Beauty And Awe And Psychedelics And Monkeys

So there I was the other night, deep in a YouTube hole, feeling its algorithms clank and churn and some video loaded and began to play and it changed the course of my evening. It seemed pretty inauspicious, just a bunch of people taking turns to look at a painting. But as I watched something strange happened.


Fifteen seconds in the hairs on my arm began to stand on end, a minute later my eyes were wet with tears, and by the end my face had cracked into some sort of cubist jumble. With salty cheeks I gathered myself and wondered what the hell was going on.

The eyes of these people were trained on the Salvator Mundi, a painting of seismic historical importance once thought lost, but after cleaning and restoration, newly attributed to Leonardo de Vinci.

The hype was real.

It was sold at auction by Christie’s New York, and for two weeks prior people queued in the rain the length of entire blocks to catch a glimpse of it. The painting the size of a lunch tray went for £450m, the most expensive artwork ever sold. Then disappeared.


I watched the video a few more times to try and recapture the emotion I’d felt, which came easily, and resolved to get to the bottom of this thing. What had I reacted to, what was it. Awe in the face of supreme beauty? Why would that move me to tears. Why do we have a strange physiological reaction to beauty.

Where does awe come from. What purpose does it serve.


*

Eight million years ago a group of chimpanzees making their way through the African savanna stooped to pick up a mushroom. They found more and ate a bunch and again strange things started to happen.


The stoned ape theory claims that chimps experimenting with different food groups led them to psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms, which upon ingestion began to radically alter their behaviour. Over millions of years the mushroom trips led to heightened vision, the invention of language, harnessing of fire, and some argue the inexplicable doubling of the human brain size.

Scientists don’t really buy the stoned ape theory. But an early hominid getting high is still meaningful, in that it must’ve been the first instance of the elevation of the animal brain into the realms of the transcendent. The first time a living thing might’ve been aware of something far bigger than itself, and felt awe.


Scientists now think psychedelics were behind all prehistoric cave art. Without doubt the psychedelic experience has been responsible for the birth of religions and profound leaps in cultural evolution.


When Picasso clambered out of Lascaux cave in 1949 after seeing the bulls and lions and rhinoceros that had lain undiscovered in their darkness for 17,000 years, he exclaimed in wonder at his ancestors… we have invented nothing.

But what do psychedelics have to do with looking in awe at a Leonardo.

Turns out the neurochemistry in the brain is identical. When the brain experiences awe, the default mode network, the part which allows multiple brain regions to interact with each other simultaneously, gets cranked up.


The brain switches its focus to the right hemisphere, the part responsible for imagination and intuition, and what results is a feeling of deep connection to the world. Awe has been called ‘the perception that is bigger than us’. On psychedelics, the same part of the brain is activated.


Early humans eating a bunch of mushrooms and staring at the heavens would’ve encountered mystical experiences completely outside their daily remit of hunting and gathering and finding shelter. Inspiring them to create representations of what they saw on the walls of caves.

But why.


Why do we have a capacity for awe and mystical experience.

Why did watching a bunch of people in New York be so affected by a painting make all the hairs on my neck stand on end, piloerection, the same thing that happens to a cat when it sees a particularly big dog, and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. How did it improve my life.

Victor Frankl, the neurologist who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning about his time in the concentration camps, thought awe was about meaning. Beyond personal responsibility, he thought we could face up to the demands of existence through a loving dedication to beauty.

‘Imagine you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favourite symphony, and your favourite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine, and now imagine it would be possible for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like ‘it would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”


*

The splashes of beauty around us, thought Frankl, were there to pit against the one constant in life the Buddha spoke of, the fact of our suffering. That what touches us deeply might lift us out of our drudgery for a brief moment to remind us that all is not so hopelessly lost, if only we look hard enough.

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on cottonwoods
Leaves floating on trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies

The unexpected smile from the bus driver. The floated echo of the empty church. The smell of the air after new rain, the lick of condensation on the pint glass, the Jack Wilshere goal against Norwich someone uploaded to Pornhub.


*

Maybe the question is not why we have the capacity for awe, but why we walk around so blind to beauty. There are those who see too much beauty, who grapple all their lives with it. They look and look and look and report back on what they have seen.


Artists remind us that everything however small or insignificant is worthy of infinite attention. Their lesson is this. All that there is, can be found exactly where you are, always. We are everything, and everything is us, and so the finite becomes infinite. The psychedelic lesson is the same.

What Blake meant when he wrote:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Being in a permanent awe-addled state might be slightly inconvenient, given that we would forget to eat and probably starve. So the brain has a prefrontal cortex. The linear, logical, problem-solving part of the brain, the 18 stone bouncer manning the doors of perception, hellbent on sleep and food and survival.


Working overtime while the larger parts of our brain remain mostly dormant. Freezing out the default mode network from making its connections. Fencing us off from the sublime because we could not reside there. Perhaps in the end, awe is the transcendent slipping through the cracks.


‘It was an April day’ wrote Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD by chance and dedicated his life to the study of it, ‘and going out into the garden I saw it had been raining during the night. I had the feeling that I saw the earth and the beauty of nature as it had been when it was created, at the first day of creation. What an experience! I was reborn, seeing nature in quite a new light.

Go to the meadows, go to the garden, go to the woods. Open your eyes!’


*

Eight million years ago a hungry chimp ate a mushroom and pulled back the veil and got the party started, and here we are. Strange living things carrying inside us a bizarre capacity for mystical experience. Nature, psychedelic plants, meditation, outstanding works of art and literature and music, love, from inside them the unknown shines out, sparking an ember inside us.

Pushing us out to meet something bigger than ourselves. A sense of connection to the universe that is normally far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness. But is there all around us, always, if we keep our eyes open wide and learn how to look.

A portal to the divine.


Or perhaps the Divine reaching down to brush us with the tip of a finger.

Love in The Time of Corona I

Week beginning Monday 9th March

Are you actually worried about it though?

100%

So came the text from my friend Sam as I sat watching Tottenham get dumped out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. He forwarded me a bunch of screen grabs tweeted from hospitals in Lombardy and it became clear this was way more serious than I had understood.


For two days the country seemed in denial. Some rang radio stations calling it no worse than flu. Loo-roll was in stock. I barraged my mother with messages. That evening she joked down the phone to my father about my newfound hysteria.


I began isolating too early. On Wednesday morning I bought three packets of pasta two blocks of cheddar and four cans of baked beans and ordered some beers online from a local brewery while making a vow to improve my cooking skills. On Thursday evening Boris told the nation the biggest health scare in a generation meant families were going to lose loved ones before their time. That day on Waterloo Bridge the Sun interviewed passers-by and nobody seemed bothered at all.

I kept the radio on all weekend. At that point 0.008% of the population had the virus so I was probably safe I thought, scanning the supermarket isles. My mother was more concerned about me than herself, I kept telling her to be careful, but she thinks she knows everything. She thinks I think I know everything.


My girlfriend was on the phone to her mother too, arguing about high risk. Her school was refusing to close, her and her classmates were upset. We FaceTimed and talked things over. The football was cancelled. Footfall in the capital’s restaurants and bars dropped by 24%.

Monday 16th

I’m listening to the news and I can’t stop. I can’t get on with anything else. My father emails from Argentina. He is quite happy alone in the middle of the Pampa, the news is worrying he admits, but he feels calm.


A family issue had called my mother back for two weeks. But Argentina is closing its borders, it looks like she won’t be able to fly back out. Papa is stoic, sat there in the middle of his vast desert of grassland. I tell him to make friends with the trees. He says they are his only friends.

In Hackney it is a day of brilliant orange sun.

I put my music in and walk to the shops and today the sounds in my ear feel like a small miracle. The school kids in grey uniforms shout and throw a plastic bottle around. The florist is cheerful, business is good he says, people want house plants for the coming quarantine. All is orange, nothing is different but everything is, what will this roundabout look like in a few weeks time.


53 deaths in the UK. All underlying illnesses. Europe is going into shutdown. Boris holds the first of his daily press conferences at 5pm, both comforting and shocking. My brother sets up a facebook group for my mother. I’ve had a good innings, she says on the phone. What do you mean I ask her, are you facing up to your mortality. Well what do you think someone my age thinks about in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep.

Tuesday 17th

For two days I have a cough and phlegm stuck in my wind pipe that I can’t hock up. My steroid inhaler stands guard on my bedside table. The news for asthmatics is positive and not great depending on what you read. The market is in turmoil. Sex toy sales are surging. Liverpool fans are shell shocked.


The radio is full of pain. A chef has lost his job with immediate effect and fears homelessness. A father in tears describes rushing his two year old to hospital, having celebrated her all clear after 27 weeks of chemotherapy in December. A police woman is in self-isolation with a cough, beside herself with impatience describing the public servant guilt of those who need to help but can’t.


My father barks down the phone telling me to get Argentine nationality so I can fly out despite the border closures. It is ridiculous that I don’t have it. It is ridiculous that he has been abandoned by us all and left alone to die. I tell him that for some reason I can’t explain, it would hurt me less to lose them both to this than if everything were normal. This is also ridiculous. The final lesson at Matilda’s school is full of tears.

I ask her what right I have to write about any of this.


She says just write it and then see.

Wednesday 18th

It takes me ten seconds from waking to remember this is a different world. 104 deaths. Rumours of tanks mobilising. A historic bailout by the Chancellor. There is a 2km tailback for beach resorts in Argentina after the government mandates working from home. A sign in the capital reads These aren’t holidays, you asshole.

With every siren I think of a desperate pair of lungs overcome. Does crime go down in times like this. ‘Thieves offering to shop for the elderly are keeping the money’. Carbon emissions are plummeting. 50,000 deaths from pollution in Hubei province are being averted, which means a net gain of lives. Babies and children don’t seem to be affected. I look to the sky.


My mother pulls some strings with the embassy and arranges a flight home for my father. I worry about the airport and the aeroplane and his history of bugs. Your father’s illnesses are mostly psychological, she says.


I feel overcome with sadness about it all. Matilda comes back from Oxford and we fight. The Italians still find the heart to sing to one another from balconies. Will there be a before and after I wonder. I decide to keep my Mathmos mood lamp on around the clock.

Thursday 19th

I read once the rich think the world is about love while the poor know it is about money. Ten million in the UK are without savings. The last week has pulled the bowels of the earth up from underneath them, from underneath everyone. Scientists skip the animal testing phase. The vaccine race is on.


No new cases reported in China. Being with Matilda means less relentless news and more presence. We go to the shops. It doesn’t look like Hackney and social distancing are seeing eye to eye. That afternoon the press conference blares out from the cracked screen on the table. We are approaching the fast growth part of the upwards curve, says Boris flanked by his stooges.


