Sunday, February 10, 2019

Judy and the Dream of Horses

At SOAS, where language students go on to work for MSF, MI5, and everything in between, it always seemed that the Development Studies students were the ones most often in existential crisis. One described the course: ‘in the first year, they teach you all the reasons why most aid projects are at best without sustainable impact, and at worst actively damaging. In the second year you are drowning/dancing away your sorrows in the East African clubs on the Seven Sisters Road, and in the third year it is suggested that maybe, just maybe, small projects, developed over years and led by the beneficiaries themselves might have some useful impact. I myself have seen the folly of misguided aid several times, most memorably in the Marshall Islands, where aid in one form or another makes up seventy percent of the country’s entire GDP (!). US ‘Aid’ had come in the form of white rice and coca cola, and given everyone diabetes. Jaded ex-pats would drink on hotel terraces and complain that the locals had used the expensive mosquito nets they had been given as fishing nets. Mormans, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses jostled for new recruits, and lots of ‘aid’ was predicated on the expectation that the recipient would eventually be baptised.

Lately have been of the opinion that I/we are only altruistic to meet our own needs, rather than anyone else’s, and if we are clear about that from the beginning then it avoids upset if things don’t play out as we hoped.

But I also believe that we are all fundamentally connected, and that I can't really feel fulfilled and free at the same time as perceiving that others do not. By some strong and regrettable conditioning, I can walk past a homeless person in London, maybe one that looks like my grandad, and have rationalised away the sadness and impotency i feel within five seconds. But being in a country - just for fun! - where many people are vastly less materially wealthy than myself and, importantly, where the cultural fallout of free market capitalism hasn't yet been fully felt, and people's souls are therefore closer to the surface, well that is a different story. My last experience of this was ten years ago. Then, Zimbabwe, with an mbira. Now, Morocco, with a marimba and a green 2003 MWB Mercedes Sprinter called Dame Judy Dench.

I have to talk a moment about Dame Judy. Her youth was spent in Aberdeen transporting fish, before a couple of years in Bolton, where she would move toys and general market stall bits and bobs from a wholesalers in Leicester to Bolton market. Me, her third and for sure proudest owner, took her to Kai’s carpentry workshop in Cornwall, where we spent a glorious 2017 summer turning her into a mobile home, complete with solar electric, ninety litres of water storage, a shoe cupboard, a snack cupboard, and a small library. I learnt how to use a drill and what a biscuit joint is. We chunks of 2018 in the midlands and north west, in countryside carparks and town industrial estates that I never knew existed, where I worked in schools and avoided occasional loneliness with butter'n'salt wraps and unhealthy amounts of Radio 4.

But this was merely splashing in the shallows for Judy, and her appetite for adventure was whetted when she took the BikeCoins collective to deliver clothes to Calais and bring back mostly legal racing bike frames from Ghent. In between fourth and fifth gear I heard her whisper a dream of stretching her ample axles at 120km an hour, in a place where she would not be criminalised for letting me sleep inside her, where the sun would keep her batteries topped up and she would host people with no common language, drinking tea and queuing up tunes on spotify.

So we went to Morocco.

Morocco is a good place to be in January 2019. It is hot. The beaches are wide and deserted and the waves huuuge. Vehicles of all kinds sit by the roadside packed with the sweetest tangerines i have ever tasted, 15p a kilo. Animals are shepherded, butchered and cooked in plain sight, and choosing to eat them feels good. With few exceptions, people are relaxed, greet warmly, and invite you to come back to their village to eat with their mum. Kids hitchhike home from school without fear. The stars are vivid over the sea, and overwhelming in the desert. Electricity pylons seem to be going up by the side of every road, tap water is drinkable, education is free till 15, and though I am in no position to comment on the experiences of women here, those I have spoken to express excitement about the changes that are taking place more often than frustration about how things have been until now.

My main aim was to find somewhere with odds on hot sun, where I could to park the van with direct access to the sea, and far enough away from others that i could play marimba all day without disturbing anyone. On a tip from Vandog Traveller, I took the road south from the village of Sidi Kaouki, parked the van on a rock above the tide line and set up the marimba facing the sea and setting sun. It was a sunday night, and I was soon joined by a couple of fishermen Abdul and Hafid, a goat herd named Hassan, and a couple of property developers from nearby Essaouira. The marimba is easy to play, and provides a focal point that softens social and cultural differences, and means you can talk when you want and play when you want.

Abdul, Hassan and Hafid lived in a shack at the edge of the beach, and over the next days I saw how they worked, setting the nets in the sand before the incoming tide, then hauling them in an hour or so after high tide, waist deep in the roaring ocean, bodies bent against the drift. With half a dozen or so big mullet, octopus or plaice in a bag they would walk or hitch a motorbike to a nearby village or town to sell the fish to restaurants or tourists. If there were no fish they would go out on the rocks as the tide went further out and pick mussels or clams. Hafid, meanwhile, would wander about on a donkey in the sand dune scrub behind the beach with fifty young goats and a ready smile, occasionally checking facebook on his phone.

Our transition from acquaintances to buddies came mid-scrub in a nearby hammam. Traditionally few homes would have plentiful water, so men, women and children would visit their local hammam - imagine a big multi-roomed sauna with a reservoir of hot water, underfloor heating and nice tilework - a few times a week for a deep clean. As with lots of things I have seen in Morocco, the whole business follows a strict process, part of which involves taking a glove shaped brush and scrubbing the fuck out of your neighbour, leaving behind little ribbons of dirty skin, then rinsing, soaping, and doing the whole thing all over again. And the scrubs were Comprehensive, the first time surprisingly so. I was cleaned, then I cleaned. Taking effort and care to exfoliate another felt like giving a gift, and another example of how words are rarely the best way of communicating the most important things, so by the time we left there was an unspoken but certainly acknowledged gratitude and trust.

Later I ate with Abdul’s family, fell in love with the three kids, made the mistake of starting to eat the meat at the bottom of the tagine dish before it had been divvied up onto bits of torn bread by the mother, and saw another process in action - making Argan oil. Argan trees were everywhere in that region, almost a mono-culture, squat and bristly with occasional goats munching in their branches. Life appears very subsistence, and aside from shepherding, making Argan oil seems like the only way that women have of making actual dollar. I was invited to buy some at a price that seemed expensive until I compared it with what they were selling it for in the ‘female cooperatives’ and on the internet, and realised that if I was in an episode of Bargain Hunt, I would have won without even showing up to the car boot. There are two kinds of Argan oil - the roasted kind, used for cooking, and the cold pressed kind, used as a skin and hair cosmetic and massage oil. In order to meet my own needs for fairness, cooperation, reciprocity and purpose, wouldn’t it be a great idea to see if a few of my friends wanted some and get together a little chunk of money for the family, trade not aid etc?

