Thursday, 17 December 2009

Inner peace? There's an app for that

Those of you with an iPhone will know that you can get an app* for pretty much anything. But did you know you can now achieve inner peace by way of your iPhone?


You didn't? That's because you probably don't get occasional emails sent to you by the Chopra Center. It seems that Deepak Chopra (he of the cheap night out) has released a stress free app to help you calm down in between Facebook updates. But the name is the only thing about it that is free. At £5.99 it's one of the more expensive iPhone apps.

Oh, you can also use your iPhone to help you with your cosmic ordering (which I just know you're all trying now). And it's not just any cosmic ordering app, it's Noel Edmonds Cosmic Ordering app. Yes, it has The Edmonds seal of approval. Compared to Deepak's offering it's a snip at just £1.19.

Personally, I prefer Boggle.

*For the uninitiated (mum, dad) an 'app' is an application, or piece of software, that you can download and install on to your phone from the iTunes App Store. There are now over 100,000 apps available for the iPhone!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

But is it art?

Saw this on the Derren Brown blog:

rotating kitchen from Zeger Reyers on Vimeo.

It struck a chord as I was reading and writing about creativity...

Monday, 7 December 2009

Talking of pillows...

In looking for the image of the guy sleeping for the previous post, I discovered a whole load of bizarre pillows you can get. For example, the happy looking lady in the picture on the right has on a wearable pillow that could mean you would never lose your pillow again, no matter where you were! Note the matching bow-tie.

A little more subtle is a pillow that has the words "Good Morning Sweetheart"
embroidered in reverse on its surface. This becomes imprinted on your face as you doze, meaning you can bid your partner good morning without having to open your eyes (or mouth).

Perhaps more disturbing are the variety of pillows that come in the shape of body
parts (don't worry, we're going to keep it clean). First up is the lap pillow, in the shape of a woman's kneeling legs. Pay no attention to the fact that the woman on whose lap you are sleeping has had her torso severed from her lower limbs. That will just give you nightmares.

For those of you who prefer to have an
arm round you while you're sleeping, there's the boyfriend's arm pillow. I suppose it doesn't have to be a boyfriend's arm. It could easily be a husband's arm, a girlfriend's arm, or a stranger's arm. Whatever gives you the most comfort. You could even think of it as a piece of material, filled with stuffing,
shaped in the form of an arm and hand, but then that would just be CREEPY, wouldn't it?

It is even possible to get severed-limb pillows for babies. The 'zaky' pillow is the shape of a pair of hands that hold the
baby as though they are being comforted by their parent's hands. The idea of this pillow is to overcome that moment when babies waken just as you take your hands away.

But, if human body parts don't float your boat, you could always go for a severed animal body part. For example,
nothing else quite says, "You're next!" as effectively as a horse's head pillow. Apart from, maybe, an actual horse's head.

But I think the winner in terms of the most bizarre/disturbing has to go to the blood spill pillow (or blood spillow, if you will). This is what might happen if someone was to take away your pillow very quickly, if your bed was made of concrete... and maybe there was spike beneath it. You get the idea.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Pillow talk

Last night I dreamt I was eating a giant marshmallow. When I woke up my pillow was gone.

When I told this joke to a class of my students once, they groaned in unison. One student at the front of the class didn’t seem to realise it was a joke. Or just didn’t get it. “So where was your pillow?” she asked.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Midlands' Ghosthunter

I watched Eggheads for the first time tonight (BBC2, 6pm). A 30-minute roller-coaster of televisual excitement. I guarantee that if you watched it tomorrow night, you'll be on the edge of your seat within the first few minutes... reaching for the remote.


As I'm sure you know, the show pits challengers against a team of 'Eggheads' who are essentially quiz champions who have won quizzes ranging from Mastermind, to Brain of Britain, to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? One is even 4-times World Quizzing Champion. We're talking quiz freaks here.

Why am I telling you this? Well, by the light of the full moon this morning, I left the house at 6.30 to get to BBC Birmingham for a 9am audition for Eggheads. No, not to be one of the Eggheads themselves (like you were thinking that...). This was as part of a team of challengers.

My friend and erstwhile Most Haunted sparring partner, Richard Felix, had been asked to put together a 'ghosthunters' team for the show. He needed five team members (plus a reserve) who could loosely be described as ghosthunters who were knowledgeable, erudite, well read, etc. So he phoned me... and asked me if I knew of anyone who fit the bill. As I couldn't think of anyone, he settled for me as a team member. Even though, to be honest, I'm not really much of a ghosthunter.

Although we'd need six team members for the show if we were chosen, we got by with four for today's audition. Richard's son, Edd, is also a ghosthunter and leads nightly ghost walks around Derby, and CJ Romer is another expert on ghosts and the paranormal. More importantly, CJ is bit of an egghead himself with an encyclopedic knowlege of the arts and humanities (i.e., the proper clever stuff). I gather one of the Eggheads is also called CJ... something Richard hoped might increase our chances of being picked for the show!

When Richard, Edd, and I arrived (CJ arrived later), we were led into a room where three other teams were waiting. One was a full team of five members, another had three of their team like us, and the other had only two members of their team. It was actually this last team that were the most interesting. It turns out they were a Take That tribute band. Or rather they were a 'fat' Take That tribute band. Yep, they were called Take Fat.

Our first task was to individually answer ten general knowledge questions in 3 minutes. These were not easy. And even the ones I thought I might have got right, I didn't. For example, "For which film did Paul Newman win a Best Actor Oscar?". The possible answers were (a) Cool Hand Luke, (b) The Color of Money, or (c) The Hustler. I was fairly confident it was Cool Hand Luke. But a quick check on Wikipedia tells me it was The Color of Money! (Apparently he was nominated for Best Actor award for the other two movies, but didn't win it.)

Even more worryingly, an hour or so later between us we couldn't even remember half of the questions we were asked! Good job there isn't a memory round. Or maybe there is and I've just forgotten...

The next part replicated (kind of) the format of the show itself. A category is chosen and the team picks one member to answer a multiple choice question on that category. If you got it right then you compete in a head to head with the other teams to win a point. We didn't do too bad in that round (i.e., we did at least as well as the others!).

The final part was a brief team interview on camera. These tapes are sent to the series producer and we were told that the decision of which teams to have on the show is based almost entirely on this footage. I guess the mock quiz rounds are to ensure we're not complete idiots (oh dear...). By this time our fourth team member, CJ, had arrived. Which is just as well as while we were waiting he was able to take the ten question general knowledge test and hopefully get right all the questions we had got wrong (and promptly forgotten). Though I think he went for Cool Hand Luke as well...

I think we did ok with the team interview. Apart from fact that I was asked who my favourite Egghead was. This was a problem as I'd never watched the show! Fortunately, I had remembered that one of the Eggheads was Judith Keppell the woman who had been the first person to win the million pounds on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "Yes, she's my favourite!" I enthusiastically told the researcher. I also felt a bit of a fraud shouting in unison, "we're the ghosthunters from the Midlands!" Not only am I not much of a ghosthunter, I'm not from the Midlands.

Anyway, we'll see if we get chosen to be on the show itself. If you really want to know more about the Eggheads quiz programme, Wikipedia has an astonishingly detailed page, which is probably more interesting than the show itself, which you can watch on BBC iPlayer here.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Cosmic!

