Where Oil and Water Mix

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Oil tankers button up the horizon bright as warning beacons. Beneath the blackness of the ocean sky at night, their floodlit decks abut one another such that from the shore the view could be peninsular. That daisy chain of bow and stern stretch for untold kilometres from the port terminal to where anchor is weighed and each vessel drops off the edge of the visible horizon and into the Indian ocean proper. Some will ride the Agulhas current around the South African cape, but for most their laden hulls will cut the water south and east, curving under Sri Lanka until they reach the oil thirsty Orient. Few places in the world but here can give the straight profile of a coastline a proboscis it never had before.

Down at the port meanwhile, the 300km Habshan pipeline from Abu Dhabi has to gush in to something. Set out like mythical checkers pieces stacked three high, oil storage tanks are epic of proportion. Each cylindrical tank bunkers more cubic metres of refined oil than crystal blue seawater lost in the Great Blue Hole of Belize. Perhaps not depth-wise, but diametrically these oil bunkers could be scooped-out sinkholes. The barren, serrated mountains lying behind them seem to shrink in their grandiose presence. There are few bigger statements of a globalized economy paid for in petrodollars than this. Nor is playing dumb an option. Turn your back on them and still they find a means to remind you they are the reason you are ultimately there. For those downwind of it, the air that carries the gas condensate is acrid and unpleasant but otherwise hard to pin down. It smells, as you might expect, like any compost fermenting in the infernal bowels of the earth since the Carboniferous period.

The mountains themselves saw action long before the tankers. They came through like a row of tiger shark teeth ninety million years ago when the Arabian plate was ordered to hump the floor of the Tethys Ocean, but instead slipped under it. The stuff that made the sea floor buckle and the saltwater rush in was so heavy with plutonic rocks that after it rose up it refused to bow back down, so after all this time this petrified lower jaw bites into the sky hard as the day the upper jaw crawled out of that now rearranged ocean to bite the land.

Ninety million years of gentle wind, fitful rain, and desiccating sunlight could not do the work of erosion quite like a bundle of dynamite. At intervals along the steep pitch of the peaks engineers have blown their tops to make room for giant pylons that power towns and villages running on 56 degrees of longitude up to the Straits to Hormuz. The electricity cables form a cobweb over a landscape that had little interference to contend with for all but the last few seasons of its long geomorphic history. If it weren’t a suicide mission, zip-wiring those cables from mountaintop to flat bed would be a thrill and a half. Time changes the work of everything and everything changes the work of time. In which order, our world in flux does not reveal.

The settlement just north of the terminal consists of shabby roadside buildings wide enough to take an oversize 4WD in for cleaning. For all the dust and fine-grained sand that blows up and over from the western desert, settling evenly on everything moving or otherwise, the big cars remain improbably clean. If not for the army of poorly-paid labour drafted in from the Sub-Continent cleanliness would scarcely be the next best thing to godliness. All this spit and polish shines in an ethnocultural context, where religious piety comes in a shroud of either immaculately-laundered white for males or a beautifully-tailored black for females. Ironic when you consider it, the black syrupy source of national affluence – one of a dirty duo alongside coal – stains fabric like nothing else. Yet the white kanduras and black abayas, for all their over the ankle length, never show so much as a minor blemish. Same score with fleets of $80,000 Toyota, Nissan and Lexus 4WD desert tractors that continually roll off the big boat from Yokohama. White is the shade of choice and not only for reasons of Bedouin sartorial tradition. As any driver of a black car will testify, as no woman in a black abaya will, white reflects the phenomenal heat of summer and black does not. Until familiarity breeds contempt, which it often does in an indigenous population spoiled by oil wealth into treating anything of value as easily replaceable, the new eight cylinder heavyweights are as shipshape and immaculate as the kanduras sitting in the driver’s seat.  Are cars and kanduras (dishdashas) white in defiance of the colour of oil, or did oil come out black as a defiant warning to those who would wear white never to get too close?

These are strange days we live in. Fuel is the fuel that sends heads spinning and markets trembling. The blood that makes the world’s economy boil is transfused into everything from heaters that keep the hearth burning against winters that never seemed so cold to boats that deliver desperate refugees to a premature end, from American aircraft carriers plowing dying oceans to Russian jets zipping over a Syria they have neither seen nor cared for.

In a country that reserves the severest punishment for drug dealers, these storage tanks are meth labs on an industrial scale. High is the feeling from the fumes, empty is the feeling when the tank runs dry. Pure as crystal, dirty as the thoughts we ascribe it. How many more drug runs before the peninsula sinks under a rising ocean?

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Happiness Might Be A Warm Gun

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Epicurus in an epistle to Menoeceus:

We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.

I appreciate that you shuffled off this mortal coil about two and a half thousand years shy of being able to reply to this question via email, but because the whole truth lies broken into a million different opinions on the matter, a fractal question this remains. So Mr Epicurus, from your resting place in the pantheon, what, pray tell, brings happiness?

“Health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life. When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”

Then what you’re trying to say, old boy, is that providing the body and mind are in decent shape, then happiness can come about through a succession of wild nights on the piss and a healthy dose of free love thrown into the bargain?

“No, It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish.”

