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.

How to win the Nobel Prize for Literature

So here it is, the answer to the question every writer asks themselves: how the blue blazes do I manipulate the Nobel committee into giving me a prize?

I copied the extracts (presumably the most representative quotes) of the Nobel prize for literature citations from the Wikipedia page. Then I copied it into the AntConc corpus program. These were the, revealing, results:

31 citations

Poetry/Poetic

22 citations

Art/Artistic
Human/Man

18 citations

Writing/s

16 citations

Life

13 citations

Work/s

11 citations

Drama/Dramatic
Literature/Literary
Novel/s

10 citations

Epic
Great
Narrative
Recognition

9 citations

Power

8 citations

World

7 citations

Deep
Lyrical
New
Rich

6 citations

Force
Imagination
Inspired
Spirit
Traditions

5 citations

Contemporary
Idealism
Style
Truth

4 citations

Brilliant
Clear
Condition
Freedom
Historical
Ideas
Lofty
Outstanding
Production
Realistic
Strength
Thought
Time
Tribute

Conclusions:

  • Write poetry – or, at the very least, literature in a poetic or lyrical style.
  • Drama and epic novels are next best.
  • Consider yourself an artist, produce pieces of art.
  • Write about the human condition and the world, ideally paying attention to historical truth.
  • Don’t stop: the Nobel prize rewards your life’s work, it will take time.
  • Force, power, strength and realism are rewarded.
  • But so are lofty spirit, deep thought, rich imagination and idealism.
  • Ideas are good, style is important – but neither are as important as narrative.
  • It is good to be contemporary, better to be traditional, but best of all to be new.
  • Your work should be great, inspired, brilliant, clear and outstanding – in that order.
  • If you follow these guidelines then you will claim recognition and tribute – and possibly freedom.

Braziers Park Community

At the dog end of summer 2009 I spent two months living and working at Braziers Park, a community hidden away in the Chiltern Hills, just the other side of the river from me. It is a constant source of incredulity for me that I never knew of this place until about a year ago. Now it seems as much a part of my countryside as Wittenham Clumps or The Bull’s Hole.

Visit the Braziers Park website here: http://www.braziers.org.uk/.

About Braziers Park School of Integrative Social Research

Braziers Park isn’t just a community; it is an on-going intellectual social experiment set up by Norman Glaister in 1950. The aim of this experiment is:
“To make concious in ourselves the shape of the process of which we are a part, so that we may facilitate its development more efficiently and harmoniously.”
And this is all done on a small-holding estate in the middle of the Chilterns, where the community members work the land, raise the animals, cook, clean and host courses.

So how have the members – and Braziers Park is 60 years old in 2010 so there have been many and a lot of work has been done – facilitated the development of the process of which they are a part?

The central concept at the heart of Braziers Park is called the Sensory / Resistive method. This basically contends that there are two types of mental activity, the Sensory and the Resistive. Sensory is fond of abstract ideas and cogitation and Resistive is given to executive decision making. Hence, to facilitate the cooperation of these two halves of our nature, Braziers Park has two kinds of meetings: Sensory meetings and Executive meetings.

The Sensory Process

No decision are made in Sensory meetings. This can be very hard for newcomers to understand. It is, essentially, a talking shop. That is not to disparage it either – I love talking shops! People can voice their concerns, their feelings, their ideas and their facts about the topic under discussion. It is a ‘safe place’ for all views because decisions are not made. You could make an outrageous suggestion without fear that it would be laughed out in favour of something more ‘practical’; you could criticise another idea without fear that your criticisms will be made personal – everyone has a cooling off period to cogitate before the Executive meeting and the dreaded decision making.

This is how it all works in theory.

There are a number of problems, however. Different people (as Glaister knew well) are different in their tolerance of Sensory or Resistive processes. Some people get frustrated with the Sensory process because it seems full of air, with no substance. Likewise, some people prefer not to get involved in the dirty business of the Executive meetings and are then surprised when the decisions taken there do not seem to tally with how the topic was discussed at Sensory.

Furthermore, this doubles (at least!) the number of meetings that the community has to gather: one to discuss the topic at Sensory and a second to make a decision at the Executive. Sometimes the topic then has to go back to Sensory for more thinking – and then back again to the Executive!

I am rather fond of the Sensory process, however I am aware that the problems are real and have been cropping up again and again over the last 60 years at Braziers Park. A solution has not been reached, but I wish them all the best in their endeavours and hope to be involved again soon.

The Ideas Secret

What is it to write stories? How do you come up with them? Is there any secret?

No. You just have to wait and listen. Every minute of the day there’s a million things passing through your brain and if you’re ready and listening it’s not hard to catch hold of the tail of a story and just reel it in.

I don’t sit and plan, I don’t think hard with sweat and blood of something I want to say and then hack out a scenario to fit; no. I just feel around for a few words to start and then push the ball off the top of the hill. The story does the rest.

For example, Chemistry was just a couple of words that came to me as I walked up Wittenham Clumps: ‘The second time he came…’. I knew this wasn’t enough so I added ‘…I was ready.’ to finish off the first sentence. That was plenty to get me started when I sat down on a bench overlooking the woods of the Clumps. That suggested the forest location and the rest was just one word following another.

Last night a story passed through my brain as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t sleep too well and so I thought I’d just have a little play with some words, the beginnings. The beginning is always the best bit of composing. It’s just getting a feeling and a flow. If you get the beginning right then the rest tends to follow.

In terms of inspirational habits – I don’t think it is a case of inspiration. It’s a case of relaxing and opening your mind. Never go hunting for a story: you might catch one, but you’ll probably have to kill it first. Walking is very good, as is any exercise. Going somewhere else is very refreshing. I wrote a lot in Egypt, for example. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story just sitting at my computer. That’s where having a little typewriter like the AlphaSmart Neo comes in very handy. Last night Snowcat came to me in a state of relaxation; after lying in the darkness, after reading a little fiction, after eating a little dark chocolate. Did these things help? Probably, but they’re not necessary.

Snowcat

‘The Snowcat!’
I didn’t see a damn thing, but she seemed pretty convinced.
‘I saw him! The Snowcat – over there – I did!’
‘OK honey, just keep hold of my hand, it’s slippery out here.’
I scanned the ground quickly for paw prints, but you don’t see paw prints of the Snowcat.
‘I saw him, I saw him! Let’s go!’ You could hardly tell the ground from the sky, everything was so white and grainy, like an old black and white TV on the static channel after the shut down. But I guess Ellie had sharper eyes than I did.
‘Which way’d he go honey?’
‘Thatta way!’ Her paw thrust out in her red mittens, out into the snowscape over there, towards the forest. The light was beginning to gloom, ready to play tricks on the eyes. It was only about four o’clock but already the horizon was submerging into the ground. They’d be no sunset tonight.
‘We’ll just walk a little way, OK?’
‘Aw! I wanna track Snowcat properly! You promised!’
‘Yes I know I promised, but that was this morning. It’s getting late now.’

We’d been walking the snow fields around the cabin for about four hours now, she never got tired. This was one game she never got tired of. Every year since my father, her grandfather, told her the story of the Snowcat about six Christmases ago, she’d wake up too early on Boxing Day morning and go running into dad’s room, yelling, ‘Granpa, Granpa, wake up – it’s time to go Snowcat tracking!’ And off they’d go, all wrapped up in new mitttens and coats and boots with a pack of left-over turkey and they’d traipse around the snow fields and the forest for hours until she got tired. Then they’d come home as the sun was going down, totally exhausted, and she’d fall asleep with a mug of hot chocolate, listening to dad’s stories about the Snowcat. This was the first year without Granpa, so I was conscripted as tracker. I wasn’t surprised, but today we’d not seen any sign of the elusive Snowcat – until now.

‘Please mommy! Please let’s track the Snowcat properly!’
I looked warily at the horizon, at the few flakes drifting down and at my daughter, her lower lip red from the cold. If I turned around I could just see the sun disappearing through the clouds over the town and, up ahead, the light of the moon filtered weakly over the forest of the Snowcat.

‘OK honey, but we’ll track him just to the forest and that’s it, your father will be wondering what’s happened to us.’
She gave a little yelp and dragged me off in the direction of the invisible tracks.

I had been worried about how it would be without dad to lead this mischievous wild goose chase. Ellie was always so excited about tracking the Snowcat, it was all she would talk about for weeks before Christmas and all she would talk about for weeks afterwards. She had been getting increasingly desperate as the day wore on without any sight of the Snowcat, without my father to help her. But she was a persistent little madam and we kept on through the snow, searching the ground for the invisible tracks. As we tracked him, she recited the story of the Snowcat, word for word, as she’d memorised it from dad.

‘The Snowcat is a very rare beast. He sleeps all year round tucked in the hollow of a tree – except for one day a year and one day only. He only wakes up when he hears the laughter of the little boys and girls – but it’s got to be loud and clear, not just any old laughter. You can’t fool the Snowcat!’ She shouted the last bit happily, like he’d always done.
‘And what’s the day that all the little boys and girls are laughing? Why it’s Boxing Day of course! That’s the day when all the little boys and girls are let out to play with the presents they got for Christmas. So the Snowcat walks the earth on just this one day of the year and he’s almost invisible because his coat is so so white and snowy that he just blends right into the ground and the snow. And the Snowcat doesn’t leave any footprints at all because his feet don’t melt the snow because he treads so softly, like a snowflake. That’s why he’s called the Snowcat.’
She looked up to check I was still listening. I smiled and squeezed her hand.
‘The Snowcat walks all around the town and the fields – no one sees him and no one hears him because everybody is so happy playing and having fun and his tracks are invisible and his coat blends in with the snow. He listens to all the little boys and girls laughing and playing and then, when the sun goes down, he goes back to his hollow tree to sleep the rest of the year. And – I forgot a bit! – And he’s got huge ears, like trumpets, and they soak up all the laughter so that he dreams happy dreams all year when he’s sleeping!’
Her arms swung happily, swinging mine almost out of their sockets.
‘So if you track him before he disappears into the hollow tree – if you can track him with his invisible footsteps and his camouflage coat – then he will share all the laughter with you and you’ll only dream happy dreams for a whole year!’

She finished triumphantly just as we reached the edge of the forest. I looked nervously ahead. The forest was dark now, completely dark. There was no way we’d be able to get in and out without a torch. I sighed.
‘Come on Ellie, it’s too dark now. We can’t go in without a torch.’
‘No! We’ve got to! Granpa would let me! We always tracked the Snowcat right to his hollow tree and I always had happy dreams afterwards – we’ve got to – otherwise I’ll have nightmares!’
I sighed again. There’d never been such a cat. It was just a story my father made up to entertain her. And now with him gone…the memory was painful.
She tailed off, ‘Granpa would let me…’

I turned around and looked back across the fields. There was something very gloomy and grey and fuzzy about the scene. Just a barren snow field and a few shapes that must have been hedgerows underneath the snow and the vague traces of telephone wires against the grey fluttery sky. And way back there, beyond the furthest hedgerow, the town and our cabin on the very outskirts of that. You could just see the faintest little trickle of smoke escaping from the chimney. John must be sitting there, in front of the fire. Maybe dozing, maybe watching an old movie on TV, maybe reading. I felt the little hand in mine – not tugging, but an urgency, an energy, an impulse. I turned back.
‘OK honey, just five minutes, just for granpa.’
‘Yay!’ And she tugged away down into the path of the forest.

The frozen leaves crunched and crackled under our footsteps – a different kind of crunch to the deep snow that we’d covered over the fields. A twigletty crackle.
‘I see him up ahead! He waited for us – good Snowcat!’ I still couldn’t see a thing. My eyes were just getting used to the new gloom of the forest, but Ellie was surging ahead, following whatever her eyes imagined for us.
‘Look mom – can’t you see? Up there, by the old tree with the burn mark!’
I knew the tree, but couldn’t see a thing. There were no tracks, but then there wouldn’t be. I couldn’t even hear a sound in the muffled snowscape.

He was always telling the tallest stories, my father, always playing around, always making something out of nothing. The smallest little trip would have to be an adventure. You couldn’t just have a quiet family walk – it would turn into the great escape from a jail house or hunting down a Russian spy – or tracking the Snowcat at Christmas time. In truth it was annoying and embarrassing for me growing up as a kid. It might sound great fun, but he used to do it all the time, every little thing would get his treatment and it used to wear us down, me and my mother. I remember once – I must have been having a teenage temper tantrum – we were just out doing the shopping and he was trying to turn it into a secret mission to gather ingredients for a nuclear bomb and it just got too much. I dropped the basket right there in the middle of the shop and shouted at him – ‘Stop it! This is not a munitions store, this food is not depleted uranium, this is not the Second World War and you are not General Eisenhower – I am not your toy!’ And I stormed right out of that shop while my poor dad had to decide whether to pick the broken eggs up from the floor or come after me.

