The Social Experiment in Living Off-Grid: How Goes It?

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Part I: Life on the Grid

Or should that be the anti-social experiment in off-grid living? There is that aspect, too, though there’s more to life off-grid than a simple wordplay. Or unbearable isolation. There’s the experiment itself, which has to be longitudinal – meaning same conditions over an extended period – and has to transition from living on-grid to living off, with all the upheavals that entails. For all those who aspire to living La Vida Loca – offline, unhitched, and possibly unhinged – the experience goes a bit thus…

Before entering the spartan realm of minimalist, I was a maximalist. Whereas today I can claim to tiptoe on the Earth with a size-4 carbon/ecological footprint, pre-watershed I used to make the Earth shake with a megafauna-sized carbon footprint. You know the type: Crusty the Clown outsized shoes, freak show dimensions, gargantuan metatarsals. Three years ago, but it seems like only yesterday (to quote The Carpenters), I was following a high-octane consumption pattern.

Living twixt the ocean and the deserts of the Arabian Gulf, I drove a car whose off-roading capabilities rendered it a gas-guzzling behemoth. Not that quenching its thirst for fuel mattered much, as costs at the pump were absurdly affordable. I lived in a business hotel in a spacious apartment high up on the 18th floor. For nine months of the year the air outside was so sultry that the air-con inside was on 24/7. A simple walk around the vast mosque near my home, while pleasant, often resulted in a complete body sweat blended in with atmospheric dust and other nasty particulates. The only self-purification was to lose oneself in the apartment’s planet-sized, walk-in shower cubicle. I dread to think what the water consumption was per shower. And yes, in summer one shower could easily morph into three scrub downs per day. That in itself wouldn’t be too egregious an act of environmental vandalism were it not for the fact that in the entire Arabian peninsula – an area about the size of Western Europe – there is not one single watercourse viewable from space. That means that ‘sweet’ water has to be sourced from somewhere other than the traditional go-to place for the native Bedouins, the well.

Arabia’s carrying capacity for humans is naturally small. To elevate it in order to invite millions of migratory workers in, engineers had to build a series of water desalination plants along the coast. Turning seawater into the salt-free solution that comes through the plumbing requires phenomenal amounts of oil to burn the salt off millions of gallons of water in steam condensers that run day and night. This process accounts for a surprising percentage of all oil production. That aside, the point I’m trying to force through here is that just to have a shower required an industrial process that burnt mind-boggling quantities of oil from water sequestrated from the ocean. The Persian Gulf, all 700 miles of it, is turning saltier because of the desalination required to sustain millions of migrant labourers. This brackish chemistry puts stress on the aquatic ecology, too. Most famously, sea grasses are suffering, which brings big problems downstream to grazers such as the manatee.

At work, we used machinery in a profligate way. Printing worksheets and other paraphernalia for the sake of it resulted in towers of waste paper, un-recyclable laser jet cartridges, and overworked Xerox machines. Air-con ran all day through unmanned corridors, empty classrooms, bare staff rooms, and even little panic rooms where you go to escape the madness. The utilities bill alone must have been equal to the GDP of a small principality. Lights were routinely on in empty rooms. Just switching them off was an act of radicalism.

Workdays there are kinder than in the slave-driving West. One of the reasons so many venture there in the first place. Instead of being bolted to one’s desk until long after dark, privileged expat Europeans (Brits included) would finish work with the sun still high in the sky. That exacerbated our carbon footprint, as at 4 o’clock there’s much life left in the day. Invariably, myself and friends would do some form of physical exercise in an air-conditioned gym, on equipment often running on mains power. In fact, the treadmills often needed their own national grid to operate. Once the aerobic fun and games were over it was time to decamp to the bar for a cold one. Except, for the Guinness to reach chill factor 10 required power beyond power. When outside the temperature is touching 40 celsius with a wet bulb humidity level of 80%, and inside the beer tap has a designer layer of ice around it, you know you’ve got an addiction to mains power. Is there any wonder a pint costs the equivalent of $15?

Of course, this power audit i’m describing is not the half of it. One of the great mass movements of expats in the carbon-rich Gulf is to descend en masse to the airport on the first day of school holidays. It is far from unusual to meet a colleague, neighbour or even drinking buddy in the queue for check-in. Their intended destinations are myriad, but all of them are linked by one carbon-relevant fact: flight time is seldom less than five hours, and sometimes fifteen. That’s a lot of vapour trail.

But this mass gathering of folks sharing similar socio-economic status is by no means confined to the air travel industry. If you want to visualise another airport analogue, but this time for the domestic market outside of school holidays, look no further than the mall. The great emporium of the 21st century – beloved of Arab rulers who see a historicity with the ancient bazaars and souks of the Middle East, as well as a source of great internal revenue – draws the crowds in all weathers, be it hot or hotter. Some, such as the Dubai Mall, are so sprawling as to contain more shops than some cities (Dubai Mall has circa 1,200 individual rental units within its great perimeter walls).

Once inside these 21st Century temples of consumer worship you see the level of food waste. That, in itself, is staggering. If I had a dollar for every plate of leftovers I witnessed, I’d be a wealthy man. Buffets barely-touched. Takeaways partially eaten. Quantities of cooked food that no society without an agricultural base should ever rightfully have within their means. The profligacy of quality food would appall any good Presbyterian. There, in the Arabian Gulf, apportioning little or no value to a precious thing as fresh, quality food is a fact of life in a burnout society gone badly wrong. Now, if these generous helpings of leftovers would go to feeding the pitiful canine waifs and strays that mill around behind malls and hotels, I could almost justify the waste. But they don’t, as a matter of policy. The Muslim rulers would rather legislate for a situation where uneaten food is binned than to nourish an animal considered to be vermin.

Like any superstructure, be it an international airport hub or a world-beating shopping mall, the maintenance costs of the mall are almost as environmentally disastrous as the industrial legacy of building them from their foundations. While I don’t profess to having the data on how many megawatts per hour the Dubai Mall uses in order to keep the lights on, the air-con nippy, and the customers happy, I’ll wager that its not far off the levels consumed by the whole country thirty years ago. A graph showing the mains power consumption over a thirty-year period would likely resemble a hockey stick: from sustainable to a complete loss of perspective in a single generation. The point being here that I was one of millions far exceeding a carbon footprint expected from the average consumer in their home nations. It’s the gift that keeps giving, the party without the hangover.

So much raw power consumed from relatively few sources. We’re not talking PV solar panels blanketing the desert, drawing in abundant current from the Arabian sun. We’re talking good old fashioned oil-burning power stations sending carbon consumption through the roof for many. We’re talking industrial output from raw materials extraction that has had a deleterious – in places catastrophic – effect on the specialist ecology and wildlife of the desert. Arabian leopard, down to two hundred individuals across two million square miles. The Arabian wolf, dwindling away to nothing, unable to halt their own human-led persecution. Hyrax, under threat. Corals, wrecked by coastal degradation. About the only wild things to have prospered are the feral dogs that cling on, unloved, in the derelict quarters of the city. Oh, and the ubiquitous camel, too cherished as a commodity to be in danger of extinction.

It doesn’t take a visionary to see that consumption levels of both power (delivered in cheap abundance by the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels) and commodities (imported on oil-burning container ships in exchange for crude oil and gas) are disturbingly high. After five years, I was reaching a moral dead-end. I couldn’t go on enacting a lifestyle that I myself criticised for its crimes against nature. To be sitting at a bar in the desert drinking Irish beer from a tap that’s chilled not by the air outside but but a long chain of industrial processes demanding huge quantities of power, while having discussions about how to bang the world to rights, that’s wasn’t going to cut it long-term. That’s when the small footprint plan kicked into action.

The transition from energy elephant to mouse has been a steep learning curve. Contrastive, to say the least. It’s not all peaches and cream when you’re trying to atone for your former environmental crimes. The challenges of acquiring power off-grid, of limiting daily usage, and of scrimping on water, are in their own right as equally immense as running power stations for cities such as Dubai. Ethically, living off-grid you’re on firmer ground. However, in a practical sense could we all do it? Or is off-grid living destined to be a strictly niche affair?

