Alison McQueen


Things that my mother talks about

Posted: June 6th, 2013

My mother is 84 now. Not only is she rather blind, she has also become deaf…

Telephoning her is a nightmare. Firstly, it’s quite likely that she won’t answer because she can’t hear it, which means that muggins here has to then get in the car and drive for an hour to check she isn’t lying on the floor like a tortoise. Secondly, if I do get through, I then have to scream down the phone until my tonsils feel like they’re going to explode. Even then, she’ll go “hello? hello? are you still there?’ and sometimes hang up. Going to visit her is no tea party either. Her top ten conversational topics go like this…

1. Dead people, particularly people who have recently died, and the method of their demise.

2. Soon-to-be-dead people, with all the details of what’s wrong with them.

3. Dead pets, including the dog in the house fire that was apparently overcome by fumes, even though nobody was around to verify this report, and the dog may well have caused the housefire itself in an delibereate act of arson because it was sick to death of living with an old person.

4. Old sick people with horrible diseases that will probably kill them.

5. People I don’t know or care about, who are either sick, or know somebody who’s sick, or dead.

6. Diabetes (hers).

7. People with diabetes who have contracted gangrene and had to have parts of their body amputated.

8. Ready meals, and how they are not suitable for diabetics, which is a scandal.

9. Dead people, because she can’t remember that she’s already told me about them several times (see No.1).

10. I’m sorry, who are you?

Do not resuscitate!

My mother goes on at me that if she has some kind of incident that involves her being found in a heap on the floor, she does not want to be resuscitated. She goes on about it, then finishes off with a great crescendo, shouting “Do not resuscitate!” Uh-huh, I say, then ask her if she has actually mentioned any of this to her GP.

She doesn’t seem to understand that of course she’ll be resuscitated unless she either has the instruction tattoed on her forehead or, at the very least, noted prominently on her medical records. She’s been dragged off to hospital on a couple of occasions, having been at the KitKats and fallen into a diabetic coma.”I don’t want to live any more,” she says. The thing that baffles me is that an insulin-dependent diabetic has only to leave out their evening dose, or shoot up an extra couple of cartridges, and it’s Goodnight Vienna. It’s no good her shouting at me that she doesn’t want to be resuscitated when we’re sitting there watching Bargain Hunt, is it? Old people, eh? It’s enough to make you want to cuddle them. I have told my daughters, if ever I get old and pesky, just shove me under a bus.

Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there?

The mother is convinced that her telephone isn’t working. She says that it doesn’t even ring most of the time. Then she starts phoning me and my sister, demanding to know Did you just ring me? 

I call her most days, just to check that she’s still alive, but of course now that I am ringing and getting no answer, chances are I will end up jumping in the car and driving over, thinking she must have fallen down the stairs or come a cropper in the bathroom.

Yet whenever I arrive, there she is, happily glued to Homes Under The Hammer. I ask her, trying to mask my exasperation: ‘Didn’t you hear the phone ringing?’ (My sister and I have tested it several times and it rings just fine. We think she’s probably going deaf.) My sister rang me yesterday, having finally got to the bottom of the big telephone mystery. ‘I know why we’re not getting an answer when we ring,’ she explained. ‘I turned up today and found mum trying to answer the television remote control.’


What’s really happening in Instanbul

Posted: June 4th, 2013

The following article was forwarded to me by a friend in Canada. Written by a Turkish yoga teacher, Defne Suman, it makes for bone-chilling reading to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a free, secular society. The open letter she wrote on her blog, appears below…

To my friends who live outside of Turkey:

I am writing to let you know what is going on in Istanbul for the last five days. I personally have to write this because at the time of my writing most of the media sources are shut down by the government and the word of mouth and the internet are the only ways left for us to explain ourselves and call for help and support.

Last week of May 2013 a group of people most of whom did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and yoga students. Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees. Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.

They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.

No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.

But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray. They chased the crowds out of the park.

In the evening of May 31st the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.

Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.

They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:

The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.

They gathered and continued sitting in the park. The riot police set fire to the demonstrators’ tents and attacked them with pressurized water, pepper and tear gas during a night raid. Two young people were run over by the vehicles and were killed. Another young woman, a friend of mine, was hit in the head by one of the incoming tear gas canisters. The police were shooting them straight into the crowd. After a three hour operation she is still in Intensive Care Unit and in very critical condition. As I write this we don’t know if she is going to make it. This blog is dedicated to her.

