How to date a widower

When is it acceptable to consider dating a widower? How do you know if they are still grieving and not ready to move on? According to statistics, men die earlier than women, so I was surprised this year to meet several whose wives had died before them. Divorced since the early 1990s, I had no intention of remarrying, but thought of striking up some sort of liaison with a widower. I had heard of women behaving in a desperate and undignified way, charging round with casseroles I had rejected two non-widowers, whom my grandmother would have described as ‘cast-offs’, meaning exes one mustn’t go back to. I knew I would

Scattering my father’s ashes in Santiago de Compostela

We are in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela to scatter our father’s ashes. He and my youngest sister had planned to walk the Camino, which finishes here at the resting place of Saint James, to mark the start of her adulthood and the beginning of his retirement. Instead, my two sisters have been walking the ancient pilgrims’ route for the past few weeks. I’ve flown into the city to meet them at the end. Most of Dad’s ashes went into a smart Regency tea caddy. The funeral directors had offered us a standard-issue urn but we decided he’d prefer something jolly and Georgian. The lacquered box didn’t quite

The simplicity and joy of recorded conversations

Recently I stumbled across a file of conversations I’d recorded with my seven-year-old son Frank back when he was four. Topics include his travels through wormholes, why he finds planet Earth ‘boring’, the tragic story of how his ‘first family’ died and how he got his ‘laser eyes’. It was only by listening to these voice notes three years later that I understood just how precious audio recordings are, and also how under-used. The conversations I taped illustrate the nuances of Frank’s four-year-old self more vividly than any photo or video could. Anyone attempting to write fiction should take note of the power of audio – conversation and voice are

Why on earth did The Spectator support Brexit?

The temperature has hit 40°C in Crete, where I am writing this, and although there have been no fires, nothing is quite how it ought to be. I can’t work out whether this is a great opportunity to get a tan or, effectively, the end of the world. My 60-year-old taxi driver tells me that unfeasibly hot summers were a regular occurrence when he was young and that there’s nothing to worry about. But, he adds, he’ll be dead soon anyway so why should he care? Right or wrong, this is the paradox at the heart of the climate change debate. Older people, who could be held responsible for the

Dear Mary: how can I make my untidy twin look better? 

Q. I have a public profile and have always looked after my personal presentation, but my identical twin has never bothered with hers. She wouldn’t dream of covering up the broken veins on her cheeks and her hair is quite grey and frizzy. Now I’m getting married and worry that my sister’s appearance could cause some of the clients I’ve invited to rethink my ‘relevance’. What should I do, Mary? – Name and address withheld A. Explain to your twin that after you had paid for a hair and make-up artist for the wedding, you came under pressure from a colleague whose hair and make-up-artist daughter could get urgently needed publicity

Why I had to let go of my late sister’s house

On the window ledge of my sister Carmel’s bedroom there’s a tray of cards inscribed with the months of the year, days of the week and numbers from 1 to 31. If you can be bothered to adjust the display every morning, you’ll have what’s called a ‘perpetual calendar’. I need to remember that I already have drawers full of Thompson memorabilia Sunday 3 October 2021 was the day Carmel’s calendar stopped being perpetual. That morning she woke up with a fever so alarming that her next-door neighbour called an ambulance. Before it arrived, Carmel changed the calendar; then she kissed goodbye to Otto, her Norfolk terrier, walked downstairs and

Mary Wakefield

The dangerous cult of ‘toxic parents’

Complaining about ‘toxic parents’ has been a viral hit on TikTok with videos on the topic racking up several billion views. Only one of those views is mine and there won’t be another because it was like peering through a window into a cross between a padded cell and a charnel house. In video after video, boys and girls across the English-speaking world – aged roughly 15 to 25 – share the trauma of what they’ve had to endure, courtesy of their terrible mothers and fathers. Many children suffer at the hands of the people who should protect them, but in this case what the kids find intolerable would, to

The making of a poet: Wilfred Owen’s ‘autobiography’ in letters

Here is the opening of a sonnet written by Wilfred Owen in the spring of 1911: ‘Three colours have I known the Deep to wear;/ ’Tis well today that Purple grandeurs gloom.’ Owen was 18 and had just been on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in Devon, where his hero John Keats had once stayed. The kindest thing to say about this poem is that it is heavy with the influence of Keats. Six years later, in a seaside hotel requisitioned by the army and waiting to be sent back to the Western Front, he begins a poem like this: ‘Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.’ This

Is 2023 a bad year for forest fires in Europe?

Boss pay Julia Hoggett, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, complained that FTSE 100 bosses aren’t paid enough, and suggested that the gap between UK bosses and US bosses needs to be closed if the London market is to prosper. How much are FTSE 100 bosses paid? – The median earnings in 2021 for a FTSE 100 boss was £3.41m and the mean £4.26m. Three were paid less than £1m, 57 between £1m and £4m, 35 between £4m and £10m and three more than £10m. Two changed jobs during the year and so aren’t included in the figures – But the best-paid FTSE chief executive wasn’t even in the

What my father’s Alzheimer’s taught me

When I tell friends, ‘You never hear people talking about the upside of Alzheimer’s’, they look at me like I’ve said something about Hitler being nice to animals. In general, a mention of dementia will ruin any conversation. People freeze up at the thought. It’s true that having a relative with dementia is hard and the bad far outweighs the good, but that is no reason to ignore the positives completely. In fact, the tiny benefits can help you deal with all the downsides.  I’ve had a lot of time to look for the positives. Growing up, my grandparents had Alzheimer’s so I was aware of the condition, but I hadn’t

