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.

 

 

 

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Venice, Vidi, Vici

Last weekend I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years – go back to Venice. It was twenty-five years ago that I was first bewitched by the place, swearing I’d only go back for a romantic break with someone ‘special’. That person didn’t rock up, so goddammit, I went there by myself. I booked a cool, boutique hotel, planned my four days out using Lonely Planet, and re-entered the fantasy world of the city.

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The gold sofa in the reception at AD Place Hotel

What I’d forgotten is that it’s like entering a restaurant on a perma-Valentine’s Night. The place is festooned with love and lovers, now taking ‘kelfies’ – my made-up word for kissing selfies. In front of every building, work of art or bario serving spritz … there they were. I didn’t really notice it last time I was there – I was too entranced with the place. Also, I was young enough to think I’d have my time there to do that. Lol.

So really, what I was doing was the Iron Woman Challenge of all solo holidays. Going to the most romantic place in the world as a middle-aged woman on her own. “I can totally do this!” I thought. And I did. Kind of.

I managed to dodge the rose-thrusting touts around St Mark’s square, and chuckled when I heard an American woman behind me cry, “Do I LOOK like I’m with anyone??” That’s the thing when you’re a female solo traveller. You suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by them. We’re quite well-camouflaged, actually. No one suspects the woman blending into the surroundings looking like she’s just waiting for someone, but we see each other very clearly, emerging from the scene. And there are more and more of us every year, it seems.

Even at the airport I’d gone to the champagne bar and made eye-contact with at least three other women doing the same thing as me: treating ourselves to a lovely glass before jetting off, because we could. I spoke to one of them and she was going to Berlin, but not before sneezing all over me and giving me a cold three days later. Thanks, love.

Anyway, on my first night I was full of the joy of being alone and free in the most beautiful city in the world. I’d planned a walk around San Marco, which would culminate in a spritz at a bar I’d been recommended. Of course, Venice being Venice, I couldn’t find it so I found an accommodating restaurant – the Rosa Rossa – who found me a table tucked away outside. I smiled at my good fortune and ordered a spritz.

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The view from Ponte Dell’Accademia. Staggeringly beautiful.

Fifteen minutes passed and couples were starting to surround me. They appeared to be being served promptly so I reminded the waiter (he seemed to be the manager) that I’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. He broke out in what can only be described as operatic ritual humiliation of me in front of the other customers. Waving his arms around, he remonstrated with me, shouting that I’d only been waiting for five minutes and couldn’t I see that they were busy and now, you see? Here is the drink you’ve been waiting for. Prego, PREGO!

I died a little in my seat. I also sat there for about five minutes choking back tears. He came back out to take my food order and instead of doing what I should have done – stormed off – I told him I’d order if he promised not to shout at me. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had in Italy, for so many reasons. The couple next to me looked shocked.

Thinking about it, what annoyed him about me was probably that I was the least important of his customers, but the one that ventured to complain. Had I been in a couple, I’m sure I’d have been served immediately. Had I been a girl of twenty-four, as I had been the last time I visited, I think he’d have been all over me. But me, just sitting there, at forty-nine, with no man or baby to make ‘sense’ of me, just got his goat.

I placed a review on TripAdvisor as soon as I left the restaurant. His reply says it all:

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So there it is, for all to see. It was definitely fifteen minutes because I’d checked in on Swarm as I arrived and looked back at the time. Maybe those minutes fly by when you’re in a couple, but I’m betting a manly cough towards the waiter would’ve got him running.

If you’d like to see the restaurant in question, and the review, now read by over 200 people, then here’s the link. Note that all the subsequent rave reviews are from couples and groups. Sadly my review didn’t link to my usual profile, where I’ve posted many rave reviews of hotels and restaurants. I’m pretty sure this is the only bad one.

It happened again on my return boat trip to the airport. The boat driver shouted at me for trying to pay at the wrong moment. I teared up again. So this is what happened in twenty-five years – I’ve gone from being  catcalled to shouted at. I’m in the way.

Don’t get me wrong, in between those moments, the weekend was a dream of renaissance art and architecture, of La Traviata in a palazzo on the Grand Canal and Vivaldi in a frescoed church. It was cicheti and wine in a tucked-away street ‘bario’ and a pistachio gelato next to a fantasy-scene of sparkling waterways and winking gondoliers. It was everything I remembered the first time, but much more. And I’m going to go back.

