The Curious Case of the Dog on the Final Day

#adventure, abandonment, animals, cruelty, dogs, environment, europe, fate, forest, kindness, Life, nature, neglect, Oddities, Spain, Travel

Going somewhere exotic to rekindle lost love can be as worthwhile as flogging a dead horse. Until, that is, a minor crisis connects you both in ways you never knew possible. Even if it’s not enough to save a relationship, a double act of kindness can prove a fitting finale to a great affair.

As befitting a relationship that bloomed then faded over two dozen countries in a dozen years, my long-term partner and I met for a showdown in Almeria, Spain. A beleaguered ‘marriage’ was at stake. The intervening years had taken their toll on our inseparability. We fought one another on many fronts in many theatres of war, but always patching up as spectacularly as we had torn each up. Love was no more in the air, though I had hoped it might start suffocating us again blissfully as it had done a decade previous. From my vantage point, this was our last crack at compatibility. And we were going to give it our best shot under the blistering Spanish sun.

To cut to the chase, the endeavour didn’t start well. The bickering picked up nicely after a couple of days. Minor irritants swelled to the point where failure to turn the key to the hotel door resulted in fits of rage the likes of which no Hollywood diva could match. When personal insults fly in the face of what are little mechanical glitches, you know the noose is tightening and the game is up. There was only one antidote to the bitterness: find a place of serene calm off the beaten track. Let nature be our balm.

At the headwaters of the Guadalquivir, lying in the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, we laid down a truce. And, lo, it held. Autumn had repainted the landscape into the most beautiful hues of mustard and rust red. The poplars, standing tall and alone in the saddle of the Sierra, rattled like a thousand tambourines in the breeze. Myrtle trees dropped tiny leaves around us. Confetti for our renewed marriage vows? The portents were good until we reached the source of the once-great river, now reduced to a trickle. So this is the source of our love? The waters of the famous Guadalquivir, running dry because there was never anything upstream of any substance. Is this to be the quality of even the deepest love between two people?

On the Almerian coast we stayed on Cabo de Gatas peninsula, Spain’s southeast cape. A tremendously evocative spot – its rock walls plunging into the Med – we marvelled at the palaeontology of the place: ancient coral reefs submerged off the coast; at four hundred million years old, some of the world’s oldest recorded. A half-finished hulk of a huge hotel, intruding into the delicate coastal ecology. Abandoned before it was ever inhabited, the developers threw up the superstructure without soliciting planning permission from the municipality, as if local government would ever consent to an eyesore of a hotel in the midst of a national park. That chimed with me too. I saw parallels with my faltering love affair. We lay foundations on precious living bodies we have no right building on. That’s love for you.

By the holiday’s end, the salvage operation was about to be called off on the relationship. No amount of romantic landscape was going to inject new blood into old veins. With a couple of day remaining until our final farewell, the two of us wound our way to Baza, a forest high up in Andalusia’s very own altiplano. Elevated to nearly 900 metres, the air was rarefied and the sky cerulean blue. Night would bite. There the trees bristled in anticipation of winter as pines do. Knowing we were calling time on our amazing life journey together, a sudden calm came over us.

Driving through the forest, an animal ran out in front of us. Stopping, we saw it was a dog with big, lolloping ears and a cropped, silver-grey coat, known as a Weimaraner. How odd, we remarked. A handsome young animal with a great pedigree out here in the middle of nowhere. It was agitated, you could tell by the way it paced up and down the road as if looking out for a car that never appeared. Curious, we parked up and observed the dog, who was so distressed our presence barely merited a sniff.

Upset by the sight of this dog darting around in bewilderment, we resolved to do something. Approaching, I saw she was both a bitch and young. With swollen teats she was also a mother minus the pups. Being a Weimaraner, she was friendly and intelligent. Clearly, she had grown up in a human home. I lifted her underside to place her on the back seat and she trembled. Our drive underway, we noticed her quivering in fear and bewilderment. This dog was at best lost; at worst, cruelly abandoned.

Stopping to ask foresters we met in a nearby clearing, they explained that hunters often drive their dogs up to this remote spot where they encourage the young females, already having produced a litter or two, to hop out only to drive off leaving them there. The ones that do survive the wild are found in state of shock. No different from the global trade in trafficking west African women to the Gulf to service male needs then. Use them and abuse them then throw them away.

