The queues for the showers were too long, so we took long luxurious baths in the lake, floating like rare white starfish. When you climb out you feel a warmth like your soul itself is ablaze. Or maybe that was the rum we’d put in the coffee.
There’s yoga on when we get to the festival ground. The grass is the best it’s going to get, the dust not yet caking everything. By the water we conjure up magic little stories about the monster that lives in the lake. There’s a traffic light and a crossing in the middle of a field, and people queue up to cross the road when the light goes green.
It’s cooking temperature in the tent before the music even starts. “Are you ready to make some noise, Down the Rabbit Hole?” Frank Carter’s voice drills over roaring guitars. By the middle of their first song, he’s at the heart of a circle pit, two metres from where I’ve been shoved to. By the middle of their second, he’s raised on the hands of the crowd, silhouetted against red light. “Can we all get a circle pit going all the way out the tent on that side and back in on the other? C’mon, if we can do it at Roskilde, we can do it here.” Cue stampede. Afterwards, we sit in the sun watching someone hand out fines for jaywalking on the crossing while our t-shirts dry out and our ears ring.
We lay in the grass until a Scotsman woke us up, noisily, from the main stage. “My name’s fucking Lewis Capaldi,” he said to the crowd. “If you like rock and roll, you’re at the wrong gig, mate.” He sounds exactly like he does on his album, and the crowd wait around for Someone You Loved. We don’t. It’s off to watch Kamasi Washington and his squad on stage, each and every one of them a top-notch musician. The only thing better than one drummer is two drummers, bashing their kits into rhythms you feel in your heart, raising the levels of ecstasy, again and again, and when you think there’s no more climax room left, they raise it even further.
Same tent a bit later on: it’s Thom Yorke, the man-machine. Released from Radiohead expectations, he’s a DJ, composer, pianist, singer, conductor and entertainer in one. I catch my breath when he takes to the piano for Dawn Chorus, his band off-stage, then it’s back to pounding drum machines and enormous mesmerising visuals.
Sunday starts slowly, with a swim and rum-coffee. Beside the main stage, a couple lie in a hammock. I don’t blame them: Khruangbin is the perfect music for lying down. Their funk carries you along like on hands above a crowd, wavy and never still.
Later on, Aurora burned herself up on stage, an enormous firework that rivalled Thom Yorke for creativity and sheer subwoofer power. Sunday night was lying-in-a-net night, high up above the heads of the crowd, where the world couldn’t get us and make us come down and have to start packing the tent up. We walk until we can’t walk any more, and then we lie down. Now, only the trip back to reality stands between me and real life. And when I go to sleep tonight it’s goodbye to all this, and it’ll be like a dream I’ve woken up from, half-remembered through sleepy eyes behind a desk.
“How was it?” they’ll ask, and you’ll answer something like: “Oh man, it was sooo good,” but they’ll never know. They can’t know: they weren’t there. They didn’t join you on your trip Down the Rabbit Hole. And they won’t join you next year when you do it all again.
it’s cold up there, in that room,
that’s what I remember. images of
flasks of tea, wishing it were rum,
fingers snipped off gloves.
for once I was a writer,
freezing and flowing,
high-up in a garret
in my room full of thought.
for once I lived a writer’s life,
penniless and alone
in my box by the sea.
I saw but did not see,
the arc of the gulls,
their cries like lost lambs in the sky,
or a whole beach breathing
like the man with paper bag lungs.
there’s one last party in the sky tonight,
I’m late – the pinks are already leaving,
but the tiny scratty bats swoop in
and now the night has only just begun.
it troubles me
in this town
that all is built-up
with no place to shut one’s eyes
and think of impossibilities.
but soon it shall be summer,
and all that is green
shall become sheets
and leaves shall tuck me in.
I plan to spend a good deal
of this warmth
I sat down one night, put Radiohead on, and rambled along to the music.
Exit Music (For a Film)
the path to Hell is lined
playing our requiem
in the rain.
this is what you get
when you mess with me
and from her mouth
for a minute there,
the powder in my brain
would not settle.
when it did I found
words instead of dust.
notes traverse geographies,
and move through the trail of time
to leave you stranded in reality
when they fade.
music was my first love;
my first reminder
of how tight we cling onto the things
that must fade.
