Paul McKenna and Me 2: Sudden Change

The fact was that I had no idea what the NLP Practitioner Course was going to give me. It’s true that I did a bit of research online before I booked, and saw the slick presentation reels Paul McKenna’s company had posted on Youtube. And in the build-up to the course, I did watch more of Paul McKenna’s tv shows. But the main thing I saw him doing was helping people to overcome stresses. I thought that was pretty cool, but I didn’t see any real benefit to me for all that. I mean, was I really the kind of guy who went around helping people to overcome things?

To be honest, it’s not what I saw in myself, when I looked.

Something else gave me mixed feelings. When I looked at the showreel for the course I was about to go on and saw people handling great big tarantulas that they had once been afraid of, I just didn’t believe that that could be me. I still had in mind the startling NLP stuff that Derren Brown had done with Simon Pegg on his Mind Control show. Getting Pegg to think that he had always wanted a red BMX for his birthday, when the week before he had actually written down that he wanted a leather jacket. Now THAT was what I wanted: to be a better persuader. So, the way I saw it, I was going there to learn some skills. Not change out of all recognition.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I suppose what I didn’t get at the time was that where I was starting from wasn’t really the person I was really about. My starting point was the starting point of someone who had been knocked about by life and who felt disillusioned and unhappy. A person who didn’t really feel a sense of responsibility to others because I had been struggling to make a living for myself in my business for the last 15 years, and I believed the world was all dog eat dog. I was a person who didn’t believe that it was worth following my dreams any more, because my dreams had been torn down and trodden on. None of this was consciously stated. I wasn’t going around doing self pity to strangers like some people do. I was just a pretty cynical guy, I guess.

But not entirely cynical, otherwise I woudn’t have gone on the course. The day came for the training, and still there was this other seed of optimism in me that I guess Paul’s Change Your Life book had planted. And so I turned up on the first day of the course, and went into the lobby at the Ibis Hotel, Earl’s Court, and saw all these smart and smiley NLP Assistants, and the people milling around waiting in the foyer for the doors to open.

I did a quick mingle to see what was going on with people there. There was a guy in business whose boss was a “black belt in NLP” as he called it. This I found reassuring. It was why I was there. But there were others who were looking for something more ethereal, I noticed. People who were there because they seemed to have washed up there, with no sense of direction. As if somehow the tide had drifted them into the Ibis, and they were blinking around themselves looking lost and uncertain.

Others wanted to be life coaches – a phrase which I had poured scorn on when I had first heard it a few months before: redolent as it was with what I considered to be an overly American and pointless occupation. I imagined someone standing at the sidelines at an American Football match, shouting instructions to me as I stood in full football armour with visored helmet, and had conversations with my parents or spoke to business acquaintances in this crazy getup. It was a phrase that didn’t make sense to me at all.

We registered and I went into the seminar room. There was a stage in front of me, with about 400 seats stretching back from it. Was this going to be a show? A really smart-looking guy with an expensive jacket and black polo neck jumper was sitting in the chair next to the one I chose on the front row. He was in his late forties, early fifties, trim and lean. I sat down and got talking with him.

“What did you come for?” I asked, trying to get my range on these people around me.

He looked at me in a friendly way and said: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll be here all week. I came here to get this book signed by Paul.” He held up a copy of I Can Make You Rich.” I just wanted the chance to meet him.”

I thought for a moment. Something wasn’t computing with me. This course cost well over two grand. And this guy had come here to get his book signed?

I think he caught the look on my face. “You see, the thing is, I did everything in this book, from beginning to end. I started two years ago. I am actually a fireman. And now I am a millionaire, as well.”

“But – er – how?” I asked, impressed and taken aback.

“By doing everything it says in the book over and over again. By being unrelenting in doing the NLP exercises, and making sure that you get everything in place. By changing the way you think about money.”

He explained to me that he had devised a computer programme that worked out the odds on bets, and that it somehow meant that you couldn’t lose. My cynical streak kicked in. I didn’t believe a word of it. But, he went on to add, now that he had made himself a cool million, he was looking for other people to turn into millionaires, too, as part of a programming to make more people wealthy. “It works on anything where there’s probability involved. It can be the horses or it can be the stock market. It doesn’t matter which. It always works.”

