Sunday, 29 November 2015

Shops and Robins

A couple of days ago a Facebook friend posted this robin message. It struck a chord as a few weeks ago my partner's mother mentioned she had been in the garden shed sorting out apples from her garden when a robin flew in and refused to leave for about ten minutes, just sitting on the work bench as it watched her. A couple of months previously she had lost her husband after a long illness. His name? Robin! I joked that perhaps it was a sign from him, but something that the rest of us would leap at as a sign, she still seemed doubtful about. It would take a lot to convince her mathematical and no nonsense nature, which is not given to any kind of flight of fancy.

Work has been exceptionally busy lately as I project-managed the refurbishment of an emtpy run-down Victorian shop into a new off-campus housing and advice base for the University of Sussex on top of the rigors of the day job. There were weeks where I literally ate, breathed and slept the shop and most of my own life went out the window, but luckily it was all ready on time for the launch and has been very well received. For my part it has been a pleasure to breath new life into a beautiful old building and ensure it retained its character amidst incorporating the necessary mod cons and professional finish. It was one of those gems that every little girl dreams of opening a shop in - full of space and light with wide double-fronted window seat areas.

Now I have gone back to one of my other projects - which is setting up a website for Brighton and Hove Heritage Commission, a campaigning group intent on saving Brighton and Hove's increasingly threatened heritage.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

End Anti-black Prejudice Towards Cats!

says Django, who points out that his selfies are just as good as any other moggy's! In addition he is lucky, lucky, lucky and fun, fun, fun! So no more looking down on his bro's and abandoning them, ok?

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Beauty - Not the Beast - the life of Muriel, The Lady Dowding

Most of my time has been taken up with business writing lately, so it is great to have a few minutes to talk about the book I have just been reading for leisure.

Muriel Dowding, wife of Air Chief Marshal The Lord Hugh Dowding, was founder of Beauty Without Cruelty cosmetics,

She was also a friend of my parents and attended their wedding in 1968.

I found this book in a secondhand bookshop recently and was intrigued.

I was particularly intrigued to find that she had been a celebrity in her lifetime married to a man who was a mega-celebrity and credited with winning WWII from the air through his brilliant strategy, yet her autobiography had been published by a small press.

I soon discovered why, A large part of it was devoted to her and Lord Dowding's interest in psychic matters, which is how they got together. As the young wife of an airman missing in action, Muriel was encouraged to contact Lord Dowding shortly after the war to see if he could provide any further information. He did and then proceeded to set her up with a psychic to obtain even further information. Finally at the behest of the spirit of the young man in question suggesting 'You should ask my wife out, You'd like her.' Lord Dowding invited Muriel to dinner and the grand romance began!

Not satisfied with bucking metaphysical tradition, the Dowdings, once married, then took on animal welfare and the cruelty of vivisection, travelling the world to talk to vivisectors and getting involved in parliamentary acts and anti-vivisection organisations. In the course of this Muriel Dowding discovered to her horror that it was virtually impossible to buy even a bar of soap in the 1960s which had not been tested on animals and was chock full of animal ingredients.

So as the original Anita Roddick of her day, she set about getting a coterie of well-connected female friends including Dr Barbara Latto (another friend of my parents) to join her and start producing cruelty free cosmetics with a clothing lines of fake fur called Beauty Without Cruelty - a brand that lives on to this day. I remember my mother when I was little sporting her fake Ocelot coat proudly with a badge bearing the legend 'Make No Mistake, My Fur is Fake! - Beauty Without Cruelty' in an era where women were embarrassed to admit they wore simulated fur and fake fur was simply seen as an alternative for women who couldn't afford the real thing, rather than for women with a conscience.

Although an accomplished writer, Muriel's autobiography cries out for editorial intervention as random chapters about UFO's, the dangers of psychic attack and animal welfare vie with autobiography and guest chapters from admirers of her work and tireless stamina.

It is a hotch potch, albeit probably one of the most riveting reads ever penned by a Lady.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Confessions of an Egalitarian

In his brave Edinburgh show, journalist, poet and wit, Lloyd Evans, opines that the most offensive thing you can say to a feminist is: 'Congratulations, you've won!'
You can do what you want, go where you want and be who you want (ie: what more do you want?).

