My fabulous lockdown life

How is this eternal lockdown really going for you?  (And despite the recent confusing relaxation of the rules, we are still far from out of lockdown.) Looking through the lens of social media and watching the news – which is the only barometer for most of us, deprived as we are of normal human interaction – lockdowners fall into two camps.

Firstly, there’s the smug lockdowners.  As if show-parenting and social media boasting aren’t torturous enough in real life (and I mean back in the Real World, before Quentin Tarantino started directing 2020), I present to you …. drumroll ……. show lockdown! “We’re all having so much fun” wholesome parents trill via YouTube as their family showcase extravagant baking sessions or form a philharmonic orchestra.  (Where does that flour come from? F****d if I can find any!)  These are the parents who are teaching their kids Greek and hanging exquisite rainbows fashioned from paper origami birds in their windows.  Meanwhile, the rest of us worry about finances, work in cramped conditions at home, struggle to look after vulnerable parents and try to home-educate bored, hyperactive children.  A friend who is working long hours to keep the family business afloat while home-schooling her two kids described a dark moment when one of the bored non-working school mums delivered sunflower seeds to all the children in her son’s class and suggested a fun online flower growing competition.  “So now I have to keep bloody plants alive too!” wailed my friend.

Then there are the annoying couples who take competitive lockdown to the extreme: they run marathons round their front garden and boast of enjoying quality time together.  Fun new hobbies such as painting watercolour meadows and making smoothies in matching leisurewear are documented ad nauseum for all to see on social media.  Often while many of us are having dark, murderous thoughts about our partners.

The show-offs, in the midst of their wholesome Famous Five family fun, seem oblivious to the real reason for the lockdown – thousands are dying from an invisible, deadly killer.  This isn’t an extended summer holiday, ffs! We are all in survival mode and it’s terrifying.  But hey, you carry on telling me how much fun all this is!

Then there is the other side of the coin: the disasters.  They proudly boast of 9am drinking sessions, days spent binge-watching Netflix in pyjamas,  a diet of crisps and cake, houses not cleaned for months and seem to take delight in being total car crashes.  Pouring scorn on anyone who does anything remotely productive or is not eating their body weight in biscuits daily, these people love to tell tales of their complete failure to home-school their children –  or in fact doing anything that involves getting off the sofa.  Shambling around in a mess is a badge of honour for them, and the more they can broadcast this to the world via social media, the better.  The judgemental side of me finds it extremely irritating: did none of you get enough attention as children?  (Disclosure: I left a bag of surplus VE Day cakes on a friend’s doorstep.  If I’m coming out of lockdown fatter, my friends are too and I’m happy to be an enabler.)

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.  Most of us have good days and bad days and are doing what we have to in order to survive.  Maybe there is a little of both types in all of us.  I know very few people with the luxury of being paid in full to stay home doing nothing and with no children to look after: the majority of my friends are struggling to keep businesses going, educate kids, stay healthy and sane and conduct work through emails and awkward Zoom meeting calls. A few key workers soldier on bravely on the frontline.  Everyone has financial concerns.  We are all missing friends and family and the freedom we once took for granted. Some of us have lost loved ones and been through the agony of grief in isolation.

I’ve found lockdown a real mixed bag of good and bad.  I’m enjoying the luxury of more time.  Pressing the pause button on daily life means no commute and less pressure.  And I refuse to treat this as an excuse to let standards slip:  I shower daily, as I normally would, and wear clean clothes.  I touch up my roots, paint my nails and look after myself, because it helps my self-esteem. I clean my house thoroughly every week and chat to my friends regularly, I’ve decorated, sorted out drawers, read books and drawn and painted.  I have a daily to-do list in the Real World and I’ve continued with that.  I tried baking but then realised I’d have to eat all 24 scones myself, which is no problem for me but perhaps not the best idea on a regular basis.  I participated in an online tea party for charity and my street’s VE Day isolation party. (I have to confess, I was horribly competitive. I walked the dog round the block to see what the rest of the neighbourhood was doing and was thrilled to report that our few houses were the only ones using linen tablecloths and proper china.) One day a week I shop for elderly parents.   I’ve done a few days’ work from home which has made me feel like a connected part of society again.  A man sometimes sits on the sofa in the lounge and I’ve discovered we’re married. He in turn has discovered he likes gardening.

Here’s the flipside.  I overeat. I worry like crazy about work, finances, the death toll, loved ones. I don’t wear my usual full face of make-up and my split ends are legendary.  My eyebrows, once beautifully shaped every fortnight by my beauty therapist, are a mess.  I can’t sleep, so I knock myself out with sleeping pills and then worry about becoming addicted.  I can’t settle to anything and I procrastinate and often don’t leave the house for days.  I watch the news to the point of obsession with a mounting sense of doom and become furious with those who avoid any media, believing them to be irresponsible, but then wish I felt less like a road traffic accident spectator.  My attempts at voluntary work have failed because I have panic attacks in shops about others’ cavalier attitude and bark “TWO METRES!!!” at anyone who comes within five metres of me.  I get upset and angry and miss the people I can’t see and the places I can’t go.  Like everyone, I resent the cancelled holidays and weddings and events, but it seems petty to complain when others have lost so much more.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t feel sad.

But, as always, my friends are a lifeline and through this I have learned who my true friends are.  We speak or message regularly.  Some call me in tears when they are despairing about a bad day and I do the same back.  We ALL have bad days: surely even the twatty couples and annoying families who post shiny, motivational fun videos and photos on Instagram are getting on each other’s nerves by now, the novelty of “quality time” long gone.  I do hope so, we all need a dose of Schadenfreude.