There was a squeal from beside me –
‘Look – there!’
I turned my eyes up from the snow.
The moon was shining a narrow beam of light through the trees and there, with his front paws resting on a big gnarled root of the hollow tree, was the most beautiful cat I ever imagined. My breath caught in my throat – he was the purest white – I can’t describe it. His coat was made of the finest snowflakes that have ever fallen – made with the purest water from the purest stream. He had huge ears, like…like trumpets, alert, listening to our heart beats. He was so still and watchful, the air turning to ice with the warmth of his breath. My heart was pounding and I felt the little hand in mine, hot and alive. Ellie and me and the Snowcat stared at each other – it was only a few seconds – until a cloud passed over the moon and the apparition was gone.

Chemistry

The second time he came, I was ready. I raised my wooden staff above my shoulder and I waited. I couldn’t see him of course, but I knew exactly where he was, what sounds matched what movements, the precise creak on the wooden boards as he moved closer towards me across the bridge.

The darkness was complete – but it would have been even at noon, under these trees. He was nearly fifty yards away, but I heard every movement as clear as night. The trees seemed to trap the sounds and pull them down to my ears. I’d stamped out the fire and the smoke was drifting across, towards the bridge, towards the approaching figure. He knew nothing, that was his mistake. He knew nothing of his future and he misunderstood his past, like she had before him. Was that why I was doing this? I don’t think so, I didn’t choose this – it’s sort of forced upon me by the decisions other people make – hapless decisions to move forward unknowingly, unthinkingly – like little bugs creeping along a branch into the web of a spider.

The first time he came, we were still friends. He bounced over the boards of the bridge like a simple kid.
‘Nick!’ He shouted, lifting up some sort of a package, wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘I’ve brought some hash beef, here, we can cook it up.’
We settled down over the camp fire in this clearing I’d made in the middle of this gloomy old forest, where the wood scarcely ever got dry enough for tinder. Luckily, I’d brought some little sticks and things with me from the edge of the forest, where the late summer sun still beat down on the ancient bark.

By the light of the fire we brought out my ma’s old skillet and set about making up the dinner. After a while, with the hash beef browning in the pan and a kettle of water boiling up among the flames, we ran out of things to do and sat back, waiting.
‘She won’t be long,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. He was looking into the fire. I broke up one of the big logs with my staff. It made a little burst of red hot sparks.
‘We’d better take the beef off the heat just a touch, so it’s not burnt for her.’ John slid the skillet off the heat just a fraction. That wouldn’t do anything.
‘I wonder what she’s found,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, just prodded my staff into the fire a bit. By now the beef was beginning to lose any moisture it had to begin with so I took it off the heat altogether.
‘We might as well eat ours. There’s no point in it going cold.’ John didn’t agree, but took the plate I passed him.
‘I bet she’s caught up picking blackberries or something.’
‘Probably,’ I say.

The forest wrapped around us, in cedar silence. There was just the silence of the creak a little way off through the trees, running under the rough old boards of the bridge. This was my new home and I was happy to share it with pretty much the only people I’d liked at college. John was my room-mate from way back and now he’d got together with Susie things couldn’t have been rosier for them. I was doing fine too; I’d spent the summer camped out somewhere along the river, moving along slowly for a change of air every few weeks. But now it was nearly autumn and I needed somewhere a bit cosier, with a bit more cover from the October rains that hurl down in this part of the country. So I moved to the forest. From here I couldn’t even see the sky and, like I said, the sun barely made its way through the tall tall trees. But that didn’t bother me. When it rained I felt hardly a drop and the tarp I used was more for privacy than cover. Not that I needed too much privacy in these parts. I hadn’t seen a soul since July – apart from John and Susie of course.

I’d picked them up from Forgotten Creak railway station just two days before. When I say pick them up – I didn’t have a wagon or anything, I just walked right up to the station and we walked right back down the six miles or so with all our bags and gear and everything on our backs. I carried Susie’s stuff of course. We had an understanding, me and Susie, that John didn’t get. Don’t get me wrong, John’s a great guy, but he’s not very – subtle, do you know what I mean? Well me and Susie were walking up ahead, catching up on the good times, and John was crawling away down behind us, scrambling on the stony path. Me and Susie flew on up ahead – me because I knew the path like the back of my hand and Susie because she was high on seeing me and didn’t have any bags to carry. After about four miles I could see John was struggling. The sun was beating down still in this dog-end of summer and he was looking pretty red and sore. But I didn’t stop, I kept on walking – even faster if anything, with Susie by my side.

I’d met John almost by accident in fact. We were both in the same chemistry class at college. Not that either of us were studying chemistry, it was just a cool subject back then. We liked messing around in the labs, with free access to all kinds of fun chemicals. When I say by accident, we were both called up by the professor at the time and asked to take part in an experiment together. I don’t know why the professor picked on us, maybe because we were the oddest pair going, but he made us put on all the chemistry gear, all the eye glasses and lab coats and everything and took us down to the quad. He said it was going to be a pretty dangerous experiment – for one of us. He told us that one of us was going to set the other one on fire. I know – he must have been some kind of sadist or something. But we went along with it. As you can imagine, that was a pretty awkward moment. No one wants to be set on fire, but you don’t want to be the one who sets some poor guy on fire yourself, do you? I was lucky John was chosen with me. After a little moment of silence he said ‘Alright, you set me on fire.’ You can imagine my relief. Anyway, it turns out that this sadist’s told the whole damn college that there’s going to be some kind of a show and they’re all looking out from the windows all around the quad, looking out on the student whose going to be set on fire.

Don’t ask me how he did it – I wasn’t a chemistry major, remember – but he made John strip right off, with just a pair of shorts and a stupid looking net hat that was meant to protect his face. He looked like a naturist bee-keeper to be honest. Then the chemistry professor gave me some real plain looking gel. It could have been for your hair piece, you know? I guess this is why he needed another student to do the experiment; he could have been accused of molestation, rubbing this gel all over another student’s naked body. So there’s John in the middle of the quad with all the students hanging out of the windows, hooting and hollering, stark naked covered in this flammable gel. Me and the professor have retreated to a safe distance and he hands me a box of matches. I can’t believe it’s this crude you know. That’s why I reckon he was a sadist. I’ve got to open the box, strike the match and throw it at this poor kid who I hardly know, just some small town sophomore who thought he’d do a bit of chemistry to broaden his mind. Course the first match broke and the second one got lost in the wind, by which time John’s beginning to look a little grey. Third time lucky though and I’ve never seen anything like it.

As you can imagine that bonded us pretty closely and we ended up rooming together for a year, well, it was almost a year. Just around exam time I met a girl, Susie, who was always hanging around the labs. She told me about the day I’d set John on fire and how brilliant it had been and we kind of had a thing going. I told you we always had something that other people didn’t understand, a kind of chemistry. Anyway, it didn’t last and it’s not as though I was sore about it or anything, it was kind of inevitable that it wouldn’t last. I was too complicated I suppose. She wanted something a bit more dependable, someone who would take one for the team. Someone like John, that poor son of a bitch who volunteered to be a human torch. So like I said, after that summer me and John stopped rooming together. I went and lived in a tent just off campus for a while and eventually John and Susie got together.

It was kind of with my blessing to be honest. Neither of them ever really made a move. Susie kept coming out to my tent trying to talk to me, trying to make my come in and live on campus. Eventually I had to move camp without telling her before she finally got the hint. And John I saw between classes sometimes – junior year you can’t take electives any more, it all gets pretty serious. You know – I can’t remember what he did any more? English literature? Art history? some such crap anyway. So they got together and our lives went in separate directions. I think I came out the better. But then everyone would say that, wouldn’t they? I never really saw them again until Susie sent a postcard to my ma saying they’d got married and about how they’d love to come and see me during their honeymoon, for old times sake. I don’t know how they got ma’s address, she doesn’t even live there any more – it was forwarded on.

So that was that. They came down here to Forgotten Creek and I came down to pick them up, although it was hardly picking them up and then we’re sitting around eating and taking and they’re going off into their tent at night and I’m retreating to my tarp and that’s all there is. Then tonight, their last night, she disappears and me and John are just sitting eating beef hash in the silence with the trees all around and not a sound. She’s gone off for some scavenger food – blackberries she saw or something. And then he gets worried and all of a sudden he gets up and goes looking for her and then he’s coming back over the bridge for the second time and I’m ready and waiting.

How long is a short story?

My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?

So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.

From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:

  • Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
  • The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
  • The Answer is No: 1600 words
  • The Time and the Place: 3600 words
  • Blessed Night: 3600 words
  • The Ditch: 2600 words
  • Half a Day: 1600 words
  • The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
  • The Lawsuit: 2200 words
  • The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
  • A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
  • By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
  • The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
  • The Wasteland: 3600 words
  • The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
  • His Majesty: 1200 words
  • Fear: 4400 words
  • At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
  • A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
  • A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words

That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.

Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:

  • Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
  • The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
  • The End of Something: 1050 words
  • The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
  • The Battler: 3150 words
  • A Very Short Story: 700 words
  • Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
  • The Revolutionist: 350 words
  • Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
  • Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
  • Out of Season: 2100 words
  • Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
  • My Old Man: 4200 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
  • L’Envoi: 150 words

That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.

So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.

I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.

Perched

A crowd had gathered. I couldn’t see why at first so I moved closer. They seemed to be gathering about a tree. Of course a crowd standing around a tree is nothing to do with me, but I moved closer anyway. There were about ten or fifteen people, pointing and – not shouting – but raising their voices at the tree’s upper boughs. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the tree, there were branches and the branches had boughs and the boughs had leaves, which were just turning the colour of autumn, but none had yet fallen. It seemed a perfectly ordinary tree, with bark and little growths of lichen. But there it was: a crowd, pointing and raising their voices at a tree.

It’s nothing to do with me, but I moved to the edge of the crowd. There was nothing unusual I could see about the crowd either. They seemed to be people just like me, with clothes on their backs and rings on their fingers, with handkerchiefs in their pockets and some with ties about their necks. One woman in particular, wearing a head scarf, was pointing high up into the tree and almost shouting. I followed her finger and saw a tree with leaves and boughs and branches, with bark and with lichen and a man in a bowler hat.

He was perched high up in the tree with his fingers curled around the branch like a bird. He was frozen still, but his muscles were taut as if he was about to fly away. Which of course he wasn’t, because, aside from being a man in a bowler hat perched in a tree, he looked perfectly normal. In fact, I found my hand nervously moving to my own bowler, as if my choice of headgear might bring association with this most odd fellow.

The crowd, as I said, were not shouting, but were speaking in raised, almost coaxing, voices to the man in the bowler hat. Perhaps this was what made him look slightly tense. He seemed to want to make the flight, but was nervous of his ability; a nestling, needing a push. I noticed that the woman in the headscarf was also wearing an apron. She held a wooden spoon in her right hand and, as I said, was pointing at the man.
‘What are you doing bird man? Get back to work! Stop wasting our time! Come down and we’ll forget the whole thing!’

For the first time since I got there, the man in the bowler hat moved. With a quick shuffle he edged a little further along the bough, which shook it’s leaves. One or two may have floated down on to the heads of the crowd.
‘Come on,’ the woman with the wooden spoon was speaking again. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go, bird man! Come back down – you can have the rest of the day off – I’m sure the office won’t mind.’

This provoked no discernible reaction from the man in the bowler hat in the tree. And it was nothing to do with me, but the woman in the apron spoke again.
‘We’ve called your wife – she won’t be impressed at all. She’ll leave you for sure if she finds you sitting up in a tree when you should be at work! And what would your children think?’

The woman in the headscarf shook her wooded spoon and the crowd rumbled. The bird man flicked his eyes over to me, I’m sure. There was an awful look in them. an awful pleading. I couldn’t look back, it was painful, so I just looked down. It’s nothing to do with me anyway, a man in a bowler hat in a tree. The woman in the apron with the wooden spoon raised it still higher.
‘If you won’t come down, bird man, we’ll bring you down!’

