Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A ghost story for Christmas

One tradition I still keep though… There should always be a ghost story for Christmas.  Why?  I have no idea.  Does it hark back to A Christmas Carol, I wonder?  Is it another Victorian fancy?  But where did they get the idea?  Wikipedia simply says there is an ‘oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.’  Unhelpful.
‘I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas,’ says James in the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Equally unhelpful.
Dickens himself, in his story The Christmas Tree (written in 1859) says: ‘There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.’
And what was a Winter Story?  Apparently it refers to a fantastical, magical, unearthly story.  Of course, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was one such.
‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins…’
And in The Jew of Malta, Marlowe has the words:
‘Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’

So, not Victorian then.  An older tradition.  It’s tempting to rummage around and imagine they’re connected with the old pagan festival of Yule, of the Winter Solstice, a time when the year hangs precariously in balance once again before slowly (hopefully) swinging back towards the light. Maybe it was a cunning way to keep the family close around the fire, huddling together lest the ghosts and tricksy spirits pluck at the shoulder?  It’s interesting, huh? That the telling of ghost stories is associated with the bustling family festival of Christmas rather than the thinning of the veils ancestor festival of Samhain/Hallowe’en. 


But anyhow.  Needless to say, like many another (I’m so ununusual) I consider M.R. James to be the king of the Christmas ghost story. And 'Whistle and I'll Come' is surely the king of the M.R.James' ghost stories - no? The original 1960s version, please, with Michael  Horden please (not the travesty of a remake which doesn't even have a whistle!). Or do you prefer A Warning to the Curious?  Or The Ash Tree?
Incidentally, did you know that the title refers to an old Scottish folk tune?  

But anyhow.  There are loads of others, all gems.  And did you know that the classic movie Night of the Demon (one of my all-time faves) came from an M.R.James' story, Casting the Runes?  And that Kate Bush included lines from it in her song The Hounds of Love?  It's in the trees!  It's coming! 

Now I love Kate Bush, I really do... but her videos?  Sigh.  
Anyhow...tonight it's the fire and a well-thumbed book of ghost stories, I feel.  How about you?
And your favourite ghost stories?  

Bah humbug (Bottoms up!)

This time five years ago, I was sitting watching my mother die in hospital. Now it’s not usually something I dwell on.  I’m not maudlin or morbid about it because, let’s be honest, that wouldn’t help me and it most certainly wouldn’t help her.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t even have thought about it much had Adrian not wandered into my office from time to time, caught me staring into space and said, ‘You’re thinking about your mum, aren’t you?’  And I demurred for the first few times (because actually I wasn’t) but by the time he’d asked me for the sixth or seventh time, I did start thinking about her…and then (because the mind naturally trip-traps from one dead parent to another) about my father (the second one).  And Adrian said, 'It was five years ago, you know, since your mum died,' and I said, 'Crikey, time flies huh?' And then I got to thinking about how I used to love Christmas and now…well...
It’s not that I actively dislike it.  I mean, on a personal level there’s nothing much to dislike.  I don’t get involved in the whole consumer spendfest, I don’t cook and I don’t eat much more or different than usual. It’s a few days off from sitting at my desk trying to drum up work.  I don't do the Norad tracks Santa or float Christmas lists up the chimney or read The Night Before Christmas and leave out mince pies and sherry for Santa any more because, well, James wouldn't really appreciate it.  It’s a chance to slob by the fire and watch sloppy movies.  And…well, that’s quite nice. 
But I guess it is a time when, if I do let myself think about it, I miss my parents and the wider family get-togethers.  I sort of miss the rituals which, let’s be frank, pretty well all revolved around booze.  My father was one of those people who never felt comfortable unless the drinks cabinet had at least three bottles each of the ‘major’ spirits (gin, whiskey (Scotch and Irish, blends and single malts), brandy (cognac, Armagnac, Metaxa, Calvados), vodka, rum (dark and light) and tequila plus one each of every other drink anyone was ever likely to want.  His major paranoia was that someone might pitch up for a drink and ask for some obscure Lithuanian liqueur or heathen hybrid like Cinzano and that he wouldn’t have it. Needless to say, this never happened.  
So, we’d start with Buck’s Fizz for breakfast.  And then slide into Brandy Alexanders (the family nakesake drink) for elevenses. Pre-lunch, it was champagne cocktails and then a battalion of whites and reds during lunch.  Port with the pudding of course.  Mid-afternoon he’d rustle up liqueur coffees and then, if anyone was still conscious by tea-time, he’d be waving another port bottle or saying hopefully, ‘Sambuca? Tia Maria? Benedictine? Or shall I open another bottle of something?’
It was a far call from my childhood when the booze was generally home-made (my mother made fruit wine from the plum tree in the garden and my dad brewed his own beer).  And Aunty Molly would bring a bottle of gin and someone else would summon up a bottle of advocat and I’d be allowed a Snowball (does anyone still drink those?).  J  And the decorations were hand-made (not in an etsy way but because we couldn’t afford to buy them) and presents were things like bath-cubes (remember them?) or a magazine or a hand-embroidered hanky.  I used to make Christmas presents each year – knitting mittens or pot-holders or ties, stitching pin-cushions or wallets out of felt. I did, I really did. 
Anyhow.  I dunno.  This is getting maudlin and I’m becoming a bit Scrooge-ish.  Maybe this year I’ll invoke the spirit of Christmas past and raid what’s left of the drink cupboard (unfortunately we’re down to the dregs – those Lithuanian liqueurs and dusty bottles of Cinzano). But who cares? I’ll salute my mother (still happily ensconced between Knob Creek and the Gordon’s), raise my glass to the Viking (ignoring his eye-rolls at my lack of preparedness and the cavalier way I sloshed back all the vintage oddities from the seventies - Goldenheart, anyone?) and quietly slide into a sottish slumber by mid-morning.  Anyone gonna join me?  Cheers! 


