Monday, 30 May 2011

Polish Wedding.

Ewa appeared downstairs in metallic splendour; long copper coloured dress, silver bolero and old looking hooped earrings containing residual deer tusks.
“I was wearing them at one of your parties in the 1970s,” she said.
“You said, “Oh, you are too elegant.””
Oh dear – what an insecure twit I was. I remember those student parties in my flat near Katowice in Silesia. I was a so called teaching assistant at the University of Sosnowiec, although I had no one to assist. I was on my own fronting large classes mainly of bored looking teenage girls with inexplicable names like Małgorzata and Bożena. A rattled Fulbright scholar from the US called them, “The whispering maidens of Katowice.”
Ewa was one of my students who didn’t whisper or pass bits of paper to her neighbour. She worked determinedly and was definitely the most elegant, possibly the best looking of them all. A real Polish princess.
We first met when she put up her hand in class and asked me if I would like to go home with her for the weekend to visit her family in Oswiecim, better known to the world as Auschwitz.
“The town is very interesting,” she said. “We have a wonderful ice-rink.”
We’ve been friends since then, down all the years, and I was invited to Bielsko-Biała for her son Adam’s wedding on May 21st.
I remember when he was born, just after Martial Law had been declared. There was a food shortage and everyone was in a panic about finding milk for him.
A Polish wedding is possibly more significant than its English equivalent, especially if the family is strongly Catholic.
This time, unlike the 1970s I complimented her on her outfit. She didn’t comment on my black and white M & S dress and bright red fascinator, she was too stressed to notice. Her husband Kazik sat quietly sewing a button onto Adam’s suit.
We set off in two cars, along the pot-holed roads to visit the new in-laws, for a special Polish parental blessing on the young couple, which sounded rather strange to me.
The small house might have been English, part of a pleasant looking estate, but there was a large black crucifix at the bottom of the stairs, and a table set out like an altar in the living room, with a silver crucifix and beside it a bowl of water and a small brush called an aspergillum, used for sprinkling in the Catholic church. On the floor was a white towel.
The mother looked rather perplexed at seeing me, as if this intrusion might be the last straw on a very stressful day. She shooed me away from the towel as I struggled to take photos with a strange camera.
The bride came down stairs and no one made a big fuss at seeing her in her wedding dress, except me! In Polish tradition this is the moment when the groom first sees the bride. They both had to kneel on the white square. The four parents made spontaneous comments on their union before kissing them, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads and sprinkling them with holy water which had been blessed by a priest at Easter.
Seeing Kazik cup his son’s face in his hands and kiss him briefly was very moving. I wondered if I would get through this without shedding tears. Around me everyone else seemed light hearted.
The nuptial mass took place in the church of St. Barbara in Mikuszowice, a smart looking country village. The tiny church, was built in 1690 from nailess planks of black larch wood, sweeping down to the ground in a broad stiff skirt. Above it has an onionish dome and a slender tower.,0,galerie,lista,galeria.html

