Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Doctor will see you now

Over a year ago, a strange place by Paddington Station in London closed its doors to the public for the last time. Within the red-brick walls of a former Royal Mail sorting office had been the world of Temple Studios, part of The Drowned Man, a massive immersive theatre production by Punchdrunk, in association with the National Theatre. Over four floors of this building were intricately detailed sets, through which a cast, pursued by audience members wearing white masks, danced, ran and fought. I loved it.

For some audience members, the experience became an obsession and, whilst I went a few times, it never became completely overwhelming for me. The modern dance, whilst impressive in its way, was not particularly interesting for me. No, for me, it was the chance to wander around what felt like genuine films sets; to, as the recurring line from the lay ran, live within a dream.

On my first visit, I had watched occasional audience members be singled out by performers, and be taken into private rooms for what became known, within the audience members social network, as "one to ones". On subsequent visits, I had experienced some of my own - with the greengrocer, the strange owner of the toyshop, the seamstress, but on the final occasion I visited, I hoped to have a one to one with the doctor, whom I had also seen early on my first trip.

That final night, with two or three other audience members, I had watched the doctor make a Rorschach test in his office, dripping ink into a folded piece of paper, unfolding it and considering the resulting pattern. Again, with others I followed him outside, and then watched as he took another white masked audience member into the private consultation room. Pah! I thought, and wandered off to see something else in the labyrinthine set.

Later, I wandered back through the doctor's main examination room, and saw the doctor again. This time, I must have been in the right place at the right time. He sauntered out of his office and I happened to be in front of him outside the consultation room. He fished in his pocket for his keys, and with hooded lids looked up at me.

"All right," he said, almost grudgingly. "I'll see you now. Come in."

He opened the door into the consulting room and we went inside. He locked the door behind us, took off the mask I was wearing and gestured for me to sit on the consulting table.

"How have you been?" he asked. "Have you been having any more of those bad feelings we talked about? No dark thoughts?"

"No," I said, trying to keep in character. He nodded and looked me up and down, as if assessing how I was doing.

"I'm going to show you some pictures," he said, reaching for a box on the side, "and I want you to tell me what you see. Ok?"

"Sure," I replied.

He nodded some more and held out one Rorschach picture for me to examine. "What do you see?"

I thought for a bit, and then said, "A skull." He mulled this over and then put the picture away, bringing out another.

"How about this one?"

Part of me wanted to say something silly, but there was something profoundly hypnotic about the situation, so I looked at it again. He asked again, "What do you see?"

"A hanged man." I said, despite myself. He reflected on this for a moment, and looked at me. "'A hanged man', huh?"

"Yeah," I replied.

He thought for a bit longer, and tilted his head form side to side, as if judging the weight of what I had said. Then he looked at me, still thoughtful. "Hang-dang," he half sang, slightly mocking. "Hang-dang... ding-dang."

He was staring at me quite intently, and I was strongly conscious of a desire to smile or laugh, in spite of the strangeness of the moment; the same sort of crazy impulse that makes people laugh at funerals - it's the worst possible thing one could do, which is why it becomes almost the only thing one wants to do.

He put the pictures away and sat next to me on the consulting table. He looked at me, keeping eye contact, then he looked away.

"Nobody likes you," he said, half matter of factly, half aggressively. "People avoid you." Then he nodded, as if that part of the consultation was over, and told me to face the wall, on which was an eye chart. He told me to read it, and I did, line my line.

Half way through, he clamped one hand over my eyes, and the other around the back of my head. All the time, music was swelling around us, and he talked directly into my ear, as he massaged my head.

"You like people," he said. "People like you. You are friendly. You are tidy. When you see a piece of paper on the floor you pick it up."

Then the music reached a crescendo, and it was over. He put my mask back on and led me towards the door, pausing slightly. I looked down where we were standing, and saw a piece of paper on the floor. I bent down to pick it up, I pocketed it, without looking at it, and left the consulting room, as he opened the door.

When I had crossed the boardroom beyond his corridor, I un-crumpled the paper, and written on it were the words, "You're making good progress."

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A massage in a bottle

Some massages, it has been well said, are akin being stroked in a dark room. Perhaps some people like such a gentle experience; I do not. In contrast, the massage I had yesterday was much more like to being beaten up in a dark room, albeit to the accompaniment of generic ambient music and distant forest birdsong. The background sounds aside, this was much more the thing, although I did find myself wincing, holding my breath, and properly bracing myself, as my otherwise charming and softly spoken masseuse dug the sharpest point of her elbow deeper into the tangibly tense tangle of stressy knots in the muscles around my scapulae.

