The Day Elsie Died

This 40 year old memory has surfaced vividly for me since the coronavirus hit us, perhaps because the elderly, of whom some people would say I’m one (I’m 69) have been in the news, because we’re (they’re?) at great risk, or need to be sacrificed for herd immunity. I’m not sure which.

I’ll start with a little background. It took me a year or two of mind numbingly boring work and study to realise at the age of 27 that a career in accountancy just wasn’t for me. I moved into social work, which suited me much better. After spells as a care assistant, usually the only male member of staff, I quite quickly got a job as a Deputy Officer In Charge (it meant Assistant Manager) of a home for elderly people in the north west of England. I enjoyed it a lot, even though my boss wasn’t the most encouraging. I think she was dubious about men doing caring work. I was good with figures though, so she immediately shoved all the paperwork, bills etc, on to me, including the ordering of food. I remember every week buying some lovely cuts of beef that I never seemed to see on the residents’ plates. Perhaps I was there on the wrong days.

Like most elderly person’s homes (they weren’t called care homes in those days), we had our fair share of residents with dementia – agitated, often angry old people, mostly ladies, who spent their days wandering around the home lost and confused, occasionally asking for their mum, or berating us for some imagined wrong. But even those ladies could usually be reassured, even entertained, with a smile, some tea and a sing song. Just our company would do the trick really.

The residents with physical problems were able to enjoy relatively fulfilling lives, since we could help them get around, make sure they got a bath when they wanted one and provide a decent meal, even if the meat was from the cheap end of the cow.

One of our residents, I’ll call her Elsie, celebrated her 109th birthday while I worked there. I’m not going to say Elsie was the oldest person in England at the time, because I seem to recall there was some competition for that title, but she was certainly in one of the medal positions. She was tiny, a featherweight, frail, quite confused and usually smiling, when she wasn’t asleep, which was a lot of the time. Everybody loved Elsie and it seemed she loved us, despite not knowing who we were. She was of course famous. Every visitor said hello to her and shook her hand if she was awake, she herself having no living relatives as far as I knew.

My boss, I’ll call her Margaret, decided that Elsie must have a party for her 109th birthday. Elsie didn’t disagree, not being asked, which was probably fair enough as she wouldn’t have understood what was being offered. Anybody who was anybody in our little town was invited to the shindig, from the local MP down to the postman. There was bunting and sandwiches and cake and jelly and even some sherry. Elsie enjoyed the party immensely before she fell asleep, and she was even persuaded to perform her party trick, which was to sing a song from the First World War. I’ve forgotten what the song was, but I remember that Elsie’s small, squeaky voice made her sound like a little bird, like the wren that I often see scuttling around the grounds of my apartment block. One of the precious few positives of lockdown is the sound of garden birds that is so clear now. Wrens have an amazingly powerful song for such a tiny bird.

A few weeks after her celebration, Elsie’s health started to deteriorate. After an examination the doctor told us that her heart was failing (that’s Elsie’s heart, not the doctor’s). There was nothing that could be done, he said, other than keeping her comfortable and hydrated.

After a week or so, it became clear that our little bird had no more than a few days left. She slept almost continuously, couldn’t take much food and her breathing was laboured, inconsistent and noisy. ‘Cheyne Stokes’ breathing apparently it’s called, although, in those pre-internet days and me knowing next to nothing about nursing, I thought whoever told me had said it was ‘chain stoke’. It was a breathing I became familiar with over the three years I worked with the elderly, as it indicated terminal heart failure. Exhalations are loud and grating (like a heavy chain being dragged, hence me misspelling it), whilst inhalations are short and ineffective. After a few of these the breathing suddenly stops altogether, so that you fear that the person’s died, before the cycle abruptly restarts with a big, gasping intake of air.

