Laugh As We Always Laughed

My mother once thought I was Davina McCall.

At the time, she was in hospital, and the TV must have been switched to Big Brother, or somesuch. She pointed at the TV and said, “That’s you, isn’t it?” And I laughed and said, “Yes!”

Our GP had diagnosed my mother with MID – multi-infarct (or vascular) dementia – which is a series of little strokes that make parts of your brain shut down. She would have moments of complete clarity interspersed with complete confusion. We’d only realised something was very wrong when her neighbours called to say that she’d called round in a confused state, but in hindsight the signs had been developing over a long period.

It is the hardest thing, to see this happen to a loved one. Particularly a mother who was a bright, intelligent woman. Her ‘eccentric’ ways, as she got older, were something I read as just a development of her personality, but in hindsight, they were small signs of what was to come. I remember her coming to visit me when I lived in Brighton in the ’90s, and how our roles had now switched. As we walked around, I had food and water in my bag for her, and ensured there was somewhere nice for her to sit down now and then.

I was embarrassed when two good friends spied us on the seafront, and I didn’t want them to speak to us. I knew my mother ‘wasn’t right’ but didn’t know how to deal with it. Then on the way home, she got off at the wrong coach stop and there were frantic messages between me and my siblings as to her whereabouts. She was found by National Express, sitting quietly at a coach stop, miles from her destination. I still feel sick about that moment. She shouldn’t have done that trip by her self, but at that time, I was still wondering why not.

When the diagnosis came – and let me tell you that getting your mother to the doctor to be tested for something she doesn’t know she has is a challenge – then it made it easier to deal with. It’s amazing what happens when a thing is named. When a thing is named it comes with a set of characteristics and a clear set of actions. She would have to go into hospital to be properly diagnosed, before being placed in appropriate care. We would have to take her there, leave her there. We would have to visit her and find her wearing someone else’s clothes…

You have to find a way through it. A way to cope. And the way we found, my sister, me and my mum, was a way to laugh at it. Together. Whether it was Davina McCall or the small white fluffy things she ‘saw’ blowing across her bedroom floor, we laughed at them together, sometimes until we cried. We found that correcting her only made her upset and more confused. But if you went along with the fantasy, magically the whole thing became easier.

Last night I went to see David Baddiel’s one-man show about his parents: his sex-obsessed late mother and his father who has dementia. His way of coping, he said, was to find the humour in it. In the fact that his mother copied him in to sexy emails to her lover, and that his dad called his loved one ‘c*nts’.

I found myself nodding and clapping as he spoke about how weird it was to hear your parent being asked by a doctor who the prime minister is (it’s the first question on the dementia test), how he found himself apologising to friends when his dad said something inappropriate, or his inner fear of being a victim of dementia himself.

Baddiel is of an age where perhaps you have more life experience to cope with it (53) but I was 31/32. No one of my acquaintance was dealing with anything like this, and I think that’s why I wanted to hide it away from them. They were all having babies and I was on my second parental decline. It was all out of sync and I wanted to hide in my south-coast life and ignore it. I’m ashamed to say that I hid in it for as long as I could. I kept my home visits to a limited number and a limited time. I counted the hours before I could escape south again. I know I’m not the only person to have done that but that doesn’t stop the guilt.

Recently there was a Twitter thread involving acts of kindness people had witnessed in their lives. Mine stands out clear and strong. During that time, my oldest friend, Coreen, visited my mother every Saturday, almost without fail. She dropped in to have a cup of tea and a chat. She must have seen my mother struggling, surrounded by ‘her things’ in one room. She understood, she didn’t judge, she was just present. She was more present than I was. I will never forget her kindness and I dedicate this post to her.

When my mother was taken into a home to be looked after, she thought it was a hotel. She talked about the other ‘guests’ and the staff as though she was on holiday. We played along. She ordered tea in her room and told us what she thought of the food in the ‘hotel’. We laughed together. She’d look at me as though she recognised me, then once again I was Davina. I could see the switch happen in her eyes.

Thank goodness for the laughter. Even before she became ill, I remember us all laughing together. At my mum’s habit of gently reaching out to touch the petals of a beautiful flower in a landscaped garden, only to see the whole thing collapse on the ground. And the time she accidentally tried to take £1000 out of an ATM in Southport because she couldn’t use the keyboard. And the classic: the time when she asked the waitress in a cafe in a boat on the North Wales coast, if she ‘had any waffles?’ but pronounced it to rhyme with ‘raffles’. She had put on her famous posh phone voice and we laughed about it years later.

We were used to laughing together and it made sense for us to do it later, when she was struggling the most. It’s a case of taking all the anxiety away – for all concerned. She was only in the home six weeks before she died. I’ve always thought it was because she had nothing to worry about any more. Other people were finally handling everything.

