Welcome to Janet Green's blog
So picture it – I still had a week until my payday, I was up to my overdraft limit and I had £2.50 left in my purse. In my cupboard I still had pasta, rice and a couple of onions. I figured if I could pinch some butter, rolls and tea bags from the ward, I would just have enough to get by on macaroni cheese, which would be dinner for two nights, an omelette and bread for the third night. Then chicken soup with rice for the rest of the week. So that was dinner taken care of. Now I only had to find food for breakfast and lunch.
It was 1972 and I was a student nurse, earning a pittance and with no financial support from my family, which some of the younger nurses could count on. It was only by ducking and diving, stealing food from work, and picking up discarded, bruised vegetables from the street in the market, that I managed to get by. Some of my meals were unusual, to say the least. Soup made from an eclectic variety of veggies featured widely.
It is shocking how little things have changed for the current generation of nurses. They are having to resort to food banks to survive. Indeed, it is shocking that we need food banks for the poor in the 21st Century.
But how many of us are aware of the need for food banks, or where a collection point might be sited or how the groceries are distributed?
One of my guilty pleasures is watching ‘EastEnders’. I’m a little embarrassed to be such a devotee because it is a ‘soap’ and because of it’s reputation for gloomy, depressing storylines. Maybe this status is deserved, but there is no doubt that it also brings difficult social issues to the attention of the public.
One such recent plot had Dee, a middle-aged woman, who had fallen on hard times, almost starving. She was too proud to ask for help, having to resort to taking food from bins, stealing food and just getting by.
EastEnders has also tackled issues such as homophobia, hostility and fear of AIDS, bullying, homelessness, prostitution – by choice and girls forced into working the streets. It has covered child abuse, alcoholism, euthanasia, disability. The list goes on, and while these stories are grim, they also educate. They allow the viewer to learn, to empathise, to discuss at the water cooler.
When they introduced the first ever soap HIV/AIDS story in the UK, the Easties production team approached the Terrence Higgins Trust, where I was working, to ask for consultation with the script. That task fell to me. The script only needed a few tweaks to accurately reflect the character’s experience of an HIV diagnosis.
They came to see us at the offices of the Trust, then in a dilapidated grotty building, where we had gradually acquired more rooms to rent as the organisation grew. One of these spaces was being used as counselling room. My colleague had decided, without telling anyone, to decorate it. That was fine, but she had chosen black for all the walls.
Now can you imagine it? Someone with HIV or AIDS coming for counselling, and entering this funereal room, lit only with a couple of uplighter? Blimey. That would cheer you up no end.
However, the EastEnders crew faithfully recreated the room, complete with black walls and the exact same lampshades. No wonder the character, Mark Fowler, got very upset with his counsellor.
But fair play to the producers. They strove for authenticity in all aspects of the story. And they did get it right, even down to the hostility shown to Mark by the landlady of the Queen Vic pub, Peggy Mitchell. This was a particularly brave move, as Peggy (played by Barbara Windsor) was a popular character, and her attitudes reflected those of many of the public. She was heard to utter the immortal words ‘Git outta my pub’ on more than one occasion.
Over time, though, Peggy’s opinions changed. She became more sympathetic to Mark’s situation. And this, I think, had a direct bearing on the move towards acceptance by the man and woman on the street towards people with HIV and AIDS.
The quality of acting in the drama is almost always believable, often emotive and engaging. The characters are fully realised and have depth. By heck, I think I’ve met some of these people in everyday life.
And there is humour in the script, too. Think of Dot and her malapropisms and medicinal sherry, Ian and his pompous ways, Little Willy the dog, and Princess Di, another dog. And now the new family, who put the Shameless family, well, to shame.
The excellent quality of performing, storylines and characterisation is often overlooked by it’s detractors. Perhaps many of these have never actually watched it, or have only done so with their big, fat snobby hat on.
I would contend, though, that any soap that includes the issues of the day, the problems of our wonderful, but flawed society, and which is honest and ground breaking deserves accolades. It doesn’t come up with any answers, no glib solutions, but it sure as hell puts them in our living rooms three times a week.
So picture it: A summer evening, the sun still weakly shining through the windows of my fourth floor hard-to-let council flat. I’d made it comfortable and attractive, with pictures on the walls, throws on the sofa and two cats for company.
In 1987 I was working and living in London’s East End. My job in a hostel for the young homeless was satisfying, but poorly paid. And my pay cheque was two days away. I had absolutely no money. My overdraft was at the maximum and there was no cash to be found anywhere, although I had rummaged in every pocket, every handbag and even down the back of the sofa.
