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What's your next adventure?


twelve angry men

I've just watched the superb Twelve Angry Men, a classic movie where Henry Fonda persuades a certain jury they shouldn't be quite so certain. Subtle and brilliant in the way it deals with the way we make up our mind about things, I hadn't watched it - though I could have done - at any time in the last thirty years, because as a teenager I'd seen the Tony Hancock comic version, which lampoons the whole thing and therefore made me disregard the original. The British boast that their their piss taking humour reveals the reality behind the 'hypocritical' veil so often drawn across life. But what if piss taking actually covers up truth?




I was going to write about the sixth law of adventure but something subtler gripped my imagination- the idea of combining ‘zen type’ thinking with adventure. I’ve been thinking recently about small scale and large scale adventures. It isn’t that hard to boost a small adventure into a big one. I’m a big fan of thinking BIG, as thinking big and thinking small take the same amount of effort (when viewed after the event). One just takes more boldness and less tendency to worry than the other. But thinking BIG should not get in the way of enjoying life. One can, all too easily, fall into the deadening mindset of only being ‘alive’ on some outlandish trip or another, which begins a polarising effect, a self-induced bi-polar disorder, that eventually interferes with even making those trips in the end.

Zenventures can happen anytime you step outside the door, but it can’t be guaranteed. You need to trip the switch somehow. A new route never before walked might work. Wearing a new and possibly ludicrous hat. What we are looking for is that tell-tale rise in spirits as we leave, and, at its most noticeable, as we trip lightly back up the steps to our home. Zenventures happen in the interstices of life, the cubby holes and whirl pools; I remember descending a river in Japan 20 years ago, I still recall almost all the details now even though it took only a day and didn’t require any special efforts.

I was talking to a pal with a camper wagon, he told me waking up in new places is very exhilarating, though his wife said she was ‘less keen’. On the road, house on your back, he told me Europe was better than Britain because we have less space here, more officious parking regs. I have often been tempted by the whole camper lark, put off by some of the tight lipped snaggle toothed dimwits I’ve seen plying the highways and byways (mostly the highways to be honest) – not my pals of course- they are all great. As a kid I remember walking up a back road near my house and seeing a 2CV parked, that baby blue colour they were – a French one with French occupants, - it was parked by a small patch of grass and they had a small tent pitched. How did they find this obscure spot I remembered thinking? Having a zenventure.

I read about a man visiting all the Starbucks outlets in the world. Talk about insane…ish. The more I read the more convinced I became. This guy, who had changed his name to some kind of street artist tag, said that he knew it was silly, ‘but a goal’s a goal’ and I thought how exactly right. And as psychologist Steve Carter points out, “A serious goal induces anxiety, which can interfere with your ability to achieve that goal. A non-serious goal doesn’t have that problem.” And like a diamond bullet between my eyes it hit me (I like this to happen fairly regularly so that I can use the aforementioned phrase) anyway it hit me that there isn’t a HUGE amount of difference between serious and non-serious goals when you take a distant enough perspective, and then it hit me, like a second diamond bullet etc that ‘high’ achievers often have a playful approach to what they do ie. they’ve turned it into a non-serious goal. Not that they’re ‘not serious’ about achieving the goal- just like Starbucks-man (3000+ outlets visited and counting) they are super dedicated, it’s just that they don’t have wrinkled brows and a demeanour that suggests an imminent nervous breakdown and that we should all admire their efforts as superior and worthy.

