Category Archives: britain

e was not for england – a poem

When I was 22, E was not for England.

The country I grew up in wanted me inside a Pink Floyd lyric
Wanted decorum and a pulling up short
It said “that’ll do” and “that’s quite enough”
And “don’t you think you’re overreacting”
And “there’s no harm in giving up.”

And my generation wanted out of that
Were bursting to exhale
To taste, sense, see with new sensation.
My generation had an idea too
Had a quiet feeling that things might break open

I suppose every generation do.

In England in the 90s something happened that was akin to America in the 60s.
We didn’t have Dylan or King or Kennedy
Or counter culture or civil rights or even rock and roll
We had dance music.
And if that doesn’t sound much, consider:
All it takes to turn a strip of dead metal into a blinding white ball of light is this:
A catalyst.

When I was 22 E was not for England.

I took ecstasy for the first time with Aaron Johnson at the Empire nightclub in Teesside at 10.30pm on a Thursday. That was important, Aaron said. Because that way you’d be coming up before midnight and if you were enjoying it you could add another dose, before the club closed.

And first, he said, just try a half. Else you might vomit everything up and we’ll have wasted five quid. And don’t drink too little; you’ll get dehydrated and pass out.

And don’t drink too much; because you’ll end up like that girl who died because she kept on drinking water and forgot to piss.

Leah Betts, she was called. And her parents agreed her death should be used to warn about the dangers of drugs and so the papers were full of it. Showing photos of her lying there in hospital fighting for her life, tubes shoved down her throat and up her nose and her face swelled up so much her eyes were pushed closed.
Her skin was ink blue and red and for all we knew she was already dead.
And over it the headline:
“It could be your child!”

When I was 22 I was doing a dead end job; data entry at an insurance company, indexing cards with customer records on them in a windowless room with a dozen others.
And there was an old guy worked there was a narcoleptic and 20 times a day he’d fall asleep.
I’d listen to him snore
Thinking how that crackle of breath was like the sound an engine makes
When it’s out of fuel and stutters to a stand still
Makes one last revolution before it admits defeat.
And I didn’t want to give in to sleep.
Be like the sleepwalkers I saw each day under nicotine skies
Their faces unwell; their eyes filled with silent rage; suffocating inside
Trying not to think about how or when or why they’d thrown in the towel.
I wanted something more for me
I wanted ecstasy.

I came from a post-industrial landscape
The remnants of dark satanic mills
Replaced by petro-chemical plants.
And I would take the bus (just one an hour)
Past 60s housing and tower blocks that stacked like cigarette boxes in corner shops
And get out at the cinema and watch American movies:
See technicolour heroes always win the day
And sitting in the darkness feel the bitter-sweet longing
Knowing that romance did exist in life. Just somewhere far away.

And you would go each week to your grandparents
Who sat all day in front of TV sets turned low
Like ancient Salamanders basking in the glow
Of halogen suns.

And grandma took wulferin for her heart
And a couple of brandies to take the edge off things at night
And Aunty Mary smoked 40 Benson and Hedges
And Uncle Jim drank seven pints a day all his life.

And I played football with Aaron Johnson
On grass pitches underneath pylons in our hometown,
Which sat in the loop of a river
Like a condemned man in a noose.

Then grandma died and mom got cancer
And a kid from the town threw himself in front of a train
And for me and Aaron Johnson escape was only answer
Because no one had ever taught us how to deal with pain.

So at the age of 22 I stood in the dark recesses of the Empire nightclub
And Aaron laid the half into my palm
I washed it down with a mouthful of beer
Like a Christian taking secret communion
And waited to see water turn to wine.

Maybe you know what happened next
Maybe you’ve been there too
Bought a ticket for a lottery
Asked yourself in the darkness: is this the stupidest decision of my life?
Will I be dead in an hour?
Will I be a poster boy for a government awareness campaign
My parents standing shame-faced round the grave
And all the kids from my old school
Fidgeting on church pews, wanting out,
Like animals in a zoo?

Maybe you’ve been there too
When the floodgates open
And serotonin soaks you like a summer shower
And everything is Technicolor
All is love
And you can’t believe you’ll ever get higher
(And you won’t)
And just for those few hours
It’s as if God reached down from heaven above and said to you:
My boy, you must never be afraid or give up hope
You must know that I am with you
That I walk beside you every step of the way
And the people you share this grim northern town with are your brothers and sisters,
And the world around is beautiful and bountiful and will give to you, and keep on giving
So long as we all shall live.

