Googie & Me!

September 1, 2015

Something I wrote on Facebook that my Twitter followers might like to read as well!

I like talking to people, I like talking to strangers. I’m a writer, some would call it nosey, I call it being curious, inquisitive, part of my job. People ask me where I get my ideas. From incidents like this. Today, after a good session in the gym, I went to the bank. There was an elderly man standing behind me, in his 80s, I reckoned. The tap, tap, tapping of his walking stick made me think he was impatient or in pain or just uncomfortable standing. It also made me think that post offices and banks should have a counter just for the elderly or those who cannot stand for long. I decided I would be a good member of the community and offer him my place. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you go on.’ I said I wouldn’t let my mother queue. ‘Well, I’m not your mother.’ To which we both burst out laughing. No, you’re not, I said. He talked about getting older and forgetful, I said we’re all getting older and forgetful. ‘How old do you think I am?’ To be polite and I really did not want to get it wrong, I said, late 70s. ‘Nah, I’ll be 94.’ I stood back, jaw dropped. No way! ‘I was born in 1922.’ Quick calculation, this meant he was in WWII. I wanted to ask him questions, but at that moment, the buzzer lit up at counter 5. It was my turn. Off I went, waving to this lovely man. I was gutted I didn’t have time to talk more. Cut to 20 mins later. In Sainsburys. I walk past the fresh soups, totally forgetting that was one of the items I wanted. Bought everything else, went back to soups. ‘You’re not following me are you?’ A twinkle in his eyes, it was the man from the bank. I said, I was dying to ask you questions. What you did in the war, etc. etc. etc. The fresh soup aisle of Sainsbury’s on Dog Kennel Hill has never been so exciting. He was a commissioned officer in the air force (I knew he was in the air force). I asked his name. Withers. First name? Frederick. His nickname was Googie – yes, you’ve got it. For those who don’t know, Googie Withers was an actor. This Googie flew a Halifax. I said, my wife’s father flew Wellingtons or Lancasters, and we have his logbook. ‘Oh my log book is in a museum in Portsmouth along with my uniform.’ Now he lives alone in a big house in Dulwich. I invited him to our Fun Palace. ‘Where’s that then?’ Brockwell Lido. ‘Oh I haven’t been swimming for ages. I love swimming.’ I asked if he swam there when it was a pond. ‘Oh yes.’ I borrowed a pen from another woman on the soup aisle, gave Googie my number, told him to call, that I would like him to come to the Fun Palace. And he said YES. I also said I would pop round with some cake. As I said. I like talking to people. And sometimes, not always, but sometimes, this is the result. Frederick Withers you have made my day. Now I’m waiting for the phone to ring… To be continued… in a play, at some point…

Not Angry But Grateful

December 5, 2014

Okay, so for a change, this blog is not fuelled by anger but by deep gratitude.

About 20 years ago, I had an investigative procedure at the Royal Free hospital. It was in the gynaecological department, at the time my parents were not friendly with Stella, and I needed all the emotional support I could get.

At the hospital, in this department, there was a definite sense of homophobia – a nurse, a receptionist, the Consultant who was to carry out the hugely painful, investigative procedure (with no anaesthetic), would not allow Stella to be with me. The Consultant was, in fact, very mean. Things were different then. While we were out about our relationship, I was still a little guarded in public, in hospitals, because I was scared I would be treated badly, differently. In this case, we were. We both remember it clearly. This is one case, this is my experience, I realise that there were other Drs who would have been different. But we have never forgotten this experience. Our experience.

Yesterday, I had the same procedure (I am fine), but had a biopsy as well, this time with an anaesthetic, all carried out at Kings, with a Consultant who could not have been more cheerful, lovely, chatty and just bloody nice! As was the clinic nurse. When I asked if my partner, Stella, could come in with me, she said, hello partner Stella, of course you can. From that moment on, we were treated just as everyone else is – or should be treated. We talked about my cold water swimming yesterday morning, the Consultant talked about her husband training for a triathlon at Brockwell Lido, we talked about Stella’s surgery, about blood tests, about cycling to work. We talked with no sense of discomfort, with no barriers; she was (bar our exceptional fertility Consultant) the most wonderful Consultant I have ever met. She gave us time, so much time. We talked marriage, how she wanted a civil partnership, how we can now marry. How we had a huge civil partnership party, how we would have a no frills wedding. She said perhaps when and if she can have a civil partnership they will do it the opposite way, have it big, have a party, because they had a no frills wedding. I chatted throughout the procedure, apart from a few painful moments when my heart raced fast – Stella told me later that my face became grey.

