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Saturday, 29 June 2013

How blogging helped one man face his paralysing grief...

What is it really like to be a widower and lone father to a two-year-old son?  Earlier this year I mentioned  a  new blog set up by Ben Brooks-Dutton after the tragic death of his young wife Desreen. The phenomenal interest that followed  took everyone by surprise generating 300,000 blog views in five weeks and five days.   Ben had decided to talk about his grief in a way that most British men would find extremely difficult; day by day he analysed his  feelings with an honesty that resulted in a huge following.  So this week, as Ben received a blog award from mumsnet, I decided to go back and find out how Ben was coping just seven months after his life changed forever.

Desreen, a fashion agent, died in November last year only 14 months after the couple were married. She was killed when a car mounted the pavement in West Hampstead near their home.

What really comes over from reading Ben's blog is the innate sense of humour that has prevented him from drowning in his sorrow. And, of course, the  wonderful healing power that emanates from his young son, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton. In a recent post he explains how empty life would have been without him.

I’d have missed him squeal with joy when he saw a field of cows through the window.
And I’d have missed him reaching for my phone to show the table of chatty women sitting next to us a picture that he loves.
“That’s my mummy!” he shrieked adoringly at them out of nowhere.
‘And that’s my boy!’ I thought, my breath taken away by the pride he confidently showed in the parent he’s not seen for seven and a half months. The parent he’s starting to understand that he’ll never see again.

"That's my mummy!" The picture that Jackson loves on my phone.
“That’s my mummy!” As proud of his mummy as she was of her son.

'There's nothing wrong with being positive while grieving, says Ben, as if speaking out to an unseen and largely misunderstood audience.

Now comes news that  that Hodder and Stoughton will be publishing Ben's story in 2014 as lifeasawidower wins the Fresh New Blog award from mumsnet.
I love you, Dessie. You still give me my drive and you still make me laugh x

Screen shot 2013-06-22 at 09.36.42

 Photographs and quotes with kind permission of Ben Brooks-Dutton

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A real-life 'Peep behind the Scenes...'

Zoah Hedges-Stocks pictured in the Daily Telegraph

A Peep Behind the Scenes

 One of my favourite childhood books
 'A Peep Behind the Scenes,'  is an unforgettable tale of hardship and heartbreak  set in a travelling theatre before the turn of the century.  Published in 1878 it went on to sell 2.5 million copies. So I was thrilled today to read that the wonderfully-named Zoah Hedges-Stocks,  the first traveller to study  at Cambridge University,  graduates this weekend with a first-class honours degree in history.

The twenty-three year old was born into a family of travelling showmen in East Anglia and attended school in Suffolk.  But every summer term she would leave her studies and work on her mother's food van, selling candyfloss to fairgoers. She excelled in her studies and in 2009  was offered a place at the all-female Murray Edwards College, fulfilling a long held dream.

In today's press Zoah says she has never experienced any snobbery about her background, having found everyone really welcoming. 'It has been a lot of hours and a lot of essays,' she adds with modest understatement.

A former editor of the Cambridge Student newspaper, Miss Hedges-Stocks can obviously spot a good story when she sees one.  Which is just as well as I hear she's already begun a career in journalism and been interviewed on Anglia Television.

Meanwhile, browsing their website, I see that famous alumnae from Murray Edwards College include actress Tilda Swinton, TV presenter Claudia Winkleman and writer/comedian Sue Perkins. Interestingly the list also includes Gina Barreca, women's writer, speaker and Professor of Feminist Theory.

Congratulations, Zoah.  Quite an act to follow.

You can find out more about her future plans on

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Long Lost Family - heartwarming or horrendous ?

Last week I saw a greetings card with the words 'To My Girlfriend on the Birth of our Baby' on the front. Last night I watched a programme about a woman who had an illegitimate child in the 1950s, was thrown out by her parents, forced into a mother and baby home and had her daughter taken from her when she was barely six weeks old.

Long Lost Family on ITV peered into the past of a 68-year-old woman and the daughter she'd yearned for all her adult life.  The mother was heartbroken, but the daughter just seemed to take the whole thing in her stride. Moving as it was - I confess I shed a tear - it showcased the vast change in social attitudes between the fifties and the present day.  Of course women should not have been treated like pariahs, or had their children snatched from them. In some extreme cases 'fallen' women were consigned to mental homes and never seen again.   But are our attitudes today any better? Aren't we just guilty of yet more double standards?

