Archive for February, 2006

General, Women

When the baby boomers become Generation Z

THE TIMES – Feburary 23, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Last week’s television highlight, for those of us addicted to the desperate goings-on in Wisteria Lane, was seeing the sober-suited working mother Lynette Scavo transform herself into a reckless sexpot — bedroom hair, bustier, “shakin’ her ass” as she strutted along the bar counter — in a last-ditch attempt to out-floozy her demon (and, significantly, childless) female boss. Ever since my favourite Desperate Housewife returned to work, leaving her hitherto breadwinning husband to do the childrearing, we have seen her performing ever more frantic cartwheels to prove that she can be a high-performing advertising executive while still, somehow, being a supermom (or some sort of mom) to her three children.

There should be something ludicrously anachronistic in 2006 about her daily juggling battle; perhaps the one nod to modernity being that the boss of the agency is a woman, who is now insisting that Lynette accompanies her for after-hours drinking and dirty-dancing to prove her commitment to the job. But for all the brave talk in the past decade about family-friendly policies and work-life balance, women are still apparently so fearful about being penalised at work if they dip out to have children that we now have, to quote a front-page weekend headline, a “UK baby shortage (that) will cost £11 billion”.

According to a new study published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, we are on the brink of a demographic crisis with a shortage of children born to support future elderly dependents. Oh great. So now we league of fretters have another Big Worry to add to the list of international conflict, ecological disaster and, er, bird flu: the spectre of the swollen ranks of the Baby Boom Generation becoming Generation Z (for Zimmer Frame) threatening to capsize society as we know it.

I have some experience of dealing with Gen Z as my mother was 32 when she gave birth to me (a year older than I was when I had my first son), on her second marriage to my father, who was 42. He died when he was 75, having had chronic arthritis for almost as long as I remember. My mother died ten years later, at the same age, of breast cancer, which had first struck when I was 8.

The final year of her decline was a distressing unmerry-go-round of hospital stays, stints at home with mostly hopeless (and exorbitantly expensive) agency help, an introductory stay at the hospice, and — worst of all — a short-lived period in a nursing home. The idea of being in one filled her with dread but she decided to try it out, partly because if the experience proved tolerable it would give her daughter a break from all the organisation required in looking after her. The nursing home, however, did not prove tolerable.

It was a clean, genteel place, with a pleasant room and french windows opening out onto an attractive courtyard garden. But what my mother feared more than any physical deterioration was the idea of losing her marbles; her wrath when asked if she knew the name of the Prime Minister was something to behold. She managed maybe two or three evenings of dinners, surrounded by fellow diners who were senile for the most part, and this was her idea of living hell. On day four, she asked us — in desperation — to plan her escape, which we accomplished in an early-morning raid.

One of my friends, who once fitted into the demographic of mid-thirties IVF career women — and who now, happily, has two spirited daughters — and I used to fantasise about creating a franchise of retirement homes for the likes of us in our dotage . . . Hip Homes for the Hip-Replaced. There would be a soundtrack of Van Morrison and the smoking of dope as the preferred pain medication; a sort of chain of geriatic hippy communes. Child of my mother that I am, I can’t help feeling that’s all well and good for Generation Zimmer Frame but not so hot for Generation Ga-Ga.

Royal touch from ancient wonders

So those youthful ancients the Rolling Stones performed for free on the weekend at the Copacabana Beach in front of an audience of two million-odd people. I laughed out loud when I read the line “Fans said guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood waved from the penthouse (hotel) balcony occasionally”. It was the word “occasionally” that summoned the image of a Buckingham Palace mechanical and slightly self-conscious royal wave. I hope they gave as good a performance as I witnessed on Sunday from 90-year-old Doris, whose blind eyes sparkled as she warbled her way through Where Did You Get That Hat?

Cruise control

Recent photographs of Tom Cruise, who has been in the newspapers for some reason, has made me think of his role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm. He plays a young lawyer who slowly discovers that the pukka firm he has joined is a creepy masonic league of money-filching ne’er-do-wells, and he is in it too deep to get out. The Cruise character eventually derails the firm by detailing his partners’ more innocuous practice of routinely overcharging their clients.

