Monthly Archives: January 2016

Greenwash … or the road to hell

Yesterday morning was crisp and cold. Classic January. It was minus six I’m told by friends who have sophisticated electronics in their cars. Bloody freezing my hands told me by the time I got to the cash machine on the corner. I found my gloves and decided to take the scenic route into the city. The sky behind me rippled with dawn as I cut through Rosa Parks Lane. A man came running up the hill towards me on Stokes Croft. Ragged dreadlocks. He looked like he’d slept on the street. He fist-bumped the guy in front of me, smiled a good morning to the girl on my left.

Hey, I’m real. I’m not frozen!

Sometimes it’s just good to be alive.

Today the sky’s a sludge-grey blanket. No sunrise, just a reluctant dispersal of darkness. This city was European Green Capital last year. The hoarding at the crossroads shouts at me as I pass.

2016 – It Doesn’t Stop Here

Red-trousered greenwash, someone’s graffitied in bright red letters. Fellow Bristolians will understand the reference. The air’s catching at my throat as I head through the heart of St Pauls. This neighbourhood parties late and wakes late. There’s almost no traffic so early, but a fug of fumes still hangs in the air. It smells like gridlock, with not a vehicle in sight. Further on and I take a short cut through the shopping centre. It’s eerie when the crowds aren’t out. A briefly-abandoned temple to consumer culture.

On the bus at last, I notice again today that the engine cuts out every time we stop. Yesterday I thought there was something wrong with the bus, today I can’t work out if the vehicle’s designed this way, or whether the driver’s been instructed to switch off to reduce pollution. Good on someone either way, but given the quality of the air, I can’t help feeling it’s shutting the stable door about forty years too late. I get off the bus at the top of the hill. The air feels cleaner and I expand my lungs. At least my grandchildren aren’t inhaling so much poison up here. I think back to the smogs of my childhood. The smell of coal smoke through the wet wool of the scarf my mother wrapped tight over my nose and mouth as I left for school. Everyone knew the London air was poisoned by the smoke of thousands of fires. You saw the smuts on walls and pavements, and the evidence was there in your starched handkerchief every time you blew your nose. Today’s poisons are more subtle. You can see where you’re going of a morning, and the chemical haze that shrouds the city as I look down from the crest of the hill doesn’t show up in every tissue I use.

I’d hate to be a politician. People have suggested down the years that my views on feminism through pacifism to green issues and social justice might make me suited to the role. I can’t think of anything worse. Imagine having to make huge, life-changing decisions on behalf of millions of people. I’m a people-pleaser. I consult the TV schedule before I phone my mother, in case I mess up Holby City. It takes more brass neck than I’ll ever have to assume you know what’s best for everyone else, and something worse to act as if you know how to achieve it. You surely have to be a control freak. A sociopath. I’m not certain who first suggested anyone that power-hungry should automatically be debarred from public office, but think Donald Trump and you’ll see the wisdom.

People who crave control have an eye to the big picture. They’re often pathologically incapable of understanding the effects of their actions. Empathy isn’t in the repertoire of the CEO or the career politician. They just don’t need it as much as those of us better connected with reality. I’ve no doubt Tony and George W expected go down in history for taking out Saddam Hussein. They will of course, but likely because of the havoc they caused rather than as saviours of the world. When it comes to the crunch, freedom ain’t worth the paper when there’s no water, no electricity, your kids are getting shot by marauding gangs and ISIS is being born.

If you look back a paragraph or two, you’ll see I said I’m a people-pleaser. I said it as if that made me the opposite of a control freak. I’m clearly better suited to politics than I pretend. After all, if you’re to have so much as a sniff at power you’re going to need to please one hell of a lot of people. People who fund you. People who vote. People who own newspapers and produce television programmes. You’re going to have to engage the full panoply of the people-pleaser’s armoury. You’ll need to lie, schmooze, compromise and manipulate. You’ll have to pretend to be someone you’re not, to believe things you don’t, to hate things you love and to like people you despise. If you do it well, you’ll forget where you came from in the first place. We people-pleasers are nothing if not control freaks. Think it’s all about selfless concern for others? Sorry, what we really want is for everyone to think we’re wonderful. Needs must, and a full-blown people-pleaser will stand every principle he ever had on its head for a single taste of that.