Lockdown will soon feel like a dream, and good and bad will come from it.  But I am an optimist and I hope mainly good.  We are seeing the very best of human nature (as well as the worst, but light always prevails over darkness) and incredible acts of bravery.  Hopefully we all have a renewed sense of what is truly important and that is not money or status but the things that can’t be measured.

Stay safe – and if you know where I can source self-raising flour, let me know and I’ll pay cash, no questions asked.


Lucky Me

My life is neatly divided into two: before March 2013 and after.  The enemy arrived unseen and swiftly pulled the rug out from under me with such brutality my life changed in a heartbeat and I will never be the person I was before.  I had heard people describe that defining life-changing moment as it happened to them but we never think it will happen to us, do we?  Until it does.

I often look back at the old me as I was before.  I was 41 years old.   Turning 40 hadn’t been much of a milestone, just an excuse for two parties and a fabulous holiday.  I didn’t feel old. I had been married (not my first rodeo!) for a little over a year and we both had busy jobs in London.  I had great friends and my lovely but challenging rescue dog.  I was always going somewhere or doing something, never still.

Then, on that day in March 2013, everything changed and suddenly I was struggling with the biggest fight of my life.  It is a fight I have never talked about until now, and a long and lonely one.  Now I am out the other side – for now.  Like all good villains, I’m sure it will be back. And this time I am ready and waiting.

I passed out at work, mid-conversation with a colleague.   I blamed low blood sugar – I am pre-diabetic. I carried on working. (I am self-employed with a very strong working class work ethic: if you can breathe and walk, you can work.  In fact, as I type, I am recovering from two slipped discs. I am very scornful when employed people take a day off sick for a cold.) But the sensations got worse. The ground became like the roughest of ocean passages, throwing me from side to side. Stairs were moving targets in a bizarre funfair ride.  Getting out of bed brought nausea and panic.  I had to grab onto walls, other people, anything to stabilise myself.  It was in a constant nightmare world of dizziness, vomiting and terror.  I was crippled by the sensations, unable to walk unaided, get dressed, get into the shower, make a cup of tea, leave the house, put down food for the dog. As the world swam and swayed around me, every tiny movement triggered the movements.  I didn’t know it until months later but I had, in that second, for some still unknown reason, suffered brain damage.

The doctor (mis)diagnosed me with an inner ear disorder and told me it would get better.  It didn’t.    After three weeks off I returned to work because sick leave wasn’t a luxury I had – and this was a whole new kind of terrifying.  Rush hour London did its worst. Public transport, challenging at the best of times, took on a whole new dimension.   The motion of buses and trains was unbearable.   Crowds jostling and traffic rushing past was deafening and disorientating.   I couldn’t stand in queues or use stairs. The court stairs felt like Everest.  Looking down at my phone triggered an attack.  So did looking up.  So did bending down.  Once I was in my seat at work I was OK but having to stand up and bow to the judge was a Herculean effort after which it took a long time for the world to steady itself again while I stared at my screen and waited for everything to stop spinning.

And nobody in the medical profession listened.  I couldn’t understand what had happened to me. The internet was a swamp of unhelpful information, friends and colleagues were (mostly) very sympathetic but caught up in their own lives.  The world rushed about its business leaving me struggling in its wake, incapacitated by a body that couldn’t steady itself in a world which listed and span and lurched.

All the joy leached out of my life with every ounce of strength going on stupid tasks like putting on tights or getting out of a car.  Move, stop, wait for everything to steady itself.  Deep breath, start again.  My back, often painful, was now in constant agony from being thrown out by my uneven gait.  High heels, dancing, flying in a plane, drinking a glass of wine, even looking up at the sky belonged to the old me.  The new me was 41 – and suddenly, since that fateful moment, inexplicably disabled.

The poker player in me knew I had been dealt this terrible hand, but how I decided to play it was my choice.  I had to stare the enemy down and not give in.  A close friend had recently been diagnosed with a life- limiting illness and faced it with such courage and strength that I knew I could too.  I reminded myself constantly that others were always worse off.  Every day I wrote down three things for which I was grateful. (Wow, was that a struggle at times!)   I had my family and my dog and my friends.  My brain was still sharp, it was just my body that was failing.   I could still work and as long as I could work, I was OK.  I still wrote my newspaper column.  I was still a wife and a friend and a daughter. “I’m still me” I reassured someone at least daily as they watched me struggle with the little things I once took for granted. I didn’t want anyone’s pity. And I made sure I still laughed as much as I could when at home or with friends, even when I didn’t feel like it. Laughter is so healing.

With one exception (at work of all places) I never cried in front of anyone.  My tears of frustration (never pity, self-pity is an ugly and destructive emotion) came when I was alone in bed at night.  The uncertainty of if I would ever walk properly,  drive, be able to put something in the oven, the sheer helplessness of being cut down in my prime.  But in public I smiled, put pictures on Facebook, went to work, dressed up and went to friends’ 40th birthdays and watched others drink and dance and remembered when my life was like that. I tried to do as much as I could at home.  So what if it now took me thirty minutes to get dressed?  I just had to get up earlier.  Loading and unloading the washing machine piece by piece, sitting on the floor, took forever –  but I could still do it. If doing something took me 20 attempts, I had to suck it up.  I have never been patient and it nearly killed me,  but I had little choice.

And, as with any hidden illness, people judged.  I was berated for using the disabled toilets and called lazy for getting the lift up one flight of stairs at work because to the casual observer I looked fine. I think people assumed I was drunk a lot of the time.  (Which, incidentally I hadn’t been since 2005) My condition  – and my emotional pain – were hidden to everyone.  On a good day I managed to walk unaided for a few steps.  On bad days I was crippled.

