Friday, July 21, 2017

FEATURE 134 - Arcade Fire - Creature Comfort

Of late, Arcade Fire's albums have shown signs of them wanting to move away from the grand and triumphal signatures of their first two albums. The Suburbs, was more carefully themed and though had its moments, somehow failed to touch me, there was something about it that was emotionally removed. I rarely listen to it, and even then not all the way through. So when it came to Reflektor I gave it a miss, the videos released not convincing me to give them another go. The new album, Everything Now, looks like they have to some extent recovered their sense of direction, at least rebooted their mojo. This track Creature Comfort, being a great pumping moment of joy, even though the subject matter is about personal pain.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

FEATURE 133 - Sparks ~ What The Hell Is It This Time

Back with a new album and tour in the Autumn, Sparks are releasing singles to give you a flavour for what's to come. As with all Ron Mael songs, the basic premise of this one is simple, that god is getting fed up with the number of requests he's getting to intervene. All done with the usual level of wit and musical invention we come to expect from this seemingly eternal duo.

SHERINGHAM DIARY 3 - Changing Work

Well, we've been here for three months now, and you might have thought we would have sorted everything out by now.  Living in Upper Sheringham is lovely, our house is lovely, we are doing lovely. However, our relationship towards the world of work  is still in some state of flux.

Jnanasalin has found himself a new job, which he will be starting in about 2 weeks time. He's being employed as the Retail Manager for a charity, The Priscilla Bacon Hospice, which has three outlets selling good quality second hand items. sometimes they are shops, or in two converted containers painted in a bright pink. The interior decor is well thought out and designed, so they don't look like your usual charity shop. Jnanasalin has been brought in to look after these, and to expand the chain across Norfolk, and develop a support network.

He's both excited and a little nervous about this change in work, but knows he has a huge amount of expertise he can offer them. He is also a couple of weeks away from his driving test, which he is well on track with. But heightened anxiety can always be summoned up, as you'd expect with two such major life events happening within days of each other.

Myself, well I decided to leave Byfords in Holt and get a housekeeping job closer to home. Which I achieved quite quickly, I now work for The Two Lifeboats Pub in Sheringham, 20 hrs a week.

However, it turns out that the 4 hrs a day 5 days a week, certainly at this time of year, is the exception rather than the norm. The housekeeping also includes the laundering/drying and ironing of the bed linen. So things can be pretty full on, and doing all that in 4 hrs on most days is impossible. So last week in the middle of the heatwave, I did more like 32 hrs. What can be a just about physically manageable 4 hrs can become a bit of a strain when its 5-6 hrs. In short, this is not what I want to be doing in the long term. It defeats the whole point of my working part-time if I have insufficient energy left to do much creative/craft work before or after a work shift.

It has made me realise that I really need to get myself out of the world of cleaning work. What was a good thing that kept the wolf from the door in Cambridge, is turning out to be not quite the same thing here. My body finds the intense level of physical work entailed in these B & B's I've been working for really draining, as it starts to creep beyond the stamina and physical capacity of my ageing body. Finding housekeeping work has been relatively easy, though I think finding something less physically strenuous, let alone something I want to do, isn't going to turn up just as readily. Anyway, watch this space.

Inside Crofters restaurant

This June, on the 26th, it was my sixtieth birthday. A significant milestone, and one that was marked well on the day.  Later in the week we had a meal out at our favourite restaurant Crofters in Sheringham. Like many places in Sheringham, entering it is like taking a step back in time. The interior of Crofters is decked in dark carved wood, blue checked curtains and has the ambiance of an Austrian Ski Chalet. The menu is good, with an exceptionally varied Vegetarian/Vegan part of their menu.  On top of these delights is the ever resplendent and supremely helpful Fay, who has worked in Crofters for quite some time. She has a unique dress sense and choice in jewellery, complete with boldly matching statement necklaces/earrings/rings and arms full of bangles. Each time we go in its a different colour combination, she goes where even much younger women would fear to tread and always achieves success.

A new exhibition has opened at The Mo, Sheringham's Museum. Its an exhibition of Gansey, which are fisherman's jumpers originally knitted by their wives so if their husbands were drowned at sea they would recognise them by their distinctive jumpers. Gansey are knit in fine wool yarn in very tight patterns and are worn on top of everything because they are hard wearing items of clothing. Jnansalin has bought me a book for my 60th on the history of them, which also includes some patterns. They were originally knitted in a circular fashion with no joins or seams. I'm thinking to adapt some gansey patterns to make cushions,stool covers etc.

The shop premises I mentioned last month that we thought would make an ideal future cafe. Guess what, its opening as .... a cafe. We are beginning to think that perhaps Sheringham may be reaching, or have already reached 'peak cafe' with well over 12 , and now this new one. We've heard on the grapevine ie. via the Mulberry Tea Rooms local gossip, that one of the cafes that opened barely a year ago is struggling to get sufficient business. So we are thinking we may have to consider basing our cafe further afield, maybe in another place, or an out of town craft complex, or if we do open in Sheringham, perhaps look to take over and transform an existing cafe. Who knows at this point in time which we will do, it may come down to rising to meet an opportunity rather than carrying out a fully worked out strategy.

