dubai

by day

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. 

by night

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. 

dive through - published in Athleta Magazine edition 3 (H1, 2018)

            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.

a racing heart - from Athleta edition 3 (published H1 2018)

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.

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Sicily

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.

Goodnight world.
Goodnight dream.
Goodnight Sicily.

San Focà

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.

venice

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.

a gringo in the carnival (Barranquilla, Colombia)

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.”

in the beginning

“Trois euros.”
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. 

obstacle course

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!”

margate

The town was grey and its people were mostly shut up indoors. The day’s only taxi turned into a carpool when a couple beat us to it, then offered to take us as well. The driver dropped them at a nondescript but apparently popular B&B without a single sign on the exterior.

We arrived late to the workshop and were still the first ones there. Once we got over our reticence at cutting up literature, we got stuck into redacting words deemed unnecessary and leaving just the poetry that lay beneath. A History of the French Revolution provided plenty of references to Paris and Champagne. Herman Melville was less forthcoming. Maybe he was poetic enough as it was.

When our brains could take no more stained words and linguistic jigsaw puzzles, we braved the cold, rain and wind to walk fifteen minutes through a deserted town to the art gallery.

“Our most famous work is on the beach, but the tide has come in so you won’t see it anymore today. But there’s plenty more to see,” the receptionist told us cheerily. There were more exhibits in the museum than people. Maybe people around here just weren’t that interested in art. Later, as we made to leave, up loomed human-size mannequins, their faces contorted or blank or not there at all, limbs tied up with string or holding dead-eyed children. These were the faces of future nightmares. The artist also had pictures of houses, with the boughs of trees or huge geysers of blood bursting from the windows.
“If a kid did that at school...” Lara said. Her voice echoed around the still gallery.
We were the only ones in the café. The waitress served us, then started clearing up the tables. Whatever there had been of sun was now setting in the world’s most underwhelming sunset, a thin line of orange across a tiny portion of sky. 
For some masochistic reason, we ventured out along the concrete pier. In a bar sat a single man nursing a beer. The wind tugged at us, the sea smelled, well, like the sea. Huge plumes of salty froth gathered at the walls as the waves crashed and spat below. 
“We might end up on the front page,” I shouted into the wind. “Two swept into the sea in Margate.” We didn’t stay long after that thought.

The route along the promenade battered rain and sea spray at us. I don’t remember seeing another person in about a mile. 
The replacement bus was dimly-lit and a few groups sat around, silently pondering how they had ended up in this place. The bus rattled round country roads, the driver making a single stop to pick up a single person before crashing off again into the 5pm night. Then the train wheels started turning and we started thawing as we moved back toward the city where everything happened, and where everything had ground to a halt over three inches of snow. 

underground sound

The underground is loud enough to drown out all thoughts, which I guess is what makes people choose to ride it. You can be on autopilot, switch off. When you're underground there's nothing but the underground. It binds people in a way that little else can – geographically, of course, but also physically. There's few other places you'll sit side by side with strangers and it not be weird. The front door crew form a tribe. They don't look at one another but sense their belonging. Different lines form different tribes, distinct in their habits and lifestyle. Then there are the readers, the make-up artists, the music-creeping-out-from-headphoners. But though everyone is united by a desire to escape, everyone's reason for that escape varies vastly. There's the working mum who, having given up on dreams of being an actor years ago, has succumbed to a nine-to-five. There's the father of five, a strong corporate leader, leaving the chaos of the home front to the wife for another day and slipping into an ordered organisation. Everyone is fleeing from and fleeing to. It unites people in a way you wouldn't tell from their eye contact. Most look down-at-heel, others have hidden that shabbiness behind dark suit. The nicer the suit, the deader the look in their eyes. So we don't look at those. We sit, on autopilot, switched off, listening to the sound of the underground.

music

I missed the era of vinyl. Before I was really aware of music, the world had shrunk its music and moved it onto cassette tapes. I vaguely remember songs recorded from the radio, DJ announcements intruding on opening bars, mad dashes to the decks as realisation dawned that those opening bars were the ones you’d been after for weeks. I remember hand-scrawled notes on scraps of card shoved in plastic cases, birthday presents of entire albums across two sides of tape that passed through teeth, slowly getting mangled. In order to listen to music, you had to destroy music.

