Thursday, 19 September 2019

Precipitating Luck

Principles Of Hitching

Once in a while I’m asked how to hitchhike.
Everyone has their own methods and principles for travelling in this way, ranging from the scientific to the superstitious. All methods have to do the same thing, which is to be, or seem, effective enough to survive repeated road-testing.
Here I'll describe elements of my approach and the thinking behind it. This isn't a how-to-guide, it's just a description of my practice and reflections to myself about it.

Why hitch?
How a person hitches only makes sense in the context of why. There are as many reasons to hitch as there are to travel in any other manner.

I hitch as a means of travelling slowly, with a view to observing nature and crowds, and connecting with individuals and small groups of people. I do this whenever I have a sufficiently large margin of spare time that I can choose to forget about counting minutes, hours and, occasionally, days.
One fundamental reason for this is my belief that the slow speed of hitching affords space for stimulating or novel experiences of time, as well as a quality in human interactions that I seldom encounter within the confines of my normal working schedule.

Hitching in the way I do often allows me to escape time as a routine and instead see it as duration, expressed in weather, light and other natural phenomena. I like to think it teaches my eyes something. It also gives me plenty of time to think.
With regards to human interaction, there's a kind of rarefied human intimacy that runs throughout hitching. To me it seems more prevalent in lifts given by people who have had some time to deliberate before deciding to host you in their personal space. For this reason, my approach is to wait for people to choose to pick me up, and to not directly ask for lifts.

How I hitch: My hitchhiking style is thus about being extremely visible, extremely patient and waiting in places that afford a driver the maximum amount of time to consider the prospect of inviting me to travel with them.

Who I'm waiting for: My ideal lift is from someone who’s fit to drive and isn’t inclined, intentionally or otherwise, to harm me, themselves or anybody else for the duration of our journey together. What they do before and after our meeting rarely concerns me if these requirements are met.

The following considerations and roughly hewn maxims emerge from the above why and how of my hitching style.

Hitchhiking Maxims

1) Wear a fluorescent vest.
Night or day, this helps with visibility and giving a sense of legitimacy.

2) Use serif lettering.
Perhaps magical thinking, but I think again it makes you look more legitimate and less crazy. Seems to help.

3) Be genuinely patient enough to look patient. It can’t be faked.
If you don't enjoy waiting, hitching might not be for you.

4) Roll up your sleeves.
Advice given on hitchwiki once with the reasoning that you look less threatening. I swear by it.

5) Shave.
Doesn't cost anything and seems to help.

6) Let people see your character.
In order to get a lift I feel there is an act of empathetic reflection that takes place. Myriad people have to be able to see themselves in you if they want to let you in their car. Seems to work better if you're relaxed and physiologically honest.

7) Dress neutrally.
Same reasons as above. You want to be seen as human/traveller first, not as a member of a subculture.

8) When meeting potential drivers, be extremely judgmental where it counts and non-judgmental where it doesn’t.
The reverse of 6 and 7. You need to make an informed guess about whether this person is someone safe to travel with, which means not getting distracted by non-essentials such as clothing and taste. You're looking at physiology and body language first, who they voted for and what bands they like you can discuss in the car.

9) Stay humble and patient, and learn to listen.
If you're easily frustrated by personalities that are different to your own, hitching might not be for you. Being offended is not the same as being in danger, and you must remember which one of you chose to hitchhike.

 10) One good evangelist deserves another.
You might be tempted to change minds once in a while. Try, by all means, but remember how fun that usually is the other way round.

11) Give.

If you have something that your driver will appreciate, however small, you should offer it to them. You will feel better. Remember that they have to be willing to accept it or it's just losing something, and not giving it.

 12) Receive.
Equally you will be offered things. I tend to decline most unnecessary things but there are certain moments in which accepting something will feel like the only right course of action.

13) Don’t take negativity too personally.
You have decided to become an ephemeral public spectacle. Reactions will be mixed and some will be strongly negative. You're dealing with countless pockets of unexpressed stress and anger (noise in the social circuit), conceptions of hitchhikers as parasitic beggars and the fact that you are anonymous and temporary, so an easy target. It doesn't affect me personally unless I feel I'm really seen and criticized as a person.

14) Any encouragement can completely refresh you.
Someone coming to talk to you and wish you luck will make you feel like the last three hours waiting didn't happen. It does something odd to time, worth experiencing.

15) The best experiences are often not lifts.
Surreal happenings proliferate in the petroleum archipelago. You're never far away from a problem, conversation, solution, punchline or striking visual composition. Just enjoy it when it comes.

