Wednesday 27 February 2013

In which prudish Pinterest slaps me on the wrist

So I got an email from Pinterest.

“Hi eJane Alexander,
We removed a pin from your account because it contained nudity. It was originally pinned from the following address:
We don't allow nudity—photos that show breasts, buttocks or genitalia—on Pinterest. This applies to pins on both public and secret boards.
Please remove any other pins you've added that contain nudity. If you don't follow our policies, your account could be suspended.
On behalf of the Pinterest community, we thank you for understanding.
The Pinterest Team”

Ouch. I felt like I’d been called into the headteacher’s office and chastised for, I dunno, smoking behind the bike sheds or locking a teacher in the music cupboard (guilty as charged for the latter; perfectly innocent on the former).

Actually I felt a bit embarrassed as, let’s be frank, some of my pins are in pretty poor taste. Like, er...the puddle people or those poor guys with stomachs that dangle on the floor. Why do they fascinate me so?  I dunno.  I know they shouldn’t but they do. However, when I plucked up courage to look at the offensive image, I found…this…

And, er...this is offensive?  In what way?  What exactly is wrong with nudity? With the human body devoid of clothes? I don’t pin porn (a sentence, come to think of it, that I could not have used until a year or so ago) - and I think this is rather beautiful.  For pity's sake, if you're being picky you can't even see any buttocks or breasts, and any genitalia present are deeply...shadowed.
And, see, what I don’t get is that it’s fine to pin stuff that (IMO) is pretty tasteless and tacky (and some might say offensive) as long as any erogenous zones are clothed.

So... this is fine...
Why? I mean, WHY?
But this isn't...
by Brad Miller...
This is perfectly acceptable...
He looks a bit familiar actually...from Authonomy maybe?
As is this...
I will never EVER complain about my boobs again.
But this, presumably, is not?
Put a furry thong on it for heaven's sake! 
Do you get it?  Cos I don't.  I really don't.  btw, for the sake of your eyes I restrained from posting more extreme examples.  If you want to see the really eye-popping stuff you'll have to do your own research.  

Tuesday 26 February 2013

One man, three witches and a hell of a lot of sex, magic and…steak.

Remember my anti-guru?  The guy whose book Symphonic Bridges kickstarted my ‘rejuvenation’ –y’know, the whole weight loss/exercise/meditation/spirituality malarkey?  Well, he’s written another one.  The Cave.  To be fair, he wrote it a while back but, up until now, it was only available in Polish. And now – it’s been translated into English. 
Here’s what I had to say about it…but don't take my word for it - check it out yourself.  

The Cave by Marek Stefanowicz

I’ve been waiting impatiently for The Cave to be translated into English for some considerable time. It’s a novel that’s also a guidebook on how to live consciously. But it’s not remotely dour and worthy – it’s packed with sex and has lashings of humour. So, really, what’s not to like?

Maste has vanished. His wife Margarita (yes, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita inevitably comes to mind) begs her friend Natasha to help. Natasha is a psychologist and a fortune-teller but, most importantly of all, she’s a witch. Her sisters, Olga and Irene, also highly intelligent (and beautiful) witches, agree to join Natasha on a wildcap quest across the world (each part of the book is set on a different continent) to find out what happened to the missing ‘madman’. 

It’s an unusual book, quite different from Marek’s previous titles, the semi-autobiographical Symphonic Bridges and the elliptical Pro-vocation (written in ‘real time’ on the website Authonomy). 

The Cave is a Rabelaisian, almost Milesian, romp, using humour to offset the deep spiritual and philosophical deliberations of the novel. Its language veers from the pedantically anal to the rhetorically extravagant (or, as it has been described, ‘grotesquely flamboyant’), playful, humorous and sometimes joyfully crude - as wild as a broomstick ride across the skyline of Manhattan (in lieu of Moscow) by night. It enjoys the same love of language as Symphonic Bridges but is, I suspect, more accessible by dint of its strong characterisation and surprising shifts in location and pace.