Fish? I generally round the night off with a kebab, though I’d have to admit ordering extra meat on the side is a guilty pleasure. Trouble is, this lifestyle plays havoc with my acid reflux. Makes me dyspeptic, and how can dyspepsia amount to happiness? I beseech you o wise one, is it so wrong to abide by the pleasure principle?

“Since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure.”

Speaking of submission, something happened while you were dead. It was called Islam and spoke broadly on the theme of happiness. Among its many facets, happiness in Islam wove pleasure into a security blanket (this in time came to be used a prayer mat). Contentment came from the feeling of security and security came from knowing that the Big Man was looking out for us. The security imperative was broadened to family, duty,  and the means to put bread on the table. Shakespearean existentialism never surfaced in this worldview of happiness because the life Macbeth bemoaned as but a walking shadow (a nothingness in so far as the scale of the wall against which the tiny shadow of human life is cast is so frighteningly vast) they saw as a shadowing presence, divine and eternal provided you submit to its will.

Full of sound and fury? On occasion, yes.  But signifying nothing? Not to them. There’s a plan and it was set down in writing long before you or I came along. Rejoice in the security of the Word, for it will take you where it takes you. It won’t let us down, we are assured. Thus in all that simplicity there has to be a recipe for enduring happiness.

Their prophet was reputed to have said,

“Whoever wakes up and feels safe in his flock, feels healthy in his body, and owns his daily sustenance, it is as if he owns this worldly life.”

Except you Greeks put healthy body before healthy mind. That’s called a predicate if I’m not mistaken. His followers, on the other hand, put sleep first, followed by the sheep. And then came the physical wellbeing. Then breakfast. Only then did happiness assume its rightful place. Sounds logical to me. Apart from safeguarding that feeling of certainty, the combination of keys to happiness unlocked freedom from the fear of death contaminating the unbelieving mind. Just knowing that it is all going to turn out A-okay if we simply jump through a lifetime of ritual hoops – a bit like having our devotion tested in a great long slinky – must bring reassurance and consolation, itself a probable cause of all that lazy arrogance of certainty alive and kicking in more than a few inhabitants of Arab Gulf countries.

O the anguish of uncertainty that is my making and my unmaking, Epicurus.

“When we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Ah! The sweet sound of reductionism. Sounds like an easy ride to happiness with simplicity at the wheel. What is the use of a key without the driver? Analogy: Pharmaceutics contain active agents that create biochemical change in the body. Excipients are inactive substances, gum or honey for instance, that combine with active agents in the delivery of those agents to the locus of pain or infection. To borrow from Mary Poppins (more of a pioneer than she’ll ever know) the excipient is the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. The active agents bringing about happiness, by correspondence, need excipients to arrange delivery with ease and with a smile. The solution, therefore, to the problem of how do the causes of happiness transform happiness from a notional to a felt experience? has to be both simple and soluble. Take anti-inflammatory drugs, for example. That the active substance, diclofenac sodium, has to be transported by – among other excipients – the talc on your baby’s bum, the cellulose in a plant cell, and the gelatin in your Fruit Pastilles straight to the root of the inflammation is both simple and genial. Pharmacists would no doubt concur. Simplicity is a kind of excipient, benign but effective in carrying to happiness the active substances happiness needs.

Expectation ranks high in the dharma of Buddhism as both a tyranny if too high, or a denial if too low. The Goldilocks principle applies to the wanting mind of expectations: get the temperature right by expecting no more and no less and happiness may flow. This active agent, expectation, when set to the right dosage targets happiness but only when simplicity is running the show.

Happiness ensues from turning negatives into positives. How? Case in point: cruciate ligament damage has brought my glittering prospects on the football pitch to an end. Not your average goalmouth ignoramus, while I was in rehab I learned so much about bodily articulations that I went back to school to get qualified. Now I face an ever brighter career as a physiotherapist specialising in ACLs. Unlike the last, this career should endure for more than a few seasons.

The causes of happiness now flow freely. Learning to let go of things not meant for you; learning to grasp the things that are. To paraphrase Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, have the wisdom to know the difference. Ditherers need not apply for this expedition to happiness.

Cultivate a philosophy of life. This represents a conscious and mindful approach that goes on the basis that while happiness needs working on with consistency, recognition needs to be given also to the inconsistent nature of knowing and growing, living and learning. This is affectionately known as going with the flow. The problems of epistemology mean that another predicate for happiness is to use DIY philosophy as a brake on the dizzying speed of change out there in the external medium. Philosophies can be refined, but their essential commandments should not lurch forward in a series of nervous breakdowns. Such psychic planning minimizes the emptiness and betrayal of knowing that what you believed then to be true is now what you know to have been built on bullshit. But i was sure the universe had my best interests at heart. Now i know it’s a cold and heartless bastard. It doesn’t care about me or anyone.

Learning to forgive is another borrowing from the dharma. Forgiveness is thankfulness and thankfulness brings accord. Accords bring peace, and peace with oneself brings happiness to the world. D’accord? Mai, oui. Bien sûr.

