Troll-Tickling: Have Harmless Fun with Facebook Fools!

You know the type. Someone posts an interesting, useful, feel-good item on Facebook and they instantly douse it with cold water. Hijack it with their own irrelevant agenda. Make ill-tempered, ill-informed criticisms which upset other people. And when challenged, they gaslight, deny, twist and distort, get hysterical, and start hurling playground abuse.

‘I’m entitled to my opinion,’ this type of troll will at some point proclaim, and continue to express it, willy-nilly. Well, I’ve got news for you: your precious opinion means zip. Nada. Nothing. Same as mine. They’re just our personal knee-jerks, often in response to issues which don’t affect us, or we know little about. And just because everyone’s entitled to their opinions, it doesn’t follow that anyone else cares a hoot what they are, or that we’re entitled to inflict them on others whenever/wherever, irrespective of context – that’s for infants yet to learn self-control, manners, and tact. I know if I shared all my weird, extreme, judgey opinions, I wouldn’t have a single friend left apart from Hubcap. I mean, say someone comes round all excited to show off her sexy new leggings. You’re entitled to the opinion that only the very young and very thin should ever wear pale peach; but it would be unkind to tell her, ‘They cling to every bulge of your cellulite and make you look like you forgot to put your pants on.’ No, you quietly let her come to her own epiphany when she glimpses her rear view in a mirror. Or not, if dimply nude is a look she likes. Either way, her choices are none of your business, so keep it to yourself. I speak from painful experience. Certain members of my family were masters of the ‘hurt blurt’ – e.g. ‘By ‘eck, lass, you’ve put weight on.’ (Thanks for noticing, Grandma, you lantern-jawed hag). Or ‘I must say, I don’t like your hair.’ (Why must you, aunt? Oh yes, silly me – you’re ‘entitled to your opinion’).

So the cardinal rule if you don’t want to be trollish yourself is, ‘If you can’t be nice, be quiet.’ It used to infuriate me when the narcissists, obsessives, and passive-aggressive control-freaks kicked off, ripping apart harmless posts, and sowing discord and distress with their ‘opinions’. I accordingly unfriended certain individuals, unfollowed groups which allow or encourage trolling, and initiated a zero-tolerance approach to it wherever possible, because life’s too short to waste on this peculiar brand of attention-seeking.

Alas, sometimes I still get ambushed, as in a recent nasty episode with the nature action group Hubcap and I founded last year. It’s a given that the group (politically unaffiliated/cross-party/united by green principles) must support our local authority, whatever its political complexion, as a major landowner without whose permission we can do very little practical work and stand no chance of achieving our ambitions for an integrated Community Nature Reserve. Currently, Wakefield Council retains the Labour majority it’s had for years – and here, Red means Green in a big way, with a highly pro-active environmental agenda promoted by the Deputy Leader (one of our members) and supported by a local Labour Group willing to get down and dirty with us (unlike other political parties we invited). Therefore currently, it’s a given that our group supports Labour because that’s who we have to work with: an authority which serves our green agenda well and has supported us generously from the outset. And whatever policies we, or other group members, might disagree with in areas outside our remit, like housing or road-mending, we’re always going to extol good environmental initiatives from any source.

For 99.9% of our members, irrespective of their voting preference, this goes without saying. The other 0.1% couldn’t put party politics aside for the general good, or respect our position/the positive relationship we absolutely need to maintain with the Council. One, our Conservative ward councillor no less, trolled the jolly posts I shared about community tree plantings and wildlife ponds on Council land to try and score petty points in advance of the local elections. Another, a supporter/admin of the group in which he was stirring up opposition, (naturally, he didn’t dare attack projects developed/carried out by his fellow members on our group’s private page), obliged me to censor my defence and rebuttal of the inevitable, ill-informed oars that were duly stuck in; then stopped talking to me and implanted another ‘hostile’ who immediately started sniping, arguing about politics, and trying to dictate what I could and couldn’t say. As administrator. On a page I’d created. Yeah, right. Under the circumstances, none of this was remotely funny. The implications of being publicly attacked by group members/our elected member were far too serious – I felt sick if I saw a notification that said councillor had commented on one of my posts because I knew it meant trouble – and we cut their shenanigans short by booting out and blocking all three.

However, normally I take a different tack with trolls, (when I can be bothered to engage at all). Having, by and large, negotiated the rocky, storm-tossed seas of menopause to arrive on the tranquil beach of late middle-age, I’ve learnt to recognise these types less as people than as collections of personality disorders, all alike, and tediously predictable regardless of age or gender. (They’re relatives of certain Old Gits From Hell who’d been plaguing us for years, until recently laid to rest by some of the most exquisitely enjoyable, lethal letters I’ve ever composed – but that’s another story). Anyway, now I can float serenely detached and observe their interactions, I’ve also learnt how to have big fun thwarting and teasing trolls without stooping to their level/saying things I’ll later regret/violating Facebook rules – and have just enjoyed a highly entertaining (if painful on others’ behalf) few days watching a troll make an utter tit of herself on a Ricardian page I follow.

First she did the classic ‘cold water down the neck’ thing on someone’s inoffensive, informative post about new ‘grotesques’ made for Leicester Cathedral, where Richard III was reburied back in 2015 – revealing herself as one of the lobby of overgrown babies still whining because they didn’t get their way, waging futile campaigns for the poor soul to be dug up again/reburied in York because they’re sure it’s what he wanted, and chronically incapable of hearing or saying anything positive about anything connected with Leicester.

People (including an admin) began telling her to pipe down, because everyone’s sick to death of a subject on which there’s nothing left to say that hasn’t been said a million times – usually, by this brigade, in terms laden with abuse and false accusation. But that was her opinion, and wasn’t she allowed to air it? Well, no, thought I; so, deciding to indulge myself for once, I waded in to start Troll-Tickling – and if you fancy attempting this sport, follow these few handy hints:

  1. Forewarned is Forearmed.

Pathological narcissism and non-assertive behaviours (aggression, manipulation, guilt-tripping etc) are so common you can find endless articles online about how to deal with them. The psychological angle is fascinating to study and gives you a real edge, because such folk are so far up their own backsides they have no sense of self-awareness, only of entitlement; you can learn to understand them, but they’ll never understand you because they can’t even understand themselves, and have no idea how to respond to polite self-assertion; plus they’re so predictable you can play them like fish without them ever realising it’s a game, much less knowing the rules. It’s tragic, really; I’d hate to live in that miserable head-space. So if I do choose to spar, it’s always with the hope that a grain of truth will hit home and maybe, just maybe, they’ll pause to reflect, and gain a tad more regard for the world outside themselves.

