Archive for the 'Beautiful things' Category

The end of the world as we know it?

As everyone in the entire world is probably aware by now (and if you are not aware, then you are on the wrong side of the internet – google “unpronouncable icelandic volcano” immediately please), western europe is grounded.  Eyjafjallajokul – the smaller of two rather large volcanoes – has erupted, spewing tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere and basically creating a massive cloud of thick volcanic ash in the air over the west of europe.

This has prompted the blanket shut down of all flights within the affected areas, basically eliminating air travel throughout Europe. Definitely a setback, definitely inconvenient for many people, what an unfortunate incident. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was slightly more paranoid, and was prompted by the realization that the damn volcano is still fucking erupting, and that no-one has any idea when it will stop. Right now everything seems to be pretty speculative, previous eruptions have lasted over a year, and weather conditions make the dust cloud unpredictable.

I cannot help but notice a tiny part of me that is squeaking “wow, thats actually a little bit fucking cool in a very medieval way, huh?” Practically I think this is a disaster, for Europe in general, for the world as a whole, and for me specifically. I can’t go home, my camp can’t come to Burning Man, airlines will choke to a fiscally horrendous death, the economy of europe will leap into the nearest toilet. I am perfectly aware of these things. Yet still some bit of my brain (presumably the bit that imagines post-apocalyptic earth scenarios and occasionally prods me to go backpacking in the wilderness) thinks this is an essentially romantic notion – no more planes means travel by trains, buses, boats. Real adventures, on which you might actually have to talk to people to stay sane, on which you might actually see the places you are passing through.

If getting places were a real effort, how much more worthwhile would it seem to make it around the world? One of the most fascinating evenings I had last year was when friends of friends showed us footage of their amazing travels all over the world – which they did almost entirely by bicycle or kayak. They’d been moving for 6 whole years, spending minuscule amounts, and having the adventure of a lifetime.

I think about that with some sort of extreme reverence and awe. I don’t know if I could handle that sort of total freedom despite it being the ultimate goal of my whole existence. There are drawbacks to a 6 year adventure – the most obvious being that we have to live after the adventure has ended, and that will be harder in a million ways. But do any of those really matter? Is there any real excuse for not launching yourself into the ether and seeing what happens? Or is aimless travel as bad as no travel at all? Maybe my excitement is prompted by the idea that there will be no other way to get home again, that it could be need and not frivolity that would send me on that adventure the long way round the world.

As I finish this, I realize that since I began writing it air travel restrictions have started to lift, Europe is mobile again. I am relieved and happy, but I have to admit I am also a tiny, minuscule, fractional bit well, disappointed.

For someone who values choice so highly, I amaze myself with how I react when it is restored to me.

Wanted: Giant frying pan

Because frankly ostrich eggs are surprisingly good, and exceptionally large. Particularly when one is hung over in the middle of the desert after having spent a night at Ashram Galactica, one of the most ridiculously well stocked, decorated and maintained bars at Burning Man. How fortunate that our property was so mauled by a baboon in Reno that it was felt a couple of ostrich eggs would be good compensation. Incidentally anyone who thinks the previous sentence is gibberish is being far too optimistic about the level of sensibleness of the universe in general. Life really is this odd, and thank fuck for that.

I’ve now been going to Burning Man for 4 consecutive years. Every year I leave the desert dusty, filthy, exhausted, and deciding that next year I will take a break, next time I will skip it, next time I will ignore the ache that happens in my heart when I think about the city and contemplate somehow not being there, not feeling that free and intense and insane and connected and invincible. But every year I also come back to real life with a perspective that cannot be rivaled by anything in the civilized world. The knowledge that if my whole life goes to hell there are always other lives I could decide to live. The remembrance that even though a great many people are shortsighted and stupid and petty, many also aren’t, and even those that are aren’t like that all the time.

I believe humans to be capable of amazing things. I kind of need to, or else I couldn’t believe myself to be. But there are times when it feels like my life is surrounded by an ocean of mediocrity and boredom, when my job seems as meaningless as it would to a caveman who counts success in pelts of fur collected, and at those times people seem soulless and stupid and inaccessible and not worth even trying for. Generally these phases last about an hour, so maybe its just sugar withdrawal or something. But that week in the middle of nowhere with 40,000 other weirdos resets my faith in humanity, and not just because its filled with nudity, giant slides and flamethrowers.

