I visited my mum Caroline this week. She is in a care home in Worthing, with Lewy Body dementia. She’s been there two years. I was prompted to write this because my colleague and friend Charlotte Naughton just wrote an excellent piece about her aunt’s assisted death in Switzerland. I don’t have the reach of The Guardian, but I think it’s important to tell people’s histories, especially women’s stories. That is the guiding ethos of Mothers Uncovered, after all.
Lewy Body is not as well known as Alzheimer’s, even though many thousands of people develop it. It has elements of Parkinson’s, the dyskinesia and the shuffling walk. And hallucinations, some of which are quite lovely. Once she saw a stream in the woods and we’d go for a paddle later. I looked at where her gaze was directed: the small, but well tended garden at the Care Home and wished it were so. It was a much nicer hallucination than those she had had three years ago.
Caroline had come to live in the UK in January 2013, returned from 20 years in France, apart from the early 2000s, when she trained for the priesthood, (ordained by Rowan Williams, no less, and the reason for one of the quotes on my website home page). We had decided we would buy a place and create a living space for her, the ‘grannexe’ as she delightedly referred to it. The day I went to collect her from Stansted I had made a little sign: ‘Welcome Home Caroline’, which I held up as she came out of the international arrivals door, fancying myself in a Richard Curtis film, perhaps. She didn’t really seem to register it. I told myself she was just tired from the stress of the move and many preceding months of packing and bureaucracy (an especial mention here to my wonderful stepmother Jill Brierley, who visited every week to help her with this task). But I think her disconnection meant she was already beginning the slow decline.
The year or so before she moved, she found decision-making very hard. This from a woman who reached the top of the civil service as an economist and frequently was the only woman at conferences. Later I discovered that losing your sense of smell can be a very early sign of Lewy Body and a memory came back from 2005 when she was babysitting and hadn’t noticed my baby’s very pungent nappy. At the time I just thought it was absent-mindedness, perhaps she’d always been unobservant I reckoned. But then I remembered her saying she used to be able to smell the dew on the roses on a summer morning….
Others didn’t think anything was untoward – she always rallied wonderfully at parties and other social occasions. My local community got to know her well when she picked up my boys from school or popped to the shops. She carried out services at a local church. (Not our nearest church, because we found, to our and everyone else’s surprise, that the allegedly liberal Brighton is largely opposed to women priests). She was a popular swimming companion to my boys as she never minded being dunked under water and containing a fair amount of ballast (!) would always bob up again. And there was always a chocolate biscuit to be had afterwards in the grannexe….
Her decline increased sharply in 2016, losing both her sister Judy to a stroke and her brother Robin to a heart attack. Robin’s was mercifully quick, awful for those left behind, but better for the individual. My uncle Norman had four depressing months with Judy dying slowly in hospital. By this time, I’d become increasingly concerned at Caroline’s inertia, her high blood pressure, her inability to concentrate on anything and her nocturnal wanderings. The following year when the boys and I were away she was found in her nightie in the street one day, having locked herself out. Luckily my dear neighbour Kathy was on hand to get her safely back in. Caroline implored her not to tell me, in case I would worry. When I found out by chance some months later, I was indeed worried.
The move to a Home at the end of 2018 was initially to an onsite self-contained flat ten minutes walk away. Seemingly ideal. We had gone to check out this Home some years before she moved back to the UK. ‘You must tell me when it’s time to go there,’ she had said then. By the time that stage is reached, people often don’t feel the same way. She often declared when she felt ‘better’ she’d do it, so I had to take charge as I knew there was no ‘better’ coming and it needed to happen. And I was finding her living with us increasingly stressful and debilitating (having lost my partner Chris to cancer the year before). It was clear she would need round the clock care fairly soon.
Sadly, the flat wasn’t the success we’d hoped. Her anxiety sky-rocketed. She would call me incessantly, day or night, worrying about menacing figures she saw standing by the bed, or perched on top of the cupboard. The staff mentioned that she was found, night after night, in the passageway outside her flat with a carrier bag of toiletries, believing she had to catch a train. I think she had regressed to her childhood in the war. And she wasn’t able to look after herself properly. Even when we arranged to have all her meals provided and a carer coming in daily, she would often fall over in the night en route to the loo and the emergency button would summon an external care provider, not someone in the Home itself, often with several hours wait. And as for remembering which pills to take when….
One of the falls meant she ended up in hospital and thereafter she lived in the Care section. Now she was being looked after, her anxiety immediately dissipated, but her mobility also decreased. Then the Home closed, with only six weeks notice. She was adamant she wanted another Christian Home, so the one in Worthing was the nearest that would take her, as she was becoming increasingly wheelchair bound. I hadn’t realised the distinction between nursing and care home, but now I do.