What’s it about? Really? Well, everyone sees something different in a book, of course, but to my mind it’s about life, about conscious living, about the stormy search for Self. Each sister undergoes a profound personal journey in the course of the book, changing into…something else? Olga takes the slow ‘baby steps’ route to enlightenment, becoming the Mistress of Breath while Natasha metamorphoses into the miraculous Mistress of Light. But perhaps the most appealing character is the bawdy, hard-living, tough-talking, no-nonsense Irene who scoffs at her sisters’ increasing spirituality and sticks firmly to her regime of whiskey-swigging, fag-smoking, steak-eating and casual sex (with the strict proviso that one night is always enough). She’s an every(wo)man, a modern-day pilgrim navigating the world in black leather and high heels. A head-turning heartbreaker, she is undoubtedly a Mistress of Sex who may eventually become the Mistress of Love. 

Ah, love. Love. It’s the bottom line, of course. And I love (Love) that The Cave makes us ask questions. Who are we? What are our limits? Do we actually have limits? What is consciousness? How far can science or gurus provide us with answers? What is the purpose of life? What is the one question? Is Love the answer? The reason?

Then, just when your head starts spinning (or turning into a pumpkin) there’s another shift and you’re eavesdropping on Friends in New York or sharing a group hug with the cast of Lost, diving into bed with an animagus or getting high with a snorkel in the bath. 

Which (witch?) is just as it should be. For I don’t believe spirituality needs to be po-faced and dour, worthy and hairshirtish. Far from it. The Cave is a total delight, a metaphysical masterpiece. There’s even a cat – called Behemoth of course.

Marek is an extraordinary writer and, as the world latches onto the need for a spirituality grounded in everyday unreality, I strongly suspect his books will become cult classics. 

The Cave is available in paperback or as an ebook for Kindle. Click the links.  

Saturday 23 February 2013

I am water.

So. I got told I was water.  I stuck out my lip and pouted, feeling somewhat offended. Watery? Not terribly exciting, is it? I mean, it’s a bit like being told you’re a pig in the Chinese year thingy – when really you wanna be a dragon or a snake or a tiger or…anything really but just not a solid old pig.  And, well, water is so...wet.  

Water? WATER? I mean, I’m a Capricorn, for heaven’s sake. Well, not so heavenly. Cardinal Earth. Okay, so the Capricorn goat is a sea goat. Okay okay, it’s half a fish. But I can just about handle that.  Believe it or not, I can keep my feet on the ground. Sometimes.  And an astrologer once stared at my chart in amazement and said it was “unusual”.

Apparently I have five planets in Sagittarius.  Which could explain my wanderlust (wonderlust?) I suppose – and the odd impulsive ‘slash and burn’ feelings that rise up from time to time.  But then again, my moon is in Pisces.  And they (the infamous They) often say that one's moon sign is more telling than one’s sun sign.  And Pisces, of course, is very very watery. Downright fishy.

And then, I pondered, in the I Ching, I appear always as Tui, the Lake, the youngest daughter (as indeed I am). And “many strange things can push up from the depth of the lake, whose surface lies so quiet” (Diana ffarington Hook).
Dead Moon I Ching...

And, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was probably true. This water thingy.  Cos, really, I’m more than fluid.  My ego boundaries are so rubbish, so pathetically permeable, that I can become almost anyone, anything. Like the robots in Terminator – but without the knife-hand things.  I talk to someone and I pick up their intonation, their speech patterns. I read a book and the author’s voice often infects my own writing.  I can nearly always see the other point of view – no matter how strange or odd it might seem. I can put myself into nearly anyone’s shoes and not just walk in them but do a marathon.  I’m rubbish in debates as I can always play devil’s advocate.  And other people are all so certain, so sure, so knowing of who they are and for what they stand and in what they believe. And that makes me feel...if not watery, then at least amorphous.   

Do I really have no shape of my own?  Do I just spread out, filling the container into which I’m placed? Do I exist only to show other people their reflection in my glassy surface? 

Sometimes I feel so very unreal.  J

And you? Which element describes you? Summons you? Truthfully. In(tui)tively. 