This news angered the pair of us. After years, we could agree on something. Determined to right this wrong, I drove down the mountain. Finding ourselves now on the plains where Sergio Leone shot the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the late 1960s, our purpose together had finally been revealed: find the dog a home before tomorrow when we go our separate ways forever.

Being a Sunday in a Catholic nation, not much commerce was going on. The streets were abandoned, probably explaining why the location was chosen for tense gunfights in A Fistful of Dollars. A curtain of golden light was falling on the day’s end and we were feeling pressured. The poor dog cowering in the back didn’t help. We called the vet, but the vet must’ve been at vespers in the local church. We called a dog shelter. That too was closed. Taking the Weimaraner back to England was out of the question at such short notice. As the day shortened, our problems lengthened. It was then that we pulled in to a ranch-style trattoria. It was vast and its interior plush in that rustic manner. Whomever owned it was a wealthy man. Again, with no sign of life the two of us wandered round the back to the kitchen where the door was opened. Popping our heads around, we asked for the manager. They sent the owner. He was a tidy-looking man without pretension. Explaining our situation he fell silent.

’Show me this dog you speak of,’ he said.

Impressed by what he saw, he backed away. ‘I have one already. I cannot take another dog,’ he lamented. ‘Even if she is such a fine animal.’

Disappointed, but understanding, we took our leave. As we were exiting his palatial roadside restaurant, a tap on the window. It was him.

‘Tell you what. Here’s the deal. I go to my Land Rover. Now, I don’t know if I left my own dog’s chain on the passenger seat. But if I have, I will take care of this dog of yours. If it’s not there, you’re on your own.’

Walking with him to his car, he swung open the passenger door. The seat was strewn with papers, but there was no chain. He slammed the door.

‘Lo siento mucho,’ he said.

Our hopes fading fast with the daylight, again we took our leave. Seeing the dog’s face forlorn against the window, my soon-to-be ex and I looked at each other with renewed vigour and certainty, for the first time in I don’t know how long. ‘We cannot just dump her by the side of the road.’

‘But I have to return to England tomorrow,’ I answered.

‘Not before we find the dog a home you don’t.’

Turning, I caught the trattoria owner out the corner of my eye. He was moving toward our car, his hands behind his back.

‘Look what I found in the footwell,’ he smiled. ‘It was under all those papers.’

In his outstretched arms he dangled exhibit 1, the dog chain.

‘Fate decided.’ He said with a warm reassurance we knew would translate into responsible ownership.

‘You will care for her? You won’t leave her abandoned a second time?’ You promise?’

Casting his hand as if to magic into existence his beautiful roadside trattoria, he replied. ‘I look after things. And I don’t give up on a promise.’

Without flinching he clicked the hasp of the chain onto her collar ring and calmly trotted off with the Weimaraner, who by now had ceased quivering. With the dying rays of the day warming an old wooden shack that could have been a stage prop in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, we pondered the view and with it possibly the life we had shared for all those incredible years that brought us to this final day. It had all been thoroughly vale la pena. Worth the pain, as they say in Spain.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

#adventure, America, California, Landscapes, mountains, philosophy, Reflections, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

Part II

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

At Baltimore you are good to go. You are in fact as good as gone, for lying at the edge of Maryland’s biggest town is the east end of the I-70, one of America’s five 2,000 mile-plus interstate arteries. Hit the road, Jack. And don’t you come back no more. Whether Ray Charles ever found himself in Fort Cove, Utah, at the west terminus of this mind-boggling belt of bitumen, I cannot say. What I can assert with the certainty of shared memories is that it took us sweeping past its exit signs, diners, and moving landscapes all of a quarter century ago, though for all the imprinting my optical nerve did, it might as well have been last week. It’s true, we each remember events in different ways: some episodic like your 8th birthday gift of a puppy but not your 9th; others by associating that pilgrimage to Varanasi with pungent odours of incense and burning flesh on charcoal; and me, it’s majorly in Kodachrome and sometimes Ilford B&W that I sense a past with me in it. My memories can be 35mm or medium format. Sometimes the ISO is low and the pictures of bygone years well defined, while other times the light was low, the ISO high and the memory grainy.