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A Dorsoduro canal-way.

And when I go back I’m going to remember the conversation I had with a woman who was visiting the city with her husband. He’d gone off to do something else and she’d taken a seat next to me in a bar, and was taking a breather with a beer and a cigarette. I told her about my solo-travelling thing and why I’d got into that and she suddenly blurted out that she too was wishing she was on her own, and that she was thinking about leaving her husband. She probably only told me because I was a complete stranger, but I did start to wonder about all the kelfie-taking love-puppies I’d seen in gondolas. How many of them were wishing they were with someone, or no one, else?

I remembered feeling like that on numerous holidays, even my honeymoon, and felt glad that at least I was free of that. Free of scanning every place I went for the guy I was ‘supposed’ to be with. It’s exhausting, and at the very least, unfair on the person you are actually with.

So Venice. I came, I saw, I conquered. I am so in love with you that I don’t think I can leave it at that. You can make me feel elated and transcendent, but you can also make me feel like dirt on your shoe.

But at least I feel alive in your presence.

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Puncinello by Tiepolo in Ca’Rezzonico palazzo on the Grand Canal

 

Great Expectations

Recently, a guy I dated once remonstrated with me for not following up our one date with a text requesting another date. Why had I not texted him? Was I waiting for the guy to text first? He suggested that that wasn’t very feminist of me.

Sigh.

I manage my expectations, I told him. I dial them down so low I expect nothing. I expect you to not text, to not call, to not follow up. I expect you to enjoy one of the best dates you and I will probably ever experience and yet not want to follow that up. In fact, when one of those happens, that’s my go-to place. If the date is extra-good, I know there’ll be silence after. Sometimes things can go too well and it freaks them out.

But his response – a few months later, it has to be said – intrigued me. This guy was actually annoyed at me for not expecting anything. I think he wanted me to be longing for him, so the delight in keeping me at arms length would be sweeter. I realised what power there is in zero expectation. Of anything. Of anybody. And now I’ve started to apply it to everything in life.

I think I’ve already been applying it, actually, when I think about my attitude to weather. If there’s an important outdoor event at the weekend, I seem to be the only person checking the actual forecast to see what it’s really going to do. Everyone around me seems to prefer choosing hope over reason. They tell me, until the last minute, that they hope the forecast will be wrong, and suddenly all will be sunshine and frolicking. When I say, ‘the BBC says it’s going to rain at 3pm but it should be done by 4’, I get horrified looks. But why not just face the truth and deal with it? Why be constantly disappointed in life?

I think losing parents early in life can remove any misty-eyed optimism about the future. It’s left me with a tendency to look reality in the face and name problems. I was once put in a work situation where friends told me I would find a ‘dysfunctional family’ but I only discovered what was tantamount to domestic abuse. They didn’t want to hear it. Similarly, when told I would experience ‘rough and tumble’, I witnessed bullying.

I don’t like euphemisms, I like clarity.

I think this may sound as though I’ve lost all hope in life. I haven’t. I still have hope and expectation for myself and I’m the only person I’ll ever expect anything of. I expect me to make something of my life without expecting anyone else to help. If they do, then that’s a bonus, but I will not allow myself to expect it. I expect me to bring joy into my life, and I do, by striking out on my own in the world and not leaning on anyone else. People might bring joy into my life, but I’m not waiting for it any more. I’ve spent far too much time waiting.

I’m going to Venice on my own in a couple of weeks after waiting for years to return there, with an as-yet undiscovered man. I realised what I was doing and immediately booked my own trip. What the hell was I waiting for? Some ridiculous rose-tinted moment that was never going to happen, that’s what.You can waste a lifetime waiting for the right moment, I’ve found. And even then you can find yourself there with the wrong person.

It’s actually incredibly liberating to be solely reliant on yourself for everything. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how not having a safety net – no parents, no wealthy relatives, no ‘loved ones’ to catch you immediately if you fall – can be a very scary situation to find yourself in. When I have to write down the name of an ‘in case of emergency’ person on a medical form it sends me into a tailspin. Who is that person? Sometimes I feel like writing, ‘It’s me, actually’.

It’s me.

