Tuesday 26 March 2013

When winter won't let go

So. The cold continues to bite. Two of my fingers keep turning numb and white. As if I’m turning to ice. Why? I ask them. But I know the answer – the cold is not just physical; it echoes through my emotional bones.  And it’s not just me.  It seems that, right now, so many of us are enduring the bone-cold, a spiritual ice winter.  

You can say it’s the lack of light, the absence of sun, the harsh economic climate – you can claim a gazillion reasons.  And we hustle around looking for solutions, for sticking plasters, for ways to push away the cold, to make it back off for a little.  We can dose ourselves with alcohol or food, we can cry Prozac, we can distract ourselves in a hundred different ways. Me? I fight the urge to swathe myself in blankets and dogs and huddle the fire – I make myself go out and exercise like a loon.

But then, I wonder. What do we lose when we seek to avoid?  Life is a process; a circle; a spiral. Yes, we can blitz ourselves with positive affirmations; we can go Zen and remind ourselves that it’s not really real, hence it doesn’t really matter but…  Is that missing something?  Is this process just a case of existing, of passing time in as pleasant a manner as possible?  Sometimes I think so.  But then thinking…can be overrated.  So what do I feel?

I go back to Alchemy. Calcination. Dissolution. Separation. Conjunction. Fermentation. Sublimation. Radiation. Seven steps. Circling. You reach the end and start all over again, just on a different coil of the serpent. And it’s not just you, or I – it’s us. “The human heart is the crucible of the cosmos.” I can’t remember who said that but it chimes – our inner lives are not our own; they belong to the cosmos.  If we want to change the world, we start with ourselves. 
Is the world served by squashing down bad feelings; by denying them; by refusing to countenance anything except light and bright as ‘good’?  I don’t feel so. If we push away the ‘bad’ it festers – not just in us but in the world around us.  It’s like foisting our dirty laundry on the world, leaving our smelly socks in the hallway.  Bad housekeeping.

The dark nights of the spirit and soul (yes, I feel they are two different things) are not mistakes, not aberrations, or so I feel – they’re not signs that we’re not good enough, not spiritual enough, or whatever.  They’re a vital part of the process.  Sometimes we have to be cut off from everything that gives us joy, everything that makes life seem worthwhile – every height has a corresponding depth. No?

So what do we do?  Nothing much. Abet the feelings, amplify them even – we so rarely listen to the messages written in the body.  Our bodies, our subconscious (the two in cohoots, or maybe the same?) are trying, I feel, to communicate with our conscious minds all the time. Yet we refuse to pay attention.  Sleep. Breathe. Daydream. Wonder where the body and mind wander. Try a secondary process (if you're primarily visual, turn your images into sounds; if you're a musician, maybe you need to move, to work with the somatic?).  But mainly...wait. 

Well, that’s what I do. Hmm.

Monday 25 March 2013


I hadn’t thought about Carshalton for ages.  The town in which I grew up.  But I went looking for a picture to post with the words on my previous blog post and stumbled into a time warp. So many memories crowding in, one after another. 

Carshalton – a small suburban town in what was once Surrey (now Greater London). Nothing special. 

