What it means to be good

From 100 days of solitude , Day 88 (December 2014)

There is political drama going on in Sifnos, and Christmas is being cancelled. The Christmas Village will be a refugee camp and the village square a no man’s land of empty benches and the ghosts of Christmas lights. The weary travellers will have to find a different Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men another star to follow, and another place to deposit their gifts. Santa will not be visiting, because we’ve not been good.

This Christmas tale is set in the present, but it began many years ago, in 1958, when the local Mavromatis family donated the thus far privately owned square in Apollonia to the people of Sifnos for the erection of a World War II memorial. Legal reasons meant that the space was signed over to the Sifnos Association rather than the local government, but it was the donors’ intention and everyone’s understanding that it would belong to the residents of the island. It was soon established as the village square and known to all as Heroes’ Square, in remembrance of the fallen. Like village squares everywhere, it became the hub of the community: a place to meet and a place to rest, with small children kicking pine cones and balls around, older children loitering, old men taking strolls with their arms folded behind their backs, and lovers holding hands on the benches. The Municipality of Sifnos kept it clean and lit up and everyone was happy, and for the last three years running, a makeshift barn has welcomed Jesus, Mary and Joseph and a variety of farm animals, and the stars suspended from lampposts and trees have led the faithful, the uncertain and the wise, the people of Sifnos, to the annual Christmas Village.
    Not this year. This year the square will not be visited by Three Wise Men bearing gifts, but haunted by the Three Ghosts of Christmas. This year, the Sifnos Association decided, in the spirit of Christmas and community, to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. As preparations for the Christmas Village began, the president of the Sifnos Association sent a letter to the Municipality, stating that the legal documents establishing ownership of the square had been interpreted in bad faith and that the square itself, which is the legal property of the Association, could henceforth not be used by the Municipality (and, by extension, one might surmise, the people themselves) in any way without prior written permission from the former, and threatening legal action if a violation occurred.
    The Municipality argued, reasonably, that the property in question is the island’s main square and belongs to its residents, as per the donors’ express wishes, as it always has. They would not be bullied, and the Village that hosts Christmas would be built in the Heroes’ Square, this year like all the years before it.

Picture the scene: a small village square in a small, quiet island. A mellow Thursday afternoon in December, low breeze, thin clouds, a pale and patchy sunshine. A handful of people gathered together, laughing, making jokes, as they work to put together the structures that will turn the square into a Christmas Village, where children will meet the baby Jesus and play games and sing carols, and their parents will drink wine and catch up with their friends, and a few loners, like me, will wander around and look at the lights and think that maybe Christmas is not so bad, after all. And Santa might visit, they say, if we’re good.
    But we’ve not been good, because what happens next in this Christmas fable is a lawsuit against the Municipality. The Sifnos Association now casts itself in the role of the Grinch that stole Christmas, and the local police are forced to play the villains and arrest the Mayor at the square, as he oversees the work. He is taken to the station and held for four hours, whereupon he is released by authority of the Assistant District Attorney, remotely, from the island of Syros. The court in Syros issues a temporary injunction against the Municipality of Sifnos, forbidding any use of the square pending a final decision on the matter, on December 12. But the Mayor will not be bullied; he won’t give up, he tells the court, he won’t back down. Heroically, but I don’t think he wants to be a hero. There are no heroes in this story, except the ones remembered in the square.

The Christmas stars still shine but they don’t lead to Bethlehem. The square is haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the Ghost of Christmas Present lingers in the skeletons of the structures of the would-be Christmas Village, left behind. The Heroes are lonely; none of us are allowed to visit them. We come, the faithful and the uncertain, the people of this island; we follow the stars and stand on the perimeter of the square we cannot enter. We don’t sing carols. We don’t bring gifts. We stand in silence and wait for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, if it comes, if the court in Syros decides to let it through.
    The stars still shine but there are no wise men. There are no heroes in this story, yet. And there should be no villains, either, no Grinch, no Ebenezer Scrooge, no ghosts haunting the square. There should be no Municipality and no Association, just people of this island with nothing to divide. And men would be wise to remember what this is all about: not politics, not ownership, not even Christmas, but community, and a good faith that has nothing to do with contracts or which god you believe in. They would be wise to look at the stars and see some sense. There is still time for a Christmas miracle, and if the men stop behaving like fools there might be heroes yet, and the Christmas Yet To Come will not be a ghost but a village square dressed up in lights and tinsel, where the faithful and the uncertain, the families and the loners, the heroes and the wise will all come together and sing carols and remember what this is all about, and what it means to be good.


This is Day 88 from 100 days of solitude. Click here to view the book on Amazon. It’s on a Kindle Monthly Deal and only 99p throughout December.

This cannot be the end

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This cannot be the end
because people
are not just bodies,
not just limbs,
not just bones and tissue and skin,
not a collection of cells,
not just a sequence of genes.

Because the heart
is not just a drum
that beats out the tune of a life.

Because a life
is not just the body
that contains it
this time around.

And the soul
barely even notices these things
as it passes through,
as it crosses our paths,
brief lifetimes,
with a nod.

But we notice.
Those of us still contained
within these bodies,
still defined
by our genes
and our words
and our deeds,
still tethered to our paths
by hearts that beat.
We notice when you pass.

But regardless, regardless –
and no matter what box they put you in –
this cannot be the end.

Because I still have words
to describe you.

Because we are all of us magicians
and we can conjure people up
in our hearts.

Because you defined me, in part,
with your part in my life.

Because a life
is what you make of it
and I will make yours last,
with my words
and my deeds
and my heart,
with a nod
towards wherever you are,
until our paths cross again.


I wrote this a year ago today, one year and one day after my grandma died. She was born on the fourth of July and she chose to make her exit on the fourth of December; my half birthday. My grandma liked the number four.

Shanti om, bowel.

