Tuesday, January 12, 2016

People are People

I’ve had a line from the Depeche Mode song People are People running through my head recently, and it seems peculiarly apposite to the strange times in which we live.

Because people, whatever their colour, creed, gender or sexuality are just that. And nine times out of ten if you think you don’t like a particular group for whatever weird reason, when you meet individuals from that group you find that actually you get on rather well.

It seems to me a strange contradiction in the human condition that we are at base tribal and yet able to deal with individuals we might think we dislike. On a global scale that means white westerners view dark easterners with suspicion (and vice versa), but on a local scale it’s as simple as my daughter talking about the chavs, the geeks, and the populars in her class. We all feel safer sticking together with people like us. The downside of this of course is prejudice and bigotry against the Other, to which we are all susceptible to some degree or another.

On the other hand, the amazing thing about human beings is their capacity to rise above their petty prejudices when confronted with individuals from whichever group they dislike and discover they have more in common than they first thought.

And that’s the key I think. Prejudice and ignorance exists always. And we should do everything we can to combat it. But on a day to day basis most people reach out to one another regardless of creed and class and form relationships, however tenuous.

We live in an age in which calling out people for their bigotry, whether conscious or not is now de rigeur. In many ways this is a good thing. People today will be more than happy to pull you up for being racist, homophobic or sexist in a way they just weren’t when I was young, which is just as it should be.

However…the downside of this is what you do when the rights of one oppressed group clashes with those of another.

I caught five minutes of CBB the other day, in which I heard Winston MckEnzie refuse to confirm when asked whether he had said same sex adoption was akin to child abuse. The response from his fellow housemates was almost comical. There were some half-hearted attempts to make him fess up, but there was also a move to bring the conversation to a swift end, people not wanting to stoke fire on the flames. My guess is that, conscious of viewers watching even though most of the housemates were quite clearly appalled, they were also worried about fearing to be seen as racist. In this instance racism trumped homophobia.

And who can blame them, in a world where the most innocuous comment can be misinterpreted? Think of Benedict Cumberbatch, using the term “colored” instead of “person of colour”, or the trouble Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard got into with the transgender community simply for saying universities should be a place for open debate? And let’s not even get on to Germaine Greer…

Language has become problematic. It is not enough to think unprejudiced thoughts, we must also be careful with our words, which can be misinterpreted in a dozen ways, as Tim Hunt found to his cost. Orwell couldn’t have made up the contortions to which people will go to nowadays to either appear not to be homophobic/racist/sexist or whatever, or to prove that others are. It is a brave soul that goes against what has become the cultural norm, and says, Actually I don’t completely agree with you.

It is for those reasons I have thought long and hard about writing this post. Increasingly over the years I have found myself more and more timid with my online conversations. Should I venture this opinion for appearing too right wing? (I don’t vote Tory incidentally.) Or that one and be called homophobic even though I’m not? I was recently blocked on a FB page for saying something sympathetic but bantery about a particular cause, which was misinterpreted as bigotry. It’s a fine tightrope we all walk on these days, but I can’t help feeling that our moral compass towards telling the truth has become deeply skewed.

This has been never more apparent than this week as we witnessed the reaction to the shocking events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. My response to it, and some of the nonsense I have seen espoused online since is so visceral I feel I can no longer be silent, but have to speak out for something which I believe to be fundamentally wrong.

On New Year’s Eve something unprecedented happened in towns all across Germany, not just Cologne. Groups of men deliberately targeted groups of young women and groped, sexually harrassed, assaulted and in some cases raped them. But we didn’t hear about it straight away. The first whispering I heard was when I saw it posted on Facebook by a German friend, and I thought What? My daughter was in Cologne last summer, Germany is a country I know well and feel safe in. When we were in Berlin last it felt infinitely safer to be wandering round late at night than it does in London. I do not often agree with Nigel Farage (oh dear I’ve mentioned the UKIP leader’s name, I MUST BE A FASCIST), but when I heard him talking on the radio the other day saying his first reaction was “Have German men gone mad?” I knew exactly what he meant.

And of course, German men haven’t gone mad, because German men did not perpetrate these crimes. Which isn’t to say German men don’t rape and sexually assault (apparently 12, 000 such assaults took place last year), but German men do not go out on an evening in organised gangs, prowling the streets attacking innocent women. This is just not something that happens in their culture, nor in ours for that matter.

