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What's your next adventure?...


living in the future


1.   Telling the future reminds me of something from aikido. If you extend your arm and ask someone to pull down on your wrist it is not hard for them to manage. But then imagine and visualise as best you can your arm as over thirty feet long and resting at the end on a wall. Now when they pull down on your wrist their pull is well before your imagined centre of weakness. In fact it is as if someone was pulling on your bicep, right close to the near end of your arm. And imagining the other end as resting on a wall also changes what you accept- you don’t accept they can pull it down- and to counter this you change the way you stand. You MAKE the visualisation come true.

Whilst it is true that you cannot make ANYTHING come true, one thing is certain- when you have an engraved image in your mind’s eye you a) tend to see it everywhere and b) attempt to make reality conform to this image. Therein lies the success of such programs as ‘The Secret’- which offer the tantalising prospect of a world that conforms to subjective desire- as long as you believe hard enough. It reminds me of when, aged 8, I left a stocking out pinned to my bed, in the summer to ‘test’ whether Jesus answered prayers…sadly, I reproved myself for not believing hard enough... But the 'belief' is merely a tool for making the visualisation clearer- just repeating your desire regularly like a mantra is enough- you will begin to adjust things in your life to make that desire come true...of course it may not be what you need even if it is what you want.

If we visualise the future strongly enough we make countless small moves to make such a belief congruent with our daily lives. As in the aikido move we adjust our posture. It becomes a posture that not only anticipates the future we have visualised but encourages it, and sure enough it becomes the future.

Art and fiction are one form of imagining. We have grown used to science fiction anticipating future products. Facial recognition software is straight out of big brother. Even our cars look like those in Total Recall and Robocop now. 

The Burj Khalifa building in Dubai astonishes because it doesn’t just look sci-fi (1930s New York skyscrapers did that) it looks ALIEN- like something off a Klingon planet or the bad guys in Enders Game. But the future is always changing, or, rather, our view of it which in turns becomes the future. We’re not at the centre anymore, we’ve lost the controls, it’s all up for grabs- so why not make it alien? Alien seems more likely. People queue to have tea in the café near the top of the Burj. Very definitely living in the future.



podcast about RED NILE

If you have an urgent or even rather casual interest in my book Red Nile there is podcast at Scottish Book Trust- an interview I did in the stacks of Glasgow library. Click here


Chalke Valley festival

I am appearing at Chalke Valley literary festival the evening of Friday 27th June.

I am also at Edinbrugh Literary festival 13th August.

Get tickets now before they run out.


excellent article by Olive Burkeman


Adventurers who want to be looked after

Being looked after. There is an excellent book by psychoanalyst Arthur Deikman called The Wrong Way Home. In it he talks about how ‘cult behaviour’ is really the extrapolation and realisation of the desire to be looked after, a manifestation of that childhood sense of family security when you are being driven late at night and you’re all cosy drowsing on the back seat while Mum and Dad sit in the front effortlessly whisking you home.

Wake up and smell the coffee instead! No one is going to look after you like your parents- and for very good reason. Wanting to be looked after, beyond the usual requirements of childhood or extreme illness, is one the most damaging desires in the world.

Extreme stuff. Damaging because wanting to be looked after makes people vote for tyrants, take jobs with bullies, do work they hate, live with men or women who abuse them, and do nothing when the thing looking after them exacts a huge and unwarranted price: such as asking you to serve in a murderous army, or turn a blind eye to civilian disappearances. It is a commonplace, perhaps, to assert that leaders aren’t the problem, followers are. What if Hitler had been ignored, left as a man spouting racist claptrap in a tramp’s hostel? He was made dangerous by the followers he was able to attract. Instead of ignoring or ridiculing him people imagined he could look after them.

One reason the West is inferior to the East, is that in the West people are encouraged by many of society’s institutions to want to be looked after. We encourage people to imagine that this is even possible. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting we shouldn’t look after people, but we need to be able to do it without infecting ourselves with the desire to be looked after as well.

There is a traditional story about a man who watched a limbless fox living in a small cave near a water hole. Whenever a lion brought his kill there the limbless fox would wait until midnight and crawl out and eat and drink his fill. The man concluded that was all one needed to do so he sat in the market place living off whatever scraps he could find. Often he went hungry. Most of the time he was bored and depressed. But he soldiered on with his ‘limbless fox’ strategy. Finally God spoke to him- “why be a limbless fox when you can be a lion?”

One man who appeared to live the life of a lion was Freddy Spencer Chapman – mountaineer, explorer and WW 2 hero. While still at Cambridge he took part in expeditions to Greenland. He climbed in the Alps and the Himalayas, making a first ascent of the 7326metre peak Jomolhari in 1937; a peak which wasn’t ascended again until 1970. When WW2 started in the far east he was in his mid thirties and elected to be part of a group who would stay behind enemy lines and harass the Japanese. He managed this for three and a half years, spending 17 days once in a malaria induced coma. At one point he was actually captured by the Japanese, but employing his theory that escape becomes exponentially harder the longer you leave it he broke away the night he was captured, literally running away through the jungle with only his shirt on his back.