I first saw these churches when I went to work in Poland in 1978 and found them disturbing, too like illustrations from fairy-tales. I associated them with village culture and persecution of the Jews.
Milling about outside in the sunshine, among the guests there were a lot of chic clothes on view, but I quickly realised that I was the only woman in a fascinator, or hat of any kind.
“For Polish women the most important thing is going to the hairdresser on the day,” I was told.
Inside St. Barbara’s is a Baroque jewel, with ornately painted walls, showing scenes from her martyrdom. There were also carvings of her, and St. Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon, and over the altar a giant poster of the Blessed John Paul II’s beaming face.
When the comms were in power, the grim image of Maximillian Kolbe the martyr priest who died in Auschwitz was everywhere. He now seems to have been replaced somewhat by the sunnier, more triumphant figure of the late Pope.
The bride and groom go up the isle together, no one is “given away.” That custom is purely Anglo-Saxon apparently, but catching on in Poland, thanks to American rom-coms on Polish TV and the recent royal wedding.
There were no wedding service sheets, but I could follow the Mass easily as its rhythm is the same as the service we have at St. Michael’s in Chiswick. I didn’t lose my place at all.
At the “Pokoju” or Peace, I felt moved, and at the end when the choir, including Adam’s new father in law, struck up with an English anthem: “Great is the Lord. In his power we trust, ” sung in a rather “Swingly” manner with lots of “pah, pah, pahs,”
Afterwards the guests lined up to give the bride and groom presents of money and fresh flowers all beautifully wrapped. Ewa told me that flowers as gifts are getting rarer, and there is a new custom of asking guests for lottery tickets in the hope of a big win. Others ask for tiny keep sakes, “Pamiątka,” which can also be risky as you may end up with a room full of pottery elephants.
I lined up with my envelope containing £20 and told the bride she looked, “as good as Pippa Middleton,” forgetting that I’d been warned that “pipa,” pronounced, “Pippa” is a very rude word in Polish. Hearing it cause much hilarity in Polish homes during the royal nuptials.
“You must say Philippa at all times,” warned Ewa.
The bride laughed and I got the impression they thought I was a bit eccentric anyway, with this red feathery thing on my head.
We made our way in convoy into higher mountains, to the small hotel, the Stara Szmergielnia, the equivalent of “the old whet-stone.” A beautiful place with a wide court-yard leading down to stables and the Białka river.
We were going to be there until the next day. The party might last that long. “However late it ends,” Ewa told me, “the parents must stay till the very end.”
A strange convention indeed. No sloping off to bed like the Queen. I was glad I had a room to retreat to even though it was ominously number 101.
A fat chef appeared with a very large loaf, with a heart shape cut out and filled with salt. He gave the bride and groom a glass of water and one of vodka. They had to pick a glass each and the one who got the vodka would be “the ruler,” of their house.
Food began appearing as soon as we sat down.
It came stacked up on the plates, Kotlets, traditional beef roulade, and a modern version with chicken and fruit, piled up like pleated material. Very tasty but I couldn’t recognise much of it, and to Ewa’s annoyance there were no menus.
Then endless salads; raw celeriac with walnuts and orange, herring in cream and with apple, cooked vegetables and traditional chicken broth.
There was supposed to be a Greek salad but to Ewa’s disgust no one could find it, but it was difficult to spot as the tables became crammed with food and the lights dimmed as the disco started.
The bride and groom kicked off the dancing with an ambitious tango. I suspected that the tentacles of Strictly Come Dancing reached even into deepest Poland. Then the DJ launched the evening with the hits of Boney M.
I sat there in my fascinator, clearly not fascinating anyone much, but the man next to me and his wife spoke some English and he seemed very charming and amused by me as we excavated the food and drink.
He wanted “Kluski śląskie,” glutinous boiled dumplings. They were there among all the plates but he asked the waitress for an extra portion. I wondered if he might like to have them in a kind of croque en bouche, piled up with gravy poured down over them, but I couldn’t put that into Polish.
At first there was a toast, then one glass of wine and some orange squash available, later Ewa managed to procure some real fruit juice, and a small but ominous bottle of vodka. People had to decided early between wine and vodka, mixing the two would be lethal, but the wine was kept back for awhile. Despite this, the dance floor was full of sexy couples and then I was dragged up and flung about and clutched closely by a sweating, barrel chested man, which was quite enjoyable.
We sat down for awhile for some gypsy music and singing by a local “mountain man,” and I realised that my fascinator had been noticed. A fat young man who looked like a football hooligan asked to be photographed with me wearing it, then he put it on himself, then on his wife.
After a few old records the music seemed to be mainly covers of old songs. I asked for some ABBA and the DJ reluctantly agreed. For a few moments I was again the Dancing Queen, only seventeen, prancing about alone in the strobe lights. I don’t get to do that very often these days.
At 10 pm more food arrived, this time large fried pierogi, or ravioli, with cheese and meat. I was visited by a young girl from Alabama. She said she’d deliberately changed her accent at college as other Americans thought it was “too cute,” the frequent reaction we English get.
She was living with a Polish boy in Krakow, studying East European culture and Polish language. Apparently her mother is very understanding, but her father finds it inexplicable that she should swap the US for Poland.
Over the din of Polish pop music which neither of us knew, she laid out the whole basic structure of the language to me, a bit like doing a diagram of the National Grid or inland waterways. She was really clarifying it to herself, but it was useful for me to hear.
“Honestly, you know I speak it like a seven year old,” she said. “All the nouns and pronouns decline and the verbs conjugate in three tenses so I often get lost.”
But unlike me she had cracked the code. I told her that in a few months it would be gushing out of her and she’d be surprised to hear herself.
I wished that I’d worked at it when I was living there, but then all the students wanted to speak English to me, while teachers from the Jagiellonian university said they didn’t want to hear foreigners speaking poor Polish. I couldn’t have focused enough anyway.
