Friday, 2 May 2014

Life Cycles excerpt - America

     Everything I’d seen since arriving galvanised then… came upon me in a wave of disbelief… as if I could’ve started speaking in tongues. The whole of America was crawling, teeming with life… life gone wrong, convictions of right and wrong, everybody with their own personal struggles and myths. Riding out of Europe and into China might well have been something, but growing up in Europe and then finding yourself taking in America is a concept far harder to get your head around.

     There was religion… religion everywhere… I remember riding past the churches, each one with a small billboard out front, a different slogan for different days, sermons and moods…‘God gave his only son to save us – isn’t that awesome?’ Or else it went stricter… ‘The Bible is not a menu – You do not choose only the things you like – Pornography and Homosexuality are sins’. They were not just empty words either, people believed, they believed with fervour. The locals spent Saturday mornings waving Christian placards, working for money during the week and for God on the weekend. They were distributing leaflets outside anonymous buildings with parking spaces on the road marked ‘doctor’. The placards were consistent… ‘Abortion is murder’, ‘Every child is a child of God’… always easier to love a foetus than an actual human. If not religion it was politics, death penalty… that toilet door in Washington, a rubber flyswatter and a picture of a squashed fly upon it. In the centre ran the question, ‘What do we do with flies?’, to the right the words, ‘We squash ’em and we kill ’em’, and to the left, ‘We don’t catch ’em and release ’em’.

     Down the main street of a town I would walk… past the bar, diner, library full of books, grocer with crate of apples, pet shop with flea-collars and warmers for artificial pooches suspended in the window, past the post office, past the gun store. The gun store… a window with row upon row of firearms lined up, guns the size of children, handguns stacked on shelves like boxes of eggs, rifles to kill from half a mile away, guns that fire 200 bullets a minute. The posters on the walls too… ‘There is no such thing as a bad gun, only a bad person’… or else the banner above the doorway, ‘The Second Amendment protects all the other amendments’… and this was the Pacific northwest, liberal heartland of the United States. I thought of maps I’d seen, maps showing election results, the blue of Democrats down each seaboard… where they said trade and travel had forced internationalism, a more liberal mindset that sandwiched the Republican red of all the states between. That’s what I’d heard, but it’s only inside America that you discover all liberals might well be Democrats, but not all Democrats are liberals.
     The one about the grocery store, that’s a good one: a small hamlet in the USA, European walks into a grocery store. There’s a gathering of houses and one store among the forest – non-incorporated – a settlement where the woman who owns the store says becoming a formal village or town just brings taxes and bureaucracy, of which the people want neither and already have too much. She owns the store, a Democrat-voting woman in the liberal heartland of the United States. She tells me that a month ago there was a break-in, in the middle of the night a local boy named Cody had got in through the front door. She’d fired a shot in the air, sprang downstairs with her handgun when she heard the glass shatter.
     ‘He’s just a child… ran when he heard me coming. Sad story, really… father cleared out, left Cody and his sister. The mother kept his sister… put Cody up for adoption. Must feel awful…’ head shakes. ‘Rejected by your own mother. Cody’s gone from foster home to foster home, never had a family, always in trouble. Now he’s going to jail.’ She pauses, thoughtful. ‘Best place for him, really… a short, sharp shock in the penitentiary with some real criminals is just what he needs.’

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Where the deserts stop...

The habitations are always the same. Run sometimes by Kazakh peasants, by Tartars, by Uyghur. The peoples of central Asia spread in such ways that the borders of the nation states make little sense. It’s an important distinction, a lesson worth remembering. The borders of the nation states make little sense.

Every arrival, at every roadside cafĂ©, restaurant, or simple tray of smouldering coals, is always the same. Water. Towel. Each proprietor, even if with only a plastic drinks bottle, hanging from the underside of his caravan, has always provided a means by which to wash. You unscrew the lid, just a half turn, so that the water trickles slowly out, and one cupped handful all that the bottle will anyway spare. Other establishments have a bucket, kept inside a cupboard above a sink: a tap to turn, and then a second bucket in a cupboard kept below the sink. That is as elaborate as the plumbing will get. A well in these places is the highest form of luxury, and the echo of the bucket’s first splash feels like the opening swallow of water. A damp towel hangs limp from a line, wet from the faces of the truck drivers who passed this way before me. Every man and woman, passing through all the steppe beyond, goes drying their face on this one towel.