Jumped in a river
for want of a better story
there was nothing to fear
save the nettles
always on the bank
and the mud
between the toes.
Everything in its Right Place
but everything was in its right place,
it had to be
for that was how it had become.
precisely because that was how it had gone
meant that was right
at least right now.
but sands are always shifting,
new dunes shall shape and fall
and that will be alright as well;
that too shall be all right.
The twinkling lights of Scarborough now hidden behind the hills, we’re guided solely by a thousand stars above and the torch on Brett’s paddleboard ahead. We’ve been paddling the kayaks for about twenty minutes, and now beach up on No Man’s Land. Right now, it’s a sandbank, but it’s so-called because it’s so frequently underwater that construction is forbidden. The sand is thick, and it swallows up your toes. We haul the kayaks over the sandbank and enter Bon Accord Lagoon. If you look closely when your hands touch the water, you can see tiny points of light darting from them, so small they could be the reflections of stars on the waves. Brett shines his torch over the surface, and suddenly it’s alive with a hundred bats flying low, hoping for dinner. The silhouettes of the see-saw paddles rise and fall, there’s the sound of blades entering still water and the occasional hollow thud of fiberglass. Besides that there’s nothing. The lagoon is flanked on three sides by mangroves, forming little sheltered bays that Brett directs us into.
“Now put your hands in the water,” he says, and as we do, there’s gasps as it lights up in tiny sparks. They emanate from fingers outwards, like sparklers, every move accompanied by underwater meteors. The stars above our heads are suddenly outnumbered by those beneath the surface.
“Now climb in,” comes Brett’s voice. “Swim far away from anyone else.”
And suddenly I’m a plasma ball, shooting photons from every part of my body, tiny glow-worms emanating from my skin, again and again and again, every time I move. It’s like I’m on some drug enabling me to see my energy overlap into that of Mother Nature. Superlatives don’t do the trick anymore: it’s magical, fantastical, outrageous – I can’t take my eyes off the starry movement of my own body. I am all-powerful, I am a creator, I am swimming through the depths of the universe, the constellations constantly shifting, dancing, evolving, lighting up, burning out and then being reborn through my movement.
I’m out of breath from exhilaration when I finally re-enter the kayak. I lean back, watching the stars, the slow-burn bioluminescence of the skies, and gently, gently start paddling back to No Man’s Land. Brett picks up sea urchins, a sea cucumber, points out lobster, shrimp and starfish lurking among the turtle grass, then shines his light on footlong fish with needlepoint noses that dart and jump ahead of us. Back at the surf shack, we pull the kayaks up the beach and Brett gives six of us a ride in the back of his pickup. We’re crouched down, clutching onto whatever we can, as he ferries us off the beach and back to civilisation. At the Crown Point junction, we jump ship, our feet still sandy, our minds still spinning, and with soca music from the island’s bar strip reaching our ears.
This piece won The Telegraph’s Just Back travel writing competition in April 2019.
the man who wrote jazz
lost his name
hung up in some smoky den
and taken by someone else
while the saxophonist played.
he kept an eye out in town
for who had taken his name
but resigned to not having one
at least for a while.
the man who wrote jazz
who now had his name
and what they now did with it.
he should have put his name in it,
so he would know it was his.
that’s what other people did.
he would not be so careless,
with his second.
it snowed butterflies
whose forefathers had danced
amongst these caves,
just a week before
and could not imagine
the drip-drip slow
of a hundred thousand years.
the homeless man outside the Co-op
twiddles a bit
of green broken glass,
in his eyes an emerald
catching the day’s dying rays
lighting up his world
Once you see one Palestinian flag, you start to see them all. From my window I can see eight without even looking too hard, stretched across buildings finished and unfinished. I am too far distanced from that situation to comment, but their presence strikes me. I did not notice them six months previously. There’s no flag on the world’s tallest building. The Burj Khalifa, like an iPhone X alongside older models, sends everything around it into crashing obsolescence. And yet it’s funny how the world’s most celebrated building is the one that looks most likely to leave us for outer space. I guess we all aspire to the stars, because we’ve already conquered everything on Earth. There is nothing very far away anymore, nothing too crazy: weekend trips to Dubai are, for some, perfectly normal. Building high-rise and ski slopes in the desert, perfectly normal. Sixteen-lane motorways, perfectly normal.