Strangely she said she couldn’t follow the wedding service at all. After ten minutes she shut off because of all the “formal, old fashioned Polish.” Well, she was by tradition a southern Baptist, so perhaps she would have found the Eucharist hard to follow even in English.
As the hours ticked by in what was part party and part endurance test, people came up to chat and intimacy developed quickly.
Ewa told me she had seen a piece by Dame Diana Rigg on line, about me. In 2003 she sued me for libel, got about £40,000 I think, in an out of court settlement and my career at the paper went into a nose-dive. It was her word against mine and I didn’t have a tape-recorder, just my trusty note-pad.
“That woman wrecked your career,” said Ewa bitterly, “and your health.”
Ewa really does not like what she sees as bad people at all and seethes if they are seen to prosper, a hangover from the old communist days when flagrant injustice was the norm. For a moment I imagined a Polish posse descending on the liver-spotted old cow. But it’s old history now and despite being a tabloid journalist, I still have my integrity. Some months after it all happened I heard La Rigg on Front Row on Radio 4 contentedly describing herself as, “A monster.”
The DJ generously offered us a rendering of, “Viva Espagna!” and the floor filled up again. I was pulled up to dance by a man ho constantly twizzled me about and kept pirouetting me in and out under his arm as if we were jiving. He wouldn’t let me alone and wanted me to join in congas and groups of arm wavers in the centre of the room. I got away from him and had a moment of pure joy under the strobes, dancing to, “Staying Alive.” That never had more resonance for me. I didn’t bother with it at all when it came out.
“Should I stay or should I go?” by the Clash brought back memories of working in Wormwood Scrubs. We had a visit from what remains of that group and some of the men loved that song. Particularly a Dutchman I was fond of.
Then we had Polish disco music and for a moment the floor seemed to be taken by Polish Elvis impersonators.
I returned to my table which was gradually stacking up with food, feeling a bit maudlin about all that had happened since I was last in Poland ten years ago. Thinking about all the new people I’d met over the last year, some of them at Maggie’s Cancer Support Centre, so many of them slowly dying, to be swept away soon like leaves. That connected with thoughts about Poland and the last war, the great horror, which is never far from mind; so many good people just like these frisking about so sexily, all those pointless deaths. I had a sense of everyone being intensely valuable which I never used to have.
The couple reappeared to cut the cake, thin slices as the whole bottom tier was mysteriously missing. “It’s like communist times,” I said to Ewa who looked apoplectic.
Other cakes arrived, sturdy wedges of poppy-seed cake, apple cake which I love, and piles of petit four, but some mad fool had flavoured almost everything, apart from the apple, with coconut.
When I first went to Poland as a picky girl, I didn’t like the flavour of coconut, dill and caraway, which the Victorians used for small cakes. My mother was forced to eat them as a child, in an age where children had to take whatever they were offered.
I quickly realised I was going to have to put up with these three flavours as they were in almost everything, with caraway often put into bread. Over the years I have got to like potatoes and fish with dill.
At 1pm the rather surly waitress brought us a kind of very fatty soup, “bogracz” a kind of goulash, which is supposed to be supportive to vodka drinkers. The wine had appeared and more vodka, and people had made their choice of poison hours before.
The bride decided to throw her bouquet at last. A large girl in a very short, tight pink dress was determined to get it, there was a scrum, a real pile up and in the struggle the flowers were shredded. The girl in pink emerged triumphant but got very weak applause after such a desperate fight.
“I’ve never seen such a strong fight between maidens before,” said Ewa, still cross about the blips in the catering.
I could sympathise with the fat girl in pink, as I realised that this was the first wedding I’d ever enjoyed. I have not been invited to many, which was a mercy as I used to behave so badly at them, wanting so much to have one of my own. Now all those bitter, anxious feelings had gone. I was happy for other people being happy, a tottering step in the right direction I suppose.
I stayed up for some very good ice-cream, but at 2am slipped away before the beetroot soup, to room 101. Other people had gone too, but the young and the surprisingly old, and the parents were still hard at it and stayed till 5am.
In the morning I pottered about before anyone else came down. Breakfast was fixed for 11am. Round the side of the hotel I met the fat chef, still in his whites and hat, having a quiet smoke.
He said he’d been working for seventeen hours non stop. His pay was not as good as it would be if he moved to London, and was Gordon Ramsey really as crazy as he seemed on TV?
Ewa told me that one of the mountain women had asked for my fascinator. She had told her it was improper to ask for such a thing. I said she could have it, as long as it didn’t become an object of pagan worship. But then I hesitated. I am going on the Queen Mary to New York soon and rather fancied wearing it to go on board.
The bride and groom went off on their honeymoon, walking in the Beskidy mountains. They were staying in a luxury hotel at the foot of Pilsko mountain. When I saw the bride with her enormous ruck-sack as long as her long, graceful body, I thought they were heading for the summit at 5108ft. I asked what was in it.
“I am a woman. I need so many things,” she said in that winsome womanly way that some Polish women still have.
I was up there myself once in deep snow. We met some Czechs on their side of the invisible border, and toasted each other in vodka, but after initial greetings sat in silence, in a kind of acknowledgement of mutual political oppression and frustration.
Ewa’s home and the other mother in law’s soon filled up with the couple’s wedding flowers. It was sad to see them sitting there in their wonderful arrangements, lining every window ledge and table, a beautiful burden.
In the house in Bielsko, I had my usual bed on the top floor under the eaves.
It’s a tall country house, with a wood interior, which her husband built by hand with his friends. When I first saw it in the early 1990s I thought of it as a kind of tower he had designed to imprison her. She has never let down her tawny hair and attempted escape but things have changed drastically around her.

