Sunday 26 February 2012

Banning books? The thin end of the wedge...

I’ve wanted to introduce you to my friend Sessha Batto for ages but the right moment never quite arose. Now it’s here. Sessha writes homoerotic fiction – yes, that's men having sex with one another. If you want to find out why (a question which has always fascinated me) then take a look at her post here.  I confess I haven’t read all her books because, well,  I guess I’m not the target audience. *smile*  But I love her to bits because she’s honest and kind and smart and generous and, if I had my back to the wall, I’d want her in front of me waving her sword. Anyhow, I found out yesterday that her books have been banned.
Yes, banned.  I dunno about you but that strikes a chill down my spine…   Anyhow,  I asked Sessha if she would explain what is going on and why it should matter to you – yes you – regardless of whether you read erotica (of any description) or not. Because, truly, once you start with censorship, you just never know where it will stop. So don't turn away because this is about freedom of thought.  

With no further ado, I hand the blog over to Sessh…

Shinobi - by Sessha Batto. Yup, a banned book.
“When Jane asked me to write a post about the wider reaching implications of the recent banning of some erotica from book distributors like Bookstrand, AllRomance and Smashwords I jumped at the opportunity. Then I sat and stared at a blank page for an hour. Censorship is such a dirty word, and believe me, having books you spent years creating virtually burned is a gut wrenching experience. Mostly though, I'm angry – angry at those who believe they alone hold the high moral high-ground and can dictate what I can and cannot read or write – and even angrier at myself, for not being more vigilant and doing something (I'll be honest, I know not what) before this came to a head.
If you haven't heard, Paypal – the largest internet payment processor – has banned certain content from being sold by any site that uses their services. This has resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of erotica titles being removed from these sites. The implications of this are troubling on several fronts. First, should a corporation be able to dictate morality? Remember, they are merely money movers – they do not look at, handle, endorse or otherwise have anything to do with whatever is bought and sold.
Paypal has always had a moral agenda. They have exerted it before in lesser ways and will continue to tighten the noose until everything they deem ‘offensive’ becomes hard to obtain over the internet. Why? I have no clue, and, frankly, the thought of trying to get into that headspace makes me nauseous. As for the distributors – they acted due to business pressure, unfortunately in the process revealing some of their own moral prejudices, which gives the whole argument a self-righteous, holier-than-thou tenor that is particularly insulting to those of us who write intelligent, edgy, erotic literature. Morals are a personal thing, I believe everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and prejudices, however distasteful I may find some of them – but OWN them, don’t sneak them out when you can, smirking and wringing your hands in glee behind the curtain. Be up front with it. Personal responsibility. I’ve spent over half a century fighting against people who have tried to pigeon-hole me and tell me what I can do with my body and my mind. It hasn’t worked in the past, it won’t work now.

An even more troubling trend, in my mind, is the speed with which authors and publishers attempted to distance themselves from the situation. Loud cries of “I would NEVER write that” and “it's only the trashy books – they should be banned”. What these authors fail to realize is censorship is like cancer. It starts with one cell, in this case pedophilia, spreads to a few more like BDSM and rape fiction . . . but it doesn't stop, it grows faster and faster with each 'success' until it takes over. Wait a minute, you say, pedophilia – everyone hates that. You're right, BUT in this case it merely means sex with someone under the age of 18 – well 20, as they don't want to skirt too close to the line. If it were listed as erotica (which it is) instead of literary fiction (which it also is) Lolita would be banned. Bestiality? Well there goes Equus. 

Exploring difficult, painful subjects is one of the things fiction does best. 
It allows us a window into the mind's inner workings and a perspective outside of our own. Should an abused child be banned from writing her memoir? What about a rape victim? Catch phrases are easy to misinterpret, they are used to cause confusion and fear. We need to look beyond labels. We need to look beyond what we, ourselves, approve of.
Next in line? 
Some writers I know are in the process of re-working their books to conform with the new guidelines, refusing to see the hard truth. How many times will they put up with it – how much censorship will they allow? I have no question about my position, I refuse to alter so much as one word to conform to anyone else's moral compass – it is their compass, not mine. To think this cannot spread is hiding your head in the sand. If they chose to, under these same terms, electronic versions of works by Nabakov, Anais Nin, the Marquis de Sade, not to mention the Bible AND the Qu'ran would be banned from sale. The obscenity battles have been waged and won for works in print – now it is time for us to gird our artistic loins to fight the same battle for this new electronic world we find ourselves in.
Finally, and most troubling of all, this is primarily a woman's issue. Most readers and writers of erotica are women. This is about the attempt to once again enslave our bodies and minds, putting us back in the kitchen we only escaped in my lifetime. I've fought for my freedom to control my body and live my life on my terms, I had hoped those battles were behind me. Make no mistake, I'm even fiercer than I was as a youth, and just as willing to fight for my right to think, write, read and act as I please, not as I am told to.