The Walthamstow marshes are beautiful in the drizzle. The glow from the city sprays the edges of the darkness. I run and she cycles alongside me. All that we’ve got, reads the mural under the pylon by the path. We stop on the refurbished red metal bridge over the Lea and pray in the rain.

Friday 20th

My mother cancels my father’s flight. Why? He’s at the beach, she says. The British Museum has a surge of online visits. The top searches are Egypt, Virtual tour, Benin bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone. Continuing stories of prejudice against Asian people in New York. A critical-care nurse finishing a 48hr shift is flooded with donations after breaking down in a supermarket carpark having been left with nothing to buy.


144 deaths. Sirens outside the window. Social distancing could last a year. Half way through a new day in a strange new world. If things were back to normal we would live better. We would live like never before. I promise. Do you hear. And we would love better. With more fury.


177 deaths now. Today is the equinox. My mother wants my father back from Argentina before autumn and the slide into winter. Last night on the marshes the blossom was thick and wet in the darkness. All this new life around us amidst the fear and death. All the help we can get to fight this thing.

A Day in The Life of A Bike Messenger

The worst I ever had of it was two broken ribs and a laceration of my right hand.


I came to, in the middle of the road with five Parisians hunched over me and several more abusing the owner of the 4×4 who had opened his door into me with such timing that I had no idea where I was or what had happened. The concern on their faces told me it was ugly, my bike was gnarled and twisted out of shape and drops of thick dark blood were dripping from my knuckle onto the tarmac. I think I started crying.

Three weeks later on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, delayed trauma from the impact made all the muscles in my chest contract and I went sheet white and passed out. With the help of other passengers my brother took me off the train and sat me down on the platform to wait for the Pompiers. I’d seen you like that at festivals too many times to be that concerned, he said later.


I’ve been doored three times but none worse than that. Cars have gone into the front and back of me, pedestrians have stepped out into me. I’ve been spat at, kicked, pot-holed, turned left-into, and run off the road and chased by a white van man, for wearing a pink beanie. I’ve gone over my handle-bars more times than I can remember, shedding skin and spilling blood on roadsides and pavements around the city. I once cycled into the Regent’s Canal.

I should probably be less alive than I am.


*

For two and a half years in my early twenties I cycled around London for eight hours a day with a radio strapped to my chest and a bag over my shoulder full of documents needing dropping off with a life-threatening urgency. Of all the things I experienced in that time, none were greater than London itself. The city would smack me in the face every day, an enormous beast of brick and fumes and ghosts and noise, baring itself in all its guises, battering me with indifference as it attended to the business of being London.

Yet at some incidental time of day when I least expected, some afternoon along a towpath or catching my breath on a stoop in the late morning, the din would recede for a moment and in that pause the city would let me in, as if it was winking at me, reminding me I was part of its plans and I belonged.


I grew to know its geography in a way that seared itself into my brain. I learnt how different parts of the city connected to other parts, mapping out the connective tissue where artery met tendon and capillary. I learnt the city’s contours, the hills, the churches and cemeteries, the circuses, the old City gates, the order of the bridges, where the river curled and where it straightened, the one way systems and the shortcuts, even the timings of the traffic lights.


I could tell you the lights along Clerkenwell and Theobalds Rd were etched in my head so exactly that if I timed it right I could do the junctions blind. I told a mate and he asked me if I thought I was Sean Connery in the fucking Rock.

Doing the circuit, it was called.

You were on call from 8 til around 6, beginning mostly in the City picking up and delivering documents to the big banks. You’d get to know the bowels of important buildings, the dirty underbelly, the despatch area, where men in shirts and Hi-Vis coats would peer boredly over spectacles or bark at you, where you’d cross path with other riders doing runs to other banks and chew the cud of the mid-morning.


I learnt a new way of riding. One that weaved and cleaved and hopped up and skittered across and was always morphing. Traffic lights ceased to mean much, I learnt how to ride across the city without stopping once and without running one light. There were spaces in between things I learnt, that if you knew where to look for were everywhere, waiting for you to slip through them. I learnt how messengers would face down vehicles most capable of killing them, running fingers along the sides of buses to show they weren’t afraid. Above all I learnt that getting somewhere could be more fun than being somewhere.

I never got to know the real courier family. I knew those who worked for my company and recognised many as I passed them in the street. When they invited me to hang at messenger spots or drink with them at day’s end by the Foundry on Old Street, I was too shy. I’d summon the courage and right at the last minute I’d cycle by.


When I left my first company I bought the office a box of Quality Street and they laughed at me. It wasn’t a very courier thing to do. Most bike messengers stepped to the beat of their own drum, respecting few but their own. There was a lawless irreverence to their spirit, a life of squats and beer and alleycats and identity that I didn’t come close to touching.

But I sensed a slightly lost side to the existence too.

Of being surrounded at all times and still alone. Winding through traffic, catching the lights just right, flying past the madness, pushing and weaving and skidding, at its best it was a dance of joy. But the embers of the fire revealed something sadder. As if you were seeking something that couldn’t be had because the relentless engulfing city had you first, it was a clipped sort of flight, a Truman Show type of freedom. It made me wonder who in a city was ever free. All these years later I still see some of the same riders I once shared the road with, gliding along, ears tuned to the intermittent static from their radios.

But I was quite happy.

For those two and a half years the love affair was between me and my city. I hardly spoke to anyone all day. Sign here. Sign here please. Just here on the line. In three years I took the tube less than five times. When I did I would feel mole-like, burrowing along underground to stick my head above the surface. But on a bike I was a hawk, surveying the city from a great height, moving through it like a sea, it was the journey I loved the most.


Slowly they revealed themselves to me. Strange unknown parts of the sprawl existing as they always had. Harlesden, Rotherhithe, North Finchley, West Norwood, I’d cycle anywhere. I liked the longer journeys so my controllers would send me further and further away. That’s how you become a top rider, my boss would tell me, knowing he’d have to spend triple the money on a van. Different parts of town would recall different friends and memories, each one of them had a story. At the end of the week I’d get an envelope with six fifty pound notes in it.

I’d head to the New Era shop in Soho and pick up a fresh cap.

And it was sad too. Like life.

And tiring and repetitive and surprising and monotonous and ecstatic like life. But I wouldn’t have the deep understanding of the city I do without the time I spent trailing lines of coloured ribbon along its lanes and alleyways. If one talent of mine could be worth matrixing into another person’s brain, I thought, it would be my London. Sitting in the back of taxis I’d argue with cabbies over routes, especially when I was drunk, until they’d point out how the fuck they were gonna get their cab the wrong way down a bike lane and through a park, so I’d shut up.

People talk about their lives sometimes in terms of chapters. First day at school. The day I saw my father cry. First love. The birth of my first child. Certainly one of the chapters in my life will be cycling the streets of London at top-speed with headphones in, whooping at the top of my lungs, transported to some other place entirely. If this sounds a little dangerous then I could tell you the by-product of cycling a city every day for fifteen years is an understanding of the road, and what not to do.


A few years ago I drew together the most important lessons I’d learnt from my time cycling around town, and came up with the Six Cycling Commandments.


*

My legs are tiring now, I’m getting older.

The fury and relentless energy of my messenger days have taken the left-hand turn to memory. I still cycle a lot, but I have an oyster card now. If I have to cross London and can smell a hair-breadth of an excuse, before I know it I’ll find myself sat on the Overground. I like it because I get to stare at people. I never got the chance to do that before. The bike was too fast and ceaseless and impatient. You’d get the wind in your hair and a warmth in your loins, and you’d be off. But you couldn’t just sit and stare at somebody for half an hour. It’s taking some getting used to.

Taking a pause. Stopping to stare.


The way you might stare at a somebody you love when they’re not looking.


Somebody, or something.

The Strange Feeling of Watching Your Hair Fall Out

A bald man.


This is all I am now, I thought to myself.


One of them. The men with no hair.

I gazed into the mirror and applied a grey paste carefully to the top of my head with a spatula. The paste stuck to the remaining hairs, matting them together, as questions of a new identity loomed on the horizon like the light of a new day.

The treatment would be more effective if you had come two years ago, the woman with the eastern European accent had said to me three days earlier. There is, she grimaced, not much chance now to stimulate regrowth. I nodded, and thought of the months it had taken to summon the courage to get myself to that cold dead room.


I listened to her advice about moving the spatula most effectively across the surface of my scalp, absorbed some statistics about follicle regeneration, paid too much money for a brace of medications and descended the stairs. The two of us returned home through the muted light of the morning, my secret and I.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounted firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.


Prufrock, T S Eliot

The visit to the hair loss clinic was six years ago. My journey through hair loss began two years before that, a journey that has been slow and confusing and happened one hair at a time. But it should have come as no surprise.


The Argentines on my father’s side were born with diminishing hairlines and large appendages. My English family are abundant on top and less-so below. As fate would have it my brother got a wonderful crop and a hearty lunchbox, and then there was me, lurking at the shallow end of the gene pool.


Even with a suspicion my hair type was never going to stick around for long, I clung to hope. I’d shaved my head since I was eighteen, and since I couldn’t see much hair on me anyway I didn’t notice its soundless departure. What could be more unobtrusive than a hair soundlessly departing. One night aged 28, I caught my reflection in a pub mirror at a funny angle and stopped breathing.

Fuck me.


I’m going fucking bald.

As the penny dropped a new feeling surged up inside me, one of deep fear. Perhaps it was the first sign of an irreversible decline, the beginning of the end, the Reaper emerging from the shadows for a brief moment to clear his throat. I’d prided myself on not being scared of death and here it was staring me in the face, in the form of a ceiling light bouncing off the surface of my head and lighting up the wall on the other side of the room.


That night I went to bed in a beanie, woke up and didn’t take a cycling cap off for three months.

On top of feeling old, was the creeping feeling something in me wasn’t quite as it should be. Very sick people lose their hair, I thought. Samson’s fate had made me assign strength and virility to hair, surely women would do the same. Every morning the mirror spoke to me of frailty, proof my halcyon days were fast dissolving in the rearview. Never again would I step out of the shower and rub a towel seductively through my locks. Applying moisturiser to my forehead became confusing. At which point did I stop.


I kept my hair very short, so the areas where it thinned would be less obvious. But people would get curious. So are you losing it, they’d ask. Or do you just like having it shaved. My reddening cheeks would answer for me. Those who hadn’t seen me for a year or two would greet me with raised eyebrows. My brother bought me a Bald Eagle for Christmas.

After two years of denial and baseball caps, I dragged myself to the hair clinic. Returning home with the treatment as I described, I began to apply a grey cream to the top of my head each morning with a spatula. Is this all I am now, I would ask myself. A bald guy. I had joined a club with a lifetime membership, a club all members of which share the same identity, an identity they wear without choice, not on their sleeves, by dint of the little beam of light reflecting off the tops of their shiny heads.


