Monday, May 30, 2005

My Referendum Rhapsody

55% Non, 45% Oui... Vive la France! Vive la nation de Moliere! Vive le peuple Francais!

Like many others, I have mixed feelings about the French. On the one hand I find them bleating, mendacious, arrogant, selfish, sour-faced, pompous, sneering, odious, humourless, self-important, cowardly, craven, hypocritical, pig-headed, self-pitying and absurd. And very annoying. And yet on the other hand I adore their country - its gorgeous landscapes, that cavalcade of a cuisine, the sense of an ancient way of life and culture, remarkably well preserved in the face of modernity. To make things more confusing, sometimes I suspect that the latter virtues are curiously related to the former vices.

So, likesay, I have mixed feelings about the frog-eaters.

But not today! Today I have unreserved admiration for our deliciously prickly cousins across The Sleeve, as they have booted into touch that egregious and repellent document, the European Constitution. In fact I am so pleased by this result it has caused me to meke a bit of a spectacle of myself. I heard the news about this wonderful victory for Les Nons in a Montreal cybercafe. I was sitting in this cafe, yesterday afternoon, when I read the rumours of the first exit polls - and I confess I cheered so loudly some concerned cafe staff rushed over. And everybody else stared at me like I was bonkers. But fuck that, who cares! A happy day indeed. I'm still grinning now.

Anyway. To finish off this post, I thought I'd link to a fascinating blog about the French result... here

For those that can't be bothered to check it out, here's the gist. EUpundit is a well-respected blog about European Constitutional affairs. The author is an EU academic, of German provenance I believe. It would seem from the tenor of his post that, as a Eurocrat of sorts, he is just a tad annoyed at the French result, but maybe I am over-interpreting. See what you think - here is what he says today:

French Reject EU Constitution International reports that the French exit polls indicate that the French in their referendum are rejecting the EU Constitution by a ca. 55-45 % vote.

Our view on the EU is that people get what people deserve. If the French do not want to be in the EU, it is their free choice.

But they must take the consequences, and we see this as the demise of France in the long run in the modern age.

What one should now do is to remove the French from all EU offices and positions and take away all their EU gratuities and subsidies.

The EU does not need France.

Also, and most importantly, the over-preponderant and objectively non-essential use of French in the EU should start being immediately reduced and be replaced with English. English is the world language and there is no need for so much French to be spoken in the EU. Indeed, it would be a good idea to move the "capital" of the EU out of French-speaking Brussels. The center of the "real Europe" is more in the direction of Berlin. French is a language of minor importance worldwide, representing a people whose majority apparently do not have the European spirit and who are apparently still lost in primitive and long-outdated foolish nationalism.

We also certainly see no reason for continued EU subsidy of French agriculture, especially by Germany and the UK. Let France face world food markets without EU subsidies and see how they do.

As far as the EU Constitution is concerned, the correct solution now is for the remaining countries to get together and to throw France out of the EU, with the EU remaining as only those countries who approve the EU Constitution. Any other country rejecting the EU Constitution in the future should also lose its memberhip rights.

Then those countries wishing to be in the EU would be unified, without worrying about stragglers like France.

Of course, the economic tariffs to be placed on non-EU countries and countries such as France by the EU should be severe. There has to be a strong penalty for this kind of disloyalty to the cause of a unified Europe.

What do you think? Has this Kraut got the hump, or what?


 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Off Again

Likesay, I'm off to Montreal, Canada tomorrow, so I probably won't be able to blog for a few days. Sorry about that.

I don't know anything about Montreal. Well, obviously I know it's full of Quebecois people, but what are they like? Are they really like the French, only fatter? And even more annoying? Is that possible?? The only anecdote I've ever heard about Montreal was the one concerning foul-mouthed but very funny Scottish comic Jerry Sadowitz. He was at the 'Just for Laughs' Montreal Comedy Festival, and he started his routine by saying 'hello moosefuckers!' Whereupon a Quebecois member of the audience was so incensed by this insult, he ran on the stage and knocked the comic out.

So at least I can be assured they've got a good sense of humour. Au revoir...  Posted by Hello

Monks with Mental Problems

The weird and migraine-inducing Monastery of La Tourette, in Beaujolais, France.

