Now about some of these old rock song lyrics…

I work at my computer most days and listen to rock music on the radio on my smart speaker. I love a lot of the songs and I enjoy the DJs’ banter, the cheery voices and the sense of company as a happy voice rattles away in the background while I type. Most of the music is pacy and energetic, ideal when you’re writing a novel.

Of course, I am aware that there’s a down side of the radio station. The presenters are, reflecting the rock-music world, (bar one woman on the early slot on a Saturday and Sunday morning,) white and male. They seem nice enough guys but there isn’t much in the way of diversity, and that clearly needs to be addressed. The same is true when it comes to the music they play. But maybe other fans of the radio station would tell me that rock bands are mostly male and mostly white. I think that needs to change.

Of course there are the exceptions. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t white and he was one of the best rock guitarists ever. Janis Joplin wasn’t a man and she was one of the best vocalists, although her songs, influenced from a blues background, are chiefly about men doing her wrong: just listen to the heart-breaking Ball and Chain and Piece of My Heart.

Old rock classics are being played all the time on the rock radio station I listen to and some of the older songs bring with them the problem of their social history, specifically misogyny: some of the lyrical content is  extremely outdated. The 1980s wasn’t a great time for women being perceived as equal to men: anyone who has watched an episode of The Professionals on TV or seen Legs and Co dancing on Top of the Pops , their faces stretched in an everlasting grin of pseudo-enjoyment, will know exactly what I mean. There was a time when a modicum of racism and sexism were tolerated by some people more than they should have been. And a lot of songs on the rock station come from this era and reflect this problem. But we can’t tolerate all that silliness now.

Rock isn’t the only musical genre not to cover itself in glory when it comes to misogynistic lyrics. But the station I listen to every day, that I enjoy listening to, will occasionally play something that makes me shake my head with disbelief. I tolerate Hendrix’s Hey Joe, even though ‘he shoots his woman down’ for ‘messing round.’ I put up with ZZ Top’s reductive Legs and the Rolling Stones’ inappropriate Brown Sugar and Under My Thumb, simply because they have been around for so long, but I remain unimpressed with the absurd lyrics.

I can even tolerate Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid if I ignore the lyrics and just listen to the tinkly tune: apparently, Neil meant ‘maid’ as in ‘Maid Marian’ and claimed that it was a genuine love song. That’s fair enough if you know the context.

I actually like Dire Strait’s song Lady Writer despite the subliminal inference that being a writer is normally a male profession and Marina Warner, whom I’m guessing the song is written about, breaks the norm by actually having a brain and writing about history. But some rock songs are lyrically off-the-scale-silly.

For example, listen to Jack and Diane by John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp. This one beggars belief. It’s about two sixteen year-olds sitting in Jackie’s car. He dreams of being a football star while she gapes vacuously at his suggestion of running off behind a tree and letting him ‘do what he pleases.’ Really? I know this is an old-fashioned 1982 song but the lyrics convey an archaic message about choices for young girls and submissiveness shouldn’t be a choice. Try reversing the genders in the lyrics and see how farcical it all sounds.

Then there’s Bryan Adams’ Run To You. According to the song, he has found a hotter woman to two-time his cold partner with but it won’t hurt her if she doesn’t know. Bryan should have spoken to Jimi’s Hey Joe about the rock-consequences of ‘messin’ around’. Hilarious!

Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer is another of those songs about the passive, compliant woman with nothing better to do and, the most laughable yet perhaps, is Rainbow’s All Night Long. Just check those lyrics! It’s the same deal as Rod Stewart’s Stay With Me: women as a one-night sex-toy. Was it ever acceptable? I didn’t think so when I heard the songs at the time – it struck me as being misogynistic nonsense and nothing’s changed. As for the suggestion that AC/DCs Whole Lotta Rosie is about celebrating the larger woman! I don’t think so. We’ll just leave it there.

Clearly, my beloved radio station needs to clean up its act, embrace the spirit of the new decade and employ more presenters who reflect the diversity of the world. They need to insist on a playlist that doesn’t denigrate women and encourage some poor men to think that unless they conform to an unpleasantly outmoded mindless priapic male-stereotype, they fail to live up to the presupposed potency of their guitar-grinding gods.

There are plenty of brilliant male guitar heroes out there playing professionally who think differently, who value women for their brains and their personalities and who wouldn’t be seen dead popularising versions of  the well-worn  ‘shag them and leave them and treat them mean’ story. I know several rock musicians personally and they are great guys, feminists even!

There are plenty of other good rock songs, plenty of good tracks from the long-forgotten past that admire women without demeaning them: I like Natural Born Bugie from Humble Pie which came out in 1969 as it’s a great song and not disparaging in its glorification of female beauty. There’s Hendrix’s melodic Little Wing which is a romantic song with great guitar and vocals. I have no problem with songs about sex; Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Lemon Song imply that the female in question has a modicum of choice in the arrangement and isn’t duped into a brief night of passion and then quickly discarded.

There are wonderful rockers who are great musicians and vocalists who happen to be women too, from Joan Jett to Joanne Shaw Taylor, Samantha Fish, Beth Hart, Joanna Connor. There are also very promising modern male rock bands: Greta Van Fleet’s Highway Tune is a nice example of a raunchy song that is inoffensive to women, as all songs should be.

