With the appointment of Joe Biden as President-Elect, the geopolitical map is being refashioned faster than the previous lines can be fuzzily drawn. While the world fixes on the monumental domestic consequences of this change of governance, it’s the international fallout which offers a more tantalising glimpse into how events will unfold across a world still largely shaped by US hegemony. The deceit, the revanchist, and the delusion-laden doctrine of Brexit and Trumpism are interchangeable for all intents and purposes, so now Trump’s populist exercise in self-adoration has been sidelined from central policy, what gives for a Brexit endgame which has leaned so heavily, albeit slyly, on the Orange Emperor’s blessing? What now that a seventy-eight year-old multilateralist with Irish blood flowing through his ageing veins will be stepping into the breach?
The prospects for a unilateralist Brexit have changed with the jettisoning of Donald Trump from power. That much is clear, in spite of Downing St’s cageyness. The days of English hubris are numbered. For four years Donald Trump provided cover for a buccaneering Brexit model that mirrored his natural state of chaos, but to what extent will his unceremonious removal change the rules of the negotiating game? Will Johnson set new policy parameters on Britain’s relationship with Europe seeing that his moral cheerleader, Trump, will find his rambling Tweets no longer carry the gravity they once did?
Here is how the Tories are now in check. As the whole world except Trump already knows, gone is the uber-advocate of self-determinism to be replaced by Biden, whose political instincts favour heavily the re-normalisation of relations with the EU into a strategic alliance to counter the growing might of China and her minions. His will be a continuation of Obama-era foreign policy by other means. In point of fact, the means might actually be not so different than the Obama years, which is telling because Britain’s long autopsy on Brexit has been done under the aegis of Trump’s nativist brand of US Republicanism. The fallout of the referendum has been acutely felt almost entirely during Trump’s four years in office. Britain henceforth finds itself in uncharted territory. She can no longer break treaties and trample on good faith with her ridiculous exigencies that find their bloody-minded roots in that self-same feeling of exceptionalism that ran like a golden thread through Trump’s nationalist platform. When he is not putting out spot fires back home, Biden will restore a multilateral basis to international relations. Damage limitation will be his modus operandi of foreign policy. After four years in a whacked-out wilderness, the US needs to return to the family of nations to aid in the restructuring of the global political order to something like its former self, which ran broadly along ideological lines (democracy or autocracy; rogue or reliable). It will do this not by making unreasonable demands or by threatening to storm off if if doesn’t get its own way, rather by rejoining multilateralist efforts to stem 21st century global threats and influence opportunities. Brexit represents an existential threat to the sanctity of union with a democratic coalition from Lisbon to Athens, and so Biden will push even harder against the radicals in the Tory party – Britain’s own GOP – who represent a radical element that see personal gain in free-trade libertarianism. To Biden, Brexit is Trumpite foreign policy in another guise.
For a start, Joe Biden is a proud Irish-American. He’s a straight talker who one imagines stands baffled at the waffle that trips off Johnson’s tongue. He’s already said it himself, Brexit ain’t gonna jeopardise the Irish Peace Process come what may. The problem is, sovereign independent nations tend to draw up hard borders in the face of larger sovereign blocs. Switzerland is an exception but for geographical and historical reasons which Britain cannot and must not try to emulate. As yet, there is no fixed solution to the problem of what to do and how to act when faced with a land border between a newly independent Britain and a long-standing EU member, the Irish Republic. They tried sketching an invisible line through the Irish Sea until fools in the cabinet belatedly realised that Northern Ireland would be effectively annexed to the European Union. Dismemberment of the 300 year-old Union was not what the Tory Brexiteers spearheaded by Gove and Johnson had in mind. Their answer was to breach International law rewriting the Withdrawal Agreement, a fact not lost on Biden who would routinely wince at Trump’s cavalier approach to ripping up treaties willy-nilly. What must he think about the bungling involved in Brexit then?
The new Washington administration will seek to consolidate ties with Berlin and Paris, while holding a special place in the President-Elect’s heart for the Emerald Isle. This volte-face in US policy places Britain out on a limb. Her ostracism from an emerging global consensus will be even harder felt exactly at a time when the long warm-up is over and the UK finally has to go it alone. The EU will be bolstered by the results of the most bitterly-fought US Election in living memory. Downing Street will be frantically revising its options, in other words scrambling to ingratiate itself with the new Democratic administration before Biden hardens his pro-EU/Irish stance even more. Much as they try to sell a rebranded Brexit to Biden/Harris, they will fail as all salesman do when they try plugging a crap product. Fact-fudging, policy backtracking and cringeworthy obsequiousness to rising foreign powers on the part of the Tory government will come to characterise the next twelve months of what is turning out to be a rudderless leadership, a busted flush of a governing class that set out on their decade-long crusade to degrade future prospects for the average Briton, while still managing to impress half the nation by sounding off like a bunch off privileged blowhards egging on the school rugby team that faces imminent relegation to lower leagues.