Monday, 16 December 2013

There and back again. UnHobbitlike.

So, Suffolk...Walberswick to Dunwich, where the sea swallowed the shore.  And back again. UnHobbitlike. No gold found. Just a hagstone.  Good luck, they say.  Oh really, I say.  
Oh whistle and I'll come to you, my lad...  
They might be giants...sand silhouettes...
A stand of trees, a stripe of shore, a slim slither of sea...
The marshes...the cry of a curlew... There is someone coming...a warning to the curious?
Slow water, lazy eels of streams.  What was that film, the one set on a canal that turns into a river that turns into the sea?  That image of the lost, beyond lonely, heading to oblivion?  
The house of brick and straw, on land barely there, broken-armed by air, level-licked by water, leans against the sky...which lets it fall.
A cross selfie - a woman of straw sans substance. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Sky is Not Blue - in conversation with Sandie Zand

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, let me introduce Sandie Zand.  I met Sandie on Authonomy several years ago and consider her a very good friend.  But, as you'll know, I don't recommend books just because I like the author. Sandie is, quite simply, a stunning writer.  As I read her (newly published) book The Sky is Not Blue I found myself nodding, reading bits aloud, underscoring and annotating (this shocks Sandie but, hey, I always scribble in books I love).  
Anyhow, let me introduce the book.  Here's the blurb:

A dark tale of oppressive friendship and the fallibility of memory.
Photographer Chrissy returns hoem for the first time in 34 years, unsure if she caused the death of her best friend, Pat, in 1973. 
Her parents now dead, she plans to sell up quickly and leave.  But the past returns, unbidden and cloudy. Elderly neighbour Alice and childhood friend Marion seem unable or unwilling to fill in the gaps. And Spencer, the nihilistic lover she'd assumed dead, is alive and producing commercial art for tourists.  
Memories of events leading up to Pat's death must be recovered if Chrissy is to find out what it is she's been running from all those years.
And then I asked Sandie if she'd answer a few questions for me.  And she did.  And this is what I asked and what she replied. It's long...but hey, some things are worth the time, huh?  

EJ: Practicalities first.  There is a very real sense of place in the book, of this small seaside town.  Was it inspired by anywhere in particular?  I can’t help but think of St Ives in Cornwall with its wild coast and connection with art.  What is it about seaside towns for you?  I know they are a bit of a passion.
SZ: I think place can be as much a character as any person in a story. It influences how situations will pan out – put people and problems into different settings and you’ll get quite different outcomes. For me, seaside towns and their particular influence are a quiet obsession. Perhaps it’s their rhythm, how they ebb and flow seasonally, or because they seem to sit on the edge of a vast nothing. Or maybe it’s just their faded quality, the way they echo a very different past.  I don’t really know, but they do fascinate me (in fact my next book is also set in a seaside town!).
The Cornish coast influenced this story. I wrote chunks of descriptive narrative for Sky in Porthleven, on holiday one year. I’d wander down and sit at the harbour in the evening – absorbing sight, sound and smell – it was bliss. The unused Victorian lifeboat house there was a muse, and yes, there’s a bit of St Ives in the mix too, whereas the cliff-top scenes were inspired by a wonderful bramble-strewn path above Portscatho, further along the coast.
The central image that runs through the book is that of flying.  What does that mean to you?  Is it a symbol of freedom? Escape from a mundane world that is bound to disappoint?  Or does it have some other, more personal, resonance?
Flying is maybe about growth as much as escape – a stretching out to find more – but yes, here it also signifies desperation, a deluded hopelessness, an act of reckless stupidity.
I suffer from vertigo so, for me, flying is both excitement and fear. I wanted that duplicity for my characters. I wanted them to be equally possessed of hope and despair, their angst manifesting in an extreme situation – a life-changing act – with, as said above, their specific setting providing a very specific outcome.
Life is seen through filters throughout Sky – through art, music, a camera lens, and memory.  Do we filter life?  How do you filter your own life? 
I think we filter in various ways, consciously and subconsciously, both in what we give of ourselves and what we absorb of others. It’s a simultaneous two-way thing, our perceptions and filters influencing in both directions throughout life.
Artists/musicians/photographers and the like interpret what they see or feel to reflect their own individual perceptions – driven by their own filters – and we then interpret their interpretations using our own personal filters… it’s a labyrinth – a complex Hall of Mirrors.
Photography, for me, is particularly fascinating because what’s captured appears to be absolute, to be real, yet of course it’s not.

