Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The dunnock has two penises - I mean, a lovely walk along the Dorset coastal path.

I don’t usually tag along to Adrian’s beery events.  But I make a large exception for Badger Ales.  Firstly because, as you know, I have this sort of badger ‘thing’ going on.  Secondly because they are just so damn nice and such good fun (the Badger people I mean, not the badger badgers which are, in fact, beasts of a frankly surly disposition). Thirdly because they had invited Pete Brown (beery author with a wicked sense of humour) and Liz Vater (organizer of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival and all-round splendid person).  And fourthly because a Badger do is never just about the beer – they know how to tempt. 

This time the carrot was a six mile walk along the coastal path in Dorset, a stunning bit of the South-West coastal path sponsored by Badger (capital B). Then, just in case that wasn’t alluring enough, they said, ‘Oh, and we wondered if you might prefer to have a facial and pedicure in your hotel room while your husband is touring the new brewery.’  To which I replied, ‘Er…well…go on then.’

We started off with a light lunch at the Lulworth Cove Inn, a lovely place, recently refurbished, overlooking the beach. Fabulous food and a really laid-back seaside vibe (children and dogs murgling around in a pretty civilized fashion).  We had the SP with us of course and Pete and Liz had brought his favourite sex toy, their aged dog Captain, and they started their usual malarkey under the table, fortunately away from the eyes of small children.

Then we climbed, and climbed, and climbed – up a gazillion steps to Durdle Door.  Along with seemingly every other person in Dorset.  ‘Don’t worry,’ said Mark, who has charge of the entire coastal path (yup, not just the South-West bit). ‘They’ll all give up at the top – we’ll be the only people from then on, pretty much.’  And he was right.  We walked, up and down, up and down, and didn’t encounter another human – just wild wind and the long inhale and exhale of the ocean.  And Naomi from Natural England fed us snippets of useful information about flora and fauna, including the unfeasibly complicated life cycle of the large blue butterfly which involves a frankly bizarre symbiotic relationship with the red ant. I’m not even going to go into it – if you’re interested you can read all about it here

‘Holy crap,’ I said. ‘They really don’t deserve to survive, do they?’
Naomi nodded firmly. ‘It’s beyond fussy, totally ludicrous.’ And we then fell into a discussion about other creatures which have evolved themselves into a corner – like the giant panda with its ludicrous eating and mating preferences.

Who'd have thought?  
‘Mind you,’ said Naomi. ‘Some creatures are just darn smart. Take the dunnock...’
‘The small brown bird,’ I said.
‘That’s the badger,’ she didn’t say.  ‘But yes,’ (she did say)… ‘did you know the male dunnock has two penises?’
‘You what?’ I shook my head, wondering  how, even on a nice country walk for a nice brewery company, the conversation had veered round to bizarre sexual habits.
‘Well,’ she said, warming to her theme. ‘Dunnocks are very promiscuous.  So the male dunnock uses one of its penises to scoop out any semen before planting in its own’ (this accompanied by rather nifty hand gestures of the scooping and planting variety.
And so we ambled into Osmington Mills chortling with laughter and stumbled into the Smugglers Inn and downed a pint of Brewer’s Bee (the new Badger brew) or, in my case, a slug of Pearwood (pear cider) which was mighty refreshing.

And then we skidaddled off to the Inn at Cranborne where they held our noses and force fed us outrageously good beer cocktails (I kid you not – I’m trying to prise the recipe for the Bourbon and maple syrup one out of them).  And they stuffed us full of even more excellent food.  And Captain and Dante started up their own vaguely distasteful sexual floor show again (this time out in the open) but, praise be, the pub has its own modesty police in the form of a very small Jack Russell called Mikey who broke up their entanglements with a firm sniff.  

And all in all it was a very fine day indeed. 

Anyhow, what was the purpose of this post?  Just that, if you're out and about in Dorset, do check out those pubs - they're all super-fine and dog, child, everything friendly.  And if you know of any other creatures which really have gone a bit nuts in the evolution stakes, do let me know.  

Monday, 15 April 2013


Anyhow.  Today Dan (short for Dante, aka the SP – I figure now he’s 21 I no longer need to protect his RL identity) and I went up to the hill fort.  And the banks of the Cauldron (aka the Chimney – no, I don’t protect the RL identity of a steep path – it’s just the name James gave to the hollow way) were studded with primroses.  Flashes of spring.  At last. 