In my next blog, I’ll illustrate some of the day-to-day rituals required to keep the lights on, the fire going, and the water running.

To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

Away With the Birds

#adventure, adventure, Africa, barn swallows, Birds, migration, migratory routes, ornithology

Is there any animal that spells summer quite like the barn swallow? Do they even realise they are a harbinger of good things to come? I do not know if it’s them deciding summer or if it’s summer that brings them into being. I dare say it matters not one iota the order of things, simply that one could not co-exist without the other. If either were to disappear, I cannot see how we could avoid joining them in the dustbin of history.

People living at lower latitudes might not appreciate the symbolic power of that first glimpse of a solitary swallow gliding and weaving, banking and dipping above the river and high over the houses. We, however, who choose to inhabit the Northern outposts of the habitable world (i.e. England), place more attachment than we’d have ourselves believe on the return of these seasonal visitors. For us, whether we admit to it or not, the swallow is arguably a national treasure, the most welcome sight over the White Cliffs of Dover in an age where few are getting all excited at the prospect of incomers. After nigh on six months of monochrome, half-light, naked trees and continuous dampness, you can about bank on the swallows to slap an injunction on this dismal run of days. And, yes, to save the rest of us from death by despondency. We owe them much. We owe them a debt of gratitude for returning to us what they callously took from us when they left the previous early autumn. While a simple thanks doesn’t wash with them, busy as they are frantically gobbling up insects on the wing to power the trip home to South Africa, we can perhaps begin to appreciate them by first getting to grips with how mindbogglingly difficult their journey back and forth from latitude 40 degrees south to latitude 50 degrees north.

Weighing in at slightly under half the weight of a pouch of tobacco, and measuring half the length of a school ruler from beak to the tips of their famous forked tail, these little fighter pilots don’t actually require aeronautical engineers to build their means of transport. Nature did that for them over millennia. They are, no less, the complete article. Top Gun school cadets that arrive on the scene with their seventeen million dollar supersonic jet fighter on their back. The inspiration of humans wealthy enough to chase the sun on a perennial basis, swallows don’t need two mortgages in order to live the dream. They do, however, need astonishing levels of stamina, as well as innate GPS coordinates to find their way literally from door to door.

Take the Cape of Good Hope as their starting point. It wasn’t that long ago that humans discovered the verifiable truth that the barn swallows we see here in the British Isles nearly all originate in South Africa. The telemetry of migratory birds was always an elusive truth until tiny metallic bands started to be fastened onto their twig-like ankles. When a swallow was located 8,000 miles away wearing the same band, the connection was finally made. This feat of endurance, flying the length of Africa plus the length of Europe surprised many birders. For starters, how does something weighing fifteen grammes make it that far year after year? And more beguiling, how does an animal with a tiny brain remember how to get home? I mean it’s not like home is just round the corner either. To find its way from a nest in the eaves of a house in a hamlet in a valley in an English county back to a forest in Lesotho or a hole in a crag deep in the Drakensberg Mountains, first it has to find a suitable crossing point on the south coast of England. it then needs to fly at about 50kph, avoiding predatory birds, as well as birdshot from hunters’ guns, through France, over the Pyrenees, over the baking plains of Castille in Spain, up and over the Sierra Nevadas before making another crossing of the straits of Gibraltar. Presumably it doesn’t stop for very long en route, other than to feed where it can and to catch some zzzz’s before the big one across the Sahara. Is this beginning to sound like an epic journey? Well, we’re not properly underway quite yet.

Once into Morocco and over the Atlas Mountains, the landscape becomes disturbingly parched. The complex chain of organic life that begins with plants and eventuates in the presence of insects is on the wane by the time the swallows cross into Mauritania. By now they are well and truly at the mercy of the elements. These elements are always harsh, but sometimes brutal. Food disappears. Soil gives to dust, which swirls around in the lower atmosphere, blinding and choking everything. The heat is intense, even in autumn when the swallows are passing through. Shade at midday, shade at any time of the day becomes a rarity. The nights are frigid. There are so few reliable sources of insectivorous sustenance for them that ornithologists suspect that they make sizeable detours to arrive at Saharan watering holes, of which they are few and far between.

The winds on the open plains of the desert are hot blasts of angry air. The bird must take that wind head on, though if the little navigator gets sucked into a trade wind, he or she will end up blown far off course and into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean where its end is watery.

If the swallow survives the full-blown Saharan stage, by perhaps following the Niger river for water and sustenance, he will find himself entering the Sahel – that band of latitude south of the Sahara and north of the equatorial belt. You might think of the brave little swallow that his troubles are now behind him, but you would be wrong. This passerine bird needs to know it has not ventured off the ‘flyway’ (the corridor that they all traditionally take), but how does he know this when a) a sandstorm has most likely disrupted his passage; and b) when recognisable landmarks beneath them, used season after season to as reliable route finders, have been upended, scorched, moved, destroyed or otherwise fallen victim to man’s insatiable tinkering of his physical world? In the anthropocene age of man the job of swallow with homes in either hemisphere has become intolerably difficult.

If the 18g swallow has made it this far, his chances of reaching home do increase. But success is far from a certainty. In the Sahel, where acacias grow sporadically on impoverished soils, finding dinner is still a major issue. The swallow can try and seek out the brahmin cattle, for their tails are always swishing from the density of flies congregating around their shit. Still, remember, the swallow is a small bird who prefers a diet of gnats and midges and altogether smaller insects. The big-ass African variety, such as the tsetse fly remains a formidable mouthful. Now, beating his wings at upward of 70kph, the swallow powers its way past the Sahel to where green shoots grow. He has now reached the Equatorial belt somewhere around Northern Nigeria. His weary plight will be eased by the sight of forests coming into view. But they are merely a trap. Once he, and another few thousand of his brethren, have reached the forests of tropical West Africa they must be careful where they choose to take their traveller’s rest. The unfortunate will be snared in vast nets that locals booby trap the trees with. There is no hope for a swallow caught in the net. Even though he is only transiting, the swallow will be considered fair game and taken for the village pot.

For the brave few, they might follow the flyway (or skyway as i like to call it) out into the Gulf of Guinea. Once away from land the armpit of Africa can be a dangerous proposition. All it needs is a gust of wind and that’s it, game over. For the foolhardy if they stay the course, crossing the island group of Sao Tome and Principe, they can nail the short cut, reentering Africa in the primordial forests of Gabon, and further south to the mouth of the mighty Congo river. Here they might not be deprived the sustenance needed to power an 8,000-mile journey, but still they are not out of the woods yet. Dangers abound. The Gaboon Viper can strike while they are taking branch breather. Humans continue to predate them and every other piece of flying meat. The rains over the Congo come in torrents, the raindrops as heavy as concrete on their weightless bodies. The electrical storms over the world’s second largest contiguous forest are legendary. Do these pint-sized pilots feel fear?

Once beyond the Congo the swallows are beginning to home in on home. They are now in the southern hemisphere and there is every chance they know this, due to the Coriolis effect, magnetism, position of the sun and stars, and so on. Just when you thought they could hit the home straight for a ticker-tape parade celebrating their incredible marathon, another geophysical kraken emerges. Their voyage home comes to resemble Odysseus and his ten years of wandering. Angola treats them fairly well, providing the Goldilocks Effect for an exhausted bird. However, what lies beyond is in every way as rigorous and daunting as the Sahara. Except this desert is much older and much drier: the Namib.

South Africa is bordered by Namibia to the north. Namibia contains some of the highest dunes on Earth alongside a skeleton coast of nothing but bleached bones and shipwrecks. The ocean is an ice bucket under a burning sun. The dunes have disoriented weary travellers for eons. Only there can north be south and east be west. In the Namib desert can the swallow fall at the final hurdle. If he follows the coast south to the mouth of the Orange River, the swallow will have a fighting chance of making it home in time for supper, though how many lie dazed and confused in the red sands of the Namib no one knows, because no one ever ventures in there and comes out telling the tale.

By now, the great navigator has completed seven of the eight thousand miles. In the Western Cape he can perch on the fynbos, and while the vegetation might be on the prickly side, he will find a good square meal and a place to rest his weary wings.

