Where songs catch : an anatomy

In the beginning there were two sounds: the Charleston and the chorus. The Charleston was the spring dance rhythm my great grandma played on her piano; the chorus, heavy Greek lullabies that other relatives sung to me until I cried. The first animated my hips and knees; the latter made my throat lumpy.

First sounds. Picasso Bacchanal, fragment

There’s no question that music moves us, whether to feeling or inertia. Pop songs especially, are infinitely reproducible through lyrics sung in the shower or a beat tapped into the ground. Each song has al/chemical properties, though reactions vary wildly from person to person: the same few bars of a Stones song might make Lia in Florence feel mellow, and prime Mark in Sydney for confrontation.

My fascination with these fluctuations has led me to create an anatomy, of where songs catch in my own body. This entirely subjective map has been conceived from top to toe by someone who loves music, but has had barely any formal training in it.


Medial orbitofrontal cortex, anterior insular and toe nexus

 Some music appeals to my intellect and imagination – it lifts me to my toes as though forcing an escape from gravity. The medial orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insular in the brain are responsible for the recognition of visual, musical and even mathematical beauty.   Mon Amie la rose, a troubadour-style lyric about a young girl’s love for a rose, by the French singer, Françoise Hardy, has the symmetry of a perfectly balanced equation. The austere monosyllabic rhyme of ‘rose’ and ‘chose’ (thing); the gliding assonance, ‘la lune cette nuit/ a veillé mon amie/ moi en rêve j’ai vu/ éblouissante et nu‘* creating gentle echoes throughout. It has a nocturne’s softness to it, and yet for me it is a wakeful, morning song in a long tradition of love-flower lyrics.

Music for a higher plane. Picasso, heliogravure, April 1948

Hypothalmus, brain stem and eyelids

  Childhood memories of boredom, nausea, usually in the car, being driven somewhere. Greek songs playing on the radio, every word drawn out so it has the lifespan of… oh –  at least a guinea pig. The eye imagery -the beloved  described in terms of the singer’s own pair- a continuum from song to song. You might have a chain of: ‘mi mou thimoneis matia mou‘ (Don’t be angry my eyes); tha kleiso ta matia (I’ll close my eyes); thalasses mesa sta matia sou (seas in your eyes) ; ta begalika sou matia (your firework eyes). Pressing  my own eyelids into a car-upholstery-scented dream. Gravity to my scalp, beneath that the hypothalamus responsible for sleep and nervous functioning.  If I’m especially unlucky, the savant driver will rouse me to give an account of the singer’s usually miserable end- alcoholic, penniless and eaten by fleas. But the savant doesn’t think the stories are depressing; merely factual. Moreover, the sonorities that induce sleep in me, move them to courtship or nationalism; nostalgia about seaside rendezvous and the smoking they gave up; a slipped through appreciation of their proximity to the Middle East.

Cheeks, front of throat, skin

‘Johnny, Brooklyn born and bred/ Put ideas in to my head/ Can’t remember what he said/ But I know it wasn’t true…’ The uneven honky-tonk rhythm, clatter of rhymes – plus one anomaly, in Caitlin Rose’s New York is laughter incarnate. I feel my skin stretch and smile. Then, there’s Stevie Wonder and The Carpenters, 70s tunes that diffuse like filmy bubbles, trapping sunshine.

Sunflower crooner or weeping willow? Picasso, 1940s

Back of throat, sinuses, tear ducts

In a previous life, I think I was an Irish immigrant, displaced to America. I say this, because certain Irish ballads and their folk descendants invoke the saddest memories I’ve never had. Imagine- trying to explain to my then boyfriend the compulsion to go to Connemara (home to the best Irish balladeers, according to Colm Tobín’s Brooklyn );why tears were streaming down my face when a pub quartet sung about Danny going to America and the beeoooo– tee-full Ten-nes-see Waltz. The lone trills of the singer’s voice, the dactylic rhythm (one stressed accent, followed by two unstressed), a fatal dance in itself. In Ireland, a white-haired man sang a hot jagged rendition,  but this version by folk-country singer  Emmylou Harris has a stoic melancholy.


 Music paced expansively, so that a tree could branch within you. Good for healing injuries, physical and emotional. Beyonce’s Hold Up literally holds up the succession of breaths, procuring a swaying sense of tranquillity.


Rock and roll is attuned to the heartbeat.  ‘I don’t know why my heart flips/ I only know it does…’ Buddy Holly sings. The first time I heard Everyday, it was drummed onto the kitchen table by a boy in a green t-shirt. And I’ve not found a better echo of the human heart, or marking time.  Then there is the accelerated heart-beat, in Dusty Springfield’s urgently percussive Anyone Who Had A Heart, which squeezes an excessive number of words into a musical phrase. The refrain ‘Anyone who has a heart would take me in his arms and love me too/ You/ Couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me like you hurt me and be so untrue’ creates a discomfiting sensation of skipped beats and breathlessness.

Picasso, The Dream (of Nirvana), 1932

Hip-stomach nexus

 Nirvana drags you along to relentless rhythms, a narcotic wrap around your  hips; unexpected corners that flip your stomach. Belly dance music also awakens hip-stomach energy, throwing serpentine figures into the air around your body, before you’ve even begun to move. Phrases crash into one another like waves- a fairytale embellished with each passing night.

Hip-knee-sole nexus

Finally, beat and a manifesto lyric delivered tongue in cheek- every foldable joint in your body an accordion pleat. Probably jumping up and down, a mirror image of the over-privileged daddy’s girl in the Pulp song, who wants to be like common people. Or perhaps, the boy judging her.