I still didn’t believe him. But he was doing something right. His Aston Martin he told me about so dreamily and his smart clothes told me that. This was a completely different reality to the one I had got used to. Was it possible? Really?

A woman sat on my lefthand side. She was pale and slim, with grey skin and a distracted look. She had pale strawberry blonde hair and a face that was drawn and tight. She kept biting her nails and looking around her, the concern on her face continuing all the time.

“God, I hope this was worth it,” she said. “God, I really hope this is worth it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She looked at me, hard. “It’s a lot of money… What if it doesn’t work?

I didn’t know what to say to that. It was a thought that had crossed my mind, too.

“Oh, it’ll be fine,” I muttered reassuringly. And before we could talk any further, music started filling the hall. It was the slightly spooky music that used to accompany the tv show The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna – a little bit ethereal, raising the adrenalin in the blood and filling the world with a sense of possibilities. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – a line from Hamlet seeming to sum up what that music was telling us. A voice announced:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Mr Paul McKenna!”

The audience burst into applause, and suddenly Paul was there, walking down the central aisle, with his arms outstretched, as if gathering up the good will from the audience. He went on stage and gave an introductory talk about what we were there to do. He explained that NLP was an amazing mind tool that could help people get more of what they wanted. He told us that we were going to go on an amazing journey over the course of the next seven days, and that there would be hypnosis involved. The audience giggled nervously, and he lampooned our fears before adding:

“Remember, you’re going to be in a room with three hypnotists for seven days… you bet you there are going to be changes in you.”

He then went on to explain that the way he taught NLP was to make sure that we can actually do it. The course wasn’t going to be a major theoretical study. “There are plenty of people out there who talk about NLP, but can’t do it,” he said. “We are interested in teaching you to drive the car, not learn how to take it apart into tiny little bits. That is not a skill that we teach. We want you to be able to actually do it, so that when you leave here at the end of the course you are a competent NLP Practitioner. We don’t need you to be able to sit with a client and tell him or her all the things you could do to help them. We want you to be able to make changes, in yourselves and others. That’s what makes our courses so special.”

His preamble went on a little longer, and then he said: “And now, I’d like you to meet someone who was my teacher, who has had a profound effect on my life, and is a great friend. He will be with you for the rest of the morning, and I will be back later. Ladies and gentlemen please put your hands together for Dr Richard Bandler. He raised his hand to welcome the newcomer.

As he did so, the opening notes to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze piped through the sound system, and an older guy walked down the central aisle.

“Richard who?” I thought to myself.

I had never heard of this guy. Paul seemed to think that he was important though, and I noticed that there were people in the room who were giving him a standing ovation.

The guy got up on stage and I took my first impression of him. It was not good. Balding, with a ponytail. Yeuk! A series of remembrances of people who had never been able to acknowledge that they were losing their hair came to mind. And then there was the leather waistcoat and black jeans. “Hoo boy,” I thought to myself as the audience seated themselves. I noticed I had crossed my arms defensively.

Richard didn’t mess around with any preamble. He looked out into the audience and said:

“Is there anyone here who has a bad memory they really want to get rid of?”

The grey-skinned nervous woman next to me shot her hand up immediately. An Asian woman on the other side of the room did the same. Richard selected them both and said: “Would you come up here, and take a seat please?”

He sat with them and did a little check. Was this memory something that was causing them difficulties in their lives? Was it safe to get rid of the memory? He asked a few questions, and then asked the Asian woman how she experienced the memory. He did a short series of mental exercises on her, then looked at her intently for a few seconds. Her head dropped on her chest as if she had fallen asleep.

Where I sat on the front row, I took a breath. This was startling. No preamble, nothing. Just a hypnotic trance from nowhere.

He turned to the grey-skinned girl and asked her similar questions. When she experienced the memory, did she make a picture? Could she think about it, now?

