I was almost 7 when my Dad woke me up for school one morning and, as he drew open the curtains, uttered the words: “we’re at war”.
Later, I recall sitting cross-legged on the classroom floor – beige carpet – staring up at our teacher as she explained to us where the Falklands were. I don’t recall anything else about why Britain was at war. It felt so distant, so unreal.
My daughters may reflect back, when they are older, on eating toast this morning with me as we discussed the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
Nowhere close to being an oracle on the history of the monarchy, nor someone who has ever felt at ease with the lavish pomp and ceremony aspect of the Royal Family, I have ingrained respect for the role the Queen has played over so many years in helping define my culture.
And when I say “over so many years” this lady’s first Prime Minister was born in 1874, and her most recent, 1975.
I wonder, now, and in the years to come, how significantly the role of the monarchy will change in the UK?
It feels, intuitively, like a good idea to examine how and why this one family should continue to play a part in society, over the next 70 years. I think that would be welcomed by many, and could prove to be a healthy exercise.
We live in a world where just a handful of powerful people can make decisions that directly impact the rest of us. It strikes me, too, that many of these people are men, and most of them aren’t representative of the rest of us. But, hey, isn’t that last point always going to be the case?
Assuming this form of inequity won’t change any time soon, and that King Charles III will require some time yet before anything too radical is tabled which might challenge his own power and decision-making abilities, what sits with me this morning, sparked by the Queen’s passing, is a deep sense of regard for those others committed in their pursuit of service and of the common good.
I have written here of my dear Aunt Myra, and the sacrifices she made in her life to support her community and various charitable causes.
My own parents have kept tireless vigil over their neighbours and friends for as long as I can recall. From actual counseling and comforting those going through hard times, to coordinating a pooled driving service in their village for people no longer able to drive themselves, through to ensuring the church flowers are suitably buffed each week, that community events run smoothly, and much more beyond that.
When he is not giving up his time Chairing a Board of School Governors, my brother’s professional commitment at Solent University for over 20 years now, to his fellow sportsmen and women, is unprecedented – endless chauffeuring of teams to matches up and down the country, dedicated mentoring of Paralympian athletes, as well as the odd Buck Palace invite in his role as ambassador of the Wooden Spoon charity.
My list could continue. Friends I know who volunteer for local causes, acquaintances I’ve heard tell their own stories about the difference made to them by the generosity of others.
If, at times, the pandemic helped shine light on the importance of giving service to one another, I think it probably also helped many people realise that showing up for others doesn’t always need to be a one-way street, either. What drives one person to give to another can often result in a win-win outcome.
That need to give, that desire to make a positive connection, somehow, and for many people, is exactly what they require in their lives to give them the type of responsibility and purpose that they need themselves.
In a reasonably unrelated segue, and to finish, here is Stephen Fry (not always in the favour of Palace folk, given some of his misdemeanors on their turf) with 60 seconds on the Queen and the art of decency.
Tinsel-flecked emerald water
Simmers in the baking midday sun,
The sway and bob of the local fishing fleet
In teal red yellow and green
Salt-crusted bows, and paint flakes,
Tumbles of clove-scented breeze
Part the arcs of banana leaves
Outside the temple,
Coursing down the lanes
That claw between the crumbling
Coastal trails - astride the Wallace line -
A family of frangipani arms splay their
Towards the white rays that
Enshroud my Monday island -
‘Carpe diem’ often crops up in my writing, and surfaces on social media daily, in different guises.
Living for the moment, or living in the moment – as you wish – can be a powerful mantra, to re-balance a frustrating moment in one’s day or, perhaps, even course correct on a more significant scale.
For many people undergoing moments of sheer crisis, using carpediem to help consciously place value on things that are often overlooked (time with loved ones, being typically high up the list) can carry with it much deeper rooted sway, and offer up a slice of mental salvation, even if just temporarily.
