Thursday, 31 December 2009

However you care to say it, the sentiment’s the same.

 Gëzuar vitin e ri
 عام سعيد
urte berri on
новым годам
честита нова година
šťastný nový rok
Onnellista uutta vuotta
 שנה טובה
Шинэ жилийн баярын мэнд хvргэе
wênd na kô-d yuum-songo
سال نو مبارک
feliz año Nuevo
blwyddyn newydd dda
Happy New Year!

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Kenwood House (Revised October 2011)

One of the most intriguing denizens of Kenwood House was Dido Elizabeth Belle. She is thought to have been the natural daughter of John Lindsay, nephew to Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. Dido was brought up at Kenwood in the 18th century and was certainly regarded as a close member of the family’s inner circle whatever her true origins.

By rights, at this stage, I should declare that the ghost of Kenwood is none other than Dido Elizabeth Belle. Not that I have any idea who or what caused the door to slam fast. Nevertheless, convention dictates that a stately home should not only have a ghost, but that the ghost should be identified with a specific former resident. Sutton House's“blue lady,” for example, is said to be the shade of the eighteenth century Huguenot Mary Tooke. Southside House in Wimbledon does not lay claim to any ghost, although modern guides said the family designated one room as being a former royal bedroom, as they believed their house would be given short shrift by visitors if they could not produce evidence of some regal connection. Claims have been made that Anne Boleyn’s headless ghost, has been seen at her place of execution,the Tower of London. I would be fascinated to know how such witnesses could ascertain that it was Anne’s ghost and not that of her cousin, Catherine Howard or her sister- in-law Jane Rochford, the latter following Catherine to the block for her involvement in Catherine’s adulterous liaison with Thomas Culpepper. It might even be the ghost of yet another Tudor Queen, Lady Jane Grey. If the shade of Dido Elizabeth Belle were to be seen at Kenwood House, it is unlikely she would be mistaken for anyone else, as Dido, named after the legendary North African Queen, had inherited the dark skin of her mother Maria Belle, a black Jamaican woman.

The exact circumstances as to how Dido’s father and mother met are unclear. What is known is that the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield decided to raise both Dido and her similarly motherless cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, together at Kenwood. What is so extraordinary about Dido’s personal history is that at the very time she was being brought up as a young gentlewoman at Kenwood House, her great uncle, in his capacity of Lord Chief Justice was ruling on cases affecting the legitimacy of the whole slave trade. Thus, when Dido was 11 years old, he ruled that slave owners could not remove their slaves from England by force. This did not of course mean that slavery in the colonies was abolished but it did give a strong boost to the abolitionist cause. There are some, even today, who hold the pernicious fiction that slavery was never legal in this country. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield would have begged to disagree. At a special exhibition on slavery held at Kenwood House in 2007, Lord Mansfield’s original will was on display, in which, as well as leaving her a bequest, Lord Mansfield wrote “I assert to Dido her freedom.” If Dido Belle, from such a privileged background was not free from the threat of enslavement, how much more so was the average hapless African in this country?

Dido’s unusual status was reflected by how she was treated when important visitors came to the house. When Thomas Hutchinson, the former Governor of Massachusetts dined with Lord Mansfield in 1779, he was shocked to the core when Dido “a black” as he dismissively described her, joined them all after dinner and later went off in to the garden, arm-in-arm with one of the young ladies present How did Dido feel to be shunted away whilst the others dined and was she allowed to sup with the family in private or did she always take her meals alone in her room? Regrettably, any personal diaries or papers she might have written containing her thoughts on her remarkable life have not survived.

Having nursed Lord Mansfield in his final illness, it used to be claimed that Dido then married a “sprig of the Scottish nobility.” The exhibition revealed that Dido actually took for her husband a certain John Daviniere, a Frenchman, who was employed as a gentleman’s steward. Dido went on to have three sons of her own. Her married life would not have been as affluent as the one she had known at Kenwood, but as an illegitimate child, let alone the daughter of a black mother, she would never have expected to make a grand match on the scale of Lady Elizabeth Murray, the cousin she grew up with and with whom she is depicted in a double portrait, painted on the terrace at Kenwood and now on display at Scone Palace in Scotland.

There is a final ironic twist to Dido’s tale. Her last known descendant died in South Africa in 1975. Under the rigid apartheid system of the time, he was classified as being white and therefore enjoyed all the privileges denied to the likes of his ancestress and Dido’s own black African mother.

(Since writing this  post I have done some further research into the life of Dido Belle and reached some rather different conclusions from my original analysis). 

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A dedicated follower of fashion.

I never willingly forgo an opportunity to visit my beloved Kenwood House and Christmas was no exception. Thus, I offered to act as navigator to a friend’s aunt, as the latter wanted to buy a present from the English Heritage shop located within the house itself. As her husband was waiting patiently in their car outside to drive us back again, our time was extremely limited. The shop is to be found within one of my favourite rooms, just off the main entrance hall. With its cream ceramic stoves at each end and Georgian windows, I have always been partial to that room. It would make a delightful drawing room and I can imagine keeping myself warm and cosy by the ceramic stoves in wintertime. I also had a quick peek at the Music Room, the Orangery, where another temporary shop had been set up, and finally one of the principal staircases, known as the Deal staircase. Fortunately, I was able to return by myself the following day and could wander around at leisure.

Inside the shop I examined the ceramic stoves more closely and realised they had marble or stone mantle-pieces. The vestibule contained a number of Georgian paintings including several by Francois Boucher.  I generally find his work far too sentimental for my own tastes. However, he did paint several images of his illustrious patron, Madame de Pompadour, one of which is housed at the Wallace Collection, where I was able to purchase a fridge magnet based on this picture.

The Music Room at Kenwood contained a harp. I wondered whether the harpist Marisa Robles had played on it when I attended a concert of hers at the house, infamous in my memory for the fact that my alarm clock had inadvertently gone off during her recital. (Head in the Cloudberries, 21st December 2009) I noticed a portrait of my erstwhile neighbour Emma Hamilton, looking suitably angelic as she posed as if at prayers. With her compliant husband Sir William Hamilton and her lover, Horatio Nelson forming a ménage à trois, Emma was not renowned for leading a saintly life of quiet contemplation. The housekeeper’s room is immediately adjacent to the Orangery, followed in sequence by Lady Mansfield’s Dressing Room, the Breakfast Room and Lord Mansfield’s own Dressing Room. With the exception of the Library just beyond Lord Mansfield’s Dressing Room, none of the rooms are furnished as they might have looked during the house’s heyday. Instead, the public rooms now serve as a grand setting for the house’s collection of Fine Art. Major works by artists such as Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Vermeer, Rubens and Gainsborough grace the walls. The Library retains its original 18th century frescos, based on classical wall paintings found at Pompeii. The circular small hall leading to the dining room, has a floor covering made of painted and varnished sail cloth, an early precursor to linoleum.