Of course, there’s songs that flush through; don’t catch at all. And these intrigue me just as much.  Linda Ronstadt, a folk singer who grew up on the musically fertile US Mexico border, once said ‘if I didn’t hear it by the time I was ten, I won’t be able to sing it with any authenticity.’** I half agree – memory has an important function, but so does imagination and the epidemic of new rhythms.

De mémoire d’homme III, Picasso

*’The moon this night/ Has watched over my friend/ I saw him in a dream/ Dazzling and naked.’

** This was long before any talk of walls.


Crazy right-wing ideas are taking over the world. But what can you do about it?

The morning of Trump’s victory a man in a newsagent said that I should be the next Prime Minister. What did I do to merit consideration for the highest office in the country? Told the man serving me that Trump and Clinton were not equally bad; called Trump dangerous and pointed out that those Americans voting for him because he wasn’t part of the political establishment probably wouldn’t accept the services of an unqualified, anti-establishment brain surgeon. Volià – it seems that with a few catchy opinions (and a cool billion to spare) you’re half-way there. It worked for Donald.

Deer in headlights, petrified. A justifiable response to Trump’s election.

Of course it was a joke; who knows ‘you’re fit for the premiership love,’ might become another way middle-aged men chat up women young enough to be their daughter. It was also unfortunately no joke that Trump had actually won. But this little charade in the newsagent and a tweet that appeared on my feed, saying that the best way to fight Trump was to stand up for the rights and values he opposes, made me feel a little less hopeless about the whole situation- a little less like I was watching the brutal abduction scene in Nocturnal Animals and powerless to stop it. I thought if we’re still here and breathing there must be something we can do turn the tide. So I came up with a list, a starting-point for fighting Trump & Co and their venomous xenophobic, sexist, racist, homophobic, climate-change-denying ideas:

  1. Accept that these right wing demagogues have gained traction due to inequality of income and opportunity as well as pure hatred.  We can’t go back to what was; we can only go forward from what is.
  2. Cultivate a diverse network of friends and acquaintances – don’t just talk to middle class, highly educated people of your own age. Do we need any more evidence that preaching to the converted doesn’t work?   Social division creates a vacuum for Trump & Co to spread their messages of fear and hatred.
  3. Speak up against injustice – Catherine Mayer co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party put it best: ‘Here’s how to respond to Trump. Do something today to fight for the rights & values he opposes. Then do something tomorrow and the next day.’
  4. Speak another language – There’s no better way to defy the nationalist demagogues who say: ‘Speak English, revere our dominant national symbols or get back on the boat.’ (Never mind that a unified culture doesn’t exist within the Anglophone community itself). So give the international finger to monocultural propaganda by flaunting your new-found ability to order polski piwogossip in Spanish or pronounce Baile an Bhuinneanáigh like you’re from there.
  5. Hug a tree – metaphorically, because if you deny climate change… well you’re starting to resemble Trump & Co already. And literally throw your arms around your tall, mossy friend because they have been here, on this one earth we share, longer than any of us. They’ve survived the cholera and Hitler years, they’ll survive Trump & Co and forever be an international symbol of grace, vivacity and hope. 

    Spooner’s view of our Trump-defying mossy friend

Balance: Juggling Act or Tilt?

I was raised to fear and shun extremism. Extremism led to wars, terrorists and eccentricity. In my family you didn’t need to join a cult to be an extremist, merely to be fanatical about certain ideas to the point where you lost sight of other parts of life. My parents were raised in times of conflict, which meant that trepidation and sacrifice were a daily occurrence.  My father, a loner geek by disposition, was conscripted into the army for two years and at the end of my mother’s school yard was no-man’s land.

Master balancer

In peacetime, the  counter to fanaticism and dogma was balance, the juggling of complementary parts of life, never straying too far in one direction.  I interpreted this juggling of opposites as an ideal, both in terms of activities and politics. Here are some contradictions in point: I’m vegetarian apart from the  fish I eat 2-3 times per week and the occasional piece of curried chicken katsu  swiped from a fellow diner’s plate. However, I cringed when an ardent vegan soberly declared that she never ate anything ‘that had a mother’; I gave money to the homeless beardie by Warren Street Station, but walked past Andrey at the Wellcome Collection, keeping my remaining pound coin for the chocolate that would get me through teaching; I’m spiritually open, but balk when someone gives power to their God or makes Richard Dawkins their prophet.  Does this make me a chameleon or a fence-sitter with a splintery ridge up my backside? I’m not sure, I only know that I want to live ethically without cutting off my curiosity.

Once I was extreme: a peacetime fanatic. It was during my final year as a literature student, when I dropped all the balls that weren’t relevant to getting a First in my degree. I explicated sonnets in quantities of 50, the way a gym-goer might do sit-ups. I dreamed in blank verse, when I wasn’t awake thinking about Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady. I cancelled a date to read Keats and was only interested in sex when Thomas Hardy was writing about it. I went to one (Alice in Wonderland-themed) party, that I still remember. The difference between 69 and a 70, a 74 and 75 was everything.  I had less of the juggler’s busy equipoise and more of a dancer’s vertiginous tilt, where every muscle strives towards the realisation of a particular shape. My mother worried that I had lost my mind – it was true- I was on edge all of the time, but it was also strangely thrilling.

Tilting towards poetry

My dedication to my PhD, on the other hand, was quantifiable – I had a limited salary and libraries and archives had finite hours, Monday to Friday, 10-4, or something like that. Recognising that the research stopped, meant that I could juggle part-time work; off-topic projects and sightseeing after (or even two hours before) the archives closed. I claimed it was all broadly related to my project, but a friend was unconvinced and nicknamed my PhD ‘The world and everything in it’

As my upbringing and the juggle-touting self-help gurus would have it, the PhD years with their clear boundaries around work and play were healthier than the literature year, which was weighted heavily in one direction. I’ve been challenging this idea recently because there’s no question about which made me feel more alive. A life balancing many things to the point that you can’t fully immerse yourself in anything, resembles my old P.E. teacher’s idea of choreography. Miss Waters, who led our Year 7 class, demanded that all dances should incorporate a turn, a twist, a jump, a step and a pose. Though she wanted to assess our ability to perform various techniques, her rule countered the aesthetics of dance, where the most memorable sequences are lucid shapes in motion.