There was a moment in January last year, an unseasonably warm day, when we sat, muffled up in the winter sunshine. She looked at me clearly and said, ‘I’m sorry about all this, it wasn’t supposed to happen.’ The directness and clarity of her look was one I had not seen for many, many years. Of course, Covid then struck, meaning I could only communicate over the phone for some months. With her failing hearing and wandering attention, this didn’t really work. I have been able to see her since June 2020, the Home has been wonderful at enabling this, with gazebos in the garden and protective screens, now fortunately dropped to allow physical contact.
In my recent visits, she’s been more alert. But this last time, as she was wheeled to the visiting area, she looked to be asleep. I tried to chat for a while, but getting no response, decided to play her the recordings I’d sent to my cousin Jenny, when she was tending my beloved aunt Ann through her last days with cancer in January. My grandfather, who we all called Poppa, talking about his visit to Bergen-Belsen after it had been liberated. And for good measure, the one Jenny played Ann, as the BBC one didn’t work in the States. When they finished, I mentioned that I thought they had helped call Ann ‘home’ to their father.
‘I want to go home,’ said Caroline, clearly and firmly, eyes still shut. ‘Properly.’
I put a hand on her arm, my eyes filling with tears. ‘I want that too.’
I had earlier this year told her that she must go when she felt ready and said it again then. I imagine that many parents try and hold on for their children.
‘It’s not right,’ she said.
‘That you’re still here?’ I queried.
An almost imperceptible nod.
I can understand why there is a fear about the notion that assisted death is state sanctioned killing. But the Swiss seem to manage it, and a handful of other countries. In the UK, the topic gets continually kicked into the long grass by a succession of leaders, who maybe arrogantly assume the laws of nature don’t apply to them.
I looked at my mother, eyes still closed, her only option being to stop eating. A slow and painful way to depart, rather than a dignified exit of her own choosing. If she could take the drug that Ann Bruce had done, she would in a heartbeat. Then we could celebrate the wonderful woman that she was and she could go running home to a place of no pain.
A happier collaboration between myself and Charlotte.
This was part of the introduction to Basic Income: Backbone for the Arts - a panel discussion I chaired in Oct 2020.
The arts are an essential part of our lives, yet this country does not support those that work in them. At the mention of financial backing, mutterings of elitism start to emerge, as if the arts were just for and about those enjoying Wagner, or the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden, rather than providing all of the music, film, theatre, TV, art and literature that we all enjoy and are nurtured by.
Not to mention arts projects within the community, which have provided real empowerment to many people or turned around the lives of those that are disadvantaged. Basic Income would not only support those working in the arts, it would support those who enjoy them (i.e. everyone), by giving them the cash to go to gigs, exhibitions, theatre and so on.
A colleague of mine said, in response to Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that artists ‘retrain or get another job’, ‘I will continue to do what I have done throughout my career, which is to make meaningful art with people in places hidden from view.’ Sunak’s comments seem particularly short-sighted, when you realise the arts sector generates over £23bn for the economy and employs 370,000 people versus say, the fishing industry, which generates just under £1.4bn a year and employs 24,000 people. Yet the fishing industry is seen as more viable to the Chancellor. As are arts venues, some of which have recently received a bailout, rather than those that make art in them.
The call for basic income has been getting louder – the Musicians’ Union had a campaign calling for it, back in July. Many arts professionals, such as Brian Eno, have credited the unemployment benefit that existed in the seventies as providing an essential support to begin their careers. This now seems like a long-lost luxury, for which the country will be all the poorer.
Eno says he went on “the dole” because he was afraid that any kind of job would make it impossible for him to pursue his music career properly. He argues that basic income will increase creativity, giving the message that all people are potentially creative and they should be given the chance to express that. Indeed, music in the UK would be very different if the dole had not existed. Bands such as Roxy Music, The Clash, or indeed, UB40, who took their name from the card that you had to produce when signing on, were formed by people who wanted the chance to create without scratching around furiously wondering where the next meal was coming from.
The UK is particularly ill-served in how it treats those working in the arts, regarding them as eccentric layabouts. Yet, it is not the same everywhere. My father, when he moved to France, was told as a writer, he should become a member of the Entraide des Travailleurs Intellectuels, which granted him some benefits. Apparently when it came to the health system as a registered intellectual he would be on the same level as a farm worker – I’ve always admired the egalitarianism of the French system. In Ireland, artists are permitted one year on unemployment benefit without having to look for work, to allow them time to pursue their practice, rehearse, or develop a portfolio. The UK used to have such a system - Enterprise Allowance, but this was axed a long time ago.