A man leans on a doorframe, tattoos on knuckles, wafting cool air to his gut with a T-shirt rolled up. He hocks mucous up from his chest, spits at my feet, a ball of phlegm rolling over itself to lie at a standstill in the dust. I look up, affronted, and yet it is with broad smile that he sticks out his hand for me to shake. Whatever the Western etiquette, just as the camels that stalk the roadside, soon you start to spit, trying ever in vain to remove the hot air and taste of desert that goes crawling down your throat. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. His phlegm sinks slowly dry into the earth.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Life Cycles excerpt - South Thailand

Leaving the highway, I made my way to smaller roads, through villages more remote, the forest thicker, alive with strange squawks and chattering where before had been only the hum of traffic. New types of death emerged, squashed on the road the flattened coil of what had been a snake, a silver skin with tyre treads across its middle, curled fang jammed between stones in the road’s surface. There was the lizard, a whole metre in length, I must have disturbed the thing for I realised its presence only through my ear. A slithering movement began, a rustling of leather pulled powerfully through gravel. I glimpsed it, a real dinosaur, the hanging skin beneath the neck, broad green back and that gigantic tail, pulled over the ground by long, black claws.
As I moved south the rains returned, transforming me from dry to dripping in 20 seconds, buckets of water from above and laughter the only worthwhile response. After the clouds had said their bit, the sky cleared just as swift, as if it had never bore a grey shade in all its days. The world warmed again, and as I headed in and out of Thammarat, so Thailand grew poorer, the landscape changing, pavements turning back to dust and soil, concrete houses replaced by metal sheets and planks of wood, cars turning to cows, motorbikes to bicycles. Life there became quieter, slower, softening as the sound of engines disappeared. Islam emerged, mosques and minarets, the Muslim south the poorest part of Thailand, where the Buddhists, ever viewed so benevolently in the West, become only the oppressive majority. The Thai Muslims protest for rights and, with deaths and brutality, the authorities crush all dissent, the whole thing one more cooperation in that endless, borderless, war against terrorism.
Out of the hills ran rivers, widening in readiness for the sea. The houses moved from land to water, stilts protruding the weeds and lilies, and tethered canoes pulling slowly back and forth the rope that held them. From a rickety deck, children threw pebbles into a bucket floating in the water, while a mother squatted among tangled fishing nets, fingers working through endless knots. A man floated idly through the scene, gliding home in a boat full of holes, his paddle breaking the still surface with a slow plunge and a splash of water. It doesn’t get better than that, truly picturesque… poverty that floats. From inside my pannier there came a loud fluttering of lenses, the camera desperate for a peek, whispering promises that if only I let it see what I saw, then never again would I have need of a memory.

The complete book, Life Cycles, is published on June 2nd

Friday, 14 March 2014

Life Cycles excerpt - Car horns in China

The car horns, ever the car horns wore me down, screaming at me all day long. They screamed that I move, screamed that they were coming. There was nothing too complicated, no situation too nuanced for explanation by car horn. Each time, for a whole month, it felt as though my ear drum was being spliced open with a blunt dagger. It hurt. I grunted, grimaced, shouted, grew ever more furious, but it was futile, the car horn is invaluable to Chinese culture, it props-up the nation itself. That horn expressed all standard scenarios of the road plus infinite more besides. It was fired once to say ‘I’m behind you’, twice for ‘300metres’, again for ‘200metres’… parallel’. And yet they kept going down the road with still more to come. I’ve overtaken you. This is fun. Fast. I like driving in my car. I’m a taxi, you’re a pedestrian, let’s work something out. Tunnels make echoes. Hello. Hellooow! It’s me! I second the horn of the car in front. I’m about to overtake dangerously close to you. Bored. Scooter overtakes bicycle on empty road. Turning. This is going to be close. I’m driving like an idiot, be careful. I’ve hired this van for just a day, I want my horn’s worth. This is how my father and brother drive! 

