Life & Self

Counting Farts: In Pursuit Of The Quantified Self

Every time I see someone running down the street with a sexy little Jawbone strapped to their wrist, I can’t help but think of farts.

In Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, the eponymous hero - a former vagrant now living with his mother - recalls the day when, wrapped in copies of The Times Literary Supplement, he decided to count his farts.“Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours” Molly relates, “or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it's not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It's nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I find the dream of the fully ‘quantified self’ as compelling as it is eerie. I am the kind of kale-eating, therapy-jargon-spouting narcissist for whom wearable tech was made. A keen sponsor of the $11 billion self-help industry, I am fascinated by the life-pimping potential of our new breed of navel-gazing tech. From SuperBetter, the latest site from crusading game designer Jane McGonigal which aims to gamily our personal health goals, to Dream: ON, the app from British psychologist Richard Wiseman which allows us to track, share and even influence the content of our dreams, I spend far too much time browsing body-hacking porn.

The application of big data to our most mundane bodily functions provides a thrill that larger and more abstract projects, however worthy, cannot match. Sure, we understand the importance of businesses harnessing big data to transform their sustainability or governments manipulating it to better manage public transport. But much like our craving to reduce the mystery of the universe to a beardy bloke in Birkenstocks, most of us can only learn to love technology when it is turned into story about us. Craft that story from the syllables of our heartbeat, the imagery of our dreams and the commas of our breath, and you’ve got an instant bestseller; Fifty Shades of Decay?

Yet although I continually dissect and tweak my social media persona like the finest Facebook Frankenstein, I still can’t quite bring myself to fork out a couple of hundred quid for a Fitbit or a Gruve. At the moment I can still, after an hour spent on Twitter, force myself to disconnect; to walk unmediated into the city streets, get a coffee with a friend and re-establish the boundary - however fuzzy - between my curated and experiencing self. I’m afraid of what would happen to that boundary if I bought a device that would turn that sweet, dark shot of Colombian and that tearful heart-to-heart into a graphable dataset. Frankly, I’m afraid of how much I might like it.

Of course, self-tracking might well be a powerful tool in helping people chart, acknowledge and change their behaviour. But I suspect, like most technology, it is mostly used by those who need it the least, the wealthy worried well; and in this context, it seems to combine the worst sort of female self-objectification with the worst sort of male autistic obsessiveness. Again, I can understand the urge; when you’ve lost the knack of living inside your body, ‘getting the measure of it’ seems next best. But isn’t self-consciousness the one skill that Gen Y has already nailed? Might we be better off honing our sensitivity to our environment and community rather than our own resting heart rate?

Last year Zeo, one of the early quantified-self pioneers, quietly folded. Last month, Nike announced that it was no longer investing in the development of newFuelBand hardware. Of course, there are a host of startups jostling to take their place, and perhaps the iWatch will redefine the genre; God knows, Apple have game-changed industries before.

But I can’t help but wonder, once we’ve cannibalised every experience and logged every twitch of our skin: will we will know ourselves better, or worse?


This article originally appeared in Tech City News.

Self-Help Fiction

Hi. My name is Molly and I’m a self-help addict. Although I avoid anything involving diets, doctrines and fist-pumpers in suits, recent, beautifully written pop-psychology classics as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit have given me a socially acceptable way to indulge. I’m certainly not alone; in 2012, Laura Vanderkam identified that “45,000 self-help titles are in print, and the self-improvement industry does $12 billion worth of business each year”, while the impoverished NHS is even considering prescribing self-help titles to treat depression. But my deepest and most lasting moments of self-discovery still come wrapped in a fictional pill, and I’m not alone in this, either. Waterstones’s new online project The Book That Made Me features videos and testimonials in which cultural superstars such as Michael Parkinson, Malorie Blackman and Caitlin Moran discuss the books that have had a profound impact on their characters and lives. The hope is that the rest if us will join in and share our own literary lifesavers, either on the website or by tagging content with the #TBTMM hashtag, and that the best stories will be displayed in Waterstones bookshops this summer. A quick browse of the existing content shows many moving, uplifting and surprising tales beginning to emerge.

In a similar vein, the London Library Magazine runs a quarterly Bibliotherapy feature, in which members discuss the books that helped them weather tricky life events. This issue, I was lucky enough to be invited to contribute, so below, in the spirit of #TBTMM, I’d like to share my recommended reading for anyone going through a long-distance relationship. Please, join in, contribute to the Waterstones project, and tweet me your tales. It’s time to rack up your book karma brownie points.

A Book That Made Me: The Vinter’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox

We had been going out for a year. I wasn’t quite a waitress in a cocktail bar but, as an out-of-work actress, I was close enough. He was a lawyer, which was bewildering. We shared a fabulous, fractured 12 months in London before he announced that, inspired by seeing me pursue a career that I loved (although considering that by this time I was starring in a Japanese shampoo commercial, the terms ‘career’, ‘pursue’ and ‘love’ should be interpreted in the loosest of terms), he was jacking in his magic circle fast-track to retrain for a job in the sports industry instead. In Arizona. For two years. Followed by, as it turned out, a summer working in New York, then nine months in Paris.

On receipt of the news, I put on an impressive display of bravery, selflessness and quietly anguished solidarity, which was, I am reluctant to admit, cut through with an ignoble whiff of joy. Because although being in a relationship with this good, gorgeous man was flesh-sweet, soul-deep and everything in between, it was also sorely starting to encroach on my reading time. I’d only ever previously had undemanding flings, and had thoroughly underestimated how much talking and gazing and basically non-book-related activity true love requires. Of course, several months later, finally curled alone on his massive bed after he’d gone, I fondled and discarded one paperback after another; for the first time I had discovered a space inside me that a book couldn’t fill.

