Thursday, 21 November 2013

Kentucky





I started out similar last time. You have to clear your throat, it takes some building up-to. I prevaricate, beat around the bush a line or two, make excuses for myself. Excuses. It's all life and fire and lunacy and excuses and excuses and excuses. America. You and me. Here we go again.

You don't see this place, it's all but invisible, it's in your ears... this landscape  howls, it looks like a scream. Hands on cheeks, mouth wide open... the planes roar by you. America looks like the sound of a traffic light suspended on a cable above the junction. It's that cr-creaking of rusty steel, not that one... that's the one of the railroad tracks and the freight train, solid metal wheels turning a curve against die-straight rails, two unrelenting lines sliding into a whispered, snapping compromise of changed direction. It pings... zips.... only it's so much more than that. The truck careers down Interstate, we're headed for Missouri, and from underneath comes the rumbling of rubber shrapnel, the remains of a tyre that exploded long before we got here. They load the trailer behind us, the payload is stowed on board as the whole rig sets to shaking, jumps around with the weight of the forklift running in and out. I can call it a rig, and use other words like it, because I'm in America.. where nobody would be seen dead inside a lorry. In London, the left turning trucks crush cyclists, in America, their right turns take out whole cars, a manoeuvre illustrated on stickers at the rear of each trailer. I write... realise my jaw's closed tight, I'm trying for it... but I'm still not even close.

With the knock of wood on wood the dice roll, bounce across the floor and cupboards of this cabin. I'm up in Ohio, though everyone insists I call it Appalachia. In the corner of the room is a jar into which you drop a quarter for a play. You throw the six dice... which ricochet, bang and snap into one-one-four-three-six-two... you lose your quarter, but one day someone rolls a sequential one-through-six and takes the pot. By the time I leave, it stands at $296 and an amount everyone's too drunk to count, dice still rolling as I head to my trailer for the night, declining the offer of whisky... so much has changed in five years.

Come morning I'm first awake. I find tea bags and milk, I boil water on the stove and warm a cup. From the porch there hang four haunches of venison, blood drying rich red in the remaining skin upon each muscle. The wind blows slowly through the valley, and just for me there comes the gruff sound of a length of rope, rubbed against the metal hook that holds the swaying haunch. I look around this kitchen, buried deep in the hills, and on shelves I see Barilla pasta, Bonne Maman jams have made the journey here too, and on a counter is an old copy of The New Yorker. Up here are America's refugees... waiting in the hills for Europe to come pick them up. I won't go into the politics... at least not for now... I'm already so far past tired. Like I said... so much has changed.

For almost two weeks I've been dragging myself across this country using only my thumb. I pull myself through great drifts of the most potent, acrid fear... the whole thing as much a work of surrealist art as it is travel. Sometimes, and with only the power of my thumb, I can move an eighteen wheel truck to the far side off a four lane highway. The weight of rejection on offer is catastrophic, soul-crushing, the only consolation being the power to strike mortal fear and blind panic into the hearts of America's brave men and women, those who have been taught to think themselves so fearless. Sometimes, getting out of the car at the end of a ride, I feel almost awkward not to have murdered anyone, like I've disappointed somebody, let them down... as if all I am is some lousy imposter who only wanted a ride. Nothing like on TV.

Be that as it may, things are about to come good... come gooood. I sit across a restaurant table in a roadside truckstop. Opposite me sits Pala... turns out the only fearless American is actually from the Punjab. Looking back at me is the most Sikh face you ever saw... a bun of hair under the turban under the woollen hat, a knot of black beard tied under the chin. Pala looks at me, looks at me straight, we're in Kentucky and he's headed for Yuma, Arizona, all in the name of plastic-packaged courgettes. I'm looking across the table at 2100 miles, I'm about to strike hitchhike gold, buried deep down on the Mexico border. From the depths of my memory I pull out my rudimentary Sikhism... I Guru Nanak, I Guru Granth Sahib... all set to build a gurdwara and even make a stab at my five Ks... secondary school religious education is about to get me to Arizona, try that for unquantifiable returns on learning. All I have to do is convince Pala that I'm sane and decent, and I'll be set to steal some $400 from the US tourist economy, I'll sit myself in a seat that's already going my way. Pala levels with me, straight up, palms down... “is it dangerous for me?” … I don't know, a good question... “is it dangerous for me?”

