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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Random randomness as the mid-life crisis gathers momentum...

If my tortured memory serves me correctly, scrawled on one side of The Smiths album The Queen is Dead was the line "there is always the past". I'd go into the attic and look it up, but alas all my beloved Smiths albums were borrowed by a mate who left them in his psycho girlfriend's house when he escaped so my kids won't be inheriting these cherished vinyl memories. We all have a past, but one of my greatest crimes has been to sometimes live in it perhaps too much. Life may not be so pleasant at times, but the past can provide a bolt hole, somewhere to open the filing cabinet of time gone past and remember happier times, but the problem is how you choose what drawer to open. Sometimes the present chooses what drawer to open, no matter how ugly and tainted the memory may be. Sometimes they are incredible though, like this clip of Stevie Nicks:

She has always been one of my greatest guilty pleasures, and may now look somewhat ‘weathered’ in a manner of a well skelped arse attacked by a bunch of pissed off teenage wasps, but this is good. Her voice fills the room, and she positively oozes natural talent in a manner that every idiotic fame seeker on a Britain Lacks Talent on Ice type show couldn’t even contemplate. I have always been obsessed with music, and tend to listen to something that fits how I feel at the time. At this moment in time so much music I passionately love feels tainted by sad memories, so hence Stevie Nicks. She provokes memories from periods before any hard times, and feels strangely alien to anything that has gone on of late. A safety net, in the form of a woman who makes me look stable. Bless. 
So when not listening to Fleetwood Mac and Balkan Gypsy music I have found myself in the position of full-time Dad for a change. Hedonism has disappeared, as well as thinking that I do my best work at four in the morning, unthinkable for a man who wakes at seven AM and passes out with a million undone tasks some time after ten PM.Transferring the past to your children also takes on additional significance, particularly when your kids have grown up apart from you, in a different culture, with different reference points. This came rather stunningly to light sitting watching Still Game with Klara, my daughter. The Glaswegian patter and humour, coupled with a liberal use of 'technical' terminology such as 'boaby' was flying straight over her head. Here I was, with my own flesh and blood, myself, dipped in the Clyde at birth sitting having to explain language that gave me so much comfort and happy childhood memories. My past was an alien complex to her, while her world was one learned by me in the process of escaping my own. The search for stability, roots and a sense of belonging is one that can be forced as much as chosen, something you can run to avoid, something William McIlvanney summed up wonderfully when he stated, "You cannot forget your past, as it marks where you are going."
Collette Webster, in our room in Hotel Citluk, sometime in 1993. Sean Vatcher. 

The past has a cunning way of creeping up on you, when you least expect it. I was standing in a tense demonstration, the heat was oppressive, and the demonstrators were screaming with real passion, a distinct change in the fabric of Kosova's politics a palpable sensation vibrating electrically in the charged air. I'll be honest; I wanted it to kick off. I really did. It wasn't just financial, as if it went tits up I sold a story and pics, I also would get that gorgeous jolt of adrenalin, that multiplication of the senses as instinct kicks in and excitement replaces relationship woes, financial fears, all the day to day bullshit that haunts everyone in differing quantities. Basically in this game somebody has to get unlucky for you to get lucky. 18 years down the line, and only now can I admit it. The week before, sitting in a bar in Tirana waiting on a court result, somebody got unlucky next door. Seven 9mm rounds flashed, the reports slow to the flash, in quick succession spreading instant panic. A blur, out into the street, an instantly empty street, one figure crawling his leg seemingly alien to his body, the black red pulse spreading over his thigh. A girl in a black mini dress screams by his side, while he continues to crawl in our direction.

A few more yards, pushing on and sitting prone, a figure gasps for breath, while the black red spread on his ridiculously white shirt creeps further and further. A waiter lamely presses a cushion against his chest, while his eyelids flicker. The exit wound on the back of the ridiculously white shirt states the game is up. A camera between your vision and reality, the press of a button your excuse for being there, and at the back of my mind the thought that I was glad his eyes where shut. I hate to see the black. That stays, better shut. Basically you distance your self by dehumanising, you don't put a name to the guy you just watched take his last breath, he is just some poor bastard. The poor fucker bought it, got slotted, even wasted. But the adrenalin courses through your veins, someone bought it, you got the story, the picture, and the economic exchange of life goes into your bank account. The level of adrenalin, the mixture of manic laughter and wanting to turn yourself inside out is sickening, physically and mentally, but still feels good. The sympathy of harsh language creates distance, you file, go for a kebab and a beer with a fag in your hand, tasting glorious on a technicolour evening. Luck. Not me, someone else, and onwards I march. Then a week later a phone rings in the middle of a demo; the name is 18 years in the past, you cannot hear, but still the sickness kicks in. A previous phone call, from someone unwanted comes to mind. A friend has been "wasted", and he thought I should know. I carry on, use the same language, and push on the same path. Eighteen years later, after the demo, with no glorious violence, an email detailing the purpose of the call arrives. The noise in my ears rises to a steady alarm, I light a fag, stagger outside with the ringing and slump against a pillar under the hideous sun. Eighteen years I ignored the death of a friend. It was a tag of honour, the profits of a life in pursuit of war, something to tell and gain sympathy with. She got wasted. The voice from the past showed me I'd never dealt with it. She didn't get wasted, she died, and several of us never grieved. I thought I'd moved on, but the ringing in my ears eighteen years down the line told another story. The filing cabinet of the past had opened, but it was the bottom drawer, the one you thought you'd lost the key for. Sean, her boyfriend, had chosen to get back in touch, and the drawer popped open. I'm glad he did. The past was also beautiful.
Peter, Collette, and Paul. How I even held the camera on this evening is a mystery.