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Did you know that it’s possible, in the magical world of yoga, to pass a chair? You know, as in going to the toilet. As in number two. I bet you didn’t. I’ll let you ponder that for a while, breathing deep into your bowel as you do so, and come back to it.

I decided to do a juice detox. I decided this on Friday night, in the midst of a feast to celebrate Katerina’s nameday, and that said detox would take place on the next day, the Saturday. Polyna happened to mention (while we all happily munched on patsitsio, the Greek version of lasagne) a concoction consisting of beetroot, celeriac, lemon juice and honey that’s apparently good for cleansing the bowel, and I latched on to this, and decided to incorporate it. I picked up the ingredients on my way back home that evening, and thus began my haphazardly conceived bowel cleanse juice detox.

Day one was OK. I did my work in the morning, dutifully gave myself a glass of juice (which had to be chewed, on account of my blender being a bit of a bargain buy) and set off on a lovely, meditative walk to the port of Kamares, feeling all kinds of virtuous. I arrived at Syrma, Katerina’s cafe on the beach, just over an hour later, serene and glistening with sweat, to be assaulted by the smell of food.
    ‘What is this?’ I demanded to know, in lieu of good afternoon.
    ‘Polyna’s lunch,’ Dimitra supplied. ‘What’s the matter with you?’
    ‘I’m doing a detox,’ I confessed.
    ‘What are you detoxing from?’
    ‘Everything! Except coffee and cigarettes.’
    Dimitra smirked. ‘Coffee?’ she suggested.
    ‘No. I’ve had one already. I’ll have a green tea.’
    Dimitra gave me a look of utter disdain. ‘A green tea,’ she repeated, as if I’d asked for dry twigs to chew on.
    ‘Please.’
    From the kitchen, Katerina sniggered. But kindly.

I took my (unsweetened) green tea outside, where Polyna, her husband and two friends were enjoying a spread of last night’s nameday dinner leftovers.
    ‘Join us,’ they said, but I shook my head bravely and explained my predicament.
    ‘I hate you all,’ I added. ‘You’re bad people.’ I took a sip of my green tea, and was overcome with remorse. ‘I love you, really. Enjoy your lunch. I’m going for a swim.’
    And with that I disrobed, and threw myself into the cold November sea. Resolutely not hungry. Which, actually, was true: this being 2pm, I hadn’t had a chance to get hungry yet. I often skip breakfast and go straight for lunch: my detox, at this stage, was entirely theoretical. Words, and a sour, chewy juice.

Katerina came over in the evening. We were going to do yoga, but she’d had a fall and bruised her shoulder and knee, so we had tea instead. A Fortnum & Mason blend that someone once brought for my grandma, scented with orange blossom and served in my mum’s best, daintiest chipped china. We talked, indirectly, of food; of how it’s a pleasure and a comfort, much less of a need than we imagine, and of the times – the exceptions – when thoughts of eating fall right out of our heads. Acute love, we agreed, and acute sadness. Being subject to neither, I confessed to dreaming of pasta. I showed Katerina the glass of juice that was to be my dinner, instead. We both sighed. ‘Be strong,’ she said.

Day two and I still wasn’t hungry, but I was pretty miserable. The detox headache had arrived, and I was possessed by a strange, manic, desperate energy that did not translate into the desire to do anything. It was pure momentum, with nowhere to go. I decided, nonetheless, to martyr myself to my cause and stretch the cleanse to another day. I distracted myself with making things: I made smudge sticks out of herbs I’d picked the day before; I made jam out of bitter oranges; I made bangles with scraps of vintage fabric. I made promises: to be better, to eat better, to look after my digestive health so I would never again have to resort to such extreme measures for giving my bowel a break. To eat fewer crisps. I made tea from peppermint and lemon verbena leaves and drank it, unceremoniously, out of a mug. The will to juice had gone out of me completely. I made an infusion from wild sage, hoping for wisdom. I went nowhere and spoke to no one; I barely even spoke to the cats but resented them, silently, for the meal of Friskies croquettes that they crunched on. I thought about doing yoga.
    In the evening, I was suddenly taken over by the absolute certainty that I should have a steak. A steak, yes, and a salad, from my favourite restaurant in town, which, gloriously, stays open throughout the winter. I could call them up right now, and ask them to prepare this salvation for me, and I could walk down and pick it up and bring it home and put an end to this madness. A battle of wills ensued, between my virtuous, martyred self who shook her head sadly, so disappointed, as the glutton screamed her petulant argument But I want! The martyr won, assisted by the fact that I had exactly 1.55€ to my name. She settled down, smug and free of desire, with her cup of wisdom tea, and decreed that, in addition to not having steak, I would stretch the detox into the next morning, whereupon I would perform Shanka Prakshalana, the yogic bowel-cleansing ritual. Yes, I thought. What an excellent idea. I was clearly tripping.
    I did not sleep well that night. My head thumped and my stomach churned; I dreamed of crisps.

Monday morning, and as I prepared the mixture of warm water and salt that I was to consume and eliminate in aid of purifying my colon, I thought I might refresh my memory on the particulars of Shanka Prakshalana. I chose one of the many articles on Google, and was reminded how the process involved drinking up to 16 glasses of the saline solution and performing, after every two, a set of five asanas designed to move the liquid through the intestinal tract. After the fifth set, practitioners are encouraged to go to the bathroom and perform the Ashvini Mudra (a.k.a. clenching and unclenching of arse muscles) to stimulate peristalsis of the intestines.
 At which point the writer of the article imparted the following extraordinary piece of wisdom: “If the chair starts,” he wrote, “great. If not, no problem.” You just carry on with the salt water and the exercises, he reassured, until the chair comes. He went on to explain that “the chair will be solid at first, but as time goes on it will be cleaner and more watery”.
    The chair? So frazzled was my brain that I accepted this as some sort of yogic lore, some super-technical/spiritual term that surely must be valid. Nevermind that in thirty years of actively studying the English language I had made my peace my shit being referred to as stool but had never, not once, heard of passing chairs. Solid or not. But it must be true, I reasoned, because the wise yoga man on the internet said so. Chairs would be passed and the bowel would be cleansed. Shanti om, brother.