As the morning broke on the third day of my new ritual and the paste I was applying began to congeal, matting the hairs together in a sticky clump, I looked searingly into my soul and heard myself say… 

This is fucking ridiculous.

Then and there in front of that mirror, I stopped giving a fuck.


*

I disposed of the cream in the bin with some joy, and since that day I haven’t cared very much about my hair. It doesn’t affect me all that much anymore. That’s not to say I wouldn’t prefer to have loads. It just means I’d rather not care than waste time consumed by something I have no control over. Once I’d come to the realisation it was a battle I couldn’t win, it became pointless to try.


My insecurities about my hair were wedded to the delusion that the people in my life might be judging me on any grounds other than what was inside me. When it came to the dating scene, I told myself that if a woman didn’t fancy me on account of my shiny dome, I probably wouldn’t fancy her either. If this didn’t always hold true, I could always reference the scientific literature surrounding bald men and their prowess in the bedchamber.

When all else failed, I could resort to denial.

Having not much hair is great.

The maintenance of it is negative-nothing, in terms of the amount of thought it requires. Fearing a bad day out at the barber is no longer a thing, the dread of a shit haircut was something I had to process six years ago, before realising it wasn’t even that bad. I’ve grown to like my hair.


Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. No matter how mundane something might appear, by repeating it in a quasi-religious manner it can become a contemplative and even meditative act. The weekly ritual of shaving my own melon comes pretty close.

Every single person has something going on in their life they hate themselves for and berate themselves for without end, that nobody but themselves even know exists. Not because they don’t care, they just don’t have time to. Because in turn they are busy worrying about their thing. And if they did know they wouldn’t care anyway. Not out of apathy but because they would know it doesn’t matter. People matter, the stuff on the inside, the sticky emotional treacle we are made of that makes us nobody but ourselves.

I mean I’m also full of shit.

I still see photos of myself from time to time and wince. But I used to think before I didn’t want to be just the bald guy. But now I don’t care. The cool thing about life and getting older is that you learn what not to give a shit about.


The softening of time and drying up of follicles has led me to think people might actually like me not in spite of my baldness, but because of it too. After all it is a part of me. A glass neither half empty nor half full but a glass twice the size it needs to be. Almost like a calling card. No longer just Domingo the guy with no hair. But… Domingo, the guy with no hair.

Not a source of weakness and of shame.


A source of love perhaps too.

The Mind-Bending Majesty of a Dawn Run

6.24am

I reach the oak tree at the promontory overlooking the West Reservoir. A celestial hand is gently turning the dimmer up on dawn, the ducks are deep in conversation. Eight years ago I stopped going to church and decided to write my own prayer to my own version of God. Stood under the oak tree I recite it looking out across the water and the rooftops of Stoke Newington. Half way through every run and always next to water. For a few minutes I talk to myself about what’s good and what’s bad and what could be better. I take a breath. I pick up my sword and shield and start running, skirting the water’s edge, slowly pinkening.

Summer evenings are so tawdry. I race the double sculls down the river, out over the marshes thick with pollen from the high grass where the picnics are heard and not seen. A summer evening is the girl you wish was harder to get. But not the early morning. At 6am everything is a mystery, all things are stretching out into shape and finding their form. There is no nostalgia for there is no memory, it is simply a beginning.

I leave the front door of my building, hook a left past the Dixy chicken that burnt down in March and cross the five corners. Five roads where three east London districts meet and where every three months a car crashes. I run up the hill to the Downs and along the path where that winter’s night the couple on the bench sat wrapped in thick coats and passed the spliff under the trees planted for the 13 kids who died in the New Cross fire.

At the turn of the millennium eight people were shot dead in two years and Lower Clapton Rd became Murder Mile. Twelve years later people like me thought it would be cool to move here. I love Hackney but I am an impostor. Lower Clapton, Upper Clapton, the pavement heads north and rises subtly, past the Crooked Billet and the sourdough pizza place and the World Foods with the Sainsbury’s colour scheme. 21 years before the shots that rang outside Vox Pop were heard up here.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Inside World Foods a group is laughing and incoherent. It is June 2015, 5am and already light, and I focus in and spy myself among them. I look younger and have more hair and our eyes meet. From inside the shop I look back at me vacantly, sheepish and happy. We are on our way to a house party, none of us fans of sleep, we are preparing to see in the day. Keeping the wolves from the door for as long as we can. But come they will. Be gentle on yourself, I whisper to him with my eyes. He looks at me and smiles sadly.

If all time is eternally present,
Then all time is unredeemable.

I run on. It is winter now. Clapton Common is Hasidic Jew territory. Here they roam in their hundreds, even this early, walking quickly and concentratedly, wearing different hats for different days. For years I’ve tried to clock them and smile and make some connection but it’s not their thing. Saying hello to people when I run makes me feel part of something. I touch certain lampposts for luck. My first pitstop is a doorway on Clapton Terrace. I stop for a second and feel the layered paint of the big black door, still awed like the first time I found it, that such fine Georgian buildings could exist all the way up here.

I cross Stamford Hill and to my right the road dips down towards Tottenham. Just past the bins on the railing is the little clay memorial to Godwin Lawson who died here when he was 17. I touch it and kiss the crucifix around my neck, any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. A hundred metres on a white bike marks the spot where an HGV turned left too suddenly, fresh roses tied to the top tube drip the dew of the early morning.

And now I am back at the reservoir under the oak. My watch says 25:42:11. I am getting slower. I used to care about getting slower but not anymore. I am so happy to be out on my own in the early light in the cool air of the morning with the ducks and the coots and the swan with the submerged neck that makes her look like a floating pillow. This is an undiscovered realm and I am a visitor. The show is all for me.

The bird-watchers ignore me, I don’t have wings and I am not free. The man who has woken up on the bench smiles at me with sad eyes, I wonder how far from home he is and from his people, I wonder if these strange birds bring him any peace. I smile back, as warm as I can make it. Life is difficult enough without missing a dawn run I think to myself.

Now I am on my way back. The return leg holds many treasures but I see less of them because I am tired. The endorphins are sweeping through my body and my mind is clear and at peace, there are a few other runners in the park, whole worlds inside their heads, things being straightened out I’m sure, that’s what running does. Standing alone and proud in a corner of the park are a pair of oak trees, half-cut, ivory-white, mottled and pockmarked. I make for them, I feel the bone dry dead wood with my hands.

A day I don’t run is a different animal to a day I do. But some days if I miss the dawn window I’d rather not run at all. Two hours from now the city is a different place. The horns and the screens and the bowed heads and the busy lives, it’s not the same at all. The day itself feels unfamiliar and confusing like walking into a film half way in.

I take the New river path, hang a left along Ferntower Rd to Newington Green. I touch the stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft on the side of the deconsecrated church. I cross over the high road, and commence my victory lap, back up over the Downs. A little different to how I last saw it, fifty minutes before. A little sadder. Something has left, something has gone.

But I caught it and it stays with me all day.

*

My depression came back pretty hard in December. A silent imperceptible bubble formed around me, a wall between the world and me slowly thickened. I had eleven months off, which felt like a record. But for the last month I haven’t been able to wake up before 9am. Going outside is scary, my skin feels the thickness of a fly’s wing. And I’m not running, which I mean, well. I try to tell myself nothing outside has changed but I don’t care, that’s now what I see, not from where I’m standing.

These mornings are happening all around me, the show is going on. Outside my window. The oak tree, the reservoir, the ducks are deep in conversation. All time is eternally present. I am out there because I have been out there. The blood is pumping through my body, my heaving lungs, my happy head. The bird-watchers are still ignoring me. World Foods, Clapton terrace, Godwin Lawson is walking home from school. The sky is pink. The air is clear.

*

This morning I went running again.

25 Things My Adult Brain Taught Me

Every year, as winter’s death rattle sounds out across the city and the first shafts of sun warm our tired bones, the same human migration gets underway and I stand in the shadows and watch with fascination. This is a migration outside. Like the shedding of a skin, the people of London rummage to the back of their wardrobes to a pile they last left neatly folded in early October. Last week temperatures broke into the 20s and the magnolia began to open. People all around the city were in shorts and tees and sunglasses and good cheer.

And it was February.

And then a cloud moved across the sun and the temperature dropped by ten degrees and the crowds were running for the bars to change their Aperols for mulled wine to encamp by the fire and begin a five hour game of scrabble.

Because it was February.

In my mind everything means something else. What now. So I went big. I think this over-eagerness for spring holds a mirror up to the way we move through life. When we’re young our hearts are full of fire and hope and we go out into the world with our swords drawn and our battle cries echo on the wind for all to hear. When spring kicks off people hit the kerb in bikinis and flip-flops and start sunbathing on roundabouts and come night fall – which is still around half six – they get their arses handed to them by a sharp drop in temperature.

As we get older we grow into life. Our battle cries turn to murmurs. We know the strength of our swords but we keep them sheathed. As spring firms up its grip and the mercury rises and the days draw out, we become more certain of what to step out of the house in. We stash the scarf in the bag, drape the jumper over the shoulder, close the door behind us and walk back inside to casually throw on the gilet. Our experiences of the world inform us how to take our place in it. And then life goes to work on us too.

At the end of the Amy documentary, Tony Bennett says the words…

Life teaches you how to live it, if you only give it time.

And I thought to myself. What the hell have I learnt in the last decade. Has my mind changed that much from the days when my belly was full of fire and I wanted to be a rapper and I had more opinions than I knew what to do with, definitely more than I could fit in my bumbag. I still have a bumbag.

With a healthy sprinkling of humility and a drizzle of trepidation…

I would say that These Things I Know.


*

1. The world isn’t so bad. But sometimes I just can’t see it.

2. The world is throbbing with beauty and possibility, if growing older is anything it’s fine-tuning the art of learning how to look.

3. Family is the most important thing I have. That’s why they bust my balls so fucking hard. Because I love them. But I didn’t get to choose them. I was forced together with them, and this coming together is a necessary friction.

4. Nothing I see on the internet will improve my life in a substantial way. That’s not where real things reside.

5. Six completely contradictory beings live inside me simultaneously. I am kind and selfish and zen and angry and an angel and an arsehole and the rest of it, all at the same time.

6. If I really listen to somebody, right to the end, until they’ve finished what it is they want to say, rather than waiting until the moment when I can interject, I feel the warmth flood out of a person towards me who feels heard.

7. A conversation can be a battlefield, and it can be a meandering path through a wood.

8. When a conversation is a battlefield, ceding my ground and listening to what I don’t believe in means I get to know both things. 

9. My old man will read this and be like STOP WITH THE PHILOSOPHY.

10. Someone told me recently they had never met somebody more consumed by what their parents thought of them.

11. I should try to be less of that.

12.

