James Phillips and the Lurchers, purveyors of party music that exposed the madness of apartheid South Africa

James PhillipsJames Phillips was one of the finest rock musicians ever to kick out the jams, but there’s a fair chance that, unless you’re a South African of a certain age, you probably haven’t heard of him.

Perhaps some day he will be more widely known as a result of Michael Cross’s magnificent documentary The Fun’s Not Over: The James Phillips Story. I truly hope so, for Phillips was the genuine article worthy of a much wider hearing.

He was a significant force in South African rock music from the late 1970s through to his death, aged 36, in 1995, yet he never ended up with any of the trappings of success. Such was the nature of a local music scene that didn’t reward those whose work went against the commercial grain.

I was lucky enough to meet Phillips once in 1993, and, as a fan who had loved his music for years and considered him a hero, was astonished by his humble existence. I’d always assumed that as the frontman of The Cherry Faced Lurchers he’d be doing all right for cash. But here he was in this small flat in Yeoville, Johannesburg, having to do shifts as a newspaper sub-editor to pay his rent.

He certainly didn’t whine about his lot, but at one point during our chat, he mentioned that his band – now simply The Lurchers – was about to release a CD, yet he couldn’t afford to buy a CD player, at that time an expensive strain of new technology. I found this strangely haunting.

I was introduced to his music through The Cherry Faced Lurchers’ album Live At Jamesons in the mid-Eighties. It was a raw recording that captured a band absolutely rocking all the way out there, hard and tight yet somehow also loose and swinging, the songs full of soul and sardonic wit. It felt like party music that also conveyed despair and anger at the madness of a very fucked-up society; this was South Africa in the dying years of apartheid.

Soon after hearing the album for the first time, I saw the band live at what was then the University of Natal in Durban. As is often the way, it was even better than the recording, viscerally loud and wild, and the whole place lurched like crazy. At one point during the show, hacking at his guitar with frenzied abandon, Phillips bust a couple strings and slashed his fingers in the process, bleeding for his art. The image has stayed with me ever since.

I left South Africa a year or so later, and Live At Jamesons was one of the albums that helped carry me through many a dark night of the soul as I struggled to adapt to life in the UK. It still has the ability to make me smile and cry and get off my arse and dance and tempt me to take up frying my brain again; that music is etched deep in my psyche and I love it.

So I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the chance to spend a couple hours with Phillips after I returned to Johannesburg for a while in the early Nineties. I’ve got a good few musical heroes, but he’s the only one I’ve had the chance to meet. We got very wasted, Continue reading →

A deeply relaxing guided meditation in which you use your breath and body to travel towards open awareness

When I first started meditating, I was strongly against the idea of guided meditations. I believed quite rigidly that someone else’s voice added too much noise to the practice. In more recent years, however, I’ve come round to the idea, and even occasionally offer guided meditations in my yoga classes.

Here’s one in which I try to help you enter a state of deep relaxation by using your breath and body as vehicles of meditation, before settling into open awareness. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, I invite you to try it. Taking the time to relax deeply can be a powerful tonic for both mind and body.

I use some of the body-scanning techniques of yoga nidra – often described as meaning “yoga sleep” – but none of the imagery-based or semi-religious elements of that practice. This is a wholly secular meditation, suitable for anyone wanting to relax and explore the nature of consciousness.

Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor working in East London; more information here.

Excellent restaurants in Florence that show it’s possible to deliver a vegan take on classic Italian cuisine

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Simple soul food: Shanti Bomb and chips, ravioli, and salad at Dolce Vegan in Florence

No greater is the divide between vegan and vegetarian food perceived, perhaps, than in the world of Italian cuisine. The thought of missing out on the culture of creamy cheesiness that this country has to offer and being confined to tomato-based sauces was not too appealing before a recent trip to Florence.

But thanks to the Happy Cow app (the only app I’ve ever paid money for and well worth the roughly £2.99 I splashed out a few years back), it was soon obvious that vegan recipes can be as deliciously Italian as any other.