I have spent the past week investigating some routine overcharging that has been going on in my accounts. For instance, for the past five years I have been — unwittingly — paying for two separate insurance companies to protect the contents of my home. The problem with monthly direct debits is that unless you have the time to be super-vigilant, companies change their name and you can easily lose track of what precisely you are paying for.

The good news is that the insurance industry regulators take the position that the clients, who have put themselves in this hapless position, should be reimbursed by both companies to the tune of 50 per cent each. Fortunately, both the Abbey and More Than, between them, are willing to pay back the thousands of pounds I have been doubling up on. Not so Carphone Warehouse, which has been drawing more than £500 from my account over three years despite having documentation that the mobile phone in question was cancelled.

The best offer it has felt it incumbent to come up with is £100 out of “goodwill”.

Is it any wonder that I have become a Grumpy Old Woman?

Celebrities, Women

Hostess with the mostest

THE TIMES – February 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Davina McCall may host shows at the tackier end of the television spectrum, but her appeal lies in a naughty, but oddly wholesome niceness. As she takes on BBC One’s primetime chat-show slot, Ginny Dougary meets a former wild child who has turned her bad times to spectacular good.

She’s clearly not Essexy, like Denise Van Outen or the new (literally) faux-celebrity, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Chantelle; although she does have something of their cheeky charm. Her vowels are a bit all over the place – “moind” for “mind”, for instance – and she’s much given to using phrases which are generally employed by young teenagers regardless of their background: “Ah, bless”, “Hell-o-oh” (swooping up and down), “bodacious”, along with some unequivocal East-Enderisms, such as “God love ’im”.

Boris Johnson is probably the only broadcasting personality who can get away with making a virtue of his poshness. Elsewhere, for a successful television career, a populist approach and an accessible manner are essential – and it’s Davina’s common-touch watchability as Big Brother’s Big Mother (or, perhaps, big sister) that has landed her a new primetime role as mid-week talk-show host on BBC One. Now although this is clearly something of a big deal – the last pre-watershed King of Chat on the Beeb was Terry Wogan back in 1992 – reports of a million-pound contract or, in fact, any contract at all are apparently overstated. As McCall, in ladette mode, put it to me: “I’ve never signed a contract with any TV channel because I like being a slut and working for anybody who wants me.”

For her fans, who obviously include the BBC chiefs, what is engaging about McCall’s personality is that although she works at the tacky end of television, she manages to retain a niceness while still delivering on the pushy, tasteless questions: “But did the train go into the tunnel’’ (to establish whether two former Big Brother contestants, Stuart and Michelle, had sexual intercourse). Indeed, McCall’s USP may be that while she is undeniably naughty she is also oddly wholesome. For her detractors, of course, she is the epitome of Moronic Britain; representing everything that is wrong with declining standards and cultural dumbing-down.

On telly, she is an odd mixture. As a guest on other people’s chat shows (hosted by the likes of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady – all of whom will probably end up on her show in today’s circular light-entertainment loop), she often goes in for that very English, very middle-class self-deprecation (think Emma Thompson). When she’s in charge as Big Mother – which is her main claim to fame – McCall is more obviously confident and excitable; shouty and motormouthy, talking ten-to-the-dozen in an Anneka Rice verbal gallop. Her own drink and drugs hell, and the long years of recovery, as well as her chequered childhood, may help to explain the genuine empathy she seems to have with the oddball contestants. But what makes her special, I think – which was certainly the strongest impression I had when we met – is that she is kind.