This first weekend in July was The Lobster Potties Morris Dancing Festival, a weekend of crazy morris dancing. This is something I always enjoy, having been part of a Morris side many years ago. This years festival felt a bit quieter and low key than in previous years, with less folk around town. Perhaps the unpredictable weather of the week before deterred some people from coming. I got to see a few sides, but Jnansalin's sister , husband and two kids came down so we only partly saw the morris dancing, between playing the machines in the amusement arcades, eating chips, eating ice creams and looking out to sea. That said we did get to see The Witchmen from Kettering, who are like a huge boost to your testosterone.

Monday, May 29, 2017

SHERINGHAM DIARY 2 - Restoring Equilibrium

Our new life here is taking on an easily recognisable stride. We have a few things we routinely do, such as having our Sunday breakfast at a favourite cafe of ours,The Mulberry Tea Rooms, We often walk into town, rather than cycle or drive, for, yes, we have now bought a car, about which more later. I make a fresh loaf every week and Jnanasalin is working his way through baking all of the recipes in The Hummingbird Cookbook.

Its a great delight at the end of the day being able to go down into town, buy chips or an ice cream and sit on the promenade or by the boating pond and just stare out to sea. Taking pleasure in these small aspects of life here and even domesticity, each as they have presented themselves.

I'm still a Housekeeper for Byfords B and B in Holt, though how much longer could be called to question. They're very nice people to work for, and the people I've worked with so far are all really easy to get on with. But the work itself I find hard physically and somewhat unrelenting, Last Bank Holiday Saturday for instance I started work at 8.30 am and finished at 4.30 pm. Starting by cleaning public toilets, then it was stripping beds, cleaning bathrooms, making beds and setting up for the next guests, one room after another all day.  On Saturday, as we had a large number of early book ins, three of us had to do this process in fifteen minutes  per room. Even in cool weather this can be taxing, but in the middle of a heatwave it became a form of torture. I'm not good with humidity or heat, I find myself getting easily mentally befuddled. I've twice forgotten to put towels out in a bathroom this week.  I'm also finding I've become disconnected from what I'm doing, its as if I'm working on a conveyor belt where I'm thrown off it at the end of the day exhausted.

I have another job as a Caretaker for National Trust Holiday Cottages in the pipeline, but getting this set up appears to be taking ages. Even then its just a day or two a week, and the pay is as poor as at Byfords. Ideally I'd prefer a job with no travelling to work involved. I've applied for a Caretaker job at Sheringham Community Centre, but have not heard back and its now two weeks after the closing application date.  I recently gave a good presentation of myself for a Retail Assistant at Felbrigg Hall, and for a moment entertained the possibility of holding down two jobs with the National Trust, but I didn't get it.  That was disheartening, as the National Trust is more the sort of ethos I could happily work for.  Financially its better if my employment is nearer home, and hope I can find a little bit more of a heart connection for it too. Otherwise I'm going to find maintaining interest in work hard in the longer term.

With only a couple of months til Jnansalin's work for Windhorse Trading ceases to be full time. he's also started looking for work. I went with him recently to give my impressions of one place he had an interview at. It was a Farm Shop near Felbrigg, that we found somewhat in need of a revamp, quite worse for wear and had an air of being un-cared for. Jnansalin thought he might be able to bring some refreshing creativity and retail experience to bear on the situation, however, the owner seemed to think nothing was wrong with the place, and the job appeared less a managerial one and more a PA for her. So he came away feeling a tad disheartened, but there are other jobs in the pipeline, so lets see what surfaces over the next couple of months.

So, yes, we've bought a car, a black Vauxhall Corsa, ten years old, which we've christened Nigella, because its black with broad hips.  Jnanasalin is taking driving lessons which are going well. We now we have a car he can practice in, as long as I'm in the passenger seat with him.  I'm supposed to be the experienced driver, but that's really written on very thin paper. I haven't driven for ten years since a severe car crash that totaled my last car. That car was called Arthur, because of its many dents. Even getting back into a passenger seat has provoked nervous jittery tension. I would like to overcome this and get back driving, but gradually in my own time. However the National Trust job if it comes through, will require me to drive, so this could make my being confident to drive a more time critical issue, and probably much sooner than my emotional readiness. The very thought of this, at the moment, petrifies me and I can feel myself inwardly getting into a panic,
The inside of my new workshop

My workshop is now set up and has had electric installed so I have light and power.  So in my spare time I've a list as long as my arm of furniture for the house that need painting or re-varnishing to work through. I've recently painted and waxed a mirror frame  that we picked up for a tenner from a local car boot, It now coordinates with our lounge colour scheme.

I finished this week, restoring a large coffee table, that we got for free off Gumtree. It was being given away because some obviously delightfilled child had gouged and scrawled in biro all over the oak veneer table top. After some cautious sanding down and filling in of those gouges, I've re-varnished the top and painted the under carriage in Farrow and Ball - Purbeck Stone No 275. It now looks rather splendid, you'd not know unless the shadowy remnants of lines in its grain were pointed out.

Neither of us has much creative capacity for Cottonwood Workshop at the moment, so we have to just hang loose with its under performing and our subsequent lack of engagement. We saw a potentially ideal site for our cafe last week, but its far too early to be even thinking about it. We'll just have to hope its still available to rent in six months time. No one appears to have snapped it up for this summer season, so if anyone else has there eye on it, they too are waiting till the turn of the year, before making their move.

