Swallow Your Pride


Photo: Ingrid Sofrin

I’ve never had a bucket list but I’m 70 next year and that concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson reputedly said. All those ‘regrets of the dying as told to nurses’ lists that pop-up on Facebook have been creeping into my head. Regrets, I’ve had a few but none I can do very much about these days and my mindfulness training reassures me that the Living In The Now approach is the best recommendation for mental health.


I’m writing this in Cornwall, a place I’ve avoided for seven years after a long-term, live-in relationship with a local dissolved into dust. A place I avoided, despite the fact that I have family and friends here – some going back nearly 60 years. I just could not bring myself to return. Crazily, I held a whole geographical area of the UK responsible for my misery.


Now, as my idols drop around me at a rate of knots, I see that what is most important to me is you. Not me; not how I feel or my fears of the salt spray raking open my old wounds. Children have been born, friends died, there are marriages and professional achievements to celebrate with shared laughter, reminiscences and sometimes, tears. Before it’s too late, I’ve swallowed my pride and come home.

Elaine Kingett runs creative writing holidays in Spain and workshops in London; for more information check out Write It Down. 

This post was originally shared on That’s Not My Age  - The Grownup Guide To Great Style

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The Power of Writing It Down

Because I’m far too often attached to social media, because I sometimes have a rubbish diet, drink too much and exercise too little, because I live too much indoors on my own and not enough outdoors – especially at this time of year – my brain is often a muddled mess of incoherence with an inability to prioritise. But, writing it down is the only way I know how to sort it all out…

I don’t need a room of my own, the ‘right’ chair, desk, notebook, pen or  scented candle to achieve this.  I need room in my head; not in a house or flat or hotel. Years ago, I came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that I write best when I finally get ‘round to actually WRITING – on paper with a pen. Usually, I don’t evaluate my own writing, any attempt is good enough for me. I am like a hungry child chomping up white bread jam sandwiches, when I write down what’s inside my head.

The metaphor that sits most appropriately with me is, that when I write best I am like a wave surging over the horizon, crashing onto the shore, tossing forth pebbles, seaweed and dead fish. I am a wave that pulls you under but then, spits you out. I am the cold, angry seas of Cornwall that scare me rigid. I am the massive surf of Costa Rica that astounds, delights and entices. I am the clear waters of Greece that relax and revive. I see the birds that travel with me, dipping their wings in my dancing reflections. I see the birds that feed gratefully at my feet, the oystercatchers and curlews racing in my shallows. I am so much more powerful that I thought, so sure of who I am and why I’m here. When I have written it down.

But before I reach this place my stomach sinks, my eyes widen and my pen quickens, sliding and leaping across the page. It comes from my subconscious. From the feelings I had as a child on a beach in Hampshire, alone at the end of a day-trip, willing my parents to stay a little longer. All my life I have run away to the coast, maybe I should live there again – in Cadiz? In Palma? In Falmouth? In Hastings? Immediately I click on Skyscanner, on Rightmove. Is it possible? Can I do this in January? Can I do this alone?

Stop running, Elaine. It’s not the sea I need but more actual writing.  When I write I can conquer anyone, anything. I’m Boudicca, Cleopatra and Oprah rolled into one. I need to listen to my own advice, my own teaching that has empowered others on my workshops, holidays and retreats in Mallorca, Wales, Andalucia and London for over six years…for more info on those: http://write-it-down.co.uk/

Here’s some advice on how to start…

Brain dumping: The importance of free writing, the spill-out onto the page that relaxes you, frees your head, clears your brain. No worries about spelling, punctuation or grammar. As Anne Lamott describes in Bird By Bird, ‘The Shitty First Draft.’

Give yourself permission to write: In a notebook, any old notebook, on the bus, on the train, waiting for the Doc, the Dentist, kids to come out of school. Put that phone away and get out that pen. Even a one-liner is helpful.

The unpredictability of writing: Surprise yourself with what turns up on the page. Shock yourself now and then! You can always tear out that page and therapeutically burn it!