 

A Woman Scorned

Last month, Beyoncé broke the internet after she released her visual album, Lemonade. It has been deemed the ‘most elaborate diss in hip-hop history‘, given that much of the content is given to Jay Z’s alleged cheating with ‘Becky with the good hair’.

I personally love a good ‘woman scorned’ outburst – I don’t subscribe to the dignified silence, I prefer a huge wodge of revenge served with a side salad of cold blood. Even better if you can deliver the requisite revenge like a deadly artistic assassin, making you look so glaringly bright that the guy in question can’t bear to set eyes on you again.

Well done, Bey.

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What always strikes me about these situations is that the women scorned are always burning so much brighter than these guys in the first instance. They’re often more talented (Bey), intelligent (Hillary) and better-looking (everyone) than the guys who’ve cheated on them. I’ve seen women I consider to be magnificent left for someone with nothing more than a homely smile, and I’ve wondered if that’s the motivation. They can’t handle the magnificence, let alone control it, so they find someone infinitely more ‘manageable’.

Time and time again I’ve seen women going through this, and there are always friends exclaiming, ‘But she’s not a patch on you!’ And now I know that this is the whole point of it. The cheating is a way of re-establishing a form of control, and they will always opt for a ‘not-a-patch’ option. It happened to me a few years ago and I understood straight away. Steps had been taken to try and control me and they hadn’t worked. Cue an easier target.

I remember that scene in Sex and the City where Samantha posts leaflets all over the city, telling everyone that her ‘Richard’ is, in fact, a dick. When I enacted a digital version of that, I felt the same bewitching sense of control and freedom, as the ‘leaflets’ were similarly carried away on the wind.

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I’m never going to be someone who sits back and silently suffers – I’m on Team Trierweiler. Valérie Trierweiler wrote a bestselling memoir of her betrayal by François Hollande (Thank You For This Moment), and it is described as:

300-odd pages of deliciously backhanded barbs, sentimental hand-wringing and vicious putdowns, seasoned with large dollops of self-justification.

The same article describes her as ‘magnificently unrepentant.‘ Amen to that, sister.

I don’t know why, but a strange silence descends when a woman pours out her scorn. Men call her a ‘vindictive harpy’, and in hushed tones, women tell her she should be more dignified. What if we don’t? What if we call them out on it like Bey? The world doesn’t end,  does it? It just realises we know what’s going on and we’re not prepared to live with it.

The greatest service to womanhood Bey has done thus far is to make ‘calling a guy out on his shit’ into an art form.

There has never been a greater woman scorned…

 

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This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.

 

 

Mothering Heights

I have a distinct memory of my mother picking me up from the school gates one sunny afternoon in the ’70s. She must have had to come in to the school for some reason, because my memory is of her looking exceedingly glamorous as she strode in, and me feeling immensely proud. She was wearing an oversized bouclé coat she’d knitted herself (it had different-coloured trees all over it) and purple suede knee-high boots that had buttons down the side. Even then, at the age of around eight, I was aware that she had a style that marked her out from the other mums and I loved it.

I now realise that if I was eight, she must have been forty-six – two years younger than I am now.

As my forty-ninth birthday approaches I’ve realised that I’ve turned into a mother – my mother – without even making that life decision. Last week, I was talking to a younger friend about my dating prospects as a single woman in her late forties, and, trying to be helpful, he immediately referenced his mother as a comparative scenario. It came as a shock that he saw me that way, as it’s not how I see myself. Until now.

Later the same night I attended a Rudimental gig at the O2, on my own, and sat next to a group of teenagers cradling their Diet Cokes and immediately realised that other people would assume I was their mother. Hell, the kids probably thought I’d escaped from a Mother’s Home and was sent there to keep an eye on them. I did keep an eye on the girl next to me, who was stroking her hair extensions obsessively while her best mate ‘cracked on’ with the boy next to her. I was dying to tell her that in about twenty years, she’d be the hot one and her friend would look like a beanbag…

This is the first time in my life that I’ve really been hit by the reality of ageing. I sailed through turning thirty because at that point, I’d only just starting really living life, having missed out on so much ‘fun’ in my late teens and twenties. At forty, I was going through a renaissance, professionally and personally, so it felt like a rebirth, rather than the beginning of the end.

