Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Light and dark.


Here's something that sums up what's happening in Tooting nowadays. An all female three-handed feminist performance of Medea in a shop that used to be Sadiq Khan's Labour campaign headquarters on the High Street, near Lidl. I get two tickets for Saturday night. 

It feels mean to ask my husband to come with me so I ask a friend to come instead. She agrees, and tells him he owes her one when she arrives at our house for a pre-performance drink... or two. I decide getting lightly tanked up is the only way to approach this. Husband skips off to get the wine.

We know it's going to be good when we're met at the door by a charming young man who informs us the performance will be 45 minutes long with no interval and the audience must stand as actors move among us... and there's a bar at the back. 

"This is surreal," my mate says, as we loiter by the fairy lights, sipping more wine and listening to the opening blast of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive as one of the three young actors mimes the words at us just inches from our faces. 

It was surreal, and great, and watching it made me feel about 18-years-old. Look out for more performances in unusual spaces by By Jove Theatre.


Not taking my usual route across the common under a tunnel of green and orange - rustling leaves, ribbons of light, breeze in the face, glad to be alive - avoiding that path completely now because the chestnuts are gone. Cycling a different path instead past a man on a bench who pulls back his head as I approach, throwing it forward the moment I draw level in order to hurl to huge gob of spit in my direction. Looking back in disbelief; realising it was deliberate, and it missed.

Later, turning up at a local ward meeting to confront another man who has, in his own way, also hurled a gob of spit on Tooting Common - Councillor Jonathan Cook of Wandsworth Borough Council - ultimately responsible for the loss of the chestnut trees on Chestnut Avenue. 

Seeing him for what he is: an arrogant man, spouting misleading waffle, taking ten minutes to answer my question about council consultations, telling me I know nothing about the situation at Tooting Common, that the people there wanted that avenue of trees felled because lots were dangerously damaged and likely to FALL ON THE CHILDREN'S PLAYGROUND! And that as a boy he remembers feeling sad about Dutch elm disease actually, blah, blah, blah...  Not coming close to answering the question, enraging the audience with his response to this and many other questions, sitting next to his fellow counsellor, Guy Senior, who actually loses his temper at an audience member and shouts at the top of his voice. Wow. 


Another weekday evening, another meeting, a very different one. This time at Goldsmiths College in New Cross where two second year students inform the room about Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, arrested almost five years ago, sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. They quietly explain that he's had 50 of these lashes now and must wait for his back to heal before having more. And the case of Nadhir al-Majid, who had his sentence of seven years' imprisonment upheld by the Riyadh Court of Appeal on June 4th 2017, whose crimes include writing articles such as "I protest, I am a human being." After he was arrested he was beaten, kicked and ordered to stand for hours, then placed in solitary confinement. 

Sitting listening, remembering what I was doing 19 years ago when these two teenagers were born: hanging around playgroups with babies and toddlers who banged bricks and dribbled and filled nappies. Now their contemporaries - these informed and compassionate people - are big enough to stand before a meeting and explain about a Saudi blogger who had his back lashed so hard it "opened up" and why we should all care that writers the world over are oppressed and imprisoned. Thinking: human beings can be amazing, particularly the younger ones.

Love E x



Light, by Ted Hughes

Eased eyes open, showed leaves.

Eyes laughing and childish
Ran among flowers of leaves
And looked at light's bridge
Which led from leaf, upward, and back down to leaf.

Eyes uncertain
Tested each semblance

Light seemed to smile.

Eyes ran to the limit
To the last leaf
To the last vein of the least flower-leaf.

Light smiled,
And smiled and smiled

Afraid suddenly
That this was all there was to it.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Out of the box.

The old one.

I'm a student again after thirty years and can't believe my luck. I stroll round the campus feeling twenty years younger, half expecting someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask me to leave. But I'm allowed here, incredibly. On my first day I line up in the main building to register and there's an 18-year-old boy behind me not dissimilar to the one I have who is registering at another university in another part of the country. How weird is that? There are three of us in this family at university at the same time. We could start our own Soc. If we weren't hundreds of miles apart.

"What documents do we need?" the boy asks me.


"Well," I say, "I have my degree certificate, but I imagine it's different for you."

At the freshers fair I join three societies including the Samba club and talk to a girl who does burlesque. She shows me her Instagram pictures. 

"So, your breasts, they're, you know, actually... bare?" I ask her. 

"Oh no!" She says. "I'm wearing tit faces. I made them myself." 

Of course.