The Deal Staircase, named after its softwood origins, leads to a small room housing a collection of miniatures, belt buckles and jewellery. Gratifying though it must be to have future generations gaze upon your likeliness, I wonder if some of the sitters would have been quite so pleased to discover that their names have been lost in time. In Ancient Egypt, your enemies might well contrive to obliterate all trace of your name after death and thereby consign you to certain oblivion.

I have always assumed that the miniatures’ room once served as a bedroom. It contains what I believe to be an original built-in wardrobe and a simple marble fireplace. In my fantasy world it would serve as my bedroom, with the shop acting as my drawing room. Rather than the Deal staircase, I would prefer the other staircase leading off from the main entrance hall. This second staircase has elegant ironwork balustrades. It is usually closed to the pubic, but at one time you could walk up it to view the Suffolk Collection. In addition to the Jacobean and Stuart pictures, it was in the upper rooms that I witnessed the ghostly manifestations. (The Stately Ghosts of England, 19th October 2009)
“This time, open the door!“ I urged silently but to no avail. Had the ghost managed to open a locked door, it would have been far more impressive than simply slamming an open one shut.

For anyone interested in the elaborate and extravagant court costume from predominantly the 17th century, the collection is an absolute joy. I once asked a costumed guide at Ham House, who wore a gown based on late 17th century designs, how on earth she kept it clean without resorting to the exorbitant cost of dry cleaning: Fuller’s earth, came the reply.  I related this tale to a woman dressed in Tudor costume at Hampton Court palace. She explained that because of the extensive undergarments that high status men and women would have worn, it was the body linen that was likely to get grubby and these could be readily washed by hand. The foremost Regency dandy Beau Brummell, who had lived in a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court as a child, would not have approved of how the men in the Suffolk Collection were dressed. Their colourful and flamboyant clothes, though highly fashionable for their period, were the antithesis of his own highly refined opinion as to how a gentleman should dress himself. Richard Sackville 

Several portraits from the Suffolk Collection made a particularly strong impression on me:
  • The double portraits of Anne and Diana Cecil, two Jacobean sisters, dressed in identical elaborate gowns. Disconcertingly, they appear to be adult but in fact were only 12 years old when their portraits were painted. Anne Cecil Diana Cecil
  • Catherine Sedley, made Countess of Dorchester by her lover, King James II. Theorising as to why she had caught the Sovereign’s eye, Catherine famously declared: "It cannot be my beauty for he must see I have none, and it cannot be my wit, for he has not enough to know I have any."Catherine Sedley 
  • Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Banbury, whose sons and heirs from her first aristocratic marriage were said to have been sired by her second husband.Elizabeth Howard
  • Silks gowns slashed to show the costly undergarments underneath. Far less offensive in my view than the present day affectation of the wealthy to sport artfully placed rips and tears in their denim.
  • The charming portrait of the three eldest children of Charles I painted in their early childhood.  Eldest children of Charles I
  • Catherine of Braganza, the barren queen of King Charles II. Like her namesake, Catherine Sedley, the Queen was not blessed with great beauty. I sometimes wish someone had taken Catherine and Anne of Cleves in hand before they arrived at the English court, where their looks and fashions were much mocked. Still, Catherine grew to love her philandering husband, who steadfastly rejected the urgings of his ministers to divorce her and Anne of Cleves had perhaps the happiest fate of all Henry VIII’s wives, being granted a handsome divorce settlement  and out-living him to boot.Catherine of Braganza
  • The John Singer Sargent portrait of the American heiress, Margaret Hyde, who married into English aristocracy. Looking at her portrait, I thought Margaret came across as somewhat shy and vulnerable. I have since discovered she was as tough as old boots! Her father was the fabulously wealthy Levi Zeigler Leiter, one of the founders of the famed Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago. When Leiter died in 1904, the intricacies of his will were such that his children spent 8 years battling one another in court, with Margaret, now Countess of Suffolk, attempting to remove her brother Joseph from his role as executor of her father’s will. It came out in the court papers of the time that her brother had once bought FIFTY pairs of silk socks. I m not sure whether Beau Brummell would have approved. As for the gentlemen of the Suffolk Collection, they would have speculated as to why he had stopped at a mere fifty. 
  • Margaret Hyde

Monday, 28 December 2009

Sic transit gloria mundi

At a drinks’ party over Christmas I found myself engaged in earnest conversation with a young Japanese woman. I told her about the article I had published in the Guardian newspaper and she asked how she could access it on-line. I decided the simplest thing to do was to accompany her to the hosts’ study and use their pc to enter my name into google and then e-mail her the article from the Guardian web-site. That was when I discovered that for a few glorious weeks my article had been ranked within the top ten most viewed items on the Guardian’s Life and Style section. I was rather smug when I realised that not only was my piece the oldest published top ten article as at 23rd December 2009, I had also beat off fierce competition from the likes of the actress Natascha McElhone, David Essex the erstwhile popstar who, had been the heartthrob of choice of many a female friend in their teenage years and the actor Nicolas Cage. Since December 24th my popularity has been eclipsed by items relating to the festive season. Echoing Ebenezer Scrooge on the subject of Christmas: Bah, humbug!Guardian Weekend

Thursday, 24 December 2009

God Rest Ye Merry Readers!

The Ghost of Christmas stockings

I have usually bought all my Christmas presents by early December. In fact, I had them ready wrapped in my flat on the night of the fire. Fortunately, they all escaped the conflagration unscathed; although I think I would have been forgiven if I had not handed out tokens of my esteem for once. Perhaps the saddest story from this festive season concerns the late Joyce Vincent, who died at the age of 40. Shockingly, her body lay undiscovered for two years. She was found propped up on her sofa, surrounded by the unwrapped Christmas presents she had bought for others. Yet no-one had thought to investigate her disappearance.

