Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I did do

So that’s what I didn’t do during my 10-day study of Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa. Here’s a list of what I did do.

  1. Lived in silence.
  2. Lived in an all-male community where the loudest sound were the birds (until the Harrier Jets passed over).
  3. Saw rabbits before dawn.
  4. Saw not just every sunset and sunrise, but every moonset and moonrise.
  5. Watched a nest of spiders entrap their prey around a light. With our vow of no killing, there was no sweeping away of cobwebs.
  6. Lots of walking, slow and fast. I used the field as a clock sometimes, 6 minutes to make a circuit.
  7. Lots of sleeping (when I shouldn’t have been).
  8. Lots of sitting crosslegged, something I hadn’t done since primary school.
  9. Lots of pain.
  10. Lots of thinking. I spent a lot of time going over my memories and felt a deep appreciation for all the people I’ve met and ridden with.
  11. Lost any reasonable idea of social graces and personal appearance. Scoffed food, nails long and grubby, beard shabby and dandruff all over the place.
  12. Watched a bee pick pollen from a blue flowered plant.
  13. Ate gorgeous vegetarian food and spectacular breakfasts.
  14. Meditated (a bit).
  15. I learnt a bit about myself, about how frustrated I get with petty annoyances, how bored I get without mental stimulation.
  16. Sat in a hall with 120 other people and listened to the sounds of coughing, sneezing, sniffing, shifting, scratching, swallowing, farting, breathing, crying.
  17. Laughed hard at the teacher’s hilarious discourses in the evenings (the only intellectual stimulation allowed).
  18. Heard an owl hooting in the night.
  19. Heard foxes screeching.
  20. Woke up and got up at 4am everyday – or before.
  21. Had crazy cool dreams.
  22. Created an aversion to the sound of a gong.
  23. Got paranoid that my co-meditators hated me. The slightest body-language snub was a cause for boiling paranoia.
  24. Listened to the most appalling chanting noises, sounding like the final death rattle of our teacher, and still kept my equanimity (almost).
  25. Spent a lot of time looking at my clock, counting down the minutes and the days.
  26. Felt a surge of joy every morning to be out in the cold and sometimes the misting rain and to be looking out over the valley and the woods, out into the silence.
It’s a list that goes on and on, believe me. I repeatedly fail to quite capture the experience of frustration and joy that went with the 10-days at Dhamma Dipa. You’ve just got to try it for yourself. But you can read my attempt to capture more of my experiences here.

Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I didn’t do

I just got back from a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation at Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. I thought it might be interesting for people to get an idea about the sort of things that we got up to down there, but first, here’s a list of the things that I didn’t get up to.

  1. I did not see god, get converted or become enlightened.
  2. No meat-eating.
  3. No women, no children.
  4. No speaking (hardly) – in fact no communication at all, not even body language or a smile was allowed.
  5. No intoxicants.
  6. No caffeine.
  7. No reading (except for a few instructions posted on the boards).
  8. No writing.
  9. No clothes washing – or any other normal household chores.
  10. No exercise except walking.
  11. No email or internet.
  12. No telephone.
  13. No music.
  14. No games or other entertainment.
  15. No travel.
  16. No spectacles (except to watch the evening discourses).
  17. No refined sugar (perhaps a little in the desserts, but not much).
  18. No proper meals after about 11.30am.
  19. Only a five or six hours sleep a night.
  20. No news or information, no radio, newpapers etc..
  21. No solitude (really, not much).
  22. No freedom – the timetable was rigid.
  23. No days off.
  24. No difficulties at all – meals provided, bed provided, nothing to worry about, nothing could go wrong.
  25. No money.
  26. Nothing in my pockets except a few tissues and a clock.
  27. No stealing.
  28. No killing.
  29. No lying (I don’t think I lied – perhaps I did, not sure).
  30. No physical contact with anyone else.
  31. No contact with advertising! That was a good one.
All this was supposed to clear the way for some concentrated work on our minds. See what I did do at Dhamma Dipa in my next post.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 9, 10 & 11

After twelve hours of watching films about bicycles, what is the feeling I’m left with?

Well, apart from a blinking aversion to light and cramp in my legs, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the truth about bicycles and that truth can be summed up in one word:

FREEDOM.

A Swarovski Crystal Low-Rider. Yeah, that’s freedom.

Sorry it’s not more profound than that, but do let me expound a little.

Freedom isn’t just feeling the wind in your hair, although there was plenty of that on show today and throughout the festival. Freedom is the power to be self-reliant, to unbend the yoke that ties us to cars and lorries. There was a short film about the Pedal Co-Op in Philadelphia in the US. They use long trailers attached to their bikes to make green deliveries around the city. For every forty trips they make with these trailers, that’s one truck off the road. It gave me the feeling that anything is possible with pedal power. Why shouldn’t we trade trucks for trailers for use in the local economy?

There was a great little piece about freedom from stereotyping and night buses (I may be reading too much into this one) called Heels on Wheels, in which a bunch of girls go out for the night on bicycles. Why not? I don’t approve of them drinking heavily before setting off, but otherwise, this is a great advert for people using bikes under any circumstance. You don’t have to turn up sweaty, take your time, cycle slow and safe. And so our girls get to the club with all make-up perfectly applied and not a hair out of place. But then the film goes and ruins it all by having one of the bikes stolen. What is it about stealing bikes on today’s program? The only message that comes out of this is: don’t bother, mate, it’ll only get stolen anyway. A bit annoying.

But I love the freedom of Project N. A bunch of kids break into an abandoned gymnasium, set up a bunch of obstacles, drink some beer, roll some spliffs and have some damn good fun. It looks pretty cool to me; but then the police come and shut it down. A bit annoying as well. You can get a taste of it here: http://vimeo.com/10033943.

There was more emphasis on fictional stories in today’s program. The highlight of which was Bicycle Thieves, a classic Italian film from 1948. It’s a film about freedom and poverty. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but the protagonist needs his bike to do his work and when it gets stolen he is driven to further and further extremes of desperation. Sample quote:

There’s a cure for everything – except death!

Don’t worry, be happy (or miserable, like the end of this film).

Jitensha was a Japanese story which reminded me of a Murakami plotline. A loner quits his job because he got punched in the face by a colleague. He cycles around a bit, looking miserable. Then he gets his bike seat nicked. Over the course of the next few days more parts get stolen until our hero just sticks a piece of paper onto the remains of the bike saying, ‘Dear Thief, please take the whole thing.’ The next day, he is surprised to find a reply fixed to the bike, which says, ‘Thank you for your kind offer, but I am not a thief. Sincerely, God.’ When there is nothing left but the bicycle bell, God leaves a package with details of where all the parts are hidden with the message: ‘This is the world in which you live.’ And so our hero rediscovers his sense of purpose and on the way connects with all sorts of people, from a young family to a gang of youths and a street hawker. Eventually he finds the last part, the saddle, with the help of an old man who is using a metal detector on the beach. When the detector goes off, our hero runs over and starts madly digging and then uncovers it, shouting:

‘I found it, I found it!’
‘What did you find?’ the old man asks, meaningfully.
‘My bicycle seat.’
The old man looks at the saddle and says, ‘Sometimes you have to rely on others to find what you are looking for.’

I don’t know why this is profound, but I’m sure it is.

The evening program had some pretty cool features in it, but if I have to watch one more old man welding, I think I’m going to go insane. Seven – I’ve just counted them – that is the number of films which featured old men welding.

Note to film-makers: there is nothing dramatic about welding unless it is with laser beams and they are travelling very slowly between James Bond’s legs towards his groin. 

I’m sure it looks great on film and I appreciate that there isn’t very much dramatic at all about building bikes, but please: no more welding! I kept myself mildly entertained by noting the difference in safety precautions between the US (visor, goggles and gloves), The Netherlands (welding box, like it was radioactive or something) and Japan (bare hands and dark glasses). Having said that, the film about Dario Pegoretti was pretty good actually, once I had finished cursing about the welding. It was pretty good because it was about a real human being who spent most of his time swearing and talking about girls. I learnt that luomar meant a heap of shit in Italian, for example. In fairness, the last of the welding stories was also bearable, but only because of these quotes:

The bicycle is two wheels, a chain and a brake; the bicycle is not the machine. Man is the machine.

and, in allusion to bicycles:

Sometimes ugly girls are beautiful – and all the beautiful ones are beautiful, right?

Can you tell he was Italian too?

But the high point of the day, really, was the sheer exuberant joy of On Time, a blaxploitation flick from 1985, the first big hit for director Ari Taub. Our hero is a bike messenger who has to deliver a package to an address in New York for a 2pm sharp deadline. It’s pretty dramatic, and he ends up with his bike in bits and getting chased by some brothers who think he’s a thief. But when he finally delivers the package, right on time, it explodes. But the real hero of the film was the theme tune, which played pretty much throughout the whole thing:

The wheel’s are turning
And your body’s burning
Meet the deadline everyday
Nothing’s gonna get in our way!

You can check out a preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sWZBb0xwpc – but it ends, tantalisingly, just before the song kicks in.

You know what, I’m going to miss these films, but at least I didn’t miss them. I can only say: you’d better go next year.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 4,5 & 7

Phew, tough day in the life of a bike film reviewer. Not as tough as for Abdul Aziz, an Afghani asylum seeker who found out today that he is going to be deported on the 10.00am flight from London on Tuesday. Thanks to the new government, there’s a bit of a clear-out of left-over Afghanis going on at the moment. We don’t want them anymore, apparently, so we’re freighting them out at the rate of one flight every week, Tuesdays at 10.00am.