I’m not deluded enough to think that this was the definitive road trip. Yeah, it certainly followed in the tyre tracks of beatniks and explorers who did it the long, slow spiritual way. Still, there are more logistically challenging transcontinental road trips out there. Mine was by no means the first – for the Romans were doing road trips 2,000 years ago on surfaces they had laid expressly for that purpose – nor the best – for London to Kathmandu or the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego overlander on the Pan-American Highway takes a lot of beating. That said, by whichever means (and there are many highways connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific) the Trans-America is travel’s answer to a pair of Levi 501s – original and stone-washed.

The road undulates at first, cutting a swathe past tasteless roadside attractions (like tufts of commercial hoarding growing high for the sunlight of your attention) and past tasteful wooded landscape lying peacefully beyond those pesky pit-stops and hoardings that much of the world now sees fit to emulate. The knolls of this eastern route are made of spruce and oak, hemlock and hickory. What I was saying about that photographic memory doesn’t apply to eastern America’s partially cloaked surfaces. When you cannot see the wood for the trees, identifying a hickory from a hemlock takes on a vertical challenge. But I know that, unlike the island of my birth, the American continent knows its fair share of trees extending away into yesterday. That much I do remember from my first great road trip all of nearly a quarter century ago.

The houses you see abutting the highway are not predominantly brick like ours. The residential architecture comes in different shapes and sizes, but I do think there’s more than a bit of Dutch and German influence in those lateral clapboards. Old world, but not English in influence as the structures of New England attest to.

The I-25 runs west out of Pennsylvania and that swirling nexus of a turnpike is the point of origin. West she blows, crumbling ever more through Maryland near to where the old Mason-Dixie line forms a Caesarian scar under all that concrete and vegetation.

That modern America had a traumatic birth is no exaggeration. The embryo grew subdivided in the womb of the New World. The two fetuses, one Union and the other Confederate, grew too large to either share the same womb or to be born by natural birth. Battles (such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) were staged around these parts for the soul of a young nation chosen by the Almighty to dwell in a land where Native American spirits were everywhere and old. This nation of epic roads might think it has matured beyond the attrition of civil war, that it has healed its deep rifts, but the divided states of America is kidding itself if it really believes it has.

Maryland is a slip of a state. We leave her as we found her: ambling past at 55 mph. On the road to somewhere, some places are merely waypoints while others are curiosities worthy of scrutiny. The industrial east, dotted with its established settlements of Europeans who made the Atlantic crossing, for the most part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is all well and fine and handsomely endowed in many a place, but when San Francisco is the endgame of a short game, this is one quarter you don’t want to go into overtime.

Did we even stop in Indiana? As I remember it, I blinked in the passenger seat and there it was in a scene from Never the Mark Twain Shall Meet: the bridge on the River Mississippi. Jesse James and his band of brigands roamed the heartlands, earning sympathy as they robbed and plundered their way to ignominy, and him a bullet in the back of the head by the coward Robert Ford.

The state in July is hot and swampy and full of biting insects. The man at the trailer park, the owner most likely, warmed to us in that ‘hands across the water’ fashion. It was said by the man himself beaming with pride that he visited England in the age of B&W while serving as a G.I. in Germany (but probably not sharing a bunk with Elvis, who was there too). Though it was many years ago, he remembered old Albion fondly. The guy, by now he must have been sixty at a pinch, flew back across the pond (as anglophile Americans and Amerophile Englanders like affectionately to call that gargantuan body of thrashing, grey water that’s anything but pond-like) in a rickety old DC-8, which in all fairness was probably fresh off the production line in 1960-sum when he flew in it. We’re talking about the early days of transatlantic air travel as an alternative to second-class on ocean liners for the common folk. This commercial aircraft, so ballerina-light compared with the later Boeing 747, was kicked around like an old tin can somewhere high over Greenland he said. How did he know he was over Greenland? Well, That plane was shunted around so much by that old devil turbulence that it almost ended up on its side. It was then, face pressed against the porthole he was able to get a good view of the white world beneath.