Friday 22 February 2013

Thieves cured my belly button

So, going back to my navel.  It got cured.  Just like that.  By thieves.  Or should I say, Thieves.
No, really.  See, I went to see this wisewoman.  A true witch, a healer, someone quite out of the ordinary, actually.  But that’s another story.  Anyhow, by the by, in passing, I told her about my infected omphalos.  
Actually I showed her.

‘Ooh,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it awful?’
‘Well, it’s…not good.’

The Fortune Teller by Georges de la Tour
By this point, I should add, it was really very unpleasant indeed.  Flaming hot, with a bright red rash spreading out all over my stomach. It did cross my mind that it might start eating itself and that I’d just sort of reverse the birth process, imploding into my centre-point until nothing remained. Which would be…disconcerting for those watching.  Spontaneous implosion in slow-motion.  Is that an oxymoron?  Probably.

‘I’ll  bung some Thieves in it,’ she said.
‘You what?’ I said.
‘Thieves,’ she said. ‘Haven’t you heard of it?’

And she went on to explain that, back in the mists of time, when the Black Death was doing its Grip Reaper act, there were four clever thieves.  They were opportunistic - some might say foolhardily so – as they robbed people dead or dying of the plague.  They keep themselves safe by rubbing their bodies with a secret blend of oils.  All well and good – except one got himself caught and, faced with the choice of swinging for his crimes or giving up the recipe – he spilled the beans.  And Thieves aromatherapy blend became known to the wider, non-thieving world. 

So she poured some in my belly button and I lay there, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, as you do when you’re being treated by a witch.  And after a bit, I got up and off I went and that was that.

The next day my navel turned an alarming shade of yellow but it had stopped throbbing and itching and burning. The day after, all the old skin just sloughed off, snake-like, and there it was, all shiny and new.  Serious. Unbelievable.  So now I have a new navel.  A fresh start?  A rebirth? Who the hell knows but it’s clever stuff, that’s all I know (cos I’d been dousing it with all sorts – both natural and unnatural and not a thing had touched it).
You can buy it.  Or you can make your own.  There are various recipes but here’s one. 

Thieves Oil Recipe
200 drops of Clove Oil (Syzgium aromaticum)
175 drops of Lemon Oil (Citrus Limon)
100 drops of Cinnamon Bark (Cinnamomum verum)
75 drops of Eucalyptus Oil (Eucalyptus radiata)
50 drops of Rosemary Oil (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Store in a dark glass container away from heat and sunlight.

Obviously you will need to dilute it before use.  Either use a carrier oil (jojoba is good) or shake it up with water and use to spritz people, places or pets.  How much? Well, as a spray, use one part Thieves to about twenty parts distilled water. Shake well and spray.  It can kill 99% of airborne bacteria apparently. 
25:1 with jojoba for a massage blend.  Or pop five drops into a teaspoon of milk and add to your bath. 
Loki steals Sif's golden hair...
But of course I didn’t leave it there.  I got to thinking about thieves; about robbers. They are outlaws, disruptive forces that break and enter, that slide through our defences.  Is that a bad thing? Sometimes, yes, of course… but not always.  Think about the divine, the mythic, the heroic burglars – Hermes, Krishna, Loki, Eve.  Creativity can be considered theft.  Think about fairy stories, where sometimes you need to steal the treasure. Sometimes you simply have to use guile to gain the prize. It’s almost alchemical – you have to break things down before you can build them back up. And you can apply that to almost anything in life – personal, political, philosophical.  Or am I thinking too much again?  J

Tuesday 19 February 2013

On undyeing

I decided to undye my hair. I didn’t even know you could do that until I had not lunch with my friend Rachel (font of all hairdressing knowledge) and she told me you can get this stuff that just take out all the fake colour from your hair leaving it…virgin. 

So why did I want to do it? Why now?  Well I’m not entirely sure but maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through old photographs again and I just sort of wondered what the hell colour my hair is now – cos, seriously, it’s been thirty years since I looked.  And when I was very young it was…this colour…  

Well, actually, that looks a bit light. Could be the film. But, if not, wasn't it nice of my parents to design a whole room around my hair? Or maybe they just wanted me to blend in. 

