unapologetic: a diane keaton phase

i recently lost someone close and dear to me, and that’s not what this post is about. but i have to start it by saying that i am sitting in my garden on what is probably the perfect london day of the year – a balmy 17°C and literally no cloud to be seen. a boozy lunch for a friend’s birthday and a short afternoon and cancelled mandolin lesson left me with nothing to do but ponder in this perfect space.

this type of day, and this type of afternoon call to attention the fact that i will never again spend this type of afternoon drinking a beer on a blue-domed patio with the person that i lost. and that’s ok. we already had loads of them. but it didn’t stop me from spending a full 17 minutes sobbing on the sofa after battling unexpected tears on my early train home.


lately i’ve been telling people i’m going through a diane keaton phase. i originally thought this up because i have recently and i’ll hastily add very justifiably, i know, taken to random and unexpected fits of crying. clearly when you are grieving this is normal and to be expected. but i started to feel a bit like diane keaton, who in a number of roles has had moments of unbridled emotional outpouring. diane is the most amazing on-screen crier i have ever seen, best evidenced in her role as playwright erica barry, who falls in love with her daughter’s boyfriend (played by jack nicholson) in something’s gotta give. it’s too good.

she also had some similar (ly well-acted) sob scenes in a less-good film called and so it goes starring opposite michael douglas. and others.

i’ve always loved diane but it wasn’t until recently that i really realised how fucking cool she is. she’s dated some of the most interesting and sought-after men. warren beatty, al pacino, steve jobs and woody allen, and was woody’s original and most endearing muse (i know she defended him after his sex scandal broke but let’s put a pin in that for the moment) in some of the best roles he ever wrote.

but she never married any of them.

in her early years she was one of the first women in hollywood (or full stop) to pioneer wearing men’s clothes – she is often seen in super-hot skinny ties and suits draped off her, with trilby hats and fantastic brogues.


and okay, whatever about fashion, right, because that’s not how we judge a person, but i do so admire the way she has used fashion to mirror her independent spirit. she has side careers as a photographer, book editor, author and real estate tycoon. she decided to become a mother on her own at the age of 55. diane always seems to do just what’s right for diane. unapologetically, and with an energy that astounds me. and having been raised in an era when women battled their way up way more than now, and even still it feels like a slog most of the time. i just kind of want to be her.

i recently spent a weekend afternoon watching old clips of the ellen show when diane was a guest. she’s been a guest on the ellen show a lot, and she and ellen get on swimmingly. diane is kind of typecast as a ditz, and whether her art has imitated her life or vice versa, she certainly comes off as having zero fucks to give and always having the time of her life. giggling, talking about men triple half her age she’d like to get with (she thinks justin bieber is a fox and while i’d question her taste i certainly admire her absolute verve in the proclamation). i appreciate that we can never really know what a celebrity is like in their home life, and we all have our closets don’t we, but diane seems to be diane and i like that.

not too long ago, i read an article (couldn’t be bothered finding it but i’m sure if you google you will come up with the one or one just like it) by a woman who realised her tendency to apologise in everyday conversation, and started replacing all but the very true sorries with thank yous. my friend kathleen and i have taken up this habit, with the mantra NO SORRIES every time one or the other falls into the trap, and it’s amazing how often i feel those two little words creeping from my lips. and how freeing it has been to let go of them when i am able. which isn’t always.


being unapologetic is part of being vulnerable – a wider goal i have in my life of late. it’s hard to be unapologetic in a culture that thrives on saying sorry for every single interaction. in britain, you apologise to a cafe server before you even start to order your food.

i am tired of being sorry for who i am. of being sorry for what i’ve achieved. of being sorry for existing as an emotional being. of being sorry for having the correct change, or not the correct change. of being sorry for needing to cry when and where it happens and of needing my friends full stop. of being sorry for wearing clothes i like even if someone else hates them, and of being sorry for my taste in things even if the world thinks they are shit. i am tired of being sorry for not being the right size and for not being good at maths, and for not being good at maths because i’m a girl, and for not doing the things i’m supposed to do and oftentimes doing all the things i’m not supposed to do. i am tired of being sorry for picking diane keaton as a hero on the off chance people might think that’s a bad choice. i am tired of being sorry for not living up to a standard that was set by someone before i was even born, and i am very tired of apologising to myself for not being the person that other people might have expected, or even groomed, me to be.


