Thursday, December 30, 2010
'er, well, yes, i have been known to, though be warned i get a little silly sometimes'
'no worries dude! here, i grew this myself. have a suck'. and so i would take their psychedelic-painted glassware and inhale the homegrown until the cherry dropped through the filter and the road became as Allen Ginsberg would have it- beautiful, smooth, hysterical starving naked, and as grounded and cyclical as an mbira tune.
We would have huge, succinct and groundbreaking conversations as we drove south, and occasionally our eyes would meet in the rear-view mirror and the message was clear, and then sooner or later my ride would say 'so this is where i turn off... where do you want dropping?' and i would fall out of the car, clutching my bags with a stupid grin on my face and a bead of sweat on my forehead, and within a second have forgotten all but the most basic of messages.
but those basic messages were pretty pungent.
my second ride, just after i took a photo of a burnt out house that still had that sweet-sick smell of burnt hardwood, was a man in a knackered old volvo with a greying beard, who almost immediately launched into a tirade about how he had been unemployed for 18 months and the government weren't giving him the benefits he was entitled to. he said he was only going 5 miles down the road 'but do you like a little smoke? wanna come up the hill to my friends' place and smoke a bowl?'
the house was long and perched on the side of the hill, overlooking the road we had come off, a pig farm (the biggest recycler of waste food in Oregon), and the Cascade mountain range in the distance. The inside of the house was furnished warmly, if a little threadbare, and a few late-middle-aged country folk with beards and chequed shirts smoked and sat and talked.
When I get invited back to peoples homes when hitchhiking it is nearly always- no, always- by people without much money. Perhaps they have less to fear. (Khalil Gibran- 'Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?') And there comes a moment when they look at me, after the initial storm of friendship, where they ask me basically 'so who the fuck are you anyway?'. And after i show that i am not a snob, nor a voyeur, nor some rich college kid slumming it (though maybe i am all three), the truth of them, and to a good extent the society they live in, begins to boil the lid off the pot.
these guys, like tens of thousands on the west coast of america, are long term unemployed. living with relatives or friends, losing their pride, angry, frustrated, with just enough money to fill up their gas tanks and eat. these two had been welders, and when the recession hit their boss stripped the factory clean and sailed off in his yacht to mexico with the words 'i could keep the factory open but... why bother?'. bastard. in order for them to get state benefits they need to apply for 3 jobs a week, but the only jobs going are for things they have neither skills nor desire to do. they don't qualify for free healthcare because they earn 17 dollars a month more than the threshold, so this guy can't afford his diabetes medicine and the gov't won't give it to him free because they consider it a 'non life threatening' illness.
Another guy I who picked me up said his occupation was 'dealing drugs and repossessing cars'. The first bit is self explanatory, the second astounding: basically, loan companies give unemployed people a list of other unemployed people who have defaulted on their car loans and are hiding their cars so they aren't repossessed. On a commission only basis, the former seek out the latter, chat with their neighbours, call them up and pretend to be someone else to get their credit card details, spy outside their houses, until they find the car and grass them up to the company. Poor people turned on poor people for commission.
whilst waiting at a particularly dodgy junction (hitchhiking is a legal grey area should the cops come. being caned out of your tree is multicoloured but certainly cause for problems) a man with a forrest gump accent and buck teeth said hello. turned out he was a vietnam veteran and wanted to tell me that all politicians are 'freakin' liars'.
'what did obama lie about?'
'he promised free dental treatment to all veterans. we aint got it!' .
obama made a promise, and he didn't keep it, and thus he is a liar. forget pragmatism, to people only deal in politics when a canvasser comes hassling them at election time, a promise is a promise. this guy was as jobless as all the others i had met, only he had toothache too.
Of course, there were exceptions. I got a ride in a old old truck with a man who looked like the guy in the opening scene of disney's aladdin (the one with one tooth) who made enough money harvesting and selling mistletoe (door to door) to pay his taxes for the year. 'they love it' he said.