"Soft to medium," she had said, when running through the pre-massage checks, and I have to confess that my heart had sunk, as I anticipated another low-powered kneading. Nevertheless, after a stressful week, just about any massage is better than no massage, and I surrendered myself to her ministrations. After the usual anointment with oils and brief feet rub, I breathed in deeply and resolved, in any event, to enjoy the peaceful darkness. And then it began, with a vigour that drove just about all other thoughts from my mind save for the question of whether I would survive this encounter, or if I should ask for her to go slightly more gently.

As I surrendered to the experience, with the possibly naive, but certainly trusting thought that she presumably knew what she was doing, I recalled a previous massage which approached this level of intensity. It had been a few months back, in NoLita in New York. Having pounded the streets for several days, my back and neck had started sending out distress calls and, as I sat in a bar on Lafayette, doing something about the pain became a pressing concern.

The barman suggested a Chinese massage parlour next door and, beggars not being choosers, I stepped down into the subterranean world, hopeful of repair. Unlike any massage parlours I had visited before, this was one large darkened room, divided up by perhaps five feet high panels into six or eight booths. In each booth was a bed and, as I did as I was directed and walked down to the end booth, I realised that each one was occupied by a patron, at least one of whom was snoring.

In my booth, which I shared with drums of cooking oil, presumably for the Chinese restaurant above, I was told to get undressed. A little wary, I removed my shirt and, when barked at by my masseuse for my foolish error, my jeans also. Lying on the bed, reading the labels on the cooking oil canisters, to one side, I wondered what was to come, when I became aware that not alone. I was barked at again, in what I presumed was an enquiry as to what I wanted. I wasn't entirely sure what she had asked me, but I made rough gestures towards my neck, and the treatment began.

It is said that we cannot accurately recall our pain, when looking back, and this is, perhaps, an extremely good thing. What I do recall is that I emerged, blinking, from the basement room into the sunshine, conscious of having been pummelled mercilessly, but nevertheless feeling brighter and more awake. So yesterday, as my London masseuse piled down onto my back and asked "Is that OK?" I winced again, before painfully breathing out a laboured and not entirely truthful, "Fine. Thanks," hopeful that the outcome might be equally rewarding.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Neighbours in need

We walked from the road, following the little girl along indistinct dusty paths through the brush, to her home, in a remote sun-parched area of rural Kenya. Her mother sat within a small enclosure, its boundaries marked by a low hedge of thorns, with the girl's three brothers. Nearby, a goat nuzzled at the family's dishes and plates, stacked in a roughly woven basket. When she saw her family, the little girl ran ahead of us, and I watched as she shared the cereal bar I had given her with her eldest brother.

Her mother sat demurely, as her daughter ran up, and it took me a moment to realise that this was partly because of her disabled feet, which faced in the wrong directions. I felt awkward to have turned up, like this, and could sense her embarrassment, as she readjusted her brown skirt about her ankles, to better hide her feet.

In the glare of the sun, the family's home seemed painfully modest and fragile. A thatched mud hut, through whose walls the wooden framework showed, here and there; a tangle of fabric the only door. As the leader of our group sat with the mother, and played with her children, Mrs Tom, a local community leader, invited me to enter the house. I had come along to help record the work of the charity that was supporting this family, and the school that the little girl attended, but I still felt that I was intruding on these people's lives. The mother gently encouraged me to go in, and I followed Mrs Tom through the doorway, into the dark room.

It was just one room, perhaps a third the size of my far from grand living room at home, and it was thick with a fug of smoke from the fire that burned in one corner. Above the gently smoking embers hung a small cooking pot containing stewing beans. To one side of the tiny cramped space stood the parents' bed, a makeshift curtain of clothes the only dividing wall between their space and the other large bed, where their four children slept. As my eyes adjusted to the murk and darkness - there were no windows - I began to make out the objects that were stuck into the eaves of the wall; old porridge stirrers, arrows, a kettle, a machete.

We had been in the community for about a week, and had seen the mothers walking their children to school, but this was the first time I had got so close to a family, and their normal lives. For all the expectations that I might have had of culture shock, visiting this remote, rural and desperately poor community, the thing that had struck me the most was how fundamentally alike we were. It should not have been a surprise; that these people were perfectly normal people, with whom I had a great deal in common, but we are conditioned, sometimes despite ourselves, to think of people as very alien because they live in a different place, or in a different way.

As I took in the tiny space inside this family's home, however, I could feel something welling inside me; in clumsy terms, I suppose it was a sense of injustice at the fact that these people were living in such basic conditions, in genuine hardship. Combined with this was a terrible sense of impotence at the scale of their poverty and at the odds that were so cruelly stacked against them. Back outside, I did my best to engage positively with the children, but I was aware of my own quietness, as I struggled to assimilate the experience. Finally, we handed out toys for the children, said our goodbyes and walked back along the sandy track towards the road. As we did so, it took me by surprise to realise that I was crying, despite myself.

