Don’t leave it too late to live in the moment: Rooting our lives in the present


I wrote this piece for The Terrace Psychotherapy & Complementary Therapy Clinic in Taunton. and wanted to share it on here. I just love the poem, and having read the article referred to in it, about the nature of time passing, seemingly more and more quickly, I want to try and make the most of every moment. It is such hard work to rein ourselves in though, isn’t it?

Originally posted on let's talk!:

mindfulness-meditation-reduces-loneliness-older-adults-study-1343684974Have you noticed how quickly 2015 seems to be flying away from us? Someone mentioned it is just 19 Fridays until Christmas – which sounds terrifying, bearing in mind we hardly seem to have taken the lights down from the last one. There is an interesting article doing the rounds online called ‘How did it get so late so soon?‘, which examines the 21st century perception of time, and why it seems to pass more quickly now than even a couple of decades ago. It seems to be something to do with our need to multi-task simply to stay on top of all the demands made on us in the 21st century. It also offers a reason for the seeming increase in the speed of time passing as we grow older:

“There’s a suggestion that our perception of time may be in proportion to the length of our…

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Four poems on one day – a challenge for my 5 year ‘bloggerversary’

robert-frost-poetry-quotes-poetry-is-when-an-emotion-has-found-its-thought-andIt is 5 years since I started blogging!! I can’t believe it! So much has happened in my writing life just because of this blog so THANK YOU to everyone who has kept reading over the years! I celebrate with, what else? A post about poetry…xxxx

Last week I was challenged by the lovely Lorna Fergusson, writer and inspirational creative writing teacher at Fictionfire, to post four poems in four days on my Facebook timeline.  Normally, this is not something that would cause me too much of a problem – I love poetry, as anyone who reads my blog even occasionally knows. But I am in a funny place work/writing wise at the moment and I just couldn’t allow myself to be distracted. To have the opportunity to think about poetry when I was supposed to be doing client work was, it pains me to say, almost too tempting to resist.  I closed my eyes to my favourite anthologies, Keats books and The Poetry Archive website and cracked on with designing a website and proofreading ( a rather marvellous) manuscript about a holocaust survivor. But oh, it almost HURT!!

So, as I saw the Virtual Victorian (writer of sumptuous gothic, Essie Fox) post Maya Angelou today, I thought I would give myself a break, as it is Friday and I have worked jolly hard this week. The remit of the challenge was not to post four favourite poems (although why post something I don’t enjoy? Sorry Byron…) but presumably to offer readers something interesting in their timeline. In that I failed dismally, so I will try really hard here to offer a selection I hope you will simply enjoy, find thought-provoking or moving. Here goes:

Firstly, a beautiful sonnet written by a contemporary poet  – one that is not as well-known as other love poems regularly read at weddings, but which perhaps should be…


Alice Oswald

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions….
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

And secondly, one of the saddest, most moving poems to a lost child, full of searing grief and pain, but beautiful nonetheless…

On my First Son

Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

079This one is a current favourite, because three weeks ago I spent three hours at Sharandy’s on the Blackdown Hills, one-to-one with hawks and owls, flying a Harris Hawk and handling similar fabulous and always wild raptors…

Close-up on a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Don McKay

Concentrate on her attributes:
the accipiter’s short
roundish wings, streaked breast, talons fine
and slender as the x-ray of a baby’s hand.
The eyes (yellow in this hatchling
later deepening to orange then
blood red) can spot
a sparrow at four hundred metres and impose
silence like an overwhelming noise
in which you must not listen

Suddenly, if you’re not careful, everything
goes celluloid and slow
and threatens to burn through and you
must focus quickly on the simple metal band around her leg
by which she’s married to our need to know.

keats-charcoal1And finally, it has to be Keats, of course. I didn’t want to post poems already on this blog so I thought you might like an extract from the beginning of the long, narrative poem Hyperion. I think the landscape is inspired by his trip to the Lake District in 1818, it so evokes those wet valleys and deep, dark forests…

From Hyperion Book 1

John Keats
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung above his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ‘mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.

Along the margin-sand large foot-marks went,
No further than to where his feet had stray’d,
And slept there since. Upon the sodden ground
His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,
Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were closed;
While his bow’d head seem’d list’ning to the Earth,
His ancient mother, for some comfort yet.