Another guy used to be the saxophonist for legendary zimbabwean musician thomas mapfumo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh09mGhTQhE) . He basically told me that if I loved music enough to want to be a pro musician i should DEFINITELY NOT become a pro musician, because it sucks the joy out of music and there are so many sharks...
but back to the house on the hill. they had no TV or cable- it had been cut off- but reasoned 'it is only bad news anyway'. a car drove up and honked its horn outside. it was an old friend who had come to pick up one of the ladies who was there 'whos that?' asked my ride
'oh, thats bob'
'why doesn't he come in and say hello?'
'he just honks his horn and stays outside. thats what bob does these days'. bob, i guess, had a job. the note of resignation was rich in his voice.
i had a sack of presents- pass the parcel- that i had wrapped and was giving to people randomly on the way down. I gave one to each of my hosts in that house, and as i left realised i had left the sack inside. I went in and almost bumped square in to a lady in a dressing gown. she looked drawn, was shaking, and clearly used to be very beautiful. i said hello and goodbye and she looked past me at the biscuit tin and said 'well,', and she paused for a moment, looking for the words. 'enjoy your travels', she said. there is no way i can describe the tone that she said this in, but if i was to pick apart those 20 seconds and 3 words i would have said that she had waited in her room for me and my friends to go. that she was addicted to crystal meth (sooooo many people are here. it is a insipid, highly addictive, cheap and gnawing drug). that she hated being stuck in a random house on the side of a hill. that she saw me as some kid who had never experienced what she had experienced and that the men i was with, for whatever reason, made her skin crawl. Yeah, i have described it pretty badly there, but i guess what i am trying to say is that the recession in america is so much more stark when you get behind the numbers and headlines and bickering in the senate and realise that many, many people are having their lives destroyed by these bastard, selfish, sub-human bankers. the environment is not immune either...
the nights i spent in my sleeping bag, in my survival bag, under various trees, just warm enough and just dry enough to enjoy my surroundings and sleep well. on the last morning i poked my head out of the bag to see a huge flock of birds in V formation flying towards the rising sun.
if you want to know a place, to know its people, the solution is simple: learn the language and go hitchhike. I mean it. It is 99.9% safe (if you are a girl by herself i am not sure but it has been done plenty). I cannot overstate how much I learn from it and confirm to myself over and over again that people are more kind, wise and wonderful than we are ever given credit for. but if you want to write a blog about it, perhaps stop saying 'why not?' after a couple of bowls...
Monday, December 27, 2010
I have a new answer to the question, 'Why do you smoke?', when asked gently and with the slightest intonation of mock incredulity from all sorts of well meaning people.
“So I can meet ex-soldiers in airport waiting rooms” is the new answer.
And in part, it is true. Yes, I am addicted, yes it gives me a perfect excuse to have 5 minutes break from everything else that may or may not be going on at that moment and collect my thoughts (Graeme gets the same effect by going outside and eating a carrot very slowly) and yes, smoking a lazy, fat, filtered rolly after joyous sex makes one feel a peaceful joy so clear and distilled one sometimes feels like buddha himself is sitting smiling on the cherry. But perhaps best of all, when outside pubs or in coach rest stops, or, as I was the other week, in an airport transit lounge with a poky, overpriced cafe for a smoking room and no local currency, smoking is nothing less than a passport for the comradly exchange of knowledge.
Stupidly I didn't notice his 'Blackwater' cap (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqM4tKPDlR8), just that he had a friendly face and there were no empty tables so I would have to break into the thoughts of one of these single men staring into space. The etiquette of striking up a conversation with sound people during smoke time can be complex. With less wise people (as a rule), they will either talk and talk if given the simplest prompt, or be too shy or suspicious to say anything at all. However, the most interesting people are neither verbose nor lack confidence, but may well be locked in their own thoughts that you have no right to disturb. One must, therefore, probe gently and thoughtfully, leaving enough silence for them to take the initiative if they want, and not asking the same boring questions, beyond the classic opener 'where are you headed?'
Middle to Aging men are the most difficult to crack. I guess they have seen too many egotistical young men ramming about like they are the first generation every to break free of their home town and ready to tell everyone about how extreme their lives are, or ask personal questions without cultivating a fertile bed of trust for them to be answered fully. The first salvo of politeness told that he was living in the Phillipines and on his way to Singapore for a few days. His accent was British, and he dressed like a man who dislikes airs and graces. To me this, and his greying hair but fit body, meant he either worked in the oil industry or used to be in the army.
