Monday, 30 January 2012

Taboo - the psychology of the unthinkable

Lennie in the Chariot of Death
I was working at City Limits magazine back in the 80s when my friend George came up to my desk. ‘I’ve just come back from THE weirdest place,’ she said. ‘And met THE weirdest guy. He’s causing a stir in Hackney with this car called The Chariot of Death.  He’s mad. You’d absolutely love him.’ 

How could I resist?  So I trundled off to visit Lennie Lee and, boy, did he love to create an impression.  On our first meeting he calmly offered me some of his blood (in a communion goblet) and wondered if I fancied signing a pact with the devil.  He then asked if he could paint my portrait – and proceeded to scrawl with thick felt pen on a vast sheet of paper on the floor – I watched my face turn into a series of sigils and symbols.  ‘Have you captured my soul?’ I asked with a frown.  He just raised a sardonic eyebrow.
We became very good friends. 

Lennie is one of those people who simply never compromise. He’s a true artist, a free thinker, a provocateur.  He loves to shock, to challenge, to appal. Everything interests him and he sees incredible beauty in the most mundane, commonplace, despised places, people and objects.  But, above all, he’s fascinated by taboo. ‘I target things that are hidden,’ he says. ‘I want to confront people with their assumptions in the hope they will be released from fear.’

Taboo. Now, there’s another subject that fascinates me.  Why is it that certain subjects, images, objects, practices are deemed not just revolting and disgusting, but beyond that - not to be considered, not even countenanced. Even to think about them is somehow to infect yourself.  It’s this belief that some ideas are so incredibly dangerous that the very thought itself is sinful.  Interesting, huh?

What are your taboos? What pushes your buttons?  Think about it if you dare. What is so sacred you cannot bear even to contemplate it?  Psychologists call it the ‘mere contemplation’ effect – the observation that there are times when, merely to contemplate a decision, marks you as morally suspect.  One thought too many.  The psychology of the unthinkable. 

Some taboos are logical, reasonable even. Homicide is generally a sensible taboo (though deep green activists could probably argue against it quite plausibly). Incest isn’t a great idea, from a strictly genetic viewpoint. Cannibalism isn’t too bright, given you can catch a form of encephalitis from human flesh.  The rest, really, are moral and shift according to your culture. 

Yet they get us very hot under the collar.  They even help us clan, herd.  Certain issues, images, ideas are considered so sacred that if you even have that ‘one thought too many’ you are instantly outside the herd, you have shown disloyalty to the cause; you’re an apostate.  Politics offers a very mild example.  The other day someone dared to post on Facebook that she was surprised to find herself agreeing with something a Tory politician had said.  Within seconds her post was bombarded with fury. ‘That bastard’; ‘that prick’, and so on. Had they even read the opinion? Of course not.  It was pure kneejerk.  Tory = evil Etonian rich prat.  It works the other way too, of course.  Politics?  Meh.

Anyhow. Lennie.  Not a guy who’s afraid of poking a stick in a nest of rattlesnakes.  I won’t post his more extreme images or videos up here as I don’t want to offend delicate sensitivities.  If you do decide to click on the link, BE WARNED that there are some pretty extreme images. Here's the link:  ENTER.  Don't blame me if you don't like them. I have to add, however, that there are some very beautiful images there too - it's not all blood and guts and gore. 

But he does look at things most of us shy away from – sickness, personal shame, fear and prejudice.  Blood, vomit, disease, death, mental illness, food. He touches the boundaries of morality, taste, religion, politics, shame – and what he calls ‘unpopular culture’.
‘I’m interested in the power of certain objects to create strong emotions,’ he says. ‘Subject matter that people find disgusting and fascinating. The contradiction between the civilised surface we present and the animalistic violence that lies beneath.’

Food for thought.  And, talking of food, I’d suggest you don’t visit his site if you’re about to eat your supper.   Shock or schlock?  You decide.

If you want to read further on taboo, I’d suggest you check out Philip Tetlock, a psychologist who has conducted research on whether certain taboos have logical reasons or if they are pure affect. He questions whether taboo is compatible with any idea of intellectual vigour, arguing that - surely - any idea is worth thinking about...even if only to determine whether it is wrong.

Note: All images are ©Lennie Lee, reproduced here with his permission. Please do not reproduce without his permission. Many of his images are for sale via his website.   

Thursday, 26 January 2012

You just don't know...

Communication. Talking. Saying what you feel, what you mean. Being honest. Seriously, why are we so bloody crap at it?  I write this agony aunt column every month for Natural Health magazine (yeah, yeah, don’t laugh) and really, I could answer pretty well every dilemma in one word:  TALK!  Spit it out. Say what you’re feeling.  

Don’t be mean: say what you mean. 