So here I come to an unpalatable truth, which in these days where we have to be so very careful about what we say has become damn near unsayable. There is a reason we didn’t hear about the German attacks straight away (until they came out via social media and both the German press and ours could no longer ignore them). And it is deeply unpleasant one. These attacks were carried out by men from Arabic or North African origin, some of whom might be among the refugees that Germany has so generously let across their borders in the last few months.

I can see Angela Merkel’s dilemma here. She was feted as the most heroic of the European leaders for letting so many refugees in (and considering Germany’s history I can understand why she did so), but there were many of us (myself included) who thought at the time we should be careful. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is without a doubt one of the most challenging problems our generation faces. We want and should be generous to those in desperate need, but equally we cannot simply let everyone through without doing some basic checks. Inhumane as it may have seemed, I think a better solution would have been to set up decent proper processing centres for people as they came across Europe’s borders. The countries which have borne the brunt of this crisis, Greece and Italy have had their tolerance and generosity stretched to the limit and I think the EU should have been doing far more to help them.

I also think the UK should have taken far more refugees, but that this is not a problem that is solved by telling everyone to come here. We need to address the root cause of this crisis by:  a) trying to bring an end to this terrible war as soon as possible. b) Doing something to stop the people smugglers who create so much of the misery. c) Taking people straight from the refugee camps in the Lebanon and Turkey thereby stopping the need for them taking such long and dangerous journeys and d) creating some kind of safe haven in Syria where people can go to stay until such time as they can get home. 

But that’s not a very emotional response, and the understandable emotional response is to say we have to help these people now, so if that means letting them come in, we won’t question their motives and accept carte blanche the stories they tell us. Which is pretty much what has happened.

I do not think for one moment that the majority of refugees are anything other than appalled by what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. And already there has been the inevitable hateful backlash from Right Wing groups across Europe. BUT… Houston, we really have a problem.

Because not only was there a slow reaction from the authorities in Germany acknowledging what has actually happened, now the story is out some of the responses to it are baffling. I have read a number of posts on social media over the last few days seeking to deny what has happened, or say we don’t know all the facts, or say well 12000 men raped women in Germany last year, so what’s the difference?
Apart from the fact that this is victim blaming of the worst type, it is also more worryingly bending the truth to suit our own political ends. The men who did this come from a different culture to ours, one in which women’s rights are not respected as they are here in the West. Yes, we are still a long way from having true parity here, and nearly every woman I know has a horror story about a sexual assault or near escape from one, but this is different.

These men for whatever reason thought it was ok to come out in public and attack women en masse, and the Police perhaps caught between a rock and hard place didn’t react quickly enough. Fearful perhaps of seeming to be intolerant, they didn’t help those women in time and downplayed the seriousness of the crime. And fearful of stoking up trouble their government said nothing and let those women down. And so hundreds of women who suffered appalling attacks on what should have been a happy night out, weren’t listened to, and judging by the comments I have seen in the last few days aren’t being believed even now, even by some liberal women for whom it doesn't’t fit in with the refugee narrative .

The thing is, by looking away and pretending this didn’t happen, or that it’s some kind of right wing racist conspiracy, we are doing a great disservice to the majority of refugees who are here genuinely for a better life. If people think their truth is being ignored, they will make their own truth and the melting pot of two different cultural norms coming together will ignite in a spectacularly horrible way.

So I think it’s time we acknowledged an unwelcome truth: we do not sadly live in Pangloss’s Best of All Possible Worlds.  Not everyone who seeks shelter under our roof comes with good intentions, and some come to cause us harm. Some of the people who have been let into Europe in the last few months do not understand the way we live, and see women as second class citizens. It is time to face facts and expect people who come to Europe to understand there are certain standards by which we live, and if necessary educate them in those standards (as they are trying to do in Norway). For integration to truly happen and be sustainable in the long term, we need to start being more honest with each other.

