Queen Victoria

Oh the double-edged sword of the Guardian news alert. Sometimes helpful, sometimes intriguing [recently a night out dancing was enhanced by “Iain Duncan-Smith resigns” flashing up and generating much speculation], and at times just utterly heart breaking.

The latter mostly includes their death announcements – which is how I’ve heard of the passing of several idols and inspirations in recent years: Mandela, Rickman and today, Victoria Wood. Victoria flipping Wood. The woman who categorically shaped comedy in the household in which I grew up. Red cabbage can’t be mentioned without a cry of “how much?” rising up from at least one person. Soup can’t be served without a shaky “one soup…two soup”. And nothing – I repeat nothing – featuring Wood would ever be skipped should it be on TV.

Twitter is ablaze at the moment, obviously; and I have a lot of thoughts, obviously. So I thought I’d get them all down now, cathartic fashion. But can I do Victoria Wood justice, can I buffalo!

1. I saw Victoria Wood in real life once. (That it was only once is probably surprising as she did live locally). It was the early 90s, and I had been taken shoe shopping in the children’s shoe shop in Muswell Hill. The shop was crowded (it sold Start Rite, Muswell Hill mums love Start Rite) and we were reaching the end of the shoe trying-on ordeal when my mum hissed “Don’t look, but Victoria Wood’s just walked in.” As one, my sister and I looked. Come on! She was our comedy idol! We proceeded to watch her child try on sandals. It was thrilling.

2. In the early 1990s, our church’s annual harvest supper had to be rescheduled because a large group of women had booked tickets to see Wood at the Royal Albert Hall. I think if Wood had known that, it could have sowed the seed for an exceptionally brilliant sketch. (I believe my sister and I were rather peeved that we weren’t allowed to go!)

3. There’s the fact that, despite its possibly questionable content, the tape featuring The Ballad of Barry and Freda was regularly played on long car journeys when I was definitely under 11. I didn’t get it, but I knew it was funny. That cassette later came my way via CD and is still an album that I go back to in iTunes. Saturday Night would be a particular favourite.

4. Even her serious (or more serious stuff) caused comedic moments. Over Christmas 2014, when the TV version of her play The Day We Sang aired, barely a few hours would pass before you heard a parent chirp “Nymphs and shepherds ru-un away, run away, run away…” in varying degrees of tunefulness (directly proportional to the amount of prosecco that had been consumed).

5. She was a funny woman who talked about real life. Actual real life, not aspirational real life. True, as a softy southerner not all of it made sense, but a lot of it did. Like the Sacherelle sketch… [Incidentally, I’m convinced that in this clip, you can spot Victoria Coren with her father at 1:16]

6. Very recently, I had the joy of discovering on YouTube a whole series of Victoria Wood programmes I’d never seen before – We’d Like to Apologise – which was a feast of 90’s nostalgia, classic Wood co-stars, and brilliant comedy. Episode three, ‘Over to Pam’, in which Julie Walters plays daytime TV host Pam and where Victoria plays a version of herself, is sheer genius.

7. Everyone loved her. Including the best celebrities, who seemed to be queuing up around the block to be in one of her sketches. I think I got to the series mentioned above thanks to a bit of Rickman YouTubing. Rickman acting Woods’ scripts. Too, too much.

Or, as one sketch had it, Alan Dickman

8. She has ensured that I never ever take Ann Widdecombe seriously.

9. She brought Julie Walters into my life. In fact, as a child, I was convinced that Walters was an old woman – I was very confused when I saw her on TV as herself. Mrs Overall and the assortment of other elderly ladies Wood wrote for Walters are utterly fabulous, but I do love the occasions when she was allowed to play her own age, or younger. Like the hairdresser no one would ever want near their hair.

10. When she appeared on Comic Relief Bake Off last year, her showstopper was a beret – a nod to her brilliant sketch in which Kimberley is continually sought by her beret wearing chum. “She’s really really tall and really really wide…”  I’ve spent ages hunting for this clip this evening, having discovered a previous sharing of it had been removed by ITV. But thankfully, minutes ago, someone reposted it. It says a huge amount about Wood’s brilliance that her most famous character is someone we never ever see!

Oh goodness. Too, too soon. It says a lot of our love for Victoria Wood that my Dad has emailed from Samoa to check that the women of the family are ok. Like many, we’re mourning all that should have been to come: more plays, more sketches, more catchphrases. But no. At least there’s plenty to re-watch. I’m spending the evening watching her 2010 BAFTA tribute and enjoying the fact that at least it wasn’t an obituary when it was made.

A grief observed

In a week when the world has mourned the loss of two great stars in the form of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about death and how we respond to it. That’s partly thanks to having an evening of curate training at a funeral directors, and a death in the parish, as well as my own response to the celebrity deaths.