Brexit is not going to wash with Biden, and rightly so. The present vision of it is pure mirage full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Sound faintly familiar to the incumbent president who refuses to leave office without a fight, or at least a 9-hole playoff on one of his soon-to-be-liquidated golf courses? He too loved a good la-dee-da that, like Brexit, had plenty of chorus but no verse.
The presidential inauguration is set for the third week of January. This roughly corresponds with the end of the Withdrawal Agreement and the start of the Brexit reality. Politics is that game with no winners, but a game nonetheless. Johnson plots his next move vis-a-vis Brussels with renewed caution. He does not want to be caught offside on the wrong side of history as the rearguard floods forward out of defence. It’s not Britain he fears for more than it is himself and his own political extinction. He is another pompous discard waiting to happen. He is another controversial court jester in a new age of conciliatory politics. But Johnson has come too far with Brexit not to want to avoid seeing it turn out like that DIY barbecue set that a ham-fisted Homer Simpson tried to assemble. You remember The Simpson’s episode right? The unrecognisable jumble of cement, bricks and grille that ended up feted by the critics as a postmodern masterpiece, propelling Homer from backyard flunky to darling of the Springfield art world. Brexit might be postmodern but in its present format (and one senses in every possible format) it ain’t no masterpiece. Artless Boris might well botch it, but unlike Homer he won’t be anyone’s darling, least of all the art world. He’ll end up another poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.
As for that free-trade agreement with the US you’ve been angling for? That one just slipped down Joe and Kamala’s priority list.
Watch out, Boris, Joe is coming and he’s wearing green and gold. To quote an Irish poet who must have felt, in his day, the pernicious influence of his Anglo-Saxon neighbours across the sea, tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
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.
Just what the f**k is it with people? Tell me how it is that those who purport to be our friends, our Romans, our Countryfolk, those who appear oh-so well-adjusted and oh-so perfectly civil at the point of first contact, turn out in point of fact to be savage head hunters? Disguised in loin cloths or Laura Ashley cardigans it matters not a stitch, give ’em six months of protracted exposure in your company and sure as eggs are eggs they’ll be using any old pretext to either disseminate ill-founded rumours about you or else delight in launching sneaky broadsides from their good ship HMSHolier-Than-Thou, sending shrapnel through your integrity on the port side of you, as well as splintering the carefully-constructed personality nailed into your starboard side, just for good measure. O Lord! We do love a good drama now, don’t we?
Post-civilisation is pre-civilisation in reversal. At…
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Brexit Day, or B-Day to those who cannot bring themselves to utter the shibboleth, is here, and predictably grey clouds are settled on the old England outside my porthole.
Well, here we are at the end of a 47-year marriage. My whole life, no more and no less. The EU is a polygamous arrangement of course, being that twenty-eight spouses took their vows to have and to hold from this day forth, albeit at different times. The European Union has become a kind of rolling nuptial. From the original six postwar players who signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, to the swelled ranks of today’s fragile union, this political/cultural/economic/existential arrangement can be viewed as a flexible Mormon marriage, with the exception of there being more of the gender equal and less of the patrilineal in Brussels than in Salt Lake City.
Anyone who has not lived in solitary confinement for the past four years, which is nearly all of us (Jesus! Even Tibetan monks wield mobile phones these days!) will know that one of these spouses – the troublesome, quarrelsome old bag who thinks even in her dotage she can still bank on better marriage prospects – has called a divorce. For a long three and a half years, she’s been humming and ha-ing about delivering the death knell, a drama that played out in a frenzied Westminster, but seeing that she never really bothered to master the language of any of her spouses, the despedida, adieu, auf wiedersehen, and ci vediamo, has been a while in the coming. Awkward moments do tend to happen when you can’t be arsed learning at least a few phrases in the native language of your in-laws. Now Britannia is a ‘free woman’ (I’m not implying women are uniquely feckless here; Britannia, in this case could be equally be a feckless, whimsical man, except that Britannia has historically been depicted as a Athena-esque Greek Goddess with shield and trident in hand) she can galavant around, courting new paramours in the search for a new and improved polygamous arrangement. Or, if she’s strikes gold, an exclusive one.