A Christmas present I treasure is a small terracotta ring box, edged with tapestry and fastened with a silken cord. It is not the kind of object I would normally have chosen for myself, but I cherish it because it was given to me by a close friend, who died a few weeks later. I can be quite sentimental over gifts. Nevertheless, even I am not so soppy as to wax nostalgic over the hastily cobbled together present of a tin of talcum powder, the desperate donor having rummaged around in her bathroom at the last moment to find something to give me. I have not been averse to recycling my own ornaments from time to time. Thus, I gave my copy of an ancient Egyptian cat to the niece of a friend, after I had run out of both ideas and money.

Occasionally a present causes raised eyebrows. A colleague realised that that her line manager was becoming somewhat unhinged when he gave her a book on how to apply make-up. His increasingly erratic behaviour prompted me to promise my friend I would confront him about it in his office, which I proceeded to do but with some misgivings, as I feared I might be sabotaging my career. I did not need a vindictive and love-sick senior manager on my hands. He listened to me in silence, all the while playing with an alarmingly sharp letter opener, which did little to put me at ease. Eventually he conceded that his behaviour had been at fault. It seemed he was having some kind of nervous breakdown. He wanted to know if he could speak to my mother in her professional capacity as a psychotherapist. I told him that my mother would only take on patients referred to her by their own doctors. Even if she had been able to accept him as a patient, I would never have countenanced it. Goodness knows what she would have asked him about me! Instead, I persuaded him to seek help and support from his own doctor and also from his wife. To his surprise his spouse was wholly accepting of the situation. She was simply relieved he had finally unburdened himself as she had long suspected that something was wrong.

I try to buy presents which either reflects the recipients’ personality or else those I wouldn’t mind having myself. Accordingly, certain putative presents never leave my house, such as the Victorian drawing of a young woman dating from 1872 and still in its original frame. Sometimes, great minds think alike with disastrous consequences. One woman ended up being given three copies of the same best selling book and I would have added to her tally, if I had not taken the precaution of prudently having a second present in reserve for just such an eventuality. Consequently, I prefer to scour second hand bookstores and discount book shops, making hard backs eminently affordable. After the fire, an insurer told me I ought to claim on my collection of paperbacks, as they had been badly damaged. In reality, they had been damaged by virtue of being poorly constructed; the pages glued on rather than stitched into the spine and printed on inferior quality paper, which quickly yellowed with age. In the British Library I once handled a copy of William Caxton’s Golden Legend printed in 1483. In terms of quality of manufacture, my recent paperbacks looked as if they were far older than the still pristine Caxton.

When the Queen receives presents in her capacity as Head of State, they are carefully logged and then stored. The next time the visitor comes a-calling, they are whisked back out of storage and given temporary pride of place. One winter I gave my mother a carved red lacquer Chinese box from Liberty’s. I adored that shop and spent most lunch hours there when I worked nearby and many the present I sourced from their Oriental Basement. Some months later, a relative visiting from Finland, enthused over a marvellous red lacquer box she had admired in my mother’s house and was subsequently given. I rang my mother that evening and asked her about the carved box.
“Oh that was just a piece of junk I was going to chuck out anyway,” my mother said blithely.
“I gave you that for Christmas!|” I replied indignantly.
Henceforth, I vowed only to give my mother flowers or chocolates. After all, it’s the thought that counts!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Ghost of Christmas presents.

This is an e-Christmas card I designed for friends in the past.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Perhaps because I don’t have family of my own, I find myself whiling away many an hour researching local history. It gives me a real sense of connection to an area that is not dependent on mere family roots. When I lived in North London as a child, I became fascinated by the Dudley family, who resided at the old manor house in Stoke Newington during the sixteenth century. They were kinsfolk of Robert Dudley, perennial favourite of Elizabeth Tudor, and were once graced by a visit from the Queen herself, leading to an exchange of costly presents in the form of fine jewels. After her husband died, the widow of John Dudley went on to marry one Thomas Sutton, the founder of Charterhouse public school. The manor house, which the widow inherited from John Dudley, has long since been demolished. However, only a few miles away there is a comparable Tudor mansion still standing. It was erroneously re-named after the widow’s second husband, Thomas Sutton.

Sutton House was actually built by Sir Ralph Sadlier. This courtier‘s career survived the downfall of his patron, Thomas Cromwell, after the debacle of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Sir Ralph himself was led off to the Tower in chains. Somehow, he managed to inveigle his way back into Henry’s favour and enjoyed continued royal patronage under Henry’s son, Edward, and younger daughter, Elizabeth. Being Protestant, Ralph discreetly retired from court during the reign of the Catholic Mary but returned to public office when Elizabeth Tudor came to the throne. He was still active in state affairs well into his 80s and was one of the judges at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. I shall describe anon my recent visit to Sutton House, along with how Sir Ralph dealt with the shocking discovery that his wife, and the mother of his children, unwittingly became a bigamist upon her marriage to him.
Sutton House
For many years Sutton House was not open to the general public. Regrettably, the same held true for the Tudor parish church of St Mary’s at Stoke Newington. As an adult, I achieved my childhood dream of being allowed inside both buildings. The ancient church graveyard was always accessible to me. The odd thing is I never noticed one particular inscription until after my own house fire.  According to the account written on her family tomb, the unfortunate Elizabeth Pickett died on 11th December 1781 "in consequence of her cloaths taking fire the preceding evening. Reader, if ever you should witness such an afflicting scene, recollect, that the only method to extinguish the flame is to stisle it by an immediate covering."

In recent years, my dilettante researches into local history have led me to discover that the renowned children’s artist, May Gibbs, spent Christmas 1904 with her relatives in the house next door to mine. I used this as part of my speech in support of the redevelopment of the site. Then in her 20s, May Gibbs produced a series of comic vignettes of her holiday there, including the cartoon of the cook, proudly bearing aloft the hot steamed Christmas pudding adorned with a single sprig of holly. May’s life and work are commemorated in the May Gibbs museum dedicated to her at her former family home of Nutcote in Sydney, Australia

Christmas 1541 must have been a very grim one for the young Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII. Her alleged lovers had been executed on 10th December and she was awaiting news of her own fate whilst shut away in Syon House. I wonder what Sir Ralph Sadlier thought of her fall from grace, since it was her rise to power which had sealed the downfall of Thomas Cromwell and nearly resulted in his own political and actual demise. In 1906, two years after May Gibbs celebrated Christmas at the house next door to me, the English novelist and poet Ford Maddox Ford published one of my favourite novels about the doomed life of Catherine Howard entitled: “The Fifth Queen”. Having studied the relevant census, I know that Ford Maddox Ford was born on the exact same street where I live now. I also firmly believe he was born in the very house May Gibbs spent such an enjoyable Christmas in, just a few decades later. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Highwaymen and highwaywomen.

