I have nothing to envy except envy itself: Five Cheers for Embattled America.

#adventure, #alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, America, Britain, British Isles, California, conservation, England, environment, ethics, global, globalisation, Great Britain, Happiness, history, land ownership, Liberalism, Life, Lifestyle, National Parks, natural world, nature, Reflections, social attitudes, social issues, Society, success, thoughts, Travel, travelogue, United States, Wilderness, Wildlife

Today, I was reading a comment posted on Quora. The leading question was: What Do Britons Envy Most About the US? To which – and I am sorry to resort to the social media art of backbiting – this particular member of Quora’s burgeoning commentariat decided to put down his Daily Mail for a moment to consider the question. If i may add, with a degree of ignorance I have long suspected in my fellow countryman, but hitherto have been unable to prove. This one’s a game changer.

His answer – hardly surprising coming from a reader of a newspaper with a long and illustrious history of jingoism, xenophobia, and acute insular-mindedness – left me wondering two things :

Firstly, whether this man had actually ever travelled anywhere beyond the house he so proudly owns; and secondly, what is it I envy most about America.

Returning momentarily to the Quora contributor, he went about answering the question of envy by singularly failing to address the meaning of what was being asked. So what does the average Briton envy most about America? Well, it helps to know the place by means other than what is daily reported in his favourite Little Britain news rag. His answer? To paraphrase: I’ve just had a full English breakfast and now I’m resting contentedly with coffee and tabloid in hand, admiring the four walls of the house I own outright (as if Americans don’t own homes). Then, for good measure, he throws in a little mockingly-good dose of British sarcasm about how he wished he’d had all that American Free-Dumb (as if Britons own sarcasm).

Upon reading this, I bristle with uncustomary outrage, as i am not an American. However, I think a little part of me might be. My mind is busy thinking, just because a man can enjoy digesting an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, and fried tomatoes, accompanied by 100 pages of right-wing tabloid bile, and all within the comfort of one’s own home, does in no way negate America’s dizzying roadside attractions. 

Comparisons are dangerous when you have little idea what it is you are comparing. In the case of UK-US country comparisons, chalk and cheese.

Does he know that the US is not so much a country as it is a continent? If he cared to step out of his zone de comfort and board a plane to the four far flung corners of the continental United States – Anchorage to the Florida Keys, San Diego to Cape Cod – he might tone down his prejudices a bit.  

Ach! Why should I care what others think? Their loss, my gain. The more of them remain at home admiring the wallpaper, the more of America I’ve got all to myself. So, back to the matter in hand: what do i envy most about the United States of America? That is to say, what do they have that we don’t? That I don’t possess?

Well, turns out, a lot.

For format’s sake, here’s my top five:

  1. World-class National Parks, some the size of English counties. These are designated wild places. Mother nature’s property portfolio. They contain wilderness that belongs to no one in particular and to everyone in general. See Yosemite valley and weep, just as the great Scots-American pioneer, John Muir, did. And that’s just one of many parks that range across thousands of miles from Denali NP in Alaska to the Big Bend in Texas, from Sequoia NP in California to Acadia NP in Maine. Although the designation ‘National Park’ has been awarded to 63 sites across the US, there are literally hundreds more state parks, national monuments, national forests, and so on and so forth. One could spend the multi-millennial lifetime of a redwood tree exploring them, and probably still not reach the end. America’s national parks are some of the greatest entities ever created, and humanity didn’t have to create a damn thing doing so.
  2. It would be naive to state that the US is a classless society, but it would also be a gross overstatement to say that it’s anywhere near as class-conscious as England. There is a proud tradition of meritocracy in the US, which harks back to the days of huddled, squalid masses pouring off the Atlantic liners in search of a better life in a new world. In the US, aristocracy is a term loosely applied to old New England families, and Hollywood film stars. In Britain, aristocracy is real and to this day responsible for walling off vast swathes of land for personal gain. A land grab and power consolidation that has gone on for centuries. This deference to the landed gentry shows no sign of abating, even in the face of 20th century political progress. America’s anti-monarchical revolution of 1776 had its origins in English dissident, radical liberalism. It was then joined by a republican France to become a place where, if you were white and Northern European, the average person was thrust centre stage, and the inalienable right of kings tossed out. Suddenly, we were all kings in a savage land.
  3. Abundant sunlight that mottles a stunning geographical diversity. They used to rhapsodise about the sun never setting on the British empire, as the empire stretched across all time zones. Well, if it’s mizzle in Maine, you can bet Texas will be toasted by UV. If clouds reign over Kalamazoo, rest assured, winter sunlight will dazzle downtown Denver. Fog in Philly? Photons in ‘Frisco. You see the alliteration? Dazzling, isn’t it? Maybe, but it don’t dazzle like downtown Daytona. Who loves the sun? Not just the Velvet Underground.
  4. On the Road right through American popular culture. The tradition of hitting the road, Jack, and not coming back no more, is enshrined not only in American literary culture, but in real life, too. I have a friend from New Jersey. One day, he decided to follow his doctor sister to Las Vegas, a mere 2,000 miles away. Hopped into a car, and headed west. Stopped here and there along the way, but kept going. Within a week he had gone from icy winter to a hot desert where he picked up work as a wilderness guide, in no time. Americans, unlike Brexit Brits, have choices. And believe me, many – through restlessness or desperation – pack up their bindlestiffs and seek emigration within their own nation. They can quit some insufferable place and start again somewhere utterly different, which really just nourishes the soul, and keeps that wonderful literary tradition going strong (see the award-winner Nomadland for a case in point).
  5. Wilderness. Unashamedly, I keep coming back to it. America’s untouched places, which I have seen in the flesh, and continue to see shining in my mind’s eye, are truly a thing of wonder. The Pacific Crest Trail alone runs for 2,650 miles from an iconic bridge on the Washington/British Columbia border, to the Mexican border. The trail bisects some of the greatest wilderness on Earth. Americans, seeking spiritual solutions for materialist problems, set out on the trail. 5 months later they emerge changed forever and for the better, having read the signs that nature put before them. Meanwhile, where do we Brits go for a spot of soul-washing? Wherever it is, we can be sure of encountering signs of a different kind along the way: Private/No Entry/Keep Out/No Trespassing….you get the idea. Envy might be a deadly sin, but nowhere near as deadly as that old assassin, ignorance.