As our countryside coastal life develops, we are also engaging with things we've not had the opportunity to do before, like deciding how we want our garden to be. Now I say 'garden' but it really consists of two squares of shale surrounded by herbaceous plants at the front, and two stepped strips of shale and red stone at the back, with a rather bedraggled bamboo in a collapsing wooden tub on our minute patio. Lots of potential there is, but of the most minimal kind. Nonetheless, we started developing ideas for our back garden, planting sweet peas, and buying a number of different types of lavender to plant across the strip of grey shale fragments. The latter already looks good, as it gets bedded in further I expect they will bulk out and fill the space more.

As a consequence of living here I'm doing more walking. But if I do too much my left hip gets quite sore, inflamed and painful, so I've actually had to swallow my pride and buy myself a walking stick.  This helps to some extent, though I think its really time I talked to a Doctor about it, which reminds me I need to register with one.  In the meantime I've been working on developing my country casuals look.

Monday, May 01, 2017

SHERINGHAM DIARY 1 ~ The First Month

It's been a long time since I've posted anything on this blog.  Life has been quite full with rather important stuff. Jnanasalin and I have launched our web craft business Cottonwood Workshop and started selling things we've handmade or upcycled on the craft selling site Etsy, and recently we've moved to North Norfolk.

We now live in a very pretty little village Upper Sheringham, which is a mile outside the seaside town of Sheringham. It's a village of only 210 people, and we feel a bit like Miss Marple living in St Mary Mead, constantly on the look out for odd behaviour. Our neighbours are lovely and have made us feel very welcome. Some have even written to our letting agent to thank him for finding such good people, which is rather nice to know.

So, after two years of saving and planning to move here, here we are. I came back home from a fortnights solitary retreat mid February and one of the first things Jnanasalin said was, we're going to look at a house in Sheringham next Tuesday   That house is the one we now live in, which is as near our ideal as we could possibly find.  We began packing early, which meant we'd be ready to move as soon as we signed.  But it did mean we were living in a room stacked ever higher with packed boxes for six weeks. We had to plan our move in two phases, household stuff first and business/workshop stuff second, each time we were fortunate to have friends willing to drive a van up for us. The leaving of Cambridge, after fifteen years of living there, was relatively swift, we even had to plan our leaving party for two weeks after we'd moved, when we knew we'd be returning to pick up the business and workshop.

Our house is the 3rd Cottage down this terrace

Once here we spent a few weeks constantly unpacking boxes and finding homes for items, never sure where stuff might be stored, receiving deliveries of white goods, IKEA and furniture etc. We have now passed our IKEA furniture assembly exams Level 3, with a day bed that took 3 hours to put together, and our wardrobe that took 4.  How we want the house to be is still gradually taking shape, with further refinements to do.  We have not put many pictures up yet, as we need to get a feel for the rooms and to be certain where furniture will finally end up. Plus I've got a large list of furniture I'm going to sand down, paint and varnish to match, at some point.

I've got my first job within a week of applying for it, eighteen hours cleaning a week for Byfords B & B in Holt.  Its only minimum wage so it falls substantially short of what I need to earn. Finding better paid part time work here is not going to be easy. Whatever I do in additional work is most likely not going to be cleaning, as most cleaning here will revolve around a holiday turn around on Friday/Saturday. The Holt job I'm so far finding is really intense hard work, I'm not sure how physically sustainable I'll find it longer term, but for now its a start, and gets some money coming in. Who knows what I'll be doing by the summer.

We are both feeling quite settled, but this still has an air of like being on an extended holiday here. Both of us are sleeping so much better and are consequently more relaxed.  Though our future employment issues are a concern, Jnanasalin's work for Windhorse Trading will most likely cease being full time from mid July, so he'll need to find something else by then.  Plus he's learning to drive, and I also will of necessity have to get back into a driving seat after ten years or so out of one. So, I can see it could be some months yet before either of us can give the further development of Cottonwood Workshop, and the future cafe project much thought or time. 

Friday, February 05, 2016


Cambridge Corn Exchange 3rd February 2016

It's a testament to how John Grant's popularity is growing that he now performs at the Corn Exchange rather than the smaller more intimate Junction, the last time he was here.. The sound balance and quality was better there, but what you lose in subtlety you gain in sheer whoomf. The band has a considerably meatier sound and percussive punch, no doubt partly as a consequence of the venerable Budgie ( The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees ) now thwacking away in his own idiosyncratic, but highly effective style.

Its not just the band that's different, the John Grant we saw last night appeared a much transformed man from the guy who performed here three years ago. Then, his self consciousness and fluctuating confidence was quite noticeable and the audience picking up on it yelled words of love and encouragement at him constantly. There was very little of that last night, he appeared a much more assured, relaxed and substantial performer. Physically his body is less flabby and more beefy. He even remarked about going for a run around Cambridge before the gig! He actually looks happy, jokes around and beams all the time, boogies along with his band 'shaking that ass' with an abandon and lack of inhibition. He's enjoying himself and one can only feel heartened and rather chuffed for him, No doubt the new boyfriend could be one catalyst for this much improved self esteem. But, when you hear the spectrum of styles and types of songs on display here you have to say this is an impressive range. After three successful albums and many critical accolades and plaudits, he ought to feel justifiably proud of it and simply 'flaunt it girl', and tonight he does.

