Charles Richet could tell you. It’s easy to get distracted.

There I was, writing a short poem about my grandma, smoking (grandma was doing the smoking, I was doing the writing / let’s move on). There’s a bit where I describe how she confuses me with some long-dead relative, then takes a puff on her cigarette and releases the smoke upwards in a way that reminded me of old pictures I’d seen of mediums producing ectoplasm. Quite niche. Maybe not right. I thought I’d better look it up.

Wikipedia is a brilliant resource, but they should rename it. Wastipedia maybe. Procrastinatopedia. Okay, Wastipedia. Because what happens is you go to check up on one thing and inevitably end up on something else. Which is the natural way of things, I suppose, but not at all helpful when you’re trying to get stuff done.

In this case, I couldn’t resist clicking on a link to the guy who invented the word ectoplasm. Turns out he was an eminent French physician called Charles Richet. He won the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylaxis. He invented a new analgesic drug, chloralose. In his spare time, he wrote books on history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, as well as plays and poetry. He did some useful work in the field of aviation. He was a notorious racist and eugenicist. Oh – and he was interested in the paranormal.

Sometimes it seems as if credulity is a switch you can opt to throw according to how you’re feeling, or how much fun you want to have. The ‘suspension of disbelief’ you employ when you sit down to watch a magic show.

Of course, I couldn’t resist looking up suspension of disbelief on Wikipedia. Turns out it was first used by Coleridge in 1817. Which is interesting, but not progressing this blog-post overly.

Anyway, Charles Richet doesn’t seem to have suspended his disbelief so much as hung it up in the hallway with his cloak and hat.

For example, in 1905 Wikipedia describes him attending a seance with a famous French medium of the time, Eva Carrière. In these seances Eva would invoke a 300 year old spirit guide called Bien Boa. Richet reported that Boa was breathing, and had ‘moved around the room and touched him.’ Unfortunately there was also a photographer present, who captured a cardboard cut-out, and a man dressed in a cloak, helmet and beard.

Now, I’m not great at discovering new forms of analgesia, and I’m certainly not high on the list of people you’d come to if you wanted to know how to get airborne. But I’m pretty confident I’d be able to tell the difference between a spirit guide and a cardboard cut-out, or a man in a helmet. Unless I decided beforehand that it’d be great if there were such things as spirit guides, in which case I might be able to ignore the strings hanging from the ceiling or the washing label in the hem of the spirit guide’s cloak.

The really confusing thing is that apparently Richet didn’t believe in the afterlife. He rejected it as ‘unscientific’. Instead he wrote about the sixth sense, which he saw as an ability to connect with:

‘[…] unknown vibrations emanating from reality – past reality, present reality, and even future reality […]’

which in itself sounds plausible, until a guy in a darkened room brushes past you wearing a helmet.

So what is ectoplasm?

There was a fashion for Victorian / Edwardian mediums who could produce floaty substances from their mouths and ears during trance states. The explanation was that this material was excreted by the medium so the summoned spirit could take on a physical shape. Sometimes these emanations carried a facial image of the spirit. Later on, when the whole thing was debunked, it transpired that the ectoplasm was actually cheesecloth, muslin or other light fabrics treated with egg white and so on, material that the medium swallowed beforehand, or stuffed up their sleeves, or their rectum, and then vomited when the time was right, or had dragged out by wires.

You have to love these photos, though. One of them is of the Scottish medium Helen Duncan, the last person convicted and sent to prison under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. She’s producing ectoplasm that even from here, seventy years later, you can tell is just a length of gauze and a rubber glove. (I think the Witchcraft Act was used as an expedient means of prosecution for fraudulent spiritual activity, but which may, unintentionally, have given some credence to her skills).

Richet certainly wasn’t alone in failing to see the truth of these things. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was another famous advocate of the paranormal, despite being the creator of one of the world’s most rational detectives. Doyle was friends with Houdini – for a while, at least. Doyle genuinely thought Houdini used magic instead of trickery, despite the fact  Houdini would show him how it was done.