Lucid balance in point, Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin

I did abandon the juggling act from time to time, when some guy came on the scene. (He’d mean more than this phrasing implies!) From the outside, it looked like I was juggling work, friends, my new relationship and even yoga, but internally it felt like my life had tilted towards another. He would be the prime object of my thoughts and feelings, an imbalance that was actually heightened by socialising, because some people only asked about him, as though ‘we’ had displaced ‘me.’ So I unconsciously moved towards the fullest expression of that shape, the couple. The obsessive focus didn’t feel entirely dissimilar to the literature year.

The difference was that when things changed and I fell out of the tilt, the old juggling act was less palatable. I found myself missing the extreme, the liberal dropping of assets because I felt rich enough with my life’s bias. The question, ‘what or who can I be passionate about next?’ followed every loss. I juggled, or rather alternated, anxious thoughts – one worry provided temporary relief from another. The ‘Exciting-Life-Changing-Scheme’, which of course I wasn’t ready for, would dissolve in importance by a ruminating on a lost love; the heartbreaker’s sting could be neutralised by planning said ‘Scheme.’By keeping my mind absurdly busy, I tried to avoid the emptiness of loss and disappointment.  What I needed to move on, was to temporarily drop all striving, feel everything I wanted to avoid and take a more grounded balance- to be exact, a mild pelvic tilt, a child’s pose, with my hips bent back to the ankles, head down and arms extended. I had to trust that my vitality would return, unfurling organically.


In the grandest scheme of all, tilts, extravagant and humble are themselves part of life’s juggling act. Moderation and extremes are equally necessary.  The juggling act enables us to have varied, multi-faceted lives; self-care, earning a living and the different loves one may have, can all be accommodated.   But I confess, I live for the tilt, the thing that drives me and keeps me rooted.


Social beyond the tipping point

The tipping point is the moment from which nothing anyone could say will interest you. I’ve combined the conditional and future tenses intentionally, because I mean nothing in the whole possibility of things to be said (conditional)  will be of any interest from this moment on (future). You’re at an event and your social switch has suddenly flipped to the ‘off’ setting; perhaps you’ve have a concentrated mingling period and your sanity demands that you hermit away for a week; or perhaps, like me, you’re uncomfortable with formality and prefer socialising like a twelve year-old, in pairs and threes.

Dipping, tipping, (toppled)…

As a fidgety introvert, I like immersive environments that allow me to focus my energy and attention. I’ve enjoyed the following: intense one-on-one discussions; being a bridesmaid in a best friend’s highly choreographed wedding and attending a two-day birthday party with activities and escape nooks as well as boozy chatter. Over the years, I’ve engineered my life so that it includes a fair amount of zany, whimsical dos and a minimum of the formal drinks, barbecues and dinner parties whose lifeblood is appearances and group conversation. What turns me off these events is small talk, constrained spaces and dress codes that usually force me to be colder than I’d like. Moreover, I’m prejudiced that in these situations people are stuck in a muted midpoint between the personal and professional, but reaching the fascination of neither.

My new boyfriend however, takes a different view. He sees formal occasions as an opportunity to wear your nice shoes, catch up with old acquaintances and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t. He’s genuinely interested in what people do, where they’re from and what they think about foreign policy; whereas I gravitate towards their silliness and their soul. I usually arrive and leave in the middle;  he jokes that he’s got a reputation for being the first to arrive and the last to leave, and by the way, would I like to go to a party or two with him?

When I see civilised-looking strangers standing around with drinks, talking politely, I’ve already reached my tipping point, though we’ve just arrived. Conversations are hard to follow and words coming from people’s mouths vie for my attention with song lyrics, background chatter, overpowering aftershave, the glare from the sequins on someone’s dress and the slightly off taste of Country White. Someone tells me where they live and I instantly forget; I have no opinions or knowledge of Thailand’s economic policy, or even anything related; I’m bored replying to a question on what I do, and get distracted by a ladybird crawling on a fence.  I’m squeezed by the competing sensations that there’s an awful lot to take in and absolutely nothing to do. I begin to long for a book to read or colour. I’m not even joking.

When your shoes hurt, you’re depressed-drunk and generally not in the mood…

Afterwards, barely having scraped through, with my dubiously stained slip dress and ready death-stare, I think back to the wished for colouring book. I interpret it as the desire to solve this problem creatively. What I need to do, is keep myself interested so I don’t zone out, and simultaneously, stop myself from getting overwhelmed. By this point, the socially-adjusted reader will think that I’m developmentally challenged; other emotionally-motivated socialisers however, might recognise some of my anxieties.  This list of mood-altering suggestions is for them:

  1. Preparation : The Debutante Nap vs Running on Adrenaline   If you’re sure that the tricky event will be blessedly short (under three hours) you might consider racing into it from an action-packed day, so you don’t have to think  too much. However, if said ordeal  is likely to last more than three hours, take a nap if you can, or do your choice of endorphin-boosting activity beforehand.
  2. Catch the most interesting talk  Once you’re there, remember that you’re mobile and not glued to your partner’s side or to the poor sod who insists on a detailed explanation of your third PhD chapter. Find the conversation that most piques your fancy, then pay attention and ask about the things you genuinely want to know. Hopefully they’ll do the same and who knows, you might enjoy yourself. Some people advise playing the ‘relatables’ game, i.e.: no, you don’t have a mortgage, but your best friend says getting one is bloody hard etc… I think this is a slippery slope unless it’s a topic you actually want to talk about. If you’re not interested it will show in the dead goldfish expression on your face.