Personal writing is not being indulgent: We need creativity, imagination, flights of fancy, day dreaming in our lives and a rant on the page is far more constructive than a rant on Facebook.




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How To Survive


Morning meditation on Write It Down! writing holiday at Finca Buenvino in Spain: time to breathe, time to relax, time to dream…

New Year’s Day is meant to be a time for celebration and resolution, forward into the  Brave New World of whenever. But the BNW of 2018 looks a bit damn scary to me and I bet my last slice of [homemade, Delia Smith] Christmas cake that I’m not the only one. So, here’s the practises that worked last year for me and kept me off the Citalopram, Tinder, hard liquor and digital diatribes.

1] One Day At a Time

Like a dismissive pat on the head by a well-meaning but rather unbothered friend, who’s just caught the eye of someone rather less needy over your shoulder at a party, this phrase can stick in the craw but three years of living with a terminally ill husband initially taught me the value of this one. As my mother used to say, ‘You’ll never get this day again, Elaine. Don’t wish your life away.’

2] Live In The Now

That’s another that jangles uncomfortably against all the forward planning we feel we should be doing today. What about what we didn’t do last year? What about what we’re meant to do tomorrow?  But take a moment and be grateful for what and who you have. Right now.

3] Concentrate on Your Breathing

Oh yeah, like I forget to breathe? Well yes, forget to slow it down. Forget to count for four breathing in, six out. Forget to relax my shoulders and relax my jaw. This exercise sorted out my years of panic attacks.

Repeat as required. Happy 2018 everyone, there will be good times!

NB: You know all that stuff around ay the moment about, ‘New year, new you’? Pshaw! Just how you are, is perfect right now. Believe it.




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The Importance of Good Eating for Good Writing

Ever since my school home economics lessons when, to my utter amazement, I got an A for cookery in my senior school exams, I have felt strangely empowered in the kitchen. Now, in the hectic run up to Christmas, I indulge myself. I love the mechanics of baking; mince pies, spicy cakes and fruity puddings are hidden away in sealed containers, all over my apartment ready for the festive gatherings. The days have grown shorter, the nights colder and soup bubbles on the stove, lasagne tans in the oven and a wholemeal crust, spinach and goat’s cheese quiche sits cooling quietly on the work surface. All ready for the home coming of my family.

When I started my writing workshops and holidays for Write It Down! six years ago, I immediately decided that providing nourishment and delight for the ‘corpo umano’ – by treating my writers to the very best food and drink – would be as important as feeding their hearts, souls and brains with creative and therapeutic writing  exercises.

Cooking has always been my form of therapy – whether it is for myself or for others. As soon as I put on my striped blue and white cotton apron, with numerous stains and one string  ‘temporarily’ pinned on with a safety-pin, my blood pressure normalises, my shoulders relax and I am back in my childhood kitchen in Basingstoke. Despite a less than perfect relationship with my mother, I fondly remember her home cooked dinners [had at lunch time] of vegetables from our garden and meat from my grandfather’s shop. With gravy, always with gravy. Good food, cooked with care and attention and served with pride is a silent expression of love.

In London, I make cakes every week for my Mums, Babies and Bumps Creative WritingWorkshops. In Spain, at Finca Buenvino for my writing, meditation and walking holidays, Jeannie Chesterton and her son Charlie cook up a storm in their Andalucian farmhouse kitchen. They also run cookery courses there and have published a fantastic cookbook filled with their own recipes – beautifully illustrated with photographs by my friend Tim Clinch – so we are privileged indeed to share their table.  And share we do, all of our meals, eating outside in the spring and summer, under the wisteria in the kitchen courtyard watching nut hatches, tree creepers and geckos or in the candle-lit Moroccan courtyard where, as we eat, we hear owls calling, watch the small, black bats flying high between the cork oaks and see the sun dipping over the Sierra De Aracena, flooding the sky with an astounding pink and purple hue which I have never witnessed anywhere else in the world.

Sharing food, taking time to taste and relish what we’re eating, talk about what we’re eating, listening to each others life stories and not having to worry about the washing up when we leave the table is bliss and it bonds us closer together as writers, sharing our journey, planning fresh adventures, forging new friendships and discovering new strengths and directions in our work.

