Songs Are a Thesis on Life, So Live It.

advneture, death, free will, future, Life, Lifestyle, lyrics, philosophy

Sometimes a song can offer a thesis. It’s usually on life, love and the meaning of it all. Sometimes a song can revisit you after a long hiatus. I have no idea why it barges centre stage into the crowded theatre of the mind, yet barge in it most certainly does. You know when it chooses to stick around, because that damn ditty plays on you. Wherever you go, melodic thoughts intrude, and before soon you’re chanting the song silently word for word with such metronomic repetition that not even the eulogy you’ve memorised for your best friend’s funeral is enough to dislodge it.

We often talk about this human syndrome of having a song stuck in our heads. Lodged with a stubbornness the equal of a goat, that’s how songs seep into the psyche. We even share a laugh when that song turns out to be about the worst piece of shit bubblegum pop the hit parade ever produced. Indoctrination by music is rarely predicated on the quality of the tune in question.

But other times, the song that sticks contains the germ of a idea: a thesis, I suppose you’d call it if you were using it as the intellectual centrepiece of a Masters’ dissertation. It then spends three verses, a middle eight and repeat chorus to test its thesis out on you, the listener. Or maybe, more accurately, what its unstated intention is is to invite you, the listener, to test its thesis for it by living according to the principles extolled in its message. Yes, that’s what it’s doing. That might explain why every great lyrical song is more than an enigma, it’s an insight into the mystery of life.

An old song came back to me this morning as i was busy making other plans. Its name is Live Your Life, by the American Otis Taylor. Aimed at the bullseye between our eyes, the lyrics are really quite straightforward. He sings:

Live your life before you die. Only might be for a little while.

By a little while, he means life can be curtailed at any time without any due notice. Implicit in there somewhere is this notion that as westernised humans, we’ve come to expect longevity, and if your three-score and tenth birthday party never transpires, there’s something frightfully tragic about it. Actually, when you put your social historian/demographer hat on, you’ll see that expectations of a long and biologically untroubled life is very much a late twentieth century indulgence. For much of history death prevailed in infancy as much as in adulthood. It percolated up as much as down. And when it did, the suddenness of finality was not lost on those bygone generations. If they didn’t see death coming, they certainly saw it everywhere.

Anyway, back to Otis Taylor. And the band plays on…

Death won’t touch you, on your heart. It’ll just come around. It’s gonna walk on in and knock you down.

Here his thesis is starting to develop. Causation, the central tenet of most theories, comes walkin’ on in on this little number to knock us down from our exalted position of delusion. The causation rooted in these lyrics says if you live your life before you die then death cannot harm you. It can only snatch you away before you know it. Ergo, if you choose to live life then death cannot enter your heart in some dismal prelude to a mortal end characterised by regrets and the endless act of dying while very much alive.

But what is the magic formula here for a death no more painful than drawing a line in the sands of time? How are we expected to – in Taylor’s words – live your life before you die? Again, the songwriter offers an almost irresistible position in building his case for a life script that conquers death. He sings:

Take time to laugh. Or maybe time to cry. Climb a mountain. Swim the sea.

And what quality do all of these lyrical prescriptions share? They all invoke a vitality – eros – which is the counterforce to the spirit of death – thanatos. They ask you to feel and to do. When inviting you to feel, they steal tears from the sorrow of dying only to fetter those tears on what is more deserved of them, that being life itself. Laugh in the face of death? No. Laugh along with life, fostering the conditions for that laughter to play out. Don’t embolden death with the power of your laughter, nor pleasure it with your tears. Climb above your lowly mortality to reach the highest peaks. Suspend yourself again as you did pre-life in mama’s womb but this time in mother nature’s own amniotic fluid, the ocean. A funeral should be a occasion to celebrate a life well lived, but how often do we feel like heading out to a party when following the hearse to the crematorium?

The conclusions of this treatise with its simple thesis of live the middle ground now if you don’t want the end to live for you stand up to scrutiny. If the premises hold that if a life well-lived is no less than a life with the marrow sucked dry, therefore death has no carrion to feed on when inevitably it comes, then the conclusions are clear: take risks. Don’t fear uncertainty nor shy away from the unknown. Let the light of life dazzle death, consigning it to the shadows until that fateful day when finality doesn’t revel in making a show of taking you away. Sure, we could die a terminal death through a cruel, clinging illness. But by stacking up enough of the life affirmative stuff in our armoury of getting older, even a protracted death can feel more like a soldier’s death: sudden and honourable. If that theory sounds optimistic as it does untested, then that’s a fair kop. But I’m going on that proviso until you prise it from my cold, dead hands.

I, for one, don’t intend to give the scythe-toting hooded one the pleasure. More so in a bizarre era typified by mass quarantining for fear of death (we say our current Covid self-sacrifices are all utilitarian-backed and done for the common good, but the truth is the organism is us fears for itself more than others). Hey, whoever said backing words with deeds wasn’t a challenge? But if we turn the page on this world in existential fear NOW then perhaps something transformative can come of it.

