Friday, 30 September 2011


Brigitte Bardot, Terry O'Neil
I was nearly sixteen when I smoked my first cigarette, deep into the old gardens at school, under a tree. It was pouring down, as ever, and we went through an entire box of matches trying to light the damn thing, and even now the smell of smoke hanging heavy on cold damp air conjures the ghost of stolen pleasures.

The cigarette was Dunhill, which at the time seemed the apogee of glamour, filched by my best friend from her parent's cocktail party one exeat, and carefully smuggled back, hidden in a box of tampax. Neither of us had much idea how to smoke, which added to the difficulty of lighting it because it took us a couple of goes to realise that you had to suck in at the same time as holding the match to the end, and we shared the cigarette in a series of jagged, exaggerated puffs, wrists held stiffly like dowagers, neither of us inhaling, even accidentally. Had I inhaled, I'm quite sure I'd never have smoked again, but as it was, that first time had all the allure of the illicit, and we were determined to acquire the sophistication we felt sure smoking would confer on us. We may have been two schoolgirls huddled together, in our woollen kilts and gabardine macs in the clammy air, but in our heads we were Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle, Joan Collins in Dynasty, Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crowne Affair, Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour. Life had never seemed so daring. This was what it felt like to be a proper grown-up.

A little less than ten years on, when I was trying to give up, I realised that it was the pose of smoking I was addicted to, rather than the nicotine, or trying to stay thin, or the sheer habit, or the social smoking, or whatever other reason one usually gives for smoking. Cigarettes were less of a psychological prop than a literal prop: they simply complemented whatever role I was inhabiting at the time. I spent my mid teens smoking brightly-coloured Sobranie Cocktails, the perfect accessory for a New Romantic. At university, I imagined myself a left-bank intellectual circa 1968, and carried a pack of Gauloise around with my copies of Barthes and Baudrillard: Fortunately for my health and my wallet, I found them so revolting I could only ever smoke one a day. A little later on at university, when I was briefly a placard-waving socialist-culturalist-feminist, I smoked roll-ups in a print frock and clumpy Doctor Martins and later still, in my first job, I had shoulder-pads in my nipped-in, double-breasted, pencil-skirted suit, and in the pub after work I propped twenty Marlborough Reds on top of my outsize Filofax.

Anyway, I managed to quit, partly by curing myself of the need to be such a hopeless poseur. And an ex-smoker I remained until almost twenty years after that first fag when, on holiday with my Godbrother in Tuscany, sitting outside a chic coffee bar, espresso in hand, Prada sunspecs glued to our faces, he remarked idly that the only thing we were missing to make the experience truly contextual, was a cigarette. Did I demur, or point out that we were, at thirty-three, far too old and sensible to take up smoking again? I did not. 'We'll give up in the departure lounge,' I said, and promptly lit up.

Of course, we didn't give up at the airport at all but passed customs with 200 Marlborough Lights in a Duty Free carrier bag.  I managed to wean myself off what quickly became a twenty a day habit by the winter of that year, but still scabbed a fag whenever I had a drink in my hand.  I gave up properly when I realised I was pregnant with Trefusis Minor, but took it up again the minute I returned to work, keen to prove to myself I was still a bit of a rebel, not merely a pinny-wearing, carrot-pureeing mummy. But my heart wasn't really in it.  And by the time the Tiniest Trefusis came along, smoking gave me up altogether - tipsy after a supper-party, I took a cigarette from Mr Trefusis' emergency stash, and it tasted so unutterably vile in a way smoking never had at anytime during the preceding twenty five years, I immediately ground it out, taking a huge belt of someone's after-dinner whisky to try to take the horrid taste away.

Of course, the thing about smoking is that one has one's first fag in an attempt to look more grown up, and by the time one is an actual bone fide adult, you realise that it's neither big nor clever. I don't miss smoking, but I miss the camaraderie of smoker's corner, the gang membership of the ashtray, and I never mind keeping a friend company as they shiver outside a restaurant or the office. But I won't smoke again.  Not even if someone offered me a More Menthol, a la Joan Collins, or a Sobranie Black Russian, like a character from James Bond.

Thursday, 22 September 2011


I would have described myself as a good sleeper. All my life I've been able to drop off at a moments notice: I can sleep on aeroplanes, on trains, on sofas, in strange beds. I can go to sleep for an hour in the afternoon, or twenty minutes before supper, for ten hours of respite after the bone-shaking exhaustion of being awake with a sick child, or for seven hours common or garden beauty sleep.

