“If you have the hunter sticker you have to live with the social outcast label.”

Back in 1999 when a freelance travel writer could still get a commission, I wrote a piece on hunting in Namibia which was published in CNN Traveller. I interviewed two major players in the Namibian hunting fraterntiy and one, the now-dead Jan Oelofse, invited me to his farm, Mt Etjo, to see for myself what happens in a hunt and to meet some of his hunters.

Jan Oelofse remains one of the most unpleasant people I have ever encountered, but his views on hunting and hunters were jaw-dropping.  For him, hunting and conservation were intertwined – a viewpoint extremely common amongst hunters.  He admitted to me that he ran canned hunting, illegal then and now.  In a canned hunt, someone – usually someone American – pays a great deal of money ($25,000 then, probably around $35,000 now) to shoot an animal – generally a lion  – in a small enclosure. When I asked if if he regretted anything he’d done, he answered:

“I’ve done a lot of things I didn’t like to do. The first impala I shot on this farm wasn’t necessary for me to shoot, but it was financially necessary. If a guy takes you out and every night wines and dines you and doesn’t take you to bed, he’s not going to take you out any more. It’s the same in life. If people are prepared to pay in kind, in money, you cater for it. Hunters have sponsored this place.”

Cecil the lion has rightly made headlines across the world.  The American dentist who shot him with a bow and arrow on an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe and then left him to in agony for 40 hours before he was killed, skinned and beheaded has discovered how it feels to be hunted.  I have no sympathy whatsoever.  I have no sympathy with hunters who would rather shoot with a gun or a bow than a camera.  I despise their attempts to justify and their pride in ‘the hunt’.  In my view, hunting is indefensible, whether it’s foxes, deer or the animals of Africa.

I am currently working on a travel book/memoir/thing.  One of the chapters is about my time with the hunters.  Rudi and Annette (not their real names) were Oelofse’s professional hunters. Michael was the American hunter client. They tried to persuade me to go out with them, but I couldn’t.  Perhaps I should have done, all in the name of the story, but nothing I would have seen happen would have changed my views.  Despite all that, I liked them, a fact that still disturbs me, although nothing in Namibia is ever black and white.  Here’s an extract:
“OK,” I say, taking another slug of wine to bolster my confidence. “You love watching game, you love animals. So why go that extra step? After tracking something for days – why do you need to kill it? Isn’t the hunt enough?” I feel like I’m in an undercover documentary made by Merchant Ivory.
Rudi, shamelessly conforming to stereotype, declares: “It’s the challenge,” and Michael, hilariously, shrieks: “Oh noooo!” Annette and I both laugh but Rudi is clearly irritated. “It’s so personal – like hallowed ground. It can be murder or a great experience. If you are not in the circle, hunting is a machismo, big horn on the wall thing and it annoys me when I get dismissed like that.”
It’s still not nearly good enough for me. “But why kill it?” I persist.
“We want to utilise it. We utilise to conserve…”
But now I’m irritated. “No, I don’t want the conservation shit. Tell me what you really think, because if you can’t even say the word ‘kill’…” I wish I’d been this brave with Helga and Henk. These guys and girls may have the guns, but they scare me a lot less than the Swakop racists.
Rudi finally tells it like it is for him. “Because I have outclassed the animal. He’s made too many mistakes. Actually, I don’t even like hunting with a rifle anymore, it’s not enough of a challenge. I use a bow – and before you ask, it’s legal here now. The bow hunter is not going to utilise as many animals as a rifle hunter.”
“Why don’t you say kill?” Astonishingly, it is Michael who asks.

