Thursday 22 August 2013

Why we don't buy glossy magazines

So people aren’t buying women’s magazines any more?  Or at least, not so much.  In the Telegraph, Jo Fairley called the latest circulation figures a ‘bloodbath’.   She reckons we aren’t buying the glossies because, basically, we can get it all for free on the Internet.  And she has a point.  But really, it’s not just that.

Firstly we’re not buying them because they are stupidly expensive.  £4? £4.20? Oh, get a grip!

But mainly we’re not buying them because they insult our intelligence.  I’ve got one here with Helen Mirren on the cover.  A little pink circle says: “Your special signed subscriber cover” and underneath that, ‘With love from Helen’ (Helen is in handwriting, Mirren’s presumably).  Er, hello.  This is supposed to make us feel warm and snugly?  Helen loves us?  Each and every one of us?  With her printed signature.  Per-lease.  As if that weren’t enough, the only strapline says this: ‘A fresh start.  How to get what you really want.  More money, a healthier body. An extra shot of happiness.’

Dear magazines – we’re not entirely thick.  We know you can’t deliver happiness on a plate.  We are sick of your platitudes, your dumbed down X steps to happiness/career satisfaction/inner peace/the perfect orgasm.  We don’t trust your ‘recommendations’ because we know that they tend to be predicated by who’s paying the advertising bill that month.  We don’t believe your gushing travel features because we know they’ve been written by the intern on a freebie.   Your features are anodyne, with every ounce of originality and interest sucked out.  And yes, we can find better fashion and cookery in the web.  Without paying through the nose.

Plus, in some cases, we’re appalled. Revolted.  I’m looking at another (£4.20), the September issue.  I flick through and reel at the ads.  Actually, there are 126 pages of them before you even get to the first page of editorial.  I mean…who buys this stuff?  Who out there actually buys all the Dolce & Gabbana, the Fendi, the Longines, the Gucci? 

And that first page?

The Object of Desire:  Louis Vuitton Collar.  £820. 

Would any of you snap it up?  Or (I’m flipping through the rest of the mag now) shell out £14K for a watch  or £4,500 for a bangle or ‘about’ £1,020 for a python-skin clutch or…oh, you get the idea. And yes, I know it's about selling us the image, the 'desire for lifestyle' so we hand over twenty quid for a lipstick or whatever but really... 
I kept flipping through that magazine, trying to find something to read, something of interest, something…anything…that might chime a chord.  Now, I know I’m not their target audience (not a shopper, y’know) but still…   It’s not just that it’s a paean to shopping porn, it’s vapid. There is no meat. Nothing of substance.  It’s not even well-designed. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I like flicking through the glossies. Or I did.  A good magazine should be a snapshot of the moment.  I don’t endlessly trawl the web. I don't have time to check out all the various specialist sites. Plus I’m not interested enough in fashion or beauty or anything really to linger longingly. But it's quite nice to know what's new.  Plus, I like the feel of paper.  

What I want from a mag is a smart, sassy, informed edit of the best.  I want to read and see the work of specialists with an eye on the ball, a finger on the pulse and…a gut feeling for what’s worth knowing about.  Is there a really good book I should be reading? A cracker of a movie that isn’t a Hollywood  blockbuster that I might miss? Some breakthrough technique that will really make me look ten years younger?  Analysis of some trend or phenomenon – a deeper investigation – (Marie Claire used to do that really well).  And yes, sure, beautiful pics of nice clothes and homes and beaches and food are fine – but they need to be ‘real’ as in vaguely obtainable.  A good magazine should end up filled with turned down corners, with websites and numbers and bits of info ringed round in felt pen. 

Do any of them still provide that?  Red comes the nearest, to my mind (except they ruin it by being disgustingly ageist - what IS it with you magazines that you think that, once we hit 40 all we want is Spanx and cookery tips? But that's another rant).  Anyhow, the rest are pretty much a waste of space. 

Am I being unfair?  

Wednesday 21 August 2013

You have the right to remain silent...

You have the right to remain silent.  Ah, but we don’t, do we?  We are compelled to talk, to relate, to narrate, to dictate, to gossip, to speculate, to whisper and shout and share.  Even those of us who say we don’t, do.  How can we not?  Even if we don’t talk out loud, the words come out in other ways – we write, we ‘chat’, we tweet, we sing, we chunter, we rant and rage or whine and whimper.  We talk to ourselves. We talk in our sleep. 

