Rise of the silver gold digger

The rise of the silver gold-digger

By Liz Hodgkinson

Nadine Dorries wrote in her column yesterday of the men who have suddenly started to proposition her, at the age of 66. Four men in six weeks, with one whispering how sexy he found her over lunch! They sense she is emerging from the grief which struck after the death of her beloved husband in 2019, she concludes, and that she is radiating a new kind of openness and optimism.
Well, good for her.
But a word of warning, too. Far be it from me to rain on Nadine’s parade, but she’s not the only one to attract a proposition or two at a later stage of life. And they are not always a cause for unmitigated celebration…
To my continuing surprise, at the age of 79, I too receive frequent, and often very bold, propositions from older men. Why not, you might ask? I am single and unattached (I divorced my husband 35 years ago), in good health and reasonable shape from working out every day. But while they may be after me for my looks and personality, I believe the truth is rather more mercenary. I am convinced that what they want from me, at least in part, is not my scintillating company, but my money.
I don’t mean they are out-and-out scammers of the kind who reel women in online with lies about who they are. No, these are real men, our age or older, who see a well-off wife as a ticket not only to fun, but to a very comfortable old age with their feet beneath our well-laden tables. 
I have often written about the nice home I’ve lived in for 14 years, with its three bathrooms, and about my long career as a writer, and it’s my firm belief that a section of the male population sees me as a catch because of it.
It’s not just me and Nadine. My best girlfriend, a busy interior designer in her late 70s, is also always being propositioned. Another friend, 84, who recently published her first book to much acclaim, says she has an admirer who wants to marry her. ‘And he won’t take no for an answer,’ she told me, even though she repeats it often enough.
Therein, of course, lies the problem.  They see us as a catch, but also as women of a certain age who will fall at their feet once shown some attention - hence their confidence (and as Nadine has discovered, some of these men can be very forthright indeed). Yet rarely – oh so rarely – do we see them in the same light.
A few years ago, for example, a complete stranger sent me a message on social media. He said he was an Oxford graduate, had worked in international finance and now ran a publishing company. He wondered whether I might collaborate with him on a book about an interesting subject, so I arranged to meet him for a drink in a London wine bar.
The moment he walked in, however, it became apparent that where I had looked after myself and my money, he had not.
Dressed in old jeans and a scruffy jacket, aged about 70, within minutes of our meeting, he asked whether I’d ever consider getting married again. The ‘date’, if that’s what it was, did not last much longer. Later I discovered that this international financier and publisher was living in a bedsitter on the coast. After two divorces, he had hardly any money left.
Others have been similarly brazen. There was the seventysomething man who asked me for lunch having followed me on Facebook, only to tell me when we spoke on the phone that he had not worked since he was 50. We did not click and we did not meet, but it didn’t stop him sending messages afterwards saying he was ‘lonely’ and drinking a bottle of wine all by himself. Another man tried to pick me up on a bus, as though I was a teenager! Since Christmas, there have been two more approaches from provably real men, as opposed to catfishers, asking me for dates.
It used to be thought that older men targeted younger women, but it seems those days are over. Karen Mooney, who has run Sara Eden Introductions since 1988, says: ‘The goals have completely changed. When I started the agency, I was 30 and 60 seemed ancient. Now I’m in my sixties myself and have many older male clients looking for a partner of the same age.
‘Women are looking after themselves much better; they have had careers, led their own lives, have their own houses, are completely independent and can manage without men. Although unattached older men may be looking for a partner their own age without any ulterior motive, it is also true that many are hoping to find a rich widow.
‘If you are rich, you will be targeted whatever your age,’ Karen adds. ‘Whenever a man sees the word ‘widow’ on an online dating site, he thinks she will be loaded. Men can be vulnerable too, of course, and widowers will also often attract gold diggers. In general, since the pandemic, we have seen a huge increase in clients in their 60s, 70s and 80s.’
Sometimes, the women get burned very badly from this imbalance in financial clout. One friend who had been single all her life, and recently retired from her job as a head teacher in a private school, entered into a whirlwind romance with a chap she’d known briefly as a student and before long they were married. The union was a disaster, however, and after three years she filed for divorce. During the marriage, she had put her property into joint names and the upshot of the very expensive, bitterly-fought split was that the husband of very few years was allowed to buy her out and got her house.
With finances much depleted, she had no choice but to move into a retirement flat. It wasn’t a classic scam, but he certainly did very well out of her.
That’s not as unusual as it sounds. Another friend married a younger man believing she had found true love at last after two divorces, but when that marriage failed too, he also got her house, this time purely on financial grounds.
I’m afraid some solvent older women will always be prey to smooth-talking men who persuade them they are in love.
Despite it all, I hope I haven’t put Nadine off a return to dating. There is nothing to be lost from turning over ‘a brave and bold’ new leaf, as she puts it, and taking a plunge back into the world as it wakes up with the spring. But she should definitely know there are wolves out there too. The good news is they probably won’t bother disguising themselves because they truly believe they don’t need to – oh, for the confidence of a mediocre man, as the saying goes - but she should beware all the same.
So would I ever consider another intimate relationship? Yes, but very firmly on my terms. Firstly, they would have to match me financially, and secondly, I would have to be attracted to them. Neither of those things seem like very much to ask, do they? Good luck out there Nadine!


Daily Mail - March 2024

They were wild 60s teens - until Liz's best friend became a nun.

Back then she pitied her. Now she wonders who had the best life.

My best friend Rosemary and I were hiding behind the bike sheds, drinking and smoking and discussing our hopes and plans for the future.

Dressed in the latest Sixties garb with towering beehives and thick black eyeliner, we may have been only teenagers, but we had it all worked out. Rosemary had decided on a career in the theatre, maybe producing or directing, and I was going to be a famous writer.

As we sat chatting so confidently, neither of us could possibly have known how dramatically our lives would diverge.

For while I went on to lead a rackety old life full of incident and adventure, at the age of 20, in 1964, Rosemary shocked everyone who knew her by taking the veil as a Carmelite nun, the strictest and most enclosed female monastic order of all.

Her decision — as mad as it seemed to me at the time — was not just a passing fancy, but a lifelong commitment and she has just marked 50 years as a nun.

As such, she invited me, her very oldest friend — whom she hadn’t seen for more than 40 years — to help her celebrate her silver jubilee at her monastery in the U.S. state of Indiana.

Together again: Liz is reunited with Rosemary, who took the name of Sister Mary Clare of St Joseph

Now both in our 70s, I was intrigued to see the outcome of the diametrically opposed ways in which we had chosen to live our lives.

Rosemary Trolley and I met as babies in our prams and were pretty much inseparable from then on. My mother had known Rosemary’s mother since childhood. Their family lived in a flat above a tailor’s shop, opposite my mother’s flower shop on the High Street of St Neots in Cambridgeshire.

Rosemary and I wore the same clothes, sat next to each other in school, went on holiday together and were easily the most fashionable teenagers in our small, stifling home town.

We’d parade down the High Street, fancying ourselves in our tiny mini-skirts, make-up and high heels. The locals tut-tutted, especially when we started smoking as well, but what did we care? We would show ‘em!

Our families’ fortunes first diverged when Rosemary’s father Albert, a skilled cabinetmaker and carpenter, developed severe asthma, couldn’t work and had to go on the dole.

His family were mortified, and their reduced circumstances were highlighted by the fact my mother’s floristry business was starting to take off. We moved into a detached house in Avenue Road, where all the prosperous St Neots shopkeepers and businesspeople lived, and I inevitably saw a little less of Rosemary.

There was another setback when I went to the grammar school and Rosemary, in the cruel lottery that was the 11-plus, wasn’t offered a place. However, by her mid-teens things were back on track — both in Rosemary’s life and our friendship.

Her father was by now running the local Conservative Club, a job that came with spacious accommodation, and Rosemary had taken her O-levels at the Technical College and achieved the most brilliant results the town had ever known — far eclipsing mine.

Bright young thing: A photo of Liz taken near Newcastle in 1966
Bright young thing: A photo of Liz taken near Newcastle in 1966

Like me, she would go on to take A-levels, with the aim of going to university and escaping St Neots — something we couldn’t wait to do, or so I presumed.

How we were going to achieve our exotic dreams — Rosemary’s of the stage, mine of literary fame — we didn’t know, but at that moment anything was possible. Anything, that is, except settling down with a St Neots boy and getting married, a fate we viewed as worse than death.

We both had casual boyfriends, but were too ambitious to want to be trapped with a local boy.

‘You know Winifred King?’ asked Rosemary one day, mentioning a girl who lived nearby. ‘She’s getting married.’ 

‘But she’s only 16!’ I exclaimed. ‘St. Neots’ youngest bride!’

We shuddered. Never would such a fate befall us.

This, to us, was a horrible example of what happened if you let a boy from St Neots get too close. You were trapped for ever in a too-early marriage and stuck living next to your mum and dad for the rest of your life. 

We, on the other hand, were carefree, with nothing more pressing to worry about than what to wear on our Saturday outings into town.

By the time she was 17, Rosemary looked like a young film star, highly groomed and poised, and certainly turned heads in St Neots.

Then, out of the blue, as we met one Saturday as usual, she asked: ‘Would you like to come with me to the Catholic Church?’

‘Why on earth would I do that?’

‘I’m getting interested in Catholicism,’ she said.

This was news to me. Rosemary came from a family who took little or no interest in religion, and she had stomped out of Sunday School at the age of ten, claiming she ‘didn’t need to be indoctrinated any more’.

We went in and, as Rosemary started genuflecting and making the sign of the Cross, I didn’t know what to think. Later, she told me she was taking instruction and converting to Catholicism. A few months later she said: ‘I’m giving up my A-levels. I’ve applied for a job teaching in a Catholic school.’

‘But what about university?’ I asked. ‘Your career?’

‘I’m giving all that up as well,’ she said. ‘I’m going to become a nun.’

A nun? My fashionable, fun-loving, ambitious, cigarette-smoking friend was going to become a nun, just as the Sixties were beginning to swing?

‘You’re not serious,’ I said. ‘You can’t be.’

Becoming a nun was the worst, the most bizarre lifestyle choice that I could imagine. 

But she was serious, deadly serious.

From now on, instead of the fashionable clothes she loved, Rosemary — henceforth to be known as Sister Mary Clare of St Joseph — would wear a rough wool habit and home-made rope sandals.

Carmelites, a strictly contemplative order, believe that nothing must be allowed to interfere with their life of prayer and communion with God.

Hence every scrap of personal vanity has to be ruthlessly eradicated: there was not even a mirror in the tiny unheated cell of her convent in Waterbeach, Cambridge, where my friend would now sleep on a straw mattress.

She was not allowed to read newspapers or listen to the radio and would never again come out of the monastery, as Carmelite convents are known. Once she entered, age 20, she was keen for me to visit, and I remember going there in my Mary Quant dress, having to stub my fag out in the car park first.

By now, I was a liberated Sixties chick, having experienced several sexual relationships. I often reflected that Sister Mary Clare would be getting up just as I was rolling home from yet another drunken party.

What a contrast, and how odd when I entered a tiny little room, the only one where visitors were allowed. There was a wooden grille dividing the room down the middle, lined with ferocious-looking metal spikes.

Sister Mary Clare entered on the other side of the grille, wearing her habit, and told me about her new life. It sounded absolutely awful — five hours of prayer a day, spending most of the time in solitude and silence, with gardening and weeding for recreation.

We no longer had anything in common and I mourned the loss of my old friend as I left the monastery, thinking I’d never bother visiting again.

Back then: Rosemary Trolley (pictured) and Liz 'met as babies in our prams and were pretty much inseparable from then on'
Back then: Rosemary Trolley (pictured) and Liz ‘met as babies in our prams and were pretty much inseparable from then on’

And I didn’t. I went on to enjoy an interesting and exciting career, got married, had children, had a good number of intimate relationships, travelled, moved house many times, and generally lived to the full the life of a modern woman, while Sister Mary Clare has spent her entire adult life praying and communing with God.

Heck, at 70 I’m still hanging in there, trying my best to remain slim, young-looking and fashionable, as vain and shallow as ever.

We had no contact at all for almost 50 years, until Sister Mary Clare’s brother told her he had seen an article I’d written in the Mail.

She wrote to me care of the paper, and we quickly struck up a regular correspondence. She told me that, when her English monastery had closed down in 1994, she made the decision, at the age of 50, to start a new life in Indiana, America.

As I stepped off the plane at Indianapolis airport, I wondered what would await me.

But even after all these years I recognised her immediately.

‘Mary Clare!’ I yelled, and we gave each other the most tremendous hug, tears and laughter mingling as we reconnected after nearly half a century apart.

I, of course, was wearing full make-up, whereas Mary Clare’s face had not seen cosmetics for 50 years. But her face was unlined and her eyes were twinkly beneath her glasses.

She certainly did not look 70. She looked happy, fulfilled and serene, and not at all burdened down by anxiety — unlike me, who lives with anxiety every day.

As much as I enjoyed our letters, when the invitation came to visit my old friend, my first instinct was to say no, especially as she lives an eight-hour flight away.

Yet I read and re-read her letter, mulled over her invitation, and eventually changed my mind. I would go to visit her.

So I prepared to meet somebody who was once my closest friend, but was now a virtual stranger.

What to talk about? No worries there. Once we started talking, we never stopped. Even after spending five hours a day in prayer and many hours in silence and solitude, it was obvious that Mary Clare had not lost her gift of the gab. I knew I would be staying at the nuns’ guest-house and, remembering the extreme austerity of the English monastery, was apprehensive about what it would be like.

Yet it was most luxuriously appointed, a little colonial-style bungalow separate from the actual monastery. Every day the nuns would bring over my meals, including wine, on a golf buggy, .

The monastery itself, closed to outsiders except on very special occasions, is entirely self-sufficient, and the 14 nuns who live there grow vegetables, keep bees and make greeting cards, icons and books, which they sell for income.

Mary Clare and I sat with her brother Philip, who had also flown over to visit with his wife Linda. We looked through Philip’s huge photo archive, screeching with laughter at pictures of ourselves as children at the time of the Coronation,  and wearing swimsuits on holiday at Skegness.

We’d certainly had some fun together. But I wondered whether the setbacks Mary Clare had experienced as a teenager, with her family finances and failing her 11-plus, had influenced her decision to become a nun.

Stateside: Liz flew to Indianapolis, Indiana, where her old friend moved after her English monastery closed
Stateside: Liz flew to Indianapolis, Indiana, where her old friend moved after her English monastery closed

‘It’s true that I wanted something permanent for myself,’ she said. ‘Something that could not be snatched away. It wasn’t just my growing desire to become a nun, though, that made me give up A-levels.

‘Dad’s health had started to go again and Mum needed help running the Conservative Club.

‘I couldn’t do both and we had to keep the job and the roof over our heads. Once I pulled out of A-levels, all thoughts of going to university were scuppered anyway.’

I wondered aloud if she regretted it now, missing out on university and never having a family of her own.

‘No,’ she said. ‘In the end, the calling to become a nun was unstoppable. I tried resisting it for ages, telling myself I wanted a career, possibly marriage and children. “Go away, Lord”, I kept saying.

‘But I started to feel a burning desire within me to devote my life to God, Jesus and prayer.

‘Once that happened, everything else simply faded away and I knew that if I said no, I would never be happy. 

‘I have no misgivings, and nothing else, I am sure, could have brought me the peace and happiness that I have experienced in my life.

‘I knew that was what I wanted for myself, even though nobody else could understand it.’

I certainly couldn’t understand Mary Clare’s extreme decision at the time, but have since had some direct experience of the strength of that call, as my own husband Neville abandoned his home, his family and his career to follow an austere spiritual path, after joining the Brahma Kumaris, an Indian group run entirely by women.

The Brahma Kumaris espouse vegetarianism, celibacy and meditation, and more than 30 years later, he is as dedicated and devoted as ever. 

All the nuns I spoke to agreed that devoting your life to God was like falling powerfully and passionately in love. ‘Except that this is permanent and God never lets you down,’ said Mary Clare.

She does not have a scintilla of regret that she never had a secular love affair or family of her own, saying: ‘I’ve been in love all my life.’

She has two nieces — Philip’s daughters — to whom she is close, and now great-nieces and nephews as well, and that is enough.

In comparison with her, I have had a lifetime of ups and downs, and far more than my fair share of men have let me down.

I’m still looking for love, and still not finding it.

While much of my life has turned to dust and ashes — my marriage ending, and the man I then fell in love with, John, dying, my career alternately collapsing and reviving, lovers leaving, coping with constant rejection and nothing being certain or guaranteed for very long — she is surrounded by a close and loving community. I, by contrast, am now entirely on my own.

If I observe the Great Silence — which the Carmelites do between the hours of 7.45pm and 8.45am the next morning — in my case it’s because I have nobody to talk to, and rather than being contemplative, it’s incredibly oppressive.

It’s ironic that at the age of just 20, my friend renounced everything, including her family and friends, yet I am the one who has ended up lonely, while her life continues to be busy and purposeful.

As I warmly hugged my oldest friend goodbye, I felt the irony of that fact wasn’t lost on either of us.


Daily Mail - June 2014

Joey's Story

Last week, master fraudster Juliette d’Sousa, 59, was given a 10-year jail sentence for conning people out of vast sums on the pretext of being able to heal their terminal illnesses.

But perhaps her saddest victim was a creature she deprived of a decent life and left so traumatised and disabled that he will never recover.  Even sadder, he is somebody who cannot speak up for himself or sue for compensation.

He is Joey, a capuchin monkey that d’Sousa imported from Suriname in South America and kept in a cage for 10 years in her flat in Hampstead, North London.  She did it all quite legally, filling in the requisite paperwork, quarantining him for six months and obtaining a DWA (Dangerous Wild Animal) licence from the local council.

Although reasonably healthy when he arrived as a baby, Joey started to suffer from brittle bone disease and became progressively deformed.  He also developed severe mental problems, endlessly rocking backwards and forwards in his distress.

Eventually, though, Joey was one of d’Sousa’s luckier victims.

In 2007, she left the country and put osteopath Keith Bender, who had been referring his own patients to d’Sousa, in charge of Joey.  After five months, when Bender went round as usual to feed the monkey, he found bailiffs in the flat, clearing it out for non-payment of rent.  They could not believe there was a monkey there.

Bender called The Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall, who contacted the RSPCA, and then there was the problem of how to obtain Joey legally.  As it seemed he had been abandoned, the RSPCA was able to sign Joey over to the Sanctuary.  This was just as well as d’Sousa – who operated under at least five different aliases – remained out of the country for the next six years, returning to the UK only to stand trial for fraud.

‘He was easily the most traumatised monkey we had ever seen,’ says Rachel Hevesi, director of The Monkey Sanctuary. ‘His catalogue of conditions included poor bone density, curved long bones, a fused spine, hip dysplasia, malformed jaw and un-erupted and misaligned teeth.  He was also scared and timid.  We never thought for a minute that he would make it but he has a terrific fighting spirit and although still severely disabled, he has recovered some of his monkey instincts.

‘He now socializes with our other primates and is even helping us to rehabilitate other distressed monkeys at the Sanctuary.’

Many people do not realise that it is quite legal to keep monkeys as pets in the UK and that the monkey pet trade is actually growing, at a time when it has been outlawed in 13 other EU countries.  The Monkey Sanctuary, also known as Wild Futures, and now celebrating its 50th anniversary, has been campaigning for years for the trade to be outlawed, yet still it continues.

If I want to buy a monkey as a pet, assuming I have between £5000 and £8000 to spare, all I have to do is look for one on the internet, hand over the money, bring it home and obtain a DWA licence for about £40.  Certain types of monkeys, such as marmosets, do not even need a licence, as they are not considered dangerous wild animals. 

So now I have a cute, human-like trophy pet which will amuse and entertain me.  Except that it won’t.  Around 5000 monkeys are being kept as pets in the UK, yet never has anybody succeeded in domesticating a primate.  Nor is there any evidence that primates can flourish in a human environment.

“Yes, they are very cute as babies, with their big eyes and furry faces,’ says Hevesi. ‘But after a time they will develop into the wild animals they essentially are, and turn vicious and aggressive.  You cannot house train a primate and it will wee all over the place, establishing territory.

‘It will bite and attack you, as this is what primates do to each other in the wild.  Then it will get punished and be banished to a small cage where it can’t do harm.

‘One owner was so badly bitten by his pet monkey that his hand is permanently disabled.  Monkeys need sunlight and will develop diseases if they don’t get it, but pet monkeys never do get sunlight.  They are kept indoors.

‘Then they will almost certainly be given the wrong sort of diet.  Like children, monkeys love sweets and chocolate but they must never be given them as they will develop high blood sugar levels. One owner proudly told us his pet monkey joined them for a roast dinner on Sundays, yet monkeys don’t thrive on roast dinners.  There is so much ignorance over what constitutes a suitable diet for them. ‘

Monkeys can seem attractive pets because they are clever, working out ways to open doors, picking up things with their hands and behaving almost like humans.  But also like humans, they will self-harm if frustrated and bite their own tails, often until they expose the bones.  They exhibit a similar variety of behaviours to humans in that some are aggressive, some are friendly, some are nervous and timid, and shrink away.

‘They will bond with humans up to a point, but never enough to overcome their innate primate instincts,’ says Hevesi.

It is unusual these days for a monkey like Joey to be brought to the UK from his natural habitat.  ‘Most pet primates are born in the UK specifically for the trade, and when they become aggressive, as they usually do, they are sold on from owner to owner.  Josh, one of our other successes, used a stick to let himself out of the door to escape from his owner, and he had to be taken to a holding place until we could obtain him. Josh was so angry, but he was given a chance to socialize when he came here, and he has completely changed.’

Yet it is not easy for the Monkey Sanctuary, or any other animal charity, to rescue these pathetic creatures. ‘We can only obtain them legally if there is obvious cruelty or if their owners contact us saying they can no longer cope.  We specialize in pick ups and we take the rescued monkeys straight to the vet where they get a full exam including x-ray, ultrasound and blood tests.

‘Then we introduce them to the Sanctuary where they are given a proper diet and trees to climb, and although they can never be returned to the wild, they can have a good life and live to a ripe old age of about 45.’

Poor old Joey, ugly and disabled though he is, has become quite a celebrity.  He has been adopted by Stephen Fry, who says: ‘We are meant to be a nation of animal lovers, so why the trade in a wild, social animal with complex needs is still legal, continues to astound me. Joey’s story is not unique. Many of the monkeys rescued by Wild Futures have their own terrible tales.’

Joey is so popular he has also been adopted by Jane Fallon, Ricky Gervais’s partner, and Angela Humphery, a former neighbour of d’Sousa.  Angela, who has campaigned on behalf of illtreated animals for around 70 years, says: ‘The primate pet trade is horrific and nobody knows about it.  Monkeys are appealing and intelligent, but are the very last animals that should be confined.  D’Sousa has been given 10 years, but Joey has a life sentence.’

The Monkey Sanctuary was founded by musician Leonard Williams, father of classical guitarist John Williams,, in 1964 after he was left a monkey in a Will, and realised he could not look after it.  He sold up, bought some land in Looe, Cornwall, and established the Sanctuary to enable rescued monkeys to live a normal life.

At first it was thought they could be returned to the wild but that proved impossible and the Sanctuary now has 37 rescued primates, with many turned away every week for lack of space.

Although Rachel Hevesi, who joined the Sanctuary as a 20-year old volunteer 30 years ago, loves her work, her greatest aim is to put herself out of a job. ‘As a charity, we would like to make ourselves redundant by ending the primate pet trade.  We will continue to campaign until it is permanently outlawed in the UK.’

The Times - June 2014

Getting your deposit back: the story of Kelly Osbourne.

The stories about 28-year old Kelly Osbourne suing her landlord for the non-return of her massive $18,700 security deposit (about £11,000) on her rented California flat, must have rung a bell with many tenants who worry about getting their deposits back.

We cannot know all the specific details of this high-profile case but what we do know is that her former landlord is counter-arguing that Kelly trashed the flat, leaving it not only filthy but needing expensive repairs and renovation.  Kelly, for her part, is maintaining that her landlord never inspected the property during her occupation, or ever sent her an estimate of costs when she moved out.

Could something like this happen in the UK?  The rental market here is steadily increasing and now represents about 15 per cent of all hone occupation.  And every time a tenant moves into a new property, a deposit, usually equivalent to six weeks’ rent, has to be paid upfront.

Since 2007, it has been law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to protect the deposit in one of three government-approved schemes. Failure to do this means a tenant can take you to court where you can be fined up to three times the deposit.

The tenants know their deposit has been protected once they receive a certificate from the scheme to that effect.  Then, when the tenancy ends, the deposit has to be returned in full unless previously agreed deductions are made.  Otherwise, the dispute resolution service comes into play.

All this is intended to ensure that a situation like Kelly Osbourne’s cannot happen here, as a landlord is not allowed to withhold all or part of the deposit without prior agreement and mostly, I have to say, it works extremely well.

According to Sam Haidar of myDeposits,  the average deposit paid is just over £1000 and mostly, the tenant receives this back in full in checkout. Around seven million deposits have been protected since the scheme started, and only just over one per cent have ever needed dispute resolution.

When there is a dispute, it is almost always over the same issue as Kelly Osbourne’s – cleaning. Sam Haidar said; ‘All tenancy agreements state that the property must be returned in the same condition as when taken. Where there is a difference of opinion over this, the landlord has to provide robust prior evidence that the condition is not acceptable, otherwise the money goes straight back to the tenant.’

In nearly 20 years of being a landlord, I am thoroughly versed in the matter of deposits and their return.  Mostly, I’m glad to say, there are no problems at all, but it does sometimes happen that a property the tenant regards as clean, is anything but, so I always insist at the outset that the property has to be cleaned by a firm of professional end-of tenancy cleaners, at the end of the tenancy, and that either the tenant can pay for this or I will take it out of the deposit and send them the receipt.

Where there is actual damage, noticed either by myself or the agent remarketing the place, I will go round with a builder who will have a look and assess the problem. Just recently, my letting agent reported that the bathroom of a brand-knew flat was covered in black mould and I arranged with the tenant for my builder to go and have a look.

The builder was crystal clear on what had caused the mould and said to my tenant: ‘It’s a hundred per cent your fault for not putting on the extractor fan. My tenant meekly accepted blame, the builder did the work and charged the tenant direct.  He did not argue, but then, I had got a neutral, third party involved before the tenancy ended.

Security deposits are in place to protect both the tenant and the landlord, but tenants stay for five or more years, as some of mine have, you cannot expect the place to be in exactly the same condition as when newly let.  In these cases, I return the deposit in full anyway and replace items and appliances that have come to the end of their line.

But where there is real damage, s six-week deposit will not even begin to cover the damage.  I have been incredibly lucky with my tenants, but last year, a tenant trashed the flat completely.  Her deposit was around £700, and the cost of repairing the damage was over £7,000.  The flat was completely uninhabitable after she vacated it, and once again, I got builders round to assess the damage and send her their estimate for repairs and renovation.  We took photos as well, in case any evidence was needed.

She completely accepted that the dire condition was all her fault and that she would lose her deposit in its entirety.  It will take me years to get back the cost of the renovation in rent, but that’s a risk any buy to let landlord has to take on.  Thankfully, most tenants (and most landlords I have to say) are perfectly decent people.

Even if Kelly Osbourne did trash the flat, she has a point: whenever deductions are to be made from the precious security deposit, the landlord must let the tenant know in advance and back this up with proper written estimates and before and after photos – before the tenant moves out.

If Kelly wins, she could get back three times her deposit, so we shall have to wait and see.

The Times - October 2013

Buying property for retirement

It sounds a nice enough idea. Instead of faffing around with pension schemes yielding peanuts, why not downsize on your family home and use the money to buy a property or two to fund your retirement?
A new report from LV= (formerly the Liverpool Victoria) found that most over-50s are planning to do this.  Indeed, it is what I have done myself.

About 20 years ago I downsized, zapped the mortgage and put a nervous little toe into the buy to let market.  Gradually gaining in confidence, I bought and sold over the years and now own four mortgage-free rental properties; one in London, two in Worthing and one in Oxford. 
Together, they bring me in over £40,000 a year, provided they are fully let at all times, an eventuality that cannot be guaranteed.

The major upside is that you are in control, but the drawback is that using property to fund retirement is emphatically not that same as sitting back and watching the money plop into your account.  Renting out properties takes constant work and effort, even though the income you receive is considered unearned.

The homes have to be maintained to a high standard to attract good tenants – there is plenty of competition out there – and tenants are always coming and going.  The same ones rarely stay for more than a year., and there a is constant worry that they might not pay the rent. You become an obsessive bank statement checker.

Then, tenants are not passive robots but individual human beings with their own distinct personalities.  Some give no trouble at all, while others are always on the blower to tell you they’ve locked themselves out (at eleven o’clock at night) and expect you to magic round in minutes with a spare key.  The properties often play up as well, developing cracks and leaks, and somehow, the occupants can’t seem to work the appliances.  Washing machines flood.  The list of what can go wrong is endless.

These days, there are also many certificates and safety checks required, plus fees and taxes to pay.  You have to keep very precise accounts, and also every now and again, take a property off the market to renovate.  During this time you will not be receiving any rent of course.

Using property to fund your retirement is both exciting and terrifying and you need to know that you can handle the ups and downs.  Also, I would say that you need at least four rental properties to eke out a halfway decent retirement income from them.

The Times - October 2013

The unpalatable truth - how we oldies love our wine

It was ten to six when I arrived at my elderly friends’ flat for drinks.  They buzzed me in and as I entered the living room, there they were, sitting in their chairs, wine glasses in hand, staring fixedly at the clock.  A bottle of wine was on the coffee table.

Their eyes lit up gratefully when they saw me.  ‘Ah,’ said my hostess.  ‘Thank goodness you’re here. We’re waiting for the hand to go up to six, but now you’ve come we can bring it forward.’  Within seconds, three glasses of wine were full.

I know just how they feel.  It’s hard – well all but impossible - for me too to wait until six in the evening to have my first glass of wine.  From about four in the afternoon, I am looking forward to it and that half hour from five-thirty to six passes agonizingly slowly. 

Yet if I start drinking too early, I will have had my daily quota before the evening has even begun.  What a dilemma for the elderly drinker!

Just recently, writer Roger Lewis and supermodel Marie Helvin, both of bus-pass age, rhapsodized about how surprisingly wonderful life now was without alcohol.  I’m afraid I cannot share their enthusiasm for the teetotal life.  My daily glass or two of wine is an absolute necessity to make life bearable and I’ve been doing it for so long I can hardly remember a day without it.

Well, actually I can. All too vividly.  And it was ghastly. I was spending Christmas one year at an alcohol-free retreat centre. The food was wonderful but did that matter when it was being washed down with apple juice?  And although the occasion was adults-only, the festivities felt much like a children’s party, innocent, endless and boring. (The only way to endure a children’s party is to lay on plenty of wine for the adults.)  I somehow got through Christmas Eve without wine but had no idea how I would last out on Christmas Day.

The truth is, I didn’t. Desperate for a glass, I persuaded a non-drinking friend to drive me to the nearest pub, where I had the biggest glass of wine the place could offer.  And another.  It was wonderful; the only happy memory I have of that occasion.

As an over-65 who drinks every single day, it seems I am now a Statistic. According to a BBC Panorama programme in September, those aged 65 and over are more likely to drink every day, drink at home and drink alone than any other age group.

Yes, that’s me, guilty on all three counts. I also, to my eternal shame, contribute to the statistics which say we oldies have more alcohol-related admissions to hospital than any other age group. One night I was coming home from a boozy party and I vaguely remember getting off the tube and turning into my street.  From then everything went blank until several hours later I woke up in Charing Cross Hospital A&E along with all the other drunks of the night. There I was, a modern day incarnation of Edna, the Inebriate Woman.  Old, drunk and disorderly.

So how did I get to A&E? Some kind soul had spotted this smartly dressed woman lying dead drunk in the gutter and had called for an ambulance.  I never discovered who it was, but saw it as a sign that God wanted me to carry on drinking – sensibly, of course, from now on.

In order to cope with my drinking habits, I have evolved some complicated rituals and an enviable ability to pull the wool over my own eyes. 

Officially, I drink half a bottle of white wine a day but I know that on many days (most days) I exceed that.  When I notice the contents of the bottle going down so fast – surely bottles are getting smaller these days– I sigh and return it to the fridge. After a few minutes I take the bottle back out and pour tiny tiny amounts in my glass until I notice there is maybe half an inch left in the bottle. Only then do I put it away for good, telling myself that I have only drunk half a bottle. OK, three quarters.  But no, definitely not, the Whole Bottle.

Buying wine too, has its own self-deluding elements.  It makes sense to buy half a dozen or dozen bottles at the wine warehouse and load up the case in the car. Theoretically, six bottles, if drunk alone, should last me 12 days.  However, they have usually gone after eight days, so in order to maintain the fiction that I only drink half a bottle a day, I buy my wine in ones and twos until a fortnight is up, when I can return to the warehouse for another six bottles.

