Monday, 28 February 2011

Lucky Day

Monday 28th Feb.

Wake up to the news that Colin Firth will be bringing the little gold man back to Chiswick – this could be a very lucky day for our church roof and the organ.

I have a piece in the Daily Telegraph about the problems of living with after effects of a cancer diagnosis, and the “false hopelessness” meted out by some doctors.

My picture in the paper is quite good for once. "Kim O'Therapy" looks both gamine and sagacious sitting in the garden in a lgreen velvet coat. I bought that about twenty years ago when I had a large disposable income, and I have never worn it as it always seems to be too cold. I chose the colour to show my support for Sinn Fein – that all does seem a long time ago.

The editor of Private Banking Magazine wants me to go to Matchu Pitchu in Peru as soon as possible, not walking this time, but going by train and bus to the site, and to sail to New York on the Queen Mary in June.

I will have to go on these jaunts dressed entirely from charity shops. Most women I know sport wonderful designer clothes from them and provide lists of the best ones to visit. I have ignored them so far out of laziness but I now have no choice. I am tired of this no money lark, can’t get used to it. I don’t think I am exactly alone in this, in fact I sense a rapidly spreading malaise.

Oscar Night

Sunday 27th Feb.

Tonight is Oscar night. Like everyone I am hoping that Colin Firth will bring home the little gold man, and I have my own extra agenda. On the 28th of January, when excitement about the film was gathering pace and everyone seemed strangely cheered up by it, I wrote to him wishing him luck and asking if he would be so kind as to give generously to the St. Michael’s church organ fund – it could be the “Colin Firth Organ,” I suggested what a fine plaque that would be, etc. I also mentioned that we had just had the lead stripped off the church roof too. There is a security system set up but what it needs is someone to sit up there with a pick-axe waiting for the thieves to appear.

I pushed this missive through his black letter box as he lives just up the road from the church. His white gate and front fence have holes and gaps painted over against prying eyes, but the letter box works perfectly normally as far as I can tell.

No word back since then, but he has been very busy. I just hope my chemo drenched synapses didn’t lead me to write Colin Farrell instead of Colin Firth.

Some of my friends have been a bit sceptical about this letter, but in 1983, when I belonged to St Giles Church in Camberwell, we had an appeal for a new heating system. The Church of England itself never seems to give any money to its churches.

I wrote to various local celebrities including Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame. He sent me a cheque for £100 by return.

The vicar of that church was brilliant intellectually, a former maths don at Oxford, but very peevish and suspicious of young women. I took the cheque into the vestry just before the Mass when they were all vesting up. It is a time of reverence and they peered at me uneasily, as if I might start bowling sacred objects about.

The clergy and congregation were used to windows being smashed and large scale theft. Even the bishop’s chair and the heavy eagle shaped lectern got lifted, but a lot of people in Camberwell were also dangerously mad.

The area was dominated by the great Maudsley Mental hospital, bin of bins, and Mrs Thatcher had just introduced her, “care in the community,” policy, emptying inmates of institutions onto the streets, despite the fact that there were no “communities” to receive them.

Shortly after a baby in some local flats had been killed by a mental patient who had been released eight days before, and the day before I entered the vestry a young woman at Saturday morning Mass smashed up the Confessional box with a hammer. I had watched with interest as the young curate grappled her to the floor.

I handed the vicar the cheque in silence and watched as he read it. His irritated expression merged into surprised comprehension but he quickly shooed me out and never said thank you. I had such low self-esteem at the time that I failed to call him a bastard, or throw things about. One of only two vesting-up anecdotes I have.

Odd- bods out and about

Wednesday 23rd Feb.

Managed to get to the St Martin’s church coffee morning at the Greek Taverna near Ealing. This is Father Bill’s “new sort of church,” an off-shoot of what he calls his “Vicarage tea party movement.”

