Refine Your Search

AofA People: Kevin Allen – Film Director


7 Minute Read

Kevin Allen, 61, is a film director and old mate of mine from our Portobello days. He made Twin Town (before Rhys Ifans was on the cinematic map) to great acclaim and now runs the Mobile Film School where he teaches people of all ages to make films on their smartphones. His latest feature film, La Cha Cha, was shot during lockdown using Iphones with anamorphic lenses. It was a Mobile Film School production engaging a mix of students and seasoned pros. It stars Ruby & Sonny Serkis, Liam Hourican, Dougray Scott, Rhys Ifans and Keith & Alfie Allen. It’s scheduled for release in cinemas at the end of Sept – depending on the third Covid spike, of course. 

Age                                                                                              

I’m sixty-one year’s young.

Where do you live?

In a cabin by a magical lake on a farm on the fabulous Gower Peninsular, South Wales.

What do you do?

I write and direct films – and run my Mobile Film School, teaching people of all ages from all walks of life, to make films on their smartphones.

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

I wasn’t at all happy about reaching the big Six-Oh. It’s around about the age when my relatives used to kick the bucket. But most of them had tough lives, I guess. I suppose sixty isn’t really that old these days. I don’t feel old. I think my kids are a decent barometer. They don’t really see me or treat me as an old git, and that’s nice. Although I suffered two serious knee injuries, my body is holding out okay.

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

Four bird feeders and a beard.

What about sex?

It’s definitely up there with a good Sunday roast. Always up for a bit of hanky-panky when the occasion arises. Although one-night-stands cease to satisfy these days, the ergonomics of Tinder has been a Godsend.

And relationships?

My marriage broke up about seven years ago. It took some time to get over but it was a good 16-year shift and we get on well. I’m happily single. I’m not sure I could live with someone again, to be honest. I know you never know what might come along but I do like living alone in my little cabin on the farm with my dog and chickens. The relationship I have with my rescued mutt, Schmeichel, is very satisfying. Our love for one another is unconditional.

How free do you feel?

Freer than ever I suppose. I live virtually off-grid, have no debts, no mortgages, and all my kids will be adults in a few years. FB keeps its eagle eye on me, of course – but I don’t really give a fuck who’s working out my algorithms. I can slip anchor anytime I want really. I have a loaded air rifle by my front door, should I be required to join the revolution. Although I’ll probably just film bits of it and sell it to Netflix.

What are you proud of?

My four kids. They’re lovely individuals. I don’t just love them, I actually like them. I’m really proud of the house I designed and built in Ireland … of my debut feature, Twin Town, and of my movie adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. But, I’m really chuffed with La Cha Cha – the movie I shot during the lockdown. It’s a sort of counterculture rom-com set on an alternative care-home/caravan park, where creative oldies can let their hair and pants down. We treat the elderly so appallingly in this country and the movie offers a glimpse of what could be a viable alternative for those wanting to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper.

What keeps you inspired?

Since setting up The Mobile Film School, we have trained many young filmmakers from scratch. Literally thrown them in at the deep end whilst making a movie. It’s a wholly immersive alternative to rip-off three-year Uni media courses. Watching them develop and blossom on set is truly inspiring. Balm for the soul.

When are you happiest?

Pottering about on the farm, cooking outside for friends, walking the mutt along one of our many beautiful beaches. I’m very happy when I’m making a movie. After the interminable grind of writing everything opens out during pre-production, followed by the adrenalin rush of shooting a film. I feel especially happy working on the score with my long time composer, Mark Thomas. Music is a critical component of my filmmaking and it’s just so much fun to play around in the studio after wrapping a movie shoot.

And where does your creativity go?

