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As we drove away from the car park, two camper vans arrived to park up for the night where, only a few minutes before, a crowd of shining Goldwings had lazed, soaking up the heat, waiting for their black leather riders.  I can imagine few more awful places to spend the night.

The camp is laid out on a plateau dug into the side of the mountain.  It  is very quiet, and, on the afternoon we visited, it was warmed by late spring sunshine.  The air is clear and fresh, much colder than down on the plains below.  Visibility is excellent.  The view extends for miles into the setting sun, to the other side of the deep valley, to the forest-clad hills roundabout.  A woodpecker is busy somewhere in the silence, and solitary small birds call out of sight.  Everywhere is green, well kept.

Some of the wooden longhouses have gone, but a few remain.  Round the perimeter there are still lapped timber watch towers on each corner straddling parallel barbed wire fences.  There is a gallows on the drill yard, and above the levelled site a thousand or more graves cling on to the incline – identical white crosses, mostly with a name, but some without, and engraved with the place of death.

A sign points downhill to the commanding officer’s house.  It is only a few yards away, but far enough to sit in its own clearing in the trees.  The swimming pool has long since emptied and is full of rusty leaves.  The house is tightly closed but empty inside.   A holiday home requisitioned when the need arose.  The green lane that leads to it continues downhill to the gas chamber.

Nacht and Negel.  Night and Fog.  Thousands of prisoners passed through here, bearing their colours to denote their crime – Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, ordinary civilians convicted of crimes.  Men, women, children.  They worked in the quarry and died or survived and were moved on.  And then those that nobody was to know about, those whose names were written nowhere, who ceased to exist long before their life was snuffed out.  They, too, were brought here, up the steeply winding road, away from prying eyes.  At the dark of night you can imagine that people might not notice the trade in people and bodies, so far away from anywhere, in the dark and in the winter fog.

School children come now, to see for themselves.  They bring floral tributes as wide as a the span of a man’s arms, emblazoned with sashes bearing the name of their schools.  They leave them at the foot of the towering stone monument, a sign for those who come after them.  They have seen.  Another generation learning how evil humans can be: another generation learning that if good people do nothing evil is allowed to flourish.

We walked around the outside of the fence, wandered up and down the rows of graves, and stood and admired the huge view.   Such ugliness mocking such beauty.  We listened to the bird song and then we left, with heavy hearts, and the camper vans had the place to themselves for the night.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”

(William Morris)

One day my father gave my mother a present.   It was a coffee table for the sitting room.  The wood was honey coloured maple, and the top of the table was divided into four different pieces, the grain rotating on each piece, so that the natural differences in colour made a pleasing pattern of symmetry.  The legs of the table were carved, shaped and finished with brass fittings.  It was like nothing else in our house.  Everything else was very utilitarian, sort of William Morris minus, all function and no beauty. 

My mother didn’t like the table.  She didn’t like the visible knots in the wood.  My father was wounded, I knew that even then.  But the table stayed there, a symbol of his rebellion.  He still has it now, in his small house, in front of the settee.   I asked him about the table recently.  I wanted to check that I had remembered things correctly.  He told me how hurt he had been by my mother’s rejection of his offering for the home and how vivid that hurt still is.  But he told me, too, that the table was still there, in front of him, and that was important.

She had hurt me in much the same way.  I had gone to London on the train to buy fabric in the sale at Liberty.  I had bought two lengths of printed silk, each two metres long, and planned to make a skirt with each.  One length was cranberry red, with a small white geometric pattern, a bit like a trefoil.  The other, my favourite, had a background of palest orange, overprinted with grey and cream.  I was so proud of that material.  I showed it to my mother when I got home and she said “Why do you want that?  You can’t wash it”.  I made the two skirts and wore them until they were faded from all the washing … I crumpled inside at her disapproval.  I still do when I think of it.  It felt as if she could not see the point of me, much as my sister sees me.

Our family divided down the middle.  My father and I liked beautiful things.  My mother and my sister were not driven by the same aesthetic sense.  To my mother, the appearance of things was unimportant.  This was as true of people as it was of property.  She never noticed what anybody wore, which was not a studied refusal to be impressed, but an unconscious unawareness which came without effort.  I craved praise, but none ever came.  I wanted to be told that I looked nice, but it did not matter whether I looked nice or not.  Even on the day of my wedding, when I wanted to look at my best, she could not find any compliment for my appearance.