I’m sorry to produce such a tedious list, but that was how it felt. I imagined the hidden rage that horn must have buried in the population, grew convinced that Chinese society retained its order by use of that horn and the frustrations it nullified. I’m 5’2” and identical to half a billion others, listen to this horn! My culture, history and ethnicity is repressed… listen to this horn! They think they’ve made an emancipated woman out of me, all they did was give me a truck to drive through a desert… listen to this horn! I’m a homosexual but don’t even know it because of this crushing, sexual conservatism… listen to this horn! 10% economic growth? Maybe on the East coast… listen to this horn! China? A great nation? Then where are our basic freedoms?... listen to this horn! The sky is thick with smog, rivers run black, and my child coughs blood… listen to this horn! Listen to this horn! It was no use gesticulating, for if I waved a fist at them in rage, they simply took it for greeting or support and let off another volley of horn my way. There was no concern that could not be both raised and answered by a Chinese person blasting off a round on a car or truck horn. It was like a psychiatrist’s settee, it saved them from themselves. It was their dissent, their protest, their therapy.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

From just inside the end of history

I had this drafted out on paper, and in my head in numerous forms. In the end, I feel it's going to vomit out of me in some mixture of Alexander de Tocqueville, Lao Tzu, and myself. It's a wrap-up.

"Abandon all despair ye who enter here."

It's written above the door of City Lights book store and publisher, in downtown San Francisco, where Kerouac and Ginsberg used to hang out. I love America for that line, and others like it. American civil society live the most embattled struggle for progressive values, in the most decrepit and culturally ransacked society you could imagine. Amongst this climate they maintain hope, and they demonstrate great resourcefulness and determination. I don't like their frequent obsession for branded clothing, for dentistry, and I can sometimes find their manners insincere, but in regards their politics, I have the greatest of admiration for them, and Europe could learn from this attitude. Without that initial optimism, no start can ever be made.

I should begin this bluntly, my mandate to speak in such forthright terms. There was a large bowie knife on a tabletop in Flagstaff, Arizona, belonging to a girl of the gentlest nature and the slightest build. I made a joke about the knife. She responded. "We have quite a big rape problem in Flagstaff... the college boys will buy you a drink and think they're entitled to you." I was at a truck stop outside Indianapolis. The skin of the prostitutes is stained grey, from where the crystal meth makes them scratch at their faces. Methamphetamine happens in more than just fifty-minute episodes of compulsive viewing. The television in the corner of the restaurant has an advert for solicitors, they will help you get compensation if your teenage son has developed breast-like symptoms from a specific drug he was prescribed. I see one of the prostitutes leaving the cab of the truck beside the one I'm sitting in, she makes no effort to conceal herself pulling back into her jeans, dropping enormous breasts back into the cup of a red bra. Modesto is here, it barely scratches the surface of what I've seen. In San Francisco you will see a homeless woman pull down her pyjama bottoms and piss on the street. I can relativise with the best of them, no doubting those guys aren't suffering the misery I would be were I to live in Modesto, but still, objectively, life ain't good for them, and eventually relativism becomes nihilism.

I've spoken to gun-owning, gentle-hearted anarchists living out in the woods of Ohio. "Hell... I like people... but sure... if I didn't and I'd decided to kill myself, absolutely I can see how someone would decide to take a few down with him." America needs to address gun ownership, they need to do it so that people can stop getting murdered. Even more urgently than this, however, and something even liberal America misses, the country needs a frank discussion on why their society produces so many deeply and pathologically misanthropic individuals, people who want to kill their fellow citizens to begin with. America's mental health problem is national as much as it is individual. If you're paying attention... this country will drive you insane. That should be the starting point for the discussion, and though America is furthest down the track, the rest of the world is following suit. As the same anarchist put it... "we're just the canary in the mineshaft." In terms of Britain, Miliband must move further and boldly towards public-spirited, progressive politics. Cameron, and all his cabinet, with the exception of Ken Clarke, ought to do the Castleragh and fuck off. Adam Smith wrote about the necessity of the Invisible Hand of the Free Market. He also wrote of the necessity of the Iron Fist of government.

"That government is best which governs least" is written at the opening of Henry Thoreau's treatise, Civil Disobedience. The idiom has been appropriated by many of the extreme views in contemporary US politics, but is omnipotent in the global cancer that is neoliberal politics. It should be noted that Thoreau envisaged a society of physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually healthy humans who had no need for governance. He was not referring to the diabetic, overweight, consistently distracted, emotionally disconnected and spiritually impoverished societies into which we are being led. Left to the Koch brothers et al to decide our fate in a post-government anarchy, I believe the efforts of our civil society would soon be bent to reestablishing a government. We should not, therefore, aspire to dismantle government, but to make it  better. In some instances, this would involve making it stronger rather than weaker. Americans in particular ought learn this lesson, and know that Thoreau would most likely have approved of the government passing Obamacare, even in forms stronger than it eventually managed.

