Common – thoughts provoked by a trip to the theatre

August 2, 2017 § Leave a comment


Yesterday, I went to see Common at the National Theatre. It’s had mixed reviews – Michael Billington describing it as “William Blake meets The Wicker Man” in The Guardian.  The play is set against the backdrop of the enclosure moment when, as Professor Peter Linebaugh, writes in the programme, much of Britain’s land was “privatised; moved from collective ownership into the hands of a few individuals.”

Of course, prior to the enclosure moment, the land didn’t actually belong to the poor. It was owned by the crown, the church or a local noble. But the notion of common land was a kind of compromise between what Linebaugh describes as, “the absolutist demands of private property and the subsistence necessities of common folk.”

Common land might provide for pannage (the right to graze pigs) or for the collection of estovers (wood); locals might have piscary rights (to fish) or turbary rights (to cut peat or turf). It provided for a kind of self-sufficiency, a way for the poor to keep themselves alive. As with the poor today, that was no easy matter.

Landlords began enclosing land in the late medieval period. It gathered speed with the Tudors, partly as sheep farming became more profitable, but was really forced home during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (about one sixth the area of England) were changed, by some 4,000 acts of parliament, from common land to enclosed land.” That’s a hell of a lot of land taken out of common use.

And, of course, a poor agricultural worker had no power. No voice. In an article in The Land magazine, historian Simon Fairlie describes how consultation worked. “To make a modern analogy, it was as if Berkeley Homes, had put in an application to build housing all over your local country park, and when you went along to the planning meeting to object, the committee consisted entirely of directors of Berkeley, Barretts and Bovis — and there was no right of appeal.”

Which kind of brings me on to my point. Clearly, this is a mighty topic, and way beyond me to argue for or against. What do I know about the enclosure movement? There are reasons why land enclosure needed to happen – more efficient production, growth in population, movement of people away from the countryside and into the cities. So I should probably stop talking about it. Except that theatre and the arts are suppose to make us think. So this is me thinking.

On my walk from the National Theatre to the underground, this was the sight before me.


Many cranes, turning the site of the former Shell Building into something called Southbank Place, a joint development by the delightfully sounding Docklands office group Canary Wharf and Gulf developer Qatari Diar. According the The Standard, 868 homes will be built, including 160 classified as “affordable” and 52 extra care flats for the elderly and disabled. That’s nice, but don’t worry too much about the fortunes of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar. A studio flat will cost you £540,000, with a two bed starting at £1m.

There were objectors to the development. They included the usual – local residents, councillors, Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society – but fear not. According to CityAM, those voices were over-ruled by the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles. He was confident that the scheme would “provide accessible jobs and homes, and enhance the character of the South Bank area”. So that’s all right then.

I’m not sure how we got from common ownership of land to this mess, when even reasonably well paid people in London have no chance of affording a home, let alone those on minimum wage, or not working. (One of the main arguments in favour of enclosures was that people who survived by working common land “were lazy and impoverished (in other words “not inclined to work for wages”), and that enclosure of the commons would force them into employment.” Sound familiar?)

This is a ramble, I know, so let me draw it to a close by making two vague, probably unhelpful and obvious points.