Opening one’s eyes to whatever is happening now, herein we have another. If we could all just live in the now we would become honorary surf dudes and therefore able to ride the waves without getting wiped out alongside 99.9% of species that have ever lived. Smelling the ephemeral roses while enjoying the sunset as if it were our last is an admirable cause of happiness. However, the fragrance of the rose lingers on, as does the crepuscular light of the sun long after it has set. This can lead to attachment and unduly influence expectations.

By now our set of keys is getting a bit laden down. What we need here on in is lightness of being, for which we need to jettison the superfluous parts of ourselves. This is where selflessness comes into play: to counterbalance the egoism needed to tackle the weight of expectations. Having a good cause is a wormhole to happiness. The quasi-holy status of charity and good cause is a bye to the next round. Saints in the making, if adopting abandoned animals doesn’t buy you happiness, nothing will.

Notably, satisfaction with what we have creates a virtuous updraft of I am good enough; what I have is all I will ever need. Is it apparent now why Mick Jagger kept pacing anxiously up and down the stage when satisfaction was something he couldn’t get?

In the case of who or what stirred happiness the jury finds the accused, simplicity, guilty of causation in the first degree.

It is said, in the English tradition of Benthamite utilitarianism, that happiness is a cigar called Hamlet. We know this to be a crock of s**t, as happiness in the English secular tradition, by any measure, is more in accordance with John Lennon who said it was a warm gun. Well, actually, he didn’t. He was merely perturbed into writing a song of that name through reading an article on the pleasures of killing helpless animals with hunting rifles, a feat categorically classed as not a cause of the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Be that as it may, the author is more inclined to cite Lennon’s stateside contemporary, Stephen Stills, in the cause of happiness;

“And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with….”

So there you have it, happiness is right there if you can only reach out and touch it. Now if that be not beauty in simplicity, then let us all wallow in misery till kingdom never come.

 

 

http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html

Hell Is Other People

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Just what the f**k is it with people? Tell me how it is that those who purport to be our friends, our Romans, our Countryfolk, those who appear oh-so well-adjusted and oh-so perfectly civil at the point of first contact, turn out in point of fact to be savage head hunters? Disguised in loin cloths or Laura Ashley cardigans it matters not a stitch, give ’em six months of protracted exposure in your company and sure as eggs are eggs they’ll be using any old pretext to either disseminate ill-founded rumours about you or else delight in launching sneaky broadsides from their good ship HMS Holier-Than-Thou, sending shrapnel through your integrity on the port side of you, as well as splintering the carefully-constructed personality nailed into your starboard side, just for good measure. O Lord! We do love a good drama now, don’t we?

Post-civilisation is pre-civilisation in reversal. At least Amazonian hunter-gatherers got their priorities spot on. They’ll have a pop at you on that first, potentially fateful, encounter through a confusion of leaves, vines, and otherworldly distrust. If you, l’etranger, manage to avoid being speared and beheaded at first contact, chances are that you will be welcomed into a community of fair and simple-minded souls where bitching, backbiting, mood swings, personal attrition and office politics don’t really play an integral part. You are one of us now, white man. Next comes the initiation process: bone-through-the-nipple christening ceremony, and all for a shot at being the man called Horse. Or the old Inuit one-two: first they get you inebriated on the -80 proof air, then before you know it you’re cuckolding the Lord of the Igloo by hopping under the reindeer skins with his favourite wife. Once in, always in. A plain, uncluttered relationship evolves thus. But the here and the now – the modern world of the shirt&tie&cloak&dagger – is neither high Arctic nomadism nor a Sioux nation that has been suffering an irreversible stock crash since the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

One of life’s great travesties? How indigenous peoples the world over, existing for millennia in natural harmony off what Gaia provided, ended up on the brink of extinction when it was their modus vivendi that was the one built on a sound footing. They held it together; we’re tearing it apart. We’re raping it; they have favoured marrying into it. They’re going with the flow; we’re diverting it for hydroelectric power to burn more office lights in order to cast the light of aspersion on some other poor sucker’s life under the glare of modernity and its associative neuroses. They fire first and fuss later; we flatter then proceed to f*&k over. For the fortunate survivor, acceptance into the tribe would entail a social nexus that one can imagine with ease was relatively free of neurotic, shit-stirring, gossip-mongering, hormone-driven, interfering busybodies who claim they have your best interests at stake. Sure, there can be nothing more intrusive than tribalism – fifty families to one Batak longhouse, waking up with a different group member’s arm stuffed in your mouth each morning – but that pales in comparison to the kind of emotional oscillations one encounters in the large-scale organs of the modern society, where we all labour under drop ceilings and strip lighting to keep the body bureaucratic from going cold and stiff.

