Twenty Eight Days Later

 

Monday October 19th was a day like no other. Similar you could say, but uniquely different. As the morning news filtered onto the interfaces lighting up the screens and dinging the notifications, the nation roused itself to smell the coffee.


Covid vaccines were forecast for the end of the year. Trump's health was improving. Michael Gove had declared the door to the Brexit trade deal 'ajar', and Britney had set pulses racing with a sexy dance on instagram in a red halter top.




In the shower around 7.19am, I made the decision to stop watching listening or clicking on any news for a month. The Stoic deprivation thing was part of it. But it was more that I was going mad. My life had become a metronomic clickfest of newsfeed incontinence relieved by snatches of sleeping and eating.


BBC News Guardian FT BBC Sport ESPN Grazia YouTube BBC News Guardian FT Heat BBC Spo... Refresh consume excrete refresh consume excrete.


It was another thing too. The day before, I'd gone online and noticed every one of the two dozen articles on the homepage I was blinking at was about something terrible. Death, crime, poverty, scandal, corruption, racism, climate catastrophe, deadly virus.


Hand an extraterrestrial the morning paper and it'd be like these cats have fucked this place up good I'm out. It was the grimness of the headlines more than anything that made me stop to wonder if this relentless checking and informing and updating was doing my mood any favours at all.






In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker writes how contrary to what the media would have us believe, progress throughout the world in the last 150 years has been close to miraculous. Deaths in war have plummeted, extreme poverty has halved in three decades, the world has seen a mass decrease in starvation, domestic violence and child abuse are down, life expectancy is way up, there is 90% global literacy rate in under 25's, and the world is a safer place.


But journalism tends to cover what goes wrong rather than what goes right, what happens rather than what doesn't. Bad things, Pinker points out, are sudden and dramatic and occur on an idle Tuesday in May. An attack, a riot, a bomb blast. Good things are things that don't happen, incremental improvements such as children not starving, terrorism not taking place, nations not being at war.


As a means of survival humans are titled towards the processing of negative information. And the mainstream media obliges us because it keeps us reading. So the headlines are reserved for Sarin gas attacks and police brutality, spiralling infection rates and Kim Kardashian's butt-reduction, brought to us in real-time by a new army of video journalists, basically anyone with a smartphone.






I stepped out of the shower, somewhat purified, and got busy. I deleted the news apps on my tablet and set up some site blockers on my computer. Not owning a smartphone meant time in the street was free from temptation.


Leaving the flat that morning I felt the lightness that comes with the instinct of being kind to oneself. Outside all was as it had been. The traffic lurched and gargled, the last leaves trembled, the lollypop man on the crossing by the school smiled.


My first encounters were positive. Friends nodded in understanding, said they'd thought of doing the same, the lady at the checkout gave a look of earnest commiseration. It's all the same so dreary day after day yer doin a good thing.


But mid-morning at my desk when the site-blockers barred my way I was taken aback. What the hell was I supposed to do, how was I going to know things. The infection-rate. Had London gone into Tier 3. Was Donald on the mend. Keeping up to speed could be deemed more critical now, than say, on Jubilee Weekend.


What if I emerged from my flat 28 days later and the streets were empty, the shops boarded up, just a harsh wind beneath a birdless sky, and the world was unrecognisbale. What if we were top of the league with two games in hand.





I began to sniff out clues for signs of the pandemic, the sirens in the air, the number of masks, the degree of crestfallen countenances. I glimpsed a news board one night cycling through central with the words Isis in Vienna written large on it. In the back of a taxi I heard something muffled about Macron addressing his people. From the bowels of my laptop a video emerged of a concerned-looking Boris behind his wooden lectern and I closed it down immeditely.


I perfected an appropriate level of concern facial expression, a grin and bear it brow-furrow, and a shrug of humorous resignation, hoping that would cover all the bases. So if I got chatting to a stranger they wouldn't clock I had absolutely no fucking idea what was going on.


The churning news cycle was a conversation I had been left out of and I felt dumber for it. But also calmer, like I was the guardian of my own secret, of the things going on around me. Instead of drawing in on myself, I felt pushed outward. Like a great gulp of mountain air.


I noticed time more, there were now pauses between things. I could break from a task without going all bbcsporguardiayoutubeholebleughh, I would sit there, stare in the fridge, do some jigsaw. My brain began to refocus, my attention span spread its wings.