And I had a craving. A craving so strong that I was gritting my teeth and pacing the floor. I tried to sleep, thinking that even if I could not satisfy this need, at least I would be unconscious and unaware of it. I could not switch off, though. All I could think about was ‘I need this, and I need it now.’ Without any cash, I was stumped.
Finally – light bulb moment – I realised that I could go to the little corner shop, open until late evening, with my cheque book. This was before the days of cheque guarantee cards. By the time the cheque went through, my salary would have been paid into my account, so shouldn’t bounce.
Tearing down to the shop, I bought and paid for a carton of 200 Silk Cut. I may have bought some grocery provisions, too. I can’t remember these, only the delightful, delicious, satisfying fumes of the cigarette, which I lit up almost before I left the shop.
Addiction: A terrible illness, although I would not have categorised smoking tobacco in that class at the time. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I see it for what it was.
Not only that, but I suspect that I have an addictive personality.
In around 1976 I discovered marijuana, and the delights of smoking joints. Now, there has been a great deal of well documented debate over whether cannabis is additive. I would suggest that while the substance itself is not habit forming, the emotional attachment to the effects, probably is.
Smoking joints made me feel mellow, relaxed, witty. I heard music with more clarity, and tasted food with more flavour. It helped me to sleep and eliminated any feelings of shyness. I could be the life and soul of the party, and thought I was well funny. Once tried and discovered, of course I would want it again … and again. I was quickly at a point where I would be smoking spliffs from early morning until late at night.
But if times were hard, and there was no money for dope, I could just stop and wait for the next windfall so that more supplies could be purchased. I might miss it, but I did not crave it. Yet, again with hindsight, I can say that I was addicted to the sensations it afforded me.
A couple of years later, I was about to begin my short-lived career as a glamour model and stripper. I needed to lose a bit of weight, and I wanted to do it quickly. A friend suggested that I make an appointment with a Harley Street doctor that she saw. He prescribed amphetamines and sleeping pills for me. I quickly became reliant on the uppers and downers of this regime. If the pot made me feel relaxed and chilled out, the speed made me energetic, confident and bright eyed. I lost weight at a rate of knots, but instead of stopping when I hit my target weight, I went on renewing my prescription and using these drugs for another two years.
Definitely addicted, although at least the drugs were prescribed and therefore pure, rather than bought on the street and cut with goodness knows what. I finally gradually reduced the dose, and then stopped, when I could no longer afford the private consultations and prescriptions.
Whereupon my addition to food re-emerged. Yes, I do believe that I have a food addiction. It’s not that I eat ‘bad’ food, junk and a lot of crisps and sweets. I don’t. I mostly keep to a Mediterranean diet, but I eat far too much of it.
I seem to have a hunger which is hard to satisfy. I am driven to eat everything on my plate, and do not seem to have that part of the brain which tells me when I am sated, and should stop eating. Another emotional dependence, but no less dangerous for that. *
So where am I now? Where have my addictions led me? Well, I am overweight. I do try to curb my need to eat huge portions, and am relatively successful in keeping my heaviness in check, probably due to yoyo dieting. I do not resemble one of those poor people who eat themselves into a housebound mountain of flesh. But you know what? If God had wanted me to touch my toes, he would have put them on my knees.
I stopped smoking tobacco about twelve years ago. Giving up smoking was easy. I did it dozens of times, until it got boring and I stuck it out. Even now, though, I still get the occasional craving for tobacco, but I know that it will pass if I wait and practise deep breathing. Mind you, those adverts that appear on TV for nicotine chewing gum always make me long for a cigarette.
And because I gave up tobacco, I also gave up cannabis, because I knew that I couldn’t have one without the other and, anyway, with maturity came a responsible job requiring early starts and an alert mind. I do miss it, though. Those evenings with friends where everything was so funny, the air filled with sweet smelling fumes and the munchies that would strike at regular intervals.
LSD and cocaine were high days and holidays luxuries, so I never really had the opportunity to become addicted to those particular pleasures.
Fortunately, I never seemed to tap into alcohol in a big way. I like the occasional glass of wine or a cocktail, but rarely get out and out rolling drunk. That’s not to say it’s never happened, but only when I’m in a situation or with people where I feel safe.
Some of the people I hung out with in the seventies have died as a result of their addictions. I have been so, so lucky. And my own experiences have allowed me to be empathetic to those with more serious, more destructive addictions. Working with people with AIDS meant that I was in touch with those who contracted the virus through injecting drug use. There but for the grace of God, there go I.
