Sunday, 28 August 2016

Down in the Depths

I am so sorry. It's three months since I last blogged and the reason for the silence is that I've just been very unhappy about a lot of things in my life and didn't want to seem like a whinger.

To sum up, my relationship is no longer working but as my partner is sick and disabled, I feel dreadful about leaving; I still haven't found anywhere else to live and now face another freezing winter in this inadequately heated house; someone I am very attached to and have been very close to for ten years has suddenly cut me out of her life, with no explanation, and I have lost my regular freelance job and now have nothing to do and no extra income apart from my pension (thank God for that!).

Not surprisingly, the stress has had a bad effect on my health and I am wondering if I am having a kind of nervous breakdown. Having compared notes with my sister and found I have the same symptoms as when she had a breakdown years ago - panic attacks, insomnia, bad stomach, hyper-sensitivity, getting over-emotional about the slightest thing, bursting into tears frequently and all sorts of other stuff, too - I think I might be. I'm certainly very depressed.

I consulted a homeopath and the remedies he prescribed have helped for the last month, but I have now finished the course and can't afford to keep going back for more. I suppose I could try and track down the remedies on the web. Hmm... I might just do that. One of them was Lycopodium, for anxiety and stomach problems, another was Dulcamara which can help arthritis and stiff neck - and I have recently discovered that I broke my neck in three places in 1985, not just two.

Just thinking about what I suffered and how I got no help at all from the medical profession and have had to spend more than £30,000 of my own money seeking relief from the pain and disability it has left me with, makes me well up. It also makes me feel very angry and hard-done-by. I went to see my GP three weeks ago and she flatly refused to send me for any scans, even though I damaged my spine lower down, too, and that has never been x-rayed at all. Oh, sorry, I'm whingeing again.

Anyway, as soon as I have made sense of at least one of my current problems, I hope to start writing again. One good thing to report is that, encouraged by my artist sister,  I have begun painting for the first time since my school days and have already sold the two illustrated below.

Border Collie Pup


Here is the other:

Not having painted since my schooldays, I am surprised at how well they turned out. Perhaps painting, not writing, is what will get me through these dark days.




Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Great British Poo Test



When you get to a certain age in the UK, you are invited to take part in the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme (aka the Crap on the Cardboard test). So long as you are registered with a GP and are 60 or over, you get a letter saying they are sending you a kit plus instructions.

So far, so good. 'It can't be that difficult', you think. 'All I have to do it poo.' Then it arrives, complete with envelope for return postage. What? Poo through the post? The envelope isn't even padded! Ugh! Though it does have a shiny plastic-y lining. The post office sorters must get thousands of these envelopes and they must know what's in them. Do they wear hazard suits and extra thick rubber gloves? Imagine if your sample was post-curry-oozy and seeped its way through the cardboard. The kit has your name on. They'd know it was your vindaloo!

But I am getting ahead of myself. Here's what is in the kit. i, A prepaid return envelope: ii, 6 cardboard sticks, two for each of the three days of the test: iii, An orange and white cardboard test kit (yes, it really is Crap on the Cardboard).

The leaflet tells you that the kit must be completed and sent off within 14 days of the first sample being taken, i.e. the first poo. 'That's easy,' you think, with a certain sense of relief. 'I'm sure I can manage three craps in 14 days.' Well, don't be so sure. You can almost guarantee that one glance at the flimsy lollipop stick provided in the kit will send any incipient turd scuttling back up your colon for safety.

So, Day 1 dawns and I head for the bathroom, kit in hand and settle myself. Suddenly, when it's almost too late, a thought strikes me. How do I get it onto the stick? No way am I going to reach beneath myself in mid poo, even with my sleeve rolled up. In desperation, my eyes light on the loo paper. Perfect! I tear off a wodge and position it carefully, but, not having eyes in my derriere, I had no idea of the consistency of what I had just evacuated. It was like a very dense fruit cake that, as I withdrew the paper to dip my lolly stick in it, shot into the air and landed with a thud on the laminate flooring. I swear it bounced.

