Category Archives: me


WARNING: Contains dental nightmare triggers.

I was sitting in the beautifully vintage cabin of a friend’s little inland waterways boat having a second helping of blackberry crumble. It had been made with blackberries picked from the riverside the previous day.

I heard, or more felt, an ominous crack from the inside of  in my mouth.

“That,” I said out loud, “is not the sound a blackberry should make.”

By Tuesday, it was clear something was up and I ring the dentist. They had nothing until the following week so I booked in a check-up hoping I could last that long. Ten minutes later, I poked at the tooth with an exploratory little finger. One side moved. The other didn’t. I felt queasy.

I rang the dentist again.

“I really, really think something is not at all right with my tooth and I need to come in a lot sooner.”

They found me a place on Thursday, two days later.

On Thursday, the dentist gently probed the worrisome tooth then, ominously, said that he was “just going to numb the spot up a little.”

He prodded and tweaked for a minute then asked for a micro camera from the nurse. Then he did a sort of Scotty-from-Star-Trek sucking in of breath. A kind of ‘The-tooth-cannae-take-the-strain-Captain’ sort of sucking.

“The tooth is cracked,” he said, “and it isn’t good.”

He showed me. The camera revealed, in squidgy high definition, a geological faultline opening across a massive filling. The tooth had cracked deep below the line of my gums and the nerve was visible.

“We have three options,” he said. “Some truly heroic dentistry that no orthodontist would recommend; an implant, which would start at” – and he cited a truly ludicrous sum of money – “or we take it out and put a bridge in between the remaining teeth. That would be in four or five months, once the gums and bone have settled.”

“When would you take it out?” I asked.

He popped out to look at his diary.

“Now,” he said. “I’ll just numb it up a bit.”

No, I thought. I don’t want to lose another tooth. I can’t bear this.

“Okay,” I said. “Go for it.”

More injections. I closed my eyes.

“You may hear some clicking,” the dentist said.

I did. The clicking (and snapping and breaking and popping and cracking) went on for some thirty seven minutes. I kept my eyes shut. At one point I began to feel something and went “Urrrghhhh!” until he paid attention and shot me up with more local anesthetic. The nurse kept the suction pipe running and wiped away at my mouth a lot. Credit where credit’s due – I was wearing a white shirt and didn’t find so much of a speck of blood on it.

Whilst I lay there, eyes closed, doing a lot of yogic breathing and trying not to panic, I began to feel sorry for myself. I didn’t want the tooth to go. It was my tooth. It suddenly felt enormously important. I felt a little tearful. Then I thought of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man*, as people of my age group always do at these times. I imagined the local anesthetic going wrong and horrible pain shooting through my skull at any moment. I thought of men and women strapped to chairs undergoing worse in dirty rooms or clean offices with plastic sheeting spread over nice carpets. They would sit there and suffer this until they either told their interrogators what they wanted to know or until their captors grew bored. Does a certain kind of person ever grow bored of inflicting pain, I wondered? I breathed more slowly. I had a choice here. I was the lucky one. I felt rather ashamed.

Later, I wondered why my tooth was hanging on so determinedly. It was as if it didn’t want to go. I found I was talking to it, as the dentist broke it three and dragged it out of my jawbone. Please, let go, little tooth, I told it. Please let go. It’s okay. It’s over. We’ll be alright.

Suddenly, the pulling and grinding stopped and didn’t start again. I dared to open my eyes.

The tooth was gone.

I went home and mourned a little then took very powerful painkillers and two kinds of antibiotic.

“Poor daddy,” said little elf (five).

*Really, REALLY don’t watch this if visiting the dentist makes you uncomfortable.

Middle-aged epiphanies, Leonard Cohen and the Lammas-point of life

Is 50 too late to start feeling middle-aged?

Or perhaps it’s to do with Lammas, the upcoming first harvest festival of the year. You see Lammas is when the first fruits are brought in. There’s still plenty to come but we’re well over the half-way point of the year. And when I came to think about this, skimming through various pagan calendars and wheels of the year, I realised that Lammas is the point I’ve reached in my life as well.

Much to my surprise, I’m okay with that.

So I’m not having a mid-life crisis this week, I’m celebrating the Lammas-point of my existence. I have two young children to look after. I’ve finished books (and they’re starting to get rejected at an altogether higher level than ever before!) and I like our house. I’ve even managed to get married and my job still clings on to a little bit of social value.

On top of those those classic material signifiers, I can do a headstand in yoga for the first time (take that aching joints and saggy bits) and I’ve finally started to understand why people make such a fuss about Charles Mingus (or Autechre). Plus, there’s an element of the sacred knocking at the door of my soul for the first time in a while.