Baddiel ended by saying that his show was a kind of funeral speech for his mother – that her Jewish ‘Shiva’ didn’t allow for speeches, and on the day itself, everyone just shook his hand, wished him ‘long life’ and said what a ‘wonderful woman’ his mother was. In his show, he wanted to show the full extent of how ‘wonderful’ she was and it’s fairly warts-and-all. It’s darkly hilarious.

At my mother’s funeral, I stood up and said something, but it was a poem, and quite appropriate given the subject of this blog post. It’s Death Is Nothing At All, by Henry Scott Holland, and he says:

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me.

The more I look back on that time, and the years before them, the more I see and hear that laughter. I heard everyone in the theatre laughing last night, knowing that it came from a shared experience. I felt alone at the time it was happening but so many people experience it. It’s one of life’s great taboo subjects, but we are talking about it more and more, not only because of Theresa May’s ill-advised ‘dementia tax‘ or the threat of it looming over an ageing population.

I’ve toyed with writing about this subject for years now, not quite able to find a way into an intensely personal experience. It wasn’t until I saw Baddiel on stage last night that I found that way, and let me tell you that seeing a man ‘share’ as he does is simply incredible. We’re used to women doing it, but not men. He’s turned it into a comedy show, but really it’s a very funny, and tragic, live blog.

So I’m committing the laughter to the page and not hiding the darkness that comes along with it.

It’s time we talked about this.

 

Dedicated to: the NHS, Age UK (who were so helpful and reassuring when I phoned them out of my mind with worry), my wonderful friend, Coreen Ellis.

 

¡Group!

For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.

My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).

I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.

The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.

I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.

Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.

It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.

I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.

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Me being triumphant on the peak wearing my new Picos t-shirt

I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.

On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?

I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?

I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.

I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.

I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.

I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.

But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.

All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.

I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.

Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.

Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.

 

Farewell to my Forties…

Another decade has ended and I am thinking back to those months just after I turned forty, when my mindset completely changed about who I was and what I wanted out of life.

I stood and took a selfie of myself in a hotel room in Cannes, in a Mediterranean Blue maxi dress, looking nervous but excited about the night ahead. That night (which I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog) changed everything. Coming back to London, I knew everything had to be different.

And it was.

Thank you, forties, for letting me find out who I truly am; letting me explore my independence, my sexuality, my freedom, my voice, my self.

I look back at the 43-year-old who left a marriage and set out on that first holiday on her own to Thailand, who found herself flying round an island on the back of a motorbike with a black-haired boy and laughing.

I think about the person who stood in a bar alone, having a drink bought for her by a shocked woman (who went back to her husband eager to tell him what she’d done).

There is a scene where a woman buys a flat of her own in a golden building in a new place that turns out to be her real home.

There are beautiful young men who’ve appeared, grinning and eager, curious about the world, and even more curious about her.

I’m watching a woman reading on a beach in Dahab, watching the sun rise and fall behind shadowy mountains, smiling to herself about the evening ahead.

She goes back to the hotel to write a blog post, because writing has become a way of processing her days and recording her experience. Maybe no one will read it, but it doesn’t matter.

There is a woman who finally realises that shrinking her body is not the way of happiness. That being strong and in the world, taking up space, is the way she needs to be, and that there is nothing better than walking – walking along a coastal path or through a rainforest – to put her mind at rest.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there is a woman who realises she has something to say and has the confidence to say it. It’s only taken forty or fifty years to get there. Yes, it might scare off some of the men she meets, but actually, that’s fine. If they can’t deal, they can’t deal. She has friends who can.

So now I’m fifty and I need to stop talking about myself in the third person. It’s here, and I’m excited and not afraid. I know how to do it – I worked it all out in my forties. I’m off to London Book Fair to meet amazing people and talk on a panel about European illustration (on the day when Theresa May might trigger our departure from Europe).

Let’s do this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unpresidented Act

At the time of writing, an estimated 4.7 million people, in 673 cities, across all seven continents marched in protest yesterday. And I was one of them.

On his first full day of presidency, Donald Trump witnessed legions of women, children and men marching for the human rights he appears hell-bent on reversing. We marched to protest the rights of immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled… you can read the full list of guiding principles here.

I wanted to march alone. I received countless requests from friends wanting to rally with me on Grosvenor Square in London but I wanted to do this solo. Quite apart from the stress caused by trying to find a few people in a sea of thousands there is something beautiful about standing there alone, in the winter sunshine, among a multitude who share your vision and values in the world.

I like listening to the conversations around me, joining in with some of them, or not. Hearing a gang of young girls chanting “Lick it, stroke it, just don’t grab it!” and then seeing the guys around them quietly grin in acknowledgement and support.

