Saturday, 31 October 2009

I wish I'd written this.

This piece in the Times,written by Janice Turner says everything that I don't have the skill to pen about the Chandlers and their current plight.It's not often that another writer completely captures your own thoughts on a subject but Janice eloquently describes my immediate thought on hearing the pirates statement that they had captured 'two old people'.

Who are they calling old was an immediate response in my head too! We are similar ages to the Chandlers, as are the majority of cruisers we meet. Choosing to leave the security of our previous lives in order to grasp the time we have on this planet by the throat and LIVE.

Her piece highlights that cultural mismatch that we rarely addressed on land. One that taxes me on a daily basis. It's so hard to put yourself in to somebody else's shoes.In a culture that is totally alien to where, certainly I, come from.

TBH always quotes Nietzsche, who said we should live our life at the top of a hill or mountain where we can enjoy a broad horizon. And not just any old mountain, a volcano that could erupt at any moment and so makes every second special and precious, amidst the spewing rocks and lava of life.

Initially I thought;what were they doing sailing in those waters they are dangerous! But of course that's how many people view the Rio. We've had hostages taken, murders, thefts here. It's a calculated risk. We take the precautions we can as no doubt the Chandlers did. Sometimes fate plays a duff card. It could be our story and maybe yours too...

The film Up, that deeply affecting study on mortality masquerading as a kids’ cartoon, tells of a couple who from childhood share a dream of adventure. They fill a jar with spare change, saving for their big trip to Paradise Falls. But the roof leaks, bills need paying: life keeps emptying the jar, until one day death smashes it for good.

What had me — and, I guess every adult in the cinema — snivelling behind our 3-D specs, was the aching contrast between youthful hopes and old-age unfulfilment. Fate mostly doesn’t reward honourable, careful folk — instead, with random injustice, it squelches them flat.

It takes guts in uncertain mid-life to unscrew the jar, trouser the pennies, rent out the house, flout family expectations and Money Box Live and the risk of I-told-you-so’s from envious Steady Eddies; to do like Paul and Rachel Chandler and road-test your dream.

Thirty years ago it would be inconceivable outside a sitcom, that two grey-heads in prudent professions — a quantity surveyor and an economist — would desert quintessentially square Tunbridge Wells for a life on the open sea.

But the Chandlers, aged 59 and 54, are part of the luckiest generation who lived, beneficiaries of property bubbles, enduring health, a global sensibility and a flinty me-generation selfishness. (And unlike those of us behind, they got out before the great final-salary scheme massacre or the Government tagging more working years to our life sentence.) Rather than die in discontent these lucky oldsters preferred to face risks, whether pension-sapping currency dips or pirates. So they colonise northern France or southern Spain, you see them wearing well-cut linen in the world’s most chi-chi boutique hotels, ticking off Machu Picchu or Kilimanjaro with the hunger for experience of those acutely aware of a ticking clock.

Reading the Chandler’s blog of their three-year voyage, it is thrilling to realise what happiness might lie ahead when one is untethered from work, family or nation. Mr Chandler’s face as he fiddles with his engine bears the beam of a man truly alive. Unlike the moany expats who hole up in remote châteaux and Brookside villas, stewing their boredom in all-day vino, looking out alone, unvisited, unbefriended, upon their perfect view, the Chandler’s grabbed the globe and spun it with glee.

Instead of soul-deadening idleness, they chose a life of perpetual challenges, both major (crossing treacherous waters) and minor (how to sleep during a monsoon). They celebrate their self-sufficiency and resourcefulness, their route calculations, new friends and small triumphs; Rachel pens a cheery photo-story of how she scrubbed and dried their dirty sails. They step ashore with curiosity and boundless amusement. As Bruce Chatwin observed in The Songlines, Man, a nomadic beast, is never more content than when in motion.

So I wonder how, once they are free, this apparently wry and understated pair, will look at their Somalian kidnappers’ declaration: “We have captured two old British [people], a man and a woman.”

Old? Who are these damn pirates calling old? And yet there, in one sentence, is the ultimate culture clash. “Old” has no universal meaning. In Britain the Chandlers might expect 20 years more life; in Somalia they would have died, most likely, a decade ago. In Somalia — life expectancy of 48 years — there are few we would call old: only 2 per cent of its population is over 65, compared with 16 per cent in Britain.

There is no cruder inequality than how many years you are permitted on the planet. The very concept of retirement, that elderly people should enjoy well-earned repose, is the mark of a benign and civilised society.

We should perhaps remember that the next time we beat ourselves up at how we in the West dispatch our ancients to urine-stinking nursing homes, whereas Asia (or, more precisely, the women of Asia) cares for them at home.

In Hanoi this year, I observed a tiny, frail woman, probably in her seventies, sitting outside her family business at 11pm, barely awake, selling bottled water to tourists. What is a preferable old age? Toiling exhaustedly yet being respected and useful or being allowed to put your slippered feet up for ever in a too-hot TV lounge, an isolated irrelevance? It is a tough call.

How bemused the Somalians must be at these “old” people, who abandoned their own families. How peculiar the notion of taking to the sea for pleasure must be for those who do so because there is no living to be made on land.

Like the Mafia emerging from the Italian American ghettos, the Somalian pirates are a metastasised form of high capitalism. When their failed state was unable to protect its coastline, allowing European and Chinese factory boats to hoover up their fish stocks and destroy their livelihood, while foreign companies paid warlords a pittance to dump toxic and nuclear waste in their seas, the coastal people moved into a new and more lucrative trade: ships and hostages for cash. Who cares if the vessels contain aid supplies bound for Somalia’s starving?

In their extreme youth, ruthlessness and amorality — the disconnection between their gain and the terrible consequences for others lower down — they resemble our own reckless bankers. “They [the pirates] have money; they have power and they’re getting stronger by the day,” one Somalian said. “They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars.”

Unlike the City bonus boys, they justify their greed and undeserved windfalls by saying that a whole economy — the fishing villages where they spend their ransom cash — is sustained by their largesse.

Let us hope the pirates are sophisticated enough students of economics to believe the Chandlers’ relatives when they insist that they have no money — “it’s all in the boat”.

Because the concept of being asset-rich yet cash-poor must be unfathomable in a nation where assets are snatched at gunpoint and million-dollar cash ransoms fall out of helicopters in waterproof sacks.

But we need the Chandlers back safely — not least because it helps to know that some ordinary adventurers do get to Paradise Falls.

And she gets the anomie of today's world. The fact that it's Somalia today and where tomorrow? Take what you can, beggar the consequences. Just like the West's politicians and bankers.

Maybe it is a salutatory lesson about where our societies could end up if we don't address the problems in our own backyards?

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