Sitting in a cafe opposite the main building I watch a girl approach a table outside. She sits, pulls at her sleeves, checks her phone, looks a bit lost and forlorn. I want to go outside and say: it'll be okay, don't worry. But I don't. Instead I watch as a boy approaches. He says something to her, which I imagine is: "is this seat taken?" or, "is it okay if I sit here?" Her mouth moves in reply, which I imagine is: "sure, go ahead," or, "yeah, fine, no worries." He sits. He chats to her. He waves his arms around as he talks and looks away, then back again, then laughs. She also laughs. Her demeanour changes, her shoulders relax, she puts her phone down on the table. Maybe she'll be friends with him for the next thirty years? Maybe she'll marry him?

Version Control.

I re-read And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison. It's an unflinching and at times unflattering portrayal of the author's father, shot through with love. Here's a lovely line from it - 

"What consolation can art be, what comfort are reading and writing, now that grief streams through the trees and this home he made for living in is about to become the house where he will die."

The book makes me think about the responsibility of the writer to his subject matter, about having the power to damn and defame. It makes me think about versions of people and how we never truly know who someone is. Morrison asks: what was my father? A domineering old sod, a loving dad, a loyal husband, in love with a woman who wasn't his wife? Then answers these questions brilliantly. He was all of these things. Of course.

By coincidence that same day I stumble across the furore concerning that book cover of Plath on a beach wearing a white bikini, looking fantastic in my view; although it would have been even better if she'd been wearing tit faces, ones she made for herself. I don't think Cathleen Allyn Conway writing for the Guardian would agree with me about that, though. She thinks it's all wrong, this image of Plath is "...  antithesis to the ambitious, intellectual poet."  Rebecca Rideal in the New Statesman disagrees with her, "we seem fixated" she writes, "on putting [women] into easily identifiable boxes: Blonde Bimbo, Angry Feminist, Downtrodden Mother, Suicidal Writer." While Ella Risbridger, for The Pool, sums it up. Plath is all of these things, she says, "depending on who you're asking." Of course.

I once wrote a damning account of my maternal grandfather. Here's another version of that same story. A bright working class lad meets a pretty factory girl and gets her pregnant. He marries her out of duty and it's not a particularly happy marriage; she's not his soul mate. He reckons he's lifted her out of poverty, put a roof over her head, so he can carry on as before: playing golf, going to pubs. They argue a lot. He's a big success, makes a lot of money, owns a factory. She stays at home, keeps house, looks after him. They have three children. One dies as a newborn and another dies when he's a young teen, which breaks his heart, and hers, and one survives; my mother. 

A little after he married the factory girl he did meet his soul mate, in a pub, but doesn't leave his wife for her, instead he conducts a secret affair with this woman for forty years, until he dies, because he loves her and because, as Morrison says, quoting his mother, it is possible to love two women at the same time. So, that's just a different way of seeing that same story. I imagine it's how he saw it. Of course.

Love E x

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

By Chestnut Avenue I Sat Down and Wept.


Towards the end of her life when her body was frail and her mind almost an empty vessel my grandmother still loved trees. She suffered from macular degeneration and couldn't see much and yet she was somehow able to discern the outline of trees that stood in the grounds of the old people's home where she lived. "Look at the trees," she would say, screwing up her misty eyes to focus on something beyond the confines of her room, "aren't they beautiful?" I shared her love of trees so I always agreed. Trees are the first thing I remember: three huge beech trees in our back garden. To me they were BFGs before I ever heard of Roald Dahl; Ents, before I stumbled across walking trees in The Lord of the Rings. My mother says as soon as I was big enough I would stand at the picture window in our lounge and shout at them.

Who doesn't love trees? They are capable of out-growing and out-living us all, with roots that crawl through the earth as far and wide as canopies that stretch above it. They are the lungs of the world, producing oxygen to enable us to breathe. They absorb carbon dioxide and other potentially harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. They cool the air, bind the soil, provide shelter and shade, bear fruit and nuts, nurture life for birds, insects, bats, mammals and man.  They hint of mystical things, tales they might tell if only they were able, plus they look great.

In cities where air quality is poor and we are surrounded by dirt and grime trees are more important than ever. After bin men visit on Monday mornings the litter they carelessly discard floats down our road like seaweed on a tide. Graffiti is splattered across bricks, hoardings plaster buildings, pitiful homeless people sleep on chewing gum ridden pavements because they've fallen through cracks of this government's risibly named social care programme, but still in the midst of all this we have precious green spaces with trees. Our commons and parks provide respite from the city, allowing us to breath both literally and metaphorically, and they belong to us all. Given this, it beggars belief that Wandsworth Borough Council just took it upon itself to fell more than 50 mature chestnut trees on Tooting Common.


It's a week and a day now since this dirty deed was done - see above. My first inkling was a phone call from a friend on Monday morning: it's started, she said, and I went straightaway. We had failed to stop the massacre - despite the Save Chestnut Avenue campaign and 6,565 people signing a petition - the least we could do was record it.

