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Dispatches on Survival and Resistance

books john berger barbara kingsolver gary snyder martin shaw trump reading writing annie dillard anxietyDispatches on Survival and Resistance

Information has been weaponised and is being used against us by those who stand to gain from mass confusion. The question is, how are we going to defend ourselves?

Imagine truth has been deliberately buried under a great pile of rubble by a group of people so distracted by greed they are willing to sacrifice the viability of life on earth for the sake of a few extra golf clubs on the (rapidly disappearing) Florida coast.

The rubble is made of tabloid propaganda, fake news, misinformation, half-truths, spin doctors, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Katie Hopkins, most of the internet. The pile of rubble is as vast as a mountain range. Navigating a path through the rubble without falling off the mountain is one of the great challenges of our time.

T S Eliot famously wrote that ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality‘. This is presumably why the Daily Mail is so popular. It’s also where drugs come in. But now is no time for getting wasted. Our overheating, war-torn planet needs us. It is us. As the late, great John Berger wrote: ‘Reality is all we have to love. There’s nothing else.’

The only information that can’t be weaponised and used against us is the truth that comes from direct personal experience. Digging for truth among the rubble of lies can be a lonely business. This is where books come in.

Books cut through the loneliness. Books take no notice of time, distance or borders, even the ones that exist between life and death. As the author Johnathan Safran Foer wrote in a recent article for The Guardian ‘A book is the opposite of Facebook.’

If virtual reality is a space owned and managed by mass-murdering corporations, who act as gatekeepers and tax collectors, books represent the open-access land of the imagination. You can pitch a tent anywhere in literature and make it yours. There is no ongoing subscription, no data handed over and sold behind your back, no passwords, nuisance emails and expensive updates, no space for advertising. No up-to-the-minute technology, at eye-watering prices. Just some old trees sliced into pages to make a container for a story, or a poem, or an essay.

I have a friend who is younger than me. She gets anxious. It’s one of the reasons I like her. Frankly, if you’re not anxious right now then you’re not paying attention. Late one night we were drinking gin and talking about anxiety and I was rambling on about books and how they help me and my friend asked me to write a list of books I thought might help her.

The following five books constitute the first installment of this list. They are all books of essays. Essays, being short and full of arguments, are a good way back into reading if you’ve re-wired your brain for the benefit of mass-murdering corporations. Think of these essays as ammunition. Use them when the gin wears off and the money runs out and you find yourself embroiled in a difficult chat with someone who thinks the Daily Mail is a newspaper. Use them for love, comfort, truth and solidarity.

1 / Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (Harper Perennial, first published 1982)

This small book deals with all sorts of big subjects, from polar exploration to weasels (‘We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place’) but the subjects don’t matter. Annie Dillard could write about the inside of my filing cabinet and it would be spellbinding, for ‘We are down here in time, where beauty grows.’

Annie Dillard is the reason I hardly ever publish anything on this blog. I have her words taped to my desk: ‘What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?’

Not much, as it goes.

2 / The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder (Counterpoint, first published 1990)

This was my bible when I was alone and terrified in the High Pyrenees. I read these essays – on walking, language, wilderness, change – over and over again, lying in my tent while thunderstorms crashed around the mountains. Gary Snyder became my excuse for being lost: ‘There are paths that can be followed and there are paths that cannot. It is not a path. It is the wilderness.’

Gary Snyder was the inspiration for Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. While the rest of the Beat Generation mostly drank themselves to death, Snyder dedicated his life to thinking, writing and ‘constantly walking.’

It was Snyder who wrote that ‘In western civilisation our elders are books’.

This book is one of my elders.

3 / Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber, first published 2002)

The title ‘Small Wonder’ refers to the sad inevitability of the attack on the twin towers in the context of American foreign policy, and to the miracle of life and all the small wonders of nature (which we are in the process of destroying).

Barbara Kingsolver’s novels achieve a rare thing, balancing story and polemic, taking difficult subjects (McCarthysim, the execution of Trotsky, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, climate change) and turning them into fat novels you can’t put down. Her standing within the literary world and politics is such that she was invited to lunch with Obama shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

In this book of essays she reminds us to keep digging for truth, precisely because the mass-murdering nature-bashing corporations would rather we gave ourselves up to confusion: ‘What is new is that we know so much about the world, or at least the part of it that is most picturesquely exploding on any given day, that we’re left with a desperate sense that all of it is exploding, all the time. As far as I can tell, that is the intent and purpose of television news. We see so much, understand so little, and are simultaneously told so much about What We Think, as a populace polled minute by minute, that it begins to feel like an extraneous effort to listen at all to our hearts.’

But we must, and reading Barbara Kingsolver helps.

I wish she was my granny.

4 / Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, by John Berger (Verso, first published 2007)

If I had to pick a favourite out of all the hundreds of writers I love, it would be John Berger. I love his sparse and painterly style. I love his courage and sense of adventure. I love his unflinching gaze. I love his endless optimism: ‘The multitudes have answers to questions which have not been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.’

