The Bristol Skipchen – Cooking Against the Tide

In a world ruled by money it makes perfect sense for six million tonnes of extremely high quality food to be discarded every year in the UK alone before it reaches the shops, and for those shops to chuck out another six million tonnes. That’s about half a kilo per person per day. The numbers stack up, and so does the waste. If it doesn’t feed people, so what? It may well feed ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity.’

It would all be fine, if it wasn’t so patently, obviously insane. And deeply immoral. I won’t waste words saying why. If you can’t see that, go back to watching the football. Aren’t Man U looking good! So most days I wander down the road to the Bristol Skipchen, in the Crofters’ Rights in Stokes Croft, and help serve up about a hundred delicious, nutritious meals made entirely – entirely – of food that was headed for the bin. Today we had chicken and chips with broccoli and salad, and all-day breakfasts of baked beans on toast with egg and chips. And some yummy desserts, with lashings of cream. And tea and coffee. The supply is limitless. Every suburb in Bristol could have one and there would still be no problem producing the meals, because happily there is also an abundant supply of people who are so disgusted with this waste they’re happy to help. Let me honour all those folks on farms, in restaurants, markets and other outlets who hate throwing out good food but that’s the way it works so they have to. Many go out of their way to make sure the Skipchen gets it instead. People pay what they feel, what they are able, or nothing. This system reliably produces more than enough money to pay the utilities bills and the odd overhead.


Why do we do it? For many of us the simple sanity of making sure that, instead of getting thrown away, good food gets eaten by people who want or need it is more than enough. I don’t presume to speak for my mates but there is also a general despair that ‘the system’ can be that broken while our power structures go on thinking it just needs ‘better management.’ Whatever that is. What worries me, though, is that there is in fact very little bad management involved. Quite the contrary. Don’t be fooled. All appearances notwithstanding, the people of the UK and indeed of most of the world are actually living in a highly-organised, very well-designed system, one that recurs cyclically through history. From the point of view of a handful of the super-rich, things are ticking along very nicely indeed. To illustrate: since the supposed ‘Crash’ of 2008, the financial assets alone (not the net worth) of the richest 1,000 individuals in Britain have increased by an amount greater than the national debt of £119bn. Tax that and we literally wouldn’t have the debt. Let’s have a brief language lesson. The language is Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire (although most of its educated inhabitants actually spoke Greek.) Divide et impera. Divide and rule. Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. (As in, they’ll put up with anything if you give them enough …) The swine are doing it again. The Occupy movement made popular the cry that 1% of the world’s population owned 80% of its resources. If only. With the world population around eight American billion – eight thousand million (the English billion would be eight million million but that’s history) – that would be eighty million people. In fact it is a tiny, tiny fraction of that. A 2010 US Supreme Court declared that corporations had the same rights as citizens. If we then consider the influence of these uber-citizens, economist David Rothkopf has shown that the number controlling 80% of the value of the world’s multinational corporations is 6,000. You could easily fit all the people running the entire global show, including the CEOs of those companies and the very small number of ultra-rich who own pretty much everything else into Ashton Gate stadium and still have room for all their butlers, PR flacks and personal cooks. In his stunning analysis of the global situation, The Precariat Charter, economist Guy Standing takes it all apart and shines light into every scabrous little corner of this very deliberate, organised system. If there is a core to his thesis, it is that the objective of the super-rich, the plutocrats, and their servants in the salariat, is to downgrade the rest of us from the status of free citizens in any meaningful sense of the term and turn us into ‘human capital.’ A resource that, like money, can be taken out and used in exactly the quantity and for only the time required and then put back in the box and forgotten, requiring no attention, no resources, no life. And the more there is to spare, the better. It’s no accident that there are no personnel managers any more. Now they’re ‘human resources’ people, an ugly phrase if ever there was one. He calls us a new, emerging, dangerous class called the Precariat. Those whose lives are insecure in every respect. Precarious.

Divide and Rule

Actually there are already so many of us in the precariat that if we were all aware of it, if we could all see our common fate and our common cause, the plutocracy would be having trouble sleeping at night. But they sleep just fine, because of that good old Roman ruse, divide and rule. The precarians whose parents were old-style workers, who just want a ‘proper job’ with security, decent pay and conditions but can’t get one don’t blame the plutocrats. In fact they tend to believe every word of the ugly new liberal utilitarian doctrine they preach. The problem that they see is … another branch of the precariat. The migrants. The ones who have taken ‘their’ jobs. They’re probably right, as far as they can see. If UKIP has its way and all the migrants are chucked out and the doors closed to Europe, it is just possible that many more would get a job – on the minimum wage and a zero-hours contract. No paid holidays, of course. And quite possibly a lower minimum wage than we currently ‘enjoy’ because it’s from nasty old Brussels that the only significant pressure on higher minimum standards comes. The meat in the sandwich section of the precariat consists of a rag-tag collection of your friendly neighbourhood enemies: dole bludgers, migrants, Roma, druggies, ex-cons, even those pampered, over-privileged people with disabilities – any of the classes who regularly appear as demons on the front page of the Daily Mail. Most especially migrants. Why shouldn’t we hate them? If for no other reason, such as they’re just like us, people doing what they can to survive, then, perhaps, because it’s entirely possible that we, or our children, will end up in the same boat. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into this ill-assorted class these days, with so many laws to break, so many drugs around and so many cops available to bust the users. (Cops who would be far more gainfully employed catching white-collar criminals. But we all know that. Wonder why it doesn’t happen?) Migration, too, could easily be your or your kids’ fate. Why would your kids stay here, with the grim prospects hanging over them? At least if they can get into somewhere outside the EU they wouldn’t have that huge student loan hanging over their head, destroying their hopes. The student loan that bought the crap degree that for so many has turned into a part-time job tending bar. And if we migrate, or our kids, we wouldn’t want to be treated like that. Actually there are significantly more Britons living and working abroad than there are migrants in Britain, so the risk is perfectly real.

