Remembering Thatcher

Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher

Whatever your regard for Margaret Thatcher, it’s worth seeing the recently released film,The Iron Lady. Firstly Meryl Streep’s characterisation is superb. A bit like watching Helen Mirren as The Queen, you do feel that you are watching the real thing. The hallmark of a great actor. So different from the eponymous heroines she played in The French Lieutenants Woman, Sophie’s Choice and Mamma Mia, you know she won’t disappoint. This is acting, not impersonation, Streep deserves the Oscar she will no doubt be nominated for. Jim Broadbent is also good as Denis. He almost makes him endearing, no mean feat when you remember how ‘Prince Philip like’ he was as her consort.

Secondly it’s a good portrait of the loneliness of the old and bereaved. The opening scene when Thatcher goes to a local shop to buy milk was filmed early in the morning. Streep commented in an article I read that she was virtually ignored, like the elderly and unrecognised Thatcher she was playing. She appears bereft without Denis and the film focuses as much on his absence as his presence, as in her demented state she imagines she sees him and talks to him constantly. Usually chiding him for playing the fool. At least he brought some humour into what appears to be an ultra serious life.

Politics is central to the film but secondary to the life and times of Thatcher. It’s a good representation of this period of social history and it would be good for those who didn’t live through it to see it. It provides a context for and understanding of some of the problems we are experiencing today. It helps those of us who lived through it recall some of the horrors of her time as premier. I try not to dwell on comparisons with the current coalition government and where they might be taking us, too frightful to contemplate. You can also see the bellicosity of Blair mirrored in Thatcher’s decision to go to war over the Falklands. The male politicians around her come across as the weak puppets they were portrayed in Spitting Image. It’s interesting to spot who they are. Michael Heseltine, Airey Neave, Geoffrey Howe and Cecil Parkinson are obvious. Not sure about the rest. Thatcher seemed to have held them in contempt. No one quite measured up to her father, it seems. (Spot the actor from Downton, equally good here).

The film starts with Thatcher’s humble beginnings as the grocer’s daughter who worked hard to get to Oxford. Agreeing to marry Denis she made him promise that he would never expect her to ‘wash cups in the sink’. (Note the last scene). There are elements of her character you could admire: her charisma, single-mindedness and resilience, well displayed in the film during the aftermath of the Brighton bomb. Then you remember the deaths of hunger strikers, the miners’ strikes, the ‘selling off of the country’s silver’ and the rest. The events mirror some of my own life. Stewart was part of the police contingent during the miners’ strike, absent for many weeks. I was in hospital when the bomb went off and clearly remembering a doctor blaspheming by my bed as he described what he would do to the bombers if he caught them.

It’s easy to see how the film has divided opinion on Thatcher and her legacy. It’s not the hagiography that Tory aficionados would want. But its not unsympathetic either, particularly as the focus of the film is on her vulnerability and decline. Speaking to Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour yesterday Meryl Streep told how surprised she was to discover how much hated and loved Thatcher is across the population, almost in equal measure. Recent discussions on whether she will get a state funeral have ignited this debate. Thatcher was the first woman to become prime minister. She used the language of the home which women and men understood. But she wasn’t a feminist, did nothing for women and was never a feminist icon. Rather she was one of those women who climb up the ladder and then pull it up behind them. A missed opportunity in my reckoning. But a good film to remind us of all this.

Old men with hats…

Old men with hats are terrible drivers. I don’t know whether this is because it tends to be older guys who like head gear or whether the hat fuddles their brains and thus their motor skills. But it’s certainly a warning to other drivers, including myself, not to get too close to them, particularly on motorways. That’s where you tend to see ’em, trundling along in the middle lane, oblivious to everybody and everything. We’ve observed them eating sandwiches as they drive. Even more dangerous. Why don’t they wait til they get to a picnic stop, take out their tartan rugs and flasks and leave the roads safer for the rest of us.

I saw one man with a hat in the marketplace this morning. He was trying to unlock his car, using numerous keys and circling the car a number of times. We were waiting for his place and curious as to what he was up to. Then he went to the adjacent car – same colour – and his key worked. He’d been at the wrong car! We kept out of his way as he manoeuvred his way out of the space, almost pranging the car he’d just tried to break into it. The owner didn’t realise what an escape he or she had just had.

