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A Feminist Arrives in Nakedland


1 Minute Read

I casually mentioned to people that I was going to Cap d’Agde this September. Most of my friends didn’t know where that was or what it was and I would just tell them it was “the south of France on the Mediterranean.” But those that did know were surprised that I was going to a nudist town where you could be naked 24/7, even in the supermarket.

You see, I’m a native New Yorker and an old-school feminist in my 50s. Though I write and publish erotica (currently working on the novella Two Dukes are Better than One), most of my friends and colleagues are completely unaware that I’m a nudist. And somehow they think it does not go hand in hand with being a feminist.

I would have thought that too – when I was much younger.

I came to nudism in mid-life in a round about way. As a literary agent, I found myself representing the memoirs and fiction of porn stars, all of whom spent large parts of their days naked in public. When the editor of the science fiction imprint at one of New York’s large publishing houses invited me to a naked dinner party in a Manhattan restaurant, I asked every female friend I had if they would accompany me, and not a single one said ‘yes’. So I asked the mother of one of my son’s classmates, who was also recently divorced, and we bonded over this bizarre opportunity to expose ourselves.

I was very nervous about going naked in public, even though it was in fact being seated in a restaurant. I told the host that it was possible that I would walk in, disrobe, and immediately run out. He told me I would feel completely conformable in a matter of minutes. I didn’t believe him. Then he asked me if I was an “at home” nudist, meaning someone who took her clothes off as soon as she got home, and the answer was ‘yes’. I often write naked. I live on the 18th floor overlooking the Hudson, so no one can see me.

It turned out that I really liked being naked within this group.

I realized that I was completely unused to seeing the naked human body over about age 25 (unless I was looking in the mirror or was with a lover). As a culture, we just don’t see naked men’s and women’s bodies as we age.

Most of the members of this naked dinner group were over 40, so I was on the younger side. They were also mostly male.

I liked that.

I liked that this was an opportunity to ogle the naked male body in a casual setting, while drinking wine and discussing books or politics. And I liked the fact that they were seeing me in all of my real-life, un-airbrushed, middle-aged voluptuousness.

I also liked being able to see the bodies of the other women, some as old as 70, so I knew what I had to look forward to. I was truly amazed at how beautiful we all were.

Being naked together – meant we knew nothing about each other before we spoke. It made us all surprisingly equal, and, as a feminist, that was empowering for me.

I found myself gravitating to the nudist communities in New York. I visited the Light House Beach on Long Island (no longer there after Hurricane Sandy) where there were cook-outs and all day-long parties. And the naturist beach at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, where it was actually legal to drink on the beach (I brought chilled white wine).

The nudist dinner group disbanded, but I was lucky enough to date a fellow nudist who took me on a nude cruise to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras and the Cayman Islands. In addition to lounging on beautiful Caribbean beaches naked, we also had the opportunity to eat our meals naked. It was a carefree delight and I genuinely resented getting dressed when the trip was over.

So with all that background information, it should be no surprise that when the opportunity to stay in the naturist town presented itself, I jumped at the chance, because in addition to being a nudist, I am also a Francophile. So this was a trip to be naked on the beach and eat fabulous French food while drinking amazingly good and cheap French wine. What’s not to love?

We flew over from London on Ryanair, a discount air carrier that made the trip extremely affordable. I was going with the original mother of my son’s classmate (now a decade of nude meals and beaches later), and an author who I had befriended in the naked saunas of New York City’s Spa Castle, a giant Korean water retreat in Queens, where segregated same-sex nudity is practiced in relaxing heated pools. We rented a flat for four nights, and were in France by mid-afternoon.

Packing for this trip was a breeze. Only sun tan lotion and sarongs, and some clothing to wear at night while we shopped in the many stores that offered everything from Wonder Woman-like art armor to G-strings and thigh high boots.

It was mid-September, so it was an off-season, and there were no families with school-age children. This nudist town is actually a vacation retreat for European nudist families. I was thankful to avoid the possible run in with naked kids.

To our great good fortune, the weather was still warm, and the ocean was calm and warm enough to swim in. We ate delicious French meals in a restaurant overlooking the sea – croque monsieur, seafood salads, and steak frites. All naked.

And then we shopped in the locale grocery stores for pate, olives, meats and cheeses, stark raving naked. At first it seemed extraordinary. By the end of the week, it felt like I had been doing it my entire life.

Now there is a part of Cap d’Agde that is adults only. It’s a section of the beach where naked people express their ‘love’ for each other, and themselves, openly. You can just stroll by and see what’s going on. No one bats an eye.

Also some of the apartment complexes have adult-friendly nightlife and shopping offering sexy clothing and sex toys. There’s always an interesting parade of women (the men NEVER dress up) in equally interesting but awkward clothing that you can tell was recently purchased.

Everyone is completely free to express themselves in a way that is just nonexistent anywhere else.

I’ll be going back to Cap d’Agde. It’s a place where I fit in, in all my nakedness, because everyone just lets it hang loose.

