Monday, 21 January 2013

A Revolution Of One?

'Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.'
Paul Kingsnorth

'You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time, all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.'
Charles Bukowski

The lay-by's empty as we pull in. The superheroes jump out the passenger side and race round to the back doors to let out Our Kid and the dog, both of whom have spent the last half-hour emtombed in darkness amongst a kayak, a paddle board and two huge bags of kit.

Lightning and Whirlwind take control of the dog, Nudge - the pet of a friend Our Kid is house-sitting for, and head off along the field edge path, talking with each other, but mainly to their new friend. I listen to Whirlwind's voice for a while. 'Would you like a walk, Nudge?' she says in the same tone she uses for her dolls and teddies at home. 'A lovely little walk, Nudge? Oh, it's such a lovely day, Nudge! Good boy, Nudge!' I smile to myself. I've no idea whether the dog is male or female, and I'm sure Whirlwind doesn't either.

Our Kid strolls over to the nearby bridge and I follow him. Leaning on the railings, we check the water below. I'm unsure if this waterway has an official name. It's one of the hundreds of drains that form capillaries across the heart of coastal Lincolnshire. This one starts at Chapel Point pumping station, and winds through Chapel St. Leonards, Hogsthorpe and Addlethorpe, before reeds and silt block its course at Orby. It's difficult to guess its depth - about 6 feet we speculate, but its width - 20 feet or more, makes it ideal for a short, waterbourne excursion. The banks are steep and muddy, but we're both confident that we'll manage.

We change into wetsuits in the back of the van, take out the boat and the board, and lower them down the bank. For the next twenty minutes we mess about on the water, waiting for the superheroes to get back. My kayak moves well - it's years since I used one, but I guess paddling a boat is like riding a bike. Our Kid's having more problems. His 'paddle board' is not really a paddle board at all. It's a 12 foot windsurf board, without the sail, that I bought over 20 years ago, and it's spent most of that time leaning against the wooden chalet in my Mum's back garden. We'd stopped and rescued it on the way to the lay-by. Paddling a paddle board without a paddle is a job that requires imagination and skill. I watch as he makes several unsuccessful attempts to stand up. After plunging into the dirty water a few times, he eventually gets the hang of it. 'Easy!' he says triumphantly, 'It's all about balance and core strength.' I offer him my paddle and he makes his way unsteadily to the pipe that crosses the drain a hundred yards away, before falling in again. He decides to give up then, and, laying down on the board, he paddles it like a surf board back to the bridge and my awaiting boat. He's grinning. Easily pleased Our Kid. For the first of many times during the morning, he says, 'Can't believe I thought of this! It'll make a great paddle board! Thank you very much, I've just saved myself four hundred quid! Now, all I need's a paddle!'

By now, a dog's barking and the superheroes are leaning over the bridge. Lightning gets changed and paddles about for a bit. Whirlwind's in love and won't leave Nudge alone. 'Daddy, when can we get a dog?' she calls over every few minutes. Once Lightning's had enough, he clambers back up the bank and joins forces with his sister to throw clumps of mud at Our Kid in an effort to knock him off his board. As a responsible adult, I'm aware I really should stop them, but, to be honest, it's a good show, so I let them carry on for a bit while Our Kid gets more and more pissed off.

It's been a good morning, but I've been saving my own small trip till last. Asking Our Kid to keep an eye on things, I crawl down the bank, slide onto the kayak and paddle away.

It's a short journey. The first in a year of journeys. A paddle into the past. A trip down memory drain.

We'd spent most of our childhood living in caravans, but for a couple of years, between the ages of 4 and 6, we'd lived in a house in Chapel St. Leonards. One of my earliest memories is of walking along the Chapel drain to the old school by the church. We'd moved to Ingoldmells after that, but continued attending Chapel Primary School. Then, each morning the lift into school would take us along the Skegness Road that bordered the drain. Each afternoon, we'd leave school, cross the concrete footbridge over the drain and wait for our lift home near the farmgate next to the Rectory.

The past is often skewed by romance. Although living only a few miles away, I rarely visited Chapel St. Leonards nowadays. When I did, I couldn't help but be disappointed. The old primary school had been demolished to allow for a bland redevelopment in another part of the village. The farm fields opposite the drain had been smothered with estates of affordable housing - shabby, Legoland boxes with postcard gardens. Cheap, ugly prison cells with broken gates and broken electricity boxes, populated with the broken lives of those who couldn't or wouldn't do better.

