Sometimes you read words that strike so close to home you feel you could have uttered them yourself. Dame Jenni Murray’s recent comments on grandchildren – how badly she longs for them – did just that for me. The broadcaster said that although she raised her two sons to expect complete equality and they’re both with “clever, ambitious young women”, deep down she longs for a continuation of the family that has not yet come – admitting that “dogs are not an adequate substitute.” At 70, Murray is one year younger than me, and I imagine we are both increasingly aware that life is finite. I look ahead and see myself in my eighties, if I’m lucky, too old and creaky to get on the floor and play, or cope with a small child staying overnight. But of course, these children are so far imaginary – my two daughters show no sign of broodiness, and I know that me dropping hints like some awful old woman from the 1950s will only antagonise them. The problem is, we’re all getting older and I worry that they’re leaving it too late. My eldest, Gilly, is nearly 38 – a happily married barrister who adores her job; I know she worries that children would tie them down and affect the career she’s put so much hard work into. And Alison, 35, works in business in London – she has never had a long-term relationship, and seems to be going on a new Tinder date every week. I am wary of mentioning the ‘baby issue’, partly because I feel responsible – like Murray, I was very committed to equality and we sent them to a girls’ school that championed success over ‘settling down’. The other problem is, they grow up so much later these days. My generation was often married with kids and a house by their mid-twenties, whereas younger people now are in extended adolescence for a decade more. Unfortunately, the biological clock doesn’t know about all that. I dread sounding like Bridget Jones’s mother, crying: “Tick tock, darling!”, but I am also aware that after 35, fertility drops significantly, and after 40 it gets much harder to conceive naturally. Friends have made reassuring noises about IVF and egg-freezing, yet I can’t imagine phoning my daughters to talk about it – it’s none of my business. Ali is now the age I was when I had her, which back then was termed a ‘geriatric’ pregnancy – yet in her head, she’s still years off settling down. I long to hold a baby that’s part of our family; I weave elaborate fantasies about baking with two little girls, or taking small boys to the museum… and yet they may never be anything but a figment of my imagination. I had the most wonderful grandparents: my grandad loved to garden, and my granny was loving and fun, helping me to bake wonky cakes. I was lucky enough to have them in my life until my twenties, as did the girls with our own parents, and I long to fill that kindly role. Parenting is hard, but according to my friends, being a grandparent is pure joy. I admire Murray for admitting she’s jealous of friends who are already grandparents. My best friend, Pamela, became Granny Pammy at just 54, and now has three lovely granddaughters and one grandson. She adores them all, and when I’m over there she sweetly insists they call me ‘Auntie’ and I send them sweets at Christmas. But it’s not the same. I feel so yearning and envious. I’m lucky in that my husband Jim understands. His grandma used to look after him and his brother after school; though he doesn’t long as openly as I do for grandchildren, I know how much fulfilment he’d get out of having them around. Older people tend to have more reserves of patience and as we’re both retired, we have so much time we could offer too. Of course, I’m so glad the girls are happy and successful. But despite everything, I still hope that one day – in the not too distant future – one of them will feel the urge to have a baby, not least because they’d both be wonderful mothers. Of course, I will not say any of this. I imagine they know how much I’d love grandchildren – but I won’t add to the pressure by asking. Like Murray, I will simply have to wait silently. If it isn’t to be, I will accept their decisions, and be grateful for what I have. *Names and certain details have been changed Read more: The health benefits that come with being a grandparent
In the run up to Christmas in this weirdest of years, people have divided broadly into two camps. The sensible ones, who think that Christmas is sadly not worth taking Covid-related risks over, and the silly ones (like me) who are desperate for bread sauce, childhood bedrooms and a fight over the last green Quality Street triangle at almost any cost. But since the Government festive bubble rules were announced, a third group has quietly emerged: people who are using the virus as an excuse to finally have the Christmas of their dreams. For every family experiencing the heartache of not being able to see one another (and I’m genuinely sorry for those), another is secretly pleased at being able to do things differently. If you live with your partner and children, you’re loved up with someone you can’t resist, or your friends are your family, the idea of having Christmas exclusively with your own household might be incredibly appealing. No drunk aunts, moaning uncles or cousins who found spirituality during their gap year and insist on reminding you about the commercialisation of the whole thing. Instead of putting your kids in the car for hours on end and spending the entire festive period worried they’re going to break something expensive, this is a chance to embrace Christmas on your own terms – and I’m talking to women in particular. It sounds a bit Scrooge-like, but before passing judgment on the women who are using a global pandemic as an excuse to avoid their in-laws, let’s take a moment to reflect on the past year. As The Telegraph’s Equality Check campaign has highlighted, the pandemic has been a disaster for women. Unemployment among female workers has risen by 0.9 per cent, compared with 0.7 per cent for men – with particularly hard-hit sectors such as retail and hospitality predominantly employing women. We spent twice as much time home-schooling children, and the Review of Economics of the Household academic study found that women who cohabited with male partners were doing “most” of the housework. Meanwhile, fathers working from home managed three hours of uninterrupted work, compared with mothers managing to concentrate for a single hour without being disturbed. So you can see why, when it comes to Christmas, women might be keen to take a break. Sage might have been accused of sexism this week, after its report on festive guidance said that “women carry the burden of traditions” – but it’s true, sexist or not. Women do the majority of the shopping, planning and wrapping, and Christmas catering famously tends to fall to the females of a household (just 24 per cent of men play a significant role in the cooking process). Find me a married woman whose husband hasn’t turned to her at some point and asked: “What did we get for your sister?” Between being expected to make Christmas happen, and spending the last 10 months being a nurse, teacher, chef and cleaner, is it any surprise that women have run out of patience and are refusing to do countless extra hours of unpaid domestic labour? To me it seems eminently sensible that women are staging a Christmas revolution, with the coronavirus as their silver bullet. “For the first time in the decade we’ve been together, my husband and I are staying at home with our children,” says Clemmie*, 36. “It’s been a hard year and I put my foot down. I claimed it was because of social distancing, but really it’s because I’m not going to spend Christmas driving from house to house, apologising if the kids are hyper. This year it’s going to be the four of us, at home. The children can eat sugar, open presents and go absolutely bonkers and I’m not going to have to explain to anyone that they’re ‘not normally like this.’ “The Christmas rules did make it a bit trickier, but in the end my partner and I told our parents we would bow out gracefully so they could stick to the three-household rule.” All over the UK women are turning their backs on the fiddly, time-consuming Christmas lunch, which uses every single pan and oven shelf in the house, and leaves everything under a film of turkey fat. Parenting website Mumsnet – where much of the Big Christmas Revolution seems to be being plotted – is playing host to a long discussion about serving non-traditional food at Christmas lunch this year. One woman excitedly wrote that instead of turkey, which she hates, she’s doing really nice cheese on toast. Pattie*, 31, is taking a similar route. “I’ve cooked every meal that everyone in this house has eaten since March,” she says. “I hate turkey. My in-laws, who love tradition and insist that lunch is served at 12.15pm on the dot whether that works for everyone else or not, are unable to travel because they live abroad (what a shame) and so we’re having steak. It’s going to be the first Christmas food I’ve ever really enjoyed and I cannot wait.” It’s not just couples with children, either. Kate*, 28, told me that she and her boyfriend are delighted to have Christmas alone. “We’ve told our families that it’s because we can’t bring our big city germs home,” she says, “but in reality we’re both massive introverts. Who knows when we’ll next have an excuse to have a tiny, cosy Christmas at home?” While anyone who’s got 15 nieces and nephews can sympathise, the word ‘excuse’ does raise a good point. Why did we need an excuse in the first place? Provided you’re not leaving a lonely or vulnerable relative alone for the festive period, and nobody's getting hurt, why should you feel obliged to do something over Christmas that you don’t enjoy? We all know that between the logistics, the expense and the emotional chaos, Christmas can be a stressful time. There’s no shame in finding the festive period difficult, or in admitting that you would rather skip the whole thing and see your family in small doses throughout the year. Christmas is supposed to be a time of enjoyment, not obligation. Are you taking the opportunity to have a different, better Christmas this year? Tell us in the comments section below