    Throw a ring round that conversation like it’s a much coveted Pokémon!
  3. Be inspired by a recent Chinese immigrant  Neville*, who is only on his second month in this country, set a shining example of how to socialise. Naturally serious and mellow, he was obviously at ease in his own skin. He talked about things that interested him, responded observantly and casually looked at his phone when the conversation turned to British school boards. I noticed how despite Neville’s lapse in concentration, he remained part of the group – his feet were pointed towards us and his body language was relaxed.
  4. When you meet the worst person in the world Stuart was busy showing off  a camera app on his phone that didn’t only let him monitor his son, but his son’s babysitter and even his wife, so that she wouldn’t go out and shop too much. I would have disliked Stuart under any circumstances, but at a party he wears right into my already short social fuse. My death stare won’t actually kill him, or convert him into a reasonable sort of man, but it will make everyone around me feel awkward. What I can do instead, is try to see Stuart for the hilarious specimen that he is. He is clearly compensating for something. I visualise that he has a petite prick and feel better already. If I’m in a gutsier mood, I might challenge him on the finer points of his spying system: does it cover the toilets as well?; is it in any way democratic? Most importantly, I need to keep Stuart in perspective. He is a single blight on humanity. If I leave because of him, then I make him as important as he wants to be. On the other hand, 3 Stuarts and I’m out!
  5. Drink if you can get away with it and it’s your thing The green fairy (absinthe) and her descendants make everything flow much more smoothly. Some people would put this at number one.
  6. Find on-site distractions when you need a break from the monotony of constant talk. Not everyone is a conversational marathon-runner. Offer to help with serving or setting things up. Playing with children and animals can also give you a breather, ditto pool tables and card games.
  7. Take a luxury break  When you’ve reached your tipping point prematurely and it’s beyond the first hour, say you have to make a phone-call, yes even on a Sunday (your boss doesn’t know the meaning of a day off)  and take a walk. Make this break, all twenty minutes of it, as voluptuous as possible. Go where you’re out of sight and read a chapter of your novel, instagram a few porches or look in the local antique shops. Try not to come back with an entire dining table. You’ll be the re-born phoenix of the party. I reckon you can get away with this twice in a single event.
  8. And when you’ve really had enough, the party’s moved location three times and the crowd has started thinning, it’s time to go. After all, no-one should overstay their welcome.inversion.jog


*Names have been changed


Who are these people?

Just a week ago I crossed the length of the country without meeting a single  Leave voter. But on June 23rd vote Leavers turned out to be the majority and dragged the rest of us with them, out of the European Union. How was this possible?

One conspiracy theory is abduction. The Brexiteer came riding on his white horse…

My lack of contact with the Brexit brigade will be less surprising when I describe my route: I travelled from my Remain stronghold in a leafy part of Camden to King’s Cross, where I took a train up to Darlington and swiftly hopped on another bus to Barnard Castle. Thanks to rapid transit, my feet barely touched down in Leave hotbeds. None of the studenty types or business folk I saw on the train seemed to be rallying the Leave war-cry and the immaculate Brief Encounter* generation I shared my bus ride from Darlington with, went about their business demurely, seeming little concerned with politics.  For the next three days I stayed with one of my best friends and pretty much forgot about the referendum. We celebrated midsummer and apart from exchanging a few pleasantries with locals, talked mainly to each other.  I felt like I had gone from the Remain campaign’s headquarters to a countryside that was silent on the matter. I then returned to the Labour Borough of Camden in time to vote. When I entered the  community centre around 4 that rainy afternoon,  I marked my paper with a giant X by ‘Remain ‘ in full view of the smiling poll clerks,  who I’m pretty certain shared my views.

I bounded out of the room feeling sunny and virtuous,  happy that everyone around me seemed to be voting the same way.  On Facebook and Twitter, individuals,  businesses and even their pets were pledging Remain. While I glimpsed the Leave campaign out of the corner of my eye (Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson  shouting on  TV;  The Sun and The Daily Mail’s inflammatory front pages on a news-stand)  I had no tangible evidence of its existence, or of public support for it. Over and over again, I heard people saying that they didn’t know a single Leave voter, apart from in a few cases, that one weird relative, who doesn’t count. (Well, actually, as we’ve seen, they do).  What’s clear is that I and so many others who fall into the privileged metropolitan category like me, have only had sustained  contact with people like ourselves.

Clap your hands if you believe in Europe! The last remaining corner to sing the Marseillaise or drink Merlot before the price goes through the roof…

We wake up bemused and bewildered after elections,  wondering who on earth these conservative hordes are. The phrase ‘Shy Tory’ was coined in the aftermath of the May 2015 general election- the idea being that many voters (with a secret drawer of light blue underwear, monogrammed with a spreading oak tree, I imagine)  are domestic sheep in liberal wolves’ clothing.  Last week’s Referendum revealed the phantom of those immigration-phobic Eurosceptics we view through screens, to be a terrible reality.  When I started writing this post, I thought I didn’t know any of them personally and then, just yesterday, I found that I did – an oddball very close relative, who has benefited from the advantages of globalisation, but thinks that Europe is finished and voted out.

Leaving this exception aside, though I’m sure there are a handful of others like him, who bridged the decisive 4% gap, my picture of the generic Leave voter is collaged from hearsay and headlines. Are they posh and patriotic? Do they sing the national anthem even when there’s no football match,  observe pheasant shooting season and Michaelmas, dream of a new British Empire?  Are they sad old nostalgics who look back to a time of close-knit communities when there were less foreigners and English was the only language spoken in the streets?  Are the majority simply poor,  immobilised by austerity measures and inequality  with nowhere to rise in their local communities?  Do they like tea, wildflower meadows and a bargain like me? I imagine because I don’t exactly know. I’ve had so few opportunities to meet these people, so I’m out of touch with them. Again,  who are they?