That’s when I met Xas. Xas was a fallen angel with enormous white wings, leather trousers, a penchant for gardening and a lingering perfume of snow. In short, the perfect lover: exotic, damaged, fickle, faintly ridiculous and, being fictional, incredibly discreet.

The Vintner’s Luck (1998), a novel by New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, tracks the unique relationship between Xas and Sobran, a vintner in eighteenth-century Burgundy. At the start of the story Xas, injured from a divine battle, tumbles out of Hell, on to a hill-top, and into the arms of the wistful young peasant. Year after year the angel descends to the same spot, to see what changes joy, violence, illness and betrayal have wrought on his mortal specimen, while Sobran quietly provides the tenderness and constancy Xas secretly craves. Between rendezvous, we follow Sobran’s struggle to build a meaningful life – with his homely wife Celeste, his rough wartime comrade Kalmann and his beautiful widowed employer, the Countess de Valday – as France itself struggles to reconcile the new scientific discoveries with the old comforts of faith.

Knox’s brilliantly original story had everything I needed to weather separation: escapism, romance and torment, not to mention what is perhaps the ultimate portrayal of lifetime long-distance love. Arizona might have seemed unbearably hot and far away, but Hell, gratifyingly, sounded worse. Knox’s themes are epic, but her prose is subtle and earthy, lyrical in the most specific and sensual way. It’s also highly erotic, and when you’re on a 12-hour plane journey anticipating the first sexual contact you’ve had in 3 months, a bit of inter-species sodomy goes splendidly with your complimentary nuts.

On my last visit before the by now ex-lawyer was unexpectedly transferred to London for good, I took him a copy of The Vintner’s Luck, lovingly inscribed. He told me he hated it, and I seriously considered throwing those three loyal years away. Instead, Reader, I married him, which has resulted in the most extraordinary bliss. And now, whenever I think back to those early years of our own modest, still-unfolding drama, I always return to the very last lines of The Vintner’s Luck. 

"You fainted and I caught you. It was the first time I’d supported a human. You had such heavy bones. I put myself between you and gravity. Impossible."

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva.

5 Ways To Get Your Nature Fix In London

hampstead heath As I type this, Soho is sunny. Not just a-few-weak winter-rays sunny, but a glorious, blazing, Vitamin D fest that has us sweating into our suddenly unseasonal puffas. Yesterday evening, it was 4 degrees; today, miraculously, it is 16. And while the miserable London winter has given me a perfect opportunity to spend months feasting on some of the planet’s best theatre, cinema, art and lard, the only question in my mind right now is: where can I find a patch of green that isn’t crammed with media executives slowly lobstering in their lunch hour?

I grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, and although I am now a happy Hackney resident, I still get painful cravings for nature a tad more splendid than the semi-feral Staffies and wilting perennials in my neighbouring Shoreditch Park. Evidently, I’m not the only one. Alain de Botton’s cultural powerhouse The School of Life is currently putting together a series of classes offering jaded Londoners advice on how to ‘treat their nature deficit,’ and course tutor Hugo Whately, a teacher, writer and educational researcher, believes that many city dwellers may be suffering from a wholesale ecological imbalance.

“Just spending more time outside is not the best way to address the idea of a nature deficit,” he explains. “Of course getting out and about is good on all sorts of levels, but to engage with the structures and systems of nature  - with ecology - is altogether another matter. That involves reflecting on how your work, your family, your friends, the things and people that you love and don't love, are all bound up together... Isolation and atomization are the pale brothers of individualism, and I think it’s worth working to counter them.” For Whately, the act of appreciating London’s historic streets can be a tonic in itself. “There is a sense of interconnections there between the present and the past; a sense that life is layered.  That, for me, is where the concept of ecology comes in.”

In that case, wandering lonely as clouds amongst London’s eight celebrated Royal Parks or 1110 square kilometres of further parkland and gardens may be a case of sticking a plaster on a deeper wound. But Whately agrees that the city’s surprisingly profuse pockets of nature are “a good place to start looking for inspiration” that might help transform your personal ecology long term. With that in mind, here are our five favourite ways to reconnect with your roots in the capital as spring starts to creep in.

1. Cycle along Regents Canal

Whately is a big fan of London’s eight and a half mile stretch of nineteeth-century canal. “Cycling by the canal on a cold sunny morning, you move through plumes of wood smoke as you pass by each canal boat, and the smell evokes another world entirely.  You might see great old carp gliding silently through the water; and a pair of swans gliding low over the water, necks swaying as their feet skim the surface.  I think just trying consciously to notice the activities of animals in the city as the seasons change can help you keep a sense of perspective on your own life.”Jump on a Boris Bike at Paddington and follow it all the way to Limehouse, looking out for kingfishers, herons, rare orchids and yes, Banksy’s rats.

2. Skinny dip on Hampstead Heath

The Ladies’ and Men’s Ponds on Hampstead Heath are the only life-guarded open-water swimming facilities in the UK that remain open to the public every day of the year. Originally dug as reservoirs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and fed by the natural springs in Kenwood, they are peaceful havens in the city, with thickly wooded banks providing shelter for a variety of water birds and dragonflies. March temperatures remain bracing to say the least but the camaraderie between swimmers is fantastic. Take the plunge first thing in the morning and your adrenaline rush will last all day.

