…were seersucker trousers, crisp summer wear, and a pair of platform wedgies so I’d look tall and authoritative for the job interview I was going to that day.  

G. Gordon Liddy, in case you’ve forgotten, was one of the Watergate co-conspirators. He was head of the so-called Plumbers Unit under President Richard Nixon and the man who organised the burglary of the Democratic National Committee HQ in Washington D.C.

He and his buddies were caught, convicted and sent to prison.

Nixon, disgraced, resigned his presidency. 

It was incredible stuff, the political scandal of the century and it makes the Trump impeachment hearings look like a morning in traffic court. 

G. Gordon Liddy – it’s always the full name, like a Superman villain – was the self-styled hard man of the Watergate group. He liked to say of himself, “I’m virile, vigorous and potent,” and his signature party trick was to hold his hand over a lit candle. 

Physically, he was stocky, with a big, shiny head and one of those oversized moustaches that suggests a furry rodent. (Ironically, he claimed to have trapped and eaten a rat to overcome his fear of rodents.) 

He died a few months ago and there were obituaries and think pieces but to my surprise none of them acknowledged the telling event we — G. Gordon Liddy and I — experienced as a twosome. 

It was a hot summer day in New York City. I had just finished an interview with a publishing company in midtown. I was standing by the elevators, not caring if I’d gotten the job (it was too hot to care and so humid my trousers were sticking to my legs). A military looking man with a bushy moustache came and stood beside me. Even before the receptionist mouthed his name, I recognized him: G. Gordon Liddy. Released from prison, he’d written an autobiography and this was the company that had published it. 

We exchanged here-we-are-both-waiting-for-the-elevator nods and then all the lights went out. 

The elevator, several floors below us, ground to a halt. 

It was the third blackout of the summer and someone popped his head out of an office and yelled,  “What, another? Fuck me!” 

G. Gordon Liddy and I stood there for a few moments staring at the bank of elevators. And then he, ex-con, ex-FBI, former henchman to the (then) most hated leader in the western world, looked at me, gestured politely at the door leading to the emergency stairs, and said,  “Shall we?”  Just as politely, he ushered me into the stairwell. 

It was pitch black. He lit a match – for one wild moment I thought he was going to hold his hand over the flame – but no, he was getting his bearings.  “Watch your step,” he advised and that’s pretty much all he said.

Because for 17 flights of stairs, 17 double flights of unlit stairs we were almost completely silent. Once, when I stumbled — the wedgies were lethal in the dark – he put out an arm to steady me, but this too was in silence.

The only communication in the course of our eight-minute descent (and believe me, eight minutes is a long time in the dark, with a stranger breathing heavily at your side) concerned the heavy fire door situated on every other landing and that had to be wrestled open to gain access to the next double flight of stairs.  Together we would navigate the first set of stairs and then he would whoosh past me in order to wrench the door open, and say in his deep and ominous voice, ”After you.”  I would say, in tones of polite surprise, “Why, thank you,” to which he would respond with, “My pleasure.”

Over and over, the same three-line exchange and then silence until it was time to repeat the ritual. 

By the tenth floor, a note of almost demented courtesy was informing our dialogue. My thank yous had gone up several octaves and his final two words had taken on the benign joviality of Santa Claus in the Coke commercials. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. This was the man who had fired a gun into the ceiling of a courthouse when he didn’t like the way a trial was going.  At what point had that man morphed in to the Dalai Lama? 

When he wrenched open the last fire door we stepped out into the lobby. Blinking a little in the daylight we exchanged nods and, wordlessly, as per the nature of our relationship, went our separate ways.

This happened.

(I didn’t get the job.)


in the age of corona #1

April 16, 2020

Cor final20200416_15355264 copy

… were neoprene booties, neoprene gloves and a bathing suit tied together in the back so it would stay on when I climbed out of the river.

I tied the suit with a ribbon I snipped off a Chanel shopping bag, which added a little tone to the whole ensemble.

At least I hope it added a little tone because this is not how I like to be seen in public — sporting fat wetsuit gloves and a pair of booties that look like Frankenstein’s socks and a bathing suit so old it’s lost all its elastic.

Oh, and mud. Let’s not forget mud. I was wearing that as well.

The mud joined the party when I tried to climb out of the river.

This was not a minor undertaking. The top of the riverbank was a good two to three feet above the water line and I had to pull myself up and out of the water against a wall of silt and crumbly clay. There was nothing underfoot and nothing to grab onto – no purchase – except a few clumps of stinging nettle.