“My sperm has just landed!” a friend texts. This is followed by emojis: a champagne glass, a baby bottle, and a stunned ‘What am I doing?’ face. She’s one of my many girlfriends – late 30s, some with partners, some not – stuck in a very 2020 conundrum: “How do you make a baby during Covid?” It’s a question I too have been grappling with over the past few months – aged 39, single and keen to start a family of my own. It wasn’t that I intentionally put my career first, but it took off in my 30s, presenting me with opportunities I couldn’t say no to. And for whatever reason, I’ve never met the right man to have children with. Add Covid into the mix and there are even more barriers to motherhood: the financial implications of a collapsing jobs and housing market are terrifying; the closure of IVF clinics mean increased times on waiting lists when the one thing you don’t have is time; and then, of course, being stuck at home without the opportunity to socialise and potentially meet someone. This month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the average age of first-time mothers in England and Wales has reached a high of 30.7 years. In fact, fertility rates fell in all groups, apart for in women aged over 40, for whom it’s rising. Last year there were 16.5 births per 1,000 women over 40, and more babies were born to women over 40 than under 20. “Yet there is still huge societal prejudice against older mothers,” says fertility expert Jessica Bourke, who opened her eponymous clinic 15 years ago in Dublin and has treated patients from Alaska to Botswana. “You have titanium hip replacements. You can grow an ear on a mouse. When it comes to fertility issues we don’t allow for the same degree of advancement.” I came to my own decision during a trek to Everest base camp late last year. Being single and a travel writer presented a few big – but not insurmountable – challenges. But yes, I decided, I wanted a child. Yes, I was willing to change my life for one. Yes, I was prepared to go it alone, if I had to. Surely that’s 100 times better than doing it with the wrong person? “Absolutely,” says a friend who had been planning to leave her boyfriend before lockdown was announced in March. “The idea of moving out, isolating on my own, and meeting a new partner in time to have a baby – I am 36 – was overwhelming.” She’s now pregnant. “I have sleepless nights wondering if our relationship is strong enough.” At the end of our call she told me, emphatically, to do it alone. It’s a decision my emoji-sending friend, Ruth*, had already taken – with the bad timing typical of 2020. “I had literally just decided to do it by myself,” she says, “I was acting out of a sense of urgency, as I had been told I had hardly any eggs left.” The very next week Covid came along, and everyone from Twitter users to Tatler columnists started predicting a post-pandemic baby boom. The nation, nay the planet, would be stuck indoors with nothing to do but copulate. This supposed new generation even had a name: “coronials”. No such luck for single people like me; my pandemic was sex free. And it changed everything, torpedoing my career and leaving me financially insecure. Trapped alone in my flat, with my usually good mental health taking a battering, panic set in. Doing anything practical about having a baby was a no-go with fertility clinics closed. For people with fertility issues this caused genuine pain. After trying for a second baby for four years a friend was finally referred to an IVF clinic – just as they closed their doors. She says: “Even juggling working at home with my four-year-old has not changed my desire for a second child. With nothing to distract me, all there is to think about is the hole I want a baby to fill.” Without many options, I made myself a profile on a co-parenting website, where you can look for anything from a sperm donor to a platonic partner with whom to raise a child, joined a Facebook group for solo mums and began to weigh up the pros and cons of asking a friend to be a donor. But with so much uncertainty, I found it hard to plan from week to week – let alone for anything more permanent – and began to question my decision. I wasn’t the only one. “Why on earth would anyone want to bring a child in the world right now?” says my friend Jane* on a walk. She is 38, with a partner and one of the growing number of women choosing not to have children. The ONS data revealed a 2.5 per cent drop in births in 2019. Women aren’t just putting off children until later, some choosing not to have children at all. “When Covid hit, the overarching feeling that I kept coming back to was how grateful I was not to have children. Not just from the practical issues of having them at home while trying to work, but from the added anxiety, uncertainty and stress,” she says. Jane is not alone in finding Covid a deterrent to parenthood rather than a catalyst: the Brookings Institution estimates there could be up to 500,000 fewer babies born in the USA in 2021 as a result of coronavirus. While we haven’t seen such a drop here in the UK, we certainly haven’t seen the predicted baby boom either – or at least not yet. Figures from NHS Digital show barely any increase in numbers of ultrasound scans from June and July this year, compared with the year before. But, says Bourke, that is not the whole story. “Think back to March – we were all terrified. Aside from the stress of living through a pandemic, there are all the unknowns about how it might affect pregnancies,” says Bourke. “People were prepared to delay to see how things panned out.” When fertility clinics reopened, they reported record numbers of women asking about egg freezing. The London Women’s Clinic, which also operates in areas such as Darlington and Cardiff, said interest was up to 30 per cent higher than anticipated. Bourke continues: “They were coming to me with urgency, worried that time was running out.” I was one of them. In August, I booked a fertility check at a clinic. The results were good but undermined by “for a woman of your age”. The consultant encouraged me to freeze my eggs, urging me to start right away. While it’s true that even pre-Covid more women in their 30s were freezing eggs than ever before – and, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, 55 per cent of patients freezing their eggs had no partner – it’s not the safety net that it seems. “It’s taking advantage of women to freeze eggs and say that everything will be fine,” says Bourke. “Follicular genesis takes three months: it’s not about the age of the eggs, it’s about their health.” Eggs are fragile things: as many as 10 out of 12 can die when defrosting, and at upwards of £3,800 a cycle (you might need three) – not including the medication required to stimulate your ovaries and the cost of storing them – I felt like it was an expensive gamble. At my age, frozen embryos are more viable but I wasn’t ready to choose a donor. Ruth was. “I saw a solo motherhood coach, and went on a meditation; I felt a deep love grow for these children I may or may not have and knew I had to try.” The Stork and I is the UK’s only dedicated solo motherhood coaching service, offering one-to-one support and advice on everything from emotional aspects such as feelings of loneliness to practical aspects like what to consider when choosing a donor. After her message telling me that her sperm has landed, we have a glass of champagne, picking over all the gory details. It has come from Denmark, where donors still have the right to anonymity (in the UK children have the right to trace their donor when they turn 18) and she’s chosen a donor with similar colouring to her, so there will be fewer awkward questions from strangers. Although she is using a UK clinic where they will make the embryos and freeze them until she is ready, when I look online you can buy sperm for as little as 200 euros and get it delivered to your home. For all that it took away, coronavirus gave me time to fully explore my decision to have a baby. And I’ve realised I don’t want to be a solo mother. I struggled with isolation during lockdown. I imagine having a child alone might feel similar. Writing this story has given me the confidence to ask a friend, whom I know has wanted a child for some time, if they would consider joining forces. For me, it’s important that motherhood happens as part of a relationship, even if it’s not the traditional kind.
