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.
i am not from around here
my skin is too pale and
they suss my accent out
but the beer is cold
and the sun will be back
from behind the clouds
To walk the streets here is to walk through a carefully-constructed dream maze, which knows only of rising walls, green waterways, wooden tunnels, identical bridges. I walk the same path many times over, each time leading me somewhere new, somewhere unknown, in only a general direction – across town, avoiding the hordes. To be Venetian must be to live your life down these dream-alleys, behind closed wooden doors in your thousand-year high-rise. There seem to be no locals on San Marco, save for those paid to be there.
To walk the streets here is to discover pools of darkness, be tricked by dead ends, fall into squares through hidden doorways.
To walk the streets here is to walk in a dream.
A hundred thousand comings and goings, the wakes they pull reflecting the high façades and bright reds and greens of the awnings. On the metal jetty, boats come chuntering in, sending huge vibrations shuddering through the pier. The water is low and a foot of green algae is exposed on the low brickwork. Steps appear where before there were none.
It was 3:30am when we came through the door of Graciela’s home on the outskirts of Barranquilla.
“Come, my children,” she says, standing up from the table in the dining room, where she’d been sitting with her daughter. “You must be hungry. Do you want some sopa?”
We nodded gratefully and Graciela placed steaming bowls of chicken soup in front of us, chunks of sweetcorn and potato submerged in it. In breaks between eating, her daughter acts as translator when our basic Spanish gives out.
“We saw you at the carnival today!” I point at myself, point at my eyes, point at her, then attempt some rudimentary salsa steps. Graciela laughs heartily.
That morning, in her resplendent outfit of reds, greens, yellows and blacks, her dark hair all done up and her dress flowing about her, she’d driven us as close as we could get to the parade. We walked the final ten minutes down dusty roads where chickens pecked and excited children dashed from house to brightly-painted house. 100dB floods of reggaeton, salsa and vallenato music emanated from a hundred different speaker systems.
Nothing can prepare you for being a gringo at the carnival in Barranquilla. After much haggling, we paid 15,000 pesos (£4) to get into an enclosure where the smoke of grilling and the distinctive hiss of opening cans filled the air. The onslaught on all senses can at times be overwhelming, as music, bright colours, smells, local flavours, and textures combine as the city comes together for three days of parade and fiesta. Flour is rubbed into white faces. Locals, armed with huge cans of bubblegum-scented foam, spray it profusely, targeting the obvious travellers with well-aimed spumes. Over the waves of music, there’s whistles and yells as patrons in the front row call for “dos Aguilas”, the local Colombian lager, or grilled sticks of meat straight off the barbecue. Ahead of us, toiling under the sun’s rays, dancers in the most garish outfits compete for attention, showing no sign of fatigue. Float after float comes past, greeting the excited crowds as they pass.
“There she is!” comes a cry, as we spot Graciela among forty others, dancing around an enormous yellow bull, its horns tipped in gold and streamers billowing. Despite the heat, the dancers’ moves are in sync, their twirls and spins beautifully-timed. She beams as she sees us. Now, following my gringo dance moves, she’s wearing that same smile.
“Si,” she says, then turns to her daughter, who translates: “But now, it’s time to rest. Tomorrow we do it all again.”
the overnight to Dong Hoi
scuttled and squeaked
out of Hanoi
and a little Vietnamese mouse
mistook the sound
for a potential mate
and stuck his head
above my bed
and then, seeing he was mistaken
and was gone.
I laughed in his face. “Je vous donne €5 pour trois.”
He looked around, and seeing no nearby tourists to fleece, relented.
That is how I came to have three empty bottles between my feet. Paris sparkled, like a cloth made of stars before me, a sprawling quilt of life lifting Montmartre to the height of the Gods, like some Parisian Mount Olympus. On a scrap of paper, I wrote a poem, rolled it up, stuffed it in a bottle. I stood, stumbled down marble steps, reached the railing, kissed the bottle once, then flung it as far as it would go over the city. When I thought it would fall to Earth, it continued, straight off into the night sky over Paris, and then, when it was almost out of sight, it exploded into colours, three hundred or more, burning and soaring and illuminating, and the cloth of stars on Earth came to be reflected in the sky. And from the dying embers of light came three hundred homing pigeons; their wings taking them out into the world, to one day, one day, bring them back to me.