Outside there were sounds, strange shifts in air currents, winter's creep, the harsh brick of St John's against my hand. I found allies in the things headlines meant nothing to, the building cat, the enormous planes of London fields, the wide-eyes staring out from prams. I began to feel a little as they were always, present in my surroundings.




On the off-chance I might leave the house one day and get tased and airlifted to a bunker by the World Police, I told my mother to text if lockdown happened. I forgot about the US election entirely. I was on a roll. What else could I give up that required being alone in the flat with decent wifi.


Two and a half weeks in, the country went into nationwide lockdown. The same day the election results came in. I'd gone down to Devon with a friend, a US politics obsessive. As he relayed the headlines from his smartphone in real-time, I heard an exotic language that needed careful enunciating back to me. Jow-Bye-Dun you say. But a short sharp hit of news was thrilling. I felt part of the crew again.


Was it unethical, was it my duty to keep informed. If news and politics were part of the culture I lived in and I wasn't engaging in that culture, was I abusing the freedom I took for granted to live in a democracy. What about the men and women affected by job losses and insufficient furloughs, was my no-news experiment mocking them. 


When every government decision had a direct impact on mortgage payments, covering rent and buying food, was taking time off from the headlines nothing more than proof of privilege. Or would the world spin on regardless, whether I kept up to date or not.




With all the fun happening the other side of some impenetrable forcefield, I began to relish my separation. It wasn't that I'd found something new, more that I'd got back something I'd lost. I was a 90s kid with a pre-internet brain and I was unlearning habits that were so normalised I'd stopped noticing how unbelievably weird they were. 


It turned out that this compulsion that had swallowed up two hours of my day, easy, I didn't miss at all. The moments that filled me up I still had access to, an autumn walk, a book's depth, a talk with a friend. And I literally felt cleaner, I understood why the word detox implied the removal of some poison.


With only the world in front of my face for company, I decided to write my own headlines. I smiled at everyone like a moron, even through a mask, held-up supermarket checkouts with platitudes, sprained my elbow holding doors open, fist-bumped the lollypop man, left a tin of biscuits for the dry-cleaner, engaged in pretty much every tiny human interaction I could, and saw goodness come my way.


Eventually it came around.


Twenty seven days in, on the eve of my reinitiation, I was pumped. Had Trump died. Were Tottenham top of the league. Was the pandemic now a scamdemic, was everything still a mess. I deactivated the site blockers and began to click and refresh and click some more, and somehow nothing had changed at all.


A new president, the pandemic still there or thereabouts, Spurs second on goal difference. But nothing much had happened. Not really. Just ever-changing details in an unrelenting cycle destined to endlessly repeat itself. 


I'd been here before. I found myself very aware of how this was merely the latest iteration of a sequence which would change tomorrow and the day after and if I checked now or next week it wouldn't change the core of me. I didn't have to know. I had stepped off the edge of something.




Straight away the headlines brought a sinking feeling, and I picked up a book, ashamed of my denial, dimly aware it would be impossible to keep ignoring the news, and wary of the slow-spiral that would inevitably lead me back to where I'd started, a lump of media-gorged non-attention.


Sitting with my feet up one night watching The Fellowship Of The Ring, an answer came. Exhausted and emotional, Frodo looks into the foreboding dark of Moria and sighs. I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Turning, Gandalf fixes his eyes kindly on the little hobbit and murmurs. So do all who live to see such times. 


But that is not for us to decide.




The news cycle was the stark evidence of a suffering world. 2020 was a year like no other. I wish none of this had happened. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. The news was going to keep happening whether I read about it or not. Pretending it didn't exist wasn't the answer, and relentlessly checking it wasn't either. 


There was another news cycle going on all around me that the media couldn't report on, tiny miracles beyond the pixelated glare bouncing off my retina that required my attention. The myriad pockets of time in my day, the little windows of pause. How would I spend them, what would I make of them. How would I remember them. All I had to decide was what to do with the time that was given to me.


In Filth It Will Be Found

 

This is the trouble with it all. By the time you realise there's a problem, it's too late. It has its tentacles wrapped around you so tight you can't breathe. And you wonder how the hell you got here.


