Confidence

I rolled up to the red light. She was waiting.

Track stand. No wobble. Positioned at the front of queuing cars. Ready.

She rode a fixie. Her hair was done up tight. Her light blue frame was slim and cool blue. No helmet. Slender fingers wrapped around up-bars covered in brown grip tape.

Her hips were thrust out. Maybe for balance, maybe not. They said, clearly,

Yeah? What you got?

The lights changed. I set off after her but only for a fleeting moment: she was turning right. Nipped out before a van, and then was gone.

I carried on and marvelled. The very dust kicked up from her departing rear wheel oozed cool.

a road ahead

I am trying to figure out two very simple things, how to live and how to die.

 

I am riding home in the rain. It’s dark but it’s not late. It feels late. It’s real rain, really real rain. If god were to pop into existence tonight, he could certainly peel up London off the soil beneath and wring it out like a dish cloth, and fill up a lot of buckets too.

I am riding home in the rain and, like most times, I am thinking about decisions. There are some things I am certain about. I am certain about my route home tonight. But this knowledge is precious, delicate. Were a diversion to send me down a sidestreet, my certainty would vanish. I know only one artery, this main road; the capillaries are mysteries. Thus any such certainty about where I am in the city comes with a conditional clause, change my street address, and so goes the ground I call known.

To seek something solid is human. We love decisions decided. Even in those cases where perhaps we made the wrong one. Maybe I am beginning to understand just how perverse this can be. The road ahead cannot be, will never be, the road ahead. What right has that definite article to prefix our road? We go this way because there is no other way we can go.

— Tell me, when do you plan to buy your first house? The man asked.
— Well I don’t know if I ever will, another replied. Maybe that’s not for me you know, maybe I will rent places all my life.
— I really think that you should go and talk to a therapist.

Here is the impasse between the man who cannot imagine life without security, and the man who has let go of a part of the fear of not knowing. It does not sound like much, but it is big. In fact, it is exactly the size of the uncertainty that we face each day. Either we can let it push us into the ground — into knowing where we are (and thus never leaving that spot) — or we can stand up and say

I see you.
And I don’t know.
And I go on.

It is often when we yearn for an answer that we stand to learn the most from staying with the question

 

Just like I get lost in the small roads of London, so I get lost in my life. The one artery I have — my way home — is very simple: I will die. Everything else is unanswered. I am beginning to see a new freedom in the undecisions. I don’t know, of course, but that’s ok.

The soft greens

These hills are green — still green in winter too.
I walk them slowly, triumphantly, home.

Gentle slopes are steeped in mist, and sheep
stay still, don’t care.
No cliff face, no heart race.
Here jagged ridge gives way to lazy wave
and warmth wraps around my body
— though wet and chilled and muddy it may be.

Each arising thought meets grass forgiving
and meets grey sky and meets the hungry wind.
Where the quiet roar drowns each of my beliefs
Until I’ve nothing left to do but stand
and be.

This is not living on the edge, in wonder
or tremendous peril, this is living
the soft greens, in the very heart of earth.

The old man of Furnival

If it were not for the engines it would be quiet here. There are footsteps, horns and jet propellers; only the promise of people exists.

Towering, it rose before me, over the water behind the houseboats. It stood black on black sky, yet quite distinguishable, the sky’s black heavily bordered with orange — the colour of our outpourings into the clouds. Its branches were short and held close to the body – snowman’s arms. Neatly spiked hair began where the trunk disappeared.

The therapeutic effect one tree had on me was strong, my heartbeat halved and breathing lulled. And in the comfort of the slowing, my head fuzzed and a different tower swam in. I was sitting on the Isle of Hoy, gazing out at the Old Man of Hoy, a great sea stack rising uninterrupted from the ocean. The cliffs commanded close attention. All the noises that people make were silenced. In their place rang out waves and wind the screams of cormorants. This wind was far greater than a sound and a brushing hand, it stung my eyes, brought saltwater to my lips.

I stood up, turned my face to the rain. I stepped forwards, compelled, until the next step would take me into the air. Like a grandfather clock the old man out at sea was keeping time. Not in hours or years but in deaths of mountains. This great column holds up everything that can possibly last, and still he crumbles and crumbles.

Movement below startles me, perilously. My eyes drop and meet those of a puffin, looking up from his perch almost at my feet. This funny little guy brings me back, first from the ocean to the land, then from the island, skimming far across the water and down our country’s length to Hammersmith, Furnival park. Wet grass becomes cold wooden bench. The old man has retaken his tree form and, as silently as ever, surveys the river.