It took me three attempts, each one activating a sort of mini-landslide.

It turns out there’s a name for this phenomenon: failure slip surface, meaning the layer of an earth bank liable to fail under a load.

That day, I was the load.

And there was definite failure.

Erosion, c’est moi.

Normally, I get in and out of the river by way of a ladder at the riverbank club to which I belong. I wear the neoprene gloves and booties for warmth when the river’s cold, which is most of the time. And because the river is cold most of the time and the club is private, I’m normally on my own there. As a result, I normally swim au naturel while my unused bathing suit rots quietly in the bottom of the closet.

That’s my normal.

But of course, the club is closed now, along with so much else.

Of course, almost everything has changed.

The media call it the new normal, almost as if Corona were the new black.

I prefer to call it the new strange.

It’s strange to swim, in an old and useless bathing suit, off a public meadow with people passing close enough – even while maintaining distancing protocols – to throw out threads of perky, running commentary (Watch out for the fishIs it cold?You wouldn’t catch me in there…)

It’s strange to wash my hands so often the skin is raw.

It’s strange to watch people lurching away from each other on the street, like scenes from a benign version of “The Walking Dead”.

It’s strange to spray the bottom of my shoes when I come back into the house.

It’s strange to dread – that 3 o’clock in the morning covered with sweat dread – the possibility of your child catching it.

It’s strange to be in competition –politely, but with deadly intent – for the last bag of flour in the shop.

It’s strange to have to block out thoughts of my 95-year old father, 3,000 miles away, who I can’t be with.

With a few alterations, it’s much the same list we all have, a combination of the crucial and the trivial.

And, ultimately, it’s strange to discover it’s the trivial — – the bathing suit unearthed in the bottom of a closet, the pretty ribbon that holds the suit together, the swim that clears the mind – that gives a sense of control over what seems, at three in the morning, uncontrollable.



stick 220191015_22395786

… was a stick.

A hazel wood stick, gnarly and crooked like something out of a fairy tale.

It turned out to be a real magnet for a certain breed of male, but that’s a side note.

I found the stick — a branch that had broken off from a nearby tree — in the underbrush on the edge of the meadow that runs down to the River Cam.

That’s where I swim most mornings.

I was looking for a stick because it was mud season and the path to the bit of river where I swim was unaccountably slick, much worse than it’d been the year before. I kept stumbling, skidding off the slippery track. My left foot dragged in the mud, my knee buckled and there I was, side lined into a clump of bramble weed, the kind with all the thorns.

I blamed the path. More than that, I blamed the people who were supposed to be maintaining the path. It was their fault I kept stumbling and losing my balance.

Or it was the fault of climate change. Warmer air meant more rain, which meant more mud, which meant more hazardous walking conditions, which is why I kept skidding off the path into a clump of bramble weed, the kind with all the thorns.

It certainly wasn’t my fault, my body letting me down. How could it be? I was the walk anywhere, swim everyplace, dance anytime kid.

So this recurring slippage — the foot that dragged, the knee that buckled, the stumble that embarrassed my daughter when we were out together – was a problem not of my own making. It was an anomaly, a temporary glitch I could resolve with the use of a hazel wood stick.

It was a debonair solution.  When I wasn’t using the stick to stay upright during mud season I twirled it like a baton and pointed it at interesting objets and phenomena: Look at that spire, check out those storm clouds — that sort of thing.

I discovered it was a talking point for a certain breed of men. These were the kind of men, varying in age but unified in their commitment to long coats and odd headwear, who grew up reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy (many times) and watching the Peter Jackson films (many times) to the point of being able to quote, unprompted, great chunks of dialogue when they encountered a woman carrying a hazel wood stick.

Who knew?

I also discovered the pains that coincided with the stumbling, dragging etc. — pains that stabbed my lower back and ran down my leg like an electric current were, according to my doctor, nothing more than a pinched nerve. Sciatica, he said.

Brought on, no doubt, he said, by exercise, the wrong kind of exercise.

How was my backstroke? Was I over-extending my arms? Maybe that’s what was seizing the nerve and holding it hostage. He took a medical book off the shelf in his office and showed me a series of explanatory diagrams: strands of angry red nerves criss-crossing a field of muscles and tendons, like a map of the New York subway system.