A couple of months into my illness, I had taken a deep breath, sat my husband down and told him to leave me.  I couldn’t see him becoming my carer after 18 months of marriage. Pushing me round in a wheelchair so soon was unthinkable.  He married a strong-willed, feisty, active woman who never sat still for a minute and who was full of life, a woman who now couldn’t even put on her boots.  (He told me I was being ridiculous and that he never for a moment contemplated it, although it must have been impossible for him dealing with his job and my very exacting standards at home!) We began to think about moving to a house more suited to my needs with an eye level oven and walk-in shower.  I knew the next step was using a wheelchair to get around quicker and easier and had started to get my head round that. The thought of it made me feel sick.   But if I ever I thought “why me?” I caught myself and batted it away.

Then came the breakthrough. After five months of being treated like a hypochondriac by my then doctor, I saw another GP for something unrelated.  After seeing me limp slowly along the corridor and struggle to sit down he immediately admitted me to hospital for tests.  He later told me he feared I had MS.  (It turned out we all thought that, but it was too terrifying to put into words).

The hospital neurologist I saw had, by chance, been trained on the small, specialist neuro-otology unit in London which dealt with cases like mine, headed up by a professor who  was the world leader in vestibular damage.   I had a brain scan and  six months after my world first tilted, I was at the London Hospital of Neurology where the specialist team ran a massive battery of tests.  I was overjoyed and grateful that someone could help me escape this crazy spinning world I was locked into. I wasn’t alone.

I hadn’t thought much about the tests that day and felt so confident I sent the friend who had loyally accompanied me away after a couple of hours.  As soon as she left, the torture started.  I was hung upside down in a harness, thrown off the end of tables and pushed to limits beyond what I thought I could endure.  Hard enough for anyone able-bodied, for me in my moving upside-down-sideways fairground world nightmare I thought I couldn’t stand it.  But I persevered with each one: my determination to find out what was wrong with me overrode the tears and the near vomiting  (I wondered what the bucket was doing there at first, most people throw up).  I wasn’t prepared for the chair tilt.  I was strapped down into a terrifying executioners’ style chair which rotated and bucked and tried to throw me out while electrodes attached to my head watched my poor brain try to cope with the sensation.  More than once I thought I was going to die.  Last came the waterboarding in a soundproofed room: tied to a gurney to restrain me, blindfolded and with brain wired up, I had first hot and then cold water poured into my ears and over my face to disorientate me.  You get ten attempts at this test.  I took four before they got a reading. Someone was screaming for their life somewhere nearby: sheer raw terror.  “Oh, that was you” said the clinician “That’s why the room is soundproofed”.  After that, nothing has ever terrified me as much.

When I got my diagnosis in hospital that day the tears of relief flowed.  I wasn’t going mad, I had suffered brain damage. Nobody knows how or why the vestibular nerve damage happened, but the most important thing of all: they could help me.

Then came the hard work.   I began painstaking specialist physiotherapy to retrain my brain to let me balance – and walk – again.  Every six weeks in London for nearly three years I saw a physiotherapist who took me through the simplest and stupidest of exercises of things which I had once done all day every day effortlessly but now seemed impossible.   Walking in a straight line.  Looking up at the ceiling (this triggered an episode so awful I had to lie down for 15 minutes to stop the room spinning and the nausea).  The tiniest of head movements. Exercises to be repeated five times a day at home, making me feel sick and shaky and terrible.   I frequently had relapses when I was back to square one and took to my bed and cried angry tears of frustration.  But slowly, slowly, I improved.  I could close my eyes for five seconds whilst standing without falling over.  My walking stick was used less and less until the physiotherapist banned it. (I hated her some days but she was right).  The DVLA finally agreed I could drive on good days and that was another joyous moment.  We don’t treasure our health and freedom until it has suddenly  gone.

I started cautiously flying again.  Going through the airport security scanner and leaning down to take my shoes off was a nightmare.  The tilt of the plane at altitude saw me staggering off at my destination disorientated and struggling: fine when travelling with friends or with my husband, a nightmare on business trips coping with suitcases.  But I did it again and again in the self-belief that I would get better.

My determination to not let my disability define me and my sheer stubborness began to win through. Every time I went for my physiotherapy session I visited the hospital chapel and gave thanks that I was getting better.  My strong, unshakeable faith was tested to the limit but it hung in there, through every huge setback.    There were more low points: my disability registration was refused on a ridiculous single point.  Pretending I was coping fooled everyone, even the DWP! In Barcelona on a girls’ weekend I just couldn’t manage the narrow spiral staircase at the Sagrada Familia to get up to the views, or even to look up to the beautiful ceilings.  Once again, I sat on the sidelines, left behind.

But I made the choice to see myself as lucky:  lucky to get the specialist help I needed and lucky that I was going to make it through.  And defeated, the enemy slowly began to retreat.

Early in 2017 I had my last session of physiotherapy and then I was, on a wonderfully happy day in March that year, four years after my nightmare began, discharged from the neurology hospital  – for now.   This condition is mine for life and it may come back at some time in the future.  But this time I’m ready for it and I will beat it again. I can, on a good day – and they are mainly good days – look up at the stars.  I can fly in a plane and recover within a day or two.  I can drink again.  Three years ago the idea of decorating was a distant dream: I now hop up and down off ladders and paint walls and hang wallpaper. There are some things I will never do but skiing or zip wiring aren’t essential to my daily life.  I’m working on getting back into high heels and then the gym. And a huge hurdle: last month I walked calmly down the evil glass spiral staircase at work. It might not have seemed impressive to anyone watching but for me, I felt as euphoric as if I’d completed a black ski run.