My addictions continue: Eating, craving tobacco even now, real coffee at regular intervals during the day. Even smelling coffee percolating makes me want to get a macchiato. Strong, with just a hint of milk, and a touch of sweetness. I’ve heard that too much coffee is bad for you, but as Katharine Hepburn said ‘If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.’
The last addiction has been a slow one to develop. I hardly noticed that it was happening until I realised that not a day can go by without me getting at least one fix. I know that I am not alone and that there are many others out there suffering from the same obsession: Facebook. I try to cut down, but fret if I cannot use it on a daily basis. I will seek help.
Life may not be the party I once lived, but while I am here I might as well dance as much as my now arthritic knees will allow. Bring on the chocolate.
*An interesting development: I have just read that a condition called Polyphagia (medical term for eating large amounts of food) is one of the symptoms of diabetes, which I have. So maybe this particular compulsion is physiological, rather than addictive gluttony. Maybe.
An American Dream
So picture it: A cold January day in London, and the world’s attention is focussed on a deeply tanned man with a blonde comb over. And I am dumbfounded that enough citizens of American could vote for inexperienced, volatile, flawed Trump to become their President.
But I am not going to write about that. Everyone has an opinion, and I don’t expect mine to amount to a hill of beans.
But the hoo-ha has reminded me of my first visit to the USA. I always had a longing to go there, schooled by all those wonderful American films of my youth and childhood. The sun always seemed to be shining, the good guys always won and the people sang and danced all over the place.
In 1986 I was working at The Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), then still a new AIDS charity. At that time the organisation was a small, barely there concern. We had two paid staff, myself and Nick Partridge, and about 150 volunteers. We all worked our socks off fighting prejudice, ignorance and fear, whilst providing support and help for those diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. And we were doing it well, although much of our work was of the ‘suck it and see’ variety.
At a working weekend for directors and staff it was acknowledged that America was ahead of us in developing services and approaches to the epidemic. For several years before the inception of THT, charities in the USA had established ways of working with the illness and challenging the misinformation.
The directors decided that THT needed to send a working party the next International AIDS Conference in Washington. About six key volunteers would be asked to attend … and me! I was astonished, fearful, excited.
Astonished, because I never expected to be included. My role at THT was primarily to develop services – the Helpline, Buddies, counselling. In practice, it was everything from public speaking (which I’d never done before) to unblocking the toilets (ditto). The fear was due to my inexperience of almost all of it. I was good at taking risks and bluffing confidence, but maybe I would now be found out? And I was excited to be chosen for this important role and … what an opportunity to see the land of the free for myself.
Upon arriving home from that Away Weekend, I immediately phoned my sister, Debbie, to tell her my news. I wanted her to join me after the conference to have a holiday. She was almost as excited as me, and agreed immediately. The conference was only a few weeks away, so I had to get organised very quickly. Thank goodness I had a passport, but a Visa had to be obtained. Not to mention deciding what clothes to take. A cool and funky wardrobe? A butch dressing up box to show that I was a fully paid up lesbian? A sophisticated power suit with shoulder pads? (I didn’t have anything like that.)
Debbie and I arranged that she should fly over for the end of the conference, meeting up with me in Washington. The rest of us were flown courtesy of Virgin, who had donated the airline part of the trip.
It was the longest flight I had ever taken, all previous travel had been limited to Europe. I was charmed by the Virgin flight attendants, so friendly and smiley. They even gave us ice cream at one point of the flight. And there were films to watch!
Arriving at our Washington hotel, my adrenalin rush was still in full swing, so when it was suggested that we all go out for dinner, I was up for it 100%. Unfortunately, having ordered our food, I found that I could barely keep my eyes open. My head kept nodding nearer and nearer to my plate of soup. I could see the headlines.
I made my excuses, and left for a night of solid sleep, taken aback by my first experience of jet lag.
Breakfast next day was taken in the restaurant within the hotel. That was the next surprise. I asked for toast and jelly. (I knew that ‘jelly’ was the term for jam here.) The waitress asked ‘What kind of toast, d’ya want, hon?’ I must have looked perplexed because she then reeled off ‘D’ya want white bread, wholemeal, rye, bagel, cornbread, seeded …?’ My head was reeling, so I said ‘Er, the last one, please.’ Then the waitress asked what kind of jelly? Another list was recited, and again I chose the last one, having forgotten the previous options.
And so it was time for the conference. Whew! It was go, go, go for the next three days. Keynote speakers, seminars, workshops, roundtables and plenary. And then there was the social aspect, the networking, making contacts and a bit of flirting, too. It was exhilarating and exhausting. I would not have missed it for the world. I was dizzy with information and ideas to take back to THT, trying to keep it realistic, in line with the budget, whilst making notes of who might be able to fund new ways forward.