In that spirit, I mildly put it to the troll that given the page’s name and purpose, it wasn’t an appropriate place to air anti-Leicester views likely to upset other members. She snapped back, ‘So it’s your way or the highway,’ and that I sounded like a one-sided person she was going to ban from her Facebook. She didn’t, of course. She wanted to carry on arguing. Fine by me. Normally, I’d pre-emptively block someone like this to stop them noseying on my public page, but this time I was curious to see which happened first: her being kicked out by an exasperated admin or flouncing out of her own accord – after telling us how horrible we all were and that it was All Our Fault, of course. Mature adults don’t feel the need to do this; they simply withdraw from situations they find unacceptable, with dignity intact, and without drawing the attention trolls crave – even the negative, ‘don’t let the door hit your arse on your way out’ type of attention their trumpeted proclamations inevitably attract. (Or maybe they just smugly imagine the group duly chastised, red-faced and tearful at their departure). Which brings me to:

  • Keep your Temper.

Nothing is more annoying to a troll. Dreadful drama-llamas, they need you to lose it to feed their sense of outrage, so they’ll keep prodding, poking and provoking, dissecting your every sentence, accusing you of the faults/rudeness they exhibit, trying to put you in the wrong, make you lose your cool. They want to trade insults, lead you down rabbit-holes of self-justification, because it’s what they know best; they never learned how to argue constructively, compromise, agree to differ. Don’t take the bait. Resist if you will, calmly and reasonably. Be relentlessly nice, agree, be grateful, (think Wendy Byrde, if you ever watch Ozark on Netflix). You don’t have to work to score points, just pay out the rope then sit back and enjoy as they tie themselves in knots and hang themselves. But remember that ultimately, reasoning with trolls is pointless – they never listen, and they’ll never change without the therapy they’ll never seek because it’s never their fault and there’s nothing wrong with them. Which is kind of darkly funny if you think about it, so…

  • Keep Your Sense of Humour

Trolls don’t have one; they take themselves terribly seriously and expect everyone else to do the same. Which means anyone with any sense of irony, or ability to laugh at themselves, has a massive advantage. For instance, I’m completely un-insultable because a. there’s nothing anyone can call me that I haven’t called myself (and worse); b. I have a realistic sense of self-worth combined with a keen sense of my own ridiculousness/minute significance in the grand scheme of things; c. I’ll own it if someone calls me smug, superior, judgemental or arrogant (although to paraphrase my favourite, magnificently snooty surgeon in Casualty decades ago, ‘It’s not arrogance when you’re right’); and d. while I care very much for the good opinion of my family, friends, customers, and audiences, I’m secure enough not to give a flying eff what rude, obnoxious strangers think of me.

Now, a cardinal rule of sounding off in public is, ‘know what you’re talking about.’ But this troll opined that, failing York, Richard III should have been reburied in ‘Middleham or Fothringham.’ Getting the name of Richard’s birthplace/burial place of his father (Fotheringhay) wrong isn’t the kind of slip any informed Ricardian would make; it’s engraved in our psyche, like the date of the battle of Bosworth. So I pounced. ‘Where’s Fothringham?’ I know it was naughty, but I couldn’t help myself. Some wag’s reply, ‘Isn’t he one of Lord Snooty’s friends?’ made me spit my tea. She called me smart-arse. I was pleased to agree, being guilty as charged, (more letters after my name than in it). I also greatly enjoyed an exchange between the troll and a fellow un-insultable she tried to call immature; other responses, while less jocular, were deliciously pithy, altogether a pleasure to read. I almost felt sorry when, shortly afterwards, Flounce Out was pipped at the post by Exasperated Admin and the drama ended – if not my preoccupation with it, and desire to share the delights of troll-tickling with you.

The beauty of this sport is that it enables you to sit comfortably on the high ground, win wars effortlessly, and make trolls look totally foolish – simply by behaving like a civilised grown-up! The concepts will already be familiar if you’re naturally assertive/emotionally intelligent, (or like me, had to go on courses and read lots of self-help books), or if you’ve been trained to deal with angry, difficult people at work. You can even view troll-tickling metaphysically as a battle between angels and demons, Good and Evil, the Higher and Lower Selves – whatever, it’s a darn sight more fun than letting the dysfunctional drag you down into their mire.

For what it’s worth, that’s my opinion – I assume you wanted it, or you wouldn’t still be reading – forcefully expressed, heavily seasoned with rancour and a good dollop of sour criticism, hopefully leavened somewhat with humour. But hey – the clue’s in the blog name and ranting’s my game, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Why I’m Not Watching That Wedding

Today I will definitely not be one of the zillions of people worldwide sitting glued to a screen to watch the royal wedding.

It’s not that I have anything against Prince Harry. On the contrary. I’ve always thought he and Prince William seemed like decent young blokes – refreshingly normal, free from the stiffness and strangulated vowels that make some of their relatives painful to hear and behold, and so confident, relaxed and media-savvy that they’re the only royals I’ve ever really enjoyed watching on TV (their double act is particularly amusing).

I don’t have anything against Meghan Markle, either. On the contrary. She seems like a decent young woman, she’s used to being in the public eye, and she’ll doubtless make the most of her position to do good for the humanitarian causes she and her new husband care about. Plus I’m glad that their marriage is a nice smack in the eye for the ‘ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ brigade – and that now there IS some black in the Royal Standard. Ha ha hurrah.