13. People are the most important thing in the world.

14. We know this because when the people we love die our world stops. And they take a part of us we can never get back. But by speaking their names and using our minds, both in our words and our memory, we keep them alive. Coco the Pixar film taught me this.

15. All things are mysteriously connected.

16. Giving my heart completely to someone will be the most difficult thing I do.

17. If it was between wisdom and knowledge, I’d take wisdom. But I don’t know very much and I am not wise. If I was wise I wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes.

18. For the first time in my life FOMO is beginning to feel like rain running over Gore-Tex. If I really wanted to hang out with someone, I probably would.

19. If I could have one virtue above all others it would be….

Grace.

20. Life is going to run away with me unless I fill it with things I am going to remember.

21. Which means finding out what I love, and doing more of that.

22. And watching the things that make me unhappy, and doing less of those.

23.

24. However good it is, nothing I read on a computer screen will give me the same pleasure I get from reading something good in a good book.

25. There really is magic in the world.


*

THE PROBLEM WITH ALL THIS


is I don’t know any of it.

I only know this because I’ve had it chugging around in my mind for a few days like the clothes inside a washing machine, and then I sat down for a while to get it all down. Much of the time it’s as if I know the opposite of all this. I forget these things on a daily basis, and put the complete opposite of them into practice. But I do know it. I just don’t remember that I do.

Socrates said that all learning is remembering.

Am I happier now?

I don’t know. I’m more used to the interior design of my brain than I ever have been. Some nice soft-furnishings and the mood lighting is tight. I don’t know if I’m happier, but I’m more content to be inhabiting my own being. And seeing as this is the only place I have to live for as long as that might last, this sounds like an improvement. More than anything, the passage of time has taught me what not to give a shit about. Which feels like freedom.

Life teaches you how to live it. If you only give it time.

Outside the early March sun is low in the sky, moving through the gears, gaining altitude. Saturday morning is a big white sheet of paper to draw on, a day full of possibilities. The magnolia is swaying in the breeze, the birds are proclaiming their love for it all. My mind is an invincible Summer and Spring is resoundingly here. My scarf and jacket are hanging on the wall. I glance up at them, pause, and walk out, closing the door behind me.

A Shock First Meeting with A Plant Medicine

And above all watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.

Because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places.

Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.


*

At the end of the summer in the middle of a wood in the south of Holland I sat for two nights in the pitch black of a cabin under the watchful eye of a shaman and drank a powerful brew concocted by the ancient tribes of the Amazon. 

The Vine of the Soul, the Vine of the Dead, Ayahuasca, a dark green gloop made up of the leaves of one plant and the vine of another found in opposite ends of the jungle, boiled together to make a plant medicine, a sacred healing power used by these tribes for some say thousands of years.

Ingested independently of one another the plants are broken down quickly in the digestive tract and have no effect. Mixed together and boiled down into a liquid and ingested, one small cupful can elicit journeys of the mind, experiences of the spiritual and the mystical, and realisations of such scale they can change the course of lives.

When the Amazonian tribes were asked how they knew to combine the two, how on earth they had landed on the right combination from the 70,000-odd species found growing in the jungle, they were known to reply simply… the plants told us.

Seven strangers, having just met, inside a cabin sat together in a circle, our shaman explaining to us we had been brought there for a reason. The medicine had called us there. We were asked to trace our journey back to its inception and describe it to the present moment, as we listened to one another’s stories we felt more connected, not only to each other but to the place. Our differing paths had somehow conspired to lead us there, to sit with one another at that exact point in time, to share in an experience which was to bind us.

There were to be two ceremonies, on consecutive evenings, which would involve the drinking of the medicine and then sitting in darkness for five hours while it took effect, amid silence and the soft beat of the fire, and the intermittent backdrop of the medicine music known as the icaros.

Walking in the woods outside the cabin moments before the first ceremony, I stooped down to pick up an acorn from the forest floor. I was excited but not nervous, since I had no idea whatsoever to expect. I had nothing to go on other than accounts I had read, and the weight of the experience I was about to have was as foreign to me as the waking life of a person I had never laid eyes on. I clenched the acorn in my hand hard, summoning a strength I anticipated I would need, and put it in my pocket.

For two nights I was plunged into worlds which language seems incapable of expressing. I’m not sure we have the requisite words to capture what I saw. For as soon as I try the visuals themselves become overly simplified. There were colours and hues of all kinds of a sharpness and luminosity which I’d never seen, morphing, ebbing and flowing into one another.

Geometric patterns and shapes endlessly twisting and dissolving into each other at huge speeds. Mandalas and spirals and cathedrals of light, endless space, and memories from my life floating in and out of reach, recreated in such precision and detail that I was able to peer in and investigate them from all angles like a museum exhibit.

Our shaman had told us that the spirit of the medicine, Mother Ayahuasca, shows one what one needs to see, when one needs to see it. Around the darkened room, my fellow brothers and sisters – for the harmony and deep feeling of communion brought on by the medicine made them feel something like kin – were each on their own journeys.

Some gasped and gurgled and laughed giddily in the manner of young children, some cried softly in new understanding, some cried from joy, some stared silently into the light of the fire, and all around the room we were vomiting into our buckets, vomiting out the pain that had lodged itself inside us. If one of us was purging, we were purging for each other. And this purging brought relief for the individual and collectively for us all.

And as we did the songs of the shaman and the voices of the musicians swam in and out of our consciousness. The medicine came in waves, taking over my senses on all fronts, just as we had been told it would. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It bombarded me, demanding complete surrender to it.

And as it did it stripped away layer upon layer of my shit, the shit that I had packed onto myself, it cleaned me, rejuvenated me, and gave me a vision of life, not a new one but an ancient one, existing eternally beyond the muck and the pain and the self-loathing that we cling to in order to translate our own pain.

It was a kind of paradise.

Writhing in the darkness trying to contain the energy cursing through my body, clinging onto my pillow like a lifebuoy, I found my hand inside my mouth, that I was sucking on all my fingers, drooling laughing crying and wretching all at once. Feeling a profound calm and a joy. Three days later I would realise I had been a baby, physically inhabiting a state of innocence and simplicity I had not encountered for 34 years.

The medicine seemed intent on showing me to myself. I was shown myself from a distance, walking into a pub. I was a fly on the wall, a spy in the corner, watching myself interact with people. I could see it was me, I recognised that face, not the face reflected in the mirror but the face I see in photos, familiar to me yet alien, and still, watching myself was beholding a person I’d never laid eyes on. I was good natured, enthusiastic, focussed on the other person, I was smiley, quick to laugh, I was playful, I was curious, I was alright, I thought.

I’m alright.

It has been said that to know oneself is to encounter oneself in action with another person. This was being shown to me now, in surround-sound HD. And the words rolled across my mind like a message rolling across an LCD display. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. The version of me that I had set in stone had revealed its weak spot. And the medicine was a chisel, working away at its edges, ready to break it to pieces.

Why are you so hard on yourself. Why do you beat yourself up all the time. You’re not an arsehole. You’re a beautiful person. I don’t have to beat myself up all the time. Is this real. Could I be free from this. What might life be like if I wasn’t so hard on myself. How might you go about your day without turning all this stuff back on you. You don’t need to be constantly aware of what other people want. You can be who you want to be. It’s okay to be. Okay to just feel things. You don’t have to be so scared all the time. Do the things that make you feel good. What is this. What does it mean. What does this all mean. It’s too powerful. Let go. Release yourself. Stop trying to control it all. Surrender. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. Whatever you want to feel. You are loved.

Just be.

In the throes of all this, lying horizontally under a huge canopy of green, at one point the soft underbelly of an enormous serpent filled my whole vision, a light brown scaled skin moving over me, slithering up to me on my right hand side, blinking at me with an enormous eye that emanated a warm and benevolent energy. And quickly it kissed me on the cheek, stealing a kiss almost, before slithering away again down and out of my vision.

That night I went to bed with the lightness of a five year old in a state of bliss, raw uncut.

And the next morning I awoke into a new world.

*

It is very easy to dismiss all this. Because I did.

Before the weekend was finished, a fear began to mount in me that what I had seen was an illusion, that my visions and realisations were not real, the precise details of which I was beginning to forget, that I would soon forget all of it. And simultaneously from stage-left, a slowly creeping cynicism began to wind its way into my brain.

Once back in London, I found my inner voice growing more and more bitter, instead of feeding off the harmony the medicine had revealed to me, I was more disconnected from people than ever, I felt jaded and distant and embattled.

I became sad and low, I saw London as a gnarled den of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, of people killing themselves with excess, of the homeless on the street ignored and wasting away in front of our eyes. And I understood for the first time the meaning in the idea that the cynic is the idealist who has had his heart broken.

I had been shown a version of paradise. And real life was shattering it to pieces. Our shaman had warned us about integration, the process of coming back from what we had seen, and the likelihood of it being far from easy. Your experience will slowly begin to fade, he had said. You can keep it alive by engaging in spiritual practices, by keeping yourself centred, by trying to remember all the things you have learned.

*

So what was real.

I can tell you what I know. In the space of three days, I saw seven people go through a process of enlightenment that shook them to their very core, that took years off them, that grounded them deeply in an understanding of their lives, that they had hitherto been unable to attain.

I heard them share deep truths about themselves, revealing their vulnerabilities like gaping wounds, I saw people being returned to an innocence that at some point down the line they had parted ways with. An innocence perhaps we have all lost, something we know is deeply nested inside us, but have forgotten how to look for.

I saw a vision of the world stripped of the superficial things that try to muffle it. No rules, no systems of rationalisation, no pigeon-holing, no ego. Things as they are, and as they always have been. Song as an expression of joy when talking won’t suffice. Dance as the same expression when one can no longer stand still. An ancient language speaking up to us from the very loins of the earth. Preaching one thing above all others.

Love.

We are just human beings, spoke the voice, eternal souls in a human body, wanting to live in peace with one another, wanting to love each other, and be with each other, in harmony. I learnt that everything is love. Pain is love. Fear is love. It is all part of the same thing. The one binding force of the earth that unites us all in the face of our suffering. For my part I learnt that I was lovable, that I am loved, that I can love.

That perhaps we see the world from behind the bars of our own ego, one that tricks us and deceives us and deludes us. And somehow there are substances that break down these barriers, drawing across the curtain for us to see things as they are.

Maybe with all our intelligence and our civilisation and our distractions, we’re missing out on ancient signals from the earth, messages from the natural world that we’re not picking up anymore, as if the earth literally does speak to us. If we care to listen, the right answers are there, waiting.