But the two essential reasons not to wallop the victims are utterly simple. One: they’re not to blame. They may, in some part, be an obstacle, but they are not the cause. Two: They are actually acts in that great, attention-diverting circus. ‘They’, the global engineers, need us to blame our fellows. A really good reason not to.

Then there’s the third part of the precariat – the entrepreneurial young go-getters who spend their lives writing proposals, endlessly networking, up-dating their CV’s, going to job interviews, putting together schemes for some nifty new initiative. All unpaid work, which is the conspicuous characteristic of all precarian lives – endless unpaid work, often done to meet crushing deadlines. Applications close on the 31st! I’ll just have to pull an all-nighter. Unpaid work, and lots of it, is common to all members of the precariat. Forms to fill. Trick questions. Get them wrong and poof! goes your meagre benefit. Interviews for non-jobs. Ad nauseam. The third lot don’t like the migrants, either, and tend to view the resentful, under-educated offspring of the old proletariat as a hopeless, useless drain on scarce resources. People who should stop whingeing, get off their bums and make something happen, dammit. Everyone blaming every-one else. All looking the wrong way, egged on by the mass media which is owned and run by … guess who? No. Things are ticking along just hunky-dory, if your home is a boat the size of Colston Hall tooling around the Med.

Bread and Circuses

So where does that fit in? The policy of cheap food and entertainment? They haven’t bothered too much about the bread bit, because they don’t have to. The Roman circuses happened only occasionally. These days the circus never stops. Just sit on a bus and look around. Everyone’s staring at a screen, gulping down a steady stream of gaudy media and endless chatter. Full-time circuses, regularly spiced up with messages of fear – of other precarians. The Romans would be green with envy.

Wake up!

We just have to wake up. Don’t be divided. Don’t watch the circus. We can change the world in three simple steps. One: stop blaming other precarians. Every chance you get, tell them they’re your sisters and brothers and explain why. Two: Turn off the circus. It’s a phone. Use it as one. You’d be amazed at what happens when you stop distracting yourself with trivia. Three: Do something disruptive. Start another Skipchen, for instance. Because if you start thinking about, doing stuff for others, they do it for you. Then miracles start to happen.

Stokes Croft – Haight Ashbury North

For the Chris Brake Show –

For three unforgettable days in 1969 I found myself in San Francisco. No, I didn’t get to smoke hash and dance in the street, due to certain restraints on my fulsome embrace of the Suburb of Love. I had arrived as a stowaway on the SS Richwood, a broken-down tub that had been around the world delivering aid rice to Indonesia, where I boarded her. Because I was being deported in a couple of days I was assigned a security guard who got bored after the first day and took me around in his Mustang, complete with a radio-powered car phone. I’ll never forget crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge and seeing a dude with long black hair flying in the breeze as he zoomed by in a Cadillac convertible with the hood down. I’d never seen a guy with hair that long own anything more valuable than a guitar.
We fetched up in Haight Ashbury. Man, what a scene – street art everywhere, all kinds of marginal freaks doing their thing, exactly what I expected. More than once I sneaked a look sideways, checking for a chance to do a runner. I probably could have, but the guy was such a decent skin I couldn’t land him in it like that.

Time has passed and so has the Haight. But the spirit lives on in Stokes Croft, that most virtuously wiggy part of Bristol heaving with, well, the same really – street art everywhere, all kinds of marginal freaks doing their thing. Welcome to Haight North – north in space, north in time (if in fact time moves up and forward, which I sometimes think …nah. Too deep. Forget it.)

Come with me. I rise and am inspired from 7.30 to 12.30. Having put in my morning’s work writing, I slip down the hill to Gloucester Rd, the longest row of independent stores left standing in Europe. The Glozzer and its myriad friends has beaten off attempts by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose (the big three supermarkets) to build a megastore and destroy the business base of all those hardware shops, fishmongers, organic food stores, pubs, greengrocers, hairdressers and off-licences (liquor stores, known as ‘offies’) and God-knows-what-else. Bring it on, ya corporate raiders. The city wouldn’t dare give you your permits. We’d burn their arses down.

I stroll towards the centre and arrive after an always entertaining walk at Stokes Croft, that crazy hotspot bordering on the immigrant areas of St Pauls and Easton. Every day – yes, every one, one of the walls will sport a new piece. Don’t ask who funds all those cans of spray paint. No idea. It just happens.

This is the land of the million-pound wall art. Literally. I’m talking about Banksy. Check the pics. He’s been around for a decade or more. He? They? No-one knows for sure because Banksy is a massive exercise in anti-celebrity. There are only two things known for sure about Banksy: he’s a Bristolian artist of huge wit and artistic talent, and anyone who can get there their mitts on one of his pieces are quids in for a cool million. Yep. Thats £££££££££, not $$$$$$$$$$.

A few months ago a cricket club whose door he had used as a canvas were going bust and decided to sell the door. Hold hard there, says the council, that’s public property. Banksy is a public asset and we’re claiming the door. Next morning there was another little Banksy on the wall stating unequivocally that the door belonged to the cricket club. Which got a whole new lease of life from  the piece.

I love this place!

My dear, mad friend Bob Crane was cooking his breakfast on candles in his council flat (apartment) because he’d had fights with the utilities and they’d cut off his power and gas. He died in the resulting fire. A crime for which the bastards will never be called to book. One of the funniest people I’ve ever known, even though he was mad as a meat-axe. And the most generous. Within days the tributes were appearing all over the walls. The picture of Bob depicted as a scarecrow with birds in his pockets, his tea-cup and plate is my favourite. We miss him. I was distraught but those pieces helped.

RIP Bob Crane

RIP Bob Crane

Then the Skipchen opened. Food wastage in the West is beyond obscene. At the Skipchen we take a little chip out of that. (Skip=dumpster.)  The numbers: 12 million tonnes a year wasted in production and retail in the UK alone. That’s 540 grams per person per head per day – enough to actually feed everyone. We could feed everyone on the food we throw away and send everything we actually buy to people who need it, and they are legion.