This is a bit more accurate (at least according to my memory which is, as we know, not too good).  Yes, that's my foot (bad habits start young). No, those weren't my glasses.  

Anyhow. I bought a box of stuff called Decolour Remover. Nice, no-nonsense name there.  ‘Safely removes all types of artificial colour pigments’ it said. So there are unsafe types?  ‘Ultra kind,’ it said.  Hmm, does that mean it proffers tissues and pats you on the back when your original hair colour proves to be solid grey?  ‘Precision “non-drip” cream’ it said.  Well, fine. Whatever.

So it sat on my bathroom shelf for…weeks.  Cos, really, I kinda got a bit scared.  And then, one day, I just thought, sod it. It’s only hair. I can always cut it off or dye it if it’s ghastly. 

Except. No instructions and no plastic gloves. Now the gloves weren’t a problem (I have a whole box of surgical gloves – don’t ask) but the instructions were kinda vital.  So I told the guys from Decolour and a nice chap sent me another box, no questions asked.  So now I had two boxes. But hey, I also have a helluva lot of hair.

First up. The “non drip” thing – might be great once it’s on the hair but the bloody stuff wouldn’t come out the bottle.  Second up. It stinks. Really stinks. ‘No ammonia, bleach or peroxide’ it says. So they must have used extract of cat piss instead. 

But hey.  It sort of worked.  Okay, I missed a few bits and the ends are still suspiciously dark but…yeah.
And I was quite pleased.  Except…
‘What have you done to your hair?’ said James.
‘I’ve undyed it,’ I said.
‘This is the real me.’
‘I’m not sure I like the real you.’
‘What?’  Cue hurt look.
‘Nah. I mean, I do like the real you. Of course I do. It’s just I hadn’t realized what the real you was.’
‘You said your natural hair colour was red.’
‘It is.’
‘Nah. It’s ginger.’
What?  After all these years of teaching my boy to know that racism, sexism, homophobia and so on are all totally risible – and I’ve brought up a gingist?  Holy smoke.
‘It’s okay, Mum. I love you. Even though you’re a ginger.’
‘Unconditional love, huh?’
‘You bet.’

PS. Apologies if you thought this was going to be a post on rejuvenation or immortality. It's all in the e.  :-)

Sunday 17 February 2013

My mother, my navel, Joyce, the Sea Life Roadshow and, er, bacteria

So. Lately two odd things have been happening. Firstly I have been dreaming about my mother. A lot. Every night nearly. And she is so cross with me. So irritated.  And secondly I have, of all things, a problem with my navel. An irritation, to put it mildly.  And, if one thinks symbolically, as I am wont to do, they are quite obviously connected.

Cos the navel, the umbilicus, the belly button – is our birth scar.  A reminder of our attachment…and our separation.  And so I wondered…what does it mean if one’s navel becomes sore?  If it goes beyond sore to become raw and infected?  If one’s very centre (remember Leonardo puts the navel at the very centre of his Vitruvian Man) is hot and burning and weeping?  Is it one’s motherhood that is called into question? Or one’s connection to the world?  Cos, remember, the navel is also the omphalos – the supposed centre of the world, the axis mundi.

The most famous one was at the temple at Delphi – where the stone was said to allow direct communication with the gods via fumes coming up from the underworld.  There’s one in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem too.  In fact, they’re all over the place, depending on religion. 

So I started thinking about oracles. And gods. About talking to gods. 

Which reminded me that Joyce liked the word.  He uses it a fair old bit in Ulysses, but this I like the best.

“One of her sisterhood lugged me squealing into life. Creation from nothing. What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool. The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.
Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting. Womb of sin.”

Ach, we could be here hours with that one passage alone.  Some say the navel is an erogenous zone, because the navel and the genitals have a common tissue origin. But Osho reckons that it only becomes erogenous if one’s sexuality is repressed, in which case the navel becomes hyper-sensitive as repressed sexuality starts building up behind it.  Hmm.

