Aug 21st Shamari Hotel, Kabul, Afghanistan
Left Pakistan yesterday, after spending the morning in Peshawar and finding a nice chauda shawl to compete with J-Ps. Hopped on a crowded bus for Landi Kotal, not knowing quite why I was in such a hurry to leave the country. By lunchtime I was in town eating rather expensive dhal and chapattis at Rs2. But with all these dollars in my pocket I no longer need to care about spending these miniscule sums, do I? Off to Torkham border crossing on the back of a tiny truck that crawled through the passes. An Austrian guy and I walked across the no-mans land between the two countries and made it through into Afghanistan much quicker than the intercontinental coach that passed us as we walked. Of course it also had to negotiate the crossover between driving on the left in Pak and the right in Afghan.
The paperwork was a total confusion and I started to worry about making it as far as Kabul by evening. Changed Rs250 at 1 to 5 Afghanis (later offered 1 to 6 on black market in Kabul) then sat in a minibus waiting to take off. It never did, so I cadged a lift in a Landrover with more Austrians and by 9pm was here.
The menu at the Cable Hogue restaurant freaked me out! Used to dhal and subjee on a budget in Pakistan, I ordered pumpkin stuffed with brown rice and then apple pie with custard. It was not as good as the menu promised. Boy, one could blow a lot of money here in Kabul! Everything you want is available and all the Westerners are busy consuming. (Pretty much all I remember from Kabul on the way out is chocolate cake in the German Bakery with JJ Cale on the turntable, plus my first glimpse of a dead body being carried to the graveyard for burial).
I don’t see much point in staying on here, disillusioned and hyper-critical of my fellow travellers as I am. They’re all either eating or smoking hash (horrible memories of the early morning coughing from a group of German chillum smokers in a guest house in Kandahar on the way here). And the talk is all of where they have been or where they are going. In other words they are as lost as me. But what am I hoping to find by rushing home?
J-P is an exception; I just bumped into him here today as he sat with some hip-looking tourists. But his protestations of how he’s not interested in eating are accompanied by a sour face; he doesn’t look like he’s getting much delight from anything. I invited him up here to my hotel; let’s see if he comes.
I know it’s only my own weakness that keeps me hooked on these consumer/security places. Part of me says ‘head for the hills!’ Yet I remember that the hills are inside me, and in a funny way I’m already in their lonely places, surrounded as I am by things I don’t care about. All that’s left is the strong urge to push home quickly (run away?). The thought of moving at least gives me something to occupy myself with.
‘Moving, moving, moving
Ever moving on
Keeping it together
By keeping moving on’
Liz’s image looms large when I think of being back: a companion, someone to care about. I’m sick of feeding myself and worrying about myself. What a fool! When I was with her I wanted to be alone (‘head for the hills’: the shameful memory of Peshawar on the way here – which would be laughable if it hadn’t been potentially so dangerous – when, stoned out of my head, I left Liz in the hotel room in the middle of the night and started walking north out of the city; to be rescued by a kindly gent who insisted on accompanying me back to the safety of the hotel) and now I’m alone I want her. And do I head back to an image of her, or the girl herself?
My unhinged mind also occupies itself with worrying about whether I should do some business of the way back? I don’t mean hash oil up the arse, but I could invest sixty dollars or so on some sheepskin coats and stuff and make some money for when I get home. A weird part of me resists: I want to come back with nothing and look for a new life! But that would inevitably mean relying on Mother for some time…..I visualize myself arriving back, aimless as usual, and having to go through the usual proddings and promptings to get something together. Why can’t I get something together? How long will I have to spend in this state of ‘don’t know’ that has lasted for years, and in which I wandered Kabul today, needing nothing and having no reason to be here at all.
Monday 24th, New Behzad Hotel, Herat So chai becomes ‘chey’ and loses it’s milk, and sugar is substituted with sugar sweets on the side, but at two Afghanis a pot what a deal it is!
Herat 1967 (generic photo)
Letter from my mother to Post Restaunte, Kabul: Granny died. So glad to hear I got my money.
Spent Friday and Saturday overeating on expensive foods, ice cream and cakes in Kabul, where I forked out 500 Afghanis on an unusual blue sheepskin coat (rather too small for me actually but determined to have it for its colour) and a load of perfume that I promptly managed to lose. Was able to say goodbye to Dana, secretive as ever with her business dealings, but one of the few people I genuinely liked out here. Bye-bye with J-P a complete anti-climax, like we were strangers to each other to the last.
Left on the 5am Sunday morning bus, the hours rolling by until it stopped for the night in the desert some miles from Herat and I slept, wrapped up in my chauda, on the roof under unlimited stars and a waning moon, feeling ‘this is more like it!’
Three more hours this morning and I’m back in this hotel, scene of many discussions between Liz and me on the way out. Herat is a far-out town and I wander again all over it, with some qualms about leaving tomorrow. But staying might mean another pointless day over-consuming and lying lonely in this tiny room so I tell myself I will be back soon and will leave the East for Iran tomorrow……
(Later) Sleep eludes me after i have consumed almost a whole melon so on we go:
The fruit out here is the one thing I’ve found that’s better than Europe. The rest of the food is poor quality and I’m beginning to look a bit thin around the bones. Then there’s vast expanses of mountain desert but no solitude to speak of, with every green spot knee-deep in humans. You’ve got more chance of escaping company on the edge of London on the North Downs than you have taking a walk out of Herat. In fact these vast, sun-scorched regions have little to attract compared with a misty walk through an English woodland. And how do they survive here without the sea bringing femininity and moderation?
Visions of a cozy little room with fire and oaken beams, stereo playing gently, hot cooking smells coming up from below. Except that’s exactly what Liz and I had in Nottingham (Ok, the fire was electric) and look at the dissatisfaction I felt there! Remind me not to look over my shoulder at Pakistan once I’m back, and see it all as golden…..
(Hours of cursing lack of ability to sleep later): I’m a child who gets frustrated and angry when things don’t work out according to his ideas. I have only to drop the idea of sleep, together with my visions of a lovely plate of steaming rice and butter in Iran tomorrow, and I’m sure I’ll get what I need. ‘That’s faith’, J-P would have said. Could I find a grain somewhere?
Yesterday three hours to the border, five to go through (Shah’s border control makes you walk past grisly exhibits of captured drugs and drug smugglers) and then four more on a bus to Meshad, in company with a bunch of Italians, one of who, with a big grin, unwrapped a small chunk of charas he had brought through. Found a room, grabbed yoghurt and cake and crashed out.
Today after a satisfying breakfast of big Iranian naan and white cheese, I’m given a tip that takes me to this campsite with a swimming pool, beside which I lie after an exhausting morning going round and round the city in circles for no obvious reason. Lost my temper completely for no real reason and caught myself walking furiously, blind and cursing. Still, after much of the usual indecisiveness, my train ticket is booked for 6pm. Lovely lunch of rice, kebab and a huge hunk of butter, all for a dollar. Around me lie large, leisured Germans; how lucky I was to hang out with a very different sort of people in Madyan!
The locals are friendly and want to connect, but without the hassling on the streets, and unlike Afghanistan we foreigners appear to get charged the same prices for things as they do! I remember the breakfast diners on the way out, each with a head of a sheep swimming in soup on his plate. Was it some kind of special festival day?
Friday 29th, Turkey/Iran border
Well now I’m well and truly fucked. Piss bright orange, stomach pains and white liquid shit. All began when I ate a chicken meal I didn’t need in the dining car of the train, in company with such a nice young Iranian. Sleeping (cold) in the corridor, I woke with terrible indigestion, plucked up courage and made myself spew, and out it all came. Then in the toilet I understood what my piss colour was telling me: yes, hep.
The desert rolled by endlessly as morning came, until Teheran, where I booked an expensive bus ticket for Erzerum. Spent hours looking for a hotel room, having turned down a perfectly good offer at 80 Rials (just over a dollar) because I thought it was too expensive, only to find that average prices are at least 120 this time around! Hung around at the Abir Kabir, full like everywhere else, and eventually took myself off to sleep in the park. Friendly wandering homosexual accosted me, but was easily shouted off.
Nice to wake up in leafy green, but poor sleep and stomach painful. Hung around in Amir all day, reading John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’. Joined by the lags from the Heart-Meshad bus, we left at 6pm and now I’ve just got over the border, had a snack and a coke and am feeling much worse.
Early Sept, Tropical Diseases Hospital, Istanbul
Here I am on my third day of what they are telling me will be the two weeks I will have to stay before they will let me out.
Shared a room in Erzerum with old Madyan connection French-Canadian Luke, and together we took the 24-hour bus ride here, me surviving on Coke, the only thing I could stomach without throwing up. Mount Ararat on the horizon, the non-stop whirl of movement evoking memories of the journey out, where Liz and I kept accelerating in the hope that we would crash into some peace somewhere.
Complete meltdown on arrival, I spend fruitless hours going from one hospital to another. Left my beloved chauda in a taxi and broke down in tears at its loss. Concerned local put me in another taxi and pointed the driver here, where I arrived hoping that the morning would see me on a flight home via the British Consul. But I’m too infectious for that of course.
Four days later
Seventh day in and it feels like years. Doctor says only three days more (good old Swati hep, not so mean after all!). Every meal the same: thin, thin soup with lentils and some bits of meat floating in it; bland pasta on the side; and dessert of stewed apricots or raisins. Always cold and supplied with lots of white bread. I live for breakfast, a treat with white cheese, olives and HOT CHAI!
