12. The Queen and I, a swimming adventure by James Stuart
My original title for this site was ‘The loneliness of the long distance swimmer’, stolen of course from Alan Sillitoe’s famous story about a young lad whose prowess at running takes him on a mental escape from the reality of the institution he lives in. Loneliness in the water is an irrevocable part of swimming great distances where the activity becomes an entirely solitary pursuit, even when accompanied by others in the water. Head down, arms churning, the roll of hips, the turn of the head, the deep suck of breath, the slow exhalation under water and only very brief glimpses of sky relieve the monotony and loneliness of the challenge. Talk is impossible, contact pointless.
Yesterday I took my swimming adventures to a whole new level with a 10,5km. solo swim from Atlanterra to Barbate. It’s an almost arrow straight stretch of beach running south east to north west from the edge of the cork oak studded Sierra de la Plata, past the village of Zahara de los Atunes and then along an almost endless empty stretch of coast lined with golden sand and scrubby palmito bushes. I took a companion of course, just to have a conversation with. I find this is the easiest way to break up the heady wet loneliness. In the past I’ve swum with Ernest Hemingway (“this is man’s stuff, you’re not made for defeat, you can do it”), Winston Churchill (“If only I could keep my cigar alight I might become a tad proficient at this game”), Charlie Chaplin (who swam with great proficiency and inevitably we ended up talking about women and sex), Enid Blyton (I switched her off before she became too polemic – she started asking if we might meet gypsies on the beach in Barbate), Sean Connery (James? Look here young man, we can talk about anything but just not about you know who) and even on one memorable occasion a teacher from school whose name I couldn’t remember – I spent an hour trying to get an answer from him as to why he always wore a sharp ironed crease in his jeans.
The Queen was very much in my mind as I slipped in to the morning stillness of the grey green water. She’d died the previous day, news about her was everywhere, I’d even been asked by a local newspaper wanting the reaction of the British community in the province to her death. What could I say that hadn’t been said by tens of thousands before me? Somewhat irreverently I said that I preferred licking stamps with the Queen on them than licking stamps with King Charles on them. Probably won’t be published.
96 seems to be a very good age, I was happy she’d got that far and thought of my Dad, 90 next year and how much he’d love to be joining me on this swim. If the Queen can survive so long I would have a swim in her memory, 100 metres for every one of her years – 9,600 metres. I wasn’t so sure about topics of conversation with the Queen as I swam along, I know little about horses, even less about Corgis.
I looked down the coast, as the sun rose a sea harl descended. I couldn’t even see the Hotel Antonio 500m. away let alone Barbate at 10km., perhaps that was a blessing. I struck out just as the morning breeze dropped off turning the water into an oily slow swell. I headed off aiming for a line of yellow buoys a hundred metres away. The shoreline completely disappeared as the visibility worsened. This was very disconcerting but I was sure though that things would improve as the sun burnt through the haze. Unfortunately it didn’t and I spent the next 3,5 hours swimming in a grey disorienting fug.
Happily my sense of direction in the water is pretty good, my common sense perhaps less so. I navigated from buoy to buoy. They were about 150m. apart, once I’d swum past one of them there was a good 75m. before the next would appear out of the gloom. I only realised I was opposite Zahara when I saw the dark rusty silhouette of the boiler from the wrecked ‘Vaporcito’ an old steam trawler sunk near the shore. I never saw the low town huddled below the shoulder of the Sierra Retín. As I left Zahara behind the buoys ended, the next 7km. was no-mans land. This huge length of beach is controlled by Spain’s Ministry of Defence and a winter playground for Nato simulated beach landings. Utterly devoid of buildings the army happily lets locals use the beach in the summer. In the winter I’ve swum along with tank barrels peeking out of camouflage nets and soldiers patrolling the beach with machine guns.
I navigated knowing the vague halo of the sun should be on my back. Occasionally it disappeared altogether and I was forced to remove my ear plugs and listen for distant cars, my only navigational aid. To be honest Lizzie wasn’t much help, she was more worried about her Corgis inability to swim than my navigational predicament. She was quite happy to be ‘Lizzie’. I hadn’t been quite sure how to address her as we set off along the coast. However she put my ease, “James let me tell you, I really am going to enjoy this next chapter of my being. Out pomp and circumstance. In the new me. Call me ‘Lizzie’ and we’ll get on just fine”. “And Prince Philip?”, I ventured, “will he be errr… Phil?”.
Lizzie in the nicest possible way was keen to hurry me along, it would soon be elevenses and she couldn’t bear to miss it. “Despite my current predicament, I do like to follow the same routine” she told me. The Queen I learnt enjoys strong tea, more of an Assam than a Darjeeling brew apparently. I told her my favourite was Lapsang Soughing as it always reminded me of my grandfather’s house in Scotland where the smoky scent seemed to drift even in to the bedding upstairs. “I suppose you drink coffee now, living this far south?” she asked and I was happily able to reply that I followed the royal preferences for tea only. “You must though drink coffee if you’re offered it you know”, I was duly told. “I have delighted in many a drink all over the world, something I would never normally drink at home. Travel not only broadens the mind but also the palate”. I was about to launch in to a story about a wonderful couscous with a Berber family way up in the Atlas but she cut me off with her own reminiscences. “The Tropics is the place, everything tastes so much better under the sun in the shade of a palm tree. My subjects in Tuvalu prepare an excellent long sunset drink with coconut milk. Philip prefers his with rum…”, she paused, her voice choking a little with emotion, “I am sooo looking forward to seeing him later”. The Queen seemed suddenly so much younger.