Nor do I have anything against the Queen or royal family as a whole – though I do find the institution of monarchy a bizarre anachronism, a medieval throwback as outdated as the Doctrine of Signatures and completely superfluous to the running of a country. It might be part of our history and heritage – but so were public executions, bear-baiting, ducking scolds and committing unmarried mothers to Bedlam. The idea of being ‘subject’ to the Crown is repugnant to me; like Hawkeye in ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ I don’t consider myself subject to much at all (apart from the law). Our monarchy has caused enormous personal unhappiness to many of its members including Princess Margaret, (prevented from marrying the divorcé she loved), Diana, Princess of Wales, (driven into despair, eating disorders and suicidal impulses), and Prince Harry, (an able, well-liked and respected officer, forced to give up a promising career in active service because his royalty made him too great a target for terrorists and thereby too great a risk to his men) – and Prince William obviously doesn’t relish the prospect of becoming king one day, although no doubt duty will constrain him to it. So no, I don’t like the monarchy. I’m sure Britain would rub along just fine without it, and that tourists would still come to gaze upon our palaces and castles and spend their precious dollars and yen on tacky souvenirs and picture postcards. Still, we do need a Head of State, and the perils of electing one are horribly plain in today’s world; so since (alas) we can’t have Justin Trudeau, I guess I prefer a member of the House of Windsor than risk having Britain’s whimsical, unpredictable electorate inflict a self-seeking muppet like Nigel Farage, some moronic reality-TV ‘celebrity’ or a barely-articulate sports ‘personality’ on the nation.

But what I really, REALLY hate is the obnoxious cult of royal-worship whipped up by our cynical, sycophantic mass-media. I’ve always loathed having things rammed down my throat (that’s why I’ve never to this day been able to watch the movie ‘E.T.’) – there’s nothing more likely to infuriate and turn me off than endless advertising and saturation coverage. I don’t feel like celebrating something which is costing so much money at a time of so much more pressing national need. I’m not interested in the nuptials of people I don’t know and never will, much less in watching hours of incredibly boring preamble, the footage of gathering crowds and tedious vox pop interviews. I don’t give a flying eff about sad gits who travel hundreds of miles to camp for days on the pavements whence Windsor’s homeless were recently evicted in the hope of glimpsing, for a few seconds, someone famous as they drive past. And I can only pity poor Thomas Markle, a quiet, private individual now linked by his daughter’s marriage to one of the most famous and most scrutinised families in the world, and sucked into the ghastly media circus which will surround her, prying, praising and decrying, for the rest of her life.

Bleah. It makes me puke. I don’t know which I despise more, the media or the pathetic nosy obsessives who like to think of themselves as royalists, but whose appetites for the ever-more candid (ie intrusive) exposé fuel the paparazzi – the people collectively responsible for killing the woman who should have become Meghan’s mother-in-law today, and for plunging Britain into its morbid, breast-beating guilt-trip back in 1997. I refuse to be a part of it – so while the ‘fans’ lap up every last drop of the media drool, I’m off to do something more constructive with my day.

A Happy Gardener

After my abrupt, unplanned career change in September 2017, (from freelance writer, Wars of the Roses interpreter/walk guide, funeral celebrant and general rent-a-gob  to full-time professional gardener), a friend and regular client told me, ‘You’re such a good public speaker, you’re wasted on gardening.’

I was extremely touched by his kind compliment – but explained that, although I’ll always enjoy doing speaking engagements, for many reasons I felt happy to let that part of my career come (largely) to a natural end. And here’s one of them…

I dare say my dear late friend Kate would’ve laughed like a drain (in a sympathetic way) to hear of the travails that preceded her funeral service this morning. As celebrant, I set off early enough to make the 50-odd minute journey to Doncaster’s Rose Hill Crematorium with a good half-hour in hand to compose myself, confirm final arrangements, meet Kate’s guitarist friend, Roy, who’d be playing her in with a heartfelt blues instrumental, and prepare myself in a suitably relaxed, respectful way.

On previous occasions when I – and Roy – have done services at Rose Hill, that’s pretty much what happened. But not today. Today, to my horror, I found the A638 out of Wakefield gridlocked, my lane blocked by a broken-down truck. Instant mega-stress. Map-less, sat-nav-less, (well, I thought I knew where I was going), I was too distracted and panicky to work out the obvious alternative: simply hang a left and take the M62 and A1 South. No, I queued for 20 agonising minutes, wringing my hands and muttering uselessly, ‘Please please please move,’ before I got round the obstruction and back on my road where, police or no police behind me, I floored it. At least, (barring further incident), I knew I’d be there to start the service on time; but as for arriving in a suitably composed and dignified fashion – it was way too late for that.

Unlike on previous occasions, I didn’t take a wrong turn or go to the wrong car-park. Arriving with a quarter-hour to spare, (phew!) it turned out I did have time to greet a few people, go to the loo, get a cup of water, and lay out my orders of service. And, luckily, to check the music running-order, because there’d been a slight mistake which we soon rectified. What I didn’t have, as the minutes ticked on, was a musician… Luckily the unflappable crematorium assistant stopped me having hysterics by substituting a terrific blues track; I was too flustered to mention it at the requisite point in the service, but if you were there and wondered about it, the song was ‘Sad Sad Day’ by Muddy Waters. I hope Kate would have approved.

Meanwhile her cortege had arrived, but still no Roy. So we went with his understudy Muddy, and kept Kate waiting at the gate while we fannied about with the sound system. From that point on, things settled down and resumed their expected order and pace. Then, part-way into the service, someone came in: tall, cowboy hat, dressed all in black. Even without seeing his Facebook photo I’d have recognised Roy – looking like that, he just had to be a musician. I later discovered he’d also been having the morning from hell, including breaking a guitar string shortly before he was due to set off – hence his failure to turn up as planned. He stood considerately at the back while I managed to get through the important bits without my voice breaking. It was a different matter the second I got out of the chapel – I clung onto and blubbed freely over friend, acquaintance and stranger alike if they said a kind word. But the tabby cat who wandered in as we were leaving cheered me up – cat-mad Kate would have liked that. (I hope she would’ve liked the service, too).