Nothing dilates the postmodern pupil more than the sound of intrigue. Why does he spend such time alone? What i would give to know what she gets up to outside the office? There’s only one reason i can think that he’d go so long without a girlfriend. Know what I mean? So-and-so reckons that you and you-know-who had a kind of ding-dong the other day? I’m not prying or anything. It’s just….It is just that our alienation with empty consumerism has plumbed such lows that we’ve got nothing better to talk about. Come on, can you all not just f*&k off and leave me to wallow in my own misery, my royal aloofness?  For when you apply a bit of reasoning to the whole damn conundrum of how hurt people hurt people, there’s not other conclusion than…

…L’enfers c’est les autres. Hell is the others. Merci pour tout cela, M. Sartre. Welcome to a hell made from other people. Welcome to the world of the shared profession. Welcome to the unstable elements against which we measure our self-worth (in the most fleeting and myopic of senses because people constantly come and go from our hopscotch modern lives anyway). Do we really need to first know what they think of us before we can determine what we know about ourselves? Can we implicitly trust them to set our self-image at the temperature they see fit to set? Without constancy in their knowledge and awareness of us, can we depend on them to fix the quantity and quality of what we feel and think our ourselves? Which brings us back to the original contention: namely, all but the best of our friends and lovers are intrinsic flakes, emotional shapeshifters of varying magnitude. Les autres think they know us better than we know ourselves. Who are les autres to bung our self-worth in a Queen Anne vase then bid for it? Les autres who think they can detach themselves by attaching themselves to your supposed dead spots more firmly than a frigging hagfish on a whale carcass. If les autres cannot practice constancy, if les autres cannot keep a straight opinion of us, how in Allah’s name are we to strive for a balanced view of ourselves, far less anyone else?

In the workplace, first they came for the coffee wallah, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a coffee wallah. And then they came for the taxi driver (who drove them in), and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a taxi driver. And then they came for that fella sitting four cubicles away next to the photocopier, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a photocopier. And then they came for me, which is why I’m finally speaking up.

 

 

This Land Is Your Land

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In 1940, the American folk singer and travellin’ man, Woody Guthrie, wrote an anthem to a vast nation that was then about as socialist-minded as it was ever going to be. He imagined his republic of the democratic ideal thus: This land is your land / This land is my land / From California to the New York Island / From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me. Golden west to ye olde world east, northland of the giants to sultry south, the boy had all points covered.

While Guthrie’s folk song was being penned, America was rebounding on FDR’s New Deal. The presidential initiative –  aimed at putting a nation derailed by the Depression back on track – took the wreckage of the early 30’s capitalist crash and redesigned it, scaling back first-class, abolishing third and expanding premium economy-class so all could ride together onward to destination true democracy.

While this new deal was a big deal for Americans reared on the principle of freedom to do most everything, including fail, Roosevelt’s social programs and Guthrie’s mood made the true blues among them smell a rat. For those boatloads of new Americans who braved storm-tossed seas dreaming of one day staking out their own acre plot in some yet unpronounceable backwater west of the Appalachians, their idea of the new frontier hardly conjured up images of an America gone soft on elements borrowed from French or even Soviet republicanism. Authoritarian government of the old country and the cronyism endemic in it was the real poverty they were running from, after all.

In America, and that goes for the America lived by Guthrie in the 30’s and 40’s, private ownership was (and is) the endgame, and liberty meant (and means) the freedom to wall oneself in. Guthrie would write: Was a high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said: Private Property / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing / this land was made for you and me. When Dylan resurrected the song in 1961, presumably his choice of song was not only homage to Woody but also a lyrical effort to kick-start a movement rooted in the idea that America was best when shared, at its most sinister when ruled by them that build the big guns, build the death planes, hide behind walls, hide behind desks. Fair to say, they might have been bards in different eras but both artists were merely continuing America’s great, but seldom acknowledged, tradition of democratic socialism.

Was democracy ever the same music to everyone’s ear? Was it more so than to an America that loved the sound of liberté but had a funny idea of égalité and found fraternité discomfiting? Never have so many owed so much to one man: John Locke. So much a part of the American mindset, his English libertarianism elevated private property as a natural right, tall alongside liberty and the pursuit of life. Providing those propertied possessions kept migrating west indefinitely, growth and expansion could go on unchecked. Manifest destiny was moving west at a rate of knots, but so was population. By the time the final pieces were added to the federal jigsaw, the lower 48 states stretched to the Pacific. It would be that great divide that would put a natural check on geographic expansion, but not on population. From the Redwoods of the Pacific West to Gulf Stream waters of the Atlantic, America’s stretches were vast enough for a while to incorporate all its people before some of them decided to incorporate America.

In the space of two generations, the shift in the semantic of a single word, incorporate, has proven profound. The America Incorporate (Inc.) we see today seems a far cry from the America whose rift Roosevelt sought to heal by means of incorporating its tired, its poor, and its huddled masses, who – if not exactly yearning to breathe free, in the words of the stirring poem – were certainly looking to breathe again after years of extreme belt-tightening. Where New Deal strove to incorporate the public with unprecedented and unlimited scope, 21st Century America Inc. uses incorporation to mean private and limited. This has not gone unnoticed by those on the pulpit voicing discontent. Them is fighting words. Them used to be a dirty word. These days things are such that the battle cry of democratic socialism has become hip again.

