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Emptying self to listen

Posted by Simon Parke, 20 October 2017, 6.05am

There are many aides to listening.

One of them is the ability to self-empty…or de-create ourselves.

We can’t suddenly stop being who we are, of course; and sometimes, who we are is our genius.

But to listen to someone, to create that magic space, there has to be some de-creation of ourselves, some letting go of our story, because our life narrative is not theirs.

A simple example might be if we had an abusive father, then all father issues are liable to ring loud bells for us.

Without some self-emptying, we might then impose our narrative on those we listen to.

We dump our firm beliefs and unresolved issues on their front lawn; and can almost live our lives through them vicariously.

And inappropriately.

‘Did you take my advice?’

Self-emptying is concerned with keeping the listening space free of the pollution that is my own insecure narrative; which can be insistent and pushy.

Listening has been described as someone going into a house and describing the place room by room to you on the phone, while you stand outside.

You can’t see anything, you aren’t there, you can’t instruct; you can only ask questions.

But then one insightful question may well linger long after my ‘helpful’ advice is forgotten.

There are many aides to listening, and one is the process of self-emptying which frees the space for the other person’s story.

And notes the moments when reactions are triggered in us, and our own issues press for attention.

With a few deep breaths, I let go of my agenda; and free space for theirs.

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On being conscious

Posted by Simon Parke, 18 October 2017, 5.51am

Consciousness…it’s a rare bird.

Sometimes some people are conscious.

Though in most of us, it’s rather partial.

To be conscious is to be one self… without a confusion of other selves.

RD Laing spoke of our personality as ‘a system of false selves.’

But beyond this confusion is one self… and when we are here, we are conscious.

Our personality is not for consciousness; rather, it’s a chaotic gathering of psychic wounds and defences around the wounds.

Perhaps we have a sad part and a part insisting the sad part isn’t sad.

Or an angry part and another part repressing the angry part saying it shouldn’t be angry.

Or an anxious part and another part saying it’s ridiculous to be anxious.

We have wounds, and walls around the wounds… and walls around the walls.

Some have so many walls, they’ve long forgotten the wounds they protect; they just know they protect something they don’t ever want to see or hear of again.

There are rumours of bad things in the past, feelings reckoned inappropriate… the dull hearsay of terror.

And around them gather our defences and false identities; and we’ll come for anyone who threatens them.

So much to protect! So much to defend!

...and some way from consciousness.

But beyond the social debris people leave with us each day; beyond the thoughts, emotions and tensions left lodged in our being…for this is not who we are…

And beyond the psychic cluster that is our own gallery of thoughts, memories and images around our identity…for neither is this who we are…

Is a different space, beyond our thoughts, behind our thoughts, a space of clarity and stillness like blue sky around a mountain top.

You may well have been there.

And into this space, with delight, springs the question ‘And what is me?’

Nothing here is recognizable by memory, for this space exists entirely in the present.

It is quite without a sense of self, and exists without commentary or inner dialogue.

No walls within sight, nothing to protect, nothing to defend.

Simplicity of perception, simplicity of presence.

Here is consciousness, a space aware of thoughts and feelings passing through, but unattached to any them.

Here we are a witness to everything in the field of vision…but not a chattering commentator.

We arrive in this space as we peel away the social debris of the day; and allow our thought-grasping identity to dissolve like mist in the sun.

We might arrive here on the train.

Or in a meeting.

Or as we sit.

One self.


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This death bed scene

Posted by Simon Parke, 17 October 2017, 5.37pm

We face more death now; but many of us face it less supported by meaning.

We cannot avoid death, even if we wish to.

The death of those we know, and maybe love; but more frequently, celebrity deaths on social media.

Or bombed city deaths on the news…massacre deaths, hurricane deaths.

So much mourning to be done; yet so little meaning to bolster us when our positivity falters, and fear dances into view.

We dare not express sadness at our loss, for sadness is a bottomless well and who will pull us out?

And anyway, there’ll be more deaths tomorrow, plenty of them.

And the last thing we wish to believe is that everything is out of control.

So instead, when someone dies, we celebrate their life…determinedly.

‘He wouldn’t have wanted us to be glum! He’d want us to be having a good laugh today!’

Really? How do you know?

Perhaps we give the dead the lines we want to hear.

‘Release the balloons! And everyone to wear pink!’

Though when I die, I’d like you to be sad for moment, if that is how you feel.