“Well,” says Rudi, shifting in his seat, “It just sounds a little bit better – some people don’t like that word.” Oh, you think? But then he wrong-foots me again. “A lot of times I prefer it when the animal gets away. We beat him, we could have killed him. I feel super about it. If I just want to kill, I could shoot 2-300 animals a day. It’s not the kill – and that’s why I don’t like to use the word. Killing is the final full stop. When you get to the final stage of the hunt… I’m so psyched up, I can hear my heart beating.”
Michael agrees. “There’s nothing like it. But how can we explain that to someone like you? How we can respect it and kill it? In the simplest terms, it makes no sense whatsoever. I’m hunting kudu tomorrow and you should come, you know that. “
“But it won’t make me understand, because I could never kill something,” I point out.
“True,” he says, “but you’ll maybe understand why we do it from beginning to end. You’d have a better input. To people that don’t do it – and yes, I mean people like you – it’s a stigma, you’re just a macho asshole trying to prove something and it’s so far from the truth that I want to scream. I hate being dismissed as the Great White Hunter, what the fuck is that about? Guys back home do their bowling and their tennis, so maybe there is a macho thing going on. They switch the subject too quick. They want to push me down the drain, because I’m doing what they don’t dare to.”
“Come on then,” I ask as we drain the third bottle. “Sum it up for me in one sentence.”
“For the sport and the challenge,” Annette and Rudi say simultaneously.

Michael rolls his eyes, intensely self-aware. “I’ve spent fifteen years not getting it straight in my own mind. Maybe I’ve never been cornered before.”

Time to talk

Today, 5th February, is Time to Talk Day 2015. Time to Talk was started (I believe) by Rethink and the idea is to spend five minutes talking about mental illness – how it affects you, or people around you. It’s about breaking the silence surrounding mental health issues. This will probably take a bit longer than five minutes to write, but hey.

Now you might think that there is no longer silence – mental health issues seem to be constantly in the news; pleas for more funding, need for better care, testimonies from people and their families or friends. The official statistic is that one in four people will be affected by mental health issues every year. That’s a lot of people. And it doesn’t always have to be the biggies – your schizophrenia, your bi-polar disorder, your depression. It can be insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks. It can be bereavement, post-natal depression, work or relationship stress. Mental health issues aren’t fussy, they’ll take anything that’s going. And we all have mental as well as physical health, it’s just harder to talk about the former.

Mental health problems affect the way we feel about ourselves and others, they affect our sleep, attention span and productivity. This in turn will affect our work, so wouldn’t it be better to ‘fess up rather than try to hide it?

There is a history of depression in my family down my father’s side. My mother’s side has given us short-sightedness, thanks for that. I have had quite a few bouts of depression, and I’m not just talking ‘ooh a bit miserable today’. I’m talking dark, exhausted, grey, agoraphobic, can’t move, can’t talk, can’t think depression. I’m talking suicidal thoughts. I have, in my time, wondered what it would be like to… what would be the easiest way to… it would be so much easier if… oh well at least one day I’ll be…

So far, I’ve got through these periods without doctors or prescribed medication. Perhaps one day (if you’re good) I’ll tell you some of the stuff I do that helps. But today is the time-to-talk moment, to actually come out and say: yes, me too.

The first time I got hit by it, or at least knew what it was I’d been hit by, I was in my mid-twenties. I was terrified, because it had (seemingly) come out of nowhere, this cloud of grey that removed taste, smell, joy, desire and left me bewildered and lost. “But what’s wrong?” people were asking. “There must be a reason.” Well actually sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes there you are. And no-one can hear you banging on the glass – but one person did, a friend who (I then found out) also suffered from depression. “It’s like being in a goldfish bowl. You can see out, but no-one can hear you calling.” Just to hear that, to know she got it and more than got it – was the moment I began to come to the light again.

Many people – even friends – don’t get it. If you haven’t experienced it, don’t understand that it’s not always quantifiable, there isn’t always a reason – often isn’t a reason – watching someone drift away or hide is not an easy experience. “But you’re always so strong, so up, so glass-half-full.” Yes, most of of the time. Except when I’m not. Sometimes I’m not strong, I can’t be strong all the fucking time, I can’t put the face on all the fucking time. And that’s when I talk to the people who really get it, who have either been through it themselves or have the empathy and care to let me be where I am.

