Category Archives: Travel

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.

 

 

The Droving Project

cat drove 1While I was in Scotland this August I took part in a cattle drove. Brain-child of Katch Holmes, who runs the infamous Knockengorroch World Ceilidh, the drove was essentially an art project, designed to raise questions about the relationship between rural and urban culture. Toast Travels were kind enough to publish my writing about it, which will also feature in an exhibition of Alice Myers‘ photography, which opens on 9 October 2014 at the Doon Valley Museum in Dalmellington. It’s worth checking out The Droving Project website.

Panamania – Gnarly Goggles

This footage was shot by Becky after a day surfing on the Isla Burica, a desert island in the far north of Panama. It comes with a song from the Ribbons EP about the upside of heartbreak, and it comes with a story about fear.

Stumbling through the jungle looking for a place to sleep, we find a chicken hanging upside down off a makeshift clothesline, squawking. The chicken seems to belong to a couple of grass-roofed huts. I’m guessing it’s dinner. A couple of horses are tethered nearby. The whole thing is like something out of Tribe – apart from the surfboards.

The surfboards, which are newer than ours, belong to a pair of sexy, dark-skinned brothers. They tell us about the mythical wave we’ve come to surf – a fast right that breaks over rocks on the far side of an uninhabited island that sits half a mile offshore, guarding the unmanned coastal border between Panama and Costa Rica. Meeting the brothers is a stroke of luck. We expected to have to paddle across the channel, but they offer us a ride in their inflatable canoe. We arrange to meet them at dawn.

It’s dawn. I feel sick. This might be because all I’ve consumed is very strong black coffee, brewed like porridge over a driftwood fire. Or it might be exhaustion due to the massively effortful journey to get here. A two-day hike from the Caribbean to the Pacific involving several boats, four increasingly decrepit collectivos, one night in the Pension Balboa (named after the local beer) overlooking an all-night bar specializing in ear-splitting Reggaeton (I spent most of the sleepless hours watching staggering drunks try to mount their long-suffering horses), another collectivo (zero suspension), a very painful two-hour walk in the midday heat through the jungle with boards, backpacks and enough food to last a week, the chance encounter with the brothers, a sleepless night in a hammock wondering if those very strange lights out at sea are drug boats (apparently we are camping in a clearing recently vacated by police looking to catch human mules heading north on foot), and the twenty minute trip across the channel in the squashy inflatable, our four surfboards floating behind us, chained together by their leashes.

I am scared before I even see the wave. This is partly because of its mystery – it’s not on Magic Seaweed or in the Stormrider – and partly because of the hyped-up way the brothers are talking about it. They’re saying it’s a big day, although the channel itself is sheltered from swell, which is why we have to go to the island. I am convinced I won’t be able to handle it. Sure enough, when we finally get close enough I see exactly what I was expecting to see – a hideously hollow wave, full of rocks, and closing out on the bigger sets, which are too big for me. The brothers are amped. They slip and slide over the rocks, wait for a gap between sets long enough to allow them to jump in and paddle maniacally out of the danger zone.

‘Nice little right’ says Becky.

Becky’s brain is wired up differently to mine. This is why surfing with her is so much fun. It’s also why it’s frequently so terrifying.

Panic-stricken, I search for a place to paddle out that does not involve rocks and danger zones.  I don’t see any. This island is made of rocks. Nothing but rocks. And dense coconut forest, and crabs. Not friendly hermit crabs dressed in bottle tops, either, but weird black jumping crabs that hurl themselves through the air like batman, clearing distances upwards of two feet in a nanosecond. I don’t like these crabs. They’re inhuman. I don’t like this island. I don’t like this trip. Life is shit. I want to go home. I want to go home and sit in my shed and watch TV and be safe. But I can’t. It’s too late. I’ve come too far.