But these are snippets of memory. My real era was that of CDs. That of homemade mixtapes (the word outlasting the medium) with no indication of what was on them. When I find one today, and can find a player, it’s a pot luck dinner of nostalgia. I still remember the first album I bought, when I saved up pocket money and vouchers for weeks to buy Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. I still have it, and if I went through my collection, would probably find that particular CD inhabiting the box of a completely different album. I used to look forward to coming home and choosing a particular album to listen to from start to finish, the soundtrack to my evening of me-time, long before that word became a thing. An album was a vibe that you absorbed. A CD was a beautiful shiny relic, and I was drawn to them like a magpie. Disused copies became works of art. Two floor-to-ceiling cupboards in my childhood bedroom are still covered with them, shiny side out, a musical mirror fallen silent. Accuse me of rose-tinted glasses if you wish, but we listened to music differently back then. You were always aware of music, because it took a certain effort for it to be playing. Even when listening on headphones, a Discman was a physical presence in your lap. You felt it. You cradled it still to prevent it skipping. You learned albums inside out as you navigated them based purely on track numbers, or you left it to finish playing in its natural order. When an album came to an end, there was silence: silence like the closing credits of a film, or the blank pages in the back of a novel. Space for the listener to reflect on what they had heard, turn the emotions over, regain composure, float back into the real world. I miss those times. There was something of a ritual to music, an effort on the part of the listener that urged them to stay and listen to the whole piece as the artist had created it. 

But you can’t fight the times. I’m now a Spotify subscriber, an avid Soundcloud listener, a YouTube channel subscriber. Things just seem different now. There is no silence. One track by one artist fades into another by another, faceless algorithms pairing songs together based on the listening habits of millions. There’s no time for silence. Tinny earbuds spew the latest tracks into desensitised ears before becoming irrelevant again. There’s no time for time. Music is no longer owned, it’s leased from an overlord for the four minutes of its life, an overlord who can decide at the press of a button that the lease will no longer stretch to your geographic location. Music listening has changed: speed up, quality down. At least that’s how it feels. Yes, CDs got scratched, fitted maddeningly few songs, started to flake around the edges and drop bits of glitter all over your hands, but I look back on those times with pleasure. 

I realise this may well be my first foray into "it was all so much better in the past", and so despite all my grievances I know I'll always listen to music. How can I not, when the alternative is silence? After all, silence is only beautiful when it follows a beautiful album. 

thoughts on a journey

Around Lewknor, finally, the thick trees parted and the green opened up ahead of us. Cows grazed the rapeseed fields beside the road. 

Around Oxford, trees crowded the road again. A wild boar lay squashing the daisies. We pull off the A road and turn onto a cycle path. “Keep to the roads,” the sat nav reminds us. In the suburbs of Oxford I smell England again. 

Nowhere in Oxford has money. When we finally got change, none of the meters worked. I sat on a bench and sipped black coffee. 

Around Burford we saw what we’d come to see. Green stretching and punctuated by dots of villages. A single church stuck above the tree line. Entering the village we realised we were not alone. Cars stretched down the high street as flags fluttered from lamp posts.

Stow on the Wold. Passed through.

Approaching Chipping Campden I smell woodsmoke on pine breeze. The hills rolled up, broken by age-old dry walls. Sheep picked their way along grassy cliffs, their bleats echoing across the valley. Wool clung in smoky clumps to barbed wire. I watched Joost, tiny against the vast landscape. Chipping Campden was beige. The sandstone of Oxford had followed us here.

A dropped plate was the day’s biggest disturbance for a sleepy town. We stopped in a pub garden for lunch. I ate too much beef and too many potatoes. I washed it down with too much beer. Then I felt drowsy.

