Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Lord Acton never lived here

29th March 2012

Perhaps the place is called after him, but I am pretty sure that Lord Acton never lived here. I am really tired of living in Acton. When I moved here I was working full time and travelling by taxi or my company car so I didn’t have to look at it. Now I am marooned here. I have heard people praise it but I suspect that they live in grand houses and travel everywhere by private car, and do their shopping in far away places.

I would like to live somewhere easier, less corroding to the mind. “It’s just like Peckham,” said a friend recently. That emotive name, which acts like a code word, no more needs to be said.

I feel bad about the place at the moment as I am rather stressed. My tenant is moving out, another is moving in, it’s the big change over. The flat has to have a whole new bathroom, and two new patches of damp have been discovered. I am well into the red now, spending money I just don’t have.

My very good, efficient letting agent suggested I needed a new sofa, so I swapped with one down in the flat where I live. There was also the issue of the curtains. Curtains!! Oh dreadful word. I did a lot of research; Argos, John Lewis, a special mill out of town, and considering the size of the window with its 90ft drop it was going to be horribly expensive.

Then I remembered seeing a small curtain shop on Acton High Street. I went up there and they had one pair of curtains in my size, just the right colour – a snip at only £120. I thought I had found a bargain and it was a bit of a boost.

Not much English was spoken, it was all conducted in Arabic, but the man behind the counter seemed friendly enough. I paid up front, £47 for the track, £80 to put them up and I felt grateful.

We arranged a time for Habib to come and put them up. Unfortunately he didn’t turn up and his mobile was off all day. “He’s tired,” the man in the shop told me. Another arrangement was made and I rushed back early from my painting group on Saturday. I had to be there to meet him at the flat at 6pm. He arrived at seven. I thought he would be a little old man with a beard, but he was about 35 very robust and bad tempered. “This country is finished,” he told me, as soon as he’d got through the door. He said he’d be back in Lebanon if he could, “but there is always a war.”

Strange that he thought I would want to hear his rancorous remarks about my country, and that he might not even suspect that I have a trace of patriotism. He reminded me of someone who had been so badly abused that he couldn’t imagine what good relationships are like – not that I have that good a friendship with England at the moment. With no possible reply to make I left him to it.

Three hours later he had put up the track and was about to get the curtains up as well when he realised he had no curtain hooks. End of play for the evening. I still had his ladder – my one bargaining tool if I could take it hostage.

On Sunday I rang the shop. They blamed me for not having any hooks of my own, and asked, “Can’t you put them up yourself?” No I couldn’t. The voice on the phone said he might come himself but would need someone to help him (I was supposed to be able to do it on my own).

Last night two men arrived with hooks to hang the curtains. They looked lovely – but the pulley system didn’t work and they wouldn’t draw. Mr Habib had put up the wrong track. At 10pm Mr Habib returned, agreed that the track was wrong and took away his ladder. He told me to go to the shop the following day and collect a new track. In the morning I wondered if the shop would know anything about this, and rang one of the other men. He said not to go to the shop, he would sort it out.

And so it goeth on – curtains are up but won’t budge and the tenant comes in tomorrow. It surprises me that the curtain men are not interested in doing good business. When I went into the shop and saw their prices I said I would like more curtains from them for downstairs, but it didn’t make any difference. But at least they were more friendly than the small curtain shop near my road. It used to be quiet OK but the last time I went in it was staffed by two elderly Muslim men with beards. They made it clear they could not help me at all and I was out side on the pavement in about two minutes.

Today I had to finish off trying to get the flat sorted out, cleaned, polished and net curtains sewn for the new arrivals. At this make do and mend stage of my life Sally Bowles has turned into fraught Frau Schroeder.

I went up to Acton looking for a lavatory brush, you have to say toilet brush as no one now uses the other word. All the ones on show in the numerous Asian pavement shops were pitifully weak and fragile looking. In Pound Stretcher I saw four laid out on a shelf with sturdy ceramic bases. The problem was the bases were empty.

“We ain’t got none,” an assistant said. I led her to the toilet holders on the shelf.

