Another Mini Battenberg?

Life is not a practice run. We press forward living our existence as best we can, chasing our desires, ruing our regrets and missed opportunities.

Last year I became very ill. The fragility of life hit me between the eyes and woke me up.

My creative self had lain dormant for years. I longed to write and sat down at my laptop and started and haven’t stopped since. Distractions get in the way, like the day job and socialising, but I keep coming back to it like never before.

Does our youthful creativity desert us as we hurtle through the years? I remember going to see artists’ studios in the Torpedo Museum in Alexandria, Virginia a few years ago. A number were inhabited by retired or older artists. The pictures were beautiful but lacked innovation, or that excitement you get in the pit of your stomach when looking at new art. I wondered if, while good artists, life had sucked the fire from their bellies?

We still see, fortunately, current ageing artists who never fail to excite – David Bowie for example.

A little closer to home and accessible to me is the award-winning writer V.G. Lee who I am also privileged to call a friend.

536355_10150979089119772_909220845_n

VG, or Val, started writing later in life and in the last 20 years has published four novels and a collection of short stories.

In 2009, to celebrate her 60th year, VG Lee decided to become a stand-up comedian. She set herself a target of 60 performances which grew to 90 and she finished the year as a runner-up in the prestigious Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year 2010. She has appeared twice at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2013, she performed her one-woman play, Lady of the Wild West Hill to packed audiences as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.

Val is inspirational and full of stories and experience. I asked her a few months ago if she would allow me to interview her for my blog, looking particularly at pursing a late blooming desire to engage in one’s chosen art.

I met Val at her residence on the West Hill in Hastings. After enjoying a sumptuous lunch of Carrot and Coriander soup, made fresh by Val’s good friend and neighbour Mary, accompanied by delicate slices of fresh sesame seed baguette, we settled on a comfortable settee and prepared to start the interview.

‘I’ve put my M&S aquatically patterned toilet rolls out in the bathroom,’ said Val proudly, adding this extra touch of comfort to her already commodious dwelling.

‘Thanks,’ I replied, wondering whether I should complement her later should I have occasion to sample this luxurious item.

After a couple of tests on my recording equipment we were ready to go.

dea0f0a4-21b0-4225-826c-39f46a9b8aef

What was going on in your life in your early 40s Val?

Absolutely nothing basically. I’d split up with somebody who possibly didn’t even know we were still dating and I was on my own. I went to two classes: gardening and a writing class and the writing stuck. I completed both classes and I still love gardening but writing is what I do best

What made you decide on these two courses?

To be honest I think I was possibly looking for friends because I didn’t have any. I still don’t have many if anyone is reading and is interested…

The interview paused so that I could pick myself off the floor. Val is spontaneously funny and in fact quite popular.

Did you find any friends?

I found a couple of writing buddies that I still know today and I’m still friends with the tutor also.

What was the inspiration to start writing in your 40s and develop further from the class? Were you not ready to start slowing down?

No. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d never been particularly good at anything, but I had been able to make people laugh all my life. And I thought I’d write something funny, and people did laugh and that gave me the nudge to keep going.

Did you always have passion for writing?

Absolutely not! I’d never had a passion for anything up until then. I wasn’t good at writing but I was good at art. I was a commercial artist although I don’t do it now and that’s what I did right up to my 40s.

Had you written since school?

Yes. I wrote stories at school but they weren’t very good. I’d tried to mimic Shakespeare on a couple of occasions and I wasn’t quite up to his standards which rather surprised me at the time.   

Again after several minutes of laughter imagining Val as a budding schoolgirl Shakespeare we returned to the interview.

Who do you write for?

I write for me. I have a real interest in the characters, and the characters’ lives. I’m drawn to the lives of very ordinary people. My interest in my characters is fanatical; what happens, why they’re like they are, where they’re going and how they can change.

It’s not clear to me who to write for so that’s really helpful. Some writers who achieve great praise from the writing community don’t necessarily have commercial success and some that can’t really write, do. How can you balance the two?

As far as I am concerned it’s not worth writing if I’m not writing what I want to write. Having always been rubbish at everything up until then, and finding something in my 40s that I was good at, then there would be no point in trying to focus on a certain market. I’d then, and yet again, be doing something for someone else. If my writing wasn’t for me it wouldn’t have a soul and in my view wouldn’t be very good.

Are you going to share how long you’ve been writing or your current age? If indeed it’s appropriate to ask a lady her age.

I’m 63.  

Do you still have a lot of new ideas bubbling forward?

Don’t you want to say anything about me looking much younger than 63?

Yes of course. How remiss of me. 63! Good grief I thought you were 45.

Thank you that’s better. Always good to flatter your interviewees Mr Boulevardier! And yes I’m full of new ideas. I’m currently working towards completing my new novel and I have another unfinished novel. After the publication of my next novel I will publish another book of short stories. Most of the short stories for the collection are in preparation.

Do you want to tell us anything about your new novel?

It’s taken me twenty two years so far but I think we are on the home stretch. It’s very different from my previous work with the main character a man and it’s more comical. At least I hope people are going to find it funny.

If it’s as witty as you are today then I’m sure they will. Now I know you’ve spoken about it on Facebook but how much importance do you put on editing?

