Wednesday, 19 November 2008


Last night was our first night in the yurt. Haven’t got the solar gear installed yet so no electricity for now. Hence no video blog yet.

The last week was taken up with building the yurt. I have been consistent in my underestimation of the time required to make things happen here. I thought the yurt would take half a day to put up. A day tops. In the end it took more like four days. This was because we had to do quite a bit of modification to the yurt itself. We made a new crown for it (the last one died during heavy snowfall a couple of years ago). The holes I drilled were a couple of mm smaller than the last ones (predictably) so I then had to shave down a bunch of the roof poles to fit. There were a number of other tiny but time-consuming little dramas to contend with on top of this, made all the more complicated by having few tools, all of which are hand tools, not electric and thus progress is slower and more tiring. Lots of scratching of the head and working out ways to get things done.

Yurt geeks like me might be interested in the full details of my conundrums, but they will be of zero interest to the general reader so I have decided to err on the side of brevity, in a bid to appeal to the general public. Unlike Thoreau, who uses three-line sentences wherever possible. The Plain English campaign was not even a glint in the eye of its maker when Thoreau was writing. You need a nineteenth century attention span to be able to digest what he’s actually saying. I believe there are Cliffe Notes available for us today. The Nintendo generation likes bullet points. And lots of pictures.

I’m currently sitting in a bar in the nearest town, which has intermittent wifi.

Last night I began my time in the yurt with a ritual asking for the blessing of the land and wishing wellbeing and happiness for all beings past, present and future who spend time there. I also played some guitar for the first time in a month. I start to go a bit crazy after a while if I don’t play some music. I have no idea why. But then I have no idea why music has been so important to all cultures everywhere forever. All I know is that Music Runs Deep.

It’s a strange one, building a relationship with a piece of land. One of the aspects of Walden that I have been reflecting on is that, while making general statements about life, Thoreau fills many pages with details about the specific characteristics of his surroundings. Spending time in the environment here, I understand why he is so passionate. It's just so beautiful. It moves you. You can't get across just how magnificent it is by using words, and yet I can see why Thoreau felt moved to try.

When we think about 'conserving nature' or 'protecting the environment' and what have you, we think in quite general terms about this big thing, separate from us, called 'nature'. But the reality is not a general thing. It is specific, and it affects you personally. Sitting surrounded by miles of concrete, you have nothing to go on but the abstract concept. And thus 'nature' becomes just another idea, like 'poverty' or 'war'. Not very real to me personally, and therefore not very urgent, compared with, say, the kids making noise on my street every night. But when the war, or the poverty, or the nature, is right here in front of us, we act.

This love of one’s immediate environment is something that many of us have no sense of. After all, one building is pretty much the same as another. The same with streets. The same, in fact, with whole cities.

The situation is getting worse as time passes. The city centres of England look increasingly like each other. Regeneration seems to mean homogenisation. Personally I prefer diversity. I know it makes it harder for multinational companies to sell the same product, using the same marketing strategy, around the world, but I guess I’m just weird like that. One of the things I have loved most about my wandering life is that it is possible to go somewhere else – not just a different version of here.

The downside of my wandering life is that I am always somewhere else. Building a relationship with one place is something I have not really managed to do since leaving my hometown many years ago. Philosophically speaking, I think staying put is key to being human – communities only really develop if people stick around, have kids together, and grow old together. But my feet just keep wandering off.

The good news is that I think I may have solved the problem. If I am to be a nomad, my plan is to live more as nomads actually live. Rather than simply being rootless, my idea is to have a nomadic circuit, so that I am returning to the same places again and again. I have been managing this with Catalunya. I have been coming to this area for a few years now, watching it change, seeing the lives of my friends move on. I like it. Putting down the wooden floor is the most permanent thing I have ever done. So maybe I just need a couple more hubs and I will be set.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about this week is the fact that I haven’t really been thinking very much. There is a line in Walden where he says that, for the first summer, he read nothing. He hoed beans. That’s been pretty much my experience. Just doing. There will be time to be later.

I have become used to waking up with my arms aching, and feeling that today it is unfeasible for me to carry anything. But then I get up and moving, and soon enough I have more things in my arms, carrying them down, up, or across the mountain. A stove. A door. A double mattress. Everything that is here has been carried by hand. And I feel strong, and good. It occurs to me that the body can take quite a hammering. We are very careful with it, and protect it with all manner of behaviours, nutrients and creams, and this is all well and good, but it is specific to a fairly sedentary mode of life. 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. There is a different way to be.