And here was Aaron beside me,
Hypnotized by the beat
And in the darkness I grabbed him, and called ‘I fuckin’ love you man!’ in his ear.
And he turned to me and grinned
And at that moment it was as if we had found each other for the first time;
Had met in some new way.
Like creatures living in the abyss of deep sea
Who looking across the expanse of eternal night
See one another as specks of colour illuminating the blackness.
Bioluminescence.

We bioluminesed that night.

I took ecstasy once more with Aaron. At 70s night at Club M. 15 quid in and all you could drink.
But the law of diminishing returns is writ large over every addict’s grave and that night Aaron threw up in the bushes after necking four pills and swore off it and cleaned up and got a job in a call center
And, a few years later, a wife and two kids.

And I kept wandering; unable to settle down.
Because something had changed in me after ecstasy.
A filter had been removed; a veil had been lifted.
In some strange, nearly imperceptible way my vision had been shifted
And the real world was never quite the same.

And on I went and in the distance saw the lights of New York
Like a million souls before me stepped onto Broadway.
Looked around the movie sets of my youth.
Thought to myself: In a world of shifting perspectives,
I could get used to this view.

So I stayed. And now I’m old enough to feel morning aches,
And heartburn and to empathize with period pains.
And I go running in the park at twilight when the fireflies are out on summer nights.
The fireflies, who long ago learned to feed themselves a chemical
That breaks down in them and makes light.

So this is where I’m at in my story.
And now I’ll tell you where I hope to be.
I want tell my friends I love them without shame.
And fill a room with the warm glow of communal bliss
That touched me that Thursday night
And do it using only heart and mind
And no trick of chemical binds.

I want to face my troubles down
Risk a burn or two to wake myself up
Because discomfort is better than numbness,
Numbness is giving up.
I will shine my light
Not fade to grey like grandad in his chair
Search for the lights of others in the darkness
Since there is life in knowing someone else is there.

Advertisements

amy winehouse and the british media

The discovery of Amy Winehouse’s body at her London home gave Rupert Murdoch and his clan a brief respite from an avalanche of bad press, supplanting the  news of the phone-hacking scandal that had remained the lead story for weeks in British newspapers and TV shows.

winehouse

It is ironic that Winehouse’s death inadvertently took some of the heat off News International, the British arm of the mogul’s media business: The troubled star was frequently a target of the tabloid culture that Murdoch helped to foster. Her battle with her private demons was very public, detailed in a nearly constant stream of lurid tales in the tabloids. The Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, for example, published images in 2008 of Winehouse smoking from a glass pipe alongside the headline “Amy Winehouse on crack,” with a story claiming the singer had ingested a cocktail of drugs that included crack cocaine during a house party.

But the British tabloids’ casual intrusiveness into the personal lives of the famous must be re-evaluated after the firestorm of revelations about  News International’s news-gathering methods. The scandal began with the egregious story that a private investigator in the pay of the company had hacked the cell phone of a murdered schoolgirl. Up to this point, tabloids seemed to have regarded this predatory intrusiveness as a moral right.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has announced a judge-led and wide-ranging inquiry into the phone hacking that could well result in recommendations for a change in the law. At the very least, the inquiry is likely to come up with proposals on press regulations — and it’s a fair guess that those proposals will deal in one way or another with what constitutes “in the public interest,” the argument defending choices of topics of news stories in Britain.

British newspapers have had an easy ride publishing details of celebrities’ private lives, with the defense that a subject’s high profile makes whatever he or she does in the public interest. The glitch, however, is that the decision about what constitutes the public interest is adjudicated by a watchdog group dominated by newspaper editors and journalists, who have their own reasons for keeping the definition of that term as broad as possible. Critics of the regulatory system insist that this cozy relationship is one of the reasons the tabloid press in Britain has been allowed to get so out of hand.

Another factor behind the tabloids’ often outrageous behavior is the nearly insatiable appetite in Britain for celebrity scandal. It is not a new thing. As far back as the mid-19th century, rumor and gossip circulating about the aristocrat and Romantic poet Lord Byron prompted the politician Thomas Macaulay to note in exasperation that “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”

The best-known recent example was the tabloid obsession with Princess Diana. By the time of her death in 1997, the late Princess of Wales was in the U.K. papers nearly everyday; the minutiae of her life, loves and footwear choices scrutinized ad nauseam. Her death was met with public outrage at the paparazzi, blamed by many for the car crash that killed her, and contempt for the tabloids. After briefly toning it down in the aftermath, the tabloids went back to their aggressive coverage of public figures.