One of my closest friends was felled by post-natal depression after her first child. She and I have always laughed at the darkest, most inappropriate things, but when I went to see her in hospital I couldn’t believe the same person was lying in the bed. My friend had gone and someone new and blank had taken her place. She’s one of the people I can talk to and I often cite her particular form of loving bollocking which goes something like this: “I know you. You never say, but if you don’t say how the fuck do I know what’s going on?”

So here we are, Time to Talk day. Mental health is as real as physical health, and as deserving of the same respect, sympathy and treatment. Nobody asks to have a mental health problem any more than they ask to have a physical one. Be kind. To use that oft-quoted tag – the person you meet might be fighting a battle you know nothing about.



Ooh aah aren’t they lovely?

I write in praise of Firework Night, aka Bonfire Night, aka the day Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament and honestly, not sure I blame him at the moment but that’s a subject for another blog assuming I want MI5 to bug my phone.

But no. I don’t write in praise. I write on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of animals who are so utterly terrified by the constant and ever-louder bangs that they start to shake as it gets dark, won’t go out, won’t eat, won’t drink. Their heart-rate goes rocketing up, their adrenal system is on override and no matter how much Rescue Remedy you shove down them, or how many DAP plug-ins you try, or Thundercoats you wrap round them, they are still terrified. Some run away and are lost for good. Others have to be sedated.

A dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than ours. Whereas people can detect sounds ranging from 64 to 23,000 Hertz, dogs can detect sounds ranging from 67 to 45,000 Hertz. If we can hear a sound at 100 feet, a dog can hear it a quarter of a mile away. Ever laughed at how scared your dog is of the hoover? That’s because the sound is deafening them.

When we acquired our beautiful lurcher Dylan, it was pretty clear that he’d never been in a house before. Dumped as a stray in Merthyr Tydfil, picked up by the pound there, transferred to Watford animal shelter and rescued by us, Dylan was traumatised, stressed by everything from the back door to a cupboard opening. Gradually, he calmed, settled and became the first dog we’ve ever had who loves to play. But here we are again at 5th November – or not, in fact. Fireworks have been going off for a good couple of weeks already, thanks to Diwali and people thinking it’s fun to let them off because why shouldn’t they, it’s their human right to let off fireworks at any time from dusk to 3am? Who am I to tell them that their constant firework action is terrifying my dog and so many other people’s animals? 5th November only comes once a year doesn’t it – oh sorry, I mean 5th November for six weeks or so. And then at New Year. And then some other random time.

Dylan begins to shake as it gets dark. He won’t eat or go out, he is now in that Pavlov’s Dog state where he associates the dark with noise and fear. And of course he’s not alone.

In Canada or Australia, you’d need a permit to set off fireworks in your back garden.
In the UK it’s illegal for anyone under 18 to possess a firework in a public place. According to the law,
fireworks cannot be set off by a private individual between 11.00pm and 7.00am except for certain nights of the year. What certain nights of the year might they be? Any night between say 15th October and 10th November, with a few added extras to use them up?

There’s an organisation called Ban the Bang currently campaigning for stricter firework law – this is what they propose:

1. Ban the private use of fireworks and public displays except for three festival days per year (plus Saturday nearest to each festival day). (I.e. in UK, November 5th, New Year and Diwali)

2. Fireworks that bang and rise more than 2 metres (average garden fence height) would be banned outright for use by the public. Only bang-free ground based fireworks (with a dispersal range of no more than 2 metres) could be sold to / used by the public – and only sold for two weeks prior to festival days (see 1.).

3. Outside of festival days – the public would be able to apply for a private party / wedding reception licence (restricted to one licence per household per year). With this one-day licence, the licence holder would be able to purchase no-bang ground fireworks from licensed all-year firework shops. (These shops will not be allowed to supply loud / aerial fireworks to the general public at any time – see 2.)