He arrived late as his motorbike had broken down. Under his leathers he was clad in h is usual pink corduroys, Icelandic sweater and hand-knitted socks. The clothes of many middle-class, middle-aged arts graduates on their day off. He told me he wasn’t reading my blog anymore as he is never in it. The vaunting pride of some vicars!

He seemed a bit depressed, or perhaps just stressed. “I used to be a Parish priest spreading the word of God,” he said, “but now I am just an administrator and handyman. I spend my time clearing drains.”

Bill says this group has replaced “the old women’s group,” which long ago replaced the, “young wives group,” as there is no such thing these days, at least they are not at home with time on their hands.

There were plenty of old women still around, including one lady in her 90s who has the same name as my mother, and like her was in the ATS in Scotland during the war. She used to drive “top brass” around in staff cars and eventually married a handsome Pole.

She has been driving for 75 years, and she says has only been stopped once, “for no reason.” She sometimes offers me a lift, but I am ashamed to say I always turn it down.

She has been doing a computer course but has given it up, as it gave her “a bad back.” I asked if she was going on holiday this year. She said she usually visits a daughter in the USA but won’t be going there anymore as, “there is no oxygen in America these days, none at all.”

She had been in touch with a local councillors called Faisal Islam. “He really liked hearing about my war time experiences,” she said. But now she is worried that he is Colonel Gaddafi’s son. We reassured her, but who knows these days, when London is replete with riff raff from all over the planet. I didn’t say this to Fr. Bill who reads the Guardian and has a signed photo of Yassir Arafat in his study.

On Friday I was sent by the Daily Telegraph to interview a young boy who has had his Disability Living Allowance withdrawn. A very topical issue as the government is about to shape-shift all our welfare laws.

He was football mad as a boy but diagnosed with bone cancer just before his sixteenth birthday and they amputated his leg a year later. He was clear for two years but now, aged twenty the cancer has returned, in one of his lungs.

After agreeing to do this story I was apprehensive. I wondered if I might throw a wobbly, how apt that horrible expression has become, especially if he was in an oncology unit surrounded by other young people. I just can’t cope with too much grief at the moment. As it turned out he had a room to himself in an adult wing so it wasn’t too sad.

I don’t know yet if my feature will do him any good, but he certainly has had a good effect on me. His courage sewed a tiny seed of acceptance in me that wasn’t there before. Today, Sunday, I tried hard to hold onto this feeling and some joy in the good life that I have.

After Mass I went to meet Eve, my friend I have recently got to know again after twenty years separation. We had lunch and I find that I can remember so many things she said when we knew each other in the 1970s when we were both teaching in Poland, even people she knew and I never met. I can remember photos of her friends at UEA, names of her school teachers and tutors. I must have had an incredibly receptive brain back then – but I think it’s because until I met her I’d never met anyone so well educated or of that background before.

Her family lived in Paris where her father worked for UNESCO. She said she just wanted to live there and have “nice breakfasts with her friends.” I felt so vulgar in comparison as I wanted to move to London somehow, and have a good career, to be what I became, one of Thatcher’s children.

We pottered around the National Portrait Gallery ending up in my favourite room which is based around paintings from 1918 to the late 30s. She liked a portrait of EM Forster by Dora Carrington. I like the loosely worked portrait of Churchill by Sickert. He captures Churchill’s childish envy of the better painter.

Eve’s father was at Oxford in the 1950s where he knew a few famous people and became friends with Richard Hoggart. Her daughter has recently graduated from there. She says it’s not so much an intellectual community now as a commercial enterprise, and they keep writing asking her for money.

Despite the cold and drizzle it was a good Sunday. I like showing people round. “You seem to know London well,” she said. “But then it’s your home.” I suppose it is, although I never think of it like that. Perhaps because it’s my home I keep thinking of how best to leave it.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Turning Woolly

Sunday 20/2/11

I am turning woolly. My hair is coming back in soft, bushy little curls, a cross between Col. Gaddafi and an OAP. It is also slate grey rather than the red-brown it used to be.

