Thursday, 26 February 2015


'The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say …'

Remember it? From M*A*S*H, Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman's classic. An ear worm if ever there was. Palinacousis, to give it its proper name, or auditary perseveration: when we continue to hear sounds or music long after the echoes have faded away.

I don't know why this 'Suicide Is Painless' number haunts me. I didn't follow the long-running television series, nor did I ever see the movie. Making light of suicide, the suggestion that it won't hurt a soul when in fact it destroys so many, seemed to me a perplexing thing. As a teenager, I fled from notions that worried me. As a woman, I tend to seek them out. What does that tell you? 

Whenever I find I don't know enough about something, I turn to music. So I was contemplating suicide. Not as a lifestyle choic. We'll get to why in a moment. I realised that I knew far more songs about it than I knew that I knew. Not counting Elton's 'Think I'm Going To Kill Myself', from the 1972 album 'Honky Chateau', a long-time favourite. I know Bernie's lyrics by heart, and have often sung them blithely, never pausing to ponder what made him write such a song. It has been described as a 'send-up' of teenage angst, the moody young'un threatening to extinguish his own life because he's not allowed to take the car out late. 'I'd like to see what the papers, say/on the state of teenage blues.' Would you? You're so sure that wherever is 'there', you will still be aware?

So I thought of these.

Can't Stand Losing You - Police
Damn it Rose - Don Henley
Don't Try Suicide - Queen
Home Sweet Home - Peter Gabriel
Otherside - Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Paper Wings, and Suicide? - Barclay James Harvest
Seems So Long Ago, Nancy - Leonard Cohen
Staircase at the University - Morrissey
Suicide Solution - Ozzy Osbourne
The Final Cut - Pink Floyd
Wings of Angels - Judy Collins
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die - David Bowie
You're Only Human (Second Wind) - Billy Joel

What is it with the creative mind that it gives in to so much melancholy? We've all been down. We've all been out. I didn't think I knew anybody who had taken their own life, but I sat around and thought about it. I remembered my cousin's husband, who hanged himself. She found him dangling in the garage when she came home from work. I recalled the name of a colleague at a record company I once worked for, who razored his wrists in the bath. A girl in the other class at school, who swallowed an overdose. I asked around. Almost everyone I spoke to had known someone, or someone's someone. As with cancer, few lives go untouched.

I heard from a client this week who is fundraising in the name of two friends loved and lost. He doesn't get it, he says. They had so much to live for. .

You hear it all the time: 'Don't they think of the pain they will cause, the guilt people will feel, the anger, the regret?' I bet they do. Some leave notes, explaining why, but it's never enough to accept. It's unimaginable. Your child, your parent, your partner, your friend. How would you feel? How would they feel? Couldn't, could you. Never an option. Survivors of suicide attempts sometimes say that it wasn't that they wanted so badly to die, it was that they didn't want to carry on living.

The experts identify six main reasons.

Depression, during which normal thought processes become distorted. They are so depressed that they refuse to believe they really are.

Psychosis, the confounding one: such people are often high-flyers, great achievers, whose lives have never lived up to the hype or the dreams. They are often on medication, managing their fragility, well aware of the dangers. They feel the fear. They do it anyway. Schizophrenics speak of the voices within, voices that haunt them, taunt them, daring them to do it.

Impulsives are often substance-abusers, booze and drugs almost always involved. They get drunk, they get high, what the hell, let's go for it.

Those who 'cry for help' tend not to want to die. They just can't think of any other way to let people know that they feel so desperate.

Then there are the philosophers, who wish to die for a good reason. A terminal illness will do it. Taking control of one's destiny in such circumstances is paramount to some. The decision to commit suicide is regarded as preferable to waiting on premature death that is going to happen anyway.

That leaves the mistakes. Kids who take legal highs, deprive themselves of oxygen for kicks, lose themselves in the moment and go too far.

Some left behind by suicide never recover. They can't let go of the negative emotions. They can't find closure. But most of us keep going. What choice? That's what Fabrice Klein is doing. Fabrice lost his  uncle to suicide. He himself has OCD. Both his mother and sister have mental health issues. He has decided to get out there and do something.

Fabrice is running the Marathon des Sables, the so-called Toughest Race On Earth: both in memory of his uncle and to raise funds for MIND. He will run for six days, around a hundred and sixty miles in blood-boiling heat, wearing a massive backpack, across the Sahara.

Support him here.

Monday, 23 February 2015


Dan Topolski has died. It was a odd way to hear about it, in a text from my ex-husband. Oddly right, if strange. 

