Concorde and Me

Its been a while since my last post and this one is a longer read, and a bit more personal.

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In 1973 the iconic supersonic aircraft, known as Concorde, with its long, aerodynamically efficient, nose-cone, made its first transatlantic flight, carrying VIPs and journalists from Washington to Orly (Paris) in only 3 hours and 32 minutes. I know this, not because I am interested in aeronautical history, but because the excitement generated in the newspapers, and on TV and radio held my 12-year-old-self in thrall to the possibilities of a new age. It also, I believed then, became the emblem for everything that was wrong with me.

The eldest daughter of three children, I grew up in a small rural village in England. It’s remoteness and the lack of pre-school provision meant that my early years were spent largely in the company of adults. Indeed, I remember during my first days at primary school, being perplexed by the proximity of so many small humans and terrified at the prospect of a noisy, feral and dangerous activity, known innocuously as “playtime”. I preferred to stay indoors and “help the teacher”.

Gradually, the experience of school became more familiar and I did well in the classroom, whilst continuing to struggle with the social dimension. My School Reports from back then repeatedly urged me to “be more confident”; to “engage more enthusiastically” and to “spend less time in solitary activities”. However, I have no recollection of any helpful interventions to support me in achieving those aims; I simply felt it as criticism.

By the time I transferred to Secondary School in the September of 1972, I was not friendless exactly, but my relationships were “casual”. I had none of the hand-holding, cant-wait-to-see-you-tomorrow-closeness that I observed amongst the other girls, and I quickly developed a defensive scorn for their giddy intimacy and matchy-matchy hair ribbons. My hair was short and devoid of adornment, and my clothes, beautifully-tailored, but homemade, encapsulated the “difference” that threatened any hope of tribal inclusion.

The one saviour of School was Lunch Time Clubs. My terror of the playtime free-for-all had not abated, so I now filled as many lunchtimes as possible with activities which, at best, I enjoyed, and at worst, provided a controlled environment with an adult in some kind of supervisory capacity.

I was a diligent student, excelling in some subjects and scraping by in others, but what I hated was the pushing and shoving, the tripping-up, the biting-back-tears-because-your-ankle-had-been-stamped-on, the stealing of ties and the brutal unkindness of it all.

I felt my own sufferings deeply, but, as if that wasn’t enough, I empathised acutely with the misery of others. I felt horror and shame when a heavily-pregnant French teacher was reduced to tears by the rampant behaviour of a group of boys in my class and my heart leapt into my mouth when a small boy was pushed down a concrete staircase by his much larger tormentor. I hated it when these victims cried, but I hated it even more when they didn’t; when they somehow stayed their tears, swallowed-down their pain and humiliation and, with a soul-sickening effort, pretended like it didn’t matter.

All this was the stressful yet tedious backdrop to my more pressing concern: My feeling of not “fitting in”; and this lent a detachment, an observer-like quality to my daily experience. However, I felt conflicted, because whilst I didn’t want to be a part of some aspects of this community, neither did I want to be isolated from all of it. My relationships with other kids were still tenuous at best, and each return to school after a holiday would bring the worry that those friendships (did I dare call them that?) would have evaporated and I would find myself, again, alone.

I thought long and hard, and worried at my predicament like a stymied terrier. I tried to figure out why I was isolated, and saw that the girls deemed to be the prettiest were never short of friends and would-be friends. Whilst I didn’t aspire to that level of desirability, I desperately wanted to find some tier in the social hierarchy where I could fit in and be accepted. It puzzled me that this seemed so difficult and at length, after abandoning many other hypotheses, I came to the only conclusion left standing. I wasn’t just different; there was something wrong with me. I just didn’t know what it was.

And then Concorde happened. In those days before the National Curriculum, a big scientific or engineering development was the answer to a teacher’s prayer. Physics, Maths, History, English, French, Drama – any and every subject grabbed onto the coattails of supersonic travel and euphorically surfed the zeitgeist. Newspaper cuttings were pasted, sci-fi novels were analysed, the (new) French teacher plumbed the depths of Anglo-French liaison, and in music we heard Deodato’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”. A lot. And in the midst of all of this, boys in my class began pointing at me, laughing, and shouting “Concorde!”. Momentarily mystified, I took what I thought was the line of least resistance, and laughed too. Awkwardly. Until one of them, sensing my confusion and jumping on it with a gleeful ruthlessness, yelled (to the screaming delight of his mates) “IT’S YOUR NOSE!”