So at the Bristol Skipchen ( we rescue food and serve it up. Up to a hundred meals a day. If we’d been going when Bob needed to cook on candles I’d still be pissing myself laughing at his gags.

The wonderful, or terrible, thing is that we don’t even need to dumpster-dive any more. Restaurants and shops call us up and ask us to take their surplus away to feed people. Most of them hate throwing good food out – sane people who know how utterly bent out of shape that is. But the money system, competition, blah blah blah makes it necessary.

Something has to change. This thing is broken. As Mao said, a small spark can start a prairie fire. Open one near you. You’ll never do anything more rewarding.

Over and out Indianapolis, and anyone else reading.


Hokusai lives on Jamaica Street wall.


So does Breughel. A deft combining of Japanese print artist Hokusai’s (1760 – 1849) famous Great Wave with a detail from, I’m fairly sure, a painting by one of the Flemish Breughel family (late mediaeval – early Renaissance.)

Sniper & Son – Banksy

Banksy: Sniper & Boy with inflated paper bag. Listen for it …

Graffiti monster

Graffito – The Demon Drink – on the wall of the Bristol Bike Project, a cool Stokes Croft co-op which refurbs bikes and sells them cheaply to the needy, and lets people use their full bike workshop for £5 a session.


Incomprehensible (to me) graffito on the wall of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft gallery.

Palmer Ray Solicitor's graffiti frontage.

In Stokes Croft, even the lawyers are cool. Offices of Palmer Ray, solicitors.

George Carlin graffiti

Headquarters of the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft, an art and lots of other things co-op.


The Cosmic Paradox of The ‘Virgin’ Mary

via The Buddha Christ – Pagola Erects a Lighthouse | Play With Strangers.

One of the many understandings I drew from reading Pagola: the story of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Birth of Christ which we celebrate each Christmas was all quite clearly made up, something apparently accepted by all serious biblical scholars. How little I knew. Two gospels, Mark and John, don’t mention it. Luke and Matthew have contradictory versions. Pagola goes further though, putting it in the context of the midrash haggadah, a Jewish tradition of fictionally expanding on the lives of the great and holy with the intention of deepening our understanding of who they were, what they were like. A devotional tale, if you like.

The early church really went the doctor on it, revering Mary as ‘ever (i.e. always) virgin’ in spite of the fact that Jesus is specifically stated to have brothers in the New Testament. Probably sisters too, but women counted for so little it would be quite natural for them not to be mentioned. From the Annunciation story we are supposed to understand that she always knew he was the son of God incarnate in spite, again, of the gospel account of her accompanying her other sons on a mission to bring Him home after he supposedly lost the plot after his sojourn in the desert.

Fine. Nice story. But here’s the weird, weird thing. Of all the possible Biblical presences who might be supposed to be watching out for us, it’s Mary who keeps turning up. I made quite a study of Fatima. In spite of the Church commissioning more than one ‘devil’s advocate’ to debunk the story, no-one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain what happened in Fatima in 1917. Three illiterate children talked about trouble in Russia, reporting information which they completely failed to comprehend. Three weeks later the Bolshevik revolution erupted. When they asked the apparition who she was, she answered ‘I am the immaculate conception,’ words they again failed to understand but repeated to others. When separated and terrorised by the local police, all three steadfastly refused to recant. These are little peasant kids. Finally, of a huge crowd who had been told to expect ‘a sign’ (and that’s all) at three o’clock on the final afternoon, the great majority described exactly the same vision, the so-called Dancing Sun. Mass hypnotic suggestion can be ruled out.

I find it most logical to conclude that the apparition was real and genuinely treated the crowd to the promised spectacle. It didn’t physically happen, of course, but that’s irrelevant. There were cameras and reporters present; it didn’t show up on film. The point is that there is no known way to cause a crowd to experience the same vision with neither prior suggestion nor technology. Just in case you think the word spread through the crowd in some form of ripple effect, there were simultaneous identical or highly similar reports from as much as 15km away. The question which I keep revisiting after reading Pagola is: who is this? Lourdes. Guadalupe. Walsingham, not too far from here. All instances of the same miraculous presence. I’m now starting to look back and elsewhere and starting to find parallels which I will update but my thesis is already formed: there exists in the universe a benign entity, female in our understanding, long predating Christ, which has real agency in the world. Which is, in short, looking out for us.

Usually I post completed propositions. This time I’m looking for suggestions. Any takers?

View From the Bridge


This is Clifton Bridge, probably the most photographed object in Avon county. Designed by the colourful Isambard Kingdom Brunel, completed in 1864, four years after his death. At least he knew it was being built. It is an extraordinarily lovely thing. Little-known fact: it is also an optical illusion – to offset the optical effect of the different heights of the cliffs on either side it slopes 3 feet upwards left to right in the picture, creating the illusion of being perfectly level.

It is, inevitably, the best-known suicide spot in Bristol, although fewer than 10% of the city’s suicides actually take place there, almost all male. I’ll tell you why.

Leaning over the edge you look straight down 246 feet – 75 metres. It makes your feet feel funny, which I posit is caused by your body making sure it is standing on solid ground, or perhaps blood rushes to your feet to lower your centre of gravity, thus making you feel light-headed, literally. Scary, anyway. There are much less challenging ways to top oneself. That’s why. (And they call it the coward’s way out. Hah!) But it does have the attraction, under certain circumstances, of certainty. 95% of the four who jump every year die, a far higher success rate than most alternatives. Jumping from the Clifton Bridge isn’t a cry for help. Presumably the occasional survivor hits the water at high tide. That would mean life in a wheelchair, for sure; your spine would fly to bits as your body flattened out at whatever angle you hit, meeting the water at about 120 miles an hour. (In 1885 a woman survived because of the ballooning of her skirts. She lived a healthy life into her 80s.)

I’ve had a few very difficult years. At times it has just seemed like all too much. How much more can I take, or more to the point, do I want to take? The end result is the same. After a particularly upsetting day a few weeks ago I set off on a walk and, without really planning to, ended up at the bridge. Was I being told something? Was my instinct giving me a hint? Standing on terra firma at that moment a quick end seemed frighteningly attractive. Yes. Maybe this is the moment. What a relief, if it is.