Yet at the same time my biggest fear is running out. It’s all part of the skewed logic that characterizes the elderly drinker.

Most of my sixty plus friends, too, have built their lives around wine.  One couple always ask me to stay the night when inviting me over to dinner.  That way, we can all get riotously drunk and nobody needs to watch their intake.  They say they don’t want to watch me sitting there abstaining because I have to drive back home, while they knock back glass after glass.  This is actually their policy with all their drinking guests.

And that’s another thing about drinking. We are not just spending the kids’ inheritance on alcohol, but on taxis as well.  Because we daren’t ever risk drinking and driving, we take taxis everywhere when drinking is involved. Not drinking, needless to say, is never an option.

Other friends giving dinner parties have dispensed altogether with the niceties of pouring. One couple I know have got so used to having a bottle of wine each every night that they hand their guests their own bottle as well.  When I first witnessed this I was shocked; now I can see the point.

One 80 something friend holds frequent events to raise funds for the many animal charities she supports. She knows and I know and everybody else there knows that although she raises significant sums, we’re all there really for the wine.  Without the wine, would we go? Probably not.

Then I have drinker friends on permanent medication.  Very many older people I know are on warfarin, the anti-coagulant drug also known as rat poison. Expert opinion states that the only way to drink safely on warfarin is to be consistent, so they interpret this as meaning that they absolutely must have three glasses of wine every single day. ‘Otherwise I’ll get a bad reaction from the warfarin’ they maintain.

One friend recently became very ill and had to take strong painkillers, which made him feel sick. But because he was on warfarin, he still forced down his three glasses of red wine every night. ‘I’m worried about what will happen otherwise,’ he said. ‘If I don’t have any wine tonight, and then have a lot tomorrow, it will put my warfarin readings out.’

Talking of illness, you might wonder how my liver is faring after so many years of daily drinking. The answer is, absolutely fine, thanks very much. A few years ago I had to have blood tests and an ECG before a surgical operation. I was worried because I had been drinking at a party the night before, but all the alcohol in my bloodstream seemed to have disappeared by the morning. In fact, I was told I had the innards of a woman of 30.

Yet another sign that God wants me to carry on drinking.  I’m afraid I have persuaded myself that the widely recommended ‘units’ – 14 a week for women and 21 for men – are so much unscientific nonsense.

Why do I do it?  Whatever my mood, it seems that wine can improve it.  It takes off that top level of consciousness and allows me to enjoy and experience events in a mellow relaxed state. It puts everything at one remove, gives that slightly spaced-out feeling which means I can smile at misfortune. It makes watching the News bearable.  When slightly intoxicated, I don’t care about anything; at least not to the extent of when I’m stone cold sober.  Wine makes boring company tolerable and interesting company even more exciting.

A date with a brand- new person, for instance, would be impossible without it.  Dating sites often advise you to meet initially ‘for coffee’ – but what’s the point?  I could never have a relationship with a teetotaller anyway so why bother? Half the pleasure of going on a new date is meeting in a new place for drinks, and if I’m honest, I am often looking forward more to the drink than to the date.

So are there any downsides? Yes – that wonderful hit of the first glass at six, surpassing every other sensation, means I can’t drink at lunchtime.  Nor can I ever enjoy afternoon tea, which for the now abstinent Roger Lewis has become a new pleasure.  Even my eating revolves around drinking.

Although we are advised never to drink on an empty stomach, that is when wine is at its most enjoyable.  If I have just a sandwich for lunch, at, say 12.30, this means that by six the wine can course through every vein, uninterrupted by any food.  At 95, Dame Vera Lynn says that she too always has a glass of wine at six, with a packet of crisps.  I expect that like me, she is looking forward to it for most of the afternoon.

We oldies have it’s true, become incorrigible tipplers.  I never had this rigid unbreakable drinking routine when I was younger; I could take it or leave it. But it’s understandable. We have so few pleasures left in life.  And at least we drink in our own homes. We rarely spill out of nightclubs at three in the morning.  By contrast, because we have to start drinking so early in the evening, we are usually tucked up in bed by ten, doing no harm to anybody.

My son Tom who sometimes comes to stay, says he cannot start drinking as early as six, because then he will get too drunk as the evening wears on.  His start point is eight o’clock, about the time I’m thinking of turning in.  I wish that, like him, I could hold out but I can’t, I just can’t.  Even when a friend is calling for me to go out to a restaurant at eight, I am still on my first glass of wine at six.

So after downing veritable rivers of wine in my time, am I sniffing delicate bouquets and appreciating rare vintages? I am not. Like Iris Murdoch before me, I stick to cheap wine on the understanding that at least I will always be able to afford it, whereas fine wines might compromise my old age pension.  And if I get a taste for the fine stuff, I may not want to go back to cheap plonk.

Drinking as I do, there is the additional problem of disposing of the empties. I live in a house of four flats and sadly, seem to be the only drinker in the building. I am always horrified when I take my empties to our recycle bin, only to find that the empties already there are also all mine.  Do the other residents realise they have an old soak in their midst?

At such times, I say to myself: I must stop drinking, or drinking so much or so regularly.  It’s a resolve that always lasts   -  until six o’clock in the evening.


Daily Mail - November 2012

Liz tells with brutal candour how she hated her brother

One of the happiest days of my life was when I heard that my brother had died.  Suddenly, a long dark shadow that had blighted my entire existence was lifted.

I know this sounds a terrible thing to say. We are supposed to love our brothers and sisters and in fact the word’ brother’ is synonymous in many languages with the highest, purest kind of love. 

But going against everything we are supposed to feel for our siblings, I hated my brother and he hated me, to the point of pathology.

Why? How did such hatred set in so that for the last 20 years of his life we were only communicating, angrily, through lawyers?

The story goes back to my parents’ marriage.  My mother, in common with many women at the time, had made a hasty wartime marriage to a man she soon discovered had severe personality and addiction problems.  She very much wanted a child but intended to have only one.

As the marriage gradually deteriorated, I was born and from the start, seemed to be a bright, normal child. I was totally adored by my parents and grandparents, bathed in love. My mother was shocked and horrified when she became pregnant again while still breastfeeding.  She did not want this new baby and tried everything to abort it.

But setting up what was to be a lifetime’s pattern before birth, he was not so easily got rid of and was born 18 months after me, a very different proposition.  For whereas I was bright and a quick learner, my bother, Richard, was slow and stupid.  Today, he would probably be diagnosed with mild learning difficulties or possibly autism.

At the time, he was just considered thick, and nobody liked him, including his parents.  As time went on, I was routinely at the top of the class and passed the eleven-plus to go to grammar school. Richard, meanwhile, sank to the bottom and stayed there and the teachers despaired of him.  He seemed to be good at nothing, and his behaviour, on his school reports, was labelled ‘inexplicable’.  He got into fights, was rude to the teachers, destructive and impossible to control at home.

But worse, from his earliest years, he nursed an implacable hatred of me, his only sister. This became ever more extreme with time and was, I’m afraid, reciprocated.  We hated each other with a passion that could not be mitigated by any means. He either refused to speak to me at all, or started hitting out at me for no apparent reason and I felt myself to be completely superior to him in every way.

Nobody knew what to do with Richard. Everything was tried; cubs, scouts, Sunday School, even dancing lessons and at every one, he was asked to leave as he was so disruptive.

None of this was helped by the fact that I was the firm favourite of both parents and by contrast, an insufferable goody goody. The question, ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?” was often asked and of course, this deepened his hatred still further.

It seemed impossible that Richard would ever pass any exams and so he left school at 15 without any qualifications to work at a petrol station.  There was no question of him having a career; nobody thought he would even be able to hold down a simple job.  And so it proved. He drifted from one low-grade job to another until my mother decided to take him into her business.

Soon after the war, she had opened a flower shop in St Neots, the small East Anglian town where we lived, and it became very successful. A talented florist and astute businesswoman, she had become the breadwinner while my father drifted into irreversible alcoholism.

By this time I was away at university, and on the path to having a graduate career.  Now something strange happened. Our father died and our mother’s allegiance changed. Instead of me, Richard became the favourite, indulged in adulthood in a way that had never happened when he was a child.

Richard did no work at the shop, often did not turn up at all, took money out of the till and endless time off, knowing he would never get the sack. He had made a very early marriage and quickly had two children, which meant that before long, our mother’s business was having to provide for three more people.  Richard started having many grand ideas, including opening a chain of shops, none of which ever came to anything.  His wife, wanting to better him, tried to encourage him to go to evening classes but they didn’t last either.

Meanwhile, he was acquiring a reputation as something of a Jack the Lad in the locality, somebody who could hold forth impressively in pubs with a lot of big talk. 

Although he had been taken into the business and eventually made a partner, this did not remove or reduce the chip on his shoulder as regards me.  It was too late and the hatred kept increasing. He set out systematically not only to deprive me of any element of inheritance, but to turn our mother against me.  By now, he never spoke to me at all, and even if he happened to be there when I went to visit our mother, he would just ignore me.

His first marriage had broken up and he somehow persuaded another susceptible woman to marry him. His first wife eventually ran screaming from him, as did the second.

As our mother grew older and frailer, she became pathetically dependent on Richard and championed him at every turn as he bullied her into changing her will to exclude myself and my two sons, Tom and Will. He gained power of attorney, after which he started emptying her bank accounts.

I only knew about this when, one day, my ex-husband happened to call in on my mother, and she said to him, “Richard’s got all my money.” Of course, Neville related this to me and I started to investigate.  Whatever could it mean? This is where the lawyers came in as I did not trust myself to write a rational letter to him, and I discovered the truth. I rang my mother to ask what it was all about and her last words ever to me were, ‘I want Richard to have everything. I don’t want any more to do with you.  Richard is seeing to everything, thanks very much.’

Not long after this conversation, which took place with Richard lurking in the background, feeding her the lines, she went into a nursing home as she was by now too frail to look after herself.  He sold her house and pocketed all the money, without informing or consulting me.  As her attorney, he could apparently legally do this.

Then 10 or so years later, in 2003, she died and this time I had a phone call from Richard informing me brusquely of the fact and breaking a decades-long silence by saying,  ‘I don’t expect you will want to come to the funeral.’

I didn’t, and I never heard from him again. Needless to say, there was nothing whatever left in the estate.

Then, in May 2007, I got an email out of the blue from Richard’s daughter Samantha, now aged about 40, to say that Richard had gone into hospital for a minor operation and died there of a heart attack.  I had not seen or heard anything of Sam since she was about 10 years old, when her parents had separated.  She had not spoken to her father either for about 20 years but said they had been reconciled just before his death.  As expected, Sam told me he had died in profound debt, but not before he had made a third marriage to yet another poor unsuspecting female.

After he died, an old friend who had known him, said bluntly: ‘He is somebody who should never have been born.’  She did not know about the unwanted pregnancy and the abortion attempts, but she hit the nail on the head.  Another friend, commenting on his marriages, said: ‘The only explanation is that all those women must all have had a death wish.’

When he was alive, I had not feltcomfortable visitin my home town, for fear of bumping into him. But after hearing the news, some sort of release happened. I booked myself into a nearby hotel and reconnected with my birthplace, discovering that all my negative feelings about it had vanished. The town was, of course, pretty much unrecognizable and a sign of the times was that my mother’s long-established flower shop had become a tanning salon.

So, a tragic tale, but could the childhood hatred ever have been reversed?  Could there ever have been any hope of reconciliation?

Apparently not. For years, I had kept my shameful secret to myself. All I would say to others is, ‘we don’t get on’ and leave it at that. But after Richard’s death I could finally face and acknowledge the extent of the mutual hatred.  And according to American psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer, sibling hatred at this deep level is by no means uncommon, but is such a taboo it is rarely acknowledged.

Safer has recently written a book, Cain’s Legacy, which explores the phenomenon, and which is possibly the first to face this reality. Safer’s book is all the more powerful because it is written from her own experience of being estranged from her brother from birth, and from being the favoured sibling herself.

She believes the level of bitter hatred that both she and I experienced sets in before we can speak and as such, goes way beyond the normal. Yes, all siblings fall out, feel jealous and fight and quarrel, but often they are able to patch up their differences and remain reasonably fond of each other.  But when parents favour one child over another, says Safer, ‘this sets you up for a lifetime of strife.  People don’t want to talk about it, and yet it accompanies us throughout life, getting worse all the time.

‘You can never quite sever a bond with a hated sibling in the way you can with a former marriage partner or business partner for instance, and then when parents age, you have to deal again with unresolved issues which have festered and deepened over the years.

‘The matter of money or inheritance brings up all the ancient hurts and slights, and the animosity does not end with death.’ Safer reckons that at least one-third of American families experience bitter sibling rivalry.

She says that she took being the favoured child totally as her due, as I did myself, and she imagines all favoured siblings do the same. Like me, Safer was bright and academic and her brother was, again like mine, a ne’er do well dullard. Of course my brother was also a cheat and a liar and eventually, arch-manipulator of a vulnerable old lady.

Safer says this kind of rivalry can never be addressed with rationality and intelligence and indeed, highly gifted, thoughtful people may suffer just as badly as the uneducated and unintelligent.  Writer Margaret Drabble, for instance, has spoken of her long estrangement from her novelist sister, Booker prizewinner A.S Byatt.

Here are two successful, high-achieving women and it seems they hate each other. Their feud, which also started at birth, is, according to Drabble, unresolvable and completely beyond repair.  Again, it came about because Margaret, the younger one, was their mother’s favoured child.

Pathological, irrational sibling rivalry, according to Jeanne Safer, always stems from one child being favoured over another by parents, rather than whether one is more gifted or talented than another. It is something parents need to take on board, as the hurt can never be healed or overcome.

Literature and myth abounds with such tales, such as the Bible stories of Cain murdering his brother Abel, and Joseph’s jealous brothers hating him so much they sold him into slavery.  Many powerful plays, novels and films hinge on implacable sibling hatred, one of the most famous film treatments being Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. 

These stories hit home because they are so often, tragically, mirrored in real life yet until now this has been the hate that dare not speak its name. 




Daily Mail - July 2012

;oisoned legacy of the Bloomsbury group

On my first day at grammar school, as I got off the bus, I noticed an ancient Rolls-Royce driving up.  Behind the wheel was a singularly arty-looking woman and beside her sat a fair-haired eleven year old girl.

The woman was artist and writer Angelica Garnett and the girl was Amaryllis, her oldest daughter.

Angelica, who has just died aged 93, was intricately connected to the Bloomsbury Group.  The illegitimate daughter of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and niece of Virginia Woolf, she was only a few days old when novelist David Garnett, 26 years her senior and her father’s gay lover, announced that one day he would marry her.

Nobody took much notice at the time but he duly made her his second wife and their relationship, which produced four daughters in three years, has passed into gasp-making legend.

Back in 1955, when Amaryllis and I first met and became classmates and friends, none of this was known, at least not to the general public.  Even so, it was immediately apparent that Amaryllis was very different from the rest of us and not only in the matter of her unusual name.

For one thing, both of her parents, unlike any of ours, came from a long line of illustrious high-achievers.  One day our English teacher held up a book, Aspects of Love, to the class. “This novel,” he proudly announced, “is by Amaryllis’s father, David Garnett.” The rest of the class stared as Amaryllis squirmed in embarrassment, but she was going to have to get used to it, as there was plenty more to come.  Nobody else in the school had a famous author for a father.

In the school library, there was a row of big red books by Russian authors, all translated by Constance Garnett. I picked one up and asked Amaryllis, ‘any relation? “Yes,” she said “she was my grandmother.” Constance Garnett, mother of David, translated no less than 80 volumes of Russian literature into English and her husband, publisher’s reader Edward Garnett, discovered many authors of genius, among them D.H. Lawrence.

My own name at the time was Garrett, only one letter removed from Garnett, but otherwise we could not have been more different.  For a girl from a working-class background where people could hardly read and write, to be friends with Amaryllis was a high privilege indeed.  She began to introduce me into a literary, artistic and free-thinking milieu such as I could never have imagined,

Highly gifted at art and English, she was precociously well read and already spoke fluent French, the result of many holidays spent in France. She called her parents by their first names, Angelica and Bunny, David Garnett’s lifelong nickname and her Siamese cats, Murasaki and Genji, were worlds away from our own mongrel moggies.

Although initially shy and reserved, Amaryllis could be fun and mischievous when she relaxed and she had an anarchic streak, soon breaking school rules with abandon and customizing the strict uniform. Because she was a Garnett, the teachers indulged her, while trying not to.

In our second year, she was joined by her younger sister Henrietta, a very different character. Henrietta was dark-haired, flamboyant and sexy, looking very much like her grandfather, the handsome Duncan Grant.  Again, she spoke fluent French with a proper French accent and was gifted at art and literature.

The following year, two more Garnetts came, the twins Nerissa and Frances, known as Fanny, meaning that by now the vintage Rolls was very full indeed.  The twins were total tomboys without a vestige of femininity.  They minute they got home they would change out of their school uniform into trousers.  When I asked Amaryllis what they wore to parties, she said, “They have masses and masses of new trousers.”  No girl in those days ever wore trousers or jeans to parties but being Garnetts, they were given special dispensation in many areas.

The twins were also into martial arts, then very new in the West and Nerissa once broke a school record for throwing the discus, the only Garnett who showed a vestige of sporting prowess.  Because the twins had each other, they had less need to make friends with other girls, and kept much to themselves.

Between them, the four Garnetts soon started filling up every issue of the school magazine with their artwork, stories, poems and philosophical musings.  Their work was of a particularly high standard for schoolgirls and the rest of us could not compete.  They took star roles in school plays, won poetry-reading competitions with their posh accents, played instruments in the school orchestra and seemed dazzlingly talented and self-assured in every artistic sphere.

As we got older, Amaryllis, Henrietta, myself and another friend called Vicky, bonded closely and did everything together, as an inseparable foursome.  For Vicky and me, the Garnetts provided an entrée into an exotic, bohemian and unconventional world that included such daring departures from the norm as black jumpers and atheism.

At a school ballet trip, Amaryllis turned up looking very adult in a tight black jumper. Immediately, I asked my mother if I could have one just like it and although she demurred, I got my way.  Then Amaryllis announced, shockingly, that she was an atheist and did not believe in God.  This was at a time when everybody went to church on Sunday.  After Assembly one morning, a teacher came up to her and said: “Why weren’t you praying in Assembly? Why did you not have your head down and your eyes closed?”  Quick as a flash and not remotely contrite, Amaryllis answered: “How do you know I wasn’t praying?”

Angelica, who had what we would now call a boho-chic, or grunge, appearance, ungroomed but stylish and colourful, often invited her daughters’ friends over during the holidays so finally, I was able to see their home for myself.

Again, it was a revelation. Hilton Hall, in the village of Hilton just outside St Ives, was a detached early Georgian manor house set back from the road, and film-set arty inside. Mostly there were no carpets but dark-stained wooden floorboards and Aubusson and Kelim rugs on the floor.  Only the living room, stacked floor to ceiling with books, had a pale-green fitted carpet.

Paintings were everywhere on the walls, by Grant and Bell of course, but there were also originals by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso.  The huge stone-flagged kitchen had a dishwasher – the first I had ever come across – and contained then unknown foods, at least to me, such as caviar and yoghurt. There were wine racks filled with French wine and all round the house, lots of musical instruments: violins, cellos, pianos, harpsichords.

Outside there was a farm where David Garnett kept a small herd of Jersey cows, an outdoor swimming pool, a dovehouse – where Angelica painted – and an orchard.  It was a magic garden such as I had never seen before and in the garden were sculptures by Stephen Tomlin, who I had never heard of at the time but who became noted for his heads of Bloomsbury Group members such as Virginia Woolf.

I was very nervous and shy when confronted with all this high culture and knew I could never invite any of the Garnetts back to my own bleak suburban home which contained no literature or art of any kind.  Here was the ultimate contrast; the Garnetts, whose literary and artistic heritage went back centuries and my own, where people barely survived. Instead of going to Cambridge and translating Russian literature, my own grandmother had gone out to service at 12.

Yet we became ever closer, bunking off school to go to exhibitions and London art galleries and – the final touch of glamour -  hanging out in Vanessa Bell’s London flat.  We went on Ban the Bomb marches, where we sat next to philosopher Bertrand Russell, then aged about 90 and a huge icon for youth of the time.  Naturally, he had been a close friend of David Garnett, who had sent his son Richard, from his first marriage, to Russell’s progressive school, Beacon Hill.

The Garnetts were exotic ingredients in my mundane world and it seemed certain they would, as adults, make a significant mark in the wider world.

So did it come to pass?

Amaryllis left school at 16, by now a tall, elegant teenager, to go to Cranborne Chase, an exclusive girls’ boarding school.  Her fees were paid by a rich American benefactor who was an early Bloomsbury groupie, so our tight little circle was diminished.  We stayed in touch though, meeting up in the holidays, going to the cinema and punting on the river Cam.  She then went to drama school and suddenly became very actressy, calling everybody ‘darling’ in best Thespian style.

By now, Henrietta was attracting boys at every turn and was secretly seeing one special boyfriend in London.  He was Burgo Partridge, 10 years older and the only son of diarist Frances Partridge, the sister of David Garnett’s first wife Ray.  So again, there was almost uncomfortably close intertwining.  Aged 17, she rang me up one day and said: “You’ll never guess in a million years!”  I guessed immediately: “You’re getting married.”

I was right.  A wedding was hastily arranged in December 1962, just as her own parents’ marriage was finally falling apart. The following August, aged just 18, she had a baby, by Caesarean section.  Only three weeks later her husband dropped down dead in front of her, of a totally unexpected heart attack.  It took Henrietta several years, and several more husbands, to get back on track.  She spent the years following Burgo’s death as a wild gipsyish bohemian, while others looked after Sophie, her daughter.  She never had any more children and in the event, was the only one of the four girls to marry or reproduce.

Amaryllis duly became an actress and was championed by Harold Pinter, who found her a small part in his film adaptation of The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates and directed by Joseph Losey. Soon after that, her life disintegrated badly and she was living on a houseboat on the Thames, having become wildly extravagant with no visible means of support.  She drowned in the Thames, aged just 29, in a ghastly echo of her great-aunt Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning.

As for the tomboyish twins, their great artistic promise was never fulfilled, either. Nerissa won a scholarship to the Slade and experimented with many art forms, yet never really found a niche.  The last time I saw her, she had just left Findhorn, the alternative community in Scotland where she had spent several years living in a caravan, studying spiritual movements.  By then, Aspects of Love had been made into a musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the three remaining Garnett girls found themselves rich. Nerissa died in 2004.  Fanny became a farmer in France, fading right out of the limelight, by her own choice.  Perhaps all that heritage was just too heavy for her.

Henrietta, who finally found her feet and became an acclaimed biographer, now also gives amusing, entertaining public talks about her family.  Unsentimental about her background, she acknowledges that the tremendous gifts and privileges have been mixed with almost equal tragedy.

Yes a high price was exacted for the great achievements of your family but, Garnett girls, I am proud and privileged to have known you.  You will never know how greatly you enhanced my teenage years.


Henrietta Garnett’s biography of the pre-Raphaelite women, Wives and Stunners, will be published by Macmillan in August. 




Daily Mail - May 2012

Liz and Alex meet up after 47 years

Dream of being reunited with your first love? One woman’s tale of staying friends with an ex

PUBLISHED: 22:27, 13 April 2012 | UPDATED: 22:27, 13 April 2012

At a lovely summer party given by a schoolfriend in our old hometown of Huntingdon, I became aware of a tall, elderly, white-haired gentleman striding purposefully towards me.

Now, it’s many years since men of any age strode eagerly in my direction, so I wondered who he was and what he wanted.

As he got near, he said, ‘Liz?’

‘Yes?’ I replied to this complete stranger.

‘It’s Alex, Alex Williams.’

‘No! I don’t believe it!’

Reunited: Liz Hodgkinson and Alex Williams were lovers 47 years ago. Now they are just good friends, but their reunion was a poignant moment for both

Alex had been my first ‘real’ boyfriend when I met him as a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Cambridgeshire; the first young man who had ever made my heart beat faster.

It was thrilling to see him again unexpectedly after so many years. Once I recovered from my shock, he uttered the mischievous words: ‘We never really split up, did we?’

Indeed, we did not. We just drifted away from each other in the way one did in those days, without ever saying goodbye or realising that we might never meet again.

Even though I had not seen him for 47 years and would never have recognised him, we instantly bonded once more.

A rapturous reunion and floods of shared memories followed, accompanied by generous amounts of wine.

‘I love my sugar daddy lifestyle!’ Student, 21, who finds rich older man on controversial dating site gives up nursing dreams to pursue lucrative life as a ‘sugar babe’
One enjoyed privilege, the other hardship… The sisters raised 30 miles apart but in cruelly different worlds
Sixty the new forty? Don’t kid yourselves, ladies… Why trying to be a sex siren in your seventh decade is downright deluded
We both realised that we couldn’t just drift out of each other’s lives again — particularly as it turned out we lived so near each other, with me in Oxford and Alex in Cheltenham, an hour’s drive away. Now and then, Alex had flashed into my mind over the years, but not with a strong enough impetus to try to make contact. But now, having met him again, it became clear he’d made a strong impression all those years ago — and was reinforcing that now.

There’s always an inherent danger in reconnecting with old flames, especially those from your very distant past. Either you wonder what on earth you saw in each other in the first place, or, even more dangerously, there may be a remaining little spark, not quite extinguished, which threatens to re-ignite itself against all the odds.

There is possibly even more risk involved when one of you is single and the other is married (I’ve been single since my partner died in 2004 and Alex is happily married).

Perhaps most threatening of all is the fact that however many years have passed, if you knew someone when they were young, to you they always are young. The minute I met Alex again, all those years and decades rolled away as we saw ourselves as 18-year-olds again.

Back in 1961, Alex Williams had been one of the most glamorous young men I had ever encountered.

He was an art student at St Martin’s School of Art, rake-thin, dark, handsome, brooding and talented. I was a raw sixth-former, longing for sophistication and decadence, and he seemed to provide it.

He was that little bit older and had already escaped to London.

Bright young thing: Liz in her youth

We had met as aspiring young intellectuals at the Huntingdon Music and Arts Society (a regular gathering for those interested in the arts) and rapidly progressed to the kind of teenage parties I would call ‘sex orgies’ in my diary at the time, not having any idea what a genuine sex orgy might be.

Alex and I were instantly attracted to each other, but as he was away at St Martin’s, we could only meet up in the holidays. We fancied ourselves as the fashionable young things of Huntingdonshire, gilded youths who could get away with anything.

And for those who imagine that teenagers in those far-off days were innocent, demure young creatures who never did anything wrong, I have news. Alex and I — and our friends — were no strangers to falling out of nightclubs at 3am, or binge-drinking, come to that.

We would stagger drunkenly into the meadows of Godmanchester, the pretty village where Alex’s parents lived, and wonder how on earth we would ever get home. We went on pub crawls, driving our parents’ cars while well under the influence and, one night, painted the village white with huge ban-the-bomb signs.

It all felt so daring and exciting. Alex was a young bohemian, up to all sorts of mischief, and I was a besotted schoolgirl, ready to follow his lead. But underneath the teenage rebellion, he was ambitious, dedicated and completely obsessed with art. I was ambitious, too, with a secret yearning to be a writer.

It all felt so daring and exciting. Alex was a young bohemian, up to all sorts of mischief, and I was a besotted schoolgirl, ready to follow his lead

Alex and I last met in Paris in 1962. I had gone with two girlfriends, just before we all parted for university, and Alex and two of his friends joined us, somewhat secretly, later — our parents were not to know.  But I think Alex had already moved on; meeting girls at art school who were far more exotic and experienced. And I was about to embark on a new life as a university student and wanted to feel free of Huntingdon.

The oomph, if such it was, had already gone out of the relationship, and we faded out of each other’s lives, with no contact of any kind, until three years ago.

Brooding: Alex as a young art student

After parting, we both soon fell in love with other people, made very early first marriages, both aged 21, had families, children (a boy and girl for him; two boys for me), got divorced, buried our parents and were fortunate enough to find fulfilling new relationships in later life. By the time we met again, Alex was happily married to his second wife Celia, a maternity nurse.

I had been single since my partner, the writer John Sandilands, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004. 

So what now? Alex and I were no longer bright young things, but grandparents, hurtling towards our threescore years and ten. Even our children were middle-aged.

We agreed at this party that we would stay in touch but we understood that in our case, the youthful romance had long burned itself out and there was nothing left to ignite.

Friendship, on the other hand, was on the cards. The next time we saw each other was when Alex invited me to his arty home for dinner. There I met Celia, his wife. She had been at the party but I had been too drunk, or too surprised, to notice anybody much but Alex. Celia was brilliant from the start.

A very attractive, warm and friendly woman, about ten years younger than Alex, she encouraged the friendship and we soon bonded.

It became clear to me Alex and Celia were very much in love and really only had eyes for each other. Celia expressed regret that she’d never known Alex as a very slim young man with jet-black hair, as I had. Thankfully, over time, Alex and I slotted into an easy, mature friendship that included Celia, our children and their partners.

As I learned more of Alex’s life, I began to appreciate what a desperate struggle he’d endured to follow his dream, go to art school and become an artist. He had been opposed at every turn by his strict father, a RAF squadron leader, decorated war hero and ultimate man’s man.

As I learned more of Alex’s life, I began to appreciate what a desperate struggle he’d endured

Mr Williams senior wanted his elder son to have a proper job with nice guaranteed pension.

Artists were, in his view, poncy layabouts, and his wayward, untamed son seemed to be fulfilling all his worst fears. There were mighty family battles behind closed curtains, something I had not known at the time. Alex’s life had been full of thrills and spills, success and failure, acceptance and rejection, huge elation and deep despair.

While his college friends David Hockney and Peter Blake enjoyed international fame and success at an early age, Alex took longer to find his unique style, and establish himself as a significant modern artist.  But he got there in the end.

I was so intrigued I suggested we collaborate on his biography, and Alex agreed. It meant delving deep into his psyche and dishing it up for the general public to read, but also spending months in close contact — as it turned out, ringing or emailing each other almost daily and meeting frequently.

Celia, bless her, was very supportive of our project. She was generous with hospitality and time, in spite of having her own busy career.

Meanwhile, I got to know Alex better than ever before. In the mature man, I found a restless but warm-hearted, witty and kind but still ferociously ambitious, person.

I also learned that art came first.  Anybody who embarked on a relationship with him had to accept that — a sacrifice that would have been too much for me.

As much as I enjoyed our time together, we could never have been life-time partners. Our teenage fling was just that — a fling.

Two years after our reunion, our book is almost out.

What’s more, we’ve disproved all those who say you can’t be friends with an ex — particularly your childhood sweetheart.

And now we have the best kind of relationship there is: close, affectionate, productive — and platonic.

Alex Williams: The Survival of an Artist by Liz Hodgkinson is published by Quartet Books at £35 on May 2.

Daily Mail - April 2012

Why give a party?

Have you tried to give a party recently?

If so, you will find that etiquette has changed or more likely, become non-existent.  The formal, polite rules of the past no longer apply and these days, giving a party is often not so much an occasion to be eagerly anticipated and enjoyed as an exercise in extreme masochism.

However, if you have an occasion you want to mark – landmark birthday, housewarming, housecooling, anniversary, retirement, perhaps - and it’s ages since you gave a party anyway, it may sound like a good idea to have a few friends round for drinks and food.

But be warned. This is what typically happens, if my recent experience is anything to go by.

You pencil in a date, weeks or even months ahead, and sketch out a guest list. This includes your must-haves, your optionals and – with any luck – your big celebrity guest, the draw who will entice all the others along. 

You then think about a venue, and decide it will be nicest to hold the party in your own home. Church halls and upstairs function rooms of pubs are simply too bleak for words.  You plump for a lunchtime do at the weekend, as this seems to make more sense than asking people to turn out on a weekday evening, especially as some will be coming quite a long way and/or are elderly. 

You calculate that, at a pinch, 50 people will fit into your house and you send out that number of invitations, in good time, by email and snail mail. You state clearly the date, time and place, and wait for the replies.  Some come back instantly, yes or no. Most are noes, including your big celebrity guest. One invitee rings: “You did say it was this Sunday, didn’t you? Oh sorry, thought it was this week. No, we can’t come on the 26th.”

You cross off the noes, to find your original 50 people have now whittled down to fewer than 30, and of those, some say they will ‘try awfully hard’ to make it. You rummage through your address book to make up the numbers, sending out 10 -15 more invitations. Five of those reply.  You send reminders; still the others do not respond.  Nor do they answer the phone or call you back. 

You now hope that, with a bit of luck, 30 people will turn up and so, armed with your will-they, won’t-they, guest list, it’s time to think about food. You decide to have the party catered, thus saving yourself the additional stress of cooking. You ring round a few local caterers to discover all are booked for that date. Eventually you find a firm who can do it and you ask them to cater for 30. They arrange to deliver one hour before the party starts. You order the wine, glasses and non-alcoholic drinks. 