A steel wall was erected around the trees and a man with a paint gun condemned each trunk with a number. More people arrived, a few elderly ladies, a kindly old gent, my mate Jay, an Evening Standard reporter, a woman from BBC local news. Those inside the metal cordon became trapped there, told by police if we left we wouldn't get back in. It became clear the trees wouldn't fall that day after all: they had a stay of execution. Their end would begin at dawn, hidden away from prying eyes, coincidentally on a day when our MP, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, and a local councillor, Fleur Anderson - who both supported the campaign to save them - were away at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton.

We arranged a candlelit vigil for 6.30am, Tuesday. There were perhaps twenty of us there, armed with tea lights and flowers: a middle aged woman in pink wellies (me), an American, a Canadian, my Australian mate Sam, a straggle of anxious by-standers. The council sent a private security firm, police, and a van full of barking dogs. When I ran after lorries to get photographs, just before 7am, I was aggressively told to move on. That steel fence, the diggers, the men with alsatians, the absent faceless bureaucrats hell-bent on environmental vandalism, despite thousands of objections: it was Orwellian.

The vast majority of trees destroyed were not rotten and diseased with bleeding canker as the council has claimed, nor were they all chestnut trees, some were beeches and oaks. Of the few that were damaged most could have been saved with careful pruning and maintenance. The saplings planted in their place - all small leafed limes - in no way compensate for the loss of so many mature trees. It will be thirty years before the limes provide similar shelter from rain and sun; they will not cleanse the air of pollutants or dapple the path with sunlight or lower the surrounding temperature in the way their predecessors did during what remains of my lifetime.

And what did it cost? The security? The steel ring? The man power to fell them? What did it cost to plant pathetically small saplings in their place? The Heritage Lottery grant used to fund this hobby horse was £45,000. How much of it has been spent on new trees? Could it be that the council was motivated to destroy the chestnut trees not out of concern for the safety of its residents - as it claims - who were after all walking up and down that avenue with children and dogs and grannies for two whole years after the decision to fell them was taken behind closed doors in June 2015, long before the 'public consultation' of 700 people? And not by a 'vision' of a future majestic avenue of small leafed limes either? (Incidentally they can't decide which of these two justifications to use and keep flip flopping between them.) Could it be that instead of bearing the cost of maintaining a bunch of old trees, they saw an opportunity to save money? Even to make a fast buck?

In his fabulous book entitled The Secret Life of Trees: how they live and why they matter, author Colin Tudge describes how in their own way trees speak to one another. The beautiful trees on Chestnut Avenue certainly spoke to me, they said - for God's sake, don't let this cretinous tory council chop us down!

Sorry trees.

Love E x


P.S. If you are one of the 6,565 people who signed the petition to save the trees or were part of the campaign @SaveChestnutAve or merely love trees, as I do, you might want to send your objection to @wandsbc or  or Cllr Jonathan Cook executive member for environment, culture and community safety -

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Silken Tent.

I know that my son who has just gone to university is okay for two reasons. One: he hasn't rung since he got there, but has instead sent a series of cheerful text messages, mostly asking to be sent things he forgot to take with him. Two: I receive a text from a friend who lives in Buckinghamshire to say he was seen laughing and dancing at a party. Her daughter has a friend at the same university and she spotted him in the background of her Snapchat story. Welcome to the 21st century.

"But are you okay?" A different friend asks, in a different text message. I send a long reply with possibly more detail in it than she requires. While waiting for an answer I go downstairs from my office to make a cup of tea and while standing in front of the kettle it occurs to me that I won't need to make a cup of tea for Middle One, or for Eldest. My phone beeps with a reply from the friend and there are no words, only an emoji of a face crying rivers of tears.

Monday morning I prepare to go and sit in a windowless room and talk to lonely elderly people. "This might not be exactly what I need at the moment," I say to my husband, as I load things into my bicycle basket.

"No," he says. "But it might be what they need."

In the windowless room a 95-year-old lady on the other end of the telephone tells me your children never really leave you and her daughter rings her twice a day. She adds that when she looks back on her life her biggest regret is that she wasn't a good enough mother. "I wish I'd been more patient," she says, and a silent stream of tears runs down my face.

"Please don't reproach yourself," I say "You must have been a wonderful mother or your daughter wouldn't be ringing twice a day."

"You're making me cry," she says.

Monday evening I go to the pub for a meeting of mums called to arrange a forthcoming weekend away. People get out diaries or iPhones, or diaries and iPhones. I don't get out anything because I don't know when I'm going to be free, because I don't know when I'm going to be busy. "I'm going to be student," I say, "but I haven't got my timetable yet."