There was no question that Spencer Chapman was a hero and yet even he wanted to be looked after. His fatal flaw was a fear of financial ruin. He eschewed the life of an explorer after WW2 for that of a schoolmaster and later Warden of a residential hall at Reading University. However, when he was due to retire worries about financial security drove him to take his own life. Though he feared he might have cancer this was found to be untrue. And many accounts substantiate the fact that he was worried about not being able to survive on his pension- which was small but perfectly adequate. Bizarrely and tragically his final note expressed his desire to ‘not be an invalid’- he pessimistically assumed he would become one. Chapman wanted to be looked after financially; he sensed this was wrong and this became perverted into a delusion of being a burden when this was simply not the case. There is no question that if Chapman had been given a generous pension or had been allowed to work until he died that he would never have killed himself. It was his inability to believe that he could look after himself that drove him to take drastic action. He was like the man starving in the market place rather than taking control of his life.

Oddly enough this pattern is not unusual- both Peter Fleming and Wilfred Thesiger lived at home with their mothers, whilst Bill Tillman lived with his sister- looked after while they planned their next big adventure. In a sense some explorers are really still like boys, with a hypertrophic sense of adventurous self-reliance but an underdeveloped sense of social self-reliance. For some ordinary life is just too dull to be taken seriously. But I suspect a big part of it is a failure to root out once and for all that warm and cosy desire to be looked after…




following an invisible track


A track may not be obvious. There may be few signs even if the tracker knows what to look for. But just as important as what is on the ground is what is in the tracker’s head- his ‘rich context’ so to speak. It is just as Kant suggested- perception is about what is OUT THERE and also about how we conceptualise what we see. Kant is never better exemplified than when someone points at an object far distant and says, “What’s that?” Everyone  looks and makes suggestions. At this stage it is just a strange shape an anomaly, an incongruity in the mostly unsurprising vista or landscape. Then someone will get it- a car, a tree, ‘just’ a rock, a man walking. With the concept we can then all ‘see’ what it really is. Sometimes you have the wrong concept working quite happily for hours. That oil drum you’ve been walking towards suddenly appears much quicker than you’d have expected and turns out to be a bearing case from a lorry axle. The object instantly transforms- as quickly as the duck becomes the rabbit in the famous ambiguous duck/rabbit drawing. In a world of odd objects, strange journeys, new sights- in the desert world- you understand just how much we as humans bring to what we see in the world.

As well as bringing our knowledge of shape and colour we import meaning to what we see. The ‘rich context’ is all the knowledge we have about something. It is all the ways we can relate it to other things we know about in our lives. To the experienced tracker there is much more to see than what is obviously in front of one’s eyes. And once you know the direction of a track, have figured a reason why the track is going in that direction, then you can guess its route between track signs accurately- and by looking in likely places find evidence of the track you suspected.

I am no tracker but I remember following a track of a fennec fox in the area north of the Gilf Kebir. It is known for tektite glass- that lies glinting on the surface of the sand. I followed the fennec tracks, like those of a small dog, easily across the sand. But on the stony gravelly base of the dune corridor I lost him. I tried for the first time to look ‘sideways’. A bedouin had told me this was a way to see better. You sort of half close your eyes and defocus on details in the hope of seeing a pattern, a track. It was early morning and all I saw were the many glinting pieces of natural glass spread out in front of me. By looking sideways at this confusing sight I picked up a line of absences of reflected light. Maybe here the fox had knocked a stone or two, kicked them out of place where the wind kept them clear of drift sand. I managed to see this faintest of lines and walked it- sure enough on the only piece of sand big enough to hold a print there was one. And yet the line I had been following had been almost imaginary. It brought to mind, for some reason, that famous ‘torch drawing’ of Picasso where the artist depicts the image of a bull using a swirling flashlight and a camera on a long exposure to capture the track of the light, to make a picture from nothing but rapidly moving light.

The track can be almost imaginary, inside your head and you can still follow it. The track becomes a path, in the mystical sense of the word perhaps. The context of the track, if it is richly endowed with meanings, allows such feats of navigation through thin air, featureless desert.



getting bogged

We get stuck in life. We get bogged down. This happens when we go to fast, don’t check out the land ahead, or get plain unlucky. I don’t think it really matters, though when you start out it seems to mark you out as having failed in some way, an embarrassment. Everyone loves a success and being a success- but in fact the only real success you can hang on to, that can never be taken away is the alacrity and speed with which you got yourself unstuck, unbogged, up and running again.

We travel by car more than we travel on foot. In the desert you only get bogged by sand if you are in a car. Camels and people are at some risk from sabka sand- sand lying on a salt crust, but never from the soft sand that traps a speeding car. We travel faster than we need to- perhaps- but then we travel at the speed of our fellows, so we get bogged from time to time. Instead of marvelling at the misfortune what you need is a routine for extraction. We make elaborate habitual systems for achieving success, but who thinks to have a plan for getting back up after a set-back?

In the desert you need sand plates, time, a decent jack, time, a shovel helps but isn’t absolutely essential. The more time you have the quicker it takes. Once bogged stop the engine as soon as you can. Make the best possible attempt at escape first. Do not rush it, hoping for the best. Do not be tempted to drive up metal sandplates stuck in the ground at an angle and set like ramps- I’ve only seen it work about 10% of the time. Usually the car’s turning wheel buries the plates causing yet more work. Instead excavate patiently a long gulley in the sand, lay the plates flat and drive out. Or jack the front and fill sand in under the tyres.

And let the tyres down- 12psi will work.

Have a procedure in life for when you get bogged. Get some metaphorical sand plates to help you escape. Have a hi-lift jack- that is probably a good friend or two. And take your time, never rush an escape from total entrapment. The more time you have the quicker it will take.