Category Archives: Writing

Book review – Dance your way to psychic sex, by Alice Turing

Dance your way to psychic sex by Alice Turing

Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex is available to buy now - click here

“After all… we easily believe what we ardently desire to be true”

Before I begin this review, I have a confession to make – I know Alice Turing.  This makes it impossible to read her book without imbuing it with her voice, mannerisms and immense flair. The first time I met this woman was at a festival, whereupon she produced all the requisite parts of a tequila slammer from the pockets of a voluminous furry coat. For this, she deserves my undying respect.

So it’s only fitting that Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex is an energetic riot of a book, packed with mind-bending mentalism, New Age nonsense and cross-gender bed-hopping. The heroine of the story is Henrietta – an obsessive single mum with a desperate need to belong. Starting a new life in Hebden Bridge (which seems to be unfeasibly groovy in this incarnation) with her young son, she’s accosted by Tawny, a strange hippie.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Tawny is a practitioner of psychic dancing – a craze that’s sweeping the nation.  It’s simple – grab your partner, tune into The Spirit and just let it move you. Then it gets even more interesting. Henrietta’s neatly ordered life is quickly invaded by busty lady-love interest Belle; Leo, Belle’s cynical and embittered mentalist boyfriend (always in the shadow of TV magician Daryl Black – do you see what she did there?); and Denzel, Leo’s gay bit-on-the-side.

Their paths twist and turn, with plenty of sex, drugs, surprising coincidences (or are they?) and magic tricks along the way, culminating in a grandiose showdown live on TV at the Albert Hall. The characters vacillate wildly about the truth of psychic dancing – is it just a trick, or is there real ‘magic’ there? – and swell and surge with violently conflicting feelings.  While it’s true that in reality we’re all a slippery mass of contradictory emotions at any time, it gets a little bit confusing when you’re trying to get under the characters’ skins.

Overall, I loved the concept of psychic dancing, and the galloping plot.  It’s witty, with snappy dialogue and some beautifully-crafted lines. The simmering sexual tension between Belle and Henrietta ramps up the adrenaline, capturing the confusion and excitement of an experimental relationship. There’s a sweet descriptive scene where Henrietta drops her uptight guard and experiments with ecstasy, and I was also really drawn to the character of Tawny, whose role as a comforting ‘mother hen’ lends stability to the ups and downs of the rest of the gang. And there are interesting parallels between Henrietta “coming out” as a psychic dancer, and Leo coming out as gay.

Everything turns out more or less neatly in the end – perhaps a bit too quickly and neatly for my liking – as coincidences are rationally explained away, and Henrietta finds the long-lost father of her son, as well as a pack to finally belong to. And like that tequila slammer in a sunny festival field, in this book Alice Turing has produced something that has certainly cheered my day up.

Dance your Way to Psychic Sex is being produced a a limited edition hardback print run, and is available to buy from Alice Turing’s website.

Read what other people have said about the book.

On evolution, or Breeding the super-moth

Moths

Moths - furry little fuckers

As I’ve mentioned before, we have a major moth problem in our house. The winged bastards are everywhere, and have already made a feast of the bedroom carpet, some of our coats, and Ricky’s suit.

We’re waging war against them with a programme of vigorous hoovering, chemical assault, and constant vigilance combined with brutal assassination, leaving trailing brown streaks on the walls.  So far, this seems to be keeping the moth population under control, and I’m trying not to freak out at the sight of every single speck on the walls. But I’ve recently been struck with a slight concern.

Being a good biologist, I’m familiar with the principles of evolution and natural selection.  Species adapt to their environment according to selective pressures to ensure their survival. So what if my anti-moth measures are actually helping to breed a super-moth?

My hypothesis is thus:  I splat the moths I can see on our white walls and paintwork.  But presumably there are moths I can’t see, who have sensibly remained burrowed in the nasty grey-beige rental carpet or hidden behind the wardrobe/under the bed/inside Ricky’s other suit.  Am I inadvertently removing only the stupid moths – who think that white emulsion makes a good camouflage – and letting the clever ones prosper? And is my spraying and hoovering only encouraging the pesticide resistant or particularly grippy ones?