Do not take this lying down, do not allow yourself to, yet again, be embarrassed into being marginalized. This is not about what you personally like or do not like. This is someone trying to tell women, as a group, that their fantasies, their thoughts, their secret longing are, somehow, unworthy and should be purged. They are WRONG, tell them they are wrong. Shout it from the rooftops. We are not puppets, or ho's, or bitches, we are intelligent, articulate, savvy consumers. Remind them who makes the buying decisions. You don't need to agree with the content; you aren't endorsing anything except your right to choose.”

There is an online petition – sign it here: 

If this interests you, here are some links to other blogs dealing with the issue. Please note that some of these sites contain adult material. 

Agnieszka's Shoes (Dan Holloway's blog)

See Sessha’s website at
And her books are available from here – and here.

Now then, over to you. What do you think? Is it the thin end of the wedge? Should books be banned?  If so, which ones and why? Who should decide? Where is the dividing line? 

Friday 24 February 2012


I never did tell you about the third thing, did I?  And I should, I really should.  Because I feel it’s important.  So, there’s this guy I chat to on Twitter – Keith Jones (@KeithJonesDaman).  We don’t talk a lot but he’s one of those people I just like. He thinks deeply about stuff; he doesn’t just toss out his opinion left, right and centre; he doesn’t do kneejerk.  And he’s not scared of saying what he thinks – he quite often disagrees with me, which is great.  But, then again, he’s equally not scared of looking at something again, with fresh eyes, and coming back and saying ‘Okay, I was wrong.’  And that’s really unusual, don’t you think?

Anyhow, a short time back, he sent me a link asking for my opinion on something or other.  I confess, my mind was elsewhere and I clean forgot to click.  Then, a few days later, it popped into my head and I apologised for not getting back to him and asked him if he could resend it.  He did.  And it was a talk by a woman called Brené Brown entitled The power of vulnerability.
I’d never heard of this woman and I don’t usually like watching clips of speakers but Keith had asked so I listened.  And I laughed because she’s a very good speaker.  And yeah, it chimed with me because she encapsulated a lot of what I’ve been feeling over the last year.

In a nutshell, she researched connection. For six years. She was looking to discover what makes some people feel loved and connected and ‘belonging’ while others feel loss, loneliness and disconnection. 
‘When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak,’ she said. ‘When you ask people about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.’

So she asked what stopped the majority of people allowing love and connection and she found shame. The fear that if people know the truth about you, they won't feel you're worthy. 'Shame is universal.' insisted Brown. 'The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection.’
She talked about the ‘not good enough’ syndrome – not being young enough, thin enough, smart enough, rich enough, beautiful enough. Cue hollow laughter from me. And then she said the cruncher: ‘The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.’ Oh scary is that? 
Yet she found that some people did allow themselves to be seen; they did allow love and belonging to flow through them. And so she asked those with ‘the knack’ how they did it.  And found they felt they were worthy of love and belonging. Hmm. Kinda obvious really. Good self-esteem?  But not just that. She analysed it further, broke it down smaller and found that they shared other characteristics.
              They had  courage. The courage to be imperfect.
       They had compassion – first to themselves and then to other people.
       They were authentic – willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.
       They embraced vulnerability. Totally.

They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first,’ said Brown. ‘The willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.’
They didn’t find being vulnerable comfortable – it isn’t. Yet they didn’t find it excruciating (as those who felt shame did). They just found it was necessary. And I agree, though I battle with it.
And Brown went on to say that, when we fear vulnerability, we numb ourselves.  In one way or another – with alcohol, food, drugs, spending, television, gaming, work, whatever.  And the problem is you can’t selectively numb emotions – so if you numb out fear and shame and grief and vulnerability; you also numb out joy and love and gratitude and happiness.
And she made another point which chimed:  when we feel uncertain and vulnerable, we seek to make everything that is uncertain certain. Religion. Politics. I’m right; you’re wrong. Shut up. ‘Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty,’ she says. ‘In politics, there's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's just blame.’
So. What’s the answer. This is what Brown says:
‘This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee… To practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive."
And, you know, I agree with that. I’ve spent the majority of my life being petrified of vulnerability. I have always made damn sure I let nobody come close enough to hurt me.  Of course, having a child blows that clean out the water and I’m pretty sure that’s why I had such a tough time as a new mother.  But I figure now, at this stage in my life, it’s time to dump the fear and the shame.  And just be.  I am what I am. This is it.  It's hard; damn hard. But I'm trying. Because she's right, if you feel vulnerable, you do feel alive. If you close yourself off, if you numb yourself, you're halfway dead. 

If you want to listen to the whole talk, you can check it out here. 

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Heaven in Somerset...