And with that she bent down and picked up a stone. It was just a small stone, but she was accurate. The bird man made a funny noise that could have been a squawk, but couldn’t have been because men in bowler hats don’t squawk, not even when they are in trees. A few more stones flew from the hands of the crowd. Some hit, some didn’t. The bird man flapped his arms in defence and his branch lurched. A few leaves floated to the ground.

The woman with the apron seemed unimpressed with her ballistics and directed the crowd to the tree trunk itself.
‘We’ll shake him down!’

Well, there’s nothing for me in a crowd looking at a man in a bowler hat in a tree. It’s nothing to do with me. I thought I should walk away, so I did. I felt the crowd surge forward. From behind me I heard the rumble of a tree, the heavy rustle of boughs and the light falling of leaves. Then an inhuman squawk, a loud thud and a cheer. It’s nothing to do with me, a man in a bowler hat in a tree.

Poem of Triumph for Maya

I pat my brow and take a bow and all the world’s beneath,
I take my hat and pat my cat and then I’ll brush my teeth.
After the show, after the climb and reach –
Do I dare to eat a peach?
Things like these – like playing up (not throwing up),
Learning to love and learning to teach –
(And here’s another – hand in hand with mother – walking on the beach) –
Seem too short and all we’re taught
Is hold on, hold on…

Office Haiku

Even mindless jobs
Need concentration and an
Eye for detail.

***

The office is hushed;
A bustle of lowered heads,
Slowly wasting time.

***

Query: How to log?
Each individually,
Or all together?

***

Wait for the download,
Watch the megabytes drip through.
Stare out the window.

***

Coordination,
Focused concentration and
Organisation.

***

Distant voices are
Arguing loudly about
Nothing important.

***

Disappointment is
Someone else appointed to
Do your job better.

***

Bike to Bordeaux Route

In Spring 2009, I cycled 547 miles from Cholsey in Oxfordshire to my friend’s house in Bordeaux, France. I was raising money for an asylum charity in Oxford, Asylum Welcome.

View Bike to Bordeaux in a larger map

19th April: Cholsey-Portsmouth (92 miles)
19th-20th April: Portsmouth-St Malo (by ferry, not pedallo – kind of cheating I know…)
20th April: Getting Lost in St Malo (6 miles)
21st April: St Malo-Dinan (20 miles)
22nd April: Dinan-Trudeau (45 miles)
23rd April: Convalescence in Trudeau (0 miles)
24rd April: Trudeau-Painfaut (43 miles)
25th April: Painfaut-St Brevin Les Pins (53 miles)
26th April: St Brevin Les Pins-St Jean des Monts (53 miles)
27th April: St Jean des Monts-Les Sables d’Olonne (35 miles)
28th April: Les Sables d’Olonne-La Rochelle (62 miles)
29th April: La Rochelle-Saintes (52 miles)
30th April: Saintes-Bordeaux (86 miles)

Living expenses: Egypt 2009

!!! Disclaimer: Some of these prices are subject to negotiation with your vendor. They are guidelines only. However, I do not claim to be that great at haggling so these are neither as cheap as you can get, nor as expensive as you can pay. I try to buy from markets aimed at the local inhabitants but still expect to pay a premium for my tourist status.

Travel

Taxi

Zamalek to Maadi, Cairo 25LE
Cairo Airport to Zamalek 75LE (should be marginally cheaper, therefore, to down-town)

Train

Cairo Metro ticket 1LE
Cairo-Aswan 109LE
Edfu-Cairo 98LE
Aswan-Edfu 17LE
Elbalyana-Cairo 85LE

Accommodation

Hostel in Downtown Cairo, 2 persons, no bath 120LE, with bath 140LE
Hotel in Zamelek Cairo, 1 person, with bath 190LE
Hotel Aswan, 2 persons 80LE
Hotel Edfu, 2 persons 150LE

Communications

Internet 5-10LE per hour
Mobile Phone SIM card 90LE

Food & Drink

Market Fruit and Vegetables

1kg tomatoes 0.50LE
1kg Guava 3.50LE
1kg Melon 5LE
0.5kg Peppers 1.50LE
1kg cucumbers 2LE
1kg bananas 3LE
1 egg 0.50LE
1kg oranges 1-2LE
1kg Apricots 5LE
1kg carob 24LE
1kg peanuts 13LE
1kg pumpkin seeds 26LE

Take Away Food

1 Taamiyya in pitta (Felafel) 1.50LE
1 pot Koshuri 2LE
Omelette 3LE
Fuul 1.50LE
1 Maison Thomas Sandwich 25LE
1 fiteer 11LE
1 large kebab 8-10LE

Restaurant Food

Penne al’Arrabiata and drink, Didos, Zamalek 20LE
Salad at Al-Azhar park 18LE

Drinks

1 large bottle of water 1.50LE
1l mango juice 12LE
1 cup of tea 1.50LE
1 cup of coffee 1.50LE
1 mango juice 1.50LE
1 orange juice 0.50LE
1.5ltr Asab (sugar cane) juice 3LE

From the Bakery

1 piece hot fresh bread 0.05LE
1 leavened bread roll long 0.25LE
1kg biscuits 10LE
1 chocolate croissant 1.50LE

Tourism

Ibn Tulun Mosque entry 5LE
Normal park entry 1-2LE
Al-Azhar park entry 5LE

Other

Cigarettes 8.50LE
Sheesha (apple flavour) 2LE
Postcard small 2LE, large 5LE
Print 1 page text 1-3LE
Small bag of Ariel washing powder 1LE

Online Polyphasic Resources

Here are some useful online resources if you want to find out more about polyphasic sleeping patterns.

About Polyphasic Sleep

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphasic_sleep

Real life experiences

Steve Pavlina’s experiment in 2005: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/10/polyphasic-sleep/
PureDoxyk’s ongoing polyphasic life: http://www.puredoxyk.com/index.php/about-polyphasic-sleep/
Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion sleep pattern: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774680,00.html

The Science

Take a Nap! Change Your Life by Sara C. Mednick – Very interesting and accessible book about the joy of naps.

See Sara in this Google Author Talk in which she addresses the whole scope of the book and also a lot of very pertinent questions from the audience – including one about Uberman.

Community Resources

Polyphasic Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/Polyphasic

Cognitive Testing Resources:
Reactions Test: http://cognitivelabs.com/alz_assoc_refertestpage2.htm
Simon Test: http://www.thepcmanwebsite.com/media/simon/
Typing Test: http://www.typingmaster.com.au/java/ttapplet.htm

Polyphasing Experiment: Conclusions

Things I achieved in the week:

  • Cleared out the loft.
  • Cleared out my bedroom – wardrobes, desk etc.
  • Threw out a load of clothes, books and general crap.
  • Sorted out my computer filing system.
  • Gave my website a complete overhaul.
  • Started a new money making venture.

Lessons learned:

  • I can sleep for 2 hours a day and still operate (more or less).
  • There are no serious side effects (I think!).
  • The limits of my endurance are much further than expected. I feel like I would be able to operate on 14 hours of sleep a week in extreme circumstances.
  • Sleep is something that can be trained and it can be modified to my own requirements: it’s not just a case of going to bed and waking up.
  • Naps are more important than I gave them credit for. The ability to nap every few hours to get through a night of work was a great feeling.
  • Without the habit of going to sleep for 8 hours straight I lost the sense of days passing. Time flowed constantly, not in fits and starts. It made me realise that every minute is sacred. 
  • With 22 hours in a day there’s far too much time to spend it on frivolity – that gets boring pretty quickly. I found that the more time I had, the more I wanted to spend it on something worthwhile.
  • It’s nice splitting the day up into more segments: it focusses the mind on achievement during the waking periods. Under this system of 20 minutes every four hours, however, I become something of a slave to the segments.
  • Beds are not necessary – and in fact I found it much nicer not to have a bed in my room. The bed, that huge piece of furniture, forced my room to be a BEDroom. This is counter productive both for working in that room and then for trying to sleep in that room after having worked there. It was really liberating to use a blow-up bed that I brought out only when required. It meant that I had a huge lump of space for other daytime activities. It meant I could put my rocking chair beside the window – I had never before realised how pleasant the sun was coming through there. The absence of a bed in my workspace lead to a healthy demarcation of day and night activities.
  • I like doing things that make me unique. I like to push myself into unusual situations that change my perception of the world – and then to encourage others to do the same. I like living with imagination and courage, not conformity and fear.

Positive aspects of polyphasia

  • Time for EVERYTHING – including complete and utter boredom!

I will have to let that time go on a monophasic schedule.

Negative aspects of a polyphasic pattern:

  • Socially it is difficult at best, antisocial at worst.
  • I found it difficult to perform creative work, in the adjustment phase at least. I got a lot of dross work done, but not much creative work – my novel suffered by about 2800 words over the 6 days of the experiment.

Negative side effects of polyphasia

These, I concede, could have disappeared if I had persisted through the adjustment period of about 30 days.

  • Hot flushes in the early phases.
  • Numbness in the extremities.
  • Cold sensitivity.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Brain freeze/fog.
  • Creativity blockages.

Action points to be taken away:

  • I don’t need a bed. Perhaps I should investigate buying a Japanese bed roll.
  • When I feel tired, I’ll sleep! I won’t feel guilty about sleeping or just ride through the rough period. I’ll take a nap. I know now that I don’t have to get undressed or brush my teeth or anything – I can just lie down and take 20 minutes out.
  • Evangelise the benefits of messing with your sleep to learn about yourself.

Finally, I exhort you: Experiment and Learn.

Thank you for reading.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 6

01:51: Revenge of the Nap

I have had a change of tactics. Naptics you might say. Taking Pavlina’s idea and combining it with Buckminster Fuller’s technique: I’m just going to take a 20 minute nap every time (well, maybe not every time) I get too tired.

I just had one and it was unquestionably more successful than other naps. I am still scarcely able to keep my eyes open, but I did have vivid dreams and woke up before the end of the nap. These are good signs. I am still hunting the holy grail of refreshment, however. But at least I’m not tired!

Alertness rating: 4

03:20: Naptastic?

I’m not sure if I’m winning or losing. I think I feel better, although my eyes are having trouble adjusting to sight again.

Alertness rating: 4

06:40: Serial Napper

My schedule for this past night has been naps every 2 hours, rather than every 4. so that’s naps at 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am and, coming up next, 7am. It has made it somewhat less painful to get through and I have achieved things, but I am still far from rested.

Alertness rating: 4

Disgusting: a 1 hour oversleep after initial wake up. Actually that’s not quite correct: I woke up an 20 minute intevals at 7:20, as planned, at 7:40 and then at 8:20.

18:34: Thoughts on Napping

There are some things that I have not been describing because I have not been sure. But I think now they are pertinent. A week ago I played cricket and did not stretch beforehand. Normally any strains would be gone in three days at most, but the pain in my back seems to have got worse.

Secondly, this sleeping pattern seems to have been playing havoc with my digestive system. This could be due to lack of an enzyme that is produced during deep sleep. Having said that, after two bike rides I am feeling pretty good – but that could just be thanks to watching Liverpool trounce Aston Villa 5-0!

Tonight is something of a test for the system: it is the first day that I have been able to socialise. Two of my friends are in town and we’ll probably go somewhere this evening. I obviously can’t go out until my 7pm nap, can’t drink and have to be back in bed by 11pm. I shall report back on the irritation this causes.

I have to confess that this experiment has been both easier and harder than I expected. I was expecting much more acute symptoms of sleep deprivation: hallucinations, narcolepsy and so on. I had none of these. But I have been really dragged down by the minor side effects: the dullness of thought, the hot flushes, the digestive problems, weakness when performing physical exercise. I have the time, but not the strength.

I do feel like today has been an improvement, however. Perhaps that is due to my oversleep earlier. Perhaps it is because my friends are here and I have someone to share it all with. Am I fed up with it though? Is it too much already?

Reading Dr Mednick’s book I am even more concerned with the long term effects – this was only meant to be an experiment, but is it worth the heartache just for an experiment? This 30 days could be spent productively – it’s not as though there aren’t a million things I need to be doing, but if I don’t have the strength then all the hours in the day won’t help me.

Alertness rating: 5.5

Still a thick head though, and that just kills me.

19:38: Sleep Inertia?

Seriously, waking up from a nap feels like waking up from a high speed encounter with the bull bars of a truck. I can barely focus my eyes, which is worrying – even after repeated shaking of the head etc. I wonder if this is because I am sinking quickly into short wave sleep and thus getting a load of sleep inertia on wake up. But once up and moving I feel fine again.