There is now less than a week to go. The phone starts ringing, emails start crowding your inbox. Sorry, I forgot, we can’t come. Sorry, we’ll be away that weekend. Didn’t realise it clashed.  Sorry, my son’s just come back from his gap year. And they are the ones who actually let you know.

Comes the day. You have invited people for one o’clock, for buffet lunch. The phone rings continuously, from 9am. Sorry, we can’t make it after all. Sorry, the car’s broken down. Sorry, I’ve gone down with flu.  Is it OK if I bring a friend?  Can my daughter’s boyfriend come?  You now have no idea of numbers; however the food arrives on time and you just hope the mountains of nosh will disappear.

It’s one o’clock. You have a glass of wine to steady your nerves.  The house looks fantastic, the food looks fantastic, you look fantastic. You’ve had your hair done, bought a new dress, splashed out on some expensive scent.  Only thing is, there are no guests. One-thirty. Still no guests. You have another glass of wine. The salad is starting to wilt, your lipstick has come off on the wine glass. Your stress levels are astronomical.

Two o’clock. The doorbell rings. Your first guest! No, it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You wonder about inviting them in anyway, just so that somebody attends your party.  Next ring, it is the guests – every one of them.  They are all bearing gifts – wine, chocolates, flowers, gardening books, the latest Nigella, scented candles – even though you have said on the invitations: no presents, please.

Suddenly, you cannot cope. You are trying to fill glasses, introduce people, tell them where to put coats and indicate the loo, all at once. But – conversation is buzzing, and the food is disappearing fast. Everybody is starving. Nobody is drinking the wine, though. Your vast array of bottles stays resolutely unopened.  Everybody wants soft drinks as they are either driving or they no longer drink at lunchtime. Even your booziest friend is on antibiotics and on the wagon.

Damn! You have only got in two bottles of elderflower cordial and two cartons of orange juice.

But everybody seems to be chatting and laughing and enjoying themselves.  Relief floods through you but you dimly wonder: where is Jill? What happened to Mike?  Where are Chloe and Peter? Your next door neighbours haven’t turned up, either.  The 10-year old you asked to video this unique event has forgotten and is on your computer, playing games.

However, the level of chatter, the buzz, is terrific. Then, in an instant, it’s all over. The guests have departed and you survey the detritus – the red wine stain on your new white armchair, the empty glasses, the food trodden into the carpet, the umbrellas and coats left behind in the cloakroom.

You realise you never got round to speaking to X and you never introduced Y to Z,  either.

You clear up, sit down, make a cup of tea and experience the most massive downer, a cloud of dark depression. The phone rings. It’s Jill. “You did say it was this evening, didn’t you?”  You do not hear a word from Mike, Chloe and Peter as to why they didn’t make it. Or the neighbour.

After the party, not a single person rings or writes to say thank you. It seems they all thought they were doing YOU a huge favour by turning up.

You ask yourself: was it worth it? Why do I bother? 

But must it be like this? It appears so.

Novelist Rosemary Friedman has a whole chapter on party giving in her new memoir, Life’s a Joke.  A frequent entertainer, she keeps a book, not only of menus, wines and dates, but of guests as well, labelling them ‘no show’ ‘boring’ ‘turned up late’ ‘too rude to reply’.

Rosemary reckons the number of guests who turn up is always around 55 per cent of those invited. If you send out 181 invitations, you end up with 89 guests; for 112 invitations you will get 68 acceptances and 137 invitations will yield 71 guests. Invitations to 40 will yield on average, 26.

Afterwards, she always has a post-mortem to try and ensure the next party is even better. “I write things down like, more elderflower cordial next time – so many people no longer drink – and not to do asparagus again as it is too messy to eat, for example,” she says.

She maintains that you always have to feed your guests properly and that nibbles should never be considered enough. But she says the stress levels are so high that after every party she also asks herself: “Was it worth it?”

Another indefatigable party giver, travel writer Angela Humphery, says, “Entertaining is a bugger!  It’s stressful and expensive, and more often than not, people don’t return your hospitality!” 

She adds: “If you are holding the party at home, you really need a kitchen that will accommodate up to 50 people, as that’s where guests always congregate. Even in summer you can never be sure enough of the weather to hold it in the garden.

“As for ensuring that guests turn up - especially when you are having it catered and therefore must pay per guest – the best thing is to ring round about three days beforehand, saying you need to firm up numbers because you have to pay the caterers upfront.  Of course, between then and the actual day friends can still fall ill or down the stairs!  You can also cater for 2-4 less and if they all turn up, hope they don’t eat too much. If it’s a sit-down meal – and this should be stressed on the invitation – there’s less likely to be no shows. But when I did the final ring-round for my last such party, one or two said they couldn’t make it.

“Would they have told me if I hadn’t rung them? I doubt it.”  One wonders whether the Queen has the same problems with her garden parties.

Angela often hosts fundraisers for various charities, and believes that for these, rudeness levels are even worse.  “Guests have already paid, so don’t feel they have to come if they can’t or don’t want to.”

When I left my London house six years ago, I gave a ‘housecooling’ to which I invited several neighbours in the street. Not one neighbour replied, not one turned up.
Luckily some friends came but there was loads of food left over which had to be thrown away.

So why do we impose this torture on ourselves? The answer must be that, in spite of the stress, the expense, the worry and the casual, cavalier attitude of today’s guests, party-giving fever grips us once in a while like a dread disease. It’s rather like some women who, once they have put away the nappies, the prams, the Babygros and the cots, suddenly decide to have another baby.

You know it makes no sense on any level, but somehow you have to do it.


Life’s a Joke, Arcadia Press, £11.99

As the party season hots up, here are some stress-reducing tips for guests and hosts:

Tips for guests

As soon as you receive the invitation, write the date and time down in your diary and reply;
If the hostess says: no presents, please don’t bring any;
Don’t ever ring on the day of the party; 
Arrive on time or not more than half an hour late;
If the party is being catered, exact numbers are crucial as the food is charged per head,  so don’t mess your hostess around;
Casual dress is OK unless otherwise stated. Your hostess would rather have you in dirty jeans than not at all. (Not that dirty jeans are recommended) 

Tips for hostesses

If at all possible, have the party in your own home;
If space or finances permit, hire bartenders to fill people’s glasses;
Make sure you feed people properly;
Have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks. You will be surprised at the number of your guests who don’t drink any more;
Have a strict policy on children. They take up space without adding to the gaiety;
Expect about half of those invited actually to turn up.
Don’t ever cater the party by asking people to ‘bring a dish’. Many will forget, there will be duplication, and you may get awful food as well. 


The Lady magazine - December 2010

boring older men

This piece was actually published in the Daily Mail, not the Telegraph

A few weeks ago I went to garden party given by an old friend. There were about 30 of us there, all longtime chums, mainly middle-aged or older. I was having such a good time chatting and catching up that something strange only occurred to me later. 

In all the fun and jollity, not a single man had spoken to me – and nor had I spoken to a single man!  While the women talked and reminisced, the men just went round with bottles of wine in their hands, filling glasses and saying nothing.  We’d smiled, said hello, but not had any actual conversation. 

Really, the men might as well not have been there. So why is it that so many men in my age group – mid-60s – are so stupefyingly dull?

If you go to a gathering where older people congregate – wedding anniversary, birthday party, funeral – you will discover it’s always the same story. The women will be chatty, lively and animated, talking to each other, while the men are cowed in a corner, shaking a few sad last grey hairs and staring into the distance.

Watch almost any older couple having dinner together in a restaurant or hotel and you will notice that they do not say a word to each other.  Instead, they spend the entire meal in complete silence. This scenario is so common it has almost become a cliché: the couple who never speak. Yet if you prise these women apart from the ever-silent hubby by their side, they will never stop talking.

As a single, divorced woman of sixty-plus, I sometimes feel desperate for some male company and conversation. But increasingly, it seems, I’m not going to find it.  Or at least, I’m not going to find a male to match my lively female friends

When I went on a very upmarket cruise a few years ago, I was looking forward to some interesting company, and fascinating exchanges at dinner. Instead, I found just the opposite. I was on my own, so had to make an effort to sing for my supper and strike up conversation with complete strangers. If only the men among the 600 or so passengers had made a similar effort. Instead, they sat through dinner without saying a single word. They never asked me a question and did not appear remotely interested in anything I had to say.

I got divorced in the late 1980s, and then met a wonderful partner, the witty writer John Sandilands. He died in 2004 and I thought a cruise might help me over the loss and – perhaps as an outside chance –to find somebody equally exciting. Both my ex-husband and John had been exceptionally chatty, lively men but maybe they were rare exceptions in a world where the majority of older men seem to be completely silent. 

So, was it me, I wondered? Was I somehow putting these men off, making them nervous?

But no. When I looked round I saw it was just the same on every table. The men were sitting there as silently as if they’d had their tongues cut out. Yet their wives and partners were talking all the time – to other women.

When I asked one of the more voluble men, a cruise lecturer, why he thought this was, he said: “Has it ever occurred to you that they might be shy?”

Shy? Yet all these men were, or had been, successful professionals who had enjoyed big careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen.

And shyness with strangers cannot completely account for their silence and dullness. After all, a lot of women are shy too, and yet almost always, they will do their best to improve the shining hour with conversation, questions and stories.

The husbands of many longstanding female friends, men I have known for years, are often not much better. They too have absolutely no animation, wit or liveliness about them. My late father in law was so silent his wife always answered for him. Even if you asked him a direct question, she would reply, not him.

Just recently, I went to stay with a friend in France. One day an English couple were coming to lunch and my friend warned me that the husband never spoke. I thought she must be exaggerating, but no. He did not say one word before, during or after the meal. What a waste of space!

This paper’s late columnist, the decidedly non-dull Keith Waterhouse, was well aware of the problem.  In his book The Theory and Practice of Lunch, recently reissued by Revel Barker Publishing, he writes: “Lunch, as opposed to dinner, is where you can invite a charming lady without her boring husband.” Like Waterhouse, I often wish I could invite just the female half of a couple to lunch or dinner, and leave the husband at home. All-female parties are almost always jolly occasions where everybody is talking and laughing the whole time; throw in a man or two and all the laughter stops. 

But however excruciatingly painful a social occasion might be when Trappist- monk type men are present, at least they are soon over.

Imagine what it must be like to be hooked up for life with a dull man. These days, many older men – single, widowed, divorced – are putting themselves up hopefully on dating sites. There are increasing amounts of such sites aimed at the over-50s, and they are chock-full of really boring-sounding men. The blokes all say they are looking for a slim, attractive, younger woman (naturally), but what do they have to offer in return?

I’ve been looking on one or two sites in some vague hope but I find that usually, the men offer nothing! They sound so tedious that you almost fall asleep reading their profiles. Once they’ve told you they like walking the dog and pottering about in the garden, that’s about it. And although they may allege they have a good (or ‘wicked’) sense of humour, there is never any indication of it in their write-ups about themselves.

What most of these men are after, I suspect, is the nurse and the purse; a woman who will provide financial and ministering angel care in return for this great privilege of having a man in the house. But women looking for a partner are not fooled; you see the same male profiles on these dating sites month after month and often, year after year.

Unless they are stupendously rich, which most of them are not, they simply haven’t got a chance.

You never see lively interesting older men on the site for the simple reason that they don’t have to put themselves up for grabs.  Such men are so rare that they are snapped up instantly. There are few things as enjoyable as a witty, entertaining male companion, whether for lunch or for life, but where do we find them? Where are they all hiding?

I’d love to find at least an amusing profile on one of the sites but have so far drawn a complete blank.  And there is simply no point to a man who is not amusing; it is their duty to amuse and entertain us.

But it’s not just their lack of conversation, wit and sparkle that’s the problem. Older women nowadays go to a lot of trouble to keep their bodies slim, attractive and healthy, and their minds up to date with all the latest books, films and plays, while the men just let everything go to pot. Most of them never seem to read any books, they never go to the cinema and they are on buckets of pills from a lifetime of unhealthy living and eating.

Yet I don’t remember men being so dull when I was younger. At university and work, it was the men who seemed to call all the shots and the women who remained silent, nodding approvingly. In marriage, it was mainly the men who were the go-getters.

So did something happen to them in late middle age whereby they grew a white beard and a paunch at the same time as taking a vow of eternal silence and withdrawing from active participation in the human race? Often, the only thing an older man can think of to make himself seem cool is to tie his two remaining strands of hair back in a ponytail. But please, chaps, don’t. It puts us off you even more.

Two of my sixty-something male friends offered an explanation of the silent older man syndrome. It sets in, they said, because so many men are quite simply, burned out by the time they reach sixty or so. They’ve often spent a lifetime at work taking orders, toeing the line and they have never developed the social support systems which sustain women, nor have they any idea how to conduct themselves in company.  They feel tired, old, lonely and redundant, just as women of the same age are, finally, coming into their own.

Another older man asked: “What is there to talk about, anyway?” What indeed? Only books, films, current affairs, thoughts, emotions, feelings …

Because their husbands have become so dull, ever more older women are deciding to divorce them. They simply cannot stand the prospect of having this uncommunicative appendage in their lives any longer.  One woman I know divorced her 60-year old husband because she said he had become an embarrassment to her.

Unless they buck their ideas up and start joining in, I can foresee a time when there will be swathes of ditched older men living alone in bedsitters doing crosswords while women of the same age are off having the time of their lives. 

Already, the sheer numbers of desperate older men vainly trying to find something interesting to say about themselves on dating sites is an indication of this coming trend.



Daily Telegraph - October 2010

Publishing online books for free

Published in The Author June 2010

Ever since books were invented, they have cost money to buy. And however heavily discounted they may be on Amazon, at bookshop tables or on supermarket shelves, they always, as a commodity, cost something.

That is, until now. Spearheading what may become a complete revolution in the way we regard a printed volume, one long-established publisher is gradually putting its entire list online, to be read for nothing.  Yes that’s right – you can read their books completely free, and that’s the whole book, not just one chapter.

How To Books, specialising in self-help titles, set up a dedicated website a year ago and has so far put 100 of its books online. Every week, more are added, both new and out of print titles. So does this constitute economic suicide for the publishers and herald even more bad news for the poor old author, already knocked sideways by falling sales, reduced royalties and cancelled commissions?

Well, not really because the earning power of these books doesn’t, as in the past, depend on sales or orders. Instead, it is all governed by the click factor. Every time a viewer clicks on a title and starts to read the book, a number of ads will come up and both author and publisher earn revenue by click, not by sales. 

Publishing director Nikki Read explains all. “We have put enormous research and investment into this, and we knew we were taking the most massive gamble. But we had to do something drastic. Reference books have been particularly hard hit by the internet and as we know, there is a general decline in bookselling anyway.  As publishers, we were finding it difficult to get a backlist title into bookshops as they are only interested in stocking the latest celebrity biography or cookbook.

“One reason we decided to go all out for this model was lack of choice in bookshops.

“Then, although many people want information, they may not be booklovers as such. They are not remotely bothered by cover, binding, design or the look and feel of the book, but just want to have the facts.  Plus, some readers will only want to read bits of a book and leave out the aspects that don’t concern them. 

“People have now become used to large amounts of content being free online, and also the internet has made them impatient. They want the information now, and not have to wait for their Amazon order to arrive or search round bookshops – often in vain.

“It was with these issues in mind that we decided to take the plunge and market our books and authors in a completely new way, and we now believe this is the way forward for our type of publishing.

“We ran a trial site two years ago and it was such a success that we decided to go the whole hog and rather than offering just a chapter or two to be read for free, we would put up the whole book.”

Authors can only benefit, Nikki adds. “At first, our authors were really worried that it would slow down their sales, but this hasn’t happened. The site is giving a new life to out of print books but we are also finding that the online stuff drives hard copy sales as well. We are still producing traditional books, and very often, people who have read a book online will decide to go and buy the hard copy because they want something easy to handle they can refer to again and again. We are now selling one traditional book for every 400 clicks. It may not sound a lot, but it adds up.” 

The site is made possible by Google, which drives suitable ads to the books, so that – for example – you will find ads for specialised insurance next to a book on caravan insurance or running a holiday cottage business.  If you want to know how to run a restaurant, a Google search will direct you to a How To book on the subject, and relevant ads will also come up.

The Google search engine finds and places the ads, and the advertisers have nothing to do with How To Books. The advertisers pay Google and the publishers get a percentage which they share with the authors. The click-through rate varies, but it can be anything from a few pence to £4 per click, and obviously, the more online readers a particular book has, the greater the revenue from clicks. 

The site was very expensive to set up and needed a lot of technical partners to make it work, Nikki says.  “It had to be done professionally, and not in an amateurish way.  The most important aspect is to make sure the right kind of traffic is driven to the pages. A lot of traffic doesn’t necessarily mean revenue, so we have to pay a lot of attention to search engine optimising, and ensure only relevant ads come up.”

Authors are pleased, as they are reaching a whole new readership which is actually earning them money.  “We had a letter recently from one author whose book was long out of print, and he was amazed by his royalty statement as he had earned a significant amount (not disclosed!) from his online readers.

“Royalties are higher than from traditional sales. Authors get 20% of the income generated over the year, and this doesn’t depend on their sales, as in the past. We are finding that financial books of all kinds are doing very well, particularly those about getting out of debt.  Again, people in debt may not feel they can afford to buy a book on the subject, but they can read all about it, and relevant ads will come up near the subject matter.

“We are choosing subjects which are highly likely to be sought on Google, and this is the secret of the site’s success, so far as our authors are concerned. And many of our authors are finding a new audience; those people who don’t go into bookshops but are highly internet-savvy.” 

The existence of the website means a book need never go out of print – or off the site -  and the author can continue to earn, theoretically for ever. This new model is so different from secondhand or charity shop bookselling, where the author earns nothing whatever, however expensively the book changes hands.  And, says Nikki,  thanks to the existence of the site, there is more good news for authors.

“We are now asking authors to write short articles on their subject. They put up ideas to us, and we find key words to incorporate into the article. These key words drive to the ads, and thus to the revenue.  The articles can give authors a monthly income which goes on ad infinitum, and many find they are earning well above the NUJ rate.

“Articles can often succeed where it might be difficult to publish a book. For instance, we recently had a proposal from an author who wanted to write a book on legal advice but we thought it was all too general. So we asked him to break down the information into 20 articles, and he got published that way. We are now asking authors to provide a marketing article which is not a plug but describes markets the book might reach. Then we have a blog whereby authors can talk directly to readers, so it’s all a living thing, and we are investing in social networking.”

So far, adds Nikki, the only people who are not making a profit from this venture are themselves, as the initial investment was so great. But the company are confident that this move will ensure a profitable future for their type of book. 



1296 words


- - June 2010

Audrey Whiting Obituary

Audrey Whiting-Nener, pioneering woman journalist who doubled the circulation of a national Sunday newspaper. Born Hull May 30, 1927, died in London, January 6 2009. Married once, 1954, second wife of Jack Nener (died 1982), editor of the Daily Mirror. No children of the marriage.

None of the feted legendary men of Fleet Street—no Cudlipp or Christiansen, no Edwards or English or Evans -could claim to have doubled the circulation of a national newspaper.

But one woman could and did.

Audrey Whiting, who died on Tuesday, took the circulation of the old Sunday Pictorial (now the Sunday Mirror) to an historic circulation of six million with a truly sensational scoop.

I read this story in 1955 when I was eleven years old and even now can remember the intro: “The least surprised woman in Britain today is ..”

It was the story of a young German woman who claimed – in the days long before IVF or any form of assisted conception – that she did not lose her virginity until two years after her daughter was born. In those days, I didn’t know much about sex and reproduction but even I knew that a man was needed to start the process.

The whole thing seemed completely incredulous and as I read it, I became fascinated both by the story itself and the entertaining, racy way it was written. It seemed so clever that, unusually for an eleven-year old child, I also noticed – and never forgot - the name of the woman who had written it. That story by Audrey Whiting was my introduction to popular journalistic writing at its best, and the first newspaper story I can ever remember reading. At that age, I swallowed it wholesale but learned, much, much later when I had become a journalist myself, that Whiting did not even believe the story she wrote.

However, it was one of the scoops of the decade and was reprised on BBC Woman’s Hour in 2001. It ran in the Pic for five weeks, and was the culmination of an investigation by Whiting and a team of doctors.

Whiting started reporting straight from school on her local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, moved rapidly to the Yorkshire Evening Post and was on the Daily Mirror in London at the – then – remarkable age of 21.

Even more remarkably, for a woman in the cut-throat era of the late 1940s, she was appointed the paper’s Paris correspondent at 23 and New York correspondent two years later, also opening up Hollywood as a base for Fleet Street stories and starting a trend that others were obliged to follow by staffing that city.

The English film star community, led by such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, and the Anglophile American stars loved her approach and admired her professionalism as well as her accuracy in reporting and happily divulged what would became known as ‘the secrets of the stars’ to her.

Later, as chief European correspondent, she uncovered bizarre stories from the Benelux trading consortium about unusual tariff agreements which were the forerunner of the mysterious tales that would years later emerge from the “common market” and the EU.

Her natural reporter’s ability had been honed to perfection by Ken Hord, then news editor, a ruthless master of his craft who had quickly realised that wherever in the world he sent her, she would produce great stories.

In 1953, covering the coronation, she had noticed the close relationship of Princess Margaret with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a royal equerry. The editor, Jack Nener, refused to print the story (which would become a cause celebre), telling Whiting that he was “not prepared to spoil the Queen’s special day.”

Whiting and Nener married later that year, to the great amusement, not to say bemusement, of their colleagues. Nener was a short and short-tempered foul-mouthed character – his initial greeting to Marje Proops, on being introduced by Cudlipp, had been “Pleased to fucking meet you” – while Whiting’s deferential and charming manner masked her inner core of reporting steel. More importantly to the office wags, at 6ft 2inches tall she towered over her new husband. Editorial supremo Hugh Cudlipp described their wedding as “The night of the long wives” and co-workers referred to the couple as Jack and the Beanstalk or “The Long and the Short of it”.

Celebration of the union went on for days in the pubs around Geraldine House in Breams Buildings, the Mirror HQ before the move to Holborn Circus.
After the marriage she was transferred to the Mirror‘s sister paper, the Sunday Pictorial, as in those days it was not allowed for husbands and wives to work on the same paper. It was while working there that she stumbled across an otherwise unnoticed article in The Lancet reporting the claims of a young German woman that she had not lost her virginity until two years after the birth of her daughter.

Stories emanating from Germany then, as now, were often considered incredible and read in Fleet Street with the proverbial pinch of salt. But the point of the Lancet story was that in spite of thorough medical examination doctors had been unable to disprove the woman’s claim, and the coverage in the medical journal added credibility to it.
Whiting not only wrote the story but had the inspiration to add a paragraph at the end asking readers whether they knew of anyone with a similar experience, and inviting them to write in.
Responses arrived at the Sunday Pictorial by the sackload. Women claimed to have conceived via contact with lavatory seats, the secondary use of towels and from shared bath water. Others simply claimed to have produced miracle virgin births.

With such reader reaction the story ran for five weeks, at the end of which the Pic had experienced its own miracle rebirth – doubling its circulation to six million, a record in its history.

Whiting also achieved fame as a Buckingham Palace correspondent. Again, she was the first woman in that role.

Former boxing writer (“Mac of the Pic”) turned theatre critic Bernard McElwaine joked that she got the job “because she was the only one who could see over the wall”. In fact she had befriended a former royal nanny and governess called Marion Crawford, a young working-class Scot who had almost single-handedly been responsible for the upbringing of the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. “Crawfie” had apparently been given permission by the Queen Mother to “leak” suitable stories about the princesses to the American press in the belief that, if done discreetly, it would somehow improve Anglo-American relations. But when the former nanny was identified as an “official” source, she was immediately ostracised by the royal family who claimed to despise what they described as her treachery in selling secrets for cash. Whiting remained, almost solely, as the woman’s friend and confidante.

Through other contacts she was the first to hear of the pending divorce of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, but when the Palace denied it, the Sunday Mirror followed the official line. Similarly, the Palace dismissed her enquiry about the imminent engagement of Princess Anne to Mark Phillips and the paper felt obliged to kill the story – two days before the public announcement.

Not surprisingly, then, she had little time for the mandarins and the internal machinations of Buck House. Nevertheless, she was one of the few journalists who were invited personally to attend the wedding of Charles and Diana.

Nener had retired owing to ill health in 1961. Rapid inflation meant that his once substantial salary became a relatively pitiful pension and Whiting continued to work to support him. Although considered by some to be the doyenne of royal reporters, she never went on a royal tour because she was unwilling to leave her ailing husband alone at home. Nener died in 1982.
Whiting suffered a stroke in August and died peacefully in St Pancras hospital on Tuesday.
Liz Hodgkinson

Audrey Whiting is celebrated in Ladies of the Street, Liz Hodgkinson’s entertaining account of pioneer and leading female Fleet Street journalists.

Gentlemen Ranters web site - January 2009

Shan Davies Obituary

Shan Davies was, quite simply, the toughest female reporter ever known in the Sunday People’s long history. From the time she started working for the paper in 1976, she would enthusiastically undertake assignments that would make even the most hardened male reporters wince and shake their heads.

Determined to be one of the ‘lads’, Shan would drink, smoke and banter along with the best of them. But always, her main concern was to nail the story, however difficult or unlikely.

Her first assignment for the People, as a freelance reporter aged 23, was to expose a farm in deepest Wales which bred dogs for vivisection. For this, she had to go undercover and work there as a kennelmaid. Getting the story involved taking secret pictures and phoning over copy from public telephone boxes, in the days before email or mobile phones were invented.  Shan just managed to send off the last roll of pictures before the farm’s owner became suspicious, smashed her camera in front of her and ordered her immediately off the premises.

The story made the front page with the headline Born to Die, and carried a heartbreaking picture of a newborn puppy scratching helplessly against a wire-netted cage. The farm owner sued the paper which of course resulted in another scoop: the story they tried to ban. Later, the farm was closed down, thanks entirely to Shan. The paper’s head of investigations, Laurie Manifold, realised she was just the kind of girl he wanted, and she was soon taken onto the staff, first as a general reporter and later as the paper’s – and Fleet Street’s – first female crime correspondent.

When she joined the staff, Shan was one of only four women in editorial, out of a total staff of about 150 journalists on the five-million circulation paper.

She seemed game for anything and consorted with criminals, even locking up a notorious murderer in her bathroom and later taking him to a pub to meet her strict Welsh chapel parents. This was only hours after the criminal’s girlfriend had knocked Shan unconscious in another pub, as the girlfriend had expected a male reporter, and assumed, when she saw a very young woman instead, that her criminal boyfriend was cheating on her.

Shan pretended to be a prostitute to get the inside track on the porn industry, and was even offered a part in a raunchy film. This time her cover was almost blown when she dropped her notebook on her way to the ladies’, and it was picked up by the lighting cameraman. After leafing though the book, he handed it back to Shan, saying: “There can’t be many prostitutes with perfect Pitman’s shorthand.” She quickly replied: “Oh, I used to be a secretary. But I couldn’t make enough money at it.”

On one occasion news editor David Farr rang to ask if she was in any danger, to which she replied, “Yes, I am.” Farr said: “Jolly good, pet.”  As crime correspondent, Shan became friendly with Charlie Kray, who introduced her to his contacts and even acted as her minder. She was sent to walk in the footsteps of the Yorkshire Ripper, when he was still at large and FOC Frank Murphy, worrying about her being on her own, asked about protection. People reporter

Trevor Aspinall replied: “Don’t worry, the Ripper can look after himself.”

That’s what people thought about Shan; here was a go-getting girl who would go and get any story at all.

And she did. She got a job as a cleaner in an old people’s home to expose the cruel, inhuman way the residents were treated, she broke into Parkhurst Prison, and armed with her perfect Pitman’s shorthand, covered all the big Old Bailey trials of the day, such as that of the spanking colonel and Michael Fagan, the man who broke into the Queen’s bedroom and surprised her Maj while asleep.

In its heyday the Sunday People specialised in daft, fun stories as well as serious investigations, and the versatile Shan soon showed that she could turn her hand to these as well. She became a barmaid at a pub owned by the Pope’s cousin, thus scooping all of Fleet Street, she proposed to ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton, going down on bended knee, and was a friend of such showbiz luminaries as Barbara Windsor and PJ Proby. Katie Boyle, a famous TV personality of the day, became angry at one of Shan’s stories but again, her perfect Pitman’s stood her in good stead.

She could take any amount of ribbing and laughed along with the rest when working undercover as a freelance at the Sunday Mirror, where her identity could not be revealed. Revel Barker, then in charge of investigations on the paper, said: “Don’t worry, I’ll say it was an attractive blonde in her 20s and nobody will guess it was you.” In later years, Shan often repeated this joke against herself.

Shan Davies grew up in Sheen, South-West London, the second daughter of Margaret and Jack Davies, a bank manager. She was educated at Richmond County School for Girls and left at 16 to attend the Anne Godden Secretarial College in Putney, where her mother was a teacher.  Her burning ambition was always to get to Fleet Street and her excellent shorthand and typing skills landed her a job at the Kilburn Times, where she was indentured. She went on day release to the NCTJ training scheme at Hendon, where one contemporary was Richard Littlejohn.  Her potential was spotted by investigative reporter PJ Wilson, who claims credit for launching her Fleet Street career in the days when the People undertook properly-researched investigations. Often, a witness was required, and Shan came from her local paper in Kilburn to witness a key interview.  PJ was so impressed with her determination and willingness to doorstep for hours that he recommended her to David Farr for shift work.

Before landing a staff job at the People, Shan worked freelance for the Sunday Mirror and also on the group’s house magazine.

I got to know Shan well as not only did we sit next to each other in the People newsroom, we both lived in Richmond and used to travel into work together. Never the neatest of individuals, she was once given the day off work by the fastidious Farr simply to tidy her desk. But although she could present a dishevelled, devil-may-care appearance and attitude, Shan’s mind worked neatly and methodically to get the story, and she could be an amusing writer as well as a hard-hitting investigative reporter.

There was always a showbizzy, actressy side to Shan so it is not all that surprising she married an actor, Hugh Lloyd. She became the story herself when the unlikely romance was leaked to the Sun before her own paper could reveal it. Hugh, a household name at the time, was 30 years Shan’s senior and had been married three times before, so onlookers did not give the marriage much of a chance. In the event, they were true soulmates and would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year.

After her marriage, Shan left the People to freelance and accompany Hugh on his acting assignments. For several years, they were a double act on cruise liners and after they moved to Worthing, they took part in many local campaigns, often dressing up in daft costumes.  Shan became known as the Poet Launderette, for her Ode to a Dirty Sock and other such gems.

When I bought a flat in Worthing, Shan and I met up again and relived many hilarious moments at the People. We then got together to write our stories of women in Fleet Street and Revel Barker commissioned two books from us. One, A Girl on the Street, was to contain Shan’s amazing stories and scoops and the other, Ladies of the Street, was to be a history and celebration of Fleet Street’s finest females.

Shan is duly celebrated in LOTS but her own book never got written. After Hugh died in July this year aged 85, all the fight went out of her and she just wanted to die herself. For the last few months of her life, she was downing a litre of vodka a day and protesting that she had nothing left to live for. She refused all help and died after lapsing into an alcoholic coma, aged just 55.  She never knew that LOTS had been published.

Shan Lloyd, nee Davies, born 1 July 1953; died December 13, 2008. She leaves an older sister, Lynne and her 92-year old mother, Margaret. There were no children from her marriage to Hugh.

Gentlemen Ranters web site - December 2008

10 top tips for successful renting

Now that good mortgage deals are becoming difficult to secure, and the government seems hell-bent on introducing ever more layers of legislation to control the buy-to- let business, it is more vital than ever before to make sure you buy the right property to rent out.

After all, with property prices plummeting fast, the last thing you want is to land yourself with a white elephant, something can neither rent out nor offload at any price. So, in these credit-crunch, belt-tightening times, what do you need to bear in mind if starting or expanding a BTL portfolio in 2008?