“The brushes have all been stolen,” she said. “Our customers are always doing it.”

I wonder what the people of Acton do with all those purloined loo brushes? Clean their teeth, brush their hair?

When I got back with appropriately crappy new brush and groceries I couldn’t park anywhere near my flat. I saw a driver outside my flat get out and ring the bell of the flat next door to mine. He could be living there for all I know, but was holding a card and looked like a visitor. I asked him if he was staying long as I would like to move my car a bit nearer. “Not leaving I am going here,” he told me with an unpleasant grin.

After I’d unpacked my car and walked up the road with my stuff, I went out to see if there was a space nearer my home. He was sitting in his car, a long shining silver thing with tinted windows making him a silhouette. I went to my car and waited as he looked as if he was leaving.

I sat watching the builders who are working on my late friend Hilda’s old house. She was born in 1912. She used to forget her age and I would say, “Remember the Titanic,” which always delighted her. The house has been boarded up for years now. It was bought by an Indian woman who rumour has it, has been having trouble with her builders. They seem to have made very little progress. I watched them gathered round a skip full of soil, swigging from cans, railing and jeering to each other.

Eventually I gave up and went back to my flat which is out of sight of the road. Just as I turned my key I heard his engine and away he went. Some how I just knew he was going to do that.

I am too dispirited to go on living here but I can’t afford to go anywhere better in London. I want to live in Bedford Park, in one of the roads leading to the church which belong to that other world of prosperous London – but I am at a stitch and mend time of life and the only way I could do that would be to do a “Miss Smith,” she is the local bird lady who once lived on a good street inside a very bad car.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Spring arrives with a dull thud


First day of Spring, at last more day than night. This brightness and vivacity, with daffodils bursting out all over seems to offer some kind of challenge which I don’t think I can meet, which makes me sad. But it is easier setting out for an early swim now the weather is milder.

Did remember to take my swimming things this time, but found that my swim suit was on inside out and after a very good swim, realised I had forgotten all my underclothes.

9am. Set off to hand in a painting to the BP Portrait Award up at Arnold Circus. No, no one does know where it is. It’s an obscure mark on the map, somewhere between Old Street and Liverpool Street. I can never find the right exit at Old Street so decided to try Liverpool Street instead. Had to ask people to point me in the right direction, but still ended up going the wrong way.

Got there feeling too hot, bought some paint and got back to Trafalgar Square by 11.30am. I had to meet some people from the church at lunch time for a tour of the Coliseum, one of our Lenten outings.

Drifted or was it glided around the National Portrait Gallery for an hour feeling like a ghost; listening in to tourists and their guides. An American woman pointed out how much a portrait of Mary Tudor resembles Kate Middleton, which was impressive of her. We all gazed at the Duke of Buckingham’s ruby lips and long silver legs in awe. Their elderly guide said that he probably wasn’t gay, even though King James called him his wife, and didn’t get a wife or children until after Buckingham was dead, murdered by a male admirer. What did one have to do to be gay in those days?

In the Regency rooms I listened to a guide talking to two smiling American ladies. They seemed to think that “Regent” was some kind of surname, after it had all be explained asking if George III was called “Regent,” too. They were interested in Wellington but vague about Napoleon, which was a surprise as I thought he was somehow international. The young guide, who looked like a student was patient and full of information.

I couldn’t hang around too long listening in so pottered on feeling increasingly gloomy, through the glum faced Georgians. I knew I was sad because Spring is a marker of change and I’m still alone in the world and feel the shame of it.

The tour of the theatre was very informative but I couldn’t concentrate and felt listless. I enjoyed standing on the main stage under the blue and white lights fed through a stencil, preparing for that night’s performance of Swan Lake. Going behind a flat, I found the little boat, complete with Perspex feathers by which Odette sails away at the end with her prince in pale blue tights.

It was interesting to visit the orchestra pit too, as I have never been in one before. So cramped and uncomfortable it reminded me of being below decks on an old boat.

