Monthly Archives: September 2015

There is a singular beauty to an autumn daybreak on a river, which is why I suppose boating types tend to rise with the sun. The banks, previously emerald, are now bruised with gold and ochre, and IMG_3298the last heads of bullrush stand defiant, like soldiers, even as the teasels taunt and harry them.

But it’s the mist that makes the magic, resting palely on the water’s surface – its wisps weaving blankets for the pond skaters to shelter under, and reaching upwards to sheath the surrounding trees in lemon gauze.

A cow lows and, in the distance, a heron takes noisy flight, its wings beating the heavy air into submission. And everywhere, a lapping, as the boats bob and chunter.  The sound of tin kettles whistling. The sweet smell of toast.

One of the great joys of getting older (or so I’ve found, anyway) is the perspective shift that widens the vision. Wisdom, of a kind.  An ability to empathise. The relative ease with which you can see the bigger picture.

And one of the greater joys of ageing – and this is well documented nowadays – is the cheerfully unconscious application of selective memory. Rose-tinted glasses are why we prefix ‘old days’ with ‘good’, and much more often (given mangles and child labour and ducking stools) than is probably warranted.IMG_3413

As you might have deduced, I’m currently writing from aboard a boat. A narrowboat, more specifically, currently moored against a reedy bank somewhere in Wiltshire,  where a few off-road blackberries, tangled prettily among the spikes, are literally within plucking distance of my hand.

As you might also have deduced, given the tone of those opening paragraphs, the application of selective memory vis a vis my mood when I wrote them showed it not to be terribly selective after all. Narrowboating seemed – still seems – every bit as otherworldly and pleasing as I remember.

And I remember it fondly. 1976, it was, along the Grand Union Canal. A trip in which the teenage party girl (this being a boat full of Venture Scouts) even then vied – and, in large part, won the battle for supremacy – with the romantic poet I half-saw myself to be.

Not so now. It’s precisely two forty two in the morning and all romantic notions have long since jumped ship.  I know this because, praise be to Triton and Neptune, I have my trusty kindle, the only light in the thicketty blackness.

Pete is beside me. Way, way, WAY too close beside me, having taken eighty one and a quarter percent of the scant available space, an admittedly unwitting but still irritating  manoeuvre I’m informed by my sister is known as ‘man-spreading’.

On the outside edge of the double bed (where for ‘bed’ read ‘raised platform just under four feet across’) I have no such option. I can spread inwards  (both inflammatory and potentially risky, since I shotgunned the escape zone on spurious menopausal grounds) or spread outwards, where I would land on floor.

Pete, meanwhile sleeps, seeing patients in his dreams, and intermittently snoring, as per.

In the other ‘bed’ room (where for room read ‘compartment, separated by plywood’) similar privations are being borne by my sister and brother-in-law To be fair, Sherrill doesn’t sleep terribly well at the best of times, but, on the assumption that, as the tiny one,  and being tired from an hour’s run, she could accept the wall-zone (where for wall read ‘edge of the boat’) curl up and be out like the proverbial light, already high on engine fumes and joy de vivre.

Sadly not. Being teeny she was soon wedged (see earlier curt note on ‘manspreading’) beneath the ridge that on the outside of the boat forms a deck rail, bound on three sides  by an 1970s style antique-pine coffin, and, on the fourth, by a slumbering bear.

She took the only route available – a borderline hysterical but of necessity,silent shuffle (slumbering bears can be cranky when woken) to the end of the ‘bed’, through the door to the ‘salon’, there to curl up on the ‘sofa’, corralled by my bike. And here she slept, fitfully, till the sun rose an hour later, with just the automatic bilge pump for company.

And so we’ve reconvened, on another bright, perfect morning, swans gliding past, their cygnets big as gulls now, and once again feeling blissed-out in our bucolic idyll.  But I thought, and I said, what I’d so conveniently forgotten.

THAT’S why boaters get up at frigging dawn.