Imagine a waiter showing up with a silver platter, empty-looking to the naked eye, but on it lies this way of seeing. The world as I have just described. Would you care for a serving, sir? he asks. Not right now, I’m trying to live. True to form, he waits. Patiently by your side, unobtrusively, fading into the background. Don’t mind me sir, I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. This dish doesn’t get cold. It’s here if you want it.

It’s always here.


*

At times now, I feel far away from it all. Back in the glare of the lights and the horns and the endless distraction. The impatience and the fear and the narrow joy. That world, the spirit realm, the vine of the soul, it can seem far away. But it is there. The waiter is always there, by your side, with his platter. Ready and waiting to serve you up a portion.

A portion of a way of seeing the world, as it truly is. This could all be a bit of a stretch for some. Perhaps it would’ve been for me at some point. But one thing is also true. That those accused of madness can level the same at their accusers. Funny that.

There really is a magic in the world.

Like really.

If It Was in Doubt He Was Sure of An Adventure

The darling buds of May dangle forlornly with ice. For three days my socks are soaked through, my feet ache from the cold and I move eastwards through falling snow into a headwind, cursing my idea that France meant Mediterranean sun. On a nasty winding climb my gears lock up and I scream out in rage. My only company are the creaking pines and my rage is a fart in the wind. A well of happiness that has lain empty for months is filling up inside me. Whatever befalls me now won’t make a shot of difference, I think I have been saved.

*

A few hours into the first day of January of 2019, someone posted this.

My year has felt a little like that. Imagine sleeping through a whole weekend, going out alone on a Monday and getting totalled, waking up and feeling like shit all of Tuesday, with nobody to text about what a strange impromptu night it was. 2019 has felt like that kind of hangover, close to every day. When it threatened to get good, I would wake up on that same Tuesday all over again. Lapping against my shores was a lake of unease, joy was a stone skimming across its surface.

Ratcheting up the pressure and relieving it at will, a mild depression had had me by the balls since November. Too mild to knock me out, but still the mental health equivalent of a small annoying dog humping my lower leg. Every day I watched the warfare of a city fighting harder than I was to stay alive, the siren wailing and check-out lines and sad eyes staring from the top of night buses, folk surrounded from all sides but achingly alone. Joy was there somewhere around the next corner, and I was moving down the wrong side of the wrong street.

*

The Bordeaux airport Ibis Budget hotel is a strange environment to find a new lease of life.

In the past, when things got top-heavy I’d often look to the bike for an out. To go away into a new environment, to raise your heart-rate, to breathe clean air and be enveloped by green, the experience is rich because it is all new. Cycling across a country albeit with maps, is raw unmapped territory for your mind, it is taking five big gulps from an ice cold pint of adventure. We all need some adventure in our lives once in a while.

And so I found myself in the Ibis Budget Airport hotel just west of Bordeaux with my touring bike propped against the wall, lying starfished in the dark as the hum of jet engines sang me to sleep, feeling an emotion I hadn’t been able to muster all year. The kind of excitement only a free man can feel, a man at the start of a long journey, whose conclusion is uncertain. Lyon was my destination, 700km directly eastwards across the rolling terrain of the under belly of France, with a date to keep six days from then on the steps of Marylebone Town Hall, to watch my brother getting married.

This mood of mine had lingered inside me since early November, at times subsiding but never leaving altogether. It occurred to me that sensitive people have these pores that are open all the time to emotional information, good and bad. When depression rears its head it makes the information coming in always the worst kind, and switches off the ability to ignore it. The night ushered in the foreboding morning. Spilt milk was worth crying over. I would step out of my front door over the top into No Man’s Land and face a barrage of information, incoming from all angles, from a wild unforgiving city that didn’t give a fuck about me and my pores.

So like the rich Victorians taking in the healing waters of Swiss spa towns, changing the nature of that information seemed like a good idea. I traded in carbon monoxide and horns for the smell of pine needles in the afternoon. A slanging match between a Turk and a crackhead became the quiet of a sleepy village waiting for its boulangerie to open. For six days the light hitting my face was no longer the pale glow from a screen.

And it went to work on me.


*

The gently rolling fields around Bordeaux are busy with backs bent-double over vines, tending to grapes like newborns. Warmed by the May sun, I move through them slowly, tasting the salt from my sweat and the creeping excitement of the unknown. Bastide towns and hillocks, copses and farm yards, pine trees and butterflies, the tarmac moves slowly backwards beneath my wheel and I breathe and whoop and feel it all deeply, the kind of attention I haven’t paid the earth in a long time.

I feel anonymous in a way I wouldn’t feel in England, there are no rules for me here, and this adds to my sense of freedom. I stop in Castillonnès and eat a simple lunch on the step of a deserted high street, a couple of locals pass by and commiserate about the weight of my panniers. In a shop window I see an old photo of the same high street, and imagine the day the man set up his strange contraption in the road and the shop sellers came out and the village stopped to pose, and think of the children that have lived whole lives since that day and grown old and been mourned.

I move eastwards into the Dordogne, the landscape ramps up, hillier and thick with forest. It is the oldest inhabited area of Europe and feels wilder than the vineyards and the roads are quiet. In 1940 while rescuing a dog who had fallen down a hole, a boy lit a match and illuminated the prehistoric paintings of Lascaux cave, releasing them from a darkness where they had lain undiscovered for 17,000 years. Casting his eyes on the paintings of bull and lion and rhinoceros for the first time, Picasso exited the cave and exclaimed in wonder we have invented nothing!

That afternoon a winding climb takes me up into the hills and I stop a while to rest. There are no cars, and all is still but for the breeze through the trees and the hum of insects. Lions stopped prowling these hills millennia ago but the landscape must look the same, I think. I am a fleeting visitor in an ancient land, I feel small and insignificant. More than that I feel lucky, to be where I am up on this hill, peering into this timeless kingdom for an eternal minute. I look at my bicycle lying in the ferns and nod respectfully. You and me mate. What else could have got me to this spot, shown me all this, made me feel so deeply.

I cycle on.

The Dordogne becomes the Auvergne. Harsh volcanic landscapes, sinister slate grey villages, even the weather changes to suit the mood. A cold front sweeps across France and I take shelter in cafés and massage my toes to get the blood back into them. There is sleet and snow and cold hard rain that chills me to the core. A techno festival 30km north turns into a Red Cross disaster zone. Some men in a bar convince me to fill my water bottles with red wine. One of them warns the others mais un litre de vin rouge… après on ne bouge…. They roar with laughter. It is not yet lunch time.

In September I stopped taking antidepressants for the first time in nine years. I was doing fine and wasn’t sure how much they were really working. Being med-free felt like a badge of honour and when I started feeling not so good towards Christmas I imagined it would last a month or so and then I would come out of it. But I never really did. I’d have spells of upbeatness, and show my face here and there, and then be back to normal. The trouble was my normal was a good few floors under ground.


*

On my way out of the Auvergne one afternoon, sat on a bench eating lunch, I heard a faint thud on the glass behind me, and saw a tiny man lying in a chair by the window beckoning me over. Perhaps the oldest person I have ever laid eyes on, his nose knotted like a 600year old oak, as he spoke his dentures fell from the top of his mouth and were caught by the bottom. He was very deaf, and after a few stilted sentences he fell silent, and grabbed my hand and held it.

As I cycled off down the road, a strange emotion surged up inside me, the kind of sadness that makes your tummy ache, that makes you feel so alive it’s hard to bear. When I was out of sight I stopped again and something dawned on me. Fuck, I thought, how is it that I can feel all at once so happy and so lonely. I realised I was coming back to life. All year my mood had isolated me, made me see so few people, I’d forgotten how to be in the world. And it had taken me 650km of French countryside to get to a point where I was happy enough to want to be in the world again, and a meeting with an old man to realise I had to start immediately.

Depression is the most narcissistic thing around, because it places you at the centre of everything. The world outside is beckoning you with open arms, and you can’t see beyond the four walls of your addled mind. Everything affects you, concerns you, hurts you. All information that comes in passes through the toll-booth of your depressed brain, which is too sensitive and defensive and afraid. The narcissistic part is the unending self-obsession.

Being in an environment so vast and ancient and eternal made me feel tiny and fleeting and insignificant. To be amongst those ancient hills and valleys and endless woods made me feel a tiny part of something bigger. My father complains that when I cycle I blitz through countries and have no time for cathedrals or museums. But the woods are my cathedrals, the trees are my spires, the cattle bells ringing out over the hillside are my evensong. Psithurism is a word for the sound of the wind running through the trees


*

On a rainy joyous day in early April interspersed with blasts of brilliant sun my brother got married to Victoria, and not long after my mood returned. My therapist did some rough calculations and we decided to go back on the meds. I was happy to in the end, I was fed up. It was taking the best of me. The roots of some trees run deeper than others. It takes something bigger to unearth them.


*

Looking down from the plane as it flew up and out of Lyon airport, I saw the small details of the French countryside I was leaving behind. Lines of roads, little hamlets, reservoirs, copses, all the signs of a country that feels alien to you because you will never know it. But I had known it. The chatter of the men in bars, the cool silence of empty churches, the town squares and looping mountain roads, the cattle bells and stillness of the mid-afternoon. I had known it all, and it had brought me back. Perhaps not altogether but enough. Maybe never in my life have I understood the wonder of a bicycle more profoundly, and its ability to show you the world in a way no other thing can.

As we approached the first band of clouds, I took out my little pad to make a note, and flicking through the pages I landed on something I had written long enough ago to have no memory of it. I looked down at the scribbled words, read them slowly, read them again, and laughed.

He didn’t want to do anything that was mapped out.


If it was in doubt, then he was sure of an adventure.

Taking A Dump in A Health Food Shop

A somewhat soul-searching start to a Thursday morning.

It all began with a triple-shot cappuccino. The problem of being a monosyllabic retard redressed, Stavros’ wisdom in his Easyjet brochure sprang instantly to mind. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Meaning that on top of being woken the hell up, said amount of caffeine has a side effect of shifting everything through your system. Fast. To call it a side-effect is a bit unjust. It’s an effect.

Healthy Stuff is like being in someone’s living room. It’s got that homely feel to it, unsurprisingly it’s the kind of place that gets pram-heavy, but it’s resolutely not the kind of place you drop the kids off in. And yet somehow three shots of caffeine removes all choice from the equation.

The pram-brigade not yet arrived, asides from a biddy in the corner enjoying history’s most over-brewed cup of tea, I was on my own. Having paid for my coffee and asked if I could duck into the loo, I then emerge fourteen minutes later. Walking back past the bar where the Finnish chick owner is having an in-depth conversation on the merits of activated almonds with some Australian dude made exclusively out of hemp, she clocks me.

The look on her face can be broken down into 3 key stages:

1. You’re still here? I thought you’d left ages ago.


2. Oooh, you’ve been in the toilet.


3. Oh.

This is where the soul-searching comes in.

