Finding our Way

Finding our Way

I must be getting old.   I have moved many times in my life but never found it as exhausting as this move to Kew.  The selling of Hampshire, the decluttering and then moving in to a house with a conservatory in 30 degrees of heat has been somewhat demanding, to say the least.  But we have landed here and are adjusting to our new life and it feels good.

There is a reality to be accepted when one ages and that is that one simply doesn’t have the energy one had when one was younger.  We resent the fact, of course.  We try to deny it and soldier on but, when we do, our body just packs up and shouts “STOP unpacking those cases and sit down!”.

And as we move in, we hear of friends who are ill and dying and that’s another reminder of our age.  But it’s also a reminder of why we are pleased to be here in Kew, where we find neighbours of exceptional kindness and friendliness.  That feels so good.

And so we have found our way from Hampshire and are now busy finding our way around the new area, which brings us into contact with plumbers, carpenters, wardrobe fitters and more.  And in this we learn much about customer service and those who care and those who don’t.  We were truly disappointed by our experience of shopping for beds in the major department stores of Oxford Street.  There were plenty of assistants but none of them seemed in the slightest bit interested in selling us anything or helping us find our way to a department.  They were much more interested in talking to one another.

Even when we were willing to spend £800 on a bed the somewhat grumpy assistant suggested we go home and order it on line.  Why?  Surely there must be some added value offered in bothering to go into the store?  Surely the assistants should smile and offer to help?  Surely they should know what they are talking about and not say “I don’t know how that guest bed works”.   Perhaps I am just old fashioned in my expectations of service.    Perhaps I am turning into Victor Meldrew.  Either way, sadly it’s not surprising that these retail stores are struggling to make a profit.  We won’t be going back there any time soon. Read more →


Divide and Rule: Beware the methods of autocrats

I woke up at 6.30am this morning wondering what is happening to democracy?  Have people got complacent about it or so disenchanted that they are comfortable with leaders like Trump, Putin and Erdogan taking so much power?  Have they forgotten what happens when leaders over reach their power and become monarchs or Tsars?  It’s a long time since Charles I was put in his place and I worry that we are not being alert enough to ensure that there are blocks in place to prevent a leader simply changing the law to remain in power as long as they choose and somehow convincing a gullible population that this is good for them.  The younger generation may not fully appreciate what happened in the build-up to Hitler, or to the Communist state and if they don’t then we need to inform them!  The generations that were close to these events are dying out and getting older.  The young need to know more about how power gets snatched from before their eyes without them realising it.

I am just re-reading Dr Zhivago and it paints a miserable picture of life under a Communist ideology – long queues, people thrown out of their homes, the elite pilloried, doctors regarded as ‘professional elite’ and thrown out of jobs, academics and writers sent to Siberia.  It didn’t happen overnight but it can – President Erdogan has thrown some 160,000 people into prison over the last year and yet what is the rest of the world doing to question this?  President Trump puts people in cages.  Putin gives himself more powers and woe betide those who challenge or stand against him.  And Duterte in the Philippines just kills those he dislikes from what I understand.

Watching the “Fourth Estate”, a BBC documentary about the New York Times’ reporting of Trump’s first 100 days, we were reminded of how Trump has insidiously but blatantly tried to turn his people against the free press, describing them as “the enemies of the people”.  He questions the expertise and knowledge of academics and those who have worked their way up to senior positions through knowledge, questioning facts and speaking downright lies himself.  He sacks anyone who disagrees with him and if one of his staff won’t lie or follow his lead they go.  He is endeavouring to build a powerful group of followers around him, the better to build his own power base.  This is dangerous stuff.

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Political correctness stifles creativity

On Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme on Radio 4 last week she interviewed Nell Dunn, the esteemed author of Up the Junction and Poor Cow.  She mentioned that Dunn had been accused of ‘appropriation’ due to the fact that she wrote about working-class women and yet herself had come from an aristocratic home.  I admit that I was shocked by this idea.  Are none of us now allowed to write about people who are different to ourselves?  How will any author who is not a murderer write a thriller?  How will a male author include female characters and not be accused of ‘appropriation’?  Surely this is total nonsense?

But similar trends of thought are being spread about judges and politicians with the suggestion that they cannot make professional decisions about others if they have not lived the kind of lives of the people they judge or govern.  I am not sure exactly who is spreading this intolerance but it strikes me that it demonstrates ignorance of human imagination and is also potentially thoroughly dangerous, as it threatens free speech and creativity.  Dictatorships have been formed by such edicts.  Think of the Russian dissidents in Siberia.  Cast your mind towards the countless writers and journalists thrown into prison by President Erdogan in the last year or so, those assassinated on Russian streets.