A couple of days and a facebook post later, I was able to go back to Abdul and say that we wanted fifteen litres of oil, 14 of which were the massage kind. He looked happy but also slight perturbed. We went to see the women of his family. I don’t speak Berber, but from the tone of his wife’s voice, the tickled expression on his mother’s face, and the way the words ‘litre’, ‘kilo’, and ‘un semaine’ kept coming up, I guessed that Abdul had over promised and under priced, and I was correct. It turned out that without a special machine, the cold pressed Argan took almost twice as long to make than the cooking stuff, almost a week to make a single litre. It was also more argan intensive, requiring 25kg of nuts to make 1l oil (an average tree will yield enough nut to make four litres of Argan a year). Why, they asked, had Abdul said that they could make multiple litres of it in just a week, and at that price? Was he mad? Had he been too blissed out after my exfoliation? I said that I understood it was beaucoup travaille, but that I had told the people the price he had set, and couldn’t very well change it now. Couldn’t he ask some of his neighbours to get involved? No, people wouldn’t work for that price. Throughout the conversation Sumeyah, their eight year old daughter, was using a big stone to crush the date-sized, ferrero rocher textured argan nutcases to reveal acorn shaped nuts that would then themselves be cracked open to get out the almondy kernel inside. She kept looking at me with the expression ‘look how good i am at this task that is very arduous yet that I make seem effortless!’ And i looked back ‘wow, yeah i am totally impressed by how you are doing that!’. It struck me a) she might be kept off school in order to make the amount of oil required b) Given that these village women looked way more wizened than women the same age in the UK, was i facilitating a transaction that literally made relatively poor girls age prematurely in order that relatively affluent women looked younger? Was this a textbook BA Development Studies case study? Would I soon be offering loans for infrastructure projects on the condition that they structurally adjusted their donkey?

In the end a sister in law dropped by and suggested a solution: do the machinable part of the processing* for a small fee at a nearby coop, thereby speeding up the process and making it worthwhile for other families to get involved.


I picked up Beth and we went to the desert for a few days, returning to the village a week later. Everyone was in high spirits - they had managed to make the order with a couple of days to spare. In total eight families had been part of the process. We celebrated with a grand hammam trip to Essouaria and on the way back stopped at an electrics shop. His wife was super excited. The village had only had electricity for a year, and Abdul’s family had acquired two tellys but no satellite dish. They had to go to his mum’s if they wanted to watch, and my guess is that they didn’t always all want to watch the same thing. Today was the day of the satellite dish purchase! Forty euros (under a litre of Argan oil) for the dish, receiver and cables. Sumeyah’s enthusiastic Argan cracking came back to me - each nut cracked brought her one step closer to relaxing with Peppa Pig and friends, and this made the heavy stone a tool of the future. This image was followed by that of another 8 year old I know, who barely greets me when I visit his house because he is so absorbed by Fortnite. Enough said. But this isn’t an episode of the Moral Maze, nor a critical analysis the international Argan Oil trade through the lens of Non Violent Communication, so let’s just give thanks to the goats, observe that everyone (me too! Especially me) got some of their wants and needs met for a while, and keep our fingers crossed that I can get this precious cargo through customs.

*the ‘cold press’ part - the machine is basically a small electric millstone that turns the Argan seed into a peanut buttery gloop. This sets into a kind of oily soap that is is then hand-squeezed to get the oil)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Giant Croutons

Last year I attempted to read the first entries of this blog which started when, as a 20 year old, I lived in california for a year and wanted to let friends back home know what was going on without hassling their inbox. I found these posts so very cringeworthy that I almost deleted them. It is nice though to have a written record of how different things have developed, fallen away or sustained over the years, and keen readers will have noticed creeping references to meditation, starting with the whole Incident of the Gearstick in the Nighttime, and the subsequent commitment to being more in the present moment. 

Since then, I have been meditating 20 minutes most days, unguided and a bit clumsy - perhaps 2 fragmented minutes focussed on breathing, and 18 accidently dedicated to planning the day, composing emails, reliving past glories and wondering if i needed to buy any more pasta before dinner. But when the timer beeped I always did feel that bit more grounded, perceptive and elegant. People became more beautiful, and it was easier to understand the true meaning of what they were saying and not saying, separated from my reflex judgements and preconceptions. It became easier to teach, as the pupils I worked with felt more listened to and respected, and were calmer and more open as a result. Activism became easier, as I was able to more clearly understand why I felt how I felt and why it was necessary to fight for a more equal, less pained world, and why those who fought so hard to maintain the status quo did what they did, and where I should, therefore, put my time and energy to best effect change. 

The small amount of meditation guidance I received during my first trip to Ecodharma was revelatory, so the prospect of going back for a two week course that spoke of ‘deeper resources for action’ in the form of a meditation toolbox was warmly anticipated. Ten people, 14 days (of which 8 were in silence), no books, music or screens. An explicit link between inner transformation and societal transformation. Mountains, a strong community, processing of wood into heat, motion into stillness. My intentions for going could be rationalised and explained, but mostly I want to tell you about the things I experienced that I am unable to rationally explain. 

On the first morning we went round with the who-we-ares and what-we-are-doings. Many on the course had refined their activism to a professional level - facilitators, consultants, journalists, lawyers, researchers. My own refinement, my own shoulder against to system-change wheel, has been to focus my efforts on those in our society with the most flexible minds - young people - and access them where they are (schools, pupil referral units, hospitals, youth centres) through the lens of something they, and I, get a kick out of - music. I have no chisel big enough to make the banks topple; I can’t even deny my rainforest-shrinking desire for char siu bao, but I can certainly help the young ‘uns produce and reflect on compositions that help them take ownership of their lives. And go some way to break the cycle of confusion and despair that leaves so many self-medicating with trainers, computer games and skunk. And tinder, revenge porn and smashed avocado, for that matter. The revolution will come when the alternative is so appealing and undeniable that the current planet-destroying, consumption-based system seems silly and irrelevant. How ugly things get before that happens is the only unknown. 

Easy to say these things, but among such dedicated, intelligent bods I definitely had to work through a touch of guilt about my lack of ‘hardcore’ activism these last years. And a strange lack of emotion in many parts of my life. At some point anger was replaced with sadness, and then that got buried somewhere too, apparently replaced with a jaunty pragmatism. 

But I digress. During the first few days of the retreat we were introduced to, among other things, two core process to go through during a meditation. Meta Bhavna, which is based on harnessing the essence of ‘loving kindness’ and deploying it first (and perhaps most importantly) to oneself, then a friend, then a neutral person, then someone you find difficult, and finally the world in general. This essence of loving kindness, like a lot of things spoken about in relation to meditation, is for the most part beyond description in words (Bach articulates it, as does Ballake Sissoko, as do Mariachi El Pinche Gringo, but you would have to see us live...); best way is to try it. 

The second process is called the ‘four stages of access to meditation’ (or something like that), and if you were a glass of homemade apple juice with bits in, this process would aim to let the bits settle to the bottom, to leave the apple-mind clear and clutter free. If you were the helmsman of a small to medium size boat, the aim would be to develop smaller and finer use of the rudder to keep the ship on a straight course. If you were in a pub trying to balance a beer mat on it’s side, the aim would be to use smaller and smaller nudges of the hands to keep it upright, till eventually it just stayed there of its own accord, even if there was a gale outside and the people kept opening the door and banging their fists on the table. Stage 1 - count each breath to ten, trying not to let the mind wander. Every time it wonders, gently bring it back to the count. Stage 2 - count each breath to ten, starting each count when you first physically feel each breath entering your nose (easier if the air is cold). Stage 3 - I never fully understood but something to do with feeling the breath in your whole body. Stage 4 - Forget the counting, and focus attention on the part of your nose that the breath is first felt, both in and out. 