As I paddle, I think of none of this. I'm seeing things from a new perspective. The water ripples as the boat moves through the water.

This water hasn't changed. Whilst the surroundings have been destroyed by relentless forward progress, this water has flowed through the land unchanged, dignified, ancient.

The grassy banks hide all but the water and the sky. I paddle on with just the two as my companions, carrying a cargo of childhood dreams.

The drain twists and turns, and I paddle on, slowly, lost in the gentle movement of the kayak, small waves, concentric circles. I steer round overhanging branches, under the old concrete footbridge and on into the village.

After a while, I turn and start to head back. To the right, I make out the church steeple. The church where we celebrated Harvest Festivals as young children, the church where both my grandparents are buried, the church in which Tammy and myself were married.

From somewhere, a memory appears, buried for almost a lifetime. A memory from my days at the primary school which the church overlooked. I'd worked all summer for that pocket money. I must have been 9 or 10. And with the pocket money, I bought a football, bright orange with black trim.

'I'll take it into school,' I told my Mum, 'We can use it at playtimes.'

'I wouldn't if I were you,' she'd replied, 'It'll only get lost.'

Mum's know best.

On the first day of the autumn term, I'd taken it to school. At dinner playtime, in the midst of an epic 20-a-side game, John Cole had kicked my ball so hard that it had sailed over the playground fence and landed in the drain. As I stood on the concrete footbridge later that day, I'd tried, in vain, to spot my ball, but, of course, it was nowhere to be seen. I'd cried all the way home.

I paddle on towards the concrete footbridge as the memory washes in and recedes, a spent wave lapping the shore and retreating.

Then, hidden in the reeds on the left bank, I spot an orange object, caught against a fallen branch. I think I know that it's a plastic bag, discarded, forgotten. But such a big part of me wants so much for it to be my football. So I paddle on, a head full of warm memories, a heart racing with excitement, into the waters of days long gone. Just to make sure.

I'd had the feeling for a long time, but it was The Next Day that gave me my solution. The plain white box, obscuring the cover of Bowie's greatest work. A new beginning, a next day based, not on the propoganda that I'd been led to believe was right, but on the principles that I knew were right. A next day based on detachment. Detachment. This year, I'd take a negative term and use it to live my life more positively, more authenically. This year would be one of detachment. Of withdrawal from the modern way, and engagement with a better way. This year would be the start of my own revolution. A revolution of one.

Getting rid of the mobile phone three years ago helped things greatly, but more and more things had started to get to me recently. Small things, insignificant things that snowballed together to cause a restlessness. This feeling inside was anger. Anger at the government, the corporations, the people who always talked more than did, the fake community of bullshitters that have grown up around the things I love and made them different. Anger at the lies peddled as truth, the total bollocks presented as good advice, the way we're treated like idiots, but just take it, our own inertia preventing any meaningful resistance.

What do you do when you realise that modern life is rubbish? I've found my answer. I'll detach myself from it. I'll withdraw, engage with a different life I know is worthwhile and form attachments with the things and the places and the people that I find there. No one will listen (I won't shout). No one will care (only me). But I'll know I'm right. My revolution of one.

This year, I will refuse to buy from Amazon, but support my local shops. This year, I will spend  less time typing meaningless shit to anonymous Facebook 'friends', but spend more time at home, in the pub, on the footpaths with my real friends. This year, I will boycott all races organised by companies for profit, but enter more races organised by clubs for funds. This year I will explore the Time Inbetween. I will buy a radio for the kitchen and spend more time preparing food than dying slowly in front of a TV watching 'Come Dine With Me', 'Choccywockydoodar' and 'Ace Of Cakes'. I'll rediscover my vinyl collection and listen to LPs from start to finish, lying on the sofa in the dark. I'll read more books. I'll work less hard. I'll live life more slowly.

All of these. And something else.

Try as I will, I can't get the key into the padlock. I kneel down before the garage door, aim my headtorch beam in the right direction and try again. The whole lock must be frozen solid. I let myself back into the house, boil a kettle and creep back outside. The hot water frees things up and, eventually, I get to grab my bike.

Radford. My old friend.

