The Dolly Mail #3: making old bones and an Indef Dely.
I greeted 2016 in unusual surroundings. I binned my usual New Year’s Eve tradition of getting pissed with the mate whose turn it is on the annual rota to spend it with me rather than their long-term boyfriend. I didn’t drink bottle of Frangelico and fall off a Metropolitan line train, ending up on crutches like I did in 2010. I didn’t stay out on a bender for three days like I did in 2014; the year my flatmates were about to report me as a missing person when they received a fragment of proof I was alive: a ten second grainy video on snapchat of me holding a pug in a dress in a flat they didn’t recognise on January 3rd. No; this year, I spent the evening in the company of the over 60s in a hotel in a small seaside town in Devon.
I was, quite comfortably, the youngest person in the hotel dining room by at least 30 years. There were men in ties striped with county cricket colours; a landmass of Country Casuals two pieces; a sea of blazers, a thick mist of grey hair floating through the room like a haze machine. At midnight, the hearing aids were adjusted and we were shepherded out onto the decking to watch fireworks over the sea. Then the blazers were cast to one side and we all took to the dance floor.
Rihanna played as walking sticks were tapped to keep everyone on the beat and loose underarm flesh rippled in a Mexican wave round the room as they threw each other around the dance floor. The flirtier of the pairs spun each other into a huffing, puffing red-faced frenzy. One gentlemen employed the “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” method – grinding his hips against every woman and quickly cutting his losses and moving onto the next if she showed no interest.
Of course I found it funny. And strange. I realised I had never been on a dance floor where the majority of people are over 30, let alone 60. I tried to stop staring and dance with a tenth of their gusto, but an uncomfortable, unconscious judgement squirmed within me – what are you all doing? Why are you trampling all over my domain? Why are you embarrassing yourselves like this? Sit down and sip a Bristol cream sherry the way you’re supposed to.
I live in a country where there are more people over 60 than there are people under 18 and yet I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere as pensioner-phobic as England. In Paris, I am always amazed at how visible the elderly are; smoking outside cafes, swearing at sales assistants; hobbling around the Montmatre cobbles and hopping on and off the Metro. In Italy, the elderly keep everything propped up – from the matriarchal grandmothers running local restaurants to the groups of leathery-skinned, twinkly-eyed men talking and drinking until last orders; filling the town squares with laughter and plumes of cigarette smoke. In New York, there are so many elegant, fashion-forward women walking around the city between the ages of 60 and 100, a photographer took pictures of them for a hugely successful blog which was turned into a beautiful coffee table book.
But in Britain, the elderly are practically invisible. You don’t see them holding court, you don’t seem them in playful, eye-catching clothes, you don’t see them at parties. I’ve been to weddings where they’ve been packed off in an Ad Lee at 9.30, so as not to get in the way of the festivities, what with their cumbersome walking frames and boring war stories and strange talcy smell.
We live in a culture where you’re forgotten at 60, put in an armchair somewhere with a TV guide and expected to sit there in silence; it’s why, heart-breakingly, Age UK have found half of all people over 65 cite the television as their main company.
This visibility of the elderly isn’t just a matter of diplomacy, it’s essential for our survival. On the Greek island of Ikaria – otherwise known as The Island of Long Life – the inhabitants regularly live to and past 100 years, qualifying it as a “blue zone”. Numerous studies have been carried out to work out what their secret it is and the obvious typically Mediterranean answers appear: a diet low on refined sugar and meat, a daily nap, 80 per cent of men between the age of 65 – 100 are sexually active. But I think the most telling finding is their model of inter-generational living and socialising – there’s only one old people’s home on the island and the fraction of the elderly population that live there do so because they have lost all their family; the rest live with their children and grandchildren. They help out around the house and regularly attend the island’s famous festivals. They grow old because they continue to live; on the street, at community gatherings and in the heart of the home. They’re out and about, chatting with people of all ages; behaving like the rest of us.
