At least once, those bags contained pretty much everything I owned.

A friend of mine posted a photo:

his bags, badly lit by soul-sucking strip lights of airports, train stations, and the night bus. It looks dreadful, and he’s jetlagged to shit, no doubt. He’s knackered, gone through customs, queues, ticketing and had eaten God-knows food instead of normal food.

Part of me longs to feel that kind of unclean where you know you’ve walked the dust and grime of one continent over to a crowded corner inside an aluminium tube; and sat mostly still for 9 hours, only to stand, walk, stand, sweat, stand, walk, carry, and finally dribble terrible coffee down yourself. The only think you can focus on, now, is that little passport, and those few tickets. I’ve made that journey many times.

At least once, those bags contained pretty much everything I owned.

British airport from 2003 – looking dismal and busy
A British airport taken a month before I arrived by someone I’ve never met – flickr CC-BY Shuichi KODAMA

The idea of planning a 2-hour trip with a baby gives me a fluttering heart and makes my perpetual headache (every day for a year now – that might be a PB) kick things up a notch. All I want is to switch off after my day’s work and baby-tending has been done.

But, the ember of my 18-year-old self doesn’t seem to have been snuffed out.

I would trade almost anything I own to battle jetlag and fight my eyes to stay open under the green lamps in a place designed to feel unfriendly; knowing that tomorrow would be vastly different from the terminus – and would be an ocean’s breadth from today. To know these few bags are all the possessions I need to fend for.

It’s totally insane. I wouldn’t want to plan such a trip; and I hate flying more than anything – well: it’s tied with fascism, baby-boomer paternalism, and the clamshell packaging you need to cut repeatedly, and it cuts you anyway. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and very little of my own mind left after I do it; and that’s been my reality for a year without much pause.

But, I’d trade my very soul to wake up again at Gatwick’s Terminal again that morning. I possessed a single, well oversized, expedition-grade backpack; a duffel bag designed for that backpack to live in, but had been co opted it for some clothes, books, and a cheap cloth rabbit I’d rescued from my 4th ever Christmas stocking. Alongside these two bags, I had a corrugated, plastic sump (with lid cable-tied together) that housed a drum and a blanket.

I’d been awake since, I don’t know, more than this many. I’d not eaten.

Because, I was so very alive. I was overrun by joy and excitement.

My wife (minus 2 weeks) would see me in a minute, and tomorrow I’d awake to England. And in only a few tomorrows; I’d awake to my wife, England, London, and everything a possible future (I mean, I was about to do a degree in applied sociolinguistics – it doesn’t really tie you down).

When did excitement start to feel exactly the same as panic?

Cover image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, jameswberk

Just type: How I miss Ludlow

How I miss Ludlow.

A brace of pheasants in the feather for less than a fiver – hanging from one of Ludlow’s five local butchers. Each dwelling in a building made by medieval tradesmen.

Cobblestones, of course, usually damp, with overhanging late-medieval timbers just overhead. If you duck and twist to the market square, you can buy the most expensive fruitcake known to man – quenched like a blacksmith’s goods in fine whisky.

Gardens bloom gloriously due to obsessive tinkerers in horticulture. They’re mad as a skip of toads, of course, but I’ll be damned if they can’t design and dig the most stunning tiny plots of land as if practicing to become groundspeople for vast stately homes.

There, at the top, is a square, guarded by a large field gun taken at Sebastopol – something Tennyson would likely swoon to straddle and make boom noises: “Half a league onward – boom!” Behind the cannon’s muzzle sprawls the Norman Ludlow Castle. Pay a pretty few pence (easier to use notes, actually – it’s not a cheap day out, if I recall correctly), and you can stand in the keep of the Lords of the March. From here, Wales was governed, and Mortimer plotted to take over all of England, making the king wear the cuckold’s horns before making a divisive decision that left the four quarters of his body rather unhandily inaccessible to his plans.

It’s hard to see the wool church from the centre, but take a few paces out of town and the cathedral-like St Lawrence’s tells you this place once rolled in cash.

I once carried a Christmas tree on my shoulder from the winter’s market – down the hill on old Corve Street, right the way to the still damp from the floods end of town where we lived. Several passing people asked if I’d forgotten its decorations. One offered to help. I was in high spirits indeed, for this was my home now.

I drank pints of Shropshire-brewed ale while reading books in quiet pubs on chairs where people had been drinking pints of Shropshire-brewed ale since before – well before anything my childhood world contained.

I thought I’d be wearing a robe or something.

