A Pregnant Australian Pre-Raphaelite Lesbian Fitness Guru Speaks

I used to be in a soap on the BBC World Service called Westway. I played a lesbian, Australian gym-instructor called Billie. Me and my girlfriend had a baby. In fact (after I walked out on her, fled to Oz and then returned remorseful, wanting her back and having come to terms with my future as a co-parent) we had a baby at the funeral of her ex-husband. Yes – at the funeral of her ex-husband.

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The Westway Cast

That’s soap.

When asked who my character was in this soap I would often say she was a gym-instructor. A pre-Raphaelite gym-instructor if pushed, because according to the writers, she was. I am many things but one of those is not pre-Raphaelite. Furthermore when I began the contract I couldn’t have been further from gym-instructor because I was seven-months pregnant. Lesbian I would avoid because it seemed wrong to emphasise her sexuality as her especially defining feature, and I don’t like to admit to Australian except under contract. So for me, if Billie had an adjective it implied ginger tresses and a faraway look. Which was never in the script.

It didn’t pay many of the bills and there was little kudos involved but it was a good project. Westway was openly instructive. The neatly diverse set of characters set up small businesses, coped with foreign ideologies, learned about each other’s differences and, because it was largely set in a GP’s surgery, shared news also about their diseases and psychiatric conditions. This might sound cack-handed but it was not. It was simple and direct and compassionate and useful. I was proud to be part of it.

The pin-board in our green room was peppered with letters of thanks from listeners around the world. They had strong opinions about the behaviour of some of the characters and they were also grateful that Westway was there for them each week. Their letters had a completely different tone to the fan letters I was used to seeing. There was an investment, there was some implication of a federation between the drama and its listeners, they were not service-users or licence-payers, they were people on the other end of a conversation. I especially remember hearing from a BBC journalist who had been in the refugee camps in Darfur. He returned and made a point of telling the producers that every week when Westway was broadcast, groups of refugees all over the camp would huddle around wind-up radios to listen.

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The Westway Flyover

That was it: a GP’s surgery in West London. Under a flyover. Busy with the comings and goings of all sorts of urban types: lost and slick, assertive and traumatised. All the World. Chirruping out from inside a wind-up radio in a dusty, hungry refugee camp in a part of the Sudan no-one would want to live.

And then it was axed. Axed is the word we use and I think it’s germane here because it did seem sudden and violent and utterly unreasonable.

The difficulty with a programme like Westway and dramas on the World service is that they go out in the small hours here in the UK. Although Westway had an audience of tens of millions they were mostly abroad and mostly voiceless. They were not on the end of a wind-up email address or internet connection. The foreign pleas to continue the service, though many, were not many enough and not influential enough and so in spite of the foot-stamping which would have looked like self-interested job-protecting from us, the cast, Westway went.

Gordon House, a former World Service Drama Producer describes here how when World Service listeners are asked which programmes they particularly remember they will cite dramas and documentaries. Not the news.

The World Service is now planning to axe the meagre rest of the small number of dramas they annually produce as of early next year. Here is a petition.

Please sign because although you may not tune into the World Service (if you are English) – many do and many of those are used to their half of a global conversation being, when it comes to the crunch, the unheard, listen-only half. In recent years especially, many World Service dramas are by untried writers from abroad as well as English, collaborations with people and worlds far from ours. It is about looking out and understanding something outside of ourselves, it is about people across the world looking out.

It is something we do well, it doesn’t cost us much at all and I want us to keep doing it.

Ice Blocks (Manila 2)

(…cont…) Part Two of a little taste of the Philippines.

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In Manila we take cold showers which would normally be unbearable but are a relief here. After one of these Rob lies on Jo’s sofa in his pyjama bottoms. His skin is rashed from the impossible heat. He is reading, Give me a Home Among the Gum Trees.

He doesn’t want too much cuddling when it is this hot. We stick and it’s uncomfy.

At night he sprawls with arms and legs wide open on a mattress in the kids’ room. Jo’s kids are used to it and sleep easily. When I go to bed I find Robbie whimpering in the dark.

‘It’s so hot.’

‘I know lovely boy.’

‘I can’t sleep.’