Heidi (my mother’s old school chum, who has lived on the Bosphorus this past quarter century, with her distinguished Turkish husband who knew Ataturk personally), brought me toothpaste, soap, stewed apple, apricot jam, the Grapes of Wrath and a trashy novel which I devoured at one sitting yesterday.
One bemused observation: does hot water really come straight out of taps in Europe? I haven’t experienced such a thing in so many months!
Tomorrow it’s gonna end: the crazy guy who keeps us all awake at nights with his screaming; the friendly Turkish doctors without a word of English who give me injections in my bum; the gaggle of yellow patients wandering the corridors (I’ve hardly changed colour at all); the little walks I take in the grounds amidst lemon trees and pines. I’ve finsished all my books and now I know it’s almost on me, I’m doubly restless, impatient and on edge. I spend time worrying about the plane home –is it really worth the ninety quid or so I’ll have to borrow from Mother? And more time anticipating the next meal, which is pretty silly because it’s always disappointingly the same when it does…..
Then suddenly: fuck me. He’s let me out today!
I must have flown (I remember having to pay Heidi back for the fare) and then taken the train to Staplehurst, and hitchhiked to Cranbrook. I recall walking the last couple of miles from Golford crossroads, weary from my hepatitis, but so happy to be back amidst cool, familiar Kentish fields and woods.
All clear from the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in East London. Priority to get back into contact, and hopefully relationship, with Liz, last seen boarding a bus in Madyan, NWFP, Pakistan on her solo return home.
Dreamy image of our hut in Madyan, NWFP.
“Life’s no joke, wondering where to go
All by yourself up the valley
Life’s a glue of what I’m about to do
All by myself up the valley
There’s lots of other types all juggling their hypes
All by themselves up the valley”
En-route to Madyan town, Swat valley, North-West Frontier Province, Early July 1975
From ‘Pindi to Peshawar it is four hours on a comfortable train, with a buffet car in which you can sit alone at a table and watch dry pre-monsoon Pakistan roll by outside the window. On arrival, the horse-drawn tongas take you down from the railway station to the old city, past garish hoardings advertising movies and batteries. They squeeze between the overloaded trucks that block the thoroughfares and belch black gases into your face from beneath their gaudily painted rear ends. The bus station, in the narrow streets behind the bazaar, is thronged with dilapidated vehicles and boys bawling their bus’s destinations and hustling passengers on board to beat the competition.
From here there is a fast minibus service to Mingora, Swat’s capital. It costs a little more than the State buses but it will not stop for man or god. If you take it you are spared the frequent, lurching halts where, after unloading goat and sacks of corn from the roof (where he has been sharing their windy perch) peasant, together with chaudar-clad woman, black from crown to toe (who to exit must fight the length of the jammed interior from the wired-off woman’s section at the back) makes off into an apparently empty wilderness.
Take it! For you will soon have to experience the latter for two wrenching hours on the climb up from Mingora to Madyan, and will have plenty of time then to experience the identikit thoroughfares of the half dozen indistinguishable villages that lie between them. You will see plenty then of the rows of drab shops, selling gritty wheat and shrivelled raisins in baskets, displaying fly-blown meat and cans of Chinese cooking oil and kerosene. Assuming you managed to claim a window seat, you can peer then to your hearts content through the windows that are permanently jammed open, into the dark recesses of identical smoky teashops, with their cauldrons of whitish chai and glass-fronted stands protecting dusty, ancient sweets.
You will soon be tired enough of the deafening rattle of loose window glass, of the hectic, senseless, horn-filled rush between stops. But at least you will be able to thank heaven, and the Pakistani Government, that the fine, paved road has recently been completed all the way to Baharain, the next village after your destination of Madyan, before it grinds into a mountain track. You do not, yet, have to travel further into those regions beyond, where you may be required to help your fellow-passengers in clearing a rock-fall from the road before you can proceed, or glimpse a shattered bus at the foot of a precipice on a particularly unlucky hairpin bend.
So then, because you have sold your blood (fifty rupees a pint) and have therefore for the first time in two months cash in your pocket, you will lean back relatively comfortably as your minibus takes the climb up the Malakand Pass quickly, passing the lumbering giants who left Peshawar an hour before you. The driver will shout raucous encouragement to the small boy who gives the tickets, as he clambers out of the window of the rollicking vehicle to take money from the roof riders. Outside jagged rocks dance in the baked air, all traces of vegetation cooked to dust in the kiln of this climate; while above you crumbling towers on the fired cliff tops guard, empty-eyed, their desolate panoramas.
You will take this chance to enter a dreamy state and consider Alexander and his Macedonians, who passed this way, four thousand fighting miles from the home few of them would ever see again. Or imagine, on the old foot trail winding wearily through the shimmering boulders below the modern road, a camel train laden with goods destined for the Silk Road further north. You can see it in your mind’s eye as they sweat the hours and weeks away while you whistle past in a rush of wind and dust. The bones of the British are not even that fortunate: they lie unmoving under the ruined watchtowers that were once theirs. At the top of the pass there is a fort with a cemetery; a well-preserved monument on a grassy bank records the names of the otherwise-forgotten regiments who defended this outpost in the chaotic days of the North West Frontier, and whose members died like flies from sickness and the bullets of the locals.
Malakand Tribal Agency is next up, indicated by a warning notice not to stop or leave the road at night. The road will pass briefly through this zone where Pakistani Government writ is very thin on the ground, your misdemeanors would be judged by tribal custom, not Civil Court, and it is doubtful whether bearing a British passport would cut much mustard in any disagreement. Until finally your musings are cut short as the road flattens out, greenery appears and breathtakingly, the Swat River is before you. It meanders through emerald fields, lush with ripening wheat, as the distant hills on the far bank perform exquisite changes of silhouette against a brilliant sky. They say it is as beautiful as Kashmir and that Padmasambhava, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet and who was born here, ate his heart out on the barren plateau, pining for his lost homeland.
But this is not Fodor’s guide and my awakening is accompanied by the familiar anxieties that four of these trips between city and village have not assuaged. Neither the Peshawar branch of Grindlays Bank, to which I entrusted my two last half-burnt Fifty US Dollar Thomas Cooke travellers cheques, nor their head office in Rawalpindi, have any news at all about when the damaged cheques might be validated or funds reimbursed. They have been forwarded to London, where they were issued, or to New York because they are denominated in US currency, or might be anywhere in between. They are certainly not present and payable to this skin-and-bone foreigner who shows up every couple of weeks to be sent away disappointed and who is in consequence utterly penniless in a country of mostly penniless people.
Familiar stomach cramps appear as I transfer to the local bus heading up the valley to Madyan. Normally I’d ride the roof here, and look blank and smile when the ticket collector clambers up with his hand out. This time I’m inside with a ticket and half the passengers craning their heads to fix me with long uncomprehending stares. And this is what is starting to strike me as odd about the whole Hippy Trail circus of which I am part: there is no connection between us and the locals except trade. I am an alien dropped into this land; an alien who rent rooms from them, buys their hash, hangs out in their chai shops and will disappear again once an Indian visa is granted, foreign exchange transfer comes through, or dreams of a better destination ahead turn imperative.
Disembarkation at the fag-end of Madyan’s bazaar, a rubbish-strewn yard surrounded by mechanics hammering away behind piles of old tires. A quick shame-filled glance over my shoulder at the patch of green that indicates the town cemetery where, shortly after I first arrived and ignorant that the trees shaded anything of significance, I began to take an urgent piss; to be interrupted by angry shouts and stones whizzing past my cheeks. A rude awakening to the fact that about this very traditional and conservative Muslim society, remote from modern influence until quite recently, I know absolutely nothing.
I walk north up through the bazaar parallel to the Swat river booming unseen below on my left, temporarily forgetting about the pocket full of blood money and thus on automatic to check the chai shops for friends or acquaintances who might buy me a meal. At the junction where the tandoori baker fishes flat breads out of his beehive-shaped oven, I leave the main drag to turn right, parallel now to the Chail stream coming in from the east. “Home” beckons as I cross through the apricot orchard and down onto the stream’s floodplain and make the short hop over the narrow log that spans one of its many braids.
I am one of five living here in a half-roofed cowshed amidst boulders and scrub willows: J-P, mid-thirties Frenchman, my mentor and disciple; French Sacuntala, who stretches her long limbs out every morning for extended yoga practice and whose cool self-assuredness is both a barrier and a come-on to me; Pedro, grizzled, avuncular Uruguayan, always smiling and filling a chillum; and Francisco, Spanish bhakti, clad in immaculate white, chanting by the stream. Together with Danish sisters Dana and Nonnie who sleep elsewhere but pass by often to join in the cooking and to mother me a bit, this makes up a little tribe. They’re all older than me, much more travelled, and all into food this lot: porridge every morning, chais and chapattis and subjees on the boil all day. So I eat and eat, am still hungry and in the morning it all comes pouring out……
“My vows were to sensations
Novelty, food, despair
Drugs, frantic company: deceptions
To keep me clothed when I was bare.”
Time to backtrack and see how all this came about. I pad out my memories with extracts from the sparse and half-garbled jottings of narrative, fantasy and doodles that form my diaries from the time.