Anyway, thanks to Lorna for the inspiration. Poetry nurtures and speaks to our souls in a way nothing else can. Do find your own favourites and let me know what they are!!

Posted in Literature, love the universe and everything, Mental health, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Running hard to stand still: Anxiety, writing & a world of confusion…

images (2)I sit at my PC. My hands hover over the keyboard, my mind trying hard to focus on the letters. I will them into words, sentences, paragraphs. I flick through my folders of research; the articles I must read, the chapters I have identified in the books taken  out of The London Library. But it isn’t right. It is never right. The words are there but they are not fit for purpose and refuse to get into shape. I switch to the internet, searching for inspiration on twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Nothing but distraction, they only add to a sense of frustration and an anxiety that increases as the minutes and hours pass.

I turn to the social media and blogging work I do for others – that is fine. My editing and proofreading work is going well. I am not letting clients down, just myself.

I stand up, stretch and try a change of scene, getting out the colouring books that still my mind.  Alternatively I take up the book I am currently reading, greedily turning pages of stories that take me away from my desk, the room, the house and ultimately the life I am living. The sun might be out, the day warm and the plants in pots close to where I sit offer a faint scent. All I can hear are gulls, light traffic noise and a sound akin to a roomful of anxious sleepers grinding their teeth, as my dog sits next to me chewing on an old bone.

What has happened? Shell Shocked Britain has been a success, as far as I can tell from reviews and comments following the many talks I have done. I have been commissioned to write two further books, both non-fiction and both on subjects that would usually fascinate me. They do still. But I can’t write. This blog post is the first I have written in weeks and it scares me. Everything scares me. and perhaps that is the problem.  As always, my favourite poet is wise beyond words:

….if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all…. (John Keats)

download (1)The world feels a frightening place at the moment, the very air we breathe charged with anxiety. Austerity, deprivation, radicalisation, dehumanisation, the race for technological progress at the expense of simple peace.  Clearly life is in real terms much more frightening for those fleeing war zones, fighting extremists, simply struggling to stay alive. But their fear seems to transmit around the globe with an intensity that touches my soul, and eats away at my sense of my own safety. My work on social media offers no protection from the tragedy and sadness that can strike even the happiest of communities, families, individuals. Illness, accident, the actions of the wicked, the thoughtless or the desperate that devastate and cut short lives – stories that are shared, retweeted, posted and reposted until our bodies become ticking time bombs and our families prey to the seeming whim of fate.

I return to my chair in front of the large, bright screen and the stream of words that taunt me, meaningless as they seem in the face of the tears that fall, the heart that races and the breath that comes in wretched little sobs. Anxiety is a condition for which I am prescribed a number of pills, but this doesn’t feel like a sickness that can be cured by any chemical. It is a symptom of a loss of control over the world I inhabit, of a sense of being done to, rather than doing. Reactive rather than proactive.

fallHow do those of us that struggle with mental health issues regain a sense of power over our destinies? Is it possible to surge forward once again when one has tripped and fallen behind the confident front-runners? I have lost my momentum and am struggling against a headwind; somehow I must pick up my pace once more, and fly (you can tell my family are in the next room, watching an athletics meeting on the TV….)

Does anyone else feel like this at the moment? The tiny space I occupy on the troubled globe seems a lonely place sometimes……

Posted in Books, Mental health, News, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

In which I learn more about spiritualism in the Great War and need some help with ‘Theosophy’….

Whilst writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I became fascinated with the rejuvenation of the Spiritualist movement just before, during and after the Great War, on into the 1930s. People were so fascinated by the chapter in the book that dealt with the subject that I pitched an idea for another book to deal specifically with that subject, and how bereaved families turned to mediums and the spiritualist church in their thousands as a response to grief. That book has been commissioned and I am thrilled to have the chance to do more research on the subject.