Although it was called ‘International’ the conference was mostly made up of American delegates. I found my new colleagues to be, mostly, absolutely delightful. They were polite, friendly, supportive – particularly when I broke down in tears in a workshop on grief. I had been working for THT for about a year by then, and had known a number of people die of AIDS related illnesses. I had been very fond of some of them. None of my British workmates were in this workshop, but the two Americans sitting on either side of me, gave me comfort and a handkerchief.
The conference over, l met up with Debbie and we proceeded to have the best holiday of our lives up to that point. We travelled coast to coast by domestic flights, visiting Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Along the way we met local people who, almost without exception, were welcoming and helpful to these two innocents abroad.
I have such wonderful memories of that trip. Maybe I’ll write more about our holiday another time. My heart is heavy right now with the recent developments, but I am hopeful that our American cousins can weather this storm. That ‘this too shall pass’.
I’ve been back to America several times since then, and have never been disappointed. So even if it sometimes rains, the sun often shines. Sometimes the good guys do win (missing you, Barack) and I have even seen people singing in the street at an Easter Parade.
I’m dreaming of an America where diversity, equality and justice prevail once more. Where hatred, misogyny, racism and homophobia will be consigned to the garbage. I know that I am not alone and that many Americans, and others worldwide, will be dreaming with me.
Maybe we’ll even be dancin’ in the street.
So picture it: Sometime around 1987 I was working at The Terrence Higgins Trust. I think my official title then was ‘Services Co-ordinator’, but in reality I did everything from training volunteers to organising the Gay Pride bus to unblocking the loo. The Trust was the major HIV and AIDS organisation in the UK. I had started working there in 1985, as one of the first two paid workers, the other being Nick Partridge, who went on to become Chief Executive.It was the best of jobs … and the worst. The best because we, paid workers, volunteers and people with HIV and AIDS were in the vanguard of a new movement, where we fought for acceptance, delivered information to a hostile world and banded together as a, mostly, LBGT family. Very early on in my time at the Trust a gay male volunteer told me that he had never met a lesbian before. I told him that he probably had, but hadn’t been aware of it.
Lesbians and gay men working and socialising together was a rare phenomena in those days. On the whole the two factions did not mix. The guys had their clubs, pubs and backrooms, and we had our meetings. Well, OK, the lesbians did have some clubs to hang out in, but we also had an awful lot of angst ridden discussions too. When I got the job, one lesbian feminist separatist friend asked me ‘Why on earth would you want to work with gay men?’ She was dropped shortly afterwards.
I wasn’t a separatist and felt that gay men, although we were isolated from each other, were my family, my community. And certain gay men had been very kind to me in the past, when I needed someone to be kind to me. I wanted to put something back. A cliché, but no less heartfelt for that.
So I found myself at the very heart of the early struggles of HIV and AIDS. It was exciting because of the energy and focus, but so sad because we were dealing with the, then always fatal, result of this new illness, which was taking many lives of young men in particular. The media, particularly the tabloids, were foul in the misinformation they were spreading, often referring to ‘Innocent Victims’ when the illness was identified as affecting children with haemophilia, who had blood transfusions. It implied that anyone else was a ‘Guilty Victim’, but these were just young people who had simply had sex, like millions of other young people.Sometime in the 80s a young man visited me at The Trust. He had the idea of people wearing a red ribbon to promote education about HIV and AIDS. It represents one of the low points of my career in that I told him that we would not be interested in participating in this scheme. Big mistake. Huge.
My problem was that I had been bitten on the bum previously, when I was approached by an alternative healer who swore by crystals. Now, I wasn’t absolutely sure how they were supposed to work with people with HIV or AIDS, but felt I should keep an open mind. I asked him to come and talk to our Buddies (befrienders) at their next meeting. Which he did. And the Buddies were furious!
They told me off for allowing this charlatan to access their meeting, and then later the crystal bloke told me off for wasting his time. So I wasn’t about to risk another slating.
However, as you will now be aware, the Red Ribbon did take off big time, and by 1993 Red Ribbon International was established, and now everyone who is anyone sports a Red Ribbon for World AIDS Day on 1st December. From Simon Cowell to Barack Obama and many others in between – ribbons will be in evidence.World AIDS Day always has a theme. In 1990 it was Women and AIDS. I was very proud to have produced the UK’s first health education leaflets, aimed at women. A good friend of mine, Cath Jackson, did the illustrations by way of her talented cartoons. She had a regular slot in City Limits at the time.