Separated by a hair’s breadth of plasterboard, that loo can’t be more than 2 feet away from where she spends six hours a day frothing up babyccinos for the little ones. It’s a violation of all sorts of stuff. It was plainly there, in the lines of the consternation etched onto her face. Yes I felt two stone lighter, but my heart was heavy. How do you come back from that. I’m not sure I can go back there for a while. Probably not until I have kids of my own. Which now I’ll be sure to take with me when I leave. Both sets of them.

There’s a moral in this story. There’s a certain sort of business that needs handling before you leave the house in the morning. Or more aptly put, buy your food in departures before you get on the flight. That way you won’t have to pay Stavros six quid for a packet of mini cheddars.


*

 A few months later I found myself sitting on the loo – at home this time – ruminating on the explosive events of that February morning…

Something along the lines of…

Leaving the poor owners like…

and my conscience like…

But they say the key thing after a shark attack is to get back in the water. In lieu of exorcising my digestive demons, and with six months of water under the bridge and down the cistern, I decided to revisit the scene of the crime. In fact I spent a happy few mornings in there chatting to the owner Ben, who seemed cool. So I figured what the hell, and anonymously sent him the first half of this story.

No offence caused. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Which if you’ve taken a massive dump in someone’s workplace, mere inches away from their face, strikes me as pretty nice behaviour. I should get in touch with the Collin’s English Dictionary guys. I mean whatever they have down as the definition of magnanimous, I’ve got a better one.

I went in there the following morning, and Ben started telling me about a blogpost he’d been sent by some guy who’d taken a du-….. etc etc. I gingerly raised my hand in admission of my crime, he cracked up, started telling me how funny he thought it was, we shot the breeze, then his Finnish wife came in and pointing at me, he was like… so this is the guy…

At which point she cracked up, and the first thing she did?

Offered me a triple-shot cappuccino.

Einstein said the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome each time. So the moral of this story, is under no circumstances ever order a triple-shot cappuccino in a small neighbourhood coffee shop, but also remember that if you look hard enough, the world is full of very lovely and very forgiving people, who also happen to make incredible smoothies.

Love Eventually In The Arrival Lounge of T5

I can’t believe there is a human on this earth whose heart doesn’t start beating in double-time as they walk through the doors into an arrivals lounge of an airport, clinging to the hope that someone might be there waiting for them.


Even if not a soul on the planet has any way of knowing you’re even on the flight, there is a part of you that holds out hope the love of your life will be standing there expectantly with open arms. I’m basically alluding to females, but family I suppose would do. Besides, if you’re a parent the love of your life basically is your kids. Either way there are worse places to be. There’s a lot of goodness and happiness and beautiful human emotion at play.


When’s the last time you watched Love Actually. The end credits are a montage of these exact moments.

So with this in mind, off went my alarm at 4.30am, and as the sun rose reluctantly to thaw an especially butt-cold morning of spring, I roused myself from slumber and picked my way through empty streets and across London to Paddington. After six months in Argentina, my old man was returning to his adopted country. His flight was landing at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 at 6.25am and a strong pang of filial duty was going to have me there, a smiling face in an indifferent crowd, awaiting with open arms. So we too could share in a Love Actually moment.


I had money on the fact that this show of filial devotion was gonna make my old man’s year. I did some maths and figured that a 6.25am landing time, factoring in passports and baggage-reclaim and all that stuff, meant I could confidently take my place at the barrier around 7am. I arrived at three minutes to seven precisely.

The place seemed strangely deserted.

So I waited.

And as I waited, all around me I saw beautiful scenes emerging. People reunited with their loved ones. All colours and creeds, of all ages, locked in passionate embraces, happy to be together again. All of a sudden life became so simple. Love was the starring role.


Three generations of an Indian family in a rugby-scrum of affection. A mother back from some exotic land being smothered, literally throttled, by her two young daughters, as their father looked on smiling sleepily. A woman bounding up to her ageing father, of such beauty, that in the blinking of an eye I’d imagined our life together and was thinking up subjects with which to seduce my new father-in-law the moment she introduced us.

But no sign of pops.

The information board told me his plane had landed slightly earlier, at 6.17am. And as the second hand ticked on, I furrowed my brow and attempted some more maths. It was nearing 7.30am, over an hour since he landed. But T5 is massive, I thought, and with respect my old man is no Linford Christie, not after two hip operations and six months of fine argentine cuisine. Something must’ve been holding him up.

Something, or someone.

I did some more thinking. He hates other people, he hates flying, he loathes airports, odds-on he’d be marching through passport control with a scowl of unabated black-thunder etched onto his face. Marry that with his insistence on wearing dark glasses and a panama hat at all times, his not-unnoticeable latin-infused english accent, and he’d comfortably take his place on any FBI’s most-wanted list. I mean, of course he got stopped.


I then smiled at the thought that even if he was packing 23 kilos of uncut Colombian, stopping papa on the back end of a 14 hour flight, in his least-favourite environment, having just touched down in a country he doesn’t even want to be in, with the moods he’s capable of mustering, and the scenes he’s capable of making, it was resoundingly in Customs’ best-interests to leave that man alone.

On I waited.


I took some dope selfies.


I did some more maths.


It was now past 8am, and still T5 remained papa-less.


I wondered if he’d even got on the plane.

It was when fifteen rowdy Hasidic Jews came through the double-doors barking yiddish, and looking up I saw a flight from Tel–Aviv that had landed over an hour after the one from Buenos Aires, that by now no longer even featured on the information board, that I admitted defeat. My watch read 8.17am.

If my old man had spent two hours in between landing and arrivals and was only coming through now, he’d most likely be absolutely livid. And I’d be damned if I was going to wait around for that shit-storm. I shrugged my shoulders and thought of that line from Alien, in space no-one can hear you scream, and how it had no relevance whatsoever to the present moment.

So I lensed a final selfie, as proof of my heroic odyssey, and bailed.

Sitting there on the train rolling back into central London, I thought about plane travel, and how although our horizons would obviously be much narrower without it, maybe this ability to fly all over the earth wasn’t necessarily that healthy. That perhaps planes had messed something up in some way. The slickness of T5 had definitely messed my shit up, I remember a time when getting from the cabin-doors to the arrivals lounge was the work of two hours, easy. Now an irate Argentine nursing a couple of titanium balls for hips can motor through in under 30 minutes.

It made me sad.

Because at the end of it all, life is made up of moments. And the heightened emotions attached to these moments. The time you first set eyes on the love of your life. Your first pinger. Your child’s first steps. To a lesser extent, the time your son comes to meet you at the airport unexpectedly at 7am on the morning of some idle Thursday, and you ride into town together in a cab and shoot the breeze.


The precise moments I saw unfolding between strangers as I waited for my old man to wheel his trolley through the double-doors. But he never did. Nevertheless, being a witness to these moments and their warmth was plenishment for the soul. It was a reminder that the really truly important things in life aren’t that many in number. There’s really just one of them.

The old L word.


It was a reminder to go and put the old L word into practice.


And hurry up doing it.

Brooks Was Here So Was Red

If somebody invited you to something you weren’t going to be around for, it would make sense to decline the invitation. A bit foolish to make plans you wouldn’t be there to partake in. A good definition of depression is the idea of there being no future. I believe this, because depression has been a topic of the last twelve years of my life, and I suppose aggressively the topic of the last 29 days of it.


It had been on the agenda to write something about depression for a while, but I didn’t think I’d be in its grips when I did. Irony or hiding behind humour hold no sway here. This is less a collection of memories of a mood, more a real time description of an experience. Writing this now it seems clear this is the only state in which I could do what I’m feeling justice, but the horse’s mouth also pulls hard on the reigns of the pointlessness of the whole thing.

It has made me stop short in my tracks five times in the last three days. Quacks call it a depressive episode. For me, it’s like pressing mute on joy.

I’m not sure what being suicidal really means. If it means not wanting to be alive then sign me up. If it means fantasising about ways in which to die, or making no plans because you have a strong conviction you’re not going to be around for any of them, or wishing the people who love you didn’t exist because you checking out would cleave their world in two, sign me up. But I don’t think it does.


I think there’s a chasm between not wanting to live and wanting to die. The absence of one thing doesn’t always mean the other. When you’re depressed, the idea of not existing for a while is a comfy place, to get the popcorn out and distract yourself from the pain of living. Same as drowning yourself in booze or fucking yourself up on drugs. But it’s a fantasy, a distraction.


The trouble with humans is that impulse can bridge that chasm very quickly. Not wanting to live can become dying in no time at all. Practically speaking, it’s not difficult. The tragedy of suicide is that nothing is more final and irreversible, you don’t get a take-back. If leaving the pain for a while was the objective, not existing forever is what you’re left with. What the people who love you are left with. Camus said it is braver to live than it is to kill yourself, but I’m not so sure.

My depression began proper in my early twenties. But I think it had been there in some form all along. My father recalls a sadness in my eyes as a child, I lived a lot inside my head, kept everything cooped up, I was melancholic on my birthdays. Things got quite bad at university, but it was aged 22 I remember the blinds came down hard. One February morning I got into bed and didn’t get out again until early summer. A doctor prescribed me anti-depressants, which seemed to help, and which I’ve been on some form of ever since.


From then on going forward, on average a couple of times a year, I seem to go under. A friend of mine came up with a name for it. He called it the quagmire. It’s a disappearing act. Until the worst of it is over, Domingo goes awol on the world. Those who don’t know me that well might be surprised, since I only really show my face when I’m feeling good. But the idea of going to the pub in the middle of an episode is as appealing as running naked down Oxford Street in mid December screaming out who wants a reload.

Depression is complex.

It’s an each to his own thing. Mine is different to yours is different to hers. But it’s important to point out to those who might not be aware, there can be little logic to it. From my experience it is not a causal thing. It isn’t tripping over and stubbing your toe. It’s your toe beginning to throb for no reason while you’re sat on the sofa. It’s not an unhappiness provoked by hard luck or a string of unfortunate events. It’s a land mine that goes off under your foot on a beautiful summer’s day.


To accept I’m not responsible for my depression is something I find pretty hard. People with a healthy degree of self-loathing don’t need to search far and wide for who to pin the blame on. Personally, it takes those closest to me to remind me the quagmire is not my fault. The first person I’d spoken to in a week was my brother, when he called me three days ago. When I told him how I was feeling he listened, paused, and seeming distinctly unfazed said to me mate that’s okay, that’s what happens to you sometimes. It’s been happening to you for ages.

Depression can get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Not unlike a tumour, it can grow if left unchecked. Because the outside world becomes so scary, isolationism is a coping mechanism. But the less you check in, the more stilted your truth becomes. You tumble further and further down the rabbit hole, further and further away from the light.