Paralysed by fear, he reckoned none of those two hundred-odd passengers aboard thought they’d make it home at all far less in time for dinner. They’d come to land alright, he was sure, but not in the manner that airline passengers have become accustomed to, and nor in the manner that any self-respecting mortal would ever hope for. That’s the thing about the trauma of near-death experience. Like your faithful hound it’ll never leave your side no matter what. Keep feeding that long, long time ago event with tidbits of vivid recollection and Rex the long-haired ‘I almost died’ will keep lying forever at the feet of the survivor.

The Mississippi cuts the nation in half vertically as the Mason-Dixie line cuts her longways across her abdomen and then sideways politically-speaking. Although the river meanders under way more than one, perhaps the most visible bridge in St Louis is not one at all. Rather, it’s an arch, high as it is symbolic of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Put there to bridge two nations – one almost an eagle and the other a puny fledgling – the Gateway Arch in St Louis is a fitting reminder that for bridges to be built and formidable barriers to be spanned, first the far side has to be conquered. And to do that, the first peoples, such as the Dakota tribe, had to be pushed back until they could be pushed no more for there was no corner to push them into other than a lousy reservation. By crossing that river whose tongue-tying spelling was recited, never to be forgotten, by generations of Scottish schoolchildren, the St Louis bridge over the mighty M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i spans two rather distinct hemispheres: one, the long-settled East; the other, the endless plains, mountains, deserts, canyons, badlands, and forests of the West.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would turn in their fictional graves to know that these whirlpool waters of the Mississippi no longer add up to a whole lot of natural barrier. Gone is the obligatory river boat crossing with its tillerman, a nineteenth century Charon who’d take you across the Styx to the underworld that was the little-known Frontier, and for only nickels and dimes that dead men wore to cover their eyes to the dazzling light of western settlement. But the world is lost to the mystique that once shrouded it. Modern transport has made a mockery of distance, shrinking everything but itself.

On the great plains the sky weighs down the land and lays down the land. A gap-fill of blue ether over green corn, restless air over restful earth. The cornfields of Kansas open up before us. Black clouds gather overhead, chasing us west across the interstate highway that crosses the plains. Cumulo-thunderheads the size of English counties send bolts of lightning down to strike indiscriminately at hapless heads of wheat, barley and corn that sway hypnotically, and when it gusts, frenziedly, in that sea of ripening ears. At time like these, the sky hates the earth, wanting only to show who is boss.

We skirt the peripheries of Kansas City where man-size droplets of rain finally catch up with the traffic. Day turns to night. The downpour is torrential. I’ve seen this kind of rain in the tropics and where el Niño was to blame, not expecting it here. When the whole world awaits you for the first time, who’s to say what to expect?

The land is a sea of wheat and soya, barley and rape seed. To call these agricultural lands a patchwork of ‘fields’ can be misleading. When does a field become to large in area to remain a field? The highways, in another sense, are shipping lanes. You can tell from the way they all run through the unbroken expanse, unlike old England and France where roads and lanes enclose fields, forming boundaries at the limit of where some farmer Joe’s smallholding meets some other farmer’s.

Many folks are mistaken to think that the state of Colorado, lying due west of Kansas, is all ski resorts and Aspen trees bedecked with virgin snow. Much of the east of the state, and we are talking a fair dollop of land, is essentially a flat extension of the great plains of Kansas whence we came. Some way short of alpine, farmed to fuck and featureless, one could be forgiven for thinking that the cloud bank you see on the far side of the flatlands at the limit of a distant horizon is actually a bank of clouds and not the outline of the Rocky Mountains, which it turns out in fact to be.

You want natural barriers of the kind no longer afforded you by the mighty Mississippi and the plains of Kansas? Then look no further than the fake mirage at the end of the visible horizon. Like the Himalaya when you’re gazing north from the Indian Terai, the Rockies loom higher and harder as the traveller approaches along Interstate 70.

