Jul 26


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Helen Whitten

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“Old age is a bummer” a dear friend of mine said as she arrived for lunch the other day. Well, she actually said something rather stronger, but you get the gist. And that is so true. She’s going through medical problems and trying to work through the complexities of our National Health Service, so, yes, it is a bummer, for her, and for many of us.

Few people warn you about the challenges of old age – although my dear sister did advise me to make the most of my sixties as everything would get worse in my seventies! And how true that has been. But most of us don’t like to think about it, do we, old age or vulnerability, until it lands on us?

Every week now we hear of a friend who is ill, or someone who dies. I hadn’t realized how resilient I was going to need to be at this age, and, looking back, I realize I probably wasn’t as understanding of my mother when her friends were dying as I could have been. I do remember, when working on the biography of Harold Macmillan, how lonely he found it, in his nineties, being one of the few people left of his generation.

So, how do we become resilient within this environment, especially as the medical services seem to have pretty much collapsed, and we are warned that social services are unlikely to be able to provide care for us later, even if we do have enough money to scrabble together to pay for it?

To plan or not to plan, that is the question. Whether it is easier to admit defeat and pack up one’s things and move to a smaller house, or flat, or bungalow, or transfer to one of those posh blocks where they provide restaurants and swimming pools and medical suites if one has the money. Or bury one’s head in the sand and continue as one is?

Of course, our children worry about us falling down the stairs, fracturing something, and making our old age a drama that no one can easily manage. But many of us aren’t ready to give up our lifestyle or our homes. The homes aren’t particularly big but may not be totally practical when we become old and gaga and can no longer climb the stairs, etc. Yet old age often also brings the joys of grandchildren, and one does want a living space large enough to allow them to stay. Indeed, inevitably we want to hold on to the life we are having for as long as possible, be close to our friends and do the things we enjoy doing while we can.

We moved to a smaller house a few years ago, in an area that I consider to be perfect for this time of our life as we are three minutes from the tube, a pharmacy, doctors, Tesco and village shops, plus we have Kew Gardens to walk in. However, it is on three floors and right now my knee is playing up and it takes me quite some time to walk up, or down, to answer the door. What if I need a new hip, how will I manage then?

But on the other hand, one could say that the stairs keep us fit. A friend of mine whose father lived in the States in a residential home with a lift, completely lost his capacity to climb up even one set of stairs.

So, I guess it is about living in the moment but keeping an eye on the future. For sure, thinking about what one wants in the last days of one’s life, making that living will, ensuring one’s will is totally fair and can be easily understood and executed. For myself, I believe in talking to my children about my wishes should I suddenly be taken ill or incapacitated. Others don’t want to have these conversations. Fair enough. There’s no perfect way to live, no perfect way to die.

But for me, also, in order to become resilient enough to keep happy within these changes of old age, it is about touching a sense of the intangible in life, the spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. The small but powerful essence inside us that accepts that life is finite and wants to find some kind of peace and grace within oneself, and with life and relationships, before one moves on to whatever there might be on the other side, even if that is nothing. For me, this takes some solitude, peaceful music, time in nature, time with grandchildren who have that essence somehow still inside of them, and of course spending time with their parents, one’s own children! What is more precious than this?

I recommend, again, Michael Ignatieff’s book On Consolation, which has many examples of how those who have faced illness and death found some consolation and courage to manage it. This can be through writing or journaling, music, prayer, one’s marriage, family. friends. As we think of this, it feels important to consider the legacy we want to leave, the memories we would like people to hold of us, the events that may help them think warmly of us and the times we have spent together.

Those ripples last a lifetime. My grandmother died when I was 17 yet I still remember her every day with such love and affection, remember the times we played cards together, watched horse races, went for walks with our dog. And so, of course, I hope that when I am long-gone, my gorgeous grandchildren will have a few happy memories of the times we are having now, too.


