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 fucking 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.





These Things I Know



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 full of banter. 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.



Look Down At Your Screen



Last week i got deep and melancholic about how a youtube addiction had taken years off my life, ones i would never get back. But to say those hours of hard graft were in vain is to miss the mark. Old wisdom suggests what we most need to find will be found where we least want to look. And during those long hours of staring at a screen vainly searching for some elusive thing, what that was i'm still not sure - perhaps an escape from myself - i came across many magic beans strewn here and there along the path.


I feel like i've learnt as much about the human condition from watching youtube as anything else i've done. All of life is there. And when viewed in moderation it is a gift that keeps on giving. So in no particular order and with no particular theme, here are some of my all-time favourite youtube videos.



*


I THOUGHT YOU COULD DO A KICKFLIP


This one is short but so sweet. Some guy displays a range of mild anger-management symptoms skateboarding in his driveway. That split-second of rage you glimpse once he screws it up for the second time is golden. I'm always left thinking what else he got up to that morning.






THE PROPER WAY TO END YOUR FILM


I would have paid an insensitive amount of money to be watching this in the cinema as the credits rolled. Although perhaps this never made it to cinema. A mate pointed out they couldn't even afford the budget for a spring mechanism on his arm device, so he has to manually slide it down. And it's a flare gun.






EXTREME JAPANESE AUDIOPHILES


As an insight into different cultures and curious psychologies, this is up there. I mean there are weirdos everywhere, but this strikes me as an especially Japanese thing to do. Passion about anything whatsoever is about the coolest thing i can think of.






WOAH.... WHAT?


How was that party the other night. An ad for a campaign against sexual violence.






I DON'T NEED TO BELIEVE


Jung being asked about his thoughts on God.






KATE METAL MOMENTS


There are two sisters called Kate and Audrey who live in Nagasaki in Japan and they're nuts about heavy metal. The older one Audrey is a next level guitar player. And the younger one Kate is a total force of nature and i'm obsessed with her. 






WEATHER BOY


A news reporter investigating fireworks gets his ass handed to him.






JUST EXTRAORDINARY


A DJ of severely questionable music readies himself for the drop in a pre-rehearsed sequence that must've taken five lifetimes to dream up, and then all hell breaks loose in more ways than one. I think this is my favourite clip ever.






KICK HIS ASK


This one is up there too. A little girl telling her mum about monsters coming out of the tv and her plans to defend herself. Watch her mind whirr as she tries to figure out why her mother is laughing. Monsters are a serious business. This girl is too much.







ELETROCUTED SQUIRREL GETS CPR BY KIND MAN


I put this one in because i referenced it in the serious youtube post. This was the kind of thing i would watch when i was at my lowest ebb. The thing that made me feel even worse was that i was actually moved by it. At least i felt something i suppose.






BABY IN THE RAIN


A tiny girl has one of her first experiences with rain and it's beautiful. I also like this one cos the baby looks exactly like my mate Ceeborg.







DA FUGGIZ DAT


News reporter has a run-in with a bug, handles it like a pro.






HAPPY OF MYSELF


A young boy feels a new emotion for the first time and tells the world about it.






YEARS AGO...


Last but not least, Alabama rapper Marshall Pope goes off the top and strays into murky waters.







Look Up At The Sky



The wild elephants turn back to salute the men who have saved their baby elephant from the ditch. They raise their trunks aloft with wondrous grace in a moment between man and beast. I don't blink, hardly twitch. Lit by the glow of the laptop screen, my face shows no flicker of emotion. The video finishes and the next one begins to load. Electrocuted squirrel gets CPR by kind man. Unbeknown to me, the daylight has faded across to the other side of the earth and i am in darkness. I am lying on my bed in the fetal position, as i have been for three hours straight...



... watching youtube.







I don't know how long me and youtube has been a problem. 