One Big Thing

Monday 30th May 2011

Today is the feast of St Joan of Arc.

All this worrying about will it happen or won’t is all rubbish of course, if we all have eternity to deal with.

In church yesterday, young Fr Stephen gave us a print out of some words from St. Basil about the Holy Spirit. It ends with a list, which he says we might like to consider over the next nine days before Ascension Day. It gives what they call the “fruits of the spirit,” and he says we should think which ones we already have and which we’d like to acquire:

A bit daunting really. I think I have Kindness, now and then, and honesty, which isn’t mentioned, but little or none of the others!

Friday, 27 May 2011

History Boys


Before Easter I was chatting to the editor of the quarterly magazine which now very kindly gives me work, and he mentioned interviewing the UK’s ten top historians, Schama, Fergusson, etc. and finding out who they dine with, go shooting with at weekends, advice given to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown etc.

It sounded like a great idea and I wished him well. Then he said that I was doing it.

I set about it immediately, before the shock had set in – real hard work for a change, all those phone numbers to find, most of them abroad as that last generation of grammar school boys provided a round the world history service.

The whole country was about to pack up for Easter followed by the Royal Wedding but I beavered away feeling the way I imagine Kenneth Branagh behaved when he was trying to rustle up a cast for his Hamlet: “Who is it? Oh – Darling we’ve got Jack Lemmon! Oh Derek you sweetheart! Darling, we’ve got Jacobi! And so on collecting them all up; Julie, Katy and that old fellow who used to be in sitcoms as Polonius.

I got most of my history stars before the hiatus of the wedding and the bank hols.

“Your magazine is exactly our target audience here at the Royal Palaces,” said Lucy Worsley winsomely, but they were a tricky bunch. I had to establish a time and call them. One young buck who'd once been on TV spouting about castles was out when I called and when I spoke to him a day later he gave no apology or explanation. Another provided a time to call him at home in New England but when I rang no one answered. When I tried again the next day his wife said vaguely that she thought he was at a party and he had not been able to speak to me the night before because he was in the basement doing the laundry and couldn’t hear the phone.

David Cadwardine got back to me after a party. Alcohol can be the interviewer’s best friend, but not in that case. He was so maudlin and self-deprecating, saying he had no influence over anyone, that he really had nothing much to say. Lord Hennessey of the mysterious, erotic sounding Nympsfield, was also unsure that anyone listened to him.

No word from the Scots lothario Niall Ferguson, but then he never used to speak to me even when I was working for his wife.

There was soon only one person left – Simon Schama that cerebral, writhing, fevered exponent of world history, so passionate and mighty that he can even get away with using long words and winding sentences on TV.

Before Easter hit, I left messages with his publisher, or tried to. I got through to the voice mails of girls with names like Suzanna, Savannah and India, who’d never heard of him. When I was put through to the correct double-barrelled name she had already slipped away for the break.

After the holiday with my deadline only a day away, I got a date and time fixed to call the great man but he would only do it if I read his views on education on line, and a salient chapter in his new book, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. The publisher didn’t know which chapter that was.

I rushed off to Waterstone’s and bought the book, only out in hardback, got back and started trying to read as much of it as possible before he called the next day at 3pm our time.

