I’m good at quite a lot of things. I can fix your car, sail your boat, make all manner of things in wood, steel, stone, thatch and brick, stitch up your wound, shoot the balls off a gnat at 300 yards, knit a hat and even darn your socks. I’m a paraglider, kite surfer, rock climber, scuba diver, skier,
dancer, yacht master, soldier, film maker, public speaker, TV Presenter, and writer. I can even J-turn a car.
What irks me is that I’m expert at nothing.
If there exists one single aspect of my life that I’ve harnessed and ridden all the way it’s the resolve to have as much fun and variety as possible. This is not a philosophy that looks to the future very much, nor one that has made me a lot of money. No matter, I’ve always thought, for I would at least be immune to such future ailments as the mid-life crisis. But growing older doesn’t miss anybody out. Just as the electronic music emerging these days starts to sound to me like taking off ones ear defenders in a car plant, I am beginning to see all sorts of things through older eyes. At 46 I’m on the downhill run and it gets faster and faster. I don’t regret a single thing and I’m proud of how I’ve spent my time but there is a gap in my experience that now yawns quite wide. I realise suddenly that it’s time for me to find the thing I’m going to be expert at.
I’m ready – and this takes some saying – for a career.
There, it’s said. It’s out in the open. So what’s it going to be, this last minute career? What’s going to provide for us and take me into my dotage?
Ayelen wants me to write and to get back into TV. Well, it’d be great to make a living at writing, but having published one book and made less than a grand from it I hold onto no literary fantasies. With the advent of e-books it’s easier than ever before to publish but for the same reason there are many more pigs to compete with in the pen. What will I write about? I have not the imagination for fiction, nor am I a salesman able to write convincingly on any old subject. I am only interested in writing about something I am genuinely passionate about.
It would be great to get back into TV too, for in many ways it was the perfect job; it took me to amazing places to meet phenomenal people and do crazy things with them. But I want something I’m more in control of, something less fickle, less crap, and most importantly, more pertinent to the state of things today. A lot of the programming I helped to make I am not proud of at all. Magical experiences with forest dwelling peoples around the world were slashed and burned down to ‘wow-factor’ energy hits, injected like a stimulant between adverts for toxic ‘must-haves’. I had no power over the edit, but when it bred controversy I was held accountable nonetheless. In any case, since that time I have indeed pitched occasional ideas to TV. All have had an environmental angle, because there lies my interest, and all have been refused, because the viewing public don’t want to hear about the environment. No, TV is not my path. I’ve never owned one, for a start.
So I’m sitting, lying, staring at the ceiling, thinking, worrying a little, wondering where my role is in this spiralling world, where the money’s going to come from this winter, worrying some more, when suddenly it comes to me. It’s an idea I’ve been talking about for years but somehow I’ve kept filing it away for the future, a project to be started only when we have finished building The Serai in Morocco. Now, I realise with a start, is the time for it. And it has everything I’m looking for: challenge, global relevance, longevity and satisfaction.
So what is it?
Our neighbours in Morocco, whom we live amongst only when we have a little money for building, are salt of the earth types. They lead simple lives, scratching a partial subsistence from poor soil in an environment that, whether through geo-engineering or CO2 emissions or whatever, grows drier and drier, year upon year. When they need cash, they sell a goat or try to catch whatever fish have escaped the foreign trawlers criss-crossing the Atlantic horizon. Their fields do not feed them all year round. For generations, and despite appearances to the contrary, they have followed the mono-culturalist ways of modernising agriculture. They plant one crop per field and every spring, after the harvest, they turn their goats onto the land to strip it bare. The sun then beats down on it for uninterrupted months, desiccating it for the incessant wind to blow away. Every autumn, after the first light shower, with donkey and cattle plough teams they inject the dead earth with fertilisers to give the next crop something to feed on.
And so it might go on. But electricity arrived two years ago and now everyone has a satellite TV. The young men and women, like Abdullah here, now in his twenties and one of the first generation to be educated, watch Egyptian soap operas displaying exaggerated lifestyles. Nobody wants to herd goats anymore and even if they did, the forest that provides grazing through the summer heat is now degrading fast. Driven by drought and higher expectations, Abdullah and his contemporaries will soon enough join the worldwide exodus from countryside to city and the older generation is powerless to prevent it.
Enter permaculture, agro-ecology, holistic management and us. I’m no expert in these things, not yet, but I’ve done a course and I have spent hundreds of hours researching, on the internet, everything from soil types to dam-building to starting a cooperative. Such is the power at our fingertips these days. The founders of permaculture and their proteges have achieved amazing things in climates even more ferocious than this.
I know enough to believe firmly that we – the communities of Azrou Issa and Al Faida – can turn this strip of coastline around and create a sustainable future for the young, and also for the house that we’ve been labouring over. It’s the perfect place for such an experiment: a borderline-arid landscape with too much wind and ever decreasing rain. But there are very positive features too, such as the huge water catchment potential contained in the hillside behind. The Serai can become the research centre, a place of accommodation and learning for incoming volunteers and students from near and far. We’ll use the land as the classroom blackboard for region-specific study and we’ll experiment. Ultimately I hope that our younger neighbours, both men and women, will be qualified teachers in their own right, to go out and spread the word.
If we can make it work here we can take the lessons learnt to other sites around Morocco, and then to other semi-arid lands, empowering people at grass roots level and sucking carbon from the atmosphere as we go. Great God, I am almost feverish with excitement!!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I must recruit all my neighbours into this madcap scheme before anything else happens. And it’s not going to be easy. They are a conservative bunch, to say the least, and who am I but a ‘gowrie’, a foreigner, and a non-religeous one at that. Every one of our European friends in Morocco has an armful of stories to illustrate how cultural differences disrupt practice and how, in the end, whatever has been initially embraced falters and dies when it becomes clear that some personal input might be required. The Straits of Gibraltar can seem like an unbreachable chasm at times, across which European logic and Moroccan logic frown at one another uncomprehendingly.
But in many ways I have been preparing for this moment for the last seven years. I have a relationship with our neighbours and for whatever it’s worth, it’s a good one. It’s been forged. It’s not something I could have bought or even have acquired in any less time. Ayelen has been crucial to it’s development. They know we are honest and fair in our dealings with them but also that we are not to be taken for a ride. We know that they too are honest and generous but that they are always looking for the ‘easy angle’. We laugh a lot together and get our hands dirty together. They have built the Serai and they know we have put every spare penny earned over four years into their pockets. Few outsiders have been employed and everything is extremely squint as a result. The women adore Ayelen and her idiosyncrasies. The men are impressed with my range of skills and my tenacity in learning new ones. We are impressed by their humour, stoicism, humility and their ability for hard work when the occasion demands it.
I really think we can work this idea together but I’m under no illusions that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a long and very hard journey, but they say the first steps are the toughest. And this is one of the first steps: publicising the intent.
The second step is tomorrow, when I hit the people with my idea. At the end of it I’ll either have a new job or I’ll be back to staring at the ceiling, worrying.