I must have thanked her 100 times, her and the lovely clinic nurse. I am grateful to the NHS (yet again), for the care provided, for the free health care provided, for being well when so many I know are not. I treasure my life and my good health. I am aware it could all change. But I am also grateful to all those men and women who fought so hard to make change possible and keep making change possible, who have made it okay for Stella and I to feel we belong in our own society, with no barriers, no bad feeling, being accepted for the women we are. While homophobia still exists, and women are told not to kiss or console one another in public, when people are beaten up because of their sexuality, I am grateful for the changes that are taking place. Because one change means more change is possible. Today I feel a deep sense of gratitude on so many levels. Today I will fly.

Black Friday. Red Saturday.

November 28, 2014

‘The term “Black Friday” was coined in the 1960s to mark the start of the Christmas shopping season. “Black” refers to stores moving from the “red” to the “black,” back when accounting records were kept by hand, and red ink indicated a loss, and black a profit.’

As you know, my infrequent blogs are usually fuelled by anger. However, this one is not. As Black Friday continues to draw the crowds, all desperate for a bargain, I have been reading comments on social networking sites about how we in the UK do not need or want to follow this great post Thanksgiving Day shopping spree, which hails from the USA. We are fed up of hearing about Black Friday, fed up of being constantly emailed from companies all tempting us with bargains. When the world is at war, when sickness and death and really horrendous events should be central to our news, instead what we have are photos of crowds fighting over the last TV (one fell on a woman’s head) and police calming hysterical shoppers.

I was annoyed at first, at the greed around us, the squabbling and bickering and need to have more, to buy more, to fill our lives with more stuff, whether or not we need it or want it. Yes, Christmas is coming and what better time to buy presents for our loved ones than at a bargain price, 10%, 25%, 50% off a price we would never normally pay. And yes, there are items we all need and have waited for, because Black Friday offers it to us at the best price, but what has emerged for me, as an onlooker (and someone who loves to shop) is that it is mostly (and I might be wrong) the less well off members of society who have been queuing at some stores since midnight, waiting until we slipped from one day into the next before logging on to a host of websites, while the rest of the house slept, oblivious to the money changing hands.

A bargain is a bargain, no doubt about that. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to buy a Lulu Guinness bag for £250 instead of £350? (I looked but did not buy). You save £100. That’s a lot of money to save on something you don’t really need or want but can have. And why shouldn’t you have it if you can afford it? If you can’t, there’s always the credit card(s). And this is not just about the big items, it’s about everyday items. Goods are expensive, if you can get it cheaper, go for it.

Shopping makes us feel better, it lifts our mood, it’s Christmas, it’s addictive, it’s easy to be caught up in the excitement of it all, we want to feel good, happy, positive, and retail therapy works. Momentarily. And then we buy again, to lift our mood because it has taken a dip. And we are lifted. Momentarily. But I’ve been thinking about depression and shopping, quick fixes and spending, and how so many people are depressed, for so many reasons, and shopping can and does, momentarily, fix that low, shift that gear, make you feel good about yourself and the world. But it’s the people who this effects, the people in society who the rest of us should be responsible for, whose Black Friday could turn into Red Saturday. I’m not being patronising or looking down on anyone or saying I should have a say in someone else’s spending habits. Those less well off deserve to have what the rest of us have – except a lot of us can afford to buy whatever we want, whenever we want (within reason, scrap the solid gold taps this year), in a civilised way. When I look at the news and see people sitting on the floor of a shop, hugging a gigantic box which they refuse to let go of, I feel sad, sad that we as a society care so much about stuff, status, outdoing others (or just because we like stuff, and why shouldn’t we?). And then I look closer and realise that while the companies are making millions, which is what it’s really about, ‘we’ have been given the opportunity to mock others, while ‘we’ pride ourselves in our impeccable behaviour, in our, we don’t behave that way, behaviour. All it does is confirm for some people in society, what they already think about other people of society.