This is a book about despair in the age of Iraq and George W Bush: ‘HOW MUCH LONGER GLOBAL POWER IN D NUMB HAND OF DOSE WHO KNOW NUTHIN?’

But it’s also a guidebook for survival, articulating the questions we’re all asking, in our various  languages, with ever-increasing urgency: ‘People everywhere – under very different conditions – are asking themselves – where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision for the future?’

He shows us what resistance looks like, and what giving in looks like: ‘Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice.’

John Berger died on 2nd January, 2017. His last words were published in a small book of ‘notes’ called Confabulations: ‘We will learn how to wait in solidarity. Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.’

5 / A Branch from the Lightning Tree by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, first published 2011)

Martin Shaw is a mythologist, and this is not so much a book of essays as an introduction to myth and how we need it in our lives. It was written after Shaw spent four years living in a tent on the side of a mountain in Snowdonia; it’s for anyone who gets anxious wandering the barren desert of work-sleep-telly-buy-consume, everyone who yearns for something different: ‘If you don’t want to be Crazy Horse, Boudicca, or Pablo Neruda, stop reading now. It’s probably best we nip this relationship in the bud. This is a book about teasing out the mischievous, solitude-loving, flamboyant, sorcerous, arms-extended-into-the-inky-blackness singing songs of the lost-highwayman aspect of your nature.’

I loved the stories: ‘After more treacherous journeying, Anga came to a towering mountain, so high your eyes would strain and go blind if you tried to see the top of it.’

I loved the commentaries: ‘One hit of DMT will blow the castle doors open in seconds and precipitate a chemically engineered free-fall into a Persian garden. As we congratulate ourselves on having plunged straight into Ceridwen’s cauldron, we would do well to remember our fathers turning to the whiskey cabinet and gazing at sunsets through the castle gates.’

It gave me a new way of looking at old problems: ‘Another larger interpretation is that the planet itself may be trying to awaken us from the thing that Eats and Consumes All. In this case the listener by the door is a tsunami, a flooded New Orleans – something that in the cold light of day says, “For Christ’s sake; don’t you hear the sobbing of your beloved?”

In 2016 I was lucky enough to have the chance to hear Martin Shaw tell a story and talk about his work. Times are dark and troubled, he said. And when times are dark and troubled there’s only one thing to do: make beauty.

And if you’re wondering what I’ve been making, search for Andy Mac on NTS radio, play the mix and wait for the owls.

Elena Ferrante on Brexit

chickensElena Ferrante, best-selling Italian author who has (just) managed to hang onto her anonymity, eschewing all interviews and never being seen dead on social media, has spoken out about Brexit.

Really?

No.

I am making mad connections between entirely unconnected things because it suits my argument.

I’m upset about Brexit. I could fill a post with all the reasons why I’m upset about Brexit, from the most self-centred and practical (loss of right to live and work in 27 countries in which trains and houses are actually affordable and the sun actually shines) to the most outward-looking and existential (the rise and rise of the far-right and what this means for world peace). But I’m not going to talk about Brexit. Not while we’ve all still got a hangover. I’m going to talk about stories.

Because I have finally reached a conclusion: Leave won not because voters were stupid, misguided, hoodwinked, or vicious (some probably were, but most probably weren’t). Leave won because the perpetrators of Leave told the most coherent story, and in times of unfathomable complexity, such as now, a coherent story is like a pork pie on the side of a freezing mountain. You know its wrong, but you’ll eat it anyway.

The connection between Brexit and Elena Ferrante, apart from the fact that Elena Ferrante distracted me from the mad ravings of Trump for the whole of December with her utterly fabulous Neapolitan quartet, is that right at the end of the last book ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ she has one of her characters explain something about bad fiction, which reminded me of Nigel Farage:

‘Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are likeable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.’

The problem with Nigel Farage, apart from all the other problems with Nigel Farage, is that his consoling stories are made of pork pies. Truth doesn’t come in slogans. Truth is nuanced and subtle, quiet and contradictory, a fine balance of probabilities, a line drawn in snow, an instinct for kindness, a desire for justice. Truth, dammit, is always collapsing into awkward puddles of conflicting points of view, both of which are equally valid. Truth is too complex to be represented on the side of a bus. Truth surfaces in strange places. Truth has even been spotted on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, although not very often.

Which brings me to my final point. I have been struggling for a long time to explain to myself why I hate promoting myself on social media. Someone told me it was because I was lazy. I am lazy, so that had the ring of truth, but it wasn’t the truth. The truth, as ever, was more complicated. Social media relies on a two dimensional world of constructed selves, with all the difficult bits left out. Novels, on the other hand, or books of any kind, are only as good as they have managed to scrape away the constructs to reveal the messy and often embarrassing and yet deeply human and therefore unifying truth underneath. There’s a deep conflict between the goals of good writing and the goals of social media.

Therefore I have decided that 2017 will be the year of rejecting coherent narratives, listening instead of ranting (ranting is so Nigel Farage), resisting the temptation to construct a cooler, slicker and more successful version of myself on social media, and instead engaging with the yin-yang complexity of existence whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans, although not last thing at night.

I like dark chocolate, are you with me or against me?