I don't really have the words for it yet, but it is something to do with not experiencing one's body as an object. Being with the land, moving through the land, not looking in a mirror, experiencing the breath and the muscles, and the hunger after a hard day of physical, varied work that involves the whole being, not just the muscles. I don't know, it's a good feeling. I feel more like a dog looks, when you look in a dog's eyes and you see an integrated being. Fully savage, openly loving, an extension of its biology, its instinct, not a denial of such things. Does that make sense? We percieve instinct and animalistic drives as dangerous - leading to violence, rape, theft and such things. But I think instincts only turn nasty when an animal is brutalised. The natural state is one of harmony, love, and peace...

It is an incredible feeling to sit in one’s dwelling, look around, and think ‘I made this’. There is an intimacy about it that you don’t get with a place that you just move into. It’s been hard work, but I feel extremely lucky.

I'll get the video blog sorted asap.


Monday, 10 November 2008

Here; Or, Life in the Mountains - Episode 3

Yesterday I was packing yet more stuff into the car for transport to the new site when 8 kittens turned up. One of them found a snake (an adder) and started playing with it. He eventually killed it and ate it without getting bitten. The battery had run out on the camera :-(

As a vegetarian I felt kind of weird about letting this happen, but these cats live outside and hunt for food. And in the words of Gary Snyder, we are all food for some other being in the end...

This week has been mostly about building a floor (which is still not quite finished). The old Catalan man who runs the timber yard was very excited about the project and helped us design the circular floor. On the invoice, as our address, he wrote ‘Casa Unica’ (the unique house).

At the beginning of spending time here, things are always pretty hectic. Lots to do, as quickly as possible. Life is pretty functional, and filled with work. I’m enjoying it. I’m also looking forward to sitting in the fully furnished yurt, drinking tea…

This week has also been about Obama getting elected. A cautious sigh of relief. Simply as a symbol, this is a momentous event. But hopefully his presidency will be much more than symbolic. Avaaz ( have got a little petition going. Here’s the brief, and a link:

Let's act quickly to make sure the people of the world are heard as Obama makes crucial choices in the coming days on how to live up to his campaign promises to secure a strong global treaty on climate change, ban torture and close Guantanamo prison, withdraw carefully from Iraq, and double aid to make global poverty history. Rarely has a US President been more likely to listen to us.

Also, there’s a human rights exhibition on at the British Library in London right now:

‘Taking Liberties’ is a new exhibition running from 31 October 2008 to 3 March 2009 at the British Library in London. The exhibition tells the story of the 900 year struggle for rights and freedoms in Great Britain and Northern Ireland by uniting the pivotal documents which made or changed political history for the nation, including Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights 1689, the Articles of Union 1706 and the 1832 Reform Act.

This interactive and thought provoking exhibition is accompanied by an extensive program of debates and lectures in London and around the country. In addition, the British Library will be producing comprehensive resources for teachers and schools.

The exhibition is free, and is now open to the public at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. For more information visit

And finally, here is this week’s blog:


If we were always indeed getting our living and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh perspective every hour.
Thoreau, Walden

When I first got into Buddhism I had stopped making music. I’d put it on one side in order to experience myself, and my life, in a new way. Up until then, I’d thought of nothing but being a musician, since I was 14 years old. It was liberating to realise that, actually, I was free to do anything. Anything at all.

When my band fell apart, I took it as an opportunity to just be me. To see what came out.

What came out was that my old identity fell away very quickly and I felt utterly confused and formless. All my goals and ways of deciding what was good and bad, what was worthwhile and what wasn’t, what was cool and what wasn’t, seemed to me entirely arbitrary. I pretty much lost the plot and spent an incredible amount of time just sitting in a chair, thinking.

Look around, you’ll find the ground is not so far from where you are
Don’t be too wise (Nick Drake)

I remember sitting on the floor in my kitchen one afternoon, watching a dripping tap and being unable to work out whether or not this meant more or less than, say, a world war. I mean in absolute terms, which is most important? I wrote the song ‘I Don’t Think So’ around that time.

One of the things that attracted me to Buddhist philosophy initially was that it had an answer for this that made some sense to me. It said that there are two levels of truth – absolute and relative.

In absolute terms there is no difference between a dripping tap and a world war. They both lack self-nature. They both arise and cease in dependence upon conditions. And they are both impermanent.