I look around for Becky. I’m going to suggest we walk a bit, look for a nicer wave, sack it off. But she’s already gone, slipping and sliding over the rocks like the brothers, falling, dropping her board, picking herself up. One of the brothers manages a very steep take-off and gets a  long ride back to the rocks. He waves at Becky, who is already paddling out. I am still standing rooted to the spot, feeling sick.

These days my life seems to be full of moments like this. Moments where I find myself in a situation so far out of my comfort zone it’s almost funny. Posting things I’ve written, standing up in front of people and singing songs I’ve made, reading from my book in public, dealing with the rejection and failure that comes with being alive and not hiding in my shed watching TV.

Often I’m a pussy. I duck out of waves, miss opportunities, don’t make phone calls. But sometimes I’m not a pussy, and that’s how I’ve finally learned something big and slightly embarrassing.

It’s not life. It’s ME. I’m wearing GNARLY GOGGLES.

I did paddle out that day, and I didn’t die. In fact, as soon as I started focusing on the task in hand rather than the monsters in my mind, I started enjoying myself.

‘Nice little right’ I shouted over to Becky.

I will be singing at the Shine On festival in Totnes on Sunday. A nice little festival. I plan to leave the gnarly goggles at home and enjoy myself. Watch this space.

Bookshelf #1 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month. I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. I’m kicking off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday, aged 87.

GGM

The first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book I ever read was not a masterwork of magical realism, or a profound meditation on the human capacity for romantic love (these would come later) but a slim and little-known travel book called Clandestine in Chile.

This hundred-page paperback tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a Chilean film director who was exiled after the 1973 military coup and then returned in disguise, risking everything to “bring the world a truer picture of life under Pinochet.” Littin told his story to Marquez, who re-told it in the first person, using eighteen hours of taped interviews.

The blurb on the back of my well-travelled copy provides hard evidence of the truth in it:

“On 28 November 1986, in Valparaiso, the Chilean authorities impounded and burned 15 000 copies of this book.”

When I visited Valparaiso myself, twenty years after Littin’s clandestine journey and thirty years after the coup, the foreign city was delivered to me full of meaning. Thanks to Marquez, I had already been there in my imagination. Thanks to the fact of my humanity, my imagination is every bit as real as my reality.

When I later came to read Love in the Time of Cholera I found even more truth, and it was a truth that felt heightened, rather than diminished, by the quantities of magic in it.

The older I get, the more complicated the relationship between reality, imagination and truth seems to become. Reality is so subjective – having to be funnelled first through our senses and then through our various languages – that I can’t help suspecting that there is no such thing. Truth, on the other hand, is everywhere. We feel it, see it, imagine it and know it – even when we can’t talk about it. Which is where stories come in, and why great storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are mourned with nothing less than the heartfelt love of perfect strangers.

It is through stories – film, television, books – that we get to share our actual experience of truth (as opposed to reality as presented by various news media) and therefore feel less alone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez made me feel less alone when I was sitting on the concrete floor of a South American bus station and navigating a tidal wave of sadness associated with my latest break-up. I was reassured to learn “that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

I felt less alone after finally meeting Jose Arcadio Buendia, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an inventor whose magic-inspired inventions lead him further and further from his ordinary life, into all kinds of chaos, and yet “even those convinced of his madness left work and family to follow him.”

Perhaps one of the side effects of progress in science and technology, of staking everything on the illusion of empiricism, is forgetting the value of magic. Another ancient woodland is cut down to make room for a motorway service station. We are left staring into “the abyss of disenchantment.”

But perhaps good stories can rescue us, helping us to understand that we do not understand. Putting us in our place.

“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, one border crossing from Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. I found it difficult at first, in the same way that strange countries can be difficult at first. There were so many characters, and they were so fantastic. They said things people don’t say, they lived according to strange rules and kept the oddest of habits, they waged unwinnable wars and their thoughts were pure poetry. It was only after I had been with these people for several hundred pages that I finally began to accept the truth of them, which was accompanied by a feeling of relief, because I was also accepting the truth of me – which is that my grip on ‘reality’ is tenuous, and it is the poetry of my imagination – my existential solitude – that makes me who I am.

