Whatever Happened to the Sunshine after the Rain?

Britain, British Isles, climate, conservation, developing world, earth, environment, extreme weather events, natural history, natural world, nature, Ocean, Oddities, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, thoughts, weather, Wildlife

Life, so they say, can be stranger than fiction. This fact, or rather this fiction, can be evident in everything from the unexpected to the plainly weird. We see it when we view the world as a stage full of actors, props, scripts, and backdrops. You only have to cast an eye back to Macbeth (life…the poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage) to know that even the Bard agreed with me on this score. Life as theatre; landscape as backdrop; weather as atmosphere. It’s hard sometimes to frame even the most staid human life without the injection of a little dramatic licence. The actor’s role may be minor, his input stuttering at best, but life being theatre the director can always throw in a little squall of wind and rain from the rafters to enliven the backdrop, as well as to defy Shakespeare by making life signify something instead of nothing.

The unnamed stage director – the identity of who or what is behind all this is a question for the ages – has seen fit to sprinkle onto his now dreary play that pixie dust that might help pick up the pace. With the play in a lull, and with not a great deal to stir the protagonist into something approaching life, attention turns to props that fill the backdrop so as to crank up the drama. In a near-perfect mirror image of one man’s life and its fictional mise-en-scène, the backdrop outside my window more than compensates for a dearth in action on stage. Outside an ill wind throttles trees, horizons are blighted by the murk of an uncertain present time, and what falls as rain falls always. In the theatre of fiction, even there they’d struggle to keep up with the scene out there.

The same rain that hath come, goes not. Like a burrowed cancer it refuses to yield. I thought the apocalypse was the sole bringer of incessant rain. In the Blade Runner an ecocide caused by meddling Man has bruised the sky such it bleeds rain unceasingly. In Apocalypse Now, Marlow’s painted face is washed unclean by a tropical downpour as he creeps upon Colonel Kurtz to deliver the bloody coup-de-grace. In the Old Testament, God sends the almighty heavens to wash away the sins of Man, but not before Noah can construct an Ark of salvation for the innocents. How wrong can a man be? This is no apocalypse now. This is an island but not unto itself. Rather, it sits on the edge of a vast, churning ocean of grey. That ocean has a big old surface area and on that surface the water temperature is creeping up such that the water cycle is heating up. More prone to evaporation in the warmer winter months, more driven by a stronger Jet Stream, the quantities of rain are becoming prodigious. The frequency of this natural event has gone from what is sublime – a thing of beauty when rain comes only when rain needs to fall for plants to regenerate and for rivers to replenish themselves – to what is absolutely ridiculous.

Here in this region of England’s SouthWest, it has rained practically every day since the end of September. I thought these meteorological conditions were the preserve of film noir, graphic novels, and dark, sinister fictions. But no. Life, as we know it here, has emerged stranger than fiction. And like the strangers no longer welcome to Brexit Britain 2.0, the strangeness of seeing rain every day for months on end, well, let’s just say the wet has outstayed its welcome, too.

How has it come to this? Speaking personally, not eighteen months ago and I was positioned at the edge of a vast empty quarter where life was also stranger than fiction. There, the rain fell so infrequently we assumed it had been engineered to make its annual appearance on National Day. Some said the Air Force existed purely to seed constipated clouds that refused to precipitate. When it fell, it took more airborne dust than water with it. Touching earth, the drops fizzled before withered roots had the chance to prosper, though now and again flash flooding would send cascades down parched valleys, turning the deadened mountainsides green with a Lazarus resuscitation. Fast forward eighteen months, the inverse has become the new norm. Different place, same old shit. An Age of Extremes is where we are at. Over here, we’ll soon need the Red Arrows to disperse the clouds just to reassure a benighted people that there is a sun somewhere in the sky.

These are funny times indeed. How rare that you can travel the world in search of extremes only to come back ‘home’ and find conditions you’d struggle to find even in India during the monsoon. All of October, all of November, December, January, and now well into the third week of February. When will it end? Can the clouds deliver so much without respite that the land can take no more? Once rivers have burst their banks and storm drains froth and bubble like the blood-soaked mouth of an Ebola victim, where can all this water go? It seeps underground into vast subterranean chambers and hidden river systems until all the caverns are drowned and the soil beneath our feet starts spouting little springs in the oddest of places. And still the developers buy up the last remaining acres of cheap land on floodplains where they lay their flimsy foundations to sell onward those dream homes that would be better-suited built with a hull, a prow and a stern ready for the inevitable. And still we refuse to advocate the slow and humane replacement of burgeoning human populations with tree saplings that nature anoints into magnificent sponges whose roots drink their fill and much more. Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