Sounds quite mechanical and potentially a little boring, but for me this was a really good way in. Most of my life is filled with words - teaching, reading, radio 4, the news, facebook feeds, texts, emails, debate - head stuff. My inner dialogue is, as a consequence, strong and unrelenting. At the start of each meditation a running commentary of how it was going would continue, annoyed with myself for being so crap at it, congratulating myself when it worked for a moment, spinning off into random thoughts. But over twenty, thirty minutes this narrative slowed, and the other part of me, the unnamable part previously unlocked during musical improvisation, dancing, playing football, true connections with other humans, grew in stature, and I started actually being with the breath and noticing how subtle and beautiful it was. It was like the breath itself was dancing. I started saying things like ‘in....turn .... out... turn...’ and ‘lovely’ with each breath, and this was enough to keep my chattering mind at bay. And then I would check in with my body, and notice that my whole body was breathing with me, and in fact was poised and still and holding my mind like one holds a baby, and I would have a little wobble where my head started talking about this stuff, but after a few times of this happening it wasn’t a big deal anymore, and I stayed with it.

And then some unexpected things happened.

I started getting the feeling of pleasant tingling and shots of electricity starting in my hands and legs, and working my way up into the rest of my body. Like a relaxed sparkler that had found some friendly gunpowder all around my skin. Sometimes my heartbeat would come to the foreground of my experience, and my whole body would slowly pulse with it. Sometimes my whole body would take a leave of absence, and my entire existence would be the gentle, beautiful breath, in and out, sometimes visualisable in the form of a thin oval of white light. Sometimes these feelings were subtle, other times they were intense and I would gasp (was it audible?) as they overtook every pore of my body. 

And then further, hitherto unknown feelings and states of mind started unfolding... but I fear no words will do the experience justice, and I know if I had read about them before I had experienced them myself I would have missed the point entirely. The fact is that these things aren’t explainable with logic or (to my knowledge) science, they aren’t rational, and we are encouraged, hard wired from a young age, to either have an irrational religion or have the religion of rationality, neither of which will accept these accounts in the manner in which they are played out. Where previously meditation had been about clarity and perspective, now i was sinking into something entirely different. 


The speed at which I was able to reach these depths was due in no small part to the guidance of the facilitators, but also the lack of external stimulation that piles up the things we need to process. In between sessions we would eat, stare at the stars, keep warm, and sit on sofas in silence drinking tea (amazing what you can make tea out of. I got into sage tea, picked straight from the side of the mountain). At first it was kind of odd, being in such close proximity to people without the polite blah blah, but it made every connection count, and without the background noise everything else came to the fore - the food we were eating, colour, the workmanship of our surroundings both natural and man-made (I had never looked closely at a chair before. There were several specimens where we were, and it was quite amazing to see how different designers had achieved the same function though different forms). After looking at everything in the room I started looking at people’s faces. Faces! What cauldrons of expression! Bonus point to evolution.  

The silence also offered ample time to process what had happened, and anything else that may be coming up, and leave the meditations - up to seven hours a day - clear to practise the release of discursive thought. I am always doing doing doing, and it becomes the norm, so when I have gaps I fill them with something - radio dramas, football dramas, my eternal to-do list. Going to see if I can change that a bit. In practical terms:

- Only check my email twice a day
- Do things more slowly
- Make our music education projects more long term with a stronger focus on social and personal outcomes for participants. 
- Build some marimbas and travel round europe in my van with them, sticking close to the coast. 

So that is that really. Oh and two food tips from the amazing EcoDharma cook Anna

1. GIANT CROUTONS. We are talking like an inch cubed. Baked with olive oil and rosemary. Crunchy, chewy and soup-soaked, all in one go. 
2. Thickly grated raw apple, butternut squash and courgette with a simple vinaigrette. Amen.

Here is the translation of an eighth century Tibetan poem that was read some nights, the only words we heard all day:

**Shambhala Warrior Mind Training**

Firmly establish your intention to live for the healing of our world. Be conscious of it, nurture it, honour it every day.

Be fully present in our time. Find the courage to breathe in the suffering of our world. Allow peace and healing to breathe out through you in return.

Do not meet power on its own terms. See through to its real nature: mind and heart made.
Lead your response from that level.

Simplify. Clear away the dead wood in your life. Look for the heartwood and give it the first call on your time, the best of your energy.

Put down the leaden burden of saving the world alone. Join with others of like mind. Align yourself with the forces of resolution

Hold a single vision, in the same thought, the transformation of yourself and of the world. Live your life around that edge, always keeping it in sight.

As a bird flies on two wings, balance outer activity with inner sustenance

Following your heart, realise your own unique gifts. Cultivate them with diligence to offer knowledge and skill to the world.

Train in non- violence of body, speech and mind. With great patience to yourself, learn to make beautiful each action, thought and word.

In the crucible of meditation, bring forth day by day the compassion, wisdom, skill and courage for which the world longs

Sit with hatred, until you feel the fear beneath it. Sit with fear, until you feel the compassion beneath that.

Do not set your heart on particular results. Enjoy positive action for its own sake. Rest confident that it will bear fruit.

When you see violence, greed and narrow-mindedness in the fullness of its power, walk straight into the heart of it, remaining open to the sky and in touch with the earth.

Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritors of thousands of generations of life

Staying open, staying grounded, be confident in the magic and power that arise when people come together in a great cause

Staying open, staying grounded, have faith that the forces of wisdom and compassion will manifest through our actions for the healing of our world.

When you see the weapons of hate, disarm them with Love.

When you see the fortresses of narrow mindedness, breach them with truth

When you find yourself in dark clouds of dread, dispel them with courage

When the forces of power seek to isolate us from one another, reach out with joy.

In it and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life.


Thursday, June 01, 2017


Spring. I cycled south-east through France - eight days of old railway lines carving through pine forests, villages with perfect gardens and no one to be seen, Le Pen posters, sand dunes, a long sunday morning in the shade with a gang of Peruvian asparagus pickers - over the Pyrenees, eating nothing but chewy baguettes, butter, cheese and oranges, escorted through the 5km Lleida tunnel by a works van (I pretended it was my tour de france support vehicle), and suddenly I was in Catalunya - the grass yellower, the sausages denser, the people seven degrees more tranquillo. Destination: Ecodharma - a small collection of stone houses, yurts, gardens and grey-white boulders nestled high in a remote valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees, populated by a small sangha of activists, Buddhists, climbers, cooks and cats. An intentional community, with a collective shoulder pushing towards a world in which we fuck up ourselves, each other and the natural world less, and glimpse at the fundamental connectedness of all things more.