I’ve been pretty spoiled over the years. Having worked as a health and beauty journalist (mainly for the Mail and the Telegraph) for decades I've been pampered every which way. I’ve had all manner of facials in all kinds of fancy spas and top-notch hotels.  And, I have to be honest, most of them really weren’t that special. Given the choice between a facial and a massage, I’d generally choose the massage every time. I mean, there’s only so much can be done with a facial, right?  You get your skin cleansed and exfoliated, they slap on serum, chuck on a mask (or ‘masque’), maybe zap a few blackheads, massage in a bit of moisturiser…you know the score.  Or you get wired up and have currents shoved through your skin or whatever.  And yes, often your skin looks a fair bit better but it’s just not…terribly satisfying really. 
In fact, the only facial that really rocked my boat over the years was the treatment (no way can I call it a mere facial) I had from Annee de Mamiel. Now, even if I could afford Annee (which, needless to say, I can't) her waiting list is longer than the phone directory. However…oh yes… I have discovered something and someone rather special, right here in Somerset.

I came across Nicki Hughes on Twitter. Then we met for a coffee in Taunton and I liked her. She seemed like a pretty smart businesswoman with a fair dollop of soul (instead of expanding her salon business and becoming effectively a suit, she decided to pull it back and keep herself hands on with a small beauty and therapy centre based at her home in Curry Rivel, near Langport.)
Anyhow, to cut a long story short, she offered me a facial and, looking at myself in the mirror I figured it would probably be a blessing.  I expected something nice, something functional and professional. What I didn’t expect was to be blown sideways.

She was raving about Repêchage, a US skincare system that relies heavily on…er…seaweed.  Now seaweed is all well and good, and packed with great stuff (vitamins, minerals, trace elements, amino acids, antioxidants) but it’s never really rocked my boat. ‘Nooo,’ said Nicki as we sat on the sofa in the rather bijoux treatment centre (oak floors, marble coffee table and delicious graphic paintings from Thailand).  ‘You’ll love this. They extract the seaweed in a particular way, cryo-crushing it…’
Cryowhatting it? 
‘They spin it in a centrifuge. And seaweed is wonderful because it has a very similar molecular structure to that of the skin, so the body absolutely drinks it up.’

Fair enough.  Anyhow, she got me to fill in a questionnaire and laughed out loud when my answer to ‘How do you relax?’ was ‘Twitter’.  Then she took a good look at my skin and pondered. Turns out Nicki prefers it if people don’t come in wanting a particular facial; she likes to advise and come to an agreement about which would be best. Oh hallelujah! At last! The one thing that really puzzles me is when you go to a spa and are presented with this list of treatments a mile long and are expected to choose.  It’s like a surgeon saying, ‘Look, here’s a list of all the ops I do – go on, you pick the procedure.’ You go to an expert because they’re an expert, right?  Garn, it’s a no-brainer surely?  So she said it was a toss-up between the Four Layer facial which chucks a shedload of moisture back in the skin or the VC5 which is all about firming and toning. 
‘Can I have both?’ I said.
‘Nope,’ she said. And so I went for the VC5 because it sounded suitably technical.

Her therapy room is huge, light and airy, and overlooks the garden. Had a brief love-in with  Bob the dog (soppy hairy cross between a collie and an arctic wolf) before he wandered back out.  Oohed and aahed over Nicki’s singing bowls and insisted on a quick blast - tingles right down the spine. Then stripped off my top layers (many) down to my bra and snuggled under the blankets on the most comfortable couch ever. Why don’t all places have couches that actually hold you without putting your back into spasm?

What happened after that?  Ummm…  Errr…..  Aaaahhhh….   I am usually really really good at remembering all the various stages and steps but not this time.  Cos this wasn’t just a facial; this was healing…serious full-on healing combined with a beautiful, assured touch and gentle caring.  I tell you, the woman is magic, sheer magic.  Most therapists will pop on the mask or whatever and go off, leaving you twiddling your thumbs and listening to the monotonous sub-Enya musak. Nicki never left the table.  I had my head massaged, my arms massaged, my neck de-stressed.  And at the mask bit, she darn well did Reiki on me.  Time just…vanished. 
‘That was…just…ummm…wow,’ I said afterwards.  Actually I think I just mumbled incoherently. Really, I’d lost the power of speech.  
‘Do you do that stuff on everyone?’ I asked. Eventually…I’m editing out a lot of umms and aaahhs here.
‘Yes, but I don’t always talk about it. Some clients don’t really want to know. They just think they’re getting a straightforward facial and that’s fine. 

Did my skin look different?  Not particularly but then Nicky hadn’t promised any miracles. It felt good though – clean and (it might be wishful thinking but) firmer.
I drove home on auto-pilot, so chilled that even the truck pulling out on me as I was overtaking on the M5 didn’t really faze me.  But, once home, I just sort of collapsed into a heap.  It felt like someone had taken a whole pile of crap out of me and dumped it in the bin.  Try as I might I couldn’t keep awake so I threw myself into the bath (with a handful of Repêchage Sea Spa salts).  And then I crawled into bed and…slept.  Deeply, blissfully, refreshingly.  Woke feeling like a whole new person.  And then I looked in the mirror and wow, I looked like a whole new person too. My skin looked clear and almost..glowing.  And so so soft. 