It has been so important to me to find somewhere to run my retreats that has the same ethos about eating and enjoying food and cooking that I have, and that I try to bring to my own home and family. When we write, we must use all of our senses. We note the scents, the sounds, the touch, the sights, the tastes – in a setting, in a dramatic episode imagined or in a memory retrieved from our past.

Holidays should be a time to embrace the good things in life – in summer and in winter. We give ourselves a hard time enough during the year, juggling so many aspects of our lives. Snacks and meals are snatched hurriedly between work and other fundamental obligations. We stand, we perch, we rush from A to B. We grab the Pepto Bismol and always mean to write, to meditate, to go for a walk in the countryside and learn how to breathe again.

My aim with Write It Down! workshops and holidays is to give you that space, to give you that time and to feed you well. Only then, can you relax and truly write down your life…

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The Benefits of Silence

Recently, I spent two weeks on my own in Mallorca. I went for one short business meeting but decided to stay on for a bit, to get my head together on an island I love and first visited 45 years ago.

Every day I would take myself off up the hills or down to the sea, armed only with a notebook, pen and factor 20. On rugged, well-marked paths I would pass earnest hikers in top of the range, performance sportswear and there was me in my old black kaftan, a bum-bag and open-toed Tevas.

I pride myself in my minimalist packing but my head was stuffed with confusion, worries and unresolved life-changing decisions. Walking on your own for hours, without the distraction of a partner, means that your subconscious is free to crawl out and stare you in the face. You can’t ignore it. Especially if you have no phone reception…

Far too nervous to eat out on my own in the evening – fearing that I either looked like Billy No-Mates or like I was waiting for some ‘action’ – every night I retired to my room to read everything I could find in my Airbnb and then when that quickly ran out, to write down what was inside my head. In silence.

By the end of the first week I was staring at Skyscanner, desperately searching for an early flight home. But I stuck it out. And my God, it did me good.

Alone in the Tramontana Mountains, away from my comfort zone of work-work-work and with no kids popping in or neighbours to bump into, I eventually found clarity. I use periods of silence, for an hour or so, on my writing retreats and I know by experience how they help us all to slow down and become aware of our place in the natural world, but this was the first time I had forced myself to listen to what I was thinking for an extended period of time.

There’s a pink neon sign in my favourite bar in Mallorca – ‘Silence Is Sexy.’ But it is also scary. I didn’t want to know what was in my head. Silence can be used as a weapon, too: being ‘sent to Coventry’, the silent sulk in a relationship that can kill love. But by unplugging our distractors – phone, computer, radio, TV – by spending time in an unfamiliar location, away from friends and family, we give ourselves space. Space to reconsider, to re-create. And we can return to our noisy, everyday lives a little stronger, a little more confident in our own abilities and a little more determined to try again.

For more information on my writing retreats in Spain, click here: http://write-it-down.co.uk/spain/

This article was originally published on That’s Not My Age.

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Creative Writing Retreat? Creative Writing Holiday?

Writing holiday? Writing retreat?

Oh, it’s such a conundrum, what do we call our writing weeks?

I worry that writing holiday sounds too lightweight, too much fun, not enough sweat, grind and concentration on difficult stuff. Doubts might linger that maybe you won’t be pushed, won’t learn enough about developing yourself as a writer, won’t grow enough to justify the expense. And you probably already feel guilty about taking such a seemingly, self-indulgent holiday. Holiday has connotations of relaxation and enjoyment, of lazing in the sun, of laughter and of pampering. Of indulgence. Surely not on a writing course?

But ours are different.

Writing retreat can sound arty-farty and joyless. Visions of being marooned in a chilly mansion with un-comfy beds, chewing on mediocre vegetarian food with a group of humourless, well-read intellectuals, all totally convinced of their own brilliance. But tell your friends you’re going on a writing retreat and you sound serious. But will it be like school? And you were crap at English, Miss Boring told you so. And you can’t spell, your handwritings horrendous and you’ve never had anything published. Apart from that ranting email to the Guardian about Brexit.