Alertness rating: 5.5

23:57: Nap to the Future

The evening with my friends was, predictably, terminated by me needing to nap. Post nap was the familiar feeling of being kicked in the face by a mule. As the clock ticks towards midnight I have trouble holding a conversation without feelings of great irritation and discomfort. This experiment is over.

Alertness rating: 4

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 5

3:00 Please let me recover!

Not the worst nap ever. But I’m still waiting to wake up refreshed. I’m lurching from nap to nap with my body just getting enough to keep going. It’s like I’m topping up to the level of sleep deprivation that I built up over the first night of not sleeping. Like the 20 minutes gives me just enough energy for the next 3 hours 40 minutes, no more, no less.

One other observation about this is that I really can’t read whilst in this phase. It makes me too sleepy. I can manage a few pages during the day, but even then I’m not really concentrating so I’m pretty sure it’s not very productive reading.

05:09: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 61 WPM
  • Simon: 9
  • Reactions: 82.38

Simon has taken a bit of a battering – concentration not great. But the others are fine.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.2kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/72
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

08:56: Interdiurnal Nap?

I experimented with a nap between naps. I feel more rested, but have a feeling that it is only going to make things worse. I napped from 7:00 to 7:20 as normal, then got up and had a shower and napped again from 7:40 until 8:00. I then did a silly oversleep thing until 8:45. It really is odd that my sessions of oversleep are 40-45 minutes, not 90+. I wonder if this means that a 45 minutes Dymaxion would be possible for me?

Alertness rating: 4.5

17:34: Keep on napping

And hope it works out. I’m a little concerned that I don’t seem to be dreaming so much. Both the 11am and 3pm naps were more like falling into a faint and only rousing when the alarm goes off, what seems like hours later with a brain turned into oatmeal. My condition does seem to improve after waking, but I still struggle to read in my rocking chair. I feel dehydrated a lot of the time and exercise drains me. I’ve been for a long walk and a 15 minute bike ride and both left my head dense and craving sleep.

Alertness rating: 4.5

23:16:Torture?

Is this self-imposed torture? Sleep deprivation is a well-known technique and I have no gone five days without a decent deep sleep, always waking myself before the truly restorative phases of sleep.

Alertness rating: 3

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 4

02:21: Night Walking

I hope I develop a taste for dark, cold streets because I feel like I’m going to see them a lot over the next month. I find myself looking forward to the 7am nap because it seems like a true rest. When I wake up it is morning, just like for all the monophasers. It is a rare time of day when we are in sync, there is one other at 11pm when we all go to bed, ‘Good night!’ I say, knowing that I’ll be back up again in 20 minutes, but the others will slumber through the night, through to the morning.

Alertness rating: 4.5

04:16: Quiet Zone

That last nap wasn’t too restorative. Apparently night naps are harder than day naps. My body is still used to sleeping at night. But I have to say that I’ve been working on my cycling project quite productively in this quiet zone without too overwhelming feelings of tiredness. Still got two and a half hours to go though before the next nap!

Alertness rating: 4

07:22: Grogg

Dreaming again, but woke up to my alarm. When that happens I feel very groggy, especially if it was during a vivid dream, which it was this time. The dream took place on a film shoot. I was an extra and they needed me to eat a sandwich on camera. But they gave me the sandwich before the shot was ready and I ate it. So I felt bad and they had to make me another one. And I ate it again. Oops.

My eyes feel like they can’t focus, with heavy lids and a mist shading them from the world. Similar to yesterday morning actually. Not good.

Alertness rating: 2

09:20: Testing

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 121/61
  • Heart rate: 52 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

12:12: Snoozeville

My 11am nap was the same story. Good long sleep with REM, but the alarm wakes me and I have no idea where I am, what the time is, whether I am just going to bed or should be getting up. I’m still feeling head fuzz.

Alertness rating: 3.5

16:12: Experimentation?

I’m not sure if this counts as valid experimentation, probably not, but I did oversleep again, like I did yesterday on my 3pm nap. Perhaps my excitement over adjusting was waaay too premature. Again, it wasn’t a problem of alarms. I clearly recall switching them all off this time, but I chose to stay in bed. It is interesting that, even after choosing to stay in bed, I am only oversleeping by 40 minutes. That makes my sleep time 20 minutes + 40 minutes. I also never remember dreams from this second 40 minutes so I am definitely indulging in the NREM bit. But what does it all mean?

I’ve just re-read Steve Pavlina’s blog about the adjustment period and he didn’t feel 100% until Day 6 and even then still used an extra 20 minute nap in the early hours before dawn. I’m pretty sure that my two 40 minute oversleeps are more damaging than his extra 20 minute sleeps for the reason that I am not going straight into REM sleep, which is the purpose of this initial training, adaptation period. Does that mean that my body is ‘reset’ and I have another 6 days of perfect scheduling to get through? Or are two relatively minor oversleeps permissible and my body will be on track for 100% on my day 6 equivalent (which would be next Monday)?

One thing that I did not do for this nap was to place the alarms out of reach – a policy I implemented after yesterday’s oversleep – the problem is I went to bed about 15 minutes before nap time to adjust and read and I needed a clock to see the correct time to close my eyes. I shall move another clock to viewing distance and keep my alarms out of arm’s reach!

Alertness rating: 3.5

20:03: Napping for Napping’s sake

Well that nap didn’t feel very restorative at all. I woke up about 10 minutes in worrying that I had over slept. It feels like I am getting all the right symptoms of polyphasic sleep, but none of the benefits (yet). I’m going to work tonight on clearing out Liz’s loft so that should keep me wide awake and make the hours of darkness pass.

Alertness rating: 3
But after a big meal, Alertness rating: 4

01:45: Another Day’s Nap

My 11pm nap was no more than functional. It’s amazing how easily I fall asleep and dream, but they are not restorative. I just get up and resume my zombie routines. I can’t remember the last time my brain felt engaged. Scary.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 3

00:40: Midnight Creep

The ‘day’ begins with me dragging three huge bags of clothes down to the Salvation Army collection point in the centre of the village. As I stuff the dense black bin bags into the skip I feel guilty, as if they were chopped up bodies and I were a 1920s gangster.

Alertness rating: 5

Surprisingly alert.

02:28: Epiphany

This really is remarkable. Here I am at half past two in the morning and yeah I don’t feel 100%, but I can function quite well and I do have enough energy and concentration to do the sort of tasks that suck hours out of our days (or just don’t get done at all). And to think that this is the worst of the adjustment period; I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have energy at this time of night on just 20 minutes napping time. I do look forward to the naps now and I think my brain would really love me to forget to set the alarm but I’m on track and loving it.

03:22: Changes

I feel as if the nap length is increasing. Of course it isn’t, but that’s the way it feels. It seems like the naps are a few hours, not just 20 minutes. I’m still not awaking refreshed though. Exhausted.

Alertness rating: 2

07:59: OUCH

I feel sick, I can hardly keep my eyes open, I’m very sensitive to cold. This is the pain.

Alertness rating: 1

I hope that’s rock bottom, but there is still room for worse I fear.

08:15: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 64 WPM
  • Simon: 9
  • Reactions: 69.47

I’m getting better at the typing! The other worse scores better reflect the way I feel: rubbish!

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 63.5kg
  • Blood pressure: 108/62
  • Heart rate: 56 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

11:27: Rushing Naps

They seem to be coming quicker. I don’t feel sick any longer: I just needed to eat breakfast. I am still whacked; this seems to be a hangover from each nap. I am groggy apparently. Also worth mentioning: I appear to have a cold, something happened yesterday about 6pm and my nose has been liquid ever since. Probably not making things any easier, but I don’t think it is affecting me too much.

Alertness rating: 3

16:00: Disaster?

I have no idea how, but I somehow managed to oversleep there. The alarms were all switched on and I woke up naturally 40 minutes late. I have a distant memory of possibly turning them off and just lying there for a moment… I’m a little groggy, but otherwise fine. I hope that has not put be back too far!

Alertness rating: 3.5

19:18: Back on Track

And I dreamed and woke up naturally for the first time! Woo-hoo! My dream was based in a middle eastern city (probably because I wrote 1000 words of my novel just before napping) – it could have been Cairo, it could have been Tunis – it was a melange. Anyway, I was there to learn Arabic and I was in a school room and there were two lesbians (I later assumed – but don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreams!) who came in and asked us if we wanted to watch some comedy sketches performed by two lesbians in French. I was surprised and pleased that they were so open about the homosexual content. I wondered if they were rebelling against the society or just determined to live their lives as they felt them, with no shame.

So: dreams, real dreams. I still don’t feel totally fresh, but this seems to be something of a break-through. And the fact that I woke ‘naturally’ – I use the quote marks because after the 16:00 nap I was worried about oversleeping and I woke in something of a shock thinking that I had overslept again. This also seems to be a constant in ubersleepers’ reports: the impression that sleep lasted much longer than 20 minutes.

Alertness rating: 4

And to celebrate my first successful polyphasic sleep:

White Hot Chocolate!

22:07: Testing

But first:
Alertness rating: 6 – I’m impressed.

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 62 WPM
  • Simon: 17
  • Reactions: 84.67

Typing speed was up, but accuracy was down. The other scores blown out of the water! If that is in any way indicative of the results of a good polyphasic nap then I’m in for a treat! Reaction speed up 22% from this morning – wow.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.0kg
  • Blood pressure: 114/68
  • Heart rate: 61 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

23:21: Good Night!

Or not. Dreamt again, but woke with the alarm. Feel very drowsy and just wish I could go back to sleep!

Alertness rating: 3.5

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 2

00:14: New Territory

This is the start of my first full day of polyphasic sleeping. Yesterday was great, but on the back of a full nights sleep it was no challenge. Today is a different kettle of fish altogether. Over the next 24 hours I will discover what it means to be sleep deprived. And it’s just the beginning.

Alertness rating: 6

03:00: Early Morning Nap

Got some light sleep in with a little para-dreaming: a marching band drummer with a big old drum strapped to his chest beating a marching rhythm. I woke up in surprise at this visit, only to realise that my brain was interpreting the music I had playing in the background.

I am napping on the floor with a duvet and a pillow, with a small lamp on and some soft music playing. I don’t want to make this harder than it already is by oversleeping! I am setting five different alarms, one on my phone which is fairly obnoxious and then four on this Salter Kitchen Timer I got off Amazon, each one set one minute later than the last. They all have different sounds and I haven’t needed more than one – so far…

I’m going to head out for a walk now to keep myself conscious – I’ll probably have a bite to eat as well. Only one more waking phase until I’ve done 24 hours. Steve Pavlina had to do three 24 hour polyphasic ‘days’ before he started feeling good again. There is no doubt that the hardest is ahead of me. So far I’m feeling alright.

Alertness rating: 4

Piano is an excellent tool for staying awake, as I thought. I only hope I didn’t wake the rest of the house up! Played for about an hour – Dos Gardenias and a bit of Gonzales. I’m quite hungry now actually – I haven’t eaten a full meal since about 5pm yesterday.

06:16: The Night Shift

The hardest part of the day is almost over. I got through the last hour by writing my 1000 words of novel for Tuesday. I did notice that it was harder to think straight, but once I got going it was fine. Dad is up already, dawn has broken. I have officially made it through the night.

Alertness rating: 4

7:20: Morning has broken

I’m yet to have a decent nap. This one was a kind of unconscious rest. Not particularly refreshing and I didn’t really dream, but I did sleep. This 7am nap will be akin to a monophasic sleep: I will now have a shower and breakfast.

Happy days! What a difference a good hot shower makes! Ready to face the day. Except every time I think that, I can’t help thinking that it’s not merely the day I have to face: it’s the next 30 days. I will never rest, not like I used to, and that simple fact is a mind bender.

Alertness rating: 5.5

08:52: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 68.34

No change in typing accuracy or speed. Lower scores on both the concentration and reaction tests, however. I’m not surprised – I feel pretty slow.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 63.8kg
  • Blood pressure: 113/56
  • Heart rate: 59 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

11:00: Mid Morning Already?

Still no proper REM sleep. I am definitely sleeping though. It took about 8 minutes to fall asleep, about 2 minutes once I’d switched off the rather lively Cuban music…Feeling very fragile and sleepy.

Alertness rating: 4

14:32: A Walk in the Sun

It’s boiling out there! An hour long walk through the fog of brain fuzz and boy am I looking forward to the 3pm nap!

Alertness rating: 3.5

15:21: Afternoon Kip

Better, better. Slept the whole 20 minutes thanks to extending the alarm to about 25 minutes and doing a bit of reading before sinking into slumber.