When I got home at 3pm I had to face the fact that I am now leading a useless empty life, not even an enjoyable Regency style, useless and empty life. The cancer shoved out such ideas, but now they are coming back. I really need a job.


Another good swim followed by a trip to the doctor to get some Asprin which I take every day as some trial said it was good against cancer. She says she has never heard of such a thing but agreed to give it to me. Tell her I am losing my memory, no underwear again. This could be due to menopause, chemotherapy, stress or Alzheimer’s, or all of those things at once.

She says it is nothing to do with the menopause and I “must have been reading things in magazines.” She asked me to name the Prime Minister and for a moment I thought she was joking, then realised it had almost deserted my brain along with my pants and bra. Managed to summon it up in time, and got the other questions right, even counting backwards.

I was glad she asked me the dates of the Second World War, made it more interesting, but I wondered if they reserve that question for everyone, even people like me who came along some time after it. Maybe she’d ask my mother about the one before it, and anyone over 95 about the Franco-Prussian fiasco.

I am glad she didn’t ask me questions about the Treaty of Westphalia, or the Boer War because as an example of how odd my brain is, at different times, I once knew a great deal about both of them, answered detailed exam questions on them, but by about the following day couldn’t remember anything much about them at all.

She said there are no preparations available which can do anything about memory loss and my condition was most likely caused by stress. I ought to stop worrying and learn to “live in the present.” She is right of course.

I was walking out of the door when she realised she had forgotten to give me my Asprin prescription.

No cheque yet from Colin Firth. Perhaps my letter has slipped his mind. He has probably been carrying it around LA in his pocket for weeks, meaning to reply.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


9th March. Ash Wednesday.

My brain still seems to be affected by the chemo; chunks of memory gone and frequent confusion. Yesterday on my way to Luton to interview little Tommy Knocker of the EDL, I thought I was at St Pancras when I’d only got as far as Paddington. It’s the second time recently that I’ve been bewildered on that station. The last time I went looking for all the shops in the new international part.

Today I set out for the Ash Wednesday service at St Michael’s in Turnham Green an hour early. When I arrived and found an empty church I was perplexed. A lady giving out hymn books to no one said “not to worry,” she had done the same thing herself.

I had to kill a bit of time. I have started using charity shops mainly because I am going on the Queen Mary to New York in June and have to sit down to six formal dinners needing evening frocks.

In the Oxfam shop in Chiswick I found a bawling baby and her mother dashing about in a frenzy as she had just had her wallet stolen. She had used the purse in the previous shop and it contained quite a lot of money and all her cards. No one seemed to be trying to help her in any way and she’d forgotten her mobile.

“It was my fault I was too careless,” she wailed, white in the face. I thought I would try to help by calming the baby. It was screaming horribly. I have no experience with them at all and when they cry it sounds to me as if they are in real agony or completely broken hearted. Stooping over her pram, or what every you call them thes days, I could see the roof of her mouth like an open pearly shell, and right down her pink throat. I tried stroking her stomach as if she was a cat and talking to her soothingly. It worked. I got her almost hypnotised. She shut up and gave me a smile. Her mother thanked me before she dashed away home to ring her bank.

When she’d gone the American who runs the shop returned. He asked the Japanese girl assistant if all was well. She said it was, then she hesitatingly said, “something went missing.” He thought she meant something she owned, but after a lot of humming and hawing she said, “A customer lost something.”

I piped up, “her purse was stolen.” “Maybe,” said the girl reluctantly.

I felt really annoyed with her, that she couldn’t just admit what had happened.

I got to church bridling and wishing I could like foreigners more, or at least not be so perturbed by them.

The vicar began his address with quite a good joke then drew our attention to the fact that Ash Wednesday is about dust and ashes, beginning Lent which is about dying and death.

I felt a bit scared, not sure how I was going to cope with this. I avoid thinking about death – thinking about it now is not the same as it once was, when death was a depressing but remote prospect, the way it was this time last year.

I didn’t go to ashing services then or give much thought to the mind and personality of God, or my relationship with him, but I did have a tumour growing in my groin.