The place had been recommended by several friends, and in a flurry of winter planning I had booked myself onto a course entitled 'Transformative Collaboration', which sounded very good but pretty vague. People who have known me for a long time will know I used to do shitloads of work with groups – revolutionary, musical, sporty, squatty – but people who have known me for less may know me as solitary – the caravan, the boat, the disappearing from groups of wonderful people for no good reason... but it turns out there is a reason. On the second day we created a visual representation of our 'history in groups' in the form a river. Mine went backwards – starting at the sea – as children we don't even think about group dynamics – Scarborough Football Club, the DIY Collective, Rhythms of Resistance, SOAS – and then narrowed as time after time, through no one's fault, groups fragmented or imploded or got evicted or did what they needed to do and were no longer needed. At a certain unidentifiable point I realised I had decided that I functioned better alone, and was perfectly happy alone (with occasional jams, fires and big dances).

They call the course 'immersive learning', and everything we learnt was applicable to our temporary community of fourteen Belgians, Germans, Scots and Luxembourgers – decision-making, leadership, giving and receiving feedback, power dynamics, feelings... feelings? Mari reminded me that I once got very annoyed at reports of a 'men's group' made up of middle-class hipsters that existed to talk about their feelings. My attitude has always been 'you can talk about your feelings if you want, I don't need to' (in fact music has always been the way I speak about my feelings, but that is not the point). The debunking of this myth was one of several revelations of the week - The task, and the processes of completing the task, affect how we all feel. How we all feel affects how we behave, and therefore the process and task. We obviously talk about the task and the process (oh, how we talk about process) so why not talk about the feelings?

'I feel like you aren't listening to me'

'I feel bored and frustrated because I feel like people are talking for the benefit of their ego not the good of the group'

'I feel totally excited to be working with you'

'I feel angry because I am doing all the work'

'I feel like everyone thinks I am a shit facilitator'

'I think I might be in love with you, but it is probably just your fiery rhetoric'

How these discussions, had early on, would have prevented feelings damaging the processes and tasks of groups! So we need to leave space for this stuff.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" goes the quote, and the music that I tend to make – improvised, collaborative, putting feeling before perfection – is all about experience over analysis; music that would squirm if one tried to write it down. At ecodharma I learnt that the dharma – the way of being – that is followed by many philosophical/spiritual frameworks cannot be really understood through reading, or even trying alone – it too has to be experienced in the context of a community. Because as well as the people on the course being a 'live lab' of transformative collaboration, the wider ecodharma project is a 10 year old experiment in collaborative living, working and journeying. Part of a self-definition on the website:                                                                                                                                           [Ecodharma is] ...'a spiritual exploration which eschews the life denying traps so many religious traditions are liable to fall into, fetishizing the spiritual above the socio-political, remaining confused by residual beliefs in an otherworldly salvation, a somewhere else heaven or nirvana, a split between the spiritual and the everyday, between mind and matter. [Ecodharma is]... a socio-political exploration that affirms that the transformation of the world and the transformation of the self are not separable, and that the transformation of consciousness is integral to subverting the conditions which give rise to systems of oppression and domination

BOOM. So when issues inevitably come up – personality clashes, different visions, high-pressure situations – there is a framework within which things can be solved and re-solved. As it says, societal transformation is fundamentally intertwined with us as individuals and our individual relationships, and that transformation is tied up with an 'exploration' that involves principles that align with Buddhism, or its slightly sexier cousin, Daoism. To be in the space, with the people, and see what that journey means in the everyday, was very powerful. One of the facilitators talked about how he had spent many years travelling, journeying, but described his exploration of Buddhism as an equally valid, much more interesting journey, in the literal sense of the word: New things to see, new experiences, new people, and the reflection of all those things back on who we are (and what we are not).

No statues, incense, bells, robes to speak of. Nothing wrong with them, but this is my kind of non-religion. Instead: a conch, a vulture's wing hanging from the workshop space, and mountains rising all around.


photos: Frederik Sadones. Reproduced here with big thanks.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Lobsters in lobster pot: 0

Lobsters picked up off the reef at low tide: 9

1673 – ujelang

It has all gone a bit Lord of the Flies out here. No facepainting or murder as of yet, but the rest of the ingredients are all there.

We are on an uninhabited atoll hundreds of miles from anywhere, and you get the feeling that god might have had it purpose-built for Jesus to retire to in the event that he chose not to sacrifice himself for the sins of man. Paradise found. There are perhaps a dozen little islets ringed around a small lagoon, the biggest a mile long and 200 metres thick, the smallest circumnavigateable in five minutes (we sail between them, but obviously jesus could have just walked on water). Each island has a sandy beach facing the lagoon, a lush green interior, and millennia of coral met by breaking waves on the ocean side. Large schools of meaty fish swim up in curiosity, no fear of fishermen, as the squeaky calls of the dolphins travel to your ears from hundreds of metres away. There are no animals, insects or plants that can do you any harm on land, and even the sharks seem pretty mellow. The wind is subdued and the lagoon water petal still. It is easy to find low slung coconut trees that yield fat, sweet meat.

We arrived, as usual, just after dawn, and a large pod of dolphins met the boat at the pass, bobbing and breaching and generally being dolphins. They, and the voluminous cloud formations high in the sky, seemed positive portents. 

We dropped anchor on the main island and headed to shore. This island had been inhabited 30 years previously and, having had no fresh fruit or veg for some weeks, we were hoping that the previous occupants had planted fruit trees that we could pick from. We found pandanus and breadfruit trees, but nothing edible on them. An old church. The remains of a path running through the long abandoned village. Blocks of concrete, wells, rope and miscellaneous plastics. Dominating all of this, the thick jungle towering and making incursions all around, effortlessly reclaiming the space, hand in hand with the multitude of big, thick spiders webs, and the swarm of flies that followed each of us as we fanned out in the brush, hunting for fruit. Bzzzzzzz. Landing on runnels of sweat and open cuts. Bzzzzzz. Jump in the water for temporary escape but they wait for you. Bzzzzzzz. Why so many flies here? We made animal cries so as to not lose each other in the dense vegetation, and after one such ‘ai ai ai!’ I heard a big disturbance to my left, and looked across in time to see a family of pigs legging it from under a bush. Pigs! So pig shit, so flies.

After a while I found my crewmates in a copra clearing, climbing coconut trees in an amateur but ultimately successful fashion,  drinking down their prizes as the flies continued to buzz around. They had seen pigs too. Other Marshallese islands have pigs, but they are domesticated. The last wild pigs we saw were in the Marquesas, where men would go in gangs on horseback into the hills and hunt for them, big aggressive things with tusks. We considered whether we wanted to hunt a pig, and how we might go about it.

After consulting the ‘Collins Gem SAS Survival Guide’ and ‘Country Living’ book, before an indulgence in the ‘Joy of Cooking’ section on pork, I concluded that roast pig sounded very good, but that it would be very hard to catch one. There was no flexible wood to make a bow for a bow and arrow, deploying snares or other traps might catch a pig way too big for our needs, and a pig might easily snap a speargun line and disappear into the jungle with a valuable metal spear.