16) Retain your ability to marvel.
Related to the above. You're going to be alone for many, many hours/eternities with your thoughts, so it helps to be entertained by small things. If you're not fascinated by the fact that you are an unusually sociable talking mammal sharing metal boxes powered by the sludge of fossilised creatures, then hitching might not be for you.

17) Remember in hope.
When you pass the point of being able to entertain yourself you have to go into the directory of hope-giving experiences. My usual call is thinking of my longest or worst waits and the countless time I have been picked up just as I was giving up.

18) You will always (and thus never) be surprised by who is on the road, regardless of day or time.
Links to the above. This is one of the great truths of reality and great side-effects of industrial culture. In any petrol station you can potentially find (and will occasionally find) someone driving to your exact destination, at any time of day or night. Similarly, in any city there will be someone living three doors down from you whose personality and way of being would blow your mind if you ever discovered them.

19) Stay on the road and you will move forward.
Simple and statistically true...or true enough.

20) You can never prove that the world is entirely safe. You can only prove that you are lucky, and it is wise not to invite complacency.
Exactly how much danger I put myself in by hitching is difficult to discern, but the final maxim is based upon a quote by Gregory Bateson that I found helpful in choosing how and where one lets sustained experience calcify into identity:

"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.)

This is the point here. What you are doing is trying to make informed guesses about trust whilst travelling by car. Don’t identify yourself with your ‘success’, and don’t mistake your luck for skill.


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Tunnel

The Tunnel

It is very difficult to choose which of the stories should be told first so here’s one I’m choosing because it came straight from a film.
I was stuck in a petrol station in Kortrijk, Belgium, in early August.
Kortrijk is a playground for me by this point, there are some messages I scrawled on lampposts and crash barriers and it has a mixed history of good lifts and long waits. I was brought there by a young French couple.
Think I waited there about 4 or 5 hours. The only memorable event was a man returning to his Porsche with a look of pleasant surprise. He was turning his head this way and that, if you’ve ever seen Goya’s depiction of Hannibal seeing the alps for the first time it was a similar level of pantomime disbelief. I sat there chuckling, imagining what he wanted to be heard saying to himself: “Wait, this can’t be my car? No, it can’t be!...but it’s a Porsche! Think about how expensive those are! Oh! The key works! It is my car!”
At some point a web designer lifted me up the road to what he thought was a better spot.
Well now. Better in what way?  I will let you decide, but I believe that every last liquid ounce of time that I have spent in a petrol station I would spend again for what happened in this place.

Just another petrol station. Probably about 7.30pm. Big crowd of football fans standing around smoking and getting tanked up. Few giggles and exchanges of looks as I stood there. After some time I walked into the shop. The station attendant was a man in his 30s with very short hair, square framed glasses and a bright and quizzical expression.
“Good evening, sir.”
 He was very polite and helpful. Exceedingly so, pointing out where I could get free water, and that if I wanted to use the facilities I should do that before buying anything and use the ticket to get a discount. After this exchange he asked: “Is that an Australian accent I detect, sir?”
I explained where I was from. He looked a little bit disappointed in himself and I assured him that a lot of people do think I’m Australian, even in Bristol.
I went back out to wait. Few more coachloads of wobbly fans went past. Advice, shrugs, smiles and belches came my way.
I waited. It grew dark. Some people told me I was on the wrong side of the road. A few more people told me I was in the right place. I looked over the road to the petrol station opposite and noticed there was no bridge. I shrugged and sat back down to ruminate. I think it must have been close to 11 when I went back into the shop to get some coffee.
As I was paying I conceded to the attendant that perhaps I was in the wrong spot.
“To be honest sir, I would agree. But that’s ok. I’m finishing in a moment and I can take you there.”
“To the other station, sir. Pick up your phone from where it’s charging and meet me outside. I shall open the tunnel.”

I use to say that being surprised or fazed was the import tax placed on your imagination by not having a conceptual model to meet an experience. I don’t know if I still say this. A lot of things get worn away when you travel by waiting. Time and the sun burnish your attention span and your skin, and eventually your capacity to be surprised is worn away. As I went to unplug my phone I remember having a bicameral response of ‘What the fuck is the tunnel/of course this man is about to open a subterranean escape route for my benefit.’
Amazingly the capacity for gratitude only seems to get stronger after years of reality showing its tendency to segue into a novel at odd hours of the night and day.