A child is running towards me with quick light steps, haphazardly following the path of a drunkard, pink beanie hat bouncing with her gait. Two joggers follow her, their trajectories terribly sombre in comparison. They, in turn, are followed by a couple of dogs, small shaggy things, running recklessly and tumbling into one another as they misjudge how their own legs work. Finally a human couple who move at a leisurely pace bring up the rear of the parade, softening its pace.

I am alone again. Watching the skyline beyond the boats beyond the river beyond the bushes. This tree tower is less than the old man of Hoy: less striking, less wild, less majestic, less unitary. He stands not in the cold sea here, but in the warm streetglow. More close then, more friendly too. Trees line the night on both sides of him, branches upon branches, arms upon arms.

An encounter with a serow

I glanced up the hill, then back down at my line through the trees. I wanted to make sure the ski patrol or any other officials were not in sight: I could be thrown out of the resort for skiing under fences. The snow was picture perfect. I could not resist. Yes it was dangerous; stupid, some might say. To ski alone is unwise. To ski alone off-piste could lead to serious trouble. To ski alone off-piste, in an unknown resort in a foreign country through trees in near white-out conditions during a snowstorm, well, you get the idea. I calculated the risk I was taking. I squeezed my poles tight in my fists, ducked under, and pushed off.

Oh! that first turn. True powder skiing is nothing less than floating through air. Effortlessly I made a second and a third, my mouth catching the snow that flew up from my skis — but I couldn’t close it over my grin. I heard my boy-laugh. Then I started thinking again. I knew I had to hang right. I put in a couple sweeping turns, applying a bit more pressure with each. Then, squinting and aghast, I slammed my skis though the thick pillows into a hockey stop and everything — but for the heartbeat in my ears — went quiet. These four beasts stood before me. What were they? Stout and grey-brown with little horns and bigger ears they stood there, furrily. Full of apprehension at these solid mirages, I clacked my poles. That sent three of them trotting off into the silent whiteness. The fourth remained, steadfast, looking me straight in the eye.

In that moment of his gaze I understood something. I understood that there is a place for me on this incredible little planet. Somehow I can be a mathematician and a skier. A writer and a yogi; sensible and drunken. I stared into the eyes of the serow, and he stared back into mine, and under those ancient white trees, everything just fit.

Now, back in the world of red buses, grey skies and desktops, I have that moment. In times of doubt, it really helps. It is the reminder that beauty is everywhere; it is the reminder that “good enough” can expand way beyond us and fill out over our horizons. It allows me to lay down my head lightly on my pillow, tired and fulfilled and hopeful.

To build a city

Frauenkirche

The Frauenkirche (cathedral) looks like a Jenga game. Although grand and old-fashioned, the stones of its walls are mostly clean and without blemish; a new build in an old style. There are a number of entirely blackened stones, sitting amongst the clean ones at numerous locations up the walls, the ones that from afar look like missing Jenga pieces. These are the stones that survived. They were carefully labeled – somehow – with an indicator of their position, until the restoration could begin. Then they were placed back where they belonged in the walls.

It was not only stones that were replaced by numbers, but people too.

It is beautiful here, certainly. Twisting cobbled roads most fit for horse-drawn vehicles lead up to magnificent buildings of limestone with bronze statues atop their roofs and ornate clocks hanging from their sides. The river Elbe peaks through from between clocks and cobbles. A historic town, polished and proper seems to be what is presented. Still, here and there the blackened rocks shine out the brightest.

This is what I cannot ignore: that this town, whilst boasting centuries of history, was blown to the ground 70 years ago. Are there still those who were here? There must be a few I suppose. I hope.

I feel like I am tightrope walking the line between remembering and forgetting. To fall on the first side is to live in our past and never let go. To fall the other way is to repel the stories until they are exiled from our consciousness, an equally terrible fate.