“So, this just swings over your jacket, and just hook this bit under your… where’s your tie?” The spindly man from Ede and Ravenscroft held some form of heavy, black wool cloth and cordage out to me.

“I’m not wearing one. I don’t own one. Wait, do I need a tie to graduate? I thought I’d be wearing a robe or something?”

“Well, the hood goes over your robe and hooks under your tie.” He reiterated, staring at my throat. He wasn’t offering me alternatives. He didn’t see a way out of this situation without my wearing a tie. Also, I was starting to worry that he was looking for more than a tie under my chin – maybe an artery? He did strike me as the vampire-type. He seemed ready to spring, and had pale, bony hands sticking out of his double-cuffed shirt and three-piece suit. Cold hands in a stifling basement room? And, Ede and Ravenscroft? Definite vampire.

“OK, look I think I saw ties in the college shit they’re selling at the entrance. I’ll be right back.” I didn’t want to draw attention my lack of jacket – the tie problem was enough.

Shit. I thought I had this sorted. If there’s one thing I’d learned over the past three years, it’s that any event in London would be uncomfortably hot, cold, wet, or crowded. Given the season – and past two weeks of watching parks turn into sandlots – I banked on it being hot and crowded. So, two weeks before the date, I made a special trip to Marks and Spencer on the train, and picked up what I considered to be a smart shirt. I didn’t know that a button-down collar on a short-sleeved shirt isn’t something one wears to a graduation. Especially – it seemed – one’s own.

Everyone I ran past was wearing a suit or posh dress. I was starting to reconsider my lifestyle. A five-foot eleven, 18-stone, bearded transvestite would certainly draw attention, but at least they’d be less warm in a thin cotton dress. Maybe off-the shoulder? Definitely better than doing up the top button, and essentially wrapping a thin scarf around their neck.

“Hey, do you know if they sell ties from that stand with all the college shit?” I asked my mate, having run the half-mile from the basement to the entrance. “And, what the fuck is a barbican, anyway?”

“I’ve no idea, but I think there’s only one. This one: The Barbican.” I could hear the capital letters.

“And yes, I think they have ties. Why, did you forget yours? Are you sure you didn’t leave it with your blazer.”

“My what?”

“Never mind.” He eyed my bare forearms. “Yes, ties – College ties, I think. Over that way – run. Are all Yanks like you?”

“Oh hell no. But, remind me to tell you about trailer parks in the desert and why we don’t wear fucking ties and wool coats in the summer. Also, isn’t your country supposed to be grey and rainy? It’s like 90 degrees in here!”

“No, it’s 30. And, run.” He pointed toward the foyer.

The exchange with the man – also besuited – selling college shit was essentially more of the same back-and-forth about ties, jackets, and telling glances at my now-sweat-beaded, bare forearms.

“We have several ties. You can have the colours, or the arms, or…”

I grabbed a nice blue one with shields on, and balked at the price tag.

“Er, I don’t suppose there’s a student discount… no? OK, I’ll take it.”

Tying and jogging is a skill I discovered on my way back to the basement. I presented myself again to the gentleman’s tailor to the Duke of Edinburgh, or Prince of Wales, or whatever. “I have a tie.”

“Quite.”

He waited while I donned a robe, and hooked the cord around my throat. He struggled not to use it as a garrotte.

“Right, don’t forget your hat. And remember, you’re not to wear it indoors.”

“OK. Wait, are we going outside?” I asked, hoping I could at least catch a breeze.

“No. This is an indoor graduation ceremony.”

“OK, I’ll just leave the hat then.”

“Your hat is required. Just don’t wear it.”

Memory is a long-exposure photo

Memory is a long-exposure photo. Things that move the least hold the best focus.

Picture a room from your childhood home. Parts of it are so clear, you almost feel you could turn a corner and be there. Your fingers feel the texture of those curtains, and you notice the definite smell of sun-heated windowsills – something you didn’t realise you could remember, and had never thought to recall.

But, then look closer at the picture. What colour is that sofa? Wait, it’s blue – no: beige. That bit of artwork? It’s over there, and it’s a cheesy print in a brass frame. No, that’s in the other room, and what I see is a family-portrait (also cheesy, mind) collage.

But that table, you can picture every scratch, even though the books in the shelf behind it are grey blur. The telly is in the same place, but changes sizes as you squint – getting a bit thinner, with more – than fewer – black boxes beneath it, blinking green and orange leds at different rates.

