The kindness in a plate of cheese moves me to tears.
Well, not to tears exactly, but more tears than I have already been crying.
Tears that began several weeks ago and, like a punctured well, burst forth accompanied by feelings of desperation, fear and what I can only describe as lost-ness.
And here I am, sitting in a little Spanish bar, tears pouring again, and the waiter who has been encouraging me to eat, has placed three pale, slightly sweating triangles of cheese in front of me.
He has failed to entice me with the peanuts and the olives and I have politely rejected his encouragement to have something to accompany my wine; but these three perfect slices, accompanied by ten tiny finger biscuits, produces another geyser.
I speak no Spanish; he speaks no English; but the language of tears is universal. He gets it. And I know that he gets it. Sympatico. I say Grazias for his sympatico. It is a word I think may be just about right. He puts his hand to his chest, smiles, and knows that he has done something good.
There are many things that are behind my tears, which some people simply put down to being menopausal. But to be honest, I’ve pretty much sailed through the M stigma, physically, and am resisting taking any sort of hormonal treatment when I still have more energy than anyone I know in their twenties.
But there are other big things going on. Last week, my brother got married for the first time at the age of 50. I am very happy for him and I love my new sister-in-law, but I would be a liar if I did not confess to a slight feeling of loss. My baby brother, to whom I have always been close, has moved on to a new role as a husband. He is also starting a new teaching job in September: one that he richly deserves and which I know will bring him more happiness than he has recently experienced.
Then there is my dire financial situation. And I am not even going to begin boring everyone about that.
Suffice it to say, that suddenly, I feel on the scrapheap. Having no partner, never having been married and with no children, I feel very alone. The papers and magazines I write for now turn to younger, cheaper people to fill their pages; the cult of celebrity has ensured that anyone who can comment upon spotting Cameron Diaz eating a sandwich makes headline news. People’s painful relationship and marital break-ups are paraded as sport, in which readers are encouraged to respond as a lynch mob, chomping at the bit to burn whom they have been led to believe is the “guilty” party, at the stake. It’s not just that I am no longer asked to write anything; I really don’t want to write about this stuff.
I don’t want to be part of a culture that sits in judgment of people who, heaven forbid, deign to fall out of love; one that castigates people for being too fat, too thin, too beautiful, too ugly; I don’t want to subscribe to a world in which people are routinely slaughtered for the crime of simply being human.
I have a heavy heart. I am healthy, I have the best family and friends, without whose support I would not be here today; but when I set out in my twenties, I wanted to take the road less travelled by – and, the truth is, I didn’t. Or, at least, I did for a while.
I left teaching to pursue a career as a writer and, subsequently, I published poetry, short stories and, in 1990, my first novel, Definitions of a Horse. Then I became side-tracked. I became a journalist because, quite simply, it paid better. But it came at a cost. I remain immensely proud of my work as a TV critic, writing about a medium for which I continue to have immense passion; but criticising the work of others, when all you really want to do is create, must inevitably, little by little, destroy your soul.
I wanted to be an actor. I was a member of the first National Youth Theatre of Wales in 1976. I am a trained singer and dancer. There is nothing I love more than standing up in front of a crowd with a microphone in my hand. So why did I choose to stand in the wings, passing judgment on the efforts of others?
For a start, I was told I was too short to be an actor. In Wales, during the Sixties and early Seventies, there was only one path that girls in the small part of South Wales where I grew up were encouraged to take: teaching. No matter how much I tried to pursue my true love, I was always dissuaded and, finally, went into teaching. I left after two years and moved to London to become a full time writer. My first job was TV Critic on the London Evening Standard, and I will always be grateful to the late John Leese who gave me an opportunity and took a risk when no one else would.
I have no doubt that there is absolutely a place for critics – if I did not value it, I would not have done it for so long. But it eats away at you: the knowledge that you are on the attack; that nobody you criticise sets out to do a bad job; that all any actor, writer or performer wants to do is make a difference. When you believe they get it wrong, as a critic you have to say so and, when people take note and respect your opinion, it’s a feeling that sugars the bitter pill of your job.
But then there comes a point when you realise that every moment looking for holes in the work of others is another moment lost to the work you really want to do. You’re past 50. There’s a new generation your employers want and, no matter how good you are, they want new names, new faces. Unlike America, where experience and knowledge are valued and respected, in the world of the UK media, our culture is one of out with the old, in with the new – and certainly as far as women are concerned.
Change is good. It’s life. The secret is probably looking at what you have on your side and adapting it to each new set of circumstances you face.
As I sit looking at my three rather helpless triangles in the Spanish bar, I decide to eat.
I moved my cheese.
As only I can.