George Washington’s lesson for Ukraine

The Australian morning TV host called me darlin’. We’d never met, but she opened with: ‘Good to have you on, darlin’. Be with you in a moment.’ Then the picture went black. When the live show returned to my Zoom screen, I was just another viewer, watching the three hosts seated on a couch half a world away chatting about the charity walk one of them had done over the weekend and the toll this had taken on his feet, which led – in a surprise twist – to a brief discussion of the strange internet hunger for images of feet. Somehow, the fetish conversation segued into a video montage

Confessions of a mid-life rollercoaster addict

My heart is racing, my breath ragged and my stomach threatening to send back the burger I ate for lunch. But as the safety harness I’m wearing is released and I lower my shaking legs to the ground there’s only one question on my mind: when can I experience it again? My name is Antonia and I am a 44-year-old rollercoaster addict. I am hooked on rides that command queues of over an hour yet are over in seconds; that hurl me upside down, haemorrhage my bank balance and have spurious science-fiction names. In less than two years I have been to England’s twin temples of hair-raising attractions – Alton

It’s time to ban young children from restaurants

When you have small children just getting them out of the door can be traumatic. Finding and applying each shoe can be enough to provoke a tantrum – and not just in the parent. And no, they can’t bring their Power Rangers swords, because we are going out to lunch and everyone knows that plastic swords and restaurants don’t mix.  Eventually you will arrive at the restaurant, although it will 20 minutes later than the booking. As you push the buggy inside, the establishment falls quiet like the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. There’s a scrape of chairs – a pause – then the chatter resumes. But in

Caught between conflicting desires – for liberty and belonging

A friend recently moved back to the UK after living in China for ten years. Being English, he was always going to be an outsider in China, but what surprises him now is how foreign he feels in England too. He asked me whether this feeling ever ended. I told him that I suspect people like us will never fully belong anywhere again. The novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo articulates this sense of alienation exquisitely, knowing exactly what it’s like: ‘Part of me is always in exile.’ She left China in her late twenties when she was already a published author. In Radical, she tries to come to terms with

Carrie Johnson and the truth about children’s parties

The email was apologetic in its tone, if apocalyptic in its content. The entertainer I’d booked for my daughter’s fifth birthday party was no longer available – she’d been invited to perform as an extra on Strictly Come Dancing, an opportunity too good to miss. I swallowed my surprise (aren’t these appearances negotiated months in advance?) but couldn’t quell the mounting panic that anyone who has struggled to source a children’s entertainer at short notice without remortgaging their house will recognise.  With no expert in charge, a kids’ party is simply a mass socially-sanctioned sugar-fuelled breakdown – and that’s just for the parents. Even with an expert’s help (I eventually

Why British women are turning to Danish sperm donors

‘Hello, my current occupation is police officer,’ says Dex in a thick Danish accent. ‘It seems very adventurous and exciting to do, and to make a difference for the people I meet out in the world.’ Dex is just over 13 stone, around six feet tall, has very fair skin and blue eyes. His favourite animal is the dog. Dex is also a Danish sperm donor, and I’m listening to the beginning of an 11-minute voice-recording on his profile. On the website of the European Sperm Bank, which bills itself as ‘Europe’s leading sperm bank’ and is based in Copenhagen, there are hundreds of profiles like Dex’s available to British

Why Britain needs more marriage

Hungary is something of a bête noire in the international community. Viktor Orban and his government have had much-deserved condemnation over their treatment of certain minority groups, as well as undermining judicial independence and what many see as an attack on the freedom of the media.  But Orban’s administration has been getting something right, and it would be a shame if the country’s pariah status means its greatest achievement goes overlooked. Hungary has become a marriage super-power. According to the Marriage Foundation, which rightly promotes legal matrimony as the bedrock of a healthy society, Hungary’s marriage rate has exploded over the last decade, rising by 92 per cent. The country

The purgatory of soft play

Are you familiar with the child-focused phenomenon generally known as soft play? Often located in the windowless recesses of garden centres with an innocent-sounding name like ‘Snakes and Ladders’, these are compounds dedicated to the frenetic, ergonomic joy of children – assault courses for mites, with slides, chutes, ball baths and various dangling hazards all swathed in gaudy soft foam-wrapped plastic. On paper, soft play sounds like fun: what could be more enjoyable than watching your tiny ones zipping gleefully down slides in an ultra-safe environment, one where there’s even compulsory armbands for accompanying adults and locked doors to keep out perverts? What’s more, it’s an environment where your little

Will child-free flights take off?

At first glance, I wasn’t sure if an email I got recently about ‘adults-only flights’ was a joke. I’m a parent of two teenage boys who has observed with dismay the growing intolerance for children in the public square in recent years. But I’d never heard anything like this. So I reviewed the study of 1,000 adults conducted by PhotoAID, and while I don’t know how scientific it was given that it was carried out by a company that sells passport and visa photos, the results are striking. Eight in ten survey respondents said they want adult-only flights, and 64 per cent said they’re willing to pay a premium of 10 to

10 films about brothers at war

Sibling rivalry is nothing new, as the Old Testament’s story of Cain and Abel attests. Back in 1966, director John Huston cast hellraiser Richard Harris as fratricidal bad boy Cain in The Bible: In the Beginning. Years later, Ray Winstone played Cain’s even naughtier descendent Tubal-Cain in Darren Aronofsky’s decidedly odd Noah (2014). 2009 also saw the tale of Cain and Abel recounted more jocularly in Year One (2009), with David Cross and Paul Rudd as the feuding brothers. Of course, the Biblical duo’s argument was settled in a more lethal way than Harry and William’s ‘dog bowl brawl’. Moving to the 17th century, rivalry between identical royal twins was