Proper wild primroses, shy soft yellow - not brash fake egg yolk like the ones you get from garden centres.  Dotted over the banks.  And, in a heartbeat I was seven years old again and just vibrating with excitement at the thought of primrosing. 

For some reason, I forget why, I was staying with my grandparents in Castle Cary.  They lived in a small cottage opposite the famous round-house, the town lock-up.  And on the corner of the little street was a grocery.  I can still smell that shop – hessian and earth and wood and dog and cat.  There were sacks of grains and what have you – usually with a cat or two curled up on top.  Miss Drummond, the proprietor, was an animal lover, to put it mildly.  She had about eight cats and two extremely large Labradors.  To walk into the shop was to be besieged by animals.  Heaven. Okay, so probably hygiene hell but never seemed to hurt any of us, to be honest.

And one day she leaned down over the counter and asked, very solemnly, if I’d like to go primrosing with her one morning.  When I think back, it seems a strange thing to do.  But wait…maybe it was for church, for little posies to give out on Mothering Sunday.  Maybe there was a reason.  But a reason, if one existed, didn’t matter to me.  What mattered was that I was going on an adventure.  Because Miss Drummond had the ability to turn the most mundane into the magical.  We would, she said, have to go early, very early, when the dew was still on the petals.  Could I get up that early?  I nodded earnestly.

And so we set off, at dawn, in her Mini Clubman (I think) and drove down deep lanes (the dogs in the back) until she found the exact right spot. Just this one, no other.  And we picked primroses, reverently, being careful not to take too many from the same place.  And stowed them with due ceremony and dedication in wicker baskets. 

Then we drove back in time for a big breakfast which she cooked in the kitchen behind the shop – eggs and bacon and sausages, big thick slices of toast oozing with butter and big mugs of strong tea. 

That memory has stayed with me so clearly, so freshly, down through all those years.  Funny huh? Such a small silly thing it might seem, but somehow, so imbued with meaning and tingling with magic.

And it got me thinking about primroses. For example, I didn’t realize that both the flower and leaves are edible.  And its symbolic meaning is courage, the sheer gumption to be the first to come out into the open, to face what could be a stark cold reception.  The primrose is also a symbol of Freya, the ancient Norse goddess of love, youthfulness, fertility and beauty – and its themes include renewal, love and devotion.  In the language of flowers it denotes ‘I can’t live without you’.  And, then again and over and above, it apparently marks a landmark or gateway into the lands of fairie.  Ah, now that does chime (fairie) bells.  For that was a magic morning.  And the Cauldron is indeed a gateway to other realms.  J

Margaret Thatcher. IMO

So. I came back from Austria (very nice indeed, thank you for asking) and stayed in London a bit with my mucker Jane. And it does make me laugh that, while I could get on-line easily in the back of beyond, up a mountain in Austria (when I was in a fit state to use it, of course), Jane doesn’t have any wifi so I was pretty much gagged.

But, before I was logged off I went on Twitter (as you do) and checked on a few people I like to RT from time to time and…what?  And old friend I was apparently no longer following? And he not following me? Twitter playing around again?  So I clicked Follow and it told me I’d been blocked.  Blocked?  Nobody has ever blocked me before.  Or maybe they have but I just never realized - in which case – ca ne fait rien. 

And, I freely confess, I felt hurt, very hurt.  I mean, this is someone I’ve known online for a fair few years now, and have supported pretty staunchly IMO.  But that's by the by - what surprised me was that he never seemed the blocking type.  It seemed a petty action to take and he'd not struck me as petty.  

And I puzzled…why?  And I thought back and remembered that our last exchange had been over Margaret bloody Thatcher. I’d tweeted that I was logging off for the night because my timeline was starting to sicken me.  That, while I might hate Thatcher’s policies, I could never feel delight at any human’s death. I could never dance on a grave. It’s not Thatcher per se. I felt the same about Osama bin Laden.  About Saddam Hussein. Would I feel the same about someone who had killed people I know personally and love?  I can’t say for sure but I suspect so.  I just can’t delight in death.  Anyone’s death.  And dancing on the grave of a senile 80-something?  It’s…infantile and petty. IMO.
Should we be spending 50 million on her funeral?  No.  IMO.  Should the BBC play Ding Dong the Witch is Dead?  Yes. IMO.  It’s called freedom of speech.  Should Thatcher be feted?  No.  IMO.