If you read my blog or have the misfortune to know me you have probably realised that I'm one of the last people on earth that should have children. Fortunately I do, and in confronting the past I took them on a grand tour of Kosova, to try and explain, particularly to Klara, how I came to be there, what I did, and what it did to me. Now your average ten year old would list Disneyland well above the scenes of a few massacres as what to do on holiday. As for my four year old, the product of PC parenting and not allowed toy guns, he thought it was awesome. He was particularly impressed that Adem Jashari lived in his house, with his guns. Now the reality of a tragedy that made the other villages rise up in rebellion is more complex, but to his mind, the man had a gun. To Klara it is more complex also; being at school, the history taught is more angled, she informed me, "yes I know about it. We do history." The reality of propaganda versus reality is one she will have to learn. For two days we drove across Kosova, and I returned to scenes from the past, with my future. I never thought I was a good dad before. Once we were home, and for the first time spending time solely on our own, all the time, going through the ugly and the good, it felt good. I feel like a good dad. Standing where you once saw people you met dead, with your children somewhere down the line, is strange. Driving through the tunnels in the Rugova Gorge with the windows down screaming Robyn songs of dumping and being dumped at the top of your voices is even better. I'm having the time of my life with my kids.

I never thought I'd ever show this image, but now here it is. Klara and Leon at Adem Jashari's grave.
A trip to The Hague over Racak, then time passes and taking Klara there. strange days.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Learning the Ropes Again...

Artificial looking legs on Tunnel Wall, pic by Dave MacLeod
 Like most bloggers, the novelty of writing of how interesting your own life is soon wears off, and you tend to update very, very rarely. It seemed a good idea at the time to gibber on about how fascinating yesterday was and to share it with everybody. I think I last updated this blog in September last year, and have planned and started several entries, but never got round to it, or my ego hasn’t been big enough to force my irrelevant thoughts on you. I look at friends with more successful blogs, and they tend to write more positively, and everything looks rosy at the time. The blog of a manic depressive, would after all, only be good for cheering up people with a black sense of humour. We think nothing significant has happened in our lives, but in reality there are a thousand little wars going on behind every closed door, a battle in most people’s heads, as great as any tragedy or story, but never to be publically exposed. Which brings me back to the original point of why I am even bothering to update my blog, since I have just stated in a roundabout way that my life isn’t significantly interesting enough to bother you with, but what the hell, here goes. When I first started this site, the idea was to keep my children updated on what I am up to when I am not with them. Distance is hard to explain to them, and I have been carried many thousands of miles from them of late, and sometimes struggle to explain to them why. So here goes, after all that self-obsessed ranting it turns out that I am going to bother you with my recent travels and plans, as I obviously feel I need to highlight to my kids that I do actually work…
Moonlight on Loch Achray, as I remind myself to take more landscapes

Leaving Pakistan gave many mixed emotions; on one level I miss the place hugely, I miss its ability to make you feel secure while possibly being at the centre of the centrifugal force that is ‘The War on Terror’.  At this precise moment in town the cold embrace of the cynical world of journalism is exactly what I require. My luggage also felt the emotional pull of Pakistan and decided to move to Karachi, so if your passing through Karachi and notice anyone dressed like a mountaineer or, well some would say a camp mountaineer, you can guess the origins of their good taste.
Leon and Klara, Prishtine, March 2011