Brought Low in a High Place

#adventure, adventure, altitude, America, Andes, Lake, Perú, peru, South America, Titicaca, Travel

It’s one of these rare places on Earth as recognised as it is obscure. Ask anyone if they’ve heard of Lake Titicaca; a surprising number will reply, yes. Ask them where to locate it on a globe, and a fair few will struggle to point to that magical spot between Peru and Bolivia. I have no idea why, but since childhood I’ve been able to press my finger square on it. In hindsight, it was my way of saying,

‘don’t you go disappearing because one of these days I’m coming for you.’

Facts That Stick to Boyhood Dreams

The best factual odds and ends stay youthful as we reach adulthood. Random things conceal their true purpose until decades later. For as long as I can remember I’ve known Titicaca to be the highest navigable lake on Earth. It was family Christmases playing the board game Trivial Pursuit that taught me that. And this cool factoid remained lodged in my mind, planting a seed of fascination with this freshwater sea in the sky that would carry through to this day. And talking of trivia, Titicaca’s stocked with it in the way Lake Victoria used to be stocked with tilapia fish.

Unlike tilapia, you can’t eat facts, but you can regurgitate them. Titicaca is an epic of empirical fact worthy of bringing up time and again.

Since those days of board games played in the Scottish seasonal spirit, I’ve harboured a secret longing to see, with my own eyes, this vast inland body of water. Now a mere 8,370km2, during the Pleistocene – ending 12,000 years ago – Titicaca was reckoned to be subsumed under something much bigger. Back then the entire altiplano was a liquid landscape the size of Great Britain, stretching as far south as today’s Northern Argentina. But being, as we presently are, in the Holocene Epoch, all that’s left these days is a puddle of stupendous proportions, about the size of Puerto Rico. And that’s just the area. We haven’t dove down yet.

Deep, Wide, and Barely Comprehensible

Titicaca is as deep as it is wide. At its deepest, on the Bolivian side, the lake bottoms out at nearly 300 metres (nearly a thousand feet). That’s not far off average bathymetry around the British Isles. Never mind its surface elevation is a staggering 3,847 metres (12,507ft) sobre nivel del mar, as the local Spanish speakers say, which is by no means everyone in an ancient polyphonic region that plays host to the Aymara language (on the Bolivian side) and Quechua (you got it! on the Peruvian side). So, aside from the dizzying altitude, you’ve also got communication to contend with. If you’re struggling with your Castellano when you get there, you’ll leave head-spinning once you’ve been exposed to these other two autochthonous languages.

These are but minor inconveniences when finally, after forty years of not trying hard enough, one finds oneself there on a beach on an isle ringed with clouds in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Standing on a subtropical sandy beach at 12,507ft? Or glimpsing mountaintops so distant I’m not even going to guess how? Or sleeping on a double bed in a lodge atop a huge, anchored raft of totora reeds 3 metres (15ft) thick that’s continuously waterlogged and needs building up every fortnight to avoid sinking? Or watching a storm front gather over starboard waters when on the port side hills are bathed in pure sunlight? No, the lake doesn’t add up. And that’s precisely why it does. And that’s why I want my ashes scattered there, but not any time soon, I pray. 

Heroic Landscape – Or is it?

I entered from Puno, a day’s bus ride from Cusco, passing through Montana-esque high plains landscape. Toward journey’s end the lake’s a shimmering tease. You see it, then you don’t. You round bends on the bus, stealing glimpses over dozing, double-masked passengers, all the while knowing the sky above is stretched thin. The cloudscape populating this sky is itself a mountain range of vapour pressing down on the Andean high plateau beneath. Titicaca is there. Or is it? The billiard table land rushing by you glimmers grey-silvery, but that could be just the sky above mirroring the earth below. You’re on the altiplano now and gone is the intimacy of Cusco’s mountain-drenched surrounds. Distance now morphs into something else. It’s vast and continental.

The high plains perform a trick of the light few other topographies do – how the jagged crown encircling the far horizon could be mountains or clouds, or both. Driving across the continental U.S. years back, the landscape was an illusion of features real and imagined. I loved that magical feeling, the ego death. Never has a person felt so good for standing so small amidst all the grandeur of something so large.

Storms Gathering on Two Fronts

With an air of the unfinished, the city of Puno is no fairy tale on the lakeside. But to give it credit, it commands one heck of a view. Where it lies the lake takes a bite out of the shore, giving it that safe-harbour-in-a-storm aspect. The five days I spent there were stormy, both literally and figuratively. And to be fair, Puno, for all its shortcomings, was that safe haven: not once but twice. The lake itself is the embodiment of inner peace, weighed down by nothing but pure light. But not outwardly. Not always. Even heaven comes wrapped in a black shawl. But back to my tale of two storms.

Figurative one first.

Walking down to Puno’s port from my hotel off the Plaza de Armas, the crowds were milling. The annual festival had been cancelled due to – you guessed right – Covid. Yet. That didn’t stop masked gatherings. It was a Sunday and a bright one at that. Kids rode their pedalos with glee in the shallows while their parents fawned over them, snap-happy mobile cameras in hand. A gloved woman held aloft a great raptor, leaving the day-trippers to swoon around the blindfolded bird. Where the falconer is also the hawker, the kids posed with the raptor while their parents parted with their hard-earned cash.    

The Legend of Uros

Down by the jetties, many pleasure boats. I boarded and before long we were making waves. This section of the lake is littoral: shallow, reedy, and cut through with navigation channels. Before long it opens out into a vastness the likes of which I had never seen, least of all at 3,850 metres up. On the far horizon was our objective: the floating island community of the Uros people. With an island of braided honey-yellow reeds improbably floating on 20 metres (60ft) of dark water, a sky of azure and the rest of heavenly emptiness, this was going to be a photo opportunity way too good to resist. Evidently, it would seem others on the boat were finding something similarly hard to resist.

The boat moored and we disembarked on this bouncy mat of totora – an aquatic grass that is the lifeblood of these lake people. Even the creation—origin-myth stories of the Inca and the legend of Tiwanaku on the Bolivian shore feature strongly this boat, house, and island-building material. Hell, its reputation extends so far and wide that 2,000kms away on the Pacific coast near Trujillo you can still witness totora canoes cresting on the breakers. At least, I did.

Reed the Warning Signs

So, there was me snapping happily away with my expensive Nikon when two fine young fellows from the boat ride over started displaying a lot of interest in it. I know enough Spanish to realise that they were from neighbouring countries to the north. I wasn’t unduly concerned until two women from the boat approached me, looking serious, speaking Peruvian Spanish.