It didn’t take that long for that icon of evolution the peppered moth, Biston betularia, to go from white to black under the environmental pressure of the industrial revolution. Next year, am I going to see rampant damage from a crack swarm of carefully disguised, chemically-impervious moths?  How long does this evolution malarky take anyway?

10 Signs you may be too old to be in a band

You're never too old to rock out

Don’t believe the hype – the life of a working musician is far from the glamorous image portrayed by the media. And it’s doubly-hard if you’re still keeping up a day job to make ends meet until the world sees sense and recognises your creative genius.

While I certainly wouldn’t claim to be particularly old – and of course there’s no age limit on being a musician, just look at the Rolling Stones… – it does get harder once the wellspring of youthful energy starts to wane. Here are my thoughts on the issue:

  1. None of your mates come to your gigs any more, because they can’t get babysitters. At least this is an understandable excuse. The worst excuse I ever heard was from someone who couldn’t come to my gig because his girlfriend was making him watch Inspector Morse. On video.
  2. You dye your hair because you have to, rather than because you want to. My hair isn’t this colour because it glows under stage lights – it’s this colour because I’m going rampantly grey…
  3. You have a nice car for hauling your equipment to gigs, rather than a crappy van or the bus. Probably the only perk to being older – I drive a Mondeo estate nowadays. The money I save on not having it break down all the time is sucked up by London parking charges.
  4. The hardest drugs you take are Nurofen and caffeine. Drug dealers, here’s a tip – ditch the hard stuff and start hawking painkillers and double espressos round backstage for £10 a time. You’ll make a killing and it’s completely legal.
  5. Lugging equiment around becomes a literal rather than metaphorical pain in the arse, as you put your back out hefting a flight case downstairs. Or, more usually, my knees 😦
  6. You buy your stage-wear in M&S rather than TopShop. They may not do sequinned mini-dresses in M&S but their control-top tights are excellent.
  7. You ask for a receipt for your post-gig kebab, for your tax return. Equally depressing that I actually have to do a tax return, and can’t get my Dad to do it for me any more – apparently I’m “old enough to do my own”. Waaaaaah! I don’t want to!
  8. You demand Horlicks on the rider instead of beer. I actually asked for ginger beer on the rider when I played at the Big Chill. I didn’t get it. I got Red Stripe. Always bloody Red Stripe.
  9. Headlining a big night loses its appeal as you realise you have to be in a meeting at 9am for work the next day. For bonus points, make sure you forget to wash off your glitter eye-makeup and the door stamp.
  10. After a gig, you get mistaken for someone’s mum. This hasn’t happened yet but I’m sure it’s only time…

Have I missed any? Do you think it’s easier to be in a band if you’re older or younger? Is there a point where you just think “You know what? I’m too old for this shit!” – and have you reached it yet?

On football, or Why the BNP has ruined the World Cup for me

The World Cup

Is there some kind of football thing on at the moment?

(Edited to add: the comments I’ve had from right-wingers on this post are EXACTLY the reason why I wrote it.  I reserve the right to delete them, but I’ve left them up for amusement for the moment. K)

I’m not mad keen on football. In fact, I actively dislike it. I’d rather spend 90 minutes watching a film, reading a book, baking, knitting, listening to music or making music, or even just waxing my bikini line than watch a bunch of overpaid show-ponies kick a glorified plastic ball round a field.

But the World Cup is slightly different. It’s a celebration of nations, of the ability for humans to unite behind something that (allegedly) moves and excites millions of people, regardless of their language, culture or the colour of their skin. And we can pretty much all agree that the vuvuzelas sound like a swarm of angry wasps that need to be swatted.