I like the way people behave there. The sense of personal responsibility runs high, the sense of community probably almost as high. In the best individuals radical self reliance combines with a sense of being part of something to produce both independence and generosity in larger quantities than I would ever have expected. Naturally this is not the case with everyone – as a good friend of mine said when I stated that I had expected BM to be filled with silly hippies, “It is filled with silly hippies, you just don’t hang around with any of them”. Turns out that at the burn, much like at home, I am an intolerant fuck. Thank Christ.

People hide behind a lot of things in real life. Their job, their friends, their clothes, their lifestyle, the internet. Sometimes it can be very hard to tell what a person really is when life is as easy as it can be for a white-collar employee in a big city. Hard to tell when someone is a real friend or just hates going to the movies alone, or whether they give a damn about you or just get emotional while drunk. I generally don’t know whether people like me or not, though this may have something to do with not caring. But in the scorching desert in the middle of nowhere while trying to hold up one side of a carport so that someone can get the poles under it you see a little more of what people really are and really think. Even if those are (respectively) “sweaty and irritable” and “fuck this for a carry on”.

Sometimes, your friends turn out to be exactly as amazing as you thought they were.

In My Secret Life

“I saw you this morning, you were moving so fast…
can’t seem to loosen my grip on the past

and i miss you so much, there’s no one in sight
and we’re still making love…

…in my secret life

I smile when I’m angry… I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do to get by

but I know what is wrong, and I know what is right
and I’d die for the truth…

…in my secret life

I bite my lip, I buy when I’m told
From the latest hit to the wisdom of old.

But I’m always alone, and my heart is like ice,
and its crowded and cold…

…in my secret life”

Leonard Cohen

First, we take Manhattan…

On Sunday night I went to see Leonard Cohen in Radio City Music Hall. There are two very awesome aspects to this, one of which is Leonard Cohen, and the other of which is Radio City Music Hall itself, which is pretty goddamn impressive. I have mentioned my tendency to judge establishments on the calibre of their toilet facilities. Well, RCMH doesn’t just have a bathroom, it has a ladies lounge, complete with couches, mirrors and a lot of open space to just hang out in before you even get to the actual toilet stalls. In fact to find the toilets I had to walk through three rather large rooms, and was starting to wonder if I was supposed to piss on a suede-upholstered sofa.

However, RCMH milk their awesomeness to the absolute max, at a stunning cost of $250 to get a ticket in the stalls. Now it was a great seat, and an amazing venue, but in the normal course of things I would never ever pay this amount of money for anything short of a concert headlined by Led Zeppelin and opened by the Beatles, complete with all original band members (including those who would need to rise from the grave for the occasion) which took place on the fucking moon.

The obvious contradiction here is that I did have a ticket and did go. I can explain this with the following short tangent: my parents are awesome. Really. Obviously I did not think this as a 15 year old psycho held together by un-directed rage and death metal, but since reaching an age where I enjoyed discernable lyrics and obtained a modicum of self-control I realized I quite possibly have the best parents ever. In a complete surprise move then, when my father noticed that Leonard Cohen was playing Radio City, he decided to buy me a ticket as a belated 26th birthday present (even though my father believes any birthday after you are legally allowed to drive and buy beer is not an event).

Naturally I gratefully accepted said ticket, particularly since Leonard Cohen is certainly getting on in years, and chances to see him might have been running out. Now, I have never been a massive fan, though I’ve always liked his music. But the man is fucking amazing. He is 75, and he dances onto the stage. He has a voice like honey drizzling over dark chocolate, it somehow sounds even better live than it does recorded, despite the fact that today we could make a screaming child sound like Tina Turner with the vast powers of studio sound manipulation. Though I suppose that particular example is not all that much of a stretch. I guess just because you can make shit smell kind of like roses it doesn’t mean you can improve what roses themselves smell like.

In any case, it was an exceptional show. The talent of just the female back-up vocalists would have put professional choirs to shame. Leonard himself is an incredible performer, and better than that he clearly enjoys every minute of the performance. He is one of those artists that puts everything into what they are doing, watching him sing live he makes you feel as if he’s singing better for your show than for any other one he’s played, like what he’s doing just that night is special to him. The fact that he has sung these songs a thousand times does not make him one iota less expressive or emotional.  It was a beautiful experience to be lost in that.

Resolution: go to more concerts. Even if they are not held on the moon.

“Welcome to the Vacant Heart of the Wild West…

… a place as broad and blank as the future. Few people realise that the future is in fact here, it just has not been properly distributed yet.”