I know this sounds like a total puff but, believe me, I don’t rave about stuff unless it’s really really good.  I’ve got myself into all kinds of trouble with my honesty before but I’m not about to change. If I like something, I say so. If I don’t, I say so (or just keep my mouth shut). But I wholeheartedly recommend Nicki and, if you live within driving distance of Taunton (she’s roughly 15 mins away from the town) I would seriously suggest you get yourself booked in.  She doesn’t just do facials either… I’m eyeing up the massage menu and am intrigued by the idea of Theta DNA healing too.  Plus you can get all the usual beauty malarkey – waxing, tinting, electrolysis etc. Go on – check it out.

Wayside House, Curry Rivel, Somerset. 

Meanwhile I’m checking out thRepêchage range of skincare at home. So far, so good. Find out more (and find a list of local spas/salons using the range) here.

Monday 20 February 2012

Hot pants!

A press release pinged into my inbox. Maybe it was the word ‘hot’ that drew my eye; that made me read.  As you know, I feel the cold and the Bonkers House is not known for its balmy temperatures.  I have sheets of plastic stuck to the windows of my turret and I sit swathed in blankets wearing fingerless mittens, clutching hot water bottles and smearing myself with Chappie to persuade the SP to sit on my lap (okay, the last one isn’t quite true but I have crumbled dog biscuits on my thighs).  

Anyhow.  Hotpants.  Hot pants?  While I have worn some pretty extreme fashions in my time (the Bodymap skirt that became a dress springs to mind), I have never EVER worn hot pants.

But it seems these aren’t those sort of hot pants, they’re pants that make you hot. I mean, not hot in a sexy way but in a sweaty sort of way… No, I’m not making it any better am I?  What I mean is that they’re exercise thingies – the idea being that you wear them for the gym, yoga, Pilates, running, whatever and they help you burn more calories.
Hmm. I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. My mother once bought me something along these lines.  A sort of rubber corset thing that was supposed to turn you svelte-like purely by wearing it.
It was a curious sort of present and I wasn’t sure whether to be touched or deeply offended at the time.  However, I tried it on and – let’s be very honest – it was a joke. It just rolled itself into a sort of pudgy extra spare tyre and felt deeply uncomfortable. It’s languishing somewhere at the back of the fourth drawer. It’s another of those things (like the vibrators) that you can’t quite donate to the charity shop.

Anyhow. I said yes and the next day the parcel arrived with what looked like a pair of normal black just below the knee leggings.  I unpacked them. Okay, so quite a bit thicker than normal leggings. Let’s be honest here, they looked and felt like a wetsuit and a glance at the label confirmed that, yes, they’re mainly made of neoprene.  So, what’s the theory?
The idea is that, by raising its temperature while exercising, the body starts working harder resulting in greater calorie burn and increased metabolism. The press blurb says that, according to research (at a ‘leading UK university’ – bizarrely the university is not named) the pants increase energy expenditure by six percent during exercise and by 16 percent after exercise. They calculate that short term weight loss is around four times greater in Hotpants compared to normal gym wear. 

They fit fine (I take a UK 10 in jeans and the Small size was just about perfect).  I half-suspected they would do the rolling down trick, but no.  They stayed up snugly around the waist. So I took them for a turn at the gym. 
‘Nice leggings,’ said Nicola, one of the instructors, as I came off the cross trainer.  I told her the theory and ears pricked up round the place. Funny innit, how the very words ‘weight loss’ are like an attention magnet. Particularly with the implications ‘zero effort’ and ‘no diet’. 
‘Can you move in them?’ Nicola enquired. 
‘Yeah,’ I said. And demonstrated some extreme yoga moves to prove the point.

But the real test came with Zumba. 90 minutes of hardcore aerobic exercise, whole load of twisting, turning, shimmying and jumping.  Have to say the Hotpants stayed with me every inch of the way and, because the fabric is so supportive, I was able to forego my usual knee straps. 
Afterwards I needed to pop into Tesco for some stuff and didn’t think twice about it until, halfway down the cereal aisle, I felt a dripping sensation. What the hell?  My legs were dripping sweat to the point where my sports socks were getting seriously soggy.  I just prayed nobody would look – they'd think I’d wet myself.  And as my body temperature dropped, I had that horrible feeling of cold wet knickers.  Yeah, I wore knickers underneath. Should I have?  Maybe not.  If you’re going to invest in these I’d suggest changing pretty swiftly after exercise. And I certainly wouldn’t advocate going shopping in them afterwards.

But, I can hear you muttering, did they work? Do you lose weight?  Well, I dunno about that – it’s hard to quantify.  But I certainly lost inches, in the short-term at least. My jeans felt decidedly looser after wearing them for a few sessions.  I figured they work much in the way a body wrap does, by pulling out water retention.  However the Facebook page has a helluva lot of women talking about pretty impressive weight loss stats.  