For so long now I’ve been wringing my hands over the callous disregard David Cameron and his cronies have for ordinary people. I’ve expended gallons of virtual ink railing against injustices perpetrated by this government and the last. I couldn’t understand how they slept at night while ninety people a month were dying after being assessed as ‘fit for work’ under their new guidelines. I didn’t get why they would accuse food banks of scaremongering. I was confused by their attempts to redefine child poverty. I didn’t know how David Cameron could stoop low enough to joke about ‘a bunch of migrants’.

On a sunny Saturday I’m drinking coffee in good company when the conversation strays into politics. It often does when I’m around.

I think David Cameron’s just a bit stupid.

I’m going to stop right here and confess the thought had never occurred to me before. I’ve always assumed our politicians to be intelligent people who had major issues around integrity. It had never entered my head to see it any other way. But what if David Cameron’s just plain thick? What if he can’t see that his policies are appalling and cruel? What if he doesn’t have the capacity to grasp the consequences? It’s a far from comforting idea, but at least it makes sense.

In all my life, I’ve never been more convinced of my own rightness than I was in my thirties and forties. Questions and uncertainties were swept under the carpet. I was grown up. I had life figured. Joining an eighties-style house church didn’t help. I swallowed right-and-wrong-us-and-them-hellfire-and-damnation stuff by the bucket. Believe six impossible things before breakfast? Toss me a dozen and watch me choke them down. It was people-pleaser heaven for a while, but it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. My certainties were often off the church’s piste. I simply couldn’t stomach their monstrous god, whose delight was in sending sinners to hell. After all, some of those sinners were the people I loved best and I didn’t want to do heaven without them. The edifice finally disintegrated when the pastor’s wife got it into her head that I was embroiled in a lesbian affair. With no right of reply, I was ignominiously thrown out of the church. I’m ashamed to say my inner people-pleaser was mortified anyone could even think it of me.

The last time I spoke to said wife was when she pronounced her judgement on the stillbirth of my youngest daughter. I think she was one of those people whose world view never was ruffled by reality. Maybe I’d have ended up the same way if life hadn’t backed me into so many corners. I’m not proud of my self-righteous phase. I was immature. I thought being an adult was about having all the answers. I did a lot of damage. Now I’m a grumpy old woman who has no idea what she’s talking about, and I’m proud of that.

All the same, I can’t help wondering whether a lot of politicians aren’t stuck in just that self-righteous phase. David Cameron’s not yet fifty, and George Osborne not forty-five. From where I’m standing they’re little more than children. Neither has experience much beyond the world of power and politicking. Why am I surprised by their lack of intelligence? Their world’s about schmoozing, manipulation and arguing black’s white to get what you want. Small wonder they’re out of touch with a reality where flesh-and-blood people get hurt by their decisions.  Where our beautiful earth’s dying from their refusal to bite the bullet of man-made climate change. Why would they be bothered by the suffering of people who were never going to vote for them in the first place? Why worry about green crap? It’s only going to annoy people you need to please. When you know all the answers, why should you go through all the hassle of putting stuff before parliament rather than slide it past on a statutory instrument? It makes perfect sense when you’re blindly convinced you’re right.

There are daisies in the lawn outside the building where I live. It’s January. The Zika virus is on the march. Daisies and mosquitoes thrive on climate change, people less so. Still politicians are failing to offer any coherent response. There are good intentions of course. Greenwash comes in trousers of many hues. There are climate change conferences and European Green Capitals. It pleases people to think something’s being done. No matter whether our main concern is the economy, global warming, the refugee crisis, the NHS, something else or all of the above, we’d prefer to believe our political leaders when they tell us they know best. The sad truth is politicians are human though, and as such they’re no better than the rest of us. They’re idols with feet of clay: immature, self-righteous, people-pleasing and not very bright to boot. No matter how full of good ideas, they need to be held to account, lest they forget they have no right to the power of life and death over the rest of us. After all good intentions, greenwash included, are the paving on the road to a place nobody wants to go.

