A Real Tear

August 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

It started as a joke.

No, that’s not right. It started as a regular piece of work, the kind of project we discussed every week at our Monday status meeting.

At that time, and I’m talking about the early ‘nineties now, there were three of us in the Donor Development Department of Save the Kids, or S the K, as it was written on our pink and blue headed paper. Jed Norris was our boss. If you’re in the business, you might have heard his name. A total legend. He was real direct marketeer, worked for Sloss, McNally, Rice, who, back in the day, handled all the direct mail for the big catalogues and insurance companies. Then he spent time with, of all people, the Conservative Party, which the top brass at S the K considered enough of a charitable experience to give him full reign over our direct marketing work. Personally, I thought it made him deeply suspect but, over drinks in the pub one night, he claimed his time at Smith Square wasn’t a political decision, just a career move. Bollocks, I said. They’re a bunch of money grabbing leeches and you worked for them. Shame on you. He didn’t care though. Jed was part of a trend, a migration of people from the corporate sector to the charitable one, nobly bringing their finely honed business skills to the not for profit world. Apparently, so these guys argued, charities needed to operate more like companies. They needed to be more professional, whatever the hell that meant. The fact that most charities were picking up the shit created by the failure of the free market to – what was the phrase? – trickle down – was by the by.

I digress. The S the K board loved him, maybe because he wore a suit and played golf, or more likely, because half the board were donors to the Tory Party and just got over-excited when they saw his CV.

Martin and I did all the real work. Martin in particular was a star. To be honest, I was a little in love with him. Just a little. He looked like a young Martin Sheen only taller. When we’d been in Birmingham the year before at the National Fundraising Convention, we’d almost slept together. Well, there was sod all else to do in that stinking Metropolitan Hotel, stuck out in the middle of God knows where, drinks priced through the roof and only a thousand other fundraisers for company. I was certainly game, and so was Martin until, mid snog, he suddenly had an attack of conscience. It wouldn’t be fair on either of us, he’d said, being that he already had a girlfriend. I could have argued the point but I was too drunk and so the moment passed. Probably for the best.

Martin and I were a pretty good work team though. I only needed to glance at him in a meeting and I could tell what was going through his mind, what he made of the work being presented or the state of our donor profile. And we both shared a healthy contempt for Jed and his corporate ideas, even if much of what he said actually made sense. It was our job to obstruct, like Old Labour or the Unions, while Jed was more like Thatcher, that’s to say, he got his way regardless.

To pause for a moment, and for our younger readers, what I’m talking about here is good old fashioned direct mail, sent through the post, envelopes plopping onto doorsteps along with newspapers, bills and a postcard from your mum. No social media or emails. No donating by bank transfer or even credit card. Just a letter from us, pleading our case, convincing you to take a moment of your valuable time to write back, with a cheque and your good wishes. That was fundraising in those days, letters and the Royal Mail.

Before the era of Jed, we’d had a pretty standard approach to our donors, mailing them four times a year, plus the Christmas catalogue. Everyone got the same thing, no matter how much they gave. Jed put a stop to all that. He said that we should be segmenting our lists according to donation levels and mailing people at least ten times a year. That’s too much, we argued. Our donors will protest. They’ll think it’s a waste of our – their – money. No, Jed had countered. They’ll think they don’t like it and some will even complain but, you see, it will bring in more money. And, fair play to him, it did.

The only problem with all this (assuming that we never considered pissing off a large percentage of our donors to be a problem, and apparently we didn’t) was that we needed to keep coming up with new and urgent subjects for our increasing output of appeals. That was a challenge, and why we needed the help of Janice and Carla from Rolf & Mayer

“I’ve brought in a few samples of mail-shots we’ve been working on for other charities,” Janice had said at that Monday meeting, spreading many branded, window envelopes over the table. “Obviously, they are not competing organisations to S the K, but they may give us a few jumping off points.”

“How about another case study?” I said. “We still haven’t used Emma, and I think she’s pretty good.”

Emma wasn’t a real person. She was what our communications team called, ‘a composite.’ Her story was cobbled together from the real life tales our project workers heard on a daily basis: sexual abuse, poverty, a life on the streets. The photograph that accompanied the case study wasn’t genuine either. The soft-eyed teenager in the picture, her face long with sorrow, she was a model made up to look like a victim. We had no choice. It would not have been appropriate to show any of the real children we helped. Plus, many of them, particularly the teenagers, were far too unappealing, wearing the marks of deprivation on their faces, bad skin, poor teeth or, worse, defiance.

“We’ve done case histories, over and over,” said Jed. “We need something new.”

Carla reached for a pack with her long, sharply manicured hands and briskly fanned its contents over the meeting room table. “We did this recently for Dignity in Age Overseas,” she said, tapping an envelope with a plum coloured finger nail. “It contains this piece of plastic, which, when you look through it, gives you an idea of what it’s like to have cataracts. Simple, but effective and the ask was for five pounds to fund a cataract operation, five pounds for the gift of sight.”

We all took turns to hold the plastic square to our eyes and marvel at how little we could see.

“That’s really excellent,” said Jed, peering like a pirate. “D’you have the response rate for this?” he asked, removing the plastic from his eye.

Janice pushed a sheet of figures around the table. “And here’s the same data when we used it with cold donors.” Cold donors are people who have never supported the charity in question before. Usually, we’d acquire their names by swapping with other, similar charities, our donors’ details for theirs. This was before all the data protection stuff we have today, before the prevalence of the little, no I don’t want to receive information from other organisations, tick box which, I might add, has almost brought the great industry of direct marketing to its knees.

Jed studied the figures, rubbing his chin as he took in the data. “This is good stuff,” he said. “Really, impressive.” He looked around the table. “So, come on team, what do we have that could work in the same way?”

Janice and Carla glanced at each other. They’d come armed with an idea. Janice produced a new envelope and unpacked it, placing a mailing piece and a yellow wax crayon on the table.

“Crayons,” she said. “We thought about crayons.”

Martin shifted in his chair. “I’m not sure I get it,” he said.

Janice grinned. “We’d put a crayon in each pack, together with a drawing from a child, a picture illustrating their plight. You know, the kind of thing a psychologist might get a child to do. ‘Can you draw how you see your disreputable family?’ or ‘Can you draw how it feels when you are left on your own?’ The picture we’ll actually include will be bleak, dark and angry, very disturbing. Done by one of our creatives. Then the recipient will find the crayon, which will be nice and bright, yellow or orange, and the message will be, ‘Change the colour of a child’s life by making a donation.’” Janice sat back in her chair and folded her arms. She was deeply satisfied.

“It sounds a bit elaborate,” I said. “I’m just not sure the donors will get it.”

Jed nodded. “I agree. It’s ok, but it’s not, ‘This is how it looks when you can’t see.’”

Carla protested. “We think…”

“No,” said Jed. “We need something sharper. Come on, people. What symbolises suffering children? What says ‘abuse’ to our donors?”

Martin and I exchanged a look.

“Did you have a particular kind of abuse in mind?” I asked.

“Something that works,” he said.

We sat in silence for a moment. “It’s not easy to package ‘neglect’,” said Martin eventually.

“No, ok,” said Jed. “But what about physical…”

“Or sexual?” I added. “The mind boggles.”