Memory is another theme of course.  Chrissy questions her memory and the events of the pivotal night when she and Pat stood facing the ocean on the top of the old lifeboat house.  But it’s not just that central memory that constantly shifts and changes, and it seems meaningful that Malc’s father has Alzheimer's; that Alice is the preserver of sacred memory – the hoarder maybe.  Where is memory held – in wallpaper and carpet, in music, in photographs?  Does it matter if we can’t remember ‘the truth’? 
If flawed memories only ever caused pain and accurate memories only ever brought joy, then finding the truth would be vital. But they don’t. They hurt and salve in equal measure, and pinpointing the truth is nigh on impossible, so maybe it’s more important to reserve the greater effort to the now than try so hard to catch and contain something as elusive as Truth.

And, of course, at heart there is no ‘truth’ and memory is fallible.  Chrissy says: ‘As any photographer can tell you, reality is a perception. The pleasure of the camera is its capacity for illusion.’  And again…‘The water is not blue.  The sky is not blue.  I’m not even sure the hills are green.’  What is reality for you?  Are you a quantum fantasist or a pragmatic ‘realist’?
Ha ha, I quite like the sound of being a “quantum fantasist”. I don’t know what I am. Benefit of being ambidextrous/equal-sided brain-wise and a Libran is, I think, a tendency to change my mind as often as my underwear. 
I’m not sure there is a definitive reality. It’s just what we imagine it to be at any given time. Trick is, I reckon, to stay flexible enough to not constrain oneself in some permanent obstinate state. Growth is all. Change is good. The sky isn’t actually blue, but as long as it looks blue then that’s okay, right? We like blue skies, so let’s have them!

At one point Chrissy says ‘…if I had to describe my teenage years in one word, it would be surreal.’  Is that the word you’d use for your own teenage years?  Sky is astute on the question of teenage friendships and feelings.  How much did you call on your own memories of your own teens?
There was something of the mousy haired girl in me as a teen, yes. I imagine there is in many people – that sense of slight inadequacy when growing up. It’s part of that process of finding your way, and so vital at that point what influences come in.
Chrissy doesn’t realise her own potential – her own validity – in the shine of her friend Pat and her lover Spencer. She’s as vital as anyone but her unhappy home life maybe leaves her more vulnerable to the awkwardness of teenage years, and thus more vulnerable to the input from these two close friends.
I wasn’t the most stable teen, but I wasn’t the most unstable either. I knew a Pat or two. I can’t say they did me any favours, but it could be argued that without them I’d not have had as much material for this book.
In many ways, Sky is a dark book, with a deep sense of futility and hopelessness running through. Spencer is the arch nihilist of course.  ‘Pointless, purposeless lives. Why do they not see it?’ he says watching the supposedly happy holidaymakers.  ‘They look like ants, they behave like ants – pre-programmed to reproduce, pre-disposed to spend their brief lives replicating the actions of millions before them.  What they call enjoyment is a social construction to justify and soothe and make it seem a valid passing of time.  They can’t see their own stupidity because they don’t want to see it.’  It’s a view that Chrissy catches, like a virus.  ‘We humans are nothing more than upright carnivores who captivate, copulate, replicate and die.  The complexities with which we pass the time, justify our presence, convince ourselves we’re different, are a delusion.’
It chimes with me but do you share a view that many would see as bleak? 
It is a bleak view but I don’t think it necessarily means life is dire. I’m not a nihilist. I subscribe more to the theory (I think it was Niezsche) that we should accept futility but perpetuate the pretence of purpose, revel in the knowledge we are advanced enough to recognise it as futile but optimistic enough to make the best of it. I’ve paraphrased madly there – don’t want to spend time looking it up as I’ll just get horribly distracted – but basically, it says accepting our futility is an academic exercise, choosing to live on in it is a spiritual one.
So, I believe we should enjoy life, futile though it may be. We are merely carnivores who captivate, copulate, replicate and die… the trick is to enjoy doing it. The other options are pointlessly dark.

There is also a cynicism that comes through about the role of Love (capitalised in the book).  Chrissy talks about Alice spending sixty years alone because her heart was broken with what seems like incredulity and even disdain.  She talks about the great illusion, the delusion of life.  ‘The only way to tolerate the delusion is to accept that without Love, whatever we perceive it to be, we have no protection from the ultimate truth – our pointlessness.’  Can love/Love life-proof us in any way?  Or is that really just another delusion, a trick Nature plays on us to make sure we reproduce?
Love is a social construction. Reproduction is a biological drive. Attracting a partner is a biological drive – we are slaves to our innate purpose here. Love, this thing we have created, is a magnificent invention, and yes it’s vital now, I think. Of all human achievements we praise, we seem to ignore how humans invented Love – what a feat!
It’s not nature’s trick though. Nature permits us to fornicate wildly. It’s evolved civilisation that’s necessitated the delusion. As civilised beings, we must temper our innate urge to fuck, constrain it within the context of ‘Love’, the subfolder “monogamy” in fact.  Would we prefer to be like other animals?? Do we collectively regret this conception of Love? No, I don’t think so… it’s sublime. It’s led to a whole raft of poetry, lyrics, fiction and everyday people living everyday lives - what would we do without it??
Animals don’t (to my knowledge!) have poetry.  That’s the real price of freedom to fuck, is it not?