I felt as horrified as a child who had accidentally pooed in public. Though there was nobody to witness my 'accident', I nevertheless burned with shame. I bent as far forward off the loo as was physically and hygienically safe and grabbed the thing in a handful of loo roll, jabbed in the stick and then my troubles really started. I had forgotten to Lift The Flap! There I was, Richard in one hand (as in Richard the Third = turd, Cockney rhyming slang) and lolly stick quivering in the other, balancing a small heap of poo on the tip. I needed three hands and I could hardly call for help in the middle of such an intimate act.

My only recourse was to chuck the paper-wrapped lump down the loo and transfer the stick to my left hand while I opened the flap with my right. Wrong! I need two hands to prise open the cardboard flap, so I had to rest the lolly stick on the edge of the washbasin. Unfortunately, as I was opening the flap which covers the tiny area which you have to dot with poo, I flipped the handle of the stick with my wrist. The stick performed a tiddlywinks manoeuvre and prescribed a parabola in the air, hitting the mirror over the sink and slithering down.

I now had poo in the loo, poo on the floor, poo on the mirror and absolutely no poo on the poo test kit. Total fail. But then I had a stroke of luck as I received a message from Bowel Control to tell me that there was a beastie still to emerge. Grab tissue. Trap tiny tip of turd. Use the dipstick. Transfer to kit. Done!

Except it wasn't. On reading the leaflet more closely, I discovered I was meant to take a second sample from 'the bowel motion you have just collected'. Oh no! Too late! It had struck the iceberg of turd No. 1 and vanished beneath the water line. I shan't tell you what I did. You might be having your breakfast. Suffice it to say that cleaning up afterwards used an entire packet of antibacterial wipes.

By Day 2, I was an old hand - a rather brown hand - at this game. No problem. Day 3, the 'motions' were of gravy-like consistency and presented challenges of their own. But at last I had the envelope sealed and ready for posting. Just as I was popping it into the mail box, I remembered I had forgotten to write the date on Sample No. 3. I fished in my bag, found an eye pencil and scrawled it on the outside of the envelope, adding 'Sorry'. Perhaps it should have been 'Soggy'.

Since then, I have had my official NHS letter giving me the All Clear. Thank heavens for that! And just when I thought that was it for ever, I re-read the original letter and found they were extending the test for four extra years. That's how many lolly sticks to go? I shall never be able to face a choc ice again!








Sunday, 13 March 2016

Keith Emerson and the slow fade



I was saddened by the news that Keith Emerson, the amazing prog rock keyboard player of ELP, has apparently ended his own life because a neurological problem was affecting his fingers and making it increasingly difficult to play.

I can empathise with this only too well. I have played the guitar since I was fifteen. I went semi pro, did a Continental tour as a solo singer-songwriter and later formed my own folk-rock band, Izara, which gigged for four years.

When the band broke up, I went solo again. I have written hundreds of songs and now, in the YouTube and SoundCloud era, was looking forward to recording the best and getting them out there so people could actually hear them, instead of my words and music being sung only in my bedroom.

What I didn’t bargain for was disease robbing me of my ability to play the guitar. I don’t know what Keith’s problem was but, in my case, it was osteoarthritis in my fingers. As they gradually stiffened, I found it harder and harder and increasingly more painful to form chords. As the disease progressed to my thumb joints, I couldn’t even strum without wincing. So I have been forced to give up a hobby that gave me great enjoyment and a creative outlet on a daily basis for more than five decades.

To make things even worse, a long bout of laryngitis over December and January has robbed me of my singing voice, too. Once, my soprano could soar to Kate Bush heights, though I could never quite achieve Minnie Riperton’s celestial squeak. My three and a half octave range has shrunk to two at a push and my breath control is all over the place. I am wondering if singing lessons might help.