We ride into the darkness, the lights frame our destination, the asphalt disappears below, only to reappear and begin again forever and ever. The passenger door leaks the cold, midnight air of Indiana. Pala and I sit side-by-side, our silhouettes with hoods up, staring straight into this tunnel of lights, a stream of trucks, racing from the coming ice we're told is on its way. I watch the night... the lights, the darkness, the lights, ever the lights, suddenly split... blood red... they fall on us and then the carcass of a deer, burst in half, the white tails of two bucks, racing the scene. Gone.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

New York





The journey from JFK airport is made aboard a bus, wrapped in plastic, in order that it could then have advertising printed on all sides. Sitting inside the bus it's dark, light comes in from the windscreen, bright against a line of shoulders. That you can't see America, because you're wrapped inside an advert seems like a metaphor for so much more.

I arrive on October 29th, before evening’s through I’ve been told by three people that it’s the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the storm that claimed the lives of 53 New Yorkers (and some 70 Caribbean people who suffered with the irrelevance of not being American). Of the three who draw my attention to the Sandy anniversary, two spell out exactly what this means in terms of time. “One year... three-hundred and sixty five days!” Americans are obsessed with history... mostly their own, and especially where they can quantify it. 

Ordinarily I live in London. The city mayor, Boris Johnson, claims it to be the best job in the world, in the greatest city in the world. I find this a particularly American style of accolade, the impulse to quantify the subjective in terms of the absolute. If we are to enter into this contest, I fear New York probably beats us. I write that sentence and remember an old conversation, an American who laughed at that British tic of language, our excessive politeness. “‘I’m afraid’, or ‘I fear’... you British are afraid of a lot of things.” Americans fear nothing. Only germs and allergies.

This afternoon I’ve a meeting in an office on the junction of Eleventh and Forty-Fourth. Just the location is American, direct, to-the-point and reinforced by that same style of dialogue I’ve learned in a thousand films that fifty years from now will all be called movies. I’m aware that, back in London, this meeting would be at the corner of Fenchurch Street and Philpot Lane, which can’t help but sound impossibly quaint, mild-mannered by comparison. I know Americans who would find the same difference remarkably civilised, even refined. For liberals of the world, other cultures always seem more impressive than our own.

I’ve decided to walk to this meeting, taking the most indirect of routes because – truth be told – no matter how smug you are about being from the Old World... everyone goes a bit weak-kneed where looking around New York is concerned. Beginning at the Empire State Building, I walk up Fifth Avenue, make my way west through Central Park, my route a tour of names and places that define the cultural epicentre of the human universe. I become splendid by association, improved by proxy. This article is not an examination of whether London or New York is the capital of the world, for if such a thing does exist, you find the verdict on walking a single block of Fifth Avenue. Your head has to tilt a long way back on your neck before eyes hit sky. The bonnet of the delivery truck sits above the height of my ears, the post boxes could fit people inside of them, lend an appearance of industry to the mere act of human communication. Five lanes of traffic. Pavements twenty people deep. I’m dwarfed. Later this afternoon, in the meeting at Eleventh and Forty-Fourth, I’ll ask a Frenchman and a Swede what they think is the capital of the world. Neither seem to have an opinion, nor sense the need for one. Obviously the concept is more of a thing for English-speakers. I wonder, what’s the French for “pissing contest”?

I make my way up Fifth, up Fifth, up Fifth. The advertising takes me, sinks in, ever the best and loudest examination of the psyche of a nation. In New York and you find the exceptional on every corner, Merit up in lights, system-works, that transcendental ideology that remains the only unifying feature in America’s entrenched and polarised modern politics. One by one, the billboards make their case. “Have an idea. Make it happen” is the contribution of Spanish bank, Santander, quickly learning how to speak American, so that a bank bailed out by the collective EU taxpayer has set to peddling the myths of the individual. “Let your next project be the one you’re remembered for” is another offering, a reminder of that Big Time everyone’s heading for in this country defined by an optimism for its future. An adult college hawks its wares on the side of bus stops, I pass by three of their pitches, one with a mother studying in order to earn good and set her daughter up in stage school, another aiming to improve her wages so as to support another daughter, a talented dancer. Work hard and see your children through to stardom, the barometer of good parenting. All over the city are adverts for a website, values.com, my favourite is the one with a black man and a book, promoting literacy. Apparently it’s a good idea.