The nice thing about the pandemic is the way it has united us all. That’s a joke, obviously: as we crawl towards the end of the year, broken and bored after almost nine months of restrictions, we’re a moaning, fractious bunch. What began as a “we’re all in this together, it’ll be just like the Blitz but with bread-making machines, Amazon Prime and weekly clapping on the doorstep” sense of unity has dissolved into division and frustration. But, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s an irritation with the new lockdown-lite lingo we’ve quickly had to master in the run-up to Christmas. Terms that meant nothing even a few weeks ago are now being bandied around as if the reality they describe is in any way normal (sorry, that should be “new normal”). As England leaves lockdown number two and finds itself, for the most part, in something uncannily similar to another lockdown, here is a guide to the key new terms you’ll have to master… 1. Wet pubs A wet pub is wet because there’s no food in it to absorb the liquid. It is, in other words, a traditional boozer that hasn’t gone gastro. If you’ve come to it seeking an overpriced artisan hand-woven burger with triple-cooked chips served on a brick, you’re in the wrong place. Not least because it will be closed in the toughest tiers, since it’s been deemed far more dangerous than a not-wet pub. Why? Not sure, but it’s down to an absence of any... 2. Substantial meals
Warning: This article contains spoilers Were you undone by the unfolding of The Undoing? For many, the glossy HBO mini series has filled the gripping drama space left by The Queen’s Gambit, and online chat has raged over who really killed beautiful, damaged artist Elena Alves. Over the six episodes, I have been riveted by the story of these wealthy New Yorkers: Hugh Grant’s paediatric oncologist Jonathan and flame-haired therapist Grace (Nicole Kidman). All manner of theories have developed on my sofa and in my Facebook groups. I was convinced for a while that Grace had done it. For one episode, I believed the murderer might be troubled adolescent Henry, desperate to bring an end to his dad’s damaging affair. Or perhaps it was indeed angry husband Fernando Alves, despite his rock-solid alibi. So our bums were welded to the seats for last night’s dénouement, along with half the country (or at least, my corner of social media.) And the one character we didn’t suspect, it transpired, turned out to be the killer. It was Jonathan all along – despite his weepy denials and upper middle-class decency, his brave grins for Henry in prison and his adoring pleading with Grace… this much-loved doctor and handsome, funny charmer was a murderer. Yes, respectable-looking men can be monsters, too. “The plot twist is there is no plot twist,” tweeted one disgruntled viewer afterwards. Disappointment has been tangible – after all that, it was the main suspect all along?
The British royal family were once known for their stiff upper lip. Keen royal watchers will know that the Queen has only cried a handful of times in public, and that displays of emotion are generally frowned upon by senior royals. But we are living in a new age, where public emotions are both accepted and largely exchanged through emojis. Sadness in 2020, is conveyed by two pearly droplets streaming out of a yellow face, and extra-marital affairs are largely conducted through exchanging pictures of... fruit. And it seems not even the Duchess of Cambridge is impartial to an emoji or two. In her latest early years video - filmed as part of a study which highlights the role early childhood plays in shaping both our lives and society - Kate flashed her phone screen and accidentally revealed her most frequently used emoji. It was an eclectic bunch: the two girls holding hands, the cucumber and the pineapple all featured. But perhaps most controversially, the ‘swearing face’ - that’s a red sphere with a black banner across the mouth, spewing aggressive symbols - also ranked in Kate’s top eight. It’s a far cry from the duchess's public demeanor, but in the midst of a global pandemic we can hardly blame her.
You may have seen that John Lewis & Partners has adjusted its 12 days of Christmas Dressing campaign to make it Covid appropriate. No point rolling out the perfect party dresses this year; far better to steer us in the direction of something we might actually have an opportunity to wear, like a “kitchen disco two-piece” (a sequin jumper and silky charcoal joggers, if you’re interested). Full points to them for reading our minds. They’ve identified the basic human need for some disco sparkle, plus our current inclination to make a bit of effort on a Friday night, crank up the music and let off some steam, even if there are just the two of us. The kitchen disco – popular at all times of the year – is currently our number one, not to say only hope of fun, so we might as well make the most of it.
Well, we’ve made it to the last weekend of Lockdown 2 – four weeks of long, dark evenings, miserable weather and little to do but exhaust the entire inventory of Netflix. While the spring lockdown brought with it a sense of newness and opportunity, as we approach the 10th month of coronavirus restrictions, with most of England going into the tedium of Tiers 2 and 3, we’re no longer interested in baking bread or learning a language. Something more insidious and unsettling has set in: an unshakeable sense of boredom. A pandemic doesn’t sound boring, but the fact we’re already buying Christmas trees shows how desperate we’ve become. So is boredom bad for us? “Boredom leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and is consistently highly correlated with anxiety, among other mental health issues,” says James Danckert, cognitive neuroscientist and co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom. Danckert’s research has found boredom can lead to problems with concentration, depression and unhealthy behaviours such as excessive gambling, and substance abuse. Little wonder, then, that supermarket alcohol sales increased by £1.9billion in the four months following the March lockdown and nearly half of Britons are indulging in lockdown-induced emotional eating, according to a recent study. “It may be that in the past boredom played a key role in our survival by keeping us moving to seek new food sources and ways to protect ourselves because doing nothing wouldn’t have been good for survival,” adds Mark Hawkins, author of The Power of Boredom. “However, in today’s world most of us no longer have to spend our days seeking out food and security, yet we still have this same urge for activity. As a result, our expectations for engagement are very high compared to other eras, and our tolerance for boredom is very low.” But not everyone adopts the lie-on-the-sofa-clutching-the-remote approach. During the Great Plague of London in 1665, Isaac Newton used his social distancing time to discover calculus and gravity. “In-the-moment feelings of boredom – what psychologists call “state” boredom – is neither good nor bad. It is our response to the boredom signal that matters,” says Danckert. Dr Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire and author of The Science of Boredom, has carried out experiments trying to tease out the potential benefits of boredom. In one experiment, she asked study subjects to do the meaningless, boring, and repetitive task of copying numbers from a telephone book. Mann then gave a creative task to the bored people and a non-bored control group – to come up with as many uses as possible for plastic cups. The bored did better than the non-bored, showing its ability to unlock creative potential. She argues that boredom – like every emotion – has its purpose and we need to sit in its discomfort in order to harness its power. “The mindless distraction of watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram is basically trying to offload your boredom by telling something else, ‘I’m bored, entertain me!’ But it will only work for a short time,” says Mann. “When we’re bored, we need to let our minds simply wander and allow ourselves to daydream. The process shouldn’t be forced. The mind will take you on a journey and find its own solution. It’s always active and it will find stimulation for itself.” When feeling agitated or restless, Mann suggests switching off your TV and devices and doing something mindless, like going for a walk or doing some yoga or adult colouring. “Even lying on your bed looking at the ceiling will work,” she says. “Anything where you don’t have to think. Lots of people during lockdown have made big decisions on their lifestyles and careers because they’ve started to introspect and reflect more. Boredom allows this to happen.” Hawkins agrees that, if utilised correctly, boredom can give life new meaning. “I think there’s a very powerful link between boredom and meaning,” he says. ‘It’s good to spend at least a little time each day being bored on purpose.” It seems a fitting mantra as we head into a post-Covid 2021 – allow yourself to daydream. We might need it more than ever.