4. Sensible restrictions should also apply to professionally organized public displays. For example, enforcing a maximum threshold on noise:
No public firework displays louder than 85db.
Locations of displays must be carefully planned (and revised), whereby they can only take place in open, strictly designated areas least likely to affect wildlife. Displays must be a minimum distance of around 1.5 km from rural habitat areas such as trees, woodlands, heathlands etc. and at least 2km from stables, zoos and farm animal locations.

Wow, what a bunch of joyless arseholes you might think. But is it really so outrageous? I actually love firework disaplys, I think they’re beautiful and was lucky enough to be in Sydney one New Year’s Eve and watched the display from the Opera House. Fantastic, and I wouldn’t want to ban them. The fireworks at the Olympics? Bloody marvellous. But that’s because they were special. Made special, because the occasion called for it. What’s so special about setting off a banger every night for a month? Have we so lost our ability to wait for an occasion, to plan for something wonderful? Does everything have to be now, all the time? Where’s the joy in that?

So yes, I will be looking at the firework displays and thinking how pretty. I might even go to one. But I will also be aware of Dylan hiding in the darkest, smallest place in the house, of the other dogs, cats, horses, rabbits who are thoroughly and comprehensively traumatised. Ever been so scared you thought you might die? I have. It’s not nice. It’s not nice for animals either.

Grief and cuddly toys

My father died on June 4th, 1993.  21 years ago.  I could write about that, or the sort of man he was, or not write anything.  I wasn’t going to write anything.  But today I read a piece by Justin Webb (journalist, Today programme, Radio 4) about his daughter losing her beloved blue donkey in Switzerland, and how they eventually got it back.

My father died in the early hours of the morning.  When we all got back to the family house, I sat up for the rest of the night holding a stuffed toy, a ring-tailed lemur handpuppet that he’d bought me because I love lemurs.  Poppy the lemur became a sort of talisman from that night on, went with me everywhere, even around the world for a year, in tents and on trains, through a car crash, being chased by a hippo and getting malaria.  Poppy was always there, stuffed in my backpack or down inside my sleeping bag.

And then I lost him, on a tour to Sydney with the London Symphony Chorus.  We were there for New Year, it was brilliant.  New Year’s Day on Bondi Beach, New Year’s Eve watching the fireworks from the Opera House after our concert.  A couple of days later, I left Poppy on the hotel bed, instead of putting him in my bag as I usually did.  When I got back that evening, he was gone.  The sheets had been taken away and washed and Poppy with them.

I collapsed, hysterical.  That’s not an exaggeration.  My great friend and roomie totally understood what had happened – I’d lost my father all over again.  Some of my other friends got it, some were embarrassed, awkward, lots of raised eyebrows.  I begged the lovely hotel staff to check the laundry, the washing machines, anything.  No sign of him.  The rest of the trip was blurred and painful.  My friend came back to our room one day with a furry opossum, which I still have.  He wasn’t Poppy, but he represented kindness and care.

I was staying on for a week after the tour ended, and I left the phone number of my new guesthouse with the hotel, just in case.  And they found Poppy.  The manager phoned and said she was so pleased that she’d wanted to tell me herself.  I rushed back to the hotel and there he was, looking a bit thinned out and very clean.  I burst into tears again and the manager sort of did as well.

I’m delighted that Justin Webb’s little girl got her blue donkey back.  In the article, he also talked about a charity called SAFE (Stuffed Animals for Emergencies), whose purpose is to bring soft toys to children who have seen trauma.  He says this: “There is a big relief effort to help the millions of Syrians now living in refugee camps but I doubt that soft toys are at the top of anyone’s agenda.  Perhaps they should be; if not at the top, then at least on it somewhere.  Let us not be sentimental: Syrian children need all manner of things before they need stuffed animals, but still, to a child who has lost everything, a stuffed toy can be a step back from the brink of total despair.”

