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Diana Athill Rails against Romanticism

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Our 55 year old friend is hosting us (two New Yorkers) in London for a week. To get us out of her house while she was “having a shag,” – a well deserved shag, too, I might add, one that had not been available to her for many months - she sent us out to see writer, Diana Athill talk at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival being held at JW3 in Swiss Cottage.

Out came Diana Athill – 99 years old, pioneer of the confessional memoir and subject of the 2009 BBC documentary, Growing Old Disgracefully, tickin’ and kickin’, in a wheelchair, helped out of it and into a seat by her co-presenter, the author Marina Benjamin who has recently published The Middlepause: on turning fifty. Diana was decked out in a reddish tunic and some very nice long necklaces, a pair of glasses perched on her nose, and her whitish-blond head approaching baldness, which was the only thing that seemed old about her despite the wheelchair entrance.

41w6wsldubl-_sx348_bo1204203200_Diana began by saying that the two worst things to believe in or hold dear in life are “romanticism” and “possessiveness,” and that these two things destroy happiness and relationships.

She read a lengthy excerpt from her most recent work, Alive, Alive Oh! in which she described the three major romances in her life. She described a life in which she has been an unselfish, sex-positive, free spirit in her relationships and sexuality. Her mode of living has been and is to embrace the joie de vivre of living each day.516viobej2l-_sx324_bo1204203200_

In relationships, she was “most happy being the other woman,” because she got to have the “plums of the relationship and not the pudding.” She explained that the minute she had to do the pudding part (the daily grind of every day life), she lost sexual interest in her partners.

She described a first love, “Tony,” who went off to Egypt and disappeared from her life, because she didn’t want to go with him, leaving Oxford in the final year of her schooling and because “I was having too good a time.” She was “madly in love,” but “Tony” found another girl, during the separation. Diana pined, but then realized that finding a love does not mean that you fall in love “forever,” but rather that life is a succession of loves and experiences.

Someone asked her how to prevent himself from falling into the trap of “romanticism.” Diana said about Tony that she “felt dead without him,” and that every man she dated was more than anything else, “Not Tony,” until she found “Stephen,” who went from “Not being Tony,” to “being Stephen.” She spoke of how so many women think of relationship as the pinnacle of existence, but instead it’s a phase. To her, sexuality, friendships, relationships, interests all change as the phases of life change.

Diana’s early life is straight out of an episode of Downton Abbey: Stephen appeared in her life when her family’s “house in the country” (read estate) was occupied during the Second World War by soldiers on military training. The soldiers encamped on the grounds, and her mother, out of courtesy, invited the captain of the regiment to the house for tea; then, later, to dinner and a dance they were to attend. Diana and Stephen danced all night, and she described the passionate bonding with him: the intensity of their two hands touching, akin to “naked bodies meeting,” and how that portended their lovemaking. She ended up having a torrid affair with him.

It was a love affair, and he was married. But Diana never attached herself to him, even though the relationship was passionate and pleasure-full. She enjoyed it for what it was. In the talk, she mused about what would have happened had she pursued him, and perhaps caused a divorce, and eventually married him. Apparently in civilian life he was a schoolmaster, and she said, “I would have ended up being the wife of a schoolmaster. I would have been bored to death.”

Her most recent relationship was with a South African man named Barry, to whom she was married for 40 years. She explained that she was first his lover, then his friend, and then his caretaker until, mercifully, his younger family members took him back to South Africa to spend his dotage. At that point she was well into her 70s. She’d been having aches and pains that she had attributed to old age, but three weeks after Barry left she discovered the aches and pains were gone. A burden had been lifted! Her phase with Barry was over.

Not long ago she was on a panel, where she described sharing the stage with “one of the ancient Rolling Stones.” She quoted him, and I’ll paraphrase his sentiment here: “People have lived and died for thousands of years before I was born, so what’s the big deal when I do?” “Think about death once a day, every day,” she advised the crowd of mostly middle-aged women and men. “Then you won’t be so afraid of it. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”

Talking about her life now, she said, “When I first moved in to live with old people they seemed old. I thought, ‘I don’t want to live with a bunch of old people!’ But now they’re Hazel and Mabel and whoever. They’re not old people, they’re just people.”

These days Diana spends a good deal of time sitting and reminiscing. Memories flow in and out, she says, and that’s just fine with her. If you are lucky to live long enough, she tells us, things go, and new things come. Each phase has its joys and sorrows: life is an adventure, and the point is to experience the joy of living. That’s it.


The Erotic Guide to London: From the Flames – BDSM in Camberwell

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‘What do you think?’ says Anne, 50, slim with shoulder length dirty blonde hair cut into a chic, rakish bob. She’s my favourite partner for naughty nights out, always up for a bit of fun. She’s holding up a micro, Brazilian bikini that stretches the meaning of the word. It’s made of two, tiny black triangles held together with thin strands of green string.

‘No,’ I say. ‘I prefer the gold 70s dress you just showed me. Or maybe the gold knickers and the star nipple pasties?’

'Or maybe both?’ she says, smiling, a twinkle in her eye. ‘I can start with the dress and then take it off if I get too warm.’ We all agree this seems a very sensible idea.

Kat, meanwhile, is changing into a fishnet, long sleeved leotard with a pair of flowery knickers underneath, her nod to the ‘tropical theme’ of the evening. She’s German, late 30’s, attractive with brown, spiky hair and a handsome face.

My legs and armpits have been shaved. My toe and fingernails have been painted baby blue. Hair washed and tonged into soft curls, it only remains for me to put on my costume, in this case a tribal printed string bikini, black fishnet dress and high, gold wedged sandals topped off with a turquoise blue straw cowboy hat. The plan is to catch an Uber to Camberwell around 10.45pm, arriving at Totally Tropical Taste around 11.30pm, when the fetish club should be in full flow.

I’m not exactly a newbie when it comes to BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadomasochism) but unlike many on the scene, I don’t like pain. I’m scared of needles and I’m only comfortable with being spanked or flogged by an experienced ‘master’. I learnt that after a couple of trips to Torture Garden where, after having my BDSM cherry popped at the hands of an experienced Dom skilled with a flogger, I came to understand the fine line between pain and pleasure. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since then about anything that involves even the remote possibility of getting hurt, it’s best to bring in the BDSM geeks, the guys who know the merits of one implement over another and are experts at using them.

