Monday, 24 August 2015

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Hair... But Were Too Afraid To Ask

I’m currently growing my hair for the first time since 2001. Some people think growing your hair is merely about not getting your hair cut but it’s actually about buying your hair treats and speaking softly to your hair when it’s angry. Recently, for example, I have bought my hair an original vinyl copy of the third Crazy Horse album and the new Anne Tyler novel, and my hair has seemed quietly but noticeably appreciative of both. We have both now also mercifully moved on and put the time back in June when my hair had a tantrum in Tesco firmly in our past. 

I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritually long-haired person, even when I was short-haired and medium-haired, but for years people close to me and people who think they’re closer to me than they are have told me I shouldn’t grow my hair long because it will look terrible. Admittedly, one of the people who is close to me to hint at this was my mum. Mums are generally absolutely wonderful in almost every way, but you should never listen to their advice on hair, as their sole mission in this area is to sabotage your future happiness. I have felt increasingly content with my hair since January, when I last had it cut. This haircut cost £11, which is the absolute maximum any man should pay for a haircut, since anything good that happens to male hair and costs over £11 is purely fictional.

I’ve been told all sorts of guff about hair over the years, been recommended all manner of nonsense products. The most effective product I’ve used on my hair over the last few years is sea, which is available from all good coastal outlets. If someone claims you can recreate this in a bottle, lock them in a closet and walk away. I find that rain, wind and sleet work pretty well, providing you give them time and accept that, before they work their magic, they need to bring you to your knees. 

“HAIR IS LIKE GRASS,” my dad claimed when I was younger. “IT NEEDS SUN AND RAIN TO GROW.” I used to think this was the wisdom of a lunatic but in recent years I’ve come around to his opinion. My dad’s dad wore lots of hats and was almost completely bald by the time he was 30. I went through a big hat wearing phase during 2009 and 2010, which perhaps uncoincidentally were also years when my hair began to sneak noticeably away from my scalp. My hair has had a minor change of heart and stood its ground pretty well in the less headwear-themed years since then. I still like hats, but tend to only wear them for special occasions nowadays, such as when I’m going to a museum or buying a particularly posh sandwich. I try to allow my hair to fly free on country walks, which, on a windy day on Dartmoor, can give me the appearance of a druid who has just made a disappointing folk record. My dad almost never wears hats and has completed hundreds of country walks, and, at the age of 66, still has a good head of hair, although my mum’s theory is that this is just because he has glued it on permanently with a variety of strong gel sprays. He still uses these, against the wishes of many. “I’VE JUST SPRAYED MY HAIR WITH CONTACT LENS CLEANER,” he announced last year, emerging from my bathroom wrapped in all four of the house’s clean bath towels. “I THOUGHT IT WAS MY GEL SPRAY, BUT IT WASN’T.”

When we see a man in old age with an especially thick head of hair, we often have an impulse to congratulate him. But why? It is not as if it required any skill. Or did it? Perhaps there is a nugget of truth inside the old line “Grass doesn’t grow on a busy street.” My hair was busy and stressed over the weekend, and today it is a miscellany of wool, lint and old wire arranged on and around my head. Contrast this with three weekends ago, when it really took things easy and looked so unusually good I kind of wished I could have taken it off and put it in the fridge until something important happened. Most hair has changeable moods. My friend Seventies Pat’s hair glows golden and huge like a hippie halo at night, gets melancholy in the mornings then perks up and becomes upbeat again the next evening, with the help of a Yardbirds record and some spiced rum. I know only one hirsute man past the age of 30 with 24-7 amazing hair: this is my friend Jay, who has past-the-shoulder middle-parted locks so reliably perfect, he makes All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison look like Ross Kemp. But the word in the local town is that he might actually be a wizard.

I only had one great hair year as an adult, which was 2000. This was after the tight curls that had been my downfall during the mid-1990s had loosened up, allowing me to finally stop looking like Dougall From The Magic Roundabout every time I grew it, but before any noticeable diminishment in thickness. I had several great hair years as a child, but being a child is cheating when it comes to hair. Did I need any poncy conditioner or serums back then? Did I fuck. I washed it with the budget own brand supermarket shampoo my mum bought, put nothing else on it, and looked like I’d just had my make-up done by the same people who did the kid from The Shining’s. 
4 year-old me

All this went tragically wrong when, after thirteen and a bit years with straight hair, I woke up one day in 1989 with a curly frizz that wouldn’t go away. “It’s because of wanking,” said Stuart, a builder I used played golf with in Nottinghamshire. Taking his words to heart, I decided to give up for a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t much fun and, if anything, the curls got worse.