Jordon Peterson emphasizes the importance of trying hard with the ‘everyday moments’ – breakfast chatter with family members, preparing a meal together, holding hands in the park. Peterson’s advice seems to match that of Annie Dillard, when she famously said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
All of this we’ve heard before. And, maybe, the art of drawing from these sentiments, when required, is one of those past-times we will never quite fully master.
Last Boxing Day, during a brief staycation in the city, I met an 80 year old Chinese-born-American-raised, ex-financier, named Frank. “Another day above ground,” was his greeting to me, as we locked gazes in the hotel’s swimming pool.
Frank, it transpired, had retired at my age, and appears to have spent the last 35 years trying to help encourage aspiring professionals to do the opposite to what he managed to achieve.
Slow down, would be Frank’s counsel, appreciate not the materialistic assets for which you might strive but, instead, savour the smaller things in life.
“You can’t take the Porsche with you when you’ve gone,” he advised me (this was prior to him learning that I was in development and that, not only do I not know a Porsche from a Peugeot, but that I’ll never be in the market for one, unless it came in a matchbox set).
Of course, Frank is right – arguably, he is also well placed to share this wisdom with hindsight, having already made squillions of dollars working for the Qatari Royal Family as a stock broker in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, he’s right and, if we wind forward to the last week, day, or even the last hour of our own life, then 99% of the things that we spend time thinking about now (work, finances, relationships, assets, the future etc) do certainly become redundant, as we clear our minds, instead, to reflect, appreciate and to resolve.
True, some people will only be at peace, when they are at an end of life stage, if their reflections on what they have accomplished are measured by career achievements. In which case, work, assets and money are worthy and mutually reinforcing targets.
For others, measurement using these types of criteria are less critical. Oscar Wilde himself believed it to be a “curse” if someone had a predefined career path, as that would mean they weren’t afforded the luxury of waking up each day with “wings of independence”.
I’m a huge fan of Wilde, always ready to ingest his colourful observations: tasty mind-candy to momentarily sweeten my day.
However. I think “seizing the day” can be bigger than this, I think there’s more to it, and more required, than the short-term sugar rush of that particular attribute of carpediem.
I had surgery on Valentine’s Day this year. My first time going into an operating theatre on a gurney, luminous bug-eyed lights craning over me, and four pairs of masked faces jostling around my feet with clipboards, as the plastic tube into my hand administered a calming anesthetic.
For 20 seconds, lying there, waiting to be knocked out, all of a sudden I decided to hastily reflect on my life, the brain whirring through all possible options, as fast as a 5G search engine.
I panicked. The anesthetic was circulating in my veins. I breathed. Within only a few seconds of manic emotional wrenching, I then paused and simply pictured Issy and the girls, held their warm smiles in freeze-frame and concluded (rather pathetically, but with as much profoundness as my soon to be sleeping brain could muster) that “I’d had a good life, and done quite well.”
Awake a few hours later, my Achilles tendon stitched back together, I felt a bit embarrassed at this rather botched attempt at spiritual reconciliation.
Who was I projecting my “last” thoughts to? Also, if, rationally, I actually thought there might be a chance I’d not ever wake from the surgery, why was I even undergoing this procedure in the first place?
All fruitless questions to pursue. The more important dilemma to untangle (I should have realised at the time) was, logistically, how was I going to stop to buy valentine’s flowers for my wife on the way home from the hospital, whilst on crutches, and feeling sleepy? A purchase which, for the archives, let it be recorded, I did manage to successfully accomplish.
A few day’s passed and I thought over the experience again, and became quite moved by my resolve at searching, in those seconds on the gurney, for an ultimate answer (particularly, given I’d no idea what the question was I was posing myself).
In that moment before the drugs kicked in, what I had felt was all of my senses in tune with this one active effort: to make sense of it all. The seconds that passed, as I was running a scan over my life, trying to spit out a suitable summary, were super intense, and had felt visceral and unfamiliar.
Three and a half months later and, on the verge of leaving Vietnam’s borders once more this month, and spending time with family and friends we’ve not seen since we were married in Galle in January 2020, what carpediem feels like for me, today, is a much more rounded appreciation of the meaning of ‘awesome’.