Janice and Carla exchanged an unhappy glance. They were still sore about their crayon proposal.

“No, but you have something,” said Jed.

I cleared my throat. “Well, what about tears,” I said.

Given all that happened afterwards, over the years, I’ve thought about that moment a good deal and, you know, to this day, I couldn’t say if I was joking or not. The words just popped out and before we knew it, there was no other idea.

“Tears?” Janice didn’t look any happier.

“The tears of a child,” I went on, still smiling.

Martin started to laugh again.

Jed held up his hand. “No, wait. I think you have something.”

Carla and Janice shot each other a look.

“What could be more moving?,” said Jed. “Who could not put their hand in their pocket when faced with the tears of a child? It’s brilliant.” There was an eerie look in Jed’s eyes. I think it unnerved the girls from Rolf & Mayer. The whole tear idea had made their crayon plan look hopelessly innocent.

Martin cleared his throat. “Let’s just run with this for a minute. How would we collect these ‘tears’?”

“We could pinch children until they cry,” I said. “I’m sure if we offered enough money, parents would be volunteering kids left, right and centre. I can name you half dozen members of staff right in this building who’d go for it.”

Carla looked concerned. “But wouldn’t that be abuse in itself? I’m really not sure donors would like that.”

Jed rolled his eyes, although it wasn’t clear whether this was in exasperation at Carla’s failure to get the joke, or in frustration at the prospect of donors and their pesky objections to children being repeatedly pinched.

“Obviously, we can’t hurt real children. That would be totally unacceptable,” he said, eventually.

“We are still joking, aren’t we?” asked Janice. She looked at each of us, a degree of panic in her expression. “Tell me, no one is seriously considering this idea.”

“I’ve said already,” said Jed. “Collecting real tears is not possible.”

“No, I mean…”

“But,” went on Jed, railroading through Janice’s objections, “why couldn’t we used salt water.”

“A composite tear,” Martin said.

“Right. A couple of drops of salt water in a small plastic bag?”

“No,” I said. “A plastic bag wouldn’t work. It would just smear along the sides. It won’t look like a tear. But what about one of those little plastic vials, the kind of thing used for perfume samples?”

“Excellent,” said Jed.

Martin sucked in his breath as if weighing up the pros and cons. “What would the unit cost be on something like that?” he asked, turning to the agency ladies. They looked nervously one to the other.

“I’ve really have no idea,” said Janice.

“Well, more or less than the plastic cataract thing?

“Emm, well, I suppose the vial would be the expensive item. It would need to be airtight to stop the tears, sorry, the salt water, leaking out. And then there’d be the usual art work, copywriting costs.”

“It would be light though,” I added, thinking of mailing prices.

“We might need some new photography,” said Martin. “A picture of a super, ultra-sad child. Followed by shots of the same child now super, ultra-happy as result of S the K’s wonderful and unique help.”

“Never use the word ‘unique’,” I said. “Donors don’t like it. They know perfectly well that very little is truly ‘unique’.”

“I think this bloody well might be,” said Jed, a note of triumph in his voice. “Can you imagine what kind of coverage this will get, not just in the charity press but all over?” He must have sensed hesitancy from Rolf & Mayer. “Oh come on. Janice, Carla, you’re professionals. You know that what we’re about is innovation, eh?” He picked up the piece of cataract plastic, gave it a contemptuous look and threw it across the table. “You guys want to make your name? You’ll need to be a whole lot more daring than fuzzy bits of plastic. Let’s face it, blind old people just don’t kick ass in the same way as sad kids.”

Thinking back, at that point Rolf and Mayer should have gathered together all their packs and, in their high heels and suits, they should all walked out then and there. Or at least raised more of an objection. They were the agency, after all, there to give advice. But those were different times, governed by a different set of rules. Or so it seems now.

To my credit, I did say, “And, of course, this appeal will raise some serious and much needed funds for neglected and abused children,” and everyone in the room nodded gravely, although I suspect we were all really thinking about next year’s Direct Marketing Awards and the coveted silver envelope for best charity-agency partnership.

“Will you get this passed the Senior Management Team?” Martin asked.

Jed waved this away. “You leave them to me. Anyway, it’s an operational decision, and I’m head of this particular operation.” He didn’t need to say anymore. If we guessed that he wouldn’t apprise them of the plan until it was a fate acompli, no one said anything.

There was a moment of conspiratorial silence. I suspect we shared something of the same sick thrill experienced by governments on the eve of war. If just one of us in that room had said no then we would never have gone ahead. I mean, yes, we were all direct marketeers, but we were still people, and, let’s face it, three of us were professionally charitable.

But we didn’t. Instead, we doled out jobs, worked out a mailing schedule and a donor breakdown and even did an initial income forecast. When we left the meeting, it was with thoughts of sourcing tiny plastic vials and drafting appropriate copy.

The funny thing is that when the packs went out I was genuinely proud of them, and, to begin with, there were hardly any complaints. The day the mailing dropped, Martin and I went for a drink to celebrate; three bottles of Californian Chardonnay later we ended up back at my flat and hey ho, it was Birmingham all over again, but this time Martin didn’t mention his girlfriend. Maybe that was symbolic of how far we’d fallen. I don’t know. At the time, it just seemed like we were having fun.

That didn’t last. By the following Monday, the press had got hold of a pack. “Charity Exploits Weeping Kids,” was the headline in one tabloid, which was just lazy journalism. No kids were harmed in the making of this appeal, we responded, but that went by the by. Donors were outraged, as were our celebrity patrons, who resigned in droves, and, more embarrassingly, so were our frontline project workers, who popped up all over the show to decry modern fundraising techniques. That made me cross. They never complained when the money was rolling in, but the minute there was a whiff of a reporter and a chance to get their picture in paper, they were all up on their moral high horses.

Jed had to resign, of course, although he found a new job pretty quickly. While people appeared to disapprove, those in the business admired his balls. He went to work for some finance company. S the K sacked Rolf & Meyer, while Martin and I kept our heads down and hoped for the best, although, in the end, we both moved on too. I heard that Martin married his girlfriend and moved to Birmingham.

I’m no longer in direct marketing, but not because I regret the Real Tear pack. On the contrary, I think it was a landmark piece of work, and not just because of the fundraising legislation it prompted. To be honest, everything I worked on after that seemed horribly dull in comparison. The new agency did something with free pens in the next mailing but really, who wants a cheap biro? It doesn’t get the message across. Maybe people need to be more honest. At the end of the day, it is about children’s tears, and if you can’t face that truth then you’ve no business working for a charity.




Our Fake Nun

August 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Here’s another little story. This is based on a real fake nun I once knew.

We all called her Sister Barbara but despite her thin, creamy blouses, neatly embroidered with insipid daisies, and the wooden cross, which, like an ancient piece of cheese, hung as a holy brick around her neck, she wasn’t a real nun at all.

It seemed she had come with the church itself, like the dusty prayer cushions each sewn in memory of someone now forgotten, or the rot that was eating its way up the west wall. She smelt of candles and used-up incense and sometimes, we thought, as we huddled together during Mass, of loaves and fishes.