Zenventuring should not require drugs or alcohol. My hunch is that any slight effort, touch on the wheel, that lifts this excursion, episode, experience into the zenventuresphere is all you need. And that slight bit of effort, mental effort, mainly make sure things are not being repeated. But the list should be more exhaustive. Something like the requirements for ‘kaif’ that ineluctable eastern essence of vitality that either is, or is not, present. Zenventuring has about as much to do with Zen as most things borrowing some Japanese credibility, maybe a tad more; what we know about Zen is that you shouldn’t try too hard. This carte blanche for slacking is bookended or counterbalanced by an admonition to be present in what you do, which means, usually, given things you do your best shot. I like the idea that in a Zen monastery every day is planned out to the last minute, rung out with bells and lots of running about, but the moment another task comes up, say showing someone round the Zen garden then you are allowed to drop what you’re doing immediately. The timetable isn’t a ‘must do’ list it’s a ‘do this if you haven’t something better to do list’. Even that misses the mark a little, sounds a shade too downbeat and pessimistic. To retrack to zenventures: they surely are about finding that spark of novelty or originality that enables something to feel very present, on the nose, right there. As well as being fun or a good story or preferably both. Being able to find the fun in anything is a good zenventure attribute.

Going to the pub is usually not a zenventure. Going canoeing in surf when you’re something of a novice at it is, probably. Not sure why, maybe I’m talking about myself here…something to do with getting out of the comfort zone. A friend of mine just got back from picking up litter at a music festival, he said it was great because a) got free entrance, site, food etc b) wasn’t paid cash and in return there was no compulsion to pick up litter he didn’t want to (when people taunted him by dropping sweet wrappers in front of him he just moved on) and c) had something to do when he wasn’t doing what you think you’ll be doing at a music festival because he did that too. All of which set me thinking about how a dip, now and then, into the world of super low status activity is like getting a pair of optically perfect goggles after swimming underwater without them…

To go to the other end of the spectrum, a zenventure could pivot around doing something no one else has done before. Though I can feel myself getting dragged off into familiar territory here. What I am trying to nail is the pristine sense of having pulled something off, a kind of heist on the everyday, a wedge driven into a tiny fracture, which, with some applied force levers off a big chunk of …what? Freedom from the everyday cares, freedom from familiar downward spiralling tropes, and upward motion in favour of new directions, projects, people.




the way of the fool


The fool or jester is the only one who can tell the King the truth. How many CEOs are sophisticated enough to have a paid fool? A real fool who tells the truth and does not merely entertain?

I think it is instructive that fool is the national dish of Egypt (foul, fava beans, great for breakfast) and is also, in Egypt, the word used for ‘fill her up with a full tank of gas’- ‘Fool’. The real fool, as opposed to the negative energy often pumped out by stand-up comics, is not afraid to make bad jokes, be unfunny and be very uncool. I think one of the most daringly avant garde paths available today is being uncool. Almost every fifty to sixty year old I meet is just as ‘cool’ and cool conscious (allowing for the natural change of interest etc) as they were when they were teenagers. Learned nothing on that score then…too cool for school really means- “I am so shit scared about looking foolish that I will never get out of my comfort zone and never try to learn anything new.” 

The fool is someone who knows the comfort zone is of very limited utility. Life happens when you venture out if it, to the place of inevitable pratfalls. Not that you’re trying to be a burk (which is foolishness), rather you have SET ASIDE what you look like, how you appear, in order to do something new, learn something new.

The Japanese talk about 'begninner's mind'- the state of transparency you need in your head to learn effectively. Try being transparent when you meet people for the first time, you may well say things that sound foolish but also happen to be true.



Appearing at Edinburgh book festival

Time to get your tickets...

I will be talking about my book Red Nile and a few other things too on Wednesday 13th August at 11.00am


