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Falstaff vs Smokey Robinson: turning sixty during lockdown


10 Minute Read

Nick Coleman is newly 60, and an author who used to be a music critic at Time Out and the Independent. 

I turned sixty in April, at a relatively early stage of the coronavirus lockdown. The day dawned for me, as it does nearly every morning, with the sound of a north-east-London blackbird giving it some in the tree outside our bedroom window. It was four-thirty in the morning. The little fucker.

He thinks it’s great to be alive and he probably has a point, from his blackbird’s perspective. The skies are clear, the roads empty, the atmosphere, the very air that we breathe here in north-east London is so much more breathable now than it has been at any stage of the forty years I have lived in this city. The blackbird has, I suppose, every right to rejoice and to spread the news. His air is now Bruegel-fresh, as ours is. The colours in our shared world are saturated like Caspar David Friedrich’s. There is a new tang to our daily experience of our world as if it were a fruit bowl by Caravaggio.

Except of course that I am now sixty and do not wish to be dinned out of my thinning nightly tissue of sleep by some loudmouth with a message to impart. I don’t want messages at four-thirty in the morning. I want sleep. I want to be dreaming of fruit bowls, not reminded in so many cockney chirrups that I live in one, or would do if I only had the eyes to see it. That blackbird is a prig. One day I am going to lean out of my bedroom casement with my blunderbuss and turn the varmint into a pinkish-black puff of feathers and vapourised bird flesh.

Credit: Linda Nylind
Author Nick Coleman.
Photo by Linda Nylind. 17/3/2015.

Except that I am not, of course. I do not own a blunderbuss; nor are they as easy to come by as you might think in modern Hackney.

So the day of my birth dawned for the sixtieth time with thoughts of violence. Which then turned really poisonous when I remembered that I was now, as of today, officially old.

Who wants to be sixty? No, but really: who does? What are the advantages? What are the burdensome disadvantages of being fifty-nine that we then shuck off by turning sixty? I can’t think of a single one and I bet you can’t either. And guess what: if I’d been born a fortnight earlier in history, I’d at least have got a Freedom Pass for my sixtieth, like everyone else has for heaven knows how long, as a special cheer-up present as you turn the big corner into dotage. But I don’t even get one of those. They’ve stopped it. In the nick of time.

So the blackbird really isn’t doing it for me at four-thirty in the morning. I turn over in my bed and add to the joy of nations by swearing.

*****

I don’t mind getting old, of course. It’s not the fact of it, nor even the feeling of it that rattles my cage. Getting old is just one more day added to all the others, as Justice Shallow doesn’t quite say to Falstaff in the firelight. Getting old is incontrovertible and, you might say, even fortunate. I might after all be dead (as indeed I nearly was last year when still only fifty-eight). I might be having my teenage life cancelled by measures devised to combat the pandemic. I might be struggling to raise a young family with no income all of a sudden and, worst of all, having to home-school a four-year-old and a seven-year-old (as would have been the case for my wife and I had the coronavirus struck 15 years ago). As it is, I am fortunate to live in a nice if rather jerry-built little Edwardian house in north-east-London, feeling a bit like a tinned pilchard given that the 22–year-old and 19-year-old offspring just happened to be biding here when the lockdown started, but comfortable enough. I have a small income. I have a roof. I don’t have much health but am not dead. Mustn’t grumble ­– apart from about the blackbird.

And yet the onset of sixty in lockdown is forcing the issue somewhat – I do feel like grumbling, I really do, and I think it’s unavoidable in the circumstances, like having to pee in the night. It comes with the territory, as Justice Shallow also doesn’t quite say to Falstaff in the firelight.

‘Jesus, the days that we have seen,’ he does say though. It’s a phrase I heard first issuing from my father’s lips long ago in I know not what context – the kind of quotation he was given to, having survived the war. I have heard it since at moments of dark reflection, uttered both by my elders and by me, because I am a bit that way inclined myself; inclined to the emptied-out and fatuous rather than to the mythological. Let me be clear, I identify more at sixty with Justice Shallow, the spindly, mindless, excitable legal official on his last legs, gasping to be appreciated by his companion in the firelight, than I do with the great fat beast of English half-felt regret sat next to him, Sir John Falstaff, who may well be magnificent in his way but is, basically, a regrettable old arse: charismatic, yes, but no good to anyone and absolutely and fundamentally dishonest, even unto himself.

Orson Welles saw Falstaff as an emblem of something lost and appealing, as you might expect him to do having cast himself in the role for his The Chimes at Midnight (a cinematic conflation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V). Welles sensed an embodiment of Merrie Ynglande in the galvanising figure of Sir John, a wild, untamed throwback to an England of the English imagination, which has probably existed in the Anglo-Saxon mind fondly since 1066 as a comfort: a creature of wit and instinct and appetite and untrammelled Nature whose pretences to social virtue are for effect only and whose unremitting jive is nothing but code for bogus class sublimation: we’re-all-in-it-together, but me first. Welles’s Falstaff is truly mythological, a vast case of the merry English blues in which eternal June meadows are pregnant with English flowers and no invasive species. Welles said himself he was glad to shoot Chimes in black and white because it would not expose the fact that he, as Falstaff, does not have blue eyes.

Well, I was born in 1960, not 1929 – I’m not even a real Boomer – and that kind of Falstaff resonates ugly with me, regardless; he smells of UKIP and Tim Martin and the upbraiding ruddy face of Fake Nostalgia. (Yes, yes, I know Shakespeare didn’t mean it that way. And nor did Welles. But, hell’s bells…)

I much prefer the Falstaff offered by Simon Russell Beale under the direction of Richard Eyre in 2012. Russell Beale’s Sir John is not mythological; he is the repulsive old bloke who’s lived his life in the pub and got stuck there, wedged in the corner of the bar, opinionated, delusional, evil-smelling and unable to get in touch with his self-loathing. Yes, he has moments of charm and even musters the odd truthful self-observation – ‘Oh, I’m old… old,’ he laments as Doll Tearsheet fumbles with his knob-end – but those moments come as departures in his life not the rule and certainly not as the engine of anything useful to man, woman nor child. They are soon gone. It is only as he stares stark-eyed away from the flames at Shallow’s hearth that he begins to sense the truth about himself. ‘We have heard the chimes at midnight,’ he announces absently and his gaze darkens to reveal an abyss engulfed by silence. He cannot speak of what he can’t actually encompass emotionally – but he senses its presence all right. That’s a Falstaff I can understand at sixty, even if I don’t identify with him.

*****

How old was Falstaff?

I am not about to re-read both parts of Henry IV to see if there are any clues to be had as to his age – and of course, age is relative, anyway, it isn’t just a number, and never more so than in 15th-century England when surviving the lottery of birth was a matter of statistical reality. But sixty seems about right to me, psychologically speaking. Falstaff is starting to lose his autonomic faculties as well as all the others, and his jive is losing its lustre. ‘Oh, I’m old … old.’ Sixty is an age of extreme self-consciousness and denial and, dare one say it, of the dawning of previously unanswered regrets. Of course Falstaff fancies that he can do all the stuff he used to do – of course, he does – despite his gouty big toe; but, when it comes to it, he would rather sit and mope with a flagon of sack.

My wife, whose name by a strange coincidence is Nell Quickly (and by even stranger coincidence also runs a bawdy house which she disguises as a respectable Hackney PR company), chased me out from under the duvet on my sixtieth birthday morning and set about my pimpling extremities with the warming pan.

‘Now, Sir John,’ quoth she, ‘…er, I mean Nick… Get your hindquarters downstairs and let me and the changelings go about making this the best birthday you ever had. Come on. No excuses. No maundering. I know you’re feeling awful and that bird woke you at a grisly hour, but… well, just go with it. Be in the moment. Go into the living room and play your favourite records, why don’t you, and leave the birthday doings to us.’

‘But we’re in lockdown. I’ve got things to do…’

Thwack! The warming pan made abrupt contact with the gristle of my dwindling behind and I thought better of uttering another word.

But I did go downstairs and I did think as I went, well, this is going to be quite nice. What record shall I play? What does my soul yearn to dance to? What moves me? I know…

Smokey Robinson!