Maybe if I hadn’t had such a stressful start to the day I’d have enjoyed going on to Kate’s wake to give her an appropriate send-off (she loved a bevvy, did our Kate). But I was so drained I just Wanted To Go Home in the worst way, so I gave it a miss and headed straight back to Wakefield. And at first the drive was just fine, until I ran up against a new road closure on the A638 at Wragby and had to make a diversion…

I won’t bore you with further details; suffice to say, by the time I reached The Three Houses on Barnsley Road a couple of miles from home, I was screaming with frustration. So the first thing I did when I came in was to raise a very stiff drink to Kate in lieu of going to her wake, and neck it down PDQ; and several hours later, calmed down and half-cut on Hubcap’s Jagermeister, I can laugh – as Kate no doubt would – over these funeral farces. But it wasn’t very funny at the time… my pet hates are being late, stuck in unexpected traffic, and keeping people waiting, especially for something as important as a funeral.

So that’s partly the reason, dear reader, why I’m now such a happy gardener: it doesn’t much matter if I turn up a bit late, and the only thing I have to worry about is the weather.

Change of Life

What a difference a day makes…

On September 12th, my main job was working from home as a freelance writer and speaker. On September 13th, my main job became working outdoors as a full-time assistant gardener, a drastic change that happened literally from one moment to the next, and for the saddest of reasons: early that morning, my husband’s sole employee and workmate Mark was taken ill, (we assumed with a heart attack), and rushed to hospital. Knowing Hubcap would never manage the day’s schedule alone, I abandoned my plans and hurried out with him to help. Then at around ten-thirty we received awful, shocking news: Mark had died in the ambulance – almost certainly the one Mick saw racing past on the main road, sirens blaring, while he was at his first job – before even leaving our street.

It was impossible to take in. We’d envisaged him having an operation, convalescing, making a good recovery and, eventually, returning to work on light duties. We’d planned to find out about sick pay, something Hubcap had never dealt with before because Mark had the constitution of an ox, and seldom missed a day’s work though illness. I’d expected to give only short-term emergency cover, and perhaps to carry on part-time if he wanted to reduce his hours. Now all that was suddenly wiped out. Hubcap’s assistant for twenty-five years, a guest at our wedding, a near neighbour I’d seen or spoken to almost daily since 2005, and worked with on many occasions – he was suddenly gone, completely and forever. It felt surreal, dislocating, unbelievable; I had exchanged greetings and a brief chat with Mark only eighteen hours ago – it seemed impossible that he could be dead.

But he was; and being stuck out in mid-job, we had to stop floundering and deal with the new reality we’d been so shockingly catapulted into. Our immediate problem was to get round all the customers waiting for their gardens to be done as usual, not just today but for the rest of the week and the foreseeable future. My immediate solution was offering to step in as a trainee replacement. Gardening is, after all, our bread-and-butter; my freelance ventures, with their wildly unpredictable and often minimal returns, have only ever been the jam. So instantly changing profession made sense, even though I knew it would be very arduous work, requiring total commitment and leaving me little time or energy for anything else.

This may sound an extreme, perhaps ill-advised course; however, if you follow my website or blogs about Beckside, our nascent smallholding, you may not be too surprised by the decision. Gardening has long been a favourite hobby; I’ve done casual work in the business for over a decade – especially in the past two years since my hip replacement restored me to full vigour – and thanks to re-enacting and land work, I’m well used to (and can enjoy) long days of physical graft. So I’m not risking my health by leaping straight from a desk job into full-time hard labour; it’s more like expanding some leisure pursuits into my main paid occupation – and thankfully, so far, so good.

There is a price to pay: I had to close my funeral celebrancy business straight away, (although I’ll still perform the odd service for friends and sell Safehands Funeral Plans). I also cut back on Herstory services including lectures and guided walks, as you’ll see on the pruned-down and updated website; it really goes against the grain to turn down further talk requests, but on weekdays I’ll be too unavailable, and most evenings I’ll be too shattered to go out again and try to entertain an audience. I’m even selling my male re-enactment kit because I can’t imagine ever doing battle or cross-dressing for a schools presentation again, (but I’ll never give up archery or sell my beloved longbow!). And while I doubt I’ll manage to publish any new books before we retire in 2020, I’ll keep selling all my current catalogue and writing for fun in the meantime.

What a difference a day makes, indeed. And while I’m enjoying the challenges of this new lifestyle, I sincerely wish that it hadn’t come about under such tragic circumstances… yes, RIP, Mark.

Old School Days – and what a night!

If you went to a grammar school between the late 1950’s and early 70’s, the following speech may ring some bells: I had the privilege of delivering it at an amazing event on September 9th, and reproduce it here in the hope of entertaining members of the Final Forms 1A, 1B and 1C at Clee Girls’ Grammar who were unable to make it – as well as anyone else lucky enough to have fond memories of this sort of good old-fashioned education.

Well hello, Clementinas! Who’d have thought it, eh? 45 years later, almost to the day, and here we all are again – a whole classroom full, a third of the entire first year intake of 1972!

This is a very special occasion because we were a very special year – not just because we’re all so awesome, but because we were the last ever First Forms in the 46-year history of Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School.  So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this Big Reunion, and particularly those of you who made it happen. That’s primarily Carolyn Allison, Linda Dye and Kay Edwards – no offence to spouses, but to save confusion (not least my own) I’m going to stick to maiden names tonight. Those three did a sterling job in tracking so many of us down, although I know most people were able to add at least one contact to our burgeoning virtual First Form – so thanks to you, too. Thanks are also due to Carolyn and Kay for sorting out the venue and payments, to Carole Buckley for organising the music, and everyone who suggested songs for the playlist. I’d also like to say a particularly big personal thank-you to Carolyn for giving me the opportunity to make this speech. As some of you know, I work as a freelance speaker – basically, a gob-for-hire – and few things give me greater pleasure than the sound of my own voice and a captive audience to listen to it! So please charge your glasses for our first toast: Thanks, Everybody!