Our interview takes place in a photographers’ studio in Fulham where McCall is doing a shoot, under duress, for the BBC’s Radio Times. I assume “under duress” because it wasn’t until the 11th hour that our meeting was actually confirmed, which seemed rather more Hollywood hauteur than cosy little Britain. It later transpired that McCall hates being interviewed (which is why it took her so long to commit), and that she has the absolute heebie-jeebies about the new show partly because everyone insists on calling her the new Parky: “It strikes fear into my heart that people keep saying ‘Parky’ because it’s very hard to step into somebody else’s shoes and it’s just a nightmare because I want to be me. Even though I do partly want to be like Parky [although it’s hard to imagine him asking the train into tunnel question] because he’s bloody brilliant, but if I try to be like Parky it’s just going to seem weird, and I don’t really know how I’m going to be but it will be me.”

Unfortunately I cannot report on what sort of “me” this new “Davina” will be because – despite numerous requests – the BBC fail­ed to send a DVD of the pilot. This much we know: the guests were Peter Kay, Paul O’Grady (presumably talking about his unorthodox new slot, alternating with the wonderful Richard and Judy), an actor from EastEnders and Charlotte Church. There will be stairs: “Shall I leap down them? Oh no, I’ll be wearing heels so I’d go arse over tit, wouldn’t I?” Peals of laughter. Has she got a nice sofa? “I’m not sure… I was under the impression it’ll be two chairs but I want them close enough for touching. I need touching.” There are to be no gimmicks, just talk and music, and she’s very happy with it, although, “in a funny kind of way I don’t want to push it be­cause I don’t want people to have great expect­ations – I just want it to grow in a natural way.”

She is softer-looking and more delicate in person, oddly more reminiscent of the act­ress Dervla Kirwan than McCall’s own high-octane TV self. Glossy hair that flops in her eyes, good teeth and cheekbones, no make-up. There is something endearing about her open quality. Her gaze is so steady and attentive that I comment on it – and her explanation is that perhaps it is because she has a slightly lazy eye. Although she is 38, there is a childlike aspect to her which belies her streetwise past, and still clings to her without any suggestion that she is simple-minded.

An image remains of her sitting schoolgirlishly on her hands, although I’m pretty sure she did no such thing. This is much of a piece with other Davina conundrums – her aforementioned wholesomeness in a distinctly unwholesome show; her surprisingly old- fashioned values despite such modern packaging; the feeling she gives of offering new-best-friend intimacy while actually guarding her privacy more fiercely than the starriest A-list celebrity.

I thought of her as being a natty dresser until a number of friends tried to disabuse me of that notion, and it seems that Davina’s husband, Matthew Robertson, may also be of their persuasion judging by his comments to his wife that morning. Apparently his very words were: ‘You can’t seriously be thinking of going out like that! Your trousers are far too short and your jacket looks two sizes too small.” Davina and I agree that this is a little harsh. Granted it is quite an unusual look; a sort of Hobbit meets homage to Jackie O. A forest-green retro jacket with a belt that ties under the breasts (Betty Jackson) and not quite three-quarter-length cuffs, over a mutton-sleeved black T-shirt (Jigsaw), denim gaucho culottes (French street market) and square-toed pixie boots. I am slightly startled when she shows me her devil’s horns tattoos on each hip pointing down – as she says, raising that well-exercised eyebrow – “to you know where!”

Her first attempts at experimenting with clothes and burying her Home Counties accent was at the age of 13, when she left her paternal grandmother’s house in Surrey to live with her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Gaby, in the wild streets of West London. She turned up on her first day at Godolphin & Latymer in long white socks and a proper uniform, “but Godolphin’s quite relaxed and everybody had their skirts taken in and so on, and I’m stood at the door with a pudding-bowl haircut, very, very nerdy and very square, with my doctor’s bag, and to go in at the second year of secondary school is difficult anyway because everybody’s already made their friends…”

So she abandoned the knee-length socks and went out and bought a bag from Millets with her stepmum. “I told her they were going to kill me if I didn’t”, and pretty soon she’d copied the names of bands she’d seen on other girls’ bags “because I just wanted to fit in. It was a survival technique, really.” By the same token, McCall changed the way she spoke when she got “a bit of hassle” from some kids in Shepherds Bush, on her way to school, “So I started talking ‘loik vat’ for survival because I thought I was going to be beaten up.” By this time, McCall’s survival skills were already pretty well-honed. Her French mother, Florence, and her English father – who comes from a long line of Wykehamists (which makes Davina’s background upper middle class, according to one of my Winchester- educated friends) and was a Debs’ Delight – had come to the decision to make their three-year-old daughter a ward of court since neither parent felt equipped to bring her up themselves.