He got up to address the audience, and then suddenly noticed that tears were starting in her eyes. “It’s okay,” he said acting very quickly, “think about something else now.” He strode over to her at high speed and suddenly, her head fell forward as she dropped into a trance.

The following 20 minutes were eye-opening. He worked quickly and effectively with both women, turning from one to the other, and then back again. He got them doing mental exercises while they were in this apparent dream-state, and put on the most ridiculous voices. There were moments when both were chuckling in their trance.

And then, suddenly, he was done. I watched the grey-skinned woman get up from the chair. She walked across the stage and down the steps with confidence and a swagger in her step, as if she had just woken from a long, restful sleep. I noticed that all the tension had gone from her face and that her skin was no longer the awful grey it had been before. As she came and sat next to me, giving me a huge beaming smile, I noted something else. Her eyes had changed colour. They were now a vibrant, sparkling blue, instead of the dull grey they had been before she sat down.

“Oh boy,” I thought. “Oh boy. This is something I’ve got to learn to do.”

The change had already started.

Paul McKenna and Me 1: Getting Into A Pickle

I first encountered Paul McKenna as so many others did, doing hypnosis shows on the tv in the 1990s. He was an interesting phenomenon. To a young man, it all seemed pretty miraculous, the way he got people to do things without apparently knowing they were doing it. My testosterone-driven brain swam with the possibilities that this amazing “casting of spells” seemed to offer. Not all of them were wholesome. Some of them involved women and not many clothes. I was, after all, a young man, and this had fired my imagination!

But then, Paul disappeared from my consciousness. I grew up. I went on to do things. I developed a really huge view of life – a massive embracing of all its possibilities. I was wild with excitement for life.

In my early 20s I became a scriptwriter for Thames TV’s The Bill. Then I went on to university. Life bumped along nicely. I paid for my university life from the scripts I wrote for tv, and I had a grand time.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Something, somehow, got in the way. And the seeds of disaster were planted right there, at York University.

Some of it had to do with the academic approach to life. My degree was English Literature and Philosophy. I cannot now think of two subjects more likely to handicap me as a writer. Why? Because I was an instinctive writer, and whilst I enjoyed the cut and thrust of philosophy and the way that it encouraged one to order one’s thoughts, with its obsessive system building, it was really inflexible.

On the other side, the English Literature was like a long extended joke.

One of the jokes was in the complete futility of the enterprise. It was fashionable among many of the geekerati that ruled the English Department to “deconstruct” (ugly word) everything in print.

It was such a dry and pointless approach. I remember in my first week at the uni, a tutor introducing us to Othello (not personally). Discussing the speech that Othello makes after killing Desdemona, that begins: ” Oh, oh, oh… Othello…” our lecturer asked us in all earnestness why Othello prefixed his utterance with the words “Oh, oh, oh…”

I had no idea what was coming, and so I engaged with the text instinctively – and at face value:

“Because of the strength of the feeling…?” I ventured. “He is mourning and in shock.”

That seemed a pretty good answer to the “Why” question.

“Yes, but why does he say oh, oh oh?” Came the question again.

Others in the tutorial struggled to find a reason. After ten minutes of watching us floundering around, our lecturer said:

“Isn’t it because Othello begins with the letter O?”

At the time, I didn’t understand why I felt a massive wave of anger rise up through my body. A genuine sense of outrage. No, that wasn’t the answer to a “why” question. It was a description of alliteration.

I was later to discover that there would be three years of this bullshit for me to endure. Had I realised it then, I would probably have left there and then!

I look back on it now and see the English Department at York as a strange little island where survivors of the shipwreck of meaning had floated ashore clinging to the splinters of their own obsessions. In the same week that I was introduced to the nonsense of deconstructionism and Jacques Derrida* I also encountered another tutor with her own particular brand of lunacy.

This hairy woman in her 20s was meant to be teaching “approaches to mediaeval literature” in one seminar group. I do say “meant to be” advisedly. What she actually did was fire hostility and anger at every word that I, or any other male in the room said. Real, physical hostility to shut the men up, while she explained in slightly psychotic tones that the stories in Malory were all about the castration of men, and that the women were the true central characters throughout. She explained that although Malory had written the Morte D’Arthur as a man, the true magic in the story – that of women – shone through. No matter how much Malory acted as a male propagandist to cover or hide the importance of women, that single truth couldn’t be denied.