I put a huge amount of emphasis on editing. I think when I read people’s work and it hasn’t been edited properly, and I’m not talking about punctuation, I’m talking about extraneous words, phrases out of order, self-indulgence or just the wrong feeling which sometimes writers don’t even know they’re doing because they don’t check their work.

I go over, and over, and over my work. It has to sound good to read good in my opinion. I read my work aloud as many times as it takes to get it right.

One more recent option open to new writers is self-publishing. Do you agree with it?

It’s really growing and a great way of getting published and I’m very pleased that option is now available. However, I am concerned that people aren’t necessarily as careful with what they publish. I’ve seen very small print which isn’t easy to read with dodgy layouts and covers. I wouldn’t want things to become slipshod. At its best it’s an excellent way of getting published.

Conversely then, if you’re a new writer should you start searching for a literary agent?

As a new writer you should focus your energies on your work until it is absolutely finished and polished. You should not think of an agent. You should not think of a bestseller. And just get on and do what you are supposed to be doing which is writing. People often ask after six months, sorry this is a bit of a rant as I do get cross, how they should get an agent or ‘how do I get published’ and haven’t even started writing a bloody book. So write, write and write.

Thanks Val. I wonder if we could move into talking about your books a little and perhaps you could guide us through your inspiration for each.

The Comedienne was published in 2000 and previous to that I lived in North London and I was writing short stories to perform in a cabaret run by me and some friends called ‘All Mouth, no Trousers’. I’d written a story about a young woman living in Birmingham and on this particular evening there was a publisher in the audience who asked me if I had a novel. I didn’t have a novel at the time but I did have a lot of stories and I worked really hard and produced a novel which was accepted. It included older and younger people and I liked having the opportunity to write about different age groups.

Great! So moving along to the Woman in Beige, which is my personal favourite.

The historian Rose Collis was my inspiration. I met her at the poetry café in Betterton Street and I didn’t know what to do with my future and she was so full of life and energy I thought you’ve got to get down to it Val, and the idea of the Woman in Beige came to me and I just started writing it.

That’s interesting; so stepping back between the novels was it difficult to get the inspiration to write another after The Comedienne was published?

Yes I was quite lost for a time. I always write for short spells before I really get going. I was still doing a bit of poetry and lost for what to write story-wise. I started to write a piece about my parents and moved forward into other people’s parents and the Woman in Beige got started.  

The collection of short stories came next. Were these ones you had in the bank you pulled together?

I had them in varying levels of completion from the time when I started writing. There is one story in the book called Behind Glass which was the first short story I’d ever written in my early 40s and I finished it just in time for the collection. I’m always writing stories and I had more than enough for a collection.

My favourite in the collection is Hotel Du Lac and I wondered if you fancied yourself as a bit of an Anita Brookner?

I wanted to do a more cheery and jokey Anita Brookner.

Did you have a similar slump in motivation after that or were you raring to get going on Diary of a Provincial Lesbian?

I moved to Hastings from London and I reread Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield which reflects life in the provinces and my life was so different since moving. It was of a much slower pace and I had new and very different neighbours and I decided to have a go at my version. In actual fact it was probably the easiest to write out of all my books because you had definite seasons and celebration times like Easter and Christmas to work with. I really enjoyed writing this book. It was also my quickest book and was complete in a year.

I’m sometimes inspired by what I read and I get an idea of subjects I can deal with.

And onto your most recently published work, Always you Edina.

I started writing the book eight or nine years ago and it came out of short stories which were originally quite strange and bitter. But as my life seemed to improve my mood bettered also. It’s set in Birmingham and I went back to where I had grown up and revisited all my old childhood spots. It’s based on an aunt who is a cruel but charming person and I did have an aunt who was cruel but charming and it’s loosely based on her. A lot of my memories from the 1960s came flooding back. It was a jumble for many years and I have to say thank you to Sarah Walters who went through all the stories, twice, and gave me a good steer on how to pull them together and finally it got published. And I love the book.

I think it’s really interesting that you started writing it so long ago, set it aside, and came back to it. You didn’t feel the need to push on to the bitter end once you’d started?

Absolutely not. I do this continually. If my mood changes or I’m feeling a bit lacklustre or have something else calling me then I give into the call. It does possibly mean I take a long time to get finished but I have a large body of work with lots of in progress pieces.

Do you have any favourite characters from your books?

I have Mrs Botolph from The Comedienne, who was the main character’s mother’s best friend. From Woman in Beige I like Mr Edwards the neighbour who had the giant albino rabbit. I love Deidre in Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, and she is based on an ex friend who is in a number of my stories. Interestingly I don’t have a favourite character in Always you Edina.

So when you were in your 40s and just getting into writing, did you sit down one day and think I’m going to give up my job and write four books?

No. I was working as a self-employed commercial artist doing large signs and murals and I couldn’t give up. I actually have two books which were never published. I used to finish work at 6pm and start writing at 8pm and I would work every evening until 11.30pm, and as I said earlier, I didn’t have friends to distract me and I just worked at it. In actual fact that book never got published but I still love it. I probably spent three years on it 8-11.30pm five or six evenings a week. It was a commitment but I just wanted to write.

At that time how far forward did you plan or dream?