I guess it is no coincidence that, two months into what I find myself referring to as 'operation freefall', my interest in cosmic ordering is returning. As some of you will remember, cosmic ordering was the subject of a certain book that, ahem, found its way into my possession. (But we don't talk about that any more...)

Cosmic ordering refers to the idea that to make your dreams become a reality you can effectively place orders with the cosmos. The cosmos then dutifully delivers your order, much like any other delivery service (other than the Royal Mail, I guess). There seem to be dozens of books devoted to the subject of cosmic ordering out there (and more than 17 million hits on Google!) but the book that is typically regarded as inspiring the rising interest in cosmic ordering is Barbel Mohr's book The Cosmic Ordering Service. It was this book that Noel Edmonds cited as introducing him to the concept and that led to his return to TV in Deal or No Deal.

Well, if it worked for The Edmonds, could it work for me? Has anyone else here tried cosmic ordering? Or is it a load of twaddle?

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Big Apple

My brother got married on Friday last week. The happy couple have this week gone on honeymoon in New York. So this is for them... I love this song (you didn't have me down as a Jay-Z fan now did you?):



Bright Lights, Big City, New Tork Times 1 and New York Times 2 tell of my and Rachel's visit to the Big Apple (for what it's worth). Ant, Lisa... hope you have as much fun as we did. x

Friday, 13 November 2009

From TV History to TV Burp

In case you missed what Derren Brown regarded as being an "anus-invertingly unpalatable" idea and what the Guardian called "the worse single hour of television produced in 2009", here is the first part of Michael Jackson: The Live Seance:



Those willing to risk your anus being inverted can catch the rest of the show on YouTube.

It turns out they did, indeed, have a parapsychologist on as an observer. A rather pallid young man who sat in the background on a bar stool and, well, observed. He seemed kind of lost for words as he watched Derek Acorah lead four sequined (and perfectly well-balanced) Jacko "superfans" through the seance. At the end of the show he seemed genuinely concerned, along with many of the viewers no doubt, for the emotional wellbeing of said superfans. One superfan in particular, himself called Michael, had sobbed uncontrollably as his idol (or rather, Derek) spoke to him.

I guess both Derek and superfan Michael have recovered... I gather they are to appear on Harry Hill's TV Burp on Saturday night.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Television history

Tonight, the medium Derek Acorah will attempt to contact the spirit of Michael Jackson in a live seance to be broadcast on Sky1 at 10pm. Here's the trailer:



I wonder if they'll have a parapsychologist on there as an observer...?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Midlands' Best Medium

If I'm being honest, I had pretty low expectations regarding Midlands' Best Medium. I'm not saying that I had any reason to believe that the mediums from this part of England were likely to be a load of rubbish, it's just that I imagined the kind of folks that might enter such a competition may not have been the best judge of their own ability. (So, yes I suppose I'm saying I did think they might be rubbish.) So I was pleasantly surprised when, having negotiated the turmoil that is Derby's inner ring road, the nine individuals who had made it through the auditions seemed to be fairly balanced people with some hold on reality!

The contestants' first task was psychometry. This usually involves giving someone a reading based upon holding a personal item of theirs, like a ring. The idea is that the object supposedly 'absorbs' the energies of the wearer, and it is from these energies that a psychic or medium is able to pick up characteristics of the owner. At least I think that's the theory. On this occasion, the task was made even harder as each contestant was asked to give a reading on a 'mystery object'. This was an ancient bracelet retrieved from an archaeological dig, and thought to be around 3000 years old! A difficult test to say the least, even if there is something to psychometry. All nine contestants gave it a try, and came up with some interesting 'facts' about the object much of which was unverifiable. None really came close to identifying how old it was.

Round two returned to more familiar territory for the mediums. Each contestant was required to give readings to members of the audience much like you would typically see when mediums give stage performances (or when giving platform readings at a Spiritualist church). The main difference was that the people for whom the readings were intended would be chosen at random (by throwing a soft toy into the audience if you must know). Contestants would have only about 5 minutes to give a reading. This round was a mixed bag of general vague readings that could perhaps apply to most people but there were one or two good hits in which a couple of contestants seemed to give accurate information including names and so on.

After each contestant did their bit, the panel of judges, which consisted of Richard Felix, Ian Lawman (both also former Most Haunted contributors) and myself, would give our comments. (That's right, it was the paranormal world's answer to Britain's Got No Talent!) But then it was up to the audience to vote for who would go through to the final round.

The three finalists were set the task of having to each give me a reading with the audience watching... I'm not sure who found this the more uncomfortable, them or me! Again a mixture of relatively vague statements that I imagine would be true of most people with a sprinkling of hits. But we were able to eventually choose one medium as the overall winner (as in they won the title of Midlands' Best Medium, not that they won a set of overalls...).

I believe future regional competitions around the country are being planned as we speak.

Monday, 26 October 2009

See you there

Imagine the scene. You're in Derby on the night before Halloween. You're wondering to yourself, "I wonder who is the best medium around here?" And by that you don't just mean around Derby, you're talking more further afield. The Midlands generally.

If only there was an event that might help you find the Midlands' Best Medium. If only.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

All the fun of the psychic fair (pt 3)

One of the main reasons for my doing the psychic fair was so that people who I gave readings to could compare the reading I gave with a reading they received on the same day from another reader. For practical reasons, this meant I could justify giving readings for free as customers would be required to still get a reading from someone else so they had one to compare it to. If I just said come and get a free reading then it might understandably upset some of the other readers, and I didn't want to upset my new friend Psychic Malcolm who, after all, does this for a living. From my own perspective, it would allow me to get a sense of how meaningful my readings were. Were my readings as good as other readers at the fair? Or was I spouting meaningless drivel whilst the other readers were tapping into some mystical source of knowledge? Or, dare I say, the other way round?

Sam, the young magician sat opposite me, was quite sceptical about tarot readings. And he wasn't really intending to pay for a reading today, but was quite happy to get a free reading from me. Even though he wasn't planning to get a comparison reading, I was darned if I was going to let him walk away and leave me staring out from behind my table. As with Psychic Malcolm, I asked Sam to shuffle the cards while calming his thoughts, etc., etc. Sam deftly demonstrated his skills with a deck of cards as he proceeded to elegantly riffle shuffle the card, squaring them neatly on the table before drawing out ten cards from various parts of the deck. Again, I proceeded to give a reading that was probably not a million miles away from what I'd said to Malcolm. Not that I was just simply giving the same stock spiel. No, I was sincerely aiming to build a reading based upon my understanding of the meanings of the cards as they were laid out in front of me. The trouble was, I found myself saying fairly similar things and being suitably vague and impersonal no matter which cards I was trying to interpret. That said, Sam did say that a few of the things I had talked about in the reading seemed to be relevant to his life. The best thing was, Sam now seemed quite motivated to go and get a reading from another reader in the hall so that he could compare it with my reading. There's a little scientist in all of us.

Even better news was that while I had been giving Sam a reading someone else had appeared. Charlotte was now waiting for a reading. And after Charlotte was Sue, and then Vanessa, and then Michael. In fact, it seems word had got out. Even without a sign people had heard about the man giving free readings. Before I knew it, I was booked up for the rest of the day! Rachel took people's names and allowed 20 minutes per reading, which meant I had to be fairly concise. The readings themselves were probably only taking about 10-15 minutes but I took a couple of minutes at the beginning explaining what I was up to and why I was here. More time was spent at the end of the reading as people gave their opinions on the reading they had received and often furnished me with some relevant details of their lives to show where my reading seemed to have relevance.