At 8,000m. my mind was drifting, on two occasions I found myself swimming out to sea, I’d gone on auto pilot but completely lost my bearings. My heart rate shot up but with a short rest I could just feel the gradual swell taking me to the coast. Eventually I decided it would be safer to swim as close to the shore as possible, difficult in places as rocks would loom up quickly through the murky green depths. Today I’d had no luck, grey flat skies and no visibility in the water made it feel as though I was swimming in a sensory deprivation tank for much of the time. Thank god for Lizzie keeping me company. At 10,000m. I rounded the rocky breakwater of the Rio Barbate, waves rolling in over the shallow river bed. My landing point? The Playa del Carmen, the perfect curve of Barbate’s town beach, just another 1,000m. ahead. Sadly it was not to be, half way across the river a strong cramp squeezed my left calf muscle, paralysing me on the spot. I drifted along massaging my leg and decided I’d really done enough for the day and swam down the river with one leg trailing limply beside me. At 10,590m. I touched the shore and hobbled up to a big stone to take a well earned rest. A big smile crossed my face. I’d broken the 10km. barrier and survived to tell the tale.
And as for Lizzie? She left me in the river, we both had other thoughts in our mind. She’d already forgotten about me. I could imagine her rushing along throwing off her tiara, her gowns, her overweight jewellery, her uncomfortable shoes, her years. Barefoot she was running across white sand looking for that palm tree in Tuvalu where Philip would be sitting with his rum and coconut patiently waiting. He knew she’d turn up sooner or later.
Its been a long time since I have added any new writers – but during this strange time it somehow has spurred me to reignite certain aspects of my life, my blog being one of the things. maybe its something about getting older (and wiser), but I feel more confident to do all those things that I would never have done a few years ago, post selfies, write, try out new and different things – maybe its because I am realising that life is getting shorter…… anyhow, a friend asked me to collaborate with her on a project that looks at our lives, narrating our feelings and thoughts about our upbringing and lives as Chinese women brought up in a western world. Strangely we are similar age and are called Christine and Christina – we met 22 years ago, when our sons were at the same nursery, but lost contact and then remet a few years ago through our creativity. anyhow, here is post number one from both of us – we are chatting to each other, revealing our inner thoughts, worries and criticisms…..
Here I am at the age of somewhere around one.
My parents used to love to tell me the story of when my mother took me shopping at Lord & Taylor’s, our local posh department store. She lifted me, nestled in a baby seat, onto the checkout counter while she searched for her wallet to pay. I was quiet and very still. No one noticed me until I sneezed a little baby “atchoo”, which gave all the shop ladies a fright because up until then, they thought I was a baby doll.
The Chinese have a word, “gwai”, that means well behaved and obedient. When I was little, I would beam with pride when my parents told the story. I took pride in the fact that I was “gwai”, the ultimate in being the perfect Chinese daughter.
Now, when I play this story back to myself, I think, “How strange? Would the shop ladies have thought I was a doll had I been a white baby?” Hartford, Connecticut, 1962. I think I might have been the first Chinese baby the city had ever seen. My parents were part of the early wave of immigration into areas of the US outside its major cities. Just a few years before, my father had been told he couldn’t rent an apartment because he was Chinese.
And so you see, I think this feeling of objectification, experienced my whole life, has very early beginnings. By objectification, I mean a sense of feeling “other”. Did I always feel this? Is it an inherent part of my personality or did I absorb it through my skin because others felt it of me. My guess is that like all things, the answer lies somewhere in between.
So I realise now that my whole life, I have always been walking this fine line of trying to accept me for myself but then not really knowing who I myself was. Even at the age of one, I was watching, always watching. As if I knew even then that I wasn’t like the others; not quite fitting in while trying to work out what was required of me to fit in. Fifty-eight years later, I wonder if I was always as serious as this photo suggests I would be. I certainly have very few memories of experiencing pure, unrestrained joy. Whatever I was doing or thinking, I was always wondering if it was “right”. I look at this photo with my own objective eyes, and TBH, if I don’t mind saying so myself, I was pretty darn cute. That little bowl haircut with those chubby, chipmunk cheeks, anyone could be forgiven for thinking I look like a doll. With love, Xtine
Dearest Christine many years ago, I found this cute photograph rummaging around my mothers’ few personal trinkets, which consisted of a green vanity case and an old oxo tin full of photos.
There are not many photographs of myself as a baby, but I fortunately have this one, mounted on card and obviously been hand tinted. I am sitting on a sideboard with flowers in vases – I am positive that this is not my mother’s house, as she has never shown any passion for fresh flowers, vases nor decorative cloths – her own life consisted of practical and basic necessities. I can only presume that this is my paternal great aunt’s house in Yorkshire, which I did visit as a child and I have distant memories of her lace doilies and ornaments. My aunt Elizabeth apparently brought up my father, though I have no real true story as to why this happened, sadly all the relatives on his side have passed away and only a distant cousin has a few stories to tell. I only discovered recently that my father Donald was in Borstal by the age of 15, and his way to escape this problematic life was to join the army. He was stationed in Hong Kong, which is where he met my mother Ying, and brought her back to England – married and bearing myself. I was born in Ryhl, which was an army station. Moving from base to base was the pattern of our lives for the next few years.