I’ve never planned. I was so enthused to find something that I was good at later in life. I would still like to be famous and have a lot of money but I wouldn’t like to lose what I have.    

Some seem to think that it’s a quick process, knocking out short stories in a day or novels in a month. What do you think about that?

I would say a very structured short story could be written in a day and possibly a novel in a month, but I’m just not confident that it would be as good as it could be. It has taken me between one and twenty years but I don’t think I could do anything in a month. The first short story that is in my collection was not finished until the collection was put together. I put the last line in just before it was sent off for the publishers to look at, because I hadn’t come up with that last line, and I knew the story wasn’t quite right.

It takes as long as it takes and all you get is a first draft if you do it quickly.

Do you title pieces and name characters as you go or wait for inspiration?

I most certainly wait for inspiration.

How do you write? Is there a certain ambience that has to be present?

I write at my best in the mornings and sometimes get a good 3-4 hours in but then when I’m writing something new I will go over it the following day. I prefer to write longhand and then I transfer it onto my computer when I’m happier with it. I do like a fountain pen but I don’t always have enough ink cartridges and I have to revert to a cheap Bic biro. Everywhere in my house are little notebooks where I can jot ideas.

With so many tools at our fingertips: self publication, creative writing courses, an instant society, what advice would you give to new potential writers, me included, who are in their early forties and looking to do something a little different and how to succeed?

I’d certainly recommend a creative writing course. I’m not mad on the MAs as they seem to turn people out very similarly although that is just my opinion. There are fine shorter courses which have been going for around twenty years. In London Morley College, Birkbeck and City Lit all do good courses and a real variety at that. A writing group is also good because your writing friends will move on and up too and you all help each other. And if you are good I do believe you’ll get picked up. A good original voice shines out. You might not be world famous or make loads of money but you will be published.

Finally any regrets from changing your life course at 42?

No. It has been fantastic. Best opportunity I ever took.        

    

As the interview drew to a close I popped the last bite of the mini Battenberg we relished as we spoke.

b3e9cd38-9f21-41dc-bd85-d1403715e542

It was a beautifully sunny January afternoon and we wrapped up and took a turn around the West Hill, loitered in the Old Town, had a revitalising glass of Sherry and traditional seaside fare at the aptly named Fagin’s.

I have learnt so much from Val during our acquaintance and hope to learn more and continue sharing our love of Sherry and Battenberg.

Val can be found at:

www.vglee.co.uk

Facebook: Vg Lee

Twitter: @vglee_lee

Or in person at the following upcoming events:

Tuesday 11th February – Have a Word at Latest Music Bar, 14-7 Manchester Street, Brighton, BN21TF – doors open at 7pm

Friday 28th February – Polari at the Southbank ‘Headliner VG Lee offers her unique take on life after sixty.’ Tickets and information www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/polari-280214-80292

Advertisements

Lil and Armando

A couple of weeks ago I popped into my favourite local café in Crouch End and it was virtually empty. It was 10am and Crouch End was still waking up. The New Year had only just passed and it can take a couple of weeks for thriving society to emerge after the excesses of its festivities.

I ordered a large Assam tea, and a raspberry muffin from Armando the Spanish owner and took my book from my new leatherette man bag (an indulgent Christmas present to myself).

‘What you reading?’ came a voice from the corner.

I turned to see an older lady seated at one of the old wooden tables. She was the only other patron and was looking straight at me awaiting my response. She was wearing a woollen pinafore style patchwork dress over a white halter neck sweater. Her pure white curls poked through a silk headscarf. She had a polka dotted shopping trolley by her side with a walking stick jutting out. Her hand shook as she lifted her tea cup from its saucer and raised its steaming contents to her rosy red lips.

‘It’s by Tove Jansen called The Summer Book,’ I responded and smiled back.

‘Never heard of it. Is she English, the writer?’

‘No she’s Finnish.’

Armando appeared from the counter and delivered my tea served in a pot for one with a mismatched vintage cup and saucer, small stainless steel milk jug and spoon. The accompanying muffin also arrived on a 1950s flower-patterned china side plate.

‘Ah that’s why I haven’t heard of her then. Are you reading it in Finnish?’

‘No, it’s a translation. It’s a really good book about a girl, her grandmother and their interactions across a summer on a small Finnish Island.’

Armando stood with his arms folded between us watching this fledgling conversation develop.

The lady nodded and looked rather pensive as she put her cup back onto its saucer, picked up the teaspoon and gave it another stir.

‘The sugar hadn’t completely dissolved’ she said and I nodded my comprehension.

‘I’m Lil by the way.’

‘I’m Wayne,’ I replied with a smile.

‘So what do you do?’

I realised I wasn’t going to get much reading done, so I put my book down, stirred my pot and poured a cup of strong tea.

‘I’m a Sales Director and a part-time writer,’ I said and took a large bite of my freshly-baked muffin while I had the chance.

‘I used to write; children’s stories – just after the war. What do you write?’

‘I’m working on a number of short stories and a novella and I write a weekly blog. A blog is…’

‘I know what a blog is,’ Lil interjected. ‘I might be old but I’m neither senile nor computer illiterate. They taught us how to use the internet at the age group I go to. What’s the blog about?’