Having stuff does not make you a better person, but it does make you feel good about yourself and if you can feel good about yourself at the best price possible, why wouldn’t you? Surely we must strive to make people feel good about themselves for reasons other than a quick fix provides? Can we change Black Friday to Happy Friday? As of today?

Anyone Can Make A Fun Palace

July 21, 2014

Anyone can make a Fun Palace. Really, they can. Even me. My day job as a writer (and occasional helper of anything to do with creative and academic work), is often reliant on others. I sit at my very lovely desk trying to transform exciting new ideas into longer pieces. I’ve written loads for Radio Four, some theatre, some prose and am still trying to make that first break into TV, the latter has meant writing a little for money and a lot for no money. At the moment, I am still waiting on a TV series that has been in ‘development’ for two years…the next phase is in my producer’s hands. I love those hands, but they are leafing through so many other scripts and I am not a priority. And that’s just how it is.

Sometimes my ideas work, sometimes they don’t. Mostly I sit around waiting for others to make decisions for months or years or never. I rely on other people to help make my work, to take my work to the next stage in its development, but other people are, generally, not as speedy in their response as I am, or they have other projects on the go by better-known writers, or my ideas don’t fit their current need. That’s how the world works. But it’s not the way I work. I am speedy, proactive, I get on and do and try and make happen, rather than sitting around waiting. I hate waiting. I am one of the most impatient people I know, if not THE most impatient.

When I decided it would be bonkers and fantastic to have a Fun Palace at my local beautiful Art Deco pool, Brockwell Lido, I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve never produced anything on this scale. Writing is a solitary job, and when my work is done, producers and directors do the next bit. My wife, Stella Duffy, and her co-director of Fun Palaces, Sarah Jane Rawlings, are facilitating the entire, national and international Fun Palace events, on the weekend of 4th & 5th October. Of course there are those who think it’s easier for me because my partner has facilitated the entire event, but she has had nothing to do with our Fun Palace, hasn’t been to one meeting, or had any involvement with our schedule. I said from the very beginning, Brockwell Lido must have a Fun Palace, because it’s a place I love, a place I spend a lot of time, a place where the community gather, to swim, gym, chat, watch outdoor films and eat. It’s not called Brixton Beach for nothing. I like challenges. Trying to find a way to make a Fun Palace work at Brockwell Lido – an outdoor, unheated, Olympic size pool in October has definitely been a challenge. One I am loving. But where to start?

I put out a call – and a group soon formed. We are the Brockwell Lido Fun Palaceers. Some are friends, some are strangers who have become friends, some are friends of friends, others are friends of strangers. We are from different backgrounds, but the thing that unites us is our passion to make our Fun Palace extraordinary. We have met twice at the Lido Café (who give us their space on a Monday night when they are closed). A third meeting is happening soon to finalise our schedule of events. We have gathered and planned and plotted and laughed and worried and always been excited at the possibilities. We have talked risk assessment, bunting that has to be high enough so no one is strangled, no glass or alcohol poolside, etc. We have scribes who take notes at our meetings, and emails them or puts them on our Facebook Page. We have thought about Joan Littlewood’s words, (Stockwell-born Joan dreamed up the initial idea of a Fun Palace, along with architect Cedric Price), ‘Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.’ We asked ourselves what exactly our idea of a Fun Palace is. It’s for the community, it’s a way to demystify and democratise the arts, being creative or academic or scientific is not just for people who go to university. And It must be free and it must include fun. People say, those kinds of events happen all the time, and we respond, yes they do, BUT not specifically created by the community for the community and for free. I am not getting paid to do this. No one is getting paid. As Joan Littlewood said, ‘If we don’t get lost, we’ll never find a new route.’ I excel at getting lost. But there is always a new and often surprising route waiting for me and sometimes it is not one I imagined. How to find a scientist, specifically one who can talk about water? The friend of a stranger came on board pretty much straight away. She delivers shows about water and science and the body and water. What were the chances? And then there’s our eco games specialist, who, for a living, puts on eco games with her company, i.e. an eco version of Bingo. And these wonderful, generous, inspirational people have come from contacts, Twitter and Facebook. Social media has worked its wonders and is working at its best to put our community in touch.