my mantra this year is that it’s 2017. we are all in a freefall. love who you love, even if it makes you want to resist the urge to apologise. live your best life, even if it’s difficult and uncomfortable for awhile. and because CRYING HELPS embrace your diane keaton phase. i am aiming to make mine last for the rest. and when i am 71, i want to be as full of life and devoid of apologies as she seems to be.


south downs way

the saturday gone, i embarked on my first solo stroll across the english countryside. previous jaunts have always involved a companion, which is of course a wondrous way to enjoy the british landscape. but mental preparation is surely as important as muscle-building when doing something like walking across an entire country, and so solo excursions were happily added to my repertoire.

the south downs. what a wonderful name for this chain of low chalk hills that lumber some 260 miles across southern england. this country has a marvellous system of well-signposted paths that cross it in just about every direction. i was to walk a very small portion of the 100-mile south downs way that day. a short 40-minute train southward from home dropped me off in lewes (which is pronounced like lewis) – better known for its bonfire night extravaganza where effigies of famous and infamous politicians (and other things) are set aflame in a blazing procession.

the trail first weaves through the village, a pretty town full of red brick houses and pubs. but winds quickly out after crossing the A27 on a high bridge that vibrates in the wind. here, i found myself atop a glorious hillock heading in the direction of a giant escarpment, with only lazy cows for company.

as part of my experiment in mental fortitude, i left my headphones in the side pocket of my daypack. it was quiet. a bird swooped overhead and a low breeze whistled through a rotten fencepost. the soles of my boots crunched on hard mud covered over in a layer of ice from last night’s freeze. a sleetish mist hung in the low dips of the hills; i was above it.

the path drops here down into the hamlet of kingston, where all of the homes have names like deeping and roseway. old orchard. highdown. a small pasture contains a miniature horse with a giant, untamed forelock wearing a tiny winter rug. and the escarpment looms.

the path splits and you veer left, scampering up a jagged car-wide track to the top of the escarpment, where you join the south downs way. and then you are above everything, on a bare ridge, with views of white chalk cliffs to the north and undulating green to the south. forecasted clouds began to burn off, a warming winter sun appeared in front of me and soon i had stripped off all but the thinnest of layers.

i met a few other walkers – a couple with a half-wet retriever, a pair of men in big leather boots, middle aged trail runners, a solo woman heading the opposite way with whom i exchanged a knowing glance whilst munching on a segment of orange.

but for the most part, i was mercifully alone for a lot of the day. a stop for lunch at the abergavenny arms in the village of rodmell yielded a seat on a picnic table in the sun and a pint of local ale to accompany my tesco meal deal.

the afternoon was largely more of the same, but an excursion through a mudded out farmyard proffered the most important walkers’ lesson of the day. sidestepping one pool of brown sludge, i stepped onto what i thought was firm ground and landed ankle deep with both feet splashing in a cesspool of shitey bogwater. my scarpa boots were champs and feet stayed dry as dust, but lesson for this desert rat learned: always test the mud’s depth before stepping into it.

fifteen kilometres and change later, the walk climbs down and up again through the village of telscombe (home to the unassumingly beautiful, 13th century saint laurence church), before reaching a final high just north of saltdean. crossing a field disturbingly full of beady-eyed sheep, i was so distracted by not incurring their wrath that i was astounded when i realised that the ethereal shimmer off to my left was, in fact, the english channel.

i walked until i couldn’t walk anymore: all the way down to the shore, marching in giant, awkward strides through deep mounds of loose pebbles on saltdean beach and letting a thin rush of seafoam stream under my boots where the water met the land. it was a curious moment, reaching the ocean and having nowhere further to go. a reminder that every journey must have its end, and that, too, can be beautiful.