I sat at my desk, reading possibly relevant chapters, not sure what he would ask me, making notes, going through my questions, waiting until the appointed moment, but he was not in.

The next day no reason was given for this silence, perhaps he was doing his laundry or out at a party. The publisher made another date for me. She thawed out a little as if we were both now up against it. I waited at the appointed time, sitting there like a love-lorn fool, but heard my phone ringing off the hook as they say in rom-coms.

On Friday 13th I went off out for the day to collect some of my paintings from my friend Charles in East Finchley, which is a lovely looking place if you live in Acton.

The date lived up to its reputation as when I got home I’d got a parking ticket, having forgotten to display my new and costly parking permit. There was also a message waiting from the publisher with the double-barrel name, saying Schama would talk to me at 4pm.

It was 5.30pm and she left no number for herself or him. I scrambled to find her in my note-book again and she gave me a number for Schama in New York. I rang but it didn’t work. I tried it again, mixed the code around a bit, tried 118, but no use. Just caught the publisher before she went off and she promised to get me another number. She also suggested I should apologise to him for not being in when I was supposed to be.

“Yes, apologise Jane, apologise, do it!” said my editor, sounding more like an editor than he normally does. He's usually very pleasant.

I had a flash of perception about the publishing world, where if you are in that extremely rare position of making money with your books you cannot be in the wrong, a bit like an old Hollywood star or even royalty.

As I waited again, I wondered how you talk to the most interesting man on earth? At last I heard that silky, careful, almost whispered voice. I’d been to the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery, and I hoped he’d be interested in that. He was.

There was an exquisite little sculpture in the show called the Spinario, of a boy taking a thorn out of his foot. This slightly erotic image was immensely popular in the early modern period, the Pope and later Charles I commissioned them. I'd never seen it before and mentioned it to him. There was a moment of silence – had I by chance found the one thing in the world unknown to the maestro?

After this tiny lull the conversation cracked on well, I even got a possible diary story. I also mentioned the arguments I had heard against history as a subject. The line is that it’s all propaganda written by the victors in battle, and there are no real facts. Also that the facts we once used are redundant as they only apply to an extinct patriarchy. I was surprised when he said he hadn’t heard those views very much.

“That argument has been kept from me,” he said, as if it was of no consequence.

I got an impression about his world too, that it’s a comfortable place where left wing views do not form the main opinion. Lucky he – when I was in university and recently in FE and working in prison I was surrounded by teachers who hated history as a subject and were suspicious of knowledge itself.

The following week I had lunch with some of my former Fleet Street colleagues to try to catch up on the latest round of gossip i.e. sackings and whose got work and who hasn’t.

Of course one of them knows someone who slept with Schama when they were young. Apparently he was really interesting in that department too.

Thursday, 26 May 2011



Collywobbles a bit today; just had a lovely trip to Poland to see such good friends, enjoyable day out today to London Zoo to the opening of the new Penguin beach enclosure, but there was slight fear there; was it because of the magpie on the path, a slight stomach ache which could be something I ate, or a young person's death mentioned in the paper?
Got home and lay in bed for awhile thinking how "it" could just happen at any time.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


Tuesday 17th May.

I’ve never been clear about what I’m getting. Way back when this thing began I got a lot of letters from Acton JobCentre Plus, or were they? There was an address in Glasgow. Some how I got onto the disability benefits list, I think, and was told I was entitled to £40 a month or so. I didn’t bother with that, then there were more letters, some saying I was not entitled to anything, as if I was arguing, which I wasn’t.

My doctor took charge of it all and got me to sign a letter with him. Since then I have been receiving a small amount of monthly money. I put it towards the high cost of Matcha Green Tea and the magical Montmorency cherry juice.

Then I got a letter saying I had to be assessed to make sure I am not defrauding the taxpayer by dossing around when I could be out there partaking in one of the millions of exciting jobs available.

This troubled me a bit. I lost my job at the Daily Mail in September 2005, and spent the next five years sitting at my computer filling in forms on line for jobs and getting no reply. I didn’t get enough freelance work to live on either, and eventually I started going for the “small” jobs; shop work, stacking shelves, a local café, book shop, Waterstones, museum guide, the Acton Care-Centre, doctor’s receptionist. I didn’t get a thing.

It became clear that there were no jobs for white middle class, middle aged ladies like me. The woman who interviewed me at the care home was embarrassed. She said she mainly employed Africans who sent money home to their families. She wanted strapping young things who could work a twelve hour shift for shit wages.