Cut to the second decade of the 21st century and that pally, egalitarian spirit of adolescent America has been distilled, bottled and labelled with parody sad as it is amusing: This land is my land / it isn’t your land / I got a shotgun / and you don’t got none / If you don’t get off / I’ll blow your head off / This land was made just for me (D.Pratter). Granted, the democratic socialist ideal has taken a bruising at the hands of every president since Reagan, either presidents who have actively set America against itself through legislation aimed at driving out cooperative spirit, or else good men doing the only thing necessary for social and economic evils to triumph: namely, not a thing or not enough. With the cards stacked against them, Democratic kingpins like Clinton and Obama have not had what it takes to hemorrhage the wealth that has been clotting in pockets of American society. Rising socioeconomic inequality, pump-action gun lobbies, a crisis of belief in American exceptionalism, televangelism, erosion of the nation’s founding principles, greedy bankers, shady campaign contributors, bumbling military incursions, diminishing global influence, irredeemable national debt, the middle class struggling to make ends meet, and more than anything, American pessimism – for decades an unheard of oxymoron: all of these factors, and more, have unleashed talk of oligarchy and even extinction.
“A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much while so many have so little”.
Ladies and Gentleman of this once great nation, I bring you the purveyor of no-bullshit: Bernie Sanders. Bernie, tell it how it is.

The Katabatic Wind That Shakes The Barley

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They blow cold these winds of change. Down from the mountain tops, down from the frozen plateau they come tumbling and whipping with crystal spurs. They are the spirit of malice.

Ever woken up feeling one day younger? Refreshed, maybe. Younger, no. Ever recalled a time when there was no news like good news to send shivers down the spine? Would human be worth being and success worth winning if life was not lived best with adversity’s mug staring it down? Game of Thrones would not quite resound with the same blood-curdling peals of war (the same old perpetual war that is reputed to make heroes of ordinary men) were its slogan – Summer is Coming. Howling as they career off the edge of the Antarctic high plateau, these katabatic winds have the oomph to slay dragons. A meteorologic southpaw, they are the nearest thing on Earth to the winds of Neptune. It is they and not the big, bad wolf that possess the puff to blow man’s house down.

Not all winds bring a malicious chill, particularly to those not standing upwind of them. The Shogunate had its Divine Wind, its kamikaze saviour. That typhoon proved propitious, not once but twice, seven cursed years apart for the Mongols. Taught a lesson they clearly did forget on that first shipwrecking invasion of the Japan archipelago, those marauding steppe nomads were sent home by the winds of change to stew over their expansionist future with moustaches dripping sour milk and hearts dripping sour grapes. Three hundred years later and half a world away, Felipe’s Armada were so brazen in their breastplates that they tempted the tempest. The cold, rushing air that scattered the Spaniards to the four winds – from the Hebrides to the coast of Kerry to name but two – must have been blowing change in all directions that fateful voyage. However, the weather-vane did not stop pirouetting madly there and then. Soon after, the vane pointed Southwest before swinging wildly Southeast when the Boston harbour winds let change rip in the Thirteen colonies. It was then that England let the polar front carry her south enough to catch the trade winds, setting a course that would keep the Empire’s mainsails billowing through the horse latitudes and into the roaring forties. Tearing downwind of the circumpolar, this wind would bring change alright. Terra Nullis became Terra Ours and, when the karabatic winds would, on occasion, reach Australia from the high plateau of Antarctica, the damp, wet soil never felt so fertile for Albion’s seeds transported in on that fateful wind. Historic climate change was truly underway, bringing with it a mini-ice age for natives everywhere. Meanwhile, missionaries, adventurers, sahibs and settlers alike settled in for an Indian summer of profits going through the barometer.

Which brings us to the political zephyr that was Harold Macmillan. His winds of change speech swept Africa into a new consciousness, one that would blow in Apartheid, death in droves, resource pirates, famine, and bloody dictators dressed as Citizen Smith.

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact”.

With all due respect, Mr Macmillan, that is precisely the problem. Nationalism is the scourge that won’t go away. It is the katabatic wind that tumbles down from the mountain top, making our journey to the summit a bitingly cold one.

Winter is coming. Put another log on the fire and beside it crouch, for the chill answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Down from the north it flows, a gaseous floe. It might be Putin, the Iceman, it might even be second coming of Leif Eriksson and his Valhalla boys. But whatever it is that is blowing in, it is bound to shake your windows and to rattle your walls. It might even be the wind that shakes the winter barley.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

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Alexander Selkirk, the real life privateer whose solitary exploits on a tiny and remote South Pacific island were later served up in the fictional guise of Robinson Crusoe, by all accounts struggled to adapt to life back on home soil. He struggled so much to resettle, in fact, that he chose to cast himself out again from the land of his birth. He sailed for Africa with the Royal Navy where he contracted fever. Selkirk, the outcast, would never see home again.

There has to come a point where removing yourself from the society you once thought you knew so well becomes a journey of no return. How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a hobo? Does it take a year in Provence to come up smelling of lavender? When does the exiled stop being a person and start existing as a memory?

There is a scene in the film Interstellar when Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper floats amid an infinite library of bookcases like those he left back home in the spare room. In this extra-dimensional projection of his mind, an acid-trip nightmare the likes of Escher’s famous staircase to nowhere confronts a brave Cooper. By now he has been away for decades and his beloved young daughter, Murph, is a grown woman. Nothing matters more to him than finding her again across trillions of black, empty miles. From shelf to shelf he spacewalks until through reality’s answer to a junk shop he finds a way to communicate through dimensional spacetime. It is then, at the sticking of the little hand of the watch on the bookshelf, his gifted daughter realises her father has found a way to reach out to her from a place she can scarcely conceive of. Suddenly Cooper ceases to be a memory and re-institutes himself as a living father in the mind of his daughter. He has spoken to her for the first time since she was a child across the arc of space and time using good old Morse code. The symbolic value of the watch is huge, coming to reify what had been an abstraction for Murph, a memory of abandonment lodged in her mind.