But ours are different.

And if I add creative in the title – are you creative enough? Last time you tried to use your imagination, you couldn’t find it.

And if I add therapeutic- Good Lord, is it going to be like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or The Dead Poet’s Society?

Rest assured, my friends – our weeks are unique. They combine everything that is best about a holiday – relaxation, escape from reality, gorgeous location, lovingly and expertly prepared food from best locally-sourced ingredients, freshly cooked three times a day by someone else and no washing up, with everything that is best about a retreat – peaceful surroundings away from the hustle and bustle of normal life, time and space to be alone, mindfulness meditation to learn how to live in now and value every day, permission and encouragement to daydream, an opportunity  to celebrate your past life, acknowledge your present  and inspiration to imagine a new future.

And whether we call it a retreat or a holiday, you will blossom and grow. Nurtured and encouraged, you will experience the joy that your writing gives to others and the enormous physical and psychological benefits that you give to yourself, simply and honestly by writing it down. You will be a writer. Because I truly believe you already are.

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Sex And The Single 67–Year–Old Woman


I hate my vibrator, it makes me feel an absolute fool. It’s a big, fondant pink Rabbit, presented to me two weeks into a new relationship, a couple of years ago. Make of that what you will. An acknowledgement of diminutive stature, of unaddressed erectile dysfunction or an obsession with filling two holes at the same time? I know Mr G was 70 but I expected a little more romance and a little less practical instruction. Anyway, I find I need Bunny’s abilities while at the same time hating his inabilities. I feel guilty but elated every time I use him, in equal measure.

What’s a 67-year-old widow with a lust for life, and a rediscovered self-respect, to do? When I drag Bunny out of his hiding place in my bedroom chest of drawers in the afternoon – not the evening, because one of my children lives at home and I’m still getting over the time my son heard it throbbing away on automatic among my socks and pants – I reassure myself that it’s good exercise for my pelvic floor and my mechanical heart, if not my emotional heart. If I read one more article in the dailies extolling the myriad physical benefits of regular sex, and especially orgasms, in later life, I may very well self-combust. Because they’re always illustrated with the stock photo of a smiling, grey haired, Caucasian heterosexual couple. Luckily, I’m good at doing things on my own.

Trouble is, I’m no longer willing to offer up my body for half a bottle of red and a nice dinner, whether via Tinder or  Guardian Soulmates. And if I’m honest about my age I get no punters anyway. The last person a 67-year-old man wants to have a bit of rumpy-pumpy with is a 67-year-old woman, it seems. All I get from app dating is young flibbertigibbets who think I’m gagging for them to teach me a thing or two. I’m not and they couldn’t. When first widowed, many years ago, I was amazed at the rampant reality of the ‘Mrs Robinson’ phenomenon and I didn’t always turn them down. Now, stuck up here on my pedestal of propriety and higher moral boundaries, I look out on a desert peopled only by internet dating geriatrics whose sole friend is a webcam and who have a very dodg y taste in interior decoration.

‘You think I’d want to have sex with you? With those curtains?’

 A friend discovered her 80-year-mother on her knees one summer afternoon, in the throes of giving her 85-year-old father a blowjob. How long is this yearning going to bloody last? I’ve had the menopause, shouldn’t I be bored by now ? Or failing that, fall in love with a woman who loves gardening ? Another single friend was pleased when, in her 50s, she stopped getting quivers of sexual excitement down below. ‘It was a relief not to be worried about that anymore,’ she explained. I wonder if married friends envy my single state, my freedom to sleep how and when I want in my own bed, to turn the light on and off at will. I can even fill the sheets with digestive biscuit or toast crumbs in the winter and, heaven forbid, sand in the summer when I’m by the beach. 

Shamefully, I’m rapidly in danger of becoming a perv. I mentally undress men in the park, fantasising about what lies beneath those Boden cords or Gap jeans. I stare at their packets as I sit opposite them on the tube. I don’t drool, twitch or rub my thighs à la Vic and Bob, but my imagination could get me arrested.