They fell out.

So, in conclusion, I spent half an hour idling / researching into ectoplasm, just for one glancing image in a poem.

I think that means it deserves a read – don’t you? Hmm? (He says, suddenly gripping the arms of his chair, leaning forwards, rolling his eyes, and a line of egg-stiffened cheesecloth flying out of his nose…)



Of course, I can only talk about horror films as a consumer, not a creator. I have no idea about the practical difficulties of producing a script, finding the right location, hiring actors, where to park the catering wagon and so on. I’ve no idea about the business side of it, the financing, distribution, marketing, the handshakes in boardrooms and backrooms.

And if I didn’t know that making a film was complicated, I could guess by the matryoshka of logos at the beginning. At least it gives you time to bet what the opening shot’s going to be, though. Aerial shot of a city? Children in a playground? Or (worst case scenario), a car pulling up at night and the headlights going off?

Not that I particularly watch horror films. I’m not a genrist (if that’s even a word, and if it is, it shouldn’t be). I mean, if you were invited back to someone’s house, and they said make yourself at home, and went off into the kitchen to fix some drinks, and you glanced around the shelves, and noticed box sets of Saw and Human Centipede and the like, you’d really start to wonder why he was taking so long in the kitchen.

Anyway, I’ve always thought the idea of genres was odd. For example, I recommended Annihilation to someone at work, and they said they wouldn’t watch it because they didn’t like Sci-Fi. They might just as well say they wouldn’t watch The Witch because it was shot in Pennsylvania (which might be justified, I don’t know). The thing is, Jaws and Babe are both good films in the same way (animal husbandry aside). They both have characters you care about, solid, dramatic scenarios, and a through-line that draws you from the beginning to the end in a satisfying way. I’ll get as much of a kick watching Oslo, August 31st as I will High School Musical, although I’ll feel less like singing after Oslo.

By the way, I can’t help blushing at the mention of High School Musical, because of something that happened to me in New York.

As a family we’d won some flights there (which was embarrassing in itself, as Kath helped organise the raffle). One of the things we did was visit Times Square, to see if we could get tickets for a show. Whilst we were standing in the middle of it all, looking round, a guy came over.
‘Hey!’ he said. ‘Have you seen High School Musical?’
‘Yeah! We love that show!’
He knelt down and pointed across the square.
‘You see that guy over there’, he said, lowering his voice in a stagey, confidential way. ‘D’you know who that is?’
The guy he was pointing to nodded and waved back.
‘That’s Corbin Bleu! Wanna go meet him?’
We said sure. He led us over.
Corbin was in a khaki combat jacket and jeans, his hair cropped short, looking uncomfortable, like someone whose cover had been blown.
‘Hi!’ he said. ‘Great to meet you.’
‘I thought you were great in High School Musical’ I said.
‘Wow! Thank you so much!’
‘Yeah. Really good.’
‘Do you like musicals?’
‘I do. I’ve seen a lot.’
‘Well I’m in one now. It’s called Godspell. D’you know it?’

There are moments in these interactions – markers, if you will – bobbing up and down in the choppy conversational waters, red and white stripes, flashing lights on top. Maybe a bell. The point is, you can’t miss them. And you really don’t need to be a maritime expert to know they mean danger. Pass by here and get wrecked. Something like that.

I mean – I’d heard of Godspell. It made me think of David Essex, for some reason, although maybe that was Evita. Time was passing and the bell was clanging. All I had to do was say I’d heard of it, for Godspell’s sake! But I hesitated. You see – in my defence – I didn’t think Corbin was having such a great time. I couldn’t bring myself to make it all worse by saying that I didn’t know Godspell – although, in retrospect, it would’ve given him the opportunity to say that I’d probably like it because of this or that. Whatever the reason, in the heat of the moment, instead of coming clean, I lied.

