Not losing their husbands as in 'there we were at Sainsbury's and somewhere by the broad beans he just disappeared' sort of thing, but as in helicopter crashes and in wars.
I was cross. Why was I cross? Because years ago, my first husband died a year after we got married. (well yes, okay, I was more than cross at the time - but bear with me, I'm doing a stream of consciousness here...)
Holistic health and spirituality really helped me to heal my life after Henry's death - to the extent that I became a published holistic health author, ran the BBC's holistic health site, started my own magazine, started a publishing company, married again etc. etc. etc.
As I was already an author (first book is China by Rail, now, sadly, out of print) I asked my agent if there was any mileage in a book about my experiences - A Life of Miracles I was going to call it, because that's really what I've had. Miracles such as being saved from an eight foot barracuda at one end of the scale and being able to marry in a cathedral in the Seychelles at 10 days' notice at the other. With a few adventures thrown in....For example, I spent six years travelling round China on steam trains in the 1980s in the days before they even had Coca-Cola - effectively it was an expensive diet once a year with a lot of amazing experiences thrown in, including falling in love with a Chinese security guard (the only guy over 5'6") and having a secret affair with him on trains and in hotels.
Anyway, I digess. My agent told me not to be so arrogant; no one was interested in my life and to get a proper job.
Oddly enough it was another seven years before I fired her....
So, what I'm going to do here, is write that book in small sections. Why? Because I'll enjoy it and because one day, I might just find some other people who enjoy it too.
Well here we go...
A Life of Miracles
(copyright Maggy Whitehouse 2005)
Chapter One. The Great Escapes
He was a pop star. Not a rock star; I was never that cool. A pop star who had about five or six hits and was slightly sad and smouldery, and very, very pretty.
It started, as they do, as an ordinary school-girl crush with dreams of meeting him one day and being wafted away to paradise. I don’t think I fantasised about actual sex or, if I did, I can’t remember it, which doesn’t inspire me to think it can have been very good as virtual sex goes.
I was desperately in love though, as only a 16-year-old can be. I even telephoned him. At least I think it was him. His initials and surname were in the London phone book for the area where Jackie magazine said he came from. It did cross my teenage-addled brain that it was a bit daft to have your name in the telephone book when you were famous but it was a very old phone book and anyway, it was fate...
Nobody answered and there was no answer phone. I called three times but then gave up. My knees had turned to jelly each time.
I was going to invite him for Christmas because an interview he gave to Jackie said he was feeling particularly lonely and unloved and wasn’t looking forward to Christmas on his own.
No, I hadn’t mentioned to my parents that I was trying to invite a total stranger with long hair, smouldering eyes and probably a rather large fan-base for Christmas.
Later he told me he probably would have come. He could remember that year and he was pretty miserable at the time. But, of course, that was with hindsight and by then he knew that I wasn’t a complete dog nor totally desperate.
We met when he was making a come-back 12 years later. By then I was an assistant producer on the BBC's original lunch-time chat show, Pebble Mill at One (it closed down three months after I joined but no one seemed to register that particular co-incidence). It wasn’t my day for working on the show but, when I realised that he was appearing I asked the music team if I could look after him for the day. No one else wanted to – they were all in their 20s and more interested in real rock stars.
His record company representative arrived first and I chatted to her about how excited I felt to meet my teenage heart-throb.
‘You were wasting your time,’ she said. ‘He’s gay.’
Oh my wounded heart! Yes, of course there had been some deep residue of hope that he and I would somehow connect and this would be the reason that I had never found the love of my life…
But, I’m made of resolute stuff and, at least, knowing that I couldn’t pull him if I tried did make me relaxed when he arrived instead of jumping like a rabbit in headlights.
He was so nice! We got on like a house on fire. And he was still devastatingly attractive to my eyes. We laughed and he was rueful when I told him how much I’d adored him, rather embarrassed about how old he was now. His sexual orientation wasn’t mentioned.
After the appearance on Pebble Mill, he was off to BRMB Radio down the road for an interview. He had a man to drive him (the boyfriend?) but I took my lunch-hour to drive ahead of them to show them the way around the treacherous Birmingham ring road. Once we were there, he jumped out of the car, took my hand and kissed it and thanked me fulsomely.
Then he sent me a thank you note with his phone number on it.
Later he sent me a Christmas card.
No I didn’t call. There was no point. I fancied him rotten but he was gay and I already had a surfeit of handsome gay friends somewhat closer to home.