I awoke in the early hours on Sunday morning. Ever since the fire, I have had a preternatural awareness of any emergency vehicles stopping outside my house late at night, even without their sirens blazing As John Donne wrote, “send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee. “  Just in case the sirens are ringing out for me, I always slip out of bed if I catch sight of flashing lights reflected onto my bedroom ceiling and make my way over to the window.

I could see two stationary ambulances immediately across the way and a police van parked on my side of the road, but no one in or around them. It was a relief that there were no fire engines. In addition to my own house fire, (Fire,24th October 2009 ) there had been several others in the vicinity over the years, although presumably unconnected.

I began to speculate why there were two ambulances. When I had come to the aid of the foolish young man who had attacked his girlfriend and then tried to kill himself (Crash, 19th October 2009) two ambulances appeared on the scene, as a result of one being summoned and the other being en-route to hospital with a patient in the back. My mind raced as to the possible scenarios which would involve two ambulances. Eventually someone stepped out from the back of one ambulance and shut the doors before climbing in the front and being driven off. Finally the police van and the other ambulance left as well, ending the drama for the night.

I never know the etiquette for dealing with such situations. Unless you have witnessed the incident or have summoned the emergency services, there seems little one can do. However, simply returning to bed when someone could be fighting for their life mere yards away seems somewhat callous.

I recall looking out of the window one afternoon and seeing that a double-decker bus had broken down. It was full of school children apparently staging a mini riot. I telephoned the police and would have remained within the safety of my forth storey look-out had I not spied some schoolgirls unfastening the petrol cap. Fearing they were going to try and set the bus alight, I hurried out into my front garden. I stood on the low wall and spoke to the girls over the railings. I had calculated that from my perch, I would have enough of a head start to beat a hasty retreat back into the house if things turned nasty.
“I would leave that petrol cap alone, if I were you, “I warned one girl in particular. “The police are on their way and if you have any sense you will leave whilst you still can.” The school girl heeded my advice.

On the same stretch of road but on a different day, another ne’er-do-well was not so fortunate. I had just stepped onto the pedestrian crossing with the lights in my favour when a car hurtled past me, causing me to leap to safety. A police car happened to be on the other side of the road. It did an abrupt u-turn and by the time I had crossed the road, they had stopped the other vehicle, forced the driver out and had him spread-eagled against his own car bonnet as they searched him.
“I hope they throw the book at him,” I thought with quiet satisfaction.

On another night, I awoke to find two police vans had flagged down a car containing several young black men, I watched as the police carefully searched the interior of the car and the boot. They found nothing and were obliged to let the young men continue their onwards journey in peace.

Other than the broken down school bus, I have only witnessed one street fight outside. Two men were having an argument one evening. The younger man would run up to the middle aged man, taunt him to his face and then run off again. He accused the older man of punching him in a local pub and stealing from him. The older man lived nearby. I wondered why he didn’t just walk into his own house or perhaps he didn’t want the younger man to know where he lived. The younger man did not seem to pose any real threat as he would hurry away each time the older man was within sparring distance. Gradually their fight left the confines of the narrow pavement as they recklessly weaved in and out of the moving traffic. I went downstairs and into the garden after I realised that the Couple and the Original Freeholder were already outside, eavesdropping on the police from their side of the garden fence. It transpired that the older guy was both deaf and unable to speak. I was even more indignant at his assailant’s use of Anglo-Saxon expletives relating to the female anatomy, as I knew there were young children within earshot.

The street fight had originated in a local pub. There had been a public house or inn on the same site for centuries. A small plaque commemorated the fact it had once been the haunt of highwaymen in the 17th and 18th centuries. Doubtless some former patrons once hung out at another notorious locality; namely the gibbet by the common where their tarred corpses swung from chains as a grisly warning to other such malefactors. It is strange how the passage of centuries has added a certain romance to such felons, whereas their modern counterparts evoke nothing but contempt.

Same Old New Year!

I rarely celebrate New Year. In my childhood, I invested the future with all the dreams that made the present palatable. Now I realise that the light at the end of the tunnel is that of an express train. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed some memorable New Year festivities in my time.

In my early childhood, I was allowed to stay up until midnight on 31st December. We would eat freshly cooked gammon and fruit salad with cream before settling down to watch the most popular Hogmanay television programme of the era: Andy Stewart and the White Heather Club.

As an adult my tastes were more sophisticated. One year a friend and I celebrated New Year’s Eve within the art deco splendour of the old Penguin Café in St Martin’s Lane. The restaurant was hosting a 1920s themed evening and guests were expected to dress accordingly.  I wore a heavily beaded flapper dress with a matching beaded stole (later ruined in the fire). The male guests all looked dapper in their formal dinner jackets and bow ties. It is a look which can make even the most homely of men look rather sexy in my eyes. The young men had slicked their hair down to make them look as if they were extras from the Great Gatsby. After we had dined, a pianist on the café’s grand piano, accompanied other musicians in playing jazz tunes, which we enthusiastically shimmied and danced the Charleston to until Midnight and beyond.

It was not just my beaded dress that was ruined by the fire. So was my friendship with the woman at the Penguin Café. She would frequently telephone me late at night to regale me with complaints about her on-off boyfriend. I listened patiently as she babbled away into the early hours. Then one evening, just after ten o’clock, I had occasion to telephone her with dramatic news of my own. I explained that an arsonist had set my house on fire and I had been trapped inside. I said I was very lucky to have been rescued in time and had been treated in hospital for smoke inhalation. (Fire! 24th October 2009)  The intensity of the fire was such that it would be months before I could move back into my flat again. When I finished she simply commented: “I’m tired and want to go to bed” and hung up on me.

A far more enduring friendship has been with Mandip. It was her idea to spend a Christmas and New Year in San Francisco. We stayed in the charming San Remo Hotel on Mason Street. It was built in 1906 in the Victorian style and the rooms furnished to reflect that era. There were no televisions, telephones or en-suite facilities in the bedrooms, perhaps because to accommodate the latter would have compromised the integrity of the period rooms. Sadly for Mandip they did not have period bell hops. I had warned her that I was merely going to be taking hand luggage with me and she should only take what she could reasonably carry by herself. She took a large suitcase which she then had to struggle to haul up the stairs to the first floor reception. I had learnt my lesson as a teenager. I travelled to Scandinavia with an equally large suitcase, only to realise that the vertiginous steps on continental trains were designed for those travelling light or with porters. Worse was to come at a Swedish seaport. As I stood at the top of the escalator, my luggage escaped my grip and the suitcase arrived at the bottom long before I did. It was fortunate that no-one else was on the escalator at the time. After that, I travelled with hand luggage on the basis that there were always laundry facilities of one sort or another to be found where ever you were and if there weren’t, then sartorial standards were unlikely to be of much importance.

