So Hormonal – essay 4 from the anthology

Short posts on each of the essays from So Hormonal – A Collection of Essays on Hormones published by Monstrous Regiment, Edinburgh. Edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson with a foreword by Karen Havelin.

The Self-Made Body, personal growth and steroids by Michael Collins

This honest and touching essay is about steroid use for bodybuilding, and a description of that sort does not usually match this topic. Michael Collins is right, I had a critical preconception about this subject, far away as it is from my own way of thinking. I knew nothing about the subject and hadn’t bothered to find out, nor do I know anyone who bodybuilds in this way. Once again (this was also the case with The Waiting Room by Hidden Ink Child) I do have some idea now, and am grateful that my outlook has expanded a little, and my understanding with it.

In his essay, Collins is saying, ‘This is me!’, and he goes to the trouble of explaining, in detail, why and how he takes steroids even though dangerous to do so. It is interesting in an ‘Oh… really?… oh!’ sort of a way – sometimes I winced and sometimes I was surprised. I was also convinced. The writing has an ease about it and there’s nothing extraneous; having read a few of these essays now, I would suggest that is the mark of the editors. What there is, as I read on, is a plea for people – his family and loved ones especially – to hear and accept him. I think we, all of us, want that, and so I finished this essay feeling compassion and a sense of shared humanity.

It really is a very important thing that Monstrous Regiment and the editors have done – to give a voice to these authors. Though you may find individuals writing about such topics in various specialist sectors of social media, they have not been collated in this way before. Publishing these writers, one at a time, would have been impressive, but to gather them together into this one volume increases their power and validates what they are saying. Of course, the activities and people written about in the book are valid in their own right, but as so many are marginalised, and it is a great service that this very small and young publishing company have done them.

So Hormonal was fully paid for by Crowd Funding, so all praise must also go to those individuals who liked the idea enough to put their private money behind it, even during a time of pandemic when so many were struggling without work and pay.

Available from The Portobello Bookshop and Lighthouse


So Hormonal – essay 3 from the anthology

Short posts on each of the essays from So Hormonal – A Collection of Essays on Hormones published by Monstrous Regiment, Edinburgh. Edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson with a foreword by Karen Havelin.

Getting Off the Back Foot with Male Fertility Health by Tyler Christie

There is a short, personal introduction to Tyler Christie’s essay about fertility which tells how he always imagined a future in which he had children and how hard it was when he realised that might not happen. He allows his vulnerability to come through and it’s a poignant read.

The remainder of the essay is about the part men and their sperm play in the fertility process. It has the tone of an informative website, and it soon becomes apparent that he and his wife have set up an organisation, Parla, to provide support and advocacy for those who need it.

This little-known subject deserves such attention and it is admirable that the author puts his hand up and takes responsibility, on behalf of men in general. As he acknowledges, it is commonly assumed that women and their bodies are at the centre of fertility issues, so this is a refreshing and honest approach. There are useful statistics and practical tips, and the piece will undoubtedly raise awareness.

Available from The Portobello Bookshop and Lighthouse

So Hormonal – essay 2 from the anthology

Short posts on each of the essays from So Hormonal – A Collection of Essays on Hormones published by Monstrous Regiment, Edinburgh. Edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson with a foreword by Karen Havelin.

The Waiting Room by Hidden Ink Child

From a no woman’s land comes this heartfelt essay from someone with a male gender presentation who must suffer the ignominy of sitting in waiting rooms labelled ‘Women’s Health’ because he has endometriosis. Constantly faced with places which are unwelcoming (although sometimes the people are great – a big thankyou to that nurse who gave you a hug) the author must choose to explain or just sit there feeling ‘Me and my uterus do not exist in this space.’ (p14)

Examining a range of experiences from different angles, the reader can feel the distress and justified anger, but there is enough distance to be able to think about it at the same time – I really sat up when it became clear that the change in the doctor’s response to pain (and therefore to giving pain killers) was because of presenting as male, not female.

This essay is essential reading for people like me who cannot know what it’s like, but are ready to empathise. Now I do have some idea because I can hear about it in Hidden Ink Child’s own voice. I hope we don’t have to wait too long before the rest of the NHS and others catch up.