And for real diversity, let’s have more of The Hu, a Mongolian heavy metal band formed in 1996, whose song Yuve Yuve is about the respected ethics of their ancestors. All these are much more appealing lyrically than the outdated topic of how many schoolgirls a rock singer can line up to have sex with in one night as he ogles them from his vantage point on the stage.

Although I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, there’s a letter to be written to someone who makes decisions about playlists on my favourite radio station. Gone are the times when this laughable stuff was acceptable. We’re in the twenties now. So I’ll continue to listen to rock radio but I’m not putting up with inequality or lyrical offence. The days when that sort of stuff was grudgingly accepted as being part of a male-orientated genre have well gone.

New Cam July 2011 095

What a difference a play makes…

I’m open to going to see all sorts of theatre but I’ve never been much of a Noel Coward fan. His plays have never particularly struck a chord with me, perhaps due to the archetypical Englishness, the veneer of sophistication, the stylised repartee with just a hint of misogyny unsurprising in a play written in 1943. But I’m always prepared to take another look, so I went to see Present Laughter when it was streamed to cinemas. It was a breath of fresh air.

The director Matthew Warchus brought the play up to date by making the central character, flamboyant actor Garry Essendine, played by Andrew Scott, bisexual and by swapping a few the genders of the original characters. The original predatory female, Joanna, becomes Joe, an incorrigible cad whose presence threatens Garry’s little clique of chums.

The performance of each character is spectacular, as is the timing and rapport: there wasn’t a weak link in a very accomplished production, but Andrew Scott is central to the success. His dynamic performance of contrasts, pouting and peacocking and throwing tantrums is directed in order to amuse and entertain. As a successful actor, Garry Essendine is adored by clamouring fans on all sides and subsequently he is vain, charismatic and extremely lonely. But it is a play that makes an audience laugh out loud and then stop to consider moments of tenderness and poignancy. Beneath the comic surface is a play that deals with an individual who feels lost and alone despite being surrounded by sycophantic acolytes.

The result is hilarious comedy and powerful commentary. Indira Varma is excellent as Garry’s separated wife Liz, the one who watches from a distance, understands and deals with any crisis. Similarly, as Garry’s secretary Monica, Sophie Thompson creates an impactful character on stage, as does Joshua Hill as his overconfident valet Fred. Garry employs and exploits these characters, he abuses them verbally and he is lost without their support.

Andrew Scott is energetic and inspired. I saw him last as Hamlet and, on that occasion, I was bowled over by the intelligence, subtlety and depth of emotion. His role in Present Laughter is an equally impressive virtuoso performance. For me, the directing was exactly right. We have to laugh with the hilarious frenzy of Garry’s cavorting histrionics; we celebrate his highs in order to understand his lows. As a successful actor, Garry is incapable of doing anything other than acting constantly and, when we glimpse the man behind the superficial show, he is exposed and fragile.

Present Laughter is an entertaining play and stands up well as a memorable evening at the theatre; it is well-worth visiting. But it leaves the viewer with more than a just a smile. The characters are superficial stereotypes but there are also poignant moments that hit home, as we consider the fragility behind the charm. A brilliant production.

If a vegan diet is good for a septic tank, then it might just be good for us…

I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man who shovels poo for a living. More accurately, he has a machine which slurps waste from septic tanks and cess pits. Not the best job in the world, perhaps, but someone has to do it. On the plus side, it took him half an hour to stand by his machine while it sucked the smelly stuff from the septic tank in the field and  educated me on the vagaries of cess pits.

It was his conversation that interested me most. We had a lovely chat about waste: he knew all about it, the ups and downs, the best sort, the worst sort, what to put in a septic tank to make it function well and what never to put in. He was a real expert.

I’ve lived in the house for a year and had paid no attention to the bog-standard septic tank covered in nettles and briars in the field adjacent to my garden. I’m very careful what I put down the drains of course: no detergent, no washing powder, no cotton wool or plastic, just gentle stuff which biodegrades, a bit of food waste, water, that sort of thing.

So I uncovered the tank and invited out the man to clean it. What he said really surprised me. Not the bit about the tank being old, that he had no idea how it functioned so well at such a great age, that it would benefit from installing a smart new system, and everything else you’d expect him to say. What was really interesting is that he said ‘You don’t eat meat, do you?’

I was impressed: he could tell things about my diet from my cess pit? Now that’s a real professional.

It turns out that meat, the cooking of it, the disposing of residual bits of it through drains, the residual oils, all contribute to clogging and to the general bad condition of the system. Basically, it’s greasy and likely to make the drainage system function less well.

Now there’s an allegory.

If regular meat intake clogs drains and is bad for them, I wonder what it does to the human digestive system and to arteries?

I hear a lot from non-vegan people about vegan diets being inadequate and how do we ever manage to survive without meat. I am asked frequently what I eat and how I get enough protein, vitamins, how I maintain a high level of energy. I agree, whatever you eat, vegan or otherwise, it pays to have some understanding about the value of what you’re putting in your body. I take vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the winter. I consider what goodness I am getting from my food at each meal. I try to weigh up the balance of nutritional benefits and avoid foods high in sugar and bad fats, palm oil, too many empty calories. Doesn’t everyone?

Image result for vegan food

Nowadays, some people want to veganise everything, so they can enjoy burgers that bleed, authentic sausages, and cheese which tastes exactly like the ‘real thing.’ I can understand why these products are popular; it’s impressive when people who love meat and dairy give it up and it’s understandable that they want to replicate their favourite flavours and textures in everyday vegan fare. It’s useful to have ready-made standby foods in the freezer too. 