Last autumn, I was so pleased when the BBC aired Close To The Edge – a new structured reality TV programme following the over 60s in Bournemouth. It contained all the hackneyed tropes of a reality show in its own unique way – widower Paul, 75, was the show’s Lauren Conrad style narrator. Grandma Babs, 66, was the show’s resident scene-stealer, always storming in or out of rooms to shout at somebody. There were “bump-ins” on golf courses and supermarket aisles instead of west-end clubs. There was a jazz soundtrack instead of a selection of new indie pop bands.
The age of the stars didn’t negate its narrative, in fact it brought a refreshing weight of experience to the storylines. In one moving scene, 71 year old Beate spoke to her oldest friend about whether to bring in someone to help her care for her husband with rapidly deteriorating Parkinson’s. She began to cry and her friend reached out and held her hand, but could say nothing to comfort her. It was the most authentic and heart-breaking three seconds of reality TV I’ve ever seen.
Close To The Edge was considered a triumph amongst every TV producer I know – funny, stylish and a much-needed story-telling platform for our silenced grey nation.
But Twitter found it odd. The Telegraph gave it one star.
The elderly are allowed a space on our TVs and in public life, but their roles are marshalled and vetted rigorously. We don’t mind kind old dears on a Werther’s Originals advert; or they can be on reality telly if it’s in the role of sage-but-dotty advice giver like nanny pat (may she rest), baking weird sausage concoctions for her attractive grandchildren in their 20s. But we don’t like seeing the elderly being sexual – we don’t want to see sunken bottoms and saggy breasts, blurgh! And we don’t like seeing them emotionally fraught, in bitch fights or slanging matches or crying about their boyfriend.
We dehumanise and hold the elderly at arm’s length because we’re scared we’ll see our future. We laugh and keep our distance to make sure we don’t accidentally blink and age like they did. We all think we’ll find the loophole that means we’ll avoid the inevitable, but becoming an old person is a privilege the majority of us are going to face. I’m more likely to one day become an 80 year old woman than be, say, Dominic West’s wife or a Man Booker prize winner, and yet I still think the latter are more certain.
And not only will most of us get old, some of us will get REALLY old. A quarter of women my age will live until they’re 100. It’s getting more and more likely we’ll make old bones, so we better start thinking about how we’d like to be treated. Or as Jarvis Cocker neatly put it: “behind the lines upon their face you’ll see where your headed/and it’s such a lonely place.”
It’s time we let the elderly back into all corners of society because life, with all its dark and dirty bits, is not a member’s club with an under 60s policy. Just as they’re allowed to be an old dear with a pocketful of boiled sweets, they’re also allowed to swear and have sex and down a bottle of Frangelico and star in salacious, over-produced reality television shows. We need to develop a culture where the elderly don’t disappear. They shouldn’t just be visible as lonely fictional characters living on the moon for a department store Christmas advert or exist as a sepia photograph on their granddaughter's instagram as part of #tbt.
They should be here, in the middle of it all. On dance floors and in town squares, being loud and silly and badly-behaved. Just like the rest of us.
In the first week of 2016, screenwriter and journalist Ed Cripps boarded a flight home that would turn out to be the longest night of his life. He recounts the experience in this short story and reflects on how the British respond in a crisis.
This piece is mad, of course. The month David Bowie curated his own death and junior doctors went on strike for the first time in forty years, my first stretch of the post-holiday writing-tendons is about a flight home from South Africa that took a bit longer than expected. For a brief moment it looked like we might crash, but we didn’t, so it became a journey-piece about stasis, movement and the effect claustrophobic delays have on people (especially the British at the start of a New Year), a sort of normcore anti-journalism peppered with sub-Geoff Dyer macro-whimsy. Your nearest emergency exit is here.
For the two-hour flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg that includes a cappuccino morning-muffin, I am squeezed between two colossal men: a sunburnt American jock-gone-wrong who anoints his seat “arguably the worst on the plane” (he has the window) and an overgrown South African teen in a red shirt with a Ferrari on it (curiously his mum, who checked on him three times, was reading a book called The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari). They obey separate circadian rhythms.