Like Kazantzakis said, leave nothing for death but a burned-out castle. And thanks, Otis, for the invocation to live your life before you die. Wise words. I’m not sure about swimming the sea (never truly got over watching Jaws as a 6 year-old boy). As for the mountains, I’m already packing for this winter. And when I reach the top, I’m planning on having a good weep. But not for death. Hello Life.

Holy Cow! How Ruminating on Love Ends With the Strange Tale of the Bovine.

#romance, abandonment, boats, England, Life, love, parable, relationships

I have a good friend I met overseas. A trusted sort, loyal, bright, boundless in his generosity, a good companion on these journeys of wine and deep talk long into the night.

One fine day he meets this girl. Let’s call her Mademoiselle V, for literary purposes. There’s no dilly-dallying when mutual obsession is at stake. Within weeks he has fallen head over heels for her ineffable charms. And she his. Truly, the man is snared in the self-tightening loop of love. Like all good snares, the more the hapless ankle tries to pull away, the harder the loop tightens. Like all deadly snares, only once the victim learns to relax their grip and accept the will of the snare, their plight will be eased, until starvation sets in.

Over the course of the following year, my friend’s love affair intensified. There was no limit to the gifts he fettered upon her. And she reciprocated in kind, showering him with the kind of things that money just can’t buy. Before long, they were engaged. The faint peal of wedding bells could be heard all the way from France, which is where I thought they’d be wedded, and I given front row seats.

However, all that glitters is not gold. Or, if they had made it to that French altar, tout ce qui brille n’est pas or. But I digress.

When did the path of love ever run smoothly? On our now infrequent nights over wine, worldliness, and European cine noir, he would recreate vivd little scenes of pre-marital turbulence. After a while, these funny flash points of their relationship would come to replace cinema and philosophy as the centrepiece of our drunken, moonlit nights.

The stories he told of jealous fits of rage, of Montagues and Capulets, daggers at dawn, of stormy meltdowns, mini breakups immediately superseded by major makeups. Lurid. Intriguing. The seed that sprouts legend. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara had nothing on those two.

The details of their tiffs became ever more non-linear and madcap, the more libations he poured and the more inhibitions he shed. She would turn from Mademoiselle V one moment into suicidal Desdemona the next. Unbidden, she would test his mettle by climbing over balcony railings 200ft above the ground floor of a hotel, threatening to let go if he didn’t do something, the details of which he never quite got. She would storm out of the car into the back of beyond, leaving him to play chase me. They would be drinking in a bar and she would just up and leave in the company of strangers. Their tortured love I came to understand as part of a larger ritual of constantly affirming devotion and loyalty. All ways of showing affection are funny when human insecurity leads to a craving for feeling wanted and needed.

Naturally, all these tantrums had an unnerving effect on him. Mutual suspicions grew. Sniping about one another became quite caustic. He’d drop whatever he was drinking, and hightail it after her when she’d go periodically AWOL. The hunter would become the hunted. In all, it became apparent that passions, like wine, if left to ferment too long, take on a sour taste. Like corked wine, the taste of tainted love, while certainly unpalatable, was still good enough not to throw away.

In the two years they were an item, their exploits elevated them to the status of legends in their own time. Torrid. Tempestuous. Volatile. Spectacular. Christ! The pair of them were an Elizabethan playwright’s dream. And like a great work of art, whenever they sauntered into our watering hole, no one knew what would unfold through the next act; only that some talking point was bound to infect our wider group.

As was the inevitable. They broke up without fanfare, without ceremony. Most of us expected it. Even they both welcomed it, with acid poured over and the candles blown out long after burning out from both ends. He had had enough of her antics; she had had enough of pretty much every aspect of her present surroundings. And enough of him, too. More than likely.

I raise the spectre of this long-interred affair because their tale has echoes in something I witnessed recently that, on the surface, bears little or no relation to them whatsoever. My story, instead of reliving my own tale of blustery sexual relations with a dark-eyed temptress, in fact centres around young bullocks in a field acting strangely in the presence of my own Mademoiselle V: my boat. The parable of these animals and the boat is that sometimes the very things that are born out of acts of love and obsession, that offer us shelter and sustenance, pride and companionship, and most of all the promise of a future, don’t always appear in the form of lovestruck humans. They can be inanimate and still stress test you to breaking point by placing the same unreasonable, suffocating demands as a run of the mill hetero relationship.

N.B. When reading about the cows in the field and the boat moored alongside, it’s wise to keep this couple in mind – in particular, the intense, all-or-nothing basis to their engagement. That’s how parallels become parables.

Let’s mooo-ve along nicely. So, after weeks and months of mooring in giant brown baths (aka canals) that empty and refill with every lock gate opening and closing, leaving boats beached and stricken for half the time, finally i emerged onto a river section of the canal. Yes, a river, no less. Moving downstream like a liquid glacier, a river is nothing like a canal. On a river a boat can attain its neutral buoyancy easily, as it tends to sit perfectly even in deeper water. The river is clearer and supports proper wildlife, such as otters. The current ensures a degree of purification that you don’t find in stagnant canal water. In short, i found a dream mooring for a fortnight. Instead of the usual tunnel vision you find on ruler-straight stretches of canal with hedges and trees lining either bank, on the river the banks abut fields and meadows, offering a more expansive picture. So far, so good.