Without these schemes, it is only those from privileged, or monied backgrounds who have the luxury of a career in the arts. Sadly, it is frequently assumed that artists are not worthy of being paid anything at all, the claim being that they benefit from “exposure”. ‘Yes, I’ll have my exposure fried with eggs and chips, please.’
I run the Brighton-based Mothers Uncovered, which I set up due to my own experiences of feeling panicky and isolated after becoming a mother. We provide creative peer support groups for mostly new, isolated mums. All our activities are run by past participants, who are paid to run sessions; sometimes they, and others, are faintly surprised that the work is not voluntary.
What has always struck me over the years of supporting women in matrescence (the transition into motherhood) is their struggle to define themselves and their place in the world. This is partly due to the bone-crunching tiredness; one of my favourite quotes when participants discussed what they would tell a pregnant woman was: ‘You don’t want to hear you’ll be so tired it hurts.’ There is also the overwhelming love and concern they have for their child and the loneliness and sometimes boredom of spending hours alone with their baby, which they must not mention as they will be told they are ungrateful.
However, the loss of identity is not talked about as much. After all, you were a woman, now you are a woman and a mother, which is a whole additional role. However, the act of becoming mother often subsumes that of woman and we realise that neither are particularly valued in the first place. Our worth in the world is only seen in monetary terms, how much revenue we create for our workplace. Everywhere around us, people are working for no money, looking after each other or their communities, yet this is not seen as important. It’s as if paying for this work, which a basic income would do, would sully it somehow, make it less noble. FYI, you can’t eat ‘noble.’
I was moved to support the basic income cause, in part because I’ve seen how many families, especially mothers, are struggling. About four years ago, the ONS estimated there were around two million mothers at home in the UK, branded ’economically inactive’, yet doing the equivalent of around £343 billion hours of unpaid childcare.
Participants in our groups always talk about when they ‘go back to work’ and we gently stop them and point out that they are working already. Soothing a screaming, teething baby is more work, I would argue, than someone doing a ‘bullshit job’ (David Graeber), such as phoning up a stranger to tell them they’ve been in a car accident and can claim compensation when they probably don’t own a car.
Participants are often wild-eyed and anxious about this return to their workplace and you can see why. They are fathoming how they will manage to leave their young baby, who has not been apart from them before, with people unfamiliar to them, while they go and earn just enough money to cover the childcare and exhaust themselves further into the bargain. And the woman (for it nearly always is) providing the childcare is probably leaving her children with someone else and on and on in a bizarre Russian doll set-up.
‘Oh, but Maggie,’ I hear you say. ‘Are you not a feminist? Are you suggesting women stay in the house all day, having and raising babies, instead of taking their place in the world of work?!’ Of course not. I was desperate for adult company and to contribute to society when I’d had my children. Mothers have ideas and ambition, but the fact that their vital work as mothers is not recognised as such has a detrimental effect on their mental health. Let us stop and consider the ridiculousness of a woman putting her child in the care of another which is work, but it is not work if she is doing it, or having to shun work in order to care for her child (also work).
Those that care for children, elders or the disabled (which is all of us at some point) should be supported to do their caring roles, not be stigmatised and shamed into ‘going back to work’. A basic income would give mothers a breathing space to negotiate a better, more harmonious return to a workplace that fitted with raising the next generation of society and critically would show their work as mothers is valued, thus enormously benefitting their wellbeing and those around them.
There is no doubt a universal basic income could help make society more equal. There is a particular group that often gets overlooked, for whom it would be especially life-changing. Mothers. In funding terms, they are often regarded as a niche category – a representative of a grant giving organisation told me recently that they would never be ‘a priority issue’ unless there was a risk to their offspring’s lives. I struggle with this attitude.
Yes, I do know fathers are immensely important too, many working equally hard and needing support, but it is women who carry and birth the children and the majority of the work raising them. Much of mothers’ work is unpaid and unseen, yet it keeps society going. Those who state that it is ‘a woman’s choice’ to have a child would do well to remember that ‘other people’s children’ are not raised in isolation, they are the next generation who will work, care for their fellow citizens and crucially pay their taxes.
If you are reading this and thinking it doesn’t concern you because you are not one, remember that every person on the planet has, or had, a mother. This is not in any way meant to denigrate women who are not mothers, either through choice or circumstance. It is not that mothers are superior citizens, superhuman beings who rank higher than everyone else, but very often their needs are not met at all. When they are not met, nor are those of the family. The impact on children includes emotional & behavioural problems and special educational needs (i). There is a detrimental impact on a partner’s mental health, as well as causing financial problems (ii,iii).