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 26: Singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson speaks onstage during the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage)

And then the inevitable qualification… How old is Smokey Robinson? Christ on a bike – is he even still alive? Yes, yes, he must be: I’d have noticed if he’d died because… because I love Smokey Robinson and I would have undergone some sort of memorable emotional crisis if he had expired. But how old is he? Must be in his eighties now. After all, he has been embodying the poetry of undying romantic youth since… since when? 1961? 1962? Since before I was born even? The sound of Detroit south side’s beating heart, fluttering as delicately as dew-jewelled cobwebs on spring mornings; the sound of a stock of weightless metaphors so intricately extensive that they drape every curve and loop of Time itself, going both back into the past and forwards into the future until they are lost to view.

And so I went into the living room and played Smokey Robinson records all morning, while my children made breakfast and very old friends came round at timed intervals to surprise me and give me virtual hugs from beyond the front gate by secret arrangement with Nell – and the metaphors kept on lapping and mingling in the air all about until, by lunchtime, I was quite convinced this was the best birthday I’d ever had.

And then after lunch I had a nap.

And when I woke up it was still good, even though I had a slight headache.

Nick Coleman’s books are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage: ‘The Train in the Night: a story of music and loss’; the novel, ‘Pillow Man’; and, most recently, ‘Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life’

Living in London during Lockdown – Sophie Parkin


8 Minute Read

Sophie Parkin is a writer, artist and poet. Her most recent book is A History of Soho’s The Colony Club. She owns an artist club in East London Vout-o-Reenees. During the lockdown, she’s taken to the cocktail shaker. With or without her ex-husband, Jan.

I nearly lost it yesterday. I thought I was enjoying this time. I never seem to have enough time. But suddenly I was mad as hell, I wasn’t going to be able to take it any more, my head was going to explode in frustration. For three and a half hours, I had been trying to sort out my Amazon account as a seller, none of my books was left on sale because my lovely book distributors had closed for the duration.

This was the ideal time to sell books, wasn’t it?

This is when people have time and might actually read my books, or just buy it and look at the pictures. This was an opportunity from nowhere and the one time it happens, none are for sale…. typical!

My final outburst was caused by realising I was shouting at a typing robot. I had to laugh. This wasn’t anything to do with the lockdown getting to me, this is what it’s always like dealing with any of those faceless global brands, any day any year.  So at two in the afternoon, I stopped and had a long soak in a scented bath, washed my hair, did half an hour of meditation and started again.

Discarding my annoyance, I contemplated what I should make of this day? Should I organise another part of my flat, pick up the phone and have one of the many extended catch-ups with friends I don’t see or talk enough to, or repair all the moth holes in my jumpers? Or make marmalade? I could make marmalade with ginger. Rice pudding? Wild garlic pesto.

I have been doing a lot of cooking, not just for me but also for my son Cameron who was between accommodations at Christmas and was looking for a place when this happened. He has been sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the front room of my one-bedroom flat, not ideal but we have a garden so we are blessed. He is a lovely boy of 32. Where did those years go? It is hard for mothers to see their sons as men in these times, which are so much to do with caring and rubbing along in the make-believe of normal family life but none of this is normal. I haven’t spent so much time with him since before he was 12? 8? Played football.

I do find myself sectioning out days to deal with stuff, work. I have a business and the priority is how I’m to keep it running and relevant. Emails to the council, trips onto Gov.UK for latest updates, calls to the accountant, is it worth being furloughed it turns out not -because to be paid by the government as a director of my company I am not allowed to do ANY work from my company accountants of social media or emails. What are they trying to do, kill us all?

For Vout-O-Reenee’s, I keep up the jolliness quota with my silly Vout’s Cocktail Masterclass (Slim Gaillard would have loved these!) – I go to the club once a week to check on paperwork, my ex-husband Jan Vink and the plants, and I make three videos of three drinks and post them through the week. People seem to like them. They are not professional in the least, they have Jan and I back-biting, laughing at each other rather than with, and recall Fanny Craddock and Jonny. Sometimes Jan doesn’t even appear because he’s so annoyed with me! I just thank the Universe that we aren’t still married, otherwise one of us would be a casualty. All it would take is a bottle to the back of the head. This is real life, but is it relevant?

Let's spread Joy…

Geplaatst door Sophie Parkin op Vrijdag 24 april 2020

I keep on coming back to that word; relevant. When I was swept up in how life used to be, the hamster wheel of keeping a business, including an art gallery going; I hadn’t stopped for a long time, certainly not to think about what is and isn’t relevant. Now I think about it almost every day.

The books I thought I would read in an orgy of indulgence – for that is how I saw lockdown like a greedy girl ‘oh good I’ll be able to read…everything!’ – half I have tossed to one side as irrelevant. I find myself going back to the classics – William James, RS Thomas, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus. Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Then searching for things to make me laugh, Dorothy Parker can be a little depressing but I return to Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard To Find, short stories. Black humour seems a little tasteless yet Francis Plug Writer in Residence by Paul Ewan still appeals to me and there’s comfort in Sue Townsend’s The Diaries of Adrian Mole.

There is not enough good writing that makes you howl with laughter. There is too much misery. The largest prize in literature should go to the books that make us laugh, anyone can bring you down with good writing like Karl Ove Knusgaard’s My Struggle but what about his poor kids! Lifting the spirits takes a gargantuan effort that belies its lightness of touch. That’s why there isn’t much comedy on the BBC. I expect it’s too damn difficult.

My mum, Molly Parkin a proud 88-year-old, has been locked in now for six weeks with me visiting for the last two once ever five days. She is full of beans, she laughs from the moment she gets up, to the moment she falls asleep. Last week her activities included putting some eggs onto boil, only to find Steve the fireman waking her up by pummelling the door down. She’d left them a bit too long and they were burning. She still laughed.

When my mother was five she had mastoid and was put into isolation. She expected to be taken by the angels but someone had other ideas. She regularly rings me up and says – ‘Where’s my special delivery chef?’ leaving me concerned that she has discovered Deliveroo, but she’s talking about me and Masterchef in one breath. I cook up a storm and expect it to last, but in one day she’s gobbled it all down. Home cooking, not shopping is the answer to a lot of love at this time. She once gave me the sage advice not to invite any paramours to dinner in my home if I wanted to be taken out to fancy restaurants, and I wasn’t entirely sure of the man.

’Once you get them in the back kitchen and start cooking for them, they’ll never want to go anywhere else.’ She was right. Trying to get my husband to take me out for dinner was like asking for Elizabeth Taylor’s diamond rings!

And what of love? How are you supposed to date? Are couples having sex like never before or in exactly the same way? I doubt with this uncertainty that there will be a baby boom, more time doesn’t always lead to inclination. So it has to be friendship, making each other laugh over the phone or with a WhatsApp message. And I’d just got some super sexy new underwear, damn – my timing is out not just on books. No point in preparing the fire that cannot be lit, let alone stoked for another 3 weeks – with government guidelines.

To laugh and be light in this heavy time is a gift that needs spreading. Forget the conspiracy theories.  Books recommended by members of Vouts include – The Colony Room as an e-book on Kindle (and all my teenage series The Life and Loves of Lily). David Sedaris – Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim. Diary of a Nobody by The Grossmith Bros. Pale Fire By Nabokov. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole. A fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. Rude Britannia by Tim Fountain. The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer. Augustus Carp Esq by Henry Howarth Bashford. Money by Martin Amis. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten. Spike Milligan, Anything by Jeffrey Bernard and My Last Breath by Luis Bunuel.

So meditation, acceptance of how it is, cooking with love, and laughter are my answer to getting out of this lockdown alive, What’s the laugh out loud funniest book you’ve ever read and reread during this time? Answers on a postcard…. maybe we can start a book club but only for books that make you laugh.  See you at Vout-o-Reenees.  @Voutoreenees_  @TheStashGallery_London.