My boss told me that if I was on a sleep-in (where you sleep on the premises to be available for emergencies) and it seemed that Elsie was unlikely to live through that night, I should phone her at home and she would come out to be with Elsie at the end. As bad luck would have it, I was on duty when that night arrived. By the time all the other residents were in bed, I could see and hear that Elsie’s breathing was much worse and that her death probably wasn’t far away. I asked the two waking night staff to look after everyone else and said I’d sit with Elsie for as long as necessary. I wasn’t sure if or when to phone Margaret, as for all I knew Elsie might hang on until the morning, and I didn’t want to bring my grumpy boss in unnecessarily.

By about 1am I felt pretty sure that this was the night. It was our practice to turn bed bound residents frequently to prevent bedsores and as I and one of the care assistants were doing that, I saw that the veins in Elsie’s feet and ankles had gone dark. That meant they weren’t getting any blood flow. That’s what happens in the final stages of heart failure. The heart simply isn’t strong enough to pump blood any more and the extremities suffer first.

There were no signs that Elsie was in any pain or distress. She just seemed to be in a deep sleep, even with the awkward breathing. She was unconscious I guess. I phoned Margaret so that she could come in and she sleepily said she would. I returned to Elsie’s room and sat holding her hand, waiting.

Margaret’s house wasn’t far from the home, so it wouldn’t have taken her long to get to us. She didn’t arrive though. At 3am I saw that Elsie’s legs were now dark and I reasoned that at that rate after another hour or so she would probably die. Still no sign of Margaret. I assumed she must have fallen back to sleep. I decided not to phone again, in case I got into trouble for waking her twice.

At 4am or thereabouts, with me still holding her hand, Elsie died, quietly and unfussily, as was her style. Her breathing just stopped, and didn’t start again. I had seen people die before (I remember one old chap explosively evacuating his bowels at the moment of death – thankfully I was on the other side of the room at the time), and it’s always a chastening experience, even for an atheist like me. I sat in silence for a few minutes, as it always seem the right thing to do, even though I don’t think there’s a soul in there packing its bags and moving on. Knowing me, I was probably trying to calculate how many breaths Elsie had taken over the course of her 109 years and a bit.

I let the other staff know that Elsie had gone and then phoned the doctor, as only a doctor can confirm death. He said he’d come out immediately, but, like my boss, didn’t. I phoned Margaret again, to give her the sad news. She quite reasonably said there was no point getting up then and that she’d be there first thing in the morning.

You’re not supposed to do anything to a body until the doctor confirms that death has taken place, but after about 45 minutes we knew that if we didn’t rearrange Elsie’s limbs soon, rigor mortis would set in and her legs might get broken when she finally was straightened. I can’t remember if I phoned the doctor again, but if I did he still didn’t turn up. The night care assistant and I laid Elsie out straight, washed her hands and face and brushed what hair she still had. She was then clean and tidy and ready for the undertaker.

Margaret arrived at 8 and paid her respects. She apologised for not making it before the end. The doctor turned up at 10, confessing that he’d fallen back to sleep earlier. He examined Elsie, who was now of course cold, grey and stiff. “I think she’s dead”, he said, sheepishly. “Yes”, I said, deferentially, “I think she is”. Time of death, 10.10am.

The undertaker arrived later and took Elsie away. I don’t remember the funeral. I was probably on duty, since Margaret would have been there and one of us had to be in charge at the home.

The day Elsie died I was on a double shift, which means I was working through until 10pm. That was usually fine, so long as you’d slept the night before, but I hadn’t of course. By the time I went off duty and to bed, officially at 10, but it was always later than that, I’d been continuously awake for more than 36 hours. I was so tired I was almost hallucinating and had very little idea what I was doing. Thankfully, nobody took sick or died that night.

I don’t know how many elderly people have died, and are still to die, during this pandemic, here in the UK and across the world. Tens of thousands I suppose. I never knew what Elsie had done with the 108 plus years she lived before I met her. I wish I had. Her life mattered, whatever she did with it. Every life, and every death, matters.

End

Brexit and The Beast From The East

If I was a Brexiteer this is what I’d be saying today:

“Brexit is a bit like a sudden widespread heavy snowfall across most of the country.

