at the end of a marriage

February 27, 2018

Marr pic

…was a very ladylike dress, a vintage style summer frock with a princess neckline and a pattern of tea cups — dancing tea cups — against a navy blue background, the kind of garment an English lady of a certain class might have wafted around in circa 1938.

It was more than ladylike; it was whimsical.

Whimsy might seem a goofy note to strike for a marital showdown, but it was a deliberate goofiness – I’d put time into clicking through the hangers in my closet until I found what I considered appropriate.

Appropriate in this case meaning non-aggressive.

 I knew something decisive and irrevocable was about to happen to my marriage and I wanted to seem, or at least look, above reproach.

You could say I was already thinking in terms of strategy.

This was the situation, the state of play that particular summer evening: the two of us were at home, but not actively home together. H was upstairs or in the back watching tv and I was keeping busy in whatever room he wasn’t in.

You can do that sort of thing if you’ve been married a long time — avoid each other at the same time you’re actually circling each other, waiting for whatever it is that’s about to happen.

For my part, I was waiting for H to make the first move.

This makes me sound very calm and methodical about the whole business, the business of a marriage coming undone, and to some extent that’s true. There was a part of me that had been watching it, us, crumble as if from a distance, noting the signs and mentally ticking them off like a fervent teen taking a Cosmo love quiz (Has your relationship run its course? Here’s what to look for…).

Mainly though I was just very, very sad. 

Not as sad as I’d been when we’d lost our first baby. That time, that loss, I was wild with grief. This time, though, this expected loss, was a different category of sadness.

When we lost the baby we lost the baby.

We despaired. We mourned.

It was a shared sorrow.

This time, this loss, I’d be on my own.

That’s one of the shocks of divorce, the element that takes you by surprise, over and over again. Here you are, dealing with this awful situation and by its very nature, you can’t turn to your partner for comfort.

As if divorce wasn’t bad enough, you end up with irony tossed into the mix.

My dress was a nod to that paradox. All those dancing teacups and the little puffed sleeves and the bits of lace on the princess collar: that was my way of saying, disingenuously, Who, me? Threatening? Because in addition to the sadness and irony and the sense of impending doom there was also a growing awareness of what you might call competitive heat.

The thing is, what truly differentiates the sadness of divorce from all other types of grief is the fact that it almost always turns adversarial. Even if you part with good intentions, with promises to be friends forever, you have to be on your guard. You can’t just give in to the relief of mourning, which involves lying on the sofa surrounded by KitKat wrappers because the person who broke your heart will – inevitably and within a surprisingly short time – attempt to break the rest of you as well.

So as sad as I was for both of us, as frightened of the final confrontation, I also understood all this loss and emotion was going to condense down into something much more basic:

It would become a war.



During UK hurricane season

November 21, 2017

hurricane20171121_01332012was whatever I picked up off the floor.

I looked like someone who had dressed in the dark.

From September until the beginning of November there were days I was piling on or peeling off bits of clothing every hour or so as the weather veered from sun to rain, to wind to sleet and back to sun again.

Discarded (and, admittedly, reused) items were tossed on to a compost-like mound on the bedroom floor, a mound the dog immediately staked out as the best bed in the world, thereby adding a weather-seal layer of pug hair to my hurricane wardrobe.

It was all very unattractive not to mention unhygienic but it was Hurricane Lite compared to conditions on the other side of the Atlantic. There Category 4 and 5 storms killed hundreds, destroyed entire communities and caused $188 billion worth of damage in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean: the costliest storm system in history. Puerto Rico still hasn’t recovered.

British forecasters, barely able to contain their excitement, predicted Armageddon, ‘an autumn of chaos’, but when Arlene, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Ophelia et al finally passed through, it was briefly and without much interest, like travellers with a few hours to kill between long-haul flights.

There were losses, real losses – three storm-related deaths in Ireland, and extensive flooding along the country’s western coasts –but relatively speaking there was no sense of cataclysm or excess and as I was burrowing through the clothing mound – displacing the dog in the process – for a pair of wearable thermal socks I was reminded of the tornado that hit Birmingham in 2005. Roofs were torn off along with more than 1,000 trees and 19 people injured but its most enduring legacy was a photo meme of a trash bin that had been knocked on its side, captioned WE WILL REBUILD.


on vacation in Florida

July 28, 2017

… was a hospital gown, a gauze mask and a pair of surgical gloves.