There was a feeling last weekend, with the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee, that we came together as a country, putting aside some differences for a brief spell.  That, in our respect and gratitude for a woman who has dedicated her life to the service of us all, in the best way she could, we were drawn together, whether we were monarchists or not.

Yes, of course you can say that she has lived in luxury and been taken care of well by those who work for her. Yet would you wish to be so much in the public eye as she has been, as much as all those who are in the Royal family are? I certainly wouldn’t. I would hate it. The normal things that befall many of us – tragedies, parenting, divorce, conflicts – are all carried out in front of us, at the mercy of the judgement and criticism of the crowd, then chewed over and talked of for years, in the media across the world.

Some people were saying that the flag-waving was old-hat, that it belonged to a past era of British history and was somehow distasteful. I would ask them to look around at other countries and notice that we seem to be far less critical of others taking pride in their nations, than we are of ourselves. The Italians, French, Spanish and many nations wave flags happily on specific days of the year, and the tribal aspect of football or rugby matches is clear for us all to see. I don’t see there is anything wrong with this, unless it becomes so insular that it excludes others or leads to invasions of other territories.

We can surely value a sense of belonging in our land, perhaps the place we were born, but certainly in the place we live. It is a natural human sentiment and rises above politics or monarchy or republicanism. It is about the place, the land, the people who live in it. And that’s what we saw last weekend as communities came together to arrange celebrations, to talk with one another and celebrate together.

For whatever government is in power, we can be proud of and loyal to the country in which we live. There has been so much endless criticism and backbiting in recent years in the UK and I believe it comes from people mistaking the leader of a political party with a country.  One may criticise Boris Johnson and yet still love England. One may have detested President Trump and yet still have a great affection for America. They aren’t the same thing. The Government is temporary, and of course it can shape what is happening in a country, but it is by no means the whole story.

The divisions that have occurred over recent years are more marked than in previous eras and it saddens me. There were more cross-party friendships in times gone by, there was more friendly debate and discussion between people with different opinions, less of the echo chamber that has evolved from social media. I hope we can go back to this as the tendency to think of those who don’t agree with us as ‘bad people’ is unhealthy. It is as bigoted as those we accuse of being bigots. It means we are closed, not willing to open up to new ideas, to admit we might be wrong, or that we might learn something from others, even if we don’t change our opinion on a subject.

In her 1991 Christmas broadcast, the Queen said “Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom.” Wise words and words that lead us to be open and question, rather than close our ears and imagine we know everything in some self-righteous way. A little humility goes a long way.

The endless criticism of the UK is self-destructive. You can be sure that not everyone in Ukraine supported President Zelensky when the war started out in February, yet when their country was under attack by Russia the Ukrainians came together in their pride of place, willing to fight and die for their country. This sense of loyalty goes far deeper than any political party. It’s visceral.

Perhaps we can learn from it and realize that politics is important but ultimately all political parties come and go and, ultimately, also all of them are, in their own ways nonetheless striving for better health, better education and peace for their nations. We can all disagree about the ways to achieve these goals but let’s not fight amongst ourselves so fiercely in the process.

The history of civilization is a history of warfare and brutality. Read about life in this country only a few centuries ago and realize that it was bleak, a very basic way of living, and that we have come a long way, through hard work, scientific and medical breakthroughs, and teamwork. We are an extraordinarily diverse country in comparison to the year of the Coronation, and most of the time we get along pretty well. Walking around London one knows that one is mixing with people from all over the world, with a huge variety of opinions and political loyalties, and yet we get along, enjoying the privilege of living in one of the most civilised countries of the world, in an era of unprecedented comfort and peace. Long may it remain that way.

I think there was a great sense of gratitude to the Queen in the celebrations last weekend, and also a question of whether people would have felt the same if it had been President Johnson or President Starmer. Does an elected president have that same continuity, I question?

Nothing is perfect but gratitude goes a long way to make us happy and cooperative.  Focusing on an appreciation of what we do have, even in the midst of challenges such as inflation and high prices, is far better for our mental health than focusing on lack. We have rather torn ourselves apart in recent years, and the cancel culture in which we live does not help.