Three places stand out. First, Dolce Vegan, which was the first wholly vegan restaurant to be established in Florence. Their mission statement and rationale behind the restaurant is stated clearly on their website:

It’s called “VEGAN” to give a clear and precise message of our choice. Because milk and eggs cause more suffering than meat, and so the vegetarian choice is no longer acceptable either from an ethical point of view or from a healthy and environmental point of view.

It’s called “DOLCE” because it “gently and serenely” chooses to be vegan. In fact, being vegan does not mean giving up something or depriving yourself of the pleasures of the table, but acquiring awareness of your actions and enriching your life also through a healthy and tasty diet, full of news and surprises. We want to make everyone aware of the beauty and sweetness of living respecting animals, the environment and their health.

The menu is extensive and rather incomprehensible to the non-Italian speaker, and the serving system is also confusing. If you sit long enough someone will come and take your order, but long enough was too long for us on our first visit and so we opted for counter service, which speeded things up considerably. On our second visit, we chose our table strategically, so that not noticing us was not an option.

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Sweet treat: The superb cheesecake at Dolce Vegan, Florence, a perfect accompaniment to postprandial coffee

The staff are lovely and the place has a really pleasant vibe. The food ranged from burgers to pasta to salads. I tried a wrap, and the ravioli. Both were good, if not particularly special. My companion had the Shanti Bomb (burger) and chips, which he confirmed as being as hearty, tasty fare that really “hit the spot”.

Their links with a nearby animal sanctuary are displayed everywhere, and there are leaflets about volunteering there as well as the chance to donate cash to help with looking after animals.

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Classic flavours: Fried potato side dish with gnocchi in pesto sauce at Universo Vegano, Florence

Universo Vegano has a very different feel to it. It’s part of a glossier franchise chain, with no table service and reliably good food. For me, it was reminiscent of the Swing Kitchen restaurants in Austria. The environment is clean and modern, with a relatively authentic menu of burgers, pizzas and pastas.

I avoided the pizzas in both restaurants, as I didn’t see any reviews online anywhere that convinced me to try them. Universo Vegano’s gnocchi in a rich and flavoursome pesto sauce was amazing. The ravioli was superb too, as were the salads we tried, and the fried potatoes. There was a steady stream of people coming in, and it was good to see so many solo female diners settle in for a series of courses.

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Back for more: Strawberry and cream cake, smothered in nuts, Universo Vegano, Florence

The strawberry cream cakes, rolled in crushed nuts, were so fresh and delicious that we came back for more the next day.

Also mention-worthy from our recent trip to Florence was the hotel we stayed in, Residenza Magliabechi. We scored a superb deal, staying here for three nights for a ridiculously low price, because we went completely out of season, two weeks before Christmas. The location is perfect; it’s really central and within walking distance of everywhere.

But the biggest relevance here is the way they took our plant-based diet totally in their stride, and provided us with an excellent breakfast of fruits and bread and vegan croissants every morning.

A review of the Sam Harris meditation app Waking Up, a nonsense-free route to non-dual awareness

Heisenberg on meditation cushions

REVIEW: Waking Up – A Meditation Course

Sam Harris suggests at one point in his Waking Up app that what he is trying to teach is “non-dual awareness without the bullshit”. Which is precisely what he does.

Non-dual awareness? Essentially, you sit down to meditate; you observe your breath, sensations in your body, the fluctuations of your mind; and then you notice the part of your mind that is doing the observing, as if that too were simply like the breath and sensations; and finally you start to get a feel for the fact that there is something beyond all that, and yet part of it, a deeper layer of awareness that is aware of everything – including the observing mind – as “appearances in consciousness”, to use Harris’s phrase.

It sounds complicated, and if you’ve ever explored this via yoga – as I do, because I am a yoga geek – it is in fact fantastically complicated. In yoga, whole cosmologies of deities and myths are used to try and convey competing variations on the idea, often held up as “enlightenment” or “liberation”; in the Tantrik view, say, we and everything and everyone around us are expressions of a universal consciousness symbolised by the god and goddess Shiva and Shakti.