Available from The Portobello Bookshop and Lighthouse

So Hormonal – essay 1 from the anthology

Short posts on each of the essays from So Hormonal – A Collection of Essays on Hormones published by Monstrous Regiment, Edinburgh edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson with a foreword by Karen Havelin

No Country for Neurodivergent Women, Addressing Undiagnosed ADHD and Cluster Headaches by Donna Alexander

There’s a great mix of objective fact and subjective sharing in this piece – I learned a lot, felt both informed and sympathetic, without once feeling obligated to pity. In writing like this, particularly in terms of identifying a cause for these two challenging hormonal disorders, it’s hard to find a balance between chemistry and upbringing, but Alexander achieves it. Ireland doesn’t come out so well, but things seem to be moving in the right direction. Using a well-known TV programme and two equally famous films to illustrate, makes it all the more approachable, and anyway it is not bleak as there is subtle humour in both the choice of language and anecdotes. There are some sweet phrases – on p. 5 she describes her childhood den behind the sofa as ‘a cradle in the absence of comfort’ – and the writing is silky smooth.

Donna Alexander is @americasstudies on twitter

Available from The Portobello Bookshop and Lighthouse

Circe – Madeline Miller

Book Review of Circe by Madeline Miller, published by Bloomsbury in 2018 (my copy 2019).

I asked myself, ‘Shall I discipline myself to write my own words this morning as planned, or write about hers?’ Having just finished this book (333 pages, it took me 3 days to read), I am full up with her voice, so hers take precedence and maybe, in doing that, I will free my own.

Circe is a tale of Everywoman, and you don’t hear that phrase very often.

Circe is not wrought of clever poetry, but is consummate storytelling. Being a Classics scholar, Madeline Miller will know the famous texts inside out: Homer’s Iliad (try Emily Wilson’s translation), and the two Electra, by Sophocles and Euripedes, for example. In this book, she has embodied the bard and found her way to the page with it. Born in America in 1978, her first book, The Song of Achilles, was the winner of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2012, the same year it was published. Circe, too, won awards, The Red Tentacle being the most enticingly named, an American Library Association Alex Award. She describes herself as ‘a Latin and Greek teacher, director of Shakespeare plays’, and there is something good about knowing she was a tutor to high school students for so long. In her acknowledgements, she thanks them for engaging ‘passionately with these ancient stories’ and stopping to tell her about it.

The renowned stories spin, one after the other, familiar and yet not, because they are spun from the female point of view (as much, that is, as any woman can when she is born into a male world). Contrasting the eternal with the everyday, opposing everlasting life with mortality, and pitting struggle and war against the acceptance of ‘a simple mending of the world’ with herbs and carpentry, the author knits her threads ever quicker as the tale unwinds. This retelling does not have the sound of epic adventures told by a traveller, but an altogether more intimate, late-at-night uttering, by crone to virgin, in preparation for womanhood.

I felt I could hear this enduring, female voice speaking through Miller, either that or she is a very wise woman for her years. It seemed as if I was hearing what I have read about: that once a true writer has identified a character and started to ‘talk’ with its voice, it then continues to speak its truths and knowledge through her, a knowing which is deeper than her own. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about stories needing someone to tell them, that when they come to you, you must serve them, allow them to be told. That made sense when I read this book.

Miller throws every Greek God and Goddess that you have ever heard of, and more, into the mix, however, at root it revolves around Circe, daughter of Helios (the sun) who, of course, being male, is the one who we more usually worship. Witch, lover, daughter and mother, Circe cannot die or age and this is a magnificent device allowing Miller to entice us through the seven ages of woman one by one, slowly learning as she goes. Like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Circe gets another shot, and another, and …. well I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that her power is hard-won. Against all odds, she finds she can subvert this very mechanism because she has proved that she can live through everything an earthling’s life involves: birth, joy, disappointment, hurt, and grief, and can therefore finally face the ultimate challenge.

Recently, I have been submerged in loss (I lead workshops and have just written a book about it), so it was perhaps inevitable that those were the parts which affected me the most. I wept with recognition when Circe realised that she had to let go of her child. And be glad for him. Oh, my mother-heart broke again because I too longed for children, bore them, became completely immersed in them and then gave them to the world never to return. (And yes, that is a dramatic turn of phrase, but here is the magic of storytelling – it gives us a universal language with which to speak about the parts of humanity which are known by all, but so often unspoken.)