Silver is such a guy. We met at a Kinky Salon party and, since then, have continued our relationship via Facebook. He’s in his 50s, tall, slim, with grey, spiky hair and a small, silver earring in one ear and looks like a cross between a beatnik poet and a rock star. He also happens to be a Dom. ‘Get off the Internet and come meet some people in the real world,’ he’d suggested when I told him about my failed attempts to meet anyone interesting on OKCupid. ‘There’s a club night going on in Camberwell called Totally Tropical Taste and they’ll be some really cool people there. I’ll put you and a plus one on the guest list.’

So here we are, three chicks at the door of a converted pub turned nightclub tucked away on a back street in Camberwell. It’s nearly midnight and there’s a small but very colourful, mixed crowd already there. A DJ is playing techno music in the bar area and there’s a woman, who was/is a man, at the bar wearing a white pencil skirt with flowers on it. I scan my eyes across the room and spot a woman in a tiny, rubber yellow bikini with a blow-up parrot tied to her shoulder. A black guy in a 70s floral dress wearing a hat composed of palm leaves is dancing with his 6’5” stick thin boyfriend, his face covered with a ‘batoola’, the black eye mask typically worn by older Bedouin women. A peach coloured handbag is slung over his shoulder matching his high-heeled ankle boots. A few guys have tried to spoil the costume party by wearing their street clothes but, thankfully, are in the minority. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed.

Around one, the fun and games kick off. Helen, the club’s hostess, is urging people onto the dance floor for the start of the Flame Games, the club’s own alternative Olympics. Anne is delighted to win the pin-the-banana on the monkey competition. Next there’s a game of let’s-see-who-can-hold-a-coconut-between-your-legs-the-longest-while-dancing. The prize is an expensive vibrator. A tall guy in striped shorts and a tight t-shirt is going head to head against a woman in heels and a rubber dress. I sit on a stool watching from the sidelines. I’m more interested in what’s going on in the dungeon, hidden in the club’s basement down a steep flight of steps.

I make my way carefully down each step in my high heels, careful not to trip, until I reach a large dance floor. I spot Silver at the door of another room. I walk over to him and, standing at the entrance, peek in. I can see a king size gothic style bed covered with a red vinyl sheet, a spanking bench and steel St. Andrew’s cross. The room is also completely empty. My disappointment is palpable.

‘Where’s the people? Where’s the flogger?’ I ask Silver, who reveals himself to be the dungeon’s gatekeeper. ‘They’re coming, they’re coming,’ he promises, somewhat unconvincibly. 'But, in the meantime, there’s always this,' he says raising his right hand, palm facing outward. Faced with the prospect of not being flogged or being spanked, the choice has already been made for me.

‘OK,’ I say, moving over to the St. Andrew’s cross. ‘But don’t be too hard on me.’

‘Not there,’ he says. ‘It’s too wobbly. Bend over that.’ He points to the bench.

I take up my position on the bench, leaning over it bending until my hands touch the floor, my bum covered by the string bikini and fishnet dress. He stands behind me and gently pats my bum, gradually getting harder, my bum getting warmer and warmer until I feel the sharp sting of his slap and the pleasure that follows. He bends over and whispers in my ear, ‘Good girl.’ It’s an incredible turn-on. Then he slows down, moving his hands gently across my bottom and down my back, tenderly. He varies the pressure from spanking to stroking until my bum cheeks are on fire and I’m experiencing a mini flood of endorphins. After ten minutes I stand up. I've had enough. ‘Don’t I get a kiss?’ says Silver. Our tongues meet, the fuzziness in my brain switched up a notch or two. At that point, I would have done anything he asked me to.

I stand up and a little crowd has gathered at the entrance to the dungeon room. It turns out they’d been watching all along. I’m fine with that. Being watched comes with the territory at a club where everyone is an exhibitionist of one sort or another. Arriving home at 4am, I jump in the shower, grabbing a bottle of Aloe Vera on the way to soothe the red blotches and streaks that have formed on my behind. It’s an altogether pleasing end to a fabulous party.

From the Flames is taking a break until next year.

Life in the Slow Lane.

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About six years ago I joined one of those jokey, purposeless Facebook groups. We never meet up, we never do anything fun, we never did anything except bitch about how slow tourists walk. The group was called, “Get out of my way. I walk faster than you.” I think mainly geared at people going to Oxford Street, thinking it’s a good idea at the time, and emerging from the tube into an unmoving throng of people moving slowly, eating, texting, or pointing at planes.

I was the one totally not understanding why anyone under 80, with no bad health problems, would not do the left side of the escalator, the walking up the steps side. I was thinking, don’t you want to get out of the Hogarthian miasma of tube hell asap, don’t you want to join the huddled masses queuing for ill fitting bras at Primark, cos they are cheap? What I was noticing was that a lot of people on the left, walking side of the escalator were wearing fitfuckinbits. Trying to clock up their steps so they could feel scientifically fit at the end of a day. Wankers. The whole point of the left side is to get out of the tube faster, not to work your quads. The right side, the standers, OK if they had big suitcases, OK if they had mobility problems, OK if they had small children ( very OK, my son was horrifically injured as a child, going up the fast lane, where the moving steps swallowed one of his finger tips when he fell). Other than that, why?

But now, I see the world as a very slow walker, on crutches. I hate that I can’t get anywhere fast. The five minute sprint to Tesco Metro is now a 40 minute round trip ordeal, always ending in tears, addictive painkillers, and a bag of frozen peas (not to be eaten, but placed on gimpy foot) People are treating me as a proper old lady. Cars at zebra crossings actually stop as I hobble across the road, in the time it would take to say, move to North Dakota, raise five children and train as a rocket scientist. If I have carry a shopping basket, with the crutches, the surly, stoned guys on minimum, now security guards, will follow me around with the basket as I plunk in my embarrassing purchases – ice lollies, a trashy magazine featuring stories like “I thought I had tummy ache. Then I gave birth to sextuplets in the car park at Homebase, without ever realising I was pregnant” and frozen veg which will not be eaten but placed on swollen, post operative foot.