My mother was originally from Guangdong (formerly Canton)in mainland China, but as a result of the 1949 revolution when my grandparents’ thriving tailoring business was taken away, she was sent to Hong Kong to study and hence met my father.
Sadly my parents separated when I was 5 years old and it was not amicable. My mother spent over 12 hours a day working to support us 3 children, and so I never really saw much of her, especially as I moved to London at 19. It’s a far cry from the close relationships that I have with my own children – but life then was definitely harder. My mother never really wanted to speak about my father so I have learned very little about him. Fortunately I only have memories of a happy if not colourful childhood. I cherish this only photograph of myself as I look so happy and content in my lovely clean white dress – I look so poised and oblivious to whatever was going on around me, ready to take on the world and its challenges.Love Xtinaxx
if you are interested in reading our stories, you can find us on Instagram Doubleblossomxx
10. Another amazing review by the insightful Jacqueline Palmer.
Lady Bird: My Mother My Self Revisited
In Nancy Friday’s seminal book, My Mother My Self, she explores the conflictual feelings of anger, love and hate that daughters hold for their mother in their desire to escape becoming their mother. It’s a painful and complex journey captured so beautifully in Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird. It is a film handling many rites of passage, a teenager ending high school, a young woman experiencing boys, sex, friendships, but at its heart is a powerful portrayal of intimacy between mother and daughter as college signals a new beginning.
Christine, played by Saoirse Ronan, dreams of escape from the confines of suburban Sacramento and her Catholic girl’s school, for an East Coast arts education that is out of her reach. With her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) doing double shifts at a psych ward, her father out of work and battling depression, not to mention her low school grades, it is a leap of imagination summed up in her renaming herself Lady Bird. But with her mother up against her own life’s limitations, her reality check is harsh, “the way that you work, you’re not even worth state tuition”, she snaps. Gerwig captures the moment to moment inflections and triggers between Lady Bird and her mother, weeping together listening to the Grapes of Wrath, then turning on a dime as Ladybird jumps out of the car to escape her.
Griping and bickering can also turn to love as they trawl vintage shops, and her mother finds ‘the dress’. Though she tries to be kind, her mother’s experience of mothering by ‘an abusive alcoholic’ is not easy to overcome. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can possibly be”, says her mother. But the trials of boys, sex, school and friendship are finding Ladybird getting into trouble, lying and letting down her best friend. Her mother is hurt by her daughter’s shame of their circumstances as she begins to mix with the popular rich kids, and spends Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family on the other side of the tracks. But breaking each other’s hearts is a thing mothers and daughters do in order to break free, and in order for a mother to let her daughter go. One moment adored, the next despised, Ladybird captures this love story with all the intensity of the real thing. What Gerwig creates is a self-determined young woman on screen who does the right thing, and is not a victim of the boys and their behavior, or of a lack of self-confidence. It is a compelling portrayal of what it is to be a daughter, a mother and a friend.
9. Naomi Gryn – renowned writer for many worldwide publications has written this piece about the warrior woman La Kahena
I first heard the tale of La Kahena, the legendary Jewish Warrior Queen of the Berbers, from Sarah Touati, a dear friend who lives in Paris, over some mint tea and her celebrated couscous au beurre.
Some say La Kahena was a priestess, others say her name suggests that she had the power of prophecy. In the 8th century, when Islam was sweeping across the globe, Kahena led her people against the Arab invasion of North Africa, refusing to accept Mohammed as the last prophet and relinquish her own faith. She wins my admiration for such extraordinary courage in her struggle for cultural and spiritual integrity.
Kahena lived in the Aures, a large, fertile mountain plateau which today lies in modern Algeria, once again being ripped apart by the forces of religious fundamentalism. Here were pitched the tents of the Jerua, the powerful Jewish tribe which dominated all the Berbers.
Our heroine was reputed to have been a woman of extraordinary beauty and the chiefs of many powerful tribes sought her hand in marriage. One, the son of the head of the Jerua tribe was a particularly revolting character, who used to exact from the daughters of his subjects the so-called ‘seignoral rights’ of the Middle Ages. La Kahena accepted his proposal so that she might rid her people of his tyrannic ways and on their wedding night, she plunged a dagger into his breast.
When the King of the Aures was killed by the Moslem invaders, Kahena became the head of the Berbers. She set off to face Hassan, the general of the Caliph, with his army of 40,000 men, who knew that if he conquered the great Kahena, he would be the undisputed master of the Maghreb.
La Kahena led her army of Berbers and Christians down from the mountains and at dawn, the two armies engaged in a bitter battle. The Berbers were victorious. They took some prisoners, most of whom they released, apart from one young man, Khalid, who was so beautiful and brave that Kahena adopted him as one of her sons.
Kahena proceeded across Africa in triumph. For five years there was peace and the country prospered. Then Hassan returned with an even larger army. 60,000 men this time. La Kahena assembled her troops and told them: ‘Count on no help outside the help of the God who arms me….death is more welcome than submission and slavery.’
She instructed her people to raze their cities to deter the Caliph’s armies from another invasion. ‘The Arabs are looking for cities to loot’ she said. ‘Take your swords and your torches. Cut down trees; level the buildings with the ground, that the enemy may find neither tree nor shelter nor provisions in his passage. For the faith of your ancestors, for the love of your God!’ An interesting strategy, but not surprisingly, her citizens were extremely displeased to see the destruction of all they had built and, in any case, this still didn’t put off the Caliph’s men.