He’s made it. Many have fallen by the wayside. And, to think, our magnificent young fledgling was only born in England in May, so how in God’s name did he cruise the flyway without having that internal map to guide him? The possibilities are too great, the implications of his amazing solo feat semi-mythical. Leave the answers unanswered. It’s all good. Some mysteries are well-kept for reasons known only to Gaia.

He’s home, South Africa are world rugby champions, the sun is shining as only the sun can in a waterworld southern hemisphere where the skies are cerulean blue owing to the amount of ocean. The earth has tilted away from north to south while he’s been on the wing for those breathless six weeks. He and his squadron of fellow travellers have literally pulled the Earth upward to let their hemisphere bask in the full glow of sunlight. They used invisible pulleys and guy ropes that we cannot see (I know that, because I decoded a conversation between two of them one day). Meanwhile we in the northern hemisphere batten down the hatches for another deathly winter until the swallows return in April or May.

Oh, yes, the return. Did I mention? They’ll be making the homeward journey north as well, about four months from now. That’s if we humans don’t mess up his time-honoured route along the invisible skyway by altering the landscape uprooting trees, exterminating insects, to plough yet another bloody field before he leaves again. Given how far we humans have redecorated the Earth’s surface, it’s a miracle they even find their way back and forth year after year.

So the next time you see one wheeling, darting and generally performing top-notch aerial acrobatics on the green and by the river, doff your cap and take a bow in his direction. For what this tiny frequent flyer does without leaving a carbon trail, we could only dream of.

The Meaning of Success

etymology, semantics, social issues, success

Where lies the true meaning of success? It being a Monday morning and me feeling a current deficit of it, before going all out in pursuit of it until Monday evening, why not examine first as to what it really might be, or might not, for that matter. That way I can negotiate the afternoon at least without wondering too long and hard about the reason for staying awake for its duration.

Success is valued, that’s for sure, as are – for instance – diamonds. Diamonds, when plucked from a kimberlite deep in the ground, are often dull and ordinary. It is not until they are painstakingly faceted by a diamond cutter that they start to coruscate like magic dust from Tinkerbell’s wand when natural light hits them. This faceting adds to their overall value, monetary and intrinsic. The shape of success, too, is many-sided. And, similar to precious stones and metals, success appears to glitter when viewed from certain angles under a particular light. But beware: all that glitters in not gold. Or diamond, for that matter. Similarly, what reeks of success can be no more than a rotten apple.

So, what is success? It breeds itself, we know that much. Which, I suppose, make success asexual. Or incestuous , perhaps. Which explains why nepotism works every time. Sweet is the smell of it, which imbues it with a nectar-like quality, and therefore able to be manufactured by flowers and processed only by bees. If at first it doesn’t come to you, then try, try again. Which, I suppose, makes success feminine in its nature and a temptress in its ways. It also makes success both non-binding and a slave-driving bitch that can only end in a tragic crime of passion involving either the death of it or the death of you. Harshly sexist as that may sound, the writer William James complained to HG Wells in 1906 that success was a bitch goddess whose squalid interpretation (i.e. of the word itself) was a national disease. We are told success is a secret, which in effect rules out everyone who doesn’t share the secret from ever having it. The most powerful secrets are those kept by one person and one person only. Does that make success autocratic? A bit of a Saudi Arabia or North Korea, if you like. Like any decent secret, though, there is no limit to the lengths we would go to revealing it. Which sets us on a dangerous path toward obsession, never ending well. We hear that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. But given that one side of that coin buys everything while the flip side buys nothing, is success a zero-sum game that, when balanced out, is worth approximately nothing? Those latter-day prophets, the motivational speakers, claim success is the tip of the iceberg, that the 9/10ths of it lying submerged is failure by any other name. Does that mean failure props up success? Or that success is merely the face of failure we can see? In that case, I’ll strive for so much failure that success is bound to peek out above the surface eventually. Guided by this fuzzy logic, I personally am doing tiptop considering how much failure I perceive from my efforts.

Let’s go back a while in time. Words outlive their semantic. That is to say, success has not always meant success in the manner by which we millennium dwellers have become accustomed. It originates with classical Latin, Succedere, to follow/to come closely after. Y succeeds X, 2 succeeds 1, and King Edward VII succeeded Queen Victoria, essentially. In modern Spanish, sucedio means simply it happened. By the 1530s the lexical term arrives newly-formed into English as success meaning good result. From this etymology we can adduce that since the reign of King Henry VIII (a man who presumably cultivated a self-image as a man of unerring success) the word has been subject to such a semantic makeover that no one can truly appreciate its true meaning any more. Or could they ever? So let’s extrapolate on the journey of the term success through two thousand years of history. Were people preoccupied with ‘making it’ in life during the Medieval period? Did Cicero, and his Roman elite, engage in flamboyant oratory and classical debate on the very subject? In an era when success denoted to happen afterwards, what did all go-getters use to describe their meteoric rise in life? Maybe they didn’t, as for much of the pre-modern era people experienced personal achievement as a divine gift and therefore attributable to God’s greater glory. Which leaves success as a very modern invention? Did the masses first have to be offered hope and opportunity before they began to entertain notions of succeeding? Did our collective mindset first have to evolve from life as predetermined (fated) to life as the highest expression of free will before a blueprint for personal success could be drawn up? Were the Victorians the first to demarcate a world of winners and losers in a race to the top, or for so many born into indentured classes, a race to the bottom? Hastening our journey in the 20th century, an age where success is never far from the lips of capitalists, advertisers, and exponents of meritocracy. Ah, the self-made man! The dream that keeps the world in a deep sleep. Like so much that governs our lives today in Western Europe, was the concept of success another mid-20th century American export, part of a larger taxonomy with democracy at its head?

Back to the true meaning of success. Like any image, It means many different things for different people at different times in history. It preoccupies the media, fills the book shelves for autobiographies, peppers the obituaries page, leaves most cold and insecure, and to the movers and shakers or our world it threatens their psyches with delusions of grandeur and megalomania. Hell, the living embodiment of megalomania through the indomitable self-image of success even occupied the White House from 2016 to 2021. Remember when that model of success, Donald J Trump esq., referred to the then British PM, Theresa May, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as losers? His universe consisted of (a few) winners and (a multitude of) losers. And boy, didn’t the masses love him for that? Even his proven failures he attributed to success, demonstrating par excellence that all you need for success (apart from a full head of hair) is an infallible ego.

On a final note, perhaps what success truly comes down to has more to do with who or what we are as human beings, as opposed what we’ve done or accomplished as a individual competitor on a playing field called market capitalism. (N.b. What should we be calling the system of governance under which we toil? liberal democracy?) I’m not sure anymore. I’m not even sure if I have succeeded in getting across my message. Although, I am sure that I have succeeded in getting to the end of it. The article, that is.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

#adventure, Life, Lifestyle, love, lyrics, mountains, nature, poetry, rhyme, Travel, verse

Picture a Place beyond your front door,

Where the world awaits you, when you are locked down no more.

Where Coronavirus is a Mexican beer-drinking game,

And social isolation a choice not a chore. Things will never be the same.

I’ve heard that one before. The plain fact is, lifetimes well lived never were,

But that little reminder is neither here nor there.


Is it high tide, or glen, or Thai bride, or fen

You seek? Petersburg or Pelion? Russian or Greek?

Then, is it painting a mural on a West Bank wall?

Or lying in wet sand doing not much at all?

Do you see yourself gladly on a deck chair in Spain?

Or puffing away on the Darjeeling train?

A bit of imagination and the possibilities seem endless. And they are.

I can testify to that. Because I’ve kept near and I’ve ventured far.

There’s really nowhere you’ll feel friendless. Whether you’re watching red cardinals from a bench in Central Park.

Or itching your head in the flea markets of Muscat.

There’s nowhere you won’t make your mark.


I myself have had visions on high,

Of following mountains way up to the sky.

And then looking down on all I survey,

A thought. A plot. I’ll come back here one day.

Or not go away,

at all.


I know. I’ll stay rooted to the spot, and dream not of what I’m missing,

but of what I’ve got.

Which is really the whole world when what’s all around

Are mountains beyond mountains. What is this I have found?