I felt emotional seeing a woman in her seventies walking towards me at the start, wearing her pink ‘pussy hat’, clutching a sign that read, “yes, I’m still protesting this shit.” And then as I approached the square, a pussy riot – a huge crowd of determined women, wide-eyed children witnessing them and a surprising number of men standing alongside them. I was glad of my sunglasses at that moment.

On my way in, I saw the face of a distraught woman, arguing with her boyfriend who kept saying, “but they’re just marching against democracy!” I wish I’d reached out to her and pulled her with me and away from her inevitably Brexiteer boyfriend.

On the way round the square, a young, wild-eyed Men’s Rights Activist shouted at us: “Why don’t you drown in your tears, you bunch of LOSERS!” We all laughed so much he ended up laughing with us. Maybe he was surprised at suddenly gaining the attention of so many women – it’s likely to have been a problem for him in the past…

A good friend of mine who is a good man, commented on Facebook that he hoped we’d be marching for men as well. As ever, I am amazed that so many men out there think that women marching is a direct assault on THEIR rights. How nice it would have been for him to have been marching alongside me instead of questioning the motivation for what I was doing. That’s what felt so good about seeing so many men marching with us – no questions, no ‘what about the menz?’ trolling, just quiet solidarity. ‘We know this is an issue and we stand with you. Patriarchy is damaging for us, too.”

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Knowing that I was one of millions of people marching worldwide felt phenomenal. Gloria Steinem, arguably the mother of third-wave feminism, was marching in America and I was marching with her. It was the biggest global rally she had ever witnessed, and I was part of it.

And to those who might ask, what difference will it make? This is what she said:

We are linked, we are not ranked, and this is a day that will change us forever because we are together, each of us individually and collectively will never be the same again. When we elect a possible president, we too often go home. We’ve elected an impossible president. We’re never going home. We’re staying together, and we’re taking over.

Today feels very different.

There is hope.

 

New Year, New You

There seems to have been something in the air.

I’m actually compiling a list of every woman I’ve spoken to who’s had a romantically disappointing New Year. Like me, they’ve walked into 2017 with a resigned yet resolute air about them. The resounding cry of, “not you as well!” has made us laugh and know we’re not alone … yet we all know that we might be better off being alone. At least for a while.

For most of us, New Year has given us a snapshot into the reality of our situations and the clarity is terrifying. Christmas affords an opportunity to bedeck our lives in tinsel, fairy lights and the blurry focus of too-much prosecco, but New Year hurtles towards us, brutally throwing the decorations aside, revealing what lies beneath: the harsh truth of our situations.

I think that’s what people find so terrifying about New Year. Whether we choose to blot it out with booze, go to bed early, or plan to be in the air when it’s happening, it is because none of us find it easy to face New Year head on. If we don’t have a hand to hold or lips to kiss at midnight, it is as though life has just taken a selfie of us at our most exposed.

Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

For some, like me, the ‘midnight selfie’ was just what was needed to allow us to make a clear decision. On New Year’s Day I had an epiphany. I realised that what I’d thought (and hoped) was a relationship really wasn’t. He was in town with a friend on New Year’s Eve, while I was with friends at a party (and actually went to bed at 11.30pm having peaked too soon).

Suddenly the fact that he’d chosen to be apart on this one night of the year gave me the clarity I needed. It’s been so obvious. I’ve been a victim of wishful thinking, but I’m being nice to myself about it. Everyone is allowed to get away with that every now and again, right?

Other women I’ve spoken to have reported the men in their lives going AWOL on New Year’s Eve. Making plans and promises, then not turning up. Or turning up and creating an argument over nothing that then leads to them running away. Is this a thing? I’ve asked myself. Is there something about New Year that cements a commitment to someone if you share it? Do these guys run away from it because they’re scared of it, the terrifying clarity of the midnight selfie?

When I was married I had the opposite experience. New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay, as we would be in Scotland for it) would suddenly provide me with a partner I didn’t recognise. One that would embarrass me in front of his friends by non-stop snogging. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the attention, I just wish it could’ve been spread out across the rest of the year. I think the lawnmower got more attention than me on the other 364 days…

Anyway, now I’m entering my fiftieth year, and I’m honestly relieved not to have to factor in another person to the plans. I had been worrying how my ‘flying solo’ plans would be affected so I’m now back on track, at least.

The decorations are down and my flat looks clean and clear.

So does 2017.

 

The Good Souls

This Christmas and New Year are game-changers for me. For once I haven’t fled the country, or stayed in a place I don’t want to be with people I don’t like, or roamed moodily around my own home, feeling a bit sorry for myself.

I left the decision whether or not to fly away until pretty much the last moment. I knew the guy I’m seeing would be working most of the time and only free on Christmas Day. I knew that people were saying they’d be around (those that weren’t going away) but I also knew that when it came to it, I probably wouldn’t see any of them.