I've heard my style of prose judged to be grandiloquent and embellished, as if I were writing in some sort of antique style belonging to the nineteenth century. I sense the likeness too, but the style is in no way forced, as some have suggested, and the thoughts are as they leave my head. What forms this type of writing is not really stylistic at all, more a sense of importance and emotional urgency. This urgency was acceptable in the nineteenth century, and is embarrassing in the twenty-first. I'm writing in it now because 1. it's by far the easiest way the words come out, and 2. if this language is nineteenth-century, then so too are the magnitude of our social problems. Melodramatic though it sounds, people are dying from our social ills, their lives are being ruined, and that requires a greater sense of emergency than our post-emotional society ordinarily affords.

I grew up in a town in the Midlands, BBC radio showed up once, to record a programme on "Broken Britain", after a mother killed herself and her disabled daughter with a hose from the car exhaust, that being the most effective way to stop the bullying. A mentally ill woman was beaten to death and her house set on fire. These are not even the only two instances of murder I can dredge from the place where I grew up. In my language... whether written or spoken, I still swear too much, I know. I slowly, I think, get away from the "angry young man" moniker I was given after my cycling world record, but still, I'm furious. I'm bouncing off the walls, and these rough edges are the result of that. To be honest, I wouldn't mind spreading my rough edges around a little further. We're in a mess. A fucking mess, and progressive politicians will find themselves unable to convince people of the need for change whilst advocating in any way that our current system works. Declare the scale of the disaster, and you begin to forge a mandate... it's worked for both UKIP and the Tea Party.

Last night I touched down at JFK, I was sitting on top of the landing gear and I could see Manhattan glowing. When you're sitting right on top of the landing gear and you're looking at Manhattan at night, as the wheels thud down beneath your feet, it makes you think humans are doing a pretty OK job of things. I imagine politicians experience this kind of view quite a lot.

In spite of all of the gloom above, I am positive. Because in my head is an openness and a sense of liberty, and if my head can be freed from the ills and false-promises of our social and political dialogue, then I see no reason why the same cannot be achieved with others. I don't see enemies when I look at the world any longer, certainly there is opposition, but no enemies. Once you've resolved that even your staunchest opponent has a heart that can be won round, you gain a strength far greater than that which you can find in the mere will to defeat another.

I want to write a twenty-first century Democracy in America... it's important that people still believe they can do these things, that they can redefine an understanding of even the biggest political constructs. Where people do not do as much, the constructs become stagnant, empty words without any emotional value. This is where the concept of Democracy now resides... it's driftwood, not even a shipwreck. I grew up outside of the system that now rejects my CV at every opportunity. I'm fine with that. If I had grown up inside the cultures of that world, I wouldn't have this ambition, and harder though that makes life, I'll take the ambition over the job security.

"Abandon all despair ye who enter here."

Thursday, 12 December 2013


Nobody picks you up. Central California is a hitchhiking wasteland, three generations of your family could die out here before anyone got a ride. From the East is a front of Nevada conservative, edged with "Fuck you... bum!"... from the West comes plastic California, consumerism and media fear... these guys don't do alternative lifestysles. The two meet in the middle. Nobody picks you up. There's only fifty miles to go. but I'm done. I pick up my bag and I walk, I walk, I walk.

Two more hours I walk through Modesto, this nowheresville, small town of nothing that still stretches ten meaningless miles. I smell fumes, diesel, the exhausts of one single-occupied vehicle after another. There are no people... only me and the cars again. I see a woman from through the open driver's-side window of a pick-up. I walk towards her with "which way to the Greyhound station?" in my mouth... She sees me, corner of her eye she sees me as the words make their way on to my tongue. An electric window slides up.

I walk the streets, I hate the streets, each building a ten metre house surrounded by a hundred metre fence enclosing empty land. Two hundred metres to the next house. Desert towns. Misanthropic architecture... the buildings hate one another, fell-out long ago and will never sort things out. I can feel it rising in me, I'm about to start hating America anew, all over again. I wonder if maybe there's some sort of public transport system here, then I remember there isn't even a public. The individual transport system does a roaring trade beside me, I'm breathing-in the benzene to prove it.

Two more hours I walk Modesto, reach downtown and still nothing. No bars, cafes or public spaces. I'm the only human being left, an on-foot transport pervert. Drifts of leaves line the gutters of cracked concrete. Overhead are pepper trees, they drop corns of bright green and pink to grind beneath the burrs of my boots, crumbling in a storm of colour, of spice and scent. Nature created pink and green peppercorns. Mankind created Modesto. Try that for an order of rank. We lose. A man stumbles towards me, behind him the shopping trolley that contains his life. Loose jeans, black duffle coat, pale skin with red blotches all over it, red cracking white. Short fair hair, blue eyes, spittle dried thick and yellow on his lips. He comes at me... a hand a-reaching... "brother... brother... Pentrscstl chrch yiu?"... excuse me?... "Brother... brother... you got the Pentecostal church in you?... You can be saved!?" No thanks. I'm saved already.