Now you know and I know that unless you’ve already opened other arms to fall into, the prospect of leaving a marriage nearing its golden anniversary can be a calculated risk. Tomorrow, Britannia will sail off on a P&O Singles cruise around the world. First stop – and some say last – will be New York, where Britannia will court old Uncle Sam with an irresistible combo of knowing and coquettishness. To achieve this, she’ll have to get exceedingly drunk on Italian bubbly, which admittedly she’s already a dab hand at, having imported oodles of the stuff cheaply by virtue of being in existing marriage with Italy since 1973. But Prosecco will be off the menu ’cause we’re now in America, so she’ll be forced to quaff what the Americans are offering, which is either watery beer or rocket-fuelled cocktails. Once she’s woken up in her cabin after one too many Long Island ice teas the awful realisation will hit her hard that Uncle Sam is a selfish bastard who goes through girlfriends like a snivelling little git goes through Kleenex. He’s a tough, uncompromising type is old Sam, and won’t she know this before soon. He’s not a the callow youth she used to boss around two centuries ago when she was younger. He’s all grown up and this she’ll find hard to reconcile.
Dissatisfied, she’ll pick up the ship in L.A., after being feted by Hollywood’s liberatti who will plead she replaces the incumbent crooks in Washington as new sovereign of the American West (mainly on account of their weakness for British RSC-trained thespians/baddies with gritty authority in their voice). But that won’t wash with Washington, who’ll now treat her as a meddlesome strumpet keen to break up the chronically unhappy American family. Glancing north to faithful Canada, she’ll spot Meghan and Harry, who are even more shameless than her. There’ll be no chatting Canada up with those two fifth-columnists languishing there. There’ll be no more chatting up America either. Chastened by the threat of a nuclear arsenal whose each warhead you could slot into the bandolier of a mythical giant (or threatened by sanctions, the State Dept’s favourite tough love tactic), Britannia will sail on into that blue yonder where, contrary to the tub-thumping exhortations of the Brexiteer’s predecessors, the New Imperialists, the sun did eventually set forever on the British Empire.
Next up will be Oz and NZ. We can always rely on those two jilted lovers to come back for seconds. Except they are beholden nowadays to what’s going down in the Asia-Pacific bloc, ruled as it is by a giant even more selfish than America: China. So the ageing widow will need to rattle her jewellery hard to be heard amid all that eucalyptus smoke and barking Cantonese. Disillusioned by the tyranny of distance and the realpolitik of wanting to brazenly burst in on China’s well-defended patch, Britannia will sail onward to Hong Kong and Singapore. There’s she’ll find little Thumbelinas of herself in her prime. Oh to be Singapore on the silty Thames, she’ll sing. Noticing how disturbingly dystopian Singapore is, where a wad of chewing gum pinned under a park bench will inevitably result in a lengthy prison term, Britannia will graciously, if reluctantly, concede that we are not those men. That’s right, Britannia, we men are free to pin our concealed blades to the wad of chewing gum under the park bench, you know, just in case anyone fucks with us.
With potential paramours running out, P&O will propel us around the Malay Peninsula (yes, that was ours as well, but these days it’s showing a bit too much hijab for our liking) and onto India, the jewel in the crown. Where all others disappoint, India shall delight. She shall tantalise our senses, awaken our dormant soul with colours we can smell and smells that make our eyes water. The cruise liner will dock first in Chennai, which Britannia won’t even recognise, as it had its name changed by deed poll from Madras just so it could move on from an earlier, and some say skewed, marriage to Britannia. Then around beautiful Sri Lanka we shall sail and up past the Western Ghats to Mumbai, which also changed its name to erase the memory of us pre-1947. Mercifully, by now Britannia has gotten a bit more used to being jilted, so she can almost forgive the desecration of the name Bombay to a new ‘Hindu-ized’ moniker that sounds like saying farewell to the woman who birthed you, ironically enough.
The footsie playing out under the table between Modi’s new and assertive India and Britannia’s old and assertive Britain will give the media back home pause to consider. This could be the one, they’ll declare. A new old partnership forged the way we Brits like it, i.e. the bigger of the two defers to the smaller of the two – we know their size and they know their place. But you know and I know that this flirtation is bound to failure. Trying to resurrect old relationships in the mould of an old relationship is like trying to turn back the clock when all it wants to do is fly alongside time’s arrow. The Indians will do that irresistibly cute thing they do with the sideways nodding of the head. Benighted old Blighty will go mad wondering whether India is saying yes or no to her propositions. Exasperated, she’ll board the Cruise as is slides past Bombay’s Gateway to India monument while looking on wistfully from the prow at what might have been had we just not acceded to Gandhi’s wishes. I mean, come on, he wasn’t even armed at the time.