a year of walking

i am not quite sure when the urge to walk at great length became a strong force in my life. i have not always been a walker. i am horse rider. a hiker. i like the mountains. i like to float around in the water without doing much swimming. i love being transported places by bus or especially train. i find flying tolerable and running a slog. i have spent some time cycling (mostly in china, where it isn’t so much cycling as sitting aboard a bicycle and peddling for dear life). and, somewhere in the last decade, i became a walker.


it is perhaps down to a housemate of mine some years ago in dublin, ireland, who recounted her adventures walking a portion of the camino de santiago in spain for implanting this notion into my head. just going for a walk and not stopping. everyday, waking early, putting on dusty boots, and planting one foot in front of the other, resolutely, until arriving at another bed at another sunset.

or maybe it is down to my dad. i blame him, and thank him, for passing his nomad soul onto me. he has always been a traveller and a wanderer. sometimes through his telescope into the outer reaches of the galaxy, but also in a bread van full of surfboards, or thumb out waiting for a ride down the pacific coast highway, clandestine rides aboard midnight freight trains through the american west, and best of all, a coast-to-coast horse ride from california to virginia in 1974.


when i was a kid, my grandfather (my mother’s father) often told stories of how he walked from his hometown of groveton, texas, to the next biggest town, lufkin as a young man in the early 1930s – a 30-mile(ish) walk. i have no idea what the details or truths about that story are, but i suppose the notion sank in. pilgrimages seem to run in my family, on both sides.

whatever the reason, the urge has strengthened as years passed. afternoons spent flaneuring around prague, or short saturdays walking the southeast london green chain seem only to have intensified this primal need to get the world underfoot. many evenings these days, after the very short stroll from work to london bridge, where i get the train home, the urge to just keep going overtakes me. i could go to the white cliffs of dover if i skipped the 17.37 service to west croydon.


in the next few months, i will (fingers crossed, if all goes to plan, etc etc) receive permanent UK residence. i have decided to mark this milestone by walking across england by myself. it feels romantic and fitting and, frankly, completely terrifying. the somewhat bleak scenery around northumberland has always appealed to me, and the 84-mile trek along hadrian’s wall through that part of the world seemed the obvious choice from the start. mileage to be upped from wallsend to a finish at south shields, so that i might complete the coast-to-coast journey in homage to john egenes, my dad and hero.


so i’ve started walking more in preparation. what were occasional 5k morning walks in to work are becoming regular. the odd weekend stroll around southeast london is in the process of becoming a weekly ten or 15k across the english countryside.

getting around on your feet feels natural. by yourself, your mind goes through stages of clear-out. first, fretting about the previous and next week’s worldly woes. then, contemplating the things that are really irking you, and next ruminating on things from bygone parts of your life, and finally thinking of nothing at all beyond the way the hills curve this way and that, or the slant of the sunlight off a large oak tree to the east, or how to manoeuvre through downward-sloping mud without completely biting it.


it is when the mind reaches these last reaches that you are truly walking. everything prior is a build-up, just as your body warms and muscles loosen, so the mind clears itself of worries, stresses, interests and obsessions. this act then becomes a kind of zen meditation as the world expands and contracts at the same time and you, quite literally, stop thinking.

walking with a close friend or loved one is both a similar and different proposition. conversation undulates with the rolling of mounds. now you are laughing at something that happened in work. next silently scraping mud off boots with sticks collected under a giant tree. then a sudden deep-dive into why this relationship or that ended, or what might happen next with a long-lost love. a poignant memory arrives of some moment you had forgotten, and you relay it in the quiet confidence of the countryside while boots stamp gentle outlines into damp soil. more silence, a hawk overhead, echoing of footsteps off the side of a deserted barn. a moment to stop and figure out how and where we just got lost. and more silence.


walking is not my favourite activity. i would rather be on a horse, the gentle forward-and-back of withers carrying me onwards. a pat on dusty neck signalling the pricking of ears and an enlivened stride. a chat, and a connection, with a fellow earthbound being, which simultaneously understands and does not give a shit about you. a cheeky canter across an unspoilt pasture that leaves you both a little breathless.