It's certainly got a lot going on. Ayurveda teaches that there are nearly 72,000 nadis (the Indian equivalent of acupuncture points) around the navel area and in the ancient Indian myths, Vishnu’s navel was considered the omphalos – from his navel a new world emerges. 

Does the body speak in metaphors? I feel so.  Thomas Aquinas reckoned the navel was the ‘bodily metaphor for spiritual things’.  Nice bit of vagueness there, Tom. But, like I say, isn't it to do with finding one’s centre, one’s axis mundi…to do with nurturing everything – body, soul and spirit (cos, let’s not forget where my mother is right now, huh?).

Of course, you could argue that I am just a dirty little baggage who didn’t clean or dry her belly button properly.  Did you know that scientists have discovered 1,400 strains of bacteria in human umbilici?  At the North Carolina State University they actually conducted a Belly Button Biodiversity study and found 662 unrecognised strains that could be unique new speciesHow cool is that?  Maybe someone should study my belly button – I could be harvesting the cure for EVERYTHING!  In my world navel. 

But seriously, people, watch out.  Keep your omphalos clean, for pity’s sake.  Or else… 

(warning: do not watch if about to eat or if squeamish).

PS. As I was writing this an email popped into my inbox and I nearly fell off my chair.

Children’s navel inspired artwork to be celebrated at the Sea Life Roadshow!

What? WHAT??? Ah, but the eye sees what it wants to see – or rather, in this case, sea.  Sadly it was naval, not navel.  But hey… I read on.
 “On display at the event will be a naval inspired artwork - When I Dream, I Dream of Home…

And there we are, back again. Sailors lost on stormy seas. Writing home.  Dreaming.

The serpent eats its tail/tale. 

Saturday 16 February 2013

Horse meat? It's comparison...

About the horse thing.  I’ve resisted commenting cos I run the risk of sounding like a smug vegetarian (and, let's be honest, there is little more irritating than a smug vegetarian) but, the more it goes on, the more I puzzle. 

First up. People are upset because they’ve been eating horse.  Well, honestly, meat is meat, isn’t it? I’ve said it before but really, I don’t get why one kind of flesh is acceptable while another isn’t.  When I ate meat, I ate anything – pretty much. I ate bambi and badger and zebra and snake and eel and whatever.  I kinda don’t get why – if we’re really logical, rather than sentimental – there is any difference.  What am I missing? Okay, some animals wouldn’t be so good to eat – because of their own dining habits – but generally speaking flesh is flesh. And yet some is taboo. Interesting, huh?

Second up.  I do get the drug thing. I get that people don’t want to eat horse because horsemeat could have drugs in it. But – and here’s my puzzlement – pretty much all meat has drugs in it.  Animals bred to be eaten tend to have antibiotics and hormones and so on. Some of them have a heck of a lot of it. Organic meat not so much…   But really, if you’re eating non-organic meat, you’re eating drugs.  End of.

Third up.  I get the whole ‘But we should know what’s in our food’ thing.  I really do.  But, riddle me this, how come we’re suddenly all ‘OMG!’ about what goes in our food?  There has been all kind of crap in processed food for decades.  I first went vegetarian after doing a story for iD magazine looking at the food industry. I haven’t touched processed food since. 
See that pic?  Ice cream? Marshmallow? Nope.  That's MSM - mechanically separated meat. MEAT! It's what they use to make things like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni and other processed meats.  Basically they take everything, and I mean everything (bones and eyeballs and all) and mince it up. Then, because it’s crawling with bacteria, they wash it with ammonia. And then, because it tastes disgusting, they stuff it with artificial flavouring. And then, because it’s alarmingly pink (let’s not think about why) they dye it with artificial colour.  And then they cook it and people eat it. Children eat it.  Nice huh? 

I could go on and on but I don't want to put you off your tea.  

And now there’s a flap about a bit of horse in beef burgers.  Honestly, it’s the tip of the iceberg.  Let's not even start on GMO.  

