I am in Wales, staying in a town full of writers and environmentalists. Specifically, I am staying with Jay Griffiths, looking after her cats while she is talking about Time at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and then talking about Frida Kahlo in Stornoway. The world turns in mysterious ways. Years ago I used to download music from the Smithsonian Institute’s vast library of sounds. Guadeloupe accordions, Dirty Jazz from Down South, Cubanismo from the Congo. Record labels have caught on and started making compilations from the archives, but you can still go there and get lost at your leisure with nobody trying to make you buy anything. I read Jay’s book Wild when I was on Lewis in 2012 and have been recommending it to everyone I meet ever since. Then I met Jay, earlier this year, and somehow that turned into a winter of empty Welsh houses to write my next book in, and make some home recordings of some new songs to tide me over until the next record. So here I am in Wales in this town full of writers and environmentalists. One of them is George Marshall, who has just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It, which attempts to examine the psychology of climate change denial and why nothing is changing, even though we all know (don’t we?) that it’s only a matter of time before the Titanic sinks and we all go down with it. So sane people are grieving for the trees and the skylarks and the vanishing places they love, and everyone else is watching TV….. or surfing. Last weekend there was swell. I drove to a funny little town called Borth, and surfed some funny little waves, and then I drove up the windswept coast and before I knew it I was in Snowdonia, parked up in a little valley near where I was born. I rambled around in the wet mountains for a couple of days and on my last day I went to visit a sculptor called Dominic Clare. Clare once trained with David Nash, who is responsible for my all-time favourite artwork. If you ever get the chance to see the film, seize it. I took some photos in Dominic Clare’s garden and wrote some stuff about his wood-carvings, which you can find here. It’s the first of a new column I am doing for Toast Travels called Art of Place.
While 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.
In the surf the other day somebody called out – ‘Don’t you have a job?’
It was an arrow, aimed at my self-esteem.
I work for myself, mainly on activities that feed my heart and soul, if not my bank balance. This means I can go surfing whenever I like. Which is quite often. Other people have to be present – at least physically – in offices, on shop floors, in banks etc
The comment hurt because from the moment I came down from the mountains and walked through the school gates as a tiny child I was brainwashed, just like everybody else, into separating work and play. Play is self-indulgent and worthless and for children. Work is painful, forms the basis of one’s value as a human being, and is what grown-ups do.
Some people have jobs they love. I am not talking about those people. I am talking about the cultural norm of going out and spending most of one’s waking hours doing something one does not want to do, for no good (meaningful) reason other than to contribute to the big fat mess we call the global economy.
As this popular quote from Charles Bukowski’s Factotum perfectly expresses, it’s not as if anybody could actually enjoy this kind of work – “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6.30 am by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”
Not that doing what you love – turning play into work – is easy –
Being awakened long before dawn, by an idea, leap out of bed that is also a sofa, put several thick jumpers on over nightclothes (too cold to dress yet), set kettle to boil on camping stove, go outside to piss under distant stars, wash face with cold flannel, find pieces of coffee pot by the light of the moon, shiver, scrape hair away from eyes, wrap self in blankets, sit down on sofa that is also a bed, think of things that hurt, imagine, re-imagine, feel despair, feel elation, feel sick, feel crushed by the weight of emptiness, stare at the screen, give up, get dressed, go seal watching, imagine, re-imagine, feel crushed by the weight of loneliness, write a song, sing it to the sparrows, suspect everything you have ever done is crap, suspect everything you ever will do is crap, go for a surf….fend off the arrows. Smile. Go home and carry on. No pats on the shoulder, no external validation, no office parties, no sick pay.
Be constantly grateful for the fact that you have somehow remained free, no matter how deep the emptiness and how cold and distant the morning stars.
In the words of Gary Snyder – “Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humour, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.”
Which happens to be more important to me than contributing to the big fat mess we call the global economy.