John Bull, You Know Nothing.


Which way will the wave break? Normandy beach or Chesil? Do modern British tribes have Spanish sangria flowing through their veins? A will of German steel? Fingers of Belgian chocolate and hearts of French St Gobain glass? A thirst for Athenian democracy and a taste for Italy? In short, yes. So what is this nonsense about calling the whole thing off with Europe?

‘But we’re different. We’re not like those continentals. Our historical destiny is not the same.’

Yes, it is and yes we are. Try mooring the British Isles in the Persian Gulf and then speak with narcissism of your minor differences vis-à-vis our European brethren. With Saudi Arabia and Iran as your new neighbours, the British naysayers will soon appreciate that what unites them with France, Portugal, Poland and Denmark, is far greater than what divides them.

Britain’s historical legacy is so wrapped up with the larger mass of land to the south to be ridiculous. The earliest trace of proto-Europeans from the Pleistocene epoch 800,000 y.a arrived in a drier, cooler Britain from, yes you guessed it, Europe. Cro-Magnons, the modern prototype of the European, crossed the dry seabed 40,000 y.a from, ja you guessed it, Europe. 2,500 y.a, Celts sailed the East Atlantic seaboard, to Britain, returning to resettle Brittany at the fall of the Roman empire. Let us think about this one, but not too taxingly. Oui, again Europe. The Celtic mystique we inherited from them was a gift from….drumroll… Europe. Ultimately…Ultimativ…En fin de compte…Por Ultimo…Ostatecznie. In however way you express it, from whichever angle you frame it, it all comes back to the same shit, the same progenitor.

Then came the next infusion of DNA into the increasingly fissiparous bloodline: the German tribes. That split things. Successive boatloads of prospectors as well as a few bona fide refugees from the post-Roman chaos added another European base metal into the British cast. Jutes, Angles, Frisians, Saxons, they all settled the fertile British Isles, pushing the previous incumbents, the tragic and heroic Romano-Celts into a brave last stand in the remote, rugged West under the mythic construct known by Monty Python as Arthur, King of the Britons. Arthur, was another gift from Europe, by the by, this time courtesy of that thoughtful, proto-European French minstrel, Chretien de Troyes. Don’t even mention the royal ascent. Catalysts of our great nation’s selfhood – from Richard the Lionheart to Electors of Hanover and even a young Queen Victoria – spoke the old lingo none too well, by all accounts.

My country is at this moment playing catch with a live hand grenade. You know that girl you lost and never quite got over? We called it the British empire. For a while the creeping of the fingers over the body of the world felt good. We were wanted. Playing the great game with some aplomb. But, to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, the no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies epoch is gone. Isolation is anything but splendid in 2016. Our distant past was with Europe, our recent empire was with everyone, our present is in Europe, our future is of Europe.

Lay your ghosts to rest and hear what the current crop of sages have to say. 90% are backing EU reform from within. They’ve been camping enough to know that it’s better to be inside the tent pissing out than outside pissng in. The smart money is on continuity and pan-Europeanism to counteract mutually destructive forces embedded in nationalism. Narrow-minded ruritarians with nothing to gain bark ‘out’. And do not be fooled by thirty miles of shallow, turbid water. A slip of a channel between us and them, geographically-speaking, is liable to dry to baked mud quicker than your eternity of lonesomeness and island-thinking. And then, when you’re walking home, south to Calais on a freezing day where icicles awaken from inter-glacial dormancy, you’ll remember where it was you came from all those geological days ago. So, we grow old together or we grow old apart. Whichever way the wave breaks, everything old enters a state of decline together. Grow old and fractious, or old and in harmony? That is the question.

John Bull didn’t want to drown when I saw him bathing in the Indian Ocean tonight. He washed the dust from his prodigious body and then headed for the homeland, the surface on which he may live unhindered, not the mid-Atlantic obscurity you tragically desire.

And by the way, if the majority opts out, the Scots will find themselves with new and abiding reasons to leave. Watch the north go. And then what? King’s Landing?

John Bull, you know nothing.






