The Cave Dweller

The cave wasn’t difficult to find. Jazz and I had been walking through the woods for about two hours and we were headed back to the main road when she took me on a small detour to see it. She told me that the cave was sometimes used as a refuge by homeless people, those who had the will to escape the city for a few days, weeks, months.

We clambered down a short bit of hillside and walked in to find a small fire burning in a pit in the middle. Bundles of wood were piled up near the entrance, and scattered around were other signs of habitation: a sleeping bag against one stone wall, a small pile of books, a few cups.

He strolled in slowly a few minutes later, a brief moment of tension descending as we set eyes on each other, and evaporating just as quickly. He was bearded, dreadlocks tied back, wearing a warm jumper, torn black jeans, and work boots. He didn’t seem surprised to see us. “I saw you coming” he said, without any malevolence. Like a tracker, used to noting tiny movements in the forest. If anything, he seemed please to see some other humans.

Tea?” he asked. He filled a black kettle that had been nesting next to the fire with water from a two-litre bottle. We each picked up one of the cups that was dotted around the cave, cleaning them out with a few drops of water and rags. He talked as the water boiled.

He’d been homeless and living in and around Bristol for several years. Most recently, he’d been living in a small encampment with a few others, in a park in the east of the city. Before that, he’d been in a teepee, out in the countryside.

For a while, he’d lived in a house he’d built himself on the beach, made from bits of driftwood and discarded odds and ends. He told us that the walls were thick and the roof waterproof. He’d even had a sound system in there. It was when the local council discovered that he had electricity from a generator that they asked him to take down the building. He refused to do it but left peacefully.

As he talked it became clear that unlike many of the people sleeping rough around the city, he hadn’t just been thrown there by harsh circumstance. He talked of a time when he’d had a job and a car. But something in him had ruptured. A sense, maybe, that the forces acting upon him, acting upon us all, needed to be resisted. He was living in the cave by choice, removing himself from the logic of money, the hum of mobile phones, the clatter of people rattling against each other in the city. “We all need to take a step back from civilisation sometimes”, he said.

He’d discovered the cave a few days earlier and was determined to stay there for the winter, scavenging what he could find. He talked of foraging for mushrooms, keeping his hands busy by cleaning up the cave, using the stones by the entrance to build something. He seemed guided by his own inner need to know that he could survive, despite the threat of being blasted by rain or snow, or having his head kicked in while he slept, by night time wanderers less friendly than he.

The sky outside was darkening and our cups were almost empty. We said goodbye, telling him that we would bring him some provisions next time. He gave us a hug as we left, pleased to see that people from the city still hugged strangers.

Winter Blues

Each year I know it’s coming, and each year I try fool myself into thinking that I’ve got a handle on things, that I’m stronger now and it won’t affect me. But October rolls round and my moods start fluctuating wildly, like the needle on a seismograph, just before an earthquake is about to hit.

I blunder through hyperactive bursts of energy. I’m out three nights in a row. I’m running around, doing things, going to classes, trying to keep myself out of the encroaching doom of my bedroom. I eat shitloads. I want wine, I want sex. Or I want nothing at all but to be left alone. I crash. I struggle to crawl out of bed in the morning.

None of this is new. I’ve been through episodes of depression my whole adult life, warped by the unceasing bleakness of British winters. It’s a familiar state of affairs, like a weird and unpleasant sofa-surfer who keeps turning up at your house and crashing in your living room, leaving his crusted socks on your landing. Like: ‘Not you again, you filthy fucker…’

(In another life, I used to be the sofa-surfer).

I’ve been to the doctor before with the standard litany of symptoms: lethargy, exhaustion, , feeling flat, irritation, lack of concentration. There’s a name of for all of this: Seasonal Affective Disorder. It makes me feel a bit better in a way, knowing there’s an actual reason that this is happening to me and it’s not just that my brain is fucked in some innate way.