Of all the curious comebacks prompted by Covid – sourdough bread-baking, pan banging (for the NHS), staycations and the expandable waistband – the return of the governess might be one of the most surprising, at least for the average Brit. Yet according to Anita Rogers, founder and CEO of domestic staffing agency British American Household Staffing (BAHS), all any ultra high net worth family wants for Christmas this year is their very own stern-faced piece of Victoriana. “We’ve always had a few governesses on our books,” says Rogers, whose 4,000-strong client base spans the globe (the majority of her clients are in the US, with around a fifth in Europe, mainly the UK, Switzerland and Monaco). “But then Covid happened, and suddenly everybody wants a governess, which makes sense when you think about the gaps in schooling and structure so many kids have faced over the past few months.” If you’re conjuring up images of mature matrons in bustles, however, think again. The idea may come straight from the pages of Mary Poppins, “But 99 per cent of the time what we’re being asked for is not so much a traditional governess as a combined teacher and nanny, only with that old-school formality and maturity, and the accolades: the schooling in Switzerland or England, the previous employment in formal homes, and the emphasis on manners and etiquette,” says Rogers. But there’s far more to being a governess that that. “Many have either a degree in education or multiple teaching certificates in specific subjects, such as music, a language, and teaching English,” says Rogers. “Some families who hire governesses are not first-language English speakers. A governess must be able to teach written and spoken English at a high level, both for the native English-speaking children under their care as well as non-native speakers.” She continues: “Governesses typically look after school-age, pre-teen and teenage ranges. A governess is occasionally hired for an infant so the infant can get a head start, especially with a second language – this is not typical, though.” So how on earth does one distinguish between nanny-teachers and the genuine article? “Let’s just say that governesses have an air about them,” says Rogers. That air comes with a hefty price tag: an estimated $150,000 a year (plus health insurance). But BAHS’s one-percentile clients are happy to pay that, alongside $200-400,000 a year for an estate manager, $120-200,000 for a personal assistant or house manager, $90-105,000 for one of three or four revolving nannies, $130-180,000 for a private chef (well worth the money, given “mum might want a fat-free diet, dad is on Paleo and the kids are gluten-free”) and $110-150,000 for their own personal Jeeves. Anything for a quiet, fully staffed life, and impeccably bred offspring. Oh, and should you wish to hire a light aircraft or a yacht – “hugely in demand right now because people can escape the pandemic that way” – BAHS can organise that too. Just press 2 when the Julie Andrews soundalike asks you to, on the agency helpline. After more than a decade’s experience in pairing families with household staff, Rogers’ exclusive agency has earned a reputation for being able to meet every need and handle any situation that may arise in the super-wealthy working household. BAHS will deal with households “where the parents want almost no communication with the multiple nannies and staff, which I understand, actually. Because if you have 10 housekeepers, your whole day could be spent asking them all how they all are,” she says.
It used to be the smarter you were, the later you put up your Christmas tree. While the chic set might have shared on social media the garish pictures of trees going up around their neighbourhoods in – hold the phone, you are not going to believe this – November, this clearly was not the done thing, but honestly, how adorable. Traditionally, the closer you got to Christmas Eve before erecting your own (Nordmann) fir, the more smart points you earned. If the turkey was going into the oven just as you put on the last hand-blown glass bauble, you were practically the Queen. Also, essentially, decorations were of the so-tasteful-you-barely-notice variety, made by an Amish person from scraps of spruce. But – let joy, please God, be unconfined – not this year. You’ve probably noticed that, in 2020, trees are already going up everywhere, and the twinkle of fairy lights is as likely to adorn a Farrow & Ball Downpipe Grey house as a block of flats. Santa Stop Here signs are already sitting outside the sort of homes that might usually shun Lapland for Liberty. After the year we’ve all had, is it a surprise that the middle classes are all, at long last, ho-ho-homing along? This weekend is likely to see even more of us rushing out to pick up our trees, lights and decorations, even though we aren’t even in December yet. Obviously, this is a completely wonderful and entirely emotionally necessary thing, but we need to keep it all looking good for a month at least, even longer if, like me, you are suspicious about taking everything down before Twelfth Night. (Who are those deniers of joy who whip every last scrap down a second after Boxing Day?) Here’s how to deck the halls for the long haul… Firs things first
Girls shouldn’t take days off school during their periods because “inconvenience is all part of being a woman’, a headteacher has told sixth-form pupils. In a bid to reduce absenteeism, Year 12 students at Oxford Spires Academy were sent an email saying their periods were not an excuse for missing lessons, and advised that painkillers and heat packs were available from the school matron. In the email Dr Jackie Watson, vice principal and head of sixth form, wrote that girls would not be able to take sick days from work in the future on account of their period, so should not expect to take them from school. The message was also sent to Year 12 boys. Watson urged pupils not to miss out on their education. She wrote: “Any female student asking to be sent home ‘ill’ or phoning in ‘ill’ who has a period will not find this is a suitable excuse. Learning to deal with monthly inconvenience is all part of being a woman, I’m afraid.” The email has caused widespread anger among pupils at the school. One student said: “Obviously I have to understand that people cannot take their whole period off each month but that is not what anyone is trying to do. “Personally, when I am on my period, I experience really painful cramps, meaning I cannot walk without having to be bent double. Sometimes, I get so dizzy I pass out or vomit – obviously on these days, I would not consider myself fit to go into school.
Pariah, philanthropist, political trailblazer or socialite: it seems everyone has a view on what the future holds for Donald Trump’s favourite child Ivanka as she reluctantly prepares to leave the White House. With opinion over her next steps as divided as it was about her exact role in her father’s administration, a clue has emerged in the form of plans Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner have submitted to expand their “cottage” on the grounds of the Trump National Golf Club. The property, in Bedminster, New Jersey, is an hour’s limo drive from Ivanka’s former haunts on New York’s Upper East Side, suggesting she may confound critics who speculated she would stay away from the East Coast through fear of social ostracisation. Certainly it appears remaining in Washington DC is not an option after the Kushners, both White House advisers, were asked to remove their children from their private elementary school when parents complained about their very public failure to abide by social distancing rules or wear masks. Days after the election, the couple popped up in New York, where Ivanka was born and raised, leading to speculation they would seek to regain their role in the social scene – and even more gossip over whether they would be welcome back to a city which, in liberal circles at least, feels its health and values were trampled on by the Trumps.