Hey guys, I'm back from Portugal! - and very enriching and restful it was. And cheap. Anyway I shall post about it later - maybe a bit later, as I've just learnt that I'm off to Montreal, Canada, tomorrow - but in the meantine here is a piece of mine that appeared in the Guardian while I was away. Whaddaya mean you don't read the Guardian?!

The piece is all about my trip last August to this eerie modernist priory near Lyon. Excited?

The Concrete Cloisters of La Tourette

Staying in a monastery is not everybody's idea of holiday fun. What with the prayers and the silence and the getting up at 2am and of course the total lack of a swim-up bar, it can be an education in austerity. But at least you get to meditate in a stress-free environment, while surrounded by gorgeous old architecture - right?

Not if you stay in the Monastery of La Tourette. Built by the famous (some say infamous) French Swiss architect Le Corbusier, this modernist monastery looks like a cross between a multi-storey car park in Bracknell and, well, another multi-storey car par in Bracknell. And yet, a few nights here can provide the most remarkable spiritual experience of a lifetime. And you don't get many of those in Bracknell.

The Couvent sits in the middle of the rolling Beaujolais region of the wide and vasty Rhone Valley, about eighty miles and two autoroute hours from the fleshpots, brasseries, chemical works, Baroque churches, Renaissance mansions and rain-stained housing blocks of Lyon.

The region itself has a quiet charm. Cherry orchards sit by lavish green vineyards, big blue skies arch over narcoleptic stone villages. The only sound to disturb the scene is the distant roar of the Provence-bound TGV, which speeds past castles and meadows like its got a bad case of the trots and the only toilet is in Nice. After that, tranquil quietness steals across the valleys once more.

Somewhere in the middle of all this rurality is La Tourette. The place isn't easy to find. The best and only signposted route is down a winding lane that leads from the pretty little town of L'Arbresle. You can either drive your car all the way along the lane, or park in the village and walk. You can also take a train from Lyon and get a cab. But whatever your route, as you negotiate the lane you will find yourself threading through oakwoods, rubbernecking over vineyards, and dog-legging past a disused wine chateau. Quintessential France, in other words.

Then, at the last, the lane gives out onto a wide sweeping meadow, fringed by trees. And in the centre of this nice sunny greenery sits this.... thing.

It is truly bizarre. For a start it is almost uniformly grey. Greyer than grey; as grey as the ghost of Lady Jane Grey. The only colour comes from the various big windows, designed for proper appreciation of the Rhone Valley views. These windows have bright red and orange curtains; the clash with the penitential drabness of the rest of the building is peculiar.

Look a bit longer and other curious aspects come into view. A concrete pyramid juts from the centre of the building. From the outside some corridors seem to slope, drunkenly. The whole foursquare building is supported on one side by a bank of grass, and on the other by spindly and irregular concrete legs.

Inside, it's even eerier. The monastery is inhabited by twenty Dominican monks. This is down from the original ninety who assumed control of the monastery in the 1950s, once Corbusier had finished his work. This attrition is apparently a result of the building itself: many of the original brothers found the concrete construction so oppressive they had nervous breakdowns.

Entrance is gained to La Tourette at a square and concrete box to the rear. From here daily visitors start their guided tours; likewise, if you have opted to stay for one or more nights, this is where the monks will meet you before escorting you to your allotted bedroom.

These cells are seriously claustrophobic. The beds are narrow, as are the windows. Moreover, due to some quirk in the concrete fabric, every sound in La Tourette is massively amplified: listen carefully at night and you can hear a friar chuckling over his laptop (these monks are quite worldly) from about seven floors away.

Such is the total silence it is refreshing to get out of your room and wander. In fact this is encouraged by the remaining non-neurotic monks, who are seriously proud of their building. And it's when you wander that you begin to see what an amazing place this is.

A visitor's first stop should be the top of the monastery. Le Corbusier had a predilection for designing flat roofs. The particular attraction of the Tourette roof is that it is lavishly grassed over. Standing on the lofty lawn, staring at the toothsome views of vineyards and forests, is a bit like being in a garden unexpectedly close to God.