As Salman Rushdie said of Marquez in a recent essay in the New York Times

“He was a dreamer who believed in the truth of dreams.”

Becky and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one after the other, in various Central American jungles, while young men rode past at dawn on horseback, listening to pop music on their ipods. We both struggled with it, wrestled with it, woke each other up with the most poetic bits of it, were desperate to understand the truth of it, and eventually loved it with an inexplicable, unreasonable, tearful love.

Just like life.

To quote Salman Rushdie again;

“For such magnificence, our only possible reaction is gratitude.”

I will be singing about my book ‘The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness’ on 29th April at 6.30 in the Falmouth Bookseller.

 

Panamania – Night Surfing

NS3

‘Surfing is not a sport, it’s a disease’ said my friend Dom the other day, on Facecrack. Here’s an example:

It’s our last night in Panama. It’s dark. We’re sleeping. I say sleeping. For fiscal reasons, the trip has not been as restful as we expected. Aside from five luxurious nights on the Caribbean, in bunkbeds in a dorm shared with six other people, we have been roughing it. At first we used tents, but then Becky had a snake in hers. A small Boa. She was lucky it wasn’t a Fer de Lance – the venomous, aggressive version of Boas, known as Ekees by the locals, their name for the letter X.

So we moved into hammocks. At first we put the tents up beside the hammocks, to put our stuff in – money and passports, that kind of thing. Then we ran out of money and couldn’t be bothered to put the tents up, so it was just us and the stars and the driftwood fires we cooked on, morning noon and night. There are advantages to running out of money. We re-mapped the night sky, for one thing. There was the machete, the coconut, the pelican (I had to work to win Becky over to that one), the cafe con leche (that one, too). There is something about naming your own night sky. This was the northern hemisphere (just). Since returning, when I step outside my shed and spot the machete smiling down at me I am reminded that the whole tropical thing was actually real and not a dream. Then I quickly go back inside and sit huddled by the fire, watching endless repetitions of Nashville and weeping.*

But that night I was still on holiday. Only I wasn’t sleeping. Not just the usual kind of not sleeping you do in hammocks in the jungle – a sort of half-sleep, with one mammalian inner eye always alert to the weird sounds the crabs, iguanas, racoons, potential jaguars, howler monkeys etc make and the other mammallian inner eye alert to the fact that one’s feet are accidentally wrapped around one’s head. But this night I am really not sleeping. I am listening to the sound of waves breaking. Swell has arrived. We’ve been waiting for it. Now it’s here. And we’re leaving.

My third mammalian inner eye knows that the perfect wave that has caused us to set up house under this almond tree in the jungle and that has been a little too small thus far, is only surfable at high tide, because of rocks. I’ve already had some interactions with these rocks and do not wish to have any more. We have no watches, phones or other devices and yet, judging by the position of the machete in the night sky, and using my fourth mammalian inner eye, I think it’s probably about 3.30am. It takes forty five minutes to walk up the beach to the wave, due to difficult terrain. I know that if we wait until it’s light it’ll be too late. I’m convinced that if we go now we’ll get there just before dawn. We’ll be in the sea at first light and catch some of the swell before the tide drops out and we have to go and catch our plane. I glance across at Becky. She is sleeping. It’s night.

‘Becky’ I hiss, wondering if I’m doing the right thing.

‘Hmm?’

She is not sleeping.

‘I’m going to go for a surf, do you want to come?’

Becky looks at me, through one of her actual eyes.

‘It’s night.’

‘I think I heard a cockerel crow.’

This is not true.

‘Okay’ says Becky, and gets up out of her hammock. She is already wearing her bikini.

I love my friends. I really, really love my friends.

An hour later we arrive at the wave. It’s a delicious, perfect, peeling right-hand point. We think it’s breaking. We think it’s quite good (bigger). We don’t know for sure, because we can’t really see it. It’s still night. Luckily there is a moon. There is no sign of first light. I convince Becky there won’t be any sharks (I have no fear of sharks, simply because I have never seen one and am therefore unsure they actually exist. Becky has seen a few and possesses a healthy fear.)