I didn’t argue with this. I found it quite an interesting way to interpret a text. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was that every time a man opened his mouth to speak, a look of rage crossed her face and she literally shouted him down. Only women were allowed to speak and be listened to in her group.

It was most peculiar, and just as with the Shakespearean deconstructionist, I felt it was an immense abuse of power – and responsibility.

The hairy tutor went on to talk about a knight in one story as a piece of meat that some magical maidens had bewitched to breed with and then slaughter. I thought this was quite amusing, and said in an offhand way. “Well, that’s not so bad: being used to breed…”

She fixed me with a pointed smile and said: “Oh, so you are on our side, then?”

Up to that point, I hadn’t even been aware that there were sides. This woman seemed to be going out of her way to install misogyny in us men. It could so easily have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each of the geekerati in the English Department was obsessed with some such monomania or other. It might have been socialism, or structuralism, or Derrida, or existentialism, or homosexuality, or the role of women – or the colour of sheep when it rains – whatever. But this obsessiveness was most definitely unhealthy. When I walked down the corridor at Langwith College where the English Department was based, I was sure that I could hear, from behind each tutor’s door, the low rumble and scraping ring of an axe being ground.

It was ridiculous. And to think – I had gone to that University to discover more about literature… To be enlightened… I didn’t stand a hope.

Between the hard inflexibility of philosophy and the whirling nonsense of English Literature, I had to steer my erratic course. These two thought processes in which I immersed myself were ultimately deeply destructive. They undermined everything that I wrote. After three years of this trash, when I put pen to paper, I found myself writing diary entries about the nature of my own identity. I actually didn’t know who I was any more.

As a reaction to this way of being, I drank a lot, and slept around a lot. I think I was trying to find something to hold on to in the night. But there’s no getting round it, that way of being was ultimately destructive, too. My choice in partners was a disaster, and when one of them turned on me and my work, criticising the episodes of The Bill I had written, from a position of no understanding of what was involved, my education was complete.

I collapsed in on myself.

I lost any desire to write. When I did put pen to paper, what I wrote was a sad parody of the joyful, exuberant writing I had been producing only a few years before. I found myself shrinking, caged by rigid thoughts, and at the same time, too neurotic to write anything in case I used the “wrong” word and was misunderstood. It was as if the education system had deliberately tried to dismantle my creative ability. Or is that me being slightly paranoid? Quite possibly. Because at the time I was a lot more than slightly paranoid, that’s for sure.

Then my mother had a stroke after emergency heart surgery, and by the late ’90s I was back at home with my folks. Things in my life had gone terribly wrong.

Life lost its lustre. I had been the youngest scriptwriter on the tv show when I had started writing for tv, and five years later, I was struggling to write a sentence.

I had no sense of direction. I felt hopeless. A six month contract with The Bill to turn out four episodes turned into a four year stretch. I had to take bar work to subsidise what should have been a lucrative line of work. I was struggling.

On top of this, my mum was deeply depressed. The stroke that she had suffered gave her massive depressed mood swings. Life at home was bad for my soul. Things were bleak.

At that time, I watched a programme on the box and saw Paul McKenna doing his thing. Changing people’s lives. I thought then of writing to him and asking if he could help my mum – to lift her out of depression and help her eyesight that had been affected by the stroke. I don’t know why, but there was a conviction in me that we would meet.

The thought came and went. I did nothing to act on it.

The years rolled by and I stabilised. This mainly happened by my getting out of writing altogether. It was a hangdog time. Waking up in the morning and looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing a failure there. It was pretty grim. I trusted no-one, I was bitter and I was angry.

I had also discovered a new skill that I really wasn’t pleased that I had: I was superb at feeling sorry for myself.

I did find that I could do other things really well. I ran a computer repair company, I taught English as a foreign language in Egypt, and I discovered that I had a knack for buying and selling old books. That final interest turned itself into a job.