I have been mulling over this ever since. I take his point that the point about a cause is that it should seek to obsolete itself, not turn into an entity in its own right which then has a territory to preserve and this has also previously crossed my mind.

For example if Cancer Research ever succeeds in finding a cure, you would expect them to close their offices and start refusing any further donations within days. You would hope the same with Oxfam, once they had solved world hunger, etc.

And yet it seems that causes really do prefer to become permanent entities and fixtures in our lives rather than seeing it as their moral duty to bring an end to the need for their existence, and as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rather, they seem to expand and expand with more and more highly-paid staff who appear to do less and less, except find ways to keep their jobs going indefinitely.

And I am still not entirely convinced that feminism is any more preferable to chauvinism as neither gender claiming superiority over (or denigrating) the other equates to equality, much though I acknowledge that the female race was once so disadvantaged that we did need a campaigning vehicle to 're-advantage' it. However in this country I think those days are gone and an individual should get a job because they are the the right person for the job rather than to fill an artificial gender quota, irrespective of their fitness for a role. Some disastrous female appointments have ensued, which just make our gender look bad. Then again there have been disastrous male appointments throughout history, so how bad should we really feel?

One curious fact that Mr Evans neglected to use in his show is that 'being female' has now become desirable enough for increasing numbers of men to undertake surgery to become us! Imagine that happening in Victorian times (even if the surgical expertise existed), when women were but the property of men, with even the wealthiest living lives of unbelievable societal and professional stricture. We were corsetted in more ways than one!

I am a grateful recipient of all the suffragettes and feminists have achieved since those days, enabling me to have total freedom of expression, the vote and all the opportunities and choices I now enjoy. I for one, am happy and content. The only person who has held me back in my life is me and that is a fact of the past now.

As for other countries, is it our business to act as if we were still an empire and dictate to them how they should run their society? Or is it up to the women of each society to do what the women of Great Britain had to do to win what human freedoms they seek? I have so many qualms about us interfering in the affairs of other nations, no matter that I might disagree on a personal level with how they run their countries and treat their citizens.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Militant Breastfeeding - a mother's view

Following the fatuous comments of a BBC Solent Radio DJ last week to the effect that only unattractive mothers felt the need to get their breasts out in public to feed their babies, there has been somewhat something of a media furore on the subject.

Last night I asked my 76-year old mother (an ardent advocate of breastfeeding and fully paid up member of the National Childbirth Trust when we were little in the early 70s and breastfeeding was deeply unfashionable) what she thought.

Now bear in mind that this is a woman who also successfully fought for home birth for us both in an era where this was also deeply unfashionable. Futhermore her best friend in the vegetarian movement, Frances Howard, wrote one of the earliest pamphlets extolling the health virtues of breastfeeding - Breast is Best - of which there were always a stack of copies in our house as my mother used to give them to her Yoga class ladies (she is also a Yoga teacher of some 50 years standing).

To my surprise, my mother replied that she finds the whole concept of breastfeeding in public 'bizarre', and firmly believes that both mothers and babies need quiet and privacy for this activity and why would a mother want Joe Public gawking at her while she did it?

She also worried that the modern trend for 'militant breastfeeding' was turning the public against breastfeeding rather than genuinely promoting it, particularly among shyer and less confident mothers who might choose to bottlefeed rather than risk doing something portrayed as controversial, even though it is actually the most natural means.

I was glad to hear that, for all her staunch views on the subject, she basically agreed with me that breastfeeding should remain a private matter between mother and baby.

In addition why would any mother want to risk some creepy DJ staring at her and judging her attractiveness and presumably whether he'd give her one, despite the kid dangling from her nipple?
Or indeed the breed of man who jokingly remarks 'oi, that baby is stealing my milk!' upon noticing a nursing mother in the local cafe. At least one of my acquaintance admits that this is his first thought.

My mother concluded by saying that the best thing the NCT could do was carry on lobbying for breastfeeding facilities to be provided and maintained in all public places. I asked how she had managed in the early 70s.