And that’s the thingy.  In MY opinion.  Your opinion could be very different and, hey, that’s fine.  What I don’t get is why people want everyone to think and feel exactly the same way they do.  How bloody boring is that?  I often see opinions I disagree with on social media – but do I race off and block the owners of those opinions?  Nope.  I just think, ah well, horses for courses. And I’ll look at what they’re saying and see if maybe my views are ripe for changing. Sometimes they are, sometimes not.  But the opportunity is there, which would never happen if I only followed people I agreed with 100 percent of the time. 

Then I ask myself – but what if you saw someone cheering at, for example, that poor girl who was raped and then lashed for adultery?  Well, okay, I might unfollow for that.  So, I guess, maybe for some people Thatcher arouses equally strong passions.  Hey, I don’t know.  It’s certainly sad that, even in death, she manages to divide people. And I do just wonder if there would be this depth of feeling if she had been a man. 

But, hey, gender aside, she’s a useful scapegoat. A place to pin feelings people don’t like to admit in themselves. I've written about scapegoating before -  here and here - and I still find it a fascinating topic.  There’s a seething undercurrent in the UK and Thatcher has provided a focus for it. You could argue that it’s actually healthy – that it allows an outpouring of frustration and anger which people feel unable to do in any other way – that it provides a focus for feelings of helplessness. 

What could be transforming would be if people looked at why she arouses quite such intense feelings in themselves?  Not because of what she did but for what she stood for.  What does she mean to you and how many of those qualities might you deny in yourself?  It’s a thought, huh?  But that’s a big ask – and for most people it will just be visceral, an animal instinct.

But still, it’s interesting, no?  

Regarding my erstwhile friend, I feel no ill-will.  The loss of friendship is always sad but some things run their course and then you must just bless them, let them go and move on.  Otherwise they just fester.  And festering – like immoderate sustained hatred - is seriously counter-productive because the only person it harms is you.  IMO.  :-)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Smoke on the water

Smoke on the water?  Well...nearly.  Sort of.  Oh, okay, let's call it steam.  :-)

There are two pools at Schloss Pichlarn.  One is indoors and a very fine pool it is.

But then, if you walk down a few watery steps, you come to a barrier.  A pair of glass gates.  And you wait until they recognise your presence and then they open.

A cold gust of breeze slices your shoulders and so you sink down under the water surface and swim through and out, into a world of mist and sun and sky and mountain.

Today the sun was so bright that I had to shut my eyes and swim blind, face turned to the mountain slopes, still spotted with snow.

I am quite alone.  At least, if there are other people, they are ghosts. And it is so quiet here, so peaceful.  Just the odd flute of birdsong.  Just the sound of water slapping a slow rhythm of waves.

Yesterday the wind was playful - it blew the leaves into swooping dives.  I thought at first they were tiny birds or huge brown butterflies.  But no.  And a rainbow arced the dip between two peaks.

But today the leaves lie exhausted.  The trees are patient, still awaiting spring.  Still.  And I am still too.  Floating, drifting, face turned to the sun.  A chill warmth.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Do you strain?

'Do you strain?' asked Dr Schaffler as I sat in his consulting room at Schloss Pichlarn in Austria.

I frowned a little.  We had already debated my bowels and their various movements in huge detail and at great length and had established everything was fine and dandy.  But hey, this was a German doctor practising Ayurveda (the ancient Indian school of medicine) in Austria - and so I just figured I was getting a triple dose of stool searching.
'No, I'm very rarely constipated,' I said.
He laughed.  'No. I mean...do you...are you...always straining in your life.'
'Am I stressed?'  I thought about it.
'Yes, of course, sometimes.  I'm a freelance writer so either I have too much work and I worry about getting it all done, or I have too little and I worry about that instead.'

He gave me one of those looks that says 'you've just dodged the question' but he let it lie.  In fact, he made me lie on the couch and prodded and pulled and poked my abdomen.

Dr Schaffler is not happy with my abdomen.  Which is fine, because neither am I.
'It's weird,' he said.
There you go - official confirmation.

He explains how it's going this way when it should be going that way, and is fat here and thin there (which isn't good) and he tells me I need more yoga (well, yes, if only my yoga teacher hadn't upped and offed to India) and more breathing (proper breathing) and...  he gives me two sets of herbal preparations and advises I steer clear of bread for the time being.

Then he looks at me again and says.  'Grief.  Your pulses talk about grief.'
'They do?'
'They do.  And strain.  Not stress.'