So I became a bookdealer. I may not have been able to write them any more, but I was determined to be near to books somehow. There was a certain magic in old tomes. It was a kind of solace, and a little torture, every day, going into the office to see how many thousands and millions of people before me had made a living from the written word. Well, so could I. But only by proxy.

Then, one day, I got scared. I was getting close to 40, and I walked into the book fair where I was about to sell my latest acquisitions. There, I saw a lot of other dealers. Miserable old bastards with beards and sandals, smelling of pipe tobacco and wearing big woolly jumpers, and suddenly a loud voice shouted an alarm in my head:

This will be you in 25 years’ time. You will have missed your life. Where the hell did all your optimism go?!?!

It was a complete shock to me to realise that the energetic, optimistic young man I had once been had allowed himself to be sidelined in this way – to have gone down a route so far removed from what he wanted to be.

My partner at the time had been working with young people, and told me all about a new system for bringing about change in people. Coming from my overly analytical highly sceptical background, I had dismissed what she was telling me out of hand. Yet she told me that she saw the most amazing turn-arounds in people. She mentioned three letters from time to time, but in my angry state, I was determined to argue that people could be stuck forever. And so I did. And to be frank, I probably affected her view of the change work she saw going on around her. That was unfair of me.

Meanwhile, I felt powerless. Could I change my life maybe my ramping up my sales? How could I do that? One day I caught Derren Brown on the tv persuading people to do things that they would never normally do. “Well,” I thought, “maybe hypnosis would make me a better salesman…” How desperate was that?

There was no clarity in my thinking and no joined-upness. While still having these thoughts, I also knew that my drive in the bookdealing business had completely gone. For six months, my secretary had been running the business for me. And one winter’s morning, on the second of January, I walked into my office, looked at the stock of mouldering old books and made a snap decision. I rang the auction house and told them to clear me out. It was a weight off my shoulders.

But what was I to do next?

I considered again Derren Brown. Maybe that ability to influence others, maybe that was what I needed… Where could I learn this stuff?

I looked up Derren Brown and hypnosis on the web. It was then that I started to take notice of the three letters that my partner had been mentioning to me for months. They came up on the screen time and time again.


What was NLP?

It seemed to be the thing that would give me more control over other people, give me more control in the world. My approach to the subject, it’s true, came from something that was unethical, but at the time, I was desperate. I needed a better life. One that wasn’t filled with the grind of miserable old bastards in bookshops. One where I was making money.

They say that when you get to a crisis in your life you start to go back down the line of your life, in order to find the branch that went wrong. Whenever I looked up NLP or hypnosis on the web, then Paul McKenna’s name appeared. And I was reminded of my earlier conviction that I would one day meet Paul. Since he was writing books about this stuff, it was time for me to take notice.

At around this time, my girlfriend went away on holiday. Not needing to work while I lived off the proceeds of the auction house’s sale of my stock, I found myself completely free for the first time in years. I was alone in the house, and I bought Paul McKenna’s Change Your Life In Seven Days. It was a fascinating time. I gave a week over to doing nothing other than Change Your Life. Every day, I woke up, put on the stereo, slept, played the CD, did the exercises, ate, slept, listened again to the CD, and so on – doing the chapters over and over again every day.

It was really intensive. I did nothing else than the exercises that were in the book. I found it deeply relaxing. And after a few days, I found that I was a happier individual. When my girlfriend came back from holiday, I was a different person. My outlook had changed. I was happier, more easygoing, and more determined than ever to get on with the approach to life offered by Paul McKenna.

I wondered – really wondered – what would happen if I learned from the horse’s mouth this magic that he taught? What would he be like?

So I rang up and booked on a course with him.

But more of that another time…


*Interestingly, I recently explained Derrida in unclouded terms to my partner Jackie, and she said to me: “But that is just evil”. What I like about this response is that it’s a gut reaction. Jackie isn’t even religious, but she recognises a force that is ultimately life-destroying when she sees one.