Head in the jet stream, heart on my sleeve,

Life’s best in the thrill of the chase, i believe.

Or better still, I found contentment. That’s what i meant.


There is so much to see, so far to go,

So many ways: fly, cycle, row. Hitch a ride, crawl on all fours,

It doesn’t matter how. Providing you do it outdoors.

Depart at a snail’s pace. Arrive in an instant.

Whoever said dreams had to be distant?

By saying ‘I can’t’, you never will. A mountain?

You’ll be lucky to get up a hill.

So don’t forget to recall, it’s all in the mind. If you fall,

Only you can leave yourself behind.


If you like, walk on your hands to Timbuktu,

And when you get there you’ll know what to do.

Keep on keeping on, this time on your feet,

and smile aloud at the people you meet. Everywhere along the way.

Your presence there will make someone’s day, no doubt. Maybe everyone’s.

Depends where you are, where it’s about. Greeks are not Egyptians.

Cambodians not Colombians. Angolans not Australians. Same but different,

Different but the same, a million broken pictures within a single frame.

A mosaic, you might say. A tapestry, a dot painting, a thing on a wall,

Hungarian, Haitian, Hurdy Gurdy Man, or Han. People are people. Wherever you find them. That’s all.


Wherever you roam, roam with a smile.

And if strangers invite you in for a while,

Don’t turn them down.

Turn them up, let them speak, of what they did today and what they did last week.

Who cares if you can’t follow, if it’s all mumbo-jumbo.

You’ve given them yourself, not some hollow

Man! They can see your spirit is willing, your eyes are smiling, your voice is trilling

Out birdsong, some foreign tongue, delighted to have you here among

Strangers.

No one is a stranger, not when you travel.

Except yourself maybe. Let that twist of fate unravel.


So, next time you find yourself in some forgotten land.

Soon, I trust. On an island in a warm sea scratching the sand,

Or if needs must, holidaying local. Even if that means dressing up as a yokel.

Original thinking is the key. Another experience in the bag. The making of me.

Give yourself a big pat on the back for re-learning the art of life. Such a drag, after a year stuck at home

On the edge of a blunt knife.

All things exist, but only life is for living. Tell me something I don’t know.

But have you thought of the future, of the places you’ll go?


(Inspired by Dr Suess, Oh, The Places You’ll Go)





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Weathering the Purr-fect Storm

animals, Covid-19, dogs, ethics, humour, Life, Lifestyle, love, Travel

When Choosing Between a Kitten and Wintering in the Sun Is the Extent of Your Woes, You Know You’ve Got a First-World Problem at Hand.

The Time to Remedy it? Never. (Still, a solution exists, if you’ll let me explain)

The world has gone canine and feline-mad in the age of Covid. Whether you fall into the category of emotionally clinging to anything with a heartbeat, or else into that of possessing more money than sense, all you suckers out there from either category are being royally shafted for the privilege of sharing your life with four paws, a tail and a pair of irresistible eyes for company.

If you’re not paying a king’s ransom for a King Charles’ spaniel then it’s an ingot of gold bullion for a French bulldog. As for your regal highness of the High Street and all-round deity of detached houses everywhere – the not-so-humble cat, we’ve got Bengals going for anything but a bargain, and Ragdolls for the equivalent of a small finca in Spain. Yip, puppy prices and kitten costs have doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I would go beyond quintupled but I cannot find the word.

Breeders are having a field day while wannabe owners are prepared to part with pretty much their life savings just to snaffle whatever breed is in vogue recently. The law of Siamese supply and Dobermann demand is beginning to resemble the state of the housing market in SouthEast England where sums involved are so eye-watering you’d be forgiven for thinking the bricks are of gold. Same with our precious little quadrupeds where GBP3,000 for a KennelClub-registered fur ball is de rigueur nowadays. The nation’s housebound millions have put out an SOS for something that can bring a taste of Attenborough into their locked-down living rooms. Is there any surprise therefore that the Bengal Cat is presently so popular? They are, after all, not too many generations removed from a Asiatic Leopard Cat, normally found swiping their prickly paws at anything moving in the forests and grasslands of India. If you can’t go to India’s remaining wild places, then bring India into the comfort of one’s living room, where at this rate we’re all likely to live out our remaining days.

I digress slightly. My blogs wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t. So, we’ve quickly established that interest in acquiring a pet has jumped since half the world was grounded by our surrogate parents in government. In Western nations such as animal-mad Britain, an existing industry has just gone decidedly up-market. Not that the quality of kitten or puppy has improved. Far from it. The costs of acquiring the animal have, however. The trend is so blatantly obvious, judging by the number of daft-as-a-brush French Bulldogs that strut past wearing made-to-measure harnesses, that the nation’s thieves have even got in on the act. Thieves are pertinent to this discussion. We can’t simply ignore them, given that their normative habits of breaking into empty houses have been adversely impacted by commuters working from home. So yes, unsurprisingly, every tea leaf in the land (as pseudo-Cockneys like to call thief) worth his prison stripes has swapped the old cat burglary routine for just the cat part. Yes, literally they have taken to burglary of cats (and dogs who fetch more). Once they were a dogged bunch. Now, the criminal element are merely a bunch intent on decamping with their victims’ beloved (and very costly) dogs. Buy your Lhasa Apso pup for two grand from the auctioneer who calls themselves a breeder before it’s stolen from under your nose. Then have the little bundle of joy ransomed back to you for another two thousand. Times are strange.

I myself am no different insofar as i too crave love and affection. Without it, this man has become part-machine, part-Borg. In the continuing absence of that other feline, woman, in my life I too have longed for the ineffable charms of a four-month old puppy or kitten, as well as the dignified air of an older animal. Longed to say absolutely not, this dog is not sleeping with us on the bed, only to pat the mattress when the lights go out and whisper, come on boy. H’up. Naturally, I would baulk at the prospect of paying through the nose but, then again, I would rather adopt a rescue animal over a market-savvy breeder. More than anything, I’d love fate to intervene and have the animal find me. Wow! Now that would be kind of divine intervention. But whatever the source, the intention must be the same: to guarantee that with ownership you have signed an unbreakable moral contract with yourself to care for that animal from the litter tray to the pet cemetery, relinquishing loving ownership only in extreme circumstances, such as terminal cancer or a seat on the Mars Mission.

There’s no leeway for flaky types when it comes to adopting a fur-baby. Alas, they exist. In droves, I expect, though the majority of dependable types are incensed by these soi-disant owners who sell marvellous, sentient household animals as quickly and conscience-free as the day they bought them. Me, I detest this commodification (treating something as unique as a Siberian cat or a English Pointer a mere commodity) of pets in the strange age of Covid. To have one would be to retain it under all circumstances. No exceptions other than the two mentioned above. That’s the honourable thing. Getting a kitten or a pup is no small matter. It takes responsibility and devotion, as we know. So what does a guy do when he’s faced with the dilemma of desiring that wonderful feeling of bringing an animal into his life, his home, and 15-year plans, while also holding fast to that love for far flung, foreign travel? Twenty years with a Birman cat or a solitary winter travelling around Burma? The whole year round with a Russian Blue or that little getaway to the Russian hinterland you’ve always dreamed of but never had the freedom to? Full-time carer-in-chief for that lovely black Labrador, or a summer jaunt around the coast of Labrador in Canada?

The sickening thing is, it’s one or the other. The two – 1) extended bouts of travel and 2) pet – are mutually exclusive. I could have that kitten to cuddle up to a night, to watch with delight at how she starts becoming an existential part of the home and me, or I could spend eight months of the year lavishing affection on the dogs that pass by the boat, each evening poorer for not having a cat or dog to wile the hours away with in front of the fire. For what? For the escape? For the elan and incomparable adventure of travel? I need both but, wearing this crown of moral responsibility, i can have but one or the other.

Much of the world lives hand to mouth on a dollar a day. They are faced with dilemmas like having to leave their home and families for years on end to find work overseas. As for mine. When your biggest dilemma is to chose between raising a fur-baby or wintering each year in a sunny, mountainous Shangri-La, man you know your problem is quintessentially first-world.