I thought by getting into position at least I would find out. Maybe, looking down at the rocks, I would simply know that it was OK.

They have halved the annual rate of jumping by putting wire barriers above the footpath, but at the Leigh Woods end there are viewing platforms with chest-high stone walls deemed too beautiful to disfigure with barriers; it would also spoil the spectacular view. I love that about Europe – in New Zealand the all-powerful health and safety Nazis who have virtually destroyed Guy Fawkes night wouldn’t hesitate.

So there I was, sitting on the parapet with my legs dangling over 200-odd feet of space, rocking gently back and forth, knowing that if I rocked just a little further I would have slightly less than four seconds to think whatever I might think in those four seconds. That, in those circumstances, is quite a long time. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I sat there for a quite a lot longer than that.

I discovered several things. First, that I had finally succeeded in ditching my childhood fear conditioning about suicide sending me to hell. I felt quite sure that wouldn’t happen because the most powerful force in the universe is benevolence. Destiny is on the side of the good guys. The Hitlers always lose. Whatever my uncertainties about deity I felt sure that the universe isn’t run by by a cruel force which punishes those who can’t take it any more.

Secondly, I felt a powerful sense that this just wasn’t my destiny. I felt as if the story of my life, though still unknown to me, had already been written and this wasn’t how it ends.

I was reminded too, of something I have known since I was young. Although a hell of a risk-taker – my mother told me later in life that from my earliest years my lack of common-sense fear was her constant nightmare – I seem to have a powerful drive to keep breathing. At times it has produced behaviour I didn’t understand at the time and only later realised were about self-protection. This isn’t fear. I wasn’t afraid to jump. It seemed a pretty attractive option, even gazing down at the distant rocks. But there was something strong that I would have had to tear myself free of. I couldn’t have just slipped off. I would have had to hurl my self off. I’m not sure I could have done it. It’s a strong force, like electromagnetism, and as we know, that’s more powerful than gravity. I suppose everyone has that to some degree, although we do read of people calmly stepping off cliffs or shooting themselves. Not me.

Although I’m listing these things in sequence, they weren’t a sequence. All sorts of things were going on simultaneously. The whole time I sat and rocked I was in connection with the suffering my suicide would cause, and painfully aware that it wasn’t enough. Numerically, I mean. It would savagely hurt a very, very few people. Too few. This was not a good feeling or a good thing to reflect upon even now. On the other hand, there was no-one it would please, which should have offset its inverse corollary but didn’t.

I had made the discoveries I needed to make: this wasn’t my destiny, and the suffering I feel intermittently is too far short of the hurt my suicide would cause, so the whole thing was a no-go.

I wasn’t quite ready to get down. It was a special place, a moment in time. Unfortunately none of my discoveries had cheered me up even slightly. The opposite, if anything. But it felt nice, sitting there, rocking, looking down at my unattainable quietus.

Then an arm locked around my neck, I was dragged rapidly backwards and two guys were sitting on me.

CCTV. I could have guessed, but I just wasn’t thinking about it at the time.

So that was that.

Back to the Land (and Vegetarianism) – The Great Hippy Blunders

In 1974 I and about 30 other young dreamers bought a magnificent 1200 acre farm in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. We were going back to the land, like thousands of earth-children throughout the western world. We were going to feel the earth between our fingers and toes again. And the sea – Sandy Bay was on our doorstep, the sea teeming with abundance. We would till the soil, make art and music, love each other and share.

Back to our roots.

Forty years later, it’s a pretty miserable scene. Not that much tilling, less art and even less sharing. A hell of a lot of bickering over insanely trivial issues. An underground river of venomous gossip and grudges lasting decades.

Just like thousands of its counterparts around the world. Why?

In a nutshell, because they were never our roots. They weren’t anyone’s roots. In fact they were, ironically, further from our roots than our urban lifestyle. Even that didn’t tie us down to a few people on a few acres.

Three events widely separated in time have provided me with the understanding why this enterprise was doomed to failure.

First, in 1967, I went to a film festival in Brisbane which ran a documentary I never have, never could, forget. Someone with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder spent weeks in the Australian bush moving along with an extended group of Aboriginal hunter gatherers. I recognised the most natural lifestyle I had ever encountered and the sanest, happiest people I had ever seen. Unfortunately, a few years later, swept up in the beauty of Moehau and the energy of making a new community, I forgot.

Earlier this year I walked the Camino de Santiago, hefting my pack on my back every morning and walking fifteen to twenty miles.

And this week I heard an extract from a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.

For 200 millennia, more or less, we lived like pilgrims on the Camino. We had no fixed abode but did have a sense of a larger sphere in which we moved. Every morning we rose, gathered our few belongings and walked. It is no accident that a human child learns to walk around about the time that it gets too heavy to be carried any distance.

By and large the females gathered and the men hunted, but there was a fair amount of cross-over in response to what was available. No rigid plan; rigidity came with farming. When the fish were running everyone fished. When we came across an abundant vegetable resource everyone gathered and feasted. At night, we lit fires and ate.

Becoming farmers cursed us well and truly. We had to defend what we invested months, years, accumulating. Warfare and violent death became normal. As farmers, it wasn’t enough to simply create food. We had to build storage and then build defences for the storage. Powerful parasites called priests and their soldiers descended on us and demanded tribute. We farmed the land and they farmed us. Groovy. Soon populations grew so large that the door to a return to hunting and gathering was closed forever. We were trapped in a miserable, everlasting lifestyle. Little wonder that religions still make a virtue of large families and call birth control sinful.

By comparison, when a hunter-gathering clan ran into a superior competitor it moved out of the way, instead of fighting tooth and claw to defend … what? We didn’t have anything to defend. There was always more space because hunter-gathering prevented over-population. You simply could not have six children, it wasn’t viable. I have no idea how they prevented large families, but they did.