Miscarriage is the kind of experience that makes you feel stronger when it’s shared and yet, at the time, it feels so private and even shameful that you can’t dare to share it. That’s why I admire Meghan Markle for writing about the “unbearable grief” she felt going through it. And I am relieved that taboo around miscarriage is slowly lifting. When it happened to me 10 years ago, I found a so much solace from speaking to other women. While it’s painfully personal, there’s a comfort that comes from knowing it’s universal, that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. Like Meghan, I already had a child when I went through one. The risk of miscarrying is known to be lower after you’ve had what’s termed a “successful pregnancy”, but it’s not known by how much. People tend to assume that women either have problems getting pregnant, and keep having miscarriages, or they can just keep popping out babies. But in fact it’s incredibly rare to have recurrent miscarriages, defined as three or more. It only happens to one in 100 women. But one in four of us will have a miscarriage. The majority of these happen before 12 weeks, thought to be mainly be due to chromosomal abnormalities. Meghan doesn’t write how pregnant she was but I was 15 weeks. Pregnant enough to have told colleagues as well as close friends, far enough along to be buying maternity clothes. Like Meghan, I knew the moment when I was losing a pregnancy. I’d been had some bleeding for a week, off and on but a scan had showed the foetus wiggling around happily. Then, one morning, I felt a pain so intense that I had to sit down halfway up the stairs. It didn’t feel like a false alarm. This would be my second baby. I’d been through labour, and it felt like labour. I’d just dropped my son Patrick, then aged four, at nursery. I’m glad he didn’t have to see me in the next few hours, as the miscarriage was brutal. I couldn’t get hold of my husband at work as his phone was off, so I took a minicab to hospital. I started vomiting, going hot and cold, delirious. I think I was making a lot of noise. Horribly like birth, but with no hope of a happy ending.
And we’re off! The starting gun has been fired on Christmas, after the Government announced that we can “bubble up” with two other households and celebrate for a full five days, starting on December 23. Once those five days are over, the fun must immediately cease and we shall return to our Covid-tiered lives (while hoping to God that the uneasy feeling we have is the result of the central heating being turned up too high, and not the first signs of a fever). Joyful and triumphant are perhaps not the words that describe how we’re feeling right now; not in this, the bleakest of midwinters, made all the bleaker by the fact it’s still technically autumn. Still, the best we can do is make peace with Christmas 2020 and start thinking about how to play it, now we know what the rules are. To help you get out ahead of it, here is your five-point planning guide. Have The Covid Chat with your relatives According to Dr Gabriel Scully, a professor of public health at Bristol University, there is: “no point in having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February. We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we're going to spend it. It's too dangerous a time and an opportunity for the virus to spread.” Sorry to bring the mood down. Dr Scully’s festive words of caution were issued before the Government announced the relaxation of restrictions for December 23 to 27 – but their relevance hasn’t really changed. Ministers have made it clear that on a national level, the health risks from Covid must be balanced against families’ needs to be together. It falls to each family to work out its own happy medium. Before firming up any Christmas plans, honest conversations are necessary. Whatever the age and vulnerability of those whom you hope to bubble up with, it’s good Covid etiquette to gauge where they stand on the risks. Some will be planning to batten down the hatches and sit this one out with no-one from outside their household, whatever the Government says; others will say a tentative yes to meeting up, but only as long as all windows and doors are left open, and the turkey is served in the garden. If you’re going for it, all guns blazing, and plan to forget the existence of the Covid Grinch for those precious five days, be sure that those in your intended bubble feel the same way you do. Plan your travel carefully Anyone who’s taken a train out of London to go home for Christmas on the final Friday evening beforehand will know how cosy it gets. And yes, by cosy I do mean there is a stranger’s crotch near your face (if you’re lucky enough to get a seat). There is also a stranger’s Christmas shopping in your lap. But not this year. Social distancing on trains leaves (literally) no room for that. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has gone as far as to suggest we “consider avoiding” the railway altogether. The situation is complicated by the delayed sale of advance tickets by some train operators. Train firms could also ban walk-on tickets to stop overcrowding and aid social distancing during the Christmas getaway, rail sources have said. In the circumstances, it seems likely large numbers will travel by road. But with all Christmas travel restricted to a tight five-day window, the potential for yuletide gridlock looks worryingly enormous. The AA does not predict a total free-for-all, but president Edmund King warns: “The announcement of five days of festive freedom will complicate trip planning. For anyone hitting the road for a festive reunion, pre-journey planning will be crucial. Taking the time to plot your route and carry out essential car checks will help ensure a trouble-free trip.” Christmas shopping After England’s national lockdown ends on December 2, non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen, whatever tier they find themselves in. To some degree, then, you can do your Christmas shopping as normal. But plenty of shoppers will still wish to avoid the crowds, meaning online buying looks set to go into overdrive. According to Retail Week, this Christmas is predicted to see retailers slash their prices more heavily than ever before as they attempt to “salvage what they can from the worst year in history”. Don’t worry too much about joining the Black Friday frenzy this week as discounts are expected to continue afterwards. But do get ahead with your ordering, to allow for items selling out or deliveries not arriving on time. The UK’s delivery network will be under pressure like never before, and this is 2020 – if something can go wrong, it most likely will. John Lewis recommends that for standard home delivery, customers order by December 18, while for next day home delivery the Christmas cut-off is December 22. But for your own peace of mind – and blood pressure – you’d do well to place orders much sooner. Food, glorious food A favourite ritual of Christmases past was piling into the supermarket on Christmas Eve, manoeuvring a careening, overladen trolley between a hundred others, then standing in a checkout queue the length of Wales, sweating in your big winter coat. That’s not looking sensible this year. And if that thought has occurred to you, it’s also occurred to every other shopper in the country. Supermarkets have already seen a surge in demand for online deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic, and the Christmas online delivery could prove more popular than ever. If you’re planning to leave it until the actual month of Christmas, think again. Sainsbury’s releases its Christmas delivery slots from November 29 – a date for the diary – while Asda’s are already open for booking and Tesco’s have been booking up fast. Ocado has already removed the Christmas slot-booking button from its website as all Christmas slots have sold out. The firm says it will recall the button if more slots become available, something that apparently cannot be guaranteed. Don’t forget the Christmas post There is one Covid-safe way to connect with family and friends this Christmas that doesn’t involve staring at a screen, and that is sending cards. Royal Mail warns that, despite its best efforts, some services may be disrupted so the same rule applies here as above: be early to avoid disappointment. The last Christmas posting date for first class mail is December 21, while for second class post the cut off is December 18. If your children are sending a letter to Father Christmas and would like a reply, they’ll need to post their wish list by December 11 to Santa/Father Christmas, Santa's Grotto, Reindeerland, XM4 5HQ. Tally ho, good luck and stay safe!