We had arranged in advance to dine at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco on Christmas Day. As befitting Mandip’s choice it, it was all very glamorous, but I remember it chiefly for the fact that I lost my packet of birth control pills there and did not have the nerve to ring reception and ask if they had been handed in. Trying to book a table on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco proved far more formidable. We traipsed forlornly from restaurant to restaurant, being turned away from them all. It looked as if we would be spending New Year’s Eve holed up in our hotel room with only snacks from the local supermarket to sustain us. Miraculously, when we tried the very first restaurant in San Francisco that we had ever dined in, a cancellation suddenly came through. How smug we felt on New Year’s Eve as would-be diners appeared in the doorway begging for a spare table, only to be turned away.

On one New Year’s Eve, I found myself in conversation with the then chairman of a nationalised utility, a fact I was determined to make good use of back at work. One of my staff had expressed a mixture of surprise and condescension when she discovered that a friend of mine lived in council accommodation. Her attitude rankled on a number of levels. But I bided my time.
“Where did you say that your husband worked?” I asked her one day in passing.
She repeated the name of the nationalised industry.
“Does he know the chairman? Socially I mean.” I enquired guilelessly.
She said that he didn’t.
“How curious”, I said.” “I was at a private supper party with the chairman on New Year’s Eve.”
After that, my colleague never ever made disparaging remarks about the social standing of my friends.

Potentially, the most fraught New Year’s Eve of them all was in 1999. Not only was there the fear of mass disaster as the world’s computer systems were scheduled to crash, there was also the social ignominy of not having anywhere to go or, if you were hosting a party, not having any guests. I solved the problem by staying with relatives at their lakeside chalet in Finland. On the phone, they had told me they had carved out a hole in the ice on the frozen lake and I would be expected to clamber down into it. I thought they were joking. When I arrived in Finland, they solemnly lifted up a tarpaulin and showed me the hole carved into the ice by the iron ladder at the end of the jetty. Having viewed it, I was even more dubious about venturing down into it.
On New Year’s Eve we set off fireworks by the lakeside and drank champagne to celebrate the new century. Later, I was teased as to whether or not I was going to plunge into the icy water. Feeling that the British bulldog spirit was at stake, I said I would go that very night. A female relative joined me at the lakeside sauna. Unluckily for me the sauna had a small glass pane set in the wooden door and through which my relative could observe me as I walked out, clad only in a swimming costume and a pair of plimsolls on my feet, across the deep snow and along the jetty to the iron steps. Having removed my plimsolls, I climbed down. I toyed briefly with the idea of just crouching and pretending that my feet had touched the water but then I gingerly extended a toe.
“I shall probably have a heart attack when my feet touch the water,” I thought grimly. To my surprise the water was not as cold as I thought it would be and I waded in. When I triumphantly re-emerged out of the ice, I made the mistake of not slipping my plimsolls back on again and I walked back across the snow in my bare wet feet, something I would not recommend.

My dancing days and exploring the icy depths of frozen lakes at midnight are long behind me. I shall be fast asleep when we enter the second decade of the 21st century. May it bring us all better fortune than the last!

Friday, 18 December 2009

The Green Goddess

The UN Climate Change Summit ends today. Its goal is to prevent the planet’s temperature rising by a further, apparently catastrophic, 2 degrees centigrade. Looking out of my window, as the snow continues to fall, it sometimes seems as if we are entering a new ice-age. That was certainly the fear when I was young, after which there seemed to be years of sweltering summers. It always struck me as odd that office staff have a legal right to stop working if temperatures plunge below a certain level but the reverse does not hold true. I had to shift for myself in one overheated office, unlike the pampered computer mainframe, provided with its own air conditioning. The IT team was similarly privileged. They were not compelled to wear stifling formal business attire. One IT guy tested this freedom from sartorial norms to its limits by coming into work dressed in flip flops, singlets, shorts and nothing else.

I devised my own green solution to dealing with a baking hot office. As my legs were concealed behind a modesty panel and my back faced the window, on especially humid days, I would place a large plastic washing up bowl, filled with cold water, and a towel beside it under my desk. I would then settle down to work, whilst all the time secretly paddling my feet in the cool water. If I needed to leave my desk, I would whip my feet out of the bowl and quickly dry them on the towel before slipping into my discarded shoes, left within easy reach. That was in the days before members of staff had their own computers on their desk. Consequently, there was no risk of my accidentally electrocuting myself. Had I done so, it would have provided a permanent if somewhat drastic solution to feeling too hot.

In retrospect, my childhood carbon footprint seems very small by today’s standards. At home we grew most of our fruit and vegetables, such as apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, onions, tomatoes, peas, runner beans, potatoes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, swede, cauliflower, marrow, herbs and flowers for the house. Every year we would drive to the Tiptree fruit farms in Essex for the day and buy the fruit we harvested off the bushes. As a small child, it used to be a “family” joke that I ought to have been weighed before I started plucking fruit and then again afterwards, as more fruit found its way into my stomach than into my basket. Likewise bread, cakes and puddings were all home-made. I would go along to help choose the fabric and sewing patterns from the shops, which were then turned into dresses on the portable sewing machine, kept under the side board in its hard case when not in use. The adult women seemed as equally adept at knitting jumpers and cardigans as running up a dress on a sewing machine.  Knitting and needlework were not skills that ever came naturally to me. I remember having to knit a woollen square at school to form part of a blanket for refugees. Because of my complete inability to get to grips with tension, my square rapidly turned into a triangle and I gave up knitting as a lost cause.

In those more frugal times, you wore something until you outgrew it. There was no nonsense about jettisoning an item of clothing for no other reason than that that you were bored with it.  Even today I own and wear clothes I first bought decades ago and am more likely to replace clothes with vintage items from e-bay than from off the high street.

At school, instead of disposal pens we used styluses fashioned out of wood with a metal nib to write with. When I was an ink-monitor I had to fill all the ink-wells set in our wooden desks from a special bottle kept in the cupboard at the back of the classroom. To encourage our physical development, we were given small bottles of milk to drink in the morning break but no refrigerator to store them in. As a result, in the summer the milk went sour from the heat and in winter turned partially to ice.