Image courtesy of trespasserine (copr. 2016 trespasserine)




Marching to Stand Still


We know something about the unconscious symbols at play in nursery rhymes. We’ve probably had an inkling since we were children that there was something dark and deeply troubling about them, even back then. Have you ever had the impression that nursery rhymes were written by adults for adults? The masque of innocence uncovered, the face of the grown-up beneath is etched in toil and trouble, revealing the awful and inescapable reality that we adults have had to live inside our minds for much longer than the children who chant these rhymes with such abandon. Minds collect bric-a-brac. They grow top-heavy with the accretion of let downs, compromises and all the hangups that give our maturing minds their characteristic chemistry. Whether we occupy them or they us, our minds one way or another need taming. Like redcoats, they need a good dose of disciplining. That, though, is easier said than done.

Speaking of redcoats and nursery rhymes, let’s take the Grand Old Duke of York, as an exemplar. As every child knows, he had ten thousand men. He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again, and when they were up they were up and when they were down they were down, and when they were only half way up they were neither up nor down.

If that’s not a metaphor for the psyche, I don’t know what is. If marching foot soldiers uphill and downhill isn’t mood swings at their mildest or bipolarity at its most severe then I’ll be a cock-a-doodle do. Yet, it’s the bit in the middle where the rearguard bump into the vanguard and all ten thousand of them end up neither here nor there, that’s the part most psychologically revealing. For what is that if not a euphemism for ennui? What other language but French could coin a word for every turning of the emotional screw? Ennui: the condition which has a stranglehold on all ages but none more so than these queer middle years.

Neither up nor down – feeling nothing but listlessness and that persistent feeling that even though life is there for the living, we bumbling redcoats are not bearing up to the living part as briskly as we are to the existence part, a part, which by the way is incidental to living, as the heart beats whether we are truly living or not.

I remember Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, in American Beauty. A lame-o whose highlight of the day was jerking off in the shower; who has lost something, although he cannot quite trace where the tributaries of that loss come from; a man – crucially – who didn’t always feel this sedated.

Tapping on the door of forty-four. Tis a funny age to call an age. At the juncture we’re squeezed between competing me-s: the rational me, the aspirational economic man; the irrational me, the passionate man. Those mental mudslingers wage a titanic shitfest struggle in the dual mind of me-me (the organism who is trying to make sense and meaning of it all) to claim the undisputed crown of quintessence, quintessence being the fifth element, the alchemy of true living. Was the choice to incubate the living part of life for X years to chase the $$$liquidity$$$ that seduces one into thinking that ‘you can do anything, go anywhere with money in the pocket and in the bank’ worth it? Hardly surprising given the ramped up role that monetarism plays in the lives of the average you and me. Better to be a rich man in a poor environment? Or a poor man in an enriched environment? No brainer – tis better to be a man of adequate means who is enriched by his environment.

How to assuage the nagging doubt that profound life choices we deem at some point along life’s journey to be far-reaching are actually really blinkered. Or that life choices that satisfy immediate needs are really the most visionary of all? To thine own self be true. That truism is as discerning in the New age as it was in the Elizabethan. Yet, when are we supposed to begin to do that, to be true unto ourselves, to wear the cap that fits? At what point do we know that we are really marching (whether up or down is irrelevant) rather than – like the Grand Old Duke’s Men – standing still?


The Kindness of Strangers


Life’s quirky that way. What begins as calamitous in the making can end on a high. Not to put too fine a point on it, when misfortune starts befalling, serendipity has a reassuring habit of calling. And all this in a landscape so otherworldly you couldn’t make it up.

There we were, minding our own business, motoring up a 35km stretch of mountain road to a place of legend in central Oman. The car, with a reputation for inspiring confidence, had in these trying circumstances lost its bottle. Struggling to haul its five tonne ass up 2,000 metres from pillar to post, its passengers could feel its hurt. Relentless as alpinists pushing their weary porters on, we tried ignoring the signs. Over the apex, within sighting distance of our destination, the oil temperature drops and we quietly celebrate the triumph of the machine over the trials of nature. And then, as if taunting us all along, the VW goes clunk, clunk, clunk from the near-side wheel and judders to a standstill.

No amount of willing the thing to rouse itself does the trick. Like a feisty filly at the race stalls, she refuses to go on.

The air temperature gauge has decreased from 115 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level to a tolerable 82 Fahrenheit at 2,000 metres, small consolation in an otherwise disastrous showing.

The myth of German invincibility shattered, yours truly lets go a despondent cry followed by a petulant thump on the wheel. Oh God of Wolfsburg! How can you repay us for the faith we have instilled so unfailingly in you?