She now knows that her parents did the best they could at the time by handing her over to her grandmother, but it has still left her with a lifelong fear of abandonment. “Being a mother myself [she has two little girls with Matthew, Holly and Tilly] has made me realise that all the things that make me want to be a great mum are all the things I missed when I was a kid,” she says. “Having got older and having been in recovery and going to meetings makes me realise that I can’t blame anybody else necessarily for all the things I’ve done in my life, but that my core insecurity is definitely going to have come from my mum not being around. “With time, I’ve come to realise that it wasn’t because my mum didn’t want me but when I was a teenager, I thought it was because my mum just had, you know, better things to do and that’s a horrible way to feel.”

Her feelings about her father seem to be less complicated than those towards her mother; in part because of the latter’s alcoholism, which certainly made its impact on Davina’s childhood, but also because her father was simply around more.

McCall would stay with her mother in Paris during the school holidays, in the chic eighth arrondissement off the Champs Elysées. At first, she says: “My mum was a very exciting wom­­an to be around, an electric personality. There was always a drama happening but she was always funny. She’d do the really embarrassing thing that you would never dare to do. I used to watch Absolutely Fabulous and I sometimes used to think, ‘Gosh, that’s like me – I’m Saffy and my mum’s Edina.’ Not the same kind of fashion preciousness, but that kind of relationship where she made me more square because I was constantly trying to look after my mum and keep her under control.” How embarrassing was her mother? “Well, I’m thinking of an electric-blue floorlength fake fur that made her look like Cruella De Vil which she’d waft around in, and she’d go to a café and have a double Ricard before she went to work [as manager of the Yves St Laurent boutique], and she’d be flirting with somebody, you know, inappropriate, and you’d be thinking, ‘Oh my God’, and she’d do citizen’s arrests when someone pinched her bottom. Just mad stuff but funny and fantastic… if you’re not the daughter. My friends would say, ‘Oh my GOD, she’s so cool.’ But I didn’t tell people a lot of the stuff that happened in France and I especially didn’t tell my English family because I didn’t want to upset them or for them to stop me going over there because I loved my mother. And I still love my mother and I’ll always love her, and she’s not drinking now and she’s doing really, really well.”

When did she realise that her mother had a drink problem? “Quite early on, really. Four or five. You’d walk into a room and you’d have to read the atmosphere and try to fit in. There are sort of survival techniques that kids use to deal with it. Like if somebody’s in a bad mood, you just sit quietly and know not to ask for anything or be too demanding. Or if they’re in a really good mood then you’ve got to join in and be silly. Or if they’re really crying, you’ve got to go and take care of them.”

In her teens, back home in London, the young Davina – no longer a nerdy square – started hanging out with an older set and be­coming a fixture on the clubbing scene. She was a regular at Taboo and the Camden Palace and Beetroot and knew Steve Strange and the late Leigh Bowery and Pete Burns, most recently seen being nasty on Big Brother. “I’d always quite cherished his kind of brutal honesty but I have to say that Pete Burns should not drink because when he has a drink inside him, he becomes vicious and he was drunk that night,” she says, apropos of his bullying attack on Baywatch’s Traci Bingham. A couple of interesting things emerge when McCall talks about her own relationship with drugs. She says that the reason she couldn’t allow herself to have even one glass of wine – although her husband is a “wine nut who spends a lot of time doing that lovely ritual of de­canting and sniffing and swooshing and sometimes, you think, you know, it looks fun” – is that she knows that she’s not the sort of person who can do “one” of anything. “And I can’t tell you, hand on heart, that if I got drunk at a party and someone said, ‘Would you like a line of coke?’ that I wouldn’t think about doing it, and that is too frightening… I’ve got two children, and I’ve got a life.