Wear black even…

The thing is, there’s been a changing of the priesthood when it comes to death.

Formerly led by the clergy, who spoke of love, judgement and resurrection, we are now led by the unexamined celebrities who remain.

They tell us what to think and what to feel:

‘A great comic, a great friend.’

‘A musical friend, a friend to music.’

‘An actor of immense talent, a great loss to the industry.’

But then what do we do?

In the absence of meaning, we lay flowers, we emote a little…and move distractedly on.

What else can we do?

‘A deathbed, once, was a location dense with meaning,’ writes Hilary Mantel.  ‘A room packed with the invisible presences of angels, devils, ancestors.

But now, as many of us don’t believe in an afterlife, we envisage no final justice, no ultimate meaning.’

This loss of meaning comes at an unfortunate time.

Thanks to 24-hour news, we have never been more surrounded by death; and never been less equipped to handle the screaming sense of loss.

Or our terror of non-existence.

Murder mystery, foreign executions, one-way trips to Switzerland, Scandinavian noir, cancer blogs - we’re hungry for the stories, gripped by the gothic darkness, fascinated from our sofas.

But with no hands to catch us when this little life ends, we play out a desperate game of brief grief – hysterical is allowed - and then denial.

‘Wear pink, wear pink!’

There is a rumour, of course; a rather traditional one, I grant you, that death is a beginning, not an end; a continuation of something begun, the drawing back of a veil… it’s possible.

In 1847, as the 54-year-old Henry Francis Lyte approached death, crippled by respiratory disease, he famously wrote from his Brixham parish:

‘Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.’

He wrote from his story, full of faith and illness. But his story is not yours or mine.

So we must each speak with death.

We will speak from our story, befriend the shadows, accept the terror… and come to our own tearful light.

And something is cracked, something released, meaning spills.

And with meaning comes freedom…the freedom to cry or not to cry; to wear pink or to wear black; both to care and not to care.

And with meaning comes no fear.

So we greet death on our way… until death greets us.

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Simon Bowel

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 October 2017, 6.51am

I don’t wish to limit my global reach, but there are reasons not to read any further.

To stop reading right now.

For instance, I suggest you don’t continue if you’re just tucking into a sandwich or sausage roll.

Or if you simply don’t like stuff about bodily functions, feeling there’s a place for such things… and ‘it’s the doctor’s surgery, thank you very much.’

Also, I can proceed no further without using slightly rude words.


And now, with a readership of three (an aspirational figure for me) I’d like to tell you about my bowel cancer test.

When you are sixty, a mystery DIY gift arrives in the post from the NHS.

But don’t imagine Christmas has come early.

Yes, it’s a DIY kit; but no, it isn’t a book case for the bedroom.

And the magic number is six.

There are six cardboard sticks along with a cardboard palate that a very small painter might use, with six little empty enclaves.

But these aren’t for paint; they’re for your shit; or, in this particular story, (let’s own this) my shit.

The NHS kindly wish to test me for bowel cancer, catch the signs early; and want three separate visits to the toilet recorded…for posterity.

So, how much to describe, and how much to leave to the imagination? Always an issue for the novelist.

But using two different cardboard sticks each time, you are to smear a little excrement into two of the available enclaves.

You then close the little tab, date it…and relax.

Warning for smart arses: Don’t think you can use the same shit for all six enclaves and be done with it, thank you and goodnight!

You will be found out and sent to the bottom of the class.

It has to be three different deposits…ah, how quickly I slip into euphemisms in order to avoid the terrible truth.

The NHS don’t make this easy, of course. But then no Game Show host should make it easy. There have to be rules to make it fun.

And in this particular show, (working title Bum Wrap) you can’t let the poo drop into the water, as this contaminates it and makes your crap invalid.

Instead, they suggest you catch it mid-flight/drop, either in a plastic container (probably not the kid’s sandwich box) or on toilet paper.

This may sound easy, but I have to say, it’s more challenging (and humiliating) than it appears.

But it does appear, rather self-consciously, and once it’s caught – pray for a firm stool - it is cardboard stick time.

Kneeling on the floor, or ‘whatever feels comfortable’, (hah!) you use the stick scrape to a little turd into the enclave.

You then repeat this with a fresh stick, seal the tab over the two filled enclaves, and leave the toilet… hoping that no one has been filming this.

It’s a time in your life when you are quite literally ‘caught between two stools’.

Anyway, I did this for three days, very much the responsible citizen, wishing to do my best, to impress in some way.