Half the set was comprised of tracks from the new album Grey Tickles and Black Pressure. On CD it seemed a good but perhaps not outstanding record, with not quite so many stand out tracks as on Pale Green Ghosts. However, these new tracks really blossom and come more convincingly into there own live. Snug Slacks, Voodoo Doll, Disappointing and You and Him are given extra heft and muscularity, they're so much more funky and heavy. Older tracks are scattered around the set, the obligatory Queen of Denmark, which he can sing again and again and again as far as I'm concerned, I love it. Its one of his trademark barbed satirical songs, wryly witty, written as some sort of payback towards an old lover.

His more straightforwardly uncomplicated songs such as Glacier and the old Czar's song Drug are almost perfectly constructed. Even when writing a more traditional love song Grant appears incapable of writing a trite or clich├ęd lyric, at least not without an ironic twist. Often these songs reveal there true beauty when unadorned by strings or other arrangements. The final encores tonight were devoted to love songs that Grant accompanies himself on the piano, and leaves just the richness of his voice to embellish them. Yes, that voice, it is a wonder to behold in concert. There is never any sense of strain there, from the depths to the top edge of his register its all reached quite effortlessly. Some singers when you hear them live you realise haven't quite got the vocal strength, outside of a studio, to maintain their range live, their voices start to become unsustainable, to crack or squeek. Grant is solidly on the note pretty much all the time.

 Grant's popularity may grow so he can no longer play places like Cambridge, and that'll be a sad day. There is a loss the bigger the venue, and his songs are so honest and self revealing that in his case the lack of intimacy might not be to anyone's benefit.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

DIARY 134 ~ He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips

I'd been away on solitary for two weeks, spending time getting a clearer sense of who I am, how I have been, where I want to be, and what I want to do with the rest of my life, however short or longer the term that rest of my life turns out to be. I had made some intentions for how I wanted to manage my re-entry, but these have been somewhat blown out of the water by discovering Bowie had died whilst I was away. So over the last few days I've been catching up with the rest of you who are twelve days or so ahead of me. Emotionally, its contributed to making my re-entry bumpier and more complex than I'd expected. So being careful about managing my reconnection with the world, to chill a bit, and prepare to roll out some of the things I'd thought about on retreat, have not I sense been trashed, but are perhaps delayed.

Its taken a bit of time to really sink in why Bowie's death seems significant, not just for me, but for countless others of mine, and succeeding, generations. It is obviously a grieving and mourning process of sorts. It feels oddly true, whilst also a bit melodramatic, to say a part of what I aspired to be, or be like, has died on the 10th of Januarey 2016. There's failed dreams and regrets in there,for things he and I will never now do.

Few have been able to maintain both the intensity and longevity of innovative music making, that he did during his peak period of creativity which lasted over ten years. For one of his contemporaries, Marc Bolan his lasted barely two years and had been universally confirmed as moribund four years before his actual demise in a car crash. Those who've blatantly begged borrowed and stole from Bowie's back catalogue of styles and presentation, like Gary Numan and countless New Romantics, their careers have crashed or live on only on the nostalgia circuit, or through tribute bands. Though able to replicate, none have equalled, let alone exceeded Bowie's breadth of influence, that helped change social attitudes to sexual preference, and difference in general, whilst simultaneously altering and extending the language and definition of what popular culture was capable of. This was a much wider range than you might have thought a mere pop star, however prodigiously talented, ought to have had. He had a retrospective of just his stage costumes for goodness sake!

Sexually ambiguous, he formed himself into this exotic peacock, a role model for those, like myself, who wondered whether to express these transgressive feelings we had, and he demonstrated we must and they were more than OK, His stance encouraged people to liberate from hiding or feeling imprisoned behind conventional sexual and gender norms, His songs often have subversive irony underpinning them, such as on Boys Keep Swinging, which might appear a laddish chant of the virtues of being the conventional male. If there was any doubt about the parody being presented here, then you only need view the video. At the end, three 'female figures' step forward rip off their wigs, reveal themselves as Him, and dramatically smear their lipstick. He learnt that swaggery posturing expression of defiance and nerve whilst training with Lindsey Kemp. I was giddy with glee when I first saw it.

He was an extremely clever and articulate song writer, often opaque in meaning, but true in feeling, able to cross a wide range of styles and subject matter. From unconventional but touching songs like Life on Mars to an instrumental apparently cross referencing Kraftwerk and Nazi doodle bombs - V2-Schneider. A boundless curiosity and fascination with whatever he came across meant he was rarely short of fertile new creative territory to explore. Musically it usually came embellished with a quirky off kilter edge, tinged with danger coming out of darker seamier shadows, in the form of the high pitched squealing of a deranged guitar, such as on Cracked Actor.

In that post sixties withdrawl period from dreamy optimism, the early seventies were years uniquely dull and overcast with gloom. Bowie shone a light into its hidden nooks and crannies and said 'look at this, and this, wouldn't you want to be more like this, or this', and we followed him like thirsty puppy dogs through all those metamorphoses, and inhabited them through him. A magpie, artistically, he knew a great idea when he saw one, his voracious pursuit of the new was ever shifting and polymorphous. All of this done with the most immaculate sense of personal style and panache you could think of. Bowie at his peak never appeared anything less than self-assured, the very epitome of what cool could be.