The doom-mongers speculate that there’ll be wholesale disruption to industry, to the movement of goods, to personal road, air and rail travel, to power supplies and to schools. They fear no one will be able to go anywhere without major delays and that efficient trading will be all but impossible.

In fact, in the longer term, the opposite will be true. When the snow does arrive, whilst there is often some disruption, the steadfast British spirit soon conquers all. We smile stoically, eat hearty soups, wrap up well, look after the older folk, whether they like it or not and come out the other side happier, closer to our neighbours, grateful for the opportunities to go sledging with our children, to work from home for a day or two and with the prospect of a bright and sunny spring ever nearer. Furthermore, we will have met lots of new and interesting people, as we sought alternative ways of getting to work, and as we thumped our gloved hands together, remarking to complete strangers, “a bit parky today isn’t it?” Many of these erstwhile strangers will have become lifelong friends.

That’s Brexit in a nutshell. Don’t be fooled by those pessimistic Remoaners into thinking it’s going to be a disaster. It won’t, because we’re British, and whilst change is a bit scary, it’ll be like we’re colonising the world again when that Brexit spring arrives.”

If I was anti-Brexit, this is what I’d be saying today:

“Brexit is a bit like a sudden widespread heavy snowfall across much of the country.

Owing to an almost total lack of preparedness, there’s a sudden and inexplicable lack of salt and all the roads are impassable, even in Islington, almost as if they’d put a hard border between it and Haringey.

Network Rail bosses, who used to take their winter breaks in the Canaries now go to the Caribbean and can’t be contacted. As a result, no trains run, because there’s nobody to authorise the overtime required to clear the snow. All the schools are closed since UK Health and Safety rules now say the playgrounds aren’t safe. Thousands of children spend their days shoplifting in Westfield Centres, and retail sector profits tumble accordingly.

There’s complete chaos at the airports, because most flights are grounded as soon as they get word of a snow flurry 20 miles away. The queues of disgruntled passengers stretch for miles, and none of them thought to bring a flask, which are banned anyway under anti-terrorism laws, unless they’re the size of thimbles.

Old people, who sit under a blanket watching Countdown while waiting to die, smile mischievously at the chaos outside. Not having sledged since sliding down the street on a tray in 1958, they gain no benefit whatsoever from the snow, but they’re not bothered, as until it started snowing no one paid them any attention and now they’re practically running things.

That’s Britain after Brexit. You think the beast from the east is bad? Try eating a £5 croissant with gloves on.”

It’s All Kicking off in Bow

On opening the curtains this morning, barely awake, I casually looked out at the endless traffic passing below and noticed down at the bottom of my outside window sill, a wasp struggling in a spider’s web. I watched it almost disinterestedly for a minute or so, wondering if it would break free, and feeling pretty sure it wouldn’t. But not really caring either way. Such is how I view life and death struggles at the crack of half past nine.

Still feeling drowsy and with no tea to help me wake up yet (and since I live alone, no tea was going to appear until I made it do so), I wasn’t in a fit state to take any decisions about what, if anything, to do about this sudden unexpected instance of nature red in tooth and claw that was taking place in front of me; so if the wasp had spotted me and had any hopes that I might show some pity and set it free, it was sadly mistaken. I was stung by a wasp on a golf course in 1997 and I still bear a grudge.

Then the spider arrived (cue the Jaws music). It was no bigger than the wasp, but seemed to be unworried about that. It watched its prey struggle for a short while, presumably thinking, “crikey! I’ve hit the jackpot here, this’ll please the wife” (or the hubby, let’s not be sexist), then circled around it, contemplating which bit to tackle first I suppose.

The wasp was still showing no sign of being able to escape. If anything it was more trapped than ever, its wings and legs now well and truly wrapped in the silk thread that I could barely see through the dirty glass. I’ve been meaning to clean that window for months. I dread to think what’s getting into my lungs from the endless traffic heading for the A12 past my flat, given the amount of dirt that accumulates on my outside glass.