I became involved in Basic Income South East recently, based in Brighton. Obviously because of Covid-19, basic income has become an immensely hot topic as we can see what a harsh, unfair society we live in. Those who should be the most valued and cherished are not. Our efforts to contain and slow the spread of the coronavirus have social consequences such as loss of income for many people and mothers, often on a career break raising their children, are likely to fall outside the remit of one of the financial bailouts.
I set up Mothers Uncovered as a project for my charity Livestock in 2008 as a result of my own experiences of feeling panicky and alone. We provide creative peer support groups for mostly new, isolated mums to highlight the importance of and address post-natal mental health. All our activities are run by past participants. The women that attend our groups are not wealthy. They are struggling to make ends meet. Many have no choice but to go back to paid work when they don’t feel ready. They want to contribute to society, but raising their children is also contributing to society.
A few years back I became an advocate for maternal mental health. Mostly because women are often told to keep quiet when they speak and mothers, even more so. As part of this I set up a petition, which includes a call for greater investment into peer support measures as this is often the best way to support mums (and it’s cheaper!). Inadequate maternal care costs the UK £8bn [iv] a year, with a comparatively modest £337m required to tackle it. EIGHT BILLION POUNDS EVERY YEAR on trying to close the stable door once the horse has bolted. Why are we playing catch-up instead of investing in preventative measures?
Many women experience post-natal depression (PND) and a lot suffer in silence. With suicide as the leading cause of maternal death, too many women are falling through the cracks as their physical and emotional needs go unmet. Why are so many mothers suffering? It often starts with a traumatic birth, which can have a long-term impact on mental health. Secondly, there is still an insistence on dividing mothers into those with ‘baby blues’ (perceived as the vast majority) and those with PND (perceived as a small proportion). You need to be referred for treatment by a health professional for PND. There is a shaming stigma of ‘not coping’ and many women do not identify themselves as ‘depressed’.
Thirdly, many women feel they have no one to talk to. They know how lucky they are to be mothers, so repeatedly deny any of their own needs to the point when they are in a desperate state. Many mum and baby groups are informal drop-ins in which other mothers may appear to be coping much better. Courses in Children’s Centres are usually run by a health professional, which can create an ‘us and them’ atmosphere.
In matrescence (which is a term coined nearly fifty years ago to describe the transition into motherhood), it is perfectly normal to be blissfully happy one moment and in the depths of despair the next. Mothers Uncovered helps hundreds of women with our groups focused on the mother, rather than the baby. Participants quickly open up as they realise they are not the only ones struggling, they start to take ownership of their lives and decisions. Many women say we have quite literally, ‘saved their lives.’ Of course it is essential to have the statutory services there; women are very grateful for the care the NHS provides. However, a lot of women would never get to the stage of severe PND if the right support were there in the first place and if peer support services were given better backing, then the massive burden on the NHS would ease.
A basic income would give mothers a small breathing space to concentrate on raising their children in the best way possible, and them both being as happy and healthy as possible. Being sick with worry is not good for them, or their children. The children that will grow up and carry the world forward.
Petition for greater maternal support https://www.change.org/p/parliament-nhs-mothers-need-more-support-help-them-now?just_created=true
i. Boath EH, Pryce AJ, Cox JL. Postnatal depression: The impact on the family. Journal of Reproductive & Infant Psychology. 1998.
ii. Burke L. The impact of maternal depression on familial relationships. International Review of Psychiatry. 2003.
iii. Chew-Graham CA, Sharp D, Chamberlain E, Folkes L, Turner KM. Disclosure of symptoms of postnatal depression, the perspectives of health professionals & women. BMC Fam Pract. 2009.
iv. Maternal Mental Health Alliance, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/20/mental-health-care-new-mothers-cost-study
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A while back, a piece entitled ‘If Literature’s Complicated Men were on Tinder’ was circulating. I notice it was written two years ago, but I only saw it a couple of months ago. https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/if-literatures-complicated-men-were-on-tinder
So, whilst, in lockdown, I thought I’d like to do something similar for some of the Shakespearian ladies…
Name: Lady Macbeth
Age: A lady never reveals her age. Especially if she’s angling for a L’Oreal commercial.
Occupation: Persuading my sad sack of a husband to kill all the weedy shitholes who stand in the way of us being top dogs. I’d do it but I can’t apparently because I’m a woman. 🙄
About Lady Macbeth: I like dinner parties. Except when my husband sees ghosts at them. That really brings the mood down. I like washing my hands. They always look so….bloody… y’know? It’s weird, I washed them only ten minutes ago and now they’re bloody again. Go figure….