‘What’s that got to do with bikes?’ You may very well ask. Well, Abdul Aziz has been one of the beneficiaries of a wicked little scheme in Bristol called The Bristol Bike Project (all the creative genius has gone into the project, not the name), which takes bikes no one wants anymore and pairs them with people no one wants anymore. After a spot of repair, these bikes are given to the asylum seekers, who struggle to survive on the £35 of Tesco vouchers they’re given every week. I mean, can you imagine doing ALL your shopping at Tesco? Complete nightmare. I can give you an example from my own life only today: shopping around for some patisseries, I discovered that Tesco Express do Pain au Raisin for 84p whereas Sainsbury’s do 2 for £1! That’s the sort of value you need when you’re on £35 a week, trust me.

I should also mention that these vulnerable men, women and kids (remember, they left their countries because they were going to be killed, dude) are not allowed to work by the government here. What? And we call them scroungers? Why not let them do something useful and earn a bit of money then? Because doing something useful is a primary human need; without feeling useful a little part of us dies and we do stupid stuff. So a lot of these asylum seekers get involved with voluntary groups, just to feel useful, you know? But there’s a problem, of course: Tesco don’t do buses (yet). How the fuck are these people supposed to get around? How the fuck are they supposed to get to English classes or to their asylum interviews or to their voluntary work – or just to fucking Tesco’s for that matter?

Answer: bikes.

More than the practicality of riding a bike, though, is the spiritual element of unshackling the feet from walking for the asylum seekers:

I feel free on my bike. Just me and the road and my bike.

I feel like an eagle, like a bird…I feel freedom and peace…and no problem for me like I had before.

So hats off to the Bristol Bike Project.

That was actually the last film of Program 4; don’t worry, I won’t go on like this for all of them. There was Ben Hurt, bike chariot combat in Portland, Oregon; there was a 25 metre chain reaction like those car adverts, but this time with bike parts in Japan; there was papergirl delivering art to unsuspecting strangers in Berlin; there was a day in the life of a paperboy in Italy; there was a bike kitchen doing repairs using the alternative economy in Vienna; there was some nutty German woman doing handstands on her bike in Beijing and there was a 62 year old biologist who recently started to commute to work in Budapest (he takes secateurs with him to tend the cycle paths – ahhh, what a nice old man).

So that was all pretty heart warming (apart from the bit about Abdul Aziz getting deported, Tuesday, 10.00am, but I won’t go on about it). Program 5, in contrast, was pretty vacuous. It was all either arty or enthusiasty. I overheard some friends leaving the show, one saying to another, ‘…and Katie forced us to watch some bike geek-fest…’ and Katie replied, hurt, ‘ – it wasn’t geeky!’ Oh yes it was, Katie, oh yes it was.

But we were back on form for the evening show, imaginatively titled Program 7. It was a sell-out for starters and we all got into the swing of things with a little call and response:

RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Bikes!
LEFT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
ALL TOGETHER: Biriokekess…

Unfortunately, the ‘show-piece’ of the evening was a film about the wankers I mentioned yesterday – you remember the guys who cycle like idiots around New York? Well, it turns out they’re assholes as well as wankers. I don’t understand, I really don’t. They race around cities: fine. They don’t care if they kill themselves: fine. The problem I have is that if / when they kill themselves, they’ll almost certainly be using someone else to do it. Just smacking the road isn’t likely to be their demise, no. It’ll be some poor sod they’ve dashed in front of and he’ll have their blood all over his windscreen. Nothing he could have done about it, but there it is.

It seems particularly perverse to have this film showing at the BFF considering that it was started after the founder got hit by a bus! If that seems perverse, then my mind does half-pipes when I see that this film was sponsored by the BFF itself. I don’t get it. Perhaps, if the BFF is all about publicising cycling and raising awareness of cycling to motorists, then getting smashed up is about the best form of deterrent there is. For sure it gets headlines, for sure it scares the crap out of motorists and for sure they’ll look twice next time (if they’re not in therapy, that is). That’s the only logic I can see. If that isn’t the logic, then it really is just self-indulgent bullshit, suicidal wankdom. A quote from the guy who films these ‘Alleycats’:

People think we’re crazy or reckless or lucky – 

No, mate, we think you’re wankers. Arrogant wankers. I sort of feel like I should be checking this guy’s Wikipedia page on a regular basis, just so that when he dies I can write on the bottom: ‘Dude had it coming.’

But I’m not going to finish on that sour note of hostile bitterness, no. That would be unfair to the great films that preceded the self-indulgent crap. The most important moment of the evening came fairly early on, during a film of some American dudes cycling from Tokyo to Osaka. They were helped along the way by a Japanese cyclist, who was mad on bikes. They asked him why and he told them this (I paraphrase):

This bike was my father’s. He raced on it in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. He passed away three years ago, but before he died we raced together, him and I. He was old but still he beat me! So now every time I ride my bike I feel like I am chasing him. I am still chasing my father.

Maybe we should all jump on our bikes and chase after that plane that’s taking Abdul Aziz away, Tuesday at 10.00am.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 1 & 2

I have the pleasure of covering the Bicycle Film Festival at The Barbican for the London Student. Yes, I am still a student (technically). This means I get to watch films I would never have even considered paying money for. In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the evening looking around at a half-empty auditorium wondering what kind of person paid to watch pedals turning on a big screen. I suspected that I would be sitting with various members of the lower strata of the London press and that the sounds of our biros clicking in and out would be the most interesting thing happening in the room.

How I was wrong. 
Not only were the two showings pretty full, but the crowds were positively raucous and the films were – good! I wasn’t expecting that, I have to say. Now, this isn’t the place for a film review because, frankly, you’ve missed it, it just happened, but I will give a quick run-through to encourage you to go tomorrow or Sunday – or next year, maybe. (Yeah, ok, I know you won’t, but dammit, play along with the conceit will you?)
So first of all there were a series of three shorts. The first was a bunch of idiots cycling like suicidal idiots around New York City. They even boasted about how safe they felt while ‘riding the wave’, i.e. jumping red lights. Wankers. Can’t wait for one of them to get strawberried – actually I can because that would mean some poor sod is responsible for scraping them up off the road (and, being a city-cyclist myself, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but still – wankers). The second one was a fascinating story about ‘the world’s most prolific bicycle thief’, a Slovenian immigrant to the States called Kenk. Three thousand bikes he had when the police busted him. He said he stole them to demonstrate the wastage of the consumer society. Fair enough. The third one was about Rollapaluza in London, where people get up on stage and Fight Club-style bike it out against each other in 500m sprints. 
Then the main event had the crowd hooting and cheering even before it began. It was the story of Mat Hoffman, who is, apparently, a bit of a legend in the world of Big Air. Yeah – no idea either. But it was a great story and boy did that guy get hurt for something he believed in (doing big stunts on a BMX for those of you wondering). Couple of inspirational quotes though: 

Nothing is impossible; you’ve just got to keep coming back to it.

And: 

If I die with a body that isn’t completely wrecked I’ll feel like I’ve wasted it.

No danger of that, mate.
The second programme started in rollicking fashion with The Tweed Run, which takes place in London every year. A few hundred people cycle around Buckingham Palace and Saville Row in their finest tweed (and other gentlemanly attire). They stop off for tea and sandwiches in Hyde Park and finish off with a stiff gin and tonic. Spiffing. Then there was some boring Los Angeles short which was a bit pointless, but very artistic I’m sure. That’s ten minutes I could have spent getting a sandwich myself. Then there was a short about taxi-bikes in Cuba (the serious documentary of the day – there’s always one). It was genuinely interesting, though, and beautifully done too. It peered into the bicycle-heart of the social, economic and political life of Cuba. It’s major cinematographic contribution was a shot of these taxi-bikes going around and around in circles. I couldn’t spot the metaphor. It couldn’t have contrasted more with the bombastic piece of pointless fun that followed: a bunch of boys arsing about around Sacramento.
The main feature of the second program was about a bunch of pro skaters (as in skate-boarding – yeah, they do exist) who decided to cycle the length of New Zealand’s North Island to find some good skating along the way. They soon realise it’s not that easy. I felt for them, I really did, as they discovered the same things all first-time bike tourers do (including me – especially me): 
  1. Most of your time will be spent going uphill (without bending the laws of physics – work it out.)
  2. There’s a limit to how wet you can get.
  3. If you just keep going, wheel by wheel, you’ll get there in the end.
All in all, a great night’s entertainment. Just a shame you weren’t there and I was. Never mind. Oh, and I had one of the Barbican’s huge chocolate brownies as well – but I had to pay for that.

A Meeting of Activists for Palestine

Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.

A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.

Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.

The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.

There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.

Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?

I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?

I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.

There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.

At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!

Ezekiel is not an Idiot

Ezekiel is not an idiot. He is very well qualified and holds a position of responsibility at one of the more respectable IT services corporations. He has a company car. Ezekiel is not an idiot.

But he’s troubled. It should just be lunch, but something has disrupted his meal. Ezekiel is eating a bag of mixed nuts – or rather – he was eating a bag of mixed nuts. Instead, he is looking down at his palm, trying to identify his food. He knows from the list of ingredients that this bag of mixed nuts includes peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. Using a process of elimination he thought he had identified them successfully, that’s a peanut, that’s a pecan, that’s a hazelnut and that’s surely an almond.

But what’s this? Ezekiel isn’t sure what this nut is. It’s a lot smaller than his almond, but there’s something very almondy about it. Perhaps this one is the almond, not that other one. But then which ones are the Brazils? And are these really hazelnuts? Ezekiel is troubled. If he can’t identify his own food, what else is he missing?

Ezekiel is not an idiot; he’s got a company car.

Slave for Hire

I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.

In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.

Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.

But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?

This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.

I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.

Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.

Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.

Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.

It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.

I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.

What is travelling?

It’s a verb of motion, that’s what it is *. But why choose that verb over a hundred others? When are we travelling rather than simply going?