Here are my 10 top tips for success in a cooling climate:

  1. Before you even think about buying a property, define your target market very carefully, and decide on the type of tenants you would feel most comfortable with, bearing in mind that there is no property on earth which suits every single rental occupier, and not all markets exist in every area. Ask yourself: am I most interested in aiming at the family market, students, young professionals, the corporate or short-term market, or the social housing sector? Would I be happy to allow children, or a pet such as a dog, cat or caged bird?
  2. Once you have an identikit picture of your ideal tenant, the next thing is to do exhaustive research by haunting letting agents and landlord and tenant websites, to discover which type of properties go fast, and what are the average rents paid, in your chosen area. You are not likely to be able to increase the ceiling rent, however smart or well-appointed your property. The very worst thing you can do in the current climate is to just buy a property and hope somehow you will be able to find high-paying tenants to occupy it. Make sure there is a ready and willing market available before you ever make an offer.
  3. Now, work out your finances very, very carefully. If you cannot pay cash – always the best option when interest rates, but not rents, are on the inexorable up - make sure you have enough money not just for the deposit and buying costs, but also to cover potential voids, repairs and ongoing maintenance. Plus, crucially, enough to cover a possible hike in interest rates. When looking at possible properties, work out all the nastiest figures and go on as many certainties as you can. Never, ever factor in capital growth; this is – as many landlords now know to their cost – little better than backing a horse or buying a lottery ticket. The rental yield must always be able to cover not just the mortgage but incidental expenses, as well as giving you at least some pocket money.
  4. Next, think about the location. The majority of tenants will be people without cars, so your property should be in walking distance of public transport and shops, and in a quiet but safe and pleasant area. Sounds obvious, but many landlords try to go for the cheapest properties, and these are usually in the worst locations. Again, ask letting agents which areas are most requested by tenants, and take their advice on any unpopular or no-go locations.
  5. Now to the actual property. Although location is always more important than the initial condition, the property should be immaculate by the time you come to let it, whatever its condition when you buy it. So, work out how much you would have to spend bringing it up to scratch and whether this amount will still give you a positive cash flow. Also, never buy a rundown property unless you already have a reliable team of contractors you can call on instantly. As with any other business, time is money and you don’t want to buy somewhere in need of total renovation only to find every building firm booked solid for six months.
  6. Should you buy a house or flat? Houses tend to be more expensive to buy and the latest figures from ARLA suggest the rental yields are lower than for flats. Houses also tend to attract sharers, and the more people sharing, the greater the potential problems. Also, with a house, you and you alone are responsible for repairs and maintenance, whereas these costs are shared among all the owners in flats. Further, a house might also count as an HMO, and then you would find yourself landed with all the rules, regulations and fees these now involve.
  7. However, flats come with ongoing service charges, and these can seriously eat into your profit, as there may also be levies or increases from time to time. Local authorities, for instance, can demand a sudden and unbudgeted-for £5 - £10,000 from leaseholders in ex-council blocks to bring an apartment block up to scratch. So, before buying that dinky little flat, check that the service charges are not going to throw all your careful calculations into chaos.
  8. Flats of course come in many guises, from conversions to mansion blocks to purpose-built to newbuild. Conversions often have dingy common parts and some older ones can be extremely tacky. Avoid properties with manky halls and corridors, even when they are cheap, as today’s tenants, with plenty of choice, turn up their noses at them. I have found by trial and error that the properties which let most successfully, time after time, are large studio or one- bedroom apartments on the first or second floor in a purpose-built block where the common parts are neat, clean and tidy with NO bicycles or prams in the hall or corridors. I would also always avoid buying on big estates, especially where there are a lot of kids kicking balls about, or worse. Such properties also often seem suspiciously cheap, but it can be difficult to find good tenants to take them.
  9. If going for a flat, the apartment block should have good security, caretaking services, an efficient system for rubbish removal, cable or satellite TV and be well lit at night. Whenever I am looking I always ask: would I want to live in it myself? I find that trying to picture myself living in the place helps me to put myself in a potential tenant’s position. If a property makes me shudder, I walk away, however much of a bargain it seems to be on paper.
  10. Finally, is there good storage? Somewhere to put a bike? A place for the computer, CD player, television and the vast amount of paraphernalia the average tenant tends to have these days? Is there somewhere to put suitcases? Bedlinen? Towels? Many old houses currently being converted into spanking new apartments have absolutely no storage at all, as the developer is intent on gouging out the maximum number of units and maximising profit. With such developments, there is often no room for a wardrobe or chest of drawers in bedrooms, for instance. Avoid such properties as they will be hard to let.

Remember that, above all, your tenant(s) are looking for a home they can relax and feel comfortable in. Make sure it’s homely at the same time as being smart, contemporary and inviting. It is not easy to find ideal rental properties, which is why BTL landlords should never let up on their search. But bargains do crop up, and you should be in a position to take advantage when they do.

Liz Hodgkinson is the author of The Complete Guide to Letting Property. 7th edition
published by Kogan Page, £10.99.


Successful Renting Magazine - May 2008

Eric's big story

I came into our office one morning to find Eric Leggett looking ashen. Actually, ‘ashen’ was an understatement. He looked like one of the undead from an ancient Hammer Horror film.

As he was normally so jokey and bubbly, I was shocked.. “Whatever’s the matter?” I asked him. “You look as though you’ve been given two weeks to live.” “It might come to that,” he muttered.

“Why? Are you ill, then?”

Eric said: “No, it’s not that. The Editor’s given me a story to do.”
“I must admit that is terrible, “ I sympathised. “After all, it’s not as if we’re working on a newspaper or anything, is it?”

“Yes, well, there are stories and stories.” It must have been twenty years, at least, since Eric, as a long-serving deskman, had actually gone out of the office and done a story.

“What kind of story, then?” I asked.

He moaned again. “Interview Christina Onassis.”

“Who?” I thought he must be having me on.

He repeated it. At the time, Christina Onassis was one of the most famous yet elusive women in the world. Fat, ugly, troubled, much-married, vastly rich, this ultimate poor little rich girl’s predilection for attracting wildly unsuitable men had provided newspaper fodder for many years. But at the same time, Christina, who was supposedly now running her late father Aristotle’s shipping empire, was notoriously uninterviewable, and not even the finest journalistic talents in the world had managed to nail her down.

All kinds of famous interviewers had tried to get hold of Christina to persuade her to open her heart in their newspaper or magazine, yet she had refused all requests. She didn’t need the money, she didn’t need the publicity. She had plenty of both without having to court the press.

So how was Eric Leggett, of all people, going to pull off what nobody else had ever managed?

“Christina Onassis, eh?” I persisted. “So how are you going to get hold of her?” “It’s all arranged,” he moaned, as if he’d just been told that his reprieve had not come through and he would be shot by firing squad in the morning.

“How? Has she agreed to be interviewed by you, then?” It sounded unlikely.“No, she has not.”
“So? How are you going to make it happen?” I felt like laughing, but Eric’s hands were shaking. He was clearly badly frightened by the prospect of this assignment.
“In a couple of days’ time, she is going to board an aeroplane for Barbados,” he told me. “I’ve got a ticket for the same flight.”

“What, first class?”

“Of course.” Eric managed to regain a little of his pomposity as he said this.
“You’ll be sitting next to her, then?”
“I don’t know. But I shan’t be far away. The idea is that I have to make contact with her on the plane.”

“So why have you been asked to do this story?” I wondered.

“Because I’m not a known showbiz writer, or member of the press pack who’s been following her for years, the Editor thought I’d have a better chance. She might feel so sorry for a poor old man like me that she lets slip a few words, lets me into her confidence a bit.”

Well, it was remotely possible, perhaps. Stranger things had happened.At least Eric wouldn’t deliberately antagonise her by dogging her every footstep and making a nuisance of himself, as our bolder, brasher reporters might, never taking no for an answer. But I was still puzzled. Why did we want to interview her anyway? “So what’s the story, Eric? Why are we trying to get her?”

“I don’t think there’s any particular story as such,” he said “other than that she’s divorcing that Russian husband. But somehow we had a tip-off that she would be on this plane, and then staying in this hotel in Barbados. I’ve got to ask her what her plans are for the future, how she sees her life developing, and so on.” “You think you can get her to talk when nobody else has, then ?” “I suppose I can but try,” he said sadly. “The idea is that I’m a nice guy, not one of those nasty Sun journalists.”

“Even so, you’re from a nasty paper,” I reminded him. “At least, in her eyes.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve tried saying that to the Editor, that even if I seem like a nice chap, there’s no reason why she should want to appear in our paper. But he won’t take no for an answer. “

“And you’ll be staying in the same hotel in Barbados, will you?”
“Yes. I’ve got a few days booked there.”“I must admit, my heart bleeds for you,” I said. “There you are, booked on a first-class flight to Barbados, and staying in a zillion-star hotel. But seriously, it’s got to be better than just sitting here in the office playing office golf, hasn’t it?”

“No.” Eric contradicted me forcefully. “I’d far rather be sitting here reading my paper and researching my next book.” He meant it. Eric had written his previous book, The Corfu Incident, published by Leo Cooper, husband of Jilly, largely in office time and saw no reason why he shouldn’t tap out his next book in the same way. It was by far the best way to be an author – get paid a huge salary for doing no work, plus being able to use all office facilities such as telephone, typewriter, library, for nothing. If I’d been in his shoes on this current assignment, I would have been wildly excited, however remote the possibility that I’d get anything worth having from Christina Onassis. At least I would have met her, have travelled first-class and stayed in an international hotel.

But of course, Eric was past all that. The days when something like this would have been an exciting challenge for him had long gone, and he now only wanted a quiet life - so long as it netted him lots of money, of course. Now he was overcome by sheer, simple terror. He sighed, grumbled and moaned, then got the huge thick cuttings file on Christina Onassis down from the cuttings library and carefully read through each one, making notes as he did so. The following day he came into the office still wearing the same expression of gloom and despair, we all had a farewell liquid, or mainly liquid, lunch at The Stab and then he disappeared to Simpson Piccadilly to buy some tropical- type clothes for the trip, on expenses of course. Then he was gone.

While he was away, we heard nothing. We tried to imagine Eric, in his new lightweight clothes, sitting next to big Christina on the aeroplane and making gentlemanly chat.

Almost a week after he had left in such fear and trembling, the now international jet- set traveller returned, safe and sound. He was lightly tanned and even looked rested and relaxed, with a rather self-satisfied I’ve-got-it-in-the-bag expression on his face.

“Well?” we all asked. “What happened? Did you see her? Did you get her? What did you say?”

“Oh yes,” he said airily. “I nailed her allright. They don’t call me the man the stars talk to for nothing..” He told us that during the flight, when he was sitting next but one to Christina, he had the bright idea of passing her a note, rather than addressing her directly. He thought it would be less intimidating. It was also, we knew, because he funked talking to her direct.“And?” we all wanted to know. “She granted me a unique audience,” he said, fishing out a piece of paper from his briefcase. “Me, I can charm the birds off the trees.” He handed it for us to read. It looked hastily scribbled on the first piece of paper that came to hand, and read, in English:
“I will not talk to you. Please don’t ask me any more. Christina Onassis.”
We stared at the piece of paper, analysing the handwriting.
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”
“Whatever kind of story are you going to get from that?” I asked.

Eric was supremely unconcerned. “Watch this space,” he said. He rolled a six-part carbon into his ancient typewriter and began to type as we stood there looking:
“For all her wealth, Christina Onassis is a sad, lonely woman. How do I know?
Because she opened her heart exclusively to me during the six hours we sat next to each other on a first-class flight to Barbados last week. Sipping champagne during our intimate conversation, she told me ....”

Gentlemen Ranters web site - April 2008

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare.

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare. You spend months writing a book, checking and re-checking, and then days before it’s due to hit the bookshops, wham! New measures suddenly and unexpectedly come in putting everything you’ve written and researched instantly out of date.

Just two weeks before Safe As Houses, my new book about tax and housing options for older people, was due to be published, Chancellor Alastair Darling doubled the inheritance tax threshold from £300,000 to £600,000 for married couples.

Although that was good news for some, it came too late to be included in my book. So does this mean that the terrible bogey of IHT – on which I give lots of information and advice - has gone away and we can safely forget about it?

That is what many people now think, especially as the Tories vowed to raise the IHT threshold to £1 million for everybody.

In fact, on closer inspection, this unexpected change is not so generous as at first appears. It has always been the case that married couples, and more recently, those in a registered civil partnership, could double their nil-rate band; it’s just that in the past you had to make special provision in your will and set up a trust to do it.

Now you don’t need to as it happens automatically. It has always been possible to leave your entire estate free of IHT to your spouse, however huge that estate might be. But now, IHT will only be paid on the death of the second spouse if the total assets exceed £600,000.

BUT – and it’s a big but – this provision only applies to currently married couples and the widowed. If you are single, divorced, in a non-marital partnership, living with an adult child or other relative, these reforms do not apply, and the former nil-rate band of £300,000 remains. If you are in a second or subsequent marriage, with children from a previous marriage, you will definitely need to take advice from a solicitor specialising in IHT planning, especially if you want any children of the first marriage to benefit.

The other aspect is that all the draconian laws surrounding IHT, such as what you can give away before your death, remain in place as before. Assets given away while you are still alive only become free of IHT after seven years, and you cannot, for instance, give your house to your children and continue to live in yourself. At least, you can, but you must legally pay them the market rent.

The Labour government want us to think that IHT has now gone away, especially as it was the most hated tax ever to affect ordinary people, but the fact is, it hasn’t.

And if your estate or that of a loved one hovers anywhere near the threshold, you can expect a grilling from the tax people who have powers to investigate every single one of your assets, including jewellery and pictures.

Nor does this little reform affect all the other imponderables that may beset the older homeowner, such as whether to downsize, whether to consider equity release, to retire abroad or to think about sheltered housing. There is no change, either, to the hideous spectre of paying your own care home fees should your assets exceed around £20,000. And don’t imagine you can wriggle out of paying such fees by giving everything away to your children or grandchildren beforehand, as the authorities have long been onto that one.

At least, inheritance tax is only paid after death, but older homeowners still have to think about what to do for the best while still alive. In Safe As Houses, I have looked at all the many options now available and listed the pros and cons of each one.

Equity release is heavily hyped and marketed, but not everybody realises that you will have to pay compound interest on the loan for your entire lifetime, and this could easily mean you end up with an estate worth precisely nothing.

Taking out equity release can also mean losing benefits you have been previously claiming, so you need to be very sure it is the right solution for you.

Then you need to be certain that your children have your best interests at heart, and are not dragooning you into making decisions you may later regret. Many older homeowners, sitting on valuable assets, can be naïve about money and imagine their children know best.The older and lonelier people get, the more they can be at risk of being bullied by their own children. And nasty though this sounds, it is actually extremely common.

It’s not always easy to make the right decision when you don’t know how long you have got or how long your health or money may hold out, but Safe As Houses will help you to make optimum housing and lifestyle choices.

Solicitors for the Elderly: (specialising in advice for this age group)

Unite - December 2007

6 steps through the equity release maze

If you are retired and fully own a valuable property but are short of ready cash, you may be wondering about equity release, a method of extracting a tax-free cash sum from the value of your house while you continue to live in it. The money released can be spent however you like – on home improvements, a new car, holidays, to eke out your pension or to help your children or grandchildren onto the property ladder. Sounds good? Well – read on and judge for yourself.

  1. How does it work? You would normally have to be 60+, in good health and own a mortgage-free, freehold house to qualify. Your life expectancy will be assessed and your home independently valued beforehand. Equity release is aimed at the asset-rich, cash-poor pensioner reluctant to move from the family home, and there are two distinct types: lifetime mortgages and home reversion plans. But beware: any sum borrowed now will diminish the value of your estate on death.
  2. How do lifetime mortgages operate?  These are the most popular form of equity release and allow you to borrow a sum of money which is secured on your home and paid back – with interest - when the house is sold. Compound interest on the loan is rolled up and quickly accumulates. Say you have a house valued at £300,000 against which you borrow £80,000 at a fixed rate of 6%. In the first year you will owe £80,000 + £4,800 interest; by the 3rd year you will owe £89,800 + £5388 interest.  After 20 years, your initial loan of £80,000 could incur a repayment of £256,000. You will also have to pay commission, plus solicitor’s fees and may be required to carry out some home improvements up-front.
  3. What about home reversion? Here, you sell part of your home for much less than its true value to a specialist company in exchange for a cash sum. If you have a home valued at £200,000 and want to sell 50% to a reversion company, you will be lucky to get £40,000. You will also have to hand over the title deeds.  You can later sell another portion if you like, and can normally release between 15 –55% of the present value of your property, depending on your age and health. On your death, the reversion company pays a proportion of the sale price – not the full amount of your retained proportion - to your estate.
  4. How does this affect dependants and relatives?  Your spouse or partner can continue to live in the house after your death, but only if their name is on the title deeds. Adult children or others residing with you would not normally be able to carry on living in the home. Before signing up, you would also need to be very sure that the amount of debt will never exceed the house’s value. Also, your heirs must understand and accept that their inheritance will be greatly diminished by the equity release plan.
  5. What about state benefits? Be very careful here as you will lose these after taking out equity release if the extra income received puts you above the benefits level. Your actual pension will be unaffected but any pension credit, housing or council tax benefit could well disappear. You will also still be responsible for council tax and all utility payments, plus making regular home improvements to maintain your home’s value. Equity release providers make regular inspections to ensure you are keeping the property in good repair.
  6. How is inheritance tax reduced?  Any equity release plan instantly reduces the value of your home, both to you and your heirs. But to save IHT you have to be sure that the amount of interest you or your estate pays on the loan does not come to more than the IHT saved. If you keep the money in the bank it will still count towards IHT; likewise, if you give it to your children it will only become IHT-free after seven years. In 2007, IHT is levied at aflat 40% on all estates over the threshold of £300,000. Below this, estates do not attract IHT.

Jargon buster

  1. Lifetime mortgage. This is a mortgage which quite literally lasts for the rest of your life, and interest continues to roll up until the day you die.
  2. Drawdown plans. A variation of the lifetime mortgage where you draw on funds as and when you need them rather than taking the entire amount at once.
  3. Home Reversion Plans:  here, you sell part of your home for much less than its true value to a specialist reversion company.
  4. Home income plans: the generic name for commercial equity release, covering all the ways in which money can be released from your home.
  5. Protected Equity schemes: these guarantee that the amount you owe will never exceed more than a certain proportion of the property’s value.

Liz Hodgkinson is the author of Safe As Houses? The Homeowner’s Guide to Property, Inheritance and Taxation. Published by Kogan Page, £11.99

Where to go for help

The Equity Release Information Centre
Tel: 0800 298 6288

Independent Equity Release Advice
Tel: 08080 555 500

The Help the Aged Equity Release Service
St Leonards House
Mill Street
Oxford X29 4JjX
Tel: 01865 733009
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Yours magazine - December 2007

How did I become a buy to let landlord?

How did I become a buy to let landlord? And, more importantly, why?

Why, I sometimes wonder, do I put myself through all the hassle of buying and renovating properties, finding tenants, and coping with the labyrinthine and ever-changing landlord and tenant laws when instead I could just be putting my feet up, lying on the sofa and eating chocolates?

I suppose the answer has to be that in some masochistic way, I rather enjoy it all.

But I originally got into buy to let, as possibly many people did in the past, by complete accident. It all started in 1994 when I sold my maisonette in London’s fashionable Notting Hill (less fashionable then, of course) and downsized to a much cheaper house in nearby but non-trendy Hammersmith.

This move enabled me to realise some capital for the first time in my life.

Then I wondered how I could make best use of all this money sitting in the bank. An original brainwave (for the time) seemed to be to buy a little flat and rent it out. The upshot was that, in great fear and trembling, I bought a little studio flat in The Grampians, a large art deco building at the top of Shepherd’s Bush Road, West London, for £36,000. I then did it up and advertised for tenants.  A fabulous tenant was enticed into my lair right away and it was all going so well that not long after, I bought the studio flat immediately above, for the same price. Again it rented out right away.

Before long, encouraged by my success, my partner started buying properties to rent, as well, with money realised from selling his deceased mother’s house. It was all becoming addictive, so after a time, we joined forces and began buying rental properties together on the South Coast.  We sold some, bought others, gradually got our eye in and eventually owned eight properties between us. All were fully owned and none were on a mortgage.

We learned by trial and error what the lettings business was all about and found it scary at times but also challenging and great fun.  We just loved hunting down suitable properties, doing them up and renting them out. But before ever we bought, we carried out extremely meticulous number-crunching and also research into achievable rental yields.  We went on as many certainties as we could and never bought unless the figures worked out and there was a ready and waiting rental market.

Mostly, I have to say, the figures did not work out so although we viewed many properties, we rarely bought.

But every now and again a property seemed right, and we gained confidence about what to buy. As we became more mature landlords, my partner and I agreed that the lettings business was much like sailing round the world in that you got terrible storms and then wonderful long calm patches where nothing went wrong for months.

The terrible storms, for us, were not caused by our tenants, but by the ills that bricks and mortar are heir to. We coped with ceilings falling down, washing machines flooding, showers breaking down and toilets leaking. We got to know that whenever a tenant was on the phone, something would be badly wrong.

But mostly, we have been lucky. We have never had a void period in all our years of being landlords, and although there can be no guarantees, our properties have always let within two or three days of going on the market. We have only ever had one bad tenant between us and we managed to get rid of her without loss of income.

My partner died suddenly in 2004, since when I have been landlording on my own. This is less fun than sharing the thrills and spills but even so, largely enjoyable. So, in 13 years, what have I learned?

To me, the first and most important thing is that the flat or house should be not only be immaculate when shown, but all the colours should be in harmony. I always put plants, fresh flowers and up to date magazines in the property when showing potential tenants around, whether I am letting furnished or unfurnished. I also put a tray with a teapot and couple of cups in the kitchen. Plus, there is a bottle of wine in the fridge for when the tenant moves in.  I have also always made sure that the tenant’s file is neat and up to date and that all instructions are laminated. This kind of attention to detail costs little more than a tenner, yet can secure you at least another £50 a month in rent, as well as a discerning tenant.

I find it helps if the letting agent falls in love with the place when she comes to inspect it, as she will then be more enthusiastic about recommending it to potential punters. I wouldn’t want agents to feel apologetic about my properties.

The two main secrets of successful letting, it seems to me, are (1) to present the property with flair and style, and (2) to make sure you get the relationship with your tenants right. I feel that today, all too many buy to let investors just want the money to roll in and they regard tenants as a necessary evil to provide the cash flow that keeps them in business. But the truth is that when you rent out properties, you are dealing with living, breathing people for whom you are providing a home. I meet mynew tenants, show them round the place, go through the inventory, guarantees and any other paperwork with them and make sure they are happy and know how everything works. I do this whether or not I am using an agent, and sometimes I use agents, whereas at other times I go it alone. Both methods have been equally successful but I don’t always have the time to find my own tenants. But once they are in and satisfied they can operate everything, I then leave them severely alone to enjoy their home. I don’t attempt to socialise with them or invite them round to my home for cups of tea.

In fact, once they have settled in, I don’t have any further communication with them unless something goes wrong, when I try to attend to it right away. The result of this care is that my tenants tend to stay with me for a long time; one stayed for nine years and ended up buying the property for herself.

But I am not a soft touch. The relationship is purely businesslike and both sides must abide strictly by the terms of the tenancy agreement. Nor do I have ad-hoc or informal agreements, let to friends or hearken to hard-luck stories.

Because I haven’t geared up or borrowed money, obviously I can only own a few properties at a time, so my lettings business grows slowly. But this suits me, and the plus from not having mortgages is that the rentals provide me with an income I could – at a pinch - live on.

And although I only buy properties very occasionally, I am always looking.

Successful Renting Magazine - November 2007

Real Estate Investment Trusts

Just over a year after SIPPS bit the dust, we can now look forward to a brand-new tax-efficient way of investing in residential property and a brand-new acronym: REITS.

Real Estate Investment Trusts, which have successfully been established in the US, Australia and the Netherlands for a number of years, were finally launched in the UK on 1 January, 2007.

With REITS, you buy a share in a specially set-up property company rather than buying property direct. This means that you can buy a stake in residential or commercial property for as little as £5000, after which your investment will work in much the same way as any other stock or share, in that you the investor will be paid regular dividends.

Investment expert Richard Cotton, of Cluttons estate agents, explains how REITS will work in practice – and why the Government is backing them.

“Looking back, SIPPS – where you were going to be able to put residential property into your pension fund and benefit from huge tax breaks – were always too good to be true. But REITS are totally different.  They have been tried and tested in other countries, and seem to work very well. They operate in much the same way as any other company except that they are exempt from corporation tax, and investors will only pay tax once, on their dividends.”

A major advantage for the Exchequer, adds Richard Cotton, is that REITS will stay on shore, and money invested will not go out of the country. “REITS are private-investor friendly and you won’t need big sums to invest. The two most positive aspects to REITS is that they will keep the businesses on shore, and also make property investment more attractive to the small investor. A serious drawback to conventional, or direct, investment in property is that you need a large capital sum to start with, and there are very high entry and exit costs. Here, the company buys, looks after and manages the properties.”

The key issue to REITS, and the aspect that makes them unique, is that the companies who operate them have to invest in rent-producing properties, whether these are residential or commercial. They must all be already income- producing to qualify as a REIT.  “The companies operating REITS will be highly regulated, and I can’t see any drawbacks, “ says Richard Cotton.  “Of course, the dividends paid to investors will depend on how the rental market, in both the residential and commercial sectors, performs in future. The private rented sectoris growing all the time, as ever more people see the financial advantages of renting, rather than owning property.”

Historically, says Richard Cotton, property values go up and although there have been instances of short-term losses, property is unlikely ever to lose all its value, making REITS a safer bet than many new investments.

The recent property boom has proved one thing – that the British love investing in property, one way or another. Property feels safe and secure, it won’t go away or disappear in a dotcom type bubble.

Liam Bailey, investment expert at Knight Frank, says:  “REITS are one of Gordon Brown’s big things, and as he has put a lot of effort into these investments We were not expecting him to ditch them at the last minute, as with SIPPS, and thank goodness, he hasn’t. REITS are now live and several companies are already operating them.  These investments must be set up by specialist companies, and 98 per cent of the profits must come from rental income. The REIT company can retain 10% of the profits for improvements, but that’s all, and everything else must be paid to the shareholders.”

Most property professionals believe that the introduction of REITS will put Buy To Let on a more professional basis. “Until now, there has been very little corporate interest in the private rented sector,” adds Liam Bailey. “But gradually, as property companies get involved,  the days of the amateur landlord will be numbered and rented apartments will be properly and professionally managed.” Kevin Fleury, of Conti Financial Services, is Canadian and has seen REITS operate at first hand. He believes they will prove to be a far better bet than SIPPs would have been. “The problem with SIPPs is that they would have had to be run by a fund manager, and this would have meant huge incremental fees that, in my view, would have wiped out the tax advantage. I’m glad SIPPs have gone, and that REITS have arisen out of the rubble of the SIPP fiasco.”

What does the interested investor need to know about REITS?  Jonathan Morley, investment adviser at AWD Chase de Vere, the largest IFA in Europe, says: “REITS will open up investment in both commercial and residential property for the small investor with £5000+ to invest.  Although there is always some risk with any investment, REITS should provide a nice income from the start. Most IFAs should now have details of how REITS will work, and my advice is that interested investors should always go for property companies with a proven track record, as there will probably be people jumping on the bandwagon now that REITS are a reality.“The big advantage of REITS is that, unlike direct investment in property, they are a flexible, liquid investment whereby you can sell your shares at any time.

They have been massively popular in the US and Australia and I see no reason why they should not work in the UK as well. REITS are a kind of stock exchange for property and as such, a brand-new investment vehicle.”

Daily Telegraph - June 2007

Prostate cancer

For many years now, national screening programmes have been available in the UK for breast and cervical cancer, the main types of cancer to affect women.

Yet there is no such screening programme for the commonest type of cancer to affect only men, that of the prostate. Nor is there likely to be, in the foreseeable future. Why not? After all, it’s not as if cancer of the prostate is all that rare. It affects 32,000 men in the UK every year, about the same incidence as for breast cancer in women. Once known as the old man’s cancer, it is now not uncommon for men to be diagnosed in their early fifties.

The comedy writer David Nobbs, creator of the immortal Reginald Perrin, had an operation for prostate cancer at the age of 52. He survived to write many more sitcoms and is still alive at over 70, but as a rule, the younger you are, the more quickly prostate cancer is likely to carry you off.

So why no screening programme? After all, the UK has one of the lowest survival rates for this type of cancer in Europe. Austria, which has the best survival rate, has a formal screening programme and is the only European country to offer this. Dr Chris Hiley, Head of Policy and Research for The Prostate Cancer Charity, explains all. “It’s nothing to do with discrimination over men’s cancers,” she says. “After all, it’s mainly men who run the screening programmes for women’s cancers. Nor, this time, is it a matter of money or resources.”

“No, the main problem is that we have just not got a reliable enough test for prostate cancer. The only test we have, known as the PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) is a blood test which simply picks up signs that the prostate may be enlarged.”

“But the test is not good enough to tell doctors with certainty whether anything is actually wrong, or whether treatment is indicated.”

Many men believe that the PSA test has saved their lives, and who’s to say they are mistaken? But at the moment, it’s a sledgehammer to kill a nut. “The only real way of diagnosing prostate cancer is with a biopsy,” says Dr Hiley. “My feeling is that if a national screening programme was introduced using our present diagnostic tools, it would worry a lot more men than it would help.”

“The technology is simply not good enough yet. We have a long way to go before we catch up with what’s now known about breast cancer.”

One major problem is that the symptoms of prostate cancer could well be caused by something else. A sudden, distinct change in frequency or difficulty of urination is often the first sign, yet this could be caused by a weak bladder, simply getting older, or a condition known as benign prostatic hyperplasia where the prostate is enlarged but non-cancerous.

“There’s usually no real pain, and unlike with breasts, nothing to feel easily,” says Dr Hiley. “Another difficulty with the disease is that in many men cancer of the prostate grows so slowly that something else will kill them first. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which cancers will grow slowly and be no real trouble, and which will grow fast and become aggressive.”

Nor are the treatments for prostate problems without their downsides. First-choice treatment for both cancer and BPH is often surgery to remove the prostate, or a section of it. This is often successful in itself, but causes other problems that many men find unacceptable, such as erectile dysfunction and impotence. The best sexual performance men can hope for following prostatectomy is what’s known as a ‘dry orgasm’ where nothing comes out.

This is because the prostate is responsible for producing seminal fluid. There can also be incontinence problems, although these often clear up in time. Radiotherapy is commonly used, and drug treatment using female hormones may also be used, but this leads to a degree of feminisation which many men find unacceptable.

Taxotere, which has been recently-licensed to treat advanced prostate cancer no longer responding to hormone treatment, is a chemotherapy drug used in conjunction with prednisone, a steroid, but at the moment, survival rates are only two months longer than without this treatment.

Other treatments include brachytherapy, a form of radiation treatment applied in the form of tiny radioactive seeds and cryosurgery, where the prostate is frozen to destroy the gland. Photodynamic therapy whereby a laser or other light source is used to destroy cancer cells, is currently being researched to see whether it has any useful application for prostate cancer treatments.

Dr Hiley advises any man who has been diagnosed with a prostate problem, or who experiences symptoms, to ask about all current treatments and their possible side effects before making a decision.

Very many alternative and complementary treatments have been promoted for prostate problems, such as red clover and green tea, but none have yet been subjected to rigorous clinical trials.

Patients like the idea of complementary treatments as they do not deliver the unacceptable side-effects of medical treatment. But most orthodox doctors consider that, though maybe a nice idea, they don’t actually work.

However, Jane Plant, professor of geochemistry at Imperial College, London, is convinced that cutting out dairy produce is the key to avoiding both breast and prostate cancers. She says: “Both breast and prostate tissue have receptors for growth factors, which cause cells to divide and reproduce. Dairy milk contains these growth factors and encourages cancers to grow.”

Professor Plant also advises eating masses of vegetables, oily fish and olive oil, and drinking lots of filtered water. Cutting out tea, coffee and alcohol are also recommended. By this means, she says, she cured her own breast cancer, and believes the prostate would respond in exactly the same way.

She points out that, while prostate cancer is extremely common in the US, it is rare in China, where low-fat, non-dairy diets are the norm.

Professor Plant’s regime is the same as that advocated many years ago by the Bristol Cancer Help Centre but sceptics point out that the alternative approach didn’t do much for former motorcycle champion Barry Sheene, who refused orthodox treatment but died of cancer at 52.

The best approach that can be recommended at the moment is a technique known as ‘watchful waiting’ or ‘active surveillance’, whereby an expert eye is kept on the prostate.

“There needs to be a more reliable and accurate test,” says Kate Easter of The Prostate Cancer Charity. “Until that happens there won’t be a national screening programme. “A lot of men are not happy if they are told they have cancer, but that they’ve got to live with it. Any man who feels he has initial symptoms should go to his GP and discuss the matter, but not be too perturbed.”

The Prostate Cancer Charity confidential helpline: 0800 074 8383; website

You and Your Prostate, by Lee Rodwell, is an easy to read guide through symptoms and treatments, and costs £10.95 incl p and p from: Self-Help Direct, PO Box 9035, London N12 8ED.

The Prostate Cancer Awareness Week runs from 19-26 March, with 400 Marks and Spencer stores sponsoring the event by selling blue pins at a suggested price of £1 each. If you want to get involved by selling drinks mats, pins or other merchandise, call 0208 222 8652

What is the prostate?
The prostate gland is a small organ situated near the base of the bladder. Its function is to produce a substance necessary for sperm to become fertile. Prostate problems tends to develop in men when the standard age for reproduction is over.