This was not the fashion statement I had in mind for the Sunshine State.

The night before I left for Florida, with a cold English spring pressing against the windows, I packed sandals and Fitflops, a bathing suit with functioning elastic, three summer dresses still in their dry cleaning bags, bug spray and a monster tube of factor 50.

This was my tropical kit.

I’ve never spent time in Florida.

I didn’t know what to expect, because I didn’t know what Florida was about. On the basis of not very much I’d formed a mental picture of humidity and vegetation, fist-sized insects, Latin dancing and an uneasy co-mingling of rednecks and retirees.

I’ve never wanted to spend time in Florida.

I don’t like heat or bugs or travelling 4,000 miles in order to get someplace I don’t want to go. But I like my father and Florida is where he and his wife live for much of the year, in a gated community with man-made lakes and a Spanish-style clubhouse.

So I hauled my tropical kit to Heathrow and boarded a plane.

On the flight, I amused myself by roughing out my holiday schedule: mornings, breakfast on the lanai of my father’s house, with noxious wildlife kept at bay by the floor to ceiling screens. Afternoons, I’d try a spot of bodysurfing in the ocean and evenings we’d pile into the car and check out some of those Miami samba clubs.

I wasn’t entirely sure there was such a thing as a Miami samba club and as things turned out I never got to verify it one way or another because while I was still 36,000 feet in the air, wondering if it was jellyfish season in Florida and dosing myself with vodka in an attempt to ignore the turbulence that had the plane swooping and dipping, my father was being bundled into the back of an ambulance.

When I landed I found out what had happened: my 92-year-old father had suddenly come down with flu, which, just as suddenly, became pneumonia. High fever, compromised breathing and a precipitous drop in blood pressure. It was very quick, this downward spiral, no more than 48 hours between the first onset of mild symptoms and an edge-of-death dash to the hospital in a screaming ambulance.

In the A&E, they pumped my father full of steroids and antibiotics, shoved an oxygen tube up his nose and placed him in a kind of isolation chamber.

Which is how I came to spend my Florida vacation dressed like a lab technician.

Masked, gowned and gloved, I was permitted to enter my father’s room. I was instructed to maintain a cordon sanitaire of five feet. Robed and obedient, I kept to my corner while my father, merrily festooned with tubes, kept to his, giving the occasion the slight tang of a royal audience. Conversation was stilted. The masks distorted our words and turned them into a rich, indecipherable sludge. This necessitated multiple iterations of the same sentence and I discovered even the most heartfelt utterance, for example, I thought we’d lost you, loses all meaning when repeated six times, each time at a higher decibel level.

As a result, I fell back on banalities. My second visit, after an ear-blasting exchange about the weather, I shouted, ‘You’re lucky the hospital was so close’. I don’t think my father heard me, but it didn’t matter because as soon as the words emerged from behind my mask I experienced something of an epiphany: I suddenly understood what Florida was about.

It wasn’t a matter of luck that had a hospital less than a mile from my father’s house because in 21st century Florida there’s a hospital less than a mile from everyone’s house. In fact, that part of the state, Palm Beach County, there’s some variety of medical care on pretty much every corner, right next to the Starbucks. And nine times out of ten, it’s medical care targeted to seniors. Block after block, in the strip malls that line the four-lane highways and in what looks like manor houses set back on manicured grounds, you see signs for stroke and heart attack treatment, hip replacements and cataract surgery.

That’s what’s taken root in the Floridian bush: clinics and A&E units.

Home-grown conservationists and biologists, along with writers like Bob T Epstein and Carl Hiaasen have condemned the strategies and greed that have transformed the face of Florida from a semi-tropical (if occasionally treacherous) paradise to a tarmacked, car-dependent landscape of high-rises and gated communities. Their objections are two-fold: first, that the state has evolved into an environment in which near poverty-line Have-nots service the Haves and, second, that all the man-made changes — the long stretches of interstate, the energy hungry urban sprawl — have grossly contributed to global warming in a region that is already far too vulnerable.

They’re right, of course. What they say is true.