‘Well I’ve created this character that is an accentuation of me. It’s called Introspections of a Displaced Boulevardier and it’s about events I go to, and about living in Crouch End and London.’ I felt quite proud as I relayed the details.

‘What’s a Boulevardier?’

‘It’s a man about town, although remember I said displaced.’

Lil’s whole body gently shook with a stifled laugh as she looked me up and down.

‘Man about bloody town,’ she squawked with increased jollity looking both amazed and bemused. She grinned and lifted her teacup rattling the saucer as she did.

I smiled back and shrugged.

‘For instance I wrote about a weekend I spent on a Finnish Island with friends that I was reminded about when I started this book.’

‘You’ll have to give me the link thingie’ Lil said as Armando returned with her full English breakfast.

As Lil picked up her knife and fork and speared a locally grown organic tomato, and I took another bite of my muffin, Armando smiled and walked back towards the kitchen muttering while he fiddled with his apron strings.

‘What was that?’ Lil asked.

‘I said it seems as if you have both made a new friend today,’ Armando asserted.

Lil and I looked up a little unsure and then beamed simultaneously.

‘I think we have.’

‘Yes and he obviously needs some help with his bloody blog, ’ Lil said.

Had the Boulevardier inadvertently set up a new writers’ group? Would Armando let go of the apron strings? Time will tell…

TNW

Collecting in the pursuit of pleasure.

I recently pondered over a magazine article where the writer spoke of a collection of lovely curios. I sat back, with a tasty Oloroso, and wondered whether I should in fact start a collection. I do try to keep chez Boulevardier as minimal as possible and have to fight my urge to retain every item which crosses my threshold and build large piles of everything everywhere.

Of-Special-Interest-44-46-Park-Road-London-N8-8TD-Image-by-Homegirl-London

Recently discovering the treasure trove that is Of Special Interest in Crouch End hasn’t done much to aid my goal of minimalism. On each and every visit I have returned home with candle holders, boxes for matches and a variety of different heighted cake stands.  I could say I collect items from this labyrinth of beauteous and shiny objects d’art.

What is behind collecting as a hobby? Is it just for the hoarder among us?

There is interestingly a psychology of collecting…

psycho

The monetary value of the collection is rarely the drive and emotional worth surpasses. Collections allow collectors to relive their childhood, connect to historic times, to lessen anxiety of loss of self and to keep the past present.

Some love the adventure of hunting down rare items and treat it as a quest which is unlikely to ever be complete. Accumulating may also provide psychological refuge by replenishing some missed part of self or void of rational explanation.

Is this a modern hobby however? I was all ready for there to be no evidence of contemporary collecting and a leisure pursuit confined to the past overtaken by our instant culture. I considered whether people previously collected for the thrill of the chase with items being harder to attain. Today we have over one and a half billion online pages to shift through. We can navigate to Amazon or eBay and find millions of items for sale and shop worldwide. Had the thrill of the chase been lost? I decided to ask my motley crew of friends on Facebook.

drawer-rothschild-collection-17638-1

It seems that my multifarious collection of contributors are still, on the whole, avid collectors with their personal assemblages containing: old foreign coins, theatre tickets, theatre programmes, biscuits, train tickets, Beano annuals, vintage Barbies, black and white postcards (Herb Ritts), Star Wars figurines, pop and rock memorabilia, old unusual teapots, and stamps.

w0

The less serious collectors mentioned empty wine bottles, excess weight, fleas and political enemies! I’m not certain these held the same motives…

I also thought to check in with Mother who always liked a collection or two and she did not disappoint.

Mum: I do have a collection of glass paperweights, but had to stop as I ran out of room to display them and could see no point in keeping them in boxes.

Me: How many do you have?

Mum: Eight really special ones and another half dozen. I also have my collection of chocolate Labradors.

Me: And how many of those do you have Mum?

Mum: Seven and they are all in different poses and all have different names. I would have more if again I hadn’t run out of space.

Me: What makes you collect Mum?

Mum: Well usually an item takes my fancy and then one is not enough. A random purchase has quite often become a collection for me. Remember all the brass ornaments I had when you were young?

Me: Quite.

Mum: (on a roll now) And Dad has his collection of small China birds. They’re Beswicks and he has twenty one.

It would seem that collecting is in your Boulevardier’s blood, and aside from a half-cocked attempt at stamps when I was a child, this habit has evaded me. I really should collect more than clothes and artistic experience…

I could collect Dolly Mixture or Sherry, but suspect that my enjoyment is much greater in the consumption than the admiring. I did hanker after my lack of gravy boat several days ago and I might therefore try and resurrect the joys of the gravy boat through a collection.

Now if you would please excuse me I need to re-quiff my hair and frequent the local charity shops and vintage flea markets in pursuit of my first gravy boat!

TNW

Is it Real?

Reality television is a huge part of contemporary program scheduling and has grown vastly over the last decade, particularly with the arrival of Big Brother in the early noughties.