Just how bad was it? “If I started on New Year’s Eve, I would be taking drugs nonstop for three days because when I start I just can’t stop. And when I was an addict, I just let everybody down and maybe because I did have strong morals and good manners and stuff, that made me hate myself. With a passion. And that’s eventually why I stopped.”

For a long time, McCall was able to keep her life under control, working as a booking agent for Models 1 during the day and running clubs – her energy fuelled by drugs – into the early hours. But, she says, it was the control aspect that was so exhausting: “It’s like a white-knuckle thing – you know, trying really hard not to do something you really want to do, and you’re constantly in your head thinking about the next time you can go and get some drugs.” She left a boyfriend whom she’d blamed for getting her into heroin, but while he was able to quit, her habit got even worse. “I realised, ‘Gosh, it’s not his fault, I’ve got to look at me.’ And the last thing I wanted to do was stop taking everything. I just thought, ‘Am I still going to be a fun person to be around? And aren’t I going to turn into a really boring person? And I don’t want to be totally abstinent and I definitely can’t do it for the rest of my life. You know, forget it.’ But I tried it every other way. I knew I had to cut things out, so I stopped taking heroin about two months before I got clean [at 24], but then I just had a major coke problem, so I realised I’m obviously unable to take any drugs in moderation. And now when I see friends of mine coming into the rooms [at NA], in their mid-thirties, I think, ‘Well, thank God, I didn’t have to wait that long.”

At one point in our interview, McCall declared that she’s never been ambitious in terms of her TV career. I’m not having it that you’re not ambitious! was my response. Well, she demurred, ambition’s always seemed like a swear word – and she hates swearing – but, yes, OK, she was ambitious to get on to telly in the first place. And she was really proud of herself, when she finally got an opening on MTV: “Because I’d spent three years just chewing at people’s heels and annoying people. Tenacious. Addict without the drugs. Because the minute I put down the drugs, I needed something else to get my teeth into.”

Did she become a workaholic instead? “No, just tenacious. You see, if I work at something half as hard as I used to work on scoring drugs – and addicts spend a lot of time and effort trying to maintain their habit – then I’m going to be extremely successful.”

Still, I doubt that Davina appeared on most people’s radars until Big Brother really took off. And there were a fair number of turkeys on the way: a dating show called Love on a Saturday Night; a TV race to have a millennium baby, which she disapproved of anyway. But I do remember seeing her on a travel show years ago, and being struck by the new presenter’s… what? Freshness? Jauntiness? Slightly camp appeal? It’s hard to define what she had but as her French mother might put it, McCall definitely had a certain je ne sais quoi. So now, she’s routinely talked about in hyperbolic terms as one of the highest-paid female presenters, and there’s the new BBC show over the next eight weeks, hosting the Baftas for ITV and then, presumably, back to Channel 4 for the umpteenth series of domestic squabbles in The House, of which she says: “I’ve been very, very blessed to have a corker of a show to always come back to and I don’t know where my career would be if I didn’t have Big Brother to come back to, but thank goodness I have.”

Perhaps it’s because McCall has had more cause to examine herself than most of us, but she’s rather good at assessing what makes her so popular. “One thing I had in my favour is that I’ve never been skinny and I’m not putting myself down, but although I think I’m attractive and I know what my good features are, I’ve never thought of myself as a stunning beauty. And that’s a good thing for me because sometimes if you’re really, really beautiful you’re quite alienating.

“You know, I have to admit that when Traci walked into the Big Brother house, I was – like – ‘OMIGOD, look at her!’ And there was a part of me that hated her because she’s beautiful and she’s got such a bodacious body and enormous boobs. And when I saw that she was just somebody who needs a lot of love, I sort of melted a bit but she did have to work on me. And I don’t have to do that because people aren’t threatened by the way I look.’ And the other thing in her favour? “Oh,” she says, with a whoop, “I’m silly.”