So. On the plus side...
1. They look pretty good, fit well, don’t sag or roll down.
2. They hold up in most forms of exercise (I tried them out on Zumba, Kettlercise, Pilates, yoga and all the usual cv equipment and weights at the gym).  
3. They do seem to encourage inch-loss and may help you lose weight (though obviously you’d need to eat sensibly and exercise in the first place).  

And on the downside...  
1. Cost. They start at £44.99 which is hefty for a pair of shorts.
2. The soggy pants thing (though, like I say, that can be avoided).  
3. Washing. They say you should just rinse them out in cold water (like a wetsuit) but, frankly, that’s a pain in the arse. Not only have you got the darn things hanging around dripping all over the show but, if you do a lot of exercise, you would need a few pairs which takes you back to downside 1.

‘Oh, for pity’s sake,’ said my mate Nicky (the uber-exerciser). ‘That’s just total crap. Bung ‘em in the washing machine on rinse. I do that with wetsuits all the time and it’s fine.’
So I did. Actually, in the name of research and because I’m lazy, I chucked them in with the rest of the wash on 40 degrees.  And they came out just fine. The washing machine, however, isn't so happy, so maybe it's not the best solution. 

Oh, but one plus side that kinda outweighs all the other stuff. They really are hot. As in, even if you’re not doing anything at all, they keep you all nice and toasty.  I began to wish I’d asked for a pair of the ones that go right down to the ankle.  In fact, come to think of it, I wish they did an all-over catsuit.  No hot water bottles, no smearing with dog food.  Sod exercise, I’d just wear one for writing in my turret.  
Zaggora hotpants come in four styles – the original Hotpants (‘shorts’ which come to mid-thigh);  Capri flares (which I tested; not sure where the flare bit comes from as they don’t flare); Flares (long-length leggings that target calves as well) and ‘Nude Hotpants’ which can be worn under your usual clothes.  Snug. 

Available from

Friday 17 February 2012

Words fail me

Words fail me so often.  It's why I often turn to music. But then, also to image.

There’s a theory that people filter the world through a dominant sense. That, while most of us use all our senses, there tends to be one which comes more naturally, which elbows the others for first place. So we are generally visual, auditory or kinaesthetic in the way we relate to the world.  I first came across this concept when I was taking some post-grad linguistics courses and looking at how our primary sense mode affects learning language. And, on that score I’m highly visual.  I need to see words, as well as hear them.  When I was at junior school we learned French purely by listening to it. I was rubbish.  When we went up to senior school we shifted to learning the old-fashioned way, with books. I flew. Schools could do well by finding out how their pupils perceive the world and adapting learning programmes for them – it would save a lot of heartache.
Anyhow. It’s probably why I dislike the phone so much. I can’t rely on visual clues.  And I hate audio-books with a passion. 
Adrian, on the other hand, is purely auditory. He often barely notices how things and people look. The visual is totally unimportant to him.  He’ll happily listen to spoken word for hours.

Sight is sensual to me. When I write (fiction) I see the scenes playing out as if I were at the cinema. A beautiful image will stop me clean in my tracks, take my breath away – as much as a piece of music, or a single chord, or a note (with all its over and undertones). As much as a a touch, a sensation (affecting not just the place touched but vibrating through body and space); as much as a taste (with all its various subtleties and innuendos). Yeah, I guess I feel all the senses pretty acutely.

But images. I grab them, I hoard them, I sink into them. I have journal upon journal brimming with images, all carefully cut out and pasted.  And every time I write a book I have a mood board, a treasure map of images on the wall in front of me. It’s not so much about how the actual people and places look (because I know that, clear as day, in my mind - I don't need other representations) but about the mood, the feel, the atmosphere of the book.  One of the comments from the editor at HarperCollins who looked at Walker struck home. She talked about a novel having a ‘palette’ and that some of the colours of Walker’s palette didn’t ring true.  And she was right.  I had taken on board early advice from Philip Hensher about the book and included garish day-glo colours into what was always a book of moss and slate, green and grey.  I hadn’t followed my visual eye.  Needless to say, I took out the imposters.

A short while ago I discovered Pinterest. Thanks to Zoe. And oh my! This was what I had been craving. A place to squirrel away all the stunning images I find as I wander the web.  So, if you want to see some of the visual inspiration for my book Walker, take a look here.  If you want to see what was playing in my mind when I wrote my beloved Samael, look here.  Right now I’m back to working on Tanit, the sequel to Samael. It’s proving a tough one to write – but then true love never runs smooth, eh?  And the third one is coming together in images, even if the words are a long way away.

It's a place of dreams. Of beauty and pain. Of other worlds. 