Now, of course, I would like some of the curls back, even though I still have a fair few. Thick curls are very slightly like large breasts in probably this way only: they’re brilliant and a lot of people want them but frequently not the people who actually own them. I lost a few more of my curls in 2011 when I set fire to them on a tealight candle while DJing in a bar in Norwich. One of the problems with walking around in a public place with your hair on fire is that social convention requires you to laugh it up, while inside a fair bit of you is dying. While thankfully the signature smell did dissipate after a day or so, that patch at the front has never properly grown back. People have assured that me you can’t tell but I’m still aware of its absence. A bonus of the psychedelic headbands I’ve been sporting this summer is that they stop me thinking about it, although that’s not one of the main two reasons I wear them. The main two reasons I wear them are that in 1985 I did the same thing - though in a more sporty, less hippie way, it has to be said - for a whole summer and it made me really happy, and that I enjoy dressing slightly foolishly, having done some first person research on the option of dressing non-foolishly and found it unsatisfactory. There are the inevitable problems with these headbands: the people with a narrow frame of cultural reference who mention Axl Rose or Rambo, but I’m not dressing for them, I’m dressing for me, just as, when I treat myself to a packet of crisps, I’m not eating those crisps for someone I barely know who has only ever eaten two types of crisp. Sometimes people also look at my headband and ask me, “Is that ironic?” At these points I always do what everyone should do when a person asks “Is that ironic?” about their clothing and pick them up and throw them in a lake.

Am I overly interested in my own hair? Perhaps, but probably no more so than many other men I know, and, in the moments when I berate myself for my vanity in checking in the mirror whether my hair is looking passable, I take comfort from the fact that I will never be as obsessed with my own hair as I am with other people’s. One of my favourite examples of hair from history is that carefully cultivated by Ann Wilson from Heart during 1977 and 1978: especially during one particular two month period when her fringe was especially sharp. If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back to the period of Charles II and the Jazz Age, but on the way I’d definitely stop in 1979, and, ten seconds before Ann opened the door to the hairdresser’s where she was booked to get the perm that would blight her image for much of the next decade, I’d slip a piece of card surreptitiously onto the appropriate chair in the salon, on which I’d written “WILSON! NO!” in a mock blood-streaked font. If I still often think about the lovely hair of a woman in her sixties I spoke to while foraging on the North Norfolk coast four summers ago: the way its salt-dried, dark grey tendrils seemed to speak of the long, healthy, magical life of a good witch. 
Ann Wilson of Heart (right) in the late 70s

If everyone is a certain percentage gay and I am, I don't know, say, 7%, I would not be surprised if all of that 7% is taken up in the form of admiring nice hair when it happens to be on men. The Parallax View is one of my favourite films, not least because of the stellar performance in the lead role by Warren Beatty’s hair, and the almost as great supporting one from Warren Beatty. If you added up all the time I’ve spent thinking about the hair of early 70s Warren Beatty and Robert Redford - particularly the way it looked in the first quarter of The Candidate - I imagine it would total out at around a full bank holiday weekend. I could have spent that bank holiday weekend cramming in any number of those activities people are always telling you you have to do before you die but, contrary to what popular wisdom might suggest, I have no regrets.
Warren Beatty in The Parallax View

Touchy-feely shampoos and conditioners with packaging that talks about stuff like “your relationship with your hair” make me want to punch my bathroom door off its hinges, but there do seem to be obvious examples in popular culture of how a greater awareness of your hair can aid that hair’s survival. Perhaps if hair is ignored, it ends up wanting to run away? Mick Jagger has always seemed very conscious of his hair and its need for exercise, which is perhaps why he still has so absurdly much of it, at the age of 72. Or perhaps it is just because he is a singer in a famous band and all singers in famous bands are only 91% likely to lose their hair in middle age, as opposed to guitarists, who are 64% likely, bassists, who are 22% likely, and drummers, who are only 7% likely. 

I’m not sure what the percentage is for writers. Woody Allen was already severely receding in his 30s, but then a few years later his hair seemed to say “Right, I’ll stick now” as if it was playing Pontoon, not being hair. It hasn’t all that changed much since. I don’t know what mine is planning. You can never tell what hair’s next move is. Until about five years ago I didn’t even notice that I had eyebrows. Now they want to annexe Somerset. I am sort of at peace with the idea of letting my hair fly from the wings, Terry Nutkins-style, when it the top bit finally departs, but maybe that’s because I have watched too much archive footage of professional football in the 1970s, which was a period when many of the players in the first division were as old as 63 and proudly balding. Hopefully I’m still quite few years away from that, and in the meantime I am simply enjoying looking slightly more like a magician from the 16th Century than I did at the start of the year. I’ve still got a way to go before I reach full 16th Century magician. It takes patience, especially when, like mine, your hair can often be absent-minded, and wander off on long detours. I have, however, bought my hair a book on magic in the 16th Century and I’m hoping that will help.

