Beauty Tips

Love Of Letters

Reg envelope open with white card, love heart fasteners and on red background

I’ve long championed the art of the letter. I have boxes of stationery and stacks of postcards, being incapable of exiting a museum via anything except the gift shop, picking up a few on the way. I actually order stamps from Royal Mail, because that’s the only way to get the non-boring type – most recently, a large consignment of James Bond commemorative stamps. (And let’s face it, this is alas the closest I’m ever going to get to Daniel Craig.)

But unquestionably the most important hour of my day right now is first thing in the morning – not reading newspapers, not listening to the news (about which I can do nothing), not even meditating, but sitting in bed writing cards and letters. Because they seem to make all the difference to people’s days – and anything that I can do to brighten the lives of people I love or even just like a lot right now is what I want to spend my time on, in lockdown.

It began with dropping a little handwritten card to a couple of neighbours who I thought might need comfort, in enforced isolation. And then a friend who’s had some health challenges and definitely seemed in need of cheering up, from her Facebook posts. And then the floodgates opened. What harm would it do, I wondered, to write to all my nearest and dearest and actually tell them – in a card or a letter – how special they are? Answer: no harm. On the contrary, its been amazing. And, like some kind of chain letter, many of them have used it as a trigger, taken up letter-writing and are using their time to jot a note to other people.

Because as I mentioned in my ‘Small Pleasures’ editorial for Gill recently, the appearance of a postman is really quite thrilling right now. We all feel cut off. Nobody loves not being able to reach out and hug people (well, nobody but an actual sociopath) – so I’ve basically decided to put those hugs in an envelope, stick a stamp on, seal it with a kiss, and pop it through the wonderful, battered old postbox on our street.

It all feels a bit melodramatic and highly unfamiliar, sometimes, telling people the things you think but don’t usually say: ‘I just wanted to let you know how I’ve always admired X, Y or Z about you.’ ‘I love having you as my friend because – dot, dot, dot.’ Americans are so much better at this than the Brits; these are the sort of things we only generally say to people in extremis – when someone’s very ill (us or them), and we somehow find a way to overcome our British stiff upper lip-ishness, and tell it like it is. Well, this is an altogether, global in extremis situation – and the gift it has given us (because there has to be a silver lining to this cloud SOMEWHERE) is that its put everything into sharp focus. Made us appreciate what we have, while we have it. In particular, people.

Zoom calls can be fun. (I’ve got a group of cousins I check in with each Sunday, and a couple of girlfriends who I have a virtual tea party with on Saturday afternoons.) E-mails from friends are OK, but actually still feel a bit too like work. Receiving silly videos on WhatsApp certainly makes me snort my tea out of my nose, at times. But is there anything lovelier than someone’s handwriting? I sometimes come across letters and postcards my late parents wrote to me, maybe four decades ago, slipped into a book or a box – and a glimpse of their handwriting is unbelievably moving. No typeface can do that.

So I am working my way through those stacks of museum postcards that I’ve accumulated, over the years – a handful at a time, each morning. Some of my cards go through neighbours’ doors, like the eighty-something widower poet who lives down the road, with a poorly cancer patient daughter just a few hundred yards away who he can’t visit. He gets a card from me every couple of days, and his e-mails back are wonderful and smile-making (and sometimes, in French, because he’s a linguist). And there’s the old lady I know, who would formerly be seen bustling around all day long, working off large amounts of what is clearly nervous energy, and who is presumably now pacing her hallway, waiting for her confinement to be over. (I do appreciate how lucky I am to live in a community where I know my neighbours, incidentally – but hopefully those bonds are being forged now even in large cities, as we realise how interconnected we really are.)

I certainly don’t do it because I want letters and cards back – though its been completely thrilling to get some ‘replies’, as well as some unsolicited snail mail. (I shan’t throw a single one away, but have tucked them inside recipe and gardening books, and in years to come I’ll come across them and remember the extraordinary time the world changed forever – for the better, one can only hope.) I do it because life is short, and precious, and most of us are only just waking up to how short and how precious – and that it’s definitely too short not to tell people we love them and are thinking of them.