This is the beginning of a pretty and rather amusing chunk of prose which had been placed on a succession of signposts in huge letters on the way in to Burning Man. If anyone comes across a transcript of the rest I would love to have it, but can’t be bothered looking for it myself. The line above was the only thing I wrote down at Burning Man, hence my complete lack of ability to thus far write about any of the experience.

It was the best holiday of my life, without question. It was better than Sweden adventures, it was better than backpacking around eastern Europe, it was better than 2 months of lazy days at home with friends one summer. It was probably the best thing I have ever done, it vies for that title with moving to London, which I assure you is tough competition.

I will not be able to accurately or sufficiently describe BM. Partly because it defies explanation, partly because I saw but a fraction of what was there. It is impossible to see everything, but also impossible to be there without getting involved in a hundred different things, and getting caught up in the atmosphere. I am about as far from a hippy as you can get, but I found the whole thing intensely beautiful. This is what I learned…

Pre-requisites: Do you in fact know what the hell I am talking about?

Burning Man ( is an art festival, started by a guy called Larry Harvey in the 1980s on a beach in SF, which has grown in size and reputation ever since. It is now held in the open desert in Nevada, and firmly promotes freedom of expression and radical self-reliance. Nothing is bought or sold at Burning Man, you bring what you need to survive the harsh conditions, you bring your art, or you build it, and then on the last day everything burns. There are no spectators, only participants. The back of the ticket reads “By attending this event you accept the risk of serious injury or death”. They are not exaggerating.

Lesson 1: Survival in the desert

You need food, you need water, you need enough to survive and more. You need to wash things, you need to cook, you need a stove. You need to be able to protect yourself in the day when its 50 degrees Celsius outside, and at night when its freezing cold. You need to drive 2 foot long rebar stakes into the ground to keep your tent from blowing away in the sandstorms, you need goggles to see in them, and a mask to breathe through unless you want your lungs full of dry dust.

You have no shower, the nearest toilet is a ten minute walk. You can leave no trace, so you cannot throw away dirty water, or garbage, everything must be kept and removed when you leave. Dust from the playa, an ancient lake bed completely devoid of life, will be in everything you own, eat and drink for a week. Your hair will matte with the dust on the first day. Your clothes will be dirty immediately you step outside. You will be dirty all the time, dust will stick to your skin, and when you clean yourself it will be with baby wipes.

You must constantly drink water in order to stay hydrated, you must eat enough nutrients to keep your body healthy. You cannot. Be. Sick. You must be able to walk where you need to go in a huge camp, you must learn to navigate said camp. You must be able to live in incredibly close quarters with whoever you are camping with, you must never fall asleep in a tent during the hottest part of the day or you will wake up horribly nauseous and drenched in sweat (I learned this one the hard way). You must only eat, walk, or be in the sun before noon and after 6, before your water supply gets hot, or after it cools again.

That isn’t even close to all of it. I didn’t think I could do it. Or rather, I knew I would, but I thought it might make me too miserable to enjoy anything. In fact it made everything ten times more amazing, because I knew I was doing it in the face of what I had previously considered the edge of bearable. When we drove out the gates of BM on the Monday after the burn, I felt like we had won, that I could do anything if I could do that and still be as incredibly, perfectly happy as I had been. I was sorry to go home.

Though I freely admit that the roast beef sandwich I had in Gerlach shortly afterwards was probably the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.

Lesson 2: Playa etiquette 

This boils down to two simple rules. Leave no trace. Don’t fuck with anyone else.

Granted the latter could be given a very broad variety of interpretations, but only once during the week did I witness anyone being what I would deem unreasonable, and that was when we were leaving. With the exception of those two stipulations, Burning Man is an environment of astonishing freedom. It was filled with a vast majority of smart and interesting people, and a minimum of annoying tree-hugging hippy crap.

You can walk around wearing anything, you can walk around wearing nothing. Regardless of gender or physical attributes no-one will so much as look at you funny, though if your outfit is good, people will certainly look. There is zero stigma attached to any degree of nudity. It is considered completely unacceptable to proffer sexual commentary or overtures to someone just because of how they are dressed or not dressed. In the entire time I was there I never heard or saw one person do this.