Another attraction is the refectory. All meals at La Tourette are served in one place, to visitors, guests and monks alike (and the price of meals is included in your daily fee). The food is good, the local wine is delicious. What's more, chances are your fellow diners will be a varied and intriguing lot: with its status as a modernist icon, La Tourette gets visitors from across the world, so you may have a smattering of architecture students, religious mystics, writers on retreat, and strange Polish ladies with a hidden past, all sharing your table.

But still, you're not here to hobnob and gourmandise, you're here for that intense spiritual experience. And for that you must go right down to the bottom of La Tourette, to the religious and emotional core of the building.

The chapel of La Tourette is approached by one of those sloping corridors. As you stroll along, the huge bronze door of the chapel swings open, until its metal spine forms a crucifix with a bright lateral window beyond. It's a spine-tingling effect.

Inside the chapel itself, there are regular masses, conducted in mellifluous French. While the ritual proceeds, soft light filters through curious long slots in the wall. Close your eyes and the whispered prayers become hypnotic. It's all so tranquil it's a shock when the mass comes to a sudden end.

From the side of the chapel a short final staircase leads down. When the monks are in the mood, you can descend these stairs to the most extraordinary and intense room of all, the Lower Crypt. Here, the light is sepulchral. At one side, a concrete wall curves sinuously away, like the torso of a sleeping woman. On the other side, seven white concrete altars ascend the gently sloping floor. Above it all, three coloured windows seem to float in the darkness, like UFOs hovering over a silent tomb.

Remarkably, this most modernist of rooms achieves a sense of venerable holiness, a spellbinding piety. Here, in fact, you can begin to understand the famous words of the Domincans' own and honoured founder, St Augustine: 'Late have I loved thee, beauty so ancient, and so new.'

Which isn't bad for a building that looks like a multistorey car park
 Posted by Hello

Those mysterious skylights at La Tourette... Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 21, 2005

It is evening. In Portugal. Shadows.

And so I am in Tavira. It is a little tuna-fishing port on the eastern extremity of the Algarve, southern Portugal. When I say tuna-fishing I mean it used to be tuna-fishing, now the tunny have gone and the old men just sit around smoking cheroots and drinking pingados in the sun. The hot, hot sun.

I like Tavira. It's very pretty in a rough-house way, tranquil and authentic, with just a few tourists. It has intriguing little peculiarities, too. The ochre slate roofs are curved at the ends like the retrousse nose of a twenties starlet - apprently this is the Moorish influence. In the evening, if you stand on the Roman bridge, you can watch men wading the torpid cressy river, carrying pans. I have no idea why.

But most of all I like Tavira for its bittersweet Mediterranean melancholy, that Giorgio di Chirico feeling made up of empty squares and collonades, of statues to unknown physicians, of the scent of fallen lemons, of too much coffee, of laughing girls behind shuttered windows, and, most importantly, of sun-drenched and deserted railway stations where you can hear people coughing but can't see them.

Yes, I like this feeling. It makes me wonder whether heaven might be like this, or hell. As the swallows wheel against an apricot sky, I too can feel the shadows steal across the plazas of my heart. Tonight, the mosquitoes are whining. The smell of the empty tuna factory drifts across the salt pans. And somewhere a mosque crumbles into dust, and bougainvillea grows in its place.

Oh yes. I have been feeling quite strange, of late. And also. I have been reading. The great Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa. Who talks. A bit. Like this.

Bom dia!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Impulsive, Moi?

OK OK, so I changed my mind. I was really looking forward to my Irish trip, honestly: it seemed a fitting way to end my British islands odyssey, and I do love the greybrown moors of Connemara, the windswept cliffs of Moher, the poignant bleakness of the Gaeltacht. But I woke up this morning and the forecast for the Celtic fringes was rain, followed by drizzle, with showers to follow. After that widespread downpours were expected. So I thought 'fuck that', and I booked a flight to the Algarve instead. Here's a picture of my sunny destination - Tavira, hard by the Spanish border. And people say I'm capricious.  Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Celtic Mist

Where I'm going, tomorrow...

Yes, I'm off to the Celtic fringes again. I'm gonna keep blogging, if poss - but just in case I can't, here's a very nasty joke I heard the other day.

Q: What did God text to Bin Laden, two days after the Christmas tsunami?

A: Beat that, you stupid Arab cunt.