And last night I read this passage (from Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias) and it made me smile.
‘If you stop each night to think about what has been told or recounted to you during the day by the many or few people with whom you have spoken…you will see how rare it is ever to hear anything of real value or interest or discernment… Almost everything that everyone says and communicates is humbug or padding superfluous, commonplace, dull, interchangeable and trite, however much we feel it to be ‘ours’ and however much people ‘feel the need to express themselves’…  Talking is probably the biggest waste of time amongst the population as a whole, regardless of age, sex, class, wealth or knowledge, it is a wastage par excellence. ‘  [Itals my own.]

Yet still it seems we need to talk.  And mainly we need to talk about ourselves.  Rare are the listeners; even rarer are the askers of questions.   I remember once, years back, talking to this guy, a friend’s boyfriend.  Or rather he talked, and talked and talked and talked.  And it became a game.  How long could we go on with him not asking me one single question.  Answer?  Four hours.  Yup, I gave him the occasional prompt and off he went.   I should have charged him – shrink's rates.  J

Is listening a skill?  It certainly helped me become a relatively successful journalist.  Some might say it makes me a good friend.  The key is really to listen – not just to pretend while waiting impatiently to add your own anecdote or feeling.  Most people play verbal ping pong.  But then again, listening can be a defence mechanism – being a good listener is a great way to avoid talking.  And I feel uncomfortable talking about myself.  Because, really, what is there to say?   Who cares about my opinions?  I don't even care about my opinions that  much.   What business is it of mine what other people do, say; how they behave?  If my words can help or soothe in any way, then they’re worth it.  But they’re just words.  What use are they, really?  If, instead of offering words, I could wipe away pain and sickness; if I could take away sadness and indifference; if I could write large cheques and bestow largesse, then that might be worthwhile, huh?  But I’m helpless – so I offer words.

Anyhow.  See…even I (who love silence) am not immune.  I spew out words on this blog.  It’s one way of talking without being interrupted (*smile*).  Of course you don’t have to listen; nobody does.  That is the really good thing about this kind of verbiage – it’s easily switched off.   J 

Why do we talk?  Obviously it is useful – on a practical and evolutionary level.  But why do we feel the need to express ourselves?  Why do we need to be heard, to be understood?  Is it ego?  Is it all just ego?  I did a cursory search online to find out ‘why people talk’ but drew a blank – or rather I drew an awful lot of people…talking and not listening.  J

What do I think?  What do I know?   Don’t you love the ambiguity of that phrase?  Let me italicise the I to add some emphasis, to make the nuance clear. What do I know?  I guess sometimes we talk purely for comfort – against the cold, against the sheer nothingless, against oblivion.  Chitchat, the murmuring of words, shared laughter, the everyday, the inanity even, soothes like a warm bath, like the burn of brandy down the throat.  We know that ultimately we’re all alone but talking, with the right people, those who we feel *get* us, dispels the cold - just for a little while.  It’s like an inferior form of holding. 

And not everything is dross or commonplace or trite.  Sometimes someone says something that stops you in your tracks.  That makes you go ‘Oh’ and then sometimes ‘yes’.  And not just because you have the urge to go ‘Oh yes, me too,’ and then launch into your own anecdote or diatribe, but because it makes you want to go away and ponder quietly.  And I guess that’s why I don’t vanish into silence entirely.  And I guess that’s why I continue chuntering into the void because, every so often, someone says something in response to my inanity that …chimes. 

Anyhow. How about you?  Talker? Listener?  Any idea why we, as a species, have the talk urge?  

Does it matter?

But seriously.  I’m sitting outside in the sun, hearing the church bells ring the hour.  Noon.  I’ve just had an early lunch (chick pea dahl) and have fed the dogs (not chick pea dahl).  And I’m sort of half thinking.  My thoughts are a mess these days, a total mess.  I keep retreating to meditation, to the place of no-thought, but then I wonder – should one always seek to escape?  To run away?  Isn’t it opting out?  Just another form of distraction, through no-distraction?

