And it devoured her

“Your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that reflects what you loved most when you were somewhere between 9 and 11 years old.

At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions, but not old enough to be overly influenced by what other people are doing, or what you think you ’should’ be doing.

If what you do later on ties into that reservoir, you are nurturing some essential part of yourself.” – Fenced Lot

My mother tells a story, too often and to too many of my friends, about when I was a pudgy toddler and had mastered the art of Using the Grown-Up Toilet. Whenever I waddled into the bathroom, she’d hover nearby (not call-Childline nearby; concerned-mother nearby) to see if I needed help.

Once, when I’d been in there a while, she called, “Are you finished?” “Almost,” I called back. “I’m on the last chapter.”

I loved me some stories when I was a kid.

I loved inventing them for bossy, running-round-the-garden type games (”We’re pirates, right, and you lot are aliens, okay, and you’ve stolen our trident of power…”). Studiously I sketched down the endless, nonsensical adventures of Slinky, who was a vampire and also a mermaid and also – and this is key – a roller-skating detective. She looked a bit like this:

Although she normally had a gun.

And I loved reading stories, and writing them.

I wrote feverishly as the adults around me all exchanged knowing, oh-look-another-writer-in-the-family glances.

I pulled ideas out of the air and jammed them into jumbled narratives where the humdrum and fantastical merged without resolving themselves, main characters died or disappeared suddenly once I got bored, scenes changed location as in a dream. It was frantic and wonderful and expansive and self-propelling.

Inevitably, all my stories would end with this final line:

“But why?” All the adults would ask, patiently. “Why did it devour her?”

And when I shrugged, and tried to explain that I was just writing down the movies that were playing in my head, they taught me about the three act structure, about foreshadowing and plotting and the importance of knowing what your story was going to be before you wrote it. And that most daunting of prospects – THE THEME – the story behind the story.

Which, somehow for me, has never, ever felt right. Like asking someone to complete a fourteen-dimensional Rubik’s Cube in 3D space, blindfolded.

I am fortunate enough now, as an adult, to write stories of one sort or another for a living. Nice, factual stories with a discernible beginning, middle and end, with the facts governing what you say and the house style enforcing how you say it.

But the second I have the merest germ of a seed of an embryo of a whisper of a ghost of a non-factual story, all these fusty, tightly-laced, sensible grown-up thoughts about plotting and three act structures and THE RIGHT WAY TO DO IT come down like a steel drawbridge and crush the idea before it gasps its first breath, and I feel frustrated and a hack (and a bit like a baby-killer), and put my piece of paper away.

When I was a child I imagined myself as an adult – though marginally taller, and with a fabulous wardrobe and some sort of flying car – essentially doing the same thing: staring out of the window, pen in hand, lost in a daydream which I then wrote down, and saw where it went, without worrying about the rules. Or at least not worrying about the rules until later.

So what now?

Well, I’ll be back in a little while. I’ve just got to go to the loo, and take this big book with me.

I may be some time.

Lifecycle of a misanthrope

1. Everything is NEW!
2. Everything is INTERESTING!
3. Tall people are mean.
4. Small people are mean.
5. Everyone is TEDIOUS.
6. *I* am interesting.
7. A small number of things are INTERESTING.
8. Everything is FRIGHTENING.
9. I am not interesting.
10. Everyone is TEDIOUS.
11. Everything is NEW :(

Books I have written over the course of my life

A puppy called Pumpi is kidnapped by INTERNATIONAL DIAMOND THIEVES and taken to the North Pole. Despite the best efforts of Superman and Shakin’ Stevens, Pumpi can only be rescued by the cunning of a six-year-old girl called Robyn who can secretly fly, and has a laser-gun and sidekick polar bear cub called Polly Boo.

A graphic novel about a retro mermaid called Slinky, mostly consisting of her coveting vintage flares, perfecting her blow-comb technique and retrieving treasure from the bottom of the sea for a little boy called Moran.

A novelette in which a woman from New York runs over a girl on a bicycle on an English country lane. Despite her injuries, the girl strikes up a friendship with the woman while she recovers in hospital. From memory the woman is “sassy” and there is much “back-talk and snapping of chewing gum”.

In which Slinky is turned into a vampire. But she uses this to her advantage, going on night missions to spy on dockside organised crime activity. Eventually she is inducted into the CIA, where she is given a vampire antidote.

The world’s first eight-year-old girl detective, Robyn Wilder, investigates an apparent suicide on the International Space Station and deduces that it was murder by ghosts from the 14th dimension. This gains her instant fame and fortune. In fact, the book is approximately 2% plot, 38% ghosts and 60% fame and fortune (Robyn buys an island, does her best to stay out of the papers and anonymously sends people who have shown her kindness large cash gifts).

Slinky takes up skateboarding!

A pamphlet in which Ripley, Newt and Hicks settle down and live happily ever after, and all that bollocks about a Cockney prison planet was a terrible fever dream.

A gently humorous novel for ‘children of all ages’. A feisty princess, trying to escape being married off to a prince who’s been a rival since childhood, stows away on a pirate ship. But she discovers that the pirate captain is her husband to be, who is also running away. They have many adventures, battles, squabbles and larks on the Tartan Ocean, until I get bored and kill everyone off. NB: Nowhere in the story is there a pendant, golden or otherwise.

I co-author (and painstakingly, in Cakewalk, write the midi score for) the story of Fishy Bob McKenzie, a snaggle-toothed hillbilly who becomes a porn star.