Pre-order my new book.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Never Factoring In

"I'll have a nice read of my book on the train," you think, never factoring in the girl behind you shouting into a phone at someone named Libby.

"I will sign this lucrative record deal," you think, never factoring in the fact that the record label will ultimately blame you, not themselves, for your lack of commercial success and that Declan in A&R is not your friend.

"I will take the piss out of my nan for jumping in fright every time the phone rings," you think, never factoring in that, five decades later, you will jump in fright when the phone rings in the precise same way, with a movement and expression utterly uncanny in all its genetic echoes.

"I will adopt this Border Collie pup, because I would like to meet other Border Collie owners, on long walks," never factoring in that this will prevent you from going on a yoga retreat in Shropshire, hooking up with John, and realising that the previous five years have been bullshit.

"I will listen to what this self-assured person from a more privileged and upper middle class background than me tells me about the world, and believe all of it," you think, never factoring in that they are often wrong and that, at 28, you are still young and suggestible.

"I will not unfollow this angry person on Twitter I mistakenly followed, as it will hurt their feelings," you think, never factoring in the fact they have already unfollowed you, feeling not a morsel of compunction.

"I will not see her again because she's too fragile from her previous relationship and I might hurt her," you think, never factoring in that you're the one who's too fragile from your previous relationship and she's fine.

"I will watch this nature documentary on a television in a warm house secretly through a window and be mesmerised by it," you think, never factoring in that you are, in fact, a fox.

"I will take my laptop to this cafe and do some work," you think, never factoring in that they will play Coldplay on a loop.

"I will journey back from the present to visit my younger self and give them advice," you think, never factoring in that your younger self doesn't not listen well and you are cataclysmically dicking about with life's essential journey of growth and wisdom.

"I will go the long, scenic route," you think, never factoring in that if you go the long scenic route you will see a red kite attacking a lamb.

"I will look at the life this magazine is telling me to have and yearn for it," you think, never factoring in the emptiness and panic that shadows the every move of those who actually live it.

"I will go and piss about at the old barn near the canal," you think, never factoring in the robbery and the cowardly mistake and the tearful phone call twenty eight years later.

"I will not respond to this gentle and tentative romantic online proposition, as I do not like the person's photo," you think, never factoring that the photo is not of them but of a celebrity they temporarily revere and you have never heard of.

"I will treat my body as a temple," you think, never factoring in that sometimes temples are fun.

"I will go to this function out of a sense of duty, while all my friends are attending that gig I've looked forward to for ages," you think, never factoring in that, escaping from the Perrys, and Jane, you will wander outside to the bench under the willow tree, where you will meet him, and after that everything will change for the better.

"I will take everything this blog post says as a fact," you think, never factoring in that it is fictional nonsense.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Dartmoor Walking Notes: Piles Copse, 12.8.2015

You know the way it works: you get into Fairport Convention’s 1969 album ‘Liege And Lief’, then someone annoying like me who owns too many records tells you about ‘On The Shore’, the second album by the little-known acid folk band The Trees, which came out the following year. “Oh, of course Fairport Convention are great,” they tell you a bit smugly. “But in a way The Trees are even better, more mysterious, and almost nobody ever talks about them.” I’ve been on the other side of a similar conversation a few times recently where Wistman’s Wood and Piles Copse are concerned. All connoisseurs of the Devon landscape know about Wistman’s Wood, the ancient dwarf oak woodland near Two Bridges on Dartmoor, where the furred lichen hangs off the trees like folk tinsel, but it’s only when you talk to people who really know their OS maps inside out that you start hearing about Piles Copse. “It’s the real deal,” one told me a month ago. “Go! Camp there! But now I’ve told you about it you have to promise not to mention it in a newspaper.”