In 703, when Hassan invaded the Maghreb once again, the gorgeous Khalid betrayed La Kahena and deserted her camp to lead the Arab forces against her. The carnage was terrible and this time the Berbers were defeated and put to flight. La Kahena was advised to seek refuge but refused. Instead, in the year 704, she fell gloriously, sword in hand. Hassan decapitated the mighty Queen and sent her head to the Caliph of Bagdad.
And while I believe that we are all the children of one God and I abhor war above all, in the hearts and minds of all who cherish freedom and self-determination, La Kahena’s magnificent spirit lives on.
8. introducing zara
Now you’ve gone and left me all alone
I slowly makin’ my way back home
empty chair the bedroom bare
a curl of lightly fallen hair
nothing in the frigidaire
ripening fruit and cupboards bare
half a cup of breakfast tea
you took the cat
I’m nobody without you
Zara Hart © 24 July 2017 23:47
i have known zara for over 7 years and was totally aware of her visual abilities – photographing portraits and flowers for the past years, she is now following her other passion – writing and poetry. i thought that this piece is so poignant and simply beautiful.
7. 2nd June guest writer.
This is when my thoughts and my yearnings turn to Spain. Just before summer becomes too fierce, yet when the skies are sure to be unforgiving blue, the sherry will be chilled and the soft evenings mean you can forego sweaters. Now that ancient land of early crystal mornings and late sultry nights comes into its own. It begins to call.
I love the hard, hot, merciless Spain of high summer, when to go out in the mid-day sun is a mistake you may regret for a long time, and dinner time is deep into tomorrow. But even better is now, when cooling breezes are still possible and you can actually stroll and explore, enjoy and understand. This is a good time to see Spain and feel Spain, to make the most of everything this thrilling land has to offer.
I want to walk the spring streets of Seville, marvelling at its labyrinthine complexity, go to galleries in serious yet hedonistic Madrid and talk politics in its so many bars. I would love to be in San Sebastian eating the best sea-food in the world, or tapear in our local city of Cadiz, ancient and hidden. But most of all Vejer is calling, our house, our village, familiar yet fresh, born again, beautiful in its skin of whitewash, our garden cool and clear. This is the time I need to be there.
the fields of Vejer at this time of year – this image is available as a framed print at Tidy Street Store Brighton.
6. 20th May 2017 introducing Zoe, mother, dancer, osteopath, poet…..
here is my latest guest writer, in fact poet – i met Zoe at Suryalila on the yoga retreat and was taken by her inner beauty and zest for life – she entertained us all with her poems and songs. Zoë is a London-based dance teacher/mother/student of osteopathy who makes sense of life through writing among other things.
At Old St a crowd surges on, doors
shut us in,
from mine. One
white shirt untucked
from belted jeans.
The carriage is warm and damp, bringing
the smell of his beard.
Hand skin on
like a child.
He gazes into his
headphones, oblivious to the train dancing
our bodies. My
breasts, his lips,
like a butterfly. A pull,
to put my face in his, like
urge as the train wind rushes,
from the platform into
A day of screen vacuum. Limbs light
Now bodies nudge mine, arms weave like branches.
Mammals, cave warm.
As if we could hear the crackle, and
smell woodsmoke- the odour
of collective millennia.
The train wobbles our warm flesh
together. But I breathe secretly
the comfort of a flank against mine.
I get off at angel and walk home to eat
vacuum packed Salmon and seal
tomorrow’s lunch in tupperware
5. 25 March 2017 so to my next guest writer ….
Saying goodbye to old Soho and his season ticket for Craven Cottage journalist and raconteur Jonathan Futrell moved his shoes and vinyl collections, and his humidor, to an Edwardian red brick house overlooking Cornwall’s windy north coast. Between endless beach walks with his artist wife Kim and their dog Asta the former travel writer has scratched the surface of this maritime idyll to reveal a community of peripatetic likeminded immigrant ‘locals’.
Strangers In A Strange Land
by jonathan futrell
I can see her now, over 20 years ago when she will have been younger than I am now. In a black one piece swimming costume, slender and erect.
The waist of a model and the shoulders of an athlete gingerly stepping over the pebbles towards the shallow waves breaking upon an empty Cornish beach. Watched only by her two black Labradors, sat open the foreshore, and my wife and I unseen on the windy path from the town. She cut a lonely figure slipping through the spine tingling elements of sea and sand and sky.
She was there every day of that holiday, apparently impervious to the icy cold of the north Atlantic whatever the weather (and there is a good deal of all kinds here), swimming slowly but strongly against the current for two minutes. Her gamine head of nickel hair protruding above the water like the prow of a ship. Indomitable. Fearless.
Asking around I discovered that our siren of the seas wasn’t ‘local’ – in the strictest sense of the word. She’d arrived from the other side of the country several decades prior, dazzling the people along this barren stretch of the north coast with her easy laughter, her Jean Muir dresses and Afghan coats, and her and her late husband’s predilection for the sort of British sports cars favoured by sixties rock stars and secret agents. They’d arrived at a time when many hereabouts boasted they’d never ever left the town.
In a region popular with retirees whose sole ambition is to sit by the window in zip-up fleeces, and gaze upon a platinum horizon until the day their daily nip of sherry misses their lips and the dribbles begin this chic immigrant, with a dash of rock ’n roll, had sought life on the Cornish coast not death. Her journey west was for her a beginning, not an end. She’d sought somewhere to feel alive in. A place to sharpen the senses. Be seduced by the elements. Where the colours of the big sky in the sea are never the same twice. Not for her the last resting place of grey daytime television mediocrity.