Quite often it goes straight into the bin – and sometimes it develops into something interesting and worthwhile. The filmmaking process can be quite protracted and often soul-destroying. It’s a journey that involves a huge amount of collaboration and juggling all the individual elements that go into making a movie is such a huge creative endeavour in itself. Filmmaking aside, I try and see the art in just about everything. With the lucrative proceeds of a big studio movie, we moved from Hollywood to a remote part of Ireland where we bred free-range pigs – and four free-range kids – in relative isolation. I learned to recognise and appreciate the art of the field. The creativity that goes into good farming is something to behold, and this is what inspired me to create the Flat Lake Literary & Arts Festival in County Monaghan, with the novelist Pat McCabe. The Arts Council of Ireland told us such an event couldn’t possibly happen in such a cultural backwater. We proved them wrong, and it was the ludicrous dichotomy of farmers and urban intellectuals coming together on the border that made the festival so genuinely special. It also made a significant cultural contribution to the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland – that Brexit just royally fucked up.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Don’t trouble, trouble – until trouble troubles you is a quip I picked up while writing a movie in Alabama years ago, and it sort of stuck with me. I guess I spent too much time in my early career looking for trouble that I didn’t need to address with such cockiness. I was so hell-bent on confronting what I loathed about my cartel-run industry head-on, that it only led to burning a few too many bridges. Leaving the Hollywood treadmill behind to farm in Ireland allowed me to rethink and reprioritise what I really wanted to do, and I naturally re-engaged with filmmaking with a quieter, calmer, more sustainable approach to achieving what I felt I could achieve.

And dying?

As more mates drop off around me, I guess it brings one’s own mortality into sharper relief. I’ve lost three best mates, the most recent hanged himself. It was traumatic, to say the least, and made me think a lot more about making the most of what I have left. I want to carry on making films until I’m physically and mentally unable – then check out in a place like La Cha Cha, the caravan park where my last movie is set. I’d like to spend my final chapter bathing in creativity. Painting, sculpture, growing weed, dancing around a campfire, taking lots of drugs … and if the body and mind allow, a bit of slap ‘n tickle by the lake at twilight.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, I recently dreamt of making the perfect sherry trifle. My kids entered me into the world of sherry trifle-making championships held at Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was a close run contest between me, Salman Rushdie and Fiona Bruce. Bruce pipped me at the post, but then failed a random drugs test, so I lifted the coveted Golden Trifle. I returned to Swansea on a double-decker bus where thousands of sherry trifle fans lined the streets. A male voice choir sang at a special ceremony at the town hall where I was handed the keys to the city. The triumph was bittersweet though, as I later learned that Fiona Bruce had been dropped from the Antiques Road Show. However, we all know that the Sherry Trifle circuit is rife with drug abuse, and the way of the transgressor is hard.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I just spent 200 quid on a tin of organic olive oil from Umbria.

An Unexpected Hospital Stay in the Middle of the Pandemic


1 Minute Read

Foolish me. I presumed I had it under control at 85. I planned to live for about ten more years and then, in my mid-90s, die of a heart attack. After all, I was in rude health, ate healthy food, exercised and walked a lot. After all, I was in charge of my body. And then my illusions were shattered when, after doing some maybe too energetic Qigong, I was suddenly debilitated by a smarting chest and pain down both my arms. It was aching so much that I even took a painkiller.

The next morning, the 11th of February 2020, I was a bit tired, but not worried. Still, worried enough to tell my children who insisted I get in touch with my GP immediately. I didn’t want to, I have forever avoided doctors, but let them talk me into it. The GP sent me to UCLH for a check-up that afternoon. I thought it wouldn’t take long, so much so that I did not take my phone charger with me.

At first, the medics who examined me said that there seemed to be nothing wrong, and complimented me on my health. Then, after hours of various scans, a painful angiogram, x-rays and what have you, they told me that I’d had a heart attack, and had blood clots on my lungs. Which explained why, for years, I had breathing difficulties, which I’d put down to age.

Before I was aware of what was happening, I was wheeled to a ward, given hospital pyjamas and slippers and told to put my clothes in the cabinet next to my bed. When they then connected me to a beeping machine I felt that my life, as I had known it, was over. I was now an invalid. Not valid. In-valid.

To my question: “How long do I have to stay here for?” I was told that I would have to go to Barts Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of heart conditions, to have a stent put in a blocked vein leading to my heart. As, at the moment, there were no free beds there, I’d have to wait here until one was available.