Is there any good news about being forced to slow down? Yes. You have to stop to rest every now and then cos walking on crutches is basically walking on your hands, full body weight transferred to your upper half, which in my case is fly weight. This means you get to overhear all the mobile phone conversations people have at bus stops. True sample: “I never. ( pause) No I never. She got proper trashed and wound up in the bus garage in Sarf London, and I was like, I didn’t abandon you mate, you puked on my Guess dress, I was like so outta there. I was like all sexy for my date and then he was like sorry love you smell of sick… I fuckin hate when that happens.”

And it makes me glad to not be young anymore. To listen to this stuff instead of live it. And people are kinder when you walk slow, on crutches. They don’t do irritated faces. They do “Take your time, love” gestures, and I do. I hobble over to the corner shop and buy old lady things, like Bigga processed peas and Smash. Open a tin. Just add water. This is the extent of my cookery skills, on crutches. The drug dealers who piss and smoke crack on the stairs say “Mate, you should take the lift” which is about right. I listen to The Archers. It makes more sense on crutches. I don’t know why. I shuffle over to the balcony on nice days and watch people wilfully ignore their pit bulls shitting on our few patches of grass and I think, oh wow I have crutches, I can do that think of pointing and shaking my crutch and shouting “Oi, I see you. I see Jay Z there dumping his crap on our greenery. Pick up after your dog, you lazy sod.” Except I don’t as I am only temporarily crippled and will have to face them again in real life again, when they will kill me. Life in the slow lane is different. It’s like playing a role that may be your real future life. I would take time to smell the roses but there aren’t any around here. Instead, I stand on the balcony in my unwashed dressing gown and watch the blue tins of extra strong brew sparkle like diamonds in the grass. Then I shuffle back indoors, place some frozen veg on my feet, neck a couple of Co Codamol and wait for sleep.

Redefining the Spiritual Journey…

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‘Spiritual life begins when seeking fails.’ Adi Da Samraj 

The freshness of the day glinted through the window, navigating its way through the small opening and spreading out like a fan made of silken butter, over the sheets and into my caress. I wanted to marvel at its honeyed wonder, but was instead wrestling a demonic hangover. One of the dread trials of the dependent drinker is waking. A febrile and sweaty worry greets the day, the only compensation being that it doesn’t matter if it’s rain or shine although rain does not carry with it the same burden of guilt; the guilt of time about to be wasted, already spent.

It takes time to be able to meet any day after drinking and even in the hours before the first eye opens warily upon that day, a nightmarish fear would take me over in the dusky threshold between two worlds. I imagined that I did not have to wake as at sixteen – yes I was only sixteen – a familiar heart-thumping dread was hanging low in my belly and was about to climb into my chest. Generally, I turned over and tried sleep again.

Unconsciousness is always preferable to the alcoholic. If only I knew then how lucky I was and that my fear was only of my parents’ hostility and not yet the terror of waking in a soaked bed, occasionally with someone I had never clapped eyes on, with the sure knowledge of recent disgrace. Blackouts are useful but do not save one from repercussions, aftermaths and consequences.

But this, I soon remembered, was a big day, not one whose preparation best required a night on the town. I was about to be confirmed. Sweetly, a girlfriend and I had sought to cement our union before it was whipped away from us and it seemed right to have God’s blessing whether or not we believed. In a sense my two addictions had dovetailed neatly, drinking and love, yet this ceremony hinted at a purer wine, one that I desperately needed but was too young to understand.

I emerged and was, fairly, greeted with a certain frostiness. Relatives were coming, godparents, friends. I was looking bilious and quickly needed to find my sea legs before nestling into the backseat of a 40-minute car journey, hoping that I could sense the earth and see the road. It wasn’t long before we were pulling over. I flung the door open, threw up and crawled back inside, not green any more but white. It didn’t give me the sort of virginal innocence that could have elicited sympathy and we pulled up at the cathedral, soon all smiles after a lengthy silence, as the more sincere religious among us found us in the crowd.

The service stretched before me like some accursed desert, dry to the mouth and interminable, no oases yet an ending some way down the road. If I looked up into the cathedral vaults I got vertigo; if I looked down a wrenching sickness I struggled to hold down. The bishop, looking fine in his regalia, his fish-hat faintly ridiculous, his purple robes rippling under a moted shaft of sunlight. It was way too hot and he seemed to go on and on. Finally, it was my turn and I knelt before him, fighting hard to keep the dread blend of bitter and lager within my body. Rarely had I struggled so hard or had to endure so much. I got away with it – just. For years afterwards, I saw images of a jolly fat man in a fishy hat and a purple dress sprayed with projectile vomit, a thousand-strong congregation dashing for the exit. I often had the sense of getting away with it by a whisker, making light of my revelry in order to avoid the pain that drove it.

Outside, in the lee of the building that I loved and had attended every day while at school, I managed to pose for photographs, and introduce two families. We returned home for the celebration and I retired to bed exhausted and sick. Everyone wondered where I was and excuses were duly made. It was not my finest hour and while mostly I drank away from my family there were occasions like this one when it was out in the open.

I threw up in spectacular fashion that same year on a boat across Niagara, my sea legs more needed yet less available than ever. It was a pattern that progressed for another ten years, almost fatally. At 26, I was done and almost at once catapulted out of this shadow aspect – the addict – into the land of the lover. He had long lurked underneath the pain and chaos that drove me. I was, in short, a natural devotee and, as my focus turned 180 degrees I discovered that alcohol is called spirit for a reason. Like a drunken native American in many a western, I had been robbed of the conditions I needed to thrive, and so my spirit went underground emerging like a mad genie in a bottle.

It is nearly 28 years since I stopped drinking and began the search for what really ailed me and what I really wanted. I rarely think about it now except occasionally to give thanks. There are countless stories these days of ‘recovery’ with people wrapping themselves tightly in their new identity. It can be an important phase, yet as the ego calms down one that needs to pass, in my view, and life met again. So this is not really a story about drinking at all, but of a search.

When I was 18, a school friend – actually a girl I hardly knew who not long after died of cancer – gave me a copy of The Magus by John Fowles. It was my introduction to mysticism and it bore a quotation from Little Gidding by TS Eliot: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Eight years later when I came to, I fell in love with Taoism and Zen Buddhism and came to realise that I lived in a patriarchal culture where the effortless being that I was reading about – the feminine qualities of love and relatedness – had been driven out by a tyrannical masculinity that wanted only money, power and control. Later, as I explored Jung, I saw there was an evolutional power in the universe that sought wholeness and integration of the duelling opposites both within the world and in the psyche.

