I Wouldn’t Bet on It

About eighteen months ago, my son-in-law was coerced, cajoled, guilted into buying a nostril of a racehorse. When I say “racehorse”, I mean a very expensive untried, untrained but oh-so-well-bred colt. The only member of the extended clan who thought this was a good idea was me.

My first encounter with the sport of kings was in the early 1950’s. I remember it vividly. There was such a sense of occasion about it: donning the best dress, being given money by all the rellies, and setting off with my favourite aunt.  I was enchanted.  The fabulous horses, the “glamorous” crowd, my own special race-book, the mystery of the betting ring with its demand for big decisions, such as where oh where to risk my money? And finally the big one, the actual Cup, accompanied by unladylike screams and the thunder of hooves, down the straight and past the post and it’s yes! Yes! Yes!

I had won five shillings. Gai Waterhouse never felt so good.

I married a man who had spent his childhood holidays in the stables of his step-grandfather, a trainer. My father-in-law put himself through accountancy by riding as a jumps jockey around the country. And now here I was, mother-in-law of a part-owner of an actual racehorse. This had to be a Good Thing, it was part of a pattern, it was Meant to Be.

When you join one of these syndicates, you just hand over regular sums of money and if you are a believer, you pray and if not, you hope. You don’t have any say in the upbringing or education of the young one, such as private v public or any of that. You just pay and pray (or hope).  Probably just as well because my son-in-law, henceforth known as P, knew nothing much at all about racehorses, possibly even less than I do, but at least he’s a fast learner. I won’t call the colt by his real name either. Let’s pretend he’s Greg. I’m pretty sure there has never been a racehorse called Greg.

It all started out well enough.  Once every week or two, P and all the other owners get an email with a little video attached, detailing Greg’s progress. A bit like a school report. P forwards these to me because he recognises my deep and abiding interest in Greg’s welfare. Occasionally we get a few words from the trainer; usually we get handed over to some underling. The reports are strikingly similar. Greg is a strong, fine-looking colt. True, he’s very handsome. Greg has a lovely temperament. Nice to know. Greg worked well, he’s got a great attitude. Terrific. But hang on, what’s this?  Greg has a bit of a problem with his knees. The first hint of trouble, immature knees, comes at the same time as a request for a double payment this month. Which will be refunded out of Greg’s first winnings. Well, we all love a bit of optimism. Greg, who’s been in training for a glorious career for all of four months, is sent off for a spell in the country, all expenses paid, while his knees fix themselves. We do not want to jeopardise either his knees or his lovely temperament, not to mention his excellent attitude, and fair enough too. I am still in love with this useless nag, by the way.

Greg returns from his spell. The knees are “better”. We don’y know if that means cured or improving.  He resumes training. He is still working well, lovely temperament, good-looking horse, etc. etc. Very encouraging. Until there are mentions of his weight. Lots of laughs about how Greg likes his tucker. I think to myself, clearly there is no equine  Weight Watchers. So cut his rations, perhaps? Greg gets fatter. Does it occur to his trainers, vets, nutritionists to put him on a diet? Not on your life. Colt is overweight, the problem is in that word “colt”.  Greg is off to the country again for another nice “rest”. Are they kidding? He’s getting his balls cut off is what’s happening! Poor horsie. Of course we sent organic carrots and Pink Ladies. It did occur to me, though, that this could perhaps offer a new approach to the nation’s obesity problem. Well, half of it, anyway.

I have to say that the time Greg is given to recover from this surgical procedure is ludicrous.  I mean, women have hysterectomies, and a few days later they’re back at work and running the household to boot. Next life, I’m coming back as a racehorse, Korean possibilities notwithstanding.

Greg has finally returned to Caulfield and is back in light training. I would like him to do some serious galloping. Like going very fast. But I have to admit, just between us, that I am losing faith a little bit. I tell myself that he’s a late developer. He’s not going to be a sprinter, what we’ve got here is a stayer. Wait a few years and Greg will win the Melbourne Cup! We’re dreamers, we racing people.

I do see another possible future for our Greg. If you’re looking for a really nice hack to ride, handsome, beautiful temperament, ideal for kids or beginners because he doesn’t go too fast – and if you’ve got the odd $150K – just give me a call.