‘These men are going to rob you unless you get off this island.’

I looked at the women, I looked around. How immediate was the threat? How was I going to get off the island of reeds? They explained that Puno and Titicaca were hotspots for camera thieves, never mind local, from all South America. They swore that it was so rife as to be a quasi-industry, organised at the port and in the town’s seamier quarters. They went on to say that these usual suspects would dare not rob me here, in plain view, on a huge reed mat anchored in 20 metres of water. Rather, it would happen back at the port where their cohorts would be waiting in ambush.

‘Get off the island now,’ they repeated. ‘Don’t return to port on the same boat.’

No News Like Bad News

Spooked, I put the camera back in the bag and wandered to a stall where a local artisan was displaying his colourful handicrafts. We talked. He too had noticed these shifty sorts eye-balling me and my camera. To my surprise, he reiterated what the women had warned me. He said that well-meaning gringos descend on the lake from far afield with their $2,000 cameras, blissfully unaware that for South Americans with nothing to lose the sell-on value of a stolen camera is worth more than a half a year’s wage. The temptation is too great to refuse. I asked if they get violent.

His reply was oblique yet sinister enough.

‘Often it doesn’t need to come to that.’

‘Why is that?’ I asked.

‘Because your camera will be gone before you even know it.’

By now I was genuinely spooked. I watched them watching me, the two of them. We were on an island prison and our pilot was in no hurry to return to port. Short of swimming like some desperado fleeing Alcatraz I analysed ways of holding onto my camera by making a graceful exit. Another cruiser was moored up. I asked if I could join, but the pilot answered that it would be hours before they returned. So, I did what any exasperated fool would and rolled up to an Uros islander who was sitting in his motorised canoe just waiting for a crisis to unfold.

The Not-So-Great Escape

‘How much to get me off this island?’

He paused then asked for s/10 (soles), about $3.

Forbidden from running impromptu taxi services back to shore, the best he could do was to drop me on a neighbouring isle, in reality another giant totora raft anchored in a daisy chain to the one I was on.

Two minutes later there was I on another giant, floating totora mat, alone. Looking pleased and prepped for the great escape, I sat and waited for my ship to come in. As sure enough one did, carrying the two shifty types plus the other passengers from the journey over.

Oh no! Of all the lousy luck.

Playing the Fool Playing it Cool

I had found myself not primed for a discreet escape, but instead with egg on my face on the one island among dozens in the Uros archipelago that catered for every one of the armada of boats ferrying day-trippers daily to this UNESCO wonder. They all spilled off, a good few smiling at me knowingly as they paraded past. They must have thought,

‘What’s the token gringo doing here before us?’

I spotted the women who had originally raised the red flag. Their faces combined pity and a suppressed giggle. Last to disembark was the sum of all our fears: the two likely lads who had this little island archipelago in the grip of fear. They eyed me again before wandering around, intentions unknown. 

Storms Real and Imagined

Uncomfortable minutes passed before I gate-crashed another vessel. I sat on the open top deck and, to forget my surrealist escapades, fell into conversation with a young Peruvian sitting opposite.  The late afternoon was overcast. A chill had settled on the water. Receding into the vanishing point was Shutter Island, where a storm of uncertainty had raged in my mind. Glancing ahead I noticed the boat in the navigation channel ahead of us contained – you guessed – the very people I was trying to escape.

As I chatted to the young man opposite about paradigm shifts in human thinking necessary to save a faltering humanity, I realised we create storms in our minds. When we travel to distant lands these storms can feel like a Force 9. Yet we can drink these storms away from our fragile psyches because they do exist for the most part only in teacups. To be honest, the only gathering storms worthy of worry are those that incubate over the high Andes before hatching over Lake Titicaca.

The Wrath of the Weather Gods

Now onto the second tale of two storms: the literal one.

Earlier in the article I mentioned my Titicaca storms were both literal and figurative. While fear gave rise to the figurative storm, the literal one arrived riding on a chariot with bugling trumpeters not one day after my bungled great escape.

Right Place, Wrong Season

I decided to return to Uros, this time to experience nightfall on the lake. I chose a nice bobbing retreat. Though I was told this was not the best season for staying, on the day I arrived the sun blazed high in the sky. Few, if any, tourists were visible. Gone was the dread of being robbed. Serene was the feeling of lying on a divan on a veranda overlooking the wide water. That is, until I was awoken from a daydream by an abrupt change in the weather. A veil of grey, curdled cloud had drawn a blanket over the blue yonder. Throughout the day the low pressure built, and the wind picked up.

Watching clouds intensify over the peaks away to the Northwest was impressive enough. Tempestuous as a Turner painting, photographically the conditions were perfect. However, my glee was short-lived. When evening fell the creeping storm front found the lake where – similar to a hurricane feeding voraciously on the Atlantic – its destructive energy ramped up a notch or two. We were in for a rough ride, and no anchor was going to stop la isla de totora from listing.

Gale Force Fun

As the night went on, rain bucketed against the glass façade, hammering the pane until I thought it could take no more. Pools started running under the door and under the bed. Fork lightning flash-bombed the big sky. The atmosphere rumbled in deafening decibels. The whole bedroom swayed from side to side. I felt like I was in the belly of some great leviathan. I went out and could see great waves now lapping against the thick edge of our totora raft. The cold descended and before soon I was cocooned under half a dozen blankets. I fell into fitful sleep, or at least think I did. I kept waking up from dreams of going under by sitting bolt upright and gasping with sleep apnoea on account of the high altitude. So not only was I seasick on a lake, of all places, I was also mountain sick far from the mountains. Only on Titicaca, where our sea-level lives stop making sense, could this happen.

Sleep disruption aside, for the adventurer this was riveting stuff. Titicaca delights where other places disappoint. The worse the conditions, the more a sense of boys-own adventure overcomes you. A Shakespearean weather drama unfolds over your head in skies so endless, for the sake of sanity the mind needs to limit them.

A Place Called Eternal Home

On the third day I was relieved, admittedly, to return to safe harbour at Puno. Happy to leave the lake, I knew there and then the lake would never be happy to leave me. I had breezed into town from Cusco with two Liverpudlians, one of whom was there to fulfil his father’s dying wish to have a vial of his ashes scattered on Titicaca. His father had never been to Perú, and yet still considered the lake sacred enough. Me, I now had, so planning to have a portion of my desiccated self tipped into the lake I thought was the least I could do, to offer to eternity the dust of my bones. I waited forty years to float on the world’s highest navigable lake, and I’ll spend another forty years alive, I hope, before my earthly remains sink into that deep water. Pachamama, she’ll wait.