Living in London, I love seeing the pockets of international supporters in different parts of the capital. Down our way, there’s a lot of Africans, waving their colourful national flags around and honking car horns. My friends come from around the world – Aussies, Americans, French, Spaniards and more. And my own family heritage is half German, though I was born in Italy and I’m a British citizen.

The World Cup is a great excuse to wear your nationality with pride, and to celebrate or commiserate with others that you feel an affinity with. But something bothers me about it. Not anyone else’s flags or shirts, but the English ones.

For ages I couldn’t put my finger on it. Why should my own flag make me feel uncomfortable? And then I realised why.

Every time I see the St George Cross, or the Union Jack, I see the smug, fat face of Nick Griffin and his BNP buddies, exemplified by the thick-necked bruisers I had the misfortune of having to hang around with in reception at the BBC studios during the election, while I was waiting to do an interview.

I see the England shirt on the hooligan who’s only out to bash up people who look different, and the fascist skinheads exemplified by Shane Meadows’ This is England. I see the misappropriation of Englishness by certain newspapers – and idiots on Facebook – who use stories about the ‘banning of flags and England shirts‘ as a veiled metaphor for anti-foreigner sentiment.

So thank you BNP, Daily Mail, football thugs and the rest. Far from achieving your aims, you’ve stolen my sense of pride in my country’s flag. I love my country – and the diversity within it – but you make me feel embarrassed to be English.

PS Anyone know where I can get a German and an Italian flag? I’m going to hedge my bets…

On running

I do indeed hate running

I run to work a few times a week. It takes about an hour (don’t be impressed, I’m very slow) and I hate almost every minute of it. It amazes me that anyone actually enjoys running. Whenever anyone says that they do, I always suspect they’re lying.

Running is horrible and painful and exhausting. The only reason I do it is the gut-clenching fear that I’m going to keel over from a heart attack in my forties and die in a bloated, writhing mass on the floor. And I’m a bit fat.

Back in my twenties – when I was a good couple of stone lighter – I used to run a lot. I was a little bit faster, and even did a few half-marathons, but I still hated it. I knew it did me good, but  it boring and painful and I kept losing my toenails. Nice.

Gazelle-like, graceful, swift: none of these words apply to my running style. Well, I call it running – it’s more like facilitated falling over. I’ve been assured that it looks painful to watch. My face turns bright red, I wheeze asthmatically, and my thighs thunder and wobble as my feet clump awkwardly on the pavement.

And I’m slow. Oh God, am I slow! Other runners leave me for dust, mocking me silently with their long legs and smooth strides. Small children and pensioners speed past me as I heave up the Essex Road, praying for the lights to change so I can have a breather.

Being a glutton for punishment, I also sometimes run at weekends in Hackney’s fine selection of parks. These all seem to have been designed by MC Escher, in that they only slope uphill. And my route to work comprises more than its fair share of ups, and not nearly enough downs.

The only thing that keeps me going when I run is my mp3 player, complete with nauseatingly cheesy pop hits. I may appear to have an eclectic taste in music at most times, but only a diet of Atomic Kitten, Abba and Queen can fuel me for a run. 16th century choral music and glitchy electronica just doesn’t have the same pounding feel as Don’t Stop Me Now.

Still, despite the fact that I loathe and detest it, I can’t give up running. It’s free, it’s convenient, and – surely – something that feels so bad must be doing me some good. But I’m determined not to enjoy it.

Other runners don’t feel like this, do they?

The war on nature – Commencement of hostilities

Moth

DEATH TO THE ENEMY!

A significant part of my life is spent engaged in a constant war against nature.  Over the past couple of years, our house has been infested with:

  • mice
  • moths
  • slugs
  • more moths
  • more mice
  • ants
  • more bloody moths

This week saw the opening sortie in the next round of hostilities – I spotted a moth on the wall of the upstairs landing.  This enemy must be crushed, literally and metaphorically.