There was a time before us when Gaia (the living, breathing skin of the Earth) posed the greatest challenges to life on Earth while providing the greatest answers to them all. It threw everything at itself and then brushed it off. Every action had a reaction, which was beautifully synergised. Mother Nature led a three billion-year dynasty of dynamic equilibrium. I don’t know if we are capable of such balancing acts. We stand on the high wire but only to teeter on the brink. This weird weather would indicate she is growing ever impatient. Sensing our human shortcomings, will natural forces wrest back control? Will she return to lavish the sunlight on these dark, soddened corners? When again will fiction take back its claim to be stranger than life? I’ll tell you when. Only when Man goes back to what he does best, writing strange fiction, will nature go back to what she does best, writing the beautiful story of life.

Life Signs Vital

#adventure, Australia, Britain, British Isles, Buddhism, fate, free will, Hinduism, human mind, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predestination, Queensland, Reflections, roadtrip, serendipity, Solipsism, Spirituality, thoughts, Travel

From the wandering star followed to Bethlehem by the Magi, to Constantine and his Latin cross in the night skies over Rome’s Milvian Bridge, for as long as any historic text can remember, humans have acted not (as they might like to imagine) independently in matters of life choice, but as a response to phenomena out there in the world. Whether these phenomena involve snapped branches pointing in a particular direction out of the tangled forest, serendipitous meetings with mysterious strangers, or even constellations that speak directly to the individual in us by spelling out our mission in dot writing, natural events have proved unshakeably reliable as SIGNS ripe for following. Other animals follow their hunger and their paternal instinct toward the rains, or the seasons, or the ocean currents. But not us. Oh no, not humanity. We follow abstract signage in the most unlikely of quarters because something in the form and motion of a sign tells us that nature exists to furnish us with little messages put there FYI only.

But in an age of scientific materialism, should we listen to superstitious signs, or let mediums self-appointed with the power to interpret that symbolic value for us. The Gypsy lady? She who lets the tea leaves/coffee granules to settle into a discernible form spelling out (in her own inexplicable way) what’s in store for each of us? She with the singular ability to divine the past, present and future, and thus able to cut a path through our impenetrable present? Hooped earrings and colourful headscarves aside, should we even listen to ourselves when something out of the blue tells us which corner to turn in life? What is it in the nature of choice, the one true act of free will we convince ourselves is ours and ours to fuck up? Are we slaves to signs, subconsciously letting them lead us on into what we think will end either in good life choices or, horror of horrors, outcomes less than desirable? Do other members of our rapidly-proliferating species see signs with quite the obsessive sensing that I seem to? Questions, questions, questions, and only vague signs there to answer them.

I wrote a woefully-neglected book back in 2007 called Signs of Capricorn. Essentially, it was a free-thinking, free-spirited, faintly philosophical travelogue based on a long-awaited return to Australia. I had left the land Down Under in 2003, instantly regretting a choice which i deemed purely my own, without any other agency. At the time, I must have figured if i return to Britain things will be different. I’ll finally, after thirty years of trying and failing, fall in love with the island of my birth, and especially those two peculiarly British contributions to the world: a stubborn class system and a maritime climate that makes the headlines most days for all the wrong reasons. Yes, my family were instrumental in my going back. Unlike the weather, they weren’t changeable and horrid. But, like the English class system, they could be stubborn.

So, in the wake on my grand homecoming in 2003, I realised I had made a major life error, and instantly vowed to overturn this disastrous decision by going back to Sydney the following year. However, as the venerable Lennon said, life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t until 2006 that my pledge was finally realised. I departed a rainy Manchester, arriving after a brief stopover in Dubai, in to a hot Sydney. The city had changed in the intervening three years. That much i could detect within moments. It didn’t feel the same. Well, of course. Why would it? And here is where the book comes into play. I threw my hat up into the air and let the winds of fate carry it aloft. And so it was that I chose to spend a month driving as far and wide as I could in search of signs.

A critical factor in all this unfolding story is that I was misinformed that my Australian Permanent Residency visa would be duly reauthorised merely by going back there on holiday. Cruelly, this was not how how the immigration system worked. Nor was this how things were meant to be. On hearing that I had not amassed sufficient residential time in Australia within a 5-year period (i was a month short), I was faced with a binary choice: by all means, stay indefinitely (thus leaving my rental home, family and beloved dog back in Yorkshire where my family call home) in the Commonwealth of Australia; or fly out of Kingsford-Smith Airport and back to Heathrow, but do so knowing the consequences. That being an annulment of my right to remain in Australia. Visa cancelled. The term Burn Bridges springs to mind (another historical instance of how signs influences the course of a lifespan, in this case of Caesar’s Roman Empire). Mainly because of my dog, I knew I was going back, like it or not. With a month’s adventure ahead, I drove north through Queensland’s Sandstone Belt and out to the Barrier Reef. Along the way, I followed roadsigns down highways where life signs clung on like the spinifex grasses that give the Outback its patchy head of hair.