Girls 2.jpg

but there are things to think about when you’re riding. is that flapping hay bale cover going to spook him? does his left hind feel off? shit, he just lost a shoe! here’s a patch of groundhog holes we need to avoid. argh, don’t let him put his head down for that loco weed. lean forward for an ascent up the mesa.

when you are walking, you cannot escape yourself: the long march of history, the cluttered back rooms of your own mind, or the moment when everything stops and you are totally and completely free, responsible only for one foot in front of the other.


it’s cold. i am not sure how cold, because i haven’t looked at my phone or checked the weather app, but it must be hovering around freezing because the garden chair sparkles with developing frost when i shine a torch on it to find my way out. i didn’t think i was going to be stargazing tonight, but when i hopped out of an uber earlier after spending the evening drinking a decent amount of red wine at a fairly tedious PR event, i saw orion’s belt blazing a diagonal line above ballina street. i’d be in the back garden in ten minutes.

winter stargazing, like winter anything, i guess isn’t for everyone. i say ‘i guess’ because i do not understand ‘hot weather people’ or people who think sweating is in any way pleasurable. i am a winter person. i grew up at altitude, and the arid mountain winds of northern new mexico do seem to get into your bloodstream, because i cannot tolerate temperatures above about 15°C if there is any, and i do mean any, amount of moisture in the air. a couple of years ago in january, i was walking around in seoul, wearing some thermals and a big coat, and it was -14°C. i started to shiver and thought to myself, ‘oh, this is what it’s like to be cold’.

but i digress.

i have no idea how old i was the first time i can remember looking up at the sky, but can’t have been more than about five. that would’ve been 1986. my dad had a huge white telescope that took pride of place in our living room. it was massive, and i genuinely do not know how he managed to haul it out to the dirt driveway in front of the house on special nights when there were things to see.

the skies above rural northern new mexico in 1986 had something to see every night. they still mostly do. you can see the milky way, and it astonishes me that there are people – a lot of people – in the world who have never seen the milky way. it’s like snow. but nevermind, winter person here. the skies above northern new mexico in 1986 had a lot of things to see, indeed all the things to see. so it took a special event, like an eclipse or jupiter or venus passing really close to the moon, or halley’s comet, which we spent many evenings looking for that year, to warrant a fever pitch exciting enough to wheel the big telescope out from its throne.

my dad would set it up, spending what felt like hours making tiny adjustments to little black protruding lenses, spinning small round knobs and gently swaying the giant white cylinder this way and that until it rested in just the right position to see whatever it was we were looking for. this, for a five year old girl, was mostly boring, but being outside at night was exciting, and being with dad was a thrill. we learned to read a star chart, turning it gingerly to find just the month and day and then squinting to compare it to the sky. dad knew a lot about the stars and would recite their names and the constellations, as if they should mean something to us at such a young age:

there’s perseus. that’s andromeda next to it. there’s orion, see his belt with the three bright stars? that little cluster, that’s pleiades, the seven sisters.

me and my sister liked pleiades the most because it looked like a tornado made of stars that were sisters. how fuckin’ awesome.

i park myself on the frosting-over garden chair facing south. south is the best direction to face for any kind of stargazing south of the thames, because you are facing away from the main source of light pollution and, in winter, get a good view of the main events: orion, sirius, capella and the rest. the garden table hasn’t been used since october and, since the 16.27 sunset, has been slowly icing over in freezing temps. it is now 23.01. my wine glass slides toward me.

looking at the stars is one of the few activities in human existence that elicits true wonder. there is beauty there, the unknown, a sense of excitement, a sense of the ancient and everything that came before you and will follow you. you don’t know what any of it means, and yet there is a fundamental understanding that you, on this speck of rock in the outer reaches of the universe, are still part of something. the only time you can really feel any perspective at all is when you are looking up at a night sky, because you feel small, tiny, insignificant and yet connected.

when my first marriage ended, i spent a summer living with my mom and stepdad, which is when they also were still together. i was 22. mornings i took runs through the sandy, dry arroyo below the house, languorous afternoons were spent reading many books (i read seabiscuit that summer and probably never cried so much) and messing around with the horses. once night fell, my stepdad and i would each pour ourselves a pitcher of margarita, or crack open endless bottles of dos equis amber, and sit out on the patio looking up.