Leonard Cohen got there first, of course. At the age of 54, he released ‘I’m Your Man’, a blueprint for how to look at the world from the craggy heights of one’s fifties (and clearly his current record performs the same trick if you’re warily contemplating your late seventies).

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Well, yes. I’ve had the 20 years of boredom. I’m as sick and tired of trying to change the system from within as a man can be. And God knows I want Berlin and Manhattan.

Ah remember me, I used to live for music
Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

It’s me! Leonard is singing directly to me! I could quote lines from every song on the album but I’ll settle for one more.

Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song

“I’m just paying my rent everyday/In the Tower of Song”. I feel that’s where I’m living. Believe it or not, it’s a good location to finally launch that all-out assault on Manhattan.

The Two Towers

The first time I arrived in New York, I took a yellow taxi from JFK. It was seven or eight in the morning after a red-eye flight and cold but the sky was clear and blue. There was a particular point when I realized, like so many millions before me, that I was driving into a movie set. That moment replicated itself over and over again over the following forty eight hours and never entirely left me as I trekked back and forth between London and Manhattan for the following year.

From the cab, Manhattan Island was a Polaroid of skyscrapers with the World Trade Center dominating one end. I could pick out other icons but the two towers structured the entire skyline.

It was 2000.

The following night, I found myself in the Windows of the World. It was loud and crowded and we didn’t stay too long. A few weeks later, I went up to the observation deck on top of the South Tower. The queue was huge but the staff marshaled us all through efficiently and politely. I don’t know where New York got this reputation for rudeness from. I never found New Yorkers to be anything other than helpful and courteous. The elevator was an express that left my ears popping and the view and the height were vertiginous. The Tower seemed to sway and the view went on forever in all directions. I had never been in such an explicitly high place in all of my life.

As the months went by, I got used to travelling through the subway under the Center and changing trains or walking back and forth along the streets in its shadow. The canyons (you don’t really need sunglasses in much of Manhattan – there are places where I swear the light never reaches the bottom), Broadway, Shakespeare and Co – all became part of the landscape of my working day.

On one of my last trips, a colleague invited me for dinner. They had a brownstone in Brooklyn with a view of the Towers across the river. A year later they saw the second plane crash into the south tower from the same deck.

By then, I was working for another agency in London. Still, pretty much all of us had either worked with or for companies based in and around the financial district and we watched the horror unfold that afternoon knowing that colleagues, acquaintances  and friends of friends were right in the middle of it. I think I felt numb. People I knew were suddenly in the middle of a war zone. People they knew were dying. Most of us dropped any pretense at working and spent that day hovering over instant messaging and email waiting for news of people, ticking off mutual acquaintances one by one as they managed to get news out.

There are people who ushered me into the lift, who served me a drink in Windows on the World, who worked security, who went to work in the financial and media companies there, who attended briefings, stood on the top of the observation deck having their picture taken, men, women, children of all nationalities, who were murdered that day. They did not deserve to die any more than the hundreds of thousands murdered since in Iraq, Afghanistan, London, Libya and so many other places where a multitude of interchangeable hatreds continue to take the lives of innocents each and every day.

I don’t really know what else to say except that I’m thinking about these things here, at this moment and I’m again promising myself that somehow, I’ll try to do the least harm I can in this life. And to not hate. Most of all, not to hate.

When I was nearly nine, we called it second year

I don’t remember much about being nine at my primary school in a sleepy seaside town in the North West of England. There was light, generally low buildings and wide roads and an aunt and uncle around the corner. There’s a picture of me in a cowboy taken in their garden. I could ride my bike around the block and visit my best friend D who lived around the corner (I remember that his father was an electrician. My mother had three sisters and a brother and there always seemed to be relatives and cousins cousins to visit. There was a botanical garden with aviaries and maze -like rose gardens. When the tide went out, the sands ran on for miles and miles. You could see Blackpool Tower across the bay.

At school, another aunt (actually, a cousin) was my teacher but she was stricter with me than anyone else as a consequence. Everyone in the class noticed it. There were children’s parties and another girl, K, whom I had an enormous crush on. I read and read and made up my own comic books. All my pocket money went on books. Eventually, I agitated for a weekly comic like the other boys and whilst they vetoed the Beano or the Dandy (except as an occasional degenerate holiday treat) my parents approved Look And Learn. Look And Learn featured the marvelous “The Trigan Empire“, a science fiction story set in a distant galaxy of imperial intrigue and warfare.

Eventually, my father got a new job and we moved down near Liverpool.

I suspect everyone has some sort of before and after moment in their lives demarcating the border between innocence and experience and mine would be the moment of that move. The house was smaller, the accents were harder (I was branded as a ‘poof’ on my first day at my new school) and our relatives were far away. There’s more but that’s enough.