Two years later, I was working on a soon-to-be-failed (and deservedly so) Central TV daytime chat show called Gas Street. It ran twice a week at lunchtimes and was hosted by Suzi Quatro and Vince Hill. The idea was that they would co-host both shows but that was the first recipe for disaster. The lack of sexual tension would have been awe-inspiring if it hadn’t been so embarrassing. Suzi was a powerful woman and Vince a thoroughly nice guy without a clue who came across on TV as a wimp. Both of them were singers; neither of them (in my humble opinion) appeared to be able to sing a note; Suzi shouted and Vince droned.
We segregated them in the same way that you would put a tiger and a Labrador puppy in different cages and both shows staggered embarrassingly through one whole season where all the production staff lied about what they did for a living and kept their CVs rigorously up-to-date.
Our producer had a crush on Suzi and a big downer on Vince. Suzi was allowed to sing on her show but Vince wasn’t and, as Suzi could actually do a half-way decent interview and Vince, without guidance, was helpless as a rabbit in the headlights of a car, that was additionally cruel.
So, we started bringing in outside singers. And guess who was doing another come-back.
I booked him quite happily, thinking it would be nice to see him again.
The record representative (a different one) arrived first. I told her all about my teenage crush and how devastated I’d been to discover he was gay.
‘He’s not gay,’ she said. ‘He’s just got engaged.’
My pop star remembered me and kissed me and we smiled at each other all the way through rehearsals. Afterwards, I sat in his dressing room and we ate some sandwiches together. He enquired about my life and I congratulated him on his engagement.
He fixed me with his big brown eyes and said: ‘Well, you wouldn’t have me, would you?’
‘You didn’t ask me…’
‘Well you didn’t exactly come on to me did you? I thought if I gave you my phone number you’d call me if you were interested. I sent it twice if you remember…’
The terrible thing was, he meant it.
Fifteen years later, after my second husband left me, I was sitting on a tube train on the way into work at the BBC and I spotted his name in the Metro. He was doing a gig at the Jazz Club in Camden the following night.
I went. On my own. I didn’t know if he was married; divorced or what. It just seemed like a ray of light in a rather dark time.
It was hours before he came on stage – it was yet another come-back and he was headlining. My heart was pounding.
He walked down the stairs to the stage; still gorgeous and still smouldering. Our eyes met. He looked slightly puzzled but looked again and smiled. Inside my head, the Voice said: ‘Alcoholic.’ I don’t know if it was true or not but it was a warning. I know the Voice; I’ve had it on and off since I was nine and disobeyed it at my peril.
I turned and walked out of the club and out of the fantasy forever.
Why was that a miracle? Because we were kept apart. God knows how much damage we might
have done to each other.
I’d done the wine-soaked man before. Briefly. I turned up at a friend’s Christmas party one year with a TV chef in tow. He liked me because I’d cooked him beans on toast instead of trying to impress him and we went out for about four months. The staff at Pebble Mill at One – and it’s unlamented follow-up show Pamela Armstrong – were nearly all female and, if necessary, the male bosses weren’t above using us as enticements for people they wanted to attract onto programmes but who thought that Birmingham was the end of the Earth. They wanted the TV chef to do a live strand; the TV chef obviously liked me; therefore I was instructed to look after the TV chef. So I did. Rather too well as it happened.
No miracle intervened to stop me from going out with him but even a hopeless co-dependent like me could realise that the kind of boyfriend who rang you up at midnight and was so miserable at you that you got into the car and drove two hours to comfort him – only to find that he was fast asleep in bed and didn’t hear the doorbell, wasn’t a good long-term prospect. And we may have liked each other but it wasn’t a grande passione. Even his exes did a double-take when they saw me; I wasn’t blonde; I wasn’t tall; I wasn’t even slender. Obviously I was an aberration.
The other Great Escape miracle was with a TV journalist. I interviewed him on my radio show on BBC Radio WM when he wrote a book about his travels and there was a fair amount of mutual twinkling over the microphones. Two days later, a beautifully handwritten note arrived with a distinct carrot dangling. You couldn’t check marital status on the Internet in those days but there was no telephone number. ‘Don’t answer,’ said The Voice very clearly and I’m sure I sensed several heavy sighs as I answered the note in similar style - and an assignation was made entirely by post.
The morning of our date, I got into work to a message from a news journalist at Radio WM with raised eyebrows who told me that for some unknown reason, this TV journalist had telephoned the newsroom and asked them to tell their lunchtime presenter that he had been sent, on short notice, to a story in the Philippines.
It was true; he had. Proof was fairly simple to observe on the news.
A year passed with no contact and then we met again on Pebble Mill at One. A further assignation was made – with exactly the same result; the only difference being two days’ notice and Hong Kong. Again, there was plenty of proof.