Well, I thought it was funny... but I was very very drunk


 Posted by Hello

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Boozing Brits

A fine image by my good friend Peter Dench - of some typical Britons on the sauce (check out the pink-hued puke between the guy's ankles). Some people will be appalled at this image of national shame. I'm not so sure. Here are my thoughts on the subject...


As regular readers of Ye Old Toffeewomble will know, in my time, I’ve binged on lots of things. Such as: marijuana, codeine, valium, hash oil, LSD, Ecstasy, cocaine, freebase cocaine, crack, heroin, speed, psilocybin, Rohypnol, morning glory seeds, opium, morphine, DMT, qat, temazepam, nutmeg, and Tippex. Frankly, I don’t recommend trying all of these: sniffing Tippex gives you a headache; eating nutmeg makes you smell like a trifle topping; simply sampling heroin can sometimes land you with a horrible ten year smack addiction.

Did me, anyway. Nearly five years ago my long-term heroin addiction became so bad, I decided to call a halt. I was 36 years old, entering the traditional menopause of drug abuse (most people seem to give up drugs between 35 and 40; either that or they die or go to prison). I can still remember the poignant climacteric. One morning I woke feeling sick, wretched and, for the first time, suicidal. It was then I decided the time had come to sue for peace with God. ‘God’, I said, ‘I’ll stop bingeing on drugs; if only You keep me alive’.

It worked. God kept his side of the bargain; I kept mine. Since that day my sole means of intoxication have been the odd bottle of wine, or a few glasses of beer. I’m proud that I’ve stopped bingeing.

Or at least I was proud - until I read last month’s official report of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit into ‘British drinking habits’. According to this in-depth study, many if not a majority of young British people are going out several times a week and getting deliberately and dangerously intoxicated. The word the report used for these wicked liquor-fests was ‘bingeing’. The definition of a male binge, according to the report, was four pints of beer in an evening, or a single bottle of wine.

Four pints in an evening? A single bottle of wine? That’s a binge? By this
definition I am a dangerous binge drinker, and so are my friends, and so are most members of my family, and so is everyone I know down the pub, and so, no doubt, are half the people reading the 'Womble. All two of you.

This survey certainly had a point to prove; it also had the facts and comparisons to ‘back it up’. Apparently 40% of British pub-sessions count as a binge; only 10% of French drinking sessions similarly qualify. The British drink two gallons of pure alcohol per person per year: more than almost all other Westerners. One third of British 15 year olds report being drunk before the age of 13, only one in ten French or Italian 15 year olds can make the same claim.

The report generated lots of supportive comment. Various involved bigwigs, from the head of Alcohol Concern to the Home Office’s junior minister Hazel Blears MP, all rushed out to agree that we British are a bunch of ill-disciplined dipsos. These tutting voices even added their own slants: one pointed out how noticeable it was that our young European cousins don’t drink in noisy boorish groups like British youths - rather, these clever young Euro-types consume their drink ‘in family settings’; another commentator claimed the report showed that the British as a nation, compared to the Europeans, were ‘failing to drink sensibly’.

And here, I think, is the rub. What on earth is ‘drinking sensibly’? Let’s look at those binge-thresholds again. Four pints of beer, or a single bottle of wine, in an evening? I may be weird, but it’s at about the four pint stage that I start to get pleasantly, properly drunk. It also takes about a bottle of wine for me to begin to really enjoy the sweet escape that wine provides. Yet the PM’s ‘strategy people’ say that this is precisely the point when I should stop. In other words, what they’re saying is: it’s OK (ish) to drink - just as long as you don’t get enjoyably pissed (a spookily similar argument to the one used against red-coated fox hunting - that it’s OK to kill foxes, just make sure you don’t have fun by doing it on horseback).

Whatever the actual figures, the whole thrust of this report is palpably absurd. The reason anybody drinks is because they want to be drunk. Would anyone knock back lager, or vodka, or schnapps, or aquavit, or gin slings, or Long Island Iced Teas, or even the very finest wines from Bordeaux, if these things didn’t get you more or less smashed, soused, poleaxed, plastered, hog-whimpering, rat-arsed, and mullered? If intoxication is not essentially the sole motive for drinking intoxicating liquors, if perhaps taste and aroma are just as important, why aren’t sales of delicious non-alcoholic wine or scrummy low-alcohol beer as high as the sales of, say, orange juice, or Pepsi, or Irn Bru? Or proper booze?