Cos most people aren’t psychic.  They won’t intuit what you feel.  They won’t hear the words unspoken. You have to bite the bullet and say it. Not in an aggressive ‘you total manky bitch’ or ‘you ignorant fecking bastard’ way – but in a straightforward, honest ‘this is how I feel’ way.  Simple huh?

So why don’t we? 

I guess sometimes it’s because of fear.  If you know someone will act with anger or aggression, that’s good reason to keep schtum.  But then, I wonder, should you really be around someone who reacts that way in the first place?  Sometimes, maybe, you don’t want to ask the question because, in your heart of hearts, you’re scared of the answer.  Or you’re scared of looking and sounding foolish, of making an arse of yourself. 

And some people, of course, use silence and lack of communication as a kind of power game. 

But really, all of it drives me crazy.  So much misunderstanding. So much time, so many opportunities, lost through lack of words. So much hurt and pain sometimes.  Through lack of truth and honesty. 

The mind, left to its imaginings, can be an inventive beast. It can come up with all kinds of scenarios; all sorts of hurt and paranoia.  And thought is creative.  How we think can affect how we feel.  Magicians would go one step further and say that how we think can affect matter – because, really, it’s all just different forms of energy.  So we should be careful with our words, with our thoughts, with what is said and what is thought.  With what is unsaid.  Can something be unthought though?  No.  Only pushed away or buried or – better - replaced with something new.

Anyhow. Let’s be honest (ho ho), I’m not always great at the communication stuff myself.  I’m not one of life’s great splurgers.  Generally I don’t talk a whole load, truth to tell. I love silence. And silence loves me. And, yes, sometimes there can be too many words banded about. I once spent a car journey pondering the maths on how much Adrian speaks in comparison to me – I think it was a ratio of 750:1 or thereabouts.  I’m a good listener though – most journalists are. I guess it's balance again - a question of knowing when to speak and when to shut the feck up.  

Last night there was a deep and not remotely comfortable silence in the house.  Adrian and James weren’t talking.  Again.  Ye gods.  To be fair, Adrian is pretty good at expressing how he feels.  And he will readily admit if he’s done wrong.  But James is a tougher nut to crack. He’s a Scorpio, one of life’s natural silent brooding types.  I’m determined that, if I can teach James one thing, just one thing (after the self-esteem thingy of course), it will be to communicate; to be honest about how he feels.  To state his feelings clearly, openly, without losing the plot.  Yes, that will sometimes bring him heartache, of course it will, but it will also save him heartache in the long term.  So, after a suitable period elapsed (cos everyone needs to wallow for a bit), I followed him, cornered him in his lair and made him look me in the eye and talk.  And eventually he did.  And instead of launching off into ‘And he said this…’ or ‘And it’s so unfair…’ he talked about how he felt.  He spat it all out and felt – he said - much the better for it. 

As the old adage goes, better out than in.  

So, today, maybe…try being honest. Say what you feel.  Is there an elephant in the room?  Name it. Something you’ve wanted to get off your chest for aeons? Shift it. Can’t say it? Write it. Put it in a letter and sign it with a kiss (or knot).  Because, really, life can be too short for miscommunication, misunderstanding.  Yet another person I know died this week (no, no, please no commiserations – I didn’t know him well – the husband of a friend).  She heard his key in the door but he never came in.  When she went to see what had happened, she found him dead on the doorstep.  You never know how long anybody has got.  Use your time wisely eh? 

Can you catch a nightmare?

Every so often an image stops me in my tracks. A few weeks back a friend gave me a pile of old magazines.  A few days ago I was flicking through one and this image just smacked me in the face.
It’s huge apparently – 8ft by 11ft – a watercolour entitled The Island by the American painter Walton Ford.  No, he’s not some nineteenth century botanist – the painting is recent – 2009.
I just keep staring at it. At this seething writhing knot of creatures.  It’s painfully graphic – the thylacines (as I found out they were) are ripping and biting, not only the lambs but one another.  And yet somehow it’s not a frenzy. The lambs seem resigned somehow; the thylacines equally uninvolved somehow. And, aside from one creature in the background, the predators are not eating their prey.  In fact, one lamb floats, forgotten in the water, as the two nearest thylacines sink their teeth into one another.  So it is not hunger?  They bite out of habit; out of boredom; out of nature; from enforced captivity? Yet nobody forces them to stay - there is no enclosure, no fence. They are their own prison guards. 

The more I looked, the more I saw.  The one lamb, quietly swimming away, blood on its coat.  The thylacine seeing it (surely?) and looking as though it will pounce. But will it, can it, leave its knot, its island of flesh?