Never bowled over by annual membership of the mile-high club, I always fancied myself taking a day pass for the mile-high city, Denver. What they don’t see is that the height and elegance of youth all too often succumbs to the flabby girth of age. Viz. Denver was a mile high from the moment it was born, but these days, being that bit older, with a metropolitan population of about three million, it has to be more than a mile wide, too. Keep the day pass, around the waistline we go. That’s the trouble with road tripping: stopping for anytime can be a drag. What lies beyond has got to be better than what lies near. Isn’t that the whole point of monotheism?

We head up into the mountains near Arapaho, where the carpet reeks of pine needles dying to be let out by water that hasn’t seeped through since winter’s end, where the sloping roof peaks punch little holes in a sky of ice blue, where Native Americans are sadly gone leaving the victorious cowboys to ride on steeds whose clop-clopping rings throughout the cloaked valleys. The air is thinner up here. Sound travels faster and further than its maker could ever hope for. It’s pretty up here, a first gulp of the great West as I imagined the West to be from old Hollywood films I used to watch with my Scottish grandfather.

In a cabin in the woods (how much more quintessentially North American can you get?) we meet a father and son from Houston, Texas. The old guy sports the tapered beard ripped off Custer’s chin as a spoil of war after Crazy Horse got him at Little Bighorn in 1876. He wears boots fit for a regal cowboy. He slings those long blue denim legs over the balustrade of the cabin’s verandah as leisurely as a saddle on a hitching post. Cuban heels perched on the beam, toes pointing at the Dog star on a Rocky Mountain night spangling with American stars. He speaks of things you don’t normally associate with boot-heeled Texans, like his love for yachting and the storm in the Gulf of Mexico that near as damn buried him, boots n all, in Davy Jones’ Locker. The rest of the conversation is gone to seed, not surprisingly, as our encounter happened twenty-five years ago, and the old guy himself, unlike his impressive outline in my mind, is likely dead and gone, too.

The I-70 keeps on West from Denver through a series of national forests, then Grand Junction that might not be so grand but indubitably is a junction. Thenceforth the road runs onward to Utah where it runs out of itself around Fishlake National Forest. From Baltimore at its inception to its death (or maybe its rebirth) in Western Utah, the I-70 blazes a trail about that of the distance between Edinburgh and Istanbul. Woe betide the crew charged with the maintenance upkeep on that stretch of tarmac! It is in Denver, however, we bid it fare-thee-well. It’s time to hitch a ride on another highway north then west to California.

Five Corners of Love

America, Cities, People, Reflections, roadtrip, Travel, United States

FIVE CORNERS OF LOVE

The First Corner 

 

 

The United States, 1994: Trippin’ the Love Fantastic.

 

Part I

O.J. & D.C.

 

 

      O.J. tailed by a slow cavalcade of black & white flashing red. The few hogging the bar whose eyes were not glued to the TV screen overhead, they were craning necks and waving greenbacks on tiptoes to get served. The nation’s most notoriously sluggish motorized pursuit of a wanted man airing nationwide in this surreal drama starring a beloved former athlete-cum-film actor who happened to have African blood in his veins, who happened to have Caucasian blood on his hands, though this is something he shall subsequently deny. The year is 1994 and the United States still grapples with the question of race. Since black motorist Rodney King was beaten by law enforcement for the crime of being black, a cauldron of ethnic tension has simmered away. The overwhelmingly white crowd in this bar-grill root for America’s Most Wanted, not because he is a likely a murderer, but because he is O.J. Simpson, beloved former athlete-cum-film actor.

The whole scene unfolds in slow motion on TV while this bar opposite the old Ford Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot down by anarchist and actor John Wilkes Booth some 131 years earlier (an avoidable death in a later age when paramedics would know how to keep gunshot victims alive), thrums with Washington’s beltway civil servants still wearing their work apparel.

I think it was a midweek evening when I made this one solitary trip there. So many years ago now that the view has lived healthily inside my eidetic memory. We had flown in on this the inaugural day of our round-the-world trip, my oldest friend and I. It was my first time on a continent other than the old one (not that all seven are not siblings born within a geological year of one another), and for all I cared, the America I was laying wide eyes on was a pristine one. The bar ‘n’ grill might have been rocking and Pilgrim Fathers dead for over three hundred years, but there was I nevertheless discovering the new world.