So we kind of forgot the idea and went again to forage for fruit on the island the following day, this time in the other direction. On this side of town there were loads of pigs, and if you were quiet they would trot, rather than run, away from you, and even then not very far. I tracked two little ones, mere toddlers, and then crouched behind a log as they sort of sniffed the air and wondered what was going on. Then one of them started walking towards me! I took a deep breath and got ready to spring, but in that moment he saw me, and bolted off at a right angle. If I had the Hunter’s Instinct, which I know from spearfishing I definitely don’t (too well fed probably), I would have managed to grab the little blighter, but as it was he was off and into the undergrowth before I even moved. I walked slowly back to the boat thinking of spare ribs in sweet and sour sauce, of belly pork in oyster sauce, of crackling, and of how much of a dude I would have felt to catch a pig with my bare hands.

I was last back to the boat and Tom, grinning, informed me that he had caught a pig with his bare hands. After a long and roundabout chase. He brought her to the boat. Black, perhaps 2ft long, tied to a piece of wood and sleeping. Until the cat attacked her, after which she became quite unsettled. I made her a little den in the dingy, gave her some coconut, which she devoured, and named her Esmerelda. Esme for short.

I have always really respected vegetarians. My only defence against the strong environmental, health and animal welfare arguments for not eating meat is that there are some methods of meat production that are (in 21st century England) exceptions to the rule, and are necessary for both the existence of the animal and its habitat, and the livelihood of the farmer. For example, hiking in the Yorkshire dales reveals flocks of sheep that graze hillsides that have no other practical use, hillsides that are all the more beautiful for the short shocks of purple heather and gauze that the sheep help to maintain. The valley farm houses that exist to husband the sheep would make anyone dreamy of an idyllic rural existence*, and are surely more in keeping with our ideals than acres of heavily irrigated soybeans grown on former rainforest land in Brazil for the Tofurkey market. I reason that if the animal has not suffered in life and the land and workers have not been exploited, the odd meat feast should be a joyful and juicy occasion (the fact that I regularly eat meat that does not fit this criteria is something I am working on…). Similarly, the pigs on this island have no predators, a whole island to wallow around in, and as I was the one processing it, it couldn’t have satisfied my criteria better.

I also happen to think that you should, at least in theory, be able to kill any animal that you to eat. It was for this reason that I stood over Esme on the beach the next day with a sharp knife and a hammer. The little animal, held down on a tree trunk, seemed resigned to her fate. The first blow to the crown of her head caused her eyes to roll to the back of her head and she stopped moving. After the second blow blood started dribbling out of her mouth and nose and her body became limp. A pig’s main artery is on the left side of its neck. I found it with the knife as I slit clean across her throat and wind pipe, and at this the pig either woke up or started spasming in death: her legs pushed against the log and flecks of blood came out of her windpipe with what would have been screams if her vocal chords had still been connected. She was held tight and after perhaps 30 seconds stopped moving. I cut around the spine at the neck and twisted the head off, which we hung up as coconut crab bait.  It wasn’t pleasant but I wouldn’t say it was harrowing either.

Then the real work began. We built a fire and burned then scraped off the hair and outer skin with machetes, leaving the pink skin we associate with pork and a smokey, fatty smell that remained until we ate it and I thought was quite appealing. Then we tied it spread-eagled to a tree, cut around and tied up the anus to prevent the obvious, and then very gently made a shallow cut from there, down the length of the belly to the neck. Having a super sharp knife made all the difference and I managed to get the kidneys, heart and liver out before cajoling out the rest of the guts unruptured. Then back to the boat to shave off remaining bits of hair and wash the skin with baking powder.

The body was glazed with honey and oil, stuffed with grated coconut and our last can of mushrooms, and put in the oven. Emma fried the heart, liver and kidneys with pepper until the outside tiptoed on the edge of crunchy. Extremely tasty. In my only encounter with emma that hasn’t been full of warmth and understanding, we argued about how to get the skin crispy but keep the meat moist. French verses English methods. And then towards sunset the animal came out of the oven and we sat down to eat.

This blog is nothing if not honest, and I stay true to that by passing on my opinion that the eating of the meat didn’t justify the death of the baby pig. For starters, there wasn’t much meat on the thing – it was skinny and small and the only real hunks of meat were on the upper thights (hams). The ribs were the size of the pens you get in argos, and the meat between them barely worth bothering with. The skin, my favourite bit, wasn’t crispy (damn the French). It only fed four of us for one meal. Killing an older pig for a big feast or to preserve and eat over a long period would have been a better scenario, but we had no fridge and no wedding to go to, and there is absolutely no chance we could have caught a larger pig by chasing it down anyway.

However, if you add the whole two day process of plotting, hunting, considering, killing and preparing the pig to the sensory pleasure of eating it, I think actually it probably was worth it. It was only the second time I have eaten meat in about two months, and for sure I am going to appreciate (and moderate) any meat I eat when I am back in ‘civilisation’ much more. Paradoxically, the whole process makes me understand why so many people eat so much meat – I think it is a hangover (especially in China) from a time when meat was scarce, expensive, a massive hassle to get, and therefore a big luxury. Imagine waiting around for months a pig to be big enough to eat, watching it and feeding – you would appreciate that chop.  To be able to have it every day signified success and contentment. The trouble is that my generation has never experienced a scarcity of meat (in London it is cheaper to buy a hot piece of chicken and chips than a loaf of bread) and so we consume it mindlessly, fuelling the huge and disgusting industrial meat machine that is hidden so effectively from us.

So, in conclusion: ‘less meat, more feasts, thank you pig’.

The hunting continued on Lobster reef, opposite Pig Island. We spent a couple of hours nosunnomoondeepstars on the reef at low tide, ankle deep in lapping waves, looking for lobsters. The technique is to tie your headtorch on the end of a pole, then tiptoe along the reef with the torch casting a wide light over the shallow rockpools. If the lobster sees you before you see it it does this amazing backwards sprint using its tail, and you never see it again. If you see it first, you grab it by the tail, ignore it’s weird spasms, and chuck it into the bucket.

And as though to define the word ‘abundance’, next to Lobster Reef sat Coconut Crab Island. There are few things more angry looking than a coconut crab, whose DNA is less like the crab you and I know, and more of a mash-up of lobster, tank, and Nick Griffin. An adult crab is bigger than a dinner plate, with thick legs for climbing coconut trees, claws the size of a child’s fist that it uses to open the coconuts it finds, and armour that needs several blows of a hammer to get through.  Their coconut diet gives the large chunks of meat in their claws and legs a creamy, delicate flavour, and their entire tails are filled with a buttery, nutty, smokey fat that you can pour over your rice. The tips of the claws seem to be neither meat nor fat, and have the texture and subtle flavour of pate.

They live in holes at the base of trees, or under mounds of decaying palms, and are fairly easy to find. As a consequence of this, and their amazing taste, there are few of them left on inhabited islands, and the ones on Bikini are likely radioactive, so when we got to this island and found the place crawling with the bastards we were very, very excited. Once found, you wave your machete in their face, and they either grab it with their deathgrip claws, allowing you to lift them up and straight into the bucket, or they run backwards to the other side of their hiding place, where hopefully someone else is there to grab them from behind.