The model British household post-Brexit?

There have been calls to make Remain strongholds independent. The opinions of some Leave voters are xenophobic, racist and inimical to modern liberal values, so why not treat them like embarrassing relatives, give them short shrift and  function without them?  Who wants to have their national identity dictated by people who are driven by fear and sensationalist headlines? But to do so would perpetuate the exclusion from wealth, education and open-mindedness that the under-priveliged have endured, especially over the past ten years. We shouldn’t imitate or take on their values, but rather channel the curiosity and tolerance born of education and relative comfort, to at least get to know them and familiarise ourselves with their situation. This won’t be easy because it will mean coming properly face to face with the gaping divide in our society; but in unsettling times like these we have to lean into to the weirdness. We should be flexible, open doors so they get to know us, share in our advantages. Maybe then, they will see things more like we do.

*A beautiful British film from 1945, directed by David Lean. If we have to go back in time, can it please look like this?

Teaching boys to write

Savage Fighter has no spare time. Or hobbies. He instinctively sidelines anyone you introduce him to. He has a mouthful of yellow incisors and never misses an opportunity to beat up his enemies. Savage Fighter might sound a bit like the worst boyfriend you’ve ever had, but he’s actually a character in a story by my nine-year-old tutee Joseph.*  Savage Fighter was born a child of Sparta for two reasons: 1) When I met him,  Joseph didn’t like to write very much ( SF’s lack of characteristics meant he could written up faster) 2) When Joseph did write, it was always about warrior heroes- bloody conflicts, earthly or celestial, fascinated him and redeemed the process of writing.  You might be surprised to learn that Joseph is also a kindhearted cat-lover, who recently wrote about a lego utopia, where no one ever dies.


A lot of people attribute the resistance  boys like Joseph have to writing, to their maleness. ‘Like all boys he can’t be bothered… Boys aren’t very creative…’ are things I’ve heard from parents and friends alike. With a growing roster of male tutees, all of whom had difficulties in writing, I might have believed it. But I couldn’t quite square it with four years study of mainly male authors during my English Literature degree; or with how books by male authors are still taken more seriously, to the extent that in 1996 Bailey’s took a break from perfecting the churn of fermented Irish cream, to introduce a prize for women’s fiction. Does all this mean that there are two types of man: the kind who can write, the literary genius entitled to immortality and earthly perks (a  writer friend  thought he did better on Tinder because he could deliver more than ‘wow ur fit, fancy a drnk?’ ) and the strong, silent man of action/ mathematical formulae?

I also couldn’t square these stereotypes with my experiences as a tutor. Each boy, at this age of 9 or 10, when they can be lumped together in one conglomerate category,  is different. Some write riotously fast with an ear for comic detail. They just want to communicate their ideas and aren’t too fussed about what Flaubert termed le mot juste.  Others deliberate over everything they write and are as eager for new words and sentence structures as a Michelen-starred chef is for nuances to their method. The overriding similarity is a preference for adventure stories with almost nonsensically complicated plots and varying degrees of bloodshed. When a boy is overly obsessed with shoot-outs, with describing the exact dance of bullets though a torso,  we negotiate a sort of Arms Treatise, whereby we agree that only a small proportion of stories can feature brains being blown out by AK47s. Though it’s not my main role, I feel like I have some responsibility, as an accomplice to these boys’ visions of life in writing, to show them that gun-crime isn’t a joke and that narratives can be just as exciting when they’re not littered with corpses.


Violent or otherwise, their fictional worlds are resolutely male, with a protagonist who they identify with, and the male sidekicks, superiors and enemies he interacts with. Mothers appear fleetingly, as did one obese neighbour called Sally. Girls aren’t that interesting yet, (and you wouldn’t want to force them into someone’s latency period), but do they have to be banished entirely from the fictional worlds of adventure? Should I intervene?  This is fiction, after all; in reality, they treat me and every other woman they speak of with respect. And yet, I don’t think it will harm them to imagine more inclusive scenarios…

As I teach, I find that I’m also thinking more about the process of writing and the problems that crop up, whatever your level. Here are three simple observations:

  1. Environmental factors creep in and shift things around. ‘I think I made it rain because it started outside,’ one boy explained.
  2. Everyday actions get in the way of/make a good story. Together we debate when to reel out the detail and when to cut to the next scene. It’s a question of tone and pacing. We really don’t need to know that your characters brushed their teeth before bed every night; but if you don’t make unlocking the treasure chest last for at least two sentences,  the discovery will be anticlimactic.
  3. It’s pretty difficult to write about someone’s eyes in an unromantic way. I kept this observation to myself while my tutee, Oliver, churned out 5 variations of his story’s opening line. The story began with a dream of President Obama letting him know with one look that he was about to be entrusted with a special task. Oliver’s variations included: ‘President Obama gazed at me with his cloudy brown eyes’/ ‘looked at me with his warm brown eyes’/ ‘stared at me with his intense brown eyes’ and so on.  Although Oliver had been encouraged to write as descriptively as possible at school, using ‘strong adjectives’ and ‘powerful verbs,’ I was half concerned that when his mother saw the sentences she’d think I was engaging him in a  Mills & Boon assignment for my own satisfaction. Then I thought that unless you’re giving a deliberately unflattering account, your writing on eyes automatically gains an erotic charge, because it shows that you’ve been looking enough to notice their colour, size, shape and expression and you’ve carried this memory through time. This may or may not have been your original intention.