People are funny about going into hiding during the Christmas holidays. They disappear from Twitter – announcing that they’re ‘taking a break’ to be with family – then suddenly they’re back, taking a break from their families…

Anyway, this year there has been no break or flight from anything for me, except the office. I know enough about Christmas now to realise that the best bit is the run-up to it. I started enjoying the party season from December 1, knowing that come the 25th it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax, or at least a post-party chill-out (this is precisely why I start enjoying summer on June 1 – if you wait for the ‘big day’ when the sun is at its hottest, you’ve missed out on all the fun. And the big day may never arrive…)

It was a very Christmas different for me. My guy is Muslim so it was a no-booze zone and I made a halal lamb dish for us both. It was quite liberating, heading into Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve, hearing people shouting, “WHERE ARE THE BLOODY PARSNIPS??”, knowing I wouldn’t be buying anything remotely involved in a traditional Christmas dinner.

The world didn’t end because I didn’t observe a single tradition, apart from present-opening and a pre-dinner walk. The biggest surprises of the day were finding out that my guy likes Rick Stein documentaries, animated children’s films and Gladiator. We ended up watching The Revenant, hardly joyful Christmas viewing, but at least it was set in a wintery landscape. It wasn’t White Christmas, but I enjoyed it anyway.

My guy had had his birthday a week earlier, and made it feel like my birthday by bringing around an enormous cake for me. For me! I was struck by the generosity of it. The generosity of spirit which escaped me for years, when I was with someone incredibly mean-spirited. No completely unselfish acts, no celebration of anything good (unless initiated by me), no joy in sharing a life with another person. Just being frogmarched around a shopping mall to select my own gift, which was inevitably a high-ticket consumer good because it was easy and required little thought.

Two of my best friends are Jewish and do a sort of ‘Chrismukkah’ which I rather love. We joke that they have become my ‘Jewish mothers’ but I’ve realised that they have actually become my family here in north-west London. They phone me to catch up, even though I hate phones, and I love it. They sought me out this year, separately, to arrange to meet for gift-giving and pre-Christmas cheer. I love them dearly for that. Please keep phoning me, ladies. I love it, honestly.

The week before Christmas, one of my oldest friends arrived in the country from Qatar and arranged to meet me in Kensal Rise, where I live. It had been a difficult day, because what is left of my actual family were meeting in Wales for a Christmas dinner and for reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t attend.

Kensal put on a show as though I’d been rehearsing it for months. The chatty barman, the friends popping past to say ‘hi’, the local pub quiz we entered into with gusto, the knowledge that these smiling friends were here to see me and that they are a big part of my life and history. The universe spoke to me loud and clear: this is my home and these people are my family.

In between Christmas and New Year I arranged to see another old friend (we date back to university), who is the mother of my godson. Thanks to the generosity of yet another one of my London Jewish framily we got free tickets to a Christmas show in Manchester and a backstage tour afterwards. I introduced my old friend to my London friend and felt grateful to have both of them in my life.

I started to think about all the good souls – the people who really matter. They are marked by their kindness and generosity. They are consistent and don’t have any agenda. They like to see me and I like to see them. It’s so beautifully simple.

My northern odyssey continued with a night out with my brother, ending up in a bar on the infamous Canal Street. Much fun was had. Over dinner I told him that the thing that most impressed me at his 60th birthday party was a) that he’d served the guests dinner himself, and b) friends of his that I’d never met came up to me and told me how kind he is to them and their families. We’re not the closest of siblings, but I am proud of who he is. And now I wonder why we’ve waited so long to have a night out in Manchester…

Finally I met up with my mum’s sister for a hug, a cup of tea and a chat. Like my mum and nan before her, she is wiser than wise. “Take each day one at a time,” were her parting words to me, and I shall. I shall.

The person who drove me to my aunt’s and came back and took me to the station at the end of the day was someone I know professionally: an illustrator. He’d also picked me up earlier, and cooked lunch for me and his family. Again, I was blown away by the generosity. The universe is literally throwing good souls at me right now.

So much crap has happened this year, I can’t wait to leave it behind and start a fresh new one. I’m not naive enough to think 2017 is going to be a bed of roses, but I’m going to be fifty, and I’m going to celebrate that with people that matter.

And in the words of Starsailor:

As I turn to you and I say
Thank goodness for the good souls
That make life better
As I turn to you and I say
If it wasn’t for the good souls
Life would not matter

Happy New Year!

Dedicated to: Justine, Chelsea, Neal, Helen(s), Jess, Phil, Sam, Jonny, Kay, Woody, James, Lucinda, Sidali, Ben, Coreen, and the people of Kensal Rise and Canal Street.

These Are The Times

Ever since Brexit, and probably during the build-up to it, I kept thinking, “this is what it’s like to live in history”. To live in a time when such monumental shifts are happening they will appear on a curriculum somewhere in the future, and people will be writing theses on 2016 in the way that they might write one now on 1066, 1918 or 1939.