We caught four during a midnight stomp on the first night, boiling them on a driftwood fire the next afternoon and finding an anglo-french entente – Emma made a creamy pepper sauce, I did a sweet and sour with starfruit jam. Though really the flavour of the meat was enough by itself. Eating these crabs requires total concentration, and no one spoke as we selected, cracked, peeled and ate the meat. A huge weather system passed around us – numerous types of clouds, high and low, big rainshowers that moved past us, visible for miles, thick rays of sunlight in between adding to the colour and the drama. The pre-dusk air seemed to hold a  weight of expectation, as if this whole incredible architecture had been assembled for some god, and everyone was waiting for him to show up. It felt somehow unreal.

*         I have no illusions that the life of a farmer is a tough and unrelenting one, made all the more difficult by unfair supermarket practices, land prices and the glut of cheap meat available, but farmers are a hardy lot and surely would choose this life over having no farm at all.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sketches of Sea

Ships, oceans, journeys, currents – they are nothing if not excellent metaphor fodder. So, let us begin with The Endless Metaphor of Steering a Boat:

Steering: Two hours on, six hours off. Wake at 3.45am, fumble for glasses, water bottle, hoodie. Stumble outside as the boat rocks hard in the swell, a greeting and briefing from the person currently on the wheel:
“270 degrees on the GPS, 255 on the compass. Swell has calmed a bit. The sails will jibe below 240 so be careful. Enjoy.” Wish them a peaceful sleep, take a piss, then settle down at the wheel. A moment or two to set the boat on a good course using the GPS, then look at the stars and find one to line up the mast with. Check the horizon for any other boats. Wonder where the moon is. Find it sneaking over the horizon to the east.

And now I am fully awake, the sea and the sky all mine, perhaps the only sentient being for hundreds of miles in all directions (if you don’t count the dolphins). Orion the constant constellation, the plough up there too since we got into the northern hemisphere, its handle dipping down to the ocean as if reaching for water to boil. The milky way to the south, an optical illusion of depth and yellow-blue mist and unhinged beauty. Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, direct ahead, or is it Jupiter?

I have an app that would tell me, give me its distance and position, but I have learnt that any distraction, even listening to music (apart from most latin music, which my brain seems to zone out of almost immediately, probably because it is made for dancing), lessens my steering ability. Because it is easy to keep a rough course, taking occasional evasive action when a swell from behind knocks the stern one way or the other, fluctuating within a 40 degree range, at the edges of which a big wave may tip the boat in a way that may rouse sleeping crewmates.

I realised after a week or so, however, that with full concentration and proactive steering, it is possible to keep the boat on a course within a 10 degree fluctuation, even in big swells and/or going pretty fast. One needs to feel the boat, the back and the front, and interpret each twitch in terms of what is going to happen five or ten seconds in the future, and adjust accordingly, perhaps just a couple of inches on the wheel. And then as the waves come in from behind or to the side, a bigger turn of the wheel, and there comes a point where you can feel the boat pushing against the rudder, and you hold the rudder there, matching the pressure but not exceeding it, maybe half a second or a second, and then the boat softens against your hands, all those tons of steel pivoted by some feeble flesh, and the boat rights itself back onto course.

And then you get smug, and think you are the zen master of boat steering, and the mind wanders off to what you are going to conquer next, and in these moments concentration is lost and the boat creeps off course, allowing a big wave to hit it at a right angle, and then another, and suddenly you are overcompensating, and the boat is jeering at you as it flicks back the other way, rocking, the water slapping hard against the tipping sides, and it takes a minute to start back over, finding the star, checking the GPS, feeling amateur but determined.

Life: 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Each at the wheel of our own boat, a task we take very seriously indeed. The rest of the metaphor kind of explains itself…

My favourite watch is 5-7am: sunrise. The watch begins in the dark and any music I might listen to (the wind vane is working now and we don’t have to steer) must be brooding – Gil Scott Heron’s Pieces of a Man, Cinematic Orchestra’s Everyday, Rachmaninov’s Vespers. And then the smudgiest smear of light grey in the east and I swear some chemical reaction takes place in my brain and I am more awake, as if a little extra oxygen is reaching each cell. And the music changes from brooding to brewing, and me and the sky, good mates by now, slowly receive light and lightness that swell up to an intense but fragile euphoria. I hug my knees to my chest and think of people and think of no one and just watch the rays slide around the cloud, no sound but the occasional slap of a wave on the hull, always taking longer than you think, and then BOOM it is up and a  minute later you feel it in your skin and ten minutes after that the rose red clouds and creamy rays have disappeared, it is morning, the day has come and it so happens that you are alive. The sun is working itself up to a heat you need to hide from and you best find your hat.


The daily wash: squatting naked on the poop deck – a tiny deck just above the water line on the back of the boat. Attached by a harness incase of slippage. Pre-soaped up, dipping each limb one at a time and scrubbing as water sluices either side of you at around five miles an hour. Next,  grab on to the rope and dip in the whole lower body to your torso, holding on tight as you are dragged along like a fishing lure, refreshing to the max. And then, finally, dunking your head in as the boat rocks from side to side, in and out like a rollercoaster, water up your nose guaranteed, but wooo! Overall nice feeling.

Yesterday, dangling my legs in, we caught a yellow fin tuna, and I rushed back up to deck to bring it in. We put the line in again and another tuna bit straight away, but there was a big commotion in the water and when we got it on deck, 2/3rds of it had been bitten clean off by a shark. I finished of my wash on deck with a bucket.

‘Fish!’ – One of the reels buzzes out and someone shouts ‘fish!’. The nearest person grabs the line and starts reeling in. Another person grabs a bucket and the rusty Killing Knife and we watch to see the type and size of the fish as it is pulled closer and then lifted on board. If it is a fighter, someone leans on it with a large chopping board whilst another waggles the knife around in the fish’s brain and gills until it stops moving.  The cat licks her lips and starts squarking. On passages our usual catch is tuna – yellow fin, bonito, dogtooth – or mayi mayi, all good meat, and the captain’s taste for sashimi has grown on me. Millimetre thin slices of raw meat taken from the tender top of the fish are dipped in sashimi sauce (a heady mix of oil, jam, oyster sauce, ginger, soy sauce, lemon juice) or plain soy sauce. Not cooking it allows the gentle and subtley different flavours of each fish to come through. The rest of the fillets are baked or, if anyone can be bothered, rolled in flour and fried. In the event of catching a fish with more meat than four people can eat in 24 hours (we have no fridge), some portions are rolled in curry powder and turmeric and left to dry on strings on the edge of the boat. This is torture for the cat, and she acts like a crack head with a big rock just out of reach, pissing and moaning all day.

I should probably talk here a bit about the cat, called Cat, a white and ginger animal with no tail who has been on the boat for 10 years and will complete her circumnavigation of the globe when the boat reaches the phillipines.

I have always been suspicious of the way domesticated cats seem to be in complete control of their human owners, and contemptuous of people who treat cats like humans (if you really think this thing is a person why don’t you make it go out and get a job like you do your human children?). Dogs I understand. Cats are a)a distraction from the real business of learning to interact better with each other as humans and forwarding the revolution in general b) another reason the seas are emptying of fish so quickly c)the most boring topic of conversation I can possibly imagine. When things get bad, people talk to, or about, their cats. Why don’t they sort their problems out instead? I know with these statements I am alienating half my readership, but these have been my hitherto undisclosed feelings on the matter for quite some time. Probably because I didn’t grow up around animals. Possibly because cats don’t give me the attention and validation I secretly crave from every emotional being. Who knows. But if I have every pretended to be in any way interested in what your cat does, eats or thinks, or those of any cats you have seen on the internet, I was lying and think you are mad.