But maybe I’m begging my own question here. It could be argued that the underlying philosophy behind the prime ministerial report is, however unpalatable, true: that intoxication is simply bad for you. Maybe drunken-ness is intrinsically wrong.

Can this be the case? If it is, the dubious pursuit of intoxication, of psychotropic escape, has had a remarkably long and tenacious life. Some of the earliest remains of recognisably human civilisation, in western Russia, show that primitive man liked to get out of his head, specifically by inhaling the fumes of burnt cannabis.

Almost all later civilisations, from the Aztecs with their peyote, to the Vikings with their berserker mushrooms, to the Native Americans with their tobacco-pipes, have had their own particular poison, their means of getting mashed. Such is the consistency of this thread in human history, some scholars believe recreational drug-taking is actually the engine of human progress, allowing us to ‘think out of the box’. Even if you don’t swallow that, it seems undeniable that intoxication is a normal and therefore healthy human pursuit. Perhaps for the reason that TS Eliot famously asserted: that mankind cannot bear too much reality.

From my own experiences (wider than many, I have to say) I can confirm that intoxication has definitely had its advantages. Many of the best experiences of my life, as well as some of the worst, have come about as a result of my being banjaxed.

For instance: I remember a time when I drank wood alcohol in a Mayan village in Mexico and I ended up teaching the sombrero-wearing natives a happy medley of songs from Oliver. I also recall the time when I deliriously smoked dope through the thigh bone of an antelope with a tribe of laughing Kalahari Bushmen. Then there’s the time I found God on acid in Regent’s Park; or the time I risked arrest to smoke opium in the misty mountains of Burma; or the time at an Islington party where me and my friends took so many magic mushrooms we all ended up in fits of laughter so fierce I thought I would actually die of a strange, yelping happiness.

All these were examples of quite serious intoxication; times when I did things I certainly wouldn’t have done if I’d been stone cold sober. And, you know, I’m wholly glad for them. They’re precious memories; I wouldn’t want to change a thing.

Some might say, however, that this government report isn’t about drugs, it’s about drink, which is different because it’s the most commonly available and socially acceptable intoxicant. These people might further add that alcohol lacks the harder drugs’ rhapsodic highs, and also causes many more miserable lows: because of its propensity to fire up violence. But here I still differ. Some of the most cherished of my memories-of-intoxication are of simple good times in the pub. The times I was just having a beery laugh with my friends, times when we shared in each other’s extrovert abandon, each other’s dippy oblivion. Yes my drinking bouts (and my drug taking bouts), have sometimes concluded with sadness, hangovers, arguments, mishaps, and the occasional fatuous scuffle, but I would fiercely contend that all the sadness and errors are in the end outweighed by those gravely fun evenings of camaraderie and laughter. The high old times in the pub of life.

Ah yes, the pub. The great British boozer. I think the noisy British boozer is a living riposte to the Prime Minister’s strategy unit; because the pub proves that we sensible Brits have, almost alone in Europe, not forgotten the purpose of drink: which is to get you shitfaced.

Just think about those European equivalents to UK pubs. Go into an average French zinc and what do you see? A few old scrotes sitting around scowling at their pastis. Walk into some Italian bars and what do you find? Lots of overdressed people so concerned with the cut of their Prada corduroys they barely have time to acknowledge each other’s existence. Contrast that with the genuine high spirits of the most average British boozer on a Friday night.

Not that we’re perfect. Far from it. There’s no doubt the Europeans have a lot to teach us about pasta sauces and reliable railways and not fighting in bus stations and, of course, how to wear cashmere jumpers slung casually around the shoulders, but I think the Europeans have nothing to teach us about the more serious business of having a proper hootenanny. OK, British town centres can be a bit messy, punchy and spewy on Saturday nights, but on the whole I’d rather have our Hogarthian mayhem that than the aperitif-sipping somnolence, or ossified familial socialising, of so much continental drinking-and-entertaining culture. Ribald and effervescent intoxication is something we Brits do pretty damn well: as other peoples acknowledge.