Sleep is one of those things I've never questioned: however dogged by uncertainty I might be about my ability in other areas, I've always taken sleep for granted. It's true there have been times when I've craved more sleep -during finals; when I was young enough to cope with the physical demands of swotting furiously til 3am, or after the children were born, where dumb with tiredness from the endless night feeds, you find yourself putting your car keys in the fridge and the milk in the bathroom cupboard.

Those periods of sleep deprivation seem voluntary, self-imposed, temporary. But now, as I wave wearily at the bedside clock ticking past four, and yet again I'm stuck in the long dark teatime of the soul, and in the long dark teatime of the soul, all the sandwiches are stale, the scones crumble to dust, and the cake is always seedcake and never coffee-walnut.

I wonder, a little despairingly, if this bloody sleeplessness will ever end.

I've tried the usual things -a warm bath, a cup of cocoa, moving the pile of shoes from the side of the bed in case they were interfering with the feng shui or something. I've tried meditation, counting sheep and self-hypnosis. I've opened windows and tried different combinations of bedclothes. I've listened to The Goldberg Variations, which is my secret instant-calmer & usually works in any situation from childbirth to coping with rush hour on the Central Line. To no avail: I drop off fine, and then I wake up.

And what is it about the wee small hours that's so much more horrid than any other time of day? All the things you haven't done line up around your bed and start pointing at you, muttering about your inadequacies, undermining your ability to believe you can get on and finish anything. So the mind plays games, which is wearing, and the tiredness debilitates, and the jeering creatures around the bed peel off a layer of your skin, so that in the bright of day you're unable to face things with quite the equanimity they require.

Anyway, this four in the morning thing has been going on almost since i came back from holiday and it's driving me demented. It feels like a habit now too, which is even more peeving.

Any good suggestions for knocking it on the head and getting my sanity back?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


"This year, from Father Christmas,' says The TT, 'I would like a pony, a pink palace full of rubies and diamonds and pearls and treasure and a pink garden with loads of flowers: silver and gold flowers, bell flowers, sunflowers.'

'Oh,' I say, 'anything else?'

'A fan.'

At least she's given me three months to figure out either how to manage her expectations or discover how to come up with the goods without first winning Euromillions.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Writing the previous post on The Plankton, and reading the wonderful, incisive comments, has made me ponder a lot on the subject of women’s sexual allure as one gets into proper middle age, as opposed to middle youth.

I don't know how old the model is in this Marks and Spencers commercial - I'm guessing she has ten years on me, but she's bloody fabulous. Still got it? Hell, yes. I loved the comment made by anonymous about her late mother being ‘like Scarlet O’Hara at the Twelve Oaks BBQ’ when she was in her sixties. That, my lovely readers, is the example to which we must all aspire.

I do hope The Plankton is successful in her relationship quest: in the meantime, I’d like to remind her that Wendy Cope’s words are no less true at forty or fifty-something than they are at any other age.

Bloody men are like bloody buses -

You wait for about a year

And as soon as one approaches your stop

Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,

Offering you a ride.

You're trying to read the destination,

You haven't much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.

Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze

While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by

And the minutes, the hours, the days.

Monday, 12 September 2011


There is grey in your hair
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing

That haunting beginning of Yeats' Broken Dreams has been on my mind a lot these last few days, partly because wonderful Waffle, arbiter of all things new and interesting, brought to my attention a new blog called The Plankton, whose first entry begins

As a divorced woman the wrong side of 45 with a brace of kids, I am a plankton on the food chain of sexuality and the prospect of a relationship.
Women die long before they actually die.

It's an interesting blog: she began it - as she writes in her column for The Times - "because I felt it was about time to voice the unsayable: that women of a certain age such as myself (and there are a heck of a lot of us — divorced, never married, widowed, and alone) are at the very bottom of the food chain when it comes to romance, relationships and sex, and it feels like shit."

I've become slightly obsessed by The Plankton's blog: it does help that she posts at least once a day, and that she's unflinchingly honest in her despair in how difficult it is to find new love at a certain age. So unflinching is she I feel a little voyeuristic reading it, however, give it a go because I suspect, like me, you'll want to see where the journey takes her.

I do think there's a sense in which women don an invisibility cloak once they hit forty - there's that sense of contracting possibilities, of the winnowing of time and every time you look in the mirror you're caught between your internal midlife crisis and wondering what economies you could make in order to afford a vat of botox. Miranda Sawyer's piece in The Guardian says all I could possibly say on the subject of quiet midlife crises, only a lot better of course.*
Do I think that a woman of a certain age is inevitably at 'the bottom of the sexual food chain'? No, of course I don't, but then I'm not single, so haven't had to put The Plankton's assertion to the test, and I'm heartily relieved I don't have to. However, I can see that the dating field is hardly lush, green and ripe with possibilities once one is past forty. I know many beautiful, elegant, desirable fortysomething single women, and frankly, the single men of my acquaintance can't hold a candle to them, though they behave as if the dating world is their oyster.