We had two reasons for believing her to be a fake. Firstly, she did not spend time with the other Sisters. Even the nice ones hunted in packs but Sister Barbara was always alone. However, it was the way our parents spoke of her that really convinced us. At the mention of her name they would smile sadly and whisper, “Ah, poor Barbara. It’s a shame an’ all, but she’s harmless enough.”

Why anyone would pretend to be a nun was of on-going concern to us. Debbie Shoot, the prettiest girl in our year, said that she’d heard from a boy in the choir over at St Dominic’s, that Sister Barbara was really a man who had once been an actual, real-life monk, but that he/she had renounced God to punish Him for giving her the wrong body.

“Time passed,” Debbie went on, her sing-song voice drawing us all in, “and gradually God came calling again and, as one thing follows another, she/he un-renounced Him.” As if to prove this version, Debbie pointed to Sister Barbara’s feet.

“Those are not the feet of a woman,” she said, doodling hearts in the margin of her Bible, alongside Timothy, Chapter II, verse 15: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.

But despite her disproportionate feet and shocking taste in shoes, we remained skeptical. It didn’t seem credible and besides, the boys in St Dominic’s choir were famous liars.

It was widely agreed that there were two types of nun. Well, three if you included the young, anorexic virgins with their hamster eyes and cold, translucent hands. Like beings from a parallel world, they baffled us. Why would girls only a year or two older than us choose to leave the world, just when it was becoming ours? We couldn’t fathom it.

The rest, we divided into good or evil. The good ones were wise and soft. Even the thin ones, we viewed as chubby, doughy women who smelt of nothing. They loved forgiveness and, if there was a God, which none of us believed anyway, He sat on their shoulders, smiling indulgently at our youthful sins.

Then there were the rest, the evil Sisters. They were all thin, even the fat ones, with sharp bodies and shutters for eyes. They pretended that they had sacrificed themselves for God and for us, but the truth was they couldn’t quite leave the world or, more importantly, us, alone.

Had Sister Barbara chosen to be a fake doughy nun, no doubt we’d have taken her to our hearts, like a school mascot. Maybe Stephanie Crowley, the best cook in our home economics class, would have baked a Victoria sponge on Sister Barbara’s Saint’s day. Or we might have built a tender and romantic story around her pretence. Man meets woman; they fall in love; man meets someone with smaller feet and leaves woman; woman falls into decline; woman becomes a pretend nun. But Sister Barbara was a vile, bitter viper and we hated her like the devil himself.

However, unlike the other doom-filled sisters, we did not fear her. We held her look when she glared at us for refusing to join in with the responses or, passing her in the aisle, we’d continue to talk, both things we never did with the real nuns.

“Do you think the Lord spent forty days and forty nights being tempted by Satan himself so that you girls don’t have to wipe your feet?” she said one day, after someone had trailed mud into the chapel. “ “I’ll report you to Sister Clare.” But like always, we just shrugged and giggled and carried on.

From time to time, one of us would indeed be summoned to Sister Clare’s office to be reprimanded for this or that misdemeanor but the punishments handed out after a Sister Barbara reporting always lacked real substance. It was as if the proper nuns felt duty bound to keep up appearances with the pretend nun and yet they, like us, were not sure why.

That year, Debbie, Jenny and I were church monitors. It was our duty to keep the chapel clean, clear up sweet wrappers, tidy away Bibles and sort the bags of donated clothes which were dumped in the church porch from time to time. We didn’t mind. It kept us out of the playground and gave us somewhere quiet to talk. For Debbie, the only subject worthy of discussion was boyfriends, and why we didn’t have any. Jenny and I thought ourselves a degree more serious. We wanted to debate “issues” for, in those days, a great many things riled us. Our school bags were covered with small button badges declaring our allegiance to one cause or another. We would rather talk about Debbie’s brother, Jed, who sold Socialist Worker on a Saturday morning, standing outside Woolworths in his donkey jacket and black woolen hat. We saw him there most weekends. He would nod at us, or even shout, “How’s it going, our Deb’s mates,” and we’d feel a little bit sick, but in a good way.

Sometimes, Debbie would bring us old copies of Socialist Worker, which we duly smuggled into the Chapel of the Sacred Heart under our school sweaters, ready to read and dissect. But we were careless of time and often the talk of our non-boyfriends dragged on so that we were left to stuff our unread copies into Bibles, giving them the appearance of tiny accordions. Father MacNeice, our pocket-sized parish priest, seemed to us too small to notice anything in his sacred texts, including communism, but not so Sister Barbara.

One afternoon, she came to us in the chapel, holding a copy of Socialist Worker between her cold, uncaring thumb and forefinger, dangling it before us, like a diseased rag.

“Wait until I show this to Father MacNeice. Just wait. I know it was you girls.”

“God’s a fascist, “ said Jenny. “‘I am the Lord thy God’; ‘Thou shall have no other gods before me’. Only a dictator makes those kind of rules?”

“You girls think you are so clever,” she said, striding away.

She was right. In the last year, we’d come to the conclusion that yes, we were clever. We demonstrated this by shouting at our parents, at the television but most satisfyingly of all, at the Church.

“‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says’,” read Jenny, slamming shut her Bible. “Who are the sodding Corinthians anyway to be telling us to be ‘in submission’?”

We didn’t like it. Not a bit, but we kept our views to ourselves around the real nuns, the ones who would complete our university forms and grade our papers. However, if Sister Barbara heard us complaining, we did not care.

One day in the spring of our duty year, a parishioner dropped four huge suitcases into the porch.

“They are for the poor,” she shouted, as she hurried back to her still running car. Donations of this kind seldom reached the poor directly, but rather were fed into the ongoing cycle of jumble sales and events to raise money for the church roof or to take people in wheel-chairs to Lourdes, some of whom, we hoped, might be poor.

The suitcases were lumpy and bumpy, like cakes that had failed to rise evenly. They smelt stale and vaguely of urine, like the old people’s home where we went each Christmas to sing carols and hand out mince pies.

“Come on girls,” said Sister Barbara, interrupting our talk. “Chop, chop. Remember, ‘All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.’ Bring those cases into the church.”

Rolling our eyes, reluctantly we shuffled into action.

“You can sort here,” said Sister Barbara. “Put the clothes on one side – men’s, women’s and children’s – and bric-a-brac on the other.”

“Who’s she to tell us what to do?” Debbie muttered as Sister Barbara opened the heavy church door to leave, allowing a beam of early spring sunshine to set the winter dust to dancing. For once we wanted to be outside, with our eyes closed and our faces upturned to something warm. Instead, we pulled back the zips and snipped open the clasps to reveal bundles of clothes and small parcels wrapped in tissues.

We sighed and poked at the contents, not eager to begin unpacking. Finally Debbie picked out a package and peeled off the paper. It was a porcelain bird of some kind, with a small chip in its beak and tiny knobs of dust caught where the wing joined the body. In our experience, all bric-a -brac was like that, unloved and slightly broken.

The clothes were clean, but still, we didn’t rush to touch them.

“Do you think they belonged to a dead person?” Jenny asked, cautiously picking up a stiff, mauve skirt.

One case contained baby clothes: small hand knitted cardigans, well worn and frequently washed so that the wool had become stiff and cruel; hats the size of large oranges and a pretty white dress with puffed out sleeves, a tiny ruffled skirt and a shadowy, yellow stain down the front.