‘Yeah, I know Godspell.’
‘Have you seen a production?’
‘Yeah! It was great.’
‘When was that?’
‘Oh – a while ago now. In London.’
‘Wow! That’s fantastic! Who played Jesus?’
‘It was a long time ago now. I can’t – really – remember.’
‘Oh. Okay.’

Corbin’s minder was moving in again, no doubt already having pegged us as no-buy schmucks, and ready with the next couple of punters. We shook hands. Corbin posed for a selfie with the girls. And that was that.

A digression from the opening topic of horror films – but is it?

I mean – The Witch was pretty unsettling, I’ll admit. Particularly when the spooky rabbit stops chewing and stares directly at the lens.

If you ever see the film, take a good look at that rabbit. Because THAT was my expression when Corbin Bleu asked me about Godspell.


live well for less

I get to the trolley park just in front of an elderly woman. She’s wearing a Russian style hat pulled as far down as her black and blockish sunglasses will allow, a fuschia red overcoat and grey furry boots, the whole outfit making her look like a well-dressed celebrity bear who doesn’t want any pictures.
I pull out a trolley and pass it to her.
‘There you go!’ I say.
She sighs, takes the trolley, and then stands there fussing with her bags whilst I wait to pull a trolley out for myself. Eventually she finds what she’s looking for – a shopping list written on the back of a utility bill. She hangs her shopping bags on the back of the trolley and then holds the list up to the end of her nose.
‘D’you mind if I just….?’ I say, slowly manoeuvring a trolley out.
She sighs, and shuffles off to the side.

A man and a woman are standing together in condiments.
‘We’re good for Tabasco’
‘Then why’s it on the list?’

A woman pushes a trolley with a baby girl only just old enough to sit upright in the trolley seat. The girl is singing la la la as loudly as she can, and slapping the handle of the trolley. The woman is singing la la la, too, but in a distracted way, as she scans the shelves and tosses things into the trolley.
‘Don’t you just love to hear babies sing!’ says an older woman nearby, but not directly to the woman, more in the way you do sometimes when you absent-mindedly speak a thought out loud. Actually, it looks as if she’s talking to a four pack of plum tomatoes.

I’ve made it as far as rice and pasta. A middle-aged woman strides up, stands next to me, and points with a straight arm and finger to a packet of quinoa on the shelf just above my head. She holds that position, looking off to her right. It reminds me of Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at the end, when he points and screams.
‘Ah-ha!’ says another woman, breathlessly catching up. ‘You found it! Good!’

There’s a clear plastic rack at the checkout, pretty much empty, with just one copy left of a celebrity gossip magazine. Whilst I wait for my turn to pay, I glance over the front cover. All the insert photos are of celebrities looking depressed. Jennifer Aniston – too upset to go out; Victoria Beckham’s birthday – ruined; Cheryl Cole – devastated to find something out; Louise Redknapp – can’t believe the same thing happened again. The belt moves on. I move with it.
‘How are we today?’ says the guy at the till.
‘I’m okay, thanks! How are you?’
‘Well – it’s Friday!’ he says. ‘Mind you – what does Friday really mean these days…?’


dogs vs. aliens

I don’t understand dogs.

I mean, we’ve had them for years. You’d think by now I’d be some kind of expert. And to be fair, there are plenty of things I do know. I’m pretty much the world expert on picking-up, any time of year. Leaves, snow, baked mud, deep grass, roadside – no worries. If Lola dumps five hundred yards ahead of me on the rec, I can fix the place by walking in a line using trees and molehills as orientation points, and come exactly to the spot, bag-handed and ready. I’d as soon go for a dog walk without my trousers as a good supply of poo bags (and I’d only realise I didn’t have my trousers when I went to pull out a poo bag).