Maybe there’s some consolation to be found, as well, in the fact that even though we’re penned up in cities, as creatures we’re still connected to the changing of the seasons. The cycles of the elements still affect us intimately.

That doesn’t make it any easier though. Not seeing a blue sky for weeks on end does very wonky things to my brain waves. It’s as though my head is in a vice: full of compressed thoughts, unable to escape. The same ruminations keep ricocheting around my skull, circling endlessly. My failures and inadequacies, real or imagined (mostly imagined), are repeated on an endless reel, as though I’m being continually told off by some inner headteacher.

At other times, it feels like I’m underwater, trying to walk across a river bed, pushing against the current. Small things feel harder to do. My room descends into chaos. It’s harder to stay connected. It’s harder to explain myself to people. The urge to retreat and hibernate intensifies.

The bleakness of the UK seems almost comical. It’s a bad idea to watch things like Black Mirror in this state, but I do it anyway. Everything takes on a slightly dystopian tinge. Bad vibes pervade. And trying to get my head round the total mindfuck of our political situation is too much.

It’s also harder to write, what with my self-confidence struggling for air. But it’s at moments at these when writing is all the more important – a conduit for the weirdness of my emotions: get the thoughts out of my head and onto the paper, or at least onto the screen and into the internet ether.

I’ve been here enough times to know what I need to not go insane. It’s just nature sending me a little reminder that I need to remember to take care of myself. Eat well. Try and talk to people. Stay active. Get back to my body. Make music. Write. Meditate. If I do all of those things, it will probably be ok.

 

Elsewhere

Most of my adult life I’ve been haunted by a craving to be Elsewhere. Somewhere else. Somewhere other than here.

The constant stomach-churn of restlessness, wanderlust, dissatisfaction and disillusionment has led me to have 20 or more addresses over the past decade. Many times, I’ve upped sticks, quit jobs and fled, obeying inner commands to seek answers on the road.

A Sufi friend once told me that the self is hell. In seeking Elsewhere I’ve been seeking to escape myself – the inner conflicts and whirring thoughts that bedevil my consciousness.

But in spending weeks, sometimes months, in foreign lands, I’m often confronted with myself more violently then when I was at home (and where is that?).

Not feeling at home in myself, I keep trying to run. All the while knowing I’m going in the wrong direction.

I’ve been looking at the map upside down. Where I need to go is inward. What I need to learn is how to be, how to exist in the present, how to feel alright in myself, and how to remember that the self is an illusion.

Dirt and Slime

[thoughts inspired by listening to an Ital Tek mix on a Friday morning]

 

 

We’re afraid of being human. That’s why we lose ourselves in screens.

Secretly, we’re willing ourselves to be machines: we want to become beings of information, our consciousness transplanted onto microprocessors, our organs replaced by motherboards.

We want to be machines because we’re terrified of the fact that we used to be animals. Animals that fuck each other in the woods and kill each other for food.

If we become machines, we no longer have to confront the fact of death; we won’t rot and be forgotten. Once we start to fail, we’ll just reinstall our operating system.

We don’t want to be humans because to be a human means to have once crawled out of the dirt and the slime. We want to forget that we used to have coyotes and sealions as our kin.

We don’t want to be humans.

We want to be machines so that we can cast off our bodies and exit this planet.

Sound has no Form

[perspectives on sound as a healing technology]

Part 1: Buddhism

It’s been an intense few months. Despite escaping the dread of winter and landing a new job, mental fluctuations, heartaches and pervasive anxiety have all been taking their toll, while the part-time nature of my work means economic precarity is a constant. As a result, I’ve been exploring practices to help ground myself.

I’ve tried to practice meditation in some form for a number of years now, first attending guided sessions at a Buddhist centre in North London, in between shifts as a project worker in homeless hostels. It’s something I’ve dipped in and out of, and have tended to return to in moments of difficulty.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly curious about the idea of using sound as a vehicle for meditation. It seemed like a natural continuation of things I’ve been thinking about, especially given the fact that I’ve always found music and writing to be meditative in and of themselves. Both are ways of eliciting altered states, in which the ruminating and over-analytical aspects of my mind subside, and it becomes easier to access states of deep concentration, focus and flow.

