Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Note on the cathars

Then they attack and vituperate, in turn, all the sacraments of the Church, especially the sacrament of the eucharist, saying that it cannot contain the body of Christ, for had this been as great as the largest mountain Christians would have entirely consumed it before this. They assert that the host comes from straw, that it passes through the tails of horses, to wit, when the flour is cleaned by a sieve (of horse hair); that, moreover, it passes through the body and comes to a vile end, which, they say, could not happen if God were in it.[27]

Of baptism, they assert that the water is material and corruptible and is therefore the creation of the evil power, and cannot sanctify the spirit, but that the churchmen sell this water out of avarice, just as they sell earth for the burial of the dead, and oil to the sick when they anoint them, and as they sell the confession of sins as made to the priests.[27]

Monday, 12 November 2018


There's a to-do list on my computer called 'impressions of spirit'. Basically all those encounters that left a particularly lasting impression on me. Kevin's the first on the list.

Kevin- 07/14

On a grey and drizzly day somewhere in central Norway I got stuck on a roadside bend in the hills. I waited patiently in the face of the wheeled milieu till my brain leaked out through my ears and decided to join the rabble of pines lining the road. We waited in a different mode, peering over the crash barrier-cordon to silently cheer on the trickle of cars. It must have been a race since none were stopping. After about forty minutes of spectatorship a camper van pulled over suddenly and I was a person again, surprised it was a camper van because I’d long since given up on even trying with them. Most of them had Dutch or Belgian plates and a retired couple glaring at me with suspicion behind map and steering wheel.
In this case I didn’t see the driver. As I walked up hefting pack over shoulder the side door popped open and a smiling blonde haired man stuck his head out. Slightly round face, short hair, crow’s eyes framing blue's eyes.

“Hey there, we’re heading south for about an hour if that’s any good?”
“Thanks a lot, that would be a massive help.”
“Oh are you English? Maybe you can help my son Kevin practise his English.”
I follow him into the van and a boy looks up from his place at the table.
I greet him and shake his hand. He is a very relaxed-looking ten-year-old, and minus some puppy fat he is his father’s double. I can see this because the man is standing beside Kevin with his hand on the boy’s shoulder, beaming with pride.

“You see I named him Kevin because he looks so much like Kevin in home alone.”
I briefly wonder how much a newborn can look like Macaulay Culkin in his prime, but I take the veracity of such origin stories pretty lightly given how many conflicting ones I’ve heard about 'Michaelangelo'.

I hear a toilet flush. The bathroom door opens and a startled woman emerges. She looks like she could be Thai and it later turns out that she is.

The father explains he’s picked up a hitcher to teach Kevin.

“Ahh, ok! Welcome to our van!” She beams at me.
Husband and wife climb back into the front seats and off we go.
Kevin and I are left in the back of the van as we wend through the alpine drizzle.
He speaks to me in perfect English, with an accent somewhere between Norwegian and American.

“This is weird. You’re the first hitch-hiker I’ve ever met. I’ve only seen them in video games.”
I laugh and assure him that we are out there in the world, whilst taking out my paper and pen to doodle. Kevin’s relaxed air is interesting. To me it seemed borne of a sort of worldly confidence that I roughly associate with eldest siblings and only-children, rather than the relaxed air of someone whose head is in the clouds (speaking for myself here).
He’s relaxed in the way that someone like Alexander Von Humboldt might be relaxed; prepared to be surprised by newcomers but not expecting to be fazed. In fact, writing this now I bet Kevin had met a thousand hitchhikers and was just trying to make a rudderless traveller feel noteworthy for a moment. Courteous devil. 

“So Kevin, tell me what you like doing?” I am slowly drawing a sort of amorphous monster, the kind of thing I usually draw to let my head wander.
“Well I like minecraft. I mean I’m always on minecraft building things, buying things, selling things. And then what I really like to do is troll people.”
I look up from my drawing, interested. Kevin continues.
“I’ll say I’m selling something and get someone to follow me to a far-out part of the map where I’ve built a trap. I kill them, film their reactions and stick them on youtube. Oh man, some of them actually cry. You wouldn’t believe it.” He is smiling just at the memory of it. My first thought is that Kevin needs very little help with his English from me, given his ability to operate in the cybersphere at a Machiavellian level, entirely in his second language.