The last time I saw Dan, we were still married. We'd all gone together to Warsaw: Dan and his wife Suzy (once famous as an actress on 'Howards' Way'), Dan's sister Teresa, and us. We had been invited to the official unveiling of some paintings by Dan's father, the Polish expressionist Feliks Topolski, creator of the 'Topolski Century' visual memoir under the arches at Waterloo. Those paintings had lain forgotten in a vault under a palace since the end of World War II.Though it was an important occasion, I remember little of it.The hilarious image that lingers is one of my former spouse and Teresa Topolski doing a bizarre sort of Morris dance in the middle of a cobbled street, with sticks. My beloved had skidded in an outsized deposit of dog do, and Teresa was doing her darnedest to get it off. I laughed so hard that I couldn't eat dinner. For the marriage, then, the painting was on the wall.

Dan's name may not mean much to those indifferent to rowing or born too late.The boy who learned to row on the lake in Regent's Park grew up to be a fearless oarsman, to coach our women's team for the Moscow Olympics, and to become the inspiration behind Oxford's legendary ten-win run - the longest in their history.The late Eighties saw the scandal which led to Dan's bestseller 'True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny', later a feature film of which he was so proud. 

We became friends when I joined the Mail on Sunday's YOU magazine. A shared obsession with the Dark Continent had brought him to the attention of editor Nick Gordon. Intrepid expeditions ensued. Dan also worked for the BBC, becoming a commentator in 1990, and wrote for the Observer for twenty years. He was multi-award-winning, a professional party animal, an incorrigible flirt. He could kill with his smile. he could insult you and make it sound like a compliment. He will always be missed.

Friday, 13 February 2015


Once more unto the commercial rip-off masquerading as Valentine's Day. It gets short shrift around these parts. Extortionate tea roses or a dozen half-dead reds for a fiver at Tesco, take your pick. Double-priced, over-booked, poorly-cooked meals in restaurants, look at me, I love her, I brought her here. No thanks. Will I be marking the occasion by going to see 'Fifty Shades of Grey?' Don't insult me.

A friend and I were discussing this over a long-overdue lunch yesterday. How on earth did author E.L. James get to throw her weight around on set, we wondered. Writers are never afforded this privilege. We sell the rights to something we've written, they pay up, then tell us they're going to change the ending because the one we've imagined and grafted over doesn't work for them, and we go 'Yes please! Do whatever you want! I couldn't have ruined it better myself!' As it turns out, it's because E.L. James is the co-producer. She owns the set. She can do whatever she wants. Push Sam Taylor-Johnson around why don't you. Tell that scrawny bitch what to do, go on, wipe the floor with her. She's begging you to.

I watched E.L.J. on the news today, being interviewed on the grey carpet at the London premiere. She is mumsy. Chunky. A bit common. Significant boobage. Nay, saggage. I can't say that, can I. I just did. Let me rephrase. She fails, at least on an aesthetic level, to represent whatever contingent gets off with a squid, or has been known to handcuff one to the bed for a laugh. So all the pennies dropped. I thought, that's why.

I was reminded, as one is, of Adam Faith. Of a remark that Lionel Bart made, a few years back. 'Adam's thing was - the terrific thing - was that he couldn't really sing! The whole appeal of his throwaway delivery was that people listened to it. Kids listened to it, and said, 'Well, I can sing as well as that!' It was the secret, in a nutshell, of how to make pop music popular.'
Exactly. If Adam could do it, anyone could. It gives hope to the rest of us. 

Echoes of Susan Boyle. As legendary pop manager Simon Napier-Bell said, in response to my question 'Why?', 'Everyone has a misfit maiden aunt.' In other words, a gauche, inappropriately-dressed, hopelessly-coiffed oddball of a family member, the One Least Likely To, who didn't so much lose their way in life as never had a way to lose in the first place. If Susan Boyle can do it, there is hope for all. Factor in Cowell, his all-pervading TV clout, social media - it was Demi Moore tweeting about the Hairy Angel that got them all going in the first place - and you have a gazillion youtube hits and an instant global phenomenon. It barely mattered, what she sounded like - which wasn't bad. Just not 'great'. She has banked more millions than she will ever spend.

Meanwhile, back at the exquisitely-timed cinematic release of the century. Did you read the books? I didn't. I read a chapter. I'm not into porn. Not mad about anything that promotes sexual dominance or domestic violence, or makes deviant stuff like that seem normal. Not that E.L. James could care less. Not on your Nellies. Whatever the masses think, whether you Valentines like her movie or not, she has won the literary lottery. Whatever the critics write - and they haven't liked - she's quids-in. Or even squids-in. Mrs Ordinary has won. 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015


'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' was a disturbing book. A Groundhog Day tale. The kind you feel compelled to reread, knowing the terrible outcome, knowing that you don't want to, knowing that you can't not. I consumed it and cried at its hopeless consequences, at the plight of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose memoir it is. Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle. One minute the stylish life of Riley, le tout Paris his demi-monde. The next, oblivion. After a massive stroke during the Nineties left him with locked-in syndrome, he fell into a coma and eventually came round, fully aware but almost incapable of moving. A tiny twitch of the head here, a semi-blink of an eye there. Too little, too late. It's a long short story, but basically the guy blinked his entire memoir. For four hours a day, ten months in the making, a compassionate transcriber with the patience of a saint recorded his 200,000 blinks, every word he 'wrote' taking at least two minutes. The book was an instant best-seller, a worldwide phenomenon. Two days after it was published, Bauby was dead.