The Plankton has had a lot of 'helpful' comments about getting a dog, or joining a class or going to therapy to boost her self-esteem, all of which is as dispiriting as it is well-meant. On behalf of all fortysomething women, I'd like to say, we're not dead yet - you can't stare the second half of your life in the face and feel like you've missed the boat, and none of us is ready for Saga magazine style activities. Mind you, when you do stare the second half of your life in the face, it takes you a moment to recognise whose face it is - in your head you still look just like you did at thirty, but the reality is the tiniest bit different.

Anyway, I was talking about The Plankton's blog with a single fortysomething friend earlier today.

Did she think she was at the bottom of the sexual food chain, I asked? 

She looked at me thoughtfully for a while. 'Nothing would persuade me to call myself a plankton,' she said, 'But I would call the last six men I've dated pond life'.

*Thanks go again to Waffle for sending me a link to this piece.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Win a Champney's Pedicure courtesy of

No matter how good my pre-holiday pedicure, I always seem to come back with appalling hobbit trotters: if your feet could do with some TLC, then send me an email and I'll enter you into a free prize draw to win a luxurious 55 minute pedicure at one of the Champney's high-street spas, courtesy of* is a new site, just launched in the UK, that offers a fantastic range of experience days, perfect for presents, or for treating yourself. From fast and furious driving days to relaxing spa experiences, Wish has something to suit all ages, interests and pockets: have a look around to see what's on offer.

*NB: 30th September 2011: competition is now closed

Monday, 5 September 2011


St Benoit Du Sault, darkest France
I’ve worked out why New Year is such a damp squib for me: It’s not exhaustion after the effort of Christmas for all that New Year/New You stuff or a lack of enthusiasm for a Brave New Dawn when there’s only three hours of daylight, it’s that January is not my physiological, or psychological fresh start. No, my internal clock is set to start the year afresh in September, after the long summer break – well, a fortnight away from work – and whilst there’s still a glimmer of sunshine around to keep one feeling optimistic and encouraged. Long after leaving school, the imprint of the school year’s rhythm is still so strong that September always seems to offer a much more promising clean slate.

We spent our holiday in La France Profonde – it was so profonde that I spent my first fortnight in nearly ten years without an internet connection. Even my work Blackberry could only summon up one bar of signal if I went to the other end of the village, which was a marvellous excuse for staying out of touch with the office, and our only contact with the outside world was an occasional text from my mother. The world didn’t stop turning on its axis without Facebook or Twitter, but I did realise what a time thief twitter has been. I adore twitter, and there are few better ways to fritter away the idle minute, but fewer tweets could mean more time to spend doing other things. It’s no coincidence that I became a much more infrequent blogger when I joined twitter. Twitter has its place - and it's huge fun - but there are things which require more than 140 characters.

And so I made La rentrée resolution #1: see if life without twitter means a revival of the blog.

We spent part of our holiday in a very prettily restored 16th century town house in one of Les Plus Beaux Villages en France – the village itself is a walled medieval town, which despite its size, boasts three hairdressers, two butchers and three bakers. I love the morning ritual of going off to the boulangerie to buy bread, crisp and still warm from the oven, but if I ever see another baguette, it will be too soon. Between the baguettes and the vast quantities of wine I managed to put on six pounds to add to the ten I’d put on after a year eating cake and drinking cocktails, which wasn’t any the less depressing for being inevitable. If I don’t arrest the growth of my waistline between now and Christmas, I predict this blog will become nothing more than an endless series of whinging about not fitting into any of my clothes.

Hence, La rentrée resolution #2: Do the Dukan diet.

I’m not really a great one for punishing regimes – I lost the three stone I put on when pregnant with the Tiniest Trefusis by joining Weightwatchers, which was very effective, but I need something quicker and more ascetic. Two friends have done Dukan with absolutely amazing results too, which is quite encouraging. Anyway, according to the Dukan website, if I start now I’ll get to my goal weight by October 28th: sounds do-able. Hmm, I've just looked at my diary - I have a wine-tasting tonight and dinner with one of my very best friends on Wednesday, I think I'll start the Dukan on Thursday....

There were a few other tweaks and changes I decided to make too – but I think two main resolutions are enough to be going on with, and certainly the twittering and Dukan-ing will require daunting amount of self discipline. I shall let you know how I get on.

Update: 5th October - the Dukan does work - it's not a healthy long-term solution, I don't think, and certainly it's probably best if you have only a small amount of weight to lose, but it was easy enough to drop the few pounds that stood between me and a comfortable fit to my clothes.