I miss a man’s warm body in my bed with an ache that not even Pepto Bismol could shift and I’m not prepared to accept second best out of sheer desperation. I want to be made love to, I want to be stroked and tickled with gentleness and respect. Not just to be fancied and ravished but also talked to intelligently afterwards, preferably about politics or food.

My children think I should be grateful that I had more than 30 years with their father and leave it at that. But we never went longer than a couple of weeks without sex, even when he was having chemo. After he died, I spent too long throwing myself at any man who could satisfy my urge for a healthy, male body. It was years before I understood that this behaviour was primarily about my urge to feel loved and protected again. The tender memories of my marriage have left me feeling incomplete without a man. So I’m sorry, sisters, if you think I don’t sound much like the feminist I purport to be, but the truth is I like sex, I like it regularly and with the right person, it’s fun. I also like gossiping about our friends at the end of the day, in bed with the dog and Radio 4. But better the high ground than the swamp. So in the meantime, thanks for the Rabbit, Mr G.

This article first appeared in the launch issue of The Amorist.

Elaine runs writing, meditation and walking holidays in Spain & Wales. Visit: http://write-it-down.co.uk/








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Why I’m Adding Dancing


Last night I went to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho with my 28-year-old daughter, 40 years after I was a Saturday-night regular with her father and got down to James Brown. Gone are the days of smoke filled rooms but the atmosphere was just as sultry and seductive. On Mother’s Day this weekend, my three kids are taking me to a hip local eatery where, ‘our Sunday resident DJ will be playing all the Motown/Soul/Disco classics that’ll get your mum on her feet’. Like I need encouragement.

I fell in love in the 60s to the growly vocals of John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson and gave birth to my first child accompanied by a mix-tape of Al Green and Bill Withers. Four years later, it was Prince’s Purple Rain that greeted my second son and after another four years, my daughter arrived to The Gypsy Kings. From my early years in ballet classes, learning the mesmerising steps of the tarantella and mazurka, music and dancing have fortified my life – and every live gig  is a shot of adrenaline far more life enhancing than a vegan lifestyle or statins. My memory of dancing alone on a beach in Costa Rica, plugged into my iPod while my man of the moment tried to stand up on a surf board way out on the waves, is an moment for me that symbolises freedom, happiness and how to be truly alive.  Weddings, parties, friends ‘round for dinner – any excuse and I’m up on the floor.  Even my weekly meditation class has movement, a gentle two-step sway to accompany the preparatory chanting.

I hate gyms and am never going to do a marathon but the 15 minutes of disco dancing that I do every morning in the privacy of my own apartment keeps me fit, feels me with utter joy and puts a smile on my face all day. And this is why I’m taking my digital music library and my Bluetooth portable speaker on my writing retreats in Spain this year; so we can all have the opportunity if the music moves us, to dance with the sun on our faces and our hearts full of  celebration for simply being alive.

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The Emotional Power of Clothing to Inspire Writing


An old acquaintance sent me a message a while ago. A photo of my ex’s jacket, draped on the back of a chair.

‘Is this blah-blah’s? Did he leave it here after dinner last night?’

She’d made a mistake. Got the wrong Elaine. My ex had subsequently married a woman with the same name. The image haunted me for weeks. I saw his shoulders, his broad back. I smelt him, felt him. I was in love with him, all over again.

In a small suitcase, in a wardrobe in my office, I have my late husband’s brown leather, Bass Weejun Penny Loafer’s. With coin still in place. They are a death mask of his feet. In the same wardrobe I have my daughter’s hand-smocked, Tana lawn, Liberty cotton baby dresses; my sons blue and white striped Osh Kosh dungarees and brightly-coloured Nipper sweatshirts. I say they are for prospective grandchildren. But they are momento mori of a past life. When I wear a pair of my late mother’s flashy gold earrings, I say a prayer of guilty gratitude; remembering how often I would silently mock some of her more outrageous fashion choices. I used to sleep with my husband’s Gap grey T-shirt when he first left to work in Germany. In 30 years I had never lived without him and I wrapped it around me like a swaddling cloth.