As a Boulevarider, reality TV first entered my sphere in the late 1980s when reruns were shown of the 1970s show, The Family. It was then called a fly-on-the-wall documentary and followed the Wilkins’ family from Reading, originally made and screened in the 1970s. We followed their daily lives and viewed everything – warts and all. It felt so voyeuristic and I watched with wonder at their transparency, and entered their homes and existences. Today we might refer to it as car crash viewing but then it felt fresh, innovative and just so exposing.

familyforweb_1955305i

I forgot about the format as it seemed to disappear and pressed through the 1990s and was aware of the format again with the first UK series of Big Brother. My flatmate had recommended that we watch it. We were glued from the first episode. I lived the ups and the downs and was instantly taken with the sheer pantomime. Who remembers Nick from the first series? I literally despised him and championed Craig who exposed his scheming! As soon as the series ended I was looking for the next.

big-brother-logo-101

Big Brother grew with the second series, as did my viewing pleasure. I carried on as a devoted fan through to series eight and partially watched series nine and ten. At the height of its popularity and my excitement I would throw Big Brother parties and invite friends who were also addicted to drink and BBQ while we watched the final few housemates emerge. We had shock, anger, tears and laughter and enjoyed every moment.

It seemed that the success of Big Brother and other shows, such as Survivor, catapulted the genre into the juggernaut it is today.

Talent shows like Pop Idol and The X Factor have maintained mainstream appeal.

However, a percentage of the mainstream has fallen out of love with reality television. There is not the same excitement among friends when new series start and the Facebook chat has slowed down also. I however, stay excited and shocked in equal measure at the shenanigans these shows portray. I completely immerse and believe everything I see. Well I believe while I am watching anyway.

When asked why I watch such shows I tend to attempt a response which provides intellectual reasoning.

‘I think it’s an anthropological study.’ or

‘The insight psychologically is amazing!’

While this reasoning is true and I hope gives me credibility, I also love the characters and their tomfooleries.

I can’t live without The Kardashians or Honey BooBoo. How could I sleep if I didn’t know the latest goings on in LA and rural Georgia?

The Hills started faux reality TV where most of the events are true but accentuated and some scenes are set up for our viewing pleasure. This resulted in UK versions such as TOWIE, Made in Chelsea and Desperate Scousewives. I loved them all. My excitement for TOWIE has waned and Desp Scousers was cancelled, but Made is Chelsea is still epic viewing. I don’t care if some of the scenes are staged. It makes for better viewing.

I wrote recently about Catfish which is also a recent and unique reality show.

I have a mini-obsession with the Real Housewives of Everywhere: Atlanta, New Jersey, New York, Beverly Hills, Orange County and Vancouver. The lives of these women and their friends and families are extraordinary and certainly eye opening. They constantly fall out. They create villains and heroes. And as the shows have progressed, we have seen how changes in the world economy  have really affected, in particular, the Real Housewives of Orange County.

real_housewives_logo

I think this genre is missing from any UK reality TV and I sent a pitch to reality TV production companies last year and am thinking about another.

The first was Bonkers in Berko and centred around a group of friends who live in and around Berkhamsted. I wanted to recommend a show which followed the lives of a group of cool, eventful forty year olds (mostly) as opposed to the twenty somethings who are the common modern reality fodder. I wanted to show that us forties aren’t all Horlicks and PJs.

No responses. Don’t they know a hit when they see it? Unfortunately a few of the would-be stars of the show, my cast, also said they weren’t as keen to appear as I was. Are they mad! It would have been a phenomenon.

More recently I thought of a new show which could be called, The Real but Displaced Boulevardiers of London. I’m pretty sure it would be a fantastic show. Don’t you? I need to find more candidates and build it into a pitch. Surely the production companies wouldn’t miss two hit shows in a row!

I’ll keep you all posted.

TNW

When a film triggers a memory

Last weekend I went to The Phoenix cinema in East Finchley with Michael to watch Philomena. The Phoenix is one of the UK’s oldest purpose-build, continuously operating cinemas according to its website. The vaulted ceiling dates back to the early 20th century. It’s an amazing venue, and quite the place the Boulevardier should frequent.

Phoenix-auditorium-credit-Will-Martin-e1315404797548-610x347

The film itself was wonderful and thought provoking, albeit rather harrowing. Towards the end (and I won’t give plot away) there is a scene with an aged and retired nun. She belligerently defends her actions fifty years previously which materially affected Philomena’s life. Philomena remained calm and said she forgave the nun for her actions.

As we left the theatre my thoughts turned to my school days and as we walked back to our cars I told Michael a story about my first few days at school. Some of the detail had faded with time, and as I was meeting my parents for lunch two days later, I decided to ask Mum what she remembered.

After a morning coffee in the Boulevardier’s lounge my parents and I walked the short distance to The Maynard where we were booked for Sunday lunch. After we had ordered our roast chicken, roast beef and a beef and Guinness pie, I asked Mum what she remembered. I was unable to take a long and dramatic sip of sherry or red wine as I was rather dehydrated following a brilliant Halloween party the previous evening, and had decided to abstain.

‘Of course’ said Mum, ‘as if it happened yesterday.’

When I was three years old and not a London Boulevardier but a country boy, I went to playschool. There was no playschool in the village in which we resided and I had to go to the one in the next village. The first morning passed without incident, but on the second Mum received a call as I was distraught. Playschool was held in a timber annexe known as The Scout Hall on the outskirts of the village and one of the older children came in wearing a scary mask! This had almost traumatised me and it will come as no surprise that I didn’t want to return.  I asked Mum why she didn’t make me go back.