The lamb at the top of the pile stands, almost stoically, the sacrifice, as jaws clamp around its back. Another is, somehow, miraculously, blood-free – right in the centre of the mass.  It jumps. Can it escape? Or will it land straight in the maw of the spectator creature, shoulder-deep in the water.  The water is curiously calm, blue-green, not stained with blood and gore.

What does it mean?  I’m still thinking about what it means to me – which is, ultimately, the bottom line, eh? 

The artist called it ‘a sort of fever dream’ and questioned the role of predator and prey.  For, see, the thylacine was also called the Tasmanian Wolf or Tiger yet it was neither wolf nor tiger but actually a marsupial (yes, a cousin to kangaroo and wallaby).  It was native to Australia and New Guinea and, over several million years apparently it evolved itself into a mean-ass predator, an antipodean velociraptor.  It was extincted (yeah I know it’s not really a verb but why not?) on the mainland way back but the thyracine survived on Tasmania until the early twentieth century.  As Walton Ford said, in an interview in the New Yorker:

‘The animal scared the hell out of the settlers. It looked like a wolf but with stripes, like a tiger, and they could get up on their hind legs, which made them even scarier. The settlers were sheepherders, and they built up this myth of a huge bipedal nocturnal vampire beast that sucked the blood of sheep.  The settlers put a bounty on these animals and began killing them off in every possible way – poison, traps, snares, guns. The last known one died in captivity in the nineteen-thirties, but they lived on in people’s imagination.’

They do. They certainly live on in my imagination.  And maybe in others too.  This morning, at 5am, I was woken suddenly from a dream by a piercing scream.  James. 
‘I had a nightmare,’ he said. 
‘Tell me,’ I said.
‘There was this creature. Like a wolf or a dog but it stood on its hind legs.  There was a light over its head. It was coming for me.’
Had he seen the image?  Yet how would he know the thylacine could stand on its hind legs?  There was no mention of that in the magazine.  Had he read anything about werewolves or anything lately?  No, he insisted (and it’s true, he avoids that kind of thing like the plague).  
Maybe it was another beast?  I’ve been reading lately about familiars, about creatures that can do the bidding of their masters and mistresses.  About one, in particular, from Scotland, that appeared like a wolf, standing on two legs, rapacious, blood-thirsty.  And I wondered, given we are all connected by subtle energy, can you catch a nightmare?  Can you pick up a thought-form, a beast, a fetch, a familiar, by telepathic connection.  Had the visions in my head seeped into James’?  Yes, that sounds far-fetched (sorry for the pun) but is it, really? 

We are careful about what our children read and watch but should we also be careful about our own thoughts and feelings?  I do believe that moods can be contagious (if you don't know how to protect yourself from them), that we can (whether consciously or unconsciously) project feelings onto others. Children are particularly impressionable.  Sobering thought, huh? 

Anyhow, what images have jumped at you lately?    

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Should writers blog?

Yesterday I was scrolling through a writing forum and I read a post by an author whining about blogging. Specifically she was moaning that writers are increasingly being urged to blog, to tweet, to engage in social media. Did writers really have to write blogs, she said?  My answer was pretty simple:  if you don’t like blogging, don’t do it.  Doh.  Horses for courses and all that. 

But then I thought a bit more about it and I started to scratch my head.  This is a writer speaking. A WRITER. Someone who uses words; who communicates with words; who presumably loves words. And I was really puzzled. 

People often ask me why I blog.  After all, writing is my day job.  I’m a journalist and an author. Words pay my bills. Well, in theory. J So why on earth would I want to spend my spare time writing for free?  Er, because I enjoy it.

This blog is my place:  the place I can rant, moan, emote, pontificate, whine, laugh, throw all my toys out the pram, whatever… There is no editor telling me to cover this and that; no marketing department asking me if I'm reaching my demographic.
A blog post – 500 words or thereabouts - takes probably half an hour maximum to write.  It’s a limbering up exercise, if you like, before I flex my fingers and start on the usual writing work of the day.
Hmm, maybe not a good reason...
‘But what should I write about?’ say the reluctant author bloggers.  Holy crap!  Look around you. What excites you? What interests you? What flirts with you? What tugs you by the shirt-tails?  If I had the time I could probably write four or five posts a day.  Seriously.  Because life is interesting. People are interesting. The world is interesting.  Isn’t it?  Surely, I wonder, it should be, and above all if you're a writer. 
I think maybe the problem comes because writers feel they should write about writing (yawn). Or they should be reviewing books (which is all well and good but it’s bloody time-consuming) or interviewing other authors (which can be interesting and is something I do occasionally – but not all the time).  But why?  Why should you limit yourself to anything? 