255px-Angelica Kauffmann, Circe enticing Odysseus
Circe enticing Odysseus by Angelica Kaufmann

I did resist, I will be honest. I didn’t want to read of Circe’s faults and mistakes, only of her spells, defiances and transformations (what woman would not want to find such a delicious way to deal with the men who rape her). I railed to my own daughter when I had finished the part with Odysseus, of how Circe listened to him, and pandered to him, and healed him, or tried to. Then again, I did know, who of us hasn’t tried that? But on I read. Why? Because I sensed that Circe was looking for a way to know and befriend herself, to throw off her inheritance. (As am I. As are we all?) And then it came:

‘I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.’

We can choose, Circe said to me, we can let go of the roles we have been handed by our parents and ancestors. If we can face all the things that life throws at us and live, then we have the strength we need to choose to be ourselves.

Now am I ready to write?

Electra 1869_Frederic_Leighton_-_Electra_at_the_Tomb_of_Agamemnon
Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by Frederick Leighton

You may also be interested in The Long Path to Wisdom – a collection of Tales from Burma by Jan-Philipp Sendker

How women are making the classics their own – Guardian article (accessed 27.1.20)

Death and Loss in Shiatsu Practice: A Guide to Holistic Bodywork in Palliative Care

Written by Tamsin Grainger (FwSS T). Published by Singing Dragon on August 21 2020. Available to buy now in paper or kindle formats – see link below

Here is a link to an interview with Carola Beresford-Cooke about the book on YouTube (23 mins)

Here is a shorter video with information about the contents of the book, also from YouTube (3 mins)

Richard Reoch wrote ‘this meticulous book is a work of love’ in his foreword to the book. Richard is author of Dying Well.

Who is this book for?

This guide is for Shiatsu and other complementary therapists, especially bodyworkers. It is also for those who are looking after, or working with people who are grieving, facing a life-threatening diagnosis, or working in end-of-life and palliative care. It covers the private and public sectors, and so is appropriate for physiotherapists, doctors and other careworkers. It is for those who are interested in the marriage of CAM and allopathic medicine, or who want to understand more about how both approaches can sit happily side-by-side for the benefit of patients. Many parts are relevant to people who work as self-employed therapists or counsellors (for example, the legal and administrative aspects of preparing for your death and caring for your clients in that eventuality; and the self-care necessary to support you in carrying out this, sometimes emotionally stressful work). Additionally, if you are curious about finding a holistic way to look after yourself or your loved ones when they are dealing with loss or preparing for a Good Death, this book will give you information about the nature and benefit of Shiatsu and other complementary therapies, which may be of interest.

Is it just for UK practitioners?

No, it uses statistics and information pertinent to the US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the UK.

Some examples of ritual and traditions, from the past and across the world, are used for inspiration.

Japanese funeral setting. Picture credit: Plaza Homes

What is covered in this book?

There are sections on how change of all sorts can involve grief: moving house, breaking up with a lover, getting older; on dicing with death through our everyday behaviour and activities; on loss and bereavement; about the meaning of touch where grief and loss are concerned; the variety of beliefs different people have about death; suicide and mental health; the language we use to describe and communicate about this subject; working in extreme life/death traumatic situations; how death affects all ages differently; and how we support ourselves and others who are living through the death of babies, parents, partners, children and older people.

There are chapters on:

  • Theory – Chinese and Japanese Medicine, and the cycle of life
  • The client – types of people we come across who are dealing with death or the fear of it
  • The practitioner – practical matters like preparing your clients for your own death (client notes, your digital will), and spiritual ones (with a section on self-care: how we all need R.E.S.T)
  • The client-practitioner relationship – boundaries in this deep work, listening, the philosophy of dying, and love
  • Working in the NHS and other primary care settings including working in teams with other healthcare professionals
  • An extensive bibliography which also details websites, blogs, films, and much more
  • There is a section for teachers with lesson plans for including death and related subjects in the training curriculum, dealing with dying students, and teaching when you yourself are grieving
  • Finally, there are some exercises (physical and mental) and meditations (with diagrams and photos) for practitioners who want to develop their chi for this work, engage with CPD (continuing professional development), and tackle these subjects in small community or study groups

Death and Loss in Shiatsu Practice shares knowledge from the author and others who have many years of experience in this field.

About the author Tamsin Grainger
You can pre-pre-order now from Amazon

Marram – Leonie Charlton

A review of Marram, Memories of sea and spider-silk, non-fiction by Leonie Charlton published by Sandstone Press

Marram, memories of sea and spider-silk would have made a great Xmas gift! Published by Sandstone Press, it is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton and her friend’s ride on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship (‘I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken’). Charlton takes a bag of her beads on the journey, and leaves them in nooks as she meanders the ‘necklace’, ‘strung on streams of salt and fresh water’.