On returning to Britain, I nursed a quiet devastation. My first encounter – the first of many troubling signs, you might conclude – was with my neighbour, an awful human specimen who spent his disempowered life fulminating in one garden-wall dispute after another. In Old England, where most people are packed like sardines in a tin can because the entitled few own and jealously guard huge swathes of the land, such disputes and tensions are not uncommon. Knowing that I had made not one but two cardinal misjudgements in leaving Australia (an island-continent I had reimagined as being above such petty squabbles between neighbours) not once but twice. I knew the recurrence of this poor choice must signify something. It must be life’s ineluctable way of telling me I had, in fact, made the right choice leaving Sydney. Struggling to understand why, I wrote the book as a therapy, as a means of retracing my steps in order to discover the origins of these signs, and what they could possibly mean for my life, one that seemed to be in disarray.

You can generate the data to fit the theory, but that is not true science. Or you can map the data (as it appeared along the road to the Barrier Reef on that epic trip of self-discovery), building a picture through which a workable theory emerges. First data, then theory, then test of theory. Burning rubber on blacktop, I probed the island-continent to probe the answer to why life had turned out this way. For such a dry landmass, the results were improbably fertile. Hadn’t one of the great Greeks said something to the tune of….’life is played out on an ocean of timespace, whose currents carry us of their choosing unless we find it within ourselves to take the tiller and steer a course, even though the current will still take us, ultimately, where it chooses. In short, we can infer signs in life and so effect small but significant changes in our lives, even if the grander designs, such as fate, love, accident and death are not within our remit to shape as we would see fit to?

(n.b. of course, most of us would choose to be rich, healthy and loved, and never to die).

At journey’s end, I flew back. The immigration officer at Sydney’s airport peered at the visa page of my passport and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. You realise that if you leave you cannot come back? Helpless, unsure if I had even found a green light on those outback roads, I timidly acknowledged the gravity of what she was saying. Somewhat bemused, she stamped the exit visa and that was that. Another chapter closed. Except it wasn’t. Once back in England, I threw myself into the writing. Stapling together every little back-dated detail on what had been a diverse but disconnected life of travelling, of living in disparate regions of the world following love over career, the unpredictable over the predictable, I tried but could not discern signs that would lead me out of this mess of my own making.

I looked around. I looked inside. I could not make sense of life’s highway code. At the end of the book, life appeared to recover. Things were looking up. England didn’t seem quite so dismal, nor quite so synonymous with personal failure and utter alienation. And then the possibility dawned on me that therapising the experience of making life-changing choices had had the inadvertent upshot of detoxifying – for want of a better word – Australia from my bloodstream of consciousness. The book flopped but thanks to reclusive and intensely introspective nature of remaking memories in narrative form (a year locked away in a room), I steered a course through cold turkey. What emerged was acceptance that i had taken a wrong turn. Moreover, that ages hence I might actually find that leaving Australia when i did was not a misreading of signs at all. Rather, it was a correct reading of the sign to leave when I did and to return three years later to make peace with the war that was raging inside for all that time. It was not unlike the signs of Outback roads themselves – the ones that appear only once, at the beginning of the backroad, and where no signposts will appear again for many, many kilometres. Following a sign laid down years before gave to no signs whatsoever until the next one appeared. The next one would appear near the end of that stretch of bitumen. It stood as proof positive that the next junction led somewhere good, somewhere new.

Signs are everywhere to be followed, and yet nowhere to be seen. We convince ourselves we take decisions independent of influence, particularly from abstractions such as physical objects (stars), chance encounters (accidents that change our lives irrevocably), epiphanies birthed from freak occurrences (a spiritual awakening on the road to Kathmandu), and the likes. But our rational minds are steeped in the mythology of the inexplicable. Knowing that every weighty little decision rests solely on our steepled shoulders, or that each one is not interrelated, represents an unbearable burden on our lives. Decisions are ours to make? Oh yeah? That I followed invisible signs to where I am now (which is no bad place) suggests some things are meant to be. That all things might, just maybe, be more bound together than our Western social constructs would have us believe.

Hell Is Other People

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The Blind Salamander

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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B-Day or Bidet?Nothing washes the soul like Brexit.

Brexit, Britain, British Isles, England, EU, europe, fate, future, humour, meditations, Politics, Society, Socioeconomics, thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

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.’

Where Lifestyle Choice Meets Economic Necessity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Benders?’ What the hell are they?’