And meanwhile the world is so screwed up.  Or rather, we’ve screwed it up so badly.  Recently I have been re-reading books I read when I was young and, in particular, the ones that nudged my green sensibilities.  The ones that probably partly influenced my book Walker.  Shabono.  Ishmael.  Have you read Ishmael?  It doesn’t make for comfortable reading.   

And  then (this morning at the gym) I finished Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited.   It was a cheap Kindle download and I picked it up because I’d quite liked The Rapture and Louis Drax.  I’d wanted some mindless entertainment, some frivolous distraction but there again – those uncomfortable issues: our over-population, the non-sustainability of growth, our greed, our living so out of kilter with the rest of the planet… and despair washes over me.

And then I ponder – does it matter?  We are born. We live.  We die.  Like all animals.  Yet, unlike (as far as we know) other animals, we make up stories.  We call these stories things like ‘True Love’ and ‘Challenge’ and ‘Work ethic’ and 'Happy Families' and ‘A Good Life’ and ‘Personal Growth’.  Or maybe for some of us the only story is ‘Survival’.  It just depends on our circumstances and our personal bent.

‘You’d be happier in an ashram,’ Adrian often says to me.  Maybe he’s right.  But I’m not sure that an answer either – it’s just another story.  Probably there is no answer.  The thing is, nobody knows. 

I let my mind wander over the D.H. Lawrence story, The Man Who Loved Islands (my second favourite DHL story, after The Man Who Died).  Have you read it?  I haven’t revisited it for years.  But, as I remember, it reinforces the idea - you can’t run away.  No matter how I may fantasise about a simple life…a little hut…in the deep woods… on a shoreside…on an island even…I know it won’t solve anything. 
Should we be trying to save the world?  It’s tempting to say so but nothing is changed for sheer force of will, is it? You can't change people.  You can only change yourself.  Big changes will probably only come by internal change.  One person at a time.  Can we change enough?  In time?  Should we?  Who knows?  

And, really, does it matter?  Yes, I’m repeating myself…I told you, my wondering whirs around, a cloud of unknowing.  Does it matter?  Probably not.  But it’s still sad.   And now the church bell rings again.  The half hour.  And I'm just wandering in my mind out loud. 

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The hierarchy of knickers, hairy bottoms and how ginger pubes could rejuvenate the world

So, I was just about to strip off when I remembered.
‘Damnit,’ I said to Cathie.  ‘I’ve got my godawful scratty workout knickers on.’

Let me swiftly explain that Cathie is a…well…what is she?  A healer.  A witchy woman. Deeply wonderful.  Ostensibly she does aromatherapy and Bowen Technique on me; unobstensibly she talks to my body and they come to some kind of agreement to which I am not party.  Whatever.  I go in feeling crap and come out feeling…not crap.

Anyhow.  I have a hierarchy of knickers.  There are everyday pants, good work horses of the arse… Then there are ‘best’ knickers, worn when they might be seen (as in when going to see one’s massage therapist, doh!).  There are fancy knickers which, frankly, never get worn because they are ridiculously uncomfortable and, anyhow, there is no call.  And, finally, there are workout knickers which really are beyond the pale. They’re big Bridget Jones jobs that won’t ride up or fall down while one is gyrating wildly and that don’t mind getting absolutely drenched in sweat. 

‘I apologise,’ I said.  
But really, come to think of it, I don’t quite understand why we keep our knickers on when we’re being massaged.  They don’t bother in India and, if you ask for those little paper thong things at a German or Austrian spa they look at you funny. 
‘Why? They’re not see-thru and you don’t have a hairy bottom, do you?’ said Cathie.
‘You what?’  I spluttered.  ‘A hairy…?’ 
‘I tell you, you see all sorts in this job,’ she said.  ‘Now not that many women have hairy bottoms but some really do.  Not to mention those who haven’t wiped themselves properly.’
‘Oh noooo!’ I said.
‘Oh yessss,’ she said.
Now I get the reason for pants.

I lay on the couch, face down in the hole, feeling suddenly deeply self-conscious. 
‘You’re okay,’ she said reassuringly.  ‘No fur and no skid marks.’
I snorted into the hole. 

