What happened to Hugh?

My husband’s and my reaction to the images of Hugh Grant doing a great impression of a beached whale in Mallorca were very different.
“How disgusting,” I said, pushing away my breakfast. “There’s no excuse for that.”
“How marvellous,” said my husband. “The pressure’s off. Pass me another sausage.”
Up and down the country men of a certain age not only breathed a sigh of relief, but allowed themselves to breathe out properly and let it all hang out for the first time in years.
Here was Hugh Grant, cinematic icon, sex symbol and floppy-haired hero looking worse than them. I can imagine them admiring themselves in the mirror thinking ‘I haven’t even got moobs, I’m a stud’.34DA342400000578-0-image-m-11_1464907508168
Hugh is a classic example of a middle-aged man who has decided that for him the war is over. By war I mean the battle to stay in shape, to remain young looking, and meet the ageing process head on. He has decided to slide into middle age in comfort (and rather dodgy looking swimming trunks).
I have lots of friends who have done the same. They have vast bellies, their shoulders seem to have vanished, they are jowly and look, well, old. Their wives on the other hand don’t. They take care of themselves, stay trim and dye their hair. They are starting to look ten, even 20, years younger than their frumpy husbands.
There really is no excuse to look like Hugh Grant. While I know men who are heading inexorably towards a flabby future, there are those (much rarer) who have taken charge of their destiny. They exercise, they don’t drink a bottle of wine a night and they watch what they eat. I have one friend who at 40 is younger than Hugh but he has the body of a 20 year old. I can’t imagine that by 55 he will have let it all go.
Staying in shape becomes a habit once you start. It’s the starting that’s tough. Especially when you’ve sunk as low as Hugh has. But the amazing thing about getting in shape is that it really doesn’t take very long. Start now. Do some exercise every day. Cut alcohol down to weekends. Try not to eat bread every day, or carbs at night. There are tiny tweaks you can make to your life that done together will add up to a new, rejuvenated and reinvigorated you. Who looks like Hugh Grant used to. I feel a sequel to Smart Women don’t get Wrinkles coming on. Yep, you guessed it. Smart Men don’t get Moobs.

The 50 year old teenagers

Never mind 40 being the new 30, it seems 50 is the new 15.
A few nights ago I went out with some friends. They bought along a couple I had never met. They were my age (in fact possibly even older) but spent the entire evening kissing, touching and feeding each other bits of raw fish. It will come as no surprise to you that they were not married. In fact they have only known each other a few months and were clearly at that early romantic stage I have a dim and distant memory of.
Another friend has recently decided that rather than stay at home with her husband, she wants to go out partying, drinking and dancing. If the evening ends with a snog from a relative stranger so much the better. And another friend who is almost fifty has just married a 20 year old.imgres-1
The one thing all these people have in common is that they have no children, well apart from the man who just married one.
I have often wondered what the effect of not having children is and I guess one is a certain reluctance to grow up. I am not being critical, not growing up sounds like much more fun than being responsible and dull, but I wonder how long it can go on for? Do you suddenly look in the mirror and realise that dancing to house music when you’re 60 just looks insane?
My husband was telling me about a friend of his the other day who is single and has never had any children. His main aim in life seems to be to get tables in London restaurants where there is a huge waiting list. “I guess that’s the difference,” said my husband. “I’ve got a perfectly good table at home.”
Maybe if you don’t have children your priorities are totally different. Things like restaurants and parties and luxury holidays all become very exciting (and obtainable). As well as giving you more financial freedom, I think in some ways not having children gives you the freedom to be whatever age you want to be. I have a childless relation who is able to get away with dressing and looking like a woman in her mid-fifties, whereas her real age is 30 years older. If I try to dress like Olivia and Bea when I am 85 I will just look like a nutter, and they will be the first to tell me so.
Which brings me to my final point, having children is a great leveller. There is no one in the world who will bring you back down to earth quite so quickly if you even try to act like a teenager. Because that’s their job, not yours.