In general, I think my readings were probably fairly vague. However, much of the feedback from the people I gave readings to suggests that my readings tended to be at least as good as those they received from others at the fair! Even Sam, the magician, had gone and got himself another reading (this time with Angel cards) and said mine was just as good.

However, there were a few times where my apparent accuracy surprised even me. The first of these, and the most dramatic, was in a reading I gave to Linda (not her real name). The first two cards in Linda's reading were the Two of Swords and The Emperor. The Two of Swords was in the reversed position (i.e., it was upside down) which is supposed to relate to 'suspicion'. The Emperor can relate to a few things, but the one that immediately sprung to mind was 'fatherhood'. In the celtic cross spread these first two cards are laid one on top of the other so I started each reading with an interpretation that linked these first two cards. In Linda's case, the obvious interpretation that immediately occurred to me was that there was a difficult relationship with her father. The trouble was, I found it a real challenge to to say this. I ummed and ahhed before finally saying, "these two cards suggest to me that there is some difficulty in your relationship with your father." The reason I found this hard was that it was the first reading in which I was broaching anything that was fairly personal. Up until that point I had kept things at the safe and general level, making reference to changes in the person's life (we're all going through changes right?), success in creative projects, and so on.

But part of the advice given to me by Psychic Malcolm earlier that day, and by others, was that you should go with what you get, "Give what you get!" So that's what I did, even though it made me feel uncomfortable by daring to make an assertion about Linda and her father which was frankly none of my business! But Linda seemed quite happy to accept this. There was indeed some tension between her and her father, caused by a relationship she was having with a friend of his. What I noted about this exchange was not only did I seem to hit upon a pertinent aspect of Linda's life (even if just by chance perhaps), but also her willingness to then tell me details about her personal life which, as I say, was frankly none of my business!

All in all, the psychic fair was a fantastic learning experience for me. I learnt a lot about the challenges associated with giving readings, and ways in which I could improve the readings I give. At the very least, a tarot reading provides a fairly unique context in which to give and receive a fresh perspective on events in one's life, and can be a valuable tool for enabling us to reflect on these events. Sometimes just standing back from a situation and seeing it from someone else's perspective is enough to help us find a way through. And a tarot reading (or some other psychic reading) can help provide that alternative perspective.

I'm still left with the question of whether tarot readings provide anything more than a way of reflecting on events. That is, can they provide a way of tapping into our otherwise ignored psychic or intuitive abilities? Or is that just wishful thinking? Hopefully this project will help me to answer these questions.

Whatever the answers, I have a feeling I'm going to learn a lot about myself and learn to appreciate other ways of seeing the world. And I'm already up one laughing Buddha and one crystal. What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

All the fun of the psychic fair (pt 2)

So there I was, sat in a dimly lit corner of a hall in the centre of Witney in Oxfordshire, flanked by a psychic artist and a Psychic Malcolm, waiting for my first client (or subject or victim, depending on your choice of terminology!).

For those of you who aren't familiar with the town of Witney, it's a small market town about 12 miles West of Oxford, with a population of a little over 20,000 people. Right now, all I needed was just one person to meander up to my table and ask for a reading. And then, next thing I knew someone had walked up, sat down in the chair opposite me and asked for a reading!

I was surprised who it was. It was Psychic Malcolm. Apparently, in the thirty years that Malcolm had been giving readings, he had never actually had a reading himself. I felt honoured that Malcolm, nay Psychic Malcolm, would have me be the first and only person to have ever given him a reading! I also felt a little intimidated as I'd be sure that he would be looking at the cards as they lay on the table thinking, "no, no, no... that card doesn't mean that!" However, it would be a start. I'd be able to have a practice run with someone who would no doubt be supportive. I asked Malcolm to shuffle the cards (I didn't ask him to cut the deck in two as PM had previously suggested) and take out ten cards. When choosing cards for your reading, it is advised by those in the know that you should calm your thoughts and to pick out cards that you feel 'drawn' to. That is, you shouldn't necessarily just count off ten cards without giving it some care and attention. Of course, sceptics and cynics would argue that it makes no difference as you're just pulling out cards at random. But tarot theory (or should that perhaps be tarot lore) is that you will be drawn to cards that are meaningful to you at that time. Whether or not there is any truth in this or if it's just bunkum, I thought I should at least ask Malcolm to take out ten cards he was drawn to. I also suggested that if he had a specific question in mind that he would like to be addressed by the reading, then now was the time to clear other thoughts away from his mind and to hold that question firmly in his mind. Whether he did any of his or not... we ended up with ten cards in a pile on the table.

I proceeded to turn over the cards as I lay them out in the formation of the Celtic Cross. The first card in the centre of the table, the second lay across the first, and the next four placed in front of, behind, and to the left and right of the first two cards. The final four cards were lay in a line to the right of the cross formed by the first six cards.

Malcolm looked down at the cards, and I saw his eyes dart from card to card as if to take in all the meaning that was there. And I could imagine a coherent reading was immediately forming in his mind based on what he saw. He looked up at me expectantly. I was still racking my brains, going through the peg system I had used to try and remember the meanings of each of the cards and find a way of transforming the key words associated with each card into something meaningful to say about Malcolm. I don't think either of us would have been impressed if I'd come out with something like, "I get the feeling you're quite an intuitive, dare I say, psychic person...?"

Eventually I was able to craft (or more accurately cobble) together a 10 minutes reading that Malcolm seemed quite happy with. Or at least he seemed quite happy with how I delivered it. And it did help settle my nerves. Moreover, while I had been giving Malcolm the best psychic reading he had ever had, a queue had formed. Perhaps queue is too strong a word. Is it possible to have a queue of just one person? Still, it was one person! A real person! And he was waiting for me! This was it. My first real customer!

As Malcolm stood up and wished me luck for the rest of the day, the young man who had been waiting walked over to say hello and shook my hand. His name was Sam and it turns out he was a local magician who had seen small piece about my project on magicweek.co.uk. As is the case with many magicians, Sam was rather sceptical of the whole idea that tarot cards might be able to convey some kind of mystical information about our lives. I explained a little more about the project as a whole, telling him of my intentions to see if I could develop my psychic abilities for real. He was still sceptical. And understandably so. As I heard myself describing the project and my plans for the coming year, I felt my own scepticism rising within me. What was I thinking? I had left behind a perfectly good, safe, academic position in order to learn to become psychic! Oh but it'll be alright because at the end of the year I'll take a million dollar challenge to prove that I really am psychic. I was clearly deluded. And it was going to take a lot more than a lucky Buddha to save me.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

All the fun of the psychic fair (pt 1)

Apologies for the delay in posting an update following Saturday's psychic fair in Witney. Without going into too much detail I (along with Rachel) have been pretty ill since Sunday with liquids forcing their way out of both ends (maybe that was too much detail?).

Anyway, the psychic fair... I was getting all psyched up for it especially after we sent out the press-release in the middle of last week. BBC Oxford picked it up and ran a short piece with me for BBC South News on TV on Friday evening and I did another brief interview for BBC Radio Oxford on Saturday morning. Hopefully these two dips into the local media would bring a few folks looking a free tarot reading to my stall at the fair.

