Driving to hospital for a routine rheumatology appointment this morning, I heard a moving interview by on BBC R4’s Today programme with Ryan Riley, a young man who has set up a new initiative in memory of his mother who had died of lung cancer. It is called Life Kitchen and aims to help people whose tastebuds and appetite have been adversely affected by chemotherapy and other treatments for cancer. The interviewer Nick Robinson recently had lung cancer himself, and although he barely mentions it, the project clearly resonated with him.
Why It Resonated with Me Too
It hit a nerve for me as well because seventeen years ago my first husband died of leukemia after a brief but brutal illness (seven weeks from diagnosis to death) in which one of the first and lasting characteristics was the change of his attitude towards food and drink. Losing his desire for both, he rapidly lost weight and with it his physical strength and mental resilience.
I tried to tempt him with various foods in his hospital bed – he was an inpatient for virtually the whole time – with no success. It wasn’t that the hospital food was bad, but it wasn’t great either. Because of the inevitable lag betwteen ordering and eating it, he often didn’t want the dishes he’d chosen by the time they arrived.
There was one memorable evening when I was visiting, as I was every weekday and twice a day at weekends, when he was delivered a pork pie, still in its wrapper and as solid as a brick. He could barely stand to look at it, and was about as likely to eat the plate as the pork pie, indigestible as they are at the best of times. I assumed he’d ordered it because it was something he’d enjoyed eating in happier circumstances, but as an invalid food, it was, er, invalid.
Giving up on hospital food, he would ask me to bring things in that he thought he might fancy, despatching me to a supermarket or takeaway to fetch whatever his whim of the moment was. And whatever it was, he would practically never eat it, his palate reduced to intolerance of just about everything.
I remember him clutching my arm in real distress at one point and saying “What if I can never eat more than five different foods again?” (I forget now what those five tolerable foods were, but he wasn’t eating much of them either.) I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was the least of his problems.
At that point I was myself living largely off food from garage forecourt shops bought on my journey to and from the hospital, apart from whatever was on the lunch menu at my workplace. I’d therefore end up eating his rejects to avoid waste. I’ve never felt as conspicuous as when surreptitiously eating Kentucky Fried Chicken out of a cardboard box in the middle of a hospital ward surrounded by seriously ill people, trying not to let its spicy, fatty fragrance waft around the ward.
Of course none of this was his fault, but it was enormously upsetting for us both. Already exhausted and stressed out, I felt terrible for feeling cross and resentful and anxious about the cost. I wouldn’t have minded if all this effort had made him eat, but the weight just fell away from this man whose body had always been strong and healthy and more than adequately covered with flesh. It was like watching him dissolve.
How to Support Life Kitchen
Whether Life Kitchen would have made a difference to him I will never know, but surely it is an idea worth supporting and exploring. I’ve just made a small donation to its crowdfunding appeal, and if you’d like to support the cause, you’ll find more details here, along with Ryan’s own moving story: https://www.gofundme.com/LifeKitchen You can also follow its progress on Twitter at @LifeKitchen.
Full marks to this young man for dreaming up the initiative. I am sure his mother would be very proud of him.
An opinion piece about World Book Day costumes in support of the boy who dressed as the Argos catalogue
It’s unusual for the morning news to make me smile, so this morning’s report on BBC Today programme about Bristol mum Vicki Bowles who sent her son to school dressed as the Argos catalogue was a welcome change.
“Well, it is his favourite book,” she explained.
There can’t be many parents who have ever had an Argos catalogue in the house with whom this didn’t resonate. No matter how many wonderful storybooks you provide, for children of a certain age, the lure of the Argos catalogue has almost magical powers, especially the winter edition, when the toy section is expanded. Entering its pages has the allure of the Narnian wardrobe, allowing admission to a magical land where money is no object and you might have any or all of the toys you could wish for.
The Magical Lure of the Argos Catalogue
If you’re not familiar with the Argos catalogue, which I think is a UK-only brand, it’s a massive free catalogue of around 1,000 pages of Bible-thin paper but printed in full colour, promoting the vast range of goods available from its many stores around the country.
Argos shops are little more than warehouses with a trade counter in front, front. You choose your desired item from the catalogue either at home or in-store, take the product number to the till or to a machine, pay, and queue at the counter to collect your item. The process is iconic and unique, and to those of a certain age, waiting for your item to appear on the conveyor belt from the mysterious depths of the concealed warehouse, has the same frisson of excitement as watching the prizes move slowly across the screen in front of contestants on that old Saturday prime-time TV favourite, The Generation Game.
Retaining its Appeal in the Digital Age
They’ve updated the model to allow for online browsing, ordering and delivery, and for checking and reserving stock before you visit a store. However you shop with them, it’s a no-frills service that keeps prices down but also offers excellent customer care, and I believe it looks after its staff well too.
A relative who worked for them one Christmas told me they were advised when dealing with difficult customers to err on the side of their own safety, as no product was more important than themselves.