But what’s also true – and this brings us to the eternal capitalist dilemma – is that Florida is a state that’s evolved to meet the needs of its key consumer market: the tens of thousands of retirees such as my father who moved south to the heat and sun after a lifetime of hard work.

My father was released from hospital a couple of days before I flew back to Britain. He recovered, and it wasn’t a matter of luck. It was Florida, the geriatric health care centre of the universe.


when I took a selfie

February 23, 2017

selfie20170223_12403587-1… was nothing.

And not in a Kim Kardashian kind of way.

I mean nothing as in no selfie outfit, no selfie pose (head tilt, shoulder thrust, rictus grin or kissy lips) for the simple reason I have never taken a selfie.

I probably never will.

And not just because my nose photographs huge.

Unfairly so.

My stance on selfies is this: I’m waiting for them to go away.

I could say, because it’s true, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole concept of selfies, something that goes beyond mere narcissism.

I could add, because it’s also true, that on a purely metaphysical level — you know, things that can’t be seen but are meant to exist, like honour, morality, thought, exultation and responsibility – selfies represent the numbing of our collective soul.

These are valid points, with a distinct whiff of the lofty about them, but my real, deep-down objection is far more basic: I want selfies to go away because they’re boring. They’re boring and ordinary and by their very nature they were over less than two minutes, give or take a few seconds, after the very first one went up on the net. Here’s the contradictory flaw inherent to selfies: people post themselves in a show-and-tell bid to reveal how unique they are, to differentiate themselves from the rest of the world’s billions. The goal is singularity and personal branding, and as goals go, it’s completely self-defeating –pun inevitable — because the only even vaguely notable characteristic that all selfies share is their ability to make everyone – from panty girl in bathroom to jihadi boy in desert – look exactly alike: same head tilt, same shoulder thrust, same pout or manic grin. Same old, same old. When it comes to selfies, banality is the new black.

The problem, of course, is that selfies start and end with self-reference, the kind of self-reference where the self is the only reality. Almost every selfie that’s ever been posted, whatever the setting, whomever the subject, can be distilled down to a single caption, which is, inevitably: Me, me, me.

Basically, selfies are the photographic equivalent of the three-year-old who believes his toilet habits are not only exceptional, but of great significance to the world at large. This is not a bad thing when it comes to building self-worth in toddlers, but put that toddler into nursery school and he or she will soon come to realize that first, as the book says, everybody poops, and, second, with the exception of the toddler’s parents and maybe the janitor who has to clean up any spillage, one’s toilet habits do not matter to anyone.

With selfies, the rare exceptions are just that because they are unlike what came before and they’re able to surprise us. Like the deservedly famous monkey selfie from last year — that was new and different. It told us all sorts of things we hadn’t known before: that macaque monkeys have a great sense of humour. That PETA, the animal rights’ group that brought suit against the owner of the camera, does not have sense of humour although it does seem to have a great deal of time on its hands.

It was an awesome selfie but once it was up it rendered all other monkey selfies passé and mundane: samey. It’s the samey quality of every selfie after the first that renders the process an exercise in futility. You put yourself up there striving for distinction but achieving uniformity.

Even Andy Warhol, whose fault they kind of are and who made the mundane high art would say about selfies, Okay. Everyone’s had their 15 minutes. It’s over now.

when orange boy won

November 9, 2016


…was something nice at the start of the evening — velvet bellbottoms and suede ankle boots for my election night party. A chic leather belt. Earrings and lipstick. Swirly hair. As things started to degenerate, so did my outfit — Cinderella and the good fairy in reverse. The bells were replaced with cheesy grey sweatpants, the boots with shuffle-round-the-house-slippers. The lipstick was chewed off and – in a final ceremonial act of defeat – the earrings removed and laid out in their small leather casket.

I went to bed at 4am with a wine headache and a sense of foreboding: the state of mind shared by at least 50% of the world’s population when they crawled into their beds.

When I woke up though, the bank of fear had lifted. To my surprise, what I was feeling was interest. Fascination, even. For good or bad, the status quo has been turned inside out and what’s about to happen will be very new. Possibly disastrous –if we’re very lucky, only temporarily so — but definitely very different.