And so I smiled vaguely and muttered about language barriers.  But then, a little later, as I was leaning against the edge of the outdoor pool looking up at a bright clear sky above snow-capped mountains, I realised I was clenching my jaw so tightly that my teeth were creaking.

Damnit, he's right.  I do strain.  I always strain.  Too darn hard.  At everything.  All the time.  I mean, for heaven's sake, I'm here in this gorgeous spa and I'm even straining to relax.  Ye gods.

And you?  Do you strain?  :-)

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Dream healing - a Greek pilgrimage

I'm off again on my travels in a few days.  To Austria this time - a  big hotel that majors in golf and ayurveda, which I have to say I find a puzzling combination.  But still...four handed massage?  Bring it on! 
And I've been chatting to a  fellow journalist about spas/retreats we have loved and it dawned on me that, for the most part, it's not the actual spa bit that is the most important - it's the retreat bit.  
If you read this blog regularly, you'll know how much I loved Serenity Retreat.  An exchange on Twitter the other day reminded me that there's another place I adore equally.  The Spirit of Life Centre, based on the Peloponnese in mainland Greece (yes, I have a bit of a *thing* about Greece).   I wrote about it on my other blog but I figured maybe I should share it here too...
They do a ton of yoga retreats and walking holidays, and 'just sit back and watch the waves' breaks... But I went on a dream healing pilgrimage - and it was just magicial.  
From around 500 BCE – 500 CE the cult of Asclepius, the gentle healing god, flourished in Greece.  Recognising the intrinsic link between mind and body, the Asclepian experience advocated a mix of nature cure (good food, exercise, hydrotherapy, bodywork) and psychotherapy (talking cure plus therapeutic catharsis through watching drama).  However they went further.  Central to ancient Greek therapy was the concept of the healing power of dreams.  After you had undergone suitable physical and mental preparation, the temple therapists would decide that you were ready for ‘incubation’.  You and your fellow pilgrims would be swaddled and left in the ‘abaton’ – a room dedicated to dream healing.  Here you would lie down, sleep and hopefully dream.  The dream would either result in a spontaneous healing or it would give instructions on what should be done to affect a cure.  
When I went the pilgrimage was curated by Kerry Kousiounis, founder of the Spirit of Life Centre, and psychotherapist Barbara Siddall - and they have coaxed the ancient system into a format that works a treat for modern day pilgrims.  Trips to various Asclepian temples are mixed with days at the centre practising meditation, visualisation and breathing techniques. The process is gentle and pleasantly non-dogmatic.  We didn’t have physical ailments but our group possessed the usual modern-day neuroses and anxieties.  These were addressed with some surprising results and quite unexpected outbreaks of emotion. But whenever it started getting a little too heavy, we’d be piled into the minibus and deposited somewhere gorgeous for a therapeutic dose of splashing in the sea.  All, I suspect, a cunning part of the cure.
The food was absolutely delicious.  Mostly we ate out – and exceedingly well – at local Greek restaurants.  Fresh salads (often picked while we waited) and vegetables, tangy seafood and freshly grilled meat, followed by fruit and washed down with a little wine (and the local liqueur) made for the best healthy eating plan I’ve ever experienced.  We seemed to stagger from one huge meal to another so I was stunned to get on the scales back home and discover I’d lost three pounds.  Forget detox, the SoL diet is much more fun.
Travelling in a group is always an alarming prospect but thankfully it jelled well here.  There were eight of us in total (three from the centre and five pilgrims) – three men, five women, ages ranging from early twenties to seventies.  Everyone had an interest in holistic healing but thankfully there were no zealots.  While ‘on the road’ we stayed in pleasant small Greek hotels while on our return to the Spirit of Life Centre, ‘home’ was a large house in the seaside village of Stupa, a few miles away from the centre itself.  At first I was unconvinced by this arrangement – how do you immerse yourself in the healing experience while surrounded by the lures of a package holiday?  However, it actually works very well indeed.  Having ‘time out’ away from the delightful but more rarified atmosphere of the centre and temples was therapeutic in itself.  Breakfast overlooking the beach, mid-afternoon swims in the silky waters, late-night giggling over drinks back at what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Big Brother house’ were beyond beneficial.  We disparate band of pilgrims shared our stories and, despite our wildly varying ages and experiences, bonded well.  It was a kind and caring group and, in the way of travellers thrown together, we quickly fell into roles and routines.  
Be warned, there is a lot of travelling (in a minibus made as comfortable as possible with piles of cushions and a large ice-box of drinks and fruit).  But the scenery is stunning and the myths come to life as you roll past the mountains where the Spartans trained or break for lunch in sleepy ancient Corinth.  There were scheduled stops to visit temples of Asclepius at Athens, Corinth and Epidavros – all very different, all quite mesmerising.
There’s something quite different about visiting ancient sites as a pilgrim.  You turn from tourist into supplicant – instead of perusing facts and pondering the merits of the architecture, you try to tune into the feel of the place, learning to keep your senses open and your intuition on full alert.  At Epidavros, the major Asclepian sanctuary, we scattered like leaves around the site.  I found myself in a shaded ruin, away from the main focus, and lay down on the cool stones.  Crickets chirred in the background and a soft breeze ruffled my hair.  I dozed and, surprisingly, dreamed.  A man with gentle features and strong arms walked towards me and cradled me in his arms.  Then, plunging his hand into my stomach, he pulled out a snake.  It lasted seconds but felt extraordinarily real and pleasantly purging. 
Leaving was the hardest part – it was a serous wrench to tear myself away from the peace, the fun, the total acceptance and tranquillity.  I think we all left quietly changed in subtle ways.  I know I did. 
For more information on the Dream Healing Pilgrimage and other courses at The Spirit of Life Centre see http://thespiritoflife.co.uk