First published in the Western Mail Weekend Magazine 12th September 2015

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Two photographs recently grabbed my attention. The first was upsetting.  You might have seen it too. A desperate-looking father,  a Syrian called Laith Majid, who is crying with relief as he clutches his distressed children, having finally reached the island of Kos – another step on their grim refugee journey.

Needless to say, the picture went viral. And predictably, and rightly, helped recalibrate feelings about the nameless ‘swarm’ of migrants who are currently  ‘flooding’ Europe, in reminding us that they, too, are human.

The same didn’t apply with the other viral image – that of a mother and daughter, Georgina and Kayla Clarke from Rugby, who, according to the caption, had ‘splash[ed] out £56,000 on surgery to look like Katie Price’.

As in both of them, that is. And, perhaps equally predictably, having been named and shamed by the press, they have received  a great deal of both ridicule and opprobrium. Little milk of human kindness here.

Fair enough, you might say. They put themselves out there. This wasn’t current affairs reportage but a planned tabloid photoshoot. They must have known the response to expect.

I don’t doubt they did, and they were not disappointed. Where Laith’s image saw waves of compassion flood the ether, this contrasting photo – of faces bent out of the shapes nature intended – was an opportunity for trolls to have their traditional field-day. But not just trolls.  There were plenty of others throwing linguistic stones – they were a pair of freaks, shame on them, what a selfish, selfish mother, how deluded, how sick, how obscene.

They must be mad. That was the main thrust. What on earth were they thinking? And, on one level, I suppose that’s a point. Though the daughter apparently earned every penny of it, £56,000 is a great deal of money, and to my mind it has not been well spent. It’s a fraught business, after all, aspiring to look like someone else. And when that someone has spent thousands altering her own face and body, also risky – like lining up your cross-hairs on a moving target.

But to be judged so harshly, and so readily, feels not only cruel,  but  hypocritical. Because, increasingly, there seems to be a growing acceptance of such wholesale re-modelling. Of celebrities being deified for being bronzed, bleached and botoxed, with no thought for the long-tail of impact on our children, the results of which we’re seeing more and more.

And we do love our women to look a certain way now, don’t we? Interchangeable. Barbie-like. Porn dolly. Stick thin. (Well, bar all the right implants in all the right places.) No, not in all worlds, thank goodness, but if we think our daughters are immune from the pressure to be passively pneumatic, we should wise up a little and think again.  Better still, try watching TOWIE, or Geordie Shore, or Made in Chelsea or, if you’re really strong of stomach, Celebrity Big Brother.

And if that’s not your bag (i.e. you’re well into your twenties) just type ‘celebrity plastic surgery’ into any convenient search engine, and clock the wide Sargasso sea of photographic evidence that our obsession with an impossible vision of youthful perfection is making monkeys out of all of us.

And, it appears, willingly. Because altering your face isn’t news, per se, any more. No-one seems to question a woman’s sanity in such matters, particularly if they’re in the public eye and older.  Increasingly, in many walks of life, such women report feeling freaks if they DON’T have ‘work’ done. No, ‘interventions’ are only deemed worthy of our attention when they’re evidence of fandom that goes beyond reason, and/or disfiguring to a degree that we can gawp at.

Yet many of us gawp disingenuously. Because, when done ‘well’, as in ‘no trace of alien ancestry or incipient lunacy’, many of us secretly aspire to it too. Though we disparage all the saps who overdo it and get ‘botched’, the statistics about ‘procedures’ put the lie to that disapproval, the most chilling being the sharp increase in the numbers of young women (and 90% of cosmetic procedures are done on women)who have already committed to a life under the knife. And it’s not because they’re empowered, or liberated, or independent. It’s because they’re being TAUGHT to be unhappy in the skin they were born in. For which someone  – maybe most of us – must shoulder some blame. And take some responsibility to act.

So, for me, that second image was almost as sad as the first.