On social media, I read about a lot of vegans who are thrilled to find ‘sfv foods’: safe-for-vegan stuff is really just food not originally intended for vegans but that just happens to contain nothing which is non-vegan. Such ‘accidental vegan’ foods include things like Oreos, some makes of custard powder, pickles, some types of pot noodles, some crisps, bourbon biscuits, Skittles. Some vegans’ delight when discovering Oreos are vegan is touching. Vegan pizza has been a huge success, as has vegan ‘fish’ and chips. Now people can be vegan and not give up fast food and treats they crave from their pre-vegan diet.

 While I’m happy that ‘accidental’ foods like vegetable extract, baked beans, peanut butter and hummus are vegan, I’m cautious about commercial high sugar, salt and high fat foods and the long-term effects of eating too much processed fare, vegan or not. I’m happier cooking something from scratch, with simple ingredients that I know and that I can be confident are good for me. While I understand that people can live off a diet of bourbons and kettle chips and still be vegan, and that fast food takes less time to prepare and it’s great to have an indulgent cruelty-free sweet treat occasionally, ready meals are perhaps best as a stand-by.

Of course, it’s a different kettle of hummus when it comes to alcohol – in moderation. There are great vegan wines to be found, beers too, and supermarkets are starting to understand what makes alcohol vegan and label it accordingly. I still find myself in trouble in bars, restaurants  and shops when I ask ‘Is the wine vegan?’ There are still many places where I’m greeted with confusion, horror and the question ‘Why, isn’t all wine vegan?’ Why, indeed.

Back to the neglected cess pit in the field. What if our bodies are similar to septic tanks: we put stuff into them and they reflect our lifestyle- choice back by being in good working order or less so, depending on the nature of what we put in? The better the quality of ‘stuff’ that goes in on a daily basis, the better the tank functions long-term.

Of course, there’s no scientific correlation between the cleanliness of a septic tank and the health of the human digestive system; I’m being facetious: it’s just a thought. I’m delighted that the meat-free septic tank is hanging in there. I will continue to feed it a diet of biodegradable waste, detergentless cleaners and good vegan manure. I certainly won’t be adding any Oreos and custard into the mix, but there may well be a recycled glug or two of good vegan Merlot every so often.

 Image result for vegan wine

 

 

Why the World Cup is like a novel

Coverage of major sporting events is difficult to escape: whether it is the World Cup, the Six Nations, Wimbledon or The Tour de France, it is regularly in front of our eyes, on the television and in the newspapers. It is the main talking point in the news, perhaps more than the NHS crisis or halting Brexit negotiations.  Players’ names and faces become familiar; results are publicized far and wide and key events quickly become assimilated in our culture. The tournaments begin with people selecting favourites: a national team, a vital player or a big personality, and then the show begins. For me, it’s like any good novel: there are heroes, villains, injustices, triumphs, laughter and tears. We have underdogs, someone to root for and someone who is dangerous, whom we will fear: the opposition. We hope and pray that things will go the way of our heroes and we hold our collective breath as they set forth on their quest for victory. There will be adversity on the way – offside goals, penalties, red cards – but we hope that it will all end happily ever after for those players we support.

Image result for world cup 1966

In terms of the 2018 World Cup football tournament in Russia, the English media and fans are hopeful that their team will make a respectable showing. Fans will never lose sight of the iconic memories of 1966: Bobby Moore hoisted on top of the victorious team of cheering players, his fist clutching the Jules Rimet Trophy. The moment 52 years ago that England last won the World Cup is fixed in the minds of the English fans, whether they are old enough to remember it or not, because it has been so long since England had a football team who could go close to emulating Moore’s men. They long for football to ‘come home’ again.

Of course, there are the football haters who echo Guy Martin’s words: ‘I have nothing against football. It just seems very wasteful losing 2 hours of my life to watch 22 millionaires on TV chasing a bag of wind in their underwear.’ Martin has a point: he is a motor cycle racer turned TV presenter and it must be frustrating to adore and participate in such a thrilling sport where coverage is marginal. Footballers are paid a great deal of money and live a life of luxury. That is the case for many people and we are all aware of the gap between rich and poor. The difference in salary between the Premier League and lower leagues is huge. In the Championship the average salary is between £7.500 and £8.500 a week. The top players in the Championship can earn around £80.000 a week. The average salary in League One is between  £1.700 and £2.500, and in League Two it’s between £1.300 and £1.500. Still above average, but hardly enough for a life of luxury.  Many working class boys around the globe practise football skills from an early age in the hope that they can one day live the dream of being a sporting hero. Few achieve it.

This brings me back to the World Cup. Before this year’s tournament even began, the media machine was underway, thrilling us with episodes from the soap opera which is football. We held our breath wondering whether Mo Salah would start for Egypt, given the arm wrench he received from the dark lord of tackles, Sergio Ramos, in the Champions League final. We witnessed the sacking of Spain’s national coach. England’s Raheem Sterling was criticised over the gun tattoo on his right shooting leg, until it was revealed that  he’d vowed to  ‘never touch a gun’ after his father was shot dead when he was a boy.