It is time for us to start feeling free to say the unsayable, otherwise we have all let those women in Cologne down.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Darkness and Light

Christmas is fast approaching and this time next week most of us will be sharing the day with loved ones, be it friends or family. The expectation is always that it is a happy time, but in my experience it is often a time of contrasts; light and darkness, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow.Which is why my Christmas books tend not to be fluffy and sparkly, though they have elements of it. I find I can't write about the turn of the year without examining the shadows that hover in the corners of the warmth of the fire.

Make a Christmas Wish starts with a tragedy - my  heroine is killed in the most prosaic way doing her Christmas shopping. It's a shitty thing to happen at any time of the year ... but at Christmas? Somehow it makes the pain worse.

I haven't experienced that particular situation, but this time four years ago, my beloved mother in law was dying. We were given the news that she had incurable leukaemia in the May, so it wasn't a surprise, and it came on top of several years of her health failing involving many many trips to hospital. Three years earlier, she was taken ill just before Christmas. She'd had a couple of funny turns - one at a family party, and one when I found her sitting on the floor having passed out - but she seemed to have got over them. But that Christmas I went to pick her up as she was staying with us for the festive period, to find her sitting in her dressing gown in the dark, unable to move from her seat. I remember particularly how she sat staring at the shaft of light coming through the curtains and telling me how pretty it was. She had a particular genius for finding the light in the darkest of moments. I went into her kitchen and discovered complete chaos. From being able to manage on her own, suddenly it was clear that the effort of tidying up after her had become too much. It was a heartbreaking moment. Rosemarie was an independent strong woman, and from that point she lost a lot of her independence.

After calling the doctor out, I managed to get her back to our house, and she rallied a little. Displaying her usual cheerfulness, and responding with joy to all the things the children had made her. One of my daughters (who'd been there the day I found her on the floor) made her a little angel on which she'd written, Omi, I will always look after you. She was eight years old, and that made me weep. We got through Christmas Day, despite the children taking it in turns to come down with stomach bugs, and then when I went into Rosemarie on Boxing Day I discovered that she'd been sick in the night. Typically, she hadn't wanted to disturb me. Boxing Day was a total nightmare, as we spent the day tending to her needs. We were due to spend time with my family and had to put them off. On the 27th we were seeking for emergency social care cover, which understandably wasn't forthcoming, but thanks to my brother in law stepping in, we were able to get away for a couple of days. We had a happy time with my family, but it was all the while tempered with our worries about what was going on at home.

The following year things were worse. Rosemarie had a fall in the autumn, and spent time in and out of care homes and hospital till Christmas, when it was deemed she was well enough to come home (she wasn't). We were going to have  her for Christmas, but she told us she didn't feel well enough. So we decided to take Christmas to her. We only lived up the road, so I cooked the turkey and we had planned to take it round to her, but when we got there, she was in no fit state to celebrate. She was in a lot of pain and my brother in law had had to call out an emergency doctor. So we had lunch at home while my bil sat with her, and then swapped places, taking the children round to open presents as she lay in bed watching us all. At times like this, having children around is a definite bonus. It was important to us that despite the drama, they enjoyed the day too, and again, they came up trumps, showering Omi with hugs, and giving her little gifts they'd made, including a tiny doll sized pillow that she kept close to her bed ever after that.

The rest of the Christmas season passed in a horrible blur, we had to call the District Nurse out one day,  and she had two trips to Casualty ending in her being hospitalised again. Fortunately, she rallied round after that, and we had a very special year in 2009 when she was 85 and we managed to give her a wonderful party, and enticed some of her German friends and family over. That Christmas, she was well enough to come to us, and we had a lovely time. No one was ill, Rosemarie loved being there; darkness and light. That year was pure light.

However, the following spring it was clear that her health was deteroriating, and it was then that we found out about the leukaemia. She declined slowly over the summer, and by the autumn, much as she wanted to stay in her little flat, it was clear that she couldn't stay there any longer. So she came to stay with us. By then we knew that we were looking at a matter of weeks, and it had been our hope that she could die in our home. However, along with the leukaemia she had huge mobility problems, and in the end we couldnt' manage her care in the way she needed us to. So after a bad night when she turned to me and said, "I think I should be somewhere else", reluctantly we accepted that the best place for her was the hospice.