And then, like a handmaiden riding in from the wings in a stage production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, our Omani Valkyrie in his starch-white dishdasha turns up to save our sorry souls.

Introducing himself as Thani, as if that’s not a name straight out of the mythological past, he smiles benignly and offers a gentleman’s hand. Wearing his custom-built headgear tipped forward (for the benefit of the blind reader, a kind of white embroidered fez minus the tassles), his nose is, all four inches of it, Semitic (or maybe Gallic), and his facial features not unpleasant. He refers to each of us as brother, even though one of us is categorically female. In the time it takes to make a quick phone call then whoosh his wand (Oman’s puritan neighbours in the Gulf always did accuse this fiercely independent nation of conjuring the djinns with their malevolent scorcery), the fate of the car – and more importantly of us – is sealed. It will live to see another day, and we burned-out pilgrims will live to savour this very day. But not as we had imagined.

It’s action stations, but not in the way a Westerner with neurotic tendencies might think. Defcon-4 this is not. That said, this guy is a natural when it comes to handling human and mechanical breakdowns. Whisked into town to raise a posse to return to the mountain top (well, actually, two Indian mechanics – one known affectionately as the Professor, personal friends of Thani), we’re back within minutes to patch the car up and take it back to the workshop for a bit of loving restoration. As a show of trust, Thani drives our car, and we follow in his. Halfway into town his arm extends out the driver’s window and a thumb is raised. This, we take, as an auspicious sign.

As places to break down go, Jebel Al Akhthar is both a blessing and a curse. A plateau of hanging gardens, elevation a God-merciful 2035 metres above broiling sea level, the green mountain (akhthar means ‘green’ in Arabic, and Jebel ‘mountain’) is a veritable Babylon to the insufferable and breathtaking heat of old Arabia surrounding it. Not only that, the green mountain is a heaven sent 27 Celsius. By the providence of geology, this high plateau (the Sayq in case you’re interested) of climate temperance rises above the basement levels of hell where nothing other than date palm and acacia can handle temperatures that top 50 degrees in June. In fact, its altitude-assisted climate is so perennially perfect that fruits more at home in the Mediterranean grow fat and juicy in midsummer. They’ve got pomegranate. They’ve got peach, fig, apricot and grape. They’ve got life in relative abundance, and not many places in the region can make that claim without complex agronomy, such as irrigation from desalination plants.

So you climb and climb and watch in sheer relief the car’s altimeter go up and up and its thermometer correspondingly go down and down. This all makes mechanical mischief a fact of life one could get used to, at a push. One can think of few other places in the vastness of Arabia where breaking down means not merely surviving but prospering, too, from the experience (other than the repair bill).

That evening, now rested and attuned to the peaceful vibe of the hilltop hotel, we are invited to join Thani at his house in a hamlet we can see from the hotel is a white limpet stuck fast to the rock of the canyon far below. As sundown painted the land around in pale pastels while the valley floor far, far in the distance still burned like a ember, a diaphanous shroud of white cloud brought the temperature down further still.

He came for us in his jeep, such was the host he was and the host I would hope one day to become. Before retiring to a majli (like a drawing room in an old Victorian house) in the presence of his brother and adorable daughters – but notably not his wife – to eat dates and dahl and sip Arabic coffee and tea, he led us down to the wadi where only a month previous the waters had been cascading down from the mesetas, taking every loose thing in their unstoppable path. This is how things work here. The rains make infrequent visits to this parched and scoured corner of Asia, but when they do, they come with a force and a magnanimity matched only by that of the locals toward us, the outsiders, who are as thirsty, helpless and in need as the land itself.


What’s Not Meant To Be Will Be.


No easy thing accepting the inevitable. No easy thing rejecting the instinct to hold on. It’s here and then it’s gone. It was never here nor there at all. Some campaigns are not worth marching on an empty stomach to fight. The retreat to the place beyond the pines will be as ignominious in its homecoming as two hundred and fours years ago when Napoleon decided to seize back Lady Russia into the wedlock of his continental system and came home empty-handed. Early winter of a summer campaign, he should have come prepared for the prospect that she would not return willingly. For all that money and prestige, the least Emperor Bonaparte could have done was to requisition good quality overcoats and bearskin hats for every brother in that Grande Armée. He did not because men are hasty in their march to folly.