Waterstone's Delight

A little while ago I decided to rise to the challenge of writing in a hundred words or fewer about something that really delighted me, so that I could upload it to the Waterstone’s Delight website. I found out about the website when I bumped into the web developers in a pub on the South Bank up in London. The website was to go live on the very next day. It meant that for a short while, my piece was the most visited on the site.

The thing I love about the idea of Waterstone’s Delight is its guiding light: that in a time when things are really grim, when no-one’s got any money and tv newsreaders keep telling you that the world is about to get blown away in a banking disaster of Apocalyptic proportions, you can still focus on the the good things in life. And the fact is, there are plenty of them.

There are golden places in your mind, stored up, filled up with moments of delight, like the honey from a gorgeous summer or top quality champagne that’s tucked away in a safe place, just waiting for you to revisit and savour again. Right there, in your noddle – all the hope and aspiration and delight you could ever possibly want. And what’s even better about what you’ve got in your head as opposed to champagne or honey, is that no matter how much you drink of it, or eat of it, there’s always more to come. You can bask in the sunlight of a single thought for a thousand years, if you’re minded to live that long. It’s better than tv.

And what’s more you don’t even have to subscribe.

So, here is my piece below. I hope you enjoy smiley

Sand And Sea

Let me tell you about the sea, and the tides. For in their movements there is a delight to be found – a gentle one as soft as sunlight on the water, that laughs like the gurgle of the ocean caressing the shore.

When the full moon comes there is a sand bank close to my house that is laid bare for just a few hours. It is a massive expanse of sand that stretches flat beneath the sky, a transitory landscape. At each appearance, the sand bank is different, its character changed with the shifting seasons, new shapes sculpted in the sand by the draining sea.

A few evenings ago, as I walked out more than a mile onto the sand bank, the sea was reflecting the dying summer sunset with a satisfaction at a job nearly completed. The season, it seemed, was putting on its woolly jumper. The last dog-ends of the summer were burning themselves out under the windless shelter of seawalls. My love and I kicked around on the sand, a lunar landscape revealed by the moon’s movements. We saw horses in the sea. Of such events are the bottled tinctures of future delight made. A potent brew.

No Matter How Bad An Idea…

A friend of mine some time ago told me about an event being held in London called “Cringe”. The idea behind the event was that when we were teenagers we wrote some pretty cringeworthy entries in our diaries that these days we would these days be really be ashamed of – and it wouldn’t be great to share that “cringey” moment with others?

As a writer (and, what’s more, a writer who filled his diaries obsessively in his teens and twenties) my friend was convinced that there must surely be stuff now that I would love to laugh about with other people.

My answer was and is now: nope, surely not. And there’s a damn good reason for it.

It’s all about what you think you are. And whether you still believe that you are a writer capable of holding grand visions. Because no matter how laughable some of the things that I said once when I was younger, no matter what daft ideas I jotted down, I know for sure that there was a spirit of something akin to inspiration moving me to write it. That somewhere, in my addled teenage brain, there was a groping towards something bigger than myself. That somewhere, I was reaching out for the sublime.

So, to stand here as an adult and laugh at myself as a child is, in some way, to mock my own aspirations to be a writer. I may have been misguided. I may have been wrong. But I was trying stuff out. I wouldn’t laugh at the efforts of my neighbour’s teenage kids in trying to express themselves. In fact, I would encourage them the very best that I could. So why on Earth would it be okay to denigrate my own attempts to write when I was a teenager? It’s not. It’s disrespectful.

But it isn’t only disrespectful. It’s also, in my eyes, defeatist. To laugh at what I wrote back then is actually to say: “Ah, well, that’s from back when I wanted to be a writer, you know. Thank goodness those days are over and I’ve grown out of it. I’ll be a section manager in a call centre instead.” And I’m sorry, I just haven’t got to that level of defeat just yet – nor do I intend to get there, ever. I still hold the goal of getting published in my eye, and the sacred flame of creativity in my heart. And what’s more I still write sentences like that last one, 25 years on. And damn good job too. Because for every 20 or 30 crap ideas, there’s a good one. And those old diaries of mine, they are a seam that I’ll work. Oh yes, for years to come.