When you start university or college, you’re told it’ll be “the best years of your life”. It’s when you gain crucial skills, form life-long friendships and create networks that will sustain your career in decades to come. But what happens to those dreams if you end up cowering in your own room, too afraid to leave because you might bump into your rapist on campus? How can you excel at your studies if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, and fighting a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with infinitely more resources? How can you thrive and heal if you’re threatened with legal action for telling your story, even anonymously? You’d think that the institution tasked with educating you and keeping you safe, to which you pay thousands of pounds for the privilege, would want to help you. Often, you’d be mistaken. All of the above happened to a client of ours at a UK university. Sitting alone in her room, she was visited by a fellow student who violently raped her. Her attempts to fight him off left scratch marks on his face, which his friends proudly photographed and shared at the uni bar. The university’s handling of her complaint was typical of many. They encouraged her not to file an internal complaint (“no one will do anything anyway”). They told her that, unless she went to the police, the university would not take action. Once she’d filed a police report, the university still refused to take action as long as the police investigation was ongoing. In order to protect her from her rapist, they told her not to leave her room unless she found a chaperone to take her around campus, to avoid the library and the canteen. But when she reached out for support online to a closed survivors’ group, anonymising her rapist, the university promptly sprang into action. It threatened her with libel if she didn’t retract her post and apologise. The university’s response to our client’s rape complaint and request for help boiled down to demanding that she sequester herself in her room and cut herself off from all support. This is just one example, but representative, of how universities create hostile environments for victims. We’d love to tell you roughly how many of these cases there are, but we can’t. Nobody knows. Britain has no centralised reporting system for sexual misconduct in higher education. Each college and university has a different reporting system and taxonomy of offences. The same opacity, for slightly different reasons, bedevils the US. We cannot tell if one university is doing better than before, or better than competitors. Students and their parents are robbed of this crucial information when choosing where to apply, and advocates for change are unable to tell if new measures are working. What we do know is that the pandemic has made matters worse for those who were already struggling and rendered others vulnerable in new ways. At universities, sexual assault and harassment have not magically disappeared just because the virus appeared. Support, however, has dwindled or become discouragingly labyrinthine. In this vacuum, it’s no surprise students turn to each other and social media. Over the summer, our firm noticed survivors’ groups on Instagram doing what universities should have been doing all along: creating (dare we say it) safe spaces for victims to share their stories, find help, exchange information and get advice. While universities tend to drag their feet when it comes to helping victims, they move fast enough to protect their own reputation. In one of our recent cases, a group of female students had come across a social media group where fellow students – boys they thought were friends – discussed extreme, violent, humiliating sexual acts they would like to subject the girls to, singling them out by name. And who did Warwick university bring in to talk to the students? The head of press. They chose the staff member tasked with protecting and enhancing the university’s image, instead of someone with legal expertise or knowledge about sexual trauma. This awkward mishandling of the case defeated its original goal of reputational damage control. The outcry, on social media, in the press, and among alumni and academics, proved impossible to ignore. Two of the worst perpetrators were initially given 10-year bans from campus, then had their sentences reduced on appeal to one year before voluntarily discontinuing their studies – something the female students who were victims of their “banter” only learnt in the media. After an independent review last year, the university was forced to apologise. It concluded there was a “general sense” the university “had been more concerned with its own reputational interests than in a fair or just assessment of the case”. Similarly, we’ve seen in our US cases how universities reflexively deny the seriousness of sexual harassment complaints, when it would be better not only for students but for the university’s reputation to take them seriously. In one our clients, a group of professors and graduate students at the University of Rochesterm sued when it retaliated against them over their sexual harassment complaints against Professor Florian Jaeger (which he has always denied). The university instantly dug in, cleared the Prof and fast-tracked his promotion, expecting the complainants would lose heart. Instead they persevered, in fact being named Time’s Persons Of The Year in 2017, along with the women who brought down Harvey Weinstein. The university ended up paying our clients $9.4 million for its mishandling of their allegations. Taking the harassment claims seriously would have saved it millions and years of bad press. It’s baffling to us that universities keep mistaking their own best interests for those of their students and staff. We’ve heard time and time again that UK universities “don’t want become the new Warwick” and certainly, no US university dreams of its faculty and students on the cover of Time magazine, heralded as Silence Breakers. Universities might be able to make themselves the cover story if instead of trying to bury these problems, they frankly admitted and tried to solve them.
It’s 3.30pm on a rainy Wednesday and Jodie Whittaker is just back from a medical appointment. Buoyant and bouncy, she’s thrilled to have had a negative result from her mandatory Covid test, so she can head off to Cardiff to don the Doctor’s coat, after almost a year of postponed filming. ‘That was the highlight of my day,’ she laughs. ‘Now I’ve got to sort the house out and pack my stuff – you take going away for granted so much until it’s gone.’ We’re chatting on Zoom, from her home in London, where she lives with her husband, American actor Christian Contreras, and their five-year-old daughter. Purposefully positioned in front of a white wall, adorned with only a smattering of Blu Tack (in case I scrutinise her interiors taste), she has been experiencing off-the-scale anxiety levels throughout the Covid roller coaster of 2020 and is craving some sense of normality. ‘I’m pretty anxious anyway, so it [the pandemic] has skyrocketed my paranoia,’ she says. ‘That worst-case scenario, that I cause someone ill health, I cause them long Covid… I’m a follower of a rule and I need things to be really clear, otherwise it sends me into an apocalyptic panic attack.’ Rules are exactly what she’ll get on the Doctor Who set, when she returns for her third season. Daily temperature checks, strict protocols and clear guidelines on what she can and can’t do – essentially constrained to work and living in her family bubble. Jodie and her husband and daughter always stay in the same house in Cardiff each time. ‘I can’t wait to get back,’ she says. ‘Lockdown reminded me that I really love my job.’ Jodie first took on the role of the Doctor in 2017 and will be back on our screens imminently for a Christmas special. Filmed last year, the one-off episode sees the return of some particularly unfestive Daleks, and the Doctor on the run from a high-security alien prison – in other words, exactly the sort of other-worldly japes and drama you’d hope for from a Christmas special. She is famously the first woman to play the Doctor in the show’s 57-year history, following 12 male actors before her. Recent incarnations have been her friend and Broadchurch co-star David Tennant, The Crown’s Matt Smith and The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi, from whom Jodie took over. By the time she was cast at 35, she had a CV spanning everything from St Trinian’s and Attack the Block to Broadchurch and Black Mirror. And becoming the first female Doctor didn’t intimidate her in the slightest.
What would you do if your partner vanished one day without a trace? If they cleared their belongings out of the flat you shared while you were at work? Or told you they were going on holiday and then disappeared off the face of the earth? That is the situation that confronts Rosa* in the latest episode of Bed of Lies (which you can listen to in the audio player above, and find previous episodes here). She had met Jim in 1999, when she was a 27-year-old environmental activist. Like her, Jim was vegan. He was also charming, with close-cropped hair and dark eyes. She thought he was her soulmate – and then he vanished. But one day, after the couple had been living together for about six months, Jim said he needed to go away and clear his head. He had been struggling with his mental health and wanted to be alone. “It was very painful initially,” says Rosa. “But ultimately, if you love someone, [you] set them free.” Jim called Rosa from Turkey, but then fell silent. It was the year 2000. Mobile phones were a luxury and social media didn’t exist. With no way of contacting her boyfriend, Rosa’s mind raced with possibilities. He could be injured, caught up in something dangerous – or breaking up with her. “I was concerned for him,” she recalls now, over Zoom from her home in the Welsh countryside.
There’s a number of reasons why the year 2020 will go down in history: we've had a nationwide pandemic, a nail biting election, and a Royal family drama, to name a few. But in the midst of these attention-grabbing events, smaller – yet arguably no less important – milestones are being established. Today, history was made after Scotland became the first country to provide free and universal access to period products to those who need them, after the long-awaited Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously. It's a landmark moment for campaigners, who have worked tirelessly to bring period poverty into the political conversation – and potentially for women around the world. The bill was fronted by the Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who started work on a plan to address period poverty in Scotland in 2016 when she was first elected. Lennon called the vote a “a proud day for Scotland”, adding: “This will make a massive difference to the lives of women and girls and everyone who menstruates."