Except that sometimes I like milk chocolate and sometimes I even like white chocolate. Sometimes I don’t even like coffee.

Who the fuck am I?

I am both.

Two fingers to Nigel Farage and his bad novels made of pork pies. I am British and European and Welsh and a citizen of the World and totally sure and totally confused and happy and sad and lazy and mad and sane and educated and underemployed and worn-out with working and indebted and human and real and ordinary. 

Just like you.

Just like the characters in the novels of Elena Ferrante, which is why they’re so damn good.

And finally, if, like me, you happen to find complexity comforting, rather than threatening, then I’d urge you to spend an evening watching Adam Curtis documentaries on Youtube.  Whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans. Dark, milk, white, whatever….

Cheers. Here’s to a grown-up and heavily nuanced 2017.

 

 

Splintering: EU Referendum

splintering

 

When I was seventeen I felt that things were spiralling out of control. The world was big and I was young and insecure and there was too much suffering and too many problems. I’d always found schoolwork easy, but these problems were something else. I couldn’t even understand them, let alone solve them. In my panic and distress I searched for a solution. I found one in the pages of Cosmopolitan and Elle. The solution was to stop eating. For a while it worked. My strict (if random) policies concerning what could and couldn’t come in and out of my body (pickled beetroot yes, bananas no) stopped time in its tracks. Instead of growing up I went backwards, towards the golden age of childhood where things were black and white and I was small and infertile and my parents were benign dictators rather than ordinary humans with more than their fair share of difficulties. I didn’t have to go out. I didn’t have to meet new people. I didn’t have to grow up. So long as I could control my borders I could stay safe. The world couldn’t reject me if I rejected it first.

Anorexia nearly killed me. The ensuing decade of bulimia nearly broke me. In the end I (almost) recovered. Physically I’m strong and healthy. Psychologically I’m scarred. Ultimately it was pointless. I still had to grow up. I still had to be the shape I am. I still had to risk rejection and live among other people and face up to suffering and engage in politics and fail and fail again and be subject to the uncontrollable tides of time and fate and life.

I was searching for a way to understand the desire for Brexit when I remembered my experience of anorexia. I remembered the searing anxiety that was the result of a perceived loss of control. It was my identity that was slipping. My sense of who I thought I was and how I fitted into the world. I remembered how I was prepared to kill myself rather than surrender to things I didn’t understand. I remembered how afraid I was of myself and of other people and of change.

Cosmopolitan and Elle were in the right place at a dark time, playing to my deepest fears and insecurities, promising that if I followed their diets and wore their clothes and stuck to their rules about how to conduct my relationships then I would be happy. What I didn’t know then was that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle didn’t give a fig about my happiness. They cared about selling magazines and making money.

This EU debate is full of quackery and confusion. For every statistic there’s a counter-statistic. Both sides feature men and women known for telling lies. Rupert Murdoch is in charge of propaganda.

Confusion is fertile ground for manipulation. In the same way that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle knew I was lost and sad and insecure and hated the changes happening to my body, so the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson know perfectly well that we as a country are lost and sad and insecure and hate the changes happening to our communities. They know we want to kick something, and for reasons as transparent as they are despicable, they want that thing to be the EU. It’s like pointing at the sky while you’re picking someone’s pocket. Or stealing their children’s future.

We’re told to worry about democracy in the EU when our current government was elected on 24% of the eligible vote and are currently being investigated for electoral fraud by twenty police forces. We’ve got an unelected House of Lords flush with the likes of Sir Philip Green, who is currently refusing to be questioned by elected MPs about the gaping hole in the pension fund of BHS. We’ve got an unelected head of state that costs the taxpayer more by far than our gross contribution to the EU, even if it was as much as the leave campaign say it is, which it isn’t.

We’re told to worry about migrants claiming benefits when in fact there are more UK citizens claiming benefits in other European countries than there are people from other European countries claiming benefits in the UK.

We’re told we can ‘take back control’ when in fact that’s impossible. In practical terms it’s impossible – if we want free trade we’ll have to accept free movement. In metaphysical terms it’s impossible. There is no such thing as control. There’s no such thing as security. This is not that type of world. The best we can hope for is the relative security of peace and a healthy planet and knowing that we can call on our friends and neighbours if we need them, and that they can call on us.

I could go on, but the lies are so many and so varied that I could go on all day and I still wouldn’t have got to the bottom of them. And it’s pointless anyway, because we’re voting for a future that hasn’t happened yet. The Channel 4 sitcom ‘Power Monkeys’ articulates it perfectly: ‘People who don’t know what’s going to happen are asking people who don’t understand what’s happening a question to which no-one knows the answer.’

It’s tempting to shrug and walk away. But we can’t. Not if we care about our future. And I believe we owe it to all the people who have died fighting for the freedom to live to care about our future. We have to find an answer. Somehow, in spite of all the egos and the lies and the vague and waffly statements about sovereignty and democracy and taking back control we have to find an answer.