First drops of rain on the car.

Stroud is a forgotten suburb of inner London, sprawling grey and unlovely. We spend 10 minutes driving round, then looked for where to go next. Three inns were full. Each recommended two further fully booked.

We fell on our feet and found the Egypt Mill. It had roaring fires and lakes, good beer and hot food. So I sit, beer in hand, fire on my back, listening to the birds. We drank ale as ducks swam nonchalantly in the rain. The Cotswolds could be a different world. The rain that was forecast was droplets and had minimal effect on our plans.

I dreamed that night of an underground city, a blaze of life in disused sewers. I lay underneath the world and looked up at it through those little squares of glass in the pavements. A film played on a projector. I met Keith Richards and a face-shifting man. 

A single bird on a telegraph wire waits for a message in nameless countryside. The distance is thick with drizzle. Fields extend to hills over the horizon. 

The serenity of green squares. Along a damp path by the church. Clouds hang like sheep’s wool in the valley.

Road trip dip. 

swim by streetlight

When it rains, puddles form on the road outside my window. Some people love rain for the sound it makes. I love it for the windows it creates into a world far beneath. I love 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 through the rain. 

I shut my front door behind me as I go out onto the street. Droplets flow towards the underground lake past my ears, looking to return from whence they came. It’s been raining all afternoon, and now the lamplight of the street is shone back at me in a golden path. If I sit and watch myself in the pools, and look really close, I can see myself reflected back in the eyes of my reflection. Through my own eyes I watch myself sit motionless, a tiny mirrored me under streetlight.

When I decide the time is right, I sit on the edge of the puddle, my legs trailing in the water as one would in a pool. It feels cool, and the ripples my entrance caused send tiny wrinkles of light dancing across my legs. The impact marks of the pitter-patter rain cease to be falling drops and become instead tiny fish, gasping at the surface of the puddle. 

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 and seeing all that swims with me. Below me, I know from previous dives, lies a giant outcrop of coral, in which I know my soul resides. Swimming down, sans snorkel, I see it surrounded by clownfish and parrotfish and many others whose names I’ve never looked up. The only sound is the crackle of the sea floor. I leave the reef of my consciousness behind, and swim, outwards, to where I know cliffs block my path, dotted with caves. In two of these lurk my eyes, in two more my nostrils. My mouth is a great outcrop, still now but for the rise and fall of breathing. I take in every inch, edging along the lines that I know must form my chin and back up, swimming in the maze that is my ear. Then I swim back to the enormous blaze of colour at the centre. I spend a fair bit of time here, watching the coral and the fish around it, swimming, darting from crevice to crevice, carrying messages and thoughts around my personality. 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.

But I like them. It’s peaceful down here. I feel safe swimming these waters. That promotion, those groceries, that festival you’re planning; it’s all meaningless here, lost in the face of eternal beauty and stillness. Time is immaterial and I can’t say how long I’m here, but eventually I feel a tug and must return to the surface. The outside world may require my attention. So I swim to the surface as slowly as I can, to linger ever so slightly longer in this paradise, then break the surface once more and am back on the street.

It’s 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, dripping like I’ve just been born. If it’s still raining, I can’t tell. On hands and knees, I survey the world: the pavements, the parked cars, the sad dripping trees. Paradise it isn’t, but some days are pretty good. I stand to go inside, then turn to take a final look round at the puddle, by now still. Still waters run deep, I say to myself. I’ll be back, I know. But now it’s time to return to reality. After all, there’s a festival to be planned. Who's headlining that one again? Was it Radiohead? 