This was a bad state of affairs, but what preoccupied me the most at that moment was the low battery signal on my phone. What would I do if my phone died? It was my lifeline to the outside world. The free world. But I still had enough power to WhatsApp Johnny, a friend who lived nearby and asked him please to go to my house and get the charger. “It’s the white one plugged in the extension under my bedside table. And also please bring me essential oil of tea tree, lavender and frankincense, which are on the bedside table. Also, a sleeping mask and earplugs. They’re in a small, brown cotton pouch on top of the cupboard in the bedroom.  You can leave them at the hospital’s reception desk. And please turn my computer off, and bring me the book on the settee in the sitting room. Thank you so much, Johnny, I really appreciate it.”

Providentially, I have a key-lock by my front door so he was able to get in and bring me what I’d asked for.

My phone fully charged, I WhatsApped my children and other friends to give them my bad news. Everyone was shocked. And given fucking Covid, no one could come to help me.

So began my lost days as I waited for a free bed at Barts Hospital.

After weeks of lockdown, I was suddenly in company. My Covid-free ward was jumping with comings and goings. Patients spoke to one another, and jolly nurses chatted to me as they brought me medication (I had never taken a pharmaceutical till now), checked my blood pressure, injected me with blood thinners and tested my ailing heart with machines.

The nights were another story. Some of the nurses were not going to make the patient’s life pleasant. They talked loudly to each other, were brusque when they came to check my blood pressure and the peeps on the machine. In no way helpful or willing to say something nice, or anything at all. Others hardly got out of their chairs. They are getting us back for the years they’ve been treated as second-class citizens, I thought. And who could blame them?  One night, when I lost my bearings as I was trying to find the lavatory and asked a nurse for help, she vaguely pointed in some direction which did not make it any easier. I knew that had this happened during the day, the nurse would have taken me to the toilet herself.

During the interminable days – which I tried to handle by reading and WhatsApping a lot with my children, one in Italy the other in New York which meant I had to handle my condition on my own – I thanked the heavens for cell phones.

Young doctors, accompanied by a student or two, came around in the early afternoons. They didn’t have much to say except that no bed was as yet available at Bart’s.

I’m used to taking a daily shower, but there was no way I’d make do with the hand-held shower in the cold bathroom, so I washed in the basin using a paper towel provided by the hospital. I wished I’d asked Johnny to bring me a face cloth and my face oil.

As everyone knows, hospital food is disgusting, so I’m not going to go into it, except to say that it’s beyond me why there’s no awareness in the NHS about nutrition. Fortunately, a friend sent a rescue package with yogurts, kefir, green grapes, two novels, hair scrunchies and a white cashmere shawl.

I’m used to walking and exercising daily, so I walked as much as possible around the ward and did a bit of stretching. The others looked at me as though I was doing something abnormal. But then, I’ve never been regarded as ‘normal’.

The large windows at the end of the ward faced a nearby building, so there was no view on to the street. I never knew what the weather was like outside.

Patients came and went daily in the ward, and on the night when all hell broke loose, a middle-aged Polish woman, Anja, was in the bed on my left. She was at all times on her phone. In the bed in front of her lay a very old lady who seemed on her last breath. The compassionate male nurse, Silvester, from the Congo, was forever waking her up asking her what date it is. It’s the 14th of February, I said to myself, a fact I only knew because it’s my grandson’s birthday. Next to the old lady, a rough-looking working-class woman, Louise, in her early fifties, was constantly wailing for the doctor because she had pain, she said. The Polish woman told her she was given liquid morphine at night. Louise, looking displeased, went to the loo and came back with a long strand of lavatory paper stuck in her anus. She did not wear pyjama bottoms so we were treated to a full view of her large, varicose-veined legs.

Our lights were already out and I was about to put my sleeping mask on when suddenly screams and crashing of furniture came from the male ward adjacent to ours. I bolted up in my bed.

“Oh dear God,” Anja said. “What is happening? Did you hear that?”

How could I not have heard such a din?