“A very respectable lump,” said one doctor when I first had a scan last March. That afternoon I went to the cinema and sitting in the dark convinced myself that the thing was shrinking. It was the start of living in jeopardy and of my magical thinking, reaching out to the supernatural for help.

After his amusing words the vicar brought us sharp by unexpectedly making a personal confession of his sins. He spoke gravely and quietly. It was very moving and showed what trust he must have in the people gathered there. He made us think about Lent as a time for serious reflection, study, and conversion of the heart.

I had made the usual Lent promises, giving up things that I really like; alcohol, chocolate and toast. That all seemed far too trivial, although abjuring drink will be much tougher this year as having a glass of red wine with my dinner often calms me down when I am in on my own and fearful. The Bible might give the promise of eternal salvation, reading Acts might be nourishing to the soul but liquor is quicker. I suppose I can try Eccles cakes instead, usually a good antidote to depression.

I left the church feeling that I had to make a real change in my own life and perhaps cancer can make me a better person than I really am.

There was a meeting at Maggie’s at Charing Cross about how to publicise their third birthday in London. The London centre is the busiest in Britain. They were planning to do something the day before the Royal Wedding but I didn’t like that idea – cancer and royal nuptials don’t mix, certainly not in the press that I know.

Around the big kitchen table the women were mostly foreign, from Asia and Latin America, and in the middle was a box of Maltesers. I hadn’t seen any for years. I used to love eating them in the theatre. I tried to distract myself by reading a paper until one of the English speakers suggested that they are not chocolates at all, but bits of malt that have been accidentally dropped into a vat of chocolate.

Once you’ve slipped your hand in the box it’s almost impossible not to take more. While I was crunching and sucking relishing the way they slowly implode into a tiny crystal of sweetness, a woman asked me what the headline on a newspaper meant. “What is this, “dab hand?”” she asked. Then she asked me to translate more. She seemed interested in news from Italy but said she was Bulgarian.

We chatted about refugees pouring onto the island of Lampedusa from Libya and the Maghreb. “They will never stop it. You will never stop it here,” she said, “because the English are too scared. If anyone says the word “racist” to you English you are so scared you run out the door.”

She spoke with a cold but teasing malevolence. There I was half an hour after Mass eating chocs and wanting to throttle a foreigner.

When I got home Maisie licked the remaining mark of ash off my forehead with a deft swipe of her tongue.

From the bus queue

Sat 5th March

One of the most bummish things about being poor is having to travel by bus. I once lived in taxis, taking several a day, even using them to travel outside London. On one noble occasion on a trip to Petworth, I kept the taxi and the driver with it and went to an hotel over night. It cost £300, cheap at the price. The paper paid of course although they did complain about him to the taxi company.

Those days are gone. I am now travelling with life’s other failures. I doubt if you would ever see a cabinet minister on a bus. You rarely see a white middle class man, although round here you rarely see a white man.

The 207 from Southall to Shepherds Bush is packed with urban peasants from Eastern Europe, Polish and Russian girls in bright make up, with tight pony-tails, sprayed on jeans and killer heels, Somalis and British West Indians, some of whom are now veiled in complete niqab along with the residents from Asia. Occasionally there is a white woman other than me, usually older, or extremely obese bulging out of thin vests, wings of fat sticking out under the shoulder blades.

We are packed in like cattle, or at least like cattle where there is no animal welfare legislation. The crowding is not helped by women putting their babies, small children and bags of shopping on to the seats next to them. I still live in an age where children smartly dressed in uniform stood up for adults so I am reduced to scowling; one of those women who sits on buses disapproving.

I do not enjoy these trips, in fact I hate them but they are often interesting. On the way from Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross to the bus stop in Hammersmith last week I walked behind two Muslim boys who were plotting to blow up the House of Commons. I listened attentively.

“You could just throw a grenade into the chamber,” said one. “Or just roll it in.” They talked a bit about this. One glanced at me and quickened their step, and I quickened mine.