I haven’t danced for a long time – I look back fondly at my wedding tango and my salsaing days and my three years of singing and dancing to entertain guests in cabarets as a holiday rep.   I remember hugging a crocodile and swimming with elephants and dating very unsuitable men and getting a tattoo after losing a bet with a barrister in court and taking huge big risks.  I look back at the girl who did crazy stupid things without even thinking about a day when she wouldn’t be able to walk – sober – in a straight line without falling over — and I know she is still in there.  And she’s a fighter with a great support network – and a very lucky one.

Enjoy life and never, ever take anything for granted.  I’m lucky to have a second chance.

Note from Rebecca: Thanks for reading.  It has taken me over a year to publish this since it was first written in draft.  I’m doing so much better now.  I’m back in my heels on good days.  I’m going back to the gym soon and getting fit again.  And I can look up at the stars!






My Perfect Insta Life

I woke up like this, honest!

Hands up if, like me, you’re guilty of leading a double life?  If you use social media (and I’m particularly looking at you, Instagram) then you probably do.  I have two lives: my everyday life in all its unfiltered and imperfect glory and the life I lead online, otherwise known as my shiny, highly polished Instagram life.

“But your life looks so exciting” commented a friend recently, one who sees a lot more of me online than she does In Real Life.  No, my Instagram life is glamorous and fun, my real life far from so.  This lady is a successful novelist and I am in total awe of her but she will tell you that the life of a writer is neither particularly lucrative nor glossy and involves mostly thankless work, as opposed to the common perception of book launches, TV interviews and long wine-fuelled lunches with agents.  Things are rarely what they seem.   And don’t get me started on travelling for work, another very misunderstood activity.

Many of us use smoke and mirrors online and I too am guilty of carefully curating my social media life, honing and filtering it to give an illusion of near perfection.  So why do it? Well, the simple answer is nobody really wants, or needs, to see the depressing detail of my life – or anyone else’s.  Long, cold waits on a train platform, my un-made up face, the pain I struggle with at the end of every working day, picking up after the dog in the pouring rain, an overflowing laundry basket.  Need I go on?

Take my recent holiday.   The pictures are fabulous: breathtaking beaches and scenery, amazing food, exotic cocktails and all pictures of me in full make-up (complete with false eyelashes) and dressed up for a formal night on the cruise.  The truth behind the illusion was persistent food poisoning, heavily delayed flights, frequent domestics, rain and seasickness.  Most of the time I looked so rough I forbade any photos being taken whatsoever and I always have a three-day rule on holiday: it is at least day four before I am ready to appear in any form of picture.

Yes, I would love to live my shiny online life.   Wouldn’t we all?  Partners are charming and attentive, dogs and children well-behaved, houses stylishly decorated and weekends are one long round of fun and socialising with friends over perfectly cooked and presented food.   But the modern day voyeurism into others’ lives is addictive and the pressure to keep up pretences huge.

It is so important to keep a check on reality and realise that this is not real life.  Real life is peppered with disappointment, struggles and exhaustion as we try to keep everything going and pay the bills.   I would highly recommend reading the excellent My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella.  Unlike the heroine’s, though, all the pictures on my Instagram and Facebook account are actually mine and true, albeit often filtered.  Discontent with one’s own life complete with badly behaved dog, very average house and boring weekend full of chores has to be kept firmly in check.    And always remember: never compare your fly on the wall documentary with the edited show reel of someone else’s life.





The Power of Serendipity

In my previous life as a holiday rep in Spain and Turkey, aged just 22 and fresh from university, part of my job remit was entertaining guests with an elegantly entitled game of ‘Blind Man’s Muff’. (Look away now if you are easily offended/you are my parent!) It went as follows: remove the top half of your clothing, put on a zip-up top (thoughtfully provided by the holiday company and sporting their logo) and then, whilst transporting guests by coach for the bar crawl, run down the coach aisle while the male guests tried to pull the zip down. (Note: this was during the very unpolitically correct 1990s) As a result of this (a) I still have lightning quick reactions; (b) I hate zip-up tops; (c) nothing I have since been asked to do for work has seemed as unreasonable.  Did we have to do it? Yes, and the company’s stance was if we didn’t like it, there were hundreds of people wanting our jobs — which, amazingly, there were. (The so-called ‘glamorous’ jobs never are, particularly those involving the holidaying public.)  Additionally, we had to control drunken crowds of guests  (I once threw an entire rugby club off a coach single-handedly) and spend hours at the hospital and police station translating from Spanish or Turkish.  Then there was the singing and dancing to entertain the guests during cabaret as well as dealing with numerous complaints and endless tedious hours spent in hotels and doing paperwork.  The tourism industry is tough.  I will take the most difficult of judges or barristers and the trickiest of court cases in my now job over dealing with British and Scandinavian tourists any day.

It was a big leap from holiday rep for a large tour operator to the legal profession: as jobs, they are polar opposites. As is the way in life, it is often the things we fall into by mistake that turn out to be the most significant and my job is a good example.  This November it will be 21 years since I first began my day job as a court transcript editor after answering an ad in a copy of The Times left on the train and the five of us who trained together are planning a big celebration.  I had never planned to work in the law and it didn’t interest me one bit but given I am entering my third decade, it must have some kind of pull.  My degrees are in journalism and sociology and my work experience before that was as a medical secretary so nothing relevant.   However, working in the legal profession is just as tough but for totally different reasons but the end result is scarily similar: keeping the clients happy and delivering a good end product.  Just not with zippers …..