There is so much to be done, in this world, that it can feel like an impossible task to achieve anything. Things can be done to bring positive change, however. We just have to allow for the fact that a small change for the better is infinitely better than no change at all. Whilst, individually, we can only do so much, when we combine our forces, our good intentions, and our resources, the effect can be greater and more beneficial than we can sometimes imagine.

Winter walking

The Lake District in winter is a very different beast from the Lakes in the summer. It's not just a question of the weather, although in the winter the Lakes are, naturally, colder and, honesty compels me to admit, frequently wetter. One of the most significant differences between the two seasons, however, is in the nature of the transitory population.

In the winter, for example, the towns of the Lake District are more sparsely populated, but the people who are there are, by and large, walkers, climbers and cyclists. This contrasts with the peak tourist season over the summer, when the towns can feel overrun with what Bertie Wooster might describe as, "trippers"; people who are there for the views, certainly, but possibly more so for the cafés and gift shops that also proliferate.

For the walkers, however, that hardy band for whom winter brings with it the promise of snow-covered fell tops on which to wander, the season can make the Lakes feel like your own private playground. After the sometimes overly well-trodden paths of the warmer parts of the year, with the shortening of days comes the knowledge that we are likely to meet fewer people, when out on the hills. As misanthropic as that might sound, it can also be immensely liberating.

These are the people for whom the prospect of a day spent wading through snow and ice is worth the occasionally considerable effort of getting there, however short the day might actually be. We relish the fresh air, the sometimes breathtakingly crisp light, and the opportunity to see familiar vistas redecorated with a canopy of white.

There is something endlessly rewarding about feeling the crunch of snow beneath boots, the catch of cold air in the throat, and the knowledge that at the end of the day there is likely to be a roaring file, hearty food and good beer. This is the season when the smell of fresh air on one’s clothes, as you stumble into a warm pub after a full day on the hills, is as pungent and rich as perfume.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The passing of summer

As the northern hemisphere spins on into autumn and then winter, it can be strangely hard to recall the sensations of the past seasons. For example, it always amazes me, in the full heat of the summer, to be walking along pavements that, six months before, might have been buried deep under seemingly indestructible snow and ice. I know it happened, and yet it feels ludicrously improbable.

Similarly, as we dig out our warm sweaters and overcoats, and draw the curtains against the encroaching dark of earlier and earlier nights, it can be difficult the remember just a few short weeks ago. Back when the summer enveloped us, when shorts and a t-shirt were all you could bear to wear, and the evenings seemed to last for hours. Yet soon it will be the chill of an icy wind that nips the ears, rather than the burn of the scorching sun, and we will pull warm woollen hats down tight against the freezing air.

When I was a child, the end of the summer, and the inevitable return to the cold drudgery of school, always felt like a betrayal; as if, rather than simply having had an enjoyable time that could now be put away and left, I had been teased with a tempting yet unattainable happy place of sun and laughter, which was then cruelly taken away from me.

Those joyful summer days of childhood are still there, though, in some indefinable way, stuck in my memory with the people – parents, grandparents and aunts – who are no longer around. The taste of the sea water, and the rough embrace of a beach towel, and the ruffle of hair being dried sort of against my will; even the wince of biting on a crisp that had got dusted with sand, these sensations live on still.

Sometimes, it’s a photograph that brings the memories, or sometimes that odd salty tang of the sea, mingled with the wet smell of seaweed, and then those summer holidays of years gone by rematerialise. The splash of the tide and the friendly rasp of the sand on toes, the waving pinching arms of a freshly captured crab, and the slowly sinking sun that, for just a moment, looked like it would never completely set.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Arrive arrive-o

I know that it's a cliché, but the thing about clichés (which, in itself, is a cliché) is that they become clichés by virtue of being true. However hackneyed it may be, it is hard to deny that there is something endlessly heart-warming about people-watching in airport arrivals halls.

The thing about airport arrivals is that peoples' emotions are to the fore. Partly it must be about reuniting people who have been separated, often by great physical distances. We can hear and see people on the other side of the planet, nowadays, but that doesn’t beat the touch of somebody we hold dear.

Another factor is that, deep down, most of us fear flying, however much we may know that it is statistically safe. The inherent problem with it, as an often-essential means of transport, is that it is such an obviously unnatural experience, over which you have absolutely no control. The discovery that either we, or our friends, family and loved ones have landed safely must release some pent up anxiety, which often, it seems to me, comes out in expressions of love.