I would never criticise a woman who had a baby outside marriage.  No-one can account for individual circumstances, and it's a choice deliberately made by many co-habiting couples.  But whilst it may be perfectly acceptable these days, I wonder if there might be a backlash in the future?

Marriage used to be regarded as the next step to starting a family.  It prepared you for the earth-shattering changes that a baby can make to a loving relationship.

I don't want to go back to the fifties.  But I'm not sure this apparent casual attitude to the future generation is right either.  Can you picture the scene in a few years' time: This is my daughter, the one I had with my ex-girlfriend...'

What do you think?

Thursday, 13 June 2013

An alternative guide to the Lake District - ancient tomes and Marilyn Monroe...

'Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.'
Marilyn Monroe
A sixteenth century bookshop, Marilyn Monroe in the loo, letter boxes amongst the hedgerows -
 after spending some time in the heart of Cumbria, I thought I'd compile a tongue-in-cheek visitors' guide to the 'other side' of the Lake District... 
If, like me, you enjoy browsing in antique bookshops, Henry Roberts Books in Kendal dates back to the sixteenth century,  boasting close connections to Captain Cook.
You can  have coffee in the courtyard behind - but watch out for this very large tome (above) falling on your head...
The Civic Society plaque at Henry Roberts Books
While on the subject of writing, why not sit on one of the wooden benches dotted along the empty country lanes and use 'snail mail' to keep in touch with home.
'Fern Britain?'
 An empty country lane
Or stop for a drink at this unique cafĂ© in Windermere ...

and spot the writing on the wall.
Or check out the local library...


 the grounds are too good to miss...

 And finally - don't forget the flora and fauna to be found on the village streets - before you make
your way down to the water's edge.


Lake Windermere

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The twentieth child...a Short story with a happy ending.

The Shorts with baby Emily-Kate
as pictured in today's Daily Mail


Last week I wrote about women who wanted to choose the sex of their babies. Today comes the story of a very brave couple who simply wanted a baby.   Despite nineteen miscarriages they never gave up.

Their story is a long one, endless IVF, heartache and disappointment   'one minute it was elation - the next desolation ' and finally pioneering surgery  from Canada that fulfilled their dream in the shape of six-month-old


'Our life had a baby-shaped hole in it - and now it doesn't,' says Steve.


Everyone likes a story with a happy ending

Congratulations Joanne and Steve Short - you surely deserve it.




Saturday, 1 June 2013

Boy or girl? When the pot boils the plot thickens...

I once wrote a feature for a glossy women's magazine entitled 'Why Some women can't bear the thought of having a son.'  Ok, so it was a long winded title for the subject but the story was close to my heart. I'd recently met up with a distant friend who'd just given birth to her third son. He was perfect and I said so. But she didn't see it that way.

'I couldn't bear to look at him in the beginning,' she told me. 'I so much wanted a daughter.'

The child was beautifully  cared for along with his two adorable brothers, but the mother was inconsolable. So, six months and a great deal of research later, my feature was accepted for publication. The sub editor stuck to my original copy almost word for word but there was just one significant change: the headline ran - Why some women don't want daughters...

It sounded better, didn't it?  It was pithy and to the point. There was just one problem: I had two much-loved and much wanted daughters of my own.

'I read your article at the weekend,' my younger girl's teacher said with a knowing look as I picked her up from school. 'I had no idea you felt that way.'

I opened my mouth to explain but there seemed little point. She'd already made up her mind. On the plus side, my two girls were too young to understand the significance of my words or to take offence. But the guilt stayed with me for a very long time.

Today parents-to-be are privileged to know the sex of their child before the birth, though I can't help wondering if this takes some of the magic away. And what if the information is wrong?

'How's your new sister?' a teacher friend asked one of her pupils the other day, the oldest of three brothers.

'She's a boy,' he replied matter-of-factly, 'and me mum's not 'appy.'

No-one can yet choose the sex of their baby (with the exception, perhaps, of Posh and Becks) and I really believe things should stay that way.

'Is it a girl or a boy?' I asked the midwife as my first child entered the world. 'I don't know - it hasn't told us yet,' came the quick reply.

It's a bit like writing a novel really, or making a gourmet meal. Whatever the outcome you know it will be worth it in the end.