Having completed a tour of its hapless victim, the spider reached a decision and went in for the kill. At least I presumed it was for the kill: I didn’t really know. My entomology knowledge has all been gleaned from David Attenborough on the TV, and I can’t remember him ever doing a series about the kind of creatures that live on the window ledges of east London. Do house spiders kill their prey or wait for them to die of wriggling?

Whatever he was intending to do, the spider was very determined. He, or she, charged in with admirable energy, most of his eight legs hitting out pretty randomly really at the poor wasp, who had almost no defence at all. I think I saw his sting protrude at one point, but the spider avoided it neatly and simply moved along to attack another bit.

I stood there yawning and scratching and wishing I’d made the tea before this life or death battle had started. There’s no pause button in nature though, so I either had to leave them to it and head for the kitchen or stick around and cheer them on.

The blows from the spider’s legs continued to rain down on the wasp, which was by now barely moving. A leg, or a sting, or whatever, occasionally struck out to no avail. The spider stepped back, either to take a rest or to admire its handiwork, and then returned to the task, like a painter returning to his easel.

After a few minutes the wasp stopped moving. Amazingly, the spider then picked it up, or at least that’s how it looked to me, seeming able to easily free the dead creature from the tangled thread and carry it off out of my sight.

I opened the balcony door to the side of the window and looked along the ledge. The spider and its deceased victim were in the corner of the window frame. The victorious spider looked up at me with an air of nonchalant triumph, as if to say, in a voice too small for me to hear, “Nothing to see here mate, go on about your business. That tea won’t make itself you know.”

 

 

 

 

It’s All Kicking Off Now

On opening the curtains this morning, barely awake, I casually looked out at the endless traffic passing below and noticed down at the bottom of my outside window sill, a wasp struggling in a spider’s web. I watched it almost disinterestedly for a minute or so, wondering if it would break free, and feeling pretty sure it wouldn’t. But not really caring either way. Such is how I view life and death struggles at the crack of half past nine.

Still feeling drowsy and with no tea to help me wake up yet (and since I live alone, no tea was going to appear until I made it do so), I wasn’t in a fit state to take any decisions about what, if anything, to do about this sudden unexpected instance of nature red in tooth and claw that was taking place in front of me; so if the wasp had spotted me and had any hopes that I might show some pity and set it free, it was sadly mistaken. I was stung by a wasp on a golf course in 1997 and I still bear a grudge.

Then the spider arrived (cue the Jaws music). It was no bigger than the wasp, but seemed to be unworried about that. It watched its prey struggle for a short while, presumably thinking, “crikey! I’ve hit the jackpot here, this’ll please the wife” (or the hubby, let’s not be sexist), then circled around it, deciding which bit to tackle first I suppose.

The wasp was still showing no signs of being able to escape. If anything it was more trapped than ever, its wings and legs now well and truly wrapped in the silk thread that I could barely see through the dirty glass. I meant to clean that window months ago. I dread to think what’s getting into my lungs from the endless traffic that heads for the A12 past my flat, given the amount of dirt that accumulates on my outside glass.

Having completed a tour of its hapless victim, the spider made a decision and went in for the kill. At least I presumed it was for the kill, I didn’t really know. My entomology knowledge has all been gleaned from David Attenborough on the TV, and I can’t remember him ever doing a series about the kind of creatures that live on the window ledges of east London. Do House spiders kill their prey or wait for them to die of wriggling?

Whatever he was intending to do, the spider was very determined. He, or she, charged in with admirable energy, most of his eight legs hitting out pretty randomly really at the poor wasp, who had almost no defence at all. I think I saw its sting protrude at one point, but the spider avoided it neatly and just moved along to attack another bit.

I stood there yawning and scratching and wishing I’d made the tea first while this life or death battle took place. There’s no pause button in nature so I either had to leave them to it and head for the kitchen or stick around and cheer them on.