I remember it clearly. The moment I found myself, slowly and deliberately, wiping down the inside of the bin-liner. Bro, said my brain loud and clear, this is a bin-liner. It's for rubbish. You don't have to clean it. But it was fresh in that morning, what was I going to do, look at the ragù coating its insides for the next three days. I couldn't handle that. Again my brain waded in.


Mate it's a fucking bin-liner.


It was the moment that made me reassess things. To take a step back and a deep breath in and wonder what wrong turns had brought me to this place. As I stood there on that idle Thursday limply holding the sponge-cloth, staring down at the ragù juice smearing the inside of the bin, a question began to form in my head.


How the hell did you end up here.




Hitler was an extremely orderly person, obsessed with cleanliness. When he came to power he embarked on a campaign to 'beautify the factories', planting flowers outside and ridding them of vermin with an insecticide. After the factories came the mental hospitals, the gypsies, and the rest. 


His disgust was such that in recorded conversations he would refer to the people he exterminated as insects and rats and parasites. The insecticide was called Zyklon; its sister Zyklon B was used in the concentration camps. Disgust is a very strong emotion.


The thing I feared most as a child was a J-cloth. The way the crumbs festered inside the folds by the sink, damp and rank and cold. I hated them. I hated ash trays. The touch of leather gloves. A photo exists somewhere of me aged five posing four feet away from my brother and two cousins. It was the gloves. I couldn't even spell my own name and here in the grains of an old photograph is evidence of an OCD in full swing.





I could fold my school uniform with eyes closed. I had a special money bank that divided coins up into little trays and I would sit there Gollum-like counting them in the corner. My favourite shop wasn't Hamleys, it was Ryman. At boarding school mates would move my books off their axis to bait me and I would laugh along like it was no big deal, and as soon as they left I'd realign them.


Ask my exes about my prowess in the bedroom. I can make a bed to within an inch of its life, I have palms like sheet irons. 64% of the students at art school were dyslexic and I had an identity crisis because I could spell and owned a sodastream and knew where everything was in my backpack at all times.


Maybe I evolved the necessary order to combat my brother's chaos. We lived together in our twenties and had some run-ins about fairy liquid and who should pay what for the cleaner. When I came back one night to find he'd stripped my bed and was in flagrante making use of my sheets in the next door room, I took it as a compliment. All I could think as I lay there on the cold bare mattress was what kind of spin cycle to use the next morning.


Look I'm not exactly Howard Hughes.






My flat isn't the White Cube gallery. I own things and keep them on surfaces. I don't oblige you to take your shoes off at the door. Spill something on the carpet and I won't start hyper-ventilating. I have this thing where I'll make the bed and throw something on it in a haphazard manner. A strewn jumper here, a tossed scarf there. It's laid back and spontaneous.


But is it necessary to jump gibbon-like from the shower to the bath-matt to not spill a drop of water on the floor. What's my problem. What chaos in me requires this round the clock vigil, keeping the fires of order burning to ward off the dark, fighting past trauma with Mr Muscle Advanced Power Kitchen. Being a clean freak isn't exactly fun. Making beds, sweeping up crumbs, trying to mask it all with a casually flung scarf.






Carl Jung often cited an alchemical text which read in sterquiliniis invenitur. Translated from the Latin it meant 'in filth it will be found'. Jung believed the darkest parts of our subconscious were hidden from us - The Shadow - and the path to actualisation was into this darkness. What we most need to seek, he said, can be found where we least want to look. 


As I stood there sponge-cloth in hand, watching the ragù drip down the inside of the bin, I wondered what lurked in my Shadow self, and how much it had a hold on me. Around me dust particles floated glinting in the sun's light and something spoke. Go towards the filth.


It was deeper than I'd imagined. I learnt my control was about fear, and I was scared shitless. In the same way my brother didn't really see mess, I saw mess where it wasn't really there, in the same way I saw threat where it wasn't really there. And what I feared most of all were my own emotions, waiting in the shadows to swallow me whole.


When I went to the same restaurant over and over again, I wasn't dripping the assured cool of a man who knew what he liked. I was suppressing the fear of encountering a new menu. Going to the same coffee shop. Watching the same film. Mapping the same territory. All of it was part of the same safety net. Fear of the unknown and a world out to get me, finding peace in what I already knew because it couldn't hurt me. 