Marram grass growing beside the sea, not in the Outer Hebrides in this instance, but the east neuk of Fife

The carefully chosen language, the delicacy of description, is one great strength of this travelogue – it invites the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes us to slow to a walking pace and admire the ’empty, sun-bleached snail shells’ at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which ‘serrated the air with their cries’. Marram is full of colour: ‘the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills’; a drake Mallard, a ‘startle of tourmaline’; the ‘gold-gilt ‘of the title’s grass; and tones of dappled grey and cream dun taken from the coats of their four-legged friends. Indeed, for those who love things equestrian, there are many parts which will delight. Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation, intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history – who knew that horses came to Scotland with the Spanish Armada, staying and enriching the local breeds?

‘a pilgrimage of love and personal sea-change’ p. xv

With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether Shepherdian * disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.

Which it is! We are pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of some serious difficulty all four characters encounter and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds you to go off and explore.

*Nan Shepherd Scottish writer best known for ‘The Living Mountain’, a collection of essays about walking and living in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

Marram will be published on 19 March 2020

Have you read this? Please leave a comment and tell me what you thought.

To the Island of Tides – Alistair Moffat


A pilgrimage, by its nature, is a personal journey of discovery as well as a geographical and historical trek. In To the Island of Tides, Alistair Moffat follows in the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert (634 – 687); monk, bishop and hermit. From the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Moffat endures a broken rib and faces some deep familial sadness as he immerses himself in the life and times of this medieval holy man.

Written in a smooth and jaunty style, the book’s basic timeline mirrors Moffat’s route from his inland home to the sea, and Cuthbert’s intriguing life of politics and worship from birth to death. In the same way that this is not a continuous walk, rather an interrupted series of day trips with a week’s retreat towards the end, so there are many textual asides: lush scenic descriptions, divers detailed accounts of battles (Flodden et al), and involved analyses of Latin place names interspersed throughout. The writing shines when bringing the Lindisfarne Gospels and The Great Tapestry of Scotland to life.

This book is brimful of liturgical references, despite his oft mentioned atheism, and his own search for succour from painful public and private events is woven into the story in sometimes uncomfortable and exposing detail. Going to some lengths to get inside Cuthbert’s head and heart, he scrambles up shifting sand dunes and under barbed wire fences before seeming to find some peace through his first experience of solitary contemplation on Lindisfarne.

Author of some twenty books, Moffat’s The Hidden Ways (Canongate 2018) was a vehicle for sharing his excitement in uncovering lost paths, and he utilises the same dogged skills in To the Island of Tides. Quoting from eighth century primary sources, he steers a fine line between facts, storytelling, anecdote and conjecture – after all St Cuthbert lived a long time ago. This tome is well researched; part autobiography (his family and ancestors play a strong role), and part paean to the spirit of the unnoticed: “until the coming of the census in the middle of the nineteenth century, the voices of others are largely silent. The fields … seem .. to remember their people, those who tended them.”
This pilgrimage incorporates local lore and biblical references, touching self discovery and a Saint’s life. Above all it is a homage to the importance of family and of belonging.

Review originally published by The Wee Review.

Published by Canonngate Books August 2019

Moder Dy – Roseanne Watt

Moder Dy (Mother Wave) by Roseanne Watt


Moder Dy is from the Shetland dialect referring to the mother wave, an underswell which local fishermen steer by, supposedly always leading them home. And home is a major theme of this slim volume of poetry by Roseanne Watt, poet, musician and filmmaker. Born on the furthest shores of Scotland, this is Watt’s debut collection and the deserved winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award 2018. After studying far away at the University of Stirling for her PhD where she was supervised by Kathleen Jamie, whose own evocative essays in Findings have a similar air of quiet watching, Watt’s poems are like droplets of her homeland.

This collection is a moder dy itself, an undercurrent drifting the reader northwards to unknown lands. Divided into three sections, these poems have a weightlessness about them, like an Iceland Gull landing on spindly legs in a high wind. The first section, Stoal an old story, elucidates details: patterns of lichen on rock in Lichen Leid; the “unfolding into air” of the heron and “slud-light, the space between rain showers” in Haegri.