The American falls asleep at each exact point the drink trolley comes out, so he always asks for that round of offerings (water, muffin and tea, tea) just as they’re clearing it. Meanwhile the huffy man-child orders, respectively, a beer (they don’t serve beers), a muffin and coffee, another muffin and Appletiser, a colder replacement Appletiser and a final muffin, without a single thank-you.
Once we land, the interchange is a godless free-for-all as thousands of international travellers bundle into the same opaque Perspex hell-pit the man behind me nicknames “the cage”, through which certain passengers are arbitrarily rushed to the annoyance of the uninitiated. But don’t worry: I make it onto my second flight (Johannesburg to London Heathrow) in a seat with lots of legroom by the loo.
My new neighbour - jaunty, opportunistic, pastel-suited – is in the mood to chat, so in go the headphones and I rattle through a couple of Desert Island Discs (Colm Toibin and Kylie). At midnight I put on my rain app to help me sleep but can’t, so I brave the new Man From U.N.C.L.E. (smarmy, insipid, stolen at a canter by Hugh Grant), which my neighbour watches over my shoulder.
"You should watch it on yours," I say.
"Yeah, I should.” Fifteen minutes later the shot of a naked woman, an underwritten dolly-bird Henry Cavill has just shagged, triggers an immediate fumble for his own headphones.
At 1:00am, the pilot says he has some bad news: the plane has already turned back towards Johannesburg as two of the hydraulic engines (I think he said engines) have failed. We’ll need to dump off some fuel first, but should land around 3:00am. Distracted and a bit scared, I turn off TheMan From U.N.C.L.E. and see my neighbour is fast asleep: it’ll be me that has to explain it to him.
Emergency-flying in the wrong direction is a strange spread, a tasting-menu of frustration, undigested fear, Blitz-humour and the low-level doubt you’ll ever get home. With thundering predictability once he sees the towers of Johannesburg, my neighbour loses his shit and asks me to explain what’s going on. I should have just said “the hydraulics”, but evading any knee-jerk responsibility I lied.
“I don’t know, I didn’t really hear.”
“But you knew we were coming back to Johannesburg?”
“So you heard the pilot’s announcement?”
“Some of it,” I say. “I was dozing.”
“What did he say?”
A worrier across the aisle sticks her beak in.
“Excuse me,” she says. “Apparently you heard the pilot’s announcement?” The air stewardess opposite me is in no mood to help. Again, I should have blamed the hydraulics, but I’d bought into this feigned ignorance now, so I repeat:
“I don’t know.”
“You do know,” she says.
“I’ve been travelling home for two days. I have a dissertation to hand in today. What did he say?”
“I’m very sorry but I just don’t know. Maybe ask someone who works for the plane?” Mercifully the wry Liverpudlian in front of her drawls “hydraulic problems” and recedes, in and out as swiftly as a salamander’s tongue. We fly around in circles for an hour to burn off excess fuel and eventually land at 4:00am. The pilot, much shakier than his earlier bedside manner, says that this has never happened in his twenty-eight year career. Now the ground-staff take over.
We are shepherded into our old friend Johannesburg airport again (hello cage) to a group of seats by some departure gates. The ground-employee picks a point in the middle of our lost rabble and starts to explain what happens now. “Can you speak louder?” yawns a posh woman. We huddle in like penguins and each revelation (we have a replacement flight, scheduled for 8:30am) is met with a recognisably English headmistressy murmur, half-grateful, half-fucking furious.
How do you kill a four-hour airport-limbo? Some lie fully horizontal, earplugged and eyemasked. There are stoic all-nighters (“Who wants a cup of tea?”). One boy, out of boredom, just empties his entire hand luggage on the floor, pants and all. My neighbour has perked up and shows an old woman how to play games on her iPad. Little cliques form. Two muttonchopped doppelgangers find each other and sit crossed-armed, perhaps to lament the passing of Lemmy. A pair of empty-nester types take a teenage girl under their wing. I podcast my way through until morning (Melvyn Bragg on the Salem Witch Trials) and we’re escorted down to the cafeteria for a free breakfast.