The time since that change seems recorded in high-definition video. The time before, in sunset-kissed Technicolor.

Dudelet starts year four today. He’ll be nine in January. I’m so, so glad we failed to move house outside of London, despite all of my efforts to the contrary, and that he’s still in his school, with his classmates and friends whom I know he loves. I hope he lives his life in Technicolor a little longer than I did and transitions to all the harsh, bright high contrast of HD a little more gently.

Tarot and the shaky rationalist

I’ve been reading/messing about with/collecting Tarot cards for some 30 odd years now, on and off. They live mostly wrapped in colourful silk scarves, in a stylishly minimal black wooden box at the side of my bed.

The fascination began when I was reading up on Yeats and the Golden Dawn in Sixth Form. Yeats, aside from being a poet, playwright, Senator of the Irish Free State and manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, was a very serious occultist. No less than Alistair Crowley referred to him as “that dishevelled demonologist” (in return, Yeats loathed Crowley and later expelled him from the occult order they both belonged to, the Golden Dawn).

I picked up two or three decks over the next few years, learning to read in a relatively haphazard way. Every now and then I’d use them to make ends meet. When I met supermum, in fact, I was reading Tarot cards in an odd little indoor market somewhere in the East of England. Then I abandoned them altogether for ten years or so until the urgent need came up to make a living during a gap in employment. Supermum was pregnant, we had our first mortgage, job offers weren’t exactly knocking at the door and a badly managed period of freelancing had left me deeply in debt to the taxman. A friend hooked me up with a London members’ club and I did an evening’s work there. It was interesting and I felt the pull and the draw all over again. The following day, I was offered a ‘respectable’ job and put them down.

And that was that for eight years until two years ago, I began to read Dante in depth, followed by quantities of material on Northern Myth and paganism. It was probably influenced by the novel I’d begun to write, Shaper. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be drawn back to what is, for me, the motherlode of myth, mysticism and imagery in the West, the Tarot but this time with – I hope – a humbler attitude. It started again with an impulse purchase from Treadwell’s of the Tarot art deck, the Spill Tarot, and continued when I encountered Suzanne Treister’s extraordinary HEXEN 2.0 deck created for an installation at the Science Museum. HEXEN 2.0 is a genuine transposition of the Renaissance tradition of the tarot as a treasure house of obscurely interconnected symbols and archetypes into the 21st century. But for her, the archetypes are ARPANET, Timothy Leary, the CIA, wide area networks, the Situationalists, transhumanism and much else existing on the shadowy borders between technology and new age superstition. I found it to be a deck that directly related to my own work in managing, networking, websites, marketing and other dark arts. This led to trying a few readings as a substitute for conventional mind-mapping or brainstorming exercises when I was working on new product ideas or strategies. I also I have a very understanding boss who let me use them in my appraisal!

All this drew me back to the Frieda Harris and Crowley’s Thoth deck (Crowley was an appalling human being but he knew a thing or two about Tarot and Harris’ artwork is amazing). Using it, I’ve been working through Rachel Pollack’s excellent Tarot Wisdom and rethinking the way I approach them.

Which brings me, at last, to my position as a ‘shaky rationalist’. I’m an atheist, someone who believes in empirical evidence, scientific process and the strong possibility that we’re all descended from apes and amoebas (for some of us, more of one than the other). What on earth am I doing playing around with a pack of dodgy occult cards?

I suppose the answer is “I don’t really know.” I mix them up, think about the images and the interactions between them and how that relates to the meanings assigned to them over the centuries and I see what happens. In the process, I learn something about myself and about the people I occasionally read for. It’s a kind of weather forecasting in some ways.

The thing Tarot is doing for me is provide a lens for thinking about a kind of spirituality and way of relating to the “images of eternity” we’ve inherited from our ancestors that makes intuitive sense to me. I’m suspicious of the kind of instant shamanism peddled in so many contexts but one concept well-founded in anthropological research is the shaman’s capacity to accept both concrete material fact and the experience of the altered ‘shamanic’ state of mind as real – real in the post-modern sense if you like. Tarot is a formidable tool for experiencing this.

And besides, the cards are very beautiful. Isn’t that enough in its own right?

A few books:

Rachel Pollack, Tarot Wisdom and Seventy Eight Degrees Of Wisdom

A.E. Waite – The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (an old classic and the essential guide to the Rider-Waite Deck so many people start with)

Alistair Crowley – The Book of Thoth (not for beginners!)

Sallie Nichols – Jung And Tarot – An Archetypal Journey (I’m no Jungian but, as with so much else, his idea of the Archetype is a useful tool for thinking about oneself and ones relationship to a larger whole)