Like a domino effect, things you wouldn’t think twice about become progressively more difficult. Day to day things become terrifying. That terror you felt in the hush of the examination hall at school, walking down the rows between the desks scanning for your name, is the same terror I felt yesterday walking along the milk aisle at Tesco.


As reality drifts out of focus, tiny little actions take on a crazed importance. Little rituals are flotation devices in 50 year storms. Making myself a coffee in my favourite espresso cup is one of these. As stupid as that sounds, this action is often a last ditch attempt to save myself. Last week I could not for the life of me rationalise any point in the act of making a coffee to then drink it. Since I’ve been writing this, over the last two days, the coffee machine’s gone on again. It’s like a symbol of fighting back up towards the light.

Disclaimer

There is no self-pity in depression. There is confusion, anxiety, inertia, self-loathing, panic, hopelessness, flat-lining, hours of staring into the middle-distance, but there is no self-pity. Self-pity in depression is like volunteering to down a pint of water while drowning.


*

You know that nervous excitement you get before a first date. The feeling you used to get before Sports Day at primary school. A kind of strangulating adrenaline in your gut, almost a nausea. Imagine you couldn’t switch that off. For some reason these are the physical symptoms of my quagmire. It’s what I feel right now, what I’ve felt day in and day out for 29 days. When I close my eyes at night, and in the morning, and when half asleep I grope through the dark to take a pee. People think a mental illness is only felt in the mind. This isn’t true. It’s also physical.


The misunderstanding of mental illness arises from the strength of its disguise. People find it difficult to believe what they can’t see. There is no leg in a cast. No loss of hair from chemotherapy. Just someone to the untrained eye doing an on-point impression of a wet blanket. Sitting here right now, hand on heart I can say I don’t think anyone would choose to feel like this. Last week I remember thinking this was never going to end. This was not a perception. It was my reality. The idea it might not be, is as difficult to get my head around as convincing the man in the street his entire reality and everything he knows to be true, is itself make-believe.


*

I read a parable once about a man who envisions a glittering future for himself. He works his way inch by inch towards this glittering future, and one day it presents itself to him at last at the top of a long staircase. He packs up the contents of his old life, puts on his best threads, and starts climbing. As he reaches the top of the staircase, he sees his path blocked by a huge security guard, who holding his massive arm out, point blank refuses to let him pass.


Despite lengthy protestations the guard stands firm. He tries again the next day, and the next month, and the next year, and the security guard is always there, blocking the top of the staircase, the only path to the man’s idealised future, pinning him to the shackles of his old life.

The point of the parable is this.

There is only one character in this story. The security guard and the man are the same person. The security guard is the glitch, the fog inside the man’s own head that is barring his own path and stopping him moving forwards. It is something within him that is getting in the way of his glittering future. The reason I mention the parable is because I want to make it clear that this thing stopping the man in his tracks, whatever it is, it’s not depression. Depression is not the security guard.


Depression can make the staircase five times longer, or make the man especially heavy-legged on the climb. It can serve to stall or delay the glittering future, but is does not bar you entry from it. One of the most important and difficult things to remember is that the depressive still has the power to affect their life, even in the deepest darkest grips of it.


Russian people don’t believe in the idea of being too cold. They believe you’re not wearing enough clothes. The Russians can’t change their sub-zero winters, and I’ve learnt I can’t halt the onset of my quagmire. But we can both do things that protect us against the full force of the gale. I can keep active. I can distract my mind with work. I can choose not to self-medicate with shit that in the long run will only make me feel worse. I can try to eat healthily and do my best to take exercise. When I’m at my worst the futility of these things seem insurmountable, and to lead myself almost blindly into them is all I can do.

And yet fail repeatedly.


*

Columbo would be into this next bit.


There is… one more thing.

Over the past few weeks I’ve realised the most important thing we can do, is talk about it. To share the weight of whatever is going on inside our heads, with others. We can get together and lend each other our ears, and just listen. Actually listen. Much of the time people don’t want advice. All they want is an ear. If you do get the opportunity to chew someone’s ear off, make sure you offer yours in return. If writing this is anything, it’s an encouragement to communicate. To look into the eyes of the person next to you and ask them how they are. Tell me how you’re you doing. And once they’ve muffled a reply, slowly repeat the question again.

I think you’ll get a different answer the second time you ask.

There isn’t a person on this planet that doesn’t have something worrying them. We all got beef. Everyone has a humungous sirloin steak slapping them across the face always. And it makes us feel very alone. But the antidote to loneliness is meaningful connection. Asking for help is an action of self-respect. It means you mean something to yourself. Admitting you’re ill means you think you’re worth saving.

It’s the pretending we’re okay that really fucks us.

This last month has been horrible. As I said it’s been like pressing mute on joy. Happiness doesn’t reign here. Neither have I felt incredibly sad. Just one long unmoving flat-line. An interior voice shitting on all my plans. Bulldozing my future and pouring cement over the rubble. Pushing away the people I love and the people who love me. In the end, depression is like some inconsistent stick of 90s chewing gum. Horrible to chew alone on, day after day. But for some reason much more bearable when shared.

The reason it has taken me three days to write this, is because I keep telling myself it isn’t worth it. It feels like one long overshare that I’ve talked myself out of continually. But this is the reason I need to write it. Depression is twice as common in women as it is in men, and yet men are three times more likely to kill themselves because of it. I wonder why that is.


What I’ve just written is the most I’ve told anyone about my depression. Which makes me feel a little bit sick. I don’t know if people will look at me differently if they read this. I don’t know if writing this in retrospect will feel like I’ve lost something. That I’ve let something out of the bag. I’ll no longer be able to go awol and pretend I’m fine. But then again, most of the people who know me already know about my quagmire. Just perhaps not the extent of it. One thing I know is I’ll have got closer to running out of things to hide. Which is a good thing, I think.

No secret is as bad as the hell you construct inside your own head.


*

A guy called Matt Haig wrote a book on depression called Reasons to Stay Alive. This guy suffered from depression for most of his adult life, and came very close to throwing himself off a cliff when he was 24. Below he writes his suicidal-self at the time a list of ten reasons not to jump, ten reasons to keep on trucking. This is the tenth.

He also wrote the words:


Depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.

For me that was one of the best things I could’ve read. To remember that this thing inside my head can often be found speaking out of its arse. W H Auden once said if you take away my demons, you’ll take away my angels too. This might sound hypocritical, but I don’t hate my depression. And I wouldn’t necessarily live my life over without it, given the choice. We are the product of all the moments of our lives. If you took away my depression I wonder how much of the good stuff would be deleted along with it.


Depression isn’t all bad. The flip-side of it can be pretty incredible. The benefit of seeing through a glass darkly is that when finally the light comes in, shit gets colourful very quickly. Speak to anyone who suffers from it and ask them about the extent to which they can make themselves happy.


*

As bad as things have gotten in the last few weeks, maybe the storm clouds are parting. I don’t think I could have written this two weeks ago. I would’ve sat in front of my computer for two hours without even realising it was out of battery. To go back to where I started, on the question of not wanting to be alive. As helpful as this reverie might’ve been when things were very bad, what I’ve realised in the last month is that I’m really not going to kill myself. Don’t worry mummy. Not this minute. You might not want to be here very much right now, but let’s not go overboard.


It is passing, it seems. There’s an out. Somewhere up there is the crack of light inside the snow drift. The house fly knocking all morning against the window is moving ever closer to the open latch. And out into the spring air. Life is waiting for you. Camus was right after all. It is braver to live. But it’s also a lot better. I said before that the absence of one thing doesn’t always mean the other. But in some cases the absence of one thing can only ever mean the other. When you remove death from the equation, the only thing you’re left with is…

Life.

I can feel now there’s some living to be done.

Why not get busy doing that.

The Most Incriminating Photo Ever Taken

Word on the street is that a picture can tell a thousand words.

After careful analysis of the above photograph, I’ve condensed a thousand words into 12 specific points.


*

1. The sheepish looking character in the bottom left is none other than my old flatmate Ceeborg, one of my best pal’s younger brothers, who lived with me for over a year during a beautiful period in the near past.



2. Here’s a selfie he took whilst chilling in the flat, with a gaggle of fine-looking women, the early stages of a good-looking house party in the mixer.



3. No males appear to be present. Just ladies.



4. None of which are his girlfriend.



5. Closer examination of the bottom right reveals that at this particular gathering, narcs abound.



6. And are apparently being thoughtfully laid out on my book of Argentine Estancias.



7. None of which would seem overly remarkable.



8. Apart from one thing.



9. Ceeborg moved out of my flat five months ago, with a casual ‘yeah I’ll drop my set of keys round when I get my plant mate’.



10. No plant was ever collected.



11. This photo is the first thing that landed in my inbox when I touched down from Canada at the back end of the May bank holiday weekend.



12. Which is remarkable, given that last time I checked I wasn’t in the habit of operating a mi casa es su casa open door policy, not when I’m in a different continent, not five months after move-out day, not after over a year of charging a back-breakingly generous £125pw all-in. An agreement that was arranged on the premise he would fill the flat with smoking-hot 26 year old broads. Which I’d say he fell short of, seeing as this photo is three times as many as I ever saw. I mean this whole situation is just one monumental serving of insult to injury.


Disclaimer


The sheepish looking character in the bottom left, Dominic by birth, is the rock salt in the seabed that gets extracted to make the salt of the earth. Like gold to Midas and skittles to the old guy in the skittles ad, everything Ceeborg touches turns to good vibes. Being pissed with him is impossible, it just makes you kind of pissed off with yourself.

So I’ll leave the doghouse for his girlfriend to take care of. Plus this happened over two months ago. Retroactive doghouses are so much more meaningful. Especially when they come out of the blue. And especially on a golden floodlit balmy day such as today, one in the tantalising grip of a weekend on the horizon, a day full of possibilities, the special kind of day only one of mid-summer can bring, when the birdsong from the trees seems to be dancing in the breeze’s embrace, pirouetting in the air in a harmonious chorus just for you.

These Non-Dairy Milk Substitutes Are Lethal

This is a tale of addiction and loss.

Of decline and fall.

But also of redemption, of growth, of wisdom accrued through suffering.

It all started one Sunday afternoon a little over a month ago, when I got back from a long weekend away and opening the fridge in the relaxed perfunctory manner of a man who hadn’t done a shop in recent memory, spied a glowing sun nestling behind a couple of non-alcoholic beers and a Jazz apple, imbuing its cold environs with a golden warmth.

Almond milk was a mystery to me. The dregs of this carton formed part of my flatmate’s smug plans to make the ultimate bircher muesli. He wasn’t around, and last time I checked he was abroad somewhere, being smug, the kind of place where almond milk flows untapped from bountiful almond springs.

