Tag Archives: stories

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.

 

Why I Write Songs

ribbons ep blog postIn the interests of living in time, rather than killing it, which is a sentiment I took from a recent blog post by the wonderful poet Claire Pollard, who was also on a train at the time of writing, I decided to use my recent long train journey back to Cornwall from London to try to express why I write songs. My desire to do this was inspired by the weird feeling I have when I look at my various social media selves, which don’t seem to bear that much relation to my actual self, the self that spent the best part of the last decade writing songs in secret, usually whilst crying/drunk/stoned etc, without feeling the slightest need to involve society or media.

However, at the ripe old age of thirty five, two things have finally sunk in (better late than never). One is that life is ridiculously short, and the less time I have left, the faster that time goes, which is unfair, but true. The other is that I have to spend most of that time making a living, unless I want to perch in a shed for the rest of my life, which I might, but equally might not, because hot showers are wondrous things. Having tried many jobs, from labouring on building sites to flower picking to teaching to gardening to busking, I have decided that the only way I can hope to be at peace is to work as hard as I possibly can to create opportunities to make my living doing the things I love. Such as writing and recording songs.

Social media is one way to create such opportunities, being a great place to share and sell these songs. However, in trying to sell my songs, I seem to end up also trying to sell myself, which in turn seems to result in the emergence of someone who doesn’t exist – someone a lot chirpier/more confident/more sorted/less baffled than I am. Which leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that I don’t exist. It’s not false, it’s just not the whole story.

Because the selling part is not the main event. It’s a necessary evil, a by-product of the making part. The truth (and this is probably also the reason why people like me find it so hard to demand money for their efforts) is that I will keep writing songs (and books) whether or not anyone ever buys them, because I am one of those people who is constantly at risk from drowning in their own thoughts, and songs are my life raft. And since that kind of embarrassing truth just doesn’t come across very well on bubbly old social media, I decided to risk not looking very cool (again) and stick it up here, just for the record. I have no idea why it came out as a kind of poem. Blame Claire Pollard.

Why I Write Songs

I write songs because I’m not okay, and songs make not okay, okay.

I write songs for you who don’t have time to wonder at the morning,

And for you, carrying all that quiet heartache with such fortitude.

I want to make you cry.

I write songs because I’m lonely and songs are my reward for being free.

I write songs because our world is crumbling and the light is hard to see.

I write songs and now I sing them, too, because time is shorter than I thought

And this will all be over soon.

I write songs because I’m here again, and again and again and again.

And because I keep falling in love too fast, with unforgiving men.

I write songs because I happen to be there when they land on my desk

Tired out from flying.

I write songs because I’m lost, and the cost of living is too high

And songs are the only way that I can afford to fly.

I write songs to fill the gap between my longing and my dreams

Because happiness is not what it seems.

I will be launching the Ribbons EP on Saturday (5th April) 6pm at Newlyn Art Gallery, and on Sunday 13th April 3pm at Strong Adolfo’s, Wadebridge. When I have figured out the technology you will also be able to buy it from this website.