Last of the Summer Sun


1 Minute Read

Black-eyed Sue traipsed across the heath                                                                                    
Facing the last of the summer sun
It kissed her face golden.

I could see the faint
trace
of her smile
as she ripped to pieces
the chorus of a love song
she didn’t believe in.
She mentioned
that you’d been around 
with a bottle of wine
and while you were sitting, 
just chatting
inside
she’d been melting.
She said:
“When he’s around
my clothes fall off
I come undone
I know
it’s too soon to be 
Calling
But I think I’m
Falling
I’ve come undone!
Who am I to complain
When I find
My skin’s no longer
My own 
He owns me down
to the bone
Every muscle, 
tiny synapse, spark,  filament!”
She thinks you’ve raised an electric storm
A galaxy of delight
but she can’t hide the
Burn marks
That bloom like filigree
Across her face
When she described
Your ghosting.
That fleeting panic
In her eyes
Behind her smile
Each time she whispered
And wove your name,
Unnecessarily (I thought)
Into our conversation
And acted like she was a girl again
And threw her head back, 
Laughing.

Psychotherapy Without Soul Can Fuck You UP


1 Minute Read

Without an appreciation of the soul’s radical desires, psychotherapy can interfere with psychological and spiritual maturation and promote a non-imaginative normality that merely supports people to be better-adapted cogs in a toxic industrial culture’

Bill Plotkin

There is a marvellous moment in Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships by the pioneering Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood when a client finally hits the ground of infinite possibility. The truth is, she says, that right now I am a completely fucked up human being and cannot be otherwise. This revelation was no doubt preceded – as it is for many of us – by years of therapy and workshops, potions and pills. From that moment of crystalline authenticity doors began to open as she sank into the richness of her own being without judgment or concept.

One of the cavernous blind spots that snag the seeker lies in the poisoned nature of the ground in which she seeks healing. Without the soul as companion too many therapies are simply confounded by what is presented. How can that which is devised within the confines of ‘toxic industrial culture’ – that which fails to incorporate blessings and curses, ancestral hand-me-down wounds and individual karma – bring cure to what ails?

Again and again I have seen clients struggling under the weight of a geis, or what I call conditions on the soul, failed, inevitably, by systems that don’t get them, don’t want them and finally throw up their hands in confused failure offering another diagnosis by way of compensation and to save professional face.

Soul sickness does not respond to that which is soulless. It does not seek a fix, although the personality which accompanies it will. It cannot be touched by much in this world. For what has taken root in a human being, what has found a home there, is both incurable and a reflection of what is not right in contemporary culture. This sickness comes from being separated from the beauty that has been lost and which the soul now desires as a matter of urgency. The individual holds both the illness and the answer for that which lies outside the Self.

It is almost that after the soul’s journey over many lifetimes the pressure builds to a point where only death or breakthrough matter. It has to be one or the other. Nothing else will do. I am either going to find the beauty within or I will return to it in the Otherworld, the realm of the ancestors. The mood is pressing and the initiatory circumstances both more terrifying and exciting.

In Zen, it is said that the nature of dilemma is like having a red-hot coal stuck in the throat. It can neither go down nor out. You can neither cough it up nor swallow it. This stuckness or impasse is common in both individuals and society, and as Jung said it represents a preparatory period before significant breakthrough, even an evolutionary leap.

We are too quick to want to get out of this wasteland. In these days of sound bites, quick fixes and instant communication the thought that the soul might have its own agenda and desires is abhorrent. That it might want you to grow sicker and sicker until you are beyond human aid is unpalatable. This is where insight into the mythological level of life is critical. Without understanding and accepting the soul’s need for slowness and to sink into its own depths it is too easy to think a life is no longer worth living.

But the soul is calling you down, deeper than you would go on your own, farther than seems necessary to the conscious mind that only wants to ‘get on’. It takes a long time and much flailing about looking for ways out of our dilemma before accepting, like the client above, that perhaps there is no cure, at least none that we can see. If you study mythological tales, this image of the fall from grace, the wasteland, and the kingdom once abundant now in ruins is everywhere. And it is a necessary part of being alive.

For the sickness pulls us down into territories of great learning, a brush with death, and strips us of all we have known thus far until all that is left is the vision with which we were born and which has been forgotten. ‘The only way to treat the condition,’ says mythologist Michael Meade is to get everything out of the way and allow the sickness to speak for itself. It can only be heard when all the possible cures have been eliminated and its incurability has been admitted. The soul sickness needs permission to be the strange story that it declares itself to be.’

The only way at such times is to understand we have ingested soul sickness, that it is purposeful and contains great gifts, and to go further into it. In other words we have to follow where the sickness leads and where it leads is often to a threshold we don’t even want to see let alone cross.

In modern times, I see this happen most often in relationships. Everywhere I turn I hear people stuck on the horns of dilemma: should I stay or should I go?; I love him but I’m not in love with him; I just don’t feel anything any more. As soul, that feelings of passionate aliveness, most often enters us in western culture through our romances, small wonder that is where we will feel its absence.