Here’s my answer.

Travelling, like writing, is about asking questions.

I’m going to Egypt, puts the emphasis on the destination, as if the goer and the transport mean nothing, contribute nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Going is almost passive; we all know that it’s the aeroplane that will be travelling and the goer is simply being transported. I’m going to Egpyt doesn’t beg any questions. You would never suspect that the goer is doing anything other than transporting himself to Egypt by conventional means for a holiday. I’d never ask the goer How are you going to Egypt? I just wouldn’t expect an interesting answer. By using the word going the goer is already pushing his journey into the mundane.

I’m travelling to Egypt, on the other hand, asks more questions than it answers. It puts the emphasis on the traveller and on the journey. Travelling seems to be more active, more conscious and more deliberate than going. I might very well ask the traveller, How? and I would expect an interesting answer.

Most importantly, though, travelling also begs questions of the traveller. It is hard to say, in all seriousness, I’m travelling to Camden, without thinking of what that means to you as the traveller and what implications the decision to travel has on your journey. You would ask yourself, How? and already the act is more active, more conscious and more deliberate.

I did this, in fact. Last Friday, I wanted to go to Camden to visit my friend Ben. Fine. I live in South London and I could have quite easily gone to Camden by public transport. But the idea of going bored me so I made the decision to travel. So my question to myself then was How? and suddenly I was part of the journey, not just passive cargo for a train or a bus. Cycling was out of the question because it was pissing it down with rain. Then it struck me that I didn’t know what it meant to travel 7.5 miles across London in the pouring rain.

We are in the situation today that we can transport ourselves vast distances without thinking about it. We can go 7.5 miles. A few hundred years ago going 7.5 miles would have been unthinkable. Travelling was the only option. So I wanted to reconnect with that time, I wanted to understand what 7.5 miles in the rain meant.

So I ran 4.2 miles (in the rain) and then walked the rest (in the rain). It was as simple as that. Now I understand (only a little bit: I caught the train home). If I had gone by public transport then I wouldn’t have been travelling. I would have forgotten what I was doing and I would simply have been going. I would, instead of travelling, have been reading or people-watching or something else, filling time, enduring the transport. But by deliberately changing my mode of transport and by asking myself questions, suddenly I was not going, but travelling.

And that’s the nub of the matter: travel always involves a question or a series of questions. If you don’t ask the questions then you are just going. That doesn’t mean that travelling must only be done at leisure; a commuter can easily travel just by asking questions, by becoming conscious of his activity. Instead of taking the same train at the same time he could walk or run or take an earlier train or a later train or a bus. But it’s not even just about the mode of transport. The commuter could transform his journey by talking to his neighbour on the train or by taking photographs of the journey or by writing a story about the journey – anything to become a conscious part of the locomotion. The traveller is constantly aware of his travel, for him the journey is as relevant as the destination.

This, I believe, is why travel writing is always interesting, because it seeks to ask and perhaps answer questions about the world or about the traveller. There is conflict in those travel stories: will the journey be a success? Will the questions be answered? All stories are questions. All journeys are questions.

And once you stop asking questions, once you stop thinking, you stop travelling and you are simply going or commuting or – worst of all – enduring.

So I always try to ask myself:
How can I travel today? How can I turn my transport into a journey?


* All right, all right – it’s a verbal noun, but who’s splitting hairs?

Hitchhiking: London to Oxfordshire (and Back)

26 September 2010
Distance: 55 miles (one way)

Lesson: The Right Reasons

I got a train out to Gunnersbury to hitch from the side of the road onto the M4. It didn’t work. I stood near a bus-stop with my sign, people looked at me and accelerated up the slip-road. So I took a bus from that bus-stop to Hounslow West and walked to Heston Services. Unfortunately the M4 was half closed and going at a crawl past a traffic accident (I believe). But still, I got a lift no problems, from a travelling solar panel salesman. It took us an hour to get past the accident site, by which time there was nothing left and all lanes were open. But it was a great conversation, he told me all about his dad who was the first military pilot for Abu Dhabi and his brother who was a commercial diver up in Aberdeen. He dropped me in Reading and I walked across town to the railway station. I could have hitched from there to my destination, but time was short and the bus was only £2.90. So I caught a bus.

The next day, I caught a cold. No one would want to pick me up like that and I didn’t fancy standing on the road side in the sharp Autumn. So I caught a train from Reading back to London. It cost me £13, about what it would have cost if I’d bought a return ticket from London to Goring the previous day. My hitch had saved me nothing. So was it a waste of time? No chance. I’d know a lot less about solar panel sales, underwater oil rig repairs and the Abu Dhabi air force if I’d just caught the train.

Don’t hitch for financial reasons, hitch for the right reasons.

The Little Red Fiat

This is the story of The Little Red Fiat. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you, in the Tate Modern? It was painted by my little boy – not so little now, but he was back then. Probably about twelve I think, when he painted that one. But he started painting them when he was only three.

We’d bought him a painting set, nothing fancy, for his third birthday. We needed something to keep him occupied after his little sister was born. He hadn’t taken too well to the new member of the family and we couldn’t deal with a demanding toddler and a new baby. So we sent Joseph off with his painting set. It seemed to absorb him and he did a painting of our little red Fiat – we used to have one back then. This painting wasn’t quite like the one you’ve seen in the Tate, just blobs of red in a box shape. It took a bit of working out what it was, but we said well done and stuck the picture to the fridge, like all good parents do. We encouraged him to paint some more and over the next few weeks he painted and painted and painted. But all he’d paint were little red Fiats.

At first we were just grateful we’d found something to keep him occupied. But then, after his little sister had grown up a bit, we started to worry. We tried to encourage him to paint other things: a tree, the house – other cars, at least. But no, all he wanted to paint was our little red Fiat. He painted all day sometimes and the paintings did improve, he put in more details, made it look more realistic, but it was always the little red Fiat. When he was about six, the painting (for their was only ever one painting really) had crystallised in its final form: the little red Fiat with the the doors thrown open and a boy in pyjamas standing with his back to the painter, looking at the car with his hands folded behind his back – you would recognise it, I’m sure. And so, for six years, that’s exactly what he carried on painting, doing three or four a week. We didn’t think much of the paintings themselves, except as a cause for worry over our son’s mental state, but then we weren’t an artistic family.

But then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Joseph was twelve by then and had just finished one of his paintings and, as usual, it was of the little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and the little boy in pyjamas facing it with his back to the painter and his hands behind his back. This one didn’t seem much different to us from the very first one he’d painted, certainly not in the subject matter. He’d got better with the brush, of course, but you can imagine our frustration as parents. But that evening we had a couple of friends over for dinner and they saw the picture on the fridge (Joseph put them there now, a new one every couple of days) and they remarked how good it was. This must have been almost the first time we’d had friends over for dinner, Joseph now old enough to look after himself and Sarah upstairs while the adults ate. Of course, we just thought they were being polite and we thanked them and carried on serving chicken in white wine. But the husband couldn’t keep his eyes off the painting and it started to irritate us, we wanted to enjoy the evening, but he was obviously totally distracted by the painting. Then, in the middle of dessert, he stood up, quite rudely I thought, went straight to the fridge and stared intently at the painting for a couple of minutes. “You must take this to a gallery!” he declared and his wife nodded, equally hypnotised. We could not believe it and just said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” annoyed more than anything.

Even so, we were rather taken aback by their reaction to the painting and we wondered what to do. Perhaps we should take Joseph to a psychologist, find out what was wrong with him. Over the next few days, though, something even more remarkable happened. Our friends started showing up at our door unannounced, obviously a little embarrassed, asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Baffled, we opened the door of course, took them to the kitchen and showed them the fridge. Some of them we had to forcibly eject from the premises, they stood staring for so long. It was nice to have friends, and we were oddly proud that our son was attracting their admiration, but the disruption was a little annoying and we were scared that one of them might tell social services that our son was mentally unstable. But then, after the friends, came the strangers. Complete strangers, not even acquaintances, coming up to our door asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Some even offered to buy it for extravagant sums of money, some people left money on the kitchen table in entrance fees, everybody said how brave we were to keep it in the house and not secure in a gallery. We were on the local news, then national, then the BBC came to our door asking if we would be happy to take part in a documentary about our artistic prodigy son. Of course not, we said, we’re not an artistic family.

Well, we knew it was getting out of hand when an elderly woman fainted – she could have knocked her head and done some serious damage. As it was, she got away with a cracked hip and breathless said, “It was all worth it!” And then of course we had all the doctors around, gawping at the painting – a child’s painting!

So we decided to get rid of it. We asked some auctioneers to come over and value the painting. It sold, quickly, for 1.2 million pounds. That just about knocked our socks off. It was immediately donated to the Tate Modern, a ‘national treasure’. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you? A little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and a little boy with his back to the painter and his hands folded behind his back.

Our son doesn’t paint any more. He’s grown out of it, I suppose. After we sold the Fiat painting, we also sold the real-life Fiat and bought a Bentley. A few weeks later he came home from school saying he’d finished with painting. He never painted anything else, just our little red Fiat. Just one of those things, isn’t it? We still make a living selling the hundreds of other paintings he did during those nine extraordinary years. We’re glad he’s normal again, though, imagine how he would have been bullied at school, doing those funny paintings.

***

Everyone always asks why I didn’t paint anything else, why I don’t paint any more at all, why it was always the Fiat. I only understood when I got to secondary school, I didn’t have a clue why I was painting at the time. Mum says I was three when I started painting the car. I just remember being so confused by it. The colours were insane. I was scared of what I’d seen. I knew it wasn’t right and I sensed at the time that I couldn’t ask mum and dad about it. And then, when my sister was born, I was even more afraid. It scared me, that scene, the red Fiat with the doors thrown open, like it was abandoned, dad jerking away on top of mum.