The guy continued screaming and throwing stuff about. Finally, policemen and security guards marched in loud, authoritarian droves down the corridor. The man screamed more, the cops screamed back at him. “We’re going to take you back to prison.” He screamed “NOOOO”, and I thought, oh my God they brought him here from prison!

After they finally managed to drag him away, it seemed peace had been restored. But it hadn’t. Louise got out of bed, threw a faux-leather jacket on her shoulders and said, “I’m going out.” Nurse Silvester didn’t seem bothered and shrugged his shoulders. I told him, “No, you can’t let her out. It’s freezing outside.” Again he shrugged his shoulders and avoided my eyes.

“I’m going out,” she repeated determined. So I went over to her, and putting my arms around her I said, “Sweetie, you can’t go out, it’s freezing. Now, take your jacket off and get into bed.”

I was quite proud of my authority, as she sat on her bed weeping like a small child.

In the meantime, Anja called Silvester and said the old lady was coughing very badly and maybe she had Covid. Silvester went to check, I put a scarf around my nose and mouth, Anja got on her phone, Louise continued weeping, Sylvester, rolling his humorous, dark eyes, brought me a mask. To our relief, the old lady did not have the dreaded Covid.

The next day I emailed my son the horror story. “I felt like I was in a Beckett play.” I wrote. “Although I’d rather be in a Chekov one.” “Waiting for Stento,” my son wrote back.

What I found out later when Louise again put on her faux-leather jacket and a cap on her short-cropped brown hair – was that she was actually allowed to go out because she needed to have her fags.

No wonder I’d made her spill so many tears as I’d prevented her from feeding her addiction.

Before she came back, they had unplugged me and wheeled me to another ward where I waited two more days before going to Barts.

Anja came to chat with me in the new ward. “She’s a very odd woman,” she said about Louise. Louise came also, I had now become her best friend as I’d put my arms around her. She said she was going to the shops and did I want anything. “About four mandarins please,” I told her and gave her money. I wasn’t expecting to see any change, and my expectations were verified when she brought me the fruit. Once she left, nurses came over to tell me everyone knew her at the hospital as she came in and out and was a difficult patient.

The windows of this ward faced the street and my view was of rain on roadworks.

Finally, Barts had a free bed and I was ambulanced over. I was the only one in the ward. It was very quiet; the few nurses were busy at their desks and no one spoke to me as I waited in trepidation for my stent operation.

A nurse brought me a document to sign, a release form that stated I would not sue if something went wrong with what they were about to do to me. I signed without a second thought. I had given up any will. I was a leaf blown about in the winds of the system.

After about an hour, a doctor came to talk to me. “The ink they put into your body in order to find where the stent should go is damaging to the kidneys,” she informed me.

I didn’t know that, and frankly, had I known I would still have gone on with the procedure even though my kidneys were not in the best of shape. “It’s an age thing,” my GP had told me some time ago. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Would you like to participate in an experiment we’re doing regarding the kidneys?” the doctor asked.

“Sure. What do I have to do?

“Beetroot is very healing for the kidneys. It contains niacin. I’ll give you beetroot pills to take daily and you’ll have to go to your surgery to take blood tests once a week.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “I honestly don’t want to take blood tests every week, so I’m sorry, but  I won’t participate in the experiment,” I told her as I made a mental note to drink beetroot juice daily when I was back home.

Finally, I was wheeled along deserted corridors to the operation theatre. The surgeon in charge explained the procedure. “You’ll be put on a table in front of a large screen. You’ll be turned on your left side so you’ll be facing the screen. You’ll see your heart on it. Then you’ll be injected with a red dye so we’ll be able to look for the blocked vein.” There were more instructions, but I lost him. He then proceeded to tell me he needed to go somewhere else, “But you have a very expert team that will take care of you in the best possible way,” he said as he rushed off.

The six people in the operating room were jolly, put me in the right position, told me not to worry they knew what they were doing, and injected me with morphine.

In my drugged state, I could vaguely hear them talking amongst themselves. Seemed an obstructed vein wasn’t easy to find, but finally, they got it and put the stent in place.