Slowly, as the fog cleared, I realised that the conscious life was meant to reflect the wholeness of the Self, which could only be achieved by doing the work of integration, which meant dredging up the long buried contents of my unconscious, facing my shadow – both its darker and more golden aspects - and making peace with it.

It is a monumental work and so often traumatic events are the springboard that propel our seeking. Without pain, where is the spur? Some people are drawn to the essence of love, to what Rumi calls the root of the root of loving, a place where all other desires have been seen through, cleared away. I realised, with a start, that my longing made me a mystic and that I would never be satisfied by the rewards of society.

‘Love draws us back to love, and longing is the fire that purifies us,’ writes the Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Andrew Harvey, another mystic, recommends a good nervous breakdown in your 20s to propel you out of what he calls Stage Two, where we settle for the reward and bribes of the culture, continually fulfilling the false needs of the false self.

My breakdown had been spectacular, my false self – that scaffold we erect to stave off the wounds of childhood – utterly ruptured and a beam of light had hit me between the eyes, smack in the third eye. A portal had opened, my longing had found its proper context. I was a natural mystic and I wanted soul union and that was that. My ego, however, had other ideas.

I was given to over-indulgence in sensual pleasures and was charged with the task of embracing both my humanity and my divinity. I felt in exile all of my life, but again realised without that sense of exile, of not be-longing, I would never have had sufficient longing to travel the journey I have.

That journey took me into living in various communities, becoming a travel writer, re-training as a therapist, studying with different spiritual teachers, travelling to India to study yoga and meditation, finally becoming an initiate of an ancient inner mystical pathway that showed me clearly that the physical world is a realm of reflected light – all its pleasures and pains cul-de-sacs and dead ends that herald our awakening.

The light of pure consciousness can only be found in the heart by turning within. Like everyone else, I spent years looking in this world of reflected light, chasing shadows. Alcohol was only one dead end. There are many others of course: work, sex, food, drugs, gambling, success, achievement. Remarkably, on a bad day I still fall into some of the same old traps.

‘When you extend yourself frenetically outwards, seeking refuge in your external image or role, you are going into exile. When you come patiently and silently home to yourself, you come into unity and belonging,’ wrote the late Catholic priest John O’Donohue.

We are all addicted to exteriorizing our lives, living in our false selves or egos. The more pain we carry, the more we live outside ourselves, for the first thing we encounter within is our distress. Ask any therapy client.

Somehow, we have to learn to be displeasing to ourselves. One of the great deficiencies of The New Age is its emphasis only on love and light and its denial of the shadow. The ego always wants pleasure without pain, happiness and high vibrations linked together in some happy clappy harmony. But I like the dark as well as the light, sadness as well as joy, pleasure and pain. Freedom is letting go of the need to feel good all the time.

If you notice, most of the many programmes for self improvement – often costly – are popular precisely because they appeal to the false self which is predicated on the belief that there is something wrong with us that needs changing. In a sense that is true, but it is the false self itself that is erroneous. There is nothing wrong with our true nature, but most of us are not living in it.

As it says in Alcoholics Anonymous, self will cannot overcome self will. Instead the will has to be surrendered, the false self relinquished entirely not improved. Yet of course, like everything else in this realm of reflected light, the game goes on and people keep buying it. It is, after all, what makes the world go round.

I realised there is nothing wrong with the game just so long as you know it is a game. I have my own place within the game and yet I know it is not real. Success and failure are both impostors.

Finally, seeking is seen through and starts to wind down and then we are in a place of unknowing.

For a time, I followed the teacher quoted at the start of this piece. He said this: ‘The childish individual wants someone to save him; the adolescent wants to fulfil himself absolutely and independently. The true man simply serves good company and surrenders to Truth, the living God.’

I can be in any or all of those states in any one day and I find that quote a good and true barometer for my being. Today, I am doing the deepest inner work of my life, which involves facing more pain yet I know it is not real and that the veils between worlds are parting.

‘Do not stray into the neighbourhood of despair for there are hopes: they are real, they exist. Do not go in the direction of darkness – I tell you, suns exist.’ Rumi was referring to his experience with his own spiritual teacher, Shams of Tabriz, the sun that eviscerated Rumi’s darkness.

In some ways, the 16-year-old boy that I was has come a long way; in another sense, no way at all. For in truth there is no journey, although the mind can only conceive life so, only a gentle swerve into an innate rhythm long forgotten that waits patiently for its own rediscovery.

TS Eliot had it right.

© simon heathcote


Silver Desire: How an Erotic Anthology for the Older Reader was Born

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Since I spent most of my adult life working on top-shelf magazines and reviewing fetish clubs, I found it quite easy to be comfortable in my own skin. I never feared aging, as my appearance had never been my main selling point.

Even when I was younger, I believed that the fact that I was ‘interesting’ would last me for a lifetime whereas all the food-refusing, poking and prodding, expensive shopping and constant self-policing in the world would not stop me getting older. I was used to seeing a range of bodies - various ages as well as various shapes and sizes – presented as sexual and desirable, far more so than if I had only had my reflection in the mirror and the mainstream media to go to for images of what is attractive. Having come to the conclusion - before I did too much damage to myself or anyone else - that long term monogamy was not for me, I had a lot of sex with a lot of people, and initially saw no reason why that should ever stop happening. I was going to be a goodtime bad girl forever…

Of course, things changed. Belated parenthood, the steady demise of the porn magazine and then the hormonal upheavals that get us all to some extent or another - meant that I eventually did get to a stage where I had started to regard the sexy stage of my life as having come to an end. I consoled myself with the fact that I’d probably had more fun than a lot of people, and cast about for something else to think about. It didn’t really work, but it turned out that it didn’t need to. silver-desire

EL James is someone I would definitely buy a pint for, if I met her, as she was probably the single biggest factor in what I regard as my erotic resurrection. No, I didn’t read the wretched books and have no intention of doing so, but the 50 Shades phenomenon meant the market for erotic fiction was suddenly wide open again. That was great news for me. Also, the guidelines for erotica seemed a little less rigid than they had been. It was okay to write about dominant women and bisexuality. I even got away with creating a mature-ish female protagonist for my novel Black Heart. She was 39 rather than a pensioner, but no one asked me to change the story and make her the usual unawakened 20-year-old. Subsequently, I met a younger man who demonstrated very convincingly that I was still, at 50, desirable.