Winehouse is the latest victim of this pernicious culture of sensationalism. A worldwide star whose biggest hit was a song about not wanting to go into rehab, her musical ability was matched only by her talent for self-destruction. All this made her perfect fodder for the tabloids. It was a point she appeared to acknowledge in a lyric in her 2007 Grammy-award winning album “Back to Black,” where she sang: “I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good.”

Many of the tracks on that album were written about her relationship with her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a man who seemed tailor-made for the role of stock villain in the cartoonish version of reality that dominates the tabloid press.

It is important not to overstate the role of the media in the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s death — the singer’s troubles ran far deeper than some hostile column inches. Even so, the papers’ bad-taste documenting of her downward spiral bordered on cruelty. Tabloids trumpeted disturbing photographs of Winehouse stumbling barefoot through the London streets, bloodied and disoriented, dressed in tatters. Columnists wrung their hands in false concern at the plight of “poor Amy,” even as their editors turned the star’s descent into a gruesome public spectacle.

It may even turn out that the tabloids were not just prurient observers and chroniclers — a  British journalist reports, citing anonymous sources, that Winehouse, her family and close associates also might have had their phones hacked.

It is too early to know how much of an effect the phone hacking scandal will have upon the tabloid culture; the decline in the sales of newspapers may, in the end, make it a moot point. Yet the very real shock felt in Britain over these two major stories may convince enough people that gawping at the sad lives of troubled people, by any means possible, does no one much good in the long run.

This story was first published on CNN’s website on 26 July, 2011


a night in an english ruin

The stone cottage stood alone on the hillside, dark and sinister in the gloom of twilight. Pushing open the heavy old door I shone my torch in to the empty silence of the room. A jet black wood burner stood in the hearth, and beside it a fresh woodpile. On a shelf, stacks of papers withered in the dampness alongside the baroque remains of a melted candle in a bottleneck.

the bothy at warnscale head

I laid down my rucksack and collected some kindling. As the cold night drew in I piled the fire high, eating sausage and beans washed down with tea and, a little later, a few nips of whiskey from a hip flask.

I was miles from the nearest habitation, in the wilds of Northumberland, near England’s border with Scotland. In the musty interior of the old farm cottage it felt like I was further away, like I had slipped between the pages of a 19th century novel.

I wondered about the ghosts of the past: whose home this had been and when and why they had left. Outside in the deep of Keilder forest an owl hooted.

In the jam-packed Britain of today finding a place to enjoy the country’s heritage in true isolation is no mean feat. The land is scattered with ancient monuments – castles and churches, runes and ruins – but it’s also littered with fences, admission fees, “keep out” signs and lots of other visitors.

As a solution to this problem I heard about bothies. Dotted across northern Britain, they are ruined cottages abandoned to the elements. Often the former homes of shepherds and crofters, in Scotland many of
them are relics of the Highland Clearances, the forced displacement of the rural population carried out by the British government during the 18th and 19th centuries. One Highland bothy dating from the 18th century is the birthplace of the man whose life story formed the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped”.

Another ruined farmstead at Kearvaig Bay on the northern tip of Britain contains a scrawled message on the plaster recording three generations of the same family dating back nearly 200 years.

They cost nothing to stay in, are left open all year round, and provide only the most basic shelter: a wooden platform to lay a sleeping bag on and a fireplace.

As well as the sense of history evoked by these buildings, there are good practical reasons for staying in them.

The countryside of northern England offers some of the best walking in Britain. The bucolic charms of the Lake District attract visitors from around the world, while to the east the windswept austerity of the Yorkshire moors and the wild, empty beaches of Northumberland are less known. However this being Britain, the great landscapes are not always
matched by great weather. Campouts under the stars transform to washouts in record time.

Since many of them are located close to walking trials, bothies are a good solution for trekkers who wanted to stay out on the hills without becoming a victim of our famously fickle climate.

With my appetite whetted by the online research I slung some supplies into a backpack and went ‘bothying’.

The first trip I made was to the cottage in Keilder. It was a bleak day, threatening rain overhead and below a carpet of snow still coated the wide forestry path that led through the woods.

Situated a few miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, the bothy makes an ideal stop-off for anyone attempting to walk the route of the 1,900 year-old ruins of the defence barrier the Roman leader constructed to define the northern limits of his empire.

Like many of the bothies, the cottage is maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). On its website the MBA asks that visitors help contribute to the upkeep of its buildings by observing a few basic rules – the “Bothy Code”.