Gifting is a common occurrence, people frequently give away absolutely anything, from pee-funnels for girls so they can urinate standing up, to hats, to grilled cheese sandwiches. It is perfectly ok to accept these gifts and make no return, they are gifts. People give away only what they wish to, there are no debts entailed by such a gift and no obligation. Occasionally people offer trade if they need an item, no-one ever asks for anything for free. No-one begs, and if they cannot get what they want they live without it. Frequently people who offer to trade are simply given the item they seek regardless, but this is beside the point.

Things I was given while there include chocolate ice-cream, an apple, a kiwi-fruit, a red pepper (you have no idea how good that was after 5 days in the desert), a grilled cheese sandwich, Earl Grey tea in a china cup, a ginger biscuit, pancakes with maple syrup, skittles, beer, rum, vodka, more rum, several mysterious cocktails, more rum, lollipops,  condoms, graham crackers, peach juice, crackers with chorizo sausage and cheese, some really odd Portland version of Guinness (apparently), a pee funnel, pink hair, a small fuzzy green friend, Gatorade, more beer…. and so on, and so forth. Oh, and cheese in a can. But that was more an attack than a gift really.

It is considered normal and forgivable at BM to completely fail to turn up at an appointed time or location, since it is practically impossible to walk down any given street without becoming involved in a game, party, experiment, or on one notable occasion, tea and biscuits.

Leave no trace is the really hard part. That means don’t drop a piece of paper, don’t spill water, don’t stub out a cigarette, don’t piss outside, don’t throw up outside, don’t drop food. Its all considered MOOP – Matter Out Of Place, and irresponsibility for yourself and your posessions is very bad form.

It is considered the height of stupidity to ask someone for drugs at BM unless they are a reasonably well-known acquaintance. Black Rock City becomes the 3rd largest city in the state of Nevada for one week, and is most likely responsible for justifying half the budget of the Nevada State Police, largely due to the huge quantity of drug busts that occur there. Undercover cops are everywhere, and anyone who does not know this is very quickly informed.

Random observations:

This wouldn’t work anywhere other than where it is. Anyone who goes to BM must be extremely independant and self-reliant, or must find a group of people prepared to be that way on their behalf. We did things the hardest way we could have done them, and I don’t regret that in the least. We made some mistakes, but overall we did pretty well. Burning Man isn’t a gift economy, a gift economy is based on need. On the playa everyone assumes you have what you need, all that they could give you is something for pure enjoyment.

The feeling of complete freedom is like nothing else. I have felt free before, I generally feel in control of myself and my (for want of a better word) destiny. But this is something overwhelmingly strong. When you look outside your tent you see the desert stretch out in front of you, when you look up at night you see a clear desert sky, with no reminders of what the rest of the world is like. I don’t think I have ever felt so completely happy as I did in a dusty tent, covered in dirt and suncream, eating peaches from a tin. I would totally survive the apocalypse. Certainly if it has the occasional grilled cheese sandwich in it anyway.

It has always bothered me slightly that modern everyday life is so easy, not because of the lack of effort involved but because I might never know how I would manage if it were hard. I don’t want to be addicted to buying NineWest shoes or having my shopping delivered. No matter how accustomed I might become to things which could be considered luxuries I want to know that I can go back to the desert, live on tinned tuna and sweetcorn, and have the time of my life. Its ok to make life comfortable, its not ok to need things to be that way.

What we did at Burning Man:

So I finally get round to what actually happened, setting the scene being a key aspect. What did I do at Burning Man? Ok, here is a list, in vaguely chronological order. I have probably left out half of the stuff we did/saw, but you can get the idea at least.

  • Drove to the desert through the night, set up camp at 5am, or rather 2.30 and beyond Hope.
  • Met our neighbour, Cowboy Karl, who was a real cowboy
  • Put up the tent, an education in hammers, rebar, broken poles and the Nevada dawn
  • Changed and went exploring, walked straight into white-out
  • Survived dust storm, continued journey through centre camp, got soaked by water truck, saw several dragons, the Thunderdome, Death Guild, Spike’s Vampire Bar, Arctica
  • Stopped at Camp Campington, who gave us gatorade and fuzzy things
  • Went to Quixote’s cabaret, where my friend Dave (who I met on a bus) was camped ·        
  • Met random people, got misted with water several times, were given ice-pops·        
  • Swung on swings at High Strung, met Thaddeus P. Thordenfelt the third·        
  • Made it back to tents, fell asleep for 5 hours, woke up at 5pm drenched in sweat, sick as a dog.·        
  • Drank vast amounts of water, recovered, Roni threw up and decided not to go out. I went to the cabaret, which rocked, and then stayed on and drank ridiculous quantities of rum in order to be like Captain Jack Sparrow. Logic may have been flawed at this juncture
  • Ran after shiny art car, got a bit lost, kept forgetting who I was talking to.·        
  • Rule for happiness (new addition) – never accept fungi from a man in a dog suit.·        
  • Got a lift back to the tent on some crazy bike-like contraption driven by a guy called Firefly·        
  • Ate crisps, forgot about crisps, ate more crisps. Got laughed at by Roni for forgetting about previous crisps. Slept.