I still have Poppy and I still take him all over the place.  I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him again; it’s not something I want to consider. I’m sure there will be people reading this who think ‘how ridiculous,’.  Perhaps it is.  Responses to grief are not quantifiable.  Until I lost Poppy, I had no idea how I would react, or even if I would.  I no longer question it, and I certainly don’t care that other people may indeed think it’s ridiculous. (If I did, I wouldn’t be blogging about it now, would I?)  Soft toy, photos, letters, gifts.  Doesn’t matter.  They mean what they mean.  And I know what Poppy means.

On friendship (in 667 words)

Apparently, the optimum length of a blog is 500 words – any more and people can’t be bothered to read it straight away and then forget it’s there. I’ve just wasted 35 words telling you this.
Last week, I introduced the song ‘Lean On Me’ into a workshop. One of the participants said it didn’t do it for him and anyway ‘what does it mean?’ You tell me, I said. ‘That friends are always there for you,’ he answered with a certain amount of disdain. ‘ I don’t have any friends, just people I use. I’m using you now.’ The participant taught me the Polish word for friend (male) – ‘przyjaciel’. ‘This isn’t facebook friend, this is real friend’ he said, again with disdain. I then put him straight on the idea of a friend as I see it. There are the closest of friends (Level 1), who I can tell pretty much anything. Level 2, also close but not the ones you’d ring at 3 in the morning. Level 3 is what you might call work-related friends, who you really like but wouldn’t see outside work. Level 4 are those on facebook who you are genuinely fond of. Level 5 are those on facebook that you don’t really want to be friends with but are too embarrassed to cull. Level 6 is Twitter.
I have known most of my Level 1 friends for several decades and my oldest friend since I was three. Some of my Level 1s are around the same age as me, some are younger. Some are male, some are female. Some aren’t in this country.
What do you expect from a friend? Is a true friend someone who constantly tells you how marvellous you are? Who treats your every post on facebook with ‘oh you’re amazing, inspirational, I wish I was like you.’ Sometimes that’s nice to hear – who doesn’t want to be told they’re amazing? But every time? Really? No-one’s that fabulous. Not even me.
I think you also find out who your real friends are when shit happens. Shit happened to me last year, and will no doubt happen again. One of my dearest friends was overwhelmed when I told her I’d been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer (or not – see Blog No. 1). She said ‘I don’t know how to process this for you.’ I couldn’t deal with that and told her so. She is still one of my dearest friends, because she totally understood, and was there every time I called, whether she could think of anything useful to say or not. Another one gave me a bollocking. ‘I know you. You hate asking for help. Well if you don’t fucking tell me how you feel, how am I meant to know?’ She’s done this before and it worked then too. She told me what I needed to hear, not what I might have thought I needed. That’s what I think being a friend is about. Not constant validation of all one’s choices, but clear-eyed support and love and a kick up the arse if needed.
You find out who your real friends are, and sometimes they are not the ones you expected. Unfortunately, you sometimes also find that the ones you thought were, are not. Are not there, for whatever reason (and yes, you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life when you are utterly wrapped up in the shit that you are going through), but still not there, not with a text or an email or a phone call. And then you go ‘actually, you are not important in my life and I no longer feel the inclination to add anything to yours.’ These friends have gone from probably Level 2 to Level 5. They were never really Level 1, even if you thought they were.
My friends are amazing. I would do pretty much anything for them, including give them a kick up the arse if necessary. I would be there at 3am (depending on time zones), though it’s not my best time. They are my inspiration and I love them. In Polish or English or any language.

On not living in London

Are you all sitting down?  Don’t be scared – but I live outside London.  I know!  How crazy is that?  A whole 30 minutes on the train  – that’s, like, so far away!

Conversations tend to go like this when you have the temerity to live outside the capital: Friend who is scared of the countryside “When can we meet up? Haven’t seen you for ages .”  Me: “I know. Not down for a bit, why don’t you come up here?  I can pick you up from the station, it’s really easy.”  Friend (dubiously): “It’s a bit of a way.”  No, it’s not.  It’s the same distance as it is for me and I do it several times most weeks.

