Depp and Desire

Back at the beginning of this year, the celebrity timetable that decrees what is going to be in our gossip columns and fill acres of newsprint and internet pages in any given week, reminded editors around the world that Kate Moss was having her fortieth birthday. The inevitable series of ‘Kate Moss this is your life’ photos showed us how she had or hadn’t aged from a child into a woman, taking in what the press decreed were her ups and downs (Vogue front pages/drugs) along the way. I vaguely glanced at a set from some online paper or other, celebrating and secretly rejoicing in Moss’s inevitable ageing process. There was one taken in the 1990s at the Cannes Film Festival, that held my attention. It stopped me dead in my tracks, and made me really look, and then wonder what it was I was looking at or looking for. It was a red carpet shot of Kate Moss and her then boyfriend, Johnny Depp. They are standing hand in hand, posing for the camera. She is wearing a plain grey shift dress, very little make-up and her hair down around her shoulders. She is looking elegant, easy and elegant, not much sign of the hippy waif. Depp is dressed for the occasion in a tuxedo. He has no facial hair or dreadlocks, not even a hat. He’s smartened himself up for the evening, as has Kate Moss, but you get the feeling, smartened up at the last moment before leaving the house.

It wasn’t Kate Moss who caused me to pause and look at the picture and then look at why I was looking at it. I read about her doings and look at pictures of her, but only if they happen to be on my screen or pointed to by someone. I understand she is very photogenic, but her style seems to me to be a layer or series of layers on top of something that’s fairly ordinary. I’m not very interested in Johnny Depp’s life either. I noted that lately he had separated from his wife, who I knew to be Vanessa Paradis, French, an actress or a singer, I’m not sure which. I didn’t know they were a couple until long after they got together, because the news just hadn’t come my way. I’ve seen a number of films with Johnny Depp, but very few made in the last decade or two. I gather they are mostly turkeys. They don’t much appeal, so I don’t think to bother, though I watch the latest iteration of Pirates of the Caribbean for it’s silly lush, backward glance at old adventure movies.

But there is something about the two of them in that posed picture, that I still think of from time to time. Him avoiding a direct look at the cameras, trying to keep the public gaze at bay; her letting her mask slide, not looking like a glazed model, but like a woman who can’t help smiling for the requited desire they are both feeling and trying to keep it under control in public. Clasping each other’s hand for help. They are young and charming and crazy for each other.

When I was young, but old enough to have discovered that I was desirable, I would sometimes see a face at a party, in the pub, in the street, and it would sledgehammer me. Sometimes, if the situation was right, I would do something about it, make myself known, available. It was and is called attraction, and I didn’t think about it very much. It was just what happened. Sometimes you are attracted to a face, sometimes someone is attracted to you. There isn’t always a matching response, and then there would be a slight moment of regret, and I’d get on with whatever I was doing. If it worked both ways, and other things were equal, we would get together, go for a walk, a meal, or perhaps skip the formalities and spend the night with each other. Maybe something else would happen and we would have an affair that lasted, weeks, months, very occasionally years. It wasn’t the only way I got involved with men, but it was the most thrilling. The sparking of desire and then fulfilling it.

In the photo of Depp holding Kate Moss’s hand, there is something wary about the eyes, on guard, as the bulbs flash. Nevertheless, the look is direct, it’s the gateway to all kinds of things we can’t know about him. Moss’s smile confirms what can’t be known, but anyone could guess. The other thing I noted about the picture was that the two of them, Moss and Depp, were almost perfect twins. When they looked at each other, as perhaps they didn’t dare to in public at that moment, it must have been like looking in a mirror. Did they know that, I wonder. Their twinship? The small rosebud mouths, the slanted eyes, a glazed, bored expression painted on as they look out at the world, behind which you could see the exhaustion from the pleasure they took in each other’s company. But that was a fleeting assessment before the sledgehammer. Perhaps more like a lightning bolt. A shaft, as of Cupid arrow in the heart, opening in me a memory of something, some feeling, ache, shock in the chest. The old remembered remnants of youthful desire.