What I needed, the doctor said, was more exercise, the right kind of exercise. That would address the pain and my funny walk. I was relegated to the sub-world of physical therapists: the pilates guru, the gait analyst, the acupuncture king and the osteopath who pinned me down in a sumo hold and merrily popped my joints.

They were as fit as whippets and brimming with optimism, these physios. Give it six months, they said. We’ll have you sorted.

That was in the spring.

In July, I was walking along the coast with an old boyfriend, our arms linked in the spirit of nostalgia and flirtation. A sea breeze ruffled our hair and made the long grass undulate and it was all very idyllic as long as I ignored the fact I was using his arm as a pulley device, the means to haul me up the hill.

A month later I went to visit my father in New York. I had packed summer dresses against the August heat, but had left the stick behind in England. It was part denial, part instinct that my increased reliance on it (even out of mud season) would shock my father, would result in questions I didn’t know how to answer.

Three days into the visit, walking on the broad expanse of 12th Avenue in lower Manhattan, I suddenly came to a complete halt. My left leg, like a balky toddler, refused to move.

It had turned to stone, just frozen solid on the pavement.

Whatever it was that I and the doctor and the cheerful physios had labelled minor had simply, and finally, reached tipping point.

How to describe the shock, the jolt that shoots through you when you realize you are imprisoned by your own body? It was like coming face to face with the devil, with true evil – a concept you might not have believed in but that has manifested itself in front of you as a force, an entity that is literally blocking your path.

It felt like the end of all possibility.

If I couldn’t walk, how was I to live?

More immediately, if I couldn’t walk, how was I going to get back to my father’s apartment? Would I have to beg for help from a random stranger, grab someone’s arm and say, like a five-year-old lost in a shopping mall: Can you take me to my daddy?

As it was, people were already starting to stare as they swerved around me, giving me those furtive over-the-shoulder looks that said, why is this person in the middle of the sidewalk? What is she, having a vision?

I told myself, you have to do this, and by half-dragging, half-carrying the dead leg, I managed to heave myself into a taxi.

Once I was back in Britain, the stick and I clumped off to the specialists: the sports doctor, the X-ray technician, the neurologist and, finally, the radiologist with her coffin-like MRI table.

An hour after the MRI, they called me. The facts were stark and irrefutable. There was a tumor, a beast of a thing, in the middle of my spinal column.

It was pressing on my spinal cord.

That’s why I couldn’t walk.


for an MRI scan

December 12, 2018

mri scan20181212_13251627-1


… was a pair of leggings, a soft wool sweater – it gets cold in that long white coffin – no bra (all that metal), my daughter’s sleep mask so I wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the scary underside of that long white coffin and the best,best-ever accessory for a forty minute scan in a long white coffin: 5 mg of diazepam.

I can’t recommend the last item highly enough.

It made me so relaxed, filled me with such a sense of well-being, even as I lay there with my head jammed into a don’t-move-an-inch clamp affair, that when the nurse cooed through the speaker, ‘You’re doing so well, do you mind if we inject you with dye and run a few more tests?’ I cooed back, ‘Go to town, honey.’

The diazepam, brand name, Valium, which I think is a lovely, soothing tag, was still doing its job when I floated home from the scan.  So much so that I barely flinched when the neurologist called me 30 minutes later –30 minutes later: we all know what that kind of prompt response means — to say they’d found a big wodge of calcified matter in the middle of my spinal column.

It was benign, the neurologist said. The surgeon would tell me more.

The surgeon?

You could say this was the moment the Valium stopped working.

A great deal flashes through your mind at such times.

The word calcified, that was one thought.

It made me think of fossils.

As in, I’m walking around with a fossil in my spine.

An ammonite or a trilobite.

At various points in my life I’ve grown, internally speaking, various entities – babies and ulcers, even a squishy thing shaped like a cigar on my clavicle– but I was having trouble getting a handle on this, the idea –the presence– of a calcified wodge.

The neurologist was still talking, reasonably citing medical details, appointment times.

I cut her off.

I know it was rude but I wanted to grab hold of something she’d said at the start of the conversation, something mildly encouraging.

‘It’s benign?’ I said. ‘You’re telling me it’s benign?’

‘It’s benign,’ she said.

‘Tell me again.’

‘It’s benign.’

I asked her to tell me again.

I asked her several times.

Okay, eleven times

By the eleventh time I believed her.

I decided to name it:

little dead alien.