It’s less that the lunatics are taking over the asylum, than the clowns will be running the circus. And the big orange clown will be the one in charge. He’ll have to oversee everything — from taking admission to booking the performances and breaking up the fights in the tiger cage. And the fun is in the fact he just can’t do it! That’s why this show will be so can’t-miss compelling — car-crash comedy we’ll be watching with our hands over our eyes, our fingers parted just enough to let us peek at the antics. With Obama we had eight years of extreme cool. With orange boy, we’re sure to get four fun filled years of pratfalls and pie throwing.

Who doesn’t love a circus?

rosii120160811_13211561… was never as nice as what our waitress had on.

Our waitress Rosi always looked great, carrying all that food and drink to keep us happy, never spilling so much as a dollop of sauce down the front of the starched dirndls she wore. She must have had a closet full of these dirndls –red, green, brown, black versions of the Austrian national costume with its hug-me-tight bodice and full pleated skirt. This is a very corny garment, a dirndl, channelling Disney, oom-pah bands and that creepy strain of Nazi gemutlichkeit – think Eva Braun at play on the terraces of Berchtesgaden – but Rosi, a non-Austrian, managed to make it look cool.

The brown was her favourite, she told me (intimacy is inevitable with the person who knows all your dietary quirks – your preferred brand of vodka, your anxiety about meat touching veg) and the night she wore it you could see why: the color was perfect with her dark hair and eyes and the olive cast to her skin. Rosi is Greek. Every year she comes over to Austria to work the ski season, November through March. There are no jobs back in Greece, not since the economy tanked in 2008, and with the Austrian locals disinclined to take on those 12-hour shifts, six days a week, five months a year, Rosi’s annual migration is a win-win for everyone – not least the 18 of us in our corner of the dining room, cranky as toddlers after our day on the slopes.

In contrast to Rosi, we did not look great. The men shaved for dinner and one of the women showed some éclat with her nicely tailored trousers, but she was the exception and it was clear to anyone who bothered to notice that the rest of us were living out of not very promising suitcases. By the second night I was back in my old black jeans and, for a dash of color, the big red bruise I got when I tumbled off the tow lift. Of the younger members of the party, the boys came down to dinner in t-shirts and football jerseys and our last meal there two of the girls – my daughter was one of them – showed up in helmets and ski goggles. We were having fun, and we were noisy, voracious and confident that whatever we needed, Rosi would deliver.

rosi 220160811_13412750

We left Austria and Rosi’s care the end of March. Three months later the UK voted to leave the European Union. Come October it seems Austria may do the same: a far-right candidate named Norbert Hofer is predicted to win the re-run of the presidential election there. Hofer’s an extreme Euro-sceptic, with an extreme anti-immigration agenda –a Marine Le Pen without the awkward father. In the global context, Hofer’s expected win is a disquieting prospect: xenophobic, isolationist and a return to the kind of nationalism that in a country like Austria has nasty implications. On a personal level, it’s even more worrying. I’m not worried about Rosi – she’s a natural survivor, one of those people who’ll do fine wherever she ends up and look great in whatever national costume she’s required to wear — but I am worried for us, for me. If Hofer shuts the borders and boots out the immigrant workforce, then who’s going to put up with me in matters pertaining to vodka and the proximity of meat to veg? Every nation on earth, immigrants represent the group that works harder than any other, the group that, traditionally, will go the extra mile. That’s why employers hire them.

Hofer just hasn’t thought this one through.


at a singular funeral

January 27, 2016

www baby was a green wool mini-dress with a zip down the front and a big ring on the tab of the zipper, the kind of ring just begging to be pulled down (hello boys). All in all what you’d call a flirty little number and as such completely inappropriate for the occasion, which happened to be the burial of our stillborn daughter. I wore it to please my husband. It was his favourite dress and, having failed to give him a viable baby, I figured the least I could do was get through the day in something he liked.

That tells you something about my logic at the time.

I kept making small, precise decisions that struck me as useful and sound and that of course turned out to be extremely goofy. For example, my parents flew over from America for the funeral and my husband’s parents came down from Scotland, four large, not very young people and I decided the best way of getting to the cemetery was to cram all six of us into our compact car. My father and my husband’s father book-ended my mother-in-law on the back seat, the men’s knees jammed up around their ears. I rode shotgun, perched on my mother’s lap with the baby in her shoebox-sized casket perched on my lap. Despite the obvious clown car implications I persisted in thinking this was a sensible idea, the most efficient means of resolving the day’s transportation issues.