Minor Irritations

I could write about really important things today – like freedom of the press. I could make a plea for world peace. I could thump the keys again on behalf of the world’s 68 million displaced persons or our own countless homeless, or any number of truly depressing subjects. But if you pick up a newspaper, turn on your computer, look at your phone, it’s all there already.

So I’m going to stay right here in Melbourne and talk about some of the little things that annoy the shit out of me on a daily basis. I bet most of this stuff applies almost anywhere you live, so maybe we can share a laugh about it.  It is, after all, in the great scheme of things, a mere floccinaucinihilipilification. Heavens, how I love that word. So good to show off and actually use it.

Let’s start with “Have a nice day.” And oh dear God, how I hate that phrase! Why on earth didn’t we leave it where it belongs with our American cousins? They can get away with it, we can’t it, it’s as un-Australian as a Stetson. I don’t believe anyone gives a fat rat’s if I have a nice day, I don’t really mean it when I utter it myself, but it’s reached the stage where it feels almost impolite not to say it. Why don’t we just mumble “thank you” like we used to and leave it at that?

Number two on my list, something really simple: unsubscribing. Simple? When my beloved husband died there were several things I needed to unsubscribe to. The most difficult to achieve was Linked-In.  They had trouble believing that he no longer wanted to enjoy the great benefits of being a member. They seemed to have trouble understanding the word “deceased.”  But unsubscribing from almost anything tends to play out like a scene from Wuthering Heights. How could you leave us?

At the moment, I live alone. And another of my pet hates is “2-for-one!”. Not so bad in clothing shops, two tops for one might be okay, but in supermarkets it drives me mad. I hardly ever want a double supply of anything. I don’t want to eat broccolini for a week, I don’t want enough paper towel for a lifetime, I’ve nowhere to store it. So I end up paying more for just one. It’s not fair. It’s not! Any day now, I’m going to throw a tantrum.

What else? Ah, yes. Stickers. On fruit. Enough said. Whoever thought that was a good idea?  I suppose it might work as a cure for nail-biting .

Let’s move on to service. As in shops. I won’t go on about department stores, we all know what to expect there, with one shining exception. I recently accompanied a friend to a big Telstra service centre in the heart of Melbourne. You wait a long time in such places and this one used to have seating where the halt, the aged and the pregnant could while away the hours. Not anymore. When a young man finally found time to attend to my 85-year-old friend, she asked if she could please sit down. He said she could sit but he couldn’t, it wasn’t allowed. Such a pleasant way to conduct business. We all stood.

While we’re on service, what about automated checkouts in supermarkets?  I know about the bottom line, I understand economics just a teeny bit. I also understand that we have large numbers of people on Newstart who would kill for a job, any job. Why not give them one, Coles and Woolworths and you, too, Target? Automated checkouts are a nightmare with a large trolley full of food. Automated checkouts do not smile and have a chat and pack the goods with expert care. I refuse to use them. I know a large number of people who refuse to use them. Not because we can’t, we just won’t.  Call it taking the moral high ground.

Traffic, everywhere, is getting chaotic. Congestion is increasing. I doubt very much that it is due to immigration. I tend to blame cars. Better public transport will hopefully improve things, if people can be persuaded to use it. I’m glad I can’t drive anymore, it’s stressful enough being a passenger. Whatever happened to patience? Why the race to the next red light? Why the bullying horn for the driver who was clearly in unfamiliar territory and took a few seconds too long to pick his lane coming out of St Kilda Road on Friday night? Did you really not see the WA numberplates? Calm down, everyone. Take a deep breath.

And finally – my last little gripe for this week –  people who, finding themselves with a little bit of power, let it rush to their heads. I have a much younger friend, divorced, works full-time, besotted animal lover since childhood. Wants a rescue dog to replace her beloved Jack Russell who died of old age some time ago. Any rescue dog, even one that’s admittedly hard to place, since she’s experienced with problem animals. No, no, rescue people will not give her a dog because she is at work all day, dogs must go to families. Do they not realise that families too, are out all day? Don’t they know how many dogs are euthanased each week? What sort of bureaucratic rubbish is this?  Are these, perchance, the same people who are running the NDIS? People who know all about regulations but very little, it seems, about dogs or people with disabilities.