“Do you know where the place is?” said the other. He said he didn’t. “But I could find it,” he said unconvincingly and I felt slightly relieved, pretty certain that he was never going to buy a map.

Yesterday on the late bus I listened to a mixed race lad who has converted to Islam giving advice to another young man who was hidden behind a long curling black beard. He sounded nice, an easy charm, obviously generous hearted as he eagerly advised the other how to progress as an English Muslim.

“You must try to get into a Saudi University,” he said. “As you are a re-vert (Muslims believe that everyone was somehow originally a Muslim) they will let you in easily.”

How odd to prepare for a life in London by going off to Saudi, but what do they know of England, that only England know? More than boys who spend their time in Riyadh reading the Koran I should think.

Many people I travel with live in London, one of the greatest cities on earth but instead of enjoying it, have chosen to live in psychic exile. They have fanatic hearts. I used to be like that myself when I was growing up with a confused identity and no self worth. I also wanted to die for a glorious cause. It was geography, lack of direct contact with IRA people and having so many more practical ambitions that saved me.

This journey into and out of fanaticism is on my mind as I am about to interview young Tommy Robinson, street fighting leader of the English Defence League, for the Salisbury Review. Also because of reading “Alone in Berlin,” by Han Fallada.

There is a lot of talk about a chapter that was repressed, kept back by the East German authorities. They hated any shades of grey, ironic as it was such a grey place. When I used to visit the DDR I was surprised to find a whole half nation which had expunged itself of any guilt about the war.

I visited Buchenwald and saw the chapel like place they’d put up to Ernst Thalmann and his wife who were sadly murdered in the camp near the end of the war. He was leader of the Communist Party of Germany, the courageous KPD which was eviscerated by Hitler. As a student I was infatuated with them, and saw Bader Meinhoff as their worthy decedents.

Later I discovered Thalmann had voted with the Nazis in the Reichstag, giving them block votes, rather than side with any democratic parties of the centre-left. Another fanatic heart.

I used to go shopping on a dreary street in Katowice, Poland called after Klary Zetkin, a member of the KPD. She said, “Thälmann is caught in uncritical self-deception and self-infatuation which borders on megalomania." We’ve all been there. The trick is to grow out of it without blowing up public buildings or killing anyone.

*One advantage of poverty pointed out by Stuart Elliott, my anatomy teacher at Central St. Martin’s. He says that if he was rich, he would spend too much time developing his bad ideas. (He pointed to certain well know artists as examples of this.)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Spring still far behind

3rd March 2010.

It was great to see my piece in the Daily Telegraph. Father Bill has put the photo of me onto his fridge. But I shouldn’t have read it again. They put extra statistics into side-bars and it has disturbed my peace of mind.

Last night I felt a frisson of fear return like a cold draft. I kept busy, painting and listening to the radio and cheered myself up, but when I went to sleep I had an unpleasant dream.

I seemed to be living in a very small place, so small I had to lie on a shelf. My fellow tenant had brought with him his pet crocodile, a very large aggressive looking animal. I was terrified of it, it was going to destroy me and where was the cat? He was grumpy about taking it away. I tried to ring the landlord to complain but could never get through. None of the numbers worked.

Then I was trapped in a tall building trying to find an exit. I met Torin Douglas from the BBC who advised me to get out through the basement but when I got down there and looked out there was a raging river outside.

Woke up to a report on the Today programme about hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to escape over the border from Libya – all running from the ferocious Gaddafi crocodile.

Another bitterly cold day. Even the swimming pool water seemed warm compared to the outside air. The birds on my lawn seem famished. I try to put out food for the small ones, particularly the robins but as soon as I go out there with my bag of seed I am swamped by pigeons with the size and determination of oviraptors.

My friend’s tortoise has come out of her sleep but now has to be kept going with a special heat lamp. The tortoises I knew as a child must have been much tougher, some of them made it through the great snows of 1962-3 in just a cardboard box beside a coal fire inside a kind of wooden tent laden with drying vests and pants.

No word from Colin Firth yet – he must be back from Hollywood by now!