Penniless in Pakistan is the sequel to part 1 of my diary which takes me from London to the Turkey/Iran border, in company of my Scottish girlfriend Liz; a two-month journey by hitchhike, bus and train along the famous ‘hippy trail’. The diary stops on our headlong rush through Iran, and through a few increasingly hash-filled days in Afghanistan. A desperate hope that there must be something more fulfilling than our experience of the hassle-choked path beaten by so many travellers during the ten years previously, keeps us moving on into Pakistan and up into what is rumoured to be the idyllic valley of Swat.
As to how it was possible to live without money for so long, the following prices give a picture of just how cheap it was in the East in those days. At 25 Pakistani Rupees to the pound sterling, one rupee would buy you a quarter kilo of lamb, a kilo of tomatoes or a packet of twenty cigarettes. Seventy-five paisa bought a big pot of yoghurt in Nowshera, while ninety paid for yellow split pea dhal and two fresh tandoori naan in a Madyan restaurant. Basic rooms were renting at US$4, or two pounds, per month.
15th May, Madyan
Liz and I arrived in here a couple of days ago, worn out from the road, stressed out from the unrelenting pawing of sex-starved local males, disorientated from the breakdown in our relationship that two months of constant movement through Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan has provoked. It was supposed to be the mountain haven that would give us respite and recuperation time. Instead it was just more of the same. She left today in utter disillusionment. Despite the fact that she’s still two months short of eighteen, I let her; accompanying her down to Mingora on the local bus, helping her find her seat on the express bus for Peshawar, crying with her, but letting her start alone on the five thousand miles back to Scotland.
I just am not ready to abandon what we started yet, so I come back, hollow-hearted, and wander aimlessly through the banana groves beside the Chail, wondering where I will sleep tonight. I can’t face a hotel room, the company of other foreigners or the loneliness of a single bed. A jaunty and bearded figure appears suddenly coming towards me on the path is and for no obvious reason we stop to talk. Next thing I know I’m invited to stay at his place by the river.
“Daybreak, the clear sky
Thrills with birdsong
Cockcrow into morningtide”
J-P likes to sermonize me as we sit beside our outdoor fire and wait for the food to cook, or watch the impressive rush of the Chail stream that runs just behind our hut. It’s an earnest mix of Christianity and Eastern philosophy that goes right past me however much I try to follow. Our friendship is based on our unspoken agreement that in inviting me to live here he has rescued me, and that he therefore has the right to rescue me from ignorance too. Fair enough, I suppose. I guess for me he’s a father figure and I’m certainly aware that without his intervention I would never have found myself living in such a spot and with such an interesting crowd. Pedro hasn’t enough English to do more than smile indulgently on all this and pass the chillum.
We sleep, wrapped up in blankets, outside by the fire. Placed as we are on a kind of island, surrounded by the rush from the main course and the trickle from the log-bridged braid stream, and with the great boom of the Swat River in the distance, we are immersed in water sounds. I hear great symphonies as I lie stoned under the stars at night, and amongst them this song:
“Don’t be alarmed, your life is charmed.
Don’t be afraid, what wasn’t born can’t be destroyed”
Insecure, confused and lonely as I am, it is a comfort to me.
Sacuntala and I pass a day up in the pine forests, high above the town. She is a window into a different kind of traveller than the ones I have met so far on the road. She seems somehow more worldly than them, which is paradoxical, because she’s the one with a guru! She rarely smokes charas, for a start, and although a big eater, hardly ever talks about food. I ask her about the name she’s been given in India, and that uncovers another layer of paradox. It’s original in the Mahabharata is an ideal, long-suffering wife, devoted to her Lord and master and destined for rescue by Him at his leisure. But the Sacuntala who tells me this with a mischievous smile doesn’t act in the least overawed by the four men she’s living with here!
The town is full of other ‘freaks’ scattered in rented rooms and old farm buildings like ours. Amongst them is Palestinian Ahmed, rumoured to be on the run after dropping out from the PLO, whose shouts of “Arabi falafel!’ ring out from his upstairs window whenever he has fried up a batch for sale; and Dragan, a massive Yugoslavian, who breasted the chest-high Chail stream behind our hut for a bet, a feat that everyone had figured was impossible; and a wild-haired Italian with no name who, bearing only a staff and a tiny shoulder bag, can be seen striding into the bazaar from the forests into which he disappears for days on end. A mysterious American, who everyone assumes is either ex- or even current CIA, runs a big ranch with horses on the other side of the Swat and holds parties for exclusive guests.
The Government Hash Shop sits on the main street, displaying tired-looking wares of varying colours. None of us would dream of shopping there at Rs 2 -7 per tola (eight to twenty-eight UK pence per 12 grams). That’s for regular travellers (one of whom I would be but for burnt cheques and J-P), who take rooms in the town’s hotels and soon move on. Mysterious goings-on around our hut, and suspicious-sounding flights to Europe, ensure that we have a ready supply of far better quality.
I walk the hillside paths above the Chail, back into the rural hinterland beyond any roads or tourist presence. They track stone-sided leats and flumes carrying water from upstream and distributing it to tiny plots of wheat and barley. The farms are high-walled and shaded by giant walnut trees. Curious children peek out from branches or wall to watch me pass. None of them have a single word of English and all are too shy to interact with me.
25th May FULL MOON
Party at the house of Kenji, Japanese ocarina player and Goa habitué, with his stories of full moon beach parties, hard drugs and black magic. There’s a huge chocolate cake and I gorge. Weird sensations start to come over me while walking back through the darkness of the town with J-P and I realize that the thing had been absolutely loaded with hash. We come to the log bridge in front of our hut; I skip over as usual but turning am surprised to see J-P on his hands and knees on the far side. I go back over to find him gibbering with fear at the sight of the couple of meters width of water that he has crossed without difficulty a hundred times before. I pull him to his feet and help him across, where he collapses again at my feet. ‘You saved me,” he moans, fixing me with enormous eyes. “You are Jesus, the Saviour, the Messiah…..”. We prop ourselves, unspeaking, against the wall of our hut for hours, the full moon rising above the mountain tops blazing down on us like a laser. I hold him like a mother holding a baby, soothing him as he recovers from whatever epiphany he has just been through, while slowly trying to piece together the pieces of my own reason, fearing that it might be shattered forever.
“Rolling and joking one day with some Frenchies
Up on the top of the Nigar Hotel
Talking of wonderful places to go
Chitral and Kasar Devi, Nepal and Ceylon
Wherever you aren’t, it’s a pure paragon!”
I seat myself under a tree beside the Chail stream and tell myself that I will not move from this spot. All will be admissible here; so that every sensation, every thought, merely occurs until the experiencer becomes the experienced. I don’t even remember how I came upon such an idea; is it a half-digested nugget from ‘Be Here Now’ or some other spiritual guidebook that I have thumbed through back in England?
So here I am writing soon afterwards and what did this earnest would-be Buddha experience? Chaga! Bowel trouble mainly. It didn’t take me long before I was forced from the spot after all.
So down to Rawalpindi it is, lugging my partly-burned travellers cheques from bank to bank, remembering that surreal moment in Herat when I turned over in half sleep towards the bedside table where I had casually tossed the contents of my pouch; to find a lighted candle had tipped over and was slowly beginning its destruction. At the British High Commission in Islamabad some nameless servant of the State was languishing away behind his desk. “Consular Office” the local employee who ushered me in to the crowded room whispered in an awed voice into my ear. The Consul was telling an ex-Hong Kong policeman who had been wounded in service in 1941 that his X-rays were out of date and he would have to be re-examined. His wife rang while he was talking and he lowered his tones and mentioned needing the car on Saturday. Then there were applications for someone-or-others cousin to be allowed to visit UK. It came to me and passed me and I was walking back through the plate glass and aluminium, out of the air-conditioning and into the blast of midday sun. I was suddenly very clear that I didn’t want to be flown out of the East just yet and was glad to find a rickshaw to return me to reality.
So I have no money, apart from twenty-five rupees that an American lawyer pressed into my hand last night after hearing my story. I’d bumped into him in the foyer of the Intercontinental and he’d treated me to a drink at the hotel bar. Feeling pretty pissed, I made it as far as some shrubbery in the forecourt garden and unrolled my sleeping bag for the night right there.
Yesterday and today I ate nothing solid, which did wonders for my belly. So this evening I treated myself to a posh nosh of chicken curry and haven’t felt stronger in ages.
J-Ps and my relationship is starting to feel complicated, wobbling between warmth and cool distance; I’m disillusioned with his preaching about love and God, perhaps because of my growing suspicion that in trying to convince me of the error of my unspiritual attitudes, he’s actually lecturing himself. He’s uniformly kind and friendly with others and welcomes all comers to the cooking fire at our place, but with me his eyes occasionally fire up with what looks like quickly-supressed anger. He and Francisco share long conversations in French which seem to be far more easy-going than most of ours.
20th June, Madyan
Just back from four days walking to Kalam (2070m) and the Ushu valley. Fourteen-odd miles a day, and all on a couple of chapattis and some ladies fingers, not forgetting several chais. The locals, rough and tough in reflection of the physique of the lands they live in, found me as a tourist without money, most unbelievable. But they freely gave me enough to keep me going.
Pushing along those rock-hewn roads, the murky river boiling and thrashing beside me, tall, desiccated hills rising all around, snowy peaks tipping into view above – so often I just wasn’t there (just as I’m not here now?). Mind projecting ahead to food or chai in the next village; or mentally fumbling with figures of the number of miles to go, or gone; worrying about where to put my sleeping bag down for the night. When I was alone, as approaching Madidan in remote Ushu – I was lonely; when in company, as in the Khalid Hotel in Kalam, with its floor-full of Anglo-Saxons smoking and ordering omelette and chips – I was irritated.