We did have a family car, used mainly at weekends for jaunts to stately homes. We took sandwiches, salads, meat pies, cakes and flasks of hot tea with us, which were probably far better quality and cheaper than anything we could have purchased en-route. I walked to and from school and rode my bicycle to the park, riding fearlessly along the main road, with no thought as to protective helmets, which might well not have existed then.  When I was working in the North East a car was a necessity, owing to the limited public transport. Back in London I chose to forgo my company car which I could only use at weekends, in exchange for a car allowance. Nowadays, I get around by public transport or Shanks’s pony in the main. I still enjoying cooking and baking most of my food and this year progressed to making preserves. I have also become addicted to gardening  (A Growing Addiction, 21st October 2009) ) although at present I am going cold turkey, there being little else to do but sweep up the leaves and place them on the compost heap during the winter months. I try to unplug most appliances when they are not in use, more to save on my electricity bill than anything else. Today is the first time since last winter that I have had the heating on for several hours at a time. But then I want to be a Green Goddess not a Blue (from cold) Goddess.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Let he who is without prejudice cast the first aspersion.

As part of my remit, I frequently introduced Equalities and Diversity programmes into the workplace. It was rather dispiriting that, from time to time, those who complained to me that they had been the victim of racism, sexism or homophobia, were not averse to displaying a similar prejudice towards others.

“I will never get promoted in this place because I am Asian and a woman to boot”, complained one woman of Indian heritage to me. It was certainly true that the organisation in question contained cliques and if you were not part of the magic inner circle, you would never prosper regardless of ability. When American owners took over they tried to establish a meritocracy which the British middle management paid mere lip service to. Thus, whilst the American divisional head was on leave, they tried to force me to out of my post and hand it to one of their cronies. It was made clear to me that if I didn’t accept the fait accompli, I would find myself out of the organisation altogether. When the American divisional head returned from New Orleans, he was outraged. He came up to me as I was talking to a group of his managers.
“I will fight for you!” he assured me in his pronounced Southern drawl.
The British managers were unctuous in their apologies.
“We never meant you to feel that you had no choice in the matter. If you want to stay where you are that’s fine too,” they lied through gritted teeth.

I knew my card was marked from that moment on.  A year or so later on a Friday afternoon, the Americans announced to the entire workforce that they had sold the company. When I came into work on the Monday morning I found someone else sitting at my desk; the British managers had brought in an agency temp over the weekend. Now that the Americans were effectively a lame duck administration, they had no qualms about showing their hand. Consequently I could fully sympathise with my Indian colleague about the degree of
prejudice in that place.  Nonetheless, I was staggered when I heard her saying in a different context and without a shred of irony that “ALL Nigerians were crooks.”

In another job, a member of staff wanted to know whether I was aware that he had registered an official complaint against a colleague, for the latter’s alleged homophobic remarks. He wanted to know how matters were progressing and emphasised how upsetting and degrading he had found the whole experience. I promised to investigate further and he invited me over to the pub in the evening to join his male partner.
“Come over here you..” he shouted across the crowded bar, using an Anglo Saxon epithet for an exclusively female part of the anatomy. It never even dawned on him that I, as a woman might take offence at his casual use of such degrading and misogynistic language.

One man in particular ranks in my memory as being the worst example of a person refusing to recognise bigotry, unless they were on the receiving end of it. I only found out after I had accepted the assignment, that my nightmare of a colleague had been shunted from manager to manager. Finally he was off-loaded on to me, as someone with no prior knowledge of his legendary poor behaviour and performance. Management had refused to act against him in the past because he would always insist he was the innocent victim of racism. Indeed, he had taken his employers to court so often, were you to place his name into a search engine, you would discover that he has actually set a precedent in English case law. Despite always losing his case, he persisted in going back to court with each fresh affront to his delicate sensibilities.

The organisation itself was on the brink of financial disaster and had to impose stringent cutbacks. I was obliged to gather all my staff and warn them to expect redundancies. Everyone accepted the news with equanimity except for the Perpetually Outraged One (the POO).
“You are driving nails into my coffin, “ he said to me in front of the whole group. “You are lucky I don’t have a gun to shoot you with,” he added menacingly.
Having so many witnesses meant I knew I had not imagined his threat. Consequently, I made an official complaint and for the first time ever his behaviour in the office was challenged. Nevertheless, it was not his threats to me that ended his career. I discovered his fate some months after I had left. It seems the POO had been handing out leaflets at lunchtime, recommending that all gay people should be executed, prompting his own immediate suspension (regrettably not by the neck) and eventual sacking. I have no doubt he tried to go to an Employment Tribunal arguing that, yet again, he was the unwitting victim of prejudice. He did not so much have a beam in his eye as an entire wooden edifice.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The British Library Volume II

As I related in an earlier volume, being a great bibliophile I was in the fortunate position of being able to work for the British Library, when it was still housed within the magnificent setting of the British Museum. Now it has been relocated to a purpose built complex at St Pancras. However it still retains sites at Boston Spa and at Colindale in North London. The latter is officially known as The British Library Newspapers. I only ever went there once at the behest of an elderly neighbour, (EN) who wanted to uncover more about a family scandal.

The EN was the epitome of conventional English respectability. As I unravelled more about her personal history, I realised why she clung so tenaciously to the belief that image and social standing were of the utmost importance. She had been born into the cadet branch of an aristocratic family, who had played a prominent role in the English Civil War. Consequently, she could never forgive Oliver Cromwell for ousting Charles I and establishing a republic, and would not brook any argument in support of the Parliamentarian cause. Like Henry VIII, Charles I had not been expected to inherit the throne until the sudden death of an elder brother. In Charles’s case the unfortunate sibling was Prince Henry. It was commonly assumed that a room in a 17th century house on Fleet Street once acted as Prince Henry’s Council Chamber. The belief arose in part from the Prince of Wales insignia decorating the façade and the ceiling. Sadly for romantics of Stuart history, the current building served as a tavern well before Henry’s birth. Consequently it must have been named after an earlier Prince of Wales. Owing to its proximity to the Olde Cheshire Cheese and Doctor Johnson’s house, I took the opportunity to take the Partridge to Prince Henry's Room when we were last in the vicinity.(Rules of fine dining) It is well worth a detour if you happen to be in the locality, being a rare example of a timber building which survived the conflagration of the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Although I had a schoolgirl crush on his son, the Merry Monarch, Charles II and hence an unfortunate attraction to philanderers ever since, I disliked Charles I after I discovered he had insisted that a young woman be burnt alive for murdering her husband, even though many people begged him to grant her a more merciful execution, including his own wife, Henrietta Maria. Little mercy was shown to Charles in 1649 when he found himself standing on the scaffold outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall, awaiting his own execution. I had visited the Banqueting House as a schoolgirl and seated myself upon the throne when the hall chanced to be empty and entertained suitable delusions of grandeur. Not an act to be emulated with the advent of CCTV. Visitors today can still admire the Rubens’ ceiling, which rather over-eggs the achievements of the ruling family of the time.