‘When we take off our elegant clothes and lie on our high status beds, we fuck and grunt like all the other animals.  It’s the only purpose we have.’
Do you agree? 
Ha, yes, see last question. Of course this is our biological purpose (though nothing explains the why of it) but acceptance of this fact doesn’t mean we can’t relax and enjoy the construct of Love.
Let’s pretend. Why not?
I do wish, though, we were slightly less uptight about the whole thing. We’ve gone (as a western species) from rampant acceptance of our biological urges, to Victorian repression of them, to a supposed liberation (60s, 70s), and ultimately this hideous modern obsession with sex – for all the ‘wrong’ reasons – whereby we pretend we’re au fait with it all, very post-Victorian, and yet actually are more screwed up now than I think we probably were in 1813.
It’s a shame. Sex is glorious, our urges are glorious, our determination – as civilised citizens – to constrain our urges is glorious (if not amusing, but that’s glorious too)… so why aren’t we happy? Why are we so utterly ashamed and confused and scared, still??
None of this has anything to do with my book, of course, which is almost sex-scene free really, but perhaps that’s because I’m reluctant to explore it in fiction because it’s being done endlessly, almost an expectation, certainly a modern whim, and I don’t want to be part of that. But perhaps, too, it’s because such things are SO innate they can’t accurately be captured in text and are best left to the imagination and reality of readers, rather than foisted on them as the decade’s writerly meme.

Even art can’t hold back the tide.  ‘No matter what can be achieved – no matter how much of anything can be achieved – we are nothing in the end. Gone. No more than a good idea, a fleeting muse.  Even the mavericks. Even the creators.  It doesn’t matter what the something was when all that remains is debris – the image of a burning guitar, a smooth granite orb, words that will never be fully understood.  It’s all debris in the end.’
And yet you continue to write, to create.  Why do we bother to make art in a meaningless world? 
Ah, because anyone who’s remotely interested – in their own narrow viewpoint – would recognise that I’m talking about Morrison, Hepworth and Joyce. For as long as one person remembers the creator of a work, then Chrissy’s negative view about “debris” is wrong.

This is a very visual book.  Aside from the radio, there is little music and the one quote comes from Leonard Cohen.  J  Is the sound of sea and sky the true soundtrack of the book? 
There’s a part of me that would love to do a soundtrack – music/lyrics are hugely important in the process of inspiration and writing. But equally there’s a part of me knows how bored other folk get with others foisting their choices and favourites and opinions on the world. Maybe readers should just read a story for what it is – a thing isolated from its creator..?
But the sound of the sea is what I’d hope the reader would hear. I’d play the glorious refrain from Tristan und Isolde – a Wagnerian score which captures the repetitive beat, and orgasmic return, of the sea better than any other musical piece I know. But Tristan und Isolde is a story of its own – perhaps this is why it’s hard to find music to fit a novel? Each musical piece already has a story, an attachment. But the sound of the sea, crashing endlessly against granite, is very much the sound of my story: nothing my character, Chrissy, experienced after came close, for her, to that sound of the end… the beat of a winter tide, angry against rock, furious in its greed and purpose.

‘It’s the vastness I love,’ says Spencer.  ‘The sea, the sky, the sheer bloody space.’ ‘It’s the vastness I fear,’ says Chrissy.  Do you love or fear the vastness?
Both. One of the best things about writing is being able to justify having conflicting viewpoints.

Marion sees it differently, of course.  ‘(happiness)…is this,’ Marion pointed towards the family, waved an arm at the sky, still blue, still sunny.  ‘It’s all this.  Things that make us smile, laugh, a good wine, the chance to sit and relax.’  Are these small things, these ‘in the moment, of the moment’ things and realisations the only way to get through?  Is there any hope?
There’s always hope if a person wants it.
Marion is a conscience. She’s the adherent, loyal subject in a world where abidance by the rules prevails. She’s blindly accepting, socially vital, willing to conform and perpetuate Life’s petty purpose. At times, I wish I were more like her. I love her and hate her in equal measure, in fact, and found her hard to write, because she’s a conscience. She tries hard not to question life. Even in her darkest moments – where she feels, for a moment, regret – she battles it, vanquishes it. 
She’s almost a mantra, really. There’s no guarantee she wholly believes what she spouts. Yes, the small things are what can make a day seem worthwhile, can make a person feel happy, and yes, it can be good to be reminded of this, and yes, it gives us hope. But perhaps our failure here is in expecting happiness to be a fixed state of being. Which, even if possible, would surely be inadvisable as it’d leave a person with no measure, no contrast. We’d become incredibly complacent.
So we need the Marions of this world to remind us to pause, reflect and enjoy the simple things. And maybe we should all strive a little harder to be this person, but not worry too much if we fail, and – maybe more importantly – not let the mantra stop us living life passionately, because there’s a risk too that our conscience can act as a sedative and we end up living a bland version of happiness and thinking it all that’s possible… and if we all lived like that, where would poetry be then?