Image result for raheem sterling  world cup russia 2018

The World Cup has historically had its fair share of memorable controversies. 1986 brought the ‘hand of God’ moment where Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players ever, cheated by handballing a goal. In 2006, English referee Graham Poll booked the same Croatian player three times in match against Australia. (Two yellow cards constitute a red card sending off.) In the same year, Zinedine Zidane of France was sent off in his last-ever match, for butting an Italian player in the chest in retaliation to a verbal provocation, apparently about his mother. 2006 was a red card year for England too: Wayne Rooney was given his marching orders for stamping on a Portuguese player’s foot in the quarter finals, thereby contributing to England’s low chances of progression beyond that stage.

So there’s no shortage of best-seller material – scandal, horror, violence, tragedy, intrigue – but what about the romance, the love interest? I suppose that is where the supporters come in. We see them on the television, throngs of happy singing men with their shirts off, their whole national flag painted over their faces and bodies. Gone are the days of simply waving a rattle – this is full-on passion. And of course, like all mindless passion, it is about the heart ruling the head. When the team win, they are adored, idolised, their names chanted in songs which laud their prowess and promise eternal devotion. And when they lose, they are brought low, deemed flawed, despised, their names dragged through the mud and of course, all fans are technical experts and know what was needed to win, to alter the outcome, to change the game.

Albert Camus said that football is like theatre, and it is. A play in two acts, two halves. The players are centre stage for all to see. Fans live through the comedy and the tragedy, waiting for the final outcome. I think football is also like a novel:  each moment is a page turner, each game another episode leading towards the final game, the denouement where it all kicks off, where the climax happens. And of course, when the novel ends, it may be the best one yet or it may be one of the less satisfactory stories. But there will be more games, the next sequel, and more opportunity to invest emotionally, another chance to watch, to analyse, to give our opinions and offer our own interpretation. We will always continue to hope that our central characters win the day and become the memorable heroes we all aspire for them to be. And when it all becomes completely unpredictable, someone will breathe a sigh of amazement and say ‘You couldn’t write this stuff!’
Image result for world cup russia 2018

My novel is out today! But how should I celebrate?

In complete harmony with my rock and roll lifestyle, I’m keen to celebrate my novel coming out in paperback today. Available at Waterstones, Tesco, Amazon, at all good bookshops throughout the UK, ‘A Grand Old Time’ has finally hit the shelves.

I have been on book tours, had radio interviews, been featured in newspapers, on social media, done a talk at Loughborough university, and I’m ready to launch into party mode now. It is an exciting way to live and I believe in taking every opportunity to celebrate.

My novel ‘A Grand Old Time’ has had wonderful reviews. The response has been better than I could have imagined. Here are just a few excerpts from bloggers and readers’ thoughts from Amazon.

5☆ I Loved Evie… She has a Passion and Zest for life… I want to go travelling with her!

I loved this book cover to cover

I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant story. I laughed and cried in equal measure

Made me laugh & cry- lovely book!

A lovely book about an older person finding a new lease on life.

It is being sold abroad in many countries incuding Canada, Sweden, Croatia, India, Denmark, Italy, Japan. It is all so thrilling. I have book signings coming up;  it’s totally rock and roll.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is about an older woman, a widow, Evie Gallagher, who has moved to a care home in the hope that she will have some company, but Sheldon Lodge is not for her. She wanders into Dublin one day, talks to strangers and enters a betting shop. One thing leads to another and she takes a plane to Liverpool, a boat to France, buys a camper van and sets off on adventures.

Her son, Brendan, who is struggling with his marriage and his job as a Sports teacher, decides to bring her back home, believing she can’t cope independently. Brendan’s unhappy wife, Maura, insists on tagging along and their parallel adventures begin.

The novel is character-led. Evie is feisty, full of mischief. She pretends to be a porn star, drinks too much and collapses, lies to the police and sings on stage in an Irish Bar. She meets a French septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Meanwhile Brendan and Maura discover that their marriage is in real trouble and inevitably, changes need to be made to their lonely unfulfilled lives.

The audio book is read beautifully by Aoife McMahon, who brings the characters straight from the page to the heart.

So, back to the celebrations, the rock and roll. I wanted to have a huge party, a band playing in the garden, champagne, a barbecue, a hot tub. Dancing on tables, singing up at the stars until four in the morning. Guests wandering lost in the rose bushes, stragglers asleep in the fish pond at dawn.

Image result for gogol bordello party party after party

I thought I’d have a Prosecco breakfast in the morning, ask the neighbours round for buckwheat banana pancakes, sharing jokes and good craic on the patio. Then there will be an open house all day, in which people I don’t see often enough roll up, have a glass of punch and a big hug and we talk about old times. Friends will jet in, land on the helipad: people I haven’t seen for ages, from India, Italy, Ireland, France, London, Liverpool, Cornwall and Totnes will duck the whirling blades and rush into my arms, tears on their faces and a bottle of Moët clutched in their fists.

My agent, publisher, publicist, the whole lovely team will be there under the rose-clad pergola, holding martinis, looking cool, laughing and reminiscing, chatting to novelist celebreties nibbling canapés.

Then as the evening dwindles, the perfume of jasmine and night-scented stock warm on the air, I will leave the happy throng and slide away for quiet chat with my family and a smooch with my significant other to something romantic, like ‘Pretty Vacant’ by The Sex Pistols. Then it’s back to the party,  moshing beyond midnight.