This kind of thinking had already occurred to me, but it had left me stumped. I mean how do you decide what to spend your time doing when that kind of thing is in your head? How can there be any ethics, or a judicial system, or any judgement of any kind about anything?

But in Buddhism, there is also the concept of relative truth. This was a novel concept for me. This is the level on which all unenlightened beings live.

On the relative level, which is less true than the absolute level, it is possible to make judgements. There are ethics, there is suffering and the eradication of suffering, there are right ways to live and wrong ways to live. All Buddhist ideas, according to Buddhism, are only relatively true (including concepts like absolute and relative truth). The aim of Buddhist practice is to arrive at a direct realisation of absolute truth. It is beyond language, and therefore any description will inevitably be totally inadequate.

And so Buddhism brought a provisional ‘structure’ to my way of seeing things. It gave me a way to make choices, and a reason to get out of bed. I have been practising for about 15 years now and I have not yet tired of it. This is because my practice, my perspective and my understanding, change over time. Also, being ‘a Buddhist’ does not mean blindly accepting a bunch of ideas from 2500 years ago, it means testing ideas against your own experience. The ideas aren’t key, the experience is. As our experiences change, so does our understanding of life.

The suggestion that everything is only relatively true, and the recommendation that we should test ideas and values against experience is something that I think we should all be applying to our own values and beliefs, and the values and beliefs of contemporary Western society.

The main role of advertisers is to try to manipulate our perception – to tell us what means what – with a view to creating a desire in us for the product or service they are being paid to sell. This is what branding is all about. Glance at practically any advert these days and it will be dishing out some form of pseudo-philosophy. It will be telling you what life is about, and how their product helps you live that life.

Just Do It. Because you’re worth it.

Don’t wanna be a bum you better chew gum.

There is an excellent book by Naomi Klein called ‘No Logo’ which explores this area, and provides lots of examples and statistics about the history of advertising. If you have not yet read it, I urge you to get hold of a copy.

I have been thinking about this recently because I have realised that I am, in fact, in a PR war. I too am trying to tell you what means what.

I want you to feel rich and successful because you buy less. Because you have a smaller car. Because you walk to work. Because you have plenty of leisure time. Because you don’t wear designer labels. I want you to feel like you are a good parent because you don’t buy lots of tacky shit for your kids. I want you to feel like you’re where it’s at because you grow your own vegetables. You are cool because you don’t know who won X factor but you do know your neighbours. Because you think Big Brother is a barbaric freak show. I want you to feel safe and secure because you don’t have an ID card. Because there are no cameras watching you right now. Because the Government isn’t keeping a record of all your emails. I want you to feel sophisticated because your house doesn’t look like the ones off the TV. Because you don’t have a tan, bleached hair and a Brazilian.

I say you, but I mean we. I have noticed that I feel a little more confident on the high street when I am carrying shopping bags of newly purchased items and wearing a clean shirt. Like somehow I am a fully fledged citizen when I am carrying proof of being a consumer. Weird, huh.

Anyway, I have a plan for a guerrilla-style, viral marketing campaign. Some of the big brands already do this, so it is not revolutionary by any means. Actually, the Buddha did this with his disciples, so I guess they maybe nicked the idea from there.

My idea is that more and more of us decide to climb out of the values that we have imbibed, and that we, as Thoreau says, get our living and regulate our lives according to the last and best mode we have learned. That we follow our genius. In this way, we become walking talking ‘adverts’ for a different way of life. Kind of like performance artists.

What that way of life is, I have no firm idea. I’m hoping it will be as varied as the people who market it. I know that we can’t go back to pre-industrialised society, though perhaps we will choose to include some of the old ways. And maybe we will use technology and global networks intelligently, for the benefit of all beings and for the planet itself. And maybe we will re-build our communities, not as the homogenous groups of the past, but as free associations of individuals, based on mutual respect and tolerance. And maybe we will choose to spend our working lives with our friends, or our families or our communities, so that this huge part of our time is spent with people we care about. And maybe we will commit a certain part of the day to reflecting on what we are about, what matters to us, and to relaxation, meditation, and maybe even celebration.

By the way, I’m afraid no pay is offered for these positions. But then the hours are pretty good. And you can work from home. And moonlighting is fine. And you can have as many holidays as you like. And I don’t need to see your CV, you don’t need to fill out an application form, and there is no interview. Sound ok?