I rarely talk about my job to my non-work friends for two reasons: firstly, I like to keep the two halves of my life completely separate and leave my work behind in London; and secondly, confidentiality.   “That must be fascinating” is the first reaction when I meet new people.  No, is the short answer.  I challenge anybody to sit through an eight hour day of shipping reinsurance arbitration with its associated technical terminology and remain fascinated.  Our work is mainly commercial: banking, VAT, breach of contract, big companies, trust funds.  Still awake?

Of course there are the high profile cases.  The celebrities, the oligarchs, the captains of industry, the trophy wives, the super fraudsters.  If you’ve seen a big court hearing on the news, one of the very small number of us stenographers will have transcribed it. There is a lot of travel too: Caribbean tax havens, Bermuda, the Far and Middle East and pretty much all over Europe.  But if you have ever travelled  on business you will understand just how soul-destroying living in a hotel room for weeks on end can be.

The physical side of the job is very challenging: years of wear and tear from sitting  in unergonomic court rooms for hours at a time has brought back and joint problems for many of us.  Keeping a poker face is hard too, even for me as a poker player.   I sometimes find not laughing very difficult: you know when you have to keep a straight face in a serious environment and you really struggle to keep control?  Court is one of those.  And sometimes not crying: inquests, divorce cases, child abuse inquiries.  I really feel people’s pain.  I cry at animal rescue ads on the telly, for God’s sake.   We have to stay completely neutral in court at all times.  How do I get through it?  Caffeine, chocolate and painkillers combined with physiotherapy.   And that most vital of things, a sense of humour.  So perhaps not so different from being a holiday rep.

So what’s the best thing?   My colleagues.  I am lucky to work with some of my very best friends and over 21 years, we have shared a lot together and if I gave it all up tomorrow I would take away some incredible memories. And a lot of very interesting stories too, most of which I am unable to talk about.   The best stories come from the courtroom and not the tourism industry!

I fell into this job by accident and as the saying goes, life is what happens when you make other plans.  Serendipity is a strange concept but I am a great believer in its existence.  As a Type A Capricorn  control freak, letting go and trusting God/the universe is difficult for me, as is the idea that all things happen for a reason and as part of some great divine plan.   After a very stressful day in court I try to remain grateful that I don’t have to herd drunk people around and sing Big Spender in a showgirl outfit.  Or run down the aisle of a coach full of drunken lads trying to get my top off.  So to celebrate my 21st birthday (again!) I am raising a glass to serendipity.  And the fact that I was never once caught out when running down a coach aisle.  The safety pin is a wonderful invention.





Scared of Dying? Don’t Be ….

What terrifies you?  I don’t scare easily.  During my 45 years on this planet I have stared down the barrel of a loaded gun, made speeches to hundreds of people and had laser eye surgery (yes, you can smell your eyeball scorching!)  None of it was particularly frightening.  I don’t believe in ghosts, flying doesn’t bother me and I have a high pain threshold too: tattoos simply scratch a little (grown men being inked were passing out next to me!) and I can have a Hollywood wax and simultaneously hold a conversation   And that ultimate fear, death, doesn’t frighten me, having stared it down a couple of times.

I am inexplicably terrified of getting my head underwater.  Maybe I drowned in a past life.  This is a problem as a Baptist as I have yet to have my full adult immersion.  I did manage an underwater ocean walk in Mauritius many years ago after several refusals at the last minute — until the crew on the boat got fed up and just forcibly pushed me under which is one way to overcome your fears quickly.  My husband, a keen diver, really wanted me to experience the wonders of the ocean bed.  I say if we were meant to do that, God would have given us fins.  But I did it and it was great and, once I got there, not that scary.

So what about dying?  And when you think you’re going to die, does your life really flash in front of you?   Yes, it does, but not in the way I thought.  And there’s nothing like the click of a gun’s safety catch  to give a sharp sense of perspective.

With famous British reserve we don’t talk about death, although it is inevitable (Like taxes. Unless you are a mega rich tax exile but you are still going to die some day.)  I am always mystified as to why we are, as a nation, so reticent. Our Victorian ancestors with their gruesome death obsession loved the melodrama of it all but today as a nation it is still spoken about in hushed tones.  Even the vocabulary round it is cloaked in whispers: “passed away”, “left us”, “called to eternal glory”.  What is wrong with plain old “died”?

I was discussing fear of dying with friends a few weeks ago over dinner at London’s aptly named Bleeding Heart restaurant, the scene of a famous death in Bleeding Heart Yard outside (Google it and go there — it’s awesome!)  Unsuitable dinner conversation, maybe, but then the neighbouring table were cheerfully discussing paternity test results.  (It wasn’t his, in case you are wondering). Two of us aren’t afraid of death at all, and interestingly we have both had close calls, the third friend thought the conversation horribly morbid and wouldn’t talk about it.  “I’m not scared” said my second friend. “I just don’t want to know about it when it happens to me.”

It doesn’t scare me either, having come quite close on a couple of occasions during my adult life.   My faith helps, but mostly I believe that turning round and confronting death takes away its sting: like all bullies, it is a coward when called out. My will is written and my funeral planned right down to the playlist, so now I can forget all about it.  Women from both paternal and maternal sides of my family are very long lived therefore I’m not planning on checking out any time soon.  During my 21 year legal career I have worked on enough inquests and public inquiries to understand the factual, medical and practical side of dying .  But what does it feel like when you think your number is up?

None of us actually know what dying is like, of course.  Film and literature has had a good go at guessing.  I’m thinking of the movie Flatliners or Alice Sebold’s wonderful book, The Lovely Bones, written from the afterlife.  The hardest piece I ever wrote for this blog was the last day on earth – and the passing to the other side — from the point of view of my beloved dog Dexter last year which was read hundreds of times and, so I am told, made everyone cry.  (What a fantastic privilege it is to move people to such emotions through your writing.)   I’ve read numerous accounts of the phenomenon of near death experience, of travelling down tunnels of light and looking down on your lifeless body in the operating theatre.  But is it, as scientists would have us believe, a trick of a dying brain?