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

My own personal star-disco...

So last night…I went outside to get the SP in and I paused, as I always do, to look up at the night sky. And…wow. Just…wow.  There was this huge star – right in front of me – and it was flashing, pulsing…unbelievably huge and unbelievably flashing and unbelievably pulsing.  And I thought…plane…or space station or whatever.  But no.  And so I checked out the other stars and they were all doing it too – it was like being in some enormous cosmic disco. 

I’m not talking twinkling, by the way, but full-on flashing.  And they were so clear, so bright…  And I thought how odd it was that, while I can barely see something right before my nose, I can see these stars so clearly when they’re so very far away.

And, I confess, I had a bit of a moment of ‘what the hell?’  As in, am I seeing the last hurrah of the universe?  Am I going to watch that huge star explode and set off a chain reaction?  And I felt…curiously calm about it.  

But then I thought…maybe it’s just me and my crappy eyesight.  So…
‘Hey, James. Come out here,’ I called.  And he wandered out.
‘Look at the stars.  What do you see?’
‘Huh?  They’re flashing.’
‘Ah, you see it too?’
‘Yeah. Weird huh? Atmospherics or something.’

And he wandered back inside, back to Facebook.  But I was mesmerized, entranced. Whether or not it could be easily explained away, it was so beautiful.  I wanted to share it yet there was nobody around with whom to share. 

So I fired up Twitter quickly, scanned my timeline, expecting to see exclamations of awe, explanations of atmospherics or whatever and…nothing.  People were getting excited about some sewing show on TV.
-          Why are the stars flashing?  I asked. 
-          Bad contact. Thump the sky. They’ll come on properly, said one wag.
-          Seriously, if you have dark sky, look up.  I said.

And, out of the 3339 people who follow me on Twitter, three did.  Just three people got up and went outside and looked.  And, you know, that kind of shook me.  There was the sky, doing this amazing *thing* and barely anyone could see the wonder of it.  But hey… I may not plug myself into the TV but I certainly float around anaesthetized in other ways.  And then I thought, hellfire, Jane, what’s with the judgemental stuff?  You like stars, they like…felting. So what?

Anyhow. Eventually I realised I was freezing cold standing out there, and going star-blind, so I came in and ran me a big deep very hot bath and slathered on the last of the Connock body oil – which makes your skin feel sooo silky it’s untrue.  Because after all that looking, I needed a bit of feeling.  And I went to bad and let my mind wonder through the universe…going far enough to be able to look back at Earth and see it quietly pulsing

And this morning I checked up the flashing star thing and Google told me that it is caused by ‘disturbances between your eye and the star.  If disturbances are as big as the star, the star will appear to twinkle.’ And that if you hitch a ride in a spaceship, there is no more twinkling, cos you’re outside the atmosphere.
So, given all the stars were ‘twinkling’ there was a lot of big disturbances out there. But we’re still here, eh?  Aren’t we? 

And then this morning, at the gym, as I put my iPod on shuffle it played me first this...
followed by this...
Stars eh?