And that’s not just me talking. Look at the economics; look at where the money goes. London is the greatest attraction in Europe for young European tourists. Are they in hot pursuit of the British Museum mummies? Does the London Eye have such a magnetic appeal? Well, yes, partly, but surveys also report that it’s our enviably vivacious, liberatingly frivolous pub and club culture that brings these youths flocking to our shores. And when these young tourists can’t come here, they try and recreate the scene at home. The exported British (sometimes disguised as Irish) pub is spreading across the world like the ‘flu in 1919; the most successful global media export of the last decade is the British lad magazine (which in their masculine rudeness and irreverence are basically pubs-between-glossy-covers).

Am I over-egging the pudding? Perhaps. But this is a serious pudding, worth fighting for. To my mind there is something in the up-for-it, let-your-hair-down, what-the-hell British pub culture that enshrines something seriously free, something preciously liberal in overall British culture. And British writers, of course, have always known this. From Shakespeare’s: ‘A man cannot make him laugh, but that’s no marvel - he drinks no wine’, to Keats’: ‘He who hath not been in a tavern knows not what Paradise is’, the best poets have long been aware of the value of a regular boozy knees-up: which is to keep us from taking life, or ourselves, too seriously.

Put it another way: a nation that doesn’t mind downing six Bacardi breezers and doing a group rendition of an Abba ballad before horribly chucking up over its kebab on the way home, is a nation that is unlikely to take itself so seriously as to embrace, say, Fascism. It’s because Italian first year students don’t walk around with traffic cones on their heads that they had Mussolini.

But anyway. Leave the last words to Byron, a true exemplar of this very British joie de vivre:
‘Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.’

 Posted by Hello

Cheers! Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Monks, Meditation and Monging Out

OK, he looks like a gormless knobhead. But he may know something we don't. Here's a more serious post...

Zen and the Art of Gamma Wave Production

It's something monks, yogis, artists, Christian mystics and chilled-out ravers have long suspected: that periods of meditation can alter the way the brain works, maybe even the way it is physically structured. Until recently scientists had largely dismissed the notion; the latest research is now showing that those saffron-robed lamas and tranced-out clubbers might have been onto something, all along.

The data is emerging from an ongoing study at the W.M. Keck Laboratory for
Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For the last few years Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist in this top American laboratory, has been conducting hands-on analyses of the cerebral and cognitive functions of Tibetan Buddhist monks.

The genesis of the study is curious in itself. In 1992 the Dalai Lama heard about Davidson's cutting-edge research into the brain science of human emotions. Consequently the Dalai Lama invited Davidson to his home in northern India, as he wanted the scientist to assess the brain functionings of his monks. The religious leader was convinced the study would show up unexpected results. Others were less optimistic.

Ten years later eight of the world's most advanced practitioners of Buddhist meditation finally left their remote mountain fastness, bound for the clinical environment of a US laboratory. These veteran monks had all devoted between ten and fifty thousand man-hours to the advanced Buddhist meditative techniques of Nyingmapa and Kagyupa. They aged from 30 to 80.

Once in Wisconsin, the monks were hooked up to Davidson's electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors, which check for brain waves. Davidson also used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans. As a control, 10 student volunteers were similarly tested, after a brief week-long introduction to the arts of inert contemplation. Both groups were asked to practise 'unconditional compassion' in their meditations. In Buddhist lore, this is arguably the highest and most demanding form of meditation, as it eschews any focus on particular desires, objects, or people, and instead fires a benevolent mental broadside at the world: 'an unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings'.

The results were startling. In his report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, 2004, Davidson claimed that the meditation seemed to activate the minds of the monks in notably different ways to the cerebration of the novices. Specifically, Davidson's sensors discovered that the experienced monks were producing 'fast moving' and 'unusually potent' gamma waves. 'Some of the monks were producing gamma waves more actively powerful than any previously reported in a healthy person'. The novices, meanwhile, achieved a slight increase in gamma-wave activity, but nothing to compare to the monks.

The significance of these high-frequency (40hz) gamma waves is that they are commonly associated with high states of consciousness and perception, for instance they are notable during intense study, or cello-playing, yet dwindle in sleep, and disappear under aneasthesia. Someone producing gamma waves is someone who is thinking hard, someone who is powerfully alert. Perhaps an unexpected finding in a subject sunk in contemplation.