Master writing tip #1

A story consists of a platform, which is the initial conditions (people, place, relationships, time) and the unpacking of the platform: reusing, as cleverly and interestingly as possible, the various elements of the platform or their direct descendants. Bloody hell, even I can't quite make that out! Example: two men on a bus= bad platform. Two men on a bus, one hasn't paid for his ticket and the conductor is coming= slightly better platform. Two men on a bus, one ticket between them and the conductor is coming= a tad better too. So you get the picture: the platform is your pandoras box, your dressing up cupboard, your chest of goodies that you can mix and match to the reader's delight. The later on in a story you introduce a new element the more you stretch the platform out and into the unpacking of the platform. This is usually bad and makes the story read like a series of 'and then I did X, and then I did Y'. It doesn't matter how interesting each element is, without the glue of unpacking and reusing of what has come before the audience will lose interest.The chiefdelight in hearing a story is the clever reuse of something glimpsed earlier. Think of Piggy's specs in Lord of the Flies, the Ring in the Hobbit, and every gagg structure used by Charlie Chaplin. Unpacking and reusing elements of the platform are how we 'understand' the basic materials of the story. A 'three act' structure is nothing sacred- it's just this: the platform, elements of the platform going wrong, the same elements going right. The five act structure is more pleasing because we get an extra go at the elements with the 'false victory' that happens in the middle (Act 1=platform, Act 2=bad stuff happens, Act3=false victory, Act4=all hell breaks loose, Act5=a climactic struggle leading to final victory or utter defeat).

Interesting platforms lead to interesting stories. Forget what you can drag in later. If it 'aint in the platform get a new one. Hated notions such as the 'hi concept' movie have something right here. A high concept platform is probably a fruitful one, other things being equal. If you can repeat the platform to someone without embarrassment it is probably a good start. If the platform seems to DEMAND explanation (like the marvellous 'hundred year old man who leapt out of a window') then you are onto something.

The tip: create platforms that seem to demand further explanation.



Why smart kids don't study science


Smart kids? The all rounders who are good at everything, even sport, the creative drop outs who could be good at lessons but chose not to be, the whizz kids at maths and music. All of them are increasingly reluctant to study science. Yep, it is the second eleven, the B team, who more and more are heading into the labs now. While studying medicine appeals to conventional ‘smart kids’ ie. those good at lessons, and the sexiness of start-ups appeals to the greed factor, there is a very good reason why science is now seen as a subject for people with unnaturally narrowed vision. And since a major part of ‘smartness’ is the width of vision, then we must conclude that science is in decline. A workable parallel would be, I suspect, theology in the 17/18th/ century. Though power still resided in theocratically informed institutions, the sheer complexity of theology no longer had any grip, no purchase on everyday life decisions. The whole damn edifice came crumbling down. Shelley publishes his ‘necessity of atheism’ and throws the baby out with the bathwater, but the world keeps going: strangely we didn’t need angels dancing on pins after all. Just as we don’t need the Higg’s Boson particle, suggestively named the ‘God particle’, a sure sign that science has left its useful and limited role as a procedure for finding out useful things and taken on the theological role of explaining in words why we are here. When smart people know such an answer resides in the realm beyond the limits of language.

Science, in the current model, is the hypertrophic development of simple curiosity. Curiosity is necessary to get beyond the everyday veil that shrouds the somewhat hidden and connected reality beneath. Science mimics deeper understanding by providing answers to what colour ‘really’ is, what ‘causes’ gravity (actually rather bad on that one) and yet these are trivial questions in the life of a normal human being who desperately wants to know who they should marry, what work they should do, how they can be a better person, and so on. So ‘smart’ people turn away from science. It’s boring, they say. Well, of course, it isn’t, it’s actually fascinating. But if you engage with professional science you will be drawn into ever narrowing areas of interest.

One function of science is to provide a working model of how to approach a simple problem. Another is to demonstrate how this years ‘truth’ is next year’s laughable folly- N rays and Phlogiston- come to mind. But the nub of the matter is this, the real crux of it: people in the past were just as smart as us and they long ago worked out how to approach truth. They didn’t need theology, science, maths or anything else. Sometimes they didn’t even need language as a study of Central Asian textiles will show, the patterns encoding certain immemorial truths and relationships of truths. So the big dividing line is this: either you imagine that everyone before the 20th century was thick or you realise that human beings have not changed in thousands of years and most of what we call progress is just window dressing. As the behaviour in every recent war has demonstrated.