Your pets seem to be all ages at once. That old dog’s greying snout shares the space of a younger, athletic one, and the puppy with floppy ears before it. But his eyes are clear, and you could reach out now and stroke just behind his ear.

Cally Road’s king and I

Thing is, despite the many people, none gave me a second look. And, I’d never looked more guilty of breaking and entering in my life.

“Ah, Zak!” I could hear the k in the way he said my name.
“I forgot to put a microwave in your flat. You want one, yes?”

“Actually, that’d be perfect.”

“OK. Walk with me. We go to my place where I keep such things, and you take whatever you want.”

So, we walked down the road, an ill-matched pair if ever there were one.

My Cypriot landlord was a small man, but he craned his neck up at no one. He occupied a greater space on the pavement than I did – and I overtopped him by a head, and let’s just say I couldn’t hide from anything by standing behind him width-wise, either.

He stopped and picked up a rather beautiful, fruiting chilli plant from its stand in front of the Turkish grocers’ shop.

“You like these spicy things?”

“I do, yeah. Where I grew up, Mexican food is probably the most common thing we eat. The spicier, the better.”

“We use these much in my food from Cyprus, too. I love hot. Hot food, hot weather, hot everything.”

So far, I was enjoying his enthusiasm. He continued to gush over his botanical wisdom. His words always flowed effortlessly – and with little pause. So, I had to rethink his last bit for a few paces.

“Sorry, I missed that. Chilies?”

“Yes, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, and chocolate – so many things we eat – the things we love to eat! They are a gift. From space. Outer space.”

He waved upwards.

Yes, I had heard him right.

“Er, space? I think they’re from Mexico, aren’t they?”

“Well yes, Mexico and Guatemala and those places. But that’s where they are from here. The best things we eat were brought down from out there. You know they have those big temples, yes? Pyramids in the jungle! Who would build such big things in the middle of there, eh? Those people, long time ago, they build those things to let aliens land. And, they gave them such things as these.”

He brandished the potted shrub with a gesture very much like a barrister’s closing statement. “I have provided indisputable counsel, and my case rests” the chilli plant waving said.

We had to walk back a bit, so he could return the chilli. He continued to tell me how we’ve lost so much we could have had from our benevolent, interplanetary friends. Wondrous technologies, limitless medicine. They once never died from cancer in Central America, apparently.

So, onward we walked. One of us a bantam kingpin, the other a baffled, outsized student. We came to a corner flat, and many keys emerged from my landlord’s pocket. I still wonder how he managed to stuff a grapefruit-sized clutch of keys into perfectly-tailored clothing.

“Here we are. Microwaves are there, near the cookers. I keep many things here. Take, and I’ll lock up.”

So, I selected a still shrink-wrapped box from the flat-hoard of white goods. The place held more stock than a decent high-street home ware shop. He struggled with the door for a bit, while I looked on – head turned at a weird angle. He pulled at a robust chain for a while, then dropped it and kicked it back inside. He rattled the door for a bit, finally pulling it to, and waved me off, back to my subterranean flat with my very own, brand-new microwave.

I stopped to buy some chilies from the Turkish grocer, who was only mildly amused that I conducted the transaction from beneath a heavy box. But, I couldn’t resist. And, you never know: I might make contact with an offering of extra-terrestrial produce.

A spoon carver’s progress

There it is on my Facebook wall.

3 years ago today:

Old spoon that's lumpen and ugly

I’m squirming at a photo of this spoon I carved from a bit of ash. Nothing about this piece is any good at all. If I were gracious, I’d call it asymmetrical. But, really, it’s lopsided. The walls are thick, clunky. Neither the shape nor lines of the handle inspire grace.

Share this now?

I think not.

I’d rather no one ever sees this. Unfortunately, I believe that particular spoon ended up in someone’s kitchen. Three years ago, I’d been carving for a while, and I was excited by this monstrosity. I saw the smooth finish, the places where I’d managed to carve away dodgy grain without too much tear out. I wanted to share it then – foisting my barely-shaped bits of wood onto patient, kind friends.

I couldn’t see all the flaws. Hell, I didn’t even know what I’d need to make a spoon like this work. To be fair to my past self, a year or two before this so-called spoon, I had only just picked up a carver’s knife. I didn’t know how to keep a blade sharp. The bits of wood I scratched about with weren’t even recognisable as spoons. Before then, I didn’t know how to carve anything.

