Virginia Ironside – The Oldie – October 2016
If I’m honest I’m quite relieved to be free of those macho men who used to stride the streets, spanners in hand, booming “Stop blubbing!” and “Pull yourself together!” at every opportunity. I never liked them. So it’s quite a relief to encounter metrosexual blokes under the age of forty who are genial househusbands with an interest in emotions and the arts.
But blokes apart, is everything becoming too (and excuse me here if I sound like one of those macho blokes I detest) “wet”?
When I’m asked how I like my tea and I answer “With milk, please” I am talking, preferably, about full-fat gold-top stuff that the tom-tits used to be addicted to when it arrived on our doorsteps. Failing that, blue-topped stuff at the very least, a feeble imitation of the real thing as it is. But when someone pours any milk from a carton with a green top into my tea it’s just not the same. By the time I’ve got enough “milk” into my tea to change its colour, the tea’s gone cold. As for red top, increasingly popular, well you might as well have your tea neat for all the difference that makes.
It’s the same when you go an Indian restaurant. There’s always someone who says: “But I don’t want mine too spicy, please” and you can practically hear the poor waiter saying to himself, under his breath: “Well, why do you come to an Indian restaurant then, madam?” But no, he pulls himself together and recommends some grey sludge, awash with coconut milk and cardamom, something more like a nineteenth century convalescent’s breakfast than a curry. It’s impossible to go for an Indian and share the dishes because there’s always someone who balks at your order of the Chicken Vindaloo. So you’re always reduced to the Lamb Tikka at which everyone else gets out their hankies and bulges their eyes and refuses to eat more than a fraction because it’s “too spicy for me.”
Opinions seem to be out, too.
“But is it any good?” I asked a friend about a recent best-seller.
“The premise is quite interesting,” she said. “And there’s some good writing in it.”
“But is it enjoyable? Is it a page-turner?” I asked.
“”It’s a bit long,” she mused. “But then I suppose it would have to be. And I wasn’t really sure about the twist at the end. But there are some marvellous descriptions.”
“But was it a thumping good read that I should download this minute?” I asked, starting to boil with rage. “Did you like it?”
She shook her head sorrowfully. “Hmm,” she said. “Put it like this – I’m glad I read it anyway.”
Recently I was bullied into having a Pilates teacher round to my house to get myself slightly fitter than I am now. Naturally the first thing she recommended was “gentle exercise” and the second thing that happened was that I’d shown her the door. If I want to get fit, thank you, I want to get fit. I want some bang for my bucks. The words “gentle” and “exercise” do not fit into the same sentence. And trying to get thin black tights in summer is an imposisblity. They only sell a hopeless olour called “Nearly black” Nearly!
And a few years ago I was having an argument with an editor over the background colour to my book jacket. It was, in its present design, magnolia, a colour that should never have been invented.
“What about beige?” she suggested. “Would that be any better?”
“No, I want something strong that will make it stand out,” I said. “Bright blue, scarlet, livid green…”
“Hmmm… grey?” she said.
“I know!” said the designer. “Greige! That’s a lovely new colour!”
Greige turns out to be a new colour of such total wishy-washiness, so infused that it is with lack of spine, a white noise of a colour, that it actually makes beige look quite saucy.
By now my face was puce – rather a good colour for a book jacket, actually. But before I completely lost it, they assured they would go away and have another think.
A few days later, my editor rang me, her voice ringing with optimism.
“We’ve cracked it, Virginia!” she said. “The jacket looks wonderful and the marketing people and the sales force are over the moon. You were quite right – magnolia is hopeless. We know you’ll love this new version!”
“What colour is it?” I asked, hopefully.
“Mushroom!” she said triumphantly.
And of course the book barely covered its costs.
Virginia Ironside – The Oldie – September 2016
I love modern technology. But what pitfalls lie in wait for the unwary! And worst by far is when, having pressed Send, an iron octopus grabs your heart as you realise you’ve sent something that you cannot unsend. Something terrible. Something that may destroy a friendship and ruin the rest of your life. The beads of sweat start from your forehead like acne on a teenager’s skin, your face becomes the colour of old net curtains, and your lips are ashen. Not that you can move them because your mouth has suddenly become so dry that you need to use your fingers to separate them from your teeth.
A sudden thunderstorm? No, it’s not rain on the roof but the hammering of your accelerated heartbeat. Your entire body feels as if someone has swiftly and skilfully removed all the bones.
It first happened when a very sweet new friend had offered me a picture by Anna Kavan, an author that I was particularly keen on. There weren’t many of her drawings around, and his offer had transported me with its generosity. I just couldn’t wait to see it. He was coming round with it at 6.00 the following evening.
However, so keen was I to get my hands on this picture that I’d double-dated. So I emailed the other appointment. “Can’t make it after all. But I’m sure you understand because I’ve been offered a picture by Anna Kavan and I’m desperate to get it. So rather than wait till next week, I’ve arranged for the lovely donor to drop it in tomorrow and daren’t put him off in case he drops dead in the meantime.”
There was no prospect of him dropping dead. He was barely older than me. I’d just written those words to emphasise the intensity of my longing for the picture.
I pressed Send. And I sent it to the person who was making me the gift.
He was so gracious about it, and faintly amused (or pretended to be) that, when a similar thing happened to me, the other way round, how could I not behave in the same way?
I’d been writing a rather a sleazy piece for a newspaper about a minor celeb called, let’s say, Terri, and the commissioning editor had promised to send me some additional material to spin it out. She duly did – but when I scrolled down, I found she hadn’t erased the email she’d sent asking for it.
This email read: “God this day is an effing nightmare! Can you send me what you’ve got on Terri? I now have to send it to 94-year-old Virginia Ironside to pad out what I can only describe as the tackiest piece of ‘journalism’ ever.”
Bit of a blow, of course, but remembering how decently my friend had behaved over the email about the picture, I decided to be gracious in my turn. “Quite agree about the tackiness of the journalism,” I wrote, “but must point out I’m not yet 94!”
I got a grovelling phone call, effusive compliments about the piece, and, later, a huge bunch of flowers thanking me for my “sagacity and sanity” concerning the gaffe. Not words, I have to say, that I’d apply to anyone under the age of fifty, but still.
The latest horror was of a slightly different ilk. My neighbour across the road, just back from a tour of Africa, came racing over the road in a panic. “I can’t apologise enough!” she cried. “Someone’s hacked into my Facebook account while I’ve been away!”
“How awful!” I said, mildly concerned.
“No, but it’s about you!” she said. “They’ve posted: ‘Just got back this morning from Africa to find my dear other half in bed with Virginia across the road. The marriage is over and I’m moving out!” Already her old nanny and five old friends from all round the world had emailed their condolences.
She instantly denied it, but when her burglar alarm went off at midnight recently, and she, being away, couldn’t raise her sleeping husband, she advised me to sneak over in my dressing gown using the spare key to turn it off.
As I was creeping out, I bumped into one of their teenage children, returning from a party. I tried to explain, but I don’t think I can live this one down.
I love the Internet, but what a minefield!
Virginia Ironside – The Oldie – August 2016
When I announce I am going to drive miles to do my show, everyone puts their heads in their hands. “Why drive,” they argue, “when you could get a train?”
“I’m not very keen on trains,” I reply, remembering, usually, my last journey beset with screaming children, people roaring into their mobile phones, unflushable loos and a buffet car that appears to have run out of anything to eat before the train has left the station.
But this time the journey to Cockermouth, where I was headed, in the Lake District, from London, did seem a bit of a stretch even for a seasoned driver like me, so I booked a train to Penrith (change at Preston), where I’d be collected.
The show was scheduled for Sunday evening, so I boarded the train at Euston at lunchtime and settled in with my crossword puzzle for a few hours of happy immobility.
Not for long, however. “Ladies and gentlemen,” announced a voice, brimming, it seemed with pleasure. “I have to announce that due to a person on the line, this train has been diverted, resulting in our arriving at Preston half an hour late. We apologise for any inconvenience.”
The passenger opposite me shook his head. “These jumpers they always do it on Sundays” he said. “I knew it.”
It appears that despite changes in shopping laws and the fact that Sundays are just as buzzy as any other day, suicides still find the ancient Sunday gloom seeping in on the seventh day. Hence more suicides on Sunday.
Arriving at Preston late, we’d missed our connection so had to experience the most hated phrase in the English language (apart from “And now – Moneybox Live!” Or “It’s The Neeeow Show!”) which is “Replacement buses will be available.”
Maybe they were, but where? “Bus Stop C,” said one official. “No, that’s for Glasgow. Penrith. Try Bus Stop B. No, that’s been cancelled,” said another. On and on it went until, after half an hour in the pouring rain, my phone battery running out and the Cockermouth stage manager starting to have kittens, the replacement bus arrived and off we set along the motorway. But after only twenty minutes came another announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a smug voice proclaimed. “We have to announce the brakes have failed. We will be drawing in to the hard shoulder so please disembark and climb over the motorway barrier and wait on the verge.”
Which found us wretched group, huddled in the fading light, as the lorries whizzed by, like a bunch of illegal immigrants dumped by a truck to find our own way home.
Well, eventually I made it to Cockermouth (don’t ask) late, frantic and miserable, did the show and then sank into my B and B bed, relieved that at least I had booked a through train home from Penrith the next day.
I was picked up in the morning by a nice lady from the theatre and delivered to Penrith station where I found the train cancelled. A derailment.
“No replacement buses!” said the man from Virgin cheerfully. “We’ll be getting you into taxis as soon as we can.”
At this point I started crying, but after an hour – and a lot of complaining – found myself in a taxi to Preston.
Disembarking at Preston I asked another Virgin official where the train to London was. “Just missed the last one,” he said, cheerfully. Next on Platform 6. Three o’clock”
“Do you think I’ll get a seat on it?” I asked.
And this was the final straw.
“I can answer questions,” he said pompously, “to which I know the answer. Next train platform six, leaves at 3. But you asked me another question to which I do not know the answer. Will you get a seat? Madam, I have no idea whether you will get a seat or not. Do not ask me questions to which I do not know the answer.”
Well, I did get a seat and this train was delayed only half an hour. I had a kip on it, exhausted with panic exposure and misery. I used my handbag as a pillow. Just as I was about to catch a taxi home, I realised I had dropped my address book on the train. Rushing back to the platform I found it had departed. The Lost Property Office declared they had not found an address book for years. And the Virgin telephone number for Lost property told me that its mailbox was full.
I don’t think I shall ever leave home again except in a car.
Virginia Ironside – The Oldie – July 2016
Ever since I went on holiday with the old Labour leader, Michael Foot, I have been wary of Jonathan Swift. Foot was obsessed with Swift, to the point where his late nephew, Oliver, would warn strangers in his presence not to mention satire or 17th Century writers if they wanted to spend a happy evening in his uncle’s company. I was once foolish enough to mention how quickly I had had to run for a bus that day only to have Michael reply, (with his eyes closed as if delving into a buried memory) “Quickly, eh? Perhaps swiftly? Which reminds me…” and we were in for an hour’s lecture.
But I overcame my anxiety recently when a friend pointed me towards a series of Resolutions for When I Become Old written by Swift when he was only 32.
When I have people to dinner I would like to read several of these Resolutions out loud before we start to prevent the terrible elderly conversational tramlines that some of my generation seem to have become trapped in.
The first resolution is not to Marry a young Woman. Well, yes, while it’s nice to have someone young and fit to look after you when you become old and doddery, young wives or toyboys can be a bit of a drag on the company when everyone else is old. “Andy Pandy?” they say, staring round, beautifully but baffledly, “who was he?” Or “How much was a shilling?” Or smiling politely when everyone else is hooting with laughter about the antics of Dave, Dee, Beaky, Mick and Titch.
Next is “Not to Keep Young Company unless they really desire it.” It’s difficult, isn’t it, when you’re old, not to be drawn to young people like a magnet. They’re so fresh and enthusiastic and, well, attractive. But we must remember those predatory old females who snuck around when we were young, trapping us as they placed be-ringed hands on our knees, hands misshapen with rivers of veins and arthritis fingers. They’d stare into our faces and breathe, through yellowed teeth, “I do love young people! Do tell me all about yourself!”
Swift’s next commandment was “Do not Be peevish or morose or suspicious” Followed by “Do not Scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War etc.”
I could have shouted that at the last person who came to supper who announced that he wished to discuss two things that evening. The first was why all London’ buildings were being erased by hideous modern blocks of luxury flats that would be bought by absent Russian oligarch landlords; and the second was since we were all a mix of genders anyway, why anyone should make a fuss of being trans, cis, bi or homo. I just wanted to say: “Your job, when you come round here for a delicious supper cooked painstakingly by me, is not to rant, but to amuse, inspire and charm! If you can’t do that, I’ll just pop everything in the freezer and you can go home!”
Swift’s other injunctions are “Not to be fond of Children” by which I hope he meant “fond” in the paedophile sense rather than the good parental sense. Then there was “Not to Neglect Decency, or cleanliness for fear of falling into Nastiness” – nastiness being something that none of us should wish to fall into. Young people can look great in filthy old binbags but the older person with a stain on her skirt or tie looks like a bag lady or a tramp. Swift also advised “Not to Tell the same Story over and over to the same People”, and “Not to Boast of my former Beauty or Strength or favour with Ladies.” Most of my friends can conceal boasting about their successes with ladies (not many of them having had much) but occasionally I’ll hear “When I was director of Sotheby’s” or “When I was discussing this with Brezhnev” and I hear a failing ego trying to prop itself up. (I have to say I’m guilty of this myself, even though my past exploits are not particularly interesting).
Swift forgot just one resolution. Not to take centre stage and bang on about a topic to the exclusion of all else. Only a decree like that from his hero could have made Michael Foot shut up.
Virginia Ironside – The Oldie – June 2016
There’s usually one to be found in every street these days. No, I don’t mean drug-dealers. I mean nutters.
Before anyone objects to my use of the word “nutters” I include myself in this category having spent two longish periods in the Priory during my long life, but these particular local nutters are slightly different. Perfectly nice, as far as anyone knows, their nuttiness exhibits itself only when they catch your eye in the street. Fatal. With a messianic stare, they make certain you can’t pass, pin you to a wall with a beady eye, and start ranting on, sometimes for hours.
Our particular nutter usually starts off pleasantly enough, commenting on the weather or the state of a local services, but before you can politely escape he then gets down to business. Which is to bore you rigid while terrifying the daylights out of you (funny how these people are capable of doing both at the same time) by insisting you listen to their conspiracy theories.
Way back it was all about how a man on a grassy knoll had shot JF Kennedy. The next time I met the nutter, he was banging on about fluoride in the drinking water and insisting we drink bottled water or risk having our brains fried.
A couple of winters ago, he rushed up to me warning me about the ‘flu jab. “You haven’t had it, have you?” he said. “You know that they’ve slipped something extra into that injection – it means first they’ll be able to read your mind, and second that you will drop dead at a time of they’re choice.”
I made the great mistake of asking who “they” might be, and he explained, as if to an idiot, that we are not governed by Parliament but, rather, a cabal of Jewish businessmen who meet every few months. They call themselves the Bilderberg Group and they are immensely frightening. Some of them, he explained, are not Jewish at all, but actually lizards from outer space who have disguised themselves as human beings. The Duke of Edinburgh was definitely one, as was George Osborne, Putin and, naturally Donald Trump,
A long time ago he’d explained his theory about the Twin Towers, arguing that the buildings had been constructed to make an aeroplane attack impossible. They could only have fallen in the way they did had a bomb or bombs been placed at ground level. Oh, and he said the moon landings had been staged in Pinewood. Never happened.
I learned, of course, to dodge him whenever I spotted him. I ran to the opposite side of the street, clapped my hand to my forehead as if I’d forgotten something, and turned on my heel as if whatever I’d forgotten was incredibly urgent. That way I managed to avoid him for six months. But he was too clever for me. One day I was sitting at home minding my own business when there was a ring at the bell and there he was. He’d been thinking there was something I “ought to know”. Holograms of armed forces and aeroplanes were being constructed, he told me, and they would soon be released and not to be frightened of them because they would not be real. “They want to scare us into submission so the drug companies can make more and more money and control our minds,” he said. And did I know, he added, that the earth is actually hollow?
I’ve managed to escape him for the past year, but yesterday I was trapped. He was waiting for me behind a bush and leapt out as I entered my house.
“I just wanted to apologise,” he said, “for boring you stiff with all those stupid conspiracy theories. You must have thought I was a complete nutter!”
Letting my guard down, I gave a sigh of relief.
“Not at all!” I replied kindly. “It was all interesting stuff, whatever…”
“You see,” he said, in a whisper and thrusting his face close to mine “I have discovered that these conspiracy theories are all rubbish. They were all put out by the government to frighten us! “
“How fascinating!” I gushed, as I raced into the house and then peered nervously out at him from behind my front door. “I shall certainly bear that in mind! Must rush!”
Virginia Ironside – The Oldie – May 2016
I was in hospital recently (sometimes I think I spend more time these days in hospitals or doctors’ surgeries than at home) having a spur shaved off my shoulder joint. Apparently when you age, and your cartilage disappears, as mine has, your bones start behaving rather like a two year-old trying to “help” in the kitchen when you’re cooking. As you are busy zesting the oranges and slicing them up, the two-year-old is busy “helping” by “washing up” the specially-made syrup you prepared and contributing a pudding or her own consisting of cat food mixed with earth.
The motive is excellent, but the result disastrous. In my case, the bone was trying to help by kindly growing a little spur, a spur that caught on a tendon every time I reached for a mug on the top shelf. “No cartilage, mummy!” it was saying, “but don’t worry, look what I done! I made you this speshul spur!”
At least that is how I think it works. I may of course be quite wrong and my shoulder surgeon may be reading this with his hand to his forehead in horror at my cack-handed description of this delicate condition and operation.
But back to hospitals. What I hate about them is how they make me feel so, to use current jargon, disempowered.
“Do not have anything to eat or drink after 7.30” ordered the booklet called “Admission to the Hospital”. And yet I found myself, eating and drinking up to eight o’clock, cackling the while, just to feel I was getting my own back at the hospital dictators. And before I left for the hospital, at ten o’clock, I couldn’t resist a tiny sip of water. Just to spite them.
Naturally I had smuggled in some painkillers and sleeping pills just in case they weren’t forthcoming and filled the bottles with cotton wool to stop them rattling.
I tried to refuse the white anti DVT stockings but this nurse was stronger than most and declared that they simply wouldn’t carry out the operation if I didn’t look like a refugee from the opera Pagliacci. I declared that it would be impossible for me to sleep with my legs bound in tight elastic stockings. She said that we would see about that later. Round one to her.
But when, later, she refused to give me anything to eat until I’d properly come round, I told her very politely and firmly that I would starve unless I had a hot meal right that minute. And, later, when she insisted I had to wear the garment that poses as a nightdress, which does up at the back, to sleep in, I drew the line and though I didn’t actually scweem and scweem and scweem till I made myself sick it was clear that I was prepared to go to any lengths to get my way. With a tense smile she allowed me my nightdress. Round two to me.
The moment she left the room with a firm “goodnight” was the moment I lowered my legs from the bed and proceeded with great difficultly using one arm only, to extricate myself from the tortuous stockings.
A hospital bedroom is like a fairground at night. There was a flashing green light from the emergency drug cupboard that lit up the whole rom every second; there was a curious coil of plastic that let off an eerie blue light; the light from the handset glared up at the ceiling, and the door had slots inserted in the window so that nurses could peer in at night. Swiftly, I covered everything up, and, jamming my discarded hospital nightdress into the top of the bedroom door, managed to construct a curtain to make myself invisible from any prying eyes in the small hours.
And, despite the fact I’d already received a sleeping pill, I couldn’t resist adding a Solpadeine of my own secretly extricated from its noiseless cotton-wool swaddling. Just to show them.
I am 72 years old. I am ridiculous. And yet these small victories meant so much to me as I lay there in the darkness, listening to the beeps and shouts from outside my room. To them, I might simply be the old arthritic female patient in Room 146. But really I am, I thought, not just a human being but a seditionist, a traitor and, dammit, something of a revolutionary.
Granny Annexe April 2016
Followers of this column will, I hope forgive me for returning to the subject of the charming bank manager who, when I confided to him a couple of months ago that I was going mad, recommended mindfulness. When he’d been going through a rough patch it had worked wonders for him, he’d said. And look at him now.
Since he’d failed to be in touch with a date for our next meeting, I looked back on his past emails and was stopped in my tracks. The email he had written to me six months previously featured a photograph underneath his name. And this picture was of a woman.
I checked. According to a site called Indian Girl’s Names his – or was it her – name – was definitely female. So I wrote him an email. “Can you give me a date for our meeting?” I wrote. “And by the way, I’m a bit confused because when I came to see you, you were a man, but I see from your last email to me, that you appear to be a woman. Who am I coming to see?”
Of course, the moment I’d pressed “send” I was in a turmoil. He obviously was one of the many people we read about who’d had a sex change. He was transgender. Or sis-gender. (I thought this was “sis-gender” as opposed to “bro-gender”, but have just discovered it is “Cisgender”… woops, another booboo) Or transsexual. Or transvestite. Or transperson. I’d committed a gender faux pas. I would be subject to a twitter storm as bad as that suffered by poor Germaine Greer when she dared to suggest that a man was always basically and genetically a man, whether he’d had a sex-change or not.
I would be drummed out of town. If I ever bumped into Grayson Perry at a party he would shun me. The editor of the Oldie would say, as he asked for my resignation, that I had Gone Too Far.
Then I thought that it was unlikely that the bank would countenance one of its staff, however justifiably trans, outing one of its clients as a died-in-the wool sexual stick-in-the-mud, so I crossed my fingers. When I received a reply to my email my bank manager’s reply was gnomic. “The person you are coming to see will be me,” he – or was it she? – wrote. Then I felt even worse. How trivial I was to worry about my bank manager’s sex. Essentially we are all just pure souls. Om, and so on. Om and om and om.
However, I was nervous as I waited for my eventual appointment at the bank. Perhaps it had been a woman dressed up as a bloke that I’d seen and I hadn’t caught on? And no wonder he or she had turned to mindfulness. He or she had been so insecure about his sexuality, that he – or she – had had nowhere to run. His or her family had turfed him out. He or she was alone in the world. And there I’d been, the old blunderer, raking it all up by sending him – or her – uncomfortable emails.
But then he appeared. And this time I was certain it was a he. He had stubble, for God’s sake. And an Adam’s apple. “Why do you have a photograph of a woman under your emails?” I asked, relieved to be able to get it all out in the open. “It seems very odd.”
“Oh, it’s of the person who had my job last,” he said, casually. “I’ve been trying to get them to change it for weeks but you know what IT is like.”
“Do you want me to write to head office and complain?” I suggested. “It’s very confusing for your customers” “Oh no,” he replied airily. “Don’t bother. You know how it is. Just human error. Yes, just human error.”
Little did he know what effect his words had on me. Human error? In a bank?
Suddenly I realised I’d have been much happier if he’d turned out be a raging trans person, furious at my insensitivity at sending him such a blunt email, than to reveal that his bank was rife with human error. No wonder he’d been driven to mindfulness. It was the bank that had sent him bonkers, not his sexuality.