The last line is this: ‘Their fury is endless.’  Talk us through that?
Things carry on. Regardless of human ego, the world continues to turn – we are but a blip in time. The waves will pound – they don’t change – we may put things in their way, but their sole purpose remains… they are waves, they pound – it’s what they do.
In respect of this story, the waves continue to pound no matter what else has happened, how many people’s lives have changed, how many folk try to do things, how many lifeboat houses are left unused, abandoned, despite their initial aim to help man harness the sea – the sea continues to pound, against any object man may put in its way, it cares not about silly girls on a cold roof on a winter’s night.
Nature wins. And perhaps that’s the core: man’s intent on social construction cannot defeat the purpose of ‘nature’… which is just to continue to exist, to repeat, to perpetuate itself.

Even though I am sure The Sky is Not Blue would have found a mainstream publisher quite easily, you made a very definite decision to publish with Mad Bear Books, an indie publisher with which you are yourself closely involved.  Can you explain why? 
Mad Bear was originally set up by Freddie (Omm) and I was merely a sounding board at that time with no coherent thought of going the same route. But I’d already gone off the idea of mainstream publishers by then – mainly because the demands made on writers, to produce and conform, didn’t seem to necessarily be reflected in the returns most of them could expect to see for that effort.
I helped Freddie get Honour ready for publication through Mad Bear in early 2012 and found it an incredibly satisfying process. Between us we have a set of skills well-suited to publishing, have similar thoughts on the strengths independent publishers have over their counterparts in the big publishing houses, and feel equally passionate about the importance of putting out quality products. The synergy was there, we worked well together and it was fun.  
So my involvement grew. I saw how publishing through an independent, and being very much in control of that process, would be way more satisfying to me than being a puppet of some large publishing house with a commerce-focused bunch of shareholders to satisfy, and thus I did it!  

What other books will Mad Bear publish?  Tell us about your vision for the company.
We have lots on the go! The absolute beauty of being in control is the freedom to decide when and what we do, and to be able to select the sort of projects large publishing houses can’t touch for fear of no immediate financial return. We both earn a living in other ways, so what we do with Mad Bear Books is purely for the love of all things literary.
Next up is Freddie’s new thriller, The Trashman, now in the process of final edits, followed by my next novel, a dark comedy, The Town that Danced.  Freddie’s also doing the first proper translation into English of a novel by Eduard von Keyserling, Wellen (Waves), which will be published initially in instalments on the Mad Bear website. Meanwhile, I’m working on a hefty and exciting project with a local artist to create a coffee-table style book, about women’s relationships with their breasts, which will raise money for cancer research.
We plan to publish poetry – another area where the small publisher can put literary pleasure over cash – and we’re very interested in an historical novel about a gay Chinese pirate, being written by a chap called Dickie, an English tour guide in Hong Kong. It’s based on a real-life character, set during the opium wars – Victorian high politics meets low down smuggling of drugs, contraband, and humans – and is the sort of unusual and unique offering we think well-suited to the Mad Bear stable.
That’s just the start of it – lots of stuff. And that’s what non-mainstream publishing is about: doing things because we can. It’s great.

And what next from Sandie Zand? 
As above. My next book is a dark comedy – The Town that Danced – inspired by stories of dancing plagues. It’s about a town tipped into madness and how far people will go when society’s constraints are relaxed. After Sky¸ which was dark in a less fun way, it’s been a lot of fun to write barking mad characters and humorous scenes – and good to reign in my natural tendency to put heart and open veins on the page for all to see, I think.  For now, at least...




Okay, so now you know what to do, right?  The Sky is Not Blue by Sandie Zand - available from Amazon here. For more on Mad Bear Books see the website here.  

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Snug, cool, snug-cool-warm...and Moccis.