The prostate makes a specific substance known as prostate specific antigen, a protein which causes semen to liquify. High amounts of PSA can indicate an enlarged prostate, although this does not necessarily mean a tumour is present.

Unite Health Column - March 2007

Let's hear it for the LVT

The other day, a small group of us walked out of a courtroom £24,000 richer. We were representatives of our self-managed apartment building and had spent two years vainly trying to recover an ever-increasing debt from a non-paying owner. Yet it took a Leasehold Valuation Tribunal just 90 minutes to find in our favour.

And where angry letters, debt collection agencies and county courts had signally failed, the LVT triumphantly succeeded.

What’s more, the judgement is enforceable, not some wishy-washy recommendation. The tribunal has teeth, so now, if our recalcitrant resident does not pay up in full within three months, either her lease will be forfeited or her mortgage company will repossess. Either way, she can no longer wriggle out of it, and the upshot is, she has to sell up to meet the debt.

So, grateful thanks all round to the LVT panel. The three members, consisting of a solicitor, surveyor and a lay person were calm, scrupulously fair to both sides, and most importantly, totally expert in all the arcane ramifications of leasehold law. The Leasehold Valuation Tribunal, an offshoot of the Rent Assessment Panel, is now 10 years old. It was set up in 1997 to deal with leasehold issues such as service charges and lease extensions. The LVTs are rapidly taking over from county courts in these areas and are getting steadily busier as ever more of us begin to live in flats rather than houses.

Barrister Siobhan McGrath, Senior President of the Residential Property Tribunal Service, of which the LVT is an important part, says: “We seek to provide accessible and straightforward dispute resolution. The tribunals are run by experts and are relatively informal and low-cost. People can, if they like, represent themselves. “Housing disputes may not seem very big to county courts, but they are very important to the parties involved. Service charge disputes, for instance, are all but impossible to deal with unless you do it regularly enough to see a pattern. “It’s important to have a tribunal service as once a decision is made, the parties accept it, and can both go away with some dignity.”

So how does it all work? Anthony Essian, principal advisor to the Leasehold Advisory Service, says: “LVTs are more straightforward than courts and they rely on ‘reasonableness’ rather than strict rules of evidence. The tribunals are held in accessible venues near the property, and anybody can attend.  County court judges are increasingly referring seemingly intractable leasehold cases to the LVT, as these tribunals can cut through all the arguments in minutes and come up with a completely fair decision.

“Although judges of course know the law,” Essian continued, “very often service charge and other leasehold matters don’t turn on the law, but on what is reasonable. This is where the LVT constantly scores over the cumbersome court procedures.”

Essian advises anybody facing a difficult leasehold problem to attend a few such tribunals, to get a feel of how they operate. But although they are more informal than courts, they are far from being a free-for-all, as I discovered. You are not allowed to speak unless representing yourself or are specifically called as a witness. Although the LVT may be considered a court-lite procedure, it is by no means a round table or friendly discussion.

There must also be a meticulous paper trail. Vague memories will not do, as every claim and counterclaim must be supported by appropriate documentation in order to be considered.

And although you are perfectly entitled to represent yourself, there are so many ways in which the horrendously complicated leasehold laws can trip up the lay person, that it is often advisable, although undoubtedly expensive, to instruct a lawyer. There can be enormous emotional strain too, when a neighbour has illegally laid laminate flooring or is refusing to pay service charges. At least for the lawyers representing the parties, it is just a job.

It takes typically 10 weeks for an application to be heard and usually, the LVT panel come personally to inspect the property.

Fees are low, usually between £150 and £350, depending on the complexity of the matter in hand. But as it can be extremely time-consuming and expensive to prepare the enormous ‘bundle’ of paperwork necessary, recourse to the LVT should be considered only as a last resort when the parties concerned cannot reach a negotiated or mediated settlement.

Chartered surveyor Mark Wilson, of myLeasehold.com, who specialises in valuations for lease extensions and enfranchisement, says: “By the time you get to the hearing, legal fees could have reached £12,000 or more. “

“Also, people often misinterpret the LVT’s requirements for works or charges to be ‘reasonable’, thinking this means ‘cheap’. But the LVT can, if it sees fit, regard the most expensive quote as the most ‘reasonable’ under the circumstances.”

“But I am very much in favour of the LVT system. They have to observe natural justice and they bend over backwards to be fair to both sides. You could turn up in a clown’s outfit and they will still treat you with respect. But as they can only go on what they have in front of them, you must provide every last bit of documentation to have a chance of success.”

Solicitor Steven Kinch, of the Sussex firm Burt, Brill and Cardens, says: “LVTs are user-friendly and courteous to all sides. And whereas a county court might have to3 call expert witnesses, the LVT people are already the experts. But you do need the factual matrix, and documents are king.

“The LVT is people and humanist based and exists to be fair, not to criticise. These tribunals are removing a lot of areas of dispute away from the court system, as we edge nearer to the European model. They also take away much of the mystique, mystery and fear still attached to going to court.”

Examples of recent cases:

  • One resident of an enfranchised central London mansion block took his own management company to the LVT, complaining that they had undertaken ‘repairs’ to his windows when the lease only specified ‘redecoration’. An additional factor was that the managing agents had given only 28 days’ notice of the works, when Section 20 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 specifies one month. The arguments became highly technical, but the LVT found for the management company and disapplied Section 20, as they have discretion to do.
  • In another recent case, the applicants, who were residents in a retirement housing scheme in Doncaster, took the Johnnie Johnson housing trust to their local LVT complaining about paying for the cost of installing an Astraline alarm monitoring system. Again, many abstruse and technical arguments followed, but the LVT ruled these costs to be ‘reasonable.’
  • A case heard in Bolton, Lancs, in May 2006, concerned a leaseholder who wanted to replace a flat roof with a pitched roof. He applied to the freeholders, Metroland Developments, Ltd, for permission and they sent a bill for £5000 to cover paperwork. The leaseholder felt this was excessive and took the case to the LVT who ruled that a ‘reasonable’ fee required to give consent for the works was £100, plus VAT if the lessor was VAT-registered.
  • At an LVT hearing in Brighton last September, residents of a 1930s block of flats won £286,000 back from the freeholder, Witnesham Ventures. Here, the LVT ruled that the works were carried out with a disregard of the lessees’ rights and they should have paid only £64,000 of the £350,000 demanded by the freeholder. The cost of the works was not recoverable, due to the freeholders’ previous neglect.

LVT enquiry line: 0845 600 3178
For free advice on all leasehold issues, Lease, the Leasehold Advisory Service: 0207 374 5380


Daily Telegraph - February 2007

Can The People survive?

Latest figures show that The People, formerly The Sunday People, is in free fall, with a circulation now below 800,000

Yet in the 1970s, when Liz Hodgkinson and Shan Davies were young reporters on the same paper in the 1970s and early 80s, the paper sold over five million copies a week.

What was its secret in those days? Why did so many people rush to buy it? It may have had something to do with us of course, as ever since we left, circulation has been declining fast.

But seriously, we believe that in those days the paper offered something unique, and was a skilful blend of serious investigative journalism, celebrity gossip, big buy- ups and excellent sports coverage. In addition, it was fun to read - and fun to work on.

More than two decades after we left the People, we have met up again, in Worthing, where we now live 400 yards away from each other. We are writing our memoirs about the glory days of the Sunday People, the days when there were just four women in editorial (including ourselves); when the mighty unions held sway, and when, in spite of having to put up with horrendous sexual harassment, we considered ourselves highly lucky and highly privileged to be admitted to this men’s club at all.

Shan was Fleet Street’s very first female crime reporter, and Liz was successively a fashion writer, showbiz writer and consumer correspondent.

The book is full of nostalgia, hilarious stories and unforgettable personalities. We also ask: did we have a better time then - or are today’s young female journalists more fortunate?

We’ve got the stories, we’ve got the enthusiasm, and we’re in touch with all of our colleagues who are still around. We are both published authors still contributing to newspapers, magazines and web sites.

Now all we need is a suitable publisher. Otherwise our stories - and maybe the Sunday People itself - will die with us. Surely this once-great newspaper deserves a book to itself?

Do Press Gazette readers have any suggestions ?
Liz Hodgkinson and Shan Lloyd

Press Gazette - January 2007

New over-the-counter migraine treatment (and more)

1. New over-the-counter migraine treatment
The highly effective migraine treatment Imigran has been available on prescription for 15 years but now, in a real breakthrough for sufferers, has just become available over the counter.

Because migraines come on suddenly and without warning, sufferers need treatment instantly. Yet it can take two or three days to get an appointment to see your GP, by which time the migraine will most probably have gone. And in the meantime, the pain will be excruciating.

But as Imigran is a very strong drug, and the only medication which works to treat the root cause of the migraine rather than just reducing the pain, there were problems about having it openly on sale. Imigran Recovery – the name given to the OTC version - has finally been granted a P status which means it can be sold in pharmacies, but not just be picked off the shelf. Instead, the pharmacist must first ascertain that this drug is suitable for you.

For this to be assessed, you first have to complete a detailed questionnaire. At the end of the consultation, you will either be supplied with the product, referred to your GP or advised on an alternative type of treatment. Each consultation, taking about eight minutes, is tailored to the individual needs of the patient, and in most cases, although at the discretion of the pharmacist, only the patient will be allowed to buy the product.

Once the questionnaire has been completed, the patient is issued with a Treatment Card which must be shown to the pharmacist every time Imigran is requested. A pack of two pills are issued at a time, one to be taken immediately and the other, after two hours if symptoms start to return. The first pill usually zaps the migraine completely within 30 minutes.

Each pack costs £7.99 and comes in a little carry case which can fit into a pocket, handbag or briefcase, enabling sufferers to treat themselves at the first, all too familiar signs of this debilitating and so far, incurable, condition.

Although Imigran treats migraine attacks successfully, it cannot prevent them in advance. The drug only starts to work once an attack begins.

2. Verruca treatment
Most people associate verrucas with schoolchildren and school locker rooms, but these nasty viruses can strike at any age, and are becoming commoner in older age groups as gym use increases. When contracted, they are notoriously difficult to treat, as well as being highly infectious.

Bazuka is a home treatment for verrucas and warts which works to destroy the virus while at the same time forming a protective barrier over the area to prevent further infection.

The remedy contains salicylic acid – also the main ingredient in aspirin – and unlike some remedies, is completely painless to use. It comes in gel form.

Bazuka is available in two strengths, priced at £5.45 and £6.35. The product comes as a complete treatment kit including an emery board and full instruction leaflet.

3. Healthy joints
One of the major health problems associated with getting older is stiff, painful joints. Now a new free booklet has been produced, written by experts in their field, which provides nutritional and exercise advice on keeping joints healthy and supple.

Dr Rob Hicks, GP and broadcaster, gives an overview on the best ways to keep joints young, and exercise consultant Beverly Skull has designed a range of Pilatesbased exercises to improve joint mobility. The booklet, Jump 4 Joints, has been produced by natural health company Health Perception and is available by phoning 0845 330 5518 or visiting www.jump4joints.co.uk

4. Bowel screening programme
A national NHS bowel screening programme is now under way, aimed at men and women aged between 60 and 69. The test, known as a faecal occult blood test, is performed at home and the sample then sent to the lab for analysis.

As age is a definite risk factor for this extremely common form of cancer, patients will be screened every two years. It is a voluntary programme but as it is painless, free and easy to use, there is nothing to be lost by taking advantage of the test.

For information on this programme, which is gradually being introduced throughout the UK during 2006/7, speak to your GP or contact the national office for details:
0114 271 1060; or email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Lepicol is a wheat-free fibre, pre- and probiotic combination containing psyllium husks, designed to keep bowels healthy and functioning normally. The product works to normalise transit time in the gut, slowing it down in diarrhoea sufferers and speeding it up in constipation sufferers. It is also of benefit for IBS sufferers, as the ingredients work to gradually balance the levels of bacteria in the gut.

The supplement can be taken every day to promote healthy bowel action, and comes as taste free powder which can be sprinkled on cereal or diluted into juice. There are no adverse side effects, and you do not have to be an sufferer from existing bowel problems to benefit. The stuff comes in a huge pot which costs £7.99 and is available from Boots and all health food stores.

5. Blood Pressure Testing
Between 11 – 17 September you can get your blood pressure tested free at a Pressure Station near you. The testing, organised by the Blood Pressure Association, is part of their Know Your Numbers campaign to encourage the population to keep their blood pressure at healthy levels. High blood pressure is a particular risk for those aged 65 and over.

Pressure stations are being set up at supermarkets, shopping centres, motorway service stations and similar venues. To find your nearest Station, log on to www.bpassoc.org.uk or call 020 8772 4992.

Unite Health Column - August 2006

When Nimbies are right to mind the gap


Daily Telegraph - May 2006

D-Day for the Landlady


Daily Telegraph - April 2006

How to make a good Will

What makes a good Will? Obviously, one that is up to date and valid. But more importantly, a good Will is one to which you have given very careful thought and left something, not necessarily money, to as many friends and family members as possible.

To see how this works in action, take the very different Wills of two famous television personalities, Johnny Morris and Richard Whiteley. When Johnny Morris, the former Hot Chestnut Man and presenter of Animal Magic, died in 1999, he left almost his entire estate to one man, Terry Nutkins, who had been his co-presenter on Animal Magic, and who was not even family.

Seven years after his death, Morris’s furious family are still arguing over the Will. By contrast, when Countdown presenter Richard Whiteley died in 2005, he included just about everybody – his current partner, his son by journalist Lesley Ebbetts, his niece, and even his old school, Giggleswick, in his Will.

The result of this is that Whiteley is fondly remembered for his thoughtful, generous and even-handed Will, not only by his beneficiaries, but by his public as well. There are even glowing comments about it on Whiteley’s fan website.

Of course, these two celebrities both left sizeable estates, and Whiteley’s was valued at over £4 million. But however much – or little – you have to leave, you can ensure you are remembered with affection, or its exact opposite, hatred, for ever more, depending on the wording of your Will.

In the 1950s, an elderly aunt left me £1000, a sum which later enabled me to put down a deposit on my first house. Half a century on, I still fondly remember this aunt, whose generosity got me onto the first rung of the property ladder at an early age. My other deceased relatives, who left me nothing, are long forgotten.

Neither of my parents left me anything at all, not even a picture or keepsake. Do I remember them with any affection? Not really – it is very sad.

“The essence of a good Will is that it ensures promises made in your lifetime are kept,” says Brian McMillan, Director General of The Society of Will Writers, which has 1700 professional will writers on its books. “Unless an item is bequeathed in a proper legal manner in the Will, there are no guarantees that the promisee will get it.

“It cannot be left to chance. Whatever bequests you want to make, these should be enshrined in writing in your Will in such a way there can be no arguments. “There are still recriminations over Princess Diana’s Will as, although she left legacies to her 17 godchildren, these were not distributed as there was no power within the wording of her Will to make her executors, her mother and brother, hand them over.

“But Wills are not necessarily about wealth. Even items of only sentimental value can make a difference between harmony and rancour in families. If you have promised, say, the family Bible to a particular grandchild, make sure that grandchild gets it by including it specifically in your Will.”

The Last Will and Testament of somebody is a most important document and countless dramas, novels, and films open with ‘the reading of the Will’ where hopeful beneficiaries gather in front of the family lawyer. In the past, only the Wills of the rich and famous were of much importance or interest, but nowadays, many ordinary people have quite a lot of value to leave.

In novels, especially Victorian novels, Wills were specifically designed to sow discord and conflict among family members because, of course, that was where the drama lay.

But in real life, a bad or unfair Will can tear a family apart in such a way that it will never repair itself. “It is almost always the will, or lack of it, that causes the everlasting family problems,” says Brian McMillan, who adds that 67% of all adults now die without leaving a valid Will.

This means that whatever their wishes may have been, they are not carried out after their death. Unless that all-important piece of paper is present, properly drawn up and witnessed, nothing will happen as the deceased wanted. Lack of a Will can also mean that a husband or wife is made homeless if one dies intestate. Even once a Will is made, it should be reviewed every three to five years, or whenever circumstances change, not forgetting that marriage, and also nowadays a civil partnership, invalidates all former Wills. So, every now and again, get out your Will and scrutinise it carefully. An out of date will is worse than no Will, as it must reflect the current situation so to be executed properly.

My late partner John Sandilands gave such careful thought to his will that two years after his death, his beneficiaries have all become close friends. This is very rare indeed, according to Brian McMillan. John named six major beneficiaries – myself, his two exes and three close relatives. There were no children to complicate matters.

There were also numerous smaller bequests. He left his valuable collection of model cars to his ex wife’s current husband, his model soldiers and his car to his ex-wife’s teenage son, and various pictures, pieces of jewellery, solid silver picture frames and so on, to many of his friends.

Many people are amazed that John’s two exes and myself have become close friends after his death, but this is just an example of how a good Will can create harmony and affection instead of rancour.

After John died, one of my most urgent tasks was to make a new will, as he had been one of my beneficiaries.

It is also important to appoint executors who will get on with each other, and who are happy to be executors, as it is often an onerous job these days, particularly where the estate attracts inheritance tax. One friend found herself co-executor with a woman she hated, and the two of them could not work together. In the end, they had to appoint a solicitor, at great expense. In another case, a relative of mine who was appointed executor of her mother’s will, decided she didn’t want the responsibility and again, appointed a solicitor who took a large chunk out of the estate as his fee.

Executors have to be scrupulously honest, as there are many opportunities to steal both money and goods without the beneficiaries knowing or suspecting. After all, only the executors know the contents of the will until probate is granted, when it becomes public knowledge. Then all hell can break loose, if others go to look at the will and accuse the executors of stealing or misappropriating funds. Executors can, though, claim necessary expenses for carrying out their task.

The Society of Will Writers was founded in 1994 to put the business of writing Wills onto a professional footing. If you contact the Society, a Will writer will come to your home and discuss your last wishes. “We are now a fully recognised profession,” explains Brian McMillan, “and we only specialise in this area of the law. “Most people use solicitors to draw up their Wills but since 1998, solicitors have not been trained in this. There is a major fear factor about making a Will, as nobody likes to think about their death. But over the past few years Wills have become more important, as ever more estates come into inheritance tax.

“You can’t always avoid the tax, but a good Will leaves everybody happy. That is something to think about carefully while you are alive.”

To contact the Society of Will Writers, a non-profit organisation, call 01522 687888. Their website, www.thesocietyofwillwriters.co.uk has much useful information you can download.

Age Concern also publishes advice about Wills, and their Factsheet 7 can be downloaded free from www.ageconcern.org.uk, or by calling 0800 00 99 66.

Unite - March 2006

My Inheritance Tax Diary

The Daily Express campaign for the abolition of Inheritance Tax is one very close to my heart, as I have just emerged from a two-year trauma, caused entirely by this terrible tax.

When my partner, the writer John Sandilands, died suddenly in March, 2004, he left a completely up to date and clear will, had a nice six-figure sum of money sitting in the bank, no debts or mortgages, and no children to squabble amongst themselves. His estate would therefore have been simplicity itself to administer, but for the hideous spectre of inheritance tax.

At one time, it was only super-rich people like the Duke of Bedford who had to pay inheritance tax. In fact, the Woburn Abbey theme park was initially developed specifically to pay crippling death duties.  Nowadays, even for ordinary people on ordinary incomes who have managed to buy their own modest homes, Gordon Brown will most probably be the biggest beneficiary, rather than your own family or friends.

IHT, payable at 40%, now kicks in at estates valued at £275,000 or more; two years ago, when John died, the threshold was £250,000.

Make no mistake, dealing with IHT, which you must do when your grief is at its most raw and intense, is one long nightmare.  Here is my own IHT diary.

March 15, 2004.
I go to my evening lecturing job at 6 in the evening. When I return at around 10.30 I get a call to say that John, my beloved partner of the past 12 years,  has suddenly died of a massive heart attack while on the phone to a friend. After the phone went dead, the friend drove to his West London flat (we did not live together during the week, but shared a weekend home) and when there was no reply, called the police, who came instantly, and broke the lock to gain entry. Within those few hours, the police have taken the body to the mortuary and the coroner has been informed. Funeral directors have been contacted. And I knew nothing of it.

March 16-31, 2004.
I go to Kingston Coroner’s office to identify the body. The Coroner informs the Probate Office and I, as co-executor of his will, receive the inheritance tax forms three days after the death and before his funeral has taken place. My mind turns to blank horror when I flip through the 50 or so pages of the forms. It soon becomes clear that we will have to pay a lot of IHT on the estate.  But how? When? My co-executor Jo Sandilands, John’s former wife, and myself, decide to hand the whole thing over to a solicitor. It is just too complicated for us to handle by ourselves. Also, both of us are in too much shock by the sudden and unexpected death to think straight. Plus, neither of us has ever had to do anything like this before, and we have no expertise at all.

The solicitor quotes us £1500 plus VAT to handle probate.  I go to the police station to retrieve the keys of John’s flat and Jo and I hunt for his will. All of John’s bank accounts are immediately frozen and we can pay no bills, apart from the funeral.  Nor can we pay any cheques into the accounts. John rented out two properties; the tenants have their rent cheques returned to them and start to panic about being evicted. We reassure them.

The Probate Department of John’s bank expresses trite sympathy for our loss, but refuses to pay any outstanding bills, even though there is nearly £200,000 in the accounts, more than enough, we hope, to pay the IHT.  When asked how we settle outstanding bills, we are told curtly to ‘get a loan.’

We have to get hold of John’s original will, not a copy, and Jo and myself both have to sign for it in person in front of the solicitor.  Probate cannot commence without the original will. We also need the birth certificate, and at least a dozen copies of the death certificate, which is issued only after the post-mortem. Copies2 are demanded by every utility and official body, before they will agree to stop the service.

April 2004
The first job is to get John’s assets valued for Probate. This includes cash at the bank, real estate, stocks and shares, vehicles, jewellery, paintings, antiques, furniture. Even Ikea furniture; in fact, anything which may have a saleable value. The Probate Office will only accept written valuations made by appropriate professionals, so we get estate agents to value John’s properties, six in all – three owned by him and three owned jointly by John and myself.  Nowadays, estate agents charge for probate valuations, and it has become a source of revenue for them. Ours agree to waive the charges if we put the properties on the market with them.

None of these properties can be sold until we receive the Grant of Probate which in turn cannot happen until the IHT is paid. It looks as though we will have to pay around £165,000 IHT on the sum total of his assets of around £800,000. The properties that John and myself jointly owned, including our holiday flat, are not exempt from IHT but are included in the calculations.

But – thank goodness John left his half of the joint flats to me in his will; otherwise I would have had to sell them, as well as his own properties. Jo and myself and another beneficiary pay for the Memorial Event ourselves. Otherwise, caterers, photographers and other small operators could wait for up to a year to be paid.

We cancel telephone, council tax, insurance, AA subscription, etc and inform all utilities and credit card companies of his demise. This takes a surprising amount of work and effort.  Every week, though, letters come to his address demanding payment. We get threatening letters from debt collectors; British Gas threatens to break into the flat and turn off the gas supply unless the account – less than £50 - is paid forthwith.

We spend hours on the phone explaining that we cannot pay bills because the accounts are frozen and will remain so until Probate is granted.

April- August 2004.
Nothing whatever happens, except that the threatening (and very upsetting) letters continue to arrive. We receive an offer for John’s home and explain that we cannot sell it until we receive the Grant of Probate, which is itself dependent on the Inland Revenue accepting the solicitor’s estimation of the total value of John’s assets. We donate John’s car to Jo’s teenage son and the solicitor values it at £100. We learn slowly what we can and cannot set against IHT. Every monetary or saleable asset, however small, is liable to be included. There are certain things, however, that we can set against the final amount, such as all bills, tenants’ deposits, outstanding income tax, cost of the memorial service and estate agents’ fees. Legal fees, however, are not included and must come out of the remainder of the estate.  Our solicitor is meticulous, if excruciatingly slow.

August- October 2004.
Jo and myself have to go to another solicitors and sign the probate forms after swearing on the Bible in front of an official. This little escapade costs us £18. We receive an offer on another of John’s properties. The solicitor tells us that we, the beneficiaries, are liable for Capital Gains Tax on the sales, if the sale price is in excess of the probate valuation.  This is to prevent deliberately low probate valuations.

October 2004
Eight months after John’s death we are granted Probate after inheritance tax, amounting to £165,000, is paid. Bank accounts are now unfrozen and wound up. Thank goodness, we agree, that John is not alive to know how much of his hard- earned, taxed money went straight to the government.3 The sale on John’s home falls through at, literally, the eleventh hour, just when we were about to exchange.

November 2004
There is no more interest in John’s home, but one sale goes through, extremely slowly, on a rental flat. Otherwise, the market seems to have gone completely dead.

December 2004
We decide to rent out John’s home rather than have it standing empty, and a tenant moves in. As executors, we are, after Probate, allowed to rent out John’s property and receive rents. The tenant stays just one day and the flat goes back on the market.

January 2005
We receive a lengthy statement of account from the probate solicitor and get all the paperwork back. It is more than a foot high. We are horrified to discover that the solicitor’s bill comes to much more than expected: £3,600 plus £800 for the ‘abortive sale’ of one of the flats. This money is taken out of John’s account before the balance is paid to us as executors.

Yes, we should have shopped around, we should have got written estimates but we were simply not thinking straight at the time.

By the time all the bills are paid, including accumulated service charges on the three flats, there is just £1,300 left of the nearly £200,000 in John’s account at the time of his death. We have also had to pay income tax which meant filling in another horrific form.

Jo and myself set up a joint bank account with the £1,300 as we can now receive and pay cheques. We can also start to pay the beneficiaries, including ourselves, once we receive the monies from the sale of the flats.

We exchange contracts on one of John’s rental flats. Thank goodness at least one has gone; still no interest in the other two.

February 2005
Almost a year has elapsed since John died and we still have not tied up the estate. Two properties remain unsold, and who can say how long they will take to go?  At least the beneficiaries have had the first tranche of their money, and the paperwork is no longer piling up so fast although demands for service charges continue. Council tax has to be paid again on unsold and empty properties six months after Probate.

Even when using a solicitor, there is endless work for the executors when IHT has to be paid.  There is, we realised, no real way of wriggling out of this tax. The Inland Revenue can- and do- query absolutely everything.

Sept - Oct 2005
We finally manage to sell John’s two other flats and pay the six beneficiaries, who receive a total of just over £73,000 each – a nice sum no doubt but for each person, less than half of what Gordon Brown has pocketed.

February 2006
Jo and myself have kept £2000 in our joint executor’s account, in case of unexpected or unforeseen bills. At long last, it seems to be over, so we divvy up the remainder of around £300 each, and close down the account, 23 months after John died.

Finally, the agony is over, but our sharpest and saddest memory is the huge amount we had to pay to the Exchequer. We will never forget that.

Daily Express - February 2006

Gossip is good for you (and more)

1. Gossip is good for you
These days, it seems, every kind of human behaviour is being subjected to scientific research, and the latest is an activity often frowned on – gossiping. An 18-month long American study found that far from being a negative activity, gossiping is actually good for you and is, in fact, central to human society. And rather than being idle chat, as is often assumed, gossip can yield vital information about people and events not available by any other means. The study also found that, contrary to popular belief, men gossip just as much as women, and on exactly the same subjects.

The difference is that whereas women tend to talk about other people, men concentrate mainly on talking about themselves.

The authors of the study, American anthropologists Kevin Kniffin and David Wilson, whose research is just published in the journal Human Nature, said that gossip has an important function in policing the behaviour of a group, and defining group membership.

Dr Wilson added that the act of coming together in a small group to share information is a deep-seated human instinct, and comparable to the ‘grooming’ behaviour of monkeys, which helps them to bond in a group. It seems that people spread good gossip when they feel an intimate part of a particular group, and make derogatory remarks when they feel marginalised or excluded.

2. Bladder weakness explained
Very many people have a problem they find so embarrassing they won’t even tell their doctor. This is bladder weakness, where urine leaks uncontrollably from time to time.

And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person!

The Continence Foundation, a charity founded in 1992, exists to help people with this problem, in complete confidence. There is a helpline available, plus factsheets and leaflets which explain the condition, and what can be done about it. The Foundation can also put sufferers in touch with their nearest NHS Continence clinic. Information officer Ian Holland said: ”Our website gets 14,000 hits a month, which gives some idea of how common the condition is. The main symptoms of an overactive bladder are extreme urgency, which can’t wait, and a need to go to the loo more than eight times a day.

“The condition often disrupts sleep, and interferes with normal social life, where sufferers often daren’t venture out of the house in case they need to ‘go’. “We have an ‘Urgent’ card that sufferers can use, stating that the holder of this card has a medical condition and needs to use the toilet quickly. The card has no legal force,” adds Ian Holland, “but is useful in situations where there is a long queue for maybe two toilets.”

The Foundation’s advice line, 0845 345 0165, is manned between 9.30 am and 1 pm weekdays, or you can visit their website, www.continence-foundation.org.uk Tena is a Swedish company specialising in products for bladder weakness which, they say, is as common as hayfever and can be caused by the menopause, constipation, nerve damage, infection, being overweight, and weakened pelvic floor muscles. 75 per cent of sufferers are female and this kind of weakness is not, as if often supposed, a condition confined to the elderly, although it can become worse with age.

Negative perceptions about the condition have been reinforced by bulky ‘continence pads’ but products have now become thin, discreet, extremely absorbent and widely available in supermarkets.

There is as yet no actual cure for the condition, but using the right product can make you feel safe when going out. Tena Lady products are specifically for women, and Tena Pants can be used by both men and women.

3. Natural relief for arthritis
It’s often said that the old remedies are the best, and Tabritis Rubbing Oils, which have been on the market for 50 years, have stood the test of time. There is as yet no cure for arthritis, and most prescription treatments, which are in effect high-strength painkillers, in time set up severe side-effects. This has led to at least two, Copraxamol and Viox, being withdrawn from the market.

Tabritis oils, applied externally, contain peppermint, clove and eucalyptus and have an anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effect. Tablets, containing prickly ash bark, elderflower, burdock and yarrow, cost £7.99 for 100 tablets and the oils, £7.55 a bottle.

Both are available from most supermarkets and chemists, and are made by Potters, the herbal medicines company which has been going for 200 years. For further information, call 0191 523 6578, or visit www.pottersherbals.co.uk

4. Redheads are more sensitive – official
Do you have the ginger gene? If so, not only are you more likely to burn in the sun, but you will suffer pain and feel the cold more acutely than those with other hair colours.

Scientists are Louisville University, Kentucky, found that redheads were more sensitive both to pain and extremes of temperature than others, and needed significantly more anaesthesia during operations. Dr Daniel Sessier, who led the study, said: “It seems that the redhead gene may affect the pain pathway.” This gene, known as MC1R, seems to cause the temperature- detecting gene to become overactivated.

Simon Cheetham, founder of the website Red and Proud, commented that the research shattered the myth of the tough, ginger Scottish male. He said: “The fact is that most redheads can’t cope with extremes of temperature.”

5. Supersnorers are born, not made
Ever wondered why some people snore worse than others? Now at last all can be explained. According to snoring expert Dr Igor Fajdiga, it’s all to do with the shape of the throat – and little to do with lifestyle or eating and drinking habits. Dr Fajdiga, who carried out his research in Slovenia, discovered that supersnorers had narrower throats than others, and that the loudest snorers had the narrowest throats.

The noise we know as snoring is created when the air we breathe becomes obstructed passing through the airways to the lungs. During waking hours, we have enough muscle tone to keep the airway open, but this is lost during sleep, when the airway narrows.

Twice as many men as women suffer from snoring, although it has to be said that the main sufferer is the sleeping partner – or indeed, anybody within earshot. Snoring at its worst can reach a level of 70 decibels – as loud as a pneumatic drill. Surgery can sometimes help but according to Professor John Gibson of the British Thoracic Society, the effects tend to wear off after a few years and the noise is back.

Unite Health Column - November 2005

Tired all the Time (and more)

1. Tired all the Time
Many of us feel bone-achingly tired occasionally, but usually a good night’s rest is all that’s needed to get back to normal.

But what if you feel tired all the time, however much sleep you’ve had and however relaxing your day? Doctors have now identified TATT as a genuine symptom of certain underlying health problems. Nobody should feel tired all the time and if they do, that means there is something wrong.

The first thing is to try and identify what is causing the extreme tiredness, together with your doctor.

The extreme tiredness could be caused by medication such as beta-blockers or anti-histamines, or a chronic lack of iron. Or it could indicate a quite serious health problem such as a thyroid problem, diabetes or post-viral fatigue syndrome. If the tiredness comes from taking prescription medicines, it may be possible to reduce or change your medication.

If you or your doctor suspects a thyroid problem – and this is a particular risk for women over 50 – you can have a thyroid function test, and hormones prescribed to get the body functioning normally again.

Again, if diabetes is suspected, you can have a diabetes test and if confirmed, take immediate action. Symptoms of diabetes can include overweight, constant raging thirst and increased need to pass urine.

Treatments can include a strict diet and exercise regime for weight loss, tablets to reduce blood glucose levels and, as a last resort, insulin injections.