I wrote that poem for their safe return.
i spilled my beer
so the room smelled of wet yeast,
and the cigarettes old men stubbed out in the corridor,
and the broth the guy in the top bunk had bought off the food trolley,
and the single rose in a vase on the table,
that wobbled in time with the train.
Exhale as you lift. Inhale as you lower. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirty seconds break. I feel drops running through my hair, down my neck, sticking my shirt to my back. One, two, three, four. Slower now. Back straight, Cable, don’t slouch. Ten. Eleven. Wobbly twelve, then down. Smashed it.
With a goal in mind, training is a doddle. The numbers tick down as my feet pound the spinning rubber of the treadmill. Wake up! Grab a brush and put a little make-up! The pounding vocals drive me on. This is easy. Until it isn’t. Three kilometres in, the pain in my chest is back. Last time it was at two-and-a-half. Progress. And where you gonna run when you're staring down the cable of a mic pointed at your grill like a gun? When the treadmill beeps cut through Fred Durst’s swearing, it’s all I can do not to collapse onto the floor of the gym. But I’ve done it. Twenty-six minutes. A whole minute faster. Race day will be a breeze.
The adrenaline starts as we jostle for position on the start line. There’s hundreds of us here, dogs straining to be let off the lead, angry bees confined to a hive about to break open. Then the starter waves her flag and the clock starts ticking and my feet start pounding grass flattened by hundreds before me, slowly at first, finding my pace, then settling into it as the first kilometre flies by. The crowds are thinning, the beasts have pulled together at the front, the stragglers behind. This is easy going. A marker indicates a further 500m to the first obstacle. In my head, I’m picturing an adventure playground, a huge web of nets held up by a wooden frame, to clamber over and around and through. I see in my mind’s eye soldiers in training, crawling on their fronts through mud, keeping low as live fire is gunned over their heads, barbed wire just centimetres from their backs. I’ve got this. I can do this. Feet keep pounding, the rhythm of my breathing quickens. I’ve lost my team now, probably behind me. I am flying.
Obstacle one. The sign looms up and I am ready, ready for anything, adrenaline coursing through my arms, legs, heart. And then I arrive at a row of tables with a series of people sitting behind them. And there, sitting quietly in a Windsor field behind an old school desk, sits my mother.
“Your father and I are quite worried about you.”
No. They – they promised obstacles. Like, physical obstacles. I spent months training for this. Is this some kind of joke? My heart is racing: from running or from the conversation I’ve been thrown into? I sit through five minutes of her concern, of her sleepless nights, of her “not anger, but disappointment.” I sit and can do nothing but listen, head hung in shame. It’s my fault. All of this, everything she’s saying, it’s my fault. My heart slows down, adrenaline replaced by the darkness of shame. I’m apologising, pledging to do better by me, by her, by our family. It’s all I can do.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” she says. “But don’t let me hold you up. You’ve got a race to run. Priorities and whatnot.”
The kilometre after is tougher. The wind has been taken out of my sails and my feet feel heavy with despair. At the next obstacle, another row of desks. My girlfriend? My heart takes a hit and sinks like a stone.
“We need to talk,” she says.
There’s still three obstacles after this. The adventure playground is gone from my mind. All I see now is ever-darkening circles of Hell. What on Earth do they have in store for us? I picture it all out ahead of me, obstacle three: my boss accusing me of some corporate crime and threatening to strike me off sans compensation and hand me over to the police; obstacle four: a burning bonfire of all my books; obstacle five, the Grim Reaper with a scythe. Sweat now pours, my heart is beating in my mouth. I feel my mind tearing apart with the strain, make it stop before I am nothing but a bag of bones running through a field, make it stop, make it stop!
“C’mon, Cable!” She’s shaking me.
I look at her groggily.
“Wake up!” she says. “Are you ready?! It’s race day!”