I am 67. And I found myself filled with – well, something like grief. It must have been the grief of an old woman remembering youth and desire, when it hit you out of the blue, and was returned, and knowing it was possible and necessary to assuage it. I was suddenly overcome by the visual recollection of youthful sexuality beaming out from the couple. Someone once said to me with tears in his eyes on his 60th birthday, ‘No one will ever fall in love with me again.’ I stopped myself from saying sharply ‘That’s all right, no one ever has so far’, as a kind of punishment for what I took to be his drunken, mawkishness, which, even if true, really needed only a wry smile, not tears. I was in my forties then and not very tolerant of sentimentality. The moment of grief I felt looking at the picture of Moss and Depp also needed the wry smile, not tears. When I was fifty I met The Poet, who is the same age as me. We had each left it until the last minute to find the relationship of our lives. Before that neither of us thought of ourselves as finally committed to a relationship, although we had had marriages and children. Our living happily ever after together, at such a late stage in our lives, is something we both smile at as improbable. It still surprises us, but it works. I don’t really know why. I came across something new, when we met, that both took in and transformed the youthful desire; we had the attraction but built a relationship on top of it that made the already but not quite diminished possibility at my age of looking at someone else in a room, wanting them, seeing it mirrored, and doing something about it, a voluntary surrender thereafter on my part. It’s possible you can’t surrender completely to age and settled love. Perhaps you have to grieve a little – to look at a photo of a pair of lovers in the midst of an passionate affair and feel a pang but also a smile for the chances you won’t have and wouldn’t take anyway, and for the loss of the possibility of raw desire being reciprocated by a stranger.

Another original version of my monthly column translated into Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten.

August 2014

This was written in August to be translated for my column in the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten.

Some things are best met with silence. If I were to proceed with this month’s column in an honest way, it would be a blank page, without words. The imaginary blankness of the page represents the other blanknesses I have already created in my life, these past few weeks. A friend just phoned to talk to me about a mutual friend who sadly is very ill. We talk about how she will manage, what we can do, how although we know her and she is our friend, there are thousands, millions of others, also struck down with severe illness. We must bear them in mind, but our friend is our friend and her experience concerns us directly. When that conversation is done, my friend on the phone says, ‘I’m sure we don’t have to talk about…how awful…the dreadful…Do we?’
‘No,’ I say, cutting off his hesitations. ‘We don’t have to. I can’t.’
‘Yes, the same with me. Well, you know…’
‘Yes, I know.’
That blankness. Once again the desire to look away has taken hold of me. The hole in our conversation is the equivalent of the imagined blankness of this page, and the swerving of my mind away from my responses, sad, angry, disbelieving, violent even, as I come across reports.
I no longer watch the news. The Channel 4 News with John Snow as an anchor has been my first place of detailed information about what is going on in the world. It is thorough and serious, it doesn’t have an agenda of the shorter, more popular news broadcasts on other channels, which cut the sadness or cruelty of the world news with upbeat human interest stories, or at least not so much. It does ask you to face what is going on, whatever it is, and it often enough isn’t good, often enough very bad. There are no other news programmes on television that have such a good daily, hour-long analysis of world events. After that, I read the Guardian, online these days, and then weekly and monthly news magazines, in print and on the screen, that fill in the political background of the news or present facets of situations that I haven’t thought of. I listen to some of the hourly bulletins on the radio as well as longer analysis programmes. Of course, there is Twitter, which has now become a kind of infinite curator of daily thought and writing about what is happening; tweets from various journalists or interested people linking to readings and videos on obvious and not so obvious topics, that I would never have found by myself. Keeping up.
I haven’t been my happiest self in the last few months, for no particular reason, at least to start with, just because I am made to have periods of not being my happiest self. But still, while my low spirits continued, I tried to watch the Channel 4 News regularly, to attempt to keep up with the world whose doings I’ve rather lost interest in, as my mood begins to circle its wagons and to look intently and pointlessly at interior reflections of myself mirrored in time and space, rather than out at the world. I know it’s important to know what’s going on. It’s important to witness, not to look away. But I really feel as if I’ve had some inner resolve taken from me, or that I’m missing some protective coating that enabled me to do that.
It has been like that since I saw the news several weeks ago that the three missing Israeli teenagers had been found dead. Of course, the news seeps in, and I find myself with all the emotions welling up. The shelling of schools, the claim that the opposition are using civilians as hostages, the reversal of the reality of who is weak and who is strong to make the aggressors victims and the victims aggressors. Of course, both are aggressors, but the two sides are radically unequal. The one side rich and with American and European weapons, the other deliberately impoverished with a population of 50% children. Not being young, I have nowhere to put the anger I feel, or any excuse for my disbelief. ‘How can they do that? How can they?’ I hear myself saying. And then stop because it’s a naive and foolish question. One that cannot be answered in any way that would be satisfactory to me. I would be on the street, marching with the thousands if I could. But although I have good reasons why I can’t, I also know that I am sure that all the marching by all the decent people in the world will not effect a real change. I know that change comes about in economic and diplomatic ways. If it comes about at all. Still, I am pleased that there is a presence on the street expressing their dismay at the absence of humanity.
I am living such a secluded life. There isn’t a single person I know, or who I correspond with who would take the other side, or disagree with me on more than minor points. No one who doesn’t believe that the motives are not really defence, but land-grabbing and ethnic cleansing. The death of the three students was known about by the government, but not the population, a month before the ‘retaliatory’ aggression. The population is, of course, being used, in the same way that the opposition is sidelined. There must be many who side with the stronger force. I do not put myself in the way of them, any more than I can tolerate seeing the news, except out of the corner of my eyes, or as links pointing to the horror of it on Twitter. I know I’m not alone in not wanting to look. The columnist Suzanne Moore, in the Guardian, wrote how she didn’t need to see those awful pictures of dead and wounded children to know that what was happening was wrong. Words are enough, even the word ‘civilian’ is enough. It isn’t only cowardice, it is also that we’ve seen it before, we don’t need it to show us other people’s pain, or to invade the privacy of those whose privacy has most terribly already been invaded by being killed. If I don’t look at the news or the pictures being put up everywhere on the Internet, it is only because I’ve paid attention to them for decades now. And all that time, I haven’t felt anything I might do could help. Marching, signing petitions, boycotting, of course, all those things, but finally all there is is helpless anger and shame that human beings behave in such a way.


