My-My is 95

We call my mother’s mother My-My.  Let me start by saying that she is, in many ways, an incredible woman (how incredible we’re only really discovering now she’s started telling us tidbits about her early life – My-My and I had never had a conversation about her life until 2002 when I was dumped and miserable and she shared a story about how she’d been dumped in 1940…)  She was left, aged 10, to fend for herself when her parents went off to find work and left her with an old woman who lived in the same village.  She couldn’t go to university, because her parents didn’t have the money, so she became a teacher, which meant that when war broke out she couldn’t become a WREN which was her greatest desire.  When she married, she didn’t stop working, which was unusual at the time.  Not only that, she became a deputy head, at a time when women with families rarely worked, and certainly didn’t get promotions.  Such was her work ethic, and so strongly was it passed down through my family, that, as a child, I had no idea that women didn’t work.  I’m pleased that I thought it was the norm, not the abnorm.  She looked after my grandfather when he had Alzheimer’s and aged 69 took on her first ever mortgage so that she could move them both to a bungalow when the stairs of their rented flat became too much.  She has lived alone since he died in 1988 and only went in to a home three weeks ago, when macular degeneration and the fear that came with it made living in her own house too hard.  Until recently she was on the WI committee, the church committee, the local garden society committee, you name it, she was on it.

Incredible.  But until this week, I had never seen My-My hug anyone outside of her immediate family.  I had never seen her kiss anyone outside of her immediate family.  This is the first time I’ve seen her as anything other than stern.  It’s odd, because she looks like the archetypal “granny” (though try calling her that to her face…!) – she’s always been a bit cuddly looking, she always wears dresses and skirts (never trousers), she’s got that fluffy white candy floss hair that grannies have.  But as a child she was, frankly, terrifying.  She disapproved of most things, and would tell us.  She would play games with us, but would make no concessions to our age – Monopoly became known as Monotony because of the regularity and glee with which she would beat us, a 6 and a 7 year old, the 6 year old who liked buying the Old Kent Road and the stations, but nothing else, so was NEVER going to win, let’s face it.  Monopoly hasn’t been played in our family for about 20 years (and with any luck will never be played again!)  We were never allowed in her kitchen to help with cooking, or to bake cakes.  She didn’t have the time, the patience or the inclination.  To be fair, none of the women in my family are interested in babies, and have limited interest in children, even their own (my own mother once said to me that if she’d known how tedious and repetitive having children was, she doubts she’d have bothered.  Some people find this harsh.  I find it honest.  And it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love the children she has, it just means she found them boring until they were able to discuss ideas and stopped repeating themselves over and over and over…) but My-My’s lack of interest is legendary (although she has started asking for great-grandchildren, but only in wedlock, which counts me out of the running)  The most terrifying memory of my life is when we were staying in their tiny flat in Wolverhampton (over a sweet shop – it should have been a child’s dream!) and on the stairwell My-My and Pa had a cuckoo clock with hanging pendulums like pine cones.  Perfect for swinging on, thought my 5 year old brother and I, until the clock came crashing down from the wall.  Her rage was epic.  And she still brings it up from time to time, bringing back the sick feeling in my stomach as I knew I’d done something IRREPARABLY AWFUL.  When we stayed with My-My and Pa, we were on best behaviour at all times.  Compared to my father’s parents, where we ran about in the garden, made coconut cakes, turned footstools upside down to make boats, painted, sewed, knitted, made as much mess as we could.

Even My-My’s name suggests cuddly fun times.  She loves it, because as she says, there’s only ONE My-My, but there are countless Grannies.  But she only has that name because… she was FURIOUS that my father’s mother got Grandma.  She got in there first, so Dad’s parents were Grandma and Pa.  Ma’s parents were going to have to be Granny and Pa (see the men didn’t mind that they both had the same name – no distinction at all!) but she didn’t like the word Granny (much the same way Ma hates “Mum” so to avoid calling her mummy I call her Ma and my brother calls her Jude…) so I don’t think we really called her anything.  But, when my brother was about 2, my parents moved to an old Victorian villa in Dover which had 6 floors (2 of which were condemned as human habitation which meant they slept in the bathroom for a year a half and my brother and I learnt to identify rising damp and dry rot before school-age).  My-My was carrying my brother up the stairs and said, “My, my, my, my, my you are heavy.”  And from then on, she was known as My-My.  It’s a lovely story, and speaks of affection and love that you would never know from seeing our interactions with one another or from her interactions with anyone.