But my body got what it needed: the exercise stretching calf muscles; the regular breathing of clean air as I puff up yet another steep incline; above all perhaps an empty stomach, which meant I could get up fresh every morning and walk seven or eight miles even before the first cup of chai. It wasn’t difficult to obey my body’s needs rather than my mind’s desires on those mornings. But the gloomy forests of the Ushu valley, the approaching snow-clad mountains and the increasing sharp cold of the mornings forced my retreat, so I headed back down, taking the bus thirteen of those long miles. Back to find on a Government Tourist map “ Don’t travel at night…especially between Bahrain and Kalam…” Back to dhal, falafel and chapatti, apricot compote and yoghurt, tons of glucose supplement….Yes, you guessed it – I was back on the shits again this morning!
So why do I come back? I have to reconsider my over-hasty judgements of those fellows in the Khalid, because the answer is: to people! J-P and Sacuntala are so genuinely pleased to see me again and I feel ashamed to realize that while I have been focused on others to satisfy my egocentric need for security (not to mention food!) their unearned appreciation and friendship has been given generously to me. With a rush of emotion I see how this then is what it means to grow spiritually: to be open minded like a child in every situation and accept that whatever I thought I knew before, no longer automatically holds for now. That I am not very successful in clearing away the mental trash of what was and what will be from the Now, is the point at which the search for true religion begins.
I am invited for dinner at the home of a local teacher who I met in the bazaar. His questions about what I am doing here meet with my garbled answers (as if I knew!) so in puzzlement he soon turns to proudly educating me a bit about where we are.
His sketched geography sets my head whirling. It is possible to jeep and trek further on from Kalam (where I took the Ushu river fork) along the Utrot river. After a long curve south to avoid the glaciers of Kohistan, part of the Hindu Kush range, and then north again, I would join a road that eventually ends up in Chitral. There I could visit the Kalash, a small tribe of polytheistic people of Dardic stock in their remote valleys on the Afghan border. Then I could head east and hit the Karakorum Highway in Gilgit. This is nearing completion, he assures me, and would soon allow me to cross by a 4,693-meter pass into Chinese Tibet. Up in those regions they speak a curious language isolate called Burushaski, unrelated to any other language on Earth. Just one of more than sixty languages of Pakistan, he tells me proudly. His wife, relatively modern and educated, is the first local woman I have even seen outside a burka, let alone talked to since I arrived in Madyan. She won’t sit to eat with us, but joins us after serving ours and clearing away. Turns out they both went to college in Punjab in the plains, which is what makes them different.
Letter from Mother, with the news that my travellers cheques have been forwarded on from London to New York for validation. She encloses five pounds in cash, which miraculously survives the journey. Liz has written to her from Istanbul, she relates, having hitched there from Teheran together with an Aussie girl.
Early July Rawalpini
‘Pindi’s heat glares down. I bum a fag, having given all mine to the three lorrymen who dropped me here. Dana gave them to me, expensive Western ones from the duty-free on her flight from Copenhagen. She’s spending hundreds of dollars back and forth to Europe and here’s me trying to change ten Yugoslav Dinars into some nice viable rupees to live on. I’d felt sick from smoking too many of them anyway.
July 12th Madyan
Pedro, Francisco and Sacuntala leave for Kabul. A depressing emptiness is left in their place, with J-P and I now here alone. There is this constant nagging sense that he wants something more from me that is never articulated. It occasionally crosses my mind that he might dream of moving our relationship onto a physical level but he never gives any hint of that. Simply a more enthusiastic endorsement of his spiritual guidance perhaps? Or more motherly soothing a la post-epiphany under the full moon? Could it really be that he hopes for a further revelation of my messiah-hood? So much remains unsaid between us. Wrapped up in our sleeping bags outside the hut last evening, we get caught in a terrible storm and struggle, soaked through, along the river track to Dana and Nonnie’s house for rescue. With them he is as usual in his mature and confident exterior pose, but I get glimpses through it to the troubled soul within.
Or are they just glimpses into my own? I’m feeling utterly dissatisfied with everything. I’m unable to find the will, the energy or the light to break out of my food trip, which takes the form of constant mental preoccupation with what I’ve eaten, or am about to eat, or long to eat. I’ve made two trips to Peshawar within a few days, trying and failing to say goodbye to Madyan, being pulled back to this place of comfort but not joy. So, prepared to consider all possibilities (even the recurrent ‘back to Europe?’) I find myself directionless here once again.
Jul 23rd on train Peshawar to Rawalpindi
Hoping yet again for good news re money in ‘Pindi.
Yesterday some locals stop in a car as I walk towards the hospital to sell blood. ‘Come to Kohat and join the circus!” they shout. We speed a couple of hours over the hills via a peek at the gun shops of Dara Adamkhel. I spend the night in a gypsy encampment on a shrivelled grass maidan in the town. But despite being the celebrated foreigner and fed juicy tidbits etc, I feel insecure and the next morning I ride the roof of the bus back to the familiarity of Peshawar.
The idea of heading back to Madyan is no longer very attractive. I wonder what J-P is up to back there with the newly-shaven face and kurta-pyjamas he suddenly presented himself in the day I left? My 3 months visa-free in Pak is running out soon and the only thing pulling me ‘onwards to India’ is the idea of better food. Not much of a reason to go, is it?
In Jan’s in Peshawar eating baked fish in a/c. Seen scrawled on a hotel room wall: “If the truth were known, it would not be me that knew it”.
New Moon August 10th, Madyan
The khana house beside the Rainbow hotel, scene of so many chais, parathas and yoghurts. I’m preparing once again to leave this little town, this time finally. Of the many people I have met and been fed by here in their hidden-away places dotted throughout the landscape, apart from Dana and Nonnie, who are anyway out of the country right now, I feel to say goodbye to none. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, I just don’t have any cheer to share.
I sit with J-P on the roof of our hut and he asks me to return to Europe with him. Does he want me to be his disciple, does he want to be mine? Does he need my presence for his sanity since his revelation that full moon night? But I have locked that whole experience away in a place marked ‘unexplainable’ (together with an uncanny feeling that that searing white moonlight burned away some nameless and age-old dross in me) and I can’t ask any of this. I just say ‘no’ to him and he turns away from me in despondency.
The wise man perhaps leaves only a very small hole when he sinks through the pavement and out of sight. Poor mad me: I leave a gaping hole and much pain for those who love me….
Following some chaotic scene about contested hotel rooms, and J-P fighting with the police, I find myself walking towards a line of hills with him as darkness falls. I know we have been here before. The scenery is odd, a pattern as if seen from directly above. Other shadowy figures are on the road too. Up in the sky to the left we notice a formation of birds – birds that are like golden points of light. A feeling grows on me like an awesome portent that they are in fact UFOs. They move rapidly overhead and dissolve into a huge silver disc filling half the sky. Around me there are gasps and cries of wonder and fear. The disc grows smaller and becomes a painted face. I grip J-Ps arm in horror as it begins to morph from one contorted cartoon feature into another, all showing pain and grief. I understand that that the face is a caricature of my own.
Later that same night I hear voices in another dream. They tell me I have something wrong with my testes and will never be able to have children. It seems very real.
The only other drawing I created on the whole trip. A doodle done in a hotel room in Peshawar.
My next diary entry is August 21st from Kabul, Afghanistan, recording that I had left Pakistan the day before. I have no memory of my last ten days in the country, except that I bought a chawdar (shawl) that held a lot of meaning for me as a souvenir.
1972. At home in Kent. Childhood feels like it’s just ended. I’m off to University (for a bit, I lasted just two semesters).
From Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ Riding on the back of a jungle elephant. Wow!
How did it all begin, this abiding connection of mine with India that by now has lasted for almost half a century? My earliest hint of it was an old yellow hardcover book ‘A Guide to Fourteen Asiatic Languages’ inexplicably discovered on my parents dusty bookshelves. Out of this, at the age of seven or so, I equally inexplicably chose (perhaps inspired by Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ ) to pick Hindustani. ‘Tum ho magr, tum ho hathi ‘ (you are a crocodile, you are an elephant) I ungrammatically cooked up from its word lists.
Contributing perhaps was a little postcard of M. Louise Haskins poem ‘God Knows’, given to me at the age of ten by my Christian aunt. I treasured it for for years because of two lines which always gave me the chills:
“And he led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east”
Springs of Indian Wisdom
As I entered my teens there were the Beatles of course, but George Harrison sitar playing meant little to me, and I was too young to follow the events with the Maharishi. It was the early seventies, when I was given a tiny book (‘Springs of Indian Wisdom’) by a sophisticated London Jewish girlfriend, before a second glimpse of India’s future impact touched me consciously. In amongst quotes from the Gita and Upanishads to which I couldn’t really relate was a poem by Rabindranath Tagore:
“…..Tired I slept on my empty bed
In the illusion that the work had an end
In the morning I awoke to find
That my garden was full of flowers’
It resonated with a wisdom that was much more approachable to me than gods and goddesss or high-flown philosophy.