As Kenneth Clark said in his programme CivilisationWe can destroy ourselves with cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.” Let’s not do that. As the Queen said in her 2008 Christmas broadcast “When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.” Let’s do that now, to the best of our abilities.


I have been reading Justin Webb’s excellent autobiography, The Gift of a Radio, My Childhood and other Train Wrecks.  He is younger than I am by about nine years, and yet much of what he writes about his childhood and school years sparks memories for me, especially as we have just had a school reunion of my own school, Cranborne Chase, where I spent my days, for better or worse, from 1962-67.

One of the topics that was raised at our school reunion was how unkind we had been to our teachers, recognising all these years later, that several of them had suffered horribly during the war, if not in battle, then in concentration camps, through displacement, or just in keeping the home fires burning. We girls, born in 1950, knew little of this, other than the stories we gleaned from parents or grandparents and were often left confused by what was not said rather than what was said.  As Webb writes, we eventually woke up to what had happened to these teachers through war films or, later, through the superb series The World at War with its images of scorched buildings and Laurence Olivier saying, “nobody lives here now.”

How those words symbolise the way in which our lives have turned circles. We grew up in the aftermath of World War II and experienced for ourselves the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust through the Cuban Missile Crisis. And here we are again, with Putin, his hand on the red button, threatening the world with oblivion.  We were able to laugh about it later, watching Dr Strangelove, but it is no laughing matter seeing all the scorched buildings in Ukraine and wondering where this will lead us as we are, once again, going to sleep fearing that there may be nuclear holocaust.

Despite the fears, my year group agreed that we had been lucky in so many ways, to live in that post-war era and experience the optimism of the 60s as teenagers, to go to a school that encouraged us to think and question, although it really didn’t prepare us in any way for academic life or, in fact, for life in any way. We arrived in the world as innocents, wondering what we were supposed to be doing, caught between the 1950s messages that woman should be in the kitchen, and the feminist writings of Simone de Beauvoir and later Germaine Greer. Most of us had been given the message that we should become wives as soon as possible and I think none of us had been given any useful career advice at all.

Despite this, I think we were all delighted to see how each one of us had ploughed an interesting course. The school was very arty and musical. I was good at neither but, with a young Harrison Birtwhistle as our Head of Music, I was infused by the love of music and art and many of my year group had become musicians, artists and sculptors. For myself, as a writer, we were lucky enough to have Stevie Smith visit, and the Liverpool poets among many others. Some of us became teachers, one, in all her modesty, a Dame, and some professionals. One way or another, our minds and hearts were stimulated, and how lucky we were in that.

But, of course, there were those who were unhappy at the school, and much is written about the damage that boarding school does to one – cold dormitories shared with a bunch of strangers miles from one’s parents and having to find one’s one way through the whole experience. But in that we found friendship. We may have been beastly to our teachers, in a St Trinian’s sort of way, but we agreed that we were seldom, if ever, beastly to one another.

So, if the school reunion has the potential for giving us anything, what I found, sitting in a room with my year group over fifty years after we left school, was that our support and friendship for one another was still palpable and, whether we see one another again or not, this friendship has provided, I think, a strength at the core of us that helps us withstand the tragedies and mishaps that have befallen us in our lives, as well as the moments of success. For that I believe, we are eternally grateful.


So are we in the middle, the late middle or the early-ending of our lives, I wonder?  Probably the early-end, for as the days go by the odds stack against it being the middle.

We drive the same paths, sing the same songs, and yet our minds and bodies are an ever-expanding network of experiences, sadnesses, joys, anticipations, regrets, and, yet, there is still hope, for without hope it would surely turn into some kind of an end.  Yet hope for what?  A better future?  That is quite hard to maintain as one ages and fears for one’s children and grandchildren in this world where war rages and where climate change eats up the resources we need for survival.