Ah well, at least there’s always the T-20. Consolation bobs nicely on the placid Indian Ocean. They can take our freedom but they can’t take our beloved cricket away from us.
Pulling into port in Cape Town, all eyes will be on the covetous prize of Africa. However, after being robbed at gunpoint at the ATM soon after disembarkation, Britannia will wonder whether Africa’s worth it. Upon closer inspection, she’ll baulk at the nightmarish statistics applied to a future Africa and say to herself, ‘How could Joy and George Adamson ever raise Elsa the Lion in these crowded, chaotic conditions?’ And she’d be right. Any anyway, China has got Africa all stitched up. While we’ve been squabbling with Brussels – but mainly among ourselves – the Chinese have been scrambling for Africa 2.0. But naturally, the Chinese are there out of the goodness of their Hubei hearts, just like the British and French were during their 19th century so-called ‘civilizing mission’. You want a brand new asphalt highway, no strings attached?? Sure! All we ask is that you take out a 100-year high-interest loan with the Chinese Communist Party (whose socialist principles are somewhat compromised by their partiality for usury, but hey that Capitalism, Chinese-style for ya!). Failing that, we’ll take a 999-year lease on your most prized ports. No 14-day cooling-off period here.
Wearily, the ship marches on, with lonely old Britannia still rattling her jewellery up on the prow, G&T in hand. Round NW Africa she sails, and past the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Right there, coming into view will be Gibraltar, a brave and solitary outpost of empire surrounded by a bruised but recovering European Union. By this time, Britannia will be so sunburnt and permanently pissed, she’ll stagger down the gangplank into the waiting arms of a Barbary ape, who’ll greet her with bare-toothed howls of ‘Welcome Home!’ It will occur precisely in that moment of utter deflation that the old girl will have an epiphany, the first one she’s had since sobering up. She realise, all these suitors are selfish arseholes. You know, it wasn’t so bad being in that polygamous marriage with Brussels after all. I sat back and got most of what I wanted. When they screamed ‘black!’, I yelled back ‘white!’. And still they tolerated me. When they wanted a shared bank account, i insisted on having my own, and still they tolerated me. When they wanted me to meet them even a quarter of the way, i snubbed them, ’cause that’s what you do, right, when folks ask for just enough but not too much?’ They even came around to my language, and quite possibly my way of thinking. Aw fuck it! What kind of pusillanimous pussy goes easy on the fool who is willing to offer so many concessions, anyhoo?
Hmm, maybe I was a little hasty. Maybe is not the same as definitely (unless you happen to be Oasis who did a record called Definitely Maybe). Just you remember that.
Steaming across the Bay of Biscay on the homeward leg, storms blight the passage. Around Britanny and the Cote D’Armour, Britannia stares out from her porthole. Her mood changes from one of defiance to one of remorse. She has seen the world many times that she has seen the world not at all. She does not like what she sees. She is elderly and alone and the world owes her no favours.
On the final day of her RTW cruise, the captain announces that home port is not where it was when they left. Where there was a wharf there is now only sea. The island, it would seem, has retreated into deeper Atlantic water. They sail on. Shorn of ideas, Britannia retires to the bar where a G&T will await her. Now this isn’t your average Gin & Tonic. She wants hers large. Very Large.
Ice & Lemon, Madame?
Yes, if there’s enough room in the glass.
He pours. She collects. ‘But it’s half empty,’ she complains.
‘If I may comment, Madame, that’s not what you were saying when you joined the cruise.’
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.
There’s nothing quite like a hard landing. For anyone in the business of staying sane, perhaps a misguided strategy is to go, without the alleviating effect of a transition, from one extreme of climate to another. The worst delusion of all is to think the chances of acclimatising successfully in such contrasting conditions of sun and rain as being favourable.