People stay miserable within these dilemmas for years, for the sake of the children or a myriad of other sensible reasons. Yet soul is not interested in common sense or material security. It just keeps pressing in on you until you give it its due and it won’t let up until you do, ever. That does not mean the solution is to break with relationship. That may or may not be the case. It does mean you have to find a way to attend to your deeper life or get sicker.

In a sense, the more soul sickness you’ve imbibed the better equipped you are to heal what is within and without. In turning towards what is dark within the Self and the culture we increase the possibility of bringing some of the beauty trapped in the Otherworld back over the threshold. It is as if we have to risk death to step over and beyond ourselves, but what we bring back can alone illuminate that which has fallen into forgetful chaos.

AofA Interview: Prof. Barbara Foster – Professor


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Barbara Foster, 78, is, wait for it, an Associate Professor at City University of New York and a belly dancer. That’s the sort of eclecticism that we love here. She lets us know what being an ‘original’ consists of.

What is your name?

Prof Barbara Foster

How old are you?

78

Where do you live?

The  Village NY, NY

What do you do? 

Writer–Assoc. Professor City University  of New York
belly dancer

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

Intimidating because people’s perceptions are so fixed. They want to write off an older woman, which I rebel against. I am an “original” as they said in the eighteenth century.  I consider each day an adventure.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

A bit of wisdom gained in the field. I have taken many chances and learned much from the risks I have taken.

What about sex?

I  still like it very much but at this point it is difficult to find the right partner. I have tried younger men with mixed results, older are a bit doddering–ready for the nursing home.

And relationships?

I would like one, and have the skill to conduct one, but the right partner is a hunt that makes it difficult when you have much else to do.

How free do you feel?

Free and not so free. I have  a creative career which takes up much time. It is a blessing but it has demands that I cannot deny. Time is gone before i know it.

What are you proud of? 

My writing and unique personality.

What keeps you inspired?

The game of life. It is so challenging, so surprising.

When are you happiest?

Writing, it’s a gift.

And where does your creativity go?

Into fiction non-fiction and poetry, dancing.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Accept change as the Buddhists say. Don’t expect your world to be fixed. Look for new challenges.

And dying?

Not looking forward to it.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, I dream of visiting new faraway places.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Nothing to recent, but some years ago i bathed in the polluted Ganges river with intoxicated natives all around and almost got kidnapped.

Is Monogamy a Monotony?


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Is a long marriage a drag? Is sex within that marriage inevitably going to become stale and insipid after a few decades? Will you get to know each other so well that nothing is ever surprising anymore? Ever a real turn on?

And more to the point did I ask myself these questions when I met the man I went on to marry when I was just eighteen years old? No, of course not. But now, years later and planning our silver wedding anniversary I find myself pondering on thirty years of monogamy (yep, I was faithful from the day we met) and what it’s meant and still means to me.

When we married I knew I only wanted him. He was the love of my life but damn, I was so young, we were so young to make the commitment of forever.

But divorce was always an option, wasn’t it?

No. I never looked at it like that, I’m not so sure about him, but he’s still here, at my side, so that says something.

Of course there have been other men over the years whose physique and personalities have harnessed my attention. And I’m pretty sure they had a twinkle in their eye for me, but I’ve never dreamed of doing anything about it. I clicked on my not interested vibe to deter them because I was happy with my guy—more than happy, he made me feel safe and secure and loved in every aspect of life.

Every aspect I hear you ask? Even in the bedroom after all that time, only him…ever?

Like well-choreographed dancers we perfected our routine over the years. I don’t think either of us really thought about only ever having sex with each other (though of course there are no crystal balls predicting the future here) but that’s the way it’s turned out. I know we said those commitment vows, forsake all others, in front of God, family and friends, and meant what we said, but the reality is… so damn real.

Several years ago, after completing a creative writing course at Cardiff University, I had a career change and became a published author of erotic romance. He loves this new side to my life much more than I expected him to. He doesn’t read much of my work, he’s more of a thriller/war/history type of bloke, but that doesn’t mean he won’t help with a bit of research when it comes to my latest novel.

We’ve always been close, in tune, (though as with any marriage our closeness has ebbed and flowed like a gentle tide depending on what else has been going on in our lives) but my new career definitely brought us together with a new intensity. In my twenties I wouldn’t have had the confidence to discuss BDSM with him in any detail (or with any knowledge), now those cards are on the table. I find myself saying and doing what I want without the inhibitions of my younger years. It swings both ways and with me being more open, so is he.

I like to think we’re still in pretty good shape (he does triathlons and I horse ride most days) and still desire each other physically. But what I couldn’t have predicted is that now, in our forties, it’s our minds that are the biggest turn on and my writing has definitely enhanced that. It doesn’t have to be mega kinky stuff that thrills us, or unpredictability, it’s unity, history and a future. It’s the confidence in knowing that whatever is said, whatever happens, will be received respectfully and with understanding. Did I mention we laugh, a lot.