Perhaps acute clean-freakery comes down to calm. Wipe the surfaces, sweep the crumbs, plump the cushions, charge the appliances, quiet the chaos in your heart with order as you wall yourself off from the world, as the control you require squeezes tighter and tighter until you're strangling yourself with the hose of your own hoover.


*


The Taoists had something to say about all this. The yin yang symbol meant dualism, how contrary forces were in fact complimentary. They thought the line to tread was between order and chaos. Between the known and the unknown, the mapped and the unmapped. Not too much of one nor too much of the other. Chaos needed ordering and order required some messing up. 


According to them, your outside environment and your internal equilibrium were the same thing. You were the spotless kitchen counter and the teeming bathroom closet. There was no distinction between the two. Physicians of Traditional Chinese Medicine would pay a visit and observe the state of your home before diagnosing you.


I feel like my life could do with a light sprinkling of chaos. 


I could leave some mugs in the sink I suppose, drip more water on the floor. So when my cleaner comes she actually has something to do. But when duster in hand she tells me of Colombian white magic and how we live out prewritten destinies and helps me understand the mind of women, I'm happy. Escúchalas, Domingo, no hace más falta que escuchar niño.


Speaking to myself and fellow order-obsessives, watch what happens when you break the code. When you take a risk and open a new door and begin to map the unmapped, and find something out about yourself and the world. 


Before you know it you're sat outside the coffee shop you walked past everyday and never went into wiping the froth of a cappuccino off your top lip feeling like a fucking Conquistador. Order brings calm but who wants calm, calm waters good sailors do not make. 


Children know the secrets of filth. Every day they seize a new world, a new chance to go exploring and run amuck. We want kids as filthy as we can find them. For their microbiome to be as rich as possible. In filth it will be found, they know it somehow, we knew it once too.






And so they ran roll-sleeve seekers, bounding, squelching puddle-jumpers swilling, woods the woods, hunters, earth-fingered, buzzard bees mud-knees, trudge sludge slip hands earth-return nails stick stack hoot roots worm root trickle fall the muddied hurry beating heart aching heart hurry!


The beauty! The beauty!


On Beauty And Awe


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 based on 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.





Pull A Fast One On Me


Bad tempered clouds were moving across the sky as I woke on the morning of Monday 27th July. The sun looked more like a search-light in a sandstorm. Right kind of weather, I figured. A calm determination was in me, an end-of-an-episode Hannibal kind of calm, confident my plans would come together.


Eight hours into a 72 hour water fast and I was ready.





I went to the fridge, opened it and swore. It had taken four seconds to forget, and a split-second for it to dawn on me the next few days were going to get extremely weird. I looked over at the coffee machine in the muted light of the morning. Fuck am I supposed to do now, I wondered.


I made myself the only breakfast available, sodastreamed some tap water, took it over to the sofa, sat down and drank it in one. It was unsatisfying. As I felt my stomach drum its cutlery on the table I growled and went back for a refill.


*


A three day water fast means consuming nothing but water for three days. 


In the strange way one is drawn to things and one doesn't really know why, I found myself reading about water fasts recently, and a blend of curiosity and boredom and spending a fair bit of time alone in my flat, I thought it was as good a time as any to try it out.


Fasting is nothing new. There is evidence that our digestive systems are better evolved for a delayed eating pattern than for 3 square meals a day. Hunter-gatherers would eat only when they could find food, which meant going without for up to 36 hours. And we were them for far longer than we've had supermarkets, which supports the claim that eating whatever we want whenever we want isn't altogether what our guts are crying out for.


12 hours in


The first few hours of Monday passed uneventfully. Traditionally when fasting for religious purposes Christians would use mealtimes to pray. Instead of breakfast I took a bath, gave myself a haircut, sunk another glass of water and sat down at my desk. I did this semi-successfully until around lunchtime.


I jazzed up my lunch with some ice cubes and read for a while. Around 3pm I started to get extremely cold, and an hour later my head started to pound, badly. Unable to focus on writing I cut my losses and finished the Notebook.




I then pulled out a jigsaw I'd been ignoring for five years and made a start on it. Which was confusing, since I hadn't gone near a jigsaw since I was twelve. Still freezing I had another bath and psyched myself up for dinner. Two glasses of tap water, sodastreamed.


I called it a night around nine in the throes of a biting headache. As I lay in bed I noticed something strange: I hadn't felt hungry all day. Which was also confusing, as if the mere fact of being mentally prepared to go without food had made the hunger I assumed was inevitable dissipate into thin air. 