I am done – for now. I could go on and on. (I could mention the MyGov website again.) As I said, none of this is important, I am just being self-indulgent. Or maybe not. We are all stressed, venting is good for mental health. What is driving you insane? (Let’s leave politics out of it.)  Do share.

Faith, Hope & The Other One

“Charity suffereth long and is kind …” or so the Bible used to say, before well-meaning Philistines got their hands on some of the most beautiful words ever written in the English language and decided to “modernise” them. I’m amazed that they didn’t slap a coat of paint on St Paul’s Cathedral while they were at it. Sorry, but it’s been a sore point since 1961.

We know that, biblically speaking, charity meant love. If charity, in the modern vernacular, is not love, then it certainly needs a good dose of it; love, empathy, imagination, acceptance, are surely the basic components. I’ve been thinking about all this for some time; probably since charities started sending me little gifts in the mail in the hope that I would send them a much larger one in return. You have no doubt received them too; cards and calendars and fridge magnets and shopping bags. It annoys me intensely. I am not a four-year-old to be bribed with little goodies. The cost of this rubbish sets my teeth on edge, especially when most of it goes straight into the recycle bin, and I resent the fact that they are trying to make me feel guilty. More guilty, that is. I live on a pension, as most of you know by now, so there is not much left over; what there is, goes to causes that I am passionate about, like Médecins sans Frontières or Vinnies, or individual calls for help.

I am always astounded by people who say – and we’ve all heard them – that they wouldn’t know what to do with all that money if they won fifty million. Now that shows a lack of imagination that would put a sheep to shame. Give me a call if it happens, I’ll help you – starting with the above-mentioned MSF.

Talking of Vinnies, I have a friend who works for VincentCare, helping to find a roof to go over the heads of some of our 116,000-plus homeless people. We all know the problem; as a country we just aren’t charitable enough to fix it. Too attached to our franking credits and our tax breaks, perhaps. I’ve seen what my friend and her colleagues do; I can tell you this, the job satisfaction seems to be pretty high, even though I know for a fact that the pay is not what you’d call exciting. There they are, a Catholic organisation with the Rainbow Tick for services to the LGBTQI community, dealing with some truly intractable problems yet offering help and hope to all comers. I’d give my money to that crowd any day.

I’d be less inclined to give it to charities who feel the need to throw dinners at $1200 a head in order to raise funds. Why can’t people just wave a credit card in the right direction? Such a display of wealth from the haves seems totally unnecessary and more than a bit tacky; a true philanthropist can do better. There are some in our midst – a mining magnate and his wife spring to mind – who call a press conference, name their causes, hand over a breathtakingly large sum and loudly encourage those of equal fortune, and good fortune, to do the same. So much nicer.  At the other end of the pecking order, we have our fun runs and our golf days, our raffles and trivia nights. I wonder why we can’t just give without the bread and circuses. Why isn’t empathy enough to open our wallets?  If all the money spent raising the money were added to the total, wouldn’t there be a damn sight more to go around?  Just asking.

There’s another aspect to charity that intrigues me: the Charisma of the Cause. Let’s face it, some appeals for help, some causes, are obvious winners and others, you just know, are going to struggle to attract a cent. It’s horrible but it’s true. Animals and children (in that order) tug at the heart strings and open cheque books. When it comes to endangered species, the cute and cuddly win over the deadly or insignificant. And if it’s a disease that needs research funding, first find a celebrity who happens to be a sufferer. The greatest need? That rarely comes into it, as far as I can see.

On the basis of need (and forgetting about charity beginning at home), this morning I gave eight dollars to a woman in Peru who needs a very good lawyer. Why? Because she’s battling Newmont Mining, a huge American company, who for several years have been trying to take her farm. Their efforts have included a severe beating and non-stop harassment and bullying. Their mine will destroy her home and her livelihood and threaten the water supply of a whole valley. I know my little gesture is probably futile but it’s all I can do.

For most of us, unless we can volunteer, that’s what charity comes down to. It’s depressing.  Especially in a country as rich as ours where we shouldn’t, except in times of natural disaster, need charities at all. I mean, really, think about it. We shouldn’t. In the best of all possible worlds, all our spare cash should be going overseas. To UNICEF or Médecins sans Frontières or Máxima Acuña in Peru. It shouldn’t be needed here to fund cancer research or to keep someone from suffering hypothermia, or worse, on a park bench. Any thoughts?

