Expectations are a strange thing. Some people have them very strongly, and are most upset when they aren't met. But in any situation, it's always worth stopping for a moment and asking "is the problem me?"
Having finished Colin Thubron's excellent book 'The Lost Heart Of Asia', I was surprised to see a lower than expected average rating on Goodreads, which led me into the reviews. Some people had legitimate complaints, such as the author's occasionally superior attitude or the fact that he never seems to be able to find anyone he actually likes. Other complaints are born purely of a lack of understanding;
"I haven't read travel writing before (aside from tourist guides like the Lonely Planet, when actually visiting a place, which is not at all the same thing although they are shelved together in the library), and perhaps given my impatience with travelogue fantasies it's unsurprising that I didn't much like this."
And of course some reviews are from people who practically delight in not having actually read the book;
"I really couldn't get into this book, but I tried to plough through since it was a book club selection. Timing defeated me, and I had to return the book to the library, but I figured I can always pick it up again hopefully before the meeting, otherwise after, when everyone at book club tells me that the second half makes it all worthwhile. Surprisingly, I had read the most pages in the book! Some got bogged down as early as page 35."
In both cases a quick stop and asking of the question "is the problem me?" would have brought about the definitive answer "yes". You've never read travel writing before? Then why would you be reviewing such an item? You might as well be saying "I've never listened to jazz before, aside from brass bands, and perhaps given my impatience with instrumental whimsy it's unsurprising that I didn't much like Miles Davis."
Our other reviewer is a very common sort on the internet. "I didn't like this film after 20 minutes so I switched it off and threw it away. Three people I know who also haven't seen it also said it was rubbish, which proves that I'm clever".
Is the problem me? Just think how your interactions with the world might be altered by always asking this question. Might people be more courteous, more understanding of those around them? Would we have less stupid arguments where two people are shouting while neither is listening?
I was working on my cabin, when one of our neighbours at the back popped his head over the fence. In the five years that they have been our neighbours, I think this is the third time I've met him, and the second he has spoken to me. It's immediately obvious that he's been sent down by his wife to see what's going on, but I offer nothing but pleasant and friendly conversation. How's things, nice day, all that stuff. He answers in few syllables without asking anything in return, further confirmation that he is here with another motive. He gets to work on this pretty quickly.
"What are you doing?"
I'm in my own garden, and we are not friends here. You've never spoken to me, never put your head over this fence to say anything before. You obviously have some objection to what I'm doing for some unknown reason, kindly state your stupidity and move on.
"I'm building a cabin."
He looks at me. "A cabin?"
"Yes", I confirm.
He makes a noise and shakes his head, like I've just said I'm fishing for salmon in my toilet bowl. Now there's silence. He nods his head. "A cabin." Shakes his head.
"To go with my waterfall", which I indicate with a nod of my head toward it. He mutters something under his breath which I can't hear, but by the tone I can tell it's something he's not quite brave enough to say out loud. He nods and taps the fence.
I dart my eyes from left to right, to indicate "I think we've discussed this already", before I offer another, definitive, "yes".
He shakes his head, and a smile breaks out across my face. What else is there to do in the face of sulky, sullen hostility from a grown man but laugh at it for the childish stupidity that it is? He walks away, and to date I have not seen him again, nor have he or his family used their back garden.