And what happens a week or so later?

They send me another letter, with another DIY kit – cardboard sticks, enclaves et al – because I hadn’t met their requirements.


I’d wanted to be their star pupil – ‘Simon, great discharge, great execution, well done! From all of us at the Cancer Screening Programme!’

But no…the judges said that I had sent ‘too much sample’.

Too much sample? Can you be too generous?

I’d simply wished to give them as much information as the little enclave allowed.

But apparently I had given them Too Much Information.

I’ve had many rejection letters; they’re never easy.

But with every faeces you learn, and I was rather more sparing the second time around, more ‘discharge reticent’, and, well – to cut a long story short – I passed.

And I was very pleased – deliriously happy - to discover that my brother had also failed first time.

His deposits were fantastic, of course; (he was always teacher’s pet)... but he hadn’t dated the final tab.

You do need to concentrate in there.

It’s a good cause, of course.

And life is full of things I really never thought I’d be doing.

And sometimes, let’s face it, it’s shit.

P.S. I could have attached a photo, but on this occasion, I have chosen not to.

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There are other seas

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 October 2017, 6.06am

Sometimes, the decisions and lives of others impact on us in a way they don’t realise.

It feels like we are caught in the wake of their decisions, a small boat rocking in the water.

They make a choice and, maybe unknowingly, their decision affects us.

Perhaps we have to move home because of our partner’s ‘exciting new job’.

Perhaps a long-standing friend moves away.

Perhaps our children go off to uni, leaving a hole in the home.

Perhaps our partner chooses to retire earlier than we’d like and the dynamic at home changes.

Perhaps a patron who has supported us withdraws that support.

Perhaps a colleague at work goes for and gets a post we wanted.

People are taking decisions all around us and our small boat rocks in the wake.

I suppose we might panic, seek a big boat for ourselves.

‘Well, they’re not the only ones who can take decisions!’

Or, in despair we say: ‘This boat was always rubbish.’

Though it may be our small boat is fine, and the choppy water carries us to new seas we’d never have found if the steering had been left to us.

In the wake of other people’s decisions, and other people’s lives, we’ll trust our little boat on the water.

And may loosen our grip on the tiller, allow quiet drift.

It’s a beautiful boat.

And this is not the only sea.


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A well-heeled prophet

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 October 2017, 10.37am

When you sit on top of the pile, you can at last speak the truth.

On the way up, you mind your back, seek to please, play the game, keep your head down, cover your back, collude with the dysfunction, avert your eyes from the appalling.

But once at the summit – should you make it - you dare speak all the things you didn’t dare on the climb.

And so it is that Simon Henderson, headmaster of Eton, has recently spoken some simple truth.

And because truth is so rare in organisations, I couldn’t help but enjoy.

He was speaking at a conference in Knightsbridge. (Where else?) And warning parents against being deceived by the slick marketing machines used by private schools.

Mr Henderson, who took over as headmaster at the £38,000-a-year boarding school in 2015, told parents that ‘the worse the school, the glossier the brochure.’

Yep – that definitely rings bells, way beyond the world of education.

He also warned parents to be wary of schools that boast of their ‘unique selling point’.

Ah, the USP! Let us kneel for a moment in worship…

But not Mr Henderson.

‘Quite often schools pretend that something that they are doing is unique,’ he said, ‘when actually lots of other good schools are doing the same thing.’

Really? Surely not?? 

‘I would beware of the very slick marketing. In my experience there is an inverse proportion between how glossy the brochure is and how good the school is. Do be aware of the very slick marketing machine.’

As I say, it is easy to speak the truth from the top of the pile.

I don’t actually imagine he needs to do much marketing at Eton.

It’s the most famous school in the world, founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, and responsible for the education of 19 British prime ministers.

If your child isn’t registered with them at least three years before conception, then forget about it.

But I still enjoy the truth in his mouth, as he politely debunks so much insecure marketing bullshit.

Advising parents on how to choose a school for their children, he says:

‘Beware of the schools that say they are unique. Most good schools believe fundamentally in the same things.

They want young people to be happy and safe, they want them to do well academically, they believe in a broad education, they want to develop character and attitude that will help them succeed in the outside world.

‘There is nothing particularly unique about that.’

A (well-heeled) prophet has spoken…


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Theresa May's cough

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 October 2017, 11.08am

Theresa May recently had an unfortunate time with a cough.