So: I really can’t do anything about the current global corona-situation. (Other than look after my own health, stay home, socially distance when I’m going out for essential supplies or daily exercise, and wash my hands endlessly.)

But I can do something that might just make someone’s day, as they open an envelope or find a postcard of a Dante Gabriel Rosetti beauty or a Hockney sketch, sitting on the doormat.

And might I invite you to do the same…?

Small Pleasures

Small radiator with red wall

The world seems big and scary and out of control right now. I remember feeling just like this as a child, hiding behind the sofa and peering out occasionally at The Daleks, who seemed so utterly terrifying. (I met a real Dalek many years later backstage at the BBC and it was honestly like something I might have made as an art project – but that was alas too late to console a seven-year-old who regularly suffered Dr. Who-related Saturday nightmares.)

Fear and blind panic aren’t going to do anyone’s mental health any good, however. And they’re not going to solve or change anything at a time of global crisis. So I thought I’d share my coping strategy when the big picture seems overwhelming – which is to focus on the small stuff. In particular, small pleasures, which really can lift the spirits at dark times in a way that’s totally disproportionate to their size. I don’t think you have to be Pollyanna to get a boost from watching a bunch of daffs blossom on your kitchen table, or feeling happy at the unexpected sight of a rainbow. Read More…

An Apple (Or Rotten Tomato?) For The Teacher

A sliced and stacked red apple on white

There is a Japanese proverb that goes: ‘Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.’ I don’t think that I ever notched up 1,000 days of diligent study – but unfortunately, the greatest teachers in my life came long after the school bell had tolled its last; people like the spiritual guru Ram Dass (who taught me to meditate), Anita Roddick, my friend and mentor (who taught me about bringing your sense of humour to work, because you’re really going to need it) and even my husband, come to that, who taught me to keep the faith at all times. (Not religious faith. Just ‘the faith’, trusting to the universe.)

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to my teachers in years – before last summer, when I was asked to appear as Lauren Laverne’s guest on Desert Island Discs. (I know I’ve written about this before, but forgive me: I AM still pinching myself, and it’s 100% relevant to what I’m about to share.)

I share with Lauren (and, um, 3 million listeners) a particular, negative experience I’d had with my Scripture teacher. For some reason, the aforementioned teacher was also our Careers teacher, and one day a lesson turned from the Bible to discussions about what we were going to do when we left school. Well, Jackie Chapman was going to study Medicine at Oxford. My friend Stephanie Dodsworth was headed for teacher-training. The gloriously-named Dorcas Bird was, as I remember, thinking of Law. And yours truly announced that she wanted to be a secretary – an actual careers ambition, in those days.

My teacher narrowed her eyes and glared at me. ‘Jo Fairley, if you make so much as a Girl Friday, I’ll eat my hat,’ said Mrs. Wootton. (For readers at the lower age of the age spectrum, a Girl Friday was essentially a PA and several rungs lower on the career ladder than a secretary, probably only good for fetching coffee/dry cleaning/walking the boss’s Chihuahua.)

And my life could have gone in two very different directions, at that point. What actually happened was that I basically heard a Saturn Five rocket ignite under my chair, firing me up with the determination to prove her wrong. (Weirdly, it still drives me decades later – but I realise that if I’d been a different sort of girl, or even feeling less confident, on a different day, I might have bought into her predictions and set my sights perhaps no higher than running the Pick ‘n’ Mix in our local Woolworths.)