Play With Fire
We sat in the Shaman's house, by the roaring flames of the stove to which we had relocated from the cold of the fallen night outside. Her cats, two little kittens, were in a travel cage in the back of our car. She is having to go off to Wales to work for a month or more, and was going to have to give away her little cats. Don't do that said Sharon, we'll take them until you come back. The cats in the cold car and us by the fire's flames, but talk carried on. Soon we were all upstairs looking at her collection of animal skulls, bones, bird's feet and beaks, all well presented in beautiful Victorian-style glass display jars, or sitting out in a glass-fronted display cabinet. There was a sheep skull to match mine, and what I thought was a bird skull at home was revealed to actually be a rabbit, hers having the lower jaw still attached which mine lacks. So this is a pagan thing, is it? I've picked up such things only through instinct, with no design to it. But if I do it, then it shouldn't be surprising that other people do too, that these people have links with other people from other places who do these things, and that there's probably some global 'scene' of such people who do such things. A harsh but important life lesson is that You Are Not Original. Our shaman tells us how she came by some of these items, which is mostly the way I do, by coming across them in forests, on moors, by the side of lonely rivers. The only difference is she claims to have been guided to find some of them, that she already knew it was there before she got there, that these were in some way 'meant' for her. And that is where our worlds diverge. While I have tremendous sympathy with and appreciation for 'pagan' ways, in my case it is only on a symbolic level. It's a nice romantic, poetic notion to have spirits and goddesses and hidden hands, and if you're looking for someone to stand with you in a circle of barely-dressed painted bodies in the middle of a forest dancing around a fire then you can call on me and I'll be there with a goblet of mead in my hand. But we are all supremely unimportant on the universal scale, our lives are as nothing, our thoughts and feelings may as well not exist. There is no guiding hand, no goddess. If we want to make our lives beautiful and imbued with some sort of symbolism then we can, and we might as well; it's what humans have done for as long as there have been humans. And that is the point at which I enter this world, if I do anything symbolic then it is only to be timelessly human, to join in some faint and vague way the cave painters, the stone circle builders. But I also recognise that there was life before the human, there will be life after it. If we are supernaturally and divinely guided then we must accept that the diplodocus was supernaturally and divinely guided.
All the same, I decided I wanted a new skull. I recalled that I had seen the remains of perhaps a deer in a bog some years ago, at an area near the house but not accessible by road or even worn path. I hadn't been back there since my lone visit and that could have been five years ago. As I worked my way around I realised a lot of work had been done since then and there were now artificial man-made ponds dotted around where the bog used to be. But I would have my skull, I refused to accept that I wouldn't. Just a few minutes later I was walking along and was about to cross a stone wall when I realised that sitting right in front of me was a sheep skull, more complete than the one I have at home, including one of the horn coverings. I can see how someone would be tempted to think they had been led there, that this was some supernatural arrangement. But I think the explanation is a lot more earthly. There is no sign of any of the sheep's body anywhere nearby, and its positioning is clearly by human hands. Whether a farmer placing it there to await the flesh being picked clean (people actually pay good money for such skulls on ebay after all), or a fellow walker intending to come back and get it another time when they have bag space, who can say. Perhaps it was even our shaman herself, uncovering the skull and realising she already has a better one at home. Further on, I paused to take a self-portrait with the skull.
Some time after moving on (for I had to carry this skull around by its horn for quite a while), the thought randomly occurred to me that my seating position in that picture had been similar to that of George Harrison on the cover of 'All Things Must Pass', and that it and my picture might look comparable to some small degree since they were both in black and white. When I got back home I looked up the cover;
with the hat, boots and moustache it actually began to look more like a deliberately set-up portrait, though no such thing had been intended. I put it up on Instagram with the caption 'All Things Must Pass - Occult Version'.
But then again the two images are not really all that similar, except in a few details. Most co-incidence is born only in the mind.
Paint It Black
Side note - when The Rolling Stones released Paint It Black as a single, the record company accidentally inserted a comma on the song title, and the pressings read 'Paint It, Black'. The band were pretty horrified as it could now potentially take on racial overtones in the heat of the American civil rights movement, and the Stones themselves were worshippers of black music and culture.
There's a picture inside Keith Richards' autobiography 'Life' of him in his Connecticut library. He looks very relaxed and bohemian among rugs, records and soft furnishings in gypsy colours, open-shirted and barefoot. I'd like to be a little more bohemian myself, a little more loose and free and easy. Not to the extent of Mr Richards, of course, who reveals that he sleeps only when he feels tired (which often doesn't mean daily) and only eats when he feels hungry; anything else, he argues, is a construct of The Man designed to get you into nice, obedient patterns. And there is some degree of truth in that, but it's a lot easier to do what you want, when you want if you're also a millionaire.