Actually pretty close...
So she put on a rock CD and got to work.  And we talked about London in the 80s and we talked about the music business, and we talked about Mary Magdalene being a priestess of Isis and about a guy called James who ended up in an Italian concentration camp in Roman times and how juniper oil is brilliant for rheumatism.  And then, somehow, somewhen (I may have dropped off for a moment) she was talking about some guy (as in real, present day guy) who had gone grey everywhere (head, beard, chest, underarms) but had bright red pubes.
‘That reminds me of my ex brother-in-law,’ I said and she gave me a startled look.
‘Nooo,’ I laughed. ‘I just meant how hair is weird. He had dark hair, head-wise, yet when he grew a beard it was bright ginger.’

And it took me back to a conversation I’d had with a good friend some time back when she’d said about how awful it was to find your first grey pubic hair and I had been…puzzled.  
necklace: public hair and gold

So, what kind of witchery is this?  Riddle me why some of us grow different coloured hair on different bits of our bodies, and why red pubic hair is seemingly resistant to the siren call of ageing?  Because it’s just the pubic stuff – red hair (the head variety) is, sadly, not exempt.

Okay, so this sounds terribly flippant but, hey, it could be important, for pube’s sake!  Who knows, red bushes might just hold the key to hirsutical regeneration.   J  

PS - I discovered, while hunting for images for this post, that people do the most extraordinary things with pubic hair. I would also strongly recommend not Googling 'ginger pubic hair' or 'hairy bottoms'. got it.  People are plain weird, huh?  

Happy Families? How do you do summer?

So I was talking to a friend (well, emailing) and she was feeling guilty.
‘The holidays are nearly over and I don’t feel I’ve done anything with the children.  I mean, what will they remember when they’re older?  Sitting in front of the TV all summer?’
I reassured her. I made the right noises. About how I feel we are under too much pressure to provide these perfect experiences for our children. About how I don’t feel a bit of boredom hurts a child.  But even so, I know what she means. 

This summer it’s been okay – I haven’t had the annual attack of the guilts.  James and I went to Morocco (however unsuccessful it was on the activity front, we got to hang out a lot together and that was plain lovely) and, right now, he’s in Berlin with Adrian.  In between he’s been working – seriously hard – at the local shop-cum-cafĂ© and volunteering at the local retirement home.  He’s done a bit of cricket, seen a few mates, and, yes (we’re now coming to the dregs of it) spent many an hour shooting things (goals and zombies) on Xbox and stayed up hideously late to watch Family Guy.  But hey…

And it did make me think, again, how little we do as a family.  It’s always been like that and I’ve always felt bad about it.  Because some families just seem to manage it – they’re always popping off to the beach, or heading out for picnics or barbecues or camping or kayaking or biking or whatever.  And we…don’t.  

James' toes for a change.  :)
The problem is that we just don’t like doing the same thing.  Or at least, not in the same way.  Adrian isn’t exactly allergic to the beach but he’s never really enjoyed it.  When James was small he would occasionally make an effort and would sit, on a rock, in jeans, combat boots, bomber jacket, reading a book on the War, looking pained.   On the other hand, he loves seriously long hikes.  I see walking as a kind of contemplation; he sees it as an endurance challenge.  He loves pubs – he’s sociable, loves chatting to people, any people, about anything.  And he absolutely adores cooking, eating, drinking.  His eyes come alive if he hears the words ‘street food’ and if anyone says  ‘pulled pork’, he starts to salivate.  Whereas I can’t be doing with small talk, get bored rigid in pubs and would happily live on oats and grapefruit.   

But it’s not really that, is it?  I wonder if we learn this togetherness or solitude from our own childhoods.  When I think back, I can’t remember our family doing anything together really.  We didn’t have a car so there was no opportunity for day trips or picnics or trips to the sea.  Once a year we went on holiday to the beach but it never seemed a particularly joyous occasion.  Dad would sit in the pub or go for long walks while the rest of us would sit in the beach hut listening to the rain.  My memories of childhood are predominantly solitary.  It never bothered me, not one bit.  Maybe some of us are wired for family communality; some not so much.

But anyhow, what do you do?  Compromise?  Take it in turns to do whatever turns you on?  Or just accept that you’ve got different tastes and split up for activities?  Usually we opt for the latter but this summer we’ve notched up two exceptions.  We made it to the beach one day (well, for a few hours) and Adrian even admitted he quite enjoyed it.  It wasn’t the long lazy day of flopping in and out of the water for which I'd hoped.  In my head, I see a campfire and clinking glasses and laughter as the sun goes down.  I hear a guitar playing maybe, quietly against the bass beat of the soft waves.  There’s no angst, no watching the clock, no anxiety about what other people are or aren’t doing.  What a dreamer, huh?  But hey, let's not grumble. It was nice. 