The blows from the spider’s legs continued to rain down on the wasp, which was barely moving. A leg, or a sting, or whatever, occasionally struck out to no avail. The spider stood back occasionally, either to take a rest or to admire its handiwork, and then returned to the task, like a painter returning to his easel. After a few minutes the wasp stopped moving. Amazingly, the spider then picked it up, or at least that’s how it looked to me, seeming to be able to easily free the dead creature from the tangled thread and carried it off out of my sight.

I opened the balcony door to the side of the window, and looked along the ledge. The spider and its deceased victim were in the corner of the window frame. The spider looked up at me with an air of nonchalant triumph, as if to say, in a voice too small for me to hear, “nothing to see hear mate, move along now. That tea won’t make itself you know.”

 

 

 

Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale

Having got a bit behind, I’ve just watched the last episode of what thankfully is only the first series of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Jesus, it was a tough watch, but it’s been a seriously good story, rivalling ‘Breaking Bad’ as one of the best things I’ve seen in years. It’s rare that a film retains the essence of a great book, but this never disappointed. Gilead, seemingly in perpetual winter, was presented just as I imagined it from the words on Margaret Attwood’s pages. She must have had a big influence on the director and cinematographers, who did an amazing job. And the choice of music tracks was inspired too.

Elizabeth Moss’s performance was staggeringly good throughout. She gave us despair, defiance and dignity, and all of them with brilliant simplicity. They say less is more when it comes to great acting, and that’s what we got from her.

I was delighted to see that in the final scene the story returned to the original tale and very neatly had Offred (June) stepping into the unknown just as she did in the final chapter of the book.

I was disappointed at first when the series departed from the book so comprehensively, adding in back stories, new incidents in the present and information about what was happening in neighbouring countries such as Canada and Mexico. But now I see that if it was going to have any longevity it had to do that. The book is fabulous, but not lengthy. I’m already looking forward to the second series, or season 2, as I think we’re supposed to call these things.

Seeing the fictional horrors being inflicted on women in Gilead I couldn’t help wonder why those neighbouring countries, why the rest world of the world in fact, wasn’t doing something about it. But then what are we doing about North Korea, where I suspect equally despicable things are happening every day, and what did we do about Nazi Germany before it was too late?

If you’ve not seen The Handmaid’s Tale, do yourself a favour and catch up with it.

Dear Philip

Dear Philip,
This is a difficult email to write, mainly because someone else usually does my typing, but I thought I owed you the respect of doing this one myself. I’m sorry it has to be an email in fact, I know you’d rather hear what I have to say from Amber in person, but she wasn’t free to speak for me, some silly funeral or something, so this will have to do.
The thing is darling, I’ve decided that we need to spend a period of time apart, possibly a very long period. I need some space. And the space I need is Philip shaped. As I’m sure you’re aware, you and I have been growing apart for some time now. I used to think that our relationship was based on strength and stability, things that used to really turn you on, if the bolts and shackles on the cellar walls are any guide, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe those qualities are not the aphrodisiacs they once were.
An acquaintance of mine is getting a lot of joy out of offering himself unconditionally to many people at once, rather than to an elite few, and I’m wondering if that’s the direction I need to think about going in.
It’s not me of course, it’s you. That moment on the sofa on the One Show when you looked at that Welsh slut with undisguised lust didn’t help. And then, when we got home, you didn’t put the bins out as you promised, you merely locked yourself in the study with a box of tissues. It really hurt, and not in a good way. Thank goodness I had the hidden cameras installed. I know exactly what you do in the study Philip. That carpet will probably have to be thrown out you know, and it’s not even ours.
You’ll probably see me on TV spending quite a lot of time with my new best friend Arlene. I don’t want you to read anything untoward in that. She and I simply have a lot in common politically. There is absolutely nothing else between us. I’m very clear about that. If it seems that we’re close, it’s just politics, nothing more. In any case, even if there was a future for us, and there definitely isn’t, I do want to be clear about that, there could never be one. Neither of us would be willing to compromise our beliefs by acting on any inappropriate desires. Not that there are any, I’m absolutely clear about that.
So, Philip, that’s it. There won’t be any U turns on this. Probably. Look after yourself. Remember to apply that cream every morning; and stay away from the BBC; and the downstairs maid. She tells me everything.
Theresa.