Could Do Better

For a perfectionist like me, old age is a minefield. I imagined growing old like a Quentin Bryce or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or maybe a Miriam Margolyes but it hasn’t turned out like that at all. Not even remotely. Which I suppose, considering my limited gifts of style, wit and intellect, isn’t surprising. Still, I expected more. I feel, in fact, that I am doing it all rather badly, I Have Let Myself Down.

Had I known how hard it would be, I would of course have gone into training years ago; a rigorous course to prepare mind and body for what lay ahead, something with a catchy title like Meaning and Purpose Beyond the Sixth Decade.

Shakespeare was right, in life we each play many parts. For all but a few of us, Old Age is a thankless role, the bit part that nobody wants, that you only get because you’re under contract.  Some make a meal of it and get rave reviews; the rest are quite relieved to finally get off stage. But it’s often a long and arduous performance.

I think what makes it all so difficult is the gradual erosion of one’s identity, which goes with some very big losses, starting with career for many. Speaking personally, I have just hit delete on 56,000 words. At least I’m still sufficiently with it to recognise a bad novel.

Losing your partner hits hardest – well, I speak for myself, but unless you’ve been shopping for arsenic online, I imagine it’s so for most people. It’s not just the personal heartbreak, widowhood doesn’t make you half of a couple, it’s more like about, oh a quarter, I’d say. It’s part of the general invisibility of old age which has come as no shock at all, given the coverage it’s received.

Nevertheless, it’s a little off-putting to find that your opinions are no longer sought and that you are spoken to, as often as not, as if you’ve lost the capacity to think at all. I admit that short-term memory loss can be a problem, but it does not necessarily acquaint with dementia. Young persons should be taught that; they should also learn to appreciate that we may still have a sense of humour. Please do not take us so seriously. Nor is there a need to explain in detail the stuff that we learnt in grade 6, just because we need some help with an iPhone.

But the hardest thing of all, surprisingly, is to accept one’s new role in the close family circle. Especially when you are a grandparent. This includes Handing Over. A stage in life which must be managed with Great Tact, Endless Grace and Quiet Dignity. Got that? Read, mark and learn.

You hand over things like Christmas – yes, Christmas –  and let your children do it their way. Not a word about the lack of linen napkins, or the fact that presents were opened before everyone arrived. It’s still wonderful. New Year’s Eve is not wonderful. The kids ring you – they are away on holidays now, you’re at home, probably with the dog. You watch the fireworks if you can stay awake. You remember the parties you used to have. People don’t do parties like that anymore, you tell yourself. You’re right. They don’t have time. You report that you had a lovely evening.

You learn your place as time goes by. You hop in the back seat of the car. You let others choose the television programme (kids don’t watch television anyway, they have devices.) You know that soup in winter and chocolate brownies and banana bread for school lunches will always make you welcome.

You accept the fact that you may cook food in your kitchen, and bring it in plastic containers, but you are completely banned from their kitchen. You are told to go and sit down, talk to your grandchildren! Which is all very well and good, except that the grandchildren would rather talk to their phones. Another difficult thing, after a lifetime of speaking your mind, is learning to shut up. To shut up before opining once more on the folly of dropping Chinese, for instance; before opining on anything much at all, in fact.  You learn never ever to interfere on matters of discipline and to watch the jokes. Sex, for instance, is tricky.  Your grandchildren tend to think you’re still a virgin, all evidence to the contrary. It’s sometimes a good idea to go along with this myth, they embarrass so very easily.

On top of all that, when you do get to talk to the grandkids, you quite often find them begging, Please don’t tell mum and/or dad!  Quite a quandary. To tell or not to tell, that is the question. To earn the eternal love and trust of the grandchild – or risk a nasty scene if you’re discovered in a conspiracy. Oh, what a tangled web it can be.

So there you have it. Aging is damn hard. Being the perfect parent of grown-up children, not to mention the perfect grandparent, is well-nigh impossible.  You desperately wish they would all stop fussing. You desperately hope they won’t stop fussing. You know the phone calls to check that you’re okay, that you aren’t lonely, that you don’t need anything, that the nice taxi-driver really was nice and got you home safely, are all a sign of love. You’re still making those calls yourself. It might be tough at times, but I know I’m incredibly fortunate to still be part of a family, scattered over two states, there when I need them or – just occasionally – when they (or the dog) need me.