Bowie’s death was (obviously) unexpected and a shock, but I’m really the wrong generation for true Bowie affection. However, I was rather surprised by my reaction – a need to listen to his music and hear as much as I could about him – which resulted in listening to BBC 6 Music’s fantastic response en route to work. Bowie was a phenomenal talent and most people expected it to last forever. Like a few other friends, I felt like I needed to learn more about the man, his music and other creative outlets, having previously always known he was there in the background. Now he wasn’t, there was a lifetime of work to catch up on. [Apart from the obvious: Labyrinth and pretty much most of his greatest hits.]

Interestingly, the overwhelming public response to this untimely death resulted in something of a backlash against such shows of grief. Camilla Long [The Times’ journalist that my friend Rich considers to be my doppelgänger] suggested that such displays of grief on social media were insincere and that those involved should “man up”. But why? Don’t we (particularly the British population) already have a reputation of stifling emotions in an unhealthy way?

Bowie grief brixtonThe display of mourning in Brixton. (Credit)

In actual fact, up to a certain point, such displays of grief isn’t just natural, it’s beneficial. On the one hand, it’s completely justifiable to be grief-stricken for someone you never met or knew personally. When someone touches our lives through art, music, acting or writing, we feel a loss when it’s no longer there. In losing a person from this earth, we have genuinely lost something from our lives. Another facet of this grief is almost a kind of practice run for when grief hits us hard in the future. That’s not to say that the grief for a celebrity is a lesser grief, it’s just that it enables people to feel and experience emotions that they may not have felt before, and means that when a family-member or someone similarly close to them dies, they have a reference point for some of what they are feeling. Finally, it can act as a reminder of previous losses, triggering elements of the grieving process again. This is not a bad thing either. No matter how long has passed, moments of grief are still completely natural and even necessary. It’s bottling up those emotions that can lead to trouble…

These were thoughts I was composing in my head en route to a curate study day yesterday. In fact, I even thought that I might get chance to jot them down during the seminar – which I did not, because it turned out to be very interesting and useful! The last 15 minutes of the session were obliterated however, when this flashed up on my phone:

The bad news

My gasp may have been audible. There was eye contact with a fellow curate as I tried to convey the terrible news. Tweets were tweeted, a Facebook post composed, all in a sense of utter disbelief. I had not loved Bowie, but I had loved Rickman. I know exactly when it began – with this Texas video from 2000 – specifically, the moment when Spiteri and Rickman tango across the forecourt of a petrol station. Yes, by this point I would have already seen Sense & Sensibility, but this was what launched Alan Rickman into being one of my all-time favourite leading men. [I went into my favourite Rickman moments in this post from back in 2010 – which in the comments sparked a little debate regarding his allure. The refusenik was wrong!!]

Texas – In Demand. (Once seen it has to be repeated – according to those who saw it for the first time yesterday courtesy of my sharing!)

I don’t need to tell you how amazing Rickman was. I know I’m not alone in having sobbed my way through Truly, Madly, Deeply (I can vividly remember watching it for the first time and my father declaring it a soppy mess). The discerning Harry Potter fan knows that Rickman as Snape brought more to the role that could ever have been imagined – largely thanks to JK Rowling’s insight into who Snape really was. His humour. His presence. His voice. Oh, his voice! As I write, I’m watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and with a mournful sigh, I noted that this voice appears for the first time at exactly 15:06 minutes in. That voice.


Yesterday, I was grieved that I would never see Rickman perform live. I would never hear that sonorous voice in the flesh. I would never get to have a conversation with him. (I know the latter is a far-fetched notion, but I have friends who have!) There are only a few unseen films left to watch before there are no more of them. The thought is a hard one to comprehend.

Chatting with a one-time classmate (and fellow Wittertainee) after our training, I found myself nearly bursting into tears at the emotion of it all – and he felt the same. I walked my favourite walk back from college, through Green Park and sat on a bench and let the tears flow. It wasn’t entirely Rickman grief, I know that, it was a heady combo of emotion; tiredness from a very busy, over-full ‘part-time’ week at work; pent up emotions about other things that needed letting out; and, interestingly, a recurrence of mourning someone else.

alan-rickman-dead-emma-thompsonYesterday, I also made the mistake of reading Emma Thompson’s goodbye to Rickman while I was on the tube. There’s nothing like tube tears for a very public display of emotion!!

That last one was a surprise, despite being well aware of the fact that I have long associated Rickman with my one-time landlady Angela – because we both loved him, but she got to meet him (and get a photo with him) at the Love Actually premiere. Every Christmas, when I do my ritual viewing of a film that I love dearly (although I know that view is controversial), I remember Angela. It’s not surprising his death prompted those thoughts, especially as they both – as did Bowie – died from the same disease.