These are our true roots, and the real reason, I believe, why almost everyone who sets out to do the Camino finishes it, no matter how unlikely that may seem at the outset. It’s in our bones, our blood, our genes. Pushing on, keeping going – we’ve been doing it literally forever. And of course it is the reason why we feel wrong, unsatisfied, down, in the days after we stop. We have just spent a few weeks doing what we were designed to do since the dawn of our species.

One of Harari’s many theses is that mankind didn’t domesticate cereals 10,000 years ago – cereals domesticated mankind, very much to our disadvantage. We got a grossly inferior diet and a host of diseases – arthritis, digestive disorders, bad teeth, under-nutrition due to mineral and protein deficiencies and more. We lost, the cereals won, becoming the most widespread and successful plant group in history. The life and diet of the hunter-gatherer is constantly diverse. We had hundreds of different foods, changing with the locale and the seasons. As farmers, we inherited a miserable and insufficient handful. Vegetarianism, from an evolutionary perspective, is dietary self-flagellation. Enjoy.

It started with the dog, 10,000 years ago. In all likelihood someone found a wolf pup and raised it, discovering that the creature grew up identifying the human as its pack leader, driven to obey him or her. Then pastoral animals, then cereals. The wheat snuck up on us behind a bunch of cute animals. Fiendishly clever!

The biggest loss was that we became not only sicker but sadder, because we no longer spent our days doing what we had evolved to do – move constantly, see new things, deal with a constantly changing environment, walk, walk, walk. Homo sapiens, as you discover on the Camino if you’re paying attention, is a walking machine. People become utterly, stupidly happy walking the Camino. It’s now being said that the cure for almost everything is to walk two miles a day. Close but not enough – it’s more like three or four miles. And I do. If I don’t my happiness declines quickly.

The other big hit we took was over-work. We are absolutely not designed to work eight, ten hours a day, and doubly-absolutely-not designed to do the same work every day. (Walking isn’t work. It’s more like breathing with your legs.)

Eat meat, fish, and everything else that nourishes you. Consume all the parts of the animals you eat. Walk everywhere and (this is what I learnt from the aboriginal film) look around constantly, observing, thinking. Those aboriginals saw from two hundred yards away a goanna sitting on a rock that I couldn’t see from twenty. Take lots of rest, and share what you have. Accumulate as little as possible.

Live as much like a hunter gatherer as you can. You will flourish.

It really is that simple, because ten millennia is the blink of an evolutionary eye. It’s yesterday. We are still hunter gatherers where it counts.

And of course, don’t be so foolish as to voluntarily surrender to the tyranny of the cereal by putting roots down in the soil. Roots are for plants.

Hang on, I hear you say. I know happy farmers.

Really? I don’t. But I know farmers who are happier than their counterparts running the rat-race in the city, being carried around everywhere like shopping, heaving with 21st-Century insecurities. Farmers are outdoors a lot of the time, they have space, they don’t have a boss. Not bad, as modern lifestyles go. But their relative contentment isn’t in the same league as those Aboriginals wandering under the sky. They appeared to me to be transcendently happy, showing all the signs of a complete absence of inner conflict, living a Buddha-like existence in the permanent present.

We’re just not designed to spend our days walking 50 yards to the orchard and another 50 to the gardens, spending hours there doing back-breaking work, go back to the house for meals and sit around in the evenings on our bums talking and watching TV. And seeing the same handful of  people, the same set of scenery, year in year out. Thinking that would make us happy was a terrible mistake.

Not one I personally made for long, I’m pleased to say. A few months living in another community building a Buddhist temple was enough for me. I learned that living and eating communally, seeing the same faces everyday, was my particular hell. I had no idea I could come to hate someone because of the way they nibbled their rice.

Peace, man.

Might as well address the other common thesis, that we are ‘evolving to a higher state of consciousness’ which involves the peaceful, non-violent path of not eating animals.

For starters that is a gross and ignorant mis-use of the word ‘evolve.’ The only path of evolution, the only one, is adaptation by natural selection. So we won’t even start to do that until we start preferentially selecting mates on the basis of their vegetarianism and within those unions have more children who out-survive those of meat-eaters. Out-survive, in evolutionary language, has nothing to do with length of life. It means, technically, we will have more grandchildren who live to child-bearing age. One, it isn’t happening and two, if it was it would still take 50 millennia, minimum, to produce the slightest physical changes, the vital one being developing the herbivore’s ability to synthesise the essential amino acids from plant sources. Without complete (animal) protein we need to have all 9 essential amino acids in our system at the same time. Studies have shown various combinations of plant foods can provide these provided they are all consumed on the same day. To really thrive on this diet takes knowledge, effort and the availability of a wide variety of high-quality plant foods such as one finds in health food stores. I consider a lifestyle dependent on health-foods stores that bring together, year-round, food from all over the planet both unnatural and undesirable.

Evolving to become natural vegetarians has not even begun and is highly unlikely to. It would take an extended famine, during which one individual would strike luck thousands of times greater than that needed to win a national lottery and experience not just one but several gene mutations enabling that person to produce the necessary enzymes. It is theoretically likely that this person would thrive and have many healthy children when everyone else was starving. The gene would be rapidly dispersed through the population by preferential choice of mate and we would have evolved to become vegetarians.

Aint’ gonna happen.

The Englishman’s Castle: Abandon Hope …

For the avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers like to say, most of my experience of England has been among members of the middle class, the kind of people visiting Kiwis are likely to end up with. I am not qualified to comment on the mores and attitudes of, say, Birmingham plumbers.

You’re a decent ordinary Kiwi visiting England for the first time. You’re outgoing, like people, think of yourself as a helpful sort. A pretty good sort of guest to have, in fact. Stand by for an educational shock.

Your Uncle Richard has picked you up from the train station and is driving you back to his family home in Middle Swinchwell (pronounced Swinnell) where you are to spend a few weeks getting to know this lovely, warm and welcoming English branch of the family as the first great step on your OE.