Eat Up and Be Grateful

Food, glorious food. I love the stuff. I’m seduced by photos of it, I convince myself I can reproduce the recipes, I spend hours online hunting down exotic ingredients and I badger and bore producers at fresh-food markets. I take great pleasure in cooking; sometimes I produce a masterpiece, now and then I make shocking contributions to landfill. There are worse hobbies, I tell myself.

I used to watch cooking shows on television, although I think I’ve reached saturation point, and I never did enjoy the ones that resembled blood sports. All the same, they’ve given a new generation an interest in the culinary arts and that’s an excellent thing.

Back in the seventies, when I was living in London, we used to indulge in a blood sport of our own. It was called The Dinner Party. It became a big thing with the publication of a weekly part-work called The Cordon Bleu Cookery Course. My friends and I soon become devoted followers. The Dinner Party was a highly competitive affair. It forced me to expand my skills and encouraged us all to drink large quantities of cheap French and Algerian wine. Back in Australia, we found the game had caught on here, though not the Algerian wine. All those white tablecloths, all those candles, remember?  (And all that damn ironing.)

I think in a world where millions of children go to bed starving or malnourished, we might have become a little bit precious about food. I’d say it happened about the same time that activated almonds came on the scene. Not forgetting kale and quinoa. We’re incredibly fussy, we demand the best. We want the freshest, the cleanest, the greenest; it must all be local, organic, environmentally and ethically beyond reproach. The presentation is all important, any 12-year-old knows that.

Food that reaches these exacting standards is simply not possible. Not every day and not for everyone who is hungry.  I see a lot of it (or something that purports to be like it) on Facebook and read of it in restaurant reviews. Some of the latter would make good comedy sketches. I rarely see it in person these days because fine dining is out of my reach.

What I have seen a lot of lately is the food that is served up in hospitals and nursing homes. With the exception of a very few private establishments, what I have seen and tasted is a disgrace. As you may have guessed, I have now reached the point of this blog. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time, ever since my late husband had a two-week stay in one of Melbourne’s finest public hospitals and lived on soup and sandwiches. The soup varied slightly, the sandwiches didn’t. At least they were edible. I took food in for him when I could, I don’t know how other patients managed. The waste was shocking, I saw the barely-touched plates go back to the kitchen.

A friend has recently spent too much time with a broken femur in another public hospital. Her diet was mainly porridge and soup. She isn’t a fussy eater but she couldn’t swallow anything else. In rehab, she is learning little tricks like taking the butter from the inedible bread and putting it on to the “scrambled egg”, which gives the latter a little flavour. I had a text from her yesterday about a dish called “broccoli mornay.” This consisted of two wilted florets of broccoli on a plate. That was it. Mornay? Not exactly. We had a good laugh. She should have cried. Today it was corned beef with mustard sauce. There was a knife but it wouldn’t go through the corned beef. Not at all. A chain saw was not provided.

My point to these little anecdotes and the millions like them is threefold: a) the people to whom this food is offered are patients. They are often in pain, the days are long, they are bored and frequently depressed.  Enjoyable food, prepared with care, will nourish body and spirit and speed their recovery; b) the waste is untenable and c) I am convinced it costs no more to cook food well than to ruin it. Ask any member of the CWA. Any shearer’s cook. (I have known quite a few.)

I am not an expert on mass catering. I do know that hospitals where the food is prepared on the premises feed their patients much better than those where it’s prepared outside and brought in. I think it is totally unfair that people at their most vulnerable should be subjected to food which is often truly disgusting. No one expects gourmet fare or silver service. But a bit of good “home-style” cooking, is that too much to ask?  A bit of ethnic diversity? Instead of roasts that look and taste like the morning’s cereal packets covered in gravy; dried-out fish that left the ocean when Cook was a boy and spag bol made of – no, let’s not go there, I don’t want to make some passing nonna cry.

It can be done – because now and then it is done. I think it is time that patients who are able – and the relatives of those that aren’t  – rose up in revolt. An election is upon us, a good time to start. As an issue, it hardly compares with climate change of course. But if you’re stuck in one of our under-staffed hospitals for two or three months, then I think you’d find it mattered quite a lot.  If you can beat the broccoli mornay, I’d love to hear about it.