After her relationship implodes, a clumsy web designer moves back in with her mother and gets a job at the local theatre, where she meets a 1980s heartthrob whose career has taken a nosedive. Funnier than it sounds.

I’d mention here that I have a literary agent, but I suspect he might fire me.

Robyn’s English Language work is exceptionally good. her written work is of a very high standard, she reads very well and enjoys this activity very much.

Robyn is industrious when she enjoys what she is doing. However, when working she is easily distracted by the other children, her pencil, or anything else that might be of interest.

That said, her work is so very good when she puts her mind to it. She has settled well into school life and is a delightful girl to have in class.

—  My school report from when I was eight.

I don’t. Like. Feet.

I find them quite abhorrent. Maybe it’s their inherent nobbliness. Or the fact that some sprout dark hairs at irregular intervals. Or just that they are, essentially, deformed hands with stubby fingers and scaly undersides. Whatever, my general belief is they should be hidden under several layers of sock and boot at all times.

Sadly, it is summer, and there are those who would subscribe to the cult of Sandal. Those who would shamelessly wander the streets in strappy, open-toed sacrilege; displaying their corns and callouses to the world; sssh-tlopp, sssh-tlopping along, blissfully unaware of the distress they cause us more sensitive, and covered, soles.

This has been a public service announcement on behalf of my psyche.

Pedestrians beware

When walking quite quickly down a busy street, do not start to wonder whether you could switch - midstride - from your normal way of walking (heel first, then toe) to the traditional Oriental style of walking (toe first, then heel). Repeat: do NOT attempt this. You WILL fall over.

Next to the cash desk at Tesco Express: a hastily put-together display of boxes of condoms, under a big red sign saying “IDEAL FOR VALENTINE’S DAY”. Mm, classy.

Personal music systems: a force for evil

No, really. It’s all the fault of these in-ear earphones, you see. They plug your temporal lobe directly into the music, rendering you the star of your own music video. You now have an OST.

So, instead of simply listening to music on the way to the station, suddenly you’re Long Tracking Shot of Girl Walking Down Deserted Road on an Overcast Day (Grandaddy).

Once you’ve unplugged yourself to buy your travelcard, it’s on with the ‘phones again and now you’re Girl in an Overcoat Standing Motionless by the Train Tracks, the Wind Tugging at her Scarf and Pulling Wisps of Hair Free as a Fast Train Rattles Past (Portishead).

Pretty soon (or not - blah blah trains blah blah unreliable) you’re Girl Boarding a Packed Londonbound Train and, thinking something jaunty might liven up the journey (fool!), you select Daft Punk on your MP3 player.

Considering you’re at least 30 minutes from your first coffee, not used to being this intimate with music, and not in, say, Brazil, this is a terrible, terrible idea. Because then this happens:

“One more time, we’re gonna celebrate, oh yeah, all right, don’t stop the dancing, one more time, we’re gonna celebrate, oh yeah, all right, don’t stop the dancing, one more time, we’re gonna celebrate, oh yeah, all right, don’t stop the dancing, one more time, we’re gonna celebrate, oh yeah, all right, don’t stop the dancing, one more time, we’re gonna celebrate, oh yeah, all right, don’t stop the dancing, one more time, we’re gonna celebrate, oh yeah, all right, don’t stop the dancing, one more time, you know I’m just feelin’ celebration, tonight, celebrate, don’t wait, too late, we don’t stop, you can’t stop, we’re gonna celebrate, one more time, one more time, one more time, a celebration, you know we’re gonna do it right, tonight, just feeling, music’s got me feeling so free, we’re gonna celebrate, one more time, celebrate and dance so free, music’s got me feeling so free, celebrate and dance so free, one more time, music’s got me feeling so free, we’re gonna celebrate, celebrate and dance so free, one more time.”

A jolt makes you open your eyes and, with horror, you realise that for the last ten minutes YOU HAVE BEEN BOOGYING ON A COMMUTER TRAIN.

Oh yes. And they all saw you, baby. Shaking that ass.


Regular reader(s) may know that I’ve made Hotel Boyfriend my temporary base of operations while I sort out a job, flat, etc. here in London. Well, I now have a job. A job where I don’t have to file things or hang around the photocopier while people shake their heads in amazement upon learning I’m left-handed.

And as for Hotel Boyfriend and me - after a year of virtual cohabitation, we’ve decided to throw caution to the wind and turn this into a permanent arrangement.

So, to take a metaphor and beat the crap out of it, Hotel Boyfriend is now Maison des Amis – or, if you will: Amityville XIII: Living in Sin.

Tosca and porridge

When I was a little girl, I lived in Sussex. Sun-dappled, rural Sussex, all Enid Blyton woodland carpeted in bluebells, forest tracks, Pooh-sticks, Miss Marple cottages, streams at the bottom of your garden, Blackberrying on Sundays, sledging down the Downs in winter.

Sussex, then.

My parents’ jobs took them abroad for great swathes of time, so when they were in the country we all lived merrily in a modest cottage (at least, then it was a modest cottage - now, living in London I realise it was A Large House) with my grandparents and two large dogs - a Boxer named Brutus and a dopy, floppy-eared Alsation called Jetson.

I was a country child. I believed wolves and witches lived in the woods, that fairies lived in the Secret Village Under the Bridge (there was a bridge beside our house; I was never allowed to venture under it to the Secret Village - just another village, really - on the other side. Obviously I transgressed this rule. Frequently. But the fairy village idea never left me).