I used my imagination to recover from anorexia and its long and debilitating hangover. I used imagination to escape the horrors of the present and imagine a better future. I imagined the kind of person I wanted to be. I imagined the kind of world I wanted to live in. I made books of pictures and affirmations. I worked out what mattered. I challenged my fears. I failed. I tried again. I failed again. I kept trying. I’m not there yet. I’m nowhere near. But I know I’m going in the right direction and I know I’ll keep on walking.

That’s what this debate is about. It’s not about whether the EU is perfect. It’s about whether we’re going in the right direction and whether we’ll keep on walking.

In deciding how to cast my vote I tried to ignore the hysterical screaming about the economy and immigration. The lurching (on both sides) from greed to xenophobia and back again. I remembered how I got over the fear and hysteria of anorexia and I re-imagined the kind of future I wanted for myself. And I imagined the kind future I wanted for my sisters’ children. I went back to basics and tried to think about what actually matters. To me. And then I held it up against each side and easily found my answer.

The EU was set up after centuries of deadly violence as a way of keeping the peace. Far-right groups and Putin are in favour of Brexit. Northern Ireland is worried about it. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to start fighting. I want peace to be part of my future.

The EU gives me the right to live, love, work, buy a house, get free healthcare and retire in any of twenty eight member states. I don’t want my choices to be limited. I want freedom of movement to be part of my future.

The EU protects wild birds, especially the ones at risk of extinction: ‘Member States must designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the survival of threatened species and all migratory birds. Hunting periods are limited and hunting is forbidden when birds are at their most vulnerable. Activities that directly threaten birds, such as their deliberate killing, capture or trade, or the destruction of their nests, are banned. Member States must outlaw all forms of non-selective and large scale killing of birds.’

You might hope the UK government would honour these protections if we left the EU, but there’s every reason to doubt it: ‘The Birds and Habitats Directive would go’ declared George Eustice (environment minister and MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle) describing this and other conservation tools as ‘spirit-crushing.’

I don’t agree that conservation directives are spirit-crushing. I want birds to be part of my future.

The EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ scheme protects Dartmoor, Snowdonia and the Lake District. Environmentalists are afraid of a developmental free-for-all in the event of a Brexit. In Welsh, Snowdonia is Eryri, which means Land of the Eagles. I want the Land of the Eagles to be part of my future.

The EU stands up for worker’s rights, so that no matter who is in power we are protected. In 1982, for example, the EU sued the British government for failing to comply with the Equal Pay Act. I want worker’s rights to be part of my future.

The EU invented fishing quotas.

Fishing quotas are a good example of the public being misled about the way the EU actually works. We’re led to believe that fishing quotas are handed down from Brussles by unelected bureaucrats with a much greater sense of loyalty to countries like France and Spain than the UK. In fact fishing quotas are decided by a council of ministers, including our own (elected) fisheries minister. Far from being snubbed, the UK usually gets the second-highest fishing quota of all the member states. It’s the UK government who’s responsible for distributing the quota. Greenpeace are currently using EU law to sue the UK government for failing to allocate fair fishing quotas to small-scale, low-impact vessels. It’s worth remembering that fishing quotas were brought in to tackle the problems caused by decades of overfishing. In terms of recovering fish stocks, they seem to be working. Like birds, fish don’t have passports. A co-ordinated response is required. Without a common policy it’s a race to the bottom to see who can catch all the fish before the fish run out. I want fish to be part of my future.

The EU has forced us to clean up our oceans and our beaches. When I was a child and swimming at the wrong tide I’d get caught in a slick of raw sewage. I don’t want raw sewage to be part of my future.

The Common Agricultural Policy includes money towards rural development and stewardship schemes. Farmers are paid to help protect the environment. Under EU law, England is free to cut subsidies to big farmers and give more subsidies to smaller farmers and environmental schemes. It hasn’t bothered. In the words of James Meek this suggests that: ‘Brexit would return the country to pre-EEC days of duty-free imports and subsidised farmers, but with many fewer small farms, and fewer obstacles to the expansion of large-scale, mechanised, chemical farming.’

These are the things I care about. And for these reasons (and many others) I’m voting to remain.

The EU gets it wrong. It’s clunky and bureaucratic and annoying. It’s weird and distant and happens in Brussels, of all places, where nobody’s ever been. It’s a work in progress. And a project in crisis. Flooded with refugees and reeling from the 2008 meltdown, which was caused by the banks – many of them based in the City of London – and paid for by the people. But the EU is us. It was formed at least partly in our image. We were part of its conception and we continue to shape its future. The problems we face today, from terrorism to climate change to fish to birds to TTIP, are best faced together. This is not the time to double down and go smaller. Trust me, it doesn’t work.

We need to be the change we want to see, stand up and be counted, take our seat at the table and grow. 

Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the principles members of the European Union have to abide by:

‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’

Britain is one of twenty eight member states who have all agreed to abide by these principles. I’m proud of that. I want these values to be my future.

 

 

Surfing Vs Shopping

Surfing

I hate shopping.

Shopping, and by extension the entire human project of reducing this miraculous home of ours into a giant department store and then looting it, is an exercise in enslavement. Surfing, on the other hand, or anything else that involves surrender to the laws of the non-human – hiking, gardening, mountaineering – is an exercise in freedom.

