Where Lifestyle Choice Meets Economic Necessity

Britain, British Isles, counter-culture, dogs, Hippies, Lifestyle, Society, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized

I fell in to talking with a perfect stranger who was sticking his head out of the bow doors of his boat, calling on his lurcher who in spite of her XX chromosomes, he proudly paraded as an alpha dog. Greek letters, i concluded, cannot ever be accused of gender bias.

But this is quite superfluous to the point. The thrust of what we really discussed had more to do with the people living aboard narrowboats in various states of disrepair that it did the elevated status of a female lurcher. The length and breadth of the canal we both concluded was nose-to-tail rammed with boats. This, i told him, had come as quite a surprise to my unsuspecting self. I had pictured, i told him, a meandering waterway dotted with the odd canal boat. That’s the image I had in mind when, casting my mind back, I decided to make this stretch of waterway my home mooring. It would be here I would make my last stand against the encircling forces of itinerancy and deeply ingrained nomadism.

‘When i came here, oh, twenty-five years back,’ he said, ‘there were only six boats, at most, up and down this entire length, from here to Bathampton.’

For theatre, I let out a noticeable sigh of disappointment. ‘God! if only. Look at it now. Teeming with boats.’

A smile of nostalgia came over him. ‘Yip, it was fantastic. All mine and not even a path where there’s one now.’

I had to know what had happened in the intervening twenty-five years. How could it have come to this? A conscious lifestyle choice to turn one’s back on an evermore soulless mainstream society with all its fancy mains electricity and drainpipes, its accruing debts and its quiet desperation, and for what? Because those fools out there on Civvy Street work jobs they hate so they can buy shit that no one actually needs other than to release five seconds worth of serotonin before the disaffection sets in again? They buy into the 4-bedroom detached dream, living out their days in concealed panic for fear of never paying off what they never had in the first place. No, he said. But, look at those living here on the water. The way they live; how they dress. These people are a living, breathing part of a counter-culture that’s been going since Glastonbury got going in 1970. Life is about choices, i argued, and you’d better bet they’re the wise sort. And anyway, Glastonbury is just down the road. Bristol is a hippy city. This is merely the overspill, albeit in a fairly stuffy, bourgeois enclave they call Jane Austen’s Bath. No, he said. You’re wrong. The reason you see this today, this canal lined with these old boats is not for the reasons you might think.

His alpha lurcher slunk off into the galley. Midday on December 1st and the thermometer couldn’t be arsed with any of it. My canal dog for the day, clearly unimpressed with the blether that two men above him were engaging in whimpered impatiently to get his walk underway. Intrigued by the man, this veteran of a quarter century on a highway of slow-moving water, the type you’d rather avoid in your ice cubes, i let my dog go bounding off after squirrels while the man proceeded to explain the whys and wherefores of how we live today.

I went on with my pampered attitude. ‘You know, i’m fed up with these chancers playing the system. Not moving on when they should. What’s the point of me paying three hundred some quid a month to get precisely the same privilege as these fuckers who spend their days playing the system, avoiding payment, ignoring rules? For that matter, let’s all just make a mockery of it.’

He reproved me with a look of anguish. Yet again, he must’ve thought, another newbie on a flash boat judging the less-fortunate. ‘Look at some of them. Before they were on boats, clogging up this canal for you, they were in benders.’

‘Benders?’ What the hell are they?’

‘Shelters. Piece of shit tents. Rough sleeping. The woods around Bath were full of them.’

I had seen the woefulness of indigence in and around what is a beautiful civic space dating back to Roman times. Homelessness, demeaning homelessness, sharing one’s sealed eyelids with every Tom, Dick and Harriet who walks past in Italian patent leather, and this state of affairs in not just any old town, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site no less. I had clocked the state of the nation and i knew the vital statistics were not good. The contrast was so fucking ridiculous it could’ve been in a Dickens novel. But through all that doorway desperation I had not stopped to think that the litany of crappy old boats clogging up the waterways was the difference between one hundred homeless scattered around one or other of Bath’s Georgian architraves and one thousand, an intolerable number that would offend even the city fathers into finally doing something decisive about Britain’s homeless hell.