Let me for at least a few moments remember, and dwell on those things that we may write with the least uncertainty, indeed may even dare to call them facts. On Tuesday evening, the 13th of February, 1945 at 22:14, the first bomb was dropped from an RAF Lancaster aircraft flying at 2,400 m over the city of Dresden. In the next eight minutes 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons of incendiaries were released by this plane and the 253 others that accompanied it on their mission. Some three hours later in the middle of the night, a further 529 Lancasters returned and dropped 1,800 tons of bombs onto the fires that already raged and engulfed the town centre.[1]

Dresden was justified as the main target for this bombing campaign by the allied forces since it was a transport hub for the German army. Furthermore, it was said that by assisting the Russians on the Eastern front, the strike could hasten the end of the war by as much as six months. What they created by this carefully calculated strike was an inferno. Most death was as a result of asphyxiation: people dropped to the ground as they no longer could breath. This meant counting the 20,100 victims easier; few were too badly burned to be found.

“To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.” – Margaret Freyer[1]

  
I am told that the people of Dresden are of a practical inclination, towards the latter side of the line I consider above, whereby unpleasant memories are left behind and the good ones upheld. This is indeed what can be seen on the streets. New cobbles cover old roads and the face becomes beautiful again.

The castle that recently reopened is still undergoing work. A different scene presents itself here. Inside, to the right, old stone pillars compose a part of the wall, failing to blend in at all to the modern plaster above them. Were these replaced back here from some other place, or was the new castle built around their ruins? The other wall, to my right, is entirely white plaster. This mixture of styles is not as pretty as a completely reconstructed courtyard might have been, but it is without pretence. I like it this way. Above us the sky is visible through a strange lattice of transparent tiles. Back out in the streets the historic idyll rules; in here a more honest mosaic of periods and epochs hosts us.

No locals knew what the reconstruction plans for the castle were until the main parts were complete, a guide tells me. This was apparently to avoid long drawn out meetings discussing alternatives. And their verdict? The job that has been done is well received by most.

On the riverbank my axis of time changes. The rolling green land of the Elbe valley was carved out over thousands, not tens, of years. I breathe easier here. The Stones from the river[2] that line its banks are smooth, and good for gripping in one’s palm. A wave of hurt runs over and through me. Looking at them piled up in their hundreds and thousands reminds me of other great piles, of spectacles, or shoes.

What is the point of remembering? Why bring this sadness into our lives? This is not today. Today is friends and colleagues and stem cells and (soon) German beer.

I propose this: a bistable state. Rather than balance precariously maybe I can sit comfortably with both truths.

1. We must remember the past.
2. We must let go of the past.

As if waiting to reveal itself to me only after I have gotten there on my own, on my way home, between the river the motorway, is a small garden of flowers.

Rose garden

“This rose garden is dedicated to the many Dresdeners of all faiths and to the refugees and expellees then thronging the city, who died in the firestorm on 13th and 14th February, 1945.

This rose garden is a symbol of the reconciliation achieved between Great Britain and Germany and an expression of the yearning for understanding between all peoples.” [3]

In the dark above the buildings night birds swoop past in flocks. Startled, I look again: are these creatures glowing? Are they mutants, tagged by some orange-yellow fluorescent protein? Ah no. I have become, perhaps, too engrossed in biological ideas this day. The reflection of streetlamps on their bellies provides the colour. But wait — As they swoop again did they just become a fleet of Lancasters, glowing in the light of the fire below? Maybe, just for second. But now they are birds again, and birds they shall remain. Little sky-hung reminders that we choose everything. We choose what we see, we choose what we saw and we choose what we will see tomorrow.

Yes, be it a balance or a bistability, Dresden seems to be managing just fine.

  

[1]Wikipedia and sources therein.

[2]A wonderful book.

[3]The Dresden Trust. Dedicated in May 2011.

Pasqua and the life of coffee

Historic London works best in the rain. The foggy streets of Dickens and Doyle can be realised in a way in which they cannot in fine weather. On this dripping wooden door Holmes may have knocked, Fagin may have slunk. When the sun is out above this same door, old though it may be, it shall be framed above and behind by glass walls and plastic signs, glinting in twenty first century light. Only on dreich days may the past take over.

We were gathered under the door of the church of St. Michael, boasting an impressive façade, though easily missable as one walks along Cornhill just east of Bank. We were gathered here to be led on a tour of the earliest coffeehouses of London.[1] I was not sure what to expect, but was hopeful of a few good stories, perhaps linking our city, its ancestors, and how and where they began to drink the black liquid I rarely go a morning without. I was not disappointed. It turned out to be one story, about one man, a man named Pasqua Rosée.