But hope we must, for it is hope that leads to innovation, to enterprise, to believing in a better future, or the creation of a better implement, or software system, or scientific solution, or a better way to heal the sick, or educate our children.  Without hope there would be no new enterprise, no new business, no policies, no books written or artwork painted.

Though in moments of hope-lessness there can be beautiful poems written, paintings created, music composed.

A terminal diagnosis puts us close to the end, though no one can be sure when the end will be, unless one chooses to go to Switzerland.  So it may still be a sort-of middle but equally a beginning – the beginning of a journey of experience through that diagnosis and one never knows when the middle occurs, perhaps until the very end when one might reflect that one has been through the middle of that journey last week or last month.

But a sudden death throws someone straight into an ending.  There was a beginning, of that person’s life, but they never knew when or whether they were in the middle, or the late middle, until the end is ruthlessly thrown at them.

In Ukraine they lived lives at many stages of beginning, middle and end but were then all flung into the beginning, of a war, and terror, and none of them know whether they are still at the beginning, in the middle, or moving more quickly towards an end.  But what might that end look like?  That is a cliff-hanger.

So we live on a cliff-hanger every day of our life, somewhere between beginnings and middles, in life, career, marriage, parenthood, illness, crossing a road, until we reach the end.  And some of us will be conscious that we are at that end and others may never know.


Mar 08


3 Responses


Helen Whitten

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This morning I watched a short clip of a young Ukrainian girl, Ankita Jain, singing Let it Go, from Frozen.  She sang to her family and companions in an underground bomb shelter.  It was heartbreaking, as I thought of my granddaughters, and other children around the world, singing this same song in the safety of their homes.  I am sure parents and grandparents of small children everywhere will be as moved by this as I was. 

There are common threads with children throughout the world nowadays that didn’t exist in the same way when we were young.  The Harry Potter books, Disney movies and songs transcend language, place, and culture.  We can be brought together through the childish delight of story, imagination, and dreams.  And, of course, Russian children love these too, I am sure.  But to see the fear and sadness on the faces of the Ukrainian children sheltering or running from Russian bombs is heartbreaking, and makes it very difficult to feel we can continue to sit and watch this war, without somehow taking more action.  But how to do this without triggering something far worse?

In our creative writing courses, we are reflecting on the middle of things, on how beginnings, whether of events, stories, relationships, can be dramatic, full of hope, or, alternatively, as in Ukraine, dramatic but shocking.  Endings bring things to a conclusion, either a happy one, disappointing maybe, or tragic.  But the middle is where the uncertainty lies, where there are more questions than answers, where one doesn’t know whether the decisions and actions one is taking are the right ones or the wrong ones, whether they will lead one towards that happy conclusion or towards something one can’t even begin to imagine.  And right now we are in the middle of things.

It made me think about how we can become desensitised to information when we watch it endlessly on television screens, and how important it is not to allow this to happen.  We cannot let this war go into some kind of normality, because to be invaded and bombed by an aggressive neighbour with an occupying force is not something anybody deserves.  We have become too complacent over recent decades, imagining, or not even bothering to think hard enough, about the fact that the world does throw up dictators from time to time and we need to be awake to that fact.  Perhaps we were too comfortable, having reached a place in the free world where life is fairly easy for the majority, despite inequalities.  Putin has never truly masked his intentions, for anybody looking.

It is important, of course, to give ourselves some respite from the ghastliness of this war, of watching the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the ruthlessness of Putin.  It is important to enjoy the day we have been given ourselves, to be grateful for a home, a comfortable bed, hot running water, drinking water, working drains and food.  Yet not to forget about what is happening in this not-so-distant country where people were enjoying all those same simple needs themselves only a short time ago.  We cannot allow ourselves to be anesthetised to unfolding events.  We must keep watching.