Monica chose the relentless Atlantic that ceaselessly forges new beach contours and reveals sunken wrecks. A place where distant forests disgorge coal and timber to feed the stoves that scent the winter air.
Her name is Monica and she is sat in front of me. We are in a room that I always imagined Miss Havisham inhabits in Great Expectations, where brass and wood garnitures are linked by drifting cobwebs. There is a fire at one end. Alcoves of leather bound volumes. Solid settees and heavy frames. There is a demi lune bearing ornate crystal glass, and the aroma of old dog, wood smoke and elegant neglect. We are a long way from the blue and white china, factory prints of fishing boats, and table lamps made from pebbles of most of the cheerily gentrified homes nearby. No attempt here to create a Disneyesque faux maritime world. Monica doesn’t need a clothes rack fashioned to resemble a rowing oar, or an occasional table purporting to be contrived from driftwood (arriving in a cardboard box with a label that states made in China).
Much is made of locals from “back along”, whether Cornish or Cockney; the descendants of people born, raised, and subsequently themselves rearing within yards of their ancestors. I, on the other, admire the ambulatory itinerants. Those who choose to live miles from where they grew up. People who have grabbed their lives by the jugular and taken them where the wind suits their clothes.
Of course many have no choice where they end up; they up-sticks and move for work. Or they are driven by war or famine. Others, like myself and Monica, step off the train for no other reason than to be in a place like this, surrounded by an ocean at the edge of the world. Far enough away to be other worldly. Somewhere to be forgotten in. A place where clifftop walks are treacherous and exhausting but which nourish the soul in a way the even the best martini cocktail fails to. Ok, maybe. Alright, a great vodka martini with a twist does have the edge, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
My town is peppered with Monicas; not as modish and sophisticated perhaps, but there are of many from very different backgrounds, each lured by the freshness of the salty air and the shifting scenery:
Benjamin was stationed oversees when he asked his wife Celia to find them somewhere to live, on a budget. She found a former bank with the vault still intact in the basement and a hallway large enough to host five a side football.
The entire building is leaning towards the sea with every piece of furniture on the west and eastern walls kept on an even keel with blocks of wood. John is from Portsmouth and fell in love with a Cornish maiden. Sue, hailing from a stucco mansion in Belgravia, keeps house for the local gentry in a magnificent pile that dates from the 16th century. For a time she lived in the old coffin store halfway along a ginnel that runs beneath and between ancient homes. There are many narrow, subterranean thoroughfares hereabouts. Sue was drawn to the endless beach and the sky but misses those essential decadences on sale in London’s Jermyn Street. I’ll wager her’s was the only coffin store on the planet with a bathroom decked out in Czech and Speake.
Tamsin divorced and followed her son here, hooked on surfing since his first holiday on the north coast. He works as a coastguard and among Tamsin’s multifarious activities is running an exclusive and very bohemian cinema club from her front room. She lives next door to a tall man from Los Angeles who, when he is not dreaming about plastic surgery, writes and quaffs Pinot Grigio and irks local restaurateurs (the way every Americans does) by redesigning the simplest meal. I’ve yet to meet an American who can accept even something as undemanding as a sandwich on face value.
Then there is the local musician and raconteur, Paul from Liverpool, who hosts a Friday night soiree in a bar overlooking the quay. He plays the bars and restaurants in a number of guises hereabouts; sometimes with his daughter on jazz vocals, and on others with Big Dave or The Lost Yankees.
Monica grew up in East Anglia, where she must have given those muddy farm boys sleepless nights. Whenever I see her I hear Dave Rawlins’ ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’. She’s never worked. By all accounts never given it much thought. She’s been too busy being beautiful and reading to do anything so plebeian. She reads everything she can get her long decorous hands on. There are books everywhere in her long shadowy home of bitter memories. Books line the stairs. They fill the alcoves. And although I’ve never seen them there are many more she says beneath her mahogany four poster bed where at night an illuminated dredger boat throws Christmas lights on her ceiling.
Monica reads everything, although she tends to avoid novels. She steered me towards Lauren Bacall’s autobiography after something I said about Bogart, and thence a wonderful book about clouds: I now sit in my kitchen and stare at the alto cumulous strativarus that interlock like celestial chainmail, and monitor the nimbus clouds soaking Rough Tor and Brown Willy on the horizon. She insisted I read Nana, Emile Zola’s study of prostitution and despair in 18th century Paris, and her favourite book, The Rings Of Saturn, by the German writer WG Sebald, because it chronicles an immigrant’s odyssey through the county towns and coastline of her youth in East Anglia. It contains as a passage about I am pledged to recite at her funeral, heaven forbid. In the book Sebald follows the coast from Great Yarmouth to Southwold, dwelling on many places I have visited over the years. I particularly like the section in the Seaman’s Mission and another about a palace near Lowestoft. Sebald’s previous book, The Emigrants, published three years earlier in 1992 (ironically a gift from the American who exchanged California for the blustery tranquility of Cornwall) recounts the experiences of four characters who have left their native Germany for new lives in this country and the United States.
Monica is alone much of the time. Her family is all gone. Just her with her sepia photographs and books, and her dogs who share her passion for beach walks, and dunes, and long nights by the fire.
She told me once she’d found that black swimming costume I’d seen her in that first time, on the beach. In fact, she has a wardrobe full of swimming costumes, hats, shoes, sun tops, sweaters and scarves, all saved from a watery grave by an immigrant from back along.