In the course of one of those Facebook discussions that go on between authors, the subject of erotic fiction about older people arose. No editor wants stories about elderly protagonists, it was said. You can’t sell older women as sexy. Sexy werewolves, sure, sexy vampires, any time, m/m romances for a female audience, lots of those. Bloody billionaires and hysterical historicals, yeah, fine. Older women? Granny grabbing, tomb raiding, coffin-boffing? Eww, no thanks.

Sod it, I thought, time this was altered.

I already knew about Sexy Little Pages, a new erotica publisher willing to work with anyone who had an interesting idea, so one quick email exchange later, Silver Desire was conceived. I put out a call to every writer I knew: send me a story, which focuses on a woman aged 50, or older, having a sexual encounter. I got a magnificent response (give or take a few cookie-cutter Mrs Robinsoneque tales that were politely returned) and pulled together the ten stories, which make up the anthology. Yes, some are a little more bittersweet and elegiac than is usual in erotic fiction, but there’s plenty of brazen, bawdy joy in there as well. And, having recently appeared in a proper porn film for the first time at the age of 51, I feel safe in rejecting the idea that the future holds nothing for me but knitting, nice cups of tea and the occasional totter round a garden centre. and checkout where you can buy and make sure you click the 'add to Goodreads' link!

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A Shadow Work Weekend in Warwickshire

14 Minute Read

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.” Carl Jung

For quite a while, I’ve been the sort of person who recognizes my inner Hitler. Seriously, I do not pretend to be little Bo Beep. I believe that I’m on most spectrums from love addiction to violence.

I also see that separation – it’s you over there that is mentally ill, not me – is the key to a culture of blame. I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be part of relationships, friendships and a society that cares deeply and takes responsibility for our own fuck ups.

Which is why I was attracted to going on a Shadow Work weekend with my partner, Asanga. Him again! I’m blessed, I know, with a partner who is equally drawn to these kinds of conscious explorations. Going with a partner meant for us both - an extraordinary opportunity to witness each other in a way that we had never done before.

What is Shadow Work? Well, it was developed over 25 years ago by Cliff Barry and Mary Allen Blandford. They integrated and correlated their work with other disciplines such as Gestalt, Voice Dialogue, Accelerated Learning, Metaphor work, Bio-Energetics, Family Systems theory, Addiction Recovery work and other personality systems such as the Myers-Briggs Type indicator and the Enneagram. They are also indebted to the pioneering work of Robert Bly, Robert Moore and Doug Gillette, David Grove, Ron Hering and Hal and Sidra Stone.

What is the Shadow? The shadow parts of ourselves are the aspects of our behaviors and feelings that we have put into a compartment labeled not acceptable, that must not show or express in everyday life. They are not all negative, there are often positive or golden parts that we are repressing.

And so one July afternoon, I find myself driving down the lanes of Warwickshire. Although I have never done Shadow Work, I have done a fair amount of group process work – from the Hoffman Process to the Path of Love to Malcolm Stern’s year Courage to Love to Pesso Boyden – so I have a certain faith in what is to come. However, I know I will be dealing with something to do with my jealousy – an aggravating old wound which lurks painfully within me – and that will mean revealing desolate parts of myself, so I am also nervous.

And guess what - a situation has arisen that very week to intensify the Rose shadow fest. It is to do with the despairing place that I visit when, for instance, Asanga flirts with my friends. Perfect material for the weekend.

The house is called Holycombe in Whichford. It is an idyllic location, useful in terms of soothing fears. There’s an assistant, lovely Jane, who helps me with my bags. I love being helped with my bags. It’s the legacy of having been a single mother. Asanga has already arrived and is sitting on the hill near the labyrinth. We live five hours apart by car. He’s in North Wales and I’m in Harlesden, London. We keep in touch via text, email and sometimes phone. And there is trickiness re communication from time to time. This week has been one of those weeks.

Meeting each other after a couple of weeks’ apart is also often challenging. We have to find a way to come together again. Somehow we manage it this time with sweetness and a tender walk around the grounds that are full of love seats, tree houses, yurts, a pond and meadow flowers…

The group are gathering – nine participants, six men and three women which is unusual – and we meet at 4pm with the facilitators, wife and husband, Nicola and John Kurk who have been teaching this work for over 20 years in that time-honoured fashion. The circle. A talking stone is passed round. We introduce ourselves and say a bit about what we’d like to happen here and what’s important to us in our lives and how we’re feeling. Oh, yeah, that bit.

“I’m Rose,” I say, “and I’m here because I want to take off some protective clothing in my relationship with Asanga, I’d like to melt more of my heart towards him. I’m a writer, I’m passionate about my walks around Unsung London. I’m a mother. I’m feeling nervous but excited. I used to be a rock n’roll journalist.”

I mention the latter because John mentions that at heart he’s still a rock n’roll guitarist, and then Nicola adds in that she’s a classical pianist, and it becomes a theme. And makes me laugh.

As for the others, I promised not to divulge anything about them as part of the confidentiality agreement, but, of course, they have come for all sorts of reasons – from marriage difficulties to wanting more confidence in relationships to dealing with past abuse.

And then it’s straight into learning about the Four Quartered Model– Cliff Barry chose four of Jung’s archetypes as the basis of this work, they are the Magician, the Sovereign, the Lover and the Warrior as an aid to self-awareness - and also creating a safe container for the group through various partnered and group exercises. It is full on for a Friday evening.

Don’t Nicola and John realize that we’re meant to be doing some quiet movement and a little light sharing for starters? No, seems not! Here we are, thrust right into the flames… Each corner of the room has an archetype in it.

Firstly, we visit the wizard’s hat and the Magician who represents taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Strategy, analyzing, perspective, they are all characteristics. I’m instantly – as the overemotional one in my family – attracted to the Magician. In personal development work, the mind often gets a bad rap, dismissed in the mad rush to find the body and feelings, but in Shadow Work, it is lauded. Hurrah. There’s all sorts of extra information, for instance, fear is the gateway emotion so facing it ushers in the Magician, and if you have an overinflated inner magician you might be hyper-vigilant, or deflated, you might be confused and therefore blinkered. The core shaming belief is – I am rotten to the core.