At the Keilder forest site I found a guest book. One visitor, who signed himself “Smeagol” after the Lord of the Rings character, ranted about finding the place in a mess. Poor “Smeagol” complained he had walked eight miles in July heat only to find the place in a state of calamity. In a note peppered with expletives, he blamed a troupe of ne’er-do-wells he called the “air rifle muppet brigade” for flouting the code, and signed off promising never to return.

Most of the comments were more affirming: “’Spent the night by the fire with a cracking Chinese stir fry, good wine and beer. Tidied up and left some logs. Till next time.’ Signed Kev and Peter, March 21.”

After a fitful night’s sleep and fried breakfast, I collected some wood and left. On my way out I noticed a withered picture of a windswept Lakeland mountaintop hanging near the fireplace. Just such a place was to provide the backdrop for my next bothy experience.

The walk up to Warnscale Head starts in Buttermere in the southwest of the English Lake District. It skirts the edge of the pretty little lake, along the route of the Coast-to-Coast walk, until at the eastern shore it splits off and heads up the valley on to a scree-covered peak.

One of the best things about walking in England is the rich tapestry of language it reveals to you. Dialects that have long since dissolved into memory live on in the words for the land. In the Lakes for example, a hilltop can be variously a fell, pike or crag; a lake; a tarn or a mere. Reeling off the place names on a Lakeland map is an act of pure poetry. On my way up to the Bothy I passed (in order): Pike Rigg, Buttermere, Muddock Crags, Lambing Knott, Peggy’s Bridge and Warnscale Bottom.

The bothy is two-thirds up the mountain with incredible views back down the valley to Buttermere. The sun was shining the day I went and a waterfall, heavy with snowmelt, roared away to my left. In front of me the bothy — a ruined shelter for the workers who quarried shale here — was almost indistinguishable from the hillside. The same shale that it was made from scattered the ground around it.

I boiled a pan of water for tea and gazed from the bare interior to the extravagant view from the window. The valley sides looked lime green and burnt orange in the sunlight and the rocky heads of peaks like the chiselled faces of leviathans.

As I was leaving the house to drive over here my dad handed me a book to take. It was by Alfred Wainwright. If you’ve never heard of him, you should know that he is probably the best-known rambler of the English Lakes since William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” here two centuries ago. A fugitive from a grim northern mill town,
Wainwright spent most his adult life here, producing a series of popular walking guides to the area. The guides are beautifully illustrated with the author’s own pen and ink drawings. It was Wainwright who came up with the Coast-to-Coast walk.

By chance the route to the bothy led on to Wainwright’s favourite peak: Haystacks. After a while I tore myself away from my shelter and continued the rest of the way up. The view from the top is breathtaking. Wainwright compared Haystacks to “a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds,” and sitting at the summit you feel the raw power of the black-faced, snow-flecked peaks that overlook you on all sides. Straight ahead the land falls away and sweeps, in one motion, to the lakeside. I sat for a while, buffeted by the wind, thinking how lucky I was that aside from the odd stray sheep grazing the uplands, I had the mountain to myself.

Two months after his death in 1991, Wainwright’s widow, Betty, following his wishes, carried the writer’s ashes up here and scattered them by Innominate Tarn, the lonely mountain lake that sits near the summit. It was an unusually cold winter in England this year and the tarn was still frozen over. But the thaw was setting in and when I stood by the water’s edge I heard the fizz and crack of melting ice.

“For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind,” Wainwright wrote. “The top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.” I watched a black bird dart over the tarn then disappear into clouds that were smoky through sunlight, seeing just what he meant.

A version of this story first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 30, 2011


northern killers

In the summer of 2010 two major shootings occurred in small communities in northern England. I visited these areas in the aftermath of the killing sprees of Derrick Bird and Raoul Moat and made a film examining the media’s handling of the stories. The following article was based on interviews made at the time and a version of it was published in the February 2011 issue of Media Magazine. My film was shown in April at the National Union of Journalists conference in Southport, UK.


Like many spots on the English coast, Seascale changes its aspect dramatically with the weather. When the sky is clear and the tide retreats to reveal its pristine white beach, arriving here feels like uncovering a hidden treasure. But on a grey day when the choppy waters of the Irish Sea reflect the dark skies, this Victorian era resort town can feel terribly bleak.

It was like that a Sunday this June. A damp squall had set in by the time the mourners had met on the strip of grass overlooking the pier. Banks of cloud were indistinguishable from the smoke of the cooling towers at the nearby Sellafield Reprocessing Plant.

