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Ten Reasons to be cheerful in the time of Coronavirus

Blog about Ten Reasons to be cheerful in the time of Coronavirus

Because we humans are (mostly) a perverse bunch, being told I can undertake only one form of exercise a day makes me want to spend the whole day running, jumping, skipping, cycling. It’s not as if I ever did that but, just because I can’t, I want to!  In this weird new world where the government is not simply telling me how to live my life but actually ordering me how to do it, it would be so easy to collapse under a pile of negativity or anxiety or to rebel  – How do they know whether or not I have already been out once?  But actually it’s not difficult to play the game and do what I am told because I know all our lives depend on it, mine included. I have in any case spent the past two years in semi isolation, desperately trying to write a book in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s sudden death and deal with probate, a situation guaranteed to lure anyone into depths of depression even without associated grief. What kept me going was my mantra ‘once the book is done’ I shall be free …. free to spend a week at a spa, free to travel wherever I wanted, free to meet all the friends I have had to shun so rudely over the past two years. Even free to behave badly.

But then, within days of delivering my manuscript, this. And my car was broken into. Desperate times I know. And what’s the worst?  I can’t even see my gorgeous growing grandchildren.

So I am taking a deep breath and thinking about some of the things that really matter. Staying alive is number one. Looking after elderly relatives and making sure they (and I) are fit for when we eventually emerge and can say ‘I used the time to do something I never would otherwise have done.’ No wonder sales from DIY shops are booming. We all have an urge to prove, through creativity, we are still alive. And for me that’s the best way to stave off anxiety and depression.

So here are Ten Reasons to be Cheerful in the time of Coronavirus, with the big caveat that I do know I am the luckiest person because I have always worked from home. It’s a necessary condition for any writer to produce anything, although I can’t pretend I like being solitary. I have just had to get used to it over the years, which has been a useful preparation for widowhood. I have delivered a new book after almost five years and soon will have to edit that. I need to be at home, alone, to do this. I have spent all my working life working from home. In a sense there is nothing new about this. On the other hand as a freelancer who gives talks, ten of which have been cancelled, I have lost an important income stream as well as a chance to get out and meet my readers.

Here are the TEN

  1. The pear tree has dozens of blossoms. I bought this tree as a birthday present for my husband and it never produced any fruit in his lifetime. Last year I had four pears and this year I think there will be dozens.
  2. I did some gardening and actually enjoyed it. I love looking out of my study window onto the garden, watching to see if the birds are eating their fat balls from the new feeder and straining to see what has started to bloom. My small London garden gives me more pleasure and sense of peace than I could possibly imagine, an inspiration for anyone, and just the right level of minor distraction for a writer.
  3. I am exercising in different ways. Today I went for a solitary cycle ride along the towpath using my husband’s very old bike. I could hear the birdsong. I even have an old rowing machine, something I thought I was desperate to give away as it was always my husband’s toy. No longer. I’ve discovered I can row and watch television at the same time.
  4. I have cleared up some cupboards (and found my wedding dress wrapped up in a bag). Lots of other things have found their way into the rubbish bin where they should have been years ago.
  5. I am learning how to make sourdough thanks to a writer friend I barely knew who kindly sent me my first starter. I shall get very fat but what a lovely way to put on the pounds with homemade sourdough bread.
  6. I am reading books that have been sitting on my shelves for years. ‘Just give me five minutes to read’ has been my (much mocked) Cri de Coeur ever since I can remember. Suddenly I have fifty five of those minutes. I shan’t read worthy books. I shall just read for pleasure and information.
  7. I am listening to other books thanks to Audible on big headphones when I walk or from my iphone speaker when I cook or take a bath
  8. The kindness of strangers. Lots of communities have set up deliveries for the elderly but it isn’t just the old who are in difficulty. My younger daughter is being looked after by her boyfriend’s parents in the country where she is happy and well, working from home to set up a new website for her company remotely.
  9. I have plenty to eat. I am cooking for the freezer as if it is another person. As a non-meat eater, I depend on fresh fruit and vegetables and keep making enormous vats of vegetable curries, vegetable stews, soups even vegetable tagines. Far more than I can possibly consume myself.
  10. Think of all the money I am saving… no nail bar visits, no hairdressers, no clothes to buy and even the odd refund from train journeys not taken (although actually that is a battle I am still fighting)
  11. One more for luck and because I never could count … I was excited to be asked to write an article for Aitken Alexander, the agency who have wonderfully represented me for more than twenty years, as part of a series they have created where authors respond to isolation. Here is what I wrote for them about the calming effects of knitting!

Can we make any of these changes permanent? Being more accepting of what we have is one I certainly intend to keep in my personal armoury. And learning to let go of some things I can really learn to live without.

Women’s Voices Reporting D Day

If like me you’ve been enjoying hearing the deep and clipped tones of the 1940’s reporters telling us about the progress of D Day (I know it’s radio but you can definitely see that they are wearing suits and ties or possibly even dinner jackets) have you also wondered where are the women’s voices? Answer is, of course, there weren’t any. Not only were there no women announcers or presenters but British women were not allowed to be accredited war reporters. The only way around this disbarment was for reporters like Clare Hollingworth to join an American news organisation if they wanted to report the biggest story of the day.

Image result for picture of martha gellhorn

Even Martha Gellhorn, the veteran American journalist who had been reporting the War for Collier’s Magazine since 1937, suffered from this attitude as the US Army’s public relations officers objected to a woman being a correspondent with combat troops. But she was determined not to be relegated to reporting behind the lines or what was demeaningly called ‘the women’s angle’ and came up with a brilliant ruse. Read More

How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.

But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.

Read More

Putting myself in the interview chair

Putting myself in the interview chair

This weekend, instead of me questioning other people, two interviews about me appeared, one in print and one on the radio. I already knew, of course, how tricky it is, when you are under pressure, to convey exactly what you want to say and yet this really brought it home. This is how other people will see me! 

Listen to the BBC programme here – there is also a podcast of this edition of Private Passion available.

Here’s another article where I talk sexism, Elizabeth Taylor – and women’s lives 

 

The Questions People Ask

One cover, two books

After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?

Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few).  Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?

Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.