Other BLFPs are creating a Victorian Seaside, a human chessboard, we have kayaks and the possibility of swimming with mermaids and a water walker. Herne Hill Forum is contributing canopies and anything else we may need. Brockwell Lido Café is putting on an all day BBQ at 50% the normal cost – this is the only paid-for service and they are providing it at break-even cost. Two local schools are involved, people will be able to draw on those great big paving slabs, and hopefully we’ll have live music and a dance hall…so if you’ve ever wanted to learn to waltz or quick step alongside a swimming pool, October 5th may just be your chance.

And the best thing about this is that it’s not about me. It’s about us, my fellow Brockwell Lido Fun Palaceers, Brockwell Lido, Fusion, our community, individuals and organisations coming together. With the help of my collaborators – and this is very much a collaboration of makers, artists, musicians, scientists and more – we have a schedule of events that makes me wish our Fun Palace were happening next week.

And it all started with an idea…a possibility…and saying YES to making it happen. And not being afraid to ask people to do something for free.

It’s been by far, to date, the fastest and most rewarding creative challenge I have ever faced. It’s given me a new tool for my own work, taken me to places that have filled me with enthusiasm, introduced me to people I would never have met otherwise, introduced me to more of my own community – it’s enhanced my life. South London, in particular SE London, is often given a hard press. We are supposedly dangerous, dark, unsafe and unfriendly and yet we have the most Fun Palaces taking place in any area. We are generous and supportive and our community spirit is strong, you just have to go look for it. It’s there. In Brockwell Park, at our schools, Herne Hill Market, the pubs and cafes and in Brixton Village.

And while my working life still relies on others to make up their mind, to read and respond, to accept or reject or just give encouragement, co-making a Fun Palace has made me realise that there is a whole lot of people who are willing to collaborate, say yes, give their time, their experience, in order to make something monumental happen in their area for their community and all for free.

On Sunday October 5th 2014, as the sun sets at 6.29 pm, BBQ on, ukuleles ready – and any other instruments anyone wants to bring to join in the ‘fireside’ sing-along – we will raise a plastic glass (risk assessment, NO breakables and NO fire) to Joan and Cedric and their dream coming true. We will raise a glass to the possibilities and remember that community is what it’s about, helping others, perhaps giving them a gift to take away, making something remarkable happen because we can. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to swim with a mermaid.


June 13, 2014

Gove and his Islamophobia has angered us all, as has his desperation for schools to teach ‘Britishness’. He uses one to attack the other. In my opinion faith schools must go if we are to return to any kind of cohesive, tolerant society. I’m sure loads of faith schools, whatever their faith, teach their students that their way is the only way and everyone else is doomed to die a miserable death if they don’t follow the path. I quite liked the path that was yellow and had Judy Garland and her three friends dancing along it. That path worked for me. But if faith schools and their beliefs are anything to go by, I am doomed.

But I consider myself one of the lucky ones. A friend’s post on Facebook about keeping schools secular confirmed what I have been saying FOR YEARS. No faith schools. If parents want their children to learn about their religion or culture they must do it at home. Leave the schoolroom for learning about things that will carry them through life, the really important lessons like tolerance and respect and accepting people for who they are. Which, of course, many faith schools teach too. But if they’re also teaching that their faith is the ‘right way’ – which they must do surely, or what’s the point of being a FAITH-school, then what they’re also saying is that someone else’s faith (or no-faith) is wrong.

I’ve thanked my parents a great deal in my almost fifty-five years. When my dad was alive, I thanked him every time I was with him. On his death-bed I thanked him one last time, for giving me a great childhood, for loving me, for being difficult, for passing on his impatience and speedy way of living, and, despite being a Tory, for getting on and taking time to get to know those in his neighbourhood – the religious Jews, the Muslims, the Catholic who he’d known for fifty years, the secular and gay and wealthy and not-so-wealthy and non-white and just about everyone one else on his block. For contributing to making me the person I am. For making our school uniforms because we couldn’t afford the shop-bought ones (there were only a few shops that sold school uniforms then), and for not sending me to a private or religious school. I will always thank them for the best education I received, and I don’t mean the text book kind; I was rubbish at history, maths and all sciences, I was pretty bad at English, but excelled at PE, and was quite good in my Money Management class. One time, during that class, I had a disagreement with a boy and was chased out of the room by him. I remember running out of the ground floor room, around the school and re-entering through the classroom window. I can’t actually remember what we had argued about. I do remember that the boy, Ado, was found dead in the Thames near the southbank one day and I was upset. The best education I am talking about was from my secondary modern – Whitefield’s Comprehensive. (Maybe there were once white fields, it is now opposite Brent Cross shopping centre). I was a Jew, not like the other Jews at the school. They were all Eastern European, I was far more exotic and rare. Few knew about my lot. I felt different to them and made friends with all the non-Jews and only a couple of Jews. I was a terrible student, I left school with three O levels, so on paper I was rubbish, but I met the most eclectic set of people. People I would never have met had I been sent to a faith or private school. Had I gone to one of those establishments I would have mixed with one section of society only, and that to me, would have set me up for life in the worst way possible. And apart from one or two private school out of London, as far as I’m aware no one contemplated moving in order to send their children to a better school. Or has the post code lottery always existed and I’ve just not known about it?