When Suzanne Moore left her job, she announced the news on Twitter, accompanied by a sassy picture of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson strutting down a corridor with her belongings in a box. “I have left The Guardian. I will very much miss SOME of the people there. For now that’s all I can say,” she declared. The picture was “just a little joke,” says Moore, winner of last year’s Orwell Prize for journalism, her face half-hidden by that familiar cascade of hair as she relates the events that led up to her sensational resignation, 25 years after she joined the paper, over Zoom. She would have loved to march out Peggy-style, but the truth is she went into the office no more than once or twice a year: “I don’t fit in there and never have.” As she reflects today on some of the more absurd aspects of the row about transgender rights that has ended her time at the paper, Moore, 62, allows herself a laugh, but beneath the calm exterior she is very, very bruised. “I feel betrayed,” she says. “We are living in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to say certain things. “Almost every week now a different woman is put on the pyre: J K Rowling, Rosie Duffield, Selina Todd. It’s always a woman who is some sort of heretic and must be punished. If all this is about how trans people can have the best lives they can possibly have, how does this help them?” J K Rowling became a victim of cancel culture in June when she mocked the phrase “people who menstruate,” saying: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Labour MP Rosie Duffield received death threats after liking a tweet suggesting “people with a cervix” should be called women. Selina Todd, professor of modern history at Oxford, was condemned after addressing a meeting of Woman’s Place UK, a group campaigning for women to have separate spaces on the basis of biological sex. Opponents regard it as a “trans-exclusionary hate group”. Now Moore and one of Britain’s most venerable newspapers, founded in 1821, have fallen victim to the culture war that has engulfed universities and become a powder-keg issue on the Left. “It was entirely my decision to leave,” says Moore defiantly, but still she feels that she was hounded out. The drama began back in March, when Moore wrote a column lamenting the culture of cancellation and no-platforming and spoke of her sadness at the way a once-united campaign for sexual freedom – where women wanting abortion reform marched alongside men and women seeking gay rights and vice versa – has fragmented into factions, at one another’s political throats.
The last few years have been momentous for TikTok, the short-form video-sharing app on which people post videos about almost any topic under the sun to an audience of millions. And it has been perhaps most momentous of all for 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio, who last weekend reached the 100 million followers mark – the first TikTok star to do so. The teenager from Connecticut is a powerhouse on the app, which as of this summer counted a userbase of 690 million. In March 2020, TikTok-watchers spent as much time scrolling through one-minute videos as there has been between the Stone Age and today. D’Amelio only created her account in June 2019, yet she’s TikTok’s biggest name globally. The app’s own explanation of who she is gives an insight into why she’s popular: the three tags – broad genres that are used to define what a TikTok content creator does – against her name are “dance”, “make-up” and hair (Gordon Ramsay’s TikTok account is tagged as “celebrity account”, “recipes” and “pop culture”, by way of comparison). D’Amelio came to fame almost overnight, her ability to dance to the latest songs in the pop charts enchanting teenagers who wanted to be like her – and, because it’s the internet, likely a decent number of young men who wanted to ogle her. Now she is worth an estimated $4 million and her entire family – sister Dixie, 18, and parents Marc and Heidi – are getting in on the act. “The origin of Charli’s popularity is tough to pinpoint, but one thing is clear, she’s developed a flywheel that is helping her and her family grow exponentially,” explains Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, a New York creative agency.
The Cornish house is an old granite farmhouse beside an orchard with a stream running through it, surrounded by fields. Tanya cannot make the viewing, so I take her seven-year-old son. He is the only other person I know in Cornwall. Still, it’s good to have a second opinion. ‘Do you get all of it?’ he asks as the Honda bounces down the drive. ‘Yes!’ I tell him. ‘Do you get that?’ he asks, pointing at the owner’s Range Rover. ‘No,’ I say. He looks disappointed. The farmhouse is everything my east London ‘cupboard’ is not. In Dalston, my flat screamed with traffic, sirens and clubbers 24 hours a day – that was why I bought it, so I could go to theatres, bookshops and bars any night of the week, drinking absinthe cocktails, going gay clubbing, then crashing into bed. I ate out almost every night – I had to, the kitchen was too small to cook in. I cultivated a love/hate relationship with my hipster neighbours, complaining about their coffee shops with ampersands in the name, while drinking soya lattes in them; teasing them for their dog-yoga classes, then taking Stringerbelle. In Cornwall, the only neighbours are fields of cows; beyond, the wild Atlantic. The kitchen is bigger than my whole London flat. There is a garden with a vegetable patch. ‘Do you garden?’ the estate agent asks, apparently serious. I don’t tell him the closest I’ve come is the cactus shop opposite my flat, ironically named Prick. The farmhouse has dark beams, light flagstone floors and a woodfuelled Rayburn. Outside is an old piggery. I push open the door and a rabbit scatters, tail flashing white. I picture myself drunk-driving a lawnmower around the orchard, holding a bottle of cider while trying not to crash into apple trees. I imagine filling the place with friends, or running a wildly unsuccessful B&B; that I only let hot surfers book. I could never have afforded a place in London with so many possibilities. It’s daunting buying a house alone, so I have been binge-watching Escape to the Country for tips. I remember to ask whether the garden faces south, if it’s listed, if the village has highspeed internet. In front of the estate agent, I try to find flaws, banging walls, unsure what sound they should make. But what’s the point? We both know I am going to offer on it. I do. And the owner accepts. I call friends to tell them about my new life – keeping sheep, herding ducks and baking cakes in my Rayburn. They are pragmatic. ‘Sheep get maggots in their eyes,’ one says. ‘Ducks shit everywhere,’ says another. ‘You can’t cook,’ says a third, ‘and if that’s a wood-fired Rayburn, it’ll take an hour to get going.’ ‘Where is it?’ they all ask. I am vague about the details. ‘It isn’t too far from London, though?’ Rob wants to know. I don’t tell him – it is 10 minutes from Land’s End. It takes me six hours to drive back to my flat. That is a lot of time to think. And panic. Somerset made sense – Bath’s museums, Bristol’s restaurants. I know people in Somerset. There is Babington House. I try to reassure myself by opening Rightmove to look at my beautiful farmhouse. And that’s when I spot it: there isn’t a single radiator. I am moving to the end of the earth with no central heating. You can read Katie Glass's column, What Katie did next, every Saturday at 6am on Telegraph.co.uk
I was 19 years old when I joined The Royal Ballet as a soloist, in 1988. As a new member, you begin by learning the company repertoire – classics like Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère – but that year we were also rehearsing a new interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s score for The Prince of the Pagodas, by choreographer Kenneth MacMillan. He had cast me in the leading role, so I went from rehearsing that to Swan Lake to whatever else non-stop. It was an extraordinary year. We wouldn’t usually get to work on a new ballet for long, but the premiere had been delayed because of Kenneth’s health and then we had nearly gone on strike, too, for equal pay with The Royal Opera company chorus. I remember I was rather desperate about it – it being right before the premiere – but, of course, I was going to stick with the company. Prince was my first major piece and I was quite naive. Plus, I’d heard all these stories about Kenneth – this genius, as he was, and about how difficult it was to get him to react. He could be so silent. I think that’s why so many dancers did well with him, because they were striving so hard just to get a reaction. It was Jonathan Cope [playing the Prince] who helped me learn. He’d been in the company for a few years and had done incredibly well with Kenneth, and he said, ‘Don’t make this harder; slow down a bit’ – I was doing everything I could to create the best for Kenneth, but I was never going to make it through a threehour ballet like that. I played Rose, who is her emperor father ’s favourite daughter and who must undergo a rite of passage. I remember being incredibly disappointed with the costume. You always get it really late in the game, which is such a disadvantage for a dancer, because it needs to feel part of, and move with, your body. It had this boned bodice with a floaty skirt. The first version they made, the bodice was too short and became very revealing if I was lifted into a backbend. As for the blindfold I had to wear for the dance with the salamander Prince, we tried at least four different fabrics before we settled on net, but even then, when the lights shone on it, it became difficult for me to see. I think it made my performance quite realistic, though – I really did have to trust Jonathan in the pas de deux. I was very lucky that, when I retired 13 years ago, The Royal Ballet gave the costume to me. That’s very unusual, because they cost a lot and get recycled, so the costume you’ll see at the V&A; will be the one I wore. Throughout, I could tell that Kenneth was very excited about this piece. It was something that he’d been wanting to do for years and, having finally got permission [from the Britten foundation, who would not allow the score to be cut], he was revelling in the amount of work ahead. It didn’t seem that daunting to him, even though for me and Jonathan it most certainly was. I was nervous on the first night, but when you’re focusing on retaining all of that choreography, you do become very blinkered and that helps. Plus, I was still only 20 and had the confidence of youth – no past behind me to make me worry about things going wrong. I can’t imagine how stressful that first performance must have been for Kenneth. Afterwards, I could tell he was really happy, because I saw him smiling – he didn’t smile that often, you see, so I knew it meant a lot. When they announced that night, on stage, that I had been made Principal, I was in shock. It’s everything you dream of as a young dancer, so I didn’t really believe it was happening. I was numb from the amount of adrenaline running through my system. I’ll never forget it. On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 opens at the V&A; on 2 December until 19 September 2021. Find out more at royalacademyofdance.org/onpoint. Dame Darcey Bussell is President of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD).