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ESOL, King Canute and mopping up the mess

It’s a miserable afternoon. Classic English seaside weather, and not so much as an ice cream van to redeem it. We’ve eaten a Bengali picnic in the middle of a shopping precinct. I can barely move for all the food that’s been pressed upon me. Now we’re back on the coach and headed along the Sussex coast to Rye. The back seat’s packed with teenage girls, still passing food back and forth. At every glimpse of the sea they rush to the windows, chattering like the murmurations of starlings that curl and weave over the passing marshland. Rye’s the last stop before home. The staid older students head off in search of antiques and fish-and-chips. The girls beg me to stay with them. They want photos at every opportunity. They’ve not seen a place like this before.

The rain holds off just a couple of hours. It’s starting again as the coach pulls out of the car park. The girls are singing Bollywood classics by the time we join the motorway. They know every note. Every word. Samaya dances in the aisle to the swish of the windscreen wipers. I think the older students are wishing the coach floor would open and swallow her. What none of us knows is that this is her last taste of freedom. The pressures of marriage and parenthood are about to close in on these girls. Samaya, I’m never going to see again.

I worked in the language school for four years. Hope, it was called and I like to think that was what it brought, at least sometimes. I loved my job with passion hard to describe. When I first fetched up there it was nothing short of a miracle I could teach at all. Charlie’s grip was absolute then. I could barely string a sentence in real life, and I learned to switch my phone off when I taught, just to stem the tide of abusive texts. As soon as I stood in front of a class, I came alive. I loved connecting people. The priceless moment when a beginners’ group first grasped the words ‘coffee break’, or the smile of delight when two students discovered they could speak to each other at last. Women from across the globe bonded over custard creams and childbirth stories. A Bengali lad adopted a French nun as his substitute mum. Naz brought chai masala and boiled it in the kettle, so everyone’s coffee was slightly spicy for the rest of the week. Lifelong friendships were forged. We shared international meals, circumcision celebrations and afternoon teas. We organised a fund raiser after the earthquake in Haiti, and sipped Turkish tea while eating English cupcakes. It broke my heart when the EDL held their first rally in Luton. They shut down the town centre one Saturday. I spent an entire week explaining, and apologising for the idiocy of English extremists. And we went on that wonderful coach trip to the seaside.

Of course the idyll had its dark side too. There was the Afghan schoolboy who talked of nothing but guns. The Bengali teenager who was bussed two hundred miles a night to slave in a restaurant kitchen. He fell asleep on the desk most days. I met mail-order brides. May, from China, was deeply miserable. She disappeared as soon as her English got good enough for her to complain. Cynthia, on the other hand, gave her purchaser a run for his money. He definitely bit off more than he was expecting to chew when he handed over the fee. She used to tell me about Thai friends who hadn’t been so lucky, or so feisty. Her best friend worked all hours in her owner’s sandwich bar. He wouldn’t let her learn English in case she ran away.

Halima still worries me now. Her husband brought her to the initial interview, and I just knew. When you’ve been where I have you develop a sixth sense. She was quiet and shy. Highly intelligent. She’d been a teacher somewhere in north Africa. She broke down in the classroom one Wednesday afternoon. Why did he beat her still, now she was six months pregnant? He’d taken her passport. He’d told her he’d have her deported and keep her baby if she breathed a word. What can you say about a man like that? I tried to put her in touch with people who could help, but she was far too scared. My boss came in with a cuppa when she’d gone.

You think you’re just teaching them English, don’t you?

That’s what I’m here for.

You’re not, you’re mothering them too.

I know, I know. But that’s who I am. It’s why I was never going to be a millionaire, and just why I’m spitting nails this morning. Managers. CEOs. Chancellors of the Exchequer. Prime Ministers even. They think in strategies, grand plans and long-term goals. They don’t see the effect of their behaviour for individual lives. People like me? We work the front line, battling to clean up the mess they trail in their wake, each of us playing our little King Canute to the rolling tide of destruction.

Aside from my age, the main reason I struggled to find work when I moved to Bristol was the ongoing reduction in government funding for ESOL classes. Hope had been a church-based school. I’d taken a pay cut even there because money was tight, but at least the premises were comfortable and rent-free, and as I may have said before I’m not high-maintenance. In 2012 teachers were losing their jobs or having their hours cut all over the country. Last year all public funding for ESOL classes was removed. I’d love nothing better than to resurrect Hope Language School here in Bristol, but the very people who need the classes are those who can’t afford to pay, and even low-maintenance needs to eat once in a while.