My husband was a safe driver until he bought a hat. He drove so slowly that the girls reckoned you could count leaves on trees. His idea of reckless driving is going through lights on amber. He regards me as a bad driver and when I took over the driving recently, because of his hand operation, we rowed all the time. Now he should eat his words as he’s got to go on what is amusingly called ‘a speed awareness course’ because he’s been caught doing 38 mph in a 30 mile zone. Now he won’t go faster than 20 miles an hour for fear of losing points!

The stranger the hat, the worse the driving by the way. Watch out for them and report back here!


Getting inspired

The artist Ronald Searle, who died December 2011 aged 91

Listening to the tributes paid to the cartoonist Ronald Searle last night made me reflect on what it takes to be inspired. He was said to draw whilst sipping a glass of champagne. In the news report shown he described how the bubbles floating up his nose gave him ideas. An unusual concept but for him it worked. Perhaps it was such an antidote to the long years he spent as a prisoner of war in Japan.

Yesterday’s Guardian G2 section was devoted to ‘how to be inspired’. Get hold of it online, it contains a host of ideas from people from every branch of the arts. Here is a selection of their tips with my own comments.

  1. Go for a walk. The combination of fresh air, nature and exercise seems to clear the brain and create a space for ideas. I find that the enforced silence is also conducive to new thoughts.
  2. Spend time in your own head. Does everyone do this? Mine comes from being bored more or less the whole time in school and escaping in this way. Daydreaming is useful. Train journeys are good for that.
  3. Just start scribbling or drawing or whatever it is that you do. Fear of failure can be stifling. Remember that ‘success is only 10 % inspiration and 90% perspiration’. Inspiration is hard graft rather than a flash of lightening.
  4. Learn to trust your own instinct and rely less on the praise or criticism of others. This is more difficult if your prime motivation is to be liked. And silence the small still voice that tells you you’re rubbish.
  5. Take a break and come back to your work. You really can see it with fresh sight.
  6. Try to ignore noise and distractions around you. This may be tricky. One of my brothers, educated in a boarding school, can only write in silence. I had to contend with the TV, a younger sibling playing, family chatter and clatter. I can shut out extraneous noise. In a strange way I think it feeds my creativity.
  7. Absorb yourself in the arts – music, ballet, theatre, galleries, literature, film, travel. They can all feed the soul and the skill. Writer and philosopher, Edward de Bono, talks about the best ideas coming from unusual sources and successful people often juxtaposing two very different ideas. As a trainer designer I have often reshaped ideas from other forms. For instance a game show has become a technical test, a greeting card a cover design.
  8. Be collaborative and talk to others, not in your field. Sounds obvious but still important. For instance, whatever you are doing, talk to people who know about new technologies. They often have an interesting take on what you are trying to do.
  9. Surround yourself with young people. In my opinion they are less censorious. They also dont mind if you seem a bit vague or crazy. You may help them too!
  10. I’ll give the last line to Martin Parr, photographer. ‘The knack is to find your own inspiration, and take it on a journey to create work that is personal and revealing’.

If you are reading this please add your own tip!

In 1967 Ronald Searle created a cover from the very problem of 'artists' block'

Birthdays and friends

Birthday cards tell you so much about yourself. Pictures pick up on your interests (Andre!), your favourite colours (pink & purple), your age (insults), your sense of humour (nuns drinking wine), your bad habits (more wine drinking).

Home-made card from Alex and Dave

Then there are the sentiments about how much you mean to family and friends. I had a few this year addressed to ‘friend’. Cards make me reflect on friends I’ve lost contact with and new friends I’ve made. Friends are really important to me and I love the fact that when I look at my cards all stages and parts of my life are visible: from primary school through secondary school, university, teaching and later professional life.

I collect best friends and I’ve made a few in the last year. Lovely Sue who looked after me when I went to Hong Kong, took me to lunch and shopping and gave me carefully chosen gifts that reflected my interests. Then there is Rachel who started off as a client. We connected when we first met and spent more time talking about ourselves and what we had in common than the proposed work. A bond developed when we worked together over a few weeks. We rarely meet and connect by email. She tells me hilarious stories about the people she meets on trains and on platforms. Unlike me she talks to fellow passengers. I can understand as she has a lovely smiley face and warm accent. Naomi is also a client, the same age as my daughter Emma. Ostensibly we have little in common. For a start she’s fit and I’m not. But we get on and email helps the friendship flourish. Then there’s Lis, Ann’s friend. We share a love of books and reading and met for the first time in Hay. You’re never short of something to talk about if you read. There’s six weeks left of this year so time to make another new best friend.