'Well I always fed and changed you before we went out, took dummies for you both wherever we went, and if we were going to be out for more than a couple of hours I used a breast pump. In emergencies I would simply ask the shop or our host wherever we were if I could borrow a room for a few minutes. Or go behind a tree or bush. There are always ways.'

Ways of breastfeeding without compromising the human rights, sensibilities and freedoms of others? Why isn't my mother with her full collection of Sheila Kitzinger tomes in the bookcase head of NCT?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Adoption of Reconciliation...?

A colleague in her twenties, *Jenny, shares a flat with three female flatmates in a nearby town. Friends since childhood, Jenny is the only one of the four whose parents are still together.

Of Jenny’s three friends and flatmates, one sees her father a couple of times a month for a meal or cinema outing, interspersed with weekly phone chats, and the other two do not see their fathers at all. Their fathers have moved away, remarried and started new families. One sends his daughter Christmas and birthday cards but makes no effort apart from that. The other has apparently told his daughter bluntly; ‘I have a new family now. You’re my past.’ and wants no contact at all. 

Needless to say each flatmate has been affected to a greater or lesser degree by the outfall from their parents' break-up and the flatmate who has experienced total paternal rejection is, not surprisingly, the one most affected in every aspect of her life as her friends/flatmates find themselves consoling her over one disastrous relationship after another and her daily struggles to hold down a job and control her weight whilst feeling worthless most of the time, despite plenty of assurance to the contrary.

As a caring and loving father who has not seen his (similarly aged) daughters for three and a half years now since they decided to reject him and take their mother’s side following an acrimonious divorce (not of my partner’s choosing, much as he accepts his share of responsibility for the marital breakdown), my partner finds himself in the opposite situation. Although in his early 50s, he has borne much emotional trauma and not a few health issues as a result.

So upset has he been over the loss of his daughters I have (not entirely jokingly) suggested that since there are clearly rejected adult children out there as well as rejected parents like him, maybe he should start a ‘late adoption’ agency so that rejected parents and rejected adult children could all be matched to the parents and children who really need them and value that relationship in their lives. Such 'adoptions' would also benefit from a blame-free zone since there would no history between them.

None of us can control what others think, do or choose after all and blood is not always thicker than water, particularly if certain family members are not open to any kind of forgiveness or reconciliation or another member of the family is coercing them or giving them no choice but to take sides through threats of dire consequences if they re-establish contact.

Ultimately, no one should allow their lives to be ruined by decisions that others have made, particularly if, like my partner, an individual has been prepared to do everything within reason to offer the olive branch and help the healing process commence, but has been blocked and prevented from doing so at every turn. 

I am not a child of divorce myself, but a child of dysfunctional parents who had their own unique ways of screwing kids up and making them feel worthless so I have some understanding of difficult family situations. It took me many years to come to terms with my upbringing and realise who I was so that I could finally be at peace with them.

As the serenity quotation goes;

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

*Jenny is not the real name of said colleague.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Oxford Outrage

While the photo scarcely does justice to the scale in real life, this is the block of flats being built next to my partner's mother's bungalow in a leafy Oxford suburb.

A perfectly respectable 1950s family home was demolished to make way for them.

Despite the artists' impression looking like a prison block (always bad news if even the artists' impression can't make a building pretty!) and the official complaints of both my partner's mother and various neighbours that it was unsightly and of inappropriate scale and style for the street, planning permission has somehow been granted.

Even the builders have apologised to my partner's mother and agreed it is 'hideous', which is saying something.

Unfortunately this scenario is all too common, not just in this suburb, but in suburbs up and down the country. Worse still, these are to be marketed as 'luxury flats' yet are pug ugly, of eggbox proportions and possess the small windows of prisons, despite the modern preference for 'spacious, light and airy'.  Further down the road a spacious relatively modern care home was closed and demolished a couple of years ago to make way for a disproportionately-sized nondescript block of contemporary flats, its balconies ornamental, too small to be used as working balconies. In Oxford city centre a whole development of disabled people were kicked out of their 1990s purpose-built low-impact homes in order for high rise eggboxes (and a larger Westgate shopping centre and multi-storey car park) to be built.

