Stepping through the arched wooden doors is something akin to entering an idiosyncratic and possibly clandestine church. Men and women attired in rumpled linen and ergonomic sandals move purposefully through the hallways. Overhead, the ceilings rise and fall in sculptural double curves. The walls are daubed a shimmering, ethereal peach, and on them hang intricate coloured tapestries depicting scenes of mystic import. The leaded windows taper themselves elegantly into leaf shapes. Everywhere is the tangy smell of beeswax polish, unless lunchtime is approaching, when this is overpowered by the unmistakable odour of biodynamic beans. Sometimes voices echo down the flowing central staircase in medieval plainchant or in Celtic folk song. It doesn’t take long to realise there are no computers.

This is the headquarters of the Rudolf Steiner movement, and I'm here because I’ve decided, on a directionless whim, to train as a teacher in their alternative school system. I have almost no knowledge of anthroposophy (Steiner’s esoteric philosophy slash quasi-religion) beyond a book by the former bass player of Blondie that I’ve recently ordered from Amazon. There are multiple red flags in the bass player's book to suggest that a profession based on what Steiner called his ‘spiritual science’ might not be an ideal fit — references to Rosicrucianism, to repeated earth lives, to the lost kingdoms of Lemuria and Atlantis — and I’ve blithely paged past every one of them. At the interview, I’m asked how I feel about angels. I mumble something about keeping an open mind and get out my cheque book.


I learned to walk in a village, not far from Zurich, which has a river running through it and whose name means smooth fields. I was nineteen months, a late developer. Gripping the bars of my grandfather’s crib, I hauled myself upright and took my first steps. Great Aunt Lotte clapped. Grandfather’s crib stood in the smallest bedroom of a big pink house with a redcurrant orchard, the first on its street. Before the house: just fields. Smooth ones.

A maple staircase led to the attic, where bygone playthings waited in corners. One summer, I tugged out a china doll by her leg. She had no arms, so Lotte sewed a special dress to mask the deficiency. For three weeks I carried her everywhere, like a talisman, and when it was time to leave I tucked her into a bed I’d fashioned from a shoe box. Some years later, a new family moved into the pink house. They tarmacked over the orchard and installed a carport.


One time I held hands with Amy Winehouse. I never knew her but I felt like I did. She was everybody’s cousin’s cousin, old family friend. At a gig in the back room of the Dublin Castle, I elbowed my way to the front. She’d just got engaged and was shouting about her ring, already kind of shambolic.

Amy held out her hand and I held out mine. I like your bag, she said. It was orange and plastic, a faux 1970s aviation carry-on, so probably she didn’t mean it. When she died, I was babysitting two sad little girls down the road from where she’d lived. The girls kept asking to see the house and the flowers. I didn’t take them.

Sexy Sue

The beach is bitterly cold. Residents have seen to it that shops along the seafront are banned, and so there are none. Instead, a solitary chip van parked up on a patch of concrete is doing booming business. A card taped to a tip jar on the counter wishes patrons a Merry Christmas from Sexy Sue. When they finally come, the chips are steaming but soggy and we smother them in ketchup from an oversized dispenser misleadingly labelled Heinz. A family of nine has set up a ring of camping chairs, where they sit and sip on polystyrene cups of Bovril. Overhead, a drone buzzes.

A dozen memorial benches dot the waterside, some wreathed in holly or with rotting flowers disintegrating gently into their cellophane wrappers. Breathe in the ozone! reads a plaque. We eat our chips in the car.


Last time I got my head cut open, about the only thing I noticed was the pair of dumpy wooden swing doors to the operating theatre. They seemed to me splintery, unsanded, and onto each was stencilled a quartet of inscrutable, rune-like figures. Set against the mint and stainless steel of the rest of the place the doors were incongruous, a hangover from a previous age, when surgery was performed with rusty fire hooks and zero anaesthetic. I shuffled past in my disposable slippers.