We do some partnered work to help create a safe group environment, which is vital for this kind of deep sharing group work. This exercise is Tell Me Who You Are. One person keeps on asking Tell Me Who You Are, and the other sits and speaks spontaneously. For two minutes. It’s an unraveling. You can be as honest and untamed as you choose. I say – “I’m a mother, I’m a lover, I’m a wild woman, I’m shy, I love poetry, I’m afraid that my partner will abandon me etc.” It’s always a privilege to hear from the other person.

And then on to the Sovereign which is that place of authority within ourselves, the one with the vision and the moral knowledge. The sparkling crown is in this corner. The Sovereign also is the heart and the service and the blessing. This queen/king figure is represented by fire and the gateway emotion is joy. The core shaming belief is I’m not good enough. The inflated Sovereign always knows best while the deflated is unsure of her/himself.

The next exercise is one where we kneel and are blessed by two of the others. I go first. They put their hands on my bowed head and I imbibe their gift gently. Then I stand and they kneel while I bless them. One of the men is in tears at the enormity of the receiving. It’s a place where we can practice giving and receiving. And nourishment of all of that. It reminds me of the six of pentacles in the Rider Waite Tarot pack where there is a gentleman with scales, and there is a person on either side, one is giving, and the other is receiving. In balance.

We do manage to fit a gorgeous evening meal in here. It’s all lightness and Nicoise salad. Perfect for this sort of emotional/spiritual work.

Last for this evening comes the Lover. Fragrant sweet peas, a bowl of exquisite chocolates, another of grapes and dazzling textiles are all in this sensual corner. Play, spontaneity, the senses, sexuality, connecting to the body and feeling. Creativity. Intuition. Relationships. This is all that Lover energy. The gateway emotion is grief, tears lead to that opening that let the melted heart in. Listen up, Rose. Surrender. Listen up, again. If overinflated, then life is a rollercoaster of emotions. And there will be addiction in there. Deflated is a lack of feeling and connection, isolation, physical self-abuse. The core shaming message is I don’t love right.

Before bed, there’s a visualization taking us from birth to the future. For me, the most important part is enjoying the lullabies that my father sings to me as he’s getting me ready for bed when I was about three. Somehow, those innocent, splendidly playful times have been cast aside by me. This time, I get time to appreciate them.

In the morning, after one of those fruity/home-made bread breakfasts, we’re back in the room and on to the Warrior after a quick sharing of how we are. The Warrior is the perfect archetype before we go into the ‘carpet work’ – basically a one hour-ish process that includes role play– because he/she is the doer, the- make-it-happen part of us. And also the gateway emotion is anger, which propels us with its dynamic force.

I identify powerfully with The Warrior. The Warrior is the rebel too. It’s about boundaries and courage. The Warrior does what needs to be done. In inflated form, they are bullies, and deflated, they are victims. I know both intimately.

Not everyone – especially of course, the British, can do anger – I can. And sometimes I can overdo it. So in the exercise – Tell Me What You’re Angry About – I’m loud and full of the outraged anger that I feel when Asanga flirts with one of my friends. The anger of betrayal and abandonment. In fact, it’s often good for me to practice containment. But in this case, it makes me feel alive and ready for the group process work.

There are nine of us and so that’s at least nine hours. We start before lunch on Saturday and then it’s go, go go. Funnily enough, fuelled by his anger at me – I criticised him on the Friday evening after the sweet reunion and as a result he slept in the car - Asanga goes first. He’s in Warrior mode. John asks if he would like me to leave the room as they don’t want partners to cause an editing or censoring of what they say. Asanga says wants me to stay. That’s what we’ve both agreed. And to be honest, we don’t edit ourselves much in our ongoing relationship. We’re not polite.

It is deeply moving to watch your partner work in this way. And informative. I could really see now how like his mother I could be, in my unpredictable anger. And that made me reflect about my own behavior. It was a privilege to be there.

I decide to wait until the next day before I do mine. Majorly because I’m someone who can get overwhelmed by my feelings, and when I’m triggered, I long for some rational perspective. So I make my mind up that I will wait and let my feelings of anger subside a little.

On Sunday, I’m ready to rock and roll just before the sumptuous lunch. I’m full of anticipation rather than nerves. I stand up and walk into the middle of the carpet. Nicola asked me – “What would you like to have happen here”

“I would like to take off some of the protective layers around my heart with regards to Asanga, I want to allow myself to melt more in love,” I say.

And what is preventing you from doing this?

“I don’t feel safe. I feel often overwhelmed with feelings of fear, despair and abandonment when Asanga flirts with my friends?”

And then we’re off into role-play and the dynamics of the process. Nicola asks me to choose someone to play that little girl part of me that is overwhelmed. I’m invited to put her in a position and also to choose some material – dark green in this case – for what energy she emanates. I ask her to crouch down on the floor and take up very little space. I’m then invited to say what she will be saying.

“I’m overwhelmed and helpless,” I say, and my little girl performer repeats this.

I’m invited to choose someone to play Asanga. I do. And then demonstrate what he would be doing physically. I demonstrate a kind of dancing looseness and his sentences are – “I’m available to everyone else but not you.” Obviously, this is my subjective perspective when I’m triggered rather than the ‘reality’.

And then, quickly it goes back to my raging father – I pick someone for him and wrap him in bright orange – and his apoplectic violent anger against me, in other words, I felt abandoned in this place as a ten year old child and so this is still a place I travel to. I felt in those days as though I was going to be killed so this father says – “I’m going to fucking kill you” as though he means it.

Just as I’m getting carried away with that violent force – as of course, I have it within me as well - Nicola invites me into my Magician energy (in other words, to use my intellect for a bigger picture and perspective) and to the Lover corner of the room for relationship.

Who else would I like to be there? I say that I’d like other parts of my father that tend to get forgotten – to be there. The tender father who sang sweet songs to me when I was three. I choose someone for him. And the inspiring father who taught me about books and debate. So someone comes out to be him.

And then there’s me, as the pre-teen who physically fights my father. Out comes another participant.