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

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

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

I felt the chill in the midday air penetrate deep.

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

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

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

 

 

In a Kingdom of Rains, How to Depose the Monarch?

climate, desert, England, Landscapes, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, nature, oman, philosophy, Travel, Uncategorized

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.

A Mountain to Climb

#adventure, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, philosophy, Travel

Everyone has their own mountain to climb, though it doesn’t have to mean the thing we usually ascribe to it. A mountain to climb, in the ordinary sense of the term, denotes something onerous, a task dreaded. I have a mountain to climb if I’m to get that doctorate. Britain will have a mountain to climb if Brexit goes through. You’ll have a mountain to climb if you don’t pull your finger out. So no question, meant in this regard a mountain to climb ain’t necessarily a good thing. A pejorative term, you might call it.

I was pretty convinced that I had had it with climbing mountains. Now, don’t get me wrong, those of the real variety, now one doesn’t too readily tire at the thought of yet another. One doesn’t have to be an Alpinist to love roaming the mountains, these mountains of rock and ice. They are, I hope you’ll agree, high above the realm of the unwelcome. They inspire again and again and again, and seen from all angles they are fractal, smaller triangles into smaller triangles and everything adding up to the magic number. But those mountains ain’t the problem; it’s the ones only we homo sapiens sapiens conceive of in our minds as more than the folded heaps of landmass that they really are, they are the problem. They warp and gorge, play on our fears. They grow more than a fingernail’s length per annum, which is faster than the Himalaya. Some grow so fast they block out all of life’s sunbeams in the cold light of morning. You might say therefore only the foolhardy and the masochistic among us savour their place at the bottom of any one of life’s metaphorical mountains of the mind, looking up at the soaring reality facing them. This i assumed to be eternal in our reckoning. Then i awoke.

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What I woke up to this morning was a minor epiphany. I realised, a little later while walking the dog, that what was preoccupying me was that me out there enveloped in that unquestionably beautiful location, taking it all in with the wonderment of a seven year-old staring at a non-linear equation, I realised i was bored silly and instead of scaling the walls what i truly needed was another mountain to climb.

Is it wiser that sharp intake of breath, or the lung-deflating exhalation that doubles as a weary sigh? Humans are at their best when they have something to go for. We, they, whichever pronoun you opt for, endure as predators of the lower Palaeolithic, sights locked on to an object worth risking life and limb for. When humans are honed for action they take small and sharp, but nevertheless significant, intakes of breath; just enough to power the muscles and the brain into coordinating, and carried by that motive force of energy their attentions are fixed on something other than themselves. Man the hunter does not give a weary sigh unless that evermore-daring object of his attentions slips from his grasp. When primed, focussed and ultimately content he lies in wait listening for regularity, for stillness, in his breathing. He sees his quarry grazing but alert, its ear cocked for the slightest disturbance. But a slow, rhythmic respiring he earns only by having a purpose in that very moment. Minus that purpose, either he sighs or else his heart beats liked a fucked clock on account of the modern ill of anxiety. 

Three Lonesome Peaks

 

I‘vgot this unique opportunity right now to do sweet Fanny Adams – any damn thing i choose within reason, come to think of it – and all the serotonin and dopamine i can squeeze from my hypothalamus (is that where neuro-magic dust is made?) comes from a deep desire to do something new and worthwhile. Project done, time to be a new seeker. There are people out there who would bite my hand off for three months of languishing in heavily comfortable surrounds reading novel after novel, sipping hot infusions and watching swans glide by. The drudgery of forced employment being superfluous to requirements in this case. But not everyone is a tortured soul it would seem. The soul must be inherently tortured to be forever malcontent. This is my lot. 2019’s project deadline has about matured. 2019, the year that was, is still just about, nearing the big sleep. Yours truly needled by restlessness. Another event scored off on the roster of a fleeting life in the cosmic scheme of things. Boxes ticked, in the sense that any life really worth living consists of one small but hugely meaningful milestone after another. There’s an afterglow in this here valley of attainment but mine is not to bask in that afterglow. There’s a little hump on the horizon, way out there forty days and forty nights walk from here. It’ll be hard reaching even the foothills, but, man, isn’t that a prerequisite of anything worth doing? 

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We all need mountains to climb; at least once in a while or in my case constantly. Only from their summits can the flag of achievement be planted and the next mountain espied, and the one beyond that and beyond that, ad absurdum. We have absolutely no choice but to press on. What is there otherwise? The time for reflection is later when the armchair becomes the means in itself. Keep striving, for when you stop you might as well stop for good.

The Urge for Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, We Can(al)!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything’s possible, even on the canal.

 

 

A Bear Necessity

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

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

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

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

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