As a colloquialism, awesome has been sold on the cheap. It dawned on me that “being inspired by an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or fear” (the actual meaning of the word ‘awesome’) could be attributed to every second of one’s life.
For each second that passes, we change, we morph, we learn, we evolve. Only very, very slightly, each second, but change is happening, whether we like it or not.
And, yet, the only second that counts, the only second that can illicit awe, is the one that is happening at that moment.
Now, with what I’m about to finish on, I may, simply and idly, be lumping Peterson, Dillard and Wilde all into one mash-up, attempting to craft an ultimate carpediem medley – having my cake and eating it, if you will. However, given I’m hopelessly devoted to some kind of pursuit in life that enjoys mixing different flavours of philosophy together, in order to make the most delicious bite (although I’m never satisfied with the final taste) then these last lines may well be nonsense, or just plain obvious…
Isn’t the truth of the matter this: when someone uses the phrase “the best is yet to come,” that should be called out as hogwash?
The “best” anything we’ve ever done, or experienced, is happening to us right now.
The best meal we’ve ever eaten is the one in our mouths when we are eating it. The best discussion we’ve ever had is the one in full flow right now (whether we’re having it with someone else, or with ourselves).
With each fresh breath of oxygen into our lungs, and flush of blood round our hearts, we are experiencing the awe of existence, the miracle of life.
Whether on our own, or in the company of others, whether feeling elated or feeling remorseful, or out of kilter in some way – the awe remains, it doesn’t ever go anywhere but lies, instead, under the surface of our lives, intuitively hidden away most of the time. Until it is needed.
The best isn’t yet to come, the best is right now. And it always will be.
One from the Covid archives, written by Florence (in March 2022) and posted by a proud Daddy...
The Global Pandemic
They cancelled school one day
And we all thought hurray, hurray
An extra day, for us to play
For we had no idea
The next two years
We would feel like prisoners
Locked in our country
Locked in our city
Locked in our homes
Dragging yourself out of bed everyday
Only to grab your laptop
And crawl back inside your den
Learning through a screen
Isolated from your friends
Zoom calls just aren't the same
Need a ticket to go outside
The police are lions
Waiting to catch and give you a fine
Walking laps in your flat
Trying to hit your daily ten thousand
But you never succeed
Family all over the world
Grandparents going grey
Skype will have to do
How about we turn on the news?
It's just as depressed
Five million cases worldwide!
Eight thousand deaths today!
The corona virus has turned into a global pandemic!
Locked in our country
Locked in our city
Locked in our homes
We have lost loved ones
We have been animals trapped in a zoo
But it’s all coming to an end
We have made it through the global pandemic
Of twenty twenty
to twenty twenty two.
Gates had felt unsettled at the time about the Trump administration winning the 2016 election and, as a professional runner and someone drawn, and devoted to understanding better what life “is all about”, he took on the challenge of solo running from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean on his own.
He managed this in as unaided a way as is technically practical, so just one support vehicle, loosely tracking him with some supplies. He slept out each night on a tarp and camping mat, which he carried on his back.
Possibly, from reading about Donald Trump’s return to social media this morning (which I refuse to share here) but also due to having sat on my arse for the past 6 days, following surgery on my Achilles, I felt compelled to celebrate Gates’ pilgrimage from 5 years ago.
Firstly, I’ll embrace any opportunity to support and promote an endeavour that was, itself, “inspired” as a means to counter the turmoil (at the time, and possibly still) that is Donald Trump. Sign me up for, literally anything, that might spread an anti-Trump message.
Second, no matter how polished Gates’ running portfolio is, a marathon a day for over 150 days – including sleeping outside in the open, every night, breaking camp and boiling a stove in the mornings for your daily pre-marathon coffee – is nothing less than a herculean accomplishment.
Gates planned his route meticulously from state to state, many of which he was setting foot in for the first time.
He documented the diversity of landscape and culture along the way, and had already hammered home the eclecticness and the natural beauty of America before he’d left his first state.