David Cameron seized and devoured a whole packet of custard creams yesterday. His pronouncements on the imperative for Muslim women to learn English were at best ill-conceived. Lazy and sloppy, in the words of Baroness Warsi, who’s not a woman I’d normally have truck with, they seemed designed to appeal to all those stereotypes that reinforce the worst kinds of prejudice. I’ve worked in a community with a large Muslim population. I’m well aware there are controlling husbands and families out there. Halima’s husband’s a Muslim. Rabina came to just six classes when she arrived from Pakistan, all under the close supervision of her sister-in-law who spoke perfect English. But May’s married to a white Brit, and Cynthia’s friend’s owned by one. What are we going to do for them? Oh yes, nothing. Helping them won’t win the UKIP vote.

If I’m honest, the whole thing puts me slightly in mind of something I wrote when George Osborne demonstrated his munificence by ploughing £15m of tampon tax into domestic abuse services he’d recently de-funded. Quietly cut a vital service, then make a song-and-dance about giving back far less than you took away. Hope no-one notices it was you who messed up in the first place. Job done. The icing on the biscuits was that Dear Dave managed to shift the blame onto Muslim women themselves, for not using a service that didn’t exist. My own experience suggests that the vast majority of people arriving in the UK are only too happy to learn English, irrespective of gender or religion. English is the most useful language anyone can speak. And why would you choose not to speak the language of the country you live in? The biggest barrier to learning is funding and facilities, not a lack of enthusiastic students or teachers.

The most worrying aspect of this salvo is the way the Prime Minister’s tapped visceral fears by implying a connection between inadequate English and radical extremism. Admittedly it’s a very real connection if you look at hardcore British right-wing pages on Facebook, but I don’t think that’s quite what Dave means. Today’s news suggests he wants to dress his policies as empowerment for oppressed Muslim women. Much though I hate to agree with Baroness Warsi, she’s not wrong when she says that to threaten deportation if women fail to learn English is a very unusual way of empowering and emboldening them. Seriously Dave, if you can’t do better than this, I think you’d do well to admit you’ve no idea what goes on in the real world. It pains me to have to quote yet another Tory woman, but you really are a posh boy who doesn’t know the price of milk, and I’m not the only one out here who’s heartily sick of mopping up the mess.

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Mirror, mirror … on showing off and the gift of experience

The last of the weekend dried and put away I emerge from the kitchen with the first coffee of the morning. The mirror’s on the wall directly in front of me. I can’t help but stop and admire it. Procrastination and power-tool-paranoia left it languishing in bubble-wrap behind the armchair for more than three-and-a-half years. Now here it is, placed to perfection by a man with a drill, and looking exactly the way I’d always hoped it would. So good. There’s just the one thing makes me hesitate, and that’s the picture enclosed by its heavy, wooden frame.

At first I’m inclined to be critical. For the better part of four years, the only mirror in the place has been above the bathroom sink. The lighting there’s artificial and kind, and I can’t see most of myself anyway. The light in the living room this morning’s cold and grey. It hides nothing and the image is nigh on full-length. In addition, I can see the abandoned decorating tools in the hallway, the marmalade pan on the cooker and the wilting poinsettia on the bookshelf in the background. The woman looking back at me is not young. She’s wearing glasses and a shapeless sack of a top, and she could do with a cut-and-blow-dry, although without the glasses she likely wouldn’t be able to tell you that. I want to be depressed. Then I take another look.

My hair’s silver, aside from the purple streaks. Not grey, silver. I used to tell people it was platinum blonde. A woman in the hairdresser’s last year asked how I got it this colour. She’d been trying to dye hers just this shade, she said. Took me sixty years, I said. Then there are the curves. I haven’t seen them in a while. Hips broad enough to have cradled four babies and breasts that got to feed only three. A face wise and sad enough to have weathered that storm. There are the hands that have created, eyes that have seen things no-one else will and the belly I battled so long to lose and wound up loving, its hidden scars all whispering stories of their own.