The Culture Interview – Monique Roffey


8 Minute Read

Monique Roffey is an award-winning Trinidadian-born British writer of novels, essays, a memoir and literary journalism. Her latest novel is The Mermaid of Black Conch, (April 2020). Her novels have been translated into five languages and shortlisted for several major awards and, in 2013, Archipelago won the OCM BOCAS Award for Caribbean Literature. Her essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Boundless magazine, The Independent, Wasafiri, and Caribbean Quarterly. She is a founding member of XRWritersRebel, and an advocate for emerging writers in Trinidad, founding St James Writers Room in 2014. She is currently Lecturer on the MFA/MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a tutor at the Norwich Writers Centre.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is available straight from Peepal Tree Press here: https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/mermaid-black-conch

Tell us how a mermaid became your central character for this book?

Easy, she swam to me in my dreams. I began to dream of her. Then, some years ago, back in 2013, I was in Tobago, for a fishing competition. Big fish were being weighed on the jetty, strung up by their tails. Wahoo, dolphin fish and the like, and it went from there. I made the leap, imaginatively; mermaids are in some way a link between the natural world and the human world. 

And a little about the mermaids that you have researched?

Mermaids are pan-global and pan iconic; they exist in every ocean and many rivers. Rivers are also often named after the feminine too, e.g. The Ganges, Mother Ganga. They are a pre-Christian water Goddess. Collectively, we have dreamt them up. The first mermaid ever written about came from Syria, her name was Atagaris. She killed her lover by mistake, so the legend goes. She, a Goddess, and he a mere human, some versions of the legend say that she killed him by the power of her lovemaking. Distraught, she tried to drown herself in a lake, but the other Gods saved her and turned her into a mermaid. Mermaid stories are everywhere. Often they are very sad stories, tales of women cursed and isolated, of women who are ‘bad’, temptresses, luring sailors to their deaths, e.g. Homer’s sirens in The Odyssey. Mermaids in the 21st century have been cutesified by Disney, but the original Hans Christian Anderson story of The Little Mermaid is very dark; she agrees to cut out her tongue and gives her beautiful voice to the sea witch. When she walks, it’s with searing pain. All this she agrees to so she can meet the prince again, who treat her like a pet. Because she cannot talk, she is a kind of mute over compromised innocent, in the real story. In the end, the prince marries someone else. Tragic. 

What is your mermaid a symbol of?

Water is often gendered as a feminine principle. We talk of ‘la mere’ for example. Sexual ambiguity and also the sexual objectification of women. They are also the quintessential ‘other’, a chimera, the mermaid is womxn, as a symbol of the outsider, the outcast; often she has been blamed, shamed and exiled. My mermaid is a symbol of otherness, for sure. Aycayia is indigenous, shamanic, and the target of a curse. She has been denied her rite of passage into womanhood, Eros. I decided to give the myth of Aycayia a 21st century feminist update, and let her enjoy and embrace that rite of passage, erotic love.

And how does this compare with more traditional mermaids?

To be honest, my mermaid is of the great pantheon of mermaids, an exile, a woman cursed. She is young, beauteous, talented and her own woman.

Credit: Haitian Painter Mireile Delice

How do you personally relate to your mermaid?

Ha, ha. The mermaid c’est moi! I relate to her entirely, as a complex loner, an outsider, of hybrid identity.

Is there a Black Conch island in the Caribbean? I can see there is a Conch island.

Black Conch is another name, from way back, for the island of Tobago, or so I gather. The island I’ve conjured is loosely based on the northern tip of Tobago. Tobago has its own mermen legends, so I’ve fictionalized the island.

You write much of the spoken dialogue in Creole, how was it to do that?

While I speak with an English accent, I’ve always had Trinidadian dialect in my ear. When you know a place well, things like language are part of the knowing. My brother and his family all speak with this dialect, it feels for me like a second language, one I know intrinsically. I do speak it too, now and then.

And there are the wonderful names Nicer Country, Miss Rain and Short Leg, which contrast so tellingly with Nicholas or Thomas. These names tell a de-colonising story in themselves, don’t they?

Yes they do. Nicer Country is someone I’ve met, only briefly. His name speaks of a pastoral postcolonial idyll. Short leg is a fictional name but symptomatic of how nicknames are so common and identifying in small places and how something like a disability is treated very matter-of-factly. Life, the artist and sweetman, also has a name which speaks of independence and freedom. I know a man called Life too. Black Conch is an amalgam of parts of Trinidad and Tobago I know well, rural areas I have lived in on and off over decades.

There are also brilliant words in it – pussy bone, bite-up and many more, did you have a ball with language?

Trinidad’s Creole has its own grammar and lexicon. Words like ‘wajang’ and ‘’mamaguy’ are a well-known part of that lexicon. Pussy-bone I made up. It’s one of the fun things about being a writer, making up words. There’s a blend of forms too, in this book. I wanted the mermaid to have a voice and she speaks in free verse and uses broken English, Creole parlance and some of her own words, like canoa, jiguera, and yabisi. Lots of language thing going on in this book, for sure.

You also give Aycayia give a different voice by giving her a poetic form to speak in?

Yes. Initially, I wanted to write the whole book in the voice of the mermaid, but it wasn’t really do-able. I played around with the mermaid’s voice a lot. I wanted some of her lost lexicon to be part of it, and to capture her partial grasp of her new language, which is a Creole parlance, as well as English from books, e.g. Standard English. The mermaid has earnt American Sign Language too. Basically she speaks in a kind of free verse. No punctuation. My biggest experiment with this book was if I could pull this off.

Did you wrestle with this book or was it easy to birth? Which were the difficult stages?

I dreamt it for a very long time. I did lots of research, as usual. Then it all came quite easily, and fluidly, over about nine months. I wrote most of it in 2016. We sold it in 2018.

There are some horrifically brutal parts of the book and it felt as though you were being political – as in your activism for the earth, for the shamed in society, and for women – through this narrative.

I feel that’s by the by. I’m old fashioned about writing and feel all I really want to tell is a good story. If people want politics they can watch Channel Four news. Of course, the book is deeply political and deeply feminist, but really it’s just part of the weft of the narrative. All I really hope for is that readers fall in love with the characters and get swept along. Politics is for later reflection. When we write with myth and archetypes, we are plugged deeply into the collective unconscious, so much work is done and already there. I don’t have to point out to the reader the ‘mermaid’ is other. We already know this.

The sexuality veers between yearning and idealization to barbaric and shocking, how did you weave this thread?

Sex is part of life and we are all made from sexual coupling. I have been drawn to writing about sex, over time, in all its shadow and light. Many writers leave sex out entirely. In this book I get to give an ancient myth a 21st century update and gift to the mermaid the rite of erotic passage from virgin to lover.

How have your books based in the Caribbean – from White Woman on a Green Bicycle to House of Ashes to The Mermaid of Black Conch – changed your relationship with Trinidad where you were born and where your family still live?

I’ve spent most of the last dozen years or so, going back and forth to Trinidad, living with my mother for large chunks of time. I’ve watched my brother’s kids grow up. I’ve done lots of teaching in Trinidad and mentoring of local writers; I’ve run writing retreats out here too. And yes, four Caribbean books have emerged, too. I think Trinidadians, at first, wanted to know who I am. Trinidad did become a much bigger part of my life in my 40s and early 50s. It’s where my family live and where I was born and schooled and it has always been home. Push, pull. Yes, the book has brought me closer to Trinidad and given me time to know my place in such a complex post-colonial society.

This feels like a love story, which was also a love story for you too, did you fall in love with your mermaid during the writing?

I have never written such an out and out love story. In fact, there are two love stories here. Did I fall in love with the mermaid? For sure. I love her dearly.

AofA People: Hanja Kochansky – Writer


3 Minute Read

A refugee during the Second World War to Italy, in 1948 Hanja Kochansky went to Johannesburg as an emigrant. In 1966 she played one of Elizabeth Taylor’s handmaidens in the film Cleopatra. In 1972 her book Women’s Sexual Fantasies was published by Ace Books in New York and became a best-seller. She is currently writing a novel and editing her memoir.

What is your age (in years)?

I’m 82, will be 83 on the Ides of this March.

Where do you live?

In Sheltered Housing, just off the Caledonian Road, in London.

What do you do?

I write. Have just finished a novel about the love affair between two septuagenarians. I’m also re-editing my memoir Now and Then.