At forty eight I was an embarrassing bit of scrap on the heap, apparently un-usable by this society. Forty eight sounds old, I know, but I wasn’t. I was still ready to test my fate, take a chance, but I didn’t get one.

The trauma of that with its wrenching shift of identity and life-style was almost as bad as the diagnosis of cancer – I would rank them almost side by side. Perhaps that is why my mind gets so cloudy when the matter of “Jobseekers” and benefits comes up.

“You should get this money,” said my Doctor. “You have ovarian cancer.” I didn’t want to hear that, but I decided to go through with it.

This assessment seemed even more unlikely because it involved a trip to Neasden of all places, with an order to be there at 9am or there would be a danger of losing benefits. As if this north London suburb is known to be inaccessible and largely unvisited by outsiders, they provided a map and even a timed journey plan from my flat.

I got up at 6am as I had no way of knowing how long the journey to Neasden might take. I got there at 7.30am and followed the map along a dual carriage way, under a dirty bridge to a large flat building called something “house,” as much like a house as an air-craft hangar.

I had decided to put on a summer dress, bought on Saturday from Dorothy Perkins in the Westfield Centre, along with a white cotton bolero. Lord I was freezing. I hadn’t worn a dress for ages and I badly misjudged the Spring weather. Despite costing £40 it’s made of mighty thin cotton, almost like tracing paper, and it kept blowing up around my neck.

Some Somali men on the desk of the office next door to the medical centre let me sit in and wait. The medical centre still hadn’t opened at 8.45am. I stood on the step in the wind, joined by a middle aged woman with a pony-tail, and a walking stick.

“Be careful,” she said, “they are watching us. There is one of them in that four-wheel drive over there. They watch to see if you are really disabled.”

I flexed my hand with carpel-tunnel syndrome a bit to try to look a bit less of a ligger, whilst screwing my fly-away skirt down between my perishing knees.

She said she was by profession “a dog psychologist.” She hadn’t had much luck with her clients.

“I was in the park with my Shepherd,” she went on. “Another dog barged up to us and completely severed my leg.”

I smiled politely as if perfectly convinced. I wondered what kind of dog it could have been, probably not one of the myriad Yorkshire terriers or pugs in smart coats that you see in Acton Park. And why couldn’t she carry on with that work - surely all she needed to do was sit opposite or behind the disturbed dog as it lay on the couch.

“I now wear a brace,” she said. How could you put a brace on a leg that was no longer there?

“My physiotherapist says I won’t be well again for seven years.”

The letter was very keen on us being there by 9am but they only opened the door one minute before the hour.

A young Somali man with a shiny forehead and tiny features unlocked it as I pressed the bell. He looked annoyed and began to question me about why I had done that as he was unlocking. He seemed like an offended policeman who might at any moment turn proper nasty. The dog lady and I hopped into the lift with remarkable alacrity for two such disabled people.

“Well, you are here nice and early,” said the Chinese girl on the second floor desk, as if we were not only disabled but only five years old.

There were just the two of us being interviewed and I was relieved to be called very quickly.

The woman interviewing was a nurse of the old type; English, well educated and pleasant. Unlike the other staff I’d met she was impeccably professional. As far as I could tell she had no attitude towards me at all. She just wrote it all down and some one else made the decision.

She tapped away, and I noticed she had no wrist supports on the desk or key board at all. As I listed my rather vague symptoms, I wondered how long her wrists would keep going like that.

I asked her if she knew how much I was getting, she didn’t but thought it might be about £64 a week. I was very surprised. I’d never noticed that on my bank statement. I’d feel rich if I had that.

We did some exercises - swing the arms, open and shut hands, pronate and supinate the forearms. Lie down and sit up. Touch the toes. I was very good at them, except when she told me to put my chin on my chest and look at the ceiling. She tapped me for reflexes. It was no more humiliating that meeting people who didn’t know me or can’t remember me when I had a job, Egyptian cotton sheets and good clothing.

On the way out, heading to the loo, I saw the Somali who’d let us in, sitting facing the ladies lavatory door. As I went in he gave me an unpleasant, knowing look as if I’d got scammer written all over me. Perhaps the dog lady was right and we were being scrutinised. He and the girl on the desk regarded us as if they had private knowledge about us and it wasn’t anything to be proud of.

I wondered whether to ask them how they got their jobs – and if they could possibly get one for me ?

Thursday, 5 May 2011



I suppose I am having a kind of honeymoon with myself – all this lovely weather, and the lovely name NED playing in my head - “no evidence of disease.” I am on a spree.