  1. The private ownership of land has screwed nearly all of us. We are obsessed with owning a home with a bit of garden (and I include myself in this). Yet a report in Country Life in 2010 reminds that that, “more than a third of land is still in the hands of aristocrats and traditional landed gentry. Indeed, the 36,000 members of the CLA own about 50% of the rural land in England and Wales.” In addition, as Kevin Cahill wrote in the New Statesman  in 2011, the tax balance on that land has been turned on its head in the last 150 years, inverting the relationship between the land and the landless (or less landed, perhaps). In 1873, landowners were virtually the sole payers of tax; “now the agricultural owners of Britain benefit from of an annual subsidy that may run as high as £23,000 each, totalling between £3.5bn and £5bn a year. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, pay about £35bn in land-related taxes. Rural landowners receive a handout of roughly £83 per acre, while urban dwellers pay about £18,000 for each acre they hold, an average of £1,800 per dwelling, the average dwelling standing on one-tenth of an acre.” (If you are at all interested in this stuff, have a read of this whole article. It’s kind of heart-breaking.)
  2. The former Shell Building was not common land, far from it (although my son’s state school did use their swimming pool). Indeed, I’m not suggesting that the HQ of an oil company is any more worthy than Southbank Place. It would be a nice change though, if those in charge really listened to what those who know about stuff are saying. Protesters against this development and every other development in London make the same arguments. If we want a healthy, diverse, economically sustainable city, we need to stop building Southbank Places, accept that commodifying and monetising the need for a home isn’t really working and invest in the common good. Don’t put ownership into the hands of the shareholders of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar; no good can come of that.







Writing courses

July 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, I was mostly busy on a splendid creative writing course at the lovely Ty Newydd. Great company, clever and funny tutors (Mavis Cheek and Francesca Rhydderch), generally, a good time. I know not everyone approves of creative writing courses – “why can’t you just get on and do it?” Well, I have been on many and nearly always enjoy them. They get me thinking, and doing something else with my brain. Plus, I’m never sure why it’s ok to be taught to draw or play the piano, but not to write.

So, here is one of the exercises I completed with the group. We were each given a different postcard and asked to write something for 20 minutes, inspired of course, by the picture. I was given this, Titian’s Danae.


And here is what I came up with.

It’s not that I don’t like being an artist’s model. As jobs for women go, it’s up there. I’ve done worse things to earn a living – much worse. Lying on a bed, draped in sheets, bosom out, it’s fine, believe me.

My friends give me a hard time if a I grumble. “Oh, live is so hard, being a muse,” they say. “It must be exhausting.” And I do see that if you’re whoring in the side streets of Naples, earning just enough to keep yourself in bread, this gig does seem like a step up.

Still, musing is not without its challenges. Take this job. I’ve been lying on this bed, turning my neck at this wretched angle for what must be weeks now. I have cramp in my left leg and spent most of yesterday needing to piss, but not daring to say. Titian does not like movement, or speech or anything much.

“Sir, I really need to take a break,” I might say in the end, bladder bursting to the point that I am sweating with the effort of keeping it in.

“I don’t pay you to take breaks,” he will reply, his voice all heavy. “Stay still.”

So, I carry on staring at little Giovanni, who is even more miserable than I am. He’s what, five or six, always hungry, and not at all happy to be wearing wings.

“I’ll look like a girl,” he said to me, while we ate lunch – five minutes to eat, one minute to wee.

“No, you won’t,” I replied, “Believe me, no one will mistake you for a girl,” and I glanced down at his baby penis, smiling sympathetically. Then he understood and,realising that his tiny todger would be out there for all to see, he started wailing.

His mother is a launatic though – literally – so poor Giovanni is all alone, naked and alone.

Much  like myself.

We are a pair, Giovanni and I, linked through our naked, misrepresented bodies and the need to pee.

Maybe we can be a team.


Keeping busy again

July 17, 2017 § 3 Comments

Two things to say right off the bat.

  1. I am still alive. Those of you who followed this blog first time around will know that five years ago I was keeping busy to distract myself from cancer type activity. The good news – actually, the great news – is that six years on (touch wood, etc) I am fine. Well done to the NHS and to my own body for a good team effort.
  2. I have given up my job. After 11 odd years raising money for the Cardinal Hume Centre, and working with some of the best people going, I have called it a day. No really good reason, just time to do something else, which may end up being similar or different or a combination of both. So, as from today, I am unemployed.

My live-in advisor suggested I take up Anne is keeping busy again, arguing that:

1.this will keep me busy, thus fulfilling the purpose of the blog,


2. it will advertise my unemployed status to those who may have work.

So, here we go.