Lately the word that rules my life is ‘snug’.  Could have something to do with the icy breeze gusting through the window of my office or the manic hailstorm that flung itself around the house this morning.  But maybe it’s something deeper than that.  I realised, when I was in Morocco, that much as I love hot weather, I also crave the cold.  But cold from a perspective of warmth, if you get my (snow)drift. 
‘Have you ever been to that place in Iceland?’ said Emma as she was cutting my hair (no, not too short, I still need the snuggery of it around my neck).
‘The Blue Lagoon?’ I said.  ‘The geothermal lake?  No. But I’d love to.’ 
And I told her about how one of my most delicious experiences this year was swimming in a toasty warm outdoor pool in Austria surrounded by snow-capped mountains. And about how much I loved a trip to America in winter when the snow lay deep on the ground but the sun shone bright – turning the whole world into a sparklefest.  Unlike here in the UK where, generally, snow means grey skies and sludge.  And inside non-snuggly cold.  Why is it we are so so SO crap at insulating our homes here in Britain? 
And, again and again, I find myself drawn to pictures of snug cabins, plaid blankets, faux furs, cable knits and roaring fires. Simple places.  Outside it may be freezing but inside it’s…snug.  No other word for it really.  Snuggeries. 
The Bonkers House, sadly, is not snug.  In fact, it’s the polar (ho ho) opposite.  Poor James sits huddled in a blanket with fingerless mittens playing his Xbox. 
‘If you got up and did something, you’d be warm,’ I say and he gives me ‘The Look’. 
‘What? Like doing Jumping Jacks the way you did at Reading train station?’ he says with scorn.  He has never forgiven me for this but, hey, needs must and it was cold. 

Anyhow. I bought him some slipper socks. I thought he’d stick them in the bottom drawer but, lo and behold, he loves them.  And then I had an email about Moccis – somewhat funky moccasin-type slipper sock hybrid thingies.  So I’ve been road (house?) testing them and very fine they are too.  Machine washable, skid-proof soles, and some pretty cool designs.  The company was founded by Anna Wetterlin who couldn’t figure out why you couldn’t get good quality Swedish-style moccasins in the UK.  So she started up a company to get her designs hand-made in a traditional factory in Sweden - and then sells them over here.
What is seriously unfair is that some of the coolest of the 35 designs are only available in small sizes (why do children have all the fun??  Taking of which, I still live in hope of flashing trainers in adult sizes).  
But still…Cool (or rather ‘snug’) idea.  Check them out. Here's another link in case you missed the first one. http://www.moccis.co.uk/

Friday, 15 November 2013

Paralysed in the South American jungle waiting to be eaten by cannibalistic ants

So, life’s been pretty shitty lately.  The project that was going to save my bacon vanished into thin air and then the back-up plan obviously figured that looked like jolly fun and promptly followed suit.  My body decided this would be a good time to throw a hissy fit so exercising, my usual happy place, was a no-go area.  The kitchen ceiling is leaking.  The dog bit me (again).  And, to cap it all, one of my eyebrows decided to emulate Denis Healey’s.
But, worst of all, I lost my spiritual mojo.  Gone. Vanished (probably following the money). Effed off.  And I found myself…bereft.  No, not bereft, because that implies a depth of feeling that I simply couldn’t feel.  Numb. Empty. Blank.  Not comfortably numb – not blissfully distracted; but numb in the way I imagine one might feel if one became paralysed from eating wild honey in the South American jungle and were awaiting death by cannibalistic ants.  Did any of you ever read that story, by Horacio Quiroga?  No, thought not.  J

You know me…I love to meditate, to hike into the universe, to shimmy my chakras, to walk through the woods and go, ‘Ooh, look!’ imagining oneness with leaf and stone, finding supposed meaning and synchronicity and surprise and wonder.  And, instead…meh.  Nada.  Just the numbness and that sense of waiting for ants.  An eternity of ants.
And the mind starts mocking…well, aren’t you the prize numpty?  So bloody arrogant with your fine spirituality and…for what?  You have burned your bridges with the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday and you are left with…nothing.  A cosmic joke?  Except there’s nobody playing it on you except yourself.  All your worldly ambitions seem…stupid, childish, pathetic.  And all your spiritual ambitions seem…boring.  There is just a creeping apathy that spreads over your will.  
I’ve been here before, of course.  But before I’d have been racing through that jungle, stumbling over lianas, flinching at giant spiders.  Or I’d have been violently sobbing into some innocent pond or flailing my puny fists at a bemused bystanding tree.  I’ve never been quite so numb. 
So, what do you do?  Well, I suppose everyone finds their own way but I have been doing…nothing really.  Just reading mindless books and watching mindless TV and drinking wine and eating toast mindlessly. And sleeping. Lots and lots of sleeping. And then more sleeping. Mindless sleeping.  And laughing my head off at really deeply silly things on the Internet.  And I have been avoiding people who would, I know, offer well-meaning solutions. And yes, there are tons of people in far worse situations. And yes, one can live moment by moment, in the Now, being terribly Zen about it but really…(and yes, of course, nothing is real except when one feels it) there are no easy pat solutions. No Battersea Dogs' Home for Lost Psyches. And that word…solution…made me think about chemistry which made me think about…well, Breaking Bad actually…(and isn’t that a bleakly mesmerising series?) but then it made me think about alchemy and it occurred to me that one could - at a push - think of this state as a kind of fermentation. 
And if it is fermentation (and not just a common or garden state of depression brought on by being a washed up fifty-something with a sagging jawline) then the next stage should be sublimation, followed by radiation.  Well…beam me up, Scottie. 
Just more mind games probably but still...What else can you do, right?  