The kind of thinking that rules that you cannot write about someone unlike yourself denies both empathy and creativity.  It seems in direct contradiction to the concept of integration and diversity. How could any author have written a masterpiece or best-seller unless they imagined characters unlike themselves?  Khaled Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns comes to my mind.  It describes the lives of Afghan women with great poignance: was this ‘appropriating’ their experience?  Men have written as women and women as men.  Russians have written about the French and the English about Italians.    The examples are endless.

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Betwixt and Between

Firstly a very big thankyou for staying with me and choosing to read some of my Thinking Aloud blogs.  GDPR was rather scary – I was worried I might end up with only 4 people still subscribing.  In fact I lost less than a handful, so that feels very heartening!

And now our house in Hampshire is under offer and someone loves our beautiful quirky home as much as we do.  And that feels wonderful and yet poignant at the same time as it reflects the end of an era, brought into greater focus by our grandchildren who make remarks like “we love your house!”  “Your house is the best house in the world!” “Will your house in Kew have a swimming pool – we LOVE your pool!” … and the heartstrings get pulled.

Inevitably the Kew house will not have a swimming pool – in a garden of about 12 x12 ft this would be challenging!  And we will just about be able to have our children and grandchildren to stay but certainly not more than one family at a time, whereas here in Hampshire we have been able to accommodate, on beds, sofa beds, camp beds, futons, David’s four sons and their families, adding up to some 14 to stay.  It was exhausting, with the shopping, catering, the sheets, the washing, ironing and vacuuming afterwards but it was great fun and everyone loved and appreciated it.  My two sons and their families also had some good times in this wonderful adaptable space and my three grandchildren and David’s seven grandchildren all loved it and had a ball.

I can still remember my grandmother’s house, still walk around it in my mind and get the sense of being there with her, chatting in the kitchen, chasing after her with an ashtray when her cigarette ash looked as if it would fall in the soup (this seems to be a common experience for people of my generation!), crawling into her double bed, playing in the garden.  Hopefully our grandchildren will also remember this lovely place and have some fun with us in the next.

And so on to a new transition and inevitably I think of my parents moving from a big house to a small one towards the end of their lives, as David thinks of his moving from Doncaster to Barnes.  It reminds us that we are our parents’ age.  How can that have happened?!  And it feels both like a closing down and yet also an opening up of many new opportunities and a fun lifestyle in Kew, where there is so much on offer.

We spent the weekend in Kew for David’s 75th birthday, staying at the delightful Coach and Horses Inn on Kew Green.  We ate chocolate birthday cake cooked by Kate Comer, photo attached, we were entertained by a magician, Steve Rowe, and the blended families chatted happily and the grandchildren have come away practising their magic tricks on us all.  We walked by the river, had a picnic in Kew Gardens bought at the very buzzy and vibrant farmer’s market in Kew Village on Sunday.  We tasted our new life and liked it.  But there will be both gratitude and sadness at leaving Hampshire Hunt Cottage as it has been the scene of many happy occasions.

In the meantime though we are betwixt and between, stuck in the ghastly limboland that is selling a home in England.  A process that can leave you in stress and uncertainty for weeks at a time while surveys are carried out, mortgage companies decide whether or not to give you a loan, searches have to be completed and lawyers ask stressful questions like “where is the woodworm certificate?”.

And one has to scramble around to find the cash to pay exorbitant amounts of Stamp Duty for a house half the size of the one we are currently living in, not to mention removal costs, agent’s fees and the rest.  We Baby Boomers are berated for not selling our houses but it isn’t that simple.

I feel I have half my heart in one home and half my heart in the next and yet I don’t dare get excited about our new life because we have not yet exchanged contracts and until that is done, nothing is certain.  I have had so many experiences of moving that I know that even the most seemingly simple chain – which ours appears to be – can break a link unexpectedly.  Why does it have to be so difficult in England?   Everybody complains about it but nothing changes.  In France, and I believe Scotland, things are more-or-less firmed up within 14 days.  Why can’t we make this process less stressful?

My brain is scrambled and my nights are filled with to-do lists.  We are endeavouring to downsize and declutter from 3000 sq ft to approximately 1500 which is not easy.  When I mention to David that we won’t have room for something he just looks at me with sorrowful eyes and says “but I am rather fond of that …” or “it’s not very big…” But how many small things, or sentimental ones, can one fit into a smallish house?  Chatting to my sister the other day, whose dear late husband Leo, was not dissimilar to David, she told me how, when they were moving to France, she would spend the day filling black bin bags with things she didn’t think they should take, only to discover Leo pulling them all out again at the end of the day.  Hey ho … I know the feeling!  And I can’t really talk – I find it near-impossible to let go of books.