Back in the quiet ward, I felt very tired as I waited impatiently for some hours for the ambulance to take me back to UCLH, where the sweet nurses welcomed me back, “Heh, Hanja, how did it go?”

The next day, Thursday the 18th, I binned the horrid hospital pyjamas, changed back into my own clothes, and waited impatiently for the ambulance to finally take me home.

 

 

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.

 

 

A Warm Coat in April – honing the art of the virtual live show


1 Minute Read

It’s one year on and there is every reason to be optimistic. Thirty-one million people have been vaccinated in the UK, over five million have had their second shot. Last week there were no reported COVID deaths in London. Next week, things will begin to open up again, to a level we last had in November 2020. The very last time I met with my friends for a sit-down after-work drink in Soho, braving the winter outdoors just for the pure pleasure of each other’s company, knowing we would be missing, not one, but two of their birthdays.

Five months on, Easter Sunday has just passed. On Monday, we met friends in Hastings for a ‘Scandi’ picnic. Outdoor lunch in their garden. Typical April weather, we went through all four seasons, visited mid-way with a tiny sprinkling of snowflakes.  At first, we thought it was blossom petals, but the tiny flakes on pristine black linen napkins confirmed: snow. It passed swiftly and we made the best of the day and of each other’s company by moving the lunch table around the garden, following the sun.

I had arrived in a lightweight spring coat, knowing that our host, Colette, had promised blankets, food and alcohol-laced coffee. Luckily for me, Colette had decided a much-loved 1950s wool swing coat needed a “longer body” than hers. Colette found me a furry hat and a pair of dark glasses. In an instant, I had been transformed from grump to glam. I pranced around a bit, mad as March hare (as they say) singing, ‘Dr. Zhivago! Go! Go! Go!’

These are the kinds of things that can’t happen on Zoom, no matter how sophisticated your background screen is. Though I shudder to imagine how much more difficult these lockdowns would have been without technology, virtual space is no substitute for live interactions. There is no virtual equivalent of being given a warm coat in April or resolving the mystery of whether a flake is a blossom or snow.

Like many performers, I have missed live space in ways I have found unexpected. There is lots of talk about ‘skin hunger, more so for people who live alone and have had to endure months of no contact with anyone other than those in their ‘bubble’. Air kissing has morphed to air hugging and it is to the air that we have all brought our attention to; the air that we breathe, the air that gives us life and is also now our greatest threat. I can’t be the only one who has inadvertently held my breathe under my mask while passing a particularly heavy breathing jogger, can I? In November, I was beyond relieved to be put back on part-furlough and told I could work from home. I dreaded going back to full furlough, to be so cut-off from my workmates, but I think HR was worried that I might actually accost a non-mask wearer. I’m not saying that their fears were misplaced. Commuting from my new flat in Hastings to Tottenham had begun to feel like running the gauntlet. Impossibly stressful, full of perceived threats.

Since the first lockdown, I had, like everyone else spent many hours online; many celebrations, socials, writing workshops, book launches, open mics, performances. One highlight was gifting my mother a new mobile phone so we could face-time each other between South Africa and the UK. What a pleasure to see her beautiful face. To check in a few times a week and see how she was doing, even though I was short of scintillating anecdotes and exciting opportunities, just touching base was comforting for us both.

I actually took part in an online panto ‘Snow White’ with some friends. Many people got pressganged into it but the night itself was wonderful. My friend Alexander Blair, upped the ante by posting pictures of the corset he was handmaking for his turn as the Panto Dame. My flatmate turned his bedroom into a green screen studio and created an entire backdrop scene with a hilarious turn with a graphic bear that popped up behind him so that we could all shout, ‘It’s behind you!’ in our separate rooms. I was laughing so much the tears running down my cheeks moistened the glue on my mustache. Prince Charming, under-estimating her time between lines, went out for a fag and had us shouting into the void for him to come back, hilariously trying to stay ‘in character’ at the same time, as we were recording the performance. Mad Pirvan who was playing Snow White amid a projected wood forest, kept valiantly trudging on. It was beautiful, wonderful, chaotic fun; but we all vowed to do this in person as soon as we possibly could. I don’t think there has been a single virtual event that has not left us hoping and longing for a live-live, though equally, I think we would all happily forego traveling for meetings while slowly building up the courage to keep our cameras off.