A Loathsome Custom

“A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”  

That’s James 1 pontificating on tobacco back in 1604. I wonder what made him so prescient? He did his royal duty and warned the populace and no one listened.

I smoked once. What I really mean is, once I smoked all the time. Two packets a day, a house full of ashtrays, where the walls were stained brown with nicotine, a car that stank of it and I’m sure I did too. You don’t notice these things when you smoke; you especially don’t notice them when most of your friends smoke as well. If anyone complained we thought they were being unreasonable. Yes, you read that correctly: unreasonable.

Considering that I even smoked in the shower, one hand sticking out past the curtain, I think it’s fair to say I was addicted. I really loved smoking. I started when I was a student at NIDA, little packets of twelve Peter Stuyvesants. I tried various other brands, even ghastly menthols, and finally settled on Dunhills, while for special occasions – oh, the sophistication! – there were gorgeous black and gold Sobranis.

Back in the day, if we had a party, I would fill the silver cigarette box, which had no doubt belonged to my beloved aunt – she favoured Temple Bar, I seem to recall – and scatter even more ashtrays throughout the house. One of them I remember fondly was the size of a hubcap. I’d empty the ashtrays several times throughout the evening and open more windows. We were serious smokers. Inhale? Are you joking?

Back then, I would turn up at a script meeting, open my briefcase and drop a carton of Dunhill on the table to see me through the two days. Not a packet, a carton. And I was not alone. Well script meetings could be stressful, they were hard work.  And all the while, as news about the damage I might be doing to my lungs mounted, I refused to believe. (Or chose to ignore.) I was like Tony Abbott on climate change – until one day, the evidence overwhelmed even me. Even my friends.

Heroin addicts have told me it’s easier to give up that drug than nicotine. Yet my husband quit smoking with comparatively little angst, I don’t know how. It took me another seven years and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I got a lot of practice trying. I tried every method known before I succeeded. The breakthrough came with a smooth little green stone my family bought for me at the local market. When I wanted a cigarette – all the time – I played with that stone instead. And gradually I managed to stop.  The other thing that helped was a promise I made myself: if I still wanted to smoke when I was seventy, I could take it up again.

I was forty-nine when I had my last cigarette. I am way past seventy now and I haven’t acted on that promise, I can’t think of anything worse. I have nightmares that I’ve started smoking again and wake up in a sweat. I can pick out the smokers in any queue, in any crowd, if they sit next to me on the train. It’s horrible.

Far, far more horrible, is the loss of many very dear friends to lung cancer; some of the very same ones who laughed with me all those years ago when we slapped our cartons of Dunhill on the script room table. So far I have dodged a bullet. But another friend, someone I love dearly who is now in his eighties, was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks ago. He never did find a little green stone.

These days, most of the people I see smoking are young women. And I desperately want to go up to them and say for God’s sake, stop it. Save all that money and use it to travel. Go and get your hair done and get rid of the stink of nicotine. Spend it on new clothes or concert tickets or whatever your heart desires, just please, not on cigarettes. But I know they won’t listen, any more than I did.

My granddaughter, who is fifteen, does not smoke (“Do I look stupid, Anzi?”) but tells me that some of her crowd think smoking is cool. I’m not talking about vaping here, I’m talking about old-fashioned tobacco rolled up in paper. Cool? It’s not advertised, people don’t do it on film and television, I presume the parents of these kids don’t do it – and it’s not even illegal. Just very, very expensive and quite possibly deadly. So what makes them think it’s cool? Perhaps it’s become a status symbol. More likely, I suppose, they imagine it will keep them thin.  Someone should tell these kids that cancer is a high price to pay for a skinny body. Someone should steal the fags and give them a gym membership.

I used to have twenty ashtrays; now I have one sitting forlornly on the outside table, filled with autumn leaves. I don’t know anyone who smokes. The message was hammered home constantly to our generation and finally we got it. But clearly, some of the gorgeous young things of Gen Z have missed the message altogether or are no longer listening. I think it would be a great kindness if we nagged them until they do.

Crying Over Spilt Milk

“Je ne regrette rien,” sang Edith Piaf.