Silence as we both sucked on our cigarettes and tried not to catch each others' eye, even though we were sat directly across a tiny table as though we were on a date. 'You working down in the Philippines then?'. This, on balance, was unlikely. 'No, I work away.' I hesitate. 'Doing what?' 'Security'. 'Ah, one of them'. I look at him as if I have met men like him before, which I have. Security, in this context, almost certainly means working for a private security company in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or another place where western companies are enforcing things down the barrel of a gun, with enough money to bring ex-military men out of retirement.
We sit in silence a while longer. My cigarette is finished and I get up to go, not wanting to show that I was there for anything more than a polite chat whilst doing the necessary business of smoking, but as I leave the smoking cafe I realise that I was so strained at being polite and wandering how to get the bottom of this man I didn't even enjoy the cigarette, and it would be a long time before my next one. So I went back inside and sat down again. It was as if he was waiting for me. 'Want a beer?' he asks.
3 beers and some chain smoking later we have established our bed of trust, first through rugby, then me by laughing at his vaguely xenophobic jokes and using what I know of the army to ask the right and respectful questions, him by implicitly showing he was well aware of the shitty state of the world and who was to blame, namely the capitalist system. He grew up in south shields (Near newcastle, about 150 miles from where I grew up) and had no choice but to go into the army (well, the other choice was to stay in a town slowly but surely collapsing in on itself as the docks and mines closed one after another). He was good at what he did and became a Marine (and justifiably proud of it). When he left the army there was nothing left for him in his home town except his mum; his friends had all left. He could settle somewhere else in England but where? Kent? We both laugh. So he moved to where the living was cheap and easy- south east asia. First Thailand and then, when he married a Philippine lady, the Philippines. He spends 8 months of the year working and his child is in Chinese school because it has 'good discipline'. Does he want his son to join the army? He would hate it if he did- it is a meaningless and hard life he says, being shouted at from when you wake up to when you go to bed by people you consider idiots, and lots of the time just sitting around scratching your arse. And unspoken is the bit about having to kill people you don't know and having them try to kill you. He wants his son to have a profession. Does he want to go back to england? No chance.
Here is a man that I can relate to just as well as a fellow activist, a fellow lefty musician or really anyone. I can respect him more than I do a well-meaning and intelligent woolly liberal, a regimented socialist or even some of the people I spend time with in London. Yet in terms of my world views and my lifestyle we couldn't be more different. Racism, prostitution and killing people- and risking your own life- on behalf of a western government or corporation I cannot condone and never would participate in. I had to laugh at jokes that weren't funny and say things that were only just truthful to keep the his confidence in me and the conversation alive. I wanted him to like me. A lot. In contrast, a lot of people I encounter, likely the majority, I couldn't give a floating shit what they think of me, not because they aren't nice people but because there is no reason to care, they can take me or leave me; I don't need them to validate me.
And this is kind of funny, though I was a bit too drunk to think about it properly on the long flight to vancouver. The SOAS crowd is wonderful, stimulating, loving and I feel superbly lucky to be a part of it, but sometimes when the real love ins happen, when the woolly jumpers are out and the food is delicious and the hugs last minutes and the love is being proclaimed in song and dance, something inside me curdles and a voice in me is shouting 'but what about all the people who can't have this? Who are being beaten down by the system every day and have been numbed and frustrated by a stupyfying mass media and the chasing dog of poverty? Doesn't this all feel a bit …. missing the point?'
And here again is a great moment to go outside and smoke a fag, but the question remains. When I go back to scarborough no-one wants to hear about what I am doing in London. Why would they? I know for sure lots of these guys would think what we do for fun in London is a bit lame and hippyish, whilst I know my friends in London would be uncomfortable, not to mention bored, getting hugely wasted, watching TV and causing trouble in Scarborough.
This has been proven more than once. A friend came down to London around the time of the climate camp in trafalgar square and was going to stay at my house. He is a totally amazing guy with proper northern working class values, one of them being that he speaks honestly and bluntly, and another is that once he starts drinking he likes to get very drunk. He had made it, with his girlfriend, to the 'wave' climate demo, but lost his girlfriend (who showed up at my house the next morning at 4am) and wandered to my house the next afternoon, having spend the night walking the streets of london in the pissing rain and eventually crashing out in one of the spare climate camp tents in traf square.