Perhaps I should switch to Barclays?
Granny Annexe March 2016
I have a problem with the word “black”. It used to be a rather sinister word, summoning up masters of the dark arts and the shady side. I used to suffer from black moods, and black days were periods in history when villagers got massacred. There was the Black Death and the Black Prince (a man of unimaginable evil) and the black market and black clouds.
Then, about fifty years ago, we all got very nervous about black. It was thought to be a word that we could no longer use because of its racist implications. Brown people could talk about black people, but pink people couldn’t. It was a word best left out of the vocabulary completely.
But then along came a peculiar day called Black Friday. A shiver of fear went down my spine when I read that this was coming and I thought we were heading for a major financial crash, and riots in the streets but no – it turns out to be a day in the States (a day that’s emigrated over here) when everything is on sale! No matter that if you buy too much in a sale you get into the red, the word “black” suddenly denoted “good”. I wouldn’t be surprised if white goods weren’t particularly cheap during Black Friday.
Wisely, I stayed out of the discussion and avoided the word black altogether. The little black dress became, rather wetly, “the little dress”. Not much punch, but at least I wasn’t entering the black minefield. Lucky black cats had to be ignored. Now, you were just fortunate if a cat crossed your path.
Imagine my horror, however, when my bank, which shall be nameless, suddenly wrote to me a couple of months ago to tell me that for some reason, known only to themselves, they were stopping my Gold Card and offering me, instead, a Black Card!
Had I been so dreadfully profligate that I deserved this frightful demotion? It all reminded me of Treasure Island Days when Long John Silver was handed the dreaded Black Spot not only to denote his guilt but also to predict his imminent death.
But Treasure Island days were far from the mind of the chirpy Private Bank Manager who I insisted on seeing to discuss the terrible news of my transition from Gold to Black. First I was furious because snitching my Gold Card from me means I have to spend about three days altering all my bank details on Amazon, PayPal, parking, you name it I’ve logged it.
“Why couldn’t you have just phased it out so old people like me would not have had to go through this trauma?” I asked tearfully. “I have enough on my plate with all my friends dying without getting emails from all the companies I’ve forgotten to notify telling me that my purchases have failed to go through!”
“I only have ten people left in my clientele who have Gold Cards any more,” said the bank manager, as if we were talking about something as old as FM Radio or paper tax discs.
“But don’t you realise, those ten people are old, and probably depressed like me!” I wailed. “And now you’ve given me a Black Card! What have I done wrong?”
“Black Cards are not bad cards,” he explained, smiling reassuringly. “On the contrary, they are special cards with special benefits. I have never heard of this Black Spot you talk of. Robert Louis Stevenson is certainly not one of my clients, though perhaps it’s indiscreet of me to reveal his banking habits. But I can assure you, you are not going to die.”
“I can’t cope with all this change,” I groaned. “I want to kill myself”
“There, there,” he said. “I, too have felt like you in the past. And may I tell you the secret of my ability to transcend such problems?”
I nodded, but fearfully, because I half knew what he was going to say. “Mindfulness,” he said. “It is quite brilliant. You see how calm I am in the face of your accusations and distress? It’s all due to mindfulness.”
He clearly had not read my views on mindfulness. And so, touched by his not only confiding in me about his problems, but also sharing his cure, I decided not to hand him the Black Spot after all.
Though God knows he and his beastly bank, deserve it.
Granny Annexe February 2016
When my rheumatologist referred me to what he described as a “pain man” I assumed that I was going to a man who would reduce my pain. I had an agonising trapped nerve in my neck and an agonising trapped nerve at the base of my spine and despite vast quantities of Valium, di-hydrocodeine and paracetamol, nothing worked. I’d got a neck support, a lumbar support, I placed rolled-up towels under my neck and my body was covered with so many heat pads I felt as if I were being barbecued. I did daily exercises but the pain persisted.
On top of this I was severely depressed due to various personal problems and a propensity, as they say, to chronic gloom.
When I got to the pain man, I was desperate.
He called my name but by the time I got to his door – pain made me walk very slowly – it had been slammed shut. I knocked nervously.
“I’m with a patient!” came the angry response
“But I’m your patient!” I ventured, timidly.
He opened the door in a glowering rage. He looked from me to the woman who was sitting in the chair opposite his desk.
“So who’s Virginia Ironside?” he barked.
“I am,” I said, through my tears. And the other woman slunk from the room.,
“I would have found out soon enough,” he said with a grim attempt at a smile. “Now I can see we have a complex case here. But I don’t want to hear anything from you. We’ve only got half an hour to sort you out” (Bupa was kindly paying him £250) “and I’ll ask the questions, if you don’t mind.
“First. On a scale of one to ten could you describe how painful are a) your shoulders b) your back c) your knees and d) your feet.”
“Could I just explain…”
He drummed his fingers as he stared at the MRI scan of my spine.
“I’m not sure I should show you this,” he said, turning the screen towards me and revealing a hideously deformed set of vertebrae, “but it seems to me inconceivable you don’t have thoracic pain as well. Do you?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, starting to cry.
“Between the shoulder blades. Well, if not now, certainly later,” he said.
“My GP suggested amitriptyline as an anti-depressant and muscle and nerve pain killer so I wondered what you..”
“Good on the muscle and nerve pain. Rubbish as an anti-depressant,” he barked.
Hadn’t he heard of the placebo effect? Apparently not.
“I’m referring you to my team,” he said. “Dr. X for physio and Dr. Y for psychological management – CBT, visualisation etc. If that doesn’t work, cortisone injections and operations on your spine.”
He waved me out.
I came out worse than I went in. Tears were pouring down my cheeks. I know all about CBT and often use it myself. As a writer, I’ve tried imagining myself on a beach when I feel low, and it just makes me feel miserable on a beach.
Pain men? Is it relieving pain they get off on, or is it pain itself? The last one I’d gone to had suggested I try a cream which contains chilli on the grounds that the pain of the chilli masks the pain of the original pain. Another £250 down the drain.
After going home and not going out for a week, unable even to get dressed I felt so despairing, I made an appointment to see a cranial osteopath.
I know. No scientific proof, might as well juggle ping pong balls, but many swore by her.
From the moment she bestowed on me a dazzling and sympathetic smile, I knew this would be a different experience. She asked me a few questions, made me lie down, put her hands under my back and declared: “But of course you’re in pain! You’re in shock! And you’re absolutely exhausted! Let’s sort you out and then you can worry about cortisone injections of operations if you still hurt. Oh, poor old you! You have been in the wars!”
I came out feeling as if I were dancing on air. All pain had lessened and I could smile at last. It may all be in my mind, but what a difference kindness makes!
What is it about doctors? Or is it just me?
Granny Annexe January 2016
When my son was small we had cats, tropical fish, and gerbils. I repressed my natural antipathy to caged animals, and we went up to an industrial estate in the suburbs to buy about 30 large Coke bottles to construct a run for the gerbils all around the walls. Unfortunately, not only did they run around it, but also pooed in it, which meant that the structure had to be dismantled to give it a clean. As this was a major operation, we only did it every three months or so, so the smell was terrible. Poor gerbils.
I just don’t know about pets. My grandson has had fish, a stick insect and a corn snake (now vanished under the floorboards) and there’s a general feeling of “No more caged animals in our house!”
I’m afraid I feel a bit the same about any pet, even uncaged ones. Oh, the guilt I used to feel when I left my cat alone at home! “He can look after himself!” a friend said. But could he? He was disturbingly pleased when I returned home. As for dogs, is it really right to pull one along, bound by a neck collar and chain? Isn’t it a form of slavery? Aren’t these poor animals only bred to depend completely on us, to give us unconditional love and, after hours of becoming frantic with anxiety when they’re left on their own, a huge welcome welcome when we return?
There was a recent report that revealed that pet cats feel just the same anxieties as caged lions. “Neurotic wrecks” is how they were described. They are “anxious and non-self-assured” and, because of their territorial instincts, would prefer to take over the whole house and boot you out. They may seem contented and in charge, but actually inside they are gibbering wrecks.
Until a few years ago, I always had cats. I’ve even written a book on pet bereavement – Goodbye, Dear Friend. My favourite was Bob, a cat with no tail, who descended from a cat owned by Peter Medawar, the great biologist, so it wasn’t surprising to find that Bob was a cat of huge intelligence. As we lived upstairs on the top floor of a crescent, he used occasionally to slip out of the window and visit every neighbouring flat along the continuous ledge. Each morning he sat on the front step, waiting for a little boy who, on his way to school, presented him with a piece of sausage left over from breakfast. We sometimes took him round the block at night on a string, and on one occasion I even discovered him, on opening the lavatory door, sitting on the loo, ears back, and having a very dignified pee.
Once, before my son’s godfather viisited – Peter Black, the one-armed television critic – I warned my son to say nothing about his disability. “He was born like that, just like Bob and his tail,” I said. My son promised he would say nothing. When Peter arrived and asked how the cat had lost its tail, my son replied: “Oh, he was born like that, just like you.”
And yet – another cat? The last one I had brought in bird after bird – birds I’ve now rather grown to love (funny how appealing birds are when you get older, isn’t it? I even have a bird table which I scatter with “special seeds for special breeds” and much good dos it do me since we are overrun by green parquets). I certainly never wanted another cat.
But the problem is that pets can be very seductive, particularly if you live alone, and although I could never actually get a new kitten or buy one, I wouldn’t mind helping one of these poor creatures if it were in need. Taking a break for a lie-down at a dinner party recently with a bad back, a very nice cat came in. She took one look at me, leapt on me, and settled down, staring into my eyes as if we shared a hidden secret (he probably was wishing me dead so that she could acquire the house, but no matter). And now it turns out that her owner is leaving London for a couple of years and looking or home for her.
Oh dear? Can I reconcile my principles with my longing for a catty companion?
Watch this space.
Granny Annexe Christmas 2015
Have you met anyone over the age of ten who, at the beginning of December, starts rubbing their hands with glee and saying: “Oooh, goodie! Christmas is coming!”?
The older I get, at the very mention of Christmas, the more people put their heads in their hands and wail “Not again!” They complain that Christmas starts earlier and earlier in the year, that it’s no longer called Christmas, it’s the “holiday season” and that Father Christmas himself has been replaced by a commercial creature known as “Santa”. They refuse to send Christmas cards any more, they make pacts with each other not to give each other presents which don’t cost more than a fiver, and they complain about it lasting weeks.
How do I know all this? Because I have been a prime mover in the anti-Christmas movement. And it’s small wonder. My childhood Christmases were always spent visiting my school, hosted by the headmistress, my great aunt Rene. I remember receiving an improving book about Norman architecture two years running. Another year it was a small volume about Italic Script. If they were lucky, my parents might have been given a tin of Assorted Biscuits. My doctor grandfather, a rather creepy old roué who had been struck off for getting his rich patients addicted to drugs, would offer me, bristling with facetious humour, a cigarette, and I, aged six or so, would have to go through the blushing ritual of refusing and hearing everyone laugh.
My sour-faced great aunt would preside over the Christmas lunch – consisting of one small chicken between six, accompanied by over-boiled potatoes and tinned peas – with a large jug of water beside her. That was to ensure that no one became tipsy after the very small glass of sherry they’d been offered in the cold sitting room before lunch. There was never any wine or crackers.
So you see why Christmas has never been one of my high spots. But having read recently that it is possible to decide to be happy I am planning to have a happy day even if it kills me.
Yes, it’s the year that my family go off to spend the day with the “other” family, so I shall be on my own. But I will not let this get me down. I will put up the decorations, despite the fact that my son has ordered me never to climb a ladder again, and that both arms are so arthritic that I cannot reach up above my head to pin up the garlands. And if that ends in tears, I shall spend Christmas in hospital, taking up essential beds needed for more deserving cases.
I will put up garish Christmas lights in front of my house, and laugh it off when the neighbours tell me they can’t sleep because of the glare.
I will send out hundreds of cards and inside I shall insert an honest newsletter – describing the retinal detachment that went so wrong, the anticipated operations for new knees and shoulders, the disastrous run at Edinburgh and the plans for euthanasia.
I will buy extremely expensive presents for all my friends and when they look appalled and say: “Oh, but we only got you a book” and produce the review copy of a misery memoir they’ve been sent at the office, I will smile and say: “Don’t worry! It’s Christmas! A time for giving!”
Granny Annexe December
“It’ll only take fifteen minutes a day,” said the rheumatologist as he explained how to do exercises to strengthen my shoulders and knees.
“It shouldn’t take you longer than twenty minutes a day,” said the physiotherapist as she outlined a plan of stretching exercises to keep me limber.
“These balancing exercises shouldn’t take longer than five minutes day,” my osteopath advised me.
And now they tell me I’ve not only got to walk for twenty minutes a day on top of that (in order to add seven years of my life; I mean honestly – who wants another seven years? Not me, thank you) but that this walking has to consist of no fewer than 10,000 steps.
And then there’s swimming! I’m told that ideally I should be swimming three times a week adding, to my weekly penance, at least another three hours.
That’s practically one whole working day of exercise a week.
I don’t have the time! I don’t have the inclination! And as for walking 10,000 steps a day, I did it recently and I honestly had practically no time for anything else. No time for lunch! No time for supper! I barely had any time to get undressed at night.
What is it about walking? Am I the only person in the whole world who just can’t see the point of it? Putting one foot in front of the other – what’s so great about that?
Some of my best friends walk. And, very occasionally, I have enjoyed a long walk over the downs. But walking in Shepherd’s Bush? No fun. A friend informs me that I can see so much more when I walk. “You can see buildings and see rooftops, and observe people.” At 71 years of age and having lived in the same area for over forty years, if I haven’t already examined every building on every block and observed every person in every single walk of life doing every single thing known to man, there is, frankly, something wrong with me.
Some people say they feel relaxed when they walk. Relaxed? With nothing else to distract me, my mind, when walking, is free to roam over the most gruesome thoughts known to man. Will we be overrun over by immigrants? What if Isis came over and blew up Lincoln Cathedral? Will I end up in an old people’s home not knowing my name, doubly incontinent and screaming? And anyway, why am I wasting my time pounding the streets when I could, as my Scottish great-aunt, who was also my headmistress used to say, be doing something really useful?
Now, if I knew that by working a treadmill I was generating electricity to keep ten Somalian orphans warm for a week, I’d be pounding away like nobody’s business. Or if I were to discover that walking relieved anxiety (rather than, as now, promoted it) twice as fast as Valium or Solpadine Plus, I’d be stomping away like a shot.
But for no reason at all? I don’t get it. Walking is what people do when they have no cars or public transport. Walking should be avoided, as indulgent as eating plates of cream cakes. Walking is a mindless luxury and, as far as I’m concerned, should be banned except in exceptional circumstances.
And what particularly gets my goat is how smug walkers are. When I suggested to a walker once that I get a pedometer and wear it all the time so that it would ratchet up my steps even going to the lavatory during the night, or running downstairs to answer the bell, he insisted, with a patronising smile, that that kind of walking “doesn’t count.”
Walking that has a function – climbing a ladder to get to the attic to find something to give to Age Concern, marching to the end of the garden with the aim of putting out bird-food (a route no car can, sadly, negotiate) – no, apparently, that’s not “walking.” That’s cheating.
Fired up with fury about all this exercise I thought I’d go to the other extreme. Meditation. But after my mindfulness initiation class, the first thing the wafty lady who’d been sitting cross-legged for an hour, instructing us in the Ways of the Yogi, said was: “Now, before the class next week, please be sure to do this exercise for twenty minutes a day.”
You can’t win.
Granny Annexe November 2015
On hearing the unexpected ring on the bell, Dorothy Parker was always reputed to cry: “And what fresh hell is this?”
It’s certainly what I scream to myself, at any un-scheduled interference. Phone calls are often welcome. But knocks at the door that you’re not expecting – do they even bring pleasure?
Every time I hear the unexpected knock on the door, my heart sinks. I usually stagger down the stairs, shouting, like a mad old lady: “I’m coming, I’m coming! Keep your hair on!” Then I will examine them through y peephole, an activity that gets me nowhere since everyone looks the same through the fish-eye lens.
There’s the Amazon delivery man – not yours, because yours is expected. No, this man is carrying what appear to be two iron girders wrapped in brown paper and wants to leave them in your house for your neighbour to collect later – a neighbour who is away for the entire month. Wanting to be friendly, and arguing that if the circumstances were reversed you’d appreciate it if he took custody of the atom bomb you’d ordered on line until you returned, you say yes – but after your leg had been broken in several places by tipping over the damned things, you’re not so sure.
Then there is the Jehovah’s Witness. I have written in clear letters beside my bell, the words: “No cold calls or religious enquiries” but it doesn’t stop those Witnesses from bludgeoning their way in. After arriving at the door, usually gasping from having been summoned from the top of the house, I enquire coldly whether they can read their bibles. They always say yes. Then I point sourly at my sign and say: “Then why can’t you read this?” before slamming the door.
There the desperate motorist who has been blocked in by a car and wants to know if it’s yours, and a gasman who, despite assuring him that you have to read your own meter these days, laying down by the gas meter with an inverted periscope to read the figures, and shinning up a ladder to reveal the electricity, will not believe that you aren’t still registered with his company., Or the Parliamentary candidate – or the seller of dodgy household goods. There’s the con-artist who claims to live down the road, have a mother in hospital but has no change to put in the meter or no money to go and visit her, there’s the neighbour who claims there’s a “funny small” and wonders if his man can inspect your drains.
There are the early guests who don’t realise that while you might be ready to receive them at 7.30 you are not ready to receive them at 7.25, since you have only just stepped out of your bath, and the men from charities with lanyards rounds their necks, bearing photographs of people who look nothing like them. I’m never sure about those lanyards. I always suspect that if you were to lean forward too close to examine their photographs, they might slip the things over your head, like a Thuggee and strange you.
Occasionally, however it is a policeman. Recently one knocked at the door and I turned at once into a welcoming and ingratiating helpful member of the public, bustling him in and offering him a cup of tea. This time, the building site over the road had been burgled. Could I help?
But it all reminded me of the terrible occasion my father opened the door to a policeman in Kensington. They’d been transporting a prisoner from one station to the next and on the way he’d leapt out of the van and disappeared, Could they look around the house and garden? No sign. They said their goodbyes and left.
Ten minutes later, there was another ring on the bell. It was a man in grubby jeans and a stained teeshirt, who revealed he was an undercover plain clothes policeman who had stayed behind. If my father would go upstairs and keep watch out of the first floor window, he would go down the basement and check the garden again for the escaped villain.
After a quarter of an hour, hearing nothing, my father left his vigil and found the “undercover policeman” had vanished completely. Along with my father’s camelhair coat, walking stick, hat and scarf.
Grannie Annexe October 2015
I imagine these days most little girls would be thrilled if their mum made clothes for them in the latest fashion, encouraged them to wear their skirts short an midriffs bare, and sent their ten-year-old boys to school sporting fake hippy beards.
But I found it something of a burden having a fashion icon as a mother. Back in the ‘fifties I wasn’t so enamoured of the situation. Like most little girls I wanted to be like all the other little girls, and all the other little girls were wearing dresses with puffed sleeves and smocking in the front, with fitted tweed coats with velvet collars and most of them had an Alice band over their infrequently-washed hair.
My mother was hoping to break into the children’s fashion business at the time and she wanted me to look French. These days there is nothing more enchanting to my mind than the sight of a little girl in a tam-o-shanter hat over her gamin haircut, a navy blue unwaisted coat, long white socks and patent leather black shoes, preferably standing with a hoop in the Jardins des Tuileries. But in the middle of smog in the heart of post-war South Kensington, surrounded by other children who look at her like something from outer space? No.
Our battles were constant. Once I demanded, in recompense for some terrible favour my mother was trying to get me to do – probably be photographed for a magazine – to be bought a pair of grey divided shorts. I have to hand it to her – she fulfilled her promise and I can only imagine how much it pained her to see me proudly jumping around in my Aertex shirt and grey shorts and plimsolls, just like all the other little girls.
But those days were rare. Most of the time I was forced to dress as she wanted me to look. Two particular incidents stand out in my mind. The day before the school concert, headline news in the Daily Express in 1957 was the arrival, from Paris, of a dress by Givenchy dubbed “The Sack”. Without missing a beat, my mother immediately ran me up a small version of it – dark blue, with a white border grabbing me round the knees – and insisted I wore it for the concert. I was regarded by a freak by the other girls, but all the mums gasped with delight.
The other occasion was when she forced me to walk down the catwalk at the Royal College of Art, where she was Professor of Fashion, holding her hand, both of us wearing identical versions of the same sundress. The sighs of “Oh, how sweet!” linger in my ears today and make me red with embarrassment still.
Thinking I might have got over the horror of the catwalk, I agreed, recently, on a visit to Denbigh, to take part in a Vintage Fashion Show. I wore a coat from the ‘forties, a hat made of feathers from the same era and a tea-dress. Everyone else wore clothes from the 1970s which didn’t look at all vintage to me, just terribly out of date.
It was all for a good cause. It was run by two sisters, who’ve established a charity called Vintage MaryDei, in memory of their parents – Dei, a lifelong community activist and Mary, a great community and chapel-supporter, both apparently, significant figures in the setting up of the first Welsh primary school in Denbigh. The sisters became carers to the parents and realised how stressed carers get, and the show was one of many events put on to raise money to help carers by giving them advice and support.
Accompanied, rather oddly, by my friend and host, who was dressed in an original teddy boy suit, with a wig (being 75 he has no hair) and with the music of the James Bond Theme blaring, we finished the first half and strutted up and down the red carpet.
I thought I could pull it off. But no. I felt like a complete idiot. I became a 71-year-old 8-year-old, shamed with embarrassment.
But much worse. When my name was announced I heard one large Welsh lady say to her friend: “Veronica Iminside? Never heard of her! What about you, Carys?” The other replied: “Oh, I’ve heard of her alright, Alwen. But I thought she was dead!”
Suddenly, those indulgent sights and murmurs of “How sweet!” didn’t seem quite so bad after all.
Grannie Annexe August 2015
When I was a child, my grandmother used to take me to the theatre. Her choice of shows was impeccable. She didn’t want to educate me by dragging me to see Midsummer Night’s Dream – which would have put me even more off Shakespeare in the theatre than I already am – and nor did she want to feed me a relentless diet of pantos and Wind in the Willows – productions that are often second-rate and done on the cheap because everyone knows that children don’t know good acting from bad acting or a good set from a rubbish one.
No, she took me to see a string of classic light theatrical productions. We saw Joyce Grenfell in Joyce and came out saying “George? George? Don’t do that.” . We saw Flanders and Swan in At the Drop of a Hat and came out singing The Hippopotamus Song. We saw Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend (Deborah, this is the correct spelling, not one word) and emerged with “I Could be Happy with You” on our lips. We saw Julian Slade’s Salad Days and couldn’t get “We’re looking for a piano, yes a piano, we’re looking.. we’re looking.. we’re looking for a P-I-A-N-O” out of our heads for days. We even went to see the Crazy Gang at Victoria Palace where Bud Flanagan, in battered hat and fur coat, and Chesney Allen, sang Underneath the Arches.