Imagine the culture shock I received when we moved to Bracknell.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. At this point I was about six, and we still lived in Sussex. I had a pony (a grey mare named Pepsi), the loyal company of my dogs who were really fully fledged members of the family, and commanded a tight group of adventurous friends. But what I wanted, what I really wanted was a kitten.

And one day I got one.

She was a grey, silvery thing, all big eyes and paws, as long as my palm from tail to nose. I called her Tosca. I’m not sure why. She was fluffy and timid and shivery, with a cold, curious nose and ears so fine you could see the network of veins running through them, pumping red, a filigree of blood.

Tosca lived at the bottom of a tall wicker basket, carpeted in hay, to save her from the friendly but potentially fatal boisterous attentions of the dogs. She slept there at night and spent most of the day on my lap, prowling around there and pouncing on imaginary prey in my skirt.

I could play with her forever and be happy, I thought one day as my grandmother was preparing breakfast.

My parents were away, my grandfather was at work and it was my grandmother’s turn to take me to school.

“Not until you’ve had your breakfast,” she had said, and retired to the kitchen to bang some pots around.

So I sat and poked fingers at Tosca under the tablecloth, and she pounced on my fingers and gnawed at them with her tiny sharp teeth, and I stared out into the garden, where the chestnut trees were hissing and shifting in the wind, and waited for my breakfast.


It was porridge.

I hated porridge and the only way my mother could get it down me was to ladle it with cream and sugar.

But this was different. This was gran porridge. Made with water, not cream, and possibly salt.

“I’m not eating that,” I told my grandmother.

“You’ll eat it,” she replied. “And be glad.”

She then went on to mutter complaints about impudent, disobedient children who talked back, and so on.

And we waited. Outside it started to rain, in sheets, and the wind increased.

“You’ll eat it,” repeated my grandmother, and went to fetch her copy of Woman’s Weekly, which meant she was in it for the long haul.

But so was I. I played with Tosca, my grandmother read her magazine, the rain fell, and Tosca did a small wee on a napkin.

Hours, possibly, passed. The time for school registration came and went, the sun came out, I yawned widely and Tosca retreated down one of my legs in terror.

The porridge, gelatinous gloop, did not become any more appetising. What it did become was cement.

My grandmother finished reading the Robin’s Nest serial (in a box on a shiny page of the magazine, always illustrated with a complex sketch of a robin in some holly) and sighed. She fetched her massive gran handbag from the hall and told me to come on, then. I popped Tosca in her basket, kissed her nose, and went to school.

I’m not sure whether it was that night - my six year old memory, while vibrantly real in some places is sketchy in others, particularly chronology. It might have been later that week.

Let’s pretend it’s that night. I’m back from school, from playing at my friend Rupert’s house after school, and my mother and father and grandfather and dogs and everything are there, but Tosca is not.

The kitten is gone. The basket empty, cleaned out, free of hay.

“We had to give her back, darling,” they said. “It just wasn’t safe with the dogs.”

They had to give her back.

And they did actually give her back, this was no she went to a special farm pet death analogy - she went back to the breeders. Because the dogs wouldn’t have let her alone, and she couldn’t have spent her life in a basket.

Six year olds are pretty hardy. The next day I was probably charging round the garden with my friends playing Stonehenge (we didn’t know what Stonehenge was at the time, but we figured it must involve sticks and shouting). But there was a little, kitten-shaped nugget of sadness inside of me. There is still.

Three years ago, on her birthday, my mother was staying here for a couple of days. I think we went to the theatre, did some ‘up West’ London stuff. Then we came back to the house and she went out to buy some milk, and came back with a cat at her heels.

You may know this cat as Catford.

If you don’t know her, well, there was some drama involving her 'real’ owners, etc., but in the end she chose us. She’s not silvery grey, she’s a tiger-striped mix of tabby, white and ginger. And she’s a young cat, not a kitten. But my mother brought her to me and I think, perhaps, it is enough.

Does it offend you, yeah?

As you may know, I am easily offended.

Not easily offended in the sense that if you don’t say I’m pretty and give me a fresh puppy every five minutes I’ll have some sort of episode.

More in the sense that, if you look at me askance on the train, or sigh more than once, or are male and have highlights, or are female and have acrylic nails, or I disagree with your choice of shoes, or you answer your mobile and say “hello, I’m on a train”, I’ll privately label you a paedophile and curse you and all firstborn males in your family with early onset male pattern baldness and a lisp.

‘Indiscriminately intolerant’ – maybe that’s the term I’m after. Or possibly ‘quietly rabid’. Whatever.

And, like most mean-hearted misanthropes, I like to think of myself as a basically considerate person. But, just recently, I’ve been doing some thinking (I’d call it ‘soul-searching’ but I think we all know I’m far too shallow), and wondering what offensive transgressions I myself may have made.

They doubtless number well into the thousands, but I have so far come up with 5. These are they. In no particular order.

1. Racism
In which I visit an Edinburgh Pizza Hut and ask the nonplussed waiter to “recommend some local dishes” and, when he brings me the bill, I ask “how much is this in, you know, English money?”

2. Stigmatising the less abled
In which I get a new job and offend a colleague whom I will call C, although her name is Marie Clarkson.

A few weeks prior to getting this job, I had suffered a rather nasty case of nits and, although I had shampooed in enough pesticide to be able to psychically render people infertile, my scalp was still itchy, I wasn’t entirely sure the nits were gone, and I lived in fear of infecting others.

After a couple of weeks in the new job, working (physically) closely with C, I noticed that she had some little white specks in her hair, close to her parting, and began to worry. After much introspection I decided to be an adult and broach the subject.