The little bastards have already made substantial inroads into eating the carpet in my bedroom (though I’m as surprised as anyone to find that the nasty carpet in my rented house is actually made of wool). And as a knitter, finding them in my yarn stash is my worst nightmare. I’ve suffered a couple of nasty moth attacks on precious knitted items, and a beautiful hand-knit fair-isle bag was sent to the Gulag (i.e. the freezer) for a long spell in solitary, plastic-wrapped confinement.

My repsonse has been swift, aggressive and brutal. Pesticide sprayed into the air and on the carpet, strips of paper impregnated with chemicals laid under chests and in drawers. And I have resumed my intense, beady-eyed inspection of the walls and carpet, to the point where Ricky slightly worries about my mental health.

The ants have also invaded this week, marshalling their icky little ranks under the kitchen bin. Again, chemical warfare is the only solution. I will not live as one with nature on my turf. At least the little buggers don’t fly, unlike the moths.

The slugs are a weird invader – an occasional nocturnal slithering invasion across the kitchen floor. More than once, we’ve been woken in the night by a horrific yelp as a bare-footed (and drunk) housemate steps on one. I’m a bit nicer to the slugs – if I spot one before it’s been squished by accident, I pick it up in kitchen paper and throw it out of the door.

No such mercy is shown to the mice. Squeamish readers may wish to look away now. Mice are incontinent, they spread disease and dirt, and they have been running rampant in our crockery cupboard. This will not do.

I’m sorry to say that I believe the only humane solution to mice is this:

mousetraps

Rentokil Mousetraps

Awesomely – and instantly – effective. I personally believe that the allegedly more humane ‘live’ traps cause a lot of distress to the animals, and the little buggers just come straight back in your house anyway. Poison is grusesome, and they just die under your floorboards somewhere and stink the place out. And please don’t ever talk to me about glue traps – an ex-housemate of mine used them once and I firmly think they should be illegal. Horrid.

Currently we have two traps in the kitchen, Doug and Dinsdale, following the retirement of stalwarts Ronnie and Reggie (whose springs eventually gave out).  Between them, they’ve notched up a fair number of kills over the winter, laced with peanut butter and placed in strategic locations in the cupboards.

A surprising amount of my time, money and energy goes into this war on nature, being waged on multiple fronts. I’m all for the natural world in all its glory – just not in my house!

Are you happy to live as one with the natural world? Or is your house a pestilence-free zone  – and how on earth do you keep it that way?

Ada Lovelace day – Professor Amanda Fisher

Ada Lovelace was one of the original computer nerds and her work has inspired many women to take up the geek mantle. So it’s only fitting that on Ada Lovelace day, the blogging troops should be rallied to write about women in science and technology who have inspired us. There’s more about the Ada Lovelace Day Blogging Pledge on the Finding Ada website.

For my part, I’m going to ramble a bit about one of the women who still inspires me about science and science communication to this day – Professor Amanda (Mandy) Fisher at Imperial College, London. Because I’m a self-centred sod it’s all about me anyway, but she’s an amazing woman and deserves a massive high-five. And probably some flowers.

Professor Amanda Fisher

I first met Mandy when I was a wide-eyed and not-entirely-disillusioned-yet PhD student, studying epigenetics and genomic imprinting with Professor Azim Surani in Cambridge.  Together with a talented post-doc in her lab, Karen Brown, Mandy had devised a technique to look inside the nucleus (‘control centre’) of cells, to discover if certain proteins were ‘sitting on’ different genes, helping to switch them on or off.

I was keen to use the technique (called immuno-FISH)  in my own research, and spent a few happy days in her lab overlooking Wormwood Scrubs prison, manipulating – and breaking – delicate glass coverslips in strange fizzy solutions. By the end of my PhD, I’d be using the same technique on microscopic single-celled mouse embryos – a mind-bendingly fiddly procedure that I was pathologically unsuited to.