19956287

‘There is no choice on whether or not you go to school but there is a choice with playschool’ Mum reasoned.

School soon came around and I was extremely excited and enthusiastic to go. It was six weeks before my fifth birthday. Mum thought she might have a problem leaving me there, but I was positive, took off my coat and ran to a table and sat down. Mum said I was proud as a peacock to be at school. Flamstead JMI was the only education centre in our small village and it felt massive. Its five classrooms and over one hundred pupils were all new to me and daunting enough on their own without the additional punishing circumstances.

The morning passed and Mum came to collect me for lunch. We lived close enough to the school to take luncheon at home. My mood had drastically changed and I did not want to go back to school for the afternoon. Confused, Mum asked me what had changed and I told her the teacher had smacked me. Mum didn’t believe a word of it as a teacher couldn’t smack a child – or could they? I didn’t settle at school as well in the afternoon as I had in the morning and Mum struggled to get me to stay. It was all rather upsetting.

When Mum returned to the school gates at the appointed afternoon time she encountered one of Dad’s sisters, Auntie Ann, and explained the rather odd events of the day. Auntie Ann said she would ask my cousin Lorraine who was also in my class what had happened.

Lorraine confirmed that Mrs S. had smacked me as I couldn’t hold my pencil properly and had tried to make me write with my right hand rather than my natural and favoured left. I hadn’t yet learned to hold my pencil between my thumb and second and third fingers, but rather held the pencil between all my fingers.

At this Mum went straight round to the classroom and demanded to speak with Mrs S.. She denied administering corporal punishment and held her position regarding changing the hand I wrote with. This was the mid-1970s, not the dark ages, in case anyone was wondering. Mum left the classroom and walked to the Headmaster’s office; he listened and confirmed he’d look into it.

Mum came home uneasy and hoped that all would be sorted. The next lunchtime she asked me which hand I had used to hold my pencil, and I indicated I had to use my right. I of course didn’t say right as I was too young to know the difference but rather showed Mum.

We walked back to school for the afternoon session and Mum went straight to the Headmaster who was apparently still looking into it. Mum wasn’t having any of it and told Mr Ashwood, the Headmaster that she was going to see the GP for a professional opinion.

Mum telephoned Dr Coombes that afternoon and he confirmed that there was no way the school should continue trying to change the hand with which I wrote. He suggested that Mum should notify the school of his opinion and if there were any more problems he would come to the school. Mum relayed the message to Mr Ashwood and I was suddenly allowed to use my left hand again.

Mrs S. was in Mum’s words ‘as sweet as apple pie’ thereafter with no further incidents. Years later when Mum would bump into her she would always ask after me. Mum would always give a curt ‘He’s fine’ response.   

I can remember being smacked across the left hand, which knocked the pencil from my hand, and being aggressively criticised for using the wrong hand, holding the pencil incorrectly and not being able to write my name. My memories are in flashes and evoke somewhat unsettling emotions of panic and despair.

I thought we went to school to learn?

I can also remember being told that I was far too naughty to go out to play in the afternoon with the rest of the children and being made to sit on a chair outside the staffroom as Mrs S. watched me. I was terrified and so upset. I can remember being really excited about growing up and being old enough to attend school, and things unravelling and going so wrong so quickly and it was all too much. I made a dash for it but S. caught me before I could get out of the building and make the short run home. She smacked me again and chastised me for being so disobedient

Years later when I was in my late teens this incident used to haunt me and I wanted to go and speak to the teacher, dominate her, and see how she felt. I decided not to and I am glad I didn’t.

We finished our lunch. Mum was too full for dessert, aside from a spoonful of my sticky toffee pudding. Dad had some bread and butter pudding. We chatted more about old memories and I connected on Facebook to one of Mum’s cousins whose new address she didn’t have. It was a lovely afternoon. I always enjoy my parent’s visits to Crouch End.

Did Mrs S. ever look back and realise she had acted so wrongly? I have no idea. However, at least there weren’t any long-lasting or adverse consequences, and I really enjoyed school. In fact, aside from the first few days, I would go back and do it all again at the drop of a hat.

The consequences on Philomena were substantially more severe and in fact incomparable. It’s really amazing sometimes how a really old and rarely thought of memory is triggered. As I reflected I am glad I didn’t confront my teacher, and like Philomena, maintained my dignity.

TNW

Midlife Transition

The Boulevardier is hurtling through his 40s and facing challenges usually associated with a midlife crisis. In fact they are no longer called such and the politically correct term is midlife transition. I guess the word crisis is not politically correct and might offend some.

I thought that the main component to hit me was a return to punk which I had lived in my latter years at school. At 39 (nearly 40) my hair was dyed blue black and I shopped in Camden again, rueing the closing of Kensington Market.

This has passed but I still score 16/40 on the top signs of a midlife episode as researched by the Telegraph and added to the end of this post for your attention and amusement.

midlife-crisis

Am I a cliché? I decided to check in with friends of a similar age, and potentially similar predicament.  Their responses and experiences are in some ways funny but also quite sad and delusional. However, this helps to put everything in perspective.