I passed no chairs, but not for lack of trying. There came a time where I would have been happy to pass anything, any type of furniture at all, for the relief of emptying my bowel of all that salt water. I was drenched in sweat and bloated to fuck and even threw up a little bit (which was cheating, because throwing up salt water is actually Kunjal Kriya, the yogic stomach-cleansing technique). I did my asanas and my Ashvini Mudra and breathed and tried to relax, as advised, but no chair came. The stool did eventually, triumphantly, mercifully – and, on account of the two-day martyrdom that had preceded this exercise, it was as watery as advertised. It came several times over the next two hours. The rest of the day passed in a daze. There was food, which I ate, and there was furniture upon which I reclined. It was all very spiritual, I’m sure.

It is now Tuesday morning. I sit here, at my desk chair, with coffee and cigarettes and the bowel thoroughly at peace, and of clear mind once again, and ponder the lessons I learned during this weekend that, thankfully, passed.
    – A chair is an item of furniture that you sit on, and is not to be confused with a stool whose meaning can be dual.
    – Passing chairs must be avoided at all costs, especially in solid form.
    – The internet is a strange place, its strangeness matched only by the world of yoga. Venturing into either must be undertaken with extreme caution.
    – Decisions must never be made on an empty stomach.
    – When in doubt, eat a steak.
    – If you’re gonna stop eating, do it for acute love. It’s the best reason for everything.

Shanti om.


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Fuck it, and faith: Making a living doing what you love

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The other day I sat down at my computer with the intention of writing a short, practical post on making a living doing what you love, but it degenerated (is that the right word?) into an essay about poetry, and dignity, and my dad. This is attempt number two, and I will try to stick to the point and resist the lure of tangents.
    But, actually, the point, in part, is tangents: it’s how many different directions you can go in, how many different possibilities you can see without losing sight of your path. And how that path, too, can change, and how that’s allowed, how everything is allowed as long as you’re operating within the space of who you are.
    I’m not talking about the “comfort zone”; comfort zones are tight, limiting things, hence all the talk of stepping out of them. Who you are is infinite, and it’s up to you to shape it and define its boundaries: how far you’re prepared to go, how much you’re prepared to do, how deep into this space you allow other people to penetrate – so that you’re ultimately living your life in a way that makes sense to you. Knowing your own shape and your own boundaries is not limiting: it’s freedom.

I believe we’re all here for a thing (you might call it a purpose, but I’m a bit allergic to those terms), and we owe it to ourselves and this world we’re part of to do that thing as well and as fully as we can. Essentially, collectively, I think we’re here to be good and kind people, to give generously the best of ourselves that we can give and to receive, gratefully and graciously, what we are given. But to be able to do that we need to be happy, individually, each of us within ourselves; we need to be living within the boundaries of who we are. We need to be doing our thing. Because we’ve all seen it, how frustration breeds bitterness breeds resentment breeds hatred, and before you know it you’re attacking other people for perceived successes that should, by rights, have been yours, for imagined slights upon your worth as compared to theirs, competing in a game that you never signed up for and that you don’t understand. That’s not a life; that’s not making a living. That’s making a big fucking mess of the infinite opportunities we’ve been given, simply by virtue of being alive.
    Making a living: have you thought about that phrase? Not making ends meet, not struggling through, not getting by; not working your arse off and living for the weekend, not counting down days until the next holiday, the next reprieve. Not working towards, always towards an ever-shifting goalpost, not working to keep up with the stuff, all this stuff we’re supposed to need. Not working at all. “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a single day in your life” they say, and my boyfriend likes to announce to people that he’s a player, not a worker (often resulting in strange looks, and a few glances of sympathy in my direction). But he has the right idea, and work has become synonymous to burden, to obligation, to struggle. Perhaps we could reclaim the word, but in the meantime, how about playing? How about doing what we love? How about making a living that way?

It’s easy for you to say, people tell me, because it looks easy from the outside, now that I’m doing it. There’s an edge of resentment, sometimes, the beginning of that horrible spiral, but most of the time it’s fear of the uncertain, that dark, terrible void of how the FUCK?, mixed in with the hope that I – player not worker for the past couple of years – might have some sort of answer. And I do, and I don’t. And it’s easy, and it’s hard. But it’s possible, because I’m doing it, and that means it can be done. It’s not that simple, they tell me, and it isn’t, of course, but also it is. I, too, had a job and stuff to keep up with and comforts to earn and bills to pay; I, too, had to work for a living, but I yearned for a life. A life of doing my thing. And I had the fear and the how the fuck and I could sense the resentment building up and making me less of a kind and good and happy person than I could be, and in the end the choice was simple, even if its execution is a constant balancing act between easy and hard. In the end, the answer was I don’t know how, but fuck it. Fuck it, and faith.
    Those are the ingredients for playing this game; that’s what you need to bring along. Fuck it, and faith, and – to back those up in times of doubt – the principle of “I don’t need this that much”. That’s the best answer I can give to how, if you’re asking.
    – Fuck it: I gave up the job and the stuff because there was something I wanted more, and I couldn’t have it within that setup of limited comfort. And fuck it, I’ll make it work. Somehow. Each day, I’ll find a way to make it work. Not working, but playing. Going off on tangents and seeing all the possibilities: what can I make? What can I sell? What can I give in exchange for something I need? What skills do I have, what ideas, what abilities? How can I turn them into another day of doing what I love?
    – Faith: that it will all work out. Because it does. The universe wants us to do our thing, and it will back us up, it will help us along once we start moving in that direction. Once you step outside that comfort zone and into the true space of who you are, once you start living the life you yearn for, even if you can’t see the exact shape of it yet, everything will conspire to shape that life around you. And if that sounds too woo-woo bullshit for you, believe me: I can be the Queen of Cynicism, but I haven’t had a “proper” job for over two years, and I’m doing my thing, and I’ve survived. And whenever the gaping void starts screaming how the fuck something comes along and fills it. Every time. It hasn’t swallowed me up yet, because of faith, and fuck it.
    – And “I don’t need this that much”: apply this principle whenever you start to question yourself, because you will, often. Apply it when other people question you, because that will happen, too. Doing your thing is a constant balancing act between easy and hard, between comfort and fear, and it takes time and strength to break away from familiar patterns, to resist the lure of security, of working for a living, at any price. You will be tested, you’ll be offered a thousand ways back to the place that you left behind. Remind yourself why you did that. With every offer, with every opportunity that doesn’t feel like a blessing, ask yourself – do you need it that much? Be open to everything, but respect your boundaries; only let the good things in. Whenever you’re given something that doesn’t fit the shape of the life you want to live, whenever you feel that sting in your stomach, say thank you, but I don’t need this that much. Try it: it feels good.