Which brings me to the second reason why science isn’t studied by smart kids: WW2. Science, and its bedfellow complicated technology, brought us the atom bomb, gas chambers, machine guns, railways, high explosives, saturation bombing and numerous other ways of multiplying our murderous instincts. Give a child a toy gun and he plays happily, give him a real gun and expect some unfortunate accidents. Science and complex technology are the real gun. The toy gun has long ago been ditched. And when the toy becomes deadly, the toy ‘plays’ with us. You can see this every day in the way a car alters the behaviour of otherwise normal and polite people. So we must make special allowance for this modern distortion effect, and treble it for the effect of owning a nuclear power station or a giant dam.

But the purpose of this is not to cause undue concern about technological developments. They will, after all, be what will deliver us from the problems caused by earlier technological developments. That is, in effect, what ‘modern development’ is: a series of unbalanced situations solved by inventive machines that destabilise things in a different way, requiring more inventions etc. In the past war served a similar purpose. No, the purpose is to highlight the precise use of science to the individual in their search for the right path.

They may choose to work as a professional scientist to earn money or status. Fair enough. But in their real life, that which deals with their real progress in understanding, they may see ‘science’ as rather unimportant.

Remember: everything that is real can be communicated in simple language or simple images. Things of enormous subtlety and range can be conveyed this way. We have grown used to equating subtlety with complexity. One can become ‘lost’ in complexity, this is very different to appreciating ever more subtle distinctions of emotion or utility in a thing.

We can take this from science: be alert to anecdotal evidence- anecdotal evidence is the mulch, the growing medium of real discovery. Be alert to superstition and cult behaviour. Understand basic psychological needs of the human being that may have been lost when traditional culture was superseded by ‘modern’ cultures.

Recently I read passages from Plutarch’s Morals. In it he reveals a thoroughly ‘modern’ appreciation of mythology as a method of portraying psychological realities. In no way did he believe that mythological beings were real. But he knew that they had great utility in depicting a greater reality. So Plutarch was more advanced than the modern barbarian who denounces mythical beings and sees no utility in them, and would prefer the modern mythologies of string theory and Dawkinsian evolution.

Smart kids intuit that we aren’t the smartest people to have ever lived. That people 5000 years ago were just as smart as us. Anything that moves us away from this basic position is a hypertrophy, an over developed activity that needs no further encouragement. What we need to encourage (ie. stop discouraging or distracting from) is the search for real, not ‘scientific’ truth.





How to succeed with an allotment

I saw this piece by Peter Archer and it seemed to make good sense so I've reposted it here:

Alittlement about the allotment.

Recently I have been lured back in to doing some allotment gardening. An allotment, for the non-British reader, is a small piece of municipal garden, rented for growing vegetables for a nugatory amount.

It provides a place of escape from the domestic hurly burly, a place to contemplate nature, but above all, a place to grow things you can eat.

I had rented an allotment fifteen years ago with two friends. It ended in abandonment after planting a line of radishes and planting an apple tree. I recall days building a shed that was left half finished, like part of a stage set for a western town- yes it was an ambitious shed…had it ever been finished…

But therein lay the problem: I had become distracted by the inessential elements of allotmenteering, attractive though they are: sheds, friends, strange fruit (or even normal fruit).

But this time, things would be different.

I took as my example a man dubbed by other members of the allotment society as ‘Mr Monsanto’. I chose him not for his obvious prediliction for powerful weedkiller, but because his allotment was THE EXACT OPPOSITE of my old conception of what an allotment should be. Fifteen years on I was going to try something completely different.

Mr Monsanto, a silent broad shouldered man who had scorched with ‘Round-up’ the verges around his plot, making his square of soil look as if it landed from outerspace, had dead straight lines of veg, no shed, old rusty tools, scaffold planks to walk on (you could imagine Mr M in a previous working life as someone involved somehow in the macho world of scaffolding). No greenhouse, polytunnel or fruit cage. No natty little turf paths. Absolutely no trendy raised beds. Instead only excellent spuds, beans, peas, onions, cabbages, salad stuff. No hardy Himalayan banana tree. No herbs and spices. No apple trees.