End…

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.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, adventure, advneture, America, backpacking, California, love, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, travelogue, United States

Pt V

Headed For the ‘Frisco Bay

You see it there in the distance for the first time as you head over the Bay Bridge from Oakland side. Atop a hill on the bay peninsular, San Francisco’s architecture heaps tightly together like the sweepings from some colossal brush. It could be the Emerald City and California the land of Oz. Me, the Tin Man and my travelling companion the Lion. We’re both finding courage on this the first big trip of our lives. To do so, we’ll both need hearts. Mine is to give away but no takers there have been. At the ripe old age of twenty-two years and twenty-two days I’m not giving up quite yet. And in a funny way, I’ve had this weird premonition for some years now that my true love I would find there in San Francisco, at the end of the rainbow. Owning a heart big enough to burst is easy to know when it is pulsating under your ribcage night and day. Unlike the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz I had not come in search of a heart to feel with. I had come, rather, to give it away to the right donor. Then again, maybe this flood of emotion was brought on by the sight of the Emerald City on the hill. After three and a half thousand miles we had reached the end of the rainbow and I could not decide whether the emotional prize was elation for having done it, or disappointment that we would never again be able to embark on this roadtrip for the first time.

It was ’94 and the World Cup was in full flow. England were strangely absent. My beloved Scotland banished to the Gulag of footballing hurt. Every neutral’s favourites, Brazil, were camped, gloriously yellow, in Pasadena, while their arch rivals, the Argentinians, were kicking up a fuss on the other side of the country not a million miles from where we started our long transcontinental drive. On the first night in ‘Frisco, once checked in to the Travellers’ Hostel on Market St we decided to hit the bar next door. Argentina were live on air against a resurgent Romania with captain Hagi spearheading the boys from Bucharest. This Mundial was Maradona’s swansong and the little Talisman from the dirt poor villas of Buenos Aires wasn’t leaving the pitch without being made to. He was absent, mired in cocaine-dusted shame, but in that baron that street in San Francisco I could see that his replacement looked very promising. She was far better looking than him for starters. Wearing the famous albiceleste shirt of pale blue and white stripes, I saw her at the bar crowded by men who it seemed also rated her passing skills. When the final whistle blew, her team had been dumped out of the World Cup. A national humiliation, beaten by the upstarts from Eastern Europe. A man seated at the bar smiled, enchanted, as she stormed past and out the door. Even with a face like thunder I could tell that this one had the allure to raise a thousand ships. She was like nothing i had ever seen. She was part feral, part Bond-girl, part-Hippie. The hair reached to the small of her back It was cut (but not by a stylist) into a thick, raven-coloured fringe. She was tall-ish. Her eyebrows were black and perfect as if painted on. She was slim. Her body’s curvatures were exactly what my primitive mind had identified as Level 5: Near Perfection. Yet there was something tomboyish about her, too. As she took her leave with dramatic flourish, I stood and stared at this incredible specimen and thought, this girl’s got fire inside.

And so the story of love goes…The following day, her ire mellowed very possibly by whatever was responsible for the aromatic fragrance lingering in the air and in her chocolate brown eyes, she clocked my presence. Even to a debutante like me, I sensed the pull exerted by her eyes on mine. Is this attraction? It couldn’t be. Exotic creatures, universally considered as objects of desire, did not desire me. I was lanky, stuck physiologically at age fifteen. I was no Lothario. And most of all, i had absolutely zero confidence in my abilities to hook any fish, far less the big ones. I wasn’t attractive to girls, in my occluded mind. I had no idea how to exit the friend zone; how to make them want me. In the days that followed, a great lesson was delivered on the doorstep of my manhood: that you don’t need to do a damned thing other than be yourself. Love the skin you are in. Don’t try too hard, nor not at all. Stay in the game, but whatever you do, do not be desperate to stay come what may. Let the lady lead, and know that a million years of evolution gave women the executive role in the game of courtship. They decide if the flirting proceeds further; not us men. We are, it turns out, rather incidental in all this. Keep up the witty repartee. Put skin in the game, but don’t flay yourself alive for the lure of a kiss.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, Travel, United States

Pt IV

California, I’m Coming Home.

Mono Lake lies far from the major urban centres of America’s most powerful and populous state, California. Economists reckon that standing alone on the world stage California would be nudging Britain for the fifth spot in the league of wealthiest nations. But unlike Britain with its Lake District, Mono Lake is no Lake Windermere. It’s mono, and not stereo lake, for a reason. Unlike the collegiate system of lakes dotting England’s northern Lake District, this ancient body of water is geology’s orphan. Isolated in a parched landscape, with no outlet for water to either drain and replenish, the lake long ago turned to bicarbonate of soda. What would the Lake District’s very own poet-laureate, William Wordsworth, have made of Mono Lake had he been there during a lifetime that coincided with one of the greatest movements of humanity in search of treasure without the traditional mayhem, piracy, plunder and pillage: the California Gold Rush of 1849? I’ll tell you what he would’ve done. He would have wandered lonely as a cloud, imitating the desert sky above, until standing there on the lake’s edge he would have muttered to himself – and I mean himself for there would have been no one around for miles and miles – what in God’s name is this i see before me? For once, words fail me.

Once Wordsworth had beheld these alien surroundings he would have shifted his emphasis. From aghast to agog, he would have repeated the sentiment that living in England’s Lake District had instilled in him: that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. But it’s hard to love nature’s jagged edges. Romantic love of nature here is forsaken. Here on Highway 395, Eastern California, nature is elemental. Here the planet is as troubled as a teenager. Lifted, folded, exposed, hidden, the geology of Mono Lake is akin to that little blister on the skin of the Earth that, to heal itself, seeps clear serum from deep in the interior. Up from the deep interior superheated water fills the lake, changing the water chemistry and that of the rocks on which the lake rests. Not unlike what you see in the Apennines of Italy, cracks in the mantle let groundwater settle down deep before being pressurised by geothermal heat and pushed up to the surface where it does something to the limestone, spewing out carbonates that form towers of tufa in the centre of the lake. You’d think you were on top of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mud volcano in East Africa. To look at it, you’d think Mono Lake was a volcanic caldera with whiteish scabrous deposits revealing its true Hadean nature broiling away beneath waters that above it appear so innocuous.