She’s always been a guarded, stern woman.  With a sense of humour, which is equally guarded.  And with no time for children.  Which explains a lot about my mother, and her desire to fill her house with fun, and for us to be allowed to have friends over whenever we wanted, and for there to be parties and dinners and drinks.   A desire which often goes against her upbringing and can cause tensions for herself and for the rest of us.  Especially as my father is a complete product of his upbringing – all hale-fellow-well-met and sociability.  They came from polar opposite backgrounds and it still shows.  My-My didn’t speak to Dad for 5 years after he and Ma got together.  She refutes it now, but she didn’t want Ma to marry a man from Essex when there were so many eligible bachelors at her school in Wolverhampton (all of whom were gay, did she but know it, and at least 20 years older than Ma) – so she simply ignored him.  Their relationship has mellowed over the years (although I do remember Dad storming out of our house one Christmas day after My-My, let’s not forget a guest in his home, insisted on cooking the turkey and the homemade stuffing and bread sauce and the kitchen had gone nuclear.  His parting words were “All this reverence for a FUCKING BIRD.”  He came back half an hour, equable as ever, carved and made Pa laugh so he was forgiven.)  Mellowed so much that he can now call her “The Wicked Witch of the West” and get away with it.  He bought her a broomstick for her 80th birthday.

I have endured years of being told to brush my hair – Pa loved combing people’s hair.  My brother loved it, I hated it because my hair was always knotty and it hurt.  But I was often in trouble for not allowing it, and was made to endure it (and at night brush my hair 100 times – I should be like fucking Rapunzel if her theories were correct!)  I’m nearly 40, but I still get told to brush my hair, and when one day, in exasperation, I did finally brush my hair, My-My simply said, “Well, it looks awful.”  She did chuckle afterwards, but still…  I haven’t really been able to tell her about any of my acting work because she won’t approve of the kind of programmes I’m in.  I know they are not for her particularly, but whereas other old people of my acquaintance will admit it’s not for them but will still be pleased I’m in it, she will (or rather would) tell me why it was awful, why it wasn’t funny etc etc.  The last time we laughed at a comedy together it was Les Dawson (and I still have a huge affection for him and I wonder if that’s part of the reason why?  She used to do a very good impression of him.)  She always asks when I’m going to do some “legitimate” theatre and refuses to understand impro.  I say refuse because she is a very intelligent woman, and has the capacity, but not the willing.

I’m not really sure why all this is important to me at the moment.  I think it’s because I saw her this week for the first time in 2 years (she lives somewhere unreachable by public transport, I don’t have a car, and I have made work my priority for a while – no excuses, just choices) and possibly for the last time.  She’s old.  She’s ill.  She has a narrowed heart valve which one day will simply close completely and that will be that.  She’s started putting stickers on things so we know who gets what.  She’s still completely “with it” mentally and was really funny on her birthday – witty and laughing.  And so warm.  A word I have never really associated with her.  We all got hugs and kisses.  The carers in the home got hugs and kisses (as I said, the first time I’ve ever seen her kiss someone from outside the family).  Everyone was thanked for their efforts (she’s always been courteous and polite, but can be incredibly dismissive of people she doesn’t feel immediately like – oh the stories!)   But she’s increasingly deaf and increasingly blind so can no longer read or even really watch TV which were her two joys (Dick Francis and Emmerdale are her favourites).  And I suppose what I want to say is that I love this difficult, stern, repressed woman.  As she gets nearer death, she’s letting us in, finally.  It’s sad that she’s left it so late.  And I also want to say that I owe her a great deal.  Because, and she’d hate the word, she’s a feminist, an early pioneer of the working woman.  Because I have inherited some of her reserve, and it’s a reserve I like.  Because it’s useful being stern sometimes, being unemotional, being businesslike.  Because my mother rebelled against her, and created a warm, welcoming home for their friends, and for my brother’s and my friends (many of whom have lived at my parents’ house when they had nowhere else to go)My-My attempting a selfie, and for us.  And most of all because there really is only one My-My.