So it’s not all bad news. I’m pretty good at cleaning dogs, too. Me and Lola, we’ve got it all worked out. You should see us when we get back from our walks, Lola with her legs black up to the elbow just exactly as if she’s wearing four velvet evening gloves. The whole thing’s as choreographed as Swan Lake (where the lake is a bucket of soapy water, and the swan is a nine year old lurcher): Bucket to the left; and front left paw into first position; and dip; and hold; and up; and a rub to the chest; and then bucket to the right – and so on, all the way round, finishing with a vigorous towelling and a sprint for the food bowl (Lola, not me).

It’s not that I don’t get the day-to-day stuff about dogs. It’s more the psychology of the beast, what makes a dog tick (and scratch, and twitch, and sprawl the way they do sometimes). I know a little bit about the theories behind all these things. C’mon! I know who Cesar Millan is. But the truth is, I still don’t get why they do what they do.

For example. I took Lola over the woods the other day. The moment she ran ahead she was surrounded by a pack of dogs, all of them barking, whipped on by a particularly mad beagle, running circles round the mob like a teenager doing doughnuts on a moped. I thought Lola would lose her shit and there’d be one hell of a scrap. Instead, and against all odds, she kept her cool. She was poised and statesman-like, Abraham Lincoln on the stump, letting all the fuss and excitement whirl harmlessly around her whilst she smiled benignly at the centre, radiating humanity and intelligence. I’m so, so sorry said the embarrassed woman who owned the pack, striding across to call them off. That’s quite alright, my good woman Lola seemed to say, right paw hooked in her waistcoat. No harm done. Vote Lola.

Fast forward a week. We’re just approaching the park when we see George and Ann with their golden retriever, Barney.

Let me introduce you to Barney.

Barney’s as big and woolly as a cut & shut llama without the neck.

Barney’s slow. I’ve never seen him run, or even trot, particularly. He’s happy to pad along at an even pace, sniffing his way through life, occasionally looking up with those deeply sad, llama-brown eyes, and saying: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, (because if Barney could speak, I’m convinced it would be in a soft, French accent)

Anyway – the most important thing to take from this is that Monsieur Barné is without any question at all a nice dog. In fact, I’d go as far as saying he’s essentially benign. You could send him off into a colony of monstrous, predatory aliens and even they would end up roffling his hair, hugging his neck and posing for selfies (then annihilating the marines and keeping a couple for incubation purposes, because hey! they’ve got an image to maintain).

So here we have a dog who may as well be wearing one of those t-shirts that says Hi! How can I help?

So what does Lola do? She curls her lip.


I have no idea. I mean, I can’t imagine it’s just a lead thing, although that’s the excuse I use when I apologise to George and Ann.

‘It’s just a lead thing. I think she’s just looking forward to her walk and she wants to get on with it.’
‘Don’t worry! Barney’s the same with a Jack Russell,’ says George. ‘Sometimes dogs just don’t get along.’

It’s such an unpleasant look, though, that lip curl. An expression of profound animosity, a hundred shades darker than simply not getting along. It’s the kind of lip curl I imagine those aliens using when they see another ship of marines coming in to land.

(NOTE TO SELF: I should totally watch Aliens tonight)

I was told once that a dog’s lead is like an aerial, a direct line between you and their brain. If you tense up, they’ll feel it immediately and go on alert, scanning the environment, trying to figure out where and what the danger is. So it’s vital to keep the lead slack, and not precipitate the very thing you hope not to happen, whether it’s lip curl, lunge, snap, bark or any other mortifying evidence of social incivility.

Dogs are incredibly sensitive, though. When they’re on the lead they’re like spiders, super-reading the tiniest vibration coming down the signal line. And I’m absolutely convinced they’ll feel those signals even if the line is slack, and even if the signal is merely a thought.

So I’m sorry, Barney.

Pas de tout! Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. (Sorry – I just love hearing him say that).

But I’m trying, Barné. Okay? After all, it’s only been nine years…


return to el crapado

There are two places everyone should visit regularly to get modern life in perspective. One is a museum, the other’s a dump.