Now, approaching fifty, something else is happening. For the first time, I’m feeling that shift, as the cloak of invisibility descends. Used to a certain level of attention in public (not all of it welcome), I’m adjusting to life as a normal human being who can walk down the street unnoticed. I’m also adjusting to seeing my mother in the mirror every time I go to the hairdressers. That halo of thick, blow-dried hair I remember seeing every Friday when she returned from her weekly hairdo. There she is again. Staring back at me.

There is a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer, in which Amy joins Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette as they help Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her Last Fuckable Day as an actress (she’s 55). They talk about that moment where the media decides women are no longer believably fuckable and they recast them as mothers. They give Sally Field as the greatest example, one minute playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, the next his mother in Forrest Gump.

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In many ways, life for a woman is like that movie set. I’m shifting over to the other side, but I didn’t ask to be recast. (I’m not even going to get into why mothers can’t be viewed as ‘fuckable’ – as we know they can, judging by the number of searches for ‘milf’, ‘mom’ and ‘stepmom’ on porn sites. It’s just a lust that dare not speak its name, apparently.)

And so, I know what I have to do. I have to be my mother – that woman striding around in purple suede boots and an eye-catching knitted coat, being clever about everything. I have to channel my looky-likey Julianne Moore (55) who just gets better and better with age, as an actress as well as a woman. The number of role models for me abounds: Robin Wright (49); Cate Blanchett (46); Kylie Minogue (47); Gillian Anderson (47). Well hello, ladies. No cloaks of invisibility there.

As ex-Vogue Editor-in-chief Caroline Roitfeld (56) said, “I can not be in competition with a girl of 20, so I have to be the best in my category.”

Showtime.

 

Changes

I wasn’t going to post anything today but the news about the passing of David Bowie has compelled me to write something.

As for many people mourning today, Bowie’s music has formed the soundtrack of my life. From the first time I was mesmerised by Sound and Vision whilst on a fairground ride in 1977, to my very first gig ten years later, when he descended to the stage from the belly of a spider, this man has captivated me.

That first gig was a brain-changer for me. My sister had bought tickets to the Maine Road gig and in all honesty, at the time I was as excited about the Alison Moyet, Terence Trent D’Arby support acts as I was about seeing Bowie. Until he descended on stage, that is.

I have a perfect memory of him leaning into his mic, singing The Jean Genie. I stood there, rapt. And I remember the ensuing days where I mooned about (it was the summer holidays) unable to concentrate on anything. I knew I’d seen something, someone extraordinary, but wasn’t quite sure how to define it. It seems that was Bowie’s magic.

Fast forward to the ’90s and I was working at Liberty in London, in the central scarf hall. In strides Bowie with his wife, Iman, she clad in head-to-toe black leather, he in an uncharacteristic Barbour jacket. The whole store went quiet. There was a moment of disbelief. I blushed. Bowie laughed. That laugh. The man-god was among us.

It’s not that I listen to Bowie all the time or am such a devoted fan that I own all his albums or know every lyric off by heart. I haven’t even seen Labyrinth – and don’t intend to. There’s just something about my relationship with him that defined an era for me. He woke up a part of my brain in the ’80s that was waiting for something amazing to happen.

The last time I felt this grief-stricken about the passing of a public figure is when Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the magical realist novelist, died. Again, I’m not an uber-fan of his, but his Love In the Time of Cholera made my brain start working in a different way and my grief was for the imagination that made that happen.

And so now we say goodbye to Bowie. The essence of all that is creative and original – who never delivered anything that was expected of him.

I’m going to strut down the road, listening to Heroes, smiling at the thought that this south London boy changed the face of popular music forever, and constantly reinvented it.

There’ll never be another one.

 

So Lonely

I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s The Age of Loneliness on iPlayer – it’s a really poignant documentary featuring interviews with a range of people of all ages from 19 to 90, who are prepared to admit that they are lonely.

I sat there listening to the stories of 70 and 90-year-olds still yearning for the company of their spouses – one keeps his wife’s ashes in a bag on the chair next to him – and thinking about my own mother’s story. Her husband died when she was my age, and her life pretty much folded. By choice.