And that’s the big reason why I, as someone who still sees himself as a writer, and still believes I have plenty more good stuff to come from this brain through these fingers, couldn’t possibly stand and mock the angry, naive, defenceless teenager that I was back then. Because in amongst all of that struggling, there is something valuable. An honesty. And a foolishness. And a drive.

And you know what? I reckon, if you’re going to be creative, none of those things is worthy of mocking.

The Beach

An unexpected rush of memories.

When I was six, shivering on the shoreline after picking my way out of the water, I remember my mother threw a towel around me. My body accepted the offering like love. The towel, I remember, was red; a faded red that had been in the family since the sixties. Later, I used it to shield myself from the eyes of other people on the beach in a self-conscious squirm to change my trunks: an activity repeated on the beaches all along the edge of the UK in a modest ritual laughable to foreigners. I can remember my sister appearing haloed by sunshine, and the sound of the sea playing in my ear. Or lying in the sun as a dog panted by and kicked sand into my face. And I remember real sandwiches. Ones with real sand in.

My parents had of a ritual of preparation for a day at the beach. It centred around what seemed, when I was young, an immense Tupperware box – perhaps 2 inches deep and 18 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I recall neat squares of Mother’s Pride – white rounds edged with brown, insanely soft, like thick tissues interspersed with layers of snot. To make the sandwiches my mother would lay in the first buttered round, then the slices of cucumber. Then she would shake salt over each round, and finally lid the sandwiches with another round. The cucumber snuggling between mattresses of bread. When I thought of that box I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the perfect fit the sandwiches made.

I liked fish paste sandwiches best. The fish paste jars were small and made me somehow think of a hexagon. They bowed out around their waistline, and when the jar was new, the lid popped when the vacuum was broken. Fish paste had to be eaten quickly. It could not be kept. Sometimes there was a soft bone in it. In any case, I really liked it.

I have to congratulate my parents now for their organisation of our trips to the beach. As a military man, Dad knew how to plan. Upon arriving early at the beach and parking at the road side, we unloaded all sorts of things from the back of the car: a sun lounger, folding chairs, towels, flasks, sandwiches, sun cream, trunks, flip-flops. The sun lounger clicked on a ratchet when you opened it, and had springs attaching the cloth to the frame. It was made in flower print: reds and yellows and black outlines and made me think of hippies, even though I didn’t really know what a hippy was. But big sunglasses and big hair – that seemed to go with those bright flowers. Sometimes, if it wasn’t set up right, one of the folding legs collapsed, and it slid and bumped forward. Very undignified. It could also be set up as a chair.

The paraphernalia of the day were carried to the beach by the whole family. I got to carry a bucket and a spade. The spade was a tiny plastic affair, in red, and the bucket was red too.

The great thing about the spade was the way the handle was strengthened with strutwork at the back. There was a matrix of plastic interconnectedness in the handle. Sand could get caught in it, which I liked, and it left patterns if you pushed it into the sand. My dad showed me how, if you filled the bucket, you could make a sandcastle. It required turning the bucket upside down and a truncated cone would come out. Sometimes the towers collapsed. My brother explained that it was all to do with the amount of water in them. I felt excited by this and I can remember giving a little gasp as I felt a quiver in my tummy at the revelation. It was a little bit of power: to build amazing things from nothing.

I got into building things with my brother. True to mediaeval design tradition, the place that was left where we dug out the sand was where we built the moat.

One mythic day at Hayling Island, all of the elements of a perfect summer’s day combined to make the most wonderful day ever. The summer, it seemed, had gone on and on and on, and the grass that had once grown in the neat little verges at the roadside, where people emptied their dogs, had gone from deep green to pale green to yellow – and then to a deeply cracked dust.

The faeces left on the verges had turned white, while others had dried out so quickly that they had become solid, like shrunken lumps of toffee, or leather.

This is how hot it was: a friend of mine, Neil Chapman, could pick these leather lumps up between his thumb and forefinger and sling them high in the air. They were whirling sausages as they sailed in the sky. It was that hot. Even the crap had given up being wet. I marvelled at those sausages, and was disgusted by them all at once, in the way that only a boy can manage.

