My 80 years of life have presented many lyrical moments, but birthdays always seemed to be off-key.
Given that I managed to pop out of the womb a couple of months early, making me a December Sagittarian, it ought to have been a snap — two for the price of one.
First would come Hanukkah filled with delicious food (which these days includes bizarrely named dishes such as Torah Cannoli — ricotta cheese with marshmallow fluff and chocolate, since you ask) and then Christmas with plum pudding.
Unfortunately, growing up in postwar North London, the closest we got was a package of Angel Cake mix which arrived in food parcels from America and sat on the kitchen table, a mystery to all.
I remember two proper December birthday parties in my life and several others that failed to come off.
My 80 years of life have presented many lyrical moments, but birthdays always seemed to be off-key, writes Barbara Amiel
At my seventh birthday in 1947, the only one my adored father attended, we played Murder In The Dark and I ran into a rose bush, tearing my ear, which then positively gushed with blood as my mother wittered on about how I would be scarred for life.
Possibly I am — but not, I think, from that rose bush.
The next celebration was my 40th — a low-key matter when my young man of 25 had his gift of a rocking chair delivered to the house we shared.
He was away on a business trip which turned out, concurrently, to involve carnal relations with twin sisters who were ballet dancers and could do the splits.
News of this lanced my being worse than the rose bush and for weeks I tried the sexually provocative splits. But at 40 it was a doomed undertaking.
My 50th birthday, which I gather is the point at which grown-ups begin to have birthday parties thrown for them, passed by in a rented house in a smart London mews.
Sadly, it had no furniture apart from a new luxurious king-size bed I had bought during a manic high at Selfridges and in which I spent my depressed nights completely alone, cursing the birds in nearby Chester Square who began their bloody chirping at 3am.
The 60th became a party to remember in a not-so-good way when it was the subject of criminal charges against my husband Conrad. (He was acquitted.)
My 70th, which Conrad had absolutely promised we’d spend in the exotic location of my choice, came when he was on bail awaiting appeal.
His travel was limited to visits to his parole officer and the town in Florida where we had a home. Permission to accompany me to my exotic choice of the December 2010 Eukanuba National Dog Championships in Long Beach, California, was denied. I went alone.
The 60th became a party to remember in a not-so-good way when it was the subject of criminal charges against my husband Conrad (pictured together)
Anticipating total victory in the upcoming appeal, we decided to make my 71st the big day instead.
As it was, I arrived at the prison (to which Conrad had briefly returned, although 80 per cent of the original 17 alleged fraud charges were either dropped or were acquittals) to find it in total lockdown after a misunderstanding between resolute armed inmates and resolution-averse guards.
So we celebrated on the next permitted visiting day with choc bars from a vending machine and sour cream and onion potato crisps.
During our little party, a senior mafioso don from New York’s Genovese family politely implied that while he was no longer in the business, if there was anyone outside that I needed ‘disposed’, it could be arranged.
I had to use every ounce of restraint to prevent myself from naming yellow journalist Tom Bower, who had written a so-called ‘biography’ of Conrad and myself.
And so we come to this December 2020 and my 80th birthday, the party plans for which were wrecked on the rocks of the totalitarian Covid rules in Canada, where we now live.
All indoor gatherings were limited to ‘family members now living together’, which meant birthday girl me, Conrad and my dog Arpad, a Kuvasz, who wore his bow tie.
Birthdays had never intimidated me until this one. I had never thought for a moment of mortality, and ageing was happily circumvented by injectables.
Sadly, wrinkle fillers can’t be applied to internal organs and my insides must resemble Dorian Gray’s attic portrait.
In fact, turning 80 hit like the cement I had injected into my back this week to help my spine, utterly wrecked by three years writing a book.
I was such a cleverboots when speaking of my 80th year in the relatively youthful days of my 30s and 40s.
I would warn others, but really myself, that this time would come; one would look back on life, weighing accomplishments and so on.
I talked in thoughtful femme-philosopher mode while running a still unwrinkled hand through still thick dark hair, with confidence that I would have written shelves of great books by 80.
You do think your time on earth is some eight-lane motorway that just goes on for ever.
Eighty, after all, I reasoned, was the end of any possible significant achievement. Now, like one of those glossy fashion mag editors who in my day kept making pronouncements about 40 being the new 30 and 50 the new 40 as each turned that age, I want 80 to be the new 35 please.
Those editors are all pensioned off (except the imperishable Anna Wintour of Vogue) and scattered in some sort of elderly journalists’ diaspora, re-emerging only to write cheerful pieces, not unlike this, on how to dress for life’s end.
And yet I believe with unflinching games-captain optimism, utterly foreign to my nature, that there remain a good ten years and possibly 20 to keep working and salvage something to redeem my life.
Having managed to (finally) publish the book — Friends And Enemies — that I used to explain countless broken promises, missed appointments and lost hours with my dogs, I now spend considerable time flogging it.
All done on Zoom, so you just see a face and not the audience.
‘Who made that blouse/jacket/necklace?’ is inevitably the opening or closing question of media interviewers, usually when I’m wearing my vile chartreuse cardigan that I bought because the salesperson told me it matched the colour of my eyes.
On getting it home, I realised absolutely no one, not even Hollywood with its coloured contact lenses, has chartreuse eyes.
‘Looking back, if you could change your life, what would you do differently?’ comes very often out of the Zoom darkness.
‘I go into dissociative mode and try to tell the truth without actually feeling, because really it’s all rather painful.