Name: Ophelia (I don’t have a second name because I’m just a girl)
Age: We’ll say 18 (but that’s for legal reasons)
About Ophelia: I’m very fond of flowers. And water. Sometimes I get into some running water and arrange the flowers. That might be my undoing one day, but I’ve heard men like girls who come across as a bit weird and unstable, so they can rescue them. I worship mean and moody men. Even though they make me miserable.
Name: Juliet Capulet (what bozo in my family thought having my first name rhyme with my last was a good idea…?)
Age: 14, baby.
Occupation: My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard
About Juliet: So, like, my parents want me to marry this really boring boy, but I like boys from the wrong side of the tracks. Those who are not from my ‘hood, you get me? If there’s no drama in your life, then what’cha gonna put on your Instagram posts? Lock up your knives, that’s all I’m saying.
Name: Titania (surname…? What?!)
Age: You mortals wouldn’t grasp the concept of my age.
Occupation: Queen of the Fairies
About Titania: I like winding Oberon up. We’ve been fighting over custody of this frigging kid for ages. Tbh, I don’t even want the kid, but I don’t want Oboe having him either. I like turning idiots into asses. Don’t cross me. Or fall asleep in my wood. (That’s not a euphemism, btw)
Name: Miranda, Daughter of Prospero
Occupation: I wrote Brave New World. Sod off, Aldous.
About Miranda: My dad is really controlling. And mad. He does all these weird illusions like he’s David Blaine or something. He thinks I’m sweet and innocent. Like most men, he can’t see past the end of his (magic) stick. Caliban…mmmhmm! I like them hairy. And with an extra arm.
Name: Regan of Cornwall
Age: Put it down as 27. That’s my playing age.
About Regan: I see you’ve put Lady M down as top dog. That’s been noted. I’ve had ENOUGH of playing second fiddle to other women. Yeah, I’m the difficult middle child. Wouldn’t you be, when you’ve got Little Miss Perfect as a younger and that Lickarse as an older? I know how to wield a cleaver. Wait, where are you goi…?
Name: Katherine Minola
About Katherine: Ooo, why am I not married off yet? I’m described as sharp-tonged, quick tempered and prone to violence. Maybe I just don’t being told what to do by every man around me. and some of the women too. The ending of my story is apparently a problem. Am I tamed, or am I not? My status is single: make of THAT what you will.
Name: Helena Nedar
Occupation: Runaway Bride
About Helena: Yeah, it’s so mature isn’t it, when you say you don’t like someone, then you say that you do, then get your mate to pretend to like you too and claim it was all some bad mushrooms you found in the enchanted wood and you didn’t know what you were doing?! If you find the crotch missing on your trousers, you’ll know that I really wasn’t laughing that much.
Name: Beatrice (Who Knows…?)
Occupation: Defender of Hero
About Beatrice: So, I’m quite funny, ‘for a woman’, apparently. No-one messes with my family. I have this on-off thing with Benedick (clue’s in the name there), although he’s given me the runaround before, so this lady is back on the market! If my barbs might bend YOUR dick, swipe left.
Name: Cordelia Le France
Age: I think Daddy said I’m 17
Occupation: Being nice
About Cordelia: I don’t know why I’m on this list. I’m not complicated. I am sweet and good. I’m the only one who loves Daddy properly. I tell him home truths. He doesn’t always like it. Sometimes I play the Fool though. I suppose that makes me more complicated. Look, I’ll put on a silly hat and see if that makes a difference.
When I gave birth nearly 15 years ago, I diligently read the lists of what essentials I needed in my hospital bag in my Emma’s Diary booklet. I’m not sure the booklet still exists – it’s probably all online because people’s eyes shrivel from the printed word. Allegedly.
Feeling a little nostalgic for all those years ago (not broody, there’s a difference) I thought I’d have a gander at what the current advice is and looked up the NCT’s website. To add further complexity to a pregnancy-worn brain, it seems you now need a labour bag, a hospital bag, a newborn bag and a birth partner’s bag. Well the birth partner can jog right on. They can nip out to the local Tesco/Asda/Sainsburys/Aldi (no favourites here) and get some supplies surely.
No, I jest. It’s important to feel prepared. The thing I remember most about those last weeks, other than the discomfort, was the waiting – flurries of anxiety meaning I couldn’t settle to doing anything and not really being able to go out anywhere in case it all kicked off. And of course, fielding the endless ‘when’s it due?’ enquiries. So, some time getting things together might help.