Dear Philip

Dear Philip,
This is a difficult email to write, mainly because someone else usually does my typing, but I thought I owed you the respect of doing this one myself. I’m sorry it has to be an email in fact, I know you’d rather hear what I have to say from Amber in person, but she wasn’t free to speak for me, some silly funeral or something, so this will have to do.
The thing is darling, I’ve decided that we need to spend a period of time apart, possibly a very long period. I need some space. And the space I need is Philip shaped. As I’m sure you’re aware, you and I have been growing apart for some time now. I used to think that our relationship was based on strength and stability, things that used to really turn you on, if the bolts and shackles on the cellar walls are any guide, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe those qualities are not the aphrodisiacs they once were.
An acquaintance of mine is getting a lot of joy out of offering himself unconditionally to many people at once, rather than to an elite few, and I’m wondering if that’s the direction I need to think about going in.
It’s not me of course, it’s you. That moment on the sofa on the One Show when you looked at that Welsh slut with undisguised lust didn’t help. And then, when we got home, you didn’t put the bins out as you promised, you merely locked yourself in the study with a box of tissues. It really hurt, and not in a good way. Thank goodness I had the hidden cameras installed. I know exactly what you do in the study Philip. That carpet will probably have to be thrown out you know, and it’s not even ours.
You’ll probably see me on TV spending quite a lot of time with my new best friend Arlene. I don’t want you to read anything untoward in that. She and I simply have a lot in common politically. There is absolutely nothing else between us. I’m very clear about that. If it seems that we’re close, it’s just politics, nothing more. In any case, even if there was a future for us, and there definitely isn’t, I do want to be clear about that, there could never be one. Neither of us would be willing to compromise our beliefs by acting on any inappropriate desires. Not that there are any, I’m absolutely clear about that.
So, Philip, that’s it. There won’t be any U turns on this. Probably. Look after yourself. Remember to apply that cream every morning; and stay away from the BBC; and the downstairs maid. She tells me everything.
Theresa.

An Actor’s Dilemma

A particularly demanding audition today, but I think I nailed it. I was up for the role of a postman in a music video for someone so famous he only has one name. Like Sooty. But not Sooty.

I had to walk up to a door, ring the bell (there was quite a debate about whether ringing or knocking would be right for the character – a conundrum that’s been explored many times in the film world – we went for ringing. Only the reviews will tell if we made the right choice). When the door was answered I had to hand over a parcel and get a signature.

So, here’s the thing, my acting dilemma. As a method actor of “some distinction” (Skegness Courier, 1979) does a postman hand over the parcel and then get the signature or is it the other way round? I agonised for hours in rehearsal before deciding the only solution was to spend a month with the Royal Mail and deliver some parcels myself.

3 weeks in and I was still undecided. Both methods seemed to work. I then took advice from my great mentor, Howardly Bunstaple, whom you’ll all surely remember from his ground-breaking take on Much Ado About Nothing, in which the actors sat on stage for two hours discussing in improvised iambic pentameter the best way to open a bag of cheese and onion crisps. Howard was so insightful, suggesting myriad ways of doing the scene, including a novel idea involving chocolate and a small dog.

In the end, I decided to go with what felt right on the day, a decision I probably could have made at the start. But, hey, there’s no such thing as wasted preparation. It’s all in there (I’m tapping the side of my head and closing one eye wisely now). That combination of preparation and being in the moment is the essence of acting of course.

So, after an hour of my trusted breathing exercises, another hour of voice work, it’s into the postman’s costume, mwahs with the make-up girls and suddenly I’m there. I couldn’t be more ready. I’m as ready as a prize bull in a cowshed. A few deep breaths, remembering all the years of training – the laughter, the tears, the cocaine, I focus and then I hear those magic words from the director, “camera rolling….and….Action!”