Muffins, coffee, a sea of delirium. Already-trippy music videos on the TV are waking nightmares at 7:00am. The Pet Shop Boys’ video for ‘You Are Always On My Mind’ is genuinely unsettling (human zebras, ventriloquist dummies, Neil Tennant in tux-and-silk-scarf), but even ‘Life Is A Rollercoaster’ gives me the willies. Why is Ronan flying everywhere, and how? Are there any more muffins?
We’re shown to our gate at 8 o’clock, but there’s another delay because there aren’t enough cabin crew. People start queuing anyway, as aimless and unauthorised as ghosts. A younger woman in a wheelchair is cattled with four much older wheelchair-users: she’s one of them now. A toy helicopter-vendor flies a mosquito-drone around the departure lounge, indecently loud and too invasively inane for the sleepwalkers. Staff hand out pieces of paper, the first acknowledging the delay, the second offering a 25% discount on your next flight with the airline. One departure board has frozen at 1435; a flight to Addis Ababa has been boarding since yesterday. Another condemns a flight to Windhoek with the grimly vague “Indef Dely”, as though they don’t dare spell it out. Finally our gate opens.
We are on an identical plane in the same seats as before with a new cabin crew and patrician pilot, who says we have a slot to fly in ten minutes (our original Heathrow arrival time). Within that ten minutes he’s caught the curse of his predecessor: apparently someone is sitting in Business Class who shouldn’t be, so there aren’t enough seats on the plane and we can’t leave until they own up.
Intrigue courses through the plane, And Then There Were None-style. Who is the phantom upgrader? Who is sitting in a different seat to before? The hatted academic? The precocious smiley boy? The British-Indian who stood for as long as possible because his neighbour was “too fat”? A strong suspect is Mr Tikinwe, a young Forest Whitaker whose smile evaporates every time he is called to the front of the plane. In the end, it sorts itself out (surely those in Business Class knew who hadn’t been there before, but perhaps they were too polite to smoke them out).
Insomnia stains my eye sockets like soot, so I just sort of looked around at how people behave, like the different uses for a blanket (some cover themselves completely, like corpses), or the range of inflatable pincer-pillows (one man passed out straight-backed on a small mustard pillow, his head lolling like a scarecrow’s, the chintzy red blanket tucked in like a napkin), or the politics of sharing an armrest and how far to push your seat back (you can’t do it when the person behind you has their tray up).
Film choices surprise me. Alpha-males watch American Sniper, obviously, but a sensible woman in her sixties watches The Longest Ride (a Nicholas Sparks novel-adaptation about rodeos) three times. My neighbour, by now four whiskeys to the good, eyes up Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life, then opts for mid-noughties Woody Allen curio Melinda and Melinda. He falls asleep halfway through.
Most disconcertingly time enters a vacuum, like in a casino or a dream. The windows are shut and lights turned off for the entire replacement day-flight, an effigy of the original in the night of the night. When I point out the ten hours until our destination on the entertainment panel to my neighbour, he shields his eyes. Time stretches like a tendon until it pops - too much too soon.
We eventually reach Heathrow at 7:30pm local time, or have we? "Look out the window and check we're not in Johannesburg again." Relief has restored a chummy surrealism to the chatter. Two dads discuss their kids:
“We’ve got a four hour drive now. She hasn’t been home since Father Christmas has visited.”
“Will you take the M4?”
Another father to a passport controller: "We were meant to be here twelve hours ago, that's why I said good morning." I hope he was searched, vigorously.
It’s hardly the migration crisis, or any sort of crisis, but it is a peculiar way to enter London at the start of a year: stagnant, off-kilter, grateful for a mere delay. It’s reduced me to this Knausgaardian catalogue of accidental observations, the aeroplane as a mental feeling-mill where the soul is harassed by the courtesies of the cabin stewards. Grim gorillas in the cage, hydromuscular, necropolitan, lightning-pale, we recompose and we go again.
Arguably the most embarrassing emblem of the vegetarian community, along with the much maligned Birkenstock and white men's dreadlocks, the nut roast has got itself a bad reputation.