Happiness breeds happiness, and we’re allowed to go off on tangents to find it. Go find it; do the thing that you’re here for. Make it a living. Make it your life. Collectively, we’ll all be better and kinder people, as a result.


This didn’t turn out to be much of a short, practical post. I’ll have to keep trying.


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Say thank you and I love you

the_first_thanksgiving_cph-3g04961Day 76 from 100 days of solitude (November 27, 2014)

I slept very well last night, on account of the fact that I forgot to switch my electric blanket off, which meant I didn’t wake up freezing in the early hours as has been the norm in the last few nights, since winter arrived. I forgot to switch the electric blanket off and it did not burst into flame overnight, and I woke up warm and uncharred this morning, for which I am thankful. And thus began my Sifnos Thanksgiving. Waking up, alive, is always a good start to the day.

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Greece. It’s not on our calendar, but we hear rumours of it, of Americans gathering round dinner tables to fill up on turkey and pumpkin pie and be thankful for stuff. I have a very vague understanding of the origins of this holiday, other than that Pilgrims and Indians are involved, so I looked it up. In a tale that seems to be as much myth as it is history, the first Thanksgiving dinner was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, when the Pilgrims invited the Indians to join them in a feast, giving thanks for the Indians’ help and the colony’s first successful harvest. The Pilgrims had arrived in the area the previous year, entirely unprepared, and the local Indian Wampanoag tribe had taken these crazy white people, the “coat men”, under their wing, and shown them the ropes and how to grow things, so they didn’t starve to death. It’s a nice story and I hope it’s true, in part, even though it’s part of a bigger story, and sadly, unarguably true, where the colonists slaughtered the natives all over America, and stole their land and weren’t at all thankful.

I slept well last night, but I had a dream about my friend Ali, a vivid, elaborate dream that went on for what felt like hours, and whose details escape me now. I woke up missing her. I haven’t spoken to her for months. We have drifted apart in the last few years, which is stupid because whenever we get together I can’t think of a single reason why. I had sent her an email a few days ago, when I heard a song that reminded me of her, but she hadn’t replied.
    I went to my desk, still reeling from her presence in my dream, with the intention of sending her another message, urging her to get in touch. I sipped my coffee as I checked my email: all junk. And then, with a discreet ping, a new email dropped into my inbox. I clicked on it, both shocked and completely unsurprised, and read Ali’s message. My second thing to be thankful for, today.

Perhaps I’ll host a fantasy Thanksgiving dinner tonight. I’ll be the Pilgrim and the locals can be the Indians. I have no turkey, but they can share my chicken soup; I took a chicken breast out of the freezer last night, for that purpose. It won’t be much of a feast, but it’s a large chicken breast and if I chop it up really small there should be enough for everyone to get a taste. I’ll add onions and rice and potatoes, and cook it all in a big pot of broth. I’ll also make a salad with lettuce and radishes from the garden, to celebrate the harvest, and flavour the soup with lemons from my tree. The locals can bring offerings, too. Though I hope none of them will bring dead deer, like the Indians reportedly did, or little birds shot out of the trees. But I wouldn’t mind a few eggs, or a bit of cheese.
    Manolis can come, and his mother, and his wife, if she’s not at work. Antonis the plumber and Makis the carpenter. Vangelia and Yorgos and their children, Vasiliki and Simos, if they’re free. Margarita the hairdresser, and Post Office Man No.1, and Loukia from the butcher’s. The entire souvlaki family, mother, father and daughter, and the cashier from Alpha Bank. The girl from the chemist, and the guy at the kiosk who remembers what tobacco I smoke. The two sisters who run the supermarket at the top of the hill. Nikos the farmer and his wife. Polyna, of course, if she’s around. The man who advised me to plant rocket and spinach and sold me the seeds. I am thankful to all of these people, these and many others, and I would like them to come round tonight, and sit down at my table and share my chicken soup, and be the natives to my coat men, the ones who have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes.

I am the coat men of Sifnos, even though the coat I wear, a blue rainproof jacket with fleece lining, was purchased right here a few weeks ago. I walked into a shop I’d barely even looked at before, a shop I’ve walked past hundreds of times but never deigned to consider entering, where two women were watching a cooking show on a large TV set mounted on the wall. I went fearfully from rail to rail, keeping a safe, aloof distance from the garments on display, convinced that there was nothing there for me, with my high city standards. Until, right at the back and hiding amidst an alarming amount of faux fur, I found exactly what I was looking for, and in my size. Which was, apparently, XXL, and made by the excellent brand MISS PASSION.
    ‘You’re lucky,’ said the lady behind the counter. ‘It’s the last one.’
    It fits me perfectly, my Sifnos jacket, made in China.