I was impressed with Mandy’s sense of fun, her kindness, her ideas, her helpfulness and advice, her keen intellect, and her passion for science and communicating it.  Over the painful and frustrating years of my PhD research we stayed in touch, talking about results (or rather, my lack of them) and sharing chats and drinks at meetings and conferences. And at the end of three and a half slow, grinding years, she agreed to be the external examiner for my PhD. I passed, I  got very drunk, and I started to look for opportunities to stretch my scientific wings.

After that, my life took a slightly wrong turn. I turned down prestigious post-doc job offers in world-class labs in the US, Edinburgh and Vienna in the belief that I was doing the right thing for love. And by the time I finally ended up on Mandy’s doorstep in Wormwood Scrubs, grovelling for a job, I was battling clinical depression and a brutal eating disorder.

To my eternal gratitude, Mandy took me on. I started working on various projects in her lab, making slow headway when I wasn’t hiding in the toilets, crying.  My colleagues were mostly all lovely and supportive and Mandy continued to be inspiring and motivating, even when I felt like crawling into the dark room and drinking the X-ray developer.

Around this time, Mandy started to get more heavily involved in science communication. There was a pot of EU money to help communicate epigenetics to the public, and the air swarmed with exciting and inspiring ideas for sci-comm projects – I have vague memories of something to do with a gorilla genome…

Perhaps sensing that I was miserable as hell, Mandy tried to entice me to get involved too. I was keen to join in, but my career in the lab was becoming untenable (something I spectacularly make light of in this article…). After a horrendous summer, during which I started to suffer from hallucinations and suicidal thoughts,  I got an interview for what seemed like my dream job – a position as a Science Information Officer at Cancer Research UK, communicating the charity’s research to the public.  And against pretty long odds, I got it –  five years later, I’m still at the charity and I’m still doing my dream job.

Since I left Mandy’s lab, we’ve stayed in touch. I’ve done the odd bit of freelance science writing for Epigenome.Eu, made a podcast for Scopic (a fantastic science/art schools project), and continue to turn up occasionally to eat lunch and drink pink wine with the inspiring gang of science communicators she has assembled around her.

Mandy’s passion for bringing science to the public has brought together Nobel laureates and other scientists with designers, film-makers and the like. Her energy and enthusiasm for both her research and science communication is inspiring and contagious. And at the same time she manages to be a nurturing and productive lab head and – staggeringly on top of everything else – Director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre and mum to a tribe of gorgeous kids.

On Ada Lovelace day I salute you, Mandy. Thank you for the inspiration.

On Mothering Sunday

The relationship between mothers and daughters is fraught with difficulty. In my own case, I have a generally good relationship with my mother, studded with occasional incidents of wanting to shoot her. Likewise, I’m amazed I made it this far through life without her drowning me at a young age or selling me into white slavery.

A few years ago I found the brilliant Mother’s Day card (which I’ve now found on the web, as you can see) that reads “Mothers – Even when they’re wrong, they’re right!”, which summed up our relationship perfectly. But since I’ve already given that one to her, I’m scrabbling round to find a non-sentimental (and some might say grudgingly bitter) substitute. None have turned up, although – to be fair – I haven’t looked very hard.

Anyway, for those of you who simultaneously love your mother but also want to brain her with a rock, I present a range of greetings to put inside your card this Mothering Sunday intended to shock, disturb or offend. Maybe all three. (Psst – it’s the 14th of March).

  • Much love, and thanks for all the hangups.
  • You know how you thought my belly-button piercing was bad…
  • Here – I saved my last scrap of self-esteem just for you.
  • Guilt Complex is not the name of a riverside development.
  • Who are you calling fat?
  • I don’t mind that I’m not your favourite child – you’re not even my favourite mother.
  • You can’t expect me to suddenly produce a grandchild when you’ve spent my whole life warning me off sex.
  • You may not like my boyfriend but he’s better than Dad.
  • Hurry up and die, I want a new kitchen

And finally:

  • Don’t forget who’s choosing your nursing home.