Yesterday I went to a service at St Martin’s in Ealing at 8am. There is a desire to give praise and thanks, and the memory of all the people I’ve met who are still suffering.

The church was locked and I began to wonder if it had been cancelled or Fr. Bill had overslept. At the vicarage there was no sign of life.

He appeared at one minute to, holding a heavy bunch of keys, which always seem symbolic of something; St. Peter, one of my former cat sitters who used to visit twenty cats a day, old fashioned gaolers.

The Lady Chapel, although being a low church they don’t call it that, was flooded with golden light. I was asked to read the Gospel which surprised me, as at my other church this is the preserve of the priest. Fr Bill gave me a short homily about what he calls, “democracy.”

I haven’t read anything out loud since I was about thirteen. In my early days at school I was regularly called on to read and relished it, then my confidence evaporated and I started to develop phobias, about all sorts of things, and that was one of them.

There were only four of us there but still the words started swimming before my eyes. I managed it OK though and it was a good chance to try it again.

Spent the day struggling with a piece I am writing about the UK’s ten most influential historians. I have six so far, David Starkey and Lucy Worsley gave me some brilliant quotes, the others are in the US and more difficult to reach.

In the evening I walked through Acton Park to the Rocket pub for a life-drawing class. I used to go to this class two winters ago now and was very friendly with some of the group including an Australian doctor who was involved, sadly, in vivisection.

He was giving me a lift home one night, after I’d had the diagnosis of cancer. He said, “It’s only a Stage 1, you’ll be OK.” I told him it was stage 4. He said, “Oh,” sounding really shocked, taken aback. I remember his bulging, glaucous eyes in the car mirror, their look of fear, as if I was as good as dead. I haven’t seen or heard anything of him since that night.

The class is now in a different pub with different people, apart from one elderly lady. She was surprised at how much I’d changed and wondered if I’d had my hair done like this deliberately. A lot of older people seem to like this bubble cut, it must remind them of something from long ago.

It was a good feeling to get to the class again, like a renewed strength. But I realise that I am not ambitious anymore, for my art, writing or anything, all that has gone.

The model was an exquisite Chinese girl, with perfect proportions, not an ounce of fat under her skin which was smooth as marble.

An elderly man in the group, who must once have been handsome, chatted her up relentlessly during the break telling her all about his former career with an oil company. He’d ordered a beef burger and chips but hardly had time from looking at her to eat it. I removed nearly all the chips. Being invisible can have its advantages.

Today, struggling on with the history men, and girls. trying to pin down Simon Schama. Before Easter I approached Columbia University, and publishers in the UK. They didn’t return my calls and today neither India nor Sophie, the plummy voiced gels in their publicity offices, had ever heard of him. I had to spell out his name v-e-r-y carefully.

While I was waiting for someone, anyone to call back, made some Yorkshire parkin for the first time. It seems to be a butch northern kind of gingerbread, for people who disapprove of the pleasure of cake.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Royal Wedding day.

Friday 29th April. Royal Wedding Day.

I don’t know how the bride was doing but I was getting frazzled trying to get people to come round and watch the Royal Wedding with me.

My friend June in Guildford said she was scared of transport problems in London. “I’m not interested in these English things,” said Kayoko, my Japanese friend.

Another Japanese friend said she couldn’t come because she is addicted to a Korean soap opera.

“I can’t ask the children to travel all that way by car just to watch TV,” said another and my friend Pam had a cold.

I felt gloomy thinking of watching it on my own, then I began to picture them all arriving just as the bride got to the abbey, needing help to park their cars, demanding tea while she was taking her vows. I regretted ever suggesting it. It also dawned on me that perhaps I shouldn’t have invited anyone as my TV screen is only 13 inches wide.

My mother, aged 88, far away in her Staffordshire village said she preferred to watch it alone, then both her neighbours were having afternoon parties and her favourite old people’s home in the village, there are now five of them, had invited her as well.

I suggested she went to all of them, imagining her rolling around the village full of champagne.

“Don’t be silly. I couldn’t possibly do that,” she said to me, but then I heard her talking on her mobile to a friend, saying she was going to try to get round all of them.

The morning of the wedding Kayoko rang up and said, “What time are you expecting us?” I pointed out that she wasn’t coming. “Of course I am,” she said, “you are mixing me up with someone else.”