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This will be short, so if the words “vagina”, “period”, “tampon” or “advertising” upset you it won’t last long. So either strap in, or don’t read, or read and have a slightly queasy stomach for the rest of the day.

Here’s a thing that has been annoying me for a long time.  According to the advertisers, and the people for whom they are advertising, my vagina is a disgusting thing.  It SWEATS. And it SMELLS.  And these things are SO revolting, not just to me, not just to my partner, but to the world AT LARGE, that I must do something about it.  I must buy a product to disguise these smells.  I need to buy a deodoriser.  I need to buy sanitary pads that have “odour neutralising pearls” in them (let’s ignore the princess language here – yes my vagina is so special I give it pearls! Precious pearls! Which stop it STINKING) which will take away the awful stench of menstrual blood which follows me around like a dark viscous cloud once a month.

Of course if I use these products, the likelihood is I will get bacterial vaginosis and then my vagina really will smell.  Not like it’s supposed to, but bad, because advertisers and people who want to make money have told me that what it’s supposed to smell like is an awful thing that must be covered.  And the result is an infection which smells bad.  So I’ll have to use their products to cover up… Oh.  Oh I see what they’re doing.  Right.  Got it.  They’re creating a need for their product by the use of their product.

When do they bring in deodorisers for men’s sweaty balls?


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The Racism of the Short Distance Driver

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of filming.  I am beginning to like filming rather than finding it a slightly unnerving experience, and am looking forward to a further four weeks of filming leading up to Christmas.  It’s great to have work.  What I’m not looking forward to is four weeks of being driven to and from work.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware this is a major perk of the business.  It’s also a necessity from a production company’s point of view – they know where their performers are, they know exactly when they were picked up, they know what time they are going to arrive, they aren’t held at the whim of the vagaries of public transport, filming isn’t going to be held up because the Northern line was being a bumhead.  And being driven to and from set is a major perk – I don’t want to get on the tube at 5am, but getting picked up at 5am isn’t so bad.  I am however very bad at small talk.  Especially at 5am.  But I’m too much my mother’s daughter to ignore the driver completely.  In the mornings it’s a bit easier.  I get in, I do a polite “how are you? How is the traffic? You must be tired, you have to get up so early…” then I say, “Sorry I have to learn these lines, I hope you don’t mind.” I then put in my headphones, put a script on my lap and promptly fall asleep.  In the evening, it’s a bit harder.  I do the polite “how are you? How is the traffic?  Have you been working long? Gosh that’s a long day… yes we’ve had a long day.”  Then I say, “Sorry, I’ve got to learn these lines for the morning, I hope you don’t mind”, put in my headphones, put a script on my lap and fall asleep.

But sometimes, I feel this isn’t enough, or I get a particularly chatty driver and they want to talk and I never get to the “Sorry, I’ve got…” bit because they are talking, talking, talking.  At me.  When I’m tired.  And the main topic of conversation always, and I mean ALWAYS, ends up having a racist slant to it.  And I’m too tired to deal with that.  And often too cowardly if I’m honest.

Let’s take last week.  I was picked up after a really long day by a Nigerian driver.  I say this because he was at great pains to point out to me that he wasn’t from London, he only came here between May and October to drive his cab and then he went home to Nigeria where it was warm.  He still thought of Nigeria as home, though he’d been living on and off in London for 23 years.  He loved Nigeria, but wasn’t so keen on London.  I like it, I said.  I don’t, he said.  And then we drove through Stamford Hill.  For those who don’t know London, Stamford Hill is an area where a lot of Hassidic Jews live.  It’s close to where I live and I like it because you can get really good challah there on a Friday. And then he said, “Ugh, look at all these Jews.  They don’t work you know, they just live on welfare.”

“Really?” I said, “I don’t think that’s true.”

“It is, they are lazy, the Jews, they don’t work, especially these ones, because your government lets them not work.”

“OK, again I don’t think that’s true,” I said.

“It is, you don’t know, but it is.  They are lazy, these Jews are lazy, and how do they have all the money?  The Jews have all the money but they don’t work.  How is that?”

“I’d say it’s impossible,” I said, “and it’s a shame you think that.”  I then stopped listening and responding to him.  He put on Heart FM.