These people are my friends. They are my students, my relatives. They have no «hidden agenda» as the state likes to say. Their agenda is out there. It is very clear. The whole country is being sold to corporations by the government, for the construction of malls, luxury condominiums, freeways, dams and nuclear plants. The government is looking for (and creating when necessary) any excuse to attack Syria against Turkish people’s will.

On top of all that, the government control over its people’s personal lives has become unbearable as of late. The state, under its conservative agenda passed many laws and regulations concerning abortion, cesarean birth, sale and use of alcohol and even the color of lipstick worn by the airline stewardesses.

People who are marching to the center of Istanbul are demanding their right to live freely and receive justice, protection and respect from the State. They demand to be involved in the decision-making processes about the city they live in.

What they have received instead is excessive force and enormous amounts of tear gas shot straight into their faces. Three people lost their eyes.

Yet they still march. Hundreds and thousands of citizens from all walks of life then joined them to support for the protestors. Couple of more thousand passed the Bosporus Bridge on foot to support the people of Taksim. They were met with more water cannons and more pepper spray, more hostility. Four people died, thousands of people were injured.

No newspaper or TV channel was there to report the events. They were busy with broadcasting news about Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.

Police kept chasing people and spraying them with pepper spray to an extent that stray dogs and cats were poisoned and died by it.

Schools, hospitals and even 5 star hotels around Taksim Square opened their doors to the injured. Doctors filled the classrooms and hotel rooms to provide first aid. Some police officers refused to spray innocent people with tear gas and quit their jobs. Around the square they placed jammers to prevent internet connection and 3g networks were blocked. Residents and businesses in the area provided free wireless network for the people on the streets. Restaurants offered food and water for free.

People in Ankara and İzmir gathered on the streets to support the resistance in Istanbul. Demonstations spread to other cities where citizens were faced more brutality and hostiliy from police. Hundred of thousands kept joining.

Mainstream media kept showing Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.


I am writing this letter so that you know what is going on in Istanbul. Mass media will not tell you any of this. Not in my country at least. Please post as many as articles as you see on the Internet and spread the word.

I do not belong to a political party. I don’t believe in politics. I don’t defend any ideology and I am not on the side of any regime. Like many others in Turkey I am tired and frustrated from the polarization between Kemalist seculars and the Islamists. I don’t belong to any of them. I believe in moving away from polarization and towards a new way of relating. I know many people who are out on the streets of Istanbul share the way I think and I know we are not the only ones. We just want to live our lives with human dignity.

As I was posting articles that explained what is happening in Istanbul on my Facebook page last night someone asked me the following question:

«What are you hoping to gain by complaining about our country to foreigners?»

This blog is my answer to her.

By so called «complaining» about my country I am hoping to gain:

Freedom of expression and speech,

Respect for human rights,

Control over the decisions I make concerning my on my body,

The right to legally congregate in any part of the city without being considered a terrorist.

But most of all by spreading the word to you, my friends who live in other parts of the world, I am hoping to get your awareness, support and help!

Please spread the word and share this blog.

Thank you!

For futher info and things you can do for help please see Amnesty International’s Call for Urgent Help

Tea with the transvestite

Posted: June 3rd, 2013

I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance had it not been for the two glasses of wine over lunch with my agent, but I’ve always been a sucker for a great hat. This one was a doozy. Bright red, fox fur, (I know, I know), and right there in the window of one of those lovely Dickensian shops in the Burlington Arcade. I went in and asked how much, (six hundred and seventy-five quid), backed out pretty quickly without trying it on, only to be accosted by a man dressed as a woman, loitering in the arcade and now peering into the same window. ‘How much was it?’ he asked. Six hundred and seventy-five pounds, I said.

Now, I should tell you right here that in that split second about a thousand things flashed through my mind. First and foremost: oh lord, it’s a man dressed as a woman, a very badly-dressed woman at that, and he’s come out for the afternoon to have a wander about while pretending to be a woman, and he probably does this a lot, pouncing on strangers, having some kind of fantasy about being a lady out shopping. Only an idiot would have thought this was a woman. If the face weren’t giveaway enough, one had only to glance down at shovel-like hands and outsized feet to get the picture. I guessed he was around sixty. The wig had seen better days.

We pursed our lips at each other in disapproval of the price. ‘I love fur,’ he declared, a strained sing-song voice that sounded like Alastair Sim’s headmistress in the old St Trinian films. He was wearing an awful acrylic jumper, pale pink, a double string of pearls, a green skirt that may have been made out of crimplene, and a rather grannyish blue raincoat of the sort you find in Debenhams. This was a man who probably dreamed of wearing mink, and long white satin gloves. ‘Although it’s unacceptable to say so these days,’ he added. I agreed, smiled, and began to walk. So did he.