3. Worship insects at the Natural History Museum

We’re all suckers for a big fluffy mammal, but the rich, complex micro-world of insects – they make up 80% of the species on earth, with ten quintillion (I didn’t make that up) alive at any one time - can give us a whole new perspective on our own busy hive-lives. Throughout March, Entomologist Erica McAlister, Curator of Flies at the Natural History Museum, is broadcasting a Radio 4 series called ‘Who’s The Pest?’, exploring how insects’ ‘superpowers’ have implications for human medicine, defence, food, art and architecture, helping us to live more healthily, safely and sustainably. Accompany the series with a tour of the museum’s state-of-the-art Cocoon experience, which uses virtual guides and interactive exhibits to provide a behind the scenes look at the latest scientific research into insect and plant life.

4. Stroke a kitten at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium

London’s first cat café is due to open in Shoreditch in May, after an overwhelming response to a pitch by Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium on fundraising platform Indiegogo. Based on the Japanese vogue for combining coffee with creature comforts, Australian Lauren Pears hopes that by sourcing her cats from North London animal charity The Mayhew Rescue, she might translate some temporary laps into long-term homes. Keep an eye on Pears’ blog for updates and prepare to get some feline face-time very soon.

5. Join a working party with London’s Wildlife Trust

London’s Wildlife Trust manages over forty nature reserve sites across the capital. Keen to engage the local communities that use the sites, the Trust organises working parties where you can get some soil under your manicure, and put that faux-Lumberjack Hackney beard to good use. Upcoming events include a spring clean of Chiswick Nature Reserve on Sunday March 24th, where volunteers are needed to coppice trees, cut back vegetation from meadows and paths, clear ponds, litter pick “and occasional DIY and arty stuff.” No experience is required for this drop in session, which will be a great opportunity to get down and dirty with amphibians, woodpeckers, sparrowhawks and fungi.

This feature originally appeared in London Calling.

Deathstyle @ The School Of Life

I am afraid of death. Deeply, wibblingly, atheistically afraid. Terrified of losing my consciousness (not to mention my Whistles green silk shirt) forever more. I suspect that I'm not alone, but I'm not entirely sure. Sexual fetishes, political affiliations and personal finances have all become acceptable conversational nibbles to pair with cocktails, but admit to thanatophobia and even your closest friends can react as if you've admitted to contracting a terrible STD.

Which, of course you have. That STD we like to call life.

No wonder I pulled out the credit card when I saw that The School of Life was running an evening class about how to think about, talk about, and do a better death. Cultural thinker and writer Roman Krznaric believes that our 'deathstyle' matters as much as our lifestyle and is on a mission to help us learn from the past and forge a better annihilation.

Over the two hour class Krznaric examined international and historical ways of living more closely with death - medieval Momento Mori art, cemeteries as a social hubs, Mexico's Día de los Muertos - and posed a series of exercises and questions to help us start to design and implement our very own 'deathstyle.' Here are three. Go on, I dare you. Scribble some answers down.

  • What 3 things could you do to get closer to death, so you might live with greater passion and presence?
  • What question would you most like to ask your partner or best friend about death?
  • What do you risk having as your greatest regrets at the end of your life? What are you going to do about it?

Seriously, that last one's a killer.

He also suggested a number of books, movies and articles that contain death-wisdom. My pick would be Kraznaric's own Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live; Studs Terkel's oral history masterpiece Will The Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death and Dignity; Hal Ashby's film Harold and Maude; and the Philippe Petit documentary Man on Wire. I'd also add Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which lays out the best spiritual philosophy about death that I've ever encountered, in the most enjoyable way.

I wouldn't say I'm now a liberated grim reaper groupie, but I've at least started my journey (not to mention identified that I want it to end with plumed ponies, rainbow-coloured Gaultier couture and Seth Lakeman playing the fiddle). Have you began yours?

Speakeasy Season

The envelope was black, the address handwritten in silver calligraphy. Inside nestled a small, shining graphite key on a thin black cord. This was, the accompanying letter told me, my access-all-areas bracelet to the Cointreau Privé, “London’s most exclusive speakeasy”: a three-week pop-up bar and restaurant designed by Dita von Teese that promises “the ultimate in decadent drinking and dining, French mystique and illicit entertainment”.

Weakened by the prospect of the dark days ahead, I immediately booked a table and have been foraging for just the right down-at-heel-bombshell outfit to wear. Cointreau have picked their moment wisely; winter is the season when the speakeasy comes into its own. An urban December – chilling, monochrome and smogged in damp misanthropy – cries out for the cosy camaraderie, belly-warming cocktails and hedonistic escapism that exemplifies a true ‘blind tiger’.

“Traditional glamour seems to be making a comeback on the London party scene”, says Alvin Saal, Cointreau Brand Manager at First Drinks Brand Limited. ”This leads itself to the decadence and luxury of a pop-up speakeasy; the perfect place for social, charismatic and stylish people to frequent. The Cointreau Privé is a great example of bringing the golden age of glamour to a modern audience.”

The pop-up is modelled on von Teese’s LA home, including signature vintage furniture and items from her shows, with food from renowned chef Laurent Michel and bespoke cocktails. Von Teese launched the pop-up with a VIP cabaret performance on November 29th. It all sounds delicious, but the glamour and gourmet booze that we now associate with speakeasy style would have been unrecognizable to their original patrons. Born out of prohibition in 1920s America, the original bars were deeply insalubrious saloons, often controlled by organized crime gangs.


New Horizons

So, first this happened.

Then this.

And then I blew whole facade of sophistication and glamour away at an Umbrian waterfall, to the considerable surprise of a family of Asian tourists.

And you know what? Returning to real life isn't an anticlimax at all. The main thing I have brought back with me, along with a new ring, a great ringmaster style jacket from Florence and oh shit, yeah, an eternally-bound 6'6" Greek-Irish-American, is renewed conviction to spend my time like it is gold dust and not take no for an answer (especially from me).

So... coming very soon - with the help of an extraordinary creative genius - is an appropriately reborn, newly designed and newly focused on sharing and swapping experiences of reading and writing with, well, all of you; expect deeper, in-depth pieces about fiction, publishing and yes, even extracts from my own novel-in-progress. I'll still pull in my other theatre, fashion, literature and technology journalism from the Guardian, Bookdiva et al via RSS, but this will become a much more conversational space where I specifically hope to connect with fellow readers and writers about the joys and struggles of made-up worlds.

Abraham Cowley exhorted us to "build yourself a book-nest to forget the world without". I want to build us a book-nest to discover the world without.

I really, really hope you'll join me. Bring a twig.

Farewell, Miss Flatt

So, I'm off to get hitched and then headed to Tuscany to have lots of sex for two weeks. Hoorah! I am taking my laptop for novel-inspiration-emergencies, but I suspect I shall be roundly punished if I use it for anything else. So in the meantime I will leave you with this, in honour of my future husband, whose grasshopperian hand gestures are as unmistakable as his fingerprints; and in honour of two people who won't be at my handfasting - my grandfather Ronald and my adopted grandmother Iris - both of whom had the most beautiful hands I have ever seen.

The Baby

'Do you think', said my mother, browsing forestry-themed Playmobil on her iPad, 'that we should buy her one of those books? The ones that explain that mummy's having a new baby and she'll still be loved?' My sister, practising folding eco-nappies on a Tiny Tears from over the elegant mound of her belly, glanced at me, antisocially curled reading on the sofa. 'That's actually a good idea. Maybe also a present, to be safe.'

I'm the baby of the family, in all ways except actual size. I am loud. I am impatient. I hatch improbable plans. I am so used to lagging behind my purposeful herd that I lack the merest whiff of directional sense, and excel at getting lost. My vices are those of the youngest: selfishness, laziness, attention seeking. I always kind of assume the last helping is for me. I like being the baby.

But now there's Esme.

And everything's the way it should be. Partly because these past two years I have finally grown up, and discovered how much more fun 'up' can be (I needn't have worried so much). Mostly because one glimpse at that determined chin, that pushy pout and those deep, ravenous eyes has showed me that Es will never be the baby of the family. She's the queen.

I always feared that my hunger for extravagant imagination was a childish thing I must sometime put aside. Not so. That book I was reading on the sofa? The Knife Of Never Letting Go, the first in the award-winning 'Chaos Walking' series by 'young adult' (yuck) author Patrick Ness. I gobbled it all weekend, with the same fathomless hunger as my nipple-bound niece. Adulthood, I have come to joyfully realise, isn't about the age range printed on the books you read. It's about getting to read them until 2am without having to sneak a torch under the duvet. And with a glass of really good Sauternes in hand.

Esme, you've got a lot to look forward to, my love. All those books. All those people. All the gloriously simple, scary, strange, sublime and surreal impressions and connections that make up a life.

And all the last helpings in the world.

Emerge Blinking

Due to the recent glut of long weekends (and indeed big thanks for those to, respectively, Jesus, the Royals and May) I have spent several days at a time going social media cold turkey - and choosing, instead, to eat cold turkey and suchlike summer lunchery in blossom-blessed gardens face to face with my loved ones.

I got more done - in Moleskines on delayed Great Westerns crawling between rural villages; in the red-flecked blackness behind my closed eyes as I dozed on scratchy lawns - than I have Being Very Busy at my laptop for weeks. Because, rather than browsing, consuming, reacting and opining I was thinking, which was quite an odd sensation. I could feel my brain straining with meatily organic effort. Ossified neurons reluctantly snapped like tough old twigs. New connections wavered wetly forth like frail viridian shoots.

I find novel writing a tough balance between planning and doing. Not plan enough and, despite Stephen King's exhortation to just put people in situations and see what happens, I become lazy. My mind replays the images and emotions and tropes that surface most readily, resulting in a sort of solipsistic brain-scurf. Plan too much and, well, there ain't no actual words on the page.

And sometimes I forget about thinking - the coming-up-with of original things (well, as original as stories ever get) - altogether. The process of creation is not found in that first juicy, tingly idea, but in teasing the idea out, interrogating and broadening it, lining up the dominos that will plock into each other with exciting, elegant momentum. That takes work which my increasingly scattergun, instant gratification seeking, always-on-wired-in habits make very hard to do.

One problem with my social media multitasking is the erosion of my attention span, something that research is starting to observe in both children and adults. Another is the echo chamber effect, where I can contentedly paddle in recommended content and likeminded opinions for days without the blast of something challenging or fresh. Perhaps most dangerous is the self-important sense I have of always being part of something, always busy doing stuff that is urgent and important and worthy of my time, when really I am just tinkering around the edges of life - absorbing, organising and communicating, yes - but not creating, not with originality, or insight, or true, generous purpose.

For this, I realised, I needed space, disconnection from technology, pen and paper, time and, where possible, motion (I do all my best thinking on trains). How good it felt (in a painful way) was testament to how little I do.

After the thinking, there's the doing. Last week I read Scott Belsky's book Making Ideas Happen, which claims to help creative types "overcome the obstacles between vision and reality". Much of it is common sense plus old productivity theories repackaged in addictively slick, mission-statement prose, but Belsky knows his audience well, talks straight to our insecurities, and comes out with the odd blinder:

to confidently quell the resistance triggered by our lizard brains, we must choose our projects wisely and then execute without remorse.

Execute without remorse. I considered, briefly, an easily misinterpreted tattoo.

Many of us are feeling a little queasy from the social media sweetshop. I'm edging back towards space, silence and single-minded diligence. Slowly, but I'm edging.

Talking of which.

Neuroscience Fiction

Feeling a bit end-of-winter fuzzy? Awash with Wednesday ennui? Fed up with days filled with frustration, procrastination and possibilities that never quite manifest? Then read this.

Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. Each cell contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the sum total would be blinding.

The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new kinds of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about 10,000 connections to neighboring neurons, which means that there are more connections in a few cubic centimeters of brain tissue than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

The three pound organ in your skull—with its pink consistency of jello—is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.

Now tell me you don't feel a little more, well, special? It is from Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, the new book by neuroscientist David Eagleman, who delivered a fantastic lecture at the Southbank Centre this week and who is indisputably the Brian Cox of the brain (with added humour and a better haircut). Here he is talking about possibilianism at PopTech last year (possibly).

I - like anyone who has suffered from mental health issues, delusions and addictions (which is pretty much all of us, to differing degrees) - have had to engage at close quarters with the alien machinery inside my skull. The past decade has been a battle, sometimes a distinctly bloody one, to mediate the fractious rivals inside this soggy pink parliament and channel its hungry, impulsive power into moderate and productive pathways. With each small, slow success I have moved a little further from fear to fascination, until now, with the help of people like Eagleman, I am in an almost obsessive state of grateful, curious wonder about how I act out 'I' every day.

If I were to tell you that my novel draws on quantum physics, neuroscience, comic books, eastern medicine, the psychology of the city, mental illness and climate change, you would probably (understandably) punch me and reach for a John Grisham instead. I have a writerly squeamishness about admitting 'themes' in books, because a fantastic story should assimilate such didacticism, leaving the subtlest of intriguing aftertastes behind. And so, I hope, mine will.  But is my fiction stewed in science? Does it delight in fantasy? Yes, and I need to squash my learnt literary snobbery and summon the courage to admit it.

A few years ago, just as I was starting to write for the first time since childhood with real intent, I read Paul Broks's 'Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology' (and shortly after saw a patchy but gutsy play adaptation created by Broks and Mick Gordon). The book relays stories of how damaged brains create extraordinary human lives, and its themes of identity, impulse, illusion and choice have become central to my fiction. And, as I reach the half-way mark on my first full-length book, Eagleman has appeared at just the right time to re-inspire and invigorate. His debut, the deservedly ecstatically-reviewed collection of short stories Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, has the ability to blow your mind in the space of a single afternoon.

So if you know any disdainful naysayers of science fiction, make them first read Sum, and then listen to this interview with the incredible Ursula LeGuin. Because all novels are really neuroscience; a place where we anatomise and experiment on the parts of being human that we know, and attempt to explore the great, unknown cosmos of electrical storms beneath.

Eagleman dubs the recent advances in neuroscience the second dethroning of man. Where Galileo displaced the earth from the centre of the universe, what we now know of the brain displaces us from the centre of our selves. This can either be terrifying or deliciously exciting, and it is clear where Eagleman stands; as he put it in the lecture, we are basically run on magic.

If that can't motivate you mid-week, I don't know what will.

The Meaning Of The Universe, Etc

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami is one of those events that cracks our narrow minds apart and sends a great wave of perspective flushing through our thoughts. It may be coincidence, or it may be an impending sense of Armageddon tweaking at the guts of media producers with timely disease, but there seems to be a glut of excellent stuff out there at the moment for those inclined towards interrogating Big Questions.

There's always good old TED for a bit of bracing ideation (Deb Roy 's recent Birth of a Word is well worth a watch), but recently I've been glued to Prof Brian Cox's (who has also done a turn on TED) BBC2 series Wonders of the Universe which, despite his disturbingly wolfish smile and the inevitable tingly-panorama shots, bombastic soundtrack and CGI starscapes, is really rather good.

Cox was on Start the Week this morning (listen again before it disappears), evangelising the importance of science alongside Brian Greene, whose new book The Hidden Reality looks at 'Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos', and Angela Saini, whose own new release Geek Nation celebrates India's reverence for science, which is paired with an irreverence in applying it in innovative ways.

It's all very timely for me - not just because the environment is reminding us of its mysterious might in such a horrifying way, but also because the novel I'm writing stems from a fascination with time, choice and parallel selves (yep, it's gonna be a real money-spinner). I adored science at school - I wanted to be a geologist for ages, until I realised it was pretty incompatible with wearing a Haider Ackerman bondage kimono - so it is wonderful to be able to continue an intellectual journey that got stunted once I was labelled a 'humanities' type.

But perhaps my happiest discovery of the week is the RSA's series of Animate videos. There's something about seeing a concept evolve through pictures that not only clarifies, but makes it stick. Two of my favourites include Matthew Taylor on 'The 21st Century Enlightenment' and Steven Pinker on 'Language as a Window into Human Nature', but lets stick with the time-space fabric theme and look at 'The Secret Powers of Time'.

Now all I need is a bit of Christopher Kane to make me Patrick Moore in a (very good) skirt.

Blown Away By Beirut

Sorry. Cheap shot. But explosiveness aptly defines both the clichéd western expectations I had of the Lebanese capital before I visited, as a war-torn outpost of wild-eyed militants high on holy righteousness and maggoty shawarma; and the disruptive impact of discovering, after working there last week, that it is, in fact, a seriously special city I could stay in for a long long time.

Sure, the Lebanese government collapsed while I was there, prompting predictable warnings of sectarian violence. But the response of my excellent host and Beirut native Antoine Naaman can best be summed up as 'meh'. That evening, as we ate tabbouleh by the delicious bowlful - the proper stuff, not London's dry, pseudo-Morrocan couscous with flecks of dried herb but a glistening jewelled dome of parsley, mint, tomato and onion doused in the sharp sweetness of lemon and oil - as if the world might end before we scarfed another meal, I began to understand that instability may breed short-sightedness and fear, but it also inculcates passion, creativity and a glinting, razor-edged joy.

I quite simply loved the place, although admittedly it would be hard not to love somewhere that has 5000 years' worth of architectural, cultural and social sediment layered onto a Mediterranean peninsula that is in turn sandwiched between sun-baked beach and snow-topped mountain range.

Post-Doha Beirut is a rather eerie mixture of slick regeneration, complete with Disneyfied 'new souks' and that ultimate symbol of nylon-clad civilisation, H&M; and stark beauty, which comes from ranka of crumbling corpse-buildings that stare blankly down at the tourist herd through bullet holes like so many foreboding Tiresian eyes. But the two worlds, the two intentions - the past and the maybe-future - create a uniquely moving present. This city cannot help but be authentic, however many Pradas you pass on the way to Bourj el-Barajneh.

Whatever you do, don't drive. But do eat, and dance, and explore - the hedonism of Beirut's fashion and nightlife matches the hardship of its dusty daytime grind - and spend as much time as you can talking to people who live there.

They're so eager for outsiders to realise that Beirut may sometimes wear a flak jacket, but she is also corseted with ancient silk, and topped with a bright mantle of Mediterranean hope and love.

I'm going back as soon as I can.

Two By Two

Now here's an idea. A socio-techno-enviro-biblical idea, which are often pretty good ones. A rather excellent man I know vaguely from various social media shenanigans, Mr Phil Campbell, is building an ark.

But this is no bog-standard deluge-dodging zoophiliac zeppelin with dove-'n-branch sat-nav; this is a crowdsourced, livestreamed, zero carbon, living-roof landARK that Phil will use as a base for good-doing projects in surrounding Notthingham. As he puts it, "no job, no home but social media. epic digital nomad quest." Whoa, Noah.

day1 | | 365 days from Philip Campbell on Vimeo.

Yes, I want one. I want one to write a novel in. And read. And explore the forest. And dress up and pretend... stop. This is not about me.

There's a lot of nonsense talked about how social technologies transform our 'engagement with life' - this is one which actually brings the debate out of waffling blog wankery and into the real, leafy, messy world. I'll certainly be following Phil's daily progress as he touts for sponsors, ideas and tech. I'm even going to drop a pound or two into his coffers.

I've always admired explorers, and nowadays it's harder and harder to find a true quest. This is a journey that has it all - man, nature, a baby daughter, a whole lot of geekery and a whole lot of bracing common sense - all without leaving our island.

Take that, Ararat.

Oo Oo Aa Aa

'No me, no my, no self, no soul. No me, no my. No me, no my.' The venerable Ajahn Poh, seventy-eight year old abbot of Suan Mokkh monastery in the southern jungle of Surat Thani, renowned spiritual leader and author - gaunt of body, bald of head, orange of robe and calmly, childishly radiant of face - gave me his verdict on how to overcome my meditation struggles on the sixth day of my ten-day silent retreat.

I wanted to hit him.

It's been tough thinking about what - whether - to write about my experience practicing anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing meditation) at Suan Mokkh. An outpouring of introspective narrative seems rather a betrayal of the present-dwelling, mind-clearing, ego-dissolving Buddhist ethos in which I've been immersed.

In fact, it’s been tough plunging back into the socialmediopolis, with this renewed sense that I am simply firing off emotions scattergun; throwing me-bombs into the global village green; polluting our thinkspace with… well, with thinking, for the sake of the neural kick.

Although maybe the tough part has been how easy it is. Here I am, plugged into iPod and mobile and Mac on the First Great Western to Abergavenny, writing as indulgently as ever.

Ajahn Poh was gently, maddeningly, wisely alerting me to the gusto of my ‘monkey mind’. It grasps on every mental image with an brutal opposable thumb; swoops from branch to branch of sensation; turns it all into one long Tarzan cry of selfhood. It exhausts me before I’ve even got out of bed.

Breathing, observing, and focusing my mind for ten long days barely slowed its pace. From the very first session of sitting meditation (at 4am) my body and brain threw a petulant tantrum and sprung bruises inside and out. But really that’s what they do all the time: the toddler approach to life. And this time, for the first time, I got to watch as well as participate – even, occasionally, opt out.

The food, what of it you could cram in before noon, was great. Fabulous. Fabulous tofu. Who knew?

The straw mat and wooden pillow were brutal. I broke the rules and killed a mozzie. I killed two.

I have no idea what the consequences of my trip will be. I’m always going to be more monkey than monk. I choose emotion – I choose suffering – but I do feel that choice itself is starting to have a slightly bigger role.

It feels like a beginning.

But this time I don’t get to make up the end.


A month of thresholds: my birthday today, and five days later my ten-day silent retreat at Suan Mokkh monastery in Thailand. Birthdays always make me super-conscious of The State of The Blonde Nation, but this has been heightened even further by the retreat, which  looms like an elipsis in my brain: a mental cheesewire that slices everything I read, see and do into startling polarities.

London Fashion Week (how did anyone get anything done with that damn live stream always lurking behind a tab?); preparing to wear yoga pants, t-shirts and flip-flops for ten days. Glorying over the skate and samphire at Pizza East; thinking about the prospect of eating nothing beyond noon. Working on a presentation for Wildscreen, the festival of environmental and wildlife filmmaking; knowing I will be immersed in the real thing - majestic mountains, serious bugs - three days before I present it. Staying awake two hours later than I should because I just have to finish The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ( basically The Shipping Forecast - nautical, martial, nostalgic, soporific - in literary form); facing the terrifying prospect of nigh-on two weeks without access to a single book.


Sensualist, meet ascetic. Both have a sort of romance. Both bring a sort of authenticity.

Will they fight? How will the before and after manifest itself? Will the cheesewire cut me in two like a crumbling Wensleydale or get, Brie-like, engulfed without a trace?

Will it hurt?

I did go on Asos and find a lovely overpriced poncho for elegantly stoic endurance of Thai rain.

A twenty-eight your old ascensualist? Sounds promising. Welcome to another year, Blonde.

The Perfect Salad

The time? One p.m.

The place? The Soho branch of Whole Foods Market – that shiny, sanctimonious US bastion of bourgeois food porn – rubbing shoulders with sex shops on a damp August Wednesday.

The players? a selection of jutting-clavicled, tired-eyed digital marketers in towering Choo gladiators and yesterday’s shirt, full of espresso and ennui.

The tools? Forty gleaming containers full of the purest, wholesomest, virgin-picked produce, variously roasted, pickled, steamed and soused. And a stack of small plastic pots and lids above (oh so small).

The game? The perfect salad.

Forget eVolo’s 2011 Skyscraper Competition, now open for entries; this is the toughest architectural feat in town, and these ruthless, unbreakfasted buffet queens have mere pre-meeting minutes to cram five hours of sustenance into a £3.99 tub. The boys from logistics might be able to beat them, at a push, but they’re collecting polystyrene vats of Thai green curry from the caff down the road.


Bypass the cheap fillers straight away: tomatoes and cucumber, carrot and celery and leaves are space-stealing and water-filled. Your bottom layer calls for more energy-rich mulch such as oily courgettes and aubergines, sweet potatoes and squash. Then allow the grains – lentils; quinoa; wild black rice from somewhere guilty thousands of airmiles away –to trickle efficiently through the gaps.

Now the protein: the centrepiece. Most go for the safe option, a thick layer of salmon or tuna easily tightly packed; but sometimes a real professional hits the tofu cubes, showing off. It’s daredevil soya-Tetris, and beautiful to watch.

Finally, the bonus layer of tiny clinging stuff –alfalfa sprouts and seeds before, quickly, the lid. Watch them go. These are women versed in destroying a badly dressed underling with the tweak of a manicured brow. They know how to squash.

And ah, what thrill of achievement! what success! as they sit back at their desk and watch the improbable mountain of organic fare tumble onto a plate.

It tastes so-so.


On the verge of heading back off to disconnected bliss in the Aegean for a couple of weeks, I've abruptly realised that London is where I live. It's taken me a while. Despite five years here, back and forth -  and two now in Hitchcock Towers - I would obstinately half-consider the city a strange and glorious game, a sometime playground that had captured my head and my liver but toyed with my heart. That, I believed, still nestled like a hedgehog in a little, leaf-mulched pocket of Oxfordshire wood.

But last week I was making the evening walk back from the tube, past the fat old guy in slippers who looks in the bins, past the falsely-promising glossy hamburgers on the peeling billboards, past the gutter confetti of blossom and leaflet and butt, and I thought: Oh. Here I am. Home.

It is not the most beautiful home, but it is viciously alive.

In my mongrel patch of Hackney-Shoreditch-Hoxton, that affected den of silicon entrepreneurs and silicone posers, you can still turn a crumbling corner and find this on a wall.

Thank God it's survived the Council so far, who earlier this year apparently demanded the removal of the previous kick-ass mural by CEPT. Hackney struggles against gentrification. When I pass the valiant and smelly sit-in at iconic pile The Foundry I always try to radiate a mixture of admiration and apology for being the kind of self-conscious, Vogue-reading Cotswolds immigrant the boutique hotel they are trying to scupper is intended for.

Oh, but it still has heart, my little corner of north east. I still love to sit with the light off at night and watch the Indian woman in the house across the way watching Oprah in her orange housecoat, numbly eating Iranian sweets from a paper plate; the feral children screaming obscenities as they gambol along the street with all the aching grace of natural predators; the small thin Jamaican man with the clumpy black shoes who pushes shoulder-first through his red front door at 9pm with epic ennui.

Last night, I dined at the Gherkin, and looked out over London's magnificent ugliness, framed with Dickensian dankness under a lowering, billowing purple-slate sky; then hailed a grumbly cab back home, where my devastatingly lovely new Comptoir des Cotonniers grey leather heels speared a spiral of staffie shit.

I'll miss it. More nonsense when I'm back.

The perfect posture

Back in my inglorious days of thespian gadaboutery, a particular acting exercise haunted me for weeks. The inevitably rotund and chenille-wearing dance tutor, short and henna’d of hair, long and earnest of speech, made her underfed and overambitious hamlings circuit the cold room in pairs, one behind the other. The follower had to imitate the leader, slowly adjusting their body until they physically mirrored every tiny detail of hunched shoulder, clenched hand, stiff knee and tilted head. Then the leader would step back, and watch ‘themselves’ walk.

Kurtz didn’t know the half of it.

As I came to the quietly devastating realisation that I led with my chin, cranked back my head, arched my back, swung my arms like a gorilla and pulled a disturbing kind of smug-terrified hybrid half-smile, I realised that I’d taken the mantra of solicitous mothers everywhere – “shoulder’s back” – and turned it into a cartoonish parody of upright womanhood.

