These days I spend a lot of time in my head, playing with ideas. I used to think naively that writing was about sitting down and making the words flow but actually the most time-consuming part is working out how to solve various problems—what angle to take, how to structure the story, what to include, and crucially if you are not to bore your reader, what to leave out. This is all wonderfully absorbing but the downside is that with so much mental stimulation it’s easy to neglect the physical world.
The first time I gave proper attention to this thought was about four years ago when I was in shreds at the end of my marriage. I had some sessions with a counsellor and during one of these she suggested I spend time focussing on the sensual side of life. And she was wise—moments of taking in the smell of the roses in the garden, the taste of a juicy nectarine, or the sound of birdsong in the park, brought brief relief. They provided some escape from the repetitive thoughts that went round and round in my head as I tried to make sense of what had happened and to adjust to it.
When my marriage finally shuddered to an end in court I tested out my new, raw state of independence by having a day alone in London. I did something to stimulate each sense as a symbol of being alive and ready to face a different path. At the National Portrait Gallery I lingered amongst entries to the annual portrait competition. Some made me smile, others were poignant. Such a mix of lives ranging from two elderly women having their hair done, to an impoverished waitress in a South African township cafe. They stared out at me and I escaped briefly into many different worlds.
Then I walked to Paul A Young’s Soho chocolate shop. He pushes the boundaries with extraordinary flavour combinations…sea salted caramel with cigar leaves…raspberry and rose vodka…ginger pig black pudding, sourdough and rye whiskey…goats cheese, rosemary and lemon… The assistant offered me a sample. It was quite simply the best truffle I had ever tasted; dark and velvety with a hint of salt. I groaned Harry and Sally style, and she backed away nervously. Later, I sniffed 1930s perfumes whilst discovering some inter-war social history in one of Odette Toilette’s engaging talks. A swim at Marshall Street’s art-deco baths came next and I tried to concentrate on the cool water rushing over my bare arms and legs. It was welcome on a sultry city day. And to round it all off, I sat in a pew at St Martin-in-the-Fields whilst a passionate, long-haired violinist bowed Vivaldi, and reflections of candlelight cascaded in the windows. It was a perfectly distracting, perfectly rounded day to mark the start of my new life. But grieving is not easily cast aside and the next day I was frustrated to find myself crying in despair at the supermarket checkout.
There were reasons to be cheerful, though, and one in particular was a man I met for the first time under the clock at Waterloo. We’d been introduced via email by a thoughtful mutual friend and I was nervous at this first date in thirty years. I tried to stay cool and present myself as a woman of the world but within minutes I’d blown it. Instead of leading us confidently towards Waterloo Bridge and the lunch he’d booked, I led us confidently into a dustbin area round the back of the station.
Things progressed tentatively but positively and after a couple of birthdays together I gave him a present of a five senses day in London: a guided walk around Chelsea’s Arts and Crafts architecture; spectacular food at Borough Market; choosing a new aftershave at Jo Malone on Sloane Street (nutmeg and ginger); an indulgent afternoon at Ironmonger Row spa, and a balmy outdoor performance of Porgy and Bess in Regent’s Park.
The day was such a success that we had a return match for Christmas. This time with 1960s perfume in another of Odette Toilette’s social history talks—hippie patchouli, Kennedy, bachelor girls, and aspirational advertising. Then there was a giddy view of London from the top of the Shard, and later, cocktails at the Ice Bar. The walls are frozen and it’s so cold that they give you insulated cloaks to wear, and gloves to hold the chunks of ice that serve as glasses. We took in the sharp, hot, satisfying flavours of Peruvian food at Ceviche in Soho and then danced in Camden’s Jazz Café as Yolanda Brown played reggae-influenced jazz—a beautiful young woman in a short skirt, totally absorbed in playing her smoky saxophone. I knew my companion would enjoy that.
And now, several years later, I’m on holiday in Guernsey. Relaxing after a hectic few months and once again trying to make sure I notice at least some of what my senses feed me. There’s the crunch of the pale sands, the fruity sweetness of mango sorbet licked in the cone until my tongue is rough like a cat, the wide open island sunshine reflected from the water all around, the elusive scent of the hedgerow honeysuckle, and best of all—the feel of my new husband’s hand in mine.