My grandmother had always wanted to go on the stage and she knew what was good. For here, an outing had to be fun and to be fun it had to be professional.
For my own part I took my son to see Elvis – a brilliant musical directed by Jack Good and featuring PJ Proby as the later Elvis; we also saw Blues in the Night and a never-ending succession of Ayckbourns, travelling to all corners of the suburbs to catch the latest.
I haven’t been quite so successful with my own grandchildren, stupidly booking to see fatuous lunchtime shows involving balloons and papier mache monsters but we’ve had some hits. The Invisible Man went down brilliantly. Gifford’s Circus was a huge success. But recently a couple of outings hit the buffers. Who on earth ever thought that Edward Scissorhands would make an interesting ballet? (oh, yes, Matthew Bourne did.) And as for Bugsy Malone – it was like watching a bad school play in which none of one’s smaller relations had a part.
The show that’s been a consistent hit has been, of course, the Mousetrap. My grandmother took me to see it originally, and then I, of course, took my son to see it. Recently I went for the third time, taking my older grandson. The audience was packed with grannies taking their grandchildren, and all us oldies managed to sit through the creaky script, the deadly set, the sheer banality of it all (particularly when you know who did it), but realising that it’s such a rattling good tale and such a gallopingly sinister plot, that our grandchildren couldn’t fail to be as captivated by it as we were when we saw it for the first time.
Before the curtain went down on the first act, the unpleasant Mrs Boyle had just been strangled and my grandson had seized my hand in terror.
During the interval he was on tenterhooks. We drank the drinks cleverly ordered at the bar beforehand. “They’re here, granny!” shouted my grandson delightedly when he went to investigate the space where we’d been told they’d be waiting. Even this small act seemed, to us, to be magic. Over some Pringles and an ice-cream, we discussed the plot so far. He was convinced the murderer was the owner of the guesthouse. Though he thought it might have been the heavily accented foreign salesman, Mr Paravicini, who’d stumbled in claiming his car had packed up in a snow-drift. But what about the Major? We went through every character one by one.
At the end he was completely astonished at the denouement. And when we returned home, he told his younger brother what a good time he’d had.
“Who did it?” he was asked.
“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. No one’s allowed to tell who did it. But,” he added, seeing his brother looking rather disappointed, “don’t worry. You’ll find out. Granny will take you when you get older.”
Can I face The Mousetrap for a fourth time?
Of course I can.
Grannie Annexe July 2015
At dinner recently a guest declared, gloomily: “Of course, we’re all going to hell in a handcart.” He won’t be invited again of course, but nor will a great number of my friends if they continue along these lines. Which they all seem to be doing as they age.
“People are so used to communicating by email and text, that they don’t know how to communicate with each other face to face!” “So sad that some children have never even seen the countryside!” “The world is more troubled than it ever has been!” “Libraries are a thing of the past!” “Books are redundant these days!” “There soon won’t be any shops at all on the high street because everyone does their shopping on Amazon!” “Everywhere you look there are high-rise buildings these days!” “All new housing is sold to Russian oligarchs who never even live there!” “Did you know that the standard of A levels these days are what GCE standards used to be our day?” “Children are even using calculators in maths!” “People don’t even know the names of their neighbours!” “Feminism has made men completely demasculated – they don’t know where they stand now.”
Sometimes I feel I need to make a list on topics banned from my house and get my guests to sign it before they step over the threshold.
It’s not that I don’t, often, at some level, actually agree with many current moans. But firstly each one is such a deadly cliché and we’ve all heard it a hundred times before. And secondly, where do we get by wringing our hands? Jolly depressed, that’s where.
Anyway, older people have been despairing of younger people since day one. I bet the Ancient Romans (and I’m talking here of the ancient Ancient Romans) were continually griping about how young people wore their togas too long or too short or too tight. And how they learned nothing at school. And so, moaningly, on.
But I’ve been wondering. Could it be that it’s built into our genes to despair of the future? Could it be death’s brilliant way of making us fear the end less? Because along with the moans I’ve listed there’s always a refrain which goes: “Well, thank God I won’t be alive to see the day when..”
I think it’s rather like when a friend drops us we often think of the reasons we’re lucky not to be seeing him again. “Never liked him anyway,” is the usual conclusion.
I prefer to comfort myself with different slogans, welcoming a shorter life-span with the idea that I’ll never have to paint a ceiling again, never have to go to Paris again, never have to sit in a taxi in India being driven by a maniac down a mountain path and pretend to enjoy it, never have to wake up beside a man whose name I don’t know, never worry that I’m pregnant and never have to wait for the phone to ring.
Of course it’s very difficult to convince young people that death loses its fear as you age. Young people are far more frightened of death, in my experience, than old people. Their knuckles are white with fear as they contemplate the arrival of the Grim Reaper. They are, rightly, pre-occupied with life and the living of it. Older people are much more realistic. They’ve seen people being born. They’ve seen people die. They’re often fed up with the whole wretched cycle and just want to get the process over and done with. And this conviction that the future is black is, perhaps, one way to convince ourselves that death isn’t such a bad idea after all. I mean, wouldn’t be terrible to be an optimistic old person, gagging to see how well the wonderful world turns out, as we were on our death beds?
It was Dylan Thomas as a son who wanted his father to go raging against the dying of the light, not Pa Thomas himself. I bet, on his deathbed, the old gent wasn’t burning and raving at close of day but was probably thinking: “God, spare me any more of this ghastly poetry lark. Most of the stuff they churn out these days doesn’t even rhyme any more, let alone scan. We’re all going to hell in a handcart! Thank God I won’t be around to see any more of it!”
Grannie Annexe June 2015
A few years ago, the morning I’d returned home after major surgery, I found that I had a green discharge. No, don’t stop reading. That’s as yuk as it gets. Anyway, no one had told me this might happen, so when this green liquid started emerging, gushing like something from a Texan oil well, I was, quite naturally, worried. When I say green I’m not talking about Farrow and Ball green – no, not Breakfast Room Green, Cooking Apple Green, Estate Eggshell Green, Baize Door Green, Card Room Green, Lichen or even Vert de Terre. I’m not talking green that looks like anything infectious. No, I’m talking happy green – the colour, if any of you grannies out there know what I’m talking about – of the Disney hero, Shrek. The colour of the Jolly Green Giant. The colour of The Incredible Hulk. The colour of those blazing green health drinks that you find in Pret called Goodness. Bright, bright green.
Managing somehow temporarily to stem the flow, I got a friend to drive me to the hospital where I’d had the operation done – an hour away – , while I clutched a pint mug of the stuff. When we arrived, I handed it over to the nurse.
“How come I’m still alive?” I demanded, “when my body is producing this all the time? And, more importantly, how long have I got to live?”
She put on some rubber gloves, sensible girl, shielded her eyes from the brightness of the colour, looked extremely anxious, and hurried away with it to get it investigated. I was in the waiting-room, gibbering with fear. After a nail-biting half hour she returned, uttering the immortal words: “Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal.”
And then I uttered those also immortal words: “If it was normal why the hell didn’t you warn me in advance?”
And she said: “We don’t like to worry our patients.”
And I said: “What do you think I’ve been doing for the last twenty-four hours?”
And she gave me one of those dumb looks that says: “That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it and I’m not going to argue any more, however reasonable I think your point is, because I haven’t got a leg to stand on.”
I stumped home and over the next few days everything calmed down and even now I have no idea what the green stuff really was.
But it happened again the other day. Not the green stuff, but another scare. Following retinal surgery, I had to have a further operation to stitch my eye to support the cataract lens that had slipped. The morning following the operation, I took off the eyepatch I’d been given, as instructed, and examined my eye in the mirror. It was extremely difficult – for two reasons. Firstly I saw completely different things through each eye – one showed me myself in the room quite normally, and from the other I was viewing myself in the room as if I were a fly on the ceiling, from above. As I looked into the mirror I could see that the reason for this was obvious. The operated eye had shifted and was now staring, desultorily, at the ceiling. I looked like Quasimodo.
Well, I panicked for a bit, seized a passing lodger on her way downstairs, who confirmed my fears but said that though it appeared fixed to me, it was actually “drifting” and, having rung the surgeon in a panic, waited for him to call me back. I felt faint and breathless.
Finally the phone rang and I explained the situation. Blow me if he didn’t say cheerfully: “Oh don’t worry! It’s the result of the anaesthetic on the muscles of the eye! It’ll wear off. It’s perfectly normal!”
“Why,” I asked, “Didn’t you warn me this might happen?”
(repeat chorus lines above)
None of this would have happened of course, had I been warned of the dangers of having cataract surgery at the same time as having with extremely short sight. Apparently (now they tell me) these are sure markers for the likelihood of having a retinal detachment. Had I known this, at the first sign of retinal detachment I would have gone to Moorfields far earlier and could have been spared all this Quasimodo stuff in the first place.
But no, they didn’t warn me. I haven’t asked why. Because by now I know the answer by heart.
Grannie Annexe May 2015
Yesterday I dreamed that I had written my Oldie column but sadly it had been processed as an egg – the column had been encrypted somehow into this albumin inside the shell. I was about to bicycle to the Oldie offices carrying this egg when the egg broke all over the bicycle seat. Somehow managing to scrape it up, I got most of it back into the two halves of the shell – but I was worried if, having slid over the bicycle seat with bits still dripping down and hanging from the spokes of the wheels, whether the words, when they were processed the other end, would have got muddled up.
Now who could deny that this was a fairly unusual and bizarre dream? It is almost a short story. And yet whenever anyone starts telling anyone else their dreams, the result is often a lot of sticking of fingers in ears and shouts of “Lalala!”
Dreams aren’t necessary boring in and of themselves. It’s partly whether they’re good dreams or not, or whether they’re amusing recounted. I have to say that I feel a bit like shouting “Boring!” when someone tells me a dream about running down a corridor and losing their teeth and then flying through the air and finding themselves back at home watching television “and then I woke up”. This is a dream constructed by a dull person. It is not a five star dream. But my dreams (or am I just kidding myself?) often to seem to have devilish twists in them, usually nightmares with extraordinarily complicated plots. They are often directed by excellent directors and, if not Oscar-winning, would certainly make good shorts at the Sundance Festival. I think the capacity for dreaming may be inherited. My father used to dream constantly of being publicly hanged, and once he dreamed that he’d reached over in bed to touch my mother’s hand and found it old, withered and skeletal. Waking up in a sweat, and to reassure himself he was dreaming he reached again for my mother’s hand. It was old, withered and skeletal. Then he woke up.
I’ve often heard of people who say they never dream, and though, when being pursued by demons with red-hot pokers I rather envy them, in a way I pity their inability to enter another, often more real than reality, life during the hours between midnight and dawn. And what is interesting is partly the way they can be induced. Larium, the anti-malarial drug that I took on going to South Africa, gave me nightmares of such horror that I would rather have stayed at home and missed seeing the giraffes and elephants and monkeys in a nature reserve than experience them again. Statins also give me the most frightful nightmares – so that’s them out then.
True, I have never made a scientific discovery while dreaming or, indeed, had the verses of a great poem revealed to me in a dream, like Coleridge after a dose of opium. But on the whole I don’t need a drug to give me a good dream. Last week I dreamed I had met the most wonderful man. Unfortunately he was really the man of my dreams. And when my son was small I dreamed that I covered him with kisses one night. In the morning (I dreamed), I found that the places where I’d kissed had turned into violent bruises and he was nearly dead. I frequently dream that gangs of swarthy men have come into my house and are removing all my father’s pictures from the wall to take away in a van, and last year I dreamed I was taking my grandson for a walk in his pushchair when a man inveigled me into a gated park. As he locked the door of the gate behind us, he commented that my grandson looked rather dirty so was going to give him a bath. In the background I could see an enormous cauldron of boiling water…
I still remember my first dream. A burglar had come into my room at dawn and I had called for my father. He had rushed in in his dressing gown, and the burglar rushed out with my father in pursuit. “Stay there!” he called to me. Stay there I did and, looking out of the window I could see my father in the garden, scouring the place for burglars. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder…
Hitchcock, eat your heart out
Grannie Annexe April 2015
I was recently watching Downton Abbey (under considerable pressure, I may say – my friends begged me to give it “just one more go – it’s brilliant!”) and after about five minutes in the cook downstairs said to some under-maid: “Hurry up there, it’s the Lord’s 34th wedding anniversary so we have to do a special dinner tonight.” Or words to that effect.
My eyes bulged. Surely no one in the right minds ever celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary? And also, surely the celebration of anniversaries was anathema to the upper classes in the days of Downton? When I was small even a birthday was barely marked unless you were under ten, and we weren’t top drawer by any means.
But when I pointed this out, my two friends turned on me: “Shh!” they hissed angrily. “If you can’t watch this without criticising it, go upstairs and don’t watch it!”
I gulped, and went upstairs.
My problem is that I am hypersensitive to inaccuracies in films or plays. Before the first ten minutes had passed of the recently produced Accolade, by Emlyn Williams, I was chafing because the central character, a writer, had walked into the sitting room early on a winter’s morning without doing up his dressing gown (this was in the fifties when central heating would have been scarce) and sat under a lamp to read his cuttings without turning the lamp on.
When, in a production of Rope set in the late twenties, the actors turned on a fake gas fire, my night was ruined. They had fake coal electric fires in those days, gas fires with ceramic columns, but no fake log gas fires.
You could call me a nerd, but I think there’s more to it than that. I feel that if a director can’t get the small details right, then how can I trust him or her to get the big ones right? Recently I saw The Theory of Everything and although I could just about cope with the fact that no one’s hair is ever short enough for the early 1960s, nor is it dirty enough (most people only washed their hair once a week in those days, if that) I was undone when, after a May Ball, Hawking’s future wife thrust a piece of paper into Stephen’s hand with her telephone number on it. It started with the numbers 01223. But area STD codes didn’t come in until much later. If the telephone number was wrong, then how could I believe anything after that? Did Hawking really discover new things about black holes? Did he really fall for his nurse? I couldn’t relax at all.
This nerdiness, if that is what it is, extends to other areas of life. If a brilliant politician is caught cheating on the underground or sneaking a bottle of gin out of a supermarket, then can he really be a good politician? I had thought his judgement was good, but clearly it is absolutely hopeless. He may have claimed to have brokered some major peace deal, but suddenly his achievements seem like mere accidents. Basically, he’s a cheat.
Two boyfriends, in my youth, seemed perfect and I thought they might be Mr. Right until, on two separate occasions, they handed me a book that they said I must read because it was brilliant. It was The Snow Ball by the writer Brigid Brophy, a writer very popular among pretentious young men at the time. After a couple of pages, any thoughts of settling down with either of these two chaps and having their children immediately flew out of the window.
I was trying to describe unfortunate trait to a friend the other day and said it was as if you sat next to a sparkling guest at a dinner party and were being captivated by their wit and intelligence and then they suddenly removed a silver spoon from the table and, with a wink, popped it into their pocket. Nothing would be the same afterwards. But my friend had a better image. He said no, it was more like sitting next to sparkling intelligent stranger you thought you could make a lifelong friend. His glass is empty. Your glass is empty. His neighbour’s glass is empty. The wine bottle is in front of him He lifts it, fills his own glass, and continues with his conversation without offering either of you a drop.
Oh dear. It’s all very well being so sensitive and critical. But I can’t help wondering how many potential friends I might have put off by my own occasional (I hope) thoughtless behaviour.
As always – planks; eyes.
Grannie Annexe March 2015
When I was in my teens, I went along to a Billy Graham performance. It was stirring stuff. Although not in the least religious, I had to exercise great self-control not to rise from my feet and sign up to the Lord. The man was mesmerising.
Later, I was at a Mind, Body and Spirit exhibition where I made the mistake of wandering into a tent displaying and exhibition of a weird est-like group called Exegesis – and was just looking around when I was approached by a cult-member who asked if I’d like to know more. When I said “No” I was just looking, he turned on me and ordered me out of the tent. “We have no time for time-wasters!” he shouted.
Similarly when I’d been feeling particularly low, I’d considered joining a cult called the Process. I knew some people who were in it and – despite the fact that they roamed London in black cloaks. pulling enormous Alsatians and producing magazines devoted to Satanism – they were funny and I liked them. So I went for an initiation meeting in a room in a house in Park Lane. With the aid of a clock, a particularly good looking member of the Process in an electric blue cloak demonstrated it was no use constantly fixing the hands if it continuously went wrong. The only way you could make it right was to get inside the works. He then said: “If you want to join us, now is your moment! We want all your money and your commitment – NOW!”
I chewed my lip and dithered, but finally shambled out of the door, to cries of abuse and warnings that I was now doomed.
I tell of these incidents to show how hard it is to convert me.
However, at that point I hadn’t visited an Apple store.
As the last time I’d produced my trusty old grey Nokia in public, it had been seized on by people who appeared to be antique dealers with their eyes on stalks promising me large sums if I’d part with it, I thought I’d have a look – just have a look mind you – at an Apple iPhone.
This is what I said to the smiling man at the door of the Apple store and he welcomed me in. I wasn’t aware of it, but as he ushered me in with one arm, he was at that very moment, signalling a friend of his to meet me a little further into the store. “Andrew will take care of you!” he said. And Andrew turned out to be very nice indeed. He led me over to a set of iPhones and asked which colour I’d prefer and I said “Silver, but I’m only looking..” whereupon he signalled another member of the team who turned out to be an extremely friendly girl called Greta who took me to a table and sat me down. “Just wait for your model to appear,” she said. “It won’t take a minute.”
“I’m very frightened,” I said. “You know, I don’t want a new phone, you understand. I just want to look at it. You won’t make me buy one…will you?”
“You need have no fears,” she said, staring me in the eyes. “They are very easy to use and you will love it.”
At this moment, a new man, Gary appeared with box. He asked to see my Nokia and in one easy movement he’d extracted the Sim card and asked for my credit card. “Now let’s get a pin number for you,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “and at the same time, put your pin number in here..”
“But…” I said, “I want to think about it first!”
“Of course,” he said. “Let me introduce you to your new iPhone.”
And before I knew it, my old dead Nokia had vanished and in its place was a strange object which needed swiping and fondling – I even opened it with my personal thumbprint for God’s sake – and slowly, after a brief lesson, I was led to the door. As I left I had the impression that a whole crowd of Apple employees were waving me off waving their handkerchiefs. “See you soon, Virginia!” they said “We love you! We’re always here! Enjoy!”
My life has been transformed.
I have to say that Billy Graham, Exegesis and, indeed, the Process, if it still exists, could pick up a tip or two from those guys.
Granny Annexe February 2015
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got several friends who are saints. Often, across my mind comes fleetingly the idea that someone ought to try to get them an honour, but the prospect’s always seemed so complicated I’ve never considered that that someone ought to be me. However, many years ago, I applied myself. I rang up one of my saintly friend’s secretary – we’ll call him X – and suggested the idea to her. X runs a charity which helps the unhelpable and spends the rest of his time teaching kids for free.
“Too late,” she said. “Lord Basset-Blastforce from down the road has just applied for one only a week ago.” So I rang Lord B-B and was told he’d done everything. “I know people in the Honours office,” he told me, reassuringly, “I have a personal contact with Princess Michael of Kent. I have sent off the form plus letters from the Lord High Sherriff, the High Panjandrum, and I’ve written to Prince Charles asking if he could put in a good word.”
“But what about the people X has helped?” I said. “Shouldn’t they be asked to write to endorse him?”
“Too late,” he said. “No point. My people will talk to the palace people…have no fear. X will get his honour”
Two years went by and nothing happened.
I got back to the secretary. “Do you think I could have a crack now?” I asked.
“If you’d rung yesterday you could have,” she replied, “But Sharon’s taken it on.” It turned out Sharon was one of the people X had helped, admitted she was dyslexic, and didn’t have a clue, but that her uncle was a guardsman at the palace and everything would be fine.
Two years passed and, again, nothing.
Finally I got my hands on the application. “Never,” it had said on the website, “try twice. There is virtually no chance of a second application being considered except in exceptional circumstances.” Nothing exceptional had happened. But I went ahead. I did what the other two people who‘d attempted to get an honour had failed to do. I read the question. On the website it was clear what the Honours department wanted. Evidence of change. So that’s what I gave them.
“I was killing people on a daily basis until I met X” wrote one supporter. “Now I’m happily married, run a charity and have a family of three” “I was unable to rise from my wheelchair before I met X. I was on benefits and depressed. Now, thanks to X, I run marathons and mentor young people,” wrote another. “I spent my days mugging old ladies before I met X. Now ..” well, I’m obviously not quoting the actual letters but you get the gist. These letters were signed by thumbprints, crosses… and there wasn’t a great panjandrum in sight.
Two year later, my friend got his honour.
And recently I went to the Palace to witness him collecting it .
I’d never been inside the Palace before – and what a grim old place it is. “No wonder Princess Diana nearly had a nervous breakdown when she was here,” whispered X’s sister who accompanied us. “It’s got a very funny vibe. Not sure I like it.” The lighting was awful, the place was crammed with Beefeaters and soldiers with breastplates standing stock-still – it was like a rather bad set for the Nutcracker Suite. And the ceremony itself! 300 of us stuck in a vast room laden with feebly lit chandeliers as 100 honours’ receivers were each decorated by Prince William who chatted to each of them for what seems hours. The vast majority were white, elderly people – it reminded me of an audience from the Wigmore Hall. A string quartet played Classic fm hits through out and it was freezing cold.
“Have you been to the toilet?” asked some kind of equerry before we took our seats. “Please stand for the National Anthem”.
It seemed interminable – “Denis Smyth for his contribution to the Northern Irish Prison Service and ornithology… the Reverend Shuna Body for services to the sport of Wheelchair Fencing … Damien Lewis for services to drama (???)” it went on for ever.
At the end I thought I’d have preferred to have sat through Mr Turner and that’s saying something. To be honest, I’m starting to think that after all this I deserve an honour myself. Though perhaps after writing this piece my chances will be rather slim.
Granny Annexe January 2015
I was recently asked on to a television news programme to discuss the results of a survey that showed, apparently, that while young people under thirty are lonely, riddled with anxiety, panicking about the future, beset with money troubles and generally cutting down on drink and drugs because they can’t afford it, old people over 60 are having the time of their lives – sky-diving, white-water rafting, partying till dawn, downing bottle after bottle of wine and travelling the world.
This was regarded as very unfair, I was told. Indeed, the interviewer even asked me: “Do you feel like you should give up some of the pensioner perks to make amends with the young?” (sic – and I have to add that because the grammar – well, my dear!)
Amends? My eyes bulged. Amends are what alcoholics make to all the people they’ve deceived and let down when they were drinking uncontrollably. Amends are what burglars make to old ladies they’ve robbed of all their savings. Why on earth, I wondered, should I make amends?
And as I was pondering this, I thought: who on earth ever thought that being young was ever fun? Even when I was in my twenties I thought the phrase “Schooldays are the happiest days of your life” was total tosh, and in my seventies now I am constantly astonished by people who tell me that they remember being young as a wonderful carefree time.
Was it really? Where they young at the same time as me or are they looking at the past through rose-coloured spectacles? What is this myth that being young has any advantages to it whatsoever?