Hitchhiking: London to Winchester and Back

19 – 20 September 2010
Distance: 190 miles (including detours)
My first solo hitch in the UK.

Lesson: The Right Question

I picked up my first ride from the side of the road. A man drove past me, stuck in traffic, went to the end of the road, turned around at the roundabout and came back, pulled up and waved at me from the other side of the road. I assumed he must always pick up hitchers, but, no, he’d never done it before. I would have just driven past. My second lift was from Fleet Services. I asked my usual demographic, an older, single male: able to look after himself, unlikely to want to rape me and likely to drive safely. He accepted me, but then revealed he had a wife and a five year-old daughter in the car as well. It was a joy. I just played around in the back with the daughter, watching a DVD with her, admiring her spelling homework, laughing. They dropped me in Winchester. It couldn’t have been a simpler journey. It took me an hour and a half from London to Winchester, 70 miles. There was no need to ask any questions: I stuck my thumb out, I asked people nicely and they all said yes.

But then there was the journey home. I was dropped off at Chieveley Services by my friend. No problem, it was just off the M4, perfect for heading East to London. Or not. I asked and asked and asked for two hours or more. No one was heading East from Chieveley Services. I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I was asking the wrong question. No one stops at Chieveley and then goes East, it is actually just off the A34, which goes North-South and is on the South-side of the M4, convenient for people heading West, not East. After three hours, I changed my approach. I would head West, go with the flow and then try to hitch back from the next Service Station along. The first man I asked took me. The service station was full of people only too glad to help me, but I was asking them the wrong question. I asked the right question and was back in London within three hours.

Ask the right question. Always think of the people you are asking, where are they going?

Ephraim

Ephraim is holding a big orange balloon in front of his face. He knows that very soon it will all be over and the girls who are dancing around the dining room floor will stop. He knows this because he can hear the mothers’ talk getting louder and their footsteps approaching the door.

The girls are swinging each other by the arms on the wooden floor, their bare feet skipping past Ephraim as he tries to hide. At least they’ve stopped calling him to them. They’re of a certain age, these girls, too old to think anything of him, too young to think anything of him. But they don’t realise that Ephraim is old enough, just about.

So he holds the big orange balloon in front of his face and he prays for the mothers to end this embarrassment. How can he bear it?

***

‘I’m sorry, Ephraim the Younger, I can tell you that it only gets worse,’ says Ephraim the Elder, as he sits on a leather-effect bench in a discotheque. Those same girls – and others – are jerking their bodies on the dancefloor in front of him to beats that Ephraim’s head can’t stand. He lifts his bottle of beer in front of his face and drinks in the view. ‘It only gets worse, buddy.’

***

‘You have no idea, you young ones. Much is left to be decided.’ Ephraim the Eldest was a disembodied vase on a shelf in a motel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His china gaze fell on the bed, where two bodies were writhing on top of the stitched bed cover. The sun came in through the window. ‘Have patience.’

***

Ephraim the Youngest swam on ahead, into the waiting world. Leaving his brothers behind. Bold, love has its own way, new life.

Hitchhiking: London to Scotland and Back

25 – 29 August 2010
Distance: 1125 miles (approximately)
My first hitching journey in the UK.

Lesson: Optimism

This was a spectacular introduction to what is possible with hitchhiking. It took us a day to get up from London to Edinburgh, only an hour longer than the National Express bus and a whole lot cheaper. We had no idea where we were going to end up when we started – we even discussed what we would do if we failed to get out of London (try again tomorrow) – but the elation of that first lift, and then the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, pushing ever further North, was indescribable. Meeting the friendly and helpful people of this island was joyous and an education in itself. Walking from the Tube station back to my house, I felt the barriers to limitless travel falling away. Impossible situations ‘worked out’. Stuck in the outskirts of Edinburgh for a couple of hours, tired, failing, something turns up and three hours later we were in Lancaster. Optimism.

London Bridge, Riverside

There’s a fountain, maybe six jets rising from a cobbled paving. A tourist family stops to let the son take a photograph with his new manual camera. The young man, a youth, turns the lens seriously, focusing. He steadies the camera carefully, framing. The other members, five or six of them, gather around behind their serious son, waiting for the artist to finish his work. Suddenly the father, paunch, mid-aged, runs, head down for the fountain. He jumps through the six jets of water, all youth regained. Damp laughter.

Canada Water: A vista

It looks computer generated. Straight lines, an exercise in perspective perhaps. A long flat roof opposite – of a sports retailer. The roof is supported by two storey poles and the shop abuts the water’s edge. Stacked behind this in our perspective game, at an angle receding into the distance is another, taller flat roof. Even the cladding of the building looks computer-pixilated. The Home of Quality Newspapers. A number of other structures poke above this warehouse. One in green, tall towers with sloping roofs.

I notice, now, why the vista looks so odd: none of these buildings have windows, just bare flat greys and greens. It is like the first stages of a computer simulation, before details have been added for realism.

Behind all these foreground buildings, far away, I know, on the other side of the river, is the tower of Canary Wharf. Its light for aircraft flickers on / off sharply. A pyramid in the centre of London. 9.55 am.

Surrey Quays Exterior

Someone’s painted a box on the ground beneath a cash machine. For demarcation against intrusion. For the protection of the PIN. For the exclusion of undesirables. The slot for the card has a green light flashing on/off, begging for custom. A man and a woman approach. I can hear the click of the slot opening. The woman is pressing the buttons, the man stands in the box as well. They leave. The light starts flashing again. The screen too is busy. It advertises Halifax financial services and exhorts users to protect against fraud or theft. In the corner of the box, dropped by a left hand as the right worked the machine is the torn, curled peel of a satsuma. 9.43 am.

Waterloo Station

It’s hard to count them, hard to measure them, hard to evaluate them. All of them on their way, all of them the centre of the Universe. It’s easy to hate them. It’s not so easy to love them, but I’m going to try.

People with instruments over their shoulders – I’ve seen several. Violins, guitars common. People with their faces fixed in an outsider grimace. People with their headphones in their ears. People with bags over their shoulders, people walking with a slow strut, figuring things out.

People flicking nervously with Railcards.

Fat people with their bellies overflapping their tight jeans and their breasts lumping hopelessly over their tight bellies. People who would look more comfortable naked, stripped clean of the grime of their city clothes. People sneezing and wiping their hands on their combat trousers while they talk on their mobile phones. Fat men reaching into their suit pockets for their tickets and then struggling with the machines. A lady pulling her wallet out of her pocket and at the same time a receipt pulling clear and dropping to the ground. She dials a number on her touchscreen mobile phone.

A running man with a guitar. It could be a bass. A man walking slowly, talking on the phone, with bags poking out of his bags. A woman on crutches, bent over, in a pink cardigan, slowly making for the ticket gates. A pause to get her ticket and then through as quickly as she can before they close on her hobbled legs.

Two young girls in electric blue dress and long leather coat strut past, both earphones in and faces on. A man in a button-down shirt, pink with checks, and sunglasses on his coiffured head walks past with his telephone in his hand, looking very sure, but at the same time trying to organise his head around the station concourse. His shoes are tan brown and he walks with a clip. A man walks past in fresh jeans and a polo shirt, a jumper neatly folded on his shoulder.

A family of pink child and empty pushchair.

A fat woman dragging a red bag along the floor. Two old fat women, struggling to walk but with their feet in sports shoes. A young girl, fat, with a bright yellow Selfridge’s bag. A man delicately holding a blue coffee cup – to take away, to throw away – picking his way through this unsuited mass to his train.

Woman running, another trying to, her breasts bouncing with the effort in high heels. Another trying to walk the floor into submission, determined. A woman runs past. And again. One end to the other. A lady with curly red hair pulls her suitcase past, smooth. Two young girls flop their sandals into the floor, their bellies thrust out, forcing their path with their sexual organs. Teenagers.

An old woman reaches into her bag, a pink and white check shirt thrown over her body, sizeable but in a friendly old woman kind of way. She walks with a limp and asks the platform attendant of the correct train. A man with an umbrella furled follows her and asks the same question. A man with a pencil moustache and a matching blue bag and two-tone blue jacket strolls past with his family.

A woman in violent green shirt.

All of these people breathing and thinking and calculating. Sweating, their skin and their flesh folding around their clothes. Nothing could be further from the truth, could it? Exhausted people, with hairspray and glasses, with their chins shaved that morning, their shirts ironed at some point recently. Their shoes polished – or not.

Their hair managed. A turn, a wave, a turn. Make up. A scratch, a bite of a fingernail. Belt tightly wrapped around corpulence. Phone pressed to ear. Wrist wrapped with watch. Shoes tied, jeans pulled up and fastened. Wallet with ticket, bank card, else. Shopping bag with items. Tears. A scarf. Hair tied back, pushed forward. A newspaper. Eyebrows managed – or not.

Healthy afternoon snack. Unhealthy life. Earphones. Mouths moving, feet walking. Breast and bellies. Attraction – or not.

Walk with a bounce, with a stutter. Feet damaged, groaning under a weight. Tears. A suitcase with a telephone number on.

A girl with tears in her eyes – or is that just the way she looks? I don’t know, but here she is again, walking slowly around the concession kiosk at my back. Tears. Can I count those tears? Can I measure those tears? Can I evaluate those tears?

I wait.

HMS Belfast

Sitting facing the north bank, facing the city. Hays Galleria is behind and to my left. But in front of me, with her guns aiming at the men and women responsible for the financial market crash, is HMS Belfast. She is painted in two shades of grey. I wonder who designs the camouflage pattern? Does it change with each season? Of course there is building work going on even on the destroyer. Scaffolding swaddles two structures that I can’t make out. A man walks to the bow and presses a button on the bare flagpole. I can’t see what it is. CCTV? There is a red light shining at me. Two, in fact. They give the mild impression of a very small party boat. A rope of lights are strung over that bow section, above where the anchor is run. There is the sound of a hack saw working and the lapping of water around an motorised dingy.