The first chapters of all addictions are written in the pen of innocence. Mine started in the same way all others must, with a joy unforeseen. A music video with a new friend behind the sofa at some party one unending night of summer. An email in my inbox linking a highlight reel of Messi's greatest dribbles, coming in off the right wing, scything through tackles like water.



If i'm scrupulous i admit it started long before that, pre the age of internet. My parents didn't let us watch much television. My answer to this depravation it seems, whenever they were away, was to flick through the channels like a drone, hoping of landing on something which gripped my attention for any longer than the spilt second it took for me to glean, ignore, and plough onwards. Alone, i never watched anything for longer than two minutes. 



Years later i saw this interview with the writer David Foster Wallace, and it hit me deep.






Wallace fought a depression for most of his adult life that he succumbed to in 2008, aged 46. He suffered with different types of addictions, but said his primary addiction, as unsexy as it sounded, was to television. He was so afraid of watching it he couldn't have a tv in his house. Hearing this for the first time opened my mind to the idea that the youtube thing, as it moved silently along the forest floor of my impulses like a fox on his feet of silk, demanded a seriousness i was unwilling to give it.



Every addiction balances on the fulcrum of denial. The decline before the fall was coloured by an unawareness. I was unaware the habits i was slowly slipping into weren't okay. At first it was just weekends. I was single and lived alone, if i woke up hungover it would be easy for me to turn my back on anything productive or social. One weekend i became fascinated by the internal politicking of the WTA tennis tour. Another weekend it was American High School track and field. A man in Pennsylvania fashioned knives out of rusted wrenches. I was in.





There were times when i wouldn't communicate with anyone all day. It was isolationist, and repetitive, and hypnotic, i would sit entranced, swelling my command of thoroughly useless information as youtube gently weaved its spell on me, drawing me down deeper and deeper into its pixelated underworld. As one video finished another one on a similar topic loaded, suckering me in for another five or ten minutes. Half hours became hours became half-days. And outside my window the world whizzed on. 


*


A lot of people don't know how to watch youtube



I wouldn't know what to look for, my friend Milly once told me. Talking dog's unique bark helps him get adopted is good, i thought. I shrugged and said nothing. A system of recommendations based on previously viewed videos appear as if by magic at the top of your screen, which means the table is always laid. If you've been watching videos on the Anunnaki and ancient alien space-travelling civilizations, it's going to show you more of where you last left off when you next click on. Even when i wiped my recommendations, the subjects my dark side needed feeding on were etched already in my memory.



All that was left was to type them into the search bar.






To be addicted is to be completely at the whim of your impulses. Tick. To realise you are no longer in control of your decisions. Tick. To be aware that the behaviours you are undergoing are harmful to you, tick, are making you unhappy, tick, and in spite of this to repeat them nonetheless. Tick. I was losing control over my ability to not watch youtube, and in doing so i was losing days of my life i wasn't going to get back. But still somehow i didn't pay it the seriousness it deserved.



I did take a knife to my internet connection three times.






*


In 2007, back when i was at art school we were given a brief to go and do some Guerilla Marketing. To take something about the world we were upset about and use the urban landscape around us to be disruptive in. The idea was to give people a message we think they needed. I stayed up til 2am cutting out a set of stencils with a Stanley knife, i loaded up my backpack with spray paints and cycled through the darkness of the Witching Hour to go and leave my mark. The next day i went back as a sleep-deprived passer-by to watch people interact with it.


*


From just weekends, my youtube habit morphed into week nights and then during the day. Work deadlines were affected. Spending a lot of time alone in front of my computer, the slightest sniff of procrastination would send me spiralling into the depths and i'd emerge an hour later, all the wiser, constipated by information i didn't need to know.


Eating disorders are supposed to be so difficult because mealtimes mean the lion is let out of the cage three times a day. When most of our time is spent looking at screens, internet addiction means the lion never has a cage to begin with. It comes down to willpower and impulse control. Both of which are low on my list of virtues. Not having a smartphone or on any social media granted me a certain type of freedom, but it also meant all my wrath and self-loathing was concentrated into one place. Alone and in front of my laptop, i would make up for lost time.



