New Year’s Eve – Let’s Party Like It’s 1988!

My favourite New Year’s Eve party occurred on either the 13th or 14th April 1988, from which you may conclude this was not at home in England. I was in the Himalaya, walking the Annapurna Circuit. And my uncertainty about the date is due to the fact I didn’t keep a travel journal in those days. In fact, I’m not even sure exactly where we were staying that night, although I do know we were still heading up towards the high pass, the Thorung La, and that we were still well below the snowline. At the end of the day’s walking we camped, as usual, and while we were eating supper we were informed that we were invited to join in the New Year celebrations in the village close by.

It wasn’t the place in the picture above – it was smaller – but it was definitely what could be described as a little one horse place somewhere rather high up in the Himalaya. The celebrations involved drinking, singing, and dancing. Actually, the celebrations were drinking, singing, and dancing. The drink was chang, which is rice beer, a traditional Tibetan drink, which is drunk on any and all occasions, by everyone. It is cloudy, it doesn’t taste very strong, it’s not very strong, and it slips down easily.

And then there is rakshi, which is a distilled liquor and a whole new level of peril. We were warned about that.

Up where we were, the singing consisted largely – possibly entirely – of folk songs. We were already familiar with at least one of them; when we had been in Kathmandu, the hit of the season was apparently a song called paan ko paat which we heard on radios everywhere – you can find many versions of this on YouTube if you feel curious – and as the chang flowed, so the singing increased in intensity. So too did the dancing – there was what might very loosely be termed a band, consisting of a number of people playing traditional instruments – and we either tried to keep up or stood around drinking and talking with our most hospitable hosts.

I have no photographs of this, sadly, since it was dark and I had no flash on my camera. The only light came from oil lanterns. You’ll just have to imagine a host of Nepalis and half a dozen westerners crammed into a tea house and having a jolly good time.

And then we were informed it was our turn to sing.

They asked us to sing something traditional from whichever countries we came from. I think the others made a reasonable fist of it, although maybe that’s just me assuming that everyone else sings better than me. Which they do. And some of their interpretations of ‘traditional’ may have been rather elastic. And then came the words I had been dreading, the words that sent a frisson of horror through my entire being: ‘Your turn, Mick.’

I must have been drunk, because suddenly I knew that if I had just one more drink I could do it. And so I did. I do at least know quite a few folk songs although I couldn’t remember the words to more than a couple of verses of the one I chose, but no one seemed to mind. On reflection, I suppose no one even really listened.

The rest of the words came to me as I lay in my tent that night, listening to sporadic bursts of singing and shouting – but by then, there was little difference between the two…

Happy New Year, folks.

The Joy of Unknowing (1)

We have just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me recently.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and spent the time walking and reading and mooching around towns and villages. And finding time for the occasional meal and cold beer, of course.

Yes, we did some lovely walks. And I find it a natural thing to be constantly identifying and photographing whatever I see when out for a walk. I have always been interested in all aspects of the environment, be it the plants and animals, the geography and geology, the weather, or the historical impact of people on the environment in forms such as old trackways, deserted buildings, or ancient boundaries.

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And we have spent several fantastic days surrounded by an environment rich in all these things, as we have walked through woods, fields, and open hillsides, seen ancient settlements, butterflies, birds, and many wildflowers, and all this in an area of some of the most complex geology in the UK.

But sometimes I feel myself tiring of the constant need to identify and record everything; it is really a way of trying to own them.

And when you post on social media too, it can feel at times a little like a competition to put up the best pictures of this or that wildflower or bird or mountain, which naturally need to be identified and named. Especially on Twatter, whose format seems to encourage this.

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So, on our first morning away, as we walk up a track heading into the hills above Church Stretton, under early morning blue skies with the air crystal clear and beautifully cool, I decide that for now I am just going to exist in the moment.

Because by doing this, I am relieved of the constant necessity of deciding whether this bird is a rook or a crow, or whether that flower is greater stitchwort or lesser stitchwort.

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Because it doesn’t really matter.

And for now, instead of having to always know whether it is this or that bird singing, I can allow myself to simply think there is singing. There is birdsong.

Or, even better, there is a sound I find melodic, and it pleases me.

By doing this, I can relax and centre myself, which is something I feel has been badly lacking in my life recently. I have struggled with social media in any case, feeling a huge pressure to post new material and to read the many I follow, even when I don’t feel up to it.

It feels like a return to a much simpler time in my life. I can enjoy the views of the hills, the sounds of the streams and birds, and just concentrate on being.

This must have been part of the pleasure I felt as a child on every occasion when I could roam outdoors. Certainly, I was curious about what I saw, but since I knew so little about them, there was always an openness to the experience and the excitement of discovery. I would see butterflies I had not seen before, and I would just get the thrill of seeing them without having to know anything more about them. I would see wildflowers I didn’t recognise and just enjoy the shapes and colours.

Naturally, you cannot really unknow things in that way, just as you cannot really return to that point in your childhood, but it is possible, even if for only a short while, to let go of the need to identify and quantify (and therefore own) everything, and simply exist in the here and now.

A Christmas Carol – 1

I haven’t seen much of Bob, recently.

To be fair to Bob, he’s been rather busy. But he came round to my house the other day. Well,  the other evening, really. He was carol singing. And it was only just December.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ I asked him. He look puzzled.

‘Carol singing, of course. Why?’

‘Why? It’s only just turned December, that’s why.’

‘Well, all the shops have their decorations up now.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘And some have had, for the last few months.’

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‘True, but…’

‘And they’re all playing Christmas songs.’

‘Unfortunately true…’

‘And half the kittens on social media are dressed in red and white and chasing Christmas baubles around on the floor and then batting them with their cute little paws…’

‘Stop it, Bob!’

‘So why can’t I go round carol singing?’

‘Because there’s only one of you and it sounds awful!’

‘Oh…sorr…eee!’

‘And what are you collecting for?’

‘Huh?’

‘That tin you’re rattling. What’s it in aid of?’

‘Our Christmas lunch.’

‘Bob! You can’t do that! You’re supposed to be collecting for charity!’

‘Am I? Who says so?’

‘I…er…I don’t know. You just are, that’s all.’

‘Well, I’m collecting for our Christmas lunch!’ He rattled the tin meaningfully towards me. ‘Silent Night…’ he began again, his voice rising suddenly about two and three sevenths octaves. I shuddered. The kittens left their baubles and ran for cover. ‘Holy Night!’

‘Shut your bloody racket!’ Came my neighbour’s voice – slightly muffled, but carrying a clear threat of violence.

Bob left quickly.

 

In other years, I’ve written a few short stories for Christmas, but not this year.

Bob has inspired me to re-imagine a few Christmas Carols for the twenty first century.

Here is the first one.

Strident night,

Angry night,

Down cheap booze,

Get into a fight.

Punch and scratch and kick and bite.

Tell the other bloke he’s just a shite.

Sleep in a prison cell…oh!

Sleep in a prison cell.

For those of my readers who do consider Christmas to be a holy festival, I must point out that these little offerings are intended as my rant against the excesses and the commercialisation of Christmas today. I hope you will not take any offence, for none is intended!