In a little over a month I’ll be sixty-two. Quite how that’s happened is a mystery to me. My grandfather retired when he was two years younger than I am now. He took to a bungalow in the country and refused to leave his armchair. It’s not an option I’d have, even if I wanted it. Nevertheless, I sometimes think our society would prefer me to be invisible. I came home to Bristol in May 2012. Half a lifetime of domestic turmoil and some unwise choices had left me little to call my own. I moved in on May Day Bank Holiday. Tuesday morning I was on the doorstep of the Job Centre at nine. I’d polished up my CV in advance. I’d called every language school in the city, and most had responded with enthusiasm. It was the right time of year to be looking for work as a teacher of English as a foreign language, and I knew it. Everyone takes on teachers for summer schools and I had exactly the right experience and qualifications. I’d sent out the CV a dozen times and more. Not one single response. I sat across the desk from my new Employment Advisor.

Do you think it’s my age?

I can’t tell you that.

Of course she couldn’t tell me. It’s been illegal to discriminate on grounds of age since 2006. It’s also been illegal to discriminate against women since 1970. This didn’t prevent us from earning on average 15.7% less than men in 2014, or in more stark terms working almost two months of the year for nothing. A bit of a double whammy if you happen to be a woman of slightly-beyond-a-certain-age.

I don’t consider myself high maintenance. I’ll confess to a lingering penchant for books and CDs. I like good coffee and the odd glass of red wine. I’ve even been known to buy new clothes from time to time, although almost never at full price. In general however, I don’t have an expensive lifestyle. I decided to opt for self-employment. At least I couldn’t discriminate against myself.

I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to selling my skills. Pride comes before a fall, don’t run before you can walk, all that jazz and I’m scuppered before I’ve started. I have a steady few students and a part-time job that keeps the wolf just shy of the threshold. Nonetheless I live with a growing sense that, false modesty or no, I might be worth a little more than this. Oddly, looking in the mirror in the harsh light of morning, I feel the sense stir again. I love teaching. It’s performance art and regardless of whether you believe me, I’m nothing if not a show-off. Every class pitches me into agonies of stage fright. That’s one thing that’s not got better in all these years. The moment I open my mouth the fear’s gone and words flow like magic. I end on an adrenaline high. What could better?

Yet, if I’m honest, there’s one thing makes all that pale and pointless. Writing. Writing comes from the core of me. I’d not cling long to the remnants of sanity if I didn’t write. Objectively, I don’t think I’m too bad at it either, although I realise I’m the person least qualified to comment. Now and again even my internal editor, the worst critic bar none, will look at a piece and say: Hey, that’s not so bad. Better still, one or two people whose judgement I respect tell me they like things I’ve written. I hope to god they’re not saying it because they think I’ll hate them if they speak the truth.

Most of the time this blog doesn’t attract much attention. I’m crazy happy if fifteen or twenty people read a post and over the moon if one gets thirty hits. If nothing else it means I’m not sitting here talking to myself all the time. Thus I was stunned to come home last Thursday and find 170 people had been reading a post from last December while I’d been out. I’ve no idea how they found it, and for all I know every last one of them thought it was crap, but at least they read it.

On the basis of my not being the worst writer ever, I’ve pitched to one or two publications over the past year. Nothing major, just local rags. The response? Zilch. A glance in the mirror and I wonder if they just couldn’t see past that old woman in the grey sack. Age is a formidable barrier. In an image-obsessed society first impressions can be deadly, and my pitch has always been honest. I’m a feminist idealist, who writes from the dubious wisdom of sixty-plus colourful years. What else can I be? I don’t do buzzwords, soundbites or jargon. I do truth as I see it, and these days I’m no longer afraid of the consequences. Truth always has more than one level though. The old woman’s no more than the surface. The curves and the scars go deeper. I know my own heart now. I’ve lately grown to love it, and that’s a gift only experience can bring. Sometimes you have to know what you’re searching for before you’ll see, but look long enough into the mirror and you’ll find it’s all there.

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The Prettiest Star

It’s been a weekend. Growing old disgracefully doesn’t come easy as you’d think. Happily, Monday’s my day off. I haul my aching body out of almost ten hours’ sleep, roll over and check my phone. The internet’s alive, but someone I once thought would live for ever no longer is. So many legends lost to the world in the past few months, but this one’s different. This one’s the author of my song. This one’s part of my personal soundtrack. This one’s David Bowie.