Bearing in mind, there is solution for the uncompromising in me. Go and live in a sunny, mountainous place, taking the dog and the cat with me. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The Consolations of Fate

Arabia, Christianity, civilisation, ethics, europe, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, Hinduism, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, Meaning, meditations, Middle East, Musings, Muslim, Natural Law, natural philosophy

Maktoob: that which is written. Ask any one of 1.6 billion people of the world who belong within the Umma (the global community of Muslims, whatever their sect), and most will confess that their entire life boils down to a narrative, a script already written by a divine hand long before each infant has entered the maternity wards of this physical world. That only two endings are conceivable, paradise or hell, is by the wayside. It is the story of life that counts.

Now anyone who has ever lived among the faithful will know that by and large they are a contented bunch. Muslims the world over smile ineffably. When they are not busy with their struggles or else bogged down in civil strife, Arabs and their muslim brethren everywhere from Indonesia to West Africa seem to spend considerably more time that we in the West in a state of laughter and outward expressions of happiness. There’s a lightness to being among them; a sense that, unlike the self-made man of the West, enormous burdens have been somehow lifted from each and every shoulder. Speak to them about how they imagine their lives are going to pan out and in return you will receive a beatific smile and a shrug. It is not for me to say, he will counter. To which, I will respond baffled and he will reply, why worry about the future. It is not ours to decide.

Oh, fate? I will reply. Well, yes and no, he will say. You see, fate is that collision of two moving bodies sprinting down adjacent streets until both reach the corner simultaneously and boom! two bodies collide. Fate, to the Western mind has the air of being something sudden and unplanned. Yet fate – maktoob, is really rather different. What maktoob implies is that those who ran down that road did so before they even knew it. They collided on the corner not because fate ‘intervened’, as we in the Greco-Roman tradition are want to say. Fate to the ancient Greeks, and by extension the latter-day Western World, rested with fickle Gods. They refereed you through every minor move you made, blowing the whistle on transgressions, on foul play. With fate, occidental-style, you could be up one minute; down the next. But maktoob wrote the book of life before you were even conceived. You keep to a life script without ever consciously reading it. The key thing is that to the believer in the Qur’an, each mere mortal was never tasked with writing their own life story. That onerous task was never laid down before them. Blank pages in the annals of God’s creation were just too precious to be delegated to a human fuck-up. The weight of responsibility too great an undertaking for the pages ever to be left blank.

So here we are, twixt a world of the divine and the secular where the growing legions of secularists are sold the belief that life is what we make of it. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. You get out no more and no less than you put in. The proverbs supporting free will are woven into the very fabric of Western languages. Their fellow mortals, in stark contrast, who maintain a more monotheistic tone (and even spiritual when you consider predestination as a central tenet of most Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Baha’i, animists, et al) do not fundamentally accord with this notion that each one of us is a little God carving out the cosmos in his or her own image. These adherents to Islamic (and Judaeo-Christian to a lesser degree) doctrine (the hadiths of the Prophet and the surahs of the Book) are happy of course to be given a patina of choice in life: what car they choose to drive, what profession they choose to follow, what football team they choose to support, even where they’d like to spend their honeymoon. But to most who adhere to a divine book – that we shall call a operator’s manual for living – all notion that each of us is alone to decide everything short of dying at the age of forty of terminal cancer (and even cancer in the West is often attributed in terms of blame to a person’s unhygienic choices, such as smoking) is risible. Of course, when we visit these holy lands with our fanatical secular faith tripping off the tongue like the good little imperialists we profess not to be but are all the same, our religiously-minded hosts humour us and indulge us our fantasies of taking control of our destinies. We lecture them on planning and freedom to choose and freedom to be and even freedom to fuck up. They listen and nod serenely before heading off to the mosque for the fifth time that day, the thirty-fifth time that week, to radiate in the knowledge that the road for them is already laid. Life is a book whose pages were filled in not by the protagonist, but by the author, a long time in the past, so long ago that time is irrelevant.

In a sense this is logical that the book of life be not composed by the main character, for it is the author – a figure who never appears in the book – as creator. Which brings us back to the happiness factor. For all the student suicides in secular Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo, how many self-confessed failures in life do we count from among the lands of the strictly faithful? For all my mediocre students in Arabia, did I once ever see one who was so overburdened by feelings of impending academic failure, so ridden with self-blame for poor performance that they sought the easy way out? Not once. Many underperformed in class only to walk out in high spirits. And what of my Asiatic students? Did they push themselves to the outer limits of academic achievement because of a culturally ingrained belief that the buck stops with them? Yes, frequently. Their academic performance is linked directly to the underlying secular notion that we build our house with our own hands.

I try to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of free-will and predestination and I cannot other than to bewail the amount of responsibility heaped on young individuals in Western Secular and East Asiatic Confucian societies to take the quill of creation and write their life story like each one needs to be on the Booker shortlist. The pressures are immense; the philosophical premise of free-will still unproven. Life is lonely on a planet of authors. Life, in contrast, is one big jovial gathering on a planet where one anonymous author wrote everything for everyone for all time. Maktoob. Who wants to be a driver on a mad road when you can be passenger on a country lane? Isn’t it enough to be the train driver? Or must we lay each rail as well while we go along?

This is by no means a rallying cry for mass religious conversion. The strictures of an observant life of answering the azan thirty-five times a week (and much more during the month of Ramadan) are prohibitive and constrictive to the postmodern mind made up of Post-Christians and Post-Confucianists. Whether a philosophical brainchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment we call free will is no more than a pleasant self-deception, or at worst, a mirage, most feel no abiding need to abdicate control of their lives, or the appearance of self-control. But with pressures mounting on an ecological world in peril, the millions of inchoate dreams existing in aspirational societies that are grounded in the cult of individualism (this is the very guiding light of the West) are becoming ever more unattainable. Blame heaped on oneself, as well as feelings of failure, will balloon in future. Individuals marooned on a desert island of their own making. And sadly, it will be the West – that vanguard of progressive ideas – that will need the anti-depressants while the Arabs will continue to find amusement in the smallest things, such as death.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, #romance, America, California, Life, love, San Francisco, Travel

Part VII

Love is a Gambler

Muggy Hong Kong nights had by now turned to weeks yet her visage held fast in my mind’s eye. She was the high front that hung in the air, which felt like salvation when the actual skies over Hong Kong are notoriously leaden during summer. Hers was a face that brought belief to a notorious non-believer. In spite of having the novelty of a new idol to light nightly votive candles to, that didn’t change the awkward fact that I found myself 6,000 miles away, and that big old ocean wasn’t getting any narrower.

It was probably here in this neutron star of a city-state – still under benign British rule – that my life tag of misfit really became me. I didn’t fit into colonial life. I struggled to get a foothold on the whirligig. All of Britain’s far-flung colonies it was Hong Kong that came closest to ant colony. Standing tall amidst a crowd or peering out of a tenth-floor window the world at street level was a restless mass. Throngs of black-haired people assumed the awesome choreography of a super-organism. They all seemed to follow a pheromone trail to and from the work shift, which apparently never really knew a time for clocking in and clocking out. The gaps between shoulders were scarcely broad enough to slot a sheet of paper in between. You stole your breath then plunged into the streets there. You didn’t amble along the pavement; rather you were swept away by a human current, one stirred into eddies and froth by seven million deadlines and seven million appointments all simultaneously happening. The streets of Kowloon were tributaries of a larger river of humanity, but that river was not the type to empty lazily into the sea. It was frenetic. It was breathless. But it wasn’t me. Nor for me. Frankly, I couldn’t stand the place. All it served to do was remind me of how attractive the San Francisco lifestyle was by comparison.