Freedom is not easy, and it does not make sense. Not like shopping, where you get anti-aging potions in exchange for the flutter of a contactless credit card. Or like war, where goodies kill baddies and then there is peace.

Freedom is awkward and time-consuming and looks a bit sad and deranged, especially when set against the slick marketing of shopping and war.

If you counted up all the hours I have spent trying to catch waves and set them against all the waves I have actually managed to catch and then subtracted all the ones I fell off or messed up you would probably advise me to see a psychiatrist. Especially if I admitted that my addiction to surfing is probably the reason I have never had a nine-to-five, saved for a pension, lived apart from the ocean for longer than six months or travelled anywhere cultural, as opposed to coastal. Don’t even mention children.

In many ways the only difference between an addiction to smack and my addiction to surfing is the fact that it keeps me in rude physical health. If you don’t count the torn ligaments and burned retinas and chillblains and the bones slowly extending over my ear drums to protect them from the piercing winds and the black eyes and the broken nose and the stubbed and bleeding toes.

Under normal circumstances my effort/achievement ratio would be wildly disappointing. But these are not normal circumstances, different rules apply.

Unless I have managed to get myself to the tropics (see burned retinas) surfing is cold, frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. There is nobody watching and nothing to see, nothing to achieve and nothing to win. I am not good enough to go anywhere near a competition and even if I was I wouldn’t go anywhere near one.

I am not interested in supporting the multi-million (billion?) dollar industry that instagram-filters all the life and colour out of the ocean and then tries to sell it back to me as a flashy retro board and an overpriced pair of flip-flops. I can buy the tokens and then spend the rest of my month/year/life working to pay for them whilst watching youtube videos of other people getting barrelled. Or I can put my wallet away and step outside:

Witness the crack of dawn

And through it the effortless sea

And the muffled cry of the killing birds –

This is the way to be free.

Each and every single wave I manage to catch, for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, is a fist in the face of the profit principle and the growth imperative and the oil wars and this idiotic age of consumption that manifests as spiteful billboards and food banks and translatlantic trade agreements and the grief of mass extinction.

‘Our religious and cultural heritage’ writes Barbara Kingsolver, ‘is to deny, for all we’re worth, that we’re in any way connected with the rest of life on earth. We don’t come from it, we’re not part of it; we own it and were put down here to run the place.’

Which is why if I had one wish this Christmas it would be that when everyone was done shopping they could spend a bit of time in no-man’s land – behind the low-tide mark, above the snowline, beneath the soil – to feel the blessed relief of knowing we do not own it and we were not put here to run the place and we are connected with the rest of Life on Earth. Life on Earth is frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. It is not for sale and it does not make sense. The gift (and the exercise) is in accepting.

As Gary Snyder pointed out:

‘To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.’

See you in there.

Fun Things To Do While The World Blows Itself Up

daffs 1

 

Cut firewood. Treat yourself to a brand new saw. Don’t press with it, just move your arm and let gravity do the rest.

Find firewood. This is better than buying it, because it means you don’t have to work, which means you don’t end up accidentally paying for Trident. There is firewood everywhere if you know how to look. The same goes for magic mushrooms. And war-mongering small-dick heads (of state).

Eat magic mushrooms. You can’t be arrested if you eat them while standing in a muddy field watching the sunset. The colours are better. Your friends are funnier. And nobody died.

Surf. Before the sea freezes over.

Go to bed early with Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett.

Burn effigies.

Sign petitions.

Pick daffodils. In November. Think about the reality of climate change. Read about the devastation caused by forest fires in Indonesia. Marvel at the lack of reportage. Ponder the meaning of global security.

Hope. (Don’t pray). (Religion doesn’t seem to be working).

Ignore everything you read in the newspapers unless it is written by Frankie Boyle:

‘A government that doesn’t believe it should have any responsibility for regulating our banks or even delivering our post thinks it needs to be a key player in, of all things, the Syrian civil war. Somehow, the plight of this strategically significant state has touched their hearts. Britain is so concerned about refugees that it will do anything – except take in refugees – to try to kill its way to a peaceful solution.’

Refuse to be a part of it. Like Camus said:

‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’

 

Stay Young

primroses web

I’ve been having a mid-life crisis for about six years. Ever since I turned thirty and realised that the trail of loose ends and missed opportunities and messed-up relationships and recreational brain-damaging was irrevocable. I wasn’t in the foothills of life, getting acclimatised, finding my feet, which is what I’d thought. This was life. And I’d blown it.

There was a craze among some of my friends for getting married and having children. It was genuinely shocking. They had careers and mortgages. I still hadn’t decided what I was going to be when I grew up.

I worked on a building site for six months and bought a second-hand Citroen Berlingo. I put a bed in it and a cooker and headed for the Outer Hebrides. My brakes failed crossing the Cairngorms. I survived. I carried on.

My baby sister had a baby.

I flew to Panama and slept on the beach with the crabs because I couldn’t afford a hostel, let alone a hotel. I came back and moved Earth with a spade to pay off my credit card. I realised I’d been doing my temporary gardening job for ten years. Ten years.