Forget about living under the real threat of a complete annihilation – a nuclear war, with the Bay of Pigs. Forget about earning £10 a week as a temporary secretary (in my case having to wear gloves, on some occasions, because the office was so cold). What about having to stay in waiting for the phone to ring – no mobiles then. And the loneliness! Young people today can sit at home conversing face to face with other young people all over the world. And while they’re doing it they can have a cup of tea made from a teabag and not have to make a whole pot, and wash it all up afterwards, the sink awash with leaves. And they’re warm. And their hair doesn’t smell because they can’t afford to wash it because six inches of hot bathwater from an uncertain geyser is all you’re allowed to have once a week.
They can drink in pubs till all hours of the night – no “Time gentleman please” and the last bus actually goes after ten o-clock at night. If they run out of bread and eggs on Sunday, they can go to the corner shop and buy them, not wait, eggless and breadless till Monday. And if they get ill they can pop along to their NHS doctor and get anti-biotics – unknown when I was very young.
Even their drugs are better than ours were. I’m assured that hydroponic weed is far more effective at getting you thoroughly stoned than the rather feeble grass that we used to smoke in the old days. Ecstasy then was just a twinkle in a scientist’ eye. And the wine. Anyone remember Hirondelle? Makes my eyes water just to think of it. (I gather it’s still made – but it can’t possibly taste the same.)
And the food! Go to a greengrocer’s and the only fruit consisted of apples and oranges (no bananas till later) and the only vegetables were tomatoes, onions, turnips, cabbage and potatoes. The fish was frequently off and the butcher’s slabs covered with flies. Television, refrigerators and even cars – those were only for the well-off. Even I as a young girl was sent to the fishmongers on hot days to get slabs of ice for our ice-box.
Okay, it was easier to rent a room or buy a flat. And jobs were easier to get – for the few who were well-enough educated to get them. And yes, we did get university grants. But apart from that, life was the vey pits. I spent most of my youth crying and trying to find out from the library (no internet then) ways I could kill myself successfully.
Amends? Us oldies deserve every tiny little perk we can get.
Granny Annexe December 2014
The other day, as I left my house, I found my neighbour crouched on the pavement sorting through a bag of rubbish. I was alarmed to discover her foraging through her own bins, but it turned out she’d lost her car keys and was scouring every possible place they could have been dropped.
“Hold on,” I said. “First I’m going to fetch you an extra binbag to make life easier, so you won’t have to stuff all that rubbish back into the old bag. And second, I want to offer you a piece of advice.”
“Yes?” she said, barely looking up in her anxiety to shake out every miserable old teabag and potato peeling she could find to see if her keys were hiding among them.
“I want you to pray to St Anthony,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, but I could see she wasn’t going to.
“St. Anthony,” I continued, like some ponderous Mr Pooter figure, “is the patron saint of lost things. I have no religious faith at all, but praying to St. Anthony always works for me, and I am certain he will work for you.”
She smiled as she looked up. “I’ve got lots of faith,” she said. “I’ll say: ‘St. Anthony, if you don’t find my keys I’ll stop believing in God altogether!’”
“I don’t think you’ve understood,” I said, by now rather tetchy. “You mustn’t threaten St. Anthony. You must put down your binbags, close your eyes and say, out loud but in a whisper if you like: “Please, St. Anthony, will you very kindly find my keys?’”
She looked at me rather pityingly. “Yes, yes,” she said, “But I MUST find them. I’m off to Gloucestershire in half an hour and if I don’t find them…” I sighed and went on my way, despairing.
All I could say was that St. Anthony has always worked for me. Recently I lost my purse with all my money and credit cards inside it. I discovered the loss at the newsagent and when I’d returned the house and scoured it from top to bottom, I went back to the newsagent to see if I hadn’t left it on the counter by mistake. I hadn’t. I came back again, looked through the car, under the seats, and turned my house upside down once more. Finally, and with a heavy heart, I realised my purse must have been pinched on my way to the newsagent, so I found the number for my bank and started to dial. Just then I thought: “What about St. Anthony?” The moment I’d finished praying, and at the same time as the girl at Nat West picked up the phone to answer my call, I had an idea. The one place I hadn’t looked was my dressing gown pocket. Now, why my purse should ever be in my dressing gown pocket I had no idea, but I put down the phone and thought I’d just check – and of course, there it was.
A friend recently rang me to say she’d lost her passport. She was going to the States the next day, and she was just about to drive down from London to the country to search her house and see if she’d left it there.
“Pray to St. Anthony,” I intoned. Pray she did and within five minutes had discovered her passport at the very back of a desk drawer she’d searched fifteen times already.
Why does the prayer work? Well, of course, it could be that St. Anthony actually works miracles. Or it could be that all the time you’re looking you actually know where you left the object you lost, but you’re unable to retrieve it because you’re so anxious. The moment you hand over the job to someone else, your brain becomes free of the anxiety and you can immediately recall where it is.
Who knows. Anyway, when I returned home I saw that my neighbour had tidied up her rubbish and had gone back inside her house. I was just making a cup of tea when the bell rang. There was my neighbour, her keys in her hand.
“I prayed to St. Anthony!” she said, delightedly. “And just as I was putting all the rubbish back, I remembered I’d been wearing a very odd coat yesterday, and though they weren’t in the pocket, they’d fallen into the lining! I’m converted!”
Granny Annexe November 2014
While I get as cross as the next person with those people don’t bother to record personal answering messages on their telephones when they’re out – “The person you are contacting is not available. Please leave your message after the tone or press hash for further options” – I am sometimes even more enraged by the messages that people do actually leave. They say that you can tell whether you like and trust someone in the first few seconds of meeting them, but it’s possible to make pretty accurate judgements just after listening to their answering messages.
I have a friend whose answering machine message goes like this: “Hello! This is 5132467, the Evans family. Please leave your message after the tone giving the date and time of your call.”
First, I never know the date. And in my experience, answering machine messages, when played back, are usually preceded by a strange, often American, voice stating exactly what the date and time is. But most irritating, for me, a single woman, at least, is this use of the word “family”. The moment I hear it , I immediately feel extraordinarily lonely. I imagine them, dozens of Evans’s, all cosying up to each other round the telephone as Mrs E records her message, arms round each other in a group hug, lit by a friendly roaring fire, united in love and kinship. And it makes me feel like a sad old singleton, excluded and uptight, all on her own.
Sometimes I feel so tetchy about her use of the word “family” that I’m tempted to record my own message as “Hello! I’m not going to give my number because you’ve just dialled it. This is Virginia Ironside, single and free as a bird and loving it. Sorry I’m not in but as you’ve discovered I’m out. Leave a message is you want, but as I’m so busy being out and having a great time because I’m single, as I mentioned, I can’t guarantee I’ll ever back to you!”
Then there are the losers, the single men working on their own as computer experts or one-man businesses, who insist on their messages running: “We’re all out at the moment so please leave a message so we can ring you back.” We! It sounds like a vast branch of ICM rather than the sad truth – the run-down room of a bloke who’s still living at home. Or there are those single women whose messages run: “We’re not at home, but we’ll get back to you as soon as possible” under the tragic illusion that a burglar, on ringing the number (do they ever do this anyway?), would be put off by the word “we”. “Oy, mate” he’d say to his partner in crime. “Turns out there’s two of ‘em in that gaff. Better lay off.”
Then there’s my cousin. She tries to be funny. “Hello, this is Chim. Well I think it is. When I look in the mirror I see someone who looked like Chim. Anyway, if I like you leave a message telling me who you are. If you know who you are that is. Have a look in the mirror and check. And if I don’t like you, don’t leave a message and don’t ring again! Byeee!”
There are the efficient ones: “Sam here! Leave a message!” – but better brief than a jazz musician friend obliges every caller to listen to the entire track of Gerry Mulligan playing Funny Valentine before he finally says, in a flat voice “Matt here. Leave a message. Stay cool and funky.” You’ve already run up a bill of hundreds of pounds before your can even say your name.
And saddest of all, of course, are the messages still left on the machine recorded by someone who’s died. The surviving partner, because they never ring themselves up, has forgotten that their partner’s voice lives on, spooking out all the callers ringing to offer their sympathy and condolences.
On an even grimmer note, I’ve just listened to my own answering machine message. Talk about “take the plank out of your own eye”. “Helleeaw” I say, sounding like Linda in the Archers. “It’s Virginia Arnside here. Do pleeese leave a message. Thenk you.” I can’t keep the pleading from my voice any more than I can conceal the sycophantic smile as I try to sound welcoming and friendly, just like those Radio Three announcers on Smooooth Classics.
Suddenly I’m wondering, to be honest, how anyone can actually bear to leave me a message at all.
Granny Annexe October 2014
My late mother-in-law was an extremely eccentric Irish woman. Most of the time she was utterly charming and could talk about the old days in posh Anglo-Irish circles till the cows came home.She told of hunting parties, kidnappings, under-age marriages, nobbled horses and drunken trainers. A great beauty in her youth, she still possessed the confidence of a fascinating woman, even though I remember her in the days when she was to be found shuffling round Notting Hill laden with Pekes and baggage, hair awry and lipstick rather smeared. She was a walking Somerville and Ross, alternately fey, irritating, extremely funny and often just plain barmy. Each time I visited I’d be given a gift, usually something like a battered pair of shoes from a car boot sale, or a strange egg-slicing machine she’d picked up at the local charity shop.
Every so often, however, she would lose it completely. She once rang me to ask me to sit in her flat while she went out shopping because she knew that the neighbours had drilled a hole in her wall. They were spying on her, she explained, and she was certain they were planning a raid on her flat once they discovered she was out.
To indulge her, I went round and sat for an hour or so until she returned; she was grateful for my assistance. However, on returning home I’d barely got into the hall before the telephone rang. It was my mother-in-law. “I think you might have asked me before taking my biscuit tin,” she said, coldly. “I would have given it to you willingly. There was no need to steal it behind my back!” She put the phone down.
I tried to ring back, but she was permanently engaged, so later that afternoon I visited her to assure her I hadn’t pinched anything. And certainly not a biscuit tin! But the windows of her flat were covered with big pieces of cardboard on which were written, in huge scrawled black letters, the words: “Who Killed the Owl in Avondale Park? I know who killed the Owl!!”
We named her “Batty Granny” until, a few weeks later she was back to her old self, chuckling amiably over the whole affair and turning it into yet another anecdote.
Thank God, I thought, there was no way I’d ever get like that.
Recently my son rang up to tell me he’d be a bit late for lunch. “But it’s tomorrow you’re coming, isn’t it?” I said. Then, realising my mistake, hastily added, “Oh of course – it’s today.. lovely”
When he arrived with my two grandsons my son looked in puzzlement at the table settings. “Why have you laid for three, mum?” he asked.
“Because there are three!” I said triumphantly.
Then I counted. “I mean, er, four.”
We ate the lunch I’d hastily scraped together and everything was going fine until my son frowned. “This pepper’s a bit strange, mum,” he said. “Is it special?”
“No, it’s just ordinary peppercorns,” I said.
“No, they’re sweet and sort of spicy…” After rummaging in my cupboard he found I’d put the Szechuan peppercorns into the grinder rather than the normal ones. And while he was looking in the cupboard he discovered a packet of cardamom seeds. “Do you really want to keep these?” he asked. “The sell-by date is 1998!”
When the phone rang I left the room to answer it, mumbled whispered excuses into it and returned to the table. “Who was that?” asked my grandson. “No one particular,” I replied. I didn’t want to tell them it was a friend of mine wondering where I’d got to for lunch. I got down to peeling the mangoes.
I couldn’t find the car when we went out to the park after lunch and I called my son my ex-husband’s name and the boys my son’s name. Indulgent laughs all round. “Oh, we all do it all the time,” said my son, comfortingly.
Finally, after returning for a cup of tea, they left to go back home. “Goodbye granny!” said the grandsons, kissing me. Then one of them drew back.
He paused and then he said, as his parting shot: “You do know, don’t you, granny, that you’ve got a bit of mango in your hair?”
I closed the door, tottered inside and put my head in my hands. I wouldn’t be surprised, I thought, if they hadn’t pinched my biscuit tin.
Granny Annexe September 2014
It was the first really hot day of summer and I was driving to Gloucestershire.
I was bowling along quite nicely, with the satnav continually adjusting to add more time to his fearfully optimistic prediction of when I would arrive – these satnav people must drive like the wind in the middle of the night to be able to reach their destinations by the estimated time – when the traffic started to slow down.
We’d got a little way along the one-way slip road that leads from the M40 to Oxford when we all ground to a halt. Ten minutes passed. We were all still revving up our engines in anticipation of being able to make our escape, but nothing happened. The noise of a fire-engine whistled behind us, so we all drove our cars into the hedgerow. We all still remained in our cars, hoping. Then, down the empty space in the middle of road, an ambulance came roaring down between us, accompanied by police motorcycles. And at this stage we knew we were in for the long hall. Engines were turned off. Car doors were opened and people put their feet outside.
About five minutes later some of us got out for a stretch, smiling and shrugging at our fellow drivers, looking ruefully at our watches and asking if anyone knew what was going on. Finally rumour got round from someone listening to local radio that a bus had burnt itself out near the lights at the top of the road. We were in the for the long haul.
I rang my friends to say I’d be late. They commiserated and said they’d start supper without me if I didn’t mind. The sun beat down and it was curiously silent. We looked around our new surroundings – rows of stationary cars nestling close to mountains of cow parsley. Bees buzzed. Birds sang. A perfect English country afternoon.
The Polish driver of the big truck parked on the opposite side of the road was told by his boss that he could remove his card from his engine so he didn’t have to worry about taking a legal break at the correct time. The Chinese woman behind me remained in her seat and got out her laptop. A very amiable English gent and his wife, wearing expensive country jerkins, wandered up and down until they got too hot and started to unpeel their layers.
Down the centre of the road there came a mother, with her little girl and a tiny dog, taking a walk. As she processed down the avenue, everyone got out of their cars to greet her. They said hello to the little girl, patted the dog and asked its name.
The amiable English gent was walking down the hedgerow plucking flowers. A couple of giggling young girls who were sitting on the bonnet of their in front said they only lived three hundred yards away and if we were there for hours they’d miss their party that night. One of them had been eighteen only the day before.
A woman came up and said: “Well, we may be waiting but at least it wasn’t us on that bus,” and we all agreed.
At this point – drama. Cars up in front, getting impatient, started turning and driving slowly down the middle of the road. I secretly admired their nous, but soon a resentful muttering went up. “What if they block the road for another emergency vehicle coming up the other way?” “They’re not only stupid, they’re selfish.”
A woman in an orange jumper, who had relatives in the police force, rang the police to report the maverick cars. Within twenty minutes the police bikes were back at the scene giving the car drivers a good talking-to. Everyone cheered and clapped.
The amiable gent presented his wild flower bouquet gallantly to one of the girls in front. “A late birthday present,” he said. Then he started pointing and explaining: “This is the meadow-sweet, this is the dead nettle, this blue is the scabious… here is the Ladies Slipper…”
Then the traffic started moving again. We all got back into our cars, hooting and waving as we passed each other, never to see each other again.
When I finally got to my friends’ house, they rushed out of the house. “Poor, poor you!” they said. “It must have been terrible!”
“Ghastly!” I said.
But actually it was one of the nicest drives I’ve ever had.
Granny Annexe Summer 2014
In the past, when friends said they’d got the builders in, you would tell them to put their heads between their knees and then you’d offer them cups of hot, strong tea laced with brandy. You’d spread the news between your friends. “She’s got the builders in,” you’d say in a hushed voice, when they asked why she hadn’t been on the scene for ages. And they’d shake their heads in commiseration, thanking their lucky stars they were builder-free.
But then the Poles came. And the Ukrainians. And the East European hordes that the Daily Mail had told us would over-run the country and alter our way of life for ever. And blow me, they did. “Having the builders in” became, instead of a death-sentence, a joy. The bell would ring at seven in the morning – the time they said they’d arrive no less! – and they’d click their heels on the doorstep and call you madam, refuse all offers of cups of tea, and work till the light faded. When you asked if by any chance they could also fix a shelf in the bathroom while they were here, or get out that ceiling spotlight that seemed to have stuck, they would set to smilingly. And there was always one particularly dishy young one who put you into a flutter when you met him on the stairs. When they left, you’d miss them and wish that bits of your house would collapse so you could welcome them in again.
So when, sodden by the torrential rains earlier this year, the wall in my garden fell down, I wasn’t too unhappy. A friend told me he’d got the most amazing builders who would come at the drop of a hat. Hurrah! I thought. The builders are back.
Everything would have been fine except that these builders appeared to be old-style builders, dredged up from some fifties rock-pool. The moment Mike and Sean shambled into my kitchen with their glazed eyes and unfriendly mumbles of “Heo mum” (one appeared to have no teeth) I should have sensed warning bells.
They gave me an estimate, asked for a lot of cash upfront and disappeared. A week later they returned. Sean had had a bad leg, they explained. But now they were here, they said, “You don’t have to worry about a thing, Valerie. We’ll have it done in no time!”
Virginia, I said.
Half an hour later they disappeared again. A week later they were back. The van had broken down. But now they’d crack on. “You’ll see, Valerie.”
“You won’t pull up my plants or destroy my lawn, will you?” I asked, as I filled giant cups of tea and provided huge slices of cake to bribe them to stay a bit longer this time. “By the way, it’s Virginia.”
“To be sure,” said Sean, “We’ve gardens of our own and we know how precious plants can be. We’ll have to cut a bit back, but everything will be right as rain… why talk of the devil! There was a spot, wasn’t it Mike? We can’t work in this weather. We’ll be back tomorrow. My that cake was good! See you tomorrow Valerie!” Mike mumbled his goodbyes.
I would have believed them but when I went out shopping that afternoon I saw their van parked outside in another street with the back doors open. They were clearly on another job. Ah well, tomorrow we’d see…
I don’t have to go on. Eventually, after a great deal of money had exchanged hands (twice the original estimate), the wall was put up but the garden was left like one of those 1918 battlefields in Verdun painted by Paul Nash. The rambling rose that had threaded its way through the undergrowth until it reached my kitchen doors had been cut back to the roots. The undergrowth through which it had threaded itself lay in ashes after a bonfire. The cement that had been mixed on the lawn when Mike had forgotten their plastic sheet had set into a grey smear. The laburnum, the ceanothus – everything had been hacked back to the bare minimum. A pile of rubble – bricks, old mortar, broken fencing – lay on top of the hydrangeas. I swear that no birds sang.
“Goodbye, Veronica!” said Sean on the last day, as he left. “Love that cake!” Toothless Mike just mumbled.
If the job hadn’t already clearly been done by the people he’d d been working for before, I would cheerfully have kicked his teeth in.
Granny Annexe August 2014
Last week we decided – or rather I decided – to make butter with my grandson. I had a vague memory of my grandmother once putting some milk into a jar, screwing the lid on and leaving me to shake it for hours like Mick Jagger working his maracas, until finally a tiny pat of butter appeared. But because I doubted the dreadful super-skimmed green-topped muck that seems to be the only milk you can get these days would have enough cream in it to make enough butter for a goblin’s breakfast toast, I bought some cream from the local supermarket and my grandson got shaking.
He’d been going for about half an hour with no results so I put the liquid into the whizzer. But it remained the same old white slop. My grandson was, at this point, getting bored and got on the kitchen floor practicing some of the moves he’d learned at break-dance class the week before. I felt frustrated. What on earth was I doing, anyway, getting my grandson to make butter when all he was interested in was break-dancing? I might as well have suggested making a pen-wiper with blanket-stitch round the edges.
As I was mulling this over I noticed that on the cream carton that while the word “Double” was written big, as was “Cream” between them lay, in tiny letters, the ominous phrase “alternative to.” No wonder this cream wouldn’t make butter. It probably consisted of an amalgam of trans fats, whale oil, products of nuts from several countries and whitewash.
“It’s not real cream!” I cried. “We must go out and get some!” and hauled him round to the shop. Despite the fact that it was clear my grandson had no interest whatever in making butter, I was driven by a crazy grandmotherly imperative to Make Butter Come What May.
We returned with the proper cream and, plastering a fresh and enthusiastic smile on my face, I said: “Now! At last! We can finally get cracking! Butter, here we come!”
His face grey with boredom my grandson shook his head desultorily.
“Come on we can’t give up now, not after all this effort,” I said, gamely. “Never say die!”
“I’m bored with making butter,” said my grandson, doggedly. “It’s not going to work.”
“Let’s watch it on YouTube!” I suggested, finally. “There must be films of people making butter! Maybe we’re doing something wrong!”
The word “computer” seemed to perk him up, so after watching several videos of butter being made effortlessly using exactly the same technique as ours, I insisted we try one last time.
“Do we have to?” he said, yawning. “It’s boring.”
“Just five minutes,” I said, “If it doesn’t work after five minutes, we’ll stop.”
Five minutes later with both our wrists collapsing, I said: “Okay. Okay. I give in. A mystery.” I put the jar down feeling terribly despondent.
Then my grandson looked at me. I could see an expression of sympathy crossing his face. He felt torn. He wanted to get on with something else but he obviously didn’t want to let the side down.
Suddenly, a cheeky grin crossed his face. “Come on granny!” he said, and he said it in just the same kind of cheery voice that I’d used earlier. “Come on! Never say die! Butter, here we come!”
And after about ten seconds a thumping sound came from inside the jar. My grandson stopped shaking and looked, astonished, inside.
“BUTTER!” he shouted. “GRANNY! GRANNY! BUTTER! IT’S BUTTER! WE’VE DONE IT!”
And I felt like crying with joy. We both marvelled at the pale golden lump of lardy butter that we’d created, and using a piece of muslin we squeezed the liquid out of it and put into in the fridge. Every so often, my grandson opened the fridge to look at it and gloat.
From then on the whole of the rest of the day went with a swing. It was punctuated every half hour or so by my grandson saying to me, smugly: “I made it, didn’t I granny? You were going to give up, but I said ‘Never say die!’”
What could I say?
“You did indeed!” I agreed. And of course albeit it ony buttered two small crumbs of toast, it turned out to be the most delicious butter we had ever tasted in our lives.
Granny Annexe July 2014
While I was researching a book about my mother – it was called Janey and Me – I came across a faded old newspaper cutting from the ‘fifties. Underneath a black and white reproduction of an oil painting were the words: “Different – for her, Aero. The milk chocolate that’s different.”
If Babycham was the first drink aimed specifically for women, and Virginia Slims the first cigarettes, Aero chocolate was the first chocolate advertising campaign aimed at women too. It was those bubbles. It was even advertised as “slimming”. But what made this particular advertisement so striking for me was the fact that this oil painting was of my mother.
I remembered the circumstances of it being painted only too well.
My parents, struggling designers, were living in Chelsea in the early ‘fifties, a stone’s throw from the Chelsea Arts Club. The dashing painters Rodrigo Moynihan and Robert Buhler were only a two minute walk away, as was the poet Laurie Lee. And just off the King’s Road was Dylan Thomas’s brother-in-law, the painter Anthony Devas, a hugely successful artist.