So I thought what the hell.

I took a sip. And as the liquid washed over my tongue, past my palate and cliff-dropped into my stomach, something happened. Sadly all three drops in there meant that not enough of it happened. I threw the carton in the bin, thinking not much more of it. But that night, vivid dreams of diving Scrooge McDuck style into pools of golden almonds and torrents of milky rivers flooded my somnolent brain.

I woke up in the morning sodden, and wandering over to the kitchen, froze, mid nut-scratch, as the carton of Almond Milk sat there staring back at me from the kitchen counter.

Weird, I thought.

These guys aren’t easy to locate. But the following Wednesday I went into my local Health Shop, the kind of place you have to stumble over two crates of chia seeds just to get through the door. Browsing constellations of products I’d never before laid eyes on, I finally located the right shelf, and with the self-satisfied grin of a man just texted back by his dealer, took the plunge.

I brought one back home, locked the door, stripped down into something more comfortable, took it, shook it, twisted the cap and long-armed half the carton.

Most people describe their first heroin experience as nothing particularly incredible. No obvious upperlike coke, no love-surge like pills or God-delusion like meth. Just a mellow life is okay after all moment. I wouldn’t know, but having taken my first hit of almond milk I’d say scratch that I definitely do.

I hit it again. And again. And before I knew it the carton was done, and I was legging it down the road in my Y-fronts to score some more.

When it comes to drugs there are gateway theories.

The idea is that weed leads to LSD or pills, onto coke, crack and then heroin. Something like that. But my own personal descent into hell went something like this.

Almond milk.

Worrying amounts of almond milk.

At around three quid a pop my new habit didn’t come cheap and greenbacks don’t grow on trees, so like all men who love a bargain but refuse to compromise on quality, I hit up M&S. I scoured the shelves, but no almond milk was to be found.

I did find… Oat Drink.

Jackpot. I real lingering semi-sweet but not quite aftertaste, and with it the delusion it was a little bit good for you. What drug does that.

M&S Oat Drink was good. So I decided to sample more of their shit.

Coconut Drink.

Just like these two cats I’ve fallen foul of the allure of Coconut water in my time.

Could coconut milk do the same? I had to say I was worried about the coke to crack effect.

My fears were unfounded, Coconut milk is disgusting. It’s an embarrassment to the whole non-milk milk scene. I’m not sure I took more than one sip before head-butting the carton in a show of raw uncut contempt. It exploded all over my face and dripped down into a huge puddle of coconut milk which began seeping across the supermarket floor.

But M&S did have… Rice Drink.

That’s when things got really weird.

That’s when I stopped seeing people. 

I took Keith Richard’s advice about the purity of the drugs you take, sacked off M&S and went back to the Mother Ship. Rude Health. Accept no substitutes. As fiercely addictive as Brown Rice Drink is, it’s more of a party drug rather than an every day thing. And so I kept coming back to Almond. On heavier sessions I’d hit the Almond for hours, and then straight arm a Brown Rice to take the edge off.

Once I’d bought out the entire stock of E8, I made the mistake of straying into E5 one day and picked up a carton of this.

Don’t ever fuck with a milk product that has both Arabic and Chinese on it and expires in December 2027.

I decided to stock-pile with a view to dealing, to even up the books. But dealer’s discipline is learnt the hard way, and I spent the next 18 hours getting high on my own supply. The next four days passed by in a blur. Until finally, I came to, buttnaked, on the floor of my own bathroom, squealing like a newborn.

I was 4 stone heavier. I mean, last time I checked I wasn’t drinking six litres of full-fat milk a day.


*

This is as much a warning to others, as a sorry tale of loss of personal wealth and dignity. Steer well clear of these non-dairy milk substitutes. We’ve been milking cows for millennia, stick to the classics. Besides, I missed the most glaringly obvious point of all. They’re far too sweet anyway.

Hey, at least I can say I finally understand all of Pulp Fiction.

That thing right there, seeping out of the left-hand corner of her mouth…

… I always wondered what that was.

A Sunset My Brother and Wayne Rooney

In a tense Euro quarter-final in 2004 at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, midway through the first half after a tackle from Jorge Andrade, an 18yr old Wayne Rooney, the star of the tournament, went down holding his foot. He was stretchered off with a broken metatarsal, and England went on to lose on penalties.

Some time not long after still in the middle of that long hot summer, my brother Miguel was on holiday with his then girlfriend in Barbados, soaking in the sand and surf and the palm leaves swaying drunkenly in the sea breeze. Just him, her, and a professional photographer tailing their every move.

Upon his return he told me about his trip. And proffered me some fraternal words of advice:

Mate.

Should you ever find yourself on a Caribbean island, perhaps in the company of a lady friend, perhaps in a romantic capacity, and walking together hand in hand along the golden sands, perhaps you stumble upon a beach bar pumping the latest in dancehall and soca riddimz out across the turquoise waters, and looking into each other’s eyes life suddenly seems to make a whole lot of sense, then good on you. But please. Under no circumstances, repeat no circumstances – attempt to hit the dancefloor.

But why? I asked.

Bajans come out of the womb dancing to soca bro. You don’t stand a chance. Your girlfriend will want to spend the rest of her days in the shade of the drunken palms making mixed-race babies, you’ll be emasculated and feel like a royal asshole, without any doubt you’ll look like one, and you and your girlfriend will have a barney that will have you trudging down the beach, alone, cursing the name Charles D. Lewis under your breath with all the mercury-bubbling wrath of hell’s flames.


*


N E V E R T H E L E S S

As my man Alfie – who has devised to teach his 3 year old daughter Iris ancient philosophy through the medium of Pixar – recently reminded me, Kungfu Panda drops an atom bomb of Stoicism in the 3rd instalment of the eponymously-named legendary trilogy.

One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.


*

Which rung especially true for my brother that afternoon. Walking off down the beach misanthropically kicking a football, a desultory shell of his former-self, he stumbles across none other than, aforementioned broken metatarsal protected in a cast, bedecked in some oustanding beach wear, taking some well earned respite from Coleen, and probably from being the most talked about 18 year old on the planet.

With Coleen nowhere in sight, and Miguel’s girlfriend busy getting schooled in the art of dancefloor seduction by seven Bajans, they bust back to my brother’s beach-hut, spend the afternoon hoovering uncut Colombian, and my brother introduces young Wayne to the delights of on-line gambling.

My Parents And Tech And John Travolta

Oscar Wilde said: 


The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.



In the last few years as I’ve watched my parents lean inquiringly over the parapet of their own mortality, it’s like they seem to be trying their damndest to be more and more down with the kids. My mother’s fondness for abbreviated txt spk busts my balls in an adolescent way I should really rise above, as does her newfound need to walk around everywhere with her iPad strapped to her forehead. I thought my old man was faring a bit better, but no.


I got this email from my mum on Saturday entitled.


 Pops watching Grease on lovely summer afternoon.

And the attached photo.

On one of the balmiest Saturdays to hit rural Buckinghamshire in recent memory, with the mercury pushing 32, it’s a photo of my old man, inside, chair pulled up to within 6 inches of our 2003-model Hitachi, hypnotised by the hit musical Grease. This is a man who chastises my brother and I as idiots, who can hardly bear to have a conversation with us because we haven’t finished In Search Of Lost Time, and who has about 0.4 friends because it takes him all of half an hour to declare anyone he ever meets a bore.

Not so intellectual now are you pops.

Annoyingly the case for my father’s defence is being aided by my mother’s obvious ‘mastery’ of the technology at her fingertips. The photo is that size because my mother sent all 12KB of it.

Would the below stand up in court? 

That could literally be a vase with some pussy willow sticking out of it. I sent her an email telling her it was possible to send photos as well as just their thumbnails and she went mental.


*

Then again, this is all good news.

My mum being in the throes of an unrequited love affair with her iPad and my father watering his unhealthy obsession with John Travolta is actually the best thing ever. Because what kills us faster than old age is loss of enthusiasm. And as much as all this makes me want to roll around on the floor and moan like a twelve year old, it’s also proof my parents aren’t throwing in the towel any time soon. Which means I don’t have to take any responsibility for my life. None whatsoever. Not yet.

My Father The Great Bonfire of The Vanities

My old man isn’t self-portrait photography’s number one fan. To say he’s got beef with having his photo taken is an understatement. I don’t know if this is out of vanity, or because even in these twilight years he still needs to max out on security because of the coke racket he’s eyeballs deep in. He took me aside once when I was four and with a look on his face I’ll never forget said, remember this hijo mio, it’s not getting in that’s the hard part, it’s getting out. I thought he was talking about the front door, which was confusing. Now it all becomes clear.

I shot the below straight from the hip as I pointed to the right and screamed WHAT THE HELL IS THAT at the top of my voice. He never saw it coming.

Anyway, I was hanging out with him the other day in his study at home, and told him I wanted a photo of him to take back to my flat and put in a frame.

He turned, and looked at me in the manner of someone placed on the earth for the sole purpose of answering a question they have waited their entire life to be asked. His lips trembled. He held himself together. Claro, he replied in the porteño of his youth. And reaching down to the second draw of the desk he pulled it open and fished something out, his voice cracking imperceptibly. 

Take it.

Are you sure?

I can’t take this one I protested, it’s such a great photo, I don’t want to take your only copy. He shook his head gravely and insisted. No, I want you to have it.

It was a moment. It felt like a symbolic changing of the guard, my father giving me a photo of himself – that rare thing – and one he was evidently proud of, I mean with reason, he looks great. Who doesn’t cherish that kind of photo of themselves. One that evokes more than the person you are, the person you want most to be. It was a little faded and clearly old, with a lovely quality to it.

And yet it felt like I was taking something away from him. It saddened me. I couldn’t help imagining it as something he would keep close to him always, in the second drawer down, as a testament to his youth, a memento, to clutch onto as the dark clouds of old age drift across the horizon. It’s not like he knows what the hell a scanner is.

But he insisted.

Take it.

And as I descended the stairs it was remarkable how touched I felt.

I vowed to find a frame worthy of it, so whenever my father came to visit, it would be there, in pride of place, shining out like a beacon for all to see.

On the way out I saw my mother, and opened my bag to show her.


Look what papa just gave me.


A peculiar pained recognition traced its was across her face.


Oh God, she said.

And she groaned, and I watched her eyes roll alarmingly far back inside her head. That photo. About thirty years ago your father, for the only time in his life, set foot inside a photo-shop, and had 45 copies of that photo made. Forty five. Your father has had a thirty year love affair with that bloody photograph. Our marriage has suffered because of it. The bloody profile. That wistful look. That yellow coat, it comes to me in nightmares. He hands them out like sweets. He’s trying to get rid of them. There are drawers full of them.

In their droves.