So, yes, I like Pinterest, I really do. Sure, you can follow and be followed, but there isn’t the whole ‘in your face’ thing of other social media. And it seems like their policies are sound and they are (for now, at least) pretty human.  There’s no advertising.  And the Pin button grabs the URL of the place where you find the image, so the artist or photographer gets credit.  As an image resource it’s incredible. Because so far it has tended to appeal to those of a visual bent (the place is crammed with artists, photographers, fashion bods, architects, designers and so on), you don’t get anywhere near the tacky crap you get from the usual Google image search. In fact, sometimes, it’s almost sweetly naïve – for example, tap in ‘lust’ and you get a whole pile of images of shoes and sofas!  

But is it useful? Said a friend. 'Do we really need another form of social media?'  Well. I suppose it depends what you want to do with it. Could you use it as another of marketing for your 'product', she asked. Sure. I see people selling stuff there - jewellery, design, art. But really, use your imagination. If you're, say, a holiday letting business, you could entice with images, not just of the property but of the lifestyle surrounding it.  It's a god's gift if you want to seduce, entrance, attract those with a strong visual sense. Hence all the 'lust' - people make wishlists on Pinterest. And I bet they buy. 

Yeah, I put up a board for my books but I have to say that wasn't really my main reason for joining.  I'm just head over heels in love...with images.  
But then again, I wonder. It's so personal. It's like revealing your soul. Far more than words. I dunno. This might be a short-lived love affair. But for now... it's rather beautiful. 

Anyhow.  How do you perceive the world? If you write, do you use image?  As well as words.  And what are the images that stop you in your tracks?  

Thursday 16 February 2012

Second thing

Second thing.  A skinny Amazon envelope. I hadn’t ordered anything.  I opened it, slowly, with a slight frown. Leonard Cohen’s new album. Old Ideas.  I didn’t even need to look at the note to know who it was from. ‘Lots of love, Horace.’  My oldest dearest friend, Jane.  Horace? Well, that’s another story.
What can I say? I love Leonard Cohen. Deeply. Passionately. Always have. Suspect I always will.
I love music, hate to be without it, but most of my musical loves wax and wane.  But Cohen has been a constant in my life since I was, what?  Eight or nine maybe?  My brother came home with Songs of Leonard Cohen one day and we all fell in love, instantly.  Well, not my father perhaps. 

There was always music in our house when I was a child. All sorts. Shedload of classical in the living room.  Meanwhile, up in our shared room, my teenage sister played singles obsessively as she shimmied from one love to another; a string of boyfriends breaking her heart (rarely) but mainly having theirs broken.  The soundtrack to all this longing: Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, The Beatles, Marianne Faithfull, the Stones. Then she met a guitarist and it was all Hendrix and Clapton, Cream and Yes. And I danced behind, entranced. But throughout, Cohen’s mesmerising guitar and his poetry always plucked at our hearts.
Songs from a Room followed by Songs of Love and Hate. And I wasn’t even out of junior school. Nobody suggested it wasn’t suitable listening for a child. Was it?

Jane and I met in 1971 but we didn’t become friends until quite some years later. After the release of New Skin for the Old Ceremony for sure and in time to be appalled by the radical shift of Death of a Lady’s Man. What was he thinking?  He’d wanted a spare sparse sound for Songs of Leonard Cohen – yes, even more sparse than it already was. So how did he come to be seduced by Spector?  Apparently he (Cohen) called the end result ‘grotesque’. Yeah, right. It’s a shame as the songs themselves are beautiful – but the arrangements are overblown, barbaric. I tried listening again today – and couldn’t bear it. Had to find later arrangements on YouTube.

I took Leonard with me to college; played him in my tiny coffin-shaped attic room, letting his growl of a voice stream out over my balcony into the streets below. Listened to him as I looked across the houses into other people’s lives, the students and the prostitutes.  And went to see him live in Manchester, at the Apollo. My first ‘grown-up’ gig, the first time I’d seen people sit in their seats for a whole set. The first time I’d seen people strike matches or hold up lighters and sway to the music. The audience felt old too – middle-aged women, not students like me. I didn’t care – I still loved him.

He came back to London with me and was there, not played so often maybe, but still a friend for the dark nights of the soul, when the drink and drugs and clubbing didn’t take me far enough away from myself.
We weren’t such close companions during my time in America because, really, there were so many other, new sounds to hear and somehow he didn’t feel right in those big wide open spaces of sea and endless roads and desert and canyon and prairie. But then, every so often, I’d sit by the fire late at night and pull out an album and let his chords pull me back home.

And yes, back to London we went and by now people laughed. ‘Gloomy old Leonard Cohen’ they said. But no, no, no. Not gloomy. Not really. Just so beautiful. I didn’t buy any more albums though, not after the travesty of DoaLM.   My mother stayed faithful though – bought each and every one. But I wouldn’t listen. I stayed with the old.  Until, not so many years ago, when I heard Hallelujah and found myself in floods of tears.  Who the hell sang that, I wondered and found out it was Jeff Buckley. Raced out and bought more of his stuff only to find that, no, he hadn’t written it – the cheater – it was Leonard’s.  Well, of course it was.