My family had drifted there from southern London – I’m not sure how or why.  A curious place to be.  But as good as any other, I suppose, and far better than many.  When I look at the pictures gleaned from an idle Google search I am amazed at how green it was/is, and how much water there was/is. 
I’d forgotten it was a place built around springs.  Yet, now I ponder it, I remember that as a child, I spent swathes of time poking around Carshalton Park, around The Grove, the Ponds (oh how I wanted to row out and camp on the tiny island), Beddington Park (The Grange) and the Wandle river as it wandled its down from Carshalton Park to the High Street.  My mother said she remembered when the water even ran alongside the High Street. There’s even a well – Anne Boleyn’s Well. 
Yup...did a lot of that... 
Carshalton Park is interesting.  All kinds of odd earthworks and concavities. As children we called them, variously, The Frying Pan, The Saucepan (aka the Little Dip) and the Big Dip. Water seeped out of springs into the Big Dip and I spent hours doing…what?  I can’t remember really – just that the emerging water was an endless source of imagination and wonder. I could spend hours there. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends.
So much water here when I was small. :(
The river had once been presided over by a Victorian pseudo-grotto – with a largeish cave and two smaller ‘sentry boxes’ either side.  Once there had been statues there, or so I’m told but they had long been removed and, when we were small, the place had a sinister air – we thought it the home of vampires and never turned our backs on its black interior.
My grandmother is buried in the churchyard of All Saints.  Originally outside the hallowed ground (she had converted to Plymouth Brethren so was considered outside the remit of the Church of England).  
Next to the church sits The Greyhound, one of my father’s favourite pubs. When I was small, very small, I’d go with him and sit in the little tiny back bar.  When I was a teenager I came back, with friends, and graduated to the main bar, overlooking the ponds.
And this (below) was the somewhat hideous Methodist church to which I shamelessly switched allegiance at an early age, on the promise of a free book of Bible stories and a chocolate bar.  My brownie and girl guide hall was around the side and, the moment I type that, I can smell the musty tarpaulins and tents underneath the stage.
I used to walk to school (we had no car and, anyhow, everyone walked everywhere then). First to Stanley Park Infants and then a short hop over the playground to the Junior school.  Next to Stanley Park (obviously) – a somewhat inferior affair with only the small saving graces of a lacklustre playground and a cut where the railway passed.  Distinctly lacking in water. 
Yes, we had green buses, as well as the red London ones.  This one would take me all the way to my senior school in Cheam, if I let it. 
And this was the pub I hated, with drunks falling out of it, men leering…I used to cross the road and walk swiftly by.  Now, apparently, it is quite different – a pukka beer pub, beloved of men like Adrian.
Anyhow, enough of all that. The past.  Funny old place, huh?  

But it makes me wonder...do they affect us, these early places. Would we be different people if we grew up elsewhere?  What do you think? Where did you spend your childhood and did it affect the person you are now?  

A Very British Writer Blog Tour

I don’t usually go in for blogging round robins or memes.  But Vivienne Tuffnell asked nicely and I was needing a break between two projects, both equally unappealing, so I figured, why not? 

It’s about being a British author – a concept I confess had never occurred to me before.  About looking at whether national characteristics (whatever they may be) influence our ‘work’. Now, see, I don’t really feel of myself as British, or English, or anything really, so I’m on a sticky wicket (ho ho) from the start.  But I’ll give it a whirl. There were questions and I like being asked questions, almost as much as I like ticking boxes.  Click here to read Viv's responses (and do check out her books). 
Carshalton Park - there was a river when I was small.

Q: Where were you born and where do you live now?
A: I was born in Surrey, in a place called Carshalton, which has now been swallowed up by Greater London.  When I look at it with my adult eyes (which is not that often) I see bland suburbia.  It seems so small, so trammelled, so claustrophobic.  But, as a child, I managed to find endless magic. I poked around old Iron Age works, explored grottoes and springs, climbed hills, mapped woods. I saw minute worlds in walls and wasteland, in parks and back gardens. I made myself a small fiefdom in the arms of an apple tree; a cave under the roots of a lilac bush.
Now I live in Dulverton, a small town in the Exmoor National Park in South-West England. It’s wild and really just ridiculously beautiful – a land of echoing moors, steep combes (valleys), tumbling rivers and the crashing sea.  You should visit, you really should.
Q: Have you always lived and worked in Britain or are you based elsewhere?
A: I have mainly lived and worked in England. Apart from a year’s sojourn in the USA. However I have severe travel lust. Both for places inside the British Isles and Ireland and also abroad. 

Q:  Have you highlighted or showcased any particular part of Britain in your books, a town, a city, a county, a monument, well-known place or event?
A: My non-fiction books are, by necessity, universal, not tied to place.  However the Somerset Levels were inevitably an influence on the books written while I lived there – The Natural Year in particular charts a year of living consciously with nature. 
When it comes to fiction, Exmoor is a natural muse.  Both Walker (my shamanic novel) and Samael (the as yet unpublished first part of my YA Angelsoul trilogy) are, in part, extended love poems to Exmoor.  The second part of the trilogy shifts to London, a city I lived in throughout a large part of my twenties and which I also love. 

Q: There is an illusion – or myth if you wish- about British people that I would like to discuss. Many see Brits as ‘stiff upper lip’. Is this correct?
A: What is British?  Britain is a melting pot. It’s a mongrel country on the whole now. I feel that ‘stiff upper lip’ idea is well and truly defunct. It describes a clichéd view of an upper/middle class Britain that no longer really exists.  However, where I live on Exmoor, there is a certain reticence, a pretty well entrenched sense of privacy. People tend just to get on with life; they don’t whine and, when life goes tits-up, they tend to turn quietly to the bottle or just get out the shotgun.  Anything rather than go talk about it.  Psychotherapists don’t tend to set up shop here.