What did this mean. That all those times I'd had a hunger meltdown and been a twat about it, all along I was making a scene about nothing? I was staring at proof that the human body, at least my human body, could go without food for way longer than I thought possible without even a squeak.


36 hours in


I slept badly and woke up very cold with my head still pounding. I caught myself in the mirror on the way to the bathroom and thought, of all the birthdays I would remember this was definitely going to be the weirdest. 


In the Bible fasting was meant to be a thing between you and God, and it encouraged keeping the fact of your fasting to yourself. I liked this idea, so I fielded a couple of birthday calls from my family without letting on how bad I felt or what I was up to, and took a pint of water over to the sofa lacking the energy to do anything more productive with my morning than this. 





The funny thing was that on a normal day by around lunch time I'd be getting pissed and probably quite aggressive that I hadn't eaten. But because food wasn't an option the need to fill my stomach never materialised. It didn't even enter my head. It was as if food was something I felt only a vague sort of indifference to.


At the same time a kind of excitement was bubbling in me, a kick that came from depriving myself in the aim of some higher goal, testing limits never hitherto tested, striding head first into unchartered realms, just me and my buddy H20.


It didn't last. At three I went for a walk around the hood in a terrible mood. I was knackered and my first hunger pang in 44 hours had blindsided me. It depressed me to think in my state most of the high street was now off-limits, and depressed me even more to realise my life pretty much revolved around buying shit.


I got home, found an article endorsing black coffee during a fast, ignored the fifty others I'd read which didn't, and flicked the switch on my coffee machine. I dropped a Solpadeine into a glass to attend to my headache and sat back and sang myself happy birthday.




45 hours in


Perhaps it was the caffeine or the sweet lick of codeine in the painkiller, but half an hour passed and I felt the mists beginning to clear. The coffee had gone down like a sunset at Cafe del Mar and as I sat back my headache began to retreat and a light but palpable energy began to surge quietly through me.


I started to feel incredible.


46 hours in


My new mood was gathering pace. I was amazed. Without so much as a pea for two days this was the best I'd felt in months. I'd read about the side-effects of fasting and wasn't sure what to believe. But this was something else entirely.


The numbing pain in my skull that had accompanied me for the last 34 hours had gone, and been replaced by a mountain spring of good feeling. I was my old self but on an extremely good day, clear-headed, fleet of foot, eagle-eyed and razor-sharp, I was a predatory animal zeroing in on the kill.


Not knowing when or how the next meal would arrive, early humans learnt to thrive when fasting. The depleted body would release a chemical called Norepinephrine which amped up energy, alertness and focus, all things that were needed for a successful hunt. Same reason I was now absolutely smashing my jigsaw.


Meanwhile my body was going into hyper-repair mode. 48 hours in, ketosis and autophagy were happening; my body was digesting old crappy cells and producing new ones, insulin sensitivity was rocketing, blood pressure was going down, cancer suppressing genes were activating, and I could see like a hawk.




50 hours in


I lay in bed that evening rushing my tits off. Special edition endorphins were coursing through me, I was tingling and felt light as a feather, as if tiny muted explosions of energy were fizzing and popping all over my body. If this was a drug I'd buy it in a second. I listened to music in the dark for an hour and felt amazing, present and content and peaceful.


60 hours in


The last day was more of the same. I went for a walk, wrote all morning with a rare clarity and no lapse in concentration, had a wobble around three when I felt faint, and counted down the hours until dinner. I almost considered doing a fourth day but an Egg McMuffin ad appeared suddenly at the start of a video and screwed me over.


As the clock ticked down and I inched my way ever closer to the finish line, I felt a strange soup of mixed feelings. I was definitely up for eating something, but really only out of habit and curiosity, since even now after almost three days my body still wasn't crying out for food. And there seemed a strange sadness about bringing this peculiar state of deprivation to an end. I can't really explain it, but the whole process had felt both exhilarating and meaningful, and now with normality about to be resumed I was having to wave goodbye to all that.


72 hours in


Doctors recommend breaking a fast of that length with something very easy on the stomach like fruit or vegetables, or a light protein like tuna. I weighed up my options, and broke it with a beer in the bath. By the second sip I was off, I sat back in the water and breathed in deeply and felt a happiness reign supreme.