Clutching orders of service headed “Gathering Together”, over 500 sang hymns and observed a minute’s silence for the victims of the Cumbria shootings. This was the first time they had met as a community since Derrick Bird’s murderous rampage a few days earlier.

They were not alone of course. At the centre of the sea of umbrellas cameras panned the crowd, and skirting its edges photographers circled, looking for private expressions of grief that might translate the pain of a community to a shocked nation.

Among the mourners was Dave Moore, a retained firefighter and local councillor. On the day of the killings Moore had helped a publican from the car where he had been shot at point blank range and draped covers over the dead. Born and raised here, the horror of the experience had left him dazed. But as he watched the news media this numbness gave way to anger.

“I felt our day had been hijacked. They’d hoodwinked people into believing they had a moral right to tell this story, that their concerns came first,” Moore said.

To get the best shots TV crews had set up their cameras between the clergy and the congregation. To observe the service, this meant locals closest to the front were looking past camera lenses frequently pointed straight back at them.

“We felt too intimidated to challenge them,” he said.

The media had arrived en masse on the Wednesday of the shootings. Many – including a Sky News helicopter – were already in the region for the funeral of a teenager killed in a school bus crash the week before.

By Thursday the car park by Seascale’s sea front, like Duke Street in nearby Whitehaven, was filled with satellite vans and news crews. Moore said their presence kept villagers indoors though “they wanted to come out and talk about what had happened.”

If much of the local populace was evasive faced with the glare of the cameras, they also remained tight-lipped on the subject of the killer. As one tabloid reporter put it: “You couldn’t find anyone to say a bad word about Bird.”

“Cumbrians aren’t insular but there’s a certain amount of tribalism,” said Jamie Reed, the MP for the Borough of Copeland. “They resent people coming in and intruding on their territory, especially when they so obviously have an agenda.”

Chequebook journalism was the most damaging aspect of this intrusion, according to Reed. A Seascale villager is still the object of scorn among locals after he is believed to have sold CCTV footage to The Sun that showed Bird’s car pass along the sea front. The daughter of Michael Pike, killed riding his bike through Seascale, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the footage contained audio of her father’s shooting. The Sun insisted the gunshots were edited out but removed the film from its website “as a gesture of goodwill.”

“Those practices have repercussions long after the media leave,” said Reed, who has outlined his concerns about the “dysfunctional and broken” values of sections of the media in a speech in the Commons. “Everyone knows who made money and no-one is in a hurry to forget. It’s very divisive.”

A month later another northern rural community found itself the unlikely focus of the nation’s attention when a second lone gunman ran amok.

In some ways the villagers of Rothbury in Northumberland were disinterested observers to the last days of Raoul Moat. Unlike in West Cumbria, Moat was an outsider and so were the people he harmed. All the same, the macabre soap opera that ended when the ex-prisoner shot himself on a riverbank in the centre of the village left a lasting impression.

Rothbury butcher Morris Adamson found himself recruited for vox pops by the 24-news crews who exhausted his stock of bacon with their demand for sandwiches each morning.

By his own admission he grew to like the attention, his mate’s teased him as a “media whore,” and after a week he was on close enough terms with ITN’s northern correspondent Emma Murphy that she dropped in a bunch of flowers for his wife on her way out of town.

“It was quite exciting,” he said. “There were 20-foot camera cranes pointing down the village, helicopters hovering overhead, police cars whizzing up and down. It was like waking up and finding yourself on the set of a Hollywood action movie.”

The sense of drama implied by a manhunt was added to by the large-scale police response. At one point one in 10 of all UK firearms officers were in the area and a two-mile ground exclusion zone forced the village into lockdown. The army even scrambled an RAF fighter jet to help out.

Villager Bill Kirkup said that when Moat was discovered by the riverbank after four days the critical mass of police and media led to calamitous scenes.

Kirkup, who has a toy shop a few doors down from the butchers, watched the tableau unfold from his window: “I heard a crash and saw two police cars had collided at the bottom of the village in their rush to get to him. The media got wind of what was going on and I saw a surge of cameras and journalists sweep past the shop.”

With the media kept at bay by police, reporters began contacting residents with views of the standoff, offering money to go on rooftops or for digital pictures of Moat.

Sue Ballantyne, who lives by the riverbank, was fielding phone calls from six a.m. the morning after the standoff:  “I was doing interviews one after the other. Looking back it seemed sort of farcical, but I was running on adrenaline at the time so I kept answering the phone.”

There were reports of journalists trespassing through back gardens. A message posted on Twitter by Channel Four reporter Alex Thomson on the Friday seemed to confirm this: “Sorry lots of Bberry tweets in dark running thru peoples, gardens evading cops – some spelling may have gone astray.”