I saw him live again, a few years ago, at the O2 stadium, the old Millennium Dome. Jane again. ‘Come and stay, I’ve got tickets for Leonard Cohen,’ she said.  In Manchester I’d been right near the front, close enough to watch his fingers flicker over the frets. But the only tickets left this time were pitched up so high I felt dizzy.  Incredible musicians. Amazing man.  He’d lost the lot by this point, been ripped off, gone bankrupt, had to sing for his supper once more.

Funny thing, I never knew much about his actual life. I don’t read biographies. I rarely read interviews. I don’t even really like music vids (except the most vague and atmospheric) as they colour the music for me. I like to make my own relationship with music; to weave my own stories around it.

And so here I am, all those years on, sitting in a cold room, once again, listening to Cohen. Today I have been through all his albums, one by one.  Some songs wash over me; some catch me in the throat, in the solar plexus, in the heart. Who needs words when you’ve got Cohen, eh?

Favourite album? The new one is growing on me.  Ah hell. Songs of Leonard Cohen has some of my all-time favourite songs.  It’s tight.  Between that and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Both just plain agonisingly beautiful. Songs? We could be here a long time. Here are just two. One from the first, one from the last. Which would be my middle one? My second thing?  Ah, I wonder.  

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Zahir

Hope born of distress by Solange Noir

Anyhow, where we were?  What were the three things?  Well. Nothing dramatic really.

No mansions.
No big fat publishing deal for my Samael.
No great reveal from my husband.

Sorry, Ashen. J

First up was an email from my dear friend, my soul-sister, Soli.  She sent me an image.  She  knows that, while I am no artist, images sing to my soul. When I write I hear the words in images. As well as scent, of course.

And she said, ‘Read The Zahir.’
And first I thought Borges, a vague memory of a story. But then I realised she meant Paulo Coelho.  Oh, I thought.  I’d read a lot of his books many years back. I’d liked them but they hadn’t really ‘stuck’.  In fact, when I perused my shelves, I realised I’d given them all away.  And I’d stopped reading any new ones.  I think I felt he’d gone the way of so many ‘spiritual’ writers, believing his hype maybe? 
‘I think I’ve already read it,’ I said. And put it out of my mind.

Except it wouldn’t go.  So I Googled it.  A story about a man whose wife vanishes one day. He starts to obsess over their relationship, over her. She becomes the one unforgettable thing, the Zahir. And while he’s in the grip of the Zahir, he can achieve nothing, he cannot move forwards. So he seeks her.
It sounded atrocious.  And the reviews were…awful.  Yet, still, it resonated, of course it did, for, as you know, I have been in the grip of my own Zahir, a pilgrim on a strange, obsessive journey, a seeking, a hunt.  And Soli had been so sure.

I bought it.

Interesting book. Coelho says of his writing that he is effectively just the typist; that the stories just come through him. Or rather the protagonist in his book says that but, given he’s a barely fictionalised version of Coelho, it’s neither here or there.  He’s not a sympathetic character at all – arrogant and self-centred.  And the book doesn’t really hang together all too well. And some of his ‘lessons’ sound trite and pat. But still.  Not all. Not all at all. 

It’s a book about love. Not just personal love but the energy of Love and about how it needs to be allowed to flow through the world once more.  About an underground tribe of people who are spreading ideas of freedom, of change, encouraging the circulation of love.  Not soppy love but pure, hard as diamond, true Love. The love that comes out of war, out of looking death in the eye.  And, he says…’If just one person changes, the whole world changes.’ And it can. Think about the good old ‘butterfly effect’ – tiny tiny shifts can affect startling change. 

And I think again about love, here and now, on this day dedicated to ‘love’, that should be a celebration of wild hearts but all too often becomes all about trying to ‘fix’ love.  And you can’t fix love.
As Coelho says: ‘Love is untamed force, when we try to control it, it destroys us, when we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.’

And again. ‘The important things always stay. What we lose are the things we thought were important but which are, in fact, useless, like the false power we use to control the energy of love.’

Love (as in romantic love) is beautiful, blissful, entrancing.  It can also be torment, agony, anguish and pain.  And love changes. From moment to moment.  From nano-second to nano-second. You cannot put it in aspic, you cannot chain it, you cannot say it must be like this, just like this, forever and ever. Amen. Some loves stay, some don’t. Most change, transform, shift.  For better or for worse.  And you have to ride that, you have to let it flow.

But, of course, our human loves are only the faintest shadow of the great big huge LOVE that lies beyond.  And that Love does not change or shift or change in any way. 

Open your heart wide wide open. Truly, it’s the only way to live. 

And then, I read Borges again... and this is how it ends...