The highlight was a plastic bag full of men’s underwear.

“That’s disgusting,” said Debbie. “I mean, really, do they think people are so desperate that they will buy other people’s shitty pants?”

As instructed we piled the contents into organised lots.

Afterwards, as we walked out into the sunlight, Jenny sniffed at her hands. “I need a wash,” she said. “I think I’ve absorbed the stench of abandonment.”

We’d reached the school gates before I remembered my coat.

“I should go back,” I said. “Otherwise they will sell it. I’ll catch you up.”

The church door was still open. Beside the piles of clothes stood the familiar figure of Sister Barbara, her back curved around her shoulders. I wanted to creep away, to avoid her inevitable lecture on our failure to sort with sufficient reverence, but she turned before I could retreat.

Across her chest, she held the tiny white dress, arms locked, almost as if she were cradling a baby. And she was smiling. Or was she crying? Now I think about it, from all this time later, I think she was smiling and crying.

“I forgot my coat,” I said.

“You can’t get rid of this kind of stain.” She held up the dress. “She will have been sick.”

“I suppose so,” I said, edging round her.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? Something so pretty. She would look lovely in this. So much the little lady.”

Laying the dress back down on the pile, she picked up one of the cardigans. “I used to knit,” she said. “I used to be a good knitter, but you have to hand-wash wool, especially for babies. You have to keep it soft. Like this.”

From her skirt pocket, she pulled a small mitten, the colour of white chocolate and round, with no fingers or thumbs.

“Feel this,” she said, handing it to me. “Rub it against your cheek and you’ll see.”

The mitten was no bigger than the palm of my hand and so downy that I barely felt it against my skin. It was a whisper of a thing, hardly there at all.

“It’s lovely,” I said, handing it back.

She nodded. “It is.” For a moment, she ran the wool across her lips, as if to feel whatever was possible.

With her other hand, she reached out and cupped my chin. Her fingers felt dry and warm against my skin and her breath smelt only faintly sour as she whispered, “‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.”

Then remembering who she was, Sister Barbara pushed the mitten back into her pocket and stepped away.

“You girls didn’t sort the men’s clothes properly. The trousers are still mixed up with the sweaters.”

I grabbed my coat. “Sorry, Sister Barbara. Thank you, Sister Barbara.”

I told the others, but only Jenny and Debbie. We still held her look and she continued to scold us. And we minded, but perhaps not quite so much.





A Story

July 26, 2020 § Leave a comment

As some of you know, sometimes I write stories. They just sit around on my computer or in notepads, and seldom see the light of day. That seems a bit pathetic, so, over the next few weeks, I’m going to put a few on this rather neglected blog. Friends, please don’t feel you have to read but if you do, enjoy.

This one is called The Story of Matthew Pity.

Names are a tricky business. This much, Matthew Pity knows.

As a child, his name had been irresistible to the other boys, like a itch they couldn’t leave alone.

“Runaway, runaway, here comes Nitty Pity. His hair is alive.”

“Matthew Nitty, he smells all shitty.”

It hadn’t helped that he had been a tubby child, that he had been a Fat Matt.

“Matt Pity, Fat Shitty.”

“Sticks and stones, Matthew,” his mother would say. “They are just trying to be clever, those other boys. Don’t stoop to their level. They will get bored.”

Of course, his classmates did tire of “Shitty Pity” but by then it was too late. And what comes first, being an oddball or the others turning you into one? No one could say for sure if Matthew Pity had been strange before they got to work on his name. Maybe so, but they cast their own dye, for sure. School time misery and a grey adolescence for Fat Matt leading to what? A pitiful job and the life of a bedsit bore. Twenty seven and only a suitcase full of clothes and a hefty old laptop to call his own.

A shitty state of affairs for Mr Matthew Pity.

Yet, on this chilly morning, he is walking with a jive to his step. His feet are not mired in the clay of workaday cares. Today, he is like a secret dancer, on the verge of a pavement pirouette. On his pudgy, pale face, there is a fraction of a smile.

Matthew Pity turns left at the lights and walks towards his office building. At the door, he pauses. He must rein himself in, reduce his stride to his usual shuffle.

Pushing open the glass door, he is greeted by Sam Lamb, the nighttime security guard. And that’s his real name. Sam Lamb. Beyond belief, but true. Of course, Matthew Pity has some sympathy for Sam Lamb’s naming catastrophe, but he never shows it. That’s not how Shitty Pity behaves.

“Alright,” mutters Sam Lamb not looking up from his newspaper. He is only on reception until eight thirty, when Janice and the girls take over. No one wants Sam Lamb to be the daytime face of this organisation.

Matthew grunts, not an actual greeting, but the same sound he’s been making every morning for eight years, and heads for the lift.

Sam glances up. “Is it right, what I hear, that you’re leaving today?”

Matthew Pity turns back. “Yep. Last day.” He touches a pimple on his forehead, pressing down slightly to feel if it is still tender. It is.

“How long you been here then?” asks Sam Lamb, who himself has sat on the door for a quarter of a century. He needs a shave, the stubble on his layered chin a dreary grey, and there is a bit of something in the very corner of his mouth, a breakfast crumb, perhaps.

“Eight years,” says Matthew.

Sam nods. “Where you going then, boy?”

Although he has been practising this line, Matthew still hesitates. “To a warehouse,” he says. “I’m going to help manage a warehouse.”

There is a second of silence, then Matthew says, “Well, they’ll be waiting for me in the post room. I’d better go, last day or not.”

Sam Lamb laughs, a weary worker’s laugh. “Right. No rest for the wicked, eh?”

Descending to the basement, Matthew thinks how much he dislikes this building, with its scruffy ceiling tiles and stained carpets. The charity for which he works, the Marine Preservation Trust, refuses to value working conditions. The Director argues that members of the public do not donate money to be spent on fancy paintwork and smart desks. Which is true. They give money for fish, and for things which are not as intelligent as fish, like seaweed and rocks, but it’s the fish that matter. Not, for example, this lift, which grumbles and shakes as it descends, and smells of stale soup and old lunches. The back wall had once been a mirror, but now it is so filthy and cracked that Matthew has to bend down to find the spot where he can see his own reflection. He smooths down his greasy hair and thinks that, once he has left this place, he will get a decent cut.

But on his last day, there is no reason for Matthew Pity to be cross. Just eight more hours; one lunch and a few mugs of tea and it will be finished.

The lift door rumbles open and Matthew steps out into the mailroom. As usual, he hangs his jacket on one of the pegs by the door and walks to his desk. It’s old fashioned this room. Mailrooms, once essential to any office, are almost a thing of the past. No one sends letters these days, except of course, they do here because this is a charity, and some people still insist on making their donations by cheque. There are envelopes to open and processing to be done because old ladies who care about nature still don’t trust the internet to handle their payments. They think a cheque is safer. As it turns out, they are wrong but we all have our prejudices.

Even here though, the post-room is not what it once was. When Matthew started there were five of them. Now there are three, and after today, only two. It’s a sign of the times. The only area of growth for the post-room has been in accepting personal parcels, clothes and books and who knows what, which staff have delivered to the office. Matthew suspects that none of the stuff is helping the fish but hey, it’s kept him busy.