   Actually, it’s not like Piles Copse is suffering from some kind of unfair underexposure; it’s mentioned in four of the nine old Dartmoor books I’ve bought from charity shops in the last year and clearly marked on maps. Part of me feels bad for recommending it here, but if you’ve got time to read an esoteric and unimportant blog like this, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to descend on it in a coach party of 50 and shit up the place with Tunnock’s tea cake wrappers and empty Campari bottles. The main reason for its obscurity is probably simply the fact that it’s pretty difficult to get to and, unlike Wistman’s Wood, its existence is not signposted. There is a fairly easy way to get to it, but I was in one of my more sado-masochistic walking moods on Wednesday, so decided to walk all the way from the western edge of Ivybridge which, if you get lost twice, and take the curvy route along the River Erme, as I did, makes for a round trip of around fifteen miles. In 1993 my then girlfriend Ellen and I walked half that far home from a party in Nottingham and thought it qualified us as robust. We didn’t even have to walk up a hill, let alone sixteen - some of which will probably have snow on in about two months.

   As I followed the river then made the steep climb past Harford Church, a fact occurred to me: I had walked on the moor dozens of times but had never truly walked to the moor. Hiking up from close to the A38 on the south side to one of Dartmoor’s higher points is the only way to get a real sense of the change in altitude you get on the moor. As I reached the summit of Sharp Tor, wind-wrecked and clicky-hipped, I was able to look back six miles across the hilltops with the satisfaction of being able to say, “I just went across all of that, using my legs and a map.” As someone who grew up measuring all his excercise in terms of sporting prowess, the rebel pointlessness of these moments encapsulates a major part of what I love about walking: achievements not measured out by committee or convention or the rewarding of a badge or trophy. Essentially: nobody gives a crud about them but me and I am delighted to discover that I’m repeatedly fine with that.

   The weather, which had been balmy all the way on the climb from town, had a bit of a moment there at the top of Sharp Tor. The sky is like that in Devon: even when it looks like it’s not planning something, it usually is. This time, it raged for a bit, then said “Neh” and by the time I’d descended to Piles Copse, weaving between a group of toothy rocks ominously known as ‘The Dungeon’, the roof of the world had become blue, vaporous and soft again: it was the kind of sky you might expect to find a blonde Swiss lady in a peasant blouse singing beneath.

   There was only one path into the copse and it was a little hard to find, from the detour I’d taken to look for what I’d read was a popular spot for fox dens, but I was struck by how welcoming the copse was, compared to Wistman’s Wood. Both places seem to come straight out of fairy tales, but Piles Copse, despite its clandestine nature, is evocative of a greener, more sparkly story: the kind a band of whimsical, well educated young Englishmen with middle partings might have based a psychedelic concept album on in 1966. As in Wistman's Wood, there is plenty of clitter here, which, as I found out earlier this year, is the Devon word for the moss-caked boulders you often find below tors, and also, as Urban Dictionary had originally informed me, the modern term for vaginal glitter*. This clitter almost was glittery, though: somehow sharper and more luminous than Wistman's folk horror boulders. This landscape is more Lewis Carroll picnic, less Satanic Alan Garner owl terror.

   A few minutes later, I was in the fairy tale itself. As I paddled in the River Erme, at the bottom of the copse, the biggest southern migrant hawker dragonfly I’ve ever seen fluttered by: a truly giant thing, from a magical land before time. How could Britain not produce amazing fantasy writers, when it still contained stuff like this? It was all I could do not to write a psychedelic young adult horror trilogy right here, now, sitting on the moss with my new notebook, but it was late in the day, and the walk back was long. I was dehydrated from the climb and I knelt towards the river, instinctively, intending to drink the clear water, but then recalled something my friend Ralph once told me: “If you’re ever tempted to do that, just remember: the water might look clear, but there could easily be a dead sheep in it a few hundred yards upstream.” 

   We're spoilt for rivers in Devon: I’ve become evangelical about the Dart since living here but I too often forget the Erme. It looked wonderfully coppery and clear as I followed it back towards Ivybridge, feeling the stress of the earlier climb on my joints but also the pleasant sensation of being rolled downhill. With this came a bittersweet feeling, since home contained neglected admin, bills, invoicing and technological chaos, and I got the sense that if I could just here forever, none of it could touch me. As I neared the town, children splashed and chuckled in one of the river’s secret deep pools, a Japanese lady meditated on a rock, the sun winked low through mossy oak branches, illuminating upturned roots, and couples strolled lazily with pushchairs under the old railway arches. But none of this was in any of the walking guides or “best places to visit” books I owned about the county. This was not hip Devon, not one of the places people told you to live when you tabled the notion of moving here, yet if you found a rural summer’s scene as idyllic as this in most other places in Britain you’d be running up to strangers, getting all up in their grill and shouting rhapsodically about it. It underlined something I have learned about my still relatively new home county: thinking you’ve come close to having seen the best of it is hubris, and a mistake. Of all of Devon’s great qualities, this is perhaps the greatest: the fact that you’ll never do all the Devon. There will always be more out there, waiting for you.