I got another email from Ali later this morning, all in capitals and full of exclamation marks. Sit Down by James had just come on her radio, and that’s a song that reminds her of me. Of times long ago, when we saw each other every day, and danced the nights away in shady London nightclubs. Of singing along with plastic cups of lager in our hands, of sitting down on the dirty, sticky floor whenever the chorus demanded it. Sit down next to me.

Life is up to its tricks again, and two songs and a dream bringing Ali and I together today are no coincidence, but today being Thanksgiving is. It means nothing to me. I have the same objection to Thanksgiving as I have to Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t we be thankful and in love every day, instead of saving it all up for special calendar occasions? We get together, on these holidays, and stuff ourselves with food and exchange our gifts, and we forget what we’re there for, and we forget to be thankful for the fact that we’re there and together at all. We don’t say thank you enough. We don’t write love letters. We wake up every morning and don’t notice we’re alive.
    I am thankful and I am in love. Today, on this day that is just an ordinary Thursday on the Greek calendar, and tomorrow, and the day after, and every day that I wake up, alive. And I’ll have my fantasy dinner, tonight and every other night, and I’ll invite everyone, because it’s a fantasy and everyone will fit, everyone I’m thankful to, everyone I’m grateful for, everyone I love and have loved in the past, the friends I talk to every day and the ones I haven’t spoken to for months, and we will all sit down together and share my chicken soup, Pilgrims and Indians and natives and coat men, crazy white people all of us, regardless of what shade of skin we come in, who would do well to remember that we’re lucky to be alive. And say thank you and I love you, while there are still days.


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Publishing as therapy

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I was going to be a young author: that was the plan. I was going to be one of those twenty-something publishing sensations, wise far beyond my years, and heartbreakingly talented. They would come, the men who decide such things (publishers? gods?), to the pub where I worked, humble but trusting in my destiny, and they would tell me. They would say it out loud, for all to hear, and I, still humble but vindicated, would take off my apron, slowly, and wash the beer off my hands, and I would follow the men out of the darkness of the pub and into the bright lights of recognition.

I was thirty-six when I published my first book. Not exactly over the hill, but I could see its top and how it sloped downwards on the other side. Young, but not in any sensational way. Nevermind that in my head I was still twenty-two and entirely bewildered when people referred to me, politely, as “that lady”; the world saw a thirty-six-year-old in Converse All Stars standing on a hill of average height, slightly out of breath, clutching a book to her chest and trying not to think about downward slopes. All around me, people were climbing mountains. The men were not impressed.

But it wasn’t my first book. The book I was clutching that made me an author at last, on the wrong side of young, wasn’t my first. I became an author at thirty-six, but I was a writer long before that, and I wrote my first book at twenty-five. It could have been my sensational debut; it could have been my passage to the lights, my recognition. It could have been, but I stumbled as I made my way up the hill, and I lost my balance, and I dropped it. And I didn’t pick it up again. And the years passed and we aged, my book and I.

Perhaps I should have been more careful where I put my feet; perhaps I should have worn better shoes. Perhaps I should have seen that the things I stumbled on I could have just stepped over. Perhaps I should have known that balance is within, not without; perhaps I could have had the strength to pick myself up when I fell, to pick up my book and hold it high above my head, for all to see. Perhaps, but I was young. So I wrote my book, my sensational debut, four hundred and fifty pages full of words and little bits of wisdom far beyond my years. I submitted part of it for my Master’s thesis and I passed; the men, the gods gave a little nod. I walked on: I finished it and called it Common People and printed it out, all four hundred and fifty pages of it, and sent it off to the men: the agents, the publishers, the gods of this realm of bright lights. The gatekeepers, but passage was denied. Thank you, they said, but no. I stumbled. My friends picked me up; they read my book and said carry on. I gave it to my boyfriend, the man who would have smiled and held me and held my hand so I didn’t stumble and fall; the man who would have devoured four hundred and fifty pages of his girlfriend’s inner world, and handled it gently, for the precious, fragile thing that it was – but no: he smashed it with his fists. For all the men and all the gods and the rejections they delivered, it was this man who dealt the fatal blow, because he took my book and never read it. Cruelly, unapologetically, inexplicably: he never read it. And I fell. And I didn’t get up for years.

Never use your writing as therapy they told us at university, and this is therapy – what I’m doing now. But I understand what they meant. We write from experience, but writers take that experience – the personal, the subjective – and turn it universal. We write from our preoccupations, we write to exorcise our demons, but we need to dress those demons in clothes that other people recognise and have them speak in words that can be understood. Self-indulgence has no place in literature: that’s what therapists are for. Write your shit out first, they told us, get it all out – only then can you write a book. I understand. But sometimes there are things that hold us back and we don’t even know it. There are demons that lurk, in disguise. An ageing girl, an ageing book, a sensational young author juggling pint glasses in her apron and looking for recognition in all the wrong places. And publishing, this time, as therapy.

I no longer need recognition; that’s one thing I learned from climbing up the hill, to recognise myself for what I am. I don’t need vindication, because there was never anything to prove. I became an author at thirty-six, but I’ve been a writer all along, and I just want to write. But I published Common People this week, my sensational debut, time-travelling to take its place in a line-up of six. I published it because I could, and because, although it has aged as I have, it’s still a book of this time, and its time has come. I didn’t publish it as therapy but I can see it now, how it was one of my demons, disguised and fooling me all these years. It didn’t sit there quietly, it didn’t sit forgotten; it was heavy and I carried it, it was a thing I stumbled on, over and over again, and it was taking up space inside of me, a space I didn’t even know was occupied. A space that’s opened up now, all of a sudden, endless and clean and inviting, a kaleidoscope of words and colours and the bright lights that were there, all along, if only I’d known where to look. I didn’t publish it as therapy but I can see it now, how it’s cured me of something, a thing that was finished but unfulfilled, the latent dreams of a young author shaping themselves into regret. But regret had no place here, on my hill; it would only obscure the view.