But I'm rather partial to a hearty nut roast done properly. Particularly this one, stuffed full of melting Gruyere and crunchy cashews and garlic and spinach and herbs. It's utterly gorgeous; full of textures and flavour.
If you want proof, you can ask my four carnivorous buddies I made a Christmas lunch for last month all of whom ended up eating more of the nut roast than they did the roast chicken. AND two of them asked for it again when they came round for dinner last weekend.
The easy, delicious recipe is this one from The Hairy Bikers. The only change I make is I tip it out onto a baking tray after an hour and roast it until the top goes crunchy, otherwise the effect can be a bit too much like a steamed pudding for my liking. That mushroom gravy recipe to go with it is pants, I've tried it. Instead make this excellent vegan gravy (I also add some red wine to it) and if you're pescetarian like me, splash in a bit of Lea & Perrins at the end for colour and depth.
I served it with the same perfect roast potatoes recipe I sent last week, some kale and we were on the French 75s. Recipe for which can be found here (like most good cocktails, they're deliciously lethal and one is never enough, so drink at your peril. Health warning finishes).
The perfect 90s minimal dress (named, suitably, 'The Crawford') from one of my favourite brands. All this needs is a cigarette, a rock star on your arm and you'd be ready for the Chinawhite queue.
Fellow disgusting nail-biters: THIS is the only thing that helps me grow my nails. Put a coat on every day for a week, take it all off and start again. It strengthens and boosts growth (I promise it really works).
With many of these “what I’m reading” sections, I know I'm in danger of sounding a lot like the man I vaguely know who once wrote an 800 word review of The Godfather on his Facebook status ending with the sentence: “a must see. Five stars from me*****”, so I shall say this now: I don’t think I’ve discovered the moon by reading Ernest Hemingway.
There’s a high chance you would have read this book in which case do skip on, but there’s also high chance you haven’t, as I seemed to have missed out on a great deal of classics at school and in an English degree and I’ve heard a bunch of people my age say the same thing. So, now I’m playing catch-up and I’ll be honest and include those in what I’m reading, along with new titles.
A Moveable Feast is the posthumous memoir of Ernest Hemingway’s time as a young, struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s. He spent years reworking the book before his death in 1961, having found a trunk full of forgotten notebooks and letters and receipts from his time in Paris thirty years previously.
It tells the story of Hemingway’s first years in the city with his wife and young son, as he works as a journalist and aspires to write fiction. He gives vivid character sketches of some of the most noteable writers of the time including Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald as well as the workers and waiters he comes across in incidental meetings in bookshops and a cafe culture that makes him fall in love with the city.
The voice is one that is ravenous for experience; a young ex-pat carving out his future and desperate to hone his craft with beautiful pieces of advice for writers such as:
“when I was writing it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in that order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something in there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
Recently, sales of A Moveable Feast have soared and made it a best-seller in France as a sign of solidarity and celebration of Paris in the wake of the tragic November terrorist attacks. The book has become a symbol of love and defiance for the city, and with sentences like: “if you are lucky enough to live in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast” you can understand why.
This week’s Dolly Mix Tape can be played on Spotify here.
An interesting Radio 4 programme about the history of online dating, honing in on a Victorian social network devised for strangers to meet their potential husband or wife.
A totally gorgeous, romantic relative values between ex Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans and his powerhouse writer and editor wife Tina Brown. My knees turned to jelly when I read him describe how he fell in love with her when they began a “long epistolary relationship” because of her “unique vocabulary”. There’s hope for us all.
A friend sent me this lovely piece for the first time this week, about the joy of walking with no route and for no reason.
This week I listened to Imelda Staunton’s Desert Island Discs for the first time and it’s now a favourite episode. She speaks about acting with a refreshing, no-nonsense honesty and she speaks about her experience with post-natal depression with clear honesty and bravery.
My friend Will’s smart and brilliant 14 year old daughter Edie is campaigning to get feminism taught at her school – please sign her petition here.