What she really loves about Big Brother is when contestants say that they’ve learnt something about themselves from the experience: “Because for some of them it is a journey, a very personal one, and being in that house makes you look at yourself; I mean, you’ve got nothing else to do except think about yourself, and how your behaviour affects other people and how their behaviour affects you and how when there’s an argument you have to resolve it or else it just goes on and on. And it’s having to deal with things and deal with them in an open way and do stuff that you’d never normally do on the outside.”

Nadia, the transsexual who emerged the winner some time ago, was one of McCall’s favourites. That was the series that got me hooked, and following her over the weeks sometimes felt like watching an Almodóvar film which turned into The Elephant Man, in that extraordinary moment when she broke down in front of the camera and sobbed, “I am… not… a man…” “You see, there was real emotion there. She wasn’t in it for the money… I really believe she was in it for recognition and affection and that was an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing,” McCall says, her brown eyes blazing with sincerity.

What interests me about Davina’s own journey is how far she strayed from everything she held dear, in those lost years in her twenties. For several years after she got clean she went to church on a regular basis because, she says, “the vicar was amazing and unjudgmental, and he’s still one of my best friends”. She loves singing hymns and still prays, though “I don’t know who I’m praying to but I do believe my prayers are being heard.” When I ask her whether she has any role models, she has an instant reply: “My granny. She’s amazing. Highly emotional, highly opinionated, very fair and moral and just and incredibly thoughtful and kind to the community she lives in. She does a lot of charity work and she has a very strong faith and goes to church, and she used to say prayers to me every night. I mean, she’s really… well, she’s still the backbone of our family.”

It’s no surprise, then, that now she has a family of her own, and a husband she adores who jacked in his own mini-TV career as Pet Rescue presenter to become an Outward Bound instructor, that McCall has returned to her roots with a big house in Surrey and lunch every Sunday with family and friends. “A couple of years ago, my granny and I were talking about memories from childhood and I was remembering how I used to sit at the feet of my great-granny, who also lived with us, and how I would pinch the skin at the top of her hand and watch how long it would take to go back down again, and how she had these little things in her purse, like a pixie in a black cap which she’d let me play with. And a couple of days later, my granny had gone through the house and found the little pixie and sent it to me in the post, and now I have it in my purse.

“That was very emotional for me… a memory from 35 years ago and she still had it, and now I’ve got it. And she’s just done the most fantastic book for me, called The Grandparents Book, with all our family’s stories and the treats she was allowed when she was a little girl, and our family tree from way, way before me, and it’s these things that are really important to me, and will be even more so when she goes.”

It’s time for McCall to submit herself to more of the publicity hoopla she tries to avoid. She says she feels absolutely drained, stretching out on the banquette and whimpering as she kicks her legs in the air. But then a thought occurs to her: “Can I just say that’s what I’d like to have as my epitaph.” Er, what? “Whole­some but naughty. I love that. You know, I always wanted to be a little bit naughty.”

General, Women

The cure for bad backs, by royal appointment

THE TIMES – Feburary 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Sarah Key’s method of stamping out pain is so successful that the Prince of Wales is a big fan. So is Ginny Dougary, after joining a week-long course that brought tears as well as laughter.

Sarah Key is at it again, in her white skirty-shorts, tanned bare legs and pearls, her trusty plastic spinal cord draped over one shoulder like an outlandish stole, urging her “babies“ (aka middle-aged patients) to: “Dance on your pain, rock ’n’ roll, bend like a willow, crouch like a bushwhacker, curl like a swastika, spread like a blow-fly, and suck that fluid into your discs . . . shhhhhhllleeeeeeeoooough.”

“The world of backs is full of bullshit” is another of the Australian physiotherapist’s pithy sayings but there are many more where that came from, as I discovered when I enrolled as a fully fledged back-sufferer for a week of the Sarah Key Method.

There were 11 of us on the course, of all shapes and sizes, varied professions and nationalities — one woman had flown in from the States — and we were all 40-plus, with the exception of one sporty whippersnapper who, despite being only in his early thirties, seemed to be the worst afflicted of the bunch.