He even choreographed a pit-stop back on his home turf in Aspen, Colorado – the familiar “comforts” of running over the Rocky Mountains nearby, super-charging him for what was next to come: endless miles of searing heat across the Nevada desert.
With all this planning, however, each day he attempted to get from dawn to dusk in as basic a way as possible. If his phone (which contained the map) ran out of battery, before he could re-charge it, he was forced to follow his instincts and, on several occasions, he went off course.
In the desert, his initial strategy, to avoid the 110 degree daytime temperatures, was to run through the night. As this routine proved troublesome from the resulting lack of sleep he was managing, he then bought a golf cart, carrying the extra water he needed, before upgrading to a child’s stroller, equipped with an umbrella, and allowing him more running time when the sun was up.
It was during this gruelling chapter in the desert that Gates suffered acid reflux.
You’d imagine that, due to the sheer amount of distance he covered, it would be the knees or the heels giving up, but it was his stomach that succumbed. He couldn’t keep food down, spent days vomiting and passing blood and then, on the verge of seeking medical help and throwing in the towel, he decided to experiment with ingesting mouthfuls of mustard (a tip from the internet).
This eventually worked, and he kept pushing on. So calm in his temperament when on camera. Resolute in not failing. Forever curious about what his commitment to a goal, that could surely be doing him long-term damage, was to reveal along the way.
And so, lastly, what stuck with me from Gates’ story, by way of a lesson underneath which we can all hook some learning, wasn’t to be in awe at how far our bodies and minds can be stretched, or to what heights of resiliency our spirits can soar. It was Gates’ humble reflections on his experience that I valued the most.
Naturally, it is only through the medium of cliches that achievements such as Gates’ can be summarised.
As other explorers of his generation (Beau Miles is another go-to, for me) help curate modern twists on well known wisdoms, Gates’ documentary plays homage to many, yet seems to dial up those connected most to the study of solitude, and escaping the impulses many of us have, to take on different and often competing roles on a day-to-day basis.
Why not focus instead, Gates muses, on just one. Being you.
Akin to the adage about being “true to oneself” it seems to me that Ricky Gates’ epic journey in 2017 underscored what he already knew about life – namely, that we all know very little, really, about how to make sense of it, and can often be the creators of our own mis-directions, in our attempts to do so.
Perhaps, accepting this, is as solid a starting point for any of us, no matter where we find ourselves when we’re at our most thoughtful or our most fearful.
Do we all have to go on epic journeys to be at peace with our sense of self, and how we show up in the world? I suspect it’s plausible that we do.
Although, choosing the 3,700 mile run option definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Four months since I posted anything on Saigonsays.
Ironically, most of that has time been spent freely moving around in Saigon, and beyond, and so perhaps these freedoms have taken over the reflections (and written musings) brought on by last year’s severe lockdown and confinements?
Over in Hong Kong and China, maddening periods of quarantine are still in place for visitors. Omicron spreads like wildfire elsewhere (and no doubt we’ll experience that soon enough).
Vietnam, meanwhile, has been pushing on with softening its restrictions since October, and has ensured a high percentage of the population is now triple vaxxed.
Borders are open for those of us with residency, and so 2022 is already, hands-down, considerably more of an exciting prospect than the ennui and helplessness curated by 2021.
Tet – Chinese New Year – is days away. The city is buzzing, and the locals’ smiles are as full as the moon will be next month.
Although the clear spring skies of December have morphed into a daily pea-soup mush of pre-Tet factory and construction pollution, the markets are thriving and the trees and flowers adorning the pavements are as brilliant as I’ve seen them.
It’s the turn of the Water Tiger in 2022. ‘Stability’ and ‘self-esteem’ being two of its fabled characteristics.
All I keep thinking is that I’ve only one more year left until we reach the Cat (my year) again, and I’ll have experienced the full circle of mystic connotations that these dozen animals embody, since landing in the country on February 28th 2011.