I hope that those who develop the legal and political structures and requirements of the institutions of government learn, yet again too late, that dictators should not be allowed to change a constitution to enable them to rule for long periods without a democratic vote.  Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of history might be said to have been reached by liberal democracy, but the reality is that we cannot ignore psychology or the human condition.  To do so is both ignorant and naïve.  There are bad people in this world, as has been witnessed in many different areas of the globe throughout history, for whom power is the goal.  Yet again, government officials should review the checks and balances of their institutional systems to ensure that these people do not get into powerful positions where we end up in a state where one ruthless man paralyses the rest of the world into a position where they do not know what to do.  I have written before about how wrong it is, in my opinion, that people can rise in politics without all the psychological profiling, qualifications and references that one needs to prove when applying for a job in business.  There seems to be extraordinarily little professional development, 360 degree-feedback systems, or challenges to prevent the people who lead the countries of the world becoming bullies and dictators.

In this war, it is so difficult to know where there is a compromise to be had in this situation.  As a Ukrainian said on the radio last week, if an invasion force came into the UK would you be happy just to give away Wales or Scotland?  Of course not.  So, the Russians should not be allowed to annex the Eastern areas without a democratic vote on the subject.  Sanctions and actions against oligarchs may make an impact in the longer term though the oligarchs can be prey to the Kremlin’s henchmen too, of course, so may not have as much influence as is imagined.

A week ago, I was fretting about whether I could write certain things about free speech in my blogs.  Today this seems petty, and yet it isn’t because what happens in our personal everyday lives remains important.  But now the priority has changed, and I feel so helpless as I watch this young child sing in her bomb shelter, watch families run from the bombs.  We give money, we sanction, we pray, but, in this middle part of this war, where we know not its outcome, we cannot let it go.


Feb 18


7 Responses


Helen Whitten

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The writer and provocateur, P.J.O’Rourke, has just died this week.  He wrote a book called How the Hell did this Happen? and I wake up every day and wonder the same thing.

How is it that, after a century where women’s rights progressed beyond all expectations, in the West anyway, our rights are now being depleted day by day?  That women’s spaces are being infringed, women pushed aside in their own sports competitions, the words that describe women are being deleted, porn sites are encouraging sadistic practices that endanger a woman’s life, misogynistic practices still exist in police and government circles? 

How is it that in an ante-natal class questionnaire the options given were “Pregnant Person, Father, Other Parent, Support Person, Other…”  yet the person who is actually giving birth, eg the Mother, gets no word to tick in that questionnaire?  How the hell did this happen?

How is it that Professors and academics in universities worldwide are being subjected to horrific harassment for stating facts?  That they are being surrounded by chanting students, dressed in black balaclavas, and hounded out of their jobs by young people who seemingly have nothing to lose, as there is no redress against them for what is outrageous, violent, and unacceptable behaviour?  In previous times I am sure they would have been ‘sent down’ as the phrase went.  Wouldn’t they?  And why not now?  I heard a teacher of twelve-year olds comment that ‘the boys are out of control’.  Again, are professional lecturers and qualified teachers to be bullied by children who know little of the world?

How the hell is it that J K Rowling, who has lit up the minds of children across the world and got them reading books of several hundred pages, is now cancelled because she spoke facts about womanhood?  That Professor Kathleen Stock is hounded out of her job for a similar reason, that the poet and writer Kate Clanchy is cancelled because she dared to describe a pupil of hers as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ yet Monica Ali in her latest book Love Marriage describes a character as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ and yet I haven’t heard a movement to get Monica Ali cancelled?

How is it that when someone makes a simple statement, as Adele did recently, that she loves being a woman, she is suddenly accused of being transphobic?  Surely, we have been endeavouring for some time to get young girls to celebrate being women in order to feel empowered?  Enjoying being a woman, or enjoying being a man, does not mean that you are anti those who do not identify in this way.

How is it that students of books by Shakespeare, Jane Austen and many others are being given trigger warnings in case they read something that they might find offensive?  Surely that is the point of books – to draw attention to the many different facets of humanity.  We cannot whitewash history or whitewash the reality of human behaviour and the human condition, without failing in our efforts to educate young people about the history of the world.  Depending on your nationality, sex, creed and colour, the past may have been misrepresented, and it is right to correct this, but we cannot change the past or wipe it out, or we learn nothing.

