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Thursday, 23 October 2014

A spiritual Journey

 My brother is a man of strong opinions and impeccable taste so when he urged me to see ‘In to the Wild,’ and when, by pure serendipity, it was on television the following day….well, I had little choice.
It was an interesting experience because, like him no doubt, I was immediately seduced by the American wilderness and was – for a very brief time – body and soul with the protagonist Christopher McCandless – or as he preferred to call himself – Alexander Supertramp. 

For those new to the story the film is based on the life of Christopher McCandless who graduates from Emory University to please his dysfunctional parents, then abandons all his possessions and donates his life savings - $24,000 – to charity. He hitchhikes across America with the ultimate aim of living in the ‘pure’ wilderness of Alaska. Along the way, he meets so many generous souls who in their very different ways befriend and try to reach out to him. He rejects each of them and by now I’m realising I don’t like him very much. I think this is what makes the film so good. Like all great tragedies, it allows the viewer to reach their own conclusions. 

I confess I had my doubts about him when he gave his money away, which gets close to the heart of the issue. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.. Matthew 6:21 His champions might see my reservations as the typical materialistic response of one trapped in the shallows; snuffling for  treasure amongst the cockles and whelks. For Chris McCandless the awe inspiring beauty of 'Nature' was his treasure, something to be sought at any and every cost.

 Even so, as the film progresses, you’re struck by how – well – unlikeable he is. This may be a trait of all monomaniacs – revolutionary, political, creative, or scientific. There is little or no room in their hearts for anything that might dilute the grand passion and Christopher McCandless has no room in his heart for anyone who might step in his way. He’s never rude or ungracious but he has a callow and Teflon coated soul. This of course is just one response the film allows, along with an overwhelming sadness that he realises on his last breath what he has lost.

Nature might be a random construct of consequences, a reflection of God’s creativity, or both. Whatever the case, nature makes for mind-blowing magic, but in itself nature is also uncaring. It is beautiful, but just like fine whisky it is not the answer to everything, as Chris McCandless tragically learnt too late when he recorded that true happiness was only found when shared with others

Before Chris McCandless entered Alaska he weighed a hundred and forty pounds, or ten stone. When found he weighed sixty seven pounds or just under five stone. He paid everything in search of his 'treasure'. Was it worth it? It might have been, though not for his family. In that respect 'the wildnerness' proved a false god.

What’s really fascinating is how many different responses there are – to the original book by Jon Karakauer and to the film. Romantics and rebels can see in it ‘a rites of passage in our culture.’  They can empathise with his hatred of modern life and its easy pleasures. An earlier generation got off on the film Easy Rider. Most returned to their studies or mortgage. Some drifted into a similar monomaniac quest for an alternative, more meaningful life style – aided by drugs. What unites them is how ‘idealism’ segues into selfishness.

I belong in the less sympathetic group. I respect his resourcefulness and sense of adventure, and wince at the ‘spoiled white brat’ tag some have labelled him with. We’ve all been through that phase in our lives. Well, many of us, and on their deathbeds some may wish they'd had a more Janis Joplin/Hendrix kind of life, and judge McCandless differently.  But why does the ‘mystery’ of his flight to the wild and ultimate death intrigue so many people? We seek explanations. One writer discerns OCD in his actions, another Aspergers. Why not go for aToxoplasma gondii?

For a fine and interesting analysis of  Christopher McCandless's death (and it wasn’t a simple case of starvation) go to the New Yorker article by Jon Karakauerwho highlights Ronald Hamilton’s research on Vapniarca and the seeds of the grass pea Lathyrus sativus… Read it to find out more. And to the person who led me on this journey - thank you.

He had these books with him:
Tanaina Plantlore' by Priscilla Russel Kari
'Education of a Wandering Man' by Louis L'Amour
-Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
-Death of Ivan Ilych (Tolstoy)
-Call of the Wild (London)
-White Fang (London)
-Moon-Face (London)
-Brown Wolf (London)
-To Build a Fire (London)
-Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak)
-Terminal Man (Michael Crichton)
-O Jersualem! (Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre)
-War and Peace (Tolstoy)
-Walden (Henry David Thoreau)
But took only a small caliber rifle, no map and no axe. For some this reveals a spiritual journey. Ray Mears he wasn't. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Five year old boys can be stupid

When I was young, I hated the dentist. It was never as bad as this

 but bad enough. Drills were fearsomely large on ungainly arms - attacked the teeth with the amiable precision of a bee seeking honey, and made a very loud noise.