When I look at my school photos, I see the too-tight shirt I am wearing and my ridiculous hair. But it’s the other faces I am proud of sitting alongside. The faces that stare out at me are black and white and brown and mixed, from India, China, Japan, Pakistan, England, all religions and cultures and background and different classes in the same class. I might have been a bad student, but some of my contemporaries went on to do very well. Simon Lewis (secondary school then Oxford educated), PR man to Tony Blair, the late Pat Zia was a well-respected artist, Jane Suffling has been high up at the National Theatre for many years. We were all in the same year at our secondary modern. We were from difficult classes, religions, cultures, and we got on. We didn’t glare if someone who was ‘other’ to us walked into the room, whether student or teacher. We learned how to be with others who were different. We learned that people are people, no matter what colour, race, religion, sexuality, class. We were educated to accept, tolerate and respect others. Religion never came into my school life, that was left to my parents, who did a pretty good job of allowing me to chose, taking part in my family’s faith as much as I wanted to – or not. There were no ghettos in my life, there were no walls to break down. Sadly those walls have gone up in my lifetime.

Returning to my childhood home since my father has died, being there for longer periods of time, has magnified the changes that have taken place around this neighbourhood. I am aware of my naked legs or short-sleeved shirts that show my flesh, when orthodox men and women approach me and I feel I must cover up. When I ask the young boy who lives next door to my parents if he’s watching the football and he shakes his head, I ask him, ‘not allowed to watch it?’ He nods. And yet I can’t help think that while I am expected to know all about his religion and way of life and accept it and question it, he knows nothing about mine and he is never expected to know. I understand religion, I don’t have a problem with it per se, I get the structure some people value in faith, it’s important to them. But I believe in the need for a broad education, where people-politics comes first and not religious-politics. Where the non-religious can talk to the religious, it works both ways, it educates everyone.

And yes, I know lots of parents have friends from different backgrounds, and that feeds their children with a wider perspective of life choices. But many don’t. Many have guarded lives, and their guarded children grow up with one view and one perception of life only – add that to education within a faith school and you get narrow-minded, intolerant, disrespectful young people who grow into narrow-minded, intolerant, disrespectful adults.

What we need is a gigantic ghetto blaster, to rip down the partitions, so that people can meet people like them and not like them, so that we can talk and have a dialogue about our differences, accepting or not accepting or liking, but knowing what choices exist and how other people live, so that we can talk – and see what else and who else is out there.

And let’s get rid of private schools, for many of the same reasons. Think of how it could be – all those private school teachers working in state schools, alongside the rich and poor, the middle class and working class and upper class. All those private school funds channelled into state schools for the good of all. The Jews and Muslims and Catholics and Sikhs and atheist and gay and bi sexual and transgender kids, studying together. It could provide a microcosm of the bigger picture and peace. All we’re doing is creating divisions, creating war. It starts in schools. Let’s stop it now.

Not a Rabbit But a Rub It

May 9, 2014

Several people have asked why the Facebook absence, why Stella and I are not available, why we have had to cancel various events or are just not making any plans. This is why.

The past few days I’ve found myself saying to numerous people on the phone and in person, my dad’s dying. He’s been dying for some weeks now and I find myself in a weird place, surreal, away from my usual life, unable to write or do anything that doesn’t involve a district nurse, palliative care, carers, a catheter and morphine. And I hate it. I didn’t bargain on my dad dying from secondary cancer in the cruellest way, lying in a hospital bed in the dining room of my parents’ house. The room where they started their business, first an office and twenty five years later their dining room. It seems fitting that he should end his days in a room that has provided much happiness and food and celebration. I thought he’d have a quick death, die of a heart attack, one minute here, the next gone, that’s what we all want for our loved ones. But we mostly don’t get what we want. Mostly we get the unexpected phone call in the night.