It was quite bad… and possibly the most written about cough in history.

She’d had a cold all week apparently, throughout the conference, feeling under the weather. (And there’s a lot of that in Manchester.)

So perhaps her body was telling her something; because our body can be a great advisor, if we listen.

It was, after all, a rather difficult time for the Tories, with leadership plots bubbling under the surface…the bloke with blond hair…poor polls…Jeremy Corbyn fast becoming Jesus.

May desperately needed a ‘good speech’. 

But her body didn’t allow it.

Her body said ‘Enough’.

The only occasion I’ve had time off sick, was in the only job I’ve disliked.

I went down with something I couldn’t shake off, the like of which I’d never experienced before or since.

It’s as though my body was taking me aside, offering a word in my ear. It took me awhile to listen.

I know of someone who only gets headaches on their day-off, when the unresolved tension can come out. (It’s not allowed in the work place.)

While others know they are stressed because they get back ache; for some, that’s where it goes, every time.

For others still, cold sores appear.

The body speaks variously.

I saw a woman recently who had started to cry whenever she saw a couple holding hands. She couldn’t help herself, tears flowed; but equally, she couldn’t understand it.

‘I didn’t know what was happening! And I’m not the crying sort!’

It led her to revisit her past in a most helpful and healing way. She has stopped crying now.

But it had been her body which first waved the warning flag and suggested there were things that needed her attention.

Our body may not misbehave as publicly as the Prime Minister’s.

But it’s always worth listening.

Mind, body and spirit are not separate lands, but closely related, with much coming and going across the open borders.

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Agent Zigzag

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 October 2017, 7.19am

In WW2, people gave up whatever they were doing, and had to do something else.

So maths dons became intelligence experts; housewives found themselves in bomb factories; accountants were now soldiers, and in the case of Eddie Chapman, a crook became a spy.

In Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, we meet a man who is careless, guiltless, godless, charming, rootless, generous, brave and dangerous. And also perhaps the most remarkable double-agent of the Second World War.

Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy is the book’s strap line.

It’s not a story you could make up; it’s way more implausible even than the 2nd series of Dr Foster.

One reviewer says: ‘Had Macintyre presented this as a novel, it would have been reckoned far too unlikely.’

Testimony to this is the story of Chapman’s mate Anthony Faramus on the occupied island of Jersey. Arrested for a very minor crime, he eventually found himself in Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, truly one of the worst.

Liberated half-dead in 1945, he was unable to make a life of it in England, went to Hollywood - end ended up as Clark Gable’s butler.

As I say, you couldn’t make it up and Macintyre doesn’t need to, as we follow Chapman’s story from English criminal (he is wanted by police for a number of armed robberies) to German spy.

Fearing execution in a brutal French fortress, (inexplicably moved there from Jersey) he offers his services to the Germans; and after fairly alcoholic training, he comes to England as a Nazi spy, parachuted in over Leicestershire.

Home again - though he is a homeless soul - he gives himself up and is ‘turned’ by the British into a double-agent, ‘Agent Zigzag’.

The snobby intelligence services have mixed feelings about this crooked low-life. Though some see his value and his skills – he can charm most people - and in due course, he is sent back to Germany to learn what he can.

It is hugely dangerous, of course. There’d be no kind end if suspected, which he was; or caught, which he wasn’t.

But whose side is he really on? Both British and Germans ask the same question. While endless women continue to fall for his charm – Betty, Freda, the Norwegian Dagmar et al.

It is a story of remarkable adventures featuring a man who needed them. Here is endless courage - but it’s compulsive courage in a man who had to be on the edge, who needed daring and danger to exist.

As his handlers discovered, if life ever became calm, he became depressed.

He loved money, whether stolen or earned. He was on the payroll of both the English and German intelligence services. But he was also generous with it, seeking always to look after his women financially.

Then after the war, with the Allied victory, people went back to doing what they did before.

Women discovered they weren’t important in the work place anymore. Maths dons went back to their Cambridge common rooms. Chapman’s M15 boss changed direction completely, dropping everything to become a sheep farmer in Worcestershire.

While Chapman returned to what he knew best: being an adventurous crook.

A mad war was to be followed by a differently mad peace.

I commend to you an excellent telling of an unbelievable/sad/funny war time saga, full of fascinating characters suddenly doing things they’d never done before.

Agent Zigzag is published by Bloomsbury.