In retrospect (this happened a while back) it’s obvious to see why my logic was so specious, by which I mean borderline bonkers. I was operating on intellectual idle. Consciously or not, I’d switched off part of my brain, the part whose job it was to retain and process key information: information such as the baby on my lap, the hole that awaited her, the mound of dirt that would cover her. The fact I now owned a cemetery plot, not a piece of real estate I’d planned to add to my portfolio. None of this data was digestible. So I shut it out. I brain blanked it.

Brain blanking works. It does the job. Sometimes too well, a side effect I was reminded of not long ago ago when I forgot – actually forgot – to brake the car at a busy intersection. I ended up in the middle of the highway with cars swerving to avoid me, their tires screeching. I rested my head on the steering wheel (the car had conked out so I had time for reflection) and I thought: Brain blank. I hadn’t realized I was there again, in shut-down mode, but it made sense; I’m in the middle of a divorce and there’s a lot of unpalatable information I’d prefer to ignore.

The thing is, I thought I was handling this marital split, acing the paperwork, dodging the emotional shrapnel, avoiding the divorce bore scenario at parties. But the truth is insofar as I’ve been handling it, it’s been through the means of managed idiocy. And there are consequences. Like leaving my wallet under the desk at my office, which I did last month. (Luckily the office cleaners are extremely honest as well as a tad lazy so the wallet was still there when I returned.) Or the night, not long ago, when I removed a hot roasting pan from the oven and realized I’d forgotten to put on oven mitts. My friend Martyn, who tended to my third-degree burns, said it was a real Ross Geller moment, exactly like the Friends episode involving bare hands and a pot of hot fajitas. I’d forgotten about that aspect of brain blanking; forgotten the fact of forgetting — to brake at an intersection, to check your bag for your wallet, to protect your hands before coming to grips, literally to grips, with a pan full of boiling goose fat.

What I was wearing at my most recent dinner party … was salve and a microbial cellulose wrap.


…was sweatpants and the occasional party frock, because it’s all about fun, right?



hels shoes copy… were the shoes off her feet.

This happened in a café in Amsterdam.

There was giggling. There was mild screeching. There was even, I regret to say, a brief scrabble under the table to facilitate the transfer.

We were in a state of relief and benevolence. Relief, because we had given our first choral performance in Amsterdam. Benevolence, because my friend Helen was recovering from a foot injury. The cast she’d been wearing for weeks had only just come off and the whole area – leg, ankle, foot — was still tender. Standing on a hard floor in a cold church and singing for an hour hadn’t helped. Neither had the long walk to a café after the concert.

By the time we sat down and ordered the first round of drinks Helen’s convalescent foot, laced into a vaguely orthopaedic oxford, was swollen, red and puffy around the ankle. Assessing the damage, it occurred to me that Helen and I could swap shoes. My feet are bigger than hers and I was wearing slip-on ballerinas with padded insoles.

This seemed a brilliant solution.

Did I mention we were a little tipsy?

Sober, it might have occurred to me that Helen’s comfort in a pair of oversized ballerinas was, ipso facto, contingent on my discomfort in footwear a size too small.

Even worse, much worse, Helen’s vaguely orthopaedic oxfords did not match my outfit.

I was wearing a fitted black dress, mid-length, a leather jacket and lacy tights with my black ballerinas. The dress for singing, the jacket for edge, the tights and ballerinas for, well, prettiness. A touch of grace. The vaguely orthopaedic oxfords – chic on Helen – distorted the effect. Wearing them, I went from genteel biker girl to strict KGB operative: Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love, with her mulish expression and a switchblade embedded in the sole of her brogue.

It was not the look I’d been going for. It was jarring and borderline freakish. This bothered me.

But this was before I discovered the Amsterdam Factor.

The Amsterdam Factor is a phenomenon that creeps up on you, takes you by surprise. It snuck up on me when we left the café and went off in search of culture.

After all, we were in Amsterdam: birthplace of the Dutch Golden Age, capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a port city steeped in history and art, trade and finance.

And the first piece of culture we encountered, the very first one, was the Amsterdam Museum of Prostitution.