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

I’m much more chilled out now, which is a blessing but find it difficult to cope with the deterioration of my body (my mind seems to be ok.) Legs hurt and I can no longer go for the long walks which once were a pleasure to do. I have also become slightly incontinent, which I hate. On the whole, I find what happens to the body in old age humiliating. But I say to myself, it is what it is and you are so lucky to be in good health (I take no big-pharma medication), so stop complaining. But I do complain. I do not like getting old. Although I’m not concerned about no longer being beautiful and having put on some weight.

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

Everything. Beginning with self-confidence. I had a very unhappy childhood living with a violent alcoholic father. It took me years of reading self-help books, starting with Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, which I read when I was already 50, to turn my lack of self-esteem into love for myself. Also, now I’m always given seats on public transport. At first, given that I don’t see myself as old, I found that surprising, but now I’m grateful for it.

What about sex?

I had my last affair, at the age of 72, with a man of 78. It lasted for two and a half years. The sex was good, but he turned out disappointing. I’m pretty sure I won’t be having any more lovers. I still have sexual urges and masturbate, but have no desire for a man.

And relationships?

I’m happy to say that I am constantly making new friends. Mostly they are a bit younger than I am, but no one seems to be prejudiced towards my age. I’m lazy and happy about being at home, but I make an effort to go out and meet people. I love good conversation, and I never hang out with someone who is banal.

How free do you feel?

Totally free, especially as I don’t have to pay rent and am given Pension Credit and a few other perks. This is such a blessing and I wish everyone in need would have my good fortune.

What are you proud of?

My (almost) daily exercise routine which consists mostly of Tai Chi and Chi Kung. And that, even in bad weather, I go to my Tai Chi class.

What keeps you inspired?

The philosophy of the Dali Lama is inspirational.

When are you happiest?

I am always happy, as I live in gratitude, most of the time. I don’t want to be on my death bed and realise I spent time being unhappy.

And where does your creativity go?

Basically towards writing.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Be the change you want to see in the world.

And dying?

‘I will not go gentle into that good night.’ However, I could easily change my mind about that and hope I will pass away gently and painlessly.

Are you still dreaming?

I dream all the time and should I ever find a Jungian dream therapist who doesn’t charge a fortune I would love to consult her.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I have no desire to be outrageous.

The Culture Interview: Lucy O’Brien – Writer & Academic


11 Minute Read

Lucy O’Brien, 58, is a writer and academic. She has written for NME and City Limits as well as the Guardian etc. She has published various books including Madonna: Like an Icon. She has just updated and re-released her biography of Dusty Springfield – Dusty.

What attracted you to writing this biography of Dusty in the first place in the late 80s?

I interviewed Dusty in 1988 when Phonogram released The Silver Collection, a sumptuous greatest hits album. I’ve interviewed quite a few musicians and artists and she stood out – for her Goonish humour and her original responses. She didn’t trot out a PR spiel, and she thought carefully about each question I asked. I think that summed up her approach to life and music. She never sang the obvious, and she made each song her own. The angle I took with the piece was that Dusty was ‘Queen of the Mods’. She had a cool mod sensibility, and was a regular on the 60s pop show Ready Steady Go!

I did the interview for City Limits magazine, and shortly after it was published an editor at Sidgwick & Jackson wrote to me saying, ‘Would you like to do a biography of Dusty?’ I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t published a book at that point, and it was a great opportunity.

Can you tell us something about that initial undertaking and the process around it?

Ooh, it felt arduous at first. I’d never written a book before…but then I realised that it was like a string of articles put together as chapters, with a linking theme. The next challenge was tracking down interviewees, people who knew her and had worked with her. In the late 80s there was no internet, so I had to use a lot of snail mail, do a lot of phone calls and face-to-face interviews. I also spent time in the US, travelling to New York, Memphis, Nashville and LA, interviewing friends and musicians she had worked with. There was a mystery around her at that point, because she moved to America in 1970 and disappeared from the scene. No one really knew what had happened to her…and I had to somehow piece the story together. All I had to go on was a trickle of articles in back issues of NME, and some press around the time she visited the UK for a ‘comeback’ tour in 1978. It was like doing detective work.

How has Dusty’s image changed now in this LBGTQ-aware era? 

She has become an LGBTQ icon. She was in the closet as a lesbian in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Being out and gay on the pop scene was tantamount to commercial suicide (and to an extent it still is). She had to invent boyfriends and live a life in public that felt artificial. In private she had a very active love life and used to go to lesbian clubs like Gateways, and had a legion of gay male admirers, some of whom used to enjoy dressing up in her gowns!

What did you find challenging about the writing of it?

The main challenge in the late 80s was what I couldn’t put into the book. It was read by lawyers, and I couldn’t write about Dusty’s lesbianism. I could only hint that she was bisexual, because she had said once or twice during interviews ‘I’m just as easily swayed by a woman as a man.’

I loved writing about her music, her childhood, the 1960s pop scene, and all her soulful influences. But I had to be careful when discussing her mental health issues and her drug use – she hadn’t talked about these things in our interview, and they were not in the public domain.

Would it have been different writing it now with the internet?

Writing a biography now is a very different process – it takes half the time. You can get in touch with people much more quickly via the internet, you can do Skype interviews, and there is SO much more information at your fingertips. However, you still have to fact check. And there is no substitute for physically travelling to a place and breathing in the air and absorbing the atmosphere, and talking to people face to face. Old-fashioned physical research gives you much more emotional information about a person’s life. The internet is very flat, gossipy and superficial. For instance, I learned so much about Dusty’s experience recording Dusty in Memphis when I actually went to the rundown studio in Memphis where she recorded it. And feeling the close-knit cameraderie of the Nashville music scene, or, by contrast, the alienation of those sun-baked LA freeways.

Tell us something about the interviews you did? For instance, with Pat Rhodes her longstanding assistant? Or others that stand out? 

I loved meeting her 1960s manager Vic Billings – he was a camp impresario of the old school, a real gent, and hilariously funny. Also her Philips producer Ivor Raymonde, (whose son Simon was part of that amazing post-punk band Cocteau Twins). Ivor was dashing, dedicated, and very good at explaining why Dusty stood out from the other 1960s beat girls like Lulu and Cilla Black.

I also remember interviewing the Dusty In Memphis producers – Jerry Wexler (so articulate, yet a little exasperated with Dusty), Arif Mardin (he drove me through Manhattan in his enormous station wagon and talked about Dusty’s instinct for soul music), and Tom Dowd (who gave me funny anecdotes about her tottering into the studio with her beehive and gown ‘made up like a Southern lady’). Sadly, all of those wonderful people have passed away, so I’m thankful I was able to capture their words and memories.

Dusty’s assistant Pat Rhodes was also helpful, giving me insight into Dusty’s childhood – her vivacious, slightly unhinged Irish mother, her shy, lumbering father, and brother Tom, who formed folk act the Springfields with Dusty in the late 1950s. Pat was a constant in Dusty’s life, and she has been really supportive of the book, at each stage.

This publication is updated – could you tell us something about that?

What’s good with this publication is I have been able to use some of the interview material that was out of bounds in the first edition. I can be much more frank about her lesbian relationships, and her struggles with mental health and addiction. It’s enabled me to go into her story in greater depth, and really explore the full impact of her legacy. I was able to interview her former lover Julie Felix, who told me a lot about the tensions of their secret relationship in the 1960s. I also talked to Pat, and Dusty’s close friend, the singer Simon Bell, about the last five years of Dusty’s life after she got the cancer diagnosis. They both spent a lot of time caring for her, staying at her house in Henley. It was reassuring to know that Dusty’s dry wit and humour stayed with her to the end.

And I interviewed playwright and TV scriptwriter Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the recent Dusty musical. He gave me a fresh perspective on her music, her psychological struggles, and her legacy as a gay icon.

Was there anything that shocked you when researching Dusty or Mary O’Brien’s life? 