He came outside in a black jacket, rolling a cigarette. He placed it behind his ear and unlocked his bike. We walked together to a sort of non-descript grey booth that looked like a vent. They’re all over the place and you never notice them.

He unlocked the door on the front of it and looked at me quietly for a moment.
“Remember sir, to close the door when you reach the other side. You won’t be able to come back.” He mounted his bike and lit his cigarette.
I thanked him profusely, somewhat stunned by the combination of luck and decorum.
As he turned to leave I asked him his name. He looked at me over his shoulder, exhaling a plume of silver-blue smoke.
“My name is Frido, sir. Good luck, and remember to close the door.”
He rode off into the night and I walked down the steps into the tunnel, remembering to close the door.
I emerged in a petrol station, the mirror image of the first. I half expected to meet Frido’s twin but thankfully that didn’t happen. The other attendant was a short, blonde haired lady in her 40s, busy in the corner with some boxes at that moment. I was relieved. It was hard enough having all of the now-steaming football fans stopping off there for more beers on their way back from the game. Fuck, we were all spooked that night. I was still reeling from my initiation into the arcane brotherhood of petroleum corridors and they couldn’t work out how I was there when they left and there when they came back. I should have said I’m like the absinthe fairy except just what you see when you buy shit beer. Instead one of them came over to ask if I was a member of Antifa and sensing his anger I feigned ignorance. I slept in that station and got out the next morning with an ice cream man and his two year-old daughter. He confided in me that Belgians are not a trusting people and he dropped me off at Kortrijk.
This time I waited about 4 hours before instantly falling in love with another hitchhiker I met. Her and her cousin got me a lift out of there in the one spare seat of the car of a Dutchman who was driving his young son around the national parks of France to look for insects because ‘why not’.

Since that episode I’ve taken to calling a petrol station with its twin on the other side of the motorway a Frido.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Motor Accident August 2018 (Non-hitching)

Account of a car accident (not hitching)

I went to visit my mother this summer. It was the first time I’d seen her properly in a year and a half. I arrived on the 30th of July and she picked me up from Pescara bus station.
I got off the bus and found her after a couple of minutes. She seems to skip town during Time’s census, looking younger and younger as the years go on. She’d probably attribute it to a diet of low-income, constant views of eagles and eating her neighbour’s tomatoes. She swears by astral planing with cats at shoulder and dogs at foot. I digress.
I got in the car with her, the little Fiat of whatever description. The one she’d been excited about since April when she placed her slowly-accumulated funds on it.
Some bastard car from about 20 years ago, apparently done up to speed but you’ll see.
Anyway, we drove home. I met her dogs for the first time. Comments were exchanged about life, the garden, the size of the cats.
The next day we drove three hours across hill, dale and motorway to visit her friend Antonio. Have to sidestep for a minute and just say this man’s grace simply beggars belief. The man is burdened with grace. He is a slender, red-bearded, bespectacled lamb with a pack mule’s load of knowledge about renaissance art and architecture at the humble age of 26.
He showed us around his town for a few hours. We parted. He gave us a watermelon. We drove the two and a half hours back to her house, stopping on the plateau so that I could take some long exposure photos of the night sky. They weren’t the best but I enjoyed stepping out into a cold wind and the sound of sheep-bells in the distance. That was a placid 6 minutes or so. I got back in the car, we drove through the rest of the plateau without incident and soon we were descending along the bended roads towards her house. About 20 minutes from home a thought came to me.
“Yeah?” Still driving.
“You must be spending a lot of your time driving around mountain bends in quite a small and old car. What’s the contingency in case you fly off a road one day? Do you have an Italian will written out?”
“Err no, but I have an English one.”
“But is that good enough?”
Conversation continues as we make the distance closer to home.
We were about five minutes from her house when we came down a steep road and the brakes cut.
“Shit. We’ve lost the brakes Mike.”
“Oh wait, no we have them.”
Brief relief. Some seconds later:
“Oh no, they’ve gone again.”
We begin accelerating down the hill.
“Does this mean we’re going to die?” I didn’t know what else to say.
At this point everything that happened was pretty sudden but my father’s old model of ‘consciousness concertinas when you’re about to die’ seemed to hold true. This he learnt during his own close call, whilst nearly drowning on a beach. The seconds seemed to stretch as we sped downhill and shot straight off a curve.
The instant at which we left the road the realisation hit that this was actually happening and odd inconvenience turned into a coin-flip of whether we’d leave that car alive. As the trees came up to meet us I tried to remember the surrounding terrain- in my head it was all steep drops and cliff edges so I was expecting us to flip. Instead we bounced down a wooded slope and came to a stop.
I asked Maria if she was ok. She said yes. I was definitely ok. I told her I was going to open the door very slowly to make sure we weren’t on a precipice, and it was then we realised the headlights were gone. We were on fairly solid ground so I got out, went round to her door and opened it. Thinking of it now I must have gone around the front of the car, which had been stopped by a tree, but I didn’t notice it in the darkness.
All I could focus on it that moment was getting her away from the car and back onto the road, so I just remember the feeling of grabbing trees for support and brambles cutting my shins. At one point we were treading on what felt to me like household junk. I expected we were walking through a local fly-tipping spot but it turned out to be parts of the car.