It is here we decide to remain for a couple of days. Finding a hostel not too far away, we sense magic in the air. Dave, the guy who lives in an annexe beside the hostel, quickly establishes his credentials as the most sardonic Californian you’ve never met. I’m thinking he’s learned the ropes from spending too much time in Northern pubs until he tells us he’s never been to Britain. Why then the phlegmatic humour? What comes out your mouth is too dark, too barbed, to be Californian with all that floodlit optimism that doesn’t lend itself well to cynicism. The enigma, which is Dave, then decides to take us to the lake for a hot bath.

Once there in nature’s open-air spa we form a circle of cynics. Dave says bathers have been scalded to death by moving all of 6-feet into what they thought was a harmless wet and warm zone when in fact the lake had undetectable hotspots where the water gushes up at over 70 degrees celsius, very possibly higher. I stay rooted to the spot afraid of turning my already burned skin into a whole new level of heat damage. Never before have i bathed in geothermal springs. The experience is unforgettable as it is unforgivable. The sun comes on like a thousand-watt bulb in a cubby hole. The sky is deeply blue. Not a single cloud wanders by high over. Never before have I felt nature burning me from beneath as from above. I have found home away from a home that failed to feel like a home. As my life will one day end, I know for a fact I’m going to like California. Sitting there in an open-air jacuzzi ringed by mountains the thought hits me: I feel good here. After waiting a lifetime to visit, the reality exceeds the expectations. And that doesn’t happen with everywhere we dream of travelling to. This state might just be golden, after all.

With the soda rinsed off our radiant bodies it’s time to move ever west to the world’s best-situated city, San Francisco. But not before climbing up and over America’s last barrier of rock and permafrost: the Sierra Nevadas. ‘Frisco is a Mecca for the godless. It’s where Steve McQueen just about drove his 1968 Ford Mustang off the brow of a hill and into the stratosphere. It’s where Dirty Harry cleaned the mean streets of limping serial killers. It’s where the Age of Aquarius was first entered. In short, it’s where the West ends and new promises begin. And for that reason alone it was worth the pilgrimage.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, environment, Travel

Pt III

United Across the Great Divide.

All the way to Reno……

…….I was looking to segue from the last instalment into this one after a hefty hiatus of eighteen months. Once the mothballs had settled I should have known that life lays down markers everywhere only to let the individual decide to see them for what they are or else ignore them for what they’re not. This ‘gift’ came wrapped in an R.E.M. song title. How does one get from Denver to San Francisco in a story without travelling a thousand rugged miles in words? Answer: one cheats by picking a song title which says it all. Hey now, all the way to Reno. If you’re old enough or urbane enough to be listening to REM, you’ll know the number.

All that my memories will reveal to me about the long bitumen from Colorado to beautiful California was that the I25 in Denver led due north to Cheyenne, the state capital of Wyoming. We must have doubled back from our pioneer hut in the Rockies to Denver knowing that to reach central California expeditiously we would be better suited to heading north to Cheyenne before taking a sharp left onto the I80 through the prairie lands of southern Wyoming. The car delivery operator gave us only fourteen days to cross the continent. Adding that failure to present ourselves and their car at our destination in Sacramento might result in an FBI warrant being issued in our names, was enough to keep us from digressing too much en route. No sacrilege on the road to the Sacrament, that was the mantra.

Southern Wyoming, I remember chiefly as being the gateway to the world’s oldest designated National Park. We even spotted roadsigns denoting so. For Yellowstone turn north. But turn we did not, in spite of temptation that Jesus could have empathised with. The detour would have added days to the trip, and quite possibly – in our callow minds – brought us into the FBI’s ambit alongside Colombian cartel lords, the Unibomber, and a splendid array of serial killers.

West we drove through a sea of yellowing grass stuck to hills filed down by the Earth’s master carpenter, time. Through Rawlins, Rock Springs and Evanston, and onward we hardly stopped even after crossing state lines into Utah. At Salt Lake City on the southeast shores of the Great Salt Lake we kept on the I80. The city of the Latter-Day Saints sat there piously wedged between a mountain ridges running north-south. I thought it was befitting of a religious colony of New World Christian non-conformists that they found their new Nazareth in a place so far removed by distance from the Holy land yet so near in terms of the harsh semi-desert terrain upon which Christ built his broad church. They choose one helluva place to settle into unorthodoxy. The Wasatch to the east and north; the Oquirrh to the west, both ranges rising from the valley floor, pushed up until their ridges cut the arid air. In the midst of untrammelled wilderness emerged over time a city as different from any other in the Continental United States that anyone could imagine. So improbable it would end up cemented there but that was the pioneer spirit of the brutal nineteenth century. Those religious zealots with the pioneer spirit welling up in their eyes, they must’ve marched in unison over forest, river prairie and mountain until stopping there with the Rockies towering either side of them they said, this is far enough.

Outside of SLC a vast salt flat shimmers on the horizon. The I80 slices through it, a gesture of unflappable self-confidence by American civil engineers of the mid-20th century. Then again, what else could they have done? Reroute the highway around the imposing site of a salt desert? Nah. Signs offering fuel and food warn of shortages ahead. No fuel beyond here for 100 miles. You get the idea. The heat was phenomenal, yet you wouldn’t have known it, so dry was the atmosphere. The skin burned without telling so. A gasp of air was all it took to singe whatever lines the windpipe. This is mirage country. The flats, where water once abounded, were now desiccated. Salt crystals is all that withstood the heat until turning the world white this bed of minerals reflected the sunlight back but the sunlight wouldn’t bounce back in a straight line. It swayed and wobbled instead, hence the hazy reality of looking through and beyond a salt desert. The trucks ahead looked for all the world as if shimmering through a wormhole, all pulled and stretched out of their normal dimensions, somehow levitating over a roiling sea of salt. The gum i had been chewing on melted onto the windscreen after a failed attempt at flicking out the gobbet of gum going at 60mph. That’s what i recall most: the sight of chewing gum turning to liquid on the outside windscreen, dripping down until realising it would take an ice storm to remove that careless blemish from this car.