Post-viral fatigue is now a recognised condition and although there is no cure, the trick is to take things very gradually until the after-effects of the virus work themselves out of the system.

Whatever the cause, don’t put up with TATT.

2. Sleep improves memory and learning
A new American study has found that a good night’s sleep improves memory function, and also aids positive thinking.

The study, published in the American journal Neuroscience, discovered that sleeping helps memories to ‘stick’ in the brain, and increases learning ability.

It also appears that parts of the brain which control speed and accuracy are most active when people get a good night’s sleep. At the same time, negative emotions such as stress and anxiety are damped down during sleep.

The results of the study, which investigated the role of sleep in a process called memory consolidation, found that memories and new information take time to establish themselves in the brain.

Margaret Thatcher was famously a ‘short sleeper’, supposedly getting by on three to five hours’ sleep a night. But recent research coming from sleep laboratories suggests that is NOT a practice to emulate.

3. Eye exercises for better vision
About 80 years ago, the Bates Method for better sight without glasses, was developed. Now there is a new version of these famous eye exercises available for the technology age.

A DVD, accompanied by eye charts, takes you through a series of daily eye exercises designed to improve or reverse the kind of vision loss experienced in middle age.

From about the age of 45, most people with previously perfect sight become unable to read small print, maps such as A-Zs and instructions on food packaging. For most of us, the answer is reading glasses, but these do not, of course, improve actual vision.

The need for reading glasses to decipher small print also means you are in a (literal) blind panic when you have lost or mislaid your specs. So exercises which give you back your vision cannot be too highly recommended.

The exercises take around six minutes daily, and must be practised without glasses. For the method to work, you need to have two fully-functioning eyes, and previously perfect vision.

The method is not suitable for those with eye problems such as short sight, a lazy eye or a squint. Neither can it help medical problems such as cataracts or macular degeneration.

The Read Without Glasses method costs £19.99 for the DVD and charts, and is available from many high street stores and supermarkets, such as Tesco, Woolworths, Smiths and Sainsbury’s. Also available online from www.withoutglasses.co.uk or by calling 01480 450 006.

4. Gum Disease and Smoking
By the age of 65, around 20 per cent of the non-smoking population no longer have any teeth of their own. But almost half of all smokers – 41 per cent – have lost all their teeth by this age.

The reason? Smoking exacerbates gum disease which results in damaged tissue and wobbly teeth which then fall out. Smoking encourages gum disease to develop as it interferes with natural healing mechanisms in the mouth.

The symptoms of gum disease are perpetually sore gums and an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Gengigel is specially formulated to combat gum disease and its active ingredient, hyaluranon, speeds up the healing of inflamed and damaged tissue in the mouth.

Gengigel is available either as a tube of gel or a mouth rinse. The gel costs £6.47 and the rinse, £7.99. Or, you can get it slightly cheaper online at http://www.oraldent.co.uk.

5. Natural Migraine Remedy
Migraine sufferers are all too painfully aware how debilitating attacks can be. And although strong painkillers will relieve the agony, they can also have very unpleasant side effects if used regularly, such as causing permanent liver damage or stomach bleeding.

There is a new natural remedy available for migraine which contains a host of herbal ingredients known to relieve migraine-type pain. The New Chapter Headache Relief is a potent blend of californian poppy, feverfew, rosemary, lavender, wintergreen and purple willow.

Tests with sufferers have already shown this remedy to be as effective as strong analgesics, but without the unwanted side-effects. It is not cheap, though, with prices starting at £14.99.

Available from most health stores, it can also be obtained online at www.wisofnature.com

Unite Health Column - August 2005

Pitfalls of ‘guaranteed’ rental


Laterlife web site - March 2005

Gym'll Fix it

My mother never went near a gym. Nor did my grandmother. Or great-grandmother, come to that. Nor did they voluntarily undertake any physical activity of any kind.

I, though, am very different from my sedentary female forbears. Although now a grandmother of five and technically allowed to put my feet up, I work out three or four times a week.

And I’m not talking about gentle old-lady exercises, either. I do tough routines such as body combat, circuit training, step and weight lifting, all to the kind of loud, funky, heavy-beat music that is supposed to make grandmothers shudder in fear and loathing.

Although I could never give Paula Radcliffe a run for her money, the workouts I have been doing for 15 years have made me fit, trim and supple, and I am perfectly able to keep up with the 20 and 30 year olds who make up the majority of the classes.

Nor am I alone. Esther Rantzen, at 64, has found that frenetic ballroom dancing has enabled her to regain much of the suppleness of her youth and lose her incipient dowager’s hump. After six weeks of intense training for BBC2’s Strictly Come Dancing, Esther had lost 12 lbs and four inches around her waist. “My skin began to glow and my posture improved,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I was really enjoying daily exercise.”

Joan Bakewell at 72 swears by her twice-weekly Pilates classes. Tina Moore, former wife of footballer Bobby, has taken up energetic tango dancing in her sixties. The redoubtable Eileen Fowler, one of the first television exercise gurus, was still conducting exercise classes in her nineties.

The benefits of regular exercise, for body, mind, spirit and warding off the ageing process have been demonstrated so many times we hardly need reminding of them. From every quarter we are encouraged to get moving. Yet the latest statistics show that only two per cent of women do any exercise at all. Why? The truth is that, however much exercise is hyped as a fun, enjoyable activity, the majority of women find it difficult, if not actually impossible, to embark on and continue an effective regime. For one thing, you don’t feel dreadful, or even any different, if you don’t do it.

Then, anybody who has not willingly moved a muscle for thirty years will find they are stiff and uncoordinated. Also, the horrors of struggling into Lycra sportswear and looking at yourself in the mirror when you are no longer age 16 and size 10 can hardly be exaggerated.

Further, it can difficult to find the time. Or the motivation. Yet you know you should.

Is there an answer? Yes! There are two secrets, I believe, to successful exercising. The first is that you have to join a suitable class, as you will never keep it up on your own; and the second is that you MUST MUST MUST exercise to music. It is the music, above all, which provides the rhythm and the motivation to complete the routines.

Could you imagine dancing without music? It is exactly the same with exercising, which is a form of dance, after all.

Today, exercises are not just for the young, fit and healthy. Even if you are diabetic, have bad knees or a bad back, suffer from arthritis or chronic joint pain, there is a movement to-music exercise class catering specially for your needs. Extend, for instance, is an exercise training scheme aimed at the over-60s and ‘less able’ of any age, as the brochure delicately puts it. Routines are carried out in bare feet, and there are seated and floor exercises to avoid gravity problems.2 And, of course, there is always music. Instructor Judith Holpin, who has been running Extend classes for many years, says: “I simply don’t know how anybody can keep up an exercise routine without music.

“Yoga may be very good, but without any music, the dropout rate is enormous. Having music enables you to move rhythmically and keep up the repetitions which are so necessary for suppleness.”

Judith admits that starting an exercise regime is often the most difficult problem. “It can be nerve-racking to walk into a strange class where all seem to know each other.

“To overcome this, we recommend going to a class with a friend. The social aspect is extremely important, and we emphasise this, so that people actually look forward to going to classes. There is a coffee break in the middle of our two-hour sessions.” With any class situation, a good instructor will briefly explain the workout, and offer a welcome and introductions to newcomers. When this happens, you soon become part of the group, and your exercise classes form an element of your social life. I have certainly made many good friends through my aerobics classes.

In order to gain lasting benefit, you really need to attend a class three times a week; a big commitment, but the rewards are huge, as well. “Our classes are designed to maintain suppleness and mobility,” Judith Holpin says. “Stamina and fat-burning come from fast aerobics, which most of our students can’t do. We concentrate on lowering blood pressure, keeping circulation healthy and above all, maintaining bone strength.

“One lady gave up her classes at 75 as her back was beginning to crumble. Her doctor said that without the classes, her back would have crumbled years ago. Exercise classes, even ones as gentle as ours, delay the ageing process beyond belief. If only more people exercised regularly, the NHS would save millions.”

For diabetics, the British Diabetic Association runs special Fit-For-Life classes, also to funky music, where blood pressure levels are taken before and after each class. Colin Allinson, 40, from Middlesex University’s Department of Sports Science, says:

“I am a diabetic and can’t recommend these classes highly enough. We do an hour’s session which includes a proper warm-up and cool down, squats and jogs. “It’s a cardiovascular routine designed to change the lifestyle of diabetics, and it works.”

If you like water, there is nothing to beat aquarobics. Here, the routines can be quite tough, with Aquafit classes the toughest of all, but again, because of the water, the gravity problem does not arise, and the classes are very suitable for arthritis sufferers, for example.

Also, there is a chummy, matey atmosphere at the sessions. Aquarobics was developed 20 years ago by chartered physiotherapist Glenda Baum as a way of exercising to music in water, and they have become so popular they are now on offer at most municipal baths.

Let the last word go to 82-year old Helen Gurley Brown, founder of Cosmopolitan magazine, who says “Even at my age, nothing, but nothing ever interferes with my exercise routine.

“Because I have exercised all my life I can still wear a sleeveless dress – and not many octogenarians can say that!”

The Lady magazine - December 2004

Liz Hodgkinson on using your loft space as an investment


Laterlife web site - June 2004

Was Alastair Campbell a gigolo ?

This amazing interview with the then unknown student / teacher Alastair Campbell, later to become New Labour’s Svengali, was conducted by Liz Hodgkinson and published by the Sun in May 1980.

When Campbell’s biographer Peter Oborne tried to find the cutting, it had mysteriously disappeared from all records.

However, Liz kept a copy of her original article. Here it is:

Alistair Campbell If you are young, handsome and hard up, it is all too easy to become a gigolo. That is what 22-year old Alastair Campbell found when he went to the South of France two years ago.

He arrived in Nice as a student from Cambridge University to teach part-time in a French grammar school as part of his modern languages course.  But it wasn’t long before money and expensive gifts were being showered on him by rich, bored and lonely ladies in search of sun and fun. A tall, clean-cut English youth like Campbell fitted the bill nicely.

He says: “One evening, at recreation for the English students, a woman came up to me and asked me to go out to dinner with her. At the dinner, she asked whether I would be interested in becoming a gigolo.“

The way it worked, she said, was that she gave parties in the afternoon, which women attended for a fee. “At these parties, there would be a selection of young men, all available for hire, so to speak. Your job was to entertain them, and put yourself at their disposal. You would talk, have dinner, make love. In return they would give you money or gifts. The women I met were mainly between 35 and 50 and wanted a young man who would make them feel good.”

“It was all done very discreetly. It was completely civilised and there were very few risks. Only once did a husband turn up unexpectedly.”

“Often these women didn’t even want sex. More than anything, they wanted an intimate companion – for pillow talk, for affection, to make them feel desirable.  The most I got paid was £250 for one night. The least was £12.”

Alistair CampbellAlastair had three things in his favour as a gigolo. He was tall – six foot three – fair-haired and English. He says: “There were plenty of gigolos in Nice, but they were Italian or French and short and swarthy.

“I enjoyed the work because French women are more passionate than English girls.”

Doesn’t he feel there was something unmasculine about being a kept man? “Not if you do it for just a short time,” he says. “But there are men in the South of France who turn it into a profession, and become very rich.”

“You can be successful between the ages of 20 and 28. After that, you’re less in demand. But think of the advantages – you choose your own hours, have a high standard of living, no ties, and all your clients are upper class, rich and civilised.”

“It’s never hard work, but the women do expect a high standard of performance.”


The Sun - May 1980

Interview with transsexual Roberta (Betty) Cowell

Note by Liz Hodgkinson: the book referred to was not passed by Betty for publication. But out of the many hours I spent trying to get to grips with Betty’s story, came Michael, nee Laura the forthcoming film of which will explain why Betty did not pass the book about her for publication.

The following interview with Roberta Cowell, by the late Michael Bateman, appeared in the Atticus column of The Sunday Times on March 12, 1972.

Roberta CowellRoberta Cowell, the wartime fighter pilot who re-registered as a woman in 1951, is writing another book to try to raise the money to go back into motor racing.

She’s 53, an age when you might think one’s speed of reaction isn’t so snappy; she says hers is. “Nothing falls off my mantelpiece and hits the deck if I’m anywhere near it. I have lapped Silverstone in half-a-second under the class record.”

Hasn’t she had enough publicity without writing another book? The operation was the sensational news story of the decade and each time in the last 21 years when there’s a sex-change story in the news, Roberta’s story is retold. She says there is a lot more to say: for instance there are some white lies about her ‘marriage’ to put right: but the most important message could be to those thinking of following her. It would be: DON’T.

“I was a freak. I had an operation and I’m not a freak any more. I had female chromosome make-up, XX. The people who have followed me have often been those with male chromosomes, XY. So they’ve been normal people who’ve turned themselves into freaks by means of the operation.

“At Hammersmith hospital the surgeons carry out about two operations a month. Many of those people will regret the operation later. There have been attempted suicides. They don’t change sex, as everyone knows, because the operation doesn’t alter the chromosomes.

“Many people thought they could copy me. But it’s like admiring someone without legs, like Bader, and having your legs off to be the same. Or it’s more like seeing a thalidomide child, and having an operation to be the same.”

Liz Hodgkinson, who’s writing the book with her, says Betty Cowell (as Roberta’s known to friends) is like no man or woman she’s ever met. “She’s a very masculine lady.”

In Richmond her home is cluttered with pilots’ helmets, high-frequency radios, models of planes and racing cars. She’s logged 1,600 hours as a pilot (recently she flew at Mach 2 twice the speed of sound). “Driving is what I do best. Jet planes don’t have personality the way racing cars do.” On the other hand she says she’s fond of music, and does needlework and tapestry. Picking up an example: “This is petit point. (Laughs). Well, grand point.”

In the book she will have her say on the changes in the sexual roles in the last 21 years. She doesn’t approve of the Permissive Society and she doesn’t welcome Women’s Lib. She certainly hopes the trend towards Unisex has stopped. It’s unhealthy, unnatural. “My experience shows that men and women are so completely different as to be almost different species.”

But she doesn’t feel she can say what it’s like to be a man, except in the social sense, because even at school she was physically a woman. Her breasts developed like a woman’s and she held them down with an elastic support. “I consciously tried to develop my muscles to compensate, so I was good at sport. I’d have thumped anyone who tried to send me up. But I always hated little boys, and I still see a lot of the little boy in the racing fraternity, especially when there’s a dinner night.”

She never sought the company of men, though she’s found they’ve sought hers. “When the story first broke I received 400 proposals. Some of them of marriage. I could have had titles, money, the lot.” She’s always preferred women, but this isn’t something she’d write about, out of consideration to friends.

Many of her friends are young people in fact, which is one more reason why she finds herself drawn back to motor-racing. “There’s nothing wrong with young people today,” she says with a smile. “You couldn’t meet a finer body of men, women and intersexes.”

- - March 1972

Retirement housing: dream or nightmare?

Retirement housing, also known as age-exclusive housing, is one of the fastest-growing property sectors in the country, and now that there are more over-65s than under 15s, it can only grow further.

These developments are heavily marketed with widely-advertised open days, seductive show homes, and ever-smiling sales reps.  They promise much: instead of rattling around in an otherwise empty and maybe falling apart family home, you can buy a brand-new flat in a landscaped, purpose-built development designed to cater for your every need. 

The developments offer both protection and independence. You have your own lockable front door and can come and go as you please, yet at the same time you are part of a community. There is a friendly manager on duty, and you have no need to fear a fall or sudden illness because all homes are fitted with a 24-hour panic button. And if you want guests to stay, you can simply book the separate guest suite. 

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? 

Unfortunately, as an increasing number of residents and their relatives are now discovering, specialised retirement housing often comes with very serious downsides.  For one thing, it doesn’t behave as other housing; all sorts of charges may be levied that you would never have to pay with an ordinary flat. And the biggest sting in the tail is that a percentage payment, known as a transfer charge, may be payable back to the developer on the sale of your home. 

For years, residents in retirement developments have accepted these elements as aspects of the ‘standard lease’ or contract they signed on buying the property, and they simply paid up. But now, a pressure group has been formed to challenge these charges, and the Office of Fair Trading is looking seriously into the matter. 

“We felt the matter of exit fees needed investigating,” said OFT spokesperson Frank Shepherd, “and we are of the opinion that they constitute an unfair and non-transparent contract.” In February 2010, the OFT obtained an undertaking from McCarthy and Stone, a major player, that they will remove exit fees from future and existing developments. But there remain many other companies in this sector, and they have so far not followed suit. 

Exit fees, however, are not the only problem. The whole sector urgently needs investigating and regulating, according to Melissa Briggs, co-founder of the newly-formed Campaign Against Retirement Leasehold Exploitation (CARLEX). She believes that many of the charges stem from pure greed and are nothing more than an easy way of exploiting a vulnerable group of people. “McCarthy and Stone, for instance, present themselves as ethical providers of the ‘happy, carefree retirement experience’ but once in, residents become confused and frightened by all the extra charges,” she says. 

“You buy into a dream and all too soon it becomes a nightmare as you are forced into paying charges you don’t understand and which are never part of an ordinary lease.  Exit fees, at between one and five per cent of the sale price, are something invented by the developers, and are not part of normal leasehold practice.  No service whatever is provided for this fee.

“Then there is often collusion between insurers, brokers and managers to inflate premiums and commissions. There is rarely any competitive tendering for building and other maintenance contracts, and these are often awarded to subsidiaries of the developers.  Developers frequently use their own managing company and so again, this is not put out to competitive tender.  Plus, it allows oppressive treatment of elderly tenants. 

“Residents may have to pay extra, on top of their service charges, to have a light socket moved, to park their car in the car park and to bring a mobility aid into the building.  Peverel, one of the biggest operators in the business, also instructs their House Managers to remove any information on notice boards which may be critical of the company. To us, this is censorship of the worst Soviet Union type.

“Although there are a number of companies in this highly profitable housing sector, they all operate a cartel so that there is no real choice, and they are all in collusion with each other. Elderly residents are kept in the dark about what really goes on, and we are exposing and bringing it to light, with the aim of bringing retirement housing in line with other leasehold properties.

“We are also campaigning for full refunds where charges have been imposed that leaseholders, in their ignorance and fear, have simply accepted. Although retirement properties are easier to manage than others, having few neighbour disputes, no mortgage defaulters, few arrears and quiet, compliant owners, service charges are always significantly higher, and can be as high as £700 a month.  High charges and non-competitive tendering are really a licence to print money.

“Before long, millions of us will be in retirement housing and as a matter of extreme urgency there should be a properly-funded regulator with prosecutory powers to enforce a strong code of conduct. At the moment, because of the high and ever-rising charges and exit fees, these properties are very difficult to resell. And charges keep adding up on unsold flats.”

Sidebar One:

What you may have to pay extra for:

Using a car park space, as a yearly rental of up to £250;
Covering rent, utilities, telephone charges, etc, on the House Manager’s flat;
A transfer fee on sale;
Services you simply don’t get such as window cleaning;
Non-competitive buildings insurance and building contracts;
A ‘permission’ charge to make small alterations in your flat, or to sublet;
High, and non-competitive, charges for the Careline service;
Using the developer’s own estate agency to sell the flat, at higher commission than usual.


Sidebar 2:

What you can do:

You are entitled by law to manage the building yourself, under Right To Manage legislation, rather than using the developer’s own company.
You can challenge the charges at a Leasehold Valuation Tribunal, to see if they are ‘reasonable’;
Join Carlex and add your voice to the campaign.

Carlex: Campaign Against Retirement Leasehold Exploitation: PO Box 697, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 9NG. http://www.carlex.org





Local Housing Allowance

When the Local Housing Allowance scheme was rolled out nationally in April 2008 to replace Housing Benefit, many landlords were extremely worried. The main fear was that they would never get their rent, as LHA was now to be paid to the tenant, instead of directly to the landlord, as before.

The noble idea here was to give low-income and unemployed tenants more control of their affairs and finances, and so increase their self-respect.

But this was not the only major change. Rents for tenants on benefit would no longer be set by landlords, but calculated by Rent Officers for each local authority, divided into Broad Market Areas.

In return for handling their own rental payments, accommodation rules became extremely strict. A single person or cohabiting couple would be allocated a one- bedroom flat, while a family with two children may be permitted either a two- or three-bedroom property depending on the ages and genders of the children. Since April, frequent inspections are made to ensure these rules are being followed, and speedy eviction will follow any contravention.  The LHA is means-tested although if a tenant secures a property at less rent than the set LHA, they are allowed to keep up to £15 a week for themselves.

Private landlords do not have to rent to LHA tenants of course but in areas of high unemployment it is often virtually the only tenant pool that exists, and many have little choice but to accept the new conditions.

A number of local authorities have been piloting the scheme since 2004, so how is it all now working out in practice?
Benefits manager Mo Lawless of Brighton and Hove Council is extremely enthusiastic, and insists it is all going beautifully. She says: “We were one of the authorities pioneering the scheme and we held many meetings with landlords who naturally had many concerns.

“The main fear was that tenants would keep the rents for themselves once they were paid directly. But this simply hasn’t happened as, if the rent is not paid, the tenant is evicted and would have a problem finding other accommodation.

“Where tenants are considered vulnerable, and suffering from mental or physical problems,  rents are still paid directly to the landlord. We accept that you can’t just give tenants money when they have never handled money before and may be incapable of budgeting. Otherwise, the LHA is paid into the tenant’s account two weeks in arrears, and rents can only go straight to the landlord after eight weeks of non-payment.. Under the previous scheme, rents were paid four weeks in arrears directly to the landlord.”

So, if a tenant defaults, can the landlord ever recover this lost money? “Yes, definitely,” Lawless says. “We have the capacity to clear the arrears, but we advise landlords not to wait for eight weeks. If the rent is not being paid as agreed, we suspend the benefit while we investigate the case.” Deposits are taken and protected under the Tenancy Deposit Scheme and LHA tenants have to come up with a deposit before being allowed into a property.

But not all landlords are satisfied.  Bernie Lewis, who lets to a number of LHA tenants in North Staffs,  says “The aim was to increase the personal responsibility of unemployed tenants to help them develop skills as they moved into employment.  But in many areas, there are just no jobs for them.

“And we have found that many LHA tenants do not have the right kind of bank account, which means they cannot pay by direct debit.  This means they have to find cashpoints and pay the landlord by cash. Many of these tenants are now begging their landlords to take the money direct from the local authority yet this is not allowed. “The latest survey found that 84% of LHA tenants were paying rent properly, but 16% were not and the result is that landlords are much less likely to let to Housing Benefit tenants than before.”

But the overriding concern, Bernie Lewis believes, is that communities are being destroyed by the new LHA. “As the allowance is based on personal entitlement, tenants have to move as household size changes. For instance, a family which has lived happily in a three-bedroom house for, say, 15 years would have to move to a one-bedroom property once the children have grown up and left.

“Landlords then either accept a greatly reduced rent or turn the tenant out. And the £15 excess they are allowed to keep is encouraging LHA tenants to seek substandard properties.”


Bradford and Bingley Magazine

Rent or equity release?

If you have been a contentedly mortgage-free homeowner for many years, you may not relish the prospect of renting a home instead. After all, renting is really for youngsters, isn’t it?

But renting in later life can make sound financial and lifestyle sense, as Brian and Irene Nixon discovered.

When Brian, 70, retired from his managerial career with the International Wool Secretariat, he sat down and did some meticulous financial projections. He soon realised that if he sold his valuable house in Ilkley, Yorkshire, and then rented a home, he and Irene would have no financial worries for the next 25 years at least. Two years on, he reckons renting can be highly recommended. He says: “Renting gives us more money to spend plus we are not responsible for the upkeep of the property. And if we have to move to a nursing home in later life, we can do so instantly without having to wait to sell first. Our former home was quite old and needed money spending on it, but our four-bedroom rented house is only three years old and in perfect condition.

“For me, renting makes more sense than commercial equity release as I don’t owe anybody anything and I have all the house money - £350,000 – invested with Scottish Widows. My pension gives us enough to live on and pay the rent, and the nice lump of capital is just to spend. We also have no more worries about whether the value of our house is going up or down.

“We had 50 or 60 suitable properties to choose from just in our area, and nowadays it is easy to find something nice for your needs. Also, most landlords prefer older people as we make better tenants. As we have been homeowners ourselves, we look after the property as we would our own and we are not going to take drugs or have wild parties.”

One serious drawback of renting is that your landlord may suddenly want to sell, leaving you potentially homeless. Just three months after the Nixons moved into their new home, their landlord told them he wanted to put the property on the market. Under normal circumstances they would have had to leave as most buyers demand vacant possession. But here they were lucky as their landlord sold the house through Investment Property Exchange (IPEX) a new scheme whereby buy-to-let properties are sold with tenants in situ. “IPEX is a marvellous scheme that ensures continuity regardless of the owner,” says Brian. “Our house is now owned by a property company, and thanks to IPEX, we have complete security of tenure.”

Brian and Irene Nixon rent an ordinary house but it is also possible to rent a retirement property. In 1990, Peter Girling, a former director of retirement home specialists McCarthy and Stone, set up Girlings Retirement Options as the ‘ultimate equity release’. Girlings buys up retirement housing to rent out in the private sector to people who previously owned their homes.

Marketing manager Caroline Hull explains: “We create an assured tenancy which gives complete security of tenure for as long as the occupant lives. Our tenants pay the full market rent capped in line with inflation, plus the service charges. “Our tenants have their pension plus a nice lump sum in the bank from the sale of their house, which means they can enjoy a financially stable retirement without remortgaging or getting back in debt,” Caroline adds.

Girlings, which works in partnership with Norwich Union, currently rents out around 10,000 units. Founder Peter Girling says: “We take up financial, medical and personal references and personally interview all prospective tenants. We decided to concentrate on retirement homes because they have everything older people may want such as a communal sitting room, specially-adapted bathrooms, panic buttons and Careline facilities.”

Renting a retirement home can be a sound decision as these properties are not always easy to sell. They can only be sold to other age-qualifying buyers, and there is usually a premium to pay back to the freeholder.

You can also, if you like, sell your house and then rent that same house back. There are now several companies offering this service, aimed mainly at older homeowners wanting to free up cash in the simplest possible way. This is emphatically not equity release as you no longer own your own home. And although you will rent at the current market rate, you will not get the full market price for your home. One such company, Fullhouse Developments, Ltd, will buy your house for between 70% and 85% of its current market value.

If the idea of renting appeals, you first need to do some very detailed financial calculations and forecasts, advises Brian Nixon. “I worked everything out very carefully on a spreadsheet before it became clear that I would be better off not being a homeowner any more.”

Girlings Retirement Options: 0845 758 356

Fullhouse Developments, Ltd: 0800 234 6586
Brian Nixon will prepare a tailor-made spreadsheet for readers.
Enquiries: 01943 608525/07984 338462
email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Investment Property Exchange (IPEX): 0870 853 2269.

Saga Magazine

Why do men age quicker than women?

This is a true story.

In Miami, at a social function, I was introduced to an overweight, grey-haired man in his fifties. Standing next to him was a slim, elegant, well-dressed woman who looked about twenty years younger. His daughter? Trophy wife?

“Hi,” said my new friend. Then, indicating the young-looking woman with him, he said: “Meet my mother.”

The space that follows is to allow the impact of those words to sink in. The received wisdom has always been that with increasing age, women become elderly, whereas men look ever more distinguished. Women go grey, whereas men simply acquire attractive silver touches in their hair. Women get fat, whereas men just become, well -nicely substantial.

We have been led to believe that men age more gracefully and elegantly than women. But if ever that was true once, it is certainly not the case now. Just the opposite in fact. The elderly –looking son with the youthful mother is by no means an isolated example of how differently men and women age these days.

Attend any gathering for the over-60s and you will see what I mean. The women will be trim, healthy and vibrant, chatting and laughing away, exchanging lively gossip and ideas. Their men, by contrast, will be paunchy, wrinkly and bald, staring vacantly into space or shuffling around on their zimmer frames.

Many women in their sixties and beyond are as fit as a fiddle and have never felt better. Men, though, will likely as not be suffering from a dozen degenerative diseases, from heart disease to gout, from diabetes to prostate problems, from macular degeneration to emphysema.

For many older men, life has become reduced to shunting from one hospital appointment to the next. Their bedside tables are covered with all kinds of strong medication, and it takes them fully half an hour to get their socks on in the morning.

What has gone wrong? Why are today’s men not ageing as well as the women in their lives?

One major reason has to be that older women take better care of themselves than ageing men. Although our grandmothers may have put on their white caps to sit knitting in their rocking chairs, the present generation of sixty-something women is fit and active. We go to the gym, we eat healthily, we watch our weight, and we take care of our skin and hair with the latest products. We make sure our teeth are white, our nails carefully manicured.

Then, we keep ourselves looking up to date by ruthlessly editing and refining our wardrobes every season, chucking out anything remotely old ladyish.

The men, though, will happily wear the same clothes for years on end. They may feel comfortable in their old togs, but the effect is to look like the man that time forgot. Most men never go near a beauty salon, and believe grooming products are for sissies. That’s why their skin looks old, lined and wrinkled before its time, in contrast with the smooth, cared-for skin of today’s older woman.

Women are also much more prepared than men to consider dyeing their hair, having cosmetic surgery and going for regular massages and spa treatments. But we women don’t just take care of our bodies. We pay close attention to keeping our minds young and active as well, by going on courses, running clubs and learning new skills, perhaps even taking up a new career, unlike the average sixty-plus man, who believes he learned everything he needed to know years ago, and has no need of further knowledge or mental input. The result of this attitude is that his mind has become as outdated as the 20-year old jacket he insists on dusting down for every occasion.

Poor old sods, though. It may not be all their fault. The truth is that men are actually designed by nature to wear out quickly, whereas women are programmed to last a long time.

And it’s all down to the male hormone testosterone, the substance released in huge quantities in boys and young men, but hardly produced at all in the later years. Once testosterone production slows down, the ageing process accelerates, causing rapid mental and physical decline in males.

Dr Malcolm Carruthers, who has spent two decades researching the ageing process in men, and devising ways to reverse it, believes the answer is to give males of middle age and beyond regular shots of the ‘youth hormone’ their bodies are no longer producing. This, believes the author of The Testosterone Revolution, will put a spring back in their step and a twinkle in their eye.

Certainly something drastic is needed, before older women in droves ditch their dreary old men for sleeker, livelier younger models, youthful men who can actually keep pace with them.

The Testosterone Revolution is published by Thorsons, £14.99

Laterlife web site

Reply to Tom

My son Tom wonders why, given my style of parenting, that he is not more mentally ill than he actually is.

Yes, he says the nicest things. But when I observe today’s frazzled, exhausted parents ceaselessly arguing with each other, I wonder who had the right idea: me, who tried to escape my children at every turn, or today’s parents who seem to give themselves no respite whatever from their tiny tyrants.

Although Tom has become famous for being an idle parent, or at least, for writing about the idea, it seems to me that his, and his generation’s, notion of idle parenting is to hover over the children all the time and pander to their every whim. 

Modern parents are the fussiest, most indulgent and overprotective ever known. Their non-stop parenting is often combined with one or both trying to earn a living at the same time, often from home. In the olden days, the children were never allowed to disturb Daddy – or more rarely, Mummy – while the parent was composing the great work. Nowadays, they are in and of the home office or study all the time, demanding attention.

These parents give over their entire lives over to their kids and then whinge endlessly about the way they are completely dominated by their little emperors.

The children are allowed to rule the roost and as a result, houses are a complete tip. Toys are never cleared up, food is permanently trodden into the carpets and every spare inch of wall space is lovingly covered with childish scrawls rather than proper, adult artwork.

Each available moment of the day is taken up ferrying the children to ballet, football, kung-fu, computer classes, tennis, violin, piano, trombone, Latin (yes, Latin!) and extra maths. And when the children are stuck at home there is no rest either, as they have to be ceaselessly entertained.

Yet even all this is not enough. To increase their self-imposed martyrdom still further, an ever-increasing number of parents are masochistically considering home schooling! And then, just to make sure home life is totally intolerable, bad behaviour is not only condoned, but actively encouraged.

Children are allowed to interrupt adult conversation. But it’s worse than that; the grown-up talk reverently stops whenever a childish voice barges in.

At mealtimes, today’s children are offered as wide a choice of menu as if they were in an expensive restaurant. “What would you like for supper, darling?” asks harassed Mummy, waiting anxiously for the finicky child to place its order. There is no such thing as table manners, oh no, that would be restricting their freedom. So, they are allowed to keep getting up and down from the table, to reach for things instead of asking politely, and even when – finally, finally – they have been put to bed, they keep slinking back downstairs where they are given a royal welcome as an honoured guest, rather than being sent back upstairs with short shrift.

They whine about wanting something they see on telly; the next day, it is bought for them.

So here, by way of complete contrast, I offer my style of parenting. It may have turned Tom into a basket case but it certainly kept me sane!