Sharks come out at night. We get in anyway.

There is no wind. The surface of the sea looks like black oil. I can just make out the rocks as I paddle over them, glowing green in the moonlight. I have no idea where I am in relation to the land. I have no idea where the waves are breaking. I find out by getting nailed. Getting nailed in the dark requires me to use my most fish-like senses – my skin, my lack of breath. I can’t use my eyes. I am totally disorientated. Back on the surface, I am still totally disorientated. I try to catch waves. It’s a game of chance, but I luck into a couple. It’s just like those trust games, when you fall backwards and hope somebody will catch you. I paddle and hope I’m in the right place. I have no idea. I try to feel when to jump to my feet. Time slows down.

Back at the camp a few hours later it is still night. I realise my fourth mammlian inner eye was mistaken. There is no sign of first light. We are eating porridge, cooked on a driftwood fire.

‘The best part was watching you’ said Becky. ‘Like a negative photograph.’

I knew exactly what she meant. Soon after we paddled out, while I was still trying to get my bearings, I saw Becky take off on a steep, head high wave. She looked like a superhero. Which is why we do it. Obviously.

We go to sleep. Again. When we wake up it’s day. And the wind has gone onshore.

And the moral of that story is – if it’s good at night, don’t wait till morning.

My book was published this week. You can buy it here. The EP to go with it is late, due to the fact that I spent January in Panama. Previews and info here.

*Obviously I don’t really watch Nashville – far too cool.

Shakespeare on Surfing

winter surf web

‘This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air: thence I have followed it

Or it hath drawn me rather.’

When I was at school we studied Shakespeare’s Tempest. I remember our teacher trying to explain to us – a classroom of giggling fifteen-year-olds going through the sea-change of adolescence – what a sea-change was. It must have been frustrating. Our school was less than a mile from the sea and we knew as well as any kids on the planet how it changed. Our very landscape changed with the tides, and the tides changed with the moon and the waves changed with the wind and mountainous swells rose out of placid lakes all in the space of an afternoon. Earlier that summer some other children – city children – had clambered down too far on the rocks beneath Land’s End, got swept off by the seemingly calm sea, and drowned. We would not have done that. We understood the sea. The problem was, we didn’t understand ourselves. We hadn’t made the connection. We hadn’t worked out that our new monthly periods and storms of PMT were like spring tides, and our watery flesh and salty skin and unbearable mood-swings were only the human face of this great untrammelled wilderness that had been roaring in our ears our whole lives, from the moment we woke until the moment we fell asleep.

It was only later, when I grew up and started surfing, that I began to understand what our teacher and Shakespeare had been trying to tell us – that the sea is as powerful a metaphor as any for human experience. I have come to suspect that this, more than the thrill of the ride, is the reason why surfing is so addictive. It’s a controversial position. In their latest ad campaign, surf industry giant O’Neill claims that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. But I’m not sure clambering into a cold, damp wetsuit before breakfast in order to get smacked in the face by lumps of freezing water qualifies as fun, exactly. Surfing is more essential than fun. Like breathing and eating.

Another thing Shakespeare was trying to tell us, and something that I have since learned from the ocean, is that humans need, more than anything, to make sense of their lives. I believe it’s no accident that I got hooked on chasing waves in my early twenties, a time when my life made so little sense I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning. I had been utterly nailed by my first experiences of love and death and it was only in the sea, where getting nailed was survivable and to be expected, that I began to find something resembling a sense of perspective. On land my legs wobbled with grief and everything I looked at was tinged with loss. In the sea, everything I looked at was impersonal and constantly changing. I spent half my time underwater, eyes open on a world as mysterious as the inside of my own troubled head. Face to face with all that change and supported by the salty water I gradually learned to trust life again.