This week, I am mainly keeping busy at Ty Newydd, a rather lovely spot near Criccieth in North Wales. I am on a writing course, which is hugely self-indulgent and a bit clichéd – middle-aged lady gives up job and goes on creative writing course is hardly ground breaking. However, I am currently sitting in my splendid bedroom – the Lloyd George room (this was his house so I’m assuming this was his room) – daring myself to go downstairs and meet the other participants. It feels a bit like the first day at university – “What A’ levels did you do?” “Did you have a gap year?”

In the meantime, here is the splendid River Dwyfor, one of my “go to a peaceful place” places.

Celebrating my new credit card

December 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

Last month, I was sent a new credit card – a different colour, with contactless payment and a new three digit security code; so not that much to celebrate, you may say. Except that, in a quiet way, I did.

It’s three years since I had chemotherapy and surgery, and all the brouhaha that goes with breast cancer. Not the best of times. Some of you may remember (and thank you if you do). During those months, every time I used my credit card I would see the renewal date, November 2014, and in my more miserable days, it would occur to me that I might not live beyond the expiry date, that this might be my last ever credit card.

Of course, that wasn’t the priority. There were always more important things to be around for than a new credit card – family, friends, work, the Olympic Games – but there was something about the anonymity of my credit card and the ever-present date which itched away in my mind. If I died, all kinds of things would be canceled – my credit card, my twitter account, my Labour Party membership – and it would make absolutely no difference to any of these organisations. They would grind on regardless. In the same way, films would keep coming out, books be published, The Archers broadcast. No one associated with any of these things would have been bothered in the slightest if I watched their movies, read their books, sent my tweets.

Does it sound like a bleak celebration, the arrival of a new credit card? Well, either it isn’t or I don’t care. It is not so bad to mark these small, anonymous steps. I’m not talking about the personal anniversaries – birthdays, Christmases, summer holidays – but the day to day things on which we have no real impact, the impersonal stuff that comes and goes but which mark the passing of time.

It’s almost three years since I finished chemo. Time has passed; perhaps I should be “over it” and indeed, to a point, I am, but being around to open that new credit card, that was still something.

So, here are a few events to which my presence is completely irrelevant but that I will be using to celebrate the passing of time in the near and not so near future.

  1. Final Hobbit film – this week, the end of the saga.
  2. Labour winning the next election and/or electing a new leader.
  3. Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice (2016), indeed the whole 10 film, DC series, finishing with Green Lantern, 2020.
  4. Publication of the final Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell novel.
  5. Completion of Cross Rail.
  6. And, of course, my next credit card (2017).
Something from the past for for the future.

Something from the past for for the future.


NHS – Happy Birthday

July 5, 2014 § Leave a comment



Today, I am keeping busy a) saying thank you the NHS, which is 66 years old today, and b) writing a letter to NHS England, protesting about the closure of the Soho Square General Practice. Dr Cheung and Dr Brassy have been our lovely and good GPs since we moved back to London 13 years ago. Those of you who know me will be aware that, in my case, this has been no easy task as I’ve been up and down to the doctors a fair amount with both real and bonkers stuff. They have always treated me with care, respect and understanding – and I’ve never had to pay.

Then we get a letter last week saying that the “Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust has notified NHS England of their intention to resign the GP contract for the Soho Square General Practice.” What does this even mean? The letter doesn’t bother to actually name the doctors involved – I guess it’s easier to think of this as a contract rather than as two real doctors who treat real people.

Patients were not consulted during the decision making process. Nor, if the accounts in the local press are to be believed, were the doctors or local councillors. Now we are being offered a choice of “dispersal” – finding another doctor – or asking NHS England to find a new GP or suitable organisation to provide health services – again, whatever that means.

This is all very confusing, particularly as there is another GP practice in the same building which is not impacted by this decision. I say decision, but we have been given no reason at all for the closure, aside from this resigning the contract business. A CLCH spokesperson told the West End Extra that this was not about cost cutting but rather that the GP service “doesn’t fit in with the the objectives of our business plan.”