This is a key moment. Nicola asks me if I’d like to push him – ie the angry father - out of the room. I am immediately clear that I don’t need to. That I have done this already in other group work and that’s not where my focus needs to lie. It would be better spent on the positive parts of my father and getting the cherishing that I need.

She asks me what I would like to happen? I say that I would like to be held by my father, and explain that my ideal father is actually the raging one at the moment.

“Realistically, he would never hold you, so we’ll have to de-role him so that he can become your ideal father.”

Magic can happen here.

First of all, I get to hold my own overwhelmed little girl and tell her all the wonderful aspects of herself, and stroke her hair and face. It’s exquisitely tender.

“You’re gorgeous,” I murmur, “You’re a great mother, you’re beautiful.”

Nicola asks what advice I can give to this little girl. I tell her that she can call upon those positive parts of her father in times of need and abandonment, and that they will be there for her.

Finally, I get to be my own little girl and I dissolve into the willing body and arms of my ideal father. I cry and breathe deeply. I drink in this gift of nurture and relaxation. It’s such a huge, huge relief.

John calls on everyone to join me and gently touch me. Again I breathe it all in. It is divine – floating in that sea of unconditional love. Plus Asanga is there somewhere in tears himself.

I realize that Asanga can also be this ideal father to me from time to time, when I need it. He has that energy. That’s reassuring.

I get up in bliss and dance with them. That’s my way.

Finally a couple of hours later, after incredibly intense group processes, we gather again for a graceful goodbye. Our sharings of how it has been for us. Our honouring of the group and the incredibly skilled facilitators.

What have I taken away? A sense of new calm around this, the nourishment, the witnessing and the knowledge that I have been seen in these places by my partner. That is a Big Wowee…

You can find more information about Shadow Work and weekends led by Nicola and John at, and

The Culture Interview: Louisa Young

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Louisa Young, 55, has written a wide variety of fiction, non-fiction and children's books. She is undoubtedly a wild woman with bohemian proclivities. Her most recent novel, Devotion is the third part of the trilogy that includes My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You which was shortlisted for various awards including the Costa Novel of the Year. Here she tells us how getting older affects her writing.
What does age bring to your writing?
Wisdom, of course. Plus practiced skills, and a different kind of impatience.
Devotion is a historical novel telling the story of Italy in the 1930s through the eyes of Jewish fascists? How come?
It tells, among others, the story of a Jewish fascist family. My English boy, Tom, is devoted to his Italian cousin, Nenna, who is devoted to her father Aldo, who is devoted to Mussolini. Of course this becomes an impossible circle as Mussolini teams up with Hitler, and Aldo proves incapable of acknowledging that his hero is a murderous buffoon. I was as surprised as anybody when I first heard about Jewish fascists because it seems impossible —  why on earth would Jewish people be fascist? Hindsight makes us see it as impossible. But of course Jewish Italians in the 1920s and 1930s had no idea what would happen in their future, any more than we know what will happen in ours. To be fascist was a very reasonable thing for any Italian in the 1920s, and by the 1930s it became extremely difficult to live if you were not fascist. The Jewish communities were no different in that way, and perhaps some also had the immigrants’ desire to show willing towards their adopted country by demonstrating nationalism. Though in fact the Roman Jewish community has been there since before the birth of Christ, before Julius Caesar. All this seemed to me to be ripe ground for drama, dilemma and betrayal.
Devotion by Louisa YoungDo you feel you’ve found a literary freedom as you’ve got older?
Yes. I realise that I have become what I wanted to be — a novelist making a decent living writing what she wants. That I am, if you like, getting away with it. Undoubtedly this gives me license to carry on however I decide I want to, as a writer. I’ve written biography, literary fiction, thrillers, children’s novels (with my daughter), cultural history, and now memoir. Onward and upward.
And how does it affect sex scenes?
It really is easier to write about sex after your parents die.
It sounds like you had a bohemian background, are you still inclined in that direction?
I’m not sure what Bohemian means at this stage of history. To me it smacks of garden squares and refusing to wear a corset and being in love with George Bernard Shaw. Or, it’s what some people call the people who don’t work in offices. I’ve been called eccentric for riding a Harley and voting-labour-while-posh, which seem pretty ordinary things to do. I think I’m perfectly normal. But then we’d all say that of ourselves, wouldn’t we?
Do you still have a motorbike?
Alas my lovely Harley was nicked some years ago, and soon after I had my child, which changed the landscape rather. I do get yearnings, in the spring, but I don't act on them.
Who is an older woman ‘heroine’ or ‘anti-heroine’ for you?
I admire every woman who has managed to deal with the additional burdens put on women, and made a good life despite it, for themselves, their families, the world in general. Some — all right, Margaret Thatcher — while I admire their capacity to achieve power, I dislike what they have done with it. I admire every thinking feminist who ever told the patriarchy to bite her satin hem, from the goddess Athene to Bette Davis to Mary Beard to Malala Yousafzai.
Were you ever a punk?
No. I thought I was too fat and pink. I would have liked to be an elegant skinny Patti Smith type punk, but as a curvy blonde if I shaved my head I’d have just looked like a piggy in fishnets.
Do you feel a pull to big up female or male characters?
Not specially. But I do like looking at an entire life for my characters. I won't necessarily write the entire life, but I like to know where they came from, how they got to where they are, and where they’re going.
Do you have a philosophy of dying and was this influenced by the untimely death of your fiancé, composer Robert Lockhart?
My philosophy of dying is: don't die till you’re dead.
And yes, this is one of the many things Robert, his life and his death taught me. It’s a long story, involving musical prodigy, love, turbulence, alcoholism, recovery, cancer, remission, early death anyway. It certainly sharpened me up, life-wise. My next book — it’s nearing completion — is about him and his extraordinary life.
Can you imagine your ideal old people’s home and how would it be?
I have it all planned. Loads of friends, modular living (shared gardens, meals and living rooms, private bedrooms, bathrooms and coffee machines), good lighting, nice food, spare bedrooms for visitors, film nights (lots of Almodovar), music rooms, a studio or two, theatre . . . To be honest London is my ideal old people’s home.
Have you planned your funeral?
I used to. Real funerals kind of spoil the fun.
Where are you on Jeremy Corbyn?
Are you trying to make me cry?
Have you ever been devoted to anything unhealthy?
Only Robert.
Devotion is available to buy now on Amazon. Follow this link.