* I recently announced this fact over a microphone to a medieval hall containing around 300 pensioners. It might have been a mistake.

A piece I wrote about Wistman's Wood.

Another  piece I wrote about walking.

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Thursday, 13 August 2015

Oh Whistle And I'll Still Be In The Other Room, M'Lad: Living With A Deaf Cat

We often tell ourselves being a cat would make for a lovely life, what with the naps and the diminished financial responsibility, but in fact the world of a cat is a cold, brutal one. I sneezed in a record shop yesterday and a stranger a few feet from me said “Bless you!” and I said “Thanks” and she said “That’s ok.” It was really nice and could easily have gone on for much longer, if both of us had had nowhere else pressing to be. Compare this to earlier today, when one of my cats sneezed, and my other cat was like, “Do that again and I’ll cut you.” My cats get offended by me pretty easily. My large hairy tabby Ralph has been known not to speak to me for days, purely on the basis that I unfolded a metal clothes horse within six feet of him without considering how it would make him feel. Last week, when I didn’t get to the shop selling his brother Shipley’s favourite food before it shut and was forced to substitute it for an inferior brand, Shipley sat outside in torrential rain for a whole afternoon, just to punish me. But even this is nothing compared to the kind of dark resentful shit that goes down between the two of them and their female housemate, Roscoe: a carpet soap opera of bottled up grudges, petty office politics, stolen property (usually pen lids), backbiting and accusatory stares.

  The exception to this amongst my cats is The Bear, and this is probably because he is not so much a cat as a polite, pacifist poet who happens to be trapped in a feline body and is making his best of a bad situation. The Bear has never gone in for the petty squabbles or attention-seeking power plays of other cats, and chooses to “meeoop” gently at me or nod subtly in the direction of the food cupboard when he wants to be fed. When Shipley has tried to square off with him or challenge him to an arm wrestle, his response has usually been to scuttle off and hide in the nearest cardboard box. When he looks into my eyes, as he does often, it feels less like he is asking for food and more like he is asking me for solutions to the world’s problems. I haven't got any of the latter, so I settle for the former: usually as much of it as he wants, because he’s nearly twenty, and I feel blessed to have been able to know him for the last decade and a half. Today I spent more on his dinner than I did on mine. Fuck knows what’s in the stuff I got him but from what I can work out it comes with its own croutons.

   What has changed about The Bear recently is that he’s gone a bit deaf, although this hasn’t made him any less polite, just polite in a louder kind of way. His two main noises - the “meeoop” and his half-meow chirrup, both of which were always very soft and mild - have evolved into a completely new noise. This noise is quite hard to describe but I think the best way I could put it is that it’s the kind of sound a particularly friendly bumblebee would make if it was a foot high and came to live in your spare room. The Bear, of course, has no idea he’s being newly loud. When he meows at the fresh bowl of water I keep on the bathroom floor for him, which for some reason he seems to be in love with, he believes he is singing the water a gentle, private lullaby. He has no idea that, not far away, people are breaking off their conversations and asking “Who is that mournful old lady with that I can hear wailing to herself? I wonder if she recently lost her husband.” Another rather sweet effect of his deafness is that is seems to have completely nullified the lifelong intimidatory hold Shipley has had over him. Now, as Shipley appears alongside him, his reaction is less “Oh no! Hide! Quick!” and more “Oh, it’s you! Hello!” In turn, this has killed the joy of the chase for Shipley, who will now often be seen calmly resting top-to-tail with The Bear under the yew tree in my garden.

   The moment when I properly realised The Bear was going deaf was a few months ago, when I was grilling myself some cheese on toast and feeding all four cats mechanically recovered meat and the smoke alarm went off. This smoke alarm is the most industrially piercing I’ve ever had and, at the first sound of it, Roscoe, Ralph and Shipley hotfooted it out of the house. The Bear, by contrast, sat at my feet, looking up at me with an expression that seemed to say, “Hi. Did you call?” He always had very good hearing in the past, and would appear almost instantly, upon hearing the loud whistle I deploy to call the cats in. Now he can only just hear me when I whistle, but it doesn’t really matter, as he’s always around. The Bear looked like he might be slowing down and becoming an indoor cat at the end of 2013, when I moved temporarily to a dark bungalow without a garden in Norwich, but since I moved to Devon in March last year he’s been very outdoorsy, preferring to sleep on either my back step or in a The Bear-shaped indentation in my lawn which I call The Bearhole, but he never actually leaves the garden. The fresh countryside air here in Devon is one of the things that I convince myself has extended his life, along with the rubs I give him in that spot on his chest he especially likes and the fact that I tell him “I love you, The Bear” every day.