After Bunty

This is another of my columns for the Swedish paper, Goteborgs-Posten.

Summer 2014

I’ve always thought of myself as an independent sort of woman. From around 1970 until the turn of the century, I had my own flats and mostly lived alone in them. Only twice did I share my space with a man, and then, in each case, not for more than a year or so before I decided I wasn’t much good at sharing. One was my ex-husband with whom I had my only child, and although living together proved unsatisfactory, he remained one of my best friends until his awful death in a drowning accident three years ago. The other was just a mistake. Mine.

At the turn of the century (I do enjoy writing that, as though my life spanned bustles and mini-skirts) all that changed. I met the Poet and within a year I had moved to Cambridge from my lifelong base in London, and then, shortly after that had a study built for myself in the attic of his house, and moved in. Some time after that, we even got married. None of that happened without considerable kicking and screaming on my part, although I think much of it was my surprise at myself. I wasn’t going to let my guard down without a battle. Now we’ve been together for fifteen years, which is longer than I lived with, or even knew, my mother. However, what I’m really wanting to write about, and find myself having to go through this preamble, is the fact that I don’t have a cat.

In truth, I haven’t lived alone most of my life, but only lived without a in-house lover. I almost always had a cat, and no one can say that living with a cat is living alone. I had my first cat when I was fifteen, Grey Cat. Since then, there have been a parade of them: Sniff, Mungo, Black Cat, Phoebe, Ruby, D’Arcy, Oscar, Bunty. All of them were long lived and died in old age, usually at the hand of the vet and in my arms, when to keep them alive would have been the more cruel act. Only Phobe had a brief time with me. She was the friendliest cat I’ve ever known, she had no reserve. Also, strangely, she always smelled of violets. She disappeared one day when she was about 18 months old, almost certainly taken home by someone who she nuzzled up to and who fell thievishly in love with her. At any rate, I hope that was what happened to her.

Bunty was my last cat. She stars in my book What I Don’t Know About Animals, and it was her picture at the back of the book where the author photo is supposed to be. She sits on my keyboard, glaring and daring me to try and get access to it. The relationship we built up over the fifteen years of knowing (about the same as knowing the Poet) each other was very one sided. I spoke but she never answered, and yet I always had the feeling that she was answering if I hadn’t been too stupid to understand. The conclusion I came to in the book, that we can’t possibly ever know how it is for an animal, only make anthropomorphic guesses which tell us more about us than about them, was partly my own thinking and partly the result of my one-sided conversations with Bunty on the subject. (When my daughter was very little, an adult friend was in her room and asked her about the poster on the wall of garden birds. Did she know their names? No, she said, my mummy knows their names. Then she paused. Actually, she said, my mummy doesn’t really know their names. Mungo knows their names, but he won’t tell us.’ The child had reached the conclusion of my book written thirty-four years later.)