I never forget talking to Brooks Arthur, producer of Dusty’s ill-fated, unreleased 1973 album Longing. ‘She wasn’t handling her New York trip very well. Something had begun to tumble,’ he said to me in an interview for the first edition of my book. He was hushed and close to tears when he talked about how she attempted suicide. He had to take her to hospital, and was devastated that he couldn’t take ‘good enough care of her.’ I was also shocked when talking to her US manager Howard Portugais, about how she tumbled so badly through drink and drug use, that she ended up with no money, living in a ‘halfway house’ in LA. I had no idea things had got that bad. I felt enormous sympathy for her, and realised then what a fragile character she was.

Did you understand Dusty’s mental health problems any better at the end of this research? 

Yes…that she was a bit like Amy Winehouse in the way she had to fight personal demons just to sing. She was her own worst critic, and had such a harsh opinion of herself. Yet she created such vulnerable, beautiful music. So much more is understood now about mental health. Many musicians struggle with it, and the music industry, with its punishing schedules of touring and promotion, can make someone’s mental health much worse. Dusty suffered from having to hide her true sexuality, and she battled anxiety and depression. However, as Jonathan Harvey says, what’s so inspiring about Dusty’s story is how in the end she made a brilliantly successful comeback with the Pet Shop Boys. And although she died young at 59, she found happiness and peace of mind at the end of her life.

I hadn’t realised what happened to her in South Africa and how she took that stand that made her controversial at the time, she wouldn’t play to segregated audiences in 1964? Good on her. Max Bygraves wasn’t too pleased!

Yes, Dusty was close friends with the Motown crew, particularly Martha Reeves. She was a huge supporter of the civil rights struggle, and was utterly opposed to playing to segregated audiences. However, Dusty really paid for that – many of her peers (like Max Bygraves) criticised her, saying she shouldn’t mix politics with showbusiness. A question was even raised in Parliament, asking whether a pop star should get involved and speak out against apartheid. Times really have changed.

And what about that beehive? What did it represent for her?

Dusty modelled her look on drag queens. She was never particularly comfortable being a typical girl, so she created a style that was hyper-feminine and over-the-top, with the panda-eye make up and the huge beehive. The queens loved it. I explore this in the book, how there was a split between the real-life Mary O’Brien and the stage persona Dusty Springfield. After a while, though, this split triggered a psychological crisis, and Dusty felt dominated by the alter ego she had created.

And the Lady? Her reputation wasn’t always great with musicians? And she was known to throw things around in her dressing room?

Dusty had a fiery temper. She had a ‘difficult reputation’, but many argue in the book that she had this reputation just because she was a woman making demands in the studio, and not accepting second best from the musicians she worked with. She was a hard taskmaster…and she fell out with a few musicians – notably jazz drummer Buddy Rich. They got into an argument and she whacked him round the head, sending his toupe flying.

She also liked to release tension by throwing food and crockery around her dressing room. She says that she always cleared it up!

Why did she disappear in the 70s in the US?

Dusty adored US soul music, and wanted to perform and record in America. She was also fascinated by American culture and Hollywood films, so moving to the US in the 70s was like the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Unfortunately it was also her undoing. The US music industry then was still very segregated, and they couldn’t understand or market a white English woman singing soul music. Also, as her backing singer Doris Troy said, there was a lot of cocaine around – ‘the devil’s dandruff was rulin’.’

And did she ever find a good gay relationship or was her family Catholicism always at play in the background? 

Dusty was inhibited by her Catholic upbringing, and found it hard to form lasting relationships. However, she had a long-term lover in the 1960s, artist-singer Norma Tanega. And she lived with a number of lovely women in LA. Pat says that towards the end of her life Dusty was single, and more devoted to her cats. It was simpler that way.

How was your interview with her in the late 80s?

I really enjoyed talking to Dusty. She was an original thinker with a nice turn-of-phrase. I always remember her talking about how being a female performer involved ‘such a lot of upkeep. All those hair extensions…’ And she enthused about Sinead O’Connor saying, ‘Where were women like her in my day? She’s young, Irish and so talented.’ She was analytical, and she KNEW her music. I would love to have known her as a friend, and to have her perspective on pop music now.

Dusty: The Classic Biography, by Lucy O’Brien is out on August 22nd

* Lucy is featured with writer Julie Hammil at The Rock N Roll Book Club event ‘Madonna and Dusty: Icons of Song’, London Dublin Castle, on September 4th. For tickets and info: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/476707

AofA People: Jilliana Ranicar-Breese – Radio presenter, writer, poet, salon host


9 Minute Read

Jilliana Ranicar-Breese, 74, is a radio presenter, writer, poet and hosts a Spoken Word Salon in Brighton on the first Tuesday of the month. Jilliana is a veritable one-woman hive of activity and role model for getting older brilliantly.

How old are you?

I am 74 [Capricorn] and reside in Brighton

What do you do?

A lot in this day and age of Social Media. I am the co-presenter and co-producer of a weekly Friday radio programme called ‘Your voice matters’ at Brighton and Hove Community Radio [BHCR]. I choose my guests carefully, brief them and also interview them separately for my own YouTube channel for my series ‘Jilliana in Brighton’.

I travel as much as I can, up to five months of the year, studying the country, culture and language as a project before I leave. At my destination, I interview people in English, French, Italian or Spanish for my YouTube channel or do Vox Pops. I go to markets and am passionate about fashion, food, music and photography. I am also a senior reviewer for TripAdvisor so I am constantly making notes and taking photographs of food, hotels and restaurants as well as ‘Faces and Places’.

Last year I began my monthly Spoken Word Salon [Jilliana’s Spoken Word Salon] in Hove and created more work for myself!

I fervently write my vignettes and narrative poems when I have time between writing daily to friends and e-friends, sending photographs and texts all over the world to people I have met or people who I will meet. There is not a day when I am not writing something to someone, if not to myself! I cannot live without the power of the word!

Tell us what it’s like to be 74?

I am proud to be a mature 74 knowing that I don’t look my age nor, thankfully, act my age. I had to make the decision when I turned 70 that I would not hide my age if and when asked. The only thing that irritates me, when meeting new people, is if they ask me straight off, if I have grandchildren!

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

A good question. I did not have life experience nor worldwide cultural knowledge. I only spoke Italian at 25 in 1969 and had not experienced life in Paris which became my cultural education. Nor was I a writer. I didn’t have an identity either. I was not a property owner so at 25 I was a free spirit. I had no proper career and no goals. In fact I was an enthusiastic travel agent at Global Tours (Number 3 in the UK) in Oxford Street planning my journey to Brazil in 1970 which would influence my life forever lured by the Bossa Nova and the beautiful sound of the Brazilian Portuguese language – music in itself to my ears.

What about sex?

Well, what about sex? That’s like opening a can of worms. A bit of a joke for me as I used to deal in ‘Erotica’ prints and postcards in Paris and London in the late 70s and recently have interviewed at least 5 Sexperts for my ‘Jilliana in Brighton’ series on Sex Education. An education never given to me in the 60s by my pharmacy owner Mother when I was growing up in Liverpool.

And relationships?

After betrayal by my husband in 2006 and two events in 2013, men do not figure in my life. I am not gay but frankly prefer the company of women to men. I find woman more honest, open and willing to share their experiences and stories. Women don’t play games, men do – in my book!

How free do you feel?

I have freedom of choice now that I have no husband to ‘control’ my behaviour. 25 years of restricted behaviour! I am also free of being in business and earning money, meeting deadlines and being polite to clients and colleagues who, at times, I could not express myself freely to.

What are you proud of?

Proud that from being a technophobic about 7 years ago, I have mastered basic Social Media and am not afraid to ask for help. Never stop learning, I say.

I am proud of becoming a radio broadcaster.

I am proud of winning the award for best co-presenter and co-producer of 2017.

I am proud of winning the Rotary Club of Brighton and Hove award for Community Services Award in December 2018.

I am proud being the MC at my own Salon.

I am proud at my Page Spoken Word reading of my vignettes and poems to an audience.

I am proud I can make an audience laugh.

I am proud I can interview people and get them to reveal stories that they never thought they could tell.

I am proud that I created an international business in the antique collectibles world with the investment of £200 in Paris in 1977.

I am proud that I founded and created Retrograph Archive in the mid 1980s that was under offer to Duke’s University, Hartman Collection for seven years before I was told they did not have the funds to buy it. They wanted me to donate it! Proud I was ahead of my time. Finally my Nostalgia Archive went to another museum in London. 2,000 of my images ended up in the Mary Evans photo library in London and I receive no income. A tragic story not ready to be revealed involving betrayal.