A man poses for a photograph in front of the HMS Belfast, next to my bicycle. The man swaps places with his friend and the taker gets taken. He wears a circular patterned pink shirt. They speak foreign, words tumbling out of their mouths. Hindi, I think. Their camera is, of course, a telephone.

The city opposite, from where the rumble of cars drifts, is a hotchpotch of buildings, vying with each other in architectural folly. The Gherkin looms over a mock gothic / modernist building. A church pokes its spire up amongst them. Spread out on the riverbank is a regency mansion, but obscured by trees, the Belfast and daunted by the stature of the buildings behind it. Two British flags peer over the Belfast. A jogger, female, pants past behind me. Red buses cross London Bridge. I can see the heads of commuters in a steady stream crossing, mostly south to north. From London Bridge train station to offices on the north bank. The gulls have no such respect and fly west to east, towards the strengthening sun. 7.00 am.

Bankside

Facing the cathedral, from the opposite bank, with the Tate Modern at my back. I can hear a constant hissing of water sprinklers for the small area of grass behind me. The wind in the birch trees shakes early falling leaves to the concrete, where they tumble about, scratching. Now the patpat of a jogger. Occasionally the squeak of a small bird. Underneath it all, the steady muffled traffic from the opposite bank, like the roar of waves onto the shoreline, wipes sound away, white noise over an orchestra. Another jogger, a boat engine, a gull, a jogger, a man walking to work with sunglasses on and earphones in. A leaf. 6.37 am.

The Millennium Bridge

The river divides London. The sun shines in my face. Ripples of the river look confused, striving one direction, pushed another. Birds, gulls, dip into the water, crawing. The bridge is quiet. Two men fall off the horizon towards the Tate Modern. Straight ahead is Tower Bridge, a landmark. Its perfect H is broken by some construction work in the background, there’s always some construction work. The wind is blowing her way, cold, pushing my jumper into my back, bringing up goose pimples.

Just to my left are the steps of St Paul’s. To my right is Shakespeare’s Globe and Bankside. The Tate Modern, a converted power station, looking like nothing more than a converted power station. Or possibly a piece of monumental Mesopotamian architecture, the blocks of structure riven by grooves that tear glass windows through the building. A jogger walks past me. A cyclist cycles the other way. It is forbidden to cycle on this bridge and the plates of the metal floor ripple like the water below as his weight rolls past. In the distance there is the syncopated rhythm of an alarm. It comes and goes with the wind, sometimes clear, othertimes indistinguishable from the background noise. Two police sirens, one from the city, one from Parliament converge. A boat powers through the water below the bridge. A private vessal, manned by white haired old men, pointing the way ahead.

I turn and face upstream, the wind in my face now. Five cranes on trucks are evenly poised on the next bridge west. Another three, static, crouch on the banks north and south. Building work. A structure is covered with scaffolding, a train station, I believe. Floating on the surface of the river to my right is a rubbish collector. A flotilla of gulls take in the sun near the bank to my left. A man in a suit carrying a green plastic bag walks towards the city, his hair, fine and grey, caught in the cross wind. 6.29 am.

Paternoster Square

A short walk from the steps of St Paul’s is Paternoster Square. The once tall monument stands, topped with golden thistle. Once tall, now surrounded by the same brushed limestone buildings that abut the cathedral, if in a more modernist style. At the foot of the monument are two table tennis tables, some summer event for the people. The square is faced by a chain supermarket, not yet open, two chain coffee shops and several restaurants. There is the sound of a barista pulling chairs and tables out onto the flagstones, a sound more suited to France or Italy, but transplanted here to London for the last of summer. I imagine they shall be pulling those chairs out, in hope more than expectation, well into winter. A place of refuge for smokers to huddle with their espressos and their cigarettes. A few people cross the square, heading for work in suits with no tie. Tie in pocket. A couple sit, as I do, on the stone benches that surround that extraordinary monument. A man near me drives sheep across the square, in bronze or cast iron. 6.09 am.

From the steps of St. Paul’s

For the naval of the Anglicans, St Paul’s cathedral is a soulless place. There’s a cramped plaza in front, a road curving around it. It’s a simple road, one lane in either direction, lined with chain restaurants. In the pedestrian plaza, covered in swept stone, there is a chain supermarket, a chain bank and a chain coffee shop. The buildings are brushed limestone, uniform, grandiose. The statue in front of the cathedral, a king perhaps with divine advisers at his feet – is that Britannia? – is dwarfed by the buildings now, camouflaged stone. Pigeons scatter about the steps beneath me, working in uniform lines, like scenes of crime officers, scouring the steps for food or cigarettes. They make their way, walking steadily along the step and then up one, hopping. They don’t fly, careful, their heads bent to the ground. Occasionally they’ll peck at some unseen morsel. The clock strikes six am.

Black Magic

My ears are bleeding. They’ve been bleeding for about three days now. I’m not going to go to the doctor. There’s no point. I’ve diagnosed myself: it’s my girlfriend. We had an argument three days ago and I haven’t apologised. I know it’s her because they started bleeding as soon as I said, ‘You can take the damned rubbish out!’ I’m pretty confident it’s voodoo or a curse or something. I’d never noticed her interest in black magic before, but it just goes to show: you never really know people do you?

Cholera

I am leaving, you shall be glad to hear, on the 9 a. m. train. You shan’t see me again, I can assure you. But there are one or two “home truths” I feel compelled to deliver before I depart. One: I have never appreciated your dress. You should know that opulence will never conceal a poverty of spirit. It reminds me, in fact, of eighteenth century whoredom.

Number two, a related point: I should hate to acquaint myself too closely with your kind for fear of contracting some terrible “social disease”. I cannot believe that our ancestors shared common genetic material, but it is not unknown for a stubborn virus to cross from a degenerate species to a more successful genotype, like a rat fleeing a sinking ship.

Thirdly, I love you; I shall bring you dysentery from the Amazon and cholera from the Indus.

24th of June: Birkbeck University

Birkbeck University is holding an evening of poetry, readings and performances.

24th June 7-9pm
Main Birkbeck building
Russel square
Free entry (incredible, but true)

Cat Westwood will present a dance performance in collaboration with David Charles (that’s me).

An improvised performance melding Butoh (a Japanese improvised dance movement) and European dance styles with readings from Charles’ haiku creating a quirky, eclectic and intriguing visual experience.

Productivity and the Art of Sacrifice

Introduction to deliberate sacrifice

The word ‘sacrifice’ has very negative connotations. It is my aim in this essay (2000 words) to break those negative connotations and turn the word into a powerful tool to get you motivated and achieving the things you want in your life.

Everybody in their life makes sacrifices. Every time you choose one thing over another, you are making a sacrifice. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, certainly not in terms of sacrifice. My decision to have a beer is very rarely taken in the light that the next morning I will sacrifice some mental acuity.

But if you start making deliberate sacrifices then you will create a coherent life, where everything you do is targeted towards your goals. Drinking heavily is not coherent with my chosen goal of writing – so I will sacrifice drinking.

The basic idea is that most people need to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Most people have to earn a living to look after themselves, their families, their homes. This means that if they want to achieve something over and above these basic demands on their time and resources, then they must make sacrifices, deliberate decisions to forego things that damage their chances of success. But this need not be negative. I argue that deliberate sacrifice is a great thing, giving you purpose, motivation, drive and achievement.

5 Reasons why deliberate sacrifice works

1. Deliberate sacrifice commits you to your goal

If I decide to wake up every day at dawn, then every morning I’m going to think: ‘What the **** am I doing up this early? I could be in bed!’ But if the decision was a deliberate sacrifice, then I will have a convincing answer to this question. I am up at this absurd hour because I want to write. I want to be a published writer. I want to entertain readers. Without this sacrifice I realise that I won’t make it. So I had better make good use of the time, or it will be a wasted sacrifice and I really might as well have spent the time in bed. The more you sacrifice, the more you had better succeed.

2. The act of sacrifice gives you a strong motivation for your goal

From the commitment, comes motivation, almost without asking for it. Doing something a lot forces you to ascribe value to it. This increases your motivation for doing this valued task.

3. The act of deliberate sacrifice gives you purpose and drive

Because you have chosen the sacrifice to direct yourself towards your goal, your life becomes a conduit for that goal. It makes you appear driven and feel driven, which becomes a virtuous circle. The more you do it, the better you feel about it and the better you become.

4. Deliberate sacrifice makes your life choices easier

You now have a convincing answer – convincing both to yourself and to others – to queries and temptations. What are you doing to achieve your goal? Do you want to come out and get smashed tonight?

5. Sacrifice is noble and will give you respect and self-respect

Saints make sacrifices. People will respect you for making the sacrifice. It shows that you are serious about achieving your goal. Of course, a lot of writers have found success from writing 10 minutes a day for 25 years, but making large sacrifices to find 2 hours a day will vastly increase your chances of success. Sacrifice is a noble pursuit, it gives structure to your life where before there was just a hotchpotch of unstructured haphazard ideas. I had the goal of becoming a writer for about ten years, but until I started making big sacrifices, it never felt like a realistic prospect. It was always just a loose collection of dreamy ideas: some day I would make it. I would write one day and not again for a week. I would jot down a bunch of story ideas. I would read a couple of books about writing. But after making significant, deliberate, sacrifices, people can see that I take myself seriously. I have their respect (until they read my book – ha!) and I have my own self-respect.

Sacrifice and Priorities

Sacrifice is not the same as prioritising.