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For some time now, I had wanted to find a safe haven for the boat, allowing me to come and go as i pleased. No mooring until this one had provided that leverage i needed – to be able to walk away from my ‘beloved’ for a few days without worrying half to death that it would be either ransacked, or run aground, by the time i got back. That’s relationships for you, I told myself. Together through thick and thin, but mainly thick. The fact that it took me five years and billows of desert dust to save for the materials to build the interior to my high standards, as well as two more years of Gulag-hard labour, and zero foreign travel, to complete its interior fit-out, lent a certain emotional investment vis-à-vis the attachment and strength of feeling i had toward the boat. When you start a project from scratch, for every pound sterling poured in, another two pounds of love follows, leaving the whole owner-possession dynamic to drift into the realms of smothered love. It’s a strange affair, man and machine. And not altogether unlike my friends explosive dalliance with Mademoiselle V.

Pleased as punch with myself on finding this river mooring, I toyed with all manner of escape plans. I’d lock the boat up and go away camping for a few days. I’d take a ferry to the outer limits of the British island archipelago. I’d even take a train up north to see my family. After a lull of two years in an intense relationship with the boat – never leaving its vulnerable side lest it did anything rash like leaping off the 15th floor balcony of a faraway hotel – finally my time had come to gain the distance the relationship needed. That was until the field’s permanent residents, a herd of delinquent bullocks, decided to step in to the fray.

The first time I saw them mass nearby was under the tree nearest the boat. Thinking nothing of it, i returned back inside to the galley only to watch as a few stragglers began circling the mooring ropes, and the canvas chair sat beside. One picked up the chair in his mouth and tossed it away. Another, eyeing the plastic carrier bag tied around the mooring rope, started chomping on the bag. Another got a bit friendly with the bow ropes. But I wasn’t prepared for what ensued. Another broke through the ranks. Annoyed that only a nub of orange plastic remained where the bag used to flutter, he put his mouth around the 2-foot long mooring pin and proceeded to uproot it completely. I could not believe my eyes. I was seeing the systematic eviction of the boat from its lovely mooring spot by a bunch of rambunctious bullocks.

Suddenly, there was a commotion on the bank. Inquisitive as inquisitive can be for a bunch of cows, this lot were peering through the portholes, licking the outer cabin walls, and generally threaten to set the boat adrift. One of the stern ropes was a particular delicacy for another bully bovine, who started fraying the rope as if it was dental floss. Undeterred, I had a stern word with them all, and the herd got the message and dispersed. It then hit me: you really cannot leave this boat for some well-needed time apart. If you do, you may well return to find your home wedged in a weir somewhere downstream.

The herd returned periodically, showing particular interest in the mooring ropes and the pins. I decided to go away all the same. For only a night, but that in itself was a necessary break. And while i sat around that campfire 60 miles away wondering what in hellfire the cows were up to by the river, i thought of my friend and his former relationship. While neither he nor her resorted to yanking up mooring pins, chomping on ropes and tossing away camp chairs, other acts of don’t-leave-me ultimatums were all part and parcel of boozy Friday nights in their world.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

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

Picture a Place beyond your front door,

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

Where Coronavirus is a Mexican beer-drinking game,

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

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

But that little reminder is neither here nor there.


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

You seek? Petersburg or Pelion? Russian or Greek?

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

Or lying in wet sand doing not much at all?

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

Or puffing away on the Darjeeling train?

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

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

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

Or itching your head in the flea markets of Muscat.

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


I myself have had visions on high,

Of following mountains way up to the sky.

And then looking down on all I survey,

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

Or not go away,

at all.


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

but of what I’ve got.

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

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

Head in the jet stream, heart on my sleeve,

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

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


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

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

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

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

Whoever said dreams had to be distant?

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

You’ll be lucky to get up a hill.

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

Only you can leave yourself behind.


If you like, walk on your hands to Timbuktu,

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

Keep on keeping on, this time on your feet,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wherever you roam, roam with a smile.

And if strangers invite you in for a while,

Don’t turn them down.

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

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

You’ve given them yourself, not some hollow

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

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

Strangers.

No one is a stranger, not when you travel.

Except yourself maybe. Let that twist of fate unravel.


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

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

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

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

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

On the edge of a blunt knife.

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

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


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





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Weathering the Purr-fect Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Consolations of Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Corners of Love

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

Part VII

Love is a Gambler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, what d’ya say? ‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’ll get along then.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I choose you..’

Me?

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

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

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

The Five Corners of Love

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

Part VI

The Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diego And Me

#adventure, Dubai, Emirates, football, Life, maradona, time

What did Cervantes famously say? The road is always better than the inn? What was his intention with this use of metaphor? Interpretations vary, though I perceive the meaning to be bound up with the notion of each life as a journey plotting a unique route. When we think only of the destination we forget that the true and essential value of that journey lies not in where we want to come to rest (for that in itself signifies senescence and ultimately death), but rather in everything we missed while tear-assing between start and finish. Ask anyone who has trekked all day among the mind-blowing peaks of the Himalaya only to rest at day’s end in a teahouse whose rooms are basic at best. Did I push my body further than ever on that mountain pass only to rest my weary head on this paper-thin mattress in this frigid room? Was that what drove me on? To put it another way, don’t obsess on the future outcome only to miss the majesty crowned in the moment.