After a month or so, I received a reply to my card, a greetings card which i addressed, for want of any other address, to the Traveller’s Hostel, Market Street, San Francisco. That opening gambit – the picture card scribbled with a bit of frivolity underlain with real intent – was a crucial one, because naturally you don’t know how a person who was wrapped around you koala-fashion not six weeks before might react now that time zones have intervened. People are funny in that regard. Playing it cool, of course, I merely threw out a suggestion that I, well you know, come back for a long overdue, erm, reunion. Her reply was a bit scattergun. In it she sounded the warning bells. In fact, reading it, I thought her one-page letter so frantically paced that you’d think she was writing it while on the lam with the cops breathing down her neck. In reality, that’s exactly what was happening in her mind. She was spooked that the feds were homing in on the ‘plantation’ she was tending up in that Jerusalem for monotheistic growers: Humboldt County, Northern California. It was ’94 and Reagan’s War on Drugs in this era was not a Philadelphia-based music band, but a real Dr Strangelove effort to rid America of its fave dessert: narcotics. Federal agencies were in balls deep infiltrating growers in the Northern part of the Golden State where a superabundance of conifers (and even the odd redwood) proved the perfect camouflage for a field of glistening kind bud. Helicopters carrying DEA enforcers swooped low over fields, aggravating freedom-loving planters who responded in kind firing off peppershot from pump-action shotguns. This covert war on America by America was deadly serious and, it would appear, she was in the thick of it. Or, if not a kingpin, then certainly on the fringes clipping top-quality bud and housesitting a motormouth of an African Grey parrot right there in a woodland warzone. As for the letter she sent, I couldn’t make head nor tail of its true intentions, so I left it suspended while I went back to work on Hong Kong Island, clearing half-empty beer glasses from tables full of pantomime characters all of whom had recently rolled into town in fine fettle only to end up rolling out of our madhouse of a cocktail bar the worse for wear.

I think I wrote again toward the end of summer. I was still determined. Undeterred I pressed ahead with my plans to finish up in Hong Kong early November and from there spend a month backpacking around Sumatra before catching the long hau back east across the North Pacific. I must have heard from her one more time as I distinctly recall her saying she was checking out on a one-way ticket in the second week of December. Her dalliance with the USA was coming to an end before she could succumb to more mischief in the pines of Northern California. I had a wafer-thin window in which to act. So I booked Sumatra from the 4th November to the 4th December before catching an onward flight via Seoul on the 6th December, arriving in San Francisco on the same day. She had not a clue of my flight path, but hey ho! the best reunions are often through disbelieving eyes. And anyway, I couldn’t face a Dear John from across the ocean. I hate being dissuaded from acting on impulse by a sensible girl who is emotionally-engineered to dampen the wanton ardour that burns in the male of the species. Sometimes you gotta go out on a limb for the things worth grabbing.

It was cold when I arrived on America’s West Coast. The sky was its cobalt self, but the air was dry and the chill wind sucked from the snowcaps of the Sierras off to the East. All those months in the sub-tropics had ill-equipped both wardrobe and bones to take the brunt of the chill far less a rebuttal from a girl whose affections I must’ve craved.

In a rerun of a film I featured in not six months ago, I stepped back into that Hostel foyer to be greeted by the same barefooted lady who ran the show back in summer. ‘I remember you’, she said. ‘Is xxxxx staying here?’ I enquired. This she affirmed, adding that that i had come a very long way to see someone who was hours away from a one-way ticket home.

I asked where my girl might be at this hour. ‘Probably next door at the bar,’ the barefooted lady answered.

That she was still on this continent, in this town, camped under this roof, was good enough for me. I dumped my bags in my dorm and headed for the bar, for what I’d hoped would be a pleasant shock, a reunion worthy of a Hollywood ending. I was only partly right.

She was there, unlike any other just as I remembered her, like the lady at the desk said she would be. Her recognition of me was slightly more delayed. But when the penny finally did drop, it was as if a ghost had sashayed into the bar, sat down next to her, and said in a recognisable voice, ‘Yeah, I know I look off-colour. I don’t need reminding. So, remember the you of six months ago? I do. In fact I liked the taste so much I came back for seconds. So, remember the feeling we, um, shared? Well I’ve ghosted in here, gatecrashed your life, if you like, to invite you back into that moment.

Well, what d’ya say? ‘

She kept probing me, asking me: ‘Did you really fly 6,000 miles after all this time, on the off-chance that you would find me? Did you really fly all that way just for me?’ Yes, and yes. It all sounded promising. And then the tingle of broken glass. Kshhhh! ‘I didn’t think you would come back.’

I didn’t think you would come back? As in you weren’t meant to come back? Who in their right mind does that? To the outsider a phrase like that reverberates the sound of ‘you went away and so (by the laws of average) I met someone else.

‘I met someone else during summer,’ she shrugged. ‘I mean, people say things in the heat of the moment, don’t they? When you said let’s meet again I didn’t take it literally.’

Well, me for one. I was keen. I had vowed to see her again. It was a covenant I made with myself, and I tried hard not to break covenants, least of all with self. Sitting next to her you could almost hear this internal dialogue she was having. It could have been a convocation of voices all furiously debating in her mind how to respond to a disruptive, if by no means unpleasant, element suddenly busting in on a settled plan of existence. My reappearance on the scene was evidently provoking something deep in her psyche. She was about to close this chapter when who should turn up but the plot twist.

Past is future and future past. You can get a fleeting mention in one chapter, a more fleshed out role in later ones. You can trump all odds and win the girl. Or you can end up a lousy loser in love.

‘I have a boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s in the Israeli army.’

‘Oh, I see.’ lousy loser it is then. I’ll get my coat, shall I?

‘He’s downstairs at the moment. Thing is, he doesn’t like the British.’

‘We’ll get along then.’

Pinned onto the horns of a dilemma, that’s where she was. I offered to leave, disguising well my impending heartache. Sang-froid can protect a man whose blood runs too hot for too long for the wrong girl. I told her it was worth the 10,000 mile detour just to share a drink with her. She stopped me. Don’t leave! I need to work this through in my mind.

The following day was her last after years in California. We spent some down time together during the day, but the evening was not ours to get all entwined about. She said she owed it to him to spend a final night together. I didn’t overreact. And anyway, she said, this is my final night with him, and you’ll be seeing more of me in future.

I sat outside my room in the corridor that evening. Diagonally down the hall was her dorm. I could hear them from behind the door. He couldn’t have been savvy about this interloper who had re-entered her life. I felt disconsolate. Many months and thousands and thousands of miles for this: to have her tantalisingly within my grasp only to be separated by this fucking dingy corridor, his blissful ignorance of my existence, and her doing the honourable thing. But what was this olive branch she extended, saying tonight would be the last night he would ever spend with her?

I must have sat in that corridor all night alone eavesdropping on the laughter and mirth going on behind her door. My head sagged; a tear or two shed. Solitude is the handmaiden of self-pity, I’ll tell you. My instinct was that love was a gamble and my gamble had not paid off. I don’t know why anyone would compound their state of unrequited love by doing a Romeo and cowering under the proverbial balcony while just above Juliet gets jiggy with another fella. Then again, she had said she needed that time with him as it would be her farewell to him (and I don’t mean Juliet) . Was my presence a trigger for that? I couldn’t begin to second guess a woman of such complexity as this one. At that age without much prior experience, I probably couldn’t second guess a woman with straw between her ears far less a smart one.

The following morning as she was readying to leave on journey that would signify the end of her American period, she knocked on my door. My reaction to seeing her was stilted. I still felt bruised that she had chosen to burn the candle with him the night before while I languished in the corridor alone, my mind imagining what they were up to. She said that she was leaving, but that she had made a choice. What choice? I wondered.

‘I choose you..’

Me?

She was going to write to him and tell him it would never have worked between them. Once that was over, we would once again be free to continue where we had started off in that summer of ’94.

‘I’m going back to Argentina now. But there will be a next time for us. I’ll meet you in England in the summertime.’