Over time, I feel my own taste for language changing.  As I encourage my tutees to use more sophisticated language, I’m learning to appreciate simpler, more spontaneous turns of phrase. Those staples of arts academia, long latinate words like problematise (which should be banned because it sounds ugly), destabilise, amanuensis , deconstruct and fashioning, make me grimace whenever I hear them. Spoken within too close a range of each other, or too often, they feel pompous and long-winded. They can take you so far from what you actually mean; you can lose yourself in them. My tutees would simply say that you’re trying to sound ‘clever and posh’ by using long words.  It’s not that I want to go back to being ten, unlearn everything, but I do want to write in a way that’s more authentic, less studied. The irony is, I’m studying anyway, filling whole notebook margins with passing snippets of so-called common parlance.

*names have been changed



Anywhere, Massachusetts

If you were deported, or less harshly, voluntarily expatriated,  what would you need to feel at home in your new place?  Would you embrace the differences or create the same kind of home anywhere?

These questions entered my head as I travelled through several homes in the past month and a half with my blue wheelie suitcase in hand: my childhood home; an AirBnB just outside Cambridge Massachusetts; a room in a family home in more rural MA; an air-mattress in a Lower East Side apartment and let’s not forget the night at the Blue Moon. Each location was different, and yet all came to resemble one another through my habits and chosen town haunts.

Could be anywhere… could be Massachusetts

When I arrived at my AirBnB in Cambridge in the middle of a rainy afternoon, jet-lagged and with zero phone charge, it felt completely unfamiliar. The red velvet cushions, bronze ornaments, turquoise printed wallpaper and delicate tulip-patterned crockery, made me feel like I had just stepped out of the book I was reading, Ohran Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. As though like Columbus, I had travelled in the wrong direction and ended up finding… the East. The neon signs on the local convenience store assured me I was in America; though the only appetising thing they sold was tabouleh…

The next day, before I found my workplace for the month, or even the internet, I found  Karma Yoga Studio. I stepped in, thinking it would be nice to keep up my old hobby, and instantly made a habit of attending Karma’s (yes a Karma within a Karma) flow and restore classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings. The poses were slightly different, as were the names. Dragons, monkeys and dolphins expanded the menagerie beyond the domestic dog  kennel. I could breathe more deeply and was more flexible, but had less balance. Still, I felt some continuity in the movement, something like home. They say home is where the heart is, and as I move, my heart is above my feet.

I wonder if it’s an option to not be at home in the place you travel to. To be like Odysseyus,  stay as a tourist, taking in strange sights and cuisines, while having a firm idea of your origin as home. But if you’re elsewhere for a month, could you in your heart of hearts stay faithful to your home as you remember it? If you like drinking guinness in Irish pubs, wouldn’t you find a new local?  Irish pub landlords all over the world rely upon your infidelity to home, and paradoxically, also upon your innate sense of home. I’m a fan of Irish pubs because they’re a friend to the small-bladdered as well as to those who like getting bladdered. Wherever you find an Irish pub, they’ll let you pee for free.

pineapple lamp
1369 degrees of welcome

If you move somewhere for any length of time, I’d say over  a week or so, you’ll start to have favourites and orient your life around these points. While I was in Cambridge, I accumulated the following:

A FAVOURITE CAFE: 1369 on Massachusetts Avenue.  Favourite Seat: The high table with the pineapple lamp. I once heard that in the days of expeditions, returning sailors would place a pineapple in their doorway to let the townsfolk know they had returned. I’ve been drawn to them ever since.

A LITTLE JAPAN: Theolonious Monkfish also on Mass Ave. Japan is the most enchanting place I have ever visited and I look for reminders of it everywhere I go. Here they play live jazz and serve sushi as they do in Murakami novels and Japan proper. The sushi rolls, called Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstitskin though, are strictly Disney.

A LITTLE PARIS: I found Paris twice through the Landmark cinema’s weekly emissions. In Paris almost every cinema will show pictures of the city; in London too, there is always a choice of French films; but at the Landmark, there was only one at a time, so the views stretched before me in celluloid, felt like love-letters from the old world to the new.

A LIBRARY LIVING SPACE: Lamont Library, Harvard University. I like places where books are abundant and un-sacred. Where you can enjoy them with a tea, a box of paints or from a high vista wearing sunglasses. This is such a place, as are the Central Saint Martins and Senate House Libraries in London and the Bryant Park, Open-Air Library in New York City.

From the old world to the new, The Cloisters, 1978

I arrived in Cambridge, knowing no-one, and everyone I met, whether friends of friends or random encounters, had washed up there through the job or spouse lottery, some more happily than others. They all spoke of the town as a place they hadn’t chosen for themselves; it fitted like an odd shoe. Too provincial or too Yanky; too cold but a lucky escape from Trump heartland… The place had a charm though, they admitted, once they’d found their favourite spots and began living through them.

One Friday, it was unofficially Expats night at Cafe 1369 – a refuge for the friendly friendless, amorous opportunists or anyone who wanted to be alone together. I sat by my favourite pineapple lamp and took out a book of Emerson’s essays, trying to read, trying not to listen to the Beach Boys.  Soon, I found myself talking to two MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) scientists: one from Iran, the other from more prosaic Guildford, a town near where I grew up. These guys had essentially followed their research to wherever opportunities presented themselves; however far from home. If Princeton gives you a PhD scholarship, there you’ll go: though you might miss your parents and brother, not see them for whole stretches of time;  though you don’t actually  go to New York that often and spend most of the time out to pasture with your equations in a nice deer park; though you meet so few girls that you ask whether ‘Are you allergic to rabbits?’ is a viable chat-up line.  Then, when the post-doc comes up at MIT, you can’t refuse: it’s not like there are that many jobs in this trade (wave-modelling) anyway. Waves, I found out, can be modelled directly from your laptop. But if you want to model them exquisitely, you kinda need to be in one of a handful of specialist labs, which could be anywhere and you have to be prepared to transfer between them if you’re going to be funded for your next project.