Clara and Billy are already there, sipping tea in silence, staring at the two red pouches of mail which sit before them.

These bags are their day. It doesn’t matter what they contain because opening an envelope is pretty much the same whether it holds a cheque for a hundred thousand pounds or a crinkled and faded fiver from the bottom of some old fella’s wallet. When none of it is for you, it’s all the same.

Billy and Clara cannot begin until the three of them are present. Three people are trustworthy, or so said the risk assessment man who audited procedures a few years ago. Everybody to watch everybody else. Count them in and count them out. Although after today, they will have to swallow the risk of just Clara and Billy.

“Morning Matt,” says Clara. “Kettle’s just boiled.”

Matthew walks over to the drinks’ shelf with its kettle, box of tea bags and half a packet of sugar. A thin layer of dust covers an ancient jar of Nescafe and two sachés of hot chocolate. The plastic bottle of semi-skimmed milk sits open beside the kettle. He wonders about making coffee on this, his last morning. It is what he fancies, a change from the usual, but this is no time to be different so he pours hot water over a tea bag and, adding some milk and a teaspoon of sugar, turns and heads over to his chair.

“We’ll have cakes later,” says Clara. “With it being your last day. I’ll nip out in a bit.”

“Ta,” says Matthew, spooning his tea bag into the bin beside his chair.

Clara, the age of his mother but still dying her hair and painting her nails, has children and grandchildren, a husband and a bingo club. She goes on holiday and cooks Christmas dinner for twelve. Despite her extra rolls of fat and her vacant conversation, she is a person of substance; her life has foundations so that although she is eight hours a day in this dungeon of a mailroom, it barely matters to her. When she retires in two years, she will shake off this place as easily as one brushes toast crumbs from the front of a dark sweater.

Billy is different. His manner suggests that he is ex-military; he isn’t, which is why he loves the mail room. It is a tiny universe which he believes he controls. In reality, Clara is the mailroom manager but the only indication of her superiority is a couple of extra quid in her wage packet. It is Billy’s version of order which prevails. Letters are logged his way, they are distributed along a route which he has calculated to be the most efficient. While Clara and Matthew might sometimes raise an eyebrow at each other and refer to him as “Major Billy”, they do not challenge any of his patterns. None of it matters enough.

“Let’s get cracking then,” Major Billy says, his hand sweeping some dandruff off the shoulder of his black Marine Preservation Trust t-shirt. He tips out the first of the day’s pouches. Envelopes of all sizes tumble from the bag, forming a small hill in the centre of the desk. A third are the charity’s own reply-paid envelopes and Billy weeds these out, sliding the pile across to Matthew. It is his job to open them, to take out the cheque and the donation form and to log each by hand in the heavy brown cash book. Rows of these books sit on the shelf above them. At the end of each year, they are cleared away to be stored for five years, the regulatory period. Once Matthew has made note of the donation amount and the name of the donor, he separates the cheque from the donation form and makes two piles. The cheques will go up to cashier, the donation forms to fundraising to be recorded and thanked.

So this is his job. Shitty Pity is the gateway to the charity. The donation does not exist until he says so, until he writes it down in his brown cash book. And this, he has come to realise, is real power. Those university types in the fundraising department and the press office, they might believe that it is upon them that the damn fish depend, but they are wrong. For all their degrees and away-days and urgent, “This has to be with them by tomorrow, Matthew” demands, they are just plain wrong.

Or they were, until someone decided that the Marine Preservation Trust needed to modernise its procedures.

“There you go,” says Billy. “A big lot today. Probably a response to that bit on the telly a week or so ago. That Sally from the Press Department, she was on. Remember. With the curly blond hair.”

Matthew says some thing like, “Oh yeah,” although he doesn’t remember and anyway he doesn’t want to talk. He is concentrating hard for this is how Matthew Pity works. Slow and a bit stupid, that’s what he’s always given them, and he will not change now. “A bit dim,” he’s heard them say. “He’s a good worker but out to lunch, if you know what I mean.” That’s fine. That’s how Fat Matt must be.

Matthew was twenty two before he realised that he wasn’t fated to live the life of Shitty Pity. It took him a year of opening envelopes and handling other people’s wealth before he saw how it could be done. And when he did, he laughed out loud because it was so simple and because he had no love for fish.

The Marine Preservation Trust, an important national charity, likes to shorten its name to the MPT. Everyone upstairs is far too busy to keep writing the whole name. What a waste of time that would be. So, MPT has become the acronym and, as a consequence, that’s what appears on most of the cheques. Not always, of course. Careful donors will write out the whole name, but not many people are so sensible. And how easily MPT can become M. PITY. Just slot in a couple of letters and some punctuation and a cheque to help save some rainbow fish in the Maldives becomes a donation to change the life of Fat Matt Pity.

The first time he did it, Mathew’s heart was beating so loudly he felt sure that Clara and Billy must hear the thump, thump as he slid the cheque and the donation form under the table and into the large envelope he had previously taped to the underside of the desk. He had practiced at home so the movement was quick but discreet. In any case, Matthew sat the end of the room, facing the other two, so he could move when their heads were down. That first day, he felt the weight of the stolen cheque under the table, heavy and dangerous. The others must know, he thought. But he was wrong. Clara and Billy bumbled through their morning until lunch time, when Matthew was able to retrieve the cheque and pop it into another self addressed envelope. This he took out with him in his bag, slipping it in the post box before going to buy his chicken and lettuce sandwich. By sending the cheques to a post office box number, Matthew had built himself a safety net. Then, once a week, he visited his box. In his bedsit, he carefully changed each cheque and printed out a “thank you” letter on the charity’s headed paper. As long as the cheque was cashed and a letter of thanks received, the donor was content and the charity none the wiser.

So Matthew Pity began amassing money. He was careful, taking only medium sized amounts, and not too many. Large donations would be missed, their whereabouts questioned. And small donations were tricky too. A child who had raised five pounds from a sponsored swim was likely to be waiting for his Freddy Fish tooth brush, but a working woman hastily writing out a cheque for fifty quid after a fun holiday scuba diving, she was never likely to follow up again. It was a gamble, of course, but one which Matthew Pity found he quite enjoyed. After all, the only thing at stake was the sad life of shitty Fat Matt Pity.

For three years, Matthew has been stealing from the Marine Preservation Trust. A few pounds every day, a good weekly total. And nobody noticed. Well, once a donor had asked for a print out of all their donations, and when some were missing, there was a flurry of concern. But it had passed. Instead of doing a full investigation, the MPT had assumed human error and moved on. For a while, Matthew had stopped taking anything, but time passed and a good thing is a good thing.

He opened several accounts to hold the cash, not wanting to have a central record of his deposits or for a single large total to accumulate. It would not do at all for Fat Matt, mail room boy, to have a hundred and fifty thousand pounds sitting on deposit.

Perhaps he would never have stopped but the charity had decided that, finally, it was time to computerise the mailroom. All incoming donations were to be logged directly onto the computer. In any case, the clock was ticking on cheques. In a year, all donations would likely be by direct debit, or credit card; they were already taking cashless payments at events and street collections.

It was over.