Home-made birthday cards are always wonderful. One of the advantages of having creative family and friends (thanks Fran, Alex & Dave, Emma and Johnathan).

Family pick up on the funny side of your habits and personality. The one below replicates the cover of our local paper and makes fun of my current obsession with knitting – well there’s little time left before Christmas. Wish everything was as quick and simple as these scarves, knitted on Saturday for the little boys. And don’t they love em!

The birthday card/poster created by Johnathan and Emma

Birthday celebrations were over-shadowed a little by Ginny dog’s impending demise. 12 noon on Tuesday to be exact. Ginny’s been with the family since she was a puppy. Initially I had to be convinced by daughters and husband. Never having had pets as a child I didn’t see the point and didn’t want the work. Well I did once have a goldfish but my authoritarian father decided ‘pets no more’ when it jumped in Mum’s bowl as she was baking. As a parent of children who pleaded for a doggy companion I was persuaded by ‘a charter’ the girls drew up with a list of promises they made re their own responsibilities. So I relented and gradually got used to having an animal friend. In recent years Ginny has encouraged me to exercise, needing regular walks. Even my Dad found her presence comforting. In his last years when he came for Sunday lunch he would stroke her. I used to think there was an empathy with their situations that each understood.

But now she is old and immobile, sleeps all the time and only moves if she wants to be stroked. She has many of the other bad habits associated with old age. The girls – who only see her on visits home – were horrified when a visit to the vet’s was mooted. But she went – this morning – and the vet concurred with our judgment. So it’s tomorrow, at home. And Susie will document the whole process with photographs. The final moments of a good friend.

Customer service stories (1)

The lovely 'Toppings' bookshop in Ely

Customer service – or the lack of it in the UK – is a particular bugbear of mine. So many people who ‘serve’ seem to regard it as a form of subservience, rather than an opportunity to help people.  Whenever I’m asked to design or deliver customer service training I never had to search hard for examples.  Inevitably, in the few days leading up to the training I am on the receiving end of good and poor examples that I use to illustrate my points.

Take the bar of a well-known Spanish tapas chain on Regent Street.  On requesting a second glass of wine I was told ‘It’s not my job, I just take you to a table’. No referral to a colleague, just a turned back.  Second example same place.  After two more requests to the waiter we decided to pay the bill and leave.  A manager look-a-like approached us. ‘How was it for you, ladies?’ (Ugh!). So I told him politely. His reaction: ‘Was everything else ok?’. No apology or redress.  Why ask in the first place? It just compounded the contempt with which we were treated.

Now for a London hotel.  Struggling in with my bags, post training, porter sees me but ignores me (see – older women are invisible). Straight faces at reception. I enquire about wifi. ‘It’s the global system’, I’m advised.  What does that mean? It wouldn’t work in my room, anyway, so I didn’t use it.  The bedside lamp needed a new bulb, the shower spluttered and to cap it all… When I went to dine, alone, in the restaurant, they seated me at a table for 8, in the centre of the room.  When I commented they said that smaller ones were reserved.  I don’t mind dining alone but felt exposed to the room. Not like Mumbai where they put a goldfish in a bowl on the table ‘to keep you company whilst you dine with us’. Unusual tactic but at least they cared! What kind of reaction will Olympic-bound tourists form of we Brits next year, I wonder?

Then there’s the Orange shops. I still haven’t bought an Iphone because of the service. So badly treated I walked out of two of their shops.  Not like the Apple ‘geniuses’ who are brilliant.  Totally take on board the Steve Jobs messages.  (See on YouTube his brilliant address to Stamford University grads in 2005.)

Now for a couple of great examples.  Toppings bookshop in Ely.  I went in because they were advertising ‘Nigella booksigning’ in the window.  Sold out – mmh, could have been a disappointing experience.  But no I got attentive service, free coffee, comfy seating, a signed first edition of the Nigella book, two further signed books for friends with birthdays, all books covered in protective cellophane. In all I bought six books, at full price, something I never do (with Amazon).  Later I discovered that the shop is owned by a former manager of Waterstones, Manchester, who was fired for giving customer good service. What this meant was that he refused to remove books he felt customers would like, in favour of the rubbish celebrity books he was asked to provide. See their website, they do interesting stuff. (And Ely is a great place for a weekend break).