My other bête noire was the barbers – or hairdressers as we metropolitans have gotten use to call them. I was thinking of that during my last hair-cut, watching drifts of what was once plentiful fall on to the floor. The hairdresser had soft, fragrant hands, and whilst she was busy with my hair I slipped into day-dream – why bother with meditation – and wondered why I was so scared of the barbers as a child.

It may have been the ‘ceremony’ attached to it all, the overheard discussions between my parents as to whether I was ready or not. I’d been happy enough with the home haircut involving basin and scissors, now I picked up on their worry.
In those days, barbers smelled of tobacco and sweat, burnt hair, talc, various weird pomades - and Brylcreme of course. 

 I flirted briefly with Brylcreem when older, but was never able to hold a telephone so convincingly - nor with such a menacing sneer

 I sat ensconced between two old men, one of whom lacked a leg. It was my first experience of the peculiar British queuing experience, where everyone observes each other from the corner of the eye to make sure no one steps up out of turn. I was also obsessing on the large sinister chairs,  elderly necks, and feeling a terrible fear.
Every neck there was dry and red, and creviced like World War 1 trenches. Shears buzzed over them, alien doom-ships blasting the skin. Worse was to come: the singeing of hair, a burning taper that frizzled the neckline into shape. I wanted to run out – as I had with the dentist – convinced that I had entered this place with a smooth neck, and would leave with one dry and red and deeply lined. Five year old boys can be stupid.

Friday, 10 October 2014

I am not lost!

A friend showed me this walk last year. It involves walking through fiields and then some circuitous uphill paths through King's Wood. At the top you can see almost to Hereford. My family were reasonably hopeful I'd remember the way though I sensed doubt. Hmm.

Well the first part seems easy enough.

King's wood is directly ahead

I take one last look back before entering.

So far, so good. I sense renewed confidence in my sense of direction.

Hansel and Gretal laid a trail of crumbs. I think the iPone is almost as good

Take a good look. We have to come back this way

Yes. Okay. I'll recognise this again

The summit is almost there, but I'm worried. There were many cross-paths and turn-offs on the way up.
To complicate things, we'll be approaching them from a different direction on a circular route down.

And here we are. I've got us here. Now to find the way back. Our house is a speck just out of picture far right.

Morale is falling. Doubt sets in. My daughter takes a rest while I ponder.

Leadership is called for. Confidence must be restored!

Eureka. I recognise this field. I check my iPhone behind a tree

Definitely the one...I think...

And damn-it I'm relieved.

* Interesting rehearsal out-take when the two were barely speaking. This is a more polished version from the film 'Let it Be' . More polished, less chemistry. I'm rambling, much like the walk through King's Wood.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The battle for Monmouth!

During the English Civil war, Monmouth changed hands three times, finally succumbing to Cromwell in 1645. When Cromwell visited Monmouth he stayed in the Queens Head and slighted* Monmouth castle.

Monmouth has another link to the Civil War. Brigadier Peter Young, an old boy of Monmouth School formed the famed ‘Sealed Knot’ Society, now the largest re-enactment group in Europe with thousands of members. It derived its name from the historical 'Sealed Knot', a secret society bent on overthrowing Cromwell and restoring the king. A fragment of the knot, a strand might be a better way of putting it, visited Monmouth

 The Owl man of Monmouth. Not a member of the Sealed Knot. A harbinger perhaps.

Ah, the advance guard arrive!

Considering strategy - or as it turned out confusion.
  Uh uh. Pikemen on the move

Man against pike. The pikes are winning

The pikes meet.
Now for the good bit - when steel rips into flesh

What...? No blood! A rugby scrum with pikes. They look like garnished cocktail sausages.

                                         Lots of huffing and puffing. No entrails or blood

Don't know what's going on here. Some pikemen marching, while others huddle doing God knows what. One of the pikemen has eaten all the pies.

Another pikemen looks like a bank manager or Geography teacher. He's taking it very seriously.

Ah, musketeers priming their muskets. Note the one in the middle looking puzzled. Probably wondering whether there'll be any cocktail sausages left.

                                                                            Take aim!
(note an example of 'a flash in the pan')

Cocktail sausages watching other cocktail sausages.

Musketeers in action again. Pikemen are having their own little party

Two things I learn't.

  •  It's okay to play Cowboys and Indians whatever your age.
  • C17th battles were colourful but weird.
And one thing I didn't:

  • Totally confused as to who won but the ice cream that followed was good.

 *  Far from being a breach of manners, 'Slighted' refers to damaging a castle so making it unusable.