Publishing as therapy and it’s now that I’ve gotten all my shit out; only now can I move on. My twenty-five-year-old self is a published author. I’ve done right by her and her words; I’ve set her free, and she can make her own way in the world, into the space that’s opened up. And I can make mine, at last, without looking back, because I can see it now, from this place I’ve reached in my Converse All Stars at age thirty-eight: that over the hill are other hills, and also valleys and mountains and forests and seas, and we can go to any of those places. Or just stand still for a while and enjoy the view. Waiting for no one and with absolutely nothing to prove. Trusting in our destiny, humble but certain that we can make our own bright lights.


Common People is available on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.


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Go back to where you came from

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(From Common People)

I thought, by now, I understood something about the New Country. I had gathered things, small trinkets of familiarity that I’d picked up, as instructed, along the way; I collected them, like other people collect butterflies or shells, pressed flowers and unusual stamps. But the similarity ended there: there are only so many butterflies in the world; so many countries, so many stamps; there are only so many spaces in a house that you can cram a hobby into. But I don’t know how you can quantify understanding; how a collection such as mine could ever be complete. How many things, how many days, how many moments of clarity. How many touches does it take before you know the feel of someone’s skin? How many times do you have to look at them before you can reconstruct their face in memory? What I longed for was a little indifference: a time when I could shrug my shoulders at all this, dismiss it with a flick of the wrist. ‘Oh, London,’ I’d say. ‘Yeah, sure.’ With affection, yes, but not with awe.
    The list grew as I ticked items off it. Vinegar on chips; lager shandy; small change; steak and kidney pies; fry-ups. Tick. Pubs; punters; post office queues; the BBC. Tick. I could ride the tube to most places without getting lost. I could buy a ticket without help. I could do my shopping in Tesco; I had a Clubcard. New friendships: tick. Handshakes, instead of kisses on the cheek: tick. Sex in a different language: yes, and tick. Mince pies, dog and bone, butcher’s hook, bubble and squeak. Glasgow Rangers: strangers. Cheers mate! Tick.
    And football: the Premiership, and the FA Cup. Divisions one, two and three. The Sunday League doesn’t count. Friendlies and internationals. London derbies. The Gunners and the Hammers and the Spurs. And the season was over now. I understood that. Tick. I had seen chairs flying and tables knocked over and glasses smashed. I had seen men explode, go all twisted like hurricanes. I had seen blood and bruises, and I understood that football had a hold over these people. A 1-0 changed them, a 0-0 draw made them sigh and shake theirs heads. Losing made them angry, and victory put fire inside them, and it singed those around. And on match days, they drank a lot of spirits, and that inflamed them even further. And then I’d seen thousands march in honour of their team, and sing and laugh and hold children high over their heads, and I’d taken that to be the closing of a circle. Tick. I shrugged my shoulders at it. And then, suddenly, the World Cup was upon us. And everything started all over again.