Friends got ill. Friends died. Friends younger than me died.

I got older every day. Every day life got more mysterious. If there was a plot I’d lost it. My primary school God wasn’t making any sense.

Anne of Green Gables, Jilly Cooper and all films starring Julia Roberts, road maps for my subconscious expectations, morphed into Zen koans. Icelandic productions with names like Of Horses and Men, where people slit ponies open and sleep in their stomachs, became strangely comforting.

I’d been merrily climbing the hill of existence, waiting for my happy ending, waiting to peak, and now, suddenly, I was over the hill. And the view from the top was not triumphant. It was terrifying. I’d been sustained by the illusion that one day the mysterious mess of life would tidy itself up into a neat story like, well, Anne of Green Gables, and I’d go on as somebody else, somebody who got a house and a career and maybe, probably, got married and had kids. Whose normal, secure life was enriched by the bewildering chaos of her early years.

But it was all a lie. There is nothing but chaos. I am flickering on the edge of it like a tethered helium balloon and nothing can stop my string breaking. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in ten years, maybe in thirty, maybe in sixty. But it will break. And then who knows what will happen.

Nobody, that’s who. Nobody. Not even my old headmaster. Not even Jilly Cooper. Not even God.

‘You are young, you are on your way up, when you cannot imagine how you will save yourself from death by boredom until dinner….But momentum propels you over the crest. Imperceptibly, you start down. When do the days start to blur and then, breaking your heart, the seasons?….The blur of cards makes one long sound like a bomb’s whine, the whine of many bombs, and you know your course is fatal’ wrote Annie Dillard, about being thirty five.

I was thirty five when I read her. Thirty five and skint and single and living in a shed less than a mile from my primary school. The sheer unfathomable pointlessness of it all was truly breathtaking.

So breathtaking I had to surrender.

Surrender feels good. I feel ten years younger than I did ten years ago.

I feel like I’ve been sweeping a sandy beach, sweeping it for years and years, trying to tidy it up, and just recently it has become clear that the tide is coming in, and the tide is going to move the sand anyway, in whichever way the moon says, and it has nothing to do with me, and all I have to do is put the broom down and lie on the sand and soak it all in. And love, and laugh, and sing. And take pictures of primroses breaking through the darkness on the first day of spring.

And the beach is not tidy, and it does not have a beginning, or a middle, or an end. What it has is music. Imperfect, shining, inexplicable music.

Anyway I’m dying, like a burning star, and so are you. Which is why I’m swallowing my ego and sharing this rugged home recording of a song I sang at one of those perfect, destabilising weddings. It’s by Gallagher and Lyle, a pair of skirt-wearing Scots in their mid-sixties.

It’s called Stay Young.

Why I Live in a Shed

why i live in a shed

The north wind is behind me

And I’ve planted out my sweet peas

The money tree is thriving

But the best things here are free

When people ask, I tell them I am writing a book about housing called Why I Live in a Shed. What I am actually doing is running, singing, surfing, drinking, cursing, worrying and waking up in the dead of night to make marks in the dark with a pencil.

I have spent the winter housed. And now it is spring and the time has come to say goodbye to my latest insulated, centrally-heated, multi-roomed holiday (bathroom, washing machine, fridge, hot water) and wander back through time and space to the shed, via an off-grid wooden gazebo, some meditation (not medication) and a quick trip to Portugal.

But first I am going to offload some thoughts, facts and statistics that represent the thin end of a wedge the size of Wales. Think of it as backstory.

I thought I lived in a shed because there weren’t enough houses to go around. Politicians across the spectrum all seem to agree that what we need is housebuilding on a scale not seen since the second world war. Turns out this is propaganda (also known as Total Bollocks). The reality is that there are 65 million bedrooms in Britain for just 55 million people. And while it is true that 1.8 million households are waiting for social housing, it is also true that 737 000 residential properties that could house 2 million people are brick and mortar bank accounts, kept deliberately empty so they can be bought and sold to turn a profit.

The Prime Minister pleads with a journalist ‘Please don’t make me look like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got’ and The Sultan of Brunei applies for a 10% discount on his council tax because his London house is not his first (or second, or third) home.

[Pitchforks]

We do not need to build more houses, unless it is to create yet more inequality. ‘The purpose of much of the world’s construction is construction, its primary function is to provide contracts for the companies that build and perks for the officials who commission’ writes George Monbiot.

We do not need to build more houses, unless it is to speed up the elimination of the human race. ‘Concrete production is among the main sources of carbon pollution worldwide’ observes Danny Dorling.

I live in a shed because government policies designed to inflate house prices and make the economy look stronger than it actually is (in private life this is called cooking the books) mean it is effectively impossible for anyone under the age of 40 to buy a house.

I live in a shed because I would rather live in an uninsulated tin can on the side of the road several hundred miles from anywhere with no toilet or hot water than bite my nails for the privilege of renting a boxroom in a house full of semi-strangers, from which I am obliged to erase all evidence of my existence every time the letting agent lets himself in with his own key to perform one of his ‘regular and invasive’ inspections.