The previous night's local news had predicted temperatures in the region of -8 degrees. It seems impossibly cold. Tammy had tried to talk me out of an early morning ride to work, but my mind had been set. It was a small journey I'd made many times before, each one a little different. The weather could only make this one more interesting.

I turn on the flashing red light and wheel Radford to the end of the drive. I rest him against the front gate and take a while to put on my gloves. I slide on the running gloves and slip them inside a pair of old ski gloves. Then I stick a tatty pair of over-sized mittens over the top. It's a tight fit. My hands are immobile, but at least they're warm. I set off down Rose Lane at a leisurely rate.

The gears had not been right since I'd gotten that new chain. It's always a good idea to change the back cassette at the same time, but James' Cycles didn't have one in stock. So, I'd limped around for months with 3 or 4 good gears and rest jumping all over the shop. Now I was down to one - it was all I could get. It had annoyed me at first, but time had made my heart grow fonder. Maybe it was a sign? Was Radford speaking to me? 'Take it easy,' he was whispering, 'Slow down.' He was right. One gear would be enough for this year.

You see the world differently when you're cycling. Roger Deakin, author of wild swimming classic, 'Waterlog', described the sensation of cycling as swimming on land. In both activities the body is supported, buoyant. At times, progress seems almost effortless. Whenever I'm cycling, I always vow to do it more. Inevitably, however, things slip. I don't journey on a bicycle like I do when running or walking, where a good deal of my trips serve no tangibly useful value. I never just go out for a ride - aimless, meandering, wonderful - like I do when on foot. To me, it's mainly a mode of transport - a means of getting from there to here under my own steam. I enviasge that's the way my journeys by bicycle will pan out in this year, but that's ok - I'm comfortable with that.

So, on a dark January morning, 5.20am, with snow and frost on the ground, reflecting the temperature of the coldest night for a year, I'm cycling to work on an old mountain bike that's only got one gear. Before the day becomes light and I arrive at Spilsby, I'd have already handed myself an extra hour's Time Inbetween.

For an experience to be life-affirming and satisfying, it doesn't necessarily have to be enjoyable at the time. Sometimes, an experience gives its rewards only in retrospect. A half-hour into my ride, all enjoyment has been sucked into the white light of my headtorch's glare and spat out into the dark sky. My feet are painfully cold. I try to wiggle my toes, to generate some heat through movement, but there's no response. My thumbs are freezing. I ease both out of their place in the gloves and tuck them under my palms. I rest my hands on top of the handlebars. They're useless now for anything apart from steering. I can't even grip the brakes. However, they're warming up nicely. I just pray I don't have to stop suddenly.

Swimming down endless empty rural lanes, I'm soon in Spilsby. I kick up the final hill into town, site of a few pointless, but highly satisfying, races at the back end of last year, and minutes later I'm at work.

My mind's calm, but my body's in shock. I sit in the office for the best part of an hour. I sit, crouched over the portable heater, clutching a coffee mug, more for warmth than sustenance. It's nearly 8 o'clock when I stop shivering.

This year will be a journey. A journey of journeys. A year spent in the Time Inbetween.

Each day I'll make a journey. Each journey will be powered by myself. Some journeys will have a use. Some will be a waste of everyone's time except my own. Some will be memorable. Most will be satisfying. All will be essential.

I'll make up my own definition. A trip in a car, a train, a bus, a plane is not a journey. Here, we are simply parcels, shunted from one destination to the next. Humans in boxes, transported with FedEx efficiency.

My journeys will have no room for Garmins, gels, sports drinks and i-pods. That space will be filled instead by appreciation of surroundings, an understanding of our place in the natural world, flights of my imagination, half-seen maps of memory.

I'll make journeys by foot, by bicycle, by kayak. For a year, the banks of the Lincolnshire drainage system will be more important that the banks of the City. A gliding barn owl will be more important than the Next Sale and yet another Apple update. A night in a bivvy on the Seabank will be more important than a 'treat' at MacDonalds and the latest 'Runners World' rehashed claptrap.

I'm leaving the bland and the mass-produced behind. I'm keeping a few paces behind The Jones. I'm stepping into a place that's too cold, too hot, too wet and too dry. A living place that's wild and unpredictable and amazing.

Each one of my journeys will be an act of detachment. Time spent outside, away from the incitements to produce or consume. Time spent outside, away from the ticking of the clock, the buzz of a text message and the Bejing smog of multi-media that threatens to hide everything that's real.