Be Here Now
Beyond these fragments I can recall no trace of India in the upbringing of an English country boy in the sheltered and exclusively white little town of Cranbrook, Kent. I identified myself as a hippy (or freak as we preferred to call ourselves) from my mid-teens but not as any kind of spiritual ‘seeker’, it was much more about drugs and rock ‘n roll . Until 1974, two years after leaving home and moving to London, when I caught up with two friends who were squatting a little rectory next to a church in Camden Town. There I first came across Ram Dass’s book ‘Be Here Now’ and flicked through his life and lessons with Neem Karoli Baba. They were going overland to India, they suddenly announced. I couldn’t really comprehend why but they certainly planted a seed. It feels to me now as if I joined the hippy trail myself the following year not because of any particular desire to experience India but simply because it was the done thing in my freak circles. [see 1975 Hippy Trail Parts 1 & 2]
On the Hippy Trail in 1975 (generic photo)
Nor did India yet exert any irresistible pull on me once I had returned from that overland trip that saw me get as far as Pakistan and turn back, sick with hepatitis, before the Indian border. In the mid-seventies curiosity took me to listen to Ravi Shankar at the Royal Albert Hall but his music bypassed me completely. Nevertheless some sense of spiritual search must have germinated because my girlfriend Liz and I began doing the rounds of various gurus in London. Sri Chinmoy played the flute (badly it seemed to me) at a free event; we went a few times to the Premies in their ‘Palace of Peace’, an abandoned cinema in South London, where incomprehensibly poor audio quality discourses from their boy guru Maharaji played to a sweet, family-orientated group lounging on the carpet. And we did Rajneesh Dynamic Meditation in a basement at Bell Street, where I was shocked at the hellish screams that surrounded me during the catharsis stage, and impressed by the utter totality of the way the leader demonstrated the stages beforehand. But I left telling myself: ‘Well, that’s not what I call meditation’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’
Back in 1972 during my short sojourn at Nottingham University, I had somehow found myself being escorted to the women’s Halls of Residence (a remote planet to us in the male Halls) and to the dressing table of an Indian student (one of the only non-whites in the whole campus at that time, I guess). The femininity and gracefulness of the scene and her heartfelt welcome to me had left an impression. She was the precursor of the women who kicked my longing for India into gear later in the decade. The first of these was a youthful Shabhana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’, which I saw in the University theatre while at Canterbury College of Art in 1978, who dazzled me with her beauty and the pathos of her story. The second was Waheeda Rehman in ‘The Guide’, broadcast on British TV in March 1983, after which in a flood of tears, I lost myself in imaginings of past lives in which I’d lost my daughter, my sister, my tribe in tragic and noble circumstances.
Waheeda Rehman in ‘The Guide’
By then I’d actually been in India for three short weeks and had been inspired to learn the classical stringed instrument sarod [see 1979 India] At the time I put down the sense of utter familiarity I felt on first arrival (emerging from the Delhi airport terminal into the melee of hustlers, touts and taxi drivers and simply placing my back to a wall, rolling a cigarette and watching the chaotic goings on with an urbane smile) to having spent those three months in Pakistan. Now I’m not so sure. There was an instant bond with the drivers who came over to ask me my destination and with whom I shared a bidi. I could sense their appreciation of my lack of hurry, of respect for my reluctance to admit to any destination at all until the crowd had cleared and the situation relaxed. The sense of a karmic connection with India I have felt ever since has been triggered over and over again by a simple liking for Indian people and an ease of communication, despite language limitations, with them.
Dagdha. 1979. My drawing.
By then too I was married to Dagdha, a Canadian sannyasin and was taking part with her in Rajneesh meditations and therapy groups, while much of our friends circle was sannyasin-based. I loved the lifestyle, the warmth of the people but just wasn’t getting why we needed the old man with the beard.
In Edmonton, Canada in ’81 I started Hindi lessons at an evening class at the University. At the back of my mind must have been Amjad Ali Khans performance on that first visit to India, which had inspired my sudden conviction that sarod was the instrument for me . Learning the devangiri script came to me easily even if the language didn’t; I dropped out quickly but retained a few phrases, somehow sure of their future use. Despite my marriage I felt no urgent pull to visit Rajneesh and his Poona ashram, so when our plans to do so as part of our return from Canada to England fell through (he’d suddenly left India and no-one was sure where he was) we elected to bypass India and go via Sri Lanka instead. (see 1980-81 Canada and 1981-2 Thailand Sri Lanka)
So to London and that emotional outpouring in response to ‘The Guide’. I began to write and then wrote and wrote for a year or more: a sexually charged story of a Western couple’s entanglement with an Indian one in India. There was the beautiful Indian woman who needed rescue; her husband, the enigmatic Indian ‘wise’ man; the impulsive and confused white guy and his equally confused but rather more empathetic partner, set against a backdrop of scenes recalled from my three visits to the subcontinent and coloured with allusions (researched in the local library) to the idealized India of the poets and dreamers like Tagore. Gradually it was the figure of the caring Western woman and her relationship with the tragic Indian one that began to dominate, until by the end my surrogate self had receded (like my own father who had abandoned us when I was seven!) into not much more than a sperm donor. At the conclusion there was a baby girl, who bloomed (Bloom being the name that came to me in one of my many dreams that featured these five figures) like the flowers in Tagore’s poem, into a potential world-savior. (‘A Guide for the Twenty-First Century’ was my working title). Today I can see her as a symbol of the birth of a far less superficial connection with India that has been part of my life ever since.
My sannyas certificate from Rajneeshpuram. I was initially disappointed on receiving it in the mail. My name wasn’t unique! There was already a well-known Swami Prem Chinmaya living at Medina Rajneesh, our English commune.
Sannyas initiation at Medina Rajneesh. Jan ’83. I’m wearing a non-regulation striped tee-shirt, albeit dyed orange. Was I a rebel or just still a bit non-committed?
For by the end of 1982 I was ready to take Rajneesh’s neo-sannyas. A mind-blowing week at our local Commune, participating in the ‘Satori’ group (a process using the technique of asking ‘Who am I?’) culminated in me standing before Rajneesh’s picture and suddenly, as if a flower bloomed in my heart, getting just why we were centered around the old man with the beard.
With Gurdev Singh, his family and Harbhajan Singh in Delhi.
Southall in 1983
Then, early in 1984, I began to spend much of my spare time with real (as opposed to imagined or screened) Indian people as a teacher arrived in London and my long-delayed study of the sarod began. My guru, Gurdev Singh, was by chance the leading disciple of Amjad Ali Khan whose playing had so inspired me on that short India visit four years previously. He and his circle of musicians, fans and hangers-on lived in Southall, London’s ‘Little Punjab’. Despite being surrounded most of the time by incomprehensible Punjabi and being required as part of my discipleship to drive Gurdev and his friends around the city on their varied missions, I took to it all like duck to water. Early on I remember practicing in the back room, when Harbhajan Singh, an avuncular musician friend of Gurdev’s, put his head around the door and remarked that he was surprised to find me a Westerner because from the sound of my playing he had assumed it must be one of the Indian students. Here too I met real Indian women (unmarried ones carefully chaperoned) for the first time and my fantasies began to interact with reality.
All this contributed inevitably to the breakdown of my relationship with Dagdha. In 1985 we separated and I moved west to Southall, where, sharing a flat with an Indian sannyasin in the early spring, I met and fell in love with Mona, a married woman on a visit from Calcutta. Fantasy and reality finally collided. From that moment on India was never really off my mind or travel list. Bhagwan, sarod, romance – three loves that kept me going back again and again.
(‘1985 Calcutta’ follows)
I never expected to see myself as a film director; I never really planned to make a film. But then in the three and a half years after the Concert For India’s Environment at BVIEER in January 2004, a kind of organic growth took over and this simple musician found himself a film cameraman, interviewer, score composer, editor and graphics and web designer too!
Resting up in Goa after the gig, Naveena and I met up with Zeenat (Julienne Stretton) a well-known New Zealand TV documentary producer, who we had met previously at our home in New Zealand. She looked through our concert footage and sensed the possibility of a direction. Without her input at that stage, this film would probably be no more than an hour of concert footage mouldering on the shelves of each of the band members!
Redi Fort, Maharashtra
Filming in Redi Fort with Naveena
At her prompting, Svargo (one of the cameramen at the concert) and I headed off into nature to film. We began at Redi Fort, a moody ruin inhabited by monkeys, just over the Maharashtra border from north Goa. Back in Pune, while Zeenat interviewed Erach Bharucha about the situation of the environment in India, Svargo, Avesh (our other concert cameraman) and I took ourselves off into the Western Ghats. These dramatic hills are still patchily covered with dense forest (including devrais – sacred groves – protected and undisturbed treasurehouses of otherwise extinct vegetation) and provide the setting for some of BVIEER’s school outreach programmes.
Erach Bharucha in sacred grove, Maharashtra
The schoolchildren reading their poems about nature had been a vital part of the concert and Zeenat insisted that interviews with them would broaden the film’s message. We also added an interview with BVIEERs deputy director, Dr Shamita Patel, to make sure we had the woman’s perspective. I then realized that we’d better explain who we – the band – were and why we were doing all this, so I interviewed those of us still in Pune at the time.
Amrita Mulla schoolchild poet
Ravindra Verma schoolchild peot
In between all this, Svargo had been sitting me down and showing me Final Cut Pro. It’s a steep learning curve to begin editing film on such software, and without him I’d have been hopelessly lost. He, Zeenat and I produced the first part (‘A Sense of Wonder’) together and from then on I was mostly on my own.