Name it, own it.




elder porn20180730_22251760

… was a gingham summer dress I’m still not sure about and my Velcro Teva sandals, the kind of footwear favoured by back-to-the-land hippy types as well as senior citizens on a tour of the Holy Land.

Now that’s a Venn diagram to keep marketers on their toes.

I bought the gingham-dress-I’m-still-not-sure-about at the supermarket. It cost me £11.99. At the time, every aspect of this transaction seemed irresistible: the idea you could go into a supermarket to buy bananas and toilet paper and fulfil your wardrobe needs. That you could buy a gingham summer dress for £11.99, and that you could leave a supermarket with toilet paper, bananas and a gingham summer dress and still not have broken a twenty.

I get a little overexcited in supermarkets.

The problem, though, is by the time you get home and have calmed down a little, you realize you’ve spent £11.99 on a garment that looks like it cost £11.99.

I’ve got to stop buying supermarket dresses.

As a result, the gingham-dress-I’m-still-not-sure-about has been demoted to what I wear when I’m home alone and noodling around on my desktop Mac, which is what I was doing a couple of nights ago when I received a very creepy piece of spam:

A sex blackmail email.

The email said that unless I transferred £700, in Bitcoins no less, to a certain URL account, my history as a frequenter of porn sites, along with webcam videos of my, well, sex romps would be posted all over social media.

Who knew I led such an exciting, sordid life?

Or that I was so technologically adept? I can barely connect to Facetime, let alone interact with a porn site.

The next day, a second sex blackmail email came in, this one demanding £7,000.

It was turning into a bidding war.

Irrationally – because this is probably the time to point out there are in fact no sex tapes and no sleazy browsing history — I couldn’t help but feel a little surge of pride, as in, Hot stuff! I’m going up in value.

The tone of both emails was a combination of leering and menacing. Leering in that I was complemented on my taste in erotica. Menacing because an old password of mine was cited with the suggestion of access to others. The message was so targeted, so familiar and chatty that I had to stop and take a few seconds to think, probe the recesses of my mind. Did I do this? Did I actually go to some seedy site one winter night and then forget about it?  Had I brain blocked a whole series of Internet porn sessions?


Hand on heart, eyes on Safari history, I can say there is no truth to these allegations.

But it did get me thinking about issues of supply and demand. This kind of blackmail spam is created and disseminated on the back of technologically sophisticated, research-based algorithms. The sender undoubtedly has a mine of information about me – old passwords, contacts, Facebook activity. This means he/she/it has to have some idea of when I was born, must know I’m not a kid, but, rather, une femme d’un certain age.

Which in turn made me think if they’re targeting meaccusing me of having made sex tapes they’re threatening to put out there, then they must think someone out there wants to watch this stuff; that there are viewers interested in the sex antics of what I’ll call an age-inappropriate performer.

In other words, according to my blackmailer – and who better than a blackmailer to know what’s selling — there’s a potential new audience out there: an untapped market for an as yet untapped pool of talent.

I’m talking Elder Porn.

I’m saying the time is right for us middle-aged-plus members of the baby boomer generation to barge our way into the adult entertainment industry and make it our own.

I have a few ideas.

For example, in an Elder Porn movie, typical porn movie dialogue (not that I’m entirely sure what constitutes typical porn movie dialogue because, as I can’t stress enough, I don’t frequent porn sites) could be punctuated with exclamations like, Ow, ow, my back, and Hang on, my knee’s giving out, culminating, at a key point in the action, with the impassioned cry of, Hey! Are you asleep?

We could even throw in a couple of supermarket scenes, episodes of overexcitement in the leisurewear aisle.

Obviously, there’s a lot to work out, but before I start the process of Elder Porn crowd funding, I want to thank my blackmailers for nudging me into a whole new career direction. No doubt they’ll be the first to demand residuals when my inaugural feature, Pension Babes, breaks all box office records.

rusty foot 2

…was a thick bandage on my foot.


What happened is I dropped a wooden board that had a rusty nail sticking out of it and the rusty nail landed between my toes, paring off the flesh the way a grater goes through cheese.

The reason I dropped the board, a two by four with a rusty nail sticking out of it, was because there’s a lot of competition for parking on my street. I live in one of those urban areas where there are an unaccountable number of hearty, oversized vehicles – Range Rovers and Cherokee Jeeps — as if my neighbours face a daily commute through the Himalayas instead of a weekly shop at the local Superstore.