The Dynastic Egyptians were into it, the Ancient Greeks joined the party, Socrates and Plato wrote about it, every religion still practices a form of it, and as long as you have food enough in the first place to consider abstaining from, then I would say have a go. I loved it.


How did it make me feel.


It felt like an adventure, one I entered into with only the eyes of God (and my girlfriend) on me, in my own company, without changing my environment. But still like stepping into an unknown and finding something out about myself and returning with a new understanding and a story to tell.


By the end of it, seventy two hours and zero grams of food later, I'd felt mild hunger no more than twice. In a bunch of ways it was a reset button. Surviving without the things you think you need resets your understanding of what you take for granted. That maybe the certainties in your life aren't so certain after all, and could stand some interrogation.


In all I lost about two kilos, mostly water weight. What I found most remarkable was how much my body benefitted from not eating, when for so long I'd had ingrained in me the idea that food was fuel and without it our engines splutter and die. Having said that, towards the end the mere thought of a deep red tomato sprinkled with sea salt and cracked black pepper had me drowning in a mouthful of my own drool.


It was a reminder too that to go without the things we take for granted can reset our appreciation for them. Food, a pre-Covid world, a love you suddenly get scared you might lose. The world has a funny way of revealing itself whole to us only in our rear-view. It was a lesson in noticing the things around me and paying attention to them, above all a reminder to grab hold of the things we love and hold on tight whilst proffering our whispered thanks up to the sky.



Ice Cold Wizardry


When I am old and beaten down by my years I will raise a smile and remember the time my uncle took me to discover beer. For five days we had walked the entrails of the Swiss Alps and now, at the end of the last and most difficult day, outside a mountain hut in the shadow of the Matterhorn he announced it was about time for a drink.


The glass was set down before me and as I peered into the golden squall with eyes narrowed and watched the waterfall of tiny bubbles rising up towards the head, I was afraid. After all this was beer, and I was eleven. Never before in my life had a beer been intended solely for me.


Inured to the mountains around me I zeroed in on the glass and raised it to my lips. The liquid washed over my tongue and into my gullet and somewhere in the bowels of an undiscovered darkness a flame was lit. I took down my first ever beer in two gulps.






Later, in the lengthening shadows of my teenage years my mother would frown and shake her head as I approached the breakfast table blurry-eyed and puffy-faced from the previous night's excesses. We come from a long line of professional alcoholics, she barked, you better bloody watch out.


I knew back then what I know now, that her fears were misguided. Because for me it was only about the moment. In the mists of an eight pint marathon, in the pause between the second and third sip of the opening drink, the moment would reveal itself. A coming together of man and beer and time immemorial. An inchoate idea of the pointless repetition of everything and the beauty of this and on account of it, a deep contentment to be alive.

*

In 1942 an old man sat in the hilltop village of Tricesimo having a moment. Another man approached him with a proposal, to which he consented. Che al mi dedi di bevi, mi baste he said in old Friulian dialect. 'Enough to drink is all the payment I need'. The man with the proposal was the owner of a brewery, the old man became the face of Moretti the renowned Italian beer, and the moment was fixed in time.






As I moved into my twenties the pint-swilling of youth died down and the quality of what I drank began to exceed the quantity. Maybe it was an understanding that the moment came fairly early on and then vanished, and that any pint past number four added no value and was an unhelpful amount of liquid to have in your system.


For six months I lived in Paris and there I learnt restraint and class. To Parisians a drink was more a footnote than the be-all of an evening, I saw how it was possible to sit with an empty glass and not have a panic attack, I found out first hand how the skulling of une pinte in ten minutes was roundly considered une folie


But our local supermarket was well-stocked and in the aisle one evening I came face to face with the Trappist beers of Belgium. Leffe, Chimay, Grimbergen, these names produce a reverie in me like birdsong and the smell of freshly fallen rain.


I would sample a new one each week, gradually adapting my taste buds to the more nuanced flavour. And then one day came the revelation of beer and nuts together, a watershed moment that arrived like the fulfilment of some destiny. Jean-Claude Van Damme's 'mouvement perpétuel'.






The Sumerians started the party in 4000BC. The Cistercian monks carried the torch through the Middle Ages. In 1751 Hogarth drew 'Beer Street'. A century later Hardy described an ale 'full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang, luminous as an autumn sunset'. And at last in 2011, came a whisper on the wind, a spark to the flame of the bonfire.