And likewise, the other day when Adrian said he was going for a walk, I said I’d go with him.  ‘Really?’ he said.  ‘Are you sure?’  And we walked up into the woods and did a long circuit, crouching like commandos through the undergrowth, clambering up rocks, sliding down steep hillsides.  ‘Don’t you want to go to your tree and meditate or something?’ he said but I shook my head.  But it was nice he thought of it.  And we came back down into town and I said, ‘Do you want a drink?’ and we sat outside the pub and he had a few pints while I had a couple of decaf coffees and that was fine too. 

Maybe we just have to make a bit more effort.  Maybe we have to put aside our own selfish desires sometimes and fit in with what other people want?  Maybe we have to meet halfway. 

I don’t know.  How do you do it?  

Monday 19 August 2013


Now the thing is, I eat pretty erratically plus I’m vegetarian, so my diet doesn’t necessarily hit muster as far as providing energy, vital nutrients and all on an ongoing basis goes. Sorry, that is a horrible sentence – I appear to have lost the power of rational speech recently. Or, rather, the power of rational writing (the speech went a long time ago). 

Of course I could just take supplements but it dawned on me that actually there was a better way to go.  Cos really the best way to supercharge our diet is not with manufactured supplements but with foods dense in natural nutrients – the so-called ‘superfoods’.

My favourite pharmacist Shabir Daya (from Victoria Health) agrees.  ‘They offer great benefits,’ he says.  ‘Providing not only vitamins and minerals but phytonutrients which have many beneficial properties.’ He points out that superfoods are also much safer than synthetic supplements.  ‘Superfoods do not offer mega doses - mega doses of any nutrient can have a detrimental effect.’  And who wants a detrimental effect, huh?
However he is swift to point out that they aren’t necessarily a magic bullet and that you should take some of their miraculous claims with a pinch of salt.  Quite so. 

But hey.  I figured that the easiest way for me to boost my energy and so on was to have a mega superfood charged breakfast.  And for anyone who might remotely be interested (all two of you) this is it.

 First I soak oats overnight in unsweetened almond milk. Why oats?  They give sustained energy and are known to keep cholesterol levels (as in bad cholesterol) down.  Then I add goji berries because, firstly, I like the taste and secondly they are mega-high in antioxidants with potent anti-ageing and immune-enhancing properties.  They’re said to increase stamina, strength, longevity and sexual energy.  Good enough, huh?
      Then, come morning (usually after my morning gym workout), I add a tablespoon or so of mixed crushed organic flaxseed, sunflower and pumpkin seeds (rich in protein, Omega 3 fatty acids, zinc and vitamin E).  Why crushed?  Cos you ever tried getting flaxseeds out of your teeth?  Trust me – crush ‘em.
      Then I add another loving spoonful of hemp seeds. Why?  Cos they’re a superb vegetarian protein (a much better choice than soya or whey protein) with the ideal ratio of essential fatty acids.  Hemp can encourage weight loss and a healthy immune system (so they – the infamous they – say).  It is also said to promote glossy hair, healthy skin and nails, and may balance hormones and reduce inflammation.  Plus studies show it can help battle depression.  Hi ho hemp!
      Next up, a sprinkle of Acai.  Exceedingly high in antioxidants, acai is said to help prevent premature ageing. Its amino acid profile gives a sustained energy boost and its high essential fatty acid content helps regulate blood sugar levels.   Only downside? It turns your breakfast a sort of sludgy greyish black.

            A really good dose of Cacao nibs next.  Cacao is known as ‘Nature’s Prozac’.  Pure raw cacao (the raw ingredient of chocolate) can reduce stress and anxiety and increase feelings of wellbeing. It is exceedingly high in antioxidants and in magnesium.  Plus it’s absolutely delicious.  Don’t cheat - you need the pukka nibs, not a slab of Cadbury’s.