But I shall miss many things about Hampshire and especially our book club, which we have hosted for several years and has provided many jolly occasions and stimulating conversations; the writing group of which I am a part in Petersfield which has changed my life, supporting me in becoming a poet and writer; the Loose Muse poetry evenings in Winchester so well run by Sue Wrinch.  And for David his tennis and Warrior exercise group, not to mention for both of us, local friends, Alresford, Winchester Cathedral, the Watercress Line, plus some exquisite countryside.

Underneath it all though, when I allow myself to be, I am deeply excited and look forward to new adventures and to being closer to grandchildren.  But how I long to get out of this conveyancing limbo-land and to arrive there in our new life!  The provisional date for moving is Friday 13 July, which is my mother’s birthday and lucky for some, so I am hoping that this is a good omen.


Integrating change with an open heart

I had cause to take the tube at rush hour two mornings last week – a rare event now that I am retired.  It was packed, of course, but I was so struck by how companionable we were as we stood pressed next to each other like sardines.  Men and women of all nationalities stood up for pregnant women and I was offered a seat several times (it has taken some adjustment to accept I look old enough to be offered a seat!).  I accepted with the graciousness with which it was offered.

The journey from the tube door to the escalator at Oxford Circus was a slow one through the endless tunnels and up the steps and yet everyone slowed to an orderly snail’s pace.  All colours and creeds cooperating, no pushing or shoving, just individuals quietly in their own space yet acting as a united crowd.

It occurred to me that the experience of being on the tube has changed radically since I first came to London in 1967.  The number of passengers has increased exponentially and yet the good will remains, bar the odd bad behaviour.  The diversity of the passengers travelling has also altered exponentially and yet my feeling was that although people inevitably find the experience of travelling on very crowded tubes or trains more tiring and stressful than travelling on empty ones, it didn’t seem to matter who these crowds consisted of.  They could have been any colour or background.  It was the number not the ethnic diversity that caused discomfort.  Everyone on those tubes seemed perfectly amicable with one another, perfectly comfortable despite the environmental discomfort.

It surprised me, therefore, when I read an interview in The Guardian with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who said that he felt that “racism is in the DNA in the UK since imperial times”.  Of course there are pockets of racists here as there are anywhere and everywhere else in the world but this blanket statement of racism didn’t ring true to my experience.  What it doesn’t allow for is the fact that there are tribal factions, alienations and enmities in all kinds of areas of human life and that the concept of friend or foe is buried deep in our unconscious threat-alert system whether we are black or white or simply of a different creed or tribe.  It is a natural human function to be wary of strangers and difference.

We too can feel like a minority and this change has happened within my own lifetime.  A recent report has shown that the number of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds in English secondary schools has soared by more than fifty percent in a decade.  Figures show that black and Asian children account for 17 per cent of pupils aged 11-16 and in inner London white British pupils are now in the minority.  A considerable number of schools have more ethnic children than English in several areas of the country.  And yet, on the whole, daily life is companionable despite the odd flare-up of bullying or problems (and one mustn’t forget that bullying can occur white on white or black on white as much as white on black or ethnic).

The outrage at the treatment of the Windrush Generation came from a sentiment that these people are now one of us, as are so many others who have come here from Asia, Uganda and many other parts of the world.  And interestingly some of those immigrants also voice their own concern at the numbers entering the country today.  I have known ethnic families who were not at all happy when a son or daughter brought home a potential spouse who was white English!  Wariness of change works both ways.

When I have travelled in Nigeria, Egypt, India, the Middle East I am inevitably the one who is different and endeavour to align my behaviours to the culture in which I am living or working.  In the area of London in which I have lived I rarely heard an indigenous English voice in recent days and did rather wonder, as I got older and more vulnerable, whether anyone would be able to help me or know how to phone 999 if I fell in the street.  Perhaps silly of me but nonetheless a consideration.

A programme on Radio 4 this week discussed the 1970s-80s policy introduced by the Labour party of ‘bussing’ ethnic children to white schools, with the intention of supporting greater integration.  Some had seen this as having the unintended consequence of ethnic children feeling singled out.  Others said that although it had been difficult they had, in fact, learnt a great deal more about English life and had integrated better with the culture as a result of this policy.  Today some head teachers are concerned that the changing demographics of English secondary schools are leading to a kind of unhealthy separation and that perhaps there should be a return to a policy of positive integration where there is an imbalance of ethnic mix.   Certainly we all need to work out the best way to help people feel at ease with one another.                                                                                                                    Read more →


Sharing our struggles

It can be difficult to appreciate those things one has not actually fought for, experienced or created.  It can be difficult for a younger generation to imagine how basic or how difficult life was for their parents or grandparents, especially with so much in the media stating how tough life is for the young today.  It is easy for them not to appreciate the advances that those of us living today in the UK are experiencing.  Without understanding these developments it is all too easy to take them for granted.