Btw, I'm still sort of fermenting (thank you kindly) so any suggestions for good mindless (as opposed to bad mindless -  you get the distinction, right?) TV series or movies or books are welcomed.  Along with any funny mindless Internet thingies...
Oh, and if you're wondering...yes, of course a fermenting fifty-something woman can still be a holistic hero! For pity's sake (if nothing else) - do vote for me...see right for the voting button thingy. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Hedgerow Handbook

Adele Nozedar…bit of a legend.  I first met her in London, way back when I was working on the Evening Standard, pretending to be a music journalist while she was being the real deal in the music industry, running her own record label, Rhythm King.  Then she ran away to Wales and set up a recording studio in the Brecon Beacons called Twin Peaks.  
She may still rub shoulders with the rock elite but she’s mainly hands-off on the music side now, preferring to spend her time grubbing around the countryside, researching books on the more esoteric side of nature.  Her first book, The Secret Language of Birds is still one of my all-time favourites, well-thumbed and generously underscored. 
Recently she sent me a copy of her latest book, a beautiful little hardback called The Hedgerow Handbook – Recipes, Remedies and Rituals (Square Peg).  Adele is a forager, a gatherer, a picker and plucker, returning to her kitchen to make hedgewitch alchemy.

‘If there’s one distinctive feature of the British countryside, it has to be the hedgerow,’ she says, pointing out that, although the hedgerow is an endangered species (so many are being grubbed up as fences and barbed wire are so much easier and cheaper to maintain) there are still an estimated half a million miles of hedgerow in England alone. ‘The hedgerow is a piece of living architecture and archaeology, telling a tale of human progress and endeavour throughout many centuries,’ she says.  Well yes, except that for her, it's not just that - it's also a source of food and medicine, of fantasy and magic. 
What can I say?  Buy the book, for heaven’s sake! It’s absolutely lovely – one of those books you just have to stroke; where the paper feels nice and the typeface is lovely and the illustrations are delicious too.  Adele has picked out nearly fifty edible plants and trees and gives insights into their history and habitat, their folk history, their mythology and, most importantly maybe, their culinary and medicinal uses. It’s not only inspirational, it’s a practical book, jam-packed full of recipes – and not just the perennial rosehip syrup and bramble jelly.  It fills you with the urge to get out there, basket hooked over elbow, and track down your supper along deep lanes or in dappled forest, rather than in the aisles of the supermarket.  And then to come home and cook something magical - something that links you directly with the land, the earth, with place and season.  But hey, let me stop talking and show you instead... here are a few delights (italics my own incursions).

Ground Elder soup
(I have a deep and abiding loathing of ground elder - most invasive of weeds - so cooking it seems just revenge!)
10g butter
1 small onion, diced
1 desertspoon plain flour
500ml vegetable stock
2 bunches ground elder
250ml single cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a saucepan and soften the onion until golden.  Add the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring all the time.  Add the stock a little at a time, stirring to make sure no lumps form.  Add the elder leaves and simmer for five minutes or until the leaves have softened.  Pour into a blend and blend until smooth, then stir in the cream and season to taste.  Serve with croutons or, perhaps, with some crusty home-made wild garlic bread.

Nettle Mushroom Crumble
900g nettle tops
Olive oil, for frying
225g mushrooms, chopped
300ml white sauce
Sprinkle of nutmeg
100g breadcrumbs
50g mixed chopped nuts
2 garlic cloves, crushed
50g cheddar cheese, grated
Good knob of butter (isn’t that a wonderful phrase!)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 180 C/gas mark 4.
Cook the nettles as you would spinach, in a saucepan with just enough water to cover them, then drain.
Heat a little olive oil (I’d use butter instead, personally) and sauté the chopped mushrooms, then remove from the heat and mix in the nettles and white sauce and add a sprinkle of nutmeg.  Season with salt and pepper, and spoon into an ovenproof dish.
In a bowl, mix the rest of the ingredients together except the butter and spoon over the nettle mix, covering the top. Season again, dabbing the top with the butter, and bake for about half an hour or so until the top is golden and bubbling. 

Gulkand
An unusual Indian recipe but one that is very easy to make.  It’s used in Ayurvedic medicine to soothe and cool a hot temperament.  Medicinal use notwithstanding, it’s delicious.
Take equal quantities of rose petals and granulated white sugar, layer them in a jar and seal.
Put the sealed jar in a pan of warm water for a few hours every day, until the petals are brown and the sugar has absorbed the fragrance of the petals. 
The texture of Gulkand is rather like a grainy fudge.  You can eat it on its own, or with ice cream, or added to sundaes and sorbets. 


Thanks to Adele for permission to reproduce the recipes.  If you want more, you’ll have to buy the book of course.  Or check out her website and go on one of her foraging walks or talks.  


Oh, and while I have you here, spare me a minute and give me a vote in the Natural Health Beauty Awards, will you?  Apparently I'm a holistic hero.  Though, come to think of it, Adele would be a better candidate. :-)
 https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QPCJZWH

Friday, 8 November 2013

Apparently I'm a holistic hero...



My emails have been pretty grim lately.  Not much in the way of good news.  Mainly pleading notes from my accountant and apologies from editors who can't afford to pay any more.  So, if anyone has a spare job going, do let me know.  I'm quite serious.