Blog alpaca! 
Some people are very focused in their blogging.  They write purely about parenting, or food, or pets, or fitness, or politics or knitting or gardening or…hell, I dunno.  Alpacas or juggling.  Niche.  And niche is nice if you can do it.  Niche can be madly commercial.  A guy I knew made a tidy living out of baseball mini-league or whatever it’s called.  And all power to his bat.  But you have to be one of those single-minded people, someone with a particular hobby or a focused passion (or, alternatively, your blog is your business and so you’re talking work).  Personally I can’t do that.  I get bored staying on message. 

But let’s think about writers and blogging again.  What purpose does a blog serve a writer?  Why might a blog be a “good thing” for a writer?  On one hand, it’s a showcase. Firstly, it shows the raw state of your writing, without any editing.  Trust me, the copy of even some of the most famous writers looks a bit ropey round the edges before it’s knocked into shape by editors (I would name names but, having been discussing  Online Defamation Law with some lawyer friends, I’ll be cautious…) Secondly, it shows you’re flexible, that you can write up a storm on any bloody thing you choose.  I’ve been given journalism work via my blog. I’ve been approached by agents because of my blog.  I’ve been taken on amazing trips (giving me huge inspiration for my writing) because of this blog.

Connect with your audience...
On the other hand, it’s a way to connect with your readers.  A lot of people who read my books also check out the blog. At first I worried that my honesty, my fallibility, would put them off.  But it seems not.  I think blogging is maybe a way of giving a bit of yourself; of showing what makes you tick; that you’re approachable, human.  Of course, as an author that might be exactly what you don’t want to give away.  In which case I’d say, why not share other aspects of your work – poetry, short stories, character sketches. Or share some of your inspiration – music, other people’s words, images.  If people love your writing, they will want to know more. Why not be generous?  Oh how I wish more of my favourite authors would blog, or be more generous in their blogging.  

And then, on the one foot (having run out of hands). Blogging as sales ploy?  Hmm.  Do people buy my books because of my blogging?  I doubt it.  I don’t mention my books that much.  Maybe I should.  But then, see, blogging becomes just a form of marketing and that’s boring again.  However I’m sure that some people’s blogs encourage readers to buy their books. Why wouldn’t they?

Can I squeeze out another fecking poem?
Then, the argument continued, aren't there too many blogs out there already? Aren't blogs just self-indulgent waffle, word-wanking?  Well, maybe.  But then again, you could say that about a lot of writing in general, couldn't you?  Someone said that they would rather spend their time writing their fiction, or coming up with a poem or whatever. And that's a good argument. Providing you are writing those things.  I dunno about you, but I have a limit on sustained creativity of the novel-writing kind. And I sure as hell couldn't sit writing poems all freaking day. 

Anyhow.  I ask myself again.  As a writer, should you blog?  No, of course not. No should about it.  Do what you bloody well like!  Should you want to blog? Well now, that’s a different question altogether.  What do you think?   

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Earth Hour and beansprouts

I keep writing blog posts and deleting them. You ever do that? Sometimes it’s enough to write something just for you. Once you’ve written it, there’s no longer any need to publish it. Sometimes I feel like that about everything I write, come to think of it. I wonder if this post will make it? J

Anyhow. I got sent an email about Earth Hour. And I took a look.  And I thought, yeah, why not?  It’s organised by the WWF and the idea is simple. On 31 March 2012, at 8.30pm (GMT), everyone turns off their lights for one hour, right across the planet. Now you can guess why I like this, huh, given that here in Dulverton we had our own mini Earth hour last week? 
It’s not just about saving electricity; it’s about thinking about the planet, about our current home and how we have a big global problem going on and that being NIMBYish, sticking our heads in the sand and saying ‘I’m alright, Jack’ ain’t gonna solve it.  Maybe it’s too late anyhow…  Maybe we’ve already reached the tipping point and swung over.  But still…it’s a beautiful world, it really is.  Just open your eyes and look around you.  While you still can.  
But anyhow. Earth Hour. Yes. Nice idea. The guys at WWF suggest you make it special.  Go somewhere awesome to watch the switch-off – like the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Gizeh, Sydney Opera House…  Or stay at home with candles and fire (so, much like most nights for me.. J) and cook a special meal (so, not like me…) 
They’ve got a bunch of chefs on-board to suggest ideas for cool cookouts. Some 'celebrity' (yuck). But I’m rather taken by the recipes of Ching-He Huang – obviously cos they’re vegetarian but also because I’ve never been wild on Chinese cooking (don’t get beansprouts, don’t see the point of water chestnuts) but these look quite…tasty. And I do so love to change my mind...

Red cabbage and edamame salad
Serves 4

50g shredded red cabbage
100g edamame beans (you can buy frozen)
1 medium Fresno chilli, deseeded and finely chopped.
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Toss all ingredients together in a bowl.  Chill for 20 mins and then serve.  Yeah, I could do that!