Living in a desert is not quite so extreme as falling into a wormhole off the coast of Saturn, but it might as well be an extra-dimension. Here where the sky turns milk blue every morning and burns in the west most evenings, where the treeless landscape never undergoes seasonal transformation, the feeling is cosmic. On this barren planet that lies on the event horizon – dangerously close to the black hole that is the Middle East with its information irretrievably lost in a Hawking paradox and its physical states tipping into one of infinite Daesh blackness – here a month might as well be a year and a year a lifetime, as far those back in the home quadrant of Eurospace are concerned. Time’s elasticity really does get to stretch itself in the mind of the exile. While he is busy hopscotching from past to future, skipping the bit they refer to as the now, he imagines that the world he left behind is one that spins at the right tempo and all who reside in it are likewise living in that blissful state they refer to as the now – a state the exile struggled to get to grips with. Maybe it does rotate in temporal stasis, or maybe it doesn’t in any mathematical sense, but who cares when all he feels is the pull of another planet.

The past is another country and the future another still. When the present tricks you with its mental mirages, it is to the two countries either side that the attention moves. The past is Nepal, where once is never enough. The future is that big trip around South America you keep telling yourself you are going to do. The present, that is wherever it is, but not where you always want it to be.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?‘ mused Hamlet. Well, not Shakespeare himself as history would have it. Far from whipping and scorning him, time has stroked him tenderly.  So, is there a way back for the time-travelling exile? Can that exile retrace his steps back to square one without it being a homecoming worthy of a weighed-down Christ looking miserable on the Via Dolorosa? How far can a man walk before it is too far to walk back? Would anyone care to guess without sending smug responses in on a postcard from some remote Tahitian isle, where they are currently having the time of their lives intending not to return home any time soon? Some sensitivity, please.

Dead men walking the earth, dead women, too. Leave for a while on your peregrinations and those you left behind will keep your grave. They’ll soothe you with words and questions as if expecting an answer. When leave they must, they’ll whisper into your granite ear, ‘back soon.’ Naturally, the visits will grow more infrequent until they cease altogether. For the best way ultimately to remember someone is not to pretend they are right there. It’s to accept they have gone, that being gone is as good as being gone for good. It’s to make peace with oneself in the way that the departed could never with himself. That’s the price we pay for going away. That was the price that Selkirk paid for being a castaway on that island for four long years.

 

One Born Every Minute

abandonment, animals, Cities, conservation, cruelty, developing world, dogs, neglect, sadness, stray dogs, street dogs, streetlife, third world, Uncategorized

Somewhere, everywhere, in the world, there’s one born every minute. Camouflaged amid rubbish heaps, squeezed under abandoned vehicles or lodged deep inside sewerage pipes – just about any place they can watch our movements without being judged too harshly – they come into this world a bundle of playful joy. To survive a few seasons, each is tasked with dodging the cars, the emaciation, the heart worm, the wardens, or if unlucky enough to be born in SE Asia, the meat traders. Paw pads worn down on the wheel of misery, the average life can be considered so hard as to be endurable for a paltry half the span of their cosseted, houseproud cousins. Set within this Hobbesian world of short-livedness, nastiness and urban decay, the epithet of man’s best friend to them does not apply.

Welcome to the world of canine caste. If coiffed Afghan hounds are the Brahman caste then these scruffy mutts roaming trash-can alley are the untouchables, drowned by weight of numbers, dealt a duff hand by the karma croupier. They might live on the fringes, but stray dogs have since moved into centre stage in the sprawling un-developments of the developing world. The homeless canine population grows unchecked, for the most part. Some estimates put their numbers at upwards of half a billion. Even the thousands of Africans and Asians who die from rabid bites each year, by comparison, won’t put a dent in human population.  Like the mange that ravages their pelt, stray dogs won’t start to disappear any time soon, unless we set the trend first. Ranging from Manila to Mandalay, Lima to Lusaka, Riyadh to Rawalpindi, Bali to Bucharest, few places remain untouched by their grim determination to hang on. Fourth place in the Third World, these urban shadow puppets salvage the human wreckage. What feels worthless to us is treasure to them. These lowborn dogs suffer a form of warped dependency on what the world’s poorer quarters have to offer: in rubble and fetid foodstuff, chicken bones and dried sanitary towels; scarred, plastic-strewn urban wastelands where production of waste exceeds the national capability to capture and process it.

Another plump little alley pup was born from the skin and bones of its street mama the other week. At first it hesitated at the mouth of the sewer pipe, then coaxed by its junky single parent, emerged into the dusk. The newest addition to those born every minute had no inkling of what it was getting into: its pariah status; the incipient heat; the parched land and not forgetting the dust devils mocking them for taking a wrong turn on their long trek from wild wolves, proud and independent, to failed domesticity. Aye, it’s tough at the top of the heap.