Alertness rating: 4

Just fending off the zeds.

19:20: Evening Session

One really needs to prepare for one’s sleep about 10 minutes before the nap actually begins. I was clearing out the loft and didn’t lie down until 19:00 precisely so didn’t fall asleep for perhaps 8 minutes. This meant a shorter nap than I’m supposed to be getting and as a consequence I feel like death!

22:26: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 57 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 78.41

Slightly worse accuracy in the typing test. Interestingly I was a lot quicker on the reaction test. Not sure what that means!

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.5kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/64
  • Heart rate: 64 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

23:27: ZZZ

Wow. I just slept the whole 20 minutes, possibly a fraction more. Woke up in another dimension, not sure where I was. I’m really feeling the pull of sleep now.

Alertness rating: 2.5

My eye lids are being dragged down by an invisible force. I should get up out of this chair and do something before I fall under the spell.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 1

Today is the day it all begins. Or ends. No more bed for a week. I have just got up from a very relaxing 8 hour sleep. I feel fully rested, but a little fuzzy in the head. I haven’t had a full 8 hours for a few days.

Alertness rating: 7

I shall be taking my naps at 11am, 3pm, 7pm and 11pm as scheduled.

10:00am: Testing

Cognitive tests:
I shall be taking three different types of cognitive tests every day. These are:

  • Typing test: The score is words per minute adjusted for errors over a two minute test. Test here.
  • Simon game: Test memory of colours and sounds. The score is the number of consecutive colours I can recall. Test here.
  • Reactions: The score is a weighted speed. Test here.

  • Typing: 56 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 71.47

Physical tests:
I shall be taking three physical measurements every day as well. These are:

  • Weight (kilograms)
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate (beats per minute)

  • Weight: 63.8 kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/56
  • Heart rate: 60 BPM

11am: Nap time!

Well, not surprisingly I didn’t sleep, but I did get two interruptions. Someone rang the door bell about 8 minutes in (no one ever rings the door bell here), and the National Blood Service sent me a text message asking me to give blood (which I can’t do for medical reasons). So never mind, I wasn’t expecting to sleep anyway. I feel slightly groggy from lying down in the dark for 20 minutes, but otherwise fine.

Alertness rating: 6.5

12:15pm: I Lost A Bed!

Before

After!

15:00: Afternoon Kip

Half an hour before hand: feeling pretty tired. There is no reason for that. I slept a full night last night, but my head feels like cotton wool. Quite looking forward to a little lie down.

Alertness rating: 5

Had a little pseudo-sleep. Not sure if I was entirely under or not, but there were what I can only describe as para-dreams. Now rather foggy in my head.

Alertness rating: 5

19:00: Evening doze

I’m definitely resting more and more as the day goes on. No para-dreaming, but a heavier 20 winks.

Alertness rating: 4.5

Bleurgh. I’m tired and cold. And this is day 1? I shouldn’t even be sleep deprived yet! I feel as you feel when you have overslept perhaps. The next sleep will be the test: I normally go to bed around 11pm, so my body will be expecting something good, something like 8 hours. It’s gonna be in for a surprise.

23:00: Night nap

Well I survived. I didn’t sleep, just some imaginative drifting. Now I am tired, properly tired like you are after a long day’s travelling just before you sink into bed. I’m not going to bed for another 30 days. At least I’ve tidied up my desk.

Alertness rating: 4

23:59pm: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 13
  • Reactions: 76.69

So I improved in all areas of mental acuity. I can only conclude that my performance hasn’t been affected by being awake for 17 hours straight. I can believe that. I guess the improvement is simply down to being used to the exercises and standard variation in performance.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 123/68
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Everything pretty normal here still. The blood pressure is raised, but still within my normal daily range. The weight is higher, as you would expect after a meal and full hydration.

Alertness rating: 6

Actually I’m feeling alright! I wonder if doing the cognitive tests woke me up a bit.

Polyphasing Experiment: Testing, testing

Today I was analysed by my psychologist. One hour of intensive testing at the Starbucks in Covent Garden (Peppermint tea please). I’m not sure if I am normal, but at least we’ve put down a marker for the end of the experiment.

These tests assess attention, concentration, memory and my executive functions, i.e. problem solving and decision making. The theory is that sleep deprivation will make these processes sloooower.

The tests were:

  1. Visual memory: copy a complicated geometric drawing, then draw it from memory immediately, then draw it from memory again 30 minutes later.
  2. Trail making: point to numbers on a piece of paper in numerical order, then with the letters of the alphabet and numbers in alternation (1, A, 2, B etc)
  3. Zoo map: trace a route through the zoo following various rules and injunctions.
  4. Wechster memory scale: listen to a story and then repeat it back, marked for story details and themes. Then retell 20 minutes later.
  5. Verbal fluency: name as many animals as possible, then as many words beginning with ‘F’ in one minute.
  6. Verbal paired associates: given pairs of nouns, e.g. Elephant, Glasses, then have to produce the pair when given its other half immediately and then again after 45 minutes.
  7. Letter number sequencing: given numbers and letter jumbled up, then have to sort them and repeat back in numerical and alphabetical order.
  8. Digit span: given sequences of numbers, then have to repeat them back in the same order as given. Then more sequences of numbers, but repeated backwards.

My results were:

  1. Immediate reproduction with no mistakes; 30 minute delay with 4 mistakes.
  2. Numerical order: 16.24s; Numerical and alphabetical order: 33.65s
  3. Successfully completed in: 1:46.29s
  4. Logical memory test 1a: 13/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. After a delay: 10/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. Logical memory test 1b: 14/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. With a second reading of the story: 19/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. After a delay: 19/25 story units; 8/8 thematic units
  5. Animals: 40; F words: 23
  6. 100% recall immediately and after 45 minutes
  7. 13/21 sequences correct.
  8. 8/16 sequences correct; 7/14 backward sequences correct.

We will test these again at the end of the experiment to see how many of my brain cells have died.

Polyphasing Experiment: The Challenge

It was midnight and we were totally exhausted. We were sitting up late again, relaxing in the office at Makan, a cultural centre in Cairo. We’d spent the last two weeks working long days on my friend’s PhD fieldwork and now you couldn’t have kept our eyes open with matchsticks. Our heads were drooping into our beers and our metabolism was crashing after the sugar high that had fuelled the last few hours of frantic archaeology.

We wanted to celebrate finishing her research which had been a succession of progressively more intractable problems one after another. Our necks were stiff from bending over the microscope and our arms were aching from sieving endless archaeological samples. We just felt like we deserved to relax and enjoy ourselves, but with only hours to spare before our flight home our bodies weren’t willing.

Opposite us was Ahmed al-Maghrabi, the tireless manager of Makan. He was boasting that he hadn’t slept the previous night. Just what we needed to hear, this man in his fifties casually telling us that he’d spent all night at a film première and hadn’t slept a wink. We sat there, supposedly in the peak condition of our lives, flagging horribly and feeling rather pathetic opposite this insomniac. It didn’t seem fair and I told him so. What he said was to change my life. ‘Well you know Leonardo Da Vinci only slept 2 hours a day. Not that I’m comparing myself with him, but you know…’

That woke me up. I’m interested in what you might call lifestyle design. Last year I spent forty consecutive days getting up at dawn in an attempt to become less of a lazy bones. Turned out the reason I was so ‘lazy’ and sleeping an awful lot was because I had an underactive thyroid, but the experience was a real eye opener and great fun. I have been looking for something else to do ever since and here, with the warm night air of Cairo blowing through the curtains, I sensed an opportunity.

‘Really? Two hours a day? That’s impossible, surely?’
‘No, no. It’s all documented. Two hours a day, that’s all. He just slept for 20 minutes every four hours.’
‘That’s incredible. Just imagine – you’d have six more hours a day awake. That’s a quarter of a day! You could squeeze an extra 3 months into every year! No wonder Leonardo Da Vinci got so much work done.’

At this point my companion interjected, somewhat brusquely, that I was still an inveterate lazy bones and wouldn’t be able to find anything productive to do for that extra six hours anyway, so what was the point? Ah ha. A dual challenge: sort out my life so that I need six extra hours of work/play time a day and therefore need a sleep schedule to match the greatest genius that has ever lived. ‘I’m gonna do it!’

Grande Ecole

She kept looking for the answer. The little girl was running from shop front to shop front, shouting her question: ‘When will I die? When will I die?’ She had long blonde curls and a fierce look in her eye that made the shop keepers laugh.
‘Never!’
‘In a very long time!’
‘Ten minutes if you keep up that racket!’
The answers were always different and the little girl started to get confused. She ran to the shop of her favourite grocer, Pierre. Pierre was an old man; surely he would know the answer to her question. Pierre laughed softly, not like the others, and hoisted her onto his knee and began to tell her a story:

‘A long time ago there was a little girl just like you who always questioned everything. She always asked ‘Why?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This little girl, who had lovely blonde hair just like you, cherie, learnt so much that she grew up to be very clever. She quickly learnt everything that anyone in her small village could tell her, but still found she had questions. She started to get frustrated with the villagers who could no longer answer her. The old people of the village looked on with sadness in their eyes because they knew that soon they would lose this beautiful little girl who asked all the questions.

‘She grew up fast and soon she was a beautiful young woman, impatiently counting the days until she would be allowed to leave the small village and go to Paris to study at the Grande Ecole there. That day arrived and all the old men of the village wept as she boarded her carriage, knowing that they would not see her beautiful face again, that they would die before she returned – if she ever returned. The old women of the village wept also, knowing that this curious young woman was going to learn secrets that had evaded them all their lives. Everybody wept because they knew that the young woman would not return for many years and that the village would not see the benefit of her great intellect and curiosity.

‘Well, the young woman, whose name was Therese, left that day by carriage and arrived two days later in Paris. This beautiful young woman had never been in such a huge city and knew nothing of the ways of the townspeople. So she started asking her questions: ‘Where can I stay the night?’, ‘How do I operate the trolley-bus?’, ‘Where can I take a carriage to the Sorbonne?’ She learnt the ways of Paris very quickly and soon settled into city life.

‘One day she decided to move from her room in the Hotel Cosmopolitan and so she asked a young man, ‘Where can I rent lodgings?’ The young man led her to a house where an old man sat outside, whittling a piece of wood. He stopped when he saw her and looked her up and looked her down. She started to feel uncomfortable, for she was very beautiful, so she asked, ‘Why do you look at me like that?’ The old man replied, ‘Because you are beautiful, I will give you good clean lodgings.’
‘Thank you. But how much will it cost me?’
‘Oh very cheap,’ the old man’s mouth cracked into a smile, ‘very cheap for a face like that.’
The young woman felt uncomfortable, but followed the old man into the house. He showed her a room, which was satisfactory and she paid a deposit of 15 francs.

‘The old man was a very attentive landlord and Therese would often find him waiting outside her door when she went to bathe. This made her uncomfortable so she asked, ‘Why do you wait outside my door when I bathe?’
He replied, ‘Because you are beautiful. I am an old man and it gives me great peace to see such a beautiful young woman.’
Therese couldn’t find the words to deny this old man his pleasure so lowered her head and didn’t say anything.

‘All this time Therese was studying at the Grande Ecole, asking her questions and getting her answers from her very intelligent tutors. One tutor, whose name was Jean, took a particular interest in her development and took it upon himself to ensure that she had full access to whatever materials she needed and also to his personal library. One day, after she mentioned that she was struggling to find money for tuition as well as food and even her very cheap lodgings, Jean offered to help pay for her room in the old man’s house. Therese thought this very kind and, because he was very intelligent, she trusted him and confided that the old man with whom she was staying made her feel uncomfortable. Upon hearing this, the tutor immediately offered her a room in his house until she could find more appropriate lodgings. Therese accepted with relief and immediately hired a carriage to move her few bags across town.

‘Jean’s house was much more convenient for the Grande Ecole and Jean himself was a very convivial host. They would spend the evenings talking in great depth about her interests and he would spend hours and hours answering her questions, sometimes even before she asked them. They would have long, relaxing dinners with wine and cheese. He had a taste that was delicately refined and he reveled in teaching Therese the subtleties of society. She had many questions about this of course, coming as she did from a small country village. She had scarcely thought about the village since being in Paris: the old villagers had been right to cry.

‘After two weeks of wine and intellectual lodging with Jean, Therese suddenly realized that she was supposed to find her own lodgings. When she told Jean of her intention, however, he grew offended and insisted that she remain with him. This made her puzzled and so she asked, ‘Why do you insist on me staying here?’ He did not reply, but left the room.

