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

Wasteland



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.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Freight



I don't go in for any of that "before you die" bullshit... fear of death as a marketing strategy, selling you something new, starting with a book, the title of which will at some point contain those very words. If you ask me, the better thing to bear in mind is that things could be over before you reach the last full stop. You could beat me to the finish. I don't go in for any of that before you die bullshit... but still... jumping down from the cab of a truck... that's one I wouldn't like to be without. You open the door, step to a griddled step, and with a hand guiding you off of the rail, you hop down. Two things really make it worthwhile, three if you count the fact that you ought really be hitching a ride with the truck in question. First off is the length of time you're dropping through the air, the height you've been up at. Best of all though, is the sound of your boot as it lands back to earth. Gravel's best, concrete's still good. You can take or leave my advice, but I'd say it's worth experiencing sometime, and probably more than once. Like anything, the first time can be a bit hit-or-miss. The first time I did it I was nineteen, and a driver named Jose burst into laughter at a roadside near Zaragoza. I went toppling, flapping, swinging with the Catalan flag from the side of his engine. It wasn't so resounding.

I've a friend with a nineteen year old son at university. Barclays Bank and PWC like to hang around the school gates, pushing free ice creams in exchange for careers information. I knew drug dealers in the Midlands who used a similar tactic. If I can get nineteen year olds to go hitchhiking instead of a graduate fare, I'll consider that half a success. The real deal will be convincing some Chinese and Indians of as much... what the world needs are BRIC beatniks, that's the only thing that can save us now. Kerouac in Mandarin... I'm just here to help the trickle-down... trickle-down Kerouac. This might sound like travel writing to you, but really it's an economic policy... shock therapy. We need more and better Kerouac. You were not born 9-5. You were not born a slave, human beings are entitled to decent wages, work and shelter. Consider this a sponsored hitchhike in the name of a living wage. You were born with rights, and the more time you spend listening to politicians and media the more likely you are to forget them, whereas the more nights people spend sleeping under stars, the harder it'll be to deny as much. At least that's how I see it... the world demands so much more of us all.

I walk the Canyon edge, it's after dark... I'm sorry... all those were just the thoughts I've kept myself company with up to now. Canyon with the clouds off and the cameras out is pretty underwhelming, but Canyon after dark, once they're all shut-up in their lodge accommodation, or once they've sped on to play blackjack at Vegas... once you've got it to yourself, it's pretty special. I feel cold air on one side of my face, which means I've come back out of the forest, means Canyon is back. I move through the darkness towards the gulf. I drop in a stone. It crackles away. I gather myself, nobody's around, and so I give it a roar... I let out a chestful of London, scream and throw it out into the Canyon, better than any North London leather sofa where getting your head straight is concerned. And then.. unexpected.. Canyon it screams right back. Perfect, word for garbled word. I go again, I shout "Hello." "Hello!Hello!Hello!" comes back to me. I whistle, Canyon whistles back. I scream again, and back it comes in high-fidelity echo. I think a moment, and then I try another. I "Bella Ciao!". I listen... "Blll OOwowow". Not quite it. I "Bella Ciao!". Still not right, but we're getting somewhere. I shout into the Grand Canyon, into the heart of America... Bella CIAO! Cup hand to hear... "CIAO! CIAO CIAO!" I step back, I smile... well blow me. The Grand Canyon it sings just like the Red Army Choir.

I walk on, another ten miles to tread, there's snow on the ground, my headtorch picks through the trees, I'm accompanied by old memories and political philosophy, between the two of them I keep pretty good company. I walk the night, beside the forest of Grand Canyon, the greatest office going, where I'm cooking-up a campaign for the 2015 UK general election. What I think we should do you see, is taking a handful of swing sea-... Eyes. Shit. Eyes. Two of them, no mistaking it... they're looking at me... green-white. Straight at me, my headtorch back at them. These eyes they're five metres from me, even the eyes are above the height of my head, I don't want to think about where the antlers finish. I freeze. And then I slow. I move, I stamp my feet, believe it or not he's more scared of me than I am of him. That creature must be petrified... it's rutting season and I'm no stag. I pray deer not elk... please deer not elk. I will the thing back into the forest and not out onto the road. I stomp. I jump. I ready to turn my backpack on it, to take the impact should it charge my way. I promise never to eat venison again... just scram will you! Inside my head I hear it... "the headtorch... they like the light... switch off the headtorch, stupid!"I turn it off. The eyes disappear. Darkness. I roar, I turn grizzly, roar again for good measure. I hear twigs snapping, hear scrambling, frantic... it's gone... it's gone but now I've been reminded of deer and moose and bears and mountain lions. I'm afraid... at last!... a bit of fear!... I'm alive again and thinking of. Bang. Bang-Thump-Crash! Du-dum-du-dum-du-dum. Louder. Closer. More lifelike than any train engine, hooves break the forest on my other side, a second deer stampedes alone across tarmac, white snow exploding at the fall of each hoof. And then it's gone. Silence. I'm alone. I think. I'm alone.