My closest call came in the late 1990s when I found myself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun one night on a beach in West Africa. (Long story, I’ll skip to the end. When we are young we feel invincible and take stupid risks).  The corrupt police officer had removed his badge and after levelling the gun at me, made me undress.   My only thought at the time “This isn’t how it is meant to end.  I’m not ready!”  Total panic, then icy acceptance.  I wanted it done quick.  Did I plead for my life? (Of course I f*****g did, wouldn’t you? ) It was right before Christmas and I told him again and again I wanted to go back to my family (‘You can see your family again — in hell’)  It was at this point that my life flashed before me.   Random things that had happened years ago, fragments like a kaleidoscope.  My grandparents’ old dog.  An apartment I lived in when working in Bermuda, in minute detail, which I couldn’t have recalled if I tried.  Then the dead man’s click of the safety catch.  Waiting.   This is it now.  Don’t touch me and just do it quick.  I saw myself arguing with mum about the very tiny velvet hot pants I wore to my 21st party instead of a ‘nice dress’.   Bizarre shards of jumbled memories, a whole life.  The things I wouldn’t ever get to do.  The words I wouldn’t now say to people.  Again the anger of “I’m not ready!” The marriage proposal I hadn’t accepted. The only man who, at that time, I had ever loved — and the fact he wouldn’t miss me.

I survived the incident with surprisingly few emotional effects.  When I talk about past trauma that close call doesn’t feature.  I’ve always been able to reason my way out of situations and there’s very little a cash bribe won’t do in the third world.  It didn’t stop me travelling but I am a lot more careful.  Incidentally, I saw the man a couple of years later in passing when I was back out in West Africa and he just said hello as if nothing had happened.  Humans never cease to mystify me.

There have been a couple of other close calls since but my guardian angel looks after me. Like everyone I have phobias and I am still working on that total immersion.  I am quite scared of a particular very formidable female High Court judge but then so is the whole legal profession!

Face your fears and they no longer become scary.  Don’t let dying scare you because often living is more frightening.  As a writer and a human being, such experiences can only enrich you.  Most of all, remember to be scared by your dreams, and, as the saying goes, if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.








Hold on tight to your dreams …

Over Easter we visited friends in Cornwall who have recently realised their dream of moving to the beach after years of commuting into London and working two jobs each. We had a wonderful long weekend of food, laughing, drinks in the pub and long walks on the beach with all our dogs.  When husband and I returned home I felt restless for weeks afterwards and couldn’t pinpoint why.  We don’t hanker after living by the coast and, gorgeous as their beachside bungalow is, we love our house and are happy in our town.  Then it dawned on me suddenly: I have lost sight of my dreams, allowing myself to get so bogged down in the daily quagmire of work, health issues, never-ending house renovations and the minutiae of life that I have forgotten what I dreamed of.

Some dreams are huge.  My great-grandmother dreamed of visiting Paris, quite an ambition for a working class woman in the mid-20th century.  She never went but always clung to that hope.  And big dreams can come true.  In January 2009 a friend of mine brought her ten year old daughter to a lunch to celebrate my engagement. The little girl told us that when she grew up she wanted to be a famous YouTube star.  We all smiled indulgently but now in 2017 she is indeed that social media star with millions of followers and an agent in LA.  She had that flame of ambition burning inside of her and just wouldn’t give up on her dreams.  Another good friend has a son who always wanted to be a top music producer.  Now I hear his music everywhere, all the time; you will definitely have heard it too.  Again, he stuck with his dreams and dared to make them a reality.  And my friends in Cornwall too dreamed of a house by the sea with their dogs and worked and worked towards it – and now they have their wonderful life – and we have a fantastic holiday home!

What were my dreams?  Sometimes I struggle to recall them.  Well, like most people I want the basics of good health for myself and my loved ones, a roof over my head and a life free of financial worries where I can easily pay the bills.  But assuming those first world essentials are satisfied, what then?  Not a huge lottery win as I have seen at work what billions can do to a person: they end up in court suing each other.  But enough money to not have to constantly fret (oh, and to turn left on entering a plane too!) My 45 years have taught me that material things do not ultimately bring happiness.  (Although my Tiffany sunglasses are the exception)  I never had the popular dreams of marriage and children or a particular career or owning my own house but I had dreams of travel and adventure and becoming a bestselling author.

Dreams change with time to become a moving target.  Right the way through university I wanted to join the Army Intelligence Corps until I failed my interview and, once again, I had to reassess what I wanted.  Deflated, I never really had any career dreams after that.   I achieved a lifelong ambition in 2009 when I finally saw my work in print (and then went on to be published again and again) culminating in the publishing of my ebook in 2011.  I then wanted a bestselling novel but now that seems less important and I am not sure I could handle the bad reviews and rejection. Next, I wanted to build a craft emporium and turn my passion into a career but realised that in doing that, all the fun and joy of creating would be sucked from it.   I need to find new dreams because what is life without dreams?  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy: my husband pictured having a relaxing bath in a lovely new bathroom in our house, a dream that got him through weeks of noise, dust and disruption while it was being created.   I always wanted to have a dog and now I am a dog owner of a lovely whippety mash-up rescue.   I have a vague idea that I would like our house to be featured in an interiors magazine once it is finished and husband mentioned he wanted to go to the Isle of Man TT, so new dreams are forming but I need newer and bigger dreams too.

So dare to dream, let your dreams scare you and, as the song goes: hold on tight to your dreams.


Don’t feed the trolls!