‘This was the first time that somebody had given her no answer at all and it made her think. He had not said, ‘I do not know.’ He had not said, ‘Please ask someone else.’ He had not said, ‘You can find the answer in this book.’ He had not said ‘I shall try to find out for you.’ He had not said ‘Examine the evidence and you will find out for yourself.’ He had not said anything. He had simply left the room. This confused Therese deeply and she went to bed that night with her mind in a frantic state. She could not sleep and tossed and turned until midnight. Jean’s house overlooked a church square and Therese could see from her bedroom window the tower of the church. The moon was high and shone its light over the clock face. The two hands of the clock were pointing straight up to the stars, as if pointing to the answer for her question. She stared out of her window as the clock struck midnight. She opened the window wide; perhaps the air would help her sleep.

‘As the twelfth note sounded there was a commotion of wings and, to Therese’s astonishment, a white barn owl landed on the eaves of the house just in front of her. She didn’t dare breathe as the owl surveyed the square below, seeking a mouse for prey. She was close enough to reach out and touch the soft down of the owl’s wings, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. The owl stood there, alert, its head rotating as its eyes penetrated the gloom. Its claws gripped the straw of the roof thatching and Therese felt like she was in a dream. The beauty of the owl in the moonlight haunted her and she grew bolder, inching her head closer to the owl’s. The owl caught her movement in his wide eyes, but stayed calm and rotated his head all around to consider her. The two stared at each other in the moonlight as the last echoes of the church bells drifted over the sleeping city roofs. Time seemed to stand still; the two creatures staring deep into each others eyes. Therese realised this was the moment she would find her answer. So she whispered, very faintly, ‘Why did he run away from my question, Owl?’
The owl looked deep into her eyes, his claws twitched on the thatch. He had her question and Therese waited breathless for the answer. But the owl batted his wings and, with one last look, took to the skies. Therese sighed and watched him disappear over the sleeping rooftops.’

There was a pause as Pierre stopped talking and smiled at the little girl.
‘Well what was the answer to her question?!’ The little girl almost screamed. ‘That’s not fair! Tell me the answer!’
Pierre looked down at the furrowed brow underneath the blonde curls of the little girl on his knee, ‘Sometimes, cherie, there are no answers; just moments.’

6th October

The streets would not forgive him. Cairo revealed herself, but at a price. Bert could feel their eyes, pricking his conscience, taking him apart limb by limb. The hawkers carried on their shouting match, but he knew their eyes were on him, the foreign. What were they selling? Was it the piles of plastic combs at their feet or was it something more precious? This man had all manner of plastic toys. Where had they come from? China probably. The new colonialism. We shall conquer the world by exporting plastic toys. First plastic toys, then… The business model worked, incredibly. In this world it worked.

A few others sold sweets wrapped in lurid plastic wrappers. Here and there were traditional food sellers. A man with a rough wooden cart was roasting sweet potatoes. An old woman, fat and wrapped in black was crouched beside a pile of tissues. All their eyes were upon him. Overhead the bridge flew over and down below micro-buses hurled past screaming their destinations. Even the birds stopped their pecking in the dust as he walked through the bus station.

What had brought him here? What unlikely, unnatural turn of events had brought him from middle class rural Germany to a bus station in downtown Cairo? Astonishingly, in this world, it was common. He looked up and could see ahead of him another blond man fighting to board a micro-bus. He had just past a Dutch looking woman heading down the subway. Suddenly he hated that blond, the unknown Dutch woman and, above all, himself. What right had they to be here? Bringing their Euros, easily buying the life that these hawkers could never attain despite working twenty-four hours a day, sometimes more. What sheer fluke, pure chance, unkind fate had bestowed upon them the right to jet into other countries and live it up with scarce a thought to where the next meal was coming from, when they would next wash with warm water or how they would sell enough plastic toys to shelter let alone school their children?

Bert knew where he was going. He was going to cross the road past the bus station, climb the stairway above the hawkers and stroll across 6th October Bridge in the evening air over to Gezira and on to his clean, comfortable hotel in Zamalek. His life was etched out ahead of him, he could see it, plain and clear in frustrating detail. What could go wrong? What event could possibly happen that could not be settled with a call to his credit card company or a visit to a cash machine? Even if he were hit by a car crossing this road now, he would be well looked after in the finest hospitals of Cairo and the man who hit him would doubtless spend the night in jail. His place in this city was cosseted away behind the security at his hotel in the tree lined boulevards of colonial Zamalek. There was no obstacle to his comfort and it was all thanks to pointless, aimless luck. Of course he worked but, in this world, incredibly, one hour’s work in Germany was equivalent to perhaps three days’ work for these hawkers. Probably more. Bert didn’t like to think about it because there was nothing he could do about it.

As he lowered his head a shout and a look caught his attention. A man about his age was waving a flashing elephant in his direction. Bert heard his name in the look. There was a flashing plastic train careering around a yellow plastic track at the man’s feet. Bert walked over, entranced. The man looked at him, “Seer! Mister!”
“Bikem?” Bert heard himself say.
“Da?” the man said, indicating the elephant.
“La,” Bert almost whispered through dried throat, “kull haaga.”
“Kull haaga?” The man’s eyes grew half an inch in diameter.
“Yes – it all. How much for everything?”
The man hesitated, calculating, measuring disbelief against opportunity.
“I want everything you have. The table, the stool, that cloth.” Bert was warming up, pointing at everything the hawker used to hawk with. The man was clearly unnerved by this mad foreigner and glanced across at his neighbour, who was beginning to take an interest. They fired a few sentences between themselves. The other man laughed and said, in surprisingly good English, “You want to buy all Mohammed shop?”
“Yes. I do. I want his entire stall. Everything.”
The man laughed and explained to Mohammed, who stammered a reply.
“Ok mister, Mohammed want 500 pounds.”
Well, eid has come early for Mohammed, Bert thought.
“I don’t have that much on me, but here is 250 pounds Egyptian,” Bert started emptying his pockets, “50 dollars US…and my watch.” Mohammed looked stunned.
“Is that enough?”
Mohammed laughed this time and took the money eagerly, counting it out for himself.
Bert laughed as well and said, “Now go, my friend, go and enjoy yourself! I’ll take it from here.”

Bert had never done anything so reckless. He felt like a new man. He had a vocation, he had comrades in the fight for survival. He and Mohammed had swapped places. Now Bert was the plastic toy hawker under 6th October Bridge. Mohammed was free, without a care in Cairo. Bert slipped into the world of a real Cairene. He grabbed the flashing elephant with zeal and started hawking. The other man, who introduced himself as Mahmud, was laughing heartily. Mahmud had never seen anything like it.

Bert hawked all that night, all the next day and into the night again, shouting himself hoarse. He stayed there twenty four hours straight, high on the intoxication of freedom. He didn’t sell a thing, but he didn’t care. Egyptians wouldn’t buy from a foreigner and foreigners would never buy the rubbish he was selling, certainly not from a mad German. He drew a lot of stares, but he didn’t care one bit. He was a Cairene hawker.
The police arrived after about eight hours and tried to get him moved on. They asked him where his hotel was and threatened to call the embassy, but Bert held firm and the hawkers, his new friends, argued his case in impassioned Arabic. The police moved to a respectful distance but stayed watching, clearly suspicious of this extraordinary foreigner. A gang of baladi kids came up to him and started teasing him, “Mister, mister! How much mister!”, delighting in this reversal of fortunes. Then they started trying to steal from him, mobbing him with their strong little hands. But Mahmud had eagle eyes and whipped a length of knotted rope at them. The kids fled, screaming in delight.

After about fifteen hours of non-stop hawking, Mahmud offered Bert half of his sweet potato to keep his spirits up. Bert gratefully accepted, they were equals, sharing food like true comrades. A few ragged looking men shuffled past on their way back from sweeping the roads, most just stared at him with dull eyes, but a few hissed. The police tried to get Bert to leave again, stating that it was against the law for him to work. Again Mahmud defended him by arguing that Bert hadn’t sold anything so technically could not be working. The police moved off again, buzzing into their radios.

About twenty hours in, an old lady shuffled up to Bert. It was clear that she was very poor and as she got closer Bert could tell that she was half blind. She used her hands to rummage through Bert’s collection of plastic and finally selected one, a chicken with furry feet who played a banjo when you twisted its neck. Bert looked into her darkened, unfocused eyes and felt his heart plunge. He was still far from equal. He could not sell her the chicken and shooed her away before his weakness showed. Mahmud noticed but said nothing. They watched the old lady shuffle off the kerb onto a bus, the chicken merrily banjo-ing the tune to Achy Breaky Heart.

The old lady had shaken Bert and he began to feel increasingly uneasy about shouting his wares into the night, increasingly self-conscious. He grew quieter and less eager for customers, fearful they would expose him for what he was. As his twenty-fourth hour approached, Bert started panicking, he started seeing the desperate eyes around him, he no longer saw comrades. How Bert had wanted to join them just twenty-four hours before. Now he could not imagine anything more claustrophobic.

As the twenty-fourth hour passed Bert saw a familiar face approaching his stand from across the bus station. Mohammed was returning and he did not look in the mood for conversation. Halfway across the road he started shouting at Bert. Bert couldn’t understand most of the words, but gathered that he was not welcome.
“Imshi! Get out! Get out! Thief!”

Mohammed was waving his arms around the stand of plastic toys. He picked up the flashing elephant and waved it in Bert’s face. Bert sensed the other hawkers closing in, forming a circle around him. The night was dark, lit from the fires of potato ovens, reflected in the dark eyes of his former comrades, the men he had spent the last twenty-four hours side by side with. Loneliness struck him in the chest. He lifted his arms as Mohammed started to beat him with the flashing elephant.
“Go! Get out! Thief! Steal my life! Get out!”
Mahmud raised his knotted rope and bared his teeth in the gloom. The cars and taxis raced overhead and Bert eyed the staircase. He ran. The mob chased him out of the bus station, out of the market and up the stairs, where they watched him flee across the Nile into Gezira. They watched him run until he was swallowed up in the night among the tall trees of Zamalek where he could do no harm.

6th October Bridge shook with traffic as the hawkers carried on their shouting match and a flashing plastic train careered around its yellow plastic track. The streets had forgotten him.

City of Dust

It was a time of dust. It was a time for decay.

The year was turning, slowly, from quiet winter to noisy spring – but Cairo doesn’t notice. The cars barricade the roads and buses blockade roundabouts. A woman sitting behind a cart of roasting chick peas, shoe shiners scrub, scrap metal merchants clatter from gutter to gutter and the dust settles around them.

He awoke with a choke. Thick mucus caught in his tonsils and he’s bolt upright hacking into his sheets. Scrambling for consciousness, scrabbling for a fight or flight response. This was the return to Cairo. The Hilton looked over into his room, across the Nile. The constant lazy motion of the Nile washing steadily to the sea, the constant frantic jerk of the cars beating their way to City Stars, to Talat Harb, to Agouza, the smiling swagger of loose limbed Cairenes swaying through the dust.

But he didn’t have time for metaphors, for adjectives vermilion; she was here. He could sense her in every speck of dust, even if she was only three parts per million, he could detect her in the air, on the pavements, in the dust thickened trees. They took on the appearance of a house plant that hasn’t been taken care of. Left in a corner, forgotten. No rain touches them, no cleaner dusts their waxy leaves. They lean over the roads in Zamalek, begging to be touched, begging to be shaken out of their torpor.

But he had no time for trees either. He hacked one last time into a tissue and got out of bed. He moved over to the bathroom and washed his hands. There was dust on the mirror and his face looked back through the haze. He looked older. Or younger. Or foreign. Happy. Sad. Tired. Excited. But he didn’t have time for making faces either.

Downstairs in the hotel he left the key with the manager and stepped into the evening. The dust rose to meet him carrying smells of gasoline, of searing meat, of crushed herbs, of sweat. He cleared his throat and set off towards her. He felt like a blood hound on the scent of a memory. He turned instinctively, feeling his way towards her. He could find her blind, he could stretch out his arms and his feet would carry him to her, borne like the dust on the loose wind of Cairo. Mohammad Mazhar, Mohammed al-Maraashly, Bahgat Ali: the names floated back from a year ago, binding memory to reality. The embassies and the days they walked these streets: there’s Iraq surrounded by tall palms, Myanmar isolated behind crumbling walls, Sweden with every brick in place like it was sent over flat-packed. As he walked, the Nile pleaded with him to drag his feet, but he bent his head and turned towards her scent.