The emotional power of clothing and of accessories is impossible to over estimate.  Still, when I very rarely buy something new to wear from a proper shop, I have to let it settle into my life before I can wear it. It has to hang around my bedroom, waiting to be introduced – like those rigid, crepe-soled, daisy-punched Clark’s leather sandals, bought in preparation for my autumn return to school.

Every garment in my wardrobe has a story to tell; where I bought it, why did I buy it, where have I worn it? Who have I worn it with? I have a ‘lucky’ pink bra that fits me perfectly, bought from a charity shop with the labels cut out so I’ll never be able to replace it. I have a marmalade panne velvet dress, made when I was a fashion student in the 60s and taught by Antony Price. I have the Chelsea Cobbler stack heeled court shoes I got married in, I tottered ‘round the sitting room in them last week and marvelled at my past dexterity.  I have a short sleeved, screen printed, white, Haines Tshirt bought on a buying trip to New York for Fiorucci in ’73. My daughter wore it clubbing in her teenage years and then I did again in my Mad Brighton Widow incarnation in the early ‘00s. It’s in my chest of drawers, ripped under one armhole, ready for it’s next slice of life – probably at Port Eliot Festival in July this year. If ever I had a talisman, if ever a story needed a final chapter, this will be the garment to provide it.

I include workshops on the emotional power of clothing on my writing retreats in Spain and Wales, for more info and on how to book: http://write-it-down.co.uk/

This article was previously published on That’s Not My Age


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My Mother’s Diaries

Photo courtesy of Archivist magazine.

When my mother died in 2004, three months after my father, I was convinced they’d hatched a plot to disappear on yet another unaffordable fancy cruise. In their 57 years together, they’d never spent more than two weeks apart and had formed a united front, guarding family secrets and dishing out corporal punishment.

As I was the eldest child, they had appointed me as joint executor of their will, despite our fractured relationship. Accompanied by my younger siblings, I had to sort out their bungalow in Truro and prepare it for sale. The cruises had taken a toll on the equity and we needed to shift it fast. I felt like a burglar, sifting through their possessions. But what I discovered in their loft was to change my life and support me emotionally in ways I had never thought possible.

Among the sets of false teeth, feather boas and dusty bin-liners were fragile cardboard boxes crammed with a written record of my mother’s life. Acceptances to a dance in honour of her “coming of age” in 1946, congratulatory telegrams still in envelopes, birthday cards – their colours still fresh and bright. There were brown paper bags with wedding invitations and acceptances, lists of linen and glassware collected for her bottom drawer. There were pocket-sized household account books from 1949, listing weekly outgoings: “Rent 7/6. Gas 4/-. Football pools 2/6. Money put by for insurance 4/7. Clothes £1. Coal 2/6”. And in March, “Baby £2”.

The problem with you, Elaine, is that you always want to be the centre of attention
Baby was me, born in September 1949. I counted back on my fingers. It must have been when she first found out.

There were diaries – lots of small, battered and bent diaries dating back to 1938. I drove home to repack my booty in Ikea cardboard caskets – where they would stay for another 10 years, moving with me several times.

From the start, I wasn’t the daughter my mother wanted and she wasn’t the mother I needed. The first-born child to Audrey Joan Kilford, nee Bright, I was an alien creature with an independent spirit and overwhelming needs. As a toddler I was often left with my fierce maternal grandmother while my parents went out dancing, my mother smelling of face powder and Goya Black Rose, her ball gown swishing in the dark as she leant over to kiss me goodnight. But I was “naughty” – I stayed awake, crying inconsolably for her return. In later years, kneeling on the lino by the side of my bed, I would have to repeat: “God bless Daddy, God bless Mummy. If I have been a bad girl today, make me a good girl tomorrow.” Fat chance – I had the devil in me.

“The problem with you, Elaine,” she would say, “is that you always want to be the centre of attention.”

I lost my mother when I finally found my voice and contradicted her. This wasn’t in her motherly plan.

“I don’t know where you get it from,” she would remark. “You must be adopted or dropped on the wrong doorstep.” I imagined this happening three doors up the road, where they had window boxes and a nice car.