One day, though it might as well be someday … Not twenty-four hours back from here, I’m eating well-buttered toast in unaccustomed company and talking about Blackstar. I haven’t heard it yet. Sometimes I don’t keep up so well these days.

It’s dark. Very dark.

I guess I might make dark music if I knew how close the end was, and listening thirty-two hours later I can hear that he knew. But wasn’t Bowie always dark? That’s why I loved him. The glitz all on the surface. But camp always bears the miasma of darkness in the end.

I’m in my grandmother’s room, stealing precious time on her walnut-veneer radiogram. My parents don’t do music and I’ve fought hard for the concession. I can play my records quietly. With permission. When Nanna’s not there. I take the single out of its paper sleeve, check the surface for scratches and wipe the duster over it. I set the switch to 45 rpm, blow the near-invisible debris of my last visit off the needle and lower the stylus tenderly onto the very edge of the black disc. No matter how careful, my fingers always shake. The ritual. A crackle or two. Twenty seconds of near-silence. Ground control to Major Tom … Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you … Here am I, sitting in a tin can … I already know there’s no happy ending. The late 1960s was the best time to discover music. Everything was new. The stranglehold of commercialism wasn’t total then, and Bowie rode the wave into the 70s and beyond like no-one else. Friends of every age are posting on Facebook today. Most know far more about him than I ever will, and that’s all as it should be.

I was a good Methodist Sunday School kid from the age of three. I grew up on hymns. I still remember most of them now. Change and decay in all around I see … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I lay in dust life’s glory dead … dark stuff for a childhood. I’ve never understood how it didn’t make the same ache for music in the people who put me in its way. When I decided the god of my childhood might not exist after all, the hymns were what I missed most. Never mind just love, music’s fed my soul through light and darkness. Each and every song has a tale to tell, often more than one. It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m walking through the tunnel of ever-changing street art between home and my allotment in unaccustomed company. In the entrance, a man’s making music. The acoustics of the tunnel are breathtaking. One day I’m going to sing my heart out in here, but the song he’s playing now I sang at my daughter’s funeral. I can’t even speak.

My parents chose my name without sentiment. It may not have been beautiful, but at least it couldn’t be shortened. I’m not sure they gave a thought to its rhyming with ‘bean’. This dismal lack of romance means my appearances in song have been rare indeed. Cheer up sleepy Jean … I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair … although strictly speaking ‘Jeanie’ doesn’t count. The Jean Genie burst on the scene late in 1972, brimful of attitude. I was at Essex University, hub of student revolt back then. I fell head over heels. Bowie’s androgyny tuned with my nascent feminism. His strut and rebellion played counterpoint to my reticence. Friends coined the nickname for a time. Jean Genie, let yourself go … and for a brief moment, I did just that.

And yes, my memories are old, personal and of their time. Space Oddity. Jean Genie. The Prettiest Star. Ziggy Stardust. This is ‘my’ Bowie and will remain so. Music’s made in the heart, not the intellect. She’ll come, she’ll go, she’ll lay belief on you …  Bowie’s music whispers of places long forgotten.  Some perhaps best forgotten, but no less a part of who I am. The whispers are sometimes of sadness. More often now they make me dance and laugh for the sheer joy of living.  That’s when the Jean Genie lets go once again. So the last word belongs to the man himself: I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.

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In a past life, I used to squeeze the occasional walk with the dog in between shopping, washing, cleaning, cooking, holding down four part-time jobs and being shouted at. Dog-walking’s a pleasingly solitary occupation. A dog, a rubber ring and me, stomping round a muddy field together. It was the bliss at the start of yet another day’s madness. Of course there were always other dogs and their walkers. The Jack Russell, who savaged my son whilst his owner stood by and did nothing. The Westie whose walker carried him because she couldn’t bear the idea that he was no longer able to walk. There was the pedigree gun dog we had to avoid because his owner didn’t like him to mix with other dogs, and of course there was the gorgeous Golden Retriever whose walker hand sewed his own equally gorgeous dresses. If our paths accidentally crossed, we humans would perform the essential grumbling-about-the-weather ritual, while the dogs did the canine equivalent, then we’d go our separate ways.

