Thursday, August 28, 2008


The other day, I took my three children round to a friend' s house for a play and lunch. We settled into her enormous kitchen alongside her four children and two of their friends to mould clay pots and paint small statuettes with immense concentration. At a certain point, my two-year-old announced that she needed the loo. My friend's house is magnificent, her downstairs toilet tucked into a large cloakroom with a smooth stone floor where the family leave their boots and shoes.

My book. My best, first and probably only book, was lying next to the toilet, on top of two gardening books and opposite a glossy celebrity magazine boasting the diet tips of the famous (which presumably includes the startling information they do not eat very much). I was not entirely sure how I felt about my book ending up in the toilet. On one hand, it is well situated as most guests are likely to use the loo, may glance through the book and decide to buy their own copy rather than miss the second course of dinner. On the other hand, cor blimey. “My Book” - which took me the best part of a year to write and in which I have laid bare my soul - is in the toilet. My seven-year-old and five-year-old sons were nonplussed when they went in later to wash their hands of grey clay gloves. My seven-year-old said protectively: “Mummy your book is in the toilet. Why are they keeping it in the toilet?” I smiled brightly, pressing down the plunger on the rose pink liquid soap and said: “So that everyone can see it before they leave darling.”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Picture This

When I was a television producer, the cameraman I worked alongside, swore blind that I attracted life’s eccentrics. He believed I used a silent whistle. We would draw in to park, the cameraman would wind down his window and call out: “Where should we park mate?”. A uniformed, bespectacled attendant would ease himself out of his sentry-box, waddle over to our car, grab for an airguitar and start singing “Only the Lonely”. The super trooper off, he would explain: “I love Roy Orbison, I do. That last bay over on the right.” My cameraman would turn to me and say: “This only ever happens when I’m with you.”

I thought of him the other day. I was sitting with my laptop at a café table in York, having taken refuge from the rain, and attempting to pull together a guest column for The Times when an elderly man called me over to him. He said: “You there! Would you like to buy a picture?” The man was tall and stooped, wearing a dark raincoat and holding a sheaf of paper in his hands. As I walked across to him, he said; “Would you like one of these?” He looked down at the papers clutched in his hand . I said: “Why I’d love one.” He handed me a cheap piece of A4 paper with some ceremony. He had used the side of an orange wax crayon and then a black one in arcs that spread out from the middle of the page. My five-year-old does similar work. He said; “I sell them for charity.” I said: “Do you? Well that’s great. Let me go get some money for you.” I went back to my table and dug out a £20 note. A ridiculously extravagant amount of money for a crayon scrawl. He obviously thought the same. He took the money and said “Here have this one” and handed me another - this one in blue and orange. “And take this.” The last one was a stamp of a dog or a horse in spotted mustard yellow paint.” I said: “Well thank-you. I will treasure them.” He gave me a small, dignified nod and shuffled out of the door, back into the damp Northern day. The maitre d’ came over. He said: “He’s the half-cousin of the late Queen Mother would you believe?.” I looked down at the pictures. In the bottom right hand corner the noble painter had scrawled his name “The Lord …” and an indecipherable address.

He told me this peer of the realm had spent years in a psychiatric hospital and now lives in sheltered accommodation with a warden. He said his pictures hung all over the city. Any money he got for them he immediately handed over to volunteers in one of the charity shops near the cathedral. The café gave him coffee and a place to sit. The plump and pleasant maitre d’ shook his head regretfully. He said: “Some people don’t want him around but he does no harm, and he is always so grateful for anything you do for him, always apologising.” A Countess would take him for lunch the following week.

I have always believed that on one page, there are characters living normal humdrum lives in sensible, grammatically correct sentences. Turn the page - the spelling grows confused, syntax shameful and lines runs off into oblivion, all meaning lost. On a vacation in South Africa, we lay in our hot bedroom in the grounds of a country club. All I could hear was a woman calling a man’s name, over and over. Then calling: “Come back to me. Come back.” Then the name again and again. It went on. I dragged on some clothes and my husband groaned in the darkness as I went out.

I could see a woman at the door of a neighbouring cottage. Overalled staff were edging the deep shadows of the garden, watching her, troubled by her trouble, reluctant to become part of it. It was almost midnight. I said: “What is it? What’s happened? Are you alright?” I walked up the path to her cottage. She was hanging over the bottom half of the stable door to better broadcast her woes. You could see in to the lit-up bedroom; a wheelchair, folded and tipped, against the wall. She had a top on and underwear; elderly white legs bare and shocking. She named the man again. “I want him back. I want him back.” I caught a vague breath of alcohol. “Let’s sort you out,” I said and she tottered away from the door, leaning on the wall to cross to the bed. I picked up her skirt and helped her into it. “Let’s make you decent,” I said. “We’ll find him for you. Where is it you think he has gone?”