Right now I’m sitting in front of my Abba, dad, abbale, Jackson. It’s the only way I can write this, because every time I leave the room he calls for me. I’ve left my south London home, left my darling wife, who is still in recovery from a cancer recurrence and a recent biopsy on her arm, my cat who provides me with joy, and our house, which is going through its own loft conversion turmoil, but that will have a fantastic outcome. I’ve left all of that to be here. My dad is currently talking, sense and no sense and intermittent shouting about wanting to die and can we end it all for him and a repetition of words which are never formed into finished sentences, like a David Mamet play. I quite like the nonsense, how he taps the table with his scratch backer, asks to be sat up, to be moved up and then down and then up and then down and then moved to the side and hold me tight, hold me tight. It’s hard physical work, hard when I know he has bone cancer and I am terrified of breaking something or hurting him. And watching my mum hold him tight makes me cry. Up down up higher higher hold me tight enough enough I can’t take it.

My compassion is filled with anger and resentment. I want my life back, I want to be able to look after Stella, I want to be in my own home. I want my dad to die so that he, and we can have some peace. I never thought I’d say those words, I want my dad to die, but I do. Watching him suffer like this is unbearable. My unbearable threshold is pretty high, but this has pushed me to the limit. Our ‘conversations’ go something like this.

Dad. Shelley, end it, take me away, lift me up to heaven.

Me. I can’t dad, I can’t kill you.

Dad. Why not?

Me. Because I’ll end up in Holloway prison.

Dad. So what?

Yes, I am going to write the play, because it has to be written, because among the suffering there is great humour and tenderness and silence and all that I cared about I don’t care about and so many people have been through this and worse.

My mum is astounding. Bashing at chicken pieces to make schnitzel for dinner. Last night we ate dad’s mattar paneer frozen and to be defrosted in time of need. Thanks dad. Thanks for all the food and love and wisdom and laughs. Your version of Madame Butterfly will always be the best.

Dad was a self sufficient, energetic 86 year-old. Yes, he’s old. His dying is very different to my sister’s. He’s had loads of operations, the last a heart valve replacement some years ago. His pig’s valve is doing very well in his kosher heart, but his liver is not so great. He used to do everything for himself, looked after my mum, looked after all of us, never sat down except to eat, and even that he did with the enthusiasm of ravenous youth. He used to drive and buy fruit and veg for everyone, actually he never bought it. He has a deal with the grocers around the corner. They park in his driveway, thereby not needing a business permit, and in return he gets fruit and veg for free. It’s an unspoken agreement. Manuel from the grocers’ shop arrives with green bags full of produce. My mum says, will they still let me have fruit when your father is no longer here?

He has carers coming in four times a day, two carers each time, not one of them is English. Take that UKIP. They are hard workers and love my mum and dad. And when they are here at 8.30 I run up to the shower, make myself fresh, then mum and I have breakfast. And when they return at 1, we have lunch, and at 5 we have a break and at 8 we have dinner. And so it goes on. We fit our meal times around them, because it means someone is always with dad. My mum hugs and kisses them and thanks them. It is exhausting and frustrating. He wants to die, he calls to his mother in Hebrew to take him. And there is nothing we can do. My sister’s death was bad enough, but this is horrendous. He’s in a kind of living purgatory, not getting out of bed, dozing and waking and shouting and dozing again and calling my name, calling my mum, Esther or my nephew Eyal or my niece Gal or my cousin Cheryl. We four take it in turns to be with mum and dad. One person cannot be here for more than 3-4 days because it is too hard, upsetting, draining. Friends and family members drop in, but dad doesn’t want to see everyone. His undignified death is not how he would want it to be. He would want to go out with a bang, a great big colourful bang, instead he is like a sparkler that never runs out of spark, that sizzles and lights up but is never fully lit. I wish I could dampen that sparkler, but I cannot. So I continue to do what needs to be done.

Making calls to my father’s rubbish GP surgery takes all the energy I have. Then there are the incorrect prescriptions, the bank that give me problems trying to gain power of attorney because now I am in charge of the house, of my parents’ house. Stella had to come over with my passport and my sister’s death certificate so I could go to the bank and sort this out. She, with her own post surgery stress, her work and our house to look after. I miss her. I miss my life. I miss my friends.