And lo! She did. Six months later I pulled up outside York railway station and there she was rested up against her blue backpack, book in hand. Six months of pure South American sunlight had coppered her skin. Hair dark as night and fringed and nothing like the English girls whose hair was all too mousy brown. It had been a year since that first encounter, and there would be many more to savour in the coming years. Having myself left on my big trip from practically there one year before, seeing her there outside York Railway Station completed a beautiful circle made of endless corners.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, China, Hong Kong, Life, love, Meaning, San Francisco, thoughts, Travel

Part VI

The Going

Travelling the better part of 7,000 miles only to fall in love is not something that happens everyday. Where X marks the spot right where the heart is, when you find treasure you’re supposed to keep it. That’s the whole point, right? Trouble was, I was booked on a flight to KaiTak Airport, Hong Kong, the day of the ’94 World Cup Final, which by my reckoning was two weeks away. So, it begged the question, how does a guy pack twenty-one years of holding back that lovin’ feeling into two weeks of consolidated passion’? More’s the point, how does a lovestruck Romeo duck out of his promise to board that plane with his best friend? After all, that was always the plan. We stopped short of a blood handshake, but nevertheless a mate’s word is his bond. It was an irrevocable decision that only a selfish, lovelorn bastard would go back on. We boys were betrothed in the sense that we vowed to go to Hong Kong together come what may. Batman can’t take on Gotham without his sidekick, Robin. But who was who and which was which? Was I his sidekick, or he mine?

We would hit the ground running in the continental United States before jetting west 6,000 miles across the Pacific to integrate into the Sinitic world of strange vocal tones and even stranger aromas. Still a British colony, we’d flounce through Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport like colonial masters of old, waving that black post-imperial passport whilst speaking the queen’s own. Immediately thereafter we’d walk into a well-paid position by virtue of the power vested in each of us as crown subjects, beneficiaries of masterful British naval blockades of the Opium Wars against a decrepit Qing Dynasty, circa 1840. We’d save our easily-earned Hong Kong dollars before moving on to the sweat-spangled delights of Indonesia.

Except, she walked into my life in a down-at-heel bar in San Francisco. That wasn’t part of the bargain.

The more time I spent with her, the more I had to borrow from from elsewhere to keep spending on her. I was free-falling into a love that knew no ground. I was helpless and powerless and as I divested that ego-protecting power away from me and into her, I reckoned I had never been so upwardly mobile as then.

It was the little things that stayed with me. The minutiae that had me swooning over her every move. She invited my friend and I to her shared house on Webster St, off Haight Ashbury. An old Victorian clapboard house, an American icon, she rented the front room. We sat down in there on an old mattress lain over a stained redwood floor. She played a cassette of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. As the opening bars of In the Light came on, she passed me a joint made with Humboldt County kind bud. Two puffs and I was floored. Pretending there was nothing amiss, I picked up one of her art pens and clumsily proceeded to snap the nib, letting black ink soak into the desk on which was laid out the makings of an impressive illustration that depicted the fantasy world of the Shire. If the sketch was supposed to be England, it was like no England i had ever seen. On her bureau, an illustrated book of H.R. Giger. He was the creator of xenomorphs, hideous hybrids – part man, part praying mantis – that would go on to inspire Ridley Scott to make the Alien look, well, more alien. Xeno, i knew, meant foreign in Greek. And morph meaning shape/form. In a roomful of outsiders all cast together, who was the real xenomorph among us now?

Next thing I was coming around from a brief bout of unconsciousness. So wipeout strong was the joint, she had fallen into the arms of Morpheus, too, her head at my feet, my head at hers. Topping and tailing, we could have been coochy-coo twins. I noticed the fit was right. No superfluous limbs splayed over the mattress edge. Some things interlock while other things, try as we might, just don’t fit right. Geometry had sealed our fate and no amount of cramped bed space was going to stop us from – excuse the cliche – fusing together as one. I watched her sleep for a moment. I studied her perfect black eyebrows until seeing her eyes open i tried wrenching my gaze away. But it was no use. Her dark eyes were fixed on me. And that as they say, was that.

How was I going elude my obligations and cancel that onward flight? California was beginning to grow on me and i don’t mean like a callus. I was falling in love not just with her, but with the final frontier of the great American trek, too. There is light throughout the world, unevenly distributed. But this was the first time I bathed in a daylight so pure. No, in that moment, sharing an old crumpled mattress under a bay window on the first floor of an old Victorian house off Haight Ashbury, I resolved to give this infatuation time to deepen. I had to find an excuse not to go without alienating my best friend in the process. I tried to empathise, to put myself in his shoes. What if it were him welching on a deal and not me? Would i resent the love that had found him? Would I have boarded that onward flight to Taipei, then HK without him, flush with the confidence that at the tender age of 22 years and 40 days I could face the enormity of falling on my feet in such an expanse of plain weirdness that was the Chinese hemisphere? Doubtful. With that sense of obligation that solidifies where friendships are at stake, I knew i had to make that 16hr flight west across the impossibly wide Pacific with him, my friend, and not stay with her, my lover to be.

Question remained: how would i find her again now i had resolved to lose her? Remember, this was the age of airmail letters, postcards and the telephone locutorio/cabin. Leaving meant leaving, unlike today where we never really go anywhere other than into a virtual world contained on the screen of a small electronic device that fits snugly into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Airmail letters signified something deeply profound and deeply, deeply thoughtful; more of a complex whale song than a simple tweet. Anyone who can cast their minds back to that antediluvian world of cursive calligraphy , exotic forwarding addresses, and that personal signature of saliva on the back of the affixed stamp will understand how so. Trouble was, she had no forwarding address and nor did I. Not even a dedicated carrier pigeon with a sixth sense would do. For all intents and purposes, boarding that one-way flight across the Pacific I might as well have been boarding the Mars Express on a never-to-return voyage.

The plane lifting into the endless blue, ahead nothing but deep, black ocean. A moat as wide as any. As i turned to look through the aircraft porthole at the crimped, golden hillsides of California beneath me recede, I turned to my friend for something, support maybe. But his head was reclined backwards and his eyes were closed in quiet contemplation. I saw in him that he was already at his destination, whereas me I had not left my place of departure, and nor would i for months to come. Unwilling as I am to declare it: I really did leave my heart in San Francisco. In the words of Paul Simon, I walked off to look for America. And what did I find at the end of the rainbow? For the first time in life, a true romance cut tragically short.

A Cri de Coeur From This Island Prison

Brexit, Britain, British Isles, civilisation, development, England, EU, europe, future, global polity, globalisation, Great Britain, Political Culture, Politics

Attention: All friends across Europe and the half of Britain dismayed by the madness of this government’s desire to impoverish all our lives in ways that go far beyond economics, I send you warm salutations and a heartfelt sorry. And to all those across our continent who – not already bored of this interminable farce – at this present moment must be shaking their heads in disbelief at the tragicomedy unfolding before their very eyes, I declare my undying apologies. I don’t know if sending out a message in a digital bottle will make any difference to the catastrophe we see emerging in this slo-mo act of national collective suicide. We’re suffocating out here on the perimeter under a cabinet of hands all of whom stroke their fat fingers against the trigger; a merry, posh-spoken band of English outlaws who press the barrel of their hostage gun not only against my temple but also against that of the millions of others on this island who want no part in this categorical error of proportions that will without doubt come to register in time on history’s seismograph. 1+1=3. Historical+Error=Brexit.

How can you begin to forgive us our trespasses? How can we begin to forgive ourselves for letting the country sink into this morass of festering sewage? How to undo this Gordian knot of tangled pride and stubbornness and delusion? How to eviscerate a political class of unenlightened, self-interested types who have for too long fed on the timidness and deference of a people whose claim to decency is undermined by the hostility and hubris implicit in a Brexit concept that has gone from bad to worse? Christ! They’re even talking of sending in the Royal Navy to apprehend French and Dutch fisherman who have, by common consent, for centuries fished these coastal waters? Even if such threats are hollow hyperbole, the mere mention of naval intervention – gunboats, can you believe? – is not just insulting to our European compatriots, it’s also downright dangerous. This debacle is now descending into collective madness, and all under the tutelage of a twit of a P.M. for whom this is all just a Bullingdon Club game of sophistry with tomfoolery thrown in – of who can win the debate while not essentially giving a shit about the debating point. In short, old Etonians are using the futures of sixty-seven million people here and countless millions on the continent as bystanders in their game of ‘who can sell a knuckle-headed notion like storming out of Europe, friendless, in a no-deal strop (aka Brexit)’ to a bunch of gullible fools’? If anyone can sell snake-oil to a populace that wasn’t even ill to begin with, Boris can. He’s an affable chap. He dreams of being Pliny the Elder when all around him Rome is being doused in petrol. He’s more chameleon than Pliny and he changes hue effortlessly to blend in wherever with whomever. To this ability he owes his success. Clever animals, chameleons. Trust in a chameleon to lead you out the forest and onto the hot sand. Yes, he’s a selfish oaf, but at least he’s our oaf. And he uses impressive words half the country cannot fathom the meaning of, which naturally gives him an even more elevated standing among lesser wordsmiths. He’s got gravitas while the rest of us have got gravy.

