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Milky Way

“Light is the fastest thing in the world,” announces little elf, my seven year-old daughter. I think of the Discworld where light pours over the edge of the world like Golden syrup each morning. I wonder when she’ll be old enough for the Tiffany Aching novels.

“That’s true,” I say.

“But even light can’t escape from a black hole! Did you know a black hole is a dead star?”

“Yes. I think that’s interesting – even stars die.”

She jumps conversational track slightly, the way we both do and my son and wife don’t.

“It’s a shame we can’t see our own Galaxy.”

“But we can. Mostly. It’s called the Milky Way.”

“Can we see a picture of it?”

“I don’t want to get out any screens right now.” (Because we’d never get off them.) “But I can tell you what it looks like.”

“What does it look like?”

Oops. Have I ever really seen seen it? I remember a glimpse of something on the rare night when camping, the countryside and the dark coincided with a cloudless sky.

“It’s…a sort of grey-silvery thing. You don’t realise your looking at it at first because the other stars are brighter. Then you realise there’s a kind of stream running across the sky, full of dim twinkly stars. It’s…”

She isn’t listening. I carry on trying to remember. Did I see  a stream of stars, full of myth and wonder? Or did I make it up? And does it matter? I still remember it.

Exhaustion and pattern recognition 

Exhaustion: There’s a William Gibson novel (Pattern Recognition?) where the main character wonders about whether jet lag is when your soul gets left behind you out in the middle of the Atlantic. I suspect it happens on train journeys and after long meetings. Today, I spent two hours talking and arguing and convincing and, most of all, acting, to a room of fifteen people. Work involves so much acting. To clients, to colleagues, to yourself.

Ofra Haza, Yemenite Songs and Little Elf

Little Elf has a thing for an Ofra Haza album I found in a British Heart Foundation shop. Partly it’s the music, which she loves to dance to (I say ‘dance’ but I seem to do most of the work), and partly it’s the album cover which is understandably fascinating for any Disney Princess obsessed six year old.

Yesterday evening, everyone was back late from Cubs and Woodcraft Folk and I agreed she could sit up and listen to one song (“Oh, alright. Two.”) before going to bed.

Yemenite Songs is a curious beast. Ofra Haza was a Yemenite Jew and the album was promoted as a return to her roots. But the production is a sometimes harsh mix of early nineties digital beats and metallic clatter cut through with traditional string instruments and PCM synths. But Haza’s astonishing voice is at the centre of it, soaring, shimmering, weaving and winding…It’s a gorgeous, passionate set of performances, full of energy, tragedy and hope. I’m not surprised little elf picks it down from the record shelves so often.

This evening, she started asking some of her favourite questions.

“What country is she from?”

“Israel. She’s a Yemenite Jew.”

“Is she still alive?”

“No. She died quite young. It was very tragic.”

“How old was she when she died?”

“Forty two.”

Little elf contemplates this for a moment and snuggles a bit closer to me.

“So she was younger than you?”


“What did she die of?”

Ah. Complicated and yet not complicated at all. She died of complications brought on by her being infected with HIV*. How to explain AIDS to a six year old? Carefully?

“She was in hospital after a miscarriage…”

“What’s a miscarriage?”

“Well…Sometimes a mother loses her baby at a very early stage…I’m not really explaining this very well…”

Thankfully, little elf changes tack.

“Can I see pictures of her?”

So we get out my iPhone and look at pictures of wonderful, lovely, inspiring Ofra Haza then watch some film on YouTube of her performing at the Montreaux festival in 1990.

“She’s very beautiful,” little elf says.

“Yes,” I say. “She was.”

*There’s a good piece by Peter Paphides about this.

Yoga Camp #1

We went to yoga camp in August. That’s the first thing you need to know. We booked a cat sitter, packed up supermum’s beloved army surplus bell tent, a mountain of rugs and sleeping bags, four or five yoga mats, a nine year old and a five year old and headed off to the wilds of Shepton Mallet to pitch a tent in a field for nine days and nights of all-you-can-eat yoga.


The second thing you need to know is that I’m probably going to vaguely anonymise* this. There were lots of things we liked, a few things we struggled with and at least one thing each of us hated. And I want to be frank and not hurt anyone’s feelings, by accident or design.

The third thing you need to know is that this wasn’t a posh camping, Pineapple Dance, Om Yoga Show sort of yoga camp. Oh no. This was hard core. This was lights out at 10:30 (hooray!), bahkti devotional chant every night (more on that later), squatting composting toilets and vegan mass catering all week. No alcohol or drugs on site. Kundalini practice from 5:00am (we never did manage to catch that) and yoga classes of every variety you could imagine and one or two you probably couldn’t.

The final thing you need to know before I go into any kind of detail (future posts) was that the camp was launched a decade ago for the love of it and is still fueled by volunteers and ‘karma yoga’ – doing your bit in the kitchen tent or tending to the toilets or any of the hundred and one other things that a zero-environmental impact camp (they came pretty close) of two hundred and counting women, men and children needs to keep running smoothly. Somehow, it all worked without any real bad temper and minimum grumpiness, even from the people trying to deliver servings of vegetarian curry to two hundred people at a sitting.

We learned a great deal about ourselves, our yoga practice and our respective comfort zones. I’m still digesting it all. I may or may not get around to writing about:

  • the zen of composting toilet karma yoga
  • the story of the Italian who introduced fishing to that African lake
  • little elf’s holiday
  • feral tween twilight time
  • Grandfather circles and the dangers of inviting Loki to the same party as Woden
  • Bhakti, bloody bhakti
  • Appropriation of Native American culture and when it is suddenly and illogically ok
  • hugging and the dangers of pokey intimacy
  • coffee addiction
  • Tarot reading for chocolate
  • outdoor showers and nudity
  • the middle classes versus the off-the-grid
  • the joy of morning meetings
  • wasps, wasps, wasps
  • wind and moonlight

That was a longer list than I anticipated. Does any of it intrigue?

*Shepton Mallet. Yoga camp. Google isn’t that much of an assault course, people!


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.