After church, in the vestry this morning, an old lady with a tight little grey perm came over and said, “My Dear, your hair is looking lovely.” In other words, it’s just like hers.

Some people say it looks gamine and cute, quite trendy. I call this new person in the mirror, “Kim O’Therapy.” She has an Irish pixie look about her.

At church we are gearing up for Lent. In his sermon our gorgeous young curate suggested that the people of Chiswick might like to forego their foie gras, pate d’canard and fine wines for awhile. He said one friend was even going to reduce his time on Facebook to a mere one hour a day.

We are going on lots of lovely Lenten outings as part of our aim of “making Lent meaningful,” and “delighting in God,” none of your old misery and privation. Trips will include a guided tour behind the scenes at the English National Opera, and afternoon tea at Chiswick House and Gardens. We will at all times be keeping our minds on higher things and the transitoriness of this mortal life of course.

I started last week feeling as if my head was full of wet soggy wool. I dreamed that my watch had turned digital and I saw strange numbers on its face. My mother in her usual matter-of-fact way said it meant I was due for a recurrence of the illness and could expect to be recalled to the hospital shortly. I was then looking at exhibits in a museum and saw my own decapitated head, painted in bright colours, perhaps because of the self-portraits I’ve been working on.

I woke with my nightdress soaking in sweat and immediately thought the cancer was coming back. I went off to my “stress management course” at Maggie’s but felt too stressed to go in. Instead I sat with a mug of coffee in a quiet alcove with a self-help book and wept. I couldn’t face the possibility of breaking down in front of the group, or even seeing them face to face. Our nice teacher came out and was very understanding. She told me to go home and listen to the class relaxation CD.

I went off on a bleak day into Kensington to visit the Cass art shop and bought some canvasses at half price.

I went home and started a portrait of Otto Hampel, who is the basis for the novel, Alone in Berlin, by Hans Falluda. At the moment I am blissfully absorbed in reading it. It’s as vivid as watching a film.

Otto and his wife Elise put post cards all over Berlin decrying the Nazis. There are mug-shots of them at the back of the book and you can see clearly in the picture that Otto is not afraid. Some how he faces death head on with a defiant smile.

Making this portrait and cutting it into post-card shapes really helps me to feel stronger and I hope he knows somehow that his example is valued, even if his little cards with their spiky writing did no good at the time.

I perked up later in the week, thanks to painting, rapid swimming, tumble-turns and summersaults under water. I wish I could do these on land. How wonderful the next time I go to the clinic, to do a back summersault in at the door. I also used the sun-lamp at the my health club. Nothing like a burst of sunshine in a long, cold winter like this.

Today, before church I had a mobile chat with my mother. She said she'd met an old man in Codsall where she lives, he was only 80, "just a boy," she said. They had reminisced about the village.

He asked her if she remembered the time years ago when a bear got off the train at Codsall Station? She didn't. Apparently it left the train and ambled into the local woods. Later it climbed a tree and sadly was shot. I was disgusted by the ending to the story.

“It’s no good worrying about it now!” She said with her usual common sense. But I thought of the bear, for what ever reason making its journey to Codsall via Wolverhampton, little knowing what a fateful day it would be.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Club No One Wants To Join


Attend a book launch in Chiswick. This one was in a sofa shop but it was a bit like the old days when I had a note on my desk saying, “Gone To Launch.”

A few of us were talking about the wonders of Venice. Someone said, “I know Venice very well but of course I have never stayed in the wonderful places Jane has.”

The editor who sent me to Venice in November, said, “Oh you know Jane, she just saunters in and asks for the best room.”

Strolling into grand places and expecting to be treated like a princess was part of being a journalist on the Daily Mail of course, travelling the world at someone else’s expense and pretty glorious it was. Later I reflected how badly my attitude to hotels had compared to my attitude towards men. Even when I was successful, a member of Groucho’s, world travelling and well off, I always took the worst on offer, the most battered, flea bitten and down trodden. I expected to be short changed and I always was.