I know now that, when we experience extreme difficulty, threat, or humiliation, we have the capacity to dissociate; to psychologically remove ourselves from what is actually happening. When I think back to that experience, I predominantly remember a feeling of calm clarity. The feeling of separateness, so often a source of anguish to me, was, for a brief moment, my saviour and I felt strangely indestructible.

Of course, that feeling didn’t last, but a sense of clarity, of understanding, remained. With their unkind taunts, those boys (and the girls who laughed along with them) had solved the mystery. I now knew what it was that made me different, what it was that made me unpopular, and made friendships so difficult. When I looked in the mirror that night, I could see that it had, literally, been staring me in the face. It was my nose.

I had always known that I didn’t have a little button-nose (many of my family have noses that are on the “prominent” side of the nasal scale), but now I could see that I had a huge, long, unattractive, crooked nose that, I had to admit, did closely resemble the distinctive front end of the aircraft, and it dominated my entire face. In fact, my awful nose would be the first, and only, thing that anyone would ever notice about me, and from that day, for far too long, it became the focus of all my unhappiness and self-loathing.

When I entered the world of work, I was hugely relieved to be out of a school environment. However, that didn’t stop me from believing that people were still noticing my awful nose; it just wasn’t office etiquette to shout about it across the photocopier.

Photographs were the worst thing. From my teenage years onwards, I avoided having my photograph taken if at all possible and, as I got older, I would usually manage to position myself behind the camera, rather than in front of it. When a photograph couldn’t be avoided, I tried to position myself full-face, to reduce the potential for any inadvertent profile shots. It saddens me, now, to remember how much it preoccupied me at weddings, birthdays and other important celebrations.

Now in my twenties, I had begun researching cosmetic surgery. I had amassed a small collection of glossy brochures from private clinics, detailing their payment plans, and seemingly miraculous transformations. Back in the 1980s it was possible to get some cosmetic procedures on the NHS, but the idea of convincing my gruff GP that my nose was the cause of psychological trauma, filled me with shame, and so, I resolved that, when I had enough money, I would pay for the nose of my dreams. However, as it often does, life took over. My daughter was born and then my son, and my focus shifted to the all-encompassing demands and joys of raising of a family.

As my children grew, I retrained as a psychotherapist and part of my training requirement was to enter therapy myself. Over what turned out to be an extended period, I explored and came to terms with many things about my life and myself. I understood much more about my childhood experiences and came to see that my nose was not responsible for the bullying I had experienced. At the time, finding some fault within me, had been my twelve-year-old-self’s way of coping, and of internalising my feelings. I could now see that I, and my nose, had not been to blame and, in time, I came to accept (indeed, to like) myself and my nose.

As I now happily stood before a camera, I also looked at other people’s noses through a more reliable lens, and I was fascinated by the infinite variety of shapes, sizes and angles. Conversely, the media brought to my attention the many celebrities who sported a “ski jump” nose, which seemed to rob their face of character and individuality and I felt relieved that I hadn’t gone down a similar route. In all, I was content with my nose, but more importantly, I was happy in my own skin.

And then Life threw me a curved ball.

Fast forward a few years and, at the age of 56, I was seated in a chair in the surgery of an ENT Consultant. I had been referred, having for some while experienced difficulty breathing through my nose. This made sleep difficult (and noisy), and had also begun to cause migraine-like pains in my forehead and face. After a detailed examination and MRI scan, my Consultant explained that I had a deviation of the septum and of the external structure of the nose. The solution, if I decided it was something I wanted to pursue, was an operation called a Septorhinoplasty. In layperson’s terms, it is a hybrid procedure, where a septoplasty straightens the partition that divides the nostrils, and a rhinoplasty realigns the cartilage and bone that form the external shape of the nose. The functional purpose would be to improve my breathing, whilst it would also be possible to make some aesthetic changes, given that my nose would, in any case, have to be reshaped.

I needed to go away and think about this. I went home, made a cup of tea, switched on my laptop and began my research with characteristic thoroughness. I Googled the procedure, I Googled the surgeon, I watched the procedure on YouTube, I read and watched personal accounts (including the ones that had gone wrong), I studied Before and After images and I looked in the mirror. A lot. My relationship with my nose had been a challenging one and, now that we had reached a place of happy equilibrium, did I really want to change things? However, I couldn’t deny that being able to breathe more freely and eliminating pain and persistent sinus problems would be a big advantage. And, perhaps, having a straighter, slightly shorter nose might be fun?