Issy and me made it up to Dalat a few weeks ago. Flying on a plane for the first time in 7 months, and ambling around the hills and through the forests that encircle this sleepy town.
A crisp 12 degrees at dawn, we eagerly wrapped ourselves up in jackets and hats, long since discarded, and enjoyed the evening red wines all the more, sat by our hotel room heater.
On one of our outings up there we scooted out to the coffee plantations, and looked up the plot owned by K’ho Coffee, the suppliers of our coffee beans, for as many years now as I can remember.
I talk often about the places I’ve spent time in (as I type this I’m listening to a song that I first heard in Peru in 2013, and whose beats catapult me back to bus rides through winding roads out to Cusco, and the taste of pisco sours drank the evening before stepping up onto the plateaus of Machu Picchu) often, like now, I’m lost back in time, back in these moments.
When I finally leave Vietnam I know the recollection of buying the small yellow Tet tree, that I picked up this morning on my way home (balanced on my knee precariously as I wove along with other bikes in the midday sun) will be fresh, and will buoyantly re-kindle the image of the same tree perched, as it is now, on our garden table, waiting to bud, proudly sat to help me pay respect to this most celebrated of Vietnamese times of year.
I’ll recall, and will marvel, at the memories of all the Vietnamese dishes guzzled down regularly here. Of the close confines of local district life puttering about us, as we stroll down to our local bar for an aperitif, or to the curry house on our street where the chefs stoke open air tandoor ovens and the frangipani trees flop over their garden’s walls.
The Turkish shawarmas and to-die-for falafels, prepared but 400 metres from our house, the French galettes around the corner – christ, we’ve even got Union Jack’s, the fish and chip shop, run by a Brit and pushing out steak and kidney pies and jugs of gravy like we’re living in East London.
This truly international vibe in Saigon, in 2022, and in spite of the craziness brought on by the pandemic (and the exodus of foreigners as a result) is breathtaking. It somehow slots well into the groove of Vietnamese street-vended noodles and drip-coffee and the meshing of cultures seems to work most of the time. The beer halls are crammed full with locals inhaling IPAs and loaded fries; Korean bubble tea houses vie with Starbucks on every modern apartment block corner.
Even in Dalat we sat in the serene courtyard of a house specialising in stunning home-cooked Italian food and wine. The best I’ve had here.
What treats, what delights.
And yet, what a slim perspective, still, on this vast and ranging country, up and down which there remains still so much potential, so much development needed, and so much investment to support each province, and each household.
Saigon’s growth is striking.
But so, too, is the risk that many could be left behind in the melee for modernisation.
Motorway spray races across the car window – I pick a winning droplet, in the frame of the passing linen sky. Soon, we spot seagulls, And a first glimpse of sea, “What time will we go to the arcades?” – the refrain from the backseats – As my brother and I fasten our shoes, And brush crumbs onto the floor.
Bloated fish nibble at the pond surface behind us, While we stand sniggering, Grandad’s shirt and tie refracted behind frosted glass, The back door peeks open, “Not today, thank you” – the ritual greeting – We giggle, and bundle inside To wafts of pastry and gravy.
Triaging each familiar comfort – Our Nana’s twinkle-eyed embrace, The measuring of just how tall we’d grown, Pink iced fingers, yellow French Fancies, Dandelion and Burdock – Our adventuring, up and down the house, Can begin in earnest.
Pillaging salted peanuts We scan over cousins’ school portraits, Smoothed under glass table top, Carpet curls tickle our toes, We press our noses against the enormous pane And fight over binoculars, Looking out at icy foam and black liners Carving through the English Channel.
After lunch – and Grandad’s apple slices – We bounce through hedged park squares Towards the Promenade, And drop two pence pieces Into moving treasure chests, Throw our plastic parachute men cliff-side, And watch them spin in the biting current As evening draws in.
Back inside the walled garden We chase after the fish, Fall about on the grass – Energies finally spent – Rosy-cheeked we watch The Pink Panther Then drift off under the covers To Famous Five adventuring, And the thrill of doing it all again Tomorrow.