And then she cooks up Veggie Mama – the monster of all stir-fries for Mother Nature.  But there’s way too much to type out here so I’ll link you to the vid…  Nice.

Sweet potato brown rice
Serves 4 to share
300g brown rice
400g sweet potato (peel and cut into small chunks)
600ml water

Wash the rice well, until the water runs clean.  Put all the ingredients into a pan and bring to the boil. Once boiled, reduce to a simmer and cook on a low heat for 20 minutes.  Fluff the rice and serve immediately.

Then there’s pudding, of course…

And, finally, tea…

Bon apetit…

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Star Wars

Star Wars have broken out in the Bonkers House.  I came back from kettlebells last night in the church (yes, when it's too horrible outside we swing our bells in the Congregational Chapel, being careful to avoid the altar) just in time to catch the end of Stargazing Live on BBC2.  Perched on the chair next to the fire I was trying to listen to the bit about black holes when Adrian walked in and talked all over it.
‘Ssssh,’ James and I chorused.
‘But it’s nearly over,’ he replied.
And indeed we’d missed the black holes entirely. 
‘Sssh. I want to hear if they’re going to mention Dulverton,’ I said.
But the titles came up and that was that.
‘They probably won’t come after all,’ Adrian said. ‘The weather forecast is atrocious. Won’t be able to see a thing.’
‘But, but… Of course they will.’
He raised an eyebrow.

Adrian has been remarkably dismissive about the whole issue of Dulverton going dark for the BBC. Since I heard we were going to be asked to turn out the lights, I’ve been asking him repeatedly to fix the sensor light on our gate.  This is supposed to come on obediently if anyone approaches at night (so any burglars will be able to see their way and won’t sue us for breaking a leg on the steps) but it’s broken, like most things here, and so is on permanently.  I'd do it myself except...
‘I’d burn myself,’ he said. (yup, that's why I won't do it).  ‘Anyhow, what’s the big deal?’

Then, today, he came back from town having spoken to our neighbour. ‘This BBC thing,’ he said. ‘It’s a bloody big deal, you know.’
Really? Well, stone the flipping crows.
‘There’s going to be police and wardens and everything.  They’re going to stop people in cars and not let them go through.’  He looked irritated.
‘Well, of course they are,’ I said. ‘A whole bunch of car headlights isn’t exactly going to help the pitch black bit, is it?  Anyhow, it’s not as if they’ve sprung it on us – the notices have been up for weeks.’
He frowned. ‘But I hate all this telling us what to do crap.  Controlling bollocks.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Since when have you been so anti-establishment?’ 

As a founding member of the Carshalton Anarchist Front (Greyhound pub branch; complete with black beret and bandit mask) I’ve never been too fond of authority.  But I really really want Dulverton to go really really dark.  Why?  Well, partly because if this comes off, it should help boost the tourism our town needs and deserves.  But mainly because this is about stars!  Stars. STARS.

Hundreds of billions of galaxies burning in universes. Stars so ancient that their light has taken millions, billions even, of years to reach us. We are seeing history, we are looking outside time.  Stars talk to us of mind-freaking infinity, of crazy impossibility, of wild incandescence, of beatific transcendence. No wonder we try to transfer their qualities onto poor human substitutes – onto the shimmery pseudo gods and goddesses of Hollywood onto whom we project our own desire to shine, for immortality.   For in the Pyramid texts of ancient Egypt the deceased was told to become the ‘imperishable star’ and hence live forever.
In alchemy the many conflicting parts of the self are brought together to form a supernova, the One. Equally the black hole has been equated with the nigredo – the ‘black blacker than black’ - of psychic fragmentation, of total despair.  The soul moves outside the event horizon of space and time. 

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit deep.  But I think there’s another reason we should look up and stare at stars.  Ren Warom touched on it in her comment yesterday. She talked about an experience that was ‘unnerving and humbling’, about the knowledge of how small we really are and how huge the universe is, and how it ‘blew the fuses in my head for a while.’
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It does. It really does.  But, you know, I feel it gives us the perspective we humans often lack. We see our reality as so firm, so certain. We think we have the god-given right to trample all over this planet, and all over our fellow inhabitants.  Yet, if you look further, if you project yourself out there into the stars, you see, as Ren says, just how freaking small we are.  Then think about our planet and where it fits into that immensity and everything suddenly feels very different. That’s not to say we’re unimportant or that we do not experience physicality around us. But we are not the big cheeses and our reality is not as rock solid as our senses soothe us. 
It reminded me of this passage from Symphonic Bridges, talking about how the Earth’s structure is in direct contradiction to the stability that realists value so much. 