4. 8 March 2017 . its seems apt to post another one of my guest writers today – as its international women’s day, who can be more inspiring than my friend Debra Bourne – as she quietly goes through her days challenging and progressing the rights, needs and feelings of the female, she is forever dividing her time, spirit and good sense amongst all her family and colleagues. deservingly she has just been publicly rewarded – read her fine words.
If there’s one day to celebrate the arc of female accomplishment, it’s surely today. Wednesday March 8th 2017. The 118th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Although technically speaking, Woman’s Day didn’t become an international affair until 1911. Inspired by the prior activities of American socialists, this was the first time that over a million women from Austria, Demark, Germany, Switzerland amongst other nations, signed up to the strategy to promote equal rights for women, including suffrage. Having participated in London’s spirited Women’s March earlier this year, even after a hundred years of activism, there’s still a whole heap of issues for us to address and improve upon.
I love and respect men, but I deeply love being a woman. Equality and the respect for difference have always been incredibly close to my heart and as a founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk (www.allwalks.org), which challenges the industry’s dependency on unachievable body and beauty ideals by promoting diversity in fashion;these values remain pretty central to my life today.
So that said, before any further ado, please may I encourage you, whether you are male or female to sit back, relax and grab a cup of tea before taking a moment to truly appreciate either yourself or any of the wonderful women in your life: Mothers, sisters, friends, daughters, grandmothers, role models or simply generous strangers. Let’s give it up for the multitude of acts; big, small, heroic or tedious, (in my book, tedium particularly warrants some love), that have touched your life over the year.
At this point, I’d like to share my appreciation for my dear and longstanding friend, Christina, who as the creative energy behind this gorgeous blog invited me to write this piece. In addition to both working in creative-led industries and sharing a mutual love of modernism, design, ceramics and photography, we’ve been close friends since our children; Maude and Johnny were three years old. Now, with our kids in their eighteenth year, I continue to admire Christina’s tremendous thoughtfulness, generosity, many talents and impressive time-management, juggling skills. Thank you Christina for your love and friendship.
The qualities of friendship, solidarity and feminism strike me as both distinct and somewhat interwoven. Love, trust, harmony and respect; all values at the heart of true friendship are core to the spirit of solidarity, albeit that the context is societal, rather than personal. So how do we express our values as women in society? In our many roles? And in return, how does society value us?
These questions are clearly too big to fully answer here, but they flag an invitation to share one of rules that I personally try to live by. I respect that you may not share my belief here, but taking a lead from the classic proverb, “charity begins at home“ which points to a person’s first responsibility is to the needs of ones own family and friends”, I feel its crucial that the first celebratory pit-stop on the road to a fulfilled womanhood begins with a responsibility to meet my own needs and find time to celebrate myself.
To know ourselves. Trust ourselves. Love, accept, pleasure and respect ourselves, as women, whether that be physically, emotionally or mentally, may sound like a simple and vain task, but in reality it’s a frame for a lifelong, conscious commitment.
Valuing ourselves as women is a serious business. If we don’t take ourselves seriously, then who will? Let’s not dismiss our dreams as dizzy ideas, but pursue them doggedly. To practice a path of self-love passionately, might even safeguard our bank balance. Given that some say that today’s psychologically astute society willfully targets and exploits female vulnerability for immense commercial gain. L’Oreal Paris was ranked the worlds number one in 2016, worth a record breaking, $13.69 billion. Not exactly small fry.
Rather than fear aging, our years of accumulative experience contributes to a reassuring sense of self-knowing. When we arrive at a place of true female maturity, our secret gift is not a puerile self-absorption but a wise liberation and deeply sustaining self-confidence that removes or significantly reduces the need for other people in our life, to be holding an affirming mirror up and this is immensely empowering. Each of us has the potential to become a well for our own wise-womanhood. We just have to willingly choose to drink its water.
Through my work in education or campaigning, I am often faced with younger generations of women who’ve feel inadequate and anxious. They have mistakenly given the responsibility for their self worth, fulfillment and general happiness, over another entity, whether that be a significant other, a partner, a job or a powerful cultural force like celebrities the fashion world or pornography. In addition to its’ role in marketing and selling clothing, fashion is a powerful carrier of messages about our bodies, our identity and self- esteem. An area of wider impact that it’s not generally keen to take responsibility for. As a global authority on appearance and taste, the fashion industry has the power to seduce way too many young women, particularly those intent on relating to such a reductive and literally superficial version of their womanhood, by prioritising appearance and an external sense of self. Without any attention to the beauty of inner growth, it’s no wonder that the fear of ageing, even in ones twenties can be the cause of such consternation.
I can’t help feeling protective over our young women. I want them to give them an helpful pointer. Having psychologically dethroned their mothers, as most of us did, during the required separation space of adolescence, many teenagers will step out into the world looking to become their very own ‘different from their mum’ woman. Disguising their financial interest in these adolescent consumers, fashion brands are particularly sophisticated at shape-shifting, morphing itself continually and pertaining to be the oracle of female happiness. “Come over here and we will tell you what it means to be a woman.” Aside from the occasional editorial gems, freely giving valuable insights, conditions generally apply; namely economic ones. And whilst the promise of happiness and attraction is proffered, It is essentially available if you are willing to endlessly subscribe to: do, buy, groom, eat, not eat, change and wear the following…and this list is the short version.