It was the end of November 2011. Christmas was fast approaching, and with it all the same chores that needed doing: present buying, card writing, getting a Christmas tree. All these things needed to be done, but at the same time, we didn't know how long we had left with her. The hospice she was in, The Princess Alice in Esher was utterly amazing. The staff were kind and thoughtful, and loved Rosemarie, who was a model patient, and even when she was feeling dreadful could always raise a smile. I realised once when I visited her, that her eyes danced across her face. They always expressed love, laughter and courage. She was really the most amazing person. And in those darkest of moments, she taught me how to be strong, how to love, and how to face the future when it seems at its bleakest.

Weirdly, a lot of the time it wasn't sad visiting Rosemarie . We had some very funny moments with her, and a particularly riotous visit when we got out her old accordian and my daughter played and we all laughed a lot. It seemed extraordinary to have these moments of deep joy in the midst of our abiding sadness, but they came these occasional flashes of beauty, and I remain grateful for those memories.

The week before she died, I took one of my children in. It was clear now we were in the very last stages, and I was praying that she would go soon and quickly, while at the same time yearning for one more day. I can't remember what we said to one another, but it was a very happy visit, and as we left the hospice a rainbow appeared, which somehow seemed fitting.

By the Wednesday, she was deteriorating rapidly, and finding it hard to talk. One of the doctors came in and with extreme gentleness, held her hand, and said softly, "That smile is still there, but a little less energy today."

The following day, the day she died, was utterly harrowing. Rosemarie could barely talk and was in great distress. I was exhausted and desparing and didn't know what to do. That time, my youngest daughter, with the simplicity of a child took her hand and just babbled nonsense at her. I came away thinking, I can't do this anymore. A selfish thought perhaps, it wasn't me dying, but I couldn't bear to see her pain. A very dark moment indeed.

Fortunately, I opted to go back in the evening with my husband. By then Rosemarie was on a morphine pump and unconscious, but she was peaceful, and not most importantly not in any pain. So our last sight of her before we left, was a comforting one.

That night we had a call at 10pm to say we should prepare ourselves. Our eldest daughter was out, so I went over to fetch her home. And then we waited for the phone to ring. At 11.45 the call came. The older three all got up, and our oldest daughter insisted on coming with us. It turned out they had discussed it and decided she should come to look after us. Just writing those words makes me well up. We left the other two weeping and comforting each other with huge bars of chocolate (which I'd bought in advance in case of such an eventuality).

The journey to the hospice was swift and silent, but I was struck by how loud the birdsong was as we got out of the car. Rosemarie would have loved that, she was always keen on wildlife. We were met at the door by the staff, "We're sorry, they said, "your mother passed away five minutes ago."

So we went into see her, lying in the room we had visited for so many weeks. Radio 3 was playing and as per our instructions, the window was open to let her soul fly out. It was a deeply sad moment, but at the same time I felt at peace knowing she finally was.

Dark and light, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow. These are always the things that will stay with me about Christmas now. And for that reason I will cherish the moments I have with my family this year, good and bad. We have to hold on to those we love. They will not be with us forever.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Make a Christmas Wish: The playlist

All my books usually have playlists, which I normally compile as I'm writing the story. However, this year due to a combination of lack of time and computer problems I was a bit late in the day sorting it out. So here it is for your delectation and delight; the songs that inspired the story, and helped it on its way...

Livvy, the main character in MACW, came to me fully formed some years ago. She jumped into my head, and all I knew about her was that she was a very angry ghost. Initially I was inspired by Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in which a dead wife haunts her husband. But then when I was looking for a new Christmassy theme, it struck me that A Christmas Carol was also a great place to go for inspiration, so I married the two themes together and came up with Livvy, Adam and Emily's story.

If you haven't read the book yet, Livvy is knocked down at the beginning, just after she's discovered her husband, Adam is having an affair with Emily. So the first song on the playlist, has to be Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush, which perfectly captures Livvy's distress and anger about being shut out of her old life; all she can do is look on from the sidelines.

Livvy and Adam have a son, Joe, who has Asperger's. Although Livvy is an imperfect mother at times, she loves Joe with a fierce protectiveness, and fights hard for him to get what he needs. So cheesy and all, Joe's song for his mum is You Lift Me Up by Westlife; although he can't express his emotions very well, Joe adores his mum, and all he wants for Christmas is for her to come back to him.