If I ever hear someone say, ‘Schooldays are the happiest days of your life,’ it’s always my year at the Girls’ Grammar I think of – it was certainly the best and happiest year I ever spent at school. For a swotty kid devoted to Enid Blyton’s Twins at St Clare’s stories, Clee Grammar was hog heaven and I was absolutely thrilled to go there… even though I was scared shitless too, because it all sounded so strict and formal, and I thought everyone except me would be terribly posh. I vividly remember that great long uniform list arriving, and Mum taking me to Lawson & Stockdale in Grimsby to buy everything… then being petrified that the metal eyelets on my plain black lace-up shoes made them too fancy and I’d get sent home! I don’t know whose bright idea it was to dress 400 adolescent girls entirely in petroleum by-products, but I’ll say one thing for that uniform – it was bloody hard-wearing (I still wore that hooded tracksuit top to go jogging when I was well into my twenties).

I also vividly remember my first day in 1A, surnames A to H: there we all were, 26 eleven and twelve year-olds in our white polo-necks and ankle-length navy gymslips turned up with about eighteen inches of hem – plenty of growing room so they’d last us right through to 5th form – with enormous sturdy blue knickers underneath. Dear Miss Hutton of the tweedy suits was our form mistress, and I remember the shock when she wrote that 6-day timetable on the board for us to copy – I thought, ‘God, does that mean we come to school on Saturdays?’ And I remember the first words I ever whispered across the aisle to Carole Buckley in my best attempt at a posh voice: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me what computation is?’ As you may recall, it turned out to be doing sums on those strange contraptions like bus conductors’ ticket machines, something I’d never encountered before – or, indeed, since – and I can’t say I’m sorry that the advent of the pocket calculator very soon rendered them obsolete!

They were such innocent days in a much simpler time, which seems so quaint and antiquated compared with 21st century schools – no such things as computers and smart-screens, classroom assistants, mobile phones or cyber-bullying. No, ours were the days of blackboard and chalk, Quink and fountain pens and blotting paper, slide rules and leather satchels…  Days of discipline and respect, when we expected to leap to our feet whenever a teacher came into the room, to do several hours of homework a night, and deliver it on time – for which we were rewarded by being treated as responsible secondary pupils and trusted to stay in at break times – a wonderful relief after all those junior years of being evicted to the playground! They were the days when we all read the same things: comics like Bunty and Judy, and of course Jackie magazine, poring over the Cathy & Clare problem page to see if it held any answers for us, and trading the free gifts of plastic jewellery and little pots of make-up. Days when we all watched Top of the Pops and the Partridge Family, Blue Peter and Magpie, listened to Ed Stewart and Kid Jensen, and cut out the pictures of favourites like Donny and David, and stuck them inside our desk lids.

Yes, it was an unforgettable year in so many ways. I never admitted to this at the time, but I was thrilled to discover that our science teacher would be one Mr Hunter, who wore a pale blue tweed jacket the same colour as his eyes – I’d had a secret crush on him ever since I saw him conducting a choir at an inter-schools choral performance when I was at Reynolds Street Juniors. So I later felt terribly guilty when I heard that our high-spirited antics – including POCTWA, the Prevention of Cruelty to Worms Association, founded by Debra Gray and Michelle Dobson – drove the poor man into a nervous breakdown. I remember going to our First Form ‘Cowboys & Indians’ themed fancy-dress Christmas party wearing a big black fuzzy fake moustache and dancing to Crocodile Rock – Kim Akrill was there sporting a real gun-belt, and lovely Mrs McCleary the English teacher in a black Stetson hat complete with a Western drawl and a cheroot stuck in the corner of her mouth. Then there was our school concert, when 1A’s song was ‘Lemon Tree,’ accompanied by Carole Buckley on guitar… I still remember the looks of consternation we exchanged as she struck up the first chords and her guitar was out of tune… and, ladies, I have a confession to make: that was My Bad. I’d been standing idly fiddling with her tuning knobs as we waited for our turn to perform. When the implications sank in, I tried desperately to put them back to their original position, but it didn’t quite work… so if we didn’t win I’m afraid it was All My Fault.

I remember hockey in winter, and tennis in summer; the horror of gym in that ghastly towelling jumpsuit, and making the wrap-around skirt to go over it in Needlework – an experience which seems to have left lasting scars on many of us. I remember cookery, which I adored: making scrambled egg in our first lesson, and later various different types of sponge cake, including a rather rubbery Swiss roll. I remember learning the recorder, with all of us sitting there in music class tootling the Skye Boat Song, Greensleeves and Turkey in the Straw – and that lovely occasion in the winter term when we were taken into Grimsby to sing carols with the Salvation Army under the big Christmas tree in St James’ Square. And of course, who could forget the redoubtable Dorothy Vallins, ‘the Dev,’ in her pink and purple check suit trilling to us in assembly that we were ‘la crème de la crème, girls – la crème de la crème!’ Although oddly enough, despite all these vivid memories, I’ve completely forgotten the tune and every word of our school song – so you may be relieved to hear I won’t be leading you in that tonight.

But I do remember many people who can’t be with us tonight, in some cases because they live too far away – and what an irony that Claire Draycott and Wendy Skerratt, who were good friends at school, both moved to the other side of the world and now live within striking distance of one another in Australia! In other cases, the reason is very sad. I suppose the law of averages makes it inevitable that some members of any given population will die prematurely through accident or illness, and unfortunately this is true of some of our form-mates including Kim Weed, maths whizz-kid Sharon Pearson, who I remember had a rather atypical crush on Eric Morecambe, and lovely Lynn Sutherland, with whom I used to twag off cross-country and go round to her house to drink coffee… and it’s on behalf of all these fellow pupils, living and passed on, that I’d now like to propose another toast: to absent friends.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us were so keen on what came after that year… although when our beloved Girls’ Grammar morphed into the Lower School of Lindsey Comprehensive, we still had some good times and went on to see each other through all the trials of puberty and adolescence. Spots. First dates. The utter self-conscious misery when spots and dates happened at the same time. The perennial question: ‘Have you started yet?’ Doing a certain exercise and chanting, ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust.’ Trading nail varnish to mend ladders in the tights we were forever snagging on the old wooden benches and desks… not to mention the sort of embarrassing personal crisis that never seems to happen in adult life, like the sudden snapping of your bra strap or knicker elastic. Playing silly schoolgirl japes with fake ink-blots and the disappearing ink Nicky Fraser once squirted on Mr Smith’s shirt in maths – he wasn’t amused – or our 3rd year piece de resistance, hiding our chairs in the suspended ceiling during one lunch break. So perhaps this is a good time to raise a glass to our long-suffering teachers…