That’s what led me to attend a couple of sound meditation sessions, using singing bowls, led by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk now residing in Bristol.

One of the things I remember best from the first session I went to was the idea of ‘showering the mind’: the idea that we should be taking the time to become aware of what is happening within us – psychologically and emotionally – in the same way that we generally take the time to clean our physical bodies every day.

The other thing I took a way was the idea that the sound has no form. Sound is powerful, transformative even, but it is also transient. This is reflected in the practice of meditation, which is a tool for being able to observe the passing of our thoughts, without judgement and without entering into dialogue with them. The idea of sound as a healing technology is central to the practices of both Buddhism and Hinduism, especially in the form of chanting mantras, but also in the use of singing bowls, which are tuned to different frequencies, designed to affect the body in different ways and create different emotional responses.

In practice, while meditating to the sound of the bowls, I found that my mind was sometimes caught between trying to focus on my own breath, as it is usually is during meditation, and on the timbre of the sound I was hearing. Nonetheless, the experience of focusing on one tone at a time opened up a fresh space in my head, less clouded by thoughts and the cycle of constant internal chatter.

African Hacker

 

[Thoughts on Saul Williams, Martyr Loser King, hacking & scavenger culture]

Saul Williams appears in a black bird’s mask and black jacket, crouching down on stage in a kind of bow, before stepping up to the mic. He’s alone on stage, without a backing band or DJ, musical support coming via the sound booth from collaborator Thavius Beck. His vulnerability becomes all the more real when, just a few minutes in, he trips over one of the monitors and falls head first into the crowd. The tumble only slows him down for a few seconds though. He keeps singing from the floor, rising victoriously a few moments later. A couple of tracks in and he’s back in the middle of the floor, mic raised towards the ceiling, surrounded by bouncing fans.

 

Visuals flashing across a screen are transmitting signals just as important as his lyrics: they convey some of the reference points for his new album Martyr Loser King. Figures from across the African-American artistic pantheon – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler – appear and disappear like spectres or deities, bearing messages, cryptic clues.

The album was born out of the constantly fluctuating memes of social media, but also from field recordings he made during a trip to Central Africa – a region whose polyrhythms he sees as precursors to digital drum programming. In a podcast for NPR radio, Williams stated that part of his creative process was to “take all the stuff I’m thinking about, all the stuff that’s in the news, all the stuff that people share on social media, all the interesting finds and kinda dump it in my drum machine and create a thinly-veiled fiction where I can talk about all the stuff that is of interest to me”.

The album – which charts the adventures of a hacker living in Burundi, and the stunts he is able to pull before being targeted by the authorities – is also based on scenarios he encountered on his journeys in that region of the world. As he mentions in the NPR broadcast, Africa has one of the world’s youngest populations, one which is increasingly connected to the internet. While in the West, Africa’s role as a node in the information economy tends to be dismissed, it is actually central to it in many ways.

For a start, Central Africa, and Congo in particular, is where the majority of the world’s coltan – used in the production of capacitors in electronic devices, especially mobile phones – is mined. Secondly, much of the rest of the world’s E-waste (old phones, monitors, motherboards etc) is dumped in Africa. In fact the world’s largest e-waste site is in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. In his travels, Williams came across instances of ‘scavenger culture’ where people use these discarded objects, and rework them in ingenious ways (by building a 3-D printer, for instance). Africa then, can be seen as a central nexus of information and technology, and of a shape-shifting hacker culture.

kid on computer

Kid standing on a monitor, Agbogbloshie, Ghana.