Last week, a busy London restaurant, Da Polpo in Covent Garden. Really interesting place. The interior is built largely from reclaimed materials including a salvaged tin ceiling from New York, church pews, chemistry lab benches and Dutch school chairs. Crammed and crowded.  No reservation, no table available., no problem. ‘Stay and have a drink with us…’. Charming waiter with a sense of humour. Treated like real people. Knew all about the dishes on the menu (Venetian ‘tapas’, try them!) How many should we order? ‘No need to over-order… try a few and then more if you wish’.  None of this a big deal – but exceptional enough to remember and comment. Oh by the way, it’s a family business.

I am with Mary Portas on a crusade to improve customer service. When I train, I define it as ‘being a decent human being’. Although to be fair it’s more of a recruitment issue and not always easy to teach. I have a personal mission to ‘spot someone doing something well’ and tell them.

How to take great photos – courtesy of Sooz

My photos, like many people’s these days, say more about the camera than the photographer.  I use a Canon Ixus.  It’s red and small. Irrelevant to you maybe. Long gone are the days of chopping off people’s heads and mug shots/line-ups at weddings (like mine!).  My first camera was a Brownie and I loved it.  Took photos at school and have some great ones taken of our English teacher Mr Robinson who we used to stalk, he being one of the few male teachers. They are not great quality: he’s walking to the classroom with his bag under his arm.  But the memory makes me smile.  I also have nuns with shamrock around their veils – St Patrick’s Day netball matches.

Then I graduated to a better Kodak and used to make sure that I was the one that collected them at this pre-digital time.  I tore up the ones I hated and put them in the nearest bin before anyone saw them.  With digital’s delete button you don’t need to do that.  You can take 100s of photos to get 10 good ones.  Anyway Susie, Photography student has some tips below:

  1. Try photographing your subject from different heights/angles (I don’t mean turn your camera on an angle – too cheesy!!) Most people take photographs from eye level, your photo can often be made better if you take it from a lower/higher level.
  2. Try and use black and white sparingly and at the right times. A lot of people think turning any old photo into b&w makes it a better image. A photograph is often ruined by taking the colour out. Use black and white for photographs with mood or where the colours are often dull and unnecessary.
  3. If you have a small compact camera try keeping it in your bag/ pocket wherever you go. Some of the best subjects are the ones you stumble across or pass in the street.
  4. When you’re photographing people, natural is always better. I know it’s obvious but it’s true. When shooting someone (with a camera) take a few photos as you talk to them and get into position. Then take one of their usual forced smile, but try taking a couple when they think you’ve finished. This won’t work at night as they’ll notice the flash!
  5. Most compact cameras/phones have the ability to see what you’re photographing without looking into the viewfinder. If yours is like this then try holding your camera away from your face and engaging with your subject whilst taking the photograph, they won’t feel as much pressure to perform then!
  6. The flash on compact cameras is never great. It bleaches your skin, highlights all your details and gives dark shadows when used at night. Try to do as much as you can before giving in and using it (sometimes it can’t be helped) – turn more lights on, ask your subject to move nearer the light etc. However sometimes it’s good to use flash in the day, natural light can give harsh shadows too, using flash can often lift them.
  7. Get close! Most of the time the closer you are the better the picture (not the case for landscapes etc). Most people worry about getting too close to their subject and invading personal space. If you see someone you want to photograph then go and ask them rather than zooming in from far away. It’ll be a much better image and they’ll probably say yes! I’ve had people say no before but they’ve always been polite.
  8. Think about composition. Don’t always have your subject in the middle of the photograph, you often get a better feel for the environment when your subject isn’t smack bang in the middle. Try having it to one side or only capturing a part of it.
  9. Be creative! Try using props to make your photos more interesting, e.g take a photo through your sunglasses to give it a tint.
  10. Look for lines.  A photograph is often more aesthetically pleasing when you can find lines through it. Make sure your lines are straight, no wonky horizons! Don’t forget the rule of thirds, some people don’t like it but it often makes a photograph visually pleasing. Rule of thirds – this is when your picture has three parts to it e.g. sea at the bottom, cliff in the middle and sky at the top. Try not to get too much sky/grass in so that it is top/bottom heavy.
  11. Finally I (Catherine) would say have empathy with the people you shoot.  My friend Geraldine takes wonderful people photos because she cares. Her photo of my Dad is at my bedside.  It’s like he’s watching over me (in a nice way!)

See more of Susie’s photos at