Every drinker through the ages must have thought they were sampling the sublimity of beer. They were wrong. For just under a decade ago, the giant leap for mankind was taken. The honeyed hops, the fizz that crackled, the hazy condensation on the side of the glass like dew on a spring morning, the craft beer revolution had arrived. 





The pissy beers of the noughties receded into the distance and made way for the new kids. Carling, Becks and Numbers became Brewdog, Beavertown, and Sierra Nevada. The format got a makeover. The 440ml can was jettisoned in favour of 330ml, a nugget of ice-cold wizardry that fit in the palm of your hand like a daydream. 


The crafty was born.


And so was my alcoholism. In my teens I envisioned being the guy who had beers chilling in his fridge at all times. But for a man obsessed with finding the moment, the invention of the crafty threw up some problems. The crack of the can, the feeling as it touched my lips, I realised I could have my moment at home, whenever I desired. 


I threw out my greens and cranked the fridge to optimum beer-chilling temperature. And an idea sidled up to me silently; it was always the right time for a crafty. To celebrate, to mourn, when I was pumped, when I was blue, when things were going great, when I wanted things to go better. Was I out of control, I couldn't tell.


I still can't really.




A Lithuanian builder Rom, a man of deep winters and cheap vodka, taught me once the key to a hangover was a beer as soon as you woke up. Just one, no more than that. And I tried it a few times, and it worked. But it also struck me as a dangerous place to dwell. Like there was something sinister in it.


Maybe my mother was right, perhaps I should've been wary of alcohol. At some point for sure it stopped being an adventure, and became a place I recognised, like getting in an elevator and knowing which number to press. And the dawning realisation that if something terrible were to happen to me, I don't know if I might not consider it a refuge.


But I'd tell you my weakness wasn't for the alcohol. It was for the crafty. That 330ml nugget. The moment. If the can wasn't chilled to perfection I wasn't touching it. Hand me a normal beer and I might hand it back to you. If an off-license was fresh out of crafties I wasn't about to pick up a few Coronas, I was leaving empty-handed. There was a method in the mania.





The world isn't an unlikely place to want to escape from. And there is an unknown in a drink, an oxygen, a door that opens to a new room. Every time I cracked a cold one I stepped into that unknown. I tried giving it up once, but it was a lesson hard-learned.


I've watched the old men in France congregate in village bars at 9am for a demi. In an East End boozer one afternoon I saw six men deep in conversation, each with a drink, each sitting at their own table, shouting across the room at each other.


My uncle Carlos would wait for his family to leave the Estancia and then he would go and sit on the terrace looking out over the Pampa with a drink, and would toast their departure. He told my old man it was his favourite pastime.


*

So here we are.


A man walks into a pub and approaches the bar. It isn't yet busy but has the feeling of a room warming up. He clocks the barlady and motions to one of the taps and smiles. She tilts the glass and flicks the tap and the hazy liquid washes down into it, he turns and with his back to the bar looks out across the room.


The night ahead promises all the excitement of the unknown, but he knows this is it. The mountain top. This is the solo-sharpener, the peace before the maelstrom, when there is no need to talk, only to stand there in some idle thought, in the moment.


One man and his beer. He takes the pint in his hand and lifts it, then lifts it further, making a motion with the glass through the air, in a toast, to someone or something only he knows. Then he drinks.



Simply Not There



Piano music plays softly as a man in underwear walks through an immaculate apartment. His environment drips clean lines and control. His body is expertly developed, Mediterranean brown and muscle bound, but tastefully.


He lists off his skin routine. 


Deep-pore cleanser lotion. Water-activated gel cleanser. Honey almond body scrub. Exfoliating gel scrub. A herb-mint facial mask. Aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol. Moisturiser, anti-ageing eye balm, final moisturising protective lotion.






I believe in taking care of myself, with a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning if my face is a little puffy, I'll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now.


A few decades later in an alternate reality, ambient house music plays as a man in underwear walks through an immaculate apartment dripping clean lines and control. His body is expertly developed. A voice oozes over the top of the video.


I do today what people aren't willing to do, so I can do tomorrow what they can't. I take a cold shower instead of coffee, it wakes me up instantly and is good for my skin.




He likes to starts his day off with a win, rising at 5am to outwork his competition.