Sacrifice is the action that backs up your priorities. A priority (or a goal) is meaningless if it doesn’t require a sacrifice to achieve it. It would have no value. It would be farcical to ‘prioritise’ eating lunch. It does mean something to prioritise writing a novel. This is a huge commitment and demands huge sacrifices.

Prioritising is the decision to do something, sacrifice is the doing.

For example, I have prioritised writing. But what does that mean? The only thing that means is that I need to find time to write. It is the sacrifice that tells me what I should do. It tells me that I should get up early, which means that I must sacrifice my evenings, which means that I must sacrifice a large part of my social life and that I should sacrifice drinking alcohol. OK, now we have some actions.

Because the sacrifice is deliberate (directed towards my goal) I now know why I am getting up early, why I am not going out late, why I am not drinking.

How to sacrifice deliberately

Know your goal

Make it one goal. There is enough going on in your life already. Focussing on one goal at a time will greatly increase your chances of success. If you have many goals (like me), just start with one.

Work out what it is you need to achieve the goal

Usually just time. Sometimes space, sometimes resources.

Work out the sacrifices

Work out if you think the goal is worth each sacrifice. Usually, any sacrifice is worth it if you want your goal enough. If you don’t want the goal enough to make the sacrifice, then you probably want to find another goal – or you are happy with your life as it is!

Work out the secondary sacrifices

These are sacrifices that flow from your initial sacrifices. My initial sacrifice was simply to get up early. But that means no evenings, no social life, no drinking. Make sure you are OK with these secondary sacrifices, otherwise your primary sacrifice will collapse and your goal will fail.

Choose the sacrifices

Now choose to make the sacrifices. Think about your justifications for the sacrifice, be ready for your own doubts and the doubts of others. Get that glint in your eye, the determination for your sacrifice and for your goal.

A Sacrifice Audit

There are four varieties of sacrifice. Examine the sacrifices you are making in your own life and decide what type they are and (ideally) make sure that they are voluntary and worthwhile.

1. Voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you have decided to make

You know why you are making them and you are happy with them. It is important that these sacrifices are also worthwhile. If they are not actually helping you towards your goal, then you are just playing a martyr for no good reason – relax and stop making things harder for yourself. Also keep reviewing your sacrifices. I might find in a few months that I become more disciplined and that I am able to write 2 hours a day without making the evening sacrifice. Who knows.

2. Sacrifice by extension: Sacrifices that flow from other sacrifices

These are the secondary sacrifices that flow from your primary, voluntary sacrifices. Make sure you are aware of these AND are happy with them. If you are not, then your primary sacrifices won’t last either. For example, for the sake of my writing, I have sacrificed my late evenings for early mornings. That is fine. But it also means that I am sacrificing a large part of my social life. I really need to be in bed by 10.00 or 10.30 at the latest. Any later than that and I suffer the next day. You can see the conflict with this sacrifice and my social life. Especially living a good 30 minute cycle from most of my friends.

3. Non-voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices that you have not consciously decided to make, but that you are making anyway

Make sure you realise what these are and that you are happy with them. If you are happy, then they are after-the-fact voluntary sacrifices. If you are not then they are after-the-fact involuntary sacrifices. Turn these non-voluntary sacrifices into deliberate sacrifices. If you can pin these phantom sacrifices down, then you will become much more self-aware and even more focussed. For example, because I’m not going out in the evenings a lot, I’m not socialising a lot and because I’m using my time for writing, I’m not putting time and effort into my romantic life. So I am single. I have only recently become aware of this sacrifice, yet it is a sacrifice that I am inadvertently making anyway. Am I happy with it? It is impossible to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. But I know one thing: it gives me more time for writing!

4. Involuntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you are making that you really don’t want to have to make

You have deliberately decided not to sacrifice this, but you are anyway, against your will. The more of these that you have in your life, the unhappier you will be. Don’t expect to eliminate all of them, but try to come to terms with them. You may find that some of them are sacrifices by extension without which you will blow your goals. I regret having to spend less time with friends, but have come to terms with it, transforming it (sometimes) into a voluntary sacrifice. If these sacrifices become overwhelming, take a sacrifice holiday. Break your involuntary sacrifices for a day and come back tomorrow, refreshed and more focussed. I have toyed with the idea of taking Sundays off, but I haven’t yet because I have been enjoying the focus and determination that comes with the sacrifices. Just make sure that you are sacrificing the right day – for example, if you want to take Sunday off, make sure you drink on Saturday night – not Sunday!

A road map of sacrifice (thanks to Dan)

  • Our time on earth is scarce.
  • We can’t do everything.
  • We must make a choice.
  • To enable this choice we must make a trade-off with other potential choices: a sacrifice.
  • By consciously sacrificing the things we haven’t chosen, we give value to our choice.
  • The more it hurts to make the sacrifice, the more we value our choice and the more determined we are to achieve our goals.
  • Sacrifice gives value to our goals. It gives meaning, drive, motivation and, perhaps, happiness.

Where this idea came from

This theory of sacrifice grew out of my own experience and my readings of how other people have achieved the things that they have wanted to achieve in life. Because of my interest in writing, my examples come from writers. Murakami wrote in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ of the sacrifices that he made in his life when he decided to work on his writing full-time. He wrote of the decimation of his social life. He wasn’t upset by this sacrifice, but it really brought it home to me: for this to work, you must make sacrifices. Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hours theory of success. Whilst I realise this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I am nowhere near that figure. This isn’t going to work without hard, hard work: so where am I going to fit those 10,000 hours in? Sacrifices must be made.

You don’t have to look far for writers who made sacrifices – and they are generally not the clichéd ‘starving artists’: Jack Kerouac lived with his mum, Vladimir Nabokov lived in hotels most of his writing life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a house in the woods and lived there for more than two years. By simplifying theirs lives and making those sacrifices, they carved out the time and resources they needed for their writing. Sometimes the sacrifice isn’t voluntary and this inadvertently becomes the making of the writer. Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in gaol, Anne Frank’s horrific sacrifice was the writing world’s gain, likewise Primo Levi. Erwin James was just a brutal murderer until he was imprisoned and became a famous diarist.

I am lucky enough to be in a situation where my sacrifices can be deliberate choices and that I have the opportunity that sacrifice brings to make my life the life I wished for.

17th of April: The Windmill, Brixton

I shall be giving a 5 minute lecture on:

‘A Fantastical History of Thee Bicycle’

At the Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences album launch, ‘Apologies to the Enlightenment’. Look ee here for more interestingness on that fine band: http://www.silenceisawkward.com/

This shall take place at The Windmill, Brixton, London on Saturday, April 17th from 6pm. See here for knowledge about the venue: http://www.windmillbrixton.co.uk/

The show, besides me and Thee Awkward Silences, also features more lecturers (A Radical History of Britain among others), more bands (David Cronenberg’s Wife, Tim Ten Yen, Extradition Order, Steven Evens, Superman Revenge Squad), DJs and a barbecue.

Unmissable.

The facts on the ground (A love story)

I loved her from the minute I first saw her. You didn’t think that could happen, but it does. She didn’t show much interest in me. She didn’t even seem to see me, to be honest with you. And she was talking on the phone to her boyfriend. So there was no point trying to talk to her, was there?

A year later we got talking, me and her. I found out that she didn’t have a boyfriend any more. To my surprise we really got on. For a month or so we spent every minute we could together. But I was scared, not like I was with you. I couldn’t deal with it. A couple of times I stayed over at her house, but nothing happened. A couple of times she stayed over at my place, but nothing happened.

Then she got another boyfriend. And I met you.

That’s the facts on the ground.

22 Tips for 100 Push Ups

I am now on week 10 of the 6 week program ‘One Hundred Push Ups’. I finally feel like I can say I have accomplished pretty much what I set out to achieve: I have done 100 consecutive push ups (or press ups, as I call them – like I’m a button or something) on no less than three occasions.

So here are my hot-tips for anyone else wanting to take the pain.

22 Tips for 100 push ups

  1. Press ups are hard bloody work. By the end of a good session, you will be sweating buckets. The floor below you will be damp. Which is nice. Maybe have a towel close to hand, certainly in the latter weeks.
  2. Give yourself a good reason for doing this stupid regime. Mine was to be able to show off in the pub.
  3. Get yourself an ups buddy. Otherwise the first few weeks will seem pretty stupid and pointless: ‘I did 10 press ups!’ isn’t going to impress anyone else.
  4. Press ups make your legs wobbly. You also might not be able to move your arms much.
  5. After a hard session, do not expect your arms to respond when you want to get up. You will have to roll onto your back, bring your knees up and then roll onto your side so you have some leverage. This is normal.
  6. Don’t try carrying anything immediately after a heavy session. You will drop it.
  7. For this reason, don’t drink from a glass. But do drink (water).
  8. Eat an egg soon after for muscle-loving protein.
  9. Try not to strain your neck – it hurts. Looking forwards, as opposed to downwards seems to help. However, it is a fact (I reckon anyway) that contorting your face into stupid grimaces and making ridiculous noises DOES make that last set of 10 easier.
  10. Eventually you will stop making grunting noises that make people think you’re watching porn.
  11. Feel good about it. Feel really good about it. Make a spreadsheet or something, tick things off.
  12. Make sure you have access to the regime at all times. You don’t want to miss a day just because you don’t know how many you should be doing. No excuses.
  13. Don’t fuss over what time of day to do them: it’s going to hurt like fuck anyway. It’s supposed to.
  14. You can do it through (non-ups related) aches and pains. 6 hours of cricket and trampball on the Sunday and I went for a hard session on the Monday. Just get on with it. No excuses.
  15. You can do it through illness (although probably not serious illness – seek medical advice, blah blah blah.) I did it with a nasty chill. Yeah, sure I was sweating like a fat man in a sauna, but it was worth it for the achievement.
  16. But don’t beat yourself up about it. It is better to enjoy it and finish it than to make yourself miserable and fail. If you fail at one level, just repeat it the next week.
  17. Or change the regime. I failed twice on Week 6 Level 2 and couldn’t face doing it a third time so I just switched to Week 6 Level 3 – much harder. To get through it I increased the length of time between reps and just about got there. The next week I did my first hundred. Mess around with the regime to suit you, but make sure you stick by the goals you set.
  18. The ‘6 weeks’ claim is just a target. It took me until Day 1 of Week 9 to get to 100 consecutive press ups. Just keep going.
  19. Don’t stop when you get to a hundred. Just keep going.
  20. Invest in new shirts for your new arms.
  21. Just do it.
  22. When you’ve done your hundred, start on the ‘Two Hundred Sit-Ups’ regime 🙂

Murakami on Writing and Running

A review of: What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a writer (and runner). That, according to the final pages of this book, is how he would like to be remembered on his tombstone. And, according to the vague thesis of this book, writing and long-distance running are not dissimilar. In fact, Murakami says that everything he knows about writing, he learnt from running.