Uncle is chatting away about family stuff but you are not really paying attention because you are busy gaping at what is going past the windows. You’ve seen Coronation St and The Eastenders. You know that the UK in general and England in particular is an advanced industrial society with 65 million people packed into an area scarcely bigger than New Zealand. You have also known forever that your country is endowed with the kind of natural beauty that the English can only dream of.

But… but … what??? This is not what you expected, not at all. Everything going past your window is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Surely over there is where Longfellow wrote ‘The Village Blacksmith’ about half an hour ago? You weave your way down insanely narrow roads lovingly folded into dense hedgerows where the occasional vehicle coming the other way engages in a courteous, wordless negotiation which sees you both squeeze by with a polite wave. Picture-postcard landscapes, little villages with church towers five hundred years old, farms masquerading as parkland. It’s just – enchanting. You are enchanted.

Uncle Richard keeps blathering on.

– Our Milly was always going to go in for medicine, but things got a bit dicey around the A-levels and her results, well, the competition’s so fierce. Doing bio-medical science as an intermediate and doing so well, right back on form God bless her …. Of course she was always very close to the other Florence, Rose’s sister, so when she had her diagnosis – breast cancer, right on Christmas two years ago, shocking, it threw her. Now Rupert, Florence’s eldest …

As he turns into a gravel driveway leading to one of the most beautiful, rustic, slate-roofed, stone-walled houses you’ve ever imagined never mind seen, a squirrel, an actual squirrel sitting frozen on the gatepost flickers and vanishes. You wish you had had time to grab your camera.

You walk into an open-plan living-dining area straight from the pages of English Home & Garden. A King Charles spaniel snuffles briefly around your ankles before being bowled aside by a boisterous, fluffy Westy terrier with a ball in her mouth.

– Minty! Minty! Stop it! I’m so sorry. How utterly lovely to see you at last!

Aunt Margaret comes forward, kisses you warmly on the cheek, apologises for something else (you don’t quite register what) and tells you how you must be starving/exhausted/jet-lagged/sick of Richard’s gossiping-Richard-you-haven’t-been-boring-him/her-have-you-he/she/must/be-utterly-done-in and sweeps off somewhere.

Uncle Richard looks sheepish and apologises because they both have to go straight back into town to pick up Damian because they told him twice that if he changed at Snitting-on-Wye he could have been on the same train as you but he’s hopeless, utterly hopeless and Margaret has to come to close up the charity shop so I’m afraid you’re going to have to fend for yourself for an hour or so but just make yourself at home, absolutely at home, it’s so lovely to have you here, help yourself to anything, we’ll be back as soon as we can. Damian is terribly excited about meeting up again. Wellington, wasn’t it?

And they’re gone.

You are alone in this incredible place. The living room ceiling is forty centimetres above your head, thick white-painted beams a foot across. Multi-paned windows are set in walls half a metre thick.

Outside the sun has set and a slow mist is forming around the trees in the distance across the meadows. The garden beckons, bursting with late summer flowers but it is hard to leave the house because everything, everything is just … perfect. Everything is exquisitely placed. Much of what is there fascinates you. Beautiful things of Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian provenance are lying about, any one of which would merit prominence in a NZ antique shop window.

There are half a dozen dishes sitting on the bench. The Westy has torn a newspaper to shreds and it’s all over one corner of the kitchen.

Richard told you to make yourself at home. Right-oh. Might as well make yourself useful, as you do. You poke around in likely-looking cupboards until you find the broom and mop, dust-pan and brush and get to work on giving them a nice surprise when they come home.

You’ve finished your spot of housework and they still have not returned. A walk. Off a sitting room you spotted a little office. You take a sheet of paper from the printer, grab a pen and scribble a note. You leave it on the kitchen table and set off for a stroll.

You have just made two of your first, terrible mistakes. It will get worse. It won’t get worse before it gets better, because it won’t get better.

Welcome to England.

The Return

Half an hour later you wander back, bursting with enthusiasm for their wonderful little village. The car is in the driveway. You enter with a cheery “Hi!” to Richard, Margaret and Damian who are sitting around the table having a glass of wine. Your note is gone. Handsome, tousled-haired and tall, Damian ignores you, busily playing with the Westy who is so cranked to see him it seems likely that he will piss himself all over your newly-mopped floor.

Richard looks up with an obviously forced smile and says, “Oh, hello. You’re back.” Margaret is positively icy. Oh-oh, you think. Bit of a family row while I was out. Better be diplomatic. Of course you won’t get a pat on the back for your work – bigger things are afoot.


Stop the cameras.

It’s for your own good. I wish someone had done it for me.

Nothing has happened. Richard, Margaret and Damian are fine.

What is wrong is you. You have behaved disgracefully.






Their sacred stuff. Their broom, mop and washing up stuff. You have put the dishes away, which means you have pried into their kitchen cupboards. Even worse, you have desecrated both their property and their space by going into their office and helping yourself to a piece of their paper, writing on it with one of their pens.

Who in the blazes do you think you are?

Yes, Richard said “Make yourself at home.” What he meant, of course, was, “Make yourself at MY HOME. You ignorant colonial wart.”

Right now, the best thing you can do is look around for a landline to surreptitiously dial your cellphone. When it rings, hang up and take a bogus call from a close relative about some catastrophe which calls for your immediate departure.

Believe me, that is so what you need to do.

Of course, you probably won’t.

The Second Circle of Hell

We enter the phase where your gracious hosts decide, graciously bearing in mind that you are a colonial savage, to conquer their distaste and pretend nothing terrible has happened. In spite of the fact that they now have in their house – their house! – someone so downright rude as to pry and poke around in their private, personal places, they will be gracious.

Because they are English. The English are gracious hosts.

What to do?

Talk about the weather of course.

– So tell me Simon/ Felicity, how is it to be in soggy old England, haw haw? I imagine for once even our apology for an English summer might be a relief. I hear New Zealand is having a late and rather vile winter.

(Of course, he has checked. Standard preparation for conversation, part of the tool-kit of the considerate host.)

– Oh, it wasn’t so bad. But we have been having a tough time with Karen being so sick. It was hard to leave …

– Karen?

– My stepmother.