Ten years have happened since then. Ten years of choices that make sense only in the context of surfing. I have been scratching a living as a DJ, singer-songwriter and author where there aren’t any people, living in a tin shack with no hot water, when I could have gone to London and been paid properly. I’ve never had a job, because only by working for myself can I stay free enough to surf whenever I need to. I have no savings, because I’ve spent any money I have managed to make on trips to far-flung corners of the world. I have damaged and lost relationships, filled my ears with water, burned my eyes and broken my nose. I tore the ligaments in my knee so badly I couldn’t walk for three months. But in spite of all this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude. I know I am one of the very, very lucky ones. Even in the winter, when the wind chill is pulling the temperature down to below zero and the ground is a hard frost. When my bones ache with numbness and I have to hold one hand in the other and use it like a piece of wood to turn the key to unlock my van. Especially in the winter, where just getting changed requires the kind of strong determination of an Olympic athlete. When the wind is howling offshore, the spray off the back of the waves is like a freezing pressure hose and a dark grey sky is spitting hailstones. Because winter sucks, and sometimes life sucks, and sometimes the only thing for it is to paddle out into the big old, sea-changing ocean and get smacked in the face for a few hours. Trust me, it works.

This is a piece I wrote for the winter 2014 edition of the Barefoot Diaries, a quarterly magazine exploring a slower, deeper, more intimate connection with the land.

 

 

 

 

Men and Bits of Paper

V1

I’m gearing up for an adventure in consciousness.

For the second time I am about to surrender all my distractions and commit to ten days of silent meditation on a farm in Hereford. The technique is called Vipassana, which means insight. I feel like I am preparing to climb a difficult mountain – again. Hard enough the first time, but infinitely harder the second, knowing what’s coming.

It’s not the silence. I can go days in my shed without talking to a soul. It’s not being woken at 4am by an old-fashioned hand bell. I like getting up early and the bell sounds like it belongs in a Tibetan monastery. It’s not the food, which is simple and vegetarian. It’s not the living quarters, which are spartan but include the rare treat of a hot shower. It’s not the purpose-built, high-ceilinged, wood and glass meditation hall with its piles of cushions and blankets and several hundred other truth-seekers, from both genders, all ages, all walks of life. It’s not even the fierce physical pain of sitting cross-legged on the floor for eleven hours a day.

It’s the knowledge that when the storms hit, the psychological storms of memory and feeling and love and loss and hope and despair and longing, I will have nowhere to go, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. No guitar, no pens and paper, no books, no films or wine or joints or cake.

So why do it?

Because on the other side of the storms is mental silence. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing rarer. A break from the incessant noise and clatter and chatter inside my head. A chance to see the world as it really is, without my desperate ego-specs.

There was a patch of woodland next to the meditation hall. It was extraordinarily beautiful, or at least I thought so at the time. The ground was a thick carpet of fallen leaves in a million colours. Hoar frosts pinned naked trees to frozen skies. Moonlit dawns and lonely stars.

With the help of the trees and the moon and the stars I went through a tunnel of darkness and came out of it. By the eighth day I was high as a kite.

In an effort to record my journey, I collected objects from the woods and laid them out on paper towels in my room. As soon as the vow of silence ended, on the tenth day, I made scribbled notes about what the objects represented. Here’s what I wrote. Unabridged.

 

Gong, berry tree, birds etc

Men, men, men, passion, crazy mind, crazy mushroom

Running towards death with my fingers in my ears, screaming.

 

Nettles

Butterflies in stomach, shiver of fear, stab of envy

Sticky ego.

 

PAIN, prickly pain, just pain, nothing but pain

A voice, ‘I can help you, the pain is not pain’

Dead things, some beauty.

 

Apple trees, FOOD, craving

One pine tree among the multitudes of oak and beech

Acceptance of things AS THEY ARE.

 

Everyone looks wild and dishevelled

Glance in the mirror by accident and react to thoughts about myself

Negativity.

 

MOON, HIGH, like I’ve never seen the world before

The hedge, so beautiful

Coming down.