Nevertheless, it was great to see him, I showed him my Hackney locale and, as I was invited to a 'dinner party' at a friend from SOAS's house I brought him and his girlfriend along, a little nervous that they might not feel quite at home. At first my fears were proved totally wrong, as he talked and talked and people laughed at his jokes and everyone noted how delicious the food was and my other friends, whilst I think a little unsure of what to make of him, were well trained enough in the middle class art of politeness to keep everything running smoothly.
How about this for a way to define the class system in england in 2010 (fuck the 'how many sugars you put in your tea' business): when working class people have alcohol, they all chip in on a given night and then keep drinking it until it is finished. Middle class people, on the other hand, keep alcohol in their house 'in case' it should be drunk and I guess it is the done thing for the host of a dinner party to have more alcohol, and choices of alcohol, than she expects to get drunk.
As my friend, and his girlfriend, and me (partly in solidarity, partly because I began to feel I might need it) drank and drank and finished the wine and moved on to the whisky, an imperceptible change came over the party, a slight tension in the polite voices. He was dominating the conversation, I guess expecting that if someone had something to say they would interrupt him and that would be fine, but no one did, and his stories started to only attract silence to them, rather than laughter. It was time for some external stimulation, and I suggested we take the whisky and go to the canal.
We take the whisky and go to the canal, and now the canal air freshens our senses but keeps our intention. He asks 'Now, I wonder if anyone can tell me, we have just had a delicious meal in a beautiful house that, I am speaking honestly, I am jealous of, yet you guys decided to sleep last night in a shitty tent in the middle of trafalgar square, and for what? Can anyone explain this to me?' He meant it as a question, perhaps a goad to a debate, perhaps to air a feeling that everyone sensed he was feeling anyway, but no one answered him. I wish I had had a diplomatic word or two but the whisky was on me like a carebear and all I could do was giggle at the situation. There was a silence that he I think interpreted as everyone (about 5 others, apart from me, he and his girlfriend) turning against him. I giggled a bit more. “Well,” liam said, “now I feel like I want to talk about whats been on telly recently, but I bet none of you even have TVs do you?”. None of us did. It was time to go, and we did.
This is what I am talking about. And if I am really going to analyse it and be honest with myself, I would acknowledge that am in the fortunate (mostly) position of having experienced both a middle class life and a working class life in my formative years. My grandparents lived in a real nice semi-detached house that I lived in 0-5, and then 11-18 I got a scholarship to study at the local private school. The family of my mum are well educated, intelligent and mostly teachers or similar (and lovely). so I knew how to behave like one of that type of person (I hesitate, perhaps too late, to call this middle class). On the other hand, after my grandmas place I lived in a really shitty flat, the rest of which were rented to families who had either just come off the streets, out of drug treatment centres or prison, and it was not an uncommon site for me to come home from school to see fire engines outside the flats, or find used needles and condoms in the garden where I played football, etc. My mum worked 3 jobs, we holidayed in youth hostels not hotels and I learnt the value of money early, working in a chinese takeaway as soon as it was legal for me to do so and learning to deal with racist pissheads who wanted a chicken curry with none of your weird chinese shit. I also played on the streets from a young age and spending time in the houses of these friends was always just like another home (if you have no idea what I mean, think of the feeling that JK Rowling is trying to portray in the Weasleys' house).
An on and on. So from a young age I could see the comfort, contradictions, false politenessess and blindspots of the middle class way of existing, but at the same time knew the the kind of future that many of my 'working class' friends were likely to end up doing- working in a factory, being a waitor or a middle manager, joining the army. This was to me stultifying and meant I would be working my balls off for the man and releasing my frustrations in chemicals and mind numbing media, as some of my friends who are equally as gifted as me are now doing, and anyway it was expected at my school that everyone would go to university. And so I went to university, paid off my overdraft with that glorious job at SOAS, and in a way I have no doubt became co-opted into the middle class way of existing. Indeed, that is openly what the tories had in mind when they created the scholarship, the 'assisted place', that got me to go to private school. Much, in fact, like the Chinese did with their system of civil servant tests (ever wondered where the slang 'Mandarin' for high ranking civil servant comes from?).