I'm alone and nobody's watching, all their backs are turned and one more comes whistling-in. Desert and blinding daylight. They've been doing it all day, the freight trains have been singing, calling me over even as one motorist after another drove right on by. This time I'm through with it, I'm done with asphalt and I want those rails. Suddenly. Shit. but suddenly I'm running, I'm making a break for fence as a line of empty cribs come rolling slow towards the turn just west of Barstow. I run the line of fence, head for where it's lowest and haul up and over. Chain link fence. Cymbals crash. I run. I've got a matter of minutes to get away from the engine, away from the crew, out of sight and stowed on a cart. I hold the straps of my pack, I head down an escarpment of sand... desert spewing mouthfuls from under each boot as I go falling, falling, reaching out for the foothold and the rail of the intermodal cart. This one ain't stopping. Jesus. I'm catching it on the fly. I heave up, I smell hot iron, I get my head down. I'm out of sight.

Only with the night does the train start rolling, and so, unfound I head into the Mojave desert. The stars. Oh hell the stars. They fly back and forth, shooting, shooting countless and each one so bright and clear so that they whisper it at me, so gently they say their sooths... be humble child... be humble... and I lie on my back, I watch the Mojave sky with the rattling of the train beneath... and for the first time ever... I realise I was born in the twentieth century.

I ride the thing all night, some four hundred desert miles with the wind pulled right through and over me. Be sure to wrap up warm, take a gallon of water too, because once they're moving, those things don't stop. Finally the sky it makes a break for blue, it lightens and up comes a curtain on the almond trees of the San Joaquin Valley. The world turns orange, the silhouetted trunks they split to branches against the dawn. The mist burns once more, and the sun it warms my face as the train clatters on for Sacramento. I look. I look. I choke. And oh hell... sweet life... just what have you gone and done to me this time?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Canyon



It's breathtaking... it's stupendous, the most perfect sight you ever saw, a poetry beyond words. They've thrown eulogies at it all down the ages, they'll go on doing so, but not one of them, either then or now or ever again will ever get close to doing it justice. Because the hot desert air, lifting out of Grand Canyon, has collided with the cold front of the storm that found me in Flagstaff. The two have collided at the Canyon's southern ridge, and there, spilling out and over the land, is nothing but a dense mist that claims all but the five metres in front of your nose. And so I stare. In rapture and in joy, at the most magnificent sight America has given me to-date. A dozen of them, a dozen Chinese faces are looking right past me into where Grand Canyon was supposed to have been. They're crestfallen, wrapped up and woebegone tight, a couple of ladies starting to shiver, and each one of them looking stark-raving miserable... like the UN just recognised Uyghur and Tibet as independent states, like Foxconn just moved to India. Even in this cold, frigid air you can smell the disappointment ripening on them. Their eyes have disappeared, absorbed into gloom, all I can see are frowns, perfect heartbreak as the third world start getting their hands on first world problems all of their own. Mist in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon's broken. And I look at them, not even troubling to conceal the smile of the guiltiest pleasure all over my lips. To be honest... to tell the truth... I can't remember the last time I felt this happy... anti-climax is so underrated, and when it's someone else's... well... the stuff is even better.

I watch as the Chinese start planning to wait it out... resolve to outlast the clouds. Valiant, one of them pulls out a camera all the same, removes a lens cap and takes a shot. Captures. Mist. Perfect Mist. A clicking of shutter that sounds as underwhelming as a wet fart. A few gather round, look at the screen as, slowly, a new concern presents itself. An elder shouts over... pointing urgently at the camera, just as the girl holding it begins to scream. The elder he goes goes on pointing in earnest, shouting an easily decipherable Mandarin... 'the mist'll get in!' He leans across, grabs it, replaces the lens cap, fumbles camera back to bag.

I turn from them, look back into the mist myself. I wonder why it is I'm so pleased at their letdown. I suppose I feel it serves them right... serves them right for treating nature as some sort of performing monkey, one to be appreciated only for those tricks they call upon once in a lifetime at Arizona. It goes beyond that thought though, because more than I relish their disappointment in the faulty, non-refundable tourist commodity they purchased, I feel sad that these people, and millions like them, will never look inside themselves for the very spirit, the wonders they were told would be waiting unfailingly for them inside Grand Canyon. At least, and in spite of that, they cut a good picture of the universalism of mankind. Hanging saps, drips less lifeless than the icicles... these sad, dejected souls could well have come from Hertfordshire, from some plastic suburb of southern California, from Bavaria as they did apartment buildings outside Shanghai. The faulty Grand Canyon and the world, united in oneness.

After half an hour they turn away, they regain their bus, which starts its engine and pulls off with a slurry of snow. Some time later, for the slightest second, and for only the briefest of moments... the cloud slips, its fingers part, and for the shortest time I'm given a quick glimpse of red rock torn apart, an eyeful of Canyon. And it is beautiful, and it is magnificent, and your mouth does open, or at the very least it smiles, before the clouds fold back, and the Canyon is gone again. I like to think that this was some reward for the fact that I came here without demands, didn't care what it was that I'd see, and so I was shown a glimpse of the good stuff. And yet, I know that this is just the ego of my mind, that it was only the sun, burning off the mist.

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