 

And the silver birch is a mind over matter thing

Not using willpower anymore, smiling HELPS, want to pick up some beautiful frost and…

Won’t last, nothing will last.

 

Cold November and all the trees in bud

Equanimity, change, ARISING AND PASSING AWAY

Such a cold and frozen morning.

 

These plants and flowers

Then warmth and sunshine, tea and talking

After Metta, and after crying.

 

(Books:

William Hart – The Art of Living

T.S.Eliot – Burnt Norton)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No regrets M8

penis banks

I recently traded in my aged Nokia for an iphone.*

It’s so tech it would probably do the washing up if I knew how to ask, which I don’t, so mainly I use it for navigating around London on my friend’s bike. It’s very safe. I hold the phone in my left hand and look at it with my left eye whilst my right hand does all the steering and braking and my right eye looks over my shoulder for buses. So far so good. But there’s a problem. The navigation app I downloaded for free (M8) has a personality disorder. I spot this because I have the exact same personality disorder. It’s called regret.

In a nutshell, whenever I make a mistake M8 insists I make a legal U-turn, so I can go back to where I was before I made it and do the same route all over again, but getting it right this time. The problem is, the roads are all one-way. Even if I do survive going backwards down them I end up wasting at least as much time as I would have done if I’d just found a whole new route from where I was when I realised I’d got lost.

I try to explain this to another friend, who I’m meeting for coffee. I’m an hour or so late. I blame M8.

‘I knew I shouldn’t have gone back over the river.’

‘What’s Peckham like, anyway?’

It always amazes me how little Londoners actually know about London.

‘You should try Tom Tom.’

For a nasty moment I thought she was steering me towards a dating site. Another sad fact of being almost 35. (For the record, I am perfectly happy freewheeling. But loose females are suspicious, like unattended bags at airports, and I find myself constantly encouraged by government, advertisers, friends and enemies to please SETTLE DOWN….)

‘Tom Tom?’

‘When you go wrong with a Tom Tom they don’t tell you to do illegal U-turns, they just re-plan the route from where you’ve ended up. So as long as you know where you’re going, you’ll always get there, it just might take a little bit longer.’

(OK, my friend didn’t actually say that, but you see where I’m going with this…)

I’m nearly 35 and I’ve only just got around to recording my first album and publishing my first book. The slowness of my progress has been keeping me awake at night. I’ve been trying to work out what the hell I’ve been doing for the past ten years, because I’ve always known deep down that this was my path. And I’ve been lying there in my shed wishing I could go back to the start of this path and take it again, but without getting lost in a maze of love affairs and surf trips and trying to find the money to pay my car tax and beautiful sunsets and crap telly and Facebook and growing vegetables and partying and playing records and buying second-hand guitars on back streets in Lima and, you know, just generally LIVING, which takes time.

It’s confusing. If I hadn’t done all this I might have got to this point on my path at 25. Which would probably have made me more marketable. But then again, I’d have had a lot less to sing and write about.

I got lost again on the way back to Peckham after meeting my friend. This time I left M8 in my pocket. It took me about an hour longer than it should have, but I got there in the end. I saw some things along the way. Memorable things, beautiful things, ugly, inspiring, frightening, random, bizarre things, such as banks made in the image of penises. Things I would never have seen if I hadn’t been lost, or if I’d had my left eye stuck to my phone and my right eye looking over my shoulder to see if it was safe to make a legal U-turn in order to go the wrong way down a one-way street.

*second-hand iphone – the mobile phone industry leaves a trail of human blood and environmental disasters – probs not worth it?

 

Rainbows

1

RAINBOWS are lucky. I didn’t feel lucky the day I took this through the windscreen of my big yellow Iveco, one hand on the wheel, one holding the camera. It was raining.

I was heartbroken, grief-stricken and terrified, heading north on Norway’s Highway 55. But luck comes in many guises, and that lonely road turned into an extraordinary adventure.