The little Corsican with the tenacity to hold on long after others relinquished grip had no predecessor to go on, but Hitler should have known better. He had Napoleon’s experience to act as a sobering reminder. Another man of history who thought he could take back what was never his, the Reich chancellor would learn to his eternal damnation that just because the season was summer didn’t mean necessarily that Russia was the place to make a lasting impression.

Love and hate, two sides of the same coin forged in the fires of obsession.

Of history’s litany of star-crossed lovers, it is Orpheus and Eurydice who endure as a symbol to the pain of lost love and its subsequent descent into obsession. In the myth, death snatches Eurydice from Orpheus. A tale engrossing (and personally touching) enough to upset the game plans of history’s master tacticians is stopped in its tracks by a snake in the grass that doesn’t care for love to succeed. Devastated by her early departure from this life, Orpheus’ disconsolate strings play on until his ballads reach the gods themselves. As for the nymph Eurydice, we lovers of true fable will never know how well she Took her cursed luck, for her heart, if it be broken, lies shattered in pieces in the Hadean recesses.

So heartfelt and melodious is the voice of Orpheus, so sweet his lyre, that he secures a second chance to have her again. His subterranean journey past homeless, fleeting souls and dark hellish spires brings Orpheus to the court of Hades, who on hearing him play the lyre is moved to grant her a second crack at life, on the precondition that until both emerge into the daylight he must not look back. In the spirit of Hellenic myth tragedy he does. He is no different from all humans who have loved, for their greatest weakness is to glance back at the helpless, receding apparition of Eurydice, their Eurydice, whom they battled for years to get over.

I think the myth of Orpheus endures as a telling reminder not to look back on things that time has eclipsed; that the instant one casts a retrospective eye on a lost love, the more intangible, the more irretrievable the loss becomes. Nevertheless, tis easier said than done to evict she who resides permanently in a ventricle of the heart.

Hades’ ploy was to issue his writ to Orpheus knowing full well the lovesick boy would fail because men are weak and cannot forget.

Hades was never going to relinquish Eurydice to the material world because only gods know when what is done is done. Finding courage to change the things one can lies within the reach of mortal men, but having the wisdom to know the difference, now that’s the preserve of the gods.

Where Prayer Flags Fear Not to Flutter


Sometimes a memory jogged by an old photograph can be just enough to defibrillate the heart back to a steady rhythm.

Freed from binary chains deep in the dungeon of that hard disk, a lost JPEG came to light recently. And I mean light. The picture was of a man looking self-satisfied, on top of the world. Literally on top of the world. He was standing amid the flutter of prayer flags by a stupa somewhere in the high Himalaya. The sky was topaz blue above the ridge line, graduating almost to black as the air thinned into stratosphere. Away to the west lay the Langtang massif. To the north, China, Tibet, call it what you may. Shishapagma, the last of the fourteen 8,000m mountains bagged and tagged as long ago as 1964, was somewhere in the midst but no one could tell exactly where in that crowd of tall, strapping physiques. This was political China, peopled by as many mountains as men and women. So the theory went, if you were to melt Canada the selfish dragon (as its neighbours knew China) would become the world’s second largest self-governing landmass. And so it went, to be able to defy perspective from his high-point on that photograph by reaching out a hand and gathering up Tibetan China must have felt like Buddha cradling the whole world in his hands.

So there he was standing on Kanjing-Ri amid the flutter of prayer flags, colourful as bikinis on a line, pegged out taut as guy ropes holding rigid a trillion tonne mountain. At 4,850 metres above the clicking of the high heels and the ebb and flow of shit at sea level, his demeanour was one of a guy who had inhaled a lungful that was unlike anything he had hitherto drawn into his lungs, including the suspicious looking item clamped between index and middle finger he was toking on by way of celebration. His blacked out sunglasses hid the eyes but not the elation in them. This you could infer from studying both his posture and the unstoppable smile on his face. Here was a smile that boasted, ‘I have ascended. Nothing tops this.’

Rewind the sequence to its beginnings and Act I Scene I is an arduous drive to the head of a remote trail. Given the choice of nine bouncing hours on a packed bus for five dollars or his own jeep driver for one hundred and twenty five, he puts his natural parsimony aside and pays the man. So there he is, king of the wild frontier, another adventurer with too much money and not enough time.