“Beneath the crust and the brittle upper mantle (the lithosphere), the semi-fuel zone (asthenosphere) and the lower mantle – there is the boiling zone ‘D’, where the mantle meets the iron core: white hot fluid metal (5800 degrees Celsius). So, ‘How do we sleep while our beds are burning?’
This whole bizarre structure rotates on its axis, with the speed of a spot on the equator reaching 1670 km/h. If we add to this the dizzying speed of the earth’s revolution around the sun: 107280 km/h, we’ll see ourselves on a monstrous, breathtaking Ferris wheel, suspended in the infinite space together with other ‘mechanisms’, similar and different… Countless.”

Scary? Maybe. But awesome.  Madly awesome.  Bit freaky maybe?  Yes. Of course. But we have to try to grasp what we can; we have to have the heart and guts to move out of our comfort zones. 

“This is what conscious living is about,” Marek continues. “To be aware of the context (as much as we can grasp). Then having our feet firmly fixed on the ground will acquire an entirely different significance.”

So tonight I will be missing Zumba. I’ll be out with the rest of the town, in the dark, concentrating on breaking up the clouds so we can see into the sky. I’ll be thinking about my place, not just in the world but in the universe, in the cosmos, in beyond that event even.  Hey, you might see me on television. Except... umm…hopefully it’ll be too dark to see. J

PS – just as I was writing this, Adrian came along and stood at the threshold of my turret.
‘That light,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well. We could turn off the electricity from the mains.’
I smiled. ‘Yes, we could.’ 
Now why the freak didn’t I think of that?? 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


A full moon is shining, bathing the woodland in a pale unearthly gleam. Then it passes behind clouds and the darkness deepens.  At first it seems silent but then I hear the sudden cry of a fox, the hoot of owl; a rustle in the undergrowth; sounds I don’t notice by day.  As my eyes become accustomed to the dark, I see and feel the landscape in a totally different way.  

Do you fear the dark or embrace it?  Me, I love the countryside at night. Whether by moonlight or in the pitch dark of the occult moon, it’s a whole different world. 
Everything is more intense. Your senses are more alert.  It’s just more…I dunno…spine-tingling, exciting.  Yet our society generally shuns the dark, turning almost obsessively towards the light.  Why else do we keep the street lights on and bathe every building in brightness?  Is it because, deep within us, there still lurks an atavistic fear of the dark – of wild animals and menacing human enemies?  Do the shadows conjure nightmares of ghosts and ghouls and things that hiss and rustle in the night?  Or is it that we rely so much on the sense of sight?  Once darkness falls, the advantage shifts to those creatures which use other senses.  What we can’t see often frightens us? But at the edge of fear comes excitement, no? 
Try it.  Turn off your torch too.  Our eyes have something called dark adaptation so that, during low light levels the body produces a photosensitive chemical called rhodopsin.  When bright light hits the eye, the rhodopsin splits into two leaving you night blind (which is why you can’t see in the dark after turning a bright torch on and then off again). 

Yes, you gotta take sensible precautions but really, don’t let fear put you off embracing the magic of a dark night.  Of course, there’s night swimming too, and boating – is there anything more magical than moonlight on water?  But I save that for summer. J
Then, of course, there are the stars.  One of my greatest joys, when we lived out on the moor, perched on top of a hill, was to lie out on the grass on a summer night and watch the star-tangled magic skies. Dazzling star dancers in stately swirls of symphonic splendour.  Okay, that’s enough sidereal alliteration.  I used to send myself quite dizzy, projecting myself into the Milky Way to join the dance; imagining myself huge, embraced by supernovas.
But anyhow.  I’m pleased that our Exmoor skies have been recognised as some of the darkest in the country.  We’ve been designated a Dark Sky Reserve, the first in Europe.  Actually this does puzzle me as, when I look at a Google satellite map of Europe there are some helluva big tracts of open countryside out there but hey…I’m not complaining.  We’ve got it so we’ll sure as hell milk it!  
Truly, if you love dark skies, if you love watching the stars and planets, that whole great big amazing universe out there (and the ones beyond), this is the place to come.  Because of our lack of light pollution, it makes it a great place to come to starwatch.  We also boast a DarkSky Discovery site over at Wimbleball Lake. 
Now, I don’t know if you’ve been watching BBC Two’sStargazing LIVE with Brian Cox and Dara O Briain. But tomorrow (8pm on 18th January) Dulverton is going to be the star of the show when astronomer Mark Thompson asks all of us here in town to turn off our lights.  The idea being that we show the rest of the UK just how amazing a sky without light pollution may be.  Apparently they’re bringing astronomers (tame ones, I hope) and telescopes. As they say on their leaflet –

There’s a whole universe of incredible wonders above your head, isn’t it time you looked up?