What shall I say? I wondered. Perhaps something like ‘Just FYI I had nits recently, I think they’re gone, but we’ve been spending a lot of time poring over paperwork together so maybe you should use some nit stuff just in case.‘

Yes, that seemed relatively inoffensive. So I eventually turned to her and said:

“So, do you have dandruff, or what?”

There was a pause. Then she said:

“Actually, I have psoriasis of the scalp. Most people are nice enough not to mention it, but thanks for bringing it up.”

C and I no longer speak.

3. Religious intolerance
A new colleague joined my work and it was my job to show him the ropes. He seemed like a nice fellow – calm, wry and friendly. Very easy to talk to. On his second day we were walking and chatting, when he asked me what I thought of religion.

So I blathered on and on about how I was brought up a Roman Catholic and how that’s a great way to ensure that, in adulthood, you become an atheist, and how it’s all bollocks and blah blah blah. On and on and on and on. Not sure why.

Then, as is so often the case, there was a pause.

And he said:

“That’s interesting, because I’m a Mormon.”

And I said:

“Huh. Is that the one where you can have lots of wives?”

Yes, ‘Is that the one where you can have lots of wives?’

And he said:

“Robyn, are you proposing?”

Luckily he and I do speak on occasion. Although I have not been added to his Mormon harem. If you’re reading, hello, J.

4. Creative oppression
In which a friend is telling me, tentatively, shyly, about her long-cherished film idea, because she thinks I am a nice person who cares about her and wouldn’t stomp all over her feelings, and when she is halfway through, I bellow “THE CENTRAL CONCEIT OF YOUR IDEA IS ACTUALLY WRONG. GOD I’M SO SICK OF THIS SORT OF THING. YOU SHOULD DO MORE RESEARCH”, then wonder why she’s silently weeping into her Americano.

5. Child abuse
In which I, aged one day, somehow manage to – medical marvel that I am – roll into the cot next to mein the baby ward and pinch the baby lying there. The baby I pinched grew up to be one of my closest childhood friends and now, despite being fifteen million feet tall, excessively handsome and in possession of a Doctorate in Something Clever from Oxford, has a crushing inferiority complex. I blame myself. So would he, but he feels too inferior.

So. It turns out I’m a bit of a twat. Maybe I should remember that the next time I fly into a rage because someone has the temerity to ask me where I’m from.

The horrors of clubbing

It is acceptable, when you get to a certain age, to say “I don’t like clubbing” without people recoiling in horror and calling you a killjoy.

“Well, of course you don’t,” they may reply. “You have a cat and a garden and something resembling a career. Why would you?” Then they may add, “Besides, they probably wouldn’t let you in now.”

Which is great news for me. Because the truth is I’ve never liked clubbing.

I’ve never seen the point of packing yourself into a building with hordes of other people and waving your arms around until dawn. By the same measure, I don’t like going to the gym. Or travelling by Tube.

At nineteen I already felt this way but, as a self-confessed wild child, I was firmly committed to experimentation. Which is how I found myself in an overcrowded cellar somewhere in London long after the last train home had left Waterloo, swallowing a little white tablet.

The club was called BANG or UNDER or something, and it was in New Cross or Mornington Crescent or somewhere – very grimy and dingy and not at all what I’d expected. I thought there’d be blonde girls with spiky hair and interesting clothes, and young men in neon-green hooded tops blowing whistles. But here, everyone seemed to be male and over 30 and without the full complement of teeth.

I felt somewhat menaced.

“When will I feel it?” I asked my (then-)boyfriend. “Soon,” he replied. “Apparently you feel a bit sick, then really happy.” Hmm. We were sitting huddled together in a corner. Men dancing nearby leered at me. Dark techno rearranged our internal organs through the floor.

Suddenly a wave of nausea took me. Swaying, I rose to my feet. But I didn’t feel happy. I felt like I needed to vomit, or go to bed, or to the hospital.

“Mergh,” I complained. “Come on,” said the boyfriend, and led me to the dance floor.

I jiggled about experimentally. It felt good. Well, not good, just better than sitting down. I stopped dancing for a second and the nausea zoomed over me again. I felt the bass jabbing through the balls of my feet and I lifted and dropped my legs: one, two.

I have to dance, I thought. I have to dance OR I’LL DIE.

And so I danced. Not proper dancing, like the happy, dopey, hands-in-the-air bouncing in a DJ tent at a festival. This was dancing at gunpoint – all knees and elbows. Heads bobbed mechanically all around me; not one hand was raised.

Is this it? I thought. Is this clubbing?

I reached out for the boyfriend and my fingers closed around a large, fleshy palm. I looked up. A strange man was holding my hand and smiling at me with cracked lips. His shaved head flashed orange and purple in the darkness.

“All right love?” He said. “Can I have a kiss?”

I twisted away from him and scrambled through the crowd. I found the boyfriend by the PA stack, limbs jerking like a half-controlled marionette, mouth open, eyes fixed on the spotlight. Vaguely he reached out to me and we clasped hands, wibbling and wobbling to the music, gulping water occasionally but always dancing, dancing, dancing.

Adrenaline coursed through my body, but my head felt swimmy and separate. Several times I wondered if I was sleeping. My vision snapped in and out of focus.

Blink. Everything was clear and crisp: bodies in front of me, coloured lights overhead, black walls all around us.

Blink. Blobs of colour, like the inside of a lava lamp. A swoony feeling, as though I was falling into a deep sleep.

Blink. Everything back in focus again, apart from the man in front of me. Bathed in orange light, his head slowly turned into a large, clunky, old-fashioned video camera.