The fair opened at 10am and Rachel and I arrived at quarter to 10. Some of the other stall holders had apparently been there from 8.30, setting up their displays of crystals, wands, etc. We didn't exactly have a lot of setting up to do. A deck of tarot cards doesn't need much setting up, other than a shuffle. Fortunately, Deb, the organiser of the fair had at least provided a dark red tablecloth, but other than that we were working bare (as it were). To help create the right effect Rachel nipped over to one of the stands to buy me an amethyst crystal (for grounding) and a small laughing Buddha for good luck. £5 well spent.

With a couple of minutes to go before the doors opened I had a quick chat with my neighbours for the day. To my left were Elaine and Mark, who were also psychic fair virgins! (As in this was their first time with a stall at a psychic fair... what else could that mean?) Elaine is a psychic artist who will draw your spirit guide. Mark is her partner. Actually, I'm assuming Mark is her partner as the conversation didn't get much past the fact that Elaine is a psychic artist (and, of course, that they too were psychic fair virgins). To my right was Malcolm or, rather, Psychic Malcolm to give him his full name. I felt I had more to learn from Psychic Malcolm as he, too, was offering tarot readings. I told him what I was doing there, although I think Deb had already explained what I was up to. I was concerned that Malcolm might think I'd draw customers away from his stall given that I was offering tarot readings for free. But I explained that anybody getting a reading from me would be required to also have a reading from another reader at the fair with which to compare it to. He was quite happy with that.

To be honest, my concern wasn't so much that I would be drawing people away from the 'real' psychic readers at the fair, but more that I wouldn't get anyone coming to my table for a reading at all. I mean, despite the red tablecloth (thanks Deb) and my lucky Buddha and crystal (bless you Rach), my table looked pretty crap. What's more I was tucked away in the far corner of the hall and, to make things worse we hadn't even thought to make a sign. No sign! What were we thinking?! Why hadn't we made a glossy sign saying "FREE READINGS"? A sign like that would have surely attracted some attention. Even Psychic Malcolm had a sign saying who he was (he was Psychic Malcolm). We did consider making a sign there and then, but the only paper we had were the short questionnaires we were planning to give my 'clients' (if I had any) to complete after their readings. I didn't feel that a hastily hand written sign on the back of a piece of A4 paper was going to do the trick. It could do more harm than good, especially as we didn't even have a pen. The sign would have had to be written with one of the pencils Rachel had rushed out to buy for people to complete the questionnaires!

I thought it might be a good idea to enlist Psychic Malcolm's help. He seemed to know what he was doing. I mean, he had a sign and everything! I had a feeling that he'd probably attract a fair few customers throughout the day so I asked him if he could mention my offer of a free reading to the folks he gave a reading to. He was more than happy to help.

He sensed I was a little nervous about what lay ahead. It could have been his psychic faculties that allowed him to draw this conclusion or it could have been I gave him a clue.

"Malcolm," I said, "I'm a little nervous about what lies ahead."

"Don't worry," Malcolm reassured me, "you'll do fine." I wish I had his confidence. Malcolm proceeded to talk me through a little how he would conduct a tarot reading, while also asking me how I was planning to conduct mine. "You going to get them to cut the deck in two?" he asked. "Er, no," I replied. The little book that came with my tarot cards had said nothing about cutting the deck into two... only to get the person for whom you were giving the reading to shuffle the cards! Malcolm went on to lay out 16 cards into four rows of four, quite different from the Celtic Cross spread using ten cards that I was planning to use. As he started to offer interpretations of the cards that didn't seem to match what I had learnt for each card, I thought I'd better stop him.

"Thanks for the help and advice Malcolm," I said, "but to be honest, this is confusing me more!"

As the doors opened, and people started to trickle into the hall, I wandered back over to my bare-looking table and sat down behind it. And I waited.

What had I let myself in for?

Friday, 2 October 2009

And the beginning of a new one

As luck would have it (although we know that luck is no accident don't we?) there was a 'Psychic Night' on at the pub down the end of our road last night. A perfect opportunity I thought to see how this psychic reading lark is done.

I got down there for around 8. There were three readers: Bev, Rose Marie, and Vicky. I booked a slot with Vicky for 9.20, which would give me time to pop round the corner to the shop for some essentials, nip back home for something to eat and then get back in time for my reading. I arrived back at 9.15 in good time for my slot. I was still waiting at 9.45... I guess it's hard to keep to time when channelling energies and the like (my worry is how to make a reading last 20 minutes... or even 10 minutes!).

Soon enough I was sat opposite Vicky who was, let's say, 'larger than life'. As she took a drag on her electronic cigarette she told me how she worked. "I work with Spirit", she explained as she blew out vapour that resembled smoke.

"I do cards, but I let Spirit guide me", she added.

"OK", I said, all excited wondering what the cards, or Spirit, had in store for me. Vicky instructed me to spread the cards face down on the table, mix them up, and select 10 cards. As I chose each card, I was to pass it to her. Once all 10 were chosen, Vicky placed them face up into the formation I now recognise as the Celtic Cross.


Excellent. Now I’ll get some tips and ideas on how to read this spread. Or so I thought. It seems as though that Vicky, or the Spirit she was connecting with, had other ideas. This particular Spirit, who Vicky thought could be my father’s mother, just wasn’t going to let Vicky get on with the reading. And because my dad’s mum died before I was born I obviously couldn’t connect with any of the (very vague) bits of information she was giving me.

“Perhaps it’s better that we switch and you get a reading from someone else?” proposed Vicky.

“Er, OK” I replied. I felt a bit of a failure. Maybe she’d seen something in the spread of cards laid out between us and she just couldn’t bring herself to tell me. Next thing I knew, the girl who was taking the bookings ushered me to a chair to wait for one of the other readers. Without any further explanation I saw Vicky hurrying out of the door to the pub clutching a cigarette. I assumed this time it was a real one and not the electronic one. Maybe that was it. It was just Vicky’s nicotine addiction that meant she couldn’t read my cards.

Whatever the reason, I was now waiting for Rose Marie to finish with her current client. Would I fare any better with her? Rose Marie at least looked more the part. She was an older lady wearing a red knitted shawl over her shoulders. And I learned a lot more from this reading (at least I got a reading!).

There’s not enough time to go into detail here about what she said. Suffice to say much of what Rose Marie told me seemed to fit. Sure, much of it could have been, and probably was, me taking what she was saying and making it fit to my personal situation. But interestingly she did tell me about a change in my work circumstances! Spot on. Yes, I know that this could be interpreted in so many ways and if it didn’t happen to fit it would probably be forgotten. But let me be impressed for now. She also told me that I would be successful in my new career, so I’m taking her at her word.

In terms of how she gave the reading, the important thing I learned echoes some of the comments on this blog. She didn’t say this card means this, and that card means that. It was more to do with how the cards linked with or reinforced each other and how these were built into a narrative. This is what I need to try to do when I give my readings on Saturday. It’s either that or try Vicky’s approach and suggest they try a different reader before I rush out of the door!

Wish me luck! (Although luck is no accident, etc.)

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The end of an era

Ten years in one job is a long time. I'm with Fern on that one. In fact, you get to the stage that you feel as though you should have left a long time ago. The question I have been asked the most during the last few weeks is, "Are you still here?". Only in body. Not in spirit.

Over the last couple of days, as I have packed up my office, soon-to-be-ex-colleagues would wander past and comment "Lucky man...". But why so lucky? Surely, any of them could do what I was doing and leave. Couldn't they?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Stop Press!

Press Release
For immediate release 30 September 2009

From Sceptic to Psychic?