Oh, and check out Exmoor Star Gazers....

Oh (again), and in typical Dulverton fashion the local businesses have joined in with some fabulous window displays.  Even the estate agents are getting in on the act with some truly terrible puns! 
light pollution from shop opposite! 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Er...I'm cleaning

Last night I went to my friend Gill’s house for the evening.  I love her place. It’s so welcoming, so reassuringly normal, about as far from Bonkers as you can get.  It’s not just that it’s deliciously warm, it’s beautifully clean. Ordered. Uncluttered. But above all clean. Her kitchen gleams. No really, it glitters like a vampire’s skin. You can see the wood on her table. Open her fridge and you don’t recoil in disgust. There is no gloopy alien lifeforce colonising her cooker.

It was late when I got home so I didn’t really notice the house much, except for tripping over a pile of something someone had thoughtfully left on the stairs.  Why didn’t I see it? Because there's no light on the stairs.  Having hurled your entire body weight against the door to shoulder your way in (you wonder why I work out? I need the muscles), you are then plunged into darkness the moment you slam it shut and have to feel your way up two flights of stairs (incidentally passing the Loo of Doom and the Cellar of Spirits – renamed after Lorraine’s visit – and barging your way through the partying entities).  Once through the door into the kitchen, you move from pitch darkness to a forgiving penumbra (there are lights but half the bulbs don’t work).  Anyhow, shadows hide a multitude of sins.

But this morning, in the unforgiving glare of cool low winter sun? Oh hell.  We live in a pigsty.  And, given our homes reflect our minds, that what we see around us mirrors our inner world?  Oh dear.  L

So. I got cleaning. I know, I know.  I was shocked too.  But I hauled James off the Xbox,  armed him with a timely sponge and pointed him in the right direction (ie told him to spin round, pick a spot, any spot, and start scrubbing).  Now then, is there anything more beautiful than the sight of a teenage boy on his hands and knees, cleaning?  Okay, so you do have to put up with the whole underpants showing over the low-slung jean thing (does ANYONE get that?) but hey…

Incidentally, do your children clean?  My mother was adamant that all boys should know how to clean, cook and do the laundry.  Just as she believed girls should be able to fix cars and use a drill.  She said she’d never forgive herself for bringing up a man who couldn’t fend for himself; who expected women to do all the domestic work.
I’m following her lead.  James is a good cook; is handy with mop, duster, scrubbing brush and vacuum cleaner. I’ve taught him the fine art of reading clothing labels and he can sort of iron (because that’s all his teacher can do).

Anyhow. The cleaning was actually relatively pleasant because we’d been given a whole bunch of Greenscents products to try out.  Greenscents are a local company who make household products with absolutely no chemical nasties.

I didn’t think I’d get excited about cleaning products but really these are pretty fabulous. I love them mainly because they smell divine – I’m hard pressed to choose between the mint and the citrus scent for general cleaning.  Lavender always wins me over in the laundry department.  Even Adrian’s a convert.  He reckons the wood floor cleaner is ‘the business’.  ‘Tell ‘em I like the smell,’ he says. ‘And it does a really good job.’
Yes, I’m plugging these guys, I freely admit it.  There are several reasons.

1. I like local.  I like to support small businesses, particularly those that give a damn about the environment.
2. I don’t like harsh chemical cleaners. I don’t like what they could potentially do to my family’s health and I don’t like what they do to the environment.
3. They’re damn good products. They do the job and make your home smell nice.
They are more expensive than the stuff you get in Tesco or whatever but I think they’re worth the extra.  Will I continue using them when this lot is finished?  Yes, I think so.  £2.50 for washing up liquid is a bit steep but the laundry liquid is a total keeper.  At £4.75 it’s around the price of the conventional stuff and it washes a treat.  I don’t usually use fabric conditioner – it’s a hangover from when my son was small and had appalling skin problems (conditioner can exacerbate eczema etc). But I’m hooked now on all our stuff smelling so damn…fresh.  However, if essential oils cause irritation (and they can – natural isn’t always the answer!) there is also an unscented range.
Sheesh, all this domestic goddessery and nice housewifery business is a bit alarming.  Time to strip off the pinny and get back to my usual slatternly ways. 