I love this heat – even though I have had the most fantastic headache since we arrived here. I don’t think that is so much the heat as the fact that we are on the final leg of a terrifically turbulent trip across the world and back. I love this heat because I am leaving it for a long time very soon. I love it because it has been a hard winter at home and I have been cold for months and months. I love how here you can put your clothes on straight from the washing machine and let them dry on you, how you don’t need many clothes, or bed linen or even food. You can make a sandwich with frozen bread because in a few minutes, the time it takes to get it to the table, it will be thawed. Heat like this makes your body soft – it makes your brain soft too.

The Philippines is a Catholic country. Catholicism and this viscous heat are a strange match. I can’t put the two together. What I know of San Pietro, Michelangelo, those Tuscan roadside shrines – and this impenetrable, slow-moving, insect-heavy heat, does not go together. Italy gets hot but this is equatorial and to my euro-centric view, utterly without reference. This might as well be Mars.

Jeepneys and a suburb

Jo gets an ice block out of the freezer – the kind that goes in an esky – and she wraps it in a wet tea-towel. Rob takes it back to bed mewling a little and cradling it like it’s a hot-water bottle. Only then can he fall asleep.

In the morning, of course, the tea towel is crispy dry and warm and the melted ice-block slurps.

Jo is very sympathetic. ‘It’s a strange place. Everything is strange here. The heat. The smells. Everything looks different.’ I am expecting Rob to adapt expertly to this environment which is so unfair. Even I am a bit in shock.

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Qantas

Yes, and exhausted after Australia. At the end of this week we will spend a day in Singapore. You can drink the water in Singapore and you can get ice cream. And after Singapore we will be home to a cool English Spring.

 


The Ground Relative to the Feet

This is the first half of a little slice of the Philippines.

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Jeepneys in Manila. Public Transport. GI leftovers.

On our way back to the UK from Australia, Rob and I visit my old school friend, Jo, in Manila. She has lived here for years. We are her first visitors outside her family. She has four children and lives in a tiny house with no air-conditioning, no garden and a rabbit. Manila is hot and poor and polluted and noisy. All the white people have drivers and ‘help’ and live in gated areas. Except Jo. She drives their nine-seater family van on roads without lines or laws and they live in a Phillippino area.

The cars here drive in shoals. There is a complete and total lack of order and calm. You cannot even be sure which roads are one way until a truck comes towards you.

Four children. And white. I spend three days with Jo witnessing the most impressive, stoical and acrobatic act of Extreme Parenting I could imagine. Her children are immaculate, creative, articulate and so, so happy.

In Manila, Robbie has to take his top off at every opportunity. He is skinny, like a little raw bird. We go for a swim at the apartment block down the road. We stay most of the day at the pool. He spends more hours in that pool than he has spent in water in the last six months. Including baths. When he needs a rest he finds a warm spot on the concrete beside the water and pillows his head on his arms. I remember that day-by-the-pool pose. That is a happy, restful, sun-filled position – your body on the hot concrete, your arm hanging down, your ear at water level, the rest of the world a general quiet roar away in the back there. The tickling drops of water collecting on your spine and down your chin. The drying bits and the wet bits. The cool on your front when you peel yourself away from the ground to go and find a lounge chair or the heat building up til you to tip back into the pool. The terrible, laughable shock of the cold water. The close silence and distance of having your head under – the distance from everything else.

We leave the pool at the end of the day, the kids are comparing wrinkles when Robbie starts skipping – hopping and zig-zagging all over the road. I have taught him so carefully about roads. ‘Rob! It’s a road! Rob!’ I use my big voice.

As it happens, there are no cars anywhere nearby. There is, however, a principle – so I shout.

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‘Rob!’

‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’

‘Rob not in the road – get off it!’

‘It’s hot! Ow! Ow! Ow!’

Then Jo and I shout ‘Head for the grass!’

He had no idea where to go – the asphalt has been exposed to sun for about 12 hours now. The temperature is in the mid-thirties somewhere – perhaps higher. Even the Philippinos call this hot. I wouldn’t even think of walking barefoot on this road. I didn’t notice he was barefoot. He leaps onto the tiny patch of grass and giggles.