Superficially, I wish I had skipped a few courses on Hegel and Kant in favour of learning how to be a female Dave Ramsey, the American author, radio host and financial guru.
He bought up $10 million worth of automobile and medical debt last week to ‘forgive it’, so 8,000 people could have a merrier Christmas.
All females, whether contemplating career, marriage, life with children or life with gorillas, should be forced into a course or degree on financial planning.
Had I learned about the magic of compound interest, I might have cared less about the magic of Chanel jackets or had more money to buy more jackets.
Presently, the magic of compound interest is a bit less magical, given banks and bonds are contemplating negative interest, but financial independence would end about 75 per cent of legitimate female problems.
The remainder are largely reproductive and best left to doctors.
There is a leaden carpet of emotional despair that women tread more often than men during their lives, which is why financial independence becomes so necessary.
If only I had understood that as I entered serial periods of utter gloom. I always worked, could pay my rent, food and petrol, but not putting aside money fenced that independence.
I expect young women now are far more prudent and knowledgeable than my generation.
Still, it can’t hurt to have even more understanding of money management.
One of the things I certainly would have done differently is the management of my love life as a single woman. Or rather as a stalker.
Fortunately, when I was in hormonal bloom there were no laws against stalking — at least not enforced against women.
I was able to sit for hours in my car outside the flats of men I adored who had adored me for a few months and then gradually, in that way men can do, evaporated.
This took a certain stamina in the days before cell phones.
One sat, legs cramping, in the front seat of a car, peering through the windshield in lonely darkness only to see the beloved come home in his Porsche 911 looking very mussed and happy at 3am or leaving his flat at 7am, gym bag slung over one shoulder and younger blonde on the other.
Some 25 years later came the chick flicks of the ‘He’s just not that into you’ genre made about the behaviour I exhibited when, in 1984, I was ringing up the unfortunate target of my affections every five minutes from midnight on to see if he was really going home as he had earlier claimed.
If only I had realised how unattractive this was and that success in dating and mating games requires women to appear initially uninterested in whomever they are most interested.
I refuse to believe these games have ended: they’ve just morphed over to Tinder or some social media complication.
Genders may mutate but the essential nature of human relationships, as far as I can see, remains untouched.
One of the things I would not have done differently is my enthusiastic embrace of Hormone Replacement Therapy after emerging from Houston’s famed M.D. Anderson Hospital in the Nineties with a wind tunnel where the bits producing hormones once were.
I immediately hit the manufactured oestrogen and testosterone world with an enthusiasm not seen since my first encounter with opera (which happened to be Carmen at the Royal Opera House in 1947).
I belted down those prescribed dark green HRT tablets — and kept on right up to this morning.
Which is helpful cosmetically and provides wonderful protection for thinning osteoporotic bones but can become a source of frustration in old age.
Because your outsides age but your instincts and energy remain those of the younger woman.
And so you quiver most inappropriately to thoughts which, after you’ve pharmaceutically altered Nature’s plan, now prey on your mind.
You encounter again in your mind and dreams, oh so vividly, those earlier moments when, on high heels, you would run excitedly up flights of stairs with no thought but the man waiting for you or the daring rendezvous in parks and newly discovered cafes which, however grotty, seemed so exotic.
Happily, my mind doesn’t fret over difficult times. I must have a tea strainer in my memory or at least a fabulous repression muscle. I remember only delights.
Like all humans, I do think nostalgically of childhood — a pudding of the bluebells of Chorley Wood and such wonders as attending a performance by Dame Myra Hess playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Festival Hall, which made me cry for reasons a ten-year-old cannot fathom.
All simple, delicious delights which highlight the reality you must face in these late years.
Those shimmered memories together with all one has achieved, felt and loved will regrettably soon be dust. Not the sort you hoover up, but the dust of invisibility.
That is the curse of childlessness or a life underachieved.
So here I am. The octogenarian facing forward, creaky but unbowed (slight hyperbole there given my dodgy spine).
As I write this it is the seventh night of Hanukkah and the eight candles I just lit are sputtering in the window.
‘Why put the Menorah in the window, Grandma?’ I would ask.
‘So that a stray Jew would know this was a welcoming place.’
Perhaps not what the rabbi would say but it sounded nice — if I was ever lost I could go into a house lit by those candles and have crumpets with Fry’s chocolate spread.
And coming up on Hanukkah’s heels is Christmas: utter bliss as a child in England. Even my somewhat nerve-racking mother always rallied to celebrate December 25 with whomever she was dating or marrying.
Tinsel on the tree and coloured paper chains across the ceiling of our Hendon semi. Of course, later in life, Christmas magic can turn a bit grim.
There are always chances of opening old wounds or of emotional bleeds when circumstances are low and carols blare around you. In that state I’ve always used music to blot out artificial cheeriness and odious nostrums about new beginnings and new resolutions.
Drown it all, the tangled muck of the year, in whatever music speaks to you.
Even if it is Mariah Carey at 105 decibels giving out All I Want For Christmas Is You (designed, I sometimes think, to provoke suicide attempts in betrayed lovers).
Go for Elton John and Step Into Christmas, which, apart from Pavarotti belting out Panis Angelicus, is the song I used in difficult times to counter the torture of non-stop Jingle Bells at late-night groceries.
Go to magic again with Mozart’s great C-Minor Mass or Saint-Saens Oratorio de Noel.
Forget the pain of life, forget the promise you never achieved, forget the man who got away and listen to whatever glorious sounds take you to heaven and handily bypass all the past year’s sins.
Hanukkah Sameach and a Blessed Christmas to all.