Landscape, what landscape?

I am getting old. The reason I know this is not the wrinkles or the aches and pains, but that I have discovered landscape.
Landscape was a word that used to make me switch off as soon as I heard it. I found people droning on about land (yawn) scape was about as interesting as my cleaning lady detailing the benefits of one type of bleach over another. My husband and his great friend Simon used to talk about it endlessly. They even wrote a book about it, which I did manage to read but only because it was about wine as well.
Now I am a convert. I finally get it. And I can’t believe how blind I have been.
This has not been a gradual process. I arrived in France ten days ago and on a walk to the top of a hill to look at the house I suddenly realised that this place is ASTOUNDINGLY beautiful. Now I just can’t stop appreciating it. I have become a landscape bore. A born again landscape follower. Everywhere I go I gaze at the colours, the contours and the contrasts nature has created. I just can’t believe it has always been there and I’ve never really LOOKED at it. I suppose when we lived here it was just home and that was the way it was. It probably also helps that I have spent the last five years in a place where the landscape consists of sand, more sand and oh there’s some sand.
Whatever it is I am thrilled to be a landscape lover, even if it has only come at a certain age.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Angst, what angst?

I hated being a teenager. I was utterly angst-ridden. Not so much in the existentialist ‘why am I here?’ department, but just about everything else. I was too skinny, too foreign (at the time practically the only brown-haired, brown-eyed girl in the whole of Sweden) and too different (mad Italian father, divorced parents, strange surname).
Bea asked me yesterday if I always thought I would get married and have children (she is 12 now, so probably just about to embark on various angst-ridden phases). I had to think about her question, and couldn’t say with all honesty that I did. All I really know is that I decided very early on that if I ever did get married and have children, I would give them the kind of upbringing I wished I had; so two parents, no divorces, stability and routine. And definitely no psychos.
I remember my stepfather yelling at me when I was about 19 years old. “You’re so bloody middle class,” he shouted. “I can just see you in years to come, married to some bloke called Rupert, loving in Wiltshire waving off your kids to boarding school.”
“What’s wrong with that?” was my reaction (which of course I didn’t dare to voice). “Sounds ideal.”
I did marry someone called Rupert, and although we don’t live in Wiltshire (and yes I do wish we did sometimes), the children may soon be going to boarding school. Of course that is now a source of angst for me, because I can’t imagine what it will be like without them, but more on that another time.
I hope we have succeeded in providing the kind of stable background that at least reduces the horror of teenage angst. So far the girls seem balanced, happy and able to talk to me if anything is worrying them.
As for Leo, there really isn’t much existentialist angst there I’m happy to say. As Rupert put it the other day: “Why am I here? I am here to score goals for Chelsea.”
There can be no greater aim….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Women of a certain age

There is a famous saying that women of a certain age discover either God or gardening. I would like to add a third discovery, every bit as all-encompassing and obsessive: Tennis.
I have loved tennis since I was a child. I was never much good at it, the only training I got was hitting a ball against a wall in a cow-shed, but I watched Wimbledon every year and was mad about Borg, followed by Agassi and Edberg.
Then when we moved here I rediscovered the game. But not in a sort of casual ‘oh I might play when I get the chance’ kind of a way, but an ‘ a day without tennis is like a day without bread’ kind of way, whereby I have panic attacks if I don’t have tennis planned on any given day. Four times a week is a bare minimum.
I am not alone. Which is lucky or I would have to find a cowshed to hit a ball in, and there are not many of those around here.
Happily for me there are plenty of other women who have been hit by the tennis bug and who are willing to play as often as possible. We discuss racquets, top-spin, the mental game and other essential topics.
I have been trying to work out what it is about tennis that makes it so compulsive. It is tough to define, but I think in part it is the mental aspect of the game. It is incredible how much difference it makes to the result if you are focused. As Boris Becker said: “Tennis is a psychological sport. You have to keep a clear head. That’s why I stopped playing.”