the next station is: Bank

By Chancery Lane, the crowds have dispersed, spilling station by station into the rat-race of Central London. As the doors slide shut at St. Paul’s, there are even some seats available. The train wheezes and coughs along the underbelly of the city, masking the deathly silence inside the carriage. Headphones in and heads very firmly down, Londoners shut out the reality of overheating and overcrowding to dream the commute away one stop at a time. As the doors roll open and heels meet the greying platform, a chaotic clicking drumbeat cascades along the tunnel. When it reaches the escalators, it falls still again and the warm whirr of machinery takes over, audible above the complete silence of three hundred people. They feed into the ticket hall, the barriers beeping greedily, crashing open and shut like rows of unbrushed teeth. Up the stairs, the world explodes into life once again as buses roar by. The day has begun.

obsolete

It started when the Underground staff lost their jobs, replaced overnight with indefatigable 24-hour machines churning out tickets. But they couldn't tell you how to get home at 4am on a Friday night when you're in such a state you can hardly tap in. 

Next, cars became self-driving, stocks self-managing, TVs self-watching (for who else would watch the drivel being produced by self-producing TV stations?) books self-writing, magazines self-reading, music self-composing, alcohol self-intoxicating, doors self-opening, beds self-sleeping. 

Everything that mankind used to defined themselves by was now done for us. The human race had out-invented itself. We were obsolete. We'd built a world so autonomous that we didn't even need to be there for it to run. In fact, it was better for our models if we kept our misbehaving beaks out of it. BP still drilled for oil, by now at maximum efficiency, feeding petrol pumps and refineries without any interference from human hand. Their shares rose and fell on consumer behaviour that wasn't there, on systems and algorithms so advanced that no one could tell them apart from real humans, so no one did. And when no one did, no one cared. Self-running charities continued to pump money into a self-running model of Africa, self-fighting civil wars still tore self-governing country-systems apart. The whole simulation was spot on. We were no longer needed. 

So what did humans do? What kept us busy while the world we used to run now ran itself? We turned to farming, to hunting, to families and friends. We busied themselves with basket-weaving and rearing sheep. We surfed, we dug holes in the sand, we cooked fish, caught with a line, over roaring fires. 

We did the things we'd always been meaning to do. We painted cave-paintings, we sang songs. We danced and were merry. And while we did all this, somewhere else in the world, Barclays was buying a controlling stake in RBS. While Rio Tinto was buying up minerals in Nigeria. While Real Madrid won the Champions League and millions of TVs tuned themselves in to watch. And we never once cared.

Writing a winter sunset

15:20
backlit wisps and railroad tracks in the sky. flashes of starlings’ wingtips. I look at the river too long, and now see it every time I blink.

15:24
the twittering of daybreak returns in earnest. the birds make sunday’s last stand.

15:30
a flock of black stars before the sun, they settle on the ghosts of trees.

15:32
visibly darker by the second. chattering birds swoop to aerial perches. I spot the crescent moon.

15:33
the horizon goes a dirty orange, over my head remains purest blue.

15:35
the sun loses intensity. I can now look at it through the branches, trees stark against golden glow.

15:37
lone starlings. the sun is but a glow. paintbrush clouds, the colour of day-old snow.

15:40
river reverting to sludge green. the sun is but a memory uplighting lazy long-drawn-out clouds. the day’s first wood fire on the breeze.

15:42
the last dog walkers on the dike. orange and blue and yellow. sadness creeps into my heart.

15:46
the birds are relentless, but tiring. the last light is scattered on the river, weak now, blown on the breeze.

15:49
as one, the birds fall silent. I can hear every ripple on the river. backlit clouds give rise to ufo myths.

15:52
first hints of purple. horizon could be on fire.

15:56
clouds now thick black smoke. horizon might actually be on fire.

15:59
darkened clouds swirl like enormous slow-motion tornado. can’t feel my toes.

16:01
moon now dominant celestial body. first lights on the cathedral go on. two silhouettes paddle upstream towards me.

16:04
rooftops outlined in pink. shepherd’s delight. soft greys, baby blues. melancholy.

16:08
third hundred-strong flock of dots in as many minutes. sky above me maintains purity, darkens somewhat.

16:10
sky smudged. lights go on in cottages. only a thin band of red remains. trees the colour of tar.