But whilst a journey may be an act of detachment, it is also a bold declaration of engagement. By turning my back on one world, I'll discover much more of another. By shutting myself away from the things I detest, I'll open myself up to the things I adore.

In detachment, I'll nurture attachment.

I like to leave the alarm off on a Saturday, but this morning was different. I'd run through the end of a day the evening before. As the night took over and I was forced to fumble for my headtorch, I'd stood for a moment on the top road from Well and looked upon the warm lights, beckoning fireflies, of Alford below me. Like glimpsing the streetlamps of Keswick on the descent from Skiddaw, its beauty, although artificial, was undoubted. Resisting the urge to run, like a moth, towards these candles in the darkness, I'd pressed ahead, up and over the dips to Rigsby, before joining the hidden tracks that led me home.

The weather forecast promised overnight snow. Having run out of one day, what better way to start the weekend than to run into another? I'd set the alarm for 6.

The morning's dark and still as I leave the house. The snowfall is light but persistent. My headtorch beam turns crystals into sparks. The snow underfoot is virgin, untouched. For the whole of this 7 mile loop, my footprints will be the first.

I run slowly and easily across the plough to the Thoresthorpe road and follow the field edge paths to the tight snicket between the bungalows at Bilsby. On through the village and onto Back Road without a soul in sight. I jog down the middle of the road, enjoying being alone in this. The cover of snow makes the dark sky glow grey. I turn off the torch, but quickly realise I need just a little more light, and so turn it on again. Even so, I can feel it. The day's starting to come alive. Startled rabbits scurry, dancing awkward quickstep to the morning's birdsong.

Random thoughts come and then go. Love letters are written, symphonies composed.

By staying close to nature, each run becomes a journey. Just as your own body and mind cycles in a state of flux - good days, bad days - it's the same with this living thing I'm running through. As I climb the stile to Mill Rundle Walk and head along the side of the dyke, I cast my mind towards the rhythms of the countryside. In a couple of months, the crops will be growing in these same fields. By April, the rape will be high, painting the county yellow. The harvest will welcome Autumn, the fields will be ploughed and the cycle will begin again. There's spirits in these hedgerows, these fields, these footpaths - welcoming ghosts silently witnessing my acts of communion.

Tarmac has no feelings. I think of runners who coccoon themselves on their 'outdoor treadmill', blocking out the beauty of what could be by sticking to the roads and pavements, blinkering themselves to what is with i-pods on their arms, headphones in their ears - androids wirelessly controlled by a GPS strapped to their wrists. Do they not know this exists?

I look towards the day ahead. I'll take the superheroes sledging at Well once I'm back, and then later we've old friends round for tea. It will be a simple day. The best kind.

I'm on the towpath to Tothby Hall farm when I turn off my light. A new day. Two horses in the corner look at me impassively as I pass. Dogs bark from the direction of the farmyard. Three birds fly in unison overhead.

By the time I'm on the last stretch by the Wolds Drift, I'm thinking of the corners I've yet to see, the things I've left to do. But, for the time being, they all seem less important than they were. For this place is me - it defines me, I'm a part of it. And these journeys I'm making - they're conversations with a best friend.

Sitting on the step, I ponder the year ahead. A revolution? I don't think so - a revolution implies hardship and struggle, and my year will see little of this. It's then I realise that the journey doesn't start now. It started long ago. I've walked the paths. I've chosen the forks I've wanted to travel down. I'm here because I want to be. I'm here because I'm meant to be. I've arrived. And now it's time to go further.

The day is bright now. The sun has risen. The next day.

I'll step away. 

The way the world is, and the way it's going to be. You can have it. I don't want it.

I'll step away, and keep walking until I've nothing left save the things I can't do without. My family. My friends. These journeys. And this place I call Home. 

1 comment:

  1. Lovely writing SJC. I recognise and echo your sentiments. I'll take your philosophy and PK's 5 answers and adapt them into my own circumstances, and I'll see you out there on the journey.

    The memory of the football is such a vivid one. At primary school, we had a high fence, beyond which (in those days) was a farmer's field. If your ball went over, you had perhaps a 20% chance that he'd find it and throw it back, otherwise it was gone forever. Us lads who played football every time we could all lost at least one ball (a football if you were lucky, a tennis ball more often) over there, and tears were shed each time.