Having talked it over, at length with Mr. F, I made my decision. I have become a curious person and, generally, if I decide to walk away from something, I like to be able to do so without subsequent recourse to “what if?” and in this case, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do that. So, taking many factors into account, I decided to go ahead, and the procedure was scheduled. After two further meetings with my surgeon, to discuss expectations, we agreed on a conservative approach – and, yes, I took photographs with me. Lots of photographs.

I am writing this two months post-surgery and I have been warned that the swelling can take up to a year to completely subside and it will only be then that I will be able to finally assess the functional success of the procedure. In this respect, the jury is still out, although initial indications are good. However, the sinus and facial pain is no more, and for that alone I am very grateful.

Aesthetically, I am delighted with the result! It is a subtle and skilful rendering. Yes, my nose is considerably straighter, and some of the length has gone, but it still looks like “my” nose. Perhaps the most remarkable (and unexpected) thing is that, whereas my face has always been tensioned towards my nose, it is now much more relaxed. My top lip, which had a distinct upward pull, now has a softer line. So far, no one has said “Your nose looks different”, but they have said “You look really well”.

So, do I wish I had had my nose altered back then, in the days when I blamed it for so much of my unhappiness? Really, hand on heart, no.

I’m glad I came to like my “original” nose, and to understand the real reasons for my unhappiness, for which my poor nose was scapegoated. And now, I can enjoy my “revised” nose in the same way that I might enjoy a good hair cut… although, of course, it is much more permanent than a hair cut, so perhaps a tattoo is a better but still inadequate analogy. Whilst I am enjoying it, I don’t expect it to change my life, although once I would have believed it could. It will not make me more popular; it will not make me more successful, intelligent, kind or funny, but I’m tempted to think that my less-tense, softer face perhaps better fits the person I have become.

Home Again. The Holiday Snaps.

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Back at home, suitcases have been unpacked, clothes have been washed and the all-important photographs have been viewed, labelled and culled. If, like me, you can remember when the height of photographic profligacy was slipping a 36-exposure colour film into your Kodak Instamatic, you will marvel at the sheer quantity of digital images that bounce onto the screen.

I remember, at 17, and on my first ‘real’ trip abroad – by land to Turkey – obsessively checking the little window on my camera, which showed how many shots I’d taken. I would then calculate the number of days left, so that I could ration the remainder accordingly.

This was long before “selfies”. Back then, if you wanted to capture yourself on film without resorting to tripods and timers, you would have to hand your precious camera to a total stranger and hope they didn’t blow the shot with a clumsy finger over the lens. Or worse! Accidentally press the shutter-button twice and waste one of the valuable frames earmarked for Venice the day-after-tomorrow.

Then there was the nail-biting process of extracting the film cartridge from the camera. First (and most importantly) the “rewind” button had to be located and activated. Then the whirring/clicking sound would start as the little motor moved your treasured memories to their safe place on the other side of the spool. Holding the camera to your ear, you would anxiously wait for the whirring/clicking to stop, which would indicate a successful rewind. But, if the whirring/clicking continued, mocking you with its persistence, then you would have to face the possibility of abject loss and failure, because “something would have gone wrong inside”. Sometimes, in my haste, I overlooked the “rewind” part of the process altogether and ruined a film by opening the back of the camera with the film exposed. Disaster.

If, by great good fortune, I managed to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls, my film would need to survive the “photos by post” service. In the 1980s these Freepost envelopes would come through the letterbox unbidden and by the fistful. Films and envelopes would have to be carefully labelled with corresponding stickers, requiring a diligence usually reserved for hospital identity tags, before being sealed in the brightly coloured packs and sent away … and then the waiting began.

The week or so that elapsed before the longed-for return of the photos could seem like an eternity. But, hey, it’s Peak Holiday Season, right? You were warned by that small-print disclaimer on the back of the envelope.

In reality, this relatively brief interlude before the glossy prints, along with negatives (for reprints) landed on the doormat, was an exercise in managed disappointment: That shot which, in my memory, encapsulated the essence of the Mediterranean with azure sea and powder blue sky, artistically shot through a bougainvillea tracery, has somehow been rendered in a much less vibrant hue. The close-up, which showed the intricacies of a tropical bloom, comes back blurry and unrecognisable. And the hilariously-posed, ecstatic group-shots reveal the sweaty faces of those afflicted by a strange sleeping sickness – with mouths gaping, and red-rimmed eyes, either staring or half-closed.