The fortunes of the EN’s own family had been as turbulent as those of her ancestors. The EN had been raised in a household full of servants until the Great Depression when her father lost all his money. Yet greater disaster was to follow. Her sister accused her father of molesting her. The case went to court. The EN wanted to know the outcome. All she knew was that her father had left home and she never saw him again.

She gave me an approximate date and I trawled through the newspapers. It was quite a fascinating exercise in its own right. At one time, attempting to commit suicide was a capital offence. In the 1930s the penalty was a lengthy prison sentence and I read many accounts of troubled souls, jailed after they had failed to bring to a close their unwanted existence. I also, for some reason, found myself looking through newspapers from the 1960s and was amused to see suggestions for weight loss. included eating a huge steak with a salad, washed down with a pint of full fat milk.  

Eventually I came across the relevant article. Her father had been found not guilty. I arranged for a copy of the item to be sent to the EN. That was by no means the end of her father’s strange story. The EN married during the Second World War and went on to raise a family of her own. Out of the blue in the 1950s, her father contacted her from America and they ended up corresponding for a number of years though they never met up in person. When he died in his late 70s, having suffered an accident on a construction site, the EN discovered that her father’s eye colour was described as being brown on the coroner’s report, whereas she remembered them as being as piercingly blue as her own. Later, as a silver surfer, she began to research her family tree on-line and made the astonishing discovery that her father had raised a second family in America and that she had half siblings. Sadly, the siblings had already died but their children remained alive. Through them, she learned that her father had married a second time before divorcing this other wife and severing all ties with her and the children they had had together.  Only then did he renew contact with his first family. Whilst he was alive, neither family knew of the other’s existence. I always wondered whether the second family was bigamous, but never voiced my opinions to the EN. That part of her parental history remained a closed book for the rest of her life.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A Christmas Caro(l)

I decided that it was time to steer my career, also known as RMS Titanic, in a new direction. Thus, I arranged to see Red Shoes (RS) at his offices. He had dated a friend of mine for years and now they are both happily married….to other people. Like other friends and colleagues, he has not enjoyed the best of health in recent years, but in his case seems to have pulled through the worst. Perhaps that made him more receptive to my own belief in taking time off before retirement, to do the kind of things normally postponed until after retirement. Whether motivated by simple jealousy or the Protestant work ethic, some people thoroughly disapprove of those of us who choose to exercise such an option, even when we are freelance and living solely off our modest savings. There are no guarantees that we will be able to afford to retire at the traditional age, let alone possess the health and financial means to enjoy it to the full. Carpe Diem!

Afterwards, I met up with the Film-maker (FM) and his spouse at a local patisserie for coffee and cakes. The FM asked me for a character reference for his civil partner. I am more than happy to oblige as I have known them both personally for a number of years and they certainly act like an old married couple at times! I would not do the same for someone I scarcely knew. Lord Patel of Blackburn has come under fire from the Daily Mail today for giving glowing character references for two men, each subsequently jailed for fraud. It is purely coincidental that Lord Patel is a Labour peer. As recently as last month, the Daily Mail has no qualms about commissioning a piece from a certain infamous Tory Peer, once sentenced to a far longer stretch in jail than even Lord Patel’s acquaintances.

We later took a supposed short-cut down Bond Street to a Spanish restaurant. It turned into a decidedly lengthy detour. Consequently, I cannot with a clear conscience recommend the FM’s navigation skills, should he ever set himself up as an orienteering instructor. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to stroll along a part of London I rarely visit, having little call and even less money to warrant bestowing my patronage on designer boutiques or jewellers by royal appointment.

Although I have never bought anything in Bond Street itself, I realise I do own items from several of its retailers. Emporio Armani used to have had a store in Long Acre, Covent Garden; I once purchased a camel coloured trouser suit from there as an investment piece. Whenever I wear that trouser suit today, I make sure I match it with a long top that skims over the hips. To my embarrassment, I realised that it was not only the colour that bore more than a passing resemblance to a camel. When I first ventured onto their premises during the sales, I was somewhat apprehensive. I had heard horror stories about snooty sales assistants in up-market shops, making certain hapless customers feel they ought to shuffle along in the shadows, ringing a bell and crying out in warning “Unclean, unclean!”. To my relief the sales assistants in Emporio Armani could not have been more charming and delicately negotiated the fine line between magically appearing whenever you needed their advice, whilst not trying to browbeat you into purchasing something you didn’t want. I was rather bemused at the apparent poor finish to the hems, but discovered at the till that it was the practise to have an Armani tailor adjust them to fit the individual customer once they had been purchased. I later bought a black Armani skirt suit in Selfridges and a spring weight suit in New York State. I love buying clothes from America. Thanks to different systems of measurement, I instantly drop two dress sizes whenever I am in the US. I also have a Max Mara pinstriped skirt suit which I am wont to wear with just a silk steel boned corset underneath as a prelude to an afternoon’s dalliance.

I was very taken with the way some of the shops had been decorated for Christmas. We went past one store which made clever use of distorting mirrors in its design. Other than when I had quinsy and lost two stones in a single week, those mirrors were the closest I am ever likely to get to being a size zero. Once, an on-line correspondent insisted it was a prerequisite that any woman he dated must be a UK size 10. I wrote back that the bad news was that I was more Marilyn Monroe than Kate Moss, but the good news was that I did not have to smoke like a chimney or ingest other dubious substances to retain my hour class figure. Moreover, in my opinion, a life without the occasional foray to a patisserie like Maison Bertaux was not worth the candle and therefore I regretfully declined his suit. Being well bred, I refrained from adding that the ancient short-arse was well below my minimum height preferences and greatly exceeded my maximum age range.