“Will you miss coming here, love,” Clara is asking.

“I guess,” says Matthew, shrugging.

Clara laughs. “Like a hole in the head, right.”

He smirks and she laughs some more. “Yeah, I know. Still, we’ll miss you, won’t we Billy. It won’t be the same, the old gang breaking up.”

Matthew doesn’t know who he dislikes more, Clara for pretending that they’ll miss him, or Billy for not bothering. What would they think, if they knew? To them, he will always be Fat Matt, a bit slow; a loser.

He finishes working on his pile of envelopes. Today, he has left well enough alone. No point in tempting fate. Everything today is for the stinking fish.

From time to time, and more so lately, it has occurred to Matthew that what he is doing is wrong. Over the years, the chatter about the environment and species extinction has grown to such a roar that even Matthew, who has never thought about the world as a interconnected miracle but rather has a hostile, lonely place, where putting one foot in front of the other is the best one can hope for, even he has questioned if stealing from the fish isn’t a much worse crime that he had originally envisaged. It has been a passing thought though and anyway, he is stopping. From now on, the fish will get the lot – and good luck to them.

“Shall I go for cakes?” Clara asks. Matthew knows that she has been thinking about the cakes all this time, something sweet to get her through the morning. She will have been anticipating the excursion too, a chance to run into someone, to gossip.

He smirks to himself as he says, “No, it’s OK Clara. I’ll go. My treat.”

Her face shows her disappointment. “Are you sure, dear?” she says. “I really don’t mind.”

But Matthew has his coat on already. “Something with cream,” he is saying.        “Very nice,” Clara says, going back to her letters. “I’ll put the kettle on in a minute.”

Matthew takes the lift back up to the ground floor. He is thinking about his new name. He has settled on Jake Standish. It’s a name from another era, a better time. And names, as Matthew knows, are important.

Sam Lamb has left for the day. Touching his sport again, Matt nods to Janice and the reception girls before pushing open the heavy glass door.

Between the office and the cake shop sits a homeless man. He is often there, young, stained, hair like a dried-out bush, and as usual Matthew Pity walks passed, seeming not to hear his thin refrain.

“Any spare change?”

Some minutes later however, a figure who looks a little like a Jake Standish stoops to place a cake box into the slightly rank lap of the homeless guy.

Inside is a cream cake the size of a small chicken, a donation from one loser to the next.


Common – thoughts provoked by a trip to the theatre

August 2, 2017 § Leave a comment


Yesterday, I went to see Common at the National Theatre. It’s had mixed reviews – Michael Billington describing it as “William Blake meets The Wicker Man” in The Guardian.  The play is set against the backdrop of the enclosure moment when, as Professor Peter Linebaugh, writes in the programme, much of Britain’s land was “privatised; moved from collective ownership into the hands of a few individuals.”

Of course, prior to the enclosure moment, the land didn’t actually belong to the poor. It was owned by the crown, the church or a local noble. But the notion of common land was a kind of compromise between what Linebaugh describes as, “the absolutist demands of private property and the subsistence necessities of common folk.”

Common land might provide for pannage (the right to graze pigs) or for the collection of estovers (wood); locals might have piscary rights (to fish) or turbary rights (to cut peat or turf). It provided for a kind of self-sufficiency, a way for the poor to keep themselves alive. As with the poor today, that was no easy matter.

Landlords began enclosing land in the late medieval period. It gathered speed with the Tudors, partly as sheep farming became more profitable, but was really forced home during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (about one sixth the area of England) were changed, by some 4,000 acts of parliament, from common land to enclosed land.” That’s a hell of a lot of land taken out of common use.

And, of course, a poor agricultural worker had no power. No voice. In an article in The Land magazine, historian Simon Fairlie describes how consultation worked. “To make a modern analogy, it was as if Berkeley Homes, had put in an application to build housing all over your local country park, and when you went along to the planning meeting to object, the committee consisted entirely of directors of Berkeley, Barretts and Bovis — and there was no right of appeal.”

Which kind of brings me on to my point. Clearly, this is a mighty topic, and way beyond me to argue for or against. What do I know about the enclosure movement? There are reasons why land enclosure needed to happen – more efficient production, growth in population, movement of people away from the countryside and into the cities. So I should probably stop talking about it. Except that theatre and the arts are suppose to make us think. So this is me thinking.

On my walk from the National Theatre to the underground, this was the sight before me.


Many cranes, turning the site of the former Shell Building into something called Southbank Place, a joint development by the delightfully sounding Docklands office group Canary Wharf and Gulf developer Qatari Diar. According the The Standard, 868 homes will be built, including 160 classified as “affordable” and 52 extra care flats for the elderly and disabled. That’s nice, but don’t worry too much about the fortunes of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar. A studio flat will cost you £540,000, with a two bed starting at £1m.

There were objectors to the development. They included the usual – local residents, councillors, Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society – but fear not. According to CityAM, those voices were over-ruled by the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles. He was confident that the scheme would “provide accessible jobs and homes, and enhance the character of the South Bank area”. So that’s all right then.

I’m not sure how we got from common ownership of land to this mess, when even reasonably well paid people in London have no chance of affording a home, let alone those on minimum wage, or not working. (One of the main arguments in favour of enclosures was that people who survived by working common land “were lazy and impoverished (in other words “not inclined to work for wages”), and that enclosure of the commons would force them into employment.” Sound familiar?)

This is a ramble, I know, so let me draw it to a close by making two vague, probably unhelpful and obvious points.

  1. The private ownership of land has screwed nearly all of us. We are obsessed with owning a home with a bit of garden (and I include myself in this). Yet a report in Country Life in 2010 reminds that that, “more than a third of land is still in the hands of aristocrats and traditional landed gentry. Indeed, the 36,000 members of the CLA own about 50% of the rural land in England and Wales.” In addition, as Kevin Cahill wrote in the New Statesman  in 2011, the tax balance on that land has been turned on its head in the last 150 years, inverting the relationship between the land and the landless (or less landed, perhaps). In 1873, landowners were virtually the sole payers of tax; “now the agricultural owners of Britain benefit from of an annual subsidy that may run as high as £23,000 each, totalling between £3.5bn and £5bn a year. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, pay about £35bn in land-related taxes. Rural landowners receive a handout of roughly £83 per acre, while urban dwellers pay about £18,000 for each acre they hold, an average of £1,800 per dwelling, the average dwelling standing on one-tenth of an acre.” (If you are at all interested in this stuff, have a read of this whole article. It’s kind of heart-breaking.)
  2. The former Shell Building was not common land, far from it (although my son’s state school did use their swimming pool). Indeed, I’m not suggesting that the HQ of an oil company is any more worthy than Southbank Place. It would be a nice change though, if those in charge really listened to what those who know about stuff are saying. Protesters against this development and every other development in London make the same arguments. If we want a healthy, diverse, economically sustainable city, we need to stop building Southbank Places, accept that commodifying and monetising the need for a home isn’t really working and invest in the common good. Don’t put ownership into the hands of the shareholders of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar; no good can come of that.