This was the referendum to end all referendums. Deeply flawed from the design stage, it was an in-out referendum. Winner takes all; loser either emigrates or slips benignly into stultifying acceptance. What an ingenious device of modern democracy to fill the public with lies, obfuscation and misinformation and expect them to take that rotten meat and cook it up into an informed decision. What should be a legally non-binding advisory upon which further rational decisions can be made by educated leaders of sound mind and limited ideology becomes an in-out ultimatum on a subject so beyond the ken of the vast majority that the only sensible thing to do is to delegate that complex question to those who would be pushed to even tell you how many states make up the EU far less what they’re called. The highest expression of populist idiocy and irresponsibility on the part of a defunct governing class is to give the plebeians the keys to the kingdom in the form of a referendum on a question most are not in an intellectual position to answer with anything more than base emotion. On monumental issues, a governing class do not serve democracy’s best interests by devolving responsibility onto impressionable souls. Where we stand near-broken now, those who served up Brexit on a plate to the hungry in the end served mainly themselves. Fact: on Referendum night what seems like decades ago, even though it was only four years, Google recorded a surge in UK-based searches on queries such as, what is the EU? How many countries form the EU? What are these countries? One can only presume such searches were frantically made en masse after votes had been cast in favour of getting out. Counter-intuitive (moronic?) as it seems, that’s what you do when you’ve no idea the whys and wherefores of your decision-making process: you ask the basic questions after you’ve magicked the answer from thin air with a swish of your wand. If only Sherlock Holmes had been around to show the country the true meaning of deductive reasoning. But he wasn’t and we now find ourselves sinking into irrelevance as a nation.

This tragedy, like all tragedies, has a basis, a beginning. The original sin was cast not by Johnson, but his old Eton pal, Dave ‘The Rave’ Cameron. This former P.M. now tainted forever by complacency in thinking that a people raised on a diet of right-wing tabloids would actually arrive at the same sage decision as your well-travelled self, David. Poor judgement mixed in with public school hubris. And you, Mr Cameron, would extend the courtesy of abrogating your decision-making powers to a populace so out of touch with the membership rules of a very important club that half don’t even know what it is they’re trying to get away from. And what can spending a year abroad in Germany tell you that the front page of the Sun or the Daily Mail cannot? Maybe it’s poetic justice that England leaves in disarray, as England never really had a clue what it was involved with to begin with. England, you were a punch-drunk boxer with heavily swollen eyes swaying in the ring corner while your trainers whispered sweet nothings in your ear. Those men hunched in your corner were reporters from The Sun, The Daily Star, The Mirror (pro-EU editors with anti-EU readership), The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and the Daily Express. Their pantomime villain was the EU commission. Cue Boris Johnson, Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Telegraph: the spinner of tall tales from the engine room of continental power. No, England never really understood what Europe was about, though it undoubtedly will now that it has stormed off into the wilderness. What the sleaze-merchants at the tabloids didn’t tell you was that when you joined up to the European Economic Community you were heralded as the dirty man of Europe. You were near bankrupt, in hoc to the unions, and facing wave after wave of violent disintegration from Glasgow to Glamorgan. Twenty years later, you were helping to draft EU law. The country was cleaner. People were given workplace protections. Statutory holidays. Hitherto battered ecosystems started to recover. As Europe got greener and fairer, we followed wisely. Things started to work again. What was a stagnating, crumbling hulk of a former empire was now beginning to modernise as it moved inward to the centre of power and influence in a renovated, peaceful, and prosperous Europe. But that wasn’t good enough for the Brexit buccaneers and free-trade mercantilists in the Tory illuminati who thought they were being held back by EU processes and whose personal interests could be better served by, as they saw it, becoming unchained from EU transparency. And what better way to do it, than by telling lie after lie about the European Union, by stoking nationalism, and by protracting a sentimental obsession with the Second World War wherein the European Parliament of today were cast as the stereotypical figures of 1940: the French duplicitous, collaborating cowards; the Germans evil masterminds; the Italians pompous and ridiculous; the Greeks and Spanish lazy; the Slavs in the pocket of the Kremlin; the Scandinavians too bloody Scandinavian. The list goes on. If the aim was to convince a sceptical population stuck half way out into the ocean on their semi-detached raft called Britannia that the Germans won the war after all and with their French collaborators are now running the show under the guise of the Commission, the Parliament in Strasbourg, and the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, then Rees-Mogg, Gove, Johnson, et al did a sterling job. They bayed the mob and the mob swallowed it. Woe betide the mob. Nigel Farage doesn’t even feature because he’s an Estuary English-speaking nobody who will never assume the occult powers of a plum-in-the-mouth, true blue Brexiteer with a real $$$ stake in leaving. If anything, the vaudeville figure of Farage stands to lose from Brexit seeing that he no longer draws a MEP’s salary and cannot summon so much as an old man and his greyhound for his populist rallies.

What started out on the part of David Cameron as a concession to a tumescent Tory party to avoid a parliamentary civil war, turned into an offer to take a question lingering long on our pursed lips to the people. As soon as that platform went public, a campaign of disinformation could commence unhindered. What did the rump of England know anyway about affairs of state? Hell, most didn’t know where the European Court of Justice was, far less what its purpose was. All they knew and all they were happy to know was that these foreigners were presiding over our lives and that we, as Englishman, don’t take kindly to being told what we can and cannot do, unless of course our upper-classes (who are Norman French and Hanoverian German anyway) are the ones to do the dictating as they always have. No, we can’t really think for ourselves but better if that thinking is done for us by one of our own, albeit a rich, land-owning toff we never have dealings with, than by a Eurocrat talking a funny tongue. If most actually took the trouble to be better informed they would have realised that what is decided beyond these shores is a lot more impactful on our daily lives than we care to think. Example: who writes the software in your mobile phone that rewires your brain on a neural level? A foreigner. Who or what influences share/commodity prices? Who decides the value of your avocados? And which administration influences UK foreign policy? All emanate from abroad, Brexit or no Brexit. What’s more, if in your La-La Land of Milk & Honey you took all foreign influence away you’d end up another North Korea or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Worst still you’d end up with Tories governing your lives to suit their own greedy, acquisitive interests even more stridently than you do now where at least what comes down from Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg has at least some mitigating effect on Tory misrule. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Johnson is lofted to the pinnacle of party power not by popular election but by the 90,000 fawning members that make up the Conservative Party. Not content with winning those old fuddy-duddies over, with his unelected mandate he takes the reins on the government in a bloodless coup d’etat, giving him airtime to tell more whopping lies when he is not shirking public duties. With that he proceeds to scale the Red Wall – meaning he wins previously un-winnable seats in the North and Midlands. All in, the jester takes the whole court hostage. From a blasé ‘Easiest Free Trade Deal in History’ to a trite ‘Get Brexit Done’ bit of sloganeering we have degenerated from the promise of a frictionless agreement to the point of teetering on a cliff edge without having the balls to fall off. Predictably, even the language of state has gone from somewhat cordial to bellicose. When in doubt, call in the Royal Navy. Talk about making an enemy of yourself when there were never any grounds to. Not a single flimsy reason.

How has it come to this? What gives this rogue government and the destructive forces that put them there the right to tear my life away from a position of favour, unfettered travel, and an identity closely tied to progressive European politics to this sorry state of affairs? I was born Scottish and you made me British. I was born European and you took that away from me, too. Thanks England, for poisoning half a century of close relations and mutual benefits with the best club anyone could hope to be a member of in a world of clubs and powerful blocs.

Desculpes, désolé, mi dispiace, es tut mir leid. I’m sorry Europe, but these revolutionaries in London do not speak for me with their half-baked plans. My advice to you is to shine your bright light into our fading corner. Don’t give up on us before we give up on ourselves.