Q: Do any of the characters in your book carry the ‘stiff upper lip’ or are they all British Bulldog and unique in their own way?
A: No. No stiff upper lip, no British Bulldog.  There are some characters who are, reserved, shall we say – the strong silent types…Ruth in Walker and Eden and Zeke in Samael come to mind but then they are, variously, shamans and mages, and those types tend to keep their own counsel.  And my books also contain characters with less savoury characteristics - small-minded racism, sexism and a tendency to domestic violence. Sadly those aren't just prevalent in city life. 

Q: Tell us about one of your recent books.
A: Let me talk about Walker .  I wrote it because a few things collided. I started practicing shamanism and, at the same time, I discovered an amazing place on the Exmoor coast – Culbone – it was just numinous.  On a subsequent visit, I found a small hut offering DIY refreshments and some very old books for sale by a woman who’d lived there which confirmed my conviction that it was seriously magical.

Walker is the story of a teenage boy, Hunter, who nearly dies in a car crash and comes to live on Exmoor with a grandmother he has never met.  It’s a pretty classic quest yarn – on the outside Hunter has to find the lost kashebah, a non-physical temple that can help protect the world’s soul. On the inside, he has to find himself, or – if you like – his own interior kashebah.  That makes it sound a bit worthy and it’s not (at least I hope not).  I’d like to think it’s a fast-moving adventure yarn that just happens to be based on esoteric fact. 

Q: What are you currently working on?
A: Making money to fund my travel habit. *smile*

Q: How do you spend your leisure time?
A: Meditating, exercising, tramping the moor, sitting by the fire musing, listening to music, mind-wandering.

Q: Do you write for a local audience or a global audience?
A: I’d like to think global.  Certainly my non-fiction books have sold all over the world – The Detox Plan was translated into over 20 languages, if I recall (it's now available in an updated e-edition).

Q: Can you provide links to your works?
A: Of course.  The easiest place to find all my books in one place is via my Amazon author page.  As I said before, my fiction titles are still books in search of a publisher – but you can read the first few chapters here and here

Q: Who’s next?
A: Ah, I’m not good at picking and choosing.  A lot of people who read this blog are writers, I know, spread across the length and breadth of the British Isles. I’d love to know their thoughts.  If anyone takes this and runs with it, let me know and I’ll post a link to your answers. 

Sunday 24 March 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

So I went to the cinema in the village hall.  It was cold, it was wet and I was tired.  It was all too tempting to stay in by the fire but I’ve made a pact with myself to do stuff.

I can’t just sit around waiting for things to happen.  Well, I can (and I do) but, equally, I’ve decided to go out, to do things, to go places.  And if it means I do them alone, then so be it. Because if you hang around waiting for other people, well, nothing much will happen. Will it?

I don’t mind doing stuff on my own and solo film-going is positively wondrous. It was something I did a lot when I lived in London, having developed a penchant for solo matinee trips to the Orson Welles cinema off Harvard Square in Cambridge during my American sojourn. I’d vanish for the afternoon to catch things like the Bergman season. Nice.
Anyhow, I liked the sound of this film.  Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s about a girl called Hushpuppy who lives with her sick, depressed, alcoholic mess of a father in a place called The Bathtub, in the bayoux of Louisiana.  Life’s pretty well weird and tough enough for Hushpuppy but then Katrina comes and everything turns even weirder and tougher.  Anyhow, see it yourself - see what you feel.  

To be honest, I usually prefer a nice anonymous cinema but the Dulverton Film Club has one distinct advantage: a bar.
‘Hello, Jane. What can I get you?’
That’s the joy/problem with small town life – everyone knows who you are.
‘Bottle of red, please, Keith. Something not too heavy.’
We had a little debate and he passed over a bottle.  ‘How many glasses?’
‘Just the one.’ I grinned.  Ears pricked.  But, frankly, who cares? 
So I sat in the front row (cos a downside of village hall cinema is the lack of tiered seats and I’m not wild about getting a cricked neck from peering around the head in front) and happily glugged my way through the trailers and then a short called Glory at Sea (by the same collective responsible for Beasts) which, let’s be honest, had me in tears. 
And then Beasts started and…yeah, I cried a bit in that too. But the beauty of cinema is that it’s dark and nobody sees you cry.  Did I enjoy it?  No.  Enjoy is the wrong word.  It’s a strange film, dark and lorn and sad and fierce.  But I’m glad I saw it.  And I scribbled in my notebook, as I do. Can you scribble in the dark?  Of course. Sometimes I draw too.  *smile*. 