Of course, that’s all in my imagination. What is more likely is that I’ll wake up with the cat, have a piece of toast and read the paper in my pyjamas. My neighbours might pop round for a cuppa and then I’ll work at the computer all day. In the evening, I might go out.

An ex-student of mine has kindly sent me a thank you present of a meal at a local restaurant. He is now embarking on a psychology degree and I know he will reach the stars. I’ll toast him and Evie when I sit quietly in Flavours with a glass of Romanian red and a plate of vegetable wellington.

Then I’ll start planning the special launch party, which will happen one day, however retrospective. It might be on the beach this summer, or in my camper van in France, or round the table at Christmas time when the crumbling walls have finally been plastered, or with breakfast at the top of The Shard as the sun rises in a winter sky. Why not? After all, it has to be Rock and Roll.

Image result for CHAMPAGNE

Five inspirational writers on International Women’s Day.

 Image result for international women's day 2018   For International Women’s Day, I’ve taken five writers who inspire me. I have chosen them because their use of language is unique and thrilling and because they do not follow other writers’ rules and conventions. They are iconoclasts, writers who write their own way, in their own style, and the result is stunning. Have a look at the list below and see what you think. 

Ruth Hogan. I’ve just read her book, The Keeper of Lost Things. It’s a clever book, unusual, well structured, an excellent concept and I adore her crazy sense of humour. A debut triumph.

Cynthia Bond. I raved about Ruby when I read it a year ago. I recommended it to friends, who either adored it or couldn’t finish it. A brave, brave novel which many will find challenging to read because of the protagonist’s experiences, but it’s so brilliantly written. One I think all women should read.

Cecelia Woloch. One of my three favourite poets. I love the way she uses language and creates images. She is special, gifted, an important poet, unique and exciting. I give her books away as presents all the time. Beautiful, moving writing. Check out Tsigan or Earth.

 Aphra Behn, born in Canterbury in 1640. She was an amazing poet who broke down cultural barriers and wrote ‘scandalous’ works which she claimed would not have been deemed improper had a man written them. Read The Disappointment and decide for yourself.

Jeanette Winterson. I’ve read most of her novels and every time I am even more amazed at her skills as a writer. I recently read A Gap in Time and it blew me away. I didn’t want it to end. She breaks rules, writes boldly and it seems not only to amaze but also to redefine genre and brilliance.  

Of course, there are so many more. However, for today, I’ve concentrated on writers who stand out from the crowd, who do their own thing, unafraid and unique, unapologetic. Thanks to them for the inspiration.

 

Is nostalgia good or bad?

Christmas is over and we have finished celebrating the arrival of a new year. It’s now a time when we can look forward to the wonderful gifts 2018 can bring. We all hope for health and happiness for ourselves and for those we love and we wish for world- wide peace and an end to discrimination, disease and destruction. We consider changes to our lifestyle, wanting to be instrumental in making positive developments. We decide to eat healthier food, join a gym, spend more time outside, and help others. Such plans are admirable: we all know of people who will run a marathon in 2018, land a new job, find the perfect partner, raise money for charity or, simply, be more content with their lives. It doesn’t really matter if it’s January or July, looking forward confidently and with optimism is a good thing.

Yet we spend so much time looking back. Christmas time is a good example. We all love White Christmas, the archetypal festive 1950s film showing how perfect life used to be, and the Irving Berlin song dates back to 1942. We sit around the dining table, reminiscing about previous Christmases, missing people who are no longer with us, and old childhood memories of past years are stirred up and savoured. Many people yearn for aspects of bygone times, when food tasted better, everything was cheaper, we were less focused on commercialism, and people’s lives were less complex and perhaps in some ways happier. I remember as a teenager hearing a woman in her seventies talk about the Second World War with fondness. I was horrified. What about rations, bombs, the sacrificed lives? But she simply looked misty-eyed and said ‘Ah, but you had proper neighbours then. We all looked out for each other.’

I wonder if nostalgia is a bad thing: if we are always looking backwards through rose-coloured glasses, does it prevent us from looking forward clearly and determining our own destiny? But then, there are things we learn from the past. Life experience enables us to make decisions focused on a knowledge of likely outcomes. But the future is ours to determine, so why would we want to hold on to memories which have long gone? Perhaps that is it: like an old photograph, a letter or a school report found at the bottom of a drawer, the pages yellowed and the ink faded, perhaps the past provides us with a soft fuzzy feeling that makes us happy.

Image result for nostalgia

 

Finding joy in nostalgia is not always easy to achieve. I have returned once or twice to the place I grew up and several times to towns and cities I have lived in. Much has changed and I feel no impetus to relive the past there. Yet I spoke to someone recently who went back to a town they left just over a year ago and they were filled with a sense of having belonged, having grown up there, having developed and become the person they are today against a backdrop which was important, which was in some ways formative. Memories such as those are tangible, important and cannot be taken away.

Music and the media are quick-fire ways to start a nostalgic conversation. Hearing The Clangers theme tune takes me back to childhood. Certain rock songs remind me of adolescent mischief. I know exactly where I was when I heard about The Twin Towers tragedy. Similarly, smells take us back to happy times, whether it is the lavender perfume of Grandma’s handkerchief, the smell of hot dogs at the fairground or the aroma of Mum’s apple pie in the oven, we are transported instantly and memory is picture- clear.

But is nostalgia good for us? A 17th Century medical student first used the term nostalgia for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was thought of as an illness, caused by demons. The word derives from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), suggesting suffering due to a desire to return to a place of origin. However, modern thinking is that nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.