Someone who has been a huge support to me as I try to find out more is Ian Stevenson, who has written on this blog twice before, most recently in response to a piece I wrote on spiritualism to highlight how people dealt with the psychological trauma of war. So, when I expressed some confusion about ‘theosophy’and its relationship to spiritualism, he offered to clarify things for me and I thought readers of my blog might be interested too… Here is a summary of his thoughts:


Blavatsky and Olcott in 1888

Theosophy means ‘The wisdom of the Gods’, and the Theosophical Society in England describes it as ‘the thread of truth in scriptures, creeds, symbols, myths and rituals. ‘ It is usually used to refer to teachings of the Theosophical Society founded in New York in 1875 by an American, Henry Olcott and a Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, usually called Madam Blavatsky, or HPB. Olcott was a Spiritualist but Blavatsky claimed to be a medium with psychic abilities and beliefs that caused disagreement with the Spiritualist Church. In her view mediums did not usually contact the real person who had died but a ‘shade’. In her view, once on the other side, the essential person began a process of life evaluation and progress to a new life. The personality of the life just left separated and became a shade. It could respond with the memory and characteristics of the deceased but it was not the real, essential person. After a while, it even lost the power to communicate and became a shell which drifted and eventually disintegrated. This did not go down well with the Spiritualists, who grappled with her controversial and often inconsistent views.

We think of the Victorian age as one of faith. In fact there were growing doubts and a survey in 1851 found that only half the population attended church-and that was a day the clergy did their best to ensure good attendance. The urban working class were the worst at attending church. The poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, published in the 1860s but probably composed earlier, refers to an ebbing of faith common to may intellectuals of the time. Blavatsky believed the mainstream churches had lost  deeper understanding of their faith and all people had were the doctrines, preached without real understanding.The motto of the Theosophical Society  is: “there is no religion higher than truth”, or that behind all the different faiths was a single reality, which could not be understood by reason alone.

The Theosophical Society has three aims or objects:

  1. To form a nucleus of the ‘Universal Brotherhood of Humanity’ without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
  2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
  3. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
Annie Besant

Annie Besant

The Society played a major part in bringing Eastern thought to the West and providing alternatives to the Christian monopoly of religious thought. Many of the concepts of the New Age movement which flourished in the 1960s onwards, were first introduced by the Society. A key concept of Theosphism is that of re-incarnation and karma, along with the hidden or occult world and such ideas as  astral planes and mental planes of existence. Blavatsky wrote a number of books, notably The Secret Doctrine,  which influenced great names such as William Butler Yeats, Frank Baum (author of the Wizard of Oz), Paul Gauguin, Kandinsky, Klee, and Mahler. The emphasis on brotherhood and treating women as equals was, for its time, quite revolutionary, and in Britain an early leader was Annie Besant, prominent women’s rights activist and socialist, who married a clergyman. After reading the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion decided she could not believe in the inspired nature of the Bible and refused to take communion despite being ordered by her husband, from whom she later separated, to do so.

In 1920 Theosophy was debated at the Lambeth Conference, which the Anglican Church holds every ten years, along with Christian Science and Spiritualism. Of course, they could not approve of these movements. Many resolutions condemned them. Others, however, felt that they should, at least, be taken seriously. But there was no real attempt to create dialogue and today the church will speak with other mainstream religions but has little contact with alternative spiritual movements.

By the 1960s, other strands of spiritual thought were emerging e g. Transcendental meditation or Zen.  The emphasis of the New Age was on ‘bottom up’ spirituality and the individual finding their own path, drawing on ancient traditions, such as Gnostic Christianity and modern movements, such as the psychology of Carl Jung as well as modern science. The Theosophical Society  has a more dynamic presence in the USA and the British sections  have declined, though not disappeared.

My thanks to Ian for drawing my attention to the importance of Theosophy to our recent increased need to find a more spiritual path via meditation and mindfulness. It is a complex subject but I will look at the photos and discussions about Madame Blavatsky as a medium with greater interest and understanding of her motives. It is easy to call all mediums ‘frauds’ (Stephen Fry even called them that directly through the cameras of QI XL this week….) but some genuinely felt they had a gift, and a connection to whatever constitutes ‘the other side’. I am looking forward to examining the subject in more detail in my book!

Posted in Books, Guest posts, History, psychology, Shell Shocked Britain, spiritualism, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Guest post: A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton, WW1 nurse and diarist – by Dick Robinson

Today I am really pleased to welcome Dick Robinson to No wriggling out of writing. Many people have asked me about how the nurses who tended the wounded soldiers, and those men suffering from’shell shock’ coped with the trauma they experienced. I was contacted by Dick after I gave a talk on Shell Shocked Britain and I was fascinated by his story. Here he uses the diary written by his great aunt Edith Appleton (published as A Nurse at the Front) to offer a vivid description of a woman at war….