So what was that?

Continue reading Murakami on Writing and Running

How to make a free and easy documentary video

  1. Get a YouTube account: http://www.youtube.com. Apparently other video sites exist, but I’m going with the market leader – why not? Assuming this isn’t going to be a magnum opus (YouTube is limited to 10 minutes) – just get it up and get it out there.
  2. Download a free lump of software, like this one: http://www.aquasoft.de/SlideShowYouTube_en.as?ActiveID=2124
    This is not a perfect piece of kit. Every now and again it will do funny things and time-slip your video. Live with it: it’s free and easy.
  3. Choose a topic for your documentary.
  4. Do a ton of research on your topic.
  5. Write a script.
  6. Search Wikimedia Commons for pictures relating to your topic and download them.
  7. Throw them into the SlideShow software. In some logical order please.
  8. Record your script with a microphone and Audacity (another free lump of software: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/)
  9. Edit and mess around with your sound file until it sounds good. Don’t worry about perfect, we’re happy with good.
  10. Export it as an MP3 file (you’ll need to download the MP3 Codecs for Audacity to do this bit.)
  11. Throw it into the SlideShow software.
  12. Make sure the pictures line up with your vocals nicely and that there are no ridiculous transitions (like the photo of your grandma doing a somersault whilst you talk about her hip replacement.)
  13. Upload the bugger to your YouTube account.
  14. Check SlideShow hasn’t done something very odd. If it has, mess around until you fluke upon the right timing.
  15. Publicise your baby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw94Qtb7e-M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A2jQtzUbJo

How to Write: The Tools

To be able to write, you need the write tools.

As you appear to be reading this website, I will assume that you already have a computer. If not, then skip the next two items: they are for people with computers. I should say now that computers are not essential for most of the phases of writing, but they sure as hell save a lot of time later on (unless you have a secretary.)

1. Download this program: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

yWriter is an incredible (free) tool for creating whole novels out of thin air. You create Chapters and then Scenes in Chapters and then fill them up with words. You can also use all kinds of complicated extra things like Characters, Locations and Items – but I don’t bother. I just focus on the actual writing bit. You can even set a writing targets and the program will chilly-chally you until you’ve finished.

2. Use this website: http://750words.com/
Very very (stupid) simple website that practically forces you to write 750 words a day. You can use this to make sure you write a bit on your novel every day (you get points for hitting 750 words on a day, which then doubles up to make bowling-esque streaks) – or you can just use it like I do for a morning brain dump. Morning brain dumps will make you happier and healthier (apparently), encourage you to get writing and hopefully get all your rubbish words out in one fell swoop, leaving your gold-encrusted mots for the main event.

3. Buy books with blank pages.
This is not a facetious comment. You wouldn’t write in a book that had words in it, so why write in a book that has parallel lines all over the page? How on earth do you hope to write creatively cramped between ruled lines? It just makes no sense to me. Moleskine do nice ones with blank pages. They’re not too big either so will get filled up fast, leaving you with a great sense of achievement. Once you have notebooks, carry them around with you. Note how I use the plural for notebooks. Different notebooks for different occasions. I have little Moleskine ones for portability and big open-up-flat ones for my desk and – important – for my bedside. Always have a notebook by your bed. This is where your best ideas will come. There and on a long walk somewhere. Make sure you have notebooks in these two places.

4. Buy pens.
A lot of pens. Have pens everywhere, in every coat pocket, on your desk,  in your hat band – you do have a hat, don’t you? Pens are more important than paper. Paper you can improvise, pens you can’t (without getting blood everywhere.)

So those are your tools. Not too hard, not too expensive. To be honest, the tools aren’t the thing, the thing’s the writing.

I’m looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look anymore

I’m looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. It is brown-red and made from cement. Discoloured in places, chewing gum pressed into its surface. At least, I think it’s chewing gum. I control an urge to fall down upon the floor, to feel its smooth stone, to feel its dust, to press my face into its cold comfort. But I won’t because I know that, if I do, they might shoot me. This floor has felt the shuffle of endless feet over the last four years, felt those feet force themselves over its warning floors to the security machines and search areas ahead. Lines of people, patiently everyday, submitting to the architecture of the checkpoint, squeezed through cattle cages, cramped between bars, sent across this floor for the impertinent approval of occupiers.

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look at the walls, covered with the language of occupation:
‘Insert your documents into the window and await further instructions.’
‘Deposit your bags in the conveyor belt, stand back and await further instructions.’
‘Keep the terminal clean.’
I cannot read these signs any more, especially not the one over there that reads, ‘Emergency Exit.’ There are some I can’t read anyway, written in those block capitals, another angry order.

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look into the faces of the people waiting beside me. In front there’s a mother, a baby lolling over her shoulder, its eyes fixed by my foreign face. The little boy there, no more than eight, carrying a box of chewing gum for sale, hopeful my foreign pockets will hold change. The pretty young girl behind me, dressed in blue, heading for school. The teenager leaning on the bars, his first moustache faintly showing, an echo perhaps of his father – where is his father?

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look at the soldiers who hide behind bullet-proof glass, whose orders distort the intercom, who target these unwanted citizens. I cannot look at this soldier, just a youth, as he interrogates the young woman in front – Where is your brother? Where is your father? I cannot look at that other soldier, her feet up on a soft chair, insolently idle on her mobile, talking in a tough voice about something.

I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look outside, beyond the cages, to the cars crawling past soldiers who carry weapons like magic wands, turning princes into frogs. I cannot watch as families are kicked out and the search begins for they-don’t-know-what. I cannot face the watchtower, standing sinister with battlefield views over the wall, the concrete strips of the wall, each one connected like Lego to the last, the least imaginative construction, the efficient architecture of control.

No, I can’t look anywhere else any more so I am looking at the floor. This brown-red cement floor, the foundation of this prefabricated building, this prefabricated checkpoint, this prefabricated state.

Apricots

I’m eating her apricots.

They’re all I have left.

They’re fleshy and sweet and soft from time. The innards make my fingers and my mouth sticky. Every ravenous bite reminds me of her sweetness. But she’s long gone.

‘You’ll want these,’ she’d said, as she threw me the bag of apricots. That was almost a week ago and now, reluctantly, I agree that she was right. I didn’t want to eat the apricots, the last of our love, but I’m going to have to. I’ll intend to save one or two in her honour, but I know that I’m going to eat the whole bag and then all I’ll have is gut trouble. It’s one of those times in life when a metaphor imposes itself so strikingly that you can’t do anything about it. You know that you’ll fulfil the misery of the metaphor and your life will disappear down the wrong course.

I’m down to the last one already. I’ve eaten so quickly that my fingers are sticking together and my mouth is dripping with juices. The bag hangs like a sling shot, heavy with the last fruit. After this there will be nothing left of our love except an empty bag and my gut trouble. I take the apricot out of the bag and admire it. It seems to be the most delightful apricot that ever grew. It’s perfectly globoid, perfectly coloured, perfectly scented – a temptation of biblical proportions. It is without blemish bar a single mole near the stalk – like she has above her mouth when I kiss it.

She could have simply left me quite alone with nothing more than a goodbye if she had wanted to teach me a lesson, but she wanted me to suffer. She understood the metaphor. She knew that I would be forced to devour the apricots one by one as my hunger overtook my love. Yes, she knew about the metaphor already. She wanted me to see the bag and the apricots, to feel the pangs of hunger as they grew and grew, to smell the delicate apricots as they teased my taste buds. So she had thrown the bag down in the hole with me, after she pulled up the ladder.

‘I’ll be back in a month,’ she said, ‘If you really love me then you won’t be tempted, but if you don’t, then you’ll want these.’

Then she threw the apricots down.

Butterfly Home

There’s a hill overlooking Jerusalem that you can get to in a couple of hours. The view from the top is splendid and so peaceful. So a friend and I headed out there one morning, to get away from the city dust. We took bus number 185 to the end of the line, which set us down at the bottom of the hill in a small village. We reached the summit just as the heat was becoming stronger and rested under the shade of a few olive trees. Neither of us said a word, but just admired the view of the white city, the hills and the valleys spread out before us in the sparkling sunlight. Then, as we caught our breath from the walk and the beauty, we were surprised to see an old man approaching us carrying an urn and some glasses.