If you want to find out more about greenscents, check out their website –

Saturday, 14 January 2012


It all started out so well.  I woke at 6am after a full six hours’ sleep, having enjoyed some weird dreams and a certain amount of astral decadence. 
Zumba had worked its usual magic, the sun was shining, the frost was crisp and the day was bright.  I did my morning meditation, Tibetans and then spent a pleasant hour at the gym. 
Something was nagging at the back of my mind but I couldn’t for the life of me think what it was.
‘Where is it you’re going this evening?’ asked Adrian, as I got back, shouting over the sound of the vacuum cleaner.
Shit. That was it! Last night at Zumba, Kate had said, ‘You are going tomorrow night, aren’t you?’ I stared at her, head on one side, sweat dripping attractively from my nose. ‘Carolyn’s birthday?' she prompted. 'At Gill’s?’ 
‘Huh?  What? Oh. Yes. Yes. YES!  Of course I am. I hadn’t forgotten.  Of course I hadn’t.  You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?’
She rolled her eyes.  ‘Right. Well, if you’re not there by 7.30pm I’ll ring you.’

What can I say? I have a bad memory. I blame it on having too much in my head - I need to run defrag on it, get it all filed a bit more neatly.  Anyhow, going out was okay. I could do that.  Except…shit.  I looked in the mirror and the mirror sort of took a little gasp and half-looked away before realising that it was being impolite.  What the bejesus had happened to my hair over winter?  It had taken on a life of its own; become a small satellite state. Frankly it was a bit scary and I don’t scare that easily.  And if it scared me, was it really fair to take it with me to the home of a really nice person; to inflict it on other really nice people; including poor Carolyn who was having a big birthday and needed soothing not stressing?  No.

I did wonder about cutting the bastard stuff off altogether, to put it in its place. My mother trained as a hairdresser in the war – her mother had refused to have her evacuated and so apprenticed her to the nearest shop.  She got off  lightly really; a bit further down the road sat the undertaker and the butcher.  But anyhow, I must have the hairdressing gene, right?  Plus I used to watch the hairdresser when I had one. And it’s all in the way you run the hair through your fingers.  But when I mentioned on Twitter that I had my scalpel ready, poor Erica nearly fell off her pouffe. 

Colour then.  A while back I’d been sent a couple of packets of Naturtint to try out.  I’ve seen this stuff in the health shops – it promises to dye your hair without the really nasty chemical shit that goes in most home-dye products.  But then, I also had a packet of henna I’d picked up in the hippy head shop in Taunton.  The last time I used henna I was at university, sharing a flat with a girl from Iran and a girl from Iraq (yes, in the early eighties – fortunately they were pretty mature about it).  At first I thought they were shitting in the bath and felt very suburban in my outlook (while sticking to the shower).  When I found out it was henna, I felt even more parochial. But they just smiled and taught me how to apply it to make red hair even redder.  But that was, um, decades ago. 
Once again I asked Twitter and it wasn’t terribly forthcoming.  Just one firm reply: Henna. Given it was from a guy I decided that I should probably do the opposite so I went for the Naturtint.

Last time I did this I had a lot LOT less hair.  This time I seemed to get more of the stuff on my face, neck, cleavage than on my head; not to mention liberally splattered around the bathroom. Given the shade was called Fireland, it looked like I’d been butchering a pig; or taking slices out of myself.  Anyhow, I finally got it all on and went about my business, quietly lamenting the fact that, were I in a salon, I’d be sipping tea and reading crap magazines by now.  Then, of course, I got caught up reading something interesting and clean forgot all about it.
‘How long have I had this stuff on my head?’ I asked Twitter.
A flurry of alarm came back from the women in the crew – summarised as ‘too freaking long; take it off NOW!’ and a laconic, ‘Keep it on, see what happens’ from the guy.  The latter was tempting because, honestly, the idea of taking it off was just too exhausting.  Eventually I did – mainly because it smelt a bit odd.  Not unpleasant, just…alien.  ‘Rinse until the water runs clean,’ said the instructions. Half an hour later I was getting dizzy.
But, at last, tis done.  And it’s rather nice really.  Now if I could just do something about the sheer VOLUME of the stuff...

Nitty gritty.  Why should you worry about using ‘normal’ hair dye?  Well.  The usual stuff contains some pretty unpleasant chemicals.  Ammonia wrecks your hair eventually (I can attest to this having bleached my hair to death in the 80s – seriously, it was slime).   Resorcinol is an irritant to eyes and skin and can affect the central nervous system (symptoms can include dizziness, restlessness, unusual heartbeat). Parabens (which are in all kinds of things – check your labels) have been linked to the development of cancer.

Naturtint doesn’t include any of these which has to be a good thing.  It uses chemically light alternatives.  But does it deliver?  Yes,  actually, it’s not half bad. The colour is good – bright but not brash.   I'll be honest, it doesn't last quite as well as the full-on chemical brigade but that’s a small price to pay. There’s also a range called Reflex (a non-permanent colour rinse) that doesn’t even contain peroxide or PPD and hence is suitable for pregnant women.

Of course, the totally natural solution would have been the henna.  Next time maybe. J

Naturtint costs £9.99 . See for details of stockists and videos of how to apply (hmm, probably should have checked that first).