And so the road went on. Straight as an arrow it cut through the dazzling flats until leaving them the mountains once again took us into their fold. But by then we had left one state and entered yet another, this time Nevada. Meaning ‘snowy’ in Spanish, Nevada was too baked by this ferocious summer to offer up snowflakes. But it mattered not. By now we had crossed the Great Diving Range and now could say confidently of ourselves, we have made it to the West, to Pacific Time. I don’t remember crossing Nevada on the I80 to Reno, the state capital. It was up and down, though that’s for sure. And because of plate tectonics, the ridges formed N-S, therefore when travelling west you go over every last buckle in the Earth’s crust. On the outskirts of Reno I sensed California was close. Roadsigns affirming such were all the evidence I needed to back my claims. The town itself looked like so many others en route: a pitstop; a temporary settlement in the most unlikely of places that found permanent status on account of the fact that wave after wave after wave of new world hopefuls had kept passing through on their way to the promised land of California only to get waylaid for long enough to put down some odd manner of roots.

It was at Reno we turned off the I80. Knowing we had time before the FBI were called in, we decided to take the back roads into California. Unbeknownst to us, this deviation into the magnificent unknown would meanaling delightful acquaintance with one of America’s truly great roads: Highway 395. Forget Route 66 or even Highway 61, this was the road that would leave an indelible mark on me, so much so that twenty-three years later i would return alone to do the whole thing again. This road had fable written all over it. Had a young a precocious Bob Dylan driven it before making Highway 61 Revisited, we would never have had Highway 61 Revisited.

Highway 395, if you didn’t already know, runs from Carson City near Lake Tahoe all the way to San Bernardino, east of L.A. It runs parallel with the backside of the Sierra Nevadas where grows the Giant Sequoia tree and in between there and the White Mountains where grows the ancient Bristlecone Pine. Between them are vast geographical features that battle the heat and the cold and the light and the dark. The heavens make Wagnerian cloud operas over this gap between two mountain ranges, such is the drama nature cooks up. It’s no coincidence that Edwards Airforce Base lies amid all this scale and all this splendour. Neither is it a surprise that Edwards Airforce Base is where the space shuttle would come into land. To slow from 17,500 mph to 200 you need acres of space to land, you need light to sight the shuttle as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and you need high pressure, and lots of it, to mellow the bumps. Highway 395 and its back yard had it all. And smack bang in the midst of that lay Mono Lake, whose chemistry was most unusual, whose size was monumental, whose ambience was strange and beguiling.

The Biden Factor and Brexit

America, Brexit, Britain, British Isles, England, EU, europe, global polity, globalisation, Great Britain, human development, Ireland, Libertarianism, Political Culture, Politics, Uncategorized

With the appointment of Joe Biden as President-Elect, the geopolitical map is being refashioned faster than the previous lines can be fuzzily drawn. While the world fixes on the monumental domestic consequences of this change of governance, it’s the international fallout which offers a more tantalising glimpse into how events will unfold across a world still largely shaped by US hegemony. The deceit, the revanchist, and the delusion-laden doctrine of Brexit and Trumpism are interchangeable for all intents and purposes, so now Trump’s populist exercise in self-adoration has been sidelined from central policy, what gives for a Brexit endgame which has leaned so heavily, albeit slyly, on the Orange Emperor’s blessing? What now that a seventy-eight year-old multilateralist with Irish blood flowing through his ageing veins will be stepping into the breach?

The prospects for a unilateralist Brexit have changed with the jettisoning of Donald Trump from power. That much is clear, in spite of Downing St’s cageyness. The days of English hubris are numbered. For four years Donald Trump provided cover for a buccaneering Brexit model that mirrored his natural state of chaos, but to what extent will his unceremonious removal change the rules of the negotiating game? Will Johnson set new policy parameters on Britain’s relationship with Europe seeing that his moral cheerleader, Trump, will find his rambling Tweets no longer carry the gravity they once did?

Here is how the Tories are now in check. As the whole world except Trump already knows, gone is the uber-advocate of self-determinism to be replaced by Biden, whose political instincts favour heavily the re-normalisation of relations with the EU into a strategic alliance to counter the growing might of China and her minions. His will be a continuation of Obama-era foreign policy by other means. In point of fact, the means might actually be not so different than the Obama years, which is telling because Britain’s long autopsy on Brexit has been done under the aegis of Trump’s nativist brand of US Republicanism. The fallout of the referendum has been acutely felt almost entirely during Trump’s four years in office. Britain henceforth finds itself in uncharted territory. She can no longer break treaties and trample on good faith with her ridiculous exigencies that find their bloody-minded roots in that self-same feeling of exceptionalism that ran like a golden thread through Trump’s nationalist platform. When he is not putting out spot fires back home, Biden will restore a multilateral basis to international relations. Damage limitation will be his modus operandi of foreign policy. After four years in a whacked-out wilderness, the US needs to return to the family of nations to aid in the restructuring of the global political order to something like its former self, which ran broadly along ideological lines (democracy or autocracy; rogue or reliable). It will do this not by making unreasonable demands or by threatening to storm off if if doesn’t get its own way, rather by rejoining multilateralist efforts to stem 21st century global threats and influence opportunities. Brexit represents an existential threat to the sanctity of union with a democratic coalition from Lisbon to Athens, and so Biden will push even harder against the radicals in the Tory party – Britain’s own GOP – who represent a radical element that see personal gain in free-trade libertarianism. To Biden, Brexit is Trumpite foreign policy in another guise.

For a start, Joe Biden is a proud Irish-American. He’s a straight talker who one imagines stands baffled at the waffle that trips off Johnson’s tongue. He’s already said it himself, Brexit ain’t gonna jeopardise the Irish Peace Process come what may. The problem is, sovereign independent nations tend to draw up hard borders in the face of larger sovereign blocs. Switzerland is an exception but for geographical and historical reasons which Britain cannot and must not try to emulate. As yet, there is no fixed solution to the problem of what to do and how to act when faced with a land border between a newly independent Britain and a long-standing EU member, the Irish Republic. They tried sketching an invisible line through the Irish Sea until fools in the cabinet belatedly realised that Northern Ireland would be effectively annexed to the European Union. Dismemberment of the 300 year-old Union was not what the Tory Brexiteers spearheaded by Gove and Johnson had in mind. Their answer was to breach International law rewriting the Withdrawal Agreement, a fact not lost on Biden who would routinely wince at Trump’s cavalier approach to ripping up treaties willy-nilly. What must he think about the bungling involved in Brexit then?