The Upper School brought us the serious growing up stuff, the swotting for exams, the decisions on which options to take and what to do next – and I like to think our old teachers would be proud of the women we’ve become, the things we’ve achieved, and the many and varied paths our lives have taken. Alas, I’d developed such a loathing of Lindsey by the time I finally wiped its dust off my shoes that I made no effort to keep in touch with school chums – unless I bumped into you in the pubs around Grimsby and Cleethorpes – and the idea of coming to any sort of school reunion made me shudder. That is, until Carolyn Allison emailed me out of the blue about 18 months ago… and then came the wonderful excitement of last spring when our virtual First Year started to re-form on Facebook. I still remember the buzz, the thrill of making contact again, of logging on obsessively to find out who else had joined, the fun of sharing our memories and photos – the sheer warmth and sense of fellowship that immediately sprang up between us again, and the plain simple delight I felt at rediscovering old friends and finding out what you’d all been up to. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me on social media, and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of – to paraphrase Lou Reed: with such perfect days, I’m glad I spent them with you… and I’m very glad you’re all back in my life again now.

So three cheers for Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School – and now, 45 years after our first meeting there, I’d like to close with another toast to all Clementina Clees past and present, to our Big Golden Reunion in five years’ time, and many smaller meetings in between – and  to staying in touch!

 

It’s Your Funeral (2)

Even though Hubcap and I are only in our fifties, in recent years we’ve lost so many friends and family members of around our age – or considerably younger – that we’re starting to hear the Grim Reaper scratching very gently at our own door with his scythe.

So, since publishing my original ‘Its Your Funeral’ blog back on 30th December 2015, we decided to go for it and acquired a SafeHands ‘Pearl’ pre-paid funeral plan. Now, when one of us pops off, all the other will have to do is ring a 24/7 helpline number to set the plan in motion – there’ll be no scrabbling about looking for funeral directors, no trying to second-guess what the late mate would have wanted for a service – and above all, no worries about what it’s going to cost.

Altogether, I was so impressed by the company, its ethos and products that I went on and trained as a funeral planning consultant/SafeHands plan agent – so if you’d like a plan for yourself do get in touch, and I’ll gladly sell you one! In fact do get in touch even if you’re not in the market to buy, because thanks to their recent initiative to ensure every adult has one, I can give you something useful: the Free Funeral Plan. This is a handy four-page A4 form on which you fill in all the details your next-of-kin/executors will need when they have to arrange your funeral – essential stuff such as whether you want to be buried or cremated, whether you’re willing to be viewed in the funeral home, the kind of music and readings you’d like at your service, (if you want a service at all), and so on.

It might sound a bit morbid or frighteningly like tempting Fate, but it’s not – we did our plan 18 months ago, and we’re still here! Oddly enough, we both found it quite an enjoyable and comforting exercise, and it was certainly instructive; despite having known one another for nigh on 14 years/being married for nearly a decade, Hubcap hadn’t a clue I wanted my coffin to enter the chapel to Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’- and it would never have occurred to me in a million years that my little ex-Goth would choose a Frank Sinatra song, (‘It Was A Very Good Year’ – I can’t hear it now without getting a lump in my throat).

So why not drop an email to helencox-celebrant@outlook.com to request your Free Funeral Plan? There’s no catch, no charge and no obligation to go on and buy anything – so you’ve got nothing to lose (but plenty to gain in terms of peace of mind for yourself and your nearest and dearest). And if you’re now thinking, ‘Wow! That sounds so great I’d like to become a SafeHands agent myself’, then contact my account manager Alan Holmes on alan.holmes@safehandsplans.co.uk and he’ll gladly talk you through it!

2016: My Best and Worst of Years

I suspect many people will, like me, be glad to see the back of 2016; it’s certainly been one of the most extreme years I’ve ever lived through – in fact the sort of year I never expected or wanted to live through.

On a personal front it was great, largely thanks to my titanium hip. I passed the 12-month post-op ‘full recovery’ milestone in August, and will hit my impending birthday feeling ten years younger instead of one year older. I have my strength, energy and fitness back, and (hurrah!) a proper marriage again. Hubcap no longer has to nurse me along like some fragile semi-invalid; we can enjoy ourselves like the couple we used to be, going places, doing stuff, able to hike all day with no fear that an arthritic femur will shift in its socket and leave me stuck in crippled agony (as once memorably happened half-way up the keep stairs at Conisbrough Castle).

I could work physically hard too, making 2016 my best business year for- well, years. I’ve been a real Assistant Gardener at Hubcap’s busiest times, relishing our teamwork and the sweaty satisfaction of a solid day’s graft planting trees, mowing grass or painting fences – not to mention numerous sessions of Himalayan Balsam-busting, bindweed clearance and haymaking on our nascent smallholding. And I developed my new funeral services venture by foot-slogging round Wakefield’s streets delivering 5000 promotional leaflets (a strangely enjoyable task which would’ve been utterly beyond me prior to the op).

Said venture turns out to be one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, although what’s good for a funeral celebrant is perforce bad for my bereaved clients – especially because only one of the services I conducted this year was for someone very elderly; the rest were for folk in their fifties and sixties, who might reasonably have been expected to live a lot longer. It made for a poignant time in my working world, reflected in a wider sense by the staggering number of celebrities to die in 2016. Some, like the great Leonard Cohen, went in the ripe fullness of old age, but more, like Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne, were relatively, cruelly young. The only such death to touch me directly was that of journalist and critic AA Gill, with whom I was very slightly acquainted and liked a lot. Others were cultural icons, their familiar faces and voices woven into the very fabric of my earlier life, including Ronnie Corbett, who made my whole family laugh; Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, to whom I listened throughout my spotty adolescence; my late mother’s beloved Terry Wogan; Greg Lake, one of the first ‘progressive’ musicians I ever got into, and writer of my favourite-ever Christmas song; Prince, whose music charted my work-trips to the States in the Eighties; and David Bowie, for God’s sake, one of the most towering musical figures of the late 20th century… I adored him. Losing so many in a matter of months made me reel; they took a whole era with them and a huge swathe of my personal past, severing a host of connections with long-dead family and friends – which has all added up to a long, sad year of mourning.