On the other hand, another relative who had worked for them as a student told me it sealed the offer for a much more demanding customer service job later on, because, in the words of his interviewer, “if you can handle Argos customers, you can handle anyone”.
But back to the catalogues…
Free Catalogues for All
Twice a year, huge piles of catalogues are made available in store for shoppers to collect free of charge, encouraging them to pore over at home. I am sure that pester power from children does a lot to shift these vast supplies. My daughter certainly used to clamour for one, and spent many happy hours browsing its pages, around the time that she still believed in Father Christmas.
Nostalgia for the Old Mail-Order Equivalents
Although Argos wasn’t around when I was a child, I remember lying for hours on my stomach on our living room carpet reading and re-reading the toy section in my mum’s mail order catalogue, Kays, which was much the same thing, for a different era, only patience was required as you had to wait for everything to be delivered by the postman.
We also had the Littlewoods one at one point, but I always preferred Kays. I’d read the descriptions over and over again for the items I coveted, till I could practically recite them, like a magical incantation. It didn’t stop me reading other books, it just added a new dimension to my literary canon.
It might be one reason why I naturally took to writing short fiction later in life, enjoying the facility to capture a whole story in very few words.
But It Gets Kids Reading!
While it’s easy for book snobs to be cynical about the catalogue – and I confess I’ve done it myself, laughing when a friend self-deprecatingly told me that she had only two books in her house and one of those was by Argos – my years spent working for national children’s charity Readathon convinced me that actually it’s fine if that’s what your child wants to read. The important thing is that they’re reading something, and learning to associate reading with pleasure and empowerment – even if it’s only how to spell what they want to put on their Christmas list.
Reading anything they enjoy will boost their confidence and enthusiasm for reading.
It helps form an immovable leisure habit that is well known to lead to happier, more successful and more fulfilled lives – not only academically but in relationships and other aspects of one’s daily life. (You’ll find more about this on the Readathon website.)
Reading to the Beat of a Different Drummer
While some children take naturally to reading what parents or teachers might choose for them – my thirteen-year-old daughter’s teacher recommended the classics at Parents’ Evening recently, while her preference is for Harry Potter – others find their own paths, and should be allowed to do so.
I gave up trying to make my daughter read my prescribed books when she discovered her own preferences. I have Garfield to thank for her eventual reading fluency – she used to sleep with Jim Davis’s cartoon strip collections under her pillow. Wry humour was the key that unlocked her enthusiasm for reading. Mo Willems was another of her passions.
I’m sad that she’s too old for dress-up days at school now but was heartened that she told her friends yesterday that she was actually being Hermione Granger for World Book Day, but under a disguise spell providing her usual school uniform.
Why Readathon Gets Children Reading for Life
One reason that Readathon is so effective as an organisation in encouraging children to read for pleasure is that the sponsored reading programme that it runs for schools allows participants to choose their own reading list. It might be books on a particular theme, such as all the Harry Potter books, or books about horses or any other interest the child has, or it might be reading comics or magazines or even food packaging or computer game manuals. Audio books and other vehicles for words are also allowable.
For parents whose children have struggled with literacy, watching them pore over the messages on a packet of cereal over breakfast for the first time can be an incredibly moving moment: the moment that their child discovers the joy and the power of reading
Trying Not to Judge
So next time you’re taken aback by what might at first seem a child’s inappropriate choice of World Book Day costume, don’t judge – just embrace their individual approach. As long as they’re reading, they’ll be just fine.
Though to be honest, I’m still not sold on last year’s most controversial costume – the kid who went to school as Christian Grey from the infamous Fifty Shades,because I’m sure – or at least I hope – that wasn’t his own book of choice. Dorian Grey, I could have forgiven. Ok, so maybe I am a book snob after all!
And finally, a question: What’s YOUR favourite guilty reading pleasure? Mine would have to be the Cath Kidston catalogue! (Sorry, Argos!)
If you’d like to find out more about Readathon, and great reasons to get your child’s school involved, visit their website here: www.readathon.org
To read more about why I’m so passionate about books, check out the talk I gave recently when I was honoured to be the judge of the Westonbirt School Inter-House Reading Competition: For the Love of Books
My Young By Name column for the February issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
With 2016 behind us, and with it, we hope, the relentless string of premature deaths of national and international treasures, I was startled to spot on social media today what struck me as a desperate headline:
See Cliff Richard live through 2017!
Good heavens, I thought, are people now so paranoid that they’re publicly rooting for the survival of their favourite celebrity? Could such an appeal really enhance one’s chances of escaping the Grim Reaper until 2018?
I can think of more constructive tactics to keep a person feeling young and full of life, and I’m happy to share them here.
Age is Relative
First, hang out with old people. By old people, I mean anyone who is at least twenty years older than yourself (because we’re all in our prime, aren’t we?) Accompanying my eighty-year-old aunt to my 100-year-old cousin’s funeral not only reassured me of my family’s strong genes but made me feel positively youthful.