While Cambridge is lovely,  it’s where these guys have chosen for their career and not for their whole selves. So it only stays half a home to them: another part of them misses where they came from; another still wonders about somewhere else entirely. When my work there is done, I too leave Cambridge half the way to creating a home. And then I get swept back into my real life in London. Some weeks later, it’s oddly vivid and unreal, like a distant experiment in living…

The island of utopia, a rabbit’s tail, a minimalist sneeze in a foreign museum …






Ghosts, Terrorists and Paris the Beautiful

Writers’ retreats are as wanky as they come, but necessary when you’re writing a book. They furnish inspiration at the beginning and filter out everyday distractions when you’re trying to finish.  There are the formal ones that take you to the countryside haunts of Writers Of The Past for quite a fee. It is always the countryside, because the retreat-goers want some level of escapism, and a bucolic manor does this better for most people than a post-industrial wasteland. I’ve only gotten to the ‘scanning the brochure’ stage of these retreats, so really can’t comment on what goes on there…

Not the official writers’ retreat brochure, but equally picturesque, no?

Here are some nice alternative retreats I’ve heard of. No.1: THE CHILDHOOD FAMILY HOME. A friend who lives somewhere so remote and picturesque that I’m surprised that she hasn’t figured out that she can set up her own Writers’ Retreat and charge £700+ per week, goes back to stay with her family in a slightly less picturesque place when she wants to make serious progress with her book, because they are the funniest human beings alive. They feed directly into the book’s dialogue and amp up its mood.  I imagine that another perk of this retreat, is that it provides free food and shelter…

No.2: THE EXOTIC. Another friend has quit her job and is moving to Bali for three months to finish the novel she’s had on her heart for six years. Bali! There will be chilled sunbathing, yoga and cafes by day, and furious writing by night. She’s been there before and says the energy is supportive for writing. Board and food are not free, but they are  a lot cheaper than London. So, if you can get enough money for the plane ticket…

And mine? Let’s call it MY MOVEABLE FEAST. Yes,  like so many other writers I went to Paris. I went there because it was easy to get to and I have somewhere free to stay, but also because I wanted to feel like I was writing the width of my book as well as the length of its plot. The clichés are right, Paris is one of the best places to observe life and jump into it. Apart from its beauty, the city’s social dynamic catches my eye straight away. People notice each other. They look, feel and register each others’ presence far more openly than in London. I remember this man’s shudder in the Metro when two women strode past him in clippety cloppety heels.  It was as though he felt them walk right through him. Then there is how the waiter just knows to duplicate someone’s order when their companion arrives; the huddling of fur coats in the sudden giboulées de mars (a kind of snow-sleet, which returns to Paris every March)

paris inconspicuous
How could something not happen here?

I also went to do some location research for my novel. Some places left me dry, but in others I experienced this strange kind of synchronicity, where I felt like the novel was unfolding around me.  Before coming to Paris, I had envisaged a scene where a character gets the fright of her life in a graveyard. This idea was on probation- I could discard it at any moment for being too predictable and unconvincing. Anyway, I figured out that I had had half an hour before meeting a friend for brunch, so I would go and visit the nearby  Montmartre cemetery to test the water.

Passing by the tawdry wide front of the Moulin Rouge, the black and red sex shops and the funerary outfitters selling wax flowers, grecian urns and statues, I approached the cemetery casually, like it was another thing to look at. And then I saw that some of the graves had been moved beyond the cemetery gates, underneath an overpass, where vehicles thunder past constantly and there is a thick smell of gasoline. In case you’re interested, the graves were moved to this damned spot to fulfil Haussman’s stringent city plan in the late nineteenth century. These people’s families had built them elaborate marble fortresses to give them protection and standing in death, and now here they were,  like vagrants under a bridge. I didn’t know what was worse, that these bodies had been moved, or that the families had put so much energy into trying to immortalise their dead, as though to deny the inevitable.

beneath the bridge
Imagine crossing a cemetery and a grand bourgeois street under a bridge…

Inside the cemetery,  I felt even more unnerved, seeing that the headstones faced in all directions, and some of the death fortresses’ glass vitrines had fist-shaped cracks in them. A crow in a tree behind me made a choking sound; a wasp buzzed right past my ear, causing it to ring for a good five minutes, and giant cobblestones threatened to trip me up at any time. The place had so unhinged me that when a young girl in spectacles whizzed down the middle bannister of the stairs separating the higher and lower parts of the cemetery, I briefly entertained the idea that I  had seen a witch of the storybook variety.  I had gone into this place to pull the cheap parlour trick of a character who gets the fright of her life, and in a rare post-modern moment, I  had gotten the fright of mine.

It may be expected that after this experience I wasn’t able to eat a bite at brunch- but no, I was starving and went at it like a Brit who’s paid and is getting her money’s worth. That night in bed though, I couldn’t get the cemetery out of my mind. Images from the day kept flashing back. I panicked about the unhappy ghosts wreaking their revenge because I was exploiting them for creative profit; pondered upon a friend’s comment that girls like me were the most susceptible to being spirited away in graveyards, and feared that I would develop post-traumatic stress disorder and never be able to erase the images from my mind.

cemetary back view.jpg
Imagine this, circled by crows, grown fat with God Knows What, and you have it…

When trying to force myself calm didn’t work, I tried a counter-scare tactic. I should be more frightened of terrorists than ghosts, I told myself. A Londoner who hasn’t had a major terrorist attack in her city in the past two years, might think that terrorists are more of a real threat in Paris. Terrorists can’t walk through walls though, my subconscious answered back.  They can’t just linger, like ghosts can.