on those nights, we didn’t look for constellations. we just let the galaxies come to us and conversation wash over us. we listened for the far-off sound of cars on highway 14 and the rumble of someone driving up coyote trail and we saw UFOs hovering in erratic patterns above the ortiz mountains to the south.

i don’t know where we go after this life, or if we go anywhere. but my eyes will always gaze up when the sun sets, a reminder of how small i am and how connected we all are in this ever-expanding universe. and if a day comes in this lifetime when i can literally shoot myself to the stars, i will be on the first ship out.

caedmon’s call and the start of 2017

new year’s day 2017
south of york station, virgin east coast service to london’s king’s cross
not listening to caedmon’s call, but felt’s ‘forever breathes the lonely word’

i didn’t go to whitby in search of caedmon. in fact, i had no idea there was a connection between the little english north sea-side town and the band that i followed super-religiously throughout my most formative years. a quickly-planned twixtmas trip to york somehow escalated to the inclusion of whitby – not exactly nearby, but also not that far away – on the itinerary for reasons i genuinely cannot remember or even fathom now. this detail passed me by but became relevant.

caedmon’s call was a band for and of christian people but they weren’t a christian band. or they were, and by that i mean they wrote songs that dived into christian philosophy in a way that my church high school would’ve called heretical. maybe not that extreme, but they made me ask questions and they created wonder where previously i only felt judgement and the push to conform.

after some time, me and the band became ‘friends’ because i went to far too many concerts – sometimes driving upwards of 14 hours across moonbeam-strewn texas plains to catch them in just one more bible-belt town’s church sanctuary or college auditorium. i pushed up the gumption on a snowy night around 1995 in wondrously named glorieta, new mexico and exchanged addresses with derek webb after the show. we wrote letters and chatted on IRC at musicians’ hours and i went to more shows. later i would even cover one of their songs on a long-lost fanclub rarity album (yes i just linked that there and it is from a bygone age and that’s all i have to say).

this is not really meant to be a post about all that, but it is about that, because the sun was setting over whitby a couple of days ago when i realised there was a trajectory of my life that had just come full-circle.

it was a big, yellowish orangish pinkish orb and it was shattering the blue winter sky into a million fragments of pastel when we walked up the 199 steps to whitby’s anglo-saxon hillside retreat where the very oddly shaped church of st mary and, behind it, the foreboding crumbles of benedictine whitby abbey, live, windbattered and muddy. the churchyard has a very atmospheric graveyard where the headstones look out over the north sea in a bleak and perfect fashion. they are all small and old worn stone, like you expect headstones in a graveyard like that to be, but then there’s this one 20ft-high spire of a cross at the very corner of the cemetery.

i credit bill, who looked more closely at it and spotted the name ‘caedmon’ on it, and i knew immediately it was not a coincidence, for how many caedmons were there, ever? at the bottom of the cross, inscribed:

“To the glory of God, and in memory of Caedmon, Father of English sacred song. Fell asleep hard by AD 680.”

caedmon was basically a stable boy at whitby abbey in the 600s. but hilda – at that time abbess of the then-mixed abbey – saw something in him and his verse and voice and encouraged him to keep singing and writing, and caedmon wrote what are possibly some of the very first songs and poems in the english language (a northumbrian dialect of old english), though he is all but forgotten today.

it called me to wonder about caedmon and hilda’s friendship. what did the powerful abbess see in a stable boy? he must have had a very special aura around him, and perhaps she was lonely despite the many monks and nuns around her. if being a career woman in the 21st century is hard, i can only imagine running a sizeable abbey in such a time must have been a gargantuan task with few real friends to call upon. it is said kings came to hilda for advice. who did she go to, i wonder?

sometimes friends arrive in guises that are inexplicable and not really that sensical – inconvenient or troublesome even – and we just have to go with it. i like to think about caedmon and hilda’s secret friendship, hanging out in the stables at odd hours maybe, the puffing of horses in torchlight while they exchanged music and verse in damp, hay-heavy air. hilda probably worried with each footfall she might be discovered in such a tryst, and caedmon just wondering what he did to attract such an important woman’s attention.