This is really not going to work, this entry is already impossibly long and I have gotten through exactly one day, even with bullet point form. So here is a selection of some of my favourite things from the remainder of the week…

  • High Strung, a really fantastic camp from Portland, Oregan. Big wooden structure made by an incredibly cool dude called Thaddeus, holding up about 10 hammocks and some funky swings. Incredibly sweet, funny, clever americans who took us in during the hottest part of the day.
  • Quixotes Cabaret, crazy gits from London and all over Europe who made a stage tent out of a tank parachute and some scaffolding, and brought copious amounts of rum.
  • Spike’s Vampire Bar, which held pole-dancing classes during the day and welcomed amateur performances every evening.
  • Kuub, a swedish game which basically involved throwing sticks at rocks, during which I accidentally cheated and Roni nearly amputated one of my legs.
  • Awesome contact jugglers, poi spinners and staff spinners.
  • The Rainforest and the Pants Cannon
  • The giant Cactus which helped us navigate home each day
  • The speakers shaped like massive avocados at the Tool Camp, which played Tool all the time
  • Dance Dance Immolation. Like Dance Dance Revolution, but you wear an asbestos suit and helmet, and if you miss a step, they flamethrower you in the face.
  • The Serpent Mother, a metal sculpture with a jet of fire in every scale.
  • The massive swing near 3.30 and Chance which was incredible fun, especially if you were pushed around it by some english maniacs
  • The Waffle, a huge thing made of 92 miles worth of lumber, that looked like an upside down woven basket and held hundreds of people and a huge sound system.
  • Damn Fucking Texans, a bar with an insane chick who traded drinks for spankings with a table tennis bat.
  • Desert vodka!
  • The Burn – saturday night and the burning of the Man, followed by possibly the best night out I have ever had.
  • Watching the Waffle burn in a huge bonfire on sunday night from the top of an RV.
  • Suddenly looking up on Thursday night and seeing more stars than I thought visible from earth
  • Meeting some of the most interesting, fun, and entertaining people I have ever come across.
  • The biggest fire-dance I have ever seen, surpassed by nothing in either skill or scale.
  • Being there with Roni, best person I could have gone with, who laughed at the same thing I did every time, never acted like an asshole, and put up with my constant whining about not having any cheese.

That is about all I can say without going on for a further 10 pages. So I’ve done exactly what I thought I’d do, and completely failed to describe BM in any meaningful way. I don’t think such would have been possible anyway. All I can say is, try it. Survive the desert, burn the man, and have the time of your life. I’ll definitely be going back, and next time I’ll be better at it.

Smoke and Mirrors

“The truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it.”

“Love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one’s own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns, and derives from love.”

Ayn Rand

    I make no excuses for the way I am about to write something, if anyone is disappointed by the lack of vitriol, or sarcasm, then they can direct complaints to my ass, which will no doubt reply eventually. Perhaps not in a very articulate fashion.

    London is so beautiful. It is dirty, it is a huge industrial monster, and for all that it is the most amazing, stunningly wonderful place I have ever been on this earth. I would rather look at the London skyline than the grand canyon at this moment, and though I may someday change my mind, right now I feel better every day that I live here, I love it more.

    I love my life. I can’t remember how or why I ever allowed myself to be unhappy. And I won’t let it happen again. I discovered recently that I do not believe in misery. No-one makes me unhappy but me, and I’m done with that. And thats pretty much it. I’m going home.

    “When you dream of flying, you’re really dreaming about having sex” “So what does it mean when you dream about having sex?”

    “It has always been the remit of children and halfwits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the halfwit remains a halfwit, and the emperor remains an emperor”

    Sandman – Neil Gaimen


    “Though much is taken, much abides; and though
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are we are
    One equal temper of heroic hearts
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”

    Alfred Lord Tennyson