Where The Streets Have No Name

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Drive down the E11 in Dubai and you will see a profusion of urban development as rabid and utterly transforming as anywhere. In the space of forty-four years – half a lifetime for the long-lived – this geographical dot in spacetime has gone from pearl fishing village, coveted by Bedouin rulers for its natural inlet, to a thinned-out Fritz Lang Metropolis without the b&w medium.

This city-state fancies itself as the next in a long line of challengers ready to take the mantle from the reigning champion, the desert. Up the buildings go, floor by floor, day by day. Legions of hired labour, almost exclusively from the sub-continent, toil and bubble for a relative pittance under seven months per annum of broiling sun. Here in the new Egypt their paymasters drive them hard. The law states that when the mercury tops 48 Celsius work comes to a standstill. To say they get to go home early would contradict the fact that they have no homes to go to. In neighbouring countries little regard for the lives of countless coolies means that 48 hovers and 49 never comes. These Indescribable conditions represent the work of progress: the majority serving the machine so the few may serve themselves.  This kafala nightmare has trapped many a poor Nepali migrant worker on the death march to work on various outdoor projects for World Cup 2022. For to realise ambition in such short time, home comforts need side-stepping.

Here in all fairness, 48 means 48 . Work has been known to stop. Nevertheless, 47 is hot enough. Try watching concrete dry on the 55th floor of some new, yet to be defined, development. It’s almost midday. Stand for a while under the late May sun. Now put on a hard hat and remain sun-soaked a bit longer. Now force an exterior fixture into position while men babble Bengali all around you. Finish a 12-hour shift without contracting heatstroke and you know you were designed to withstand a hard life.

The higher the floors go, the more desert reveals its vastness on the eastern horizon. It is an unremitting work the work of progress and none more so when man, the relentless pursuer of progress, has no option but to endeavour in the most hostile and most insuperable of natural environments. Mesopotamian man started it first of all with his Ziggurats. Then came the Egyptians with their pyramids and their Alexandrian Faro. The Greeks followed with their colossus and then architectural vanity stepped aside a notch to build perpendicular for a better hand up from the Almighty. We had the cathedrals of Lincoln, of St Paul’s, of Strasbourg and Vienna, all arisen with exquisite craftsmanship within a mid to late medieval period. And so the story goes, of man. Nothing, but nothing, could surpass New York when it rose from five boroughs no higher than the parabola of spit, to a Gotham of awesome proportions within a thirty-year period at the start of the 20th century. Most of these attempts to outgrow the sequoia tree have failed in their unstated mission to outlive that most celebrated of pines. New York still shines like a beacon, but even it was put to the test fifteen years ago when its two towering sentinels sank in less time than the Titanic. Unremitting is the work of man and his damned progress; unsentimental is the certainty of end that stops him in his tracks.

The city swells, the city protrudes. It even burrows down beneath the eons of sand to bedrock that last saw the light one-hundred million years ago. The young city is a self-actualizing personality looking to become. But it is not a self-regulating mechanism – unlike that of nature herself – free from tributes to the silent, omnipotent landlord. Meantime the roads grow fat and the main arteries clog, and the heart that beats sounds out a warning: that there is no real heart to it. The pulse is an echo of somewhere else, some place that hung on, like Paris or Tokyo or New York. These road names are no more significant than as coloured flags semaphoring the motorist to proceed from A to B to A. And proceed he will but ever slower on these clogged highways that lead nowhere but back to the desert that looks on ever patient for the comedown, for our demise and its re-rise.

We bite the hand that doesn’t feed. Wounded, the hand bites back. But not before the world looks on in awe at how all this nouveau architecture could emerge from what, forty years ago, was not much more than villages, date palm groves, one-man mosques, and wave after wave of rust-red sand abutting rocky mountains; a truly Martian landscape. Yet the physical transformation is far from complete. Until it shrinks it will grow; it’s that kind of place. Stagnation cannot live on a bed of shifting sands.

They say the taller they stand the harder they fall. It’s the spiral of the sky-piercing Burj Khalifa that will be time’s sole survivor, too tall to be ignored by the passage of time; too shard-like to be toppled and too Arabian to be attacked by the four seasons. Man will in time be brought down a peg or two. Not, though, his greatest of works. They will endure the geological age named in dishonour of us. Cushioned by pillows of sand sloping up to the fortieth floor, its 25th century fall will be a soft one. By then the foreigners won’t be around to witness it, though you can bet the autochthonous Bedouins, falcon in hand, will be. Children of the desert and its Qur’an, they were the ones who prophesied the end of the present. In spite of their avid embrace of hyper-consumerist ways, a few saw beyond the now to the transience of it all. Native contentment rested on the belief that the best was yet to come. Those nouveau riche of the oil kingdoms, who from nothing found themselves overflowing with imports beyond their grandparents’ wildest imaginations, might spend a lifetime taking the ebb of progress with the flow of sand but it will be worth all the threats from the encroaching desert when their long voyage on the ocean of oily sand leads straight to eternity’s shores on paradise island. The rest of us meanwhile, will have to settle for the plane home.