Today, I tramped across the mud of Hampstead Heath, thoughts still very much on a Rickman-grieving plain, sorting out my head and getting some much needed downtime. [Side-note: I was in the area for physio on my special feet, but generally if I make a pilgrimage up to Hampstead, it’s for thinking purposes.] I pondered this question of grief some more…

We, as a nation and as a society, are generally rubbish at grief. It goes hand-in-hand with being a nation known to withhold emotion and affection. Public displays of grief (as long as they don’t get ridiculously out of hand) are a good thing, a healthy thing in fact. We need to have outlets to express our grief and social media is perfect for this – especially as it can be a place for solidarity, of grieving together. On Wednesday, our morning prayer group shared memories and prayers of thanksgiving for the life of the parishioner who had died. On Thursday (and today) I shared memories of favourite Rickman moments on social media. Both are good, healthy and necessary!

Tea making became truly epic when Rickman got involved…

We don’t like to talk about death. It is feared and not understood. Perhaps if we were as honest in our feelings as people have been this week, society would find itself in a much healthier place in its attitudes towards death, grief and loss.


Last night, via a Guardian news alert on my locked iPhone screen, I heard the news I knew was coming, but rather hoped might never appear. Nelson Mandela had died aged 95. [Actually, there were two Guardian alerts. The first got his age wrong by a year – classic Grauniad.]

I’d looked at my phone just as I entered my building after an evening out. I let out an audible groan and made my way up the 6 flights of stairs with more speed than usual in order to get the TV on and settle down for some rolling news coverage. I’m not going to lie, there were tears in the offing, which might have fallen, had my flatmate not appeared. Mandela has entered the ultimate freedom and the world mourns its loss.

Later this afternoon, I’ll take a walk to South Africa House to view the tributes. As I stand there, I’ll remember Theo – a South African woman at our church in the 90’s, who voted for the first time in that building in 1994. Previously, she’d watched as her passport was destroyed in front of her in the very same building, at the height of apartheid. I might go as far as Parliament Square to look at the statue of Mandela that stands at the corner nearest Westminster Abbey.

Mandela, Parliament Square

I could write a whole post about what Mandela meant to me, my family, our friends, the world, but I won’t. In fact, I wrote a post about my regret at never seeing him in the flesh over four years ago, so in a rare move, I’ll repeat it here. It deserves it.


Reading an excellent article in the Guardian today, a sobering thought struck me:

It is pretty inevitable that I will now never get to see Nelson Mandela in the flesh.

The article outlined how South Africa have recently done a poll similar to the BBC’s ‘Great Britons’ poll of a few years back. Thing is, with the top 10 announced, the winner is so clear that there will simply be a contest as to what order the other 9 will be in. As the article states: “Mandela is that rare thing: a man turned into statues in his own lifetime”.

Mandela is most definitely the living person I most admire. I can’t actually remember a time when his name was not in my brain. I grew up against a backdrop of parents passionately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle (even if the first I understood of this was why we didn’t buy Shell petrol or Cape apples). Watching Cry Freedom, probably aged no more than 10 (I blame the babysitters) had a profound affect on me. Aged 9, with a bad dose of the flu, I lay on a chaise lounge at a friend’s house, watching Mandela being driven into freedom.

He’s my mother’s ‘memorable figure in history’ for her bank security questions. (She should worry about how much info I have on her banking – pin number, special date, maiden name…) The sharing of this fact at a social function resulted in an awkward conversation. Someone present insisted that Mandela was a no good terrorist – I believe the phrase “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” was used. It went down like a lead balloon.

The thing that bugs me is that I’ve had missed opportunities to see this man in person. Whilst at university, he gave a lecture at my campus – but in the holidays when no students were around (or even informed). When he launched the Make Poverty History campaign from Trafalgar Square I was stuck at my desk in the first week of a brand new job. My last opportunity – his birthday concert this time last year – was a missed one.

In four days time he will turn 91. His health is failing and he rarely travels, let alone leaves South Africa.

There are plenty of people I’d like to meet one day, from George Clooney (on a shallow level) to Judi Dench or even Obama (I have met Clinton – of the Bill variety – that was exciting), but Mandelas come along once in a blue moon. In fact, less than that. His life brought hope to so many and changed a country some though unchangeable (no matter what has happened since).

I just hope that when the sad day comes and he is no longer with us, he doesn’t do a Mother Theresa and become overshadowed by the death of someone much less worthy.


I am thankful that that last line wasn’t a piece of terrible foreboding. In April, I genuinely feared that Mandela’s death might be overshadowed by Thatcher’s. I was perpetually concerned that a royal death might do it. But now that it has happened, there is suitable space for mourning, reflection and memories. I’m hoping that this will be an excellent opportunity for the generation born since his release from prison to understand more of just how important he was. How many in the 1980’s believed apartheid might never end, yet by 1994 a former prisoner was president.