I was a genuinely idle mother. Because I wanted as much childfree time to myself as possible, they were, up to the age of five, put to bed at six sharp. They ate what was put in front of them, no messing about, and they had to devise their own entertainment. Certainly I did not see my role as having to provide a non-stop variety and amusement routine. And skulking downstairs at night would never be tolerated.

Unlike today’s kids, they were never, ever allowed into our bedroom. At night, we locked the door on them.

Although I gratefully escaped to my newspaper job as soon as I decently could after giving birth, this did not mean that I eagerly looked forward to reading them a bedtime story when I got home. Far from it - I would drink in the bar with my (mainly male) colleagues after work – until such time as, with any luck, Tom and his brother Will would be in bed, fast asleep, and the toys would be tidied away.

Tom has complained that it was being put to bed so early which turned him into a professional idler.

Be that as it may, I never wasted my time attending a school sports day – often considered to be the benchmark of perfect parenting, especially when the parent has a high-flying career. Maybe I would have made the effort if they had been budding Beckhams but – well, they weren’t.

I could never be persuaded to go to the swings with them and I hated funfairs, circuses and adventure parks as well – in fact all the things that children, and particularly small boys, seem to love so much. In fact, I hated all games, both indoor and out and my idea of hell was a rainy afternoon playing Monopoly or draughts.

Yes, I ignored them as much as possible. But funnily enough, we have a fantastic relationship with each other now. Why? Because, looking back, I have absolutely no resentment about Tom and Will taking up my time and energy. I did my own thing, followed an exciting career and we all flourished as a result. I was happy, my life was full of fun and companionship, and this positivity passed down to the children.

Also, the Fleet Street career – in those days – gave me enough money to be able to make choices in education, and this at least partly made up for my deficiencies as a parent.

Tom used to say to me, cheekily, “Where are the sacrifices?”

Well – nowhere. But I believe that the most important thing in life is to fulfil oneself, not sacrifice oneself on the altar of others. Yes children have to be looked after, and an idle parent should not be a neglectful parent. But you cannot pretend to be something you’re not, or that you are enjoying an activity that is sending you mad inside. The mismatch will soon show, and that is the main problem with today’s parents. So often, they are really only pretending that they enjoy every moment with their children.

That wise old bird Katharine Whitehorn once wrote that parenting is not what you think you ought to do but what you can stand. And most of us, if we’re honest, cannot stand very much of it.

Some people, it is true, have a definite gift with children, in the same way that some have a knack with animals. And a few lucky people have both; my niece Samantha, for example. It was a joy to watch her showing small children how to ride a horse, so that within minutes, child and beast were entirely confident with each other. My six-year old granddaughter nervously mounted a small pony, and was soon happily doing a rising trot and even jumps, thanks to Sam’s gentle tuition.

Unfortunately, this ability to enter the world and consciousness of small children is not given to all of us, and it does not automatically come courtesy of the reproductive organs. Often, it is not something you can know in advance.

I did not possess this enviable empathy as a parent and I have discovered I don’t have it as a grandparent, either. Half an hour in my grandchildren’s company and (dare I admit?) I’m bored. They are cute little people, certainly, but time goes by so slowly when I am with them and I simply do not know what to do with them. I don’t have any bright ideas.

But in speaking out and defending my position as a hands-off parent, I am not just voicing a grandmotherly rant from the sidelines. Today’s overparenting has become so toxic that psychologists, who once advocated free and relaxed routines, are starting to change their tune.

In his latest book, The Spoilt Generation, media psychologist Dr Aric Sigman maintains that today’s ever-indulgent parents are creating a generation of little monsters, programmed to be demanding and with no thought for others. To redress the balance, he is recommending a return to strictness. Mind, he is so retro that he is at the same time saying that mothers should spend more time with their children rather than rushing back to careers, so I can’t say I am wholeheartedly on his side.

Dr Sigman, you try spending more time with small children before glibly ordering anybody else to do so. But I’m all in favour of a return to discipline and definite boundaries between adults and children.

And – if you’re not a natural parent, don’t make life miserable for yourself by pretending otherwise.

The Lady magazine

Older Men Younger Women

It rarely causes comment, even nowadays, when a younger woman marries an older man, even a much older man. Maybe there is half a minute of a slightly raised eyebrow and then the matter is forgotten.

But when an older woman dares to pair up with a younger man, she is never allowed to forget it, and nor is anybody else.

Who can forget the 18-year age difference between actors Francesca Annis and Ralph Fiennes, or the delight with which the end of their eleven-year relationship was reported?

The wide age gap was, of course, cited as the reason for the break up, never mind that it added up to a long liaison in celebrity years.

And what about 50 year old Madonna, cavorting with her 22-year old toyboy, Jesus Luz? She has now become more famous for this than any of her recent concerts.

Any story about Demi Moore will inevitably refer to the fact that Aston Kuchner, her husband since 2005, is 16 years younger than she is. And however venerable Dame Joan Bakewell may now appear, we recall that her steamy past included not only an affair with Harold Pinter, but a 26-year marriage to a man eleven years her junior.

  • Coming slightly down from the A-list, the apparent fixation of actress Sadie Frost with much younger men has been gleefully reported in the media. Frost, who was famously married to Jude Law and had three children with him, has had a series of relationships with younger men, all in their twenties, since her 2003 divorce from Law. The latest one was Tom Atkin, at 21 just two decades younger than Frost.

These women are all of course famous names, and more or less any titbit about them will make news. But for all their accomplishments, the fact most often referred to and remembered is their tendency to form relationships with vastly younger men.

But the older woman/younger man syndrome doesn’t cause comment only in the world of showbiz which is often, as we know, a law unto itself. I was having drinks with some neighbours recently, when they pointed out that their son was married to a woman six years his senior. If the age gap had been the other way round, it would never have been mentioned. I have a schoolfriend who has been married for many years to a man 10 years her junior. And I am just as bad as everybody else; whenever I talk about my friend, I draw attention to this fact about her.

When I had lunch with agony aunt Marje Proops, then aged about 85, she confided that she was having a relationship with ‘a toyboy of 70’.

Why is it? Why should such women be seen as cougars, predatory cats pouncing on their unsuspecting prey, because they have dared to form an alliance with a younger male?

It seems to upset society to a ridiculous degree. For centuries, the accepted order has been for older men to choose younger women, not the other way round. The standard, Darwinian explanation for this is that men will want younger, nubile, fertile women and that women will choose an older, successful man who can provide for them.

In the old days, at least among the aristocracy – and certainly in the novels of Barbara Cartland –the ideal match, age-wise, was seen to be between a girl of 18 and a man of 33.

This was the exact age gap between Frances Fermoy, Princess Diana’s mother, and Earl Spencer, and also more or less the gap between Diana herself and Prince Charles. Yet, however ‘ideal’ these marriages were seen to be, they both quickly came to grief. Worse, the husbands in each case soon started to age unattractively, whereas the women came increasingly into their own.

In many parts of the world, these May-December matches have traditionally been considered right and natural. In India, where arranged marriages are the custom, it was (and still is) common for a girl of 15 or 16 to be married to a man 10 or more years older, but it never, ever happens the other way round. It was even quite acceptable for a girl of 15 to be married to a man of 50, never mind that with such a wide age gap, the wife was likely to be a widow before long, and the life of widow in traditional Indian society was almost worse than death; one reason why so many committed suttee.

The pairing of an innocent teenage girl and an experienced older man seemed to satisfy the norms in most societies, whether traditional or sophisticated. But when it comes to a marriage between an older, experienced woman and a younger, more innocent man, we have difficulty taking it in our stride.

The received wisdom has always been that, with increasing age, women become elderly, whereas men look ever more distinguished. Women go grey, whereas men simply acquire silver touches in their hair. Women get fat, whereas men become – well, nicely substantial.

The truth, though, as with so many things in life, is the exact opposite. Biologically, it actually makes more sense for a woman to choose a younger man, because it is a fact that women physically age much more slowly than men, succumb to far fewer life-threatening illnesses and live, on average, five years longer.

And it is all to do with the male hormone testosterone. Although this is produced in huge quantities in boys and young men, production slows down rapidly in the later years. And once production decreases, the ageing process accelerates, causing rapid mental and physical decline in males.

This decline can be seen in action at any gathering of older people, particularly of the over sixties, where the following phenomenon can be observed time and again: the women will be trim, healthy and vibrant, chatting and laughing away, exchanging lively gossip and ideas. Their men, by contrast, will be paunchy, wrinkly and bald, staring vacantly into space or shuffling round on their zimmer frames.

One friend, attending a reunion of the long-defunct magazine Nova, which was trendy and popular in the 1960s, remarked that all the women were as sassy and attractive as ever, whereas the men looked like Methuselah.

Many of today’s women now in their sixties and beyond are as fit as a fiddle and have never felt better. Men of the same age, though, will most likely be suffering from a dozen degenerative diseases, from heart disease to gout, from diabetes to prostate problems, from macular degeneration to emphysema and hypertension.

For many older men, life becomes reduced to shunting from one hospital appointment to the next. Their bedside tables are covered with all kinds of strong medication and it takes them fully half an hour to get their socks on in the morning.

Women – or at least present-day women not worn out by childbirth - take far better care of themselves than men. In most gyms, the percentage of women to men is 75% to 25%. And they are not just doing gentle exercises aimed at the over-50s. Tough professional women such as Madonna and Michelle Obama, are lifting heavy weights, toning up their arms and abs, entering triathlons and running marathons.

Then again, women take better care of their minds than men. Book clubs and evening classes overwhelmingly attract women. When I taught journalism in an adult college, the proportion of women to men was exactly the same as in the gyms: 75% to 25%.

Older women are much more ready than men to take on board new ideas, new concepts and learn new skills. But the minds and attitudes of many older men have become as outdated as the 20-year old jackets they regularly fish out of the wardrobe.

Women are also much more prepared to eat healthily, join slimming clubs, to take care of teeth and nails, to keep looking up to date by ruthlessly editing and refining wardrobes every season and chucking out anything remotely old-ladyish.

Most men, by contrast, will happily wear the same clothes for decades. Unless they are celebrities, they hardly ever take care of their teeth or bother much with grooming. A common phrase put by men on dating sites is: ‘I’m comfortable in my favourite jeans.’ Yet you will never find a woman seeking a partner admitting that she likes wearing old clothes; quite the reverse. The words ‘fashionable and up to date’ are far more likely to be used.

The fastest-growing dating sites, apparently, are those aimed at older women looking for new partners. Although at one time, single older women may have confined themselves to sitting in their rocking chairs knitting socks, nowadays such women are going on cruises, singles holidays, speed-dating evenings – all to try and find a wonderful new man.

Few of these go-getting women will want an elderly, infirm gentleman to look after; instead, they will look for somebody who can match them physically and mentally. And that, increasingly, will be somebody much younger than they are.

So let us hope that before long, the ever-growing amount of intimate liaisons between older women and younger men will cease to be a ‘syndrome’ and start to be the norm.

The Lady magazine

romantic novels Katie Fforde interview

The standard image of a fictional romantic heroine is of a beautiful, innocent virgin who, after many trials and tribulations, is finally rescued by the tall, dark, handsome and inevitably rich man of her dreams. 

That, at any rate, is how it used to be. Today’s romantic heroine, by contrast, could just as easily be a struggling single parent, or a divorced or widowed woman who falls for her local plumber or computer expert. He may be younger than she is and not particularly good looking. These days, he does not even have to be tall or the owner of a great estate.

But however up to date the story, however contemporary the plot, one thing will never change in romantic fiction, and that is, by the end of the story, the heroine and hero will have found true and lasting love with each other.

And as heroines nudge up to, and beyond, 50 years old, the Romantic Novelists’ Association also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its chairman, Katie Fforde, herself a hugely successful romantic novelist, explains how things have moved forward in the half-century of the Association’s history.

“Nowadays, the only thing that defines a romantic novel is that eventually, love, or romance, must be the most important part of the story. In the old days the heroine was inevitably weaker, younger and poorer than the hero, but now they can be completely equal. But even in contemporary romantic fiction, the man does still have to be able to rescue the heroine from a burning building, if need be, so he must have physical strength, be a real man if you like.

“But it’s never a case, these days, of a silly little girl being rescued by the superman hero. There’s none of this, ‘marry me, you little fool.’ The education of women has made a vast difference to the romantic novel, and our readers would no longer stand for that sort of story. Men and woman are now equally well educated and career-minded, although the traditional Cinderella situation can still apply with historical fiction.

“As writers of romantic fiction, above all we cater for that overwhelming desire for love, whatever the situations of our characters. And we must be doing something right because romance continues to be the most popular fiction genre of all time.”

Katie feels she has certainly redefined the concept of a romantic heroine in her own novels. “My women are ordinary, and they could live across the road. They all have careers and I put them in a completely modern setting. I write about women who are not perfect, and who make mistakes. There is always some big problem in their lives, something they have to overcome, and they are never drop-dead gorgeous. They are not even always thin!

“During the course of the novel, the heroine has to grow and develop, and achieve something by her own efforts.”  In one of Katie’s recent novels, for instance, the heroine was an interior designer. “I wanted to show that interior design wasn’t just poncing about with scatter cushions, so I have my heroine building and putting in her own staircase, all by herself and working to a tiny budget.”

Katie, herself approaching 60, says that so far, her heroines have not been in her own age group, but doesn’t rule it out for the future. “The thing about older heroines is that they will have baggage. They might have positive or negative experiences of marriage, they will probably have children, so the stepfather dilemma will present itself, and then there will be the problem of taking their clothes off to go to bed with a new man at that age, when they don’t have the slim, trim figures of their youth.

“Older heroines are women with more going on in their lives than the traditional 18-year old blank slate, and therefore, vastly more interesting. They have to be realistic, believable women who manage to sort out their difficulties. And yes, they will definitely find love.”  So far as taking clothes off, Katie says: “If they really loved each other, I don’t think they would care what they looked like naked, and in romantic fiction, we have to create characters who do care desperately about each other.

“Society has changed, people are younger for longer, there is no cut-off age for a heroine, and romantic fiction has adapted. Some novelists, for instance are now writing about people in care homes falling for each other – and it can still be a romantic story.”

Katie’s own path to fiction success did not come easily. “I was never the typical writing child,” she says. “It was my sister, Jane Gordon-Cumming, also a novelist, who was the writer in the family when we were growing up. I only started thinking about writing when my husband Des Fforde and myself were running a boat business, a kind of floating hotel, and I discovered Mills and Boon. I became totally addicted to them, read one every day and used to keep having to send Des out for more, as I finished them so quickly.

“We were having severe problems with our business and I loved the idea of the strong man taking away my troubles, especially when Des was at sea and I was at home being a single parent. I then thought: I must be able to write these stories myself, and so I started, thinking it would be easy.

“How wrong I was! For eight long years I tried to write romantic fiction and I sent my novels to Mills and Boon. They were very encouraging, very supportive, but nothing quite saw the light of day. I completely gave up with M and B when an editor said of one of my books that it ‘lacked sparkle’.

“I then had a stroke of luck. The editor who had been reading and commenting on my books left to become an agent, and she submitted a novel to Penguin. That was Living Dangerously, and they accepted it. Although that was tremendously exciting in itself, it didn’t end there. The book was picked up by W.H. Smith and marketed as a ‘fresh talent’. That was in 1995, and Marian Keyes, a phenomenally successful novelist, also came out of this fresh talent promotion. Not everybody has this same luck, but it got me going.” In 15 years, Katie has written 17 novels, all bestsellers. “I was 32 when I started writing,” she says, “and 42 when my first novel came out.”

Now, as Chairman of the RNA, she is encouraging other new or unpublished writers. “I was enormously helped by the RNA’s new writers’ scheme and they kept me going when otherwise I would have given up. As an unpublished, or pre-published, writer, you can join the RNA and for another £50, have your novel read by a successful novelist who will comment honestly on the manuscript. It takes two days to read a novel properly, so our members are working for £25 a day but they always feel they want to pay something back for the help they received themselves as struggling authors.

“At the RNA, we have contacts and friendly agents, and we can suggest suitable outlets if we feel that a novel has promise. We persist in reading,” says Katie, “because very often, a novel improves and picks up as it goes along.  A busy editor at a publishing house probably wouldn’t bother to do that. We also have amazing residential conferences and speakers, and the existence of the RNA has helped so many writers who otherwise would never have been published.”

And romantic fiction remains one of the few writing genres where women are pre-eminent. It’s easier to get published if you are female, as Emma Blair and Jessica Stirling, two successful and busy romantic writers, have discovered. They are both actually men. “Of our 700 members, possibly less than half a dozen are men, although numbers are creeping up slightly, and there is now a market for bloke lit which is also romantic.

“Romantic fiction must, of course, change and adapt with the times, but the genre itself will never die. The success of dating sites among all age groups has shown that what people want most of all in life, above anything else, is to find everlasting love with a fantastic partner.”


Katie Fforde’s new novel, A Perfect Proposal, is published in June 2010 by Century.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association is at:  www.rna.org. The website includes details of the New Writers’ Scheme.

The Lady magazine

Felicity Green Feature

Sometimes it only takes one artefact to change everything for ever.

So it was with The Gingham Dress. It didn’t sound much – a cheap throwaway little item featured in the Daily Mirror as a reader’s offer in 1963. Most newspaper offers are never remembered even a week later, but that one £3 dress was to revolutionise fashion and make an instant household name of one of the twentieth century’s true design stars - Barbara Hulanicki, or Biba, as she is better known.  

So important was this dress in the history of fashion that it has been given a starring role of its own in the new documentary film Beyond Biba. The film, now on general release, celebrates the life and work of Hulanicki, but we also have to give due credit to the far-sighted fashion editor who put her job on the line to get the dress into the paper in the first place.  

That was Felicity Green, a lifelong fashionista who at the age of 83 is just about to start a new job mentoring young fashion students at Central St Martin’s. She recalls the incident: “Barbara was then working as a freelance fashion artist and doing sketches for me at the Daily Mirror. I noticed that she herself always dressed beautifully and I asked if she could design something we could put in the paper as a very simple mail order offer.  

“She obliged and came up with a sleeveless dress in pink gingham with a little pink headscarf to go with it. I was absolutely enchanted with the design as it was so new and fresh and I wanted to put it on a double-page spread in the paper. I was already in big trouble with the chairman of the company, Cecil King, who had asked me how long I proposed to put Mary Quant’s ridiculous miniskirts in the paper. I replied: so long as they are news, and King said that if I continued he would arrange for me to be fired.

“Now I was about to do it again. This time the advertising director sent for me and asked, who is this foreign person you are putting in the paper? Who the hell is she? I said that it didn’t matter whether or not she was foreign because she was an extremely clever designer and added, with more confidence than I felt, that the offer would be a big hit with our readers.

“He reluctantly gave me the go-ahead and asked me how many we might sell. I told him maybe 3000, a figure I thought widely optimistic. In the event, we kept running out of pink gingham as the orders – 21,000 in all – flowed in and Barbara’s husband Stephen Fitz-Simon had to keep scouring the country for more fabric. Biba had never manufactured any clothes before, so it was a first, and a steep learning curve for all of us.”

Then there was a problem over the money. “In those days,” said Felicity, “few Mirror readers had bank accounts, so they sent in postal orders which Stephen’s bank wouldn’t accept. But the whole thing was a stunning success and launched Biba as an up and coming fashion house for the young.”

Felicity now reckons that the designs of Mary Quant and Biba hit the world with a cosmic fashion bang which has never been known since. “They were truly original designers making their mark with something completely different, at a time when there was a huge gap, a complete hole in fashion with haute couture at one end and stodgy middle-aged high street clothes at the other.

“Not since Quant and Biba has there been such a blank canvas, and nobody after them has ever changed the face of fashion so totally.  But although Quant was so talented, Biba was the very first designer to make high fashion affordable for the young.

“But Biba did more than just design exciting young clothes. She invented the dark boutique, she invented trendy mail order, and you could get everything matching and co-ordinating from hats and boots to underwear and cosmetics and even, at the end, designer tins of baked beans in the Kensington High Street store. Biba rethought everything.”

But the Gingham Dress story didn’t start and finish with the resoundingly successful reader offer. It heralded a completely new approach to fashion, and one which originated at street level rather than the Paris couture houses.

“Before Quant and Biba, fashion was controlled by Paris,” Felicity said. “We fashion editors used to report reverentially from Paris twice a year, and the looks we featured on our pages gradually filtered down into the high street. Retail fashion houses such as Wallis used to buy couture designs at high prices from the big French designers and adapt them for the mass market.

“Now it was completely the other way round and couture began to follow the high street.  Whereas before it had been all ballgowns, now designers like Yves St Laurent began to show black leather trousers, influenced by street fashion.

“Also, until the 1960s, young women copied their mothers, having no choice in the matter, as there was nothing else available. But from then on, mothers and even grandmothers took their fashion cue from their daughters.

“The result is that now, nobody wants to look like an old lady, including old ladies. The middle-aged market, what used to be known as grown-up clothes, is having a  struggle to survive because the age thing in fashion has vanished. This is something that has never happened before throughout history, but it’s not unusual these days to see 80 and 90 year old women confidently wearing jeans, T-shirts and high heeled boots they have bought from young stores such as New Look and H&M.  And they can look marvellous in them as well.  

“From age two to 90, the look is now the same for everybody. The other important thing is that money is no longer the key to being fashionable, as in the past. Fashion has been so completely democratized that you can look as good in a skinny sequin dress from Primark as when spending £2000 at Stella McCartney. Obviously the quality will be different but quick trends are now instantly available at every price level and the only thing preventing anybody having the latest look is laziness or a dead eye, or having given up on life and slouching around in tracksuit bottoms.”

Felicity Green believes there have been no major fashion trends since the 1960s: “There’s a picture of me, taken over 40 years ago, wearing black boots, a white mini-skirt and a black sleeveless top, all of which you could easily wear today. There have been wild fringes but no fashion story that has made world headlines, and Vogue has become an art-directors’ dream rather than introducing big new looks.” 

There has, though, been a revolution in the world of fashion, but it is in the organisation of the industry, rather than the actual clothes. Felicity says: “I first started teaching at St Martin’s 25 years ago and there has been a big difference in that fashion has finally been credited with the importance such a major industry deserves. In the early days, fashion courses were not considered academic or something to be seriously considered by intelligent people. Instead, they were rather looked down on as trivial and unimportant, courses for airheads.

“That attitude has completely changed.  In the 1960s it was all ad-hoc and there was no structure at all to the fashion world. Everything was completely disorganised but gradually commerciality and business training have been built into the college syllabuses so that now everybody on a fashion course learns about finance and legal aspects as well as designing fashion, and the courses have become as much a science as an art. They are now highly organised, structured and academic and the colleges are great design places as well.”

And just as Felicity Green was hugely influential in fashion in the 1960s so now, in her ninth decade, this former secretary from Dagenham, Essex, is continuing to push back barriers and pioneer new trends, this time in the working world.  Not for her a cosy retirement reminiscing in her rocking chair.  Felicity, a widow for over 20 years and still as chic and fashionable as ever, says:  “I’ve never really stopped working, and now I am enormously looking forward to my new role at St Martin’s.”

The Lady magazine

Call to arms

My Ranters piece on the ever-shrinking freelance fees has produced an impassioned response from many aggrieved writers who have witnessed the gradual disappearance of their income.

And it’s getting worse as ever more publications plead poverty and give any old excuse as to why they can’t pay a living wage or, indeed, any wage at all. Just this week, I read that Time Out wants an ‘enthusiastic graduate’ for a three-month internship. Office experience is essential, as is a ‘sound knowledge of London’s retail landscape’. The full-time job is unpaid.

How many enthusiastic graduates will rush to apply, I wonder?

Now that ever more former staffers are being forced into freelance activity through redundancies and swingeing job cuts, we cannot just sit back and let the accountants decimate our fees.

So here’s what we do. We know that unilateral action will get nowhere, and only collective action will produce results. So why don’t we all lay down tools on April 1, Maundy Thursday, and instead, congregate in the Harrow pub in Fleet Street where, coincidentally, Colin Dunne’s book launch is being held?

In the olden days, Maundy Thursday was traditionally a journalist’s day off as there was no paper on Good Friday. Murdoch and Maxwell changed all that, as indeed they did with working on Christmas Day.

Here’s what my son Tom had to say in an email when he read my piece on Ranters:

Hi Mum

I contacted the freelance organiser at the NUJ and he said that he has tried and failed to get a strike going.

I suggested to him that we think about a one-day strike which is perhaps combined with an afternoon in a Fleet Street boozer, and I said that you and your gang of old hacks would be up for it.

Tom lists the reasons – which will be familiar to all freelances these days -  for downing tools in protest:

Here are a few common grumbles:

  • Tumbling rates. The Telegraph, for example, now pays just £250 per
    thousand words. This means low quality features and low quality news,
    both of which will depend ever more heavily on press releases. And
    poor freelancers.
  • Payment according to click. There is a horrifying new trend where
    bloggers’ fees depend on how many readers their piece attracts, which 

    quite clearly means that they will tend to write sensational bits of
    opinion which go heavy on key phrases like "David Cameron". The medium
    will profoundly influence the message.
  • A startling lack of courtesy from commissioning editors. My own
    example: I wrote a 1,600 word piece for the Telegraph Review section
    and filed it five weeks ago. Since then I have heard not a peep
    despite four emails chasing up.
  • Late payment.
  • Commissioning a certain amount of words, printing a cut-down version
    and then paying only for the reduced version. This trick was played on
    me by the New Statesman.
  • Simply not paying. Esquire took eighteen months to pay me for a
    piece, and only then after the NUJ got heavy with them.
  • Extra low payments for blogs. The Guardian offered me £85 for a five
    hundred word opinion piece (for their Comment is Cheap section). This
    sticks in the craw a little when you consider that the site is
    completely plastered in advertising and also that Guardian MD Carolyn
    McCall takes home over a million quid a year.

    We need to stand up and protest against this new shoddy treatment, and
    a strike is the way to do it. Freelances also need to meet up and
    talk. The computer has separated us; hence the meeting in the pub.

    It’s time to fight back, and the best way to do that is to sit in the
    pub all afternoon, combining protest and merriment in time-honoured


    Tom Hodgkinson

Ranters reader Bob Dow had this to say:

Dear Liz,

Loved your piece on Gentlemen Ranters (always my first port of call on a Friday) and totally agree with you about the way good, hard working, honest freelances are being treated.

I was a staff man up here in Scotland for 30-years until I was dumped a year ago during a Daily Record cull. Since then I have found it astonishing the crappy rates that newspapers pay freelances and the unbelievable attitude and lack of respect towards us.

If you want to build up a head of steam on this then I am willing to lead the kilted hordes over Hadrian’s Wall…

Best wishes,

Bob Dow

Right, then. See you there, including the kilted hordes!

By the way, my other son Will told me about a successful freelance outcome at Mojo, a music magazine to which he contributes and which runs almost entirely on freelance contributions. Mojo, owned by the huge German conglomerate Bauer, had written round to all their contributors saying that not only were they buying all rights, but if an interviewee took legal action over any piece, the individual writer would be culpable.

This resulted in all the Mojo contributors getting together and refusing to write a single further word for the publication until they backed down – which they instantly did.

We know that very small, struggling publications cannot afford to pay writers much, or even anything, sometimes. That’s how it has always been with small magazines and how it always will be. But large multinational organisations, which are the ones we are talking about, are an entirely different matter.

They CAN pay but they WON’T pay – unless we make ‘em!


Gentlemen Ranters web site

The case of the disappearing byline

For most journalists, whether staff or freelance, their byline is their showcase, their shop window. It is how you get work, and how you get known; also, how you survive.

But now, along with all the other bad things happening to journalists, bylines are, on some publications at least, in danger of disappearing altogether.  

In the very early days of newspapers, bylines were extremely rare. It was more usual for stories to be headed ‘By our own correspondent’ or ‘By a staff writer.’ Many women’s magazines used house names or pseudonyms for their writers.

All this changed as journalism gradually stopped being a secretive, anonymous profession and became something to boast about. Big bylines, picture bylines, became the journalist’s equivalent of actors having their name in lights.

Now, it seems, it’s changing back to anonymity – and nobody but me, it appears, is objecting.

For several years now, many women’s magazines have got away with putting the writer’s byline up the side of the page, in such tiny point you need a magnifying glass to read it. The fad started with homes and interiors magazines, and then spread to weekly magazines and tabloid Sunday supplements. The magazine Take A Break, one of the highest-circulation weeklies, is a particular offender for grudging its writers any kind of byline at all, and you will search hard to find a decent-size credit line in once-great magazines such as Woman and Woman’s Own.

And now, the Guardian G2 section has followed suit, and shrunk the size of its writers’ bylines along with shrinking the fees. The two things appear to go together. Nobody values journalists any more, so the can be paid peanuts for the privilege of not having their work properly acknowledged.

The BBC, which has a whole host of magazines, goes even further. Not content with paying its staff and freelance writers hardly anything, they credit television presenters with the story, rather than the poor bugger who actually wrote it. This happened to me when I wrote something for BBC Good Homes – after, I may say, they approached me as a potential contributor. When I was sent a copy of the magazine and saw a presenter’s name and picture on my story, instead of my own, I angrily protested, only to be told it was ‘policy’. Not long after that, the magazine ceased publication.

While on the subject, I was also approached by a new homes magazine, Inside Out, to be a contributor. When I asked about a fee, answer came there none. I said, “Do you honestly expect me to write for a Murdoch magazine for nothing?” Again, the curse of Liz operated and the magazine only came out for about three issues before disappearing into the dust.

If you query this practice, or more accurately, malpractice - you will usually be told that the tiny byline is a matter of ‘design’ and it’s all down to the art editor. Bollocks. Nonsense. It’s yet another way in which the jobbing journalist is no longer valued, and has no means of protection, no way of insisting on any kind of better treatment. No wonder all the kids on media studies courses want to be columnists. It’s because they see the huge bylines of the favoured few such as Polly Toynbee and Allison Pearson, and this encourages them to read the copy, and imagine they can do the same. A byline draws the reader in, even if that name means nothing – at first. It’s how you get known in the first place.

I am a particular champion of the decent-sized byline because it’s how I got my first job in Fleet Street. I had, as a freelance, written a piece for the Sunday Mirror and although I was then a struggling unknown, it carried a big byline, my first such in a national newspaper. Within a week of that piece appearing, I was offered a staff job at the Sunday People. Such a thing would never have happened unless the byline had caught the attention of somebody in a position to offer me a job.

In those days, the tiny byline up the side of the page hadn’t been invented. It’s now time to un-invent it and start giving journalists their proper due as writers. The magazines and newspapers have been allowed to get away with it for far too long, and if we all keep quiet, the trend will only continue.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

Rant no 4 - Lazy Intros

The ever-growing army of both gentlemen and lady ranters is constantly complaining about the general lowering of standards in all aspects of journalism.

And usually with good reason.

This week, my rant is about lazy intros. In my day we were taught, if not bludgeoned and constantly beaten about the head, about the supreme importance of the intro.

An intro, we were told, was the most vital aspect of any journalistic story, the addictive come-on that would lead you in, encapsulate the tone of the piece and generally excite the reader to finish the feature. We were, after all, in the entertainment business and if the readers were not entertained, why would they buy a publication?

Part of the accepted wisdom of the times was that you should NEVER kick off a story with a quote. Not only was this considered the supreme laziness, it made layout difficult, especially when there was a big drop cap. Plus, stories starting with quotes are hard to read and do not encourage you to persevere.

Today, when reading a newspaper or magazine, I sometimes amuse myself – or more accurately, make myself angry – by counting up all the intros that start with quotes and think to myself: how did they let this clumsy intro get into the paper? As any fule no, journalists begin stories with quotes when they simply can’t think of any other way to start. It’s the get-out clause, the last resort, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.

Of course, in the olden days, clever intros were not always the individual work of the writer. Most publications had armies of talented subs back at base camp who could often come up with just the right catchy sentence that had evaded the reporter.

Nowadays, nearly all the subs have gone and managements are trying to get rid of the few that are left, arguing that we can all be our own subs.  But we can’t. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, a punchy intro just won’t come and the story needs another, fresh eye on it.

Sub-editors were, after all, employed for a very good reason: to knock a story into shape and maximise its impact. Their demise has led to lack of care about the intro so that now it can be as lazy, clichéd or wordy as one likes and it still goes straight into the paper.

My son Will, an established writer contributing to many national publications, says that nobody ever taught him about intros and nobody has ever pointed out the importance of a good intro to him. And I suspect it’s the same with most young journalists of today – not that Will is all that young any more.

Managements and proprietors should care about intros, as the more startling, dramatic and original they are, the more likely the reader is to be excited. Many intros these days are so dull, so coma-inducing that there is little incentive to carry on reading. So, gradually, it stands to reason, readers will stop buying the publication.

As examples, look at these three intros written in the 1970s:

1. The 5 foot 6 inch frame of Dustin Hoffman is scarcely the ideal location for a Homeric struggle. His head is moulded on heroic lines with its wide brow and noble nose, but thereafter he is constructed like a comedian: his arms and legs are short and tense and his posture perky as though he is permanently preparing to deliver a funny routine.