Standing at the arrivals hall recently, I watched countless couples and families reuniting, and there wasn't a single grouping that didn't move me. My favourite was possibly the Spanish grandmother who was reunited with her grandson of about 18 months old. When she saw him, on emerging from the gate, her face lit up and she rushed over to the barrier where his father was holding him aloft. On reaching him, her face bright with love, she kissed her grandson again and again and again, changing from cheek to cheek, her eyes increasingly watery from tears of joy.

Yukon, if you want to

The woman sitting next to me on the plane flying into Whitehorse tells me she knows the mother of the person I’ll be staying with. The chances of this seem wildly remote, until she tells me that she thinks the population of Whitehorse is around 20,000. The plane itself is relatively small, and the interior reminds me of a seaplane I had seen not that long before in an aeronautical museum. It’s a disconcerting first impression, given that, unlike a plane in a museum, my life is rather depending on this one working properly.

As we near our destination, the pilot announces that it’s 4 degrees Celsius outside. The woman next to me says that she heard it snowed last week, and the mountaintops weren’t covered in white – as they are now – when she left two weeks ago. From the air, Whitehorse looks like a grubby collection of ramshackle sheds, nestled against a grey cliff, on top of which sits the airport. We circle the city before coming in to land, and I can see that, further out, it is indeed ringed by snow-topped mountains.

Even stepping out of the plane and onto the telescopic walkway, the air is noticeably colder. The small band of fellow passengers and I walk through the tiny airport to collect our bags. As I realise that, for some reason, it reminds me of a Swiss railway station, in the blink of an eye, the rest of the passengers retrieve their luggage, meet loved-ones and disappear out of the door. I wander outside too, to look for a taxi, and all of a sudden can see my breath. It’s very cold; to me, at any rate. To residents who experience the place during the winter, when it gets down to minus forty, this might just be slightly cool.

Also waiting for a taxi are an English couple, now resident in Phoenix, Arizona. She’s very friendly and chatty, but he’s a bit cooler, and not just in a physical sense. It seems that their visit here is his idea, but she does not appear to be wholly convinced by the plan, and is not reticent about this. I suspect she may have made this clear to him a few times, which might explain his defensiveness.

Eventually, just as I am running out of readily-accessible warm clothes to put on, a taxi arrives and the couple get in. The taxi driver offers me a free ride with the English couple to their hotel, and from there to the B&B where I’m staying. Although the English guy’s expression makes it clear that this is the last thing he would like, my only alternative is to stomp about in the cold outside the airport, tying to keep warm until the taxi can return, so I eagerly accept the offer and jump into the front passenger seat.

Even waiting overlooking the airport car park, it’s clear to me that Whitehorse has a charm of its own. My first reaction that it’s bleakly beautiful, although it also looks like one of those places where, no matter what people may do, it’s Nature that calls the shots.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Don't look down

All being well, you reach the edge of the crater at the top of Kilimanjaro just as dawn starts to break. Far far to the east, a speck of light appears, grows and turns into a sliver of sun, which gradually divides the sky and the Earth. For six hours or so, starting from around midnight, you have been walking steadily, unceasingly, in the cold and dark. Around you, all you have been able to see is the pools of light cast by your and your companions’ head torches, as you trudge up the scree slopes of the mountainside.

The last night of ascending Kilimanjaro is an intensely surreal experience, like being trapped inside a dream. Without visible landmarks, it is like walking endlessly in the dark, along the same stretch of dusty path. The cold is colder than you can remember ever experiencing before; a dry chill that nips at your exposed skin, and tries to seep through your clothes. Water bottles freeze and toes feel as if they are doing likewise. The final climb – the last ascent after days of walking – is long, slow, relentless.

Most of us had been here before, four years previously, but had not made it to the top. A combination of a quicker route than this one (and thus less acclimatisation to the altitude), an oversleeping guide (which led to a panicked late departure from camp), and a stop-start-stop-start ascent did for the group, and only one of us had reached even the crater rim. The sense of unfinished business had burned in us all ever since, and now we had the chance to finish what had been left incomplete.

Kilimanjaro is not the most dangerous mountain in the world, nor are most of its routes especially adventurous or arduous ascents, but it is still a tough climb for most normal people. As we reached the lip of the crater, three of our group had already had to pull out, owing to illness, and another one of our team only just made it, a chest infection becoming increasingly evident in the final stages of the climb.

The rest of us were there, though. We had made it. As I looked out across the cloud-covered landscape, with the delightfully warming sun rising and spreading its light, I was overwhelmed. What had, for several years, felt like a tantalising impossibility, had now become a reality. With teary eyes, which I was too tired to wipe, I watched the world spread out beneath us, with the curve of the Earth marking the horizon.

“Go for the top?” somebody said.

“Yes. Definitely.”