His recent creative re-emergence out of his so called ;retirement' with the exhibition, the album The Next Day, the musical Lazarus, and now Blackstar, could appear to be part of a Bowie plan to stage manage how his legacy and reputation would survive his demise. What was it that woke him up after ten years of silence? Has he known for quite a while that his health was on a slippery and increasingly acute slope? The videos that accompany Blackstar and Lazarus, are, in retrospect, so infused with a sense of his future demise, it seems strange we took them as simply Bowie play acting another character. It appears he never was just performing, but also revealing something personal through the guise of an image. For Bowie was it ever thus. I can't now watch the video for Where are we now, without feeling overwhelmed by the poignant sense of melancholy that pervades it, He was coming to terms with something when he wrote the line 'the moment you know, you know, you know'.

Bowie encouraged everyone to be a little bit more adventurous than we would have been otherwise, in being who we are, and this is why some of us have responded to his loss so deeply. We owe a lot to him,. He broadened the range of what was conceivable, let alone possible. We grew and evolved through our association and identification with him, following in his tracks as much as we felt able to. Musically, his roster of hit songs for himself and others, are simply littered with classics, and along with John Peel and Brian Eno, he was one of my main guides and mentors. They establish in me a lifelong interest and voyeuristic fondness for the experimental musical oddity, and an active pursuit of the interesting edgy sound just around the corner, in the gutter, on the concealed extremes and fringes, well away from the cultural mainstream.

For all of these things, and much more than I can really express let alone touch on, I feel a heartfelt sense of gratitude and abiding love. Saying 'Thank you David Bowie' though only right, still feels a perfunctory and wholly inadequate level of expression, it falls so far short of where it should be.

Bowie in the Lazarus video

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everyday Life ~ We Eat What We Are

When I was a small child I attended a birthday party. As my friends and family sat around a large table eating the meal, I was getting into quite a bit of a state. Not long on solid foods, I was having great trouble eating meat. No matter how much I tried chewing the stuff it just ended up a mushy grey ball in my mouth,that grew larger and larger the more I ate. Eventually,I was literally unable to stuff any more in, My cheeks bulged with a ball too large for my small oesophagus to swallow.  I had to find a way out of this situation. I can't remember now exactly how I did it, but somehow I managed to extract the partly masticated meat ball from out of my mouth without my Mum seeing. The problem then was where on earth to put it ~ in my pocket? ~ on the floor? ~ or just continue holding this slimy half digested thing in the palm of my hand until I could find some way to discretely put it in a bin. Trapped on a long bench behind a table of other small party goers I couldn't leave without attracting attention. I settled for discrete disposal onto the carpet, where on later discovery I hoped there wasn't too much evidence, like incriminating teeth marks, to point the parental finger at me. It was the first time, that I can recall now, where I tried to conceal the consequences of my actions.

There have been times in the past when, half jokingly, I've used this incident as evidence that I never found meat eating palatable, that I was a born vegetarian forced by my parents into being a carnivore. Its hard to resist the temptation to rewrite our personal history to make what evolved erratically in an incoherent manner into a clear inevitable outcome. I'm attempting through writing this article to be as honest as I can be about how I became a vegetarian, whilst recognising that my experience and perceptions have altered me so I no longer see through the same eyes. So, looking again at that childhood incident, I would imagine that children have difficulty learning what to do with solid food, when they first start eating it. It doesn't slip down quite as easily as the baby food that's been chopped and boiled so any toothless person, of any age, can consume it without effort. Also, it wasn't that I disliked the flavour or texture of meat, but the practical issue of chewing and swallowing as you go. Once this issue had been conquered I was more than happy to eat meat for the next thirty years or so. That appeared then to be the natural human thing to do. Children follow their parents example, for a while at least.

Crouch End in North London

How did I move from enthusiastic meat eater to becoming a vegetarian? Well, it was never quite the neat upward progression, born aloft on an escalating ethical awareness and sensitivity. The prime mover appears to have been circumstances. I went to live and work in London in the April of 1980. For the first couple of years I lived in a number of shared houses, where everyone had to fight to gain access to an oven. Due to this my food consumption started to focus more on speed, and simplicity, so I ate tinned or pre-made processed food or takeaways. I lived for a while in the multi-cultural, 'alternative' district of North London called Crouch End, there I encountered both my first vegetarian whole food shop, and Doner Kebabs in Pitta bread, I became quite partial to both.  Even when I moved into my first one room bedsit in East Finchley my culinary ambitions were still somewhat limited by my living conditions. I once tried making and cooking a vegetarian lasagne on the Baby Belling in my room,with its two rings and tiny tiny oven, and I can say without exaggeration it took all afternoon.

Gradually meat consumption started to decline, led by purely practical issues or cost, convenience and the limits circumstances imposed. Awareness of vegetarian ethics was in the air, through some of the people I met and was friends with. Through these I was being stirred, there was the aroma of cooking, but nothing you could consciously get your teeth into. Once your meat consumption declines your stomach adjusts to eating food that is less challenging to the digestive process. Eventually the life I lived in London became entirely whole food and mostly vegetarian, but when I went back up North to visit family, there I was still a meat eater. My past and present sat like odd incongruous bookends. I'd return to London with this uncomfortable distended feeling in my stomach, as if I'd eaten a lead balloon. Though this wasn't a pleasant sensation, physical discomfort didn't make reconciling this disharmony a priority.