2. A list of instructions came with the horse, how to adjust his dress, hook him on to the caravan and so forth, and this was very comforting until you realised that the horse, of course, wouldn’t have read them, thus halving their value in times of stress.

3. Queen Victoria bought the Fiji Islands from their native chieftain for a trifling sum in 1874 and she could scarcely have added a nicer trinket to her splendid collection of mountains and deserts, lakes and rivers, palm and pine. Today, with the old monarch’s attic practically empty and the remnants going cheap down the Portobello Road, Fiji remains almost intact as a marvellous heirloom for anyone who still sees the Union Jack as more than a motif on a carrier bag.

And now these, written in 2010:

“For as far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a doctor. That’s the main reason I want to go to university,” says Miriam Rose, 17, a student at Barnet College in North London.

And this:

 “You can see my father in her smile, not me,” laughs Princess Natalia Strozzi in Relais Santa Croce, an 18th century palazzo hotel in the heart of Florence.” ‘

What’s the difference? The first ones are writerly, pacey, imaginative, original and invite you to read on. The second two are dull, static and make you yawn with boredom. Did anybody ask the writer: who’s Princess Natalia Whatsit?  Who cares whether Miriam Rose, 17, wants to be a doctor? What’s the interest to the reader of either of these intros? And they are taken from leading publications, not parish newsletters.

Of course, as usual, the decline of the intro is all to do with lack of money, not lack of talent.  The money has gone out of journalism, or at least, nobody wants to put any money into it, with the result that it is no longer taken seriously. And one of the prime casualties is the intro. It takes time, money, effort and application to get an intro right and these days, nobody can be bothered.   One reason that Dan Brown novels are such bestsellers is because of the first lines of each chapter: however much you may consider it’s all complete rubbish, the first lines are so addictive that you can’t help reading on. 

That’s how journalism intros used to be – and should be still.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

Ranters Rant - Karl Sabbagh

The recent experience of writer Karl Sabbagh should give all self-employed hacks pause.

Sabbagh, a noted expert on Middle Eastern affairs, and half-Palestinian, wrote to features editors of eight national broadsheet newspapers, enclosing a piece he had written about the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution, including details of how he had helped to set up Libyan television in that year.

He thought that the story of a young soldier who had deposed King Idris and set up his headquarters in the new television station, might be of interest, especially as that soldier’s name was Muammar Qadhafi. He also considered that a snail-mail approach might be novel enough these days for the editor in question actually to read the article, which would probably not happen with an email attachment. 

We are always told that ‘I wuz there’ will help a story walk into the paper, so what was the enthusiastic response from all those august publications? Precisely nothing. Nil. Zilch. Only one, the Financial Times, even bothered to reply, with a one-line email saying ‘Unable to use it.’

OK, so those of us who scribble for a living usually know better than to send in a whole piece on spec. However, Sabbagh is by no means an unknown, he has his own Wikipedia entry, and he probably thought that his expertise gave the article a good chance of publication.

However, his experience resonates with that of most freelance journalists these days. We are becoming surprised and shocked when we get any sort of response to an idea we may have the temerity to put up.

It seems to be standard practice these days not to acknowledge a freelance idea in any way, but to ignore it as if it was never received. In the olden days, at least you were told to piss off, in one of 50 different ways editors had of telling you to get lost.  And as Sabbagh discovered, this is not happening just to amateurs or wannabees, but to long-established professional writers who know when they have a good tale to tell.

With the collapse of the newspaper unions, the demise of secretaries and cutting staffing levels to the bone, it’s a miserable business being a freelance journalist these days. And that’s before they tell you the fee; usually half what you would have been paid 20 years ago- for all rights. And then if they do use outsiders, these are usually interns who are working for nothing anyway. Otherwise, it seems, all copy is written by staffers who don’t cost anything – or, at least, they don’t cost any extra.

And still newspapers can’t break even! Or, I wonder: could there be a connection between treating people badly and not breaking even? In the days when section editors invited you in to discuss ideas, or if they especially liked the sound of you, for coffee or lunch, newspapers had huge circulations and made loads of money for their owners. Now that they don’t pay anything, treat people without any courtesy or respect, and never reply to approaches by freelances, circulations are plunging ever downwards.

It’s as if everybody knows they are now cheapskate operations trying desperately, and failing, to make money from their websites, that people can no longer be bothered to buy these rags.

Now I know that it has never been easy being a freelance journalist. It has never been easy to make a living as a writer, full stop. That is nothing new, and those of us who have managed to scribble out a good income for ourselves over the years are very lucky indeed. What is new is the complete discourtesy with which many, if not most, newspaper and magazine offices operate.

They don’t want to see you, they don’t want new ideas and their fortresses have become completely impenetrable.

There are a few exceptions of course. Speaking from recent experience, I find that YOU magazine, part of the Mail on Sunday, is courteous and quick with its replies. But then I know the editor, Sue Peart, and she recognises my name. Rachel Johnson of The Lady is quick to respond but again, she knows my name. Boyd Tonkin at The Independent is also conscientious about responding. But see how I can name them individually, these exceptions that prove the rule? 

Most of the others have probably never heard of me and I suspect it’s the same with Karl Sabbagh. He is just too old, too much of a yesterday’s man for them to bother with him. He can be safely ignored, even if he does have a unique, historically important story to relate. A few celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop always get totally reverential treatment even though they don’t always deliver or if they do, it can be very substandard stuff. But never mind, the belief is that a ‘name’ will shift copies.

But God is not mocked, nor are the readers fooled.

What can we do? Some of the kids now on media courses will inevitably end up as editors, either of sections or supplements, or of whole publications. Could it not be taught on these courses that an email putting up an idea deserves a response – at least initially?

Do any Ranters have any suggestions as to how we can make editors sit up and take notice?

Gentlemen Ranters web site

Rant no 3

Will the bad treatment and arrogant exploitation of freelance writers never end? After all, just about every publication is more or less completely dependent on outside contributors these days.

But you would not think so, from the cavalier way we are treated. 

The other week I wrote about the deafening silence which often accompanies pitching an idea. But in many cases, that’s as nothing to what happens when you are asked, nay commissioned, to do a piece.  It goes into the ether and you never hear from your commissioning editor again.

More often than not, no acknowledgement of any kind comes your way, not even an email saying something like: thank you for the piece, I’ll read it later and get back to you. 

This lack of courtesy is by no means new, but whereas at one time it was an occasional rudeness, it is now rapidly becoming the norm. In my book Ladies of the Street, I quote the example of Katharine Whitehorn, a leading columnist on the Observer for three decades, and a household name. After she left the Observer she was asked by the paper to do a big piece on nursing. Now, anybody who has followed Whitehorn’s career will know that she sat on many nursing and hospital committees, and was something of an expert on the NHS.

So anything she wrote on the subject was likely to be well researched, well written, pacey and relevant to the readers.

Anyway, she duly wrote the piece and sent it in. Weeks of silence went by. When she eventually rang to say it would lose its topicality if it didn’t go in soon, she received the following justification from the features editor: “Really, Katharine, I’ve got 24 freelances telling me why their piece has to go in this week.”

Whitehorn received this crass response in 1997 and it rankled long enough for her to include it in her book Selective Memory, published in 2008. Most of us who have been struggling on as freelances since that time would never remember an isolated example, simply because this kind of treatment has become so common.

What do you do?  It’s one thing for an editor to ignore your idea, but completely unforgivable for them to ignore an entire piece they have asked you to write. I can only pass on my strategies, learned of long and bitter experience.

If I hear back from an editor asking for the piece—- and after I have picked myself up from the floor in shock at receiving a response at all - my next email would be to arrange the fee. However urgently they may want it, they can’t have it until I have secured this vital piece of information.  Then, if there is dead silence after I have sent in the piece – and after I have also sent them a reminder - I contact another publication for whom this item might also be suitable, especially if the piece is topical, as indeed, most journalism is, by its nature. 

So, you might ask, what if they both run it? So? So what? In my time, I have had an identical piece appearing in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express on the same day – and I am not the only journalist to whom this has happened. It is entirely their own fault.  I have also had identical pieces appearing in different magazines, in every case where the editor sat on it and sat on it and sat on it, never contacted me and was deaf, dumb and blind to my entreaties.

I always hope that when this sort of thing happens, the section editor concerned gets the most extreme bollocking, as they richly deserve. Of course, if the offender is the head honcho, the actual editor, he (or she) is not going to bollock himself, but it may be a lesson to him to behave in future.

OK, you as the little person will not always win but you have to let them know you will not put up with being treated like dirt – in the politest possible way of course.  If the worst comes to the worst, I write an aggrieved email asking if this is the way they would like to be treated themselves. I copy it to everybody who might have some influence, going as high up as I can.

That’ll larn ‘em! Well, sometimes …

But if they keep getting away with it, why should they mend their ways?

As ever, I blame the parents for the way this lack of acknowledgement has become standard. As a child, I was made to sit down and write thank-you letters to all the aunts and uncles who had sent me 10 bob book tokens for Christmas. The result was that it became ingrained in me to acknowledge letters, requests and later, emails. 

In turn, I made my sons do the same. It was often a painful exercise, but it paid dividends. But apparently the practice of children being forced to write thank you letters has died out completely, according to a lengthy correspondence on the subject recently in The Guardian.

I just think that today’s commissioning editors never got into the habit of saying thank you as children, and they have taken this discourtesy into their professional, adult lives. But we must all protest, as loudly as we can, to end this disgraceful practice.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

New Rant

Whatever is happening to freelance fees?

When I worked as woman’s editor at The Times in 1986 – during that terrible Wapping year – we paid freelance contributors £250 for a piece of about 600 words. The average rate for 1000 words was £400.

Even in those days, it was not particularly good money, but well – some people preferred to have their byline in what was then considered the top people’s paper than in some other publications. And sometimes, a better-paying paper was not a suitable outlet for either the subject matter or the golden prose in which it would be written.

However, that was then. Nowadays, you would expect the fees to be at least double what they were a quarter of a century ago. After all, everything else has gone up.

But no, just the opposite has happened. It is hard and becoming harder, to get even those rates. A fee which seemed average or low in the 1980s has now become an impossible dream for an increasing number of hard-working journalists. 

For instance, a long-established and supposedly valued freelance contributor to the Telegraph tells me that over the past two years, his rates have halved, from £500 a 1000 to £250 a 1000. And it’s not as if he has been specially singled out for ultra-low rates. This slashing has gone on across the board, and continues to go on. 

Apart from a favoured few earning something like £250,000 a year, most of the Telegraph’s contributors have found their rates steadily declining over the past few years.

Not that this newspaper is alone. The Guardian, Times and Independent have also recently cut their rates – and they were never high in the first place. 20 years ago I contributed a regular health column to The Guardian, for which I was paid £300 a time. It was difficult to write a good health article containing useful, original research and quotes for that amount in those days, but I hear that they now only pay £200 for such a piece. It is actually impossible to write any kind of proper health feature for that kind of money, and the only way to be cost-effective is to rewrite PR handouts.

Some people may not mind churning out this sort of stuff but most of us like to get something original, something with a bit of an edge to it, into print.

It is true that ever since 1986, when the Unions lost all their power, it has been difficult to make a decent living from journalism. Now though, it seems, it’s downright impossible to make any kind of living at all.

What are these big organisations thinking of, paying peanuts? And more to the point, is there anything anybody can do, apart from just moaning?

In the olden days of course, concerted union action and collective bargaining kept rates reasonably high. Now, even on papers where a union exists or is tolerated, it has no powers whatever to improve rates or conditions for its members.

The present-day isolation of journalists is another factor in the ever-plummeting rates. When they gathered together in pubs, they could compare payments and hassle for – and often get – better rates. Bad pay thrives on the isolation of workers and these days, journalists hardly ever meet each other. Why are homeworkers always paid so little? Simply because they can never band together, and in any case are terrified of losing even their tiny income if they dare to raise a voice in protest.

And individual action, such as the threat to withdraw one’s labour or to upstick the fee arsewise, will have no effect whatever.  The section editor will just go elsewhere. After all, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of kids pouring out of media courses who are desperate enough to get their names into print for a pittance.

And not only kids. There are also flocks of elderly or retired journalists who would love to have a regular outlet on a widely-read paper, even for no money.

No, the only effective way to improve rates is by is blanket strike action.  If everybody simply refused to file copy for a particular day – say a Saturday when all newspapers are particularly full of freelance articles – and continued to refuse until rates improved, the management would have no choice but to sit up and take notice.

If all outside contributors withheld their labour, no newspaper could possibly come out. Because although it might be possible to fill one or two empty slots at short notice, no editor could ever fill them all.

Some brave person would have to be responsible for organising all the others and encouraging them to see that while newspapers continue to get away with it, rates will inevitably plummet ever downwards. £250 will become £200, will become £150 and before long, even £100 a 1000 will sound generous.

Unless something like this is done, journalism will soon turn into a vanity profession, where people just write for the privilege of seeing their names in the paper rather than to earn a living. And when that day dawns, journalism as we Ranters understand it will be dead for ever. Journalists should be strong, brave and outspoken, not meek little mice.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

And still they come – stories of ridiculously tiny fees being offered by big companies to established and valued professionals.

Here is one sent to me just last week, from ace photographer Ian Bradshaw, now living in Pennyslvania. Bradders was contacted by Getty Images, a large photographic agency, in relation to a job for the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine. The job was in Pittsburgh, a round trip of more than 400 miles and Bradders was asked to add up his expenses for undertaking this assignment. Bradders worked out that petrol (gas) and other essential expenses would come to a minimum of $328.24, and relayed this information to Getty.

He takes up the story:

Nothing was heard until a phone call at 7am one morning from a lad in the London office: ‘Now about this job for YOU magazine that you are doing tomorrow…’

I asked what the fees were. ‘Oh we’ve negotiated a good fee from YOU, $455 all in.’ 

‘So this means the Mail on Sunday is paying $126.16 for a day’s shoot and over 400 mile drive [London to Edinburgh]?’ I enquired.

‘Yes isn’t it great?’ came the enthusiastic reply.

‘They were my big clients in the UK’ I observed.

‘So what time can we expect the pictures?’ asked the lad.

Guess what the answer was, readers. 

Yes that’s right. ‘I don’t get out of bed for that sort of money son, now fuck off!’

And if you convert those dollars into sterling - $1 currently equals £0.65 - you will discover that the actual fee offered by the Mail on Sunday –a big, popular newspaper and generally considered one of the better payers – comes to just £82, according to my trusty currency converter. And this is less than an electrician’s apprentice would charge for a day’s work.

Can it be true? Apparently so.   And this is not an isolated example, far from it.

Here’s another, from travel writer David Baird:

Anything is worth a try to help freelancers earn a crust. Even so, a one-day strike?

I can almost hear the fat cats chuckling in their boardrooms or over their expense-account lunches.

They know there is an abysmal lack of solidarity among hacks.

That came home to me when, for a while, I was a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. It’s a useful institution with some good friends and fine journalists among its members. But, perhaps inevitably, it also attracts a number of shameless freeloaders who have no compunction in undermining their colleagues. They call themselves travel writers but, in fact, are press trip junkies. They must have income from other sources as they take advantage of whatever travel freebies are available and in return churn out articles without requiring payment. In this situation, what hope do bona fide writers have of earning a decent living?

A decent living? Ho, ho, ho! Now based in Spain, I was recently offered the princely sum of 30 euros for a story by one of the freebie publications on the Costas. They were quite offended when I suggested that this was a bad joke. But then there are always a bunch of "freelances" around who will accept any terms just to get their names in print — and editors who will take advantage.

And another, this time anonymous: 

We’re all doomed. I’m working at the moment in a local newspaper group with four very bright kiddie-reporters who work for next to nothing (less than the secretary) but still believe in journalism. I tell them to get out before it’s too late but they won’t listen and complain that I take the wind out of their sails. The fact is, I’m right, unfortunately. My national-paper subbing shifts pay less than they did 20 years ago, probably because the suits have been convinced (by whom?) that subs are unnecessary and should be wiped out ASAP… and it’s happening. This makes the idea of a strike a very bad joke, as you say. Nobody is fighting for us and even if they were, the publishers wouldn’t give a toss.

Meanwhile, as the word spreads, I keep being asked: but haven’t freelance contributors always been treated badly? What’s new?

Well, yes. Horrific stories of late payment, no payment or being completely ignored or shamelessly ripped off by editors and publishers probably go back 200 years or more.  Any glamour business exploits eager hopefuls, and attracts shysters and charlatans, as well as the talented and the visionaries who genuinely want to make a difference.  It’s a murky old world with many traps for the unwary, and that is the name of the game. Plus, it has never been easy to forge a living in the essentially rough and tumble world of journalism, as those of us who have tried to survive in it know only too well.

But two aspects are new: one is that rates and fees are being systematically slashed, across the board, and for all comers included seasoned and valued professionals; and the other is the massive salaries now being paid to those at the top.  Although publishing companies cite falling circulations and declining advertising revenue to justify their constant rate-cutting, the fact that so many editors and CEOs now earn over £1 million a year means that money is still being made somewhere.

The difference between the salaries of those at the top and the poor sods at entry level has never been greater.  

We know that circulations are falling, so why is this? My own explanation is that there is now a serious mismatch between appearance and content. Thanks to computer technology, images are sharper and newspapers and magazines now look better than ever. Layouts are more eye-catching and publications appear colourful, professional, slick and inviting.

If you compare this with 1970s publications, you’ll see what I mean.

But peer a little closer and you realize it’s all cosmetic surgery. Because fees and staffing levels are being ruthlessly cut all the time, there is hardly anything worth reading. Ever more publications now try to secure free, or very cheap, content, with the result that we see exactly the same celebrity pictures and read exactly the same stories everywhere.  

This downward trend will continue until publishing conglomerates understand two simple truths:

  1. Publications which have to keep cutting costs don’t deserve to survive;
  2. Blogging and online mouthing off by amateurs is NOT journalism. Real journalism takes talent, skill, perseverance, courage, guts, practice and passion. These are qualities which should be prized and encouraged, and they don’t come cheap.
Gentlemen Ranters web site

Rothman - king size

Whenever I walk down Fleet Street now, with its frothing sea of coffee shops, I think of Nat Rothman, Sunday People leader writer and qualified lawyer. Nat liked to eat in upmarket restaurants in the Street and would always request, at the end of the meal, a cappuccino or an espresso, only to be told by the waiter that, sadly, no such beverage was available.

Nat’s rationale for his persistent request was that if he kept asking, one day they might have them.

Now of course, Nat’s wish has come true, and Fleet Street probably has more cappuccino outlets per square foot than anywhere else in the country. But it’s all come far too late for him.

An elderly and eccentric bachelor at the time I knew him, Nat lived in some splendour in a fabulously appointed flat in Eaton Square. When another special writer, Sandy Brereton, announced she was getting married, Nat said simply, ‘I was married once. I didn’t like it.’

He was of the firm opinion that married couples should have, at the very least, separate bedrooms and, ideally, separate flats. It was an idea that sounded very bizarre at the time although in later life I have come to see the advantages.

Nat came into the office on Fridays and Saturdays and during the week, he ran a Rent Tribunal, which occasioned the remark every week from Eric Leggett:  ‘How many widows have you thrown out this week, Nat?’  He would arrive at about 10 am, light up a huge Hugh Cudlipp-size cigar, polish off The Times crossword in about ten minutes and then go into the editor’s office to discuss leaders. By noon, he had usually handwritten two or three clever editorials, neatly encapsulating the editor’s opinions on burning issues of the day.

He would give them to the editor’s secretary to type up, and then it would be time for lunch. Most Fridays, Sandy and I would have lunch with Nat at Mario and Franco, a nearby Italian restaurant, now long gone.

Nat chainsmoked Havana cigars, so on the way to the restaurant we always had to call in at Weingott’s, the Fleet Street tobacconist, where every week the following invariable scenario would take place:

Nat: ‘Have you got any cheap Havanas?’
Salesman: ‘No such thing as cheap Havanas, sir.’
Nat: ‘In that case, I’ll have a cheap pipe.’
Salesman: ‘Certainly, sir. Over here.’
Nat, fingering the pipes: ‘How much are they?’
Then, wincing at the price:  ‘You used to have pipes for half a crown.’
Salesman: ‘That was long before decimalisation, sir.’
Nat: ‘Well I’d better have some Havanas, since you haven’t got any cheap pipes. But not Romeo and Juliet; they’re far too expensive.’

The salesman would then make a great show of pointing out the shop’s extensive selection of Havanas, which ended up, every time, with Nat buying a big box of Romeo and Juliets, muttering: ‘Just this once, then. But never again.’

Eventually, Nat had to have a quadruple heart bypass and was ordered to give up smoking before the operation could be performed. His doctor, however, took pity on him and allowed him just one cigar a month, which Nat used to get up at 4am to smoke, after counting down the days.

A thoroughgoing urbanite, Nat had somehow acquired a delightful cottage in Goudhurst, Kent, which had a large garden. Nat was no gardener himself but did not like mess and chaos, so employed a gardener, although he muttered endlessly about the expense and the fact the gardener was on benefits.

On an occasional table at the cottage was a bottle of whisky, a clutch of tenners, a couple of whisky glasses and a plaintive note saying: ‘Please, whatever you take, no damage.’ This was a note to burglars but so far as I know, Nat did not suffer a burglary.

Sandy and I sometimes visited Nat at the cottage and one day he revealed to us that he had a girlfriend of many years’ standing. He was about 63 at the time, and he asked us whether we thought he ought to marry her. ‘I’m just asking you girls for some advice,’ he said.  ‘As women.’

Given Nat’s publicly stated views on marriage and the fact that he was more than 30 years older than either of us, we shook our heads. We were of the opinion that 63 was far too old to get married after so many years as a single man, and in any case the idea of such elderly people marrying and possibly – perish the thought – having sex with each other at that age was too much for us to grasp.  Nat, who hinted in an oblique way that he and his lady friend were, in fact, having sex, took no notice of us and eventually did get married, ‘with great misgivings’ as he confessed, although the marriage turned out to be blissfully happy.

After Sandy left the paper to have a family, both Nat and myself became godparents to her children. Nat, as a childless Jew, found being a Christian godparent rather strange but did his best, coming across with fantastic gifts.

After his late-life second marriage to the glamorous Juanita, Nat retired, sold his cottage, gave up the lease on his Eaton Square flat, and moved to Cheltenham.

It is a great pity and a great loss that journalistic elder statesmen such as Nat, with their long sweep of valuable experience, are no longer employed on newspapers. As a young journalist, I greatly valued Nat’s input, friendship and company; for today’s equivalents, there are, sadly, no Nats around.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

Making a Splash

It was the dream and ambition of most reporters to get the splash – the lead story on the front page, and the most important story in the paper that week.

As time went by it began to look as though I probably never would have one. I was grandly titled consumer correspondent, but these stories rarely lent themselves to the drama and huge headlines of a tabloid splash. Sensational exclusive revelations were the subject of splashes, not outrages over the price of supermarket bleach.

Most of the time it didn’t bother me that much. Splashes were usually forgotten by lunchtime, I told myself, whereas a good consumer story could make a lasting impact.

But one night I was idly sitting with my then husband Neville watching television. When the ads came on an American-style thirties barman was polishing glasses and saying to a customer: ‘Harvey Wallbanger? White Lady? Slow Screw against the Wall?’ The customer, however, resisted all the invitations to have an exotic cocktail, and asked instead for the simple lager or beer that was the subject of this very elaborate and expensive commercial.

I had never heard of any of these cocktails, nor had Nev, so the next day at work I asked my colleagues whether they knew what a Harvey Wallbanger was. None had any idea; they had never heard of such a drink. On a hunch, I rang a few hotel bars and they said that since the ad had appeared, people were coming in asking for Harvey Wallbangers and White Ladies. Previously, they’d had no such requests, but now they were inundated. Many barmen said they’d never previously heard of these drinks either and that in any case cocktails were no longer very popular. This ad looked like changing all that.

What about the lager that was the actual subject of the ad? No; nobody was asking for that. In fact, none of the barmen I contacted could even remember which lager was being advertised. All that stuck were the unusual names of the cocktails.

Aha! Of such trifles light as air are the best newspaper stories often made. I wrote a memo for conference, and handed it to the newsdesk secretary, Beryl. She said she’d also seen the ad, and had wondered what a Harvey Wallbanger could be. The newdesk were also intrigued, and added it to the schedule of stories for the week.
After conference, Ernie Burrington, the deputy editor, said: ‘I like that Harvey Wallbanger idea, we could go big on it. So, could you find out how the name originated, how popular this cocktail is in America, contact the ad agency, and see how easy it is to get a Harvey Wallbanger in this country. We could even herald the return of the cocktail. Get the recipe for the Harvey Wallbanger as well, and we’ll take it from there.’

I amassed a large amount of information about Harvey Wallbangers, and became an instant expert, the way one often does as a journalist, and now had enough detail, or at least, as much as I would ever have, to write it up.

It was all, at least for us, a glamorous and upbeat story. The news point of the story was that, since the ad had appeared on television, sales of vodka had rocketed and sales of its vital ingredient Galliano, which previously had been little-known in the UK, were going through the roof as well.

Only the lager, which was what was actually being advertised, was refusing to budge.

The upshot was that the lager company, which had spent thousands of pounds, probably hundreds of thousands, on the ad, was in effect, promoting other drinks. They had spent a king’s ransom advertising something other than their own product.

It was this fact that gave my story its special twist and, as it happened, catapulted it out of the inside pages and onto the front page where it became that week’s splash, driving all the heavier stories inside the paper. The headline was: EXCLUSIVE: THE AD THAT PROMOTES RIVAL DRINKS.

If I had underestimated the pride and pleasure that getting the splash brings, I certainly understood it now. It made me feel like a real journalist at last, as if I had finally won my spurs in the competitive, cut-throat world of national newspaper journalism. And it was all so effortless, in the end. The story practically wrote itself. On every level, it was a winner.
Several people, including my mother, rang to congratulate me on the story. I was also pleased that, for once, my big story did not involve doing other people down in any way – apart from, perhaps, the ad agency which had dreamed up the unfortunate commercial. But they were big enough to take it. In any case, the facts spoke for themselves and could not be denied.

For me, getting such a nice story meant that I wouldn’t have to have palpitations all Monday, and go into the office on Tuesday with heart pounding, pulse racing, wondering what horrors in the form of comebacks from aggrieved parties awaited me.

By Tuesday, most of the daily papers had followed up the story, although they had little to add to it, really. But all wanted to get in on the act. The very name Harvey Wallbanger, familiar enough now, but unknown then, was striking enough to want to do a story around.

When I got into work on Tuesday morning another nice thing awaited me: there was a case of vodka and a case of long, slim yellow Galliano bottles with my name on, sent by grateful manufacturers. All my colleagues were congratulatory, too.

‘We must have a drink to celebrate,’ said Eric Leggett, as we passed each other in the corridor .’I knew you weren’t as dim as they made out. They said you weren’t up to the job, but I knew different. See you in The Stab at lunch time?’

‘Thanks for those few kind words, Eric. And yes, I’d love to.‘

We got there at about half-past twelve, giving ourselves special dispensation from our (often broken) rule of one o’clock.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

Prime Minister’s Daughter in Live Sex Show – how Carol Thatcher first hit the headlines.

Carol Thatcher is rarely out of the news these days, but she might like to draw a veil over the incident that first put her on the front page. Or, maybe, seven veils ..

It was September 1984. The country was embroiled in the miners’ strike and Carol and myself were living it up in Thailand, on a press trip organised by Kuoni, the upmarket long-haul travel company.

At the time, Carol, aged 31, was a journalist on the Daily Telegraph and I was working for the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine.  There were about 10 other journalists on the trip.

At first Carol was wary and kept herself to herself but soon she and I were having long heart-to-hearts in hotel bars about her delicate position in the world, especially as a national newspaper journalist.

Carol admitted there were downsides to being the daughter of the first female prime minister in the Western world, but agreed that in the main, she was hugely privileged and very lucky. As she relaxed, she began to join in the fun of the trip. A bit too enthusiastically, as it turned out.

One night, our organisers suggested that we should all go to a live sex show at a night club in Bangkok. Well, it made a change from listening to powerpoint presentations and being shown round hotels, so we readily agreed. We were on our honour not to write about it, as it was secret, a special concession, and most emphatically not part of the advertised itinerary.  Kuoni had their good name to preserve.

There was a small stage in the middle of the floor on which a group of young and completely naked men and women were having full sex with each other, pounding away in time to pounding beat music.

None of us had seen anything like it before and we were mesmerised. Then, suddenly, Carol got up on the stage and began dancing around the naked couples, gyrating to the music although she did keep most of her clothes on.  “Come off the stage, Carol,” we implored. “You’re not supposed to be part of the act.”

But Carol was enjoying herself too much and carried on dancing among the writhing couples.  Eventually, we managed to pull her off the stage and got into our taxis back to the hotel.

By the time we returned, all hell had let loose. The Sun, Daily Mirror and all the other papers had somehow already heard that Carol Thatcher, the prime minister’s daughter, had taken part in a live sex show in Bangkok, and reporters were ringing each of us in turn, including Carol, for more juicy titbits to add to the story.

It didn’t help that this was the time of the Tory party’s Victorian values, and of course the story was too good to miss. None of said a single word to the papers, but even so, we were caught up in the unsettling phenomenon of the press hounding the press.

The upshot was that a version of the story was in every single newspaper the next day.

The organisers Kuoni were predictably furious. They threatened to cancel the rest of the trip and abandon us there and then. But then they realised, probably, this would make an even better story (‘Top journalists abandoned in Bangkok by leading travel company’) and they calmed down. But the trip never recovered from this betrayal and although Carol was desperately ashamed of the consequences of her exuberant prank, it was far worse knowing that one of our own party must have tipped off the newspapers.

There was sadly, on this occasion, no honour among thieves. We never discovered which of us was responsible, but Carol soon recovered her high spirits, put the incident behind her, and went on to become a celebrity in her own right.

Gentlemen Ranters web site

Anne Scott-James Obituary

Anne Scott-James, one of the outstanding women journalists of her day and an early star profiled in Ladies of the Street, has died aged 96. Although she had a privileged start, coming from a family of writers and educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Somerville College, Oxford, Scott-James still had to force her way into the higher realms of journalism. She did this by sheer courage and an unshakeable self-belief.

She wrote in her 1952 book In the Mink, set in the offices of a glossy magazine, that most girls were simply not tough enough for office life and were always in floods of tears or asking for Fridays off ‘because Mummy liked them to be in the country at weekends’. In that thinly-veiled autographical novel, Scott-James ponders on the eternal female dilemma of careers versus families, and decides that, unlike most women of her generation, she is not suited to a ‘purely private life’ but must cut a swathe in the public sphere as well.

Her actual career certainly bore this out. After working at Vogue on leaving Oxford, Scott-James became woman’s editor of Picture Post - then a major photojournalism publication - then editor of Harper’s Bazaar and subsequently woman’s editor of the Sunday Express, with a whole (broadsheet) page to herself every week. She was also a lively columnist for the Daily Mail throughout the 1960s.

Scott-James was one of the very first female journalists to be well known outside her newspaper pages. She showed what modern career women were capable of, and more or less invented the personal, highly opinionated female column, a genre later developed to great effect by such groundbreaking newspaperwomen as Katharine Whitehorn, Jean Rook and Lynda Lee-Potter. Scott-James was also for many years a stalwart of popular radio panel games of the day, such as My Word!

In later life, Scott-James became an expert on gardening and wrote several gardening books, again to great acclaim. Her book SissinghurstThe Making of a Garden – became a bestseller and she greatly upped the ante for gardening books which previously had been rather dull and worthy and, mainly, written by gardeners rather than actual writers.

Scott-James was married three times, always to prominent men in the media. Her first marriage to writer Derek Verschoyle, only lasted a few months. Her second, to journalist Macdonald Hastings, endured rather longer and produced two children including the former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings. Hastings has written of his rather difficult relationship with his mother and Scott-James herself said that she was always rather afraid of Max, even as a baby. Her third marriage, to cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, creator of Maudie Littlehampton, was truly happy and a meeting of minds and hearts. She wrote about herself in later life: “Most lives are untidy and mine is no exception, a mixture of happiness and misery, success and failure, false starts and strokes of luck, but it has rarely been boring.”

Most successful female journalists could say the same and although Scott-James’ life may have seemed an unbroken record of success, those of us who have tried to survive in the inky trade know that it is never quite as simple as that. But we would probably all agree that, whatever the ups and downs, the life of a journalist can never be boring.

All female journalists owe a huge debt of gratitude to pioneer women like Anne Scott-James, who showed by her example that yes, some girls are indeed tough enough to work on Fridays and to have exciting, long-lasting careers that can survive in an often hostile and indifferent world.

Anne Eleanor Scott-James, born 5 April, 1913; died 13 May 2009.

Gentlemen Ranters web site