What I remember particularly well from the labour was my partner’s insistence on getting the music I had said I wanted, to be played in the room (this was pre-iPods remember). It’s tricky for the partner – they are definitely the bridesmaid in this scenario - but by the time we’d been in the delivery room for some hours and he felt he needed distraction, necessitating someone bringing some batteries for the machine he’d brought, I couldn’t give a tinker’s arse about what music was playing. Hard to hear anyway over the screaming. Unless you set it to some nice bass rhythm.
There’s a funny scene in the book ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ where the slightly feckless main character completely takes over the birthing class with questions about what type of sandwiches he should get for the labour. That’s another thing not mentioned in the whole ‘bring a selection of snacks’ scenario. It’s quite hard to take a bite of anything, chew and swallow WHILE SCREAMING. I ordered some food when in the hospital but had to abandon it because I had to spit out whatever was in my mouth when a contraction came. Glucose sweets are probably the only option, although another thing they don’t mention is that if you’ve had any drugs at all, you may well find yourself both nauseous and ravenous after the baby is out. I had to speak out extremely forcefully to get something to settle my stomach so I could shovel in anything edible straight after, having not eaten for about 24 hours.
Maternity OR sanitary towels are mentioned as being necessary afterwards. Do NOT get sanitary towels, unless you want to start smelling less than fragrant in the lady garden department. I called the health visitor team in a panic after I’d been home a few days, convinced I had some sort of infection. I’d run out of maternity towels and had switched to sanitary towels, thinking it wouldn’t make any difference. Ner-huh. You need loads of maternity towels, btw. LOADS.
Also, it mentions a comfy outfit to wear home. Just one outfit? I was in hospital for three days, including the remainder of the night I gave birth – admittedly people may well be out sooner, but believe me, there are a lot of ‘substances’ coming out of you/the baby. I needed about four outfits a day. Nothing fancy mind, but a bumper pack of cheap t-shirts (preferably something that is patterned to look like ‘substances’) and tracksuit bottoms aplenty will not go amiss. Do not bring anything fancy. Some of those substances would take a pickaxe to shift.
And slippers OR flipflops. You’ve all been in a public swimming pool changing room, I take it? Would you wear your slippers in there? No. If you want a shower, take slippers AND flipflops. Unless you intend to walk around in soggy slippers.
One last thing. Unless you’ve got the cash for a private room, the post-natal word isn’t much fun. At no time is it completely dark and quiet, meaning privacy and sleep are in short supply. However, your baby will probably sleep better there, than at any point for the ensuing weeks, so if you can stick it out for any length of time, it might help you recover slightly. I remember naively thinking what a piece of pissh this baby lark was, once I got over putting the nappy on the wrong way round. He slept ALL THE TIME. Except when I was desperately trying to get him to latch on. As soon as we got home though, the lungs opened.
It's a beautiful balmy evening, the height of late summer. Not a breath of wind. I sat outside just now as it grew darker. It's always slightly bittersweet these last days of August, as you know that the weather will turn in a few weeks time. My bedroom is in the attic, which can be overwhelmingly stifling and lead you to just lie down and not do anything else.
Is this so bad though? My boys are old enough now to not need to be taken to the park or the beach. Indeed they snort in derision at the mere thought of it. I've told myself that it doesn't have to stop me going, so I've taken myself off to swim a couple of times and gone for walks early before the heat of the day.
Being self employed, I can take time off in the summer holidays, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I can lie down and unwind - indeed, for good mental health it is a necessity, not a luxury - because I juggle a lot of plates workwise and personally, being a single parent. However, it's hard to rid myself of the nagging sense of things that should be done, need to be done. I'm well aware of encroaching events, documents and workshops that need my attention. The buck mostly stops with me as a company director.
I've done some bits of admin in the last couple of weeks, but find it hard to concentrate. Even though the boys remain sequestered in their rooms on screens a lot of the time, their body clocks out of whack with daylight hours, it's hard to settle. Certainly my idea that I'll 'write a bit more of my novel without the regular appointments I have in term time eating up the day' remains an elusive pipedream. The thought that one of them might pop up at any moment shrivels my intent. (I KNOW JK Rowling managed it in a busy cafe, I'm clearly just not as disciplined!)
Then there's the guilt that I should get them off their screens. However, I pat myself on the back a little here because these summer holidays we've been away to visit Scandinavia (including staying with a friend of mine in Sweden), to see my Dad in the West Country and are shortly off to Ibiza. On these trips, they are 'forced' to sightsee and converse, as well as lounge on screens and swim in pools or the sea. It's a hard life, eh...?! I've decided I won't feel guilty about having holidays. For many years when they were small I didn't have the money to do so and also had both parents living in France so it made sense to go there. Some catching up is in order, especially as they'll be fleeing the nest in a few years.