Maybe that’s why women of a certain age, with so much going on in their heads, take it up. To experience the sensation of thinking of nothing else but hitting a perfect cross-court backhand.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Blast from the past

My friend Floss just left today, she has been staying with us for the past week. When I first met her some 30 years ago at a pizzeria in the King’s Road there were two things that differentiated her from everyone else. One, she had a red mohican, and two, she was an utterly obsessive Chelsea fan. One of those things remains the same.
We were best friends all those years ago. We did everything together. We lived close to each other, she was still living with her parents in Sloane Square, and I was renting a room nearby from a long-suffering girl called Angela whose life was about as far removed from ours as was possible. Floss and I spent all our time together, at my place or hers, and going out.
We used to go to night clubs a lot; the Camden Palace, the Mud Club, Crazy Larry’s. We were backing singers once for Steve Strange and my other claim to fame is that I was once told by George Michael that Andrew Ridgeley fancied me. But back then, before they were famous, they were known as ‘the wallies from wham’ and I wasn’t interested. Of course I was also in love with ‘Heathcliff’ as some of you might remember him, who by a strange coincidence was here last week, missing Floss by just a few days.
Floss and I lost touch when I went to university and she went around the world. A couple of years ago my friend Marco told me he had seen her.
“She’s just the same,” he said.
“What? She’s still got a red mohican?” I asked. (Floss is on the left below)
He put us in touch and she came to my book launch in London. We then swapped lots of emails, mainly about Chelsea, until she asked if she could come and stay. I didn’t know what to expect really. Thirty years is a long time. I really thought it would be a bit like having a stranger in the house. But it wasn’t. The amazing thing is, that she really is just the same (apart from the hair-do) and I felt like we’d never been apart.
I don’t know if it’s a significant thing or not, hooking up with people from when you were young, maybe it’s totally irrelevant. I suppose if nothing else it’s good to know that people who knew you so long ago still want to hang out with you. And that some things never change.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Letter to my father

I have just got back from Italy where I was visiting my father, who is ill in hospital. He will be 87 in December, but it was still a shock to see him so weak and, well OLD, for the first time ever.
I wrote him a letter on the way back to the airport because there was so much I wanted to say. I call him biologico, because by the time I really got to know him, it was too late for daddy.

Here it is in parts…

Caro Biologico

I’m not sure I will ever send you this letter, but I want to write it anyway, because there are so many things I want to say to you and to remember about this visit, which I don’t know how else to express.

We said goodbye three hours ago. I left you, in your wheelchair, with my mother standing beside you, you were pulling a face and she was waving, smiling, trying not to cry. You looked like any other old couple in the hospital; grey and wrinkly and together. No one would have guessed you haven’t been together since I was two. As a child all I ever wanted was to have normal parents who were together, to have you both in the same room, to be able to say “my parents” and not follow it with “split up when I was two”. Of course there is nothing “normal” about either of you, thank god, but as a child for some reason normality was all I craved. As an adult I’m grateful to you both that I never had it.

I don’t know what I expected, in what state I thought I would find you, but I certainly didn’t think you would be so THIN. You’ve never been thin. I remember those zany diets you used to do, the ‘eat only grapes for a week’ diet and then how you would give something up, like chocolate, and say “for me chocolate does not exist.”

There were times when you got quite fat, but you always carried it off, with that elegant stance and the ubiquitous Fedora hat. Now that hat sits on your bookshelf at home.

And talking of elegance, you still look like an aristocrat, even in a wheelchair. You hold your head high as you always did, and your eyes are still sparkling, intelligent. You don’t belong there. I know it’s not their fault, the staff probably try their best, but the smell of shit and death and OLD PEOPLE is stultifying. I fear if you stay, you will just sink further into that world, to a point of no return.

