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.

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