March 30, 1960 |
As one ages, eventually, no matter what regime you've followed, no matter how fiercely you've fought the fight, good health becomes harder to maintain. It may disappear overnight or simply dwindle, but with every year that passes, the odds shorten.
My research process doesn't vary much. I do a little reading to establish a timeline and decide how I'm going to approach the story.
Dementia is quite unlike cancer or heart disease or any of those other conditions where you bargain with God for a cure or even just a bit more time.
The thing about praising beauty is that good looks are an unforgiving task- master, a Forth Bridge of a maintenance job. The passing years present their accounts. Younger models become available.
Times may have changed, but there are some things that are always with us – loneliness is one of them.
Not so very long ago, certainly well into the Thirties, a lady companion was a normal feature of life for widows or lone spinsters.
As well as writing novels and doing short-order journalism, I am also the full-time carer of my husband, who has Alzheimer's. Each day feels like a race that must be run.
In the Seventies, my children played in the street, read politically incorrect stories, ate home-cooked food and occasional junk and, yes, were sometimes smacked.
I'm married to an American, and although we live in Europe, I think of myself as an honorary American.
Personally, my interest in social history ends around 1959, by which time I was an adolescent. I've always attributed this to my particular sensibilities. I like formality and elegance, and I'm fundamentally conservative.
People invade your space and offend your sensibilities because, to be plain, they couldn't care less about you.
I speak pretty fluent American, though I do so with a strong British accent, and I love America: The scale and the variety of it are astonishing to someone not born there, and I'm convinced that its energy and generosity have somehow rubbed off on me and affected my writing. For the better.
When my children were young, one of the treats promised by their grandparents was a ride in Grandad's car.
I hate to think I ever make my husband frightened or unhappy, but I suspect I do.
Even professional, paid carers aren't always models of saintly behaviour – and they know they can knock off at the end of their shift to go home, take an uninterrupted shower, and have a normal conversation with someone.
My parents never told me I was beautiful, and for one very good reason. I wasn't. When your child is a tubby, bespectacled little oddity, as I was, it's important not to give them false expectations.
I almost always use first person voice in my novels. It has its limitations, but it gives a sense of immediacy that's hard to create with an anonymous, all-seeing narrator.
Characters develop as the book progresses, but any that start to bore me end up in the wastepaper basket. In real life, we may have to put up with tedious people, but not in novels.
None of us wants to be reminded that dementia is random, relentless, and frighteningly common.
In grief, after even the happiest of relationships, we go over things again and again.
My mother was a fastidious and orderly homemaker. I was the messy but creative type. I picture her following behind me through life with a damp rag and an air of exasperation.
I'm thankful my parents obliged me to live with the unvarnished truth: I might not have been a looker, but I was a better speller than the prettiest girl in my class, and I was funnier, too.
I've always jealously guarded my feminine mystique. I've been married twice, and neither of my husbands has ever seen me put my face on.
Once, every woman owned a small mirrored compact, and it was considered normal – sophisticated even – to flip it open to discreetly check for things like nose-glow or lipstick smudge.
There is something very easy about women's friendships that you don't see as often with men. We all know examples of this, when women will just call each other up or drop a line, not with anything specific to say.
Sundown is often the worst time of day for people with dementia. They can become restless and difficult.
I've never minded solitude. For a writer, it's a natural condition. But caring for a dementia sufferer leads to a peculiar kind of loneliness.
My go-to author for knowing it all is Evelyn Waugh. 'A Handful of Dust' is as perfect as a book can get.
I have a magpie mind, by which I mean I see and hear little things – photos, fragments of conversation – and store them away for future use.
My husband is stricken with dementia, and it's a trick of his condition that events and people from his past are more real to him than what happened five minutes ago.
I was fascinated by the culture clash between England and America in the 1950s. My first memories are of being a girl in those post-war years when things were really pretty grim. It wasn't like that in America, which was real boom time.
I think my mother was baffled by me. We were polar opposites. She was shy and retiring. I was over-fond of the limelight. Many times in my life, I was conscious of embarrassing her with my carrying on.
It was the Victorians who covered the piano legs and drew a heavy curtain over what a lady got up to in her boudoir.
I have but one rule at my table. You may leave your cabbage, but you'll sit still and behave until I've eaten mine.
Being eye candy always was a short-term career, and here's the reason. The world finds young women more attractive than old women because youthfulness signals fertility.
Caring burns a lot of fuel – psychological and physical, too, if any lifting is involved. The energy tank is soon emptied, and the toll caring takes is well documented. It's called carer burn-out.
My early novels were very understated and English. Fourteen years ago, I met and married my American husband, and as I learned more about his background and culture, I became interested in using American voices.
With Alzheimer's, recent memory is affected first. At the start, you count the memory loss in days, then hours – then in minutes. But there's also an insidious backward creep of deterioration.
Far more than dreading ending up in a care home myself, I dread having to put my husband in one.
I love working fictional characters into a piece of history. It plays to my strengths, which are characterization and dialogue, and assists me in my admitted weakness, plot.
The terror dementia sufferers must feel is unimaginable, but the techniques they use to hide their difficulties – the ducking and diving and keeping the world laughing – are perfectly understandable.
I've been lucky enough to travel widely. When you're based in Europe, it's very easy to go to Madrid or Budapest for the weekend. I also lived in Italy for ten years and now live in Ireland.
My husband is leaving me. No dramas, no slammed doors – well, OK, a few slammed doors – and no suitcase in the hall, but there is another woman involved. Her name is Dementia.
I'd like to see my grandchildren climb trees, not stand under them. I'd like to see them learn to make bread and brown it over a fire using my toasting fork.
I have an idea for a story, and if the idea is going to work, then one of the characters steps forward, and I hear her voice telling the story. This is what has happened with all the books I've written in the first person.
I'm married to an American, so I guess that has changed my perspective on the subjects I can write about.
My preferred style is to write in first person, so I always have to play around with possible narrator voices until I find something that works.
Childhood doesn't have to be perfect, and children don't have to be beautiful. From a bit of grit may grow a pearl, and if pearl production doesn't materialise, the outcome will still be preferable to the shallowness of vanity.
I know my parents loved me – they certainly did everything they could for me – but displays of affection were kept on a distinctly low flame.
The word 'carer' makes me think of someone with a nylon overall and a long list of 'clients' to wash before she finishes her shift. A companion was something unique. A kind of live-in friend.