The music had disappeared; I was only aware of rhythm, the pattern of my thoughts and, somewhere buried deep, the threat of nausea if I stood still for even a moment. Dancing ceaselessly, I felt as though I were a small pool of energy powering a massive, malign machine.

I had visions of people living in identical tower blocks, working in faceless skyscrapers, exercising in purpose-built megastructures – all so that they could line up outside clubs in large warehouses, take pills, and dance, dance, dance – never thinking, just being, just moving, just feeding the machine.

I was starting to feel breathless and panicky when two hands planted themselves on my shoulders and shook me.

It was the boyfriend. “It’s morning, the club’s closing, let’s go.”

I looked around, blinking. The crowd had thinned out considerably, and a cool breeze was flowing in from somewhere. I stopped dancing; stopped feeling as though I had to dance. The normal bodily sensations returned – hunger, thirst, an insistent pressure on my bladder.

It felt amazing.

“It’s over?” I muttered. “It’s over,” the boyfriend replied, and we clasped hands and jumped up and down with happiness.

The pale, post-dawn sun hanging like a slice of lemon in the sky was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The streets looked washed clean, the air was filled with the sleepy cooing of pigeons, the rumble of the first buses of the day.

We chased each other across Whitehall, laughing, feeling like released prisoners. We reached our arms out and spun around and around in Trafalgar Square.

Crossing the bridge to Waterloo we planned a kingly breakfast of croissants and baguettes and coffee from Délice de France. We didn’t have enough money for the train fare home.

I didn’t care. This was ecstasy, this feeling of release and escape and beauty, not whatever was in that pill.

Handing my bag to the boyfriend, I cartwheeled across the concourse at Waterloo. “Let’s not do that again,” said the boyfriend as I bounced to my feet, breathless and giggling. “Last one at the baguette kiosk’s a twat!”

We started running.

Adventures in cold reading

One Sunday when I was seventeen, I went with some friends to a local psychic fair. I’m not entirely sure why we went. We were mildly curious, but it was more to do with having nowhere else to go, or anything else to do that night. Oh, and we had a gram of speed between us, and didn’t want to spend the evening whizzing our tits off to Songs of Praise.

The fair (or, possibly, ‘fayre’) was at a hotel about 30 minutes’ walk across some fields. We ambled along, rubbing powder on our gums and regurgitating the usual paranormal snippets teenagers pick up about Aldous Huxley, Aleister Crowley, fractals, urban legends, alternative universes, a bit of quantum mechanics, and Our Friend Helen Who Says She’s a Witch and Has a Pack of Tarot Cards. By the time we arrived, we were rushy, twitchy-eyed, and ready to believe anything.

I don’t know what it is about speed that makes you so gullible. Enough cocaine turns you into the world’s funniest and most interesting person (at least, to yourself). Speed, whereas, convinces you that something amazing is about to happen. The person you’re talking to is about to say something that will blow your mind. Or the next bar you’ll visit on a pub crawl is going to be excellent. Speed promises and never delivers, but you never learn. Unless you’re me, and you get to 19, and you think “Fuck it, I’ll just drink coffee.”

Anyway, so we wandered in, chemically naïve, and the sequinned vultures descended. One friend disappeared immediately behind a sparkly veil with a frumpy, tasselled woman called Doris. The other was spirited away to have his aura photographed.

I made a couple of rounds of the stalls, willing the uncanny to reveal itself to me. My family’s religious views are conflicted – equal parts Catholic guilt, dodgy eastern mysticism; and the dichotomy of an attraction to the romance of demons and ghosties versus a very real need for genuine scientific evidence. I leafed through books and weighed up crystals in my palm, wanting to feel something. But I felt nothing.

Nothing except a mild pang of misplaced lust (you know, the kind you get towards someone on Neighbours when you’ve been incarcerated with a cold for several days) towards a kind-faced young Richard Madeley lookalike, who offered to tell my fortune. Possibly distracted by his hair, which was all flicked over, and his shirt, which was unbuttoned to the nipples, I accepted.

“I sense a… conflict, and a clash of philosophies between you and your family…”

What was it that tipped him off? The nose ring? The pillarbox-red dreadlocks, perhaps?

“You have a questioning mind, particularly around politics…” 
The anarchy badge on my lapel? (I never said I was particularly subtle or inventive teen)

“You come across as someone with a good education…” My multiple syllables, possibly. “…And an aptitude for music…” The GUITAR I had to carry around all day?

Richard Madeley’s diatribe got boring after that; something about seeking harmony with my family, and learning from, not disregarding, its wisdom. Blah, blah, blah. I was starting to come down; this was rubbish speed. I threw some coinage his way and went to loiter by the crystal and incense stall. Friend Number One found me soon enough.

“I’ve just had my tarot done!” He blibbered, launching spittle everywhere. “It was amazing, you should do it!” And also: “Do you have any chewing gum on you?”

And suddenly I was in a sort of tie-dye shower enclosure, picking eight tarot cards for Doris, the hack-faced West Country woman with man hands and a gravely, professional smoker’s voice. I eyed her suspiciously as she turned the cards face-up; I forget what they were. The something of cups. The fool. The something of knives. The lovers. Death (which is, apparently, not death, but life. Or something. Anyway, the tower is supposed to be worse than death. I didn’t get the tower).

“Now, this is very interesting,” she rumbled, like a station wagon pulling into a suburban driveway, and made vague noises about seeing me in a big room with other people, writing, and there being a clock on the wall, and a choice to be made – because it’s unusual for seventeen year olds to make choices, or sit en masse in big rooms, feverishly writing while a clock ticks significantly away. Plus there was the inevitable clash with my family, and an urging to carry on with my studies despite perhaps not wanting to.