In the recent BBC2 television programme ‘Living with the Brainy Bunch” two young students, Jack and Hollie, who were struggling at school, were placed within the families of two students who were doing well.  Jack and Hollie seemed to have given up hope and were sabotaging their futures by not putting much effort into schoolwork and by being rebellious.  They found it difficult to see the point of cooperating and working hard.  Hope is an essential ingredient for galvanising people into action.

It was only when the Sri Llankan mother who was hosting Jack told him of her own struggles of leaving war-torn Sri Llanka, crossing the seas for eighteen hours in a container with no air with thirteen other people, not knowing whether she would survive, that he seemed to turn a corner. “You have a very fortunate country” she said.  “I ask you to use it.  Do you feel you are fortunate?”  Jack reflected and replied “I suppose I grew up with everything being there for me … this has made me realize how lucky I am to have the situation I am in, with the country I am in and the opportunities I have, which before I didn’t realize…”  He began to listen when she told him why she felt education was so important, why it provided the key to a successful future, “with good study you can do anything you want… Do it for yourself.”   In the next maths test he achieved better marks and his attitude seemed to have changed.

In relating this snippet of another life Jack had his horizons broadened.  Perhaps he had never been encouraged to look outside his own life experience, so how could he necessarily know how fortunate he is if no one has explained this to him?  The philosopher John Gray, speaking on Desert Island Discs recently, said he could well imagine that we would lose some of the rights and freedoms that we have gained over the last decades because those who had not experienced the changes that have taken place could take them for granted and potentially let them slip through their hands.  What a terrible shame this would be.

So perhaps we can make more time for sharing our life stories with our children and grandchildren.  They may not choose to listen or may roll their eyes but perhaps somewhere some of your journey might give them an inkling that life doesn’t come easy most of the time.  That life is, indeed, what you make it.  And, also, that with the rights we enjoy in this country come, equally, responsibilities – a sense of balance between what we receive and what we give back.

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The journey from dependency to independence

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” Benjamin Franklin

I wonder if you have ever spent a few days in hospital?  I have been in hospital for 7-10 days a few times in my life and have always been interested in how difficult it was to plan the simplest things when I came home.  What has always struck me is how, even after a very short time of dependency, one immediately loses the ability to think, problem-solve, plan and make decisions.   It can feel quite a relief not to have to think about small daily decisions such as what and when to eat, what to wear, what to do, how to spend or save one’s money, etc.  But lack of practice incapacitates us.  And just imagine how much more so if one has been in prison, in mental hospital, or the services for extended periods, where one’s life is organised by others.  How hard to adjust to making those daily decisions again.  How important to re-engage one’s executive brain and develop once more the ability to be independent of others and manage one’s own life.

It is not surprising that many ex-service people end up on our streets, homeless.  Nor that many mental hospitals and prisons become a revolving door where people exit but all-too-often return.  People do need help to plan their lives, their health, their work, their finance and their relationships.  It doesn’t happen automatically, particularly when you haven’t had to use that part of the brain for a period of time.   I believe the importance of planning skills is underestimated.   Without planning people have no route to success.

This applies in so many areas of life.  I was talking recently to a friend who works in a food bank.  The food banks were set up as an emergency resource but those running them are finding that some people can become habitual users of the service.  So some food banks now offer help with learning to budget and  take control of the small details of expenditure, so as to prevent the building up of dependency.

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Letting go of my history – or is it just clutter?

As many of you know, we are selling our Hampshire house looking to move to Kew for the next stage of our lives. [See]   So, as the snow falls outside, I am gradually working my way through a fairly massive job of decluttering.  Between us, having come together at the ages of 60 and 67 respectively, we have a good 40-50 years of adult hoarding, family photos and memorabilia, and life history hidden away in our offices, filing cabinets, sheds and attics.  I am usually reasonably good at clapping my hands and getting on with a transition but this process of letting go has been more challenging than I had imagined.