Because the truth is we’re fiddling while Rome burns.

First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 5.9.15 

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Lynne to earth, incoming. From the Edinburgh Festival. Oh, and wow. It was epic. I can’t stop smiling.

Have you ever been? If not, I urge you bucket-list it immediately. I’m stunned that I’ve lived fifty six years on this planet and at no point during the last fifty five and a half of them did it occur to me to go – doubly astonishing given how much I love Edinburgh.

More generally, however, it has reinforced something I think I always knew, but perhaps had lost sight of.

Festivals rock. And not just rock festivals either. Folk festivals. Food festivals. Art festivals. Book festivals. Craft festivals. Dance festivals. Festivals of speed. It’s not rocket science (oh, look, there’s another one – science festivals). Affix the word festival to any human gathering, and watch alchemy happening before your eyes.

All this, you might argue, is hardly noteworthy. A festival, by definition, is a fun thing to be a part of. How could human nature fail to blossom in such fertile surroundings? It’s common sense, to be expected, self-evident.

But is it? I’ve been giving it a lot of thought since last weekend, and now I’m not sure. Not for many of us. I’ll hazard a guess that for every person who is currently nodding empathetically, there’ll be at least two others, perhaps more, who would disagree entirely, seeing the word ‘festival’ and thinking “not bloody likely”. All those people. All that grass. All those marquees and burgundians. All that bumping and jostling and parking half-a-bloody-mile-away. All that al fresco eating. All those wasps. All that hassle. All that queuing for toilets that are as noisome as slurry. All that waiting in line, parched and irritable and narked, to buy drinks served in cheap plastic tumblers. Most of all, all that fraternizing – with living, breathing humans. All that irritating, irksome PROXIMITY.

Because that’s what it amounts to, for the most part, I think. That, for some people (and I hesitate to use the word ‘misanthropic’ here) having to spend time with other people – with strangers, en masse – is synonymous with a kind of hell on earth.

But that’s precisely where the alchemy happens. Last weekend, for example, it rained. Started just at the point when the four of us finally found a table, outside a packed bistro, in a tiny covered space.

As tables went, it turned out to be challenging. Just big enough for two, it was only half under cover, but we scrunched up and made the best of it, as you do. And then a tap on the shoulder and a solution being proffered. From the group of six next to us, who, not remotely unreasonably, had three similar-sized tables between them.

“Look,” one suggested, “how about we give you one of our tables?”

“No, it’s fine,” we all trilled, in that way us British do. “No, it’s not,” they trilled back, and would not be deflected. The tables were duly rearranged.

Then, when we left, two ladies were hovering, obviously keen to bag our table. So we vacated our seats for them while Pete went and paid, not least so they could escape the gathering rain. Which it seemed we would not, as we had no umbrellas. “We’ll have to nip and buy one,” I suggested to Joe’s Hannah. Upon which one of the ladies opposite brandished hers.

‘Och, have mine,” she said, proffering it. “Go on, take it.”

“But what about you?” I said, this being the obvious question, not least because both women had proper, pukka hairdos. Not least because we’d never see them again.

“Och, I’ll share hers,” she said, nodding towards her friend. And, again, she would not be deflected.

And so it goes, I’ve come to realise. At a festival this is normal. Affix the F word to any gathering, and the K word tags along. People just become kinder, end of. They stand in queues and don’t whine. Indeed, they do something increasingly rare now – instead of tutting, they start conversations. You know, friendly conversations, with complete strangers. They join shuffling herds without harping on about how tedious it all is. They spontaneously sit down on small patches of astroturf, and when a drink slops in passing, they don’t become aggressive. They say, “no worries! Honestly! It’s fine!”

That’s the alchemy. That people start to LIKE people more. So here’s a thought. Why can’t we try to be like that ALL the time?

As I say, Lynne to earth. Not quite down…

First published in the Western Mail Weekend Magazine August 29th 2015

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