There are people who are kind, the carers who come four times a day, who my mother thanks and hugs. The night carer who sits with my dad from 10pm – 7am, so that we can sleep. He has had three night carers, gentle women who have had their own suffering. I am curious, I ask them questions about why they do this job and they tell me. One, at 18 lost both her parents in Somalia. Rita, who is dad’s current Ugandan nighttime carer, lost her mother to spinal cancer. She tells stories of her mother having 8 children, of being in the fields all day, of pain early on and then cancer and death. And all of this while I am in the house I grew up in, Golders Green, north London. Golders Green is full of orthodox Jews, buzzing during the week and silent from sunset on Friday night to sunset on Saturday. I like it best then. I crave the quiet. I love that I can drop round the corner and buy falafel; at home round our corner is rice and peas. I love rice and peas. I love the cake shop and have to stop myself indulging in sweet sickly pastries.

Dad is quiet now. I gave him a diazepam. He was fractious and distressed. Now he sleeps peacefully, mostly. Intermittent calls to ‘hold me Shelley’ and ‘water,’ allow me to write. And I am loving writing. I miss making it up as I go along. Mostly it’s made up for me, with dad calling and doorbells and the phone ringing. And sometimes the doorbell brings loveliness, their kind religious neighbour, Rifka, a mother of five, who wears a wig and sober clothes, and me in jeans and t-shirt and hoodie, my purple converse blending with the plants along the wall. Rifka offers help, gives us meatballs, chicken and noodles. Strangely I have been craving meatballs and chicken with noodles all day. You have five children, I say. So what, she says. If you need to go out I can sit with your parents. And I know she means it.

Dipti from the post office came to say goodbye, and Manuel from the grocer’s shop cried when he said goodbye to dad. And the women from the bread shop ask about him, and the women in the chemist sighed when I said my dad is dying. Dad has a lot of women in his life. Despite his sickness, his charm still filters through.

So this is where I am. Where I have been, where I will continue to be until he goes to his daughter and parents and little brother. I have told him that he will leave one lot of love to go to another lot of love. He asks me how I know. I know, I say, I know.

Tonight I will drive home and stay home and return next week, dropping in to see them on Sunday, because the break will be too long. And while I am driving, I will remind myself, as I do every day, of how lucky I am, how lucky we are, to have the support and money and NHS to help us. To have the privilege of being with my dad when he is dying, to hear him speak to the carers in Arabic and Italian, his pronunciation perfect. He voices his suffering in Italian very well. When I asked him this morning what an egg was in Hebrew, because I couldn’t remember, he told me.

This morning he asked me to scratch his foot, to rub his foot. Rab it. Rab it. Not a rabbit but a rub it, he said. Rub it. Clever dad. Dying dad. My dad.

You couldn’t make it up. Actually, you could.

March 20, 2014

Okay, so my latest rant is about the selfies women are posting on Facebook and Twitter without wearing any make up. This is what I said yesterday on my wife’s Facebook page –

‘It’s a gimmick, I detest selfies, what next? Now people are posting ‘selfies’ of their pets for cancer awareness (can your pet REALLY take a selfie?) BE AWARE OF CANCER FOR WHAT IT IS NOT WHAT IT ISN’T. And I know I am being affected because of my wife and my father and countless members of my family and friends who have died – but I honestly think a selfie of a woman without make up undermines the hell cancer patients go through. If you want to make people aware of the chaos it causes, physically, emotionally, mentally, go see the people who have it, hear their pain (my dad in hospital bashing himself to try to stop the excruciating nerve pain), or the damage it has caused Stella, a wound that mostly will not heal, or the face of one of my friend’s fathers, from jaw cancer – look at the reality, the awfulness, and then become aware – the truth is that a woman without make up is still pretty compared to the harsh reality that cancer often leaves in its wake – and people don’t want reality…they want pretty. Well in my experience CANCER IS NOT PRETTY.’