Secondly, marry someone older than you. My husband will reach his three score and ten a year before I have to start to wonder whether, in Paul McCartney’s immortal words, whether he’ll still need me when I’m 64. (Which echoes point #1 – hang out with Paul McCartney.)
Thirdly, if you plan to change your name when you marry, pick a spouse whose moniker offers subliminal powers of rejuvenation. Theoretically I’m now forever Young, at least till the next time around. Just joking, Gordon, honest – but any Mr Old who has me in his sights should give up now. (My fictional idol Lord Peter Wimsey got crossed off my theoretical “marry” list when I discovered one of his middle names was De’Ath. What were his fictional parents thinking?)
All in the Mind
Finally, if you’re a writer, on the same principle that you can put someone in a novel and kill them, you can assume a younger persona and, in your head at least, spend quite a lot of your life pretending you’re them. I’m currently writing a series of novels, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries (yes, the name’s a tribute to the late great Dorothy L Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey), in which the eponymous heroine is 25. The stories are narrated in her voice, and I’m rather enjoying being 25 again. Naturally her love interest is 32. (The first book, Best Murder in Show, will be launched in April.)
By the same token, do you think Ian McEwan, who in his latest novel Nutshell has made the central character a foetus, has a secret whim to rewind his own age? Whatever next – a novel starring the glint in the milkman’s eye?
From one extreme to the other, back to Sir Cliff: I now realise that the slogan I saw was not an appeal to spare Britain’s answer to Elvis, but an advert for the singer’s new year concert tour, with “live” to rhyme not with “give” but with “hive.
All the same, I bet his promoters have got their fingers crossed…
My column from the January 2017 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Given that change has become the new normal in the last twelve months, at least in terms of politics, I wonder whether New Year’s Resolutions will prove easier to keep this month? Research shows that it takes twenty-one days to establish a new habit, so if you’re struggling with your resolutions by the time you read this, don’t give up. I have a new invention that might help you: the Resolution Calendar.
A slightly smaller cousin of the Advent Calendar, it should contain twenty-one little doors, one for each day until your new habit has taken hold. Behind each door would be a suitable small reward such as the traditional chocolate, to be redeemed only if you get through the day with your resolution intact. (Unless of course your resolution is to eat less chocolate.)
Alternatively you might take my husband’s unusual approach to what was his first ever Advent calendar last month. Rather than opening a door each day, he saved them all up for Christmas, announcing throughout December as my daughter and I ate our daily chocolates just how many he’d had left on Christmas Day when all ours were long gone.
Whatever your New Year Resolutions, I wish you a happy and healthy 2017.
In my December column for the Tetbury Advertiser, I tried to put the tumultuous events of 2016 into perspective
As 2016 draws to a close, few will mourn its passing. From the start, it seemed a blighted year, robbing us of many national treasures and bringing us Brexit and President-Elect Trump.
Scrolling back through the year to seek more positive memories, I discover the event that filled me with most hope was the centenary of the Somme.
Ironically, one of the bloodiest battles in human history became a source of hope when at 7:30 AM on July 1st, vast numbers of people gathered nationwide to commemorate those who gave their todays for our tomorrows, and again on Remembrance Day last month. It was heartening to see people from throughout society turn out for these events, including many young people and children. It is especially heartening that so many of the youngest generation want to honour them though very few have met anyone born during that era and perhaps feel no immediate personal connection.
Celebrating Cousin Nina
My daughter is lucky to be an exception. She has been able to get to know my grandma’s cousin Nina, born before the Battle of the Somme began. We helped her celebrate her hundredth birthday this year. Each time we visit her, we feel we are touching history and witnessing at first hand the human instinct to survive in the face of adversity. Nina has been widowed four times, but is currently single, as common parlance has it. (Sadly, Nina passed away just after I wrote this column – but rather that blame 2016, I view her survival to 100 more of a miracle than a curse.)
Reasons to be Cheerful
Such special occasions lift my spirits beyond the quagmire of the daily news headlines.
Every day brings reasons to be hopeful, if only we remember to look for them.
Yes, I know that’s easy for an optimist to say. I realise not everyone is such a Pollyanna like me. During an interviewed the other day on BCfm Radio, I told the presenter, historian and historical novelist Lucienne Boyce, that I’m a glass-half-full person. I was amused by her response “I’m the kind of pessimist that can’t even see the glass”. Perhaps for 2017 we should each resolve to find out glass and fill it.
A Force for Good
We may look back on 2016 as an annus horribilis, but as future generations will discover, it will also be a year when great men and women were born who will in time be a force for good. If you’ve become a parent or grandparent this year, you’re probably agreeing already.
To encourage sceptics, here’s a reminder of two great men born in 1916:
Francis Crick, Nobel laureate, co-discoverer of DNA’s molecular structure, arguably the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century
mould-breaking author Roald Dahl, who has brought laughter and comfort to readers young and old for generations
If such greatness can come forth phoenix-like from such desperate times, maybe everything will come right for us too.
I wish you peace, joy and love this Christmas, and may your glass remain full in the New Year.