My sex record would have been very different if I’d met him ten years later. I’d likely have a bedpost full of notches and a string of wild stories. As it happens, there’s just one notch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my fair share of wild stories. A few weeks ago we went past a London restaurant and he said ‘I took you there on our fourth date’. I remembered it, the food had been lovely, what I’d forgotten was what he said next, ‘you told me in the middle of the main course that you weren’t wearing knickers’. I laughed as the memory flooded back. That’s our history together and we keep on making memories.

I believe marriage is like a beautiful high-walled garden—old bricks, tumbling ivy, some manicured sections around a gentle fountain and a lawn with a bench, an ancient oak tree for shelter—and only the couple have the key to enter this garden. Within those walls what happens is secret and sacred. It’s a place for celebration and love, comfort and support. It’s also a safe environment to be vulnerable, to grow and nurture one another’s sexuality whether it’s your wedding night, or the eve of your silver, golden, ruby or diamond anniversary. Contented couples have one thing in common, and that’s the ability to never stop learning about what makes their spouse happy, whatever adventure they’re undertaking, in or out of the bedroom.

The Culture Interview: Shamim Sarif – Screenwriter, Film Director


5 Minute Read

Shamim Sarif, 47, is an award-winning British novelist, screenwriter, and feature film director. The tagline for her first film said it all – ie ‘Just another British, Indian, Muslim, Arab, Christian, lesbian romantic comedy’. She occupies the unusual position of having written three novels, then their screenplays, then directed the films! What a woman. Her latest feature as writer/director is Despite the Falling Snow, which released theatrically in the UK in April 2016.

You seem to have carved a singular place for yourself as a novelist, screenwriter and a film director often of these self-penned novels? How did that happen?

I really just started doing what I loved and what felt natural to me – storytelling. And that evolved into different media. What made it possible to make the leap from novelist to director was my partner Hanan’s involvement. When we started our own production company, it was specifically to develop our own, female-led stories.despite-the-falling-snow-2016-david-johnson-dp

How does it feel to be the only promoter of gay, Muslim and Christian culture?

I don’t feel I promote any particular agenda other than being a good human being, or trying to be. I was raised Muslim but do not practice any religion. My first films, I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen, did reach an incredibly receptive audience in the Muslim world, though. I think there is a great thirst for role models especially in the form of lesbian characters. I was surprised by the outpouring of support and really happy to be part of it.

Have you always been rebellious?

My sister would laugh at that question. I was always the quiet one, never causing any trouble, going out, or doing anything challenging to my parents. I think my personality (introverted writer!) created that. But when I met Hanan there was no doubt in my mind that I would follow the path that felt right. It didn’t feel like a rebellion for the sake of it – more an acceptance of what was right in the face of everyone telling me it was wrong.

We have read that it was not easy for your Indian/Muslim/Palestinian families when you married producer Hanan Kattan? Have things settled down now?

It was very difficult. Twenty years ago even more taboos existed. But yes, things settled down. The great realization we had was that the more we focused on the drama and stress, the worse it got. So we decided consciously to focus on building our own family and let others be part of it if they wanted to.

Has age helped with this evolution?

Age helps with everything except my running speed and eyesight! I think breaking away mentally from your family is a huge ask and an accelerated maturity in a way. I’m definitely less and less concerned with how people perceive me as I get older.

How has being in your mid-40s influenced your film-making/writing?

I hope experience improves everything – I feel it does. Also when you have lived through certain experiences like marriage and children, it gives you an insight that you can’t quite have when you are much younger.

I Can’t Think Straight seemed to be autobiographical but what about your recent film, Despite The Falling Snow?

Despite the Falling Snow is not based on any family history but it continues with themes that have always formed part of my work. The way two people from very different points of view can open up the world to each other. How love can be transformative to our way of thinking. And how politics creates pressures that test our characters to the limits.

It seems to be a good idea, especially with the long haul that is film-making, to be working with your wife? Is it?

Yes, it’s an excellent idea. I think it’s hard for partners to be separated for that long and working intensely on something together is fantastic (maybe more for me than Hanan, who has a harder job in my opinion!) We also take our children, Ethan (17) and Luca (13) with us when we film, so we stay together as a family as much as possible. They’ve appeared in every film we’ve made.

Why the Cold War for this film and the 2004 novel that it’s based on?

It’s always been fascinating to me, and I don’t think we see the Cold War much from a female perspective, and I loved discovering it through Katya’s eyes.

Do you have any futuristic visions for old people’s homes/care? What would you like to happen to you?

I haven’t thought about it much but the older I get the more I feel that family and friends – a human connection – is so important. And that’s quite something for me, because I am often happy in my own world as a writer. I would love for us to be always be near our boys and to maintain a lot of our great friendships.

Shamim Sarif will be in conversation with Helen O’Hara at the Hampstead Arts Festival on 13th November. You can buy tickets here.

Sex in My 70s – at last, the pressure is off!