Granted, most journeys are punctuated by frequent stops along the way. A life worth remembering, for me is a life plotted well enough to be divided up into sections – stories nested in larger stories. There’s a tonne of metaphors that can be applied to this structuring of life: milestones; chapters; key stages; or epochs. Obviously, we use metaphors to package decades of life, each part a little, if distinctive, bundle of a greater whole. Of course, it’s easier to swallow the whole when you’re taking bite sizes one at a time. I say this because in Diego Maradona’s death I remembered certain monumental events of his life and how these events reverberated with important events of my own life. He is, of a fashion, an accidental yardstick with which I get a certain measure of my life. In his death I see my past life unfold.

If a human life is no more than the passage of the sun across the sky on one solitary day, then it stands to reason that a life can take a similar trajectory to another. Now no one’s saying they share the same sky with Diego for he owns the sky. What i am saying, however, is that there were times i crossed his skyway. And I’m not talking about bumping into him at an airport, but rather seeing three key moments in his life as an index of my own life.

The first was Mexico ’86. I was fourteen and head over heels in love with the beautiful game (which in those bone-crunching days on boggy fields was often anything but). Growing up in a land whose people supported any team that wasn’t England, when that quarter-final against Lineker’s men in white was aired live from the sun-drenched Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, we sat around that gogglebox absolutely transfixed. We knew all too well the flair and the cunning that was so unashamedly the nature of being an Argentina player. Maradona was everywhere except England accepted as the greatest gift to the game since Pele. In fact, in that era England was not the international footballing hub it is today. Like the spirit of Brexit, the culture of the game south of the border was insular as it was proud. While England could rightfully claim to have conceived the modern game of Association Football, by the 1980s it was the Latins, in particular the Brazilians and Argentinians that were really giving form to the modern game. England was mired in the old ways: the long ball; the crunching tackle; defensive power; the brain-damaging header. It was ungainly as it was anachronistic. Oh, and there were the chipped, concrete terraces. They were overspilling with angry young men who identified as both casualties of Britain’s industrial demise and warriors of a redefined tribe; as prone to violence in the name of their club as Thatcher was prone to the brutal euthanasia of a country riddled with industrial cancer. All in all, it was ugly on the home front. And into that melee entered the Golden Kid, el pibe de oro, a tousled-haired general from the barrios of Buenos Aires (which felt like another planet to us) who was immune to the bullshit dealt out by defenders, whose saw the game as performing art instead of the usual bloodless battlefield ethos of the English, who codified the game in the nineteenth century when games like battles were governed by gentlemen’s rules.

Maradona’s response to the humiliation of a Falklands War fought between Argentinian boys and grown English men four years earlier was to deliver national humiliation to the once indomitable power of Albion. And we fitbaw-mad laddies from north of the border could not get enough of him. Maradona as a figurehead had come to symbolize the struggle against old yet dangerous lions for all of us living in little countries. When Maradona put Burruchaga through with a deft flick from his magical feet, the World Cup was Argentina’s. That dysfunctional nation at the bottom of the world where footballers grew tall and bountiful as Pampa grass had vanquished another monolithic power, this time Germany, with their height and stature and relentlessly boring game of vorsprung durch technik. Beauty had conquered the beast. Maradona, the little master with thighs like a buffalo, against Rudy Voeller, the goal-poaching bandit with the terrible moustache. Like I already stated, Maradona’s Argentina won for all the world’s underdogs, all the little nations that stayed little in their perennial struggle against the mighty ones.

He lit the torch paper, inspiring all of us. So much so, that in the summer of ’86 we played more football than there were daylight hours. In ’86 we learned to play the game as it should be played: not with ferocity but with grace and skill on the ball. It was all about mastery of the ball, and this was his gift to every aspiring boy on Earth. While in England, dribbling was what babies did, elsewhere (and in Scotland no less) dancing the ball past midfielders and defenders was something to be lauded. That change in the whole aesthetic of the game was down to Diego. He, not Pele nor Garrincha, was the pathfinder.

Six months later, my Dad came home one day with a letter in his hand. In it was written, Dear Such and Such, Impressed by your abilities, we would like to offer you a promotion….in England. That was that. Nine months later I dragged my Maradona feet south of the border still harbouring dreams of running rings round Englishmen just as Diego had done. I joined the local club in a rural, primarily rugby-playing, area. The local boys, raised on English beef and Yorkshire puddings, were physical opponents, and they did not have much time for what the Argentinians called la gambeta (the dribble). With disdain for Maradona, the cheating bastard, each attempt at flair, of creative passing and dribbling, was ended unceremoniously. I spent half my time on the deck, as I recall, having been scythed down or slyly ankle-tapped. So physical and harmful to slender dribblers on the left wing, my skinny legs couldn’t take the punishment and within a year I had quit the county league game altogether. Not two years had passed since Maradona lifted the World Cup and my footballing dreams lay dashed on a cold, mud-clotted park alongside their owner.