Call me old-fashioned but I’m a 36 year old introvert who craves order and stability and has already lived at 17 different addresses, not including 2 years in a van and 3 years at university.

Renting, in my experience, is miserable, unaffordable (in the year to 2013 median rents in London rose by 9% while wages rose by 2%), insecure and unregulated. In spite of the fact that private landlords are subsidized by taxpayers – that’s you and me – to the tune of £17 billion (housing benefit) 1 in 3 private rental accommodations don’t meet the government’s (pitifully low) standards.

I live in a shed because I am by nature a writer and musician and living in a shed is the only way I have a hope of realizing my dreams and projects. I have wasted more time and tears than I care to count trying to squeeze myself into a square hole. I do not think that only individuals with trust funds should have the chance to be artists. I do not think this would be good for people or for art.

Mainly I live in a shed because Thatcher sold us the narrative of consumerism to pit against the narratives of class and communism, which did not serve her. (Just like she sold the council houses, often in job lots to cronies who went on to become millionaire private landlords.)

It is true that our homes represent our selves in material form. But the important, creative link between home and selfhood has been hijacked and monetized by consumerist ideology. Our  nests reduced to disposable nest-eggs. Instead of telling the world something about who we are, in myriad intriguing ways, our houses try to tell the world how much we are worth. The bigger the house, the more worthwhile the person. But this is a childish waste of life. Logically speaking, we can never be worth more or less than anybody else, no matter how big our houses are, no matter if we call ourselves the Sultan of Brunei or the prat from Chipping Norton.

I live in a shed because I hate consumerism with a visceral, seething, spitting hatred. It threatens the ground beneath my feet, the stars in my eyes, the salt on my tongue, the futures of my sisters’ children and everything else that I love with all my heart.

This housing crisis is a symbolic manifestation – a cancerous symptom – of consumerist ideology. Housing is not just an economic problem. It is an existential problem.

‘The effect of focusing on the house as consumer commodity has an effect on the social structure as a whole’ writes Jessie Hohmann. ‘Housing is important in the formation and protection of identity, community and place in the world.’

Housing is central to an ideological debate that needs to rage and rage, because when we lose our place in the world we lose everything. We forget that we belong here, to this green and gold and lovely planet, and behave like angry squatters, shitting on our own doorstep.

But we do belong, literally, with every cell in our bodies, as Leonardo Da Vinci neatly observed nearly 600 years ago – ‘Man is called by the ancients a world in miniature and certainly this name is well applied, for just as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, so is the body of the earth’.

Which is something I have experienced first-hand, through living in a shed. So listen up, because I’m going to sing you a whole new song.

For a more lyrical shedlife extract please visit Dark Mountain.net

Moments

scots-pines

Thanks to an award from the Society of Authors worth six months of gardening, I am donating most of my present moments to writing about the shed and other shed-related issues; ecological obliteration, the housing crisis, stars.

I’ve been animal sitting among snow-covered mountains on a remote hillock topped with a few dozen tall and bendy Scots pines. The pines shield me from the worst of the weather and harbor owls and kites. There’s a windmill and a hammock and horses to ride.

I was sitting by the stove, feeling the ache of time passing and cuddling the kitten, when this poem arrived:

 

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 11.35.17

 

Next up on my monkish writing trail is another house, and after that a wooden gazebo in the woods, but on both sides of the house and the gazebo is a stint at the meditation centre.

A few people have mentioned recently that they think meditation is self-indulgent. I have wondered if they were right. But last night I watched the startlingly good BBC film Bitter Lake and I knew they were wrong. As Schumacher wrote, way back before most of the things in the film had even happened:

‘Where can one find the strength to go on working against such obviously appalling odds? What’s more: where can one find the strength to overcome the violence of greed, hate and lust within oneself?’

Some other people have said that they think meditation is boring. I get that. I have also been conditioned by Twitter to have the attention span of a goldfish. All the more reason to meditate. Sit down. Shut up. Stop buying stuff. Reverse the awfulness of Bitter Lake.

Plus, I increasingly consider boredom a failure of my own mind. As Geoff Dyer puts it:

‘Often when you’re bored, it’s that friction between you and time.’

The older I get, the more I want to learn to live in time. The more we run away from time the more time runs away from us, but moments fully embraced seem to stretch time. As Nadine Stair wrote in another poem, when she was 85:

Oh, I have had my moments
  And if I had it to do over again, I'd have more of them.
        In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. 
	   Just moments,one after another.
      Instead of living so many years ahead each day.

Poems, like kittens, only appear when we’re sitting quietly doing nothing. Violence, on the other hand, requires blind and furious action.

Metaphorical Enclosure

Since I might as well be hung for a horse as a lamb, and I’m clearly intent on making myself unpopular just in time for Christmas, I decided to clarify a couple of things relating to my last post.

I did not mean to imply that wild places should be left unvisited by humankind so that people such as myself can go and ‘twiddle our thumbs in mighty solitude’ and not be bothered by awkward facts of life such as climate change.