The leaflet got very good coverage, and I was invited to speak on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, where I may have been the first person to ever talk about ‘non-penetrative sex’ on British radio. What’s more is that I managed to say it without spluttering.
And I felt that my part in disseminating information for women kind of made up for the Red Ribbon error. A deal had been struck within my conscience, and I could make up for missing out on a very good idea.
So I will wear my Red Ribbon on 1st December, with pride, with sadness and with the knowledge that even really poor decisions can be weighed up against the good ones.
So picture it: October 1947. The Second World War had finished over two years ago, but Britain was still in the grip of rationing for food, petrol and other essentials. Men were returning from war torn Europe and Asia, reuniting with their wives and families. An unexpected consequence of these circumstances resulted in a surge of babies being born in the immediate post war years.
My Dad had been too old for active service, but he was in the Home Guard in London. There was absolutely no excuse for him to get in on the Baby Boom action, but he did and my Mum found herself pregnant at 47 years old.
She thought, and so did her doctor, that she was going through the menopause. I was her seventh and last child born in October 1947. The seven dwarves of the menopause: Itchy, Bitchy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Bloated, Forgetful and Psycho were snapping at her heels, and she never really wanted another baby at her time of life.
Nevertheless, she found herself bringing up this baby, albeit with a lot of input from my sisters. Women formed a cornerstone of meeting all my emotional and physical needs.
I came out as a lesbian whilst a teenage Baby Boomer in the 60’s. It was a lonely experience, with a dearth of lesbian meeting places, apart from the wonderful Gateways in Chelsea.
In 1948 Kinsey Report suggested that one in ten of the population was homosexual, but Stonewall (a gay rights charity) reckon that 5-7% of the British population now identify as LBGT. Certainly I am aware of many LGBT women and men of around my age who are now out and proud, even if their early gay years were a time of shadows and angst.
I have just turned 69, an age when many women tend not to be noticed as we plod along in our extra wide, flat-heeled sensible shoes. Getting older comes to everyone, if they are lucky enough to live that long. As Keith Richards said ‘Getting old is a fascinating thing. The older you get, the older you want to get.’
But my generation is now of an age where we are getting ill, becoming less mobile, contracting various medical conditions. I wonder what will become of us LGBT Baby Boomers when we can no longer live independently. We may not have children or grandchildren to care for us. If we are fortunate, as I am, there may be nieces and nephews who could keep an eye on our welfare.
When I was still a young woman, I lived in the East End, in a low rise block of flats. One of my neighbours was an elderly man. I used to stop and chat to him, until I stopped seeing him at the shops. Concerned, I rang his doorbell and found that he had become too poorly to get out. His niece came once a week to shop for his groceries, but otherwise he had no help.
I found myself, along with another neighbour, becoming an informal carer for Sam. It wasn’t always convenient, but he took to calling me by phone to come and make him a cup of tea and a sandwich, which I always responded to, of course. As we got to know each other better, he came out to me as a very closeted gay man, although my gaydar had been on full alert, and I had already guessed this.
I think that when I told him I was also gay, he was so relieved that he would not be rejected by me, that he could be open and talk to me about his experience of coming out at a time when male homosexuality was illegal and hidden. Although the law had changed by then, Sam was so ashamed of his sexuality that he could not consider coming out to the world at large.
He got to the point of having to have a home carer – who threw out his vast assortment of theatre programmes, collected since he was a boy. His flat certainly looked tidier and cleaner, but something of Sam was lost when those leaflets were thrown down the rubbish chute. He had not been able to explain to the carer how important they were to him, just in case she put two and two together. ‘Everyone knows that poofs like the theatre’ he confided.
Eventually he went into a care home, still afraid of telling anyone about his sexuality. When I visited him there, he told me that he thought there were not any other gays at the home, but we couldn’t actually find out without giving the game away. Sam died quite soon after, and I was sorry that he hadn’t had a happier life.
And now I find that I and my peers are growing old. Will we also have to be ‘the only gay in the residential home’? Or will some enterprising company or local authority provide a specialised unit where LGBT citizens can be open about their lives, their loves and their passions?
And how will we be treated if we do come out in a primarily heterosexual nursing home? Maybe attitudes towards LBGT people, which are changing, will result in us aging Baby Boomers being held up as heroes – brave role models for the younger generation.
Maybe, just maybe, my memory of Sam can be re-written. He can be proud, unashamed and bold. I think we owe him that.
So picture it: There I was flicking through one of my favourite magazines, when this review jumped out at me.
I couldn’t be more thrilled, and am so pleased that they enjoyed it. I hope that you will enjoy it just as much!