Ten years after Mexico ’86 I flew to Buenos Aires for the first of what would turn out to be a few times. ’96 was a key year for both Maradona and me. While he was ending his career as an unfit Boca Juniors player, I was commencing mine as a dilettante with a taste for the sunlit bottom of the world. Within weeks I had been inculcated into the ever-widening sphere of the Boca hincha (meaning fan). My nearest and dearest furnished me with a blue & yellow Boca shirt, alongside the other million things she gifted me. From our little enclave on the Atlantic coast 400km south of Buenos Aires, I watched the Boca-River derby and could not believe I had gone twenty-fours years without realising that the game of football meant more to these people here in the south of the world than it did to those people up there in the north of the world. The atmosphere there on the TV en vivo y en directo was unbelievable. Fans clung to high fencing with one hand while swinging their camisetas with the other. Their skinny flaco cuerpos cooked in that cauldron under those floodlights. I was flabbergasted. Compared to our fairly orderly system of collective behaviour, these Boca fans you could liken to gibbons or vervet monkeys behind the cages of the zoo. And I mean that without malice. I had never witnessed passion for a club nor for the game itself. Passion, but not like that, no. The pitch of Boca’s Bombonera was claustrophobic with high fencing and near-vertical terracing. The weight of half the nation bore down on those players in a space electrified by expectations. And watching them play the short game in packed spaces was breathtaking. Whereas we in the north loved nothing more than the ball screaming into the top corner from 25 yards out, the South Americans took a whole different approach to the form that beauty would take en route to goal. They would rather walk the ball into the net, so long as they had put together a complex string of passing interplay in order to reach the goal. In that sense, for them the road was better than the inn. It didn’t matter how it went in, it was in the nature of the journey from goalkeeper through the midfield to goal that had those hinchas rocking the bars of their giant enclosure in rapture.

At the time, few Brits travelled to Argentina. English wasn’t even widely spoken. The nearest to a sentence in English was a lyric of the Beatles or the Stones (Argentina adored the Rolling Stones almost as much as another English import: the game of association football). I was immensely privileged to be there at any time, but particularly at the end of Maradona’s stellar career as a playmaker. His final games, like much of his life, frustrated his millions of acolytes. For him there was no crisis quite like a drama.

The third and final vague intersection of his life and mine would occur twenty-one years after the Argentina episode. In this subsequent chapter of life both he and I had taken a similarly nonsequitous direction, this time to the deserts of Arabia. I was stationed – though not in the military sense of stationed – on the Indian Ocean in an obscure town on the frontier of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Diego, the journeyman, for that is what he had become in a largely wayward and bizarre coaching career, had landed a job coaching a second-tier team in the UAE called Fujairah, eponymously named in honour of the town, naturally. He was paid handsomely by the Sheikh of the Fujairah Emirate to do one thing and one thing only: earn the team promotion to the top tier. Even a man of formidable talents as Maradona could not replicate his deeds on the pitch with his discipline as a manager. He was struggling to raise his squad’s game. The legend-effect was no magic dust and by the time I took my seat in the stands of Fujairah FC’s stadium, Diego’s team were nudging toward the promotional play-offs, but not without the drama, the agony and the passion that followed him everywhere.

It was, as is the custom where hot desert meets warm ocean, like a sauna out there. The wet-bulb temperature was ludicrous. Nevertheless, we sweated it out just to catch a glimpse of Diego. And there he stood on the touchline, all five foot five of him. Trying to play down the significance of that moment, I tried not to gawp at the figure who lit up the world’s TV screens in ’86. Never in a million years did i imagine that Maradona would wind up here in Fujairah. Never in a million years did i think I would, for that matter. My gaze fell on his pitiful physique. Yes, the thunder thighs were still evident, as was the magnificent mane of salt&pepper hair, but his body had ballooned. He was bloated, washed up like a dead porpoise ready to burst on the beach. As the game got underway, this being a play-off decider, the tensions rose. Things were not going well for Diego’s Fujairah FC. They knocked the ball about like Sunday League players. Their finishing was impotent. But we hadn’t gained access to the game with the false hope that we’d be entertained tiki-taka, Barcelona-style. It was all about Maradona. It always was. He paced up and down that touchline. Me, I was seated yards away, so close I could see the sweat beading in his furrowed brow. He paced up and down like a man possessed by the ghost of a bear that lost its mind after a deranging lifetime in a zoo enclosure. The more the game went on, the more his fury rose. He could barely walk. His spine arched backwards to reveal a belly swollen by beer and bifstek. His locomotion was so stilted you’d think he had splints bandaged tightly onto his knees. But even in his fallen pomp he looked every inch the Napoleon of the football field he was born to be. He was flawed as he was magisterial. When the ball bounced out of play, landing right next to him, I took a deep breath, thinking he would do that magic trick with the ball where he booted it high into the stratosphere, go off and attend to something unrelated before returning to the same spot moments before it hit the deck only to boot it high into the air again, ad infinitum. This feat might sound easy on paper, but it is not. Instead of dancing feet, we saw a man who struggled to stop the ball with his feet. And when he kicked it back to one of his players, he was a rigid as a tin soldier. In thirty years he had gone from quicksilver to a wooden stick figure pieced together at the joints with rusting pegs.

In that failed kick of the ball I remember seeing how time makes fools of us all. I saw myself, what I could do the ball back then, and now, how sclerotic we had both become.