   I had a garden party last weekend. It wasn’t really meant to be a garden party. I’d initially envisaged it as five or maybe six people sitting on my lawn talking quietly about owls, but before I knew it someone was barbecueing corn on the cob and someone else - okay, it was me -  was putting on a Chic LP back-to-back with ‘Pump Up The Jam’ by Technotronic. The Bear has become increasingly chilled out and sociable at parties over the years, but, unexpectedly, a couple of small kids came to this one, and I think they scared him and the other cats a bit, in their Pepsi-fuelled enthusiasm. I didn’t find him for quite a long time the next morning, which was worrying, when you combine the facts that he can’t hear my whistle unless I’m very close, he’s never left the garden, and the vast undergrowth surrounding my house has never been higher than it is right now, at the end of a rainy summer. By the time I did locate him, under the sole bush I’d not previously looked beneath, I was pretty much vowing never to invite another human being to my house again, let alone ever have another party. 

   The Bear gave me a kind of “It’s all cool, man” look but he was off his food for the next twenty four hours, which is unthinkable for him. He seemed slower and creakier - had he been injured in the night? - and I began to steel myself for the worst. In fact, I’ve been steeling myself for the worst with The Bear for years. Even if I’d not got round to steeling myself for the worst of my own volition, I probably would do anyway, due to all the reminders I get from a certain kind of stranger who periodically drops by my Facebook page and instructs me to. “Your cat is very old now,” these strangers tell me, from diverse corners of the world (though mostly, it must be said, Middle America), perhaps mistaking me for a simpleton who believes that cats age like humans and 20 is the time that a cat will just be finding out who he is, falling in and out of love, and living it up on Spring Break. “I hope you’re ready.” There is no denying it: my cat version of David Attenborough is very old now, even older than the real version of David Attenborough, but he’s happier than he’s ever been, and only a day after his little dip in form, he was meooping his love song at his bowl of water again, enjoying a chest rub, chewing enthusiastically on a fresh chicken breast I bought him, then sleeping happily in The Bearhole. A few days on, he’s back to 100% Bear. Yesterday I saw him hurl his arthritic body through the catflap with his paws out ahead of him, like some cat version of superman, then chase - but not kill, never - a moth. 

   And that’s what he is in a way: Polite Cat Superman. Deaf Cat Superman too, of course, now, but in the end, he does not seem noticeably diminished by it. You could even argue it’s done him as much good as harm. After all, the audible world is full of humans discussing unsolveable problems, which a cat, even an unusually sensitive and empathic one, can frustratingly do nothing about. And as for other cats: well, they just talk a load of crap anyway.

Pre-order my new book about The Bear and pals.

Read my previous book about The Bear and pals.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Some Notes On Hay Bales

It's August, summer's answer to Sunday, and several dozen hay bales have appeared in the meadow near my house. For weeks this meadow has been a haven for crickets and fritillary butterflies. Overnight, the long grass has gone, and so have they, and there's a sense of something good edging away, like tablecloth hosting a lovely meal being gradually pulled by an invisible hand when you've barely finished the starter. But there's an art and a beauty to the bales themselves. I remember seeing a vast stack of them at dusk whilst walking near Blythburgh in Suffolk in 2010 and being mesmerised by the dark power of its high walls in front of the setting sun: it looked like a frightening city from some cold and impenetrable Pagan future, which was doubly odd, as I usually find it hard to imagine any impenetrable Pagan future being cold. You look at a hay bale from a car window and you think you could get a friend to roll it around while you surfed on top of it for fun but when you get up close to one its weight and density is astonishing. Five years ago, on a road not from my house, a bale not dissimilar to these rolled down a steep hill and landed on top of a van being driven by the former ELO member Mike Edwards, instantly crushing him to death. When I get my weight behind one of those near my house and attempt to budge it, I understand why.

   I mention hay bales to my mum and she tells me about the summer that my dad worked on the farm across the road from our old semi in Nottinghamshire: the infamously hot summer of 1976, when I had just turned one and the two of them were scrabbling around desperately for money. "He was trying to earn enough to replace the bald tyres on the Morris Minor," she says. "He ruined his clothes, though, so spent everything he earned replacing them instead. He was doing the canching: picking them up after the baler and stacking them. He dropped a small bale on the farmer's head at one point. Luckily the farmer had a big thick bull neck, or it could have been nasty. He says there was a lion on the loose in the North Notts countryside that year but I can't remember that bit."