Sinatra was in similar vein: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

Lots of people seem to agree with them, professing as they near the end of their lives to have no regrets, nothing at all to lament or repent of or strive for, they wouldn’t change a thing.

I find it hard to believe.

Regret, both noun and verb, covers so much: sins large and small, perhaps mostly of omission; thoughtlessness and unkind words and roads not taken, and dreams left to wither when courage and effort might have saved them.

Regrets? I’ve got plenty. Starting with the day in grade one when a friend and I filled our mouths with water from the bubbler (remember bubblers?) and squirted it all over a classmate who’d done nothing whatsoever to hurt us. Why? I have no idea or I have blocked it out of my memory in shame. I don’t know what turned us into two revolting little bullies but nearly seventy years later, that act haunts me still. I wish I could find that small girl, now old like me, and tell her so and offer her the most heartfelt apology.

Regrets of a different kind came later, much later, when I entered the work force. Twice I missed out on a job because of my sex; I was actually told that was the reason. I should have rattled the bars; I should have complained and fought and cried out for justice. There weren’t any laws back then to protect me but I deeply regret not trying. I regret that I just rolled over and shut up and gave in, fearful of losing the job I already had – which in one case, I did anyway. I was very young; I had a lot of toughening up to do, but of course I regret the way that, on both occasions, I handled the situation.

I think the hard one, as you age, is coming to terms with regret: accepting the hand you’ve been dealt and counting your blessings, rather than dwelling on what might have been. We all know people who spend their lives looking at someone more successful and thinking “that could have been me.” In some cases, with even more resentment, “that should have been me.”  Well no it shouldn’t, actually; I’ve learnt that’s not how it works at all.

I wanted to be a writer – what I thought of as a proper writer – from a very young age; a proper writer who produced books with hard covers and dustjackets which were read by thousands of people and made the author, me, famous. (I was too young to understand that rich was more fun than famous.) Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Maybe it could have, if I had been prepared to starve for several years and put in the hard and lonely work necessary. Instead, I took a somewhat easier path – a few years learning how the world turns and then scriptwriting. Regrets? Just now and then but honestly, not that many or that often. I met the most amazing people; I made some wonderful friends, I delved into so many esoteric subjects and learnt a great deal, and above all, there was so much fun and laughter, such a feeling of support and shared creative purpose at those hundreds of script meetings that most were a joy to attend. We ate a lot of chocolate, drank a lot of coffee and wine and on top of all that, I got paid. Of course there were bad times, some very, very bad times – but aren’t there always?

I did get a novel published at last. I was 71. Hard covers and dustjackets were things of the past. The book took three years of my life, was read by very few and earned me virtually nothing. It did give me a lot of satisfaction. Regrets? No. It was something I’d promised myself I would do and I did it. Mission accomplished.

My biggest regrets are failures of empathy and understanding; not realising that someone’s unusual behaviour was due to depression; putting off the “difficult” phone calls; not bothering to make a hospital visit because I was too busy (oh dear God, how busy we all are!); losing the chance to say goodbye.

All the same, I think regret needs to be handled with caution. Like a brand-new bottle of Bombay Sapphire, it’s not something we should over-indulge in. Learn and move on is perhaps the message. I never went back to uni and got a degree; Proust is on my Kindle but I haven’t read him yet and my passport is out of date and I doubt it’ll be renewed. Too late for regretting any of it, though maybe I can still squeeze Proust in.

I don’t say “I wish I’d done such and such” any more. I try to remember what we did do instead and rejoice in so many brilliant memories. Who wants to be a famous author anyway?  Well possibly J K Rowling, come to think of it.

It’s a ticklish subject, regret; as well as caution, it calls for absolute honesty and that’s hard. Especially for politicians, have you noticed?  Being generally incapable of regret themselves, they find it hard to believe that other people might, just might have it in them.

Regret is most often a sigh, a whisper on the wind. But at its most heartfelt, it does invoke those saddest of words, “if only,” and is just a step from redemption. I try to remember that when I find myself at my most judgemental.

So how then do you feel about those young women in black, camped with their children behind the barbed wire in Syria? Would you allow them to have regrets?

Do you perhaps have any regrets of your own? Or are you one of those people I mentioned earlier who “wouldn’t change a thing.”