My rather obvious question: how can cutting GP services be an objective of a community healthcare trust? If this is about cuts, please tell us.

What will happen to the large number of  elderly Chinese patients who use this practice because of the Chinese speaking doctor and staff? Or course, they may not yet know about the closure because my letter says that if you want a copy in Chinese you have to go the GP surgery to collect one.

Today is the 66th birthday of the NHS. You may have seen many tweets about this, people saying thank you for the amazing things the NHS have done for them. Look at #thankyounhs to see what great things people are saying.

I don’t want to become an NHS basher in any way – I love the twitter account @butnhs (big up the NHS) which posts positive NHS stories and accounts – and I don’t have enough information to know what the closure of the Soho Practice is really all about. What I do know is that the NHS is something we need to fight for. You’ll have heard it before, but it’s really true – we won’t know what we’ve lost until we wake up one morning and our healthcare is no longer free at the point of delivery but rather a horrible hotchpotch of insurance/profit making big corporations who talk about business plans and forget to name actual doctors.


On the one hand, but on the other.

March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, I threw away Moving Forward: Living With and Beyond Breast Cancer, the folder of information I was given over two years ago, when I finished my cancer treatment. It had sat of the shelf, largely unregarded, both a symbol of hope – the living beyond breast cancer bit – and a slightly menacing “what if” threat – living with breast cancer. Even though I haven’t actually used the information, it took a bit of courage to decide I could do without it. I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person but, as I’ve said on this blog before, when push comes to shove, it’s strange the things you are prepared to believe have some power.

So, an update. Despite believing in the power of an information folder, I am not as bonkers as I was two years ago, or even this time last year. Which is good. I worry less, which is also good, although I still have my moments (ask the good Russell, who has recently talked me out of having hip, toe and ear cancer).

One of my techniques is to try to avoid things to do with cancer. This may be cowardly; it’s also tricky. Over this last weekend, for example, we’ve had:

1. Selfies without makeup and the subsequent fuss about whether they are an appropriate way to raise money for cancer research (and, for the record, yes they are – not one of those good ladies was saying that going without make up is the same as having treatment for cancer).

2. The headline on The Sunday Times today, plus the campaign they are now launching.


Good news here is reading that almost 80% of breast cancer patients survive for over 5 years. Bad news, I do not want to be “betrayed” by the NHS (which is a stupid, unhelpful word anyway and certainly not what happened to me).

3. A link on Facebook about a group of women who shaved their heads in sympathy with a friend who has cancer. You can see it here – it’s nice, very moving.

4. Critics Choice in the TV guide for Wednesday 26th March is “Kris – Dying to Live“, about an amazing young woman called Kris who has late-stage breast cancer, cannot be cured, and who is now running a breast awareness campaign called CoppaFeel. I urge you all to go the website and do what it says.

I have a dilemma here. I know that breast cancer has such good survival rates because women before me made a huge fuss, and that continuing to make a huge fuss, and not just about breast cancer, is good for those coming next. I know that I benefited from a great deal of support (although, friends, I didn’t see anyone shaving their heads for me #disappointinginretrospect). On the other hand, everyone, just shut up. Two and a half years on from diagnosis, and I still feel weak and feeble faced with the mention of the word, cancer. It’s why I still haven’t watched Breaking Bad, why I couldn’t watch Halley dying on Coronation Street and why I heaved a huge sigh of relief when Ruth in The Archers was shouting at everyone because she was pregnant and not because her cancer had returned.

It’a all on the one hand, but on the other. This may help to explain why, although I could throw out Moving Forward, I still have my wig in its pink box, lurking under a cupboard, like one of those big worms in Tremors, waiting to snap at me. A bit like this:


Of course, thanks to Kevin Bacon and co, the bad worms were beaten, which is what we all want from the general and ongoing cancer narrative. It’s probably all worthwhile, and I just have to get on with it.