To put you in the frame, outside my window the rain rolls down the pane all triumphant. Now this feature has become somewhat of a stock-in-trade as far as this wet, SouthWest English climate is concerned. For what seems like time immemorial (the statistical truth is that the rain has fallen prodigiously on an already damp-prone region over the past two months, and if anything the nearby North Atlantic has gone a bit more bonkers around the annual Hurricane season than usual) outdoor pursuits have been notably curtailed. Living on a boat, at least I’ve got hatches to literally batten down, so i’m true to the old adage. Cold comfort there. That feeling of being imprisoned within four dry walls under a roof where the rain hasn’t yet found a means of ingress feels like an addition to that custodial sentence. In fact, i’d go as far as to aver that the time-added-on to the sentence is taking on an air of the old Gulag justice, not knowing when or indeed if you’ll ever see daylight again.
The damp air of despondency wouldn’t rankle so much if, say, what came before I strayed into this realm of rains was something akin. That would entail, for instance, preceding this by living somewhere in Northern Europe where it doesn’t rain quite as exaggeratedly, but rains healthily nonetheless between fairly sustained bouts of strong sunlight. Let’s face it, you could even use Spain as a transitory point to reacclimatise to the England’s SouthWest. Contrary to popular belief, the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain; it falls everywhere, too. Here in cider country (i knew where they got the apples, and now i know where they get the water to make the brew) man cannot live on puddles alone, but these men and women find that they do, coping quite stolidly along the way. Anyhoo, in my case, I started this climate odyssey from the borderlands of Oman. I spent years by the Indian Ocean under the blazing eye of the Arabian sun, where rain, when it occasioned to visit, brought gasps of astonishment from local Arabs who saw its presence as proof positive that God had not forsaken them. For the many Indians there I think the sight of black clouds reminded them of the relief of the monsoon. The rain there took with it all the microscopic motes of dust that hung suspended for months in the lower atmosphere, so when eventually a freak raincloud did pass over, it fell with all the dust contained within its droplets. It turned rusted, deadened mountains green overnight. Dusty but overdue, That is rain most would agree is very welcome for a short, intense stay.
Cut to Somerset. Now, i don’t doubt that these are exceptional times. Extreme human rapacity and a striking lack of care and sensitive handling with respect to our natural world, have, some say, pushed Gaia into reacting violently at her manhandling (who can blame Her?). For every (bastard human) action, there is an equal and opposite (natural) reaction. I get it. We take the axe to forests (nature’s proud crewcut), and the jet stream slinks over the benighted Britons like an anaconda trying to evade capture. We burn fifty million years of the Carboniferous period in the short space of a century, building up so much heat that the Atlantic gets whipped into a frenzy just to dissipate that heat. This all falls as the rain of our own selfish doing. And, it seems, most of it falls right on my head.
It’s not the rain that’s driving me mad, it’s the incessant nature of it. Hold on, it’s not the incessant nature of it that’s driving me mad; it’s that i had practically none of it for years and, oftentimes, didn’t miss it. I’ve gone from one dust-laden droplet every six months to a veritable deluge in a short space of time. It’s these extremes – like those that make for our current political discourse or for those that come in the form of wild, angered, weather – that bring a feeling of woe.
The rain is off. A brief window of time has emerged before the next soaking. I never thought the climate would come to resemble a drive-through car wash, but there you go. All we need are the big blue spinning brushes whipping down from the grey sky. But i suppose that in a world of smoking vehicles and drive-in fast food joints selling substandard beef from bemused cattle slaughtered for grazing on pasture once boasting tropical hardwood trees and megadiversity, a drive-thru carwash climate was always on the cards. Be that as it may, the ultimate moral of this story: avoid extremes if you are of a gentle disposition (or if you hate damp, sun-starved climates as vengefully as me). Find the middle ground if all you have known is either a kingdom of sands or one of rains. I suppose not everyone is averse to these wild fluctuations in lifestyle. My old boss went directly from the Canadian Artic to Saudi Arabia, and he doesn’t seem to care. There’s no pleasing some.
When Barak Obama took the slogan, YES, WE CAN!, on campaign with him back during the 2008 elections, his growing sect of admirers took it up with gusto. Ennobled by the creed of optimism – a finite resource even in America – they chanted these three simple words with all the might they could muster. We’ll huff and puff and blow the Bush house down, that was the gist of it. We’ll relight hope from the embers of pointless war. We’ll do right in the place of wrong. We’ll patch together the broken pieces and live like we always promised ourselves we would.
It was in the spirit of regeneration that I too took up this mantra from the ruins of Obama’s America. Now remember what his legacy brought. He talked a good game, but on leaving found that Yes, We Can! meant Yes, we can replace you with a bankrupted huckster from Queens, New York with a mouth to match his attitude. Not wanting to go down this road, I wanted my regeneration to bring an altogether more wholesome – as opposed to ‘whoresome’ – legacy. And so it was, I decided I would embrace the alternative life of the canal. I spent big on a big river boat and docked it on a 250 year-old canal set deep in the Somerset downs. This was going to be my Obama 2008 campaign moment.