I walk into the Greyhound station, simultaneously the only place I want to be and the worst place on earth. I see more men with shopping trolley lives, a woman in orange flannel hotpants and vest, reclining on a pavement and reading a book as her bloated stomach of alcohol crimson comes slipping out... still, stay positive... at least she's reading a book! A proud man is finishing off an argument, he's clean, wearing a pressed shirt a rich blue, chinos, neat moustache. He directs buses, looks like he works here, his patience looks thinner than mine... trying to keep afloat in Underclass, send his daughter to college so that she can get the hell out of Modesto for good. I ask the bus to Livermore, the Livermore BART station, where I can ride a metro train to San Francisco... he gives me short shrift.

      "No service."
      "What do you mean there's no service... you mean it doesn't exist?"
      He looks at me from behind sunglasses, "Kind of wiseass question is that?... what an asshole thing to say... jeez!"
      Exhausted, just as this guy looks ready to drown in his detritus, I realise sadly that the only sane people left in Modesto now hate one another more than all the deadbeats combined.
      "Of course it exists! But not until tomorrow. You'd need the bus to San Francisco... forty-five dollars... leaves in four hours."

My jaw drops once at forty-five dollars for a fifty mile bus journey, drops a second time at the idea of four more hours of life, lost forever in Modesto. I spin away, recoil, like I've been shot, peppered with bad news buckshot. I'm going nowhere fast and I need the toilet. I'll shuffle priorities, that can be the new task... take a leak, attainable goals. I head for the terminal. I step inside, I stride past human shrapnel, neoliberal carnage, shock and fucking awe... it's a living death in here... dogs curled-up in jackets, shopping trolley lives, laundry bags, cardboard "Homeless" signs staring right back at cardboard "Please Help!" signs... man... and they say twentieth century Communism was a disaster... that stuff must have been pretty special to top this. Misery. Incandescent misery. There are no words for this disgust, this contempt, it's burning, corrosive... if I were to spit the stuff it would burn through metal. There's no doubting it, I've had suspicions for a while but at last I'm convinced... this is the worst country in the world, largely because so many of the numbskulls still think it's the best. This is an abomination, cancel the aid budgets, tell the DEC. America is the world's foremost humanitarian catastrophe. Still, that's for another time boy... for now just get to the toilet, take a leak, then get out of here... stop getting distracted. I stride through, I make the toilets... it's cramped in here, people everywhere and nowhere to turn. Urinal on the wall.. black bag thrown over it in place of an Out of Order sign, the second urinal has fallen down and split. Hell... I've stepped into a crime scene. I make for cubicles, a toilet, shit in the bowl, door kicked off. I double out... a larger cubicle adjacent.. I keep my head down, I lift head as I step to cubicle. I see feet. Two feet. There he is, it's Uncle Sam... American Dream himself, sitting on the shitter, door wide open, trainers full of holes, trousers round ankles, trousers full of shit, legs stained black with soot and... why can't I stop my head?... eyes... really... why do you have to keep moving... you know this won't end well. There's his cock... violet.. purple... a slug, crawling out of pubis as my brain falls open and hears the calm, eminently sensible voice of Ripley... "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit."

I beat a retreat, I'm passing out... I'm drifting into hypo, seizure... I need an espresso... I don't mind admitting it either... not after Modesto, I need some gentrification, and fast, intravenous, a hypodermic shot of taleggio. I stride back out... faces, faces everywhere, dark eyes and reaching hands... The Horror! The Horror!... I spin, I gag. I want the subway, I want escalators and tubes that spirit you directly from a home to the safety of an office or an organised consumer recreation. I want San Francisco, I want an aubergine burrito, I want subway exit with artistic posters for new exhibition examining gender identity... I'll even take a bank as headline sponsor. I've had enough journey, just give me a destination... give me a destination, let it be San Francisco, and get me there by metro, let it be a journey through the earth. No more of this... just give me comfort, blindness, ignorance... I want the life, the oblivious life that the middle classes of the world create in recompense, that root, cosseted blindness by which it is all permitted to exist.

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