I did not realise then that she was not like most people.  I did not realise that she could not have been other, that there was no choice in her obvious virtue.  Instead I thought that it was me that was defective and bad, that I did not deserve any praise.  I had absolutely no confidence in my appearance. 

Because she was also a forceful woman, my mother’s values became the values of our family, her views became my conscience, so that today I struggle with every item of clothing I buy, to overcome a gnawing doubt, and seek complicated justifications for any unnecessary expense.   And when do I ever need new clothes?  Twice in the last twenty years I have rebelled by buying very expensive clothes – most recently two Moschino jackets about a year ago. I drown in the guilt of those clothes when I wear them., as if they drip the blood of innocents.  I am an inveterate bargain hunter, as if the cheapness of the clothes makes them an acceptable indulgence.  I am uncomfortable with our wealth, with our many possessions, and most uncomfortable in the face of my sister who perpetuates my mother’s values with a saintliness that I cannot mirror.  I squirm when I remember the presents of clothes that I used to offer my mother – a silky striped top that I later saw Gillian Taylforth wearing on East Enders, a navy blue cardigan from Jaeger.  She did not want either of them.  Only a year or two ago, I asked my sister what she would like for Christmas, and she answered that she would like a doormat.  So I bought her a black cardigan from Monsoon, covered in jet beads.  Last week I bought her a bottle green leather shoulder bag which she dutifully carried around with her but she kept on saying “Il ne fallait pas” which reminded me of my mother’s moral imperative: Waste Not, Want Not.  I ought not to have bought the bag.  Last week I told my sister’s son that he looked wonderful in his red ‘T’ shirt.  My sister corrected me and addressed him: “You look good in every colour, don’t you”.  It doesn’t matter what colour he wears, or what colour I wear, or what colour anybody else wears.

I want to make everything beautiful.  I still do. 

In the face of the other side of my family I feel superficial and ridiculous.  Shallow.  I carry around in my head the message that there is no value in making things beautiful, that it is a waste of time that should be better spent doing other things.  Since so much of my time is spent trying to make things beautiful, I feel that that portion of my life has been wasted.  My desire to prettify pointlessly is polluted by my inherited conscience.

In many ways my mother was a saint.  The morning after she died I sat down and wrote what I would read at her funeral service.  I began by saying that she had been born above a stable, like Jesus, and how she had instilled in us values that we would take to the grave – of equality, of non-discrimination.  But she was born like that, it was not a choice for her: she did not have to overcome her prejudices, she saw things differently.  I do not think that the war that is waged inside my head – a daily series of battles – was played out in her mind.  Things were much simpler, in both senses.

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From The Herald

The beauty that matters is always on the inside


Susan Boyle’s story is a parable of our age. She is a singer of enormous talent, who cared for her widowed mother until she died two years ago. Susan’s is a combination of ability and virtue that deserves congratulation.

So how come she was treated as a laughing stock when she walked on stage for the opening heat of Britain’s Got Talent 2009 on Saturday night?

The moment the reality show’s audience and judging panel saw the small, shy, middle-aged woman, they started to smirk. When she said she wanted a professional singing career to equal that of Elaine Paige, the camera showed audience members rolling their eyes in disbelief. They scoffed when she told Simon Cowell, one of the judges, how she’d reached her forties without managing to develop a singing career because she hadn’t had the opportunity. Another judge, Piers Morgan, later wrote on his blog that, just before she launched into I Dreamed a Dream, the 3000-strong audience in Glasgow was laughing and the three judges were suppressing chuckles.It was rude and cruel and arrogant. Susan Boyle from Blackburn, West Lothian, was presumed to be a buffoon. But why?

Britain’s Got Talent isn’t a beauty pageant. It isn’t a youth opportunity scheme. It is surely about discovering untapped and unrecognised raw talent from all sections of society.

And Susan Boyle has talent to burn. Such is the beauty of her voice that she had barely sung the opening bars when the applause started. She rounded off to a standing ovation and – in her naivety – began walking off the stage and had to be recalled.

Susan, now a bankable discovery, was then roundly patronised by such mega-talents as Amanda Holden and the aforementioned Morgan, who told her: “Everyone laughed at you but no-one is laughing now. I’m reeling with shock.” Holden added: “It’s the biggest wake-up call ever.”