I hate seeing you like this. It makes me want to give up my job and move to Novafeltria to take care of you, I just believe that somehow if I could get you back to your work, you would be cured, because I’m sure not being able to write is literally killing you. You always told me never to go a day without writing; nulla dies sine linea, you once wrote on a scrap of paper, I have it framed on my wall at home.

You did talk about finishing your novel. I so hope you do. But maybe that’s unrealistic, because if we’re honest, only really about ten per cent of you is present. It’s so depressing seeing flashes of your old self; your humour, your brilliance, your intellect, and realizing that it is buried deep down now and may never surface again. I know your mind still works, but you can’t articulate as you used to. When I told you that I had done some writing at your desk, you said the longest sentence you had said to me during the entire three days; “Mi fa piacere.” You probably wouldn’t say that if you’d known what I was writing, another “shitting” novel as you would call it.

And when I told you that one of my books is going to be published in Germany, your face lit up. You know the importance of the German publishing market, something the cabbages around you (bless them) wouldn’t have known when they were compos mentis.

You reaction to Olivia was lovely. The way you stroked her face last night when we were leaving made me cry, and I cry every time I think about it. I suppose because you were saying goodbye.  Her reaction has been surprising, she doesn’t really know you that well, and yet has wept and keeps saying she doesn’t want to leave you.

I have used many words to describe you, in books, in articles, to other people. Words like brilliant, bullying, egotistic, charming, larger-than-life, amusing. One word I would never have used is the word that best sums you up now; sweet. I have never seen you so affectionate and kind. Your smile is really sweet now, I don’t know what’s happened, I like it, but I would rather have the old Biologico who tells Olivia she speaks French “comme une vache Espagnol” and harasses me for not writing “proper” books.

But your new sweetness seems to have won you many admirers there, I have never seen a man made such a fuss of, you really are among friends. Carmela is a joy, as is Agostina, and I can’t believe the old woman with a hole in her leg up the hall was the chicken keeper at Carpegna, your old summer house.

Do you remember when we first went there? The chicken farmer said she remembers me being very brave on a vast horse. I wasn’t brave, I was terrified. Not only of the horse, but of you and this whole new family I knew nothing about. Now when I come back, especially on this trip, names and places like Perticara and Malatesta feel like they’re part of me, I get a sense of belonging from this part of Italy, which I suppose it what you were always trying to instill in me with all your talk of “radice.”

This summer when we were all with my mother, you told the children, when they asked why you didn’t have any eyebrows, that you cut them off and sent them to your enemies, who eat them and then die. Yesterday I cut your eyebrows, I can’t bear all that sprouting hair. There is plenty to kill all your enemies, though I think you have probably outlived them all, and now you’re so sweet, you probably won’t make any more.

When I had finished, I handed you a mirror. You looked in it and said “grazie” very firmly. It’s good to see there’s still a certain amount of vanity going on, it makes me hope that you’re not about to give up.

I am already beginning to regret that we didn’t spend more time together. I had a plan to come and see you at Christmas, to interview you and to have Bea film our discussions. There are so many things I want to talk to you about.  I think you would make a great interviewee.

See you at Christmas I hope, biologico.

Con molto affetto

La tua figlia

Daddy and Dante

The most wonderful memory of my trip to Italy this summer is from a party that my mother had. She billed it “an evening of poetry and magic” and it was held at a friend’s house next to a river in Umbria. The magic was the atmosphere, as well as a charming man making animals out of balloons, and the poetry was provided by my father.

He sat on a rock (and this is a man who is 86 years old) and recited Dante from memory. Not just the odd line from Dante, but great chunks on the Inferno. Including of course my favourite Paolo and Francesca. He was accompanied by musicians, whom he conducted, rather like he used to ‘air-conduct’ the orchestra when we went to La Scala. They strummed their guitars and played their pipes to increase the drama, or the romance, or the suspense of what he was reciting.Here he is entertaining the children before his recital.