16:11
toes aching. sunday’s last rays, black clouds tinged with pink, smoke tinged with beauty.

16:13
first star. smell of dinner. want to leave, but pink grows in intensity, almost orange in places.

16:19
pink fading to yellow. grey creeping back in. sky loses intensity. hunger sets in.

16:20
it’s been an hour. single bird perched on telegraph wire against dying pink. wisps of cloud haven’t moved in half an hour. beautiful pink reverts to grey. bare trees. time to go in.

Nuwara Eliya - Sri Lanka

“This is the worst time to drive!” Sali, our driver, says. Generally a jovial fellow, he’s been trying to escape the winding chaos of Kandy for half an hour now and it’s playing on his nerves. He’s right though – it’s 13:30 and schools have just been dismissed. There’s a blizzard of activity on the street as children in neat white uniforms make their way home or wait outside to be picked up. The colonial buildings that line the road are in disrepair, blackened, with tiles slipping from the roofs as if melting in the heat. Local shops have taken hold inside – some crammed with phones, calculators and headphones, others floor-to-ceiling displays of flip flops and leather shoes. 
Eventually we break from the traffic and the city makes way for ramshackle roadside shacks, coarse brick shopfronts and washing drying on countryside lines. 

We’re eight days into a three week tour of Sri Lanka. After a healthy dose of Buddhist temples and ancient capitals in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, it’s time to see some European heritage. We’re heading south to Nuwara Eliya, a hill-station ringed by tea plantations. “It’s so British, you’ll instantly feel at home,” Sali promises.

As the road begins to rise, the weather closes in, and pretty soon, we’re driving in the clouds. The trees around us stand as limp tropical silhouettes in the mist. Sali steers the van nimbly along steep double-back roads, pointing out a waterfall engulfing the pockmarked cliff which seems to start straight from the clouds. On the other side of the road it’s a sheer drop into milky nothingness. Occasionally, boys wrapped in woolly hats and makeshift waterproofs appear on hairpin bends, optimistically waving bunches of flowers – fireworks of colour in a world otherwise entirely green and white. Elsewhere, rickety shacks cling to the side of the road, overflowing with fresh carrots, cabbages and avocados. We pass abandoned houses, their walls never finished, left to the mist and stray dogs.

We rise above the clouds as the climb continues and a sea of tea plantations emerges, stretching round the hills in neat waves. At Mackwoods Tea Estate, colourful pickers punctuate the landscape, bags strapped to the back of their heads to carry the leaves they’ve picked, backs bent double under their loads.

We reach 1893m, the highest point of the road, and start to drop again. Soon we’re in the town, with brightly coloured advertising, traffic and chaos. Mansions like Lochside and Spencer House stand regally on manicured lawns, their green-tiled roofs matching their balconies and balustrades as if lifted straight from a fairytale. The golf course stretches into the distance, the clubhouse fresh white against the lush fairways. A row of horses stand tied up outside the racecourse. Even the British rain had followed us here. As I climb out of the van and pull my coat closer around me, I start to wonder where Sri Lanka has gone.

the Writer

That night, he sat by his open window and shook a match from the packet with a satisfying crack. It sparked briefly on the sandpaper, then burst into flame, shooting fireflies into the gloom. The candle sputtered at first, then drew light and began its solitary dance. The shadows cast shot high up the walls.

It was the twenty-ninth of September, he wrote, then paused. He put the pen down. The street was quiet – a passing street rather than a stopping street. A lame fox limped down the pavement, a straggly bone in its mouth. A motorbike roared a few streets off. Unremarkable, he thought, then pondered the paradox of his having remarked upon it. He picked up the half-burnt match and relit it on the candle. Reaching up to the shelf, he took another and held the lit match to the wick. There, he now had two candles. As the match burned, he came to an idea and reached for another. Lighting it, he eyed another on the shelf, but the match pricked at his fingers, so he dropped it into the third candle where it caught and burned bright.