If I can regain my voice, all is not quite lost as I can still play keyboards after a fashion. I started playing the piano by ear when I was only three, went to lessons from the age of six and had passed my Grade 8 by the time I went to university. I have recently bought a small digital five-octave keyboard and as soon as my tones have grown a bit more dulcet, I shall start practising.


Unlike Keith, I am not a musical colossus with a name and a performance standard to uphold and neither am I a perfectionist. I compose and play purely for enjoyment. But when a musical ability one has taken for granted for most of one’s life (I am the same age as Keith) suddenly begins to fail, it is like a bereavement. Instead of glorious chords and harmonies, all you hear is the percussion of slamming doors. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The killer coat



I have done some stupid things in my time. I sold a north London flat that would now be worth over £1 million and stayed out of the property market so long that I can now barely afford to buy a studio flat.( I had moved in with a boyfriend, of course, and hadn’t thought to keep my flat and rent it out, or invest in another property. *bangs head*)

Yes, I am the sort of person who ambles through life with head in clouds. A lifelong non-driver, I sit in the passenger seat in my own little bubble, so that when my partner says, “An unmarked navy blue police BMW. Impressive!”, I reply, “What BMW?” and he says, “The one that just whizzed past with blue lights flashing, you can’t have missed it,” and I answer, “Err… I was looking at tree over there.”

People despair of me, they really do. They despair of the blank look I give them in reply to a question, caused by the fact that right at that moment, an idea for a song had popped into my head, complete with the first two lines of the melody and I was frantically trying to stamp it on my memory for later. They despair of the way I always seem to misjudge what clothes to wear for any outing, so that when everyone else is sensibly dressed, I am wearing a patchwork hippy velvet coat and purple boots, and when they have a sparkly party frock on, I appear in jeans and a jumper with a furry raccoon on the front.

None of my financial or clothing misjudgements had actually been life-threatening… Well, not until December 15th, 2015, that is, when I made the biggest sartorial mistake of my life.

At least eight years ago, I bought a plain, rather boring, thigh-length black coat from a charity shop. It cost about a fiver. It had a furry collar, no hood, deep, hand-thrusting pockets and the back was elasticated at the waist, which was just as well, as it had baggy armpits and would have swamped me otherwise. It also had a half belt, attached at either side, which was a bit of a painus in the anus, as I never knew whether to knot it at the front, which was a nuisance every time I wanted to unzip the jacket, or tie it at the back, a la French trenchcoat, whereupon it always came undone, being a slippery fabric.

Unbecoming through it was, it turned out to be the most useful coat I have ever worn. It was only very slightly padded, but it turned out to be windproof, rainproof and season-proof. I wore it from January to December. It was the coat I always reached for on the coat rack whenever I was dashing out and the weather looked a bit dodgy. It was reliable, my stand-by. But… it was never flattering. In fact, I thought I looked a bit bag-lady-ish in it. And so, when I found a smart-looking, figure-hugging, black padded coat – Maine, from Debenhams – with detachable hood in another charity shop, price £7.95, I bought it.

I took my old favourite off the coat hook and laid it on the bed in the spare room. It was a hell of a wrench to part with it. I would go to put it in the charity bag, then take it out again, feeling a strong tug of attachment to it. In the end, telling myself sternly, ‘It’s only a coat,’ I thrust it into the bag, but not before wishing it well and hoping it would find a new owner who would get as much wear out of it as I had.

On December 15th, I had a concert and dinner date in Soho. I was staying the night with my friend in Camden Town and doing the annual present swap, so I left my overnight bag and headed for the bus stop to meet my other friend. Now, my Camden friend lives a good 12-15 minute walk from the nearest transport and I was halfway there when the heavens opened. It didn’t merely rain, it battered down, it emptied the North Sea on my head, it monsooned. And the rain went straight through my new coat and soaked me to the skin. I was also wearing silver and black Skechers trainers that weren’t remotely waterproof so my feet were soaked, too. I squelched onto the bus, slopped out at Tottenham Court Rd, couldn’t find Dean Street as it was all boarded off due to Crossrail works, plodded, shivering, all the way to Oxford Circus and back, and eventually texted my friend who was already waiting at the music venue and told me how to get there.

Three damp hours later, it was time to head home. I decided to get a cab but, on a rainy night in London, there wasn’t one to be seen, so I got a bus and walked a wet mile back to my friend’s. She made up the sofa bed and gave me a sleeping bag and went to bed herself. I got in and soon realised that, in my chilled state, I needed more covering than a thin cotton sleeping bag. But I didn’t want to wake her and ask for a blanket, so, guess what this idiot did? Put my damp coat over the sleeping bag and eventually drifted off.

The next evening, I could feel a cold coming on. By the 17th, I had laryngitis, a sinus infection, a chest infection and felt so sick I gave up eating. By the 21st, I was on a drip in hospital with a temperature of 39.9C (104F), dehydration and suspected pneumonia.

I’m much better now, thank you for asking. But I have kicked myself black and clue for parting with my old coat and have already given the new one, the one that did nothing to protect me from the elements, back to the charity shop. In fact, as soon as I was well enough, I was in there, hoping to buy back my old coat, but it had gone.

If you see a size 14 vintage M&S coat, made of a shiny black fabric with a half belt, a grey furry collar and a silver lining, grab it for me, please. I would give anything to have it back. If I had worn it that night, I know I would never have caught the chill that led to me catching the vile viruses that nearly carried me off.

I also know now that not every coat has a silver lining!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Matters of life, death and the Death Cafe.



Death is a bastard. It is cruel and uncompromising. Even when it is kind of expected... when someone has been ill for a long time, for example, and is visibly fading... when the scythe falls, it is just as shocking as that awful knock at the door, when you open it to find the grim-faced police officer standing there and you know, just know, that something terrible has happened.

That happened to me once. Out of the blue, my mother died in her sleep alone in her house in Liverpool. I wasn't unprepared. I had had one of my psychic turns and knew something was up and I'd rung the gardener who had a key, my sister being away in France on holiday, and asked him to go round. I was in bed with terrible flu at the time, but I hauled my shivering body onto a train - on a Sunday, with engineering works that doubled the usual 2 1/2 hour journey - and arrived to find that she had indeed died and that the police had taken her to the police morgue and I wasn't allowed to see her, even though I battered on their door every day for a week, by which time I had laryngitis to add to my woes.

It wasn't until I had arrived back home a good week later that I got the knock on the door. I shall never forget the relieved smile on the wpc's face when I told her I already knew. Though why the Liverpool police had sent someone when I had already been in there with the death certificate from Mum's GP, I really don't know. I suppose the order had been given out before I had even got on a train. But as to why it had taken a week...

They talk about matters of life and death. I am OK with the former but shit at the latter. Faced with the death of someone close, I can't control my emotions. Like my mother before me, I get all Mediterranean, weep and wail and tear my hair and collapse onto the bed, unable to summon the stiff upper lip. My dad was the complete opposite. I was a teenager hovering in the hallway wondering if it was a boyfriend on the phone for me when my dad got there first. I heard him say, "Oh, When? Oh well."

He replaced the receiver, gave a small sigh, turned to me and said, "Your grandmother's dead." No tears, no emotion. As I gaped, he said, "No point in getting upset. Life must go on," and that was that. Subject closed. When I mentioned it to my mother later, she said, "It's his cold Scandinavian blood. They are very practical, the Swedes. They don't show their emotions." A complete lie, of course. My Scandinavian friends are just as emotional as anyone else. It was just him. The only time I ever saw him lose his cool was when I got pregnant without being married. But that's another story.

A few months ago, I attended a Death Cafe, I don't know if you've heard of them, but here is a link if you're interested: http://deathcafe.com/

Basically, a group of people, meet in a public place - in my case it was a room above Cafe Rouge in Hampstead - and talk about death, sitting around tables, each of which is headed by a 'facilitator', who asks questions, prompts people and generally guides the discussion and offers information on things such as green burials. I had to brace myself to go along with a friend who was keen to attend. It meant that, for a couple of hours, I would have to overcome my phobia about anything to do with death.

As a kid, I couldn't bare seeing a dead animal; a sheep's skeleton on the Welsh moors, a fledgling fallen from its nest, lying stiff on the patio. If that song about 'your thigh bone's connected to your knee bone' came on the radio, I would clap my hands over my ears and yell "La-la-la" until it was finished. My worst nightmares were about dying myself, or finding corpses. I couldn't even watch medical programmes, I was so squeamish.

At the meeting, the first thing we were asked is why we had come. To my horror, two of the women at my table said they had terminal illnesses. I immediately felt like a fraud. I didn't know why I was there. I had come along to accompany a friend, but I couldn't say that. In the end, I told the truth, that I was afraid of death and anything to do with the dying process, and that I had lost people I loved and found it hard to deal with my feelings. There. It was out in the open. And once I'd voiced it, I realised it was something I was going to have to work at, work with, because at my age I am bound to lose more and more people. I am going to have to break through my own taboo.

I do think Death Cafes are a good idea. It's easy to speak about almost anything but death. It seems the longer our life-span as a species, the worse we are at dealing with our inevitable end. Death is the worm in the apple of life. In previous centuries, when people often didn't live beyond forty and women died giving birth to their eleventh baby having already lost at least five, death was a fact of life; it was all around, an almost daily occurrence. But now, with so many pleasurable things to entertain us and so many more years to enjoy them in, we selfishly want to cling to life at all costs.

Death has replaced sex as an obscenity. We feel doctors and hospitals should be punished for letting our loved ones die, even when their quality of life is next to nil. We do not go gentle into that good night (thank you, Dylan Thomas, for writing out your anti-death rage). In fact, we discuss it so little that when it comes to dealing with the practicalities surrounding the death of someone close, we can find ourselves at a loss, as we have no experience of it. And that is where the Death Cafe comes in, with its ability to educate and inform and provide a safe space in which to discuss the kinds of practicalities that were once common knowledge.

Today, we had a call from the husband of a friend, to say his wife, who I love to bits, suffered a massive stroke this morning and is in a coma. As she already weighs less than 5 stone, due to another minor stroke that affected the part of the brain that controls appetite, they don't hold out any hope. My eyes are filling as I write this. My partner intends to go to the hospital tomorrow, some distance away. He has his satnav out and is planning the route. I know he's going to ask me if I want to come. But I don't. I want to remember her laughing and dancing in our garden this time last year, cracking jokes and swigging white wine spritzers.

I remember my mother in our garden in Liverpool, dancing and singing. I remember her stunning blue eyes, her wavy hair. I don't want to remember her as she lay in the funeral parlour looking nothing like she did in life. I remember my dad making his awful puns as we sat eating the Sunday roast. I remember the lively, happy times.

I think I need to learn to separate the body from the spirit. To think of the life that was in that person rather than the body that the life has left; the energy they gave out, and the love. I need to stop thinking of a corpse as creepy. It is just a covering that a person discards when their soul is set free, like discarding an old coat. Flad's little furry coat is buried in the garden. It's not him, just the outer garment that encased his spirit. Life, energy, love... the beautiful eyes, the dance... they are to be remembered and celebrated. And if I cry, if I wail, if I get drunk, if I miss them so much that it hurts, it's my way of showing how much I loved that person, that animal, that bundle of energy and personality wrapped up in skin.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Laws of Leaf-Raking







THE LAWS OF LEAF-RAKING


1. You clear a patch of lawn, turn your back and next time you look, you find a capricious breeze has covered it in fresh leaves. (Hold your curses, this is but baby steps as far as leaf-raking goes.)

2. Just as you are releasing a load of leaves into the garden waste bag, one side will flop inwards and they’ll land back on the grass again. (Okay, mild swear word is permitted.)

3. Never attempt to clear leaves off the rake by hand as it’s guaranteed that you’ll have scraped up some poo. (Fill in your own reaction.)

4. You build up a goodly leaf heap, pause in your raking for a rest and find your dog or toddler joyfully jumping in it and kicking leaves all over the place. (Adopt Joyce Grenfell tones as you shout, “Don’t do that!”)

5. You accidentally step on the rake. This could result in two things. A) Whilst your stiff boot sole prevents injury to your foot, the rake handle whacks you in the face, giving you a black eye and lump on your head the size of Snowdon. B) A trip to A&E for prong-extraction and tetanus shot. (Much swearing is now permitted.)

6. It starts to rain. You stop raking, promising to finish the job tomorrow. You wake to find foxes have played hide and seek in the leaf bag and ripped it to shreds and every leaf is now happily lying on its back in the grass laughing at you. You sigh, reach for a beer and then it snows and you know you won’t have to look at a leaf again for a very long time. Three cheers for Mother Nature!

OR…

7. You finish the job, drag yourself wearily in, looking forward to a restorative hot bath and drink, then spouse says smugly, “I have a gizmo in the garage that could have made the job much easier for you, if you’d only asked.” (Murder is now permitted.)


Thursday, 15 October 2015

Book Title Trends



  
Thirty years ago, my very first book was published. It was called Sweet Temptation and was written under the pen-name of Caroline Standish. I hadn’t spent long agonising over that title. The publisher wanted something that sounded passionate and sexy and this was the first one I suggested. However, thinking about it now, I can see that it has no relevance at all to a historical romance set in the 1820s. I have renamed the revamped version The Earl’s Captive, which is much more relevant to the storyline and it should be up on Kindle soon.

Titles go through phases. In 18th century Britain, the fashion was to name a book after the hero or heroine, hence Clarissa (Samuel Richardson), Tom Jones (Henry Fielding) and Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe). In the last few years, there has been a fashion for long titles that almost tumble off the cover: The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime; After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings and Flew Away (Joyce Carol Oates). However, this is nothing new. I remember my shock, back in 1976, at seeing the unwieldy title, If You Meet Buddha On The Road, Kill Him (Sheldon Kopp). Of course, I read it just because all my friends had their noses stuck in it, and it was debated avidly after a few drags of wacky baccy. Well, it was the Seventies!

What is the purpose in choosing such long titles? Were they picked for shock value alone, to make the random browser intrigued enough to pick the book off the shelf? When I see a lengthy title, my innate book title prejudice kicks in and I think, ‘If the title is so over-wordy, I bet the contents will be, too,’ and I am instantly put off. Or I decide that the author is showing off.

There have been titles I’ve hated so much that I nearly didn’t read the book, even though the reviews were good. One example is Gone Girl, which struck me as being so ungrammatical that I expected the content to be lazily written. It wasn’t, of course, it was just my title prejudice at work at work again.

I have just been scanning recent book releases (once, it was only records and the odd animal that were ‘released’) and the fashion seems to be for descriptive titles that reflect the contents. There’s Vanessa Curtis’s amazing, heart-wrenching The Earth Is Singing; Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, which I can’t wait to start; Peter James’s The House on Cold Hill; Kate Morton’s The Lake House; Bernard Cornwell’s Warriors of the Storm. Good, strong, unpretentious titles that lure you in by their very simplicity.

I wonder what will come next, in 2016? Titles containing foreign words and phrases? Kathy Reichs has already set this trend with Déjà Dead and Death du Jour. Literary quotes? Psychobabble titles? Computer-term titles? Ooh, The Keyboard Killer! I feel a plot coming on.