It began in 1652. Three hundred and sixty years ago Pasqua arrived in London thanks to Daniel Edwards, a trader of Turkish goods. Mr. Edwards had apparently acquired a taste for coffee in Turkey and brought over a coffee-making servant to satisfy this new taste. The colourful foreigner stood out in his rather drab new home. His drink stood out too. In order to give townspeople a taste of it, when he was not serving his English master he set up a ramshackle stall in the courtyard behind the church, which was where we were led as we departed on our tour.

A small plaque commemorates him at this spot. We stood around it. Mostly we were coupled, old and young, our umbrellas slung readily by our sides, like swords, in warning to the sky. Then before us appeared the real Pasqua. In a loud, singsong Mediterranean voice he invited us to drink. He wore ballooning trousers and a waistcoat, and the colours of his clothes sucked out the only hints of light we could have seen around us on grey walls.

Despite coffee’s immediate popularity, he did not have an easy time. Innkeepers certainly did not like him for detracting from their business. Women, more oddly, complained about him also, even campaigned against him. This unholy drink, they claimed, was turning their husbands away from studious work and turning them into – one must gasp — gossiping fools!

We, the touring, gossiped none. We stood sipping tastes of Pasqua’s bitter coffee, listening. Despite opposition, coffee had been given its first foothold on London’s soil, and it wasn’t about to let go. Pasqua’s stall in the churchyard turned into a four-walled coffee house on Cornhill, a place for men to gather, gossip, sip and spit. (Buckets were provided for this purpose, for those who found coffee too foul to swallow.) The news of the day was held in highest regard here; a new piece of information about the world was demanded of patrons as they arrived to drink; a seat would only be made available to them upon its production. However, fanciful rumours would probably have been received as readily as evidenced facts.

Like whichever sort of stories did spread through that first café, so did the idea of the café itself; soon there were several. By the great fire in 1666 coffeehouses were numerous, and though the blaze wiped most of them out along with so much of the city, they bounced right back. Soon there were hundreds again, buzzing with debate, discourse, and of course, caffeine.

“Accessorize” in its black and pink lettering made me recoil. Engrossed in the story and the winding alleys as I was, return to the streets and shops of today shocked me. Fortunately on Lombard Street it is possible to ignore the last three hundred years. It is one of a few streets left with hanging signs outside its shops. The logos of our familiar companies, Barclays or Sainsbury’s, can appear antiquated when presented on wood hung from an iron railing. In the 17th century, we learn, pictures of cats hanging from these bars would have been known to advertise perfumists. A nail would have identified the coffin-maker, whilst a picture of an arm would have hung outside houses of vice and debauchery.

Going backwards in space or time requires a lot more effort than going forwards. Going forwards is the de facto state of being. We are drawn forwards, into and beyond the present day without doing any more than raising our feet. The ground runs like a silent treadmill. There is a direction too: we are drawn towards things. Wide streets, billboards bus stops and engines. These things are bright and big and loud; these things are the present. Narrow lanes, small chipped plaques and grimy windows; these are the things that require most effort to be attracted to, most effort to notice at all. Overcoming the momentum of the present thus requires slow quiet patience and attention. This is something not too familiar with many Londoners, including myself. It is worth the journey.

What became of Pasqua? In short, he disappeared. Perhaps to France or Germany, to take his drink back to the continent, perhaps he met his end in the hands of a spiteful innkeeper. What remains though, what grew out of that first stone he laid, was a dynasty.

There are three hundred and sixty Starbucks coffee shops in London today. One for every year since Pasqua arrived. Little remains of the spirit of the coffeehouse though. Even in small, independent, passionate coffee shops, newcomers are not greeted with calls for news. Newcomers are not greeted at all, save perhaps by a barista. Today’s cafes are insular affairs, for better or worse.

We last saw Pasqua under the eyes of the Siren. He stood amazed at this future, in part awed by how his drink pervades modern life, in part terrified at the face of the temptress who led the movement. For all, the story of coffee is a rich one. In the end it was too much for him. We, the watchers, stood with wide eyes in the rain as Pasqua turned his back on us and walked, swaying, towards the arches of a giant glass tower. We heard his cry echo off a high wall before, into the mist, he was gone.

Pull Courage, Pasqua, fear no Harms
From the besieging Foe;
Make good your Ground, stand to your Arms,
Hold out this summer, and then tho’
He’ll storm, he’ll not prevail—your Face
Shall give the Coffee Pot the chace.[2]

Pasqua Rosee

[1] Unreal city audio provided the inspiration for this post with their excellent tour. I highly recommend it.

[2] The coffee houses of old London. Retrieved on 20 May 2012.