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Much of my life, despite discovering meditation in my 30s, has been about achieving goals – either physical ones in different sporting activities or intellectual ones in my medical career. Although often denying it, I was very competitive. I competed in sports at school and university and later on became obsessed with achieving improvement in performance as a rock climber and mountaineer. Even during meditation competitiveness could creep in, in the form of achieving good results.

And as a man this applied in the field of sex as much as anywhere else. The goal of course was to achieve that desirable yet elusive ever-more earth shattering orgasmic ejaculation; and not only that, but to make sure the woman had the same, simultaneously. It was even my responsibility that she did, or so I thought – what misguided arrogance to think that I should be in charge of her body. No matter how hard I tried this scenario was doomed to fail and end in frustration and worse: projection and unspoken recriminations towards the other – familiar picture anyone? And putting oneself under pressure can inevitably lead to the issue of performance anxiety with burn out and even physiological failure, i.e. erectile dysfunction.

I would like to think that now in my 70s life is more laid back but am not sure this is so. What I can say is that I am less obsessed with achieving goals and happier to enjoy the landscape along whatever way I travel. Of course there are still goals but they are simple, practical, everyday ones: when cooking a meal I want the result to be pleasing – both on the eye and palette. Also I am less concerned with impressing others and happier to be me: eccentric, opinionated, flamboyant, insecure. Of course, I still catch myself slipping back into old habits around wanting to be the best but I am not perfect and have come to realise that to pursue perfection is pointless!

And along the pathways of getting older – my mountaineering accident, the death of my wife – I have chosen to face the nooks and crannies within myself. I have attended personal development workshops in which I have had to face and own my shadows in public. I have taken risks exposing sexual and emotional issues around shame and weakness to strangers. I have dared to ask for what I want from another person while showing them who I am and seeing who they are – without masks. And as a result I have re-discovered a zest for life, my big heart and how much fun I can have. It has definitely been life-changing.

I am blessed by finding a strong-willed, like-minded woman to share in this. When I asked her to be my “tantric sex goddess,” after some hesitation she said it was an offer she could not refuse, but then spent months backtracking every time I came forward. I had to learn patience, to respect another’s boundaries and compassion. She had to learn how to show her vulnerability. In any case, I had no idea  what I meant by such a request, which although was what I thought I wanted, was also a fantasy. I was soon to find out the nitty gritty of real relating. And it has not been a particularly smooth ride but a real and honest one. We choose people to relate to intimately because they mirror ourselves and press our buttons. Accepting this, however difficult, can be a springboard to deeper intimacy.

We first came to know of each other’s existence 4 years ago in a seven-day group process known as the Path of Love which is about getting in touch with our potential to be in our hearts. It is not about sex as such but sexual energy is our life force and this process is also about taking risks and living life to the full. Participating in such groups together can be scary but also bring a deeper intimacy and tenderness between couples. Partly in order for our relationship to survive, we have taken part in several residential events including Path of Love as staff, and as participants in a Shadow Work weekend and a seven-day Making Love Retreat where the emphasis was on Slow Sex, a flowing, organic, playful immersion into consciously sharing body, mind and spirit. Basically, it includes spending sweet loving time together. Another discovery was how it is possible to do soft penetration: the penis entering the vagina while only semi-erect! I believe relating to another has to be worked at and this applies to sexual relating. I prefer the word “relating” to “relationship” as I think it gives the impression of something dynamic rather than static.

Gradually, over the last four years, my partner and I have found a way to become slower and less expectant in our sexual life. And I have been able to – after quite a few red hot battles – give myself something more organic. Somehow it now no longer matters whether she has an orgasm, or I do, or no-one does, we’re on a continuum of sexual pleasure which in traditional terms might be considered foreplay. With penetration added. But no pressure.

Something we use as a resource when there is friction between us is to sit facing each other, holding hands starting with eyes closed focusing on breathing into the belly, and then when ready opening the eyes and gazing softly at the other’s face with no judgement, being passively receptive, not actively looking. Then taking it in turns to share what we appreciate about each other. This avoids the mind’s tendency to dwell on negative thoughts and projections and inevitably dissolves the friction. And it is always nice to feel appreciated and not taken for granted.

So, whenever we can, we bring little rituals into our love making as part of setting the desired scene: giving a sense of erotic sacredness. Like slowly undressing each other to a backdrop of lyrical, meditative music and then having a bubble bath together and washing at least each other’s feet and legs – slowly and lovingly, while lying facing each other. In the past I would resort to candles and incense but that was it. Now there is no rush or goal to be achieved and in this way everyday actions become part of making love – even going for a walk or drinking a cup of tea together.

This period of intensive self-exploration has happened over the last five years of my life probably as a result of having more time on my hands to reflect on my real priorities and want I want out of life. This includes making a commitment to make it work between me and my woman.

But the pressure to achieve unrealistic goals is off, which means we can enjoy the adventure.

Is it said that life begins at fifty? Well, I know that life begins whenever you choose a new beginning. It’s never too late.