I had been adopted, him walking beside me, and I got the impression that he was waiting for me to either tell him to bugger off, or to make my excuses and walk away in the other direction, fast. Instead, I slowed down, browsed windows that I had no interest in, and asked him what he thought of this and that. I don’t remember a time when I have seen someone look quite so thrilled. He excused his handbag, which in fairness was truly horrid (I’m guessing Oxfam, purchased in a hurry, possibly not while dressed as a woman), and went on to explain that the one thing he was on the lookout for was a designer handbag. He stressed the word designer, like it meant something. He also told me that he would be on his way to Florence in a fortnight’s time for a holiday, o solo mio. I wondered if he was planning on going to Florence as a woman, and how he would manage that, given the way things generally are at passport control.

‘Do you drink coffee?’ he asked. I told him yes, but only when they’ve stopped serving wine. I had already seen where this encounter was going, and that was fine by me. I adore strange encounters, and I’d been in far weirder situations than this, deliberately. My acceptance of the coffee invitation was met with a gasp of delight, particularly when I insisted she be my guest. I took us somewhere decent, a place where chic shoppers and bored women stop for light lunches and mid-afternoon champagne. She introduced herself as Anthea, and seemed blissfully unaware of the sideways glances she drew from, oh, everyone. They would look at her, then at me, then at her again, like it made no sense.

By four o’clock, Anthea suggested we go to the opera together. She already had the tickets, for next month, but she hadn’t decided who to go with. After a second glass of champagne, she had the most marvelous idea and suggested that I come along to Florence. She wrote down her address and phone number, and I promised to let her know. Asking for mine in return, I explained that I don’t actually have a telephone, and that I was currently living in a hotel due to a small family crisis. Two huge lies, but it was an afternoon of lying anyway and she didn’t appear to notice. I wondered how long it would be before she needed a shave, and whether it was one of those things she had to keep an eye on when she was out, like a vampire hurrying back to their coffin. There was definitely a shadow there.

I wrote to Anthea a few days later, using stationery purloined from The Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge during a distant stay. I told her how delightful it had been to make her acquaintance, and sidestepped her kind invitations with a flimsy excuse. By way of compensation, I enclosed a jaunty silk scarf for her. I never mentioned that I was a writer. I never do.

In praise of Pearl Buck

Posted: June 3rd, 2013

Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck

My mother introduced me to Pearl Buck some twenty-five years ago. I was visiting my parents, who lived in a village in the middle of nowhere, and found myself at a loose end from a reading point of view. “Have you read any Pearl Buck?” she asked. I reckoned I’d gone through everything vaguely interesting on my parents’ bookshelves years ago. Apparently not.

I started with the 1945 novel, Portrait Of A Marriage, and although I just couldn’t get my head around the annoying dynamic of the marriage, (as a banner-waving feminist, I think it felt too passive and old-fashioned in comparison to the books I was reading at the time), there was something almost haunting about the way it was written. The style was a little too verbose for my liking, but still, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, so I started another, Pavilion of Women, and it all began to drop into place.

Written in 1946, Pavilion of Women is one of Pearl Buck’s superb Oriental novels, and tells the story of Madam Wu, who, upon reaching her fortieth birthday, decides to retire from married life and brings a concubine into the household for her husband. It is a delicate and beautiful story, written of a certain time, and I have never forgotten it.

Pearl Buck was born in 1892 in West Virginia, and grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries. It was there, in the grave-littered grasslands behind their house, that she would stumble across the tiny bones of baby girls who had been suffocated at birth. She started writing in her twenties, and became so prolific that her works are almost unlistable, yet, by the time that I started reading her, she had been largely forgotten.

Many of Pearl Buck’s novels deal with the confrontation of East and West, with the fragile business of customs and traditions, and, most brilliantly, with the intricacies of all-too-human relationships and the lot of women in her far-flung settings. Her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, earned her a string of awards, among them the Pulitzer. In 1938, she was recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her writing spilled over into political journalism, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and to press for Chinese women’s liberation.

I knew none of this when I started reading her, and in my years as a writer, I came to realize how little known she had become. I mentioned her to one of my editors many moons ago, and she had never even heard of her. Then, a couple years back, her name popped up on the radio as the subject of a newly-released biography about her life in China.

The Good Earth re-entered the American bestseller charts in 2004 after being selected for Oprah’s Book Club, over seventy years after it was first published, and thirty years after the author’s death. These days, whenever somebody asks me for a book recommendation, I often hear myself saying, “Have you read any Pearl Buck?”


This article was published on For Books’ Sake