‘They might be playing the system and not moving the boat as often and as far as they should be,’ he claimed, ‘but its’s either that or having hundreds of them hiding in the woods.’

I felt the chill in the midday air penetrate deep.

He went on to say that the way things are in this country, those who have don’t want those who have not to have. Those on the right side of private assets, why would they want social housing built en masse to accommodate these burgeoning numbers of former inhabitants of down-at-heel benders made of twigs and polythene in the woods, those people you cite as living on eyesores and flouting the rules that you, on your nice little floating palace, wouldn’t dream of because you’ve never had to? Why would they? That house you paid fifty grand for thirty years ago now worth half a million. And if enough new houses are built to take the strain off the canal, because that’s where the majority would rather be, in a house over a boat any day, that equity you found yourself the lucky recipient of, what of it? It shrinks to nothing, and suddenly your half mil house, the one you got for a song under Thatcher, is worth not much more than it was to start with.

They’re flouting the rules of engagement on the canal because they can. But they’re on the canal in the first place because the alternative is to see them tramp down to the woods in shitty weather and sleep in a bivvy night after night. Out of sight, out of mind.

Life is about choices, i continued to assert. I only have this boat because i chose to compromise five prime years of my life by going out to work in one of the most sterile, dangerous regions in the world. I could have stayed at home and got nowhere. I earned danger money, and so my conscience is clear. Though, in spite of my pride, i knew in my heart of hearts, he was right. Living on a boat in the midst of nature is, on the surface, a conscious rejection of all that’s wrong in mainstream society. But that is no more, no less than the romantic interpretation. Yes, Glastonbury is nearby. No, most liveaboards are proud, self-satisfied sorts who would repudiate the chance to live at No.12 or No.65 of some bland, nondescript housing estate. What we think is purely a lifestyle choice is, when you scratch the surface, an economic necessity borne of existing in a greedy, debt-ridden, overcrowded nation. What seems unsightly in a shop doorway seems less unsightly behind the bushes, and even less unsightly, and therefore just about ignorable, inside the pitted hull of a nearly-wrecked, but nevertheless warm and dry, boat.

 

 

The Urge for Going

Britain, British Isles, Landscapes, Musings, nature, philosophy, Reflections, thoughts, Travel, weather, Wildlife

Now is the autumn of our discontent. We haven’t even got to winter yet and I’m slumping badly. What’s next? The summer of our discontent? Is it just a matter of time until discontent will no longer be subject to seasonality? Bang goes the singularity of Shakespeare’s immortal line. Now is the four seasons of our discontent. How bleak is that assessment?

I was prepared to ignore the subliminal messages coming at me with respect to the season’s eagerness to come and my reluctance for either it or myself to flee in the other direction. That is, until I switched on the radio and what did i hear? Joni Mitchell’s ‘Urge for Going’. If you know the song, you’ll the lyrics allude to this very thing. Take these lines for instance:

When the sun turns traitor cold
And all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

A man can find reasons to quell his urge for going, but ignoring the urge to respond to stimuli of the kind that bombards the senses is rather harder to do.

Temperatures have plummeted. Light has diminished markedly. The sky has drafted in its shock troops to launch wave after grey wave of attack on the very walls that keep us sheltered from the tropospheric war which plays out between summer’s end and winter’s onset. We are besieged. We are trying to adjust to the changing of the season, but a hard task it remains. The nights are longer, the sleep is deeper, and much time there is to let the mind migrate to warmer latitudes. By no real stretch of the imagination can we appreciate that our type were once East African. We were baked into bread in an oven of pure sunlight. One hundred thousand years on, we have ventured far outside of our comfort zone. How did it come to this? How did we end up walking this far from our place in the sun? Not only did we lose our healthy colour, we lost a lot more than that: we lost our bearings, our true north. Our body strives for homeostasis – that is to say, all its internal systems operating beautifully in sync. But winters in the high latitudes make heavy going for homeostasis to fall into place. ‘Things fall apart‘. I keep hearing that figure of speech framed in reference to the coming civilisational collapse. But it’s what going on inside that really counts. The centre cannot hold’. The centre can hold if only we turn our attentions inward; if only we go to it and prop it up. How do we stop things from falling apart when we are not even in the midst of winter yet? Head for the centre. The answers to our S.A.D.ness are not out beyond the reach of rainclouds; they lie inside where weather cannot touch us. Ignore them at your peril. 