But if it makes you think about what you’re eating, about what you’re giving your children to eat, then I reckon it’s a good thing.  We should care about what we eat.  For our own health and for the wellbeing of the animals we eat we should ensure they’ve had a decent life and a humane death.  So, yeah, like the news reports are saying – use your local butcher; support local accountable farmers with good wellbeing records.   

But then people say they can’t afford good quality meat.  Well, eat less of it. It's not essential to a healthy diet.  Go partly or fully vegetarian. I can't and won't tell you what to do but, truly, I spend a pittance on food for myself.  Nuts are pricey and I do have a tofu addiction – but those are my luxury items. Vegetables, pulses, seeds, fruit…cheap as chips really.  Ah, but you don’t have time, I hear you say?  Do I spend hours cooking?  You gotta be kidding.  I either eat it raw (ie no preparation at all) or I stir-fry (minutes) or I bung everything in a slow cooker and let it cook itself.

Right.  I’ll shut up now.  

Except that - I made damn sure there were no horse puns in this post – but I bet you won't spare me ‘em in the comments.  *smile* 

The universe giggled back...

Are we hardwired for God?  Is a belief in a greater power or something larger than ourselves slotted into our programming? I found out the other day that apparently there's now a name for the study of religious experience – neurotheology.  There’s a name for everything nowadays. 

When we’re young we easily believe in the mystical.  I knew there were fairies that lived in the wall; I equally knew there was something Very Bad at the very end of the garden.  Bad things stalked me in my sleep – and nothing much stopped them.  Bad things lurked under my bed but these I kept at bay by pulling the sheet tight over my head, leaving only the tiniest of airways.  Funny, isn’t it, how such vicious monsters are so easily deterred by a thin piece of fabric? 

I used to say a series of prayers every night, fervent prayers.  It was a ritual.  I believed that if I missed anyone out of my ‘God bless’ prayer, they would die.  Now I come to think of it, that was pretty megalomaniac.  Did I really think God would punish the poor sap for my lapse in concentration?  Or maybe I quietly believed in myself as God?
When I was seventeen or eighteen, I took acid by mistake.  A spiked drink at a bad party.  I walked home alone, upset, my mind moiling.  And then my vision warped. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t judge distance. I needed to cross a road and yet, when I looked down, it felt like I was on the top of a cliff and the road was several miles below me.  When I got home my grandmother greeted me and her face kept changing – but was mainly pretty lizard-like.  I think I’ve told you this before but never mind. You've probably forgotten.  Our minds can create anything.  It was a shame it happened that way – other people report feelings of oneness, of togetherness, of love – of experiencing the unity of the entire planet, universe, all that is.
But then I’ve had those experiences too – without drugs.  Through combinations of fasting, meditation, sensory deprivation and sometimes just pure serendipity.  It’s nothing new – people have been crawling into caves or hanging out in deserts for millennia in attempts to see ‘for real’. 

And the neurotheologists think there’s a reason for that.  They think that we need God.  Or rather, we need some kind of spiritual belief – to keep us balanced.  To stop us falling into total despond.  To stop us giving up out of sheer bloody pointlessness. We like to think there is meaning.  It comforts us.  And you have to wonder.  Without the God urge, do we become biological beings only?  Our purpose purely to grow to maturity, mate and hang around long enough to set our offspring on their feet?  And, if so, well... so what?
I guess you might argue though that atheists could be an aberration. They could have a vital bit missing. Or, here’s a thought, maybe they’re the evolution. But then you have to wonder why? What use does lack of belief have for the species as a whole?  Maybe it’s because religion is divisive, so corrosive?  The psychologist Susan Blackmore said, ‘I am not just an atheist; I believe that belief in God is both wrong and directly harmful.’ And yet…she goes on to say this. ‘On the other hand, I am convinced that experience with the mystical can be positive, valuable, and provide insight.  There are mystical states in which you see the world as a whole and experience yourself as a fully integrated part of everything that is. It can be a very positive experience that leads to less selfish behaviour and greater personal satisfaction. I wish more people were capable of experiencing that sort of experience without thereby encouraging traditional religion.’

But then isn’t she just redefining the meaning of God? 