– Sick?

If you were quick (you’re not) you would have noticed the shift.

– Yeah. Breast cancer.

What is that look? It’s resentful resignation. There is nothing for it, they are just going to have to grin and bear being stuck with this hopeless, insensitive colonial.

Don’t you remember your briefing?


Your briefing, you moron. All that banging on that Richard did all they way from the station to Swinching, you were supposed to remember it. Remember? Florence, Rose’s sister? She has breast cancer.

A subject you were specifically and clearly warned not to mention. He very considerately prepared you so you would not put your foot in it and you have callously thrown it back in his face. You insensitive, graceless … colonial!

Go home. Now.

But of course you don’t. You’re trapped.

I hope you live.

What the …?

First of all, understand that when the English middle classes refer to other cultures what they mean is what foreigners do wrong. When they use the word culture they mean the arts, sport, Bank Holiday weekends. Their behaviour and attitudes have nothing to do with culture because they don’t have one, don’t need one. They simply behave like normal decent human beings. Nothing you can say will convince them otherwise. Don’t try. They will just be offended. Again.

A friend told me that during her twenty-five year marriage both partners had places in the house that the other absolutely should not and would not even think to look into. Naturally.

I told her, truthfully, that in my long life I had lived in a relationship with women of five different nationalities and cultures – NZ, Australian, Swiss-German (yes, even them) Indonesian and Tibetan – without ever having or seeing such an arrangement. (Of course they may exist – vive la difference.)

I am quite sure she thought I was lying, fabricating stories to excuse my dreadful behaviour.

English middle class values, in their fixed and inalterable view, are simply the default settings for correctly configured homo sapiens.

The ones you need to know:

– Physical contact of any sort is a violation. Any accidental physical contact is the occasion for an apology, regardless of who is responsible. If you so much as brush past someone, apologise. If someone brushes past you, apologise. (It’s your fault. You were in their way.) You may not even have to touch. Almost touching also calls for an apology.

– Private property is sacred unto God. This doesn’t mean, as elsewhere, don’t steal or borrow it. It means don’t use it. Don’t ask to use it. Don’t even look at it. If it has boundaries, don’t cross them.
Operating principle: An Englishman’s home is his castle, and everything in it is for his use and enjoyment, and his alone.

– Before any new social interaction it is the duty of the introducer to prepare the guest to ensure that no embarrassment is caused. It is the guest’s duty to listen closely and remember.

– The English middle classes are all about form. When in A Fish Called Wanda John Cleese’s wife discovers Kevin Kline in her house he stumbles over a false name, introducing himself as Michael Martin … son … gin … ton … son. A few minutes later, she comes out with a perfectly fluent “Well, let me tell you Mr Martinsongintonson …”

One always remembers the names of those to whom one is introduced. One is never so rude as to doubt what one is told, and even if one does, one certainly does not let it show.
It’s really like that.

– All expressions of expansiveness and openness are strictly pro forma and not to be taken otherwise. ‘Make yourself at home,’ ‘Just help yourself,’ ‘Don’t stand on ceremony’ are empty phrases intended to generate a feeling of warmth and bonhomie. They mean nothing. Touch nothing. Ask if you may use the toilet. Ask if you may wash your hands.

When Richard said ‘help yourself to anything’ he meant oxygen. At a stretch, a glass of water. Breathing their air and drinking their water is OK provided it is done unobtrusively.

The Real Problem: You Speak English

The English, however, are far from stupid. They know that people from Sri Lanka and the Ivory Coast have different cultural values, although for most it will be a stretch to accept that these may involve different attitudes to property and space. But if English is your mother tongue the assumption that you share their culture is set in concrete. Because – I repeat – they don’t believe they have a culture. They are simply well-behaved.

This doesn’t mean middle class English are ungenerous or mean. They are considerate and in the appropriate circumstances can even be generous. But they hold deeply sacred the notion that they should give or share only what they choose to give or share, entirely on their terms, right down to what you or I may consider utterly inconsequential places or items. And a decent person, recognising this sanctity, does not embarrass himself or his hosts by asking to use their stuff. He or she certainly does not touch anything, absolutely anything, without asking.

They are the most materialistic people on earth in the sense that their property, their territory, matters more to them than anyone from any other culture I have known, and I have known a few. The fact that there are evident historical reasons for this does not make it any less unfortunate both for them and others. Materialism to that degree is misery, and they are not a happy race.

Ironically many of these materialistic, physically isolated English middle class folk believe themselves to be deeply spiritual. Buddhism is fashionable; there are Buddhist centres everywhere.

“Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering.”
– the Buddha, Sunakkhatta Sutta.

The main form of spirituality is, of course, Christianity. Church attendance remains high.

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple”.
– Luke, 14:33

Doesn’t even make a dent.

The Worst Bit for Us Lot: Entitlement

Big tip coming up. If you come from the colonies avoid all forms of helpfulness among the middle classes and absolutely if they involve your using their personal property. Nail sticking out of a doorway, waiting to snag passers-by? Leave it. If you are left in the house, even if there is a hammer in plain view, do not knock it in. They will think you were reprimanding them for their negligence and have a damn cheek for using their property to put it right. If there is a nail sticking out the decent thing to do is to pretend that it’s there on purpose, for some reason that it is none of your business to think about.

Do not offer to help out even with things that they clearly need, even mention that they need sorting out, because the class system is alive and well, tightly stitched into the English genome. Any pitching in to be of service, even if done correctly by asking before touching anything, will be taken as a confirmation that you belong in the serving class. Before long you will be hearing orders barely disguised as requests and rewarded with faint and empty thanks. Truly.

If you have made the above mistakes there is no point of return. They will never forget and never forgive. They may intend to. They may believe they have.

They haven’t. Even if you finally get it and change, your earlier behaviour has created that vital first, lasting impression.

You are beneath them.

What is Wrong With You?