So the album is in part an exploration, in sonic/science fiction form, of the material origins of online culture, a reimagining of what the world might look like according to those whose lives are built around the off-casts of the richer world’s decadence. It’s also an exploration of what the powers of those people might be. But he uses the idea of ‘hacking’ in a broader sense than rupturing information systems. For Williams, hacking becomes a tool for deconstructing and subverting words, symbols, images, media narratives and systems of thought, especially those surrounding race, gender, class or immigration status. As he puts it:

hack into comfort and compliance / hack into the rebellious gene / hack into doctrine, capitalism and the relation of free labour and slavery / hack into desperation and loneliness, the history of community and the marketplace

We can all become hackers then. Using our own codes, building our own worlds, manipulating the images and messages that are broadcast at us, and turning them to our own ends.

Friction

 [tangents on cities / multiple realities]

1.

I’ve been doing my bit recently to help keep public libraries open by stocking up on novels at Bristol Central Library. One of the books I finished in the past few weeks was China Miéville’s The City and The City.

A detective story set in a fictional central European country, the story follows inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, who is investigating the murder of a young woman in his home city of Besźel. As the case becomes more complicated, he has to travel to the twin city of Ul Qoma, unmasking a political conspiracy in the process.

The thing with Besźel / Ul Qoma is that the cities actually inhabit the same physical space, but are completely different social, cultural and political entities. The citizens of each city have learned to ‘unsee’ each other, sometimes having to step round each other in ‘crosshatched’ areas (where one house or street is in Besźel, the other in Ul Qoma). Any interaction between denizens of the two cities is strictly forbidden and if a resident of one crosses into the other, they are dealt with severely by a shadowy force known as Breach.

As a metaphor, it’s hard to visualise. But it somehow manages to communicate the ways multiple realities can exist side by side in cities. It could be used as a way to think about urban segregation; the way that homeless people are made ‘invisible’, or as a way to understand the increasingly polarised mega-cities of the global south – Mumbai, Rio or Johannesburg, as well as the highly stratified cities of the North – London, New York or Paris.

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2.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cities recently: the social tensions and contradictions that define them, the overlapping sets of realities rubbing uneasily against each other. It’s these tensions that lead to higher rates of mental illness – depression, anxiety and a host of other disorders brought on by the pressures of urban life. Yet, cities are also refuges, sites where misfits and outsiders can congregate, places for people of various diasporas to gather, reformulate and forge new identities. The ethnic and cultural diversity of big cities make them generally more interesting places to be. And in some ways, although few like to admit it, these very same tensions can fuel creativity.

One of my favourite producers, Kevin Martin aka The Bug, has spoken about how his music is a conduit for chaos and feelings of anxiety and dread. He describes needing what he calls the ‘friction’ of the inner city to do what he does, and feels that the hyper-gentrification of London is leading to cultural flatness and dullness – a threat to underground music culture in the form of a “pacification in the middle mass”.

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3.

Bristol is full of its own tensions and contradictions, social, racial and economic. Since moving here I’ve worked in a couple of different environments. I hard a short-term contract working in Clifton, the affluent end of the city that someone once described to me as ‘the slave-masters quarter’. I then spent a year working in Barton Hill, one of the more deprived parts of town, down the road from where I live and only a mile or so from the city centre.

I’ve recently started a part-time job in an organisation based in Stokes Croft. I lived close by, in St Paul’s, when I first moved here, and I know the area well. It says a lot about Bristol – creative, independent-minded, anarchic. But it’s also one of the areas where the city’s social tensions are most acute: rapidly gentrifying yet also home to a large homeless community and a large drug economy, where people beg for change outside trendy cafes.

I find myself passing through this two days a week, working for an organisation full of lovely, progressive, politically-conscious people. But despite being literally on the doorstep of one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, the office where I work is overwhelmingly white. I sometimes struggle with the contradictions of such a space and wonder whether, despite all good intentions, it is part of the same dynamic that risks turning the area into the type of nullifying “yuppie paradise” that Kevin Martin describes.

My mind is forever warring with itself: trying to understand the underlying reality around me without giving into a kind of nihilistic dread, an admission that, as Martin puts it “life is just one big kaleidoscopic mess. It’s too fucked up to really understand”.