The new Washington administration will seek to consolidate ties with Berlin and Paris, while holding a special place in the President-Elect’s heart for the Emerald Isle. This volte-face in US policy places Britain out on a limb. Her ostracism from an emerging global consensus will be even harder felt exactly at a time when the long warm-up is over and the UK finally has to go it alone. The EU will be bolstered by the results of the most bitterly-fought US Election in living memory. Downing Street will be frantically revising its options, in other words scrambling to ingratiate itself with the new Democratic administration before Biden hardens his pro-EU/Irish stance even more. Much as they try to sell a rebranded Brexit to Biden/Harris, they will fail as all salesman do when they try plugging a crap product. Fact-fudging, policy backtracking and cringeworthy obsequiousness to rising foreign powers on the part of the Tory government will come to characterise the next twelve months of what is turning out to be a rudderless leadership, a busted flush of a governing class that set out on their decade-long crusade to degrade future prospects for the average Briton, while still managing to impress half the nation by sounding off like a bunch off privileged blowhards egging on the school rugby team that faces imminent relegation to lower leagues.

Brexit is not going to wash with Biden, and rightly so. The present vision of it is pure mirage full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Sound faintly familiar to the incumbent president who refuses to leave office without a fight, or at least a 9-hole playoff on one of his soon-to-be-liquidated golf courses? He too loved a good la-dee-da that, like Brexit, had plenty of chorus but no verse.

The presidential inauguration is set for the third week of January. This roughly corresponds with the end of the Withdrawal Agreement and the start of the Brexit reality. Politics is that game with no winners, but a game nonetheless. Johnson plots his next move vis-a-vis Brussels with renewed caution. He does not want to be caught offside on the wrong side of history as the rearguard floods forward out of defence. It’s not Britain he fears for more than it is himself and his own political extinction. He is another pompous discard waiting to happen. He is another controversial court jester in a new age of conciliatory politics. But Johnson has come too far with Brexit not to want to avoid seeing it turn out like that DIY barbecue set that a ham-fisted Homer Simpson tried to assemble. You remember The Simpson’s episode right? The unrecognisable jumble of cement, bricks and grille that ended up feted by the critics as a postmodern masterpiece, propelling Homer from backyard flunky to darling of the Springfield art world. Brexit might be postmodern but in its present format (and one senses in every possible format) it ain’t no masterpiece. Artless Boris might well botch it, but unlike Homer he won’t be anyone’s darling, least of all the art world. He’ll end up another poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.

As for that free-trade agreement with the US you’ve been angling for? That one just slipped down Joe and Kamala’s priority list.

Watch out, Boris, Joe is coming and he’s wearing green and gold. To quote an Irish poet who must have felt, in his day, the pernicious influence of his Anglo-Saxon neighbours across the sea, tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Yes, We Can(al)!

#adventure, America, boats, England, Life, Uncategorized

When Barak Obama took the slogan, YES, WE CAN!, on campaign with him back during the 2008 elections, his growing sect of admirers took it up with gusto. Ennobled by the creed of optimism – a finite resource even in America – they chanted these three simple words with all the might they could muster. We’ll huff and puff and blow the Bush house down, that was the gist of it. We’ll relight hope from the embers of pointless war. We’ll do right in the place of wrong. We’ll patch together the broken pieces and live like we always promised ourselves we would. 

It was in the spirit of regeneration that I too took up this mantra from the ruins of Obama’s America. Now remember what his legacy brought. He talked a good game, but on leaving found that Yes, We Can! meant Yes, we can replace you with a bankrupted huckster from Queens, New York with a mouth to match his attitude. Not wanting to go down this road, I wanted my regeneration to bring an altogether more wholesome – as opposed to ‘whoresome’ – legacy. And so it was, I decided I would embrace the alternative life of the canal. I spent big on a big river boat and docked it on a 250 year-old canal set deep in the Somerset downs. This was going to be my Obama 2008 campaign moment.

The parallels certainly exist, if only you choose to see them. Like Obama’s predecessor, I too got embroiled in a Middle Eastern adventure, involving the expenditure of an awful lot of money with the aim of coming away with even more. To breathe Obama’s fresh air, first i had to choke on Bush’s dust. This I did, and by the time I had coughed up the last of it, the time had come to begin anew, to see the world through reopened eyes. My 5-year incursion into the oil-rich sands was over without a single shot being fired (although many a shot was downed in the booze-soaked atmosphere of the place). Back on Civvy St, somewhere in pre-Brexit Britain, the post-conflict settlement was up for grabs. Europe seemed like the kingdom beyond the wall by now, unfriendly, but only insofar as any former friend would be if you kept hurling insults at them from across the bows. The burgundy British passport, now both unofficially diminished in stature and narrowed in scope, was about the last official document one wanted with a post-2016 life on the Continent beckoning. And so it was that a set of reduced options made the next phase a little less fraught with the kind of complications we once had, confronted was we were with not just one but 28 countries to potentially set up home in. 

High in the Spanish sierras the decision was made.  Near the flanks of the Mulhacen, Spain’s tallest mountain, the YES was injected into WE CAN(AL). There and there alone, I decided to buy that shell of a riverboat and in it create a space fit for the ages. Having taken receipt of her, in all her graphite grey sleek beauty, i spent the next six months showering in a wheat field while fitting her out on dry land. She, the boat (for we ascribe boats with a feminine gender in English, for feminine equals fair, and the British do have the historical hots for vessels that float), sat on blocks in a field of swaying grass. As spring took hold, the stalks grew higher and the ears of wheat fatter, until the grass brushed the underside of the hull. With 90% of the work complete, and the largest 10% you’ve ever seen not quite complete, I had 700 ft/sq of spanking new boat trucked down on the motorway in the most surreal cruise I’ve ever witnessed.

She was lowered into the river Avon at Keynsham, near Bristol. Six long months like a fish out of water, and the transformation to fish in water was a thing to behold. It was as if the riverboat had never been out of its element. Now sitting stout and proud in its element, the voyage to its new mooring on the other side of Bath was going to be a maiden voyage, and one that would hopefully match Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech for majesty. Yes, we can! Um, well, in actual fact, no we can’t. There’s no way I can handle this stocky beast on those narrow waterways. Upshot: a river pilot was hastily arranged and my first officer status firmly established from the outset. Once through the locks of Bath, the Widcombe flight featuring the so-called Coffin, a 25ft drop into lock abyss, we emerged at the east end of town, navigating our way with particular attention paid to the fact that, contrary to the canal in my mind’s eye, this stretch of waterway was no wider in parts that the boat itself. At least in Apocalypse Now, the riverboat they used in pursuit of the renegade Colonel Kurtz plied a width wide enough to give them a fighting chance once the rogue arrows starting flying from the riverbank. Here, if Kurtz’s militia men had wanted they could have put down their bows and arrows and simply stepped aboard to conduct their rampage. 