This wasn’t to say that I wasn’t conscious of the possibility of an attack. It was unlikely, but you just had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have to admit, I did try to second-guess the terrorists a little: judging by their previous record BD (comic-book) shops and anywhere hipster could be more risky, while the exhibition of gowns worn by Proust’s muse at the Musée Galliera in the chi-chi 16th district, was probably too obscurely girly to be on their radar.

I also instinctively searched for signs of terror in people’s faces and in the streets. Place de la République near where the attacks had happened was alive with breakdancers,  lion statues daubed in bright graffiti and colourful poems, candles and bouquets for the terror victims; but Canal Saint Martin seemed a little deserted and sad for a Saturday. This may have been  have been more due to the ferocity of the  giboulées than the terrorists, though. A Parisian friend told me that the first weeks after the attacks, everyone was looking at each other suspiciously on the metro. By now, things were getting back to normal. Life goes on.

I realise that I’ve become distracted from the retreat theme in the process of writing. But maybe that’s what retreats are meant to be; a place where ideas can magically sweep together like pins to a magnet, but also somewhere where new yarns begin. Another  labyrinth for Ariadne…

A Montmartre cinema disappearing into a cloudy sky…

Presence in Goodbyes


I’ve had a golden book under my wing for the past week, Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Life’s Biggest Challenges. It’s golden in at least three ways: in colour; in its sunny, empowering message, and in drawing attention to its reader. Whenever I’ve been with the book in public, I’ve been approached by strangers who want to talk about presence: what it means in this age of constant distractions; can we ever achieve it totally?; and is it even desirable?

Cuddy defines presence as authenticity manifested through the body. When you’re present your intention, vocal range and body language are all synchronised and you are the most powerful and compelling version of yourself for that moment in time.  Presence isn’t a permanent or inevitable state, but one you can key yourself into through certain physical cues. It’s about taking up your fair share of space rather than shrinking, and also, interestingly, about taking up your fair share of time when you’re speaking or making decisions. Cuddy observes that a lack of confidence doesn’t just make us hunch and avoid eye contact, but we might rush our words or hurry an important decision for fear of taking too much of others’ time.


I definitely experience presence as mutable. It’s both connected to my mood and a tool-kit of tricks that I can mobilise for an instant dash of courage. On good days I instinctively stand tall, intuiting my yoga teacher’s advice to keep the back of my neck long and expand my vision. I love this posture because it means I can actually see more, gain perspective and connect better with what’s around me. Then, there is Wonder Woman pose- hands on hips, feet apart – which is a life-saver before difficult conversations or walking past a band of leery dudes on Regents Canal. There’s something about this simple pose that makes me feel solid and puts me in touch with what power I have.

Where I really struggle to be present, though, is in goodbyes. Even in everyday partings from people I see habitually, I find it difficult to maintain eye contact and keep my voice from dropping into my shoes as I turn away. I wonder sometimes, if part of me doesn’t quite believe I’ll ever see them again and that I’m somehow protecting myself by not being fully present at the moment of goodbye. Sometimes, I’m so absent when I say goodbye, that the moment etherealises and barely sticks in my memory.

What goodbye feels like/ every sad good-bye in one picture

Oddly enough, I find it easier to be present in emphatic partings- like the end of a relationship or a job, where it’s mutually obvious that it became terrible and you won’t see each other again. These situations  replay concretely in your memory for months, in all their awful glory, but they are also in a way simple, because when you said goodbye you meant it; you felt it.

No, it’s hardest to know where to place yourself, mind, body and soul in the goodbyes where there isn’t too much ill-feeling, but you’re leaving one situation for another. These are often slow goodbyes, and should be painless, but drag out torturously. I’m so tempted to create a drama, close the old situation with a bang, and rub salt into old wounds. See, there was a reason to leave! Or, I’ll go for a fade-out, and drift through the goodbye, so I don’t have to feel as much. Because the truth is, any kind of parting, even if it’s from a situation that suits me less, to one that suits me more, is a loss. I leave someone behind, I leave part of myself behind, and that hurts.


Right now, I’m in the process of moving house. I’m leaving the certainty of the home I’ve lived in for nearly three years, for something riskier and more exciting. I’ve been entertaining this decision for a while now, and am confident that it’s the right one for me. I’ve been lucky with where I live, as it’s hardly a hole and my flatmates aren’t the textbook definition of sociopathic. But leave I will, and this past week I’ve obsessively marketed my room via any means possible, and thrown actual tantrums when my flatmates insisted that they wouldn’t settle for a marriage of convenience with Mr Perfectly-Nice He’ll Do from Spare Room and instead wanted to be wooed and taken to the ball by several High Recommendations (you know what kind of high). I point out that if their Dream Princes (sorry Recommendations) don’t materialise, I will be the one crying. Slams door.

When I step back and reflect, I realise that I’ve been unconsciously trying to make leaving this place as Guillotine swift and unpleasant as possible. It’s a way of hiding my feelings about going (which are more mixed and chaotic than I’d like to admit) under a shock parting.  It’s a mask of false confidence, saying: I’ve definitely made the right decision, now watch me go! Of course the grown-up option, of standing by my decision to leave, but dealing with all the inevitable fall-out of parting, will be much more difficult. I’ll have to be awake to the conflicting feelings of excitement, fear, loss and nostalgia. There will be some moments when I’m raring to go, others when I’m much more reluctant. Indeed, when the first Mr Perfectly Nice He’ll Do from Spare Room came for the viewing I’d so carefully arranged, I felt something between butterflies and nausea, and was grateful that I had an excuse to leave the flat while he was there. To mis-quote Shakespeare, ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow…’