A friend recently rented such a flat in a new development elsewhere, owing to an emergency need for short-term accommodation, but moved out the moment she could owing to a leaking roof terrace she could not use and a second bedroom which fit only a double bed and nothing else, most of the space being taken up by an awkward corner containing a 'designer' triangular window with broken blind. Amusingly several neighbours tried to convince her to buy their flats when they heard she was renting. Many residents it seemed, had believed the developer's spiel, but found them less than ideal once they took up residence and a year later, were desperate to sell up again.

Naturally my partner's mother has been approached with a view to selling her modest bungalow, doubtless to face the same fate as next door. Indeed the developers would have made an even greater killing if they could have secured hers too and doubled their plot size. To her credit she declined and is determined to continue living there as long as she is able.

She has the full support of her family.

And while her own property may be of minimal architectural merit, it is at least appropriate in scale and of low impact to the streetscape, surrounded as it is, by greenery back and front including a tall hedge. It also suits her lifestyle as an older person and is a good space for family gatherings with its large living room and rear garden. Now she will enjoy no privacy in her overshadowed back garden along with the no peace she has had since the builders moved in several months ago. Luckily her husband is no longer around to see it. It would have distressed him greatly.

A former councillor friend often says 'You can spot the civic corruption in any town or city by its ugliest and most inappropriate developments.'

Which isn't to say that we don't need more housing, just that there are wider debates to be had and certainly a lot more public consultation about where housing goes, how it impacts existing communities, townscapes and facilities and what it should be like/how it can genuinely be more affordable without proving a blot on the landscape. Letting developers build more and more flats for wealthy young professionals is not helping anyone but wealthy young professionals.

Locally we note that a seafront petrol station has just been closed in Hove and is in the process of being demolished for housing. Who decided that this petrol station was surplus to requirements? I used it regularly and it always seemed busy with a small co-op attached, the only one in the area. The next nearest petrol station is around 2 miles away. In Patcham another petrol station is currently being demolished. Having targetted every suburban pub and stray bungalow, it seems Brighton and Hove developers have now moved onto targetting petrol stations. Even the one by Hove station has undergone two changes of management lately. I fear the worst.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015


Following the death of my writer friend Margaret at the age of 90, last week I attended her funeral in Coventry.

No mean and mumbled half hour at the local crem for Margaret. It was a beautiful hour-long tribute in her local historic church immaculately arranged by Margaret herself some ten years previously (yes, that's how well organised she was!). Embossed invitations arrived through the post as if to a wedding, a heavenly choir sang her favourite hymns and little slips of paper inserted in the order of service booklets requested the contact details of all who attended. Surprising revelations in her son's eulogy about the secret passion for fancy dress and how Margaret was held at gunpoint twice on her travels over the years when venturing to regions where angels fear to tread.

I'm now half expecting a thank you note from Margaret through the post as that's the kind of lady she was!

A sumptuous spread awaited us in the flower-festooned church hall next door afterwards replete with wine waiters. All her photo albums were on tables. I was fascinated as I'd never seen the young Margaret before.

Struck by how lovely some of the photos were (one distinctly regal!) I discreetly snapped my favourites above when the opportunity arose as I knew Margaret wouldn't mind, being a fellow writer and documenter of life. In addition I have often been to funerals and seen at least one special photo I have never seen before and am likely never to see again, but felt it unseemly to bother the grieving loved ones for a copy.

Such was the case with a magical photograph of an ex-boyfriend at his funeral two years ago that I wished I had photographed a copy of. I suppose I am sentimental like that. I like to have a keepsake that makes me smile when thinking about a lost friend or loved one. And actually I prefer a nice photograph to any physical keepsake.

The photos of young Margaret reminded me of a nursing home where I used to visit my Great Aunt. Each doorway had a framed photograph affixed to the wall next to it containing a favourite photograph of the resident when young. This was not just an aide memoire to those residents who were losing their memories and looking for the right bedroom door, but a stark reminder to the mostly young care staff that their clients were also once young and to encourage them to see them as people like them who just happened to have lived longer, and not merely as they were now. It seemed to work. An ethos of respect permeated the home and Great Aunt Alice was well cared for.