On my way to work one day, I received some education. I noticed the man as soon as I got on the tube: he was sitting alone at the end of the carriage, and he seemed very agitated.
    ‘Bastards!’ he said to his feet. ‘Fucking bastards, all of them.’
    I smiled a little to myself, the way you do when you come across crazy people and judge them to be harmless; not with malice, but for something to do. I looked around, expecting to catch someone’s eye and share the smile, but nobody looked up. Their eyes were glued to their books and newspapers or fixed on the floor. Their bodies were rigid, in forced imitation of aloofness. It was very odd.
    The man continued his one-sided argument. ‘Yes mate,’ he affirmed. ‘Bastards.’
    About a minute into our journey, the train came to a halt. The speakers crackled and the driver said something about King’s Cross; from the sighs of the other passengers, I discerned it to be bad news. I looked around for someone to ask, when the agitated man stood up.
    ‘Cunts,’ he announced. He staggered towards the centre of the carriage, then stopped abruptly. ‘Immigrants,’ he added, and nodded his head manically. ‘Yes mate, I’m telling you mate. Fucking immigrants. Cunts.’ Collective intake of breath followed this, and the passengers stiffened even more: a monologue of “bastards” was normal, but “cunts” was something else entirely. Newspapers rustled.
    The man waved his arms in the air, for emphasis, but entirely out of synch with his speech. ‘Send ‘em all back, is what I say.’ He nodded again, then had a change of heart. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘Line ‘em up and shoot ‘em. One by one, mate, like dogs. And good fucking riddance.’ He attempted a wave, lost his balance, and nearly toppled over. Somebody coughed.
    The man took another couple of steps and leaned forward a little. ‘Innit, mate?’ he said; he seemed to be addressing a middle-aged man who was trying to hide behind the Evening Standard. ‘We understand each other, you an’ me. Yeah. We’re British, mate. British.’ And having established that, he straightened up and moved on. He was wearing a red football shirt, I noticed, but it didn’t look like Arsenal. I squinted, trying to make out the writing on the badge, as the man stopped again, a couple of metres away from me. I looked down at my hands, but not fast enough.
    ‘Cunt,’ he said. Ominous switch to singular. ‘Fucking immigrant cunt. You fuck off, yeah, you fuck right off back to wherever you came from.’ He took another step forward. ‘Oi! I said fuck off. Do you understand? You speak English?’
    He was looking straight at me; I felt it even before I lifted my eyes to see. His finger was pointed in my direction, unwavering. I looked around, and then up at my accuser.
    ‘Excuse me?’ I said politely. ‘Are you talking to me?’
    This seemed to infuriate him. ‘You fucking cunt,’ he said. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Fucking immigrant bitch! Can’t even speak fucking English.’ With that, he lurched forward; his face came so close to mine that I could smell the alcohol in his breath. I leaned back in my seat, and then I made out the name on his badge: England. He was wearing an England shirt.
    ‘Cunt! Fucking bitch! Go back to where you came from, yeah? You don’t belong here, nobody wants you here. Fucking immigrant.’ My face was covered in spittle. I felt sick. The people next to me shifted uncomfortably; one girl got up and took another seat, at the far end of the carriage. Nobody was going to defend me.
    ‘I’m sorry that you’re upset,’ I heard myself say. ‘I had no intention of upsetting you.’
    ‘You – fucking – what? How fucking dare you talk back at me? I am the voice of Britain. Yes mate. And Britain is telling you to fuck off.’ He pushed his face even closer to mine, and his voice lowered to a growl. ‘Do you understand? Fuck off.’
    He straightened up, called me an immigrant bitch once more, and spat; phlegm landed on my shoes and slowly trickled to the floor. I didn’t move.
    Over the speakers, the driver’s voice apologised for the delay and informed us that we were now ready to go. The train jolted, and set off again, and the man walked away and stood by the door. He resumed his mumbling.
    I got off at Highbury and Islington. As the train doors shut, the voice of Britain bestowed his last piece of wisdom on me.
    ‘And learn to speak fucking English. Cunt.’
    I stood at the platform, shaking. People pushed past me in all directions. Someone touched me on the shoulder: a woman.
    ‘Are you alright?’
    I shook my head.
    ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She gave my shoulder a squeeze, and turned to leave. I stopped her.
    ‘Why?’ I said.
    ‘I don’t know love. I honestly don’t know.’ She paused. ‘Maybe it’s the World Cup; it seems to bring out the worst in people. You know, nationalism.’ She had noticed the shirt too. ‘Don’t take it personally.’
    ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean that. I mean why did nobody help me?’
    ‘Oh.’ She looked very uncomfortable. ‘I suppose… I suppose it’s just London. You don’t get involved. It’s just how it is.’
    ‘But. That’s not right.’
    ‘No. Of course.’ She seemed to think about it. ‘It isn’t.’ She put her hand on my shoulder again, then pulled it away. ‘I’ve gotta go, love. I’m late for picking up the kids. Are you going to be alright?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘I’m sorry.’
    I nodded. She gave me a sad smile, and walked away towards the exit.
    I stood where she left me for a little longer. Then, mechanically, I walked up the stairs and out of the station and into the pub, and down to the office. I sat down in Toni’s swivel chair and lit a cigarette. Upstairs, there were songs and cheers. England was playing.
    I sobbed. This was not the kind of indifference I had in mind. This, no: I couldn’t shrug it off.


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This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Common People. Set in late 90s London, in a reality ever so slightly removed from our own, Common People explores issues of immigration, integration and adaptation, racism and xenophonia, the preconceptions and stereotypes that hold us back – whether we’re aware of it or not – and the ever-present quest for identity and belonging, wherever we choose to make our home. It is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

Sage-picking, sages and healing

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From 100 days of solitude, Day 96 (December 18, 2014)

The weatherman lied about today: he had predicted sunshine and clear skies but there was rain. Thursday was marked with a big yellow sun and the morning delivered. I got up and the sky was wide open and the yellow sun was climbing higher towards the peak of 17 degrees that had been promised, urging me to match it with a promise of my own, made for the next such day of yellow sun. So I got dressed, grabbed a large plastic bag and a pair of secateurs, strapped my rucksack to my back, and set off to pick sage.

Sage loves this island. It grows out of the hard, dry soil; it grows out of the rock faces, alongside oregano and spiky wild thyme. It grows on the edges of the fields and on the side of the road. The air is scented with it, a heavy, heady smell, sweet but earthy, uplifting and calming at the same time, with a hint of the medicinal and the meditative. To snap a branch off a bush and rub the leaves between your fingers is to know why this common herb is considered so powerful, why it’s been used for healing and cleansing for thousands of years, at every place in the world where it grows. Celtic druids and Native American shamans have traditionally used it to ward off evil and cleanse the spirit, and new age shops sell sage smudge sticks to hopeful Westerners, to wave about their homes. Its name, salvia officinalis, stems from the Latin salvere, which means to save, to heal, and a sage is a person of wisdom. And it’s all there, between your fingers, as it releases its scent.

Salvia officinalis, common sage. There is nothing common about it, but the fact that it grows everywhere makes me smile: according to English folklore, sage grows best where the wife is dominant. It doesn’t surprise me, its abundance on this island. There’s something feminine about it, in its subtle but consistent presence in this rough, rugged land, how it stands quiet and fragrant, always in the margins, with its soft leaves and its strong scent. How it doesn’t advertise its power and yet everybody knows. It reminds me of the women I’ve met in the last few months, ruling from the sidelines, from where they can watch everyone who goes past.

I had been meaning to pick some sage and then I promised: next sunny day I would walk down to the port, and fill a bag along the way. This is the best time for it, Margarita told me, after the first heavy rains have rinsed it clean. There’s something incredibly rewarding in picking herbs growing wild out of the rocks. Just walking along and bending down and picking. Growing your own vegetables is close, but not the same. That takes some planning and some work and it’s a good feeling when salad leaves appear in your garden and then on your plate, but you’re still the one who put them there. Wild things grow wild regardless of your intentions, and it’s almost like they were put there for you. It’s like a gift; it’s like the way the world was put together making sense, for a moment, when you walk along the road and fill your arms with sage. And you don’t even have to rinse it because it’s been washed by the rain.