Today, I fed two spoons I wasn’t happy with into my fire. They’re actually quite symmetrical, and the handle sweeps fairly elegantly from grip to tip of bowl. They wear a proper finial, and they’re fairly comfortable in the hand. But, I can see where I’ve gone wrong, and they’re not good enough to keep. I wouldn’t give them to anyone, and I certainly wouldn’t sell them. The bowl’s bevels don’t line up, and I can’t tweak them further without removing enough wood to ruin the shape. So, into the fire they go.

It’s fine, though. There are sixteen eating spoons I’m happy enough with to keep. I can see several I could improve, and I’m pretty sure what I’ll do next to change some of the minor faults. I’m better at this now.

two newer spoons that are pretty

They live in a bowl I recently turned on a pole lathe in my front porch. This bowl is my fifth or maybe sixth. It’s the first that’s even and turned out more or less the shape I wanted. The others went into the fire. I’m excited by this bowl, and I want to share it.

Bowl of decent spoons

In 2020, Facebook will pop up with a photo of this lovely bowl: “Share this now?”

I hope I’ll squirm, saying: “I think not.” I’ll wish that bloody bowl had ended up on the fire, and that Facebook’s memory algorithm could go hang.

I hope this, because I’ll know how to hold the tricky hook tools so they don’t gouge into the surface too badly. My new bowls will look elegant, and I’ll see minor flaws to sort in the next one. I’ll know how to fix my mistakes, and the next steps will be clearer.

I’ll be better at this then.

My craft somehow informs my politics.

“Hey, remember this idea you championed 20 years ago? It sucked.”

You’re right, it did. But, we’re better at this now. We squirm at old systems – outmoded models and beliefs. But, to be fair to ourselves – at least a little – that was the first time we’d tried that. Before then, we didn’t know how such a plan would work.

We can see our mistakes, but we can also see how we’ve adapted. We’re better at seeing what’s wrong now, and we can see some next steps. We can do better, and we want to make those changes.

In 20 years, we’ll read our old material from way back in 2017. We’ll squirm. We’ll see our flaws, and wish we’d done things differently. We’ll laugh at what we called progress back then.

We’ll be better at this then.

Ave atque vale, Pax Americana.

It’s too easy to draw lazy comparisons between the rise of Trump’s particular brand of fascism with the policies of the Third Reich, and I’m aware of Godwin’s law. But, I’ve been saying so many times in the last year that we’re all in trouble.

There’s been a slow rise of fascist dogma, that seems impervious to reason. And I want to understand this. Part of this seems easy to figure out: the world’s power has shifted from nations to elsewhere: corporations (banks too big to fail, Exon, G4S), pan-national organisations (EU, NATO, UN), extremely wealthy individuals. There’s a stronger skew in the distribution of goods than ever before*. People feel disaffected, because they’re more aware that they’re not connected to their own destinies. I know people who didn’t even know to whom they paid their mortgage.

This disconnect is dangerous – and I want to study it.

But, where is the change that leads us toward making decisions that sound so achingly like early 20th-century fascism? Blame minority populations, and start purges that break down the very notion of citizenship:

“Barack Obama will leave office with Guantánamo Bay still in operation as a detention facility. Trump’s election ensures the infamous wartime prison escapes closure, but it will probably cross a constitutional Rubicon. The president-elect has pledged to increase the Guantánamo population, a reversal of Obama’s approach, “with some bad dudes”. Among those “bad dudes”, Trump told the Miami Herald, could be American citizens. His pledge to bring back “worse than waterboarding” threatens to undo the shaky coalition against torture, especially in a GOP Congress, of the late Bush and Obama administrations.” – Guardian

This isn’t the beginning of a rerun of the reticent then cataclysmic second world war. Nor is it a throw back further to the global tension, secretive oligarchic politicking, and class division of the first. This is our new, global tension.

We’re not looking at the rise of belligerent nations after the world rebuilds itself from global war. We’re part of the story of the world tearing itself apart after a tense peace. We have built a division between cultures of progress and tradition. Left/right, liberal/conservative: semantically empty labels that yet carry huge power.

Clearly, some people are uncomfortable with the ideas of the other people. Some are afraid that their perspectives on the world aren’t respected by others – over the exact same issues. Some can’t understand how the other people don’t understand their point of view. We are not seeing the same world, but do we know this about ourselves? Are we aware that there are many facets to our lives, and that from a single perspective, you cannot even see obverses?

Perhaps this is the beginning of an end to national supremacy.

Or, maybe it’s just the decline of an empire.

Ave atque vale, Pax Americana.

*Though, the Norman-imposed style of feudalism might have been as or more skewed, it’s hard to make comparisons.