So of course, when that’s all so mundane, we need a new fix.
The city’s highways never sleep, its high-rise never stops winking. There is no city closer to the pinnacle of human ingenuity, no city further removed from human roots. Why was this necessary? For what it demonstrates is that progress can only come with consumerism, with waste, with haves and have-nots. A city so at the cutting edge of our prowess as a species that it blunts everything else – a candy-cane of a city that nowhere else can live up to, because other cities have to be grounded in reality, at least sometimes. Except maybe Vegas and Cancun, there’s no cities with its head in the clouds and feet off the ground as much as Dubai.
And yet, it’s cool. People wouldn’t entertain the dream if it wasn’t. The opulence, the theatre, the improbability, the incredulity – that’s cool. The lights, the architecture, the fact anything is possible if you have enough money, even that’s cool. But the whole place is sprinting – to stay shiny, to stay hyper-relevant, to stay candy-sweet.
And you can cover a huge distance in a short time if you sprint. But how long can you keep it up?
Going back to London feels like stepping off a cloud, pressing the Home button to leave the Instagram feed and go back into the real world: colours duller, buildings smaller, everything altogether less opulent. But at least it’s real.
When it rains, puddles form in the street outside my window. Some people love rain for the sound it makes on the roof as they sleep. I love it for the windows it creates into a world far beneath, and for the sight of tiny droplets, seen only upon impact, as if the sky is trying to become one with the earth. In another world, they are fish, nibbling the surface of a gigantic underground lake, only revealed when it rains.
Shutting the front door behind me, I cross the street, barefoot. It’s been raining all afternoon, and now the yellow streetlights draw lines on the dark concrete, like suns setting all around me. I hunch down at the largest pool. If I sit still and look really close, I can see myself reflected back in the eyes of my own reflection. Through those eyes, I watch myself sit motionless: a tiny mirrored me under streetlight.
The water is cold on my bare legs, legs that disappear under the water as I plunge them into the pool. The ripples caused by my entrance send tiny wrinkles of light dancing across my thighs. The impact marks of the pitter-patter rain cease to be falling drops and instead become tiny fish, gasping at the roof of the world.
I hold my breath, and as I break the surface, a world of light floods my senses, a world of azure and sunshine a million miles from the grey city I’ve left behind. I find myself swimming, quite naturally, eyes open. I trace the outlines of the world first, pushing out until cliffs block my path, dotted with caves. In two of these lurk my eyes, in two more my nostrils. My mouth is a giant outcrop, unmoving now but for the rise and fall of breathing. I dive deeper, taking in every inch, edging along the lines that I know must form my chin, and then back up, swimming in the maze that is my ear. Then I push off from the rocks and swim inwards, towards a blaze of colour that looms up at the heart of this submerged world.
I realise then that I’m swimming around my own psyche. As fish glint and shimmer and reveal hidden neon blues and underbellies of brightest red, I realise that these are my thoughts, floating idly among the coral mass of my brain.
It’s rare that I get to observe my own thoughts as though a third person. The city above requires so much of my attention that these dives are few and far between. Yet I enjoy them. It’s peaceful down here. I feel safe swimming these waters. That promotion you’re going for, those groceries you’ve got to buy; it’s all meaningless here, lost in the face of overwhelming stillness. What hour of what day it is; that too is immaterial.
Arms spread, I fly over this submarine world. A school of thought catches up with me, then passes me by, tiny black and yellow things unconcerned by my presence as I soar over them. Deep in a crevice, the protruding black spines of a sea urchin. Further on, amongst a city of skyscrapers lifting their fingers up towards the surface, a hundred or more fish, like specks of dust, mill together, before they’re scattered by a passing parrotfish that nibbles at the coral. When the fish moves on, the dust mites regroup as if they had never dispersed.