The Year is 2020, So Where is the Vision?

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Humanity bumbling along, governing bodies staring longingly into their former selves à la Dorian Grey and his cloaked mirror, and so-called policies as ham-fisted as a fist full of, erm, ham. Yes, the list just rolls on and on in this the only year in history dedicated to a field of vision deemed as clear and perspicacious as you can get. Oh, the irony of it all! We might be languishing in the year of our landlord, 2020, but we as a race do not enjoy the accompanying 20/20 vision that makes a bleary-eyed rookie into a hawk-eyed fighter pilot.

Let’s start with the only thing that really matters, and no it’s not us. Dorian Grey’s older self would be disappointed to hear that admission. That thing I speak of is the world around us. Let’s face it, it’s the only world we’ll ever have and the only living one within about, let’s say for argument’s sake, ten light years, or 58 trillion 590 billion kilometres, if you’re claiming on mileage. Wilderness, as most of us are aware, is being co-opted for agronomy and industry to serve a human population that is beginning to resemble an infestation or worst still a bacterial culture gone rogue in a planet-sized petri dish. This is happening at a rate for which there is no excuse. We are eating ourselves out of house and home and the only ones not seeing that are those with their craw stuffed full of nature’s bounty, as well as unschooled ignoramuses, for which there are many even if the the doyens of political correctness admonish us for calling out all the provincial thinkers in our swelled ranks. We have known for much of my own lifetime about the concomitant risks in taming the wild places: what is lost cannot be recovered in a timeframe that humans understand. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, however hard of hearing, must know that extinction is forever. We’ve known the phrase slash and burn for decades and, encoded in it, all its barbaric implications. Even though the debate has taken on new and violent terms of reference, eco-vandalism is going on in spite of our knowledge of it and complicity in it. All the while it seems the more dire the prognostications, the more wanton our behaviour and the more debased our greed for the things that have kept the world hitherto in balance. I have lost track of the number of times I hear the term ‘sixth extinction’. Now if that were insufficient to jolt us into redefining the boundaries by which the human race exploits the natural world, i do not know therefore what is sufficient. The more the mainstream media reports on how we’re approaching a tipping point, a point of no return, the more the average family’s material needs appear to multiply. While global population ploughs upward to an 11-digit figure, our celebrity culture boasts of its procreative prowess by inviting the media to snapshot their opulent lives in rural Sussex with six children in tow. Why make the implicit link between many offspring and material success in the knowledge that this is a false correlation? I mean, throughout most of history large families have more often than not been synonymous with extreme poverty, and not opulence. A Prime Minister of Great Britain with six offspring (that we know of), chaired with the task of finding a common voice to bring down the human impact? Gimme a break. What kind of vision is that coming from the stuttering mouth of yet another high-flying free-market mercantilist libertarian who believes in the greatest markets for the greatest numbers?

While the correlation between modern industry and atmospheric-changing carbon emissions has been better made, we continue to miss the point. If you want to trace the problem back to its genesis, jump not onto the bandwagon of climate change. Look again, use that 20-20 vision and you’ll see that Attenborough has been whispering truth: it all comes back to global human population. It’s out of control and from it everything flows. Rampant human overpopulation is the taproot down which a pestilent tree of Man grows. Wild habitat is stolen to tend the needs of a burgeoning population (in Africa and Asia) who all aspire to live as postwar Americans have. Forest goes tree after tree, species after species. We know all this. We know that nothing hosts biodiversity better than a forest found 20 degrees either side of the equator. We know the secrets to finding cures for human ailments lies within their mind-blowing array of biota. We know that to have space to grow row after endless row of oil palm trees to produce better soap and all manner of packet food to feed ever-growing numbers of hungry mouths and to wash evermore grubby little faces, we first have to collapse an ecosystem perfectly evolved to provided a pyramidical shelter for every manner of creature, plant and fungus from here to kingdom come. We know that without canopy cover the thin, reedy soils of the tropics turn infertile, into dust under the blazing sun. So why do we, as a race, persist in laying the groundwork to seed our own miserable demise? Why clear-fell whole countries only to fatten cattle for their mass slaughter to give some Lazy Joe a nutrition-depleted, ready-made burger? Not content with turning the complex machinery of nature into a monocultural wasteland where even the public are forbidden to go, we’re even ramping up operations on livestock farms to expand the export market for meat into a China that’s seen the largest middle-class in history emerge within the past thirty years. Even their tastes are changing to embrace a completely cruel and unsustainable world. Bye bye Taoism. The only consolation we can draw is that 800 million Hindus refuse point blank to jump on the cattle train, not that Mother India is a shining beacon of environmental custodianship.