Compliance with dedication might buy a short shot of feel-good female status but not for too long. It’s in the commercial self-interest of these self acclaimed authorities on womanhood aka the fashion, beauty, diet, or even fitness industries, to swiftly adopt ever-changing trends and enthusiastically re-instruct you with new and improved rules that potentially bind you in dependently maintaining a lifetime of perfecting femininity.
Don’t get me wrong, I can love fashion, it was my industry for over 25 years and I know its power to magnificently adorn the female form. Fashion can be fun. However, it’s not fun when it’s at the expense of ones’ autonomy. Fashion can be a great tool for self-expression, but again, it’s a concern for the emotional vulnerable among us; Those who ask the wrong stranger for directions and whilst seeking self-validation, unconsciously fall prey to its’ demands. This is why, amongst other reasons, I enjoy spending my time, in whole-heartedly encouraging women to not give their power away and walk tall and savvy.
So without wishing to deny International Women’s Day of any of its’ valiant remit, whether that be female empowerment, international protest, political activism or addressing other global urgencies that touch all our hearts and lives in some way or another; I invite any women who have graciously stayed with me to the bottom of this page, to take a quality chunk of this 118th, IWD day, to stop, value and deeply appreciate the woman under your own nose. She is unquestionably worth it and not because a billion dollar brand says so. Use International Women’s Day, to begin an intimate relationship with our best friend – Yourself. Once your well is full, sure, go conquer the world and stand in solidarity, but please, do not advance from Go, without taking a deliberate dose of self-loving kindness to quench the thirst of your own being. In the name of solidarity, please offer a drink to a sister. Then, my friend, the world is most definitely yours.
3. 1 March 2017. here’s the third piece in my special guest edits, Robert Ryan is an acclaimed author and journalist, and travel is one of his specialities.
I would wager that most visitors from the UK to New York rarely leave Manhattan, except maybe to check out some unbearably smug place to eat in Brooklyn. I was one of them until recently, when I decided it was time to head north into NY State, up the Hudson Valley and (eventually) to Woodstock and the Catskills. But you don’t have go that far to have a good time away from the city – a short train ride will bring you to good food, fine beers, lovely landscapes and, perhaps surprisingly, great art.
You might think there is enough art on Manhattan to keep you going for decades, and you would probably be right, but there are a couple of unusual galleries that are worth a day’s excursion. And one of them comes with the bonus of catching the Metro North train from Grand Central Station up the Hudson Valley – the same line used in the (lame) movie version of Girl on a Train. For views of the mighty river, sit on the left hand side on the carriage going up, right on the return.
Your first destination should be Beacon, which was once a local byword for industrial decline. Although still rough around the edges, Beacon is now yet another example of the power of contemporary art to inject life back into a decaying urban corpse.
The Dia:Beacon gallery (001 845 440 0100, http://www.diaart.org; £12) is accessed by shuttle bus (not Sundays) from the Beacon Metro North station, a stop on the Poughkeepsie line. Dia is housed in an old Nabisco factory on the banks of the Hudson and its closest equivalent is probably Tate Modern, although to be fair it has nothing to match the Turbine Hall. What it does have is light, lots of light. With its capacious galleries bathed in only that natural light, it is filled with the kind of works – especially the white-on-whites of Robert Ryman, the grey mirrors of Gerhard Richter and Robert Morris’s pile of muck, called Untitled (Dirt) – that will confirm your view of modern art as either inspirationally challenging or emperor’s-new-clothes fraudulent. I’m of the former persuasion and I am hardly alone – Dia pulls in enough visitors that once moribund Beacon has become a thriving little town of galleries, restaurants, hotels (the old mill that is The Roundhouse at Beacon Falls being the best – 001 845 765 8369, http://www.roundhousebeacon.com, doubles from £145 B&B) and bars (try The Hop at 554 Main St for excellent craft beers).
Thirteen miles west of Dia is The Storm King Art Centre in New Windsor (001 845 534 3115, http://www.stormking.org, £14.40). This is the kind of place only a country with vast tracts of land to spare could create. It is a massive outdoor sculpture park, with rolling hills and fields dotted with gargantuan works, many of which, especially Mark di Suvero’s installations, look as if they are the remnants of the industrial artifacts of a race of long-vanished Brobdingnagians. There are more low-key works by dozens of artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro, Henry Moore, Richard Serra and, represented by a sinuous dry stone wall that weaves in and out of the trees, landscape specialist Andy Galsworthy.
Storm King is slightly trickier to get to by public transport that Dia, but there are details of coach day trips from the city or train/taxi options from Beacon on the website. One thing is for sure – it’s not the type or scale of art you’ll find back on space-hungry Manhattan.
If you are making a full day of it, there are two things to detain you at Poughkeepsie, just up the river and along the Metro-North line. One is The Walkway Over the Hudson (001 845 454 9649, http://www.walkway.org; free), a restored railway bridge that is like an extra-elevated version of New York’s Highline. It is a stunning platform from which to view the changings seasons, especially as the blaze of autumn creeps down from the Canadian border or the green shoots of spring heads north, but when I last visited it required a rather long detour to reach the start of the ramp that would take you onto the main span. A recently installed glass elevator has solved that problem.