So now, sometimes, just sometimes, I feel like I don't really belong in either place. Not in a dramatic 'lets have a walk in the rain and think about it' way, just like sometimes I have too much of one and need some of the other. And certain things in each depress me. And the most depressing thing about it, demonstrated in the story of liam above but something that has happened to me more than a few times, in America as well as England, is that people of the same age, from the same place, who take the same drugs and listen to the same music, cannot communicate with each other in meaningful ways. There is distrust, a feeling of inferiority on both sides and no way to get things started. With exceptions of course, but not enough to mean that we don't go into the next decade with the class system as rigidly in place as it has ever been, except almost self-enforced through culture.
So, and here I write amazed I can bring this ramble to anything approaching a coherent conclusion, that is why it feels so good for me to travel about like this, to have the ability to choose who I talk to, to make the most of the conversation and to understand that a wise man is a wise man, no matter whether he works for blackwater or not, and it is up to me to find a means to bring him on board with the struggle (though, frankly, I wouldn't know where to start).
And yes, I know smoking may kill me, but it is less likely to kill me than going to Afghanistan as a mercenary which, I found out when we were really looking each other in the eye, was where may friend in the Blackwater cap was going. And I only know that because I smoke.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
They justified it by asserting that the Dalai Llama was at the head of a feudal and oppressive regime and the people of tibet, with the help of the great peoples' republic, must be liberated (hence why those of you at soas still see the Spartacist League's mad posters denouncing the dalai llama in support of china). As the process for finding the new Llamas involves being in tibet, yet the Dalai Llama is in India and the Panchen Llama is either in Chinese custody or dead, tibetan buddhism as it is has been for centuries will die along with the current incarnation of the Dalai Llama.
At first , in the context of the cold war, many western nations and the UN refused to recognise the new rulers of china, and remained (with stunning blindness to actual facts) with diplomatic ties with Chiang's KMT. When, from the 50s-70s, countries and the UN began to recognise the CCP's china, taiwan was conviniently bundled in with the new china, even though it has its own government, borders, army and language. only 23 countries now have official diplomatic ties with taiwan and the US is not one of them, even though they are about to sell 66 fighter jets to a country that they doesn't officially exist. but we always knew that capitalism is bigger than god. in the current asian games being held in china (in the city I am now in infact, guangzhou) the taiwanese team has been renamed 'chinese taipei', and there is fuck all the taiwanese can do about it.
father/son, husband/wife, friend/friend and so on, with each, with the exception of friend/friend, there was a heirachical relationship but one with mutual respect. so, for example, a good confucious son had a duty to do whatever his father told him to, but the father in turn must be wise in what he told his son to do. when this is reflected on wider sioceity, it means that people should unquestionably follow their rulers, and the rulers should be benevolent and just. he also advocated a kind of non-interference in things, letting events take a harmonious path whether they seemed right or not.
Imagine this pervading philosophy in today's china, added to the fact that the generation who hold the most social and financial power, say 35-55 year olds, went to school at the time of the cultural revolution
and if they were taught anything at that time, it was to do as the party said on fear of death.
And now the party is telling them to MAKE MONEY and BUY THINGS with beautifully subtle propoganda, so that the engine of the massive chinese economy can keep growing, eating everything in its path.
What does this manifest into as i travelled about china? Huge new infrastructure projects (there are many many new train lines and toll-motorways being built, all elevated about 2o metres off the ground, and the huge concrete pillars are everywhere), thick layers of smog over cities big and small (in Hangzhou it seemed a perpetual dusk), advertising in every nook and cranny, strange recorded voices coming out of loud speakers in tourist areas saying things like 'please be civilised for the benefit of everyone' and 'one small thought leads to a great leap forward for society'.
On the other hand of course part of what i am saying is inevitably coming from a western set of ethics that can't really know what it is like to be hungry for years and years and how one would react when there is suddenly an opportunity to change. I know this but i also have seen what this brand of capitalism looks like 20 years down the line, and, crucially, whether it makes people happy.
But of course when talking to anyone, like almost anywhere in the world, you learn and the person is lovely and everything is fine, but as a nation, well, can't say i have pride to be from china.