Key worked exclusively in the NHS when she was living in London more than 30 years ago. She went private in 1976 and now travels between Sydney — where she has her own practice — and the Hale Clinic in London. She is best known for using her feet to dig deep into stubborn tissue and for treating the collective back problems of the Royal Family, in particular those of the Prince of Wales, who is one of her staunchest supporters and, indeed, is backing her attempt to extend her treatment farther through his Foundation of Integrated Health.

Key uses her feet because she can feel more with them than with her hands. It’s a technique that she hs been honing for 20 years, since she first learnt it in Switzerland. She has treated thousands of people in that time from all over the world and says her success rate with “simple lower-back pain is astonishingly high, though complex problems have to be viewed over the longer term”.

This time last year I wrote in Body&Soul about my first meeting with Key when I interviewed her at Tresanton, Olga Polizzi’s haven of a hotel in Cornwall. It was on the eve of Key’s first Back-in-a-Week course at Tresanton and there was only a handful of patients. I sat in on the first morning’s meeting and every story of a life half-lived because of debilitating pain was dismaying in its own way.

What struck me most forcibly was how much the back-sufferers had sacrificed to be there. These were not people who were even comfortably off: an unemployed car mechanic who lost his job because of his ongoing back problem, who was funding the week with his redundancy money; a young mother, unable to pick up her toddler, who was risking further credit card debt. There was only one person, a Nike executive, for whom the fee at Tresanton of £ 3,000-odd pounds would not have created considerable financial hardship.

But then over the long years of searching for a cure most of the sufferers had already spent that sort of sum on the endless, dispiriting round of cranial osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncture, surgery, hypnotists and so on.

At that time, through brisk walking and daily exercises, I considered that my own bad back was pretty well sorted. But then Sarah gave me a couple of sessions with her feet and, on the second one, something unexpected happened. As I sat in one of the rather uncomfortable chairs, I felt an extraordinary whoosh of relief. My posture was suddenly radically different. Instead of the pinched sensation I must have learnt to live with, I was sitting in a way that felt completely new — but with a dim memory of it being familiar from a long, younger time ago — undistorted, relaxed, and at ease.

In the weeks that followed that mini-revelation, I felt more supple and spring-out-of- bedish than I had for years. But to maintain that new sensation of lightness, it was up to me to take charge. She gave me a “back block”, a blue Perspex oblong brick about a foot long, over which one is supposed to lie — stretching out the spine, sucking fluid into those all-important discs dried up from the hours of sitting hunched over a computer — twice a day, for the rest of one’s life. And guess what? I didn’t do it.

Therein lies the strength and the weakness of the Sarah Key Method. Her amazing foot action is only one aspect of her method. There is the aforementioned back block, which is already used in some forms of yoga but which she has modified for her own treatment. There is also Key’s approach, which marks her apart from others in her profession.

She is passionate about demystifying what is wrong with you, encouraging each back sufferer to understand his or her specific problems through straightforward diagrams and using vivid, unobfuscating language. She overturns all the usual shibboleths of the back profession and this sometimes feels scarily counter-intuitive: we are urged to bend down whenever possible; told that it is madness, indeed, to think that we are protecting our backs by avoiding using them; and that it’s actually good for us to lift heavy things, and so on.

Far from feeling alternative (where you tend to be urged to listen to your body), this feels more bracingly Mary Poppins-esque: our backs are naughty, stubborn children who need a good talking to and, when properly handled — with a daily regimen of back block and a spoonful of appeasing exercises to help the medicine go down — they will amaze us with how well behaved they can be. In the real world, however, the key question is whether you are the kind of person who is self-disciplined enough to maintain the eternal vigilance necessary to prevent your back, once it is on the mend, from going again.

When I returned to Trensanton as a particpipant in the Back-in-a-Week course, a fair number of my fellow sufferers were Times readers who had read the original piece in Body&Soul. Before, I had been a detached observer; now I had my own anxieties about feeling raw and vulnerable. The previous month, my only remaining adult relative — my older sister, Anne — had died unexpectedly, at the age of 59.