Anyhow. Where was I? Where am I going? Not a clue. There'a whole load more but I'll spare you.  It's just that  lately, more than usual, I’ve been wondering about all this meaning I put on things. All the synchronicity, the magic, the serendipity, the out of the blueness…isn’t it all just…wishful thinking?  Isn’t it really all just random…meaningless…just my mind putting some kind of gloss on it to make living less painful? 

So the SP and I went for a walk…up the hill, into the woods and then down by the river.  And the birds were singing and the wild garlic was starting to push up through the dark brown earth.  And I thought, hell, what does it really matter?  Nobody can know. Not really.  All we can do, really, is just be, here and now, in each moment as it unfolds into the next.  So what if there’s no meaning.  And I put my headphones on and clicked ‘Shuffle’ and my iPod giggled and played…


And the universe giggled back.  J 

Thursday 7 February 2013

The Lost Art of Listening

You don’t often meet someone who really listens.  You don’t often meet people who ask the right questions.  It just doesn’t happen.  Unless you happen across one of life’s natural psychotherapists (generally not the kind who’s trained or the kind you pay) - or a real journalist. 

Back in the old days, journalism was not just the science of reporting facts – clear and clean –  but also the art of listening. 
It was something I was lucky enough to be taught early on in my career, when I started interviewing what would now be called ‘celebrities’ but back then were just musicians or artists or fashion designers or actors.  Or, later on, the ‘ordinary’ people to whom odd or extraordinary things had happened.  
An editor I knew said:  ‘Have a list of questions, by all means. But put it to one side when you meet the person. Half the time you won’t need it.’ 

She insisted that, once the conversation had started, one should let it flow, let it go where it wanted to.  ‘And listen, listen, listen,’ she said. ‘Let your intuition be on full alert. Hear what is unsaid, what wants to be said, and then gently facilitate that.’  She said there was always a moment – in any real interaction, not just interviews of course – where the truth, the bottom line, the kernel, the confession, the whatever you will, would rise up and ask to be heard.  And, as the Listener, you could grasp that and, with the most delicate of touch, you could tease it and pull it out.  Or, on the other hand, you could miss it, you could let it pass.  And then, when you came to play back your interview, you would hear it – that missed moment, that lost lacuna. And you would kick yourself.

Very few people – whether journalists or not – truly Listen. The Listener is a rare soul.  People generally are too eager to talk, to get across their own point of view, their agenda, to hear their own voice.  Someone else’s words are nothing more than a nudge, a jumping off point. 
-       Ooh yes, that happened to me…
-       Ooh, that reminds me of when I…
-       Ah, but I always think…
Andrew distance listening. :)

My friends Fi and Andrew, however, are old-school journalists, schooled in the art of teasing out the truth.  They slide through defences, they find the gaps.  And they listen, they really Listen.  It’s beguiling.  It’s dangerous.  There is something very tempting about being given true attention. Beware when you find a Listener - if you're not wary, they'll steal your very soul.  :-)

The years slither away when I see them; they always do.  Sometimes I’m shocked to see the grey in Fi’s hair, the lines on Andrew’s brow and I do a double-take when their younger son walks in from his shift at the local radio station and gives me a hug.  I can still see him so clearly, passed round the table, a baby parcel, when he was born.  Time is nothing here – we have sat at their kitchen table countless times – once it was small and cramped and now it sits in a smart extension but the laughter is exactly the same.

They’re generous hosts, the best type – food cooked with love and thought; wine free-flowing, conversation bright and smart and thoughtful and funny; moods and topics shifting almost by the second. It never goes stale.  I could stay there for hours, lost in their warmth.  And their Listening.

The Mid Staffs Public Inquiry and my mother

I watched the BBC news this morning with a heavy heart.  Hearing the news that five other hospital trusts are to be investigated in the wake of the inquiry into the abysmal failings at Stafford Hospital.  For those of my readers who are not in the UK, the inquiry highlighted far-reaching neglect and abuse at the hospital, leading to a large number of unnecessary deaths between 2005 and 2008. 