Kevin’s stepmother walked to the back of the van and came to the table some minutes later, offering us a plate of spring rolls.
We thanked her and continued our conversation, munching away as the road straightened out and we descended slowly into flatter territory. I asked Kevin what sort of outdoor activities he enjoyed and he explained to me that he saw most of the outdoors in Norway as being either dark, wet, cold, scary or exhausting. He preferred to be inside, usually playing videogames. I asked him to explain more about his aversion to the outside world and we carried on, sharing ideas about how differing variables would affect these approaches. He pointed out I was bigger, older and perhaps more weatherproof. I added that I was probably less technologically engaged. At that point in fact I was travelling without any electric or electronic devices, with the exception of a torch. An entertaining decision during the 24-hour daylight of summer in the far north.  I told Kevin that on the solstice in Lofoten I emerged from my tent after an indefinite period of bad weather. I asked a passing walker for the time and he told me 9 o’clock. A moment later I had to run after him to see whether he meant the morning or the evening.
Kevin seemed unable to waste words in acknowledging such a misguided experiment. The conversation turned to art somehow as he began to take interest in my doodling. It was just at this moment that the van slowed to a stop.
His parents told me they were about to turn off the main road and so this was me.

I thanked them for the lift, the spring rolls and the conversation, tore the drawing out of my notebook and handed it to Kevin.
I grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes and disembarked from the camper van. As I stood by the roadside putting my bag on my back I noticed Kevin was still in the doormframe, eyeing the drawing. He looked up at me, waved and shouted.

“You’re a creative genius!” I laughed and said thanks.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Hitch-hiking: On Dangerous Situations

"The principle of pride-in-risk is ultimately almost suicidal.
It is all very well to test once whether the universe is on your side,
but to do so again and again, with increasing stringency of proof,
is to set out on a project which can only prove that the universe hates you."
- Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind

The question comes up in almost every conversation I have with people about hitch-hiking. “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation while hitching?”
Ignoring studies in the perception of danger versus actual accidents,  I’ll take this to mean “Have you ever felt that you were in a dangerous situation while hitching?”.
The answer is a few times with varying results. I don’t have my journals to hand so these are from memory.

“I was bladdered at breakfast.” 

A petrol station in Nottingham, August 2012. I got there with a lift from an American man living in Bristol. He knew a lot about cold winters in Massachussetts, hunting muskrats, the fur industry and skiing. He worked in a managerial role for a lingerie company somewhere in the UK and went as far as Nottingham that morning. I’d had a bit of an odd summer. A family member had died and I had broken up with my girlfriend. Another family member was in the middle of a mental health episode. Things all felt pretty ethereal and my head was in the clouds most of the time. One weekend I decided to hitch up from Bristol to Bradford to see my brother Pat at university.
Standing in the petrol station with my sign, a middle-aged woman walked past gesturing indirectly at me. I didn’t register what it meant but then she turned back, beckoned me over and said she’d take me close to Bradford. I followed her, got in the car and thanked her whilst putting on my seatbelt.
The instant she turned the keys in the ignition ear-splittingly loud pop music blasted out of the speakers, and we began to reverse out of the carpark. The noise was horrific, and just before we hit the road she paused the music. In the then-deafening hush with my ears ringing, she leaned over clumsily and said to me: “By the way, I was bladdered at breakfast.”
She presses play, the music returns, we join the road and begin one of the most nerve-racking journeys of my life.
A few themes throughout the journey:
-Every CD she had was from a reality TV music competition.
-She forgot how to use the volume dial. It was either play or pause so an immense contrast every time she wanted to say something.
- Her speed remained close to 95mph for the whole journey.
- My level of conviction that this woman was steaming drunk remained at about 95% for the whole journey.