I like being barefoot. I enjoy taking my shoes off to wade through rivers and streams, or feeling the softness of grass between my toes. You can feel a lot of texture with your feet, the planks of the wooden decking I built, the poured concrete of the driveway. Sometimes I will fetch things from the car at night (usually my headphones) without bothering to cover my feet. Many years ago in Chicago myself and the girl I was with at the time walked several city blocks barefoot from the beach back home.
Recently for the first time in years I painted my toenails black. I stopped doing it because it was a little pointless; my feet are wrapped up in socks and shoes, so who is going to see them? Keeping on top of maintaining the colour is a lot of work just to see it on my own in the shower. One day a villager arrived at the door to ask if we would be wanting to take an allotment this year and I arrived barefooted on the deck. I could see as we talked that his glance kept falling down to my feet, and I wondered what he was making of it all. I stored "my feet look better than your face" as a useful future comeback, and tried not to laugh at it too much.
The film 'A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness' begins at a hippy commune in Finland. Such communes apparently exist all around Scandinavia. The person I manage at work's boyfriend's sister has actually lived in a few of them. She says the main difficulty is in trying to keep everyone on good terms with everyone else when disagreements crop up, and trying to somehow get all these personality types to work together for the common good can be a struggle. "A bit like this office, then", I noted. "Yes", she agreed, "but for 24 hours a day, every day".
It's an idea that appeals, that has always appealed to me. In 'Easy Rider' they spend some time in a commune before going off to take drugs, party and hang with prostitutes at Mardi Gras. Dennis Hopper is pretty happy with this outcome, while Henry Fonda notes instead that they "blew it"; the real dream, the real, important parts of life, had been left behind on that stop.
I am not really a great people person however, I have more in common with the main character in 'A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness', for whom the commune is just a stop. The rest of the film follows him wandering around the natural world exploring caves and cliffs, floating on a boat in the middle of a silent lake at night, and... err.. fronting a black metal band in Norway. And perhaps I have more in common with the lone misanthropes of Striborg or Xasthur, or the pairing of Darkthrone, than with the hippy. Finding some way to merge those two without losing the self would be the trick. There is, apparently, such a thing as the 'hippy goth', and on that score I would have to look to David Tibet as an essential exponent of that style, though trying to apply such labels to such a complex character only serves to show the futility in trying to do so.
The thing is not to comform to what is recognised, but at the same time if you are invested in a particular style or way of being it is difficult to reach out of it to bring other elements in. I liked the look of a jerga in a wild multitude of colours, but how could I mix that in with anything else that I own? How would I look in such a thing - I have literally no concept of how I would look because I have never, ever worn anything like it. "But... if you like it...", came a voice of reason at work. She encouraged me to give it a try, and so I bought one. Womenfolk are great keepers of obscure occult knowledge, such as "if you don't like it, you can return it". What male would ever think of doing such a thing? But women do it all the time. A clothes purchase to them is like a home demonstration, a trial period. A clothes purchase to a man is a purchase, if you've fucked it up then tough shit for being so stupid, you cock. And fuck you and fuck your face. Dick.
I picture myself wearing it in the garden at home late on summer nights, stretched out in my hammock with a book, or sitting by candlelight at the picnic bench. To accompany it, I am 'trying out', of all things, sandals; the compromise between barefoot and being able to walk distance without drawing blood. Sandals, for gods sake, but black of course with straps and such a thing as a "toe post" which is literally a silver metal nail driven through the strap and into the sole. Strange that I worry about wearing sandals not being manly enough, while painted toenails present me no hesitation; a strange and complex psychology indeed. I imagine these too being worn at home around the garden, or perhaps the caravan site of some future holiday evening. You'll just have to deal with it, and that my feet look better than your face.