Living in 2020 without the corresponding vision is not totally unlike the proverbial overflowing bucket of liquified manure that spills out to all quarters. It’s not just the disappearance of tropical and sub-tropical forest, nor the disappearance of broadleaf temperate forest that we in Europe have mourned for a thousand years. It’s everything, everywhere. The human cancer has gone metastatic. Desert is growing everywhere between latitude 20 and 30 north and south, yet we turn a blind eye for most of us do not live in a desert, nor have so much as stepped in one. Grasslands have already been co-opted, but that’s old news now since Buffalo Bill Hickok shot six million bison on the Great Plains as a way of spitefully starving the Sioux. Ice is going, yet while we mourn its melting we overlook that if it were advancing – as it has dozens of times in the past two million years – we wouldn’t find it so brilliant white or cute. As for the oceans, well, not only have we gone from trawler to factory ship as if to underscore the intensification of the end for all who partake in the feast of misery, we continue to sully the waters around our coasts and then some more. We’ve created a floating mat of congealed plastics that swirl around in the North Pacific and is reckoned to be the size of big ol’ Texas. A remarkable feat of human ingenuity if you ask me. Only outdone by the crass stupidity of knowing that fish stocks (even the term ‘stocks’ implies monetary value and property for humans) are near exhausted, so how about we build trawlers the size of small passenger liners with hooked lines trailing off the stern, some long enough to reach the moon and back, which was in all fairness the last decent thing we ever did to get one over on nature. Scrape the seabed for a catch that justifies the distances the fleets (mainly Chinese) will go in order to bring home the ocean’s bacon. They know the damage wrought by this crude method, but do they care? They must know that hardwired into their rapacious business model is the reality that what they’re doing is finite and temporary and smacks of the kind of short-term strategic planning that is no planning at all. Rather, the dragnet of modern fishing fleets represents another instance of short-sightedness that can never equate to the far, crystal clear vision that 20-20 provides.

A discussion about the absence of vision in the year where the two words best eclipse, cannot be foreclosed without mention of political will and leadership. It does not require radical insight to see that leadership around the world is characterized by a near collapse in the manner of vision needed to see the living Earth through the 21st century without any more bodily desecration than is strictly needed to lead a low-impact life. Leaders are followers. Whom they follow is up for argument, but you can bet that the pursuit of profit and unenlightened self-interest lies right behind them. Britain and the U.S. are grotesque examples of nations who have known visionary leadership in their illustrious pasts and who have now descended into a near-existential breakdown because the current crop of leaders are singularly lacking in the kind of millennial vision that sees a hundred years ahead, and not the next hundred days, fearing the imminence of their own destruction, which is the lot of the modern politician. Where are the leaders that the world in crisis demands? Where are the new wave of articulate young voices? Where is the unity of purpose in it all? Of course, worshipping the making of capital and looking to those early 21st century capitalists as pedigree for the type of leadership our damaged world needs is going to end badly. The credo of unlimited economic growth built upon the conquest of nature (as espoused by Adam Smith back in 1776) is a dangerous one, setting a course for yet more planetary destruction by a species whose boots have gotten too big for their feet, whose eyes have grown too large and covetous for their sockets, but whose vision has dimmed. Contrary to the saucer-sized eyes they think is needed for a bigger, bolder vision, they’re missing the whole point: its smaller, less covetous eyes we need, but eyes that penetrate the darkness we currently find ourselves lost in.

To Live With a Loss That Has No Purpose.

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So, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

We often use the verb ‘to stumble’ when employing metaphor in describing mishaps on the road to personal progress. For instance, ‘I was doing so well to make this dream happen until i stumbled into trouble.’ Thing is, we don’t often apply the term literally when describing the very moment that things took a definitive turn for the worse. Take this example: ‘He stumbled on the escarpment and fell to his death‘. Exceptions prevail, of course. Sometimes people stumble literally and the ensuing fall is even more consequential (and somewhat more inexplicable) than if the stumble had been figurative in a metaphorical sense. What happened the other night was not exactly a stumbling block on the road to Middle East Peace; being real and not abstract it was arguably more compelling than that.

Soon enough we’ll come back to this nice bloke for whom it happened to. It must be foretold that I’ve got this far in life without throwing the towel in by consoling myself that we inhabit an orderly, law-abiding universe. A chaotic, lawless universe is too hard to countenance. In this universe of mine watchful, seemingly benign forces act upon our individual conduct to pave our way with either help or hindrance. You might call this ‘the blind watchmaker’ syndrome. A classic call to monotheism’s central tenet that God is everywhere and judging. He maketh even that which He cannot possibly maketh. My take is more Tao of Physics, more Oriental holistic, more interconnected subatomic networks with inbuilt natural laws of justice than your run-of-the-mill divine, omnipotent Father-figure there to restore the cosmic balance of justice in favour of the kind and compassionate over the cruel and selfish among us. Intelligent design? Only in so far as subatomic matter is mystically connected to each other despite time and vast distance. Protons telekinetically agreeing that so-and-so is worthy, through honourable conduct, of synchronicity with benevolent time. On time’s elevator, the good don’t even need to punch in their desired floor. The lift knows where to take them. Whereas, the black of heart, for all their frantic prodding of buttons on the console, the elevator nevertheless spits them out precisely on a floor where only woe can find them. These we call the natural laws. You get what you give, no more, no less. Except my story betrays this as fanciful thinking dreamed up by those who need to know that behind every senseless action lurks a just reason. My story tells of how our foundations can be shaken by events that have no purpose other than to reaffirm the popular, secular belief that shit just happens. If everything happens for no other reason than to provide no other reason, then please stop the whirring cosmos for i want to get off.