The practices designed to help you experience this – for example, meditatively moving energy through “channels” in the body that no scientist has ever found – certainly have their appeal, and I enjoy them simply as exercises in being present. But really, while Harris doesn’t point fingers at any particular tradition or philosophy, I think this is the kind of stuff – a lot of it faith based – that he’s talking about when he hints that non-dual awareness is often served up with bullshit.

Waking Up appHarris is a neuroscientist and while also a meditation teacher who has deeply explored esoteric practices, his Waking Up app is magnificently hokum free. You start with a 50-day introductory course of 10-minute guided meditations. Their brevity is one of their great strengths; 10 minutes a day is sufficiently short for anyone to commit to, so there is no excuse not to at least try the practice (if you can’t find 10 minutes a day, really, you owe it to yourself to look into that).

The meditations are simple and powerful, starting with standard mindfulness practices such as observing the breath, but swiftly and effortlessly, as the days pass, stretching towards non-dual awareness. Harris conveys the idea very simply and while at first it might feel a little slippery to grasp, through practice, it slowly begins to take root.

I am an experienced meditator who has explored many traditions, but I have been blown away to discover that an app on a phone, delivered by a brain scientist, has taken me much closer, much more directly, to states of awareness promised by countless ancient texts and modern spiritual teachers but which somehow seem ever out of reach beneath layers of arcane, religious nonsense.

When you have completed the introductory course, the app provides a growing library of daily guided meditations, including a selection of loving kindness practices (a potentially saccharine area that Harris covers masterfully). It also contains a brilliant collection of short lessons exploring a broad range of topics related to the art of living a considered life; they are an inspiring accompaniment to the meditations. In addition, you get two succinct question-and-answer recordings, as well as a series of interesting interviews with expert guests (I was particularly grateful to discover Loch Kelly this way; the latest update of the Waking Up app also includes a few guest meditations by this very interesting teacher).

You probably get it by now. I love this app, and recommend it unreservedly; it really stands out from other guided meditation stuff I’ve checked out. You want a criticism? The subscription is steep – £11.99 a month; I can’t really afford to sustain that long term, but for now, I’m more than happy to cut my cloth to pay for the huge surge of inspiration this app is bringing to my various practices, including yoga.

Since first posting this review, a reader has got in touch to remind me that Harris is keen not to exclude those who don’t have the means to pay, so there is a subsidised option if this applies to you. As the Waking Up website says: “If you would like to use this app but truly cannot afford it, please email us at info@wakingup.com so that we can give you a free account.”

The app also begins with a trial giving a handful of the first lessons of the course free, so if you’re interested, you have a number of options to at least check it out.

The Waking Up app is available for phones via the App Store and Google Play, as well as through the dedicated website here.

You can learn more about Sam Harris, who also hosts the excellent podcast Making Sense, at his personal website here.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor working in East London; more information here.

To Aachen for tasty vegan eating (and good to learn P&O Ferries is no longer all at sea with a plant-based diet)

Pfannenzauber mealsRestaurant review: Pfannenzauber, Aachen

An excellent vegan find in the German city of Aachen is Pfannenzauber. With a relaxed vibe, it’s one of those places that you can spend many happy hours chatting and eating.

The food was superb. There were six of us, and we shared two Tex-Mex platters, which were absolutely delicious. The potato, cheese and bolognaise dip that came with the nachos was outstanding. For mains my companions raved about the various burger meals they had, while I had the pumpkin schnitzel with sesame coating, cabbage and roast potatoes. Sadly there was no room for dessert.

But if you add a helpful and friendly staff to the mix, this was a truly lovely way to spend an evening.

P&O Ferries vegan curry meal

A shout out to the ferry food on the way over from Dover to Calais. Last year, I took the same journey and was greeted by nothing short of bewilderment when I mentioned the word vegan. ‘Do you eat fish?’ was the waitress’s first question as she scuttled off to fetch the allergens menu.