It was pretty shocking, casual racism.  And all the more dispiriting to me because the night before I’d had another driver.  A white, Irish driver.  I point out that he was Irish because he was at great pains to let me know that he was Irish, that he didn’t live in London, he didn’t like London, he wasn’t from England, oh and did he mention he hated London?  He lived in Manchester and was working down here for the duration of the shoot.  And he hated it.  He HATES London.  I like it, I said.  I don’t, he said.  At first the conversation was all about how much the dole was in London.  I have very little real idea.  I think it’s about £70.  I have never signed on.  I nearly did once in 1999, but walking into the Job Centre in Orpington made me die inside and I walked out immediately without filling in any of the paperwork.  And eventually got a job sticking up posters. Which also made me die inside, but at least there were nice cafes to sit in while doing it.  He then told me how much money you can make on the dole in Ireland.  It sounded like a hell of a lot.  I thought about moving to Ireland and living on the dole.

Then he started on London.  Which was insensitive.  This is my home.  I love London, I absolutely love it.  I wouldn’t really want to live in any other city in Britain.   Nothing wrong with those cities but this is my home and it pretty much always has been and I thrive on this place.  And having someone tell you where you live is shit isn’t very nice.  Still I’m used to it.  A lot of people don’t like London.  It’s too busy, it’s too noisy, it’s so unfriendly, etc etc.  He had a different reason though, as we drove through Hackney.  “It’s all these coloureds, walking around as if they own the place.”

It sort of took my breath away.  “They do own the place,” I said.   He huffed a bit and then said, “Why do you like it here then?”  I talked about the art, the culture, the sights.  He said, “So you just like the tourist stuff?”  No, I said.  I like everything.  It’s hard to say what you like – it’s easier to say what you hate.  But I like that there are all kinds of people, all kinds of cultures, living with each other.  “Yeah, there’s definitely all kinds of people,” Mick said (that was his name, I’m not being casually racist against the Irish, my sister-in-law is Irish, some of my best friends are Irish, OK?) but he said it in a really disparaging way.  I stopped listening to him, and he put on LBC, which was sort of worse.

I wish I’d not been so tired.  I wish I’d taken him up on it and said don’t be such a racist.  I wish I’d told him this:

Last week my fella and I went up to Alexandra Palace for a walk.  We walked through Priory Park with kids of all colours playing together on the basketball court, while “yummy mummies” ran with their prams doing some kind of baby exercise thing.  We walked up to the Palace, and saw through a window some kind of Sikh ceremony.  We looked in, the door opened, I was waiting to be admonished, when the guy said, “Come in, join in, have a look.”  We did.  I don’t know what the ceremony was, but it seemed to be four couples having some kind of blessing.  My ignorance (and lack of attention in GCSE RE) means I don’t know if it was a joint wedding, or what, but it was great, and there was a live band, and everyone was smiling, and there were priests up on a dias doing things with smoke and what looked like petals, and as we left five minutes later, the guy who’d let us in said, “Thank you for coming” as if we were proper guests. Then we walked round the back to the boating lake where there were families on pedalos, Indian, white, Chinese, and some ridiculous hungover hipsters eating ice-cream on a bench.  Then it started raining, so we ran to take shelter in the ice-rink bit, where there were some teenagers moaning about not being picked up, speaking in that weird North London patois which is a mixture of all sorts of accents and affectations, and they were standing next to some Polish bikers who had come for the motorbike show in the main arena.  We walked back down the hill and through the farmers’ market with the chattering middle classes all trying to buy the last steak for £37.  And we walked back home, via the Broadway, so we could see if there was any challah in Gail’s to go with our fridge dinner.  And what was most amazing about this was that it wasn’t amazing.  It wasn’t remarkable.  It wasn’t odd.  Neither of us noticed or made comment on it.  We live in a city where difference is the norm.  Where less than half the population is considered “White British”, compared to a country where “White British” makes up 87.1% of the population.  That’s why I love London.  I’m not saying there aren’t problems and I’m not saying racism isn’t rife.  All I’m saying is, I’m glad I live here, with the Jews and “coloureds” and the hipsters and the loud mums, and I’d rather live here than in Mick’s world, which is full of hate and misunderstanding.  And I’d rather not be able to articulate exactly what I love than to be so sure of what it is I hate.  So I’m writing a list of things I love, so that in the next four weeks, when someone says something they hate I will counter with things that are great and that make life better.  And that for me includes the melting pot I bubble in.

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