On the seven real signs of ageing

This is why I moisturise

This is a rehashed version of my first ever stand-up comedy routine. I’ve retired quite a lot of it now, so I thought I’d share it here. I’ve now done four stand-up gigs, and I’m keen to do more this year!

I’m talking about lies. Not the little lies we tell people – like “Mum, he’s not unemployed, he’s a musician”, or “Your best mate? I don’t know what women see in him…”

No, this is about the big ones – the lies sold to us by the ad industry, the wellspring of mendacity.  I’m talking about the creams that promise to “Reverse the seven signs of ageing.” According to the ad men, these signs are “Fine lines and wrinkles, rough skin texture, blotches etc etc etc.”  And you wonder why Amy Winehouse doesn’t get a gig advertising this stuff…

So as not to alienate the men reading this, here’s a handy tip so you can tell which adverts these are. They’re the ones featuring the women you used to fantasise about when you were 15, and they haven’t changed at all.  It’s like magic! Or Photoshop. One of them, anyway.

But these are not the seven true signs of ageing, oh no. I’ve figured out what the real seven signs of ageing are, and there’s not cream in the world that can reverse them.

Continue reading

Chloe – a Love Story

Chloe and Auntie Kat

Chloe and Auntie Kat

This is probably the most personal thing I’ve ever posted on here so far. I’ve just come back from a wonderful  week in Toronto visiting my sister, her husband and their daughter, Chloe, who is now nearly two.   I wrote the piece below on the plane home, mostly in tears.  If you’re after something funnier and less sentimental, there’s always my list of Good Things and Bad Things about Canada from my last visit instead.

I am a big girl, and I am going to be brave. I watch your little pink boots march away across the departure hall and tears sting my eyes. But I am not going to cry. Not when you can see.

When Mama turns you round to wave again, you will not see the shiny beads gathering or know that my lips are pressed so tightly together I can taste blood. Mama holds your hand, her camel-coloured grown-up coat brushing against the lilac puff of your snow-suit.

I watch your bright pink hat bobble away across the vaulted concourse, feeling sorry for Baby as her plastic feet drag on the concrete floor. I walk backwards, pushing my suitcase behind me, waving desperately until you both hang right and vanish through the double doors.

I can still smell your hair.

And then I will cry. I will howl and wail, hoisting my breath inside me in shallow, hiccupy gasps. I will cling to the long-suffering man beside me, snuffling into his chest and pulling on his collar, lost in the grief of separation. Travellers stare, although the check-in staff have seen it all before. We pilfer serviettes from a coffee stand. I stand there, head tilted up as he wipes my face, just as I did for you a few minutes ago.

Later I sit in a bar, drinking too much white wine and eating what I swear is my last plate of chips for at least a year. I send your Mama a text, thanking her for everything, and hoping to see her again soon. Deep down she will know that I’m really talking about you. And I cry a bit more.

We fly over your native land, perforated with lakes and threaded with rivers. Villages and towns sparkle like stars strung along the galaxy of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Tim Horton’s coffee. Butter tarts. Romni Wool – the best yarn store in Ontario. A child’s life captured in six-month snapshots and shopping trips. We chase the sunset round the world as time races past us.

You are five weeks old, asleep on my chest. I change your nappies and walk you round the park for hours while Mama finally manages to have a bath. You are nine months old, balancing a plastic mixing bowl on your head, chubby arms waving in delight while your face flames red with incoming teeth.

You are a year and a half, hiding behind Mama’s legs and whispering my name in my absence. We finally bond in the paddling pool – you in your first swimsuit and me with my skirt hitched into my knickers, wriggling our hands to make bubbles in the cool water.

And now you are nearly two. For one delicious week I blow raspberries on your belly and make you Play-Doh cats. You can talk. You can sing. You can count. I am so proud of you it hurts. And I know it’s only going to get better from here.

Perhaps this is it. Maybe I am too old, or just too selfish, to produce a cousin for you. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I don’t want to. And maybe I am too scared to even try. Maybe a perfect day only dawns once.