The Culture Interview: Lesley-Ann Jones


1 Minute Read

Lesley-Ann Jones, 58, met David Bowie when was she was 11 and lived down the road from him and Angie in Beckenham. She went on to get a rock n’pop column for the Sun! And then the Mail on Sunday. In the 80s, those were the sort of days they were – she interviewed Grace Jones on a massage table, U2 in a pool and Cyndi Lauper on a plane. Her latest book is Hero: David Bowie on Hodder & Stoughton.

Was the decision to do a biography about Bowie an easy one?

It was a no-brainer. I had been writing features about and interviews with David Bowie for years. I always knew that one day I would write a whole book about him. We even talked about it: he said to me during an interview once that one day he would get me to tell the ‘entire, brutal truth’ about him in an autobiography, and that I could be his ghost. We also joked that it would be unpublishHero: David Bowieable. The morning I heard that he had died, I began writing the book in my head there and then. By the time I came to have the conversation with my editor, just a couple of days later, I already knew what I wanted to say in it, and how the whole book would pan out. Minus the surprises, of course. I was not yet prepared for some of the amazing revelations that were made to me by people close to David, who mostly felt that they couldn’t say the things they had to say while he was still alive.

 

Was he your hero when you met him in his yellow kimono and you were an 11 year old schoolgirl?

The first time I met him, I was still at infants’ school: Oak Lodge County Primary in Kent. I had a friend there, Lisa Money, whose mother Hy Money worked as a photographer on a local newspaper, the Beckenham Record. Mostly mother-and-baby portraits, but she also used to cover local events. One Sunday afternoon, Hy took Lisa and me to the Arts Lab, in the back room of the Three Tuns pub on Beckenham High Street, to see a sitar player called Vytas Serelis, whom she had arranged to photograph. David Bowie and Marc Bolan were there that day, but they could have been anybody. By the time we got to grammar school, we were a little older, and more aware. David was a local hero thanks to his success with ‘Space Oddity’, which the BBC had used as a soundtrack for their coverage of the historic lunar landings in the summer of 1969. My friends and I resolved to find out where he lived – Haddon Hall in Beckenham – and we started doorstepping him after school. Angie, his first wife, would give us signed photos and pack us off home. But I knew that we should keep trying; one day, she would be out, he would answer the door, and of course he would ask in in for tea. This he did. Imagine all the eyebrow-raising today: two 11 year-old schoolgirls in uniform going round to a rock star’s gaff for tea, behind their mothers’ backs, and that rock star dressed in little more than a lemon silk kimono… The last vestiges of innocence have been eradicated in the internet age. Back then, there seemed nothing wrong about what we were doing. He was nice to us. He talked to us as equals, and he wasn’t at all up himself. He was absolutely our hero. That first time, just sitting there hanging out with him, talking to him, I knew that I needed to grow up and live my life among people like him. But how was I going to do that? I was neither musical nor artistic. Then the pennies dropped. I could do what my father Ken Jones had done. Once a professional footballer, he was injured out of the game, and became a journalist – a big-name columnist, eventually, who spent ten years travelling the world with Muhammad Ali. I could go on the road with artists and bands, and write about them. It’s what I did.willie-and-the-poor-boys

 

You seem to have kept up a relationship with him across the years?

I hadn’t seen David for a few years when I bumped into him in Chartier, a budget restaurant in Paris one Christmas. I was a Modern Languages student on my year out, living in France, and he’d been doing his Christmas shopping at the Galeries Lafayette just down the road from the brasserie. We had a glass of wine together. He had a little phrase that he always used to say whenever he saw me: ‘You again!’ Eventually, I was interviewing him in my own right, for a variety of publications. I think, perhaps, that he might have had a soft spot for me because I was ‘from home’: from the same neck of the woods as him. The greater the superstar he became, the more wistful he seemed about ‘home’, and the ‘good old days’. Every time I saw him, we’d sit there talking about Beckenham, Bromley, our old schools, Medhursts department store on Bromley Market Square, where we both used to buy records. About Top of the Pops. We had people in common in New York, where I spent a great deal of time, during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I used to bump into him, we’d go for coffee or lunch, and just hang out. I could never have said, and I never have said, that we were ‘friends’, as such. He was a planet, I was a satellite. Superstars do not forge bosom friendships with hacks, and that seems right. But he was never less than kind and generous to me.

 

I love the way you say his best friend, George Underwood was much better looking?

David and George met in the Cub Scouts, and had known each other since the age of 8. George was, and still is, deliciously good-looking, with a gentle demeanour and a rakish charm. An incredibly talented artist, he was the one who got to art school – not David. He had a most distinctive personal style, and seems to have been a great source of inspiration to David. He was also a talented guitarist and singer. He and David were in a number of bands together, before David went off and did his own thing. Then George signed his own recording contract with the most successful producer of the day, Mickie Most, and was tipped to eclipse his best friend. David was so angry and frustrated about this that he threatened to kill George. But then something terrible happened: George had a complete mental breakdown, and was admitted to Cane Hill – the same psychiatric institution in which David’s brother Terry was incarcerated. When George had recovered eventually re-emerged, all thoughts of a pop career had been cast aside. He settled into the quieter, and safer, lifestyle of artist and illustrator.