Run to You by Bruce Springsteen is for Adam and Emily. They know their love affair is wrong, and they don't want to hurt anyone, but they are drawn together by a force which they can't control. When Livvy dies, they are left in limbo - do they ignore their feelings, or do they carry on? And how long is a decent enough time to wait...

Wire to Wire by Razorlight is for all three of them: Livvy, Adam and Emily. Livvy and Adam's relationship ended up being a toxic one, which is what has sent Adam into Emily's arms. Yet if Livvy gets her heart's desire, and a second chance with Adam, Emily will be heartbroken. No one wins in this situation, and it's an impossible dilemma.

The Ghost in You by the Psychedelic Furs is for Livvy - who is at once apart, as no one can see her but Joe, but also very much missed, by her son,  her husband, and her mother.

Murder on the Dance Floor by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, is for the ghosts who inhabit Underworld, a nightclub for the dead underneath the local theatre. I had a blast writing their part of their story - just because they're dead, it doesn't mean they can't party!

Spirits in the Material World by the Police - I like the idea that all around us there are the spirits of those who've not passed on yet, lingering (I hope) mainly because they can't quite leave their earthly loves and lives behind.

I Put a Spell on You by  Nina Simone. I adored writing the character of Laetitia, the mysterious spirit guide who lives in Underworld, and offers to help Livvy. If you've ever seen the film, Death Becomes Her, I drew inspiration from the character of Lisle von Rhoman, who seems to offer Meryl Streep the chance of eternal life. As in a lot of magical films - you might not necessarily like what you wish for...

You Know I'm no Good by Amy Winehouse.  Livvy has to finally face up to what has happened in the past before she can move on, and this is for the moment when she discovers some very unpleasant home truths. I don't believe that Livvy is no good, but that she has been overwhelmed by a very difficult situation. What always shines through is her love of Joe.

Do you hear what I hear? by Whitney Houston and Carol of the Bells by John Williams are both lovely Christmassy songs which I thought were appropriate for the ending of my story.

And finally.... Angels by Robbie Williams. I've used this song over and over, because it's such a good one for mothers. But this time it's Joe's tune. To him, Livvy will always be an angel in heaven, and a star in the sky....

If you have Spotify and would like to listen to the playlist you can here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Having your own weather

I have mentioned this before, and I am mentioning it again, as since I have entered a perimenopausal state officially (unofficially I reckon I've been in it for several years) I have come to realise my woeful ignorance about something which affects all women eventually, and goes on for YEARS. And yet is a subject people shy away from as somehow embarrassing or awkward.

I was therefore delighted to hear  Dame Sally Davies, The Chief Medical Officer say that this is a topic which shouldn't be taboo, especially in the workplace. And pleased to hear Kathy Lette on LBC the other day, talking about this very subject. Her dry comment that, You get your own weather was particularly apposite on a day when I was fanning my face constantly. Hurrah I thought, finally, the menopause is being discussed openly.

Just think about this for a moment. Not all women have a bad time at the menopause, but many do. Symptoms include: heavy periods, incontinence issues, forgetfulness, moodswings, hot flushes, dry vaginas, loss of libido, anxiety, exhaustion, stomach problems, etc etc  And all while we try to carry on our normal lives, be it working, looking after chidlren, or most often than not dealing with elderly relatives .

 It can be exhausting and demoralising realising that even the most simple tasks sometimes feel overwhelming. And yet it's something we DON'T talk about. It's not just at work. I don't think I ever discussed the menopause with anyone properly till it started happening to me. And it starts off a bit furtively - Oh yes, I have heavy periods too, yes I'm always hot, before you realise the majority of women your own age are going through similar. Information is scarce - I have suffered heavy periods for the past ten years (I have a bulky womb apparently, but we shall let that pass) - and only discovered in the last couple that the mirena coil can help with that. Incontinence issues are really common, particularly if you have had children. I only learnt what my pelvic floor was when I was pregnant for the very first time aged 30, and though I have done exercises on and off over the years, it's not apparently enough. I think ALL women should  be taught about this at school, because ignorance, and embarrassment talking about it makes for a very miserable middle age.  Over the last year I've been seeing a fantastic women's health physio (I didn't know such people existed, but frankly they are the unsung heroines of the NHS) who taught me among other things that you can have physio on your vagina and IT HELPS. Why did I not know this earlier?  As an educated middle class woman my ignorance is staggering.