Now, it may be a trick of the light, but it looks like a glint comes into our protagonist’s eye. He lays his hand, palm down, on a blank sheet of paper and unsheathes his pen. Now reader, if I tell you what happened next, you’ll scarcely believe me. Said writer raised the pen up to eye level and aimed it at his hand, still stationary upon the sheet. In a flourish, he brought the pen down, forcefully, piercing the skin of his hand and driving through onto the paper. As I watched, streams of characters began to flow forth. Unstoppably and building in force with every heartbeat, words and then whole sentences flowed from this gaping wound. Out poured sin, and beauty, out came art.

For two whole hours he sat there, transfixed by his own absurdity, while the candles coughed and shimmered in their glass cages. Reading over his shoulder I saw scenes of unspeakable beauty, of soaring eagles of stories, of mighty peaks of emotion. Reader, by now you’ll believe I never wanted this to end. But eventually the wound started to close around the intrusion, and the stream of words slowed to a trickle, less coherent now, less thick on the page, until it had become nothing more than a few letters clinging to the pen. It remained stuck in his hand, which he raised to shut the window.

Lying in bed a few minutes later, he chanced upon a patch on the sheet, when he realised his wound was still oozing. It would dry by the morning, he thought, as he reached to turn off the light. By the light of the candles still guarding his evening’s work, I could see, every now and then, another word slip out onto the pillow, lost to the night. Within minutes though, this came out as random single letters instead. His breathing, previously heavy, settled into a soothing rhythm. He rested, a happy writer.

Radiohead in Lisbon

The moon smiled and was gone, hidden behind the main stage, where some huge unknown warm-up act – who we tolerated purely for what was to come – winked at the girls. Condensation ran down my fingers as I clutched the beer that would see me through this long wait where time trickled like sand – but what was three hours when you’d waited three years?

As this minor band left, the pack flowed forward, squeezing into every nook the leavers made like cement into a mould. By the time it set, we were not thirty metres from the stage. Thirst drew my mouth into a desert and turned my rationing of beer – beer that was by now very warm and very flat – into an art form. We had Russia in front, Canada beside: a motley army of worshippers to greet the greats, the goods, the everlastings, the been-away-but-come-back-agains.

The sky darkened into dusk, then the stage lights followed. A blue glow cast across the podium, then four gladiators entered, the crowd baying at their arrival. From that moment on, I watched Thom like a hawk, his spindly hands playing keys, his whine punctuating the summer.

At times, it was as if the crowd assumed an instrument of their own, as tens of thousands of voices combined to form one to chant “Fade out...again,” back at the Gods on stage. An entire crowd, it turns out, sounds all lengths of the spectrum and all visible colours in the night.

They left the stage, then returned – the been-away-but-come-back-agains embodied – to play five more. Beside us, the Canadian was in tears. I watched them hammer drums into the air on “There There”, then they were gone again. This in itself would have been a worthy end, but back again they came. Only with Creep. Only with their biggest song ever, the cry for disaffected youth, “I wish I was special, but I’m a creep,” and we felt his pain, so vivid was the melody, so vibrant his sorrow.

Then the piano started. The song that brought Radiohead into my life in the first place. “This is what you get, when you mess with us” – well, so far Thom, messing with Radiohead has brought me nothing but joy and grief and self-discovery. It’s been a soundtrack for growing up, a driving force in my maturity, so I think I’ll be messing with you for the foreseeable future if you don't mind. Thom rises to seal the night. “For a minute there, I lost myself.” Yes, and so did we. So thank you.

As we sat on the bench afterward, too stunned to move, too broken to speak, too mind-blown to think, a cry from the next table echoed into the night. “Fade out...again,” and with an instinct I can only compare to breathing, I found myself singing along, and as ten voices became a hundred, I felt the process of time tearing in in two and the world, I felt, had very seriously changed. The time that was to come would bear no resemblance to what had gone before.

That chant will now forever be the sound of time itself splitting in two.