Adamson said he kicked out a radio crew when, without asking permission, they began investigating the back of his shop to see if there was a storm drain similar to one Moat was hiding in.

A broadsheet reporter said it was hard to avoid getting caught up in the mania: “After a few days the story had been done to death but the beast of the internet always needs feeding. In your desperation to find a new angle it’s easy to forget the gravity of the situation.”

After a report of a possible sighting in a farmhouse the reporter parked in country lane and rushing on foot round the corner was confronted with a posse of armed police clutching machine guns and screaming at him to get down.

In West Cumbria, where the media were dealing with the aftermath rather than a live news event, their behaviour was less boisterous. Even so, tabloids stationed paparazzi outside the homes of victims’ families for days on end, including the relatives of Bird and his murdered twin David.

Reverend Jim Marshall, the vicar in David Bird’s village of Lamplugh, faced the media a number of times on behalf of the family. He said his concern was to “give the family’s side, and point out distortions or untruths where they were being repeated.”

It was widely misreported, for example, that Bird’s elderly mother had terminal cancer. A teacher of 30 years, Rev. Marshall equated the experience to addressing a class of unruly third formers.

In spite of the excesses the Press Complaints Commission received 79 complaints in relation to the two stories, about average for cases of this magnitude.

Aside from the video footage in The Sun, half the complaints in West Cumbria related to an opinion piece by Carole Malone in The News of the World which diagnosed the Cumbrians reluctance to talk in part as a symptom of their own sense of guilt at not recognising the killer in their midst.

Mike Jempson, from the charity Mediawise, which helps victims of media abuse, said the low number of complaints reflected general ignorance of the PCC and its remit, more than it did public sentiment about the shootings.

A spokesman for Copeland Borough Council said a number of its councillors reported constituents unhappy with the media’s behaviour though neither Northumbria nor Cumbria Police knew of any criminal complaints against individual members of the media.  The spokesman said that a second round of memorials organised a week after the first was meant to draw a line under the tragedy and that there was a tacit agreement with broadcasters that they would pack up and leave after they were finished.

In Seascale Dave Moore had shifted the position of this second memorial to the other side of the car park. When a TV reporter approached him beforehand and asked him to move it back to its original location to accommodate the camera setup, Moore was incredulous but steadfast: “I refused. As far as I was concerned that was a day for the people here, and the media had nothing to do with it.”

“The public need to be more assertive sometimes,” said Mike Jempson. “It’s not the job of the media to always be sensitive to people’s feelings. But faced with the pack in full flow, a community has a perfect right to dig its heels in and say no.”


the nuns in the tower block

In the darkness Clare beckons me to the window. Outside, London is ten thousand lights glittering to the horizon. Far to the right the skyscrapers of the docklands cluster like shards of crystals, while ahead the high rises of Hackney are solid rectangles dotted with light.


Returning to the sitting room we pass a small, carpeted room, unfurnished except for low wooden benches skirting two walls. It is a chapel. Dressed in navy trousers and a dark pullover, Clare’s slight frame moves down the narrow stairs ahead of me. She is light on her feet, and I am genuinely surprised when I find out later she is 83 and has spent most her adult life working as a cleaner.

Back in the sitting room a black and white portrait of a man with a thin, dark beard hangs on the wall. The man has the same high cheekbones and dark eyes as Clare and though she refers to him as Brother Charles, they are not related.

Charles de Foucauld was a soldier who left the French army in North Africa to become a monk. He died in obscurity a century ago having won only a handful of converts among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara desert.

In the years after his death a religious order was formed taking the hermit’s life as its inspiration. Today the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are all over the world: in refugee camps in Lebanon, Pygmy villages in Cameroon, and here, on the 13th floor of an east London tower block.

If you have never heard of them, it is not surprising. They are a contemplative order characterised by anonymity. The sisters, for
example, wear no religious habit — the only outward sign of their calling is the wooden cross around their necks.

Instead they try to find parity with the communities they live among, doing low paid, unskilled jobs. Offering solidarity to the most marginalized, in place of scripture.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, a community of Little Sisters in the U.S. relocated to an exclusively Arab
neighbourhood of New Jersey.

Clare, who is from an old family from western France, used to clean at the department store C&A.

“Our inspiration is in following the hidden life of Jesus,” says Catharine, who joins us in the sitting room. She means by this the
life that Christ led in obscurity before he began to preach.