This was housed in a tasteful canal-side mansion. There was a dignified plaque by the entrance.

We went in, but we didn’t stay long, just long enough to check out the pictures hanging in the lobby. These were photographs of a few of the museum’s exhibits, the coming attractions, if you will. There were photos of handcuffs and pulley devices, photos of men in partial animal costumes and a few shots of very competent-looking women in masks and thigh boots. What was strange was the overall tone, the ethos of the joint: it was matter of fact — tolerant, casual and dissipated all at the same time. Studying these images, it dawned on me that what I was wearing –vaguely orthopaedic oxfords wedded to a leather jacket and a fitted dress – was absolutely fit for purpose in Amsterdam.

In a city with one of the most jaded sexual palates on earth, the incongruous and jarring is not just the norm, it’s a necessity.

The unaccustomed is actually the customary.

That’s the Amsterdam Factor.

And it’s not just the obvious erotic displays in the red light district, women in underwear gesturing to you from inside lit-up booths: the startling, decadent invitations are everywhere, usually when you least expect them. Making our way from the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum, from cultural point A to cultural point B as it were, Helen and I passed a small grocery store. There in the shop window, laid out between a stack of Pringles and a pyramid of Diet Cokes, was a sexual device so complicated, so abundant in possibilities — parts springing from it, holes and gashes cut into it –it seemed to speak to every conceivable carnal taste. The shape of a torso with the bulk of a carton, it was hard to know what to call it.

We Instagrammed it to Helen’s husband.

He texted us right back.

Let’s just call it a kind of chair, he said. An unusual kind of chair.

He was half right. A kind of chair, that would do as a description, but in Amsterdam, there was nothing unusual about it.



… was a lot less than I’d started out with.   amsterdm2

I blame Amsterdam.

The prospect of going there, and singing there with my choir was very exciting. I’d    never been to Amsterdam. I was in such a pleasurable tizzy about the whole thing   that I organized a special travel outfit to mark the occasion: a ladylike dress, a belt, tights, boots, spring gloves, leather jacket (my daintiness has its limits), bracelets, earrings and a silver doo-dad to keep my hair in order.

In retrospect, I can see it was way too elaborate. Not for life – it was fine for life – but it was terrible for modern day air travel. I’d completely blanked out the reality of airport scanners and trace detection portals and uniformed personnel coming at you with wands and beepers.

I was too caught up in visions of cobblestones and canals, and gabled houses with adorable window boxes, and what it would be like to walk, very solemnly, past Anne Frank’s attic. As I mentioned, I’d never been to Amsterdam before. This despite the fact I’ve lived in Britain for two decades and Holland is ridiculously close by jet, one of those quickie flights where you’re still trying to open the bag of airline nuts, going at it with your teeth and the plane’s already starting its descent into Schiphol Airport. Up, down, you’re there. That’s the reality.

It wasn’t the first reality of the day. When I walked into Heathrow and saw the stack of plastic trays on the security line, my little fashion bubble burst. It dawned on me that I’d dressed for a completely different era of air travel, and that almost everything I had on, had to come off. Boots, belt, jacket, jewellery, the silver hair doo-dad — all of it unzipped, unbuckled and peeled away in a fair imitation of the world’s worse strip tease.

I padded through the X-ray machine looking like I was wearing a beach cover, my ladylike dress, minus the belt, demoted to what my Grandma Lena would have called a shapeless schmatta.

What ever happened to airports?

When did they turn into glorified bus stations?

They used to be so glamorous. Romantic. Mysterious.

They used to be the setting for women in cunning hats and three-quarter length gloves dashing lightly into the arms of men who looked like Gregory Peck. All the men wore suits, with very white shirts.

We all know what happened, why it is that airports have come to acquire the charm and efficiency of a hospital waiting room during peak flu season. What happened, of course, is the awkward marriage of two contrasting isms: egalitarianism and terrorism. Today, flying is far more affordable for far more people and it affords far more opportunities for a lunatic with an agenda to render the experience deadly.

But knowing that is one thing; accepting it is another. And the night before I went to Amsterdam, draping my clothes on the bedroom chair, I was still pretending that a flight to a foreign country was an occasion, as opposed to an ordeal.

The cabbie who drove me to the bus did, in fact, look a little like Gregory Peck.