Close by, in Hyde Park, is the CIA. Now, I have to admit a frisson of excitement when it was suggested by a friend that I might like to visit the CIA, which only faded slightly when I was told it was the Culinary Institute of America (001 845 452 9600, http://www.ciachef.edu), not Spooksville (which is of course in Langley, Virginia). Set on a handsome riverside campus, this CIA is one of the most prestigious cookery schools in the USA and it has three restaurants (French, Italian, American) that are open to the public for lunch and dinner. The food in these restaurants is very accomplished; service, maybe not so much – but then everything is prepared and presented by the students, so you have to make allowances for the odd missing piece of flatware. It is also well worth taking a guided tour (£5.25) with a student, because it’s like walking through a vast Masterchef v Bake Off mash up.
I carried on north and eventually to Woodstock, where I came face-to-face with a bear (but that’s another story; trust me, The Revenant it ain’t) and deep into the Catskills, where many formerly moribund towns are being colonised by burnt-out Manhattanites.
Daytrippers, though have a choice of heading back to the city from Poughkeepsie by Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) or Metro North (www.mta.info/mnr). The former is quicker, more comfortable (and expensive) and deposits you at the rather gloomy and depressing Penn Station under Madison Square Garden. The more quotidian MNR is slower, scruffier but you arrive back at the cathedral to rail travel that is Grand Central, maybe in time for oysters downstairs (www.oysterbarny.com or, if you are feeling very flush, the Scandi-Icelandic cooking at easy-to-miss Agern (www.agernrestaurant.com), which is also housed in the terminal. I know which I’d rather do.
2. 16 February 2017. a writer who loves to tell a story with a great sense of humour
Manchester by the Sea, Why Some People Just Can’t Beat It.
by Jacqueline Palmer
If grief was a thing of beauty it would be illustrated by Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable film, a story of addiction and loss, brought to life in powerful performances. It’s both gritty realism and a work of nostalgia, cutting from what was, and might have been, in a brief longshot of Lee (Casey Affleck) and his young nephew Patrick, (Lucas Hedges) fooling around on his brother’s fishing boat, to the vacant Lee of the present. Working as a janitor in a Boston suburb, performing repetitive tasks, shoveling snow, mending pipes, replacing bulbs, unclogging toilets, with a lack of affect, as he enters the intimacies of other people’s lives, while they seem invisible to him. He moves as if through mud, encased in his own isolation, but a call catapults him back to the place of his memories, with his brother’s death, and an unwelcome job as guardian to his now teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
It’s a world where people are permanently at odds, misunderstand one another and never get the joke, as Patrick navigates his way through girls, sex, school and the loss of his father. Lee’s brusque monosyllabic exterior shows scant sensitivity to Patrick’s pain and confusion. An excruciating visit with his mother, now in recovery, is another loss for Patrick to bear. When he turns to his uncle as the responsible adult, Lee shies from the role, unable to cope or support him, or find a way to show up for his nephew’s conflicting emotions. Lee is caught in his own grief, despair, and self-recrimination, poised between sleepwalking and a bubbling rage waiting to erupt. Flashbacks to Lee’s former life with Randy (Michelle Williams) invite the audience to inhabit her experience, while the film’s sleepy coastal town of the title acts like another character, one whose seen better days, and envelops Lee in its history, its waters, and its arms.
A journey of healing begins as Lee begins to find a way towards his nephew, while Patrick begins to see his uncle caught up in a battle he cannot beat. The film offers no easy answers or happy endings, depicting the impact of alcohol and drug use on families and partners. Equally there are no rules for mourning, and some find it impossible to find their way back.
Not for the faint hearted, but for those who can bear to witness. Go and see it on your way to your nearest twelve step programme.
So Robert opens my new section of quality writing – a journalist, storyteller, husband and father, he is the most essential part of my life!
- 26 January 2017. MUMBAI by Robert Elms
A city smaller geographically than London or New York but with a population larger than both of those great metropolis’s combined, Mumbai is the noisiest, dirtiest, most crowded, chaotic, and frantic place I have ever visited. It is also one of the most gloriously life affirming, a perpetual riot of colour and clamour, a cavalcade of humanity in all its pungent glory, at all times in all directions.
Like both London and New York, this former Bombay is a hustling port town, a waterside trading centre, confident in its cosmopolitanism and strident in its commercialism. A relatively modern creation, its colonial past has bequeathed an array of ornate Victorian architecture, elegant clubs and verdant cricket fields, which contrast with the blizzard of modern high-rises which have sprung up without plan or reason from its sprawling morass. Slums too, slanted and blighted are everywhere, in every angular gap between the new-found wealth.
Poverty in extremis and in your face is one of the aspects of Mumbai life you have to contend with. Multi generational families living on the street, children sleeping on the cracked and broken pavements, the disabled and disadvantaged paraded for alms. Yet despite the sometimes gut wrenching poverty there is an energy and optimism, an almost tangible desire for improvement which permeates from every grimy crack and corner. Music, movement, momentum, buy and sell, hustle and bustle, here and there. A wedding, a shrine, a feast, an ablution, a holy man, a cow.
To enjoy this fervour of perpetual motion you need a retreat, a haven of sanity and serenity, and our hotel, The Taj was just that, and more, much more. Right by the Gatweway to India, overlooking the boats in the bay it is both the epi-centre of Mumbai life and the perfect antidote to it. Calm and cool, yet big and important, with elegance and charm backed up by exemplary staff, handsome rooms and fabulous bars and restaurants, a lovely pool and an array of shops, you could spend days here without leaving. Great days they would be too, but wasted ones.
For Mumbai invites you to venture forth and revel in the madness. It is indeed like London and New York when they were newer and in their noisy, noisome prime.