On a practical level this means you have to be proactive if you want to bag a parking spot.  Which is what I’d been doing for several days, blocking off space on the street in front of my house so my builder, who was renovating the bathroom, would have enough space for his pickup truck. I created a barricade with stuff I had lying around — the wheelie bin, a couple of broken garden chairs, a length of rope I found in the bike shed and the two by fours the builder had already ripped out of the bathroom.

Every evening I set it up, every morning the builder dismantled it, every evening I reinstated it … and so on until by the third day my barricade, which had two by fours propped up against the wheelie bin like a post-apocalyptic tepee and frayed rope snaking through the garden chairs, had assumed the status of an art installation.

changeable art installation.

I was so taken with this idea that I forgot about the rusty nail factor and, inevitably, while lovingly reconstructing the exhibit one evening, I dropped one of the boards.

Just as inevitably, I was wearing sandals.

It was one of those accidents that seem to happen in slow motion. I watched the board fall, the rusty nail heading right for my foot, and I had enough time to think, simultaneously, O, no, along with, Let’s see how much damage this does.

 There was an amazing amount of blood but, oddly, no pain.

I think that was due to shock, which explains my next move, which was to go into the house, take the bottle of Grey Goose off the top shelf of the liquor cabinet and pour half a litre of pricey vodka over my toes.

This was instead of going into the kitchen and using the antiseptic spray that lives in the first aid kit.

I then wrapped half a roll of toilet paper around my foot and called the doctor.

Again, I was in shock, operating on autopilot. I wasn’t thinking.

The great thing was, I didn’t have to think.

I didn’t have to think twice about calling the doctor.

I didn’t have to stop to think if my insurance would cover the cost of a visit to her office.

I didn’t have to stand there with blood seeping through half a roll of toilet paper while I tried to remember my deductible in order to subtract it from the cost of a tetanus shot, sutures and a course of antibiotics.

Basically, I did not have to think about whether I could afford to get better.

This is because I live in Britain and in Britain we have the National Health Service, which provides free health care for every resident of the country, from birth to death. Correction: from conception til death.

And if you’re under 18, over 60 or pregnant, your prescriptions are free as well. Everyone else pays a nominal fee.

 I love the NHS.

It’s not glamorous. It’s not profitable.The doctors who are a part of it don’t make the kind of money they would in America, not even the surgeons. And it’s certainly not perfect. There are long waits for non-urgent care — hip replacements come to mind — and every few months the papers run photos of hospital corridors lined with rows of untreated patients lying on gurneys, their feet sticking out from under those cheap waffle-weave blankets.

Nonetheless – and this is a huge nonetheless — if you have a heart attack or cancer or if your kid comes down with an unexplained rash or if you’re goofy enough to get a rusty nail through your foot while fantasizing about a performance art career, the NHS will clasp you to its vast, overworked bosom.

Free of charge.

Whatever neighbourhood you live in.

 Admittedly, it’s not exactly free in that the cost of the service comes out of our taxes, which are not inconsiderable. Every year, X amount of tax revenue is allocated to the nation’s Social Care Budget and every year the medical professionals try to get an increase to the Social Care Budget and every year the government tries to block that increase to the Social Care Budget.

It’s an on-going, almost ritualistic tug of war, but what matters is that while they may argue about the amount of money required to maintain national health care, the starting point for that argument, the premise, is the indisputable existence of a national health care service and a budget to cover the cost. It’s a fundamental, a spending priority up there with defence, education and highway maintenance.

This strikes me as nothing more than common sense.

The physical wellbeing of a country’s citizenry is essential to that country’s wellbeing.

A healthy populace means a healthy work force. Government backed health care means employers don’t have to cough up for insurance  (although many do offer private coverage) and self-employed types along with the unemployed don’t have to take out a bank loan or sell a kidney if their child needs an appendectomy.

I still get homesick for America, still have days when I can’t believe how much I miss certain people and places. And then I think about the time I was visiting my parents in New York and realized I’d forgotten to pack my Epi-Pen – the adrenalin shot I’m supposed to jab into my thigh to stop myself from dying if I accidentally eat shellfish, to which I’m deadly allergic. My parents’ doctor was great about it. He wrote me a new prescription, free of charge, and I took myself off to the pharmacy to have it filled.

Six hundred dollars.

That’s what it cost me: $600 for a plastic syringe containing .3ml of adrenalin — the equivalent of 0.0105585 ounces.

Six hundred dollars is a good antidote to homesickness.

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.