The road deteriorates on the final third to the trail head. It is no coincidence that this deterioration occurs at the crumple zone where the foothills come into their own. En route, he sees the bus in front on a mountain road that is chiselled out of the steep slope itself. The route is crumbling over the edge. The ravine bottom is an awful long way down. The bus is kicking up the dust, which is itself masking the parlousness of their situation. Overladen, it loses power and traction and starts rolling back on a nasty little switchback, rolling back to its doom. Passengers, looking from a distance like scarab beetles scurrying out from a mummy’s tomb, spill off the roof racks. They see the danger that is imminent. The bus grinds to a halt feet from the overhang.

He sees all this from his jeep. Passengers who were moments before fleeing in fear of their lives have now reassembled for the onward voyage. Unfazed, they laugh the whole near death experience off like it’s a normal occurrence, which of course it is. In fact, being Hindus they have probably plunged into that ravine dozens of times in the past, first on hooves, then with wings, then on foot, then on mules, then as mules, then rickshaws, now buses.

Once in the trekking hub town of Syabrubesi, he rests. Tomorrow will be long, winding and full of dangers, real and imaginary. Naturally, blessings need to be delivered. Yes, he is deep in Mahayana Buddhist hill country, but where are the prayer wheels when he needs the cosmos by his side? Om mani padme hum. In the absence of blessed spindles to roll, he apprehends three schoolboys coming the other way. Demanding tithe payment in the form of melting Snickers bars, they deliver their benediction wearing chocolate lipstick. Up and up he goes, ticking off pit stops and many a traveller’s inn along the way.

The ecology is stratified. What begins as uncultivated stands of cannabis sativa stops at around 2,000 metres. Now no longer subtropical, the bush carpeting the valley slopes gives to deciduous forest of maple and oak, and everywhere the blood-soaked flowering of rhododendron. Where the temperate zone ends the sub-alpine zone begins, and all within a day’s walking. Vegetation keeps a low profile. Grass and heath predominate. He keeps walking until he reaches the alpine town of Kyanjin Gompa. Up here the mountains are thrones but this is no game. Up here, Jim, it’s life, but not as most of us know it. He and others have now gone where golden eagles dare.

Not that anyone poring over the photo could tell but behind his left trouser leg his knee is strapped up heavily. Ten days prior to the taking of that shot, he had undergone keyhole surgery to remove torn cartilage from his tibia. The prospects looked bleak but nevertheless he persisted on two poles and a lot of grit in his determination. On day three or four where the going got steep and not even the hardwoods would lend a limb, he had pulsed the trail in an ebbing and flowing motion with an Indian engineer. Turbines, it manifested, were the man’s specialty. Being Gujarati, the man ate high temperatures for breakfast, yet nevertheless the track at that point was proving gruelling, the sunshine intense. An enquiring man with a prodigious command of the Queen’s own and profuse with sweat, the Gujarati was about bowled over when the man in the photo let slip that he had been on an operating table just days before, having the bones behind his knee cap scraped.

‘Even though you’re the walking wounded, you can still outpace me,’ he said between his puffing and panting.

‘How far do you intend to go?’

‘Kanjing Ri, and not an inch less,’ the man replied.

‘You’re not giving up until you get there, aren’t you?’ he Gujarati said in turn.

The man from Gujarat was visibly moved, to the extent that the man in the photo thought that mention of his plight might be driving his newfound trekking buddy onward and utterly upward. A little spark of inspiration had been seeded, he thought. And that in itself can go a long way in this rarefied air.

Snow has crimped the near vertical slopes. How it hangs on is anyone’s guess. But the sun is undermining the snow’s tenuous hold. He hears the drum roll of snow tumble down a couloir on Langtang Lirung. The rock walls amplify the avalanche. The sound of a small cascade is exaggerated. This is nature’s ventriloquy bringing a lion’s roar from the mouth of a kitten. It must have been deafening when the great earthquake struck this very region nine months hence, flattening everything put up by man except for the giant H spelled out in whitish pebbles.

A helicopter buzzes in to a rapturous welcome from the entire village who have come out in force to feel its downdraught. Hypnotic they stand watching the pilot stoop under the whirring blades, rushing forward to grab two lucky locals then two wealthy Russians by the arm. This event has all the makings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets the coming of the conquistadors on the coast of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl, the prophesy of Spielberg told.

It is a perfect day to stand higher than he has ever stood. Some photographs were meant to be kept. Some memories meant to be jogged.