I was acting out, youtube was my DOC.





"

We're going have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure. Because the technology is just going to get better and better, and it's going to get easier and easier, and more convenient and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that's fine in low doses. But if it's the basic main-staple of our diet, and i say this in a very meaningful way, we're going to die


"


David Foster Wallace





The strangest thing about the youtube thing is this.



When i was acting out, I couldn't watch anything that i enjoyed. I couldn't sit down for example and watch an hour long documentary about wine-making or the Pyramids of Giza. That was the truly pathological nature of it. I had to watch short clips, back to back to back to back, about absolutely nothing. 95% of everything i watched in the grips of my youtube habit didn't improve my life in any way. It was the American History X moment over and over again. Has anything you have done, made your life better.


This is all quite funny. The ridiculousness of it all, it's laughable. But maybe i laugh to keep from crying. Because if you take away the politics of the WTA and fashioning knives from wrenches and elephants raising their trunks aloft to thank the men for saving their baby elephant from a ditch, what you're left with is somebody alone in their flat, in the dark, willing unhappiness on themselves. In ignorance of the life going on outside their window they are walling themselves up against, in defiance of the light from the phone on the table beside them that is ringing and they won't answer.


Some poisons go to work more slowly than others. They hide in plain sight all around us, masquerading as tools to make our lives more accessible, more comfortable and more immediate. One day we wake up and they've wormed their way inside our minds, ossifying our imaginations, crowding our every moment. And before we know it without them we can't breathe.



I've got this, we tell ourselves, but they've got us. 







*


Wallace described the moment when we finally find ourselves alone, and the dread that comes with that, that comes to us when we have to be quiet. When you walk into public spaces these days, there is always music playing. It seems significant that we don't want things to be quiet anymore, he said. And this is happening now more than ever, when the purpose of our lives is immediate gratification and getting things for ourselves, we are moving moving moving, all the time moving.


At the same time there is another part of us that is the opposite. That is hungry for silence and quiet, and thinking very hard about the same thing for maybe half an hour or more, rather than just thirty seconds. Of standing and looking at the branches of a tree, or listening to the birds singing. And this part of us doesn't get fed.


And what happens is this thing makes itself felt in our bodies, as a kind of dread, deep inside us. Every year it becomes more and more difficult to ask people to read a book, or to listen to a complex piece of music that takes work to understand. Because now in computer and internet culture everything is so fast. And the faster things go, the more we feed that part of ourselves that needs something immediate, that needs instant stimulation, and we don't feed the part of ourselves that needs quiet.



The part of us that can live in quiet.



*






Brick Lane, 2007




This Morning



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
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 growing 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.




The Vine Of The Soul



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 DeadAyahuasca, 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 as if they had been recorded for me by a high tech production company.






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 such was the harmony and deep feeling of communion brought on by the medicine that this is what they now were to me - were each on their own journeys. Some gasped and gurgled and laughed giddily in the manner of young children, some cried softly in pain and 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 rage and darkness 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 paradise.






At one point, writhing in the darkness trying to contain the intense energy cursing through my body, clinging onto my pillow like a lifebuoy, i found my hand almost all the way inside my mouth, and i was sucking my fingers, drooling and laughing and crying and wretching simultaneously. It was joyous. Three days later i would come to the realisation that in that moment i was a baby, in that moment i was 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 as i interacted 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, i was 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 shatter it to pieces.






Why are you so hard on yourself. Why do you beat yourself up all the time. I'm not an arsehole. I'm a beautiful person. I don't have to beat myself up all the time. Is this real. Could i be free from this all. 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 all of it 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 was winding 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'll 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 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. For my part I learnt that i was lovable, that i am loved, that i can love.


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.