Her friends reached out to her, tried to involve her in social events, but she removed herself from them. She went so far as to move us all to a little bungalow on a hill above the town, and kept herself to herself for another twenty years. This is not, as you may have guessed, going to be a template for my next twenty years…

What struck me about the programme was how many people were conditioned to only consider a life alongside a wing-person. The thought of living without a ‘significant other’ was leading some of them to suicidal thoughts. They admitted to not liking their own company and not being able to even think of a future without a ‘pal’ (but by ‘pal’ they meant a relationship partner).

I’ve gone there. I’ve thought about that. I’ve been thinking it for a while and the words ‘my romantic life is over’ have been going around in my head for a few years. At first, in a horrifying way, and more recently in a much more accepting way.

And it’s ok. I don’t need a wingman (or a wingwoman for that matter). It’s quite a liberating moment in your life.

Last year I listened to the incredible Kim Cattrall talking in a positive way about her romantic life being ‘retired’ and almost cheered as she went on to tell BBC Woman’s Hour how this wasn’t a negative thing, and about all the people and things she had going on in her life. I’d already been working my way towards that position myself, but here was a woman, admittedly a decade older than me, but describing my current views on how to live life.

Contrasting with that, BBC Woman’s Hour broadcast a new-year programme, in which a lovely woman called Edwina phoned in and talked about the loneliness she felt after losing her husband. She burst into tears during the call and cried out the words, “I lost my husband!” and all of us listeners’ hearts broke for her. I was on the Overground with tears in my eyes.

But my next thought was less sympathetic. I found myself thinking it was a shame that Edwina had only lived life as her husband’s Siamese twin and had expected that to go on ad infinitum. There appears to be a generation of women that can’t cope when their husbands leave them or die before them (and statistically women outlive men). My mother was one of them.

Last night I went to see The Danish Girl alone. I’d been shopping all day, had my hair done, then took myself for a quick prosecco in a central London bar before realising I was due at the cinema within the hour. I posted on Facebook about the movie and immediately women of my age were responding saying they’d love to go, but they couldn’t find anyone to go with them. Going solo is now so normalised for me, I still find it surprising when people are so worried about doing it.

Consider this. It’s never a case that people are staring at you when you’re doing things on your own, thinking you’re weird – it’s you, staring at yourself thinking you’re weird. Once you stop looking at yourself in that way, the demons will take flight and you’ll be standing there laughing, wondering how you could’ve been so daft about it. People will talk to you, smile at you, admire you, even buy you a drink.

If you can get you to smile at yourself, admire yourself and buy yourself a drink, even better. I’m a Kim, not an Edwina. And I’m not moving to a remote hilltop to live like a hermit any time soon.

 

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It’s that time of year when I remember the Best Christmas of All. I think it’s a composite Christmas, a combined memory of Christmases in the mid-late ’70s, when I was eight or nine. Maybe that’s the age of peak Christmas, where you still believe the magic and everything is tinted with the multi-coloured glow of Quality Street wrappers.

My house was a hive of activity – my dad loved to organise parties and liked to make drinks for people from his cabinet. We had a succession of visits from friends and extended family and I loved the surprise element of it all: aunties, uncles, cousins, mince pies, ginger ale (for me) and copious trays of nuts you had to crack open, and Quality Street. That’s what Christmas was made of, back then. And the legendary Boxing Day party at the house, where my duty was snack-serving and observing drunken behaviour without really knowing what it was.

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Classic ’70s-style tree from Dreamstime

And oh, the sights and sounds. The huge, real tree, in reality far too big for the living room, with the classic ’70s frosted baubles and multi-coloured lights that always needed about twenty bulb changes to get them going. I was probably a huge health and safety hazard but my favourite thing to do was to wriggle on my back under the lower boughs of the tree and look up through the branches at the lights. I’d blur my eyes to make the image even more magical. To me, everything was still magical.

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Classic ’70s-style lights from Laurel Leaf Farm

My mum had told me the truth about Father Christmas by the time I was eight. It was a lovely, very Catholic explanation, that allowed me to hang on to a bit of the magic. I was told that he wouldn’t *actually* come down the chimney any more (even though we had gas central heating and there was no chimney I went with it) but his spirit would enter the house just the same. If  anything, I got more into Father Christmas at that point (never ‘Santa’ in our house).