It rained this afternoon, but the day delivered half its promise and the sun shone as I walked towards the port. I came back as the clouds began to gather, with a bagful of sage and my own promise kept. I laid the sage out in the spare bedroom, on towels, to dry, and then I laid myself in bed, in that eerie glow of cloud-filtered light, and listened to the patter of the rain against my window. It didn’t patter for long: it soon began to pound, and the shutters rattled as the wind picked up and threw sheets of rain, hard, against the glass. I got up to close the shutters and lay in darkness now, listening to the thunder and the wind, with the lingering smell of sage on my fingers. I lay in darkness and thought about power and wisdom and sages and sage, healing and being saved, and how I would make bundles and give them as gifts, and pass the gift on, once the sage had dried.

I lay in my bed as the unpredicted storm raged outside and washed the herbs and the plants and the roads and houses clean, as the scent of sage, subtle but powerful, drifted through the house and, for a moment, it was like I had wisdom, like I’d been washed clean by the rain. Like the way the world is put together made sense.


This is Day 96 from my book 100 days of solitude, documenting my experience of living alone on the island of Sifnos during the autumn and winter of 2014. I’m back on Sifnos now; I went sage-picking this morning, and it reminded me of this – the first time. If you’d like to read more of 100 days of solitude, you can buy it on Amazon, or email me for a free preview of the first 15 days.

Spontaneous publishing

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This is what I did yesterday: in between feeding six cats, sweeping leaves out of the house, scooping up a dead rat from my doorstep, attempting to wind-proof my windows with squidgy insulating tape, cooking lunch, doing laundry and meeting some friends for coffee, I published a book. I didn’t even know I was going to do it when I got up in the morning; the idea occurred to me sometime in the afternoon, and then I read a couple of articles online, pulled up the Word files for four of my books, cut and pasted, formatted, proofread, created a cover and uploaded to Kindle – and by the evening, I had a new book on the Kindle store! An omnibus of all four of my books of “essays”, imaginatively titled FOUR.

And yes: sometimes I think about traditional publishing, longingly. Sometimes I think how nice it would be to have someone else take care of all of this for me – serious people; professionals – so I wouldn’t have to spend half my life squinting at a screen, lost in some crazy, nauseating vortex of margins and tabs and bookmarks, and previewing the same file over and over again only to spot that one little mistake, each time, that means I have to go back and start the whole process from scratch. Sometimes I long for publishers and editors and cover designers, professionals, fairies or elves – someone, anyone to sweep in and take over, so I can have a break.

But I would miss it. I would miss spontaneously publishing a book on a Sunday afternoon. I’d miss putting a thing out there, flawed as it may be, with all those little mistakes that make it mine. But if the fairies and the elves, the editors and the publishers want to come along and sweep up the leaves and clean the dead rats away and bring me a coffee as I sit bent over my laptop, spinning in my vortex, I wouldn’t say no.

Check out my latest offering on Amazon.

I’m on a roll!

In the last week or so, I have released not one but TWO new books on Amazon.

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The first one, collected, essays and stories on life, death and donkeys, contains published and unpublished essays and short stories written between May 2014 and April 2016, in Athens, London and Sifnos.

“If there’s a theme tying these pieces together, perhaps it’s identity, our constant quest for one that fits; that keeps fitting even as we change. We are scattered, like our stories, forever torn between people and places; we are all of us pulled this way and that by the different parts of our identities that don’t necessarily fit together, at first glance, but still come together to make a whole. Perhaps, for me, writing is the thread I use to keep it from splitting apart.

There are other themes, too: there is death and there is love (what else?), and the fear and the uncertainty that death and love both stoke and soothe. There is trust and jealousy; falling and finding your feet on ever-shifting ground. There are the negative feelings that we all succumb to, from time to time, the dark sides of our personalities, and the little sparks of joy that will eventually lead us back to where we want to be. And running through it all, that tentative thread of identity, the seams of who we are in this life, regardless of the where and the how; alone, for ourselves and for others.

Perhaps uncollected would be a fairer description of the little book you’re holding, but there is power in names, and I think the title I have chosen is more of a wish than a description; an invocation, almost a prayer. To be collected, and not scattered. To be collected, even when there are parts of you scattered all over the place. To be able to collect these parts, to bring them together in some loose, imperfect way, and make a thing that’s meaningful. A thing that fits.”

View it on Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.

The second, Divided Kingdom: how Brexit made me an immigrant, features four essays documenting my response to the UK referendum in June, and its implications for all of us. I’m distributing this one for free! (See below for details.)

“I am not an immigrant tonight. Tonight, I am a resident of the United Kingdom. But tomorrow: what?

We are privileged, and we cannot conceive of a world where our right to live the lives we’ve built, where we’ve built them, could be challenged or taken away. But that is the world we live in, and it happens every day. Those refugees washing up on our borders and terrifying us: what do we think happened to them? They had lives, too, that they took for granted, in places they called home. They had rights that were snatched away. And here they are now, at our borders: unwanted, and wanting nothing but to be where they feel that they belong. These things happen, all over this world we live in, but not here. Not to us.

But times change and rights are revoked, and it’s happening: here, now, to us. We are exiled in the land of limbo, with the lives we’ve built in bundles on our backs, travelling in a direction entirely uncharted and we don’t know, when we reach the borders, what we will find.

It doesn’t serve us right and it isn’t fair and we don’t deserve it, but it’s humbling and perhaps a little humility is something we need. Along with the shock and the hurt and the indignation that we’re feeling, justifiably, and the strength we’ll need to muster to see us through. Along with the hope that we’ll need to summon, because it’s only hopeful voices, now, that have a chance of breaking through boundaries, of crossing the borders and being heard. That is our task, now; that is our responsibility: to find that hopeful voice, and let it be heard. Dignified but humble; understanding, at last, that we are not immune. That we are not too privileged to find ourselves outside; to be turned from us to them.”

Divided Kingdom is available on Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle, at the lowest price Amazon will allow. But I lways intended to make this one available for free, to everyone. Please email me for a free pdf copy.