Come January, all that used to change. On New Year’s Day there’d be ten or a dozen joggers sweating their way round the freezing field, churning up the mud with their brand new running shoes. Jess tried chasing one the first time she saw them. She soon got fed up with that. As time wore on, their numbers would diminish. Mid-month and the last two or three would still be doggedly pounding the turf. By the beginning of February, it was business as usual.

In recent years, the main use for New Year’s resolutions in my world has been to explain the use of ‘I’m going to … ‘ to students of English.

I’m going to lose three stone.

I’m going to go to the gym ten times a week.

I’m going to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote.

No, not ‘I will’, ‘I’m going to’.

‘I will lose three stone’ might be a statement of fact. ‘I’m going to climb Mount Everest’ has more to do with insane optimism. ‘I’m going to … ‘. Big on dreams, small on delivery. The first time I researched the topic, Wikipedia told me a mere 12% of us keep our resolutions. It seemed a rather generous estimate, but being Wikipedia it may or may not have been accurate. However, there is one thing any New Year’s Resolution’s guaranteed to deliver in bucketfuls.

Guilt. There are so many things I ought to be doing instead of writing. I’m a hundred miles or so from home right now, so the half-painted wall in the hallway, the apples turning into cider instead of chutney and the mirror that’s been behind the armchair for three years because I’m paranoid about electric drills are going to have to wait. Nothing I can do but tick them off the worry list, and that’s no end of a relief because there are any number of other things I ought to feel bad about. The phone calls I’ve put off. The emails I haven’t sent. The family and friends I haven’t seen because there wasn’t time on this flying visit. Then there’s the weight I’ve put on this year. The publicity I didn’t do for the business. The abandoned creative journal. Even the fact that my friend’s scuttling round making lunch on her own and refusing all offers of help. I can feel guilty about anything.

I came into the world less than ten years after the end of World War II. I’m told I was one of the very last people to have a ration book issued in my name, although my parents never actually used it. Wartime austerity was a thing back then, and guilt was the stock-in-trade of postwar parenting. Guilt, and what-will-the-neighbours-think.

What do you mean, you don’t like tripe? Think yourself lucky. We couldn’t get this during the War you know.

In the end, even Mum had to admit tripe was a failure. Dad struggled to eat it, and he’d have eaten his own legs if Mum had asked him to. It was simply vile. We never saw the stuff again. Other tactics for inducing guilt were far more effective. The Sunday School Scripture Exam, for example. My mother wanted me to come top, and nothing less would do. She’d drill me for weeks, convinced I was fluffing my memory verses on purpose, to spite her. No matter how much she yelled, Colin Rowlands beat me every time. I’d do the walk of shame to the front of the church to receive my certificate with could have done better ringing in my ears.

We moved into a wonderful, ramshackle Edwardian house with my grandmother when I was eleven. The inaccessible loft space of the three-bed semi I’d grown up with was replaced by a long room with sloping ceilings, which became my brothers’ bedroom. Once upon a time it must have been the servants’ quarters. I used to imagine maids in starchy pinnies running down the stairs at the pull of a bell-rope.

Tucked into the eaves by the bedroom door was a tiny, triangular attic. All the contents of the old loft were stuffed into this space. I’d read ‘A Little Princess’ far too many times. My head was full of mysteries and long-forgotten secrets. I yearned to stumble across evidence that I was an orphaned princess after all. One of my pastimes was browsing through the back-and-white photos in the sideboard drawer. I studied the family tree in my Baby Book, asking endless questions, until my mother dumped the silver polish in front of me and told me I could polish the best cutlery if I had nothing better to do. The loft had always been where all the really interesting stuff was kept of course. There were ancient toys that had belonged to my father, stamp albums with pictures of Queen Victoria and boxes and boxes of photographs. For the past eleven years I’d only been able to see it from the bottom of a ladder. Now all of a sudden it was there for the asking, but for one small problem. I was strictly forbidden to go into the attic.

One advantage of being a solitary child is that a lot of what you do passes under your parents’ radar. My brothers were also strictly forbidden to dangle toys out of their bedroom window on bits of string. It didn’t stop my father having to fish trains and boats and planes out of the gutter below the window most evenings. They were noisy rebels. Meanwhile, I discovered the value of quiet defiance. I spent hours squished among the boxes in the semi-darkness of the attic. So long as I made no trouble, nobody would come looking, and if I put things back where I’d found them, no-one would be any the wiser. Seek and ye shall find. But it won’t necessarily be what you hope for.