What a difference a year makes… This time I had the soup of the day to start and was presented with a choice of curry or vegan pizza. I chose the curry (pictured), and it was way beyond average ferry food standard. A big pat on the back to P&O Ferries for listening to the changing mood of society and catering to a plant-based diet.

How I went from one (dreaded) vegan day a week to being fully committed to respecting the lives of sentient beings

Everyday Vegans
A series in which ordinary people talk about living a plant-based life


Having been a committed vegetarian, Talya Lewis went back to eating meat when she was pregnant – but it was through the inspiration of one of her daughters that she ultimately ended up a vegan

Talya LewisThere is an uncanny human phenomenon of promoting the rampant suffering of other sentient beings. Our species considers itself worthier than all the others with widespread abuse not only justified but condoned by the majority of people, and no consideration for the physical and emotional pain of the animals, whom they regard as insignificant.

I entered my teen years before the existence of drones that would catch footage of barbaric animal mistreatment and before the internet where the horrors could be shared for the world to see. It was in that world that I became a vegetarian.

I flitted between strict adherence and lapses into succumbing to the smells that wafted from my mother’s kitchen, settling on my olfactory receptors, then targeting my salivary glands, sparking cravings in to which I would cave. It was in this cycle that I was firmly entrenched until my early twenties when I joined the Anti-Vivisection Society, participated in demonstrations from the 1986 Fur Expo in Madison Square Garden, New York, to Milan, Italy, protesting against animal experimentation, and became exposed to some of the truths that were stealthily camouflaged from public view.

Through my twenties and thirties I remained a devout vegetarian, still blind, however, to the depths of the ruthless and sadistic means to which man could go. I was embedded in the illusion that the meat industry was brutal, but that the dairy industry looked like the cows on the milk cartons and the egg industry housed happy hens clucking about as they joyfully relinquished their offspring by the dozen. I thought I knew it all. I knew nothing.

Time passed; I married and had children. Pregnant for the third time, I experienced cravings I had not encountered in more than 20 years. My hormone-ravaged body screamed out daily words I never thought I would hear my mind utter, “Meat, give me meat!” I resisted and resisted and resisted… until I succumbed.

With shame and guilt as my constant companions, I found my way back to cheeseburgers, steaks, sausages and bacon, of course. The smells that travelled to my nose from my mother’s kitchen now found themselves travelling through my own home to the noses of my two young vegetarian daughters. My four-year-old succumbed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Navigating a world while raising your kids as vegetarian was frustrating. Nannies in the park wanted to give them pieces of salami and hot dogs. Moms, while in charge of my children on play dates, wanted to take them to McDonald’s where they could rejoice in succulent juices of the dead animals that were neatly chopped and placed between two buns before being topped with cheese, mustard and ketchup.

But the worst came from family, where the expectation of respecting my choices should have been granted without fear of betrayal.

My husband and I were at his company Christmas party, entrusting the care of our veggie kids to my parents, sister and brother-in-law. My then youngest child (my third was yet to come) was just shy of two years old. The family was scarfing down steak while my oldest, then four, was eating whatever non-meat items were available.

My almost two-year-old, as the story goes, was toddling about when she approached my brother-in-law pointing to her mouth. Naturally his assumption (remember what happens when we ass-u-me) Continue reading →

‘We need to avoid having cult figures in the vegan community and to acknowledge the work of women’

Everyday Vegans
An occasional series in which ordinary people
talk about living a plant-based life


The latest contributor to our series is Zack Polanski, 36, a London Assembly candidate for the Green Party whose veganism is closely aligned to his environmental activism

Zack Polanski

How long have you been vegan?
I’ve been vegan for four years and was vegetarian for ten years before that.

What led to the change from vegetarian to vegan?
I was making a documentary for a production company – which they never completed – but whilst I was preparing questions for vegan activists, I realised I already instinctively knew the answers.

Do you see yourself ever going back to being an omnivore?
No.