Roseanne Watt
Roseanne Watt – poet, musician, filmmaker

In the second, Sjusamillabakka, between the sea and the shore, the choice mix of English and Shetlandic pearls continues. Listen to the lovely lilt of Christine De Luca, an established Shetland poet, before reading, so as to have the accent in mind. At first it’s a mild nuisance having to look up words in the glossary at the back. That is, until you are rewarded with the richness of translation. Take Akker for example, about objects which no longer have life in them: “I thieve such pieces on slockit days when words leave me at a loss”. Slockit means ‘extinguished, as of a light’, and on returning from the back of the book to reread the verse at hand, an immediate visual image appeared of Watt sitting at her desk searching for verbal illumination on a dull day.

Simple fields and sea on Scotland's most northern shores
Unst, Shetland

Throughout, there are pools of white page-space balancing the sparse lines, reminiscent of Watt’s native scenery of rolling turf and mirror-surfaced lagoons. In Paddock Stöls, the rightset, third line has a gap at the beginning where the reader’s ears strain before “listening-in”, the fourth and fifth lines have blanks for searching before “Look” and again “there!” Blinnd-moorie (an extreme snowstorm) starts in black ink-type, but fades to the faintest grey of winter breath dissolving into a paper whiteout.

Very simple Shetlandic dwelling in remote area
Textile Museum, Böd of Gremister, Shetland

Not only are wildlife and landscape, weather and sea treated with a buoyant sensibility, but there is an emotional consciousness too. In Fledgling, Watt hangs back and watches as another stoops and cups a sparrow in hand: “a windswept heart made manifest; feather light and hollow…”. There is a palpable grief in Migration Day: “opening again, like skin remembering wounds”, and real heartbreak in The Diagnosis, but there is also the third and final chapter, Kokkel the compass, which guides one along the coast of this lingering melancholy and steers a safe passage home to the heart of things.

Highly decorated bus shelter with memorabilia from around the world
The world’s most northerly bus stop on Unst, Shetland

Watt is also the poetry editor for the online literary magazine, The Island Review, and her films (seen on Tumblr) are beautiful visual poems.

Other beautiful words: lomm – the change in colour of the sea when fish swim underneath; skerries rocks

Marjolein is a Shetlandic comedian and she shares some of her favourite words from the dialect on youtube – both enjoyable and informative.

Featured landscape photos by Isobel Cockburn. Title image Uyeasound, Shetland

The Spellbinders

by Aleardo Zanghellini published by Lethe Press. 3 stars

The Spellbinders is an historical novel set between 1299 and the early 1330s which spans the life (and some) of Edward II, King of England and his loves. Penned by Eleardo Zanghellini in 2018, an Italian born professor of Law and Social Theory at Reading Law School, this is his first novel although he has previously written The Sexual Constitution of Political Authority.

It is a quick read, broken into short sections which move back and forth in time, and there is a large cast with a broad setting which includes the vales of Scotland. Curly flourishes head all 334 pages with the name of the author on every left one – The Spellbinders is perhaps hinting at the design of the Renaissance manuscript.

The monarch Edward, who came to the throne at the tender age of 22, is renowned as ‘England’s most infamous homosexual prince’ (Lethe Press). Despite his marriage to Isabella of France aged 12 years, the book’s joint hero is actually Piers Gaveston, common soldier from across the Channel, whom Edward made second most important gent in the land.

As we have come to expect from the bulk of the factual information surviving from those Medieval times, there is a great deal of political debate between Earls and other men jostling for power. However, taking equal place in the narrative are the erotic exploits of Edward, Piers and, after the latter’s violent murder, those of Lord Audley and Hugh Damory the Young Dispenser. We do learn about the naive and accepting Isabella; Margaret the very practical King’s cousin who was married to Gaveston; of Pembroke and Lancaster, but it’s the graphic sex which takes centre stage.

Apparently as true to real life as possible, Zanghellini, in the tradition of historical writers, imagines the unknown details and pens them with relish, introducing a useful hidden corridor and other devices to link the famous events and add atmosphere. He relishes physical description (“the Younger Dispenser: fiery-haired and good-looking in a base, brutish sort of way – which meant not good-looking at all, really.” ) and there is a seer with a curse as well as the ghost of a monk with self-professed “woman’s hands” who stitches Gaveston’s head back on and embalms him. He has clearly researched the flora, costume and typical pets of the day, with many a gilly flower, and phrases such as “a mohair cape about her shoulders” and, “‘a camel’, gasped Isabella. ‘What’s to love about a camel, dear husband?'”

This is oerhaps a book for reading on the train or by the poolside.