My dad called late last night. For those who don’t know, my dad, Jack, has metastatic cancer (that means it’s spread) in his lower spine, pelvis, liver and liver lining. We don’t know where the primary cancer is, we will probably never know. His time is limited. But he was in pain last night, he has been in enormous pain, extreme, unbelievable, unbearable pain. That is the effect cancer can have on patients. I can only imagine how he feels. I can also only imagine how my wife Stella feels. She’s been cut and stitched in a recent breast cancer recurrence, and six weeks on from surgery, her breast wound would make most people I know cringe, cup their hands over their mouths, turn away, or just stare in disbelief. Because (much as I don’t care what it looks like, she is my wife, I love every piece of her, wounded or whole, but she cares, it is happening to her body, she has to deal with it every second of every day), that is the reality of what cancer does. It’s not about pretty pictures of pretty women without make up. It’s about something entirely different, it’s about life and death, about knowing you’re going to die but not when (yes, that could be applied to all of us), but cancer (just like other life threatening illnesses) brings that whole process forward with alarming speed. I’ve just been on the phone to the north London hospice, to sort my dad’s pain management and I have had to hold back the tears, because I have a good idea of what’s coming and it feels me with fear and sadness. I went through this with my sister, the thought that I will go through it with my dad is a tough one.

When I see pictures of women without make up, taken specifically for breast cancer awareness, my natural and immediate response is, ah, but you still look beautiful. Anyone else have the same response? I don’t think I’m supposed to think that. It doesn’t make me more cancer aware, in fact all it does is confirm that in my opinion, no make up is really lovely. Those who know me, know that I often go out without make up, I only wear it for events, parties, when I want to (not need to) look glossy. But I really like the natural look. I don’t get a reward for not wearing make up practically every day, nor should I. People don’t look at me and think…ah, no make up, she’s trying to convey something about breast cancer. Not wearing make up has NOTHING to do with breast cancer (wife, cousins and countless friends), bowel cancer (sister), lung cancer (father-in-law and brother-in-law), fallopian tube cancer (another cousin), bone and liver secondary cancer (father), brain tumour (friend), kidney cancer (cousin and friend) ovarian cancer (friends), lymphoma (friend), mouth/jaw cancer (friend’s dad), another rare cancer which affected our neighbour’s father, the result – his leg was amputated. If you saw the physical and emotional effects of all these cancers on all these people, you’d realise that selfies are no more than self promotion, people saying LOOK AT ME WITHOUT MAKE UP, whether they mean to say that or not. If you want to do something, do something real.

I admit that the walk I took part in a few weekends ago, the walking I will be doing for CARE, the swim for SPORT RELIEF, are actually about ME, albeit me doing something for a cause. If I really wanted to help I would volunteer my services in a cancer charity shop (or any other charity shop), give my time to those who need it – as any one of us could do, and some probably already do, rather than putting selfies on Facebook without make up. To make matters worse, all the selfies I have seen are accompanied with trepidation…how could I possibly let you see what I look like without make up. See how brave I am? Well you’re NOT brave. See how it becomes about how brave you are, rather than the cause you hope to raise awareness for.

Everyone wants to do something, our friends have rallied round, they have actioned their need to make a difference, they have not taken photos of themselves, they have not put themselves in the spotlight. As another friend said on Facebook, if you want to do something, offer to drive people, cook for them, take them for a coffee, sit with the patient while their wife/husband/sons and daughters can go out and spend some time for THEM, away from illness and all that comes with it. Putting up selfies does nothing, other than say, we can look beautiful without make up. CANCER IS NOT BEAUTIFUL.

Anyway, we’ve all been taking pictures of ourselves for YEARS, and now that someone has named them selfies it has suddenly become a new and fashionable activity. Unfortunately all the selfies are of women, because generally men don’t tend to wear make up, but that’s a whole other blog which I will save up and let out in a balloon of rage at a future date.

I’m adding this, because someone posted about my blog, and mentioned men and Movember and growing a moustache. This is my response:

‘…generally, men are so far behind (IMO) talking about most things let alone illness, God knows most of the more mature (70+) women I know who had cancer, couldn’t bring themselves to say the word, Cancer, until recently. So if men become more aware of their health and what could affect them, then good. But Movember is about growing a moustache for the whole of November, it’s not about taking a photo of yourself without something that society deems women must/should do in order to look like…women. (V garbled…) I’m delighted at the ££ the campaign has received, but such a shame it takes photos of women without make to make that awareness happen…how about women go without makeup for a month…every day…that would work for me. Any takers?


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