In the following three years, I discovered a new love. Filming the nature and peoples of India. Every spare moment – and buck! – I had saw me back in India, out in the wilderness, patiently waiting to capture on video the elusive beings who live there. It took me to extraordinary corners of the vast Indian subcontinent, and introduced me to some the most hearty and charming people I know. I’ll never forget the three days I spent alone in the dry, windy waste of Rehakuri Blackbuck Sanctuary in Maharashtra, waiting for those splendid creatures to come within range of my cheap zoom lens. Or the steep forest looking out on distant Nanda Devi in the Himalayan foothills of Uttaranchal, where with my feet slipping out from underneath me, I struggled to set up the tripod and film the local women high in the treetops, cutting fodder for their cows. I was lucky too to get some stunning dawn shots of birds on the Mula-Mutha river in Pune, a feat that would today, just ten years later, be impossible because of the vastly increased levels of pollution and the almost total disappearance of the river’s once abundant birdlife. A highlight was being among the tribal people of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Kerala, whose children quickly found me funny enough to overcome their shyness and give me some of the biggest beaming smiles I’ve ever encountered.
Blackbucks sparring, Rehakuri, Maharashastra
Woman cutting fodder, Kumaon hills, Uttarakhand
Mulla-Muthu river, Pune
Tribal girl, Perambikulam, Kerala
Every spare moment I say – but of course this film would not look as it does if that was true. On top of researching all the facts and information with which the film is loaded, downloading, logging and then editing all that footage had me up at all hours. And here I must again thank Svargo, who came over to our base in New Zealand from Australia on several occasions to help me through difficult patches with his Final Cut Pro expertise and sensitivity to editing; and Naveena, who continued her role as Artistic Director of the concert into the film and whose eye for beauty and detail is uncanny!
Another vital step in the overall shape of this film was the release on New Earth Records in 2005 of the live CD from the concert, ‘Fragrance of the East’. This was the opportunity I needed to remix the audio up to CD quality, and gave the film its first public exposure, in the form of three short Quicktime clips that I squeezed onto the CD. By late 2006 it dawned on me that I was only one more film shoot in India away from finishing, and immediately a sense of urgency took over. It was as if the film had a life of its own and was struggling to emerge from its long gestation and see the light of day! So I put ‘A Sense of Wonder’ up on YouTube and left. How exciting, three months later, to come back and find that thousands of people had watched it, and many had commented on it and rated it five stars!
Overdubbing for the CD
That trip to India didn’t quite do it: as filmmakers know, you can never have too much footage! Discerning viewers will notice half a dozen shots with a very un-Indian light interspersed throughout the film. I found these in New Zealand. In April 2007, with the editing finished, I gave the film a dedicated website where anyone who wanted to could download it for free (this was before it became easy to download direct from YouTube). And started offering it to film festivals. I made only one condition: it should not be used for commercial purposes – it had to be free. It was played at various festivals in India, Italy and Russia, and then the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona on 8th October 2008.
A word about equipment: I used a second-hand Sony DCR-TRV20 for all my shooting. With a single chip, it was even in those days barely prosumer quality and compared to today’s technology, a real dinosaur. I mention it because I often hear from filmmakers and composers the mantra that industry wants us all repeating as consumers: ‘I can’t manage without the latest equipment’. I hope my film is proof that we can find ways to get things done without spending lots of money! A word too about how ‘the latest’ can trip us up: I lost all the original footage in a hard disk crash (which explains the low resolution of these stills taken from the film). I had bought into Apple’s decision that Firewire was the wonderful future and then watched both my external Firewire drives crap out on me in the damp of monsoon Goa. Thus I now have only the low-res edits I uploaded to YouTube. (And we’ve not seen any more of Firewire the past few years, have we?)
THANK YOU again to all of you who gave yourselves to this project for no financial reward, just the sheer joy of being part of it. I have tried my best to honour you in the credits at the end of the film. If I missed you by name, forgive me; it is only because there have been so many of you!
And lastly, a word about sharing: I learned from my master Osho, that the spiritual law of sharing is very different from the economic one. In economics the more you give away the less you have. But with love and energy, the more you share, the more you get!
Hancocks Farm in 1961
“Long easy minutes, surrounded by my creatures
Nestled in the warm oak
Surrounded by the night air
Endless air, fresh lying on endless fields
Nature’s excess, bounded by man’s needs
Ancient pattern of stone on soil
Stream on slope, damp on leaf
Set the scene of the Weald.
The past dripping from the eaves
Chiildhood cuckooing from the window views
White windmill seen from the roof ridge
Landscapes melt to memoryscapes
And merge with an older stream:
Church ghosts; generations of farmhands;
Farmers daughters – unfreed princesses
Loom beneath the rafters
Laughter round fires long since under turf
Gentle frame structure farmhouse watches all.”
(written in 1974)
Hancocks, a four hundred-plus year old timbered farmhouse situated on a hill overlooking a gentle valley coursing through the Weald of Kent, was my home from the age of seven to eighteen. The ancient house and its environs were the setting for a magical childhood. My first memory of it is while my parents were negotiating purchase late in 1960 (they ended up paying 3000 pounds). My younger sister and I found ourselves in the mud at the edges of the garden pond, where we excitedly unearthed a pile of discarded tin helmets. This set the scene for the sense of mystery and of the possibilities for endless discovery that the house would offer me over the next eleven years.
Front view circa 1970
It was the latest in my father’s ‘do-up’ projects and before he left us the following year he contributed some structural brick supports in the cellar, a second bathroom under the long slope of the rear roof and a half-finished bathroom downstairs. Although I don’t remember it myself, my mother told me that there was also a well in the back garden, which they covered over. Otherwise the house must have been basically unchanged for centuries.
My mother sold (for just less than thirty thousand) in 1976 and we moved all our family’s accumulated stuff during the hottest summer on record. I’d already left home three years before but it was still a wrenching loss for me to say the final goodbye. In the half century since I have passed by a few times and changes in farming practice plus the gentrification of this area of Kent (just an hour by train from London) have made it almost unrecognizable,
This makes the aerial photo above a record of a bygone era. It was taken just before we moved in and commissioned by my father, who must have known someone with a plane. In it the house looks shabby and neglected; we owned the house and garden alone, with the barns, sheds and oast of the farmyard beside it being part of a working farm up the road, Behind it an orchard of mature apple trees of numerous varieties sloped up to a view over woods and cornfields towards Benenden School (famous as the school of `Princess Anne) four miles distant. In front, past the magnificent hay barn that must have been almost as old as the house, the view stretched to the roofs of the little town of Cranbrook, with its distinctive white-painted windmill poking above the intervening trees.
My painting of the view of Cranbrook windmill from my bedroom window
Our farmer tried everything over the years. In the photo there are pigs in the field to the right of the house. These soon moved to ramshackle sheds in front of it and were replaced a couple of years later by turkeys, while the field was turned to wheat. Past the barns to the house’s left (at that time still full of dusty tack and faded rosettes from the days of working horses) a new shed housed rabbits, while the disused oast stood beside a hop garden. The farm track turned there and headed off through more orchards before sloping down to cross a stream in a wood of coppiced hornbeam and chestnut, carpeted thickly with bluebells in springtime. The farm’s boundary lay beyond that, over two cornfields that were home to flocks of peewits and studded with hammer ponds. But there was little boundary between farms in those days for a boy like me to contend with and my friends and I could fish for roach in their iron-rich waters as the Weald’s typical mosaic of woods, orchards, berry fields and corn (wheat, barley and oats) stretched off to glimpses of the Greensand ridge and the white of the chalk North Downs towards Canterbury and the East. There wasn’t a road for miles back there and beyond a tractor ploughing or collecting straw bales, or seasonal pickers at harvest time amidst the apples, there wasn’t another person to be encountered for months on end.
Farm track behind the house
Wealden view. My painting mid-70s
But naturally at the beginning it was the house itself that provided my playground and source of fascination. One of the last memories I have of my father before my parents’ divorce is the recovery of a roll of what he called ‘Napoleonic’ wallpaper hidden away under the roof. I have no memory of what it looked like, or what became of it, but it reinforced the sense that the house could offer me mysteries galore.
House from the back, early ’70s
This discovery took place at the back of the house, under a gentle slope of moss-covered tiles that stretched from ridge to ground floor, into part of which at first floor height my father inserted a small bathroom. (In a dream that came to me after he left he also built a secret room there, filled with books and intricate devices). This left other spaces that could be crawled into; by removing a panel in the new bathroom’s wall, I learned I could duck in under the rafters and emerge above the woodshed at ground floor level. There was a sense of pride and of being in sole possession of a vital secret at having pioneered the hidden route. This theme would recur over the years in gripping dreams in which I’d clamber out through my first floor bedroom window and somehow escape to the ground below. As a teenager I was able to use that gentle roof slope too from outside, scrambling over the tiles to sit astride the ridge with it’s elevated views. I also used it to reach the skylight window of the new bathroom, which never closed properly, and thus gain access to the house on the numerous occasions when I’d forgotten my door key.
House from the East
The East side of the house facing the farmyard though, I was far too terrified to approach from the rooftop. It fell straight down four floors to the entrance to the cellar. This subterranean space was filled with water in winter (chill winds would blow through it and lift the carpets of the living rooms through the cracks in the rough oak floorboards) and contained a well and brick steps that must have once provided access to the kitchen above. It was not a place to play, or even enter most of the year, filled with a jumble of rotting lumber, with a gigantic brass cauldron lurking in its murky darkness. Here too the mighty oak beams supporting the house could be best appreciated. Eight or nine inches square and as hard as steel after so many years, they were studded with grooves and dowel holes, indicating that they had once formed part of an even older structure. My father’s new support columns were the only evidence of anything twentieth century in the place.