Broken pavement, crushed Baraka bottle, branches with leaves resigning, dog shit smeared. The road passed below him, marking time, playing a show reel of human waste. The cafe was ahead. He could see its lights. He could remember its lights. His memory was racing to meet him. He was suspended in time and his memory was swelling every moment. Soon it would join his reality and he would be enveloped by the same words, the same touches, the same caresses that belonged a year ago.

The entrance swallowed him and the cafe was delivered to his senses. He must have looked lost because an immediate waiter bobbed into his vision, “Sir?” He looked down, his head beginning to throb and said automatically through mucus, “ayiz shay min fadhlak”. The man nodded curtly, “hagga tany?” What? He paused, then remembered his lines, “shay bas, binayanaya, shukran.” The man gestured to a chair nearby. He sat down heavily and became aware of the other patrons. Men. Mostly. Mostly smoking. Mostly staring at the new arrival. The tea arrived and he took it in his hands. Too soon. The glass burned, the skin of his palm shriveled in self-preservation.

She would come. He could feel her coming. Like he used to. He could feel her so strongly that he thought it idiotic that they were meeting in a cafe at 7, as if they needed to arrange a time and a place. He could have found her in a sandstorm. He started to relax and replaced his hands on the small glass cup. His hands, reluctant, grew bolder and soon sunk into its warmth. The glass was patterned in gold around the rim. Of course it wasn’t real gold, probably just an alloy. He turned his gaze on the cafe. Its high ceilings and carved decoration spoke of an elegance that it barely tried to maintain. Dust lay everywhere human hands did not care to reach. But the bar was clean enough and there was a man polishing a window. He had seen him doing that earlier in the day. Was it the same window? Was the man a memory? Was there a persistent stain, refusing to be polished, refusing to be scrubbed out of existence?

She would come. She was here. He took a first sip of the tea and the warm liquid left a breath of mint before sliding down his sore throat. He could feel, now, a warmth in his stomach. The tea had settled and was making itself at home. It was a shame, he thought, that in a short time the tea would cool and digest and he would be left with nothing but an urgent need to relieve himself. A short moment of warmth followed by a repulsion. He looked at the tea in disgust. He was just looking at his future. He was inevitably on the way to pissing out the contents of that glass, gold rimmed cup. In fact, looking at it closely, it was already a sepia yellow colour. It wouldn’t even look any different coming out as it did going in. Maybe his piss would even taste of mint. Why should he piss? Why couldn’t he enjoy his memories of mint tea without the hassle of pissing? After all, this particular cup of tea would add nothing to his memory. He could already classify, identify the taste and feeling of mint tea, the warmth, the slight clean taste, the roughness of the scorched tongue – so why should he bother with the drinking and the pissing? He knew he would though, eventually. Just like he knew she was going to come, eventually. And what else could he do whilst he waited? So he lifted the glass and put his lips to the gold rim and tilted his head back a little.

The liquid, predictably, slid over his lower lip and over his tongue, which he lifted so that the mint flavour slipped down onto his lower palate before gently swallowing through his thick throat. Thereafter the sensation was of warmth. He tried to follow the warmth down to his stomach but was disappointed to notice that only the first sip can be traced that far. Subsequent sips seem to get stuck somewhere higher up. He almost felt full. He should stop focusing on the tea. It was just tea. Just something to do while he waited. Time didn’t seem to be passing. The same cars droned past outside, the same combination of lights and horns, shouts and breaking screeches. The waiter in the cafe made the same movements, back and forth, sheesha, tofaah, shay, ahwa, sukkar. The patrons made the same gestures to one another and the speech was indecipherable. They seemed to be talking about the football. Or the weather. Or memories. Or the dust. One is pointing. One raises his glass. One pulls on a sheesha pipe. One just sits, still. An old man is sitting near a large plate mirror, staring. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t smee toby moo thing at all. Team dad int smeethabee moofin atorl. Moofin atorl. Orl.

He jerked up with a start. What had happened? The waiter looked over at him sharply, but continued his movements. He was choreographed and couldn’t miss a step. She was coming, wasn’t she? He could feel her coming, just like he used to. He could. The smoke in the cafe mingled with the dust, filling his lungs with a weight. That must have been what made him drift off. It had got so smoky that he wasn’t even sure if he could still see the old man across the room. He could see the mirror, or thought he could, it was hard to tell what was reflected and what was real. He could feel time receding now, the moment was reeling away from him. His memory was clouded in a haze of smoke and dust, he wasn’t sure anymore about anything. Was she coming? Was she still? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but behind his eyes his memory was out of control, it was lurching about, making him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was forgetting, it was that the time was gone: an impenetrable haze of dust had settled between him and his past. She wasn’t coming. It was a time of dust. It was a time of decay.

How to enjoy waking up at dawn

After waking up at the Krakadorn every day for forty days, I’ve become something of an expert in how to enjoy waking up that early.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Get a good alarm clock.
  2. Get excited about the novelty of getting up so early. It’s so ridiculous that it’s funny – now jump out of that bed!
  3. Imagine you are going somewhere really cool and exciting.
  4. Go somewhere really cool and exciting (use your imagination).
  5. Stare at the Sun, wonder at the natural miracle of dawn. It does this every day, while you are normally snoring your head off. Be happy about how lucky you are to be watching this event.
  6. Take pictures, have fun! Use your creativity to get inside the morning.
  7. Find something / someone to laugh at (not hard – there are plenty of commuters).
  8. Look closely at the world as it is waking up. These are things you don’t see normally. The frost still on the ground, rubbish bags ripped open by rats overnight, the morning call of the birds, the soft hum of the milkman’s float. Appreciate.
  9. Return home and reward yourself with a breakfast fit for a King / Queen. Make it a real feast of tasty goodness, none of this muesli rubbish. Cook something you love – why does breakfast have to be boring? Fry up some sausages, eggs, tomatoes, make pancakes or an omelette. Use your imagination.
  10. Forget the hasty shower – have a real long hot bath. Yeah!
  11. Then look at the clock and see it’s only half eight.

That is how you learn to love the dawn.

Outside Mornington Crescent Tube Station

Right now outside Mornington Crescent tube station in London (at 1825 on Thursday) a man in a green, black and pale blue striped jumper, peaked cap and khaki trousers talks on his mobile telephone, one hand in his pocket, he just strides up and down the street.

In the background some scaffolding has been erected against Greater London house and there is graffiti against the slate grey hoarding. The trees stand and at their foot are eight mopeds and an assortment of parked cars. The traffic on the main road is busy.

The man is wearing earphones around his neck and a bag slung over his shoulder

“This area is covered by CCTV.” A yellow sign with a stark black image of a camera in 2D above the lettering. A discarded television lies beneath this sign

Two cyclists drift across the main road casually, with no regard for the traffic. Three black youths, one riding standing up, tall on the back wheel with his hands on the shoulders of the guy pedalling. They are not wearing helmets.

The scaffolding is by a company called Beacon. There is red and white tape around some of the poles. The building rises to six stories high. The trees are patterned like camouflage, mottled lichen greys, ash whites, greens, browns. The leaves are dark green, light green, leaves cut out from a pattern using those scissors that automatically cut serrated edges.

Russell Square

The warmth of the sun and the idle chatter of Spanish transports me, a dog sniffing the ground and people walking, talking, sitting, relaxing, soaking up the sun. Mothers with young children – one fallen flat on her face – the dangers of her scooter are obvious. The fountain blows foaming water. She’s back on the scooter, the Spanish turns faultlessly to English as a friend approaches. Round and round the fountain goes the little girl on the scooter. Another girl joins her, observes the water’s edge, doing nothing but enjoying the movement of the scooter. She pushes, pushes, pushes and then lets it roll – oop – one foot in the water. She goes and parks up next to mother.

A man in a scarf, thick black coat, heeled leather shoes and a black hat walks swiftly by – a swarthy look contrasting to the pink and fuchsia of the little girl.

Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss. The man talking to the police I can see is holding a can of beer – seems a little early to be enjoying that. Perhaps they are homeless. The mothers are beautiful, well made up and sporting sunglasses and accoutrements of fashion. You can tell the people who were dressed by seven a.m. – they have coats folded over their arms, not expecting the heat of this sun, which has been hidden by the cold winds blowing through town.

The gardener talks to the old woman during a break- he is a Rastafarian – gumboots, green combats, black t-shirt and black hat holding his hair in. He seems to be an engaging man and I’ve frequently seen him in the parks around here. He does a good job and I like to think of him, living with the land, even in the city. His beard and face bear the marks of a life lived. His priorities are obvious: the land comes first. The city would be nothing without the green of the earth and spring. What would the office workers do without the thought of a stroll through the park en-route, or the lunch hour spent lying flat out on the warmed grass? He has a couple of jumpers and a rainbow scarf of some description – a piece of fabric he always wears.

A group of three men sitting on a bench split up to take their leave – the third stands slowly – they are all old, but he is older and moves even more slowly in the same direction, his blue coat having a waterproof complexion.

The Spaniards say goodbye – I say goodbye quietly. Everyone is very casual around here, the circular shape of the centre of the park provides a natural cat walk for the passing people, in a good mood on account of the sun and vaguely smiling because they know they are on show, the runners even more so – not running around the park but bisecting it – cutting a diameter through it.

The Rasta laughs loudly and the old woman’s body shakes quietly. They are talking earnestly and happily. The child wants to play in the water and the fountain doubles in size. The girl lets out a controlled squeel of excitement. The wind catches the water and blows it softly over them, air-conditioning two blonde girls, daughters of two black-haired beauties.

A man walks through the park, head bent low, suit grey and open but head and shoulders still tucked over himself, still in winter stance, a typical Englishman, broken by the weather. The weather which governs our constitution coats, which breaks our necks and our spirit. Heavy clothes which can only weigh us down, lead coats that take us to the bottom of the ocean of drizzle.

The Rasta has gone, the old woman too. The dog plays on the bench between the two old men, the police are gone, the old men stand and drift away, stopping to talk to a woman on a wheelchair motorised, the dog yelps excitedly and jumps up at his master. A woman is making the rounds with a microphone asking questions, getting vox pop (which I suppose is Latin – vox populi – voice of the people). She has red hair.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She’s from SOAS radio. She almost vanishes in the sunlight. The girl next to me answers, “Romania, because that’s my home.” I answer, “Vietnam, because my friend’s there.” I don’t tell her that I study at SOAS too.

The man in the grey suit walks back again, the same step, the same stride and the tie flowing over his shoulder. The Romanian’s perfume fills my nostrils. The raven haired mother’s husband arrives – he looks Mediterranean and plays with the girl, lifting her and attacking her with his teeth, burying his face in her side.

An old man, grizzled beard, wearing a woolly grey-blue hat with Tottenham written on the side comes to empty the bins. He is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a marker of his officialdom. The fountain falls to an ambient trickle of water, just a small puff of water surrounded by two rings of six acolytes – twelve, like the apostles. A man comes to the centre of the circle, mutters something and then sprints off in the direction of the tube. The girl splashes in the water, the sunlight sparkling off the surface of the concrete. They are in silhouette and the flakes of sunlight, starlight, jump up and she tries to go deeper, but is drawn back – where did the scooter girl go?

An old man in a wheelchair, thoroughly wrapped up, takes the air, pushed along by his aide. His aide, wearing a mischievous grin, pushes him towards the water, but swerves away at the last. The old man leans up and mutters something to him from inside the folds of his scarf and hat and coat and blanket. The aide beams on.

I could stay here all day, but the family have left in unison and the pigeons go back to their paddling. The Romanian reads, the tourists struggle with a map, the bin-man finds more litter. Two more tourists enter the scene, a man on the phone enters the circle, stands and leaves the way he came. A woman with a puffa jacket and a shoulder-swinging stride goes from left to right and the whole world is a stage, everyone is performing, even the old man, eyes closed, hands folded in his lap, his stick between his legs, relaxed, facing the sun, whispering, “Take me away, take me away.”

Spring in the City

It’s Spring in the city!
But how can you tell?
The concrete’s the same,
And so is the smell.
It’s Spring in the city!
But how would you know?
The bus is still late,
The tube still runs slow.