I remember a basic feeling of being pinned to my chair by the speed of the car, coupled with the shock realisation that she was a wild one, followed by self-enforced calm and ruminations about what things I could and couldn’t control.
I think my initial internal monologue was “Uh oh. This is shit. Well, you can’t do much until you take in more information so relax into it. There’s no way you’re climbing out of this car on the motorway….and after all, everyone dies when they die and at least it’s a beautiful day.”
As we sped through the morning light on the mercifully empty motorway I crept out of my philosophical gazing and back into my body. I eyed my driver suspiciously as she demonstrated an audacious capacity to multitask. Between her left index finger and thumb a lit cigarette, between her right index finger and thumb the small birchwood paddle of a large dripping ice lolly. With the six remaining fingers she maintained control of the wheel. I calmly (threw up inside) took this in and thought some more. That particular CD’s roaring wall-of-shite production drew to a close, only to be followed by what appeared to be the same track. She hit pause suddenly. Ears ringing, I leaned in for her next revelation.
“That’s the problem with these artists, they all sound the same.”
I didn’t point out that the track was on repeat. I merely gasped in horror as she frowned like a scolded toddler and six-finger steering wheel contact turned to three-finger steering wheel contact. Her now off-duty right hand lurched forward to take the offending CD out of the player and I realised this was a moment when I could turn from death-wish passenger to survival-oriented crew. I snatched the stack of CDs from the dashboard and told her “It’s ok, I’ll deal with the CDs, you can just focus on driving.”
We continued at close to 100mph down the motorway. I was on the verge of a mental breakdown, noticing the hedges blur past whilst flinging shitty pop singles into the CD player with all the aspiration and effort of an Olympic discus-thrower. I just hoped each one would wipe my memory of the last. Well I also hoped I would survive but I was distracted.
She on the other hand was on the verge of a spiritual breakthrough as she carefully mediated the sacred dialogue between cigarette and ice-lolly. Her tongue must have felt like a child in the midst of a divorce. Occasionally she’d side-track to tilt us out of the path of sudden and bloody obliteration, with all the focus of someone remembering to stir a soup.
People usually ask why I didn’t just get out of the car. I still ask myself that sometimes. What I remember is the feeling that the only way to get out of that one would have been gradual inception. Slowing that car down with conversation was like trying to melt ice with nothing but your hand. I was getting results towards the end by engaging her in conversation about her son, but by the time I noticed a slight improvement she came to a full stop in Leeds city centre and said : “Here you are, close as I can get you, it’s a five minute train ride.”
I thanked her and left, swiftly.

Come with me all the way and you’ll only have to take a two hour train!”

Dear me, this one’s closer in the memory banks but seems farther because it happened in the middle of so many lifts. I was just saying goodbye to Kevin and family. Their camper van was pulling away as Kevin cried “You’re a creative genius!”, I laughed and shook my head and before I had time to ascertain where I was, a car stopped and a rather twitchy man in his 40s jumped out and ushered me in.
Confused? So was I. Where was I? Somewhere in Norway. It had been a long day, I think I’d done about 250km in fits and starts on a night of very little sleep in a cold ditch.
Anyway I jumped in the car with this guy and off we went. He was Romanian, living away from his wife and children and working somewhere in the southwest of Norway. He was talking very excitedly and kept turning his head to meet my gaze and see my reactions to what he was saying. I felt uneasy pretty quickly. I was on my way to see a friend in Oslo. I got my map out to look at where we were going and work out how long I’d be in this car with him. We were headed down the same road for something under 100km. I pointed out a likely point to part ways and he looked very anxious. He tried to persuade me to go the same way as him but I politely insisted I needed to go to Oslo. “But?! Don’t you see? Come with me all the way and you’ll only have to take a two-hour train!” Inside my tired brain a tired young man slaps his hand to his forehead.
“Err, let’s see how long it takes us to get there. ”
You’ve been here before. No sudden movements, just be patient and find the opportunity to escape the situation, but actually do it this time. A couple of minutes of him talking more about missing his wife and children whilst my mind wandered over different escape plans. I was thinking of asking to stop at the next petrol station to use the toilet, then bailing, but it was easier than that in the end. He suddenly said to me “I need to stop here to buy a phone.” The car stopped and I’ll just sum up the situation before I relate what I did.
I regret forgetting this man’s name and not having my notebooks to hand. To this day, I don’t think there was any ill intent. He was lonely. Loneliness manifests in people in completely different ways and I guess I view it with the same mind-set as I view a mental illness with the sense of chaotic potential. Something to the effect of ‘empathise heavily but carry a big stick’…haha no, more like ‘enter with empathy but keep in mind what is and what isn’t your problem’.
I grabbed my bag, got out of the car and said to him “Right, I don’t want to offend you but I’m travelling on my own and I have to act on my instinct. Your energy level is making me uncomfortable so I’m leaving now.”
His response: “Ok, have a nice trip.”