I’m trying to see the best in things here. I’m trying to tie together the clues that nature in all her edginess brings with the responses that the nightly dream-state brings. Days and weeks of rain, seemingly incessant rain, waters the autumnal subconscious. While it draws a veil of grey gloom, bringing low the sky, the deluge has a habit of lifting the mind. Call it a high front of dreams. These wisps of cirrus cloud you see from the porthole of your window seat once the aircraft has punched through that Venusian blanket of cloud, that’s the type that drift across the mind’s eye during the long dream stage of an even longer night.

Last night I dreamed I was on the apron, turning in a great Boeing circle to face the runway. There wasn’t many of us aboard; just me and a shadowy figure (the me i was leaving behind amid the gloom of the coming winter? The me who is unsure of what to do and where to go in what remains of a life that has involved much going and doing). There might have been a four-legged friend, I cannot recall thus. I know this for sure: this flight was long-haul. We were going (back) to Australia. Somewhere in that great wilderness of my past, I lived there. Time it was, and what a time it was, it was….it was jetting off from London on twilit days of early February into the polarized light of the southern hemisphere. It was those ocular adjustments when first you strain because the half light of winter in England renders it hard to make out darkened objects, followed by the landing in a Southern Hemisphere summer and the ocular strain because the light dazzles: a million million lumens irradiating before your very eyes, like the death chamber we all long to enter.

I’ve been having these visions of late. This is my first November in England since 2010, a fact that i believe belies the intensity of these visions. I’m wearing the thought of winter like a greatcoat, the type the troops used to wear as they trudged home alone on country roads from yet another pointless battle. The swallows have gone, but were they ever here to begin with? Didn’t the southern Europeans shoot them en masse just for the sake of it as they were migrating across the Med after facing down the Sahara? Did we imagine them dancing on the air to the tune of summer?  The swans remain. I saw one last night, but it wasn’t in a dream. A volley of shots, a cacophonous, Edinburgh Tattoo of cannons – or was it fireworks on amphetamine? – was ringing out in the valley below. The air blasts seemed to get closer, not unlike winter itself, and as i opened the bow doors of the boat to look over the prow on this cold and still night, i saw the dark outline of a swan, terrified by the boom, come in to land on the canal right next to me. He quickly pulled in his great wings and settled down such that he didn’t even tell the water of his arrival. I looked at him and i saw a survivor in the making. No matter what ills winter will infect our bodies and minds with, this guy evolved immunity to discontent a long time in the deep past.

Was the swan the plane i was flying in later that night? Was he trying to tell me something about the person I am and my place in this unfathomable world we call home?

The leaves are mounting in the rain channels along the length of the boat. I sweep them up and into a putrid heap they go. The trees have seen what is coming, yet they shun their coat in seeing so. Soon they shall be naked, ready to give up a little more of the blue in the sky just when we need that window on the world most. The mind’s eye keeps a careful watch on the quickening days.

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?

 

 

 

Britain: On the Edge of a Continent

Architecture, Britain, British Isles, Celtic, England, Landscapes, Photography, Religion, Scotland, Travel, Travel Photography, Uncategorized

The Northwest Highlands of Scotland: An Atlantic Wilderness

Britain, Celtic, Highlands, Islands, Landscape Photography, Landscapes, Scotland, Travel, Travel Photography

little-loch-broom-wester-ross

At Little Loch Broom, the clouds quite literally roll in to let the light fall in stripes over the iron hills, so ancient and half-asleep they don’t even notice any more.

gruinard-bay-poolewe-sunset

At Gairloch, the bracken has died but not before showing its true colour of rust.
The bare rocks that protrude slate grey are the worn down teeth of primordial giants, megaliths that did battle through the Scotch mists of time.

sutherland-assynt

At the Assynt, the peaks have given in to solitude. When the sun occasions to shine on them, they espy one another from afar. They talk in ancient riddles across the glen but of what we still haven’t deciphered.

leaf

The leaf that refuses to yield long after the rain has turned to snow.