      Then a goodly wallop of Chia seed.  Known as the appetite suppresser, chia was apparently used by the Aztecs and Mayans for endurance and energy.  It’s a gelatinous seed that adds bulk to food, making it handy if you’re trying to lose weight. It contains the highest vegetarian source of EFAs (essential fatty acids) and is exceedingly high in calcium and iron.  To be honest, it doesn’t really rock my boat but I need the protein.

      Then a sprinkle of Maca. Another powerful adaptogen, used originally by the Peruvians for energy and sexual prowess.   Maca is said to help reduce anxiety, stress and depression and enhance libido and fertility (not that I’m remotely interested in the latter, but hey some of you might be).  LOVE Maca.  J

 Finally some Lucuma powder.  Why?  Absolutely no idea.  But it tastes nice.
Then I stir it all up and watch it turn a really disgusting shade of murky grey.  But seriously, it tastes great.  So great that, if left entirely to my own devices, I’d probably eat it three times a day. 

Of course my family don’t join me in this.  But I am trying to nudge James towards something a tad more healthy than Krave.  Kellogg’s sent some All Bran the other day and, by heck it’s changed.  Farewell scratchy twigs; hello flakes with berries and chocolate (nah, not cacao nibs…you know, chocolate chocolate).  Anyhow, he looked suspicious but gave it a cautious lick and…bingo!  I figure it’s a goodly step in the right direction.   I might even try sneaking in a bit of something super when he’s not looking.  J

Anyhow...what do you have for your breakfast?  

Wednesday 14 August 2013

A tender process - tales from the yoga mat

So.  You may remember Tashi, the wonderful yoga teacher from Kaliyoga France?  Well, a while back, I asked her about the emotional and psychological impact of yoga for a feature I was writing.  And what she said chimed so deeply that I wanted to share it with you.  You know I love yoga - and it's not just because it's fun to turn oneself into a human pretzel.  For me, it's far more than that.  Tashi puts it far better than I ever could so I want to turn over this post to her words.  
Who knows, it could encourage you to try yoga yourself.  Of course, even better, seek out Tashi at one of her teaching retreats and experience her magic first-hand. Find out more here. 

Tashi: "Yoga is a systematic approach to living with awareness and sensitivity. Since being human is, and has always been, a mysterious and complex adventure the yoga scriptures offer guidelines for recognising how to develop and sustain this awareness. The key to practising yoga is methodical 'self-enquiry'.

When we go along to a local yoga studio or gym and practice physical postures for 90 minutes we are only exploring a fraction of the yoga teachings.  We find ourselves getting healthier and fitter, which is wonderful, but the critical aspect of 'self-enquiry' may be missing if the class is only concerned with physical proficiency.

That's not to say that the yoga postures are ineffective! The postures are an important part of the process of self-enquiry; the body is where we live, it's our invitation to feeling, to sensitivity, the entry point into witnessing the nature of life. If you want to know something about 'the world', the first place to look is within; it's where 'the world' springs from, where it's witnessed and it’s the point of origin of any experience we may share.
Looking inwards can be a tender process because we are made to see what is actually happening with naked clarity and we don't always like what we find. There is no sense in undertaking self-enquiry, however, with polite formality; we must get into the nitty-gritty of truth-telling with rigour and ruthlessness. Where else could we start but with the body which is our first and most reliable truth-teller, our cellular organic casing which we have carried through time and space, which tells our history and within which we have felt every action and choice we have ever made.

It's not uncommon for someone to feel tears flow during the relaxation stage of an asana class.  The process of stretching, twisting and moving the body reveals and opens our emotional, psychological and energetic blocks. We can be surprised by what we find lurking in our bodies and minds, and yoga invites a revelation which is not always comfortable. These tears and swells of emotion may be a physical release but it may be that we are simply glad to be at home in ourselves. A lot of our time is spent looking anywhere but inwards, we enjoy a myriad of distractions, entertainments and obligations - self-imposed or otherwise, we may feel fearful of what might be revealed if we stop, take time and reflect. We may be more interested to wonder about the inner world of others and how others might view us than what is going on inside ourselves.

The catharsis of self enquiry and the basic desire to understand ourselves intimately keeps us coming back to the mat day-after-day, week-after-week. We connect to ourselves by hugging the knees, holding the toes, softening the eyes, grounding the feet, lengthening the spine, opening our hips and perhaps, if we practice well, opening our minds."

Thanks, Tashi.  :-)