Can a scientist become a psychic and win a million dollars?

Dr. Matthew Smith leaves behind the safety of academic life today to pursue a unique and rather ambitious project. After more than fifteen years of researching ‘paranormal’ experiences from a scientific perspective, Matthew will set aside his scepticism to see if he can discover and develop his own hidden psychic abilities. In a year-long project, he will work with some of the world’s leading mediums and psychics to discover if he has any hidden psychic talents. Leading parapsychologists will monitor his progress by subjecting him to scientific tests along the way.

At the end of the year he will take the million dollar challenge offered by American magician and sceptic James Randi for anyone who can demonstrate genuine paranormal abilities.

'It’s one heck of a challenge, but I’m really looking forward to delving into the world of the psychic. There’s only so much you can learn from conducting experiments on other people. Sometimes you just have to get in there and try it for yourself!', said Matthew.

Matthew’s first challenge will be on Saturday 3rd October when he will be giving readings at a psychic fair in Witney, Oxfordshire. ‘They will be readings based on tarot, and maybe a little cold reading!’, explained Matthew, ‘I’m keen to find out how good my readings are before I’ve even started any psychic development.’ Matthew will give readings for free and ask his clients to compare his with those they get from other readers at the fair.

Deb Blakeley, organiser of the psychic fair said, ‘I applaud Matthew for trying this out for himself. He may surprise himself! And I welcome any attempt to find out more about how psychic readings might work.’

Matthew leaves his post as Associate Professor of Psychology at Liverpool Hope University on Wednesday 30th September after ten years at the University. Shortly after he arrived at the University, he was asked to be the resident parapsychologist and sceptic on Living TV’s
Most Haunted Live to pass a critical eye over the ‘paranormal’ activity experienced by the investigation team.

Matthew added, ‘This challenge takes me outside of academia, and out of my comfort zone, to explore these topics from a very different perspective.’

Matthew is writing about his experience for a book,
Million Dollar Psychic, to be published next year.

Saturday 3rd October: Psychic Fair, Langdale Hall, Market Square, Witney, Oxfordshire, OX8 6AB. For details, contact Deb Blakeley: Tel. 01993 702233; Email opalhealing@aol.com.

Matthew Smith Email spiritualjunkie@me.com

Ends

Links
Million Dollar Challenge (James Randi Educational Foundation)
Third Eye Workshops
Liverpool Hope University

Friday, 25 September 2009

Pick a card

With just over week to go before the psychic fair, I think I'm just about able to remember the basic meanings of each of the 78 tarot cards. This has been aided by a nifty little memory system based on one described by our good friend Derren Brown in his book Tricks of the Mind!

I guess there's only one way to find out how much I remember... Care to call out a card?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

59 seconds later...

I've said before I'm a slow reader. I've only just got round to finishing Richard Wiseman's latest book 59 Seconds. I enjoyed it. It's Richard's take on the whole self-help industry in which he corrects some of the myths about self-help psychology. He also uncovers surprising snippets of useful information about techniques that are supported by scientific research. These range from how putting a pot plant in your office can increase your creativity to how a picture of a baby in your wallet can increase the chances of being returned if you lose it!

In light of my upcoming attempt to give readings at a psychic fair (less than two weeks away!) it was some of the stuff towards the end of the book that especially caught my attention. The final chapter focuses on personality, and draws attention to a number of things that can reveal something about our pesonality. Of particular interest to me was how much can be determined about our personality just from our hands. First, did you know that the ratio of the length of your index finger to your ring finger is related to your tendency towards typically 'masculine' personality traits? And did you know the way you clasp your hands can also reveal your tendency towards typically 'left-brain' or 'right-brain' ways of thinking?

Perhaps if I don't get the hang of the tarot cards I could always do a scientifically supported version of palm reading?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Who'd be a dentist?

Why would anybody want to spend their entire working lives poking and prodding around inside other people's mouths? I think it takes a certain personality (i.e., weird) to want to do something like that. Very odd.

I've got the dentist this morning. Not looking forward to it.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

You do the math(s)

So that's how it was done! Deep maths. Should have guessed really, shouldn't we? All that stuff you did at school... that was shallow maths. If only we'd had a few double periods of deep maths and we might have been able to win the lottery!


Of course DB wasn't going to reveal how he really did it, but he did give us some plausible sounding 'explanations', including a strenuous denial that he did NOT fix the lottery machine. All of this feeds the ongoing debate over how he really did do it. What amazes me is the number of people, in particular journalists, who seem to be so pissed off that he didn't reveal his actual method!

After Friday's show, Channel 4 aired a show featuring that other DB that seems to get under people's skin, David Blaine. This show included more examples of Blaine's street magic where he performs close-up tricks with things like cards and coins and focuses on the wild reactions from his audiences. The exception was the final item: A bullet catch. Traditionally, this has involved catching a bullet between the teeth and is (surprise, surprise!) usually achieved by some kind of trickery. Blaine's version seemed to be a little different. He didn't attempt to catch the bullet in his teeth, but instead held a small metal cup between his teeth and stood there while a fellow magician fired a .22 calibre rifle at him. The high speed cameras seemed to show that is what indeed happened!

Blaine's show was titled What Is Magic? This question is fitting for both Brown and Blaine as they both do a fine job of blurring the line between what is real and what is not.

Friday, 11 September 2009

How did he do it?

Still wondering how Derren Brown predicted the lottery numbers on Wednesday night? Supposedly all will be revealed in The Events tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm. If you missed the live broadcast on Wednesday night you can watch it on YouTube.


From the moment he revealed his prediction there has been much debate over how he achieved it. Theories range from camera trickery (i.e., the use of a split-screen) to laser technology (a laser beam somehow projecting the numbers on to the ping-pong balls that formed his prediction). Some have even suggested that Derren spent the last year recording all of the possible combinations and splicing that together with the live broadcast. However, I have a feeling it would take longer than a year to pre-record the millions of combinations that could come up! Some of the more common theories have been collected together here.

No matter how he achieved it, Derren Brown and Objective Productions have again produced an amazing effect that has got us all scratching our heads wondering how on earth he might have done it. I know I'll be watching tonight to hear his explanation, whether it be the truth or some other fantastic deception!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Brown knows

Psychological illusionist (i.e., magician) Derren Brown is up to his old tricks again. Or rather, he's up to some new tricks. He has a new series called The Events starting on Channel 4 this week. He's opening the series with a rather audacious stunt in which he plans to predict the winning numbers in this Wednesday's National Lottery.

Coincidentally (!) I took part in a psychic lottery experiment yesterday as part of an ongoing study being run by Mick O'Neill. The aim was also to attempt to predict this Wednesday's winning lottery numbers. No trick here, Mick has spent a few years collecting data in an attempt to see if it is possible to predict the numbers using psychic means. For what it's worth the numbers I 'predicted' were: 3, 4, 8, 9, 17 and 38.

The draw is broadcast on Wednesday 9th September on BBC1 at 10.35pm. Mr Brown will be on Channel4 at the same time.

Monday, 7 September 2009

It's a goat thing

The movie based on Jon Ronson's book The Men Who Stare at Goats is premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival. It's due to be released in in the USA in November and in the UK in January. The film stars Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. You can view the trailer here.

When I read Ronson's book I was aware it was being made into a film, but couldn't really see how it would translate to the screeen. It would seem that the film is inspired by the book. That is, it's a story based upon the ideas in the book.