There’s nowt so queer as folk, so they say. And it would seem that those who get themselves vexed about climate change protests/protestors are the queerest of the lot.
With a number of the problems in the world, some people can distance themselves, by dint of: ‘It’s happening somewhere else/to someone else…’ With this problem, there is no escape. Or indeed, ‘No Planet B’ (I see a usage of this excellent term from Ecowatch as early as 2013, it may well have been around before that). And yet some, frankly deluded, souls get incredibly bogged down in matters such as; ‘the roads are blocked’, ‘rich celebrities are getting involved’ and ‘all the climate change protestors are white and middle class’ [NEWSFLASH! : Probably the white middle classes will be the last to suffer when the Earth reaches the point of no return. So they might, in fact, NOT be acting out of their own best interests].
All of this crystallises in some of the responses to Greta Thunberg. They don’t like the way she sounds, or looks, or doesn’t smile. They don’t like the fact that she comes from a well-to-do background. They don’t like the fact that her mum represented Sweden in the Eurovision. (Her mum wasn’t in Abba though. Which is about as far as most people get when asked to name famous Swedish popstars). They don't like that MORE than they don't like the fact that her mother is a famous opera singer. They don’t like the fact that her mum wrote a book, the publication of which coincided with Greta’s first school strike, which they suspect makes it a publicity stunt (a very long stunt by Greta, I have to say. Several months long). There's also a reference to an article somewhere about the deliberate construct of a ‘cultural icon.’
Greta is, they declare, a PUPPET. A mere mouthpiece for dark forces behind her, who are manipulating her for their own ends. (I read one intriguing piece that described Greta’s meteoric rise as Acts I to VI imbued with tones of Machiavellian dread. As if she were a Shakespearean tragedy.) Having seen her speeches, I think it is unlikely. She may have received assistance in writing them, but so have many public figures. A lot of 16 year olds, thrust into prominence in the public eye, would have their own chat show by now. In which they appear with dazzling teeth and new hairstyle, a la X Factor contestants, who look NOTHING like their original selves come the live shows. Greta remains true to herself. And that is what irks a lot of people.
Even if she were 'a puppet', we shouldn’t give a flying &*%”! Concentrate on the message, why don't we?!! Frankly, I’d be happy if you wheeled out Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy to deliver the message, as long as the brattish children in charge of our countries were as grown up as the younger generation who are trying to make a difference.
On a small sidenote, I noticed this week that the ‘too posh’ to be relevant has also been applied to Fleabag. We can’t empathise with her because she’s rich, apparently. (As is the creator) And she invites that empathy by looking at the camera. I don’t remember that objection with Peep Show or The Office, which both did that. Oh yes, silly me, those had male leads. So that was probably alright. Nor do I see much anguish about how to relate to Eastenders (pumped into our homes for hours every week), if you're not from that social demographic. If you don’t like Fleabag, fine. But don’t make it a massive class issue. (Yes, I’m posh, so I should shut up). For the record, I liked Fleabag because it was inventive, had some very funny bits and also some spot on observations about women (whatever background they are from).
Next week is International Women’s Day. To honour my maternal grandmother, I’d like to share with you a story from her life. To fill in some background, Audrey Muriel Rudolf (24 Dec 1911- 8 Jan 2005) was born in Jamaica. She came to Oxford University on a scholarship and met my grandfather, Patrick Gordon-Walker, who subsequently became a Labour MP (at a time when Labour seemed less troubled than now), serving briefly as Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. He is chiefly remembered for being ousted in the racist election the Tories ran in Smethwick in 1964. To be honest, his cards were probably marked when he opposed the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which sought to restrict the entry into Britain of black migrants from Commonwealth countries. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on
Wind back to the start of World War II: Patrick was employed by BBC radio to broadcast to the German people, telling them the truth of what was happening, which apparently didn’t endear him to Hitler. So much so, in fact, that my mother Caroline (2) and her elder sister Judy (4) were evacuated to their grandparents in Jamaica (the feeling being that they would not be safe anywhere in the UK if Hitler invaded). It was only meant to be for a few months. Their safety was paramount, which is what I imagine Audrey told herself, when suffering this unbelievable wrench at being parted from her children.
However, boats were being torpedoed and it was not safe to travel. They were there for five years. FIVE YEARS of not seeing your parents. When they came back, Audrey did not recognise her children and walked past them on the railway platform. This memory has stayed with my mother for life. She says she remembers sitting in a café thinking, ‘What shall I say to this woman who is my mother?’