Having spent the war years in Leamington Spa where my father was a camouflage officer, my parents had come up to London. My mother eked out a living as a “little dressmaker” trying (often in vain) to sell her designs to mass production fashion companies, and my father worked as a part-time teacher at the Royal College of Art. My father (his own father had been a society doctor whose behaviour had been so appalling when it came to other women that my grandmother divorced him, almost unknown in those days) was not one to embrace the new freedoms after the war. He regarded drink, pubs, any kind of “roistering” and the “faster faster” life, as he called it, with fear and disapproval. My mother couldn’t have been more different. She longed to spend her evenings in pubs full of painters and poets and since everyone else seemed to be having affairs with everyone else, why not her?
But my memory of my mother being painted for the Aero campaign didn’t fill me with happy memories. Anthony Devas was a devastatingly attractive man – even my little eight-year-old knees used to wobble when I saw him – notorious for his effect on women. All I remember of that time is my mother returning from her sittings flushed and happy and my father filling the house with a disapproving silence.
After my mother’s death, as I was writing the book, I contacted Rowntree, who made Aero chocolate, to see where the picture might be. But the press office claimed no knowledge.
So I forgot all about it until a few months ago when I was contacted by two inspired trainee archivists at the Borthwick Institute in York, where the Rowntree archives are filed. They had uncovered 26 portraits of pretty women painted in the fifties for the Aero campaign and were trying to identify them. Could the one called “Janey” be my mother?
Indeed it was and I went up to York, along with Anthony Devas’ son and daughter, to have a look. The array of portraits swept me back to another world, a world of Peter and Jane, of bicycle rides, paraffin stoves and junket. All those fresh-faced young women – they looked so innocent – and yet I wondered how many of those sittings had caused problems at home? Were all the artists as dashing as Anthony Devas? Viktor Lazlo certainly was, and with a name to go with it. Norman Hepple was another jobbing artist who made a good living out of painting society portraits. And when I say “jobbing” it sounds unkind. But this was nearly the last generation of artists (not counting the YBAs of course) who actually made a proper living out of their paintings. They were devil-may-care and debonair men (all men) with devil-may-care and debonair names – all straight out of a Mills and Boon romance.
I looked at the picture of my mother. How troubled and sad she looked – you could almost predict her future: huge success followed by drugs, suicide attempts and death. I was briefly tempted to whisk it under my coat and smuggle it home on the train.
But then I thought: no. Not only was it too poignant, but also, and I hate to say it, there was a touch of the chocolate box about it.
Granny Annexe June 2014
I was recently asked for my views on various so-called “child abuse” cases. You can probably guess my stance by the inverted commas the use of the word “so-called”. I was just about to storm ahead, huffing and puffing, and saying that in my day we were regularly groped and fiddled with and would just brush off the unwelcome advances with an “Oh, get off you silly little man” (indeed, in those days I was rather hurt if my partner did not attempt a snog in any cinema we went to together, even if I’d only just met him) when I was confronted by a friend of 25 who said that I “couldn’t possibly say that in this day and age.”
“How would you feel if it was your daughter who was being groped?” she said. “Groping is completely unacceptable behaviour!”
Luckily I didn’t have to choose between stances as Radio Four rang to cancel the programme just in time – phew! – but I’m still confused about where I stand on many issues about which I used to have certain views in the old days. Have I turned, I asked myself, a dreadful old dinosaur who still thinks that referring to nig-nogs simply isn’t offensive (I don’t think that by the way) and bewails the night-time drinking culture and the fact that no one these days has heard of Keats or Shelley?
In the past the older generation was usually shocked by the hedonism of the young, their loose morals, their lack of manners or knowledge. I’ve read that ancient Romans oldies wrung their hands over the appalling state of the young, how stained were their togas, how rude they were in the market-place, how they pushed ahead in the queue for the gladiatorial fights. But while I’m as keen as the next oldie on condemning texting at table, lack of thank-you letters blah blah blah, on the whole what shocks me about the young is not their wayward ways but their new puritanism.
Of course I abhor mindless racism, but I have to say that though I know it’s not thought to be the right thing to say, I do think some nationalities are weirder, generally, than others. Recently I said to a friend who’d described having dinner with a couple of Americans: “Oh God no, not American’! They’re so weird!” and she was shocked. But with some exceptions I do find Americans a bit too different, culturally, to be completely comfortable with them and I bet, in their turn, they find me pretty weird as well. Is it wrong to state this? Apparently.
Then again I recently referred to a psychiatric hospital as a loonie bin. Shock horror. But if a black person can call himself what Radio Four politely calls “the n word”, why can’t I (a frequent inmate of loonie bins in the past) refer to them in that way? I can also wish my Pakistani shopkeeper a happy Christmas. I think he knows what I mean. It’s an expression of goodwill, whatever the holiday.
Teaching children at a school recently, I incurred great disapproval for putting my arms round a crying child. But I get on my moral high horse about being unable to comfort a child, particularly one I’m not related to, simply because of some blanket terror of child abuse. And as for naughty step – it may be a fashionable form of discipline, but surely isn’t it one of the most cruel?
Luckily, since I no longer drink, I’m not faced with the drink-driving challenge, though have to admit that until then, like many old person I know, I frequently drove over the limit. That’s something I don’t approve of in myself.
But I find young people’s pre-occupation with dirt rather unseemly. I don’t wish to take my shoes off before going into anyone’s house. Love me, love my shoes, I say. And as for those young people who won’t allow a cigarette to be smoked in the house, what’s all that about? Do they have no compassion?
In the end it all boils down, I suppose, to the same thing. Old people dislike change. Hedonism, puritanism, if it’s not like the old days, it’s just not our cup of tea. And that’s I may say, with two sugars if you don’t mind. That is, if the health policeman in you will allow it.
Granny Annexe May 2014
When I was a young mum in the seventies, I never had time to protest about my local Council’s often scandalous behaviour. Splendid Georgian terraces were torn down, blocks of Stalinist flats erected, vile pedestrian precincts imposed, hideous works of art installed on public land, and my response was usually a muttering of “Wicked! Someone should try to stop it!”
But now, as I Get On and have more time and, more importantly, more confidence, I find, like many other oldies, that that Someone is, actually me.
I live in London and in the last ten years I’ve been part of several small, tight-knit groups which have, among other things, prevented the local football club from using their pitch during the summer months as a pop venue, seen off a tram which was to roll down the main road, causing the destruction of local shops and mature trees – and I’ve also helped prevent, by initiating a public inquiry, a bunker-like café – or any café, come to that – being built in the middle of Shepherd’s Bush Common.
My latest campaign, along with a local residents’ group, has been to try to prevent Hammersmith and Fulham Council leasing half a local park to a private football company for no less than 35 years.
In the seventies, what I was doing instead of protesting was taking my small son up to the same local park. He’d paddle in the shallow pool in the playground and make castles in the sandpit and I’d talk to other mums, mostly from the White City Estate, and we’d make our way back past the tennis courts, the bowling green, and the basket-ball court, through the pretty Japanese Garden, overlooked by the then BBC Building.
Hammersmith Park was one of the very few areas of green open space in our green-deprived area, and, like most people, I took it for granted that it would always be there for the use of local residents. Little did I know then how vulnerable the park was.
Because all over England, local councils are going round and spotting bits of green spaces and thinking: “I wonder how we could make money out of that?” This activity is known, apparently, as “sweating the assets”. Yes, yuk. The Council have seen our park, decided they no longer want to maintain the sports facilities, and hope to lease half the park to a private football club, with 13 five and seven-a-side pitches, bar and car park, all surrounded by a twelve-foot fence and open till eleven on weekdays and midnight at weekends. True, there is an agreement that two of its tiny pitches will be made over for community use, but a local football team’s already been told it can’t play at all because it didn’t support the planning application.
The project, launched with virtually no consultation, will involve the destruction of the tennis courts (on which local people still played, despite them being unmaintained), the rather dilapidated but still usable basket-ball pitch (on which local teams played until far into the night, for free) and the bowling green, along with at the destruction of least 24 mature trees and bushes and flower beds.
After the first planning application I applied for a Judicial Review which stopped work for a while. The diggers (which had arrived a week early) stopped digging and everything was in abeyance. Since then, the company’s applied a second time for planning permission. That too has been passed but we still have a couple of ideas of how to stop the development up our sleeves. Who knows what the outcome will be. All I know is that protesting and campaigning is incredibly hard work – and carried out, in the main, by a whole gangs of game oldies, the only ones with the time, the skills and the courage to fight iniquities like these.
I hate very minute of it. I hate getting down and dirty in the grubby world of council politics, the wondering when to release the damning emails, the checking of the petitions to see if the signatures have been written by the same person, the scouring round to find kickbacks, if there are any, the endless rebuffs, the lies and the evasion.
It’s late in life we realise that we all have Civic Duties to perform. But however much we may dislike it, it’s important that perform them we do.
Granny Annexe April 2014
I’ve never seen the point of exercising deliberately. I’ve always thought that the exercise I take is quite enough already – staggering up and down the stairs looking for my car keys, then walking up and down the street looking for my car, stomping round aisle after aisle at Waitrose, and then lifting the heavy shopping back into the house. And that’s not counting the bending down to search for dropped hairpins or reaching up to rehook the shower curtain.
When a doctor asked me recently if I ever got out of breath when I ran for the bus, I heard myself replying, in the style popularised by Lady Bracknell: “Run? For a bus?”
But for some reason recently the drip-drip-drip of newspaper articles and medical advice got to me. Everywhere I turned there was yet another person suggesting I walked for twenty minutes each day (sorry, walked “briskly”), or got out of breath at least once a week, or engaged in some kind of physical activity – that is, if I didn’t want to fall off my perch in a couple of years. So I realised the only answer was either to get a dog or join a gym.
Now I know there are some people who love dogs. Some people who are turned on by the thumping tail, the panting tongue, the adoring eyes. But to be honest, I’ve always found dogs rather pitiful. I feel sad seeing them waiting to be attached to their chains. I wince hearing them being ordered to their baskets: “BASKET!” I feel I’m witnessing some kind of horrible act of abuse, about which my grandchildren’s grandchildren will say: “You mean they put dogs on chains? And they left them in a house and went out, when the poor animals never knew if their owners were ever coming back or not? So cruel!”
So I joined a gym. Now, as you may have gathered, I am not a gym person. I come from a family in which taking care of your body or, indeed, considering yourself in any way at all, was considered extremely low-grade. Showing tears, love, self-pity, compassion or taking to your bed if you felt rotten, were all things that were done on the sly and in private. After Jack Amory, a Fascist traitor who had been an unhinged pupil at my great-aunt’s school, had been sentenced to death, my great-aunt, on the day of his hanging, looked at the clock and, seeing it was midday, commented to my father: “Well, Jack’s gone. Would you pass me an orange?”
So instead of feeling a glow of self-satisfaction when I leave the gym, gasping and sweating, I come away not only feel ill with exercise but pervaded with a dreadful sense of guilt. I can almost see my great aunt pursing her lips and suggesting that, next time, I might prefer to sit down and read a good book on Gothic architecture.
The only plus is that the machines at the gym all have tellies incorporated into their screens – the ones which show you the time, the heartbeat and so on. And although most of the time there’s nothing to watch except shows about antiques, quizzes, or old Westerns, or people buying or making over their houses, I did manage to catch one gem of a series that drew me back to the gym each week. Keith Floyd’s cooking programmes were repeated and I fell in love. It’s quite fun falling in love with a dead person, because you can never be disappointed or betrayed. Many people have told me what an impossibly unpleasant person Keith could be. But all I see is the darling in him. And even though here I am, gasping and puffing and, no doubt, looking terrible and feeling wretchedly guilty, here’s good old Keith, in his impeccable linen suit, his bow tie immaculately tied, looking me in the eyes over a sliver of marinated veal, winking and flirting and sipping and laughing.
Unfortunately the series is over and I’m now lumbered with a terrible panel of fat old cooks in jerseys and jeans, all joshing and being blokish over coarse slabs of beef and making jokes about sprouts (surely one of the more delicious vegetables, no? I’m sure Keith would have loved them).
I have a feeling that at this rate the fitness jag is soon going to go the way of all jags. Goodbye Keith and back to Waitrose for my weekly exercise fix.
Granny Annexe March 2014
I was eighteen in 1962 when I started writing my first book. I’d go to art school during the day, go out in the evening and, when I came home to Chelsea, I’d get out my Woody Woodbines, start typing on an old portable typewriter and hope my dad didn’t catch me smoking. When I’d finished, I put it in a drawer.
To be honest the plot was pretty thin. It was about a young art student in the early sixties, living at home with her father, and it was all about her adventures in the King’s Road. No prize for guessing whether it was semi-autobiographical or not.
I was had no idea of how a book was published. Luckily, though, I’d sent an amusing piece (my first ever) to About Town, a very chic and groovy magazine. The features editor – then Michael Parkinson – accepted it and, once it came out, I got a letter from a mysterious company called Secker and Warburg. “Had I,” they wanted to know, “ever thought of writing a book?”
Now the reason they wanted to know was because a young debutante, Charlotte Bingham, had just had a huge success with a book called Coronet Among the Weeds, her hilarious adventures on the deb scene. Naturally enough they were dying to get on the bandwagon and find their own “young person.” And I was that young person.
To a generation which had just come out of the war, a generation raised on ration books, black-outs, who’d lived through what Cyril Connolly called the “drab decade”, young people, with their mini-skirts, jobs, affluence, easy access to contraception, drugs and rock’n’roll, must have seemed like a different species. Everyone wanted to know about them. “What did ‘fab’ mean?” they used to ask. “Why do young men want to wear their hair so long?” “Who is The Who?”
So when I got the letter I got my book out of the drawer, bunged it off and bingo, it was published. It was called Chelsea Bird and it featured one of the first bed-scenes between unmarried young people. A magazine called New Society even wrote an article about it. The fact that the bed- scene consisted of the sentences “He fumbled with my bra. I hoped this wasn’t going to be a two-hour job” didn’t seem to matter. It was new, it was shocking and the life-style was, to most older people, incomprehensible.
My jacket photograph was taken by the very scary Jeffrey Bernard who, I remember, sneered when I offered him a cigarette which, for some inexplicable reason, seemed to have turned from my usual trendy Woodie into a hopelessly unfashionable Craven A Navy Cut. He left the photo session without saying goodbye. I suppose, when I think back, he as just as terrified of me at that age as I was of him.
The book caused a minor sensation. I was interviewed and photographed by leering snappers who set me at the top of a ladder and photographed my legs. There was a glut of us young authoresses. There was my friend Annabel Dilke’s with Rule Three Pretend to Nice and Andrew Newman with Three into Two Won’t Go.
Now my publishers have brought the book out on Kindle. But before they launched it, a rather nervous young editor rang. “Would you like to check it over first?” she said. “There might be some things that, in the present climate, you might want to change.”
And I must say that even I, not particularly politically correct, was shocked to see how many times the words “spade” “Jew” “queer” and even, horror of horrors, “common” were sprinkled through the text. (Curious, isn’t it, how unmentionable words change? In the fifties, Evelyn Home the agony aunt at Woman magazine was told she couldn’t use the word “menstruation” or “bottom” – not even as in “bottom of the garden” or “bottom of the saucepan.” )
I’ve taken the shocking words out, and there it is. I’m slightly horrified to find there is a naivety and a total heartlessness about it that can only belong to the young who, selfishly, have no idea how other people – like my grandparents for instance, who were cruelly mocked – might have feel when they were pinned to the page. Still, it’s a period piece and sometimes even I, years later, find it rather a good insight into how the mind of “young person” actually works.
Granny Annexe January 2014
Recently I was called up for Jury Service. And was I cross. Now I know it’s part of a democratic legal process, but I’ve been called up three times. Yes, three times. And I know several people of my own age who’ve never been called up at all!
What gets me is, if you’ve done Jury Service once, why can’t you be given a break until everyone else has been used up? Because as far as I remember it, Jury Service was petty unbearable.
We potential jurors were ushered into a smoke-filled waiting room in a Willesden court. And there we waited, hour upon hour, until we were called. It was like a hospital waiting room, all of us filled with anticipatory dread, eying each other suspiciously and wondering if we could bear to be stuck in a room together for days or, perhaps, even weeks.
When we were finally called I found myself among a surly group I pegged as fuzz-hating strangers, all of whom had me pegged as some kind of middle-aged Sloane Ranger. There was only one other person like me, a woman from Knightsbridge called, as far as I remember, Fiona.
The case featured a guy who’d been accused of driving when banned. We heard that he was an impoverished single parent of a disabled child. His dementia-ridden mother, relied on him totally, and he’d been out of work for weeks since the charge. Driving was his occupation. On and on it went, chapter after chapter of misery. The only problem was: he was guilty. At least Fiona and I thought he was. In those days we believed the police.
We went back to our brown-painted jury-room to discuss it. Fiona and I were in the minority but there were two other people who agreed with us and two more don’t knows. Slowly the don’t-knows fell. Then another guilty-voter. Fiona and I went for lunch together – the other jurors making the sign of the cross and spitting as we passed – and had a sad sandwich on high stools in a steamy café round the corner. By the time we returned we were the only two guilty voters left. We were just about to troop back in with a majority verdict when the foreman, an extremely bright taxi-driver called Jim, stopped. He appeared to be doing calculations in his head.
“I’m not so sure we’re right,” he said. We all sat down again while he drew diagrams on a piece of paper in front on him.
“Now look,” he said. “If our man wasn’t driving, as he said he wasn’t, who was? There six people in the car, three at the back and three at the front. One of them had a broken leg, so couldn’t drive and one, according to our man and the police, had got off at a service station. Another one was taken on board entering on the passenger side – so he must be ruled out – and one of the men in the back needed to go to the toilet. But when they returned to the car, our man couldn’t have been in the back because if Man A was lying, then Man B wasn’t on his way to Kent, as he’d said, and if he wasn’t lying, then how could Man C have got from the toilet to the passenger side of the back sat in three minutes? Divide the whole thing by seven, multiply by two, take away Man D and what do we have? Our man was driving! So he must be guilty!”
Well, it wasn’t quite like that of course, but similar. Slowly the non-guilty sayers were persuaded and, apart from a couple of grumpy women who said even if he was guilty they wanted him to get off we reached a majority verdict of guilty.
Turned out the guy had a criminal record as long as your arm, including one for dangerous driving in which he’d seriously injured a pedestrian, and we all strongly suspected there was no son and no mother.
Fiona and I went out, but we still felt strangely miserable. Just the act of passing judgement was an onerous and sad task.
So since then, when I’ve next been asked, I’ve got out of it. Second time because I was a single mother, and last time because of the cataract op and the fact that my insides are held together by pieces of string.
I say again. It’s someone else’s turn.
Granny Annexe November 2013
I was surprised when a young friend asked, as we were descending a long flight of marble stairs, if I’d like her to move to the other side of me.
“Why?” I said.
“So you can use the handrail,” she said.
Naturally I was touched, but also, honestly, astounded. And rather worried. She clearly thought I’d fall if I wasn’t hanging on for dear life to a banister.
“I’m fine!” I said as I scampered, child-like down the whole flight of stairs leaving her far behind.
But I was kidding myself. And her. I was taking my life in my hands. The thing is that I just can’t see as well as I used to. And it affects my walking. Recently I was wandering about the kitchen in the morning, when I’d just got up, and I heard a faint rhythmic rustling noise. I stopped. It stopped. I started moving again and it started again. Then the penny dropped. It was me all along. I was shuffling. Me! Shuffling! That’s a sign of someone who’s walking carefully. Very carefully.
And to compound matters, I was telling a friend the other day how helpful everyone was to me on my travels. “They’re always offering to carry my suitcase over railway bridges,” I said. “But it’s most odd. Because I don’t think that, having had a facelift, I look that old.”
“You don’t,” he agreed. “I think it’s probably your gait.”
My gait? My gait? Crikey, there’s no operation that can fix that!
But there is an operation that can help the old eyesight, so that one might be a bit more confident about where one puts one feet, so I hurried off to have a cataract op. I’m aware that this column hardly deserves the title of Granny Annexe. It should be called Hospital Corner. But here goes. Another visit to the doctor.
He explained that though I wouldn’t necessarily see any better, I would be able to see a lot more light, making driving easier at night (I’ve only recently avoided killing several cyclists in the dark) and, perhaps, walking too. Ending, I hoped, my having to grope my way along walls of the streeets on my way home in the dark, reminiscent of those afternoons of my childhood when I struggled to feel my way home through pea-soupers..
Amazingly, the operation could be performed in a day. Having once accompanied a charity called Orbis, is a flying eye hospital that lands in places like Dacca and performs eye ops by the billion, I knew vaguely how the operation worked. The surgeon makes a tiny hole in the eye, bungs in a goblin-sized hammer, breaks up the old lens, then inserts an elf-like Hoover and suck out the bits, and then bungs anew lens in. At least that’s the impression I got. And certainly it was very moving watching blind Bangladeshis being helped in with kindly relatives, only to emerge, a couple of days later, singing and dancing.
I was half awake while the bloke was doing the hoovering, but though I was chatting to him during the op, I couldn’t feel a thing, and the following morning I woke up at home, took off my compulsory eye patch and was convinced I’d gone blind. But a few hours later panicking had changed to marvelling. The whole place looked so bright. At least it did through my one “done” eye. The place was like a Persil ad. Never had my whites seemed whiter! And if I put my hand over my “done” eye and looked at the world through the old one, I felt I was living in a Fitzrovia pub in the fifties. Everything was covered with a yellow nicotiney stain. Or, another way of putting it, it was as if I was wearing those cheap clip-on dark glasses from the seventies. Everything was yellowish brown. Now, through my good eye, my house, which used do seem so dark, looked a lot lighter. In fact I’m wondering if I haven’t found the answer to my moving house dilemma. Don’t change the house, but change your perception of it.
Of course now I can’t wait to have the other eye done.
It hasn’t made a lot of difference to my walking, I’m afraid. But at least now when I shuffle now I can see very clearly as I do it.
Granny Annexe October 2013
I was one of the very lucky people who had not one, not two but three magical teachers at school. Out of a morass of grey-faced, grey-bunned, grey-clothed old miseries (the geography teacher was an alcoholic, the French teacher had the beginnings of dementia, the history teacher, was obsessed with the Ancient Egyptians, the art teacher was my father so didn’t count), these stood out.
One was Miss Norcross who taught maths, known as “Snorks”. She had actually discovered some mathematical equation which is known, I believe, as the Norcross equation, and she made maths, for me at least, a pure joy.
Miss Kelvin was an Austrian refugee with swollen legs and a generous nature and a furious temper. She was working here illegally as a piano teacher, but had she stayed in Vienna she could easily have been a concert pianist. She had been taught by Theodor Leschetitzky who had been taught by Czerny, who was taught by Beethoven. Leschetitzky also taught, along with Mrs. Kelvin, such greats as Paderewski, Schnabel, and Moiseiwitsch.