Don't worry, there are still men staring at goats.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Mystic Moo

In a series of posts earlier this year, I showed an interest in learning to read Tarot cards. Can they really show an insight into our past, present and future lives? In an attempt to discover a little more about how tarot and other psychic readings work, I have set myself a challenge.

Four weeks from today I will be sitting at a table at a psychic fair giving readings. That's right. I'll be giving readings. This means that before then I need to learn what each of the tarot cards actually mean! There are 78 cards in a tarot deck that each have their own meaning (in fact they can each have two meanings, depending if they appear in an upright or reversed position) so this isn't going to be easy. I'll let you know how I get on (but if you read tarot, I guess you'll already know).

Friday, 14 August 2009

Something Unknown

This film could be interesting. Or, then again, it could be crap.



The full title of the film Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What comes from a quote by Sir Arthur Eddington referring to the the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics. The film is about the science behind psychic phenomena.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Happy memories

Some initial results from Prof Wiseman's happiness experiment were announced yesterday. It seems that on average we, as a nation, were about 7% more cheerful at the end of last week compared to the beginning of the week. So there. This was determined by way of a couple of polls undertaken at the start and end of the week. Of course, it's not possible to determine how much, if any, of this increase in the nation's happiness might be attributed to the science of happiness experiment.

Participants in the study were assigned to one of five conditions. Four of these groups were asked to spend a few moments each day engaged in an exercise that previous research had indicated might influence feelings of happiness. One group was asked to use those moments to focus on expressing gratitude for one thing in their lives (this is the group I was assigned to) while a second group spent the time simply smiling. A third group was asked to carry out an act of kindness and the fourth group was instructed to recall a pleasant event from the day before. The remaining participants were in a 'control' group in which they were asked to just think about the previous day's events.

More than 26,000 people took part and it would seem that reported levels of happiness in all groups, including the control group, increased over the course of the week. So everyone's a winner! The biggest increase was seen in the group asked to recall a pleasant event from the day before. They showed a 15% rise in reported happiness over and above the folks in the control condition.

The difficulty is that even if these kinds of exercises do have an impact upon perceived happiness, and the initial results from this study seem to suggest they do, then the effects are likely to be rather transient and so many other things will have a far greater impact on our how we feel on a particular day. And are we dealing with underlying 'happiness' or whether we're in a good mood?

Still hats off to Richard for attempting such an ambitious project!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The price of wisdom

Am I being a grumpy old man or is 50 quid a lot to pay to listen to a talk? It's the ticket price for An Evening with Deepak Chopra at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester next month. I'm sure it would be very interesting and uplifting, and I'd like to go, but £50 seems rather steep, don't you think?


Deepak Chopra has written over 50 books on spiritual topics ranging from love, healing, life after death, and so on. Indeed, two of his books are sat on the bookshelf in front of me (SynchroDestiny and The Book of Secrets). So maybe he can justify the £50 price-tag and I'm sure he'll fill the 2,400-seater hall. But it is a shame that he (or rather the organisations surrounding him) is charging a price that will mean a lot of people who would really benefit from hearing what he has to say are put off.

Anyway, if you're not put off, here is the link to the event via which you can book a seat. I doubt I'll end up going myself, but if I do I'll be the one tutting under my breath and moaning about the price of the ice-creams.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Happy now?

Compared to this time last week, are you more or less happy than you were? It's hard to tell isn't it? Unless, of course, you've taken part in a scientific experiment to measure just how happy you are. Well, I have. And I'm, er, still not sure if I'm any happier or not. I may have a better idea on Wednesday when some initial results from the study are to be announced.

Did you take part? Do you feel any happier?

The study was being conducted by Professor Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. I know Richard well having worked as his Research Assistant a little over ten years ago and I have always been amazed at the way his research captures the public's imagination. This particular project is linked to his latest book 59 Seconds, which is "a triumph of scientifically proven advice over misleading myths of self-help" (not my words, the words of Derren Brown).

My copy of the book arrived from Amazon this morning. I'll let you know if it's as good as Derren thinks it is.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Joy to the World

How are you feeling this Monday morning? However you're feeling, my old friend Prof Richard Wiseman is up to his old tricks again and conducting an experiment for us all to take part in. This time he's trying to make the world a happier place. No he's not campaigning for all tapes of The Vicar of Dibley to be burned (though there's an idea...). He is simply wanting as many people as possible to take part in a week long happiness project at www.scienceofhappiness.co.uk.

It will take less than a minute a day to take part and, who knows, this time next week you may be as happy as, or even happier than, Larry.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Zen Bound

It's not always easy to predict what will happen in a day... This morning I was talking to an old friend in Fiji, as you do. He mentions a game you can download for your iPhone called Zen Bound. I download said game. I get hooked.

It's a rather bizarre little game. As the link to the website, above, will tell you, it is "a calm and meditative game of wrapping rope around wooden sculptures". I said it was bizarre. But strangely compelling.

The sham continues...

Those pesky pranksters at NASA have even got Google under their spell. You can now explore the moon's surface on Google Earth. The clip below has a man pretending that he went to the moon in 1972 (he's very convincing) and inviting us to tour the moon "as I did" in Apollo 17 (yeah, right).



You can even view human artifacts left on the surface of the moon from each of the missions. Or rather you can view 3D models of them because... er, they're not really there and NASA made the whole thing up! They should just come clean and admit it was all one big joke that got out of hand. I mean, it was the 60's. One guy probably just gazed skywards and said, "hey, wouldn't it be cool to walk on the moon!" and next thing you know they're being given millions of dollars to knock up plans for a lunar landing craft.

Still, fair play to them. They know how to keep a secret.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A freelance what?

"So, I hear you're leaving us?" Sam half stated, half asked.
"I am indeed", I replied.
"Where are you going to?"
"Um, I don't know! I haven't got another job, if that's what you mean."
"Hey, that's... brave!"
"Yeah, I'm getting a lot of people telling me I'm brave. Either that or foolhardy!"
"Yes, some would say foolhardy."

When he said he thought I was brave, did he really mean to say I was foolhardy?

When people ask me what I'm going to do when I leave Hope, I tend to respond by saying I'm not sure. I'm trying to get into the habit of saying I'm going to be 'freelance'. "A freelance what?" usually comes the reply. It's a fair question. By way of an answer to this I feel like the woodwork student who is asked by his teacher what it is he is making:

"I'm making a portable", replies the student.
"A portable what?", asks the teacher.
"I don't know yet... I've only made the handles!"

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Not moonwalking

And why is 'moonwalking' called 'moonwalking'? Since when did walking backwards in such a way to make it look like you're walking forwards replicate what Neil and Buzz (but not Michael) did on the lunar surface?

Over the last few days I've seen the clips from the lunar landings (faked or otherwise) a number of times and at no point have I seen the astronauts walking backwards but eerily looking as though they should be moving forwards. Or have I missed those clips?

Perhaps with Michael Jackson's death, the moonwalk can now be reclaimed by NASA? Assuming of course that Michael Jackson's death hasn't been faked as well...

Monday, 20 July 2009

Not walking on the moon

40 years ago today the first men walked on the moon. Or did they? The conspiracy theorists will tell you it was all a hoax, and that Capricorn One was so close to the mark that they had to change the premise of the film from a faked mission to the moon to a faked mission to Mars.