On its way down that drop from the roof ridge passed an attic window of greenish leaded light glass that I imagined was beginning to look thicker at the bottom than the top. Inscribed in one pane in an elegant flourish was the year 1683. Two floors below that, at ground level of the rest of the house, a narrow door, sealed over from inside, perched unreachable above the steps down to the cellar entrance. Our perplexed speculations about its purpose settled on the idea that farm workers must have gone up by ladder, or now-vanished wooden stairs, to receive their pay from the hands of the farmer.
Roof construction in attic. My drawing from mid-70s
The attic itself was a forbidding place, dark, dusty and festooned with cobwebs. For many years I dared only to climb the rickety stairs to the first partition, gloomily lit by the inscribed window, in which old suitcases and junk left by my father hid a stamp collection that I coveted. Glimpses through to the middle section revealed two huge semicircular loudspeaker boxes that my father had begun to construct out of concrete as a new innovation in hi-fi. As the years progressed I ventured to the far section, ducking the abundant cobwebs. In my teens I learned that the roof trusses here, more closely spaced and lower, indicated an earlier style of construction, with this section of the house pre-dating the rest. I’d stand there a while, feeling the peace of a place so long unvisited, while rays from the sun penetrated the gaps between the tiles, illuminating whirling clouds of dust disturbed from the floorboards.
Later still I turned the first section into my den and bedroom, erecting a platform between the rafters on which I could sleep with my nose close to the whorled grain of the oak. Up there I felt like I was enveloped in the embrace of the spirit of the house, a benevolent bird who had watched over the raising of so many generations of farmers below me over the centuries.
With my sister Nicky and brothers Robert and Simon
My childhood bedroom was on the first floor, together with three others, one spare and one each occupied by my mother and sister. A corridor ran past them, floored with oak planking polished smooth by long treading. It was this that I had to negotiate when, petrified by nightmares, I wanted to reach the security of my mother’s bed. It was lucky that the toilet was next to my room, so that nighttime pees, with the sense of some horror poised over my shoulder, could be completed quickly. For although by day in the main the house showed me only its kindest face, at night I was easily kept awake by the creaking and groaning of its timbers in the wind. For a period inexplicable clucking noises disturbed me at bedtime; these turned out to be from pigeons nesting in the disused chimney behind my bed. On summer evenings it was vital not to leave a light on with the window open. Huge moths would greet me when I went up to bed, slamming themselves against the bulb and falling stunned onto my bed. In winter, ice formed on the inside of the window panes, there being no heating at first floor level, and it felt like an eternity before my feet could gradually extend themselves fully down into the icy sheets.
The corridor was flanked by two staircases: a little twisting one at my bedroom end and at the other a grand flight, an addition made at some point in the early eighteen hundreds by a wealthy farmer. The twisty one led down to the kitchen, past a partition behind which my poor brothers – twins sent off to a special boarding school which catered to the needs of the partially hearing – had their beds in the holidays, far from the rescue of our mother’s room. Naturally having two staircases gave opportunities for a lot of fun in terms of chasing and hiding and I remember the sound of my mother’s exasperated complaints as the house echoed with the stamping of feet. We were a contentious foursome too and she had to step in often to quell our sibling rivalries and noisy disputes.
The coalyards were at Cranbrook station. My parents took me to see the trains just before the line closed in 1961. (generic photo)
The kitchen contained the coal-fired boiler that was the vital heart of our home. This heated the water and was fed obsessively from the coal shed outside; disaster was declared if on coming down in the morning, it was discovered to have died during the night. Here, as well as the cooking, my mother did the laundry with an old top loader and a hand mangle and the steaming stuff was hung up above our breakfast table on racks manipulated by a pulley. At the kitchen’s far end a door opened out into a disused pantry, which led to my father’s half-finished downstairs bathroom as well as to the house’s main entrance hall at the foot of the grand staircase. Another door led into the living room, once stretching half the length of the house, but now partitioned off to provide my brothers’ bedroom. It was heated by a stove installed into the original brick hearth and chimney space, which was large enough to accommodate also a built-in bench on which my mother kept her sewing materials. Here, except for special occasions, we lived, played and ate. As we grew older – coal being expensive – it became my brothers’ and my job to find, cut and bring in whatever wood we could for this stove; but coal it was during my childhood, and bringing this in was a job I learned from an early age to relieve my mother from.
So we sat beneath the low beams supporting the upper floor, with a piano (rarely played), a lovely old circular oak dining table by the window, a walnut sideboard for the cutlery and a carved oak chest of medieval appearance (but probably of Victorian manufacture) containing our family photos and bric-a-brac. All these, as well as two magnificent carved wardrobes occupying other rooms, had been bought for next to nothing by my parents during their antique shop explorations in the early days of their marriage at the beginning of the fifties.
My mum around the time of my birth
I can see my mother sewing, or darning socks by the fire as we watch black and white TV (just two channels in those days), listen to Gilbert and Sullivan records, or play cards with buttons as stakes. I can hear the clatter of her typewriter as I stare over her shoulder in fascination as she touchtypes from her bewilderingly incomprehensible shorthand notes without a glance at the keys. I can smell the Sunday roast – lamb with mint sauce, ham with parsley sauce, beef with Yorkshire Pudding – which was the only meal we ever actually ate at the dining table. Our white cat joins us as usual, taking the chair next to the leaded light panes through which dull light from the north shines in from the garden. Dessert will be a sticky suet pudding, or steamed sponge dripping with golden syrup or, if it’s summer, a junket or trifle. Afterwards, though replete, I might be asked to pop down the hill on my bike the mile or so to Mr Edwards corner store (the only shop open on a Sunday in the town) and buy my mother a packet of cigarettes; “and while you’re there you may as well get a half crown bar of chocolate for us all to share…..”
The Hill, Cranbrook. Mr Edwards corner store was on the right at the bottom, between a disused smithy and the Workingman’s Club.
From the living room we could use another door (further chasing possibilities) into the entrance hall with its iron-studded front door and great lock, to which we had no key, never used except by poorly-informed guests arriving or delivery men. From there you were back at the foot of the grand staircase and able to access the ‘sitting room’. This too had a fireplace, the bother of lighting yet another fire being the principle cause of its use only on special occasions. We’d decorate it up with holly and bunting for Christmas; my mother might hold one of her occasional get-togethers with a few friends for ‘drinks’ there, but principally it was the through route to the telephone room. This little box of a space held the house’s fourth door to the world outside, a storage cupboard under the staircase, a doorway with no door into the unfinished bathroom still garnished with some of my fathers abandoned tools and our clunky black telephone. “Cranbrook double-three six eight” we’d answer breathlessly when it rang; all calls outside the immediate area had to go through the operator in the town until STD came in later in the sixties.
From this phone one loony afternoon at the age of twelve, a boy from my school who fancied himself as a bit of a lad and `I made our hoax calls: to the fire brigade, reporting a fire at our house and then a few minutes later a second at his. We heard the town siren go off and then retreated excitedly to the straw bales high up in the barn in the farmyard; to watch in increasing dismay as a fire engine and some increasingly angry firemen showed up. A policeman arrived that evening to give me my well-deserved talking-to; the shame I felt in front of my mother stays with me to this day.
Aah, the barn! Perhaps it was my home as much as the house, in summer at least. Through the garden – in which my mother grew some parsley and mint, re-planted her geraniums from their indoor winter pots, and cared for a few roses as well as she could with the limited time available after a full time job as school secretary and raising four children – over the farm track, through a missing panel in the big double doors and into its welcoming embrace. Here the straw from the fields was stacked in bales up to the tiled roof. From high up on top we could look down on the farm machinery and jump down into piles of broken bales. Broken, because we had mauled them in our burrowing, excavating tunnels and hideouts deep into the scratchy, dust-laden stuff. The farm workers could shout and grumble as much as they liked; we knew that they knew we were in there somewhere, but they couldn’t actually see us, could they? In the event of actually being spotted, we’d troop out dutifully, but would be back in again as soon as the sound of a tractor heading off reached our ears.
The farmyard and barns, early ’60s
The barn was pulled down in the late sixties, leaving an eyesore and a heart sore. It was probably simply too expensive to maintain. These days, surviving examples have all been converted into bijou residences and swanky AirBnB accommodation, but our poor barn missed that fate and doubtlessly ended up as spare parts for other peoples’ conversions. Three lesser ones stood in the yard, their roof tiles slipping, the weeds invading their blackened weatherboard walls. But with the farm turned from horses to tractors and in the main from grain to apples over the years and losing its independence as a farm unit, these too had lost their usefulness and were pulled down. With the last hops grubbed out not long after we moved in, the oast was an early conversion to a house. Part of it was inhabited for a while by a little old lady who entertained us with her paranoid delusions, reports of which left my mother shaking her head sorrowfully and insisting we leave her alone. After that that it was sold off separately, ‘done-up’ and that end of the farmyard became closed off to us.
The farmer’s focus on apples provided us with another opportunity for destructive creativity: the big wooden bins into which the pickers tipped their loads at harvest time stood empty in stacks outside the barn for the rest of the year. An irresistible temptation for kids who like tunnels and hiding places, we tore holes out of the bottoms of many over the years.