I live in what I will call the magic village.  It’s a bit like Shangri-La – no-one ever wants to leave, and if they do it’s because they are either dead or they need to move somewhere nearer a school or transport.  Yes, transport.  We have two buses a day from the magic village, and they will take you to Luton.  So everyone has to have a car, which is one of the downsides to living in the country as the only amenities in the magic village are a phone box, a post box and a pub.  Mind you, that’s not really a downside.

This morning, I was sitting on the step in my courtyard listening to the birds.  “Oh but we have birds in London/Manchester/insert city of choice here”  Yes, but we have birds. Everyone has garden birds, but we have the avian equivalent of the Big Five. Red kites, buzzards, sparrowhawks, kestrels, tawny owls, barn owls, skylarks… Not golden eagles, but I bet if they were anywhere in Hertfordshire, it would be the magic village.  If I don’t hear an owl at night, I feel that something is missing.  When a skylark sings from above the wheatfields, it is a moment of utter bliss.  When I want to go for a walk, all I need do is step outside my house and there are hills and fields and ancient trading routes and burial mounds and springs.

And seasons.  You know about the seasons in the magic village – it’s a bit like living in a children’s book.  Looking for the first snowdrop or daffodil, watching the rape fields turning that incredible eye-searing yellow, spotting the first poppies lining the edges of the fields and the blackberries appearing in the hedgerows…

I was born in London and lived there until 2002.  Mostly North London  – Golders Green, Stoke Newington, Leyton and the clincher, Bethnal Green.  I loved Bethnal Green when I first moved there, having been lucky enough to have bought an ex-council flat five minutes away from Brick Lane and Columbia Market.  Buzzy, vibrant, dirty, full of every ethnic group imaginable, I even went to Reggie Kray’s funeral – or at least stood outside the church with everyone else, gaping at the scary blokes in their suits and shades and their over-made-up and Botoxed-up wives and girlfriends.

I didn’t really notice the gangs and the Yardies and the stabbings and addicts – or rather I did, but they didn’t encroach on my flat, until I made a mistake.  The mistake was helping a neighbour and after that, I did notice all these things, because I became the target of systematic intimidation and harassment for the next 18 months.  Shit smeared on my door.  My lock superglued up.  Coming home from holiday to find he’d tried to set my flat on fire.

If you want to read all about it, I wrote a piece for the Observer and the link is here: http://www.theguardian.com/money/2004/mar/28/property.homebuying2

In the middle of this, knowing I had to get out but not knowing where to go, I rang my friend Chris who suggested Hitchin. “I don’t know where that is,” I sobbed (see, Londoner).  “Look it up,” he said with a sigh, having recently moved to North Wales.  Thanks to him, I arrived at the magic village on a blazing May day.  I stepped out of my car and knew I had to live there.  It was paradise.  My neighbours were, and are, fabulous.  They still laugh at me for putting a lock on my car at night (born and bred in London).

“But what about things like cinemas and music and theatre? And food?”  Well, funnily enough, Hertfordshire does have those things  (well, maybe not a decent theatre).  One of the best folk clubs in the country is in Hitchin.  A brilliant independent cinema is in Letchworth.  A coffee shop featured in the Independent’s 50 best in the country is in Hitchin (Hermitage Rd) and we have farmer’s markets, an amazing artisan baker who works from home (Hitchin Bakehouse) and oh I could go on but you get the picture.

As for theatre – remember what I said about London being 30 minutes away on the train?  I have still managed to get to galleries and opening nights and the Proms, and also work, quite a lot, without having a nervous breakdown.

“But isn’t it quiet?”  I love the quiet.  I don’t miss the sirens, the screams, the psycho neighbours.  But you think the magic village is boring?  When I moved in, a world-famous TV writer and his wife lived in the big ‘ouse next door.  When they sold it and moved, it was rented out first to a brothel and then to a cannabis factory.  Who needs London?