‘Good morning. You want tea?’ he asked.
I looked over at my friend, ‘Thanks. That would be lovely.’
Dropping a tea bag into each glass, the man poured us the most fragrant tea, scented with cinnamon. As we held the hot glasses, he stood with us, looking out over the city.
‘Do you live around here?’ I asked with interest, for there was no habitation on this particular hill, just the old olive trees and the view. The old man must have walked a long way just to give two tourists a glass of tea. The old man didn’t move his gaze from the valley below.
‘No, my home is down there, do you see? Where the red roofs are.’
My companion and I looked down on the bright new villas that he indicated.
‘Oh that’s beautiful!’ I exclaimed.
‘Not for me,’ the old man answered, ‘That is my home, but I haven’t lived there for sixty years. Those houses are new, other people live there now.’
‘Settlers?’
The old man didn’t say anything.

We continued looking down in silence, but the view had changed and the air suddenly became a little stifling. After a moment or two more, the old man shuffled behind us with his urn and sat down. I took a sip of tea. It tasted good, sugar and cinnamon. I took the tea bag out of the glass and hurled it in the direction of the settlement. It flew towards the sun, glinting with its moisture, before starting to dip down towards the earth. But as it did so, something happened. Its spinning arc evened out and it began to return, to home in on us. Startled, I ducked as the tea bag flew back at me and my companion. Then it landed gently in front of us, on a rock. It was the origami of a beautiful butterfly, with iridescent wings and drops of tea for eyes. It sat on the rock before us, a miracle.

We turned around to look for the old man, but he had disappeared.

The Bus Ride

In the bus station everyone is waiting. Buses are coming and going and we could jump on any one of them. But we don’t. We always wait for the bus that we have bought a ticket for, the one that we intended to catch when we arrived at the bus station. It seems perverse that, in a world where pretty much everything else gets fucked up, we are so militant about catching the buses we bought tickets for. I reckon we should be forced onto almost any bus except the one we intended to take. That would make more sense here.

I tried explaining that to my girlfriend, on the phone, as my bus left the bus station. She was waiting for me at the restaurant and was pleased I called. But then she got angry so I hung up, my bus heading into the night, god knows where.

Quarter Farthing, Half Peasant

Quarter farthing, half peasant,
Walks into a lonely pheasant,
Two of each and four of none,
When time and tusk is said and done.

The fallow rumble of the tweed,
Whilst my hands and feet do bleed,
The twisted wrench of father time,
Is bitten in the wind of rhyme.

Distant cross of twitchy tales,
Are floating in the foaming gales,
All is one and one is fun,
When in the nighttime death is done.

Shadows on the wall are deep,
And crowded all about are sheep,
I cannot hear the thrust of knife,
As twitchy wench departs this life.

It could be me, it could be thee,
And devils in the wake make three,
For thine is twine and mine is crime,
And now her blood soaks in the grime.

I cannot sorrow, sorrow tell,
For one and all is raised and fell,
Ditchy death departs at dawn,
And this house is to be forlorn.

The Gaza Freedom March report

In December 2009, over 1,300 international peace activists arrived in Egypt expecting to travel through Egypt to Gaza and to break the siege. The march brought together all kinds of groups: feminists, Vietnam veterans, worker’s unions, Palestinian solidarity groups, Israeli journalists, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – our diversity epitomised by Hedy Epstein, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor.

The Gaza Freedom March was organised by The International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza. This organisation was formed after Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in Winter 2008-09. The coalition conceived this march as part of a broader strategy to end the Israeli occupation by targeting nonviolently its flagrant violations of international law from the house demolitions and settlements to the curfews and torture. But, on our arrival, the Egyptian authorities prevented us from gathering together as a group and revoked our permits to travel to Gaza.

We protested the decision: some members of the march went on hunger strike, 300 people from the French delegation made an encampment outside their embassy for a week. Eventually, one of the groups who helped organised the march, CodePink, opened dialogue with Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian President. After some negotiations, it was announced that two buses would be allowed to go to Gaza. This made a mockery of the stated reason for our detention in Cairo: our security. Furthermore, the Egyptian foreign minister made an announcement to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had vetted the members of the march and these 100 were the only people who had genuine humanitarian aims for Gaza. Having been involved in the chaotic process by which the list of the 100 was created, I can state categorically that this was not the case. I was telephoned in the evening of the 29th of December and told I had 5 minutes to provide two names of people who would represent the United Kingdom. This was farcical: I had no particular mandate to speak for everyone who came from the UK – I just happened to be the person they had the telephone number of.

This process created a rift among the marchers; in many ways the Egyptian government played the game very cleverly. They gave us just enough room to make our protest, but ensured that it didn’t spread beyond the confines of our visit. Then they drove a wedge between the organisers who accepted Suzanne Mubarak’s offer and the vast majority of the marchers who were angry that not everyone would be allowed to go to Gaza.

As it happened, I ended up on the bus bound for Gaza. As we sat in the bus waiting to leave, one of the organisers of the march in Gaza called. He said that he didn’t want us to come like this; the march was supposed to be an act of solidarity and shouldn’t be divisive. Hearing this, I got off the bus, much relieved.

After another day of protests in Cairo, I decided to get the night bus to Israel to see the conflict for myself.

The Genie of January

Once upon ago, there was a young genie called Eric. Eric grew up just like all the other genies, he played with magic carpets and stayed away from lamps, he went to genie grad school and learnt to do amazing cool things. He could fly like a bird, swim like an otter and eat like an elephant. He could turn princes into princesses, princesses into peas and peas into war. He could Open Sesame, Open University – even open walnuts. He could stir up love potions, hate potions or soup oceans. He could part the waves, part the heavens or just part your hair. Eric could do all these genie things and more – but there was something wrong. No matter how many princesses were turned into peas, Eric was still dissatisfied.

Eric didn’t want to be a genie just like all the other genies – he longed to be different. One day, a day much like all the other days of his adolescence, Eric the young genie was sulking. He was sitting on a rock, among lots of other rocks on a rocky seashore, throwing peas into the soup ocean while grumbling to himself. Suddenly there was an almighty crack and a gigantic genie with a big beard struck down in front of him like a lightening bolt from the sky.

“Hey, you,” the newcomer bellowed, “You, young genie – what are you moaning about? Don’t you realise how lucky you are to be a genie? Are you not a spectacular magician? Do you not make the sheep walk on tiptoes and compel all the cats to speak Russian?”
Eric squeaked in fear at the sight of this awesome genie, but managed to stammer a reply, “Oh yes, Master, I’m a very competent wizard all right, but…’
“But what, boy?”
“But…I feel a bit ordinary,” said Eric in a small voice, designed for mice.
“Ordinary? ORDINARY? Would you call producing a rabbit from a reservoir ordinary?”
“Well, no, but…”
“But what, boy?”
“But, everyone – all the other genies can do that as well. I’m not a particularly special genie. If someone wants their cows enchanted or a magic potion made, they can go to any old genie anywhere. Maybe they’d come to me, maybe not – I don’t give them anything different. I look it up in the big old tomes of genius that we all have and there we go – just like anyone.”
“Hmm,” (when this genie “hmm-ed”, all the rocks rattled and the earth shook) “You really are a dissatisfied little genie, aren’t you?”
Then Eric grew bold, “And, honestly, I think turning princesses into peas is a little pointless – if only I had a good reason for humans to come to me, then maybe…”

At this, the gigantic genie with the big beard cracked his staff on the rocky cliff face (which promptly split in two) and cried out in a mighty voice, “Well, if you’re so miserable as a genie, boy, then I shall strip you of ALL your powers and turn you into a pathetic pauper, forced to labour on the King’s farm all year!”
Eric opened his mouth in protest –
“But,” the gigantic genie continued, “For the month of January alone, you will become a genie again. You will be responsible for one thing only: making sure humans stick to their New Year’s Resolutions. You will be the genie that makes people change their lives – you will be the Genie of January.”
Eric leapt up for joy and shouted, “Oh thank you, thank you, Master!”

As the gigantic genie vanished in a puff of perfume, Eric ran off with great excitement and set about helping people change their lives. He gave a love potion to an old friend who wished but never spoke, he taught a defenceless old woman karate overnight, he won a sergeant major the ballerina contract he’d always dreamt of and, on a kitten, he put a set of angel wings so that it could dive bomb the neighbourhood dogs.

Oh yes – you’ve never seen a busier or happier genie than the Genie of January! But every year, on February the 1st, Eric sets down his genie’s staff and turns into a common labourer, just like you or me. He works long hours in hard labour for eleven months, but, even so, there’s always a smile on his face. Eric doesn’t grumble any more because he knows that, come the New Year, he’ll be bringing hope, motivation and courage to people all over the world. Every year there are millions of people who change their lives for good and never look back. They don’t know who to thank, but the Genie of January is always smiling.

What I learnt about writing from Bob Dylan

Nah, this isn’t some kind of stupid ass fan love-in. I’m not going to go on about the deep philosophical meaning of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan’s written some real rubbish you know? ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is kinda funny, but it ain’t no deep and meaningful classic that’s for sure.

But that’s the point. He recorded a lot of pretty dreadful songs – his muse completely deserted him for long periods of his career – but he still wrote songs, he still recorded them, he still turned up for work, waiting patiently, putting in the hours until lightening struck again. And it did.

And when it did, he was still there, ready to put it down.

There are three elements to this philosophy of his (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t call it that, but hey):

  • Just turning up is heroic. The Never-Ending Tour is symbolic of this. He does 100+ shows a year and of course not all of them are mind-blowing – but he still turns up, in case it is.
  • There is no such thing as personal creative genius, just hard work. Bob has shown us that it’s OK to have creativity problems (jesus, if Bob has problems then I reckon we can), but we’ve got to make sure we keep working at it.
  • The art work is a life commitment, don’t rush in, take your time, relax and it will come. When he didn’t include ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Infidels, one of his diabolical mid 80s albums, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

    Relax. It’s just an album – I’ve done thirty of ’em.

    Sure enough, it turned up on the excellent Bootleg Sessions collection – a much grander setting for one of greatest blues songs ever written.