The parallels certainly exist, if only you choose to see them. Like Obama’s predecessor, I too got embroiled in a Middle Eastern adventure, involving the expenditure of an awful lot of money with the aim of coming away with even more. To breathe Obama’s fresh air, first i had to choke on Bush’s dust. This I did, and by the time I had coughed up the last of it, the time had come to begin anew, to see the world through reopened eyes. My 5-year incursion into the oil-rich sands was over without a single shot being fired (although many a shot was downed in the booze-soaked atmosphere of the place). Back on Civvy St, somewhere in pre-Brexit Britain, the post-conflict settlement was up for grabs. Europe seemed like the kingdom beyond the wall by now, unfriendly, but only insofar as any former friend would be if you kept hurling insults at them from across the bows. The burgundy British passport, now both unofficially diminished in stature and narrowed in scope, was about the last official document one wanted with a post-2016 life on the Continent beckoning. And so it was that a set of reduced options made the next phase a little less fraught with the kind of complications we once had, confronted was we were with not just one but 28 countries to potentially set up home in.
High in the Spanish sierras the decision was made. Near the flanks of the Mulhacen, Spain’s tallest mountain, the YES was injected into WE CAN(AL). There and there alone, I decided to buy that shell of a riverboat and in it create a space fit for the ages. Having taken receipt of her, in all her graphite grey sleek beauty, i spent the next six months showering in a wheat field while fitting her out on dry land. She, the boat (for we ascribe boats with a feminine gender in English, for feminine equals fair, and the British do have the historical hots for vessels that float), sat on blocks in a field of swaying grass. As spring took hold, the stalks grew higher and the ears of wheat fatter, until the grass brushed the underside of the hull. With 90% of the work complete, and the largest 10% you’ve ever seen not quite complete, I had 700 ft/sq of spanking new boat trucked down on the motorway in the most surreal cruise I’ve ever witnessed.
She was lowered into the river Avon at Keynsham, near Bristol. Six long months like a fish out of water, and the transformation to fish in water was a thing to behold. It was as if the riverboat had never been out of its element. Now sitting stout and proud in its element, the voyage to its new mooring on the other side of Bath was going to be a maiden voyage, and one that would hopefully match Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech for majesty. Yes, we can! Um, well, in actual fact, no we can’t. There’s no way I can handle this stocky beast on those narrow waterways. Upshot: a river pilot was hastily arranged and my first officer status firmly established from the outset. Once through the locks of Bath, the Widcombe flight featuring the so-called Coffin, a 25ft drop into lock abyss, we emerged at the east end of town, navigating our way with particular attention paid to the fact that, contrary to the canal in my mind’s eye, this stretch of waterway was no wider in parts that the boat itself. At least in Apocalypse Now, the riverboat they used in pursuit of the renegade Colonel Kurtz plied a width wide enough to give them a fighting chance once the rogue arrows starting flying from the riverbank. Here, if Kurtz’s militia men had wanted they could have put down their bows and arrows and simply stepped aboard to conduct their rampage.
She, the boat with the dead man’s complexion, has found a home under an ash tree. This fact is noteworthy as one of the main reasons for spending six months fitting her out on dry land was that her interior is lined with approx. 1.6kms of timber, mainly American ash. The emerald ash borer might be devastating America’s once mighty ash forests, but the little bastard fell short of laying its larvae in these buffed and beautiful planks. Since finding a permanent mooring, she doesn’t venture far. More like an apartment on water with the ultimate view, really. The traffic is constant and the logistics of untethering these mooring ropes too fraught and complex until the canal settles in for a lonesome winter. Tentatively, i proclaim, YES WE CANAL!. But this, being a radical departure from all previous incarnations, is going to split into one of two ways: adapting to this unique way of life; or, failing in that task, not adapting, and moving back onto the land, with all its concomitant problems, not least the soullessness of the modern urban plan. Then again, there’s always the remote likelihood that our British passports will amount to much again; will open doors as opposed to closing them. I mean, look at U.S. politics, when Obama vacated the White House in 2017, he left a door open for someone else to walk into. Disbelieving, they said, ‘your administration couldn’t pave the way for someone like Trump’, to which he replied, ‘Yes, we can!’
Anything’s possible, even on the canal.
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?