However, one email arrived this morning that did make me smile.  It seems Natural Health magazine has nominated me in its Beauty Awards.  I am, it seems, a 'holistic hero'.  And at first my natural (ho ho) response was a shake of the head and a smiling 'Nah'.  But then I thought... heck, I have been championing natural health and holistic beauty for donkeys' years, over twenty in fact.  I have always maintained that it makes no sense to eat a squeaky clean diet and exercise like a loon if you're plastering your face and body with toxic chemicals.  I have lauded natural health brands in the press and all over social media since...forever. I have also mouthed off about how so many so-called 'natural' and 'organic' products are wolves in sheep's clothing. So, heck, holistic hero? Why not?

I'm up against some pretty formidable names and am pretty proud to be included amongst such (far more famous) luminaries.  So, my chances are, let's be honest, slim.  But still, it's just very nice to have been considered.  And, who knows...if you vote and tell everyone you know about it?  :-)

If you would like to vote (this is a blissfully short survey - only about five categories, if I recall) - do please click the button on the right hand sidebar.  Or, if that's too far away, click here:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QPCJZWH

I'm in the third category down.  Really chuffed to see old favourites like Victoria Health there too, and new favourites like Lifehouse Spa.

Oh, and normal blog service might resume soon.  I am awaiting an interview with the wondrous Sandie Zand.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Flatmates from hell...

So someone on Twitter was asking for flat-mate horror stories and I tweeted, ‘I had one who used to shoot at people out the window –does that count?  And the one who moved his entire family into the living room.’
And he said, 'Go on...' And then I kept remembering others who were worse.  Far worse.  And went hurtling back down memory lane again. And figured I needed a list. 

My top ten worst flat-mates.
So, in no particular order, here you have it.

1. The One Who Shot Things Out The Window.  tbf, it was only an air rifle and he mainly shot rats and rabbits (to eat).  Unless he forgot his meds or someone pissed him off.  Also in possession of three ferrets.

2. The One Who Took Over the Living Room.  Lovely guy, really lovely, but one day I came back to find his sister living in the living room.  ‘Just for a bit,’ he said.  She was swiftly joined by his girlfriend, his parents and their cat.  It got mighty crowded in there.   And a trifle smelly.  

      3. The One Who Tried To Kill Me While I Lay Sleeping in My Bed.  Lovely girl.  Just a trifle unhinged.  One night she stormed into my bedroom and laid about my head with a Paul Masson carafe of wine (empty).  Scary as hell.  The choice of wine, that is.  

Yes, like this...but with wine in it.
      4. The One Who Gobbed.  Nasty little toe-rag.  Used to stand at the top of the stair and fire gobs at the bike parked in the hallway.  Also cheated on the phone bill.  Young Conservative (an oxymoron, surely?).  Worst of all, wore really bad jeans.
      
      5. The One Who Saw Ghosts.  Put the fear of gods into everyone with her mediumistic powers. I mean, how do you concentrate on having a crap when you’ve been told the toilet is haunted by a six foot tall male ghost?  It’s…offputting.     

This is a bona fide toilet ghost.
      6. The One Who Was Too Right-On.  Once again, dead nice just… worthy.  House became full of enormous art installations with titles like ‘The Bleeding Womb’.  My high heels were sacrificed on a pyre;  I had to hide my make-up bag and was forced to keep my tampons under lock and key (real women don’t hide their blood away).  Became self-conscious because apparently I hadn’t communed with my vagina enough and preferred sex with (whisper it) men
      
           7. The One Who Thought He Could Do Voodoo.  Boy, did I love that guy.  And went along with it all for a fair while – the not sleeping for three nights at a time malarkeys, the vampire hunts, the astral orienteering. But he got into the wrong sort of spirits and having someone screaming, ‘I’m cursing you! You’re so goddamn cursed for curse’s sake!’ at four in the morning gets…tiresome. 

      8. The One Who Was Too Political.  I mean, I was a good socialist back then.  I even canvassed in a half-hearted sort of way (though it was pretty boring preaching to the converted). But when you couldn’t even squeeze through the door of your own flat because of yet another meeting of the Bermondsey Liberation Front, it got too much.  I retaliated by hauling home bunches of random South Africans to sleep on the floor and it all got a bit…uncomfortable.

      9.  The One Who Hid.   On paper the ideal flat-mate – clean, silent,  inconspicuous, her portion of the rent and bills left on the table without fail each week.  But it started doing my head in.  Was she in or out?  How did she manage to get up the stairs without making one single step creak?  After a while I couldn’t even remember what she looked like.  I left her a note: ‘Is this working out?’ She left one back: ‘Probably not’.  And left.

      10. The One Who Was Boring.  Actually, come to think of it, he really was the very worst of all.  J

‘You know what?’ said Kelly on Twitter.  ‘You really ought to live alone.’ 

‘Couldn’t agree more, ‘ I said.    

Anyhow, over to you - worse flat/room/house shares ever?