The second important finding was that the more experienced the Buddhist monk, the higher and more significant their gamma-wave output. In other words, years of meditation seemed to be permanently altering the brain chemistry, maybe the brain structure, of the monks. Davidson has speculated that the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain may be physically refashioned by these prolonged periods of meditation. The left pre-frontal cortex is associated by some researchers with 'positive emotions': it's the happiness centre of the brain.

This idea, that the brain might alter over life, is not a new one. It has a name - neuroplasticity - and a small body of research. According to the Journal of the New York Academy of Sciences, neurologists have already discovered that concert pianists have different brains to non-musicians: the constant playing of arpeggios seems to reshape the parts of the brain that control the fingers. Other researchers, at University College London, have proved that taxi drivers with 'the knowledge' have significantly larger 'posterior hippocampi' compared to the rest of us: the hippocampi is a part of the brain closely associated with navigation.

But Davidson's findings are a step beyond even this. For the first time a study has shown that sheer thinking, without any physical interaction, is enough to change the brain's construction. As Davidson says of his monkish subjects: 'Their mental practise is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practise will enhance performance'. This is therefore a serious challenge to those who regard the brain as precisely analogous to a computer, as permanently fixed in its neural structure as the wires and chips of an Apple Mac.

It is possible that further research will challenge these findings. It is also possible that the findings will be replicated in other mental states apart from meditation. For the moment, it gives everyone a great new excuse. Next time your boss asks you why you are idly staring into space, tell him you are working on that positive gamma wave production.
 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Scotland, April-May, 2005

I said I would post about my recent epic schlep across Scotland, from the Shetlands to the Outer Hebrides to Skye. So here goes. The first stop on my itinerary was Foula, the most remote inhabited island in the British archipelago, twenty miles west of the icy Shetlands. The main port of embarkation for Foula is the airport of Tingwall - in the Shetlands. It's pictured above. Quite a sense of bustling urgency, I think you will agree. Anyway - it was at this luxurious airport that I climbed in the world's smallest plane and set off for the home-made gravel air-strip of 'Ultima Thule' - the 'last land on earth' - Foula.  Posted by Hello

How to describe the proud, windy, remote, astonishingly tough island of Foula? It's difficult. So maybe this picture says a thousand words, or at least a few dozen. The seas around Foula are BRUTAL: the Admiralty records one calm day a year, making these some of the roughest oceans on the globe. So aggressive are these seas, the Foula ferry boat, pictured above, is craned onto a platform when it is in harbour. Otherwise the boat would be utterly crushed in one of the many storms. Now that's windy.  Posted by Hello

Soon after I arrived in Foula, I was greeted by my estimable guide Tony Mainwood. He promised me next day we would go for a quick walk up one of the famous great hills of Foula. Like this one. Soberlie. He didn't tell me that after that we would walk up another hill, followed by a nifty ascent of a hill, after which we would scramble up another hill, finishing off with a quick hike up a hill. Or two. Posted by Hello

Yep, that's me. On top of Hamnafield Hill. I'm staring disconsolately at the next hill we have to climb: The mighty Sneug. Thanks Tony. Posted by Hello

... at the end of this mammoth walk, we gingerly approached the Kame. This is the highest cliff on Foula, and one of the highest cliffs in the world. 1200 feet. Oo-er missus etc. Four weeks before I arrived on Foula, a German tourist apparently leapt to his death from this cliff. Actually the locals think the poor guy might not have jumped - he might just have been swept to his death by a sudden gust of wind, of which Foula has quite a few. Either way, it was very unfortunate for Foula as they only get about two tourists a year and a death rate of 50% isn't so good for business. Another thing about this cliff: in living memory, the locals used to climb down the precipice in the protein-starved winter, to steal seagulls' eggs and puffins, for supper. If you've eaten puffin, as I have, you will appreciate how desperate you must be to do this.  Posted by Hello

My hostess on Foula was Isobel Holbourne, who very graciously permitted me to stay in her croft, despite the fact that it was lambing time. In this brilliant picture, you can see her - she's the little yellow dot in the middle. At this moment she is checking to see if 'the seagulls have eaten the afterbirth'. Don't ask me. Posted by Hello

Here's a final pic of Foula. It's a gut-wrenching crevice called the Sneck o' da Smaalie. My guide to the Sneck was again the good Tony Mainwood. As the Sneck was extremely scary and deep I opted not to take the dangerous route down to the sandy floor, forty yards below. Tony did. He's 61. I know, I know. Posted by Hello