So... going back to Sally Davies. I think she's right that women should be able to talk about this openly with their bosses in the workplace. Although the reasons she gave:  the forgetfulness, woolly thinking and tiredness aren't the ones I would mention. Flooding - a sudden surge of blood when you are having your period - is commonplace for perimenopausal women and though it hasn't happened to me at work, I know many people who've experienced this. Along with the incontinence problems, these are two horrible physical things that can happen to women, which are embarrassing and humiliating. It isn't something I'd want to rush up and announce to people (luckily I work with women so that makes it a bit easier), but if there was at least an understanding that these things happen and it is no big deal, I think it would make life a lot easier for all of us.

And as for the guy who texted LBC to say all women should retire at 46 because of the menopause, all I can say is I'm glad I'm not married to you. Because the simple truth of the matter is if you have lived with a man for many years, he will be used to your bodily cycle and be aware of what is happening to you now (or should be!). I have had several frank conversations about it with men my own age, which I couldn't have imagined having a few years ago. Men do not need to be protected from this, they are living with it too.  So what's wrong with talking honestly about something we're all going through together?

I applaud Sally Davies for raising the issue, and I hope it gets debated more. Maybe then women can enter the third phase of their reproductive cycle without feeling furtive, and somehow tainted by the process. After all, it's just nature innit?

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

So Tomorrow, THIS is happening

This is my latest book. And one I am INCREDIBLY proud of. And also rather nervous about. The main character, Livvy jumped into my head about six books ago. All I knew was she was dead, and very pissed off. And I wanted to do a kind of Blithe Spirit story with an Angry Dead Wife. But I couldn't find my way into it for ages. And then about two years ago, when I was coming up with ideas for my editor, I suddenly thought how about stroppy dead ex wife meets A Christmas Carol, and Make a Christmas Wish was born.

This book has been a WHOLE lot of fun to write. Partly because Livvy is a bit of a cow, and I quite like writing difficult characters. (I had similar fun writing Caz in The Bridesmaid's Pact if you've read it) But also, because. Well... ghosts. And seances. And shenagigans. What's NOT to love?

But because I've also been writing this in the grip of the greatest grief I've ever personally known (I lost my beloved mum eighteen months ago) there's quite a bit of heartbreak in there. I cried when I finished writing it. I cried when I edited it. I cried the last time I read it, and apparently I have made my editor cry, and according to the reviews on Amazon a few readers too. I call that a result.

But, y'know, I'm all about life and optimism and moving forward. So, though I kind of hope this book does make you cry, because that was sort of the intention... I also hope you laugh too. Because we  never ever really come to terms with the people we lose, but they stay with us, and they love us and we love them. Even when they're not here.

And finally... This is called Make a Christmas Wish (look out for some eshorts about the characters' Christmas Wishes)... and I have a particularly personal Christmas Wish this year. Too much of my life over the last few years has been bound up with people I love succumbing to cancer. A very dear friend of ours, who is pretty much part of our family has cancer at the moment, and has been through a very vicious course of radiotherapy. He's a long way out of the woods, and we're hoping the treatment has worked, but we don't know. He often comes to us for Christmas dinner and at the moment he can't eat. So my Christmas Wish this year is very very heartfelt. I really wish Ashley can be with us on Christmas Day eating turkey. I know there are lots of calls on people's purses, but if you can spare some money to go towards the Royal Marsden who have looked after him so well, please can you support this (I gave up drinking for a month to support Ash and I'm still not smoking)

Many many thanks

Happy Christmas



Sunday, October 11, 2015


So.. this year I have decided to give up drinking (and more importantly smoking which I stupidly started doing again last year) for the month of October. The smoking is intended to be permanent. I did it before for ELEVEN years (I know, I know. I am the classic, can't just have one girl, the fact of which I forgot to remind myself last year when I had one the night before my mother's funeral.) so I know I can do it again.

The reason I'm doing this is not just for health reasons however, though of course that's a jolly good thing and my liver will be grateful.

