Gritters, stoats, and nature’s Prozac

There was something deliciously ironic about the situation. After 14 months of sauntering through the world with surprising ease and few time pressures, I found myself stuck in a Ford Transit somewhere outside East Croydon, late for dinner with a friend. I had covered two miles in the past hour.

On the local radio station, irate Londoners were calling in to a phone-in with Ken Livingstone (the city’s controversial mayor for the first eight years of this millennium) to vent their fury on the authorities for failing them once more. “It’s a national disgrace mate…” “I mean what does Gordon Brown think he’s playing at?” … “I thought we were supposed to be a developed country Ken…” “What I can’t understand is where’s the gritters, Ken? Where’s the gritters? Where’s the lorries mate? I mean what are we paying this council tax for?” … “Of course this all started when you were mayor Mr Livingstone, you’re not blameless in this, you can’t deny culpability Sir”… “I blame that Boris, Ken – come back mate, all is forgiven!”

I gunned my engine once more, trying to crawl tentatively forward over the sheet ice and instead sliding inexorably sideways towards the tense coiffured lady in a smart sports car in the lane beside me. A friendly smile from me. A glare from her.  I took a deep breath. Keep smiling…

One of the greatest privileges of travel is the opportunity to see how things work outside your narrow existence. Proust once pointed out that “the real voyage of discovery is not to see new lands, but to see with new eyes” – travel not only opens your eyes to other cultures but also to your own. As I switched my windscreen wipers onto triple-speed, it occurred to me that the mumbling grumbling radio phone-in has a peculiarly British feel to it. It’s not as if life here is really that bad. But some people feel they have an inalienable right to complain, to voice their frustrations, to vent their spleen. With a media licking their lips at the opportunity to show that they are truly representing “the people”, the result is a spiralling descent into phone-in hell, whether the subject is the weather, the political system, or the economy. The British public really does have an extraordinary ability to make itself feel bad about itself. Which, when you think about it, is really odd – considering that the material standard of living here is still light years ahead of the vast majority of the rest of the world.

It would be nice to think that people are wise to the realities of European economies as expressed by the (admittedly radical left wing) Stieg Larsson in his novel “The girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (substitute Britain for Sweden):

“You have to distinguish between two things – the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in the country every day. There are telephones from Eriksson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skovda. That’s the Swedish economy, and it’s just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago. The stock exchange is very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy.”

It’s a useful perspective on 2010. Another came from Evan Davies on Radio 4 the other day when he pointed out that we’ve successfully substituted the heroin of private debt for the methadone of public debt. Debt isn’t an exclusively Western issue, he pointed out, but the size of the problem in Europe and the US has created unsustainable and unreasonable expectations in all kinds of nooks and crannies of life for Westerners. As such the West certainly has more to lose – and will suffer more – as the long term correction kicks in.

Not even gritters, after all, will run on methadone for ever.

The past is prologue

I am now settled in Scotland, at least for a few months, where I am pursuing a few writing projects that are fifteen years overdue while continuing to work as a consultant. Regular readers will remember that I saw Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in Jodhpur fort; afterwards, I wrote down a couplet from the play – “Our doubts are traitors! And make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt”. There’s never been a better time to attempt.

The blog will continue, intermittently at first, and will still be called “Mind, the gap” – although the beady-eyed among you may have noticed the subtle change in the sub-header. It was a great fillip to find the Times review that Michael Moran had given the blog in his Sitegeist column in March 2009. The full review was

“Most British people travelling through India are gap year students, and their messages home are too packed with complaints about lost iPods and requests for a wire cash transfer to provide much real entertainment. Andy Duff’s Mind, The Gap blog is different – by turns insightful and funny, it’s the next best thing to a railway tour of the sub-continent. If you want to know what really goes on in an ashram, how to cleanse your nasal passages with a piece of rubber tube, or what the most popular item in a Delhi McDonald’s might be, it’s well worth a read.”

After a year with so much variety that each and every day held it’s own memories, it is wonderful to settle into the rhythms of Angus and the Scottish highlands where the days blend together.

Time has already taken on a different dimension. On sunny days, I watch the shadows cast by trees in the early morning creep round like a lethargic hour hand on a clock until they eventually disappear as the sun disappears over the hills to the southwest. On cloudy days, the shifting colours, snow whites, soft greys, slate greys and black greys, hard earths, and the occasional peep of a winter-subdued green keep me interested on my lunchtime breaks walking around the glen. The view from my desk is stunning on a winter’s morning.

For company, I have two red squirrels, a pheasant, and a stoat in its winter coat apart from a dead giveaway couple of inches at the end of its tail. They all have their own routines – the stoat‘s daily walk in front of my windows carrying a dead vole in it‘s chops suggests a family somewhere, though I have yet to discover it. I also have a mole that is determined to destroy the garden, insistent that winter is over. I suspect he is wrong.

How to be content

As I unpacked my rucksack for the last time, I came across a scrap of paper that had somehow made it round the world with me. It’s a small article that I cut out from the Guardian magazine shortly before I left the UK. In a strange way, it encapsulates the whole of the last year for me, so I’m republishing it here. I’m sure Guy Browning, the author, won’t mind.

How to… be content
Contentment is nature’s Prozac. It keeps you going through the bad times and the good without making too much fuss of either. Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove. Children are naturally content because they don’t know any different. It’s the knowledge of difference that breeds discontent and it’s when you finally realise that difference makes no difference that you can reclaim contentment.
It may sound dull, but being content is a profoundly radical position. It means that you have no outstanding needs that other people events or corporations can satisfy. You can’t be manipulated, corrupted, conned, heartbroken or sold unnecessary insurance policies. Contentment is the real peace of mind insurance companies claim to sell. Its definition varies between people but generally includes someone to love, somewhere to live and something to eat. And almost always one item of sentimental value.
The path to contentment is well signposted but generally points in the opposite direction to where we want to travel. Instead we rush off getting everything we want and then realise we don’t need any of it. A quicker way to contentment is to realise you don’t need any of the things you think you want before spending 40 years trying to acquire them.
Being happy with your lot seems to be the essence of contentment. If you are one of life’s good-looking millionaires, you just have to accept your fate and not continually struggle against it. Being unhappy with your lot is perfectly understandable when the one you’ve been given is absolute rubbish. Sadly there is no cosmic car boot sale where you can get rid of the lot you’re not happy with. All you can do is look at other people’s car boots and be happy with the junk you’ve got in your own.
Restless discontent is often held up as the great wellspring of personal and artistic progress. This is the ants-in-the-pants theory of progress and works well if you think progress consists of substituting one state of unhappiness with another. That said, contentment can be dangerously close to the squishy sofas of smugness and complacency. It’s worth remembering your lot can be an epic struggle against overwhelming odds but, even if it is, you can still be content with it.

Toodle pip!

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1 Comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts

One response to “Gritters, stoats, and nature’s Prozac

  1. Good to have you back. Drop me a line dude. Kalim. No change to mobile. Text me I will call you.

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