.. from Foula I flew to the Shetlands, then flew to Inverness, then drove across the Highlands to Ullapool. Here I rested up and ate biscuits for a few days. So I didn't take many photos. But this is a bay near Tanera Mhor in the Summer Isles, one of the islands I was meant to be visiting. In the end I didn't go for very long cause there was a force nine gale and there was a chance I would be stranded on the wrong side of Loch Broome for days and after my Foula experience I wasn't so keen on that so I hastened back to my shortcake. Sorry. Soon after this photo I loaded myself and my car on the ferry and sailed across the wastes of the north Atlantic to the far Outer Hebrides, the fabled Western Isles, the last Gaelic speaking outpost of the Britons. Posted by Hello

Actually, the isle of Lewis is kinda dull. Stornoway, the 'capital', is ugly and quite scruffy. The main landscape feature is endless peatbog, surrounded by marsh, leading into morasses, sloughs and quagmires. Then there are the fens. However, there is one interesting thing about wild, remote, quaggy old Lewis. The whole place is as religious as, er, hell, and shuts down on Sunday. Totally. But they call Sunday 'the Sabbath', in a rather weird, Wicker Man type way (as you can see). Given that I was in Lewis for the Sabbath, and naturally there wasn't anything else to do, I went to church in a little village. The service was packed with bonnet wearing women, and it was in Gaelic. Spooky. There's something eerie and romantic about hearing this ancient Celtic tongue in a cold little church hard by the slate-blue waters of the Hebridean sea. And what about the singing!? In the Outer Hebrides they still sing a very ancient kind of unaccompanied plainchant - first the minister starts warbling, then the congregation joins in, ululating and carolling, nasally. It's bizarre and affecting and poignant. And oddly African. You know people travel the world to see wierd exotic authentic stuff, and yet, here, right here in Britain, is one of the wierdest most authentic pieces of exotica I have EVER encountered. And I've been around a bit. Apart from the Gaelic ululations, however, Lewis ain't got much going for it... I don't think.... er... Posted by Hello

... but then again it has got this. Callanish. The Stonehenge of the North. A brooding celtic cross of lofty menhirs. These bastards are BIG - check out the man hiding for some reason behind the furthest stone. He himself was nine foot tall. Which gives you an impression. Posted by Hello

... after my exciting church-and-menhir experience, I drove south from the isle of Lewis to the strangely attached isle of Harris. Here is the view from the petrol station en route. Better than Euston Road, I guess. Unless you want a cappucino. Posted by Hello

I spent a couple of days in Harris. It's a squitty little island with bad roads and impoverished crofting townships. At least, the east side is. The west side is something of an improvement, as this photo shows. In fact it's more than an improvement - it's absurdly beautiful - creamy pink beaches, noble mountains, formidable views, sweet-flowered machair grass, even the sheep are cool and relaxed. So: why are the people on the shite side of the island? They were kicked off the west coast in the 19th century, to make way for the sheep. And that's why the sheep look so happy. Posted by Hello

The next day I sailed from the Outer Hebrides, across the Minch to Skye. The Minch, a very treacherous channel, is known as the ghostly home of the Blue Men. The Blue Men of the Minch are a troupe of spirits who live in caves on the sea floor, and surface from time to time, to drag seafarers to their death. Happily I survived this dangerous passage, docked in Skye, drove to Portree (above), and had a curry.  Posted by Hello

Here I am in Skye, on the last leg of the trip. I don't look so happy do I? In fact I look pretty bloody miserable, and about 98 years old. By this time I have had enough of Scotland. If I see another sheep on the road I'm gonna run it over. If I get stuck in another peat bog I'm gonna blow up a shortcake factory. If I have to eat another lump of Stornoway black pudding I'm gonna set my own head on fire. But then, just an hour or so after this rather low moment, I rounded a (peat-boggy) corner... Posted by Hello

... and came across this. The Cuillin mountains and the shores of Loch Coruisk. Look at that landscape. The revelation of this incomparable aspect was quite a pleasant surprise.. Posted by Hello

... which, as you can see, altered my mood somewhat.  Posted by Hello