I happened to be transiting in Hong Kong on my way back from China three months later and, somewhat to our mutual surprise, we managed to meet, in his hotel. I was nervous – you never really want to go on a first date with a yellowing black eye from when your train from Shanghai hit a water buffalo – but he was a delight. He just had to finish off an article before we could go out for dinner. I still have the photograph he took of me, sitting (fully clothed and untouched) on his bed smiling up at him, with the regretful caption. He sent it from Antigua – because he was posted abroad again in a phone call he took right in front of me, that very night.
Two years later, I had been married and widowed - and was flying via Hong Kong from Australia with a 24-hour transit. Lost and lonely, I contacted him to see if we could meet. He said ‘yes of course.’
My flight was diverted via Bangkok.
I got the message. Finally.
Of course, it’s quite possible in both cases that the men concerned were being saved from me.
The eight-foot barracuda off the Australian Barrier Reef, however, didn’t need any help.
My husband, Henry, died in 1990 and I ran away to Australia for six weeks while I tried to face up to it. My friends Peter Seccombe and Sarah Douglas were on a year’s Sabbatical travelling the world and we arranged for me to fly out to spend two weeks with them and then to go on and stay with an old friend from Pebble Mill who had emigrated to Sydney.
My flight took me into Cairns in the Northern Territory and I arrived two days before Sarah and Pete could get there – in the days before mobile phones and the Internet liaising on an exact date with travellers was a pretty tough call. That first night I went tentatively down to the hotel bar; I was very aware of being not normal; grief had set me somehow about half an inch out of my skin and everything looked and felt wrong wherever I was. I had a constant feeling that if I stepped out in front of a bus and it didn’t stop, I wouldn’t have minded. I certainly wasn’t paying very much attention to life.
I bought a glass of wine and sat down with a book to pass the time until I could go out to eat. A few minutes later, a young, dark haired Australian man with an attractive grin threw himself into the empty chair next to me.
‘Me and my mates at the bar have got a bet on,’ he said. I looked up with what I hoped was quelling politeness.
‘Yep,’ he said. ‘I bet ‘em ten bucks you can’t be as mean as you look.’
We had supper together. It was the best chat-up line I’d ever heard and it was better than sitting alone in misery and losing the poor man his bet. Most of the evening was spent in spirited discussions on whether or not it would do me good to sleep with another man so soon after Henry’s death. The motion was not passed and we parted amicably apart from his sad reflection that he’d have to give that ten bucks back after all…
It was Niall’s suggestion that I went out to the Barrier Reef the next day. I was planning to wait until Sarah and Pete arrived but he said it was worth going plenty of times and there are only so many circuits you can make of a town when you’re miserable.
The ship that took us out was crowded with Japanese tourists so I could hide quite neatly in the crowd. I did listen to the announcements on where to swim and where not to go.
‘Just avoid the deep water,’ said the announcer. ‘You’re perfectly safe in the shallows and we keep an eye out for you. No one’s ever been hurt in the shallows but you must stay there because there are sharks in the deep water and two divers were killed by an eight-foot barracuda only about six weeks ago. That guy wasn’t within 50 miles of here but it’s best to be sure.’
Into the water we all went and I floundered around for a while, hating it. My mind wasn’t relaxed enough to deal with all the shouting, giggling and photograph-taking all around me.
What did I do? Yes, of course I swam round the boat. I had completely forgotten what the announcer said.
The barracuda was right there; lurking. It was enormous, with great black portholes down its side and teeth that made me shiver. It was side on when I first saw it but it flipped in less than a second to face-on.
It is true that time slows down in a crisis. I remember the fear – and I also remember thinking very clearly ‘I want to live.’
The Voice cut in very clearly ‘Swim forwards and make as much noise as you can. When you get near, hit it on the nose.’
It flipped away.
I lay there and watched it; it watched me. Being a journalist – and afraid that no one would believe me – I took a photograph with my underwater camera. The Voice sighed.
‘Get out of the water?’ it suggested.
The barracuda stayed stationary. I swam backwards; never knew I could do that. When my legs touched the side of the ship I turned and swam round it as fast as I could.
Out of the water, I vomited with fear and shook like a leaf.
I didn’t tell anyone on the ship; I was too scared of being told off and there was no one else who was about to be as stupid as I had been. But as I sat, wrapped in my towel, shivering, I knew: I wanted to live. Henry’s death was not the end of me and I would survive.
I have the murky, slightly out-of-focus photograph of that barracuda on the desktop of my computer to look at whenever I’m feeling small or scared. It helps.
So where does this Voice come from? Probably my Higher Self, which is imbued with a lot more sense than the lower effort. I’ve never named it; it’s not a guide. I know that loads of spiritual people have very impressive guides with important-sounding names but, when I first started training as a healer, I tried to get a name for mine, I got ‘Cynth’ and wasn’t impressed.