Unfortunately a very dear friend of ours has recently been diagnosed with throat cancer and is currently undergoing radiotherapy at the Royal Marsden. We've known Ash since we got married, and we all (kids included) regard him as part of the family, so we're obviously trying to support him in any way we can at a particularly rubbish time for him. (And it is rubbish. I had really no idea quite how brutal radiotherapy can be. I know it is for the greater good in the end, but it's almost a case of the cure being worse than the disease.)

Before Ash started the radiotherapy, he was planning to drink milk when he was out as alcohol was likely to burn his throat (as it happens that's not been the case as he struggled even with milk) and I jokingly said I'd keep him company and not drink for October. But when I thought about it, I decided if I wasn't going to drink I may as well try and raise money for the Royal Marsden where Ashley is being treated.

So that's what I'm doing. Since Ash has been ill I've spent alot of time at the Marsden with him and I cannot praise the staff there enough for their exemplary kindness and care of all their patients. Everyone from the senior consultants to the cleaners seem to have an extra layer of empathy and understanding than is normal in an NHS hospital. There is a calmness and hopefulness about the place, despite the reasons why people are there. I've witnessed a little bald headed girl in a wheelchair in the canteen joyfully accepting a treat of a muffin just like any normal kid her age, and seen people in agony laughing and joking with the nurses. The atmosphere on the wards is calm and unhurried, the staff at the reception desk are kind and informative, and seem to know the majority of patients by name. In short, it's the kind of place if the worst were to happen to you or yours, that you would absolutely want to be treated.

I know there are alot of claims on people's purses, which is why I deliberately haven't set a target on this, but if you could spare anything, however small, please do support my fundraising efforts, if you can. For all the Ashleys of the world. Sadly there are far too many.


Sunday, June 07, 2015

Nanny McPhee

It is June and I realise I have not blogged at all in 2015. Which is shameful. All I can say in my defence is that it has been a very busy year.

Anyway. Here I am, with a very overdue post about my amazing mum, Ann Moffatt, who died after a very short and sudden illness last May.

What can I say about my mum? So very very much, and yet I don't think I have enough or adequate words to explain what and how much she meant to me. Or how much I miss her a year on. However old I get to be, I don't think I will ever be done missing her.

However as a start I'll say my mum was like Nanny McPhee , always there when you needed her, though unlike Nanny McPhee always always wanted as well. I am one of eight children and my mother pulled off the extraordinary trick of always being there for each  of her children whenever any of us had a problem. So twenty odd years ago, after I'd had minor surgery the first face I saw when I came round was my mum's. Never mind that my dad had been very poorly and she was undoubtedly worried sick (not that she'd have let me know that) she squeezed out a few hours in a very stressful period to dash across London so she could be with me when I woke up. Looking back now I am astounded by her generosity and nonchalance about what it must have cost her. As the years rolled on, and particularly after my dad died, she made it a point of honour to be there for the births of all of our children. I remember talking to women in my antenatal class about how they were all dreading their mums being around. And all I could think was I can't imagine having a baby without my mum being there.

Because Mother was just extraordinary. She would arrive at the later stages of my pregnancy, make me sit down, cook us meals, and quietly and competently take over the running of the household without ever appearing interfering. At every point in every pregnancy when Mama turned up I would breathe a sigh of relief and welcome her arrival and the chance for me to take a break. She was also brilliantly clear about what she would and wouldn't do - she was there to help, but wasn't up for night duty. Fair enough, these were my babies. She also was deeply restrained about not jumping in and taking over the baby. She regarded her role as looking after me so I could have time with the new arrival. An unusual and I think rare generosity in a grandmother.

And yet when she did look after the babies, she did it with such aplomb and ease I was in awe. We had a family holiday when our second daughter was two months old. She was a colicky baby and difficult to settle. Five minutes under my mother's capable ministrations and said baby was burped swaddled and sleeping happily. Can't say I ever managed to do that as well as she did.

As the children grew, my mother came into her own as a doting loving grandmother, whose house in Shropshire was a haven for us all.  My children have the happiest childhood memories of weekends spent scrabbling up hillsides, playing pooh sticks in the brook and trying (and failing) to beat Gamma at scrabble. ( I think I beat her once in my entire life).