One glitzy friend who I have known for a number of years always strived for flashy and ostentatious cars, and sometimes when he could ill afford them. My dad often referred to him as trying to live life as a playboy! My dad also relishes opportunities to point out his greying hair which receives external and polite smiles but internal grimaces. My other friends subject to my study are in a similar type of situation but perhaps not as extreme.

midlife_crisis1

The main and recurring themes are as follows:

Forty seems to have been an incredibly difficult milestone to hit and attempts to reverse the effects have been avidly pursued since. Most are now plunging toward mid-forties.

This reversal took shape by weight loss and spending noteworthy time in the gym. The spoils of which are shared when hitting the town again on a Friday night; an occupation that most of them gave up in their late twenties. Are these social events to be enjoyable occasions with friends? Well yes in part, but also time to validate the success of the age-reversing project.

The need to corroborate with young men and women how old they look seemed to be an almost universal theme. The surveys have elicited responses from twenty six to forty three. To hear the numbers in the twenties fills them with ecstasy and motivates harder gym sessions to continue their successful age-reversal strategies. However, when the responses have hit forty and higher my friends get despondent and depressed. This surely is an unnecessary emotional roller coaster? One respondent said that if they give higher numbers he asks if they are joking and quickly moves on to the next one willing to engage with him.

To prepare for these events they apparently spend one and a half hours pruning and preening (not too excessive in the Boulevardier’s mind). They couple crisp shirts with Essexesque suits, highly polished shoes, don sunglasses and smother in St Tropez. The planning for Friday night events starts on Monday with the outfit planned and trialled by Wednesday.

im_having_a_mid_life_crisis_i_apologize_for-r2fdf3864c1d0425d9ce8ffe43c8f56da_804gs_512

They long to be compared to celebrities. I have heard everything from Gavin Henson and Mario from TOWIE, to George Michael.

Another said that he even asks those surveyed ‘Do you think I’m sexy?’ This presumably evokes various responses which he was not keen to share.

12242495_low

The celebrations are a mix of pouting, posing, drinking and dancing. The favoured drinks of Kahlua and diet coke, Malibou and Tia Maria scream the 1980s. Who do they think they’re fooling?

They stave off dad-dancing tendencies by practicing in the mirror. I’m not sure they successfully pull this off but I don’t have evidence either way to validate or dispel.

midlife

They feel as if they are acting naturally and not doing anything wrong. But they are. These are crimes against forty year old men. They should wear their grey with pride, which I can now speak of without reserve as ‘Operation Grey’ (see earlier blog) has been successful. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a nice Oloroso sherry in residence with a freshly cooked Boeuf Bourguignon while in raptures about your new napkin rings.

We all saw older men and women at clubs when we were in the prime of youth. They were often sources of amusement and in their own world. Are my friends any different? Should I put them out of their misery? Will they still be doing this on their Zimmer frames?

I think another shock is that these are not a group of friends who are mutual friends. I spoke to five separately who have no common contact other than me. It’s a disease. And oddly enough they all wish to remain anonymous!

The saving grace was one friend who said he didn’t understand this obsession with constantly striving to look younger. This was also directed at me. I suppose I should be grateful to have a balanced group to look to and at.

I found the below study published by the Telegraph detailing the top 40 signs of a midlife crisis. I thought I was struggling at 16 but was reassured by Harry at 24. I asked on Facebook what people’s scores were and those that responded ranged from 5-27 with an average of 18.

When we are young we will and demand the future. We push forward with such vigour and excitement. I’m not saying that we stop pushing forwards as we age but we also take time to appreciate the moments as they occur. We miss this when we are young. We miss savouring the good times and good people and can look back years later and wonder and yearn.

We need to strike a balance of not looking back to the point where we force ourselves into a second youth but attack, whatever our age, with the appropriate level of dynamism.

My poor friends, their flash is fading. I think this Boulevardier needs to sit down with them and help them to accept the displacement age brings with grace and class.

TNW

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/10156725/Top-40-signs-of-a-midlife-crisis-revealed.html