I can’t be the only one who has noticed how judgmental people are these days. And what better forum than online where one can hide behind a screen?  In Britain we wouldn’t berate a complete stranger in the street for their views on Brexit, parenting skills or choice of clothes but on social media it is open season to sit as judge and jury on anyone and anything.

A few days ago I watched two enormous altercations unfold on Facebook, the first in a whippet forum where a dog owner’s  innocent question about raw food versus dry suddenly turned into a really nasty slanging match. It seemed every man (and his dog) was an expert veterinary nutritionist, and insults and personal remarks were being flung around freely.  At the same time on a local group for my town a lady posted a query about some roadworks and bang!  Three men got into a highly charged and vicious online fight where accusations of bad driving skills quickly escalated into penis size speculation.  It seems many of us have regressed to playground style name-calling.

I have been on the receiving end of similar attacks by trolls on the TripAdvisor travel forum where the downright spite aimed at me after I posted an innocent travel question reduced me to tears and I have never been back.  And a couple of weeks ago on Twitter I was piggy in the middle when two very large animal welfare organisations began trading accusations and barbs through my Twitter account after I tweeted both of them to ask the question why, as they both love dogs, they couldn’t work together at Crufts.  I watched astonished, feeling like a referee in a boxing match whilst feeling sad that two powerful organisations couldn’t put politics and differences aside.

So why is it OK to judge and criticise others so harshly online?  When did this become the norm and why does it so often happen without those doing the judging and trolling knowing the full facts?   Why do we think we are experts on everything and therefore entitled to sit in judgment on our fellow human beings? In real life, as opposed to our often highly edited cyber life, we are all just trying to do the best we can.  I don’t get it right all the time but on the whole I try to be a good wife, daughter, neighbour, friend, citizen and consumer with respect for those around me.  (Unless I have PMT in which case stand back everyone!)

On social media I try to just scroll on and accept that people have different views without judging or straying into the murky world of trolling.  But some of the frankly vile and hateful comments I see posted are astonishing, aimed at those who are just going about their lives peacefully and legally.   A friend of mine who is a fan of a particular clothing designer commented recently that she felt very sad about some of the vitriol and scorn posted on the designer’s Facebook page.  If you don’t like the clothes, unfollow the page.  Why be so downright nasty for the sake of it?  I have also noticed many of the women’s magazines have accounts on social media where they will post a picture of a celebrity or an outfit and ask for comments which to me only seems to open the floodgates of caustic remarks and spite. Why encourage us to judge each other so harshly?  As women we should be empowering each other which is a reason why I love celebrities such as Katie Piper and Lorraine Kelly who encourage positivity.

And this seems to be exclusively online.  Opinionated and inflammatory people in the public eye such as Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan are not liked.  (Yes, I know they love to be notorious and it’s their USP and I maintain that if we ignore them they will simply cease to exist!) But I have seen remarks online from the public that make Katie Hopkins seem like a mild-mannered saint.  Would those who post such judgmental remarks actually say them to a stranger if they met them in the street or does hiding behind a screen give a sense of bravado?

Please let’s be kinder to each other.  Modern life is hard enough without us turning on our fellow humans. I think the advice from my mother’s generation is still relevant today:  if you can’t say [or post] something nice, it’s best not to say [or post] anything at all.

And please do look at JK Rowling’s Twitter account to read her wonderful and pithy put-downs to her trolls.  That woman is a national treasure.

Give January a Chance

When I first started writing this blog post it was Blue Monday – officially the most depressing day of the year, scientifically calculated by factoring in the weather, broken resolutions and post Christmas debt. January is also a peak month for death and divorce. (I’m specifically talking about those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, of course. If you’re in the height of your summer now then please stop reading immediately!)

Now we are very nearly into February, so how was January for you? Well, my husband and I had a great time, as we always do in January.  We have our annual holiday over the new year and usually start back at work around the second week of January. This is mainly due to our work schedules but also because there’s something wonderful about stepping off the plane into warm air or being poolside in a bikini when it is minus 5 at home. Who wants to leave the UK in the summer when the weather is hot here?  In January we go out a lot, eat and drink loads – and spend a lot too. We had our UK black tie and diamonds Bond-themed wedding reception in January six weeks after our December Caribbean wedding. Last year we had our housewarming in January. It’s always great to have something to look forward to after Christmas and I never find it a problem to entice people to events in the gloom-filled first few weeks of the year.

I’ve never seen the need for the harsh regimes and self-flagellation that almost seem mandatory for a UK January.  It helps that each brand new year is heralded by my New Year’s Day birthday and this year I enjoyed a double celebration with a good friend who shares the same birthday. I love the idea of new beginnings: the writer in me likens it to starting a gorgeous new notebook blank with possibilities. It’s definitely not the time to deny yourself or diet or detox like mad when comfort food is the order of the day.

And there’s so much to look forward to.  The nights are slowly getting lighter, spring is round the corner, the sales are on, great new series are starting on the telly and it’s time to start thinking about a new job or a house move or an exciting new project. Every year, I truly believe that this is the year I’m going to finally finish my ‘work in progress’ novel.  Ok, the weather sucks but there’s nothing like a dog walk on those beautiful crisp brilliant days. (The flip side, there’s nothing like a wet excitable dog on a freezing foggy day either!)

I guess that it is all a matter of perspective. I’m of the view that life is what you make it and that applies to January. Having said that, I haven’t stepped on the scales yet or received my January credit card bill!