The year I became a vegetarian was 1985  the year of the The Smiths second LP. The title song, Meat is Murder, is an unsubtle direct attack on meat eaters, using highly emotive sounds and imagery. Beginning with the mournful groans of cows cut across by the slaughtering sweep of a chain saw, over which Morrissey plangently sings lyrics that read like extracts from a Gothic horror novel ;~

'closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die' 
'the flesh you so fancifully fry, is not succulent tasty or kind' 
'the meat in your mouth as you savour the flavour of murder'

It wasn't these sounds or words that converted me. The song was too heavily laden with manipulative melodramatic sentiment to be convincing, It places emotional guilt upon the listener, punishing, coercing and imprisoning. Nothing to suggest that not eating meat might be mutually liberating, for both beast and human. Having guilt thrust upon you from outside is very different to feeling personal remorse for your behaviour. Our reasons for adjusting that behaviour can be complex. conforming to external social or ethical pressure is only one of them. Underneath our conformity, our baser thoughts and feelings can still survive unexpressed but intact. Now you might say that's OK so long as it stops them eating meat. What I'm interested in is what actually changes peoples minds and behaviour, and what actively changed mine?

Morrissey, for all his self evident flaws,is who he is; open, honest,self-opinionated, prime narcissist, deliberately controversial, steadfastly refusing to be pigeon holed in any way. Whilst not blindly idolising, I did respect him. He represented aspects of what I wished to be, but wasn't quite able to be yet. However odd Morrissey might seem as a role model, he was standing for what he believed in, unafraid of what others might say. Something at the time I found hard to do. His spirit I wished to emulate. I began learning how to be more ethical by standing in Morrissey's shadow. We can under estimate the effect a living breathing example, can have upon us. I doesn't mean they need to be perfect or heroic either, just people who are who they are, expressing what they believe through their everyday life. These sort of persons have had a more profound influence on me than any amount of confrontational agitprop,which tended to put me on the defensive. From such a position changing ones mind is very difficult

I hadn't thought deeply about personal ethics before, let alone having a choice in the food that I ate. I'd arrived where I was due to the push and pull of circumstance, including socially hanging around people who thought about such things, It might seem I suddenly had this ethical epiphany, with a pulsing caring heart implanted into it. But that would be to underestimate both the hardness of my heart before that time, and the drip drip effect of other peoples influence and example overtime. I'd always wanted what I did to matter, to transform myself and the world for the better. Somehow Morrissey's example reinvigorated my idealism, that through being frustrated had ossified into a judgemental cynicism. Becoming a vegetarian laid the ground for my encounter with Buddhism six or seven years later. There were at least three distinct turning points where things I'd previously concealed or was unaware of became fully lived in my everyday life. First,was the realisation and actualisation of being gay, the second was the realisation and actualisation of being a vegetarian, the third was the realisation and actualisation of being a Buddhist.

There is always a bit of a learning curve involved in cooking balanced vegetarian meals that are both nutritious and nice to eat. At this time I lived on my own, and making such a change to my diet was relatively easy .Living in a meat eating family where you're the only vegetarian, does not encourage ones intentions. Faced with meat being eaten in front of you daily, even the stiffest of ethical resolve may wither due to the lack of supportive conditions. Its not enough just to have the desire, there has to be a practical way to make it happen, otherwise its difficult to emotionally sustain it. I've lived in Buddhist Communities now for well over sixteen years, where being a vegetarian is de riguer. Whilst acknowledging I am fortunate, I recognise that my ethical practice is as dependent upon how favourable or unfavourable my circumstances are, as it is for everyone else. Take these conditions away, and how would even I fare?

There are members of my community who are vegan, so I eat more vegan food than Jnanasalin and I would if we were to live on our own. I still love cheese, eat the occasional egg, and I consume milk in my Flat White in a favourite cafe of a weekend.  At present I'm not ready, nor frankly that interested, in taking the ethics of vegetarianism to what appear to be its logical conclusion, to become a vegan.  I have to recognise that becoming a vegan still feels like more of an impoverishing decision than a liberating one. This feeling definitely carries with it an uneasy emotional background, with all the defensive reactive embellishments one might expect  I find myself baulking at conforming to the perceived inevitability of an ethical logic, whilst also knowing other sentient beings die or suffer as a consequence of my desire to eat their oestrogen rich progeny, the products made from milk and wearing their tanned hides on my feet. Through doing these things I have to own my share of the responsibility for the suffering of those animals. Maybe that ethical price is one I'm still prepared to pay, and any sophisticated rationales I might construct, even here, are refined ways of saying 'I don't want to change.' Ideas, images and invocations have no power without impulse. Emotional volition is essential for change to burst forth into active full bloom.

The first, and primary Buddhist precept, is one out of which all further precepts of body, speech and mind are born. Its not a commandment, nor an unbreakable rule, its a guiding principle that is used intelligently to direct our ethical practice. It's entirely up to us how far we want to take its interpretation and apply of it to our everyday life. Precepts come in packs of twos; what we move away from and what we move towards. So there is :~ 'I undertake to abstain from taking life' on the one hand, and  'With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body' on the other. That the 'taking of life' must be a defilement of the body is implied by 'I purify my body'. None of the precept abstentions state what their negative ethical consequence is, their defiling nature is taken for granted, the emphasis is placed decisively on the thing that needs cultivating ~ 'loving kindness'.