Love and Latitude in an Age of Anxiety

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What is going on? Whoever possesses the answer, would they please stand up and be counted? El Niño is busting out after lazing on its massive south Pacific lilo for the past few years. It never rains in Southern California goes the 70’s classic pop-tastic number. Well now it does. So much so, they’re going to need an ark the size of Rhode Island to evacuate all God’s animals from the jungles of South Central LA. Spotlight on Oz: Moses might have looked on the burning bush as a divine signal, but that’s probably not how Mick Dundee sees it from a fire-ravaged Down Under. 11,000 diametric miles away from the planetary posterior, Scotland is lashed by the Atlantic’s own cat-o’-nine-tails, as if she – brave little Scotland, nearly but not quite ready to break free and run from that mean old union of 1707 – deserves nature’s lockdown treatment, as if her enclosed glens were not already filled to brimming, her peaty soils already maxed out on efforts to conceal the horrible truth of her climate. New York, meanwhile, all but realises Hollywood’s disaster prophecy foretold in The Day After Tomorrow. Times Square abandoned but for a snowman and a wacky waitress-cum-sculptor serving its face with salad, giving its midriff and ass that Dunkin Donut rotundness of an N.Y.P.D. officer directing non-existent traffic. What else can we add? The Middle East a balmy 25 degrees c – the perfect winter’s day. So perfect, indeed, that while its climate displays the clemency of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal, its political climate is hell bent on restoring the yin-yang balance by fostering a political and humanitarian shit storm. Then we’ve got Africa. Oh! Africa, My Africa. Dr Livingstone’s beloved open sore of the world. It matters not what the weather is doing there, because a) it’s doing about everything weather can do, short of what weather does in Russia; and b) no one gives a toss. Hell, the only patch of snow Africa ever had is receding faster from the crater rim of Kilimanjaro than, oh, Prince William’s hairline.

Record temperatures forecast for summer 2016. Another glorious summer of ’69 is emphatically not on the cards, unless you consider the possibility that 69 refers entirely to Kuwait’s 2016 midsummer temperature in degrees Celsius. Cut to Syria and a summer of gory as opposed to glory might be more apposite. So what’s is going to be and why are we all somewhat jittery about the weeks and months to come?

There was one of those digital proverbs posted on an anonymous internet forum the other day. You know the ones? They exist to restore a little bit of aah!!!, a little laaaah-titude to our vertiginous lives. They are Xanax pills, swallowed in word form to ease our growing anguish. They are Novocane for the soul, to take The Eels of of context. The rise of these latter-day koans, cliched as they are, comes to highlight the puzzle and paradox of being YOU in this, our age of anxiety. Throw in a shit load of bad weather then lay it on thick with an impending economic collapse (brought on by a China dragon about to swallow its tail) and you’ve got the perfect psychological storm.

The proverb went like this:  As sex got easier to get, love got harder to find.

If you strain your eyes hard enough on a low res image, you can see the words in microscopic form. Each one is a pixel forming a mosaic. That mosaic is us, all standing shoulder to shoulder on a crowded Gaia spinning at 67,000 mph around the sun. Seen from space, it all flows together beautifully. However, seen from close up, the pixels are so not together.

And as for the proverb: sure, love was never easy to find; as for the bountiful sex part, says who? I mean, yours truly ain’t getting his share. That’s why he is writing this…this, whatever this is…in bed on a weekend morning, instead of…you know, getting it?

A Circular History of the Dome.

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Minarets, six of them, could launch into orbit if they were not so grounded. The cupola is the mother ship, domed to sit forever on the sand. Under the sulphur streetlamps not much moves at the mosque. There’s a insect quality to the structure, pods five abreast, three at the far end, within its marble perimeters a courtyard of rectilinear beauty.  Patiently it awaits the dawn and the return of the one, true God. Without question, the cupola is the architectural centrepiece, a naturally-occurring figure of the most technically challenging proportions. Yet it is its history and not its design that defies all probability. In short, the origins of the dome are about as curvilinear as the thing itself. Let me show you how.

They built this glorious house in the image of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. The Ottoman’s built the Blue Mosque in the image of Justinian’s Haghia Sofia. The church of Saint Sofia owed its image to the Pantheon in Rome. 1st century Roman engineers who put together this, still today the largest unreinforced concrete dome on Earth, must have known of the beehive tombs of Mycenae that were the final resting place of Agamemnon, he who led the 10-year siege against the city-state of Troy around 1,200 years before the Roman golden age. The Mycenaeans must have known of the architectural wonders of the Near and Middle East: of Babylonia, Assyria and before that Sumeria, the land of the first men; of Ur, the first city and reputed birthplace of Abraham. Around the same time, sometime in the late bronze age, in what is now the Sultanate of Oman, beehive tombs were being built for what we presume were high-status tribesmen. As far as simple Bronze Age cupola design representing a breakthrough in protoarchitecture, it is hard to conceive of an earlier instance of the cupola that these days sits snug within the minarets as this.

And so, man and his proclivities for making self-supporting domed shapes from mud, stones and cement with ever more ambition – the self-same structures that bees and birds have been doing with twigs and resin for a lot longer – takes in a long curvilinear history. It started one hour SW of here some five thousand years ago, and here it ends five thousand on in perhaps its most triumphant, geometrically completed form: the mosque outside my window.