 

How do you perceive Bowie’s approach to getting older and the changes he made to his life? And how do they compare with your own?

I think, in common with most rock stars of his generation, that he felt invincible and immortal. For a while, at least. Journalists liked to write about him ‘maturing’ during the mid-‘80s: certainly he had cast aside his various alter egos, the shock-locks, the mad make-up and the outrageous interview style. By the time of Live Aid in 1985, he was 38 years old, looked fit and glowing, and was probably one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. He was a rich single dad with all his own hair. He’d been on his own for a few years by then, and he had begun to talk about ‘finding true love’ and ’settling down’. That had definitely become a focus. He got engaged to Melissa Hurley, a dancer on his Glass Spider world tour, 1987. But she was half his age, and the age gap really showed. She dumped him. Who dumps David Bowie?! She did! It wasn’t until he met Iman that things fell into place. The gift of the love of his life seemed to give him permission to let go. He was extremely happy with Iman. He relaxed, made the music he wanted to make -which didn’t please everybody, but so what – and started going with the flow. He became who he was always destined to be – as he put it himself, he evolved into his own dad!

As for me: like my own father, I’ve always raged against the dying of the light. I think the relationships that we have, and the way we have and raise our children, shape our ageing process. I have always been a late starter, at absolutely everything. I had my first child at 30, and became a single mother for 8 years. I married late, and had my second and third children in my forties. I had always been fit and active, crashing around the world with rock stars, doing my share of champagne-guzzling (though never anything worse). I had to come off the road when I had children, of course, and that cut me down to size. But I still think of myself as a young upstart. In my head, I’m still an 11 year-old pop fan, and from behind, I like to think (I have kept my hair long), I still look 25… yeah, I know, in my dreams. I still wear denim every day, and black at night. It’s not so much desperation to cling to my youth, but refusal to change from who I really am. Dad’s in his 80s, and he still wears jeans. Who’s to say that we shouldn’t, and who cares what they say anyway?

My marriage collapsed in divorce while my children were still very young. That took some getting over. For a long time, I regarded it as an ending, and an enormous loss. Another decade on, I have come to regard it as a definite beginning. I have written, published and promoted five more books since – which I may never have done, had I stayed married. It was definitely a new lease of life. My former husband wasn’t into rock and pop music – he preferred classical concerts, ballet and opera (which I love too, by the way), and so I hadn’t been to a rock gig for years. I picked up with a number of old friends in the music business, made some new ones, started going again. For me, the important thing is to be out there, and to take part. Life is all about people. Writing is a lonely occupation, but beyond work, there is no point in being a recluse. I maintain a strong Christian faith, and I truly believe that the next life will be infinitely more than this one. I’m not wild about growing old and losing my looks, such as they were: who is? But what are you gonna do about it? I’m far too squeamish for cosmetic surgery, and anyway, I have never met a face lift I found convincing. I lived with Raquel Welch in Los Angeles for a few months, a long time ago. She and her best friend Nancy Sinatra are richer than Croesus, and could afford the finest plastic surgeons on the planet. They looked ab-fab in photographs, but at point-blank range? The lips went one way, the eyes another. My take was always that you can cut through and re-stitch flesh and muscle, but not nerves. Our nerve endings give our faces their personality. As do our wrinkles. Jowls you can keep. But nowt can be done. I’ll keep drinking the champagne, then, and will remain ever grateful for myopia. And I only look in mirrors in the dark.

 

And his ways of thinking around his own approaching death?

I didn’t see David during his final years, and I never got to discuss this with him. But I have been told, by a couple of musicians who worked with him on his last albums, that he was sad when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer – because he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to leave Iman, his daughter Lexi, his son Duncan. He wanted to be there when his grandson arrived. He at last had everything he’d ever wanted. He just didn’t have it for long enough.

 

What about you and getting older and how you look at the world of rock stars?

Once upon a time, they were supposed to want to die before they got old. Now, they just keep doing what they do for as long as they can. Why shouldn’t they? No one ever says that a classical musician must hang up his violin or her oboe because he/she has passed the point of no return. I know that many vintage rockers find the road gruelling beyond belief. There is no doubt that touring is exhausting. But Sir Paul McCartney is rarely off the road, and he’s still one of the finest rock musicians who ever lived. People love to knock, and to say that his voice is not what it was – but whose is? And why shouldn’t he? For as long as he’s performing live, I’ll be queuing up to buy tickets. Ridiculous? Who says? Who’s the judge? It’s not going to end well for any of us. We’ve got to make all the hay we can while the sun’s still out.

 

Please do reminisce a little about interviewing the famous in the 80s and compare to now?