Now here is the worst of it. The English have spent centuries confined in close quarters by bad weather and poverty. Put aside your impressions from all those sumptuous costume dramas. For much of their history the vast majority of the English spent their lives crammed together in grinding poverty. So they spend what is for colonials an enormous amount of time and energy thinking about other people, constantly adjusting for their presence, their needs and wants, their spaces, their expectations. Because you don’t they assume that it is because you don’t care about others but think only of yourself.

Should you stay some helpful person will eventually help you out by telling you, confidentially and in terms of the deepest compassion, what is wrong with you. You are self-absorbed and of course riotously unboundaried. It is because of your self-absorption that you to fail to show the proper concern for other peoples’ feelings and property. It would never occur to Uncle Richard that you missed his briefing because you were caught up in the sights and sensations of a new and surprising country, perhaps even reflecting on the cultural, sociological, historical and environmental implications of those sights. Thinking, as we call it.

If you are a sensitive soul, emotionally affected by what others think of you, you may start dwelling on this, wondering if it is true.

Self-consciousness and self-doubt creep in and take over. Paralysis replaces spontaneity and you become, well, self-absorbed. And depressed, a great danger for those from sunnier climes during the long, cold, dark English winters.

I am not making this up. It happens.

Why not just move on?

Fortunately there are some good alternatives that don’t involve giving up the genuine pleasures of living in this physically gorgeous country with its rich and subtle cultural life.

Colonials living in England will have a grand time if they bear all the foregoing in mind and avoid living cheek by jowl with the middle classes. The English can be witty. Endearingly self-deprecating. Many care deeply about injustice, because they are fair and just. They are unusually active and enterprising. They have given the world, the human race, great gifts. Find other foreigners to live with, share a laugh and draw reassurance from your common experience of this maddening, intriguing country.

And it could be worse. Your common language and cultural origins at least will give you some understanding and sympathy, unlike those from warm climates, who by and large simply find the English cold, mean and superior.

But fix their broken dishwasher and discover what it is to be a nobody. Forever.

Be Grateful for Small Wars

“The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light, by a series of perceptible gradations, began to fall upon the map of Europe.”

Such a beautiful sentence, written by Winston Churchill describing how, in July 1914, the attention of Britain turned from the crisis in Ireland to the looming war on the continent.

BBC 4 has just completed a chilling series – five 15-minute programmes entitled “The Month of Madness”, historian Christopher Clarke’s pellucid exposition of the appalling sequence of events which burst like a cataract of blood from the barrel of Gavrilo Princip’s pistol when he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary.

All Princip wanted was a united Serbia. Bosnia, an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was in fact only 43% Serbian by ethnicity, but Serbian nationalists believed passionately that it belonged in the Kingdom of Serbia. The Black Hand, Princip’s armourers,  thought the assassination would cause a backlash from Vienna which would cause Serbs to rise and throw off the imperial yoke.

What happened instead was a war involving 65 million combatants, caused 20 million deaths and an uncounted number of broken lives, ruined four empires and triggered the Bolshevik revolution.

Objectively, the cause of the war was a chain reaction sucking one alliance in after the other. The Austrians were outraged at the murder of the moderate son and heir apparent to the 84-year-old emperor Franz-Josef. In their eyes Belgrade had done nothing to prevent the machinations of the powerful secretive organisation known as the Black Hand and must be punished.

They asked Germany for support and were immediately given a blank cheque: do what you like, we’re with you all the way. Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, with no stated objectives and no exit plan.

The Russians had always seen themselves as part of a greater Slavic, Orthodox realm. It was inevitable and obvious they would come to Serbia’s aid. The Austro-Hungarians, records show, scarcely considered the issue. The Germans were more strategic – Russia was in a process of extensive military development and the Germans calculated that war with them, being inevitable, was better fought sooner than later.

France was a close ally of Russia. In an unfortunate accident of history a scheduled Franco-Russian summit took place in St Petersburg early in the crisis. The hawkish French president Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to ‘be firm’ and, astonishingly, at the formal banquet he raised his glass to toast “the next war.”

Within days, the Russians were mobilising. France followed suit.

The British initially wanted no part of it. But when the Belgians refused passage to the German army to attack France the Germans charged in, something the British could not tolerate; they too, on the 4th of August, declared war.

From complete and unthreatened peace on June the 28th, it took only 38 days for the situation to spiral out of control and cause the Great War.

Why, really? I wrote about the ‘objective’ causes of the war, but they were in fact largely subjective. The real cause of the war, in my opinion, was the thirty years of peace which preceded it. Britain, with  the Boer war recent in its memory, was the lone reluctant party. Military hawks, with powerful armies, will not sit in their barracks forever. To them, a military career that never sees them fire a shot in anger is a disaster, a pointless life. Likewise their political masters, the war ministers (“Defence Ministers”) who deploy them, the cushioned politicians who spend their days with the generals endlessly discussing weaponry and its destructive capabilities and being whizzed around in helicopters, cruisers and jets, ogling the sexy paraphernalia of warfare and making patriotic speeches.

Even I am not immune to the effect of a gun in the hand. Many years ago I was one of a four-man crew conducting a geological survey of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia. I was the cook and logistics person and was often left alone for days while the geologist, his assistant and the mechanic made forays around the area. There was a shotgun. I had never used a firearm. Sometimes, in boredom, I would take it out. Break it open, look down the barrels, fit a cartridge, lock and cock it.One day I was doing this when a crow walked into the clearing in front of the camp.

The crow strutted around in that amiable, cocky manner common to crows. I took aim. And then I pulled the trigger. I was horrified. I like crows. But I had just killed one. Why? Because the gun was such an interesting thing. For its mechanics, its aesthetics, its precision and power. I wanted to use it for what it was designed for.

I feel the guilt of that crow’s death even to today. And if I was susceptible to such a trivial influence as the attraction of a mere shotgun, how much more the hawkish by nature?

So, let us be regretfully thankful, if such a thing is possible, for the Korean and Vietnam wars. They probably saved the planet from nuclear destruction; the generals had drunk their fill of murder and destruction, the populace had witnessed it in horror, and no-one pressed that button.

My thesis: hideous they may be, but small wars kill the appetite for great ones.