When I sold Positiveworks to Jackie and Chris of Sixth Sense Consulting in 2016 I naively assumed that it would be both easy and liberating to go to the filing cabinets and dispose of the 25 years of papers, presentations and articles that I had filed away in various cupboards and filing cabinets.  And especially the accounts and VAT books (sorry Jeremy!).  Of course – as those of you who have done this before me will probably know – it’s not quite as simple as that!  When I finally started looking through the papers, slides and the various brochures that took me from 1992 to 2016 I found I was far more emotionally attached to things I had created and to the memories of clients, presentations, and geographical places I had visited on this wonderful Positiveworks’ journey than I had thought I would be.

And so, gradually, I have made myself shred this, chuck that, bit by bit. It does clear the mind somewhat.   I am now on my third stage of going through the files, each time more capable of being a little more stringent than the time before.  “Will I really ever need this again?”  I ask myself.  I know I won’t but I am also sort of aware that in later life, when I am perhaps in my 80s and more vulnerable, I might need the confidence boost of looking back at the books, articles and programmes I produced and feeling a little more pleased with myself than I might if I only have a rather elderly face to look at in the mirror every day!

I know that David is experiencing the same hesitancy, the same rerun of old memories in his head, the patients he has seen, the research papers he has written and the good work he has done.  Ultimately, it’s about identity.

But there’s no way there will be space for all these old boxes and papers when we move to a three-bedroom terraced house in Kew!

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What’s normal in the world of mental health labels?

How do we distinguish between the normal emotional upheavals of life and something that can be defined as a “mental health” problem?   I recently heard the jockey Sir Tony McCoy speaking on the radio of his difficulty in adjusting to retirement after horse racing.  The headline of the report was that large numbers of people facing retirement are suffering from mental health issues.   I know that many of my friends and clients have found it difficult to adjust, as McCoy has, to retirement.  They miss the structure, purpose, social life and status of work.  However, this is generally a fairly natural period of  bereavement when there will be an inevitable cycle of loss.  And what I am questioning is the ease with which people seem to be given labels of mental illness these days.  Could it not be that they might be experiencing the fairly typical emotions of just being human and going through a difficult patch?

Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted that mental health issues are being spoken of in a more transparent way.  I remember a close family member who had recovered from a nervous breakdown saying that she wished people had been able to see her illness in the way they can see a broken arm.  Luckily we are now gaining more understanding, although a cure for psychological problems is still quite hard to find.

But at the same time, I worry about the burgeoning number of mental health labels that are given as diagnoses of emotional problems.   The number of disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), increases year by year. In the United States, the DSM serves as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnoses but according to recent surveys some 46.5% of Americans will have a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetimes, based on this manual.  Really?

Let’s look at these labels – grief can be packaged as ‘Adjustment Disorder’,  a child’s temper tantrum as ‘Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder’, shyness can be defined as a mental health illness, where it was a totally natural, if uncomfortable, experience when I was a child.  Three to five people in every 100 are estimated to be diagnosed with ‘personality disorders’ in the UK, with one to three in every 100 living with ‘schizophrenia’.   Are these diagnoses accurately differentiating real mental illness, which can be life-threatening, from a transitional period of emotional disturbance?  Is it that people are now expecting to feel ok all the time?  Is there some new intolerance to feeling miserable, uncertain, sad, uncomfortable that leads people to seek a fix that in previous times they might just have to have accepted as a phase of life?  A pill for every ill rather than accepting emotional distress?  Have we always been mentally sick or are the labels increasingly embracing what would previously have been perceived as normal?

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Are the no-platformers in danger of taking over other freedoms?

My goodness what a muddle we seem to be getting into around men and women and what is offensive and what is not.  When I heard that Manchester Art Gallery had removed the pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse in case, in the current climate, modern audiences might find it offensive,  I exclaimed, like Victor Meldrew, “I don’t believe it!!”  I gather I wasn’t alone and, thankfully, the painting has been put back.  See

But where are we at, on this centenary of the Suffrage movement?  Are we getting distracted up misguided alleyways that potentially do a disservice to the intentions of the suffragettes?  Actions like removal of a historical painting diminishes the aim of equality with men.  Paintings depict our history, male and female, good and evil.  The wonders of humanity and its bestialities.  We can’t just wipe it out, however distasteful some people might find it today.

Personally I worry that acts like taking down the painting in the Manchester Art Gallery does little for women’s rights and freedoms.  In fact, to remove a painting feels like a worrying step towards some puritanical purge.  After all it is dictatorships that ban culture, paintings, music, dance and – often – remove women’s rights.   Are we now to remove all paintings that depict nude figures?  What about so many mythological paintings – masterpieces depicting rape and kidnap? Do we wipe the myths from our history books?  What about Botticelli, Titian, Picasso, to mention just a few?  What will be left in our art galleries?  Bare walls probably because the thought police can find offence in almost everything if they think hard enough.

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