Yet how is it that young children today, who are blameless of the specific crime, are being harangued in their classrooms, and blamed for slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism that occurred over a hundred years ago?  How can this be anything other than divisive?

There is little logic in these arguments we are ‘waking up’ to.  There is endless contradiction.

For how is it that if only Jewish actors should play Jews in theatre or film productions then surely only people of colour should play people of colour, and therefore, with that logic, only white people should play white people?  Which is where this all began … because our history in this country consists of mainly white inhabitants, but this left actors of other ethnic origins without parts (just as were there to be plays put on in Africa there would be few parts for white actors).  So theatre directors started to open up the possibilities, where male parts were acted by females, where English kings or queens were played by people of colour, even though this is not accurate to history.  Surely any actor should be able to play any part because that is what acting is all about?  Isn’t that diversity, rather than narrowing down the pool of actors to Jews or Catholics or anything else?  Where is the logic here?

How is it that writers are told they can only write characters similar to their own ethnicity and lifestyle for fear of being accused of ‘cultural misappropriation’?  This removes all fiction from our shelves, basically, as each book would only be able to have one character.  Inevitably writers of fiction have to inhabit the characters of people of different genders, race, age, backgrounds and more.  These dictats make no logical sense in the creative process.  Nor does the fact that a white model can be berated for cultural misappropriation if she braids her hair but when a person of colour dyes their hair blonde, or straightens it, they are not accused of cultural misappropriation.

How is it that if women are to be referred to as “people who menstruate” there is no call so far to refer to men as “people who ejaculate”?

How is it that we are not judging works of art by the artwork itself but by the artist’s perceived flaws?  Why can works of art be removed, plays discarded, books banned from library shelves, words deleted, by some anonymous, often junior, board of judges with little life experience?  They make these decisions like an invisible mob, but, again, often with many contradictory arguments as their so-called ‘evidence’.  Yet that evidence is not seriously questioned by frightened academics or wary politicians who do not want to lose voters; the often flimsy and ill-considered ‘evidence’ is not put through any just legal process or investigation.

How is it that the statues to slave traders are removed but there is very little protest on the streets about the modern-day slave trading, or today’s appalling treatment of citizens in various parts of the world by people of their own race or creed?  Why this endless harking back to previous centuries, instead of honestly facing the problems we see today in various parts of the world?

We only have to see what ISIS or Al-Shabab are doing in Africa, Mali or Mozambique, where it is not about race but about terrorism/religion, to wonder why there is not more coverage and protest at the barbarous brutality that is being meted out in these parts of the world?  There was almost no coverage of the barbaric murder by ISIS of mothers and babies in the maternity unit of an Afghan hospital last year.

How is it that those concerned for the climate can blockade the M25 and mess up the day of thousands of ordinary people but don’t take the trouble and expense to go to Moscow and blockade Putin’s roads in protest at his pollution of the climate through his military manoeuvres?

Are we seeing trigger warnings for The Kite Runner, or A Thousand Splendid Suns?  I haven’t noticed that we are, yet, despite being well-written and informative, they are deeply upsetting books.  But not written by writers who can be accused of white privilege.

The depressing, undemocratic fact is that these protesters are trying to disrupt our society and they seem to have enough spare time to try to destroy the institutions of law, the police, and government by focusing on history, on the past, and by undermining trust in the way things are run.  Of course, there are bad things that go on but there always have been bad things going on and we continue, as human beings, to endeavour to address them and improve matters.  Surely, we can find ways to live together that do not divide or cancel?

We should not be frightened into silence or agreement, we should not shrug our shoulders and disregard these infringements of our rights and liberties for that would be going back to the 1930s, to Nazis, or the Stasi, or to the incarceration in gulags of poets and writers during the Cold War, and we all know what atrocities happened after those early book burning mobs were not stopped.

We absolutely cannot let that happen again, for those periods of history were, indeed, utter hell.