But the star of the show was Miss Staynes, our English and Latin teacher, who died this summer. I remember the first day she arrived at school in the mid ‘fifties – in a bubble car, a Gogomobil. Out she stepped like a butterfly from a chrysalis. She was only 28, by far the youngest teacher in the school, and she had long glossy hair always done up in a chignon, over which, when going out, she wore a big black hat. She wore a belted leather jacket, turquoise stockings, a pink stole and had a long black velvet skirt and often turquoise stockings. We didn’t know it then, but once, at Oxford, she’d been engaged to Kenneth Tynan. When I went to visit her later she told me she’d broken it off because “Going up the stairs with him to a grand lunch I paused to look in a mirror to check my hair. He pushed in front of me to check his. During lunch I said to him: ‘I don’t think this is going to work’”
Miss Staynes laid down firm rules on essay writing. “Never describe anything is ‘nice’ and never say, at the end of a story, that you woke up and it was all just a dream.” She impressed us all once as she kept her cool when one of our class, the mentally-ill daughter of a government minister, approached her, bearing a knife and intoning the words: “Something is wrong…”
“Nothing is wrong,” said Miss Staynes. “Please sit down. It is your turn to translate.”
She found the English and Latin grammar books so dull that she re-wrote versions especially for us and she was so captivating that she could even make Caesar’s Wars interesting. And she was the only teacher who took us out. We saw Joan Plowright as St Joan in Stratford, we visited the British Museum to look at “step cut diamonds”, she read us “the Lord of the Rings” – playing a formidable “Gollum” – and one day she took all of us, a class of fifteen-year-olds to the X-rated film of the Japanese Macbeth, The Throne of Blood. She managed to convince the lady at the ticket office that we were all sixteen and in we went.
The actress Jane Birkin, who was at the same school as me, but younger, was so enamoured of Miss Staynes that she actually asked her over to Paris to appear in a television show about her life, as a major influence on her work. She still talks of her in interviews as alone of her great mentors. And four of the pupils I know have gone on to become writers – myself, Georgina Howell, Fiona MacCarthy and Barbara Erskine.
At her memorial service, where I gave an address, her partner read out one of her poems.
“They said goodbye/ Formal, their faces changed by emotion/I offered my hand in civilised farewell/Saying the things I had said to so many/ ‘You’ll come back and see us again’ knowing/They are never the same./ My hand was pulled at, my cheek kissed/And the girl, releasing me, flung her arm,/Awkward, across her eyes/More like six than sixteen/I went on smiling and reassuring. I know don’t know/What I said./ Later I wept/ For children who were not my own/But whom, in my way, I had nourished.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Granny Annexe September 2013
Mention the prospect of an MRI scan these days and you produce the same reaction among your contemporaries as you did when discussing ghosts or the bogeyman with them when you were six.
Their faces go grey and they start to shake with fear and dread.
Am I the only person in the world to enjoy them?
A nurse showed me into a cubicle and, after I’d taken off all my clothes, stashed my watch, my ring and my spex into a locker, sat me down to grill me.
“Do you have any pacemakers?” she asked. “Pins in your legs or anywhere in your body?” She has to ask this because, apparently, the scanner is hugely magnetic and if you have anything in your body that’s metal, it either drags it out of you, through all your flesh, or it forces the metallic object that’s inside you up to roof of the machine leaving you stuck there until the thing’s turned off. A patient suffering agonising stomach pains who had an MRI scan to find out what was up, practically died of pain when it turned out a very sharp scalpel had been left inside her body during her last operation. You can imagine the results. Or so, at least, goes the urban myth.
Tattoos? Apparently there is metal in some of the tattoo ink. Not much fun when the carefully-etched tiger on your chest starts rising, pulling all your flesh skywards.
“Nothing at all. The only bit of metal in me is a will of iron,” I said.
“A will of iron?” she asked, looking up briefly, puzzled.
“Don’t worry. Only a joke. You’ve probably heard it before,” I said, though clearly she hadn’t.
Next she said: “Now, I have to ask you this. Is there any reason to think you might be pregnant?”
Feeling immensely flattered that anyone could possibly imagine I was pregnant at my great age and congratulating myself yet again one the results of the facelift I had years ago which still doesn’t seem to have collapsed, I jokingly replied: “No, of course not! Unlikely anyway, because I am, after all, 103.”
Far from laughing lightly, she really did start at this revelation. “You’re not!” she said, staring into my face. “Not really?”
“No, not really,” I said, suddenly flattened again. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
Taking me into another room, she hoisted me onto a bed, positioned just outside an enormous white metal tube. She placed various lumps of plastic around me and told me that the whole procedure would take twenty minutes. “You stay still,” she ordered. “If you move a fraction of a millimetre, the scan will blur. And I suggest that, since many people can find this rather claustrophobic, you close your eyes.”
She gave me a plastic tube with a bulb attached to it, which she said I could press if I couldn’t stand it, warned me that the whole was incredibly noisy, shoved me inside the tube and left to switch the contraption on.
I had decided long before I submitted myself to this torture, that I would keep myself sane by counting the number of seconds in twenty minutes. It would keep my mind occupied and stop me freaking out thinking: “How long have I been in here? Hours or days? What if there’s a fire in the hospital and everyone’s evacuated and they forget about me? What if my particular nurse has a heart attack and dies and no one finds my body till tomorrow when I’ll be found, scanned to a crisp inside the machine and, no doubt, changed beyond recognition?”
And was it noisy! It was like operating a power drill in the middle of Oxford Street without protective earphones. But after a while I started to get into it. I discovered that there was something utterly blissful about lying there, the centre of attention, with nothing, absolutely nothing to do. I felt like a much-loved sleeping baby being stared at by its adoring relations.
In fact, when it was all over and I was hauled out, I said: “God, I could have stayed in there all day!” and at that point the nurse looked even more astonished than she had done when I’d said I was 103.
Granny Annexe August 2013
When he was young, my son and I liked nothing more than to visit Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, which was housed in a ramshackle cottage on Arundel High Street. Walter Potter was a Victorian taxidermist, who not only collected the most peculiar bits and pieces – he displayed a quantity of two-headed pigs in bottles, not mention six-legged lambs and possible the odd tiny dwarf – but he also assembled the strangest anthropomorphic dioramas. There was a terrific set piece of “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin”, a woodland scene in a huge case which included ninety-eight species of British birds and a variety of other animals dressed up. If you pressed certain buttons, different sections lit up, revealing, perhaps, the Beetle, making the shroud with his needle and thread, or the Fish, with his little dish to catch the blood. And there were charming glass cabinets which showed, variously, a rats’ den being raided by the local police rats, a village school featuring forty-eight little rabbits busy writing on tiny slates and the Kittens’ Tea Party – they were playing a game of croquet. Elsewhere a guinea pigs’ cricket match was in progress, and twenty kittens attended a wedding, wearing little morning suits or brocade dresses, with a feline vicar on hand in white surplice.
My son, Will, even did a project based on the collection, called, at first “Freaks of Nature” and then (in the interests of burgeoning political correctness) “Natural Oddities.”
Sadly, the collection was broken up – thankfully Peter Blake bought quite a few of the set pieces – but my son and I continued to be fascinated by Potter’s art. I bought a stuffed duck from a car boot sale and dolled it up in a hat, dark glasses and an umbrella. I also acquired a stuffed tortoise and a couple of freeze-dried ducklings (don’t ask). In his freezer my son has kept various small animals brought in by the cats – shrews and birds – hoping one day to stuff them. And then I found the perfect treat for both of us. A four-hour taxidermy workshop. “Mice and accessories included!” “Nothing is killed for this class. All mice used are feeder animals for snakes and lizards and would literally be discarded if not sold!” “No former taxidermy experience needed!”
It was held at Hackney City Farm, a wonderful centre for young East Londoners, which features such attractions as Greg the goose, and Charlock and Clover “our beautiful Golden Guernsey Goats.”
“I’m taking Will to the taxidermists!” I told a friend.
“But have you told him?” asked the friend, aghast. “Or are you going to stuff each other?”
It was all very macabre. There were about twenty of us, mainly trendy young women of around 35. At the beginning of the class we sat at tables laid with frozen mice and a variety of scalpels. First, we were told, we had to warm up our mice by rolling them around in our hands, before slitting them down the tummy and removing their insides. Well, I won’t go into all the details; suffice to say the process first involved a lot of holding of noses, bone-cracking and scraping before the skins were washed and hung up to dry with a hair dryer. Once they were ready, we were forced to pull out the eyeballs and the tongues, then given wire and cotton wool as stuffing and, finally, we had to get our creatures into some kind of shape before inserting beads for eyes and stitching the skins up with a needle and thread.
I glued mine onto a chair, stuck a tiny top hat on his head, gave him a pair of specs, and had him reading the Times. Will opted for his to play a minuscule ukulele.
Taxidermy, it seems, is all the rage. The classes are sold out far in advance. People can’t wait to get stuffing. It seems it’s partly because they’re a couple of generations away from the old colonels who returned from Africa with stuffed lions and tigers and elephants (very non pc these days), and partly because of the fashion for the bizarre popularised by the Damien Hirst/ Marc Quinn generation of YBAs – cutting cows in half, casting heads in blood and so on.
As we left late at night, stuffed mice in hands and glowing with satisfaction, we peered through the darkness over the fences at the Hackney City Farm. To Greg the goose and the Golden Guernsey Goats, all I can say is: Watch out!
Granny Annexe July 2013
When I came across my first family tree I was extremely disappointed. I was about eleven, and I’d been hoping for a picture of a proper tree –with roots, leaves, trunk and so on. Instead, I was confronted by something that looked like a preliminary sketch by Mondrian, before he’d started colouring in. All those straight lines; it was so unromantic.
And anyway, the whole thing seemed cockeyed. Why were my ancestors at the top of the page, and me at the bottom? Why did this “tree” seem to grow downwards? Surely my ancestors should be down in the roots, under a straight line of ground, and all living members of the family, my grandparents, parents and, in future, any children and grandchildren, should show as the little green shoots above the ground? The architectural construct of a family tree made sense when you knew how it worked, but it didn’t make sense in an emotional way. Another reason that my ancestors should be below the ground was because they were, after all, long dead and buried.
For a long time my youth, coupled with the disappointment about the design of the tree put me off finding out anything about my family. But then one day, when I was around sixty, it all became rather more interesting. The curiosity in my past suddenly came over me, like acne. The day before my sixtieth birthday I couldn’t have given a pin about it. But I woke up at sixty stroking my chin and thinking: “Hmm, I wonder who my ancestors were?”
I was even driven to do a bit of research. Oh yes, I’ve put in my hours at the Family Records Office – room after room of white-haired couples, him in the driving seat, as it were, facing the computer and in charge of the mouse; she sitting slightly behind, squinting over his shoulder to see whether the records delivered up any information about whether Emily Jarvis, widow of this parish, say, d 1708, ever had any children. I wandered round a few graveyards, too, and found them packed with oldies of my own age, poring over church ledgers, often with little knives at the ready to pick the moss from the lettering on their ancestors’ graves.
True, I dug up a few interesting ancestors. There was Viscount Radcliffe, who nipped over to India after Independence and drew the appalling boundary partition between India and Pakistan, Charlotte Despard, suffragette and author of a book called Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow, and Field Marshall Lord Ironside hero of the First World War and not such a hero of the Second. I remember my great-aunt, Rene Ironside, who was also headmistress of my school, dragging the poor Field Marshall round all the classrooms one day when he came to visit. “Here is a Field Marshall,” she said, shoving him forward “You may never see another one”. (He followed one of the last lavender sellers who she’d hauled in from the street who was ordered to sing her cry in front of us all.)
But slowly my enthusiasm waned. I learned pretty early on that the family tree obsession is a mainly male activity, a sophisticated kind of trainspotting. The role the wives played at the Family Records Office was to provide sandwiches, marvel at the latest findings, and thank God their husbands had found something to “keep them busy” and “out of mischief” after they’d retired.
But I suppose there’s more to it than that. An interest in one’s past is to establish, before we die, that we have some kind of place in a grand design, rather than that we’re just random dots living and dying like bubbles in the air. An interest in our past consoles us that life has a meaning, that we’re part of some tribal heritage, that we belong in the great scheme of things. And reassures us that one day we’ll be a significant dot on a chart compiled by our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
I can just hear them, as they try to get their grandchildren interested in the whole thing. “Yes, yes, there was this woman who wrote books and had an agony column and married an environmentalist, had a son who played the ukulele, “ they’ll say. “BOR-ING! Can I go now?”
And then, one day, as they grow much older, they’ll think again.
Granny Annexe June 2013
As a single woman, it’s often very tempting to take a package holiday. There’s ready-made company and, on occasion, you can find another like-minded soul who’s happy to break away from the tour and discover out-of-the-way places with you, a deux.
But it’s only “on occasion”. This is the problem. And even I, when faced with the prospect of hiring my own taxi and going off by myself to see the Acropolis or the Taj Mahal, find myself all too often being seduced by the free guided tour provided by the organisers. Doesn’t it seem madly wasteful – not to mention risky – to do your own thing all the time, when you could just pour yourself into a bus and be taken straight to the sight, with all meals sorted, for nothing?
But, oh, I shouldn’t listen to that seductive will-o’-the-wisp! I regret it every time. From the moment that I find, because I’ve kindly let a 100-year-old person with a walking frame get on the bus in front of me (which means that by the time I embark all the window seats have been taken), to the last minute diversion we have to suffer to visit the guide’s cousin’s carpet shop, I usually regret every minute of a tour, feeling like a furious child on a school trip.
The last time, our guide (who always takes the best front seat on the bus) was a joker. Or, as she put it, “choker”. “I expect you know the ABC of tourism?” she said, before she hauled us off to the third largest cathedral in northern Bulgaria. “It stand for Another Bloody Church! And now I am taking you to another bloody church! My little choke! This cathedral was built in the middle ages by Sergei the Seventh, and what is most interesting about this is that the stones are all from the Glaaner region, and consist of igneous rock, first construct in 5000 BC. It is also 200 kilometres above sea level.”
Straining to make herself heard over the driver’s insistence on playing the Middle-European version of Radio Two, she told us, between stops at ABCs, that the cheese they make was “like feta but better!” (“You see, we have better feta, my little choke!”) And when one of our group stuck up his hand and asked: “How many kilometres above sea level did you say we were?” I could have brained him. There’s always one bloke, isn’t there, who asks: “How much grain do you export to the European Union every year?” or “Is the lace made only by women or are there men who make lace as well?”
Guides don’t have to be intelligent or amusing not only because they’ve got a captive audience – 40 of us trapped in a bus in a foreign country – but because however bad they are, we’ll never be going again. We’re at the mercy of their dismal facts – “Every year we grow ten thousand avocados. Here we have saying: ‘He who eats the avocado will marry beautiful girl’” – , their terrible chokes and their appallingly boring itineraries. “We will now visit the Street of Tears where many shops for you to buy beautiful gifts from our region, and perhaps you would like a visit to the lavatory as well, I will show you. Why is called the Street of Tears? Because every year the river at the top overflows actually and the street runs with water, so that is the interesting story of why this street is called the Street of Tears. You now have seven minutes for photograph and shopping.”
We’re all captive. None of can speak the language, none of know where the hell we actually are, and none of us would be able to find a local restaurant on our own, so when we’re all herded into a huge hotel for lunch, helping ourselves from a buffet crammed with Russian tourists, Dutch tourists and French tourists, we’re too knackered and brain-washed to do anything but sit down and eat. Usually a couple of leaden boreks.
If I ever find myself on a tour bus again I’m going to start a revolution. At the end I’ll refuse to clap or give a tip and I’ll start up a slow hand-clap, while shouting “Boring! Boring!” and “Off! Off! Off!”
Not really, actually. Sadly, I won’t dare. Chust my little choke.
Granny Annexe May 2013
It’s no fun, is it?
Each day you wake up and open your eyes and breathe and check for headache, cough, aching nose, and find, to your dismay, that they’re all present. No change at all since last night. Or the night before. Or the night before that. Worse, if anything. Then, a vain attempt at positive thinking, you check for a single milligram of energy or bean that might have sprung up, like a snowdrop, in the night, to give you a smidgeon of hope. Nothing. You feel as if some dark psychic power has dragged a huge lawn-roller over your soul and then got a giant to jump on it in hobnailed boots. Not a smidgeon of life.
Finally, prising yourself out of bed, you stagger to the mirror to see if any single sign of recovery can be observed in your face but all that stares back at you – though stare is rather too active a verb for the kind of half-hearted goggle that’s reflected in the glass – is a sheet of greyish-white that reflects the sky outside, a mouth the colour of ash, and two limp marbles like the eyes of a dead fish, with not a glint in them to be seen.
It’s like examining the British economy for signs of recovery. Even outsiders are no good. A friend rang this mooring and I only had to croak “Hello” and she said: “Oh dear. I can hear you’re no better. No change then.”
It used not to be like this. When I was ill in the old days, I was put into my parents’ bed and given a jigsaw puzzle to do on one of my father’s larger drawing boards. Occasionally my mother or father would come up to read to me, after placing a mug of warm milk and a peeled and cut-up apple on a saucer by my bed. My temperature was taken by doctor who would sit by looking at his watch. He’d feel my pulse and prescribe something called Veganin. Every couple of hours someone would take my hot water bottle away and top it up with hotter water. Someone else would come in with a clean nightie. My hair would be brushed by unseen hands and if I was lucky my face would be sponged down before lunch was brought to me – chicken soup, a yoghurt with sugar and a jelly.
And as I slowly got better, my father would bring some paper cut-out book he’d bought at a craft shop and we’d make a paper fairground full of seals and clowns, or we’d play Beggar-my –Neighbour or Halma, with me having to keep my knees very still in case the pieces slid into one corner.
Now it’s all changed. It’s all pacing from room to room feeling as if I’m in prison. It’s staring at the ceiling wondering what will happen when we run out of water or if there’s a terrorist plot that makes the Internet crash and everything grind to a halt. It’s wondering if I have any real friends at all. Or if I’ve really got a terminal disease that no one’s spotted. It’s trying to change the sheets and giving up half-way through, gasping. It’s hiding my nightie under my coat and shuffling round to the corner shop in my slippers to buy a pint of milk. It’s friends telling me to “Listen to my body” and saying no matter I’ve got a gig coming up with 200 seats booked, no matter I’m going out to a special dinner organised by an ex-boyfriend who I haven’t seen for ten years, no matter I’d arranged to take the grandchildren to the theatre, no matter my friend from Spain is coming over for one day only, no matter that a meeting’s been arranged with curator of a major art gallery with a view to showing my uncle’s pictures, no matter I have a deadline to write this column, all these must be cancelled. Right now.
Well, I shall wait and see about most of these. But I’ll write this column. Because, of course, it may well be my last. And I’d like to say goodbye to you, my readers, before I expire. If I’m not going to die of this beastly virus, you see, I am determined at least to die of self-pity.
You’ll be sorry when I’m gone…
Granny Annexe April 2013
The girlfriend I met for lunch looked washed out and frightened. “I must have a drink!” she said, desperately. A couple of glasses later she told me her story. She had consulted her doctor with a pain in her neck and he’d recommended that, since she was a private patient she see a specialist on BUPA.
The very word made the colour drain from my own face. I recalled the last times I’d consulted this kind, caring, medical provider and it made my blood run cold.
In the old days, when you paid BUPA around £1000 a year for medical cover, you’d ring up, armed with a letter from your doctor, and the sympathetic woman at the other end would ask who you wanted to consult and then provide you with an authorisation number. “Take care,” she’d say. “I hope it goes well for you, dear.”
But that was the old days. Now, when one’s paying four or five times the yearly fee, getting an authorisation number is like getting blood out of a stone. Or a stone out of a kidney, perhaps.
Recently I rang with a knee problem. A severe-sounding man told me he would put me through to the “knee team”. There’s a team for everything now at BUPA. A team for eyes, a team for hearts and so on, each team no doubt, vying with each other to achieve some appalling goal which is to let as few of their patients have any treatment at all.
I was put through. And despite the fact that I had the name of the consultant I wanted to see, the person the other end suddenly said: “Have you heard of Apos Therapy?” “No” I said, puzzled. She then explained that this treatment was non-invasive and worked very well for painful knees, was highly recommended, and was, if I didn’t already know, non-invasive. “We find many of our clients find Apos Therapy works wonders,” she added. “It’s non-invasive.” Well, first of all I thought she had a cheek to recommend a treatment for a knee she’d never seen. For all she knew I had green mushrooms growing from it which needed immediate treatment. Second, I was not interested in non-invasive (ie “cheap”) treatment. When I have a pain, I like to be properly invaded by health professionals, armed with drugs, knives and special prescriptions to make me well.
I turned down the Apos Therapy and managed, after hours of wrangling, to be allowed to see a consultant. (BUPA have a cunning scheme these days. They’ve de-listed some particularly expensive consultants and they won’t let you see them – not even if you offer to pay the difference. It’s caused a scandal. And for God’s sake don’t have a cataract. The cataract “team” at BUPA will apparently only pay a fraction of the treatment.)
I asked the knee consultant about Apos Therapy, he said he’d never heard of it, it was irresponsible of anyone to recommend it, team or not, and if I had any sense I’d move to a different healthcare provider care as he had done.
My next BUPA encounter was when I needed an MRI scan to see if I had cancer of the womb. “Not without a consultant’s letter,” said the woman. “I have a consultant’s letter!” I said. I’m not that dumb. “He’s not a consultant!” she declared.
I burst into tears. “Please, please! I’m worried sick! I pay you a fortune to relieve me of my medical worries and you delay treatment while the cancer grows and grows…I dread it every time I ring you.. what is going on?” I sobbed.
I put down the phone but, emboldened by the advice of the receptionist at the medical centre, I rang back to complain and found another woman who this time said she was sorry, the other woman had got it wrong, the consultant I’d referred to was a consultant after all and yes, it was okay. And I had it and found I was cancer free and all was well.
Apparently the Office of Fair Trading referred the medical insurance industry to the Competition Commission in April, citing concerns about rising costs and value for money for customers. A report is expected in this month. My “team” and I are looking forward to reading it.
Granny Annexe March 2013
I recently went to the cinema and saw a film. In this film there was a partiuclar scene. It was filmed from behind a man walking down a suburban street in a small American town. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the samey houses all had lawns that ran down to the road with little white picket fences dividing them up. On one lawn was a sprinkler. On another, a Philippino was doing some gardening. Down the road came a woman with some shopping held in a brown paper bag, and a little girl bicycled into the scene and disappeared from view. On the left, a man in track-suit bottoms removed his post from one of those funny boxes on sticks they have in the US. On the right another man was washing his car.
And I realised: I’ve seen this scene before. Exactly the same. Not only have I seen it before, I’ve seen it in about a hundred different films over the years. Later in the film there was a dance competition (no prize for the answer as to who won enough points to win the crucial bet) and a ballgame (no prize for the answer … ). I’d probably seen the entire film before. No, not the literal film, of course – it was only just on release. But I’d seen so many films almost identical it’s near as dammit.
I staggered out with the terrible realisation: I’ve probably seen all the films, one way or another, there are to see. Most of them are just made up of exactly the same cliché shots glued together in a different order.
Then I began to wonder. I’ve probably seen most bits of weather, too. Sun, snow, wind, rain, hurricanes, smog – yes, I’ve even seen bits of weather than young people will never see. And I was struck with the frightful thought. Does this way of thinking actually apply to people, too? Have I lived so long that there’s nothing new in the world? Am I getting jaded?