And an extraordinary thing happened after the Desert Island Discs was broadcast. No less than seven of that teacher’s other pupils managed to find a way to get in touch and wrote to me of similar experiences they’d had. In five of the seven cases, the impact was the same: it made them utterly determined to show her what they could achieve. But I literally cried at two of the communications, from women who years afterwards revealed to me that they’d bought into her put-downs and – as one told me – ‘my self-esteem has never recovered.’ (Another of the correspondents, meanwhile, hadn’t just been told she was going to amount to nothing, but that she’d ‘burn in hell’ – because a) her parents were divorced, and b) she’d been spotted dancing in the audience of Ready, Steady, Go!, then the must-watch music programme of the week.)

Reading their letters was an amazing and somewhat liberating experience for me, because of course I’d thought it was just ME. I didn’t realise that she had it in for all sorts of other pupils, in other classes and other years. Fired-up as I was at the time, I was also somewhat embarrassed at being singled out. But now I’m just hopping mad – because what an unforgivable thing to do to any young person who you’re supposed to be nurturing, teaching and encouraging.

And it really got me thinking about teaching, and the difference between good and bad teachers, and what huge responsibility teachers have for the kids in their care. Back in those days, there wasn’t the constant dialogue between parents and teachers that there is now (a once-a-year PTA meeting was about it, for my mum and dad), so my family didn’t have a clue about what had happened, and probably wouldn’t have dreamed of questioning the way that we were being taught and cared-for (or not). Parents today are much more ‘on it’, holding teachers to account. But even now, I hear stories from other women (often those who’ve not long left school), who’ve endured similar – and I don’t think it’s going too far to label it as a form of child abuse.

I did get out of school being able to read, write (and speak French), but the handful of teachers whose classes I did well in, looking back, were the ones who encouraged and engaged me – and when that happened, I bloomed like a little flower. I’m reminded of another great quote, from Benjamin Franklin: ‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’

Through my weird and wonderful parallel life as a public speaker, I am now sometimes invited by schools to share my story – and sometimes, I get to see how teachers should be. There was the prize-giving at the school in Hampstead where the most coveted honour in each class was the Kindness Prize, and the huge affection between the girls and their teachers was palpable, in the room. A few weeks ago, I was at a school in Guildford which was clearly working so hard to engage, involve and inspire its pupils. An evening there totally restored my faith in teachers – and made me completely rethink a phrase that I’d often repeated myself, that ‘Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.’ May I be forgiven for having bought into that, after some of my own school experiences. But after that night in Guildford, I came away thinking: actually, teachers are really cool.

So I apologise for the fact that it’s taken me till this late in life to grasp fully how hugely important teachers are. Underpaid, mostly, and under-appreciated. But how we turn out isn’t just nature, nurture or our DNA; it’s in part down to how good or bad a job our teachers did. I was unfortunate (if you don’t count Mrs. Wootton kindling my ambition to prove her wrong). I hope you fared better.

But to all the good (or even great) teachers out there, let this be by way of a shiny, polished apple – as a very belated thank you.

Time For Some (Offtime)

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When was the last time you concentrated on something – really, deeply, fully concentrated, without feeling the magnetic pull of your phone to check anything from your Instagram likes to the weather for your walk home? Hmmm. Thought so. We live in an age of scattered attention, when it sometimes feels like we’ve lost the ability to focus on anything for more than five minutes at a time. Read More…

The Importance Of Self Reflection

I can

One of the more extraordinary and wonderful things that happened to me in the last decade was – as some of you already know – appearing as Lauren Laverne’s castaway on Desert Island Discs last summer. But one of its lasting legacies (other than the e-mails which are still coming in) from people who enjoyed it is that it reminded me of the importance of self  reflection. Read More…

The Argument For Having A Low Key Christmas

Silver christmas horn ornament on black suface with gold glitter

Normally, my Christmas is the sort of military operation. I’ve been known to buy the first of the following year’s Christmas presents in February, I tend to get panicked if I don’t have the crackers before Bonfire Night, and if you stand still long enough in my house during advent, you’re likely to find a bauble glue-gunned to a limb. Or be swagged with pine. Or just possibly sprayed with glitter. And if anything doesn’t seem to be going ‘to plan’, I am, as a rule, not a happy camper. Read More…