Four Little Sisters live in the flat. Their community is a reflection of the diversity of the city that surrounds them — Catharine, a 66
year-old retired care worker, is the only one from the UK.

The flat is small, the sisters’ bedrooms narrow. It can be a trail, says Catharine, to share such a cramped living space.

“The hardest austerity is living in a tight-knit community,” she says. “I have spent 20 years in this tower block. It is the contemplative life that gives meaning to this banal life we lead.”

For her the contemplative life started early. She says she first considered taking vows while a boarder at a Catholic girls’ school in
Kent.

She discovered the Little Sisters by chance when a monk visited her class. The man was meant to be doing a slideshow about Africa from where he had just returned. As he flicked through images of the continent he came to one that seemed to stand out from the rest.

It was a picture of some young women waiting by a roadside. These were nuns, the monk explained, who had joined a travelling community in France. It had nothing to do with his talk and, in fact, he did not know how the image had got mixed in with the other slides.

Catharine looks thoughtful after she relates this story as if the appearance of the picture in the slideshow carries a meaning for her that goes beyond mere coincidence.

In any case, the revelation that there was an order where contemplation and a life on the road were not mutually exclusive must
have seemed tantalising for a teenage girl.

Her first assignment as a postulant shattered any romantic delusions she might have harboured, however. She worked in a jam factory in Leeds. Her parents were upset when they came to visit. “I was in a tiny back-to-back terrace where we shared an outside toilet with four neighbours.

“They couldn’t see why I would embrace a life of poverty. Their own faith was deep in its way but more practical I suppose.”

Catherine’s journey of downward mobility is a gentle imitation of the more extreme trajectory taken by Foucauld.

Born into the French nobility, Brother Charles was a complex figure. As a young man he was a glutton and a womaniser. Yet in North Africa the overweight bon viveur became a fierce ascetic who took self-negation to frightening extremes: when he fell ill, for example, he wrote of his disappointment on finding out it was not tuberculosis.

After dinner we return to the chapel at the top of the stairs.

The sisters sing hymns and recite psalms and scripture. After a period for silent prayer Catharine offers thoughts for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. Canh, the Vietnamese sister, prays for the people who are teaching her English. On the floor a candle flickers.

Not much later I say my goodbyes. Outside the January night is cold and unforgiving. On the streets all is quiet. I try to get my bearings, but London is such an improbable matrix when you get in amongst it.

I imagine Clare in the tower block behind me, looking out on the spaghetti of streets that dissolve into confusion at street level but is clear and easy to navigate from up there. I try to figure her as I saw her earlier, gazing in rapture to the horizon. Seeing for miles from the narrow confines of her 13th floor flat.

This following story was first published in the British newspaper, The Catholic Herald on March 19, 2010


ibogaine: ‘like watching a movie of my past’

Extracted from the rootbark of an African plant used in tribal rituals, ibogaine takes users on a mind-altering journey in which they face their own fears. Paul Willis reports on a radical new treatment for drug addiction.

(DARLINGTON, England) ALTHOUGH the details of Louise Young’s life make for shocking reading, for those used to working with drug addicts, they have a depressingly familiar ring.

Louise, from Brotton, near Saltburn, was just 12 years old when she started using heroin. Beset by family problems and caught up in a relationship with a drug dealer boyfriend five years her senior, Louise was a lost soul. Between bouts of pickpocketing and shoplifting to feed her £50 a day habit, Louise hardly found time for school or her family.

Before long she was living in crack houses in Middlesbrough, stealing, doing whatever she had to in order to survive and, by her own admission, out of control.

“Through the drugs I was more violent than anything else,” she says. “I think I was very angry at the world and that came out when I was on heroin.”

A short stint in prison for an assault on a girl in a children’s home and a move to London didn’t change things and, as Louise drifted from hostels to crashing on friend’s floors, she seemed destined to become just another statistic.

But then, two years ago, something extraordinary happened. At a friend’s health shop in London she bumped into Edward Conn. The pair soon started seeing one another and Edward, who had had his own issues with drugs in the past, heard about Louise’s heroin habit.

He told her about a treatment clinic for drug addiction he had set up using an unlicensed drug called ibogaine. Ibogaine is a psychoactive alkaloid derived from the rootbark of an African plant called iboga.

Iboga has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by tribes in The Gabon, in central Africa, as part of their social and religious rituals.

In recent years, it has been adopted in the West as a radical, if largely unknown, treatment for drug and alcohol dependency.

But for Louise, her own immediate concerns and the destructive cycle of addiction she was caught in meant that, at first, she was not much interested in a cure, let alone one as crackpot-sounding as an African tribal drug.