When I joined CND at the age of 14 and then organised a march through Basingstoke against the council’s closure of a local music venue, my status as a public embarrassment was sealed. Especially when I grabbed the front page of the Hants & Berks Gazette. “What will the neighbours say, Elaine?” Not: “Well done, Elaine, for standing up for what you believe in and having great media skills.”

It’s difficult to love a cuckoo – I understand that now. When children reflect their parents’ aims, aspirations and personal traits, there’s a warm, fuzzy glow all round.

Discovering, when I was 17, that I had a sex life was the last straw for my mother. “You’ll get yellow fever,” she exclaimed as she moulded pastry round a pie dish. “Go and look on the bookcase in your bedroom.”

There, flopped on a ledge, was a knotted, used condom. A no longer rampant symbol of congress with my boyfriend, who was to become my partner for 32 years until his death in 2000.

Years later, when I had my own children, I still couldn’t get it right. Suddenly my mother’s workaholic, skinny, fashionista, globe-trotting daughter, who swore and smoked, metamorphosed into a breast-feeding earth mother who shopped organically and made flapjacks with malt and molasses. Why did I have to be such a changeling? Why couldn’t I stay still, be normal and behave myself? My indefatigable energy made me uncontrollable.

But still I wanted to please my mother, to hear her tell me she loved me. I wanted her to say that she was proud of what I’d achieved, of my children – her grandchildren – of my long, happy marriage and beautiful home. I wanted acceptance. Whatever I chose, whatever path I took, it was always the wrong one for my mother.

Discovering that I had a sex life was the last straw for my mother. ‘You’ll get yellow fever,’ she exclaimed
And now, aged 66, I see how similar we are. Her flirtatious behaviour with men, her obsession with her appearance – especially her hair. Her flashy clothes that weren’t age-appropriate, her love of baking and dancing rather too enthusiastically … Now I, too, smile at babies in prams and take delight in my over-populated bird feeders.

In 2010, after a heart attack and the end of a relationship, I returned to London to a strange flat, a new community and no idea how what to do next. I unpacked my goods from storage and opened up the Ikea boxes. Here were her diaries, her writing clear and readable in fountain pen; here were some of my father’s. His writing, feathery and mostly in pencil, was more difficult to decipher. Dad, why didn’t you use a pen, just once in a while?

I found her love letters to my father, written on blue Basildon Bond. There were acid, unsympathetic letters from her mother when she was living with her in-laws, admonishing her to behave well and complaining endlessly about her own life. In the diaries I discovered a woman I never knew, the woman she would never reveal to her daughter. A woman also insecure and afraid, who longed for a husband, longed for love.

Pompously, I searched for political references. “Had hair done at Olyve Yerbury, Japanese surrendered”; her worries about her appearance triumphed every time. I read about her ill-fated engagement to a Canadian airman, which my grandmother had vetoed. Later she discovered he already had a wife at home.

I read about scabies, sewing, mending and making-do, and about the night she met my father: “Met Alan Kilford, he’s rather sweet.” Luckily, in his GPO union diary, he thought the same. I searched for a diary for 1949, the year of my birth. There wasn’t one.

But for years she had written down her life, recorded her hopes and fears and never thrown the diaries away. I felt special, I felt that for the very first time my mother had spoken honestly and only to me. I had her attention. Her language, so simple and full of hope, was as precious and rewarding as any literary memoir.

Had her diaries been a place she could escape to? Had she shared them with anyone? I have kept notebooks, journals and diaries for the whole of my life – initially because they were the one place I could say how I felt without criticism or condemnation, where I could finish a sentence without being interrupted. Was that the same for her?

“What a shame you didn’t know about them when your mother was alive,” friends say. But she would never have answered my questions. Our relationship was not equal and she protected her “privacy”. It wasn’t until very late in her life that she told me her age, and when doctors ask about family medical history, I have no idea. After death, she has revealed herself. She has linked me to my past and taught me compassion. Now I feel loved – and that is her greatest gift.

This article was first published in The Guardian 23.04.16



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