I’m deep in the attic, curled between the boxes under the slope of the eaves. I’ve found a battered sepia photograph. In the dim light, I can see that everyone in it’s dressed to the nines in proper old-fashioned clothes. One little girl in a frilled white pinafore looks a lot like my grandmother. Nanna was one of ten children. Some didn’t survive the First World War. Half of them I’ve never met. I’m old enough to know there was a lot of falling out in my grandmother’s family, but not old enough to understand why. There are so many questions I want to ask to ask. I consider taking the photo downstairs and sneaking it into the sideboard drawer. Maybe I could ‘find’ it in a few days’ time.  Somehow, I don’t think Mum would be fooled. I’ve already been in here too long. The butterflies are gathering in my stomach. She’ll notice I’m missing any minute, either that or one of the boys will come storming upstairs and blow my cover. I tuck the photograph away. In the bottom of the box is a pile of envelopes I’ve not seen before. Just one last peep … Inside the first envelope is a simple drawing. A smiling stick man in a sailing boat. There’s one word, in Dad’s handwriting. ‘Me’.

My father was the world’s worst worrier. He and Mum had been through tough times in the early stages of married life, and the rapid arrival of the three of us hadn’t made things any easier. Even with those hardships long gone, Dad loved to recount how he’d had to walk to work, carrying only the price of a cuppa from the tea trolley in his pocket so his colleagues wouldn’t guess how hard up he was. I think we children were supposed to learn frugality and the importance of keeping up appearances. What I actually learned was that my parents would have been better off if I’d never been born. Now I’d found the evidence. My father’s self portrait. His future as a happy yachtsman all blown to the wind because of me. To my eleven-year-old mind the logic was unassailable. I was the reason for my parents’ ill-concealed misery. I never told a soul, of course. You don’t go sharing secrets as guilty as that. Especially not if you were where you shouldn’t have been when you discovered them.

The guilt I acquired became my constant companion. My familiar. The excuse for fear and failure. The reason not to try. Doesn’t everyone need a friend like that? Could-have-done-better became the mantra of my school reports. Guilt whispered I had no right to succeed. The first boyfriend dumped me. Guilt told me he was too good for me anyway. I made resolutions. Guilt made sure I failed to keep them. Then it flourished in the manure.

I don’t drive. I failed my test twice and after the second attempt I decided there had to be better uses for all that money. As a result I do a lot of walking, mostly without a dog these days. I’m pondering my predicament on the walk from my brother’s house back to work one spring afternoon. Charlie and his predecessor are history now. My life should be my own, yet I’m still scared of everything bar my shadow. It doesn’t make sense. The bad times are behind me, why don’t I feel better? I’m admiring the daffodils in the hedge when the truth hits me. I’ve spent nigh on fifty years pretending to be like everyone else, when I believe deep down I’m not. In the past few months everything’s come apart at the seams. I’ve fled half way across the country to escape Charlie. My life’s a mess, and everyone knows it. Why am I still pretending to be normal? Don’t I have a choice here? Of course I do.  I can keep up the good-girl-hard-done-by act, go on wearing the mask and spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. Or I can forgive myself for mistakes and bad choices. I can stop living what-will-the-neighbours-think, let go all that bloody guilt that was never mine in the first place and start living as if I have nothing to hide. I can’t describe the relief. Call it resolution if you like, in every sense of the word.

And she lived happily ever after ….

Well, almost. The truth is, I still have a to-feel-guilty-about list, but these days it’s my own mistakes. Forgotten birthdays. Missed appointments. Messing around on Facebook when I’d be best cleaning the bathroom. Writing blog posts when I should be doing lesson plans. My choices. I’m no longer responsible for anyone else’s happiness. No more could-have-done-better, nor what-will-the-neighbours-think. The latter was never any of my business anyway. I resolved some time ago that New Year’s resolutions would no longer be a part of my life. There’s altogether too much scope for failure for my liking. This year I think I might break my resolution though. I’m going to give up all those remaining niggles of guilt once and for all. As resolutions go, this one’s pretty much foolproof I think. After all, if I do ever have the odd twinge, at least I won’t be able to feel guilty about it.

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