Bunty was tiny and incredibly soft. She was the softest, tiniest cat I’ve ever known. We had an embattled sofa existence together. She spent hours on the sofa where I write. When I settled down at one end to do some work, she shuffled up to me and sat down, pushing hard against my arm, so that I had no more room than if I were sharing the sofa with three fat men. She took pleasure in inconveniencing me but no cat ever purred more loudly than Bunty. She was in some ways, quite a dependent cat. There were days when she followed me around the house as if she were a dog. Padding behind me, upstairs to the loo, then back downstairs to the kitchen, then up again to my study. But as soon as I was settled on the sofa, she’d go and stand by the door I closed behind me when I wanted to work, waiting to be let out. After I got up and let her out, she would sit on the threshold so I couldn’t shut the door. If I managed to, she’d want to come in. It was a game she liked to play for hours. I was up and down every five minutes opening and closing the door for her, and it wasn’t very conducive to getting work done. Sometimes I shut the door on her, and kept her outside my study, but she scratched up the carpet so badly and made such a outraged yowling noise that I couldn’t work anyway. Eventually I gave up and had a cat flap put in my study door, so that she could come and go as she please, and at least I didn’t have to get up every five minutes. Of course, she refused to use it.

She died about a few months before the book was published. She was very old and her kidneys had given out. I held her paw and stroked her, whispering to her what a wonderful cat she was, while the vet injected her. Even now, I can’t type that without tears coming to my eyes.

I didn’t get a new cat. It has been three years now since Bunty died. Somehow it seemed too much to begin again with a kitten. Life is really much easier without. No buying cat food, no cat hair on everything, no peeing on the door mat because it’s too wet to go outside, no mice half dead under the bed, no running to the vet with a screaming cat every year to get injections, and if I want to go away, I just close the door and leave, no making arrangements with neighbours, no guilt. Cats really are a burden. Like people, but more demanding because they don’t demand, they are simply exist as an obligation. Everyone likes to be relieved of obligations, don’t they? But the truth is that every time I go into my study, I mistake the cushion on the sofa for Bunty, lying curled up, waiting for me to sit down so that she can get me up to let her out. I really see her for a fraction of a second. Then I remember, and it surprises me that I have been living without a cat for so long. When the Poet is out, there is no other living breathing body in the house. It surprises me, too, to realise how much I depended on having a breathing, warm feline somewhere in the house, even if I didn’t know where. The Poet likes cats, but not in the way that I do. He really appreciates being cat-free and is especially pleased not to have his glorious garden turned into a cat’s lavatory. And after all, there he is, the Poet, loving and conversational. The love of my life. The companion of my life. I’m not lonely. And yet sometimes my lap feels empty and I miss distractedly scratching Bunty under her ear while I stare out of the window, as I would say, working. I could try it with the Poet, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it as much as Bunty did. He’s quite a restless person and couldn’t possibly sit still for hours while I stroke behind his ears. There are only practical reasons for not getting another cat. There are only emotional reasons for getting one. I’m always on the verge of demanding that we get another cat, and yet I don’t. I may be a little like Bunty, standing at the closed door waiting to be let out, only to wait on the other side to be let in again.

Autumn 2014

ps I did demand another cat after I was diagnosed with lung cancer, but it was vetoed by the medics on the grounds that I would be too vulnerable to infection while having treatment. This means that after treatment I might demand again. But now there are other considerations beyond the convenience factor.

Wasting Our Time

A post written a couple of months ago for my column in Sweden, in the Goteborgs-Posten.

In spite of The Poet and me being pretty old, we’re still young enough to remember from our childhood being told off for watching too much television and not, like the parents, making our own entertainment. That claim always makes me think of a small crowd gathered around an upright piano singing along and in harmony to the popular songs, provided on sheet music, of the day. It’s a very Edwardian image, more fitted to grandparents. Or at least The Poet’s grandparents, who is from proper middle-class English and Scottish stock. I imagine they amused themselves by playing bridge at parties, or playing classical music on the piano or cello. Not that jolly round the piano down the pub singsong of my imagination, which is not the heritage of either of us.