EdieHead12 September 1916:   “I sent 17 of my shell shocks off to Havre yesterday where they are to receive special treatment. Should have liked to keep them here – treating them will be very interesting. I got very sick of hospital rules yesterday and took Matron’s dog for a walk over the cliffs.  I was quite alone there and enjoyed it immensely; bathed, sat with not much on and my hair loose and read.”

Sister Edith Appleton served in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in France throughout the First World War, often close to the front line. Somehow, amongst the carnage, she wrote a daily journal which has been transcribed to produce first a website ( and more recently a book (A Nurse at the Front) published by Simon & Schuster in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum.

As a child in the 1940s and 50s, I remember Edie as a rather strict elderly lady running a somewhat spartan post-WW2 house.  It has been a rewarding experience for me, a century after that terrible war, to rediscover the young woman in her thirties with a sense of humour, a strong sense of duty and a seemingly endless capacity for providing professional, but clearly loving, care.

In the Spring of 1915 Edie was located at No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station near Ypres.

April 28.  We were so much under fire since Saturday that on Monday night we were ordered to clear out in half an hour. We had operations on at the time and tried to become used to the explosions of a big shell close to us every 5 minutes, but it was difficult and my knees did shake.                   

So to-day, just for one day, after the fortnight of  working night and day, we are having a picnic in a beautiful wood just outside Hazebrouck. It is very restful not to hear the roar of the guns so loud and near.

As a child I knew nothing of Edie’s experiences in the Great War.  She never spoke of it and certainly not to us children. In 2013 I spent some time in the Isle of Wight. Not a single soul in the village of Brighstone, where Edie spent the last 35 years of her life, knew about her Great War experience.

Here’s another extract from the period when Edie was stationed in No. 1 Stationary Hospital at Etretat on the Normandy coast.

11 September 1916:   “We had a convoy of 399 in yesterday. Most of the sick were suffering badly from shell shock. It is sad to see them; they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it. One rumpled, raisin-faced old fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers and sometimes, going through the trenches, he had to push past men with their arms blown off or wounded anywhere and they would yell at him: “Don’t touch me,” but he had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs. Then he would stand on something wobbly and nearly fall down and see it was a dying or dead man – half covered in mud.

Edie names over 200 individuals – colleagues and patients – in her diaries and one of the best rewards of publishing the diaries has been contacts from descendants of some of those named. There have been 16 to date and some are linked from this page on Edie’s website.

30 May 1916. One gruesome thing my patient Sam Maddox told me was that when they were marching into Ypres they saw another Company of the Warwicks resting by the roadside, some sitting on the kerbstones, some lying about. They took not the least notice of the passing officer – no salute – nothing. Then the officer went up to them and touched one man’s cheek – white powder fell off. He was stone dead. They had all been killed by gas as they sat or lay. It was a horrible sight, some of them were smiling and some looked as if they were asleep.

In October 2013 I was with the BBC in Etretat where Edie spent a year of the war.  A programme was shown in November 2014 on BBC2, ‘The Great War – an Elegy’, in which the poet Simon Armitage looked at seven WW1 artefacts and wrote a poem about each. One of these is Edie’s diary and the programme, described in The Times Culture Awards as “The Best First World War TV Programme of the Year”, can be viewed here.

The diaries include many sketches. Here are a couple – in Etretat. The words next to the three figures are “going for an early dip – ME not one of them”.

sketch1 We are currently giving illustrated talks around the country about Edie and her amazing diaries; see I tell Edie’s story and my wife, Lisa, reads extracts from the diaries. We are happy to receive invitations.

To end, here’s another diary extract:

“In one of my huts, among the many severe cases, there was one especially sad one: a sweet boy not much over 18. A grenade had torn his left arm cleanly off. His little face was always screwed up with pain and no sound came from his lips. When the surgeon examined him only I handled him; as he said “with Sister it does not hurt so much”.

That wasn’t actually Edie writing. German Krankenschwester – Sister – Hanna served on the other side of the front line, caring for German wounded.  Last summer Lisa and I gave our Edie presentation – in French – to German, French and Italian diary archivists in Strasbourg. They, like us, were keen to acknowledge the horrors which all went through in that terrible war.