The whole white façade of the Cartier shop was decorated with mannequins of young men sporting red and black bell hop uniforms and carrying scarlet boxes emblazoned with the firm’s name in gold lettering. A shop across the street had a vintage Hollywood feel to it. One mannequin, robed in a cream sequin and tulle gown, was standing apparently in her dressing room. Pictures of 1930s film stars were attached to the mirror of her dressing table, whilst all around her were silver backed hand mirrors, boxes, hair brushes, clothes brushes and other such fripperies, all inlaid with semi precious stones. There was also a solid silver half mask, crystal champagne flutes on a silver salver on a white silk shawl, slinky beaded evening gowns hanging from the walls and, somewhat incongruously, a large brass wind instrument, possibly a French horn.

Next to the musician, two female mannequins posed in front of a vintage microphone, partially lit from below to suggest they were in a theatre. In an adjoining window, two male mannequins were seemingly posed as Stage Door Johnnies. We were debating whether or not one prop was a sledge. After reading the label we realised it was in fact a porter’s trolley. If the Cartier’s bell-hops had any sense they would nip across the road and grab it rather than lug all those boxes around by hand.

Back in the more prosaic setting of a newsagent at Waterloo station, a young black guy admired my ivory coloured vintage Silbert of California cashmere coat. “It dates from the 1950s”, I replied and then, when he did a double take, explained that I bought it from off e-bay in the summer. I know we are both in remarkable condition for our respective ages, but I am not quite old enough to have bought my cashmere coat when it was brand new, even if it might feel that way at times.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Drama in the (operating) theatre.

Luckily, I have only ever needed to have one operation in hospital. It began with a routine medical at work.
“What’s this?” asked the doctor, feeling a hard mass in my abdominal area.
“IBS? I suggested helpfully, having already been advised that I did indeed suffer from the condition by my own GP.
“That’s not IBS!“ came back the emphatic reply and she advised me to get it scanned.
“What is this?” repeated my GP, feeling my stomach back at her surgery.
“You told me it was IBS,” I said silently to myself.

I had the mass scanned. They turned out to be fibroids, benign tumours inside the uterus wall. When I went along to the consultant to discuss my treatment, I came armed with the bane of a modern medic’s life: sheaves of material downloaded from off the internet. I had heard of a relatively new treatment called Uterine Artery Embolism (UAE), a procedure which involved cutting off the blood supply to the fibroids causing them to wither away. Such treatment was available in America but I had no idea whether it was also available in the UK on the NHS.

Far from being put off by my research, the consultant welcomed it. He told me he knew a local NHS surgeon, who was always keen to recruit more patients for the procedure so she could perfect her skills in it. By its very nature, her patients tended to be self selecting. It also meant I would not be faced with a long waiting list.

Thus I found myself in the women’s block of the local hospital a number of months later. The original Freeholder (OF) drove me to the hospital and insisted he would fetch me home again afterwards, even though I had planned to ask a friend. The following morning, the needle in my arm was hooked up to an intravenous drip containing morphine, which I could administer myself with the aid of a button. Then the porter wheeled me on my bed to the operating theatre. A nurse walked alongside and held my hand, a rather sweet gesture. As I passed along the corridor looking up at the lights I felt like the heroine of a soap opera, it seemed such a familiar television camera angle from countless hospital dramas. Inside the theatre I was lifted up on to the operating table. The surgeon then began the procedure which was to be performed under a local anaesthetic.

After a while, I asked the surgeon how the operation was proceeding. She explained that she had not even started as she had been unable to find a vein to inject me with the anaesthetic. I was aghast. Without the anaesthetic, the operation could not take place. I resorted to mind over matter. Keep still! I commanded the recalcitrant vein. It seemed to work and the operation began. The first step was to inject a radio-active dye into the femoral artery so that the arterial pathways to the fibroids could be monitored on an overhead screen. A catheter was them moved along the arteries to inject particles into them and so cut off the blood supply to the fibroids.

I heard the surgeon sigh. I asked her what wad troubling her now. "This is proving more complicated than I anticipated,“ she explained. I looked up at the overhead screen. My arteries resembled a plate of spaghetti. No wonder the surgeon had difficulty negotiating the delicate labyrinth of my arteries. Nevertheless, despite taking twice as long as planned, the operation passed without further incident and I was wheeled out of the theatre. That same afternoon my surgeon carried out an organ transplant, using the same procedure to remove the failing organ and replace it with a healthy one.   

Back on the ward, the Catwoman came to visit me. She was the only friend I had invited as she lived near by. Readings for my blood pressure and temperature were taken at regular intervals throughout the day and night. The nurses were concerned about how low my body temperature seemed to have fallen, but I reassured them that it was perfectly normal for me. At least they did not have a problem obtaining a reading in the first place. I am rarely perturbed by medics having difficulties finding my pulse, a suitable vein to insert a needle into or getting a blood pressure reading, but even if I was alarmed when a technician at another hospital, whilst carrying out a routine echocardiogram (ECG), had to leave the room after ten minutes or so to fetch a senior member of staff to help him continue, as he had been unable to find my heart.

I was kept in hospital for longer than anticipated but was eventually allowed to go home. I rang the OF the evening before to remind him when to pick me up. The next day I said my farewells and waited for his arrival. After two hours I rang the OF on my mobile phone.“Where are you?” I demanded. It seemed he was on his way to Heathrow to pick up a family member from the airport. Incredibly, despite his prior insistence on taking me home, he had completely forgotten all about me. He had effectively left me stranded at the hospital, with no way of getting a lift back from my friends at such short notice. I attempted ringing for a mini cab but there was none available. I had no choice but to try and get back home on public transport: a prospect which filled me with dread as there were no direct routes and I was in no real shape to carry my luggage any distance after so recent an operation. Having finally hailed a bus, I had to struggle to get my luggage on and off it. At the bus station, to my great relief I spotted a taxi rank across the way. When I explained what had happened the taxi driver was all for waiving aside the fare, but I insisted on paying and he carried my luggage up the flights of stairs to my flat.

A week later an image of my hospital flashed up on the national news. A recent report revealed that it had the worst mortality rates in the country and appallingly levels of cleanliness."I am so sorry for sending you there,” my doctor apologised when next I saw her. "Not at all,“  I reasoned. ”The mortality rates related to Accident & Emergency not the women’s department. As for the standard of hygiene, it seemed perfectly fine where I was. I did notice though that the ceiling in the operating theatre was rather dusty, which in retrospect was probably not such a good sign.

I made a full recovery but it was some time before my friendship with the OF did the same.