I rubbed my temples, unimpressed. The crappy speed was fast wearing off, and with it my sense of fun and exploration. All I had now was a foul mood and the urge to grind, grind, grind my teeth until they wore to a fine powder that I could sell back to the swindler who dealt us the speed.

Still, I thought, she may be an old fraud, but she has principles. She could have told me the gods wanted me to go into prostitution, or catering.

“Now, darling, I’m getting a lady with you,” she suddenly pronounced, as though that kind of sentence made all the sense in the world. “It’s your… grandmother?” I shook my head; both sets of grandparents were alive at this point. “Maybe it’s Great-grandma then, and ooh, she looks lovely, with a lovely shawl on her head and some beautiful… coin things hanging down.”

Wuh? I stared at her blankly.

“And here’s a man, yes, he’s your Great-grandpa, maybe, with a sort of… it looks like a hat, or maybe, you know when you wash your hair and you put it in a towel…?”

I should point out here that I am a person of initially ambiguous ethnicity. I could be Mediterranean. I could be Asian. I could be Middle Eastern. Doris was hedging her bets. To save us both from further clumsy ethnic stereotypes, I told her where my family was from originally. I left out the bit about exactly none of my ancestors wearing coins or towels.

“Right,” She continued, unabashed. “And they say that they love you, and are very proud of you, and that you should continue with your studies and they know that you’ve considered another path, and I’m here to tell you no, that path isn’t for you.”

Well, bugger this, I thought. What seventeen year old student hasn’t considered a different path?

I stood up. “Thank you very much, that was interesting. I’ll just cross your palm with, er, fifteen quid then, and –“

“Your father’s here, dear.”

I sat back down. I think it was the quietness of her voice that swayed me. That and the fact that my father had died when I was 10. How could she know that?

“Oh really?” I asked, trying to inject a casual curiosity into my voice.
“Yes dear,” She reached out and held my hand. I didn’t pull it away. “He’s smiling at you, just over your right shoulder there. He wants to tell you he’s happy, and it didn’t hurt, and it was quick. He saw you all crying. He says he wished he had been able to hold you at the funeral and tell you he was all right.”

By now the tears were flowing freely down my face and I was powerless to stop them. I was so busy trying to staunch the flow with my left sleeve that I didn’t realise Doris had attached my right hand to a bonsai tree on the table.

“Er?” I enquired.
“You’re getting very weak and the signal is sort of fading,” explained Doris. “Just draw the strength from this little tree. Go on, draw up the goodness into your fingers and up through your arm into your heart.”

I was suddenly struck with the thought that, had my father really been here, he’d be sniggering into his hand by now. And while he would have thought the bonsai thing pretty funny, he wouldn’t actually want to see me reduced to tears by this ridiculous woman.

“Could you just tell me,” I asked, pulling my hand away from the tree, “What my father looks like?”
“Ooh, it’s hard, the ether is blurry,” she told me, then went on to describe a short, swarthy man of possibly Asian origin. Thankfully she didn’t add any bizarre headgear.

Sadly for her, my father was a tall blond man (and no, we didn’t have a short, swarthy milkman – I resemble my father in other non-tall, non-blond ways). I wiped away the tears, paid up and hauled my friends away from their various potentially bad purchases (friendship bracelets, mood rings and one breathtakingly hideous unicorn poster). We meandered home via the kebab shop.

“Well, that was shit,” concluded Friend Number Two. I told him about my tarot reading, and wondered aloud how Doris could have known about my father.
“This is a small town,” he reminded me, “and your family has an unusual ethnicity. Perhaps she’s met your mother?”
“Of course!” I realised. “What a gullible dickhead I am.”

Friend Number One was still in the grip of the largest share of the speed, and extremely happy with the incense sticks he’d bought.

“I’m a Libra!” he exclaimed.

“I’m an atheist,” I decided, and we all lived rationally ever after.

I fucking hate arse-wanking, mp3-chugging, shit-nobbling, memory-hogging, tit-scooping, file-deleting, shank-licking, error-messaging, dog-narking, time-swallowing, fuck-nubbling, cd-r-chewing, granny-nabbing, info-spewing, child-molesting, typo-inventing, knicker-elastic-ripping, read-only-making, nails-down-blackboard-scraping, cursor-disappearing, pant-soiling, turning-on-and-offing, all-my-time-wasting, e-mail-dumping, migraine-inducing, keyboard-shagging, image-frugging, color-swapping, file-not-founding, please-insert-disk-please-insert-disk-please-insert-disking, bringing-me-deliriously-close-to-smoking-again, eight-hours-work-into-Klingon-translating, mood-destroying, backache-making, Sunday-eating techfuckingnology.
The book wot I (never) wrote

Melissa Murphy shares her experience of agoraphobia – and beating it – in The Guardian Weekend magazine.

Her brave, honest account had me speed-reading to the end: was there a happy ending? Yes. Like me, although once crippled by the disease, she’s now a fully functioning member of society. I’ve never met Melissa Murphy, but I was immediately, intensely proud of her.

Then I read that she’d published a book about her experiences – a book to help other agoraphobics recover – and I hated her.

Funny how quickly that sisterhood stuff can fall away.

How dare she? I seethed. That’s MY thing. I was going to write that book!