Almost as soon as I heard the awful news, my back went into spasm. The last occasion I had felt such excruciating pain was when my mother was dying and it seemed uncannily similar, almost as though the body itself had an emotional memory.

So there were tears that week but also a lot of laughter. It was instructive and helpful to hear about other people’s setbacks and to be reminded that one was far from alone in experiencing the frustrations of trying to cope with life when every movement causes pain.
I recalled how I had sat on the floor for an hour and a half for a recent interview with Bob Geldof because there were no suitable chairs. A chief executive talked about how she would sometimes have to lie down in meetings, which may have been awkward but would have been more so if she weren’t the boss.

Each day started at 8am with a slide-show lecture. The room was covered with mattresses, pillows and blankets and we were encouraged to lie, sit, stretch and stand whenever we felt uncomfortable. There were initial individual consultations, with Key scribbling over our backs with a marker pen to pinpoint the problem areas, which were then photographed.

Towards the end of the week, these images were flashed on to a screen as we listened to the diagnosis of one another’s cases and Key’s suggested remedies. The exercises that would strengthen one person’s back, for instance, would be disastrous for someone else. By day three, what with Key dancing on our pain with her feet and us rocking and rolling on our mats, most of us were feeling sore and, in some cases, spectacularly bad-tempered; the atmosphere of cheerful bonhomie replaced by monosyllabic grunts. This, we were told, was entirely to be expected since the work is so intensive.

This time round my back seemed more resistant to Key’s earthy foot action, although I was certainly aware of the different, almost musical notes of “sweet pain” when her heel hit the trouble zone and the dull drone from the surrounding areas.

One of our group was actually sobbing on her mat during an exercise session, although it was unclear whether this was emotional or because the movements were too hard for her. Another member put her back out, mid-stretch, and Key had to whack it in with some force. So although there were many jolly snapshots from the week — I particularly liked the moment when the magazine editor, something of a style icon, said the only way she could be persuaded to wear a pillow strapped to her back was if Prada designed the cover — there were constant reminders that back pain really is no laughing matter.

If anyone had come expecting instant results, they would, we were warned, be disappointed. On the penultimate day, Carmel Neale, who had attended one of the earlier Tresanton courses, addressed our group. For seven years she had felt like a “mouse on a wheel” trying everything from surgery to Pilates in her search for a cure, but with no success.

In the months after being released from Key’s care, progress was literally painfully slow, but she persevered with the daily exercises and the back block and now, a year later, her life was transformed; her only medication a glass or two of sauvignon blanc and occasional anti-inflammatories. She had been on hiking holidays and sailing trips, had moved house, and her back had coped throughout.

As Key said: “You must remember that you are all on a journey. You’ll be able to poke your head out but then you’ll probably need to retreat back into your shell.” Two months on, there are mixed reports from our group. The whippersnapper is on three-months’ sick leave from work at Key’s behest, and a couple of the women say that they feel in worse shape than they did before.

The magazine editor is making terrific progress, however, and I’m fine (my back pain, as I believed, was tied up with the shock of bereavement). Almost everyone speaks highly of Key: she has given them hope; they feel that she really cares and takes them seriously; and for the first time they have a diagnosis that makes sense.

The main obstacle to recovery, it must be said, is that although Key is determined to teach her method to more physiotherapists — her hope is that it will be taken up by the NHS to enable those who can least afford it to benefit — she, herself, cannot be cloned and for most of the year she could hardly be farther away.

Two initiatives are needed to discern whether the Sarah Key Method could and should be made more widely available: thorough ongoing research into why her approach seems to work in many cases where all else has failed and the facility for more physiotherapists to be given the opportunity to observe and be trained by her. Both of these will be taking place soon under the auspices of Prince Charles, who wrote the foreword to her Back Sufferer’s Bible (Vermilion, £9.99). “Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work,” he wrote. “After all, I should know. As one of her guinea- pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.”

Since HRH has been seeing Key for years, he as much as any back-sufferer would agree that there is one certainty with a problem back: it is sure to be be a long and chequered road ahead. For, as Sarah Key says, and who better to say it: “Backs are buggers.”