Everything contributed to the magic. My advent calendar, pre-chocolate, was a beautifully illustrated nativity scene which ended with the doors to the stable opening to reveal Mary, Joseph and Jesus inside. I couldn’t wait for that moment. I studied the scene intently: the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, the wise men – everyone was there, or behind the doors. I read the St Luke Gospel, with its classic nativity narration, and loved the story of the holy family finding shelter in the stable.

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My calendar was a bit like this vintage one from 32 North

It will come as no surprise that I was *always* the narrating angel in the school nativity play. Always the narrating angel, never the virginal mother. Seems my life has turned out that way. I was the one that had to stand front-of-stage throughout the whole thing, arms crossed over my chest, quoting bits of St Luke while god knows what went on behind me. One year I had to sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ on my own and my mum told me I was ‘flat’ afterwards. She was a trained soprano. Thanks Mum – no one realised I was actually an alto at the time.

I *loved* getting into that angel costume. It was the wings and tinsel headdress that did it. And the makeup! At my primary school we also got a visit from Father Christmas, who’d give us presents from his sack. I distinctly remember getting a selection box featuring a chocolate gun, packet of cigarettes and a cigar. And a lighter. Ah the ’70s.

I was lucky in that my dad was a local councillor and ended up being Chairman of the town. I accompanied him, with mum, to switch on the town lights one year (I need to dig that photo out). He also used to run the Rotary Club Christmas float and dress up as Father Christmas to fling sweets out of the back of it. My sister was commissioned to paint the sides of the float with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I was so proud when that float went round our estate and I followed it round with the other kids, boasting.

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On the day itself, my dad started proceedings by cranking up the record player with his Mantovani ‘Christmas Bells‘ album. I loved its gaudy cover. Then my mum would shout upstairs (for some reason our kitchen was below the lounge) and ask for Jonny Mathis, especially ‘When a Child Is Born‘. My mum spent most of Christmas in that kitchen, not her natural habitat, shrouded in pressure-cooker steam and never more than a foot away from a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, that my dad kept topped up.

I remember one distinct Christmas where I was captivated by Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, and I still am. The glorious Prokofiev Troika sample track is still one of my favourite classical pieces. I used to alternate When a Child is Born with Greg Lake, and stare out of the lounge window into the darkness of the evening, imagining indistinct Christmassy things. I had Lake’s ‘eyes full of tinsel and fire’. (I also think it’s why I love Dr Zhivago so much).

A year later, and my dad died, taking with him almost all of the family traditions and pretty much my belief in magical things. It would be a few years before I dropped Catholicism and religion completely. Like Father Christmas, I believed Dad’s spirit still visited the house, but was less convinced of that in the end. All I could think about was how he’d been the one who’d eaten the mince pies and the whisky I laid out on Christmas Eve, and somehow it was ok to believe that he sort of did it *for* Father Christmas. They were almost the same person in my mind, given that Dad was wont to impersonate him from time-to-time for the Rotary Club.

So there it was, crystallised forever, the Best Christmas of All. I feel very lucky to have had one like this at all, and think about it every year when I put up my own tree. It’s partly a homage to those days, but without the sprawling mess of paper and random gifts all over the living-room floor that my mum used to get me to help her with.

Did anyone ever use their Imperial Leather box set with soap and flannel, or the Old Spice talc and socks? Or the cuddly bunny holding a bottle of Charlie perfume? Probably not. But no one cared about that. It was all part of the big old magical mess that is Christmas.

However you’re spending it, I hope you are with the people you want to be with, in the place you call home.

Happy Christmas, one and all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to My Social Media Stalker

Dear R

You may not have realised that sending multiple messages to both my blog Facebook pages, citing tweets I’d posted, was a stalkerish thing to do, resulting in me blocking you on both platforms. You may not have realised that beginning your message with ‘Peekaboo Lisa’ was in any way frightening, but I’m telling you that it was.

The fact that you have now left a letter at my hotel is a step too far, buddy, so please keep your distance. I have my own friends in Dahab and I don’t need your ‘help’ to experience the town. If anything, I might have to call on their ‘help’ to keep you away.

I am finding it highly ironic that I have nothing to fear from my Egyptian male friends, but the one British guy that decides to get in touch seems to think I might be on a pleasure-seeking trip involving him.

I’m not. My pleasure is sorted, thanks.

Now fuck off. In the nicest possible way.