Writing courses

July 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, I was mostly busy on a splendid creative writing course at the lovely Ty Newydd. Great company, clever and funny tutors (Mavis Cheek and Francesca Rhydderch), generally, a good time. I know not everyone approves of creative writing courses – “why can’t you just get on and do it?” Well, I have been on many and nearly always enjoy them. They get me thinking, and doing something else with my brain. Plus, I’m never sure why it’s ok to be taught to draw or play the piano, but not to write.

So, here is one of the exercises I completed with the group. We were each given a different postcard and asked to write something for 20 minutes, inspired of course, by the picture. I was given this, Titian’s Danae.


And here is what I came up with.

It’s not that I don’t like being an artist’s model. As jobs for women go, it’s up there. I’ve done worse things to earn a living – much worse. Lying on a bed, draped in sheets, bosom out, it’s fine, believe me.

My friends give me a hard time if a I grumble. “Oh, live is so hard, being a muse,” they say. “It must be exhausting.” And I do see that if you’re whoring in the side streets of Naples, earning just enough to keep yourself in bread, this gig does seem like a step up.

Still, musing is not without its challenges. Take this job. I’ve been lying on this bed, turning my neck at this wretched angle for what must be weeks now. I have cramp in my left leg and spent most of yesterday needing to piss, but not daring to say. Titian does not like movement, or speech or anything much.

“Sir, I really need to take a break,” I might say in the end, bladder bursting to the point that I am sweating with the effort of keeping it in.

“I don’t pay you to take breaks,” he will reply, his voice all heavy. “Stay still.”

So, I carry on staring at little Giovanni, who is even more miserable than I am. He’s what, five or six, always hungry, and not at all happy to be wearing wings.

“I’ll look like a girl,” he said to me, while we ate lunch – five minutes to eat, one minute to wee.

“No, you won’t,” I replied, “Believe me, no one will mistake you for a girl,” and I glanced down at his baby penis, smiling sympathetically. Then he understood and,realising that his tiny todger would be out there for all to see, he started wailing.

His mother is a launatic though – literally – so poor Giovanni is all alone, naked and alone.

Much  like myself.

We are a pair, Giovanni and I, linked through our naked, misrepresented bodies and the need to pee.

Maybe we can be a team.


Keeping busy again

July 17, 2017 § 3 Comments

Two things to say right off the bat.

  1. I am still alive. Those of you who followed this blog first time around will know that five years ago I was keeping busy to distract myself from cancer type activity. The good news – actually, the great news – is that six years on (touch wood, etc) I am fine. Well done to the NHS and to my own body for a good team effort.
  2. I have given up my job. After 11 odd years raising money for the Cardinal Hume Centre, and working with some of the best people going, I have called it a day. No really good reason, just time to do something else, which may end up being similar or different or a combination of both. So, as from today, I am unemployed.

My live-in advisor suggested I take up Anne is keeping busy again, arguing that:

1.this will keep me busy, thus fulfilling the purpose of the blog,


2. it will advertise my unemployed status to those who may have work.

So, here we go.

This week, I am mainly keeping busy at Ty Newydd, a rather lovely spot near Criccieth in North Wales. I am on a writing course, which is hugely self-indulgent and a bit clichéd – middle-aged lady gives up job and goes on creative writing course is hardly ground breaking. However, I am currently sitting in my splendid bedroom – the Lloyd George room (this was his house so I’m assuming this was his room) – daring myself to go downstairs and meet the other participants. It feels a bit like the first day at university – “What A’ levels did you do?” “Did you have a gap year?”

In the meantime, here is the splendid River Dwyfor, one of my “go to a peaceful place” places.

Celebrating my new credit card

December 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

Last month, I was sent a new credit card – a different colour, with contactless payment and a new three digit security code; so not that much to celebrate, you may say. Except that, in a quiet way, I did.

It’s three years since I had chemotherapy and surgery, and all the brouhaha that goes with breast cancer. Not the best of times. Some of you may remember (and thank you if you do). During those months, every time I used my credit card I would see the renewal date, November 2014, and in my more miserable days, it would occur to me that I might not live beyond the expiry date, that this might be my last ever credit card.

Of course, that wasn’t the priority. There were always more important things to be around for than a new credit card – family, friends, work, the Olympic Games – but there was something about the anonymity of my credit card and the ever-present date which itched away in my mind. If I died, all kinds of things would be canceled – my credit card, my twitter account, my Labour Party membership – and it would make absolutely no difference to any of these organisations. They would grind on regardless. In the same way, films would keep coming out, books be published, The Archers broadcast. No one associated with any of these things would have been bothered in the slightest if I watched their movies, read their books, sent my tweets.

Does it sound like a bleak celebration, the arrival of a new credit card? Well, either it isn’t or I don’t care. It is not so bad to mark these small, anonymous steps. I’m not talking about the personal anniversaries – birthdays, Christmases, summer holidays – but the day to day things on which we have no real impact, the impersonal stuff that comes and goes but which mark the passing of time.

It’s almost three years since I finished chemo. Time has passed; perhaps I should be “over it” and indeed, to a point, I am, but being around to open that new credit card, that was still something.

So, here are a few events to which my presence is completely irrelevant but that I will be using to celebrate the passing of time in the near and not so near future.

  1. Final Hobbit film – this week, the end of the saga.
  2. Labour winning the next election and/or electing a new leader.
  3. Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice (2016), indeed the whole 10 film, DC series, finishing with Green Lantern, 2020.
  4. Publication of the final Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell novel.
  5. Completion of Cross Rail.
  6. And, of course, my next credit card (2017).
Something from the past for for the future.

Something from the past for for the future.


NHS – Happy Birthday

July 5, 2014 § Leave a comment



Today, I am keeping busy a) saying thank you the NHS, which is 66 years old today, and b) writing a letter to NHS England, protesting about the closure of the Soho Square General Practice. Dr Cheung and Dr Brassy have been our lovely and good GPs since we moved back to London 13 years ago. Those of you who know me will be aware that, in my case, this has been no easy task as I’ve been up and down to the doctors a fair amount with both real and bonkers stuff. They have always treated me with care, respect and understanding – and I’ve never had to pay.

Then we get a letter last week saying that the “Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust has notified NHS England of their intention to resign the GP contract for the Soho Square General Practice.” What does this even mean? The letter doesn’t bother to actually name the doctors involved – I guess it’s easier to think of this as a contract rather than as two real doctors who treat real people.

Patients were not consulted during the decision making process. Nor, if the accounts in the local press are to be believed, were the doctors or local councillors. Now we are being offered a choice of “dispersal” – finding another doctor – or asking NHS England to find a new GP or suitable organisation to provide health services – again, whatever that means.

This is all very confusing, particularly as there is another GP practice in the same building which is not impacted by this decision. I say decision, but we have been given no reason at all for the closure, aside from this resigning the contract business. A CLCH spokesperson told the West End Extra that this was not about cost cutting but rather that the GP service “doesn’t fit in with the the objectives of our business plan.”

My rather obvious question: how can cutting GP services be an objective of a community healthcare trust? If this is about cuts, please tell us.

What will happen to the large number of  elderly Chinese patients who use this practice because of the Chinese speaking doctor and staff? Or course, they may not yet know about the closure because my letter says that if you want a copy in Chinese you have to go the GP surgery to collect one.