"What will you be busy doing when you're a student?" another mum asks.

"Laughing and dancing at parties," I say.

"Can I come?" she says.

"Yes," I say.

"How are you feeling?" asks another mum, "about your middle one being at university?" When I tell her she quotes a bit of A September Song by Pam Ayres - "The energy, the racket, all the songs you loved to play, and I won't know where to turn to when the music dies away." Which makes me smile.

Tuesday, my sister-in-law rings to suggest Youngest has a sleepover with his cousins and asks if I'd like to meet her for tea on Saturday, and then again for lunch on Sunday, all of us. I reply that would be lovely, and it reminds me to send a text to my niece to thank her for the letter she sent me. 

Wednesday I go for a long walk with Kay who suggested it as an antidote to feeling sad. When I pick her up in the car she looks at me suspiciously. "Have you been crying?" she says. "Only a tear or two," I reply, "because of the music."

Thursday I lie in a hot bath before bedtime and read a cool poem by Robert Frost. 

The Silken Tent.

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Which makes me cry. 

 Friday I meet up with another friend in the evening, who also has a son who went to university last weekend, and when I ask her how she is, I get out my tissues.

Love E x


P.S.  Late on Sunday I read the following by Gertrude Stein, "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences." Which makes me laugh out loud.

(I wrote this before the destruction of Chestnut Avenue, I'll be writing about that next week.)

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

It's the end of the world as we know it, almost.

Bringing up small children is hard work. There's the loss of freedom, of sleep, of privacy, the strain on your relationship, which many marriages don't survive, the enormous expense and self-sacrifice, but then one day all the hassle and aggro melts away and there standing before you instead of this cute little high-maintenance kid, alternately charming and infuriating, is an adult: warm, witty, kind, fun to be with, a home-grown bezzie mate, someone you can ask to empty the dishwasher who might actually do it. Hooray! And then he leaves.

I think that's how lots of parents feel when their children go to university. The problem with modern parenting like ours: placing children centre stage instead of having them play supporting roles as they did when we were growing up in the 60s and 70s, is that when they go there's a real danger the show might fold. I received an email once, in response to something I wrote about motherhood and careers, from a woman who told me she was so depressed without a job to go to and all her children at university, she didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. I look back and realise that when my eldest son left home and I suddenly lost weight and couldn't sleep, it was because he took a small piece of my sanity with him. With another boy now gone, a third to go at some point, I can only hope to hold on to enough of it to continue to get up each day, but I'm not counting on anything.

You might say I have only myself to blame: having made raising these boys my raison d'ĂȘtre. If so, my husband is similarly culpable. He thinks nothing of going out in the middle of the night to track a son down, or chase after one who just left home without his glasses. While I busy myself dashing backwards and forwards to the shops to keep the house stocked with food and toiletries. And it is absorbing, making sure between us that they have all they need: books for school, doctor's and dentist's appointments, lifts to music lessons and sporting fixtures, but when they no longer need it, when they're no longer around, what then? 

When we took our first son to university we stayed in a hotel with him the night before. On our last morning together I was able to watch him sleeping in the moments before he stirred. It was poignant. How many times had I seen him sleep before? Countless. How many more would there be? Not so many. Of course a child's face is beautiful to his mother even when he's a fully grown man, but when sleeping it takes on an extra vulnerability that wipes the memory of all his faults and misdemeanours. In that moment, watching him, he was my angel. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and weep into his shoulder because I was about to lose him to the world, and I knew it. But of course I didn't.

I thought I might have a similar moment before leaving Middle One at university this weekend, but a conspiracy of circumstances - including the city hosting a marathon next day - meant we didn't have a night together in a hotel after all. Instead, our leave-taking was a hurried and unsatisfactory affair in the street, in the dark, in the rain. I kept it together for the journey back to London, mostly because I was driving, then woke in the middle of the night wracked with sobs. His loss is keenly felt. He talked to me, a lot, and joked, sometimes we made the same play on words at the same time. But most of all, as with his elder brother, it's his music I will miss; music he played on his acoustic and electric guitar, on the piano, ukulele, mouth organ, music he listened to all the time in his room, music he played for me to listen to in the kitchen. Since he's been gone, and it's three whole days now, all that music has stopped.

Of course there's still one boy left: the quiet one, always in front of his computer with his headphones on. Sunday evening I tap his right shoulder. He looks round, pulls his headphones away from his ears. "Right," I say. "Just you now; you have my undivided attention."

"Jesus Christ," he says, snapping his headphones back on.

Love E x


P.S. "It is hard when your children leave," my mother says, when she rings to see how I am. "And the thing is, you never really get over it." Then she sends me flowers.