Two weeks ago in Australia he refused to take his shoes off. My sister, who will brook no opposition, muttered, ‘I’ll get him barefoot.’ She succeeded. But it was only two weeks ago and Australia is pleasantly autumnal. Here in Manila you can chew the heat.

‘Why is it so hot?’ He is shocked and laughing. How can a road get hot? A road is a road.

I have spent this last month with him in Australia seeing things he has never seen before. But I am stupid and slow about adjusting to the difference. The road will be hot. You will need shoes. You only need to learn this kind of thing once. I need to learn that it is not enough to know these things – I should also be able to say them.

(…cont…)


It’s Raining Cataracts

There’s nothing between the back of our house and the coast so when it rains the house tips and lists and handfuls of weather rattle on the windows like pebbles. It’s wonderful. I leave the curtains open to get a better effect.

But there is the walking to school which is not so entertaining. We have made the decision not to get out the car because “it’s only a few days a year” and once that precedent is set… Look, guys, we say – it’s a bit of rain. Wind. All you need is the right clothing and a bit of push. Quite a lot of push when you are very small and the wind is enough to lift you off your feet and grab your umbrella out of your hands.

We ready ourselves like a little army, checking gear, counting hats and bags and pairs of shoes to go on after wellies at the other end.

This is all especially hard for (this is the pseudonym) Joey who hates rain and wind. I think it is the random nature of the rain and the wind which just bounces around him like a sugar-rushed puppy snapping at his coat and yipping in his ear. His hands get cold. It is all very uncomfortable and this is one of those areas in which he does not understand that the weather is beyond our control. It is all part of the chaos we strange Normal People choose to live with and inflict on him.

Yesterday I picked him up from school and he was shivering. He didn’t want his coat on. He didn’t want a hat. At times like these hats and coats are added sensual assaults. I was wearing my favourite hat. It is ridiculously furry and warm. I cannot manage when my head is cold. I could wander around in a t-shirt in sub-zero temperatures but I would need a good hat. The lack of a good hat really does make me cry. I wear it most of the year because “warm” to me, is “pretty cold”. I knew if I could get my hat on Joey’s head for a second he would feel much better, but I had to get it on.

Fed photographing a mirror she was thinking of buying at auction. In the hat.

So there’s me, in the playground, wrestling a large, furry, woman’s hat onto my small, resistant and squealy son, in the school playground at pick-up time. I am not sure if this was before or after the Ofsted Inspectors had left. (Oh yes. We did.) He pushed and squealed and I do the thing I normally have to do of ignoring what it might all possibly look like and doggedly pursue what I know has to be done.

Once upon a time, when he was a toddler, this was the sort of scene that would draw a vocal crowd. “What are you doing to him?” “I’m… erm… looking after him.” In those days: “What’s wrong with him?” “Well, I don’t know…” There was never, in any of these encounters, an offer of help.

A few times I have yelled at people who do this which must look very classy.

Though once – once – I was at a bus stop in Finsbury Park, Gateway to All Sorts of Places That are Less Ugly and all three kids were being their usualness at my knees. Noisy. A woman came up to me and I readied myself, I tend to look down during these encounters. Just look at the floor. It makes it go quicker. And this woman said: “Hi. I just wanted to say… I love watching you with your kids. You’re great together.”

And I don’t think I said anything at all – I had no defence for that at all.

She was Australian, wouldn’t you know.

I got my hat on Joey’s head and I was right he stopped, he loved it. That hat is magic. He pulled it down over himself (it is a full-body hat) and we were fine, in fact, until half an hour later he took it off and gave it back because he was too hot.

I am not very good at all this. Jonathan makes up for my gaps. The day he took them to school in the howling rain he discovered at the other end of their brave trek that wellies had leaked and the boys who had been exhorted to be brave and not complain, had not mentioned the water seeping into their boots. After noisily shucking their wellies off their wet feet, their socks dripped, but Jonathan – who does these things properly and quietly and without looking at the floor, who looks a thing in the eye and only then decides whether it is a problem – had a pocketful of dry socks.

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I have been a while away from the blog because I am finishing my book… in fact so near to that I am now thinking about the next. I really must learn to do several things at once.