Stop right there! It’s the punctuation police – and you’re nicked.

imagePunctuation is powerful stuff.  True, nobody ever died from a misplaced exclamation mark, but let’s not risk it.  I’m a constant corrector and it drives those non grammar, spelling and punctuation Zealots around me crazy – particularly my husband.  Luckily most of my friends and colleagues are of like mind and nothing lights our collective touchpaper like a greengrocers’ apostrophe or a fiery debate about the Oxford comma. In fact, several of my work colleagues and I once demanded to be moved from a restaurant table right next to a sign announcing the toilet’s.  It wasn’t the toilets themselves that were offensive, only the sign  – a sign that someone had gone to the trouble to paint on the wall, error and all.  Only last week I tweeted Good Morning Britain to point out a faux pas in a news banner that appeared on my TV screen as I prepared for another day of vigorous punctuating and grammar correcting in the day job.  (I didn’t get a reply but I felt slightly superior all day)  It’s a legal judgment in case you’re interested – see pic.  And one thing I do know about is a missing E.

But how much does such pedantry still matter in the modern world?  Who really cares if you can’t spell or your grammar is sloppy?  Is knowing that they’re going there in their car important?  (Carrie Bradshaw was gleeful in Sex and the City on discovering that her ex’s new wife didn’t know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’.)   Wearing my legal proofreader hat, perfect grammar and punctuation is vital.  As a writer, I maintain that it’s all about presentation and polish and attention to detail.   What about everyday life? I really would have to think twice about using a company whose promotional material offered Removal Quote’s or Decorating Service’s: if you’ve put that little thought into the detail of your advert, what is your end product going to be like?   I’m sure that Daves Removal Service’s (No Job To Small) do a sterling job and they are, after all, in the business of hefting about boxes and not proofreading.  But those errors would grate.

Similarly a journalist friend recently confessed that she disregards any reviews of hotels or restaurants containing dreadful spelling and no punctuation.  I’m just the same: if you, the reviewer don’t care about the quality of your writing then surely our views and tastes cannot possibly be similar?  And I’m not talking about dyslexia here or those for whom English is a second language,  just people who don’t care. How can you not care?

Much as I long to prowl the streets with a large permanent marker pen to correct all those signs and A frames I do try very hard to fight such snobbery.   I know lovely people who don’t think being able to use a semi-colon correctly is at all important and even schools don’t place as much emphasis as they used to on getting grammar and spelling right.  What hope is there for future generations?  Or will the need for perfect punctuation soon be as obsolete as the video player?

So as an experiment I tried to relax my punctuation and grammar a little in texts and instant messages. It was tough but guess what? The world kept turning.  I carried on breathing in and out. Nothing major happened.  Nobody even mentioned it. I even bit my lip – hard – when someone said a friend of theirs ‘should of’ done something.  That took some effort.  But stop off at the stall near work selling ‘Tea’s and Coffee’s’? I’m still working on that.  Continue reading

Bullet Point Journals

I am a compulsive list-maker.  Everything in my life needs a list – not just times where a high level of organisation is required – such as Christmas, moving house or getting married – but everyday tasks like ordering the groceries and remembering to renew my travelcard.   For my wedding I had a to-do list of over 150  items which later morphed into a spider diagram covering two A1 sheets of paper.  I was in organisation heaven. (Okay, maybe my inner Bridezilla emerged but at least everyone involved knew what they were supposed to be doing).  In fact only this week, my plumber joked about my prolific list-making.  I bet he was wondering how on earth he would have managed to refurbish our bathroom without my daily lists.  Moving house last year involved what my husband dubbed the ‘nerve centre’: a file containing list upon list upon list which covered every aspect of the move from the paperwork to buying a bottle of champagne to leave in the fridge for our buyers.

Every Sunday night I draw up a list for the coming week. In fact, holidays are the only time I don’t make lists.  (That’s once I am on holiday: the lead-up and preparations involve many a list)  I’m not alone in loving a good list:  if you haven’t read Mike Gayle’s The To-Do List novel, then I suggest you add it your reading list right now.  People who get stuff done make lists. I’m pretty sure world leaders and self-made billionaires are all list-makers.

The internet’s latest obsession with the bullet journal (or #BuJo as the kids say) seemed like the answer to my Type A personality’s prayers. It promised to allow me to micromanage and therefore streamline every area of my life – not just the larger events like getting our new dog or holidays but the everyday minutiae too.   It’s so much more than just a book of lists, it is a whole lifestyle rehaul, apparently.  And it also involves stationery, another of my passions.  Ever since a childhood visit to the new phenomenon that was Paperchase  on Tottenham Court Road in the early 1980s I have been obsessed by beautiful stationery.  I still keep a paper diary and write letters.  In today’s electronic and instant society, going old school soothes the soul.

So for the past month I have been trying out the bullet journal, making lists of every single aspect of my life, from daily to-dos to five year plans and I have been in my element.   I had very high expectations and wanted to become a powerhouse of activity – more so than I already am.  The very act of writing and re-writing lists apparently helps to hone your thinking and focus the brain on what is important and we all know how satisfying it is to tick off items once they’re completed.  For me, the fact all the lists are indexed and contained in a beautiful hard-backed notebook only enhances the experience.

So how can a bullet journal help us writers? Well, list-making is a form of writing in itself.  I have made lists of all the outstanding bits of writing I need to get done as well as what is needed to finish my Work in Progress (first started 2009!).  Another list has been drawn up of possible markets for my writing.  A bullet journal can help with scheduling in writing time, jotting down ideas as they occur and setting goals. But again, you can write all the lists you want but putting bum to seat and fingers to keyboard is what’s it’s all about.

If you’re interested in starting your own bullet journal then there are many tutorials on the internet.  I’ve yet to branch out into colour coding my journal which is a whole new adventure, but right now I am well and truly hooked.  Try it for a few weeks and see if it changes your life.