However, I have been living with this cat for seven months now and we have had a chance to size each other up. She is a particularly moany specimen, will let you stroke her for a while and then scratch or bite for no reason, and on the rainy, bumpy,  two week journey from the Marquesas to Fanning Island she pissed in my bed twice. I had to sleep somewhere else and wait ten days before we got to land and I could wash the smell out of my mattress. This did little to nurture my love. So for a time we lived in a state of silent, non-eye contact war, like two people stuck in a marriage for the sake of their kids. In my mind I cast her as Putin the aggressor, and me as litvenyenko the truth telling but ultimately doomed hero.  Occasionally I would accidently stand on her, and not feel at all sorry. However, as part of my current attempt at having a ‘flexible mind’, where I try and let go of preconceptions and unquestioned opinions and instead make judgements based on my actual sense perceptions and reason, I have tried making friends with the cat. I started to cut the bones out of the fish I gave her and patted her a bit now and then. I try and imagine she is actually a person that happens not to be able to speak. The results have been vaguely positive. She hasn’t changed her behaviour towards me at all, except she occasionally comes and licks my armpit when I am lying down and then curls up in the crook of my arm for a bit. I wonder if she is fed up being stuck on a rolling boat with a constantly shifting cast of characters who don’t understand her desires. But give me a wild animal glimpsed from afar, doing it’s wild thing, any day. Poor cat. (Update: it is a few weeks later now and we are developing a tentative fondness for each other)


Excitement: Changing the sail at night. Which only happens if the weather changes suddenly or, worst case scenario, a sail rips (we have had a few worst case scenarios). Tom shouts ‘everybody up!’ in an urgent sort of a way and within 20 seconds people are putting on harnesses and not mentioning that they are about to get soaking wet and cold. Two or three people run to the foremast, a fast jiggle timed to avoid the extremities of the boat’s roll, and clip themselves to something solid. The waves fizz and boil, rodeoing the boat back and forth. The wind howls and the rain comes in at various angles. If someone fell off the side in weather like this, it would be very hard to find them, and herein lies some of the excitement. Sometimes there is lightning. Instructions are relayed down the line.  Sails are dropped, hauled in, unclipped and tied down. Ropes exchanged, new sails attached to cables, and then a couple of people pull hard on ropes and winches as the new sail is raised. There are inevitably complications, and each of us has had to climb the rigging or dangle off the side once or twice to rescue a swinging rope or untangle a halyard. The biggest morsels of bravery happen in the split second and go unnoticed, though the coolest thing I saw was when Laura was literally held by her ankles and lowered down to untangle the anchor as a particularly nasty storm was dragging the boat towards some rocks. Blow wind blow! Each of us containing a scream of both fear and ecstacy as we work, soaking wet and full of adrenaline.

And then we all huddle together in the cockpit, dripping, to see if the adjustments have worked. The odd rueful comment about having to get the sowing machine out again. Maybe we go back out, or maybe it is time for strategic dumping of wet clothes in plastic bags, lying back on damp sheets, counting hours of sleep till next watch and dreaming of a big plate of egg and chips with thick slices of ham at a Yorkshire pub as the boat pounds on through the night.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Bikini Atoll

Obviously the temptation here is to play all sorts of cheap word games that contrast the  two piece swimsuit with the set of islands it is named after. The set of islands in the Middle of Nowhere that the US government decided to use as a nuclear test site. Back in the days when advertising executives had a sense of humour. But there is just something too sad about the whole business, and besides, I forgot to pack my own bikini, so really I would be in a position of pun weakness even before we began.

Apparently one quarter of the entire WORLDS supply of celluloid film was in Bikini for the first test in 1946. Have you seen any of it? In history’s greatest ‘look how big our cock is’ moment, America took the flagship battleship of the otherwise destroyed Japanese navy, their own 800ft aircraft carrier, and over 100 other ships and submarines and put them in the middle of Bikini atoll, then dropped an atomic bomb on them. For a laugh. And to see what would happen. And, lest we forget, to ensure world peace. God bless em.  

Beforehand, the 163 permanent inhabitants of the island (who had just got rid of a different brand of uniformed mafia, the army of Japan) agreed to move temporarily to another atoll until the smoke, plutonium and cesium 137 had cleared and maybe a fish or two had ventured back into the atoll.

But America just loved those giant mushroom clouds – good for morale – and in 1953 detonated Bravo, a 15,000 megaton bomb, that blew a crater a mile wide. In total, the amount exploded on Bikini and the next island, Enewatek, was equivalent 1.6 Hiroshimas every day for 12 years.*

So almost 60 years after the last bomb, and the ground is still radioactive, as are the plants, as is anyone who eats them. The amount of dollars needed to (try to) decontaminate the island is in the hundreds of millions, and what with this, global warming and a mass exodus of Marshallese to the USA, you can see why the US isn’t pulling out all the stops to get it done. The Bikinian people have been relocated four times to four different atolls, and are no closer to coming back to their island.

What freedom we have: with a sailboat and our own food and water we had the ability to go and have a look for ourselves (you could too!). It was sort of on our way, and wouldn’t it be cool to try and find some of those wrecks? So we struck out north east from Ailuk and after three days of sailing entered the atoll by the light of a sunrise that, to me at least, had nuclear overtones. We were used to the atoll  landscape by now -  long, thin islands with coral on the ocean side; dense coconut, pandanus and breadfruit trees cycling life, death, decay and rebirth in the middle; white sand beach and coral reefs on the fringe of a lagoon full of turtles, rays and sharks. Bikini was particularly beautiful though. More sand, more birds (all the rats killed in the bombs – every cloud…) less wind. Why couldn’t America have chosen somewhere a bit more ugly to do their testing? Would anyone really miss shoreditch?

I swam to shore and, just behind the treeline, found a massive grass runway, a few patches of concrete remaining here and there. The airport. In the middle, a ‘terminal’ – a two roomed building with a few brightly painted wooden blue benches like a Cornish bus stop, a scattering of rusting tractors and an electricity substation with no door and three large switches: ‘runway lights’, ‘terminal lights’, ‘pump’. Overhead, power cables ran from this building deeper into the island, and I followed them. Proper exploring! After a few hundred metres sat a workshop containing four smashed up American trucks circa perhaps 1990, and then further again what looked like a construction workers dormitory, calendars on the wall showing last inhabitation in 1997. Spooky even in broad daylight. A generator room, and then some two man dormitories lined up like a youth hostel, this one with posters of girls in non-bikini swimwear, another with posters of cars and a half empty bottle of soy sauce, another containing neat graffiti in marker pen, an old reading lamp and a few pages of the ‘Pacific Rim’ Newspaper. Then a large office full of manuals for various machinery, reels of fax papers, calendars on the wall, vines creeping in the open windows. A dining room and kitchen. 