When I was in the grip of agoraphobia, six stone and dropping, and fighting every day to inch along the long, uncharted road back to normality, the one thought that spurred me on was this:

If nothing else, I know I can write. When I’m better I’ll write a book about this so that no one else has to feel as alone as I feel now.

Now, six years post-recovery, I’m all lattes and Oyster cards and over-spending and complacency. And I haven’t written a word about it yet.


Well, partly because the very business of getting on with life takes so much effort. It took me four years and one relapse to recover from agoraphobia. There’s no culture shock like being thrust into a world of careers and mortgages when, for the last four years, the scariest thing you’ve had to do every day is walk to the bus stop.

Also there’s the fear that talking about it might bring it back.

Agoraphobia came for me out of the blue. One day I was a wry, happy-go-lucky twenty year old with a boyfriend, a band and a rather extreme social life. The next day I couldn’t get on a bus or go in a shop without swooning.

I’ve never fully understood where it came from, what triggered it or, most worryingly, what facilitated my recovery. Back then, despite everything, I fashioned myself into a cold streak of willpower, throwing everything I had at the disease for a chance at a better life.

Now I have that better life – the lattes and Oyster cards and so on – and it’s softened me.

If agoraphobia came knocking tomorrow I’d stand to lose a good job, a great boyfriend (well, probably not him. It might put a dent in his nice life though), a nice house, a decent social life. It’d be like the fall of Rome. I’d be as unprepared as Nero – all muscle run to fat, sedentary living, the fight bred out of me.

I couldn’t do it.

So best not to think about it, right?

Well, wrong. That whole not-thinking-about-things-because-they’re-irksome business is a breeding ground for the kind of neuroses that lead to agoraphobia in the first place.

What agoraphobia ISN’T:

  1. A fear of open spaces. At my worst point, I was A-OK with open spaces. The trouble wasenclosed spaces away from home – buses, offices, cinemas. Even then, it wasn’t fear of those places – it was fear of having a panic attack in those places. If I keeled over in a shop, it would be a Big Deal. There would be questions, witnesses. I might vomit. People might think I was mad. How mortifying. Whereas, if an agoraphobic falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, would it even have happened in the first place?
  2. A simple phobia. Arachnophobia is a simple phobia: spider + phobic = wig out. It’s not nice, but it is simple. Agoraphobia is a complex phobia; a prison your subconscious creates to keep you safe from all those pesky panic attacks. My particular prison was pretty cosy. It had five bedrooms and looked out over a forest. It had a friendly dog, a piano, lots of books, the internet. It was the address the government sent my incapacity cheques to. The problem is, the longer you stay in the prison, the less able you are to venture out. The very act of not facing your fears strengthens them.

Agoraphobia is the prison, not the panic.

Which is interesting now I am thinking about it.

One of the hardest pills I had to swallow during recovery was the fact that agoraphobia was something my brain did to me. It was (and is) almost impossible to accept.

Panic attacks, for me at least, were totally physiological phenomena. As un-psychological as a twisted ankle.

I wouldn’t even have to think anxious thoughts. I could be plodding round Sainsbury’s pondering turkey twizzlers when suddenly I’d be awash with the kind of wooziness that strikes you when you’ve had about five pints too many, the room spins and throbs, and you have an urgent need to be sick in a hedge.

You know that feeling. Now stretch it out for an hour and have it ambush you on a plane, in the middle of a meeting, at a picnic. Now imagine that all you had to do to stop this feeling is go home.

It was all bewildering, external nonsense as far as I was concerned.

But recently I’ve thought a little about what was going on when I fell ill. That whole boyfriend/band/social life thing. I was actually quite unhappy. Not in an ‘oh my god, I’m so unhappy!’ sort of way – I don’t do that. What I do is go ‘la la la, oh look a flower’, let the unhappiness flood me in a pervasive subconscious sort of way, and get on with things.

So when it all got too much, and my brain noticed that I was too busy ‘getting on with things’ to do anything about it, it threw a bunch of panic attacks at me and closeted me away from life.

Agoraphobia is the prison, not the panic.

Today you’d be hard-pressed to tell I have anxiety issues. I have ‘bubbly and outgoing’ down to an art form. I have lots of friends and I’m always making more. I’m always on the go.

I’ve just been to Vegas, for fuck’s sake.

But there are little tells, little signs. Melissa Murphy would probably get my number in a minute.

I have lots of friends, but it’s a 50/50 chance whether I’ll respond to their emails or phonecalls, or see them. In fact, one reason I keep making new friends is because – in my flaky, unexplained absences – many of my old n’ gold friendships have dwindled to nodding acquaintanceships.

I have lots of stuff, but I don’t use it. I live in one of the most vibrant cities on the planet, but I mostly confine myself (in that subconscious, oh-I’m-tired-today-I’ll-go-to-the-exhibition-tomorrow sort of way) to my home, my office, my local pub, my local Pret.

Sometimes I become aware that I’m only living about 3% of the life I have, and I make big changes. But I never get them to stick, and I fall back into the rut. I have the world at my fingertips and I’m still wishing my life away.

Agoraphobia is the prison, not the panic.

Agoraphobia is the symptom, not the cause.

A harder pill to swallow is the fact that, after all that hard graft to beat the symptoms, the cause of agoraphobia might still be affecting me in invisible but powerful ways.

I mean, I did all that work and now I don’t even get to rest on my laurels? I have to do more work? You’re joking, The Universe, yeah? You’re having a fucking laugh, right?

But then I think of Rome and Nero. And I think about that old me; that cold-streak-of-willpower me, and how disappointed she’d be to find she’d beat her head against a brick wall for four long years only topretend to live a full life.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t written the book. Because I still am the fucking book. If it’s taken me six years to realise this, it may take me another six to do something about it.