IMG_8087Especially an old dump. There’s something haunting about this profligate scattering of old paste jars, fragments of pottery with words like award-winning, warmest and proven treatment; something resolute yet pathetic about that old tin bucket with its handle still up, or that chunk of iron machinery with the cogs fixed by rust. And there’s definitely something deluded about that grinning porcelain cat.

My mission today is not to get the world and its problems in perspective, though. I’m simply here to collect as many old Shippam’s paste jars as I can, so we can use them as candle holders.

IMG_8117It’s another craft experiment. Fad wouldn’t be too harsh. For one thing, I’ve never made candles before. For another, I’m not sure the necks will be wide enough. They’ll probably explode when the wick burns down. But it’s worth a go. There’s something pleasing about these little ribbed pots, with their embossed name across the middle like they’ve just won first prize in the paste pageant. I can imagine them in the middle of a table, scented with an essential oil. And it feels good to do some independent recycling, some re-purposing. I want to prove to them – and to me – that all the fuss of that production process in the fifties, from the fishing fleet to the glass factory, the packaging plant to the vans driving up and down the country – that great and energy consuming enterprise could lead to something more than just a limp sandwich on a soggy Saturday afternoon, and then seventy years in a dump.

There must have been a lot of sandwiches, because these paste bottles are everywhere. It’s like a paste bottle plague, lying around in large numbers on the surface, along with bigger, more alluring bottles, Lung Tonic, Sanival, Califig, and look! The leg from an old bisque doll.

I’ve gone prepared with a messenger bag and gardening gloves. (I’d thought about taking a trowel, too, but it would only have slowed me down.) As it is, I fill the bag in five minutes.

Back home, the jars washed and drying by the side of the sink, I go online to look up the whole Shippam’s paste phenomenon. There’s archive footage of the factory in Chichester, shot in 1954. Hundreds of women in white coats and hats, folding boxes, filling jars with a nozzle, packing jars, putting boxes of jars onto a conveyor belt. The voiceover is typical of the time – glassy, patrician, describing the whole procedure over a jaunty soundtrack, as if what we’re witnessing isn’t simply the production of sandwich paste, but the maintenance of the British Empire, the production of the grouting needed for all the building work, the salmon-flavoured gack to keep us all in the pink.

There are two chilling sequences.

One brand of paste is made from chickens, because we’re shown pyramid stacks of wishbones on the benches either side of the entrance. Some visitors are ushered through. We’re not told who they are. The last of them looks quite old and confused, happy to be going out somewhere – anywhere – even to a warehouse of death. For all we know this is Shippam R&D and these people are a trial ingredient. The commentator picks up the story:

‘…a feature of the factory which always appeals to visitors is the great pile of wishbones. There must be a quarter of a million of them, and twelve hundred new bones come in every day, so anyone who calls can take away a good luck token.’

Two points to be made here:
1. Why did they bring in so many bones? If they’re serious about handing out wishbones to visitors, wouldn’t a small tray suffice? Or do they have that many visitors?
2. It wasn’t such good luck for the chicken.

In the next sequence we’re introduced to one of the supervisors, a man who looks like he’s been fashioned with a palette knife out of crab paste:

‘Packing and despatch to all parts of the globe is under the guidance of Mr Twobit. He started work here 48 years ago, packing tongue. Now he has a grown up daughter in the factory.’

I don’t know what’s more unsettling. The thought of Mr Twobit packing tongue, or the thought of his daughter working there.

Still, a happy by-product of two hundred years of industrial sandwich paste making in the south east is me, scrambling around on this dump in a pair of green gardening gloves and a messenger bag filled with dirty paste jars.