Unimaginable, the frustration of being trapped inside oneself, knowing too well what's going on out there. Incapable of taking part. Struggling to communicate against all odds. Like being buried alive. I picture an old Hammer Horror, the grated fingers of a living corpse clawing in vain at the nails beneath the coffin lid, fighting the death that will prove his salvation. Why couldn't Bauby's life have had a happy ending? Because locked-in syndrome rarely does.

But sometimes it does. Take Martin Pistorius. In many ways his story, as he recounts it in his memoir 'Ghost Boy', is so much worse, so much sadder, than what Jean-Dominique Bauby endured. South African-born Martin was twelve years old when his body caved in to a mystery illness. The energy drained out of him, as did the will to live. Within eighteen months he had shut down completely. Reduced to little more than a vegetable in a wheelchair, he was discarded to the care of specialist centres for acutely disabled children. By the time he was sixteen, and had begun to regain consciousness - unbeknown to anyone else - his own mother was willing him to die. She told him so to his face, unaware that he was aware of her every word. She later attempted suicide. She survived.

Martin suffered shocking abuse at the hands of people who thought he'd never tell. But he has told – in this gasp-inducing, heart-breaking, uplifting memoir that everyone must read.

Not until he was twenty-three did he meet anyone who could make a difference. One humble therapist perceived his awareness, nurtured it, and helped Martin's parents to help him recover.

It's too long to tell here. Buy it. Be glad that he got his life back, took control, fell in love with an angel called Joanna, married her, and moved to England. That he was able to teach himself web design, and that he can earn a living. Still in a wheelchair - he got married in one - but … read it.

Read it, drowning in guilt that you are having a bad day. You got a flat tyre, lost your wallet, dropped your phone, left your keys at home, didn't like what you ordered, missed your train. You've suffered a thousand trivial inconveniences this year so far, and Jesus, it's only February. Read this and sob. Hope it never happens to you.

This book is already a New York Times bestseller. Yay Martin. Will they make a film of 'Ghost Boy'? Bound to. Although I kind of hope that they don't. Hollywood defecates from dizzying heights on true stories. It'll change the ending of the Bible if it suits. It made a pig's ear of Bauby's 'Diving Bell ..', despite which it still managed to win a BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, in addition to attracting a few Oscar nods. The producers' chief crime was compassion reassignment. You don't get away with that. If the movies come looking for Martin Pistorius, please God they get his happy-ever-after point.  

Saturday, 7 February 2015


I made it under the wire to 'Made in Dagenham' last night - poor ticket sales have led inevitably to its closure at the end of March. Today's musical theatre backers are risk-averse. Who can blame them? 

I was a fan of the 2010 film, having interviewed its star Sally Hawkins and producer Stephen Woolley at the Cannes Film Festival the year before, when the flick was still called 'We Want Sex'. It was an ingenious title, relating to the banners made out of bedsheets that the Ford Dagenham women machinists carried when they marched in the name of equal pay in 1968, and which led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. What the frontline banner actually said was 'We Want Sexual Equality'. But when the photographs appeared in the papers, the right-hand half of the banner was chopped off. 'Made in Dagenham' is a cop-out by comparison.
Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Miranda Richardson as Employment Secretary Barbara Castle made the movie. The stage adaptation features Bond babe Gemma Arterton in the lead. She's pretty, busty, leggy and cute. She's a good singer. She reminds me of real-life Dagenham doll Sandie Shaw. But there's little meat with the veg, and negligible gravy. 

With music by David Arnold, Richard Bean's libretto and Richard Thomas's lyrics, I had anticipated more. But the piece is thin on emotion. Its light and shade is a blur. The jokes are playground, the songs are unmemorable, the lyrics Am-Dram. It is too crude for comfort, more fart than art. In all, the show lacks voice. Mark Hadfield's Prime Minister Harold Wilson is a bumbling fool, played for cheap laughs. Sophie-Louise Dann's Barbara Castle is magnificent by comparison. A real ballbreaker. And where does she keep her balls? Under a bushel, of course. 

The industrial-action theme was explored to greater effect and with infinitely more dignity in 'Billy Elliot', which deployed the 1984 miners' strike as its backdrop. Because they didn't ram it down our throats, we got the point. 'Made in Dagenham' the musical manages to trivialise the mission, and perversely seems quite sexist as a result.

Had I been in charge, I'd have gone the jukebox-musical route. 'It's a Man's Man's Man's World', James Brown; 'Wooly Bully', Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs; 'Days', the Kinks; 'Can I Get a Witness', Dusty; Desmond Dekker's 'Israelites'. There is much from the era to choose from, and at least the audience would have gone home humming. 

The film's title track, incidentally, featured lyrics by Billy Bragg, and was performed by Sandie Shaw. They'll know next time.