She says: “My over-riding concern at the time was getting a roof over my head and my next fix. I think I was afraid of getting better. For nearly ten years heroin had been my life and it was really scary to imagine what I’d do without the drug.”

Not long after meeting Edward, Louise’s needle use led to an abscess which needed 12 operations and nearly resulted in her losing her hand.

“I was in hospital a long time and not well at all through the drugs,” she says. “I was very wary of trusting anyone, but Edward came to visit me a lot and little by little he began to win me over.”

Despite continued reservations, Louise, who is now 22, decided to try ibogaine. Edward, however, was reluctant about giving the treatment to his girlfriend.

The few scientific studies conducted with the drug appear to suggest that a single dose has the ability to remove the symptoms of drug withdrawal and reduce drug-craving for a period of time after it has been taken. Taken in large doses it produces a dream-like state lasting for hours and, during these trances, users often describe witnessing scenes from their own past.

It is widely believed the drug’s psychoactive properties help people understand and resolve the issues behind their addictive behaviour.

Last year, Edward was featured in a BBC documentary helping film maker David Scott get off methadone. He has been treating people with ibogaine for four years.

But this was the first time he considered administering the treatment to someone so close to him.

Edward, 34, says: “I had a lot of resistance to it because of my emotional involvement with Louise. Here was someone I was in a very rich relationship with and who I was starting to get to know, and the idea of unlocking her psyche actually scared me quite a lot.”

Louise’s first treatment with ibogaine was unsuccessful. Her father had recently died and, after taking the drug, she was confronted with images of him. “I saw his eyes vividly in front of me,” she says. “I couldn’t really deal with that emotionally so I went back to heroin, probably to block out the pain.”

Despite this setback, a few months later Louise plucked up the courage to give the treatment a second chance and, under the watchful eye of Edward, she spent 24 hours under the effects of the drug.

Many of the accounts of those who have taken ibogaine include seeing vivid hallucinations involving real scenes from the person’s past. Tribal members taking part in rituals involving the iboga plant often describe being visited by spirits from the forest.

“It was like watching an old movie reel of your past,” Louise says. “I saw lots of scenes from my childhood, scenes where I was abused. And, for the first time, I could make sense of them. That is, I understood what had happened to me and I understood why those people had done it. I wasn’t afraid because I could talk about it with Edward as I was seeing it.”

Later, during the treatment, Louise vomited, a common side-effect. “I was sick, but I didn’t feel nauseous. It was more like I was getting rid of all the negative emotions.”

That was 18 months ago and Louise hasn’t touched heroin since. After spending half her life under the control of the drug she has finally been able to reclaim her life. And though she says the ibogaine hasn’t taken away the temptation to use heroin, it has helped put her drug use into context.

Edward, too, is careful to explain that ibogaine is not a one-hit cure for addiction, but is only effective as part of a long-term course of treatment which also includes counselling and therapy.

He says: “Ibogaine takes away your need for the drug for a few months but when it comes to examining the cause of your addictive behaviour, you’re talking about a lot of therapy. I think what ibogaine does as much as anything is provide addicts with the will to get better.”

Despite the apparently miraculous results that ibogaine seems to offer, health authorities around the world are stalling over its development as a licensed drug. Although it was licensed for trials in the US in the early 1990s, these were discontinued. In the UK it is classed as an unlicensed experimental medication. It is not an offence to possess ibogaine, but distributing it may be breaking the law, although this is a grey area.

Edward’s own treatment centre is one of only three in the UK and is the only one to provide a full holistic service. The main stumbling block seems to be the hallucinogenic properties of the drug.

“It is a totally revolutionary way of treating addiction and I think governments have a lot of difficulty getting their minds round that,” he says.

Many in the West wrongly assume that the use of mind-altering drugs is a modern trend. In fact, right back to the ancients, civilisations from as far apart as Siberia and South America have been experimenting with drugs.

It is not inconceivable that, at the same time as cultures in Asia were first learning to get high on the opium flower (from which heroin is produced), the shamans of Africa were themselves beginning to understand the unique effects of the iboga plant.

It is ironic that our desire to seek out mind-altering states provides both the cause and a potential solution to the blight of drug addiction.

For Louise at least this seems to ring true. She is now taking the first tentative steps towards putting her life back together, including enroling on a college course.

She says: “It’s great to just wake up in the morning and feel happy. That’s enough for me at the moment.”

First published in Britain’s Northern Echo newspaper on April 14, 2005