Personally I feel sorry for the guy who had to stay in the command module, so never got to walk on the moon. So let's celebrate the 40th anniverary of Michael Collins' great sacrifice.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Slow down, you move too fast

We were up early this morning so we watched the Disney-Pixar movie Cars on DVD. Freya lost interest after the first 10 minutes or so, but Rachel and I found ourselves watching it all the way to the end even though we'd seen it before. It's such a good film!

Behind the amazing animation is a story about the importance of having to slow down once in a while. Life isn't all about winning.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Monday, 6 July 2009

Saturday, 4 July 2009

One small step

Watched Capricorn One last night (another birthday DVD from Rachel). I've seen it so many times and is possibly one of my favourite films of all time!

The film centres around what is supposed to be the first manned mission to Mars. But it quickly emerges that due to technical and political reasons the mission needs to be abandoned. Or rather, the mission goes ahead, it's just that the astronauts are removed from the rocket before it launches. What follows is an attempt to fake the Mars landing, and in my opinion it makes for a great thriller even though it is now over 30 years old!

Seems all the more appropriate due to the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landings, given the movie was inspired by the claims that the moon landings were faked.

IMDB seems to suggest that a remake of teh film is due out next year.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

I can't decide

I'm currently enjoying reading Dave Gorman's latest book, America Unchained (another birthday present from Rachel!). It chronicles his attempt to drive across the USA avoiding all the big Chains. This means he doesn't allow himself to stay in any of the Chain motels and, more of a challenge, he's not allowed to fill up his car at any of the Chain gas stations.

The trip was inspired by an earlier stint in the States in which Gorman had lamented how the big Chains had taken over America at the cost of independent owners of motels, gas stations, and so on.

As I say, I'm really enjoying the book but was distracted from its pages the other evening when I heard Dave Gorman's voice coming from the TV. He was providing the voiceover for an ad for Sainsbury's Homebase, a large chain of DIY stores in the UK.

I couldn't decide whether that was a little ironic or a tad hypocritical...?

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Too sarcastic for my own good

As I was adding the blog entries from our holiday in Italy, something made me a little uneasy and it's been niggling away at the back of my mind for the last few days. So I thought I'd just set the record straight... I do NOT find Stavros Flatley funny. I was being (too) sarcastic (for my own good). There, I've said it.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Homeward bound

Our final day, and the first time we’ve been leaving the house before midday as we have to check out by 10am. I hope the next guests at Scopeto enjoy it as much as we did. Along with the 3 beers we’ve left in the fridge and the 2 lemon ice lollies, with the oh so yummy liquorice sticks, in the freezer. It’s our first properly grey day, which we’re very happy about as it would be even harder to wave goodbye to the house and pool if it were blazing sunshine.

We head back up to Bologna via a different route from the way we came down. This way takes us near to Florence and we consider stopping in or near Florence for some lunch. The problem is the map we have is crap. It was the one we got with the hire-car and so has very little detail. We take, not unreasonably, the exit from the motorway signed Firenze. But by the time we’re driving higher and higher into the hills we guess that we’re not heading into Florence.

We’re eventually forced to ditch the idea of lunch in Florence if we want to get to the airport in time for our flight, so we continue up the motorway towards Bologna. As it turns out our last meal in Italy is in the equivalent of a RoadChef. Bummer.

A warm glow

Poolside in the morning and early afternoon. It’s been really nice to have the contrast between the mornings sunbathing and relaxing in the pool and the afternoons exploring the local towns. This afternoon we ventured over to Perugia, I guess around 30-40 miles South East. Parking is in an underground carpark and you take a series of escalators to emerge above ground via some kind of museum. Weird.

Perugia is a very pretty town with much more going on than Citta di Castello (which isn’t difficult). Very picturesque historic buildings and churches. We sit down for a beer and a diet coke in a pavement café, Café di Perugia. It’s too early to get dinner in Perugia so we decide to drive on to Assisi, about another 15 miles. We had already thought we would do this as I had read in the guide book that the sunset is particularly impressive in Assisi because the town becomes bathed in a warm glow because of the pink tinge to the stone built buildings.

As we approach Assisi, it is very imposing perched on the side of the hill. We arrive at 18.45. I know this because just as we walk to the entrance of the Basilica de San Francesco it closes. Instead we walk through the town and pick up some little gifts for the children (painted wooden letters, L, R and F). A little furher on and we arrive at one of the main squares and choose a restaurant that has a terrace overlooking the piazza. The surroundings are beautiful. Like a film-set. As the sun sets the wall of the building opposite is bathed in a warm glow just like the guide book promised.

After dinner, we walk back to the car through the town along the side streets. We agree that it is quite a magical place that we’d love to wander around more if we had the time. Maybe we’ll come back here one day.

By the time we get home, it’s around 10.30pm. I’d promised myself I’d have one more swim in the pool and I convince Rachie to join me. It’s cold, but a swim under the stars rounds off another magical day.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Fly

This morning, as you might guess, was spent by the pool. The weather returned to clear blue skies and hot sunshine so sunbathing was the obvious choice.

I wasn’t really being moved by Rosie Swale Pope’s book about her run around the world, though I do think what she did is deeply inspiring and I will finish the book when we get home. Instead I ventured up into the second bedroom that is above ours through a trapdoor in the ceiling to browse the books left by the owners (or former guests?). I picked up three: Mysticism and Logic, a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell; How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Lenny Bruce’s autobiography; and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.

The easiest and shortest read was going to be JLS so I began with that. Also it seemed potentially the most appropriate given where my mind is at right now having just last week handed in my notice at work. Although I have no doubts that it is the right decision (perhaps no doubts is too strong), at times I am filled with anxious thoughts that perhaps I shouldn’t be leaving. I shouldn’t give up what is a perfectly good job. JLS is a spiritual parable (is parable the right word?) about a seagull who wants to learn how to fly. Not just fly in the way that every other seagull flies, in order to get food, but to really fly at amazing speeds. The other members of his flock tell him that he should forget thoughts of discovering the limits of his flying capabilities and do what everyone else is doing. This he tries for a short while but soon realizes that he has to go back to his flying practice. Without that his life has no purpose. He is soon labeled an outcast from his flock. The second and third parts of the story take things to a more spiritual realm but it all makes sense to me. The story is about learning to fly, and then flying. Living. In the front of the book is an inscription dated 6th May 1975: “To Johnnie, Fly high or fly low. Fly a long distance or fly a short one. But please fly. As I know you can. David”.

After lunch we sunbathe some more before heading out north east to Citta di Castello about 10 miles away. This town is supposed to be the local town that the owners of Scopeto like the best. And today is market day so it should be thriving. When we get there, there is no sign of the market. In fact it took us a good walk round the historic town before we even found a scattering of shops. Not sure why this is the owners’ favourite. Maybe it does come alive when the market is there or during other local festivals. We enjoy a coffee and a coke before driving back to have a lovely dinner at home involving pasta, local sausage, mushrooms, garlic and tomatoes. A bottle of wine and wide-reaching conversation about life and the point of it all takes us to bedtime.

[Er, I didn't take the photo of the seagull flying... like you needed telling.]

Happy Birthday to me!

I seem to be a little fixated with the fact that I’m going to be 40 next year. As I turn 39, today is the first day of my 40th year on this planet. Even while I was still 38 I was saying I’ll be 40 next year if people asked me how old I was.