But all the same, thank you, Melissa Murphy. I didn’t write your book. But I will buy it.

A serendipitous link. Christmas rum truffles

Popularised (or at least tolerated) by Belle de Jour. These are my Christmas truffles what I make every year. They are very easy, and very, erm, tactile to make. I originally posted these on the food weblog, Belly. As Belle points out, if you don’t dig the whole slow-melt vibe, just zap the chocolate in the microwave for a few minutes.

You may also want to try these with, or just add a bit of, melted white chocolate. DO NOT take them to the ballet to snack on. When the house lights come up, you WILL look like an interrupted coprophagiac. You’ll smell like a gingerbread house, however. Mange!

150g (5 oz) dark chocolate
2 tablespoons of dark rum
150ml (¼ pint) double cream
24g (1 oz) butter
The peel from 1 orange
2 cloves

2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of plain flour
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder
toasted nuts (optional)

1. Break up the chocolate and melt in a saucepan on a low heat, along with the cream and butter, and the cloves.

2. Grate the orange peel directly into the saucepan using a cheese grater; add a squeeze of juice if you like. After a few minutes, stir in the rum and add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon.

3. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes, then pick out the cloves and transfer the mixture to a bowl, and place this in the fridge overnight.

4. The next day, dust a wooden board with the flour, and sprinkle some cocoa powder and the remaining cinnamon over it too. If you’re using toasted nuts, keep them on a plate nearby.

5. Take heaped teaspoons of the chilled truffle mixture and roll into small balls with your hands. Roll these in the flour/cocoa/cinnamon mixture (and then in the nuts if you like) and plop into petit-four cases.

Chill until ready to serve.

The Tao of Beige

1. If you are hanging around in a public area, minding your own business, and a stranger approaches you and asks, brusquely, if you speak English, you must reply, in your best Received Pronunciation, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t,” and WALK AWAY IMMEDIATELY.

2. If you are in the middle of a conversation you don’t like, check your watch (or the arm where your watch would be), exclaim brightly, “Ooh, I’m sorry, it’s time for me to pray!” and WALK AWAY IMMEDIATELY.

3. If you meet someone you know to be racist, make sure and greet them by shaking their left hand with yours. Then come over all embarrassed and apologise profusely for using your “bottom-wiping hand”. Perhaps run away quite quickly.

4. When filling out ethnicity questionnaires, make sure to tick the ‘other’ box. In the ‘please tell us more’ box, write “it’s complicated”.

5. Make up a country. For example, Turkminkystan. Then drop it into conversation – “As you know, the recent troubles in Turkminkystan mean that the government has imposed severe import restrictions”. Watch people nod wisely.

6. When people ask you what you are doing for Christmas, say “I’m going home to Sweden to see my family. My cousin Lars must be so big now!” This works particularly well if you are a very deep beige.

7. Or smile enigmatically and say, “We don’t celebrate Christmas in the palace.”

8. Where possible, preface all of your opinions with “As a black man….” Bonus points if you are neither black, nor a man.

9. Leave your hair dark, but bleach your roots and eyebrows.

10. Never EVER commit the sin of asking another Beige about their ethnicity BEFORE you know their full name and at least TWO OTHER THINGS about them.

Glastonbury tips from a veteran

Do take tent poles. A little obvious maybe, but trying to erect a hovel out of firewood while 50 hippies laugh at you is a miserable, splintery experience.

Don’t take one of those fancy funky coloured paisley patterned tents. Some malicious fucker with a secondhand Milletts jobby will rip it.

Don’t take those mushrooms your boyfriend bought off some bloke. Even if “it’s all right, he’s Welsh and he’s in a wheelchair!” With all due respect to the relevant parties, it’s not a guarantee of quality. You don’t want to end up in the Sacred Space vomiting your guts out with the hand of god coming out of the sky to get you. Or do you?

Do carry a Maglite. Just cos.

Don’t tie your dreadlocks up with tent string. You won’t be able to comb them out in time for college on Monday. Trust me.

Do invest in some dry shampoo. You’ll feel less skanky if you don’t have access to a shower.

Don’t fear the toilets. Yes, I know, ohmigod, they’re disgusting. But you can’t hold it in. I cannot stress enough how much moist towelettes are key to a positive Glastonbury experience.

Do befriend someone with a camper van.

Don’t take all your acid all in one go. I don’t care if like, it’s so beautiful, and everyone’s so friendly, and oh look, fire dancers! Just. Really. Don’t.

Do visit the smaller stages and tents. It’s worth it, you might see something original, and there are fewer beery twats. Also, if you visit the main stages try and sit further away from the stage, on an incline. You get to enjoy the lightshow without someone’s armpit in your face.

Don’t take your expensive mobile. Take out your SIM card and whack it in an old brick you have lying around.

Do take cash. B'aint no cash machines in Shepton Mallet, apparently.

Don’t appreciate a soundsystem by throwing your hat on the ground and bellydancing with wild abandon. People will throw money at you. Which is admittedly handy if you’ve run out of cash.

Do get a wax before going if you’re a lady. Dry shaving in a hot tent is no fun.

Don’t buy those tie-dye trousers. Or those beads. Or get a henna tattoo (or worse). These things won’t fly in the real world.

Do take a photo of any immaculately coiffeured goths wandering about, and send it to me. I always wonder how they manage it.

Don’t anger the locals. They’ve seen it all before. And they have guns.

Have fun!