Then last week my mother rang to tell me my father was in hospital. He has a kidney infection. At the age of 86 that is not a good thing. I called and spoke to a lady who I think was in the next bed. All was not well with the “dottore” she told me. We had two days of utter panic and I wondered whether I should just get on a plane to Italy. I didn’t go. I know he would have told me not to, and if the end was near, he would have preferred me to remember him reciting Dante than lying in a hospital bed. Eventually I managed to speak to him.

“What is important is not my health, but the book you are going to write about living in the desert, in an utterly fake world,” were his first words. I told him that right now, his health was more important to me than anything. He laughed and said “OK, just for now.”

Thankfully he is pulling through. My superhero mother drove four hours yesterday to be with him and the reports are all good. He is going to have an operation, and he will need to have more help at home. But he should be fine.

And I am hoping to get on a plane before the end of the year, so that I can film him reciting Dante and keep it forever.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Guest blog from Penny Cooper

Here is a guest blog from Penny Cooper. It is about one of my favourite subjects – anti-ageing.

Aging: How ready are you?
As we age, our bodies begin to show signs of getting older. Different people take it differently. The question is, how ready are you? Following are ten signs of ageing and some ways many individuals have found to age gracefully:

Expression Lines—Lines begin to become prominent around the eyes and mouth. These lines are a result of facial expressions, such as smiling, frowning and squinting. A non-surgical kind of facelift sometimes become an option for some individuals. They instant face lift tapes to be very helpful, but the results are temporary.

Age spots—Skin spots may appear. Many choose to cover these spots with moisturizing makeup. Some may seek treatment from a physician to remove the spots. A variety of medical treatments are now available to lessen, or even completely get rid of age spots, moles, skin tags and other pigmentations of the skin.

Loss of elasticity—Skin begins to lose some of its elasticity and wrinkles begin to appear. Eyes may become puffy or have dark circles under them. A loss of bone, moisture and muscle may also cause noticeable changes in the skin. Makeup and moisturizing creams are popular ways of masking these signs of aging. Most women opt for facelift a more youthful appearance. But like instant face lift tapes, the results are not permanent and worse at times.

Thinning hair—A number of aging factors contribute to hair loss, including diet and hormonal changes. In order to minimize the effects of hair loss, individuals may take multi-vitamins, undergo hair laser therapy or wear a wig if the hair loss becomes embarrassing.

Yellow teeth—Teeth may become stained and yellow from years of tea, coffee and other dark colored drinks. Surface build-up of bacteria and plaque can also lead to yellowed teeth as we grow older. Flossing and brushing on a regular basis are necessary to maintain good oral hygiene. Some may elect to have their teeth bleached by a professional or even use a number of over-the-counter whitening products.

Thin Eyelashes—As we grow older, our eyes lose some moisture and tear producing qualities. As a result, we may tend to rub our eyes more frequently. This can cause eyelashes to shed. Our eyelashes do not replenish as quickly as they did when we were younger, leaving us with thin eyelashes. Eye drops to restore moisture may reduce rubbing of the eyes. Some may choose to wear fake eyelashes if the problem is embarrassing.

Brittle nails—Like the skin, nails lose a large amount of moisture as we age. This may cause harsh, brittle nails and damaged cuticles. Many choose to use nail treatments and cuticle creams to restore moisture to their nails.

Hearing loss—Hearing loss may become more evident in older age. The eardrums begin to thicken and the auditory canals begin to thin. Hair cells in the inner ear may also become damaged over the years. Some individuals may find it necessary to be fitted with a hearing device in order to restore their hearing.

Sleeplessness—As we age, we tend to sleep less soundly. Some may wake up at various intervals throughout the night. While the amount of sleep needed does not necessarily change, the amount of time spent in bed or resting may need to be increased in order to get an adequate amount of sleep.

Bone loss—As we age, we lose bone and our skeletal system becomes frailer. Many find it necessary to make changes in diet, take multi-vitamins or supplements and even maintain a healthy exercise routine in order to keep bones strong.