However.  There are downsides, as I said.  Being snowed in is a nightmare.  The first big snow year, my friends and I walked for  miles across pristine fields and my dog leapt in and out of snowdrifts and after gritting the road (we are supplied with our own grit in the magic village!  Such fun…) we all went to the pub.

The second snow year I was doing a theatre job in the West End.  I spent almost three weeks staying in London because the road down to the magic village (three very steep hills) was pretty much undriveable without a 4×4.  Then I cracked.  I needed to be home and the snow had vaguely stopped.  I went to sleep in my own bed, with my own owls, and woke up to another 5 inches of snow having fallen.   I rang the Company Manager who was understandably pissed off and in something of a panic, I dug my car out and prepared to drive up the undriveable hill in my amazing, battered, beloved Nissan.  Down the bottom of the hill, waiting to rescue me, were my neighbours, armed with shovels.  But my beloved car got me up the hill and back down to London.  I used to love snow; I don’t any more.  Bit of a shame.

And it’s cold.  Oh my god it’s cold.  The magic village isn’t on gas, so it’s electric heating, wood burners and oil filled radiators.  I have one night storage heater in the living room along with a wood burner.  And that’s it.  Most people in the magic village spend winter in more layers than an Inuit.  We also have cess pits instead of sewers.  It’s a thing

And travel is frequently utterly shite and prohibitively expensive.  To do eight shows a week in town costs me around £120 a week in train fares. Off-peak (with a railcard) is currently £16.35.  So even before I start with the theatre/gig/meal out, I’ve already spent that.

But it is the magic village.  It is beautiful.  I am so lucky to live here. I am not tired of life – I merely grew tired of London.


It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch

And so another social media storm hits: this time it’s the post-a-selfie-for-cancer.  I have no intention of posting a selfie for cancer, partly because I loathe selfies, partly because I don’t see the point in going ‘look, I’m not wearing any makeup, spare a thought for cancer’.   I’m not sure what the no make-up thing is meant to signify.  Is it ‘look at me, I’m so brave without it’, or ‘look at me, I care about cancer’, or ‘look at me, every else is doing it’?  Or is it just ‘look at me’? Having said that, it’s raised a lot of money, though I’d be more convinced if all the selfies posted actually had links to donate.

My Facebook feed has polar opposite opinions on it.  Everyone has an opinion, everyone is entitled to one.  And of course everyone is reading everyone’s opinion.  All the time.  All day, every day, someone’s opinion is in your face for you to agree with or not, ‘like’ or not.

When I started Facebooking, I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t post ‘my life is so shit’ stuff, nor cryptic ‘I’ve had the worst/best day but ooh mustn’t say any more’.  And so far, I haven’t.  I’m not (I hope) taking the moral high ground on this.   I’m more than happy to post pictures of my dog, or share petitions/blogs/great news that I’ve heard about about other people.  I just prefer to keep my own private stuff more private.  If I’m having a shit day, I don’t post on Facebook, because it’s the last thing I’m interested in doing.  If I’m having a shit day, I’d rather talk to people close to me, or talk to nobody, because that’s the way I am.

If you need validation for your existence by putting it on Facebook, that’s fine.  If you want people to see what your dinner looked like, or tell you that you’re wonderful even if you don’t have a girlfriend/boyfriend/job, do so.  Just spare a thought for the quiet ones, the ones that don’t (I’m not referring to myself here, obviously – I’m blogging because EVERYONE needs to know my opinion on this.)

The quiet ones who volunteer, who are carers, who are Samaritans, who are on the other end of the phone when you need them, but don’t tell the world about it.  The ones who just get on and do amazing things that they don’t need  – or wish – to talk about.

And the quiet ones who are in pain, grief and despair, but keep it to themselves because they don’t want to bore other people, or upset them.  Or because that’s how they were brought up.  I’m working at the moment with an amazing group of seniors on an intergenerational music project.  The stories I’m hearing, the stoic shrugs of acceptance of things in their lives that have been truly horrible are humbling and moving and beautiful.  They can’t understand why everyone needs to tell the world the minutiae of their lives.  We’ve talked about it several times, and it’s not because they don’t understand how the internet works.