Again, why?

The answer is that only the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person.

I dread to think of how Susan would have left the stage if her voice had been less than exceptional. She would have been humiliated in front of 11 million viewers. It’s the equivalent of being put in the stocks in front of the nation instead of the village. It used to be a punishment handed out to criminals. Now it is the fate of anyone without obvious sexual allure who dares seek opportunity.

This small, brave soul took her courage in her hands to pitch at her one hope of having her singing talent recognised, and was greeted with a communal sneer. Courage could so easily have failed her.

Yet why shouldn’t she sound wonderful? Not every great singer looks like Katherine Jenkins. Edith Piaf would never have been chosen to strut a catwalk. Nor would Nina Simone, nor Ella Fitzgerald. As for Pavarotti But then ridicule is nothing new in Susan Boyle’s life. She is a veteran of abuse. She was starved of oxygen at birth and has learning difficulties as a result. At school she was slow and had frizzy hair. She was bullied, mostly verbally. She told one newspaper that her classmates’ jibes left behind the kind of scars that don’t heal.

She didn’t have boyfriends, is a stranger to romance and has never been kissed. “Shame,” she said. Singing was her life-raft.

She lived with her parents in a four-bedroom council house and, when her father died a decade ago, she cared for her mother and sang in the church choir.

It was an unglamorous existence. She wasn’t the glamorous type – and being a carer isn’t a glamorous life, as the hundreds of thousands who do that most valuable of jobs will testify. Even those who start out with a beauty routine and an interest in clothes find themselves reverting to the practicality of a tracksuit and trainers. Fitness plans get interrupted and then abandoned. Weight creeps on. Carers don’t often get invited to sparkling dinner parties or glitzy receptions, so smart clothes rarely make it off the hanger.

Then, when a special occasion comes along, they might reach, as Susan did, for the frock they bought for a nephew’s wedding. They might, as she did, compound the felony of choosing a colour at odds with her skin tone and an unflattering shape with home-chopped hair, bushy eyebrows and a face without a hint of make-up. But it is often evidence of a life lived selflessly; of a person so focused on the needs of another that they have lost sight of themselves. Is that a cause for derision or a reason for congratulation? Would her time have been better spent slimming and exercising, plucking and waxing, bleaching and botoxing? Would that have made her voice any sweeter?

Susan Boyle’s mother encouraged her to sing. She wanted her to enter Britain’s Got Talent. But the shy Susan hasn’t been able to sing at all since her mother’s death two years ago. She wasn’t sure how her voice would emerge after so long a silence. Happily, it survived its rest.

She is a gift to Simon Cowell and reality television. Her story is the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen: the woman plucked from obscurity, the buried talent uncovered, the transformation waiting to be wrought.

It is wonderful for her, too, that her stunning voice is now recognised. A bright future beckons. Her dream is becoming reality.

Susan is a reminder that it’s time we all looked a little deeper. She has lived an obscure but important life. She has been a companionable and caring daughter. It’s people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. They make this country civilised and they deserve acknowledgement and respect.

Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her taent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character.

Ruthie Henshall, from Suffolk, sings “I had a dream”

All about the tennis serve

A good friendship, a good marriage, is like a knock-about game of tennis with an evenly matched partner. 

You both start off with the same number of balls, and you decide which of you should serve first.

I serve to you, and you return it, and I hit it back and then sooner or later one of us drops the ball and it dribbles to the side of the court.

Then you serve to me, I hit it back, and you return it.

When we’ve warmed up a bit, and are more confidant of each other, you might put in a spin now or again, with a smile, keen to flex your muscles.  Or I might run to the net and smash the ball back out of your reach.  Tricky drop shots, sometimes badly judged strokes that barely make it over the net.

The play continues, potentially forever, neither player having the upper hand.  Sometimes all the balls end up one side of the net.  Then you, or I, depending, will lob a load back, one after another so that we can carry on with the same number each.

This sort of game can accommodate injuries, temporary absences and distractions, because it is full of shared good will.  Sometimes one player will have more energy: sometimes the other will be full of the joys of spring.  Other times it can be a bit lacklustre, but still comfortingly familiar.  Sometimes the serve is under arm, easy to return.  Sometimes there are strokes of brilliance which both recognise.  Some games are fast.  Others have a midsummer afternoon sort of heaviness about them.   Above all, they are enjoyable.  Fun.  They make the world go round.