I am proud that I did the fire-walk despite having a fear of fire. Mind over matter. I am unstoppable.

I am proud that I am confident without being conceited.

Proud I became a radio journalist and broadcaster

Proud I became a narrative poet

Proud I found my Voice to express my thoughts and life experience

Proud I was invited to perform my vignettes and poetry in Paris, Chaniá, Kalkan and Fethiye.

Proud that people consider my writing inspirational.

Proud I speak several languages.

Proud that I started to travel at the age of 22 and despite getting into hot water, learned to manage my life through my mistakes.

Proud that I became a world traveller without fear of the unknown. I opened the door to Europe and further afield.

Proud that I survived a serious ‘Breakdown/breakthrough’ and rose from the ashes of my former life.

Proud that I became a better individual with a greater understanding of others, less fortunate then myself.

Proud that I became less selfish despite being an only child in a silent home

Proud that I am a sincere good friend to my close friends.

Proud that I have let go of the betrayal in my life.

Proud that people consider ME inspirational.

Proud of my Jewish cultural heritage

Proud that I am an honest person. What you see is what you get.

Proud to be a Liver Bird.

Proud that I founded Retrograph Archive and its photo library.

Proud that I became an Archivist and a Picture Researcher/Visual Consultant.

Proud that I created and styled non-digital ‘RetroMontages’ in the late 80s that were published in the UK, Munich and New York.

Proud to be the Mentor to my adopted Cuban ‘daughter’ Ingrid.

Proud I became ‘Sultana Jilliana’ and created my own original Sultana fashion style.

What keeps you inspired?

Meeting positive people from all walks of life who have a story to tell and teach me something. Everyone has a story to tell. That’s the jigsaw of life.

Seeing beautiful clothes on lovely beings.

Seeing beautiful colourful flowers and trees or seeing exotic photographs of animals and nature that people kindly send me through social media.

When are you happiest?

Watching good classical movies from the 40s, watching American chat shows or comedy shows on YouTube, listening to world music, listening to piano and violin classical music, selecting music for the radio show, being with tropical plants and flowers in a lovely garden or walking in botanical gardens, being with dogs and cats, especially with Neko, my adorable cat who I have written about.

I am happy when I am on holiday or in the company of my best friend and Soul Sister, British of Jamaican heritage, Pauline Weir who is inspirational. We inspire and appreciate each other. I am happy when I am writing and inspired by my own creativity. Frankly, I enjoy my own company.

Where does your creativity go?

Today my creativity goes into my appearance. I live for colour, which uplifts my spirit. Colour combinations and textiles and textures are essential for me. A daily dose of colour keeps the doctor away!

My creative release is more importantly through my writing. I cannot live without being creative and expressing myself through the Spoken Word. I am forever telling my true stories and have now found a platform and an audience globally. Spread the Word I say. Write what you say and say what you mean’.

Are you still dreaming?

I believe if you wish hard enough for something, it will manifest. I rarely remember my dreams. I am a realist. I don’t dream. I know Walt Disney said ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’ but my whole life has been synchronicity and Happenstance. I never planned my life, it just happened. A door opens and I walk through it.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Live abundantly for the moment. No one knows when our time is going to be up! Speak your truth. Be a good, kind and generous friend to your friends and surprise others not in your life from time to time.

Be a mentor to others less fortunate than yourself. Share your life knowledge with others. Take an interest in your health, mental well-being and physical well-being. I repeat. Be generous and share. We came into this world alone with nothing and we will depart from this world alone with nothing. We only ‘borrow’ possessions. In fact, we need very little in life. But in later life we need a comfortable bed, a pet and friends we can confide in. A sense of humour is essential even turning a tragedy into comedy. I speak from experience. In a way I must thank my dear departed husband for his betrayal and mental abuse, otherwise I would not have become the woman I am today.

Of dying?

I do not think about death. I live for the moment. Carpe Diem. My funeral will be a celebration of my life. I hate it when people say ‘What WAS your name? ‘ I usually growl and say ‘I’m not dead yet!’

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I had always planned to age disgracefully like my dear departed late ex-husband did with the inevitable consequences, which caused my breakdown/breakthrough. Now I have changed my mind because people can get hurt through selfishness and cruelty.

Last action was 2013 in Berlin! I was dared to do something and took up the challenge. But was it really outrageous? Umm. But what IS outrageous? We all have different ideas according to background, culture and age. Now that I am a public figure in the Brighton and Hove community, I have my reputation to consider. After all, I AM Sultana Jilliana!

Jilliana’s Spoken Word Salon is on the first Tuesday of the month in Hove. www.jilliana.com

On Ageing With Vitality


1 Minute Read

The first thing that comes to mind with the word vitality is someone who is leaping about, full of energy and health.

But in the process of ageing – I am now nearly 75 – I researched and realised the real meaning of the word vitality.

The free dictionary online gives the following descriptions of vitality;

  • The capacity to live, grow or develop.
  • The characteristic, principle, or force that distinguishes living things from non-living things.
  • Physical or intellectual vigour, energy, or force that distinguishes living things from non-living things.

From the age of 32, I have had a lot of experience supporting older people, in various capacities, as a carer in the care industry, Nursing Home proprietor, a friend and having elderly parents.

Along the way, I observed the values, beliefs, and characteristics of those people who were content with being older, and the differing ones of those, who made everyone’s lives a misery, including their own.

For example, when I worked in the local care home, there was a man who everyone dreaded attending to. I was on night duty at the time, and he was the last resident whose needs I attended before giving my report after a long night shift. He started to verbally abuse staff the minute we opened the door to his room. I found out afterward that he had been a cruel husband and father, and no-one came to see him anymore. He was now bitter, twisted and a very lonely man.

There were also those who professed to be Christians, yet they were among the bitterest ones.

The happiest ones were the ones that gave a smile and thanks when we did anything for them. They were the ones that the staff would love to sit and chat to, which is ironic because the bitter ones were probably the ones that needed the chat. But try as we may, we just heard them bemoaning their lot and that drove us away.

Among the most remarkable was a woman who had lost one leg, one eye, and her breasts. Of course, she needed a lot of attention. But far from feeling sorry for herself, she used to make us laugh. “They will get a big discount when they bury me” she used to joke. “Because there is only half of my left.”

From quite an early age – I decided to get rid of everything in my mind, body, and soul that would make my sunset years unhappy.

That meant forgiveness to those who had hurt me in any way — forgiving myself for the hurt; I may have caused too. I realise now that my strengths as I get older, such as patience, compassion, a way with words, staying cheerful, being grateful, will be much needed for the time I have left.

Life happens, and during my 40s, problems arose for me, and this was the time when someone said to me that I needed to find who Patricia really was, and where she was going.

That started the ball rolling; I realised how much I depended on the teachings and examples of others, and that I needed to start finding out how to be free.

I am now coming up to 75, and it has been a long journey of discovery. But in the last seven years, as I got nearer the top, my ascent became more enlightening. I am not quite there yet, but I have certainly found The Truth for me.

The journey has been one of a major loss, divorce, bereavement, but also love, forgiveness, finding out who I am, and a second very happy marriage.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

Ten years ago, I used to walk 25 miles a week, and I remember thinking and hoping that I would still be doing that in my 80s. However, now I am experiencing the limitations of some of the things that an ageing body can bring.

I have a vision impairment and fibromyalgia, but I am living with those conditions, and dealing with them, and avoid saying that I am “suffering” from them.

I do not believe in the anti-ageing industry but rather that we need to accept ageing; but in a vital way.

Society, in general, is afraid of ageing and death. People do all they can to look younger and ignore the fact that we all die.

I was amused this week when I saw an article about objections to planning permission for a funeral director’s office because it would be near shops, and where a lot of children go. Are we supposed to hide funeral directors’ offices away so that they only come out of hiding when someone dies?

During my research around vitality in ageing, I came across inspiring teaching from a Buddhist, about the grace of ageing. That if we can forgive both ourself and others, it will contribute towards being a gentle and compassionate older person. And also if we can learn to receive graciously, as well as give, it will help us to accept the care that we may need and make those who care, want to carry out their task with pleasure.

And so, I have reached a point where not only am I a full-time carer for my husband but I am also living with fibromyalgia and vision impairment which can at times make life more difficult.

I have found the grace to ask for help, from neighbours, friends and family. Rather than live in denial of my needs.

I have realised that being vital – stays with us until we die. I want to be a vital human being, in the way of recognising that I still have a vital force within me that will not go until I draw my last breath.

I can be vital by being gracious, grateful and knowing that even just a smile can make a difference.

Of course, I do forget at times, that is the human being that I am. I too can moan, be annoyed, irritated and worried. But I soon realise that I do not have to do that. My fellow humans all have feelings, past stories and experiences that make them who they are today.

I practice mindfulness and consciousness, and as my dear old Dad used to say; “Put yourself in their shoes.”

The biggest influence in my life before all of this was being a member of churches who preached the fundamentalism of Hell and Damnation if you were not “saved.” So I grew up feeling pretty worthless. The only way that I could be loved was to be a born again Christian and behave like those around me.

A big part of my growth, study and research from the heart over the last 27 years, has been learning how the teachings of these people, have done so much damage. I have studied the history of early Christianity and how the bible was written.

My complete story is in my upcoming book “The Truth Has Set Me Free.”

And it has set me free to be who I am and made ageing a pleasure instead of a burden. I am ageing with vitality.

I run a group, on Facebook by that name, (please note the e in ageing.)

And if you go to my website http://www.patriciacherrylifecoach.com you will find blogs about my favourite subjects, including weight and food management, ageing, death and macular degeneration.

Since becoming 67, I have gained two recognised diplomas— one as a Life Coach, and the other as a Funeral Celebrant. In the last 12 months, I also trained as an End of Life workshop facilitator, with the not for profit company “Before I Go” which you can find online — run by Jane Duncan Rogers. At the moment, I have had to go a little slower because of my husband’s health making every day a bit uncertain, but I am still going forth in the way I wish.

Patricia’s book The Truth Has Set Me Free is available here.

AofA People: Ashton Applewhite – Writer & Activist


3 Minute Read

WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

Ashton Applewhite

HOW OLD ARE YOU?

66

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

Brooklyn, NY

WHAT DO YOU DO?

I’m a writer and activist.

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

I love everything about it except the physical deterioration: arthritis, osteoporosis, and some hearing loss – none of which keep me from doing the things I want to do.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

Infinitely more self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.

WHAT ABOUT SEX?

Sex is way better than it was when I was young, because I’m more accepting of my physical flaws and better at expressing what I like and don’t like.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

The most important component of a good late life is not health or wealth but a strong social network. Those networks tend to shrink as we leave the workforce and people we’ve known all our lives die. I’m always urging people to make friends of all ages, have followed my own advice, and have many wonderful younger friends. I’m going to need help shoveling and schlepping and getting rid of those damn chin hairs, and I want to be able to cast a wide net. Age is a dumb divide. Think of something you like to do and find a mixed-age group to do it with.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

Extremely. Partly because I’ve been brave, but mainly because I’m lucky and privileged: I have enough money, I have a partner, my kids are doing fine, and I’m pretty healthy.

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

I’m proud that my first book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, earned me a place on Phyllis Schlafley’s Eagle Forum Enemies List. (She was the dreadful woman who tanked the Equal Rights Amendment in the US in the 1970s by brilliantly framing it as a family values issue.) I’m also proud that I’ve gotten as far as I’ve gotten as an anti-ageism activist with zero training or institutional support, self-publishing This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism in 2016. That changed this spring, when Melville House brought the book out in the UK (along with Celadon Books in the US) – hooray!

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be fascinated by aging, I’d have said, “Why on earth would I want to spend my time thinking about something so sad and depressing?” Now I understand that it’s the biggest canvas there is: how we move through life and interact with institutions and each other. For a generalist like me, who could never decide what to be when she grew up—I certainly never intended to become a writer or public speaker—that’s heaven. It’s also a critically important social justice issue in a world of longer lives, especially everyone with less power and voice: people of color, women, and people of all abilities.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

When I have a smart idea and get it down “on paper.” When my grandchildren run at me. Outside on a hot summer day, ideally dancing — badly.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

Into my writing.

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

Don’t have one. Be kind. Try not to judge.

AND DYING?

Check me into the psychedelic hospice, please. (It’s a thing.)

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

Of course, bigger all the time.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

Hopping the subway turnstile. Because they announced my train wasn’t running, so I exited, and then they announced it was, so yeah.

If you’d like to catch Ashton while on her book promotion tour, here’s her schedule:

Appearances

 

AofA People: Michele Kirsch – Writer, Cook


14 Minute Read

Michele Kirsch, 57, is a brilliantly witty writer and cook. She used to be a cleaner. She’s a regular AoA contributor. NME, City Limits, and Men’s Health were all lucky recipients of her work. Her first book Clean – one woman’s story of addiction, recovery and cleaning – is out on March 7th. Buy it here,

What is your age?

I am 57, turning 58 in April.

Where do you live? 

I live in Hoxton. I am the Accidental Hipster. I live in a Tower Block and none of us talk to each other but we nod in familiar, ‘You’re not a ruffian on the stairwell’ sort of way. We have many ruffians on the stairs. It is a warmer place to do drugs than outside.

What do you do?

At the moment I am working for a charity that supports people living with the effects of brain injury. I support people in getting kitchen confidence skills back, or learning how to cook. It doesn’t feel like proper work. A lot of it is just hanging out and having chats with people who, outside this setting, are treated as ‘other’. In our place, we just shoot the breeze, cook, play music, play games, hang. It’s brilliant. I never want another job. Except I sort of have another job. I’ve written a book and I still write. The book is a memoir, out on 7th March, It is called Clean and available from the proper WH Smiths, the ones on the train stations. As well as other bookshops and Amazon. Some people thing it might be big. That would be great. But I am OK with just doing the job I have now. I am glad I have written and published a book that is going to be in proper shops.

Tell us what is it like being your age?

I am happier now than I have ever been, probably. I had a drug problem for a long time and I am free of that, now. I didn’t get on with my children for a long time and we get on very well right now. Physically, I am very well though I feel I may have messed up my stomach with the long term drug and alcohol use. Though I had stomach problems always. I love my job, I have a good roof over my head in a great neighborhood, I see my grown-up children as often as we can as we all work, and I have a good relationship with their dad, my ex. I guess the one difficulty is that I only get to see my mum and sister, who live in NY, about once a year. My life feels contained and structured, in a good way. Recovery is the gift that keeps on giving. I don’t mind the physical effects of getting old nearly as much as I used to. I still love Topshop and Miss Selfridge. I am absolutely working the mutton dressed as lamb thing and I don’t give a hoot. If the book does well, I suppose I can dress up as more expensive lamb.

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

Oh my gosh, where to begin? Mainly I live in a country and city I LOVE. I grew up between Liverpool and New York but always felt pulled to London. To live here is an honour, a dream. I have a job I love. At 25 I was starting out as a journalist and making very bad money and I was never getting the great stories anyway. I had no confidence in my ability as a writer. I also thought I was passable in the looks department, but never actually pretty.

These days I have pretty moments or pretty days. It comes from inside, nothing to do with men. I have two wonderful, street smart, loving grown-up children, a huge amount of very good friends, a lovely ex-husband. I also have a sense of purpose, which comes with my job. I can make peoples’ lives more bearable. And I’ve written a book, which some people may find that they can relate to, on some level. I also have, as well as all my new friends, all my old friends. I am a stickler for keeping in touch. I love the internet for that. It makes it much easier. I have freedom from my addiction. That is my number one gift.  57 has probably been my greatest year, in terms of contentment.

What about sex?

I find at my age my appetite for it has diminished but not disappeared. Having said that, I still get the horn if I see a Paul Newman film, or Betty Blue. In real life, I have a boyfriend, and though it’s slightly complicated at the moment, I would say we are well matched and all will be well. We tend to be in the same mood at the same time, which is a bonus.

I have this notion of myself of being rather plain when I was younger, but I always had boyfriends or husbands (two) or men after me. I have no idea where this idea came from, that I was not fanciable. I was a very late developer. I did not start my menstruation until I was 16. Then it all kicked off. I also had the luck to be in love with my very first lover, when I was nearly 18. It was mutual. He loved me too. We are still friends.

One thing that has always been the case is that I feel ridiculous when I try to ‘look sexy’. It never works and I always burst out laughing. I can barely put stockings on, I don’t understand the little clippy things at the top, and I still put a bra on with the back facing the front so I can see myself doing it up. I used to have good rack, but after children and a pretty druggy career, my curves diminished, so bras don’t really do anything for me either.

My bed is never sexy. It is covered in books and newspapers and the cat and cat hair. I’m a mess. My sheets are mismatched and I fall asleep most nights listening to old comedy shows on the radio. The only thing that looks right in my bed is my hair, because I have permanent bed hair. I don’t have to buy a product to make it that way. It’s just like that. Oh, I will say this! I do have an erogenous zone I never knew about until recently. I have an unusually long neck and I like people stroking it. This man at work, he’s, you know, brain damaged and has no impulse control, he stroked my neck and I had to firmly pull away and tell him that it was not OK to do that, in a nice way of course. But I have to say, it felt really nice. That’s a shocking thing to say, but, a brain-damaged guy stroked my neck and I liked it. Doesn’t really scan so there won’t be a song….

Relationships?

I have many, many very good friends, some for 30 or 40 years, in America and over here. My relationship with my boyfriend is a separate thing. I do not have sexual relations with people unless I am married to them or they (he) is my boyfriend, or I think I am in love with them.  Serial monogamy is what I do. Though I had some short-lived obsession in my early 20s. That drove me crazy. Everything now feels so much easier. I LOVE Facebook and I’ve made many virtual friends as well as all my real life ones. The relationships I value most are with my family, children and best friends.

How free do you feel?

Obviously, I have commitments, my job, my children, my bills, my relationships, my recovery (first and foremost) but paradoxically the more I do, the free-er I feel. Unfortunately, I am still plagued with worry and anxiety, these are long-standing issues, but I have come to accept they are part of me and just try to ride the waves of panic. It’s not always a heap of fun. I find travel …. hard. But most of my friends know this about me and know if I don’t go somewhere I am not being antisocial, just a bit agoraphobic. I have never found anything- meditation, yoga, exercise, chanting, whatever, that works totally, but I did have a short course of hypnosis, which helped a bit.

What are you proud of? 

I am proud of my children. I am proud of my job, which is the best job I ever had. I am proud that I wrote a book that might make waves, somehow. It might help people who have been through a similar situation – feel less alone. I try not to be too proud, as I absolutely believe pride comes before a fall.

What keeps you inspired?

I find inspiration in so many things. I am proper nosy and I love to listen in to other people’s conversations on public transport. Whole little dramas unfold. I can’t wait to get somewhere to write it down. I love little alleyways and cobblestone streets. There are loads of alleys in Liverpool and lots around Hoxton where I live so I love to just wonder down one and wind up somewhere I’ve not seen.

Music always inspires me. I play all my old records all the time, and music can transport me back to a certain time and place in my youth more than anything else.  I dance all the time, anywhere. I have no shame. My sponsor inspires me in her recovery. She has gone on to do remarkable things after a very long period of drug-induced crazy times. She is so loving and caring and inspirational. I can’t tell you who she is but I think she will be famous in the thing that she does, professionally.

I am also inspired by couples who have been couples for a really long time. Just because very long lasting love didn’t happen to me, though I was with my second husband for nearly 20 years, most of them pretty good, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I am also religious, and I find inspiration in Bible stories. I did something quite unusual several years ago, which was a formal conversion from Judaism to Christianity. It’s a long story, but actually there are many similarities in the two faiths, as I understand them, though they end differently. I do pray, but I don’t pray for obvious things like success or money or to win something. And I don’t pray for big, worldly things like world peace and a reversal of climate change. I can’t tell you what I pray for, it’s personal, but it’s important to me and it is an inspiration. The Big Book we use in recovery is inspirational to me as well.

When are you happiest?

Without a doubt, I am happiest when I am dancing. I don’t get out dancing enough. I used to go to a soul night with my girlfriends and dance all night. Not even on anything. At work, I have music on in the kitchen, where a few of us make lunch together. People get very excited about lunch where I work. It is the dividing time between morning and afternoon. And people are really into their food. They love it.

I’m am OK cook, not a great cook by any means, but when the music is on and we are, say, all dancing to ‘Monkey Man’ ( I LOVE Ska!) I am just so happy and thinking, I can’t believe I am at work, dancing and cooking and getting paid for it. I cook with this one guy who absolutely goes nuts when he hears Justin Bieber. I am not even a fan, but when this guy goes so crazy when Bieber comes on, I go crazy with him, and we dance and do the bad boy rap gun hands and all that silliness. I am extremely happy then.

I also love walking home from work. And if I am feeling low, I take myself down to the Thames and stand on London Bridge and remind myself that I live here. I live in this fantastic city. People save up all year to spend a few days in London. I LIVE here and I LOVE it. I am also happiest just hanging with my kids. They are great, really grounded and good people.

Where does your creativity go?

I like to think some of it goes into my cooking that I do at the centre, but I have had mixed reviews. I am the skinny chef you are not supposed to trust. My creativity goes into my writing. I write all the time, even if it just little entries on Facebook, I am always writing.

What is your philosophy of living?

Tricky. Though I am religious, I would not say I was particularly spiritual. Many people think the two go hand and hand, or you can be spiritual without having the structure of religion. My philosophy of living is to do no harm, and to try to be kind and considerate. Don’t shout, except for joy. Be patient. I have waited all my life to be patient (see what I did there) and it is finally starting to sink in.

Working where I do, you HAVE to be patient. Chose your battles, and when possible, chose not to have battles. Be generous with time as well as material things, or only with time if you have few material things. Don’t preach. Don’t complain about minor ailments, though I did this all the time until I started working with people living with brain damage. It’s a real wake up call. Be grateful, every morning – think of at least five or ten things you are grateful for. This is not original, it comes from working my recovery programme, but it’s a good way to live. Be kind to your friends and animals, always. Be kind to strangers, unless they are unkind to you. Then you can tell ‘em to fuck off. Keep your body in good nick as much as you can. If you can exercise, exercise. Get fresh air every day.

And Dying?

I have had more than my fair share of death in my life, compared to other people I know. Death has punctuated and punctured my life at various points. I would like to die when I am old, and after a brief illness. I hope whatever takes me out doesn’t take too long. I don’t really have a fixed notion of an afterlife, but I do secretly (well not so secretly as I am saying it here) I hope that  after the body dies, we are somehow reunited with the dead people we have loved and lost. I don’t know how I would find them. There are a gazillion dead people. I hope they have a sort of filing system and index cards. There are definitely people I want to see again. But I don’t like the idea of an eternal afterlife. That idea horrifies me.

Are you still dreaming?

I am not sure what you mean. If you mean if I have big dreams for my life, not really, no, I am amazed I get to be this happy, right now. I would be happy to feel this happy for the rest of my life. I guess I can choose this, I can chose to be happy. At night I have strange, psychedelic dreams but I don’t talk about them as nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams. I used to love it when my kids told me their nightmares. They were damp with sweat, I remember the little wriggling bodies, the recounting of the story, a glass of water, a cuddle, ‘til they drifted off back to sleep.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I chased a swan all along the Thames embankment. I know the swan could have turned on me, they are angry birds, but the tide was out and the swan was pretty tame, as swans go. My friend and I went there to look for treasure, but she wound up getting all eco and picking up garbage, and I chased this poor swan around. I said to my friend, ‘See, this is a fundamental difference between you and I. You see a discarded bottle and pick it up to put it in the bin. I play silly buggers with a swan.’ The other tiny act of outrage I always commit around Easter is when all those little gold chocolate bunnies are facing one way on the display in a shop, I take one and put it facing the other way around. I have to do this. It is a compulsion. I am really not very outrageous. A bit mischievous, but not outrageous.

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