Through the Looking Glass…

1 Minute Read

My friend Svend once described me as “the most boringly heterosexual man I’ve ever met.” Which is fair enough, because although I’ve always been open in principle to the idea of sex with another man I’ve never felt the slightest interest or desire actually to do so.

Which meant that Josh was out of luck when we met up for coffee.

I’d thought I would be having coffee with a divorced mother-of-two called Jane. But Jane turned out to be Josh. Evidently my first foray into the world of dating after a fifteen-year hiatus wasn’t going to be quite as smooth as I’d envisaged.

Needless to say, sparks didn’t fly over cappuccino and double-decaf-macchiato with vanilla. After a few minutes of small talk, we parted ways. I’m still curious about who was really sending me those witty and amusing texts.

But at least we had met in real life. This business of face-to-face has, evidently, fallen out of fashion since the last time I was single and looking to mingle. Nowadays it’s all online flirting and swiping and tiny frequent jolts of dopamine which have replaced the magnificent avalanche of well-deserved mutual orgasms.

Melanie on Tinder did her undergraduate degree at Harvard which complemented mine from Oxford and she had nearly as many Masters degrees as I do and she was sane and lovely and funny and sexy and… after three days of increasingly steamy messaging back-and-forth revealed that she actually lives 1,892 miles from me. Her Tinder location being, sadly, untrue.

Then there were the several women on OKCupid who likewise seemed clever and funny and interesting and according to the OKC questions were very sexually compatible with my own predilections and preferences. I ended up sexting several and having phone sex with five of them, though the orgasms were all on their side. Of the three women who agreed to meet up with me in real life, however, all turned out to be very anxious about sexually transmitted diseases. Which enabled me to discover that talking about sex and having virtual sex have become substitutes for actually having sex. The fact that (a) as a middle-class person over the age of 22 your lifetime risk of getting an incurable STD is actually three times less than being struck by lightning, and (b) I can furnish a very recent full-spectrum blood panel showing that I’ve never had anything more serious than malaria, made no difference. Fear is the currency of the USA. So these clever and sexy and interesting women have become prisoners of a mass-manufactured fear that bears as much relationship to reality as any random statement by Donald Trump.

Years ago I read a story by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the theme of which was a future in which people were so accustomed to living alone and interacting only via hologram that they could no longer tolerate the stress of being in the proximity of another human being. Apparently we’re nearly there.

After several more experiences I realized I had a taxonomy of Modern Modes of Dating:

  • com is for when you want dinner but no talk about sex
  • OK Cupid is for when you want dinner and some talk about sex
  • Tinder is for when you don’t want dinner but do want to talk about sex

Now at this point you’re probably thinking, “just another tedious piece of self-pity by yet another boring middle-aged man who can’t get laid.”

Yet nothing could be further from the truth, except the part about not getting laid. I’ve been delighted to discover that the world is full of interesting and funny and clever women, even if one or two of them may turn out to be overly-optimistic gay men. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that my online profiles receive far more interest that I’d ever have expected – men, after all, being ten a penny online. I’ve had many interesting virtual conversations with women who, despite the blanket of fear that covers the USA, have found they can channel their sexual energies through the virtual worlds of texts, instant messages, and voice communication. The virtual has replaced the real because it seems safer. As one woman told me without a hint of irony or sarcasm, “If you wanna touch a pussy, get a cat.”

Years ago I took my first multi-day hike into the wilderness with a couple of acquaintances. Our plan was to cover at least 20 miles per day which, given the huge elevation gains and descents, the rough terrain, and the unforgiving ground, was ambitious. My two friends found plenty to complain about: tired legs, sunburned skin, rubbing from the pack straps and hip-belt, blisters on the feet… But I hadn’t expected to be spared these inconveniences. In fact I’d expected rather worse. And that freed me up to enjoy the magnificence of the wilderness, the extraordinary silence, the vastness of the views from the top of 3,200 meter peaks. Since that first exploration I’ve gone solo into the wilderness many times and no matter how many mosquito bites or cuts and scrapes I’ve suffered, I’ve always felt the same sense of sheer delight at the unexpected pleasures nature offers if only you’re open to perceiving them.

I feel the same way about dating in 2016. Provided you don’t have any expectations, there are treasures to be found. I’m amazed by how many bright and funny and interesting women I’ve been interacting with. At work we’re all wearing masks but online we’re free to reveal to virtual lovers our truest selves and thus experience a strange kind of Great War trench camaraderie, something along the lines of: “Yes, this is bloody awful, but thank god we can share a mug of tea.”

And while it’s true that I’m probably not going to get laid, which in the old days was more or less the point of dating, it’s also true that there’s a different sort of pleasure in reaching out and encountering new minds.

Now if only I wasn’t allergic to cats…

AofA People: Ann Docherty – DJ

2 Minute Read

Ann Docherty, 65, is a DJ from Sheffield. She heard about AoA on Woman's Hour and filled in our Q & A. Perfect. She says she'd rather be listening to music or designing a new dress than bothering with FaceMuck...

What is your name?

 Ann Docherty

How old are you?


Where do you live?


What do you do? 

 Officially retired but still DJ'ing.

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

If you ignore all the bits wearing out it's brill.

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


What about sex?

 Could do with some occasionally.

And relationships?

Sacked it off last year after he threw a timmy tantrum. Can't be bothered with that.

How free do you feel?

Every day might be an adventure.

What are you proud of? 

My children natch & playing tunes all round the world.

What keeps you inspired?

 There's always something new to listen to.

When are you happiest?

Laughing with family & friends, bouncing off the walls when a new track rocks my head out, or when a crowd are lovin' the tunes.

And where does your creativity go?

I like to think I'm sharing it with the people on the dance floor.

What’s your philosophy of living?

 I'm laying down a bassline.

And dying?

 Join me for my last party.

Are you still dreaming?

 Always of the dream gig I'd like to put on with my fave artists & DJs.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I suspect last Saturday after playing Tramlines. After the gig I went to the 24/7 Turkish supermarket & did some shopping, jumped in a cab, got myself home & promptly fell into a large bunch of lavender outside my flat.

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