Eventually, I feel the tug of the outside world requiring my attention. My body can’t go unattended for too long. I do a final lap of the reef, taking it in for the last time, then push up and break the surface once more.
The street is still dark. The lamplight still shines. I have no idea how long I’ve been gone. It doesn’t matter. I emerge and climb from the puddle, wet as a newborn. If it’s still raining, I can’t tell. On hands and knees I survey the world: the pavements, the parked cars, the sad drip-drip trees. I stand to go inside, then turn to take a last look at the puddle. In the lamplight, a fish nibbles the surface, calling out for my return. I’ll be back, I know. But now it’s time to return to reality.
Later, lying in bed, I feel the rocking of the sea and I swear, a hundred miles or more from the coast, I can hear waves breaking on sun-baked rocks, as if coming from inside my head.
This is what it was all for. All those months of early mornings, rising with the mist still on the fields, watching from the Jeep as the horses’ breath catches first light; all of it for this moment. As the starter lowers the flag, thousands of hearts are in thousands of mouths. Over the next two to three miles, hooves pound the earth, carrying forth the hopes of the jockeys, the trainers, the owners and the fans.
In the vernacular, the sound is described as a ‘thundering’ of hooves, but thunder doesn’t shake the earth quite like the passing of racehorses. Thunder doesn’t see tens of thousands congregating at racecourses in their finest clothes. No one lays bets on thunder. No, this sound is a thunder from within, a heart beating faster than it has ever beaten before, a pulse soaring from the sight of watching your horse running against its rivals. But fans who flock to the Cheltenham Festival see only half the story, if that. Speaking to Jamie Snowden, founder and trainer at Jamie Snowden Racing, reveals the effort involved in getting a horse ready to race.
“Dawn to dusk, and beyond,” is how he describes it, “and three hundred and sixty five days a year. It becomes your way of life.” Having ridden horses from a young age, Jamie took a gap year after school, which he spent racing around the world, then attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Training horses though, was always on his mind. “The buzz I get out of training a winner is bigger than the buzz I get out of riding a winner,” he says. That buzz saw him start out on his own in 2008, following stints with Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, both big names in the business of horse training. He had one horse and one employee. Today, he trains forty horses and employs fourteen members of staff.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” he says. “So we have to make sure the owners have a good time.” Racehorse owners are involved at every stage of the process, watching the horse progress, deciding on tactics, chatting to the jockey, and watching from the stands on race day. Jamie winds down after the races with a drink with the owners. “If it wins, there’ll be champagne,” he says with a smile. With prize money of almost £4.6 million at stake over the four days of the festival, it’s not hard to see why. But he never loses sight of the horses’ wellbeing. “Every horse is an individual,” he says. “I have my training regime, but it needs to be tailored to the horses. We need to decide when a horse needs routine, and when it needs variety.”
As well-dressed crowds pour into the Cheltenham Racecourse, clutching the Racing Post or the festival’s racecard, the atmosphere is buzzing, as they soak up the live music or stop for the first pint of the day. Many head straight for the cacophony of the betting ring, where bookmakers smile as punters lay hard-earned notes on the outcomes of the races, in a language of odds, each ways and favourites. Both the punter and the bookmaker still hope to be smiling later in the day, but if one ends the day upbeat, the other generally doesn’t. In all, over £150m is bet on the Cheltenham Festival every year: in person, in betting shops around the country, and online. For some, there’s the academic poring over the racing pages of the newspaper, examining the form and weight of the horse, the ground it’ll be running on or its past performance over this distance. For others, it’s as simple as liking the horse’s name. Either strategy can lead to success.
The thunder starts with the Cheltenham Roar, a massive coordinated outpouring of sound from thousands of pairs of lungs that greets the start of the first race of the festival. Then the pounding, the drumming, the beating hearts all form one, as the fans, pressed together in the stands, crane their necks to catch sight of the action, as the horses gallop round the course, jostling for position. A strong start doesn’t mean a strong finish, and a mistake at a fence can cost horse and jockey dearly. By the end of the day, white betting receipts litter the ground, evidence of the unpredictability, the rollercoaster of emotions, the buzz of being swept up in a whooping, cheering crowd, and the winning (or losing) of sweet, sweet money.