As time went on I was increasingly tied up with not only my children but my in laws. My father in law had a massive stroke just after our eldest was born and needed constant care thereafter. So long before the term was invented Spouse and I were sandwich carers to two elderly parents and four small children. When my lovely father in law died in 2003, we took on the role of unofficial carers to my mother in law. Throughout this period my mother was a constant support. We didn't live close to one another, but I rang her every week (a habit started when I first left home which I never lost. I was heartbroken last year when her illness meant those phone calls came to an abrupt and sudden end). And every week. Mother would patiently listen to my gripes and groans, and be there with good practical advice.

Because that was another thing about my mum. She was and amazingly practical person. Devoutly religious, she always related to Martha rather than Mary. She found it hard to express feelings in words, but boy did she express them in actions. Nearly four years ago when my mil developed leukaemia and was dying, we made the decision to have her living with us. After a single phone call when Mother picked up how stressed I was (empathy another quality)  she rang me and said ,  "I've cleared my diary, I'll be on the next train." And next thing I knew at a point in my life when I was utterly at my wits end, there was my mum in the background doing her thing. Again. It was the same routine as when I was pregnant. She never interfered or judged us, she simply made us dinner, picked the youngest up from school, did laundry, ironing and housework, and quite frankly kept me sane. As a ex nurse her skills came in useful when I didn't know what to do, teaching me how to roll mil in bed and how to lift her out of a chair without breaking my back (towel under the arms and pull. You're welcome. Of course modern health and safety says that's a no no, but like a lot of Ma's old fashioned remedies it damned well worked. She was just incredible . At 81 showing no sign of slowing down at all.

And yet... Maybe the signs were there. As soon as mil got so I'll she needed to go into the hospice, Mother was booking her train home. I remember feeling slightly miffed at the time, I wanted to spend some relaxed time with her, and she as pushing off. But looking back I can see she must have been knackered, but being my mum she could never have admitted it. But still tired or not, when I rang to tell her on 23 December that mil had died and we wouldn't be coming to her at Christmas as planned, she didn't show me any of the disappointment I know she would have been feeling but just let me cry down the phone. And the after the funeral was over insisted I spent a few days with her alone in Shropshire for some much needed r and r. That was my mum all over. Seeing what you needed, even when you couldn't yourself.

She was always a force of nature:energetic, capable, and positive. We all thought she'd go on for ever. I'd always had visions of her dying in her 90s, possibly in her sleep after climbing care caradoc for the last time. So it was a massive shock to discover in February last year that she was suffering from an inoperable brain tumour. I cried very day for six weeks when I found out. How could my stalwart reliable amazing mother be dying. It didn't seem possible, but it was happening and there was nothing I could do.

We were initially told she might have till the summer, but as it happened, the illness took its toll faster than that. I suspect she knew there was something wrong and ignored it, she was ever an optimist. I am immensely grateful she was able to spend her last Christmas in Africa visiting my brothers, and that she got to go to the hospital she nursed in in Kenya in 1957.  I am also pleased I was able to pick her up from that trip and had the privilege of driving her home and hearing her outpouring of joy at what she had witnessed.

Her attitude to dying was typical. She wrote to us all and told us not to be sad, she'd had a wonderful life and was grateful. She spent her last weeks welcoming her family's: children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews and her friends, refusing to be sad, and telling everyone she was having a lovely time.

Pending those last few weeks with her as much as I could, given the distance involved was one of the greatest privileges of ,y life. As was the moment when(knowing how much she hated emotional outpouring so) I told her I loved her, and she said "well this is the time to say it, I love you too." Words I had never before heard her utter. The night before she died, I spent a few hours alone with her and a hospice nurse, holding her hand, and talking though I have no idea whether she could hear or not. It was one of the most profound and meaningful times in my life, and I am so grateful I could be there. I guess she was listening though, because at 6am I to,d her my brother's plane had touched down from South Africa. Some time afterwards, the nurse told me to rouse everyone as this was the end. Only it wasn't. She hung on long enough  for my brother (and sister who had done an insane midnight drive to pick him up) to arrive.

She died about an hour later, surrounded by her children, exactly as she would have wanted.

A year on, and I am still coming to terms with her loss. But I feel immensely lucky that she was my mum.  She was my rock and,y anchor throughout life till now. I miss her more than I can say. But I'm lucky. Not everyone can saytheirmum was Nanny McPhee. I