During the war Patrick was one of the first non-military to enter the concentration camps after they had been liberated. He wrote a short book, ‘The Lid Lifts’, about his observations and the interviews he had conducted with the survivors of the Holocaust. Like many who saw these unspeakable horrors, he wanted to blot out the memories. My mother says she never heard him talk of it. She happened upon a copy of the book in his study when she was about 12 and was horrified. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5135.shtml
So now we finally come to Audrey’s story. In the mid-30s, as fascism was on the rise, my grandparents lived in Oxford. They travelled to Germany several times to try and help people escape before it was too late. They both spoke good German, Patrick having studied there. She told me this story several times when I was a teenager, but I only recall the general sense of it and frustratingly I don’t have all the full facts. I assumed she had told everyone else in the family too, so I recently asked my mother, aunt and uncle about it, but none of them remember much more than me. My uncle Alan was told by her that they were trying to get trade unionists, then considered a threat to a totalitarian regime, out of Germany and to Oxford where they put them up. The trade unionists were being watched by the special police, so Audrey was sent out the front door to adjust her stocking to distract the soldiers (!), while Patrick and the trade unionists escaped out the back.
The story she told me was that she and Patrick were in a hotel room somewhere near the border (with Poland we think). They had train tickets for the two people they were with. My mother thinks Audrey hid the tickets under her pregnancy bump, so this would be 1935 when she was pregnant with Judy. Audrey had been told to check the coast was clear, so opened the door of the room and saw two SS guards standing further down the passageway. The natural instinct would have been to slam the door shut, which would have given the game away. Instead, she came out into the passageway, walked to the bathroom, smiling sweetly at the men. She was a very beautiful woman, so I’m sure they were delighted. She went into the bathroom, closed the door, waited a minute or two, flushed the toilet, ran the taps, then came back out and to the room. Closing the door behind her calmly, she reported the presence of the guards, whereby the men escaped by the window, to freedom, we hope.
It is only a small story, but demonstrates nerves of steel and an incredible presence of mind for a 23 year old pregnant woman. If the guards had suspected anything, no doubt all four of them would have been shot on the spot. And I wouldn’t be alive to tell this story…..
Get lots of sleep before you go. Just like when you’re pregnant and people tell you to sleep then and you think, yeah yeah whatever. They’re right.
The weather is variable. Summer 2018 is proving a bit of a blinder, but it can TURN! There was one year when I wished I’d brought gloves.
Lots of layers, a waterproof and sturdy shoes for negotiating the cobbled steep streets.
You’ll probably end up walking most places.
You’ll spend more than you think. Arrange a loan or overdraft now.
You can drink 24/7 and the majority do. Take painkillers and vitamins to make up for the fruit and veg you won’t eat.
If you spent every minute watching a show, you’d only see a tiny amount of what there is on offer. That can be overwhelming. I’d suggest Googling anyone you would like to see perform, for they will undoubtedly be up there and make a note of the details. The big names will sell out. The unknowns will not.
Shows can be very pricey and not always worth it. There is an Edinburgh ennui feeling of having wasted time and money when there were literally thousands of other things you could have done. There’s now quite an established ‘Free Fringe’ of comedy shows in pubs.
The Pleasance courtyard is a good place to hang out and people spot. A lot of big names do their shows there. The Assembly Rooms or Traverse are more civilised and cultured places to hang out.
The Royal Mile – where the bulk of the flyering takes place – is like a bazaar in Marrakech. Packed to the gunnels with desperate performers doing bits of their shows, flyers literally everywhere. It makes the Brighton Fringe City look like Playschool.
However, like Brighton, there are quite a few areas in the city that don’t give a monkey’s fart about the Fringe. Princes St, one of the main shopping areas, is blessedly Fringe free. The main art gallery is great. If you fancy a bracing walk, go up Arthur’s Seat. Don’t go when pissed or hungover – parts are quite steep and you might fall off! The other 'Arthur's "seat"'* is always available however.
The atmosphere is hard to sum up, but the closest thing I can think of is Freshers Week. Imagine thousands of performers, released from the manacles of home and boy/girlfriends – OFF THE LEASH! There’s also large troupes of American students doing musicals, who tend to dominate the streets with costumes and unwelcome warbling.
It is bold, bruising, hilarious. I laughed and cried more there than anywhere else. Dreams are made and shattered. Famous people are everywhere, which means a frenzied excitement all the time.
What happens in Edinburgh, stays in Edinburgh.
* insider joke from this particular veteran
especially relating to motherhood.