The low-speed hustle by half of the LAPD (a kind of entourage of reluctant jailers) in pursuit of O.J. Simpson was making headlines round the globe that day. Down the road from Congress and Capitol Hill, the boys from the State Department and the girls from Defense couldn’t get enough of it.

‘Go, O.J.! Go!’ they chanted. Beer swilling in one hand, clenched fist punching the smoky air with the other. This was pure America, boorish and good-natured as you like.  

‘We’ll have what they’re having, please.’

‘Can you provide your I.D. first?

‘But…’ we protested to the server, ‘…we’re not even twenty-one. We are twenty-two.’

This little flourish was bound to catch him unawares.

‘I don’t much care if you’re forty-seven and looking great for your age. I’m still gonna need to see that I.D. before we serve you a drop. Sorry, sir!’

So we marched back, my friend and I, to that hostel down the way, picked up our passports and marched back there triumphant. This moment, we imagined quite openly, would be our rites of passage.

Age verified, we could now join the throng around the TV, all wiling O.J. to outrun the police going 8 mph.

’Two JDs n coke, if you please.’

Humphrey Bogart eat your heart out. Where better than the swankiest saloon in DC to affect that Hollywood swagger, other than Hollywood itself, one supposes?

Neatly, consummately, he pours.

‘There you go, boys.’

We asked how much and he replied such and such, and such and such is precisely what we handed him. And that was the first, but by no means the last, cultural faux pas I owned up to in my long and chequered career in travelling the world.

The error of our ways soon became apparent at the next round.

‘Why won’t you serve us? We brought our passports after all.’

Snubbed by the only man in the packed bar in demand other than O.J. (but for entirely different reasons), my good friend and I got somewhat chippy with him.

‘Why won’t you serve us?’

‘Because I make minimum wage and you didn’t so much as tip me a red cent last time round.’

‘I didn’t think we had to.’

‘You didn’t think at all,’ he said. ‘You’re in the United States. In this land a bartender lives on tips, not on his wits.’

‘But we’re British,’ we answered, somewhat meaninglessly.

‘All the more reason then,’ he quipped.

Intrigued to find out what that reason was, I forced the issue and he said something about redcoats and razing Washington to the ground in 1812. Payback time.

‘Will $5 do?’

Plucking it from my hand, this bartender had our back for the rest of the evening, starting with the whisky we watched him pour halfway up a Tom Collins glass.

O.J. had had the police aplenty on his back that evening, tailing this Ford Bronco down an LA freeway to the astonishment of a watching world, though that didn’t stop the good time boys in the bar-n-grill by the Old Ford Theatre in DC from whooping him on to freedom. Never saw a black man in America so feted, though the rowdy crowd might have been cheering on the ensuing police for all I knew nor cared.

 

Street Life in Cookie Central.

California, Cities, counter-culture, Hippies, homelessness, Indigence, Life, Lifestyle, People, Photography, Portraits, Poverty, San Francisco, Street Photography, Street Scenes, streetlife, Travel, Travel Photography, Uncategorized, United States

San Francisco bay has long been a draw for the weird, the wonderful and the downright down and out.

Attracted by boundless Pacific sunlight and a tolerance bordering on the UV intense, today the city continues to watch America’s misfits pour in from all quarters. Some are drawn to an alternative lifestyle while others are not so deliberate in where they choose to hang out. The plain fact is that San Francisco, particularly around west Market Street up to Haight Ashbury, provides a kind of sanctuary to many sorry men and women whose psychiatric troubles would be better treated in a more centralised asylum. Instead, the old lady of the bay, San Francisco, IS the asylum. Except, this asylum is growing pricier by the day while its homeless population grows more prevalent but not more equipped to meet the economic (and dare i say psychological) bare necessities of existing in one of the world’s cutting edge metropoles.

In spite of the sometimes vexatious experience of walking San Francisco’s colourful and crazy streets, there’s yet so much life in the place, so much occasion to both weep and whoop at the state of the world.

San Francisco is one of those rare entities: a refuge where both the botched and bungled and the bold and beautiful have an equal share of its pitched paving stones. A screwed-up symbiosis, sure, but a symbiosis of tech and counter culture nonetheless.

Not to speak of its architectural beauty in a blessed natural setting. That is a whole other story.