Saturday, 1 November 2008


This week, as well as showing my general day-to-day life, I talk a bit about the right to privacy. For those who are interested in this issue, you may wish to find out more here:

I also mention Inter-Ference, the totally excellent Brighton-based performance poet:


It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up … So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters, all with my narrow axe, not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself
Thoreau, Walden

One key thing about this yurt life, especially at the setting-up stage, is that there is a truck load of work involved. Before I first came to the mountain, I had to make the yurt. The wood for the frame came from a wood in Derbyshire. It was still fresh when I got it and our flat smelt like a forest. We had to strip all the bark off each pole, then treat each pole with linseed oil, then drill holes, tie the pieces together, make the crown, get hold of tarps (bought secondhand from a marquee hire place near Wales), then get the whole lot down to Spain, with all our other stuff, then put it up, then build a kitchen, and make a toilet, and furnish everything, and live. Then we took it all down again. And now we are moving onto a new piece of land so we have to get it there, then put it all up again, and make lots of new things too. There will be a proper floor and a proper door to the yurt this time. Last time we were directly on the ground and it was COLD. And the door was just the bag that one of the tarps came in and it was COLD. One of my friends here (who was living in a ruined building at the time, and who previously lived in a tiny cabin which she made from reclaimed wood) when she saw a picture of our set-up, said, “You spend the ween-ter like thees?! You crazier than me!”

So this time, more comfort, which means more work.

Now work, in general, does not agree with my constitution. So why have I opted, again and again, to spend time out in the mountains in this manner? Could I not simply rent an apartment in the local town, or even in Barcelona, and continue the easy life of the householder? In fact, why bother coming over here in the first place? Why must I re-orientate my life so completely on such a regular basis? Why not just stay where I was? Well, an easy life in terms of the amount of physical work involved does not mean that life is easy. But alas, I am already meandering away from the subject of this blog. Back to work!

Ok, work. Here’s what I think. I think life is fundamentally weird. The idea, for instance, that we are born so that we can go to school, then go to work, then retire, then die, is just bizarre. Surely there must be more to it???

I have come to the conclusion, after a great deal of experimentation with different lifestyles, close observation of peers and elders, and sustained periods of meditation, that the answer to this important question is ‘sort of’.

On the one hand, yes of course there is more to life. The functional, materially based aspects of life are not what life is about. Life must contain these to some extent, but these act as a foundation for finer things. Life is about enriching the soul, refining the character, being with friends, communing with the gods, and from the Buddhist perspective, keeping going with this until a fundamental shift occurs, and you find yourself no longer on the hamster wheel of life.

THE World is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

To live this way is to live a truly impoverished existence – no matter how much ‘stuff’ you accrue, and no matter how big the shack in which you store it.

But here’s the Zen twist. Actually, this is all there is. Get up, get washed, put clothes on, breathe in, breathe out, do stuff, rest, do more stuff, eat, sleep, and on and on. This is life. Nothing more. Nothing special. Samsara is Nirvana (to use some Buddhist schpiel from the Mahayana tradition). The trick is to be completely alive in each flowing moment of this miraculous existence. That’s all there is to Buddhahood. Nothing more. Nothing special. Easy, right? With each in-breath we are born anew. And the universe too. Within it, life moves and grows. Each out-breath is unique. It’s texture, it’s length, it’s effect on our body, and on our mind. When it’s gone, it’s gone, never to return. Which one will be your last? Right this moment, your life is passing, this is for sure. This very moment is your wealth, filled to the brim with the entire universe. Did you notice?

On this level, there is no benefit to me being in the mountains, living this way. Working as a banker in the City would be just as ‘spiritual’. But I have found that certain conditions support the expansion of one’s consciousness and the cultivation of states of wellbeing, and certain conditions hinder this. These conditions are different for everyone, but for me, I like to spend time in the mountains. I like to live outside, and to be close to nature. I like noticing how many different kinds of weather happen in a day, and how the view changes all day everyday and is never the same twice. I like knowing when the bees will come up from the valley in search of pollen. I like experiencing the parts of me that are wild and ancient – the consciousness that is buried deep in the cells, that has been passed down since the birth of humanity. I like to have the time to stop and experience the reality of being here, with this body, the way that it feels, the weight of it supported by the ground. And the work that I undertake in this environment, and the work that allows me to be in this environment, it doesn’t feel like work at all.