Dick Robinson

My sincere thanks to Dick, and to find out more contact him at or follow the diaries on twitter at

Posted in Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead

Katie Hopkins

Katie Hopkins

I have tried so hard not to write this post. Don’t get me wrong – it is not through any feelings of shame at admitting my years of battling depression and anxiety (anyone who knows me and this blog will know I am totally open about my mental health issues and have a page devoted to posts on the subject by me, and by others) but because I felt I had nothing to add to the discussion of the Germanwings plane crash tragedy and subsequent media treatment of the story. I shared a couple of posts on Facebook, but quickly realised how wound up I was feeling and made the decision to step back and observe, as people I respect and mental health organisations made statements I heartily endorsed.

But this morning, having read a great post from The Blurt Foundation and more of the marvellous Matt Haig (whose book about his own experiences of depression Reasons to Stay Alive was published last week), and seeing the vitriol being poured forth by Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan on twitter, I can resist comment no longer.

What are people like Hopkins and Morgan FOR? Who do they think they are representing? Why should they be allowed to berate those with mental health issues on a public forum in the most hateful and bullying terms and be allowed to get away with it? I am not going to give any more publicity than is absolutely necessary to the comments Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made – if you are interested you can go on their twitter accounts – but the general gist is that those of us with depression are self-absorbed, malingering, attention seeking hysterics who are only after a sick note. In addition, we are a danger to the public and, as a consequence of the Germanwings crash ought not to be allowed to use anything resembling machinery.


Even one of my closest and loveliest friends has now made a joke about how she will be scared to get in a car with me….

I am furious that the newspaper headlines and people like Hopkins and Morgan can undo all the hard work that has been done, and undermine the work still needed, to reduce the stigma attached to mental ill-health. It is particularly shameful in light of the fact that men are far less likely to seek help for depression and three times more likely to commit suicide than women. There are men and women returning from conflict zones experiencing PTSD who deserve respect. We need people to seek attention – not feel ashamed for doing so. It is those who need help we should be listening to, not the media whores who would rather be hated than ignored.

I would give anything not to experience the desperate anxiety that has on occasions wrecked weeks of my life. No-one chooses to feel clinically depressed – it is HORRIBLE. And I work, and drive and do all those things people do to just get on with their lives. I am just me – trying hard not to be defined by my mental health issues, working hard and finding joy where and when I can.

And it is about time we took people like Katie Hopkins to task. She won’t care, she will just shout ‘freedom of speech’ and spit more worthless s**t about people whose lives she knows nothing of. I am not a violent woman, but by God if I met her I would be hard pressed to hold the slap back.

The battle to reduce the stigma associated with mental health is not lost of course. But perhaps we need to re-write a few rules….

Posted in Mental health, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Happiness is SO yesterday – On World Poetry Day, who else but John Keats?

keats19Today is World Poetry Day, following swiftly on the heels of the International Day of Happiness. I have to say that this is the day more likely to see me full of passion for life. I downloaded the Happiness Pack yesterday, out of interest, and the air was filled with the smell of pie in the sky. I am sure it is well-intentioned but happiness is not a switch that you can turn on and off at will. Life doesn’t read pretty .pdf documents, or care much whether you have smiled at a stranger this morning.

Please don’t get me wrong – I long for happiness and contentment but have come to accept that life is rather more complex than I would like. That is why I love poetry so much. Poetry, and the good poet, can distil an emotion into so few words that you can hear or read two or three lines and think ‘YES!!’, and know that however you are feeling, someone is or has been with you there.

I have written about my love for the life, letters and of course poetry, of John Keats on here many times. There is a whole page dedicated to links to posts about him, and how people interpret his work. His poetry and letters helped me through some tough times, and I continue to read him widely simply for the pure pleasure of it. So for World Poetry Day I have chosen a poem in which he offers us all (as a celebrity and appearance obsessed society) and anyone tempted to enter a TV talent competition, a proper wake up call. At the same time he writes with such sensuousness, and sexual reference, that much erotic fiction could learn a thing or three….

On Fame

You cannot eat your cake and have it too.”–Proverb.

How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
On the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom:
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

John Keats 1819

The comparative ugliness of the first lines, compared to the relative purity of the final six, shows us how far a drive for fame for fame’s sake can despoil a man’s life. It is a subject Keats wrote about more than once, also comparing fame to a ‘wayward’ girl, who teases the man who would chase after her and who reserves her affections for those more circumspect. We need to leave our roses on the briar, step back and enjoy that crystal space….

Happy World Poetry Day!!


Posted in Books, Keats, Literature, Poetry, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments