Lockdown lifesavers from a silver superwoman: FEMAIL’S founding editor, 87, shares her blueprint

She’s the feminist pioneer and author who famously told women that life was ‘too short to stuff a mushroom’.

Now Shirley Conran, who launched the Daily Mail’s Femail section in 1968, is applying that same no-nonsense approach to life in lockdown. Like some 3.8 million other over 65s, Shirley lives alone, and has now endured lockdown for eight weeks on her own. 

At 87, she is also convalescing following recent brain surgery, without her support network.

Still, she insists, lockdown is no excuse to live in pyjamas and let your life crumble away. Here, the original Superwoman presents the first half of a two-part guide to coming out on top in the time of corona…

Shirley Conran, 87, who launched the Daily Mail’s Femail section in 1968, is applying that same no-nonsense approach to life in lockdown

HARNESS THE BLITZ SPIRIT AND KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS

We find ourselves in the first crisis of global proportions. Although devastating, the two world wars didn’t affect the entire world, but coronavirus does, and nobody knows how long it will last.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) this week revealed more than 4.7 million cases of Covid-19 have been reported, and it has warned the virus may never go away. 

We need to face the fact that we are in a highly stressful situation, the like of which hasn’t been seen in this country for 75 years.

But there’s no use losing your head so early on in the proceedings.

Some younger people seem to think that the over-70s still ride penny-farthings, listen to weird music with ear trumpets and are Luddites, but we need to show them we should not be written off.

There’s nothing like being machine-gunned on your way home from school (as my little sister and I were in London by an enemy gunner in a plane during World War II) to give you a sense of perspective.

The original Superwoman presents the first half of a two-part guide to coming out on top in the time of corona. Pictured: Superwoman by Shirley Conran

The original Superwoman presents the first half of a two-part guide to coming out on top in the time of corona. Pictured: Superwoman by Shirley Conran

Many years later, my mother heard me tell younger friends that we had been bombed out three times. We lost ceilings, doors, windows and much of the roof. But Mum reproached me: ‘Yes, we were bombed, but we were not bombed out.’ That was the Blitz spirit.

So our present situation is hugely worrying, but it could be much more terrifying.

Many of my generation are battling issues — health or otherwise — that make lockdown even more challenging.

I underwent brain surgery in February to remove a tumour the size of an orange. After I came home, I leaned heavily and gratefully on my cheerful cleaner and my tolerant business PA. One of my sons, who lives nearby, has also been very helpful.

However, isolation put a stop to that. Although hardly able to stand, I had to manage housework, business affairs and cookery on my own.

Unsurprisingly, I relapsed and had to be very careful to rest after that.

Wartime experiences taught me that how you survive is, frankly, up to you. And how tough you are will benefit you, your family, your friends and the country.

This may be the first time for a long time that we have thought of ourselves as part of a local community and also a country.

What World War II produced was solidarity; it was as if you were linking arms with all the people in your town. I see this now with two neighbours, whom I don’t know, helping me with shopping and taking out my bins.

Shirley insists lockdown is no excuse to live in pyjamas and let your life crumble away. Pictured: Shirley Conran as Superwoman

Shirley insists lockdown is no excuse to live in pyjamas and let your life crumble away. Pictured: Shirley Conran as Superwoman

But however supportive friends, relatives and kind strangers are being, the only person who is always interested in you, and able to provide you with sustained help, is yourself.

Don’t think‚ ‘Somebody ought to do something about it’ or ‘The Government should see to it.’ Start thinking in terms of self-reliance — what you can do and what you can’t do — because that may be all you can count on.

You don’t need pity, you need your own clear thought and action. The following mantra has helped me through difficult times:

‘Thought must be the harder; the heart the keener.

‘Courage must be greater as our strength grows less.’

A fighting Anglo-Saxon chieftain said that. He sounds like a survivor.

Of course, there will be things you genuinely need help with — collecting prescriptions and supermarket shopping may still be hazardous post-lockdown. Don’t be scared to ask for simple, practical help.

BLOW BALLOONS TO BEAT STRESS 

Even before the corona crisis, stress was the most prevalent health problem in our fast-paced world. In order to increase your forbearance, you need to learn how to deal with it.

In these stressful times you must make a conscious effort to unwind, to combat tension and frustration.

For starters, try this two-minute freshener. If you’re ever tired, open the window and take half a dozen deep breaths. Breathe in through the nose as slowly as possible, expanding your stomach.

Shirley (pictured) is the feminist pioneer and author who famously told women that life was ‘too short to stuff a mushroom’

Shirley (pictured) is the feminist pioneer and author who famously told women that life was ‘too short to stuff a mushroom’

Hold the breath for ten seconds, then slowly expel it through your slightly open mouth, contracting your stomach as you do so. When you think all the air has left your lungs, try to squeeze still more out, with a little push.

If you want proper relaxation, draw the curtains, put on loose-fitting clothes and lie on the floor (on a rug if there’s no carpet) with no pillows and no sound.

Try to make your mind go blank, then fill it only with the thought of grey fog or black velvet or soft white light.

Relax your body, bit by bit, letting it go completely limp. Concentrate firmly on relaxing each part of your anatomy in turn; start at the toes of the left leg, then foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and work through the entire body until finally you relax the neck and head (forehead, eyes, mouth, tongue and jaw).

Next, work through these simple exercises as slowly as possible, stretching and then holding the final position for as long as you can.

1. Lie down flat, hands loosely at your sides. Breathe in through your nose to a count of ten, pushing your stomach out as far as it will go, as if inflating a balloon. Gently tilt your pelvis forward and slowly breathe out, through your lips. Contract your stomach, as though squeezing the air out of the balloon.

2. Stand straight. Keep your shoulders straight. Slowly roll your head in a circle round your neck, six times clockwise, then six times counter-clockwise. Try to stretch your neck as far sideways as it can go without forcing it uncomfortably. Repeat twice.

3. Stand straight. Hunch both shoulders forward and then slowly rotate both shoulders back at the same time. Concentrate on rotating your shoulder blades. Do it six times, then hold your shoulders as far back as they will go and rotate forwards six times. Repeat twice.

4. Stand up without shoes. Flop downwards from your waist, arms and head down — don’t try to reach the floor, just let your weight sag towards it. Stay there for one minute, then slowly pull yourself up again, bracing your stomach muscles and carefully uncurling your spine from the pelvis.

Take a deep breath and stretch your hands to the ceiling. Try to touch it, stiffening your kneecaps and bottom. Higher… now higher. (Don’t stand on your tiptoes.) Repeat twice.

5. Lastly, lie flat on your back and do the balloon exercise for a further five minutes. You should then rise a new person.

DON’T BE A BURDEN ON YOUR FAMILY

Grandparents are now able to visit their children and grandchildren so long as they go alone, remain outside and stay two metres apart. There remains confusion about whether they are able to take turns to meet their children.

There are many who don’t agree that this is safe to do at this stage — you and your children might find yourselves at odds here. To which I say, be patient. Don’t expect an immediate return to normality, because it’s an unprecedented situation for your family, too.

In my view, older people need to ask themselves if a visit from children and grandchildren is necessary, when there’s Skype, email and mobiles.

Do you really want warm hugs if that might endanger you or them? Don’t let your emotions knock out your common sense.

Shirley lives alone, and has now endured lockdown for eight weeks on her own but says older people need to ask themselves if a visit from children and grandchildren is necessary, when there’s Skype, email and mobiles

Shirley lives alone, and has now endured lockdown for eight weeks on her own but says older people need to ask themselves if a visit from children and grandchildren is necessary, when there’s Skype, email and mobiles

Admittedly, my family are my carers: my two sons, my daughter-in-law and my ex-daughter-in-law. We have observed the lockdown like everyone else, so it has been a strain. It’s easy to slip into self-pity. I’ve had a pretty rough ride lately, but it does you good to consider things from another point of view.

Your children have a whole host of new responsibilities besides your wellbeing. Many are worrying about income and juggling home-schooling. One friend is having to work from home with school-children around. He also has to look after his aged father, whose care home was hurriedly closed without warning.

It’s hard for him to remember forbearance, but also hard for his father, whose life has been upset and who feels humiliated, so is understandably grumpy.

CAN’T SLEEP? TRY 2AM HOUSEWORK

I often struggle to get off to sleep and, like many others, have recently been waking in the early hours gripped by anxiety. The trouble is, if anxiety does wake you at such an hour, it won’t go away, so it’s best to just get up and do something.

I’ve found myself dusting at 4am and mopping floors at 2.30am. In fact I’ve found the exertion tires me out and I can go back to sleep for a few hours. I wake refreshed and feeling very virtuous.

Thankfully, I’ve also found another way to nod off at night before the thoughts take over.

She revealed how this may be the first time for a long time that we have thought of ourselves as part of a local community and also a country

Lie on your back in bed and take a few deep breaths. Tense your body so you’re like a frightened rabbit, then slowly release.

Now go through what I call the ‘mighty tightener’ — similar to the relaxation exercise that I mentioned earlier.

First, tighten bottom to belly button, then tighten each part of your body individually from the feet to the legs, buttocks, stomach, arms and jaw, releasing each one in turn. It should only take a couple of minutes for you to complete this step.

End with a couple of shoulder shrugs and gently nod your head from side to side to relax your neck.

Think of being in the sun under a parasol on the beach, listening to the murmur of the waves, and you’ll soon drift off.

LIFE’S TOO SHORT TO STUFF MUSHROOMS

Remember, businesses can’t be expected to run efficiently when the whole world is topsy-turvy. We have to forgive inefficiency for at least six months.

Online orders are still the safest way to shop — though a delivery slot is not always given. 

It can be worth checking out local firms. They are often keen to help those who are vulnerable, but get overlooked in favour of supermarkets.

It took me six weeks to get a Waitrose order because initially my GP disputed whether I should go on the priority list.

Apparently if I could breathe without apparatus, I wasn’t deemed vulnerable. On Easter Sunday I had a single cucumber to get me through the day.

As exhausting as it was, I hit the phone, speaking to my local council and the supermarket. The situation has since been rectified, but there may be others who have faced such impediments. Don’t give up!

After such a long wait, I stocked up my freezer to the brim. My practical friend, Lindsay Nicholson, former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, suggested I buy a small freezer to be put in any room and used for emergencies.

I filled it with milk, bread, butter, frozen mashed potatoes and a slab of first-class mincemeat. This meant I was able to use my deep freezer as normal.

Although I enjoy cooking, it means standing up for too long. My doctors told me that, while convalescing, I would only have a small bucket of energy, and to only use small cupfuls at a time or face relapse. Cooking is just too tiring.

With this in mind, Lindsay sent me a present — eight ready meals from Mindful Chef (mindfulchef.com). 

There are plenty of these food delivery boxes around at the moment, though I’ve heard some are disappointing. 

But Mindful Chef is very good — the portions are large and the meals comforting — and a delight at this time.

THE DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE’S HOMEMADE BREAD  

For years I avoided making my own bread — I thought I didn’t have the time. Once I did, I was hooked.

This recipe is one of my favourites. Given to me by Diana Mitford, I included it in my first book, Superwoman, in 1975, and it stands the test of time. I find making bread particularly satisfying.

All those beautiful Mitford sisters, including the late Duchess of Devonshire, Debo, were brought up on this recipe. It’s delicious and easy to make. Quantities are for two 2lb (900g) loaves or four bun loaves.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3lb (1.4kg) 100 per cent stone-ground wholemeal flour
  • 2oz (a little less than 50g) live yeast
  • 1¾pt (1 litre) warm milk or water
Shirley said for years she avoided making her own bread because she thought she didn’t have the time (file image)

Shirley said for years she avoided making her own bread because she thought she didn’t have the time (file image) 

METHOD

1. Heap up flour round sides of bowl and put yeast in the middle, a little broken up. Add to yeast the sugar, salt and a little of the warm milk.

2. When yeast is dissolved, stir flour in gradually, adding the rest of the liquid until it becomes a soft dough.

3. Put in a warm place to rise for an hour, covering the bowl with a clean, folded cloth.

4. When risen, turn out on a floured board and knead until it doesn’t stick to your hands. Cut in half and knead each piece separately for some minutes until quite firm.

5. Put into loaf tins and leave for 30 minutes to rise a little more. If you don’t have loaf tins, shape the dough into four balls and put on a greased, floured baking sheet.

6. Cook in oven at gas mark 5 (190C, 375F) for about 1 hour until firm and brown.

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