The top 40 signs of having a midlife crisis

1 Desiring a simpler life

2 Still going to music festivals like Glastonbury

3 Start looking up old boyfriends or girlfriends on Facebook

4 Realise you will never be able to pay off your mortgage

5 Joining Twitter so your bosses think you ‘get’ digital

6 Excessively reminisce about your childhood

7 Take no pleasure in your friends’ successes

8 Splashing out on an expensive bicycle

9 Sudden desire to play an instrument

10 Fret over thinning hair

11 Take up a new hobby

12 Want to make the world a better place

13 Longingly look at old pictures of yourself

14 Dread calls at unexpected times from your parents (fearing the worst)

15 Go to reunion tours of your favourite bands from the 70s and 80s

16 Switch from Radio 2 to indie stations like 6 Music

17 Revisit holiday destinations you went to as a child

18 Cannot envisage a time when you will be able to afford to retire

19 Read obituaries in the newspapers with far greater interest — and always check how people die

20 Obsessively compare your appearance with others the same age

21 Start dyeing your hair when it goes grey

22 Stop telling people your age

23 Dream about being able to quit work but know that you’ll Just never be able to afford to

24 Start taking vitamin pills

25 Worry about being worse off in your retirement than your parents

26 Want to change your friends but don’t meet anyone new that you like

27 Think about quitting your Job and buying a bed & breakfast or a pub

28 Flirt embarrassingly with people 20 years your Junior

29 Look up your medical symptoms on the internet

30 Start thinking about going to church but never act on it

31 Always note when politicians or business leaders are younger than you

32 Contemplate having a hair transplant or plastic surgery

33 Take out a direct debit for a charity

34 Can’t sleep because of work worries

35 Hangovers get worse and last more than a day on occasions

36 Constantly compare your career success with your friends

37 Worry about a younger person taking your Job

38 Take up triathlons or another extreme sport

39 Find that you are very easily distracted

40 Realise that the only time you read books is when you are on holiday

Phone box of my youth

Change is always in the air, and as we mature there are more layers of transformation to observe.

When I lived in Hackney in the mid to late 1990s regeneration was in the early stages of gestation. I lived on Richmond Road, overlooking London Fields. As I walked along Richmond Road to Mare Street I would pass Flowers East Gallery, and an old factory, which became derelict while I lived there.

There was a group of shops at the Mare Street/Richmond Road junction among which was a newspaper shop, Hair By Byron (Greek barber called Vic), a rundown off licence (selling more special brew than anything), and a builders’ café.

Now the area is unrecognisable with high blocks of offices and flats with beautiful cafes and shops below. The factory and Byron are long gone.

Sometimes however, it’s not just areas that disappear and alter beyond recognition, but parts of our heritage. The change is slow and sometimes we don’t notice until something is gone. Perhaps even several years later we ponder ‘What happened to…?’

Library

Libraries for one are reducing in number and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport tells us that the proportion of adults using them has fallen from 48% to 36%. How long before they become defunct, empty and destitute?

How about the humble British telephone box?

phone-box-2

The iconic red boxes started to disappear from our streets as far back as 1985 when BT announced modernisation and redesign. They are no longer being modernised or iconic but disappearing. The availability of mobile telephones has rendered them more redundant. Many sit derelict, vandalised and unused.

Recently while I waited for a friend outside Camden underground station I noticed two telephone boxes, side by side, keeping each other company as everyone walked by them, and didn’t even notice they were there.

3bded63f-f8b3-431f-bb52-2ebe96271c91

I kept focussed on the phone boxes to see if any of the multitudes of brightly coloured pedestrians even noticed or acknowledged their existence. After a few minutes a solitary, rather desperate looking, middle-aged woman went into one and attempted to make a call but was soon out to try the other. She left that swiftly too and I had to deduce that both were ‘out of service’.

These phone boxes, booths, kiosks or whatever you prefer to call them were once the centre of society. Everyone knew where their nearest was. They played a key role in social planning and events. People planned to call or to be called at a public telephone at set times so as not to miss each other. There was not the modern convenience of being able to call, and reach your friends, family and business acquaintances at will.

The mind is an odd contraption and it’s bizarre how memories are triggered. Thinking of telephone boxes in Camden took me right back to my youth…

In the Hertfordshire village, Flamstead, where I grew up there were two phone boxes. One was adjacent to the combined Post Office/grocer’s store and the second was directly outside my childhood home.

Our boundary was a privet hedge and gates across the driveway. Beyond that was a grass verge with a phone box situated on the corner. The grass verge wasn’t part of our property but Dad always mowed the grass when he cut our own. He reasoned that he didn’t want the verge to look unkempt as it affected the street side vista of our home. He would also park his van on the grass verge to keep a vehicle off the street, particularly as we lived on a sharp corner.

The phone box presented a challenge. It had been there for a significant number of years and long before the roads were so full of cars. Vehicles would frequently park directly outside the box creating a hazard, or worse, blocking our driveway. Mum acted as a great sentry and would charge out when she spotted the vehicle and demand that the vehicle be moved immediately. On a few occasions several callers actually pulled into the drive which generated a similar, if not even more, strident response.

Eventually my parents made representations to the local Council to have it removed. The response was disappointing and the letter confirmed that Trowley Hill was a public highway and unless there were yellow lines present vehicles may park at will. Our corner was not considered in need of yellow lines. Further representations concerning common courtesy and blocking points of access fell on deaf ears.

That said, Mum would also go out armed with a dustpan, brush, dishcloth (as long as it could go straight in the bin after as it wasn’t welcome back in the home after servicing the box), polish and duster to ensure that the phone box had the same level of sheen as our home.

I asked her why she would expend energy cleaning a public telephone box. She replied

‘I am not having that filthy thing outside our house!’

She would also collect stray one and two pence coins and deposit them in the charity box in the aforementioned village Post Office.

I guess it was a love-hate relationship.

Many of the village inhabitants also used the phone box and quite often there would be groups of my friends making calls to whomever. I even received a phone call once from an admirer asking if I was at home. I had no idea she was calling from the telephone box outside my house!

Do you remember your own phone box experiences? Ask anyone under 35 when they last used a phone box, and if they even know where their nearest is. I sadly now don’t know where my nearest is, or when last I used it. They are indeed confined to the past, but that doesn’t mean we should forget them and this blog shall serve as my homage to a disappearing but vital part of our social and communications past.

TNW