I mean I know we’re meant to approach each person we meet as a completely new experience. No two people are ever alike, after all. Every person is an individual as their fingerprint. But, let’s be honest, like fingerprints, a lot of them are terribly similar, don’t you think? I’ve just been listening to Phineas Phinn on audio disc and there’s not a single character I haven’t met in real life – and have often met many times in different guises. Within a few minutes of meeting a new person at a party, I’ll pretty soon find myself saying to myself: ”Oh yes, one of those” and depending on whether I like that type or not, I make my excuses and leave, or stay.
I can spot an alcoholic at 100 paces, whether he’s drinking or not, I can divine a crashing bore just by the sound of his voice. When a woman starts saying: “Isn’t it awful about Syria…” I know to move on, and when I see anyone wearing really extraordinarily beautifully designed clothes, I move close.
Many people I meet are shocked when I tell them this new discovery. But although I’ll politely reassure them that I don’t really mean it, privately, I’m whispering to myself: “Ah, you’re one of those sorts of people, are you? The sort who can’t bear to think that most people aren’t quite as interesting as we often think and hope they might turn out to be. Well, you’re off my list for a start. Next!”
And yes, sometimes I even feel I know myself a bit too well. As I stumble across another new revelation, I often find myself thinking: “But hey – didn’t I have this revelation when I was nine years old? And then again at 23? And then at 45 and 52?”
Have I really had a new thought for years? Aren’t I in fact constantly leafing through the old internal photograph album, getting shocked by the same things, worrying on the same old lines, feeling slighted by the same old friends, laughing at the same old jokes.
And then I start going mad. And realise it’s time to get hold of a grandchild. Children never let you down. Because as yet unformed, they’re always original, fresh and new.
Or did I think that thought only the other day? Oh, God. I think I did.
Grannie Annexe February 2013
“I wish, grannie,” said my grandson recently, rather wistfully, recently, “that Corky was still around.”
Corky was my last cat. And I mean my last. I’ve gone off them. And not just cats. All pets. Dogs, budgies, grass snakes, goldfish, hamsters, guinea pigs and black mollies, the whole lot. I wouldn’t like to have a stick insect or, even, that lowest form of life, the Sea Monkey, barely visible to the naked eye.
It’s odd. I know that we’re all made of the same cells and we’re all part of the same throbbing life force, but even so, having been what my friends would refer to as a “cat person” all my life, I now can’t stand the things.
The problem is, none of them have been like the best cat ever, Bob. Now Bob was a cat and a half. He had no tail but he wasn’t a breed. He’d just been born like that. (I once told my son, when he was very small, to say nothing about his godfather’s lack of an arm. “He didn’t lose it in the war. He was just born like that.” I said. Naturally enough when his godfather came into the room, he remarked on Bob’s lack of tail. “He was born without it,” said my son at once. “Just like you.”)
Bob had an incredible pedigree. Not a written down one, but he was one of a litter of a cat who belonged to the great Nobel prize-winning biologist, Sir Peter Medawar, and some of that man’s great brain had certainly rubbed off on him.
Of a summer evening, we used to lead him round the block on a string. We lived in a top floor flat in a Kensington crescent, and occasionally Bob would take off through an open window and walk round the entire crescent on the window-sill, popping in to see friends here and there. Every morning he would wait on the front doorstep for a little boy who had saved a piece of sausage from his breakfast to give to him.
Once, on a very cold day, I found him weeing, in a very dignified manner, over the plughole in the bath. Another occasion when it was snowing outside, I opened the door to the loo to find Bob, squatting in a very complicated position, ears back, highly embarrassed to be discovered, having a pee in the toilet.
Unfortunately Corky, the cat to whom my grandson was referring, although perfectly pleasant, certainly wasn’t up to Bob’s scratch. Corky was half a Maine Coon, and whichever half he was, it was the wrong half. Who knows whether it was the Maine or the Coon we got, but it was the bit that wasn’t particularly affectionate, didn’t act like a dog, didn’t come running when you called him and wasn’t more like a human than most human beings. Corky was a dud. I got him on the cheap (him being only half a Maine Coon) and that was the trouble. I should have paid full whack for a whole one.
After Corky died, I never got another cat. And oh, the freedom. No more worrying, whenever I’m away, that the wretch might be getting lonely. No more having to stuff a cat, kicking and screaming, into a wicker basket to take him to some vile animal hotel when I went away, and no more having to scrape out Whiskas or Kit-e-Kat into a cat bowl lined with dried-up old food.
No more sitting in the vet’s waiting room with that peculiarly sharp smell of do antiseptic mingling with wee and animal fear, staring at everyone else waiting and wondering what they’d got in that box, wobbling and squawking by their feet. No more finding my hair dropping out with shock when the vet tellsme that there’s a new plan to clean my cat’s teeth for an exorbitant sum every six months.
I’ve even become rather puritan about keeping any animal as a pet. In my old age, it seems like a form of slavery. See a robin or a blackbird and I’m just as sentimental as the next person, but see a cat coming to stalk it and I’m to be found behind a bush, waiting to turn on the hose.
Granny Annexe January 2013
One of the characteristics of an old people’s home, apart from the faint acrid pong, is the heat. You go to visit an old aunt and you enter a stifling world in which windows are never opened and not only is the central heating on high but even the floors are radiating warmth.
I have to say it’s seductive. The older I get the colder I get and as I’ve always been someone who’s been perished except in temperatures over 30 degrees (as a child I had a permanent brown scorch-mark on my back from sitting pressed up against my gas fire), that means at my age I’m pretty cold.
No one else seems as cold as me. I see friends in the middle of winter, with no heating on, actually walking around their houses in teeshirts. Their arms are bare and their shirts, if they’re wearing them, are undone a couple of notches at the top. I even have one friend who, when I’m staying with him, will stride into the only warm room in the place, where I’m sheltering, wrapped in woollens and completely motionless, like a dormouse, in case I let a draught in, make some joke like: “Crikey! It’s like a hatching-house in here!” fling open the window and then leave the room.
And staying with friends is a nightmare. One host took me through a reasonably warm house but then guided me to my bedroom which she had kindly “aired” for me, by leaving the window open. The only relief is when I notice twin beds. That means that when I retire, I can take all the bedding from the neighbouring bed, pile it on my own, place my overcoat over the lot and, sometimes – yes, it’s been known – picked up the little carpet beside the bed and placed it on the top. On a visit to the North recently, this wasn’t enough. I had to wind a huge scarf around my neck and – oh, the humiliation! – jam my winter hat down on my head in order to get a wink of sleep. I looked like the Princess in the Princess and the Pea only the other way round.
Sometimes I think I have about as much circulation as an inland lake. And my nose! It’s not as if it’s long and pointed, in which case I could understand why the blood never gets to the tip. No, if anything it’s small and retroussé. Yet, in cold weather, it still ends up like a round ice-cube in the middle of my face. If I touch it, I then need a kettle full of boiling water to prise my frosty fingers from its icy surface.
Recently my gas and electricity provider, something called First Utility, kindly emailed me a chart. I say “kindly” but actually it was jolly annoying. In a diagram of coloured columns, it showed the average consumption of power for a house of similar size (pretty high). It then showed what the consumption was in a house belonging to the eco-minded (very low). It then showed a chart of what my personal power consumption was. It was well beyond the height of the normal house. And about twice the height of the eco-house. And as a result I’ve been sealing up the draughts, sliding shiny panels down the back of the radiators – Heatsave: very good – and ordering no end of vests and long johns and woolly tights to join the others that are bulking up my drawers. I’ve recently lost weight, but no one would know since I walk around like a Michelin man. Or, rather, roll.
I sleep with the electric blanket on high throughout the entire night, and when I rise each morning, plunge into a bath full of water so hot a lobster would scream. And yet every year, I just get colder and colder and colder. The very idea of “summer clothes” is a long-distant memory, even in middle of the South of France during a heat wave.
“I’ll just run up and get my cardy,” I said to my grandson the other day before we ventured into the park.
“But you’ve already got it on!” he said.
Actually, I was planning on getting another cardy to wear on top of the one I was wearing. And I didn’t tell him that, if the truth be told, I already had another cardy underneath that.
Granny Annexe December 2012
It was a call from my cousin, Nell, which set me off. She rang to say she’d found my old doll’s house in her attic – she’d inherited it when I’d grown out of it. Not only had she found the doll’s house, but also a box full of furniture and little people. And yes, the bendy “father” of the house was there, with wool bound round his wiry limbs, and the dressing table with the tiny round bit of glass stuck on.
“Next time you come to stay we’ll play with it together!” she said, jokingly.
But she’d hit on one of the major problems about being an adult. You can’t play with them. I suppose you could, self-consciously, in an earnest therapy group. But every time your teddy hit another person’s stuffed dog, a ponderous counsellor would be on hand to tell you that it signified the rage you felt for your father. Not a hell of a lot of fun.
But is there ever quite so much fun to be had as playing with children? And before you dial 999, let me assure you I mean playing, not playing. Goodies and baddies. Hide and seek. That sort of thing.
A lot of my granny friends clearly do not go in for playing. They love their grandchildren, but beyond a bit of colouring or making biscuits together, they can’t join in the fun. They are quite prepared to go to the park to feed the ducks, and read endless books to them. They will help them collect dried leaves and stick them into a chart and buy them toys galore. But they won’t actually play with them.
But I’m afraid to say I enjoy it. And I say “afraid” because I’m worried I’m a bit weird.
There was nothing I liked more, when my grandchildren were smaller, than pretending the sofa was a boat, and the cushions we’d thrown on the floor were fish. We used a string bag to catch them with and every so often my grandson would dive off onto the carpet to kill a shark, which I would then cook and we’d eat – unless, of course, the shark escaped from the oven, as he so often did and we had to start all over again.
Once we built an entire city out of cardboard boxes on the lawn. There was a prison (his) and an art gallery (mine) and a hospital and a post office, and luckily I took a photograph before a huge monster came down from the sky and destroyed it by jumping up and down on it until it was flattened.
When my son was tiny we used to play dinosaurs in the bath. I’d make my hands into a couple of these creatures, my fingers as legs and my middle finger as their waving heads. This pair would walk along the edge of the bath making rude remarks, occasionally pushing each other in to the water and constantly demanding hats and coats from my son, who would obligingly cover them in bubbles. My son talked to them as if they were real, in a completely different voice to the one he used to me.
Until they are about six, children do regard their grannies and grandparents as huge playmates. And is there anything nicer than hearing: “You be the bad bear, grannie, and I’ll be the good bear .” Or “Watch out grannie! He’s coming to eat you up! I’ll save you!”
I once taught in a pre-nursery school and I’ll never forget one little boy painting an elaborate picture of a house. Together we built up a picture of its inhabitants and added a car, a kennel, a dog, until a rich story emerged. Every event was painted to cover the last, but you could still the faint outlines of the old story underneath. At the very end, he got out some black paint and proceeded to cover the entire picture.
“Why are you doing that?” I said. I’d been looking forward to showing off his imaginativeness to his mother when she picked him up.
“It’s night-time,” he explained, perfectly rationally, “And they’ve all gone to bed.”
Playing is like that. Nothing to show for it except a whole treasure trove of memories and laughter.
Oh dear. Sentimental old me. Can’t wait to see the doll’s house again, though.
Granny Annexe November 2012
I’ve always had dreadfully strong views. And when I was young I had a long list of things that were complete anathema to me. Among these were: the theatre, puppets, mime, ukuleles, sport of any kind, cars and bird-watching.
Now I’m old and my tastes have changed. And the reason is that my son has converted me. He liked Alan Ayckbourn, and we’d go everywhere to hunt down a new production. Thus, slowly I came round to the theatre. I’d always found puppets the epitome of naff, but when my son came home one day when he was about eleven, and announced he was going to do a project on them, I found myself reading the history of puppetry till the early hours of the morning. We examined the shadow puppets at the Horniman Museum, we made our own, and before long I was a life-long fan.
As for the ukulele it’s never been an instrument that’s appealed – until one day my son, at thirteen, heard my friend Ian Whitcomb playing the uke at Pizza on the Park. “I want one of those,” said my son and off we went to buy one, and again I became another convert, to be found knee deep in weird sheet music that consisted of squares full of dots at Chappells, finding old tapes of George Formby, and discovering why the phrase “My Dog Has Fleas” has such importance in the world of the uke.
We joined the George Formby Fan Club, we joined the Ukulele Society, and we drove to places far and wide to hear old ukesters strut their stuff. I even heard of a band called the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, we rushed off to see them upstairs in a seedy pub in St. John Street and after putting in a year’s solid groupie work, I finally screwed up the courage to ask a couple of them to dinner, thus ensuring my son was given an opportunity to join the gang (I have to say that from pub beginnings they’ve now hit the big time and are in the middle of a world tour, having done Sidney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and, later this September, the Albert Hall).
Ian Whitcomb has now written an excellent book called Ukulele Heroes, a definitive guide to the uke, which charts the history of this curious instrument – known affectionate in the biz, as a “lamp chop”. It was invented, of course, in Hawaii, and the name means “jumping flea”. The Royal Family of Hawaii were very keen on it and it became wildly popular among the bright young things of the 1920s, when numbers like “Ukulele Lady” and “They’re Wearing ‘em Higher in Hawaii” became popular. All the ukulele greats are here, from Cliff Edwards or “Ukulele Ike” – known not only for “Who’ll take Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter While the Caretaker’s Taking Care?” but also for being the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio – to Frank Crumit and Johnny Marvin. The uke fell disastrously out of favour until George Formby brought it roaring back with When I’m Cleaning Windows and a bunch of other songs bursting with double-entendres and after a decade in the doldrums, it returned again in the seventies with Tiny Tim. Now there are ukulele orchestras everything and the uke is overtaking the recorder as the school musical instrument of choice, as they say.
Ian continues to play weekly in downtown LA, hammering out old time music-hall songs to baffled but appreciative diners. I hope he’s converting a whole bunch of new thirteen-year-olds to turn to the instrument I so unkindly despised in my early days.
As for the other items on my hit-list I need hardly say I’ve come round to them as well. One of my grandsons is crackers about diving and climbing, the other mad about cars, and for his birthday I’m giving one of them a two-hour bird-watching session. Yes, I’ll be there too, binoculars and bird-book in hand, driven by the born-again enthusiasm of a loving grannie.
I’m just crossing my fingers neither of them get into estate agenting or drug-dealing. I don’t fancy trudging across the Himalayas laden with packs of heroin while boring the pants of my colleagues about house prices. But at the rate I’m going, you never know.
Granny Annexe October 2012
Listening to an old actress talking gloomily about her life and how invisible she feels these days, I was brought down even further to hear, when she asked for questions, so many of her older audience saying that they all felt “young inside” and couldn’t connect this youthful feeling with the old wrecks they saw in the mirror.
I thought it was a terrible shame. Some of them were no more than sixty. And they were all yearning for some nostalgic past. I mean I’ve often felt about eight years old, but it doesn’t mean I want to be eight years old again. It would be absolutely frightful. Having to go to school. Having to do what people told me all the time. Worrying all the time that I’d been swapped at birth and that was the reason my parents didn’t have time for me. No thanks.
But this audience… I felt it was as if they’d lived for ages in one country and were all heading off to some incredibly interesting new one but, instead of getting out their telescopes and reading the guide books to this new place – the country of the old – , learning the language and finding out about the laws, their eyes were so fixed on the land they’d left that they didn’t realise what fun they were going to have when they arrived at their new destination.
Because surely, rather than feel like some dreadfully old young person, isn’t it jollier to think of yourself as some incredibly young old person?
Being old seems to gives so many people the screaming abdabs. I’m not sure what precisely these screaming abdabs are – I’ve never heard anyone using the expression since my own grannie last used it in 1960 – but it’s a good expression and should be revived. Old is just a word that no one uses these days. I once wrote a piece for an American magazine published by the AARP – the Association for American Retired Persons – and when I got the proof back I noticed that every time I’d written the word “old” it had been cut. I asked why and the lady on the end of the phone said, in a quavering voice: “Oh, we don’t like to use the word ‘old’ at AARP”
Everyone seems to be gearing things for the young. Radio Four is shoving music into every programme in order to lure in the young, and trying to spice up the Archers – oh dear oh dear oh dear – and newspapers (do you know a single young person who reads a newspaper? No, nor do I) feature pages with embarrassingly yoof-pulling titles – or what they think are yoof-pulling – like “Trending” and “Radar”. Advertisers think that because we’ve got nearly everything we want, there’s no point in targeting us. But actually there are lots of things we want – theatres, cruises, plants, comfy chairs, reading lights, complicated gadgets to make life easier…
And yet all the while the old market is growing and growing and no one except this magazine of course, whose circulation grows and grows, seems to cater for it. “Oh we don’t want to attract old people,” they say. “Old people die, so what’s the point?” What they don’t seem to realise is that as coachloads of oldies do, indeed, head off over the cliff, double the number of coachloads are arriving on the shores of this fascinating new land, desperate for things to amuse them.
“When are you going to do a new show?” some people have asked after seeing my one-woman performance. “Never,” I reply. “There is a constant supply of new oldies coming along who will never have seen it and, because there are no particular fashions in being old, I have no reason ever to change it.”
Martin Amis referred to the increasing elderly population as the “silver tsunami”. What an image! And isn’t it jolly exciting to be part of it? I’m not complaining. We can get away with murder. When my tummy gave an embarrassing rumble the other day and I apologised, my grandson of eight said: “Don’t worry granny. I know you can’t help it. It’s because you’re old.”
So kind! Why did no one ever tell me what an incredibly amiable country it was that I’d be entering after the age of 60? How can anyone complain about it? What’s not to like?
Granny Annexe September 2012
Ever since my last Ford Ka got written off – a whole bunch of wild druggies hurtled down my road in a stolen car, careering over the sleeping policemen and, after crashing into my car, veered into a wall and ran off screaming with laughter – my grandson has mourned its loss. The New Model wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the same cheery bubbly shape. It didn’t have a spare wheel, but instead, a kind of spray can, like a scented room freshener, that you were meant to squirt into your punctured tyre to mend it. I could never understand how it could work, bought a spare tyre, and shoved it into the boot. Result: no boot.
Nor did the car have little compartments you could lift up and down in the back, nor did have back windows, which my grandson liked to open and shut, while sitting in his car seat behind me. The glove compartment at the front had a habit of collapsing, so after each journey I had to bully it back into position; the petrol cap had an opening system that not only baffled burglars but also owners so I drove round most of the time with the cap hanging off, feeling like some bloke who hadn’t buttoned up his fly (or as I imagine he would feel). And you couldn’t open or lock the passenger seat except from the front driving seat.
The new design was, to be honest, horrible, and from the moment you got into it you felt it was against you. I’m afraid the original charming bubbly design had never sat well with Ford. I bet it was too feminine. When I was asked by a garage serviceman what make of car I had and I replied, pronouncing “Ka” in a breathy, Marilyn Monroe-ish way – I noticed he would always reply, gruffly, “Are you talking about a Ford KAYAY?” It sounded more butch.
Now, however, I’ve ditched the horror, and have a new car. And I hope my grandson likes it. Even though no one in my family has ever, from cousins, grandparents anyone, been remotely interested in cars (when a cab company rings to tells me the taxi is outside and it’s a “blue Ford Toyota” I get a screaming sound in my head) he is fascinated and not only can tell the difference between a BMW and a jeep which is more than I can do, but also between a Granada and Fiesta.
In the end I got a blue Fiat 500. It is sweet, and was sold to me by a charming lady called Kim at the Hounslow dealers. She had blonde hair and a tight black dress. She didn’t baffle me, like the other dealers had, with talk of its JTD engine, or its lack of a diesel particulate filter, its torque at 106lb ft at 1900 rpm or the tread pressure of tyres. She just said: “You’ll love this car, Virginia, it’s just you, I’ve got one, my two daughters have got two and we love them! Hop in and we’ll have a drive. Isn’t it a darling?”
It is, indeed, a darling. It is what is known as intelligently-designed. In other words, it is on your side. It’s got a proper spare tyre, hidden away, and air-con, which I’ve never had before and, when it feels like it, it turns itself off in traffic jams or at lights to save petrol. Ten seconds after you’ve started driving, it locks all the doors for you so no one can reach in and steal your handbag. It switches its passenger airbag off if you have a baby in the front, and when you get out, the lights stay on for a while to let you get to your front door and then slowly dim. And if you’re parking in a tight spot, there’s a button you can push to make the steering lighter. I’d forgotten what a real pal a car could be.
I expect my garage man will purse his lips when he sees it – it’s baby blue – but who cares. I can’t wait to show my grandson. Despite the fact that the back is sadly gadget-free, he can’t fail to approve.
Grannie Annexe – August 2012
Apart from the economic situation, has there been any more depressing news this year than that Hilary Clinton has decided that, because she’s reached a certain age, she’s decided to “let herself go”? The declaration of any oldie friend of mine that it’s wonderful being old because “you don’t have to bother any more” is met by such a tight, thin-lipped response from me that all traces of lipstick vanish inside my disapproving expression.
It’s not the old but the young that needn’t bother – they look great all the time, even if they’re wearing filthy binbags as dresses. As someone said, wisely: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature: beautiful old people are works of art.”
Rather than give up, the older we get the harder we should try to look good. Why? Because it’s good manners. I remember once being asked on a radio programme whether you should wear a bikini on the beach if you were grotesquely fat. I naturally said I thought it was appallingly rude. Indeed, to appear anywhere at all if you look repulsive is rude. But my co-commentator said no, it was essential that we all did our own thing and were proud of our bodies, whatever we looked like.
It was Joyce Grenfell who wrote: “At dancing I am no star/Others are better by far/My face I don’t mind it/For I am behind it/ It’s the ones in the front get the jar.” And like Joyce Grenfell herself, who was always impeccably turned out, I don’t wish to give other people jars. It’s not nice.
When I was young I used to hate old people. I hated the hair that grew out of their ears and their nose, the bits that would gather in their ever-separating teeth, not to mention the scum that often collected in the corners of their mouths and the single hairs that would sprout from their chins, like witches in a fairy-tale.
Now, naturally, at my age, I could suffer all of these, and indeed would, were I to let myself go, but I choose not to, and take great pains to prevent it.
I can’t help feeling that AA Gill was right about Mary Beard – that no matter how she feels, she should at least make an effort, at her age (nearly 60) if she’s going to appear to millions of viewers. What’s so odd is that often these scruffy elderly specimens who believe in the letting themselves go are fanatical gardeners. While they look like overgrown old rosebushes themselves, with birds nesting in their filthy, tangled hair, their roses are immaculately pruned and dead-headed.
The problem is that there can an NW3 type of logic that runs: “If I spend too much time on my looks, people will think I’m a stupid air-head. I have to look dreadful to show that my mind is always on higher things. I am above looking good.”
But as the daughter of fashion icon, I was brought up to believe that looking good is actually a moral precept, one that should have been laid down by Moses. The Eleventh Commandment should read: Thou Shalt Do Your Best to Make the Most of Yourself, Looks-wise, However Difficult this May be in the Circumstances. Of course at a certain age it get tricky. None of us want to look like a vandalised, graffiti-stained 1950s community hall abandoned in the middle of a neglected industrial estate. Not a good look. But why shouldn’t we aspire to looking like, say, Tintern Abbey? A beautiful old ruin? After all, so many old people do let themselves go, like Hilary Clinton, that if you take just the tiniest bit of care when you’re ancient it’s not very difficult to shine out like a beacon of elderly beauty.