Win or lose though, both the fans and the trainers will be back. Some punters have been coming to Cheltenham for decades. Some stables are onto their third generation of trainers. It’s become their way of life. They’re seeking that impending rumble that tells them of the oncoming excitement, the potential glory, the bragging rights and the prize money. They’re storm hunters, all of them, chasing the next bout of thunder in their hearts.
on downtown days like these
the high-rise becomes one with the sky,
as if all that glass were only water,
and all that concrete only clouds.
it seems the whispers have got around
that this could be the last time;
bridges are conveyor belts
of sunglassed mourners
and every note the buskers play is
pictures crackle through static,
snatches of light so fleeting
i can only grasp the feeling –
like the bassline
of a song on the airwaves, that
I just can't name.
This is not a journal. These are the scraped-together writings as they came to me on that hot island in the Mediterranean. Make of them what you will.
7 August - London
At least it’s cool on this train. The green scene wobbles serene past the window; the sky is as a newborn’s eye. Earlier, I’d watched the light roll off the escalators: hundreds of lapping waves on the ceiling of the station. A trip was calling, revealing itself to me by the lapping of my subconscious on the shores of my mind. I am both sweating and the coldest I will be in a week. The seven days that lie ahead now stretch their arms, lazily wake up, enjoy the feeling of clear air on skin. Soon that clear air will thin, and all that will remain will be the blue and white truth of the clouds, and a can of cold, golden promise.
7 August - Catania from above
Sicily appears as if burning under a thick blanket of smoke. The barren hills have burnt first, the pools of water that still stand from the firefighters reflect the flames as they’re echoed in the clouds. Wind turbines signal SOS in semaphore. Nothing lives here.
And then, the red rooves of a settlement, a farmhouse on a hill surrounded by pines, the remnants of green snaking through a dry valley. Etna stands guard over all she has scorched.
8 August - Palermo
Vast arched courtyards through doorways, a priest reading Bukowski hidden in a magazine, black medicine sipped on ice.
12 August - Castelbuono
The cafe only opened at five am – though the owner sat outside looking as bored as we were for a good hour before that – so we dwelled in our wine haze with our new friends with whom we’d run out of conversation. We are homeless, we are the scraped-together, we are the festival gods of our own fate, and we are here, together, in our sleeping bags and everyone in their own mental world, waiting for 5:40am.
12 August - Palermo
Two more hours to kill. This waiting room: Palermo. The bus rattled along the coastal road past Céfalu, the sun rising and scattering itself over the sea. Inside the bus, I tossed and turned on a single seat, my mind willing sleep to come but my body never comfortable enough to allow it. What a festi-dip this promises to be.
12 August - London
The time has come to prick the bubble on the dream and return myself to reality. When the light flicks off, so too does Sicily. The immediate Sicily, anyway. I have no doubt that its effects will be felt in months and years to come.
The cicadas are screeching like someone’s being murdered. The path between the trees that shield them from view is a rubbish dump of rocks, crumbled from these very hills. Our feet gnash at the earth, grinding countless years of nature’s work. Far off on the breeze, carried from another valley, comes the sound of cowbells, occasionally a lowing. The heat is everything. Clouds over the next hill erupt in slow motion, but offer no threat, nor any respite. The cicadas keep time on the heat like a timer on the oven. I swat away a solitary buzz with a trained hand. A lone blonde reed wobbles noiselessly. A tree moves in the breeze. The cicadas slow, then fall still. The murder is over, a body lies bleeding without a name. In years to come, explorers like us will find a jawbone, bleached white-hot.
I watch revelry happening
far off in a nearby garden;
fairy lights and dimlit people,
like I’m in some fishbowl
just swimming round
it rumbles like the world is crumbling,
and all the skyscrapers are falling to earth
by flashes of their decaying silhouette teeth.
that shakes soaked pavements,
sets off car alarms
and sends the neighbourhood dogs away to cower,
sounding like distant bombs
that fall on our conscience.
when the rain comes
it rinses the dust from the sky
and no sign is left of life
bar drip-drip trees
and the echoes of coughs
and then all is quiet.