It's the increasingly deeper experience of  'loving kindness' that will drive change, I need to tangibly feel my current actions are 'defiling' me, not just bodily or psychologically, but spiritually. By recognising I feel unwholesome because of my actions I'm then prepared to make a profound shift in order to purify them. For the most part it's such instinctual feelings that direct us. Logic plays a role in this, but is mostly retrospectively applied. We think about the reasons why we've chosen to do what we've done, in response to our heart having already moved a step ahead. Should logic alone motivate us, the actions however well intentioned, will have to find themselves a heart. Logic and willpower unaffected by feeling, are barren things, capable of alienating us from the reality of our emotions and resistances. I've found through painful past experience, to be cautious in not creating inauthentic divorces between my ideals and my personal readiness to act. Our 'loving kindness' towards others is incomplete if we are passed over unloved in the process. Through the practice of not taking the life from others, it is possible, paradoxically, to take the life from ourselves. Its better to start from the position that ~ we eat what we are. Whilst I encourage my actions to move towards being more ethically skillful, I have to recognise that this side of Enlightenment they'll never be completely perfect. I am an imperfect being, living in an imperfect world. Trying to perfect the imperfectible would be foolish. Learning to live with imperfection is a harder, but a wiser practice.

'To abstain from taking life' can seem solely about the slaughter or murder of other sentient beings. In a literal sense that is true, but it's spirit is more far reaching than that. It has a broader remit to examine all the facets of our interactions to perceive where it is that we 'take life' from ourselves and from others. This may be by lying, slandering, hatefulness, craving or simply by holding views that run counter to the way life and things really are. Through our thoughts, speech and actions we can do violence to others. This reverberates through our being. so both us and the world we live in become riddled with it.

Few of us in the West are directly involved in the killing of other living beings. We consume, these days, at many removes from the production of the things that we eat, whether meat or vegetable. This doesn't absolve us from taking a degree of ethical responsibility for the killing of animals, or the ethical consequences for those that kill on our behalf.  The whole meat and dairy industry exists as a result of our collective actions in eating meat, fish and dairy produce. Killing the animal you eat is traditionally the pre-eminent life defiling action. These defiling consequences becomes less tangible the further away our responsibility is from the actual slaughter. This distancing may be one reason why most people aren't vegetarian, and why I don't feel compelled to be vegan. The background consequences of my actions are not placed in front of me daily. If I fail to connect emotionally or imaginatively, it may be due to this lack of cogent experiential feeling for the consequence of what I do are. In theory at least, if an animal were to die of natural causes or through an accident, because it wasn't killed by human hand, it might be eaten free of any ethical consequence. The emphasis then, is placed on the means by which the food we eat is obtained.

In the ethical rush to not be implicated in the killing of animals, there are other ethical practices which may be overlooked,sidelined or downgraded. Our ethical relationships with animals might be squeaky clean, whilst our ethical relations with other human beings might be poor. Adopting the high ethical ground over what we eat, can publicly sanitise selfish, superior feelings and our desire to have influence over and control the actions of other human beings, that can lie beneath it. We can lose touch with cultivating 'loving kindness' towards others because they don't do what we do, they don't model themselves on us and become vegetarian or vegan. Our ethical practice can become another craving or aversion, another fixed like or dislike, another extension of ourselves, even of our self hate. Do we eat to satisfy our hunger, to survive, to feed our greedy nature, eat in order to pass time, to fill up the existential void through our mouths, or eat to throw up immediately after,? How and why we eat, is as interesting, from the point of view of practice, as what we eat

In the Buddha's time wandering Buddhist mendicants fed themselves by the begging for alms, going from door to door in a village or town asking for food. They offer up their bowl never knowing what they'd be given, all qualities and types of food mixed up in one pot. In India this would be mostly vegetarian, in other cultures this couldn't be guaranteed. The practice in receiving alms forces a mendicant to go beyond personal preference and accept cleanly, without qualms, the generosity of what they are given, from whoever it is given by. The mendicant in begging for alms shouldn't really make distinctions about who they will or wont accept alms from, they are simply to receive whatever is given. By doing this they also create an opportunity for the alms giver to go beyond there own selfish concerns and perform a generous act. However, I'd be surprised if the social obligation of alms giving was always administered or received with good grace, I'm sure many people in villages and towns would grow resentful of the seemingly never ending stream of beggars and the drain on their own perhaps limited resources. And if the picture painted in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa is to believed, mendicants could become quite adept at discerning where the wealthier areas of town were and begging for alms there, because they'd get a richer, better quality of food.

I'm not suggesting we all should take up begging for alms. It does ,however, provide an example of a different emphasis that can be made on ethical practice and food. It appears to be founded on making oneself beholden to the kindness of others, wearing down our selfishness by not pandering to likes and dislikes, challenging over weaning pride and encouraging generosity in others.  A wandering mendicant is not involved in any work, let alone growing food or breeding and slaughtering animals. The ethics of what you are eating and its means of production appears less emphasised, the ethical focus being on the spiritual efficacy of having to beg for the food one eats. Ideally cultivated within the generous aura of 'loving kindness', in how the food is given and received. This is part of a broader ethical spectrum to be considered alongside the ethics of how food is produced.

Another aspect was highlighted to me recently. A group of us were in a restaurant and we all ordered vegetarian versions of items on the menu. When one friend's food arrived it turned out to contain meat. However, rather than send it back, they decided to eat it, but picked out any obvious bits of meat and put them on one side. Their concern was that in sending the food back, it would be thrown away which would be wasteful. An animal died in order to provide food that ended up being thrown away. This is doubly wasteful, of a life and of food. In our culture we rarely consider how wasteful our consumption of it is. If our food isn't exactly what we want we send it back, without a second thought for what the consequence of that action may be. In the West, in our mythical world of never ending abundance,it can be hard to see our food and water as precious resource and the necessary ecology of not being wasteful of it. At all levels of our society everyone wants to feel they have a choice in what they eat, even if you live on the street, get food from a food bank, or are a freegan raiding a supermarket's dump bins. Being able to chose is being able to freely express our sense of our selves.