I looked like someone acting good posture.

The thing is, I was always a little paranoid about walking tall. When you’re six foot at fourteen, the last thing you want is an I-don’t-fit-under-doorways slouch, so it’s essential to cultivate a carriage that speaks of assurance and sass.

But the English philosophy of poise – stiff upper lip, book on head, and yes, shoulders back – is steeped in stress. Tension equates to grace. We’re trained to be perpetual puppet-masters, fighting every minute to prevent our splay-legged, belly-jutting savage within from collapsing uncouth in the dirt. It gives us stiff necks and aching joints and immovable backs, but hey, we look like we could wear The Collected Works of Wilde like a jaunty beret.

Back at drama school (oh, forgive me. I was young and knew not what I did), the inevitably wisp-haired and scarf-draped Alexander Technique tutor made me crawl for a whole term before I could graduate to sit, but I learnt nothing save the complex delights of the chewing-gum marquetry on the rehearsal room floor. It took until the start of this year, and a headlong dive into yoga, to understand how I could be perpendicular, healthy and hot.

Hot, literally. Bikram yoga, the infamous creation of an arrogant and mouthy LA-dwelling Indian, consists of two sets of 26 postures performed in a 40º C room, and although it feels like living hell, it sorts out your stature like nothing else. Bikram softens your hips and strengthens your pelvis, relaxes your shoulders and lengthens your neck, and creates a natural traction of the spine that allows everything to gradually realign.

The perfect posture for brittle Brits is undeniably the Standing Bow Pulling Pose, or Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (try saying that when you’re five gins to the wind) – an opening, elegant bodily arch that makes you feel like Darcey Bussell and does all kinds of good stuff to your frame.

I’m still a messy beginner, but I’m not half pleased at the structural improvements so far.

Follow me now, bitch. Just you try.

The perfect asparagus

First, let’s get the wee thing out of the way.

You have to learn to love it, that grassy, glucosey, honey-sulphur stench that surprises you every time. Think, like Proust, of the verdant alchemy that “transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume”, and consider it a delightful disruption of your mindless bog-going; a private second chance to remember what it tasted like going in at the other end.

An asparagal meditation trigger, if you will.

The thing is, you have to learn to relish any opportunity to get more, more, more – even if it is through the medium of your own methanethiol-laced piss – because the English asparagus season is so tragically short. The seasonality is partly what makes those stalks so special, scarcity breeding desire; in an instantly gratifying world, there is a rare thrill in channelling our greed into two months of sweet-pee’d gluttony.

You can’t cheat. The overpackaged trays of biro-skinny spears proffered in December, or the taxidermic bottles of fat pale pickled fingers lining continental supermarket shelves, have nothing to do with the splendidly stubby, phallic bundles that appear in farm shops from May to June. And it has to be thick and green; purple, white, thin or tips just can’t compete with the summer lushness of a plump and waxy shaft bursting with chlorophyll.

When it comes to eating, I’ll have none of your mayonnaise or hollandaise, smothering freshness with tooth-coating goop; nor parmesan or parma ham, slipping an unwelcome salty barrier between my mouth and yielding flesh. I was once served asparagus cold, with vinaigrette, and promptly reminded of clammily decomposed digits fresh from the embalming jar. No, the perfect pikes are most definitely gobbled lightly steamed, with a jug of melted butter and a crunchy snowfall of sea salt. And cutlery takes up too much time. Go for fingers, slippery and rapacious; duck your head to catch the nodding tip, and gnash down to the woody base, grasping for the next before someone else robs the pile.

Oh, alright. If you really must be ornery, there is one permissible alternative. On disappointing days when ash has trashed your holiday and your thighs loom tuber-like and tanless in your too-mini denim mini shorts, you may reach for spears doused in mirin and speckled with sesame seeds. The burst of damp, warm salt and sugar results in the ideal vegetal comfort food.

Hey. It’s already mid-May, people. Stop reading, and dig in.


Gorgeous word, isn't it? Sensual, sibilant, gently rocking on the lift of that central V, and finishing with a long throaty 'aaaa' of surrender and almost-sleep. Bikram, which you may remember I tried at the start of the year, has become a passion rather than a dabble, successfully realigning both my long, unruly body and my skittish, tangled mind. I've been heavily relying on the yoga posture savasana (from the Sanskrit 'corpse pose') in the past few emotionally turbulent weeks.

The classic savasana posture involves lying on your back with your arms by your sides, palms up, concentrating on deep abdominal breathing through the nose. It helps you to give up each contorted posture instantly, moving from extreme effort to calm release, from catabolic franticness to anabolic renewal, and can also be applied to centred standing postures or front-down postures, as long as stillness, relaxation and recovery are the aim.

But it's outside the yoga room that it has really comes into its own, helping to release me from the adrenalin-laced temporary insanity that is my typical emotional and muscular response to life (still so defensive, still so brittle): basically, to let go.

I try and practice it throughout the day, observing the grotesque postures I adopt when faced with responsibility, or challenge, or fear, then breathing and relaxing them back into calm. But it's so easy to forget.

via mupke @flickr

So my best idea over the past month has been tube meditation. Every time I step into a train, I (theoretically) come back to the present and let my ego-babble go. The noise and smell and motion actually help - there is silence to listen for, under all that. And, tending as they do to top and tail working days, tube journeys provide the perfect time to reconnect and recover from the slings and arrows of mundanity.

Rid of their designated reading slot, my New Yorkers are piling up, but it's worth it, in a creeping, halting way.

Try it. Let me know what you think.