2016 was a hard year for many and a year of loss and passing away and foreboding the end of many things. i was sort of hoping that this full-circle life-loop-closing would have some symmetry to it, but actually i first heard caedmon’s call in 1994 and that marks a hardly-round 22-year anniversary. still, much happened in 2016 that felt like the poetic end to some things and the mysterious beginning to others, and i can’t help but feel this strange meeting of caedmon in his final resting place, just a few thousand minutes before the end of 2016, and so many thousands of miles and lives lived since i first heard his story, simply cannot be chance.

When I’m cold and alone all I want
Is my freedom, a sudden gust of gravity
I stop wailing and kicking just to let
This water cover me, cover me

some old photos:

with derek and my mate becky at trees in dallas (appx 1998?)
with garrett buell (caedmon’s call percussionist) at the guild 2 weekend (1999)
myself and my dad, john egenes on mandolin, performing ‘too tender’ at guild 1 weekend (1998) – surely the worst best kept digitised photo of all time
art lawry, myself and i can’t remember the guy on the right, guild 3 weekend in columbus, ga (2001)

a poem for 2016

qilian mountains, zhangye, gansu

2016: the good things

an ordered poem-list of in-jokes and obscurities

  • the shins, finally, live
  • maijishan
  • wifey and the globe
  • snottingham
  • sunlight bathed the golden glow
  • eleanor of aquitaine
  • bled
  • Y667
  • and the stars
  • romeo
  • that bottle of wine in the courtyard of the garrick inn in stratford-upon-avon
  • hotdogstreetsslashgiggles
  • kweens
  • in particular kweens xmas market lunch
  • jones
  • something sent to sleep at the stage
  • taitung celestia
  • kattybabylove
  • sobbing at the high countries
  • in the car
  • at the target parking lot.
  • aikea-guinea
  • is
  • the friendship of peter lee
  • xiahe, walking the inner kora
  • messages
  • BiD, GKM, LoB
  • the day of fourteen k and red dirt girl
  • the dome of st pauls
  • i myself am exhausted and my blood pressure has dropped
  • in
  • do you know that fucker
  • the wild atlantic way times two
  • kat-meganchat
  • which became spreadsheet, briefly
  • then history
  • not having a stereo in the car that once
  • the beer sludge river
  • and then you said, “let’s obliterate them.”
  • that swim at praia da rainha
  • love
  • teenage fanclub
  • brexit cats
  • the MVE in greenwich
  • goodbye darlin’
  • sunset over the drava
  • sunrise over whitby abbey
  • hashtagpickletickle
  • again
  • slam ‘er down boys
  • big beery advent calendar
  • dramatised performance of ‘the waste land’
  • and seeing ts’s pavilion in margate
  • the search for, and not finding of (yet), an old street tower block
  • you got rid of the dickhead
  • and got your passport
  • you got rid of the dickhead
  • and discovered dogs
  • you weren’t the snoggy girl
  • and all our shared ubers
  • stargazing in the back garden
  • an email from jc brouchard, who might be real
  • coffee
  • gibbous
  • stop saying gibbous
  • the train through flanders
  • nashville sound and bakersfield sound
  • trieste.
  • the viking splash tour
  • three days with tag
  • charlotte and blueberry
  • mexican bandits, which reached me in new places
  • bill clinton and the balloons
  • the snow that fell on the danxia landform when i was unprepared
  • mary chapin carpenter
  • and all roads lead to 1992
  • your laugh and your smile lines
  • finally, the monks who saved me at tiantishan
  • because they prove that the world is inherently good
  • and there is still magic to be found
  • and felt.

tiantishan grottoes

poem about papa

a wide-brim stetson
and ostrich-skin boots
tan slacks, bolo tie
well, in here, we drink whiskey
he drawled in the saloon

i hammered in planks
on the boardwalk each july
sound of far-off cars
planes cut wisps through the high clouds
dust devils spun through pastures

like us, prowling round
in the ol’ bronco
i was twelve, awkward
barely into boys back then

he was the world’s biggest man.