One of my neighbours has an old Ford Cortina she wants to sell and another neighbour longs to buy it, as it was the first car he drove when he was 18. Of course, he could own a modern car, one which is much easier to drive, more economical, but the idea of owning a defunct banger matters, quite simply, because nostalgia makes people feel good. Nostalgia is not merely for the older generations, either; I have heard twenty year olds wax lyrical about Pokémon, Beyblades, Wispa bars. People are nostalgic because reminiscing makes them feel happy about old times, and it allows us to share common feelings and experiences.

But nostalgia isn’t real, is it? Every time we recall an experience, the memory becomes a little distorted. It can be more positive, more negative; we even have the capacity to change things unintentionally. As time passes, the memory becomes further out of touch with reality and so it is hardly accurate or reliable, especially where emotions are concerned. But sentimental recollections often include anecdotes and memories of loved ones, which reinforce the social web that extends across people and across time. There is also evidence that nostalgia works towards counteracting depression. The act of reminiscing has been shown to neutralise loneliness and anxiety. When people speak fondly of the past, they also tend to become more hopeful for the future. So nostalgia can in fact be a healing and a bonding experience.

Image result for nostalgia

So, on that note, I’ll wish everyone the very best for 2018. But when you find yourself reflecting back on your life, on those special moments, remember that you are finding value and meaning in it. You are reminding yourself that life so far has not been unfulfilled and you are looking forward to creating more fond and wonderful memories. So, enjoy remembering the past: and here’s to the future!

Vegan Wars

People who love the taste of meat and then become vegetarians or vegans are admirable. The idea that you give up something you find delicious because of ethical beliefs or the idea that it is beneficial to your health is commendable. It’s much easier for me. I’ve never liked eating meat. Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad producing a pheasant from a long pocket and my mum rendering it ready for the oven, plucking it and draining the dead bird of most the shot embedded in its white flesh, although never quite all of it. I remember the sound of a fork hitting metal embedded in flesh all too vividly. I couldn’t eat it, much to their disappointment.

I’ve been vegan for a long time. I’ve never liked eggs and the last milk product I had was probably well over twenty years ago. I’m still here.

It’s not too hard to be vegan nowadays. There is a better understanding of our dietary needs; we have B12 supplements, vegan cheese, nutritional yeast, vital wheat gluten, excellent sources of proteins and vitamins and most restaurants are serving vegan options, even if it is sometimes the dreaded, ubiquitous green salad. We even make acceptable cakes, omelettes, even burgers. Better than acceptable. It’s all so much better than when I first stopped being vegetarian: I remember saying to a waiter in a restaurant  ‘I’m vegan,’ and she replied: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. How long have you got?’

Vegans are a bunch of label readers, of questioners, and it’s easy to be thought a little pedantic when we ask ‘Were the chips fried in the same oil as the fish?’ or ‘Does the wine contain fish, eggs or milk? (Quite a lot of it does, although many wines now are clarified using clay.) However, if we don’t ask these questions, we’re often inadvertently offered food which goes against our principles. It’s not dissimilar to offering an omnivore dog’s milk or roasted puppy.

Image result for vegans

Sometimes, I think I can understand why we’re so disliked by carnivores. Often viewed as part martyr, part saint, we carry our ethics along with their lifestyle everywhere  we go. No wonder there’s that joke about vegans telling you they are a vegan before they tell you their name.

Many carnivores view vegans with suspicion. The question ‘Are you a vegan? and the reply  ‘Yes’  is quickly followed by a nervous ‘Oh, I couldn’t give up meat’ or ‘I don’t eat that much meat’ or ‘But oh, how do you live without bacon?’

Image result for vegans

It’s as if they think we are trying to convert all the world into vegans. Perhaps that’s a nice thought. So there’s the problem.

And this is the beginning of the vegan wars.

Of course, understandably, many vegans want to persuade the whole word to enjoy and value what they believe are the benefits of veganism. Many omnivores understandably feel threatened by the pressure and are uncomfortable with the inference that they are responsible for oppression and murder. Speciesism will become a big movement if it isn’t already and, like any cultural change, perspectives shift at a different rate, depending on our experience of life.

I’m asked quite often why I’m vegan and I always want to ask the same question back, why do you eat meat? But I don’t want to be aggressive. It’s simply that the default is to eat meat and any divergence has to be explained and rationalised, whereas it is interesting to question the prevailing culture of carnivorous diets and look for an answer other than because it’s there and available and everybody does it.

Health is a big issue on both sides, vegans suggesting that a diet of meat, egg and dairy, as well as being cruel, is detrimental to health. Meat eaters often claim that we can’t live without meat. Recently someone suggested to me that when cows eat grass they also hoover up tiny insects. Ergo, they can’t live without meat so therefore neither should I. QED? Logic does not always feature in some people’s arguments.

Image result for vegans

I have lots of omnivore friends who enjoy eating vegan food with me and it makes me happy that they enjoy meat-free meals and therefore are more likely to try them again. I treat meat-eaters with respect: they might eat less meat and one day even become vegan. Culture is changing. In a recent Guardian article, George Monbiot predicted that livestock farming is coming to an end. He writes some interesting and powerful words:

While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.

Plant-based meat substitutes are becoming more available and taste more and like the original. Of course, many vegans are asked why they don’t just eat real meat instead of substitutes if they like the taste, and often they are told that it is ridiculous to want to eat something which tastes like meat but isn’t when the real thing is so accessible. This is to ignore the three major beliefs of vegans entirely: that veganism is better for health, animal welfare and our environment.

Image result for vegansEating out as a vegan is easier now. When I first became vegan and went to a restaurant, I was offered a plate of lettuce. Another time, I was told there was nothing available – all the vegetables had butter on them. Even poor vegetarians had to choose between omelette and macaroni cheese. Those incidents, while on the decrease, still happen. Recently in a restaurant I rang up in advance, as I usually do, and was pleased to hear that they had vegan choices available. When I arrived, I was offered one choice:  a quinoa, feta and green leafy salad. I was impressed that quinoa was on the menu. I was offered the dish minus the feta and I asked what it would be replaced with. The vegan version would be the same price. I said an avocado or even some beetroot would do but there was a measure of surprise that I wasn’t thankful that they’d extract the cheese, and when the dish arrived for £9.95, it was 80% salad leaves, a small portion of quinoa and a slice of tomato. Not great. But there have also been occasions when I have been served with such a sumptuous plate of food that the omnivores have gazed with envy. Things are improving slowly.

Image result for vegan foodI know a few vegans who are quite aggressive towards meat eaters. Passion is high when animal suffering is on the menu. I know vegans whose argument is sentiment first, logic second, which I can understand to a point as their feelings are strong, but it often doesn’t help their cause. Equally, I know a couple of omnivores who are defensive, irritated and angry when confronted by a vegan, and will argue the case for a carnivorous diet even to the point that they suggest pulling up a radish makes it scream in pain. I’ve seen lots of strongly-worded and disrespectful interchanges on social media.

But mostly, these vegan wars don’t need to happen. So many people who eat meat or fish, eggs or dairy, are eating less of them and becoming more experimental with plant-based meals in the kitchen. Transformation is happening, albeit slowly, and most people are concerned about their health and the condition of the animals they eat as well as the taste of the food and the facility with which it can be obtained. While I enjoy making sausages from vital wheat gluten, nooch herbs and mushrooms – sausages which taste nothing like the real thing, or so I believe – there are many people who enjoy plant-based products from supermarkets which are apparently indistinguishable in texture and taste from meat.

It is likely that the industries that profit from animal slaughter will do less well as the facts of how animals are treated become better known. People are rarely wilfully cruel or inhumane, but it is easy to munch a bacon sandwich and not think about a piglet screaming. For years we have been told that milk is good for us. Now, post-Cowspiracy, many people are already changing their minds and cutting some dairy and meat from their diets. My Dad stopped eating lamb. ‘It hasn’t had a life.’ A friend no longer eats chicken. ‘I like chickens.’ The revolution has started and that means more choice is available, and there is wider understanding of the facts behind the food on the plate. I’m not sure we need a war to bring change. It’s happening already.

Image result for vegans

Mellow Fruitfulness

It is autumn now. There is something new, something sharp, a scent of change in the air every morning and the fields are damp. A soft mist rises and leaves are already falling from trees. Autumn is a time when, if it’s not raining, it’s good to go for a walk and breathe cool air, watch crows whirl and pull clusters of blackberries from the prickles to take home and cook into something delicious, courtesy of autumn.

Or it’s a time to sense winter’s first ice on the wind and contemplate the bite of the cold, whether the central heating will work this year and then start to chop firewood.

Summer months are long and fickle, some days gloriously warm, some much less so, but although the weather controls much of what we do – and it’s at this point that it’s appropriate to remember those people whose lives are caught up in storms,  hurricanes, avalanches and forest fires – we are lucky that we can decide whether we allow the weather to dominate our moods and actions.

Pathetic fallacy is wonderful in literature –the storms on the moors in Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein‘s violent lightning, Ophelia’s broken willow branch in Hamlet –but of course, it is a fallacy. Nature isn’t a metaphor for human emotions.

I went for a walk last Thursday, a three mile stroll along the country lanes, and the rain was drumming on the hood of my coat, but it was exhilarating. It’s interesting how the imagination works in time with the rhythm of squelching footsteps, and how new ideas form when we force our heads to become empty. Ted Hughes’ brilliant poem  Thought Fox explains it so well: prints begin to form in the mind and then on the blank page at the point when we don’t force them.

Image result for Fox in snowMy thoughts during the walk drifted to think about people who will find the winter’s temperatures challenging. People who live in damp accommodation, who can’t afford heating bills. Many people have nowhere safe to live: communities who travel are in need of warmth and welcome; those who are homeless are really at the mercy of the elements. For those of us who are fortunate, winter is about log fires, toasted crumpets, steaming mugs of hot chocolate and it is precisely that feeling of being safe, warm and comforted which we all need. As the cold weather approaches, wherever we live in the world, adequate food and clothing are important, shelter, someone to visit and talk, to help break the monotony of loneliness.

My garden has a great quantity of fruit this autumn and I have a freezer full of stewed apples. I’ve given bags away, to friends, relatives, the Amazon driver, anyone who will benefit. My neighbour has a bowl of Bramleys at the bottom of the lane, for anyone who wants them. And that really is a metaphor, sharing our abundance with those who have none.

When winter comes, being cold is part of the fun. We all hope for snow: not the snow which is hazardous to drivers, but the white drifts which pile high in the hills and we can walk for miles, our breath like mist, and go tobogganing on tin trays and come home with red cheeks and melting clumps of ice on our boots. Winter is not to be feared, as long as we look out for each other.

Of course, if we are lucky with our health, another spring will come around. Crocuses will peep through the hard soil, the pale sun will deepen to a rich yellow and then summer will be with us again. There will be more apples to share, more long evenings around the barbecue with friends and more days strolling on the beach with that special person.

So each moment, whether warm or cold, is to be welcomed, embraced and enjoyed. We are fortunate if we can watch drizzle from the warmth of a room, behind a window, our feet too hot against the radiator.

I spend a lot of time writing during the winter months . My desk is in front of the window and I can see pigs, sheep, fields, trees, brambles. The pylon. I spend a lot of time not looking out of the window. On the computer screen, the thought fox is pressing its little prints on the keyboard and there are pictures, images, ideas, wild and whirling words. But when I glance up and see the rain battering the glass or the grey sky hanging like a tarpaulin, I realise I’m lucky. I can always go and put the kettle on, sit in front of the fire, have a cup of tea.

Image result for log fire and crumpets 

International Romani Day: April 8th

Today we remember. April 8th is a day designated to think about the largest ethnic minority- some ten million Roma live in Europe  and six million within the EU- and we should remember that Romani people are still subject to discrimination and social exclusion.

I’ve heard the same argument all my life, words which come from people who don’t seem to know better. I heard it again a week ago, when  a man I know vaguely, whom I was chatting to at a party said he had never met a Rom who wanted to integrate with him. He then issued forth with a mouthful of stereotypes and misinformation, based on prejudice and hype, complete with words I found offensive.  I moved on.

Education is the answer.

Years ago, my Dad was born in a wagon. My Grandmother pushed him out while my Grandfather was outside playing the hurdy-gurdy. At that point, my Dad had no concept of prejudice.

Eighteen  years later, my Dad joined the army to fight for this country.  He told me he was more afraid of the prejudice of the men on his own side than he was of the enemy. He said one of his fellow soldiers told him he would cut his throat and make it look like he’s fallen in the line of duty.

As a child, I was told to ‘keep it quiet and keep my distance’: the idea that outsiders would judge, that there would always be discrimination, was a constant companion. My parents were brilliant and proud of who we were: they did their best and I am grateful  but there was a repeated message:  ‘You are as good as everyone else. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.’ The inference was that, somehow, other people wouldn’t see it the same way.

For me, education was the answer, my way to restore the balance.

My Dad didn’t go to school for long. Days, not months. He could recite a couple of random lines – he didn’t know the source but it was from Love’s Labour’s Lost. He had no idea what it meant and  it didn’t help him with literacy. He spent most school days in the woods and learned a number of useful skills which he later passed on to my brother.

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

My upbringing was perfectly normal to me but I always knew we were outsiders: there were different words for things, different rules inside and outside our council house home. Then there was my Grandma, with her clay pipe and her unusual ways of cooking, washing, speaking. I loved my Grandma.

When my Dad died, I couldn’t tell the registrar when or where he was born. He never had a birth certificate. I wasn’t even sure of which of his names was the official one. But I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. He’d have found it hilarious, the fact that the person filling in his death certificate had no information to go on. He’d have preferred the anonymity.

But today isn’t a day to keep quiet: it’s a day to celebrate Romani culture. There are so many other people in the UK who are proud of their heritage. On March 17th, so many people wave the flag of their Irish ancestors and enjoy the celebrations of St Patrick’s Day. I’m sure St George’s Day is commemorated in many schools.

But when I was at school, I never heard any mention of the Romani people in History lessons. I was never taught about the 500 years of Roma slavery. There was no mention of Roma literature or poetry, yet I invite you to read Louise Doughty and Cecilia Woloch for some of the loveliest words written. We were never taught about Porajmos. All cultures should be represented in schools if all children are to feel included. We all need to understand our own and others’  history.

Education is the answer.

As a culture, Romani people are often expected to be invisible. Think back to the words of my racist acquaintance, whose attitude stems from ignorance rather than evil . It’s sometimes easier for us to stay quiet, keep out of the way, say nothing, : after all many people today who consider themselves non-racist are still validating racism, saying anti-ziganist abhorrent things which they consider somehow to be acceptable because it falls outside the racism most people mean when they use the term.

Jekh dilo kerel but dile hai but dile keren dilumata.

Education is the answer.

Someone once suggested the Romani people make little contribution to society. Perhaps some of these Romanichals will surprise you. My guess is that there are a ton more Romani people, some now house dwellers, achieving brilliant things in the normal way, discreetly and modestly.

But today April 8th is a remembrance day. It is a day for dignity and respect. A day to put dangerous stereotypes and misleading information to one side, and to celebrate a culture which emerged from India from the time of Alexander the Great. It is a time to move forward, to ask for improved human rights. It is also a time to remember the history of abuse and ill treatment, and to consider the victims of the Porajmos, who are believed to be upwards of near 500,000 men, women and children.

Education is always the answer. The words of Dr Ian Hancock  resonate with me, today and every day:

In order for things to change, the Gypsy Image must be deconstructed, and a more accurate one put in its place – in the bureaucratic structures as well as in the textbooks.

Ashen Devlesa, Romale. Na bister 500,000.

Image result for International Roma Day