Today is the 66th birthday of the NHS. You may have seen many tweets about this, people saying thank you for the amazing things the NHS have done for them. Look at #thankyounhs to see what great things people are saying.

I don’t want to become an NHS basher in any way – I love the twitter account @butnhs (big up the NHS) which posts positive NHS stories and accounts – and I don’t have enough information to know what the closure of the Soho Practice is really all about. What I do know is that the NHS is something we need to fight for. You’ll have heard it before, but it’s really true – we won’t know what we’ve lost until we wake up one morning and our healthcare is no longer free at the point of delivery but rather a horrible hotchpotch of insurance/profit making big corporations who talk about business plans and forget to name actual doctors.


On the one hand, but on the other.

March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, I threw away Moving Forward: Living With and Beyond Breast Cancer, the folder of information I was given over two years ago, when I finished my cancer treatment. It had sat of the shelf, largely unregarded, both a symbol of hope – the living beyond breast cancer bit – and a slightly menacing “what if” threat – living with breast cancer. Even though I haven’t actually used the information, it took a bit of courage to decide I could do without it. I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person but, as I’ve said on this blog before, when push comes to shove, it’s strange the things you are prepared to believe have some power.

So, an update. Despite believing in the power of an information folder, I am not as bonkers as I was two years ago, or even this time last year. Which is good. I worry less, which is also good, although I still have my moments (ask the good Russell, who has recently talked me out of having hip, toe and ear cancer).

One of my techniques is to try to avoid things to do with cancer. This may be cowardly; it’s also tricky. Over this last weekend, for example, we’ve had:

1. Selfies without makeup and the subsequent fuss about whether they are an appropriate way to raise money for cancer research (and, for the record, yes they are – not one of those good ladies was saying that going without make up is the same as having treatment for cancer).

2. The headline on The Sunday Times today, plus the campaign they are now launching.


Good news here is reading that almost 80% of breast cancer patients survive for over 5 years. Bad news, I do not want to be “betrayed” by the NHS (which is a stupid, unhelpful word anyway and certainly not what happened to me).

3. A link on Facebook about a group of women who shaved their heads in sympathy with a friend who has cancer. You can see it here – it’s nice, very moving.

4. Critics Choice in the TV guide for Wednesday 26th March is “Kris – Dying to Live“, about an amazing young woman called Kris who has late-stage breast cancer, cannot be cured, and who is now running a breast awareness campaign called CoppaFeel. I urge you all to go the website and do what it says.

I have a dilemma here. I know that breast cancer has such good survival rates because women before me made a huge fuss, and that continuing to make a huge fuss, and not just about breast cancer, is good for those coming next. I know that I benefited from a great deal of support (although, friends, I didn’t see anyone shaving their heads for me #disappointinginretrospect). On the other hand, everyone, just shut up. Two and a half years on from diagnosis, and I still feel weak and feeble faced with the mention of the word, cancer. It’s why I still haven’t watched Breaking Bad, why I couldn’t watch Halley dying on Coronation Street and why I heaved a huge sigh of relief when Ruth in The Archers was shouting at everyone because she was pregnant and not because her cancer had returned.

It’a all on the one hand, but on the other. This may help to explain why, although I could throw out Moving Forward, I still have my wig in its pink box, lurking under a cupboard, like one of those big worms in Tremors, waiting to snap at me. A bit like this:


Of course, thanks to Kevin Bacon and co, the bad worms were beaten, which is what we all want from the general and ongoing cancer narrative. It’s probably all worthwhile, and I just have to get on with it.

And now I’m going to stop. I think this Tremors analogy has gone as far as was ever useful.

Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy (or The Brilliant Lisa Jardine)

February 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture, the Purcell Room, 30th January, 2014, Professor Lisa Jardine


I should say upfront that I am a huge fan of Professor Jardine. If there were mugs or Jardine T-towels, I’d have them. If you are not familiar with the brilliant Lisa Jardine CBE, well, I suggest you get yourself familiarised. Here are some things she has done. 1. She read mathematics at Cambridge before, two years into that course, switching to English. 2. She’s written a heap of books, from Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983) to The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London (2003). 3. Since 2008 she has served as Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. 4. She is now  Professor of Renaissance Studies at UCL. 5. She’s pretty liberal and I believe sent her children to state schools in London.

I think she’s spiffing for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, she’s had breast cancer so, of course, I find that somewhat encouraging (she’s 69, still doing tons of great stuff, etc). Secondly, I credit her with preventing me from bombing out of Cambridge almost 30 years ago. To cut a very tedious story short, girl from huge, not very good comprehensive school + English Literature at Cambridge = recipe for disaster. Entering my third year, I decided to take a course on “The Novel” and was allocated yet another male supervisor with little interest in teaching, someone who had never been overly pleased that women had been admitted to my college in the first place, let alone girls from not very good state schools. At the time, Lisa Jardine was at Jesus College, nothing at all to do with me, but already an inspiring lecturer. In desperation, I knocked on her door and poured out my panic at having to study once again with said misogynist. She was lovely, found me someone to work with, the equally lovely Julia Swindells. It doesn’t sound much, but without a doubt that intervention got me through Cambridge.

Enough about all that. On Thursday, Professor Jardine delivered the Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture on Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy. As suggested above, although I read English at Cambridge, it was all a huge error. Despite that, I went to hear Professor Jardine and, because she is so marvellous, I couldn’t help but learn a few things. Here they are (and with the usual apologies to anyone who really knows about this stuff).

1. The phrase “dumping in the pathetic” from Frank Kermode. Not sure what it means, though.

2. Shakepeare’s plays “wait patiently for each new interpretation.” Frank Kermode believed that “our questions, our seasonal truths, are not those of an earlier generation.” Being open to interpretation but being reticent about final meaning makes a work a classic.

3. Frank Kermode transformed Shakespearian criticism by giving us an outward rather than an inward interpretation. The Romantics, for example, put the poet at the heart of everything – the poet was always right. Kermode (and Professor Jardine) said that the spirit of the writer has to be considered along with the social, cultural, anthropological and historical questions of the time.

4. An example (and stick with me here). In the 17th Century, it was legal to beat your wife to death in your house, but not to do so in public. It was all about what happened in public. Church court documents record numerous cases of women, accused of adultery or lewd behaviour, coming to court to clear their names. It was vital to do this in public. Move to Othello, Act 4, Scene 2, when Desdemona is accused by Othello of adultery. She doesn’t actually deny it (perhaps because she can’t bring herself to use those words) and because she refuses to have the charge scrubbed from the public record, she is automatically guilty, or, as Professor Jardine put it, “the verbal has been consecrated as an event.” Othello doesn’t ever doubt her guilt again so that he kills her not though jealousy, but because, in his eyes, she had definitely committed adultery. But we might not read the play like this if we didn’t have the knowledge gained through examination of contemporary church court records.

5. Any scene from the period where a woman is in the same room as a bed is bad news for said lady’s reputation – Gertrude, in Hamlet, dies in her bed, and Desdemona is killed by Othello in her bed.


There was lots more, and some pretty clever questions. A little out of my depth. Never mind. A much better thing to do than worry about that would be to listen to Professor Jardine talking about the founding of the Royal Society  or the history of cryptography both on In Our Time, or follow her on twitter @profLisaJardine.

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