At the top of Fifth comes Central Park, littered with boulders of granite, the bedrock onto which the skyscrapers of Manhattan were built. Autumn takes the trees, leaves falling to red or branches falling bare. I look up at a young man, sitting cross-legged on a rock beneath the dark outline of a tree, an image that could've been cut from the Alps or the savannah, were it not for the metropolis that stands over him, the park shut away inside. A line of dogs makes its way towards me, six leashes leading back towards the same walker-for-hire. He contorts, leans, fusses in pockets before emerging with his hand inside a plastic bag. He crouches to pick up a warm pile of shit, just in time for another to start sliding from out the back of another dog. If animals don't have senses of humour, I appreciate the scene on their behalf.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Journey



I just took the subway, crossed under the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn, visiting some friends before heading out of New York, for the West Coast, probably San Francisco. I saw myself on the subway train, I saw a face with a beard, a big bag leaning against me. That's the image, the body and costume that the other passengers would've seen, even though I wasn't actually there... I was at the top of the Cormet de Roselend, where the road turns round the last bend and opens to the lake, 2000 metres up. It's so peaceful up there, everything's so quiet.

Today's Saturday, tomorrow is Sunday November 10th, and I'll walk over the George Washington Bridge, crossing the Hudson River that first brought me to New York this autumn. Right now I feel nervous about that fact, but I know then that I won't... I'll just be walking. Good things are happening. My publisher's confirmed a June 2nd date for the release of my first book, Cycles. I recently got good news on the first draft of my second manuscript, which looks at the London I returned to as a cycle courier, having just ridden around the world in 2009. I like the story, it's as dear to me as that of riding around the world. Good things are happening, though I feel I've been nomadic for a long time, and sometimes I find the feeling tiring. It's a strange situation, to find yourself in the position where hitchhiking from East to West coasts of the USA  seems like the most sensible thing you can do in terms of your career development. John Steinbeck's been giving me counsel, Louis-Ferdinand Céline always does. He's as good as my mentor.

I've started working on a manuscript of this journey across the US, beginning with the last week, of loitering around New York. Whatever comes out, it'll be political, by which I suppose I'd like to think I actually mean Human. I continue to drift away from ideas of journalism, there's such a gulf between journalism and writing, and the latter has a mandate to inspire that doesn't exist in the pages (digital or otherwise) of most media.

Oddly, I found myself campaigning for Bill de Blasio in New York last week, he's just been elected as the city's first Democrat mayor for twenty years. People whose judgment I trust were prepared to campaign for him, and so I threw my lot in alongside them. For me, de Blasio's victory falls into the same category of Hollande's in France, or Ed over David Miliband... they're all candidates prepared to err closer to the idea that the system doesn't work,  none are the candidates that free-market orthodoxy would've chosen, were our political destiny as mapped-out as it sometimes seems. They're all flawed, in the same way as all politicians and people are, but they're a better kind of flawed than the alternative.

People still associate me with adventure, they've certainly been doing so in response to this plan to travel to the West Coast. I don't really like having that word anywhere near my name, still less 'adventurER.' As far as I'm concerned, what I'm doing here is pretty much an exercise in geography. All the adventurers I know personally are less prone to wandering than I am. They work for less money than they could earn, so that they can have meaningful jobs. By 'meaningful' I mean jobs that help people other than themselves. They quit safe jobs in order to start something new and socially valuable. They're not afraid to ask a difficult question of their boss, where they think it's a moral requirement that they do so. They're not afraid to alienate an entire, conforming dinner table in order to say something that's truthful rather than just noise. Nor is it a question of profession, because I know people in charities who I believe are happy to be only cogs... trundling, loyally... and I know bankers who I trust to question the institution they're working in. To me, these people are adventurers, and if they can take interest in something that I write, or be even a tiny bit inspired by some of the ideas or stories I put out... that's good enough for me. Mountains don't mind you walking over them, rivers flow anyway, and roads are designed to be travelled as easily as possible. There's no challenge bigger than changing the course of a human head or heart... don't let any adventurer archetype tell you otherwise.

Soon I'll start to ramble, so I'll leave it there, and close off with Céline. I'm not feeling quite so world-weary as this sounds, but I saw it the other day, for the first time in a while, the opening words to Journey to the end of the Night. It rang pretty true, as his words so often do.

"Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination.
All the rest is disappointment and fatigue.
Our journey is entirely imaginary.
That is its strength

It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. 
It's a novel, just a fictitious narrative,
Littre says so, and he's never wrong.

And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much,
You just have to close your eyes.
It's on the other side of life."


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