My neighbour, for want of a better word, was coming home two nights ago. Now his home is rather unconventional. To get there he has to park his car by a canal bridge in a hushed little village full of fairytale thatched cottages, then walk a considerable distance through the quarter-lit gloaming along the black waters of the canal towpath. The towpath is narrow and the banks steep. On one side foliage arches over like a line of tall, bowing hunchbacks. On the other is the water, sullied and still like a river of weak tea with a dash of milk. This garden path of his is neither for the frail nor the faint of heart. Seeing that he answers to neither of these calls, he was walking home with his six month-old pup, Patsy, off the lead with shopping bags in each hand. The Irish terrier, still in that delicate stage of training, would ordinarily have been on the lead but for the fact that the shopping won’t carry itself. Learning to walk independently and by his side, she was beginning to make great strides toward obedience.

Emerging from under a small brick bridge, he put one foot in front of the other, feeling his way through the rapid darkening. As if from nowhere his toe stumbled hard against an exposed tree branch and the forward momentum of his body coupled with the weight of the bags sent him headlong into the canal. Head first he fell, scattering his shopping everywhere, disappearing under the stagnant water. When he emerged from the shallow water he panned his vision around but she was gone. The dog had hightailed it in fear. Now this ‘flight-mode’ is not unheard of in young dogs once spooked by something. Their calm demeanour snaps, leaving their primitive instinct in the driving seat.

All night he paraded up and down the towpath, calling her name, coaxing her to come back. The following morning I got wind of her disappearance and so, without hesitation, joined the hunt. We combed the coppiced fringes of the canal, straying into neighbouring fields, all the while calling her name gently. By now a proper search party had been raised. People being people, dog people being even more divided by canine opinion than non-dog people, theories starting flying thick and fast. She’s gone to ground, some said. The fear has triggered her amygdala into making her cower timorously in the undergrowth until such time as hunger snaps her out of this fugue state. Other theories centred on her terrier nature. She must have found a drain pipe. Others still wondered if she had run and run and run until, young and utterly bewildered, she could no longer find her way home to her master and their boat. I asked the owner what his instincts were telling him. She’s gone to ground, he averred. Agreed, we vowed to resume the search the following morning, though I knew his search would go on undaunted throughout the night.

The following day came and, well, nothing. So again we theorised as to where a panicked puppy might go. We covered a radius of maybe five kilometres in all directions. Meanwhile, other kindly souls had mounted a search and rescue effort. Word was out. Even a local drone pilot wanted in on the action. By the end of the second day I could see his facade of bravery start to crumble. It’s all in the downward sloping of the eyebrows, exposing these two vertical furrows leading up from the bridge of the nose. Again I asked him, what do your instincts tell you? She’s in warm room somewhere beside an old lady who’s picked her up. There and then, a crack appeared in his sixty-eight years of tough stolidness: English passion, I call it. I don’t want to entertain that thought, he said. I have to stay positive. Granted, in such a rural area, where could she have got to? No main road for miles. Only a mainline from Bristol to London, but she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, clamber through the thorny brambles, scramble up the track ballast and onto the lines. Too gnarly, too steep, too pointless for even a pup with no sense of anything other than love for every living soul.

He kept a vigil, returning precisely to the spot where the stumbling had taken place two nights previous. The owner even left a scent trail of his socks, his t-shirts, her basket, blanket, every last little clue he could muster to coax her back from her ‘safe’ place in the undergrowth to their safe place on the boat. I watched as his initial optimism turned in on itself. Two days cowering in a damp bush without food? This theory was beginning by now to sound wishful. By the end of the second day, my thoughts turned to the likelihood that a six month-old Irish terrier, a rare and desirable pedigree, had been snaffled by a lucky passerby. She had to have been sequestered by someone, being such a ditsy and trustful little thing. Question was: what manner of character would this passerby possess? Would they be honest and self-effacing enough to know that this was someone’s prized possession? Or would they be a finders-keepers-losers-weepers type who justifies their deceit on the grounds that property is nine-tenths of the law, whatever that means?

This morning i awoke late. Powering up my phone i received a ping. It was him. He wrote to thank me for my help, but that it wouldn’t be any longer needed. She was found late last night dead by the rail tracks right next to his boat on the other side of a thicket of oak trees. She must have found her way back to the boat but took a wrong turn and ended up trotting along the tracks alone in the dark, afraid. She could hear him calling her but was stricken and helpless to go to him. So light and frail, she was struck by either the London train or a freight train. Her – and his – only solace was that her death would have been instant.

I told my mum, who has loved and lost dogs. She answered, life can be cruel sometimes, son.

Why do terrible things happen to good people? Why must the most vulnerable have to live in fear? Why is love taken away from us only when we’ve found it? Where is the natural justice in all this? I refuse to believe we exist in a dimension where senselessness and meaninglessness is a defining feature. That said, today my eyes are welling up wondering if my grip on an orderly reality is slipping and that, in the end, it’s shit that happens and no one knows the f&ck why.

The Buddha implored us not to get too attached as it would only cause suffering when weaning occurred. He must have known, however, that as humans our attachment to objects – both animate and inanimate – can be both profound and wholly natural. Within this paradox we must make our last stand. This is our eternal condition.