I have no idea how my grandparents entertained themselves in the stetl, or as itinerant sellers and providers of services. Plenty of songs, and Yiddish theatre but I imagine that would be for the wealthier Jews of Eastern Europe which my grandparents weren’t. Then, having taken the ship that had them arrive in London’s East End, rather than Liverpool or New York, where it seems to my brief memory of them, they  kept themselves going by recreating their old world as much as they could. Speaking in Yiddish, keeping up religious and social traditions. Actually, I doubt that they thought much about entertainment, but when they weren’t working overtime tailoring or running a cafe in Petticoat Lane market, they – at any rate my grandmother – Bubba – came round to our flat and cooked special Jewish/Eastern European treats from the old country. For me, that meant bubbelehs, a word that bubbled up in my mind as The Poet and I discussed childhood food. I didn’t even know if it was a real word or something my memory or my Bubba invented because it sounded like my name for her. The Poet, being a man of the word, went to check in Florence Greenberg, the Bubba of Jewish cookery, and then double-checked with Claudia Roden, the more sophisticated matriarch of Jewish cuisine. There they were. Bubbelehs, not just a private name for the delicious treat Bubba always cooked when she came to visit, but the pancakes of suddenly Proustian importance, made simply from matzo meal and egg, moulded into patties, fried and then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Food treats weren’t much part of The Poet’s childhood. He is more likely to recall having to sit at the dining table in front of a plate of overcooked meat and vegetables, which back in the 1950s was the way of English cookery, until he had eaten every awful mouthful. Sometimes, being a stubborn soul, he would be sitting there from lunch until tea-time, when sheer persistence eventually won the day and he was sent to his room. I definitely had the better food experiences from my nostalgic post-immigrant family.

But his English-inflected childhood, the eldest of five siblings, living in a large rambling house by the sea near Liverpool was in other ways, to my mind, idyllic. Roaming through unused rooms, cellars and attic of the big house, rambling the day long on the seashore finding jellyfish and building Robinson Crusoe shelters, owning a small rowing boat and putting out to sea, investigating tide pools, keeping jars of pond and garden creatures, snails, tadpoles, water boatmen, in his bedroom. All this sounds like the books I borrowed from the library and read avidly, of alien children who were properly English as I knew I wasn’t really. Books about middle-class children whose explorations in vast houses and country landscapes led them to all kinds of adventures. Through cupboards to other lands, solving mysteries that defied the police, creating theatrical dramas performed in huge living rooms in front of great log fires. The were children without parents because they were busy elsewhere, or they had died in the war, often they were living with amiable absent-minded uncles, or complete strangers as evacuees from the war. There might be mention of homesickness or sadness, but it was always subsumed by their life of imaginative play and adventure. At any rate, they were free to range widely and wildly in the world. The Poet talks about his childhood and I can only imagine it as being between the covers of books.

My world was much more constrained. A tiny flat, just two small rooms in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the ‘schmutter district’ that so many Jewish immigrants and their children worked in. An urban childhood of pavements and narrow blank corridors, just as magical and exciting, actually, as the real space of the English childhood, but darker and more enclosed, with parents who were inescapable, bearing down on their single inescapable child, each of us always aware of the other. Me always watched or known about, playing secret games inside my head; The Poet out of sight for hours, making his own way about the real world. The Poet now craves large houses with high ceilings, I am much more comfortable in the house we actually have, a small, former railway-workers’ terraced house, two small rooms up and two down and a long narrow garden leading down to the sidings where the trains pass en route to Ely and also stop to be cleaned. I’m very happy with the containing smallness of the little house, with low ceilings and rooms no larger than 3.5 meters square. Partly it’s because I’m small and he’s large, so space is differently defined, but also there’s a principle born into each of us in childhood about how much space we need to have around us to feel comfortable. He feels claustrophobic, I feel protected, for all my envy of his storybook English childhood.

I don’t know why we were always being told off about watching too much television. As I write, it seems that we were always busy in our different environments, inventing clubs with only a single member in my case, with the full complement of siblings in The Poet’s case; exploring landscape in The Poet’s childhood, investigating shadows and what happened when the corridors turned the corner, in mine. Still we did watch television and can spend enjoyable hours recalling the kids’ programmes we watched, even more satisfying because we can confirm it with the dozens of internet sites devoted to the TV of the 1950s. Our children, all very adult now, don’t watch as much TV as we do – mocking the worst, being surprised by the good. So we haven’t had a chance to become our own parents and complain about them not making their own entertainment. Even the grandchildren, who do watch children’s television are easily distracted by their mountains of Lego or colouring books. And truth to tell, only the other day the daughter phoned while we were in the middle of a cop show and wondered why on earth we spend our time together watching crap on the television. We read and write books all day long, and there are no corridors or seashore to explore where we are in the world, and at our age. We are probably the only generation to be told off for wasting our spare time by both our forebears and our offspring. But we still have enough time to tell each other stories of our strangely contrasting childhoods.