I have been playing around with different ways of performing (other than being sat in front of the camera). My bedroom is also an office and is large enough for me to create studio space in it. I have got a small kit of ‘stuff’ together, some bought, some begged, some borrowed: a good webcam, a stand to hang different backdrops, access to a good mic (when needed), a light kit. Virtual performances, like other performances, still need to look visually good. For the Poets for the Planet FRESH: Eco-poetry open mic, which we started last summer, we ask readers to check that they have good light and good sound. It makes the world of difference having illumination from either the front or the side. Often this is as simple as moving a sidelight or changing the position of your camera/laptop. I was advised that if I had a mobile phone, using the camera on that for Zoom would be better than using the default camera on my laptop. It is still good advice. It took me ages to work out that you can buy a relatively inexpensive cam card  (£15-£20) to transform your DSLR camera into a webcam. I have done this for live feeds when I have needed to use a better low-light camera and it works a treat. High-end cam cards cost about £110 and are probably well worth it, but you can definitely get away with cheaper ones, though they may be less reliable in the long run.

One of the great advantages of virtual live performance has been the de-territorialising of events. Most events now will attract participants from across the UK and across time zones and have access to events streamed from other places. It has been wonderful to connect with The Poetry Brothel New York, even if that has meant staying up till 3 am so that I could. Virtual relationships are just as meaningful as those in the flesh and I can’t imagine doing another event that does not make some provision for people (both audience and performers) who cannot be there physically, to have some virtual access. It may also work for performers to increase their income streams at a time when social distancing means limiting the numbers of in-the-flesh audience members.

My most creative performance online was for ‘Maiden / Mother /Crone’ – a project by ‘women of words’. The organisers were very open about how the performance could take place: either pre-recorded or live. After a slow start, I became really excited about the performance, choosing a mixture of pre-recorded and live performance, but sod’s law, despite having a great idea and structure, a ‘little match that could’ refused to blow out, resulting in a tussle in what Henni Saarela, who had designed the music for the piece described as ‘Woman vs Fire’. This small delay effectively put the live actions out of sync with the pre-recorded poem, music, and projected imagery. When it ended (all the excruciating six minutes of it!) I collapsed in a ball of tears. So much work and not at all the result I wanted! The organisers and friends who saw it assured me that it was not as bad as I imagined, but when I saw the footage played back, it was so much worse! I berated myself for not just releasing a pre-recorded set, but really, I love live shows, as it does mean that every time you do it, there is some variation. Any performer who does a long run will confirm this. It doesn’t matter if you have performed a piece hundreds of times, every performance is unique.

I am so looking forward to venues opening up again, but I still have a sense of unease. Some internal warning against being too optimistic. A reluctant realisation that it may still be some time before things will return to normal again or indeed that we may have to contend with a ‘new normal’ for some time. My interest in performing multi-sensory, close-quarter readings still looks like another world away. How do we even begin to transfer the world of the senses over digital media?  How would I even begin to translate this into live space in a socially distanced, COVID-friendly way? What is the relationship between the senses and intimacy? For the moment I will have to content myself with being happy just to be able to do any live-live (not virtual-live) performances, even socially distanced ones – but I hope as we return to normal, we don’t lose our capacity or will for de-territorialising events and making access possible for those unable to join us in live space. To extend the offer of a warm coat in April across digital means.

You can subscribe to my YouTube channel where I will post new videos of performances.

https://youtu.be/ajvpv-yK2uA

PREMIERE OF HEKATE – a filmed live performance

Tues 27/04/202:  8pm

https://youtu.be/ylPQFKflt5Y

Payment by donation.  The recommended price is either the price of a  coffee or a cocktail.

https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8yU0vnz8TW (till June 21) or https://paypal.me/debrawatson

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


1 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.

Show me more
Surprise Me

Hear more from us

Subscribe to our newsletter