"According to Idealist doctrine the verbs “to live” and “to dream” are rigorously synonymous; as for me, thousands of appearances will become one; a very complex dream into a simple one. Others will dream that I am mad, while I dream of the Zahir. When every person on earth thinks, day and night, of the Zahir, which will be dream and which reality, the earth or the Zahir?
In the deserted hours of the night I am still able to walk through the streets. Dawn often surprises me upon a bench in the Plaza Garay, thinking (or trying to think) about that passage in the Asrar Nama where it is said that the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the rending of the Veil. I link that pronouncement to this fact: In order to lose themselves in God, the Sufis repeat their own name or the ninety-nine names of God until the names mean nothing anymore. I long to travel that path.
Perhaps I will succeed in wearing away the Zahir by thinking and re-thinking about it; perhaps behind the coin is God."

Monday 13 February 2012

I hate...

I don’t hate much. I’m pretty equable most of the time. But right now two things are really pissing me off. Thing One: Muppets. Sorry, don’t get them. Maybe I’ve not met the good ones but Kermit and Miss Piggy are just plain…irritating. I want to light matches to their fur. It’s not the puppet thing. Truly.  I like Mongrels. Actually I like it quite a lot. Probably more than I should. I started watching it thanks to James who,  come to think about it, probably shouldn’t be watching it at all. Anyway.

Thing Two. Valentine’s Day. I spent last VD ensconced in a spa, dodging canoodling couples in the steam room and being the only person eating solo in the candlelit and balloon-festooned dining room. Frankly I’m not sure I’ve recovered yet.  I still wince at anything red and heart-shaped.
I abhor stiff scentless red roses. I don’t eat chocolates.  I don’t drink champagne. I can’t abide balloons. Why is it that Valentine’s infantalises normally sensible adults?  I’m all for indulging one’s childlike sense of fun but that doesn’t extend to going gooey over heart-shaped balloons. Balloons?  It’s not a fecking children’s birthday party for feck’s sake!  And soft toys – that’s the other one. Big pastel-coloured teddy bears clutching hearts with ‘I WUV U’. WTF? And the baby language – snugly wuggly baby waby possum blossom?

It’s not some middle-aged cynical thing either. I dreaded it way back when I was a teenager. In fact, the one time I managed to have a sort of boyfriend when I was at school, I ditched him the week before because I couldn’t bear the thought of it.  The certainty of disappointment. Not that he wouldn’t do or buy anything for it, but that it would be…dutiful.
And it’s not that I’m not a romantic. Far from it. It’s just that I can’t bear the commercial, fake, anodyne bastardisation of love.  As if love can be bought with a ready-made card and a token present. Or, even worse, the need to prove love with something expensive and ‘precious’.  The eating out in restaurants bits? Garn.  Something just smug and self-satisfied or dutiful and sad. Not to mention over-priced. 

If you like it, great. Go for it. Good luck to you. But me, I don’t feel love needs one special day out of a year. I don’t feel love needs to be put on show. I feel lovers should surprise one another with spontaneous affection/passion/preferably both or with seriously thoughtful, heartful tokens (not costly, but from the gut, heart, soul).  Whenever I’ve been out on Valentine’s Day (night) it’s all felt rather…sad somehow.  So many people going through the motions; doing what is expected; proclaiming to the world ‘I’m in a couple’ like it’s a badge of honour, a sign of belonging. It’s like cats spraying or dogs pissing - marking out their territory.  Should you really need to do that? 

Anonymous declarations of tormented passion, on the other hand?  Now those I do get.  I’ve always felt that Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be for the neat cosy couples, for domestic love, but for insecure, unhitched, unbridled, unsaddled, unstirruped (any more riding adjectives?) lust and longing. Is there anything more delicious than the frisson of an unknown admirer?  My father never understood this. Bless him, he’d send me Valentine Day cards with ‘Guess who?’ written on them in his very distinctive script. I loved him for it (he knew how the girls at school would sneeringly ask, ‘And how many did you get?’) but I craved mystery, suspense, not knowing. I wanted imagination, for feck’s sake!  

Did I get it? No. Not really.  Maybe that’s why I’ve got such a downer on the whole thing. Maybe I’m lamenting a youth in which I didn’t get the hopeless gesture; the beautiful poem; the gut-wrenching love song; the hand-made card…that nobody took me on a midnight picnic or swimming in a moonlit lake or blindfolded me and…

Or maybe I’m just odd. 

‘Can we agree not to do Valentine cards this year?’ I said to Adrian this morning.  I would hasten to add that I had bought him two packs of socks from Tesco earlier in the week and presented them to him with a wry, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day, darling.’ 
‘Are you sure?’ he said, his eyes first registering alarm (that he’d clearly forgotten) and then lighting up at the realisation that he wouldn’t have to race down surreptitiously to the shop.
‘Absolutely. You know I hate it.’
‘Well yes, but that’s what men are supposed to say, not women.’
I frowned, with a slight growl. ‘Are you saying I’m a man?’
‘No way, fella,’ he replied.