It’s Spring in the city.
You haven’t a clue.
Your pay is still bad,
Your rent is still due.
Spring in the city.
One hour’s less sleep
Is all that you notice.
Monday morning. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

But look! In the parks, the gardens, the squares-
All the accountants have abandoned their chairs,
The stock-brokers have forgotten their shares!
Secretaries, actuaries, bankers, newsanchors-
All the adults have turned six in the sun.
Boys – Frisbee toys radio noise all the joys –
Girls – dancing whorls spinning twirls hair that curls –
Looking sooooooooooooooooooooooooo pretty –
And that’s when we know it’s Spring in the city!

Orion, DC From the days of Gilgamesh, the days of Achilles, the days of Saladin he’s been drawing that bow and the barb will always lodge in my heart: a merciless wound that, never fatal, will bleed whenever the night draws in.

I wrote this last night after reading a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy – where he writes so beautifully it makes you want to give up trying – on the subject of an unrequited love. But it got me thinking about the phantasma that is the imagination and specifically about the water and powder of fantasy and memory…

I have a fantasy about lying in the summer grass with a girl – we lie at right angles to each other; she rests her head on my chest, and plays with a piece of grass, laughing sporadically and gazes, twisting her head back, into my eyes which focus on the skies above. One hand rests, cradling her head; the other, holding a straw, casts a swathe across the heavens.

I’m talking into the soft evening twilight, speaking gently of Cassiopeia, of Cygnus, of Cepheus. As the pink fades into violet velvet, the stars pick their patterns through this tapestry thrown across the horizon. Summer suffocates our senses and the evening releases a hundred herbal scents into the air, the earthy planet warms our bodies and the softening grass supports us. Continue reading Orion, DC From the days of Gilgamesh, the days of Achilles, the days of Saladin he’s been drawing that bow and the barb will always lodge in my heart: a merciless wound that, never fatal, will bleed whenever the night draws in.

Don’t Feed the Human

It is now illegal to give food to scruffy looking types in two US cities: Las Vegas and Orlando.

Two new ordinances in these cities, passed on the 20th of July in Las Vegas and the 26th of July in Orlando, mean that people on government support cannot eat in a public place for free or a negligible fee. The punishment? Well the recipient stays hungry and homeless (unless he or she can be squeezed into the local jailhouse) and the feeder could get $1000 fine and six months in prison. Now that’s an expensive sandwich by anyone’s standards (although some City delis come pretty close).

But how will this be enforced? How on earth can Marshals know who is on government support when they come across a suspect sandwich transaction? Well luckily the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has the answer: “Certain truths are self-evident. You know who’s homeless.”

Now he mentions it, I guess they do look a bit different to us don’t they? Skinny, drawn, probably with a beer can in hand and eyes bulging as a result of some kind of substance misuse. Clothes a bit ripped and messed up; hair unkempt and certainly unshaven. And then there’s the smell of course: a vile cocktail of human excrement and alcohol.

Quite apart from the difficulties of policing this new law, just imagine the bourgeois nightmare: you’re just sitting down with Timmy, Gemima and Clarence the dog for your delightful picnic in the park after a splendid morning feeding the ducks (legal). As you unpack the smashing sandwiches that cook prepared from the rems of last night’s charming soiree a down-at-heel type approaches you (note: he has not shaved recently – beware!). You signal calmly to the children who have retreated to cower behind you; brave Clarence sniffs disdainfully. The man (who, you quickly realise, is not wearing the latest style at ALL) removes his beaten cap and asks if he could possibly have a sandwich. What on earth do you DO? Give him a sandwich and risk criminal proceedings (heaven alone knows: he could be an undercover Park Attendant!), or refuse the sandwich and almost certainly risk losing the kids in a brutal daylight kidnapping?

The implications are wide-reaching: there was a famous summer during my schooldays in Reading when both Doritos and Tango were promoting new products simultaneously. They would generously hand out packets of crisps and bottles of drink to all comers in Reading station. It was beautiful: the perfect way to end the day, relaxed, feet up, on the train home with 14 packs of Doritos and a six bottles of Tango Still (it took a lot of nerve and a large bag to pull off, but it was certainly possible). But now, in the light of this legislation, presumably the promotion would only be open to those who could produce a gas bill or some other proof of address. This provokes the troubling thought: would they have accepted one in my Dad’s name?

Allen Lichtenstein, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney puts it another way: “So the only people who get to eat are those who have enough money? Those who get (government) assistance can’t eat at your picnic?” Surely this is madness!

Luckily, Las Vegas councilman Steve Wolfson raised this exact point with the city attorney Brad Jerbic. Wolfson was understandably worried that a hypothetical kind-hearted individual would be prevented from giving some homeless guy a hypothetical bite to eat. Jerbic clarified the matter for him: “If you bought a couple of burgers and wanted to give them out, you technically would be in violation, but you wouldn’t be cited.” Great! The Las Vegas ordinance was passed unanimously.

I guess they’re just after the big boys then; the people who go out and just hand out burgers to ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, no, maybe five thousand hungry people!

This certainly appears to be the case with Orlando’s apparently less extreme ordinance. The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit. The reason given (according to WFTV) was that “transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses”. Well, of course, the smelly buggers, coming here with their wee and poo and beards – yuk! Banish them! Two miles should do it… No wonder that negotiations between the city council and the American Civil Liberties Union ended badly due to a suspicion of bad faith.

***

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some kind of crazy US social fuckup; remember that what happens over there will happen over here sooner or later. Sorry, that is a terrible generalisation and a frankly exhausted tabloid cliché: ignore me – but just ponder the following:

A couple of weeks ago Westminster City Council criticised soup kitchens: “We appreciate they are trying to help but all they are doing is helping to sustain people on the streets.” The BBC reported that “a spokesman for Westminster City Council said soup runs fail to reduce the number of homeless people and can disturb residents in surrounding areas.” This seems to echo the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude expressed by the city councils of Las Vegas and Orlando.

With withering simplicity, Mr Samson, director of Shelter, pointed out “It is not lack of soup that causes homelessness”. Wise words.

***

The French, meanwhile, have been busy closing down soup kitchens for other reasons.

Soup kitchens run by right wing groups, serving soup somewhat provocatively made with smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, pigs’ tails and sausages, were targeted by French authorities last February. This was in response to the growing alienation felt by Muslim groups in France and during a period when the whole of Europe seemed to be in the grip of cartoon-related civil unrest.

The kindly matron of one such soup kitchen in Paris made the point, however, that “Other communities don’t hesitate to help their own, so why can’t we?” – shortly before climbing on top of a car and screaming, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!”

And it is true that Islamic and Jewish charities dole out (shock!) halal and kosher food respectively. But it wouldn’t be too hard to argue that these special diet kitchens don’t actually exclude certain social groups. It’s hard to say the same about a soup kitchen who baldly state: “The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork.”

***

It is easy for me; I could happily live a life in which food was not an issue of great social and political importance, but every now and again something nudges me awake.

The Man on the Train

The man on the train leans forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is okay? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
‘I have’

He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish.

He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’ I ask.
‘No, Hayes,’ he replies. ‘I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘London-On-Sea.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the, um… forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.

Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging.

Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. I’m out of ideas.

‘Where are you from?’ I ask.
He replies: ‘Lebanon.’

The smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently.

Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out.

‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguring to register Concern.
‘… Gosh.’
‘Yeah. It is bad.’

At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.

‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
‘Your family?’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’

He looks pained: ‘No electric, no water – it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’

I look down at my bottle of water.

‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses.

‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people.

‘I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody.

‘Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retinas burn when I meet his look.

‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want.

‘Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us?

‘How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London.’

He realises this doesn’t capture the scale. ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘Malta.’

‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down. ‘… A clear view.’

‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns. They are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘Bombed?’
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘without the body.’

‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘smaller than, smaller than…’ He leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure.
‘Smaller than… a football.’

‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them… Anyway that was in World War.’ He brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm.

‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die.

‘If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’

He cuts me off: ‘Well they must do something. They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

‘I must get off here,’ he says. ‘It’s been nice talking to you.’

I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship.
‘I hope your family are alright.’
‘It is life, my friend.’

He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

I wish I’d asked his name.


This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.

The 2006 Lebanon War is believed to have killed between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis.

It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.

Carmen in Seville

All I knew about my host was that she was called Carmen and was ‘looking forward to poisoning me’. At least that’s what my ‘Welcome To Seville’ introductory letter should have said. Perhaps I might have sensed the dark portents of staying with a Carmen in the city of Seville, but I was optimistic and knew absolutely nothing about opera.

So it was that, in the blistering sunlight of high noon, underneath a sky of the deepest, most photogenic blue, I found myself outside an anonymous looking apartment block. Once I circled it- like a matador about his fated prey. Twice I circled it again- as if I were a bailaor caught up in the flamenco of a furious pasión. Thrice and again around- increasingly like a hapless Englishman who couldn’t find the blasted door.

Having eventually located an entrance, I struggled up the stairs in the heat. Carmen kindly made herself known by banging something disturbingly metallic against the door; she was the one in pyjamas. I made my way inside and took a sharp intake of breath. Not from any shock or horror, I just don’t find stale air very comfortable on the lungs. Many florid hand gestures exchanged between us and I assumed I was welcomed to her cosy casa.

Taking refuge in my designated cell, I perused a notice on the back of the door. This was, essentially, a list of benevolent injunctions from my host, such as ‘No food in room’, ‘No TV in room’ and ‘No guests in room’. Added to the list were some, rather disparaging, additions made by previous guests, which Carmen had not been astute enough to delete.

A sharp knock startles me, and my host gurns at me from a round the frame:
‘Would you like some lunch?’ (translation of frantic hand-to-mouth signals).
‘Yes please, that would be lovely’ (international language of cheerful nodding).
She closes the door and the sound of pots and pans being clashed together breaks the quiet, still heat: magnífico! Two minutes elapse before another rap on the door – ah! – she’ll be asking if I want an aperitivo with some deliciously smoked jamón and queso before the speciality paella de la casa –
‘Lunch is ready’ she signs.

I take this opportunity to show-off my advanced Spanish: ‘Qué?!’
I enter the kitchen to see on my plate the culinary equivalent of a multi-lane motorway pile-up: a deep-fried sausage juggernaut has smashed into the twisted wreckage of a microwaved meatball and spilled its load of deep-fried potatoes all over the oil drenched tomato salad. The fact that the emergency services were not immediately called is something that astounds me to this day.
We ate in joint silence in front of the television: mine explained by a mixture of disbelief and nausea; hers by a fascination with the death of the pope. I was prepared for a culture shock, but this was a little hard to swallow.

I spent the afternoon prostrate on a park bench, wallowing in gastric distress: bloated and oozing oil and fat, desperately burping and scraping my tongue in some futile effort to cleanse my palate. When the park attendant began to tire of this display, I dragged myself back to the flat, just in time to witness Carmen deep-fry dinner for herself. Although from this evidence I couldn’t be certain that she lived on a diet of battered offal, as I tossed and turned in my bed that night, bowels a-shudder, I thought of the weeks ahead and decided that I wouldn’t be the sucker who found out.

I rose early and composed a fiendishly ambiguous note in my worst Spanish, which I propped, suggestively, against the poisonous deep fryer. Then, taking one last, ill-advised, lungful of Carmen’s air, I skulked out of the apartment.

I bounded down the stairs, sensing freedom so close, but – alas! – blocking the door to the street with razor-sharp teeth and menacing bark was a fierce dog, hackles raised. Ok, ok- he was the size of a rabbit with a bark that was more of an irritating yap, but the teeth looked sharp alright. I dithered uncertainly, then suddenly strode forward and threw the door wide open! Without so much as a backward glance the dog was away, head down, tail up, flying down the open road. Never before have I shared such a feeling of camaraderie with a canine.

As far as mortal operatic revenge goes, loosing the local dog probably seems a little anticlimactic, but I thought, on balance, that a swift dagger to the breast would have been a bit harsh on old Carmen. So I hitched up my bag and stepped out into the early morning sunlight, which was already tangoing playfully over the surface of the languid Guadalquivir.

Travel expenses: Spain & Morocco 2005

In the Spring of 2005, I travelled to Spain and Morocco to study Spanish and tour el-Andalus and the land of the Moors. These were my travel costs:

Flights (to and from Spain):

£84.48

Spanish travel costs:

£1055.06
39 days @ £27.05 / day
Travel primarily by coach: Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid, Gibraltar

Spanish language school (including accommodation):

£356.50
14 days @ £25.46 / day

Morocco travel costs:

£177.91
14 days @ £12.71 / day
Travel primarily on bus and train: Tangiers, Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca, Essaouira, Fes, Chefchaouen