Rachel cooked me a full English (or should that be Italian) breakfast: Sausage, pancetta, eggs and mushrooms. Then I opened my card from Rachel (a birthday moo) and my remaining presents as I’d opened some before we came away. Two CDs (Flight of the Conchords and Eels), Seven Pounds DVD, and a complicated looking game called Ingenious! It was also really nice to get text messages from my parents, my sister Sally, and Emma a friend from my PhD days. My best present though was waking up in an Umbrian farmhouse with Rachie next to me and glorious blue skies out the window.

Another morning sunbathing, but this time we had decided we’d head out around lunchtime to drive over to Montepulciano, where our favourite red wine comes from. Turns out we’d timed it well as a little cloud came over making it just a little cooler. Conchords and Eels made it a short drive over into Tuscany, though the road over to Cortona is torturous. Another half hour drive past Cortona brought to the hillside town of Montepulciano.

As with Cortona, the roads are steep to walk up but the town is not big so it’s not too taxing. Even better that is cooler due to the cloud. We buy some nice red wine for Sandra and Keith to say thank you for looking after Freya for the week (although from the texts we’ve been receiving it sounds like they’ve all been having a great time). We also buy ourselves a cheaper bottle along with some sundried tomato, pecorino and salami sauce which is almost the same price. But we’d tasted it on the Italian bread at the front of the shop and agree we should buy some before we know how much it costs. It does taste good though. We also buy a little wooden toy as a present for Freya.

We hadn’t really had any lunch and decide we’d like to have dinner in Montepulciano but it is now 5pm and Italian restaurants tend not to open till around 7. We walk back up the hill to Café Polliziano (probably spelt wrong) as we’d walked past earlier and it looked nice and had views out across the Tuscan countryside. We kind of hoped it would be open and serving food. It was open but the only food it was serving was cake. So we have a coffee and share a piece of lemon meringue pie Italian style. Delicious.

We then decide to drive back over towards Lake Trasimeno to Castigliano Del Lago, another small town overlooking the lake. By now the cloud has drifted away and it’s another beautiful evening. A quick look round the few shops there, and a present for Lauren, before settling on the nicest looking restaurant in town which has a terrace under some trees and a view towards the lake. Another fantastic meal (well, it is my birthday). The meatballs were the best I’ve ever tasted!

If the remaining 364 days of my 40th year are as good as this one then I’ll be a happy boy.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Busy doing nothin’

An even lazier day today if that were possible. Again the morning and afternoon by/in the pool. I finished my Goats book, Rachel finished her Death in Tuscany book. She’s now reading about the Goats. I didn’t fancy the Death in Tuscany book but did try Frances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany, her follow-up to Under the Tuscan Sun, but didn’t take to it. Even though we are surrounded by the countryside she eloquently describes I’m just not interested. As I scan through I stop to read the odd few pages that mention somewhere we’ve been (i.e., Cortona) or plan to go (i.e., Montepulciano) but other than that I don’t thnk I’m her target audience. I’ve started Just a Little Run Around the World by Rosie Swale Pope. It’s a book about her 'little' run around the world, something she decided to do to raise awareness about cancer screening after her husband died of prostate cancer.

Late afternoon we jump in the car to nip down to the shop (emphasis on the shop) in San Leo Bastia to get some bread. Didn’t have much there so continued the 5 miles or so down the road to Trestina the nearest town where there is a Spar, or should I say EuroSpar. (This reminds me of the weekend of my brother’s 40th birthday last summer which a group of us spent at a collection of cottages in Anglesey. Someone asked if there was a shop nearby. “There’s a Spar just down the road,” someone else suggested. To which one of the girls present responded, “oh really, is there a spa here?” only to be immediately told, “not the kind of spa you’re thinking of luv”.)

No bread in the Eurospar either but we did pick up some more essentials (i.e., beer, wine, and stuff for breakfast). We quickly tried another supermarket down the road, where we heard an English couple doing a shop. Aren’t English accents abroad just so grating? Again no bread but we did get some lemon ice lollies for the drive back. Very refreshing, but the stick of liquorice as the stick rather than a wooden lolly stick thew me little. Why would you want to eat liquorice after being refreshed with a lemon ice lolly? It’s political correctness gone mad!

Back home for pasta with Feta cheese, basil, and lemon (no liquorice) and a bottle of wine. We spent our first bit of time in the beautiful living room that has views over the valley. Rachel had bought me Man on Wire on DVD for my birthday (tomorrow!) and so we watched it on the enormous TV. An excellent film of an amazing story of tight-rope walker Phillipe Petit who walked on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center shortly after it was built in 1974. All the more poignant after what happened in 2001.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The road to nowhere

Another morning and afternoon lazing in the sun by the pool. Me reading Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (birthday present from Rachie), Rachel reading A Death in Tuscany. Every so often it gets so hot you just have to dive in to the pool to cool off. It’s a hard life.

Again around 4-ish we head out in the car, this time with a view to taking the gravel road over the hill opposite us towards Lake Trasimeno. We were warned by Marianne and Andrew the day before that it would be twisty and bumpy (which it was) but it apparently cut out a 20 minute drive along this valley and back along the next so it seemed worth it.

“The only place you can go wrong,” Andrew had warned, “is where the road forks and it looks like the road continues straight ahead. But you need to bear right.”

“Just keep to the right,” Marianne had added.

We duly arrived at a fork in the road towards the top of the hill. The main road (using the word “main” and the word “road” loosely here) did look as though it continued straight ahead over the hill and down the other side. But there was a track to the right that continued up the hill. Rachel and I agreed, as we replayed Andrew’s advice in our heads, that we should bear right and continue up the hill. And so we followed the single track road through the trees that was even more bumpy and twisty. And we followed. And we followed. Until… we came across a lorry that was coming the other way! If there was one thing I wasn’t expecting to encounter along this isolated track through the forest, it was a lorry coming the other way. Somehow it managed to get past us. And we thought that the lorry must be coming from somewhere so this road must lead somewhere. And so we followed. And we followed.

Eventually we passed through an open gate. We could make out the word “privat” on the sign next to the gate. But still we continued. We’d come too far to simply turn around. Until we came to another signed that said something to the effect of “No entry to unauthorized personnel”. At this point we considered that we must have come the wrong way. We didn’t fancy carrying along the road only to be stopped by a landowner carrying a shotgun yelling the Italian equivalent of “Get orf moi land!”

Our detour meant we arrived a little later in Tuoro than we might have. Not much there. The town itself was about a mile from the edge of the lake. At the lake’s edge there was a campsite (which reminded us both of childhood camping holidays) and a manmade beach. Not much else. We considered heading back home to have some dinner back at the house, calling in to a supermarket on the way to pick up some essentials (i.e., beer). But before doing so we thought we’d look at Passignano, another small town 5 km along the edge of the lake from Tuoro. Passignano had much more going for it that Tuoro. Although it wasn’t at all busy you could see it would be more attractive to tourists with it being right at the edge of the lake, and having a number of bars and restaurants. We parked the car next to an Alimentari (grocery store) and so were able to do get our shopping (i.e., beer) before having a wander around the town.

We called home to see how Freya was. We couldn’t really hear but picked up that she had been swimming for an hour and a half and was having a lovely time. A text sent by Sandra later that evening confirmed this and added that they had gone out for dinner and Freya had had fish and a crème brulee (presumably as a main course and dessert, not mixed together in the same pot… though I wouldn’t put it past her). We, too, decided to eat out, and found a lovely trattoria hidden down a back street.

The drive home was somewhat less treacherous.