Like most of the 48% of people who didn’t vote for Britain to leave the EU, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve been living in a bubble (London – the biggest bubble of all). Seventeen million people in the UK didn’t think the same way as me or my friends. I’d already had an inkling that this might be the case during the election that brought our current Conservative government to power, but Brexit was still a mighty blow and wake-up call.

As we approach Remembrance Day, I think about how the World Wars defined my family. I know about my great uncles Joe and William who both died fighting in France. I think about how being born in 1918 and serving in the Second World War defined my father – even his memoir was called ‘Between the Fires‘. He told stories to me when I was a child of how shells whistled over his head in the North African desert, and I treasure the little book of photographs he brought back with him, showing him with his army friends.

My mother was a teenager during the Second World War and told me stories of the American GIs in town, taking a gas mask to school, and the sound of bombs hitting Liverpool, across the River Dee. She told me how she used to hide under the dinner table when the air raids were on. These were the stories my parents told when they were asked about themselves. I thought they were all rather romantic and slightly wished I’d experienced them too.

For my generation, and for others, I think our story starts now. I don’t think we’ve experienced anything that has forced us to identify our place in the world until now. Yes, we’ve had the miners’ strike, yes we had to deal with the threat of nuclear war in the Reagan-Thatcher era, yes we’ve had the Falklands and Gulf Wars. But nothing, in my view, has made us look at ourselves and the person standing next to us until now.

There is a tidal wave of right-wing aggression sweeping world politics right now. Political popularity is being built on a rising tide of xenophobia and misogyny and I think we’re right to draw comparisons with the 1930s, and right to wonder how the hell this is happening again.

For a few years now, I’ve been bumbling along in a bubble of left-wing liberalism, finding my feminist voice and shouting about things I feel strongly about on social media. Even so, I’ve never really felt able to completely define what I stand for, beyond feminism, because I’ve bought into an amorphous cluster of already defined liberal ideas: I stand against racism, sexism and homophobia, and support human rights, freedom of speech and international co-operation, ‘just like everyone else’.

Except not everyone else does.

These are the times when I have to recalibrate where I stand in the world. This is not just a case of retweeting a few statements I agree with, or sharing a meme on Facebook that makes me feel like I’m standing up for my values. What are my values? What is my story? How am I going to live it? What is the real-life action I’m going to take?

I keep looking for silver linings, in this ridiculous, Trumped-up world we find ourselves in. One is that so many of us are finding our political identity for the first time and the confidence to show it to the world. There is no doubt in my mind that Brexit and the Trump win are part of a backlash against the liberal values I stand for. As Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted:

Tonight is what backlash looks like – to women’s rights, to racial progress, to a cultural shift that doesn’t center white men.

I had no idea that the groundswell of support behind the ideas put forward by Trump, Farage and Johnson was so great. That the Daily Mail extremism of a Katie Hopkins or a Milo Yiannopoulos would actually be a populist view taken seriously by millions of people.

But it is. They are.

It’s naïve of us to think that we’re not at the centre of a huge historical moment right now. All we need to do is join the dots. These are the times when I am going to wake up and define myself within it. I have to. There isn’t a choice any more. There isn’t a comfy armchair to sit in and watch the world go by.

I’m very very scared by the US election result. They have elected someone who bears all the hallmarks of a fascist dictator – one who might overturn a woman’s right to abortion, who might build a wall to keep ‘foreigners’ out. So how wonderful is it that in a supreme case of role reversal, the German chancellor is the one to fire a warning shot across his bows:

Germany and America are connected by common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.

So here I am, Mum, Dad. Witnessing something colossal on the world stage, in the week where we remember events we thought could never be repeated. For the first time in my life I believe that they genuinely could. And for the first time in my life I feel compelled to define who I am, and witness my friends doing the same.

These are the times.

1928

Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.

How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.

I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.

I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…

Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On  a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.

I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.

I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.

And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.

And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.

And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…

 

 

Pura Vida!

It’s almost six years to the day that I first embarked on one of my solo holidays. I deliberately chose somewhere far away (Thailand) so I wouldn’t be able to chicken out and fly home ahead of time. I found the first few days really challenging (read about that here) but once I found my groove I couldn’t wait to go back again. And I did, a few months later.

Since then I’ve found a couple of places I love – Bodrum in Turkey and Dahab in Egypt – and visited them over and over again because I feel so comfortable there. This year, though, I felt like trying somewhere new, not least because I can’t currently fly to Dahab (flights aren’t currently going to Sharm-el-Sheikh from the UK) and Bodrum has been at the centre of the refugee crisis in the last year or so. I didn’t feel right to go there for pleasure.

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Red-eyed Tree Frog seen at Finca Verde Lodge

Costa Rica has recently loomed onto the UK holiday horizon, partly because of the reintroduction of direct flights there from tour operators like Thomson (they started last November). I’d seen a friend’s holiday pictures over Christmas and thought it looked like the perfect destination for me – beautiful beaches, lush forests, interesting flora and fauna. I booked it before I could think about it too much.

My destination was Tamarindo, a surf town in the north west on the Pacific coast. At this time of year, the rainy season, the Pacific side is the driest, and July gives a short respite in the rains, that the locals call ‘Little Summer’. It rains a bit, but not nearly as much as it does between May and November in other months. What the rainy season does give you is a daily spectacular sunset, and Tamarindo is famous for it. Nary a day goes by without one lighting the curious cloud formations in a unique, glorious way.

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One of the many glorious sunsets viewed from the Esplendor hotel…

Towards the end of my holiday I decided to take a ‘sunset cruise’ that hilariously turned into a ‘storm cruise’ with a dash back to the shore and being told to run for it across the beach because someone had been killed by lightning the week before. During my two-week trip, the lightning strike happened, plus a guy got his leg chewed off by a croc in Tamarindo estuary (he was walking where he shouldn’t) and a volcano erupted. Costa Rica is certainly ‘lively’ when it comes to natural-world news.

Tamarindo is happily also famous for its party atmosphere. One of the things I need when I’m away on my own is access to lively nightlife. I’ve found I can lose myself in local bars and clubs, whereas it’s more difficult in a quiet restaurant. I need lots of people around at night, and Tamarindo (or Tamagringo, as the locals refer to it) doesn’t disappoint. As the guides suggest, it has something of a ‘spring break’ feel about it, with a range of bars catering to the American surf crowd.

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Surfer on wave watch at Playa Langosta, Tamarindo

I preferred the local ‘Tico’ places – like Pacifico, where you can’t stand still for five seconds without someone whizzing you round the dance floor to the latest salsa hit. And then there’s the Crazy Monkey Bar, where everyone heads on a Friday night, split between a Gringo and a Tico dancefloor. Guess which one I headed to? Yep – Tico every time. Much more fun, and more relaxed. Beware the free shots given to ladies though – Guaro chilli shots are pretty lethal.

I’ve realised that what I really like is a hotel base, near to a lively town, but just out of the way enough to get away. The Esplendor Tamarindo is perched on the hill above the town and has spectacular views of the sunset from a swim-up bar. Howler monkeys fight for territory in the trees around the infinity pool and the tree-lined hills behind the hotel are filled with birdsong all day. Every room faces the ocean so it’s a place where no one feels disgruntled with their room choice.

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View from my hotel balcony over Tamarindo

(I wondered why the staff were a little bit grumpy in the hotel, when everyone tells you how friendly the Ticos are. It turned out, according to a tour guide, that it’s Argentinian-owned. That seems to be the byword for bad service in Costa Rica.)

The hotel/town situation reminded me very much of my first solo experience in Thailand. There, I was staying in an extremely romantic hotel, upgraded to a seaview, but I had access to a nearby party town that was only two minutes away. I could leave behind the romantic couples looking at the sunset and head into town for fun.

I laughed when I realised the similarity, but not so much when I realised how daunting it is going to a completely new continent so far away, on your own. I’d forgotten, in the years of repeat visits to Bodrum and Dahab, that it’s fairly stressful not knowing how things work. I quickly realised what was going to happen – it would take me several days, or even a week, to get into the swing of things, and then I’d want to book a repeat visit so I could go back and do it properly.

And that is exactly what did happen.

Luckily for me, I had a bit of a false start to the holiday, meeting a guy on his own in the hotel. He had found out lots of local information via an American guy who had retired there, and it gave me an instant solo-holiday boost. He was also great to hang out with, and we ended up touring the local bars one night, in what appeared to be a live Bacardi advert. We packed it all in – karaoke, salsa, house music – it was one of those nights. When he left a few days later I came crashing down with the realisation that I was on my own and I’d have to make my own fun. I really did wallow for a bit and it brought back those first wretched days in Thailand. But I did what I did back then, and booked some trips to shake off the gloom.

And then I met Nolberto the tour guide. My first trip was a guided group hike to Rincon De La Vieja – one of the four active volcanoes. Nolberto, like many of the Tico guides I came across, was well drilled in the history, culture and politics of his country. There is no army, he told us proudly. The money is spent instead on health and education, and education is compulsory for 7-12 year olds. He told us that the first mile or so of the hiking track into the forest is paved so that people in wheelchairs could enjoy the experience.

I realised why people want to live in Costa so much. Everything is focused on a better quality of life – ‘pura vida’ – the pure life statement that punctuates pretty much everything a Tico says.

During a post-hike visit to some hot springs, an American woman asked me what I thought about Brexit. They all did, every time I met one. And all but one was hugely sympathetic to the 48% Remain voters and worried about the threat posed to the US by Donald Trump. Hillary just HAS to get in, said one. I said it might be a good idea to prepare for the worst, just in case. So many of us in the UK had been caught out by complacency and it would be wise to go there in your head before it happened.

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The hot springs near Rincon De La Vieja

Mostly I get scowled at by women in couples on these sorts of holidays. They appear to think I pose some sort of threat, and their partners pick up on it and are invariably too scared to talk to me. A few times I got approached by women who were genuinely interested in what I was doing on my solo holiday and were comfortable enough in their marriages to include me in their family group. I really appreciated it. Thanks, ladies.

I’ve found, especially now I’m older, that I also get ignored by staff in restaurants and beach clubs. I’m told it’s because they can get more money out of couples and groups, but it felt as though it was the ‘cloak of invisibility’ that descends upon women after the age of 46. Seeing a waiter who had previously ignored me, running after a group of young surf girls at Lola’s, kind of confirmed that for me. Mind you, that was during my low point, so I was probably more sensitive than normal. Lola’s is a fantastic restaurant on the glorious Playa Avellanas – highly recommended. Especially the free Imperial Beer you get when you tell the waiter off…

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The view of Playa Avellanas from Lola’s Restaurant

Anyway, back to Nolberto. He’d given me his card on the trip and as he’s freelance, I thought I’d book him to go on my next trip to Monteverde. (Book him by email here: Eltwintours@hotmail.com). I’d tried booking a group trip in town, but they seemed to run only when they could amass enough people and I didn’t want to wait and miss out. On the spectacular drive there (it’s a cloud forest in the mountains), Nolberto had a habit of shouting, “Vámonos!” every time he overtook a slow vehicle (which was a lot). I started shouting it as well, and it made us laugh so much. He was great fun.

I realised how great it was to have a private guide on that day. It happened to be Guanacaste Day – the day that people in the north-western region I was in celebrate their annexation from Nicaragua. And boy, do they celebrate it. On the way back from Monteverde we stopped at Bar Y La Griega near Santa Cruz and they had a cimarrona band playing. It was a group of high-school boys standing outside the bar in the dark playing a frenzied mariachi-style music (which is usually accompanied by dancing puppets). One of things I’d never have witnessed if I’d been on a group tour.

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Holding a young sloth at Finca Verde Lodge

Nolberto also tracked down sloths for me – I couldn’t visit the country and not see at least one. We travelled back to the volcano region to Finca Verde Lodge in Bijagua, which turned out to be a little gem of a place with hardly any visitors. We saw three small slots nestled high up in the cecropia trees they love so much and were told that they only come down about twice a week for toilet purposes.

Amazingly, one popped down while I was having my lunch and Nolberto passed it over to me to hold. It is simply one of the most beautiful moments of my life. It felt like a hairy baby, this 8-month-old three-toed sloth, that naturally curls its arms around you for a cuddle. He was stoned, of course, from the cecropia leaves, but his smile came from being a three-toed sloth. They all have them. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them.

 

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Norberto holding the 8-month-old three-toed sloth

Nolberto also encouraged me to zipline whilst at Selvatura Park in Monteverde. I was really scared but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. It comprises 12 ‘flights’ across 18 platforms and once I’d (literally) got into the swing of it, I was dying to do it again. I had to be ‘accompanied’ across a few flights by random guys – you had to do some of them in pairs. Thanks to the three guys who gallantly placed their legs around my waist without even knowing my name.

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As with Thailand, I’m now feeling an overwhelming urge to return to CR. I wish I’d spent way more time in the mountains and done a lot more hiking. I wish I’d spent more time partying in the evenings and not so much going to bed early. I wish I’d spent more time with the locals. I wish I’d gone one step further on my first attempt at snorkelling in the sea but panicking in a life vest was as far as I got, and that was a lifetime achievement (I can’t swim).

I suppose it’s like that old adage about leaving the dinner table still wanting more.

I’ll be back, Costa Rica, I’ll be back…

 

 

A Tale of Two Countries

I usually studiously avoid political commentary (outside feminism) on this blog, but like many, I am moved to write about what I’m thinking in a post-EU-referendum world.

From my privileged London position, I’m thinking ‘let’s stop victim-blaming those that voted against my wishes and start blaming those who caused it.’ I can rail all I like against Welsh people who, in my opinion, scored a huge own goal against their own future by voting Leave, but there are reasons why they did so and they all point back towards Westminster and those who control the tabloid media.

Outside Scotland and Northern Ireland, the pattern of Remain voting was so starkly based in the UK cities, with Leeds, York, Liverpool, Cardiff and Manchester all voting IN with London, against the wishes of a majority vote in the rest of the country. There couldn’t be more of a statement about privilege versus need, about those who have, and those who have not, and we have to listen to that.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I grew up in North Wales and in the ’80s, things were grim. Mass unemployment, people living hand-to-mouth, no money for life’s extras. I experienced an epiphany in 1989 and knew I had to move out and live my life elsewhere. I moved to London to go to uni at twenty-two and although at the time it was like ripping a limb off, I knew it had been the right decision for me. I am now relatively well-off.

I wonder back then how I would’ve voted in the EU Referendum. We were a Sun-reading household so the message would have firmly been OUT. Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech had been mentioned in my family home during the seventies so I knew what the score was in my Conservative-voting family, even though they’d enjoyed the privilege of living in an East African British colony for ten years. Oh the irony.

I remember, when I was a senior ballet student and teacher in North Wales during my late teens and having members of the only black family in the area attending classes. I remember someone shouting the ‘N’ word through our changing-room window and the friend they were targeting looking humiliated and ashamed, and how much shame I felt at what had happened. I didn’t agree with it, but it was all around me, latent. And I didn’t say anything. (I remember seeing a glimpse of my friend’s art sketch book one evening – it was full of pictures of black activists like Malcolm X.)

It’s completely wrong to think these views and incidents only exist outside cities and they’re only happening now – they’re everywhere, they always have been, and now they’re being validated by the campaigns waged by pro-Brexit campaigners, that focused on demonising immigrants, and more specifically, Muslim immigrants. Time and time again we hear about Leave voters telling us they’re ok with European immigrants (ok, except maybe Polish people) – they only voted to keep Turkish or Iraqi people out. Let’s just say what they actually meant – Muslim people.

Many of the Leave voters I know have spouses or partners that are immigrants, yet they seem painfully unaware of the irony of their vote. The important point is that they are ‘Christian’ immigrants, the ‘right’ sort of immigrants. What they really mean is they want to keep Muslims out.

Islamophobia is a fear that is sweeping the world and leading to a rise in fascism on both sides of the Atlantic. In an historic moment that feels like 1930s Europe on the brink of Naziism, we’ve got hate figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen congratulating us on ‘getting our country back’. ISIS are delighted that Europe is fracturing.

It makes me sick. Physically sick.

I have a handful of friends who are Brexiteers who are able to tell me why they voted, and there is no trace of racism in their answers. I want to understand their reasoning, and I think there are very valid points being raised about a non-Brussels administration that I need to know more about, and that I wish we’d all known more about.

It’s very clear that both sides in the referendum are only now finding out what the real outcomes are of Brexit. The Leave campaign are already admitting that the central elements of their argument are on shaky ground, mainly that the NHS won’t receive £350 million and that immigration won’t be reduced. Wales and Cornwall are surprised to find that their former EU subsidies might not be supported by a Leave administration.

I feel that we’ve all been royally shafted by a load of public schoolboys in Westminster, fighting for supremacy. There has been no clarity around the realities of what we’re facing and both sides have led campaigns that have fed on people’s fears of the unknown. It’s an act of such astonishing irresponsibility that it puts the banking crisis into the shade.

I still can’t quite believe that Cameron gambled an entire country’s future in a game of political Russian Roulette with his own party and the Brexiteers. Clearly not one of them expected Leave to win. That they have left the country with no clear leadership back-up plan in the last forty-eight hours is breathtaking.

Let’s not forget who created the ‘austerity Britain’ that the protest voters came out in force against. It wasn’t the Polish immigrant living next door to us or the Muslim we work alongside (or fear turning up on our doorsteps). It was this government, with its focus on privatisation. As I say, I’m going to stop blaming Brexit voters for this crisis and start pointing the finger at those who are truly in the wrong.

At times like this, I find it’s useful to remember that people are only human, with sets of hopes and fears that sometimes dovetail, sometimes they don’t. I spoke to a woman around my age who runs a local cafe about it all, on the devastating Day After. She brightly said that it was the first time she’d voted and that she’d watched some of the debates and felt she had to vote for her children’s sake. Vote out, that is.

I have to live with the fact that hers, and other people’s opinions are different to mine (whilst wondering how the hell a middle-aged woman has never got round to voting because she didn’t know how…). I am going to try and continue to live my life as I was living it before – trying to be as open-minded and inclusive as possible, campaigning against Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing fascism.

If anything, this crisis has galvanised me into wanting to be my best self and to look harder for the humanity in others. If people voted Leave and didn’t realise it would actually happen, then I have to realise that these are people who are used to their voices not being heard. And now my voice is one of them and I don’t like it.

Whatever happens with Article 50s, petitions, general elections, or further referenda, I’m going to be engaged with politics like never before.

I think we’ll survive this, but we won’t be the same again.

Good luck, Britain.