No shed became an article of faith. I saw that the bigger the shed the more abandoned and crap the allotment that accompanied it. There is a philosophy of business that suggests you disinvest in any company the moment it buys a purpose built HQ. Desire to expand has been replaced by naval gazing. The shed is- in your back garden- a wonderful place. But in an allotment it betokens a woeful lack of focus. My father never had a shed on his allotment and I thought him a killjoy, then; now I see he knew the real score: sheds are for amateurs.

So no shed.

Tools. On my previous attempt I had lots of new shiny tools. Expensive tools. Spades, two types of fork, a hoe- all bought on a whim from the garden centre. This was pre-internet. I now looked carefully online at what I might need. I realised I could get away with having a single tool. Just one- a wide digging hoe or mattock, something like an adze. I remember my grandfather using one and being rather mystified by it. No longer. Once I started using the mattock hoe I (hardly) looked back. Spades are OK, and forks aren’t too bad, but for fast, effortless, sod breaking you cannot beat the mattock. When sharp it can cut long grass. You can weed vast areas with it. It breaks down into a head and a handle. I left the handle at the allotment (Mr Monsanto left all his tools out) and walked to the allotment with the head in my rucksack. Using the head alone it worked as a trowel. The mattock was the business.

All other tools I bought second hand, maximum price paid £6. I bought a rake, various other weeding hoes, a bent fork (also excellent). The wind blew two plastic buckets on to my plot. I kept them and found both useful.

At first I tried to clear my plot systematically. This meant starting at one end and manfully hacking on, chopping down weeds, taking out dock roots and turning over the soil. It was sad dispiriting work. As soon as I had cleared one bit it began to sprout weeds again. My solid adherence to organic principles forbade the use of weedkiller.

I almost gave up. In fact, only a letter from the council officer in charge of allotments (chiding me for the lack of progress in clearing the plot) spurred me into action. I gave up using the wheelbarrow to take weeds to the compost heap (forget compost, it’s a waste of time in the beginning, a total snare and delusion, especially composters made from pallets- totally useless as they simply sprout weeds from the sides). Instead I simply cleared an area in the middle of the plot and shifted the cut weeds outwards in a spreading wave north and south. At both ends I formed piles of dead foliage that served as the ultimate goal of the cleared stuff but there was no hurry. The key was simplicity and not getting bogged down with inessentials.

As soon as I had a bare patch about ten foot by twenty foot I planted some spuds, bought from the garden centre. I cleared some more and bought at a street market for a pound some onion sets. These I duly planted.

Planting spurred me on to clear more ground. I didn’t bother to water or coddle my plants in any way at all. If they died they died. When a line of kale was attacked by birds I went up to Mr Monsanto’s plot and noticed his chicken wire cover arched over his cabbages. I got some and made a cover for my own- the cheapest wire coming from a discount hardware store rather than the pricey stuff in the garden centre. The bird attacks ceased.

When slugs munched my beans I scattered organic slug pellets around the perimeter of the plants- this worked pretty well. I also moved my chicken wire covers over the beans and peas for a while, until they seemed sturdy enough to take what the world could throw at them.

From the beginning I revelled in the allotment as a free gym. Breaking new ground became an addictive form of exercise. But I didn’t force it; as soon as I noticed something that needed doing- weeds, a bit more planting, tidying the edges etc I allowed myself to be distracted. This wilful use of distraction worked well, as long as I went for about half an hour or so every other day. Long sessions are not really that good, longer than two hours gets boring unless you have a flask of tea for a break. The main thing was to go little and often to the allotment and not see it as something you could blitz and forget about.

Last week I cleared the last of the plot. It is pretty much all planted out now with just a few clear spaces. Spuds, onions, lettuce, rocket, peas- all delicious all being eaten everyday.

And NO PESTICIDES or WEEDKILLER- thank you Mr Monsanto!

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