After Pakistan it was back to Kosova and the kids. I finally after 18 years travelling the world experienced the pleasures of business class. When the pre-operational trolley dolly tucked the blanket in as I slept on a bed on a plane, I suppose I over reacted by shooting straight up in the air, and I had to finish the bottle of champagne to get back to sleep. But I did, purely because I could, after all if I didn’t drink it, it would have gone flat, and gone to waste, and having come from an NGO flood relief programme, waste is one thing we do not need, is it? So back to Klara and Leon, and the familiar feeling of Kosova, overeating, and varying my nightly bottle of wine between a Vranac and Te Za Jug. The highlight was watching a Macedonian Gypsy band in Dardan’s nightclub, watching what was unthinkable a few years before, as the Kosovars got teary eyed to the beautiful, tragic, horns on a distinctly Yugoslav nostalgia trip. He may have screwed up, but the ones old enough to know raised a glass to Tito that evening, whereas a few years ago a Macedonian gypsy band would have invited a hand grenade into the club. Perhaps time can heal, or at least temporarily blank the painful memories. My son Leon never left me for one second while back, while Klara makes every time I leave harder and harder. I suppose I know I feel more at home in the Balkans than anywhere else, and my kids being settled there makes me know I will always return. The other morning I saw a thumbnail picture while buying books of an image from the Bosnian War. I never even looked at it properly, and the next thing I was thrown into the past, and the heat, sensations and smells of the time are illuminated in my mind, and I am back there, every emotion multiplied, like an acid trip, but one that happened in the past. The Balkans has that affect on you; she is like a lover you always think you are over, but if you glimpse into her eyes, the old feelings are there, raw, unchanged and unexplained.  Maybe that is why I’ll always return; the research for my thesis involves going back to Bosnia, Kosova, and Macedonia. I’d love to take Klara with me, and try and explain what happened, how it took over my life; on the other hand why should I trouble the mind of a ten year old with tales of an ugly past on poisoned soil? I’m desperate for a sentimental journey, but I’m even more desperate to complete my thesis and perhaps move on.
View from Caldbeck Common, a sentimental favourite for my Mum's family

Then back to what some would term reality, or I’d say Glasgow. A split reality, and time to start working again. However I have hardly had a night in one spot for the past two months, and have spent time working in Swansea, London, Manchester, the Lake District, Glencoe with social visits scattered randomly in there too, as well as a period in Cambridge staring unproductively at books. After injuring my knee last summer, I also made myself go back on the hills, a passion that strangely deserted me through the winter. All my life climbing and mountains have been one of the key factors, something that was such an inherent part of my being, that I could not function without. For no apparent reason this love left my soul, and left me feeling indifferent about what I had pretty much spent four years of my life solely focused upon. Instead of the beauty and being humbled in the face of mother-nature I seemed to just respond to being cold and scared. So slowly, on a rather creaky knee, I have been venturing out, with a camera to discover just how unfit I have become. Mountain Equipment, as ever have been good to me, replacing what furnishes a Pakistani cab, and having me work for them again. Es Tressider was running a fell race in the lakes, and I caught up with him on Sharp Edge on Blencathra with a 5:00am start to do the shots. I should be nationalistic and more patriotic but I have to confess to a greater love for the Lakes due to childhood memories than the north of Scotland, which I do adore, but sentimentality coupled with sunshine does tend to tip the scales in the favour of the Lakes. We had a good day out, and Es showed his insane level of fitness to keep the conversation going on the topic of his PHD while ascending, meantime I used the last of my oxygen supply to give one word answers. I’ll get fit again, I just need to keep clear of the Guinness and general good times behaviour I have been indulging in.When in the Lakes, I took the chance to take my Mum, Dad, and Aunty Barbara back to one of the houses that my Gran and Grandad lived in at Caldbeck. Of all the places they lived, and of the stories they told, this one seemed to be everyones favourite. Caldbeck, as ever was beautiful, but sadly the old house was neglected, and lacking in the light of those precious memories. It had obviously become a holiday let with the once stunning garden of my Gran's hands covered with gravel, a lump of emotions lost on brick and mortar. My Mum was happy to have returned, but keen not to go back. Sometimes memories are better than the modern reality.
Aunty Barbara, my Mum and Dad show their uncontrolled excitement at getting back to Caldbeck

Es Tressider on Sharp Edge for Mountain Equipment

Jump forward a few more days and I was this time back on the ropes with Dave MacLeod on the iconic Tunnel Wall at the head of Glencoe. Tunnel Wall is one of these amazing crags that you see from the roadside and is bathed in a history as spectacular as the late night light it finds. Dave was hoping to work a new line, however was concentrating on regaining the stamina he lost while training to complete his V14 Boulder problem. The drill battery wasn’t playing the game however, so we settled on the existing lines, and I got back on the ropes and the never ending joys of jumaring routes. Glencoe always, no matter where I go in the world inspires. Fortunately as we got to work in the fading light it didn’t fail to relight a flame. I’ll be back later in the week to try and make Tunnel Wall look how it should. So, as ever, my life is all over the place, in the midst of some major changes, waiting on the next trips abroad to be confirmed. On one level it is as insecure and haphazard as before, on another it has that delicious uncertainty that sometimes I try to escape, but always in the end crave. I really should find a balance. One day. 
Dave MacLeod on Tunnel Wall, Glencoe