At dinner the other day a man (only a tiny bit younger than me and wearing a shirt and trousers of a pleasant but completely indeterminate style) commented how odd it was that after a certain age women paid no attention to fashion. As I was, at the time, wearing a Vivienne Westwood jacket, I was surprised, not to say, offended. I suggested that next time he went shopping, perhaps he’d take a look at the range of menswear designed by Paul Smith. He could, I said, learn a thing or two.
No one should let themselves go, I said. No, not even men.
Grannie Annexe – July 2012
I remember when my grandson made his first joke.
“I’ve got a joke!” he said, eagerly, butting into our conversation. We all turned to him. “Yes?”
“It goes… it goes.. .. ‘There was a pea and a lamppost…’” Then he looked puzzled. “No, I’ll start again… yes, ‘What did the lamppost say to the pea?’”
“I don’t know. What did the lamppost say to the pea?” we all chorused in unison.
‘He said… um, he said… er.. ‘I’m a lamppost!’”
And we all roared with laughter. Admittedly after a few repetitions, someone had to explain to him that a joke is only funny the first time it’s told and he eventually shut up, but it was an odd occasion because of course it wasn’t a joke at all, it was an imitation of a joke. And yet it was the first groping towards the idea of a) constructing a set-up and b) delivering a punchline – resulting in laughter.
It made me wonder why on earth – and here I put on a serious face because there’s nothing more serious than wondering this – why on earth we do tell jokes.
And I think it’s pretty simple. Apologies if my answer sounds a bit Freudian. But I think we do it, au fond, to cheer up our dismal mums. Later, of course, we do it for general assurance that we’re lovable. We just want to be surrounded by smiling faces. It makes us feel alright. I know that when I do my show, Growing Old Disgracefully, that feeling of stepping on a stage to be faced by a sea of expectant faces and then succeeding in getting them to roar with laughter is one of such power and pleasure no wonder it’s addictive. It makes you feel not only powerful but connected. Everyone appears to be happy in your company. If we can’t get love from other people, or imagine we can’t, more likely, humour is a terribly safe way of being with other people emotionally. It’s spontaneous, non-threatening and shared. You tell the joke, they smile back, and you feel good so you smile back, and it’s a wonderful chain of almost perpetual laughing motion.
The reason why the British are such whizzes at humour – I mean we are the country which produced PG Wodehouse, the funniest writer in the entire world – and why that peculiar phrase GSOH (good sense of humour) is so often to be found as an essential quality in the lonely-hearts columns, is surely because we’re such a gloomy lot at heart, beset with fear that no one likes us, beset with fear of closeness, beset with fear about everything. The result is that we can’t bear to take anything seriously. Seeing a neighbour in the street, who I knew slightly, moving house, I said to him, quite amiably: “Oh, we’ll be sorry to see you go!” whereupon instead of saying “Oh, thank you!” he went into a whole routine. “Oh, you’ll be dancing in the street, I know, once we’ve gone, ha ha ha!”
Clearly, I’d got too close to him. Sincerity – and affection – were a threat to him. He dealt with it by joking. And that’s, presumably, why children and boys in particular find poo and knickers and bums so incredibly funny. I’ve never found them funny but I don’t think that’s because I don’t have a GSOH. Women like myself don’t find them funny because they’re no threat – we’re so used to wiping kids’ bottoms and nappies and so on. Indeed, I had to endure an excruciating moment the other day when a friend defied me not to laugh while he repeated: “Bum, tits, poo, fart!” over and over again. By the end he was hysterical and I remained stony-faced. And yet if I go in front of an audience of old people anxious about their mortality and their ailments, I only have to say the word “arthritis” and they’re rolling in the aisles. Say “euthanasia” and they’re hysterical.
They do say that laughter’s the best medicine. Apparently it increases blood circulation which helps you to heal quicker. And last year the BMJ published research that showed it can also ward off heart disease. So this rather earnest column isn’t going to help much if you’re suffering, I’m afraid.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Let me tell you the one about the pea and the lamppost…
Grannie Annexe – June 2012
I was sitting at my computer the other day, Minding My Own Business (rather like, say, my accountant and agent who are, I hope, also Minding My Own Business) when the phone rang and one of those familiar incomprehensible Indian voices came on the line, amid a lot of bleeps, bells, jabbering and time-lag, the unmistakeable sounds of the call centre.
“Yes?” I said rather tetchily.
“Are you Miss Virginia Ironside?” she said. “Have I got the right telephone number?”
“Yes, I said, warily.
“I am calling from Globalsave, ma’am, your international internet provider,” she said. “I am ringing you because we have an error message coming up on our screens with every email you are sending out, and we would like to rectify this problem before you lose all your entire data.”
I gibbered a bit, and said I’d never heard of them, but then she said they could verify that they were authentic because they had my “csl” number.
I had no idea what a csl number was but she assured me that the fact that they had the csl number, my name and phone number should be enough to satisfy me that they were genuine. I blustered and said why couldn’t they talk to my computer people (yes, I actually have computer people. They Mind My Own Business, too) and she said that would be fine if I could put her through. I told her I worked on my own and she said that in that case, she would put me through to her manager.
The comforting sounds of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons came wafting through the phone and then another Indian person came on the line. He was called Harry. This made him all the more authentic. I have in my time talked to an Indian rep from Dell called Elvis.
Harry sounded in a rush. He told that he could see the error messages on his screen coming up all the time and it was only a matter of time before my entire computer crashed. I suggested I ring him back but he said that would be very difficult. Possible, but difficult, because he was so busy putting this error right in other people’s computers around the world. Then he asked me to press a few buttons to reach my csl number.
“You can’t be serious, Harry!” I said. “I wouldn’t dream of it! I mean, I’ve been told from the year dot that I must never give my bank details out on the phone and my pin number,” I added, “is so secret I sometimes forget it myself. I mean, I bet you tell your mum never to go into her computer or give out numbers on the phone to a complete stranger, don’t you? Or,!” I added, realising he was probably younger than my son, “your old grannie?”
Harry chuckled in a friendly way. “I am very glad you are so security-minded, ma’am!” he said. “I tell my mum this all the time! But I am not asking you to read out any number, I just want you to find your csl number and then I will read out the number I have and they will tally. This is the reason we have your name and your telephone number, ma’am, because we are your internet international providers and we are here to rectify all problems…”
So, chuckling back, I obeyed orders and sure enough I found my csl number and then he read me out a string of figures and numbers in upper and lower came and, bow me, they all matched my csl number exactly.
“Now, you see we have your details correctly,” he said. “So now I must ask you to follow a few directions…”
God knows what divine intervention struck me at the time but I suddenly said: “Look, I’m so sorry, I know I’m mad, and clearly you’re genuine, but I just want to ring up my computer people, and just check, because I just want to be doubly sure…”
“Of course, ma’am, I quite understand but you must be very quick, only two minutes…”
Luckily I have a mobile, rang the computer people, and they said I should put the phone down on Harry – who was using a common Internet scam – immediately.
Shaking, I did.
Granny Annexe – May 2012
“My family,” declared my four-year-old grandson the other day, as we were in the middle of a game of goodies and baddies, consisting of dreadful plastic figures from repulsive pseudo eco game called Planet Protectors, “is mummy and daddy and my brother and the cats.” Then he paused. “What’s your family, granny?”
“Well,” I said, taking care not to show the hurt I felt from not being included in his list, as I moved a figure called Ice who repeatedly boomed, from his tiny plastic body: “I am Ice! Protector of the Arctic!” “I think my family is your family. You’re part of my family.”
My grandson looked very unconvinced.
“No,” he said, decisively. “Your family is Patrick” (a lodger) “Philip” (my builder and endless source of help and comfort) “ and,” he thought for a while, “your house.”
Oddly, while I’m not certain about the first two, the last is true. My house, in which I’ve lived for nearly forty years, is rather like my family, hung as it is with pictures by my father of my mother and me, pictures by my mother of evacuees, pictures by my uncle … and endless bits of brown furniture from my grandparents, brass heads brought from my mother from India… not to mention and samplers stitched by myself, chairs caned by me, and cupboards stained by me… . It’s a great heritage, in the middle of which I live, like a great Ironside spider. Indeed the other day when I told him I was having a huge clear-out, so he wouldn’t be too puzzled about everything when I died, my son said: “Oh don’t worry, mum, we won’t be taking any of it. We’ll just turn it into a museum and have a man on the door to sell tickets.”
It did need a clear-out, though. So rather than do it all by myself, I paid a girl a large sum of money to help me. Not one of those horrible television de-clutterers, but a sensible clever person with a sense of style and order.
Just the presence of another person makes the whole task easier. I remember once paying another friend, an interior designer, to do much the same thing some time ago and he only had to come into the sitting room, look round disapprovingly and say: “Mmm”, through pursed lips and I knew at once what should go. All the hideous things suddenly leapt out at me, like characters in a 3-D picture. The old spider plants, the clip-frames, the ragged throw on the sofa… which should anyway be moved to the window. And it was the same this time. I was ahead of the game in every room. And when I wasn’t, she was so tactful.
Instead of “Ugh! That’s revolting!” she’d say, as she discovered my vast hoard of plastic lidded boxes collected from years of Indian take-aways: “When did you last use any of these?” Or she’d say: “How old is that blind?” pointing to a stained ramshackle affair hanging lopsided in the spare room. Or: ”Do you really need two spare keyboards?” as she rummaged through my computer drawer.
It’s been bliss. I’m now left with a list of tasks: to get all my pictures put into acid-free mounts. To label each one on the back. To organise my drawers of unsorted photographs. To sort through a deskful of meaningless memorabilia. To re-arrange my bookshelves so that the books are lined in serried ranks rather than piled one of top of the other all over the place. To get the curtains cleaned. And to carry all those old videos to Age Concern.
Just as she was going, however, this ace chucker-outer stepped on an unpleasant- looking small purple plastic figure that was sticking out from under the sofa. As she picked it up it spoke to her. “I am Kat! I protect the Rainforest!” it said, many, many times.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked, staring at it. I could tell she was dying to throw it into the Age Concern bag. But I think she knew there was no hope.
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “I’m working hard to become part of my grandson’s family. And if I chuck that out then I’ve got no chance at all.”
Grannie Annexe – April 2012
History has never been my best subject. I think I have something of a phobia about it, to be honest, and until recently I put it down to two things. The first was my weird history teacher, Miss Irwin. She was a spinster with mad hair, aged, in my young eyes, about 103, who lived in a South Kensington hotel, as so many single women did those days, and who was obsessed by the Ancient Egyptians. As a result I knew all about Amenhotep, felt on chatting terms with the jackal-headed god, Anubis, and could at one point, even write my name in hieroglyphics.
We learned about medieval times, too. What I couldn’t tell you about a motte and bailey! How many times had I made jokes about villains being villains!
But the other reason I’ve found history distressing was because Miss Irwin taught history from a series of dry books called A History of Britain by Carter and Mears. E.F. Carter was a schools inspector in the thirties, and R.A.F. Mears was a history teacher. The very sight of those green covers, with, inside, their small print and side-bars featuring the topics discussed, not to mention the reproductions of pictures of medieval kings with pointy shoes, made me feel ill.
In those days history stopped at the First World War, and it was only when, aged 28, and trying to please a history-mad husband, when I took private classes at Gabbitas and Thring and learnt about the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, that I gathered any information about contemporary history at all. (Unfortunately, my first term as a mature student at university studying history ended in tears. I was carted off to the Priory for a week, and even since have always found libraries place of fear and dread, unlike most of my friends who like nothing more than to spend a day roaming the corridors of the London Library, notebook in hand).
History makes me feel like an air-head. And when I hear men discussing what the Phoenicians did to the Ottomans, or whatever, or whether General Hague should be vilified or not, I get the feeling that everyone has access to some kind of soap opera channel that I just can’t get on my telly.
It’s only recently, discovering that my grandson was being taught history through the eyes of a character I’d never heard of called Mary Seacole and another mystery figure called Elijah McCoy, that it’s dawned on me that Miss Irwin might not have been as mad as I thought. When I was shown a ghastly series for children called Horrible Histories, full of torture and slapstick, I thought to myself: “Well, at least I’ve heard of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I do know what a Corn Law looks like. And the War of the Roses does, certainly, ring a bell.” (The First World War is still a mystery, however. I suppose I could learn about it by reading Birdsong but there’s something about Sebastian Faulks, who, although a charming man, I’m told, and who probably roams the London Library by day and by night, that makes me desist. Is it the fact I can’t pronounce his last name? Or his rather over-friendly hair? Talk about air-head, Ironside. Pull yourself together.)
So when I heard that Carter and Mears had been completely overhauled and re-edited by an ex-history teacher, David Evans, and re-published by Stacey Publishing, that I wondered if I hadn’t been maligning the series after all. I mean, I feel really pleased that proper history, like Latin, appears to be making a comeback. And who better to impart the subject, particularly now Evans is bringing it up to date this year, to Thatcher’s time, than good old Carter and Mears?
Is it too late, at 68, to have another crack at a subject that has, until now, always given me the willies? I see that the re-edited series starts with a chapter on Cheddar Man (a new addition, since he hadn’t been discovered in Carter and Mears’ time.) Oh, the jokes we could have made about how smelly he was!
I rather think I might give it another go.
Grannie Annexe – March 2012
I want a man. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want a man per se and I’m certainly not looking for a partner or a lover. No thanks! No, I mean I want to be able to ask, when I’m advertising for people – teachers, say, or lodgers – for a man rather than a woman.
But I think it might now be illegal, and as I don’t want to be clapped in irons, I never specify which sex I want.
The reason I want a male lodger is that I’ve already got a female one and then there’s me, and experience has told me that a house full of women is an icky business. There tends to be bitching in the bathroom, carping in the kitchen. And anyway, I don’t like female-only enclaves. I once sat through The Vagina Monologues with an all-female audience, and the smug superiority of it all, the “us and them-ness”, made me feel as if I was drowning in a sea of Tampax.
I worked for a long time at Woman magazine, and when someone told me that when a lot of women get together for long periods, as they do in convents, they all start to menstruate at the same time, I’d hold my breath in the lifts, just in case any of the lunar hormones or whatever they were, got to me, and I’d start working in some ghastly physical unison with the fashion ed, the knitting ed, the cooking ed and even, heaven forbid, the daunting ed herself.
Then, on a more practical level, blokes are extremely useful in a house. They can kill rats, unstick windows, put bulbs in inaccessible sockets, and, with their heavy footsteps, and booming voices, they can frighten burglars away when they get in. (They can also keep burglars away before they get in, just by their masculine presence being spotted regularly at the front door as they butchly shove their key into the lock.)
Talking of rats, I’m sure there was some experiment done with the pesky beasts, to show that if you get a box of male rats and shove a female in, all the males instantly start behaving better, applying deodorant, twirling their whiskers and saying “After you” before entering the sewers. Similarly, take a box of female rats and add a male and all the females stop gossiping and shopping and, instead, behave like normal human beings if a rat can, ever, behave like a normal human being.
I like a bit of difference. On the rare occasions I’m to be found in a church, I feel depressed at the sight of a female vicar. Of course she’s got every right to preach, but at least with a male vicar he’s a bit of a mystery. He’s male for a start and therefore baffling. And also, startlingly, he’s usually encased in a long gold-stitched dress. Weird. Makes him look as if there’s a real possibility he could be in touch with some mysterious “other.” Females, on the other hand, are too familiar to me to hold any magic. And in their embroidered dresses, instead of appearing as the channellers of spiritual wisdom, they just look like women on their way to Glyndebourne.
Anyway, I’ve got the male lodger, I’ve got a male music teacher up my sleeve if I need one and now there’s the German teacher to cast around for, because I’ve decided to learn it. It’s not that I mind being taught by a woman, but obviously a woman German teacher is going to remind me of one of the teachers I had at school, all female, and I shall start, as a result, to skip prep and write fake notes in my late mother’s handwriting to say I’m ill, when she’s coming over. Give me a man, however, and I shall check my make-up in the mirror, see my tights are unladdered, and open the door with a cheery: “Ich habe alle meine Hausaufgaben gemacht und freuen uns auf unsere Lektion zusammen“*
And as a result will be fluent before I can say “Fritz Muller“, being the nearest I can get, in German, to Jack Robinson.
Who was, you may notice with interest, a bloke.
“I have done all my homework and look forward to our lesson together.” At least, according to Google Translate.
Grannie Annexe – February 2012
When we’re young most of us are completely uninterested in our forebears. I still don’t understand, in fact, how history can be taught successfully to anyone under the age of about fifty. One’s brain – or mine, at least – just can’t cope with the idea of the “past” until that age.
It’s like acne when you’re a teenager. Your skin is perfectly clear and glowing the day before your fourteenth birthday. But the day after, you wake up with your neck, cheeks and forehead ablaze with seeping red pustules. Likewise, the day before your fiftieth birthday: the facts of whether your ancestors were bishops or worked in an abattoir in the seventeenth century leave you cold. The day after your fiftieth birthday, however, you find yourself jogging down to the Family Records Office, beavering away with a spiral-bound notebook, logging births, deaths and marriages like one of the most assiduous of Dickens’ clerks.
What happened to me after fifty was that I got extremely interested in my uncle’s – Robin Ironside – pictures. I’d collected quite a few of them, had been left a few more, had trawled the internet for auctions to get my hands on any that were up for sale here or overseas, and suddenly became overwhelmed with a desire to get them more widely recognised.
I have to say he was no ordinary uncle. He was No. 2 at the Tate during the war, under Sir John Rothenstein, and then gave it all up to paint his own, meticulous pictures of creepy landscapes and hallucinatory images. He was entirely self-taught but would rely on my father, who’d been trained at the Central School of Art, to help him do difficult things like turnings wrists or twisting toes. One picture, of a bird singing above a heap of broken cellos and violins, is named “Nightingale Victorious over Musical Instruments”. Another shows statues visiting people in a museum. He was entirely self-taught.
He was a fascinating man, a close friend of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sir Kenneth Clark and Cyril Connolly, he introduced the phrase “New Romantic” into the English language, he wrote extensively for Horizon, and it was he who persuaded Angus Wilson to submit his first stories to the magazine. He designed Ian Fleming’s memorial obelisk, and designed stage sets with my father. But he was a hyper, quite manic, obsessive man. He took mescaline, was addicted to a medicine called Dr. Collis Brown (remember that? It was for tummy upsets, and if you left it to stand you could spoon the opium off the top after a couple of hours). And he died thin as a rake, at the age of 53.
Finally after the most enormous amount of work, string-pulling and sheer pushing, I’ve got two exhibitions of his working coming up. One at Pallant House in Chichester, this month (February), and the other at the Grosvenor Gallery in Chester later this year.
And I’ve got, I have to say, the most extraordinary satisfaction out of it all.
What is it about our ancestors that makes us, at a certain age, so long to find out more about them and honour them? Is it because we understand the transience of life and, by trying to bring our ancestors back to life in our minds at least, hope that in the future someone may try to make us, too, immortal? Because we don’t want to be forgotten ourselves, do we do our best to remember others in our family’s past? Or is it because we feel a kind of obligation to them, and want to say thank you to them for being part of our lives, even though we may never have met them? I am so often touched when I see, in my grandchildren, gestures or remarks that my own grandmother might have made, and it’s warming to see that someone dead still lives on in the present, even in some distorted way.
Presumably at some point, when our grandchildren are old and grey, they’ll wake up after their fiftieth birthdays, just like us, suddenly thinking: “Hang on! We’ve been so busy thinking about the future but what about the past? I know grannie or grandpa was extremely good at making mice out of handkerchiefs and getting them to jump out of their hands, but perhaps there was more to them than that… must make a date at the Family Records Office.”
Who knows. They might get our books republished, create an ornate family tree, or organise exhibitions in our memory.
Or, at very least, tidy up our graves.
Grannie Annexe – January 2012
They told me that it was Living History week at my grandson’s school. How interesting, I thought. No doubt they’ll be doing the rounds of Westminster Abbey and Dickens’ House and all the usual old monuments. But no. I was wrong. The old monument they wanted, this particular week, was a real live grannie, who could tell the class of five-year-old what it was like to be a little girl in the 1940s. In other words, me, hauled in like an old relic, to deliver a piece of oral history.
When you’ve got a pink streak in your hair, have just watched the whole of the Killing on fast forward, and are about to launch another stint of stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe the following year, it’s funny to be thought of as history. But still, ever game for an audience, even if it’s an audience of only twenty tiny people in grey jerseys, most of whom are no more than five years old, and no more than 39” high, I thought I’d strut my stuff and sock it to them.
I told them how poor we all were after the war. How we only had one egg each per week. That we could only buy sweets with ration books. There were no fridges, computers, televisions, frozen food, bananas or mobile phones. I told them of the day I had to feel my way from tree to tree to get to school during a pea-souper, and I told them the streets were lined with dolls hospitals, pen hospitals and repair shops of every kind. I pointed out that the duvet had not yet been invented, except in Sweden, I told them that my father smoked forty Woodbines a day, and that we were all freezing cold because there was no central heating, and that the coal was delivered by blackened men on a cart drawn by a huge horse. And I told them that our only entertainment was the wireless, and that every evening a man would come round on a bicycle with a flame on a stick to light the gas lamps.
I’m not sure how well it went down. They wanted to hear about school, no doubt anticipating a story of a Mrs Squeers Academy in which us young ladies were beaten and starved, and were rather miffed to find that my school, run on Froebel (probably an umlaut here, Deborah, but can’t get my computer to do it) lines, was rather more progressive than theirs, with no uniforms, no punishments, no RE and a charming habit of calling the teachers by their Christian names. I did not, however, demonstrate the eurhythmics we had to perform every Wednesday afternoon, leaping about “like a flower” Isadora Duncan-style. Nor did I tell them about our music theory teacher, a long drink of water of a man with a weak chin and a huge Adam’s Apple who apparently apparently had had seven children. I remember once asking him, in a fit of boldness, in view of the fact that he’d married his cousin, whether his offspring were all mad. I didn’t tell them, either, about the male flashers who routinely opened their macs and exposed themselves to us girls on our way to and from school – we got quite blasé about them. And I didn’t tell them about Mrs Todd, the alcoholic geography teacher, nor the crazy old history teacher who lived in a nearby Gloucester Road hotel, who had to be got rid of after her large grey bloomers constantly fell to the floor under her crepe dress.
Or the schizophrenic French teacher who used, apparently, to come into her daughter’s room in the middle of the night and sit on the end of her bed with a knife in her hand, staring at her.
When I handed out 25 large shiny pennies, from the 1950s, the children got tremendously excited and started doing what every child does with a big penny – rolling it and spinning it. And then they started asking questions.
Did I get my water from a stream? Did I live in a house made of grass? What was this war I had mentioned and who won? Had I got hit by a bomb? Did I ride a horse to the shops? And if there wasn’t any pasta and no pizzas, what on earth did I eat?
I told them as best I could. But I didn’t tell them about, later, the drinking and driving, the joints, the sex, drugs and rock ‘roll.
Maybe next time.