The best selfie I saw today was published by the daughter of a friend of mine (the daughter is a friend too).  She didn’t put her own photo up, but that of her mother, and said this: “I decided to share this beautiful photo of my mum instead. She is a five time cancer survivor ✊ she has endured chemo, radiation, numerous operations and a mastectomy, not to mention the emotional, mental and financial stress of cancer. She is a true warrior and my hero ❤”  Now that’s a beautiful use of social media.

The one about breast cancer

I did wonder whether to make my first blog a little more jolly, but no.  It needed to be this.  Jolly will come later.

At the beginning of December, Professor Louise Jones was on the news and in the press, talking about a new detection test for DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) – a particular form of breast cancer that I confess I’d never heard of before May.  She said:

“At the moment we treat everybody who has a diagnosis of DCIS in exactly the same way, as though their disease is likely to progress.  They will have surgery and they may have chemotherapy and it’s really quite distressing for women.  They are told ‘you have cancer’ –  but it’s not quite cancer – and some of them are also told, ‘You need a mastectomy’.  They find this very hard to understand and ultimately this disease may not have done them any harm.”

Before May, I would have read it, gone ‘oh that’s good’ and put it out of my mind; not from callousness, but from the atavistic, primal fear that every woman has when the words ‘breast cancer’ are mentioned.  Before May.  After May.  Before DCIS.  After DCIS.  In May, after several biopsies of varying degrees of painfulness, I was told by the breast screening unit at Luton: “You have early stage breast cancer.”  Two weeks later in the consultant surgeon’s office in Welwyn, he said: “Well, I can tell you you don’t have cancer.”  Naturally he expected me to be thrilled – and if I hadn’t spent the previous two weeks trying to get my head around the first diagnosis, I might have been more thrilled than angry.  But I was angry.  Ragingly, tearfully angry.  The consultant was lovely, gave me lots of time, answered the list of questions I had but I still didn’t entirely believe him.  Why should I?  One medical professional said I did, the other said I didn’t.

Then I was back at Luton for biopsy number three and a showdown with the consultant radiologist who said: “We were as surprised and as disappointed as you with the diagnosis.”  My eloquent silence made him a little uncomfortable.  “Maybe not as disappointed as you,” he amended.  Oh, you think?  ‘Disappointed’ – now that’s more ‘I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the IPad I wanted for Christmas.’  ‘Surprised’ – as in ‘I was surprised not to have been seen for the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd…’ – actually that’s surprised and disappointed.  But it’s not: “So, I have early stage breast cancer.  Well, I am disappointed.  And surprised.”

What I loved most about Professor James was that she acknowledged the difference between being told you do and being told you don’t.  The difference between the minute before, when the nurse is telling you over the phone like something out of ER and you know, you know – because she’s going: “You came to see us after your initial mammogram, and we performed a biopsy…” And you know, because that’s how they tell you, by repeating the process you went through as though you might have actually forgotten.  And the minute after, when the world has caved in on you and you don’t hear: “Early stage breast cancer, very easily treatable.”  You hear mastectomy and chemo and your hair falling out.  You hear dying.

None of that happened.  I had surgery to remove the pre-cancerous and pre-pre cancerous cells.  Two weeks after that I went back to the lovely consultant surgeon, expecting to be told I needed radiotherapy.  Instead, he said: “We’re very pleased.  Off you go, see you in a year.”

And yes, I know how lucky I am and I bless the amazing NHS and the surgeon and the nurses.  But what I want now is for all those different postcodes to talk to one another, to have the same terminology and to have some kind of human understanding of what those words mean to every women who has ever heard them and who fear that one day they may.  The understanding that Professor Jones has.  Might that be because she’s a woman?