I’m saying that using images of wild places as part of a branding campaign for individuals or companies sends the wrong message. It implies that nature has a price on its head and that only the cool people are allowed in.

There is a growing body of evidence that proves conservation efforts are much more likely to be successful if intrinsic values (community, compassion, empathy) are engaged, rather than extrinsic values (money, status, image). In fact, studies show that exercising extrinsic values with the aim of protecting the environment is counter-productive, as WWF’s Tom Crompton explains in a back issue of Resurgance Magazine.

To my eyes, stamping a logo on a wild place that actually belongs to everybody is the virtual equivalent of putting a fence around common land.

 

metaphorical enclosure

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have chosen this image not because this company is particularly bad, but because it is on my radar and cold water surfing is close to my heart. They represent the tip of an iceberg. The problem is precisely that this kind of assault on psychological space is accepted as ordinary and aped on social media.

Advertising works on the subconscious, often without either our awareness or our permission. This is not a new observation. The negative cultural effects of mass corporate branding are discussed at length by Naomi Klein in No Logo.

But No Logo was written before social media made it possible for individuals to behave like corporations. The territory just got a whole lot bigger and more complex.

That they have a brand value reflects the importance of wild places to us. They represent a space where we can escape from the overwhelming tyranny of the marketplace and spend some quiet time with our own truths.

And I’m not saying we should keep these truths to ourselves. There is a wealth of art, music and literature that reveals a genuine love for the natural world that can only be a positive force for change. Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Mickey Smith’s Dark Side of the Lens, and the Finisterre crew’s own recent film Edges of Sanity, are just a few of the millions of examples. I am personally devoted to the cause of fostering connection via books and songs.

The line between art and advertising can be a very thin one. But it is crucial. Promoting consumerism is not likely to encourage the kind of lifestyle choices necessary to avoid mass extinction.

One Wednesday morning in November I went surfing. It was a normal day, not a weekend or a holiday, but there were fifty people in the water. Although I love surfing uncrowded waves, a part of me rejoiced that so many people had made the choice to bunk off work and go surfing.

These are the kind of value judgements that could change the course of natural history.

Luckily you don’t need expensive, branded clothing to bunk off work and go surfing. In fact, refraining from taking part in brand culture should allow you to do it a lot more often.

Which is, I think, a message worth promoting.

Comments are very much open if you want to have a crack at changing my mind.

Happy holidays. I’m off to drink some Champagne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listening among the Constellations

wilderness 3 webI’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy. I could sit here all day and type lines I love, but if I was going to type just one, it would probably be this one:

‘The horse raised its head above the skyline to listen among the constellations.’

I like to raise my head above the skyline to listen among the constellations also. I have found numerous ways: sleeping out, dawn surfing, night walking, solitary hiking, mountain climbing, psychadelics, meditation.

There are times when I ask myself why I seek altered states of consciousness with such dedication. When I’m stuck halfway up a mountain, for example, frozen with fear. Or when I’m paddling out in December under a darkening sky, hailstones hammering my face. Or when I can’t remember how many more drops of acid I took because I thought it wasn’t working.

It’s partly to wake myself up. There’s no FOMO that hits me harder than lying in bed through a midsummer dawn. The relief of being awake is worth every ounce of hardship. The acceptance of things as they are – bigger, wider, deeper. The chance to give up the ghost of control over the unfathomable mystery of life.

‘We still and always want waking’ wrote Annie Dillard. ‘We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.’

Wild places are crucial as spaces where waking up can take place. The concept of untrammeled, unsponsored land, even if it exists only in our heads, is a healthy retort to the sleepy hubris of humanity. Personally, I find the knowledge that there are places in this world that do not conform to the laws of mankind immensely comforting.

This is why I am worried about something. There seems to be a growing trend for cashing in on the cool capital of nature in order to sell oneself on social media.

Some environmentalists argue that by applying market values to the natural world we are likely to have more success in protecting it. George Monbiot called this the Natural Capital Agenda, and if you think it’s a good idea (as I used to) then take a look at the transcript of a lecture he gave at the University of Sheffield in July 2014. He neatly sums up the root of my disquiet:

‘…in the majority of cases, efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook. And the reason why they are complete and utter gobbledygook is that they are dealing with values which are non-commensurable.’

This is why I get anxious when I see another trendy film of a far-flung surf spot being used by a ‘cold water surf company’ to hawk T-shirts. It’s why I worry when I see images of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ exploited by London-based digital self-marketeers as the latest aspirational tool in the hateful culture of envy that is Facecrack. I worry even more because I don’t think the perpetrators know what they’re doing. Tricky to express the whispering of the constellations in 140 characters. And taking selfies of yourself being by yourself surely defeats the purpose. I think they’re missing the point.

‘True solitude is found in the wild places’ wrote Wendell Berry, ‘where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.’

Cashing in on the cool capital of nature is not harmless, still less a positive way to protect the environment. It desecrates it. The wild places, by definition, cannot be marketed. Things that end up in the market have been trapped, tamed, claimed and branded. They are for sale. No longer free.

Tread carefully. Take nothing. Wilderness is for life, not just for capital.