Into shot I saunter, like a young Dustin Hoffman. “Knock knock” I go, on an imaginary door. “Cut!” yells the director, “we’re going with the bell aren’t we”? “Sorry darling” I say, “there was a runner picking her nose in my eyeline and it threw me” (there wasn’t but it’s always best to blame someone insignificant when you mess up). “Ok, let’s go again”, says the director impatiently.

This time I’m perfect. Into shot, ring bell, hand over parcel, “sign here mate” (a touch of quiet genius, I thought, ad libbing the “mate”, that kind of improvisation takes a combination of years of experience and supreme guts). And away I go out of shot. Hugs all round and that’s a wrap. Another triumph.

We’re so lucky, those of us in this business we like to call show. And gifted. Lucky and gifted.

I’ll Walk Out Backwards, So You’ll Think I’m Coming In

Reading Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk, I can’t help but think that it’s a rather forlorn and poorly disguised begging letter. With its talk of “shared European values”, a “vision for our continent” and Mrs May’s hope that we can agree “a deep and special partnership”, it sounds more like an application to join the EU than a resignation letter.

It made me think of the letter that you might write, at the age of 18, to a wealthy maiden aunt, if you’ve been a bit of a rebel and given your parents a tough time of it for a few years. Now, though, you’re finally going to go for it on your own. You’re heading off to university, to get a taste of that independence you’ve been demanding so belligerently for years. But you’ve realised, a bit too late, that it’s going to be quite a struggle.

In desperation, you write to that wealthy aunt who knows full well that you can barely remember her name, that you had to be dragged to her home, and that you always sat there the whole time with your head in your phone and a sulky look on your face. Nevertheless, she’s now your only chance, so you hope that she might, in true familial spirit, forget your past indiscretions and offer you a bit of support over the next few years, just until you’re self-sufficient, which you know will be real soon, because once you’ve graduated the world and all its riches will be yours to command.

Before you write your letter, you realise that you’ve got little, if anything, to offer your aunt in return for her generosity, except vague promises of visiting more often than you’ve done lately and of bringing her something nice when you do. You say straightaway that not visiting her is definitely not because you don’t care about her, it’s just that you’ve been really busy with your A’ levels. She also shouldn’t be concerned that you’re moving hundreds of miles away, because you’ll be back a lot – to get your washing done, to get a decent meal and to borrow money off your annoying parents, although you’re not so stupid as to mention these things – instead you write that you’ll be back to see old friends and of course to pop in on her. Family ties are so important, you say.

Although only barely into your second paragraph, you mention all the tough things that you’ll have to deal with on your own, like feeling a bit anxious at night, like not knowing who might come barging into your room when you’re asleep because you’ll no longer have the protection of your family around you and like how much things cost when you’re fending for yourself.

You mention that your parents always did a big shop at the weekend and (thanks to your persistent whining, though you don’t mention this either) they made sure they included a few especially nice things, just for you. But now you’ll have to pay for them yourself, and you’ll have to go to shops you’ve no real experience of, where the staff don’t know you at all, where they’ll make sure you pay full price for everything because why should they help you out now when you’ve never given them the time of day before?

To tug at the heartstrings a bit, you mention that independence, the opportunity to prove yourself on your own, to make your own decisions, to decide who does and doesn’t come into your home, is what you’ve always dreamed of. You insist that this adventure is really exciting, but also a little daunting now you come to think about it, so perhaps a little support during the transition from youth to adulthood wouldn’t go amiss. You tell your aunt that you feel sure she’ll appreciate that the close ties you’ve always had shouldn’t be dangerously loosened and definitely not broken completely, by you moving away.

Realising that to get anything at all out of your highly doubtful, and far from stupid aunt, you need to make sure that this letter isn’t all about you. You think hard. Finally, you say, this is actually an opportunity for the two of us to become closer, through the mutual interests that families will always share, such as regular updates on your progress and the joy of knowing that one of your dearest family is growing into an independent adult. And you want auntie to write to you regularly too, and maybe she might like to come up and visit and you’ll show her around (hoping desperately that this never, ever happens). In this way, you say (you’re probably laying it on a bit too thick now), you hope that your aunt will also benefit from you moving away and growing up, and will feel that her money has been really well spent.