She, the boat with the dead man’s complexion, has found a home under an ash tree. This fact is noteworthy as one of the main reasons for spending six months fitting her out on dry land was that her interior is lined with approx. 1.6kms of timber, mainly American ash. The emerald ash borer might be devastating America’s once mighty ash forests, but the little bastard fell short of laying its larvae in these buffed and beautiful planks. Since finding a permanent mooring, she doesn’t venture far. More like an apartment on water with the ultimate view, really. The traffic is constant and the logistics of untethering these mooring ropes too fraught and complex until the canal settles in for a lonesome winter. Tentatively, i proclaim, YES WE CANAL!. But this, being a radical departure from all previous incarnations, is going to split into one of two ways: adapting to this unique way of life; or, failing in that task, not adapting, and moving back onto the land, with all its concomitant problems, not least the soullessness of the modern urban plan. Then again, there’s always the remote likelihood that our British passports will amount to much again; will open doors as opposed to closing them. I mean, look at U.S. politics, when Obama vacated the White House in 2017, he left a door open for someone else to walk into. Disbelieving, they said, ‘your administration couldn’t pave the way for someone like Trump’, to which he replied, ‘Yes, we can!’

Anything’s possible, even on the canal.

 

 

A Bear Necessity

#adventure, America, Britain, California, forest, giant trees, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, nature, Psychology, redwoods, Reflections, trees, Uncategorized, United States

In Disney’s Jungle Book, Baloo sung that Bear Necessities were simple. But who was Baloo trying to kid, other than a clueless Mowgli? There is nothing simple, psychologically-speaking, about what a bear necessitates. When you are deep in the back country of, say, North America, what the bear necessitates in the human mind is a whole lot of panic and angst. Yet, is the anxiety that the wild things exert on the fragile human – the same human who is primordially at home and at the same time disturbingly out of place in her ancestral canopy home – confined to the prospect of coming upon an irate mother bear? Or are anxieties little knots made into strings we wear around our necks through life? The Inca people had their quipu, or talking knots, to record the particulars of their life. Equally, do postmodern humans have this string of knots in their psyche (or possibly even lodged their panic-rising breast) where something angst-inducing must reside just to remind us of our all-too humanness?

Walking through these American woods in all their dizzying expanse, I used to think that’s where the nagging feeling of anxiety permeated, and it was there that we urbanites would add another string to our quipu of worries. Streetwise and untroubled, enter the forest alone. Once there, duly adorn the knotted string around the neck. Venture ever deeper in and feel as the string pulls heavier on the neck. Watch as our quipu of worries keeps adding knots to its length with every snap of bone-dry twig. With each falling shadow forming grasping arms from tree limbs, feel our own limbs stiffen as another knot miraculously appears on the anxiety string. Stare into the multidimensional wall – for that is what the forest is when you are in it – and feel unease as is stares back at you. They say it’s the people roaming the woods you need to worry about in America, and not the black bears. And yet, fear being irrational – and that fear extends to fear of cougars, too – we don’t see it that way. We see the ancient brain kick into gear, the one that offers only binary choice: fight or flight. The subconscious gallery of wild, wicked animals, whom we used to prey on when we were not busy running from them, revolves at a pace matched only by the quickening of the human heart. But, it might not be as simple as bear panic anxiety existing only in the deepest reaches of the American woodlands. Fear of what’s in them-there woods might be a bare necessity for us in order to function out here in the societies we made from the ruins of the mesolithic world of cave bears, sabre tooth cats, and aurochs. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Bears don’t instil fear in the woods; fear instills fear because anxiety is what we had to nurse just to leave that wild world behind to become the worrywarts we did.

Later, I told others i was suffering a newly-diagnosed condition: bear panic anxiety. I even slept in the car out there in the woods lest i end up a snack wrapped in tent canvas. Others laughed mockingly, never stopping to think about how their own predatory instincts would dissolve in the midst of aloneness in a vast sea of trunks. When i returned to the American West the following year, i traded experience for caution. The anxiety held firm as it had the year before, as it had when i was young and terrified of the deep. And then, leaving it again to rejoin my tamed world, I realised that anxiety is a shapeshifting form within each of us that needs filling with something, anything that is, unless we happen to have trained the mind to excise those knotted worry beads from deep within our psyche into our fingertips where we may toy with them and master them. And what triggered that realisation? It was going to live on a riverboat that hammered the point home. Now, instead of feeling bear panic anxiety in America, i was growing demented from feeling boat panic anxiety. Boats and bears? Is this merely alliteration disguised as a tenuous link? Tame English canals versus American wilderness? Well, the connection is not as stretched as you might think. The boat, built long and wide and stocky for a river, was squeezed into a narrow, shallow and popular canal in a picturesque corner of olde England. For every holiday boat that inched past mine (and they were legion, depressingly so), the same set of psychological conditions i felt in the American wilderness came back to haunt me. In short, the inbuilt worry space was occupied again. The canal seemed to grow narrower and the passing boaters more intrusive. Wave after wave of prying eyes, faces moving past the portholes so close I could plant a kiss on them. For every time i raised my head above the parapet, another narrowboat would come into view. Privacy on short notice; another holidaymaker enjoying me as a caged novelty item. Anxiety filled the space the bear had hibernated in. Panic rose in the breast and i thought to myself, Here we go again. Not another one! It’s gonna hit. No way can it pass.’  How can the mind be stilled when the water on which the riverboat sits is rippling with excitement at yet another boat brushing millimetres by?

Bear and boats, Inca knots recording the state of our psychology, and of course worry beads. I know now why Muslims the world over run the beads between their thumb and forefinger. While the rest of us internalise ours, those carefree Muslims have externalised theirs. They’ve taken each knot of anxiety and locked it in an onyx bead where these worries can be controlled in those all-conquering fingers. The bear might thankfully still live in the woods where it belongs. The boats still squeeze between the shrinking width of the canals. And you? Where does your anxiety live? Or have you managed banish the knots into your fingers where they don’t loom so large?