There was no wine cellar, but there were a few jars of unopened peanut butter, one of strawberry jam, one of grape jam, and some other bits and pieces. The peanut butter was BLACK, as was the tabasco sauce, but the strawberry jam at least had a hint of red, and jam lasts forever, right? 18 years is like the blink of an eye for industrially prepared conserve. I took the strawberry, and a roll of toilet paper (we had run out), and swaggered like Indiana Jones back to the boat.

The jam, when opened, didn’t taste like radioactivity, but it didn’t taste of strawberries either. So we went fishing instead, all four of us swimming to a coral head perhaps 300 metres away. After a couple of minutes, a shark came and had a look, swimming towards me. I don’t know if is nurture or nature that stirs such feelings of menace from sharks, though their flat, wide head and unblinking yellow-green eyes definitely have something to do with it. I certainly felt menaced. I made myself big and waved my speargun at it as I had been taught and done before to good effect, but this one didn’t seem suitably put in his place, and started circling around underneath me. Tom appeared from behind me and made towards the shark as if to touch it with his spear, which usually really freaks them out, but the shark instead flicked away quickly then turned towards him, fins flattened and mouth open! Shit the bed. We retreated and I was greatly relieved when, after maybe 30 metres, it stopped following us and disappeared into the depths. Perhaps it hadn’t seen humans before and was used to defending its territory from any invaders. Perhaps it thought we were americans and was still angry about the tests (the shark in the picture isn’t the actual shark). 

Can you see the shark?

We didn’t have a fish, and on the way back tom speared, but not killed, a big fat jack. It proceeded to make little ‘help me I am dying!’ noises and thrashing around, bloodying the water. It was my job to get in between the fish and any sharks that might come to try and steal it, and I held my breath as Tom struggled to get it out of the water. No sharks… and then the fish was on the kayak and I was trying to get the spear out when Michael shouted ‘Shark!’ and I put my head in the water to see a different, bigger shark circling around underneath us, wondering why he could smell and hear but not see or taste dying fish. We repeated the waggling of guns and exiting of the situation.

A couple of days later we moved across the lagoon to the main village of Bikini, where seven workman monitor radiation levels in the coconut trees, run a generator, and keep the place clean. Like most of the villages we have shown up at, we didn’t know if they knew we were coming (we have to get permission to visit each island from the representatives in Majuro, but that doesn’t mean they let people on the island know), and in such a remote place there is less of a safety net if we (or they) had misguided intentions. And local knowledge is essential.  So the initial hello is important.

We must have done ok because that night we found ourselves in the back of a pick up truck, heading to a beach at the end of the island where the entire population (all seven of them) were fishing and barbecuing. We brought a fish and some biscuits but lit up when they put turkey and sausages on the barbeque. Wow! I don’t think I have every enjoyed a low grade frankfurter so much as that night, and it made me think that I should probably only eat meat when I am of a mind to enjoy it that much (my digestive system agrees).   

All the guys there are on 3 or 6 month contracts, and seem to be quite happy pottering around taking measurements, especially as it is the only outer island with large scale fridges and freezers and occasional deliveries of beer. The Marshallese are very gentle, thoughtful people, and these guys were like a tight family, so the perfect people to sit round a fire with.

The next day we were shown around the island, not much to see except bunkers that had variously housed cameramen, scientists, and animals (pigs, goats – to see what would happen to them…), and coconut trees labelled with numbers that were being monitored.

Another peaceful sleep under the stars and then we headed out try and find some shipwrecks. Once again, this felt like Actual Exploring. Even though all the wrecks were marked with buoys, we had no GPS locations and so had to take clues from various anecdotes and rough maps as to where to look in the 250 square miles of atoll.

It was a choppy day and when we found the first buoy it was a hard job attaching the boat to it, then getting in the water and diving down to see what the boat was. There were more and bigger sharks around, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out where the line between ‘curiosity’ and ‘threatening behaviour’ lay. Besides, I can’t free dive nearly deep enough to see more than a dark outline of each ship. Tom can, however, and he reported the first boat we dived on to be a small one, the second to be an upside down submarine, and the third a transport ship. Not what we were looking for. So we went around in circles for an hour or two and had almost given up when we saw two buoys 100 metres apart – the length of the Nagato, the Japanese battleship. We dived down and there she was! From one perspective, just a lump of rusting metal, from another a source of deep fascination and significance. Mine lay somewhere in the middle.

We knew that the Nagato was sunk next to the Saratoga, the huge aircraft carrier, and so found it easily. This hulk sank right side up, and the bridge is just thirty metres from the surface. Tom almost touched it, I could barely make it out.

And then we headed to shore – a place called ‘bird island’ on account of the thousands of birds that live there. It is little more than a sand spit with a few little bushes on it, but enough for birds and turtles to lay eggs, and we saw giant turtle prints moving up the beach at various points. Being so close to natural processes one can’t help but be sucked into wondering what it must be like to be a turtle, or a gannet, and look at them and try and work out the purpose of this or that behaviour, and on what level and in what way to they ‘think’. And all the objects washed up on these beaches offer the same opportunity for thinking about people. Especially when you find boats, or remains of boats. There were two on bird island – the rudder and part of decking from a big catamaran, and then further along I was amazed to find a raft – a few coconut trunks lashed together with rope and buoyed by some polystyrene fenders: all materials easily available on a deserted island. Was it some doomed attempt at escape by someone stranded, or the product of a school survival summer camp in Hawaii? By what route and on what currents did it get here? You can turn it upside down and look at it from all angles and never know.

Curiosity sated, we left Bikini island via ‘sharks pass’, and dangled the carcass of a big dogtooth tuna we had caught and filleted on the way. Within two minutes there were a dozen sharks following the boat, and we sat smug on top of our 30 tons of steel and pulled the fish out of the way every time a shark went for it. Eventually a big bastard came from the side and locked his teeth around it. We pulled on the rope so the shark’s head came out of the water, oblivious to us and intent on the fish head, yellow green eyes gleaming in the midday sun.

·         I read that a delegation of Bikinians once accepted an invitation to go to Australia where a group of Aborigines had been similarly moved off their land for British nuclear tests. ‘What british nuclear tests?’ thought I. Turns out we carried out almost 50 nuclear tests in Western Australia and in Christmas Island, Kiribati. According to the book, Jack Niederthal’s ‘For the Good of Mankind’, the local Maralingan group of Aborigines have been displaced since the 1950s with no compensation and ‘were exposed to radioactive fallout from these blasts… Prior to moving forward with the testing, British government officials sent out one man in a jeep to locate [and warn] hundreds of aboriginal people, all of whom were spread out and wandering over 100,000 square kilometres of south central Australian desert… after a series of tests, they found an aboriginal family, the Milpuddies and their pet dog, sleeping in one of the craters which had been formed only days before by a nuclear explosion. The military officials who discovered them threw them into a jeep, sped with them to an army camp, forced them naked into showers, shot their dog, and began testing them for radiation sickness… the aborigines called the phenomenon of the nuclear blasts the ‘Days of the Black Mist’'. No surprise this didn’t make it into our history books.