time.

I hadn’t realized that a lack of neighbours would affect me so profoundly. That I loved being squeezed into a street with people. That this warmth is part of my love for living in the city. That I am a country woman – I come from a village – but now I am a city one at heart.

Over the last couple of weeks, my internal waters have calmed. My sleeping has improved massively. I have been in the garden a lot, planting out the seedlings that germinated in Wales, building a barricade to save them from those frolicking fox cubs, listening to the robin who is always around. I have been back on those tennis courts –my proclivity for combat fulfilled. I’ve still been writing poems, now about Willesden Junction. I have tended the street garden. I have seen my friends and family.

And three weeks on, I’m ready to go back to North Wales again. This time for five days…

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