The letter concludes:

“So, how about it dearest auntie? Just a short-term arrangement. Until I’m on my feet. I love the way you’re doing your hair these days by the way.

Your loving nephew.”

Insert name here.

 

 

Who’s Afraid of Daniel Blake?

I realise that no one I know with either a brain or a heart would expect me to even read a Daily Mail article, let alone write a blogpost about it, but since the Mail is now, I read recently, Britain’s top selling newspaper, we have to accept that a lot of people I don’t know, and don’t want to know, read the bile it spits out and believe every word of it. Well, it’s easier than thinking for yourself and it’s very comforting to be able to blame benefits claimants, immigrants or Jeremy Corbyn for all the country’s problems, rather than stop for thirty seconds and consider whether the misery we see around us every day is caused by people like you and me, or by government. 

Toby Young, to no one’s amazement, didn’t like ‘I, Daniel Blake’ the Ken Loach film that everyone’s talking about, and probably wouldn’t have watched it if his editor at the Mail hadn’t forced him to accept a paltry thousand quid to review it (I’ve no idea what they paid him, but it doesn’t matter – he won’t starve if they paid him bugger all). 

What’s important to the Daily Mail and anyone else required by the government to propagate right wing myths to persuade us to blame the victims, is that anything or anyone who threatens the rule that poor people are responsible for their own misery must be ridiculed without delay. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn suffers daily humiliations about incredibly important things like how deep he can bow, not doing his tie up properly and what he grows on his allotment. And that’s why Ken Loach has, according to Young, “an absurdly romantic view of benefit claimants”, because they couldn’t possibly listen to Radio 4, or to classical music or use carpentry skills to make toys for children, all of which Daniel Blake does in the film.

No, what we are told to believe by the Mail is that benefits claimants are scum. They spend their time drinking cheap cider outside betting shops and they pretend to be sick in order to cheat the state, and “hard working people” out of their money. Some of them are so good at pretending to be sick that they’ll even go so far as to die to persuade the DSS to give them money. 

Toby Young somehow knows this, even though, by his own admission, he’s “no expert on the welfare system”. I wonder how the Mail editor arrived at the decision to ask Young to review the film. Did he think, “shall I ask another film director, or maybe a well know movie reviewer? Er, nah, they’ll just talk about narrative, camera angles, character development and shit like that. What I need is someone who’s got the brass neck to slag off the bloke who directed ‘Kes’, who’s won the Palme D’or twice, including for this very film and who’s got a movie CV to die for.” 

Almost certainly, the editor said, “make it hard hitting, Toby; make sure Loach comes across as a romantic old fool of a leftie; make sure you remind everyone that welfare cuts are ‘wildly popular’ with the majority of the British people, including the residents of Newcastle, where the film is set. They are wildly popular of course, because we, the Daily Mail, tell them they are. And of course, make sure you chuck in a load of spoilers to be certain no one thinks it’s worth going anyway after reading your review.” 

Mr Young did as he was told. His review is full of contempt for the disadvantaged, “poor Katie (the young woman Daniel Blake supports in the film) is reduced to trying to read by candlelight, as her wan-faced children fight over the last digestive biscuit” and time and again this over-privileged tosser demonstrates his equally ungracious views about Loach’s incredible successes over a lifetime, “it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival because of movie industry bigwigs keen to let the world know how virtuous they are”. 

Fortunately, I saw the film last week, before reading Young’s vile review, so was spared the spoilers. The film is a tough watch, but more than worth it. Take some tissues and ideally someone to hold your hand.  

The trouble with the Daily Mail, the lackeys like Toby Young it gives column inches to and the people who feel validated by the crap he writes is that they’re frightened of the truths that Ken Loach tells. Because one of these days those truths might persuade the disadvantaged, and that’s most of us, to wise up and rise up.