For a few days I would keep all 36 prints in their glossy wallet, in the vain hope that I would, with fresh eyes, see their “inner” beauty. Or, vainer still, that the holiday-snap-fairy would return the bright and beautiful images I was convinced I’d captured and which had somehow been lost. Eventually, I would ruthlessly dispose of the outtakes, keeping the half-dozen or so which didn’t hit the cutting room floor.

Now, with hundreds of digital images, better cameras and editing options, the chances of getting some good photos are so much better. And yet I still think that the colours I hold in my mind’s eye, the scents I’ve captured in the limbic cortex of my brain, and the feel of the warm breeze, still on my cool skin… these are the things of which memories are made.

 

 

 

Lady Madonna, children at your feet, Wonder how you manage to make ends meet. (Lennon-McCartney 1968) .

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Memories are funny things. Not really like photographs, or files on our hard-drive, memories are much more malleable. Each time we retrieve them and metaphorically turn them over in our hands, they are somehow changed, altered, edited. We regard our memories through the veil of our own experience.

This is my memory, now, from when I was (about) 12 years old, in 1973.

During my childhood and teenage years, my brother, sister, and parents often stayed with my grandparents, in their large, sprawling house in the Sussex countryside. I remember the house as comfortable (in a not-at-all-smart way), with large gardens where we could build dens, help mow lawns and dig vegetables, and big, creaky bedrooms with chimneys that whistled eerily when the wind blew. Our visits there were governed by an unchanging routine that began with early morning egg-collecting and the letting-out of chickens and geese, and ended with the recouping of the same to keep them safe from prowling foxes and other night hazards. In between, mealtimes were regular and frequent, to service the needs of the “paying guests”- a fluctuating population of working people and visitors to the area whose lodgings, along with sales of surplus garden produce, provided my grandmother with her income.

On this particular occasion, we were not to be the only family visiting. My uncle, who my grandparents had adopted as a baby, would also be staying. I was intrigued. I had heard about my uncle, but never met him. He had a reputation for being unconventional; (although my grandparents might have used a less neutral term). He was some 13 years’ younger than my father, so that made him a relatively youthful 29. He was relatively well-travelled (for 1973), and now, he was going to live in New Zealand with his wife and baby daughter. In my typical 12-year old way, I soaked up the atmosphere and nuance.  I learned that he had adopted what would later become known as an “alternative lifestyle” and I sensed a certain apprehension and disapproval amongst the adults in my family. One thing was obvious to me: the fatted calf had nothing to fear!

Adults tend to think that children don’t notice things and so children tend to become skilled in covert observation. I was adept at sitting quietly in a corner buried in a book, seemingly oblivious to everything. In fact, the longer the atmosphere of discomfort prevailed, the more excited I became and the more my anticipation grew.

At last a battered van (of the Camper variety) pulled into the drive and up to the house and my uncle, his wife and baby daughter emerged into our grey, drizzly afternoon like extraordinary exotic butterflies landing on a cabbage. These were real, live hippies! Such as I had only seen under perjorative headlines in the Daily Express.

I have a memory of my uncle, a slight man with long hair, wearing a band around his head and a purple t-shirt that laced-up at the front. His wife struck me as beautiful and willowy, with long chestnut hair and a long tie-dyed dress that brushed her sandaled feet. She carried what seemed to me to be a very small baby wrapped in a cotton shawl. If it’s possible to feel hopelessly frumpy at twelve year’s old, I did on that afternoon.

My grandmother’s proffered hospitality was politely declined, on the basis that “everything we need is in the van” and “the van” (which in my memory is a mustardy yellow colour) took on Tardis-like qualities in my imagination. And so, that night, when we went upstairs to bed, the little family disappeared back into the van.

I seem to think they left the next day. But not before I had seen the beautiful woman in her long kaftan, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, feeding her tiny baby. I suppose it was the first time I had been exposed to breastfeeding that wasn’t entirely private and functional.  I remember being captivated by how graceful and relaxed she seemed, and feeling embarrassed when she saw me watching her, and smiled at me.

Tomorrow we leave Sydney and fly to New Zealand (via Brisbane). Sadly, the beautiful Lady Madonna with the quiet smile, died some years ago. But my uncle, three of his children, and many grandchildren live in and around Christchurch. A twelve-year-old, well-behaved girl, with tidy clothes and sensible shoes is very excited to meet them.