It struck a personal chord.  I don’t know about Stafford Hospital but I do know about how my own mother died in Somerset’s Musgrove Park Hospital.  The lack of care she received was quite terrifying. 

I received a call from her nursing home to say she had become ill and had been sent to hospital. I went straight over.  It was late afternoon and nobody could find her.  Yes, the ambulance had dropped her off; yes, she was logged into the system but nobody knew where precisely she was. After an hour of desperately hunting, a doctor 
finally pulled me into her room and there was my mother, sunk in a wheelchair, barely conscious. 

‘I honestly thought she was going to die out in the corridor,’ said the doctor. ‘I couldn’t get a ward to take her so I brought her in here so at least I could keep an eye on her.’ 

The doctor said that, out of desperation, she had (knowingly) wrongly diagnosed my mother so that at least she could get onto the one ward which had vacancies.  ‘Please complain about this,’ she said, holding my arm as the orderlies came to take her away.  ‘Elderly people, in particular, are treated appallingly here.  It needs to come out.’ 

But, to be honest, I had other things on my mind. Like trying to keep my mother alive right there and then, and on through the night.  I figured getting onto a ward would make things better but it turned into the most surreal hell.  The ward was a Bedlam, people screaming and yelling. At one point the police came in, as one man started slashing a knife around.  My mother was petrified and she could barely breathe.  I could tell her condition was deteriorating swiftly.  Eventually, after several hours, I managed to persuade a junior doctor to come and examine her.  He said fluid had built up on her lungs and needed to be drained as a matter of urgency.  There was nobody to help so I stood handing him instruments and holding Mum while he performed the procedure right there, on the ward, in her bed. I don’t even think the screens went up.  I had to remind him to use antiseptic wash on his hands before he started.

I don’t know how we made it through that night, she and I.  I didn’t dare leave her bedside.  She was thirsty all the time; she was coughing up thick globbets of muck.  If I hadn’t been there I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have made it to morning.  The next day she was moved to another ward and I breathed a sigh of relief.  Surely it would be better here?  But no.  People weren’t screaming here but they were groaning and they were pushing bells which weren’t answered.  On this ward, the nurses’ station was separate, outside the main ward.  And it was very much a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  On the news today, it was suggested that hospitals are understaffed and that nurses simply can’t give their patients the level of care they need.  Well, sorry, but it didn’t look that way from where I was sitting.  I stayed with Mum for three days and nights solidly because I couldn’t trust the nurses to keep her hydrated and to prevent her from choking on the muck from her lungs.  Eventually my sister was able to come down from London with some of her family and we were able to take turns in watching her, in trying to get her to eat, in giving her sips of water, freshening her up, keeping her breathing apparatus over her face.

It wasn’t me being paranoid.  In the bed next to Mum another family kept vigil over their mother – just like us, they didn’t dare leave her alone.  They watered and fed and watched her.  Between us we tried to help other people on the ward too – when bells repeatedly went unanswered.  Some of the patients clearly had dementia – they rang the bell a lot because they became confused and frightened.  And that, in turn, confused and frightened the other patients.    

Getting information out of staff was nigh-on impossible.  Everyone was perfectly pleasant, just not remotely involved somehow.  Eventually Mum died, on that ward. 

Why didn’t I complain?  I suppose because my mother had just died, and I was contending with guilt as well as grief.  I couldn’t quite let my mind dwell on what had happened. I couldn't quite believe what had happened.  I knew, logically, that there hadn’t been anything else I could have done but even so, I felt lacking.  Doubtless she would have died anyhow – her lungs had developed a thick carapace around them – but I hated that she had suffered more than necessary because of lack of good nursing care.

Also, I guess, we don't like to complain about the NHS.  It's free, we think: we should be grateful for what we've got.  And, yes, the NHS does do wonderful things and there are wonderful people in it, including amazing and dedicated nurses.  And not all departments and wards are equal.  My family has had good treatment at Musgrove.  But, on this occasion, the hospital, the NHS, and the nurses in particular, let us - and Mum - down.  And there was no way of putting it right.  

I should have complained.  I should have made a fuss.