We got back to the road and began to walk down.
Maria: “An angel must have stopped the car.”
Me: “Which angel cut the fucking brake cables?...Sorry, it’s too soon for me.”
We were lucky to have had that accident on a moonlit night, because neither of us had torches or working phones on us. We padded down the road, stunned. I remember how glad I was to be walking on solid ground. On top of this there was a weird feeling that ‘being alive’ was seeping back into the picture. In that moment I felt something like a cat who, having been violently chased out with a broom, was now returning to cautiously lap at the milk of the senses. Colours, sounds and smells seemed more vivid.
It was around this point that my mother spoke again.
“Mike, are you sure that you’re alright?”
I shake my limbs and rub my back. “Yeah…I mean we’ll see by morning really, but so far so good. You?”
“Yes, I’m completely fine. But isn’t that strange?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well do you reckon we’re really alive or just dead in the car?”
I laughed and patted my mum on the shoulder, and we continued to pad down the road, entertaining that night’s ghosthood.

In my memory the rest of the event felt much shorter than the crash. We arrived home and called the police, who told us to go to bed and that they’d be over in the morning. They never came. We then called Maria’s friends Goldie and Richard, who came over to help us retrieve our things from the car. Going back to the site an hour later was surreal. There were more brambles than I remember. Richard and I walked through them and down the slope to the car. When we got there, he surveyed the car in silence with his torch, turned to me and said: “I’m surprised that you and your mum survived this.”
We took out the bags and the car keys, and climbed back up through the brambles and splintered saplings. Goldie and Richard dropped us at home and we sat up on the porch with the dogs, drinking brandy. I couldn’t sleep properly for two days.

I’d say that since that crash I feel less like a broomed cat and more like a tree that has had all of its leaves shaken off temporarily. As though you can’t pass through that tiny window of being alive and unharmed without dropping what was in your hands somehow. Some days it feels like being alive and being dead must be pretty similar, given how easy the switch can be flicked. It feeds back into my hitch-hiking too. I used to occasionally feel guilty on the behalf of my family for putting myself in cars with strangers all the time, but after almost dying in such a domestic setting I feel a lot less bad about it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Robert Service- Grey Gull

'Twas on an iron, icy day
I saw a pirate gull down-plane,
And hover in a wistful way
Nigh where my chickens picked their grain.
An outcast gull, so grey and old,
Withered of leg I watched it hop,
By hunger goaded and by cold,
To where each fowl full-filled its crop.

They hospitably welcomed it,
And at the food rack gave it place;
It ate and ate, it preened a bit,
By way way of gratitude and grace.
It parleyed with my barnyard cock,
Then resolutely winged away;
But I am fey in feather talk,
And this is what I heard it say:

"I know that you and all your tribe
Are shielded warm and fenced from fear;
With food and comfort you would bribe
My weary wings to linger here.
An outlaw scarred and leather-lean,
I battle with the winds of woe:
You think me scaly and unclean...
And yet my soul you do not know,

"I storm the golden gates of day,
I wing the silver lanes of night;
I plumb the deep for finny prey,
On wave I sleep in tempest height.
Conceived was I by sea and sky,
Their elements are fused in me;
Of brigand birds that float and fly
I am the freest of the free.

"From peak to plain, from palm to pine
I coast creation at my will;
The chartless solitudes are mine,
And no one seeks to do me ill.
Until some cauldron of the sea
Shall gulp for me and I shall cease...
Oh I have lived enormously
And I shall have prodigious peace."

With yellow bill and beady eye
This spoke, I think, that old grey gull;
And as I watched it Southward fly
Life seemed to be a-sudden dull.
For I have often held this thought -
If I could change this mouldy me,
By heaven! I would choose the lot,
Of all the gypsy birds, to be
A gull that spans the spacious sea.