Last night, someone observed that December 5th in the Church of England calendar has no saints day and perhaps Mandela would be a suitable addition. I’d be on board with that.

May the memory of Mandela never be allowed to die.

When music dies

I’m not really one to blog about ‘celeb’ news and events, but something’s been bothering me for the last 48 hours and I wanted to get it off my chest.

This past weekend has been surreal and atrocious in terms of world events. I came home on Friday after a lovely evening to discover that the shocking massacre in Norway had taken place while I was happily buying new clothes. On Saturday morning the first thing I did was watch the rolling news coverage in which the full scale of the horror was revealed. Running beneath all of this (as it sadly has for most of the last week because of ‘bigger’ news stories) was the famine in Somalia.

Then, on Saturday evening, came the news that Amy Winehouse had died. Now, I am not for any moment suggesting that this is a news story on a par with Norway or famine – it categorically is not. However, it was news that moved me and I became angry when, on my way home that night, I read a tweet (which, typically, I now can’t find) that said something along the lines of “why do people claim to be so affected when a celeb dies – it’s just a celeb, they haven’t actually made a difference in the world”. [That’s my memory of it – I know the ‘just a celeb’ bit was there.]

Of course it’s never right for the death of a celebrity to overshadow serious news events – like the Norwegian massacre, or catastrophic famine – but it is ok for people to grieve the loss of someone who affected their lives, whether directly or indirectly. The reason that tweet particularly bothered me was that Winehouse wasn’t simply a ‘celeb’, she was a musician and a very, very talented one at that. People are affected by music and when the people who create that music die, there is a sense of loss. What they’ve produced doesn’t disappear, but there’s the loss of what might have been.

As Alex Petridis pointed out in the obituary in yesterday’s Observer, Amy Winehouse’s back-catalogue can be listened to in under two hours. There are just two albums and a few B sides and cover versions. It’s nothing like the legacy that Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday left behind. Yes, it’s more than likely that the third album she was working on will appear in some form, but it won’t be perfect and there will nothing more. Her death affects people because it’s a classic example of a life cut short well before its prime and a talent destroyed by addiction – Russell Brand sums it up fantastically in this article.

Her death is shocking, but not surprising. I remember during the time that Back to Black was continually on my iPod, commenting to a friend that I feared she would be another Janis Joplin. As I’ve listened/watched back on some earlier performances, it’s clear just what a waste it is…

Love is Losing Game is one of my favourites & this performance from the 2007 Mercury Music Awards is spellbinding. Just a voice and a guitar – simplicity:

Alongside her own material, there are the cover versions. Valerie may be fabulous and the most well known, but my personal favourite is Cupid – a Radio 1 Live Lounge cover. A component of a legendary Glastonbury set, this is a great rendition:

And finally, a triumph of stripped-back soul, an audio only version of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow:

No matter what may come out in terms of post-mortems and a life lived in the tabloids, remember the music.

If only I’d kept in touch…

I think most of my friends would say that I’m fairly good at keeping in touch with people. Yes, facebook helps a lot and so does this blog, but I think it’s a pretty good achievement that despite leaving my London secondary school at 13, I kept up contact with my 3 closest friends all through ‘life before facebook’. One of those friends I might see only once a year (though we’re working on making this more frequent) but when we meet it’s just the same as ever.

This is why I’m feeling particularly wretched right now.
I lost touch with someone and now I can’t get back in touch with them.

I didn’t even lose touch properly. I always had their phone number and e-mail address. Only a month ago, at Christmas, my mum and I were talking about them and I resolved to get in touch.

Angela was my landlady for a year whilst I did my masters, I was a lodger in her gorgeous house just five doors down from my childhood home and we got on famously. We shared a mutual love of G&T’s, Alan Rickman and chick-flicks, despite a 35 year age gap. Even after I moved out, her home was a refuge from the mania of Chester House. I was always greeted at the door with a hug and a G&T. Perfect.

But moving south of the river a few years ago meant that we weren’t across the road from each other anymore. It wasn’t so easy to meet up for supper. She wasn’t on facebook. It was easy to have the intention of getting in contact, but never quite managing to.

Yesterday I had a message from her son to let me know that after a year of battling lung cancer, Angela had died earlier in the week. I hadn’t even known she was ill.

Maybe it’s better that I remember her well and full of life. But I’m going to let this be a lesson to me not to take the entries in my phone book for granted and to not ignore those in my life who aren’t on facebook.

As I sit at her funeral on Thursday I’ll concentrate on my favourite memories. Like when she met Alan Rickman at the Love, Actually premiere and kept the photo on her phone for months afterwards. Or her determination to own white sofas and a new Mini, despite their impractacilities for life with grandchildren. And most of all, the fact that she was one of the few people in this world who insisted on calling me Elizabeth instead of Liz.