Five guests turned up, four women and one man, all good and early as I was finishing off a plate of cucumber sandwiches. As one helpful friend managed to open the salt cellar and pour salt over everything, I considered the party was underway. Everyone brought champagne and strawberries.

The BBC commentators were rather boring and lacked historical knowledge, they don’t provide context these days as they don’t know it. I recognised the 1930s scroll tiara, and Kayoko turned out to have detailed knowledge of the British monarchy.

“I have studied it,” she said, managing to be both slightly sinister and impressive as usual.

There was a bit of murmuring about the size of my TV screen, comments that it was left over from the Coronation. I wondered if the ladies didn’t spend most of their time glued to the plasma, but we could all clearly see the beauty of the bride’s dress, with its modest grace and clean lines; she was only slightly outclassed by the abbey itself which was the splendid star of the show.

The service was beautiful, and we all agreed, so very English. No multi-cultural, multi-faith junk, at last we were allowed something of our very own, quite a surprise. It was also so simple, one reading by the bride’s very brave brother, no soprano flown in, as Charles would have done, no homily from Stephen Fry although we did keep getting the grotesque spectacle of Elton John.

Among the 1, 900 guests there was certainly a panoply of powerful, complicated hats. Princess Beatrice looked like that little alien who appears on TV trying to introduce us to going digital. Tara Palmer Tomkinson wore something like a giant Quality Street choc, which pointed to her new nose. It seemed to have been made rather hastily, rather large and broad, making her look as if she should be pulling pints somewhere.

Quite unexpectedly it was a perfect Christian marriage service and, delicious irony, no bling. The Middleton family were perfectly elegant and as calmly focussed and unflustered as if it had been just a small country wedding with a local photographer.

How could the mother with two dazzling daughters on show conceal her pride so well? Some women would have burst with it. I take my fascinator off to them.

My mind did slip back once or twice to what I was doing at the other royal wedding, thirty years ago. I had recently arrived in London and was living in a tiny room in a council flat on the Wandsworth Road with a mattress on the floor. Councils hadn’t got round to double glazing in those days and the traffic roared past my window night and day. The mattress had fleas which would bite the back of my neck whenever I tried to sleep but I was glad to be in London. My only certainty in life was that I wanted to be there but I felt appalled by what I saw every day on the streets of Lambeth, the filthy plastic bags hanging in the trees, broken potholed roads and the constant mugging and fear of street violence.

I felt I hadn’t yet found the London that I wanted but I knew it was out there somewhere. By the time of the Charles and Di wedding I was sharing my room with beautiful Bruce, a graceful American I’d met on a trip to Iceland. It was one of those relationships where you know immediately that you must have sex, and you don’t care how or where, up against a wall or under a hedge would do. We managed it in snow under the northern lights, not bad, but as soon as he arrived at Heathrow even across the concourse I could see he was a stranger. I was working as a cleaner in a local pub, the South Pole, but he lay on my mattress all day every day in a fog of marijuana. I wanted to help him but I couldn’t. He’d rouse himself at night and we’d make love, but in the day time we hated each other. He wasn’t the person I’d seen in my mirage in Iceland. Eventually I threw his banjo over the balcony and he followed.

With great determination and drive I set myself up in London all those years ago, but I still haven’t lived in the right place or found the right person.

During the service Kate kept trying to smile at William. At first she couldn’t quite get her face to relax enough, but she was palpably supporting him. In a slight re-run of the Queen Mother George VI situation, Kate, the loved and cherished child of stable parents, doesn’t look neurotic at all. She can provide a damaged prince with just what he needs. Occasionally the Windsors get lucky and find an emotional rescue.

The next day I looked at photos of Charles and Diana on the balcony. There is this child, weak, emotional and needy, and next to him Diana, lunging towards him, also desperate for an overwhelming, unconditional love. He can hardly bear to kiss her. His lips are sealed, his shoulders turned away from her, almost as if he has no idea who she is. He looks as connected as a gay man faced with a busty, blousy, amorous woman. If only Diana had ignored the fact that her face was on all the tea towels, and cancelled the whole show, as Kate would certainly have done if she’d felt like it.

Sandwiches, chocolate rolls, jam tarts, strawberries and cream, broken glasses, squashed sandwiches, crisps on the carpet, my little party went well and everyone agreed it had been a good one June rang up and said she would have liked to join us but the size of my screen had put her off.

I have my next party, for my birthday, now looming up. I want this one to be small, so that I can really cook something, instead of providing a buffet c/o Waitrose. I have already invited too many people and I bet they will all turn up, oh dear.