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.  If you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back to alright. But sometimes you break something so bad, it can’t be put back together.”

Yeah. That's about right.

So then…you need a boat. The right kind of boat.  “This boat will take you exactly where you need to be. It’s that kind of boat.”

So, what next?  I don’t know. Whatever comes up.  Whatever boat catches my eye.  

But more trips for sure and certain. Cos, much as I love travelling to amazing places in my mind, it’s time to get out there and see, smell, hear, taste and touch for real.  So, I’m making things happen.  Not Louisiana.  Not yet.  Next up is Austria.  Mountains.  Then…who knows where? I’m open to offers. Cos the world can’t come to you, but you can go out to the world. Right?  

Saturday 23 March 2013

Praha - liminal city of Alchemists

What else did I see in Prague, Frances asked?  Truly, it was a whistle stop tour. We arrived late, very late, in a snowstorm, to our hotel in the Old Town Square which was gearing up for Easter with streamers in the trees.  A man stood chopping wood for one of the many open fires and that was the first indication that Prague is a city of the elements, an alembic.

It’s interesting, you know (or maybe you don't), that although the name Prague comes from the Slavic for ‘ford’, the city’s native name is Praha and its etymology suggests the word práh  - threshold.  So, a liminal place, then?  My kind of town. 

‘The Astronomical Clock is just around the corner,’ said Adrian.  And, with only a few minutes before the hour, we waited with the throng of tourists to watch the little figures come out and do their thing.

I wanted to go in hunt of alchemists, of golems and astrologers, of spells and sorcery. I yearned to see the Prague of Dee and Kelley, of Kepler and of Maharal Rabbi Loew.  Adrian, meanwhile, mused on defenestration and protectorates, Hussites and, of course, beer. 
But he dutifully took me to see the old Jewish Cemetery (100,000 burials, 12 layers of tombs) and pointed out the wall and window where the golem supposedly waited.  We walked over the Charles Bridge, climbed up to the castle, wandered up and down steps and into backways and byways. 
I’m not good at being a tourist. I don’t really go for ticking off museums and sights. I love just meandering around, stopping every so often to sit at some café or bar and watch a new city at work and play. And Praha is the perfect city for that…
Huge thanks to the Czech Tourist Board for their generous hospitality.  I love your city, I truly do…and I hope to return...I really do.  So much more to see. So much more to love. 

Yes, I take crap photographs.  Apologies. :-) 

Friday 22 March 2013

Day Tripper in Prague...

So. Went to Prague. Just for a night and a morning.  I loved it.  So much.  Needed longer, much longer. Must go back.
And what caught my eye?  Lots of things but, inevitably, walls and windows.  Blockades and openings. And,  of course, the Lennon wall.

Walked away with a hundred songs in my head...

Sunday 17 March 2013

A partial hand massage and a shared dressing gown

So Adrian won an award from the Czech Tourist Board, in thanks for his tireless and perfectly selfless tasting and promoting of Czech lager (well, that’s the way I see it).  ‘It’s a three night stay for two people,’ he said. ‘I thought it would be good to show you Prague.’

‘Hmm,’ I said. I had a fair idea of what “showing me Prague” would entail  - I could probably recite a list of all the apparently incredible bars along with their signature beers in my sleep.
‘No,’ he said, all hurt. ‘I wouldn’t just drag you round bars. I could show you…’ He paused. ‘Umm…the river!  I could show you the river.  And the castle. And there’s a great bridge.’  Hmm. But I’ve got a river and a bridge here…and a hillfort. But then again, everyone says Prague is lovely so...