It was with a heavy heart that I concluded that the peculiarly British invention of the chalet girl is to become extinct, at least for now. November is usually peak chalet booking period for British skiers – but changing quarantine requirements have put many off while, from January, British staff will need visas that may lead to unviable amounts of red tape. Earlier this month, Crystal, the biggest British ski tour operator, announced it was cancelling its entire chalet programme for this year. Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit Ski followed suit, and the trade body Seasonal Businesses in Travel says anecdotal evidence suggests a 50 per cent cut, on average, in chalet rentals across its 200 members. And so it seems that, after 60 years of chasing hunky ski guides, dodging lecherous punters, consuming terrible wine and even worse food, the chalet girl “experience” is in terminal decline. What a shame. In the early Eighties, when I was 20, I had a ball working in Crans Montana in Switzerland. I was a freelance cook at the time, and a season in the Alps seemed like a magical adventure. Back then, it was a rite of passage for 20-something Sloanes who had done a (very) basic cordon bleu course, and were happy to cook and clean in return for unlimited skiing and four months in a swanky resort. For me the season began at 6.30am one cold December morning when I left the mother ship (Sloane Square) aboard an ancient coach with only one stinking loo, accompanied by my flatmate Belinda and seven other chalet girls. This ghastly journey seemed to go for days, but eventually we limped to our destination – a dreadful hovel with only three bedrooms and one bathroom for all nine of us. The sagging sofas, grubby carpets and filthy kitchen will remain etched in my memory forever. I was responsible for looking after a six-person chalet and providing them with a cooked breakfast, packed lunch, afternoon tea with homemade cake, and a three-course supper. This must have given me some kind of PTSD as, more than three decades later, I can barely bring myself to boil an egg. Each of us was furnished with a copy of the tour operator Bladon Lines’ Chalet Girl Cookbook (unaccountably out of print) with its penny-pinching recipes. We ensured our packed lunches (requested by only the most penurious punters) were particularly inedible to prevent anyone asking for them twice. I fear there would be riots if the inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons were offered one of my packed lunches, containing sandwiches filled with liquidised stuffed tomatoes, themselves filled with leftover boeuf bourguignon. It’s astonishing no one ever died of food poisoning. But to keep within our meagre daily budget of £3 a person, corners were often cut and, back then, health and safety was but a Covid marshal’s fantasy. Bafflingly, chalet girls had the same collective allure as nurses in the British public school male psyche. We wobbled about in salopettes and hideous Puffa jackets. Sharing a bathroom with so many meant we rarely put on make-up. We lived on a diet of sugary yogurt, Swiss chocolate and melted cheese, with the distressing result that we ended the season several stone heavier than when we began. We weren’t even much good at skiing, preferring to stuff ourselves with uncooked cake mixture rather than get our enormous bottoms up the mountain before midday. They say golf is a good walk spoiled, and I started to feel that skiing ruins a perfectly good skiing holiday. After all, fresh air, snow, mulled wine, jolly après-ski and soaring mountains are wonderful. Why ruin it all by strapping planks on to your feet, risking life and limb to endure freezing winds and broken capillaries? By the end of March, I’d given up hope on the romantic front. But my spirits lifted when a single punter took a shine to me. I abandoned lazy days in the patisserie and went skiing with him instead, because love makes you do strange things. I also made a special effort with his packed lunches, and the chalet cuisine and general hygiene improved as if by magic. Apparently, 30 per cent of chalet girls met their future husbands on the job, and so it was for me. On my return from the Alps we married, but that’s another story... Julia Stephenson is the author of Chalet Tiara – Confessions of a Chalet Girl, available in paperback (Headline)
When Dame Joan Collins was 21, she was chased off the 20th Century Fox lot by the older, married actor Richard Todd. Her co-star on the 1955 historical drama The Virgin Queen ‘didn’t take kindly to rejection. He followed me at high speed in his car, screaming at me to wind my window down, and when I did, do you know what he said? “By the time you’re 23, you’ll be a washed-up old bag!’’’ The 87-year-old actress is laughing at the baseness of male desire. She’s laughing at the notion that she should be designated a plot and handed a shovel at the age of 23. But mostly it’s the amusement of knowing that, after a career that has spanned three-quarters of a century, from Hollywood’s second Golden Age to Dynasty and the hit US TV show American Horror Story, Collins was still touring the country in her one-woman show until Covid hit, still fronting fashion campaigns for the likes of Valentino and Kurt Geiger, and is about to grace both the big screen – in Vincent Woods’ festive drama The Loss Adjuster – and the small screen in José Luis Moreno’s forthcoming period TV drama series Glow & Darkness. Not bad for a washed-up old bag.
Since my partner Kayleigh and I met four and a half years ago, we’ve always split things equally – the rent and bills for our shared flat, the cost of holidays, weekly shopping and meals out. But this year, almost overnight, we suddenly found ourselves earning vastly different incomes. While Kayleigh’s TV show In My Skin was released on BBC and she was hired on other big writing gigs such as Killing Eve, the job I was due to begin in April as a podcast reporter was cancelled the day we went into lockdown, and I’ve been struggling financially ever since. According to reports by Relate, a quarter of people said money was their biggest relationship issue as a result of the pandemic, and finances were the second highest source of tension for couples after childcare. And while Kayleigh has been an amazing support, both emotionally and financially, I’ve spent the year cringing on the frequent occasions I’ve had to ask for help. Money worries and debt are difficult to tackle even in strong relationships – adding strain and altering power dynamics. For me, they’re tied up with my sense of self and how I want my partner to see me. When we met, I was a “success” with a full-time job on a national newspaper, and treated her to weekends away and dinners without thinking about it. She’s been happy to pick up the bills this year – she’s pragmatic and knows it makes sense for us to work as a team – yet I still find it hard to accept.