And now I’m going to stop. I think this Tremors analogy has gone as far as was ever useful.

Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy (or The Brilliant Lisa Jardine)

February 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture, the Purcell Room, 30th January, 2014, Professor Lisa Jardine


I should say upfront that I am a huge fan of Professor Jardine. If there were mugs or Jardine T-towels, I’d have them. If you are not familiar with the brilliant Lisa Jardine CBE, well, I suggest you get yourself familiarised. Here are some things she has done. 1. She read mathematics at Cambridge before, two years into that course, switching to English. 2. She’s written a heap of books, from Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983) to The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London (2003). 3. Since 2008 she has served as Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. 4. She is now  Professor of Renaissance Studies at UCL. 5. She’s pretty liberal and I believe sent her children to state schools in London.

I think she’s spiffing for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, she’s had breast cancer so, of course, I find that somewhat encouraging (she’s 69, still doing tons of great stuff, etc). Secondly, I credit her with preventing me from bombing out of Cambridge almost 30 years ago. To cut a very tedious story short, girl from huge, not very good comprehensive school + English Literature at Cambridge = recipe for disaster. Entering my third year, I decided to take a course on “The Novel” and was allocated yet another male supervisor with little interest in teaching, someone who had never been overly pleased that women had been admitted to my college in the first place, let alone girls from not very good state schools. At the time, Lisa Jardine was at Jesus College, nothing at all to do with me, but already an inspiring lecturer. In desperation, I knocked on her door and poured out my panic at having to study once again with said misogynist. She was lovely, found me someone to work with, the equally lovely Julia Swindells. It doesn’t sound much, but without a doubt that intervention got me through Cambridge.

Enough about all that. On Thursday, Professor Jardine delivered the Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture on Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy. As suggested above, although I read English at Cambridge, it was all a huge error. Despite that, I went to hear Professor Jardine and, because she is so marvellous, I couldn’t help but learn a few things. Here they are (and with the usual apologies to anyone who really knows about this stuff).

1. The phrase “dumping in the pathetic” from Frank Kermode. Not sure what it means, though.

2. Shakepeare’s plays “wait patiently for each new interpretation.” Frank Kermode believed that “our questions, our seasonal truths, are not those of an earlier generation.” Being open to interpretation but being reticent about final meaning makes a work a classic.

3. Frank Kermode transformed Shakespearian criticism by giving us an outward rather than an inward interpretation. The Romantics, for example, put the poet at the heart of everything – the poet was always right. Kermode (and Professor Jardine) said that the spirit of the writer has to be considered along with the social, cultural, anthropological and historical questions of the time.

4. An example (and stick with me here). In the 17th Century, it was legal to beat your wife to death in your house, but not to do so in public. It was all about what happened in public. Church court documents record numerous cases of women, accused of adultery or lewd behaviour, coming to court to clear their names. It was vital to do this in public. Move to Othello, Act 4, Scene 2, when Desdemona is accused by Othello of adultery. She doesn’t actually deny it (perhaps because she can’t bring herself to use those words) and because she refuses to have the charge scrubbed from the public record, she is automatically guilty, or, as Professor Jardine put it, “the verbal has been consecrated as an event.” Othello doesn’t ever doubt her guilt again so that he kills her not though jealousy, but because, in his eyes, she had definitely committed adultery. But we might not read the play like this if we didn’t have the knowledge gained through examination of contemporary church court records.

5. Any scene from the period where a woman is in the same room as a bed is bad news for said lady’s reputation – Gertrude, in Hamlet, dies in her bed, and Desdemona is killed by Othello in her bed.


There was lots more, and some pretty clever questions. A little out of my depth. Never mind. A much better thing to do than worry about that would be to listen to Professor Jardine talking about the founding of the Royal Society  or the history of cryptography both on In Our Time, or follow her on twitter @profLisaJardine.