I know that this is what a good tennis game is all about because I play in them regularly.

Not all tennis games are like this though, nor all friendships or family relationships.

Sometimes it seems as if one player has all the balls, and so has to serve all the time.  It is not that the player has hogged all the balls, because there is no advantage to having the balls to begin with. Rather they are a responsibility, because serving is the most difficult part.  Serving is an act of hope, hoping that the ball will come back.

In this sort of game, the player the other side of the net is not interested in returning the ball most of the time.  He or she will let the ball go, won’t try to hit it back, and so the ball goes out.  This is the unacknowledged comment, the phonecall not returned, the email not replied to.

Sometimes, the other player will hit the ball back, just for the fun of hitting it, but not caring whether I manage to return it or not.  The return shot is intended to show-off, not to help the game along.  Worse, sometimes the smash is aimed at hurting me, not in the least bit playful.  It is an angry lashing-out.

By luck, sometimes, I’ll be able to return the ball, but, by then, you’ve lost interest and so my ball flies past you unnoticed and joins the other sad balls at the end of the court.  You almost never bother to pick them up and return them, though you could if you wanted to.

You will rarely if ever serve any balls in my direction.  Christmas might be an exception, or if you are lonely or bored.  But then you just want one shot back, just so that you know that I am still there, and then you’ve turned away again.  I’m not sure that you have other games going on at the same time, that are taking up your time and attention, just that you don’t understand what the game is supposed to be about.

I hate this sort of stroke-pattern.  Thinking about it, it is invariably preceded by a more normal sort of pattern, perhaps a doubles where you can hide your underfunctioning.  The early games lull one into a false sense of security, but then the other person loses interest and the game changes.  I’ve come across this game in many variations.  It seems fairly common following a divorce amongst our friends when the underfunctioning player is left behind, and doesn’t want to keep to keep the game going by himself.  I begin to understand why his partner did not want to play with him any more.  It must have been exhausting fielding all the shots.

Being a determined optimist, I often hope that the other person will change their game, that they’ll be interested in a proper exchange.  But, far too often, I end up wasting my time,  sending my precious balls on one-way journeys to the Land of Lost Balls.  Worse than that, it gets to the point where I’ve run out of balls and have to borrow them from other, nice, kind, players to send on this pointless journey. 

As they say – you cannot change the other person, so you have to change yourself.  What I should do is put all of my hope for this friendship, for this relationship, in one ball and smash it into infinity so that the hope disappears with the ball and I can spend my time in more enjoyable, equal games.  I am getting better and better at doing that.

A friend, having a difficult time, told me yesterday that she didn’t mind despair, it was hope she could not stand.  I knew what she meant.

The Queen is a wily old bird. She’s seen almost everything in her time, and she will have known that Gordon Brown’s recent visit to the United States did not result in the sort of unequivocal re-statement of the Special Relationship that we might all have hoped for.  There was, of course, the small matter of the DVD collection, of the gaps in Obama’s administration that left British frustrations.  She might have wondered, given her weekly meetings with the man, whether the Obamas were left underwhelmed by Gordon Brown’s warmth.

The Special Relationship is far too important a matter to be left to the dour Brown.  It is the Queen’s country, after all, and if your delegated man is not doing the job properly, wouldn’t you step in to put things right?  So the Queen takes matters into her own hands, and clinches things in her own marvellous way. Commentators say that they can never remember a similar gesture being made by the Queen in the whole of her reign, in more than half a century. She simply is not known for making physical gestures of intimacy to her own children, let alone people she has just met.  Has she just woken up to the power of touch? 

Sure, Michelle Obama is, without doubt, a wonderful, charismatic, educated, beautiful woman. But the Queen is still a wily old bird. There isn’t much doubt about the Special Relationship after this, is there? I mean, she didn’t exactly hug any of the other wives, did she? Nor can we imagine her cuddling Mme Sarkozy, even if the Duke of Edinburgh might have liked to.

Look at the picture above, and you might be forgiven for thinking that Michelle Obama initiated the embrace.  Watch the video below, and it looks as if the Queen set the tone.  Beautifully.  Sort of “Lean on me, girl, and I’ll show you the ropes”. And Michelle responded, and the deal was done. The Special Relationship looks good for another Presidency. 

Watch a video of the moment