   I remember leaping off other bales of hay and straw at another farm, just up the road from there, with my friend Lucy Whale, and coming home red-faced with scratched skin. We'd had a gang which acted out Enid Blyton stories amidst the surrounding fields and spoil heaps, which, even though I'd never read any Enid Blyton, was great because until then all my mates had been in the city, where I went to primary school, and my only previous attempt at friendship in our pit village had led to a scary boy four doors away setting fire to my lone Star Wars figure. On this particular day our other friends, Adam and Nick and Lucy's sister Rosie, hadn't been here, and we'd gone on a fairly brave departure from the standard Blyton script into something I would one day realise was a dress rehearsal for adolescent desire. 

  Years later, long after we'd moved, my dad and I went back to look at the house and, having spotted me, Lucy and Adam and Nick and Rosie, all clearly still friends, came out to Lucy's front gate to wave. I was thirteen and living in a village a few miles away where my friends sat on hay bales and sniffed glue, and was going to a school where, for a brief period, without seeking it out, I seemed to get involved in a playground fight weekly: each of which I won, and each of which I took no pleasure in winning. As we drove past the bales in the field and Lucy and my other friends stood in front of them and waved, my dad asked if I'd like him to stop the car - another Morris Minor, with better tyres - so I could say hello to my pals and I declined, instead offering only the most truculent and reluctant of teenage waves to them through the window. I still think about it often to this day and profoundly regret it.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Thistles And Other Stuff I've Eaten Recently

A few years ago, when I first decided to go vegetarian, the consensus seemed to be that what I'd miss, above anything else, was bacon. "Ooh, you're going to struggle, especially on hungover mornings, if you smell someone else cooking it - it's unbearable," people warned me, but this has turned out to be untrue. I've never craved bacon as a vegetarian. What I craved at first as a vegetarian was salt. For my initial, failed attempt at being a herbivore in 2012, I did pretty much nothing else for eight months save for walk around the house shouting "I need salt!" I became very one-dimensional, my wider ambitions in the world set aside in favour of one overriding repeat mission: to find the nearest, most inexpensive packet of crisps. This has thankfully abated somewhat, but the desire is still on a low heat, combined with another underreported side effect of a meat-free diet: a barely suppressible love of spice.
   I sometimes manage to combine these two needs very successfully, such as the other day when I bought some billiard ball-sized olives stuffed with red chillies from a shop in Totnes. You're supposed to eat olives in a sophisticated way prior to a fancy meal, preferably using cocktail sticks, but, being neither sophisticated or in possession of self control, this remains nothing but a far-off dream for me. If I'm walking the couple of miles home from town and I've got a tub of them in my bag, I've invariably chomped the lot by the time I get back. I was a bit unprepared for the strength of the chillies in these particular olives, though, which caused me to wink suggestively at a fellow pedestrian. 
   This perhaps might not have been a bad thing in the right situation, but this guy was well into his seventies and not really my type. The hiccuping fit which subsequently began to reverberate violently through my entire body was also unwelcome. Fortunately, I was passing my local doctor's surgery at the time. I lingered near the doorway for a few minutes, in case I required assistance. My doctor is a really nice man, and even talked me through his youtube favourites list last time I went to see him, and I like to think he'd help me out at short notice if I was in a jam. Fortunately, though, within five minutes the convulsions had stopped and I was breathing well again and able to re-open almost an entire quarter of both of my eyes.
   I moved on, past one of the edible community gardens on the edge of town. I've never eaten anything from these gardens, as I'm slightly worried about the multitude of passing dogs who could potentially do a slash on their contents, but I know I should. My lovely hippie friend Jay walks around the peripheries of Totnes, sampling all manner of leaves and flowers like a mystic ground level giraffe, but I tend to prefer my plants pre-curried or seasoned. It's at times like this that make me realise I'm not what many might describe as a "proper" vegetarian. I don't experiment enough, rely too heavily on snacks, was actually eating seafood until very recently, and don't have a clear, vehement argument rehearsed to justify my dietary choices when speaking to hardline carnivores. On the plus side, I tend to steer away from meat substitutes and have given foraging a go a couple of times. Most recent of these was a few weeks ago on a day's course at the beautiful Sharpham estate, high above one of the river Dart's most attractive elbows. Here, amongst other culinary firsts, I boldly bit into a large thistle.
   There can be a tendency to force your mind open when you eat a thistle, prepare yourself for it tasting surprisingly different to your preconceptions, but what it actually tastes like is a thistle. At best, you might say it tasted like a fibrous, angry cucumber, which doesn't really work for me as someone who's always believed cucumber to be redolent of many of the most disappointing parts of British life. I did eat some nice things whilst foraging, though, including wood sorrel, mustard leaf and hart's tongue. My guide for foraging, Anna McNeill, told me that ancient wisdom claims that hart's tongue - also known as Asplenium scolopendrium - prevents people from having impure thoughts. I was sceptical, but, amazingly, found that after eating it I didn't have any impure thoughts for a whole three hours, although it's possible that this could have been just down to the fact I had a headache. I also really enjoyed Anna's nettle tea. "I have three cups of it a day and it's completely cured my hay fever," she said. "I also don't mind the stings, either. They're actually quite good for you, once you accept them. I kind of embrace them now."

   Soon afterwards, we found some lady's mantle - also known as Alchemilla - which Anna informed us helps regulate the female menstrual cycle. I noticed that at this point the men in the group hung back slightly, as if concerned by the prospect of having their own cycles regulated. Notable characters from the day included Louis, a blonde, floppy haired giant who knew everything you could possibly need to know about mushrooms and reminded me of Erno, the hunky rebel leader Diane Keaton falls for in the futuristic 1973 Woody Allen comedy, Sleeper. More memorable still was Rainbow, a compact, barefooted man in a body warmer and shorts, and his equally industrious young son, River. Looking at Rainbow and River, I found it hard not to imagine them climbing trees, even on the occasions in the afternoon when they weren't. Later, a baby arrived on Anna's partner's back. The baby was nowhere near old enough to walk or talk, but it looked amazingly healthy and enthusiastic and I got the sense that, at any moment, it might crawl off into the woods, grab a fern and start munching on it.

   After only a few hours in a tucked away corner of the Devon countryside like this with a group of strangers, a strong sense of community sets in: a possibility in the air of being part of a new underground society. Or maybe that was just me thinking about the rebels in Sleeper again. Whatever the case, new ways of communication emerge and become normalised very quickly. Here, the statement "Look - Rainbow is making a spit poultice!" seems no less surprising than the statement "Look - Darren is sniffing some Copydex!" would have seemed in the woods behind my old house on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border in 1988. I felt my inexperience keenly alongside most of the foragers and didn't personally make any spit poultices but was pleased when Anna said "You look like a man who's good at lighting fires!" and allowed me to start the blaze on which we later cooked some of our findings. There was just enough bannock, forager's stir fry and wild salad to go around but I have to admit that afterwards I drove straight to the petrol station a few miles away and bought a massive fuck off grab bag of samosas and pakoras from their hot shelf. 

   I'm not sure I'm going to be putting a huge amount of the knowledge I picked up from Anna's course to culinary use but, even with that in mind, there's another useful skill to be gained from what's taught on a course like hers: the ability to see through what she calls "the wall of green" that is a west country hedgerow in spring or summer. Since my visit to Sharpham I've started picking more out in that wall, seeing through its muddle of shapes, even in and near my own garden - whether I have the intention of eating some of them or not. A huge teasel growing behind my back fence is no longer just a nondescript weed in the wallpaper of the countryside but a masterpiece of natural bee-friendly architecture with leaves that curve to collect rainwater and provide an organic drinking bowl for blue tits (see above). Strimming in a previously unexplored patch at the far end of my garden the other day and catching a familiar odour, I stopped just in time to rescue a previously undiscovered patch of verbascum and mint, then picked a few leaves of the latter. In the process I was stung by a nettle. Remembering what I'd learned, I did my best to accept the sting. I wouldn't go as far as saying I embraced it, but at the very least I tried to see its point of view. I'd stepped on its patch. It didn't know I was an unthreatening person who liked folk music, badgers and teasels. I could have been Donald Trump, for all it was aware. It was just using what it had available to it, and doing its thing. Just as, a few minutes later, by grabbing some secateurs, ruthlessly ending its life, adding it to some of the mint I'd picked, putting the mixture in a mug and pouring some boiling water over it, I was using what I had available to me, and doing my thing too.

Thistle illustration by Sophie Gilmore. See more of her artwork here. Email me via my website if you're interested in getting your artwork featured on this blog.

Find out more about Sharpham's foraging and mindfulness courses here.

You can pre-order my new book here.