“We’re going to have dinner in Bordeaux if you feel like it.”

I’m writing this at home in a sparsely furnished front room awaiting fumigation. I read some of the first story to my friend/flatmate and he reminded me that I had a recent lift I had to terminate early. This is a good one so I’ll put it in while it’s fresh.
Somewhere near Hendaye about two months ago. Slow day, one prior lift from a kind young woman named Araotz. A veterinary student who walked past me three times and decided to eventually free me from the petrol station I’d been in from the night before until the mid-afternoon that day. She was flying to London that weekend and it was going to be her first ever flight. If I was born in that part of the world I doubt I’d have travelled anywhere near as much. It’s so culturally, environmentally and gastronomically rich it makes my toes hug the ground.
She dropped me in Hendaye  where I walked into a petrol station with sign for Baiona/Bayonne in hand. Of course, I don’t expect much but a van driver beeps at me and beckons me over, puffing furiously on a cigarette. Young, Spanish-looking man with mad hair. Throws open the door and says “I hope you like dogs” before a massive American pitbull looms into view and barks in my face. He tells me she’s really very relaxed and that he needs to go and buy tobacco. Her name is Frida.
Yet again. “Here we are, stay calm, obtain information.” I think to myself with Frida on my lap, who may as well have been made of marble for how disturbingly heavy and powerful she felt. I stroked her box-shaped head and slowly shook my own in disbelief. Anyone scared of dogs can sort of relax, Frida was not the ultimate reason for ending this lift prematurely. Our driver returned surprisingly quickly, and dealt with the queue of beeping motorists behind us by speeding up onto the road and cutting in front of not a few grateful drivers. He then introduced himself as Guillermo. He was from Segovia and had been working a few years doing seasonal agricultural work around Europe. That day he was on his way to Switzerland. He explained to me that he should have a licence for Frida but doesn’t, and also that before joining the motorway he’d like to stop at Toys R Us and get a toy.
“Stay calm, obtain information about this man’s toy.” I think to myself, with Frida on my lap, praying to the God of Dogs to keep me safe outside Toys R Us in the idling van. I definitely remember trying to think if I knew how to begin killing a dog like that if it came to it. Hope the Dog God didn’t hear that one, but I suppose not since I still have both of my testicles.
Guillermo returned surprisingly quickly, with a toy wrapped in his jumper. We sped off and he threw the package to me. A sort of marble-run obstacle course built into an orb. He told me he was obsessed with them. Somewhere near the motorway entrance we have a conversation to the effect that Guillermo didn’t want to pay the French motorway toll and if I didn’t mind he would drive through the barriers. He explained that the barriers automatically spring forward under enough pressure and that it wouldn’t damage the car, but if I was willing to help him by running ahead of the van and pushing the barrier it might be useful. I responded that I didn’t mind how he drove but that I wouldn’t get out of a vehicle on a motorway.
I fell asleep soon after this conversation and awoke to a loud snapping sound followed by shrill beeps. “Ah yes, the motorway.” I thought to myself blearily as Guillermo floored it.  Somewhere in the first 40km or so of those roads there is a September audience of very tall elephant grass. We were driving so fast I wondered if the police were coming for us, and I remember passing through the middle of this verge-side valley of feathered grass in the sunset, calmly pondering whether we might die there. I fell asleep again and awoke to the same snapping sound followed by the beeps.
“How many more of these are there?” I asked Guillermo.
“That was the last.” What followed felt like driving along southern France’s clandestine Nazca lines for 45 minutes and suddenly we were back on the national roads.
Guillermo gets a call from his friends in Bordeaux and rattles off in Spanish for a while. I listened to the conversation. Talk of dinner, some beers, a lot of weed and if there was any speed or MDMA, Guillermo would keep driving for the rest of the night. What Guillermo relayed to me was “I just spoke to my friends and we’re going to have dinner in Bordeaux if you feel like it.”
I looked up at the foot of the barn owl, swinging from the rear-view mirror. I thanked him but politely declined, explaining that what I needed was sleep and I wouldn’t get it as the passenger of someone under such a cocktail of drugs, regardless of their actual ability to drive.
He understood. I gave him a chorizo from my backpack to share with his friends and I hopped out into the woods.