Are you a ‘healthy’ vegan? Often people assume we’re all fitness-obsessed, when the reality is that we come in many flav­ours and for many pe­ople life is an eter­nal hunt for vegan cake. What makes up your diet?
Not at all. Fast-paced London lifestyle fuelled by Huel, vegan fast food and the occasional cooked vegetable.

Do you consciously think about where you get your protein, etc, from?
I used to, but as you get in a groove, I think your body lets you know when it’s time for the healthy option.

For many vegans, the initial realisation of facts that make us turn to a different lifestyle is pretty life-changing and alienating. We view things differently, from the supermarket shopping experience in a meat-eating world to the people around us. How was that change in mindset… the reality of being an outsider in many situations… for you?
That’s absolutely right. Being vegan meant I spent much more time around environmentalists and people who were fighting to save the planet. I went vegan for the animals – and then realised there are so many more other crucial reasons to do it too.

Do you mix with many other vegans – does your lifestyle mean that you come into contact with people of a similar outlook regularly?
A fair few. I’d say a large part of my friendship group is vegan. Including my partner, Richie!

Do you seek out vegan groups and forums online?
I did initially to get grounded in the community and for people to digitally hold my hand. Now I’m more than happy to be involved but schedules a little too busy to actively seek it out.

Do you live in a meat/dairy eating household? And if so, how is that?
I do. I live in a shared building with 18 people; I reckon the veggie/vegan – omnivore split is about 50/50. It’s fine though. We have some really good discussions and slowly people are coming around!

Where do you like to eat out?
I love Black Cat Café, Yorica, Temple of Seitan  and my favourite of all is actually a Chinese vegan restaurant in Archway (Loving Hut).

Do you feel you have more in common with vegans than the majority of other people who don’t believe plant-based is the way forward?
I think there’s a mutual understanding that you potentially both have a love of animals and a desire to save the planet. That’s a good grounding for any friendship I think.

Do you, as most of us have to, eat out with non-vegans often and how do you feel about their eating choices?
A lot. I feel their choices are their choices. I don’t believe in preaching or being angry at people. We all have to come to these decisions in our own time and I’m a great believer in being a demonstrator of your values rather than just talking about them.

Zack PolanskiAre you involved in any form of activism?
Lots. Political obviously. Also regularly go to Critical Mass, which is all about cycling. I’m involved with XR, and was arrested this year during the Spring Rebellion. I’m currently awaiting my court date.

Even more crucially though, I’m a spokesperson for Make Votes Matter (the campaign for Proportional Representation). That might sound like a long stretch from veganism, but actually one of the biggest flaws in society right now is that our rules are made by the current unfair voting system. The Green Party would look to change that to have much healthier and well-balanced debates about everything in our democracy. Undoubtedly within that, animal rights and the environment would get a much better hearing.

How do you feel about the vegan jokes… you know, that vegans can’t go five minut­es without mentioning the fact or they explode?
Next…

Do you believe that the meat and dairy industries have a future?
If they do, ultimately our planet doesn’t. We need to move away to plant based options and make it all considerably easier, cheaper and more accessible – I’m open to whether that includes meat and dairy replacements.

How do you think we best ‘convert’ omnivores to a plant-based lifestyle? And do you actively try to do this?
I wouldn’t necessarily say convert. Educate, inform and persuade. And I do it by not actively doing it – by living a busy, happy, healthy lifestyle and demonstrating that being vegan is the future.

How do you feel about the horror-show videos of the reality of meat? Do you share them? Do you feel they have a positive place in changing people’s understanding of the meat and da­iry industry?
I don’t like them. I think they’ve got their place but I can’t face watching them and in fact I’ve never seen them. I think positive conversation is much more likely to create sustainable change rather than shock factors.

Are you positive about the future of veganism?
Absolutely. The one slight caveat is that I’m cautious about the vegan celebrities that are cropping up on YouTube… (usually white and male). We massively need to avoid having cult figures in the community, and also to acknowledge the work of a lot of women for the past few decades that wasn’t about getting popularity hits but about maintaining a principled and ethical argument for the environment – and for our animals.

What does being vegan mean to you?
Ultimately it can only mean love!