However, those griefs pale by comparison to my feelings about the year in politics and the sheer terrifying awfulness of events at home and abroad. ‘The ‘experts’ have made a complete hash of things,’ concluded the electorates here and across the Atlantic; and while that’s true enough, it prompted some catastrophic reactions: ‘So let’s give the ignorant, inexperienced, self-aggrandising morons a chance – that’ll show ‘em!’ Yes, after two of the most despicable, divisive campaigns of misinformation and putrid propaganda I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness, all gleefully fuelled by the bile-spewing media, Britain will leave the European Union and America will be governed by a politically naïve, sexist, shouty orange racist, a porn-star First lady, their equally unqualified family and frightening fundamentalist cronies.

So far, the consequences have been pretty grim. Britain’s Leave vote, won by outright lies and broken promises, has condemned us to years of bitter argument, massive expense, market instability and an uncertain future, and shown up politicians of every party as irresponsible, incompetent, completely wrong-footed by the result and clueless about what to do next. America’s Republican victory has already caused social unrest and protests on a mammoth scale, together with accusations of corruption and criminality against a candidate many refuse to accept as president. And both here and Stateside we’ve seen a huge, horrible upsurge in scapegoating, racial and religious abuse and hate-crimes – enough to scare the bejesus out of any moderate liberal with any awareness of 20th century political and military history. To me, it has a dreadful, apocalyptic feel, as if we’ve just pressed the self-destruct button and things are about to take a turn for the unimaginably worse. I’ve never before felt so disgusted, appalled, depressed and outright bloody frightened by Britain’s political environment; and I want out but there’s nowhere to go because this seems to be the world now, a world increasingly dominated by braying right-wing bigots and unhinged religious extremists.

So it’s goodbye and good riddance to you, 2016. I can only hope and pray for 2017 and beyond that my fears will be misplaced; that everything will pan out for the best, and I’ll be forced to eat all these critical words. And by God, I want to eat them. I want to be as wrong as wrong can be. I want people who voted to leave the EU, or elected the president whose name I can’t bear to write, to be fully justified in saying, ‘See? Told you so – our problems are under control, the economy’s booming and we’re all doing just fine.’

In the meantime, I’ll close my final blog of this benighted year by wishing you and yours the merriest possible Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year.

Marvels of Middle Age

Recently I found myself walking through town on my way back from a gardening job, just marching along swinging my arms and enjoying the fine autumn weather. This may sound like no big deal and certainly nothing worth blogging about – but on a personal level it’s miraculous, because this simple pleasure was often beyond me.

In recent years it was physically impossible: I’d become so crippled by osteoarthritis that eighteen months ago I’d have been crawling along with my stick, being overtaken by spry seventy-somethings; whereas now, thanks to my marvellous new titanium hip, I’m back to my habitual route-march pace and relish every single pain-free step.

But that wasn’t what made me grin wryly as I strode along; no, I’d just remembered that as a painfully self-conscious older child, teenager and young adult, marching so freely was equally out of the question. It was mainly a matter of hands – what to do with them, I mean. I was fine if I had a dog to walk, or something to carry, or the strap of a satchel or bag over my shoulder to hang onto. Failing that, stuffing them in my pockets usually sufficed – unless I was wearing my motorcycle jacket, that is. Its pockets were so high that my elbows would stick out as if I were playing, ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’ and so tight that I could only get my fingers inside them anyway – it looked too ludicrous. So it was sheer torture to walk round to my biker boyfriend’s house in it… I had to at least carry my crash helmet or find something else to tote with me, because without some manual purpose I felt like a shambling leather-clad ape. And even when I’d achieved my walking ideal, (one hand stuck deep in a pocket and the other occupied with carrying), I loathed entering glass-fronted buildings – being hyper-conscious of my gait, I found the sight of my approaching reflection quite excruciating.

So I felt rather sorry for my younger self as I savoured one of the great compensations of middle age: no longer giving a stuff about lots of stuff, like trying to look ‘cool,’ or what I think other people might be thinking of me. Yes, there I was striding through town, not only careless of my mud-spattered work-trousers and shabby old trainers, but blatantly sporting a fluorescent yellow high-vis coat AND gaily swinging my empty hands – I might as well have been waving a placard and shouting, ‘Look at me!’ Oh, what a delicious little triumph – that ghastly self-consciousness of youth has disappeared, and it’s bloody marvellous.

Brexit Blues #1: Referendum Depression

Dear readers: you may have been surprised by my lack of rants about Britain’s recent referendum and decision to quit the EU – because God knows, the whole sorry farce gave plenty to rant about, as it will for years to come.

The reason for this dearth, thanks to the double-whammy of the result and a nasty virus doing the rounds, was that I temporarily lost the will to live, let alone blog. Seriously – the farrago of Farage, the lies piled on lies, the jingoistic ravings of the far-right, the self-seeking hypocrisy and gross political ineptitude on all sides, plunged me deep into the sort of depression I thought I’d long recovered from. I don’t mean a bummed-out mood that can be jollied away by a glass of wine and a funny film. I mean a leaden lethargy that turns getting up and dressed to face another day into an effort akin to climbing Everest; a hopeless negativity that makes it impossible to see beyond the world’s cruelty and horror to the love and beauty that exist alongside; a lasting despair that makes the idea of escaping through death seem appealing.

Anyone who’s experienced full-blown clinical depression will be nodding sagely at this point, while anyone who hasn’t may be thinking, ‘Suicidal over politics? How very self-indulgent/melodramatic/stupid,’ or something along those lines. So before I finally vent my thoughts on the fiasco of ‘Brexit,’ (the very word, that obnoxious little contraction, makes me want to run amok with an axe), I’d like to say a few words about the black dog that’s pursued me since childhood and still, on occasion, drags me down.