It’s all very different now. Back then, pre-internet, we’d be sent everywhere, no expense spared. We’d get the exclusive interviews, sometimes trouncing our rivals. Sweet victory. If they liked you, the artist/s would say ‘let’s have dinner.’ You’d be invited on the road with them. You’d fly in their private jet, sit next to them on the plane, join them in the limo, go out with them for dinner. What changed? 1, technology. 2, middle men. In those days, there were not the managers, the promoters, the agents, the publicists, the hangers-on, coming between us and the artists. We could, and did, forge relationships with them, that lasted many years in a few cases, and a couple of which are still sound. Nowadays, journalists rarely get that close.

 

Bowie gave you his house in Mustique to live in while you were writing a book?

After he married Iman, they began offloading his various houses around the world. Iman was creating her own territory, her own landscape with him. She didn’t like Britannia Bay House on Mustique – primarily because Mustique is a very racist place. All the home-owners were rich white people, and all the servants were black. So David was getting rid of it. I happened to mention to him one day that I was going to go off for a while, to write my first book on Freddie Mercury. He invited me to go down to Mustique for a month. My elder daughter, Mia and I went together. That was special. There are photographs of our experience in the book.

 

Have you kept up a relationship with Iman?

I met her only once, and could never say that I had a relationship with her. Amazing woman, though. I have nothing but admiration for her.

 

By dying at 69 in the way that he did, at home, and by specifically not having a funeral, what was Bowie saying to the world?

I think he was telling us that he was in control. That he would die exactly as he had lived: by his own rules. On his own terms. How could he have a funeral? It would have been a bunfight. He would have loathed that whole showbizzy shebang. A funeral is an intensely private rite of passage. He left the rest of us to mourn him in our own individual ways. Some of us wept and gnashed and danced in the rain, in the street. Some went to his star on Hollywood Boulevard. Some left flowers and candles and album covers at appropriate landmarks around the world. Some pitched up on his doorstep. Some drew on walls. Some of us wrote books. Being David, he would have laughed at and approved of it all.

 

Can I Embrace Death?


1 Minute Read

I’ve just turned 49. I can hardly believe it. I feel young, often mischievous (close friends call me that) and alert in spirit, and yet, 49 is not considered young in body anymore and the evidence of age is becoming ever more apparent in my skin and around my eyes.

I’ve also noticed that as I’ve moved further into my forties, ageing, sickness and death have moved into my consciousness much more.

In March this year, I was forced to look ageing, illness and death straight in the eye with the death of my beloved aunt – a kind, patient and generous person (modest too) – aged 79. My aunt was like a second mum to my sister and I. She didn’t have a family of her own and was very much a part of our childhood, supporting my single mum and often holidaying with us.

During the last two years of her life she suffered unbearable emotional and physical pain, endured endless operations and was in and out of hospital. Despite a strong will to live, her body could not take any more.

I got a call from my mother just before Easter, saying that I needed to come. I was just about to go on a two-week retreat in the Scottish Highlands but I changed plans, booked a flight to Germany and went straight to hospital from the airport. I got to spend the final hours with her, witnessing her last breath just after 5am – something I’ll never forget. She was gone forever.

Death as we all know, is the one certainty we all share in life and yet it is something we find very uncomfortable to sit with, to talk about.

Can we find a way to turn towards that which many of us consider the most intolerable and painful experiences in life – ageing, sickness and death – with an open heart-mind? They are, after all, experiences that we all have to face – whether we want it or not.

Would we find it easier to talk about ageing and death if we learnt to relax into and accept that the life is a process, a continuous cycle of becoming and ceasing, embedded in a larger cosmic cycle of life and death.

Seeing my aunt’s suffering caused me enormous emotional pain. It also taught me a lot about myself. I discovered that the distress that I was experiencing came from not wanting to accept her suffering and from not knowing how to tolerate the unbearable. I wanted it my way; I wanted my aunt to be well again, I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want to suffer seeing her suffering.

When I was able to see things as they were, when I was able to sit and see my aunt’s sick and decaying body, and the presence of her nearing death for what it was, I felt something in me relax and soften, which helped me to turn towards the experience with patience. I was then able to offer a loving attitude towards my own pain and discomfort in the midst of the unbearable.

Taking responsibility for one’s death

My aunt’s death was also a wakeup call for me to reflect on my own death and to begin to take responsibility for it.

My aunt had no will and this caused much difficulty for my family.

Shortly after my aunt’s death, I made an appointment with a solicitor to make a will. I asked two of my closest friends to become my executors. I asked another friend whether she would be willing to lead my memorial service. I decided to be simply buried in a green burial – to dissolve back into nature.

By taking responsibility for my death, I must face up to the fact that I too will die, that I too may suffer from sickness, that I too may need care, that I too will leave a life and affairs behind for others to deal with.

Taking responsibility for our own death is a tremendous gift to ourselves and to the people we leave behind.

Accepting the life/death cycle – turning towards what is intrinsic and inevitable in life, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen; to feel enriched and empowered by the cycle of life and death we are all born into.

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