Anyhow.  A few weeks later he appeared at my office door with a piece of paper and a puzzled look on his face.
‘What’s that?’  Suspecting a bill or a court summons.
‘Er, it’s confirmation of our trip.’  He did look very odd indeed. Perfectly perplexed.
‘Is everything alright?’
‘Er, yes.  It’s just…we’re not staying in Prague.  They’ve booked us into this place in Podebrady.  It’s…a spa hotel.’
Kerching!  I suppressed the little victory dance that was playing out in my head and snatched the letter.  And laughed my tits off.  Not only were they sending us to a spa, they were sending us for a ‘Wine Relaxation Stay’.  Given Adrian writes about beer and generally turns his exceedingly sensitive nose up at wine, there was a blissful irony to it.
I read on. 
Not only do we get a “welcome drink of 2dcl of delicious wine with you first dinner” (sic), we also get “grapes in the room on arrival.”  Followed by “1 x relaxation wine bath with wrap, 1 x classic partial Hand massage with grape oil, 1 x HydroJet (massage water bed)” (sic).  By now I was wheezing with amusement.
‘A partial hand massage?' I said. 'What the hell’s that?  Are they only going to massage part of our hands?’
‘Sounds like…’
‘No. Don’t go there.’
‘Fair enough.  I’m not having a wine bath though.  And I’m not too sure about the massage either.’
‘That's okay. I’ll have yours.  You can go out and find bars.’
His face brightened.

And then it dawned on me. This will be the first time I have ever been to a spa with someone. Ever.  I always go alone.  And then I thought again.  And breathed a deep sigh of relief that there’s no detoxing involved. 

“We wish you a nice stay and a lot of unforgettable memories!” trilled the letter, before adding: “A dressing gown is available during the stay.”

So, there you have it.  Adrian and I flying off to the Czech Republic tomorrow for a regime of wine and bathing.  A partial hand massage. And a shared dressing gown. Bottoms up! 

Friday 15 March 2013

What I'd do come the Zombie Apocalypse...maybe

So. Where was I?  Ah yes, Caz’s questions.  These were they:

“Who are you?

What are your values?

Where do you want to be in the growth of your being?

Where or who do you want to be in five years time?”

And then she added:  “Short and honest answers only.”

And I sat and stared at the screen for a long, long time.  And then I slowly typed:

“I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.”

Which was certainly short and, to be honest, very honest. But those questions stayed with me, and are still with me.  A few years ago, I would have answered them very differently. I would have said that my values were these: to be honest, to be kind, to be brave.

But, you know, the more I live, the more I feel there is always another side. If you are always honest, you might not be kind, for example. And if you are always kind, is that always the best thing for people? I mean, I have learned the most from the people who have been (ostensibly) very unkind. And brave? Surely that’s always good?  Well, not necessarily. Sometimes one’s bravery could hurt others.  It’s not so simple.

Five years ago I would have said that in five years’ time I would like to be a best-selling fiction author, travelling the world for the price of the odd talk or book signing.  Now? 

Who am I?  What is this thing people call Jane Alexander?  Am I my body?  My mind? My emotions? My elusive ‘soul’?  All? Or none? So I meditated on it (while rowing at the gym as it happens) and went further and further inwards and arrived at…a tiny glowing spark, a shimmer – one tiny oh so tiny part of creation. 
And I felt that was cool. But then, really, if I am at root, just one of gazillions of sparky little sparks, where is the need for this ‘growth of my being’?  I am.  I just am. Not particularly good (I mistyped god there – made me smile), not particularly bad.  But really, once again, I found myself wondering (wandering) ‘What is the point?’

And then I got off the rower and switched to the bike and, because I thought I’d pull myself back to the here and now (cos I really had gone off a long, long, long way while moving backwards and forwards and going nowhere) I opened a book and read the story of a wise Indian king who once dreamed that his people were going to be poisoned by evil rain which would drive them crazy.  He tried to warn the people but they didn’t listen. So, when the rain came, everyone drank and everyone went crazy.
What did the king do?  Well, he drank the water and went crazy too.  

You have to wonder about that story.  He knew what would happen but he still drank. Was he empathetic? Did he dread separation from his people?  Was he cowardly? Did he fear being alone amongst mad people (I've often thought, when people talk about the zombie apocalypse thing that I'd probably just run out and go 'Oh just bite me, for pity's sake, and let's get it over and done with')?  Or did he realize that his "wisdom" was one-sided and that he needed to go back to ordinary, mad, crazy, everyday life (the same life everyone lives) in order to become enlightened there too? 

It’s easy to step aside from the world; to watch the ‘crazy’ people on their hamster wheels being busy and striving to achieve, to win, to make money, to gain prestige.  It’s much harder, I figure, to dance through the everyday madness. Or stumble, with bits dropping off here and there, if we follow the zombie line.

It may be tempting to leave your body, to leave your mind, to leave the planet – because although the world is very beautiful, it can equally be very depressing – but maybe that’s a cop-out.  Maybe enlightenment is insanity?