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When Eddie Mair met Amber Rudd

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 October 2017, 6.14pm

Recently, journalist Eddie Mair interviewed Home Secretary Amber Rudd on Radio 4.

Here’s how it went.

Mair: “Do you think people want Bernard Manning as Foreign Secretary?”

Rudd: “I don’t quite agree with that approach. I think the Foreign Secretary has an important job to do, and he’ll be getting on with doing it.”

Mair: ″I want to ask you about Theresa May’s judgement in appointing and keeping Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. As you know, he said last night the Libyan city Sirte could be the new Dubai, adding ‘all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away’. He hasn’t apologised, why doesn’t she sack him?”

Rudd: “The Prime minister can appoint her own Cabinet. We know that. Boris has set out his further explanation of why ...”

Mair:  “No, he hasn’t. He has merely criticised the critics.”

Rudd: “He has set out his view on the situation on Sirte, he has expanded on it.”

Mair: “He said it’s a shame people who have no idea about Libya want to play politics.”

Rudd: “I think he said a bit more than that.”

Mair:  “Well, I can read the rest of the quote, but he has not apologised for it.”

Rudd: “I didn’t suggest he had, that was your phrase. I’m not going to be drawn further down the Boris vortex, Eddie, but I’m very happy to discuss anything else on the speech and policies that I think are really relevant to people at home.”

Though Rudd now attempts to move the conversation on, Mair returns to whether May was right to appoint Johnson in the first place.

Mair: “When she appointed him, she knew he had published a poem about the Turkish Prime Minister having sex with a goat.
She knew he described President Obama as part-Kenyan.
She knew he referred to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief killing.
She knew he talked of tribal warriors in Congo breaking out in watermelon smiles.
And she knew he said Liverpool had failed to acknowledge the role - what he called - ‘drunken fans played in the Hillsborough disaster’.
I suggest to you the reason why Theresa May doesn’t sack him is because she fears a leadership challenge.
She’s prepared to send Boris Johnson out to represent the United Kingdom across the world because she wants to protect her own job.”

Rudd: “Well, those are your view Eddie ...”

Mair: “I’m suggesting it to you, what do you think?”

Rudd: “I think that Boris Johnson does a great job as Foreign Secretary in many ways. I know he has a colourful way of expressing things sometimes.”

Mair: “Colourful ...”

Rudd: “And the comments sometimes ... if other people can get upset by, are sometimes, I agree, ill-judged. But I don’t think we should condemn him from one particular issue that he might have attacked inappropriately.

Amber Rudd is dying a death with every reply, this is evident.

But my particular interest in this brilliant interview is where Mair gets to in the end.

That here is a Prime Minister turning a very blind eye to a great deal, in order to protect her self.

I sense the crucifying truth here.

And I feel the force of this appalling narrative not merely on a political level – bad enough - but on a more personal level, because I meet so many victims of such (parental/work place) behaviour.

Though perhaps most of all, and most unsettling, because I know such behaviour in myself in my past.

The blind eye turned to protect my self.

Remarkable and truthful work, Eddie. Thank you.

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Posted by Simon Parke, 05 October 2017, 5.55am

Grace arrives but not at our bidding.

So it’s no use fixing time and place and saying ‘Meet me there!’

She won’t be fixed, and won’t be told.

She just arrives, unannounced, at times one couldn’t imagine.

Like when you realise your marriage is falling apart, there on the station platform, and the terror of all that that means, and the sadness for all things lost… becomes an inexplicable peace and strength.

Or when you’re having a shit time at the airport – delays, exhaustion, baggage handlers – and you have placed in your hand the most wonderful tasting coffee (when it shouldn’t be wonderful, not here, not in this dive) and you know such pleasure and delight that you are alive, here, now.

Or you’re sitting in church, appalled by the sermon and wondering what you believe, and nothing makes sense anymore, when you kneel frustrated and judging at the altar rail and start to cry, tears of utter joy, for its like a waterfall of love is crashing down around you.

Grace doesn’t stick around, she arrives and departs; it may only be seconds, which could be reckoned hasty.

And in some ways, she changes nothing, her critics say this, leaving you just where she found you.

Though not how she found you, this is the deep magic; the textures of life forever stained.

An altering moment, small or large, one often remembered many years hence.

She just won’t be tied by our plans.

I have waited ten years for something given me in seconds.

I stop and I breathe at the memory; but cannot explain.

And I’m not privy to her plans for today; though she knows where I am, she has found me before.

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