She shows up now and then, suitably attired as a red-haired pre-Raphaelite in a medieval-style green dress – for form’s sake – but we both know it’s a hum and she’s a fishwife from Hull.
She isn’t The Voice.
Judaic mystical tradition says that miracles are perfectly normal events from a higher overview; they are just higher worlds merging into lower ones. A good example would be a human being lifting a spider out of a bath. The spider doesn’t know what the heck happened; just that it’s now sitting outside on a leaf. It can’t conceive that a creature with a slightly wider range of vision and a bit more height decided against washing it down the plug hole.
So, when miracles happen to us, it’s probably just some discarnate or out-of-dimension being doing something that is perfectly simple from their point of view.
Why don’t they do it more often? Apparently they do it almost all the time. Guardian angels are working flat out, especially for teenagers just after they’ve passed their driving tests.
But they don’t interfere with our free will. They warn and advise. And we ignore them. At our peril.
There’s the now legendary story about the Sikh who should have been on the Lockerbie flight that was blown up in …. He had never had a drink in his life but some one (some angel) persuaded him to have a Guinness in the airport bar and he was so squiffy he missed the flight calls.
Even if it’s not true, there are many such stories that are. People who don’t get the warning; the rescue; the miracle get another kind of miracle – they are the ones who are chosen to have the experience of dying. We’re so afraid of dying that we never manage to see it like that.
Bereavement is horrible – but more is done to change the world by those whose loved-ones have died than by the rest of humanity put together.
Everyone at a funeral has the opportunity to review their life and make decisions faced with the reality that it could have been them. I remember ten people at Henry’s funeral who told me they were going to change their lives because of this. Nine of them forgot.
Nothing remotely interesting other than rock-pools, puppies and daydreams happened to me until I was nine. And then there was just one breathtaking moment in Church on a Sunday morning that I still don’t speak about (I’d have been ridiculed to death if I’d said anything for at least 30 years). Suffice it to say, I don’t hold with the idea of angels being fluffy, friendly things; to me, they are fierce and awe-inspiring beings that brook no denial, knock you flying with their intensity and don’t sugar-coat their messages.
Yes, I am doing what It told me I had to do; but I probably won’t manage it all in one lifetime.
There was another hiatus (apart from beagles, unsuitable boyfriends and my adored childhood best friend Joanna) until The Voice turned up in my late 20s. I think it had realised that I was in danger of getting seriously lost - married men, overwork, habitually single, slightly crazy, classic Bridget Jones stuff except, of course she hadn't been invented then.
I was breakfast presenter at BBC Radio WM and my heart had just been broken by an Antarctic Base Commander. His name was David Rootes and we’d met just a few weeks before he set off for a six month tour of duty on Signy Island. I fell hook line and sinker and pledged myself to wait the six months. Of course it was all very romantic with letters via HMS Endeavour when possible and no other contact and I was able to project a thousand romantic projections onto him. I would send him my love on the constellation Orion as that was the only one that we could both recognise that was visible on both sides of the world. (Do you think that I might just be demonstrating slight signs of commitment phobia here?)
When he got back we met up and began where we’d left off and I carefully didn’t notice that we had nothing in common. Even worse, I played it cool when he talked about wanting marriage and kids.
He got engaged to his lodger instead – and she was the one who told me. He refused to take my calls. I rang his Mum who was delighted to hear from me; hoped we were coming for lunch and flatly refused to believe me.
She rang back later somewhat defensive and said ‘well it was never serious between you was it?’
My producer, Tim Manning, rang up while I was on the radio the next day, horribly alerted by my selection of music for that morning. Any sane person listening would have put their head in an oven at the paeans of misery that echoed all over the Midlands.
In a desperate attempt to cheer me up, Tim fixed up for me to interview an amiable lunatic who kept live tigers in his back yard in Coventry and shoved a newly-published book on astrology into my hands suggesting I interviewed the author, Cordelia Mansall to find out about my future.
It was a Jupiter transit that did it, apparently. I had to take action on something within the next two days or I’d miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
The next morning, I spent a couple of hours playing with the tigers and I even rode on the back of one of them – so I couldn’t have been so miserable as to have a death-wish, at least.
That afternoon, Pebble Mill at One offered attachments for TV Assistant Producers and I applied – and got the job.
And my Dad asked me if I’d like to travel to China with him that summer.
That was the one.
Without that, I’d never have met Meng; never have written a book; never have made a TV documentary; never been a TV presenter; never have healed the relationship with my Dad; never have married Henry; never have thrown conventional Christianity out of the window; never have become a Kabbalist, never have met Peter; never have lived the fabulous life of adventure I call my own.
Thank you, Cordelia, because without you, I would have said ‘no.’