Endogenous depression, the type that comes from within, isn’t pretty. It isn’t languishing on a couch while silent tears roll with fetching pathos down one’s pallid cheek – it’s more like open-mouthed bawling, uncontrollable and inconsolable, with red eyes, red face and copious snot. It’s deeply complex; symptoms vary greatly between individuals, but may include a sense of being overwhelmed; a nerve-peeled hyper-sensitivity, a tendency to over-personalise, over-analyse and brood on the motivations of others, make negative assumptions about them – often wildly inaccurate – and act accordingly; bouts of hysterical frenzy alternating with long, silent withdrawals; and contempt for folk who can’t grasp just how bloody awful everything is, mingled with jealousy and resentment of their bovine, contented oblivion. The damaged self can be horribly selfish, narcissistic, paranoid, self-obsessed, unreasonable and blind to the feelings of others; the memory of some of my behaviour while ‘acting out’ my internal miseries and dramas still makes me cringe decades later. (Any non-depressives who want to get a handle on how this mind-set feels, try reading Sylvia Plath’s poems and journals; or the memoirs by Dido Merwin and Lucas Myers in Anne Stevenson’s Plath biography, Bitter Fame, to see how its manifestations impact on helpless bystanders). Depression is- well, depressingly common, affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide, and I lose count of the number of past or present sufferers I’ve personally known. It goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem and guilt for being so pathetically unable to cope with everyday stuff that everyone else apparently takes in their stride; it is at the very least life-blighting, and at the very worst, life-ending – I’ve lost one dear friend and several acquaintances to suicide when they couldn’t take the pain any longer, and on occasion come perilously close to checking out myself.

So depression isn’t being feeble, something a person can simply ‘snap out of’ at will; it’s a serious, potentially fatal illness often (as in my case) resulting from unbalanced brain chemistry combined with unresolved early trauma. Luckily, an effective course of treatment in the 1990’s saved my life; and apart from episodes brought on by external circumstances or the hormonal mood-swings of advancing middle-age, since then I’ve been a pretty happy bunny – that is, until the referendum catapulted me back onto familiar dark mental pathways and made me want to opt out, not out of Europe but out of existence itself.

How am I coping? Avoiding the news, for a start – current affairs are too threatening to my mental health and the precarious equilibrium I’ve begun to claw back. Practising mindfulness, staying in the here and now, trying not to mourn over what’s passed or panic about what’s to come, concentrating on our unchanged immediate surroundings and shutting my eyes to the wider world until I’m strong enough to look at it again. Trying not to get too angry, hungry or tired, because then I’m more vulnerable to falling into the abyss. Hanging onto life primarily for the sake of the two beings who want and need me most, my husband and cat; hoping and trusting that I’ll regain the desire to live for myself and everyone else who cares about me; resolving that if it doesn’t happen soon, if a stable, usually happy state doesn’t return, I’ll seek medical treatment. And now publishing this to say to any fellow sufferers from ‘Brexit Blues’ or other forms of depression: you’re not alone. You’re not weak or pathetic. You do deserve help; I hope that you’ll seek and find it, and from my heart, I wish you every sort of well.

The Traumatiser: Julie Bindel and Sanctimonious Students

Feminist writer Juile Bindel recently released a short, punchy video for The Guardian – ‘Sorry, We can’t ban Everything That Offends You – and I’m deeply offended by some of the content. Not by Bindel’s defence of free speech, (essentially, that it’s better to hear repugnant opinions and refute them with rational argument than to prevent them from being voiced). No, I’m offended by the self-righteous brigade in the National Union of Students: the ones who deny Bindel a speaking platform because they can’t be bothered to read or understand what she really means; the ones who think cross-dressing fancy dress should be banned in case it offends transgender people; and most of all by the ones who claim that they would be ‘traumatised’ if they had to repeat her ‘horrifically transphobic’ views.

Traumatised? Traumatised? Feh! Anyone capable of such pathetic self-dramatizing wouldn’t recognise real trauma if it walked up and slapped them in the face. How dare a minority of a minority lucky enough to have the brains and resources to enter tertiary education misappropriate the word for so trivial a purpose when millions all over the world are genuinely, horribly traumatised on a daily basis? It’s a symptom of our smug, self-regarding society where too many people are babied into adulthood with a grossly over-inflated sense of their own importance, and I’ve got news for you, children: you’ll find the adult world a whole lot rougher and ruder than Academia, full of unsympathetic grown-ups who won’t give a flying fig if you’re ‘traumatised’ by the idea of repeating words you don’t like. Try telling the drought-stricken, starving Ethiopians or the war-torn Syrians and Ukrainians how upset you are by Julie Bindel exercising her right to free speech. Go on, I double-dare you – I’d just love to hear what they reply.

And as for the woolly-minded naïvety of last year’s NUS Women’s Conference ‘ban fancy-cross-dressing’ debate, with its political hyper-correctness and control-freak mentality masquerading as concern for transgender feelings, well… the ‘pro-banners’ remind me of the joyless architects of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Imagine a world where they got their way: our legal system, already overstretched with serious crime, crushed by the weight of invented offences; informants gate-crashing ‘Tarts & Vicars’ and stag-parties, ever on the look-out for miscreants dressing up in forbidden clothes; police stations full to bursting with tipsy blokes in fishnet tights, mini-skirts and the wife’s purloined lippy. Taken to its logical conclusion, we’d have no more principal boys or pantomime dames; mass burnings of Little Britain, Mrs Brown’s Boys and League of Gentlemen DVDs (to name but a few shows in which cross-dressing is used, gasp shock horror, for comic effect); no more re-runs of Monty Python, Blackadder, or Morecambe and Wise; and a whole list of movies, (Stardust, Tootsie, Mrs Doubtfire and The Birdcage immediately spring to mind), the showing or watching of which would result in immediate incarceration for crimes against trans-emotions.

Well, stuff that. All I can say is thank God we can’t ban everything that offends some people – and I’m not the least bit sorry about it.