That summer, somehow it seemed the heat would never stop. Time yawned on from one day to the next, and every day the summer brought more gorgeous heat to luxuriate in. Soon we weren’t allowed to use hose-pipes. Which meant the only place to go to cool down was the sea.

Those days seemed to spin out, a thread of golden yawns weaving themselves into an endless roll of sleepy days and snoozy weeks and soporific months – on and on. On the road where I played as a boy, I was amazed by how long my shadow grew in the halflight of endless summer evenings, and was troubled by the identical movements this flattened giant performed. Identical and yet not quite idenical. My shadow’s movements at times threw out unexpected shapes which I fancied did not quite match my own, frightening me with its mysterious otherness.

That mythic summer’s day by the sea, it seemed to me that the beach was the place where happiness resided. It was late in the summer, and the baking heat had become so inevitable that the novelty of brown skin had worn out. Older children, too, were heading to school. And so the beach was nearly empty.

It was then that I really lost myself in the act of digging channels in the sand. Building a sandcastle – an amazingly complex piece of architecture, surrounded by a hinterland of marvels, adventures and magic, which my child’s mind filled with little characters. I marvelled at the solid thickness of the walls, and watched intently as a turret was undermined by the water I had splashed in the moat. I discovered the solidifying effect of drizzling wet sand over the walls and towers – making the castle feel more solid and look more exotic. Dripped shapes slid down over the walls, making the whole construction look like it had grown there: a castle of coral, reaching upwards to the sky, a mystical organic thing, grasping up, a living building sprung from the breathing planet.

I became more and more involved in my play while the sun continued its steady movement through the sky, writing more of the long, breathless paragraph of the day.

It was a magic time. The happiest configuration of tide, wind and sun.

And the day wore on.

The sun sank through a reddening sky, and I stood, a small sunbrowned savage on the beach, marvelling at its decline – the red circle casting a crimson light over everything, as the tide withdrew down the beach. Little ripples shaped the sand, and the sun cast long shadows from them. It was then that for the first time in my life I had a sense of something deeper than I had ever felt before. Something powerful and profound moving inside my body, as if I sensed a memory of a memory, or as if I had suddenly experienced a moment of truth that spoke to me through eons. Whatever it was, it was something amazing. And I felt wonder move in my body as I looked across the sand, rising up inside of me like electricity, but subtler.

The surface of the water moved on the shallows in ways that my inexperienced eye didn’t understand, casting shadows that tricked my eye. The hot day had heated the sands and the waters laying on them, so that as I stepped in the pools or rolled in them, I felt an amazed sense of warmth, as if the water were actually bathwater. I rolled in it, spinning and splashing in sheer ecstasy. The sands were soft, my castle glowed in the red light, the waters shimmered and moved and ran around me, and for a moment I felt a sensation of completeness, an all-encompassing contentment. I wanted that single moment to stretch on forever. I had no sense of time – as if the universe, the earth, the sun, the moon, the tides could just stop and create an eternity of now. I wanted to bathe forever in that single deep sensation of joy.

There were other components to that moment of happiness. Like that fact that as far as I was concerned, my parents were entirely mine. If my sister had been on the beach earlier, she was not there now – nor was my brother. My parents were here, spreading their infinite love and joy out into the world – and lavishing it on me and me alone. This was joy: a here-and-now that was complete, comfortable, loving and warm.


And then the evening darkened a little more.

My father came to me and spoke. And when he told me that the day was over and we must go home, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of utter despair. I wept on the beach and I wept on the way home in the car. It seemed to me then that a spell had been broken, a mirror shattered. How could I ever be reunited with this sense of completeness, with being held in the lap of nature? I didn’t know what else to do or be. And so I cried. And so I mourned…

And yet, the truth remains that the golden day is brighter in my memory than the desperate night. The light is bright in my mind, the heat still caresses my skin, and I can still feel my childhood excitement, even now.

It was one of the golden moments of my childhood.

And a lesson, too.