At that moment, an elderly bearded man scurried into the room. Her husband. She gripped my arm. Now he was back, she was not at all sure she wanted him. The whites of her eyes were a watery greyish pink, the blue irises cloudy with confusion. “He’s a terrible man. Don’t go. He hits me. He hits me,” she told me urgently. Her husband was not happy with her but I thought: “He looks like he would fall over if he hit anyone.” Staff had fetched him from the bar. I said; “We will make you a cup of tea and then you will feel better. Would you like that? A cup of tea?” I am British. She was Irish. The situation demanded tea.

I said: “I have the children next door asleep, let me go tell my husband where I am and I will get some fresh milk for your tea.” When I came back, she was calmer; her husband had made her the tea. The couple were staying at the club while their house was being renovated; the housekeeper who helped him care for her had stayed behind to supervise the builders. He shook his head, his shoulders bowed. He said: “I thought this would make a nice change for her, a rest.” They had eaten dinner with their daughter; he had put her to bed and gone back to the bar to pay the bill. She was once a consultant in an African hospital but had caught Legionnaire’s Disease from the air conditioning, then scepticaemia. He said doctors were still trying to understand what was happening with her. He boasted sadly: “She was brilliant - a consultant.” I stroked her cheek gently. I said: “I will see you tomorrow? I will look in on you tomorrow.” She swallowed a mouthful of tea. “Yes, that would be nice,” she rested her cup in the saucer and I slipped slowly and entirely from her mind.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Dear Wifey,
Holiday season so far slightly disastrous. A week in France. Hmm, well, on the upside there was one day when nobody vomitted or wept courtesy of strange viral headache. So that was good. Seven-year-old's vomitting into tupperware box (luckily we had a lid) so extreme we were forced to divert into Accident and Emergency en route home. Finally arrived back in Northumberland on Sunday night, only to come down with bug myself Monday. That marks the end of holidays abroad until the children are teenagers and refuse to go with us anyway.

Week back working including pre-recorded appearance on the Steve Wright In the Afternoon Show. Steve Wright was very nice. Think I may have seemed utterly scatty on account of being in the grip of a protracted spell of insomnia. Arrived at London hotel around 1am, got to bed at 2am, got to sleep at 5am, woken up by hotel fire alarm 7.30am. Consequently so zombied out, I had to drink entire pot of tea with hotel breakfast then staggered into a cafe for a double espresso and a cappuccino chaser, followed by a BBC black coffee. This was not a good move. I pogo'd into a place where I completely lost my short-term memory. That is to say I would answer a question and, seconds later, be entirely unable to remember both my answer and the question itself. Later, over lunch in a dark Soho basement with my agent, he said "Pass me that bottle of water", pointing at a bottle of water slumped on the bench between me and the man sitting next to me. I shook my head slightly and said to my agent: "That's his water." I thought: "Why would you want to drink a stranger's water?" My agent said: "It's our bottle of water." I said: "It's his water." He said slowly: "It arrived on the table at the start of the meal and you put it on the bench. Can't you remember doing that? I am so not buying you any more coffee." That was the point I started worrying about what I might have said during the interview (time code o2:39ish on Wednesday, 13th).

Third week then - a wet week in Yorkshire. Despite various media attempts to paint me as a Cockney sparrow, I was born and bred in inner-city Leeds. When I was growing up, we would take the Jack Russell for a walk in the countrypark at the top of the hill, and whirl him round and round as he hung by his teeth from a slavery yellow rubber ball. Why would we drive to the Dales or the Moors? It was never thought of - watching Emmerdale was as close as we got. Now I am all grown-up, I thought: "I know we will go to Yorkshire for a holiday." I do not find staying in a hotel or holiday cottage with three children entirely stress-free so we decided instead to swap houses with friends. It is quite strange living in someone else's family home. It is as if you have woken up in someone else's life. Someone who has travelled more than we have (lots of mementoes from far away places), someone who is more musical than we are (three guitars and an electric piano), someone who doesn't watch as much TV as we do (no Sky). I thought: "Next time we do this, I am laying a false trail. I am hiding the widescreen TV and leaving lots of really heavyweight books on the state of the economy lying around the house. I am buying in health food that needs to be sprouted, and leaving a sex diary out in black leatherette all marked up with red asterisks and acronyms." That is, if I ever go away again, of course. I think I would have been more relaxed had my insomnia still not been so bad. My husband has started to complain that at the point I wake up (which tends to be around 1.30 to 2am), I have started beating a tattoo on his head (till I go back to sleep about three hours later). I do not mean to beat a tattoo, I am merely thinking about everything I have to do and occasionally I gesticulate. I need to turn off the narrative, but I wake up and the voice starts. Not voices. I do not hear voices. Just one voice - my own, talking about what it is I should be doing or have been doing or have entirely forgotten to do. I am incredibly dull company and outrageously persistent as dull company often proves to be.
best wishes