Twenty first century consumerism is built on choice, and consequently if we have the money we can eat exactly what we want, when we want it. Increased choice is matched by increased alienation from the means of food production, and a tendency to become increasingly neurotic about food. Horror stories abound in the media of animal cruelty, pesticide residues, food allergies, digestive diseases and major food health scares. These turn the simple act of eating into an ethical minefield, everywhere there seems yet another new thing to be faced or avoided. We feel the oppressive weight of these choices everyday, so its not surprising if some turn a deaf ear, or simply draw a line and say this far and no further. There is some virtue in doing that, we can't make an imperfect world perfect purely through the food we consume. We end up making selected gestures to demonstrate we are doing something, but its lack of breadth and joined up coherence is a very telling trait.

To decide to give up this tyranny of personal choice is a spiritual practice, yet even doing without choice is a choice, and you might reasonably suggest just become a vegan and have done with it. However, its also important to challenge the neurotic nature of our likes and dislikes. Though being a carnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan are ethical choices, they are also ways to express our preferences and exert control, As a vegetarian you may choose to refuse an act of generosity when someone offers you a jelly baby, because there may be animal gelatin in it,  Whatever the sound ethical reasons, this does rebuff an act of generosity, an opportunity to share is denied, a connection is cut, a kind action curtailed. Putting other peoples needs before your own, can exist alongside guarding the ethical gates of what's in the food you eat. I'm well aware that I am blurring clear ethical lines of consistency here, the sort of thing most of us tends to find easier to stick with, We like black and white distinctions, not muddy debatable grey ones. I do so purely to broaden the spectrum of issues out from the narrow literalness that can sometimes dominate ethical rectitude. This may mean I decide where I place my ethical emphasis in each moment, and it being entirely possible that I may adjust it, even if this appears ethically inconsistent.

My ethical practice can drift towards rigidity and self-righteousness, a sensitively applied self-discipline turns overtime into the hard-hearted habitual sternness of an iron rod. I've found it personally useful to see my ethical practice as a conditional preference, to hold it as lightly and deftly as I can, and apply it as directly as I can in response to the exigences of the present moment. I've been consistently practising being a vegetarian now for getting on for thirty years. I've lived with vegans and eaten vegan food. I can envisage there might be circumstances where I may have to eat meat, In my current conditions I can easily eat across a spectrum of vegetarian/vegan food, but this may not always be the case, dependant upon circumstances that emphasis may be forced to shift.

I cannot artificially contrive a pure motivation, I have to accept that even my best actions usually have a rather messier mix of motives. Though they do arise out of an genuinely authentic desire to be better than I currently am. Becoming a vegan without a genuinely authentic desire to be one, could just simply be placing a tick in the Buddhist ethical correctness box. The relative cleanness of our intention is another element in whether our ethical practice will be spiritually effective. In one of the opening paragraphs of Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook he says this:~

"This work has always been carried out by teachers settled in the Way and by others who have aroused the Bodhisattva spirit within themselves. such a practice requires exerting all your energies. If a person entrusted with this work lacks such a spirit, then they will only endure unnecessary hardships and suffering that will have no value in their pursuit of the way."

I am not a Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva spirit has not arisen in me. I simply put insufficient amounts of effort and attention into making 'loving kindness' a more prevalent quality in my thoughts, speech and actions. If there were an ethical spectrum, hatred might be on the far right, and the Bodhisattva spirit definitely more left field, with 'loving kindness' being somewhere left of centre. I've placed myself facing in the right direction but not yet far enough away from negative influences to be incapable of being drawn back into them. What is important to note is that, according to Dogen's view, any endurance, any hardship, any suffering we might encounter through executing an ethical practice in our everyday work and life, will have little or no spiritual value in our pursuit of the Enlightened state, if it lacks the Bodhisattva spirit or at the very least an alive pulsing practice of 'loving kindness' at its very heart.

My ethical actions ought to be representative of me at my best, adjusted in response to any shift in the direction, quality and purity of my heart. There is a place for pre-emptive actions to challenge the ethical level I am currently set, or maybe stuck, at. Though I need to be wary of acting prematurely, beyond my heartfelt readiness for change. Sometimes I've been not sufficiently aware of how un-ready I was, and this has damaged and undermined further efforts at making progress. For an un-ready,unwilling participator any perception of having made progress might prove to be an illusory one. In my experience opportunities to move forward tend to arise in response to, and to meet, ones readiness.

I want to encourage my ethical practice in everyday life to be as diverse as it can be, avoiding settling down or becoming a one trick pony. In looking back over the early history and development of my ethical practice in regard to food, it was circumstances that provided the foundations for further changes to arise and take their place within me. Principles, precepts, practices or people appeared to emerge to meet and encapsulate what was already coming into being.

This article has been a very instructive thing for me to write, It has been based purely upon my present perceptions of what my past motivations and experience were, so in the sense of being an accurate representation it is a flawed one. I hope, nonetheless, that it has some resonance with it, and with the lives of others .