Friday, 26 September 2014

A day in a life

The day started low key, the highlight being a Dyson Airblade hand-dryer in a motorway rest room. I inserted my hands in the thin gap and watched warm air pulverising skin. It was like watching an art installation, the skin rippling like sand in a strong wind. I stared hypnotised, thinking of the artist Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. This was far superior. My attention wandered to the Dyson logo and I noted this was a Dyson Airblade V. Wondered what a Dyson Airblade Mk 2 would be like; would my hands notice the difference. One thing for sure it was far superior to the Warner Howard hand dryer where watching paint dry takes half the time.

Even so, there was some comment when I got back to the car. Where had I been? What had taken me so long? I held my silence, wanting to stay in the moment…of rippling skin and the sound of hot air.

The day held still more surprises. We parked the car in Gerrard’s Cross and took the train from there to London. In front of me was a man with an iPad. He was racing through an anonymous city in a bright red car. Intriguing stuff - sitting on a slow train to London and simultaneously racing through Manhattan – or wherever it was. There was no time to cast judgement. I was caught, my head swaying this way and that, following the road as the man swivelled and turned the iPad in synch with a car travelling at incredible speed. We raced through Tokyo, Venice, Paris - a new car for every city. By the time we reached Marylebone I was exhausted…disappointed too. We were just about to hit Moscow.

As you can see, this was a day packed with incident but these were the nibbles, the canapés before the main course. We had booked a night at the St Pancras Hotel – a cross between Downton Abbey and Hogwarts - in the middle of London. It was our daughter’s graduation the following day and we’d promised ourselves that this would be a part of it – one weird and magnificent experience – because we had booked a luxury suite with all the trimmings and more. 

We were offered bon-bons by an attractive East European whilst she took down our details. And the treats continued. Whilst our bags were taken to a room we hadn’t yet seen, a director showed us round all the facilities we could enjoy during the short time we were there. He led us through a large and packed bar were ‘ordinary’ people drank. But we had ceased to be ordinary. 

Imbedded in a dark panelled wall was a door guarded by two very discreet men. We were led through into a world of silence and wealth…and more bon-bons. This was the club room where we could enjoy afternoon tea, and then later pre dinner canapés, free beer and wine and even free shorts between the hours of 5pm and 7pm. 

This was going to require a highly disciplined use of time if we were to squeeze in all that had to be squeezed in – more so when he next showed us the sauna, gym and swimming pool. My daughter and I exchanged glances. SAS accuracy.

Our room was magnificent – the biggest TV I’d seen outside of a show room, a Bang and Olufson music centre. We watched ten minutes of news, listened to ten minutes of music. No time for anything else if we were to make the pool and the pre dinner canapés. The room was full of surprises, a discreet safe, a well stocked drinks’ fridge, an expensive expresso coffee machine…we were going to be up half the night at this rate. 

I was particularly struck by the curtains – or to be more accurate the tassels adorning them – over two feet long and so fine it was like stroking a woman’s hair – not that I go in for that often. 

The only design flaw was the giant mirror that started halfway up the wall and reached the ceiling. You couldn’t actually see yourself in it without jumping up and down. You were panting by the time you finished combing your hair.

  Time for a swim.

The pool was not large but had whirlpools and subtle lighting that changed the water from pale aquamarine to dark indigo as you swam. The sauna was great – all ten minutes of it before the pre dinner canapés.
We dined in the Gilbert Scott restaurant and breakfasted in the club house. I had muesli first and considered that a truly rich man might probably snack at it and leave. I toyed with the thought, and then loaded my plate with smoked salmon, rye bread, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and syrup, sausage, and three chunks of some expensive looking cheese. My stomach would suffer - possibly not so much as our Current Account.

PS they didn' t have hand driers - not even the Dyson Airblade Mark V. Thick white towels and fluffy towelled slippers were the order of the day.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Shadow and stone part 2

There's a great poem by DH Lawrence called 'Snake.' I can't recommend it enough. It's simple and vivid and captures a moment in Sicily when the writer observses and describes a snake. I still remember the imagery, the silence and the heat the short poem conjured. I remembered it in the ruins of the Roman Theatre in Arles, sheltering from the heat. The stones literally shimmered but I saw no snake, the flicker of a gecko perhaps.

As you explore what's left of the theatre you come across a small courtyard littered with ruined stone. Light and shadow were more dramatic than my camera was able to capture.

Foliage allowed the stone some relief, and made a nice pattern

I'm not an expert on Van Gogh so I don't know whether his obsessions extended to stone. But we went to the Arles hospital where they treated his ear, or lack of it, and where, in exchange, he painted this picture of their garden. From the angle he seems to have painted it from an elevated position, perhaps his hospital window. I tried but couldn't get the same angle. I doubt, too, that any will pay similar sums of money for my pictures.

And back to the cool, night streets of Nimes and a plane back to reality.