Apples also brought excitement and dread into our lives with the yearly appearance of varied tribes of ‘gypsies’. These were folk of whom my mother, like most English people of her class and generation, had no actual knowledge or acquaintance. They’d camp with their vans and caravans and scruffy kids in the orchard over our fence for a few weeks into the late autumn and then leave behind a mess of campfires and old tires. She’d warn us to have nothing to do with them, which certainly didn’t seem to concern them in any way, and then listen sympathetically to our farmer complaining about how hard it had been to get rid of them. Despite my intense curiosity I simply didn’t have the guts to disobey her.
My sketch of the old pig barn/turkey house
Behind the apple bins, through a thicket of head-high stinging nettles, was the piggery-turned-turkey run, overlooked by a pollarded willow which became one of my secret get-away-from-everybody places in the romantic crises of my tweens and early teens. I seem to have fallen in love a lot between twelve and fourteen. There was the girl in the hospital ward when I had my hernia operation; a Polish girl from Syracuse, New York, who came to stay with us in summer ’66 (I wish my mother was alive so I could ask her how on earth that came about!); and a girl in the town who the more streetwise of the locals at school called ‘loose’ and who I only glimpsed once on the High Street before morosely scratching her name into the ice at the far end of the farmyard pond.
Hop picking at Three Chimneys near Cranbrook. Generic picture with typical tractor of my childhood.
This pond was the source of water for the chemical spraying of the orchards that it was the job of one unfortunate farm worker to undertake without protective gear (he died relatively young and had a genetically impaired youngest son, while we too in the general ignorance of the times gorged ourselves on DDT from apples straight off the trees). It was – and still is, though much diminished to my adult eyes – presided over by a big oak, a leftover in my childish imagination from the primeval forest of the days of Robin Hood. I was clearly a soft-hearted boy: I remember crying my eyes out at the end of a book about the outlaw, tragically wounded by the passing away of bows and arrows, jousting and chivalry. Such pastoral nostalgia, fed too by the abandoned wooden wagons rotting at the edge of the playing fields at my school, stayed with me as I grew up. The remains of a Roman road worn deep into the hillside lay across the fields from the house, with a badly eroded inscribed parish boundary stone marking the spot where it crossed a stream. I’d imagine the legions and the wooden-wheeled carts passing it over the centuries, the peasants making their way home with faggots for their fires. The recent loss of a millennia-old past tugged at me even as I made my way into a new world of puberty, ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV and beyond.
Typical Kent wood, oak standards and coppiced hornbeam. My painting from mid-’70s
At seventeen I began to read up about ley lines, paths of underground energy crossing the country on which pre-historic people had built their sacred sites. It triggered a confusing memory of something I had been told years before while still at Primary school after I’d noticed some older boys from the grammer school in full school uniform digging in a field at the foot of the hill between Hancocks and the town. Here three roads meet at a spot known as Bakers Cross, (a name attributed by historians to Bloody Baker, a Catholic notorious for persecution of Protestants) where a miasmic pond lies surrounded by decaying, ivy-clad trees. I have no idea who on earth it could have been that answered my question to what these boys were doing with the tale that they were searching for an underground tunnel to Sissinghurst Castle. That this was five miles away didn’t strike my young mind as particularly unlikely, nor did I question why they thought such a tunnel existed in the first place, or had decided on that particular point to dig. As a new convert to ley lines though, it struck me that the whole story might be the result of some folk memory of an esoteric connection between the two places.
It all came to nothing of course, despite my plotting lines over maps, but improbable folk memories were abroad in my childhood. There was the infamous Hawkhurst Gang’s treasure supposedly buried at Hartley (three of us took our bikes and a spade up there and were bewildered to find that we hadn’t got a clue where in the whole hamlet we were supposed to dig). There were the bricked up windows of a house overlooking the churchyard at a point where a couple of gravestones were carved with skulls, closed off because some long-forgotten owner had been haunted by their ghosts. There was the rumour that Cranbrook School’s original rule book – never revealed to us but never overwritten – contained a rule that the Head Boy was permitted to ride to school in a coach-and-four and to sport a beard.
In class at DCPS (now Dulwich Prep), early ’60s
School Hall, Cranbrook School
This grammer school, to which, from the age of eleven, I pedaled six days a week, had been founded by Queen Elizabeth the First and was run – part dayboy and part boarder – on classic English Public School (read expensive private school) lines, even though it was now part of the free government school system. My Prep school (read Primary school) had been DCPS, where my mother worked as secretary, once a part of London’s prestigious Dulwich College which had been relocated from London to Kent during the wartime blitz. Thus as well as boys from the local farms and shops, I went to school with a few others from further afield. OK, these were all white and middle class and had passed the contentious ‘Eleven Plus’ exam which separated the hoi polloi who would go to Secondary Modern and on to trades and labour, from those privileged like me, who would be aspiring for University and the professions. Nevertheless, a sixties rebalancing was going on around us, and as well as the local butcher’s son my friends included a rebellious Polish Eastender (before he was expelled and went back to wherever he had mysteriously appeared from), a direct descendant of one of the Norman conquerers (Phillip D’Arcy Leighton Godfrey to give his name its full due), and a pair of South African brothers named Beer (the younger naturally nicknamed ‘half pint’).
Charles (second from left) with his brother and us Dunsters on holiday in Cornwall.
All this contributed to making my family’s social network a lot more varied than it would have been in a remoter farming-dominated location. My best friend was Charles, from a family like ours that had moved into the area and whose antecedents hailed on one side from Spain. Hancocks front lawn was one of the two settings for our epic cricket duels (much of which was spent hunting for lost balls in the hedges and shrubbery). The other was his home, five miles away along quiet lanes by bike, a tumbledown rented house at least as old as Hancocks (and today naturally a millionaire’s pad). My friend the butcher’s son had a German mother, a sensuously erotic figure compared to the usual staid English women. Our family friends included the Rodgers (George was a well known photographer of African tribes), who lived in a quaint cottage by a picture-postcard pond in nearby Smarden, while my mother’s employer at the school was John, brother of the famous Louis Leakey. A connection from her wartime days as a young secretary for MI5 was a gracious German woman who lived in Croydon and served us what seemed to me to be incredibly exotic jasmine tea – without milk! – in delicate china.
Ruined Kentish farmhouse in the ’50s. The sort of place that my parents and some of their friends ‘did up’ and lived in in the ’60s. (generic photo)
Our rustic life at Hancocks was echoed by that of many of our friends inhabiting what today would be outrageously exclusive housing: the Old Cloth Hall in Smarden, a rambling maze of wooden passageways and hidden rooms; the Cloth Hall at Cranbrook with it’s vast double-storied main hall and extensive once-manicured gardens. Yet none of us had any money really and we mostly made our own entertainment from what we found around us while gazing longingly at the model airplanes and train sets in the town’s toyshop. For the upkeep of the house my mother was utterly dependent on co-operative local handymen who would undercharge her and on a cleaning lady with the wonderful name of Manktelow who worked for almost nothing. Our cupboards contained a jumble of worn blankets, rusty Mechano sets and clothes long since past their use by dates, while our car, a clapped out Standard Companion, just squeezed in the five of us, plus a suitcase on the roof rack, for visits to grandparents in Southsea or a rare family holiday in Cornwall.
My brothers and the Standard Companion
A childhood summer afternoon: my mother at tea with her friend Jinx Rodgers in her cottage in Smarden. I lie alone on the patch of lawn in front. Across the road through the elms, Smarden’s medieval church is lit by a golden light. Bees hum in the warm air, the scent of grass fills my nostrils. I enter a kind of trance as the afternoon drifts on, interrupted only by the sound of the church clock ringing the quarters. Time’s passing has no meaning beyond those chimes. Their gentle call punctuates a timeless world.
“You know the way the clouds go
Spaced against the blue
In their towering, overwhelming gladness
And you, a grown child
Wheeling down from some glittering crystal place
Your own heart billowing up
Although this poem was written in South Devon (where there really were crystals to be found high up on Brent Hill) more than a decade after leaving Hancocks, it conflates both times when, high on grass, I would range the woods and fields, feeling that just beyond my reach was the capacity to know every leaf on every tree I passed. Inside me there was an almost painful yearning for that intimacy. The vales spreading out before me lured me ever onwards, for just beyond view, elusive yet compelling and naturally unreached, was the perfect place, the Weald’s own Garden of Eden.
No crystals amidst the Wealden clays and sandstones, but nose close to the iron-tinged water of the stream behind the house, I once came across a thin bed of shelly limestone exposed on a bank. The geologists ‘deep time’ hit me: where I stood had once, perhaps briefly, been a beach beside a coral sea. Above me titanic measures of chalk had been eroded away over thousands of millennia to allow me to witness that moment.
Coming back from some ramble, the sun tilts towards the horizon through a forest of hop poles. Suddenly I sense how I am perched on the great dish of the Earth, tiny and falling, tilting away from it.
Dusk, the crack between the worlds: a last glimmer of orange seen through the bare winter branches of the trees by the garden pond; a crow silhouetted amidst the twigs; Sirius blazing like a UFO low on the horizon. I can almost hear them, the faintest notes of Pan’s pipes or Krishna’s flute, playing in the gloom at the edge of vision.
August 1966. England vs West Indies at the Oval. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, the fastest flingers ever seen at the bowling end, tearing into the England batsmen. Edrich and Graveney stolidly digging in in defensive mode, the scorecard stalled. A strongly accented voice from the crowd as a bobby passes by: “Hey, Officer, arrest Graveney for loitering!”