I hate running and I hate morning work-outs. I do both.


Building one brand is nearly impossible so having five is insane, he admits. To aid his concentration, he chooses from two expensive wrist watches. His laptop is cased in Italian leather. His apartment looks like a boutique hotel, he drives a super car.




The first man is a serial axe murderer with borderline personality disorder, the second is a self-proclaimed CEO of five companies who just turned 24. One of them is a fictional character, one is not. This is their morning routine. 


As I sat there staring at my laptop screen watching Jose Zuniga exercise, shower and dress in slow-motion it became apparent the spirit of Patrick Bateman in 2020 was alive and well.




By the time Jose had sat down for lunch and cracked a can of zero calorie tangerine & strawberry San Pellegrino to begin working his way through a chicken caesar salad while explaining how eating clean is something he lives by because as he always likes to say, health is wealth, I began to feel physically ill.


I figured my revulsion was down to how ridiculous it all was, how staged and bland, the sociopathic narcissism of Jose's routine. The slow-motion, the six-pack, the steam rising up from the cold shower. But looking harder I realised it was something deeper, something in me.


Jose and I were the same person.


Staring into those deep brown eyes concealed behind designer sunglasses, I saw me staring back. As he sat there at lunch outworking his competition, planning his next 'win', Jose was the embodiment of every time I'd been in complete control of my life. What made me feel sick was the acrid reminder of how totally empty it felt to feel that good. To be that in control.




I don't have a six-pack or drive a super car, or have 1.2m instagram followers, but my life at times has felt like a never breaking wave moving gently along a silvery shore. Times when I was on a roll and my shirt felt crisp on my skin and things were full of possibility, and I'd go into an expensive deli and sit down to eat a fresh salad and sip sparkling mineral water. And the clean lines of the deli and the crunch of the raddichio would mirror my inner peace. 


And I would hate myself. 


The veneer of wellbeing would float away and just below the surface I would hear the gurgle of fear and self-loathing rise up inside. Like that level of wellbeing could only make me feel dirty. And this happened without fail. As if I could never warm to my life when it was trying to convince me how well it was doing.






Being alive is a bit crap.


It's not wrist watches and super cars and light bouncing off your abdominals. It's a string of disappointments and regrets that come packaged together in a cloud of doom as you lie in bed at night thinking back over each wrong turn.


Most mornings I wake up wondering how I'm going to mess up or who I'll disappoint or what thing will expose me as a fraud while I wade through a quagmire of shrunken socks and empty promises. I don't really trust anyone who won't admit their life is a disaster. 


Nobody wants to hear how you made slow intense love to a supermodel. Keep telling people how well your life is going and they will stop relating to you. I don't trust Jose because in my own small way I've been there. I cracked the San Pelli, I tasted the raddichio.


You could have a mirror in your office which says LOOK AT YOURSELF THAT'S YOUR COMPETITION but there's still someone out there with more followers and better abs and you'll stain your chinos and lock yourself on the shitter and some old dude with a red backpack will ruin your engagement photo.





The Taoists believed the right place to walk was the line between order and chaos. Too much of one was detrimental to a balanced life. The way they saw it chaos needed ordering and order required some messing up, but to be on one side of the divide was bad news.


I'd say my life is mainly chaos with a light sprinkling of low-calorie order. But I feel something when I'm a mess, when I'm battling with the world and my emotions. Like I'm contending with what it is to be alive, rolling my boulder up a hillside, bearing the weight of my cross. I don't feel that when I dupe myself or whoever else into believing my life is fantastic. All I feel is smug. And then empty.


Watching Jose go about his day was a lightbulb moment. The closer I was to that type of control the more squalid I felt. The feeling of clean living, the wash of ice cold sparkling mineral water down my throat, all of it was looking outside myself. And that isn't where salvation lies. Ask Andy Dufresne.


Maybe this is less about living right and more about the masks we wear.






Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth, wrote Oscar Wilde.


But look at Instagram. I don't see an ocean of truth on there, I feel like the truth lives on the one side of the screen that nobody sees. Odds on the person whose life looks most together is compensating for something. Turns out Jose's apartment was a hotel lobby after all, and he'd rented his super car for the morning. We should fear the masquerade but the masked might be the most afraid of all.


Give a man too many herb-mint facial masks and watch what happens.





There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping mine and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable...



I am simply not there.