I wonder what the commentator would say about that.


el crapado

There’s an old rubbish dump in the woods just over the bypass. A furtive, scrag-end, hideaway kind of place. I’m guessing the last Shipman’s crab paste jar was scraped and tossed sometime in the sixties, judging by the depth of compressed leaf litter, and the age of the sycamores that have grown up on top. Maybe it’s because the ground is so steep and unstable here, or maybe it’s because the soil is flavoured by a century of oxidised metal, prussic acid and proprietary laxatives, but the sycamores have grown into contorted, high-stepping shapes, like alien scavengers scuttling over the pile, busily turning a brood of discoloured eggs with their roots.

IMG_8054I work quietly – partly because I don’t want to enrage the trees, and partly because I don’t want to attract the attention of those work operatives, whose fluorescent jackets and shouted conversations I catch periodically, just the other side of the fence.

Not that I think they’d mind me being here, unless there’s something other than bottles and broken dinner plates beneath my boots.

I’m not the only one to have stumbled on El Crapado, though. Here and there I find exploratory test pits, and bottles and jars that have been lined up on rotten tree limbs, little triage stations of value, perhaps, or photo ops.

IMG_8059I’m certainly no expert. I’ve no idea what it means when the glass seam goes all the way to the top or stops halfway. I’ve no understanding of the subtle differences between glass blowing and industrial presses, and it would take far too much research to establish whether or not any of these things are valuable. I’ve got better things to do with my time. So I concentrate on the jars I think might make an interesting container for a homemade candle, carefully picking through the strata of detritus, all the tarnished whites and greys and greens, bottles embossed with the names of cities, exotic coffees and beef drinks, poisonous blues and greens with perished caps, hunks of melted glass, fragments of pottery with ornamental writing, an old bullet casing, a plate stamped 1945, the lid of a flowery teapot, so pristine I wonder if I dug a little harder and deeper I might start to hear Moonlight Serenade, and find a table set for lunch, a family of four sat around it, frozen cup to lip.

It’s a hazardous operation. There are unexpected falls where the surface crumbles and gives way. Cavities open up. There are sharp fragments of glass everywhere. And at the bottom of it all, just the sudden roll of a hubcap beneath me, there’s a rock-filled stream, flowing as fully and freely as – I don’t know – regret?


doing porridge

Goldilocks Theory applies to writing as much as to planets.

The thing is, I’m half way through two weeks annual leave, and no way at all through the work I had planned on my next book. Don’t worry though (yeah! – like you’d worry about someone on two weeks annual leave). I haven’t been wasting my time. I’ve been going on long dog walks, taking lots of pictures, posting them on Twitter – hell, even starting an Instagram account. So now I’ve got TWO social media mouths to feed. Oh – and I’ve been writing blog posts and poems. And if I start to get stressed about my lack of focus, I’ve been using the Headspace app to meditate my way back to balance. (What did I do before the internet? Float around in a tepid, amniotic liquor of cluelessness and disconnection? You bet.)

You see, part of the problem – no, scratch that – the entire problem, is that too much time can be worse than too little. No time at all is an out-and-out curse, of course, and no-one wants that. But too much, and you’re like Odysseus and the Lotus Eaters, although a much less noble version, where his quest is to write a book for young adults, but he gets distracted by endless RuPaul on Netflix. Because what happens is that you sit down to write the book, but it’s difficult, so you look up at the calendar, and you’re reassured by the succession of nothing much planned, and you think you’ve got PLENTY of time to get the work done, so you drift around eating lotus or whatever, kidding yourself you’re recharging your batteries, when in actual fact your batteries are not just flat but TAKEN OUT ENTIRELY.

So. Calm, calm. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

And ask yourself. What would Goldilocks recommend? (Other than a measure of self-discipline and a proper appreciation of the benefits of routine). Absolutely. Goldilocks would recommend an amount of free time that was just right. And then ten seconds later, she’d be tearing off her wig, like they do on RuPaul when they’re lip-synching for their lives. She’d be diving across the table, scattering porridge bowls everywhere, grabbing a handful of your funky, unwashed t-shirt, dragging you into her face and shouting: Just write!

I mean, she may be a character in a children’s fable, but she’s only human.