I remember all this with detachment as if it was someone else’s life a long time ago. I am now living in the present tense and all that I know for sure is that I am a new member of the cancer society, the club no one in the world wants to join. Perhaps it only seems like this because I am taking two courses at Maggie’s, Stress Management, and Nutrition, but most of the people I meet are sufferers, I seem to be surrounded by cancer, and the news papers are full of it.

At Maggie’s on Monday we talked about the pulses, plants and juices which might keep us alive – foods which do not suddenly increase insulin. Cancer loves sugar, so they say. The aim is to only eat and drink things that are low on the glycemic or GI index.

On Tuesday we had our class teaching us to relax deeply. In the room with cushions, hand stitched rugs, carefully selected paintings behind glass, and bowls of smooth egg shaped stones, we all settled down for some deep breathing. It seemed almost incredible to me that people cared that much about us, to want us to be more comfortable as we wait like condemned prisoners. Maggie’s is an extraordinary example of sheer human kindness.

The group is no longer intimidating to me. We have all become familiar very quickly. Sometimes I look around at the comfortable sofas and divide the women on them into threes thinking, “which one next?” But mostly it feels like attending a very good coffee morning, or rather green tea morning.

As we chatted in the break, I glanced up and saw a beautiful young girl sitting by a window crying then smiling and waving her arms around in self-deprecating gestures as if she could charm or dramatise the reality of the thing away.

Our jolly group leader decided to help us to sleep better. She told us to use our beds for nothing except sleep or sex, banning even reading or listening to the radio.

“I will allow that rare thing, a breakfast in bed,” she said.

I said it would have to be the cat bringing it to me.

“I don’t know what it would be like if a cat brought it to you,” she said quite seriously.

Bizarre conversations are frequent in this club. Later Conner, who runs the anti-cancer cookery school in Toulouse, told me that her lovely old cat had brought in a mouse for her, then eaten it himself. I wondered where a mouse would be on the Glycemic Index ? She said that with the “bones and the hide” it would be quite low.

The idea of a “mouse hide” was amusing.

My feature about Conner’s school, and her book, Zest For Life, appeared in the Daily Telegraph. It was spread out on the big table at Maggie’s. People were interested to see it, but sadly my line about some of the profits from Conner’s book going straight to Maggie’s had been subbed out. So a major plug for Maggie’s was missing.

I was relieved to see the piece, which was written in November. “Making cancer pay for itself,” as old Miles Kington used to say.

Just before I left Maggie’s I got a text from my friend who had very bad results when we had our three month check up on the 25th. Her emergency scan was OK, the problem is just the level of cancer showing in her blood. This was a great relief. As a religious person, albeit a member of the Church of England, I regard it gift from God.

At 5pm I set out for my anatomy class in north London feeling like a different person from the slightly spaced out one who was there last week. A few days ago it felt as if my friend and I were physically grappling with death, now he has laid off, at least for awhile.

The horrid dark, dirty building at the Back Hill site still bothered me and unlike the other students I had to sit down while the teacher was talking. My energy disappeared as I got there, perhaps because of the stairs, or meeting another group of people I don’t know, all younger than me.

Stan the fractured skeleton on his broken stand fell over at one point. I asked our teacher, the painter Stuart Elliot, if he couldn’t ask the principal of the prestigious Central St. Martin’s School, to buy him a new one, perhaps one with detachable muscles too, the sort you see in medical shops.

“You won’t get anything like that in an Art college!” He said.

I have already gained some knowledge of muscle groups, and an idea for a painting from this class but more importantly the chance to complain to my doctor about the pain around my “xiphoid process.” I can also now whinge that “my vastus muscle is too vast.” But nothing yet beats NF Simpson’s line, “Doctor, the small of my back is too big.”